Friday, February 27, 2009

Talking Contradictions

On a summer afternoon in the capital, the Young Urban Indian happened to be in the company of the Young Jhola Krantikari, at perhaps the only place this could actually happen.

On a DTC bus. Their destinations are same, and for a change, they have taken the same path too.

Excerpts from an unlikely conversation:


YJK: Do you think we’re shining?

YUI: We?

YJK: Indians. India.

YUI: Well…that’s a good question. On the face of it, we are, aren’t we? In the space of the last sixty years or so, we’ve improved on a lot of our shortcomings. The economy is doing a lot better and is continually on the way up, we have the resources to make ourselves stronger internally and the defence to give ourselves protection from external elements. India, which was yesterday a minnow Asian country, is today all set to become a global powerhouse. In that sense, I would say that we aren’t really shining yet, but are on the right path to do exactly that very soon.

YJK: Stronger internally? The whole country is in deep strife, my friend! There are so many of it parts, be it Kashmir, the North-East or so many others, which want secession, dissatisfied with the power at the centre as well as the state. Ah, and not to mention the menace being caused by the Tamils in the south and the Naxalites in Andhra. You call it strength?

Our defence which you refer to so handsomely also has been proved to be inadequate on many an occasion now. In the last few years, almost every big city here has been the target of Islamic extremism. Delhi, Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Bombay. You call this security?

YUI: You are right in what you say, no doubt. There is a lot going wrong, yes, but there’s a lot going right too. Is any country in the world today free from the threat of terrorism? America isn’t, Britain isn’t. Does that mean that they don’t have it in them to protect themselves properly? Somehow, people like you never seem to look at the positive side of things. Tell me, has India ever been as conspicuous on the global stage as it is now? Leave that aside. Let’s talk about our oldest of all problems. Education. Hasn’t something like the literacy rate risen to almost 3/4ths and is on the way up?

YJK: You talk of education and give me literacy as an example.

YUI: Well, ok, even if you talk about education in the strictest sense, we boast of some of the best schools and universities around the world today. The IIT’s and IIM’s are only examples. As Indians today, we have the power to take our own decisions, to study with, succeed and beat the best in the world. Is that not true?

YJK: Ha! I find your optimism infinitely amusing, I must say. Are you aware that 70% of India still lives in the villages and a greater part of that chunk feels lucky if they complete high school, leave alone ‘competing with the best in the world’.

And yes, by the way, the education you people are receiving, the one which helps you beat the best in the world, isn’t that beautiful a thing, either.

YUI: What do you mean?

YJK: What sort of education is it? What sort of lifestyle is it encouraging? What are the IIT’s and IIM’s, which you speak so highly of, producing? At the end of the day, they all are money-making machines - they take you in as raw material, brainwash and modify you according to their paradigms, stamp their brand name on your foreheads and then let you out in the open to mint money. The primary aim of education, in my view, is to instill in the students the sense of social responsibility. Where is it to be found in today’s urban youth?

YUI: That is just not true. Many of the people I know have made use of whatever skills they have acquired to serve the society in the way best suited to them.

YJK: Yes, they are a few. But how many? Or rather, what percentage does possess this sense of social belonging?

YUI: Well, you can’t have everyone thinking along those lines. Is it necessary for everyone to see himself and society that way?

YJK: I’m not sure whether it’s practically possible but that should at least be the constant effort of education. At present, the people who engage themselves in such activities do so from the weight of their own conscience. At present, the education system does nothing to instill that feeling from the very beginning in every citizen.

YUI: Instill? That’s a strong word, you know. Wouldn’t that be akin to brainwashing – children being told how to think towards the world from day one?

YJK: Maybe, but it would surely help.

YUI: Well, I’m sorry but here, I disagree. The basic aim of education, according to me, is to provide the individual with choice, to give him the opportunity to decide for his own self. Tell me, aren’t engineers, doctors, lawyers, designers servants of society in their own right?

YJK: They are. Very much so. I don’t mean to say everyone has to become a selfless social activist, but that everyone has to give something back, eventually.

YUI: Well, these people do, don’t they?

YJK: Yes, they do. But look at the IIT’s and IIM’s that you just mentioned - the most popularly sought-after institutions in our country, the ones which produce the so-called ‘cream’. Would I be wrong to say that a majority of those who come out of these institutions live a life of social oblivion, perpetually filling their already overflowing pockets, living their executive life with a wife and two children, totally unconcerned with how they could be more helpful? What do they produce at the end of the day – laptops and cell phones? Who uses them? The elite. So you have it here. The elite making products for the elite, in turn making themselves even more elitist! No accountability to the people who are below them, none at all.

YUI: That is what I’m saying. You’re too judgemental. Why can’t you just let them be? That’s the life they choose. What’s wrong what it? And besides, many of the ‘cell phone and laptop’ producing men are students of science, of technology. They are the agents of industrialization. Wasn’t that the ultimate dream of our first prime minister? It is their job to work in its cause. How are they to blame?

And tell me, isn’t science and technology hugely responsible for what we are today? Look at it broadly, look at what it has given us. Without these men you demean, would it be possible to realize all the innumerous possibilities of energy we have today, would it be possible to stay connected with this ever-so-small globalised world that we inhabit, would it be possible to reach out to the remote parts of this huge country that we live in?

Science and Technology are two of the most uncomplicated things on this planet, in the sense that they are unencumbered by opinion, irrationality or politics. They don’t have any scope for such entities. They are truly free and so are their practitioners. If mankind is to progress, they alone provide the right path.

YJK: Well put. But would you be saying that Science and Technology for its own sake is good?

YUI: It has to be, yes. It cannot be fettered. As a corollary to the point I just made, to inhibit their growth is to inhibit the progress of mankind itself.

YJK: It is precisely this kind of capitalist thinking that’s eating away the whole of civilization today, not just our country. Anything working for its own sake is doomed. If human progress is indeed our aim, everything has to work so as to help us attain this goal better.

YUI: But it is! Can’t you see?

YJK: I can. But who are the ones progressing? It is the elitist again. These cell phones and laptops you make in the name of Science and Technology – whom does it benefit? Not the 27-odd percent that still lives below the poverty line. Instead of using your acquired skills to help them get up, you help the ones who are already so better-off. You further increase the ever-growing disparity, in a country where the top ten percent earns ten times more than the bottom ten percent. You breed discontent. You inspire rebellions. And then when they fight back, like the Naxalites did, you call them terrorists.

YUI: Heh. What else would you call men who engage in the indiscriminate killing of women and children? God’s angels?

YJK: Well yes, their methods have been quite disturbing in the past few years and it’s not that I necessarily have sympathy for them, but what I’m saying is that we need to understand the reasons which inspire such outrage. The more you ignore the common man, the more he’ll make his presence felt, and sometimes in the most violent ways.

YUI: So what do you suggest? We stop all technological research?

YJK: No. Don’t stop it. But make it work in a direction where it takes everyone along with it. Make technology help the illiterate get education, provide the poor with the latest health-care facilities, give the economically backward ways in which they can pull themselves out of the rut.

YUI: Sure, why not? But then, all other forms of technological research are useless? Is it?

YJK: Yes, without a doubt. You tell me what all wonders industrialization has provided us with. For a moment, think about the damage it has done too. The ‘progress’ it has brought about – has it made us any happier than we were earlier? Is your Happiness Quotient better than your grandfather’s? Not that such things are measurable, but they are surely quantifiable.

YUI: You aren’t implying that just because humans would remain in the same state of mind irrespective of the luxuries that are at their disposal, we should stop wanting to achieve higher standards of living, are you?

YJK: Why not? If it ain’t broke, why change it? It is change for the sake of change that I protest.

YUI: That’s just stupid. The way you propose wouldn’t see any human development at all. It is the curious in us that drives us to innovate and invent. If we humans just sit around and don’t attempt to see ourselves getting better, it would kill us for sure. Practically, it’s impossible. To stifle the curious in us is to negate the sheer essence of the human spirit, and this, if anything, would inspire unprecedented rebellions. Of an even graver nature than the ones we today have.

YJK: Maybe. But if you think about it, this is the only way we can survive.

YUI: We shall see.

YJK: So we shall.


They had arrived. And as they now bid goodbye to each other, they knew that they would meet again for many such conversations.

Conversations. Clashes. Collaborations?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Talking Shadows

She looked at his silhouette in the moonlight, the black curve of his Adam’s apple against the dark blue of the sky behind, the way those two almost blended when he moved a little. They both were drunk; on the terrace where they stood, came the sounds of the living room below. The others were not quite done yet, and sudden shrieks and shouts could be heard from time to time, breaking the silence of the cold December air.

‘Do you know how difficult it is? Do you know how hard it is for me to just let it all slip, to forget it all and move on…’, he seemed to be saying, the frustration seeping into his voice.

‘Hmmm’, she replied, and there were another few moments of quiet. She wanted him to stop speaking, she wanted them to sit together like this and look at the sky together, everything drunk and hazy. But she didn’t have the courage or the heart to tell him so.

So she listened.

‘I called her a million times last month….and on the phone, everything is alright….when we meet with everyone around, everything is alright….but a moment alone, and nothing is alright anymore….I’m sick of it!’

The vodka was making him speak more, and louder.


The sound of breaking glass broke his dialogue in the middle. For a moment, everything was silent again; and then, the shrieks and laughs came with even greater intensity. He started to move towards the staircase.

‘Where are you going?’, she asked.

‘Down. God knows what’s happening there!’, he said, glancing down.

‘It’s OK. They probably dropped the bottle or something’, she replied, and then, pointing towards where he had been sitting, said, ‘Sit.’

That’s all the invitation he needed. He didn’t want to go really. Sit and don’t talk, was what she had wanted to say. But the words didn’t come out.

‘Am I talking too loud?’, he asked nervously, in an unnecessarily low volume.

‘Na. Its OK. But don’t talk so much.’

She had finally mustered the strength to say it, half scared that it might hurt him, or worse – put him off.

‘No….no…let me talk…please’

And then he started again. In the limited light the moon provided, she couldn’t see his face, and so, she imagined. She imagined his cheek bones getting stretched in anguish, the nerves on his forehead coming out, the anger making his nose twitch. He looked majestic, like an actor on stage delivering his ultimate performance.

And it was only his silhouette talking.

‘Are we machines or something? No, tell me. That you press a button and wow, it’s all gone? What am I supposed to do? The effort has to come from both sides. This way, nothing will happen. And its killing me….totally…do you….do you understand what I’m saying?’

‘Yes…yes I do!’

This time, the anguish was in her voice, not his. It made him look up.

And in the near darkness of this cold winter night, their eyes met for the first time.