Hurt and mediocrity in India

This is a guest post by Dr. Gautam Sen, who formerly taught at the London School of Economics. Dr. Sen is also an avid social and political commentator. He also puts to rest a new dangerous line being advocated by a few, which goes variously as the “aspirational Muslim” and so on.

If India ever implodes in self-destruction, which seems all too likely with its wobbly political fortunes, its epitaph must surely be ‘hurt feelings of the aspiring mediocre’. Along with the rise of its kaleidoscopic caste politics, insane motoring habits, software exports, the phenomenon of easily hurt feelings has come to occupy centre stage.  In every nook and corner lurk potentially hurtful events and a people ever ready to proclaim their hurt to the world. Words have become dangerous weapons and people who boldly wield them minors in need of protection from their imponderable dangers.

And all the while the public sector in mediocrity grows by leaps and bounds to challenge a competitive globalisation in which only quality can survive. India has rediscovered its ancient heritage, which was being woefully challenged by two decades of sleepwalking towards the awfulness of something akin to national success. But among the ancient civilisations, India alone has a millennia of experience snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Almost everyone in India today is in constant danger of being hurt both maliciously and inadvertently. Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, numerous disadvantaged minorities and the majority itself have all cast caution to the winds. Books are banned, priceless libraries ransacked and effigies burnt because hurt is stalking the land. And the Internet traffic buzzes with constant indignation. As the political reward for suffering hurt rises the desire to meet the parameters to qualify as a putative victim grows proportionately.

Quasi-professional experts now scour word and deed daily to identify calumny. And as the mere anxiety at the thought of suffering unwarranted hurt grows exponentially the vehicular traffic that must carry it, those awfully dangerous creatures, ‘words’, become objects of unspoken loathing. Words are feared, best avoided, if at all possible, and surely handled with utmost care. But a suspicion nags that causing hurt is also the best strategy to obtain vast publicity at no cost. The circle is thereby closed in an unspoken conspiracy to cause alleged hurt, prompting a profitable outcry, while the free publicity also benefits the instigator that caused it in the first place.

In the land of Sukumar Ray, its people have aptly embraced nonsense as their identity. Indeed, nonsense is a loaded term in India, treated by many as a hateful noun, just as relatives do not announce a death in the family, but solemnly ‘inform’ it has occurred. Tragic events are invested with a comedy of manners since the truly serious event in India needs to find expression in English. The vernacular will simply not do. Mr. Gupta’s sweetmeat shop is perfectly able to buy a whole page to advertise the seriousness of the death of his wife’s second cousin thrice removed. He has arrived and it is to inform that he has no compunction in spending his untaxed income.

Words have lost their meaning from unrelenting misuse and a new language is required to re-charge communication, to give substance to dialogue. But destroying the language of the erstwhile coloniser will be India’s contribution to history: the cannibalistic destruction of words and language by mugging them non-stop. This grand corruption of language would possibly legitimise action in the International Court of Justice by the rest of the world’s English-speaking community for crimes against humanity. After all, licensed products cannot be misused on such a grand scale and someone out there must be feeling hurt.

Yet some minorities have proved resistant to this contagion of hurtfulness, almost engaged in hushed mockery of other ‘hurted’ communities by sanguine indifference to the centrality of hurtfulness in contemporary Indian culture. Parsees and Jews, who can admittedly ‘out-minority’ any minority in paucity of numbers, remain carefree. Are they proclaiming their ‘non-Indianness’ by this spectacle of high-mindedness? Is it a case that they are a cut above the rest simply because they are smarter, better educated and possibly richer? Surely, legislation is called for to curb this challenge to mediocre self-regard.

Is it not the case that mediocrity has been legislated by parliament itself as the defining feature of being an Indian? Has not parliament decreed the end to decent schooling that dares nurture relatively impecunious but gifted middle class children whose parents mortgage their entire lives to pay for their education? A state that has signally failed over 66 years to assure schooling, emphatically echoing the rural employment guarantee scheme, providing an income without the obligation to work, still has the temerity to rob them of educational opportunity. Have the IIMs and IITs, which could remit vast foreign earnings by going abroad, not been shunted back into a siding, insisting that students, who will become the highest paid in the land in no time, can only be charged ridiculously low fees? Is this not the illiterate mantra of both Hindutva and secularism?

A destitute national legislature, heaving with senseless rhetoric and guardian angel of the mediocre and the hurt, has set in motion an unstoppable downward spiral of reservations. The inevitable logic of the ugly politics of swinging educational reservations is the end to what remains of any pretence of academic excellence in India. Is the insane outcome of the certified, sans actual professional skill, not already wreaking havoc in medicine and other professions? The maligned upper castes, irrespective of actual socio-economic circumstance can go hang themselves or slog over international tests to escape their benighted land. The ineluctable logic of private sector job reservations must follow since it is easier to re-locate to Sri Lanka, southern China, even Pakistan, than navigate India’s political morass.

A moment’s reflection will unravel the source of a dastardly challenge to this national purpose in cultivating mediocrity and identifying hurt. The freewheeling entrepreneurs of Bangalore constitute an ever-present danger to contemporary national culture by their very success, befuddling its noble purpose by their own contrary examples. In a world understood by Kafka and made flesh by Joseph Stalin the midnight knock and their unexplained disappearance is becoming an imperative. The Reddys, Murthys, Premjis and Shaws, who have succeeded internationally, unlike entrepreneurs who have merely carved a niche in the national market through political patronage, cannot be allowed to endure. Thankfully, sages of India’s politics, whose solitary memorable achievement was to get elected, have risen manfully to the challenge of silencing dreamers who dared to infuse hope and succeeded in showing it can be made real.

Public debate in India has entered the realm of impenetrable allusion. Nothing is quite what it seems and subterranean nuances course through utterances. Professional commentators alone can grasp the intended meanings and reportage confuses the uninitiated. Such lesser mortals are condemned to guesswork and engage in phantasmagoric speculation. Yet legislative provision makes it necessary to apprehend the potential meaning of words and deeds since innocent intention alone will not suffice to stave off arrest for causing offence. The victims of hurt are everywhere and watchful of infringement of rights bestowed by their Kafkaesque empowerment.

And yet there will have to be further legislation to institutionalise mediocrity because far too many Indians are surreptitious autodidacts, aided by determined parents who foolishly foresee upward mobility in the crass idolatry of Saraswati worship. The contradiction is too glaring to be resolved by reserving educational places and jobs alone. The elite scum will rise to the top, swatting beside roadside lamps, devouring dated textbooks and accomplishing prodigious feats of memory inherited from an ancestral tradition. In the end, like the Jews, they must be forced to wear identifying attire and if need be expelled or extinguished.

12 comments for “Hurt and mediocrity in India

  1. Gautam Sen
    February 28, 2014 at 1:37 PM

    There seems to be some confusion about the purpose of my self consciously ironical piece above that was (written a while ago!) mainly intended as humour, although with pointed obvious references to real-world issues! The phrase ‘crass idolatry of Saraswati worship’ was entirely a veiled means of making fun of those who belittle the tradition of Indian learning, not a criticism of the love and affection in which Hindus hold the goddess of learning, Saraswati. Some readers need to grow up and understand humour and irony! But remind me not to aim humour at Indian audiences!

  2. January 2, 2014 at 9:03 PM

    “Crass idolatry of Saraswati worship”? Im guessing Sen wants us to discard that and join him in full scale Rothschild azz kissing It seems to have been very rewarding for Sen ————-Sen crawls to his Jew masters when merely asked to bend A ROTHSCHILDIAN DEV KANT BAROOAH Pucker up Sen you got so much more azz to kiss

  3. avinash
    March 9, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    In the first comment on this article, Mr. B. K. Chowla asks, “Whay is he so negative?” Well, because he sees the things as they are and refuses to fall prey to meaningless and cliched phrases such as “be positive.” Get, Mr. Chowla? I think it is time to call a spade a spade, recognize an overflowing gutter as an overflowing gutter and refuse to see any positive in a system that is wafting stink three dimensionally.

  4. March 1, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    With due respects,…Whay is he so negative?

  5. March 1, 2013 at 10:35 AM

    @Ranbir,

    IITs and IIMs, NITS and top Medical schools are centers of excellence. I don’t think Mr Sen is disparaging them. The idea is that the govt should not be subsidizing higher education. Instead it should provide loans for those students who cannot afford to pay. That would be fair.

    Instead the govt must provide excellent primary and high school education, which it has failed abysmally. Even the poor dream of sending their kids to private schools. In US some public schools (equivalent of govt schools here) are the best, even when compared to expensive private schools. Depriving poor bright kids of a decent primary education is unconscionable, and that is what is happening now.

    After destroying poor kids education the govt is after middle class kids education. This RTE is to destroy some functional schooling for middle classes. The elite makes sure its interests are ok, by exempting DOON school. Now it wants to go after International schools. This UPA cabal is evil.

  6. February 28, 2013 at 8:05 PM

    This article by Dr. Sen is …hmmm… well, interesting. He is pessimistic about India. He clearly wants free speech to be protected (just as in US). Although he gave no instances, we are reminded of recent cases of free speeches and their consequences (Ashis Nandy, Ak Owaisi etc). The author doesn’t pause to develop his case because, I think, individual cases didn’t enjoy his attention. He clearly shows his intolerance for intolerance.

    He believes mediocrity is rewarded in India. His comments on the reservations make it clear. He again doesn’t pause to develop his case in this regard either. We are again reminded of Arun Shouri’s and, in the recent past, of Varun Gandhi’s comments on the same. Does Mr Sen want to do away with reservations on the simple principle that this is radically discriminatory and technically a violation of others’ fundamental rights? He doesn’t want to dwell more. But his silence speaks.

    The last sentence is intriguing. I quote:

    “In the end, like the Jews, they must be forced to wear identifying attire and if need be expelled or extinguished.”

    I am absolutely certain that any serious author (let alone a professor) weighs every word in his central, hard-hitting, critical sentences that deliver the punch. Why did Dr Sen make a mention of the Jews and remind us of what happened to them in the hands of the Nazis? ["forced......identity attire"']. An unmistakable reference to WW2 era branding of the Jews (in the Nazis’ hands) and what followed.

    This article is out-and-out all about India and India. He is uttering an eventual curse on the “elite scum” of India. That’s understandable. Why Jews of WW2 Europe make an appearance here? I am uncomfortable. “Expelled or extinguished”. The author believes there is no other choice! What do you extinguish? A fire? A burning candle? Would that “elite scum” be Blown out? Nirvana in hands of new revolutionaries?

    I am provoked to ask: “Is the author revealing more than he is concealing or concealing more than he is revealing?”

  7. concerned_indian
    February 28, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    I know working english, good enough to go through blogs like written by you.
    I was excited about reading this blog from gautama sen. But unfortunately this type of hi-fi english is not for mortals like us. It took a lot of time just to decrypt what he meant

    • shaon
      September 5, 2013 at 11:26 PM

      exactly the kind of mediocrity he is talking abt… so u prove the point, even without having actually read it… thanx. !!

  8. Drishya Saakshi
    February 28, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    @froginthewell
    You seemed to miss the irony of the author’s last para.

    Excellent article overall and I thank Sandeep for publishing it.

    Sri Aurobindo, around a hundred years back, wrote an article: “The bourgeois and the Samurai”. I urge all the readers of this site to read that.
    You can read it here: http://surasa.net/aurobindo/on_nation/bourgeois.htm

    On what we Indians have become, this is what he wrote:

    “He values also the things of the mind in a leisurely comfortable way as adorning and setting off his enlightened ease and competence. A little art, a little poetry, a little religion, a little scholarship, a little philosophy, all these are excellent ingredients in life, and give an air of decorous refinement to his surroundings. They must not be carried too far or interfere with the great object of life which is to earn money, clothe and feed one’s family, educate one’s sons to the high pitch of the B.A. degree or the respectable eminence of the M.A., marry one’s daughters decently, rank high in service or the professions, stand well in the eye of general opinion and live and die decorously, creditably and respectably. Anything disturbing to these high duties, anything exaggerated, intense, unusual is not palatable to the bourgeois. He shrugs his shoulders over it and brushes it aside with the one word “mad” or eccentric.

    It is undoubtedly this type which has dominated us in the nineteenth century. Of course the really great names, those that will live in history as creators and originators are men who went beyond this type; either they belonged to, but exceeded it or they departed from it. But the average, the determining type was the bourgeois. In Senate and Syndicate, in Legislative Council and District Board or Municipal Corporation, in Congress and Conference, in the services and professions, even in literature and scholarship, even in religion he was everywhere with his well-regulated mind, his unambitious ideals, his snug little corner of culture, his “education” and “enlightenment”, his comfortable patriotism, his comfortable enlightenment, his easy solution of the old problem how to serve both God and Mammon, yet offend neither, his self-satisfaction, his decorous honesty, his smug respectability. Society was made after his model, politics moulded in his image, education confined within his limits, literature and religion stamped with the seal of the bourgeois.

    The bourgeois as a distinct and well-evolved entity is an entirely modern product in India; he is the creation of British policy, English education, Western civilization. Ancient India, mediaeval India were not a favourable soil for his growth. The spirit of ancient India was aristocratic; its thought and life moulded in the cast of a high and proud nobility, an extreme and lofty strenuousness. The very best in thought, the very best in action, the very best in character, the very best in literature and art, the very best in religion and all the world well lost if only this very best might be attained, such was the spirit of ancient India. The Brahmin who devoted himself to poverty and crushed down every desire in the wholehearted pursuit of knowledge and religious self-discipline; the Kshatriya who, hurling his life joyously into the shock of chivalrous battle, held life, wife, children, possessions, ease, happiness as mere dust in the balance compared with honour and the Kshatriya dharma, the preservation of self-respect, the protection of the weak, the noble fulfillment of princely duty; the Vaishya, who toiling all his life to amass riches, poured them out as soon as amassed in self-forgetting philanthropy, holding himself the mere steward and not the possessor of his wealth; the Shudra who gave himself up loyally to humble service, faithfully de voting his life to his dharma, however low, in preference to self-advancement and ambition; these were the social ideals of the age.”

  9. froginthewell
    February 28, 2013 at 8:25 AM

    “crass idolatry of Saraswati worship”? Idolatry is a word used by practitioners of semitic religions – it comes with a connotation that idol worship is inferior to semitic worship.

  10. Ranbir
    February 27, 2013 at 10:18 PM

    “Have the IIMs and IITs, which could remit vast foreign earnings by going abroad, not been shunted back into a siding, insisting that students, who will become the highest paid in the land in no time, can only be charged ridiculously low fees?”

    If the author castigates the Indian state for having failed to educate its people, must he also be critical of the few institutions which are working well? The argument for IIMs and IITs going abroad is ridiculous. Moreover, “ridiculously low” fees means nothing in India, where most of the population can’t even afford the Rs 80,000 a year to study at IIT. (Yes, if your parents earn less than 4.5 lacs, then it’s free, but 80k is still a huge amount for a family earning 6 lacs a year). IIM’s charge much more – 16 lacs at IIM-A.

    This article really has no central point. The connections the writer makes between identity and education are tenuous.

  11. February 27, 2013 at 9:45 PM

    Well, i came here with a lot of enthusiasm.
    However, i did face quite a problem with the literary style of english in the above write-up.
    In nutshell, what I could comprehend is that there are lots of self-declared victims, ready to pounce on anybody/everybody the moment they feel that their feelings have been hurt.

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