Saturday, 30 November 2013


When I watched Shawshank Redemption for the first time, I was struck, among other things, by a conversation among the prison inmates. It is when Red explains that old Brooks, a long-term prisoner, resorted to violence on being granted parole because he was “institutionalised.” He then elaborates on the psychological effect of imprisonment on those who have been jailed for decades together, but what made a strong impression on me was the apparent connection between ‘institutionalisation’ and incarceration. Is every institution a kind of prison-house, I wondered.

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 In trying to answer this intriguing question, I wanted to tackle the root of the problem: the possible origin of most social institutions. Tracing how these institutions developed in the process of human civilisation, I thought, may offer a clue to their real nature and purpose. When I say ‘human civilisation,’ of course, we can conveniently omit the pre-historic age when evolution was still by and large a physical phenomenon, and focus only on the times of recorded history, ever since we have been proud to think of ourselves as the possessors of culture.

At a time when mankind was still largely in its hunting-gathering phase, there was little chance for any organised social behaviour. The ideas of both ‘organisation’ and ‘society’ are the key to understanding all the developments that followed. When every man’s survival meant a daily battle with other (often larger and more ferocious) species, there couldn’t have been much time for socialising, leave alone establishing any rules of conduct. So, once we discount those human activities that were merely survival tactics (such as taming animals and living in settlements) and look closely at what Man did after he began to think over what he was doing, we shall find the roots of all social institutions.

Across different civilisations of the ancient times, there are to be found some fundamental institutions such as marriage and family, religion, a system of government, a legal framework, and suchlike, whose existence cannot merely be explained away as expedient tools of survival. The inherent complexity of many of these systems, right from the ancient times until now, challenges the notion that they were born simply in response to our primordial needs. The caveman’s worship of Fire and Thunder may perhaps be accounted for by fear, but such rudimentary motivations fail to explain the elaborate mythologies created by more sophisticated Greeks, Indians, and Nordic races.

To trace the evolution of all social institutions, we could analyse as an illustrative case the one institution which seems both ubiquitous and enduring—Marriage. The birth of Marriage was an indication of Man moving away from casual sexual encounters and fierce competition among mating rivals. The institution of marriage could ensure that a man had a wife (or several) of his own, and this security allowed room for greater emotional bonding between the man and his wife/wives. (The imposition of monogamy was, no doubt, an afterthought!) The whole question of parenting and other shared domestic responsibilities (over the millennia) has strengthened these ties, making marriage a viable institution across cultures.

The growth of civilisation further refined and embellished the structure, gradually elevating Marriage to the top rung of venerable social institutions. The ascent of Marriage to the powerful status it enjoys today among the must-haves of every culture was not the result of a blind, overnight coup d'├ętat. Its success was orchestrated by great visionaries and inspired thinkers at every stage of human civilisation who realised the joy of loving and sharing, the mutual sense of intimacy between a couple and all that constitutes ‘the bliss of marital life.’ It is to their great credit that they were able to share their vision with less-gifted mortals in order to make the blessings of marriage accessible to every human being. In evidence of this, we can clearly see that, at this day and age, we don’t think of ourselves as getting married primarily in order to eliminate mating competition. Marriage has grown to become the socially recognised repository of love, trust and affection. Odes have been composed in honour of conjugal happiness and the entire genre of romantic narratives (along with a thriving rom-com industry) has been built on this foundation. Thus goes the story of the origin of Marriage and its steady rise to glory. A similar history may be made out for most institutions that exist.

If you look closely, it is true, of course, that every institution that survives today is founded upon a lofty ideal. Marriage, for instance, or even religion. The former was meant to acknowledge and celebrate human love, while the latter was Man’s way of recognising, and also reciprocating, Divine Love. Then arises the inevitable question: why, then, is our world today all but ideal? The corruption, violence, ignorance, hatred and evil that we witness all around obviously could not have been the natural products of an ideal order. So, where exactly did the rot set in? The trouble, I am convinced, lies in the gap between the initial vision that acted as the driving force and the sadly compromised form it achieved in execution.

Let me explain this further. Every social institution was created by some visionary leaders of every community, who were inspired by a praiseworthy ideal that they wanted to share with the rest of the society. Love, Justice, and Enlightenment were just some of those ideals that these extraordinary minds had conceived of, to be worthy goals for the whole of humanity to aspire for. However, such ideals could not be shared with others in their abstraction. They needed to assume a corporeal form in order to be accessible to the general public that could not partake of these abstract visions. And ay, there’s the rub. Whenever a forbiddingly high ideal is to be made accessible to the lowest common denominator of intelligence, its integrity is inevitably compromised. The form or the outer structure remains and penetrates every section of society, gathering strength all the while, but the spirit quietly departs. In fact, the stronger the physical form an ideal assumes, the farther the final result is likely to be from the spirit behind its conception.

To test this theory, consider a different example. The process of initial compromise and eventual degeneration can be seen at work in the creation of another major institution: organised religion. The curiosity to know more about forces greater than himself prompted Man to contemplate the idea of Divinity. The pioneering thinkers and mystics who felt that they had a direct experience or a revelation of a Supreme Being wanted to share this experience with those who had not. In trying to express the ineffable, they had to resort to much dumbing-down as well as oblique methods of communication, and ultimately ended up creating mythology. Successive generations attached further and further literal meaning to their communication, progressively alienating themselves from the spirit behind the original vision. In the place of a nebulous and tentative conception of the God-Experience, ever open to investigation and exploration, massive groups of human beings now had gods and their families (complete with children, step-mothers, and incestuous relatives!) to worship. Once these gods started multiplying like guinea pigs, Man had to house them somewhere. That accounts for all the imposing physical structures of temples, churches or synagogues that were erected. And what would these gods do in their idle hours, once provided with the security of housing and periodical food offerings? Why, listen to songs that people made up in their praise! Thus, to make the process complete, ritualised forms of worship were prescribed, with a privileged priestly class steadily battening on the remains of the gods. As the structure solidified with the passage of time, the idea of spiritual quest was increasingly lost sight of. In this way, spirituality was institutionalised into Religion.

Institutions, then, are the flawed inventions of fecund minds in order to administer to a near-savage populace a poor imitation of the ideals which they themselves conceive of in abstraction. The ideals which inspired those rare geniuses suffer progressive deterioration as they gain wider and wider currency, finally existing only as a parody of their original selves, but practised dogmatically by the great unwashed masses in the shape of mandatory institutional forms. But, didn’t those great visionaries realise how their cherished ideals would be betrayed by the very forms that they had created? I’m afraid, the answer is yes. Imagine the pain they must have felt when they saw what mankind would make of their pristine and sublime inspirations. I strongly believe it is this anguish that is depicted in the metaphorical story of the Fall of Adam and Eve.

As I explained earlier, the most powerful means of communication available to those inspired thinkers among our ancestors was myths and allegorical stories, by which they tried to crystallise their unique vision of our future. The familiar fable of the Fall of Man is one such illustration of their most heart-breaking realisation—that human beings tend to corrupt everything that comes to them in an ideal state. The Paradise, of course, stands for all that is ideal, and sadly, Man proves unworthy of the great gift and loses it by sheer wilfulness. Then, consider how ironical it is, that this poignant symbolism should have been turned into one of the many bed-time stories that religion lulls us with!

Once you recognise the process of degeneration that sets in with institutionalisation, you can apply the same principle to evaluate any of the powerful social institutions that exist today. For instance, the highest aspirations of intellectual curiosity and the liberal pursuit of knowledge have been converted into the degree-producing education system that we are saddled with today. Or, think of how the law, with its bureaucratic judicial system and ridiculous loopholes, has come to represent the more abstract ideal of Universal Justice. Every institution is, in fact a huge grinding system that works by simplifying emotions into conventional expressions, ideas into procedures and inspiration into habit. Once reduced to such an unimaginative and impersonal set of rules, rituals and formats, every ideal becomes a shadow of itself. The practical advantage of this, however, is that all those who cannot be convinced of ideas can be conditioned and disciplined into following conventions. A major share of humanity, unfortunately, falls under the category of those impervious to ideals, and this is where the idea of ‘organised social behaviour’ comes into play. Institutions are super-efficient, self-sustaining engines that can be run with minimal effort and zero imagination.

I am sure you must have seen those curious desiccate flowers that many of us preserve inside books. Devoid of the true colour, fragrance, and above all, the gentle freshness that characterise flowers, the desiccated ones merely retain the shape, hardened and coarsened, a grim reminder of their original texture. Come to think of it, are all institutions like these dead specimens that have only been hardened by time? Unfortunately, no. If they were only fossilised structures incapable of any real harm, the world we live in would be a much happier place indeed. But, the truth, alas, is quite the contrary. In fact, the most dangerous aspect of many institutions is that they work like fake currencies. They assume the value of what they are not and pass undetected among the less discerning. The common man mistakes conformity to religion for spiritual fulfilment and a degree certificate for intellectual attainment. These institutions do not merely represent an ideal, but replace it altogether. The very fact of being married takes away the obligation on the couple to seek, express or experience that sublime and mysterious quality of Love; the criminal acquitted by a court of law for want of evidence brags that Justice has been done. What to say of the deluded young graduate holding a paper that unequivocally declares that she has acquired all the wisdom requisite to call her, henceforth, ‘educated’? To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, where is the Knowledge we have lost in Education?

Talking of fake currency here reminds me, ironically, of the one major institution—the government—which has the longest history of debates and polemics in its evolution. One would think that after all the constant wrangle, we might have hit upon the ideal form: but the Government today remains the ultimate fake currency! Where we need a divinely inspired ruler or benign and farsighted leaders, we have corrupt and vote-bank-pandering politicians, backed by divisive, unprincipled parties. Cash-for-vote is only the latest form of ugliness to emerge from our already rotten system of governance. A wise and disillusioned E.M. Forster could declare more than half a century ago that even democracy is only a compromised form, a sort of least-of-all-evils. He gives it only two cheers, instead of three.

Now, there is a question you may legitimately ask: are all institutions, then, irredeemably evil? In other words, is there no chance for Love within Marriage, Justice within Law, and Enlightenment within our Educational system? Thankfully, they are not. Institutions are too mechanical and impersonal to be characterised as evil, per se. They allow all evils to thrive within them, of course, but they are not inherently evil. Left in the hands of the common people who are not gifted with any extraordinary intelligence, sensitivity or courage, they become the breeding ground for all evils. Remember, institutions are not corrupted by the positively wicked, but merely by the incompetent. After all, one need not be a bad person to be in an unhappy marriage or a hard-core criminal in order to be an unenlightened postgraduate. Simply by failing to rise to the ideal of selfless love or the liberal spirit of enquiry, you may be left with the rotting carcass of an institution rather than the uplifting spirit behind it.

All it requires is a bit of honesty to acknowledge that religion gets reduced to rituals; the shell of marriage becomes a set of social shackles; knowledge is measured by marks scored—these are certainly the consequences of the natural degeneration of the system. But, if this process of decay is inevitable, is it also irreversible? What does it take to stem the rot? The good news is, it is definitely possible for an individual to infuse life into any of these institutions, but only at a strictly personal level. With a sincere effort of imagination and true soul-searching, one may indeed discover God within the church or by an unquenchable thirst to learn, one may find the means to gain unfettered knowledge within the confines of a college. By consciously overcoming your innate selfishness and investing effort into caring for another person, you may bring that delicate spirit of Love alive even within the rigidly codified system of marriage. But the crucial thing to remember is that, whatever you do, you can only elevate the system for yourself. The institution, as a whole, can never be redeemed by the actions of one individual or one hundred. The coldly impersonal grindstone will remain what it is.

History is filled with the cases of spectacular failures of great people who have tried to make a lasting change to the system and redeem it for everybody. Martin Luther, Joan of Arc and Ramanuja could defy and challenge Religion; their historical achievement is certainly significant, but religion to the average man on the street still remains the same. Kennedy and Lincoln made a significant difference to government and political policies, but the natural degeneracy of the system outlasted their attempts at reform. Raja Rammohan Roy could fight for the blatant injustices of child marriage and Sati to be rooted out, but which reformer can ensure that every man is a loving, caring husband?

What this really means is, once you recognise the nature of social institutions, the onus is completely on you to make the best of them. Only you can put life into the empty shell, and not vice versa. Being married will never teach you love, being in college will never fill you with wisdom, whereas, you, the individual, can impart a higher spirit into any system, in whatever state of decay it may be. But, this task is in no way going to be easy. It would be an uphill struggle, an everyday battle against the temptation to settle comfortably for the least difficult option of letting the institutions govern your life.

Or a greater course still, and one chosen by the strongest individuals who are not daunted by the petty demands of society, is to go straightaway for the substance rather than the scaffold built around it. Set out on a personal exploration to find Love, Knowledge and Spiritual fulfilment outside the traditional bounds of marriage, universities and religious denominations. In fact, the great visionaries I spoke of were indeed the ones who received their inspiration only by hazarding to explore the unknown and not by trying to think from inside a shoebox. Even if you do not think of yourself as the next great leader whose grand vision is about to change the world, this more daring course would at least make you a much better human being. There have been such exceptional individuals all through the course of human history, and I can think of at least one such person among the popular public figures in Tamilnadu.

© Image courtesy: IBN Live

Let me conclude by telling you the extraordinary story of what one of those old, wise men could foretell thousands of years ago about our society. It is, as before, a story written by a sensitive idealist frustrated by the ignorance of those around.  This wise man set out on a gruelling journey in search of God. All the others in his tribe awaited his return with the message from God, but were growing impatient. As their wait prolonged, they decided to make an idol—a golden calf—for themselves so that they may have something to worship and make offerings to. It apparently didn’t matter much to them that their absent leader had gone on their behalf and in search of the true ideal. They wanted quick solutions and not necessarily the right one. Further, they were not ready to put themselves through the trouble of finding the truth on their own, but were quick to find fault with the delay of the only responsible man who had undertaken the mission. When the man finally returned, the story goes, he was so furious at the false idol they had created that he put most of them to death.

The mythological element apart, this story explains the nature of most social institutions. First, that the common run of people who cannot subject themselves to the discipline of undertaking any quest don’t think twice about betraying the ideals of the best among them. Further, when such people create an idol of their choice, they would stick to it and swear by it, even if they happen to know that it is a false god. The golden calf of that age has been transformed into the formidable ‘holy cows’ of modern society.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

An end and a beginning...

My writing here may puzzle some of the early readers of this blog, since this was started out as a dedicated space for Mohan Sir's "viewsletters." Those first visitors would know me only as his student who edited Sir's letters into this blogging space. However, when I wanted to start writing, I chose this space for several reasons: one of them is a point of regret that I couldn't persuade Sir to keep on writing even after the unofficial demise of Orkut. The online community for which he wrote still exists (with its 150+ members intact), but is inoperative. However, I believe that his writings may be of interest to my students (and friends) as much as his, and so I've decided to write here in the hope that we may both share a common audience. Though I dare not lay any claim to his versatility, I hope that my concerns would be similar enough to his, to the end that the blog retains its homogeneity.

Talking of one of my idols brings me to the subject I wanted to write about today. It is about an extraordinary woman who has influenced me a lot personally. She is one of the three women I have never had the fortune to meet in person when they were alive, but feel strongly connected to. The first occasion when I came across her name was when I was reading The Waste Land in my classroom copy: my own personal copy is an ancient edition. The editor had alluded to a scholarly version of the poem's manuscript edited and published by the late author's widow. Poets and critics being married to women who were enviable literary figures or scholars in their own right was not altogether new: examples such as the Brownings, Hughes-Plath, and Frank-Queenie Leavis were familiar. But Valerie Eliot was different.

Photo courtesy: © Getty Images

She was seen by the outside world almost as a fire-breathing dragon jealously guarding over Eliot's personal correspondence and his literary estate, and the surprise was to know that she was still alive! Knowing as I did that Eliot had died in the 1960s, I couldn't believe that his widow would still be carrying on a single-handed battle against those who wanted to take "creative liberties" by sensationalising both the life and works of the much-revered Nobel Laureate. Anyone who has known me long enough to discuss books with me knows how much T.S. Eliot has influenced me, especially the changes wrought in my life and beliefs by "The Journey of the Magi." To know that Valerie had been similarly moved by the poem even in her early teens was the first revelation of my spiritual connection with her.

At the time when I was slowly exploring all that I had in common with her, she was still alive, painstakingly editing volumes of Eliot's letters to be published by the publishing giant she now owned: Faber. The more I read about her, the more I was fascinated. For instance, the fact that she decided on her career even before she completed her schoolingto become Eliot's secretaryand went on to achieve such a formidable aim was enough to convince me that I had found my personal role model. That she could actually marry the forbidding Eliot who was then disillusioned about women, 38 years her senior, already a reclusive Nobel Laureate and her boss at Faber's is the stuff fairy tales are made of. But, perhaps not. The news that she married Eliot against such odds is not so wonderful as the way their marriage turned out. All those who knew Eliot testified that they were struck by how much the marriage rejuvenated him, renewed his health and spirits and brought him the peace, joy and contentment that had never been his portion before. The true fairytale element in the story is that she made their marriage a "happily-ever-after" affair. In fact, the only poem which reveals Eliot's personal happiness rather than poetic genius is the greatest public indication of the miracle she had worked in the life of the man who had never allowed the poet and the living, breathing person to be conflated.

Photo courtesy: © The Daily Mail

The real test of her greatness, of course, lies in her life after Eliot's time. With all the justification to withdraw herself into a shell, she chose to shoulder the responsibility of being his literary executor. She faithfully adhered to all of Eliot's wishes about his legacy, including his injunction that there be no official biography of him, despite the enormous public pressure she faced. A woman of enviable taste, she owned a collection of paintings that she had gathered over a lifetime. (The collection is about to be auctioned in about a week from now.) Besides, she created a huge charitable trust to promote upcoming artists and contributed to a literary prize in her husband's name.

The noble soul departed from the world on this day last year (9 November 2012), signalling the end of an era that has gone by. The best I could do today in remembrance of her was to record my feelings for her and share with others an episode from her life: a moment that must have been a test of character for anyone, but a test that she passed effortlessly. Read her interview following the release of the infamous Tom & Viv. She is one of those who have passed away leaving a void that cannot be easily filled, and a particularly painful personal void for me. The only thing I can really say now is: Requiescat in pace Valerie.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The Second Coming

Hi there,

I am aware that this viewsletter is certainly out of character with the rest, and also with the tenor of my viewsletters in general. Because I am breaking a spell of long silence, I have intended this viewsletter to be a warm-up touching upon more topical matters. Judging by the current trend, much of them would have become dated, but the emerging truths, I think, are likely to last longer and provide food for thought.

The year 2008 A.D. is gone, leaving behind memories of incidents, many of which were of momentary importance; but a few, unquestionably, momentous. When I describe them momentous, I am not particularly thinking in terms of the glamour, popularity or the thrill, which we often find associated with the so-called ‘great’ events. On the contrary, I see them as milestones in the march of human civilisation. Simply, these few incidents seem to me to have decisively registered the triumph of human dignity. And it is no mean feat, given the ground reality that human dignity suffers the first casualty in a country like ours.

The first event I wish to mention is the launch of the Chandrayan, which bore testimony to the intellectual integrity of the Indian scientists and technologists. The second is the Karnataka Assembly elections that witnessed on a never-before scale, the people’s revulsion and anger at the opportunistic government headed by Kumaraswamy. Here, I don’t want to be seen as one supporting the saffron party in power. Far from it. It is hard for anyone, as it is for me, to subscribe to the ideologies of a party that thrives on the hate culture propagated by Raj Thackeray and Pramod Muthalik. The pith of my argument is that there are and will be occasions like the ones I’ve cited, when human dignity, in its blinding brilliance, will outshine petty political, religious and racial considerations, leaving all those self-styled and self-appointed leaders confounded, gaping, and unable to figure out what went wrong with their machinations. I may add one more event: the presidential election of Barack Obama who has added a little ‘colour’ to the all ‘White’ House.

It is not often that we see human dignity establish its sovereignty. In fact, human dignity does not even receive an indifferent or patronising attitude from the powers that be. Instead, all it receives is a raw deal at the hands of religious bigotry, obscurantism, perverted ideologies, shortsighted political policies and programmes, and countless creeds. The video footage of the gory incident at the law college campus in Chennai did not only highlight the fact that human dignity is at a discount, but has also driven home the sad truth that we live in a crowd and not in a community. Two students were almost flogged to death in the full glare of the TV cameras and the glassy stare of the policemen; it is small consolation that these spectators did not cheer and shout, unlike the mob watching the gladiatorial games in the Roman colosseum. All I could do was to draw comfort from Shakespeare.

“O Judgement! Thou art fled to the brutish beasts
And men have lost their reason.”

The mighty Indian Navy and the Intelligence Bureau were horns locked in bureaucratic red-tapism when a bunch of well-trained and motivated thugs, armed with deadly weapons, reached the Mumbai shores in the most ingenious way. Within a few hours, scores of unsuspecting people at the CST, the Nariman House, the Oberoi Trident and the Taj were mowed down. The media had a field day covering the carnage and devastation. The government woke up to the situation—how else could you describe it?—and despatched the NSG after many lives had been lost. Then our ‘secular’ government at the centre began the diplomatic offensive against Pakistan. From the MEA came the rhetoric first, followed by threats including military action, then an appeal to the international community to bear down upon terrorism—all done with the utmost political correctness, all the time careful not to sound ‘less secular,’ but secretly happy with the political mileage gained over the opposition. Two months gone and the scenes of horrendous killings seem to haunt nobody except to whom the victims mattered. Are we a flock of sitting ducks? Do we have to live forever in fear? Is the famed Indian secularism fast sinking into mindless psychotic stoicism?

Ramalinga Raju is behind bars, and if one goes by the media reports, he is unrepentant, unfazed and confident that he will soon be out on bail. The drama unfolds something like this: An ambitious young man ‘grows’ into an avaricious businessman and egged on by a string of successes, indulges in corrupt practices to fill his coffers. Soon the corrupt man discovers that he is not only corrupt, but is also capable of corrupting institutions, agencies and other organisations which the public hold as incorruptible and sanctified. A syndicate of auditors, bank officials and a conniving government act in collusion with this man betraying the public trust. Ramalinga Raju’s episode is a laboratorial experiment with the theory that the corrupt corrupt. If his success can be called a pilot production, the Thirumangalam by-election result is certainly the mass production of it. What has surfaced is that even the law-abiding or law-wary common man is potentially corruptible and when tempted beyond the levels of resistance, he can betray Truth and Justice for a paltry ‘thirty pieces of silver.’

The history of mankind has been a chequered one, characterised by moral and intellectual darkness, but interspersed with patches of creative brightness that we call civilisation; like the lighthouse that alternates pitch darkness with dazzling brilliance, but not at the same regular interval as the lighthouse. When it did occur, human dignity—the intellectual integrity and moral vigour—stood towering in its full glory and grace, leading mankind farther away from barbarity and savagery. But sadly, such phases have been few and far between.

In the past, civilisations lasted longer before they were eventually destroyed. The Hellenic civilisation flourished until the Turks attacked Constantinople. The Roman civilisation survived for a much longer period, before the barbarians overran them. The reason was simple. The forces destructive of civilisation possessed technologies that were still subject to the constraints of space and time. That provided a respite to civilisation. But not so with our modern technologies that can destroy space and time. Also, they are at the disposal of autocratic governments, lunatic-led states or simply power-hungry and greedy men.

We are on the threshold of a new dispensation in which Truth and Justice will be redefined to suit the ideologies of the powers that be. There will be very little resistance from the masses and far less from the thinkers, since the former will be silenced with money and the latter intimidated into submission.

By the time this viewsletter is published, many more sordid incidents like the ones I have mentioned will have happened. I think the chances of mankind redeeming itself are remote, and the Saviour of mankind is not going to be found in the midst of us. We need to wait for the ‘Second Coming.’

With Love,

Your English Sir

Wednesday, the 04th of February, 2009