As is customary, when I visited my grandchildren this time round, I asked them for their wish list of books. The younger one, all of nine years, said she wants nothing but Roald Dahl. She has read them all and she thinks that, that is all there is to good writing.
Roald Dahl, as we all know wrote for children, but wrote some titillating stuff for adult reading as well. To wean her away and to tickle her taste buds I had given her my favourite Thurber stories, 'Many Moons' and 'The 13 Clocks' which she read with diligence but without much excitement. Her mental landscape is so taken up with Roald Dahl that it leaves no space for other competitors.
The elder one is into Harry Potter and is equally dismissive of others. She has also read 'Charles Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare' and Romeo, Juliet, and Merchant of Venice and The Tempest in the original. But to my utter relief she spared me the mortification of handing down some uncharitable judgement like, “A pair of boots is worth all of Shakespeare”, variously attributed to Lenin and Stalin.
After having read the many abridged editions of famous authors she has decided that Dickens for her is a wasteful exertion, pouring over hundreds of pages (never mind that Potter potters on into volumes adding up to thousands of pages). Jane Austen is too boring; Hardy she did not touch because names like Tess of the D'Urbervilles give her the creeps. Romantic Poetry for her is too prosaic and the prose of master's mere parody!
Children can rightly claim to have discovered truth with a capital T, simply because they haven’t mastered the lower case of the alphabet of experience. Many of our opinions and views are better enunciated in the lower case. That is the reason I find myself left out of much of the debate going on in the social media. There is so much certainty, so much confidence in the disputants that Truth is on their side that a timid person like me gets easily disheartened. When finality has been achieved, when the last word has already been spoken, where is the scope for debate?
As of now truth has been incarnated in the form of two competing narratives about what is happening, one clearly emanating from the followers of Mr. Modi, and another from those who support Mr. Rahul Gandhi, the two claimants to the highest political and the social media is rife with believers arguing one way or the other, with an ecclesiastical fervour. But I am blown by currents of uncertainty, seeing a little logic in this position but some in that as well, so much so that my propositions are hedged in by so many ‘what precisely and ifs and buts’ that they cease to win me friends on either side. In the end they are no propositions at all and I end up alienating both camps. Neither too left or liberal to be their fellow traveller, nor too right to be the mascot of the ‘new India.’
There was a time, in my early teens, when I had just imbibed a kindergarten version of Marxism, and on the basis of that small capital I could launch on a tirade against its evils. Armed with ideas culled from 'The God That Failed' and the 'Encounter', that cultural weapon designed by the USA against the Soviet onslaught in its battle for the control of minds of Europe and the rest of the free world. Incidentally, to be reading Encounter, the intellectual thrill was the equivalent of the physical thrill of riding a Rolls Royce Cornice (I guess, I have never been inside one!). In the end USA's cultural weapons proved more powerful than the Minutemen and the Midget men, the many versions of ICBMs that were built and kept in readiness. How ironic that the Cold war ended not through military conquest of the enemy but due to the abandonment of its ideological position by the USSR.
Colin Wilson, and Koestler, Orwell and Isaiah Berlin, Sartre, and Simone De Beauvoir, Camus and Borges, Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgeni Evtushenko, Hannah Arendt, Andre Malraux and a hundred other names just cascaded from my tongue like an avalanche of polemical onslaughts. Profligacy with words, overabundance of ideas, mobilisation of arguments borrowed from powerful minds buoyed me on the most stormy of seas. I would get into arguments, write polemical texts, and defend the indefensible, all with the aplomb of a man in possession of the ultimate truth.
In my undergraduate days in college, my teachers appeared to be indulgent. In one of my cocky moments, I wrote a long tract on Eliot’s 'Wasteland' as being the greatest intellectual fraud of the century. My teacher took the trouble of engaging with it with all the seriousness at his command. He made long comments in the margin, trying to point the flaw or fallacy in the argument, a few passages were heavily marked with some positive comments in the margin and interjections like ahem! I thought my teacher to be too timid to hold irreverent view on somebody so well established like Eliot or even opinions contrary to the established views.
But the world does not consist of amused, indulgent teachers alone. Every so often you bump into unforgiving, judgmental people at crucial junctures of your life for whom this incautious abandon is a sign of impudence, brashness and rudeness which must be firmly curbed.
I ran into a couple of them at my only UPSC interview at the age of 20 years and a few months. I was appearing only for the IPS and English literature was one of my papers. The gentleman, a retired vice chancellor of a famous university, had taught English literature all his life. He recited four lines from a famous poem by Eliot and asked me to follow up, if I could. Eliot, Yeats, WH Auden, the Metaphysical, the Augustans, French symbolists among others were my favourite, as indeed they were, of my generation of Indian students. So, I started with the last line of his quote with appropriate corrections and went on till I was stopped.
Similarly, I was asked to locate a few lines of a famous poem of Yeats and he then wondered if I could quote a few preceding lines. Again, it was a juicy half volley - I started at the beginning and was stopped half way to be collared by a bureaucrat, retired or serving, I could not find out. Simla Agreement was the flavour of the season. It was also a sure provocation. I spoke what a man of my age and immaturity could say. All in all, I came out mighty pleased with my performance, modestly rating my performance worth 70%. 40 % is what I got! Taken together with very high marks in the written examination I still sailed through, to be placed fairly high, in fact to be among the topmost, but it took me all these years to decode the grading.
I have been assisting the UPSC as a member on the interview board for the civil services examination for the last couple of years. I keep looking for some bumbler like myself, as I must have appeared to the interview board before which I appeared, open, self-assured, candid, even cocky and speaking the truth as revealed to me. I have looked for him, but looked in vain.
Surprisingly I met many more of my own likeness, as I am now, careful, cautious, meticulous. They were so un-provokable, they were so prim and proper, punctilious and patient. May be because they were already approaching thirty, many in the middle thirties, they have seen quite a bit of the world already. They know there is no such thing as intellectual honesty, they know the value of opinion consumerism, so they always hold the correct opinion for the season. It is a procession of correctness, in matters of dress, of mannerisms, of smile, the slight forward bend at precise correct angle. You cannot teach youth to the not-so-young. I think the species has become extinct and may be the UPSC discovered that I was paying more attention to my search for the lost tribe.
I did not get the invite this year!
India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Pataliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.