Thoughts on class structure, material wealth and cultural attainments.
Creative ideas, creative energy that keeps my enthusiasms alive!
As soon as I finished typing this essay I went out and put on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by Herbert Von Karajan. What an impact it made on me, on my mood! There was this sudden reaction and a sobering mood. This beautiful music by such a disciplined orchestra, such people, such culture and a country given to such high philosophies was once a country that also gave rise to Hitler and so much misery to itself and mankind. As I was listening to the music I was also seized of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon and the devastation of the Lebanese people.
So, I was also gripped by a sense of disbelief, in the capacity of all of us to live a more meaningful life and create a safer world. So, it is not just the outward symbols of plenty but also the inward poverty of mind of man that affects me, my way of life.
Lot of introspection goes along with a spirit of your lifestyle. If you are given to poetry, you can feel your loneliness, your own isolation from the outside world, who knows your own self-worth, might be against the spirit of your age. But for me this time is not a” Wasteland”! This is perhaps the best of times ever! So much human potential unleashed, so much can be achieved in one’s own life and in the life of people and nations. Yet, your personal life has to be merged with the life of the larger world; you have to have a vision for living. These are the concerns that keep me’ awake’ so to say!
There are certain things in life that can’t be explained in some routine ways. One is the zest for living. But then it is very difficult to say what it is. Zest for living. Joi devivre, elan or a sort of optimism? Yes, all this and more. It all depends upon who you are and what your world view (welthansuanng) is and how you tag yourself with the life’s currents. It is not a precisely definable conception that can be summed up in some known or pre-conceived manner.
The provocation for such a reflection came to me the other day when I was just going through a column by Paul Johnson, my favorite writer and columnist. Though I don’t like to share his own views when it comes to India where he had served as one of the many thousands of Englishmen on duty when the empire was there, but there is no denying that Johnson continues to write so brilliantly and provocatively and he knew everybody of consequence, from the American Presidents to the British Prime ministers. He was for sometime an editor of the famous Weekly, New Statesman of which the most famous editor Kingsley Martin I knew well when I was at Oxford where I invited him once to speak to Indian students.
So much for Johnson! Incidentally in his recent column he says about the reading habits of the Prime Ministers of England. Says Johnson:” In one respect, I am like Gladstone, of whom a friend said,” He reads as other men breathe”.” To me, reading is my most frequent, enjoyable and essential activity. Not that I put myself on a level with Mr. G, even in this respect. He read a portion of the Bible and of Homer every day, the former usually, the latter invariably in Greek”! Yes, this remark captured my imagination and lingered in my mind the whole morning, nay, the whole day and continued to come back the next morning when I sat at my computer for the day’s work!
For anyone who is familiar with the English education, especially in a university like Oxford and also for those who are interested in books, such an observation is no news. Certainly, I knew that in English homes of a more well-off class, there are libraries of books, often bought and collected lovingly over generations. I have myself had seen old editions of Encyclopedias accumulated in some corner of the shelves and the new ones added whenever a new edition comes out.
Likewise, there are editions and editions of the old classics, Jane Austin’s and others and the book reading, book buying and book collecting habits are typically English and in this respect I inherited this taste and trait from my English education and through my friendship with English friends. So, what Paul Johnson said in the column had a resonance for me and thoughts meandered far into the past and for long stretches of memory back to my Oxford days.
Before I go off I want to recall what Johnson says about the books Gladstone read and Gladstone left behind. It seems from his diary, the great Prime Minister and Liberal left behind meticulously for years, that Mr.G.records reading over 20,000 books, he accumulated 100,000 volumes and there is a well-preserved Gladstone Library at his Hawarden Castle in UK.
Now, what Johnson says about other Prime Minister is rather damning. It seems he recommends books to Tony Blair, the present occupant of 10, Downing Street and Blair seems a contrast. He doesn’t read books! It seems among the modern day PMs only Harold Macmillan was a good reader of books. I had seen Macmillan closely and so too others like Harold Wilson and others and they all seem to be very undistinguished when it comes to reading habits. Gladstone was a reader of serious books,” the seriousness nobody could match”.
Johnson’s books themselves I had read almost all, including the latest massive tome, The History of the American People” and his other tomes, on Jews and Modern Times and many more. His English style is very chaste, effective and to the point, not being too scholarly and at the same time not being tiresome. If you could read Johnson tell myself often, then you can read any other serious stylist.
Yes, over the years I learnt to pick and choose the writers who have some style and flair for learning and at the same time some capacity to write beautifully. Why Bertrand Russell is so popular, he can be technically very competent and complicated at times when he writes on technical aspects of philosophy but never once he would be boring. At best, you can skip those passages before you come back to his supple prose!
Next to Gladstone, I rate Benjamin Disraeli, as my favorite Prime Minister. In fact, Disraeli was my hero for sometime, he was colorful and given his Jewish background and no lack of proper education (Gladstone went to Eton and Oxford and was President of the Oxford Debating Union) it was something of a mystery how successful Disraeli proved in his political career and how he built up the mystique of British Empire. Disraeli was a successful writer! It was only as a successful writer he made an entry into high society!
So, these great men had something of an inner strength that came from their reading and writing.
Now, why I say all these things here? I wondered where come our current crop of leaders, of people and of heart, as writers, artists and in other roles? I know among the earlier generation, the great leaders were also great writers and readers as well. Nehru was a well-read man; he had a library of well-stocked books. My friend Dom Moraes who wrote a book on Indira Gandhi and for which he did some research and he had written when he had glanced through the books at Anand Bhavan in Allahabad, there were volumes untouched, unopened.
But I know that Indira Gandhi read books but not a great reader. She just wanted to appear interested in books and there was some pretence. Mahatma Gandhi, yes, he did read books, just to practice what he read but not for the sake of gaining knowledge as such. Tagore had rightly remarked that the Mahatma was a lover of men, not ideas. That was an apt remark, if we just examine how many of his experiments remained just that, experiments that didn’t work in practice. One instance is his basic education.
Now, I won’t claim to be a great reader, though I do read everyday some book or other. Over the years, I had bought and accumulated somewhat certain books that I consider as treasures, books by Tolstoy and so on and I had preserved them against all odds. Alas, the books I lost, the books that met with so much vandalism, barbarian destruction! Yes, only when such things happened I was totally helpless, I was caught in some unenviable situations! Those who know me intimately may not even know this inner turmoil that I went through and the loss I inherited remains a loss to this day!
But then I had made up for what I lost in the last few years. I was lucky to live in Bangalore, a city of book lovers and with some great books shops, the old and antiquarian book shop I had cultivated for some half a century or more has come in handy to replenish my reading needs.
I am no book collector; I buy books only when I feel there is an urge to use them somehow in all my writing endeavors. Of course, I do read a great deal of the classics, the Greek and Roman classics I buy with no limit. Then there are diverse fields am interested. Social sciences, politics, biographies, autobiographies, books, almost everyday, my book reading habits had evolved. Now, I could read a book in an hour’s time, only some classics, I get going back to get some lines or dates right. Otherwise, I finish off a book in one sitting. Usually, I keep these heavy and serious titles for the afternoon, just between 3.30 to 5 pm I finish off any title that is lying on my table. Yes, some books are left half-read for days together and only at some odd intervals I could finish these unread books.
Only some rare books that I put in my book shelf for further reference, otherwise, I put most of the read books and others in an attic type portion of my house. The more heavy volumes, volumes on art, architecture, furniture, photography and even great picture books, very heavy tomes on archeology (one on Pompei and another on Mercedes Benz) are all either stacked downstairs or sent home to the village home. Architecture books usually sent home to the village so that they can be given some leisurely glace in a more relaxed moments.
Books have been a passion and obsession with many people, some unusual people also. Take George Soros, the Hungarian-American billionaire who runs the Karl Popper Foundation and a promoter of Open Society concept. Soros who earned fame and notoriety is also a writer or a pretender to be a writer-philosopher and his bookshelf is reputed to be lined up with works of Kant, Adam Smith and Karl Popper.
So, it is indeed exciting and also just routine to find book lovers in all unlikely places these days. Books are not the only source of joy. There are so many other factors that govern my living ways, if I can so term it. There was this one classic I read long time ago. Lin Yu Tong’s” Importance of Living”. When I read it at Santiniketan I was a student at the Chinese class under the legendary Prof.Tan Yun Shan. Tan himself was a great man, an associate of not only Tagore and Gandhi, he was an associate of Mao Tse Tung,in fact, if I remember correctly, he and Mao were in the same teacher training school!
He knew Mao so well that when the Communists took over there was an invitation to Tan to visit China and he did and met and exchanged views and ideas. As a result, Chou-En Lai came to India, came to Santiniketan and we the students of the Chinese language class were duly introduced to the great Chinese leader. The point is that when I read Lin Yu Tong’s book I was so impressed with what he said about the Chinese way of living, Chinese family values and how the tradition bound the Chinese culture est. asked Tan so many questions about these things and in fact, I also closely observed Chinese family values in the Tan family itself, some of my best friends were Chinese people, professors, students, family members.
As I compared the Chinese traditions, family values with those of Indian family traditions and values I learnt many things. One thing that remains constant with me even today is that in no way Indians can imitate the Western ways, more so the family traditions, the family bonding and much else with those of what prevails in the European and American societies. I have some of my own friends who are living in the West, some even married foreign ladies (yes, they are no more girls, some are now grandmothers too!) and they are all very nice and quite cultured and I have so much respect for them. But the point is that there is so much of a cultural gap and this cultural gap I keep in mind when I talk of my way of living.
I am interested in so many things, I have so many interests and pursuits and I had engaged myself in so many projects all my life. So, I can’t talk of my beliefs and activities without getting affected and my views conditioned by these experiences in my life. There have been setback and also achievements. So, I have to look at my outlook in its totality of experiences and insights.
One thing I see that separates me from my friends. I have never been stuck to one type of career as such. In fact, I cant speak of career of sorts in my case. I have been so many persons. Farmer, villager, educated, promoter of rural education, politician, activist in so many areas, writer, poet, journalist, media entrepreneur and a great many other things. Interested in architecture, furniture and even now dreamer of projects and pursuer of new visions. So, how can I categorize myself? It is all very difficult.
I was born and spent the first formative years in a district town not known for its cultural values but devoted to hard entrepreneurship, though I came from a peasant stock! But what is astonishing when I look at myself is the fact that soon I took to creative pursuits at the high school, writing and painting and as fate would have it I went to Santiniketan unexpectedly. Then Oxford was the culmination. London excited me and engaged me totally. Paris was a real cultural education, in Paris I learnt to appreciate painting and sculpture; I visited all art galleries and also Rodin’s Sculpture studio.
I enjoyed Picasso enormously, so too the Impressionists, some favorites among them still remain my favorites! Renoir, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec. I can engage anyone on this subject! Though the chances are remote, now livings far off from a scene like Paris or London. While at Oxford I took to so many of my later-day pursuits. Visiting London and seeing so many plays (I saw the Pygmalion before it became My Fair Lady),at Stratford Upon Avon I saw Shakespeare plays, I went to Orchestras in Bonn (in the company of my German friend Beate)In literature, poetry kept up with me (Vanessa Redgrave was my favorite Shakespeare actress)all these years. I knew so many famous poets as acquaintances and some as friends. I read more poetry than what I write. In art, I started with painting but now more time I spend on listening to music, all music more Carnatic, Hindustani and Western classic music. Living in India any serious cultural pursuit seems to be limited and you have to live with reality!
Of course my reading ranges far and wide. Living in Bangalore is a big gain, culturally and entrepreneurially! Bangalore is throbbing with vitality, new ideas, new innovative thinking and also gives room for a lot of provocative thinking and your hands are full!
But what keeps me going, always interested in new ideas, new people and meetings and symposia etc. I think that it is my interest in creative pursuits, writing, reading and the very media business I am engaged in the recent years is a creative industry after all and so the creative ideas, the creative energy is that keeps my enthusiasms unbound!
Then, I said in the very beginning, it is a matter of culture, one’s culture that gives meaning to one’s life and defines one’s life’s worth. Yes, that seems to be true after all other considerations. One’s culture springs from one’s life-long pursuits and also one’s life’s very many opportunities. In this respect, I consider myself lucky.
At home at the dinner table my entire family often engages in some hot topics! One such topic on such occasions is what we all went through and what we all shared in different phases of our life. My son, also an Oxonian, gives his own insights. He tells me that my returning to the village, soon after coming down from Oxford, restricted my life in so many ways. And yet, he says, this very restriction, of course self-imposed also gave me new opportunities. It is these new opportunities that brought to the family the much needed material wealth and the opportunities that come with wealth. Yes, it is a bit embarrassing to dwell on such sensitive topics.
But I hope it helps others in similar situations. My cultural enrichment, my entire education and learning, my entire cultural enrichment might have gone waste if I had not the material wealth to back up and give the necessary resources to translate my dreams into realities! This is the crux of my differentiating lifestyle!
When I see some of my greatly gifted friends, they have had wonderful careers, but alas, at last they remain genteel poor when it comes to live a fuller life. Modern life demands so many resources, for travel, to live in comfortable surroundings, to possess so much of the modern comforts and alas, all these don’t come cheap, don’t come through any fixed salaried lives! That is the hard and harsh reality!
So most of my friends have remained academics, may be some as NRIs, others in Indian academia and even some others at best as CEOs of big private companies, Tatas or Birlas. But knowing these industrial houses, rather too closely, I feel disenchanted for some of my friends who had stuck with these companies and remained mentally not so well-endowed in terms of realizing one’s freedoms and the many enthusiasms. More deplorable is the lives of some of the friends who had ventured into the other fields like the media industry. Knowing the Indian media industry and how it works, most family controlled, most subservient to the establishment and so not much freedoms as we all assume from outside, there is no press freedom in India strictly speaking. So, what is left is family business!
If you become too much of a businessman, then you become very dull indeed. If a person lived 24 hours thinking of making money, then what sort of mind it will be?
Yet material wealth and materialism matters a great deal. Capitalism seems to be the only engine of economic growth, though the distribution and sharing of wealth calls for a different vision. Yet, as for me I feel some sort of discomfort in the company of money makers, call them by what name that pleases you! They leave me easily bored and miserable. Every other entrepreneur who has made his first millions gains some public attention. This he takes as a license to hold forth on all topics under the sun! This clearly irritates me! What nonsense, I protest! Captains of industry, yes, that is the right expression, are pure simpletons, when it comes to culture! They may have many strengths, like mental strength; but cultural richness is not one of them! The big man or woman, the big successful persons materially can’t surely give us wisdom on society and politics, religion and spiritualism!
That is why we find so much bogus religion, bogus spiritualism and bogus, dare I not say, education values even! Yes, materialism is the real world, let us admit it and understand it properly. But then it is not simple physical existence that I am talking about. In the case of the new breed IT billionaires, they seem to be saying what education is about or what human aspirations is and so forth!
Knowing well as I do, these upstart, often lower-middle class fellows just don’t have the mental and intellectual equipment to pontificate on great issues of the day! This, unfortunately, is not widely understood or not told by those who ought to say and remind them.
Our society has not yet matured to enough sophistication in our life and manners. Culture is not their strong point or the other attributes of life, compassion, honor, moral candor and valuing truth for truth sake etc. Our society at present is where it was when the 19th century industrialized England was when Mathew Arnold was holding forth on sweetness and light and when Barbarians, the Philistines and the Populace(the three classes he had so described) and when they (the Barbarians and Philistines) were very much holding forth, as our counterparts very much do so now!
Yes, it is the duty of culture critics to criticize and refine the public taste when the class structure, material wealth and cultural refinement undergo radical changes. T.S.Eliot, when he came to write a new preface to Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” he said that if Arnold was living at that time, he might have had to do the job once more! Where are our Mathew Arnolds or for that matter our T.S.Eliots to do such jobs of refining the public taste today?
I feel at ease even in the company of simple villagers, of course, I value and travel long distances to meet minds of some cultivation and achievement. Intellectuals of course engage me, engage my mind and attention, artists, poets, writers, essayists and the wide variety of creative people, musicians, dancers and painters and others give to creative pursuits interest me and make life worth its struggle!
So, too much of a businessman disinterest me, honestly. I am not businessman, though I am an entrepreneur, or entrepreneurial minded for the simple reason, only entrepreneurial lifestyle gives me the needed freedoms to pursue my diverse interests: intellectual pursuits, I am always and constantly interested in ideas, the history of ideas, the history of philosophies, the higher reaches and the realms of the mind. So, I constantly think, co-gitate on the belief systems, my belief systems. This is my enduring pursuits. This thinking is my inseparable self! I think not like an academic, academic thinking gives me lots of new knowledge but I myself don’t take any academic view of life. I have a strong and robust practical side to my life and my beliefs. Literature, poetry, arts, music, painting, humanities, social sciences, sciences interest me in an enduring way. So, my interest in books.
Provocative thoughts I like to read. Just now, I saw Paul Johnson’s new book;” Creators” and I read the reviews. Yes, he is a provocative writer, always. I don’t agree with Johnson on so many views and yet he is provocative enough to read more on such topics like arts and artists. He notes for instance that Pablo Picasso, my great favorite artist, would fade away when compared to Walt Disney. What madness, I thought! Yes, intellectuals (Johnson also wrote a book with the title,” Intellectuals”) would be provocative often and that is why I have a special place for them in my scheme of things.
Nirad Choudhry is one such. I don’t almost agree with everything, every great view he expressed but what does it matter. He wrote such beautiful English prose. Even my old friend Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate, has lately written some popular books and had expressed many views that concern the Indian public. But I don’t agree with some of them. He had said many things about identity and says that a person need not have one identity but can have many, multiple identities. Only those who know the personal life of Sen can agree and nod.
But for me what is great about such multiple identities in a world that is in need of some clear identities, be a Muslim but then be true to your own culture and traditions. Be a good Hindu and a nationalist even but be clear about the secularizing nature of Hinduism and hold in proportion your tradition and modernity. Yes, we are now globalizes, partly Western-oriented but be culturally sensitive to life in India. Be a true citizen to Indian values and be an activist and contribute your part to the evolution of India as a modern nation, a strong nation economically and a more balanced nation in international affairs. Such thoughts only would define my true identity.
Religion is a very powerful force in the modern world, if not in our own lives. So, we have to be extra cautious in our lifestyles, we can’t give offence to our fellow citizens on grounds of our religious beliefs and practices. That is my one more self-identity!
So, my own zest for living springs forth from my inner life as well as my outward life. One’s zest for life can’t come from any reading of any number of books. It comes through one’s own perceptions of the world, the wider world and your own evolving philosophy of life and living. One’s personality also evolved over a period. All these diverse factors go into deciding and determining one’s place in life and society.
Integrity, honesty, moral courage and moral responsibility.
I had always valued integrity, honesty and moral courage and taking moral responsibility for one’s action and its consequences. So, in a way I should say that I have had no heroes among the people whom I had known in person or even otherwise. All the great men and others, leaders or non-leaders or men of thought and otherwise, have one weakness or other. You can justify or brush aside many of the weaknesses of artists and intellectuals. So too about the leaders whom some people worship as near gods. But I can’t stand such notions.
And more important I haven’t known many great men who possess such unalloyed qualities. May be from what I know that there are very few people like Socrates who engage our minds because of their wise sayings. How to live? A tough question but Socrates tried to answer that question. An unexamined life is not worth living. Yes, that is why I always rate the Greek thought and the Greek thinkers as rare breeds. So too my secularism, my quest for reasoned beliefs, yes, I put much in faith but even the faith must be reached after exhausting all the questioning that is possible for an educated and thinking kind of person.
Yes, I encounter almost every day and at every turn, so much that is superstitious, so much driven by human frenzies, irrationalism and then I learnt to take them as part of life and living. How to steer clear of these accumulated prejudices of mankind is a challenge for anyone seeking a rational path. We live in societies and geographies and also in particular stages of history, that we can always look back and draw lessons and inspirations and also some warnings.
Thus, history interests me and I keep reading all sorts of histories. But no historian of any great standing and following, I find, is my guide. I like to judge for myself. I have learnt to be cautious and even forewarned by British writers. They are so much prejudiced about Indian affairs. There are much colonial hang-ups and I don’t know how my fellow countrymen with British education background feel about my reservations. But then this is my position.
Indian society is so deficient in so many ways, I often deplore the Indian character of subservience, Indians are cowards in so many areas, and the capacity to live as free individuals is yet to be forged. So, I have to feel differently in these areas of my beliefs and outlook.
Peace of mind and happiness
Everywhere, I imagine in every society there are new searches for mental peace and happiness. There is a new rise in all sorts of religious avatars, godmen and preachers of organized religious themes, Christian and other religions. There are now in India, some new TV channels that air these themes. I can’t stand them for a minute am so bored with so much of spiritual and religious leaders, some amassing enormous wealth. So too the scandals associated with the consequences of big wealth!
Now, the search for mental peace and happiness seems universal. What is my view?
I just now read a review of few books devoted to the theme is happiness. The books have been written by academics, psychologists, philosophers, historians and sociologists. It gives a current American academic assessment. There are happiness research and happiness studies. Health, wealth, youth and sunshine are sources of health? No, we are told. It is marriage, strong social relations that are rated high on the happiness agenda! Courses in happiness, positive psychology is now taught in schools and universities, as in Harvard.
The five books on happiness theme, being the findings of modern-day psychology, make us to think a bit. What emerges clearly is the fact that our current times give us enough material wealth and also good health to live longer and enjoy the material comforts. So, it is found that strong relationships, with family and social relationships, rather than detachment, as propounded by ancient wisdom, would give us, modern day persons more chance of a happy life. More control over our own life gives us a more satisfied life.
I would rather put it this way: we live in a more open society, in a more secure world than ever people lived in the past. Also, the psychologists have told us that man, in contrast to the chimps, can imagine and contemplate the future. So, the human potential for happiness is also unique.
Caption: Creative energy:” God is really another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat. He has no real style. He just goes on trying other things”
A capacity for culture, aesthetics, lifestyles
Culture is a higher form of living one’s life. Culture differs from society to society. In Europe, in the European homes in England, France and Germany, Switzerland and Italy I went through higher sense of culture (I mean personal culture) and these experiences shaped me in so many indefinable ways. I can say this much: in these societies I lived with civilization as I came to realize it.
In Russia too, in those early times, I briefly sensed a high sense of culture, a respect for literature and poetry. Ballet and Opera I learnt to appreciate in Russia. Each of these countries had had a long tradition of material and political evolution. That brought about enormous energies for cultural creations. Only a materially wealthy Medici family could trigger the Renaissance. Before that the mercantile wealth of Venice could create so much architectural creations and so music and printing of books. Likewise, Paris became and continues to this day its claims to a higher sense of values and living styles. French language has its own unique beauties; more Nobel Prizes for Literature had gone to French language, rightly.
Aesthetical joy or the capacity to appreciate beauty is a unique quality of all of us. This we do according to our own personality growth. Let us be a bit clear here. In India even highly educated persons, ICS to political and other specialist leaders didn’t care for much of this type of culture, as I have in mind. Prof. Sarvepalli Gopal mentions somewhere in his biography of his illustrious father, Dr.S.Radhakrishnan that he, along with Nehru didn’t have any musical interests.
Even Gandhiji’s such interests were very modest. His musical tastes didn’t extend beyond bhajans. Gandhiji’s need for books was very practical. He didn’t read books for knowledge as such but only to use such knowledge to direct his life. That was okay in his case. But we are all mortals. All our senses and intellect are so tuned to absorb the many beauties, the many beautiful creations and styles and shapes and sounds and sound patterns, that is music. The eyes and ears are there for absorbing so much of the external world, so much of the beautiful things and shapes and sounds. They transmit in turn to the inner sanctum and sanctorum, the mind and then the soul.
1. Isiah Berlin: His favorite quotation which he used throughout his many lectures is: Immanuel Kant’s “The crooked timber of humanity out of which nothing comes straight”. It seems somehow that we have to make room for the prevalence of evil in human affairs. The point is that we can’t be starry-eyed and afford a very non-activist role in our public duties. Yes, as a French philosopher said: “A society of sheep in time begets a government of wolves”!
2. Leo Tolstoy. Yes, he became a saint and believed that man must become good if we are to improve our society and governments. He didn’t attach as much importance to legal and Constitutional institutions to improve matters. But then Tolstoy, as his self-confessed disciple Mahatma Gandhi was ideologically termed as anarchists. Very much like the revolutionaries like Marx and the other anarchists, they all believed in no democratic and Constitutional ways. Of course, they all failed and the world now sees more nations adopting the democratic, elected governments.
3. Karl Marx, the archetypal revolutionary whose theories caused so much misery and imagine the millions perished, all in the name of an utopia that never was to be!