By Prakash Kona
It is strange to say that we live in a “post-colonial” country with a parliamentary democracy that gives us constitutionally guaranteed rights, while the authoritarian personality remains coded in our DNA. Irrespective of the positions we hold, we are genetically programmed to treat people with a condescension that defies the imagination. This may not seem like a serious issue at the interpersonal level. We can always afford to ignore unsavory characters who think highly of themselves. But when authoritarianism is institutionalized and we see nothing wrong in either treating or being treated in terms of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ – and when all of this is seen as perfectly normal, it just means a failure to recognize the deep-seated psychosis within the system that we are a part of.
I have little faith in doctors and engineers, irrespective of how good they are at their work and from where they have completed their degrees. The process of becoming a doctor or an engineer in India is merely one of playing out a ritual. Russell Peters, the stand-up comedian, is right in pointing out that an Indian who becomes a doctor did it only to satisfy his or her parents or because it’s the expected thing to do. It is not out of commitment or love of the profession but rather the promise of a secure future in terms of a guaranteed source of income. The kind of indoctrination that goes into the process of entering some of these professions is dehumanizing to say the least. Everything about what makes life meaningful is separated from what would make you a brilliant doctor, scientist or software professional. In other words, you continue to grow up into a complete imbecile bereft of empathy, while you still possess the most sophisticated degrees in the field from an American or British university and perhaps are also working in some of those countries.
I like Indians as I happen to be one of them; they are an interesting lot who have no problems with double or multiple standards, all operating at one and the same time. Any system would crash if it is given conflicting orders at the same time. Not the average Indian. They feel privileged to be able to thrive in contradictions. I don’t find that amusing at all because it reflects on the kinds of people who are our leaders, teachers, heads of institutions and organizations in this country. The kind of people whose goal in life is to reproduce the status quo and use power to steal, harass and intimidate those around them in as many ways as possible.
I prepared a tentative reading list for all professionals, but, more so, for everyone who is in a position of power from where they can direct people to act in specific ways.
Shakespeare’s History plays are a must-read because they show what happens to normal people once they get power. Power is instrumental in doing one’s duty. To that extent one requires power to fulfill obligations that come with the job you do. Power cannot be treated as an end in itself. However, the dramas of life in this country revolve around power as if it were permanent. That’s when a person is trapped in delusions of grandeur that power produces in the mind. It is power acting through the person until the point one comes to realize that he or she is a mere mortal that eventually is broken by age and time. Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII couldn’t have put it more movingly when he says,
“This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do.” (Henry VIII)
Cardinal Wolsey’s life and career depended on being on the right side of Henry VIII. The moment, however, when the king changed his mind, the great Cardinal realizes how fragile his power or any power is, more so when it relies on another man. The lines below summarize what ultimately happens to the powerful and those who invest their faith in them.
“O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have:
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again.” (Henry VIII)
The other text that is a must-read is the “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In the story that Ivan Karamazov is telling his saintly brother Alyosha, Christ comes to the city of Seville where he is arrested and thrown into prison; he has an unexpected visitor in the form of a ninety-year-old Grand Inquisitor who tells him that his teachings are irrelevant and that he made a serious mistake by returning to earth. The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ what every power-monger since history truly believes and lives for: that power is forever and that people are nothing but fools who willingly submit to repression as long as it frees them of moral responsibility. Thus, says the Grand Inquisitor:
“Instead of seizing men’s freedom, You gave them even more of it! Have You forgotten that peace, and even death, is more attractive to man than the freedom of choice that derives from the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more alluring to man than freedom of conscience, but neither is there anything more agonizing. And yet, instead of giving them something tangible to calm their consciences forever, You came to them with words that were unfamiliar, vague, and indefinite; You offered them something that was quite beyond them; it even looked as if You didn’t love them, You who came to give them Your life! Instead of ridding men of their freedom, You increased their freedom, and You imposed everlasting torment on man’s soul… And men rejoice at being led like cattle again, with the terrible gift of freedom that brought them so much suffering removed from them.”
Dostoevsky is giving us a picture of how men and women voluntarily give up their freedom of conscience to powerful people because it saves them the agony of having to distinguish what is right from what is wrong. There are always powerful people who promise them security and common people readily enslave themselves rather than endure the torments of conscience, as it means having to choose between good and evil. It is obvious as daylight how millions are only too happy to be slaves because it gives them a comfort zone that protects them from whatever is happening in the outside world. I am not talking of the working poor who might have little or no choice. I am talking of bureaucrats, technocrats, corporate managers, police personnel, teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers and judges.
How many of those who occupy public positions are willing to stick their necks out and stand up for what is right! You can count them on your fingertips. More people will go against their conscience and embrace a lie rather than face the truth and do what is right. The sad part is that nobody ever escapes consequences. History, religion, art and literature teach us that though people are not always rewarded for the good they do, they are answerable for the wrongs they do. They’re even more answerable for the right that they did not do when they had the opportunity to do so. As Pasolini says in one of his poems, “To a Pope,” addressed to Pope Pius XII, where he accuses the latter of having done nothing to alleviate the poverty of the masses:
“Sin does not mean doing wrong – and you knew it:
Not to do good – that’s what sin means.
How much good you could do! And you didn’t:
There hasn’t been a greater sinner than you.”
“How much good you could do! And you didn’t” That’s the line that every person in power will have to reflect on sooner or later. The possession of power does not mean that you convince yourself that you did not do any wrong or that you merely did what anyone else would do in your situation. The fact of the matter is that you did not use the power to do any good either. A human being is only given a lifetime to decide what he or she can or cannot do. The consciousness that we are born with is limited to the present. Our past and future are within the domain of the present. Therefore, Pasolini says, “Sin does not mean doing wrong.” People do terrible things when they are caught up in circumstances beyond their control; that’s not what sin means. But, when a person in power does nothing to reduce the miseries of his fellow-beings, there is truly no greater sinner than such a one.
The Plague by Albert Camus is what I recommend next. In my view that’s the only great book Camus ever wrote. The rest of his work could easily have been written by an author with medium talents. The Plague is a philosophical novel because it raises ethical issues in the face of existential crises. Life and death questions are never easy because each person will have to answer them for oneself.
All Men Are Brothers: Life and Thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi, As Told in His Own Words is a must-read for anyone who wishes to make a mark in life. One can begin with a biography of the Mahatma by Acharya Kriplani: Gandhi: His Life and Thought. Three things are important with Gandhi: non-cooperation with evil; identifying oneself with the weakest of the weak; and non-violence as the way forward for humanity. Gandhi is India’s manhood and the shaper of our conscience. For some time, Gandhi will be ignored as he is in the present; but, sooner or later, he is bound to return when we realize that there is no alternative except to live in peace with one another, no matter what our differences.
Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth for a real understanding of post-colonialism. Post-colonialism does not mean brown man replaces white man and the same system of exploitation continues. Post-colonialism means that we create an egalitarian society and reject oppression in any form. That’s not what we see in so-called postcolonial nations such as India. We have successfully replaced colonial forms of despotism with postcolonial forms of despotism. Violence, cruelty and the abuse of law have become institutionalized and ordinary folks are treated like cattle that are used to win seats at various levels of government, so that politicians continue to serve their corporate masters who keep funding elections that represent the interests of the moneyed classes.
Burton Stein’s A History of India and Richard King’s Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought for a profound, honest and meaningful understanding of our past.
Bigger than any other issue is patriarchy thriving in its most poisonous forms across Indian society. The antidote to such a poison is all the work of the Australian feminist Germaine Greer and the American poet, Adrienne Rich. We cannot afford to have pseudo-arguments claiming that these writers are from the west and have nothing to do with our culture. The woman question is as old as history and the woman issue is a global one, cutting across nations and cultures. The antidote to virulent patriarchy can come from anywhere and everywhere.
As a personal choice in the selection of must-read books, I would include RK Narayan’s The Guide and Raja Rao’s Kanthapura for completely different reasons. One is a novel of an individual in the pursuit of a true self, another, a fictional account of a group of villagers uniting to fight their colonial oppressors through Gandhian methods. But, then, how can we forget the eminently readable stories of Sadat Hasan Manto that narrate the outcome of a painful and avoidable partition of India! Or the poetry of Faiz Ahmad Faiz in whom are embedded the longings of millions of Indians that seek freedom and justice!
I don’t believe that power-mongers stop being abusers of public trust because they have gone through a few texts. However, there is a process of self-humanization that is extremely important for anyone who wishes to have power over others. Ultimately nothing is falser than the security that comes with power. The tragic deaths of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi should be a warning to all tyrants in the third world that power only makes you vulnerable unless you have the love and support of ordinary folks who will stand by you in life and remember you when you are no more.