Friday, June 20, 2008

When do we grow up?

I've begun to wonder why we Indians so often lack maturity and are emotionally at the stage of little babies. (Footnote: I wonder the same thing about Americans too, but the discourse is rather different there. Maybe another time). The latest thing to set me off is the tale of Sindhi writer Hiro Shevkani who has been arrested for writing "obscene passages" in a book. The elderly and highly respected teacher Mr Shevkani was forced to defend his story as being “slightly erotic...but not obscene”.

Why did he get arrested? Because a reader was outraged and filed a police complaint. An editorial in the Hindustan Times suggests that an offended reader could have simply shut the book. And that's one of the points. Considering how few people in India read Sindhi and even fewer write it (I'm half a Sindhi myself but was never taught the language by my father), you would hardly expect the book to be splashed in the display windows of bookstores or its passages excerpted in the press. Why then go so far as to file a police complaint? Well, consider how a little child behaves when something is not to its liking. It swings its fist at whoever is annoying it. Even its own parents. Quietly withdrawing from things that are not to your liking, or even writing insightful analyses of those very things, is not for little children.

One wonders if the complainant will do, or has done, anything to promulgate the use of the Sindhi language. Probably as much - or little - as the political parties allegedly working for the Marathi manoos have done anything to promote Marathi (besides teaching us the word "manoos").

But my point here is about something more general than these charming individuals. I look at some of my scientist colleagues and wonder whether they aren't textbook cases of what Freud and other psychoanalysts called "retarded emotional development". Whenever an issue arises that calls for nuanced, thoughtful and patient response, these individuals will - to put it in a nutshell - throw a tantrum. More often than not, the tantrum is self-destructive and the tantrum-thrower eventually ends up humiliated by his/her own action.

So why do they do it? And is the phenomenon really more frequent in India (more precisely: the great Indian middle-class) than elsewhere in the world? I don't know. I would give a lot to attend a faculty meeting outside India and see whether the pointless, time-wasting, accusatory shrieking that dominates the event at my institute is the global norm or merely a national phenomenon. (I did, actually, attend a faculty meeting in Japan at the invitation of my hosts, but sadly the meeting was in Japanese and I understood not a single word. Happily it was a lunch meeting and I managed to bury my face in sushi for the duration.)

A colleague at my institute (not one of the tantrum throwers) once described to me the behaviour of a Dean in a US university. On discovering at a faculty meeting that her ideas were not being received too well, this Dean stormed out of the meeting with -- as my colleague recalls -- "the air of a child saying: I'm leaving, and I'm taking my toys with me". So maybe my basic premise is wrong and this kind of childish behaviour is not a particularly Indian thing.

Still when I see colleague X refuse to do Y only because colleague Z, whose guts X hates, thinks Y is a good idea, I wonder if it's not a good idea to have us academics all play toy trains with each other and learn to get along. Give us faculty positions only if we prove that we can show self-restraint and play fair.


Rahul Siddharthan said...

Childish people exist everywhere but our system encourages them. Anyone can hold the public to ransom saying their "sentiments were hurt". If our police and our courts discouraged frivolous complaints -- say by fining the complainant heavily -- this sort of thing would disappear rather quickly.

As for academic people -- nerdiness is often associated with social ineptness, all over the world...

Raju Bathija said...

Well written post. I am full sindhi myself, and the article in HT, about Mr Hiro Shevkani, made me realize that books in sindhi are still being written and taken offense at! It is, of course, silly that Mr Shevkani was arrested just because what he had published was found to be disagreeable by someone.

anil mukhi said...

I'm reliably informed that there is a warrant out for the arrest of Mallanaga Vatsyayana for the "offence" caused by his seminal work. It's believed the complainants, who are already in the B.C. era, are looking for a time machine to transport police and court staff back 2,500 years for this purpose!wtfmf

Rahul Basu said...

I found your post quite amusing. As it happens, recently in a faculty meeting here, a discussion about a certain issue turned into more a case of shouting down the views of those people who were not immediately in favor of the issue.

I think this intolerance for another view point is not limited to the so-called lumpen elements in society. The supposed 'intellectuals' in our society may not go round breaking glass windows, but the deep-seated view that 'only my viewpoint is right' cuts across all sections of our society.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Rahul B - sometimes I think meetings should be videotaped, so that one can try and identify where the aggression or fact-free "my voice is louder" argument started. (Once it starts, escalation is easy.) Anyway, this is not the forum for that.