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Friday, September 3, 2010

Bringing up Father

It was a Sunday and, while surfing the World Wide Web, I noticed on the net my daughter, who is generally unavailable to speak to us during the day time, available for chat.  Normally she likes to lurk in the “invisible mode” or her presence is sternly marked in a forbidding red, warning obtrusively solicitous parents to stay off.

It seems we stay in different time zones; on different planets, almost.  Even our biologies, it appears, are different.We are the 9:30 to 6:00 people while for them the day begins when we are preparing to call it a day. So we generally manage to put in a word or two edgeways and get the standard reply ‘Dad I’ll call you in a while.”  If it is 12:00 PM then may be at 12:40 AM, if her shoot gets wrapped up early, and at 4:30 in the morning if things did not go as per schedule, she would like to pick up the threads.  In a state of total stupor or somnolence we end up getting all confused and tangled.  We beg ourselves, hoping to sort out the matters tomorrow.  My wife has been trying to conclude a conversation in respect of my daughter’s marriage for the last two years. It still goes on - simply because she has not been able to advance her most cogent and clinching arguments. When the summit actually takes place she is at her fuzziest and most confused, while her interlocutor is in a state of heightened clarity.  No prizes for guessing the result.

We got started after the customary hi and things like that.  The drift of conversation was in no particular direction, but what bugged me the most (dear me, my English is really getting all screwed up!  Are children such bad influence on parents?) was a string of consonants, like proper nouns of Balkan or East European origin.  In a kindly fashion my daughter took to educating me in the new language with all the consideration due to a nouvau admis.  I had heard that "LOL" is the shorthand expression for laughing out loud.  But there was the ASAP, for my benefit it was explained as soon as possible ,then BTW cropped up, which I understand is "by the way".  In the middle of a raging conversation you could just hang up, leaving the other fellow high and dry with a BRB - be right back. Then there was this neologism NTW, not to worry, but I am told it is catching up fast.  Or viralising, I should say.  But more economy was available.  On the chat you do not say I am happy or annoyed in words, you just hurl a smiley - annoyed, delighted, intrigued, puzzled etc. There are a dozen of them nicely organized in columns, in half platoon strength.  And yes, even in their world there are etiquettes, clearly recognized protocols.  Capital letters and punctuations are screaming bad manners.  Internet has forged its own sociology of private and public manners, new and dynamic forms of community.

We had a long conversation and on almost every issue we had different views.  Since my daughter has studied literature in one of the best colleges of the country, the cultivated illiteracies of the text messages, the brutal abridgement of the capacious and rich English language, the deeply alienating influence of internet, pop culture and high art figured recurrently.  I am afraid we could never ever come to a common ground.  The chat came to an end with a parting shot from her.  She quoted Jacques Lacan’s famous quip with its proper spelling, Les Non-Dupes errent. (‘The undeceived are deluded’).

My daughter excused herself.  After all, the young of her generation are so hard pressed for time!  They have to remain in touch with each other, the 450 friends on Facebook, the 1100 followers on twitter, the streaming e-mails on their Blackberry, blogs, the new cool video on you-tube!

But long after she had left, I wondered if this is the first time people of two generations are trying to start a dialogue.  The children have been forever in a state of holy war against their intrusive, ignorant parents.  It is something that is perhaps, in the nature of things.  So what is different?

I just venture the proposition that the pace of change in our generation was perhaps slower, therefore, obsolescence set in much later, the shelf life of parents was much longer. In our time I guess, and more so in the time of my father and before, two generations could be part of the same adult world but with clearly defined roles, well defined territories.  In their prolonged period of childhood they became conditioned to look up to the adult for guidance and advice. The parent child relationship - essentially one, between untrusting-self and the regulating other - was one of authority.

But now we have worked up a rapid, vertiginous pace.  Now the secrets of adulthood or the ways of the vile wicked world are open to children much earlier.  Parents no longer hold the key.  They trust themselves, their own judgments, opinions and capabilities, and they have moved the internet in loco parentis.

Instead of curiousity and wonder, a certain world weariness and cynicism is the hall mark of the precocious adult. Riding the wave of technology, especially the TV, internet, the iPhone, they have renounced the community of real men and women and retreated to the virtual communities where they have discovered new modes of participatory activity and leisure, new ideals of shared experience, new sites of protest and resistance.  The generations seem to inhabit different worlds with different rules, mores conventions and morals.  Relationship, marriage, paternity they all stand liberated from the immemorial taboos.  People of my generation tend to put too much premium on experience.  But I now realize experience has its down side.  With age comes not only the erosion of physical capabilities but also stiffness of mental fibre, the incapability of appreciating the new and the unfamiliar. I think the best strategy is to have trust – trust in their judgment and ability and pray to God that your trust is not misplaced.

But reverting to the core issue, the debilitation of genuine literacy in favour of the digital, the deliberate renunciation of the vast resources of language in the interest of expediency, economy of both time and money (I am told mobile service providers charge per character instead of words), the dumbing down by way of homage to the intellectual democracy, has a direct bearing on the whole issue.  We live inside the language of our discourse.  And as Wittgenstein once said, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.  A few lines from Romeo and Juliet, the emblematic symbol of romantic aspirations in our less unhurried times in the world that has gone by, juxtaposed against two lines from the chart buster song “You and Me Baby” which inaugurated the third millennium for us, would perhaps illustrate the point .

If I profane with my unworthy hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.

Have not saints lips and holy palmers too?

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

The great ceremony of the courting ritual, the obliquities of speech, the passionate yearning and that awful daring of the proposition that demands but a kiss, will be thrown into sharper relief by this direct and uncomplicated exhortation of the Bloodhound Gang pop music group of this Brave New World:

You and me, baby, we ain’t nothing but mammals.
So let‘s do it like they do on the discovery channel.

Romeo and Juliet would be left stranded and speechless, in this world of naked apes and instant gratification of desire.  But I am not worried about the plight of the iconic lovers, nor about the elimination of all possibilities of romantic love.  I can rationalize my own little dialogic problems with my children.  We will soldier along, since we must.  My worry is how their generation and the succeeding generations will be able to strike even a conversation between themselves, each a separate island , seated or strapped variously, to their laptops and iPhones or playstations and desktops.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Democrary and the Great Disconnect

The news papers carried this morning  a fervent appeal by the newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner urging the Bihari youth to vote in great numbers. The item evoked my interest so I wanted to know more. I am normally done with four newspapers in close to two minutes. If my reading glasses are at hand well and good, if they are not, I make the newspaper adjust to my myopia. But I don’t miss very much. Glasses or no glasses, I manage to get the flavor and I thank God for giving me that day, my daily fix of sleaze and scandal, high-minded rhetoric and promises galore, privileged intimation of forthcoming political defections or new alliances in the making. Sometimes I find my name figuring in there. Seasonally, for the last couple of years the odds of my being appointed to some post or the other has been discussed. Then I reach out for my glasses. I like to be enlightened on these matters. Otherwise two minutes is all that I can spare. But today I made an exception. For a public cause, I called to the aid of my failing eyesight my pair of reading glasses.

Why have the youth of Bihar voluntarily renounced their right to vote? By not exercising their right to vote are they making a subtle political statement? And thinking of the their alienation and withdrawal the martyr’s memorial, just a few hundred meters away from where I live, floated before my mind’s eye! The statues of the young students frozen in their stance –marching into a hail of bullets yet holding the tricolor aloft- cast derision on death and mock the might of the empire over which the sun never set. They paid for with their lives to secure for us our independence and the right to vote. Would they consider sitting somewhere in the heaven, wearing their halo of martyrdom around them, their sacrifice worth it? Was the hard fought right to self-determination worth the price after all?

I wondered if this abstention is due to the fact there is an absence of worthwhile opportunities for raising their political awareness before they acquire the right to vote. The traditional modes of participation like student union elections are largely nonexistent. Student politics has always mirrored the concerns and preoccupation of national politics and is a report of what is happening in the broader society. For the youth it is a period of apprenticeship in the culture of parliamentary democracy, a recruiting ground for political cadres, and it incubates the future political leadership. The JP movement of 1974 is a case in point. One may not agree with either the agenda, or the philosophy behind the “Total revolution” but who can deny the reality of the ‘radical youth’ with their unabashed enthusiasm and utopianism or the momentousness of the occasion?

Or is it because the nature of politics today offers no scope for romantic idealism to the youth? What is there for them to be passionate about? There are no radically different visions of society on offer-visions which can captivate their imagination or inspire hope. All the parties dish out the same trite agenda whose similarity and repetitiveness emit a stale odour which you can catch from miles away. Nor for that matter the farcical change of the hearts and minds which compels large scale migration of members from one political club to the other holds their interest. The youth know they would be better occupied following the fortunes of their favourite sports stars –their movement from Milan AC to Real Madrid or from Kolkata Knight Riders to Chennai Super kings.

Arthur Miller had once observed that our political life, thanks to 24/7 TV is now “profoundly governed by the modes of theatre, from tragedy to vaudeville to farce.” The television is both a powerful ally and a useful tool through which the politicians try to project themselves as characters that they are not. In the live telecast of the proceedings of the houses representatives appear to have very few stakes in what goes on in the house. At their most radical, they can only throw a couple of chairs taking care not to cause hurt to their assumed adversaries or get hurt themselves. Even as a spectacle it comes out a loser in terms of audience preference for programmes like WWF.

But even if the youth somehow overcome their aversion there are not very many of them left to vote. A very significant section of them has been forced to become absentee voters out of dire necessity. They have joined the exodus to Delhi, to Poona, to Bangalore or wherever they see opportunity for decent education. And those not endowed with wealth or work are similarly forced to migrate in search of livelihood.

I realized that I had only questions, no answers, only hypotheses and speculations no hard theories. Obviously, I could not get under the skin of the young generation, I could not think like them. But I tried to make an effort of imagination, a nimble leap across the years. What would I be doing, say, if I were eighteen today? Would I listen to the elderly rubbish and make a beeline to the nearest voting booth? In the absence of ideology and idealism, faced to choose between hedonism and nihilism where would I be standing. I am ashamed to admit that I found myself merging into the character of that deeply connected youth in that interesting commercial, in spiritual communion with his mobile, knocking down kids and flower vases, ready to fall off malls. In that state of supreme connect, who would care for the vote?