Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep. Musings from someone who sees stories everywhere.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves: book review




This well-crafted tale examines the essence of what it means to be a family. The author explores the exquisite beauty and human flaws of parental love. Where does sibling rivalry make way for deep loyalties?
How different are we from other creatures, who also have their own distinctive personalities and thought processes? What are the deeper significances of being human? Incisive yet tempered with gentle humour, this Booker-shortlisted novel probes the connections among all sentient beings.

Rosemary, an American college student, seems yet another intelligent but socially awkward youngster. Her brushes with the law and getting into scrapes with wayward companions, her references to her trying-hard-to-appear-normal family do not initially unsettle us. Indeed the author succeeds in making us smile, and even laugh. But they create the preamble for some startling revelations.

“My parents persisted in pretending we were a close-knit family, a family who enjoyed a good heart-to-heart, a family who turned to each other in times of trial. In light of my two missing siblings, this was an astonishing triumph of wishful thinking; I could almost admire it. At the same time, I am very clear in my own mind. We were never that family.”

As is true of many families, antagonism in Rosemary’s family “comes wrapped in layers of code, sideways feints, full deniability.” Their efforts to maintain peace make us smile in recognition. “No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.”

Rosemary’s psychologist father turns out to be a propagator of “science’s excesses, like cloning or whisking up a bunch of genes to make your own animal.” “Was my father kind to animals? I thought so as a child, but I knew less about the lives of lab rats then.”

Rosemary’s father makes his family part of an already dubious and discredited experiment. He raises Rosemary along with an adopted sister named Fern, ostensibly to compare and contrast their developing abilities. Rosemary’s childhood world is ripped apart with the sudden disappearance of Fern. Only in page 99 is the truth finally revealed.

Fern is a chimpanzee. While her mother regresses into mourning, her older brother Lowell no longer believes that their parents’ love was unconditional. “He’d been told to care for Fern as a sister. He’d done so, only to see her cast from the family.”

Lowell nurses deep resentment and finally leaves home for good to seek his sister Fern, and champion the cause of mistreated animals. Rosemary realises that she “had been valuable only in the context of my sister.” One day, she was the subject of study.
“The next, I was just a little girl, strange in her way, but of no scientific interest to anyone.”

Rosemary finally leaves behind the ignominy of her ‘chimpanzee girl’ past when she enters a far-off university. Her roommate Scully echoes her sentiments when she confides, “You know how everything seems so normal when you’re growing up, and then comes the moment when you realise that your whole family is nuts.”

Are humans truly superior to other animals? “Dad’s experiments suggested that contrary to our metaphors, humans are much more imitative than the other apes... Human children overimitate, reproducing each step (in a puzzle) regardless of its necessity.

There is some reason why, now that it’s our behaviour, being slavishly imitative is superior to being thoughtful and efficient, but I forget exactly what that reason is.” There’s a hilarious reference to humans’ capability to govern themselves. “The only way to make sense of the United States Congress, my father told me once, is to view it as a two-hundred-year-long primate study. He didn’t live to see the ongoing revolution in our thinking regarding nonhuman animal cognition. But he wasn’t wrong about Congress.”

Rosemary observes that every time we humans announce that “here is the thing that makes us unique — our featherless bipedality, our tool-using, our language — some other species comes along to snatch it away.”

This novel is memorable for raising far-reaching questions, for daring us to push the boundaries, and reconsider our sense of being ‘superior’ human beings. All the characters, including chimpanzee Fern, are portrayed with compassion. The author’s sense of humour makes this a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Some passages discussing the failings of humans, references to scientific laboratories, farms and slaughterhouses, the indignation at those who profit from the misery of animals do weigh heavy and can come across as propaganda. “In 2004, Jacques Derrida said that a change was under way. Torture damages the inflicter as well as the inflicted.

It’s no coincidence that one of the Abu Ghraib torturers came to the military directly from a job as a chicken processor.” While this enhances the overall impact of the message the author intends to convey, it also makes us conscious that there is indeed a message which sometimes overshadows the narrative.
This review is published in Sunday Herald

Saturday, November 08, 2014

UNESCO World Heritage Sites photo exhibition

Call for entries for the Photo Exhibition on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India from January 9th to 11th, 2015 at Alliance Francaise de Bangalore 
 
After the great success of the five Editions of seminars , two editions of our photo exhibitions and the publication of the book ‘The Great Outdoors’, Essen Communications  is organising a Photo Exhibition on UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India from January 9th to 11th, 2015 at Alliance Francaise de Bangalore. 
 
The proposed photo exhibition will showcase an array of more than 120 photographs on World Heritage Sites by photographers, heritage buffs and various Tourism Boards. The event will be attended by travel agents, tour operators adventure enthusiasts, photographic fraternity, expatriates, corporate executives, educational institutions, stakeholders in tourism and the public.                                                         
 
List of UNESCO Heritage Sites in India is furnished below for reference. (For further details refer to the website on unesco.org)
 
 Bihar- Mahabodhi Temple Complex, Bodh Gaya
Agra - Agra Fort, Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri,
In and around Delhi- Red Fort Complex, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutab Minar & its monuments Goa – Churches and convents
Gujarat- Champaner-Pavgadh Archaeological Park, Rani –ki-Vav at Patan,
Karnataka- Group of monuments at Hampi & Pattadakal
Maharashtra- Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Elephanta Caves, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus
Madhya Pradesh – Group of monuments at Khajuraho, Rock shelters at Bhimbetka, Buddhist monuments at Sanchi
Orissa-Sun Temple, Konarak
Rajasthan – Hill Forts of Rajasthan( Chittogarh, Kumbalgarh, Ranthambore, Amber, Jaisalmer, Gagran) , Jantar Mantar at Jaipur,
Tamil Nadu- Great Living Chola Temples (Brihadeshwar Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram, Darasuram in Thanjavur dt ), Monuments at Mammallapuram,
 
Natural sites- Kaziranga National Park, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Sunderbans National Park, Nanda Devi & Valley of Flowers National Park, Keoldeo National Park, Great Himalayan National Park Conservation Area,
Western Ghats (in Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu & Maharashtra)
Mountain Railways of India

For details of participation contact:
Email: essencom@yahoo.co.in or call 094483 63336/ 09880443532 

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's a rich man's world

The inequality between the urban rich and the poor slum dwellers has been continuously rising in India's cities. This chasm is growing, despite increased welfare programmes... In today’s world, humanity is evolving into advanced new avatars — the rich, and those who fear or worship them. Step out onto any of our pothole-riddled, garbage and sewage-swamped streets, and you will encounter pinnacles of the evolutionary process. Yes, we’re talking of those magnificent Indians in cars broader than roads, costing more than the annual GDP of a typical tehsil. Our progress is stupendous indeed, for such affluent Indians are more commonplace than public toilets or parks.

Money is today’s new religion, and the focus of our existence. It gives us a reason to live, defines our place in society, and inspires us with a sense of purpose. Best of all, more people are now making more money than ever before.

Society today is growing more open and inclusive. Control over wealth is no longer confined to ruling aristocrats who enjoyed traditional privileges and status due to their noble or ignoble pedigrees. In the bad old days, royal and aristocratic dynasties controlled military and political power. Their wealth came mainly from the control of fertile land, and the labour of expendable peasants and slaves. Those retrograde snobs zealously guarded their wealth and privileges. They ostracised the poor populace and upstarts who chanced into wealth.
As civilisation evolved, a new breed of entrepreneurs rose from among the masses. They refined the techniques of transforming riches into power, and power into more riches. They discovered the truth that continues to govern our world. Anyone with enough money can gain prominence, influence and supremacy over others. These innovative people discovered how to channelise available resources into profit-making ventures, which in turn generated more wealth. Modern market economies evolved from this basic principle. You no longer need to be a blue blooded aristocrat to aspire to live in grand mansions, flaunt grand clothes and jewellery, acquire businesses or win popular votes. Let’s sing praises to our democratic polity where anyone can be elected to power. People like us, too, can hope to become leaders and make a fortune. If we are too squeamish to mastermind scams, we can at least follow the frugal example set by a former chief minister who reportedly had her official residence fitted with 31 ACs, 15 desert coolers, 16 air purifiers, 25 heaters and 12 geysers. 
Modern day demigods of wealth defy nature and turn age-old conventions on their heads. Why bother to work so hard to change the world? They use their money wisely to transform themselves instead. They boldly reconstruct ugly noses, and pay surgeons to remove excess fat caused by gluttonous gorging. It’s passé to simply buy high-funda educational qualifications to get that stamp of intelligence. The super-rich will buy up engineering or medical colleges, and print their own degrees instead. Kickbacks, bribes, buyouts, embezzlement and corruption on colossal scales, need true guts and grit to pull off. Plotting mega scams is challenging work, and only for the superior and daring elite. When pitted against these ‘best’, the ‘rest’ of us lesser mortals can only cower in awe and terror. How they go forth proudly, as though they own the roads, and even the country, with its floundering economy! 
Wealth equals success and commands respect in public perception. In these progressive times, even ordinary crooks can dream of reaching a holier-than-others status with the help of riches. All one needs to join the privileged club is the cunning and gumption to make megatons of money.
As the rich are getting richer than ever before, the standard of living of lesser mortals is also rising. Personal cellphones are a necessity rather than an undreamt of luxury for domestic helpers, carpenters and their ilk. Neighbourhood vegetable and milk vendors now do their rounds on motorcycles instead of going on bicycles or on foot. However, while the rich are becoming wealthier, the gulf between them and the poorest sections of society is increasing phenomenally. While economic activity is growing and more wealth is being generated in the world, it is not being equally enjoyed by everyone. As Pope Francis so aptly observed, “It is increasingly intolerable that financial markets are shaping the destiny of peoples, rather than serving their needs, or that the few derive immense wealth from financial speculation while the many are deeply burdened by the consequences.” 

Growing divide
This divide between the haves and have-nots is defined by the huge difference in their respective quality of life. Those with more money obviously live better and more fulfilling lives, enjoying superior homes, healthcare, education and luxuries. But the presence of many poverty-stricken people around us affects us all. Poverty leads to malnutrition, diseases, drug addiction, crimes, illiteracy and domestic violence. People mired in such distressing conditions find it difficult to rise up, and this in turn leads to more poverty. The side-effects spread beyond the miseries of these unfortunate poor souls. Property prices are reduced by the proximity of slums. Poverty leads to an increase in crimes, and this fuels the need for more policing and jails. Slums breed diseases, which can spread to those living nearby in posh settlements as well. More public money needs to be spent on doles, and to maintain order and provide basic amenities among the growing numbers of poor people. Poverty breeds social unrest and political upheavals, and can threaten democracy and stability. In the course of history, Tsars have been exterminated, and kings and queens beheaded, as fallouts of popular uprisings. The cadres of Naxalites and other militants in rural India are often driven into anti-social and anti-state activities because of poverty. 
These unfortunate poor people are born with as much innate intelligence and capabilities as their more privileged neighbours. Sadly, poverty holds them back from improving their education, and ill health dogs them because they cannot afford nutritious food or optimum healthcare. They are thus unable to make the best use of their inborn human potential, and the hidden cost to society as a whole is beyond all measure.

The inequality between the urban rich and the poor slum dwellers has been continuously rising in India’s cities. Now, the rising gap between the rich and poor in rural India is surprising economists. This chasm is growing, despite increased government welfare programmes in villages. Inequality levels, computed from the National Sample Survey on Household Consumption Expenditure for 2011-12, shows that though the proportion of the poor declined between 2004-05 and 2011-12, the divide between the rich and the poor increased for the first time in rural areas in almost 35 years. This gap also peaked to an all-time high in India’s cities. 

Points to ponder
Why is it that in this nation of over one billion, only a tiny percentage of people benefit from a major chunk of the income? Why do a handful of people enjoy palatial homes with every conceivable luxury, while innumerable migrant labourers living in the shanties around them consider modern sanitation and plumbing, clean toilets and pure drinking water as luxuries? 
One reason for the growing divide is the ongoing migration of rural people who seek better opportunities in the cities. They do earn more in the cities than they may have as landless labourers or marginal farmers in their own villages. Unfortunately, that money is not enough to get them decent food, housing or education for their children in the expensive big cities. 

Inflation is another reason why poor peoples’ money buys them less and less. Many of them end up sleeping on footpaths, or setting up homes under plastic sheets propped up on poles. The prices of food items too are shooting through the roof, making even basic essentials like potatoes, onion and milk unaffordable for the poorest Indians. Thanks to inflation, the government’s treasuries are being emptied on doles and sops. The same concessions which were affordable a year or two ago, are now being cut back. Reduced government subsidies have led to higher prices of cooking gas and petrol. This has directly and indirectly hit the poorest people the most. Funds which could have been used for building infrastructure are now being spent to somehow maintain the poor at their present level.

Another problem is corruption, which compromises the government’s welfare measures. Funds meant for the poor are too often siphoned off into the pockets of middlemen, and corrupt officials at every level. Though colossal sums are allocated by the government for welfare schemes, corruption prevents benefits and doles from reaching those who need them most. 

Advances in technology can hit the poorest of the poor the hardest. The middle classes have the time and money to master computers and new technology, and this knowledge increases their earning capacity. The poorest of the poor are too busy struggling to get a roof over their heads and food to fill their bellies. They have no time, energy or means to improve their education, and have to confine themselves to less skilled, menial jobs which pay less. Meanwhile, technological advances enable machines to do more of these menial jobs, and there are fewer such jobs to be had. This is how the poor continue to lag behind because they are less educated and skilled. 

We are too ready to blame the poor for their miserable plight, just as we rush to worship the rich for their wealth and status. We harshly dismiss the poor for their shiftlessness and lack of enterprise. After all, isn’t wealth the reward reserved for only those who strive tirelessly to gain it? Others among us make snap judgements against the rich. Would the poor be so miserable if the wealthy were less selfish? If only the wealthy were more compassionate, and made more efforts to help the less privileged! However, such ideas are too simplistic. They do not take into account the importance of sound government policies for all-round growth and development at the macro level.

Ethic of reciprocity

Various religions have attempted to explain these gross inequalities. Many have offered solace by saying that it is the natural order of things ordained by higher powers. But is it our fate or past karma alone that defines our wealth and worldly comforts, or the lack of it? Conversely, religions also advocate the virtues of compassion, charity and benevolence towards all less fortunate and privileged than us. Visionaries and saints have always urged rulers to mitigate the plight of the poor and to govern according to the principles of justice, impartiality and altruism. 
The fault does not always lie in our stars, but also in our own attitudes. Making easy money, not struggling to earn it, is today’s success mantra. In our rush to keep up with the rat race and acquire material wealth, we neglect our spiritual and human sides. Our greed and increasing lack of moral scruples to get rich quick makes us forget that money is not an end in itself. 

Misery is sure to overwhelm us, if we allow money to rule our lives. Money, when used wisely, is a good servant. But it can be a terrible master. People who are slaves to money study courses not because they are interested, but which they hope will make them rich. Money rules their choice of career, life partner and their friendships. They constantly compare themselves with others, lack confidence in themselves, and are jealous of anyone they perceive to be doing better. Their lives are ruled by inflated egos, avarice, and discontent, and all joy and mental peace is banished from their dismal, self-absorbed lives. The overriding compulsion to make money makes them blind to the immense joys of family, friendships, good health, peace of mind, and the beauty of nature. There are some people so poor that all they have to call their own in this world is just money.

When we spend more and more money on our personal desires, the returns diminish. Owners of several cars or mansions are unlikely to grow proportionately happier if they acquire many more of the same things. True joy can come if we also use our money to spread sunshine among those around us. A gold biscuit stashed away in a vault will bring less real happiness than spending the same sum on a holiday with loved ones, or sponsoring the education of a poor child. When we have enough for ourselves, sharing and helping those less fortunate can bring us priceless spiritual rewards. It is next to impossible for ordinary people like us to radically change the world. But we can make a difference by devoting some of our time, energy and resources to help others who are less fortunate. As a wise person rightly said, there is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.
My essay is published in Sunday Herald

Monday, July 21, 2014

Many Roads Through Paradise: Book Review

This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique   Many Roads through Paradise: An Anthology of Sri Lankan Literature


Many Roads Through Paradise; An anthology of Sri Lankan Literature
Edited by; Shyam Selvadurai       Penguin               Rs 499/-                Pp 493

This anthology of literary voices from Sri Lanka offers a unique “opportunity to know a country and its various cultures in a holistic way.” In a war torn land where people are trying to heal deep wounds in the aftermath of widespread devastation, the anthologist hopes to provide “an opportunity to build bridges across the divided communities.” This literary bouquet will excite readers everywhere, by offering an intricate mosaic depicting Sri Lanka’s peoples and their cultures. Translations from Tamil and Sinhala are also included to give a faithful representation of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and literary diversity. For Indian readers, this collection shows how similar we are beneath the superficial differences. It also serves as a warning, portraying the dire consequences, the stupendous human toll, that results when neighbouring linguistic and religious communities sharing the same homeland push their differences to the point of fratricide.
The selections are grouped to show the build-up of social evils and events leading to intensifying conflict. The opening poem, The Chariot and the Moon by Mahakavi, portrays with powerful intensity the fate of youths of lowly caste, “who spread their wings to touch the moon” only to fall before the “frenzied passion” of people who consider their fellow human beings to be inferior. Our Valavu, by Vimala Ganeshanathan rekindles memories of old Jaffna, when life was peaceful, and “thieves were few”. As foreign rulers converted locals to Christianity, there sprang up eccentric hybrid names combining foreign names with the local Tamil ones. But in this melting pot of cultures with the “overlapping paints of Portuguese, Dutch and British rule, the American missionaries could not make a dent in the caste system.” Let’s Chat in the Moonlight shows how the social evil of untouchability is deeply ingrained even in the souls of moderate intellectuals who publicly preach against the practice.
The Perfection of Giving is rife with irony and satire, showing how the haves oppress the have-nots while professing morality and piety. “Big Auntie is always talking about giving,” says a little child, “but she’s not going to give Kusuma even a New Year present... Big Auntie is very mean.” The Hour When the Moon Weeps shows how lifelong oppression makes a basically good and sincere man want to take another’s life. “Thoughts of his elder and younger sons and of his wife who lay abandoned and later died in his hut, began to emerge. His life’s purpose after they had passed away, surged up in his mind as well. He must kill Mr. Hassan tonight.” The Rag by Nihal de Silva is “a toxic portrait of class rage turned inward and outwards,” which precipitate into the first and second JVP insurrections.
Several of these stories and poems deal with the plight of people dispossessed of their homes by war. In Cheran’s poem Cousin, “Upon ripped and fragmented land,
          men who hold no attachment to it
          nor kinship,
          squat, holding weapons.”
The House in Jaffna by Isankya Kodithuwakku is about patriotism, nostalgia and disenchantment. Through all his years as an expatriate who fled to England to escape the war back home, Mr. Nadarajah dreams of returning to his beloved Jaffna. News reports of a peace deal make him leave behind a well-paid job and comfortable life to head back home. But the reality of post-war Jaffna shatters all his hope and joy. “Yes, he would be able to get rid of the patches of green mildew on the ceiling and even fix the sagging. And yes, he could buy furniture for the house and even rebuild the temple so he could walk to it twice a day. But that splash of the bucket being let down into the well, it would never be quite the same splash because the hands that let it down were now too different. And even more than that, the ears that lay in bed and listened to that splash were too different. Mildew could be taken away from ceilings, but never from hearts and minds.”
The pieces in this collection explore every upheaval that has made Sri Lanka what it is today. From insurrections to the tsunami, from civil war to riots and excesses by the IPKF, these stories touch upon them all. In Yasmine Gooneratne’s words:
                                “The joys of childhood, friendships of our youth
                                Ravaged by pieties and politics,
                                Screaming across our screens, her agony
                                At last exposed, Sri Lanka burns alive.”
These are also stories of human beings and their experiences in troubled times. Child soldiers abandoning promising academic careers to end up biting a cyanide capsule; women who go to the Gulf to slave as maids; the schoolgirl Krishanthy, who was gangraped and murdered in 1996 by six Sri Lankan Army soldiers, after she was returning from her A-level exams; the widow who weeps for her dead soldier husband; the moderate politician whose pleas for peace talks are shattered by a deadly bomb blast; of feisty Burgher families who enjoy living and loving; their stories are voiced here.

This must-read collection brings to life the complex mix of beauty, human sentiments and fear that defines life in modern Sri Lanka.
This review is published in Sunday Herald

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The great Indian herd mentality


Are we as a society guilty of herding together within the confines of mainstream mediocrity?
Don’t we, like the proverbial crabs, pull down anyone who dares to be better, back into our shallow intellectual buckets? 
Did an eminent Indian hit the nail on the head by reportedly stating that 90 per cent of our countrymen are idiots?



We rush to worship mediocrity, and are suspicious of anyone with superior abilities. DH photo
Is it true that average Indians do not have the perceptiveness or determination to rise above casteism, corruption, communalism, rigged exams and everything else that prevents us from being a more advanced and prosperous society?
 We happily delude ourselves into believing that ‘we are like this only’. Poverty, garbage, farmers’ suicides and bribery are unquestionably accepted as part of our existence. 
We prefer to do what everyone else does, and uphold the status quo. 
It’s socially unacceptable to make optimum use of our intelligence, or strive to radically improve our circumstances.

Change is scary, and therefore taboo. Safety lies in siding with the majority, and crouching in our self-created ruts.

We rush to worship mediocrity, and are suspicious of anyone with superior abilities. We pin our hopes on good-looking young ‘leaders’ from prominent lineages, glossing over their lack of intrinsic merits and accomplishments. 
We hero-worship match-fixing cricketers and can’t have enough of B-grade movies or pulp books patched together by hack writers. This is how things are, and this is how we are convinced things will continue to be.

If someone dares to push for genuine change and improvement, we systematically close ranks to shut him out, or gang up to stifle his voice. If one from among us shines in any field, our collective herd reaction shows the depths of pettiness to which we can sink.As friends and neighbours, we raise our claws and fangs to belittle the achievements of our former friend.We then either socially ostracise him, or show him off hoping some of the glory will rub on to us. If we can’t snuff them out, we pretend superlatives cannot exist.

But, does popular appeal alone justify commonplace mediocrity?There’s nothing wrong in being average, which simply means normal or usual. The problems arise when we are content to mindlessly follow the herd without applying our own normal talents and intelligence for growth and change.

We need to remember that ‘normal’, ‘average’ or ‘usual’ are not absolute and ironclad.Once upon a time, it was perfectly normal for Indian widows to be burnt on the funeral pyres of their husbands. ‘Witches’ were routinely burnt on the stake in ‘civilised’ Europe, and the Spanish Inquisition was an accepted part of life. Average citizens of ancient Rome frequently enjoyed the spectacle of gladiators being mauled to death by hungry lions. Slavery, plagues, apartheid and famines were normal and usual experiences of average people in various times and societies.

In several respects, today’s normal and average is definitely an improvement over that of the past. 
Daily life for ordinary people has improved because of the efforts of pathbreaking thinkers, scientists and leaders. 
The unsung efforts of ordinary people like us has also contributed to our evolution, and improved the average quality of life in the course of time. 
When India gained independence, the average Indian did not live beyond his 40s. Today’s average Indian can expect to live well into his late 60s or 70s.A few decades ago, India’s hungry multitudes depended on food grains supplied by developed nations.While hunger continues to exist among today’s Indians, our average middle class citizens are eating well to the point of obesity.
Humanity has slowly but surely progressed since the dark ages, and we can look forward to a better tomorrow. 
But our dream of a rosier future will become reality only if each of us tries our best to make it come true.

Follow the crowd


The Great Indian Herd Mentality is a major factor pulling us all back into the mediocre and substandard dung heap. 
We consider ourselves to be far more intelligent than fellow bipeds, quadrupeds, arthropods, amoeba and other creatures that populate our planet. Yet, like other animals, when we superior Homo sapiens see a crowd moving somewhere, we blindly plunge in and do what everyone else is doing, without bothering to understand why.

Everyone cheats, so we also try to cheat when we think we can get away with it. Students cheat at exams, while teachers cheat students by not taking classes and diluting the quality of their lectures.
Housewives haggle and undercut vegetable sellers, and vegetable sellers inflate prices and cheat housewives. Property owners and entrepreneurs undervalue their assets to cheat the government by paying lower taxes. 

Shiftless and bribe-loving babus, spouses cheating on each other, corrupt netas, shady businessmen, unethical journalists, job aspirants with fake certificates; we all cheat and lie in some way or another. No wonder we are a corruption-riddled nation.
Our herd mentality pulls us down in many other ways.
We staunchly believe that what’s good for our neighbours, brother-in-law or boss, must be good for us too.This drags us neck-deep into many a pot of soup or sambhar.Parents shove their offspring into engineering and business schools simply because their friends are doing it. They don’t care about the child’s individual talents or aptitude.They don’t care that some of our engineering graduates end up being unemployable, or that all MBAs, even those from IIMs, don’t inevitably get plum campus placements.We are so obsessed with somehow grabbing prized qualifications for our children that we pay astronomical sums to buy them that coveted piece of paper from teaching shops of dubious repute. Who cares if such doctors or commercial pilots do not get adequate training?The distant threat of botched up surgeries or plane crashes don’t bother us as long as the victims are people we don’t know.
The Great Indian Herd Mentality shines through when Ponzi scheme promoters conjure up one magical money-minting scheme after another.People like us race to deposit their life savings, only to lose all to the next big scam.Whenever the stock markets move up in an upward cycle, everyone wants to grab a piece of the action and make as much easy money as they can.Smart investors cash in while the going is good, while gullible followers of the herd enter the market at high prices and incur losses. Then they blame the government for everything that goes wrong in their lives.

Hard-nosed businessmen don’t always fare better than the aam janata in the herd mentality department. 
One start-up comes up with a winning idea, and dozens of copycats follow suit with nothing new to offer. So we have droves of ‘me too’ matchmaking portals, travel websites, social networking sites and more. Mall after mall is constructed and then shut down in our city. 
Then the recently built building is demolished to construct yet another mall in the same location.
Many such ill-conceived commercial ventures are bound to fail when promoters mindlessly follow the trend.
Precious money and resources are thus thoughtlessly wasted by blind followers of the herd.

We are social beings, and it is but natural for us to reach out and associate with others. But when we abandon good sense and reason and are guided by fear of social censure, we can end up committing grave mistakes. 
The fear of what others will say and think of us; the fear of being left behind; the fear of being isolated or singled out for ridicule; these fears can push us into dangerous paths. 
We try our best to stick to socially sanctioned behaviour, values and norms. 

We often do not ask enough questions or raise appropriate doubts, even if we have them in our minds.
Hitler used this to bend the masses to his will. During his rallies, he would plant groups of his own lackeys among the audience.These people would raise huge cheers and clap, inciting others around them to do the same. When these speeches were broadcast, the thunderous applause could be heard by an even wider audience.Huge numbers of listeners were thus led to believe that since so many people were cheering, Hitler was indeed a great leader propagating noble ideas.
The electronic media has taken the herd mentality to unprecedented levels.All sorts of subversive and provocative posts do the rounds. Some of these have only tentative basis in facts.Fake photos and misleading quotes deliberately taken out of context are widely circulated. Videos of molestations are put up on YouTube without a care for the poor victim’s safety and mental peace.We, on our part, ‘like’ and forward these posts, and bask in the glow of self-righteousness for having done our good deed for the day.
It’s so easy to delude ourselves that we are making a difference, when all we do is click the mouse or swipe our smartphone screens before moving on to the next hot item of the day. Our insensitivity and indifference as individuals gets social sanctity because we are part of the herd.
We Indians are bogged down by our class snobbery and our urge to safeguard our hereditary privileges at all costs.Our society too often collectively pushes persons from privileged backgrounds without concern for their intrinsic merits. We are brought up to believe that only the children of doctors can be capable doctors and only the offspring of thespian families can be successful actors. The scions of established business enterprises are bred to head them.Why, then, do we criticise netas for perpetuating dynastic rule and filling up plum positions with sundry friends and relations? 

One of America’s greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, came up from humble origins. 
He is celebrated by his people for his great ideas and achievements, and his undying spirit in the face of overwhelming adversities is admired and respected to this day. Yet an Indian leader has recently been lampooned by some groups for having risen from the ranks of railway tea stall boys.

Why are we so ready to condemn initiative and herd together to support mediocrity? Are we afraid of exposing our own shortcomings? Are we afraid we shall fail if we try to improve our lot? Why do we hate the rare individual, who with his own strength and capabilities achieves feats beyond our dreams?
Is it because we feel small and mean before others with superior intelligence and accomplishments?

While people mindlessly following the herd can be dangerous, there is a flip side to the coin. 
The fact is, even ordinary people like us can make a positive difference.
A group of ordinary like-minded people can work together to make an even greater beneficial impact.
For this to happen, we need to think before we rush to endorse a cause, make assumptions, or draw conclusions on any issue. 
The power of well-reasoned individual votes can snowball to elect new leaders with strong popular mandates.Popular movements and pressure from large groups of concerned citizens can be agents of positive change. Our freedom struggle is an excellent case in point.Even today, strong public pressure can bring corrupt officials to book, and prevent upright officials from being victimised.Ordinary citizens have successfully formed social activist groups to help revive our city’s lakes, clear neighbourhoods of garbage and help uplift the underprivileged around us in various ways.The collective voice of a group is more powerful, and therefore a stronger agent of positive change when used in the right way.
If herd together we must, the way forward is for each of us to nudge the herd towards improvement. People like us, no matter how ordinary, can exercise some affirmative influence on our peers. Inspiration is all around us, and each of us is capable of creative and original thought.But nothing will happen if we sit and wait for someone or something to change on its own. If we keep our minds and hearts open to fresh ideas, we can work together for the common good. 

We need to step out of our comfortable ruts, think more and make choices. The simplest way to change our lives is to change the way we perceive things. Change will happen when we really want it to, and when we are ready to accept it.Simple, decisive actions taken by each one of us in daily life can add up to a palpable improvement in society as a whole. We need to get over our urge to make excuses, and point fingers at everyone else, and the Government, for all that ails us. We sit around waiting for another Gandhiji or some new godman to come and rescue the world. We don’t care what happens to others, as long as we ourselves are not affected. This dithering and indifference drags us down. Walk through any of our city streets. Mountains of piling garbage pull down our aspirations to world class luxury. We complain tirelessly about it, but that stinking garbage is dumped on the public roadside by ‘people like us’. We strongly prefer the easy way out by shirking responsibility. 

If things are to change, the onus is on us. Initiative must come from within each of us.
As Martin Luther King Jr so rightly said, we must never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. 
Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
This essay is published in Sunday Herald