The deafening silence of the Crowd.

Sometimes, and this is one of those times, I feel most alone in a crowd. There is this cheerful cacophony, this noise and bustle about everyone here — and there is this silence, the seven solitudes that Nietzsche talks about, the deafening silence of “not belonging”.

I am going to sound pretentious and snobbish, but I do not care. I am dismayed at the quality of conversation that I am forced to indulge in. Where is the spark, the intensity of a discussion, the reasoned, deliberate and gradual laying-bare of a problem and deciphering the complexity of its solution ? Intent is not enough. Emotion, surely isn’t. But that is all that people seem to be relying on here.

And there are certain things that just piss me off. Double standards and hypocrisy is one of those things. When an organization professes to adhere to strict notions of punctuality and expects everyone to follow it, when it makes a brouhaha over someone being a minute late, it is in no position to  let its own standards sag. The bus was 45 minutes late the other day. No one gave a damn. Today I was forced to miss a lecture because I was a minute late. It is all too easy to apologize and take responsibility for the entire team in public — it even feels good, in a morbid way, when you take the moral high-ground and pretend to “take responsibility for thoughts, words and deeds” . But it is quite a different feeling altogether when you get a talking to from several staff members on the need to be professional and on-time. I don’t know how an organization with such a strong sense of values can fail to notice and correct such cancerous tendencies. Hypocrisy manifests itself in numerous ways. You are asked to voice your opinions in a free environment and then you are fed subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle derision and condescension, in return.

Some people are not comfortable with living in mock/fake simulated poverty. The reasons can be numerous — personal, to psychological or otherwise. But just the fact that they are here to work against educational inequality as fellows shows that one thing that they do not lack is concern. They have empathy, if not anything else. Why would you question that sense of empathy in public, by treating them as second-class fellows, if they are not in cahoots with the whims of some naive idealist who came up with this idea, in the first place ? Does everyone here need to have a shared set of beliefs ? Is it 1984 yet ?

Something else bugs me. How are so many people here having transformative experiences everyday ? Is it just that their “comprehension” of a transformative experience is screwed up or have they seriously never contemplated on the kinds of mundane issues that are being discussed here ? Any middle-class upbringing will provide you with a very strong set of ideas on Seva, Excellence, Perseverance, Inequality (which is a daily sight anywhere in India) et al.. Were these fellows so clueless before ? If so, why were they selected ? Has something really novel happened here ? I do not think so. What has happened here is that people have been given a stage to speak about what they feel in usual situations, and as it often happens in a large group, everyone is out to prove that he/she has the most profound insights on a daily basis. There is so much duplicity, so much hypocrisy, it makes me nauseous. But maybe the problem is that the fellows have not had a middle-class upbringing. Elitism abounds in the fellowship cohort. I don’t mind a “certain kind of elitism”, I am guilty of it — the kind that sometimes wrongly scoffs at proletarian tastes, aspires for the higher, cultured pleasures , but there is also this accented – “Oh-I’ve just come back and I’m so cool” elitism that disdains the broken English that some of the other fellows use (well, I’m guilty of that too). For that crowd, the metamorphosis from “unaware”-to-“really connected to the roots” makes sense. But it is still sickening that these people are the vanguard of a movement that aims to end educational inequity.

But sometimes this place still springs a pleasant surprise. Discovering the few pearls among this maddening crowd is almost like an adventure. The other day, we were discussing the validity of deriving motivation from emotions. In the context of the Israel-Palestine crisis, we were discussing personal reactions to this video …  , where a young girl laments her predicament. This video can get you pretty riled up, emotional and make you feel like you want to do anything to solve the problem. But if you watch this video again and again, to remember that feeling, relive that painful feeling, that tightness in your chest as the girl talks about her clothes, aren’t you exploiting her situation for an emotional high that does not do anything to solve the problem. Feeling and doing need to be detached. The logical solution of a complex problem needs a mind unsoiled by emotions. Let them drive you and you run the risk of careening off a cliff of despair, if the initial effort doesn’t pay off. Logic and rationality is the only refuge of the idealist.  (I agree with you, jackass – other readers can ignore this parenthesis)

Sadly, TFI seems to miss this point entirely.

A final point. Is experience essential for intelligent expression ? When I see Orwell write about his experiences as an anarchist in the mud-stained battlefields of Catalonia, I see the value of experience, when I read Fisk comment on the insanity of Western foreign policy and duplicity as he writes from Beirut, I can again appreciate the wisdom of an immersive writing experience. But what would happen, if people stop commenting and criticising people and events and people-in-events, that they have not personally experienced ? How stifling would that be ? Where would Einstein’s gedanken experiments go, when would Kafka’s Metamorphosis see the light of day, who would listen to Dostoevsky’s Underground man and his travails ? So let us be open to people voicing opinions, even if we sometimes risk the naivete that comes with a person who has not experienced the things he is talking about. In the ceaseless blather, may lie the one aphorism, the one idea that really changes the world.

I have not given up hope on finding interesting people yet. And my personal goals seem even more important to me now. TFI has been a tiresome expedition where the organization desperately tries to paddle me away from the shore, while gale-force winds of my omnipotent self, my omniscient consciousness (hyperbole, how I love you ! ) keep buffeting me back to the same place, again and again.

And amidst all this pandemonium, this melange of voices, this shrieking smorgasbord of “reflections”,  I am resigned to my personal silence.

The silence of the crowd, the solitude of “Not Belonging”.

Teach For India — 10 days and beyond.

As I write about this last week in Pune, I cannot but be struck by a profound sense of affirmation and validation (even gratification) at the thoughts and choices that have brought me here and now. I have a constant, ego-burnishing realization that “I have thought” and it is this warm, mellow sunshine of my own self that I am basking in right now. And yet, on some level, I feel deeply alone here. All by myself.

I have met several interesting people (a few worth taking the extra mile for), otherwise this is a motley congregation of idealistic (sometimes to a fault .. and rising to naivete) but some profoundly nice people. The staff is very committed. The sense of humility and respect that people share is unrivalled. The joy here,  the pleasure of working together for a mission, is hard to miss. At the same time there are some powerful critiques that can be made.

People here seem to be thinking from their hearts, or the “gut” as Stephen Colbert puts it. We had very random exercises designed to make us “feel” part of the mission, or to inculcate “core values”, the “right mindsets” and to experience the “sense of possibility” — non-vicariously, for a change. Everyone “reflects” all the time, sometimes we are forced to — so much so that we would make mirrors self-conscious. We also “push ourselves” and the line between pushing and shoving is hazy. The jargon, the exclusivist language, very insidiously designed to make us feel “all special” is a very blatant, yet effective attempt to transform a bunch of nice, ordinary people into a coterie of zealots. Insidious, is a harsh word, considering the mission is well-meaning and noble (by any definition of morality). But the same doctrine would serve, with very little tinkering, as the bible for some popular religious cult. That is where the problem lies. Fellows seem to be getting indoctrinated — they have begun speaking the same language, making the same jokes. This leads me to think that all of the first 10 days were indeed transformative for a lot of people. That is sad. If fellows, our so-called “leaders of tomorrow” have not figured such issues out by the time they are adults, I shudder at the ignorant morass in which the rest of the youth wallows in. A lot of people here are for the right reasons and the wrong justifications. Will we remove educational inequity by following this model ? I highly doubt that. The big picture seems lost in the feel-good mist of moralizing and grandstanding. I do not find too many ambitious people here. Changing one life, doing good, transforming life paths for a class, is all good. But is it enough ? The top management seems to have their heads in the right place. The complexity is understood, though no one really knows what to do about it.

Something else that struck me was the uniqely caring, healthy environment in which things happen. Perhaps it has a lot to do with the fact that the organization is run and managed primarily by educated, professional women. Corporate India should take some cues from the management here. All this is not to suggest that I have not had fun. If hedonism was a legitimate way of life, TFI is “Hedonism with a heart”. I have done things here the past few days that I would not have envisioned myself even attempting a few weeks back. I could come up with a short summary —

1. Go into a poorer section of the city and try to find some kid and “connect” to him. I found it really strange because here was a veritable army of fellows descending upon that section of town out of the blue … and looking, prowling for kids. It was hard to convince alarmed adults about “what the hell was happening”. I found that a Namaste and a smile go a long way in breaking the ice. Also I lured a bunch of 7-8 kids into “connecting” with me, by showing them some basic melodies on the harmonica — thus literally playing the role of the “Pied Piper of Pune” . It was fun.

2. Go into another part of town, with a mission to serve the people and the constraint that I could not speak. It was weird and I became acutely cognizant of the powers of non-verbal communication and gestures. ( We really should write that paper on alternate forms of language communication, Tanmai ) I swept poor homes, cleaned a few dishes, gave an injured old man a massage (back-rub) .. and all without speaking, much to the delight and surprise of the community people. It was an exhilarating experience. The conquering of your self, your inhibitions gives you an incredible rush.  I was quite pleased with myself and was reminded of Gandhi’s insistence on physical labour and service of others. That guy sure had things figured out.

3. We have had countless chants and songs and games here, both during and after sessions. It is almost routine and I don’t bat an eyelid when asked to do ridiculously silly things in public. Group or herd psychology assuages all doubts. I guess that is why Nietzsche abhorred the Herd so much —  lacking any individual will and living by group instincts, the democratic will to render everyone equal in mediocrity.I reel with constant reminders of that Nietzschean epiphany here !

In recapitulation, I would just say that although I feel even more committed to the Mission than before, coming here has made me realize the number of ways you should not go about doing it. The people you should not have in the team, the mentality you should not promote, the institutionalized idealism you should fight against and the spark that you should seek to preserve.

As Gandalf once said, ” It has begun. The great battle of this age is upon us. ”  We are still engaged in skirmishes. The battle is yet to begin.