HOW’S J. Alfred Prufrock






We are the hollow men,

We are the stuffed men,

Leaning together,

Headpiece filed with straw.

- T S Eliot

Nobody likes to be called a hypocrite. Yet, nearly everybody is one.

No doubt , some men are less hypocritical than others. But there is

nobody, to the best of my knowledge, who is entirely free from hypocrisy.

Perhaps to be hypocritical is human.

A hypocrite is one who projects a false self-image. One pretends to be

someone, in fact, one is not. Initially this is for the consumption of

others. But sure enough, and soon enough, one is consumed by it oneself.

To be 'good' (?) hypocrite one has to be a skilful liar, and for this

reason, politicians qualify eminently as good hypocrites. We love to

condemn the species of politicians because they not only lie so glibly,

but get away with so much of power and loot in the bargain

In our heart of hearts, however, I suspect that we all are actually

envious of these politicians. If, by some chance, we are offered a taste

of their power and wealth, surely we would throw our injured morality to

the winds, jump on to their bandwagons, and even pronounce that it is all

for the good of the people. Yet , we condemn them readily. This is our

brand of hypocrisy.

The denial oh our hypocrisy makes us hollow. Hollowness, in this

context, is the gap between what we are and what we think we are. It is

difficult for us to face the the reality of the hollowness, because we

genuinely believe that we are good and noble. We point at our good and

works, our accomplishments, our charity and whatnot, as solid evidence of

our good character.

Men of wisdom such as Socrates have identified the disease of

hollowness as the most dangerous threat to education. It is perhaps for

this reason that the dictum of Socrates 'Know thyself', was specifically

chosen to be the inscription on the portals of the Parthenon, the Greek

Temple of Wisdom. It is as valid today as in his time.

Hypocrisy, to some extent, is inevitable, given the requirements of a

civilized society. For example, we are expected to smile and say silly

things like 'Hello !' or 'Excuse me !', even when we are least inclined to

feel pleased or apologetic. But this is a trivial kind of hypocrisy

-indeed, a conventional necessity- to facilitate cordial human

interaction. This is an example of situation where we are being

hypocritical (out of necessity), but not being hollow.

The issue of hollowness arises only when we miss the fact that we are

practicing hypocrisy -as for example- when we smile sweetly at certain

individuals, and later stab them behind their backs. Many of us engage in

this as a daily habit, and certainly derive much malicious pleasure out of

it. But if we catch our enemies at the same game against us, we would not

hesitate to condemn them, as righteously as possible.

We do not dare admit to any charge of hypocrisy , and we can invent

excellent reasons in our defense. By systematically deluding ourselves on

a daily basis, we become more and more hollow. So, a person who justifies

the act of accepting a Rupees 10 bribe today, will have no qualms in

rationalizing the acceptance of Rupees 100 tomorrow, and no doubt,

demanding Rupees 1000 the day after. It seems to be coming of age- from

reluctant acceptance to uncompromising demand. With continued practice, we

become adept at the art of deceiving ourselves, and of skillfully

suppressing what remains of our chastising conscience. To be forewarned

about this is hopefully, to be forearmed.


We folks at ISI have the good fortune of being rated moderately

(highly?) respectable. This is so because this is the Paradise all

sensible people are expected to yearn for, and we have gained admittance

to that Promised Land. The moment one mentions that one is from ISI,

people (sensible people) are instantly impressed. Sometimes they ask,

"Isn't it very difficult to get admission there?", to confirm that their

judgement is not an error. Would we love to give that confirmation!

During our schooldays (and sometimes, till late in life), it is our

Parents' prerogative to decide what we ought to like and dislike. From an

early age , they indoctrinate us into believing that the greatest virtue

in life lies in scoring marks and passing entrance examinations. What a

shame it would be to the entire family, if we were to perform badly. But

when we succeed and dutifully enter some good institute, our parents are

delighted by their success. We are instruments to gratify their desires.

But they claim that it is all for our welfare. And they genuinely believe

this. The disease of hollowness is, for most, chronically incurable.

We enter college, breathless and eager to experience the Paradise we

have heard so much about. We sit in rapt attention inside the classroom,

anxious to pick up the pearls of wisdom. But gradually it dawns on us,

that somehow, something has gone wrong somewhere. Bravely we brush our

apprehensions aside our apprehensions as mere figments of imagination. In

our weak moments, however, we are ashamed to hear the groaning in our

hearts : 'Hell ! This is ISI?' But we dare not speak aloud, even to our

friends. Instead, we smile and pretend that everything is as it should be.

Our job is to get on with the important business of scoring marks;

everything else is secondary. During the class hours we are bombarded with

all kinds of information, all of which must be surely very important. We

slog through innumerable tests, assignments and whatnot. It is sheer

wonder that we survive without losing our so-called sanity.

We get hardened (immunised) by the time we enter our second year

(almost always a subset of the whole class). We learn, thanks to our

seniors, the tricks of the trade and find some of our own, to survive and

to beat the system. A great secret is revealed to us: that it is not

necessary to understand the subject to pass, or even to score well in the

exam! Moreover, even those few who struggle to gain fundamental

understanding often ends up with poor scores. We excel in the art of

copying assignments, reports, and even the test papers (With due apologies

to the innocent few who refrain from indulging in such activities, and

with the observation that if one does take offence, then it is perhaps

one's ego that is being hurt). However, in spite of all this, some of us

end up failing in a few courses. And the institute doesn't take any pity

on them. We lose interest in the studies, and the teachers also know it.

Still, we are not disturbed, as we are told that our college is a Center

of Excellence.

Our college prides itself for maintaining strict discipline. The

authorities believe that they know what is good for us, just as our

parents did. No departure from the norms of civilized behaviour is

permitted. We are all cast into one mould, and are expected to believe

that all is well with us. Some of us -especially girls (who are on the

verge of extinction now) -succeed with that belief, and so keep quiet.

The rest of us cannot do this. We discover weird ways of relieving our

tensions and frustrations. We howl like jackals and unleash strings of

abuses; we break innocent chairs and shatter window panes - all under the

cover of darkness. Come daylight, and we return to decent normalcy. No one

understands our Dr Jackal-Mr. Hyde type behaviour.

We drift from semester to semester in blissful ignorance. We undergo

numerous courses, all supposedly very important. We get to see all kinds

of teachers-the good, the bad and the ugly. The good ones are too sincere

and make us feel guilty of our insincerity. The bad ones mumble something

in the class, take attendance and runaway. The ugly ones like to bully us,

compel us to submit all kinds of stupid assignments. We never stand up and

ask questions in any class, because we may end up looking like the the

idiots we suspect we are. This can be acutely embarrassing, especially when

the other sex is around. All said and done, we try to have a good time in

the class, giggling and fooling around. The teachers pretend that they do

not see us play.

After all this turmoil and confusion, it is an immense relief to get

back home at the end of every semester, and to hear the neighbours

whisper, "He is studying at ISI. He must be really brilliant!" It is like

sound of sweet music to us. We wish we could have it replayed (at higher

volume) - again and again!


In the final year, a new passion enters our lives : Placement. We talk

to each other knowledgeably about the plum jobs in the offing, and of the

corporations like TCS, Motorola, Citibank, ICICI.....(the list goes on).

We dream of air-conditioned offices with plush wall to wall carpeting,

attractive secretaries, five-figured salary, chauffeur driven cars, credit


We appear in various interviews, hoping that we are not asked too many

technical questions. (It is comforting to note that even the great Bill

Gates did not fare too well in that department in his college days). Sooner

or later, we get through somehow, and in the process, discover a

mind-boggling secret : most jobs have little or nothing to do with what we

have studied! You do not need statisticians to work on banking software,

or to fiddle with the Y2K problem. Yet it has become fashionable for

companies to recruit people from just about any discipline to serve as

their programmers, with promises of careers in IT industry.

A myth is preserved.


College days come to an end. We emerge (with a sense of relief) as

full-fledged statisticians (whatever full means). On the last day, we go

through a touching farewell ceremony, during which we feel that whatever

be our experiences here, we still LOVE this place.

Then we join the companies which were kind enough to recruit us. We

are breathless and eager to experience the Paradise we have heard so much

about. Some of us, the really brainy ones, go to different universities to

pursue higher studies. (I can never understand how they can manage that).

Yet another (familiar) phase in our hollow lives begins...

We run around hither and thither, meeting deadlines and targets, and

trying to impress our boss. Quickly, we learn the tricks of the new trade,

hop from one job to a more paying one, pull the right strings, and butter

the right people on their right side. Maybe this is what 'management' (at

least in practice) is all about.

In the meantime, we get married - after much skilful negotiation -

preferably, to other respectable professionals like ourselves. Then, we

enjoy life in all its fullness (and hollowness), and live happily ever

after! We reproduce miniatures of ourselves, and we promptly program them

along 'respectable' lives. We want them to become even more respectable

professionals than ourselves. Of course, it is all for their welfare! And,

no doubt, also for the development of our society!

The history repeats itself. And so does the hollowness.


The 'story' is drawing to an end. Is it a comedy? Or, is it a tragedy? We

are somewhat confused and hurt. What is the moral of the story? We may

concede that we are hollow men (and women). But what are we supposed to do?

Perhaps, to please and find out what we really want in life,

To discern what is of enduring value,

To accept the harsh truths about ourselves,

To feel the pain of dishonesty,

To strive to remain on the true but difficult path (the razor's edge),

To listen to the music of our soul, and

To be liberated from hollowness.

It is the task of a lifetime.

It used to be called 'education' once upon a time.