HOW’S LIFE...by J. Alfred Prufrock
We are the hollow men,
We are the stuffed men,
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
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.