New Year's Day Caprice
Posted on 1-January-2009
Markers of time like today are for some people like me occasions to look back and think of what has been, what could have been and what has not been and be sorry, remorseful or remember happy moments and rejoice. At this moment of brooding and reflection I think not of happy times but of the many regrets I have, not over what has not been during the year just past, but over a much longer stretch of time. I think tonight of four particular regrets I have and I shall start with the one that is the most full of spite and venom.
Serving in diplomatic missions abroad, one category of problems I--and, I am sure, others in positions like mine--have had to deal with was those posed by important and not so important, official or not so official, visitors from home. All of them would expect the diplomatic mission not only to take care of the official business that would bring them, but also of their personal--often trivial and quirky--requirements. The really important and powerful among these self-important people would have instructions sent down from the governmental machinery back home so that their requirements would be taken care of. People in the diplomatic mission would have little option but to look after their needs, swallowing their doubts about the appropriateness of using the official machinery for meeting the important visitors' demands. The less important of these visitors--junior politicians, civil servants, friends and relations of civil servants and politicians, friends of acquaintances--would still turn to the diplomatic mission with requests for facilities to which they had no right and expect that their demands be met, or else, they would imply, they would go and complain about the inefficiency of the mission to whichever important connection they had at home. A member of the mission like me would calculate the personal advantages and disadvantages of pandering to these people's wishes and act accordingly. In many cases such requirements would be small and could be met with a small effort and some minor bending of rules and procedures. I cannot say I have never indulged in inappropriate official conduct to please such visitors. Once when thinking of these matters I remembered a couplet from Alexander Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot: "Three things another's modest wishes bound/A dinner, a preface and ten pound". I thought of parodying that couplet to describe one aspect my problems with visitors thus: "Three things another's modest wishes bound/A dinner, a car and ------(?)". My great regret is that, to this day, after so many years, I have not been able to find words to fill that blank space.
My second regret has to do with anger. A news story from 1968 has for some reason stayed in my conscious memory. In that year, at a political meeting in the Federal Republic of Germany, a young woman walked up to the podium and slapped Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who had succeeded Ludwig Erhard as the Federal Chancellor in 1966, fully in the face and shouted: "Nazi !". She was inevitably arrested by the police. I do not know what happened to the young woman and I do not remember what her name was, but I do remember that Kiesinger's political career never recovered from that slap. As I remembered that incident of long ago and was thinking about it one day, I saw on my television screen, a completely disconcerted, not very dignified looking George W. Bush, seated next to the Iraqi Prime Minister, ducking to avoid an object thrown at him at a press conference in Baghdad. Bush had barely sat up when he had to duck again to avoid another projectile. The television anchor said these were shoes thrown by a journalist. Later reports mentioned the words of anger and insult uttered by the journalist while throwing his shoes. The journalist has been detained by the Iraqi police and, reports say, will be tried. He will also probably be sentenced to a term in jail. The incident occurred when George Bush did not have much of a political career or reputation to save, but he will take a long time to live down the insult, whatever glosses he or his propagandists may put on the incident. Like the young woman in Germany or the journalist in Baghdad, I also have my hate figures among politicians. In fact my list of hated Indian politicians has had at least six names on it for some time. I feel the profoundest regret that I have never had the courage--nor am likely to screw up any in future-- to walk up to any of my political hate figures, slap him in the face, box his ears or tweak his nose, or hurl shoes or rotten eggs at him. I lack the courage to even shout abuses at these people from the back of a hall. I do the cowardly thing of privately criticising my hate figures, fully knowing the futility of what I do. I wish I was made of sterner stuff.
My other two regrets have to do with my own personal shortcomings. My mathematical education stopped at the binomial theorem for a positive integer, rudiments of Cartesian geometry and even more elementary integral and differential calculus. In other words I have remained an illiterate in mathematics, and even though I liked it a great deal, I was unable to pursue mathematical studies because of the impossibility of fitting them in with the schedule for other matters I was studying at my college. Over time I have come to understand how basic mathematics is and how important. And this not only because Plato considered it the highest kind of knowledge. Another mathematician, a modern one, says rightly in a work written for the general reader--the mathematically illiterate reader--that we humans live at the intersection between three worlds: the external world of phenomena, the mental world of images of these phenomena and the world of concepts such as numbers, time, space, geometrical shapes and relations between these different concepts. It is these concepts, which exist independently of the external or the mental world, which help us make sense of the world as it is. The problem is that many concepts that modern science deals with cannot be accurately described except in mathematical terms. For a person without mathematics it is impossible to more than vaguely understand Einsteinian relativity, wave function collapse, string theory or super symmetry. I feel a twinge in my heart when I think that there is a whole world of concepts that will forever remain out of my grasp because of my ignorance of mathematics.
Of all the different pleasures of reading, the most sublime lies in poetry. I take pleasure in reading poetry. My regret is that I have never fully immersed myself in it, partly because of preoccupation with other matters but mainly because of the lack of will. A related regret that I feel is that I have no more than superficial acquaintance with poetry written in my native language, Hindi and one reason for that is the peculiar cultural environment of India in which the study of India's native languages and literature suffers from many handicaps. True pleasure of poetry lies in the language a person fully possesses, which is without doubt his native language. My enjoyment of English or French poetry will always remain partial, no matter how much I pretend to the contrary. My regret is that I have not spent more time and energy on reading any poetry, Hindi, English or French.
One of the fragments I have shored up from my sadly-too-early-abandoned learning of Sanskrit is a couplet from Hitopadesha which goes something like this: The time of wise people is spent on the enjoyment of poetry and books of learning; that of fools on addiction, sleep or quarrels. I have no doubt about which category the writer of this couplet would place me in: that of fools. How much time I spend on quarrels and sleep is something I shall keep to myself. I have over the years fallen into one addiction: reading about politics and international affairs in newspapers, magazines and books written by newspaper columnists. I acquired these habits partly from the modern cultural ambience and partly because of the profession I adopted for earning my living. It took me time to understand how inessential newspaper reading can be and how unnecessary continuously following developments in international relations.
During one holiday in Kashmir in 1981, I saw no newspaper, read no magazines, heard no radio news and watched no television for full ten days. I did not feel I had lost anything. One day after I returned to the world of radio, someone who had heard the news on the radio told me that the President of Bangladesh, where I was serving at that time, had been assassinated. I continued with my holiday for the next twenty-five days keeping in only sporadic touch with the news of the world as I was travelling from place to place. When I returned to Bangladesh I did not feel handicapped in any way by this lack of constant touch nor did I find it difficult to quickly understand the situation then in Bangladesh. Likewise when I lived in the Sudan, there were stretches of one week at a time when travelling in the interior of the country I would be completely ignorant of events in the world outside. On none of these occasions did I feel I had lost anything. A great deal of journalistic writing is unbearably trivial and it tends to follow fashion: the future can belong today to China, tomorrow to India and the day after tomorrow back to the United States of America. Political leaders can quickly be transformed from heroes to ogres: witness the three or four books about the Bush presidency written by Bob Woodward, an icon of American journalism. And above all there is the habit of journalists to produce in-depth analyses at the push of a button, the conclusions of which can be reversed or revised at the push of another button; consistency be damned!
As the new year begins I wish I can deal with some of my four regrets. I wish I can at last find the words to fill the blank space in my parody of Alexander Pope and I hope I can find courage to hurl a public insult at least at one of my many political hate figures. Unfortunately, higher mathematics will forever remain out of my reach. I hope in the year to come I waste less time than I have been doing on reading vacuous and foolish essays by newspaper columnists on the shape and direction of the incoming Obama presidency, on the likelihood of war between India and Pakistan, on how to deal with Islamic terrorism and so on, and devote more time to poetry, science which can be understood without mathematics and history, hoping thus to move towards the Hitopadesha category of the wise.