27 May, 2008

Fighting inner demons

For some strange reason, I had always been attracted towards stories in the Reader's Digest about Nazi and other atrocities happening around the world. For some strange reason, I could sense that I was able to empathize and feel the terror of these victims.

For some strange reason, there has always been a vague fear stalking me ever since I know. I remember once when a doctor had asked me whether everything was alright as I sat wringing my palms in front of him when complaining about sinus. This vague fear has been the single biggest crippling factor, which, among other things, has made me literally collapse on the ground from exhaustion -- after doing nothing.

For some strange reason, I never remember having a good night's sleep. My sleep has always been disturbing and nightmarish -- ever since I know.

For some strange reason, I never felt the urge to go "seek out greener pastures" like the rest of my classmates after graduation. Something instead pulled me towards Germany and no less than Berlin to go study.

And during my stay there, when I was visiting one of the erstwhile concentration camps of the Nazis, it stuck me. This place reminded me of school! The vague feeling of terror, the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that I always feel -- all of them were due to this school!! The strong emotions that I fought internally when seeing movies like The Big Escape and Schindler's List, all traced down to this stupid school!!!


In the years when I was born, the rampant belief about education was the need for "discipline" and how "character" is molded by facing adversity.

The school where I went, took this to heart in a sadistic way, I guess. Some of the things I remember of this school are the following:

First day I was taken to kindergarden (yes, kindergarden) and the first thing I see is a teacher hitting a child hard. I remember feeling very uneasy, but was not able to comprehend anything.

Over the next couple of years, the routine thing in the morning was that I hid under the bed out of sheer terror not wanting to go to school. I was forcibly pulled out from under the bed by well-meaning grand parents, relatives, etc. and nicely packed off to school.

And every day at school we used to witness some child being thrashed, some being locked in the bathroom, some made to kneel down, some even having their hands bound.

As a 5-year old, I used to pray to God everyday that let my teacher and principal meet with an accident today and not come to school.

In sixth standard, after reading some stories about Gandhi's experiments with Truth, I spent many weeks contemplating several ways of suicide just like he did in his experiments.

Sixth standard was particularly bad for me. There was this teacher who kept on preaching her religion to us in school. (Now let us not start this religious angle thing now, I have nothing against any religion -- they're all equally stupid). She used to send us home with lots of booklets and pamphlets. It naturally caused a lot of friction at home and my grand parents once threw away one of these booklets. Next day in school, the teacher found me without the booklet and wanted to punish me (I forget exactly what was the punishment though). But I refused to admit that I did anything wrong. She pulled me away from my bench, hit me and made me stand facing the wall and I had remained completely defiant. I don't know what gave me so much strength that day. That was a Saturday and she had left me with a threat of dire consequences on Monday. On Monday morning, I promptly ran away from home without telling anyone and ended up in my grand parents place. My parents found me by evening (phones were not really around at that time) and the next morning I again tried to run away. My well-meaning folks came behind me on scooter, brought me back and sent me back to that *&%*(*! school. I guess my teacher had forgotten about her promise of dire consequences, because nothing happened.

But that same week, the bugger, I mean bigger, terror -- the principal -- walked in. And before I knew it, he is pinching me on my hands and pulling me up. Before I had a chance to react, I was hit with a volley of slaps and ruler thrashes. In the midst of all the different voices that were screaming inside me, I could vaguely hear the teacher tell the other students, "Let this be an example" or something such. Only later in the day I learnt that what had made the principal so happy was all those smudge marks in my book from my ink pen.

Somehow, one element of victory I have for myself is: I never cried in front of my teachers. They could never bring me to tears. It was another thing altogether that as soon as they left, I was livid. But never in front of them. So there!


Isn't it amazing that amidst such sheer terror, life still wants to live? I used to live in my own fantasy world most of the time. Science, mathematics, social studies, everything fascinated me at some level.

I remember when I first visited Bombay at the age of 3 and saw the beach for the first time; I was making up fantastic and detailed plans of how to build a beach in Bangalore.

I also remember how after watching a Republic Day tri-colour fly-past by planes (and having watched the movie Absent minded professor), I used to imagine myself in a flying car with flubber, and making the wheel of our national flag, to complete the tri-colour of the planes.

I also remember how I had a hobby that was distinct from the usual goody-goody things like stamp-collection and coin collection. I had my own science lab, where we did such dangerous things (literally!) like trying to make glass by burning sand; and building rockets and spaceships. Even then, we had enough sense in us to take adequate precautions when playing with fire (and keep the adults completely in the dark about our activities!)

And of course, I used to bunk classes and run away from school several times -- not to go to movies or anything -- but to go to Vishveshwariah Technological Museum in Cubbon Park!


I've always wondered why I was one of the very few who suffered so much at school. Most of my then classmates seem to be leading happy lives now.

Guess the reason is that, I am sort of a deviant kind who will not accept any idea unless I am convinced of its sensibility in my own way. Every new idea thrown at me has to go through a maze of other ideas and experiences and resolve all inconsistencies, bound all unknowns and then find its rightful place in the scheme of things. I also now understand why I get so irritated at things like name-dropping and citation-mania. I don't care which great person said what; I just want to make sense of the idea just thrown at me and give it its rightful place in the large scheme of things.

(I can see this very similar trait in some of my students and in my little niece. When one of my student says, "All I want from life is peace of mind," I know exactly what he means. When another of my student doesn't want to take up a job for fear of managers and processes, I empathize completely. When yet another takes personal offense when people behave in an insensitive manner against a population or a cultural group, I can associate with that as well. And when one more gets irritated at people pointing to Wikipedia pages in response to his cogitations, I see myself smiling. I can see a little bit of me in all of them and I'm sure it is the same way from the other direction as well.)

But society doesn't have so much patience. It wants compliance. Not solutions to problems, but compliance to its norms. And it wants it now. (A well known person once publicly defined the term "integrity" as "100% compliance". 'Nuff said).

When pushed by societal pressures, I sometimes end up pretending to accept an idea without really doing so -- usually with long term disastrous consequences.

Even in the recent past, I remember how as a new faculty member some years ago, I had succumbed to pressure by the system to have journal publications -- right now! Doesn't matter that we don't have a research program. Better get a publication or else (since we copy the US now), you know what.. Succumbing to pressure, I finally send out a paper that I myself knew was too raw. The consequences were just as I had feared -- no worse, with the added feature of having irrevocably molded the opinions of me from several of my peers in the field.

And even today, every so often, I come home with a voice screaming inside me: To hell with your prestige; to hell with your social standing; just let me think, let me explore, let me teach and let me live in peace. This voice keeps me awake for the greater part of the night and several hours are gone before this voice calms down.


Sigh. Just calculating the amount of time and energy I need to spend to battle these inner demons makes it so depressing. If only I had invested half of that energy into channelizing my once hyper-active imagination into something creative, things would have been much different. But invariably, whenever I have started enjoying myself, there is this voice inside me, insidiously sounding like that stupid school principal, whose very presence cripples everything; sapping every ounce of energy.

But as I said earlier: life. just. wants. to. go. on.

Now I know why I am moved to tears whenever I listen to ABBA's "Move On":

Like a roller in the ocean, life is motion
Move on
Like a wind that's always blowing, life is flowing
Move on
Like the sunrise in the morning, life is dawning
Move on

..and especially..
I've traveled every country, I've traveled in my mind
It seems we're on a journey, a trip through space and time
And somewhere lies the answer
To all the questions why
What really makes the difference
Between all dead and living things, the will to stay alive..

I see it and I hear it
But how can I explain
The wonder of the moment
To be alive, to feel the sun that follows every rain
I ain't dead yet! Isn't that just great by itself!?! :)

PS: Er.. please don't pressurize me to do yoga or meditation or join Art of Living or watch Aastha channel or ... puhleeeze :-)


Epiphany said...

I think Conformance just breeds mediocrity...how badly you want to excel would directly impact how big a rebel you are.

I guess even when you did not cry in front of the teachers you were just trying to be better :)

Ritesh Nayak said...

Nice to read this side of you.

Big Foot said...

school as a concentration camp :-)
It is too tempting not to agree with this one!

Myshkin said...

An interesting unfolding. I jut have one or two things to say. I think one has to go a bit easy on the seeking greener pastures thing. I think it's all relative. I realised this pretty well when a recent decision I took ruffled some people in the family and some others a bit. While I hardly think of it as a 'green decision', the way others see is different. Again, as they say - you are unique, just like everyone else.

sri said...


I know what you are referring to. But just like others could could make wrong inferences about what you are thinking; I think you may also be making the wrong inferences about this ruffling bit.

At least, what ruffles me are not concrete and specific instances. My rufflings are due to the general state of affairs.

There is no personal disgruntlement over anybody in my posts -- not even towards my school teachers and the principal for that matter.

Elizabeth Priya John said...

I completely understand when u say , all our lives we do things , under pressure , half willing , but doing things just becoz it will place us well amongs others ..
This reminded me what my professor said during our farewell party after my bachelors ... I have seen u all in these 3 yrs trying to be something you are not , putting on these various masks and removing them to put on others , but what will help you most in life is being yourself ...

sri said...

Besides why should I go easy on my world-view? It is all relative, right?

rajesh said...

I guess recognition for society means recognition from society.

Our society recognises journal publications, patents, Awards, blah blah. Frankly to me, it sounds like if you have papers and publications and patents, you are powerful and the society will listen to you now. This makes you superior and a "Nazi" of Academic world.
Sounds funny but has a certain degree of co-relation....

sri said...

In our society, almost every profession is at its core, a social hierarchy game.

Strictly speaking, research is meant to be an exercise of exploration, for us to understand some natural phenomena and codify it in a way that it becomes part of our knowledge.

But I have hardly seen any Institution (even the "premier" ones) that keep revisiting these fundamental tenets of research and academics every once in a while. Much of the dynamics is of course, about social order -- how many publications, how many patents.

Almost every profession is ultimately a power play. It is not that there are no right thinking individuals. But the idealist is the one who is most vulnerable. You either play the power game or get eaten. There is no middle ground.

It is no surprise that mediocrity rules in our nation. As a nation we celebrate mediocrity and fight for our right to be mediocre.

Myshkin said...

**Besides why should I go easy on my world-view? It is all relative, right?**

My intention is not to challenge your world view, nor is it to suggest that there is a flaw in it. And I am sure there is no personal disgruntlement in your post. My only point is that it is natural for humans to desire to reach a better condition than the one they are currently in. Even if there is no urge to seek greener pastures, most of us don't stat from a barren land: we need and actively seek a threshold of greenery. If I can use my own example just one more time, most probably I would not have enrolled for a graduate level course in an institute that didn't have at least a perceptible reputation. I meant it was relative in this sense. In any case, let me rephrase my statement on "going easy" to this -- *I* would go easy.

That aside, I agree that we celebrate mediocrity unabashed. I remember reading somewhere -- I think it is the writer Amitav Ghosh who said this -- something to the following effect: the only people in India who aspire for perfection and achieve it are classical musicians. It is a statement I cannot really dispute. I also remember reading somewhere else a related statement to the following effect: in literature (and most other fields) a second rate work can easily get through because of the varied tastes and expectations of people; but in Indian classical music only a first rate artiste can survive.

The point is that, somehow in that small section of population seeking perfection at whatever cost (hardly any artiste becomes famous in a flash or at a young age) has been the ESS. Mediocrity gets severely penalised. (It's not necessarily because of the size of the group.)

On the other hand, in the general case, is mediocrity the ESS? And defecting individuals are penalised heavily? It's very unfortunate, of course, but if it stable, it will require an enormous cost to go to a different ESS, if not an evolutionary cost (time).

Myshkin said...

Ah, got the source of that statement by the way. It was in an article by Ram Guha, called "The greatest Indians", who makes the same point. (http://tinyurl.com/6cjhou)

sri said...

If I can use my own example just one more time, most probably I would not have enrolled for a graduate level course in an institute that didn't have at least a perceptible reputation.

I can understand that. Just to expand on this a bit -- I actually have bet my entire career and lifestyle on the place that does not have a perceptible reputation. Simply because, I'd rather build a reputation (in general, solutions) than hang on as a dead weight to a system that already has reputation (or is greener).

Coming out of mediocrity is quite simple actually. My definition of mediocre is someone who "is afraid to think, but not afraid to act." And this "act" simply means following the crowd, naively assuming that crowds are safe.

One can see that sensibility lies in the other direction. We are too afraid to entertain new ideas. Too afraid to even consider the idea that we can actually build a better society here. Too afraid to trust one another and work as a group/organization/institution.