By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
It had been building up for some months and then it arrived, completely unannounced, suddenly one day—a decision I had been agonizing for months about taking. I just had to quit my job, I finally decided. I was working then at what, in academic circles, is considered one of the most ‘prestigious’ social science research institutes in India. The pay was decent enough, and so were the many frills that came along with the two-year fellowship, but I had lost complete interest in what I was doing—a book project on indigenous feminism. I felt totally empty and bereft of any direction whatsoever. My life had lost all meaning and purpose.
For most of my life till then—forty-four long years—I had been in and out of various educational institutions. I had studied in some of the supposedly ‘best’ schools, colleges and universities in India, and then spent seven years in so- called ‘prestigious’ higher educational institutions abroad, after which I had worked at several ‘leading’ Indian universities and research centres. I had been carefully weaned on the theory that ‘modern education’ was the panacea to all the ills of the world. But what good had the ‘modern education’ that I had received done me, I was now forced to ask myself. True, it had helped me win generously-funded fellowships and well-paid jobs, but, I now had to admit, that was about it. It had certainly done nothing at all to transform me into a better, more compassionate and loving human being, at peace with myself and with others. In fact, it had done quite the reverse, and the damage was clearly evident in the unenviable predicament that I was faced with. It had also done nothing whatsoever for my inner growth or self-realization. Growing older, I had become somewhat more aware of the fleetingness of this world and the possibility of life after death stretching till eternity. Being focused entirely on this world, and studiously silent on the possibility of eternal life after death (in what form that exists I still have no idea, although I am familiar with the various theories that the different religions have to offer), the ‘modern education’ that I had received and had sought to impart to others had left me totally incapacitated on that front, too. The more I reflected the more evident it was that all my education had not only done nothing to prepare me for the journey after death but had actually become a major hindrance whose pernicious influence I had now to struggle to try to overcome. To cut a long and depressing story short, I quit my job and returned to my mother’s home in Bangalore. I desperately needed time and space to be by myself, to reflect on my life and to seek to shape it anew. This wasn’t easy, of course. My relatives and friends found my behavior worrisome. ‘You can’t be sitting at home and doing nothing’, a concerned friend said to me. ‘You have to do something. How will you manage to survive if you don’t?’I tried to reason with my friend. I had earned enough money to meet my needs, I said. ‘Money isn’t everything,’ he answered. ‘You have to do something or the other if you don’t want to go mad!’
My friend wasn’t entirely wrong, though I can’t say he was fully right. We’ve got so used to doing things all the time to justify our being alive that we simply can’t imagine taking time off from our frenzied existence to do something as beautiful as nothing at all. Even folks who have enough money not to need to work feel the desperate urge to be constantly engaged in doing something or the other (including reading the same page of the daily newspaper ten times over or hollering at their children for no reason at all) for fear they might lose their minds—such is our dread of having to confront our inner reality, which doing nothing necessarily entails.
‘Why don’t you teach poor children, and impart them the knowledge you’ve received in all those fancy places you’ve studied in?’ my friend went on. ‘That way you can do some good to society instead of wasting your life. ‘Initially, I was tempted to agree with my friend. I even fixed up to travel all the way to Arunachal Pradesh to teach English in a tribal village school. The thought of living in a remote village was exciting. But in just a few days I changed my mind. It wasn’t just the physical hardship that spending months or even years in an Arunchali village would entail that now seemed daunting, or the great physical distance from home. Knowledge of English might improve their prospects for getting a better-paid job, but was teaching English to tribal kids really going to make them better human beings, I asked myself. Would it in any way help them prepare for their eventual journey after death into eternal life, which I was now beginning to admit was a distinct possibility? I knew the answers to those questions even before I could put my mind to them: a resounding ‘No!’My spending months or years in that isolated village teaching English might actually do more harm than good to the children, I realised. The craze for learning English, now universal in India to the point of being considered compulsory, went along a frenzied addiction to Western consumerist culture, disguised as ‘modernity’. If you knew English well, you did have better chances of getting a better-paid job, and then the greater chances you had of buying all the goodies that the media insisted you had to own in order to be considered ‘successful’ and ‘modern’. But, was that really what life was all about? What would that mean for the quest to achieve the purpose of life, which, so the various religions say, is to prepare for the eternal life after death? If you didn’t know English or even spoke it with the wrong accent you were treated as a miserable ‘failure’. If you spoke only your native tongue, as I suppose many of the Arunchali tribal children did, you were considered ‘primitive’ and ‘lowly’, an object of scorn or, at best, pity by the English-spewing elite. I shuddered as I imagined what havoc this was playing with the self-esteem of millions of people who didn’t know English or not well enough. I dreaded to think of what the mad urge for English education meant for the future of indigenous cultures, like the Arunchali tribals’, that had little chance of survival in the face of the relentless pressure (abetted by the demands of the consumerism-driven economy and the assaults of the media) to succumb to the allure of English and the ‘modern’ consumerist culture that almost inevitably accompanies it. Was I really willing, I asked myself, to be an accomplice in all of this? It didn’t take me long to decide what to do. I gave up my plans of going to Arunachal Pradesh. I’m still quite clueless about how to infuse my life with meaning and what to do with myself, though. If you have anything sensible to suggest, do let me know!