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The brown man’s burden

india Updated: Mar 14, 2008 23:49 IST
Renuka Narayanan
Renuka Narayanan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The spate of student suicides makes you long to hold and reassure our children that there is life beyond exams, that being born whole and healthy into a family that can feed you and educate you is already such a huge handout from fate. What can parents do beyond telling their children not to feel pressured by the immediacy and terror of exams/admissions? ‘Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established.’ Peer pressure seems stronger than any comfort that home can offer. Is that because home itself is invaded daily by TV that superficialises the long game of life into winner-takes-all moments? How can any sensitive, insecure young mind deal with the low self-esteem induced by every ad, article, movie and mall? Information and acquisition are celebrated, not knowledge and emotional intelligence.

Cricket is the only perceivable bastion of mass merit left in national life, but how does it help society to stay anchored if players are given 58 lakh rupees each for one match and rising corporate salaries are celebrated ad nauseam? Lakhs of poor Indians die before our eyes but we party on. Ironically, it’s lines by that old British imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling against the Boer War in the poem The Islanders (in The London Times, January 4, 1902) that apply to India now: “Then ye returned to your trinkets; then ye contented your souls/With the flannelled fools at the wicket or the muddied oafs at the goals…Given to strong delusion, wholly believing a lie/ Ye saw that the land lay fenceless, and ye let the months go by…No doubt but ye are the People; who shall make you afraid? Also, your gods are many; no doubt but your gods shall aid…”

Overnight, Kipling became the most hated man in Empire. From across the Anglophone world, one Augustus C Buell of Philadelphia wrote in The New York Times Saturday Review of Books of January 25, 1902: “(Kipling) dares what no British writer has dared before, to profane with satire the sacred sports of cricket and football…it aroused an almost unanimous rage from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and if Kipling ever stood any chance of being the official (poet) laureate, it is past now.” (But nevertheless, he was the first English language writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907).

The creation of wealth is important and necessary. But what about the pressure in media houses to constantly put out “rich” news and banish poverty from the page and screen? Can mindcandy from millionaire gurus or psychobabble about the ‘Self’ figleaf that cynical agenda? We are a society in transition with a huge ‘aspirational’ class. Those aspirations, like anything else, need a balance. But when an unholy trinity of bad policy, inept governance and dumbing down of the public mindscape happens, you get industrial-strength stress with no inner resources to fight back with. You get mind-body-spirit disunity that retail therapy pretends to fix: by stoking our insecurity!

The only remedy is perspective. That it’s okay NOT to buy that, that and that. It’s okay not to have any great talent but to just do one’s job well and nibhao. It’s okay to simply live as harmoniously as possible. It’s okay to find happiness in a song, a plate of chaat, a spot of helpful work or in learning something because it’s interesting and not because it will help you win or buy. It sincerely doesn’t make sense that somebody selling shoes, clothes, cars or gadgets should make you feel so bad about yourself that you want to die. Think instead of exactly why they’re messing with our minds. It’s the world’s oldest reason, the profit motive. Or read Henry Labouchère’s parody of Kipling’s controversial poem, The White Man’s Burden. Called The Brown Man's Burden, this one appeared in the Literary Digest (London), February 25, 1899 and ends:

Pile on the brown man's burden/And if his cry be sore/That surely need not irk you --Ye've driven slaves before./Seize on his ports and pastures/The fields his people tread/Go make from them your living/And mark them with his dead.

Pile on the brown man's burden/And through the world proclaim/That ye are Freedom's agent --There's no more paying game! And, should your own past history/ Straight in your teeth be thrown/Retort that independence/Is good for whites alone.