A Bengali Gentleman’s engagements with America – Part III

Part I and Part II of this series of works were more personal in nature and to provide a context of the individual who was writing about the on-going engagements. In this final and the longest part of the series, I shall deliberately de-personalize the relation between the text being written and the person writing the text.

This will discuss issues related to Immigration, Business, Cross-Cultural Interaction (Indian at the narrowest and South East Asian at the broadest), Habitat, Technology, Religion, Beauty and Aesthetics.

Religion 

Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest scientists in the true sense of the term and also an observer of human situation of the highest order, was historically and temperamentally placed at the greatest event of last five hundred years : the ideas of science impacting ideas of religion – Christianity  in Pascal’s time and in Europe. His genius of both of the head and the heart and sensitivity of a poet could foresee the vacuum that was being created by the discoveries of science and something invaluable was getting lost.

He could foresee that Man needed consolation – consolation of finding itself alone and orphan in a world which he claimed to have understood better but was suffering a bottomless nothingness inside. Hence Pascal could say – Man is a reed, a thinking reed and the triumph lies in self-awareness.  This self-awareness issue is more relevant today – when computers are becoming smarter and smarter.

The worldly activities and morals and man’s very purpose of Life  depend very strongly on how he thinks of the mortality and after-life. From Pascal till our time, powerful thinkers tried to grapple with this problem of “meaning” in life and we have a super-market of meaning :

  • Discard the question. Let us pursuit happiness in an equal and fair society.
  • Morality without God. Man is the measure, not only of architecture or of created things, but of Moral. French Revolution – where a new religion was tried to be established where Man was at the centre. The Great Human-centric Utopia at its most-eloquent articulation and also with devastating consequences.
  • We are progressing and Technology – a human created product will solve all our problems. However, as late as 1928, Oswald Spengler demolished all such hopes in his Decline of the West where he hammered on the idea and on its ambit – “if Man is on decline, its created product – Technik will not save him.” This is a re-statement of the doctrine – “Man is the measure of all things.” All relativism after sufficient number of iterations will end in nothingness and the only distinction that will remain is the bare physical survival. Hence continuous war without any higher purpose will drain such a culture of its vitality and the culture will go back to its baseline – tribalism.
  • High Art will replace the vacuum left by Religion. This may be possible for a minority but by its very definition, in a democracy and equal society, median taste will go downwards (and nobody dare to speak it as it will be considered unfair and unequal) and materialism will be the call of the day. In private sphere, this will mean “more stuff” and in public lives, there will be un-ending debate on crushing any incremental or imagined injustices whereas monstrous inequality nobody will notice.  So, in such a society, monstrous inequality will be tolerated as nature of things but any individual claiming “higher dimension of being” will be “cut to size.”. Such societies, in due course, with its unanimous agreement on not tolerating any infinitesimal “imposition”, “elitism”, “high culture” will consider, again for some finite time, baboons and imbeciles as “great artists.” Nowhere but in modern painting this is more clearly demonstrated.  The best defense of an idiot is to propagate the idea that intelligence is a construct by intelligent people and such an injustice can be only remedied by making “intelligence” as some kind of “phobic” word.  If you see a typical modern painting, especially those that are “famous” – if you put the work of art in the left and the description of the work in the right, you shall come to the conclusion that the work is mute – the description is of some value. Can this be said of an old master’s work ? Say of the Girl with the pearl erring by Vermeer – the painting, as if removes some stone inside us and meaning, words, images, poems come of which we were not aware of.

Without the absolute standard imposed by all true religion – the vacuum sucks in everything like a black hole and the first radicals who have all the dust of the classical age sprinkled over them at least retain the respect for the skill of the past. However, it remains the tragedy of their lives to see swarms of imitators and upstarts whose only claim now remains how much un-tutored and banal they can be.

Immigration 

Immigration has been the reactant and catalyst of all racial and genetic (plus and minus) evolution of the United States as a nation. This is a fact and not an opinion. I am directly aware of a particular human group in this Immigration Cycle into that country and that is the people of Indian origin born in the seventies and eighties of the last century. They belong to my generation and they were all, almost to the last man and woman were economic or intentional migrants. They have clocked close to fifty years in this country and the day Rajat Gupta, ex-McKinsey CEO (immigrated in the ’70s) was convicted for Insider Trading, I was shocked like most but the historian in me was delighted to find that the assimilation process  of this particular human group has now reached the level that of the immigrants some century back – Italians. Conviction of Rajat Gupta was the signal act where, I quote myself when the news broke, thinking of Marquez’s Macondo and its earliest settlers : “..a land does not become one’s own till some people are not in the grave” and then my own – “..when the human group does not produce irregular sons and non-regular daughters and some thieves and criminals who finally participate in the drama that is bound to the soil – local jailhouses and local madhouses. Nobody exports criminals or mad people once they are detected either by courts or by courts of community whispers.”

I did write my own observation – a mystery with a damning conclusion where I had asked why this human group – some million strong was not able to produce an enduring, classic piece of art (the mysterious process of self interacting with the universe). I was younger then when I dared to write the indictment but age has mellowed me and now I am more patient. I believe, it will take some time and we shall surely see some classic work of work by this human group. It was 30 years between the actual events happened in New York in the 1940s – Cosa Nostra and Art waited this time and then in 1970s, a 24 year old Italian-American Mr. Copolla was gripped by something which is pure genius and he produced The Godfather.  If Art or the Universe respects some pattern, it will be perhaps in 2042 (some 30 years after the conviction of Mr. Rajat Gupta and few more immigrants of Indian origin), we may wait to see some enduring classic in any art form by this human group. The wait starts now.

Why am I harping on Art ?

An Art of Enduring Beauty alone has the potency to connect dissimilar things. How ?

Nostalgia of the Forgotten Home  – America as a Continent of Circe 

Circe was a mythological demi-goddess who used to attract seafaring men by her siren song and once the sailors landed into her island, she treated them well, fed them, gave them wine but with all these, she mixed some herbs and potions that made those men forget their own land and that of their forefathers.

For all immigrants, America has been a continent of Circe sort of. For Indian immigrants, the magic potion worked better in terms of the forgetfulness. A whole new set of business – of enormous proportion was developed by Bombay film industry in 1990s – coinciding exactly with the time when the first wave of immigrants were having their children entering adolescence and whole new viewership emerged of the films of Bollywood. These films, artistically very mediocre addressed one thing, I paraphrase from the film Casino’s  invocation – “.. just as the Lourdes was for the hunch-backs, these films shot in the new home but controlled from India – these became the purgatorial exercise for those who were aware of being the victim and the suitor – both at the same time of the new land which had become the Continent of Circe for them.”

Technology

I lived my life mostly in India and one group whom I have observed incessantly is the so called “Indian middle class” – being a member of that class myself. These observations with suspended judgement provided me some insights which allowed me to be courageous enough to generalize two key pillars from which we can not only build a vantage point but even something useful for other human groups.

  • The less seminal contribution a human group has on some enterprise, the higher the chance of the same group being more fascinated and irrational about it. Note the word seminal.
  • The more seminal contribution a human group has on some enterprise, the less it will be fascinated and being irrational about it.

The world of technology to which India is beholden was created some five hundred years back in the small landmass called Western Europe.

Our times have witnessed the full flowering of these ideas and also its decay without the moral compass. Rather having no compass of moral or beauty, the whole enterprise finally boiled down to mechanistic exercise and the only measure was the measure of something which was a reductionist unit of convenience – money and its making.

Contemporary India is a major consumer of these technologies and the products the seminal contribution for whatever reasons is very less. Hence the spectral fury of interest and so much hope and faith bestowed on its redemptive value. Redemption, of course from relative, real and imagined poverty.  Our political class and leaders also believed on this and on this, in this divided land appears to be at least no disagreement. That is very strange indeed !

I shall perhaps write after a week once again the next part where two themes of contemporary lives will be discussed – Debt and Livelihood.

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