Culture & Life · Recommended movies, books etc.

Garbage in, garbage out

Idiosyncrasies make people highly interesting, and each person generally harbors some or the other ‘superpower’ in the garb of an idiosyncrasy. My English teacher from primary and secondary school (Mr H), for example, has the first page of philosopher Bertrand Russell’s autobiography fully memorized. That page, titled ‘What I Have Lived For’, is just permanently etched in his memory, and he recently recited all of its 320 words for my wife, me, and other friends as part of the answer to our question on how he came to learn and love the English language.

It was Mr H who introduced me to Russell and other good writing when I was a kid. He helped me discover the world of books and the power of knowledge. Like in many other cities of the world, the streets and footpaths (or pavements) in India’s cities have always been a paradise for book lovers, with low-cost copies of all kinds of books on sale if one knew where to look for them. Mr H would often talk about these open-air bookstores during his classes, telling us how he bought this awesome book for “two rupees only” and that magnificent volume for “five rupees only” from the streets of Mumbai and Pune.

Street book-sellers setting up shop for a long day ahead. Kolkata, 2017. Photo by Kiran Kumbhar.

Before the impersonal entity of the Internet and then mobile data plans made knowledge ostensibly cheap, the enterprising street booksellers of urban India were in the business and service of making knowledge accessible to a large number of (generally middle- and middle-ish-class) Indians. In his house Mr H had a massive collection of books, mostly bought from such booksellers in addition to stores like Bombay’s Strand which he was fond of. Much of my childhood and early teenage was spent leafing through his collections and reading many of his recommended books. CEM Joad’s The Story of Civilization was among my favorites, on which I wrote my first Substack piece.

Mr H was also a big fan of the iconic English grammar book popularly known as ‘the Wren and Martin’, and I happened to have a withering old copy of it gifted to me by an Anglo-Indian elderly neighbor. (I lived in a chawl – Marathi चाळ – till the age of 20, and shared my everyday life, including community latrines, with people from many diverse backgrounds. I hope to write about those experiences some time, but I have alluded to some of them in this piece for the India Forum.) The Wren and Martin had a large number of passages and poems from English literature dotted throughout its hundreds of pages, and even though I never studied literature or read a lot of classics, I became aware of and admired the beauty and profundity of great writing because of this and other books I read as a child and teenager.

And then there were science books which were Mr H’s special favorite, and which helped me understand the world and the universe around me in less supernatural and magical, and more realist and rational, ways. Mr H had lent me his copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time when I was some 13 years old, and though I did not understand much of it, the book – and Mr H’s teaching in general – made me acutely aware of the smallness and relative insignificance of humans compared with the vastness of the universe around us.

My mind travels to all these memories when I think of what kids today are reading and the kinds of ideas they are being exposed to. As a child I often heard adults around me using the Marathi proverb वाचाल तर वाचाल, which basically meant Reading Will Save You. Today I wonder how much relevance this proverb has, when a lot of what kids, teenagers, and young adults are reading are Whatsapp messages, social media posts, and generally awful and hateful stuff masquerading as history, science, news, and ‘expert opinion’. Not to mention that young folks now are also doing less of reading and more of ‘consuming’. Even though a part of me leans toward characterizing my discomfort with these developments as the inevitable fondness of people for the past (that is, adults of any generation claiming that things were much better when they were kids/young), I also realize that this explanation is partial, and ignores the banality of evil and the normalization of bigotry, immorality, and lies that is so prominent today.

To be sure, kids were exposed to bigoted ideas and lies even in the past. But it must be remembered that there were far more checks and balances then – including in the mainstream discourse, literature, and media. For example, I remember reading about and watching news on religious riots and murders throughout my childhood, but don’t remember any mainstream discourse in which the killings were justified and the murderers were glorified. Kids today, on the other hand, can very easily come across such twisted takes on violence on every digital platform, often high up in search results and ‘Suggested Videos/Articles’, as well as during dinner time on mainstream TV channels.

What I fear the most is that if the normalization and ‘casualization’ of twisted morals and lies, and the disdain for critical and intellectual rigor, continue with the same gusto and speed as is happening today in our public discourse, and if our kids grow up in such an environment, we will soon become a country peopled mostly by bigoted individuals bereft of any logical thinking skills (that is, ‘bigidiots’). We will have people who won’t appreciate even basic moral ideas like justice and equality, people who will not be able to distinguish between reality and lies, and people who will believe that their lives and their country are being ‘destroyed’ by Muslims and ‘leftists’ and feminists and whatnot even as they witness politicians and news anchors and diaspora Indians and film actors and industrialists and other elites taking them for a royal ride.

Conversations with folks back home, as well as the experiences of and commentaries by many people living in India, indicate that we have already stepped into the bigidiot era. As relentless reportage from NewsLaundry and other brave independent Indian media platforms suggests, relaying hateful and bigoted propaganda has become a highly profitable business venture for the elites and ‘influencers’ of India (many of whom are cunningly sending their kids and loved ones out of the country even as they poison the discourse and attitudes within the country). Kids and teenagers in India today are being constantly exposed to garbage, and it is not hard to conclude that when they become adults, many (or most?) of these kids will lack basic decency and compassion, as well as logical thinking skills. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say.

The main reason I decided to start my newsletters (Substack and Revue) is to provide a modest challenge to the garbage that dominates the Internet and social media in India and in the United States. I am a medical doctor and historian of science from India living in the US, and hence this newsletter will be about, as I say in the description: History, science, and healthcare; India, U.S., and humankind; kindness, commonsense, and reason.

I absolutely believe that only Reading Will Save Us. Great ideas and great writing have the power to bring about positive, constructive change in people’s minds and lives and in the world in general. Through this newsletter I intend to discuss and emphasize such ideas and writing and people.

For example, here is the first line of the first page of Bertrand Russell’s autobiography which Mr H so loves (the full text, in Russell’s own handwriting, is available here):

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair…

… Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.


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