Saturday, 23 January 2016

Rat Race

"The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat." - Lily Tomlin, American actress.

The race is on.
Towards the end of the 18th century, when France was going through the troubled days of the Revolution (1789-99) and Tipu Sultan was fighting the English tooth and nail in Mysore, the population of the world stood at slightly above 1 billion. When the World War I started in 1914, we had multiplied to just under 2 billion. 5 billion was reached in 1987, and today we a proud race of 7.3 billion. (Source: United Nations Census Bureau). The growth rate is tremendous, and to surmise, there are a lot of people out there.

Welcome to an overcrowded planet. Feeding the mouths of 7 billion plus is no mean job. The earth and her resources are all limited, and we can only go so far with advanced technologies and new ways of producing food. Add to that the bottomless ocean of human wants and needs, and it is assured that existence is not for granted. We are back to the Stone Age days when every human needed to fight and forage for food every single day; only that we are fighting other human beings now, and not deer bison and mammoths. "Competition" is the word of the day, and we are all a part of it, without exception.

A small matter of a train journey.
The very comical visual just after the opening credits of the 2009 blockbuster "3 Idiots" that showed a particular sperm fighting for his way among millions of other sperms sums up the initiation to this topic very well. (You see, that's how early the race starts!) Jokes apart, the spirit of fighting for every inch of space you can get and not conceding a single grain is something which is ingrained into us from a very, very young age. This fight is not what politicians and educationists might call "a healthy contest"; on the contrary the cutthroat element is a part of its DNA. A habit which is learned during childhood remains till the dying breath, so lets start with the example of the education system, that piece of machinery which shapes and grinds a child into a finished product ready for the world outside.

A case in point, I remember a very close acquaintance once having mentioned to me about being very busy, since his 5-year-old son was having his "final examinations" at school, and the entire family was preparing for them on war-footing. Television sets were disconnected and playtime was subject to major restrictions. Without disrespecting the parents or the school, do spare a thought for the poor child; he hardly knows what purpose an examination is supposed to serve, but is being forced to sit down with English spellings and Maths problems for God knows how many hours a day. The child eventually did well in his class in the exam, much to the relief of the anxious parents. But what escalates the danger is that when this concept of "competition-oriented learning" is thrown at a child from a very young age, the minds are programmed into a set rhythm and pattern for a lifetime. "Studies" are something you need to be done with, and be done with in a proper manner, and the question of actually "liking" what you are learning is simply not asked! Now this may be sounding a bit hypocritical, (and a certain level of competition between peers is definitely quite beneficial), but when the importance of "learning well" is secondary and "doing better than others" becomes premium, we have a serious problem on our hands. And this is precisely what our grading and ranking system has turned us into. A vicious circle: the higher the competition is, the more is the attention on outscoring the guy next to me, and it propagates on and on. This also reminds me of a rather lame joke I once heard about a High School science student who was so programmed to answering MCQ's that when asked what his father's name was, he asked for four options....

But why highlight the plights of only the student community, when we have a huge working class between the ages of 25 to 65, who are fighting for their right to earn every single day? A farmer is fighting for better produce than the neighbouring village's in order to renovate his house, and an MBA graduate is fighting for a promotion to the 6-figure payment bracket hopeful of booking an apartment in the latest up-market high-rise. Two individuals with absolutely nothing in common, but both are participants of the same race. Also, both have plenty of obstacles: for the farmer it is the monsoon, the low prices and political goons, while for the sales manager it is the monthly target, the backbiting colleague and the ill-tempered boss. Every Bengali boy has at some point in his childhood, while being reprimanded for refusing to study, heard the scary rebuke: "Lekhapora na korle kintu boro hoye muri bechte hobe!" Little did we know at that point that even to become a successful muri-seller today, the competition is not to be underestimated!

One of the worst effects of stress: QUIT SMOKING TODAY.
We Indians are certainly fighting one of the toughest fights there are in the world. We are all scurrying along like mice to a piece of cheese. If you are that odd mouse who has no affection towards cheese and refuse to run, you perish. In a bid to outrun the runner ahead of you the essence of the journey itself is left behind unseen and unfelt. We have no solutions to this, and neither do we see one coming. In the mean time, we are all sharpening our hunting skills and planning our next move to outsmart the world. In a world and a society where you study to achieve a "rank" and a high salary package means higher "value" in the marriage market, where an artisan making an idol thinks not of how beautiful his creation is but of how many more "Puja Samman"s his idol will win over his rival's, we fight. Those able to model their minds and bodies by these rules succeed, the others fall by the wayside.

We have only one world at our disposal, and we have to make the best of it. "What cannot be cured must be endured", and endure we must. In a world of runners one cannot afford to have a morning stroll, so forward march. But at the same time, savour those little moments, when in the rush of life you get a chance to do something you love and not something you "must" (things "out of the syllabus" maybe!), and perhaps they will provide the fuel for the journey onward. Do what you love and love what you do, and maybe a job will not remain a job for long...

"You have competition every day because you set such high standards for yourself that you have to go out every day and live up to that." - Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time.

That's all for now. Duty calls....