A couple of weeks ago, I read this Hindustan Times oped by Manu Joseph. I call it an oped merely because it appeared on the Opinion page. It would be far more appropriate to call it a masterful piece of trolling of anybody who enjoys sweets:
Sugar operates in the same way as evil because it is. It is an allure that hides deep inside culture, and in the notions of love, celebration, freedom, sharing and being endearingly flawed. And in our fundamental right to mediocrity. The only time human beings question the virtues of perfection and excellence is when you take sugar away from them.
There are multitudes within that paragraph. The correlation of sugar and evil; which is hyperbolic by itself but so understated in the context it appears in. The contemptuous scorn for “being endearingly flawed”, which I too find annoying when I find that particular self-projection infecting my Twitter timeline. The rage at love, celebration, and freedom all being hijacked by bad dietary habits. And that is just one paragraph. The rest of the oped pours the same scorn on Aditya Chopra movies’ suspension of logic, fruit juices, the moral panic over Maggi, and… pretty much everything else, actually.
What explains all this scorn and rage? And why is Manu Joseph angry at everything? Why are so many of his opeds what the good old days of blogging used to call puke fests? After giving the matter much thought on my commute (which runs from South Delhi to Sonepat so I had lots of time to give it thought), I was rewarded with an insight. The insight was this:
Manu Joseph and Aakar Patel are the Safe-For-Work versions of Kamaal R Khan (hereinafter referred to as KRK sir).
The rest of this post is full of bad language. Kindly proceed accordingly.
On Twitter, KRK sir once rhetorically asked a question that I cannot remember. Perhaps it was to do with why viewers voted a particular way on a reality show; or why so many people watched Shah Rukh Khan movies. KRK sir provided the answer to this rhetorical question in the same tweet. He explained that it was because we are chutiya.
For many years, this insight went ignored. But as I experienced more and more of daily life in India, I realised that “Because we are chutiya.” is actually an incredibly satisfying answer to its paradoxes.
Why do Indian homeowners drop a bomb on good looking marble flooring which briefly impresses visitors or prospective tenants but neglect to provide a granite slab around the sink, thus causing daily misery when trying to balance or retrieve toothbrushes and razors? Because we are chutiya.
Why do rich people in Delhi drive from Delhi to Gurgaon and subject themselves to tooth gnashing traffic even though they could take an air conditioned Metro, and could catch up on their reading or even on Candy Crush? Because we are chutiya.
Why do we drive our cars down the wrong side of the road to save five minutes over taking a U-Turn, even though this barely affects our overall punctuality, actually wastes everyone else’s time, and because of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, makes us late too? Because we are chutiya.
Why is it that it’s Scandinavian customers who insist on first aid kits and safety equipment for the workers in the factories that make their products, Indian management that tries desperately to get the workers to adopt these, and that the workers who are actually at risk from inadequate safety gear are the ones who refuse to wear their helmets or safety shoes or demand earthed plug points? Because we are chutiya.
Now examine all Manu Joseph and Aakar Patel’s columns. They aren’t quite as foul mouthed. But almost everything they choose to write about can also be explained with “Because we are chutiya.”
Why do we persist with forcing sweets on our guests and ourselves, at any occasion, at massive cost to our wallets and our health; when there are other things we can do to show affection or to celebrate? Because we are chutiya.
Why do we persist with maintaining the trappings of the caste system like arranged marriage within our own castes, soft discrimination like refusing to rent our houses out to Muslims and Dalits, and shoveling our money over to rapacious priests who want to shatter our mental equilibrium by narrating the Garuda Purana; even though the prosperity of the rest of the world offers overwhelming evidence that this is getting us nowhere? Because we are chutiya.
Why do we go on vacations to foreign countries where we refuse to eat their food? Because we are chutiya.
Why is our formal clothing so ridiculously ornate and over the top? Because we are chutiya.
Why do we even refuse to acknowledge all these frustrations and insist that there is no problem?
Step back a little from this list of frustrations and woes, and take a deep breath. Another deep breath. And now consider what Manu Joseph, Aakar Patel, and KRK sir are all railing against. Why, they ask in frustration and despair, are our basic assumptions of what is good and what is bad so flawed? Why is our behaviour so conducive to the misery of others and ourselves? Why can’t we even see that it is conducive to misery?
The angst is the same. The only difference is that Manu Joseph’s language is sophisticated enough to make it to the oped page of an English language newspaper. But the diagnosis, stripped of sophistication, remains that we, as a society, are chutiya.
But surely, we cannot just leave it at being chutiya? After all, we have attended seminars and classes and lectures on leadership and change management, or on the Toyota Production System, or on any number of topics; all of which emphasise that asking why once is not enough. We have to go five why’s in. The answer to why we behave against our self interest may be that we are chutiya, but why are we chutiya? Does anybody have an answer to that?
Oddly enough, Leo Tolstoi did, more than a hundred years ago, in this bit from Anna Karenina:
It was for his interests that every laborer should work as hard as possible and that while doing so he should keep his wits about him, so as to try not to break the winnowing machines, the horse rakes, the thrashing machines, that he should attend to what he was doing. What the laborer wanted was to work as pleasantly as possible, with rests, and above all, carelessly and heedlessly, without thinking.
With even further mechanisation, the labourer who does not keep his wits about him is not merely at risk of breaking the winnowing machine, but having the winnowing machine break his bones. But even today, the labourer wants to work as pleasantly, carelessly, and heedlessly as possible. This is true whether he labours in the fields, the factories, or onsite for Infosys where he asks other people for code on forums, or in the pitch department for Deloitte, where he copies presentations wholesale, only doing a Ctrl-R on the name of the client.
The jump from Manu Joseph to Tolstoi is essentially one of empathy. Tolstoi too sees that the behaviour is chutiyaap, but is able to put himself in the point of the chutiya. No wonder Vladimir Brusiloff said ‘Tolstoi not bad.’
He takes us beyond the first why, and enables us to ask the next one- why would we rather avoid thinking for a little while than make a little effort to avoid misery or to get a huge benefit.
I don’t know the answer. I think the people who are best qualified to answer this second level of why are neuroscientists or behavioural economists or perhaps psychiatrists. And I’m none of the above. But if they come up with a satisfactory answer we can proceed further.
Step back again.
Take another deep breath, and another. Let’s look at the bigger picture again, if for no other reason than that it might be interesting.
We saw that the difference between KRK sir and Manu Joseph was one of language. But there’s also a difference between Manu Joseph and Aakar Patel, and it’s one of approach.
Both Manu Jospeh and Aakar Patel observe, and groan, at a set of behaviours that usually go together. Vegetarianism. Unhealthy levels of sugar consumption. Littering. Obscurantism. Insularity.
Are these behaviours merely correlated, or is one causing the others? And which one is the root cause?
Looking at the things they write, it’s as if Manu Joseph doesn’t really care. The fact that they make no sense, and that they go together to create some of the worst outcomes in the world is enough for him to attack them all. After all, he’s stuck at the first why. He has no answers to why we are chutiya, so he might as well viciously attack everything that might be a root cause. Go after everything with equal ferocity and vigour, and you might just destroy something critical that could then bring the whole stinking edifice down with it.
Aakar Patel, on the other hand, has an answer to why we are chutiya. He says it’s because of the way castes interact with each other.
It might be the wrong answer. But he believes in it enough to call upon it in everything he writes, perhaps with the hope that this focus will make his attacks on chutiyaap more effective.
In the absence of convincing answers to why we are chutiya, Manu Joseph’s machine gun rage may be more intellectually honest than Aakar Patel’s precise sniping at something that might or might not be the reason for why we are chutiya. I look forward to those convincing answers emerging.