Valson Thampu

Long ago, I used to feel sorry for traffic cops. I could not, in those days, I could not think of work duller, more mechanical and sub-human than being confined to an endless repetition of a small range of physical gestures, which seemed to exclude thinking altogether. Having taken Descartes a bit too seriously, I had presumed that to live was to think. Work without thinking was, at best, mere existence.

Here was an employment that seemed to not involve any extent of thinking. A traffic cop was to me no more than a flexible robot, programmed to perform a fixed range of physical gestures, determined by what happened entirely external to himself. It was work that excluded interiority.

I used to think of this kind of situation through the image of the treadmill. A traffic cop could as well be on a treadmill. You get on to one. Switch it on. You are taken over by a series of monotonous movements, ridiculously limited in range and laughable in scope. You became one with the machine. The one thing you did not have to do, while on the treadmill, was to think. To think on the treadmill is to risk losing your step and crashing.

Now another set of professionals have displaced traffic cops in my sympathy: my glitzy, glamorous friends in the electronic media. I wonder how many spare a thought for them. I wonder, even more, if they can see the treadmills on which they run in the studios, day after day, twenty-four-seven.

Their soul-stifling ordeal escalates as the profession becomes more and more powerful and lucrative. In the early days there was still a touch of the saving grace of unpredictability. Anchors enjoyed a tiny margin of freedom for being individuals. Now they seem like mouths wholly autonomous from minds. They are glib, but their words do not go deeper than their throats. They seem tied to Ixion’s wheel of media routine.

Ixion got punished for falling in love with Hera. Ours is not an age of mythology. So, mega bucks have taken her place.

So what? Who doesn’t love money? Sure. The question remains, still. Who doesn’t pay for it? The costliest pleasure in the world is the love of money. (Ask Mallya and Nirav Modi, if you are not convinced). It has to be bought dear. Other pleasures you pay for with cash or credit card. The love of money you pay for with your humanity. (This is a truth that begins to make sense, alas, only when it gets too late). If there is an oppression worse than instant strangulation, it is having to live as a caricature of yourself.

But, let’s return to our sisters and brothers – all of them nearly almighty – in the electronic media. Has it ever struck you what it feels like when you have to sit, with a small circus of experts and spokespersons, belabouring a pre-determined agenda, the scope of which – now even the lunatic in the madhouse knows- is set by agencies and considerations that have nothing to do with the verbal fire-works in progress?

Suppose you are an actor in Bollywood, or Kollywood. You are so much better off, in comparison. There you know, all else know too, that you are acting. To act is to be other than yourself, which allows you to preserve intact, if you so wish, the distinction between you and the role you act. But, if you are a TV anchor, you have to be completely other than yourself, yet persuade yourself and, if possible, others that you are being splendidly yourself. And that, not for a day, or ten days, or for a hundred. For days on end! Good heavens! How do people keep themselves from going mad? How do they ward off nervous breakdown? How do they manage to look so normal?

Everything looks all right, so long as you don’t ask the unnerving question: what does it mean to be a human being? And how are you faring in that respect?

My teachers in schools and college used to tell me before the mountains were made, as it now seems that the best way to know myself was to watch for what called forth my love and admiration. What induced in me an exalted disposition and steadfastness of purpose. What kindled aliveness in me. And to wonder if there was anything at all that moved the fullness of my being and made me responsive not only to the physical, but also to the metaphysical; not only to the seen, but also to the unseen. I was told it was my duty to live life beautifully; which meant being punctuated by higher longings, a thirst for excellence, refinement of conduct and aristocracy of the spirit.

I used to be told that I needed to be ‘thorough’ in all that I sought to do. And that this ‘thoroughness’ came only from untiring efforts spread over a lifetime through open-minded exposures to situations and persons of diverse tastes and dispositions. I was also urged to believe that the highest good I could seek was to attain, to the extent possible, the maximum development of my manifold potentials. I owed to myself the duty to be as thorough and complete a human being as I possibly could.

As a teacher I believed that my foremost duty was to inspire in my students a love for excellence and to send them out into the wider world with an unquenchable thirst for self-improvement. The value of my work was to be measured not by the grades that my students scored in examinations, but by what they felt challenged to live for. And that defined who they were. This was important because all that a human being possesses is qualified by what one is. Jesus said, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ If the treasures we seek are no more than cash and cards, we shall be no more than shop-keepers. Never mind, if you are a billionaire. How does it help if your imagination is wooden, and your heart made of stone?

Hence the sadness. We are becoming a treadmill generation. Life is no more than routine repetitions on treadmills of endless monotony. Our gains swell, but our stature shrinks. We scintillate with glamour, but who can miss the sadness on our faces? Our life is choked with an abundance of things; but we are not even human enough to cry in private over the famine of our hearts that junks our mega achieves.

In their public persona, our glamourous TV giants of glamour and wealth are enviable icons. In the truth of who they are, they could well be on trial in the courts of their own conscience for doing what they know to be an insult to themselves.

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