Updated: Sep 8, 2019
When I was 12, I was often asked, “What is your life’s ambition?” “Do you have a role model?” Umm weren’t parents good enough? But they were an integral part of my life and so I’d often draw a blank. Of course my life wasn’t devoid of meeting interesting personalities or special people. In fact it was peppered with the choicest of folks who have their roots in history, science, culture and medicine even today. And yet, I couldn’t come up with an answer.
One evening and I remember that day quite well, it was a rainy day in June, I was at school when I read this quote from the Bible, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” It had me wondering. What did this quote mean? I asked the teacher, but I wasn’t too happy with the response. My restless questioning mind finally calmed down when I sat in front of dad and pointed to the quote. "Explain, please,” I said. As every good father would, mine carefully placed his philatelic collection aside and told me that this was a quote on Mentors and teachers. “But how can you sharpen another person, daddy? It sounds so absurd.” It was then that I was to learn that the word sharpen had an entirely different contextual meaning; one that was to set me on a quest to find a mentor for myself. That day dad told me how some people walked into our lives, inspired us and helped us to believe in ourselves and our dreams. This sounded fascinating. Maybe I should get one of these people too, I thought inwardly.
Microsoft was the in-thing at that time and I heard many friends saying, I want to be the next Bill Gates. Hmm. I liked Bill. It was just another Bill. I liked Bill Clinton. He seemed a cool President and soon I was to read his autobiography when it did come out much later. The giddy delight of finding a cool politician didn’t last long. The next person who caught my attention and held it for almost two years was Tony Blair. There was something about his Prime Ministerial tenure which despite the terrible reputation he earned for himself towards the end, made me gain interest in politics and international affairs. My 18th Birthday gift interestingly was a book that chronicled the Blair years in office beautifully. Much later at a time when the board exams were on my head like the Sword of Damocles, I often found myself studying dad’s history reference books with keen interest. Maybe I’d find some one there. I met Churchill and Disraeli on the way. The former was okay, the latter kept me rather engaged with his speeches in the British Parliament and I went on to download most of those available. While these brief flirtations with history were enough to keep my interest piqued there was still no sign of a mentor anywhere! Are these characters like the elves and fairies of my childhood? Do they exist? I’d often muse. All these years on, I still laugh at my naiveté.
In the meantime though I realised that while each of the characters I just mentioned did have something to teach me, I couldn’t see myself connecting with any. Why Politics and politicians? Why not literature and the arts? Well that’s because for the longest time I thought that since most of the Indian Freedom Fighters were anglicized lawyers, so these guys had to be good... and their assertiveness would make them better mentors than writers. I was proved wrong much later.
One of the major reasons, to not connect with these powerful personalities of their day, I realised much later, is because none of them had that singular ideology that I wanted to follow. I needed to find a mentor who stood his ground, worked on his principles and had his thought and word synced as seamlessly as two Bluetooth connected devices. How could I match up a Nehru to modern day India when his circumstances were different? And as for Tony and Bill, ah well, the sheen had worn off by then. I was now old enough to realise that some of the mistakes made were unpardonable. Maybe I needed to just find a younger standardised Indian version of Nehru. Who knows, maybe he/she existed?
At 19.5 while I was still on this restless quest to find someone I connected with I began to study politics in detail. What I needed now was a singular fine line of thought; one path, one all encompassing ideology, one principled politician, who perfectly matched my idea of a mentor and stimulated my own raw idealism. After all, I believed that the Greater Good was more important than a short term aspiration. I needed a role model who kept the need to contribute to India, within me alive. I realised I needed a more Indian perspective. Not that the skeptic in me could be easily tamed but maybe, just maybe, it would help.
That year I bought books authored by Indians for the very first time. Up until then it was the British, American, Canadian and Australian authors who moulded my thought and word all the way through, except Tagore and Nehru who were the sole exceptions in my father’s collection in a massive 3000 book library. Then again the two Indians in my house belonged to a different dimension of time and space, one that I could not completely relate to. It was at this time that I was introduced to The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone. It had a Sadhu with a cellphone on the cover. I laughed. My dad didn’t. He was too busy with something else and saw only the half naked Sadhu on a bike. “Mysticism?” he asked in disbelief. “Realism,” I muttered quietly. I had already started reading the book as I waited for my turn at the billing counter. I had finished half before I reached home, only to re-read the entire book the next day. Sundays were created for reading- at least up until college. The book had me captivated on many levels. And I realised that there were good contemporary Indian writers in the Universe. I mean no offense to any one but until then I hadn’t really read a contemporary with a very British stronghold on the language.
I needed to meet this Author. Some how. But he stayed in far away Delhi. For someone who hadn’t travelled too much until then, I was dismayed. He could make for a good teacher and mentor. But there were other pressing matters for now; namely college. Why couldn’t we have colleges where people like him were Professors and Readers?
They say - want something strongly enough and the universe conspires to bring it to you. And so I did get my Mentor in the summer of 2010. Sometime around now marks ten years of knowing him. My day isn’t complete without sharing my achievements with him, mostly alongside sharing it with my parents. Unlike many, I prefer his thoughts on my articles to his Retweets.
But today, I’m dismayed at the levels of political discourse and the unfair abandonment of civility when I see the strong and callous responses when Dr. Tharoor tweets. With a politically motivated witch hunt on one hand, no one who comes in contact with him seems to be spared. Not by politicos, but by second and third grade supporters of extremism and bigotry. I often wonder, should he have just stayed back in the comfort of the West? Maybe in an alternative reality, he’d be inspiring young American and English students on geo-politics and international affairs with thundering applauses and zero abuses.
The problem of those like Dr. Tharoor who belong to the Old School of graciousness and good manners- results of a decent upbringing and fine education, there are only two options: Give in to the rantings of those out to pin them on every thought, word and tweet or reply the coarse with subtlety. Since I safely belong to that school of thought that subscribes to neither, it became essential to bring this up for what I hope will be a civilised discussion hereafter.
The fact today is that young people who have never met him, never talked to him and in fact never even read him, remark in the most uncouth ways possible, which is disturbing for me not just as some one who has studied his works for the last couple of years but as a teacher who consistently finds herself surrounded by young minds waiting for refinement. If our young are being trained in such an unruly manner, one can well write off our place in the world.
At a time when most others are grappling with finicky political objectives and find it overwhelmingly difficult to stand firm on their convictions within the political arena, it is a matter of concern that Shashi Tharoor gets cornered on out of context quotes and misquotes often being hounded for explanations by his own. Wasn’t Nehru the first and foremost defender of free speech and expression? Make no mistake that I am here not to make a case for one person. As a teacher, it is my moral responsibility to call out anyone who toes the line to step into crassness and ill mannered behaviour and I will fulfil that obligation dutifully. We cannot be guardians of the society, but can we guard our own conscience enough to say, Let’s hold our wayward thoughts till a person’s guilt is proved? (In this case, If Ever!)
The office of a politician can be subject to rather unkindly audiences but have we sold our own morality at the bazaars of impertinence, vulgarity and boorishness?
If yes, then the trial that Shashi Tharoor is undergoing is absolutely justified. After all a celebrated diplomat for 30 plus years must be severely punished for believing that he could make a significant difference to an India that is fast becoming a hub of intolerance in the 21st century.
To anyone who is reading this and specially those who will fire up twitter with the next round of unrefined thoughts, before you shoot the next tweet or post, ask yourself, Were these the manners that my teachers taught me? Were these the principles my parents gave me?
And for the young people of all ages, here is a thought for you, At 19.5 a young girl found a mentor, teacher, guide and friend on a forum she least expected to. Today, I with pride can share that my own students, ages 18 – 55 now, read Shashi Tharoor initially with the fear of not understanding his works only to gradually fall in love with his prescience, hopefulness and his openness to criticism and praise alike.
If you are still inspired to castigate the man’s character after you have read this, either your conscience has long died, or you are getting paid by ill-intentioned masters who for want of a political up are persecuting him at every turn. Your thoughts while noted are respectfully set aside.
So why choose Teachers Day to make this appeal for civility? Simple. When I was like you, young and restless and all charged up to go all guns blazing, a quiet voice stopped me, “We don’t need to respond to everything.”
Well, Dr. Tharoor, I wish I could hold back today. But I guess, sometimes it becomes more than necessary to remind a vagrant society that the vicissitudes of an impetuous mind are worse than the seven plagues of Egypt.
From a teacher, to all those reading this, It’s never to late to amend. You don’t want to support Shashi Tharoor, by all means, don’t. But can you wait till you have passed your judgment on both his character and career? While the opposition may be partly even justified for opposing everything he says, I must put it on record that as a third generation Congress supporter I am equally disappointed with the short – sighted behaviour of the Congress itself in the recent and distant past. And as for the forces that constantly keep asking for a clarification, I’m waiting for the day when the entire Congress stands in unison to say, We’re behind you Dr. Tharoor. Because the truth is that it was India's destiny and good fortune that brought him back.
And as for the gentleman himself, I’d say just one thing: Shashi Tharoor owes Shashi Tharoor Reparations. For those who know him well enough this statement is self explanatory!
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