Monday, April 25, 2005

Romancing the Arts

Times of India, April 24, 2005

We have had an unusually long spring this year. It is over now, and so is the frenzy of board exams. It is not surprising that thoughts of the young have turned to romance. But not for long for one has to think of a career and making a life. Millions of young Indians as they leave school and head for college, ask: should I study science, arts or commerce? ‘Making a life’ is different from ‘making a living’, and I’ll recount my own experience as I answer that question, not for any other reason but because one person's life, honestly captured, is not only unique, but is the only certain data of history that we possess as human beings.

When I was 16 I got a scholarship to an American college when it was fashionable to go to England, especially to Oxbridge. Like the diligent son of an engineer, I began to study engineering. Inspired by Crick and Watson, who had recently discovered the DNA molecule’s shape, I switched to chemistry. During the summer I came back and saw for the first time India’s grinding poverty. (One has to go away sometimes to notice these things.) Hoping for answers, I switched to economics in my second year. A few months later I was enticed by the humanities–by courses in Greek tragedy, Islamic history, Russian novel, and Sanskrit love poetry. I wanted to study everything, but I couldn’t of course. So, I did the next best thing. I switched to a joint major called History & Literature.

By now my parents in India had begun to despair. My mother didn’t know quite what to tell the neighbours. Adding to her discomfort, I discovered two new temptations at the end of my second year. I was attracted by philosophy, but also by the visual beauty of Bauhaus buildings. So much so that I seriously considered becoming an architect. In the end, two moral philosophers, John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin, prevailed. I wrote my thesis on Aristotle and graduated with a degree in philosophy.

Apart from being a thoroughly confused young man, what this story tells is how a liberal education is a search. One shouldn’t feel that one has the answers. It is enough to know the questions. My unusual college allowed me the freedom to search for what I wanted to be. My parents too were patient and didn’t pressure me to do “something useful”. Our system in India, alas, doesn’t allow for such experimenting. You are called a duffer if you are doing the Arts here–it means you didn’t get into engineering.

My confusion didn’t quite end there. I still didn’t know what I wanted–so, I took a year off and a job selling Vicks Vaporub. And like the man who came to dinner I stayed on. I rose to head the company, and at 50 I took early retirement to become a writer. At first, not having an MBA proved a drawback, but later I discovered, oddly enough, that my liberal education was an advantage. Writing essays had taught me think and write clearly. I had a better understanding of human motivation for I had consumed vast amounts of literature. Stoic philosophy offered a refuge in my many adverse moments. Most of all, my liberal education had given me confidence in my own judgement, and this often allowed me to be innovative. In the end it matters less what one studies in college and more that one acquire the right attitudes. Without realising it I had built a self in college, and I could cope with life’s ambiguity.

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