Of late, I have been reflecting on an interesting aspect of our social discourse. These days anyone with a ready access to the Internet and the gift of the gab professes to be an expert on whatever topic is being discussed or has hit the headlines that week! No sooner have you settled into a comfortable sofa at a social event, you hear competing voices debating intricate subjects like Stephen Hawking's research on parallel universes or Rabindranath Tagore's philosophy on the complex relationship between man and Divinity. The conversations often turn into shouting matches where the contestant with the loudest or shrillest voice wins. Needless to say, people cut into each other's sentences with extraordinary confidence—an art that many may have mastered from watching CNN panel discussions!
I am sorry if I come across as being overcritical of these “social doyens”. It's not that I consider myself to be more knowledgeable, but I am a bit peeved that the self-appointed specialists often leave me utterly confused. Their sweeping generalisations have the same effect as fake news… at first sensational, but on deeper reflection, hollow and baseless. An incident at a social dinner has particularly rankled my sensitivities.
A little background is needed here. Since May is Rabindranath Tagore's birth month, I have been re-reading some of his writings, as I do each year. This year I was fascinated by a recurring theme that is embodied in many of his poems and songs: the bishshoy or wonderment of life, especially the idea that our very existence in this vast universe—mahabishwa—is chance or coincidence. Perhaps these thoughts were partly inspired by the changes in the landscape with the advent of spring. Nature's beauty has always captivated me, but with age, I have been reflecting more and more about the happenstance that brought me to this beautiful world. Tagore's poetry has also raised my awareness about the fact that nature is not static; it is “orchestral, participatory, musical” and is deeply connected to humanity. The Tagorean landscape listens, feels and emotes. An idea he artfully and elegantly expressed in the poem The Palm Tree: The tree imagines it has wings and can wander and travel to the land of the stars, until the wind subsides and its mind returns to its mother—the earth that nurtures and protects it.
These thoughts occupied my mind so completely that I impulsively articulated them at a recent dinner where the discussion had veered toward Tagore. No sooner had I uttered a sentence or two, almost everyone jumped into the conversation with multiple views and critiques of the author's work. One woman in particular embarked on an elaborate lecture about her recent visit to Tagore's ancestral home in Jorasanko, Kolkata. The discussion, which by now had assumed the proportions of a sermon, morphed into the fashions pioneered by the women of Thakurbari (the house of the Tagores) and their contributions to the cuisine of Bengal. For ten full minutes, the lady dominated the discussion as the ultimate Tagore expert. In the course of the monologue, allusions were made about his romantic relationship with his sister-in-law and conclusions drawn about which particular poems were influenced by this “affair”! Needless to say, the original idea was lost in the haze of salacious information. I was somewhat riled that my conversation was hijacked. But more interestingly, I was overawed by the person's ability to convert her scanty knowledge into a pseudo-intellectual discourse. Wow!
As youngsters, we were nurtured in a culture where intellectual rigour was encouraged and recognised as the main source of knowledge. Most of our learning came from people who had devoted a lifetime to their field of expertise, and were recognised as authorities. The prevalent Google quick-fix approach would have been sneered at and considered unreliable, or at best incomplete. One of the highlights of my mundane life has been that I spent some time at Tagore's university in Santiniketan where I had the good fortune to interact with personalities who actually knew Rabindranath Tagore. I would humbly listen to these exponents talk about “Gurudev” and tried to probe and learn about the philosophy and writings of the multi-faceted genius. However, I must confess that despite my lifelong relationship with Rabindrasangeet, I have only just begun to process and absorb the vastness of his literary and musical treasure trove. In this context, I remember what poet Shamsur Rahman once said to me: “The more you read Rabindranath, the more you realise how little you understand him.” This sense of humility is something that I always carry with me.
The shallow remarks and judgments made by the lady at the social dinner should have embarrassed her and the audience. But it did not—because we live in a culture where ignorance is not punished, but the inability to promote oneself is penalised. And people who have an aesthetic distaste for making half-informed comments on serious topics are dismissed as ignorant.
The only consolation we have is that in this hybrid culture where facts and fiction are mixed to create half–baked knowledge, a basic law of science is not being defied—lighter objects float while heavier ones go under!
Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.