At the service of the World

Who Are The Real Idiots?

After “Lagaan” and “Taare Zameen Par”, Aamir Khan has done it again with “3 Idiots”. He has established himself as the most versatile contemporary actor. His latest blockbuster premiered on Christmas Day, and some idiot raised a hullabaloo calling it an insult to Jesus. That idiot had obviously not seen the movie. Having just seen and enjoyed it, I would dare say that the movie is a perfect Christmas gift to the Christ child.

By the world’s standards, Jesus was the biggest idiot of all time! How idiotic for the messiah to be born in a manger, among smelly cattle, acknowledged by a handful of lowly shepherds and worshipped by just three mysterious wise men. He shunned fame and fortune, not even accepting the accolades for his miracles; instead exhorting the beneficiaries to keep their mouths shut. He lived and preached an unorthodox way of life, breaking with traditions, saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mk 2:27). He had no worldly possessions, proclaiming that “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9:58). The only time that he faced a popularity contest (reality show), he lost to Barrabas, a notorious criminal. He died an ignominious death and was buried in a borrowed grave. What an idiot!

So what is the connection with the other 3 idiots? If we can go beyond the Bollywood hype and heroic antics, the movie has an important message about the educational system, parental expectations and student aspirations. It is a story of ruthless academics, where the winner, like the cuckoo, takes all. In the process, it destroys the nest eggs of the others. It is a story where only the winner is remembered, not the other participants in the race. It is about the deep-rooted Indian aspiration: “Mera beta daktar ya inginyar banega, aur Amrika ya Kanada mein bahut paisa kamayega”. (My son will be a doctor/ engineer and will earn pots of money in America/ Canada). It tells of a value system where friendship loses out to competition. It is ultimately the tragedy of those who couldn’t make the grade, and then being driven to suicide.

Judas misunderstood Jesus and committed suicide. Two of my acquaintances killed themselves before running trains. Three of my son’s classmates, in different institutions, committed suicide. Ironically, Ali Fazal, the actor in “3 Idiots” who commits suicide in the movie, is also my son’s classmate from the prestigious St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. In my hometown, Kanpur, where the IIT is world famous, every now and then a student commits suicide. Recently, 38 aspiring engineers in IITK have been told to quit because they can’t make the grade.

So what do these students do now? What do they tell their parents? Who repays the educational loan? Are they stigmatised for life? Or will they just opt to end their lives? These are questions that every parent, educationist, social activist or religious leader needs to address. If we don’t face these issues squarely, we are indeed the biggest idiots.

It is a common parental aspiration to see their children make the grade. Since sarkari naukris have dried up, it is now the doctor/ engineer/ MBA syndrome that has infected society. In response, private colleges have mushroomed. What promises they make, what fees they charge and what standards they set, is anybody’s guess. Ambitious parents push their bespectacled and book-laden tiny tots through the system. Winston Churchill had famously declared that World War II was won on the playing fields of Eton. He would have to eat his words in contemporary India, for most schools and colleges have no playing field! Hence, other than our national obsession with cricket, we have no world class players. A population of over one billion goes gaga over one gold medal in 50 years of Olympic competition.

There is no level playing field in education either. Exceptions merely prove the rule, and the rule is that those who are good get better, and those who aren’t, are waste material. A 90 percenter becomes a 91.9 percenter, and it is considered a singular achievement. Real educational service would be if a failure could be encouraged to at least matriculate or graduate.

Many years ago, my wife and I made a conscientious decision to opt out of the rat race.

We sent our children to an ordinary Hindi medium government school. They never went for tuition, except just before their board exams. Both emerged toppers and as socially aware human beings who are now looking at careers of their choice. Neither they, nor us parents, have rued our earlier decision.

I myself studied in the prestigious St. Joseph’s College, Nainital, rubbing shoulders with the sons of royalty, diplomats and generals. We played all the outdoor and indoor games possible.

We had special studies (and a very welcome special diet) just before our Senior Cambridge exams. Of my batch of 35, 6 went to the IITs, another 6 to the defence forces, 2 became commercial pilots, and 2 became doctors. I myself was always a mediocre student, who didn’t “become” anything classified above. I never topped in anything, but in the Senior Cambridge exam, I was the topper in English Language among all the four prestigious boarding schools of Nainital. I still remember the essay that I wrote for that exam, entitled “A Triumphant Return”. Ironically, my class teacher, a rather severe Irish Brother, often ridiculed my essay writing. So who was the idiot?

In 1996, I had organised a reunion of my class of 1965. I had with me the mark sheet of my entire class. To my amazement I discovered that the marks we got in Senior Cambridge had little or no relevance to what we had achieved in later life. Of the 6 defence officers, the guy with the highest rank was at the bottom of the heap in school. The guy who became an allopathic doctor was the only one to have died before the reunion in 1996. And he who was last in class won a gold medal for India in the non-Olympic sport of power lifting. He is also the much loved and re-elected Member of Parliament from Nainital today. So who are the idiots?

All the stakeholders in education, including the Catholic Church, need to see the movie “3 Idiots”, and ask themselves what they are churning out – feelingless and spineless robots; or holistic, socially conscious and possibly intelligent human beings? Even the HRD minister, and the CBSE Board are now seriously questioning the relevance of the current marking system, and the heavy load of books that tiny tots are toting to schools. Has the present educational system become a burden rather than a tool for growth and emancipation?

St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, who prided themselves on their gnosis (knowledge), is a scathing indictment. “Where are the philosophers? Where are the experts? Where are the debaters of this age? Do you not see how God has shown up human wisdom as folly? … God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. …. God chose those who by human standards are fools, to shame the wise; he chose those who by human standards are weak, to shame the strong” (1Cor. 1: 20,25,27).

Indeed may God save us from those pseudo wisemen (idiots) like Dr Virus, so ably portrayed by Boman Irani in “3 Idiots”. I for one would rather go along with the practical wisdom and humaneness of Rancho, the idiot that Aamir portrayed. Hail the idiots!

* The writer is a college dropout.

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January 18th, 2010




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