As a child, I lived in a world where computers were not taken for granted.
The toys ranged from the Meccano set to the kaleidoscope.
They were toys, they were tools, they were metaphors. The Meccano taught you that building was a concept with which you could construct a house and also a cosmos.
The kaleidoscope gave you a playful sense of patterns and provided hours of entertainment. They were old-fashioned ways of making sense of the world. I love in particular the philosophy of the kaleidoscope. It shows you how to construct life even out of broken bangles.
Whenever I read the newspaper today or watch news, I see confusion. The world seems to be a collection of broken glass and I seek my patterns. I love the cast of characters India generates. They range from characters out of a great Russian novel to those from a giant comic book. Recite their lines aloud and sense the sheer laughter and pathos in each.
Think of it. Baba Ramdev. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Anna Hazare. Suresh Kalmadi. K. Kanimozhi. Jairam Ramesh. Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi. Sushma Swaraj. Don’t ignore the supplements; They provide their own little dramas about dress, the body, about morals. Add to this the Page 3 excitements, the scandals in a teacup that filmstars provide. Stir all this with the confidence of a cultural chef and enjoy what India brings you everyday.
The first thing you discover is that it is an exciting time and more fascinatingly we as a democracy are open about our mistakes, our scandals, our battles.
A free press tells you there are free people. Without gossip there can be no democracy. Gossip and rumour are double-edged. They play moral policemen; they also substitute for the conscience.
Think of it. Mamata Banerjee, Anna Hazare, Aruna Roy and Baba Ramdev are all soap operas around the ethical issues of our time. The Right to Information (RTI) and the Arjun Sengupta Commission Report on the informal economy are and should be treated as ethical documents.
For me, Aruna Roy and Anna Hazare are ethical figures, like Ela Bhatt and the Dalai Lama. They appeal to an ethics of the everyday and yet show you that everyday ethics may be inadequate to cope with terror or even political correctness.
Just think of the debates on mining. We have to thank our social movements and environment minister Jairam Ramesh that the mine as a moral system is subject to scrutiny again.
We suddenly realise the strange hold that the Reddys have on our politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party cannot call for a cleanup because it is a creature of mining magnates.
We also realise growth needs an ethics we desperately lack. It also needs methodologies of evaluation which our business lobbies are resisting. It shows us that mere character-building or honesty is not enough to build the integrity of a system.
Mr Ramesh’s contention that mines need forest cover or that tribals also need a voice that can be institutionalised into legislation are ethical statements. What is the ethics of memory, of obsolescence, of care we bring to tribals displaced from their land? Are we technocratically and indifferently going to say that progress is inevitable?
Is what we call “inevitably” merely the logic of vested interests? Another great ethical figure Medha Patkar raised the same question. She asked if a bad science can cover for an indifferent ethics. A series of clear-cut, nuanced points are being made.
Firstly, mere personal honesty will not do, especially if it condones the dishonesty of your colleagues. Secondly, when one is debating competing goods, transparency is a required part of ethics. Thirdly, goodness needs to be defined.
One needs a new ethics for technology, for growth, for consumption. This opening out of issues is fascinating and frightening. It shows we have exemplars courageously leading the way but sadly no paradigms that institutionalise such ethics.
The newspapers are full of violence, from rape to murder, to terror. As a society, we are still silent on it. Mere protest or even battle for human rights is the beginning. As a society, we have to go beyond Gandhian platitudes back to his experimenting with truth. We need to ask about violence, suffering and evil and the complexity of forces that generate them.
Ask yourself why India needs one million troops outside the Army for internal order and control. Ask for how long survivors must wait for justice while they see people who have raped and burnt walk around happily. Ask for how long any moment remains in memory.
A slum demolished or people evicted are forgotten. We remember history but what about the unwritten history of these events. Also why do we treat people who remind us of our amnesia as problematic?
Turn to the supplements for what is news in a lighter vein. You realise that the language of the supplements, the colloquialism of “youngistan” hides deep problems about the body, about relationships, about sexuality.
It takes seriously the question of balance. It realises that one woman’s fashion might be another man’s moral policing. Think of a simple example. For years, activist Teesta Setelvad has sought justice for the victims of the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Why do we treat her as a suspect? Is it for her courage and honesty?
Suddenly, our ethics come on two fronts. It confronts the everydayness of diet consumption, discipline, caring for old people, understanding new forms of illness. It also comes at a public level as we confront ethics of dams, mines, terror growth, violence, or even the ethics of forgetting.
Every issue of a newspaper becomes an ethical puzzle, a moral science quiz which recognises life has no easy answers. It asks us to respond to the tragedies of our time and to thank those who have kept issues alive.
There is a lot that is frightening, even evil, and but you know it is there on the front page. You have to respond.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist