WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
It may not be an easy task to actually define a gentleman, but one instinctively recognizes one whenever the welcome opportunity of dealing with one of them arises. A gentleman is one who thinks of the rights of others before insisting on his own rights. He is courteous, considerate, soft-spoken, helpful and kind. He never talks about his own achievements but rather lets people discover his talents from others. He always keeps his promises and cannot dream of cheating anyone for persol gain. He is fair and just in all his dealings. And people learn a lot about good conduct and being a good citizen by merely watching how a gentleman conducts himself.
One archetypal gentleman is Atticus Finch, the lawyer and father of Jeremy Finch (Jem) and Jean Louise Finch (Scout) in Lee Harper’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He is ussuming and generally keeps a low profile. His children do not find even a trace of the heroic in him because he does not do things that the fathers of other children do with a certain amount of showmanship. In fact, the children decide that he has nothing that they can be proud of. They discover from others that he was the best checkers (draughts) player in the county, though they beat him every time they play the game. They are then told that this happens because he always lets them win. When a mad dog appears on their street and the sheriff accompanies Atticus to his home, he insists that Atticus should shoot the mad dog because he is known all over Maycomb as One-Shot Atticus. As Miss Maudie informs Jem and Scout, “Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time.” When the children wonder why their father does not go hunting any more, Miss Maudie tells them, “If your father is anything, he is civilized in his heart.” This remark might well sum up what one expects a gentleman to be. Atticus even forbids his children from talking about his deed in school the next day even though Scout is very keen to do so. What is remarkable, of course, is that Atticus Finch never went to school. He studied at home all through his schooling days. That could even explain why many people without a formal education are often better educated in the true sense of the term than those who have been to school and college. Jem sums up what his father is when he says, “Atticus is a gentleman, just like me!” not grown up enough to realize that no real gentleman would call himself a gentleman.
It is interesting how cricket has always been called a gentlemen’s game even though there are too many players in the game today who are not quite gentlemen. What is even more interesting is that one talks about any action that is “not cricket” as suggesting that someone has not been honest, fair and just. This is perhaps another way of saying that the action referred to was not something one would expect of a gentleman. Actually, the same thing has happened to human societies in some countries like ours. There is far too much of crimil, unjust, vindictive and inimical action that is just not cricket, indicating that the number of gentlemen around us has got very seriously depleted.
This was bound to happen in a society that has accepted corruption and crimility because their leaders have not merely failed to curb crimil behaviour and corrupt practices, but discovered that encouraging corruption and crimility are the highways to fantastic wealth without any work, because the entire process is one of diverting public money into private coffers or helping someone more resourceful to do so for a hefty consideration. How common and extensive this is can be gauged from the fact that the Lok Sabha comprises about 43 per cent MPs who have been charged of being involved in the most heinous crimes like rape, murder, abduction and so on. The percentage of legislators with crimil records is higher in the Maharashtra Assembly (over 50 per cent). The pertinent question is: How can anyone expect legislation from such groups that is likely to be aimed at encouraging and protecting good, law-abiding citizens? On the contrary, lawmaking in such legislatures is bound to ensure that there is no draconian punishment for law-breaking and even heinous crimil activities. What is seen to be legislation in aid of law-abiding citizens is often cosmetic and ritual initiatives that can be negated by the simple expedient of not implementing them. Actually, the law’s inordite delay is a double-edged weapon in our country. On the one hand, it protects the law-breakers by failing to punish them or by delaying punitive action so long as to completely fail in sending out the necessary message to law-breakers and crimils that crime will not be tolerated. On the other hand, it sends out the message to law-abiding citizens that the Judiciary cannot protect them or save them from crimils. If they want speedy justice, they will have to engage crimils to deliver this at very high cost. But law-abiding citizens who want their property or lives protected from crimils are beginning to discover that the speedier way of doing this is to pay crimil groups to protect their rights. Pursuing legal action and waiting 30 years for justice is a far more expensive option. The most primal of human instincts is the one of survival. The instinct to survive takes different manifestations at different levels and in different situations. Some people realize that they need to survive not just for themselves but also because their survival is crucial for the survival of someone else as well. The instinct of survival itself is not different for different people. Everyone—whether saint or sinner—has this primal instinct of survival. It may differ in intensity or the degree of passion with which one is prepared to struggle for it.
In India, this instinct of survival is beginning to be receptive to the message sent out by our leaders that if one is a gentleman, one’s chances of survival with dignity and self-respect are far slimmer. The message is: Be more like one of us, and we shall make it easier for you to survive. And what is it to be like them? One has to be brash and rude. One has to be vindictive. One has to mislead people so that they are deprived of their entitlements. One has to look for every opportunity to siphon public money into one’s own coffers. And since this cannot always be done exclusively for oneself, opportunities have to created for others to be able to do this as well. And when honest work is given up as a means of making an honest living, all legal and honest means of livelihood have to be jettisoned for those in the corridors of power to eble easy money to be raked in without work. One has to create cartels and syndicates for subverting every kind of economic activity so that privileged parasites incapable earning a living through honest work can be helped to rake in easy money from the sales of what others have produced. And who pays for the additiol cost of supporting parasites? The public, of course. The consumer. The honest law-abiding citizen has discovered to his woe that he cannot have access to what municipal corporations and government agencies owe him (because he has paid his dues) unless he pays something extra to get what is legitimately his by right. One has to tolerate leaders who make promises they do not even intend to keep. One has to tolerate leaders who are no longer able to ensure regular salary payments to employees because officers, employees and contractors have been permitted to loot the exchequer with impunity. One has to tolerate leaders whose megalomania and paranoia about their own security is so obsessive that they have to make the public pay for 18 or 19 escort vehicles every time they step out of their lodgings.
There is no room for gentlemen in such a dispensation. Even gentlemen have to survive (on their own terms as far as possible). The one lesson they have learnt is that survival in our society calls for conformity. One has to conform in order to survive. And being a gentleman, being a good citizen are non-conformist initiatives in a crimilized and corrupt society. Their conduct and their value systems are no longer desired by leaders who are themselves made of different stuff. So gentlemen in our society are learning to be less gentle than they are turally. They are learning to change a little in order survive a little less painfully.