By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Old Boys Are 50 Years Older Now -- And Still Remain The Same!

In several successive blogs in recent weeks, I had  shown you half a dozen panoramic essays on friendship which I had written in my column Articulations in THE HINDU in 1992.  In one of those articles I had mentioned how the Old Boys' Associations have a way of  falling into a rut and rarely flourishing  (see Archive, March/April 2014, especially Frontiers Of Friendship....., March 17).

And now I have great pleasure in sharing with you a much older essay I had written about 'old boys', in an article in THE HINDU.  I hadn't noted the date of publication, but it must have been either in 1963 or '64.

Reading this vintage text again now, I find it amazing to see how true it still sounds today, all of 50 years later!  


THE HINDU Sunday Magazine
                50 years ago 

The Old Boys

Somehow the old boys have a chronic tendency to fall apart in pieces over and over again.  Not all the earnest efforts of successive  Principals and Headmasters can produce a real esprit de corps among them.  They do manage to meet now and then, it's true, but that wonderful dream of the college and school authorities, the Annual Old Boys' Meeting -- at which they so naively hope to collect sizable checks from their more  prosperous ex-students -- somehow never does come true.

Not that the old boys themselves lack enthusiasm, really;  on the contrary, they're all overflowing with goodwill for their Association, and would like to do everything in their power to keep it alive and active.  But they just happen to be too heterogeneous a lot to be able to stick together for any appreciable length of time.  The old boys are like the molecules of different elements which just won't combine, no matter what catalytic forces are set in motion.  

Of course, the boys were far from being a cohesive set even when they were still studying.  Assuredly there has never been such a thing as a young Boys' Association (or whatever it should be called);  rather, the alumni as a rule tend to fall into independent groups according to their departments and extra-curricular interests.  So long as they're all still passing one another in the campus every day, it hardly occurs to them to muster strong in an omnibus association, unless it is to launch an agitation.  It's only after they have finished their studies and scattered themselves in the world that they begin to miss a companionship which hardly ever existed anyway.

Elusive assembly

No one is quite immune to nostalgia, and what usually makes the old boys feel nostalgic is a mimeographed note from the present Principal or Headmaster, telling them how he is thinking of putting the Association on its feet again, and asking for their co-operation;  or maybe they just happen to see a notice to that effect in the morning paper.  The appeal is irresistible, and its impact decisive. 

 Though it frankly alludes to such inconvenient things as subscriptions and donations, the old boys' minds are quickly made up;  they sit down at once and compose warm and sentimental replies;  what's more, they even start sincerely hoping to attend the forthcoming meeting.

And that's about all that generally happens.  For one obscure reason or another, the meeting gets postponed again and again.  The old boys are all far-flung, and some important ones might write asking if a slight revision in the date wouldn't be possible.  And while the administration tries to make all sorts of adjustments, the old boys begin to play a game of hide and seek.  The projected meeting gets more and more elusive as the weeks and months slip away.

Naturally it can't go on for ever, and I guess the old boys do get together in the end -- that is to say, some of them do, for the majority are quite understandably forced to be absent.  But those who do turn up for the meeting have certainly been nursing great expectations, and greater illusions.  They arrive brimming over with mutual goodwill, and feeling positively sure that there are no barriers between them.  The High Court judge mixes freely with the humble what's-he, and seems to be liking it.  The bright boy of last year's class expounds his philosophy of life to the world-war veteran, and is somehow tolerated -- for a while.  


But pretty soon protocol must, and does, assert itself, and the gathering breaks itself into smaller groups.  Snob seeks out snob, the smart set gets set, and the rest of the lot are left looking for someone to talk to.   Speeches are made as dutifully as on any other contrived occasion, and they sound as hollow as they always do.  Strong hopes are expressed that the old boys would be meeting again soon, but even before the party is over they all know only too well that it's far from likely to happen.  What does secretly surprise most of them, though, is the revelation that they hardly feel any genuine regrets.

No old boy, however, need in fact be unprepared for this anti-climax, if only he would care to understand the simple truth that what he has been missing all along is not the company of the other old boys at all, but the company of the old teachers.  It is they who most powerfully personify his alma mater in his inner consciousness;  for while the old boys all ceased being boys long ago and have grown up into unrecognizable manhood, the image of the teaching staff -- like the image of the institution itself -- has remained constant, almost immutable, over the best part of a lifetime.  

I can't help believing that if the old boy would only call at the campus all by himself -- which is something he rarely thinks of doing -- he's bound to make the happy discovery that unlike the old boys' rendezvous, such visits can never fail to re-light some of the old fires in his heart -- at least,  I am sure, till the last familiar face has disappeared from the staff room.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Friendly Relations Among Or Between Machines, Animals And Human Beings

And, now, here is the concluding section of my mega-essay on friendship,  which has remained so fresh, relevant and readable for more than 20 years now  --   as I am sure it will remain for more than 50 years from now!

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Glossary & annotations
(in same order as in text) 

Tom and Jerry  --  Uproariously  funny characters featured in a long series of classic Hollywood cartoon films, of an aggressive cat and a resourceful mouse engaged in an endless game of vigorous chasing and friendly fighting.

Tarzan  -- Famous literary character created by American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) and glorified by American comics and cinema, of a dashing young man raised by apes in African jungles.

Mowgli  --  Main character figuring in The Jungle Book written by British author Rudyard Kipling  (1865-1936), and in a full-length cartoon movie produced by Walt Disney in Hollywood, of a lively and charming man-cub raised by wolves in an Indian jungle.    

pOPpe --  That's the way I sign my name when I write to my children and grandchildren.

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THE HINDU Sunday Magazine
Articulations - 11 Oct. 1992

Machines and other animals

There is a remarkable similarity between the relations which machines and animals have with human beings.  In the preceding section of this essay (Sept. 20) we had noted that the friendliness or hostility of machines towards men can be broadly identified in terms of their constructive or destructive potential as well as their manoeuvrabilty by the users.  In the same way, to the extent that animals interact with human beings, their attitude can be assessed in terms of their belligerent or peaceful nature and the co-operative spirit they show as close associates in work and play.  

We must also consider another dimension of the question when we talk of friendship in relation to machines and animals.  As conscious creatures, animals possess instincts of friendship or hostility not only vis-a-vis human beings, but also among themselves.  A parallel phenomenon is the compatibility or incompatibility which exists between different machines;  this concept is particularly important in the fields of electronics and computer technology.

Animal instincts and spirits

Friendship among animals is almost always collective in nature, and generally manifests itself between those which belong to the same species.  This is essentially a result of necessity --  the need for protection against harmful elements of nature and more aggressive species of animals, or for some productive endeavor as in the case of a beehive. 

It may be observed that generally the herd instinct is far more intense among vegetarian mammals than among carnivorous ones, and among milder varieties of birds than among predatory ones.  The clan instinct is conspicuous in the case of elephants and cattle, gregarious birds like crows and migratory ones like flamingos.  Have we ever seen eagles flying in a large formation, or ever heard of a battalion of tigers trekking in the forests?

Profound attachment between individual animals is very rare in real life, and even the intimate relations between protective parents and their offspring are generally short-lived.  In the romantic  imagination of men, however, different species of animals do pick up friendships with one another, whether collectively or individually.  In the fanciful world of animated cartoons, animals which are enemies in real life often turn out to be good friends in the motion picture.  Indeed, sometimes there is an undercurrent of goodwill even in the confrontation between mutually hostile animal characters.  Perhaps the most striking example of this is provided by the hilarious travails of the cat and the mouse called Tom and Jerry, immortalized on colorful film by Hollywood  --  although they are constantly engaged in an eventful personal war, one cannot help noticing that a deep and abiding friendship does exist between them.

In literary fiction almost all the animals in the jungle might love a Tarzan or a Mowgli, but in the real world very few animals develop strong emotional ties with human beings.  The horse and the dog are exceptional cases of animals which offer warm companionship to their human masters.  Here too the similarity with machines persists, in a subtle way.  Some machines, especially those which have mechanical features, have a way of adjusting themselves to the handling of habitual users and responding better to their commands than to those of others.  In fact, this kind of compatibility can sometimes create such a powerful bond that one might even imagine that the machine actually reciprocates the affection of its exclusive operator!  

Human instincts and and attitudes 

The collective attitude of human beings towards animals in an integral sense is closely related to their approach towards the natural environment as a whole.  Just as mankind feels alarmed today by the progressive depletion of valuable natural resources and the suffocating pollution of the atmosphere caused by its own indiscriminate technological and commercial ventures, it also feels greatly concerned about the decimation of many animal species resulting from its own destructive activities or indifference.

One may compare this concern with the anxiety being felt by people all over the world today about the steady deterioration in their folk arts brought about by their own distortion or neglect of them.  Just as all sensitive and unbiased persons have a compelling wish to see the surviving traditional arts preserved, they also recognize the need to protect the rich and varied animal wealth of the world.  The primitive hunter's spirit, which even the most advanced human civilization has done nothing to mitigate, is today moderated by the fear of ruining the very pattern of life which has evolved on this planet.  Out of this fear is born the 'friendly' attitude even towards wild and dangerous animals, as towards the whole environment. 

When we consider the collective attitude of human beings towards machines, however, we find that the analogy with the case of animals is no longer valid.  As machines become more and more versatile and indispensable, they tend to overpower people, undermining their affinity with nature and destroying their peace of mind.  Quite understandably, the cumulative human response to this is not friendliness but ever-growing animosity. 

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PostScript, 2014 

Additions and omissions

With that final spell of  my reflections on friends and friendships, I did think I had written an absolutely comprehensive essay, which could be enlarged only in the light of entirely new factors likely to be caused in society, lifestyles and cultures by the relentless progress of modern science and technology.  So I was quite surprised to get the following response to my recent posts, from Aparna, my daughter (-in-law technically) who lives in Australia:
"Dear pOPpe,  . . . Perhaps you can add the cyberspace friendships that are now being formed, as an analogy to pen pals. . . "

What comes as a surprise in this comment is not the concept of Cyberian friendships (which was obviously crying out for fresh reflections), but her reference to pen pals.  Of course, not mentioning them in my 'comprehensive' essay was a serious omission, of which I haven't been aware till now!  And which, of course, immediately makes me think of radio friends, another serious omission.  

Thank you, Aparna, for your sensitive reading of these tightly-written texts  --  just wait a little for the sequel!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Friendship With Phenomena : Environment, Machines, Gods And Aliens

And now, here is the next part of my marathon essay on friendship:

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THE HINDU Sunday Magazine 
Articulations - 20 Sept. 1992
Friendship with phenomena 

We had noted (Aug. 2) that the collective friendship of a group of people with an individual can either be personal or can take an abstract form, depending on the nature and dimensions of any given case.  Among the most striking examples of such abstract friendship is that which exists between a charismatic political or spiritual leader and the devoted masses.  The intensity of this collective emotional response to a powerful image is governed by a variety of factors, such as the personality and convictions of the individual and the people's faith in his or her credentials.

Normally a much larger segment of the population comes face to face with such a leader than with a performing artist or sportsperson, and therefore the precise character of such friendships is variable;  but in essence these are of the same kind.  Of course, when the image lasts beyond the leader's life, the proper analogy would be with the case of a writer whose works live on.  

Environment  and Nature 

Now let us consider the third and last category of collective friendship, viz. that of a group of people with assorted phenomena.  As we rush headlong towards the end of the 20th century, it has become fashionable to talk about the need for human beings to adopt a more friendly attitude towards the environment.  Since the relentless progress of technology has made this attitude increasingly unfriendly, one is tempted to imagine that it must have been absolutely friendly in the beginning.  

Such an assumption, however, would be quite mistaken;  for when technology did not exist, the environment would have been totally hostile towards human beings, and the reciprocal feeling could not have been friendly.  It was only when man had learnt to resist the forces of nature and protect himself against their fury   --  and also to harness them for his own benefit  --  that the question of his being friendly and protective towards the environment could have arisen. 

This question, moreover, arises only on a philosophic plane and in a very wide perspective.  Notwithstanding all the progress made by technology and civilization, the natural environment in any specific situation is still hostile to human life, which continues to need effective protection against its ferocity.  The expression 'friendliness' in this context is only a convenient name we have given to an attitude of caution which seeks to prevent the over-exploitation and eventual destruction of precious natural resources which are conducive to a good life.  The basic human response to nature has always been revenge and not amity, and it is likely to be so for ever.

Compatible machines 

The fragility of the human condition is underlined by the friendliness it needs and seeks from machines.  This elusive concept has two different aspects.  Machines, whether they are simple or sophisticated, are nothing but controlled forces of nature.  At a certain conceptual level they can be visualized as being friendly or hostile according to the constructive or destructive forms they assume.  This idea finds forceful expression in Asimov's First Law of Robotics, which lays down that the intelligent robot shall never kill a human being.  

At another level, it is in terms of their maneuverability by the users that the friendliness of machines is measured.  No matter how constructive a piece of machinery is, it fails to serve the purpose for which it has been made if its operation is a puzzle which the user cannot solve.  For this very reason, the potential power of many intricate gadgets often remain grossly under-utilized.  

Gods and aliens

Images of divinity constitute another phenomenon with which people all over the world tend to have a collective friendship.  This assumes a visible form in the acts of prayer enacted in a place of worship;  but it pervades the consciousness of all the people who share any given religious faith, cutting across regional, national and continental boundaries.  

Such a collective attitude is so formidable normally that the reciprocal friendliness of the divine figure is taken for granted and never questioned;  indeed, even serious misfortunes which trouble the believers do not usually diminish their faith.  The finest expression of collective devotion materializes in well-attended recitals of imposing sacred verses or worshipful music of a superior kind.

Mankind's perception of the universe in terms of hazards is basically the same as it has been in the case of nature's manifestation on our planet.  Therefore there can never be any question of human beings having an inherently friendly attitude towards the environment of space beyond the earth's gravitational field.  At the same time, being essentially inclined to look for peace as well as security, we do go on dreaming about our future friendship with extra-terrestrial life, even as we indulge in colorful fancies about interstellar wars.

          (to be continued)