Clash of generations

Amal Chatterjee
49 min readJan 18, 2017


It seems to me that these days there is a conflict brewing between the older generation that grew up after the Second World War and the generation that came after them that is now playing out in the United States and elsewhere in the rhetoric and often extreme bitterness as expressed by one of the candidates running for higher office. The media thrive on such conflict as it means more audience for them and more revenues in terms of advertisement money and sponsorship from people with deep pockets who are supporting one or the other candidate in the election to come.

Let us now sit back, collect our thoughts and find the root cause of this divide that is pitting parents against the younger generation, siblings against each other and communities against each other based on colour, ethnicity, brand of religion, income gap and us vs. them. There are people on both side of this divide that are causing more animosity to bubble over by their aggressive behaviours, rhetoric and postures that the politicians are quick to make hay out of while the atmosphere of dissatisfaction shines bright.

When the last world war ended after the horrendous loss of lives and limbs and tremendous sacrifice the country made to win it, the veterans returned to their home towns to pick up their lives where they had left it while their women tended the hearth and the children. It was not easy for them waiting for the news that their loved ones were coming back in one piece or in a cheap coffin because this waiting was extremely agonizing not knowing what was happening to their lives. They carried on as best as they could with jobs that the government provided in the defence industry or elsewhere making things needed for the war being fought in distant lands. They enthusiastically collected metal, rubber, paper or anything that they could find for recycling for the war effort because they felt that it was their patriotic duty to do so and not complain about their day to day hardship.

The college education was not their priority then although a few went to college. They were whites, blacks and all the shades in between but they all pitched in because it was demanded of them. They came from small towns that had only a main street, a rail line, a few shops and always a few churches of various denominations and not much else. Often their only employer was a steel mill or a paper mill or a factory making other things that did not pay well but did not require college or even high school education. No one needed a high school or college education to shovel coal or work in looms so the average education level remained low for them.

When the war ended and the veterans started coming home, they had to be given jobs of sorts so they found work in whatever capacity wherever because they were basically unskilled in anything except the skill of fighting that was no longer required. People found jobs in mines, in mills, in stores, in farms, in defence industries where women were working so that their women could go home and raise their kids like before the war. Those who had college education before they went to war found employment in schools and colleges as teachers as hiring them became a priority for the government.

These small town people lived within their small means, went to church regularly, prayed before each meal and proudly displayed the flag in their front porch, paraded on the 4th of July with their military uniform and wore all the medals they had earned on their caps to show that they were proud veterans and true patriots. I was constantly amazed at their open display of this sort of patriotism when I was in California as a student but then I did not know what these people had gone through in Io Jima or Bataan or in the sands of North Africa. Every family suffered some loss of their loved ones and those who returned often had PTSD problems who needed rehabilitation and care.

Life was rather simple then. People could afford a small wooden house, a model T Ford and the black and white TV. They listened to Elvis on their gramophone and went to the local pub for a beer and talk about their farms, their politics and their hopes and aspirations. Women mostly stayed home and went to church with their customary pumpkin pies, washed and cleaned and cooked and gossiped with their neighbours. They exchanged recipes, new crotchet designs, learned how to make dresses and pinafores on their hand cranked Singer machine and raised children.

They also hoped a better education for their children so that they could get better jobs and live a better life than their hard working parents. So the kids went to school and many went to college. Thus a whole new generation of young people grew up after the Second World War who were better educated and had not known what war was like until the next war in Vietnam came along. By this time they were coming of age and realized that they did not like war and were forced to sign up. Their patriotic parents could not understand why they were protesting the war in Vietnam when they had gone to fight in Europe, Korea and the Philippines when their country called them.

But education had caused the youngsters to question the validity of war that was brought to them live via the TV and Walter Cronkite every day. Everybody knew someone had come back in body bags and attended their funerals so they questioned the government, defied the draft and some fled to Canada. Some became hippies, smoked pot in frustration and listened to Bob Dylan. This was a completely different generation from the parent’s. They also joined the Democratic Party in droves while the parents remained loyal to the republicans often splitting families right down the middle. This educated generation became mobile and sought jobs in faraway places and received better salaries because of their higher education and newfound skills in computers. They refused to work in steel mills or mines in low paying jobs because they did not have to.

The industries that were the mainstays of small towns found it harder to compete with other countries that produced the same good cheaper and more efficiently. The world was more interconnected than ever before so the factories closed laying off people who depended on them. They had no other skills and they were getting old. The ripple effect that was caused by the closure of the only source of employment in a small towns was devastating on those who depended on them. Stores closed, open air movie houses shut down because people were watching movies in DVD at home and people had less money and ever lesser savings while the living costs escalated so they fell behind the mortgage payments.

With this background in mind let us now fast forward and see why America became so divided politically and even socially. The technological revolution that came about in the last thirty years or so has had a profound effect on how people live. Now you have instant communication around the globe and talk to anyone or see anyone on Skype for free, send digital photos for free and listen to music and download videos from the internet also for free. The mind boggling amount of information is available in Wikipedia so just Google whatever you want. Now people can apply for a job by filling up a form on line and have an interview also on line through Skype across the globe. But these jobs are for very skilled people.

When an aircraft is undergoing maintenance in a Hong Kong hangar, the technicians take a photo of the part they need and e mail it to Germany where an instant search is made in their data base and the part is found and shipped by DHL within the hour. This is the power of technology that the older generation still can’t understand. When their sons and daughters talk of new algorithm they are working to make a better program, they are completely lost. They can’t understand why some countries take away their jobs and their government is unable to do anything because they are a part of the global trade that is now regulated by the WTO in Geneva. They can’t understand why all the good things they used to make in local factories have disappeared and find only cheap shoddy things made in other countries that are flooding the shelves of Walmarts and K-marts. They can’t understand why the health care costs are so high and keep rising. Who will look after their health when they are old and needy?

These are very legitimate reasons for them to be angry because they are not prepared to deal with it unlike the younger more educated generation. Their education is limited, their skill level stagnates, their opportunities are limited and they are ashamed that they have lost their mining or steel mill jobs and can’t take care of their family like they used to. They are ashamed that they are too old to be retrained in other jobs that require education and intense analytical skills that they don’t have so they are angry.

It is as if the new modern world is so fast running away from them that they can’t catch up. This makes them frustrated and angry. When there is so much frustration and anger built up over so many issues, it needs an outlet to manifest itself. That outlet is the election. This is where they can still show that they have the power of vote to change things and bring back a government that listens to them and makes life easier for them. Proud people do not like to stand in line for doles. Their generation fought the terrible war, suffered for it and came back to rebuild their lives. Now they see that their old world is vanishing before their eyes and they can’t get used to it.

This is no surprise that the election in the United States is so bitterly fought this time. Fast talking politicians are taking advantage of this anger to turn it in their favour but causing more divisions in the process. The old sin of racism is rearing its ugly head again and people are getting hurt. I wonder what will it take to see that people must change and accept the new reality that the technology has brought about because people who will not accept this new reality of the modern world will be left behind.

You can always leave but never go back

A friend of mine once told me that one can always leave his home town but can seldom go back. There is a lot of truth in this statement and I too fall into this category of Diaspora living abroad for the past 50 years so I feel that the time has come for me to analyze this phenomenon of why most people who leave cannot go back to their place of origin. It is a worldwide phenomenon that should not be misconstrued as a migrant problem. The temporary migrant workers in the Middle East for example number in millions but rarely anyone stays there for good. They all have a temporary permit to work but must leave at the end of their contract.

I am writing about those people like myself who have left their country and settled in another country quite unlike the ones they left behind and literally turned a new page in their life. So this is the story of the Diaspora but here too there are those who forsake their homeland for good and become a citizen of another country and there are those like myself who always remain attached to their home country through a piece of ID card euphemistically called a passport.

My home town was a pleasant, sleepy, placid and a rather unexciting town where the annual exhibition or a circus once in a few years was the high light of the year. I say was because it no longer has the unenviable status of a placid, boring city that it once was but has become rather worse. I grew up there like anyone else, started schooling at the age of five, went to high school and later college, got to know a few neighbourhood kids who were my playmates up to a certain age and had the common aspiration of graduating and finding a good job somewhere, perhaps get married (through arranged marriage) and raise a family just like others.

I saw what the elders were doing going to the market with a basket to buy vegetable and fish everyday or going to the doctor for a bottle of medicine for their sick child or going to pay their bills that showed up like a hated routine. I saw them going through life with a monotony that would drive any ambitious person to distraction and tried to imagine what life would be like for me if I stayed and followed the same routine.

I was the errand boy of the family so I had to shop for all the things they needed every month, pay the bills of electricity and water, fall in line to buy the subsidized food grains from the government approved ration shops, bring the wheat to the mill for grinding to make flour, fall in line at 4 am in the coal yard to buy 20 kgs of coal a week that they allowed and came back home at 2pm without breakfast and lunch, ran errands for everybody else as well because I never could refuse anyone anything. I even had to iron my sister’s saris with a charcoal iron that got very hot and brought her to the train station at 4 am every now and then just because she would not take the bus for some reason.

Still it was my home town where I was born and where I went to school and knew so many people of my own age or older people who always asked me to run errands for them. I knew all the roads and places and knew what could be found where so I was the shopper for all the family needs because they depended on me. There was a wonderful park not too far from our rented house where every day we went to play and made life difficult for the gardeners who liked to protect their flowerbeds and thought we were devils in the guise of angels and they were not very wrong either.

My playmates in our lane were always full of mischief and I was a participant or a leader among them catching nasty hornets and keeping them in match boxes to be traded for marbles or something else. We made our own toys and games and flew our kites from the rooftop. I even brought down many kites using a stone and a line but the kite flyers never could guess who the culprit was. We as children made many mischief that I do not need to elaborate here. It was a normal childhood when we learned to live without fancy toys or pocket money. We never had a birthday celebration because it is not a part of the culture so it did not bother me or anyone I knew.

Thus growing up in a town like ours where nothing spectacular happened except the annual festival of Pooja or Dhakando or some fairs, I was nevertheless fond of my hometown where most people I knew were middle class and few very poor as well. Our monthly show of Laurel Hardy or Charlie Chaplin movies in our school play ground was enough excitement for us kids. We did not have television but had a radio that we listened to mostly for Hindi songs played on a band called radio Ceylon. My father listened to the English news in the morning that a fellow in heavy British accent read but we did not care about what was happening elsewhere and were more interested in our own affairs that included playing marbles or milking the goat of the neighbor on the sly once in a while.

The college days were also routine and I pedaled my beat up bicycle every morning along with a few classmates so this way the years passed swiftly, we graduated and moved on with our respective lives. This was the time after graduation to think about what to do next. Some found jobs easily and moved to other parts of the country while I also found a good job but decided not to take it and started on my M.Sc. program. This was the time when I decided on a drastic new course of my life and accepted an offer to go to Vietnam as a volunteer agronomist. I did not know what would happen after my two years in Vietnam and that was during the war to boot that had some opposition but nothing I could not overcome so I left and never looked back.

I will not narrate here my life story because it appears as a blog as “The story of a lifetime by Anil” in so check it out. I just want to write why I left in the first place and why I could never return home.

People leave for many reasons. Some leave because they find a good job somewhere far from their town. Others leave for higher studies in other places and get a job later on near their place of study. Still others like me leave because they cannot imagine a humdrum life like others and take their chances to see what happens if they go to other countries and see what opportunities come their way for a better life. No doubt it was a risky proposition to go to a country like Vietnam where there was a fierce war going on but I persevered to finally convince the authorities to give me a passport that took many agonizing months and many more months to get a visa so finally a day came when I said goodbye to my home town and my country not at all knowing at that time if I will ever return. In fact no one knew.

That was some 50 years ago. My life took a turn that no one had foreseen including myself but I will not get into that as it appears in a story I mentioned earlier. I never forgot the link to my hometown where I spent my first 22 years of life, where my siblings and my mother lived, where I knew many people who I grew up with and shared many joyful moments, where I knew all the roads, places of interest and shops, where I enjoyed the seasons and the joys of summer with mangoes, water melons and ice creams so I made an effort to visit my home town whenever I could. Believe it or not, I visited at least 18 times in 50 years and kept in touch when not visiting. Each visit brought me closer to the realization that I had grown so apart from them that nothing could bridge that gap in spite of lavish gifts I brought for them. I brought cameras and other things for those who had asked me and those who didn’t. I donated money for the celebration of Pooja, paid for holidays to the mountains for my sister and to Agra for my mother but it failed to bring me closer to them.

There were great changes that took place in my absence that were negative in nature. The first was their perception that I was very rich and could afford to travel to so many countries by plane, visit India so many times, spend so freely for others and build the second floor of the house my father had built, renovate the ground floor extensively with flush toilet etc. This perception became the wall that I could not break down but more importantly it was my marriage to a lovely woman from a foreign country that rattled them the most so it all went downhill from there. Now the boys I knew in my childhood had no time for me and disappeared after saying a brief hello.

When I went to see one of them, he at first could not recognize me but soon came around and started a litany of his personal struggles never once asking anything about me and my children or what I did and where in the world I lived. It was so depressing to hear from him how bad the town has become full of horrendous traffic, how polluted the air is, how everything is adulterated and how the corruption is everywhere. Even the pooja which is the annual celebration for the Bengalis had become so commercialized and lack luster that I became very nostalgic about the good old days when it used to be fun.

We used to visit each other and go for walks or play guitar and sing but those days are gone. Now they look at me as someone who is rich and successful so they feel they have nothing in common with me anymore. A game of carom board or Ludo or monopoly was the way to spend the time together but not anymore. One chap whom I had not seen for many years passed by our front gate saying “see you later” but did not stop and never did come back. Another fellow who was my playmate when we were kids would not give me the time of the day and walked on by never looking back. So I realized that people had changed and I was wrong to believe that I would find them same as before.

My siblings criticized my faded denim and said that I was no longer a part of their society because I had gotten foreign education and foreign wife and our children were not given proper names. They said that I had given up all traditions although could not elaborate exactly what I had given up and what new tradition I had adopted abroad.

It is true that visiting my old college was useless because my professors had retired or died so no one knew me. My classmates had scattered all over the country and some went abroad never to meet again. The alumni association is very weak so I did not bother to ask them about others because all they wanted was my contribution to the association that does not mean anything to me. I met only one class mate but he was now a professor and did not have any time to spare for me. Another fellow I met on the road asked me abruptly if I knew French and said I should translate something for him and kept on walking never stopping to ask me if I had a family of my own and where I lived. I guess it did not matter to him other than the translation he was after. I also noticed that no one gave me his address, phone number or e mail address or asked for mine to keep in touch.

I found that almost everyone was struggling with their day to day affairs and this constant struggle was wearing them down. Some are sick and others are past redemption. They never asked me about the countries where I had worked, where I live now and what my children are doing or if I have kids. They were not interested. They were not interested in other countries or world affairs because they said that it did not concern them. So gradually I became cognizant of the fact that I was never going to mean anything to them because they had written me off including my siblings.

The sense of alienation for me was complete when my mother’s house was sold and my brother moved away to Delhi. My ma had died and so did 2 of my elder sisters. Some one told me that the house where we spent so many years together joyfully is now locked up , dark and the garden is full of weeds. No one knows what the new owner will do so the last link was cut. When I tried to rent a bicycle from a neighborhood shop, the woman said she did not know me and could not trust me. When I said that I live in the house across the street, she said she knows someone there meaning my brother but had never seen me so she could not let me rent the bike. That is when it hit me that one can always leave but never go back. I know now that I can’t.

The art of writing

Man has from ancient times been known to write. He wrote about his life, his exploits, history, about war, about the wild life, his food, his clothes, his dwellings, his hunting and on everything one could imagine. The writing was invented by man for a solid reason. It was called posterity. People wrote because they wanted to leave something behind for others to know and follow. It could be a record of financial dealings, a record of taxes collected or a record of war. It could be record of genealogy so that people could know who descended from who and reigned as monarch for how long. Records were kept to detail the construction of massive projects like the pyramids or cities.

But the ancient man was just as anxious to write something about him except that he did not have paper and pen and did not have the alphabets so how did he go about writing? At first the primitive man who was not so primitive as you and I may suggest judging from his art and history he left behind in the caves of France or in sacred sites in Australia wrote using the means available to him namely the cave walls as writing surface and paint made from natural colors and minerals or plants.

He made exquisite paintings of animals, people, plants and recorded history in pictures since no system of writing as we know it today had developed. The native Americans used this method of writing using pictorials on animal hides recording wars, famine, invasion of whites, hunting scenes, their gods and demons, their daily lives, their arts and craft, in short a complete narrative in pictures of their life and history. Others like the Mayas and Incas had developed a system of writings using hieroglyphs and chiseled it on stones for eternity but also on barks and other medium. It took a long time for people to understand what they meant but slowly the symbols were deciphered so now experts and scholars can read them and are astonished at the wealth of information they get from these records.

Earlier the Egyptians had started recording their history in the hieroglyphs on stone and on animal hides, later parchments and later still on paper made from papyrus reeds. The Egyptians were masters at this art and scribes were employed to record anything and everything to suit the whims of the kings and also destroyed some writings because the new pharaoh wanted history to be rewritten so the phrase ‘history is written by victors” was born. The study of the evolution of writing is a very interesting topic because it shows the sheer ingenuity of man to develop a system that suited his purpose at the time. It could be the cuneiform writings of the ancient Sumerians that you can still see in some museums and see for the first time the Hammurabi codes chiseled in stone that has survived thousands of years of ravages of time and destruction due to warfare.

Before the paper was invented, people used clay tablets, flat board of wood or stone to write on. These baked tablets of clay in cuneiform show a wealth of information on how much and what was traded, giving a marvelous insight into the system that prevailed so long ago. So you can see an evolution in writing from the ancient times into what it has become today. Slowly and steadily the form and method as well as the medium evolved to reach the sophistication that exists today but it surely took a very long time if you count in years the time it took for the man to start writing but a very short time if you consider how long the mankind has been evolving from Lucy to the present time.

The Jews at the time of Moses and even before had started to write their Torahs and religious texts on paper using their own form of writing that persists even today and has little changed but Moses at one time used stones to chisel on God’s words as commandments because he too was thinking of posterity and to leave behind something more durable than paper or parchment. The Egyptians although had developed the paper also saw durability in stone so decorated the inner walls of the tombs with a written records chiseled into it although they also used bright paints to write their story as well because they knew that the pigments would be preserved in the desert heat and deep underground chambers cut into the stones where no daylight ever reaches.

The Jewish writings and Aramaic language that Jesus spoke lead the way to systematic recordings of the teachings of Jesus as has been found in Dead sea scrolls found at Qumran and pieces of gospel found in Egypt clearly showing the sophistication of Aramaic as a language that the scribes used to write so beautifully on parchments. The written language was clearly evolving and reaching its peak of sophistication long before Latin and Greek writings evolved in pre Roman period that gave rise to the modern alphabets that we use today. By the time of Jesus, all the writings were done either on parchment because of its durability or on hand made paper that can still be found in some museums in Israel or in England and it was done by scribes who wrote in beautiful handwriting called calligraphy using ink made from soot or burned ivory powder and even vegetable dyes. There was no printing press in those days although I will write about a system of printing in Tibet that still exists today a bit later in this article.

The Romans took the Latin as their language and left behind a treasure trove of papyrus or parchment scrolls on which they recorded everything of interest to them. They patronized the scribes lavishly to write and copy from other languages books, documents or other materials to furnish their libraries just like the Egyptians before them and left behind valuable records that we can still read. But the Romans were master builders just like the Egyptians so they too recorded their history in stone because stone is more durable than anything else. You can see these arches and ruins all over Europe and the Mediterranean where even the date of certain event is written if you can read the Roman system of writing them like LXCMMM etc. The numerals that we use today came partly from Arabic and from ancient Hindu scriptures that invented zero as O with the decimal system so the Roman way of writing date became gradually obsolete.

If you study the history of writing and its development over a long period, you will know that education was strictly limited to a few people so the vast majority of the population was kept out of education. The education was meant for the elites only who were the rulers and the decision makers so they felt no need for mass education and printing books for everyone like today. Besides there were no printing presses so everything was hand written meticulously by scribes who practically became blind straining their eyes to write books or copying them from other sources in lamp lights. The fact that they made thousands of such hand written books to fill the library shelves in Alexandria or Taxila or Nalanda speaks volumes of their tenacity, hard work even if the Romans and later the Moslems saw it fit to destroy such valuable depository of knowledge out of religious zeal and fanaticism.

The Chinese too developed calligraphy as a form of art and copied from other languages to develop their store of knowledge. The Arabs later wrote their books by hand and used extensive calligraphy to illustrate their books and the Koran itself but found stone as a good medium to use calligraphy on using Koranic texts. You can see this on the front of the main door of Taj Mahal or around Qutub Minar in Delhi. Harun al Rashid, the famous Khalifa of ancient Baghdad was a patron of scribes whom he gave salaries in gold and fine clothes of silk who worked for him to write books to fill his library. He encouraged translation into Arabic any book of value that a traveler brought with him in other languages like Greek, Latin and even Sanskrit to develop his treasure trove of knowledge.

Then came the modern age of printing when moving types were developed in Germany and the ancestor of modern printing press was born resulting in the mass production of books that lead to mass education of people in many parts of the world. But let me go back a bit now and write about a system that ancient Tibetans developed to make mass printing of their religious texts available.

This was done and still is done by carving the texts onto a flat wooden tablet painstakingly with absolute perfection and then using this tablet to stamp the text onto paper or parchment. The beauty of this system is that the carved wooden tablet is very durable and can be re used again and again so over the long period of time they have accumulated thousands of these tablets that can be found in their library today and can be printed from it. They also use calligraphy to write on cloth or paper using brushes like the Chinese.

The old Sanskrit texts were written on palm leaves some of which have survived the ravages of time but palm leaf is never a good substitute for parchment or paper. May be the ancients did not know how to make paper or use parchment like the Romans or the Native Americans although I doubt it. The fact is that the palm leaf texts that are found today are not thousands of years old but rather copies of the originals that became very fragile. I have seen these palm leaf writings stored in appalling conditions in some temples in South India that are deteriorating rapidly and may soon be lost if not copied. Some temples have their history chiseled on the walls in ancient scripts that few can read but it is all there nicely preserved unlike the modest palm leaf. The Angkoreans took the stone chiseling to new heights when they recorded the entire story of Mahabharata in galleries around the AngKor Wat temple in Siem Reap in what is known as the bas relief which is the same technique the ancient Egyptians used but AngKor is unique since no such monument exists anywhere else in the World. The story of Maha Bharata in India existed only on palm leaves that later developed into what it is today in finely printed form. In a civilization as sophisticated as the ancient India when flying machines and rockets were used in the war of Mahabharata, it is hard to imagine that they did not have paper or printing press and if they did, there is no trace left except some hand written Sanskrit scripts on palm leaves. I think the Egyptians and the Romans were smart enough to record their story in stone that still endures. Angkor by comparison is not that old but still gives a very good example of what endures and what does not.

Now I come to the part where I want to write about beautiful handwriting called calligraphy that is vanishing slowly but definitely. Now practically no one writes a book or anything by hand. The days of hand written book and artfully decorated pages are gone and no one I know knows or practices calligraphy. Students scribble notes in classrooms in bad hand writing that becomes a habit that they carry on like the doctors but in general good flowing handwriting in cursive is now as rare as hen’s tooth.

We were told in high school to always learn to write beautifully and very legibly so that the examiners would not have a hard time deciphering what we wrote as answers .Our exams were a test of this skill but now the exams are multiple choices where you just tick the square. A good teacher gives a good example by writing beautifully on the blackboard but how many teachers you know can do that? A student who does not write beautifully does the same when he becomes a teacher later on. The schools do not emphasize enough the importance of good hand writing so I was very appreciative of the teacher in India who taught our children how to write beautifully by practical methods. She would hold the finger of the child to show how to make equal spacing between words.

But now a days it is the keyboard like this one that does the writing and the dictionary at the bottom bar keeps an eye on what you are writing. It warns of spelling or spacing mistakes and offers to correct it. It would have taken me longer to write this article by hand beautifully and legibly but I am not writing for a classroom teacher. I am using the technology to write and instantly post my writing to a blog site so that thousands can read it in many parts of the world. So the technology is changing the way we write and how we disseminate the writing. I do not know anyone who writes letters by hand using aerogramme anymore because it is so obsolete and time consuming. Now it is e mail and instant messaging that can even include colored photos you take with your digital camera and upload and send to the end of the world in an instant.

Still I feel that there is a place for calligraphy and beautiful writing in the modern world where it will never get obsolete. May be I am old fashioned.

Language and its evolution

I once listened to two Indians castigating the English used by an American to teach children in an Indian school. Their point of contention was that the American said “children- what color is the sky?”. They vehemently opposed it and said the correct way was to say “ What is the colour of the sky” because that is what they were taught by their teachers so the American must be wrong and is not a good teacher so should be fired from his job. I just listened but kept quiet because I understood that there was something else at play here other than the grammar, spelling and syntax. I thought about it a great deal and found over the years that this phenomenon of “correct way” is quite prevalent in many countries where English is not their native language or even the second language and where English is taught by the locals whose mother tongue is not English.

Now a days there is a fad of learning English in many countries because they have come to realize that learning English the proper way is the ticket to better jobs and better pay because the world today is more interconnected than ever before and English is on its way to become the language most people like to use in communicating with others. So there is great demand in many countries for native English speakers like the British or Americans ,Australians or New Zealanders who are hired as teachers in their high schools. There are many expatriates in Vietnam , Cambodia, Thailand , Japan, Korea among others but in other countries like in the Philippines or India ,they still rely more on locals to teach English in primary schools and in college where the “correct way phenomenon” is observed. In the Philippines they constantly brag that they are the largest English speaking people in Asia but the fact remains that 95% of the population does not speak, read or write English at all and the rest 5% manages to speak it with a tenuous claim to fluency at best and poor grammar at worst. India does not make such outlandish claims but does have a small percentage of the population that speaks, reads and writes in English better than others so they work in call centers and in other jobs that require English as the main language.

The country also has quite a few English news papers where they have good editors to take out grammar or other errors before it goes to print. The Indians educated in the US universities or in England stand apart from others in fluency and the mastery of the language but seldom return to India because they easily get residency and good jobs there and settle down. Those who do return also find good jobs in India because of their education and fluency in the language since there is a need for good speakers of English.

I was just watching the BBC news this morning where a Sikh gentleman discussed the news with Mr.Adnan Nawaz in flawless British accented English but most likely he was born and educated in England like so many others. Often the off the boat people who emigrate to the United States or England do poorly but the second generation does much better than their parents because they integrate better than their parents and pick up the local accent quicker and more easily. You see this in Australia as well where Chinese immigrant girls speak with near perfect Aussie accent and vocabulary. So the key word is social integration that starts in the community and the school. Those who fail to integrate and remain apart from the rest of the population find solace in their own community where they can speak their native tongue ,shop in their neighborhood that are run by their countrymen, send their children to their own day care center and later to schools run by their countrymen.

The Filipinos who live in Daly city for twenty years or more still can’t speak good English because they mostly interact with Tagalog speakers like themselves but perhaps their children do better than the parents due to necessity more than anything else because all western countries encourage integration as a way to a better life with good paying jobs and a brighter future. Those who do not integrate due to self imposed fear of losing their ethnic, cultural or religious identity do so at the peril of stagnating socially and more importantly economically. You can see this stagnation in France, Germany and some European countries where Moslems tend to live apart in ghettos and end up in poor paying jobs although many speak good French or German. Their insistence on maintaining their religious identity often leads to radicalization in the worst way possible that has its own consequences.

So I would like to come back to the issue of “the correct way phenomenon” and study it some more to understand the reasons behind it so I will stick to English only.

There was a Peace Corps girl teaching in a rural barrio in the Philippines whom the children greeted by saying “hey you, what’s your name”? so she answered “My name is Susan.” The next time the children asked “ Susan , what’s your name”. These kids who did not speak, read or write English at all thought that “ hey you,what’s your name was a greeting that they had memorized and continued that way to the amusement of the American. Later these kids will get some primary education and some even a secondary education where they will learn some English taught by the locals who are not proficient themselves but take great pride in their ability to “teach” English. This is where the “correct way phenomenon” kicks in. It is the same way in India as I mentioned earlier.

These people can’t be corrected by anyone because their pride in their ability stands in the way. Only they know the correct way , the grammar and the pronunciation so they will make fun of anyone who is different. My son’s teacher in elementary school insisted in her class that people in Haiti should be called Hatian and not Haitian so made fun of our son who was innocent and had answered correctly but the teacher had to put him in his place. This emphasis on “correct way” persists in college as well but more so in high school where conformity is the rule. You must say ooch instead of ouch, sweet shirt instead of sweat shirt, ausome instead of awesome. The list is long but the point is that you must conform and speak the way everybody speaks because that is the “right and correct way”.

It gets worse later on because some of these kids get to college later where the English may be taught as a subject again by non native speaker of the language so the students who do not speak English or are very poor develop a language of their own called Tagalish which is a mixture of Tagalog and some English . In other countries it may be Hinlish, (Hindi-English), Chinglish( Chinese-English) or Thinglish(Thai-English) as the case may be but it all comes from the inability to express oneself in English fluently. The teachers in colleges prefer Tagalish because their own education was in Tagalish so they can’t teach in straight correct English. Students quickly find out who among them is good in English and will copy their book report with slight modifications because they cannot comprehend Joseph Conrad’s writings. Our daughter was always sought out by her classmates in such cases. They did not know that her first language was English but knew that she spoke fluently with an astounding vocabulary that won her first prize in extemporaneous speaking contest as a child as did her brother. Now the Tagalish is used extensively in movies, TV and radio so it has become a language of its own.

The influence of mother tongue :

The pernicious effect of mother tongue in learning a language like English is perhaps inevitable but prevents people from learning English with good accent specially if they do not go out of their country to live elsewhere where English is the language. This has something to do again with conformity. Filipinos must speak English like other Filipinos, Indians like other Indians and Thais like other Thais. There is a second factor that comes to play here. Many languages do not have a certain alphabet so it is very difficult for them to pronounce a word in English using that alphabet like the Filipinos do not have C, F, Z etc. so you can understand their conundrum. Similarly Thais do not have R in their alphabet and the Japanese do not have L so the Thais have a hard time with R words and Japanese with L words. I do not know about the Koreans or the Chinese but they too must have their own issues. When we were children , our father taught us conjugation that we had to memorize. So we learned ba, be ,bi, bo, bu, by etc. But this is not taught here in the Philippines so they miss out on correct pronunciation.

The third factor that comes into play is the grammar of the mother tongue. When people apply the same grammar rule to English, they run into trouble. When you ask them a question in English, they compose an answer in their mind in their own language and then try to translate it into English instead of thinking in English. Often the translation is very different from what the answer should be so that too can be very problematic that leads to poor comprehension. It is hard to converse with anyone who has so much translation to do mentally before he opens his mouth and even then you are not sure how much he comprehends.

The last factor that stands in the way of learning good fluent English is the accent of the mother tongue. The Hindi speakers for example can’t say Botany because they do not have this O sound in Hindi so it comes out as Baatni . Similarly the Bengali speakers can’t say Cut, But, Must etc . because their language does not have the U sound so it comes out as Caat, Baat, Maast etc. This is called the mother tongue influence and is common in all countries where English is not their language.

How some people can overcome these influences and learn to speak English fluently like the Americans or an Englishman is perhaps more dependent on the individual’s own effort and endeavor but living in an English speaking environment can make a big difference. It is no secret that you can Learn French a lot faster and start to talk like a Frenchman if you live in France in a rural area where no one speaks English or your language. Often children are great teachers because they do not embarrass you if you make mistakes and are very patient with you. The television and radio are also great teachers of the language and then there are language schools.

So learning English or any other language is a skill that can get better with practice and the desire to imitate and by developing a vast vocabulary. The ability to learn quickly and imitating can go a long way in improving the skill.

Language and its evolution :

All languages tend to evolve over a certain period of time so English is no different in that sense. In fact the modern English is quite different from the old English spoken and written 400 years ago and it is still evolving. This is also true in French and many other languages that enrich their language by borrowing words from other languages. No one will criticize Jean Ferrat for singing “je twisterai “ in his songs .Many English words are now part of their language just like many Hindi and Arabic words are now part of the English language.

When one American asked me rather contemptuously what Hindi words English had borrowed ,I answered that off the bat I can recall many words like cummerbund, jodhpur, jungle, pyjama, chutney, veranda etc. to his great surprise but he still snickered. But English has borrowed for centuries words from Latin and Greek and Arabic to enrich itself. The Arabic words like Shaitan ( satan), Alkohl ( alcohol) are now part of the English vocabulary. The languages that borrow words from others grow in its richness and those that do not borrow do not grow as a language and do not evolve. Just imagine how google has become a word now a days and many others that have come about due to technological advancements. New words are added periodically that then become the vogue.

The French are a stubborn people when it comes to their language so they refuse to say septant, octant, nonant like the Belgians or the Canadians and still say soixant dix, quatre vingt, quatre vingt dix etc. although septant, octant etc. makes more sense. When they do invent a word on their own, they take great pride like when the space capsule landed in the ocean, they coined the word “amerisage” . But other languages like Sanskrit is a very ancient language that stays that way because it can’t evolve.

The ability of any language that expresses itself well and is willing to accommodate words from other languages then gains prominence just like English has done and has become a major language that everyone wants to learn to speak. Other languages like German or French have remained limited to some countries although learning them can be considered a great skill .Anyone who is fluent in English, French and Spanish and has proper education can get a job easily in his vocation.

So if you have children of your own, give them the opportunity to learn a foreign language as their mother tongue. If that is not possible then as a second language. Remember that language is a skill that people can pick up and it gets better with practice just like any other skill.

Peer pressure and alcohol:

I have too often seen a tragedy in the making but was a silent witness because I could do nothing to stop it. It is called alcoholism and the peer pressure that destroys lives .

Alcohol is widely used as an excuse for social interactions in most countries .This is shown in the movies, in TV shows and in real life when alcohol is used to make people happy in a group. In cowboy movies it plays an important role and the saloon is central to their story where someone comes in and orders a drink when some goons come in to pick a fight and soon everybody starts shooting at everybody. These stories are based on the reality that saloons are a place to drink even today and socialize. It was true then and it is true now except that goons are still around and often a fight breaks out in a bar or saloon over some imagined insult or past grievances.

Lonely women go to such places and order drinks to be sent to some gentleman who sits in a corner by himself. If he accepts then women come over and start a conversation that often ends up in flirting or some tragedy. This is the staple of Hollywood movies and crime thrillers but it happens everyday.

But what I want to write about is peer pressure and its bad results that can destroy lives. Of course alcohol plays a major role here in the tragedy that ensues too often.

I knew a young boy who used to play with us when we were kids. He was a normal kid just like most of us and probably had normal aspirations like most of us but as he grew older, he started on a course that ultimately killed him and that too at a young age. He dropped out of school and started drinking because the love of his life married someone else so he took to the bottle. His family thought that an arranged marriage might be what he needs to come out of depression so a plain looking girl was found and I even attended his marriage and took photos that I mailed him later on. But from there he went downhill and nothing could stop him from destroying himself and his marriage, alcohol being so addictive and damaging. Here the peer pressure tried to wean him off the bottle and even found jobs for him but failed to reform him.

The second case is more tragic. He was a very smart good looking kid who was one year junior to me in college. He graduated and got a good job and got married when his problems started. The woman he married through an arranged marriage was so bad that he started to drink until the alcohol killed him. He was so young. There are many such cases all around and one can easily see what alcohol does to people who are easily influenced by peer pressure to drink.

In the Philippines, such tragedies are common when under peer pressure a kid starts to drink at an early age of 14 or 15, drops out of high school and destroys himself. If you ask why they do what they do, they will answer that they seek company of others so that they are not lonely although this company of vagabonds comes at a price. The fear of not having friends and left out to live a lonely life is what pushes young men over to join such groups that leads to alcohol and often drugs and a life of crime. They are called the canto boys meaning they always hang around the street corners and will always ask you to join them for drinking. None of them succeed in life in getting a good education and a job and stability that everyone wishes for. The parents cannot stop such kids from this path of destruction so many parents bury their kids who could have gone to college and could have found a job later. Many try to help such people by offering them jobs but by that time the kid is addicted to alcohol and the canto boys are always waiting. An addict is always happy in their company.

Now this trend of joining the canto boys is not limited to ordinary kids who would normally go to an ordinary school and find an ordinary job later to live an ordinary life. It happens to people who join the religious vocation as well and become priests. They too form a group or join a group that always pushes alcohol so they become addicted and die of kidney or liver failure at an early age. They do not have the will power to resist and say no to such peer pressure because the allure of company that brings alcohol is so great and the fear of loneliness is too depressing for some people that they willingly destroy themselves. If asked why they do it, they will say “we die only once but we die happy” or some such glib lines.

Those kids who get through high school and get to college find that the peer pressure continues there as well. A college campus is a mixed community of students who come from different provinces so here too kids find their province mates or they find him quickly because to belong becomes a necessity for the kids who are away from their home and live alone in dorms. So they join the various campus groups like fraternities and sororities under pressure to join them citing many advantages but once too often end up in a bad way getting involved in fighting other groups and getting hazed. Many kids have died due to hazing and initiation rites.

In America often female students who join sororities are pressured to drink, take drugs and join sex orgies as conditions for them to be a part of them but for some it starts as early as high school where some kids go wrong due to intense peer pressure. I had a roommate in California who used to follow me around because I used to talk to him and he felt like talking to someone about his problems because he was lonely. Then one day he fell off his bunk bed on top of my study desk and was senseless. It was only then I noticed that he was on drugs and I could do nothing to persuade him to give it up. Soon he dropped out of college and disappeared for good.

The social taboo on alcohol and drugs that exist in some countries like India can help to some extent curb this tendency to seek bad company but the two cases I mentioned above were in my home town. A strong parental guidance and care can help a child develop values that offer him better choices in life but many parents fail in their duty to do so due to problems of their own and due to a lack of understanding of what really constitutes good parenting. Often parents ignore what the child wants to do and pressure him to become a doctor or engineer when he wants to be a musician or artist because often the parents decide what is good for the kid.

I know a case where the fanatic aunt of a kid pushed him into a seminary at an early age so that he could become a priest. He did not like to be in the seminary but no one asked him what he wanted so he became a priest but died of alcoholism that destroyed his kidneys. There are so many such examples. Banning the sale of alcohol to minors does not stop them from getting a bottle as I know too well because in California, my dorm mates often asked me to buy them alcohol. In other countries the ban of sale and distribution of liquor only drives the lucrative trade underground. Why do you think the poor people in the mountains in America resort to moonshine? It is the same anywhere because poor people take it as a source of income when they have very limited other options. During the prohibition in the United States who got very rich selling bootleg liquors and alcohol? It was the mafia that could not be stopped. When the prohibition ended because it was such a dismal failure, one particular family got the sole distributorship of imported liquor and became very rich.

The use of alcohol for socialization is a very old custom all over the world since the time man learned to make alcohol from wheat, rye, barley, from fruits and many other sources. Now the production of alcohol worldwide is a multibillion dollar industry that is perfectly legal and some countries take immense pride in the production of their wines and liquors and set up very large plantation of vineyards to produce grapes for the sole purpose of making wine. When I was working in Algeria, my apartment was at the edge of a vast vineyard and I could see tractors dragging huge trailer loads of grapes to the wineries but it is a Moslem country where drinking alcohol is prohibited so the Algerians sold their wines to France or Russia often in a barter arrangement. Later they had to uproot thousands of hectares of vineyards to plant wheat and barley.

I have been to France where every neighborhood has a store that sells hundreds of varieties of wines , rhums, whiskey etc. and where they do not ask if you are a kid or adult. Drinking wine before, during or after a meal is a part of their tradition which they value. This is the same as in Italy or many other European countries. But there is a fine line between drinking a glass of cognac or cointreau once in a while and becoming addicted to alcohol. It is understood that each individual reacts differently to alcohol. Some get very drunk quickly and lose self control while others can consume a great deal of it and still walk home normally. Some become addicted to it while others never get any addiction because they have tremendous will power and self control.

So it comes to will power and self control after all. You can often see it in a child and not in an adult. Often parents give the kids the example they follow or do not. Every kid needs someone to tell him about certain things because sooner or later he will find it out by himself. The parents play a very important role in the development of the child and his will to resist evil in any shape or form by first giving him a good example and secondly by guiding him to a better choice by explaining the benefits. Banning or punishment does not work because it makes the kids more rebellious. It is not uncommon to find pastor’s daughter ending up in sex trade or very religious parents who were very strict with their kids see them become irreligious , run away or marry someone outside their faith causing family problems.

But the peer pressure I am talking about is more ominous in nature and can literally destroy a person as I have mentioned earlier. The co workers in offices are not immune and they too exert pressure to do what they want you to do if you want to belong. This can be simply night club hopping or gambling or binge drinking at a football game.

People who resist peer pressure and do what they want to do are made of tougher material and know instinctively what is right and what is wrong and stick to the narrow path of virtue which can be lonesome but how many people are so strong and have such will power? Do you?

What is happiness :

One is often confronted in life with this eternal question . Different people will answer differently depending on their religion, their cultural background, their ethnicity, their race, their various experiences in life, their social status, their financial well being, their attitude, their beliefs, their upbringing and their motivation. Those are a lot of things to depend on just to answer this question- What is happiness?

A Filipino will say he is happy when he eats balut which is a duck egg with a duck formed inside. A Chinese may say playing mahjong makes him happy. An American may say it is a big hamburger with french fries and a can of Pabst beer and an Indian may say it is the new car he just bought that makes him happy. So the answers vary depending on many things I just mentioned. But these are all physical things that money can buy. Americans will say “ I will buy you some good time meaning happiness” implying that happiness can be bought just like a can of soda or beer.

When the happiness of a person depends on so many factors then it seems to be a very difficult question to answer but I will try to analyze this and come to some conclusions . Many sages over centuries have tried to answer this question but the debate still continues unabated. Often people mistakenly think that acquiring physical things like food, car or trinkets equates happiness but physical things do not endure. A car becomes old and breaks down, a trinket loses its allure, foods are just food and end up in a manure pile eventually, clothes become tattered and rejected. The happiness therefore means different things to different people and different age group.

A child is happy with his new toy, a teen ager is happy with his new gadget, an adult is happy with his new car, an old woman is happy with her grand kids , an old man is happy with his pipe smoking Amphora and sipping a bottle of Chianti but again these are the physical things money can buy. Yes even grand kids can be bought with toys and food as all grand mothers know only too well.

But I believe the real happiness lies elsewhere. If you ever get to see the movie “ Gods must be crazy” where the bushmen and their children play with just a bottle and even fight over it , you will know that happiness can be a shallow feeling and often very fleeting. The bushmen’s kids were the subject of an experiment when one kid was given a piece of cake by an European to see what he will do with it. He was surprised when the kid called all the kids and they formed a circle and sat down while the kid with the cake meticulously divided the cake and gave everyone a piece. When he was asked why he shared his cake and not eat it by himself, he looked very surprised and said how could he enjoy the cake when all the kids just looked at him? This was not the right thing to do to make others unhappy by not sharing. These children of nature had come to know a very basic fact of happiness that still eludes most people who are selfish. They find happiness in sharing. Eventually the bushmen had to reject the coke bottle because they could not share it with others so considered evil.

Some people are happy with very little and they share whatever they have with others without pre conditions. They are happy just to share it. They do not ask anything in return because sharing is a pure sign of altruism. The material culture of the west has taught people to be selfish and self centered from the childhood so that behavior is embedded in their adult life.

But a child who shares his food or toys or anything no matter how trivial learns that there is happiness in sharing because it makes the other person happy. Such a child grows up to be a happy person. Some become philanthropists like Bill Gates and Zuckerberg and use their wealth to eradicate poverty or find a cure for dreadful diseases. There are many rich people but very few give their money to causes that benefit the poor and the underprivileged.

In some religions, they teach people to share. The Hindu temples feed lots of people every day and Sikhs do the same without asking if you are a Sikh or a Hindu. Anyone can enjoy free food. A hungry person needs food first and trinkets or toys later. But many fast food restaurants dump their remaining unsold food into garbage bins instead of feeding the hungry and poor for free. This happens in America and also in Europe. They even chase away the poor who are searching for food in the garbage bins.

In Europe they dump millions of liters of milk on the highways instead of selling it at low price or give it to the poor. If you believe that Europe is not poor then just see the gypsies and ethnic people who live at the edge of their society and are dirt poor or millions of war refugees who do not have food and shelter or warm clothes to fight off freezing weather conditions. They would rather waste precious food than to give it to the poor. Perhaps they could learn something from the bushmen of Kalahari.

Once the dairy farmers in France destroyed hundreds of tons of butter because they were not getting a good price and in Spain and Italy they destroy truckloads of tomatoes and oranges for fun where the unemployment runs as high as 25% among the young people so there are many poor people who live hand to mouth.

So we come back to the question of what is happiness and what makes a person happy. My personal experience in life is perhaps worth sharing here.

I learned very early during my childhood that selfishness was a sin so one should always share. No one really told me this but my parents were the most unselfish people you could ever meet so we followed their example. By we I do not mean all the siblings. Some were selfish and did not follow our parent’s unselfish example. Now the kids are showered with toys and gadgets by some parents but by and large these kids put more value in their toys and gadgets than in sharing and developing empathy with others.

People who share but with preconditions are the worst kind because they demean the value of sharing. There is a chapter in the book Prophet by Kahlil Gibran where he talks about sharing and what is the meaning of true sharing. When the Mormons were moving west to find a place to settle down, they found many people dying of thirst in the desert but they would not give these people a drop of water and food unless they became Mormons first. There are many such examples.

I also learned not to attach any value to anything material be it a toy or a trinket because I learned to live without it. Other kids had toys or mecano set or fancy clothes and new bicycles but it did not make me jealous. I was happy without those things and often made my own toys and repaired my torn shirt collar. But sharing and taking is discouraged by some parents out of false pride. Often you see it in very poor people in the mountains in the United States who take great pride in not taking anything from anyone. They are also the meanest people.

The movie “Education of little tree” is quite educative in that sense where the child called little tree gives his beautiful pair of moccasins his grandmother made for him to a little girl who was barefoot and loved the soft moccasins. Then her father who was a dirt farmer came and roughly took the moccasins off the little girl and threw them away saying he does not like charity. I have met many such people in my life who live with a false sense of pride and feel self righteous. One American woman whom we invited to our home left some money surreptitiously on the sofa because she felt that she must pay back somehow for our hospitality so that she is under no obligation.

A child who grows up sharing what he has with others also grows up with a healthy attitude about giving and sharing. I wrote about Kaloda in one of my blogs where he gave me the gift of reading by sharing his books when I was young. He asked for nothing in return but I remember him fondly because it was such a generous gift that I still enjoy after all those years.

Our sages have always said that one must learn to accept anything with equanimity. This is a very loaded word but what it means is that one must not attach any value to anything in life and take the attitude that he can do without it and be happy. This is a lot harder to practice than you think. It is very difficult to say that you don’t need the car or a palatial house or fancy clothes and fancy food and can live simply in a small house, eat ordinary food and wear second hand clothes and be happy.

We are taught by the consumerist society that more is better. The TV ads bombard you with this message day in and day out that you must buy this and buy that to be happy. This constant deluge of capitalistic message over the media has its intended results so people run to get their latest cell phone, shampoo or deodorant without realizing that people who advertise do it for commercial gain only but it does not in real terms enhance your sense of happiness in any endurable way. In fact it does the opposite. It makes people very unhappy if they cannot buy what is advertised. If it is a fad then they must have it to be equal with others who are also into fads. But the fads are fleeting. Soon a new fad shows up making people anxious all over again.

So the happiness lies within a person. If you are not happy within yourself, the fads will never make you happy. A happy person is not influenced by what others think of him or say about him. He may have money but prefers to walk and not get a fancy car to show off. People who tend to show off their house, cars and money are perhaps the most miserable people because they seek approval from others all the time. If you do not praise their new car or big house then they get upset. Such people do not have self confidence in themselves and have low self esteem. They also tend to be selfish, mean and aggressive in their behavior towards others.

So learn some thing from those bush people in the Kalahari who have figured it out long ago that true happiness is in sharing, developing empathy for others, in helping people in need without preconditions and live a life with equanimity. I know this is a tall order for most people but worth trying anyway.



Amal Chatterjee

I am the village bard who loves to share his stories.