Opium Of The Classes: An Open Letter To Zeba

November 3, 2010 at 9:15 PMNov (Friends, Letter, Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)


Zeba, You asked me about my experience at A.V. Baliga Institute on 15 April and even days after the event I am still thinking and am of the feeling that it is quite early to voice what I have been thinking of. These thoughts have been bothering me from some time now. But the tryst with the students of A.V. Baliga Institute has made me think of it in a serious way.

When I was asked to give a lecture by my senior friend Dr. P.V. Bhandary who is also the Director of the Institute I was excited because I would be engaging a class after almost two years. I went back to some of my preoccupations and readings and wrote a lecture which, as you know, was titled Language, Communication and Society.

When I completed writing down my lecture, I did get a feeling that it might be quite heavy to under graduate students. The same was said by Varadesh Sir and Dr. Bhandary. But I thought of going ahead with the same lecture thinking that it would be a pedagogic exercise for the students. When Dr. Bhandary said, “Go ahead because it will be an exposure to different kind of lecture and thought process,” I felt nice and decided to further polish my lecture which I did.

I had been to the Institute on the day of the inauguration and never after that. That was around three years ago. This was the first time I would be seeing and meeting the students and the staff of the institute. Dr. Bhandary had informed that most of the students were from a rural background. Probably when he gave me that piece of information what he tried to say was, “Kindly keep aside your so called intellectual stuff aside and speak in a common tongue.” But I was not able to understand it because I thought it was a ‘politically correct’ stand not to underestimate the students of rural background and their ability to understand things which are considered ‘heavy’.

One Dr. Virupaksha who had come to pick me up, took me to the chamber of the Principal in the Institute. There my eyes fell on the board displaying the statistics of the students in the Institute i.e. what is the strength of each class, how many of them are SCs, how many STs, how many OBCs, how many boys and how many girls. I felt nice to see how seats were reserved for a particular section of the society which has been deprived of cultural capital and social capital.

When I entered the hall and the students stood up to welcome me (It was quite embarrassing because I am still a young boy) I became quite skeptical about my lecture being an effective one. Being aware that I would be branded as someone who underestimates certain section of the society, I go ahead with what I have to say. As I sat on the chair and looked at the students, they appeared more like representatives of a particular socio-economic background than as just students. When I was introduced to the students in Kannada, I realized that my lecture, prepared in English, if delivered in English would just be a waste of time and energy for the students. Soon I decided to speak in Kannada, with the help of the lecture written down in English, to maintain continuity and help me with the flow of thoughts.

Being quite sure of my hold over the language Kannada I can say that I crossed a barrier to reach the audience. But there was another barrier, which I myself had constructed, which I did not know how to cross. This was the barrier of theories. My lecture had borrowed a lot from theories and philosophies to make it ‘rich’. This also made my lecture, quite complicated, I guess, looking through the eyes of a student.

I might be called anti-intellectual for what I am trying to say now, but still let me go ahead. As I was delivering my lecture with references being made of Neruda, Marx, Descartes, Senghore, Achebe and likes some students became quite restless. With my experience in teaching, I managed to ‘control’ them, in my own way. But I just cant dismiss this by calling them disinterested students. I must ‘go beyond’, as I kept telling in my lecture, and understand the reason for the disinterest.

As I told you earlier the students were not just students but representatives of a particular socio-economic background. If we look at them as students then we can say, “As students they have to listen to the lectures, however theoretical they are, for widening their horizon.” But if we also look at them as representatives of a particular socio-economic background, we must pose before ourselves the question as to why these theories and philosophies do not interest them before we pass judgments, in our pride, about our intellectual superiority and their poverty of intellect.

Our theories and philosophies, however engaged with preoccupations of people and their struggle, doesn’t engage directly with people and their struggle and moreover doesn’t offer anything to the people in their real life. There is a slight gap between the real life and the theories relating to the real life. And it appears to me that the more and more deep we engage ourselves in theories and philosophies the more and more we move away from real life, how much ever our theory and philosophies are of the people.

If a lecture is arranged on theory of relativity for the students of mass communication then all the students would get up and ask, “How is that related to us?” Similarly if we speak of theories and philosophies which in no way relates, directly, to the people, it is of no use to them. This doesn’t mean that these theories and philosophies are useless. They are needed, I agree. But the question that I pose is, “To whom?”

As you would know Indian philosophy has two streams in it i.e. idealistic philosophy and materialistic philosophy. The idealistic philosophy was propagated by people like Shankara and Yajnavalkya while the materialistic philosophy was propagated by people like Charvaka and Brahaspati. It is well known that in the times of Rigveda did not know caste-distinction or contempt manual labour. Productive activity was a persistent theme in Rigveda and Gods are described as participating with human groups in raising cattle and increasing food and wealth. But things are said to have changed during the Upanishadic period. To quote Deviprasad Chattopadhyay, “As with the development of slavery in ancient Greece, so also in Upanishadic India, the lofty contempt for the material world with its ever shifting phenomena was the result of philosophical enquiry taking a free flight into pure knowledge or pure reason i.e. knowledge divorced from action.” He further argues, “This in turn could be possible only when one section of the community living on the surplus produced by another could withdraw itself from the responsibility of the labour of production…”

Theories and philosophies, it appears to me, is directly related to surplus. So however these theories are engaged with the thoughts of life and struggles of life, they can only descend to reality through imagination and are not reality ascended into theories, hence they are in a way divorced from reality, from life and struggles of life. While men who are burdened with the ‘responsibility of the labour of prodcution’ have less time to theorize their struggle of life and are least concerned, it appears, about theories and philosophies. Those who are living on the surplus can enjoy and afford theorizing and speaking of theories and philosophies. This however would not help or support the people in any way directly even if it is of the people and for the people as it is without the people. If religion is opium of the masses, as said by Marx, I feel theories and philosophies are the opium of the classes.

How to engage directly with people, with the struggle of life and not with theories and philosophies of life and struggles of life? – I ask myself now. We cannot descend to the real world through theories and philosophies. But we can ascend to theories and philosophies from reality. Then the theories and philosophies will be having gravitation and will be rooted. But finally the question is how would it everyday life for common men?

I cannot exactly locate the problem. I know not what answer I am looking for. I don’t know which path I want to take. I am just thinking aloud in a state of perplexity. Gibran once wrote, “Perplexity is the beginning of knowledge.” What is the knowledge? It is yet to unfold before me…


Samvartha ‘Sahil’

20 April 2010

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