In a land far, far away at a time not so long ago I was a young kid at school with many others. We used to have a “Social Studies” class that was taught by one of my favourite teachers, Miss MH. She was a portly, buxom lady with a “bob cut” hairstyle. Always impeccably turned out in a sari and a very low-cut matching blouse, MH was a strict disciplinarian. However, she would disregard class decorum and nibble on “nezas (aka chilgozas)” (pine nuts) upon concluding her lecture. Instructing us to copy into our notebooks the key teaching points of the day scribbled by her across the blackboard, MH would proceed to leaf through the latest copy of Eve’s Weekly or Femina while munching on the roasted nuts, forcefully blowing off the occasional nutshell that had the temerity to get stuck on her pouting lower lip; she never missed the dustbin. She had an uncanny ability of espying a student whispering, sniggering or “making a nuisance in the class” as she liked to say. The wretched boy (girls were rarely ever caught breaking rules!) would be beckoned by MH crooking the index finger of her extended hand as if tugging at an invisible string tied to the culprit. Punishment was meted out by the teacher placing a pencil between the second knuckles of the index and middle fingers of the student’s left hand and squeezing the palm as in a handshake. Corporal punishment had not yet been banned. In the absence of social media, hordes could not pounce to declare the practice objectionable and shame teachers like MH. Trolls were not known to exist except in Norse mythology and it was not practical for anyone to gather “tweets” or “dislikes” for shaming their chosen target for the day. Mark Zuckerberg or his money churning platform had not yet even been conceived, you see.
Miss H was a very strict teacher, notwithstanding her proclivity to graze in the classroom. She taught us with passion, care and the conviction that she was making a difference; which she did I guess, because some of what she taught over 50 years ago has stayed with me.
Social Studies covered a wide range of topics including hygiene, personal conduct and acceptable norms for social decorum etc. Being very prim and proper, Miss MH recited the list of things that she termed as taboo, an absolute no-no. For instance, clipping nails, applying makeup or grooming oneself in a public place, clearing the throat or blowing the nose loudly, picking the nose or ears, staring or pointing at someone, smacking one’s lips, making loud chewing or swallowing noises, speaking with the mouth full or clanking the cutlery on the dining plate while eating etc. It was “bad form” (manners) to discuss religion or politics at the dining table and not promptly responding to someone’s letter, note or a telephone call was deemed extremely rude and unacceptable.
I am not sure if such elementary matters are included in school curricula today. It would appear not, given the public behavior on display these days. Infrequent earlier, it is now quite normal to see people ignoring items of boorish behavior listed by Miss MH decades ago. Today, “I, me and my” priorities appear to influence a person’s attitude.
Those daring to challenge questionable behavior face the prospect of being hounded by trolls decrying “classist” snobbery. Just like the expression “Lutyens Delhi” that is being increasingly used in India especially since 2014, to target and deride people as “elitists”. Just to provide context, it was prominent architect Sir Edwin Lutyens who helped design and build areas of New Delhi in the 1920s, including Rashtrapati Bhawan (President of India’s residence), India Gate and a tony residential area (“Bungalow Zone” which later collectively came to be known as Lutyen’s Delhi) for the top administrators during and for the British Raj.
Cultural norms change, as does personal behavior. Does, or should personal decorum trump (pun intended) societal propriety? Would that not lead to a breakdown of society as we know it? Being respectful, showing compassion and empathy are basic human values that seem to be getting marginalized for self-interest. Is “authenticity” a principle that can be stretched to suit how I behave while faking to be what I am not, or be true to myself without caring how I might be perceived by others or affect them? Some HR recruiters denounce applicants who do not send them a “thank you” at the end of their interaction, but play by a different set of rules when they neither acknowledge a job-seeker’s application nor respond to their follow-up or queries.
It is worth reminding ourselves that “something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wings can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway across the world”.
The power of a butterfly is beautifully captured in this “sher” (verse) from a “ghazal” by Kaif Bhopali, a prominent Urdu “shaayar” (poet):
|“… gul se liptii huyii titlii ko giraa kar dekho||… try to knock a butterfly embracing a flower|
|Aandhiyon tumne darakhton ko giraayaa hogaa …”||O tempests, you that (are so powerful to) have uprooted trees …|
For those of you who may be interested, I have included below the Kaif Bhopali’s complete ghazal “kaun aayegaa yahaan” interspersed with another ghazal by Javed Akhtar “kabhi yuun bhi to ho” sung by the inimitable Jagjit Singh: