Whether we like to admit it or not, mediocrity is the new order of the day. The ‘chalta hai’ attitude has become so pervasive that we are left to wonder if this veneration of the mediocre can be reversed at all, writes Jahnavi Barua.
There was a time, when before the school session started, children set about furiously covering their textbooks and exercise books with brown paper. Some schools still follow this ancient practice, but many have relinquished it, opting for books with ready printed, sometimes laminated covers, instead. In those old days of frantic brown papering, my grandfather sat down one evening and taught me how to cover a book the correct way with brown paper.
As he showed me the steps, the foldings and the cuttings and the final satisfying tuckings in, he also told me that any job worth doing was worth doing well. He went on to teach me the correct way of doing many other things: polishing shoes, hanging up clothes, standing correctly with one’s posture just so, sitting with the spine straight and also other more nebulous things such as how to care for family, how not to break one’s given word and how to always strive to be a better person. My grandfather can be squarely blamed for turning me into what I am today: someone who believes any job worth doing is worth doing well.
Growing up in the seventies and eighties, it was not unusual coming across many people who believed similarly, who endeavoured to do the best in any job undertaken. Parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, teachers at school, friends and neighbours usually subscribed to this very basic rule and thus one did not question the philosophy or ever feel a misfit adhering to it. Yet, recently, an uneasy feeling has been growing and gnawing at the soul that this principle — of doing one’s best — in today’s times, makes one stand out absurdly.
That to strive to do a job well is an unnecessary effort in these impatient times, and even more importantly, to expect someone else to achieve excellence in any activity is a foolish and even selfish expectation. To point out the necessity for excellence is to be labelled old-fashioned, witless, and even difficult. It increasingly feels as if along with the old notion of brown paper covers, the idea of excellence has been discarded emphatically by this generation of our countrymen and women. Mediocrity is the new order of the day. The children emphasise this new mantra relentlessly.
Shoes are kicked off without the laces untied, that small task being judged an unnecessary complication. That the shoe suffers and disintegrates before its natural lifespan is a thought that would never cross the child’s mind. For shoes can be bought and discarded so readily these days. While shoes can be replaced painlessly, what happens when that same attitude spills over into academic course work is quite another matter, for while shoes have become easier to buy, college seats have become that much more precious.
The sheer weight of population has ensured that every seat is being battled for by previously unimaginable number of children. Daily, we read and hear about children scoring percentages as high as 97 and being denied admission into colleges and courses of their choice. A cavalier attitude to learning will result in disaster a few years around the corner, but of course, with the emphasis on personal comfort and immediate gratification, excellence is thrown out with hard work, and again, mediocrity rules. Perhaps, securing admission in the best college, in the most lucrative courses, is not all that important in the final scheme of things.
The true test of the mettle of a person is when he joins the workforce of the country, when he grows up into an adult and assumes citizenship of the country. Interesting to see how the child-person now takes on responsibilities and contributes to the forward movement of the country. When mediocrity has been the guiding anthem for so long in a person’s life, what tends to happen now is again the inevitable cutting of corners. If a shoe can be flung off, the offending laces still tied into a bow, then a process in a hospital or a software office or even at home, in the kitchen, can be similarly dismissed, and the job completed with minimum effort. And while it may not be a serious matter if a potato is not peeled perfectly before frying it, it is not quite the same thing when the expiry date on a vaccine or an injection is not checked by a nurse or a pharmacist or a doctor before administering it to a child. Nor is it the same thing when an air traffic controller decides to let his attention wander or skip a step of a process he is duty bound to follow.
Lack of concern
Interesting sometimes, laughable at others, immensely infuriating mostly, this culture of cutting corners, skipping steps and indulging in the cult of the mediocre can be. The lists of jobs botched, of dangers created, and of mindless wastage in this poor country are endless and remarkable. Consider the road gang at work on repairing a section of a road at night: late at night they wind up work, leaving the still unfinished section unmarked and vulnerable.
A two-wheeler coming that unfortunate way takes a spill and a man dies. A man who is a son and husband and a father and the only earning member of the family. The lack of thought, the lack of discipline and the shoddy style of work of the road gang thus leads to an avoidable tragedy. Yet, this same tragedy does not create the slightest ripple in the collective lives of the citizenry of a country, for two critical things have happened.
The first being that such large numbers of unwarranted accidents occur every day around the country that they leave us feeling less; we have become desensitised to incidents that would have left any other self-respecting country hanging its head in shame. Secondly, the culture of mediocrity, of not doing one’s best, of chalta hai, has become so pervasive that the immediate and predictable reaction to any such situation is a shrug and a quick shake of the head. What else can be expected? This is the insinuation. What can I, as an individual, do anyway? That is the closing thought.
The rot, of course, starts right at the top. The most mediocre of all the citizens, with a few notable exceptions, are our leaders, the politicians. To think that the decision making of the country lies in their hands, to think that our futures and presents are in their hands! A sobering thought and one that should drive a few brave, thinking individuals to finally enter the arena of politics and wrest control of our destinies from mediocre hands. When the people see change at the top, only then can any hope of the common man taking to the culture of hard work and effort be sparked.
Leaders in other fields — the Czars of industry, the guiding lights of science and technology, doctors, filmmakers and writers, poets even, when all these people actively endorse the path towards excellence, only then can a momentum be achieved. Teachers, especially teachers, those moulders and guardians of growing minds, have to tirelessly emphasise excellence over mediocrity. Only then can the critical mass be achieved that is required for a true revolution to be kick-started.
Other countries, many other countries, seem to have achieved this culture of excellence. There will always be the odd individual who subverts the system, but on the whole, these countries, both towards our east and west, seem to be on the right path. The sad thing is that, in the distant past, our own nation had been considered a leader in the same realm, a lodestar of excellence.
The Universities of Nalanda and Taxila; our craftsmen, weavers, architects had been hailed as the best in the world. To be from this nation at that time had been to be considered one of the best, but somewhere along the way, inevitably, the rigour of excellence decayed and was supplanted by the lethargy of mediocrity. For every gorgeous Benarasi sari woven in the purest of silk thread with the most traditional of design, for every mekhela woven in undefiled muga silk with motifs hailing from distant lands in the east, there are hundreds and thousands of garments woven with artificial silk, the weaving so poor one despairs at the future of this once great craft of the nation.
Hope for change
What will it take to reverse this veneration of the mediocre? More critically, is it possible to reverse this tide at all? At a glance, it seems an impossible thing. Our people have grown slothful and indolent and there is little that will shake them out of their indifference. Yet, sometimes, a small article in a newspaper or a short documentary at a sleepy time on afternoon television sparks off a thrill of excitement in one’s breast. A group of IIT graduates determined to scale the sheer walls of politics and hoping to make a difference; an entrepreneur who has been harrying the weavers of the north-east to replace their artificial yarn with the old cotton ones; a lone man, a farmer who has planted a sandbar in the Brahmaputra with trees to provide a home for the tigers in his area. There are people who care, there are those who believe in excellence, and it is time to join hands with those.
The motto of the modern Olympic Games says it all, and says it better than anything else can. Only when we strive for the best can a certain degree of quality be achieved. Everyone will not win, every aspiration will not be met, but then, that is not the aim anyway. Everyone cannot win, but in the run-up to getting to the top, one will end up somewhere near the pinnacle, and very far from the bottom. And if everyone adopts that attitude, then the quality of life in this once great nation will surely rise, and rise above the abyss it seems permanently wedged into now. Some may say heroics are not for everyone; joining active politics is not for everyone. True, but making an effort in everyday lives, doing the best in every small task is not a difficult thing at all. The shoelaces can be untied with minimum effort, but the rewards from that tiny act are so immense that they are beyond imagination.