I have these sudden awakenings of memory and all of a sudden something long forgotten comes alive fresh and vivid and I can almost see it as if it happened a few moments ago. Sometimes it comes with side effects like memory of the smells and sounds. This morning I woke up thinking about what constitutes "dignity" and suddenly I remembered one of my mother's short stories. My father ran a publishing house and he and my mom were writers of sorts although my mother's love for writing got lost in her struggles to balance family life and her own serial illnesses that plagued her all her life. My father had published her short stories in a book which I had read when I was about 10. Recently when i looked for a copy of the book , I felt sad to realise that we did not have a single copy of the book in the family.But today one of those stories came back to me.
She wrote mostly from what she saw rather than from her imagination so I am sure this was something that actually happened:
When we were young, we used to have these travelling street performers coming to our streets. They were called Thommankoothadis.The group consisted of a man, wife and a brother or sister , a few kids of assorted ages and a monkey. They spoke a funny slang of Tamil, played the drums or sang songs, balanced on ropes held tight by bamboo poles, the monkey somersaulted and obeyed orders and the highlight was when the man would tie his infant on top of a pole and balance it on his palm or his stomach. They would come , set up the props and the whole performnce would last about half an hour; people would stand around in circles or in their balconies to watch the show. At the end of it, the lady would come around with a bowl for money or for clothes from the people watching from houses. Apparently one afternoon there was one such show outside and my mom was watching from the balcony with my younger sister who was about 2 years old while the rest of us had gone to school. My mom was engrossed in the show while little lalitha ( my sister) decided to get a closer look at the whole thing and slipped on to the street unobserved. When it was all over and the infant had safely come down from the pole, my mom realised the absence of lalli. She could find her anywhere in the house or in the crowd which was slowly dissipating. She panicked at the idea of her child being kidnapped for performing on the streets. She was about to call the police when she heard footsteps outside the front door. It was the thommankoothadi woman holding little laitha's hand. She scolded my mother for having allowed the child to walk away into the street. My mother was overcome with relief and gratitude as tears streamed down her cheeks. She was also ashamed about having suspected them of kidnapping. She told the lady to wait and when she came back with money she was shamed a second time by the woman's reply: "Ma, we are so poor that we have to make our children perform to earn our food. But please do not pay me for saving a child, If you want to give me something, give me your children's used clothes to keep my children comfortable."
Now I think this is what dignity is all about. It is not about your comportment, your manner of speech, your attire or your gait. It is not about keeping a stiff upper lip or keeping your feelings to yourself. It is about an acceptance of your lot and not letting anyone make you feel inferior for that. It is about not being self-pitying or making excuses for what you are or being bitter about your circumstances. It is about not putting your basic humanity, kindness,grace up for sale irrespective of what you wear, what you eat, where you live or what you look like.
The following is an interesting excerpt from the book "freakonomics:
"There is a tale, "The ring of Gyges" .. It comes from Plato's Republic.A student named Glaucon offered the story in response to a lesson by Socrates, who, like Adam Smith, argued that people are generally good even without enforcement. Glaucon, like feldman's economist friends, disagreed. He told of a shepherd named Gyges who stumbled upon a secret cavern with a corpse inside that wore a ring. When Gyges put on the ring, he found that it made him invisible. With no one able to monitor his behavior, Gyges proceded to do woeful things - seduce the queen, murder the king and so on. Galucon's story posed a moral question, could any man resist the temptation of evil if he knew his acts could not be witnessed? Glaucon seemed to think the answer was no."

I think the answer is "yes". What do you think?
One thing that strikes me in my conversations with the bright young generation of college students and fresh graduates in family gatherings, at the French class etc, is the narrowness of their goals. For example I was talking to my niece who is in her 5th semester Comp Sc. in a very good engineering college and was shocked to find that she chose to limit her life to a job in an IT company, with a starting pay of around 20K, had no plans for further studies, because she felt that her basic B.E. in computer science was “enough” to get her a job in a reputed IT company.
Here’s a young person who is smart, has tremendous potential and has no pressures to start earning immediately. Should she not be setting her goals higher or even hitching her wagon to a star? What was disconcerting was not her attitude but the realisation that she is perhaps representing the majority of undergraduate students in India. There is so much pressure throughout their schooling, that students don’t want to study any more at the slightest given opportunity, especially when they can land a job that guarantees a “good life’. Additionally the system has nothing better to offer them as an incentive for further studies - all the job opportunities they have are in the IT companies, where they get sucked in 9 to 9 in a job that gets monotonous after 2 years of initial euphoria ( for most) and leaves them no time for any other pursuits. But most are stuck there for there is no ”greener” pasture – it is all the same in all companies, give or take a few thousands. There is ample compensation in terms of money, foreign travel and associated dollar income but is their full potential being utilized?
India is blessed with a rich base of human capital, but the system is merely blunting the potential of college students and causing them to burn out by their middle age. Companies hijack them from campuses ( one company has offered jobs for all the 1st semester students in Anna Engineering college, another recruits 100 per year from each reputed engineering college). There could have been some brilliant inventors, scientists, teachers and authors among them, but it seems that today the system wants only engineers and programmers . I think the ad for GNIIT shows this brilliantly – well dressed HR folks of IT company waiting at street corners to grab an unsuspecting guy with a GNIIT certificate – 600000 IT jobs and not enough GNIITians to fill them!!!
For years, degree colleges offering pure science courses have had few takers and even the paltry few who join are mainly those who haven’t got an engineering or medical seat. People prefer to get an engineering degree from a mediocre college than a science degree from a reputed one. Who is going to teach science to the next generation? Who is going to carry on research work in our prestigious laboratories? More engineers? Doctors with five years experience are still earning about 15 k while a raw engineer starts at 20 k plus and other benefits. Why blame the kids when the system is bad? IT companies are able to give the young people the motivation in terms of a huge purchasing power and promise of a good life – even if there is nothing beyond it that is still enough compensation for the individuals. But can the system sustain on this lopsided growth – do we plan to become so rich like the gulf nations or some of the western nations which are able to attract immigrants to do other jobs?
And what about the engineers themselves – they are some of the best talented kids of the country. Are they satisfied to be mere software clerks or as a magazine called them -“IT coolies” ?( of course it was talking about the hordes of warm bodies that were being shipped outdoing the Y2K. I am sure it happens for other projects now.). Do these young people know where they want to be 10 years , 20 years, 30 years from now – apart from a lakhpati, crorepati. Are they happy with that vision?

Adelbert Chamisso has written a touching story about Peter Schlemihl, a man who is lured by the devil to sell him his shadow in exchange for a purse which would give him unlimited supply of gold. Soon after he realises that he is a non person without his shadow, which all the gold at his disposal cannot buy back. The shadow is an image of one’s real person, a constant reminder to be in touch with oneself and not lose it. Perhaps that is why most IT jobs ensure that their young employees do not see the Sun or their shadows!