Monday, November 15, 2010

... the first stone

(The Bengal Post, Monday 15th Nov 2010)

On weekends, the Better Half makes breakfast for me. Very gratifying, but once in a while she gets the fried egg less than perfect. The yolk runs. Very sad. I do so love the first dip into the sunny centre of a good fried egg. My question is, when I don’t get my egg just so, do I have the right to criticise the Better Half? (Of course, I’d never actually criticise her, I’m a sensitive modern man. With a healthy instinct of self-preservation!) After all, she has given her time and effort to fry me that egg without any profit from the act. Does that place her beyond criticism? Is altruism generally beyond criticism?

I think we’re agreed that if the egg in question is ruined by the cook, a certain amount of criticism is warranted. (But very cautiously: good cooks are hard to come by. When Saki wrote “The cook was a very good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go she went”, he was merely outlining the demand-supply situation for skilled HR.) The cook is paid to do a job. If the job is not done to the client’s satisfaction, there is a monetary loss. Fine, that’s easy – egg ruined, cook gets it in the neck. But if there is no payment involved, is criticism still justified?

I’d say yes. Criticism may not be fair, it is rarely objective, but it should always be permitted. Now that I’ve established my credentials as a model of reason and fairness – who may, however, hate your guts for criticizing me, not that I’ll ever say so, oh no! - we can now move on to the next step in this argument. Suppose the cook just cannot fry an egg the right way. Criticism and advice have no effect. What then? Find a new cook, I’d say. What if every cook I find is still incapable of frying an egg right? To my mind, the answer is simple – do it yourself. (I do fry a mean egg.)

Can this progression hold true in every case? Last week, I ventured that if we are unhappy with people in public life, we should ask ourselves if we can do their jobs instead. Which brought upon my head both wrath and invective. One reader raised the question of doctors. If you’re unhappy with your surgeon, can you carry out a laparoscopy? Obviously not. But you are at liberty to read up on the subject and learn about the basics of the procedure. To carry this do-it-yourself argument to its extreme, if the medical procedure is really that important to you, you should have trained yourself to be a doctor. (Or to be John Rambo, who could sew up his own arm.) This is not realistic. People have different skills and training, they fulfill different roles in an organised economy. A doctor can criticise a baker even if he himself does not know how to make a plum cake. At the same time, the baker can crib that his doctor just couldn’t cure his allergy. The do-it-yourself option is not always viable. And criticism can result in improved services, especially when the media or the courts are involved.

But what about situations where specific qualifications are not required? To go back to my earlier theme about the people we all love to criticise i.e. politicians, no specific training or qualification is required to stand for election. What is required is effort. And time. If you think that no government addresses the issues that concern you, would you take the matter into your own hands? Would you stand for election? Would you fry your own eggs?

I have an example in mind.

In 1985, the owner of a restaurant named The Hog’s Breath in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, faced some problems in getting clearances for some modifications. So he ran for election as Mayor. (Reportedly, he campaigned for the repeal of a law that banned eating ice-creams in public.) He actually won the election by a handsome margin and went on to modify the downtown building codes. Having got the policy he needed, he finished his term and retired from public office. That’s do-it-yourself. The man had a personal history on those lines. He was (and is) an actor who had differences with his directors; he eventually set up his own company, directed his own pictures and went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Director. Take a bow, Clinton Eastwood.

I’m not saying everybody can run for election (or be Dirty Harry). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticise people for doing a bad job just because we can’t do the job ourselves. What I am saying is that in many cases, we waste our time in criticism when we actually could get the job done ourselves. The most awe-inspiring example is Dashrath Manjhi of Gahlour village in Bihar. Does anyone remember him? He worked for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982, to cut a road through a hill, a road that cut down the distance between his village of Gahlour Ghati in Bihar’s Gaya district and the town of Wazirganj. By the most conservative estimate, he single-handely cut and moved at least a million cubic feet of stone!! We speak lightly of resolve that moves mountains. He had it. The next time you have a problem – with traffic, with local hoodlums, with bad roads – think of Dashrath Manjhi. He never said “Yes, we can!” He just never doubted that he could.


Unknown said...

Shocking! Not a single comment yet?
Alfred, you are losing your touch.
Standing for elections in our free and fair country presupposes two basic abilities: The ability to raise (or possess) enough funds. This is only an investment for if you win, you get a rate of return beyond the wildest imagination of the most brazen junk bond salesman. The second is the ability to surround yourself with mean muscle.

TalkingHead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robintua said...

Being an avid 'runny yolk fan' I can symapthise with your tirade! I for one never accept what fate throws at me. Thank you for such an amusing piece. Robin

km said...

The Mahatma's quote (about being the change etc) would have been most apt here.

Bringing Clint Eastwood into this argument is like bringing an nuclear ICBM to a knife-fight. After all, he's CLINT EASTWOOD and I am only human.

S said...

errr...i'm guessing you did get an earful from the better half after you bravely stood up for your right to a perfectly fried egg! and that's what brought on the post.

Unknown said...

Take a bow, Sankarshan. This is one of your best blog posts. Totally agree with you when you say, "What I am saying is that in many cases, we waste our time in criticism when we actually could get the job done ourselves."

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

pDot, that's the current situation in your perception. Is there no way around it?

Robin, Dasharath Manjhi is the amazing person. "All the world wondered". Or would, if they heard about him.

KM, the Mahatma is left in Raju Hirani's care these days.

S, as a matter of fact, she made me a great omelette.

Venky, thanks. But "Sankarshan"? Do you think I am The Thakur? Mistaken identity, sir.


Asad said...

The last line is pretty brilliant. And simple !