Perhaps it will come as no surprise to people who know me but I recently received a comment from a friend that shocked me. I had become, the friend said, insufferably arrogant. He used other choice epithets but “intellectual snob” was the one that rankled. Like the emotional escapist that I am, I blame it all on this column.
Moment of glory: Abhinav Bindra showed humility after his Olympics gold in Beijing. Christophe Ena / AP
Columnists have different views on what their job description is. My role, as I see it, is to provoke and amuse with this column. That’s it: provoke and amuse. Amusing is both easy and hard. In the largely north Indian building that I live in, I am routinely hired as a joker at parties. All they want me to do is to speak Hindi and everyone falls to the ground laughing. Having grown up in Chennai in the 1970s, and being a victim of the Tamil Nadu government’s antipathy towards teaching Hindi in school classrooms, I speak excellent Tamil but very bad Hindi. Humorous writing is much harder than speaking pidgin Hindi but I persist nevertheless.
The second aspect: To write thought-provoking pieces, is really the topic of this column. In order to have an opinion about anything you have to become something of an expert on the subject. This doesn’t always apply to me — I routinely mouth off on subjects that I haven’t a clue about — but in general, the most thought-provoking opinions are expressed by people who know their material; who know what they are talking about.
The problem is that when you seek and gain knowledge; when you analyse and sift through data, and form an opinion, you become attached to your views. You start believing that you are right; that you are the last word on that subject. You end up becoming, as my friend called it, an “intellectual snob”. Or do you?
Is it possible to be an expert without becoming insufferably arrogant? Is it possible to be a master of your subject and retain some semblance of humility? I wanted to find out. So I asked a bunch of people. I first wrote to the Dalai Lama, Abhinav Bindra and Jagdish Bhagwati and never heard back. So I had to resort to others. I chose my targets carefully.
College professors, for instance, have to be experts at what they teach. If they are good, students look up to them; pepper them with questions. It would be very easy for them to feel smug and superior.
Economists and research analysts too study esoteric topics (like exotic derivatives) in great detail and write research reports. Naturally, after all that exhaustive analysis, and persuasion of clients, they probably think they are right. How do they maintain some semblance of humility?
So I asked Sanjeev Sanyal, the ebullient regional chief economist of Deutsche Bank, whose author-wife Smita endeared herself to me with a memorable eggplant dish at their Singapore home. Since I am always looking to cadge dinner invitations, particularly when the food is good, I approached Sanyal.
“Sanjeev,” I said, “how do you stop yourself from becoming insufferably arrogant?” By keeping your mind open, he replied. He then went on to argue that the reason India went into decline was because it closed its mind, something that he goes into in great detail in his book, Indian Renaissance.
“Those who think they know do not know for they confuse learning with wisdom,” he signed off ominously. Was there a message for me there?
Rajeev Gowda is a professor at IIM Bangalore. He is also a genial self-effacing sort of bloke. So I asked him, “Rajeev, how do you retain some humility while maintaining this God-like aura of the all-knowing guru?”
In the social sciences, there are no absolutes, said Gowda. There are explanations that work some of the time and in some contexts. “Understanding this is fundamentally humbling.” He then went on to talk about being open-minded and listening to all points of view, which is easy to say but hard to do. The problem, Gowda said in closing, was that most of us look at the world through the lens of our own world view and convictions “and accept or reject evidence to suit our positions. That is what makes various experts insufferably arrogant and intolerant”. Bingo! I do this all the time: filter information through the prism of my own prejudices. Maybe that’s why I was so “misunderstood”.
The last person I approached was my building’s watchman, Mukti Prasad Sharma, who sees me every day. “Muktiji,” I said, “Kya aap sochte hai ki main garv hoon (Do you think I’m arrogant)?” I repeated the same sentence several times till he understood. Then he gave me a look that said, “If I tell her the truth, will she fire me?” Even though I assured him that I wouldn’t report him to our building management, I think he took the middle road. “Madam, garv hone ke liye, kuch cheez hona chahiye, na? (There should be some basis for arrogance)” he said. At my outraged look, he added, “Garv hone me kya faida (What’s the use of being arrogant)?”
The way geniuses solve this problem of intellectual arrogance is by hanging around people with the same level of intellect as them. The Impressionists created Salon des Refusés when all the Parisian galleries thought their paintings were weird and refused to show them. Scientists hang around other scientists in research labs and don’t engage with anyone who is not up to their intellectual ilk. I guess my solution would be to hang around people on par with my intellect. I do this every day. And none of the six-year-olds in my building think I am arrogant. In fact, they think I am a little dim.
Shoba Narayan will have you know that she is no snob…and no intellectual either. Write to her at email@example.com