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Kalki Koechlin in a still from Margarita with a Straw.
Kalki Koechlin in a still from Margarita with a Straw.

Minority Report | The oscillating moral compass

To be counted as good and altruistic, we need moral opportunity

Frankly, I loved American writer David Brooks’s highly shared piece in The New York Times recently, titled the Moral Bucket List. Dwelling on moral goodness and the incandescence it imparts to its owners as opposed to the swagger of selfish ambition, the article used thoughtful terms like “resume virtues" versus “eulogy virtues". People with morally correct choices and altruism are superior, argues Brooks. He makes a very good case, of course, but most readers would easily agree to this construct anyway. Who can hit out at selflessness—with or without an articulate apologist? The best way to respond to writing that empowers you is to make shifts in one’s own reflections, I felt. To ask oneself if reflexive goodness is an easily employable choice and, if so, give it a “good" chance. At least, that is less hypocritical than believing that raving about articles on goodness is goodness itself.

Soon after I had latched on to this “clip of the week"—as I call my idea stumbles—I went to watch Margarita with a Straw, the new, bold film directed by Shonali Bose. Hindi cinema actor Kalki Koechlin plays the role of a young college girl from a middle-class Delhi family; she suffers from cerebral palsy. The unusual film meanders through prickly issues. Bisexuality, disability, betrayal, disease, death and a humdrum acceptance of the flying discs or damaging discs that come out of nowhere in life and slash away more than a bit of flesh from the outer ear. What I loved most in the film was the sweet protagonist Laila’s lack of a clear moral compass. She manipulates, errs, loves, lusts, lies, betrays and not because she is immoral but because that’s how she is “normal". Many of us live our lives barely trying to make sense of the present context, the upheavals caused by the mix-ups of ambition, dignity, frustration and existentialist confusion.

Why do we assume that the disabled are “morally" better than us, I chided myself for the certain noblesse I accord to the physically challenged, the disempowered or those who live a life of some kind of denial.

Brooks’ argument on humane goodness versus Bose’s film, which skirts in and out of an imperfect morality, made a soup of my “idea stumble" of the week. Margarita with a Straw makes no big deal about the protagonist’s apparent lack of righteousness but retains with great emphasis an extraordinary “incandescence" around some characters in the film. Laila’s parents particularly—the mum, played by Revathi, and the father, played by Kuljeet Singh—are two vitally good people.

I decided to re-read Brooks to make newer sense of his piece because the film had chipped away some of my earnestness about building a moral resume. Am I making sense, dear reader? Here was I, one minute floating on the imaginary magic carpet of embracing selflessness and the next moment feeling like a frequent flier of life, while watching a girl give expression to a set of not-so-moral choices. I was actually pleased to see Laila with the cerebral palsy behave imperfectly. It was a relieving experience, one that also allowed me to get rid of the holier-than-thou halo that I visualize around every disabled person.

But while looking for the article again, I found, in NYT’s Sunday Review section a published discussion around Brook’s column—based on responses from readers. In one of the readers’ letters was a hook that helped me bring a pause to my squirreling around the moral-amoral merry-go-round. “One way to understand why people become more moral is to explore ‘moral opportunity’" wrote this reader, emphasizing “egalitarian economic structures, values taught at home and community, personality variables and societal structures" that shape our moral choices.

In the film, Laila has extraordinarily moral role models for parents, but life has dealt her a severe blow by making her “special" or challenged. She must stumble and fall and get up to see which way her compass points. Many of us are raised as good, selfless, caring people who must set altruistic goals for themselves. But social realities and cynicisms of daily life mix in dozens of benumbing realizations. We become embattled, the moral compass starts to oscillate crazily before it attracts a clearer direction.

Goodness is a good argument; but its insufficiency can’t be called bad. If I were writing this column for parents, I would rap myself for sermonizing but still ask: do we think about offering a sturdy “moral opportunity" to our children when we raise them? One which armours them against the inequality in the experience of goodness they will face in life? Thank you anyway, Mr Brooks, for the core idea. We must sooner than later write our personalized Moral Bucket List(s).

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