Varieties of Goodness

As children, we waited everyday for the newspaper. It was a magic well creating a circle of conversation. With my father, it even became an ethical and philosophical exercise. He was fascinated with the varieties of goodness and breakfast often became a theological seminar.

This whiff of childhood came back poignantly to me recently when a colleague of mine told me a story. He was sitting at the Sabarmati Ashram doing accounts when there was a bit of excitement outside. A famous Bollywood musician had dropped in. The visitor explained that he came to Ahmedabad often but this was his first visit to the Ashram. He had driven past it many times but something made him stop, some strange need or hunger. He walked around the Ashram, stood before Hriday Kunj, and watched the charkha as if in some silent animation film. He then said, “Two things puzzle me.” He paused. “I realize Gandhi was a man who did not hate. That is why he could be non-violent. But Anna Hazare is different. He hates and therefore his movement cannot be the same.” He then added, “Another thing haunts me. How can Gujarat, the home of Gandhi have allowed the 2002 riots? That I cannot accept or understand.” The visitor behaved with utmost grace and left quietly. He was mobbed outside. The story sounded even more unlikely when I heard his name – Bollywood’s phenomenon, Anu Malik.

The page three part of the story apart, the story set me thinking about the varieties of goodness. Goodness seemed to be as diverse as the butterflies I love to watch.

I work on violence and read a lot on violence. Recently, I read an immaculate piece on justice and yet, I realized it was a binocular goodness, a goodness that has no skin or smell, no everydayness. I was contrasting it mentally to the goodness of my activist friends who get muddied, hurt, even wounded fighting for rights, a muddied goodness. I prefer the second one, it is more everyday, tougher and yet more tolerant, a goodness that is ready to be insulted.

Let me give a parallel example. The psychologist, Ashis Nandy, once tried to explain to me the difference between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal K Advani. He said Advani is correct and proper. He probably has not sinned in his daily life. Vajpayee is more of hedonist, he likes his drink but unlike Advani, he is more tolerant. His flaws allow him to understand other people’s flaws. Advani cannot do that. When he looks in the mirror, he sees a geometry set, a framework of regularities.

Ritual goodness like this is a problem. Many Tamil Brahmin bureaucrats behave this way. They are correct like clocks. Goodness was a form of regularity, or habit, like coffee in the morning. It felt programmed. These bureaucrats believed in duty, obeyed orders and some of the best of them proceeded to defend nuclear war and the Emergency. This was a goodness that was formulaic, a “South bloc” goodness as a wag put it.

Bollywood has its own contribution to the understanding of goodness. The movies of the eighties and nineties produced the idea of limited or naïve goodness. There was the good cop, the good teacher, the good father whom the villain eliminated before the interval. Bollywood realized that one needed a different kind of muddiness to fight evil.

There is another kind of goodness which irritates me. I call it custodial goodness, the apparent goodness of people who have been around a great man. Example, Gandhians who have seen Gandhi. They appear like living pickles, preservatives of a memory and a way of life. Yet, they lacked the experimental goodness of Gandhi. They sound like cassette tapes, repeating line and verse of an era that has changed. They represent goodness as nostalgia. Many old style Marxists and Gandhians display this, a goodness smelling of moth balls.

I have a bigger problem with segmentary goodness. It is the kind of goodness I see in many wonderful families. They are good to their own members, full of generosity, hospitality even sacrifice. Oddly, this goodness ends with the extended family. The world outside is manipulative and Hobbesian. Goodness like cleanliness ends at the doorstep. The family draws the boundary line for goodness. The rest is just war.

There are two forms of goodness I have deep and almost profound respect for. First, there is an everyday goodness. It is goodness that is steadfast, which has faith in the power of being good, which is either spiritual, ethical or professional. It is a  goodness that has sustained India. One sees it so often, a few people doing good, oblivious of the muck around them. It is a goodness which keeps going, that sustains others. A mother who never gives up or a father who gives all for his children. A goodness that moves and sustains.

There is another goodness that we need desperately, a goodness that understands evil and is not bowled over by it. Evil seems to shrink goodness or even render it naïve. A goodness that smells out a Hitler, a Stalin, a goodness that does not get enthusiastic about popular despots or efficient politicians. A Gandhi or a Tagore or a Dalai Lama could smell evil even in goodness. One misses this basic instinct. Unfortunately, our society cannot survive without more of them. We need a sense of the connection between development, investment and tyranny. We need to show how the best of intentions can lead to the worst of disasters. A textbook goodness can spell the end of a true democracy.


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