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Why we may need more eccentrics

One sign of a healthy, free and progressive society is the number of genuine eccentrics it produces. How does India fare in its share of eccentrics?

More than a century ago, John Stuart Mill lamented in his essay titled “On Liberty”, that “so few now dare to be eccentric marks the chief danger of the time”.

Wise people will hold doubts about the health and progress of any civilised society that fails to produce a decent number of eccentrics during every generation. If anything, India needs eccentrics no less than it needs artists, scientists, sportspersons and intellectuals among others (the best of whom are somewhat eccentric).

But when was the last time you met an eccentric? Can we “produce” more of them? What makes a society produce eccentrics in the first place?

Sometimes, we need people who break convention so the “normal” ones can see life beyond it. These are the eccentrics. But most eastern nations, including India, remain somewhat hostile to eccentricity (unless eccentrics transform to become crowd-pullers also, often at the expense of their eccentricity). What ought to cause concern for us are those eccentrics who seek no following at all for themselves.

As a rule, eccentrics cannot conform. Tragically, this works against them and they are often mistaken to be threats or as people who are not to be taken seriously. Although, in terms of disposition, the disorderly eccentrics come equipped with well-organised minds, a godsend to a society like ours that often delights in destrudo.

Yes, eccentrics could well be rather dependable indicators of a society’s overall health.

Although deviant eccentrics are rarely devious. Save in passing, they are seldom frustrated, or disgruntled, or discontented.

On the contrary, they are more cheerful, optimistic, contented and creative. They are generally animal- lovers, relish living alone and also cherish their single status. They enjoy many other benefits that come naturally to them, unlike the “normals”, who would it would appear fear that their faces may crack if they smile.

“Eccentricity,” observed John Stuart Mill in the above-cited essay, “has always abounded when and where character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage it contained.”

Do you agree with that? Does it not make sense for a society to produce more eccentrics?

But eccentricity can be a luxury. And herein lies its greatest tragedy: for it is not the eccentric but, under Indian conditions, their kin, particularly the parents or the wife, who may have to foot the bill. Oh, how my heart goes out to such women! And it’s a double-whammy when an eccentric fails to manage their own affairs, succeed and prosper.

But with just a little help (not necessarily of the psychiatric kind) they can prove to be far less exasperating and far more productive, even become a blessing. Unhappily, some weak ones among them succumb to pressures, go on to marry and have children, endangering the happiness of them all.

By asking the young during his recent visit to India to take risks, Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai was, in fact, lauding an essential trait of eccentrics: risk-taking.

But one must be careful selectively imitating eccentrics for any apparent benefits or profits. Some penurious eccentrics know how dangerously close they come to absolute failure each day. For such people, eccentricity without sufficient mettle can become a curse.

Employees who are eccentric can be great assets, but organisations headed by insecure, visionless individuals who perceive them as threats can make it difficult for them to continue there.

Would it be wrong to suggest that India lacks a healthy population of eccentrics? Does the general permissiveness of the Hindu psyche (that forms the substratum of every Indian’s psyche) preclude an atmosphere of internal/moral conflict that is so vital for the generation and sustenance of eccentricity? That is perhaps why genuine eccentricity is found largely among non-religious (but not ungodly) Indians. For any genuine eccentricity to flourish one must prepare society to be non-religious.

In this category, the Kannada humorist T.P. Kailasam remains my own all-time favourite.

During one family chinwag I overheard the e-word and his name dropped in quick succession. But they hit me like shots fired from a double-barrel gun shattering the shell of conformity that was beginning to envelop me. I was a pre-teen then.

Recently a former colleague used it to dismiss me for not having responded “favourably” to a so-called lucrative offer and choosing freedom instead. Much to his chagrin, I stood flattered.

As someone who fully cherishes and takes pride in freedom more than status, that meant I had finally, and unmistakably, arrived.

mjx143@gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:36:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/Why-we-may-need-more-eccentrics/article13980949.ece

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