“In a society plagued by social evils ranging from racism, violence against women, honour killings and much more, a question begs to be asked about what we are doing wrong to produce this result. As members of the same society, we are all equally complicit in the production of thought and behaviour which creates this environment. Unfortunately, we’ve never stopped to give it a thought. But I say that the time for this has come.”

I don’t think there was much to gain from the CBSE prescribed syllabus in the 11th and 12th grade. Most of it is lying in the dusty attic of my mind or has long since disintegrated, suffering from severe disuse. But somewhere in there, Pablo Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet” is to be found. An ode to introspection, it recognises and articulates the way we don’t think about our actions, too caught up in our fast lives, fast careers and fast cars. I think Neruda speaks volumes to a generation and a culture that is the epitome of just that: no thought and consequently, no understanding.

Coming from education systems that narrow our goals, restrict our world view and don’t necessarily encourage the ethos of interrogation, we are a generation that was never taught to wonder why. Looking for an answer to something was never an adventure filled with stumbling steps, but a linear exercise with no natural progression. Learning was always a test of memory, measurable in numbers. For most of us, education and learning became synonymous to dry schools and screechy blackboards marked with the drawls of a monotonous lesson waiting to be copied into a patiently waiting brown-paper covered notebook in blue ink. The bottom line being that we were taught to know and follow rather than to understand.

Our social environment didn’t do much to improve this situation. Where a command is simply followed and discipline can’t co-exist with questioning, where is the room to ponder? When all through our childhood we were fed life’s formulae with a spoon, given pre-sliced loaves of values and handed pre-mixed batter to determine the cakes we bake of our lives, where is the room to discover? Careers are handed on platters, moral dictatorships disguise themselves as value education and the biggest life decisions require prior approval. Where discussion and debate are side lined, there is no space for the art of contemplation!

By now everyone is looking for the point of this rant. All I have to offer is that in a fit of frustration at the situation of our country and our people, Neruda came to me. A bombardment of disturbing documentaries and the ugly truths of the real society we are surrounded by made me wonder why, for example, women are objects of male scrutiny, male desire, a male expert assessment of worth and value and subject to a male definition of functions to be fulfilled. It made me wonder why ‘untouchability’ is still a tangible wave of superiority to ride upon. It made me wonder what legitimises the irrational branding of people on the basis of any association or preference. It made me look for the answer to why we are so ready, as people and as a society, to judge a girl by the clothes she wears, a prospective employee by the colour of his skin and a student by the sexuality she prefers to associate herself with. It made me wonder why we make the personal choices, physical appearances or economic and social backgrounds of people the nexus by which we place them in the spectrum of approval and interaction in our lives.

The conclusion I reached was simply that it’s because not enough of us wonder about these things. We lack a culture of understanding. We lack a thought process which makes us look beyond the cover of a book. We don’t know how to empathise, to take our own decisions and to assess people through the values we create for ourselves. We lack a belief in criticism which prompts these outcomes. Essentially, the environment we are brought up in and subsequently surrounded by doesn’t allow for the time, space or awareness to introspect – just as Pablo Neruda describes.

This perhaps directs us towards looking at methods of widening the prospects and aims of education and creating awareness which allows for a more independent and individual evaluation of the world around us. Maybe once we start thinking about the structures created around us, we will be able to even determine the legitimacy of their existence and gather the power to break them down. Maybe once we start this discussion with ourselves and each other, we will be able to create structures of our own or just learn to live without restrictions and structures at all. The possibilities are endless.

In trying to create a culture of understanding and empathy, we will head towards a society where we create knowledge and inculcate wisdom. Through this we will chip away at the root cause of the rot in society. When a man is able to think about the position of the woman he just wolf-whistled at, and the Principal is able to look at a potential student as a bright mind and vibrant personality as opposed to a colour other than her own, and a mother is able to tell her daughter that the only way she can exercise her freedom is by using it to overcome every situation that she faces in life that tries to snatch it from her, it will allow us to break free of these barriers. It will allow everyone to look towards equality, reason and an understanding of what truly matters. All it takes is to think a little more.

But just to be poetic about this, I will leave you with his parting words and hope that you too will take them home with you:

“Now I'll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

(Chitrangda Jai Singh enjoys reading fiction, travelling, and dining at quaint cafes. She spends her time whining about the intricacies of law school, immersing herself in existential crises that afflict most 19 year olds and laughing uncontrollably at the most inopportune moments. She is currently grappling with real life at Jindal Global Law School in Sonipat, Haryana).