We are the hollow men ...

Devdas Menon

Text of an article that appeared in the April 2006 edition of the IIT Madras magazine Reflections

We are the hollow men,
We are the stuffed men,
Leaning together,
Headpiece filled with straw.
- T S Eliot

Nobody likes to be called a hypocrite. Yet, nearly everybody is one. No doubt, some are less hypocritical than others. But there is nobody, to the best of my knowledge, who is entirely free from hypocrisy. Perhaps, to be hypocritical is human.

A hypocrite is one who projects a false self-image. One pretends to be someone one, in fact, is not. Initially, this is for the consumption of others. But sure enough, and soon enough, one is oneself consumed by it. To be 'good' (?) at hypocrisy, one has to be a skilful liar, and for this reason, politicians qualify eminently as good hypocrites. We love to condemn the species of politicians because they not only lie so glibly, but get away with so much power and loot in the bargain.

In our heart of hearts, however, I suspect that we are actually envious of these politicians (and all other wealthy/powerful people). Yet, we condemn them readily. That is our brand of hypocrisy. If, by some chance, we are offered a taste of their power and wealth, surely we would throw our injured morality to the winds, jump on to their bandwagon, and even pronounce that it is all for the good of the people!

The denial of our hypocrisy makes us hollow. Hollowness, in this context, is the gap between what we are and what we think we are. It is difficult for us to face the reality of our hollowness, because we genuinely believe that we are good and noble. We point at our good work, our accomplishments, our charity and whatnot, as solid evidence of our good character.

Men of wisdom such as Socrates have identified the disease of hollowness as the most dangerous threat to education. It is perhaps for this reason that the dictum of Socrates, Know thyself, was specifically chosen to be the inscription on the portals of the Parthenon, the Greek Temple of Wisdom. It is as valid today as in his time.

Hypocrisy, to some extent, is inescapable, given the requirements of a civilised society. For example, we are expected to smile and say silly things like Good morning! or Excuse me!, even when we are least inclined to feel pleased or apologetic. But this is a trivial kind of hypocrisy - indeed, a conventional necessity - to facilitate cordial human interaction. This is an example of a situation where we are being hypocritical (out of necessity), but we are not being hollow.

The issue of hollowness arises only when we miss the fact that we are practising hypocrisy - as, for example, when we smile sweetly at certain individuals, and later stab them gleefully behind their backs. Many of us engage in this practice as a daily habit, and certainly derive much malicious pleasure out of it. But if we catch our enemies at the same game against us, we would not hesitate to condemn them, as righteously as possible.

We do not dare admit to any charge of hypocrisy, and we can invent excellent reasons in our defence. By systematically deluding ourselves on a daily basis, we become more and more hollow. And so, a person who justifies the act of accepting a hundred-rupee bribe today will have no qualms in rationalising the acceptance of a thousand rupees tomorrow, and no doubt, demanding ten thousand rupees the day after. It seems to be a coming of age - from reluctant acceptance to uncompromising demand.

With continued practice, we become adept at the art of deceiving ourselves, and of skilfully suppressing what remains of our chastising conscience. To be forewarned about this is, hopefully, to be forearmed.

We all crave respectability, and are so led to doing things that other people deem to be important. Thus, everybody wants to do the same thing at the same time, and this results in heavy competition. In this mad rush to keep ahead of the crowd, we have neither the time nor the inclination to pause and question: whither and wherefore?

Socrates may have taught Know thyself, but the only thing we know for sure is that we had better hurry, lest we should miss the bus. We do not bother to know who we are, or what we really wish to do in life. It is easier and safer to join the rat race.

Thus, the individual is sacrificed at the altar of society.

We folks at IIT have the good fortune of being rated highly respectable. This is so because Engineering at IIT is the Paradise that all sensible young people in India are expected to yearn for, and we have gained admittance to that Promised Land. The moment one mentions that one is from an IIT, people (at any rate, sensible people) are instantly impressed. Sometimes they ask, Isn't it very difficult to get admission there? to confirm that their judgement is not in error. We wait patiently for them to add, You must be a real genius!

With regard to choosing the field of engineering, how fortunate we are to have everything so well laid out and pre-decided for us. To be intelligent, and not aspire for Computer Science as our first choice - surely, that would be downright stupidity, if not a cardinal sin! So, we all claim to have an inherent liking for this stream, compared to all others (which we know next-to-nothing about at the time of admission). It pays to cultivate hollowness early in life.

During our schooldays (and sometimes, till late in life), it is our parents' prerogative to decide what we ought to like and dislike. From an early age, they indoctrinate us into believing that the greatest virtue in life lies in scoring marks and passing entrance exams. What a shame it would be to the entire family, if we were to perform poorly, and if the neighbour makes it through JEE, while we miss the bus. Nobody bothers about the joys of childhood and the pleasures of learning for fun, which we miss in our single-minded obsessive pursuit.

It's a miracle when we find that we have succeeded at JEE, and that too without going completely crazy! Not everybody gets Computer Science, of course, but we are consoled when we are told: It doesn't matter what you study, as long as it is at the IIT; it's the brand value that counts. When we dutifully enter the portals of IIT, our parents are delighted by their success. We have served well as instruments to gratify their desires. Of course, they claim that it is all for our welfare. And they genuinely believe this, and so do we.

The disease of hollowness is, for most, chronically incurable.

When we enter IIT, we notice many familiar faces from our concentration camps (JEE coaching centres). Seeing is believing: the brightest brains of India are indeed concentrated at Hyderabad and Kota!

Breathless and eager to experience the Paradise we have heard so much about, we sit in rapt attention inside the classrooms, anxious to pick up pearls of wisdom. But gradually it dawns on us that something has gone wrong somewhere. Bravely, we brush aside our apprehensions as mere figments of imagination. In our weak moments, however, we are ashamed to hear the groaning in our hearts: Hell! This is Engineering?

But we dare not speak aloud, even to our friends. Instead, we smile and pretend that everything is as it should be. Our job is to get on with the important business of scoring marks; everything else is secondary. During the class hours we are bombarded with all kinds of information, all of which must be surely very important. We slog through innumerable quizzes, assignments and whatnot. It is sheer wonder that we survive without losing our sanity.

We get hardened (immunised?) by the time we enter our second year. We learn, thanks to our seniors, all the tricks of the trade required to survive and to beat the system. A great secret is revealed to us: it is not necessary to understand the subject in order to pass or even score well in the examination! Moreover, even those few who struggle to gain fundamental understanding often end up with poor scores. We excel in the art of copying assignments, lab records, and even test papers. However, in spite of all this, some of us end up failing in a few courses. Fortunately, IIT is kind enough to promote us to the next semester. We lose interest in studies, and the teachers all know it. However, we are not too disturbed. It does not matter, because everybody knows that ours is a world-class institution.

Once in a while, we hear excited announcements about IIT Madras being ranked third or so in some Asian journal. Some less informed people say that we are ranked fiftieth or sixtieth in the world. While we may be willing to concede a higher status to MIT or Stanford, we have some difficulty in extending this generosity to other technical institutions in India. India Today publishes regularly a list of the top ten engineering colleges in the country, and when we find IIT Madras ranked fourth or fifth, we feel sad that the public at large has been so cruelly misinformed.

We drift from semester to semester - in blissful ignorance. We undergo numerous courses, all supposedly very important. We get to see all kinds of teachers - the good, the bad and the ugly. The good ones are too sincere and make us feel guilty of our own insincerity. The bad ones mumble something in the class, take attendance and run away. The ugly ones like to bully us and compel us to submit all kinds of stupid assignments. Most of us never stand up and ask questions in any class, because we may end up looking like the idiots we suspect we are. This can be acutely embarrassing, especially if it is a mixed class, with the other sex around. All said and done, we try to have a good time in the class, giggling and fooling around. The teachers pretend they do not see us play.

After all this turmoil and confusion, it is an immense relief to get back home at the end of every semester, and to hear the neighbours whisper, He's studying at IIT. He must be really brilliant! It is like the sound of sweet music. We wish we could have it replayed (at higher volume) - again and again!

In our fourth year, new passions enter our lives: applying to U.S. universities and campus placements. We talk to one another knowledgeably about the universities and their rankings, about plum jobs in the offing, and multinational corporations like Lime Group, Lehmann Brothers, CapitalOne and Citicorp. We dream of beaches (and other pleasant things) waiting for us in California, air-conditioned offices (with plush wall-to-wall carpeting), attractive secretaries, mind-boggling salaries, chauffeur-driven cars,...

We attend various interviews and group discussions, hoping that we are not asked too many technical questions. (It is comforting to note that even the great Bill Gates did not fare too well in that department, during his college days.) It is such a big relief to know that most employers assume that we are geniuses in our fields of specialisation because we are from IIT. We also learn the art of confidently bluffing our way through inconvenient questions.

Sooner or later, we get through somehow, and in the process, discover a mind-boggling secret: most jobs have little to do with engineering! You do not need engineering to work on banking software, or sell soaps or even computers. Yet, it has become fashionable for companies to recruit engineers to serve as their programmers and salesmen, with promises of careers in information technology and marketing management. All money-making roads seem to lead to software and management. Some of us take a minor detour through U.S. universities before landing up in software and management. After all that frenzy and hype about getting through the most difficult exam in the world (JEE) to study engineering, it's surprising to discover that just a handful stays back in core engineering.

But, mercifully, nobody raises any questions, and a great myth is skilfully preserved.

When we join the universities and companies that have recruited us, we are breathless and eager to experience the Paradise we have heard so much about... Yet another (familiar) phase in our hollow lives begins...

We run around hither and thither, meeting deadlines and targets, and trying to impress our boss. Quickly, we learn the tricks of the new trade, hop from one job to a more paying one, pull the right strings, and butter the right people on their right side. We may not have formally studied the management sciences, but our native IIT intelligence (cleverness?) helps us get around with remarkable success.

Success is all that matters. There may be occasional feelings of guilt at having migrated from engineering and from India in the pursuit of good fortune, and at not following Gandhian ideals, or even Nehruvian ideals for IITians. But our successful seniors have set wonderful examples in proving that it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you make it to the Who's Who. No recognition, however, is sweeter than the one you get from back home. In a single stroke, all feelings of guilt get wiped away, when you win a distinguished alumnus award from IIT, in recognition of a successful career you had made in selling insurance in the West. The wonderful education at IIT is what paved the launching pad to your success.

In the meantime, we get married - after much skilful negotiation - preferably, to other respectable professionals like ourselves. Then, we enjoy life in all its fullness (and hollowness), and live happily ever after! We reproduce miniature versions of ourselves, and we promptly proceed to program them along 'respectable' lines. We want them to become even more respectable professionals than ourselves. Of course, it is all for their welfare! And, no doubt, also for the development of our society!

Thus, history repeats itself.

And so does hollowness.

This story has drawn to an end. Is it a comedy? Or, is it a tragedy? We are left somewhat confused and hurt by this playfully provocative story.

Is there a moral to the story?

We may concede that we are hollow men (and women). But what are we supposed to do?


to pause and find out what we really want in life,
to discern what is of enduring value,
to accept the harsh truths about ourselves,
to feel the pain of dishonesty,
to allow ourselves to be authentic,
to strive to remain on the true but difficult path,
to listen to the music of our soul, and
to fill the hollowness with the fullness of our real selves.

It is the task of a lifetime. It used to be called education once upon a time.


Engineering Education: Training to Produce Technicians or Scientists?

Perspectives in Engineering Education

We are the hollow men ...

Travel Light and Be Free!

Am I Making Spiritual Progress?

The Big Tree and the Blade of Grass

Trans-personal Growth

Mind Control

Evolution and Enlightenment

Exploring "Self-Awareness" with the Youth

Reflections of a student-teacher at IIT Madras