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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Chennai's Words to Live by

Everyone has potential. You just have to discoverOne of Chennai's lovely quirks of public space are these series of inspirational and motivational wall slogans in several areas of the city. This sequence is from along GN Chetty Road in Chennai as you approach Gemini Flyover and is one of the longest stretches.

I find the concept of putting such words so dramatically in the public space fascinating. Because clearly some of the phrases are more inspirational in nature while others may be said to be more prescriptive. Some are clearly moral, some feel-good Some are deft, others clumsy. Clearly they are well meaning and honest-intentioned. But they are also windows into the belief systems of the government who drafted them and the society at large.

Those who concentrate upon the task and forget about the reward may be called persons at their best.Clearly society here has a tendency towards such statements, visible by the profusion of rhyming traffic safety signs, the “thought for the day” daily added to the white board in our office, and perhaps epitomized best by the common use of the phrase, “do the needful” in business, government, legal and journalistic contexts. Chennai and Indian society at large seems to be happy throwing these phrases at each other in a belief they improve social cohesion and are listened to by otherwise “anti-social elements.” And clearly there is an entrenched hierarchy of class and caste that may play into how those in power see their role.

Be a sun which dries someone's tears.Personally, I've never liked pat, packaged answers to life's ills – platitudes that are in fact meaningless or at least prosaic – given as advice to every situation. Yet some are undoubtedly distillations of age-old wisdom, ones young people sometimes struggle to accept in their quest for self-discovery. And some are just good, healthy reminders to make a better world. What does a government's preference for such phrases mirror its view as parent and moral leader of its people? Is that a good thing? Does it reflect an underlying belief in a hierarchy that invokes the passing on of your godly wisdom on the ignorant masses?

Look for strengths in people, not weakness, for good, not evil. Most of us find what we search for.Yet, reading the sequence I am also forced to think on whether my finding many of them cheesy platitudes is a reflection of a North American jadedness of something seen as old-fashioned and reserved for the dogmatic or the neo-spiritual feel-good, and not something serious people and serious governments say in public. But are we right in thinking so? Am I?

The person who provides for this life, but takes no care for eternity, is wise for a moment, but a fool forever.How much does the decision to promote such moral advice stem from an underlying patronizing attitude of the leadership and how much of it is at heart simple old-fashioned, but still-relevant sentimentality towards better living? What is the difference between believing simple messages are still effective versus them being simplistic and patronizing? Does it reflect a leadership’s sense of righteous beneficiation to those below or instead the government’s socialist ideology and the local valuation of service?

Time is a versatile performer. It flies, marches on, heals all wounds, runs out and will tell.And of course what is the value of printing them with care along a busy road people will surely drive by and ignore as they compete with the thousands of images, slogans and jarring colours of a city buried under its advertising and encroachments on public space. At least with the long, continuous stretch, it is trying and one of the cleanest stretches of wall in the city.

Very much thoughts in progress I wanted to share. And some nice advice to pass on at the same time.

You can see the full 21-photo sequence of slogans on my Flickr site at:

But they did miss my favourite one of all: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

What are your favourites we should petition Chennai to add?