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Is hard work worth it?

February 10, 2009 15:10 IST
'And why did I slog so much? What for?' fumed Amit Agarwal.  His anger and frustration was very real, though this is not so rare these days. We have good reasons to be angry, frustrated and yet helpless. But Amit was not venting about Mumbai's trauma or our collective rage.

He is an investment banker and true to his vocation his anxiety and anger was narrowly focussed. Among the best and the brightest of a generation -- products of IIT, IIM, Wharton, or Kellogg schools of Management, who go on to worship at the fabled temples of modern times -- Lehmann brothers, JP Morgan, CitiGroup -- these 'Masters of the Universe,' the erstwhile movers and shakers of millions in a nano second, have now been grounded, or at least wounded.

I have known many of them and I understand their pain. To be honest, just as their vocation and the secrets of multiplying money out of thin air was beyond my comprehension, the current downturn and the disappearance of wealth is also a bit of a mystery to me. In this area, I have not been able to understand how the strength of satyam one day can disappear in the mire of mithya.

I am among those of you untutored in the art and science of money, not by choice, but because of sheer inability. We have watched with envy those who made 'killings' at the stock market, the ones who had the wisdom to buy into Infosys or Reliance long before they became household names.

So at the beginning of the current crisis, we should be forgiven if there was a bit of a schadenfreude -- that cruel but perceptive German expression, which means 'deriving satisfaction from the misery of others.'

So those of us, content with fixed deposits or provident funds were somewhat smug and felt that we were insulated. But the realisation has dawned on us that there is no 'decoupling,' to use a currently fashionable financial expression.

Just as our economies are not immune from the impact of the US meltdown, our limited funds are also not totally decoupled from what is happening to much bigger players. If Citibank is shivering, can ICICI not catch the cold, to use a random expression.

Hence, I should have had some sympathy for Amit. But, with all that, his outrage, indignant tone, and rhetorical question about why he should work hard, upset me. Is hard work and monetary reward so causally and so integrally connected, I wondered. What is hard work anyway, I thought, once again reflecting on the ambiguities in our notions of 'work' and 'reward.'

My mind went back to my days in Germany a long time ago, my struggles with the notions of 'work ethic' as articulated by Max Weber and our own concepts of karma and dharma. I had a rude awakening -- or seen in another way a moment of enlightenment -- in the very early stages of my diplomatic career.

I had been sent as a language trainee to Germany on my first assignment and my 'work' was to learn German. I was quite industrious those days and spent hours in the office in Hamburg poring over German texts, to begin with the newspapers and magazines every morning and thereafter attempting material more difficult. I regarded it as my dharma as a language trainee, and I worked quite hard.

As it happened, our office was being done up for a few days, the usual whitewashing, painting etc of the premises which needed this treatment badly. This work was being done systematically and energetically by an extremely industrious German workman, true to the reputation and habits of his land.

Over a day or two, we chatted a little as he painted the walls in my room, me since I am the chatty type any way and he, since his words with me in elementary German did not detract him from his rigorous pursuits.

The third day, while engaged in his labours, he got a call, on our office phone -- no mobile phone those days. Anxious, he rushed out telling me that he had to go to the hospital. He returned two hours later, but was beaming and grinning.

'What happened?' I asked.

'My wife. She just had a kid. Our first daughter,' he replied even as he picked up his brushes and climbed up the ladder.

'And you are back already,' I exclaimed.

'What else, of course, there is the job to do and the clock is ticking,' he said and all in basic German which I could follow.

But at the lunch hour, more like half an hour, to celebrate the occasion we went down to the street and had a beer together. He was loquacious by his standards.

'What do you do in your job, young man?' he asked.

'Why, you have seen it. This is a consulate and I am a diplomat.'

'Yes, but what do you actually do?'

'Right now, I am learning German'.

'Look, I have been watching you. You come in, early, I admit and then you open the newspapers, and then you start reading Stern and Der Spiegel. What a job. You know what? I was telling my wife in the hospital. This is what I want my daughter to do when she grows up,' he said with utmost sincerity and no irony. "But now I have to get back to my scraping and painting. I have to do my work," he said as we returned to our office. As I picked up a book, somewhat shaken, he picked up his paints.

I have never figured out fully the moral of this story. But I have been struck about how hard manual work is, and how meagre the monetary reward, even in Germany. How much worse then in India? Is it fair then that someone in the financial sector having lured or brainwashed or hoodwinked so many should grouch about his rewards? After all these years, Amit's question had made me think about my old doubts.

But to come back to the more philosophical question: What is hard work and why should one work hard? I am no scholar, but it strikes me that ultimately both the Protestant work ethic as typified by the German workman in my story (and as articulated by Max Weber) and the idea of nishkama karma of the Bhagawad Gita are not all that far apart in application, though different in foundations.

And these troubled times may provide some answers to Amit`s question. The quintessential German work ethic makes work, of whatever kind, a duty in itself and a secular and a religious good. Freud, an Austrian but speaking in German, famously said that the two essentials in life -- Leben -- are Lieben and Arbeit (Love and Work).

You work and you work hard, because it is inherent in you, it interests you, and it is human nature according to this view. You follow your dharma and fulfil your karma, says the Gita, because that is the cosmic order. And don't worry about the results, let alone the rewards.

Can I tell this to Amit, the hedge fund manager? He played with money, other people's money on his computer and enjoyed the virtual game, the financial jugglery. This financial world, experts now tell us was sometimes almost a make believe, a Maya, which had got disconnected with the real economy of homes and factories.

It was, of course, Amit's dharma to give real rewards to his investors and to himself, but he has to develop a sense of detachment about the bubble of the stock market being just that -- a bubble. Can an investment adviser transcend desire and become a niskami? I am still thinking.

B S Prakash is the Indian Ambassador in Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

B S Prakash