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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Ewww... I know what that sound means now!

I noticed her first when she was a slip of a girl, back in 1999. She was in class 9 then, I think. Recently saw her photograph on one of these social media sites. Still wearing a frock, still imagining she is a pretty little girl. Someone should tell her she looks like a cow. Reminded me of the middle aged, black and scrawny women from a certain community I grimaced at in my childhood. I wish people to whom Father Time has been unkind would restrict their recent photographs to their little circles of  'friends', and not inflict them upon the public at large...

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Agantuk

Agantuk (The Stranger), expanded from Ray’s own short story Atithi (The Guest), was filmed in 1991 – it was his last film. The reason the movie has had an abiding appeal for me is that a lot of people have told me over the years that the protagonist, Manomohon Mitra the globetrotting anthropologist played by Utpal Dutt reminded them strongly of me, or rather, the many blunt and unpleasant truths about ourselves that they remembered me saying. I watched it first as far back as 1992 (strange to think I was not yet 30 then!). Now that these things are so easily and cheaply available at home via the internet, I sometimes look back, and so I did with this movie recently.

Before talking about the movie itself, let me mention a few broader things. I have always felt that short stories lose a great deal of their impact when they are stretched for the purpose of making full-length movies. This is true about Agantuk too. Secondly – and I first made this comment ages ago, in our own newspaper Durgapur Perspective, in connection with Ray’s movie Sadgati based on Premchand’s story – Ray should have focused on making works of fantasy like Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne, because we have had plenty of directors who could make fine ‘realist’ films with strong social messages, but when it came to whimsical imaginative fiction of pure genius, Ray stood alone in India (has anyone, even armed with vastly bigger budgets and far more advanced technology, made anything in the last fifty years that can hold a candle to GoogaBaba?). Pity that he, like so many other filmmakers, probably began to feel that he was not being respected enough as a ‘serious’ director, and that there was a need to correct the impression. How much did Indian cinema lose in consequence, I wonder? And thirdly, maybe owing to advancing age and failing health, Ray was slowly losing his touch in his last films – the nuanced sophistication that made watching his earlier works a pure delight was missing already in Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha, and that is even more painfully apparent in Agantuk. It is simply overdone, too in-your-face, bordering on melodrama. Tell me if you feel otherwise, and why.

Yes, I know it’s basically about criticizing our urban middle-class society, which, yes, was already highly criticizable in the 1980s – Ray would probably have quietly committed suicide if he had lived to see it today. About that, in a minute. But first, why the exaggerations, and all the unnecessary mystery? Why was the guest being so coy about revealing details regarding his identity and background (why didn’t he, say, show them some of the scholarly books and travelogues he had supposedly written)? And why, if the hosts were so suspicious about whether he was a real uncle or fake, did they accommodate him at all, and if they did so, why didn’t they question him more directly – it can be done without being grossly impolite, you know? Why, instead, did they call over a friend to do the cross-questioning for them, whom they knew to be by nature impulsive with a tendency to be rude – who, almost predictably, messed up everything and drove the uncle briefly away? Why were they so anxious to make sure that the uncle had not come back to claim his inheritance: what would have been so wrong if he did? Why couldn’t they tell him they were sorry in a better way than merely buying him a new suitcase when he was leaving for the next leg of his world tour? … I hope you get my drift. With my very very limited knowledge of movie direction (but after a lifetime of watching and thinking about movies), I still do feel that things could have been handled with more finesse, made to appear more plausible – especially when it’s coming from someone no less than Satyajit Ray, and with a thespian of the stature of Dutt in the lead role.

All that having been said, I can now pay tribute where it is due. As I said, already in the mid-1980s the Bengali urban middle class was becoming insufferable to all decent people (and there weren’t even any IT-experts around then, God help us!), so someone had to come along and tell them where they got off. Who better than the man who was then the tallest living cultural icon they had to boast of? They were all very snooty about being educated and well-informed and highly cultured, yet most of them were little better at their best than skilled technicians of one sort or the other (you know, the doctor-lawyer-engineer types) who never read anything beyond textbooks, professional manuals and maybe a bit of pulp fiction, time servers and money grubbers who burnt with envy of those who had more, obsessed with being seen as ‘westernized’ at all costs yet incapable of borrowing anything more than the most superficial and gross aspects of westernism, something vastly and tragically removed from and inferior to the kind of ‘modernism’ that Rammohun and Tagore and Ray himself had successfully achieved, ‘smart’ in their own eyes yet in fact riddled with superstitions, unreasoned taboos, half-baked knowledge, silly preconceived notions about all members of humanity who did not belong to their own set (such as tribal folk), stuck in their little ruts mental as much as physical (the husband’s whole world revolves around his corporate office, his flat and perhaps his club; how many achingly tiresome clones of the same type have we all suffered, beer bottles in hand, gold chains and Nikon cameras around their necks, hairy legs sticking out from chic shorts, glued to their mobile phones, unable to talk without casually spewing obscenities and college-dorm jokes?) – in a word, as the uncle told his adopted grandson not to become, koopamanduk, frogs in the well. Heaven knows I have seen New York-returned koopamanduks without number for my sins, and been revolted. So in their eyes, all those who wore few clothes (unless they were film stars, I suppose) and indulged in relatively free sex and ate unfamiliar meat were savages beyond the pale, while the truly civilized man was the one who could wipe out millions of his fellow human beings with the press of a button and without a qualm, as the uncle tellingly says when he has been put on the mat. Nothing more starkly portrays their utter pettiness, their complete worthlessness as human beings than the way they are rendered speechless and awash in tears with shock and wonder as much as shame on discovering that the uncle has quietly left behind his entire patrimony as compensation for their (highly questionable) week-long hospitality – largeness of heart is so utterly, frighteningly alien to their mindsets – and, from all I have learnt about the vast majority of this class, alas, my own class, how true to life that is!


And so yes, I am deeply flattered that a lot of perceptive people have compared me with Uncle Mitra. I shall be glad if many old boys and their parents recollect to others that they have learnt a thing or two of lasting and non-trivial value from me, things that have forced them to think and look differently at the world thereafter. And when people want to find out a bit more about me, I could do worse than telling them to go and watch Ray’s last film. To all those who like to think I am just a nonsense-spewing oddball, I say, look at which people have inspired me and how. Russell is probably beyond their reach, Tagore they have forgotten, so try Satyajit Ray, at least, then tell me whether both he and I were wrong, deluded and irrelevant, and whether they have found better ideals to emulate!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Poor Economics, Doughnut Economics

Let no one think that just because the going’s got a little tougher than usual my mental life has stopped, that I am spending all my spare time either beating my breast over the family misfortune or wandering about in pubs, dance halls and shopping malls for solace and distraction. Yes, it did take a little time to get things back into gear again – I was especially worried about how my mother would cope, seeing that she is getting on in years too – but otherwise I have been just as engaged as I always am unless I am on holiday or in hospital myself. As proof, here are my reflections on a book I recently finished reading, and a movie I watched after a gap of a quarter century.

Poor Economics –  published in 2013, and a book which has inspired Pradipto Banerjee, a favourite old boy of mine, to plan his PhD project – elaborates the idea that poverty can be greatly ameliorated if not entirely abolished through aid, but much aid is stolen or wasted or at least very inefficiently spent because it has not traditionally been based on careful micro-level monitoring of the way it is actually utilized at the grassroots level. The authors themselves have done an enormous amount of detailed and pin-pointed field work to buttress their claims, building up an impressive 18-country data bank in the process, which a lot of agencies are now drawing upon in designing their plans for future aid disbursal and monitoring. They are neither too optimistic nor too gloomy about the prospects of removing extreme poverty (defined as people having to live on less than one US dollar a day) within this century. But, they insist, we must concern ourselves less with grand theories and sweeping ideologies and far more with the nitty gritty of facts on the ground, buttressed by a rigorously scientific method of testing hypotheses that they call Randomized Control Trials. And they give a wealth of fascinating examples of how things actually work (or don’t) in the real world – how poor people make bad choices despite being as rational (or irrational) as you or me, how they often starve though they can well afford an adequate diet, how they are often forced to borrow in order to save, how they often buy TVs rather than health care because it is precisely the best choice in their given circumstances, how the vast majority of small-scale entrepreneurs are so not by choice but by compulsion, and their prospects of ever becoming affluent are very dim, regardless of all the media hoopla about a microscopic few becoming overnight tycoons, how micro-finance doesn’t often work miracles for them despite the best intentions of the deliverers, and, most importantly, how a little tweaking of rules and conditions – letting petty bureaucrats know that they are being monitored for corruption, for instance, reserving seats for women in panchayats and municipalities and making working conditions tolerable for village nurses and schoolteachers, lowering banks’ security requirements for giving loans to fledgling micro-businesses,  giving voters more specific choices to decide upon, and sometimes, even small technical improvements (electronic voting machines and Aadhar cards, for instance, things started long before the BJP came to power, mind you) – can make very significant though usually small changes for the better, even in the long run.

Read the book, if only to find out there is reason for hope – those of you who have social interests, intellectual orientations and consciences as well. As for me (remember I was formally trained to be an economist), I find it heartening to see that some economists, instead of weaving grandiose cloud-cuckooland theories for creating utopias and then spending most of their time cooking up arcane and convoluted rationalizations for their failure, are doing solid if unglamorous work to  really earn their living (the mention of the Poverty Action Lab at MIT reminded me of the joint work of Mehboob-ul Haq and Amartya Sen decades ago to persuade the UNDP to adopt their Human Development Index to draw up report cards for all the nations of the world) – recalled to mind Keynes’ and my hero Galbraith’s hope (how many ‘educated’ people below 40 today are even capable of reading their books?) that, though economists have lost the status of Delphic oracles long ago, they might, if they try carefully, remain as socially useful if unglamorous as dentists.

At the same time, I shall continue to insist, unrepentant socialist that I am and shall remain, the authors are missing the real point. As they themselves say towards the beginning of the book, an economist of no smaller stature than Jeffrey Sachs asserts that the overall quantum of aid disbursed worldwide is too small to make a difference, no matter how cleverly dispensed: by Sachs’ estimate, US $190 billion, if given away every year from 2005 to 2025, could have done away with poverty completely. Let’s put that in perspective – the United States alone spends a trillion dollars every year on defence (which, not to put too fine a point on it, means provisions to kill people), and wealth inequality is now so great that a few dozen billionaires have more money than six billion people.

Therefore I am one of those people who continue to believe (and I refer you strongly to my four successive essays on the necessity of, and prospects for socialism) that there will be no major change for the better without revolutionary changes in the realm of ideas – as some technical people love to call it, a paradigm shift. People in the large will have to start looking for real alternatives to capitalism as we know it, convinced that it cannot solve far too many critical problems, and indeed, creates or exacerbates a lot of them (mass unemployment, rapid natural resource depletion, disastrous climate change, widespread socio-psychological anomie and a tendency to war, to name just five). People have always been searching, I must grant that. The last very significant effort to change the basics of economic thought and practice was made, as far as I know, by Erich Schumacher of Small is Beautiful fame. It didn’t work, of course, but it did inspire a lot of fruitful grassroots experiments that have made the world better in a lot of small, scattered, piecemeal ways. Now Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, is suggesting another carefully-thought out alternative. Thank you for letting me know about it, Rajdeep. I shall look forward to reading the book.

Alright, about Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk, in the next post, fairly soon, because otherwise, it seems, this one would get too long.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Medical bulletin

OK, since I cannot answer so many phone calls, whatsapp messages and emails, here's a post about my father's condition: he had been growing steadily weaker over the last couple of months, until he lost the use of his right hand, then he fell down in the bathroom at dawn on the Bengali New Year's day (Saturday April 15), and had to be bodily lifted and hospitalized. A CT scan followed by an MRI revealed a suspicious looking growth in the brain, but the neurosurgeon said he strongly suspected lung cancer which had metastasized to various organs. He has been transferred to a major facility in Kolkata where the oncologist - a dear old boy and close to the whole family - has just begun radiotherapy, not wishing to wait for the biopsy report. He is nearly 79, so wish him luck, if not for a quick recovery then at least a relatively quiet and painless passage. I wouldn't ask for more for myself.

I shall post updates here from time to time.

Update 1, May 05: He is back today in Durgapur after radiotherapy, which the doctor says seems to have shown encouraging results. He will be staying at home for a month, regaining a bit of his strength - right now he is virtually bedridden - then it will be back in Kolkata for the first dose of chemotherapy: the doctor will continue only if he can take it. So now my house will become in some ways a nursing home apart from a little school. I'd like everyone concerned to cooperate in every possible way.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Going on fifty four

This year things have been a little weird at admission time – not that I wasn’t anticipating it. Last year there was a wild rush to enlist names, so much so that I had to close the book after just a month and a half and shoo people away for the rest of the year (can you imagine how tiresome that can be?). Now this year a great many of them did not turn up, apparently under the impression that since their wards’ names were on my list, they could come whenever they pleased, or not at all. The kids didn’t help by failing in droves in school! (the need for universal education is all very well, and we all know how many children are dying to get an education, but can you help but despair when you see kids failing in large numbers at the level of class seven, eight and nine? Given the fact, too, that the curriculum has been getting steadily lighter, exam papers becoming ever easier, and marking increasingly lenient over the last three decades. I mean, I have always thought, and Pupu is now old enough to concur, that it takes a genius…what numbers of geniuses we are producing every year, really. And what does it say about our schooling? Should teachers whose pupils fail in such large numbers keep their jobs?)

I, of course, need to make a living like most people, and know perfectly well that those who decide they don’t need my services after all don’t as a rule even do me the courtesy of letting me know that they don’t, so I cannot wait after the allotted days are past: I take in other candidates, whose parents are waiting impatiently for a chance. There have always been more than enough such to keep me in gravy all these years.

So anyway, my admissions are almost closed, and now the parents of those who omitted to come on the appointed days for one reason or another (I hear everything from someone’s father being suddenly hospitalized to some people going away on a vacation to simply ‘We forgot’) have started making appearances, and many of them are aghast to hear that they very nearly missed the bus (those who turn up a few weeks later still will actually have to go away disappointed). ‘But, but…’ they invariably stammer, ‘we enrolled their names so long ago!’ as if that excuses and explains everything, and puts me under an obligation to take their children in, no matter what. I laugh sometimes, sometimes turn them away as kindly as possible, sometimes I lose my temper (remember, I have been at it for 37 years now: I started when many of these parents were too young to be my pupils), but mostly I just grimace tiredly and look away. What would you have done in my place?

And the craze for prior enrollment seems to be growing by the year. This year the rush is even heavier than the last time. I am for a change warning the parents that the mere act of enrolment does not offer any kind of guarantee that their kids will be admitted unless they come on the appointed dates. Let us see whether that makes a difference for the better.

I shall have to go through this yearly ordeal six more times, at the very least. The only thought that sustains me is that much less is left to be done than I have done already – there have been crowds at my gate since 1992, and I have done this fifteen times since giving up my last job, so what is six more? In my sixty first year, that is early 2024, I am going to make drastic changes. Maybe cut down very sharply on the intake, or, as some current- and old boys are suggesting, make all admissions online, or hire a secretary and cut out public dealings completely, except by appointment and for a largeish fee. For someone who has always disliked people in the mass, I have had to deal with more than my fair share, and for too long. Just six more times…

The days are long, but the years are short. However, I won’t, I hope, lament like Tagore in my old age that dinguli more shonar khanchaye roilo na, I couldn’t hold my days back (even) in a golden cage, because, like Ulysses, I have enjoyed myself greatly, but suffered badly too, and I won’t like to go back and relive days gone by. Better to look forward, still, ‘when that which drew from out the boundless deep turns again home’. As more and more loved ones pass along, and the world seems less and less interesting, Prospice and Debjaan entice me ever more strongly. All that matters is that I stay fit and active and in harness till I die. And that is not a small thing to ask.

By the way, I should like my readers to visit the other blog more often. There is a permanent link to it on the top right corner of this one. I'm sure they will find it entertaining.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Another new season

Summer has suddenly set in with a vengeance. Every day is hotter than the one before, and the air is still and muggy – just the kind of weather that makes me hate this country, at least until the next cloudburst. I wonder when the swimming pool will be warm enough to be comfortable again?

This is admission season, and the batches are filling up. I shall have a full hand from next week onwards, for the next nine months again. I sometimes feel I have lost count of how many times I have done it: even Pupu says this is the eleventh time she’s been helping me! It seems an odd kind of fun to see kids being admitted whose parents attended these classes years ago. Would I last long enough to see some of the grandchildren too?

My daughter will be a college graduate by the middle of next year. A full grown up, the way she has been brought up. After that, she will be more or less on her own, looking for a career that suits her. Daddy will be at her side, but only playing a petting, enabling and reassuring role, not breathing down her neck. I hope she still finds me interesting and useful for some time to come. Few grown up children do. That, in fact, is my only prayer today…

This is my fifty fourth year. I have been working since I was seventeen. I wasn’t given a very good hand to play by Providence (I have in mind kids who grow up into their mid-20s with their parents footing every bill, finding jobs for them and even carrying their luggage for them), and I have still insisted on being rather more willful than most people I have seen, so on the whole things haven’t turned out too badly, I’d say. Sixty is only a few summers away. I might pop off before that, of course – a lot of people do – but in case I don’t, it’s almost within reach now. I don’t have much respect for governments in this country, regardless of which political party is in power, because they have never done anything significant for the benefit of the vast number of people like me, the self-employed, either by way of tax relief, or cheap insurance, or subsidized loans, or special facilities for those who are ageing. All I want now is to be left alone to mind my own business. Therefore I shall not vote for any party which pursues policies that intrude into my private life, and conversely, I shall root for any that takes notice of the fact that the vast majority of people in this country still take care of themselves, but they need more attention as they get old and infirm, if only because they have been quiet, hardworking taxpayers lifelong. What else any party promises no longer carries much value for me. They can build temples or moon rockets or new mobile phone apps for damn all that I care. Nothing of that sort counts as ‘progress’ in my book.


It pleases me, however, to see that the local government seems at last to have woken up to the horrible menace of lawless traffic on the roads, as the news items on this page bear testimony. Stern policing – provided it’s not a flash in the pan – will go a long way to rein in the lawbreakers who kill and maim so many. I have said again and again that this is a far greater problem than terrorism or smoking, which seem to exercise the foolish people in power so much. Only, a few caveats: first, the hands of the police need to be strengthened (at present, their numbers and resources are pitiful, and the laws they can wield lack real teeth), secondly, they are cracking down on less important things, such as whether people are wearing helmets and seatbelts and carrying all the right papers, whereas the real focus should be on nabbing those who drive too fast, drive drunk, overtake on the wrong side, don’t bother about signals, switch lanes and turn around abruptly, overload vehicles, don’t get them regularly serviced… the kind of people who actually cause all the accidents. When can we expect good sense to prevail? How many more millions will have to be killed and crippled for life before that happens?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Debts, and food for wonder

I often think of the people who do a lot for me – for a price, yet they have become reliable long-time friends. Maybe they are the only ones who will actually miss me when I am gone.

There is our family doctor. I have known him for nearly four decades now. Suffice it to say that our debt to him cannot be repaid, though we have tried very hard, and I seriously fear the day when he will no longer be around. Doctors I have known aplenty, but I know no one who can ever fill his shoes for us.

Manikda, the doctor’s compounder, is someone much more than that for us, and his friend Shibu, the man who goes around collecting blood samples from door to door when tests are in order. There’s Mayadi who has been cooking for me for years, and Parvati, the slightly retarded young woman who has been cleaning the house for a long time, too. There is Sanjeeb the mishtiwallah, a good friend to chat with whenever his busy schedule allows him a few minutes of breathing time, and who was one of the first to cheer me unstintedly when I gave up my last salaried job – ‘Suvroda, you will be much better off now, you’ll see!’ There is Tapas, who takes care of all my needs that in any way connect to computers, and still goes around on a decrepit bicycle, though I know a thousand morons not worth his shoelaces who ride snazzy bikes at half his age. There is Firoz, the first driver who is likely to become a friend too, though I still don’t know him as well as I’d like to, reticent man that he is. There’s Mrinalda, who has been filing my income tax returns for a quarter century now, and Saibal, who kindly manages my investment portfolio though I am really too small fry for him to bother.

Ram Asan Singh the newspaperman has been a fixture for a long time now, and Baikuntho, who started off as a plumber and has become a man-for-all-seasons general contractor, someone I call up whether I want a new water heater or the wc flush is not working or the house needs to be repainted. Arvind the grocer is someone who is always there for me, and Indrajit who runs the cigarette-and-coffee stall. There are my favourite greengrocers and fishmongers and barbers. Not to forget Bhola, who has been binding my books and doing my photocopies and sundry other chores for more than twenty years now. With each of these I have a story to tell…

Funnily also, some such people who have enjoyed my custom have never become friends, or dropped off after a while, sometimes after decades of knowing me. I shall never figure out why, but I have not tried to find out. No point in naming them.

Then there are so many people who come to my door, either to ask for charity or to sell odds and ends – like brooms and boxes of incense sticks – who always make me wonder: why do they stick to it? Does it ensure a halfway decent living? Not all of them look hungry and desperate, either. Someday I really must sit down with them and ask them to tell me more about their lives. If so many people can make do with so little, materially speaking, why does this disease of running endlessly after more money afflict so many others?

There, I have said it at age 53 – it’s a disease. And the fact that, like tapeworm or snoring or obesity, it affects a very large fraction of the human population does not make it one bit less so. It’s a very bad world which passes off encouragement to such diseased people as ‘development’ and ‘progress’. Some day, when we are all much more civilized and sensible, we might think of progress in terms of making life easier for good, nice, hardworking people who are not greedy pigs and have real, harmless interests to pursue: interests which are not constantly manufactured by the advertizing industry.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Milestones, urgings, reminders

People seem to like reading my little travelogues – all three that I wrote recently have climbed high on the list of most-read posts. Good to see that.

I noted in a post dated February 29, 2016 that the pageviews counter had crossed the 400,000 mark, and today I see it has topped 480,000: a swift score indeed. I am apparently getting nearly 7,000 views a month now. At this rate, I shall very soon have 500,000-plus on the counter, and then I can take myself seriously as a blogger. Once I head past the million mark, I would wish that Blogger would highlight those particular blogs which have topped that milestone – leaving aside celebrities, there couldn’t be that many of them around the world. Are you listening, Google?

When I started writing this blog, Facebook was only two years old. Ten years before that, the internet was such a small place that you could actually buy a single-volume directory to all the important websites in the world, and in India people hardly knew what to do with it except exchange email. Today the scenario is very different in some respects, though it would take a lot of prodding to persuade me that the average person is using it for much beyond watching smut, booking tickets and playing sundry games. Blog writing – or reading – has certainly not become very widespread. Nevertheless, I have persisted. If and when I give up, that will be for good, but not yet.

I have been lately asked for advice by an ex student from nearly 15 years ago about raising her children well. That is the kind of communication that pleases me much. I admire such people, because they have the honesty, the courage and the earnest eagerness to seek advice on things more serious than nail art. It goes without saying that I wish them well. It is for such people that I wrote To My Daughter, and a lot of stuff on this blog itself – see, for instance, all the posts under the label of ‘education’. There is an ex-student, Shilpi, with whom I have been trying to spread my net wider, so that young parents can be benefited by the kind of advice I offer: maybe that project will bear fruit, maybe it won’t. You can watch this video to find out more about it. Meanwhile, do recall that I keep asking my readers – of the sort I have just mentioned – to open and continue dialogues on the blog by way of asking questions through comments which I can answer to their advantage. One question asked and adequately answered for one person can benefit a hundred others who had never asked: this is something that I have found out over and over in my classes, which is why I encourage serious questions just as assiduously as I discourage silliness and small talk. 

Remember, adults and youngsters alike, it has been said that the only foolish question is the one that you don’t ask.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Buddha Vihar

As I promised myself in the last line of the previous post, I have just returned yesterday afternoon from another three-day, 800 km-plus road trip in my own car, with Firoz (and at times myself) at the wheel. This time it was to Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda.

When I left home at 6:30 in the morning, it was still chilly, though things heated up rapidly after nine. I was armed with cold water and Coca Cola in a styrofoam box, as well as paper cups and a thermos full of hot tea. The air conditioner had been recharged lately, and the road being mostly in good condition – excellent in places, actually, though the planned six-lane superhighway is still a work in progress – we did the 300 odd km to Bodhgaya very comfortably in less than six hours, despite breakfast and one big traffic jam on the way. After checking into the hotel (booked online, all by myself: I am getting ‘smart’ in the currently popular sense), we freshened up, lunched at the Bihar State Tourism facility (overpriced), then went sightseeing around town.

There is a small airport nearby, and there are foreign tourists in large numbers, Buddhists from all over Asia, many of them obviously well heeled, and for their sake Bodh Gaya is maintained much better than the average Bihari town. It has helped that most of the visit-worthy places are monasteries, built and maintained by various national governments, and frequented by big people like the Dalai Lama and gora celebrities of Richard Gere’s ilk. Also that the biggest draw, namely the Mahabodhi Temple, is now an international attraction. Incredible to think that it had been quite forgotten for six centuries since Bakhtiyar Khilji’s devastating invasion, and the decaying ruins had been taken over by a Hindu mahant and his cohorts, until Sir Alexander Cunningham rescued it, and began the work of restoration and research. Anagarika Dharmapala and the then king of Burma did their bits to turn it into the Mecca of Buddhists once more. I sat in the compound on a mattress at sundown alongwith thousands of other praying pilgrims, and despite myself it gave me goosebumps to see the Bodhi tree under which the Master meditated until he attained nirvana… shameful to learn that it was a Bengali, King Sasanka, who had burnt the original tree.

The temperature fell swiftly at night. My hotel was located somewhat afar from the town centre, so there was a lot of dark open space around, with paddy fields and lakes and date palms, interspersed with brightly lit temples which made for a fairyland scene. We dined simply and cheaply at a roadside eatery which was named – predictably – Buddha Café. A walk in the quiet chilly night, then early to bed. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I was asleep before my head hit the pillow, though it was barely past ten o’ clock!

Early rising next morning, and we drove off to Rajgir, eighty km away. The road is beautiful in parts, especially when it is passing through hills, though the little towns we passed through were choc a bloc with noisy and totally chaotic traffic – nobody wears helmets, nobody obeys rules, autowallahs bicker with truckers like equals, and nobody pays the slightest attention to the police (we were joking about how utterly irrelevant Modi and his government is to this real India). We stopped at Gehlaur to see the handiwork of Dashrath Manjhi the ‘mountain man’, who worked singlehandedly for 22 years with hammer and chisel to carve a pass through a hill, reducing a trip to the nearest hospital by 40 km, after his injured wife died for lack of medical attention because he couldn’t carry her to a doctor in time. Feminists should think about this. It is both stupid and gross to take note only of men who beat their wives. And it says everything one needs to know about India that we worship creatures like SRK and MS Dhoni, while this man has not yet got a posthumous Padma Sree as recommended by the Bihar government, not even after the movie about him.

Rajgir was hot and crowded and dirty, though they have maintained a lot of little places of historical/mythical interest to pull crowds. The Vishwa Shanti stupa atop a hill, best reached by ropeway, is a nice place to see: it reminded me strongly of the almost identical shrine at Dhaulagiri in Odisha. I looked up all sorts of places – Venuvan the bamboo grove where the Buddha lived for some time after the Enlightenment, the Saptaparni caves where the First Buddhist Council was held, the Brahma Kund, the fabled treasury of King Bimbisara, and even older places, such as the akhara where Bhima of Mahabharata fame wrestled and killed king Jarasandha of Magadha. This place, after all, has very ancient antecedents: as Rajagriha, abode of the king, it was a large and flourishing city even in the seventh century BC, and it began to decline only after Ajatashatru moved the capital to Pataliputra near modern Patna.

It was a ten km drive to the ruins of the ancient university of Nalanda. Apparently some new discoveries have been made during excavations by Archaeological Survey of India experts even after Independence – housed carefully in the museum opposite the ruins – and now that UNESCO has made it a World Heritage Site, they are maintaining it very carefully. I wish I did not have to saunter around under a pitilessly blazing sun, and I consoled myself with the thought that it would be quite impossible a month from now. Any thought of Nalanda (or Takshashila, or Vikramshila for that matter) makes me wonder and sigh that there used to be a time when India was not just fabled for her material wealth, but for the kind of deep and diverse knowledge that drew scholars (including the likes of Fa Hsien, Xuanxang and I Tsing) from near and far. Art, science, education, breaking down social barriers like caste, spread of  vernaculars and caring for flora and fauna – India has much to be grateful to Buddhism for. And though I have read all about the revival of Hinduism and the Muslim scourge, I still cannot fully figure out why it virtually vanished from India, nor why Babasaheb Ambedkar’s mass conversion to Buddhism in the mid-20th century, followed by its worldwide revival, has so far failed to usher in a new golden age for Buddhism here. Their stress on simple living, silence, cleanliness and social welfare work would have made a huge change for the better in this country.

It was a nearly eleven hour round trip, for about five of which I was on my feet in the hot sun, climbing up and down stairs and scrambling over uneven ground, so my legs had started playing up, and I was dog tired. A quick bath, dinner and I sank into eight hours of the dreamless again. Next morning, a quick roadside breakfast, followed by a visit to the last of the monasteries – the Mongolian this time – and the museum, where I was the first arrival of the day. They have preserved a lot of late Buddhist and Pala era (‘Nalanda style’) artwork there, though much of it has been vandalized and damaged, as much by centuries of Hindu neglect as by the Muslim depredations. Pathetic that museums attract virtually nobody in this country: we are all for cinemas, shopping malls and circuses. And yet our parents are drumming it night and day into the ears of their children how wise they are, and how the kids ought to learn about civilization from them. Without the British, who started by calling us monkeys, we would not have had any civilization to boast about, only ‘sacred traditions’ like burning widows and shitting in the open and flattery and bribery to get jobs…

Then it was the long drive all through the afternoon back home. My poor car, though performing admirably all the way, had suffered a broken seal in the steering assembly, so we had to keep topping up with hydraulic fluid every now and then. Still, we were neither stopped nor delayed. Lunch at Khalsa Hotel in Dhanbad, and we were home by 3:30 p.m. Summer has arrived, and some early birds in Bihar have, I noticed, started playing Holi already. Thus ends my holiday season – for now.

For photos, click here. I shall be glad if some people write comments, perhaps mentioning highlights of their own travelling experience. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Pondicherry

I had long felt it would be nice if I could take my parents on an all-expenses paid holiday trip, at least once, and it has worked out at last. I have just returned from a most satisfying holiday in Pondicherry.

We chose the location because my old folks had good memories of their last visit, when they stayed there for several months, seventeen years ago. It was also, I thought, a good choice because it could be a short trip, and wouldn’t put too much of a strain on them. Pupu went along happily, though this was our second trip to the seaside within a month.

So it was a (smooth and quick) afternoon flight to Chennai, and a three and half hour car trip along a very well-maintained and brightly lit highway to the Union Territory that still proudly retains its French connection, along with Chandannagar in our own West Bengal (shades of the same mid-18th century Governor Dupleix, too). The hotel we checked in was posh, as I had decided. Swimming in the rooftop pool was still too cold for our liking, but lazing on deckchairs at sundown and beyond was wonderful, though it did get rather too windy at times. The next three days were spent ambling around the town in a leisurely fashion, on foot and in autos, taking in the beach – early morning, forenoon and evening – a few local eateries (Italiza served up a very good ‘fully loaded’ pizza, Archana’s treated us to a very tasty and filling standard local thali; the dosa at the roadside Café Tifen was quite as delectable), the Ashram, Serenity Beach, Auroville, the Botanical Garden, the Museum, Bharathi Park, Paradise Island (to which we sailed on a motorized catamaran: the place reminded me strongly of Sagardweep) and suchlike. Shilpi dropped in, because she has been camping in Tirupati, so we had fun together for a day.

The promenade with its adjacent rows of well-cared for old buildings in the severe colonial style and French street names makes a very nice walk, though the boulder-bound beach is a bit of a disappontment. The famous Aurobindo Ashram left me unfazed – I am, alas, not religiously inclined in the usual Indian sense – and Auroville, I found, was basically a very big, well-appointed theme park (everytime I visit a nice park, I sigh that we have only Kumaramangalam Park in Durgapur, and nothing at all in blasted Bidhan Nagar, much vaunted as the haunt of affluent and educated people), where the boutique sells exorbitantly priced souvenirs. We joked among ourselves that since the place counts a Bengali sadhu as its USP, Bengali tourists should be welcomed with large discounts. At Auroville, we learnt from a roadside sign that rotikashaala was the Hindi word for boulangerie. Which reminds me, food in Pondicherry is decent but considerably more expensive than in these parts, God bless Bengal; liquor is much cheaper and widely available though they are overdoing the anti-smoking campaign, and the way the roads are swarming with two- and three wheelers whose drivers don’t seem to have heard about traffic rules, they’d save many more lives and lessen air pollution very much more if the administration paid attention in the right place.

As is usual virtually all over the south, the man in the street and his supposedly better educated brothers everywhere, even in fancy hotels, refuse either to speak Hindi or learn proper English (I am not just talking about the atrocious accent – one can quickly get used to wokey and right-ǝ and lunchi – but nine out of ten cannot, or will not, put five English words meaningfully together), so communication with locals was a frustrating non starter. You don’t speak Tamil, you don’t have to talk to us, seems to be the attitude, though we had a niggling suspicion that most of them would prove to be quite nice people if only we could talk to them. If this is what I’d have to let myself in for, Rajdeep, I am sorry but I am not coming to Japan.

The days rapidly grew hotter, so that on the trip back along the scenic East Coast Road, it was already blazing in the afternoon at Mamallapuram, where we stopped for lunch as well as a dekko of the famous rock cut temples and sculptures (by an interesting coincidence, I was reading John Keay's India Discovered, in which these monuments have been given considerable attention as possible artistic prototypes for all later temples in the south). The beach there, by the way, seemed more charming than the ones we had seen before, and apparently good for bathing in. We were back home in Kolkata just before eleven at night on the 22nd. For a long time to come I shall never hear a ship blowing its foghorn without thinking of the municipal buses of Pondi (their autos, on the other hand, use handblown air horns like our rickshaws), and I shall always remember wonderingly that roadside coffee shops were as rare to find there as Sardarjis in Amritsar.

The single smoking rooms – actually, little glass cages – at the airports are a nightmare; half a dozen men crammed together and poisoning one another with exhaled smoke. Why can’t they furnish those rooms with a large exhaust fan, for heaven’s sake, when they can centrally aircondition the whole of the rest of the place? Also, at every airport, food and drink is atrociously expensive. Does anyone know why? And one more thought that has struck me often: if our Metros, shopping malls and airports can be kept so clean, why can’t the major railway stations? I was a little sad to see that Chennai already has an airport to city Metro connection: in Kolkata ours is still under construction. With that and the East-West Metro corridor in operation – and if and when the authorities in their wisdom make a/c buses much more widely available – travelling around Kolkata, which is already much less troublesome than it was in the eighties, will become hugely easier. And of course they must cut down massively on private transport by taxing them heavily and forcing people to park only in designated (preferably multi-storied) parking lots for a hefty fee. Becoming civilized is not cheap and easy, but sure it can be done.

This was my second trip this year, and I am planning to make one more before the hot and busy season sets in at the end of March.

For photos, click here.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Demographic dividend, or monstrous liability?

While reading the storm of posts on Facebook and Twitter over the pros and cons of our PM’s demonetization drive, I was reflecting upon the kind of people who have grown up and become ‘educated’ in India over the last thirty-odd years, correlating with my own long experience of teaching a very large number of such people when they were in their teens over the same time period. Several thousand of my ex-pupils are in the 25 to 45 age bracket now. Here are some broad generalizations I can make about them, and hardly any of these are complimentary. Do read them with patience and see whether you agree on the whole, even if it makes a bitter pill to swallow. Of course I acknowledge exceptions, and know about many of them myself, but remember that by definition the exceptions don’t count for much: how a society behaves depends by and large on the common type.

1)   If they have good internet access and are comfortable with chatting/posting in English (even if that is very clumsy, stilted English interspersed with vernaculars), they belong to a very privileged minority. How many would they be? Twenty, thirty, fifty million at most?
2)    And yet they have an overblown sense of identity and entitlement. They believe they speak for all of India – many are affronted if it is suggested that they don’t even know much of India. They believe ‘national progress’ is coterminous with what they want.
3)   They ape Americans in everything except the good and important things. So – as I have pointed out once before – artificially tattered jeans, short skirts, ‘cool’ slang and chewing gum and rock music and fast cars/bikes and jingoistic chest thumping yes; hard work, cleanliness, love of greenery, charity, respect for the law, punctuality, keeping promises, courtesy to strangers, quietness in public and support for libraries, museums and research facilities, no no.
4)   They like to think and act as though they are informed, intelligent, independent beings, but – and they hate to hear this – they loathe learning and reasoned argument, they form opinions quickly then steadfastly ignore all evidence to the contrary, they are driven by emotion of a very violent, febrile, evanescent kind and the herd instinct in everything, whether it be choices relating to cinema or music, clothes, food, politics, subjects of formal study and career preferences, ‘status’-symbols and what have you. In addition, two other factors drive them powerfully: tradition (best observed when it comes to marriage – look at how powerful issues of caste and dowry and ‘correct dressing’ still are) and advertizing (right now they all want iPhones and compact SUVs because they all want iPhones and compact SUVs, or so they learn from the ads and the all-important peer groups, outside which they rarely venture).
5)    They are intensely patriotic – which means they hate Pakistan and revile any Indian who finds fault with Indians (numerous quotes from Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi and Ambedkar would make them froth at the mouth!) – and that seems to go very comfortably hand in hand with slavering over dreams of migrating to the US, or at least getting jobs with US multinationals, as well as being totally uninterested in knowing about their own land, its history and culture, its flora and fauna; with littering streets right and left, with being utterly callous about doing things that can improve the lot of one billion Indians who suffer from age-old neglect and exploitation. No matter whether they are male or female, whenever they talk about freedom, rights, equality and all that stuff, just observe how they treat their domestic help, waiters at restaurants and attendants at shopping malls, or how much they care about disturbing neighbours while enjoying themselves.
6)    They worship big money, no matter how it is made. So any startup zillionaire, even if he has made his pile selling discount coupons or gutkha over the Net, is much more a hero to them than a freedom fighter, a teacher, a social worker or a writer (indeed, it is this class which, having read virtually nothing outside textbooks and comic books, admires Chetan Bhagat, Ravinder Singh and E. L. James as ‘writers’). That admiration, however, is mixed up with a lot of envy and secret anger, so if you are rich (and famous), you quickly learn to keep such ‘admirers’ at arm’s length in your personal life.
7)    They are out and out opportunists, talking big wherever they feel completely safe and ‘in’, as when trolling anonymously on social media, and slavishly kowtowing to power everywhere else, knowing full well which side of the bread is buttered, and being truly passionate only about keeping their own skins safe. Best exemplified by the committed socialist at JNU who became a committed neoliberal overnight as soon as prospects arose of getting a scholarship from the department of Economics of the University of Chicago. So they have no problem with turning coat every other day and always saluting the rising sun. They are all devoted to Narendra Modi as long as he wields the levers of power: one big defeat of his at the hustings and they’ll say ‘Narendra who?’
8)    When it comes to religion, they are divided into two broad groups – either they blindly conform to lokaachaar, no questions allowed, or they equally blindly condemn all things spiritual as troublesome and useless nonsense, without making any attempt at studying and understanding any religion in depth. Makes for a weird and volatile mix.
9)  They are bone lazy and they compulsively over-eat (look at the obesity epidemic, and count the number of young Indian tourists as opposed to white skins who prefer to trek or cycle rather than hire cars). They are also materialistic in the crudest possible sense: look at the kind of movie that always makes a hit with them; look at how they go gaga over cricket rather than, say, hockey; look at how many books they buy as opposed to cellphones, jewellery, liquor, clothes and beauty care; look at the way, too, they are painting the walls of their houses these days!
10)  In a country where very little pathbreaking scientific research is ever done, they are all currently obsessed with technology – the word being restricted narrowly, of course, to consumer gadgets, virtually all of them developed in one tiny corner of the planet very far from India. Am I seriously wrong in comparing this with any other form of hard-drug addiction: that most tell-tale sign of empty and pointless lives?

This is the human material we are dealing with, whether we are small-town teachers or prime ministers. I handled their like as pupils twenty five to thirty years ago, I am handling them as parents now. Is it likely that any serious national progress can be hoped for, progress as understood by the finest minds our country has produced?

In To My Daughter I have touched upon this malaise in passing. Reading Pankaj Mishra’s new book Age of Anger brought these thoughts back to the fore. And it has occurred to me that making sense of the present chaos all around the world requires profound, sustained, intensive reading of the kind that the people I have described above – in India, especially, but to some extent everywhere – have lost both the desire and the capacity for doing.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

That fleeting butterfly, happiness

Am I a sourpuss? I don’t think so, though the world has tried very hard to make me one. There are still a lot of things that make me sometimes quietly and sometimes even boisterously happy.

I am happy that without any kind of sociopolitical clout, I have earned the right to be called ‘Sir’ by just about everybody, from my pupils, ex pupils and their parents to neighbours, policemen and politicians and bankers and shopkeepers and mechanics that I know.
I am happy when old boys reminisce with nostalgia about their class days.
I am happy when I find young people who read a lot of good books.
I am happy every time I see signs of kindness and charity.
I am happy that poverty has visibly reduced in this country: I rarely see the kind of hungry people in rags that I saw everywhere in my childhood.
John Denver sang ‘Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy’, and bright, crisp, balmy days make me happy always, as today was.
Finding good new authors to read never fails to make me happy.
Hearing that my daughter’s friends call me a cool dad makes me happy.
I am happy that medicine and surgery have very significantly improved – people, at least if they have money, suffer much less, for much less time these days than fifty years ago.
It makes me happy that I managed to rise above poverty by my own efforts in my youth, and that I am inching towards affluence, without ever taking recourse to crime or self-abasement.
The internet makes a very private person like me happy by providing so much entertainment at home. I rarely go to the cinema any more – hardly twice in the last five years, in fact.

It is, I have discovered with surprise not unmixed with bemusement, hard even to enjoy one’s happiness. It is not only that other people try very hard to take it away if they become aware of it, because they can’t bear to see anyone happy for long, the likes of me even suffer from a guilty conscience – ‘Do I have a right to be happy?’ There is the voice constantly warning me inside not to turn into a happy fool, like so many I have seen. And if nothing else, there’s always the anxiety over the knowledge that I, like everyone else on earth, am running out of time…


I have made thousands of people laugh, though they all know I am basically a very serious person. I read this story about a monk who made people laugh, while still managing to live a sober, industrious and saintly life, and when he died and was being cremated, he was still making people laugh through their tears because the fireworks he had hidden in his clothes were going off one by one. That is the kind of man that I admire.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Digha

My daughter and I had a lovely time at Digha last weekend, which I was visiting for the first time since my college days. Everything is now vastly improved, from the roads to the resort ambience. Pupu has written about the trip on her blog. For photos, click this link.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Holmes, Harry Potter, and forgetting

Against the background of avidly watching the new Sherlock season episode by episode, and agreeing to like or dislike this or that facet of the show and plot, my daughter and I fell to wondering how in this fast and frenetic age, so many people still cling with such strong nostalgia to the undying saga of the world's most famous fictional detective. So much has changed that Holmes' London, nay the whole world, is well-nigh unrecognizable to us, yet we keep harking back fondly to the old happy memories, and every new attempt to alter, redesign, modernize the stories draws literally tens of millions of people the world over still, all eager to criticize, but unable to stay away. If you don't envy Conan Doyle, whom would you rather envy?

From that, quite naturally, we went on to ask each other whether we could expect the same sort of thing to happen to other, later great stories, such as the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Perhaps not, we agreed sadly, and the fault would not be the writers'. It is a truly sad age we live in, despite all the surface progress and prosperity and glitz: people are poor as never before. Because things keep happening so fast and fade from the collective memory so soon that we can hardly hope to leave anything in the line of a heritage behind for our own older selves, leave alone for posterity. So that the economy can keep moving, and things keep getting sold, and people of the most superficial kind keep being entertained, we have made a world where nothing stays, because nothing really matters, there is nothing that we truly care for any more -- not even ourselves and our memories.

Think about it. I don't feel like carrying on now. Perhaps I shall come back to this post in a few days' time. Meanwhile, do look up this post in my other blog.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The turning of the year

2016 was a year of deaths in my family. I lost three seniors, one of them very very dear to me.

Like most other recent years, this one was full of sound and fury, signifying very little (iPhone 7 launched!!!). One of the most important developments – for those who are educated and care for both science and nature – happened very quietly at the very end of the year: China has officially declared that it is going to ban the ivory trade in 2017.

The most interesting thing I have learnt about Donald Trump so far is that he does not use email. This is all of a piece with several related items of data I have gleaned and remembered over the years: a) that Mother Teresa built up a great organisation and ran a very tight ship till her last breath without a computer, b) that Oprah Winfrey bought a PC only after she was a multi-billionaire, c) that Bill Gates keeps all his most sensitive documents in hardcopy, d) that following the snooping-over-the-Net scandal, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has ordered all the most sensitive government papers to be manually typewritten, e) that employees in France have just won a 'right to disconnect', f) that Raymond Reddington of The Blacklist fame is, like Trump, a smug dinosaur who has lived through the so-called communication revolution with huge success, without having an email, Skype, Facebook, Whatsapp or Twitter account. Considering the size of my internet footprint, I am already ashamed, and I shall want my daughter to keep this in mind while negotiating the brave new world. It makes me glad that she is very wary of the PayTM kind of stuff, and tells me she doesn’t miss it one bit.

The year ended blissfully in my daughter’s company, finishing off the Star Wars saga among other things. I have been privileged to read a lot of good books and watch some good movies recently. Sherlock Holmes season 4 episode 1 was a shocker, though I had become rather bored with the series earlier. Now I must carry on and find out how Holmes/Cumberbatch ‘saves John Watson’, as per Mary’s last wish. And what on earth are the two of them going to do with little Rosamund? Julian Rathbone’s sequel to A Very English Agent, called Birth of a Nation, was a rollicking good yarn: I am eagerly awaiting the third book in the series. Charlie/Eddie Bosham has become one of my great favourites among literary characters now.

A very moving book I read recently was The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, and once more I must admit I am ashamed that I did not know of a conservationist of his stature till now. Do read up on him and his beloved elephants on the Net; you will find a wealth of interesting information, including the amazing (yes, I meant that word) story of how they came to mourn for him at the Reserve Lodge after he died, tragically, at age 61 of a heart attack. The anecdote about how his beloved bull Mnumzane had to be put down when he needn’t have moved me to tears, and these days that takes some doing. Anthony would have been delighted to hear about the news from China.

Reading Anthony brought back to mind an old and dear love: Gerald Durrell. Much as I now admire Anthony, who wrote ‘To me the only good cage is an empty cage’, I agree, for I believe very good reasons, with Gerry, that without zoos most animals would soon become extinct: therefore zoos must stay, only they must be far better built and managed, as he showed us how. It drove me to look up the website of the love of Gerry’s life, the Jersey Wildlife Trust that he set up, and that is now (fittingly) named Durrell Wildlife Park. I also read up about his (second-) wife, the scientist Lee Wilson, who married Gerry specifically because he had a zoo of his own, and now runs it in his loving memory – as Francoise runs Lawrence’s dream come true, The Thula Thula Wildlife Reserve in South Africa. It is heartbreaking indeed to learn that few youngsters these days read as wonderful a classic as My Family and other Animals, and that the Trust is once again having money problems. I don’t feel charitable about too many things these days, but if I had pots of money I know where much of that would have gone…