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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Update, and good wishes


·         An ex-student who has just finished B-Tech from IIT with specialisation in data analysis has been hired on campus by Flipkart. That and other e-commerce companies, as even journalists know, are going great guns right now. Here is a thought-provoking article which I am linking without comment. I shall welcome an informed discussion on the subject. Be warned, however, that I am broadly in agreement with the writer and I am not known to make up my mind hurriedly and superficially.
·         Wonder of wonders, the Pope is now siding with mainstream scientists when it comes to concern for our ecological future, and he is ranged against all kinds neo-liberals and conservatives whose two chief accusations against him are a) he does not understand economics, and b) he does not understand science. I am hoping that sparks will fly when he addresses the UN General Assembly and wondering what the ghosts of Galileo, Cardinal Bellarmine and Adam Smith would have said to one another if they were listening in on the debate.
·         The “best” colleges in India have set 99% aggregate as a cut-off for their most preferred undergraduate courses this year. Everyone, including the head of St. Stephen’s college New Delhi, recognises the utter absurdity of the situation, but pleads helplessness: the aforementioned has publicly remarked that nothing can be done about it until the school boards decide once more to mark exam papers “realistically”. Having been a teacher for most of my life, I know just what he means. At least two horrible things have been happening to our school education over the last two decades (apart from an almost complete extinction of good teachers): syllabi have been continually slashed because ‘our children cannot bear the terrible load’ (heaven knows how we did it, or even our pupils before 1995, and board examination marks have gone through the roof, with literally tens of thousands (including hundreds whom I can personally vouch to be barely literate) routinely scoring over 90% in the aggregate – and countless people scoring more in English and History than in mathematics. I don’t know whether this black comedy will end before the whole system collapses, but I know this much: teachers like me will either become extinct soon, or dollar millionaires.
·         Do look up this article. It is one more contribution to the idea – much scorned and distorted – that ancient Indians knew much more than they are given credit for. We knew they made steel long before Europe found out how to; we learn here that the finest steel for making swords was forged in India too (they used carbon nanotubes! though they might not have been able to use the modern terminology, just as the Egyptians used the right-angled triangle theorem for their buildings long before Pythagoras and others came up with formal proofs). When shall we realize that we need to look back more in order to forge ahead faster – that organizing a worldwide Yoga Day might be something far more than pushing a narrow sectarian agenda?
·         Reading some good new books, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and The Heat and Dust Project by Devapriya Roy and Saurav Jha. Both make for good reading, and both are about long journeys – quite apposite for someone who can hardly walk, don’t you think?

I was warned that sitting in bed all the time I am not hobbling around painfully, depression was soon going to become my greatest problem, and so it has. The following is in the nature of a status update for those too-numerous people who have asked: the pain is now only a dull occasional ache in the hurt leg, but the walker is seriously damaging the other one from the way it is being grossly overstrained; the staples and bandages were taken out on June 08, and the surface wounds have healed well enough, leaving behind only ugly scars; I can sit with folded legs for only short stretches, and it’s mighty awkward, I can tell you; I have no way of knowing what is happening inside, and it’s only following the X-ray pictures to be taken on July 06 to see how much calcification has taken place that the doc will see if I can start using that leg again soon; my teaching is keeping me going in more senses than one, and my daughter and parents are doing virtually all the housework: though I try all I can to lend a hand, it doesn’t  amount to much. The gloom deepens every time I think that Pupu will be going away to college very soon now, though both she and her mother will keep visiting. I am discovering little things all the time, such as how difficult it is to dress and undress when you can use only one leg, and let go of all support only at your peril! I am fighting depression by doing what I have listed above, besides sleeping more than I ever have before (pills don’t work).

Thank you to all who have sent their good wishes (and when I can feel they mean it), especially those who have suffered from broken bones and assured me I’ll be fine eventually, and to Lavona, who told me she survived surgery of a far more serious kind a few years ago. And my very best wishes to Prerana, whose mother has just had a kidney replaced after years of suffering. I am praying most for the father, having learnt a bit about what he has gone through.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Convalescent

Pain. It is a great enemy, a great cleanser, a great teacher. It has been my fate to suffer a very great deal of pain, of the body and of the mind, intermittently ever since childhood. I am currently going through yet another course of it right now. I vacillate eternally between thinking that I don’t wish it on my worst enemy, and that no one ever became human before knowing pain first hand: the kind of pain that sears away all dross forever, and turns you from Facebook and short skirts to God. And I can also feel a massive surge of despair, having lived long enough to know that there are lots of people who can get back to partying and mall-hopping within weeks of losing their ‘loved ones’…

And as always, it is a very great learning experience about what people are really like. You can never find out without being in extremis. Supremely above all I have had confirmation, if ever I needed it, that my daughter is so great a gift that I have forfeited all right to ask God for any other in this lifetime. And I am saying this as anything but a besotted father: I know for a fact that one dad in a million gets a grown up daughter that willingly useful and helpful and still cheerful for any length of time, especially in this country. As the song goes, ‘somewhere in my youth or childhood/ I must have done something good’!

At the next level, it never ceases to amaze me how many people of how many sorts are not only helping all they can but are only too eager to help if I’d let them. From doctors to rickshawwallahs, grocers to bankers, maidservants to neighbours… not to mention hundreds and hundreds of old boys far away and near. Doing everything from easing me into the car and cleaning up the cobwebs to offering me money and expressing willingness to go pay my bills to asking if there’s some special book or movie that they can send over to while away the terrible monotony. It takes my breath away to think so many people know me and care – me, with zero frndz on FB and no whatsapp connection! Especially when I contrast such good people with all the scum it has been my great misfortune to know: someone, one of the few I had personally called up to give the news, who simply forgot to respond for a whole week because he was oh-so-busy, and someone who knows perfectly well she has demonstrated over more than a decade she neither can nor really wants to do anything for me – exams and parents and job and marriage and ‘other social responsibilities’ and a very recherché coyness have always prevented and will go on preventing her from doing anything beyond losing things I valued, trivializing things I wrote because they were far beyond her grasp, and disobeying injunctions she herself had once pretended I had a ‘right’ to insist on as a teacher and father figure (few expressions bring me closer to puking: I am going to murder the uncouth pinhead who next applies that term to me) – sanctimoniously asking me if she could ‘do something’ for me. God save me from creatures who say such things because it makes them feel good without having to do a thing: I’d rather sleep with a cobra in my room. My lessons have all been learned the hard way.

Then there is the helplessness. I know it will be incomprehensible to people who have been petted and mollycoddled all their lives – I know someone who never visited a doctor alone until she was in college. I have slept alone since I was five, and did almost everything for myself since I was fifteen, and lived alone for a very large part of my life: what happens to a man like that if he loses the use of his legs? Christ, I even went to the toilet hobbling on a walker before the bones were set, despite the agony and the doctor’s strict warning against it, and I have continued to do so back home, for I have lived and want to die like a man, not a vegetable with a bedpan: may He who hears all prayers grant this one of mine. And yet there are a thousand things I can’t do. Funny they become so serious and urgent just when you can’t! I can’t climb upstairs, so I am being fed in bed after a gap of more than 47-8 years; I can’t clean the bathroom myself; I can’t go for a walk, I can’t exercise or swim or ride my scooter for many months to come. This is what purgatory means, I guess. Who could have imagined I’d have so looked forward to a mere elbow crutch so that I can hobble around a bit on my own again? The shame of it: I, who have been a help to so many in need.

I have gone back to work, of course. The doctor wanted me to stay in hospital for five days after the operation; I came home on the second. I was supposed to take ‘bed rest’ for at least a fortnight after that; the Tuesday after the accident I was taking classes, full schedule. It hurts, and it is tiring me out, but I still say ‘Thank God I can’. It is not yet time for me to rest, and besides, I’d have gone mad with boredom and guilt. I shall NOT become Piku’s father. I am waiting for the clamps to be taken out, and hoping the doctor will ask me to try walking soon, really soon…

How strange that the incident brought a large part of my scattered family together, at least for a bit. And how strange that people, even those who have known you all your life, care so much more about your body than your mind!  The most wonderful thing is that after I am gone, they will all be talking about my mind and what I did with it; the body will be gone and forgotten. If I were to be born again, I’d ask to be born in a very different kind of world.

And I am truly bemused to see the unbelieving, dazed look on people’s faces, young and old alike. ‘This can’t be happening to Sir’, they are saying with their eyes or sometimes even voices, ‘Everybody else takes unannounced holidays, everybody else has illnesses and accidents, not Sir!’ Only Pupu smiles and says “I said you were a Rock when I was just so high, didn’t I? Well, I am not the only one who is used to thinking that way about you. People are naturally bewildered when the Rock sways.”

And the prize goes to the lovely child who said in a whisper, ‘Sir, tomar accident hoyechhe shune amar khub koshto hoyechhilo’. God bless. I know how precious that is – and also how little it means in the long run. Such is a teacher’s fate. Take the cash, and let the credit go/ nor heed the rumble of a distant drum.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Down but not out

Something unexpected and thoroughly nasty happened to me recently. Read about it as seen through my daughter's eyes, here

Thursday, May 14, 2015

In the days of the super-civilized

Dr. Pashupati Bhattacharyya, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, was the scion of a fairly well-known family in north Calcutta (his father, an engineer, earned the title of Rai Bahadur for playing a supervisory role in laying the Grand Chord portion of the Eastern Railway). He was also, for a long time, close to Rabindranath Tagore as devotee, physician on call, supplier of the great man’s favourite Bagbazaari rosogollas, and accomplished singer. He was a gifted man of letters himself, and, as I have written elsewhere, under Tagore’s commission he wrote the first general health care books for laymen’s consumption for the Lokshiksha series. He wrote  a little tome about The Mother of Pondicherry at Sri Aurobindo’s behest, and a book of reminiscences around Tagore too, titled Ontorongo Rabindrakatha (Rabindranath from up close), which I revisited recently after a gap of I suppose at least thirty years. It makes some difference if you read the same book first at twenty and then post fifty, even if the reader is myself. I felt some readers might be interested in a few short translated passages. Here is one.

Mohakobir moharaag (The great wrath of the great poet)

This happened a long time ago. That year in midsummer I stayed two months in Shantiniketan with my family. The Poet had said ‘If you come here during the summer holidays, I can give you a house to live in.’ We got a whole bungalow to ourselves, so it was a happy stay.

Dinubabu (Dinendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew, noted musician and singer) was still alive then. The Poet had told him to teach us how to sing. He himself came over to instruct, especially when he had composed a new song. All the ashramites learnt, too. There was a gathering of an evening every now and then where the Poet would read out some new poem or story he had written.

Food was not a worry. Vast amounts of the best arrived from the communal kitchen twice a day. We only had to make breakfast and afternoon tea on our stoves. Every morning the Poet came over, umbrella overhead, to ask if all was well. Andrews (Charles Freer ‘Deenabandhu’ Andrews) was there; he too came over sometimes. My younger son, a naughty boy (my grandfather Ramendra Sundar… S.C.), would leap into his arms, but he only smiled, and didn’t mind at all. We ourselves went over to see the Poet, sometimes in the late morning and sometimes in the evening. He held us back for a long time, chatting, singing songs, treating us to tea.

I might have mentioned in passing that I was married on the second of ashaadh. The Poet remembered, though I myself forgot. On the first of ashaadh he said, ‘You must come to dine with me tomorrow.’ What was the occasion, I asked. He smiled and said, ‘It’s the first of ashaadh, isn’t it?’ (the allusion is to Kalidasa, find out for yourself – S.C.). It took me a while to take the hint. There was a lavish feast for us the next day, served on little square marble-topped tables; bouma (Protima Devi) supervised the service. Then it was decided that the Poet himself would take us before four o’clock in his station wagon to visit Sriniketan, where some sort of musical soirée had been arranged. On arriving there we found that arrangements had been made on a grand scale. Elmhirst was there (Leonard Elmhirst, agronomist, philanthrope, Tagore’s secretary and founder of the Institute for Rural Reconstruction); he showed us around the Sriniketan campus, and we had a good look at all the varied handicrafts produced by the inmates and students. Then there was a music recital, followed by a round of snacks.

When we set out from there, it was still not evening, but the sun had dimmed, and the sky was overcast. No one had looked up at the sky, though, everyone being happily preoccupied with seeing us off. Tagore himself was smiling merrily as we clambered into his car. Then we set off.

The storm broke within minutes. It was the first of the season that year. Instantly the surroundings grew dark with swirling sand, and so violent was the squall that the big car was buffeted about like a toy. When we tried to roll up the windows the driver warned us not to: we were reasonably safe with the windows open, but with all of them closed the car might easily overturn. We grew afraid of being crushed by some falling tree. Huge branches of the trees on both sides of the road were bending down, as if they might break off any moment. They swept down almost to touch our rooftop, then swung back again, whiplike. The car crawled along in the midst of this mayhem; one had to drive with utmost caution, so it was impossible to go fast.

We were dumbstruck with apprehension, but the Poet suddenly flew into a rage. He leant forward towards the driver and ordered, ‘Turn back, turn back at once; don’t go any further!’

The driver humbly replied that it would be very hard to turn the car around under the circumstances, and besides, we had come more than halfway already, so it would be wiser to carry on homewards. Much annoyed, the Poet thundered, ‘You want all of us to be killed by a falling tree, all these children too? Why didn’t you check out the sky before setting out? What kind of driver are you? Were you out of your senses?’
The poor driver was struggling at the wheel, and had neither time nor inclination to make a reply. He simply drove on.

The Poet grew even more indignant at his silence. He nearly yelled into the driver’s ear ‘Why don’t you reply? Don’t want to admit to a mistake, do you? Why didn’t you tell me a storm was coming? What am I going to do now?’

Finally the driver spoke up, ‘Please don’t agitate yourself, Sir. Just sit quietly, and I shall take you home.’

That seemed to enrage the Poet even more. ‘Do you imagine I am frightened for myself? It is you people I am scared about. You will die too if something goes wrong! And everybody is going to blame me! What a pretty pass you have got me into, you idiot!’

He kept on fuming and fretting all the way in the same vein. We were all startled, for we had all known him to be of a most placid disposition, and had no idea he could ever be so upset – least of all I.

Thankfully the storm subsided soon. It began to rain instead. The driving rain soaked the Poet’s clothes, but miraculously soothed his temper. He called out to the driver again: ‘Why don’t you roll up your window, my boy? You are getting all wet!’ His voice was very different now; as gentle as you could ask for.

The driver said, ‘It’s okay, I am fine.’

The poet grew very worried at that. ‘No no, you will catch a cold. I depend on you to get around; if you fall ill I shall get into big trouble’.

The driver only smiled and said nothing.

The Poet then turned back towards us and started chatting most cheerfully. He assured us that he himself had terrific immunity; getting wet never gave him a cold, and so forth. He told us stories about how he had got thoroughly wet in the rain more than once. He was a completely different man now. Of his towering rage only a few minutes ago there was not a trace.


Monday, May 04, 2015

Out of this world

An adult ex-student - no one important - once told me she gets 4,000 emails a day. When I expressed incredulity, she backed down a bit and said 'Well, every two or three days, including ads and other spam'. 

I should have thought only the public websites of national leaders and pop superstars got mail on that scale, but I am only an obscure provincial tutor, and I might be quite out of touch. Will you folks let me know if you are among the famous few whom thousands contact daily?

P.S., May 07: Hello, no one yet?   !

Friday, May 01, 2015

The White Tiger

I recently re-read Aravind Adiga’s 2009 debut novel The White Tiger, and felt it deserved to be commented upon, at least briefly. I shall not waste words summarizing the storyline: you will find an adequate job in this Wikipedia entry.

I shall recommend this book, especially to young readers (by which I mean anyone under forty) for several reasons: a) it is well written, and I am always proud to see fellow Indians who can write decent English, and that too with a minimum of vulgarity (there is far less here than in J.K. Rowling’s recent works!); b) its protagonist comes from the vast Indian underclass, of which far too little is written especially in English, and yet without knowing them and about them, you can never know more than a little of India; c) it will bring home to you in a shocking if not painful way how little the worst of India has changed in the hinterlands, despite all the surface busyness and glitter and wealth in the big cities; d) the writer is brutally honest about the plight of Balram Halwai and quite unapologetic about it, despite showing how the man suffers from occasional qualms of conscience, and even mocks cruelly at the likes of himself now and then, e) it will underscore in graphic detail why I am not gung-ho about the ‘development’ trajectory India has been following for the last quarter century, and f) what he has to say about the traditional Indian family and what he calls the chicken coop (in his opinion the greatest Indian invention ever) are truly worth reflecting upon.

The little conceit about addressing the book in the form of a series of letters to the visiting Chinese premier I shall leave unanalyzed. Make of it what you will.

Adiga’s prognosis is that anyone who wants to be what he calls an ‘entrepreneur’ and make good in contemporary India – Balram ends up running a taxi service for IT-sector employees in Bangalore – has got to be a hardnosed, amoral, aggressive wheeler dealer, and stop at nothing, from flattery to bribery to murder, as long as he can get away with it. Reminds me of the late-19th century America which was rebuilt by a host of robber barons. Well, if that is India’s fate, so be it. I am old enough to have stopped dreaming of better things. May my daughter’s generation forge ahead with eyes wide open and guarding their own flanks. But it won’t hurt anybody if the class that came to study with the likes of me remembered gratefully the sort of privilege they were born into. Maybe there is more to life than buying new shoes and smartphones every few months, just maybe?

Sunday, April 26, 2015

When the earth trembled

Just before mid-day on Saturday, April 25th, I was listening to an old boy making a presentation of a scientific paper (preparatory to a scholarship interview) when the earth shook. I do not lightly use words like ‘eerie’, but this was one eerie feeling if ever there was one. There was no noise save the boy’s soft drone and something sizzling in the kitchen when my feet started tingling first, and then my head began to swim. I actually thought I was having a stroke. I got up alarmed (probably to check if I still could) and then noticed that both computer monitors were swaying, and a glass tinkling against a teacup on my table, not just the floor below my feet. The young man was so engrossed in his talk that he had not noticed until I told him we were experiencing an earthquake. It lasted nearly half a minute, and what I did next was to ask Mayadi in the kitchen if she was alright. She too is middle aged and suffers from high blood pressure, so she too had had exactly the same premonition as I did at first, and the poor woman had also nicked her finger on a knife. I was about to hurry both of them downstairs when I realized that the tremors had stopped, and some superstitious folk were blowing conches loudly from nearby houses.

The internet was soon flooded with spot news. It was just as I had figured: it was a fairly strong quake, measuring 7.8-7.9 on the Richter scale (anything that is 8 and above spells MAJOR devastation), and had originated close to Kathmandu in Nepal; the seismic waves had spread all over northern India, including Calcutta. Within the first day the death toll in Nepal had crossed 1800; it made me sad to think that the Dharahar Tower was no more, and the almost-grand Durbar Square was badly damaged. There had been significant casualties in Bihar, and even in north Bengal. A massive avalanche on Everest had sent several climbers to their doom. Our National Disaster Management Agency had swung into action: let us see whether it covers itself in glory or turns out to be a damp squib. The kids that afternoon were less excited and panic-stricken than I had expected them to be, though some living in multi-storeyed buildings had run out into the street, and some reported that cracks had appeared on their walls…

Last time this town experienced an earthquake, I was talking to a man outside my door, and all the kids started screaming inside the classroom, but I felt nothing! And the one I remember before that was very long ago, when my sisters were still very young and sleeping beside me; the older one laughed later and said ‘Dada is so used to scolding his classes that he scolded even in his sleep, imagining someone was playing the fool, shaking his bed!’ Durgapur has never, mercifully, had any real earthquake, and I pray fervently that it never does. I love thunderstorms, and who knows I might even watch a tsunami coming before it sweeps me away, but this takes the cake: I wouldn’t want to be caught in one. My parents lived through several minor and one really big earthquake during their sixteen year sojourn in Sikkim. I would not want my daughter to live in a place like that. Sick to think of being buried alive. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

in that sleep, what dreams may come...

A few years ago Sandip Mohapatra came over from Delhi and chatted for two whole hours of an evening. He was my neighbour more than forty years ago, and ‘Suvroda, technically I am your first pupil, you know. You were in class four when I was in class two, and I often came over to have my lessons explained’. That means I have been tutoring since I was ten years old. But joking apart, I have been paid as a tutor since I was just past 16, so that’s 35 years now. It’s been a long haul indeed, and I have taught people from five to 70, and more subjects than I can count (an old boy recounted on this blog that I even taught physics and he found it fascinating, God help me), alone and in batches forty strong, and now I begin to tire and wonder…

What I have learnt about people in all this time while teaching and counselling I have written elsewhere, more than once. What I feel as an individual, a man, a husband and father and social unit, is not entirely the same thing. Today, pushing fifty two, I bear a grudge only against God (which is a way of saying I blame no man, society, government or ideology) for not giving me a chance to rest when I want to. I went down from ease and comfort to poverty, and poverty hurt me, when I was far too young. Since then I have been struggling to make good – without compromising on any basic principle – and today all I have managed to do is to ensure that my parents and wife and daughter live comfortably, and will be high and dry if I pop off tomorrow. I am well-off only as long as I keep slogging like the devil, seven days a week, forty eight weeks a year. There is no pension waiting for me, no large lifelong royalties, no inheritance, no rentier income to look after me in my old age, nothing to support me if I simply want to take a long holiday of the sort I never had since I passed secondary school. For a long long time I was too poor to invest anything significant in the stockmarket, and when I finally got my head above the water, I found I had lost both the courage and the interest. I just look and wonder at so many young people who have grown up in the last twenty five years who never had to know what hardship or taking responsibility means, who earn modest or largeish sums only for themselves, and do nothing but live lazy and sybaritic lives, from one party to another, one shopping spree to another, one Facebook chat to another, one chance to sway one’s hips before slobbering crowds of horny morons after another… how much I could have done if I had been in their place when I was young! And when I look at old people, I more often than not feel like throwing up. It has been so well said, si la jeunesse savait, si la vieilleise pouvait!

Time. That is my biggest obstacle now, not money. They keep calling from all over the world, ‘Sir, please do drop in sometime, I have been asking you for a decade or more now’… and yet I just don’t know how I can make the time. How can someone like me make a trip abroad of only a week or a fortnight, and how can I spare more time than that? In the years just ahead, I shall certainly move around a great deal more than I have done in the two preceding decades, God willing, but only in little snatches, and that means they will have to be limited to within the country. But I’d have liked to look some people up in Japan, and New Zealand, and London, and Arizona and California…

As far as trips within the country are concerned, my daughter has vowed to accompany me as often as she can. At other times, I think, I’ll be a backpacker, if I can summon up the energy for it: no better way of seeing the land. Are some of my old boys game? Do let me know. Ruskin Bond had his Binya. I am going to look for mine. One thing I finally know: I won’t find her in the nyaka, self-obsessed, pinhead middle-class urban crowd (hahaha… if I had that kind of money, I’d retire to an old-fashioned chalet in the middle reaches of the Himalayas, say somewhere above Nainital, or the Sangla valley, with only a middle aged male help and a couple of dogs for company: at least until it was time to bring up my granddaughter. I saw village girls going to a school in one such place: I’d have loved to teach there part time, even for free).

Here, as I grow old, I remember more and more the days and years gone by. An old girl, now finishing her undergraduate course in psychology, rang up the other day to say ‘Sir, remember I once said that I find every new acquaintance interesting, and you wryly smiled and said, wait a few more years and then tell me again? Well, Sir, you were so right: I already find people so utterly the same, and so wretchedly uninteresting!’ And she is hardly 21. In my mind, the endless march of students has become almost a blur, more so those who have passed through in these last ten years. I turn to books more and more to realize that authors create so many characters and situations largely to get rid of the killing dreariness of ‘real’ life. Many of these are the same books that I read as a youth, but I read them differently now, having seen the ‘real’ world to my fill. I recently re-read Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape, for instance, and I was truly amazed to see how much of contemporary human behaviour, despite all its surface complication and sophistication, can be explained by remembering that we have basically been very aggressive and over-sexed carnivorous apes living in tiny colonies for several hundred thousand years, and started becoming ‘civilized’ only a few thousand years ago. I’d have liked to discuss with Morris what he makes of the fact that a few have become vastly more civilized than the masses, and the consequences of that… Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind and Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine also make me think as most books don’t.

I sometimes think that like Michael Corleone, life has gradually turned me bad. I mean, people near and far have been such terrible disappointments and so often, that it is very lucky for a lot of them that I didn’t take up politics or crime or even business of the most rapacious sort, as in The Wolf of Wall Street. I might have fleeced and ruined a lot of people without a qualm in pursuit of self interest, perhaps, today, even enjoyed hurting them without ever culpably stepping beyond the limits of the law: read the Jeffrey Archer stories. At least, even if I am still kind and considerate to others, I sneer at myself for it. And I know I wasn’t born this way. Neither, I guess, were a lot of others. People cheat you simply because they cannot live up to the best words they utter, but they cannot help portraying themselves as deeper and worthier creatures than they are; it happens too often, and even the best of us are embittered forever. In my youth, I often wondered why some people, especially beyond a certain age, were so cold and rude, even churlish, without provocation; now I think I know. Anyway.

Another thing I now know: children are interesting and have potential as adults do not, and the harder the latter try to emulate children (while endlessly lecturing children to follow in their footsteps!), the more pathetic and despicable they become, whether it is by trying to look ‘hot’ by  sporting ever shorter skirts or by pretending to be learned and clever conversationalists. I shall happily keep any two-bit CEO or cabinet minister waiting if I am having a good chat with a sharp teenager, unless the former can entice me with a really big carrot (and by God, that will have to be BIG, because nothing turns me off faster than big noises!) By the time they reach thirty, the vast mass of them – most of them lazy dullards to start with – are tired and jaded and dulled by professional and domestic routine and have fewer questions than a ten-year old does; their bloated bellies and sagging skins are matched only by their risible bloated and brittle egos. I dealt with a few such recently: the disgust will stay with me for a lifetime. Much better to live out my life alone than to be so polluted.

I shall continue. I am posting this because I haven’t written for quite some time.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ma amaar, godspeed!

Today, with the last bit of her public examinations over, my daughter turns her back upon childhood and school life forever. We were talking via Skype a while ago, and she said, though she was glad enough, and had been looking forward to painting the town red in her own quiet way, she wasn’t in the event feeling that anything very special had happened. Well, yes and no.  When you wait for something for a long time, it’s more or less always rather an anticlimax when it finally happens, unless it is a truly life-changing event – as her birth was to me, for example. But then, it is also true that tonight she ought to feel at ease, and rest content, and brace up for the long, long journey that lies just ahead now: adulthood. And being my daughter, she really will have an adulthood early, not beginning after she is thirty something.  

I am hoping that school having been a more than slightly nasty time for her, college will compensate her generously. In my case, it was a time full of torment, and lasted too long, despite the fact that unlike 99.9% of my compatriots, I was already leading a fully adult life. Much of that torment came from drudgery – which in turn stemmed partly from the fact that I was surrounded by lazy morons, classmates and teachers alike, and partly from the fact that I was dirt poor (my daughter knows how I walked thousands of miles around the city because I could not hang from buses often enough, and dreamt of saving enough to buy a moped someday! Today not only semi-literate sons of rural bank branch managers but loafers living in the slum behind my house drive around on snazzy bikes: that's 'development' for you). Also, frankly, my appetite for all the goodies of life was far larger than the world around me could supply – whom can I blame for that but myself? I keep talking about an eagle being forced to live the life of a sparrow. I learnt to compromise, but it was hard, and took far too long, because I had too many demons to subdue, like dreams and ideals, and overweening ambition. I am praying that in every sense my daughter will have better years ahead, if only because, thanks to daddy, she will be forewarned. It’s not a nice world, but it helps enormously if you are forewarned, and know what to expect and what not to fret over, and are convinced that the best deal is to focus totally on what you can do and fate allows you to do. As she has heard me tell countless times, if I hadn’t taken women seriously, and if I had stayed on in Calcutta doing what I have being doing for most of my life anyway, or at least quit the last job ten years sooner, I’d be a far less cynical man today, with far more millions in the bank.

I am dreaming now that she will soon embark on a career, remembering very firmly that, as I myself teach, a career is not only making a living but making a life worth living. She knows how wide a choice I have given her, so long as she works hard and is convinced that she is doing something that pleases her while not seriously harming anybody. It was my dream, in the darkest years of my youth, that I would not only be reconciled with my father but work shoulder to shoulder with him, me in my late twenties, he in his early fifties, for at least twenty years, building something good with our own hands, a business, an institution, an example of some kind we could be proud about. It didn’t happen. Maybe with my daughter I have been given another chance. As I tell her, and as she knows I dream, nothing would please me more in the remaining years of my life, be they five or thirty, than to be at her side helping in a very meaningful and profitable way with whatever she is doing, from running an eatery to making a countrywide tutorial to fighting big legal battles to raising a family.

So godspeed ma, and may God hold you in the palm of His hand. Baba, living and beyond the veil, will always be with you!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sorry, Mr. Lee

I had thought of writing an obituary on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, but having just read some stuff which has been written about him, I decided to spare myself the trouble.

Perhaps in private conversation, those of you who might be disappointed?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The banality of evil

There are all sorts of irritants that rob me – usually briefly – of my peace of mind: one is an increasing frequency of people, young and not so young, turning up without appointment or accosting me on the street or telephoning to solicit a peculiar sort of favour. ‘I tutor people in this or that subject, and you are so very well known to students and parents, so do please send some to me’. I find this most irritating for all sorts of reasons.

First, I don’t like people who ask for favours: always thought of them as weak characters, parasites. I like doing some, but mostly unasked, and mostly for those who seem truly needy – not necessarily in the financial sense. Second, you don’t become a reputed teacher by asking around for students: you build your own reputation the only way, the hard way, over a long time, with skill and dedication and perseverance and a bit of luck, which I prefer to call God’s grace. It’s not a salaried job that you can wangle by buying fancy degrees and pulling strings or sucking up to the high and mighty.  Third, how lacking in self-respect can people be to be able to ask for favours from a complete stranger – it being understood that if I obliged them, they’d never come back to say even a formal thank you? Fourth, I can count on one finger how many people have done me any kind of favours at all, and most of them were done unasked anyway, because they were true gentlemen (or the – very very rare – woman). On the other hand, almost to a man (and woman), people have shown me that the worst in them – ingratitude – is brought out precisely when I have done them favours of any substantial kind, not excluding giving them attentive and sympathetic time when they were tired and confused and lonely. If life has made me misanthropic – I don’t hate men or women in particular, I dislike most people – can I be faulted for it? I urge you to remember that hundreds of people still take fond pride in claiming that Sir loves them, and has time for them, despite all that so many people have done to destroy his love of humanity…

Not very long ago, I wrote a post titled chhotolok (The mean and the base, roughly translated). The longer I live, the more I become convinced that most people are, beneath a (usually very thin-) veneer of civilization, essentially chhotolok, understood in the sense that a) they are pettily and blindly self-seeking, b) they feel no shame in seeking favours, but cannot even conceive that in a truly civilized society, that has to be a matter of constant give and take, c) they make a very big fuss when their sense of self-esteem or self-interest is hurt, but will either simply not admit that they are hurting people (perhaps thoughtlessly – I lost count long ago of people who said ‘I didn’t mean to hurt’) all the time in the course of their pursuit of pleasure and ease, or go to absurd lengths to justify why they weren’t really, seriously in the wrong, d) far too many people, alas, find pleasure only in giving hurt, some way or the other. When the expression ‘the banality of evil’ registered first on my mind while reading about the much publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann, it set many bells ringing, for I had long thought myself, without actually coining that expression, that most evil, and evil people, are basically banal rather than cinematically monstrous. The Vlad the Impaler or Eichmann types are very rare (and becoming increasingly so), whereas the girl who goes around breaking men’s hearts lightly, telling each in turn ‘I was only having fun, why did you take me seriously?’ or the housewife who nags and scolds the life out of the man who can neither kill her nor run away (remember Rip van Winkle and Joe Gargery and Walter Mitty?) can not only be found in tens of millions but they live long and enjoy their lives, in their own twisted way: they are both evil and banal. We ordinary mortals don’t have to cope with Vlads and Eichmanns in our quotidian lives, but only fate can save us from the latter types, and fate is rarely kind. The ex student who, pretending to be an educated adult interested in my mind, could read my essay on the Buddha (probably the one time I reached something like grandeur in a lifetime of writing) only to comment ‘What long sentences!’, and the scoundrel who lightened my purse with a sob story about a hurt labourer at a construction site are equally banal and equally evil, firstly because they whittle down my faith in mankind, and secondly because, having had to cope with a world full of such people lifelong has made me, ever so slowly, much more like them than I’d have cared to be. As the poet said, his ambition was ‘praanpone prithibir shorabo jonjal’ (I shall try all I can to cleanse the world of filth). Thank God he died young. That was part of what motivated me to become a teacher, and I often feel I have lived too long, given the very little good I have managed to do.

And when I say evil must be brought to justice, I am not thinking of Vlad and Eichmann.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Women's Day

It was International Women’s Day today. While saluting all outstanding women achievers the world over, especially among the subaltern categories in the poorest nations, I should like to put down a few discordant thoughts.

1.      Why does International Men’s Day get so much less publicity?
2.      Why do the women who have lived the most comfortable, pampered, secure and opportunity-rich lives complain the most about iniquitious mores ‘imposed’ by traditional patriarchy, and why have I met so few of them who talk little and work hard to ameliorate the lot of their far less fortunate sisters – such as the bais who do all the dirty household chores for them, and prostitutes with children, and poor women who have been abused and deserted by their men?
3.      I am proud to see the recent conversation between my daughter and a friend of hers in the comments section of her latest blogpost. I was marvelling to see two mature, sober, rational, highly articulate women, all of 18 summers, choosing to argue their differences as civilized human beings regardless of gender should do – why have I met so few ‘educated’ women 30 and above who can do that?
4.      When shall we go back to the age of Agatha Christie, Toni Morrison and Ashapurna Devi who were candid in admitting that lots of women can be just as bad as the worst of men, and they have special wiles which men cannot fathom, anticipate and fight off before it seriously harms them for keeps? That men who cannot wield sheer muscle power are at a disadvantage in every sense?
5.      Here is an article written in Anandabazar Patrika today by Ms. Swati Bhattacharya, who says there’s nothing either glorious or liberating about women becoming good, skilled and happy housewives. Women so easily sneer at their sisters whose kind of work they either cannot or don’t want to do. A good housewife is worth any number of clerks and hacks and office secretaries who are basically recruited as eye candy or drudges, no matter how bad that might make some women feel (how many women, despite every kind of advantage, end up in the kind of serious careers I have mentioned before?). And for every true ‘achiever’ I see among women of today, I see a hundred who remind me of Chesterton’s priceless chestnut: "Twenty million Englishwomen stood up, declared ‘We shall no longer be dictated to!’ and promptly went out and became stenographers". What’s so great about being paid a pittance to write op-ed articles which the owners (95% male)  insist on simply because they believe it will sell the paper better in the current socio-political climate?
6.      I wrote a long essay twenty years ago when the first World Women’s Conference was being held in Beijing. If anything, having followed the growing-up of thousands of young women before my eyes in the interim, I am far less willing to be sympathetic to their cause today, and God knows I have more than enough justification. I spend a lot of time warning my young boys against the female of the species, and most get back sooner or later to say a fervent thank you for saving them from very nasty experiences.
7.      One warning that will turn out to be very unfortunately and harshly true in the decades to come: women who want to have it all, women who are determined to demonize all males, women who think it is cool and in to spew half-digested anti-male rhetoric at the drop of a hat,  who ‘just wanna have fun’ but don’t mind making thorough nuisances of themselves doing it in the name of freedom, are digging their own graves. I am not alone among decent males of all ages who have grown cold to the real needs of harassed and abused women of late simply because their case has been grossly oversold, to the complete exclusion of lots of people – the very young, the very old, the handicapped, the very poor, the badly cheated, the state-oppressed, the millions of men abused by women lifelong – who suffer great injustice too, simply because such women typically cannot empathize with anyone except a female who has been raped (and - dare I say it? - because rape is so sensational for every tagtivist to talk about!).
8.      How long before women realize that if ultimately all their vaunted ‘independence’ ends up in getting married on their parents’ prodding after a few years of irresponsible flirting around, having realized that their sell-by date is fast approaching (several Bollywood starlets with fading careers having shown the way), and that too dressed up like girls from Jhumritilaiya, they had better pipe down, because they are making cartoons of themselves to all but their mentally challenged friends and ‘admirers’ on Facebook? Women above 25 can go on dressing and acting like koochie koochie teens (I have lost count of mothers coming to admit their kids dressed as though they are going to a wedding), but the whole world is not yet crazy enough to be ‘impressed’ by their antics and simultaneously take them seriously as thinking human beings! In fact, I can see a very clear pattern of ‘men’ who are fascinated by such ‘women’, and the less said about such simians the better. Let them take their time to learn their lessons: I am in no hurry. Time has a wonderful way of righting wrongs.

P.S.: I sought and got full approval from both my mother and daughter before putting up this post.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

prospects for the new year

‘Spring’, such as it is in this part of the world, lasted through February. Through the first half of the month I had a leisurely time, most of my pupils having dropped off to take their annual examinations. Then there was the once a year rush of admissions. I have reason to be content: my new classes will be full again, and the thankfulness I see in the eyes of the parents who managed to get their wards in and the desperation among those who are still waiting to be called gives me a nice warm feeling of having done something worthwhile in this lifetime and for my family – without soiling my hands, bending my head or holding my nose.  By God, it hasn’t been easy.

Now my daughter’s board examinations have begun, too, and so I came over to Calcutta for a long weekend. Still balmy weather, and good food, and long hours of sleep, and books and movies and long walks with trees and lakes around: heavens, things could have turned out to be so much worse. Just finished reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. All I shall say is that it is by far the finest book I have read against the background of the Second World War barring only Anne Frank’s Diary and Exodus, and that Zusak, to my mind, almost comes up to Remarque’s level: I cannot think of higher accolades. Read the review in my daughter’s blog – she’s booked it before I could. I cannot put into words the kind of thankfulness I feel that there are still people around who write and read books like this, rather than Fifty Shades or Chetan Bhagat, if they can take their minds off Facebook and shopping malls and beauty parlours at all, that is.

I am still in Calcutta – will be back tomorrow, Monday the 2nd. One thing I must say: despite the crowds and the noise, the city is certainly somewhat nicer and more liveable now than it was in my time, the early 1980s. The road in front of Jadavpur University is a lot cleaner and greener; far more buildings are freshly painted, far less trouble with power cuts; the metro and the ubiquitous autos and so many new flyovers have made travelling a lot less painful (the number of airconditioned buses is growing apace too), and soon my daughter and I plan to zip around on our own two-wheeler, which is far more convenient than the car except during the rains. Besides, probably because I only visit occasionally, I really don’t mind hearing rabindrasangeet at traffic junctions: at least, it beats political speeches and the lungi dance kind of stuff every time.

Back in Durgapur, I have installed an airconditioner in the classroom (I can hear so many old boys smiling to themselves, ‘At last the old skinflint has done it. About time too!’), so I can look forward to a less gruelling summer. Then there is the swimming pool waiting. Given the fact that the day I returned after depositing my daughter in Calcutta back in 2013 I literally dragged myself home, and was almost sure I wouldn’t last these two years, I feel miraculously delivered, and I am not exaggerating. Someone said ‘the days are long, but the years are short’, and for this once at least, I can say ‘thank God for that!’ How I was tested, how I remained sane and kept functioning as if nothing had changed only God and I and a very tiny handful of people know. But the important thing is that the nightmare – inshallah – is behind me now, and the wheel is turning, and unless I am suddenly struck down by a stroke or an infarction or cancer or failed kidneys or something like that, I can look forward to achchhe din again, no thanks to our prime minister. My daughter will be going to college in July, and, though I have no intention of discussing my finances threadbare on this blog, the fact is that by the end of this year I will be financially almost a free man, not really needing to earn a large and regular income any more beyond my personal upkeep (which has always been a modest requirement) – and I alone know what that means, a luxury I have not known for thirty years and more. I am in the process of dreaming how I intend to reinvent myself, and right now much is still nebulous, except for a few items: a) I’ll take many short breaks round the year, b) I’d like to travel much again, but definitely not to big cities and tourist hotspots, c) I’d love to luxuriate in the freedom of ticking off a lot of people with ‘Go away, I don’t want to teach you, because I don’t like you/ your parents’ anytime I feel like it (something I am going to announce as a warning in the very first class of the new batches this year itself), d) there might be a dog in the offing, if my daughter has her way – the only thing that has kept me from getting one is what to do with it when I go travelling, and e) there will never again be any question of going out of my way to be nice to females: any such who wants a share of my life had better come prepared to like me just the way I am. As my daughter says, and I have at last decided to believe it, ‘You’ve done bloody too much for vulgar and flighty ingrates, and only got kicked in the face for your pains. Learn a lesson, and keep your niceness for the few who like it, want it and earn it’.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention this: I will  grow increasingly more ‘eccentric’ with what I teach and how I teach, and I want to see how fast the numbers drop off (keep rising? stay unchanged?)  And yes, venture in a much bigger way than I have all these years into the stockmarket and charity.  And maybe writing fiction again. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Diminishing returns magnified by mass media

One of the most thought-provoking books that I read in college, already by then a minor classic in economics, was Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (I still believe that no one should open his mouth on any one of these three great subjects without having closely read at least ten books of equal worth). Therein he gave one of the few justifications for tolerating capitalism as an engine of overall human progress that I still grudgingly accept – the idea of ‘creative destruction’. That capitalism constantly revolutionizes the system from within through frequent tides of new inventions and innovations which not only make a few people rich and a lot of people somewhat better off, but on the whole improve the way the mass of people live their lives: and, point to be noted, no other system yet devised comes close in this regard.

Now I am an avid student of both socioeconomics and the history of technology. I yield to none in my respect for technology’s potential for improving human living standards – you just have to think about anesthesia and the sanitary toilet and the power shovel to be forever convinced. But over my adult lifetime I have noticed two things: that few really ‘revolutionary’ inventions have been affecting our lives lately, and if some seem to be doing so (such as the internet), that is far more a story created by pinhead teenagers (of all ages) obsessed with selfies, advertisers and retarded journos who make a living out of paid news than reality. What I mean to say is, if you have any real knowledge of history (that discounts 90% of even the ‘educated’ population below 40 these days), you will be forced to concede upon a little reflection that spectacles, the railway train, the light bulb and penicillin did ‘revolutionize’ the way we live in a manner the internet and smartphones cannot hope to compete with. The world’s most marvellous engineering feats from the days of the pyramids were accomplished without them, the most wonderful music and literature were composed without them, men fought world wars without them, exploded atoms and went to the moon without them, banked and traded worldwide without them, hearts were transplanted without them, extremely sophisticated movies were made and crimes committed without them. Yes, maybe you couldn’t play Angry Birds or Temple Run on the move without them, but hey, you call that a gigantic leap forward? To use a bit of cool contemporary slang, where are you coming from?

Recently Robert Samuelson, the noted Washington Post columnist, has put my thoughts into words. In sum, he is saying that capitalism seems to be fast losing its last fig leaf. Read this

Meanwhile, in a lot of ways the idea of civilization is going down the drain. Here my daughter has written about something that has deeply bothered me too. I wish I knew ten grown women who could write or talk like that. Congratulations, Pupu.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What really mattered?

Time magazine completed sixty years of its existence in 1983. They brought out a special anniversary issue on that birthday. I remember that the editor-in-chief had with many a backward glance written a weighty column to mark the occasion; given the solemnity of the moment and the seriousness of the subject it bore more than a faint whiff of philosophizing. The great man said a lot of things, brought up a wide variety of issues; all I recall today is the title of the editorial: ‘What really mattered?’

Over one of the most happening epochs in history this renowned journal had with one hand collected the ‘most important’ news and views from all over the world and distributed them among a huge and scattered readership with the other. After sixty years of that relentless pursuit, at a juncture when well-deserved celebration and self-congratulation was well in order, it must have occurred to the editor, glancing once at the years gone by and again at the misty future ahead, that he should organize and put down on paper his views on what had transpired during this interval of time that would eventually leave permanent marks on history. Let the erudite reader figure out for himself how difficult a task that must have been. It was a well-written column, and my readers can find and read it for themselves: it was not to discuss that article that I started on this essay. For me, it is only the thought encapsulated in the title that is worth pondering over, because several years have rolled by since it was written, we are now poised at the fin de siècle, our perspective is now the whole of the 20th century C.E. – can we not today think once more, and more comprehensively, about what really mattered?

I am not trying to compare with anybody, but I do feel that it was a remarkably early age when I first started wondering about this. In every age thoughtful people have indeed pondered over the question, and the need for pondering has not diminished in the present day. Since childhood my chief field of inquiry was the world of books, so naturally that is where I began to look for answers. Within a relatively short while I discovered that savants in every land and age have struggled to find satisfactory answers, and the results of their labours have filled countless shelves in the world’s great libraries. The thing that occurred to me then was that I should read up all or most of that stuff if I were to be successful in that quest. I am sure any wise and experienced reader would smile to think what a callow fool I was, with no idea of what I was letting myself in for. Be that as it may, I had no such mentor then to warn me, and I had convinced myself that the task might be long and hard but not impossible. Surely in time ‘enough’ knowledge would have been acquired, and then I would be well-equipped to formulate a good answer for myself. So I took the plunge quite eagerly. Years passed, rivers of midnight oil were burnt, my health greatly impaired, much important work left forever unattended, an enormous number of books read. I reached beyond school and college textbooks to encyclopedias and biographies of the great and famous. The little familiarity that I gained with world literature also became grist to my mill. I also read all kinds of ‘special histories’ – the history of weapons and war, of art, of economics and politics and literature itself, of science, and crime, of cinema and sports and transport and religions, of education and law and slavery and women’s liberation and environmental activism and so much more that I cannot even recall clearly any longer.

As I kept on reading, it slowly dawned on me that ‘facts’ are infinite in number and variety. Just as the truly inquisitive mind can never turn away from them for good (nor is it right to do so), so also it has to admit to itself, reconcile itself calmly to the reality that in the world of facts, there is literally no end to learning, either for the individual or for mankind as a whole. Facts will keep on accumulating with the passage of time – perhaps that is not only necessary but even a sign of a healthy civilization – but man will have to square with the understanding that he will always have to think, judge, talk, work and make decisions on the basis of incomplete data. On the other hand, the amount of information that has already been accumulated is so vast that we frequently feel at a loss as to how to handle it; the ocean of ‘just facts’ begins to seem meaningless, incoherent, all of a riddle: therefore we try to classify and organize and tame facts into orderly and rational theories. Like others I too felt this urgent need by and by, and it was a pretty coincidence that I began to study formal theory just around the time when I had begun to feel a great need for it. Over time, I got acquainted with theories of a very wide range of tastes, aromas and hues. Little by little, I began to realize that the world of theories is itself a vast and bewildering maze! Theory is a powerful narcotic; little by little it swallows whole the weary and dazed seeker like a python its prey. Gradually his vision dims, he takes leave of common sense, countless subconscious mischiefs, selfish interests, blind weaknesses of the heart, all kinds of dormant fears, infatuations and bigoted instincts unnoticeably corrupt his vaunted dedication to empirical facts. Goaded by the increasingly desperate urge to unravel all the mysteries of the universe, to lay to rest all doubts once and for all, answer every nagging question, find explanations for every last puzzle, provide easy solutions to all possible problems, he grows more and more frantic, and in step with this urgency he becomes more and more impatient and weary of the endless quantity, variety, self-contradictoriness and mutability of the world of facts that assails and mocks at him, until eventually he commits the ultimate sin: he begins to try to fit in, Procrustes style, all of the knowable universe into the little cage of his pet theory, and inevitably, this insane and stupid aim forces him to deny everything about reality that does not fit in. He starts looking at the world through blinkers, and works ever harder to convince himself that nothing that is not captured through his particular brand of tunnel vision is really interesting or important enough to take note of (think about Marxists dealing with religion, or allopaths talking about homeopathy). Thus truth-worshipping Man slowly imposes his weaknesses upon the world; myriad different kinds of coloured glasses are invented to study the world with.

The wonderful thing about this is that all such philosophies have marshalled mountains of facts in their own support, every one of them can draw upon elaborate and closely argued justifications (though it is also to be noted that none can ultimately stand on the footing of logic and facts alone: they all sooner or later demand that you commit a degree of blind faith – consider the free market orthodoxy in economics), and every one of them has attracted legions of disciples in every land and age. Some philosophies are relatively weak and short-lived, but many – sometimes it seems most – are immortal and indestructible; they temporarily vanish into the dark vortex of oblivion, but only to be resurrected with renewed vigour centuries or even millennia later, and spread all over the world like viruses to conquer minds anew.  No matter how odd or unpleasant this assertion sounds, its truth is beyond doubt. It is applicable even to the so-called ‘hard’ sciences (you will be amazed, if you consider yourself to be a ‘normal’ person, to find out how many people still believe in Ptolemaic astronomy, and dismiss Darwinism as nonsense), and in the field of history and other social sciences, of course, it is only too evident. On that battleground virtually not one fundamental question has been permanently resolved, not one theory has won a final decisive victory over all its rivals; none of the great controversies dating back to Manu and Plato have been laid to rest forever, nor seem likely to be in the foreseeable future. – Once you look again at the world with unprejudiced eyes, you can see that the huge accretion of man-made theories is itself a part of the vast ocean of facts, indeed, another wave on the surface of the ocean, not much more. In different epochs particular theories are revived (and often newly garbed) under the ministrations of some particularly charismatic ideologue or the pressure of particular circumstances. On the other hand, the common man takes refuge in this or that ideology on the basis of personal tastes, unconscious beliefs, fears or dreams, special experiences, self interest or social persuasion: he might then try very hard to convince himself and others that he has made his choice only after independent inquiry into all available facts and reasoning, but that is usually no more than a convenient rationalization. Which family one is born into, which community he is bred in, which mentor takes him under the wing early in his life, what existential troubles he has to cope with, what profession he enters, what kind of company he chooses or is forced to keep – these things have varied and wondrous influences on his innate nature, and that eventually decides what theoretical framework he will absorb as his own; how much noise he makes afterwards to claim the support of facts and reason for doing so makes not the least difference.

Hard on the heels of this realization comes another, very uncomfortable one. If one surveys the world with some particular theoretician as his chaperon, the job of ‘understanding’ the world becomes quick and easy indeed, but anyone who can accept such a very partial and angular vision as a holistic explanation of reality does great wrong both to the world and to his own intellect. The fact is, any institution-dependent intellectual (and you’d be hard put to find one who is not these days) gradually loses the habit of looking at the world with unblinkered eyes, he actually begins to avoid that exercise because it makes him uneasy; if he ever opens the windows of his mind a little to look out, it is only to find new confirmation of his pet theory – whatever does not he quickly turns away from, shuts the window once more, and goes back to the comforting refuge of his certain, simplified, unchanging world of the imagination – there is little difference between trying to figure out the real world by studying it through his glasses and accepting fairy tales as true. If that is how 20th century history is going to be commented upon, one will say it was primarily an age of unprecedented technological progress, another will say that the biggest event was the worldwide spread of democratic and egalitarian ideas with the receding tide of imperialism; one will notice little other than the all-round decay of morals, directionlessness in philosophy, social unrest and violence on an unrelenting and global scale, yet another will point to the doom all mankind is hurtling towards as a result of boundless growth in numbers, material greed and environmental damage, while someone else will insist that in the cauldron of all this violence and chaos was being born the first true and global civilization. To one observer the most remarkable fact about this epoch would remain that so many geniuses, from Tagore to Einstein to Charlie Chaplin worked side by side on the world’s stage, another would insist that future generations would only remember us for how far and how quickly we delved into Nature’s deepest mysteries during this short interval, from the innards of the atom to the farthest reaches of the starry heavens, from the mysteries of DNA to the wonders of the human brain. In this way we could go on lengthening the list forever, and as a rule the votary of any one of these points of view dismisses the claims of all the others offhand – and what choice do we have? If we admit that all of these were true and important, how can we answer, without losing our heads completely, what really mattered?

If now I venture to say that this was only one problem and there are many others waiting to be addressed, the reader might want to assault me, or throw up his hands in despair. But I have no choice: I have myself had to learn the very hard way how real the complexity is. Anyway, I do not wish to elaborate endlessly, so I shall move on to another issue after mentioning just one other problem. There are as many varieties of life experience as there are people on this planet, as many different tastes, so this is another reason why there will always be differences big and small between the way different people see and judge the world. The urge to impose one’s point of view lock, stock and barrel on others is always strong in savant and layman alike, but we cannot honestly deny that many people if not all have a right as well as a justification to hold views different from those of others (maybe ants worldwide share one common, objective world-view, but we cannot become ants nor should want to do so, should we?), therefore this variety must be acknowledged and factored in as a datum, no matter how difficult it makes it for us to find an answer to our question. If a mother loses all her sons on the same day in some ghastly accident, will she remember the day as that on which a world war began or man landed on the moon? And what shall we call the man who calls her sense of history misguided, weak and biased – great scientist, or monster, or just a fool? If a Kurosawa or Ray holds the opinion that the development of the cinema was the biggest event of this era, does it not become necessary to look at reality closely from their chosen point of view? The man who made the Long March with Mao ze Dong quite understandably remembers that as the biggest thing that happened in his lifetime, while the man who first ran a mile in less than four minutes remembers that event in a similar way with equal justification. While the horror of the First World War was unfolding, Anna Pavlova bewitched mankind with her dancing, and Laurence Olivier played Shakespearean leads as never before during the Second: how can we let history remember the killing fields along the Somme and the Normandy invasion but let Pavlova and Olivier slide into oblivion? If the countless famous and less-known people who devoted their whole lives to the fulfillment of some great dream or establishment of some noble ideal – be that equal rights for women or conservation of wildlife or taking care of handicapped children – believe that their lives’ work is what really marked the age, how can we lightly dismiss them? The truth is, we habitually ignore so much only because, as the poet said, ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’.

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So in the end this is how matters stood: this odyssey of mine did not lead me to the answer to my question; instead, the possibility of ever finding an answer became nebulous and remote. Looked at in this way, my quest of nearly half a lifetime ended in failure. And yet the failure did not leave me deeply frustrated – because in the course of my long journey I had found a kind of awareness which made the sorrow of failure insignificant. I haven’t seen the end of the road, but the journey itself has brought such a profound satisfaction that I no longer feel that desperate urge to reach the end. I have learnt that if you do not specify the context and the circumstances, the question ‘what really mattered’ does not begin to make sense at all; rather, it can be either silly or dangerous – that, I believe, is not a minor realization. We love to use words like ‘comprehensive’ and ‘holistic’ lightly and often, but a truly comprehensive consciousness of history is probably beyond human power – when Sri Krishna  tried to dissuade Arjuna from seeing the vishwaroop  by saying he could not bear it, He was probably not exaggerating. I also realized that without a boundless innate inquisitiveness and a certain impatient arrogance there can be no real learning. When Yogavashistha said ‘Listen to the fool who speaks wisely rather than to the savant who talks like a fool’, he was probably encouraging this sort of fearless and insatiable hunger for learning. But on this arduous quest men grow tired and smug too soon, that is why it is always good to remember what they say about a little learning, so the quest must go on forever, until, at last capable of juxtaposing the infinitude of the cosmos with one’s own pathetic littleness one learns true humility and can say, with Socrates, ‘All I know well is that I know nothing’ – and still the quest must go on, till one dies, so that he is not shrouded once more by the darkness of arrogance that has benighted pundits of every land and age. It is not yet time to fold up your wings… orey bihongo more/ akhoni ondho bondho koro na pakha.

[This too was written in mid-1989, originally in Bangla]