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Monday, July 21, 2014


I read Anita Nair’s 2001 opus Ladies’ Coupé recently. Many thanks to Sunandini, who lent me the book, saying she didn’t much like it herself. As for me, I am not too sure. But the writing quality is pretty good, and despite writing about women’s travails, Nair does not come across as a rabid feminist (‘My identity and self-worth depend in a very important way on the shortness of my skirt and on how loudly I can quarrel with my elders’), so I shall certainly encourage everybody to try it before forming opinions.

See the wikipedia summary here. Akhila has grown up in a closed and orthodox Brahmin community in small-town Tamil Nadu, she has had to become the ‘man’ of the family since her father’s untimely death – working as a clerk in the income tax department in Bangalore – looking after her mother, sister and brothers, she has never had much chance to have romantic flings or time to get married, she has always been one who tries to think for herself, she is lonely and frustrated, and finally at 45, egged on to live her own life by a school friend who is now a widow and lives with her daughter, she decides to do herself the favour of taking a holiday, and goes travelling by train towards Kanyakumari, even having to fight to assert that much freedom of action for herself. On the train, in a ladies’ coupe (the kind that existed on Indian Railways till the early 1990s), she makes an acquaintance with five other women of varying ages and from considerably different social strata, and overnight, they all tell her their own stories.

The stories are well told. Though nothing here is new or really shocking to my kind of reader, you cannot help feeling shame, sorrow, pity and a strong sense of the ridiculous about the way most women are still treated in our society, regardless of which part of India one belongs to, whether they are educated and well-off or not (ridiculous that one woman finds a modicum of ‘liberation’ in eating eggs on the sly, another from learning to swim in middle age without her husband’s knowledge. My daughter has much to be thankful for!). Horrifying and disgusting, too, that women have so strongly internalized all the iniquitous mores supposedly imposed by a patriarchal dispensation that they are the first and cruellest to condemn other women in distress, so they will heap opprobrium on the head of a mother who sells her daughter into prostitution for want of any other way to keep the headless family going but won’t do anything to help; other mothers will routinely blame daughters for ‘tempting’ men into raping them, and women who find brief pleasure in lesbian relationships will then turn around on themselves and their partners in revulsion and self-loathing. The writer is honest enough to show how women can use deadly wile in all stages of life to keep their men under their control, as far as they can. And moreover, that men – real men, not the straw monsters constructed by feminists to hurl their barbs at – are not all bad and ugly but merely weak and stupid creatures, often trying to simply do the best they can and failing miserably to make their women happy, either because it is beyond their power or the  women simply do not know what they really want.

That brings me to the crux of the matter: what is it that Akhila wants, and does she ever really find it? From her childhood she has been resentful of other people’s happiness (even her own parents’ – why should they be so devoted to each other in such a conventional way, and why should they ‘make’ her feel neglected owing to their own closeness?), unable to find any for herself: is it entirely a matter of unfavourable circumstances or something to do with her character? Love does come her way, but she runs away, convincing herself that a much younger man would be highly unsuitable – leaving him shocked and apparently heartbroken. Later, on her time out, she exults in seducing another younger man literally off the street and having a one-night stand with him before rubbing him out of her life without so much as a goodbye, and immediately thereafter rings up her former beau, no doubt to check if the old flame still burns, and whether something can be made out of it yet. Remember, she had set out to find out for herself whether a woman really ever needs a man in her life (other than as a stud, I presume), and this is how it ends. Look at the last lines of a blogpost written about it by a woman here. Just what I ended up feeling myself.

P.S.: My family is just different, I guess. My aunt has lived unmarried all her life, and alone since her mother died several years ago. She retired as a professor in a Calcutta college 14 years back, and has travelled all over India and more than twenty other countries all by herself. I wonder what the Akhila type would say if they met her?

[Ladies’ Coupé, by Anita Nair, Penguin Books India 2001, pp. 276, Rs. 350, ISBN 978-0-141-00595-9]

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

As the days pass

I have been lately engaged in preparing examination notes for my daughter, and it has led me to read up and reflect upon a lot of modern poetry, including some I encountered for the first time. So I have written on Heaney’s Punishment, and Lawrence’s Snake, Musée and Unknown Citizen and Shield of Achilles by Auden, and Church going by Larkin. It has been good exercise for the brain cells, and besides, it amused me to think that though I have stopped teaching plus-two level students, the plus-two curriculum hasn’t let go of me. Someday others will come running to get their hands on these notes… I know for a fact how many have found them useful even in college.

It’s been fifteen months that I have been living by myself now – for most of the time, that is – my wife and daughter being in Kolkata. Learning anew to live the bachelor life at this age (and that too, devoid of the kind of ‘compensations’ that a metro city could provide) has been hard, but I think I am getting into my stride now. It’s not fun, and it’s risky, but then things could be a lot worse, like having to live cheek by jowl with impossible relatives who make you feel murderous… and I’d much rather live alone than have to consort with ‘friends’ who care only about what they can get out of me. It’s been my great misfortune that I have known far too many of that kind. 2013 was a particularly bad year – or an intense learning experience if you want – and I’d much rather stay unsocial for the rest of my life than bear with ‘friends’. I have been missing my grandfather, and Sudhirda, and I miss my daughter all the time, and it has occurred to me that I have met very few other people in my life, despite an enormous number of acquaintances, who have given me reason to miss them.

Which brings me to the issue of charity. I have written about it at least twice before in years past (see this and this). My own life is replete with ironies, one of them being that I have fended for myself since an unusually early age, and I have never begged anyone for charity yet, at least of the monetary kind, and at the same time I have been sought out for help nearly all my life, until this very morning. I cannot tell you how many and how very different people turn up at my door with what an incredible variety of sob stories, assured that they will not go away empty handed. I know I am different, because I have checked: they never go to anybody else at least on my own street! I sometimes get exasperated, and yell at them, but I have to work very hard to persuade any one of them that I don’t want him or her to come begging at my door any more. It doesn’t even make me feel good any longer – I’ve been giving for far too long, and know that there will hardly ever be any reciprocation, even by way of a word of gratitude, so heaven knows why I keep doing it. Some are born suckers, is my best guess. Or maybe somewhere deep down I do believe in compensation in the hereafter. But another kind of charity I have needed, and occasionally even asked for – the kind of charity that involves giving someone part of one’s time and attention and empathy – and this I have learnt: whatever the reason may be, I am not the sort who can get that kind of charity from anybody. People only come to take; they either can’t or don’t want to give any. I have sometimes thought that it is the curse of being strong: people give only to those whom they find to be weak.

So it must be my daughter alone, I think. The kind of person she has grown up into, she actually does love me with the kind of love I have always wanted; and she should be enough. I have already seen more charity in her, at least for me, than I have seen in anybody else now living. In another ten years or so, I might even be asking her for money (it feels odd even as I write this: I have been giving money to people for thirty-odd years now; how will it feel to take money for a change?!).  But this much I have decided: I am never going to ask anyone else again. Someone told me some time ago ‘I am not Pupu’. That will stay with me forever. And at my situation in life, I am not seriously interested in anyone who is less than Pupu in his or her attitude towards me…

Friday, June 27, 2014

Neoliberal education, and its likely future

The Statesman of Calcutta recently carried a deeply disturbing essay written by a former professor at Gokhale Institute, Pune (one of those few places left where they still apparently try to teach economics proper rather than just another branch of applied mathematics, designed to train one more brand of technician rather than thinkers). It is about which way ‘education’ has been going all over the world. Click on this and then this.

It is a dense essay: it will need focused ploughing through. Don’t read it when you are busy and distracted.

Those who have been reading this blog all these years cannot fail to note how many of the writer’s ideas resonate with mine, as articulated in all the essays clubbed under the label ‘education’.

Someday those essays of mine might come out together in the shape of a book. Maharatna’s article is the sort that I would like to use as part of my references. Hence I have ‘bookmarked’ it here, to be looked up maybe many years later.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Others and us

I love to see that other people are thinking the same way I do about matters close to my heart. Here’s an article by Jug Suraiya in The Times of India that a pupil in my current class sent me the link to, and another, related one, which both Navin Rustagi and Rajdeep Seth thought fit to draw my attention to. Navin is doing a post-doc in math in the US, while Rajdeep teaches English in Japan. That sort of thing does not stop them from thinking about other things, including civilisational issues. Thanks, Pritam, Navin and Rajdeep.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tough steps in the offing?

Good to hear that the new PM has announced/threatened early in his tenure that the people will have to put up with some ‘tough decisions’ if the economy is to be put back quickly on a high-growth track. I am all for tough decisions, only I remember Gunnar Myrdal writing two generations ago that the Indian state has always been tough with the have-nots, and treated the haves with kid gloves. Let’s see what being tough might mean:

Cut subsidies? By all means, but let it start with subsidies that pamper the upper middle class and the rich, such as those on cooking gas, and diesel fuel for fancy cars, and government-run universities, and near unlimited expense accounts for senior government officials and corporate honchos alike (remember, the rest of us not only have to earn our daily bread but pay taxes for it).

Raise taxes? Sure, but start with a special income-tax slab for those who earn, say, above a crore a year. And how about a luxury consumption tax of 50% on five-star dinners? The Indian rich have always been among the most lightly taxed in the world. Then listen to them scream: it will be music to the ears of at least half a billion other Indians who can  be given more bijli-sadak-paani-makaan with that kind of money.

How about really doing something to bring home the fabled hoard of black money that the super rich have stashed away in banks abroad? It is alleged that the amount involved could wipe out India’s entire foreign debt at one stroke!

I am sure that opening up many sectors of the economy to competition domestic and foreign would be on the whole a good thing – insurance and banking and retail and education and healthcare, for instance – but given the huge potential for ripping off the consumer if history is any guide, how about giving our consumer protection laws some real teeth? CEOs should know that spending half a lifetime in jail is always possible if they try any funny business. Surely we could do with fewer Ramalinga Rajus, Subrata Roys and Sudipto Sens? As of now, the system protects them too well, not least because there is so much public adulation and awe of anybody who has managed to make a big pile somehow. And by ‘public’ I don’t mean just the illiterate riff-raff: ‘journalists’ warn solemnly how arresting William Pinckney could seriously hurt the economy, drawing their wisdom from people who dine with Pinckney at the same clubs, or from economists in the pay of the same…

I can list offhand a dozen more tough measures that will do us good. I am sure Mr. Modi can think of many more. Question is, will he have the gumption to take those steps? He might do well to remember that when ‘experts’ say it is essential to turn the economy into a lean and mean machine, they take good care to ensure that their own dinner will not be affected. As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out, Milton Friedman, the arch-doyen of laissez faire economists, never once in his life suggested that the salaries of university professors like himself should be subjected to the cruel vagaries of free market competition. It’s only those who are already lean if not mean who are always called upon to tighten their belts a little more for the ‘greater good’. That is not progress. There used to be a word for it: barbarism. Yes, that’s the way the world works by and large, but who said the world is a nice place?

P.S., June 22: I am delighted to see that the new government has implemented the long, long-delayed decision to hike railway fares, even if in a rather small way. Good beginning. First big public decision in a month, but way to go, Mr. Modi!

P.P.S., July 01: In this article, Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri has given a very timely and dire warning of what could be the shape of things to come. He deserves to be read with the closest attention.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Where are the teachers?

Only last year we heard Manmohan Singh bemoaning the fact that not one of India’s institutes of so-called higher learning ranks among the top 200 in the world; now we see the incumbent President of India (himself a most uncommonly erudite man) doing the same. In this context, I find it remarkable that Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, in the capacity of Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, had lamented the ‘isolation and stagnation’ in academics almost a century ago (long before Amartya Sen had gone to college, or I)! What has changed, if not for the worse, though India churns out several million college graduates a year today?

Very closely connected to the issue of perpetually falling standards in education, from KG to PG, far more serious than lack of funds or infrastructure I have always held, is the lack of competent and dedicated teachers. If anything, things have become worse over the last three decades: despite the considerable hike in salaries (and despite the fact that many private tutors earn very sizeable incomes – certainly much more than the average IT worker, bank officer or journo can aspire to), very few of my brightest ex students even consider becoming teachers, especially at the school level, where the foundations are laid and futures are made. So I am more than a little pleased to see that even the new Prime Minister has gone public saying that ‘good teachers are one of the biggest needs of society’, and he has ‘rued that there were very few available’: see this news item.  Not that it will make the slightest difference – children and parents alike are convinced that what matters is a combination of reasonable (not great-) pay and slight requirement of learning, skill, patience and hard work, therefore if one good student opts for a teaching career, ten thousand will want to be engineers or hotel managers or stringers for TV…making even 100K a month as a private tutor at home, one’s own boss and everyone calling you ‘Sir’ is a vastly better career proposition than slogging for 40-50K (or even 100K) as an insignificant cog in a vast corporate wheel in Bangalore or Mumbai, but I guess the only youngster I have really convinced is my own daughter.

Which brings me to something that our Chief Minister said in a public speech the other day. She is one of those brave politicians (or driven by desperate circumstances) who can take the bull by the horns. She has candidly admitted that it is not within the government’s power to provide millions of new jobs every year, so young people had better look out for themselves, and there is nothing shameful or pathetic about self-employment: a lot of hardworking people are doing  very well indeed, she said, citing the example of a telebhaaja (fried savouries) vendor in her own neighbourhood, even if you forget arguments about the dignity of all labour. What I found imbecile and risible in the same news article is that some ‘professor of marketing in a Calcutta based B-school’ has remarked ‘at a time highly educated students are suffering because of lack of employment opportunities, such comments are extremely insensitive’. Let us take this comment apart, piece by piece:

1.      ‘Highly educated’ students? 90% of those in the age-group 18-24 who are attending some private engineering or management school (the kind where this kind of oaf can be a ‘professor’), I happen to know, would make pathetic cartoons of themselves if they were asked to teach any subject to kids in class ten.
2.      ‘Suffering’? These kids are the most pampered generation the planet has ever seen, the type whose parents buy them bikes, smartphones and seats in private colleges – what are they ‘suffering’ from, except maybe obesity and boredom?
3.      How much less would they ‘suffer’ if instead of taking up some sort of self-employment they became shopfloor supervisors in Big Bazaar, or insurance policy sellers, or cybercoolies, or ‘professors’ in private colleges who – I happen to know – are frequently paid less than government schoolteachers and treated like slaves by the owners?
4.      Why ‘at a time’? Of course this ‘professor’ and others of his ilk are history-illiterate, but it just so happens that Indians have been suffering from ‘lack of employment opportunities’ for at least four generations. Only, strangely, there are far more Bengalis among them than Biharis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marwaris and Sindhis. Something to learn here? What might this ‘professor’ say?
5.      Why is it less glamorous or respectable to be a roadside dhaaba owner who makes several lakhs a month (there are many in Kolkata, and I am sure in all the other metropolitan cities) than to be a ‘professor of marketing’, who basically teaches young people tricks to fool people into buying things they don’t really need? (think: do you need to market insulin?)
6.      What is ‘extremely insensitive’ about advising people to stand on their own feet instead of expecting parents and the government to do things for them all their lives? Is it actually a fact that if a lot of youngsters got interested in fending for themselves instead of wasting a few years in a run of the mill B-school, a lot of ‘professors’ like this one would lose their jobs (is it really a job? Look up this old post of mine…), and that is what he found most frightening to contemplate?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

A holiday long overdue

All through May I just slogged, slept, followed the unavoidable election mania and survived. Then on the 23rd I left for Kolkata. From Saturday the 24th to Friday the 30th my daughter and I were away, travelling in the hills of north Bengal and east Sikkim. It was an unusual trip in more ways than one.

To start with, this was the first time ever I was travelling with only my daughter for company (it turned out to be so pleasurable that I hope there will be many, many more). Secondly, the flight to Bagdogra was a repeat of the very first one in my life, 43 years ago, and nothing significant seemed to have changed, except that the aeroplanes are far more crowded these days, and full of the hoi polloi (I simply can’t help sneering, sorry. Democracy combined with rapidly spreading and increasing incomes can be an awful thing, since people tend to carry their lack of potty training everywhere). Thirdly because this was the first ever ‘package tour’ that I did in a long lifetime of travelling, and I shall pull the veil lightly over the experience with a heartfelt ‘never again’: if the poet’s lines ‘where every prospect pleases and only man is vile’ passed through my mind once during the course of the trip, it must have done so a hundred times. Thankfully my daughter, after her very first experience, is absolutely in agreement with me on this. And to think that it was only a small group, with no loud and messy children in tow, either...

Fourthly, instead of putting up in hotels as we usually do, we stayed for the most part in what they locally call ‘homestay’ facilities, cottages put up, maintained and serviced by the denizens of remote and picturesque villages. It is an idea that has caught on in various parts of India, and in Bengal and Sikkim, they get help and encouragement from the state governments’ departments of tourism. Well, things have gotten off the ground pretty recently there, and unlike their equivalents in, say, Kerala or Rajasthan, these places are definitely downmarket, with all the pros and cons that entails. They are easy on the pocket, and you can really get away from the madding crowds, for one thing. The hosts are friendly, helpful and kind. The facilities are just one step above spartan (thick blankets yes, hot water, mostly, at least once a day, but in one place they didn’t even have an  electric supply, and I for one don’t find that enjoyable or romantic, not if there’s no power supply round the clock. In most of the locations there was no internet connection, and phone services were erratic and patchy). Calling the roads ‘terrible’ in some places would be an understatement, and on our way back twice the car nearly got stuck in knee deep mud, which would have meant our missing the train. But all’s well that ends well.

Fifthly, we left Kolkata in blazing heat, and back on Friday morning it was sweltering again, yet in between the rain, sometimes squally rain, followed us all the way through, turning into a brief snowstorm when we were visiting Kupup Lake above Dzuluk at 13,000 feet, close to the border with China. The sky had grown overcast by Sunday evening, and Monday through Wednesday it just kept on raining. So it was a very, very wet mountain tour, and it didn’t help that between us my daughter and I had one umbrella and no waterproof clothing at all, but were determined to walk around as much as we could. I’ve got this nasty cold that will take some time to go away...

We followed what the tourism people call the ‘Old Silk Route’. Thrilling to think that this was the route Sir Francis Younghusband followed on his (in-)famous expedition to Lhasa back in 1903-4. So from Siliguri we drove to Kalimpong, then Pedong, and then up six km or so of what used to be a foot track until only a short while ago to Sillery Gaon for our first night’s stay. Our walk through the woods as dusk was falling, enchanting as it was, had to be cut short when we remembered that a policeman on election duty had been badly mauled by a stray bear not too far away, and that too in broad daylight!  The next morning we went on to Aritar for a view of the picturesque little lake, then put up at a hotel where the biggest attraction was a very furry and sleepy old dog that couldn’t have enough of cuddling. Off to Lingtam the next day, through driving rain and fog. They are building a road to Bhutan from there, the locals told me. Then the tough drive up to Dzuluk on the coldest day yet, and further upwards along one of the snakiest mountain roads I have ever encountered to Kupup or Elephant Lake, from where Gangtok is barely 50 km away, albeit across very rough and high-altitude terrain. The army was an unobtrusive but highly visible presence everywhere. On the last day, it was a glorious dawn with blue sky and bright sunshine again. It was a long drive via Rongli and Rangpo to New Jalpaiguri, where a clean railway retiring room gave us privacy and rest and a chance to freshen up before we took the train in the evening for a quiet and comfortable ride back home.

Our travelling companions, typical middle class Bengalis, grumbled about everything all the way, from the food to the lack of comforts to the absence of views of snow capped mountain peaks (just like those who visit some wildlife park and if they don’t manage to glimpse a tiger complain that they couldn’t see ‘anything’), but Pupu and I found the scenery wonderful, lush rainwashed greenery and wild flowers in such profusion, and the fog casting a magic spell over it all. Little roadside cascades gushing down through the dense foliage, every one of them beckoning you to stop, stand and stare. And when you were walking along the pine forests enveloped in deep shadows, you could sometimes cut the silence with a knife: I have a chance to hear water dripping in the woods and crickets chirping in the thousands in the daytime only once in a while, and can never have enough. And my God, the variety of butterflies... they even came into your room at night by the dozen if you kept the door open for a bit. What restful sleep we had those four nights, despite having to get up early every morning! To come back to the city, though only about 700 km or so away, was far more of a wrench than going from New York to Shanghai, when just about nothing changes except for the faces and the skin colour.

So now I am back in the Big Bad City once more, and by day after tomorrow I shall be back to the old grind (I hope my several hundred children will be glad to see me again). It’s been a nice break on the whole, and I am already wondering what I should do with the next one. I hope clean, quiet and green places sparsely inhabited by nice, slow, easy going people survive a while longer for those of future generations who get fed up with city life every now and then. In this I am only echoing Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from back in the 1930s.

P.S., June 02: To see a few photos, click here

June 08: last of the photos added.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Patriotism? pshaw!

Patriotism seems to be the flavour of the season, now that we have got a ‘nationalist’ prime minister. What kind of patriotic upsurge should I like to see in India? Let’s see:

I’d like schools to pay much more attention to the teaching of history, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea if all young people were familiarized with Sanskrit, so that they could explore a little of our intellectual and spiritual treasures for themselves (or at least be taught some of the same in translations into their vernaculars).

I should like people not just putting up bumper stickers saying ‘mera Bharat mahaan’, but doing things to make her so – myriad little things from not cheating in examinations and using foul language and littering the streets to earning their pay.

I should like them (at least as far as the French and Japanese  and Russians have managed to do) to come out from the spell of the worst of Anglo-Saxon pop culture, whether that means shopping for ‘entertainment’ or chatting night and day on Facebook or drinking Pepsi instead of lassi or deliberately avoiding or bastardizing their mother tongues or calling monkeying music or flirting with the opposite sex for most of their lifetimes without any serious commitment of any kind, not even to one’s children.

I should like all Indians regardless of religion to commit their loyalty unequivocally to this nation and her Constitution, without demanding any kind of special privileges whatsoever beyond what extreme poverty and helplessness might entitle any human being to. Specifically, raising foreign flags must meet with immediate and severe punishment under the law, and claims for separate civil codes.

I should like Indian men to aim at becoming men rather than crooks, time-servers or lafungas (regardless of whether they are lafungas with bicycles or BMWs), and women to become worthy of respect by virtue of their work, not because they just happen to be women. Both sexes have a whole pantheon of ideals to choose from, yet their abiding sin is that they all want simultaneously to be ‘ordinary’ and be ‘respected’. And a billion ‘ordinary’ people keep dreaming that some great leader will turn them into an extraordinary nation. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

I want Indians to relearn the virtue of respect. If you want to get it someday, start by giving it today to those who deserve it. Deserve it, mind you, not merely because they are older or more powerful in one way or the other. We are as good at faking respect as we are bad at showing the real thing: trying to be truly respectful discomfits and angers us, because it forces us to face up to our own inferiority.

I would like ‘ordinary’ Indians to think and talk more about things like the Himalayas, and the great rivers and forests, and real science, and art, and justice, rather than to gossip about cricket and Bollywood and what the neighbours are doing.

I would like Indians to shed hypocrisy to the furthest extent possible. Specifically, if all you can do with life is to get a nondescript job and get married, don’t talk about things of the mind and spirit. And don’t mouth ideals that you know your parents will never allow you to uphold in real life, or even if they did, you just don’t have the guts to practise. At least get beaten up on the street once for the sake of one of those underdogs you so love to defend in the cosy safety of your bedroom via the internet. I have, and not once. Leave big talk to big people. Democracy does not mean mouthing platitudes or howling with the mob, especially when your favourite mob is saying things that are currently politically correct and safe, like giving one more thumbs up to Malala Yousufzai. You want to wear hardly-there skirts or defend gay rights, go and do it in a Haryana village, not on the Jadavpur University campus. Wimps sound like lions when they know they are perfectly safe…

You love India, show it by staying here and doing the best you can all your life. Don’t slaver after a green card or boast about how many successful relatives of yours are settled in the United States, nor groan about how India does not offer ‘good enough opportunities’ for someone as wonderful as you. C.V. Raman and Satyajit Ray didn’t. In any  case, India has done enough for the Ambanis and Aamir Khan and MS Dhoni and me: maybe you are just worthless, and don’t deserve anything better than what you have got? Stick to that cybercoolie’s job in Bangalore and thank your lucky stars you are not a farmer in Andhra Pradesh…

Friday, May 16, 2014

Dawn of a new era?

The people have spoken, and more decisively than for a long time in the recent past.

Here are a few off-the-cuff observations, entirely personal in nature, looking at the results as available on the night of 16th May.

1.      I am glad that the Congress has not just been soundly trounced, but reduced almost to insignificance. Perhaps they will at last start the many-decades delayed process of cleaning the Augean stables, starting with getting rid of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty once and for all?
2.      I confess I did not expect the BJP to win absolute majority on its own. This changes the game like nothing else could – given that a) they don’t even need the other NDA partners to form a government, and b) that one man had been projected almost unanimously as the new leader right from the start of the electoral campaign. Whether we like it or not, we are going to get a ‘strong’ government with a vengeance.
3.      Giving all political pundits the lie, regional parties have suddenly shrunk into insignificance on the national stage. For some time to come, at least, it is only what the top leadership of the BJP think that will matter so far as Indian governmental policy is concerned. This was not the case on Vajpayee’s watch. There will be a lot of interesting developments following from this, I am sure.
4.      The Aam Admi Party has vanished into the inconsequence it richly deserved. I was fed to the back teeth with the politically illiterate and puerile ‘anti-corruption’ melodrama conducted by someone whose basic claim to public attention – for the short while it lasted – was that he graduated from IIT and was good at using twitter. The fellow had begun to dream that he could at least become kingmaker. RIP.
5.      Ms. Mamata Banerjee has seen the fulfilment of her life’s dream – to see the CPI(M) being virtually wiped out of West Bengal at every level from the panchayats to the Lok Sabha. (Given that the Left Front hardly existed without West Bengal, and given that they have won about 12 seats in the Lok Sabha this time, their very survival might be at stake). I wonder, though, whether she will be able to deliver good governance to the state in the next few years – and the fact that she has queered the pitch with the incoming Union government by campaigning virulently and very personally against Narendra Modi is not going to help matters where the state’s interests are concerned, since her 30-odd seats in the Lok Sabha are worth nothing to the PM-to-be.
6.      The government of the United States must be squirming and sweating blood. The man who is about to become PM of India is still on their list of people to whom a visa remains banned! Talk about having to swallow humble pie. And I wonder what they are thinking in Islamabad and Beijing…?
7.      Modi’s sweeping success at the hustings underscores something I have believed for a long time – that the opinions of the urban, well-off intelligentsia or the chattering classes or whatever you call them, especially as expressed through English-language newspapers and TV channels, just don’t matter. They are most of the time – maybe they choose to be – hopelessly out of touch with ground realities.
8.      Corporate India seems to be happy, and the stock markets are on a roll. Shape of things to come, or will the dream sour within months? I won’t lay bets, just wait and watch…
9.      I have not suddenly become a Narendra Modi fan. Just let it go on record that I am awestruck by the speed with which he went from someone who was hardly known outside his home state even a year ago (unless it was for his so-called ‘tainted’ record of being communal) to being the anointed claimant to the national throne. And I certainly believe that he is a determined, full-time politician not a dilettante (the type I most despise), that unlike many of his fellow politicians he knows his own mind, and that he deserves a chance now that he has come this far, if only to prove that he wasn’t worth the hype and hoopla. After all, he has played by the rules, and he has never shown any signs that he wants to break the basic rules – what else do you want in a democracy? And it makes my blood boil to hear the argument that ‘after all he started as a chaiwallah’. I am an unabashed elitist in many ways, but this is not the kind of elitism I believe in. Finally, the fact that there has been a wave in favour of the BJP even in Uttar Pradesh, with its very sizeable Muslim population, seems to indicate that despite everything, our Muslims have not decided en masse to treat him like an untouchable demon. Vox populi, vox dei, remember, all you disgruntled folks?

India 2014-2019 is going to be an interesting place to live in.

P.S.: This blogpost of mine provides what I should think is an unexceptionable roadmap for any government that wants to make a real and permanent difference for the better.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

It's hard to be a father!

‘When does a dad go wrong? And when he does, can he ever forgive himself?’

So I wrote in a post here four years ago, recalling an incident from the life of my daughter (and mine) when she was a tiny tot. I can assure my readers that the incident is still as vivid in my mind as if it happened yesterday.

And now my daughter is going to be eighteen in a few months’ time, and I have nearly had a quarrel with her (as close as we can ever come to quarrelling, that is, and that has never happened till now), and had to say ‘no’ to something she very badly wanted to do, and all I can say is that it broke my heart to do it, and I shall never know whether I did the right thing or not, but being the kind of father I am, I just couldn’t help it.

As my daughter wrote in a recent blogpost of hers, she participated on behalf of her school in a ‘peer guide training’ programme for a travelling exhibition organised in Kolkata by the world-renowned Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She apparently made a mark on them, because they contacted her later on and asked her to write for their newsletter, which she did. Events rolled on, until just a few weeks ago they called her to say she was invited to attend a one-week international students’ conference in August at Anne Frank House itself, all expenses paid. Naturally she was ecstatic at the opportunity – I do not know too many people of her age anywhere who can boast of as much earned entirely by their own merit – and I virtually gave her permission to go. And then I had to backtrack, alas! I shall spare my readers the details, but suffice it to say that I found out she had to travel to and fro entirely alone, and I had banked on an ex student of mine who lives close to Amsterdam to keep an eye on her, but as luck would have it, it turned out that he wouldn’t be there at that time. I realized I simply couldn’t take the risk – as I told my daughter, I am just a timid old stick in the mud – and though I even for a while considered the possibility of going over with her, I eventually rejected it as being just too impractical.

So now she has been bitterly disappointed, and had to tell Anne Frank House that she isn’t coming. They have been very nice about it. It is of course entirely possible that she will get such an invitation again in future, and if my prayers and blessings count for anything at all, she will get many similar opportunities in the years to come. She has been kind enough to say she has forgiven me, and even that on second thoughts she feels it would indeed have been too big a risk to take, and in any case she has already turned her mind to the holiday trips we have planned, and the exams ahead. But she also knows that baba will be sorry and feel guilty for the rest of his life.

Why does the Almighty test fathers so sorely?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

shudhu asha jawa, or aller et venir continuel

I teach very serious things very seriously from day one of my classes with every batch: by personal example, as much as is within my power. I also tell them ‘Tomorrow never comes’, and ‘You can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink’. Because I know that despite my most earnest efforts, most people will learn little of what I try to teach, or forget all too soon, and therefore never benefit from what they learnt here for the rest of their lives, even actually abuse me simply because they never learnt even a little bit of what I tried to teach, simply because I was just being what I always clearly told them I was, and proud to be.

The value of time, for instance, and never procrastinating. The importance of being clean, courteous and articulate in your thought and speech. How much little details matter, even details of spelling and grammar. The value of laughter, and how to distinguish clean, good, healthy laughter from the all-too-common gutter variety. How utterly crucial it is to become your own man/woman, and how incredibly hard it is, how easy to think that you are like that! How bad it is to jeer at others’ faults and follies, when you have come to learn and you are full of them yourself. How great a sickness gossip is, and soulless socializing simply because you are afraid to be alone with yourself, and want to be constantly reassured that the world is full of people quite as trivial as you are. How utterly evil it is to lie, even if one thinks that one is doing it just for fun. How love is the most used and abused word in the world, how cruel it is to say ‘I love you’ to someone again and again, and then turn around sometime later – a week or a year – to say ‘I only wanted a simple friendship’, or to drop out of his or her life completely without so much as a by your leave. ‘Don’t do it,’ I tell my children as they grow up, ‘don’t add to all the badness and baseness there already is in the world. Don’t pretend to be deeper than you are. You cannot keep it up for any length of time. And they forget.

Also, the number and variety of people who come over for counsel, and tell me so much of their private joys and woes – though they hardly know me from Adam, and would be scandalized if I ever talked about what they tell me – makes me wonder, too. What do they seek in me? Just a shoulder to lean upon for a while, somewhere to unburden themselves, a sympathetic and non-judgmental listener? If that is indeed true, such listeners must be rare indeed, and the need for them great, for they keep coming, and some hang around for years, and even assure me they are grateful that I was there for them, people in the teens and seventies, men and women, ‘smart’ and not so; people who have suffered devastation and people who love to make mountains out of molehills. Like Mr. Chips dozing by the fireside in his dotage, the names and faces pass through my mind in an endless fading pageant… Some are even thoughtful and humane enough to wonder aloud how I find so much time for them, and why I care. So many gladly offer to pay. And sooner or later they all go away, either because they don’t like me any more (that happens gradually with some and very suddenly and unexpectedly with others), or they no longer have any need for me.

Put yourself imaginatively in my shoes. Why do you think I still keep at it? And what is likely to be my opinion of the mass of mankind by now, including and especially those who have this opinion of themselves that they are good human beings? 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Summer of 2014

I recently got my house painted, after ages. That's a picture above. Must say it looks fresh and cheerful.

Summer has set in in right earnest: by 9 it becomes blazing hot outdoors, and without my dark glasses I'd be blinded. Thank God for the airconditioners, and the swimming pool, and the chilled Budweisers! While in the pool, especially when my daughter is with me, I am happy enough to be humming Nat King Cole's 'Those lazy hazy crazy days of summer', though the man himself would have been aghast if he had been asked to sing it in this kind of heat. Sometimes I go with a favourite ex-student. For a few pictures of the pool, click here

I am waiting for the krishnachura and radhachura to burst out in a bloom of crimson and gold, and the first of the nor'westers, which have been playing truant this year...

Some people try very hard to make me unhappy, but don't succeed. On the other hand, some really make my day, like the old girl whose email I found in my inbox first thing in the morning a few days ago: 'Sir, I had to tell you this: you are a little like Atticus Finch!' So, where the bad and the boring are concerned, I can afford to smile with Tagore, dhulaar ja dhon taha jete dao dhulite... I am looking forward to my holiday trip already.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Dark days ahead

Gopalkrishna Gandhi, grandson of the Mahatma, a retired senior civil servant and ex-governor of West Bengal, an erudite man whom I respect for his balanced views and innate sense of decency (not a common thing these days) has hit out bluntly and harshly against Narendra Modi and Reliance Industries, the latter by name, at a major high-level gathering: see this.

Even if we discount some of the fire and brimstone because of the consideration that his brother Rajmohan is contesting the elections on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket from East Delhi, the content of his speech bears reflection, and that too with furrowed brows. Certainly a somewhat more serious issue than IPL auctions and gay ‘rights’ and the ‘permissible’ length of skirts, if you know anything at all about how the world works and have got your head screwed on right. And this bears repetition: I am not a card-carrying member of any communist organization.

The world is run by power. If you belong to the comfortable urban ten per cent and count on daddy’s savings and connections to see you through every little crisis you don’t feel it bluntly every day, but that doesn’t change anything. In the contemporary world – and by contemporary I can go back to ancient Rome – power stems largely from money (even to organize large and significant ‘revolutionary’ organizations you need big money, as the Maoists know, and Arvind Kejriwal is beginning to find out). There are times when the spirit of rapacious capitalism has run amok (and please, capitalism has only partly to do with introducing new techniques and gadgets, it’s much more about getting control of banks, wage rates and natural resources like land, iron and oil…ask the Rothschilds, Krupps, Rockefellers, Abramovich-s and Ambanis), using government only as its executive committee in Marx’s memorable phrase, as in mid-19th century France and Britain; at times governments have asserted their independence somewhat more strongly, as in Lincoln’s or FDR’s USA, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, when, to be honest, results have been mixed: enormous advances have been made, such as the abolition of slavery and fixing minimum wage rates and social security provisions and near-universal basic education and health care, but the costs have been tremendous, the record of oppression too brutal,  no use whitewashing that.

Be that as it may, since the demise of the Soviet Union and China’s sharp rightward turn in the early 1980s, which coincided with the Reagan- and Thatcher eras in the Anglo-Saxon world, rapacious and unabashed capitalism has been on the rampage again, with the entire globe as its playing field, quite the way it was in the days of the East India Company, except that no MNC today would dare to think aloud of invading any recalcitrant country to bring it to heel, else Google would have done that with China already. Some countries are gaining/hurting more as a result, but one fact is undeniable: whether it is India or the US, economic inequalities are widening rapidly and vastly as money gets concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. There are fewer than 1000 billionaires in the world, and they control more money than 99.9% of the human population (and to think that the chief argument against communism is that it concentrates power into too few hands!). That means barely a thousand people control mankind’s destiny, more or less. The system is still running because a) it has allowed a few million people to become at least millionaires (even some journos, doctors and teachers among them!) b) it lets at least a billion people to live in relative comfort and freedom while dreaming that they too or their children might become millionaires someday, c) through the pretence of upholding democracy and liberal values, combined with circuses of every variety (remember the Roman emperors and their ‘bread and circuses’?)  it keeps the vast unwashed masses quiescent: so what if we live in slums and feed on leftovers and can’t afford heated bedrooms, we can watch Miley Cyrus or Katrina Kaif ‘dancing’, can’t we? But now even the rudiments of democracy are under threat, if the likes of Gandhi are to be believed. India – and, strangely enough, especially India’s youth (or is it very strange at all, overwhelmingly pinheads with no sense of history as the bulk of our youth are, even those who come out of engineering college these days…?) seems hell-bent on ushering in an era of in your face authoritarianism, while crony capitalism seems on the verge of taking over all the country’s silver. Any vision of India 2020, anybody?

P.S.: A reader sent me this link after reading this post. Remember, it has been well said that in a democracy people get the kind of government they deserve. Moon Moon Sen, puppet in Mamata Banerjee's hands, casting her vote in the Lok Sabha as ordered in the hope of wangling little favours out of Narendra Modi's PMO, which in turn is remote controlled from the Reliance boardroom: why ever not?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

TMD status update

(signing Arnab Chakraborty's copy of TMD for him because he insisted. And he sent me the photo :) )

I am pleasantly surprised by the early feedback about To My Daughter (see previous post). It was released only a couple of weeks ago, and apparently it has already sold a couple of hundred copies online! If some of the numerous ‘likes’ on our Facebook page translate into sales, it will keep selling some more. So the time might not be far off when the book will be on display in stores, too. 

There is another sort of feedback – something much more valuable and heartwarming – that I am now looking forward to. First, those who have already read the book telling me (and not in one-liners!) how they liked it, and passing on the word to friends and relatives, so that they too might have a chance to read the book and judge for themselves. Some messages I have already begun to receive, such as an ex-student’s father writing ‘Thank you for letting us know you better’, a current student coming over with a list of very interesting questions, and someone who was never directly my student writing ‘I am no longer sad I couldn’t attend your classes!’ I should be very glad indeed to get more of the same. And will be even more if some people write in to say that the book has been an eye-opener in some ways, and a help in some others. Exactly why I wrote it in the first place.

Holding the book in my hands gives me a wonderful inner glow. And it doesn’t matter whether it sells well. I shall be able to leave behind more than a little of good things for my daughter and many others like her: that’s all that counts. But, as I have said in the book itself, if it does sell, and much more importantly, if it does get read, a lot of people will have reason to thank me, tomorrow or many years later…

‘Justify your existence!’ I heard the terrible injunction long ago. With TMD, I shall be able to do that for myself to my heart’s content.

Monday, March 24, 2014

To My Daughter in print

Some people have lots of books inside them, some have just one. I have written a great deal of stuff since my writing was first published at age 13, but where whole books are concerned, I tend to think I belong to the second category.

Many years ago I wrote a book. It was meant to be something for my own daughter, for my many thousand ex students now scattered around the world, and a kind of summary of all the most important things about life and living that I had learnt and have always tried to teach for anyone who might be interested.

The manuscript was gathering dust for a long time. Now, thanks to the patient goading of a lot of people, my parents and daughter not least among them, it has finally seen the light of day. The book (click on the picture for a bigger view) is currently available via the websites of amazon, flipkart, bookadda and the publishers themselves, notionpress. Also look up this facebook page or twitter page. Some of us enthusiasts are hoping that it will eventually hit the bookstores. But of course then it will be a bit more expensive.

So – any reader of mine who was ever really interested in me – go ahead, buy the book, read it, get some friends and relatives and neighbours to buy it, and tell us what you felt about it via your reviews at any of the sites mentioned above, or my website, of which you can become a member and participant. Also talk about it on any social network you might be on, Facebook or some such: that will be a nice favour. It thrills me to see that five copies have been bought almost as soon as the book was formally launched: I wonder by whom!

I promise you nothing except – to quote what I have written in the introduction to the book itself (yes, do please read the introduction too) – it is not the most trivial book that I have read in my own life.

P.S, April 02: It seems the book is slightly cheaper if bought from the amazon store than from flipkart. And now that I know that a lot of people have already ordered/got the book, I am hoping that they are reading it avidly and thoughtfully, and that many of them will make me happy by spreading the word and by writing reviews about the book on the amazon or flipkart pages, or at my own website (links given above). Meanwhile, thank you to all 78 people who have rated the book with four or five stars on the flipkart page: I am luckier than I thought!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Students looking back...

I get strange messages via email every now and then.

The following is something that someone from the ICSE 1991 batch, a woman, wrote recently:

“Last night I dreamt of you… yes, again, after ages.
You were teaching me something very seriously about Cassius’ lean and hungry look. Woke up with a smile. It’s strange how we do not age in our memories and dreams.
Much love…”

And here’s another, from someone four years her junior, a male. I reproduce it unedited.

“I am really grateful to you to have you as my teacher, though for only a year. I presume that you are keeping well.
Sir, I still cannot forget the aroma of the perfume which you used to use in those days. In fact, I was crazy about that but did not have enough guts to ask you.
That aroma was too sweet and so good since our homework copies which you used to check had that sweet scent for a very long time.
I know that it is years together and the topic is not important, but would really love and appreciate if you could suggest me the name of the brand of that particular perfume which you used to put on those days since I shall try to use it forever.”

P.S., March 22: The first correspondent took just a fortnight to sour me up, entirely as I had expected her to. But God, how many of the same type must I still see? 'Would some pow'r the Giftie gie us/ to see oursel's as others see us!/ 'twould frae many a blunder free us/ and foolish notion'.

See why I have titled this blog ‘bemused’?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Life is but a dream

On this day, one year ago, I wrote about grace.

Today, I recall the Bard's immortal words: 'some there be that shadows kiss/ such have but a shadow's bliss'.

And, in another poet's words, 'fled is that music. Do I wake, or sleep?'

Friday, March 07, 2014

My daughter's new blogpost, etc

My daughter has written a post on her blog describing things that annoy her about living in India. Made me sad, but I can hardly argue with anything she has said there. Take a look.

I am thrilled to see that people are now reading my blog from all over the American continents, even the South, where I did not have readers for a long time. I wonder who started the ball rolling?

General elections have been announced, so the country, I guess, is going to gear up for what is really ‘the biggest show on earth’! Everybody seems to be sure that it’s going to be a hung parliament this time round, and the only thing worth speculating upon is what sort of coalition will be cobbled together to stake a claim to the new government, who will lead the team, and how long it will last…

The papers have been full of the crisis brewing over the international standoff centred on Ukraine (some people have gone to the extent of predicting that World War III is looming.) But the same papers are also solemnly informing us that midi-skirts are ‘in’ again this season: ‘too much leg looks jarring, borderline wag’ (t2, p.8, The Telegraph Calcutta, March 6, 2014). I also read an article about how TV makes all sorts of professions look artificially easy for the gullible teenage reader, from physics to law to math. I was laughing inwardly all the time while discussing ideas for an essay in class titled ‘News is not news today, it’s what the media manufacture for us’. I hope my own pupils will be a little better equipped to negotiate the world they are growing up in, forewarned.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Two different kinds of book

I read J.K. Rowling’s debut detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, and wasn’t too impressed. Yes, she has introduced a new kind of private eye – not an easy thing to do in this day and age – and managed to make him a fairly sympathetic figure, warts and all. She plans to develop the template into another seven-part series. Let us see how it fares with the readership: I shall keep my fingers crossed. The first book, it seems, has sold well, though it’s not a patch on the Harry Potter series, and one swallow doth not a summer make. The fact that Ms. Rowling tried a pseudonym first and then quickly ‘leaked’ the fact that it was she because otherwise the book was not selling is a worrisome datum. A rather interesting relationship seems to be developing between the detective Cormoran Strike and his new young secretary Robin Ellacott, so that is one thing I shall watch with interest. Ms. Rowling knows a great deal about the high life in London, and that comes across rather well, as well as her visceral hatred of the paparazzi, and her rather low opinion of womankind in general, which I find both just and admirable. The storyline is rather thin: if you plan to enjoy the book, you must be prepared to do so for the sake of atmosphere rather than plot. What I found most deplorable and utterly unwarranted – unless Ms. Rowling has assumed that her readership is slightly sick – is the endless and intense use of obscenities in virtually everyone’s conversation. If this has been done for the sake of ‘realism’, I have two observations about this: a) one might as well condone detailed descriptions of excretory functions in movies, for they are of course a necessary and permanent part of ‘reality’, and b) Ms. Rowling has herself demonstrated, as have many others, that perfectly good writing can be achieved without it. Also, if this is the kind of conversation I must hear all around me if I am ever in England, I am glad I won’t have to go there. Things are bad enough in the streets of Bengal… one thing I can definitely say is, unlike with Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot or Dr. Thorndyke – or even Harry Potter – I won’t want to re-read this book over and over after gaps of a few years.

I have also just finished the second book in the Ibis trilogy series by Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (Sea of Poppies I read a year ago). I have deeply admired Ghosh as perhaps the finest of living Indian authors in English ever since The Hungry Tide, and my admiration has been redoubled since. He is writing a grand saga in the classical style, not afraid to make each volume several hundred pages long and demanding intense and focussed attention from the reader all through – that he can make a living that way, as can Khaled Hosseini, tells me something most reassuring in the age of twitter.

Every good book leaves you a little wiser, a little better, a little changed. Ghosh’s writing is definitely of that category: he does not write for a moment’s sensation. I pride myself on my knowledge of history, yet he has  humbled me with a delicious and highly digestible history of India and China around the 1830s. And the books are a veritable feast for the gourmet of detail, be it about food or ships or flowering plants or paintings or the marvellous and intricate richness and variety of languages (for a lot of readers, of course, that would be the major turn-off: I am glad that to Ghosh as to me, such readers’ opinions don’t count). In the tradition of the best writers of all lands and ages, he has also created a very wide variety of characters who are live enough for you to empathize deeply with. And he left me wondering impatiently what new twists and turns the story would take when I had reached the last page, knowing that the third book, Flood of Fire, is going to be released not before spring 2015.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Happy hour

Ankan (Saha), a very favourite old boy, came visiting yesterday. His classmate and one-time batchmate Raunak Chandak the budding businessman and car aficionado who never forgets to let me drive the latest acquisition of his accompanied him. We had a fun three hours chatting.

Ankan was a whiz kid all through. He sailed through school, studied at IIT Kanpur on scholarship, flew off to the US, got a PhD in computer science from the U. of Chicago, is currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area and commuting to work at Mountain View, working on research at Linkedin. By Indian middle-class standards, he is, of course, top of the heap. Thinking of a startup: who knows but sometime soon he might be another zillionaire. But that is not why I have always had a soft corner for him…

First, despite rough patches and long gaps, he has always been fond of me (I think) and kept in touch. Second, it was he who got me into blogging: this thing owes its existence to him. Third, the poor boy lost his dad too early, and the coping has been hard, but he seems to have done well. Fourth, though unlike his batchmate Nishant (Kamath), we talk much less often, it is always good when we do. Three hours passed by in a flash: I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, Ankan and Raunak. We talked of – let me see – science, math, computers, economics, big business, history, movies, marriage, culture or the lack of it where we respectively live, books we have read recently, exercise, travelling, batchmates of theirs whom I know and how much they have changed or not, fun aspects of social psychology... I forget the rest. It set me wondering what it is about female ex students that they rarely visit, and hardly have anything interesting to talk about!

Thank you for coming, Ankan. And thanks for City of Djinns (Nishant, if you are reading this, we collectively remembered how good the Colorado whisky was! So thank you, too). Take care. May life shower its choicest blessings on you all. And keep a little more closely in touch…

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Love is a bore

Look this up in today's edition of Anandabazar Patrika, all my Bengali readers. There is a reason why I put this up here instead of on the other blog.

If you want a further belly laugh, click on 'translate' at the top of the linked article and check out the result. Long live IT-geeks...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Musing over the weekend

         (the road from Ilambazar to Shantiniketan. My local favourite)

Winter is going away too fast. The chill vanished with almost military punctuality on Saraswati pujo day. There is the all-too-evanescent spring in the air, it’s terribly dusty all around, and if it doesn’t rain soon, yet another awful summer is going to be upon us within weeks…

My old faithful scooter wrought a miracle yesterday. I drove to Shantiniketan on a whim with someone riding pillion, and yet it went all the way and back without so much as a hiccup, only to break down virtually when I was back home (minor hitch, soon resolved). I am not going to exchange it for a new bike in a hurry!

I was visiting Shantiniketan after quite some time. The grounds look much tidier and more colourful with trees and flowers than I remember seeing them ever before. Someone is obviously paying attention to these things at last. And there were Ananda pathshaala classes going on in the open air as always. But the museum at Rabindra Bhavan was a disappointment. Many of the exhibits have been put beyond the public gaze, apparently after the original Nobel Prize medallion was stolen: a classic case of shutting the gates after the horse has bolted if ever there was one!

I am missing some of my frequent comment-writers here. Where have you folks gone?

My yearly admissions will begin on February 22, and for more than a week the house will be swarming with people. The notices are up on display at the gate, and folks are ringing up at all hours to find out when they must turn up and what they must do for their kids to get in. Every year this time gives me a rush of mixed feelings – wonder, about why they keep coming year after year in such numbers, profound thankfulness that they do, discomfiture over how much I’ll have to talk and how much silliness and worse I’ll have to deal with until the admissions are over, trepidation over whether I can do my thing with the fresh batches as well as I have unfailingly done all these years (I started in Durgapur in 1987, and the batches grew large from 1992), pride that I must have made some name for myself doing something that many people have found worth their time and money, else this would have been just a figment of my imagination, gladness that not a few have taken away so much more than merely a few notes and marked exercises for some piffling examinations, sadness that so many have not (or have forgotten since leaving my classes, or simply never told me how I helped to make their lives better in some lasting sense)… it’s been a good life, and I am looking forward to retirement in a few years’ time, and so many people’s voices ring in my ears, too, saying ‘Sir, you can never retire!’

Monday, February 03, 2014

Is there going to be a 'Great Leap'?

Rajdeep sent me this link all the way from Japan. He has noticed – as I hope some others have, too – that I have been writing in the same vein for a long time now. Good to see that a hot-shot ‘with-it’ management consultant is saying the same sort of thing now, and though he thinks of himself as an outlier still, he can hear his echo in as stolid an establishment figure as Larry Summers, and his article has been published in the Harvard Business Review, as dyed in the wool as they come this side of the Pope (am I being unfair to the Pope?)

The whole of the current young generation faces Stagnation, with a capital S, regardless of how many overnight puppy-billionaires in the Mark Zuckerberg mould our global freakonomy keeps throwing up.To quote Haque, “Stagnation means, in plain English, that living standards in many rich nations are going to fall for young people. That’s a fancy way of saying that life is going to get shorter, harder, nastier, dumber, and bleaker. No, sorry, just because you can buy a gigantic 4D plasma TV on 4000% APR credit and a bag of Doritos the size of an Escalade for 99 cents doesn’t mean you will live longer, be healthier or happier, or be able to afford an education for yourself or your children”. And that’s the bright picture, because he is talking about rich nations here. There’s a couple of lines about IT-hack types in India and China, too: find them yourself. I worry, for my daughter is on the threshold of adulthood, and has been brought up to be unusually aware and sensitive.

There are two sad things about this situation. One, that even the Umair Haque types have no concrete agenda (read the third paragraph from the end), just as the Arvind Kejriwals and the ‘We are the 99%’ gangs don’t. So, in Rajiv Gandhi’s long-forgotten words uttered in another era and another context, ‘the future is being determined by drift and not by direction’. At least the Bolsheviks had some sense of direction back in 1917, or thought they had. Hard to believe it’s been almost a hundred years since…Two, it makes me feel horrible to think that 99% of those who read stuff like this are those who can afford to live in denial, either because they have got slightly better-than-average jobs-plus no family responsibilities (there’s an incredible number of this type around these days among under-35s!) or because they are still living on mummy-and daddy’s support (a lot of them ‘disguised unemployed’ – oops, I meant doing PhDs), or in low-paid-dead-end jobs and piling up debts with no thought of the morrow, and therefore hate to be reminded. If change for the better comes about in my lifetime, it will not be their doing. The sans culottes, or their latter-day equivalents, don’t read blogs on the internet…

Ah well. I shall keep faith in my old guru John Maynard Keynes, who once famously wrote ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler… sooner or later, it is ideas rather than vested interests which are dangerous for good and evil’.

Thank you, Rajdeep.