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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]

Friday, January 30, 2015

shotto bagher goppo

পুপুরানী যখন খুব ছোট্টটি ছিল তখন একবার দাদু দিদাকে নিয়ে চিড়িয়াখানা দেখতে গেছিল। সেখানে কেঁদো বাঘের চেহারা আর রকম সকম দেখে তো তার চক্ষু স্থির। বাড়ি ফেরা অবধি তার শান্তি নেই, কতক্ষণে বাবাকে গিয়ে খবরটা দেওয়া যায়।  তারপর যখন সে চোখ পাকিয়ে ইয়া বড়া হাঁ করে 'হালুম!' বলেছে তখন বাবা কি ভয়ানক রকম ভয় পেয়ে গেছে তা দেখে তো সে হেসেই কুটিপাটি।বাবাটি যে তার এতবড় একটা ভীতুর ডিম এ'খবরটা তার এতদিন জানাই ছিল না। অতঃপর বেশ কিছুদিন ধরে চলল তার এই বাবাকে ভয় দেখানোর খেলা।  তারপর একদিন বোধ করি তার মায়া হল, তখন সে বলল, 'বাবা, তুমি বাঘ দেখতে যাবে? ভয় নেই, আমি নিয়ে যাব সঙ্গে করে।' 

কথাটা অবিশ্যি ঠিক অমনি করে বেরোল না - পরিষ্কার করে বলার মত বয়স হয়নি তো। বাবাকে বুঝে নিতে হয়েছিল।  ক্রমশ পুপুর খেয়াল হলো, এখন থেকে তার নাম হবে 'শোত্তো বাঘ'। বাবা তাকে রাতে ঘুম পাড়াবার সময়ে গান গাইত তো, তারপর কবে যেন একটা শোত্তো বাঘের গল্প বলে ফেলেছিল, সেই থেকে পুপুর নেশা হয়ে গেল, সে খালি বাঘের গল্প শুনবে। বাবা যত তাকে এটা ওটা অন্য সব গল্প শোনায়, সে ভোলবার পাত্রী নয়। টুনটুনির গল্প, বুদ্ধু ভুতুমের গল্প, আলাদিনের গল্প, সিনডেরেলার আর ঘুমন্ত রাজকন্যার গল্প, সব শুনেটুনে শেষে বলে, 'এবা-র একটা বাঘের গপ্প  বল, ভালো বাঘ, শোত্তো বাঘের গপ্প।' বাবা পড়ল মহা মুশকিলে। রোজ অত নতুন নতুন ছোট্ট বাঘের গল্প কোথায় পায়? শেষটায় একদিন নিজেই গপ্প ফেঁদে বসল। .....

ছোট্ট বাঘটা ছিল খুব ছটফটে। সকালের আলো  ফুটতে না ফুটতেই তার গুহা থেকে লাফিয়ে খেলতে বেরিয়ে যাওয়া চাই। ঢের বন্ধুবান্ধব তার, তাদের সঙ্গে নিয়ে সে রোজ নিত্যনতুন জায়গায় খেলতে যায়। মা তার প্রায়ই বলে, বেশি দূর যাসনে খোকা, গুরুজনদের কথা অমান্য করিসনে - কিন্তু কে শোনে সেসব কথা? অত সাবধান হলে সব মজাটাই মাটি হয়ে যাবে না? অবিশ্যি সর্দারিতে তার প্রানের বন্ধু মোট্টুরাম হাতির ছানাও কিছু কম যায় না। তার সঙ্গে সব খেলাতেই আছে, আবার বড়দের মত সমানে পিছন থেকে টিকটিক করতেও ছাড়ে না। এমন বিজ্গের  মত সব উপদেশ দেয় যেন তার নিজের বয়স তিনকাল গিয়ে এককালে ঠেকেছে। ছোট্ট বাঘ খুব বেশি দুষ্টুমি করলে বলে 'দাঁড়া, তোর বাবা ঘরে ফিরলে বলে দেব।' বাবাকে ছোট্ট বাঘ একটু সমীহ করে চলে কিনা! তাতেও কাজ না হলে তখন ব্রহ্মাস্ত্র প্রয়োগ করে- 'আমার দাদুকে বলে দেব কিন্তু!' ব্যাস, ছোট্ট বাঘ এক্কেবারে ঠান্ডা মেরে যায়। না হয়ে উপায় কি? বুড়ো সর্দার দাদু হাতি হলেন গিয়ে জঙ্গলের রাজা। পাহাড়ের কোলে কাকচক্ষু অতল হ্রদের ধরে দাঁড়িয়ে ঢুলুঢুলু চোখে দুলতে দুলতে তিনি শুঁড় দোলান, জঙ্গলের সকল জীব প্রয়োজনে তাঁর কাছে সাহায্য বা আশ্রয় চাইতে যায়। তিনি যখন মাটি কাঁপিয়ে বিশাল দুই দাঁত বাগিয়ে ধীর পায়ে হাতির পালের আগে আগে চলেন, তখন বাবা বাঘ, যিনি কাউকে ভয় পান না, তিনি পর্যন্ত রাস্তা ছেড়ে দিয়ে ছায়ার মত ঝোপঝাড়ে ঢুকে যান। সেই দাদু হাতির সামনে আসামী হয়ে দাঁড়াতে হলেই হয়েছে আর কি!

তাই বলে যেন মনে কোরো না যে মোট্টুরাম হাতির ছানা নিজে একটি হাবাগোবা নিরীহ ভালোমানুষ! মোটেই না - মাথাটা তার ভারী ঊর্বর, আর বদমায়েশি বুদ্ধিতে ঠাসা। নতুন নতুন খেলা বানাতে  যেমন সে ওস্তাদ, বন্ধুকে ভয় দেখাতে আর পিছনে লাগতেও তেমনি। (ছোট্ট বাঘ আমাদের ভারী সরল কিনা, তাই তাকে বোকা বানানোও খুব সহজ, এটা আবিষ্কার করতে মোট্টুরামের বেশিদিন সময় লাগেনি।) একবার শুঁড় দিয়ে মৌচাকে ঢিল মেরে নিজে মৌমাছিদের খেপিয়ে আগেভাগে সরে পড়ে সে খোকা বাঘকে যারপরনাই নাস্তানাবুদ করেছিল; সে বেচারা মৌমাছিদের হাত থেকে পালাবার পথ পায় না, কামড়  খেয়ে একসা হয়েছিল, অনেকদিন লেগেছিল গায়ের ব্যথা জুড়োতে। আরেকদিন একগাছি আখ এনে মোট্টুরাম তাকে চিবোতে দিয়েছিল, বলেছিল 'তুই তো মাংসের হাড় খাস কড়মড়িয়ে, এটাতে তোর একটুও অসুবিধে হবে না, খেয়ে দেখ কি দারুন মিষ্টি!' সে বেচারা আখ চিবোতে গিয়ে কি বিচ্ছিরি নাজেহাল হয়েছিল কি বলব। আখের ছিবড়ে গিয়েছিল দাঁতের ফাঁকে আটকে, চনচনে মিষ্টিতে তার ওয়াক আসার মত অবস্থা, কতদিন ধরে যাচ্ছেতাই গন্ধটা এমন নাকে লেগেছিল যে মাংস খাওয়াটাই বন্ধ হওয়ার দাখিল। সেবার মা তাকে এয়সা বকেছিল যে কি বলব। 'তোকে বোকা পেয়ে মোট্টুটা যা খুশি তাই বোঝায় আর তুই উল্টে ওকে জব্দ করতে পারিস না? কি ভ্যাবাগঙ্গারাম তৈরি হচ্ছিস রে তুই!' 

জঙ্গলের ভিতরে যেখানে খুব গাছেঘেরা অন্ধকার আর চুপচাপ, ছোট্ট বাঘকে নিয়ে মোট্টু সেখানে একদিন খেলতে গেছিল। খানিকক্ষণ ময়ূর আর খরগোশ আর হরিণবাচ্ছাদের ভয় দেখিয়ে হুটোপাটি করে দুজনেই ঘেমে উঠল, জঙ্গলের মাথায় তখন সুয্যিঠাকুর আগুন ঢালছেন, গরমে প্রাণ আইঢাই। পাশেই গভীর কালো জলের পুকুর, কচুরিপানা ঠেলে মোট্টুরাম তো অবলীলাক্রমে নেমে গেল তার মধ্যে, ঘাড় পর্যন্ত ডুবিয়ে খানিকক্ষণ আরাম করল, তারপর উল্টোদিকের পাড়ে উঠে এক হাঁটু কাদার মধ্যে দাঁড়িয়ে শুঁড়ে করে জল ছিটোতে লাগলো নিজের গায়ে। ছোট্ট বাঘ বেশ হিংসেভরা চোখে তাকিয়ে দেখল। 

কি আর করে - জলকে তার বড্ড ভয়, নাহলে সেও নেমে পড়ত কখন! তো হয়েছে কি, একটা কাঠবেড়ালীকে তাড়া করে সে তো উঠে পড়েছে পুকুর পাড়ে বিরাট অশ্বত্থ গাছটার ওপরে। কাঠবেড়ালিটা তরতর করে এ-ডাল সে-ডাল হয়ে চলে গেছে একটা অতি সরু ডালের ডগায়, সে ডালটা আবার পুকুরের ওপর অনেকখানি এগিয়ে রয়েছে, তার পিছনে পিছনে ছোট্ট বাঘও গেছে এগিয়ে, তারপর বেগতিক দেখে কাঠবেড়ালীটা দিয়েছে নিচের ডালটা তাগ  করে এক লাফ। বেখেয়াল হয়ে ছোট্ট বাঘও ঝট করে দিয়েছে সামনের থাবাটা বাড়িয়ে - কাঠবেড়ালী তো পালিয়েছে, ওদিকে সে টাল সামলাতে না পেরে একেবারে ঝপাং করে পুকুরের জলে। পড়ে প্রথমেই একপ্রস্থ নাকানি চোবানি। হাঁকপাঁক করতে করতে কোনক্রমে জলের ওপর মাথা তুলে দেখে মোট্টুরাম পাড়ে দাঁড়িয়ে দিব্যি নিশ্চিন্তে মজা দেখছে। ছোট্ট বাঘের সেই বিপদের মধ্যেও ভীষণ রাগ হয়ে গেল। 'দাঁড়িয়ে দেখছিস কি হতচ্ছাড়া? ডুবে যাচ্ছি, আমায় টেনে তোল!' ও হরি, তার চ্যাঁচানি শুনে মোট্টুরাম হেসে গড়িয়ে পড়ে যায় আর কি। 'এই পুকুরে ডোবার মত জল আছে নাকি? উঠে আয় নিজে নিজে!'

রাগে গশগশ করতে করতে প্রাণপণে হাত পা ছুঁড়ে পাড়ে উঠে সে তো মোট্টুকে এই মারে তো সেই মারে। তখন মোট্টুরাম বলে কি, 'সব বাঘেই জন্ম থেকে সাঁতার দিতে পারে, জানিস না? নাহলে তুই জল থেকে উঠে এলি কি করে?সাধে কি তোর মা তোকে বলে ভ্যাবাগঙ্গারাম!' - সত্যিই তো! আবার সে নিজের বোকামির জন্য বন্ধুর কাছে অপদস্থ হলো। যাক গে, এই বলে সে নিজেকে সান্ত্বনা দিল যে, বিপদে পড়ে নিজের একটা সহজাত ক্ষমতা তো জানা হয়ে গেল? আর কখনো জলকে ভয় পেতে হবে না, সেটা একটা মস্ত লাভ!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

for Pupu, in days past

Another little poem I wrote for my daughter when she was very little:

যেদিন পুপু প্রথম গেল খোকাখুকুর ইস্কুলেতে 
ছাই রঙের জামা গায়ে, পিঠে ব্যাগ, জুতো পায়ে 
রইলো বাবা অবাক চোখে চেয়ে --
এই কি তার  ছোট্ট মেয়ে, জন্মালো যে এই তো সেদিন?
সময় গেল এমনি ধেয়ে, রইলো না আর স্নেহের অধীন?

শিক্ষিকা তার আদর করে নামটি দিলেন 'পুপুসিং'
তারস্বরে কলকলানি ভরিয়ে দিল সারাটা দিন। 
আঁকলো ছবি, গাইল গান, বলতে শিখল ছড়া কত,
'মারাপিটি ' দুষ্টুমিতে হাত পাকালো রীতিমত।
দু ঘন্টা পর টিফিন খেয়ে মা'র হাত ধরে ফিরত ঘরে,
দিনের শেষে বাবার সাথে দেখা হত আদর করে। 
এমনি ভাবে কেমন করে দুটো বছর গেল চলে,
সময় এলো চলে যাবার আরো দূরে আর এক স্কুলে।

বুঝলো বাবা, অমোঘ বিধান, এমনটাই যে জগত রীতি --
এমনি করেই মা'র প্রতি  তার গভীর হবে ব্যথার প্রীতি।

Sunday, January 25, 2015

God bless, Pooja!

I am proud as a teacher, a father, and an Indian male of Wing Commander Pooja Thakur, who became the first woman ever in India to give the Inter-Services Guard of Honour to a visiting head of state today. And I was thinking of Subhas Chandra Bose, who created one of the first all-women's army regiments in modern times. 

It is my prayer that today's young girls, especially educated girls, would look up to the likes of Kalpana Chawla and Pooja Thakur, Meera Borwankar and Leila Seth and Arundhati Bhattacharya and Nirupama Rao rather than Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut and what they are wearing and which males they are flirting with. And it is my regret that not one of my girl students has grown up in that mould for me to boast about, though some have learnt all the smart buzzwords as, I suppose, a workable substitute - in their own eyes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Older stuff

While turning the pages of history I sometimes notice something so odd that if I think about it a little the mind is thrown into a whirl, reason seems to desert me, it seems as if all efforts to put the story of this endless floodtide of human events into some sort of neat rational theoretical framework is mere childishness, a madman’s prattle.  – Just when Chaitanyadev was stirring up  Bengal with the passionate love for Krishna, Leonardo da Vinci was drawing the first ever realistic sketches of the foetus in the womb, and the earliest known designs for submarines and helicopters. Meanwhile Vasco da Gama and the mercantile descendants of Columbus had begun the work of spreading their victory flags in continents far to the west and east of Europe. While Sri Ramakrishna was soothing and edifying the souls of his disciples with some of the most wonderful spiritual sermons ever given, Europe’s hearts and minds were being lashed into a frightened frenzy by the newly spreading tenets of Darwin and Marx. Lenin, Henry Ford and Tagore shared the world’s stage; in the same century man has hurled the nuclear thunderbolt on man’s head, and also given birth to Gandhi. It was in the same epoch that men extolled the Principia Mathematica, burned thousands of helpless women as witches, and destroyed the magnificent art treasures of the Incas under the goading of the lust for gold. They say Chenghiz Khan, Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas were contemporaries. On the vast scale of mahakaal, the emperor Cyrus and the Buddha almost worked side by side, as did Aristotle and Alexander; Picasso, Walt Disney and Mao ze Dong; Benjamin Franklin and the Japanese samurai – just as today in some corners of the world men are hurling spacecraft towards the periphery of the solar system while elsewhere kangaroo courts are stoning and beheading those they call heretics and perverts, and some are trying to sail up to heaven on clouds of marijuana smoke. Yet we are asked to believe that the whole of the infinite riddle of world history is strung together on the same thread, and some great savant has the key to the riddle firmly in his hands!

[I wrote this in May 1989.  Strange to think that the quarter century in between has vanished like the morning mist. I plan to put up some more of my old writing here by and by. Just for those who are curious. In connection with this one, look up if you like the post titled The Sense of Wonder]

P.S., Jan. 23: I have resumed writing on my whimsy blog

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jaggu and Modesty

I am in love with Jaggu (Jagajjanani-) Sahni. Of course, the likes of her exist only in the (male-) artist’s imagination. But Anoushka Sharma has done well to prove in pk, even in this porcine age, that only a girl who has nothing else to show has to bare her physical ‘assets’ to get noticed and ‘admired’.

So also with my Natalie. So also with my long-time heartthrob, Modesty Blaise. God, what I wouldn’t give to be friends with a woman like that, whom I can respect so much – and obviously for far more important things than the fact that she is a lethal warrior, physically speaking. Those who are curious are welcome to find out for themselves. She is just incidentally beautiful, and has lots of beaux besides the one and only Willie Garvin always by her side in her hour of need, but the point is, she is such a wonderful human being, better than I can ever be! What an imagination that could create someone like her; what a man he must have been.

It is a matter of eternal shame to me that I looked at flesh and blood women again and again all my life and tried very hard to force myself to believe that they measured up to something even close to such dreams. Never again, I hope. If a man is to stay sane and live by certain principles which only men can understand, there are only three ways he should deal with women – and that is a given that has not changed in the whole history of civilization. Overarchingly, the thing to remember is that far too many women are congenitally incapable of thinking beyond shoes and smartphones and selfies and security and tradition and shopping and gossip and ‘fun’, no matter what they pretend, or even try to convince themselves of.

This year is going to be just mine and Pupu’s. Anybody else, except those who are paying me, and those who have consistently maintained warm, substantive and respectful relations with me for decades together, will be tolerated only if they make it evident that getting close to me matters to them far beyond a mere form of words. I have been thanklessly nice and attentive to too many random people in my life. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

For Pupu at eighteen

And so, Pupu, you are a grown up girl today: in so many ways one may regard you as a full woman. For me, it’s been bliss, these last eighteen years, every single moment of it and continuing – do keep that in mind forever, no matter what happens in the days to come.

I had once read a father’s benediction for his son on the day the latter turned eighteen and I had thought I’d write something similar for you when your time came. But now there’s no need, of course, there’s a whole book to accompany you lifelong; especially, now, the last two chapters therein. That should suffice.

I had lived thirty three intense and eventful years before you were born, yet today I can’t fully believe any more that there was ever a time when you were not there. You keep assuring me that I was born to be a father, and that is what I have been discovering about myself these last eighteen years, day by day, week by week, year by year. And if anyone knows the meaning of true and abiding enjoyment, I can assure you I do, for I have enjoyed myself thoroughly all through. From exulting over your first cry even before I knew whether I had a son or a daughter to swinging you to sleep to changing nappies and writing poems for you and telling stories and going walking hand in hand to distant travels to readying you for school, singing and dancing together, learning housekeeping and handling large sums of money, watching thunderstorms and mountains and sunsets and riding yaks and camels and elephants to caressing trees and puppies, reading great books and watching great movies together and discussing poetry and philosophy, politics and economics, psychology and religion…they told me raising a child is no end of ‘trouble’, and parents moan ad nauseam about what awesome ‘sacrifices’ they have made for their children, but believe me, for me it has been one continuous joyride. No other experience, bar none, has given me any comparable happiness, nor ever will in this lifetime, I know, unless it be a chance to raise your daughter someday.

I love you as you are. And I don’t want anything of you or from you, save that you stay just the way you are for a long, long time, or at least, God willing, until I die. There’s nothing you have to prove to me, nothing you have to achieve to impress and satisfy me: not academic degrees, not jobs, not money and power and status, nothing. They only want such things from their children who are lost souls, who have never known what it is to be happy just to have a happy and loving child. I know how much I have got from you already, and how little of it most parents I know can even imagine getting. I am grateful that God sent you to me. I am grateful that you have stayed healthy and happy and safe this far. I am grateful that having come to despise, even loathe women so much as a rule, I can still love you so wholly and unconditionally – and I know, as you know, that being family has very little to do with it, for your dad has never been able to love, or even fake loving, simply because someone is family.

I have been holding you closest to my heart for a long time yet letting go of your hand little by little all along. I didn’t let you out of the house for the first whole month but took you on a long journey when you were sixteen months old, and got into the swimming pool with you when you were barely two and a half. And remember how terrified I was when you went to the neighbourhood marketplace alone the first time at age eleven, yet only a couple of years later you were taking a public bus alone to school, and having your first little ‘affair’ without daddy and mummy making nuisances of themselves? And today, of course, we laugh together at how the mothers of your own classmates ask you to look after their daughters when you are travelling, and how neither those girls nor their mothers can imagine handling the degree of overall independence that you both enjoy and suffer from. So it’s not as if you will suddenly become very much more your own woman today onwards, and yet both of us feel that something important will have changed, don’t we? Therefore I wish you bon voyage, ma. May you have a good story to tell your grandchildren. Stay canny, stay wide awake, think always of the long-term consequences of whatever you do, but otherwise, may I be the last person to hold you back from what you really want to do. Indeed, with every passing year now, I shall hope not only to see you getting a better grip on your own life, but telling me more and more what I should do. I have walked alone too long: glad I did, proud of it, but also very tired, and being told again what to do now and then will be a delight surpassing all others. May I get a few years of that before it is ‘sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me’.

If there is just one thing I want to beg you for ma, it is this: don’t break my heart by turning out to be khelo in the final analysis – cheap and common – because like so many others you decided, despite my influence, that it is all-important to stay close to the comforting primordial muck. Nothing will compensate me for the resultant sense of loss and defeat and shame, not if you thereby managed to become the richest celebrity in the world. Please, ma, believe that there is a realm of the spirit that must not be sacrificed for anything that this world can offer…unless you are content to die a pig.

And in the fullness of time, may my legacy be not a bit of knowledge or a bit of money, but your ability to tell just about anybody on earth who talks of love ‘Don’t talk about things you don’t understand, and can’t’.

May life give you everything it held back from me, and then some more. May you never be sorry that you were my daughter. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ring out the old

I shouldn’t want to end the year on a sour note, so here’s a few words of thanks to a few good people, and one or two other things:

Sumit Ganguly visited  a few months ago after eleven long years of being out of touch. In this age of drab universal mediocrity, he has lived the kind of life you can write stories about. Right now he is a thermite welder with Canadian Pacific, and doing well. He brought me a bottle of The Glenlivet single malt, adding by way of explanation that as a boy he had heard me praising such things, and made a mental note that if he ever turned up at my door again someday, he would bring a gift for me. Thank you for ‘the gift of grapes and the spirit in which it was given’ as the priest wrote to his parishioner, Sumit. Come again, with or without gifts.

Shreeja Das, all of seventeen summers, who had her last class with me in November 2013, had moved to Calcutta with her family since. The intervening year has been cruel to her: she lost both her grandparents, both her parents underwent major surgery, and her father is still bedridden. Nevertheless she made time to look me up, and said ‘How could I not?’ And so many people tell me they want to visit but they are ‘too pressed for time’. My best wishes, love and blessings for your family, Shreeja, and may your tribe increase.

Sunandini, it matters a great deal to me that you thought Sir was important enough to keep in the loop while your dad had a brush with death. If my prayers count for anything, he will have a very long new lease on life.

Lavona, thank you for just being there.

Forty four year old Satyen Das from Calcutta rode a rickshaw all the way to Ladakh earlier this year. He was featured on Sourav Ganguly’s Dadagiri show recently. I don’t admire people easily, but let it never be said that I can’t admire people at all.

And now it’s a lovely mild winter, I have one of my breaks, and my daughter’s here for a spell. Her school life is over, and she will be eighteen in a few days’ time. The next post will be about her. Meanwhile, may all good people around the world find peace and warmth and joy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

chhotolok

In the early days of my tutoring in this town, there were some people who did not pay their wards’ fees for the last month, guessing (rightly) that I was too self-respecting a man to come to their door over and over again to ask for my dues. These were all well-off ‘gentlefolk’, too. Eventually I made it a rule that everyone must pay their fees by the 10th of the current month, and that it is my right to throw out anyone who has to be reminded two months in succession. I am sure that earned me the reputation of a money-grubbing rogue in some quarters, but it has ensured that for nearly a quarter century almost no one has got away with cheating.

There have been teachers in several schools around this town who have abused me in the safety of their classrooms, but that has not stopped them from stealing my notes and passing them off as their own, or even sending their own children to my tuition when their time came.

Their children being counted among my favourites apparently helps some people to score some brownie points off their ‘friends’, so fathers have boasted that ‘My daughter is special to Sir’ and mothers have told me ‘After all, you are his real father’ ( I ask you!!!) And then, of course – you got that right, they have all forgotten me completely, if not bad-mouthed me too.

A girl I thought I loved, long ago when I was a boy, got back in touch after a gap of 27 years. She was on the wrong side of 45 then. She had had a very sheltered and luxurious upbringing. In one of her emails she asked ‘Are you very rich? I have heard that some private tutors make pots of money…’ and another woman, about the same age, and from the same ‘cultured’ milieu, when she heard that Oxford University Press had published a collection of translations of Tagore among which there were some contributions of mine, had only one question to ask my wife: ‘Sir will make a lot of money from this, won’t he?’

A very famous Bengali author, now long dead, got one of his novellas translated by me in a tearing hurry because he had to read it out at an embassy dinner in his honour. As a sort of afterthought, a few months later, he sent me the princely fee of two hundred rupees so that, the message said, I could get myself a new shirt and pair of trousers. This was in my early college days. Today for this sort of job I’d charge five hundred a page, half the total payable in advance. Another of his ilk, also on the editorial board of a national newspaper, passed off one of my articles under his byline. He maintained a lofty and strongly moral tone in almost all his writing, too.

As I have said before, a lot of people have borrowed from me. It started with a professor in the university I attended, who said he was in dire need and took six thousand rupees from me, ostensibly for just a month (that amount thirty years ago would be the equivalent of at least 40,000 today, and remember I was scrounging to keep my head above the water in those days). I had to chase him around for a year and eventually threaten to shame him in public before he returned the money, and that too with the worst possible grace. Many others, in Tagore’s words, have remained ‘forever indebted’ to me, literally. So it made me very proud when recently an old boy returned the full amount he had borrowed at one go the first time he came home from abroad to see me, without my having to bring up the matter even once. Glad to see there are still a few men of honour left.

There was a police booth at the point where the road crosses over to Birganj from Raxaul in north Bihar as it enters Nepal. As a tourist, I stopped at the checkpost and insisted over and over again that my old Yashica camera be registered as part of my luggage, because I had heard of people being harassed on the way back. The fat, leery, nose-picking cops refused to oblige and waved me through, saying there was absolutely no need. A week later, on my way back, the same cops waylaid me, pounced on that ancient camera, and fined me for carrying undeclared electronic goods which I had allegedly bought abroad. What is worse, they talked down to me, saying ‘How can we control the riff-raff if educated people like you break rules like this?’ This happened in 1994; it still rankles like an old wound which never properly healed.

There have been people who have borrowed books from me, knowing full well that books matter to me more than virtually anything else in the world, and then simply lost them or ‘forgotten’ to return them. If I remember them as vermin, I know I shall be forgiven from On High.

When I was in the process of getting married, my about-to-become brother in law came over to Durgapur to make a sort of background check on me. Someone at a bank who claimed to know me well assured him that I was already married. There are several thousand people like this one – many of them have hardly ever seen me, let alone knowing me closely – who know much more about me than my parents, wife and child, and little of what they ‘know’ is complimentary.

One neighbour, none of whose family members had ever deigned to give me a civil greeting when we met, came over to see me because he wanted me to put in a good word on behalf of his daughter, who had applied for a job in the school where I taught. Obviously I was not dying to do him a favour, but I merely told him the truth: that at that point of time relations between the headmaster and me were so bad (I quit the school shortly thereafter) that my recommendation would make it a dead certainty that the girl did not get the job. That family has never visited me again, nor even nodded on the street. Another one only recently accosted me in the local bazaar, insisting that I admit his two nieces out of turn next year, because, after all, we were neighbours, weren’t we, and he ‘respected’ me so much! (so much, indeed, that he too had never once bade me good morning or evening in 27 years). I gave him the short shrift, of course, ensuring that I had added one more to the huge list of people who call me snooty and unsocial and suchlike – but tell me, does it matter?

There have been people – their own children, once grown up, have confessed to me – who cringe and fawn and beg to get their wards admitted to my tuition, yet warn the same children that while they should take down my ‘notes’ very carefully, they should not pay any heed to a word of what I say ‘outside the syllabus’, all of which, they know, is dangerous nonsense. Naturally they cannot recognize me once their kids’ tuitions are over. And the most shameless of them come over years later to ask for special favours on behalf of their younger children or other kids in the family, because, I suppose, they think they once did me a big favour by sending their older children to me. When I send them off with a flea in their ear, they are merely confirmed in their opinion as to what a bad man I am.

Outside my house, I try to be as quiet, modest and self-effacing as I can. Alas, all I have got for my pains is the accusation that I am superciliously aloof. Also, some people take unthinkably crass advantage of it. A few months ago the father of an ex-student met me in the market, and asked ‘You here, at this time of the day?’ It was around ten in the morning on a weekday, and he happens to have a salaried job, so I would have been far more justified in asking him that question, but I don’t like to be nosey, and prefer silence to stupid questions. I laughed at myself instead, saying ‘A jobless man has all the time in the world!’ To which any half-civilized man would have said (as indeed, hundreds have, I have checked) ‘Oh, come on Sir, jobless, you?’ but this creature decided that the right thing to say would be ‘Oh, everyone would like to be jobless like you!’ I know a lot of people half his age who have a better appreciation of, and more respect for, what it takes to be jobless like me. Everyone, is it? And mind you, all these people are quite sure they deserve the label of bhadralok! I have been telling pupils for thirty odd years to reflect on the conundrum of how the country has become full of the corrupt and the base when all our parents are honest and decent folks…

I could go on and on. Life has been hard to me. I started off instinctively trying to like people and trust them and treat them gently, but the fire of experience has burnt a hard and prickly shell around me. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ I still consider very sage advice, but ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself?’ You’ve got to be kidding!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

No more skunks, please!

It’s been four years since I wrote something expressly by way of bidding farewell to my outgoing batches (Bye bye time again). If you look it up, you will find a link to an even older post in the same vein (To those about to become ex-students), which I think you should read first, if you intend to read at all. This year there were some boys (and a very tiny handful of girls) who have been reading this blog in a sustained way for quite some time, so maybe they – and a few much older old boys – might not be entirely uninterested if I added something to these last two posts.

Some of the boys hung back for quite some time after the rest of the horde had left. One of them, imagining he was revealing a great secret, whispered into my ear, ‘Do you know, Sir, many of these people who were eagerly clicking photographs of you speak ill of you in the coarsest way behind your back?’ I disappointed him, I think, with a smile: ‘Of course I do, and how does their very existence matter after they have paid their fees in full? It’s a democratic country, after all, and the essence of democracy is that the worst of absurdity and filth passing under the name of opinions must be tolerated and ignored, isn’t it?’

Some of those boys, as always, had tears in their eyes. And it was they whom I hurt most, quite deliberately, by shooing them off, saying after 33 years and 5,000-plus students, I must be excused for not being affected by their ephemeral sentimentality. Most of them would forget me completely within a couple of years; some would remember, and wish in a vague, lazy sort of way that they could get back in touch again but never muster the courage or energy to do so; only a very tiny number would surprise me pleasantly by staying closely and warmly in touch for years and decades together. Tanmoy and Rajdeep and Nishant and Aakash and Subhadip and Harman would know what I am talking about. And all those who would forget and drop out of my life for good, may they know that they are certainly not the ones whom I would despise and condemn: they are just no better and no worse than the commonest human beings. If God has made them that way, the fault is God’s, not theirs. And besides, I have always had a certain grudging respect for people who stand permanently by their opinions even if they are silly or uncouth: those who have disliked me from the start and expressed their feelings without inhibition in their own circles are at least integral personalities…Jayastu Senapati was certainly not the worst human being in his batch. There was a skunk compared to whom he was a saint, only it took me a decade to find out!

All my contempt and disgust is reserved for those skunks.  In earlier posts I have adequately hinted at what sort of people I call skunks. This is my plea to every single pupil in my outgoing batch: don’t get close to me and then reveal yourself to be a skunk. The stench is truly unbearable, and I have had more than enough of it to suffice for a lifetime, thank you very much. A skunk cannot help being a skunk: so let it be, just so long as s/he doesn’t come too close to me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Love

An idiot who pretended to have read To My Daughter once asked ‘Why isn’t there a chapter on love?’ But the whole book is about love! I do now realize that my interlocutor was simply not sufficiently endowed to figure that out. Be that as it may, I have been asked for too long by too many people to write down my ideas of love. So here’s a (most certainly incomplete -)  attempt.

It might be a good thing to start off by listing what love is not. It is not the kind of loyalty that stems from mere biological connection and/or financial dependence: no son or daughter is competent to declare that s/he loves their parents before turning forty, and before the parents are retired and infirm (and even there should be a caveat: they might honestly think they love their parents, but all they are actually doing is executing socially-expected filial duty, with an eye on the inheritance). Yes, go ahead, call me a cynic. I like to think I am a man of the world, who stopped being dewy-eyed when he was fifteen.

It is not mere carnal desire – as with teenagers in hot pants – though I laugh in the face of any man or woman who thinks everybody can be ‘just friends’, and good, true friends at that. That’s one average sized sentence, but I have found hardly ten people in all my life who understand it, and agree on the basis of understanding. Something to do with deficient or unbalanced hormones, and a sadly common condition, I incline to think.

It is not trying to possess another person, and yet if both parties make ‘freedom’ their fundamental priority, let them spare me the lie that they also love. No more pathetic rubbish has ever been spoken. They may sleep together and make babies and have joint bank accounts and accompany each other to parties or malls, work as colleagues and even depend on each other in emergencies, but they have never cared to know what love is. And indeed, hundreds of millions manage to get through life without knowing, or feeling the need to know.

It is not preventing children from ever growing up in the name of caring for them, it is not imposing one’s dreams on them. By that token, very few parents, at least in this country, have ever loved.

It is not pretending that I am a better person than I can be in the hope that the other person will be duped, and give me the attention and affection and care that I crave, for a while at least: then I’ll simply move on in search of fresh prey.

So what is love, then?

Well, to mention just a few essential things, love is first and foremost something that just does not obey the dictates of convention: one does not fall in love only after checking that daddy and mummy approve, and that one’s love belongs to the right age-, income-, caste-, religious-, community- or national bracket, or the right ‘crowd’. That sort of thing is simply too pat and too easy not to arouse the strongest suspicion. I know of far too many who will sagely agree, yet never dream of rocking the boat in their own lives. They always find their ‘loves’ from among the ‘right’ groups by nothing but sheer happy coincidence!

Next, love is a question of being happy doing things for the loved one, even if it ‘inconveniences’ one, even rather badly sometimes.

Love is sharing. And I don’t mean silly things like towels and toothbrushes and email passwords.

Love is belonging. If one loves someone truly, one does not hanker for hordes of ‘friends’, nor for going out all the time.

Love is admiring each other for a lot of things. It may be for something as humble as how well she can cook or console people in distress, as much as for how learned or clever or influential s/he is. And the fastest, least painful way of falling out of love is acknowledging to oneself, after trying very hard to find out, that there is simply nothing to admire about him or her.

Love is being a comfort, and doing all one can not to be a tormentor instead.

Love is wanting to improve oneself in the other’s eyes, and trying to improve the other at the same time. Opinions vary very greatly on this, but I know exactly where I stand, and that I am right, whether the ‘other’ is my daughter or my pupil or my wife. As Shakespeare writes, when Brutus says ‘I do not like your faults’, and Cassius retorts that ‘A friendly eye could never see such faults’, Brutus tells him of a crucial difference, ‘A flatterer’s would not, though they appear as huge as high Olympus’. I shall always be a teacher, and proud to be. That has lost me a lot of friends, and I shall probably die sad and lonely, but I shall be remembered with respect,  gratitude and perchance even longing by a great many long after I am gone, and that is all I care for. For I have loved.


There are other things. Lots. But I don’t like repeating myself, and there’s To My Daughter waiting to be read. Only, I hope you read it better than the idiot I mentioned at the start. I tried to teach so many of you to read, and it hurts to see that you couldn’t learn…

Thursday, October 30, 2014

I am still around, but changed. Or have I?

As everybody who visits this blog will have noticed, I have not written for an uncharacteristically long time. It was gratifying to hear from some of them asking ‘Are you alright, Sir?’ It was equally salutary to notice how many who gushed so much once upon a time – not always long ago, either – couldn’t be bothered. Keeping all such people in mind, here are some explanations and a notice of changes.

I stopped writing because I felt

1.      I had written a great deal already, and continuously for a very long time. Few bloggers except those who have kept going for more than a year at my pace will even begin to understand what that entails.
2.      I have discovered to my entire conviction that not many people were interested – in the sense of wanting to/being capable of writing intelligent and decent comments every now and then,
3. I have received a lot of bad vibes, in the form of irrelevant/stupid/offensive comments, not always from complete strangers, and everyone has a limit to his patience,
4.      My basic purpose all along was to keep in touch with ex-students, and after eight years (four of them overlapping with my orkut community), I know now that it doesn’t work, and it is not on the whole very rewarding,
5.      Now that my book has been published, just about anybody can have access to the full range of my thoughts for a mere three hundred and fifty rupees – and I am happy to note that it is selling slowly but steadily all the time.
6.      I have said this before: I have discovered to my chagrin that while most people never have anything to say, those who do, or think they do, lose all sense of manners and decorum when they communicate via the internet, and write in a tone they wouldn’t dream of assuming with me face to face without wetting their pants. I don’t like rats trying to act like lions, nor pinheads presuming to be thinking human beings. So enough.

And now to the changes. Anyone with half an eye cannot fail to notice that the number of ‘members’ of this blog has suddenly dropped drastically. Not an accident: I have been winnowing, and I am not done yet. I discovered that most of these ‘members’ are people I don’t know/have quite forgotten/have hardly ever written a sensible comment on anything at all. They don’t deserve to be here, nor do they have to be. Anybody can read this blog, it’s still in the public domain. But when it comes to commenting, I have changed my settings so that henceforth only members can comment, and I shall be very careful whom I let in hereafter.

Between 43 and 51, after having lived the kind of intense mental life that I have lived, one doesn’t really find out much that is new about humanity. This entire experience of blogging has only confirmed me in my conviction that most human beings are banal, flighty, opportunistic and insensitive at best, and wholly evil at worst. Oh, I have met some good people who have warmed my heart every now and then, but that has been so badly offset by nasty experiences – the worst of which has always been discovering that ‘nice’ people never meant a word of the nice things they said to me, at least for any length of time, that it has left me, if not deeply cynical, at least world-weary beyond redemption. As a (still-) favourite old boy recently said to me quoting the poet, if anyone comes to look me up now,

“they would not find me changed from him they knew/ only more sure of all I thought was true”.

And with this kind of gift from one who has been both daughter and pupil, what do I care about what the rest of the world thinks? Let it only be remembered that I am on the whole very deeply disappointed in my students who are all grown up now: that’s the gentlest thing I can say about them. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

boro aasha kore

আর কত দুরে আছে সে আনন্দধাম। 
আমি শ্রান্ত, আমি অন্ধ, আমি পথ নাহি জানি।
রবি যায় অস্তাচলে আঁধারে ঢাকে ধরণী -
কর কৃপা অনাথে হে বিশ্বজনজননী। 

অতৃপ্ত বাসনা লাগি ফিরিয়াছি পথে পথে -
বৃথা খেলা, বৃথা মেলা, বৃথা বেলা গেল বহে। 
আজি সন্ধ্যাসমীরণে লহ শান্তিনিকেতনে,
স্নেহকরপরশনে চিরশান্তি দেহ আনি। 


How far yet to the house of bliss?
I am weary, I am blind, I do not know the way.
The sun sets, there comes the gathering dark.
O please, Mother of the world, have pity on the orphan lost.

Driven by unfulfilled longings, I have wandered long on the road
The games, the fairs, all came to naught and wore out my day –
Now the evening breeze begins to blow, let it waft me to the abode of peace.

Put your loving hand on my head, Mother, bring me the final rest.

Friday, August 15, 2014

15th August

मा, तुझे सालाम।  

আমার এই দেশেতেই জন্ম, যেন এই দেশেতেই মরি। 

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Things that make me sad

1. Look at this post. I wish far more people abided by these basic norms.

2. ...and at this one. This is the world we live in, and we keep pretending to ourselves that we needn't bother, because after all we are not the ones who are suffering.

I shall elaborate - perhaps - later on.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

O saathi re

I have been living with this song since I was fourteen. I react to it at 51 as I did then. (Listen to the instrumental: I find it even grander...)

All that has changed is that today I know there exists no woman who deserves to be serenaded like this by a man who is a man.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Women!

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.