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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ruby

I wrote in the last post that I expect to meet unusual girls about once in a decade. If asked whether I have met any at all, I shall say ‘Of course! Why else do you think I keep an expectant corner in my heart for all my children?’

Ruby was my pupil twenty years ago. She belonged to the batch which was invited to my wedding. A quiet, humble girl with no affectations or pretensions to being ‘cool’ despite going to Carmel School, she said little in class. Her parents became somewhat more than nodding acquaintances too. She kept in touch, through college, and marriage, and the coming of her children, and her artistic ventures and teaching experiences; she has always kept in touch, while every other member of that large group has fallen off completely. She never went in for trendy clothes or mouthing abuse or gushing and tittering over boys or posting selfies on Facebook as most girls do. With me, there has never been any fuss, any nyakami, any over-the-top protestations of undying love and devotion and that kind of rot, only a phone call once every few months when I know she expects to talk to a very attentive Sir for half an hour, and a visit once in a year or two when she is in this part of the country (she’s lived in Mumbai for a long time now). She is a very ordinary person in some ways, yet she has won an extraordinary place in my heart for two virtues that I so rarely find – integrity and constancy. She has never had to change her mind about what she feels about me, and she has till the time of writing maintained without a break, in her calm, slow, self-possessed way, that she doesn’t want to break off the connection. To someone like me, who has seen so incredibly many of the other sort, she is a rare gem indeed.

Now her poor husband is seriously ill, and has recently undergone surgery. Ruby has had a very hard time tackling everything on her own, including her two very lively little boys. It goes without saying that she has my most earnest blessings and prayers, and I am sure she has earned a lot of sunshine in her life hereafter.

I hope the little girl who recently wrote a passionate essay about Sir will read this and understand – a bit – what I meant when I told her ‘Rewrite this essay when you are thirty, if you still remember Sir.’ I know she wrote that essay ‘from her heart’, as it is customarily said; my point is that right now she doesn’t even know her heart, and chances are she never will, at thirty or at sixty. I am in a position to know what that means. But if she does, and if she turns out to be another Ruby, I shall have reason to be grateful and content, in this world and the next.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Looking back and ahead, again

After 35 years at it, I still laughingly wonder aloud before my most favourite ex students why people sign up in droves for my classes – indeed, I have to beg scores of parents to be forgiven that I cannot take in any more. Especially given so many handicaps, including my legendary bad temper, the fact that syllabi have been shrinking slowly but steadily, and even idiots get 90 per cent-plus marks in board examinations these days, with or without my help. Not even counting how hard my ex unlamented colleagues worked to give me a bad name once upon a time.

Many explanations have been suggested: a) that parents follow the herd instinct to the exclusion of almost anything else, b) I have become a local status symbol, c) that there are too few competent English tutors around, d) My market value remains high precisely because I play hard to get, what with all those rules and stuff, and throwing out the odd pupil now and then, e) lots of old boys and girls have given me precious word-of-mouth publicity, f) once students get in, they are visibly enchanted by some kind of sorcery, and parents can’t help noticing it, g) I have not yet made my services too expensive, etc. etc. Maybe all of them are partly true – but somehow that sounds rather unsatisfactory, like why someone got a heart attack, given there are 150-odd known risk factors…I mean, if somebody decided to wreck my reputation and livelihood today, how would she go about doing it?

I am being neither facetious nor vain. God knows that I had to learn the hard way how tough it is to build up a paying and satisfying career on your own: most people who got jobs through campus interviews while still in college will never begin to find out, and the desperation with which they cling to salaried jobs, however vacuous or unpleasant, tells me adequately that they don’t want to know in their worst nightmares. Indeed, though I have been teaching since 1980, my earnings became substantial only from 1992, and enough to make me happy only since I quit that school and set out on my own, just 13 years ago. Now, as I grow tired and a trifle bored and much irritated with the kind of students I don’t want to teach (a large fraction, believe me), the numbers are swelling to bursting point, and I have no idea how to deal with it.

It has been a long and relentless working life. I have been thirsting for a long time for more breaks, more holidays, more chances to do things I really like, whether it be travelling or social work or charity or romance or just sleeping twelve hours a day. I have been trying to figure out just how to accomplish that without completely retiring from work – which I can’t do, not yet, both because I need some income still, and I’d be bored stiff within a month. I had been looking forward to mid-2015, and now it is here. My daughter’s got into a reputed government college where she wanted to read the subject of her choice, she lives at home and can take better care of herself than most of her contemporaries, I had put aside enough money to see her through a good private college if need be, food, clothing, tuition, books, travel and all even if I am no longer around, and right now things have so shaped up that that would be considerably more than what she needs. My home loan will be fully paid up next month, and, to cut a long story short, unless I consider the compulsory savings I still continue to make, I am right now, at least financially speaking, more of a free man than I have been in the last thirty years, and solvently so. I am going through the seven-days-a-week grind as though nothing has changed – simply because I haven’t yet worked out how to change!

Raise fees, take fewer classes, keep the weekends free was one suggestion that came from the whole family. Then they themselves backtracked – realizing, firstly, what a riot I’d have to turn away, and secondly that I wouldn’t gain much from it, and since weekends are too short to make good getaways, I’d simply sit at home and brood. Much better if I could carry on with the normal routine for six weeks to two months at a stretch, then zoom off on a holiday, with family, daughter, some good old friend or ex student, or just by myself, for a week every time at least. Can I organize my routine that way without seriously hurting the reputation I have built up over so long? And can I at the same time figure out some way to filter out all but those I seriously like to teach – meaning those who have brains (not merely the math problem solving type), and hearts that can be touched, and lively curiosity about lots of things, and willingness to work earnestly at assignments I give them, and most important of all, those who show some signs that they will remember me fondly and respectfully many years down the line, and not break my heart by proving that I had expected far more from them as human beings than they were capable of understanding, leave alone giving? Females, it goes without saying, I exclude out of hand: let anyone prove that she is different from the average of her kind and I shall salute and hug her, but this I know – I might have to do that only once or twice in a decade.

There are things to look forward to. Relishing a very old and fond memory of what a friend’s father used to do, I have promised several of Pupu’s friends, all of whom were once my pupils and all of whom are now in Calcutta colleges, that I am going to take them out for dinner. I know they are waiting for me to get well. The college Pupu is going to is one on which we might be said to have a sort of family claim, and I intend to tour the campus with her, and smoke with her beside one of the landmarks – I’m sure that no matter how ‘cool’ her friends think they are, this will take their breath away. We missed a holiday trip this May because of my accident: that has to be made up for. As for travelling, I can’t make up my mind about what would be the best way – slum it out, as I have not done in twenty years, take trains or planes, or hit the road? If the last, would it be a good thing to buy a new car or would hiring one be a better idea, given how rarely my family makes road trips? I haven’t travelled long distances all by myself since 1992: would that be worth trying again? So many old boys have been calling for years from around the world – can I make it work?

How incredible this journey has been! main aur meri tanhayi/ aksar yeh baaten karte hain… I have vivid memories of what I was doing in and around the college campus in the early eighties: the stage that my daughter has reached now. So much hard study, so many loves, so much journalistic and teaching work, so many movies in the days you could only see them in theatres, so much flirting with drugs, so much family suffering and angst, such increasing hopelessness with academics (even earning gold medals and corresponding with Nobel Prize winners brought no solace and sense of direction) right through 1987. Then a period of blackest despair (look it up in To My Daughter), then the school job like a sudden unexpected ray of sunshine, then a rapidly building up reputation as a teacher. And then the next two decades, despite all the slogging without let up, passed by in a flash – so many little children of the early nineties are parents themselves now, and their kids are under my tutelage, or they are seeking my counsel and consolation that they are doing alright as parents. My sisters were married off, one settled abroad, my own marriage was quickly followed by my daughter, and a whole fabulous new story began, and now she’s nineteen, that magical age that Pilar told Maria about in For whom the bell tolls. My wife is growing old before her time and ill, but there’s a faint hope that she will turn the corner sooner or later. And I am looking at the prospect of maturing insurance plans and pension funds… just imagine, me! And so many little comedies and tragedies involving so many people who came and went: it will be a whole book if I could scribble down a third of the things I remember.  Maybe someday I shall get around to writing it. The only thought that holds me back is Shaw’s warning about writing autobiographies: those who don’t know you won’t believe it, and those who know will be furious.

Teeing off in another direction: here is a wonderful critique of Harper Lee’s classic To kill a Mockingbird. It is written soberly, sensibly and respectfully, and it has something of substance to say: that is how real opinions should be formed, and such opinions have become scarce indeed. Of course I don’t wholly endorse the writer’s views, and if we were talking face to face I’d have pointed out quite a few things he hasn’t noticed or ignored or glossed over which have helped very substantially to make it a great book – but I shall do him the courtesy of going through the book with a fine-toothed comb and making extensive notes before joining issue with him: it has been a cardinal virtue I have preached all my teaching life, that opinions are worthless unless supported by well-researched and coherent facts. Otherwise, they are worse than garbage, they pollute minds not merely streets. Consider this, for example, from the facebook post of someone who has gone crazy ‘fighting’ (from the safety of the bedroom via only the net, of course) for gay rights – such rights demand recognition in toto, because ‘Attraction is not a choice’. Nobody ever pointed out to him that the very same thing can be said about revulsion: try persuading a thousand normal girls how loveable roaches and spiders and lizards are. Someone told me long ago that you can be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

And how this disease has been spreading like a scourge – from American campuses around the world, it goes without saying – you can read here, though I might have almost written this article myself. That this is happening with a vengeance in India too you can see here. ‘Give me the facts’, they used to say in the age of Enlightenment; ‘If the theory does not fit the facts, throw away the theory’, said people like Sherlock Holmes; now apparently in American schools teachers say ‘Just your opinion, child, just give me your opinion’. All that counts is that your opinion should be politically correct. So millions of American schoolkids who can’t identify Lincoln in a photograph and can’t speak five lines about the Declaration of Independence grow up certified to be educated and responsible citizens eligible to vote. SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low, but what does it matter if they can sing rock, or play basketball, or shake cocktails or do nail art or, better still, work out differential equations in their heads – those are the ones Google and Facebook hire, don’t they? We don’t need educated people any more, we (the whole system) need unthinking technically competent drudges and consumers. And this is how it is being done – via that man-making/man-destroying system called ‘education’.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Rains, physiotherapy, history, accidents

The IMD predicted a scant monsoon this year, so it has been raining heavily all through June, and incessantly over the last few days. And I love it as much as ever, surrounded as I am by space, quiet and greenery. Things are far worse in the metros, I know, but it is good to hear that Calcuttans are now much better off than those in Mumbai, from what I get to hear from my family and ex students. Anyway, as I have always maintained, I shall never live in an anthill, unless I earn five lakhs a month post taxes at least, and can work from home. If I have to move about for a living, it had better be fifteen lakhs, and preferably a police car with a red beacon and hooter following me about. When I think of good living, I don’t think smartphones: I was not born a gwala’s son.

Physiotherapy is stopping just short of torture, did you know that? It comforts and it hurts, and slowly the latter’s proportion increases until they stop just before you think you are going to yell. I’ve been given crutches now, by the way. It hurts still, so I am interspersing it with the walker. I have defied doctor’s orders to go upstairs, and to visit the bank once already. But anything like normal will be another three months at least. I should have broken a bone 35 years ago: kids grow so fast! … this boy Hasan is good. I have promised to fetch him a lot of custom. He charges just one hundred rupees for a one-on-one session, can you believe it? It makes me see red when I think of so many people his age or thereabouts, whose ‘work’ does not have a hundredth of the social value, earning ten times that much. Many tens of millions should thank God that someone like me would never become a socialist dictator.

Surveillance and parenting and Big Brother. I posted a cartoon on the other blog, now read this article. Thank God again I quit that school before smoking on campus was banned, and the day they make it mandatory to install CCTV cameras in my classroom I am going to call it a day. All workplaces are becoming what prisons and lunatic asylums used to be only fifty years ago: that’s progress for you. Bengali readers, have you watched Ichchhe yet? Recognized somebody you know?

My daughter’s college life starts next week. With her, it’s almost become a time-honoured tradition to read history in our family. I couldn’t (or so I thought in my youth) afford it, so it feels good to think I have at least played a part in enthusing a few others in the days when they were growing up. Sad that I couldn’t pass it on to any of my thousands of bright kids, so many of whom have discovered in their mid-twenties or even later that history is a far more interesting subject than engineering!

I have passed yet another milestone in my life: a very pretty young thing actually asked to be petted in class (ador koro)! Soon I’ll give them permission to call me dadu. As for sitting under a tree in the rain at Humayun’s tomb, I guess Krishna wants I reserve that for Pupu alone in this lifetime. I have got much without asking; I shall not insult myself any more by asking those who cannot even understand what they were being given.

How much Indians care about things that matter (such as saving life and limb from road accidents) as opposed to say cricket and skirt lengths and ‘rights’ for homosexuals has always been an issue close to my heart (along with peeing by the roadside), as countless ex students can aver. That Indian roads have become the most dangerous in the world is, for obvious reasons, no longer just a statistic for me, if it ever was. I would give a very great deal to see laws enacted and enforced that would make our roads safer for our children. Mine was a typical hit and run case, with the biker driving at high speed along the wrong side of a national highway running alongside a very busy marketplace. And he got away without a scratch, without a beating, without a fine. Just one of thousands of such incidents happening every day in this wretched country. I insist, it will never happen in any truly civilized country, and that is an infinitely more important index of development than autorickshaw drivers using smartphones. Alas, what hope is there in a country where university educated folks in their thirties and forties are imbecile enough not to know what matters and what doesn’t? This I know – if their fathers, brothers and husbands became roadkill or were maimed for life, they’d weep for a week or two and then ‘move on’. With such an ‘educated and enlightened’ populace, what wonder that the government doesn’t care? Last year, after Gopinath Munde’s tragic death, the Modi sarkar had promised to bring in a tough amended road law – that seems to have died a quiet death, as this report says. Our aam janta is at one with the auto lobbies in wishing more and ever more vehicles with wild and reckless drivers on the roads: a few lakh lives lost and a million or so temporarily or permanently crippled is too small a price to bother about. And if we are intellectuals or hacks, we must spare time to think about terrorists – after all, they kill hundreds a year, don’t they?

This is a link to some people who do care. Think: could you do something to help them? For your own sake and for your loved ones?

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Roots

A prolonged convalescence has helped greatly to talk at length with my parents, and I have been picking their brains, tracing my genealogical and intellectual inheritance – my roots if you like. I had heard most of it in disjointed snatches over decades, since I was so high, but it is fun piecing it all together at this age, and discovering bits and pieces I hadn’t known. My grandfather’s grandfather on my father’s side was naib/dewan of the Maharajah of Burdwan (when his women travelled by palanquin through forests escorted by paiks – armed guards – the notorious dacoits who lorded it over those parts salaamed and moved aside when they heard it was his folks passing by), a famed astrologer, and more than a dabbler in tantra. His son made a fortune as a muqhtaar, and my granddad was part owner of one of the most famous bookstores in College Street, Kolkata in its time – Chatterjee Brothers – who saved a lot of innocent lives both Hindu and Muslim at enormous risk to his own out on the streets during the Great Riot of 1946, sometimes browbeating bloodthirsty mobs into quiescence by the sheer weight of his aroused personality. I can see where the temper has come from, and how valuable it can be, and anyway it makes me proud that I was not born into a typical Bengali middle-class family of mealy-mouthed, time-serving rats. The tradition has continued powerfully through my own father, who was never formally much of anything for most of his life, and yet chief ministers have sought his counsel, and violent trade unionists have sought his protection to save their skins, and on occasion he has had the ineffable gall to grab the hand of the Dalai Lama himself and put it on his own head, leaving the entire entourage open mouthed – as someone VERY high in the government said then, not many presidents of nations would dare do that. All His Holiness did was to smile and say ‘Happy? Can I have my hand back now?’ There are stories galore, but much has to be filtered for a blog, given the average quality of readership these days…

I have written more about my mother’s side, but only recently I discovered that Sagarmoy Ghose, the legendary founding editor of Desh magazine, to which Rabindranath himself used to contribute once upon a time, when he heard about me, remarked ‘Ore rokte lekha achhe toh’ (he has writing in his blood), because my great granddad the doctor had been a good friend since the days of his youth. What I didn’t know was that I was distantly related to no less a scholar/teacher than Basudev Sarbobhoum himself, with whom Sri Chaitanya stayed during his sojourn in Nilachal, being particularly fond of the malpua that Sarbobhoum’s daughter in law prepared, and whose recipe was handed down as far as boroma, Saraswati, my mother’s grandmother, a legend in her own right, wife of a self-made tycoon who made half of modern Assam (including the only road that still connects Guwahati with Shillong today), a devout and truly simple woman as only very deep women can be, coached in English at home in Shimla by the governess to the children of a certain provincial Governor, whose brother was a police commissioner terribly harassed and disgraced because he had sheltered ‘terrorists’ in the days of the Raj and let them escape, who distributed truckloads of blankets to the needy every winter at Kalighat and Kamakshya and died alone in dire but proud and independent poverty as an ancient widow in Vrindavan. She once defied the whole gang of purohits with apt quotes from the shastras to perform puja despite being a woman at the latter shrine. What do today’s girls know about strong women? One of her sons, my ma’s mamas, was a dashingly handsome playboy in the 1930s, importing Harley Davidsons on a whim and filling his dad’s cinemas with his friends, and another, a doctor, who could speak Latin and Sanskrit with the ease of a master and was a wizard at chess among other things, I have always been told, is the man I resemble most closely, though I shall never put anyone but my dadu in that seat. Add to that what I have done as a scholar and teacher and writer and father all my life, and unless you are the lowest of the vulgar who cannot judge a man by anything but his bank balance, his car and his TRP rating, you will concede I have more than enough reason to be an elitist or a snob ... not with the young and the good at heart, never, but yes, with creatures who will never learn even as much as I have forgotten, and still imagine, assured by the swarm of people of exactly the same mental caliber around them all the time, that they are knowledgeable, they can think, and they have both an ability and a right to form opinions on every subject under the sun. No wonder so many of that type have become either engineers or journalists! A doctor friend of mine, a far better human being than all the hacks he has had to deal with, used the term ‘presstitutes’ for them, and I agreed perfectly, a flood of memories bringing back the reasons why I quit journalism long ago, when it was far less of a sewer than it is now.

Anyway, I am glad I belong to a long family tradition where the permanent – if not always uttered and enforced – injunction has been ‘Consider only what you are leaving behind that people outside your little family will value and revere and cherish’. And I hope that my daughter’s life, and my book, and Shilpi’s thesis, and the fond and awed recollections of a few thousand students will hold back something of me long after I am gone – as Basudev Sarbobhoum is remembered in circles that matter, even six hundred years after his demise. Paris Hilton and Lionel Messi won’t, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Update, and good wishes


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

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

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

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Convalescent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 29, 2015

Down but not out

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

Thursday, May 14, 2015

In the days of the super-civilized

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

Mohakobir moharaag (The great wrath of the great poet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The driver only smiled and said nothing.

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


Monday, May 04, 2015

Out of this world

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

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

P.S., May 07: Hello, no one yet?   !

Friday, May 01, 2015

The White Tiger

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

When the earth trembled

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

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

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

in that sleep, what dreams may come...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ma amaar, godspeed!

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sorry, Mr. Lee

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The banality of evil

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Women's Day

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

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

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