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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Corruption: how much can we live with?


A well-travelled Chinaman who had lived through the 1970s and 80s in India will observe wryly when he goes back home that in this country people talk as much about corruption as the English (at least used to talk -) about their weather and the French about their livers. And, in general, they mean as little, and care as little, about changing things for the better. When I was younger, I felt righteously indignant about much iniquity and sham around me – in part as a gut reaction, for I had become aware how more than one ancestor in my family had burnt his fingers badly trying to fight the hydra-headed monster – and read a lot of fat books, done a lot of soul-searching and talked myself hoarse under the impression that I was contributing my mite to the crusade. I have learnt much more since then, and grown quieter; I haven’t, I trust, become cynical, nor do I think that those ancestors whom I once thought to have been noble were actually misguided or silly, but these days I am neither so ready to condemn everything that is popularly dubbed ‘corruption’ nor so eager to believe that if only we were all nicer and willing to say ‘boo’ to the dragon once all together, corruption would directly and forever vanish from the earth. I have learnt that things are not so simple as all that.

For one thing, people are not agreed on what constitutes corruption. For another, much corruption is unconsciously indulged in. Nor is there much social consensus about how much corruption may be tolerated (for the sake of preventing greater evils) and when it is to be punished, and how severely.

Corruption is certainly not a ‘modern’ problem; some of its forms are age old (just read our epics) – perhaps they are only more noticed and talked about today, but our innate love of colourful fiction, scandal and gossip, now institutionalized, organized and disseminated on a vast scale by the mass media, coupled with booming populations and mass audiences, may have been responsible for creating the impression that the world is rapidly filling up with bad people, rather than any truth in that idea itself. The very fact that certain kinds of corruption have proved to be so durable raises certain important questions. Perhaps the critics refuse to appreciate and accept certain unalterable features of human nature? – but more of this later. It is also interesting to note that whereas certain indicators of corruption have remained constant over time (at least for several hundred years), certain other yardsticks have been given up more or less completely. As in Kautilya’s time or Elizabeth I’s, we still say that a man who steals from the public purse is corrupt, but vivisection is no longer so regarded, and sporting unusual clothes, if sometimes frowned upon, no longer calls for being burnt as a witch in most places. Last but not the least, instinctive hypocrisy – itself one of the most durable and reprehensible forms of corruption – leads us to condemn our fellow humans for doing things that we ourselves surreptitiously do (or would love to do, if we were not afraid): and so the great religious masters were right when they taught ‘judge not, so thou may’st not be judged’. They knew what sort of creatures they were talking to. That is one piece of advice that stern clerics and Mrs. Grundys do not like to be reminded of.

Well then, shorn of verbiage and cant, what does corruption mean? The word has etymological associations with putrefaction and decay; it referred once upon a time to clogged sewers, disgusting sores and suppurating wounds – people still say of foul play that ‘it stinks’. In medieval times, those who ‘sold their souls to the devil’ and practised necromancy and witchcraft were said to be involved in corruption. It usually pays to hark back to the roots when you are grappling with a protean idea. These days it refers to activities which lack broad moral legitimacy: it is interesting to note that any accusation of corruption presupposes some degree of common consent regarding where the limits of legitimacy lie. In my time, in this country (and more or less in all reasonably ‘open’ societies, including western Europe and North America) the most common accusations of corruption are levelled against acts of defrauding the public, especially through abuse of political power for private economic gain (business is generally quite as culpable, but not as frequently and strenuously condemned), and against acts – or thoughts, through literature and the visual media – of sexual deviance. Let us examine their forms, causes and possible remedies in turn.

First, about corruption in politics. Historically in India and elsewhere, men in power have always thought it perfectly alright to use the privileges of office to feather their own nests – Charles II’s courtiers, except when they were extraordinarily naïve or pretentious, would not have been surprised or shocked by the goings-on in the contemporary courts of the Mughal badshahs or their provincial subedars and nawabs. Their only restraints were the need to keep in the sovereign’s good books (which was generally quite easily achieved by ensuring that the king himself had enough money, palaces, horses, wine and women to live in the grand style) and to see that the common masses were not goaded beyond endurance by extortion and rapine into a general uprising. It was only when powerful interest groups began to multiply beyond the traditional triad of church-barony-and king, first by the rise of the mercantile- and industrial bourgeoisie and later by the trickling down of affluence and education and the spread of democratic and all sorts of socialistic ideas in increasingly urban environments, until they could no longer be fully co-opted by the old elite but had to be granted codified rights to exist, flourish and wield power on their own, that new moral norms about the public responsibilities of public men began to be laid down in ‘society’s’ interest. And simultaneously, as the mass media proliferated and judiciaries became more independent, more and more people started playing watchdog in the public interest to ensure that corruption, if not actually reduced, was held in tolerable check.

In the liberal democracies of the west, the movement went on gathering momentum throughout the 19th century (it is surprising to note how recent a development this is, considering that men have been living under organized large-scale government for thousands of years) until it reached a sort of watershed in the 1970s – there is some reason to suppose that in the last forty odd years it has distinctly slowed down, if not begun to be rolled back (we hear of living in an era of ‘post-truth’ and SPIN doctors, and there are murmurs about being ruled by ‘deep states’, and, long after Watergate, Donald Trump has managed to become President of the United States) – and, to the extent that the same sociopolitical environment was replicated in other parts of the world, including India, the same movement took root and began to spread.

There are at least four different contexts in which men (and women too, of course) may be accused of corruption. One, when public standards of probity have been clearly established, and some men are observed or suspected to be betraying the standards which they have been entrusted and empowered to uphold. Two, when standards are in flux, and the standards of one large social group clash with those of others, which the former are not willing to respect or even tolerate. Three, there is the case where we might say, in a manner of speaking, that ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’, that is, people find their instincts rebelling against politically correct behavioral norms which they can neither internalize nor defy openly – these are the people who most easily become moral vigilantes and indulge in witchhunts, ferreting out deviants and hounding them, deriving from persecution something akin to the pleasure that they can no longer get from ‘incorrect’ behaviour on their own part. Finally, there are situations where all the above types may overlap, and these are particularly nasty.

[I began this essay around the year 2000, I think, and stopped after the previous sentence – except for the line I have just introduced about post-truth and so forth. I recently decided to revive it, and carry on from there. So there is likely to be a sequel: I take care not to make my posts too long]

Thursday, September 13, 2018

He's gone... for a year now

It's been exactly a year since my father left us. I wrote He's gone after coming back from the cremation ground, and Remembering baba a few days later. 

I wonder where he is now, if he 'is' at all in any sense that we can understand.

But of course, he lives on in many memories, and I miss him.

This is life:

A  moment's halt, a momentary taste
Of Being, at the well amid the waste,
And lo! the phantom caravan has reached
The Nothing it set out from: O, make haste!

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Introverts, extroverts and my classes...


Let me start off by saying that the ‘introvert/extrovert’ binary is not as simple as it sounds. Take my own case. When I was a boy, two very opposite things were true about me – I loved to talk, I almost always had lots of things to talk about (one primary schoolteacher dubbed me a chatterbox), and at the same time, I was morbidly shy in strange company, especially when they were adults. With my friends (and when I was young I had quite a few) I could be chummy enough, but circumstances dictated that I was thrown upon my own resources most of the time, so most of my time was spent reading and daydreaming and swimming and watching movies and cycling around all by myself around the town. So where would you put me on the introvert-extovert continuum? As I grew up, I discovered even better that I could talk well when I wanted to, even among large groups, even on stage, and obviously as a teacher – anyone who has tried to coach people of his own age while still a teenager will know just how difficult that is. At the same time, I began to abhor adults already, not because I was actually shy any more, but I was discovering with ever growing disdain how ignorant, foolish yet opinionated and patronizing the average adult was (this included everyone from parents’ friends to professors and my nominal superiors at the newspaper office, and as I grew older, my contemporaries and increasingly people far junior), how quick to take offence if their silliness and ignorance and crudeness was exposed even accidentally (and more and more, I began to do it very deliberately, because I was touchy, and getting sick of such presumptuousness, and enjoyed rubbing their noses in the dirt). That applied very strongly to parties – before I was in my late twenties I began to hate having to rub shoulders with people whose average IQ, GK as well as manners (courtesy, consideration and dislike of noisiness, to name just three things that were becoming more and more essential to me) were vastly inferior, whose taste in jokes was poor at best and vulgar at worst, who were only constantly measuring one another in material terms and either preening or burning with envy, whose smiles were quite apparently plastic, who scorned my success and scoffed at my failure, who would never be of any use to me, material, intellectual or spiritual, many of whom, I knew, were speaking falsehood and ill behind my back even while uttering oily platitudes to my face if they thought their ‘interests’ required it. So I began to avoid socialization as a matter of principle – the last party I went to in a hotel was in 1993, I can count on one finger how many weddings I have attended in the last twelve years, and I never invite people in any significant number to dinner.

Classic introvert? Well, how does that explain my success as a teacher, then? Thousands who have been through my classes will remember fondly how much they enjoyed themselves here. Some of that was indeed due to the fact that they found me to be a far more attentive, understanding and sympathetic listener than most teachers are (again, sign of a typical introvert – but then, are such people so rare in this country?), but some of it was certainly because I entertained them so much in so many ways, and no teacher can be like that without being at least a very successful pseudo-extrovert, which I mentioned in the previous post. So I am proof that it can be done. People who have seen me holding classes in thrall for years and years will find it hard to believe that I am an introvert at all. So all those introverts out there who are reading this, take heart: if you badly want to do it for the sake of some specific purpose, you can do it with sufficient resolution and practice, over time, though your essential character won’t change. I will always like both large numbers (but only when they are ready to listen to me) and small, intimate one-on-ones, but I will never be the life and soul of any party, nor do I want to be.

As for what happens in my classes. Ever since I started teaching large batches (by which I mean any number more than ten) I have seen two things going on simultaneously. You must remember that pupils come to me after they have already had nine or ten years of schooling at least, so some bad habits are, alas, too deeply set for me to do much about it. I keep telling them you cannot learn a language without speaking it, and most of them have pathetic speaking skills, despite the fact that they go to so-called English-medium schools, fundamentally because oral exams have never been given seriously in school, and because most teachers themselves speak at best a pidgin English these days, and do nothing to encourage English speaking in class. I want them to answer questions and ask them – the more the merrier – but most of them are desperately averse, either because they are too lazy to listen to lectures or do homework (so where will the questions come from?) and too uninterested in any kind of serious learning, or because they are morbidly shy of being laughed at by their peers: which happens only too frequently, even though the peers themselves are no better, and have no right to jeer and titter. Try to hold any kind of elocution session, or debate, or extempore speaking class, and they are desperate to hide behind one another; very, very few participate eagerly. Telling them how important a skill public speaking will prove to be in later life is like beating your head against a wall.

Juxtapose this with the fact that left to themselves (and often even while a class is in session) they chatter loudly or in whispers, incessantly, compulsively, and most of their chatter is pointless drivel – they don’t even listen to themselves, and don’t remember what they themselves said five minutes ago. I know, I have checked a thousand times. So what are these kids, introverts, extroverts, or something else entirely? Simply creatures who lost their minds and sense of direction and purpose a long time ago? I know too, now teaching kids whose previous generation was in my class, that most of them will stay that way for the rest of their lives…

There are a few genuine introverts, always – quiet, observant, thoughtful, interested young people – and it is for them that I feel bad, because, given the large numbers, and the distraction caused by the too numerous other type (I have to waste far too much time keeping them on a tight leash), I cannot reach out to them as well as I would have liked to, though God knows I have tried very hard. I know some of them wish to get closer, be better attended to, and learn more, but leave a little disappointed. I wish, though, that they too would do their bit, try a little harder to communicate with me. A few have, over the years; they are the ones who remember thoughtfully and gratefully, and keep in touch even though decades roll by. The rest forget within days or weeks of the classes being dissolved. My only consolation is that they pay their fees, and the numbers keep coming year after year. Maybe a time will come soon when I will be able to sort and sieve, and retain only the former type in my class after the first three months… for again and again, a thousand times over, it is this type that has made it all feel worthwhile.

I wish Susan Cain had seen some classes in Indian schools and colleges before writing that chapter. And on Teachers’ Day, after 38 years of it, I cannot, alas, convey a general love, benevolence and admiration for the student community any more. It has been too long.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Quiet - book review


Susan Cain wrote a remarkable book in 2012 titled Quiet, which I have just read. A lawyer by training, social psychologist by choice, happy family woman and quite a balanced character who writes good English even in this day and age despite being American, she got me hooked from the very first page, so much so that I shoved several other books aside (I am still in the habit of reading multiple books at a time) to finish it from cover to cover, reflecting thoughtfully all the while. The book talks about the value and importance of introverts (‘quiet’ people) in an age when a quite unhealthy (in her opinion and mine) premium is put on extroversion – variously called gregariousness or sociability.

The basic thesis is that there is nothing bad or shameful about being introverted (which, by the way, is not the same thing as shyness, which can and should be cured through assiduous practice with deliberate social interaction), nor can people born that way do very much about it. In any large population, from one-third to half are born introverted. We need both introverts and extroverts to make a healthy and progressive society, but it is bad to force one type to become the other, as it is bad to force naturally left-handed people to become right-handed: which unfortunately, we do too strenuously (at least, in the author’s opinion, the way most children are being brought up in western countries). Each type should be allowed to grow up in its own preferred way, nurturing their best native talents, inclinations and drives, while also learning to know, understand and cope with those who are of the other type: we have everything to gain from doing that everywhere, from the domestic hearth to schools to the business- or political workplace.

It is also to be remembered that there are few people (though indeed there are some) who are ‘pure’ extroverts or introverts; many introverts, especially, learn to become very efficient pseudo-extroverts because they discover early – sometimes through very painful experience – that it helps a lot to get along even with people they don’t really like or vibe with. I was grinning hugely to myself while reading this part, because that is what has helped me most to succeed professionally, though I am a very strong introvert by nature, and that is what I have tried to teach hundreds of otherwise gifted introverts to do while they were my pupils, because it helps to ‘succeed’ in the practical world. But no true introvert ever really becomes an extrovert: because, and I shall underline this much more strongly than the author has, (I don’t have to fear loss of readership), most introverts not only dislike the other type but actually hold them in greater or less contempt for being basically shallow. After all, introverts have always had another name – ‘thinkers’ – and they have always taken pride in it, and felt angry because the majority pretend to scoff at what they are not gifted enough to understand. Remember, as the author has said, from the theory of gravitation to Harry Potter, the world owes almost all works of creative thought to the introverts (‘nerds’), who like to focus and work alone or in small groups of appreciative peers. The best that the extroverts can show are warriors and footballers (some of the very best salespeople and Presidents even, though this might sound paradoxical to many, have been introverts); far, far more commonly, they are of no more consequence than compulsive fashionistas, members of football beer gangs and party animals!

The book is full of memorable lines that you can quote at people. I won’t make it easy for you: read it yourself, and see how many of the things said there click with your knowledge of yourself and people around you. A lot of folks, I am sure, will find reassuring ideas as well as useful self-improvement tips here.  Most importantly, for the likes of my own daughter, if you are otherwise gifted and know that you have many positive qualities but are thin-skinned and easily bored by chatter as introverts usually are, don’t go out of your way to make yourself appear cheerful and superficial and falsely friendly to the riffraff. Wholly wasted energy.

I should also give at least one serious warning, especially to Indian readers, as I guess most of my readers are. All my life I have found Americans to be very blinkered and gullible about a lot of things outside their immediate ken, despite their obvious sincerity and vaunted fondness for meticulous ‘research’. The biggest bloomer that this author has made is the chapter on how ‘Asians’ are by and large more introverted – quiet, thoughtful, humble, disciplined, sensitive to other people’s feelings and needs – and that, apparently, helps them to succeed both at school and in the workplace far beyond the dreams of the average American. Now ever since the Japanese economic ‘miracle’ that began in the 1950s, lately replicated by the Chinese, Americans by the droves have been searching for the ‘right’ explanation for the extraordinary phenomenon, and Ms. Cain believes that this is it. She has drawn such utterly silly and superficial conclusions on the basis of investigations with a few hundred Japanese, Chinese and Koreans studying and working in the US (anybody could have told her that this is too small and too biased a sample to draw such sweeping conclusions from, since Asians who successfully migrate and thrive in the west are by definition very different from the common type in their own countries): all 1.3 billion Indians have been completely ignored. We know what we are like, don’t we? The only Indian she has mentioned is one M. K. Gandhi, and millions of Indians, both among his devotees and those who name him only to spit upon it, will tell you how ‘typical’ an Indian he was anyway. So alas, Ms. Cain, if Asia is rising today, you have to look for explanations elsewhere. And it made me grimace to think that only a hundred or a little more years ago, when we Asians/Indians were poor and supine, these same white people found us disgusting and stupid and venal and hardly human; now that we are giving them frightening competition, they have suddenly ‘discovered’ such wonderful virtues in us! One more reason why I have come to regard all sorts of ‘scientific findings’ with not a grain but a whole bagful of salt. - however, I must hasten to point out that this one rather ludicrous chapter does not detract much from the value of the book.

[Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain, Penguin Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-141-02919-1, pp. 333, Rs. 499. You can also hear her TED Talk here.]

P.S.: I am deeply delighted that a girl who is barely 16 read this book and gave it to me to read. Restores my dimming hopes. I know lots of educated people in their 30s and 40s who can’t or won’t read a book like this. Thank you, Anny.

P.P.S., later in the day: How I have dealt with my own introversion, and handled it in my (pretty large -) classes for more than thirty years will be the topic of the next blogpost. Coming up soon.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Phone nightmare


In the 1980s, India had only fixed line telephones, and very few of them (in the early seventies I had read that New York City had more phones than the whole of India, but that was another era); call rates were like one rupee a minute – that would be equivalent to Rs. 20 or more a minute now, or thereabouts? – among the highest in the world.

The telecom ‘revolution’ began around the turn of the century (even 20 years ago, smartphones were toys for the rich to show off – only maidservants’ sons do that today). The business was opened up to the private sector just as worldwide the technology started developing and proliferating at the speed of a nuclear chain reaction. Phone ownership has since crossed 700 million and rising steeply, and there are more than 300 million smartphones in use. Call rates have dropped to near zero – you pay something like Rs. 150 (that’s little more than two US dollars) and get ‘unlimited’ calls for about a month, plus a lot of net surfing thrown in.  Meanwhile there is a dog eat dog fight going on among the service providers: they have already spent tens of thousands of crores to buy bandwith and licences, and as much again on building infrastructure, even as revenues are plummeting. Result: tens of millions of people who can’t afford (or don’t want) a good education or good housing and health care have phones glued to their ears more or less all their waking hours, on foot and in vehicles, at home and on the road, while the massively overstretched infrastructure is creaking and groaning at the joints. As any Indian who needs to talk urgently to someone far away for a few minutes at a stretch can tell you, getting through and finishing an important conversation is a nightmare, or else you must have two or three SIM cards to try with.

Unless I am much mistaken, this is a classic oligopoly in the making. A few gigantic (and ever growing-) firms with bottomless pockets – aided, no doubt by monstrous loans from banks which they have no strong intention of repaying in the foreseeable future – are slugging it out, hoping to remove all small rivals from the market who cannot take losses on that scale for long, so that those three or four gargantuan firms will finally have the whole market to themselves, and then they will in all likelihood carve it up among themselves to create regional monopolies (Only Mio in south India, only Windtel in the North and North West, only Concept in the centre and east, with TSNL to pick up the intermediate crumbs if it survives at all), following which they will at last begin the process of jacking up the tariffs to profitable levels again: and by God, they are going to be hefty jackups indeed, to compensate for the astronomical losses of yesteryear and then make the sort of profits that alone can satisfy those who are racing ahead to become the world’s first trillionaires…

For very, very small fish like me who do not want to use phones as playthings of an idle hour but would like to be able to make calls that get through instantly, always, and without interference and interruption, it couldn’t happen soon enough. At call rates of 20-30 rupees a minute, the lines would at last be clear again. How many would like to bet seriously against me that it wouldn’t happen within the next, say, five years?

P.S.: Oh, and before I leave… I am delighted to see that the blogpost titled To My Daughter in print has made it to the most-read list. As I have said before, it is a good feeling to see that the book keeps selling, and the publishers keep sending little amounts of royalty to the bank. Someday somebody is going to really read the book and write to me about it. Better still, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Just scribbling


I have just been video-chatting with loved ones and old boys, back to back in London, Delhi and Singapore. Now I am at peace at home, having talked happily for a bit after class with a young old boy learning to become a doctor, come back after a vigorous evening walk and listening to raaga jaunpuri on youtube as I write while sipping cold beer. Imagine, I tell myself. See how far you have come, and life is good, getting better by the year! How often I say to the little ones currently under my tutelage that you shouldn’t be too nostalgic about childhood passing by – the best is yet to come.

The posts on Rani Rashmoni and the Mahabharata have at long last been dislodged from the top of the most-read list. Several thousand have read them already. I would so have liked to hear from some of them… but if you cannot otherwise create, keep writing, I tell them, it is one of the few things about you that will endure, or at least might. I was watching King Alfred of the 9th century CE saying in a Netflix series that the written word will carry civilization on its shoulders, and I couldn’t agree more.

To Rajdeep, thank you for the books that you keep sending. I am now deep into Mythos – never knew that Stephen Fry was such a good author! (Can somebody send me that movie of his called General Blackadder?) And thank you vastly more for being there for close to a quarter century now: few can claim as much. I really must make that Japan trip sometime soon. France too, if Nishant stays put for a bit longer…

To Subhadip Dutta and Saikat Chakraborty: are you, too, like so many others, beginning to forget?

To all of the younger  ’uns: don’t confuse Google with knowledge, leave alone wisdom.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

A pat on my daughter's back

My daughter recently wrote a review of Chandrahas Choudhury's new novel, Clouds, on her blog. Mr. Choudhury has liked it enough to write glowingly about it on his Facebook page. I am quoting the whole comment below. If you are really interested, you might look up Choudhury's FB page for the actual post, and the comments that have come in. He wrote it last night, meaning August 01 [here is the link:  https://bit.ly/2LJEdgO ]

'Read a wonderful review of Clouds by Urbi Chatterjee, a Young India fellow at Ashoka University -- written in much more elegant prose, and with many more interesting thoughts and much more understanding of narrative and aesthetic motives, than most of the reviews of Clouds in the newspapers. Which newspaper editor on my friends' list wants to give this very bright young writer, formerly a student of history at Jadavpur, some book-review or journalistic work? We need more good reviewers in this country!
Especially loved this bit: "Witnessing Farhad fall in love is also quite a comic treat for the reader – he steps into that same bubble of buoyant optimism and nothing-can-ever-go-wrong-again sense of confidence, and his mind builds the same castles in the air that do people decades younger than him. Love makes a happy, goofy fool out of human beings, and it is comforting to realise that people much older and more experienced than I can end up behaving in the exact same manner when assailed by the arrows of Cupid." '

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Looking up an old diary


It seems just the other day that I was holidaying in the Kumaon hills with my daughter – December 2017, actually – and already seven months of the new year are gone. Time doesn’t fly, it zooms!

Which is why one day in my late twenties I decided to begin a diary to write down, year-wise, all the things worth remembering, good and bad, happy and sad, that have happened to me. I started with 1969, the year I first went to school, and got a lot of stuff down immediately, because my memory was still sharp and clear then. Thank God I did, because now, glancing through that diary a quarter century later, I realize I probably wouldn’t have been able to recall all those events in correct chronological order today even if I could remember them at all, and I would have been poorer for it. I have annually updated that diary without fail ever since, right down to end-2017, and while it has become a pretty long list, I also wonder that I didn’t care to jot down so many things which apparently seemed very important when they happened, and I was right, they weren’t really important after all, not in retrospect. Life is like that. Someone who has been big and important, the way society understands those words, realizes in the dusk of his life that he hasn’t done much after all, while history says that some son of a carpenter who preached a better kind of life to a bunch of illiterate poor shepherds changed the world forever. Meanwhile a great scientist said towards the end of his life that if he had a chance to live it all over again he would have collected more butterflies… why does wisdom come to us too late for us to use it?

As one looks backwards, so does one feel a strange curiosity to look ahead. How different is the world going to be by the time I am a really old man – say twenty five years from now? A world torn apart by war and pestilence and famine again, and ruled in patches by tyrants? A universal basic income in place everywhere, and robot servants in every house, and only computer-driven cars allowed on the roads, and agriculture and fossil fuels slowly becoming obsolete, cleaning up the air and greening the land and freeing up hundreds of millions of acres for human habitation and wildlife? Marriages of the traditional type becoming history too?  Education increasingly happening at home via the internet, conducted only by those who really can and want to, as it used to be in the distant past? Colonies sprouting on the moon and Mars? Will it be nearly unrecognisable from today’s vantage point, or will it be plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose? Those interested in how I have been wondering about this sort of thing for ages can look up my old post titled How my world has changed. Been some time since I wrote that, too!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

I am thrilled

...to see that old and lovingly written posts such as the one on The Mahabharata have suddenly climbed to the top of the most-read list, and old posts like the one I wrote about one of Google's billionaire owners going to work on a bicycle have appeared there too. It is obvious that some people are browsing vigorously through my blog, and my thanks are due to them.

What puzzles me is the complete lack of comments. Are people having trouble posting them? Note that before posting a comment you must log in with your google i.d. and password, click the box which says 'I am not a robot', press 'publish' and little things like that before the system will allow you to send anything over. And it's all done much more conveniently on a large screen; with a tiny mobile phone, you are very likely to miss out on one thing or the other!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

A turning point


I went to Delhi on Tuesday after doing regular classes on Monday, dropped off my daughter at her new university about 60 km from the city on Wednesday, came back home on Thursday and returned to my usual work routine on Friday. Only those who know me really well will understand how unusual and breathtaking that is. Even at 22 I hated running around unless it was bringing me pots of money or I was going on holiday (yet another reason why I quit journalism – so much of it was pointless running around to interview very ornery and forgettable people), and now I am 55! And yet I enjoyed it for more than one reason. Most important of all was, of course, the fact that my daughter was looking forward to having a good time in the sense that we understand that expression. The next was that I like to drop in at Shilpi’s, partly for those endlessly satisfying chats and partly because we keep planning future projects even as she keeps filling me in about her current work (she is a departmental director with a renowned NGO now) while being a very good hostess, and partly because I discovered that no matter how often and strenuously I keep telling people that I am growing old, I can in fact look after myself and travel around without anybody’s help quite as easily and confidently as I could when I was 25. Ten years ago I wrote Forty five and counting. If I am still around ten years from now, and still going as strong as I am now, I can ease back without a trace of guilt. Perhaps I’ll get myself a walking stick, if only to show off. And maybe I’ll let myself be driven around by a Google/Tesla electric self-driving car!

A Volvo bus dropped me off near Kolkata airport (don’t try it if you have to haul a lot of luggage). We had a little excess baggage, but they winked at it. Shilpi didn’t allow me to try the airport to city metro service, but I am determined to do it next time round. For the next day, of course, we had a car with us all through. Pupu’s new campus is pretty and swank, but strolling around in the midday heat was not really fun, so we kept retreating to airconditioned havens. Back to Delhi in the afternoon, and a game of badminton with young ladies, me with my bad leg, and they didn’t roll their eyes at me, believe it or not – or maybe they were just being kind. Turned up early at Terminal 1 for an interminable wait, a smooth flight back, a/c bus from the airport to Esplanade (first time I tried it), veg-thaali lunch which cost me all of fifty rupees (while the little bottle of water at Delhi airport had put me back by 60!), then a quick and quiet bus trip home. All of ten hours from the time I left the house at Delhi: I really think I’ll take the Air India flight to Durgapur next time, even if I have to wake up at an ungodly hour.

This stuff, from a certain point of view, is quite mundane and not likely to interest too many people, I know. I am still writing about it because for me it had a dreamlike quality of a good sort, and I have been given to understand that some of my writing resonates quite pleasurably with a few readers at least; they tell me they like to know what goes on in my mind as I go through ordinary life. Of the many thoughts that kept going through my mind one was a deep sense of thankful wonder – I am still doing, profitably enough, what I was doing before my daughter came into this world, and now she’s gone to university, ready to make a life of her own, and I have been allowed to be at her side, still, in more senses than one. Another was that it feels good to have grown slowly more affluent even as the whole country itself did so over my working lifetime: I still vividly recollect the horror and disgust that I felt as a young man to have to rub shoulders with the dirty, smelly, ill-mannered hoi polloi to get around, and even though India has become vastly more crowded since the early eighties, I can travel far more swiftly and comfortably now. The third thought, intensely pleasurable, was that, despite very great odds, I have, with the grace of God, managed to raise my only child to a point when she is about to set out making her own life and career, and is still the very best friend I have as a matter of daily reconfirmed reality – I know how few fathers can claim as much, and placed beside that, all my angst about things I have not got from life pale into insignificance, especially when I eagerly anticipate all the wonderful things she will be telling me henceforth she is doing, hopefully for as long as I live, whether that be one more year or twenty five. It’s been a good life, and that is not an easy thing to claim when it has also been very very hard and unfair in patches.

And naturally, my thoughts kept coming back to the work I have done for nearly four decades now, and whether and how people who have gone through my classes have benefited from them.  Not that it matters very much any more: I have enough letters and emails to reassure me that I have been of some non-trivial use to many, and a modest but swelling fortune to prove that I have not done too badly for myself in the process. Only, I wonder about creatures like that so-called journalist who assured the world through her blog that she had learned a great deal from me (and hasn’t deleted that post yet despite my strongest objection) but proved by the way she has chosen to live her life that she didn’t learn a thing.  I wonder whose fault it is – mine, that I failed to be a true teacher, hers, because she was either unwilling to learn or congenitally incapable of learning, or God’s, because He decreed that I would have to deal with such creatures endlessly for my sins? If as a teacher I have anything to ask of Him, I should beg Him not to send that type to my classes for the rest of my working years.  

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Lust Stories


Just watched the new Netflix original Lust Stories made by the same quartet of directors who had done Bombay Talkies, and which I had enjoyed. This too is a four in one, and touted to be, if you go by the review in The Telegraph of Kolkata, about lust from the woman’s perspective, and what is more important, does not shame her but makes her feel more liberated, more powerful.

I found the first story delightful in a cynical way. The young woman says she is wary about men with whom she has one-night stands, because they get attached and emotional too easily, and start stalking her and attempting to control her life and making a nuisance of themselves in every possible way: they apparently lack the maturity to ‘take it and leave it’ as every smart, modern, liberated person should. Then she turns  around and behaves in exactly the way she says she despises in men as soon as she has bedded a very young man – who happens to be one of her students in college – she haunts him, follows him around, rings him up incessantly, screams at him at every imagined slight, tries her utmost to break up his other relationship because she cannot bear to see him with another female, even at a restaurant, and yet, when he, embarrassed and shocked and guilty for no real fault of his own, offers to make her his permanent one and only, snaps at him without  a trace of self-consciousness ‘Are you mad? I am a married woman!’ I do hope that the writer/director has been trying to tell us precisely what I have been saying all my adult life: there is nothing universally good about women, many of them can be just as crazy and unpleasant as the worst of men. And I wonder whether it was a deliberate stroke of artistry to show that highly unstable and immature characters like that can become teachers these days... one last thing that this mini-movie brought to mind is something that I have been alternately laughing and grimacing over for quite some time now – the way people all over the world have gone stark, raving mad about ensuring whether or not the sex was consensual, the time is not far off when all men who know what is good for them will get audio recorded- (or better still, written and signed) statements from their about-to-be partners in bed that it was just so, even their own wives, preferably every time they are thinking of doing it, and file the growing mass of paper away in a burglar-proof safe for the day when they will be called for in court.  Watch the movie to find out which scene I am talking about (and one very personal take: Radhika Apte is ageing fast and not gracefully, unless the makeup man was told to present her that way).

The second story is very real, very common, and very sad. The domestic help pleasures her employer in bed and hopes that something like a good and lasting relationship might come of it, only to see a match being fixed up for him right before her eyes, and he going around as if she has ceased to exist, entirely insouciant and unapologetic. I know just how she feels, as did Tagore – in more than one poignant story (The Postmaster and The Castaway spring immediately to mind) he has shown how the slighted party feels, how it can happen to either gender and regardless of age, and how there is no help for it; the victim has to grin and bear it. Which is exactly what Sudha does when she bites into the mithai and smiles resignedly if a trifle ruefully to herself before deciding to move on. The sex bit is actually irrelevant unless you are a prurient teen regardless of your physical age. Which is of course actually a very common type of adult in India still (you should see the prudish and ignorant mother in the fourth movie who came to yell at the schoolteachers for not scolding her daughter for chatting on Facebook and giving her ‘bad books’ – Lolita – to read), but that is neither the director’s fault nor mine.

The third story is about a failing marriage and the woman finding solace in the arms of her husband’s lifelong best friend. The husband, though overtly more assertive and domineering, is actually much the weaker character (haven’t I seen far too many!), and the woman, as portrayed by Monisha Koirala, is not a very sympathetic character either. I doubt very strongly whether this can actually be called one of the ‘lust’ stories, because the lovers seem neither to get much pleasure out of the sex nor to be too eager about it; I would have said they are in it because they have found true companionship, but the man is not keen on making new, deep commitments which conflict with an old one, to wit the friendship, and in any case the curtain drops over ambiguity, because the woman tells the lover that her husband has ordered ‘this must end’ and goes back with and to him... the reviewer in The Telegraph called this one the ‘most mature’ story, but I think I am much older than she and have seen much more of the world, and to me it remained very unclear what the whole point was, unless it was simply to show that lots of people are caught up in nasty relational tangles and have no real idea how to get out of them, though they might thrash around like landed fish for a while. Yes, indeed, such is life, whether you are filthy rich or not.

The last one is the most hilarious, though one cannot miss the sadness. But at least there is hope here. The young husband cannot sufficiently satisfy his new bride, and she finds a better substitute for him in a vibrator (the woman from whom she had filched it had called it her real husband: this one character at least was in-your-face about not wanting much out of marriage beyond sex), but unfortunately drops a bomb in the household while doing it, and it nearly comes to a divorce, were it not that the husband wants to see if the marriage can be made to work, still, because he has apparently fallen in love. What a pity that so many marriages remain loveless and unfulfilling in this country for reasons like this, simply because ‘nice people’ prefer not to talk about ‘such things’ if they can help it, whereas a little bit of honesty and candour would quickly bring a happy resolution via the doctor’s prescription or a shrink’s counsel. I wonder whether the juxtaposition of sharply contrary women’s views was inadvertent or not, but it is good to see that we are beginning to acknowledge in a forum as public as the cinema that while many women still think that having children is the be all and end all of a woman’s life, there are many others who think it’s all about sex and nothing else. I have never been able to decide which is the more pathetic, the more revolting attitude.

Nice though not unforgettable cinema, slickly made, provoking thoughts that I had and shared thirty and more years ago. But I wonder about that reviewer’s opinion. It is good if this sort of thing does not shame women any more – I have never really believed that shyness (lojja) is woman’s ornament, and have seen that in practice this lojja comes out as coyness and prudishness and opportunism, which most men find both mildly disgusting and very difficult to handle. But, how do these situations make women feel ‘more liberated and powerful’? That could at best be said about the woman in the last movie: watch and judge for yourself. And if behaving like the cantankerous female in the first one is what smart urban Indian women think does make them liberated and powerful, I will have difficulty stifling yawns when it comes to dealing with women who claim they are grown up. I have known women of a bygone age who were far stronger, deeper, more interesting specimens of humanity, you see – women who did worthwhile things and whom you could have intelligent conversations with. Alas, I have hardly met half a dozen like that in the 25 to 60 age-group in the last thirty odd years, in person or over the net, though I have dealt with thousands. I wonder if the directors could make a movie based on what I have had the misfortune to see?

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

While it rains


It pleases me greatly to see that The worship of the wealthy has crept into the most-read posts list. This is an issue that has been close to my heart all my thinking life, which would be nearly fifty years now; my views were set in stone early, and all I have seen of the world over a lifetime has convinced me that I am right. Great private wealth, like great poverty, is a great crime, a very large blot on civilization. If we have not been able to design a world where we can all live reasonably well without having to tolerate a tiny handful of plutocrats and billions who salivate over them and mimic them strenuously, we are not only in a bad way but hastening our collective doom. If I through my writing can manage to persuade a hundred decent and sensible men about it, I will not have lived in vain. But I don’t believe in bloody revolutions to change the world – they achieve nothing much over the long run at very great cost – so Chesterton’s way is the best: kill off the vermin with ridicule.

It has occurred to me that though I have tried my hand at poetry and short stories, I was meant to be first and foremost an essayist. And many of my best essays have found a place in this blog over the years. A blog attended to by thousands (I guess) is fine, but I like to think that someday someone will cull the hundred best essays from it and make a book.

It is early afternoon, but the sky is overcast, so it is dark inside my room as I write. The monsoon has set in in right earnest, and it is drizzling off and on all day and night. The temperature has fallen so fast that whereas only three or four days ago the a/c was working ten hours a day, the tap water is distinctly chilly right now. As the poet wrote,

নীল নবঘনে আষাঢ় গগনে তিল ঠাঁই আর নাহি রে,
ওরে আজ তোরা যাসনে ঘরের বাহিরে। 

I love this season, I am grateful to God that I don’t have to travel in this weather to make a living, I have P.G. Wodehouse at my elbow and lively children to fill up my house with chatter and laughter every day, and I am happy. Maybe I’ll write a bit more here later, but let me put this much up on the blog for now...

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Words from the dimly remembered past

মানুষ আজও ছাই এত লেখে কেন? কোন অদ্ভুত নেশার টানে, কি উদ্দাম অভিপ্রায়ের বশে এই অন্তহীন অপকর্ম চলতেই থাকে? মানুষের মনের মধ্যে যত বোধ, অনুভূতি, যত আশা আকাঙ্ক্ষা সুখ-দুঃখ ভয়-ভীতির পাকচক্র, এসবের সমুদ্রমন্থন তো বাস্তবিক সেই কবে শেষ হয়ে গেছে! যদি শুধু প্রকাশভঙ্গির প্রকারভেদই সাহিত্যকে চালনা করত, তবেও তো একথা মানতেই হয় যে বিগত দুই-তিন সহস্র বছরে সংখ্যাহীন রথী-মহারথীরা মিলে নান্দনিক চরমোৎকর্ষের সকল নিদর্শন সৃষ্টি করে রেখেই গেছেন: আজকের মানুষ তো কেবল পাঠক হওয়ার যোগ্যতাই রাখে, গ্রন্থাগারে গিয়ে দান্তে কি শেক্সপীয়ার, কালিদাস কি রবীন্দ্রনাথের পাতা ওল্টালেই হয়, নতুন কথা বলবার, চিরপুরাতন কথা নতুন করে বলবার আর বাকি আছে কি? - আরেক ধরণের লেখা অবশ্য হয়, রাজনীতি-অর্থনীতি-বিজ্ঞান-দর্শন-সমাজতত্ত্বের জগতে "যুগান্তকারী" যেসব লেখা, যেমনটা এককালে অ্যারিস্টট্ল-নিউটন-ডারউইন-মার্কস-ফ্রয়েডদের মতো সাহেবসুবোরা লিখে পৃথিবী কাঁপিয়ে থাকতেন। এই বিংশ শতাব্দীর শেষভাগে এসে দাঁড়িয়ে যেন দেখি, তেমন তেমন লেখা আজ বহুদিন আর বিশেষ লেখাও হয়না। অথবা হয়তো ছাপাশব্দের অধুনাকালীন বাঁধভাঙা বন্যায়, অত্যুচ্চ প্রযুক্তির জগতে দৈনন্দিন বৈপ্লবিক পরিবর্তনের যুগে বুঝি বা মনুষ্যজাতি সেভাবে কোনো লেখা বা লেখকের দ্বারা প্রভাবিত হওয়ার ক্ষমতাটাই হারিয়ে ফেলেছে!

সে যাই হোক, যাদের সেরকম লেখা লেখবার ক্ষমতা বা প্রবৃত্তি কোনটাই নেই, তারা আজও লিখতে চেয়ে, লিখতে যায় কোন সাহসে? থাক, পরের কথা তুলে কাজ নেই, এক্ষুনি বিশ্বের অর্ধেক মহাবোদ্ধা শিঙ নেড়ে তেড়ে আসবেন এমনতরো আকাটের জ্ঞানচক্ষু অনতিবিলম্বে উন্মিলিত করে দেওয়ার সদুদ্দেশ্য নিয়ে; শৈল্পিক সৃষ্টিতত্ত্বের শতশত ভিন্ন ভিন্ন দুরূহ ব্যাখ্যার তোড়ে বেচারা একেবারে ভেসে যাবে। বিশ্বের তাবড় সাহিত্যিক নিজ নিজ আদর্শ-দায়িত্ব- উদ্দেশ্য বুঝে নিয়ে ব্যস্ত থাকুন, আমি এ-প্রশ্নটা শুধু নিজেকেই করি। 

আমি কেন লিখব? কোন দুর্লভ জ্ঞান আমার আছে, এমন কোন শিল্পবোধ আমার হয়েছে, জগতের কাছে যেনতেনপ্রকারেন আত্মপ্রকাশ করার জন্যেই বা প্রাণটা আজ আমার এমন কি আকুল হয়ে উঠল যে না লিখলে আর চলে না? কি জানি। আজ থেকে অনে-ক  দিন আগে একটা বিশেষ বয়সে আমারও একদা মনে হয়েছিল বৈকি...

কত কথা আছে, কত গান আছে, কত প্রাণ আছে মোর 
কত সুখ আছে, কত সাধ আছে, প্রাণ হয়ে আছে ভোর। 

আজ আর তার কী-ই  বা বাকি রইল? এখনো কি সত্যি আমার অনেক কথা বলার আছে, না তা লেখায় ধরে রাখার তেমন আগ্রহ রয়েছে মনের ভিতর? যদি বা তাও থাকে, সে লেখা লেখবার ভীষণ দরকার কি আছে আজও? কে বলে দেবে আমায়? 

তবু লিখব; লিখতে লিখতেই হয়তো সে প্রাণ, সে সাধ, সে গানের পুরোনো রেশ, পিছনে ফেলে আসা আবেশের খানিকটা ফিরে আসবে, তখন আবার নতুন উদ্যম, নতুন উদ্দেশ্য নিয়ে হাল ধরা যাবে। ততদিন পর্যন্ত আমার এই মাঝিহারা শব্দের নৌকা অস্ফুট অসংহত লক্ষ অনুভূতির এলোমেলো হাওয়ার ঠেলায় উত্তাল চিন্তানদী বেয়ে ভেসে চলুক।

I wrote the above essaylet back in mid-1989. Imagine! How much I have written since then, including My Master's Word, the essay on women, the Tagore translations, the five-hundred odd posts on this blog so far over the last twelve years, and over and above everything else, To My Daughter!

Monday, June 04, 2018

Delhi and Kasauli

[Some photos are here. Sorry for being late!]

That Air India flight in an Airbus A319 was a dream (the 319, which I flew for the first time, seems to be an upgraded version of the old workhorse the Boeing 737 – quieter, if nothing else). The staff at the tiny Kazi Nazrul Islam airport, which is less than a half-hour drive from my house, was friendly and helpful in an easygoing way. It felt unreal that I was at home in Delhi less than six hours since I left Durgapur.

‘Home’ is somewhere in south Delhi, near a very posh housing enclave not far from the IIT and JNU campuses – more details I shall fill in later. I found Delhi – all of 19 million souls now, and slated according to some estimates to become the world’s largest city within a decade – far more green and orderly and pretty this time round than most other big Indian cities I have seen or heard in great detail about, and that is saying a lot, considering how much I hate metros without exception. Believe it or not, there’s a lot of verdure just behind the house, and I can hear the cuckoos and crickets even in the daytime, despite the not-too-distant roar of traffic. The flat is small but clean, quiet and almost swank, and I kept the airconditioner working virtually all day, so I was comfortable notwithstanding the searing heat. The first two days I mostly slept and went for walks, besides reading up my old boy Sayan Bhattacharya’s latest little opus, Ancient Cities of India (you can download it from here). Memories crowded in, and it felt blissful, given the way my youth was spent, that I can afford this kind of ease and luxury on my own terms these days…

Then Pupu flew over from Kolkata (first time I received her at an airport!), and next morning we made a seven hour drive to Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh through the blazing heat of the Punjab (Bernier wrote in the 17th century that not even the Arabian desert in summer had prepared him for this experience, and you had better believe it). We could breathe only after we had climbed several thousand feet. We stopped at a tiny hamlet (which nevertheless boasts of a Café Coffee Day outlet, and where dhabas supply chilled beer) called Sukhi Johari just before Dharampur, and checked into a lovely resort called the Whispering Winds Villa – it truly lives up to its name, and well worth the tariff, despite a few little shortcomings. The Kalka-Shimla toy train chugged along musically just below us, clearly visible through the pine forest; it brought back memories of 2004. The first day we arrived so tired that we went to sleep immediately after a cool bath, and the airconditioner was turned off only at night. The view from the terrace was mesmerizing. I spent part of the time reading out a story by a favourite Bengali author to Pupu and Shilpi before turning in. Talk about beauty sleep…

Next morning we made a four-hour sightseeing trip to Kasauli, passing the famous Lawrence School, Sanawar on the way. Kasauli at 6,000 feet is basically a military cantonment, with both army and air force bases, and so both very clean and very heavily patrolled and guarded. We gave the long trudge up several hundred stairs to the Hanuman temple a miss, having seen high-altitude views galore and not being fond of being assaulted by thieving monkeys and excited ‘devotees’. Walked around the pretty little town instead, church and Mall Road and club house and Khushwant Singh’s old house (what an unpretentious man he was! Just his name on the gate pillar, and nothing else). Afterwards we took another walk through the pine forest in the afternoon, and lazed on the soft turf for a bit. Everything went dark and a terrific storm came up from nowhere when we were still in bed late in the afternoon, accompanied by torrential rain – the last time this happened to us was on May 16, 2007 in Nainital – by the time it quite stopped an hour and a half later, the temperature had dropped so much that we briefly wrapped ourselves up in blankets, creeping down the slippery goat track later on to Giani da Dhaba for hot poori-sabzi. The night was crystal clear once again, all the hills around twinkling with lights, and so quiet, so quiet.

A late departure next morning, and we were back in Delhi by five p.m. The return drive was much quicker and smoother, with far fewer stops for paying tolls and road taxes, heaven knows why. We made a meal of little cheese sandwiches, sausages, salad and beer and went to sleep before it was eight (when there was still light in the sky), woke up briefly at around 10:30, fell asleep again, got up at 2:30, and were at IGI airport Terminal 3 shortly before 4. The same Air India flight, and we were back home by 8:45. God bless the service: may it survive and prosper. And yes, I am looking forward to many more such trips in the near future.

P.S.: Here is what Pupu wrote on her blog about the same trip. She has noted details far more lovingly and carefully.

P.P.S.: On a different note, here's what I think of people who drive luxury cars these days.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Lesson well learnt


As I had myself predicted, the last two months have gone off at a breathless pace – but in a peaceful and orderly and most satisfying way. After a few welcome showers of rain, it is now the turn for horribly muggy weather, though the evenings are sometimes breezy. But my week-long mid-year break is about to begin, so that is something to look forward to. I shall be pushing off to Delhi tomorrow, via the spanking new airport that has come up in our town. Let us see what the experience is like. I hope, of course, that everything will go smoothly enough for it to be a pleasure, because I intend to use the service frequently through the coming year. If I am not in Durgapur, I shall very likely be in Delhi. My daughter’s undergraduate career is just about to end, and a new phase of both her life and mine seems to be beginning…

Children’s sense of time is indeed a very different thing from how adults feel about it. Looking back upon the days of my childhood and early youth, the years seemed to have moved so slowly, and they are so densely packed with memories, not many of them very nice. Since I returned to Durgapur and got into harness, three decades have, in comparsion, eventful though they were, gone in a flash. And I thank God a zillion times that I am still – at least till the moment of writing – fit and fresh enough to anticipate more good things to come. Who knows but ‘the best is yet to be’?

I notice that in a recent post, Sorry to be late, I have mentioned God three times in a short essay. It was not accidental. In retrospect – and I can do that much better than most people, my memories still being so abundant and sharp – it has been just God and me (if you don’t like God, call it Providence, karma, fate, chance or what you will); people haven’t really mattered, except as and when I have let them matter, by carrying them in my mind much longer than was necessary. I know everybody’s life does not work out the same way, but you may keep that in mind as one person’s lesson from life. Even in India, where family, relatives and ‘society’ are supposed to matter a great deal, they don’t, really, unless you let them. I hope some readers will know this is directed at them, and take heart from it. Unless you very truly, deeply, lastingly care for some people (and that can be at most only a handful, else you are pretending to yourself, which is a sin), don’t let them ruffle you or shove you out of your own orbit. It is your life, really. Nobody is yours unless she or he actually and often, if not always shares your enjoyment and stands beside you in your pain, suffering and loneliness over a very long stretch of time, so don’t give anyone too much of yourself. I am saying this with authority. I hope I have at long last learnt to do it myself, for that way alone lies serenity and real self-possession.

There is much that is wrong with this country, and I have often thought and written about all that, but today it seems to me that Nirad Chaudhuri was right in his diagnosis in The Continent of Circe, as I read Shashi Tharoor repeating – quoting his father in his recent book Why I am a Hindu – ‘remember that India is not only the world’s largest democracy, it is also the world’s largest hypocrisy’. That covers virtually the whole of our upper and middle classes. You will be safe if you remember that for the typical Indian, everything is coin for immediate transactions and passing gratifications, even what they call love and respect. Be safe. Don’t get needlessly hurt.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Beware of (only?) the meat


I have been both laughing and grimacing over the great meat scandal that has exploded over West Bengal during the last fortnight.

Here is my take on it. To start with, it would do Bengalis much good to eat less and eat better: look at the bulging bellies and behinds! This craze to eat out at the drop of a hat which has become endemic over my lifetime as the children of the ’80s and ’90s grew up is not good – not even in a country like the United States, where food safety standards are taken far more seriously by all and sundry. I remember my grandfather saying to me, only half in joke, in the early 1980s: ‘Dadabhai, avoid eating in restaurants, I hear they serve dog meat’. So I can’t say I am particularly surprised or horrified to hear that that, or worse, has been rampant of late, in high end restaurants and cheap roadside eateries alike, in Kolkata as well as in the small towns. This is India, after all, always has been, so why do so many behave as if it were ever otherwise?

First, the population has ballooned: there’s quite possibly far too little good quality food available at reasonable prices to supply the demand. Second, we as a nation – whether we are part of the government or the general public – hate stringent standards, because it cramps our ‘freedom’ to do as we like; we clamour for them only when there spreads a sudden (and transient) awareness that ‘others’ are making hay by flouting all kinds of rules. Third, we, virtually all of us these days, worship money like nothing else, and admire (or envy, which most of us consider the same thing) only those who have very quickly, and preferably with very little effort, made a big pile for themselves. Fourth, unemployment is rampant, and the great majority of honest jobs that are going around pay only a pittance. Given a conjunction of these factors, who pretends to be shocked, and why, that a lot of people will be tempted to take the primrose path to success, which always involves cheating people and hurting the common good? The fact, then, that such ‘scandals’ have become a dime a dozen should evoke only caution and despair, especially since as a society or nation we are determined not to take stern steps to end such antisocial ways to ‘success’ once and for all, or maybe secretly know that it is simply impossible.

And finally one cannot, no matter how high one raises one’s eyebrows at Didi’s penchant for smelling conspiracies, entirely dismiss the idea that there is political mischief afoot. Is it really a complete coincidence that this scandal broke virtually on the eve of the statewide panchayat elections, or that the media are giving it such shrill publicity (for what I think about them in general, scroll just a little bit down)? Let the meat-loving Bengali be warned, then, that food poisoning most commonly happens through fish, and that tomorrow another scandal may break over poisoned paneer, or that vegetables of all kinds are these days tainted with fertilizer, pesticides and weedicides which contain known carcinogenic agents. A doctor friend of mine got a virulent form of hepatitis after drinking scotch at one of the fanciest hotels in Kolkata, and later told me that it was probably from the ice: eateries, even the best of them, routinely cut costs by using industrial ice, or the sort of ice they pack fish with. And you are every sort of fool if you think you are safe because you live in Delhi or Bangalore. Eat less, eat healthy stuff, eat more at home, and be careful.

Last word of caution: be particularly careful of ‘branded’ eateries and caterers. If only because they have the biggest opportunity to cheat. Every canny Indian should know that your trust in big names is exactly what they commonly betray to get rich and stay rich.

P.S., May 14: Here is an article written in today's newspaper which might regale my Bengali readers.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Sorry to be late!


Yes, I have not written anything for a while, as some of my more regular and eager readers have started reminding me. Multiple reasons actually – I wanted the last post to be there at the top for some time, I am really  all tied up with the start of the new session, when the days start passing like a blur (and we are not growing younger!), I have been planning the near future with my daughter, I have been swimming and walking and watching movies with gusto, and enjoying the remarkably balmy summer we have been having so far for a welcome change (switching off the fan and pulling on a rug around daybreak, can you believe it?). Also, occasionally putting on the nosebag with an old boy whose daughter has now joined my classes. God is being kind to me, and I have observed, like so many others, that you write less when you are busy being happy!

Also, anyway, what do I want to write about? We are living in the times of Trump and Kim and Modi playing antics in the so-called real world which are as quaint and juvenile, and often cruder than, superheroes killing off one another on screen with the world going gaga over them. And we are living in a country where adults – the same country where ‘adults’ relentlessly keep telling the young how they should be respected for being wise and ‘experienced’ – have to be reminded with public advertisements, again and again, and with apparently very little effect, that listening to music, chatting or taking selfies while walking along railway tracks can get you killed: see here. I also happen to be the kind of man who was mulling over Socrates and Manu and Shakespeare and Russell before I was 16, and have to live among people who in their forties and fifties have the mental range and depth of tiny tots, though they have all acquired such great self-esteem that they take offence at the drop of a hat, even at people pointing out that they are needlessly giving offence with their anti-social behaviour. There comes a time when you just roll your eyes and cut the world dead – or focus on planning how to make more money by fleecing the hordes of intellectual and spiritual riffraff. Sell a still more snazzy smartphone/ set up a coaching centre that guarantees seats in the ‘best’ engineering colleges even if you can hardly spell/ advertize a fitness regime that can turn hippos into gazelles without any diet, exercise or pills… I used to say that overpopulation was at the root of all our troubles: at my age and station I can assert very strongly that far too many uncivilized people with too much time and money to spend and no regard for rules of any kind also makes for a nightmare of a country to live in. Especially since we have never had our own version of Emily Post: that has never been considered even by the 'bhadralok' to be a truly essential part of education.

I have been musing aloud more and more about how I mean to change the way I conduct my classes. The first given is that I cannot stop completely – I will be bored stiff soon, people won’t let me, and everything said and done, I have loved the money for too long ever to become entirely dependent on my daughter unless God renders me a cripple. The second is that I have to turn away so many simply because I can’t personally handle any more, and it’s too personalized a business to be turned into a franchise (which in this age of mass-marketed anonymity makes me very proud too).  Did you know that even thirty years ago some starry-eyed students were telling me they wished I were doing these classes on TV so that thousands or who knows, even millions, could attend them? Ten years down the line, I tried to make a beginning with the new technology, the internet – my website was called suvrodaonline – but it didn’t get off the ground, because the net was too novel, and the vast majority, especially in small town India, had no idea of using it for a purpose like education. Now that even rickshawpullers watch videos on youtube just about everywhere, and websites can be launched and run for a song, and so many organizations big and small are teaching all kinds of courses, I might try it once more, especially since very soon my daughter will be grown up enough to help me with everything. I shall probably go about very slowly, beginning with enrolling pupils online to get rid of the annual hassle of admissions; move on to putting some lectures on youtube, and then some notes and exercises: there might eventually come a time when a lot of parents will decide that it is a better bargain on the whole to access most of the stuff online for a fee. That way I might be able to have at least a few free days every week. And then I shall go on adding more course content, and spreading the net beyond this town… who knows what might happen by the time I am truly retired, and my daughter fully at the helm? Certainly, unlike most fathers, I am in a position to reassure her that if she can slip into my shoes, and perchance build something bigger out of it by and by, there would be few salaried jobs in this country that she would wish to have instead. Only God can decide otherwise.