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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. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

Why I have come to despise journalists

I myself quit journalism in 1988, but I have been following the profession closely – not least because my father was in it for several decades, and ran a daily virtually singlehanded with a team of young greenhorns for the last almost fifteen years of his life. I have profound respect for the greats in the profession, so it pains much more than pleases me to write this invective. The essay is, therefore, written with apologies to the ‘choice and master spirits’, of whom I have known a few in the flesh: alas, almost all would be older than 65 now, if they were all alive still. My only angst and complaint, in fact, is that so many hide behind the aura of the few greats to live despicable lives, and that things have been steadily growing worse over my working lifetime.

1.     Journalists keep talking about others, and it’s often just to cover up the fact that their own lives are boring, aimless and empty.
2.  They flit from sensation to sensation, because they cannot focus on anything that is really serious over the long term. The honourable exceptions are there only to underline the fact that they are painfully, almost invisibly few.
3.   They find fault with and sermonize to the whole world, but are more sensitive than all others to any suggestions that their own morals be monitored – how much what they say contradicts what they do.
4.    When coups and earthquakes aren’t happening, as on most days of the year, they ‘cook’ news. But catch them admitting it before they are stone drunk!
5.  They are far more interested in sales/TRPs than in either truth or human feelings.
6.  They are pathetically easy to bribe. I have seen it done with whiskey bottles and suit lengths or saris.
7.   ‘Power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages’… it attracts the basest sort of people on the average, those who themselves know they are not good enough for any real profession, be it politics or medicine, teaching or writing, being a judge or a bureaucrat or even a good plumber.
8.    Over the last twenty five years, it has drawn unfocussed and untalented young people in droves in India, exactly like engineering, though perhaps more of females, who have brought down standards drastically. Today, even writing about what restaurants are serving or how rich men’s wives are partying dares to be called journalism.
9.     Many make much money through simple blackmail: ‘I have found out this stinker about you; how much will you pay me not to publish it?’
10.  Once journalists saw themselves as freedom fighters. These days often their highest ambition is to become page-three celebrities. And while as a rule they claim to be all in favour of democracy, they fawn shamefully (and shamelessly) on the rich, powerful and famous – even if they are famous only for walking the ramp three quarters naked.
11.  They mutilate and coarsen language as if their lives depend on it. Most would write ‘The PM on Sunday said’… I leave it to anyone who claims to know English to remember what the right syntax is.
12. They are as a rule schizophrenic personalities: too many preach extreme forms of liberalism for others while maintaining rigid old-fashioned regimes for their spouses and children at home. Go ahead and quiz twenty journalists privately about how many of them will be delighted to hear that their children are gay.
13.  They are eager to tell you bad things about people (a teacher has caned a student unconscious) but they will virtually never take the trouble to write good things (a teacher has devoted forty years of his life, 340 days a year, to working quietly and diligently for the common good) – and they are not ashamed to justify this ugliness with ‘But that’s what the public wants!’ To a very large extent the whole profession is about washing people’s dirty linen in public for the consumption of the voyeur that is there in most of us, claiming endless gratification.
14.  They get very angry when they are told that they are merely serving this or that businessman’s interest.
15. I was taught as a cub reporter that after a cursory glance, official handouts and press releases should go straight into the waste bin, and if a mandarin, minister or big-ticket CEO makes tall claims, your job is to immediately smell a rat and probe where s/he is lying, covering up or window dressing. Alas, far too many ‘journalists’ pass off such handouts as news, often unedited! After all, a CEO has deigned to acknowledge their existence – shouldn’t they suck up to him to show how grateful they are?
16. In India, the average journalist’s loftiest ambition (unless it is as mentioned in point 10 above) is to be handed out a government sinecure – ambassadorship to some obscure country or a membership to the Rajya Sabha. Imagine what you have to do for thirty years or more to ‘earn’ that!

A female who was once my pupil – for my sins – and grew up to be a most despicable (unless it were pathetic) character has also become a so-called journalist. Another reason for my much-diminished regard for the tribe. You can make a quick survey of this blog to find out what sort of women I hold in high regard, and what sort attracts only my contempt and ridicule.

I end with yet another apology, especially to the likes of Kipling and Hemingway and Graham Greene, who graduated from journalism to something immeasurably higher, and the likes of Mayuri Mukherjee,  another old girl, who have in recent times been trying hard to become journalists who can be taken seriously.  

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Poetic condemnation

A well-known poet in Kerala (I thought the tribe had become extinct in India!) has 'begged' the government to exclude his poems from school textbooks, because he hates to see them mutilated and insulted by dumb teachers and dumber students alike. Alongwith he has said some harsh home truths about what education has become in India over the last thirty years. The same sort of thing that I have been saying for donkey's years. Do read the news item.

Meanwhile, the same paper carried on its front page a full-page advertisement from one of those hugely successful cram shops which promise, for an outlandish fee, to make your idiot son an Einstein (read cybercoolie in Bangalore). That is exactly what both the poet and I condemn. But that, alas, is all that 99 per cent of Indian parents want out of education. You want shit, you get shit.

P.S., April 05: 1) Devi Kar, Director of Modern High School Kolkata, whose writing I have quoted before, has written this article about the growing and obnoxious 'commodification' of education. I hope the parents of today's kids in school, who would be the generation that I coached and harangued 25 to 30 years ago, would take note, and look at themselves in the mirror, and wonder how they have become this gullible, this stupid, this harmful for their children. I conclude, as Mrs. Kar does, that I realize how out of sync I am with the times. I also keep advising my own daughter that if ever she comes into this profession in any capacity, she must be very well aware of the current reality, both if she wants to change it a little for the better and if she just wants to profit from it.

2) The same newspaper today informs me that certain doctors in Kolkata hospitals are being paid two to three crore rupees a year by way of salary. Now I know very clearly why medical costs have gone through the roof. Once upon a time medicine was supposed to be a crucial service, and doctors, while they had as much right as the next man to a decent living, were expected not to be greedy like any other trader. And let not anybody give me crap about how much they had to study and how hard they have to work to make money. Lots of others, from rural schoolteachers to soldiers and senior bureaucrats, research scholars and people who do very unpleasant and risky manual labour all their lives have to do with much less, simply because they have not been able to con the public and corner the market as well have doctors have. It is all, as we socialists have always said, about who manipulates the levers of the political economy (the same goes for education, too. In a dispensation where all schools hired only competent teachers, paid them decent salaries and forced them to do their duty properly, private tutors and cram shops would not have made hay as they are doing now - myself included).

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Last free Sunday

Sunday evening. The last free Sunday I shall have for another long season. The admission storm begins next weekend. This year I am as amused as anxious, for I have sensed a panic among hundreds of people phoning and visiting over the last few months, and one ex student, whose own daughter is going to join up, told me the other day that the rumour is that a vast number have enrolled, and most of them are not going to get a chance, so they are sweating blood and losing sleep, while I am a little scared of being mobbed, and at the same time I cannot help laughing at the irony of the fact that my services are so much in demand now that I am less and less interested in carrying on making a more than adequate living. I needed money much more thirty years ago: where were all these people then? What very special service have I given the public lately that the demand (I am sure the right word is craze – I keep telling people ‘do not regard tuition as a shortcut to marks without merit and effort’, and insist that I don’t primarily teach for marks, and remind them that lots of kids get good marks without attending my tuition, but obviously all in vain) has surged like this? These people will do anything to get their kids in, from telling sob stories to flattering me shamelessly and embarrassingly – the only two things they haven’t done yet is offering extra money and threatening physical violence! Yet I know that most of these people will badmouth me foully if their kids can’t get in or are dismissed for some reason at a later date, forget me the moment the tuition is over and often explicitly order the kids never to see me again, and if and when my reputation begins to flag and the numbers dwindle, nobody will care two hoots whether I can survive and look after my family or not. I get more and more why real celebrities privately so despise the same fan mob they profess to adore and thank, and why they are so insecure despite making vast fortunes… think of Sachin Tendulkar today, all of you who are more than thirty, and compare with where he was even ten years ago.

We live in such an incredibly stupid country. A country where ‘educated’ people are so painfully lacking in manners and consideration for others, a country which is so violent and so bigoted despite pretensions to ahimsa and broadmindedness and the loftiest of ideals, a country so interested in trivia like fashion, a country so steeped in superstition. Despite all this talk about how it is compulsory to read science and go in for professions like engineering, people are still actually driven by the likes of babajis and movie stars and netas whom we have begun to adore. So as long as a man has not somehow made a mark as someone special, we can only nitpick and find fault with him – we hate few things more than to hear someone whom we consider ‘just like us’ to be praised for anything at all – but let once a man convince some people that he has something special (the power to work miracles, whether as a tutor or healer or politico) and we start falling over ourselves to get a sprinkling of his blessings. And now, I guess, I have become something like that, a brand name, a babaji, someone who can get kids marks in the all-important exams regardless of their brains and whether they have worked for it or not. The rest of what I try to teach be damned – indeed, I have heard often and again that many parents, the same parents who seem to be ready to kill for admission, warn their children not to heed all the ‘rubbish’ I say ‘outside the syllabus’. So now I am getting old and tired, and warning people that very soon I am going to reduce the numbers and become much more choosy about whom I take in and whom I allow to continue, but apparently that is serving only to fuel the panic, the craze to get in! Those of my senior old boys who know the details and wish me well keep telling me to make hay while the sun still shines – jack up your fees drastically, Sir, and for the few more years that you keep working, laugh all the way to the bank. I still have some morals left, alas, and don’t yet feel that particular need, but who knows, I might take their advice before it’s time for the last hurrah.

And the kind of things that people say is beyond belief. They ring up at daybreak or close to midnight to say they want to enroll their kids. They ring up to say they have heard I am a well-known teacher, then ask what I teach, and cannot figure out why I lose my temper. Some come five years in advance to ask when they should enroll the kid (one couple did a few minutes ago), and scores come at the last moment, long after the lists have been closed, to say ‘they didn’t know, but would I please make a special concession for them?’ and they nag and nag and nag, as if not knowing gives them a special privilege somehow (and completely ignoring the fact that I get angry after I have told them umpteen times very politely why some people cannot be taken in out of turn, and that they didn’t know – which I flatly disbelieve, of course: after thirty years, only those cannot know me who didn’t want to know – doesn’t make a difference). Some tell the most fantastic stories about why their kids must get in – the most common being that they couldn’t come on time because somebody or the other in the family was on the deathbed or something like that, though how that kind of condition can last in any family for months on end is something I’ve never been able to figure out. And these days a lot of old boys and girls are coming back to enroll their kids, and act as though they are hurt or offended that I can’t remember them, but have they looked at themselves in the mirror lately and compared with what they looked like twenty five years ago, and can they remember thousands of people who have never met them for twenty years or more?

Meanwhile I keep longing for what I probably will never get: interested old boys (and just maybe a few non-girlie girls) coming back. Within the last three days, in quick succession, one has done so, and another has expressed the desire to do so. Usually they get back with a lot of uncertainty and trepidation about what they might expect: most go away pleasantly surprised. There are cranks among them too: some, after joyfully re-establishing the connection, cut it off again, permanently, without a word of explanation. As I have said before and not once, my faith in and love for humankind has reached a nadir. In my worst distress and helplessness I have been hugely helped by complete strangers; those who should remember me with the greatest affection and gratitude have by and large cut me dead, or cheated me most horridly. I can no longer look at people except as either sources of income or worth avoiding like a disease. And yet I used to be so different. I had so wanted and tried to create that most hyped and overused word these days long before it came into fashion, a network of like-minded, decent, mutually caring and helpful people who have a lot of good conversation. Not fated for me, apparently. Ah, well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mukutmanipur revisited

I was at a loose end, what with Ma gone to Kolkata and Pupu off to Mumbai. I was also rapidly running out of free Sundays, and didn’t want to stay at home. The new car needed running, and the weather was still tolerable to fine, with a chill in the air in the early morning before the sun rose. So I made a quick trip to Mukutmanipur on Sunday the 11th. Indranil Panigrahi of the ICSE ’98 batch, one of those old boys who have always kept in touch, happened to drop in on Saturday, so I took him along.

Mukutmanipur, which became a picnic spot ever since CM Dr. Bidhan Ray had a several-kilometer-long earthen dam put across the Kangshabati river close to where it meets the Kumari, is only 100 km away, but for some reason I visit rarely. The last time I went was in 2004, during the rains, and stayed at the Peerless Resort. I am glad to report that the roads have improved vastly since then, and our current CM has done a great deal to give the place a face-lift, so it was a very nice trip. Leaving home at about 6:45 a.m., we were there at the WBFDC (‘Sonajhuri’) resort in three hours. Unfortunately cottages had to be booked online, and there was a poor internet connection on the spot, so we missed out on that, but we were allowed to look around, and the staff was surprisingly friendly and accommodating, considering that they were government employees. The hilltop viewpoint gives a lovely panoramic view. We drove off to the Sutan forest, which is the first real forest I have seen in southern Bengal – never having gone to the Sunderbans – where we saw the ruins of a police outpost which had been blown up by the Maoists when they used to rule the roost in these parts, and then to Jhilimili, which is 35 km. from Mukutmanipur, and which you can safely give a miss. Back to Mukutmanipur, where we lunched at Sonajhuri, checked into a little hotel at the foot of said resort, and went to sleep in air-conditioned comfort. By the time we awoke the sun was setting, and it wasn’t hot anymore, so we went for a long boat ride on the reservoir. The whole surroundings were ablaze with palash flowers, and gradually it grew dark, and the lights of many colours, which were there in profusion, began to glow and twinkle, until amidst the silence of the river, with only the water lapping around us, it became magical.

The riverfront reminded me strongly of the seaside promenade at Digha and the Motijheel Park at Murshidabad: Didi’s signature is only too apparent. I have never seen a more tastefully designed Sulabh Shauchalaya anywhere in India. We sat in the little park for a long time, watching the multi-coloured fountain and listening to rabindrasangeet, then drove off towards the other bank, which is dark and eerie save for the Peerless Resort, and another hotel, Aparajita, where we stopped for a quick chilled beer. Then back to the hotel, where we eased back for a bit, and finished the day with dinner at Sonajhuri again, because we had liked the food. A quiet night’s sleep, and we woke up at dawn with a multitude of birds whistling, singing, warbling and chirping all around us in the woods. We went for a long walk along the dam. The breeze was strong and cool, and the sun, mercifully, went behind a large dark cloud again and again. Indranil remarked that though it was a Sunday, when the place should have been crawling with noisy tourists, we had the whole place nearly to ourselves, the Madhyamik exams. starting the next day having kept most people away. Stopping once more at the park to photograph the flowers growing in rich abundance, we drove off, stopping near Bankura for a quick breakfast of poori-ghoogni and hot nikhunti, and we were back at home by 11:30, so I had time to see Indranil off, do a bit of tidying up, a bath, lunch and half-hour snooze before taking two classes as on every Monday.

My old Indica was always faithful and true, but the new Dzire is definitely one notch above. Thanks, Maruti.

Indranil, I do hope you enjoyed yourself enough to want to bring over your wife next time around. And remember to ask your dad to arrange that trip to the Sunderbans at a time of mutual convenience.

I guess my travels are now truly over till at least end-May, but as I said, I shall be looking forward keenly to suggestions about little trips like this one, which can be done in one or two days at the most.

When I was a child, our family did only a few trips together, but I remember enjoying them. Immediately after finishing the ICSE exams, I went on a long tour of Himachal Pradesh with the family of a friend, and liked it so much that I vowed to travel all my life, to everywhere that sounded interesting. I am glad that God has given me time, money, health and continued interest to keep at it for nearly four decades now. And as I have said before, I’d like to take old boys along: that is a special pleasure. Of late I have got to know that several of them have stayed on or returned to settle here in Durgapur, and most of them are doing financially okay or better. I hope to build up a network with them – I never give up hoping! Kaushik, Anupam, Tuhin, Abhik, Shakya, Prashant, Sayan Roy (and the likes of him who live not too far away)… are you listening? Tell others you know about this, too, if you can.

For photos, click here. 

Monday, February 26, 2018


[Shilpi has written her own little travelogue, here. See how different people see the same things differently.]

Ever since Pupu grew up, I have been taking advantage of mid-to end February to go travelling. The weather is still fine to tolerable, my work schedule is slack, and it is ‘off-season’ almost everywhere, because millions of kids are taking year-end exams in school, and so their parents are tied up too. I have just come back from another long trip. This one was a repetition in some ways, and a first in some others. I took my mother along with me – for the first time in my life, when I am running fifty five. She was tough enough to cope with the whole thing and enjoy it. Not easy, when I see women half her age – and a lot of men too – who are decrepit already. But then she still teaches mathematics, and insists on doing a lot of the housework…

We started off with Hardwar. I am not religious in any conventional sense, yet Devbhoomi, as they call the Garhwal hills in those parts, holds an ineffable fascination for me. This was the fifth time I was visiting, the first being in 1989, when I took the Xavier’s kids along (is any of them reading? Those boys would be past 40 now!) I checked into my favourite hotel, the Teerth at Subhas Ghat, because it is bang on the river, and a few paces away from the most happening location in town, Har ki Pauri, where the river which is mother of India descends to the plains. We arrived late at night, so that day was wasted, but driver Munna Lal took us to Neelkanth Mahadev the next day, and on the way back we took in Laxmanjhula and Hrishikesh: it almost felt like coming home. Munna was just the kind of driver I like, courteous and friendly without being garrulous and presumptuous, and very staid at the wheel, so I fixed up the rest of the tour with him.

Off we went to Devaprayag, where the Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda and becomes Mother Ganga (-ji. They consider it sacrilege to refer to her by name without the suffix – a mannerism of which I strongly approve). Ma offered her prayers, then we pushed on to Rudraprayag, where the Mandakini, river of heaven, meets the Alaknanda. Checked into a roadside hotel, nothing special, but it overhung the river from a ledge, and the view was breathtaking. It was not cold until I had sat on the balcony watching a forest fire on the hill in front for more than two hours. The river sang to me all through the night.

Next day we followed the Mandakini to Chandrapuri, where the picturesque Tourist Lodge had been washed away by the terrible flood of 2013 (the office still works out of a tent). I had planned to stay the night there, but in the event the down-in-the-mouth cottages didn’t seem too appealing, so we pushed on to Ukhimath, where, as luck would have it, Lord Omkareshwar was residing (he comes down from Kedarnath for the winter every year). And so, agnostic that I am, I managed to pray to him without actually going to Kedar, which I probably never will, given my bad leg. Then back to the same hotel in Rudraprayag, stopping at Dhari Mata temple on the way (which they had removed to build a dam, and then came the flood, and so they are rebuilding it at the insistence of the locals, who don’t want the Mother to be angry again) and the Sangam, where I went all the way down to actually stand in the Mandakini and collect a bottleful of water for someone who had begged for it. I stopped also at the tiny Jim Corbett Park (opposite to the Panchayat office and RTO now – Corbett would have gaped) which marks the precise spot where he shot the notorious maneating leopard back in 1926. I badly wished that Pupu had been beside me: the story is so alive and vivid for both of us…

A very long drive to Mussoorie the next day, because we had to stop again and again at places where the mountain was being blasted, dug up and removed so that the road could be widened into a highway (presumably so that the Dilliwala fat cats with their luxury cars and coarse manners could drive up faster and easier). Stopped at Sahasradhara just outside Dehradun, and it was a disappointment. Dehradun itself has sprawled, become rich and brash and nearly faceless (but for the still extant greenery) like so many other cities around India ever since it became a state capital. The drive up to Mussoorie was, however, still just as beautiful as always. Munna drove us into a hotel he knew, and it was good, especially because they were offering a 50% off-season discount. The next day was spent in a leisurely way, strolling around the Mall, walking up to Landour where Ruskin Bond lives and visiting Kempty falls, the Buddhist Temple (close to the LBSNAA, where they train IAS officers – strictly a no-photography zone, enforced by stengun-toting and very stern looking commandos) and the cute little ‘Company Garden’. Mussoorie is even more troubled by monkeys than Hardwar: one took away and broke my teacup when I had turned away for ten seconds on the balcony!)  The city blazed like a carpet of lights below me. And it was the last cold night I had this season…

Down to Hardwar on the morning of the 23rd. I had invited Shilpi, who is now working in Delhi, to come over for the day. Ma was tired out, and wanted to sleep through the afternoon. They were hammering away somewhere on the roof of the hotel, so sleep wouldn’t come to me: at four I gave up trying and went up via ropeway to the Manasa Mandir for a bird’s eye view of the town. I am glad that two Bengalis have been greatly honoured in the Hindi heartland: Subhas Bose, after whom my ghat was named, and then there is Vivekananda park, where you see the swami’s diminutive statue standing right in front of the monumental Shiva as you drive out of the city. We watched the aarti at evenfall again, and strolled along the ghat and sat on the balcony watching the river flowing by till late at night. There was the wretched chore of having to get up at daybreak to take the Jan Shatabdi to New Delhi (that station is still the pits – you can’t get even a cup of tea on the platforms!), where the tedium of the long wait was greatly alleviated by Akash’s visit, and finally a quiet trip on the Rajdhani back to Durgapur on Sunday the 25th.

The Ganga was unbelievably green for mile after mile. When am I finally going to go rafting down her? Unfortunately, wherever there is even a small town or a place with some claim to holiness, there are now far too many people everywhere, and so also too many shops and motor vehicles – worse still, two-wheelers swarm the roads. The fact that our numbers have swollen by a billion since independence is becoming more painfully, intolerably clear with every passing year. These days you have to trek far beyond the motorable roads and the reach of TV-dishes and mobile towers to enjoy the beauty that is still pristine, and the silence amidst vastness that never fails to wash away the silly and futile cares of the world far below, when you can at last be alone with yourself. I have seen almost everything that metro life offers, and I promise you, until you have had this experience you have not lived. But one warning: if you travel around these parts, be ready to climb up and down thousands of breathless stairs, and live for the most part on pure vegetarian food (Well, that's two warnings actually!)

So my travels are more or less over for the season. Now summer is around the corner, and I have to gear up for the admission storm in late March. After that, two continuous months of class, then a mid-summer break, when Pupu will decide where I should go along. The rest of the year belongs to her. But I shall be searching for pretty and quiet two-day getaways all the time – any suggestions beyond the usuals, which I have seen already? I am particularly interested in the new homestay facilities which, I hear, are sprouting all around the state.

Photos can be seen here. Also, here is a little video that I have put up on youtube. This young man was playing the flute beside the Ganga at Laxmanjhula. That’s the kind of small roadside miracle that you can catch anywhere in Devbhoomi.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sign of the times

Read this news item, and this one. They speak for themselves. A lot of people who are not only very tech-smart but have made fortunes out of it in recent times are questioning what technology is doing to us, and trying to keep their children out of its grasp. If this still doesn't provoke many young educated Indians to start thinking about which way we are heading, and whether it's time to stop and take good stock of the present state of affairs - including, most importantly for the future, in our classrooms - then things have already gone past the point of no recall.

As a teacher, reader and father, I have long been saying that the current obsession with 'tech' has become a global disease. I can vividly see what staying glued to little screens from early childhood is doing to things like handwriting, memory, imagination, critical thinking, patience, empathy and even, unthinkable as it sounds to still-sane people, concern for personal safety. I hope young parents will take note. I am personally telling as many of them as will listen to me to urge their own kids to play and read and do housework instead of giving them tablets and smartphones, but my voice is too small to make a difference against the black vortex that is threatening to swallow us all... there are actually 'teachers' around who want textbooks to be rewritten in comic book format to hold the attention of the youngest generation now in school. How much time left till the ultimate meltdown?

P.S., March 04: I read this editorial in yesterday's newspaper. Apparently some sensible people are thinking along the same lines. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

This blog, Facebook and books

Looking back upon a post in April 2012, I just found that I was then eagerly waiting for the pageviews counter to cross the 100,000 mark. I had launched the blog in July 2006, and it took six years to reach that number – before which, I think, no one can call oneself a serious blogger. And now, already, within less than six more years, the number has jumped close to 550,000! At this rate, it will not be too long before I cross the million mark, if I stick around. How on earth did this happen? How did the readership grow so prodigiously within so short a span? What makes it doubly weird is that at the same time, the frequency of comments has dwindled: whereas in the early days some blogposts attracted twenty, thirty, even sixty comments, these days the number is at best below ten. So while my readers have swelled in number and/or frequency of visits, I must conclude that they have, for the most part, nothing to say about anything that I write. How is this conundrum to be explained?

One of the many reasons for the paucity of comments, I imagine, is that of late far more people are accessing the blog via mobile phone rather than via computer. The problem with this is that, firstly, internet access via phone is still very slow and erratic, and secondly, it is far more clumsy to use the facilities with such a small screen while you fiddle with your fingers: who knows but many people cannot even see the comments link, or have no idea how to use it! I don’t even know whether most of my readers have computers, but if they do, I would request them to use those in preference to their phones while reading my blog. One section of my readers tell me they follow my blog earnestly but can never think of anything to write as a comment. With them I can only despair. Even asking a question or supplying a nugget of relevant information can be a comment! There’s yet another category of older readers who say that after staring at the screen for ten to twelve hours at the workplace they don’t have the energy left … but if they can take time out to read my blog, why can’t they write comments at least now and then? That is something I have never been able to figure out.

I find it intriguing that some posts I wrote years ago suddenly come back into the most-read list. Rani Rashmoni has done so and stayed there for quite a while now; so did my reminiscence of my grandfather titled The end of an era for some time, and lately I can see my review of Sudha Murty’s book Wise and Otherwise has nudged its way in. How does that sort of thing happen, and why? I have no idea. But I shall once more strongly encourage my readers, especially newcomers, to click on the labels along the right hand column and visit old posts: many people get back to me after finding something interesting which I had myself almost forgotten, and that is always nice.

I like people with serious and abiding interests. Naturally, because I am one myself. I have been writing a diary since I was seven years old, and once the blogging facility came along I took to it like a duck to water, at the age of 43. I find it deeply therapeutic to write, and it tickles me that my readership is constantly increasing, even if I don’t hear from them as much as I’d like to (I also don’t think that any of my immediate neighbours even know of its existence! Make of that what you will). As you can see, I have stuck to it in a disciplined and regular way for twelve continuous years. Who knows what the years ahead might bring? One thing that has happened recently is that my Facebook page, titled ‘Suvro Sir’, which I launched purely as a notice board for current pupils (you can access it via Google by just typing ‘Suvro Sir Facebook’ without even having or logging into your own FB account, did you know that?) has very quickly caught on among parents, most of whom would probably never have read my blog, even if they knew what a blog is. So maybe I’ll publicize the blog a bit by linking it to my FB page. I don’t know if even that will persuade too many parents to do something as ‘boring’ as read a blog (as opposed to say shopping or gossip), but it would be good if a few at least did and talked around about it: it might go some way to dispel all the silly stories that have been circulating among the parent class in this town for decades, simply because they never made the effort to find out what sort of person I really am! Today’s parent class is in the late-thirties and early forties bracket; many of their generation were my pupils twenty five to thirty years ago. I hate to think they should remain as clueless about me as their parents were, even while sending their children to me in droves.

One last thing for now.  I have been trying for donkey’s years to spread the reading habit and a taste for good books among my pupils, against very strong resistance from parents, who (in my milieu at least, but broadly speaking all over India) believe strongly that it is a disease to be guarded against. I have succeeded with a small number; with a much larger number I have failed. I feel chagrined to see that the new generation of parents, many of whom as I said belong to the generation I taught 25-30 years ago, have caught the aversion from the parents, and many kids growing up right in front of my eyes, despite my most earnest efforts, have already, in mid-teenage, decided that their parents are right, reading is a disease best avoided, unless you are reading the Chetan Bhagat sort of stuff. The irony is that all those parents send their children to me to learn English well, and if I have said this once I have said it a million times, that you cannot really learn a language well by just doing some grammatical exercises and cramming a few textbooks: trying to do that instead of reading widely and well is like trying to stay healthy by popping vitamin and mineral pills instead of eating lots of green vegetables and fruits daily. Few things make me gloomier about India’s future as a civilization. Most of all the fact that so many millions are going around claiming to be educated but know nothing outside their narrow spheres of professional specialization (if that!), and read nothing, not even newspapers or serious magazines, yet claim a facile competence to comment confidently on almost every subject under the sun – as I once wrote long ago, journalists these days solemnly quote beauty queens opining on the government’s economic policy. You can have too much democracy, and that itself might eventually prove to be democracy’s nemesis! 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A call to the other blog

Some of my more serious readers have complained that I have been neglecting my other blog. So I just posted a serious essay there which I could have put up here instead. It's called Indian values coming, beware! Please click here to read, and you can send your comments either there or here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Google Doodle pathos

Of late, Google Doodles (the cartoon you see sometimes when you log into the Google India home page) has been ‘honouring’ notable Indians, especially women, on their birth anniversaries. I think it’s not a bad effort when I consider that the average netizen in India (definitely ‘educated’ in today’s utterly trivial sense, typically a B-grade engineer, journalist or sales manager) would probably never have heard about most such people otherwise, but it makes my lips curl with disdain when I reflect that Google does this cynically, with its eye on nothing but the bottom line: this is their way of currying favour with that (large-) section of the Indian populace whose custom they want to attract – nothing more and nothing less. So today they have drawn attention to Mahasweta Devi. Now she happens to be one of the few contemporary Indian women (well, all right, not exactly contemporary: she’d have been 92 today, and died in 2016) I happen to respect, and mine is not the kind of respect that is here today and gone tomorrow. Ask around in Durgapur about how many people besides me remember the once-legendary Father Gilson of St. Xavier’s and still talk about him eulogistically whenever the opportunity presents itself. But I wonder – will Google’s way of remembering make any real difference to anybody, and to M. Devi’s ideals and aims in particular? The ET story says the Doodle has ‘immortalized’ her. Do people like her need Google to be immortalized, or is it the Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump types who do? Yeah, yeah, I know the latter are vastly more numerous, so that proves what exactly?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Apology to recent comment writers

Several comments written by various readers, particularly on the previous post, including I think from Rajdeep, Saikat, Subhanjan, Sreetama, Tanmoy, Shalini, Siddhartha and a few others got accidentally deleted while I was editing this blog. My sincere apologies. This sort of thing rarely happens. Would you folks care to take the trouble to send over those comments once more, if it is not asking too much?

Monday, January 01, 2018

Kumaon trip, December 2017

(sunset at Munsiyari. Taken by Siddhartha Das, 2012, and posted on flickr, here)

The Kumaon hills, partly owing to their still undestroyed beauty, partly because of the honesty and simplicity of the locals, and partly owing to the Jim Corbett connection, have always been a favourite holiday destination of mine, ever since I went that way for the first time on a shoestring budget back in 1987. I have been to Nainital four times, including this one. Even Pupu has many clear memories of the last visit in May 2007.

Classes were over for the year on Thursday the 21st December. My mother and I took a bus to Kolkata on Friday afternoon, and Pupu was waiting for us at the Esplanade bus terminus. Mother went off for a trip to Pune, while Pupu and I had a very nice dinner at Shilpi’s place. Late next morning we flew to Lucknow. I missed the tongas this time round – they have almost vanished – and strolled around the city in autorickshaws, trying to recognize the locations shown in Badshahi Aangti, visiting among other things the new B.R. Ambedkar Park, a monument to Ms. Mayavati’s ego on an ancient Egyptian scale, a chikan factory, and the park along the Gomti at evenfall, having had lunch at the famous Dastarkwan galli in between. The next day was spent (re-) visiting the Residency redolent with history (Pupu had missed the museum the last time, when it had been closed for repairs), the Bara- and Chhota Imambara, the Rumi Darwaza, the Clock Tower and so on. The city, famed for its numerous parks big and small, is clean and well-administered on the whole, whether due to or in spite of Yogi Adityanath I wouldn’t know, but the half-kilometre radius zone of Chaarbaag, around the railway station, is in a state of hyper-congested bedlam: the sooner the authorities do something to clear it up the better for all concerned. The only advantage of checking into a hotel there was that at night we could walk into the station with all our luggage without the aid of a vehicle, a guide or a porter. A quick, modest dinner at the railway canteen, and we were off in the Kathgodam Express by 10 p.m.

The early morning fog was so dense that the train had to crawl for the last hundred odd km. It was eerie to look out through the window and be able to see virtually nothing outside even after dawn had broken. So we were an hour late in arriving, and I was glad to be served free tea by a Good Samaritan at Kichchha station just before Haldwani. A car was waiting for us. At Udupiwala Restaurant, just outside Kathgodam, where we stopped for breakfast, they served complimentary laddoos because it was Christmas Day. The Kathgodam-Nainital trip by road was, as always, a dream. We stopped for three hours at Nainital, strolling around and boating in the lake in the bright, crisp, balmy sunshine, drinking coffee which was delightful because of the cold, lunching at the lakeside and visiting the St. Francis’ Church before driving off for Almora, where we arrived at around 4 p.m. I was staying in Almora after a gap of thirty years, and the town had certainly improved. Perhaps the lovely panoramic view from the huge terrace of my Hotel Himsagar helped to colour my judgment. We took a long walk along the main road till almost outside the town to work up a keen appetite, dined at a very nice roadside restaurant called Bhumika run by a friendly middle-aged Kumaoni lady and two elderly assistants, and retired early, good long hours of sleep under heavy quilts being a very important requirement of all our holidays in the mountains. The ceiling glowing dimly in the dark with fluorescent stars and moons was a perk we hadn’t got elsewhere before.

Next morning we went on a six-hour round trip to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. There was a three km. trek on the menu, and the views of the woods as well as the distant snowclad mountains from the so-called Zero Point – a 350 km range, from Nanda Devi and Kailash at one end through Trishul, Panchchula, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri at the other – were, in a word, divine. And I am more thankful than I can say that Pupu has come to love the vast vistas, the pine-scented air and the silence quite as much as I do. We could have sat there all day, but hunger drew us away. We lunched at the Binsar Eco Resort on the way back, and returned to Almora well in time for another long walk, this time visiting the little Ramakrishna Ashram built by the Swamis Shivananda and Turiyananda at the behest of Vivekananda himself (though I would have expected something much bigger and grander), and the District Magistrate’s office, housed on a hilltop in the middle of the town in buildings erected by the Chand Raja-s in the early 1800s, and apparently never refurbished save the occasional coat of paint since. I joked with Pupu that those who worked there, and had to climb up and down so many breathless steps at least five days a week, would never have to worry about obesity and heart disease! As always, the street dogs, plump, furry and perky, could have given the best pedigreed city bred domestic pets a run for their money.

Setting off at eight next morning, which meant waking up at 6:30, a truly ungodly hour for us in that kind of cold, we made a nearly eight-hour drive to Munsiyari, stopping at a riverside restaurant at Tejam for lunch on the way. Most of the road is in good to excellent condition, thank God: in the hills even more than in the plains, it makes all the difference in the world. At Munsiyari, we checked into a hotel called Milam Inn. The bellboy-cum-waiter simply pulled aside the curtain of the picture window in our room, turned around to raise a questioning eyebrow, and smiled contentedly to see our jaws drop. I am not given to superlatives, but the sight that met our eyes, the full Panchchula range bathed in brilliant sunshine, so close that it seemed you could reach out and touch them, took our breath away. I have seen many a Himalayan vista, but I can assure you that you won’t get a closer, grander view of the Himadri range unless you trek to a base camp at the foot of one of the great peaks. There was nothing to be done but stay rooted to one spot in the garden, shivering but deliriously happy, for more than an hour as the sun gradually set behind us, drenching the lofty peaks in front of us in a multitude of glorious colours, slowly changing from blazing gold to a softer hue, then purple, then crimson, and eventually fading away until they were only a faint outline in the moonlight more imagined than actually seen, and we were chilled to the bone as we headed back to our room for a very welcome cup of coffee and heavier stuff. Later at night someone lit a double line of controlled fire in the hills for our entertainment: the glow against the black backdrop of night was mesmerizing. That was the only night we used a heater before going to bed.

Next morning, the tap water was hot enough for us to brave a bath. Then we went out for a short but tough trek up a hill to visit a talao called Maheswari Kund. Afterwards our driver Vimal-ji took us down to the little town where we visited the Nanda Devi temple, a fine spot for a picnic on a hilltop, then a little tribal museum housing Kumaoni relics and lore before lunch. Walking around in search of the bazaar we had left behind, we managed to lose our way, and had to phone for the car to come and pick us up. The rest of the evening was spent reading out a story from Man Eaters of Kumaon to Pupu and watching a movie on the laptop. Early dinner (they feed you good stuff everywhere in those parts) and early to bed thereafter.

Friday the 29th was Pupu’s birthday. I had kept the best hotel for the last. We drove four hours down to Chaukori, where we checked into a place called Ojaswi Resort – and it is one of the best places I have ever stayed in. Fine view again, lovely walkabout in the tea garden before lunch on the sun-warmed terrace, where I dozed off for a while afterwards until the sun went behind the trees and the wind began to bite, whereupon we rolled up in our quilts for a late-afternoon snooze: for me, the very height of luxury. Another movie in the evening. I never watch TV when I am travelling and Pupu has her laptop with her. This time I watched four lighthearted movies in succession: Elf, Shrek, Zootopia and Ant Man. Talk about regression to childhood! Or detox, if you prefer Pupu’s vocabulary, and I can’t say I disagree.

On Saturday we checked out at 9 and drove down to Bhowali, where we stopped to pick up bottles of rhododendron (buransh) juice at a roadside shop, then lunch on the way, and at 4 p.m. Vimal dropped us off at Lalkuan railway station before bidding us goodbye. The once a week Lalkuan-Howrah Express left with us at 7:20 p.m., and next evening, the 31st, we arrived at Durgapur a little after 8:30, only four hours late (this is something that Indian Railways calls a ‘superfast’ train, meaning its average running speed is about 50 kmph – and I hear someone is dreaming of a ‘bullet’ train somewhere in this country. Good luck to him). Dinner at Kohinoor right in front of our house with rumaali roti and Chicken Patiala, and it was time for bed on the last night of the year.

My only real grouch this time round was that there were far too many Bengalis around (at Munsiyari and on the return train, they were almost all Bengalis). It shames me to say this, being a Bengali myself, and because Bengalis are the most enthusiastic tourists in India, but when will they learn that there is (or should be) something called public manners? – Four very important aspects of which are that you shouldn’t scream at one another in the name of chatting at all hours nor let your children do it, you shouldn’t discuss the most private and personal things, such as your bowel movements, for all and sundry to hear even if they desperately don’t want to, you shouldn’t order about hotel staff as though they are slaves, and you shouldn’t bargain at shops so strenuously and shamelessly that the locals have to work hard not to show how much they have begun to despise you. I appeal to all my readers who truly love to travel: don’t you think India would be a much nicer place to travel around if we all learnt to behave ourselves a little better? 

[Our photos can be seen here]

Sunday, December 31, 2017

End of year post

I came home after an almost flawless holiday only a couple of hours ago, and now Pupu and I are looking forward to eight hours of the dreamless, which is our favourite way of spending New Year's Eve. Have a very happy 2018, readers. The travel post will be up shortly.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Baba's birthday

The shadows grow long upon this year. It was one of the most painful years in recent memory for me, and yet, strange to say, now that it is drawing to a close, it seems to have passed at a breathless pace. As the poet said, ‘we wait, and the time is short but waiting is long’. Today my father would have been 79. He had expected to be around till 80, and so had I, but that was not to be. And at the end of this month, my daughter will have become a full adult, so the most important task of my life is definitely done. Not that she needed to be certified that way, because the way she has been brought up she became far more ‘adult’ in most ways several years ago than most people I know ten years her senior, but, you know, legally speaking she can well and truly be her own woman now. Let her find out how it feels, since I have been threatening for several years that from now till my dying day I will never tell her to do anything, only offer non-mandatory counsel if she seeks it. And she will have my goodwill and blessings to accompany her, and thousands of hours of rich memories. I pray that that would suffice. Meanwhile, I who have been without a guardian since teenage shall be looking forward to having her as a guardian in my old age.

Right now I am about to take off for my year-end vacation. Just waiting for my daughter’s exams to end. It has been a full year, so as always it will be a holiday well earned. Of late I have been slowly becoming more ‘technical’, having launched a Facebook page called Suvro Sir to be used as a notice board, so that if and when I want to escape at short notice, which I never could do for the last thirty years, I shall simply notify all pupils there and go. Now that even rickshawpullers have Facebook accounts, I thought it was time to make use of the facility. All pupils, and especially those who live far away, are being told to check the page before they set off for my house; after that, if they miss me, it won’t be my fault. I have kept myself bound to an iron routine for ages; now I shall be loosening up little by little.

The batch that has just left this year was a good one; I enjoyed having almost all of them in my class, and so, I think, did most of them. Many of them had been around for three continuous years, and they saw many troublesome things happening to me, including my own semi-incapacitation following the accident in 2015 and my father’s slow and painful passing. They adjusted beautifully; for that I shall remain grateful. I give them my love and blessings. Of course most of them will forget me soon enough; of the few that won’t, hardly anybody will visit, and of the very few who do that, most will be at a loss for words. Virtually nobody will sustain the connection over the long run even over the phone or email. So it has always been, so it will ever be. I have given up hoping for anything better. The few ex students who keep in touch meaningfully over the years are overwhelmingly male, and belonged to the batches prior to 2005. Something has changed with young people today, but so be it. It was good while it lasted, and they all paid me dutifully right till the last month; that’s all that finally matters. My enrolment lists for the next session are full and closed; I keep turning away people, telling them to ask me if there are vacancies after the regular admissions are over. So I guess I shall be in gravy for a few more years yet. A lot of people get frantic when they hear their wards might not have a chance. The kind of panic that they feel – or pretend to show – has always made me wonder: why? And if so many people are really so desperate to get their children in, why then do some (admittedly a small percentage, but still…) eventually drop out? Believe it or not, there are some who pay for admission and then don’t turn up, some who quit after the first day, and some even before the last month begins, when the majority are feeling bad that the class will soon be over! Some, I know, find the coming and going too taxing; some leave because my schedule clashes with ‘more important’ tuitions, but some, surely, do so only because they have started disliking me for one reason or the other – sometimes without attending a single class, or just a few. I wish I could find out why. Of course those seats are by and large filled up by others, but it keeps rankling that some found me so dislikeable. As I said, those who find me interesting are vastly more numerous, and their numbers have been rising inexorably over the years and decades, so this has never hurt my pocket, but I would have liked to know, even if from others, why some people quit. Anyway, it makes me feel good to think that there are numerous other youngsters who are dying to get in, having heard from older siblings what my classes are like, and also old boys and girls who are waiting to admit their children. Age has its compensations…

Sayan Bhattacharya of the 1991 batch came over from Thiruvananthapuram to stay and chat overnight after many, many years. He has had a difficult but colourful life, and I admire his never say die spirit. He and I share a love for writing – not a common thing in India! He has already written two books, both semi-fictionalized accounts of his own past and of his family, which I keep on my library shelf, and he is planning his third. I wish him luck, and hope someday to meet his family when I am travelling in Kerala. If you are interested, you can look up his books, Friendship Calling and A Case of Connections, on Amazon or Flipkart. More power to your elbow, Sayan.

We are having a very strange winter this time. It started becoming chilly in early November, yet today the sun is almost hot, and I am working in my shirtsleeves. I wonder what January will bring, but I do want to see a lot of snow where I am going, high in the Himalayas!  

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Tales from bygone days, part two

I have always been fond of dogs (and they have by and large reciprocated the feeling – as I have often said, any dog which doesn’t like me has something wrong in its character!), and only the fear that I will become stuck at home round the clock, all year round, has prevented me from having several of my own. Maybe I will, someday, when I am at last surfeited with travelling for pleasure. But dogs have sometimes got me into trouble. In my early teenage days, I used to go to a coaching class to learn how to play the guitar. I rode across several streets on my bicycle, the guitar box slung from one hand – how empty and safe the streets were in those days, and how unworried my parents! – to my tutor’s house for an hour’s practice once or twice a week. He had a huge young female Alsatian called Lucky. Being childless, the couple adored and doted on her like a human child. Lucky and I fell in love with each other. Her favourite way of greeting me was to lie in ambush behind the potted plants, imagining I couldn’t see her, and the moment I pedalled into the little garden, she would fly out and pounce upon me with a loud ‘Woof!’ More often than not I would fall off with her on top of me: heaven knows why I didn’t break an arm or the guitar. More than one passer-by gasped, imagining I was about to be torn to bits, but she would only lick my face wet and then turn around and brush it off with her soft, bushy tail, before trotting into the drawing room behind me. Then she would fool around the room, distracting both my tutor and me with her antics, until he scolded her out.  While we settled down to play, she would wait outside until she thought we had forgotten about her, then with infinite patience she would slowly make her way back, slinking past the curtain, under the sofa, until she was just below my feet, her wet nose tickling the back of my ankle and making me laugh. Believe it or not, my tutor got so jealous by and by that he eventually made excuses for not being able to carry on with the classes and cut me off.

Countless people have asked me if I believe in ghosts, have met true godmen, or have had a supernatural experience. I have always been mildly curious about such things, but fortunately or otherwise, never been edified. A few odd things have happened, though. The one that comes to mind right now happened during the school trip I organized – for the first time in St. Xavier’s Durgapur – to the Garhwal Himalayas, in December 1989. One crisp wintry afternoon, the whole troupe, around thirty odd I think, pupils and teachers included, had just finished lunch at the famous Dada-boudir hotel in Hardwar. The entire crowd had stomped out and were loitering about in the pleasant sun, leaving it to me to pay the bill, I being the treasurer for the team. I had just scanned the bill and put some sounf and sugar in my mouth prior to counting out the money, when a quiet bass voice spoke in my ear: ‘beta, khaana khila do’ (son, stand me lunch). I turned around to see a sanyasi on the threshold of middle age, tall, dark and sturdily built in saffron and with a shaven head, a jhola and blanket on his shoulder, stout cudgel and lota in hand, looking calmly at me. Now I must mention at this point that I have always been an agnostic at best and a scoffer at worst when it comes to ‘holy’ men: I never visit temples if I can help it, and have never gone to see a babaji or mataji. But there was something in those eyes… I grant you that it could have been a mere trick of hypnotism, but in broad daylight, and on a crowded roadway, with me distracted and busy as I was… it seemed those eyes told me that far from asking me for a favour, he was bestowing a huge favour on me. I nodded at the man behind the counter, indicating that he should add one more meal to the tab – evidently he was quite used to such things, so he didn’t bat an eyelid – and the sadhu walked in without so much as a backward glance, let alone a word of thanks. Yet he left behind a man feeling deeply grateful. I have done countless acts of charity before and after, to the tune of vastly larger sums, but I have never felt that way again, alas.

The same friend who had once played the surgeon on me took me on a most memorable trip across Bihar during my college days, in the course of which we visited Munger and Bhagalpur (I wrote an article in The Telegraph about a most interesting octogenarian wildlife enthusiast who was my namesake and whom I met in Bhagalpur during that trip. I remember the live python loose in his house, and the only parijat flower I have ever seen in my life carefully preserved in his collection). I stayed in his tumbledown house in his ancestral village for a few days. Many, many impressions of that trip are forever etched in my memory. Tasting wild honey freshly drawn from a hive – it goes down your throat like fiery liquor – finding out how hard it is to catch a chicken if it is allowed to run free around a large compound, listening to the Ganga lapping at her banks all through a moonless night as we lay on the ghat in a cannabis induced stupor. That was the only time I saw a baby leopard being dragged at the end of a leash by a forest guard, and the only time, too, that I was entertained with haanriya and homemade snacks (a mix of different kinds of lentils soaked in water and flavoured with salt and pepper) in the middle of the night by the womenfolk of a Santhal family in the courtyard of their own cottage while the men slept away blissfully. Someone among the men with me, a local, assured me that the women were in no danger: they were all armed with knives and knew how to use them, they could move like lightning, and any man who tried any hanky panky might not live to rue the day. I have always respected women like that, and it’s a pity I rarely meet the like in our cities. Strangely enough, though, one of the most memorable of those experiences was something that might come as an anti-climax after the things I have already mentioned.

We were staying in my friend’s country home in a small village close to the Bhimbandh Wildlife Sanctuary.  The same place where he had warned me the previous night to be careful while stepping into the makeshift toilet in the backyard, because apparently all sorts of snakes used it now and then as a comfortable refuge. Nothing untoward happened, of course, and the next afternoon I plunged into the pond alongside to take a refreshing dip. It was surrounded by taal (palm-) trees, I remember, and the water was muddy and opaque. Except for a dove or two whistling drowsily, the surroundings were quite silent. Well, so I took a deep breath and dived in, meaning to cross the little pond underwater. However, in the event I couldn’t, because I felt an immoveable barrier across my path, into which I gently bumped my head. It was big and hard and – hairy! I lifted my head above water, gasping, only to look into the slightly bemused eyes of a buffalo with enormous horns. He had been taking a dip too, and I had surprised him. We just looked at each other quietly for a few seconds; the buffalo did nothing, just kept staring at me without rancour, until I decided it was prudent to back off. I am dashed if I know why I am recalling this little incident so many years later and laughing over it…

There have been nearly three thousand page views since I put up my last post, but hardly any reactions! Whereas so many people have told me, by email, whatsapp, phone and face to face, that they enjoyed reading it. Why not here? As I have said, I write primarily for myself (and Pupu), but it would be nice to see comments from people whom I have managed to entertain, if nothing else.