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Friday, April 17, 2015

in that sleep, what dreams may come...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ma amaar, godspeed!

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sorry, Mr. Lee

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

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The banality of evil

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Women's Day

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

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

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

Sunday, March 01, 2015

prospects for the new year

‘Spring’, such as it is in this part of the world, lasted through February. Through the first half of the month I had a leisurely time, most of my pupils having dropped off to take their annual examinations. Then there was the once a year rush of admissions. I have reason to be content: my new classes will be full again, and the thankfulness I see in the eyes of the parents who managed to get their wards in and the desperation among those who are still waiting to be called gives me a nice warm feeling of having done something worthwhile in this lifetime and for my family – without soiling my hands, bending my head or holding my nose.  By God, it hasn’t been easy.

Now my daughter’s board examinations have begun, too, and so I came over to Calcutta for a long weekend. Still balmy weather, and good food, and long hours of sleep, and books and movies and long walks with trees and lakes around: heavens, things could have turned out to be so much worse. Just finished reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. All I shall say is that it is by far the finest book I have read against the background of the Second World War barring only Anne Frank’s Diary and Exodus, and that Zusak, to my mind, almost comes up to Remarque’s level: I cannot think of higher accolades. Read the review in my daughter’s blog – she’s booked it before I could. I cannot put into words the kind of thankfulness I feel that there are still people around who write and read books like this, rather than Fifty Shades or Chetan Bhagat, if they can take their minds off Facebook and shopping malls and beauty parlours at all, that is.

I am still in Calcutta – will be back tomorrow, Monday the 2nd. One thing I must say: despite the crowds and the noise, the city is certainly somewhat nicer and more liveable now than it was in my time, the early 1980s. The road in front of Jadavpur University is a lot cleaner and greener; far more buildings are freshly painted, far less trouble with power cuts; the metro and the ubiquitous autos and so many new flyovers have made travelling a lot less painful (the number of airconditioned buses is growing apace too), and soon my daughter and I plan to zip around on our own two-wheeler, which is far more convenient than the car except during the rains. Besides, probably because I only visit occasionally, I really don’t mind hearing rabindrasangeet at traffic junctions: at least, it beats political speeches and the lungi dance kind of stuff every time.

Back in Durgapur, I have installed an airconditioner in the classroom (I can hear so many old boys smiling to themselves, ‘At last the old skinflint has done it. About time too!’), so I can look forward to a less gruelling summer. Then there is the swimming pool waiting. Given the fact that the day I returned after depositing my daughter in Calcutta back in 2013 I literally dragged myself home, and was almost sure I wouldn’t last these two years, I feel miraculously delivered, and I am not exaggerating. Someone said ‘the days are long, but the years are short’, and for this once at least, I can say ‘thank God for that!’ How I was tested, how I remained sane and kept functioning as if nothing had changed only God and I and a very tiny handful of people know. But the important thing is that the nightmare – inshallah – is behind me now, and the wheel is turning, and unless I am suddenly struck down by a stroke or an infarction or cancer or failed kidneys or something like that, I can look forward to achchhe din again, no thanks to our prime minister. My daughter will be going to college in July, and, though I have no intention of discussing my finances threadbare on this blog, the fact is that by the end of this year I will be financially almost a free man, not really needing to earn a large and regular income any more beyond my personal upkeep (which has always been a modest requirement) – and I alone know what that means, a luxury I have not known for thirty years and more. I am in the process of dreaming how I intend to reinvent myself, and right now much is still nebulous, except for a few items: a) I’ll take many short breaks round the year, b) I’d like to travel much again, but definitely not to big cities and tourist hotspots, c) I’d love to luxuriate in the freedom of ticking off a lot of people with ‘Go away, I don’t want to teach you, because I don’t like you/ your parents’ anytime I feel like it (something I am going to announce as a warning in the very first class of the new batches this year itself), d) there might be a dog in the offing, if my daughter has her way – the only thing that has kept me from getting one is what to do with it when I go travelling, and e) there will never again be any question of going out of my way to be nice to females: any such who wants a share of my life had better come prepared to like me just the way I am. As my daughter says, and I have at last decided to believe it, ‘You’ve done bloody too much for vulgar and flighty ingrates, and only got kicked in the face for your pains. Learn a lesson, and keep your niceness for the few who like it, want it and earn it’.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention this: I will  grow increasingly more ‘eccentric’ with what I teach and how I teach, and I want to see how fast the numbers drop off (keep rising? stay unchanged?)  And yes, venture in a much bigger way than I have all these years into the stockmarket and charity.  And maybe writing fiction again. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Diminishing returns magnified by mass media

One of the most thought-provoking books that I read in college, already by then a minor classic in economics, was Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (I still believe that no one should open his mouth on any one of these three great subjects without having closely read at least ten books of equal worth). Therein he gave one of the few justifications for tolerating capitalism as an engine of overall human progress that I still grudgingly accept – the idea of ‘creative destruction’. That capitalism constantly revolutionizes the system from within through frequent tides of new inventions and innovations which not only make a few people rich and a lot of people somewhat better off, but on the whole improve the way the mass of people live their lives: and, point to be noted, no other system yet devised comes close in this regard.

Now I am an avid student of both socioeconomics and the history of technology. I yield to none in my respect for technology’s potential for improving human living standards – you just have to think about anesthesia and the sanitary toilet and the power shovel to be forever convinced. But over my adult lifetime I have noticed two things: that few really ‘revolutionary’ inventions have been affecting our lives lately, and if some seem to be doing so (such as the internet), that is far more a story created by pinhead teenagers (of all ages) obsessed with selfies, advertisers and retarded journos who make a living out of paid news than reality. What I mean to say is, if you have any real knowledge of history (that discounts 90% of even the ‘educated’ population below 40 these days), you will be forced to concede upon a little reflection that spectacles, the railway train, the light bulb and penicillin did ‘revolutionize’ the way we live in a manner the internet and smartphones cannot hope to compete with. The world’s most marvellous engineering feats from the days of the pyramids were accomplished without them, the most wonderful music and literature were composed without them, men fought world wars without them, exploded atoms and went to the moon without them, banked and traded worldwide without them, hearts were transplanted without them, extremely sophisticated movies were made and crimes committed without them. Yes, maybe you couldn’t play Angry Birds or Temple Run on the move without them, but hey, you call that a gigantic leap forward? To use a bit of cool contemporary slang, where are you coming from?

Recently Robert Samuelson, the noted Washington Post columnist, has put my thoughts into words. In sum, he is saying that capitalism seems to be fast losing its last fig leaf. Read this

Meanwhile, in a lot of ways the idea of civilization is going down the drain. Here my daughter has written about something that has deeply bothered me too. I wish I knew ten grown women who could write or talk like that. Congratulations, Pupu.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What really mattered?

Time magazine completed sixty years of its existence in 1983. They brought out a special anniversary issue on that birthday. I remember that the editor-in-chief had with many a backward glance written a weighty column to mark the occasion; given the solemnity of the moment and the seriousness of the subject it bore more than a faint whiff of philosophizing. The great man said a lot of things, brought up a wide variety of issues; all I recall today is the title of the editorial: ‘What really mattered?’

Over one of the most happening epochs in history this renowned journal had with one hand collected the ‘most important’ news and views from all over the world and distributed them among a huge and scattered readership with the other. After sixty years of that relentless pursuit, at a juncture when well-deserved celebration and self-congratulation was well in order, it must have occurred to the editor, glancing once at the years gone by and again at the misty future ahead, that he should organize and put down on paper his views on what had transpired during this interval of time that would eventually leave permanent marks on history. Let the erudite reader figure out for himself how difficult a task that must have been. It was a well-written column, and my readers can find and read it for themselves: it was not to discuss that article that I started on this essay. For me, it is only the thought encapsulated in the title that is worth pondering over, because several years have rolled by since it was written, we are now poised at the fin de siècle, our perspective is now the whole of the 20th century C.E. – can we not today think once more, and more comprehensively, about what really mattered?

I am not trying to compare with anybody, but I do feel that it was a remarkably early age when I first started wondering about this. In every age thoughtful people have indeed pondered over the question, and the need for pondering has not diminished in the present day. Since childhood my chief field of inquiry was the world of books, so naturally that is where I began to look for answers. Within a relatively short while I discovered that savants in every land and age have struggled to find satisfactory answers, and the results of their labours have filled countless shelves in the world’s great libraries. The thing that occurred to me then was that I should read up all or most of that stuff if I were to be successful in that quest. I am sure any wise and experienced reader would smile to think what a callow fool I was, with no idea of what I was letting myself in for. Be that as it may, I had no such mentor then to warn me, and I had convinced myself that the task might be long and hard but not impossible. Surely in time ‘enough’ knowledge would have been acquired, and then I would be well-equipped to formulate a good answer for myself. So I took the plunge quite eagerly. Years passed, rivers of midnight oil were burnt, my health greatly impaired, much important work left forever unattended, an enormous number of books read. I reached beyond school and college textbooks to encyclopedias and biographies of the great and famous. The little familiarity that I gained with world literature also became grist to my mill. I also read all kinds of ‘special histories’ – the history of weapons and war, of art, of economics and politics and literature itself, of science, and crime, of cinema and sports and transport and religions, of education and law and slavery and women’s liberation and environmental activism and so much more that I cannot even recall clearly any longer.

As I kept on reading, it slowly dawned on me that ‘facts’ are infinite in number and variety. Just as the truly inquisitive mind can never turn away from them for good (nor is it right to do so), so also it has to admit to itself, reconcile itself calmly to the reality that in the world of facts, there is literally no end to learning, either for the individual or for mankind as a whole. Facts will keep on accumulating with the passage of time – perhaps that is not only necessary but even a sign of a healthy civilization – but man will have to square with the understanding that he will always have to think, judge, talk, work and make decisions on the basis of incomplete data. On the other hand, the amount of information that has already been accumulated is so vast that we frequently feel at a loss as to how to handle it; the ocean of ‘just facts’ begins to seem meaningless, incoherent, all of a riddle: therefore we try to classify and organize and tame facts into orderly and rational theories. Like others I too felt this urgent need by and by, and it was a pretty coincidence that I began to study formal theory just around the time when I had begun to feel a great need for it. Over time, I got acquainted with theories of a very wide range of tastes, aromas and hues. Little by little, I began to realize that the world of theories is itself a vast and bewildering maze! Theory is a powerful narcotic; little by little it swallows whole the weary and dazed seeker like a python its prey. Gradually his vision dims, he takes leave of common sense, countless subconscious mischiefs, selfish interests, blind weaknesses of the heart, all kinds of dormant fears, infatuations and bigoted instincts unnoticeably corrupt his vaunted dedication to empirical facts. Goaded by the increasingly desperate urge to unravel all the mysteries of the universe, to lay to rest all doubts once and for all, answer every nagging question, find explanations for every last puzzle, provide easy solutions to all possible problems, he grows more and more frantic, and in step with this urgency he becomes more and more impatient and weary of the endless quantity, variety, self-contradictoriness and mutability of the world of facts that assails and mocks at him, until eventually he commits the ultimate sin: he begins to try to fit in, Procrustes style, all of the knowable universe into the little cage of his pet theory, and inevitably, this insane and stupid aim forces him to deny everything about reality that does not fit in. He starts looking at the world through blinkers, and works ever harder to convince himself that nothing that is not captured through his particular brand of tunnel vision is really interesting or important enough to take note of (think about Marxists dealing with religion, or allopaths talking about homeopathy). Thus truth-worshipping Man slowly imposes his weaknesses upon the world; myriad different kinds of coloured glasses are invented to study the world with.

The wonderful thing about this is that all such philosophies have marshalled mountains of facts in their own support, every one of them can draw upon elaborate and closely argued justifications (though it is also to be noted that none can ultimately stand on the footing of logic and facts alone: they all sooner or later demand that you commit a degree of blind faith – consider the free market orthodoxy in economics), and every one of them has attracted legions of disciples in every land and age. Some philosophies are relatively weak and short-lived, but many – sometimes it seems most – are immortal and indestructible; they temporarily vanish into the dark vortex of oblivion, but only to be resurrected with renewed vigour centuries or even millennia later, and spread all over the world like viruses to conquer minds anew.  No matter how odd or unpleasant this assertion sounds, its truth is beyond doubt. It is applicable even to the so-called ‘hard’ sciences (you will be amazed, if you consider yourself to be a ‘normal’ person, to find out how many people still believe in Ptolemaic astronomy, and dismiss Darwinism as nonsense), and in the field of history and other social sciences, of course, it is only too evident. On that battleground virtually not one fundamental question has been permanently resolved, not one theory has won a final decisive victory over all its rivals; none of the great controversies dating back to Manu and Plato have been laid to rest forever, nor seem likely to be in the foreseeable future. – Once you look again at the world with unprejudiced eyes, you can see that the huge accretion of man-made theories is itself a part of the vast ocean of facts, indeed, another wave on the surface of the ocean, not much more. In different epochs particular theories are revived (and often newly garbed) under the ministrations of some particularly charismatic ideologue or the pressure of particular circumstances. On the other hand, the common man takes refuge in this or that ideology on the basis of personal tastes, unconscious beliefs, fears or dreams, special experiences, self interest or social persuasion: he might then try very hard to convince himself and others that he has made his choice only after independent inquiry into all available facts and reasoning, but that is usually no more than a convenient rationalization. Which family one is born into, which community he is bred in, which mentor takes him under the wing early in his life, what existential troubles he has to cope with, what profession he enters, what kind of company he chooses or is forced to keep – these things have varied and wondrous influences on his innate nature, and that eventually decides what theoretical framework he will absorb as his own; how much noise he makes afterwards to claim the support of facts and reason for doing so makes not the least difference.

Hard on the heels of this realization comes another, very uncomfortable one. If one surveys the world with some particular theoretician as his chaperon, the job of ‘understanding’ the world becomes quick and easy indeed, but anyone who can accept such a very partial and angular vision as a holistic explanation of reality does great wrong both to the world and to his own intellect. The fact is, any institution-dependent intellectual (and you’d be hard put to find one who is not these days) gradually loses the habit of looking at the world with unblinkered eyes, he actually begins to avoid that exercise because it makes him uneasy; if he ever opens the windows of his mind a little to look out, it is only to find new confirmation of his pet theory – whatever does not he quickly turns away from, shuts the window once more, and goes back to the comforting refuge of his certain, simplified, unchanging world of the imagination – there is little difference between trying to figure out the real world by studying it through his glasses and accepting fairy tales as true. If that is how 20th century history is going to be commented upon, one will say it was primarily an age of unprecedented technological progress, another will say that the biggest event was the worldwide spread of democratic and egalitarian ideas with the receding tide of imperialism; one will notice little other than the all-round decay of morals, directionlessness in philosophy, social unrest and violence on an unrelenting and global scale, yet another will point to the doom all mankind is hurtling towards as a result of boundless growth in numbers, material greed and environmental damage, while someone else will insist that in the cauldron of all this violence and chaos was being born the first true and global civilization. To one observer the most remarkable fact about this epoch would remain that so many geniuses, from Tagore to Einstein to Charlie Chaplin worked side by side on the world’s stage, another would insist that future generations would only remember us for how far and how quickly we delved into Nature’s deepest mysteries during this short interval, from the innards of the atom to the farthest reaches of the starry heavens, from the mysteries of DNA to the wonders of the human brain. In this way we could go on lengthening the list forever, and as a rule the votary of any one of these points of view dismisses the claims of all the others offhand – and what choice do we have? If we admit that all of these were true and important, how can we answer, without losing our heads completely, what really mattered?

If now I venture to say that this was only one problem and there are many others waiting to be addressed, the reader might want to assault me, or throw up his hands in despair. But I have no choice: I have myself had to learn the very hard way how real the complexity is. Anyway, I do not wish to elaborate endlessly, so I shall move on to another issue after mentioning just one other problem. There are as many varieties of life experience as there are people on this planet, as many different tastes, so this is another reason why there will always be differences big and small between the way different people see and judge the world. The urge to impose one’s point of view lock, stock and barrel on others is always strong in savant and layman alike, but we cannot honestly deny that many people if not all have a right as well as a justification to hold views different from those of others (maybe ants worldwide share one common, objective world-view, but we cannot become ants nor should want to do so, should we?), therefore this variety must be acknowledged and factored in as a datum, no matter how difficult it makes it for us to find an answer to our question. If a mother loses all her sons on the same day in some ghastly accident, will she remember the day as that on which a world war began or man landed on the moon? And what shall we call the man who calls her sense of history misguided, weak and biased – great scientist, or monster, or just a fool? If a Kurosawa or Ray holds the opinion that the development of the cinema was the biggest event of this era, does it not become necessary to look at reality closely from their chosen point of view? The man who made the Long March with Mao ze Dong quite understandably remembers that as the biggest thing that happened in his lifetime, while the man who first ran a mile in less than four minutes remembers that event in a similar way with equal justification. While the horror of the First World War was unfolding, Anna Pavlova bewitched mankind with her dancing, and Laurence Olivier played Shakespearean leads as never before during the Second: how can we let history remember the killing fields along the Somme and the Normandy invasion but let Pavlova and Olivier slide into oblivion? If the countless famous and less-known people who devoted their whole lives to the fulfillment of some great dream or establishment of some noble ideal – be that equal rights for women or conservation of wildlife or taking care of handicapped children – believe that their lives’ work is what really marked the age, how can we lightly dismiss them? The truth is, we habitually ignore so much only because, as the poet said, ‘human kind cannot bear very much reality’.

So in the end this is how matters stood: this odyssey of mine did not lead me to the answer to my question; instead, the possibility of ever finding an answer became nebulous and remote. Looked at in this way, my quest of nearly half a lifetime ended in failure. And yet the failure did not leave me deeply frustrated – because in the course of my long journey I had found a kind of awareness which made the sorrow of failure insignificant. I haven’t seen the end of the road, but the journey itself has brought such a profound satisfaction that I no longer feel that desperate urge to reach the end. I have learnt that if you do not specify the context and the circumstances, the question ‘what really mattered’ does not begin to make sense at all; rather, it can be either silly or dangerous – that, I believe, is not a minor realization. We love to use words like ‘comprehensive’ and ‘holistic’ lightly and often, but a truly comprehensive consciousness of history is probably beyond human power – when Sri Krishna  tried to dissuade Arjuna from seeing the vishwaroop  by saying he could not bear it, He was probably not exaggerating. I also realized that without a boundless innate inquisitiveness and a certain impatient arrogance there can be no real learning. When Yogavashistha said ‘Listen to the fool who speaks wisely rather than to the savant who talks like a fool’, he was probably encouraging this sort of fearless and insatiable hunger for learning. But on this arduous quest men grow tired and smug too soon, that is why it is always good to remember what they say about a little learning, so the quest must go on forever, until, at last capable of juxtaposing the infinitude of the cosmos with one’s own pathetic littleness one learns true humility and can say, with Socrates, ‘All I know well is that I know nothing’ – and still the quest must go on, till one dies, so that he is not shrouded once more by the darkness of arrogance that has benighted pundits of every land and age. It is not yet time to fold up your wings… orey bihongo more/ akhoni ondho bondho koro na pakha.

[This too was written in mid-1989, originally in Bangla]

Friday, January 30, 2015

shotto bagher goppo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

for Pupu, in days past

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

God bless, Pooja!

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

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Older stuff

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

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

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jaggu and Modesty

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 29, 2014

For Pupu at eighteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ring out the old

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

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

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

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

Lavona, thank you for just being there.

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

No more skunks, please!

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

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

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

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