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Friday, February 05, 2016

Go, girl!

My daughter made my day two days ago by telling me she's won a prize at a college fashion show (see this and this) as well as topped her class in the most recent exams. God is being kind to a lonely old dad...

Friday, January 29, 2016

Grandmother's demise


My grandmother on my mother’s side, Srimati Manimala Devi, whom I referred to once as ‘that utterly wonderful grand old lady’, passed away on the night of Monday, the 25th January, almost exactly eight years after my grandfather did. She too had a long life: married at fifteen, died nearly 88. Her great grandchildren are now grown up. We shall not have the same good fortune, people of our generation. She had been bedridden for years and almost lost her mind lately – though apparently she had a lucid interval hours before she died – but she went peacefully in her sleep, so for all practical purposes it was a blessed relief, and yet I cannot help feeling desolated. They don’t make grandmothers like that anymore. As my mother reminded me, I used to say she was my first love, and I guess she will remain the greatest, barring only Pupu and my yet unborn grandchild.

Born into great wealth, possessed of a rare beauty which gave her no end of trouble, reduced to poverty and humiliation after marriage, struggling lifelong to make a new hearth and home with her husband and three children (having lost yet another), giving shelter and succour to countless people over many decades, ruling her little imperium with an iron hand yet showering love and care with abandon, fighting a debilitating disease since her late youth – she will never enter the history books, yet her life could be the stuff of legends. She became a grandmother at the ripe old age of 35 – women go about in tank tops and tights or miniskirts at that age nowadays, women vastly less pretty and less substantial too – and although I never saw her dressed in anything but thinly bordered white saris without an ounce of makeup or jewellery, she had an aura of dignity and grandeur I have never seen surpassed, and I have seen a few women up close in my time. As for her relationship with my grandfather, I can only refer you to Dad and Mum in How Green Was My Valley

My relationship with my grandfather was much closer, more immediate and more intimate, and yet I got far more from my grandmother by way of quiet affection, indulgence and wisdom than I realized at the time. My memories go very far back indeed – right back to the little aluminium tub in which she used to bathe baby me – and a strange and beguiling mélange they make. She took ten-year old me along as an ‘escort’ when she went to see her favourite thakurmoshai at the Kalighat temple; the first time she saw me with a cigarette (I guess I was 17 then) the first thing she thought of asking was whose cigarette it was! and it irked my mama-s no end, grown up as they had under her very conservative rules, that she gladly tolerated how my girlfriends walked into my room and shut the door behind them. No one ever nagged me as much about if and what and when I had eaten as she did, God bless her soul. And yet she was the embodiment of calm efficiency when she nursed me the night I came home bathed in blood, having been involved in an accident while trying to take a hit and run case to the hospital. She was very fond of my short story Sushama – probably because it brought back many memories about my father and grandfather; she always said I reminded her strongly of her youngest brother the polymath, and thrice she was involved in matchmaking for me, twice because I could not imagine who else I could take along if I needed to have an elder with me at all. Oh, I could go on and on. She mothered me in a way that drove a very deep affection and regard for all womankind into my mind lifelong, something that so many bad and trivial women have still not quite succeeded in erasing. (Incidentally, she was one of those women who never tired of cautioning me against women!)

From 1980 to ’85 I lived directly in her care. Then unfortunate circumstances forced me to move out. Two years later, I returned to Durgapur – for good. But she remained a very important figure in my life for long after that. She was very much a presence at my wedding, and my daughter was cuddled and blessed by her hands (see photograph). The years flew by, but the contact never broke, though my visits became more infrequent – more so after dadu passed away in 2008, because the visits hurt too badly. Lately my mother actually told me not to visit, because I wouldn’t like what I saw. And now she’s gone. I hope she is happily reunited with her beloved father and husband, wherever she is, and I pray that her soul will find eternal peace. I know of few people who have earned it better.

[I am waiting to lay my hands on my favourite photograph of hers in her teens: I’ll put it up when I get it]

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Up Darzling way

Just back from another holiday. I missed out on 2015 entirely, no thanks to the broken leg, so this one was overdue. It was the north Bengal and Sikkim hills again, daughter and dad: we can’t seem to have enough of them. I went off to Calcutta on Friday the 8th, and that night we took the Darjeeling Mail to New Jalpaiguri. I actually had to scold a troupe of grown men (many in their 50s and 60s) in a very schoolmasterly way before they stopped chattering, and that was way past midnight: thereafter it was a quiet ride. The fog delayed us by a few hours. I had booked a car for the entire trip, and the driver – Dambarji, he became a friend over the next six days – took us in hand at the station. It was very cold already, unlike in the plains, and it grew ever chillier as we went up into the hills. We lunched on the way on poori sabzi and coffee, and arrived at Kalimpong just after one p.m. The hotel was lovely, and what made it even more enjoyable was that Pupu had managed to book a package at half the usual price online. We were welcomed with traditional khadas, and after freshening up a bit we went for a drive around town, though it had begun to drizzle.

The Orchid House – one man’s lifetime labour of love, so rare in this country – was spellbinding. The Golf course and its environs, Morgan House and the rest, is beautifully maintained. A visit to the local monastery is de rigeur in these parts, and I successfully negotiated the challenge to my legs. The evening in the hotel garden, fairy lights twinkling, was a feast for the senses, and it was rounded off with a perfect dinner, the service worthy of being called pampering. So also the buffet breakfast next morning, following which we visited Dr. Graham’s Homes, the famous residential school, which was closed, but offered some good photo ops. Then off to Deolo: that Tourist Lodge could be another lovely place to stay in. We took in the Science Park next – ho hum at my age, though the landscaping is good – then it was off to Lava, which was not only piercingly cold but also gave me a chance to buy a deerstalker cap, and then Rishyop, which gave us some fabulous views of Mt. Kanchanjungha, it being a bright and clear day. In the evening Pupu treated herself to the spa, and watching Jeeves and Wooster with my feet dipped in hot water was a fun way of rounding off a happy day.

On Monday we went off to Darjeeling, taking in Lovers' Point, Lamahatta (the pretty new roadside park built at the CM’s initiative), Ghum railway station and the Batasia Loop war memorial on the way, and then the wonderful zoo and the Mountaineering Institute (funny they make no mention of Reinhold Messner, or did I miss it?). The ride on the new ropeway was good: probably the longest we have done yet. This time the hotel was just so-so for the price, but right beside the Mall (which was as deserted as the marketplace had been crowded, the vacation season being over as I had hoped!). We snacked in the evening at the iconic Glenary’s restaurant. Pupu won’t have to say she had grown up into adulthood in West Bengal without having seen the Queen of the Hills.

A police blockade resulting from a ‘Half Marathon’ event next morning delayed our departure for a bit. Then 85 km on the road to Pelling in Sikkim, to a new hilltop resort set up by a friend, via Jorethang, Zoom, Soreng and Kaluk. Some of the ascents were hair-raising even for a seasoned hill-traveller like me, and some parts of the road were pretty bad, but the end justified the means. It was bitterly cold but beautiful, and what with us being the only guests, and the friendly young staff, and the lovely cottage and the bonfire and the barbecue, it was pure wicked self-indulgence. Two days zipped by in a flash – I wondering all the time why it didn’t snow despite the chill – and then another long drive via Rinchenpong and Melli (we heard of a massive landslide on the Kalimpong-Gangtok route, and were stopped briefly where road extension work was in progress) to NJP, where I am sure our driver was a trifle sad to let us go. My favourite rest in a retiring room, and then it was the Darjeeling Mail again. A sleepless night, alas, spoilt by a monster who snored in the most noisy, bizarre and nerve-wracking fashion all through the journey, and then it was back to Calcutta. A day’s rest, visits and a bit of practical work, and on Saturday afternoon I was back at home to take a class. Ola Cabs, I have discovered, are doing a great job these days: I don’t think I’d have to keep a car in the city after all. No hanky-panky about paying through the Net.

This was my fifth visit to Darjeeling, after 1971, 1983, 1990 and 1993. I think I’ll stop now, unless the next time it is at the invitation of some friend there. The famous ex-world war Land Rovers have all but vanished; Sumos and Innovas rule the roads now (an Innova, by the way, is by far the better choice if you want to travel in safety and comfort). I wish the trains didn’t dawdle so much on the way. The hills are quiet after a long spell of political disturbance, thank God: apparently the leadership has realized – touch wood – that scaring off the tourist traffic virtually destroys the local economy, and sooner or later makes them highly unpopular. There is a lot of governmental advertizing and some visible work in progress to make the places cleaner, but much more will have to be done to reverse the damage and start approaching European and Japanese standards. Hill Cart Road in Siliguri is a driver’s nightmare – avoid it if you can. Young people are drinking much more beer and whisky and much less of the traditional chhaang, and the long traditional women’s skirt called bakhu has nearly vanished in favour of the ubiquitous and by-now (to me at least) achingly boring tight jeans. In Siliguri virtually everybody – Bihari, Bengali and Marwari included – can speak Nepali. Liquor shops are far easier to find than teastalls, and, what has always fascinated me, they are not grilled cages as in the plains, and are run by women and often even children! And far more Bengalis are visiting even during the cold season than in the days of Gangtokey Gondogol, when Sikkim was still a rather exotic location, and only Feluda could instantly figure out what the stranger meant by his question ‘apnaara ki Dang na Kang na Gang?’

Good times always pass too quickly. Pupu deliberately slowed down the pace by doing away with a sightseeing trip so that we could simply laze around for a whole day at the resort, and it literally zipped by, sleeping and eating and chatting and walking and warming our toes at the bonfire. I do think that on future trips I should keep aside more such days and run about a little less. Dyakha hoy nai chokkhu meliya…

So much for now. I might add a paragraph or two later. For photographs, come back again in a few days’ time: I’ll have to do some sorting and editing before I upload them. This year is the first in my adult lifetime when I have booked the next trip even before this one was done. We are coming, Kashmir! This will be the second time for me after 1977.

Ahem...: Dear 'Amorphous', it is a policy of this blog never to publish anonymous comments, laudatory or otherwise.

Jan. 21: Et voila, the photographs at last, here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Child prodigy, birthday, and brilliant policies

A ten-year old girl came to see me with her dad and elder brother, having heard a lot about me from the latter. For a space of fifteen minutes or so, she bombarded me with questions – ‘How did magic originate? Do you believe in the curse of Tutankhamen? Does the universe have a beginning or end? Do you think Antonio in The Merchant of Venice was really a good Christian? Did the Red Sea really part? Do swans really sing before they die?’... I hope you get the drift. I cannot say when I last met a child of this kind of mental calibre, and how much I am looking forward to having her in my class. It goes without saying that she, unlike 90% of Indian children, is a voracious reader, and that most of her teachers regard her as a dangerous pest. I was reminded of Sigmund Freud’s aphorism that I myself have fixtured at the bottom of this blog, and I blessed her by saying, ‘Ma, grow up into a human being, not a mere female’.

My daughter became nineteen today. We celebrated with lunch at a fancy restaurant, and the crème brûlée for dessert was especially good. The waiters were superbly trained: they brought the customer feedback slip for my daughter to fill in, and the bill to me. Which is just as it should be in a world where girls were not stupidly dying to be treated as ‘equals’. The day I start treating women as equals, I shall not look back to see whether they are having trouble with heavy luggage, flat tyres, roaches, shortage of money or perverts harassing them on the road. And I shall expect them to talk politics, economics, psychology, history and philosophy with me. That will be the day.

Our leaders have finally woken up to the deadly threat of pollution, it seems. So one genius of a chief minister has ordered only odd- and even numbered cars to come out on the roads on alternate days, and another district magistrate of similarly sharp intellect has ordered that one block in his district will be closed to all private vehicles every day. It seems only our rulers cannot figure out the either disastrous or ludicrous consequences of the decisions they take. In the 1980s I was already writing that the way things were going in this country, lack of land for any kind of developmental activity and overwhelming pollution of the soil, air and water would eventually spell our doom. I quote myself: ‘By the time China and India catch up with the American standard of living, there won’t be enough oxygen left in the air to breathe’. Woe to this country that a few years after I wrote those lines in a national newspaper, our government embarked on a policy of wholesale Americanization of – if possible – every walk of life. Whereas if sanity had prevailed, we should have gone with the European/Japanese model as far as we could. In the sphere of transportation, for instance, a poor, overpopulated, resource-scarce country should have made an all-out effort to develop public transport, not indulged the latent craze for private cars. And now that today the floodtide of cars is threatening to overwhelm us, we are trying absolutely crazy ideas to control it. God help us.

Monday, December 21, 2015

As the year draws to a close

Towards the end of the first ten years of this blog, I have started making a few small changes. There was a widget called Members/followers till recently. I have been winnowing the list there, having discovered that being a ‘member’ has no meaning at all: most so-called members never write in (many have probably forgotten about it entirely), most of my readers are non-members, and one doesn’t need to be a member to read the blog or to comment on posts. I have never been a trophy collector on the net anyway (so many ‘scraps’ on orkut, so many ‘likes’ on facebook). So I have now removed that widget. Nobody has to be a member any more.

It’s 21st December, and very pleasantly cold. My work schedule is now much reduced, so I am in the relaxed mode. On this day every year for more than a decade we used to dash off on a holiday trip – this year has been different. My daughter has just finished her ‘end-sem’ exams and is living it up with her friends. The holiday has been postponed till January: I am hoping that with all schools and colleges having reopened, I am going to have a far less crowded experience this time round. So I am already breaking a routine that was set for almost two decades – taking classes right through the end of the year. I must see how the kids cope with it. Most have told me they’d rather not miss classes…

My leafy babies are giving me a headache. They are growing and blooming, but too slowly, and they have given me occasion to resent my fellow bipeds even more – did you know how many thieves there are who prowl the streets at dawn to steal flowers from people’s gardens, so that they can make offerings to some deity with the same? And you can talk yourself blue in the face without being able to persuade them that there is something wrong about the habit. I lock the gates every night, but that keeps out only the old and infirm among the miscreants. I’ll try this season through, then probably give it up as a bad job if the harassment and plunder is too intense to bear.

I have a diary where at each year-end I jot down the most memorable things that happened. The list starts with 1969, and I haven’t missed a single year yet. This year will be noted for just three things – my home loan was paid up in full, Pupu went to college, and I found out first-hand what being a cripple feels like.

The newspapers announced yesterday that Air India is beginning flights to Delhi from Durgapur airport. More flights, and to other metros, will presumably follow. Good news for a lot of people, including me, because when my daughter goes to live farther away, she can come and go faster, and so can I.

A rash of new schools has also come up – all of them privately owned, all of them expensive, all affiliated to the CBSE, all equipped with ‘smart’ classrooms and promising to turn every kid into a ‘genius’ (read engineer from some private college). We shall see a lot of fireworks in the near future. I hope I can just sit back, watch the fun, and say to a lot of people ‘I told you so’.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Robi Thakurer golpo

কালার্স বাংলা টিভি চ্যানেলে "রবি ঠাকুরের গল্প" নামে ধারাবাহিক ছবি দেখাচ্ছে। এখন পর্যন্ত দেনাপাওনা, সমাপ্তি আর মণিহারা  দেখিয়েছে, এ সপ্তাহে স্ত্রীর পত্র হওয়ার কথা। খুব যে উঁচুদরের পরিচালনা বা অভিনয় হচ্ছে তা বলতে পারি না, তবে এতে করে অশিক্ষিত নব্য-সভ্য বাঙালি যদি নতুন করে নিজের সাহিত্যকে চিনতে শেখে তো মন্দ হয় না, আর আমারও আবার করে গল্পগুচ্ছ নিয়ে বসার ইচ্ছে হলো।  রবীন্দ্রনাথের লেখা নিয়ে বেশি কথা ছোট মুখে বলার ধৃষ্টতা করতে চাই না - ওটা মার্কন্ডেয় কাটজুদেরই সাজে। আপাতত শুধু এইটুকু ভাবছিলাম :কত গভীর পর্যবেক্ষণশক্তি থাকলে, কত নিরাসক্ত, নির্মোহ চোখ থাকলে, সাহিত্যের প্রতি কতখানি আনুগত্য থাকলে তবে একই লেখক নিরুপমা, মৃন্ময়ী, মৃণালদের মত মেয়েদেরও সৃষ্টি করতে পারেন, আবার মণিমালিকাদেরও - "যাহাদের হৃতপিন্ড বরফের পিণ্ড, যাহাদের বুকের মধ্যে ভালোবাসার জ্বালাযন্ত্রণা স্থান  পায় না, তাহারা বোধকরি সুদীর্ঘকাল তাজা  থাকে, তাহারা কৃপণের মত অন্তরে বাহিরে আপনাকে জমিয়ে রাখতে পারে।" তবু বলব - হয়ত যুগোপযোগী ভাবেই - ওনার মেয়েদের প্রতি পক্ষপাত দোষ ছিল।  হয়ত আরো পঞ্চাশ বছর বাঁচলে ওনার আর অবরুদ্ধ পরাধীন 'অসহায়' মেয়েদের প্রতি অত মায়া থাকত না, হয়ত দ্বিতীয় কিসিমের চরিত্রই অনেক বেশি করে সৃষ্টি করতেন? বিমলা-জাতীয় মেয়েরা স্বাধীনতাকে কিভাবে কাজে লাগায়  সে তো তিনি একশ' বছর আগেই দেখিয়ে দিয়েছিলেন! 

আমি এককালে কিছু গল্প লেখার চেষ্টা করেছিলাম।  বলতে লজ্জা নেই, কারো কারো পড়ে ভালোও লেগেছিল। রবীন্দ্রনাথের চেয়ে আমি অনেক বেশি দরদী রোমান্টিক ছিলাম: মেয়েদের আমি তরলমতি, স্বার্থপর, কর্কশ, সুবিধাবাদী বানাতে পারিনি। আমার লেখায় তাই কষ্টকল্পনাই বেশি ছিল। বয়স বাড়ার সঙ্গেসঙ্গে বাস্তবের নিষ্ঠুর আঘাতে সে স্বপ্নময়তা কেটে গেছে, কিন্তু তার পরিবর্তে যে তিক্ততা এসেছে তাকে আর সাহিত্যের রূপ দিতে মন চায় না।  তাই অনেকদিন হলো সেধরনের লেখা বন্ধ করে দিয়েছি। 

[The misspellings are Google's fault, not mine. But my apologies, still]

Friday, November 27, 2015

End of November

So yet another year has passed by, and yet another batch is going to be ex from next week. I have written goodbyes before, so look them up if you like, all: I cannot think of something new to say to your lot. One of those posts, I seem to remember, was titled Bye-bye time again. Use the search bar, will you? And remember: I shall look out for the few who keep sincerely in touch, and forget the rest soon.

Ancient Egyptian records claim that Rameses II was ‘very old’ when he died; modern tests on his mummy indicate, however, that he was only 52 – just my age. Well, perhaps in those days people grew decrepit very quickly (in Bengali we have a saying about girls: ‘kurir agey chhunri, kuri perole buri’ – she’s a lass before 20, and a crone thereafter – and men only get a few decades extra) – though our epics tell a very different story. Anyway, I felt very old when I was 17, and surprised that I had survived to be 40, and now I see ancestors carrying on into their 80s, so I don’t know what to think any more! In fact till my mid-40s I could outwalk old boys fifteen years younger, and the little paunch has become prominent only because following the accident I have been virtually immobile for six whole months: maybe once I get back to my usual exercise routine I’ll be able to trim it down again to something respectable enough compared to the rolypoly teenagers I see around me!

Ageing is also to a very large extent a matter of mental condition. I certainly have much more grey hair than I did in early 2013, and no wonder: these last two years and a half have been one of the most traumatic periods of my life. There is a  chapter in To My Daughter with the title Expect the Unexpected, but it is always hard to take your own advice, so I have had trouble coping, and that is now showing in many little ways. My knees creak and hurt much more these days, too. Who knows if there’s a turn for the happier around the corner, I might be looking younger again in two years’ time, despite those knees…

I have been thinking aloud in class about how I am going to change my style in the years to come. Fewer girls as the years pass is one very strong possibility. Another is giving more time to stories and movies and games and quizzes. A most exciting option is going out on holiday trips with a largeish gang, provided some dads come along to help – and mothers strictly stay away (unless someone is a most exceptional mother, a type of whom I have seen hardly five in my whole lifetime). More frequent breaks, as my daughter travels farther away and I want more and more to go to stay with her. It will amuse me to see how this town adjusts to my changing outlook. Meanwhile, this year I have turned my mind to gardening, and there might be a dog in the offing.  A new car, too, maybe, and a trip abroad. But most of all I am looking for a housekeeper – remember Holmes’ Mrs. Hudson? Short of having a Watson around, that is the best I can think of.

An old boy – one of the few who have come back to this town with a decent job – took me out to dinner the other day, and I enjoyed it hugely, despite the fact that I have never much liked eating out, however fancy the restaurant. It was all about the company. Thank you, Abhik. I wish, so wish that many more like you could have come back to settle here. And until that happens, nothing bar nothing is going to convince me that Durgapur is ‘developing’. What they did instead the other day, as a small step I suppose towards making this a ‘smart’ city (how I hate that word!), was to bring a bulldozer and flatten some of the shanty shops along the main road near my house: shops selling all sorts of things from fruits to snacks to washing services. I know all these people – they are perfectly nice, harmless folks working hard to eke out a living in a country where government and society use them but don’t care a whit whether they live or die. Not like the fortunate few million parasites who have been lucky to get cushy jobs in non-performing public sector companies and government departments. I like them, I identify much more with them than with the brash, uncultivated but snooty, lazy, greedy, irresponsible, unsocial middle class. The only option they have is to turn to crime or beggary. Of course their shops were eyesores, and so this draconian step by those who wield power (all safe and comfortable themselves) can always be justified in the name of ‘beautification’ – they were littering the surroundings and bringing down real estate prices, weren’t they? Well, nobody ever took care of the root problem of an exploding population, and nobody seems to be even interested in making them permanent places to work out of, from where they can run registered businesses and even pay some taxes. Talk about poorly thought out projects. Naturally all those shanties have mushroomed again within a week. Where else would they go? Why don’t the big talkers in the ruling parties learn how it should be properly done – from a country like Japan, for instance, which too has a very dense population, and has managed to grow rich and stay spankingly clean at the same time? What a tragedy that a country which breeds ‘successful’ professionals by the million cannot produce leaders who can lead, who have even cared to find out what it means to lead!

Monday, November 09, 2015

Private tuitions, anyone?

My daughter has written after ages, a review of Go Set a Watchman. These days I often don’t have to do things because she can do them well enough for me.

One of the many ironies of my life is that, despite having been a private tutor all through my working life, I have been very ambivalent about private tuitions at best and a strident critic at worst – as thousands of my current and ex-students can vouch. I made a (modest-) living giving tuition to school and college students all through my own years in college and university; then came the long stint at school. In all those years I sent hundreds of parents away, unwilling to take their wards into my private classes because either I was emphatic that they didn’t need it if they were already attending my classes in school, or because I wouldn’t take in beyond a certain number (though alas, under ceaseless pressure over decades, especially since I left the school, that number has gone up much beyond my liking, and I still annoy a lot of people every year by turning their children away). I justified my own ideas to myself through my own daughter, who had a single tutor during the last two years of secondary school and none at all at the higher secondary level, and still managed to do perfectly well by just being somewhat more than average intelligent and studying by a routine every year. And my greatest sorrow is that I have been able to do virtually nothing to stem the tide, though the practice has kept me in gravy all these years. And today’s parents are the children of the generation I taught thirty years ago!

In the days when my father was young, teachers gave private tuition – mostly to very weak students, especially whose parents couldn’t coach them at home – to supplement pathetically meagre incomes. Already when I was leaving high school, the average quality of school education had taken a sharp nose dive, so lots of pupils were relying increasingly on private tutors, many of whom had begun to make significant money, especially in the metros. Medical and engineering college aspirants were signing up with coaching classes like Brilliant and Aggarwal’s in droves. Depending on whose point of view you adopt, things have grown much better/worse over the last three decades.

Contrary to common perceptions, it is not only the children of the affluent urban population who attend private tuitions; it is very widespread among the indigent and rural folks, too. Plainly, nobody trusts schools (or even colleges) to deliver the goods any more. Instead, a vast and vicious cycle has been created: a) the (very few) good and sincere teachers in school are roundly ignored, because the pupils are all attending private tuitions already, b) most schoolteachers don’t care to teach (or even to find out how to teach) because they know that nobody bothers, all the real studying is done at tuitions, c) the competent and ambitious among them take up jobs only to build up large private practices, after which they quit, d) parents are having to pay through their noses, though, at least in public schools, education is supposedly free, e) children waste many hours every day in school, and much of the rest of their time is eaten up running from one tuition to another (millions attend five or six regularly), so they have neither time nor energy left for rest and relaxation, leave alone reading outside the syllabus, with highly imaginable consequences, f) private tutors are now seriously rich, especially those who run statewide or countrywide coaching institutes (in West Bengal, it has been a dry joke for decades that no business really works here except for real estate and private tuitions!)

So if I happen to be one of those who have been able to take advantage of the situation, why am I complaining? It is because I wanted to become a good teacher and not just make some money; I also wanted to contribute to making teaching a respectable and aspirational profession again. And I don’t think I can boast of very much success with regard to either. I have got too little feedback in this lifetime about how deeply, lastingly and positively I have influenced my students’ lives – so much for knowing whether I have been a good teacher or not. So far as hard facts are concerned, I believe people come to me in droves to enroll their children for very mundane, immediate, temporary reasons, which I have listed in an earlier blogpost. And though they together pay me enough not to make me envious of the average doctor or engineer or government official, I never managed to get rich, partly because teaching is (still-) not highly paid in this country (consider for comparison’s sake how much a doctor charges for a service as basic as putting a leg in plaster, to cite just one example), and partly because I have always been too lazy to work round the clock, and had moral issues about running sausage factories (there are countless tutors who run classes of hundreds at a time, and so can easily afford BMWs – not that I ever wanted one!). As for the other ambition, virtually none of my good students have opted to become teachers, especially at the school level (with Vivekananda and Tagore and Russell, I have always believed that that is where most of our vital education takes place: afterwards it’s just imbibing facts, technical details and sales tricks), despite knowing full well that competent and hard-working teachers are minting money these days. Part of the reason I know – that teaching still does not assure that precious combination of security and social status that is so dear to the middle class (which is where the vast majority of teachers come from) – but somehow that seems to be neither adequate nor satisfactory.


In the few years left to me, I can’t do much more to become a good teacher, or to enthuse my pupils to follow in my footsteps. Should I then shed all inhibitions and focus on making money?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Devipaksha

Mahalaya tomorow. The day I was born, a long time ago. All through my childhood I used to wake up at dawn and wait with eager anticipation for the Mahishasurmardini programme to be aired on the radio, formally marking for millions of Bengalis the start of devipaksha. For many years now I have been sleeping through it, and not missing it much. The older you grow, the fewer things matter…

I have always been a reflective person, but now I can indulge it with far less feeling of guilt. I have done more than my fair share of work and shouldering responsibility, and I am now well and truly in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. More and more I just look back to smile or grimace. In Toni Morrison’s book Love, the narrator, now an old woman, says ‘Nowadays silence is looked on as odd… now tongues work with no help from the mind… back in the seventies, when women began to straddle chairs and dance crotch out on television, when all the magazines began to feature behinds and inner thighs as though that’s all there is to a woman, well, I shut up altogether… barefaced being the order of the day, I hum’. That’s just the way I feel.

Swami Vivekananda used to say ‘All is character’. The world is as it is, neither good nor bad I suppose, though some have called it a vale of tears. Be that as it may, the fact remains that our experiences differ because according to our characters we react very differently to what we see happening around ourselves, and happening to us. Some find fun and laughter even in concentration camps and hospital beds, I have heard. And some crib over examination marks and acne as though these are life-changing events. Maybe I am the cribbing and worrying sort, though God knows how much laughter and sunshine I have tried to bring into how many lives. And that is why, despite all the blessings that I have always desperately kept counting, life has seemed a grim, relentless, and often futile struggle most of the time.

Here are some things I have missed badly or rued, not because I have never got them, but the good ones happen so rarely, and the opposites are so much more common.

Lack of politeness and courtesy, if not compassion, for people around you. Is it that we as Indians – especially in the class to which I belong – put too little store by those things? What rankles is not just the absence of these markers of high civilization, but the fact that most of us are too ready to flatter and fawn when there is the slightest possibility of advantage to be gained, or danger of harm to ourselves if we get into someone’s bad books. I have had a surfeit of it as a mere teacher, so imagine what politicians have to handle! God knows they wouldn’t have survived without growing ultra-thick skins, especially because they know that the very same people who are falling all over you now will forget you as soon as you have become ‘useless’ to them, and even rejoice loudly if and when they hear that bad things have happened to you…

People pretending. It ties up with what I wrote in the last paragraph. And my God, I have seen far too much of it, among boys and girls, men and women, family and strangers… why do they do it? Why do they tell you things that they don’t believe themselves, or they will forget within days or months of saying? I love you, I respect you, you mean so much to me, you have given me such a lot to treasure. If that has soured me up very badly, can I really be blamed for it?

Contempt for, or indifference towards people who have no money. That, coupled with blind awe, if not worship, of anyone who has money by the sackfuls, no matter how he got it. This has to some extent always been there in our society – I have read Al Beruni lamenting over it, and that was the 11th century – but it has become virulent across all social classes, now that the most admired country, to wit the US of A, is globally triumphant, and dominated by the same outlook. America was not always like that.

Too little cleanliness and greenery around me, too much noise and litter and rubble and foul smells – and the fact that so few people care, as long as they have cars and houses of their own, and can spend hours at the shopping mall and beauty parlour.

Nothing called social security outside the corporate sector – and that employs a tiny fraction of the population. We the self-employed are entirely on our own since the day our parents let go, and till our dying day, unless the children care: society and government have done virtually nothing for us. Slightly lower tax rates at least for those who have no non-salary perks, and slightly higher interest on public provident fund deposits? But who cares? Certainly not the last ten finance ministers, unless my memory is failing me.

The fact that the best loved of my ex students go away, so far away. One of my dreams has hardly ever been fulfilled – getting them to come and talk to my current classes, speaking from their own recent hard-earned experience, telling the children how much they would gain if they listened more to me…

People calling and expecting me to remember them, though they were here many years and many thousands of pupils ago, and haven’t kept in touch for years.

Girls growing into utterly disappointing women.

That I could never persuade the vast majority of children in my care to read good books, and these days I cannot persuade them that the internet is good for far more useful things than Facebook and whatsapp. So the best among them score pitifully on impromptu quizzes I give them, and the essays they write are of a standard I once (in the days when I wrote If Winter Comes) would have associated with ten-year olds or younger. And yet they go on to land cushy jobs with Google, Amazon, HSBC, Bloomberg and suchlike, leaving me to wonder what such jobs take, intellectually speaking. My common taunt these days, when I am particularly disgusted with someone’s performance, is to assure him or her that s/he too will get a job like that, no fear. Who cares if you are literate as long as you can do sums and have the periodic table by heart? Besides, bosses rarely hire people who can show them up...

Friday, October 02, 2015

On Gandhi Jayanti

When one is handicapped, one gets nasty scares and also feels absurdly proud about doing very little things. This morning I cleaned the bathroom thoroughly for the first time since the accident – I mean thoroughly, not only scrubbing the wc and the washbasin but also the entire floor and even the drain pipe and grille. I nearly slipped and fell on the soapy floor once, and God alone knows what would have happened if I did, my leg still being held up by a plate screwed into the bone. Then I thought it prudent to kneel on the floor. After the first ten minutes the pain started becoming unbearable, and I began sweating like a pig, but worse was to come: when I tried to get up, I found I couldn’t! And I was entirely alone, it goes without saying, without even a phone in my pocket. I’d have died before I would scream for help. Anyway, to make a long story short, I managed to scramble up eventually by using both hands, the door handle and the towel rod – thank heaven one of them didn’t come off at just the critical moment. If this is a foretaste of the future, it is sombre indeed… of course I shall cope till I can’t cope any more, but karma could have been a little kinder.

Rajdeep sent me a couple of links that have made me sombre too. I just read a book about Japan going through difficult times, now that growth has slowed to near zero for decades. And yet an Indian who visited Japan recently found this. I am quite sure now that India will never catch up, not in a decade, not in a century. Meanwhile, what do Indians do? Well, an ex-justice of the Supreme Court goes around abusing Subhas Bose (can’t even think of original insults!) – someone who has personally achieved nothing in his life that will put him in the history books, too – while Tagore’s ancestral house is being allowed to degenerate into a slum, Arvind Kejriwal has (quite predictably) become a hugely forgettable sick joke, and while India ranked 135 out of 187 in the Human Development Index 2014 after 67 years of trying, the sickest (read most privileged-) part of the population is going gaga over how Zomato is ‘conquering’ the world and how our dollar billionaires are proliferating. And the absolutely real problem with this section is that they feel neither retarded nor ashamed. I would so like to know that a few of my old boys and girls are doing something meaningful for the India that matters: the billion people who still just keep scrounging to keep their heads above the water. One particularly moronic ex-student actually wrote that Facebook deserves 'respect' because it has a billion users. Respect. Respect.

The parents of a current pupil came over to discuss her progress, and in the course of the conversation told me that they run a clutch of family businesses, one of which has 700-odd employees. That impressed me, and I am not easily impressed. But what really made my eyes light up was hearing how much the lady’s old and ‘retired’ father contributes still – from managing the finances to looking after the household to dropping off the child at school and tuitions when the parents are not around: the woman tearfully and gratefully admitted that ‘without my father none of this would have been possible’. If I have any prayers at all, I would pray that I can be that kind of father to Pupu in the years to come.

It’s October now. How quickly the year has flown! The days are still muggy, but the nights are much less so: it’s time to start hoping that we’ll have a long, chilly winter. It rained heavily today, but that didn’t much help to get rid of the sweltering heat, so I am sulking.

When I narrated my ordeal of the morning to a class in the evening, several girls laughed. Yes, they laughed. Not one boy did.

....
....
oh, what the hell.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A week's holiday

Life is nothing if not full of ironies. All through the last year I was thinking and talking about taking more frequent if not also longer breaks. I ended up doing the single longest stretch of continuous work in probably my whole life – all of six months at the rate of seven days a week, except for a week after the accident! And for all those six months I never went more than ten kilometres from my house, either.

So I finally cried off after Thursday, the 10th of September, and next morning I had myself driven to Kolkata. Everybody’s fears notwithstanding, it was a smooth, uneventful and painless drive. And this last week I have enjoyed the kind of leisure that can come only from a clean conscience, a full belly and (reasonably-) good health after you have worked long and hard, also provided that the air-conditioner is working full time, and you have a daughter like Pupu with you.

We have watched three movies together – Gone Girl, Hercule Poirot’s Halloween Party and Inside Out. The first two were unfortunately about pathological killers; the third was good. Animation movies are so heartwarming and even thought-provoking these days that I sometimes think I’d rather watch those than the ones with real humans in them. I also read out Macbeth to Pupu, and even my wife found it fascinating enough to sit through the entire session. Good friends came visiting, as well as my parents. I finished a very serious and most interesting book on the socio-economics of contemporary Japan: Bending Adversity by David Pilling, 2014. Many thanks for the gift, Rajdeep; I am a more educated man now. It compelled me to wonder again and again – is that the direction India is heading? But heaven knows when I shall find the concentrated time to finish all your other books. …and now I have started on Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Bangali Jibone Romoni, something that I last read at least 25 years ago. I’ll write what I feel about the book at this stage of my life.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Jadavpur University campus. I had missed out on Pupu’s admission process because of the broken leg. This time, too, I had to be driven there and back, and I could only slowly walk around with a crutch, but I did walk and see a great deal. Nearly three decades have passed since I was a student there, so predictably there had been some changes. The road that skirts the campus is much greener and tidier now. The campus is swarming with cars and motorbikes – they were not allowed in our time (the head of the department of history drives a Mercedes: I wish the engineer-manager babus of PSUs in Durgapur could just see this!). Few girls wear saris, and almost all of them smoke – far more, in fact, than boys do! Everybody has earphones dangling, but when they chat face to face in groups, they rarely irritate one another by texting all the time. There are far more buildings around; most of them have lifts, and many classrooms are airconditioned (Lord, the tuition fee is 75 rupees a month). The posters and graffiti are as silly, strident and ubiquitous as they have always been.  The façade of the Arts Faculty Students’ Union office bears a painting from Tagore’s Shohoj Paath, alongside a quote from one his poems. I was glad to see that a lot of youngsters spoke good, fluent Bengali – and, as with the smoking, far more girls used Banglish than boys did. There were far more canteens and open-air eateries selling a much wider variety of food than before. Some of my professors had become history, as I saw with the Anita Banerjee Memorial Hall (she was wife of Milon Banerjee the then solicitor general of India, and my favourite teacher, not only because she taught public finance but she alone could speak English with the kind of fluency, accent, poise and allusive style that I would have expected an Oxford don to do, which distanced her from her very Bengali middle class colleagues). But the miracle was how much had not changed: walking out through the ‘Bengal Lamp’ gate to the line of tea stalls across the road, I might have jumped back in time. The young man behind the counter said he had been manning it for only eight years: when I told him I was a regular more than thirty years ago, he said his grandfather must have waited on us. The nicest thing I discovered was how handicapped-friendly the university has become, and the saddest thing was how the college crowd – they who belong to the most privileged and educated section of the populace – litter their surroundings, despite bins and warning notices all around them. Swachh Bharat, ever? I wonder.

I am thankful to my daughter’s new friends, both male and female, for giving me a most un-selfconscious and chirpy welcome. The one that made my day was the girl who said ‘Thank you for the next treat!’ I am heartbroken to have forgotten to take a group photo with them, but I’m sure I’ll visit again. I have told them that if their gang ever lands up in my place, I shall do my best to give them a gala time.

My twelve-year old car, with an ace driver behind the wheel, did the whole highway from Santragachhi Station to Muchipara crossing in two hours flat today. I did not know the old boy still had it in him!

And now I am back home to work, but cheerful and rejuvenated, and determined to give myself more and longer breaks, inshallah.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

'Nivedita on Sir' removed

I have, after two years of pondering, removed the blogpost titled "Nivedita on Sir" dated June 12, 2013 from this blog. This is because I am ashamed of what I wrote in it, having realized to my complete conviction that she didn't mean a word of what she wrote about me in her blogpost titled "Sir". I have never been her 'teacher, friend, father, mentor and confidant', for the simple reason that she never let me. I have no idea what led her to write such a preposterous post at a certain point in her life: I know she has moved on, and I never did matter to her in any sense that she would listen to me if it caused her the very slightest bit of inconvenience.

I am an ageing teacher, a serious man, not entirely unlearned, who thought he had a modicum of intelligence. So I would like to put on public record that it feels very bad to realize I can be duped so easily and completely and for such a long time by someone so young, still. Anyway, I can at least own up to my mistakes, bad mistakes, even, and that brings a little bit of solace. I can still learn, though the learning becomes harder with the passage of years.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

postscript to yesterday's

...and Lavona just sent me this, which is somehow of a piece with what I wrote yesterday:


Subj: Pondering  As I was lying around, pondering the problems of the world, I realized that at my age I don't really give a dang anymore. If walking is good for your health, the postman would be immortal. A whale swims all day, only eats fish, drinks water, but is still fat. A rabbit runs and hops and only lives 15 years, while a tortoise doesn't run and does mostly nothing, yet it lives for 150 years. And you tell me to exercise?? I don't think so. Just grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked, the good fortune to remember the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.


Now that I'm older here's what I've discovered:

1. I started out with nothing, and I still have most of it.

2. My wild oats are mostly enjoyed with prunes and all-bran.

3. I finally got my head together, and now my body is falling apart.

4. Funny, I don't remember being absent-minded.

5. Funny, I don't remember being absent-minded.

6. If all is not lost, then where the heck is it ?

7. It was a whole lot easier to get older, than to get wiser.

8. Some days, you're the top dog, some days you're the fire hydrant.

9. I wish the buck really did stop here, I sure could use a few of them.

10. Kids in the back seat cause accidents.

11. Accidents in the back seat cause kids.

12. It's hard to make a comeback when you haven't been anywhere.

13. The world only beats a path to your door when you're in the bathroom.

14. If God wanted me to touch my toes, he'd have put them on my knees.

15. When I'm finally holding all the right cards, everyone wants to play chess.

16. It's not hard to meet expenses . . . they're everywhere.

17. The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

18. These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about the hereafter . . .. I go somewhere to get something, and then wonder what I'm "here after".

19. Funny, I don't remember being absent-minded.

20. HAVE I SENT THIS MESSAGE TO YOU BEFORE.......? or did I get it from you? 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

One's own education

A few of the things I have learnt from teaching for a lifetime:

People are overwhelmingly silly, too silly even to know what is good for them.
Far too many people are motivated strongly by overt or subconscious malice, stemming usually from greed, jealousy, fear and frustration.
People are as ready to flatter for trivial advantage as to jeer at others who do.
Girls as a rule don’t read, and of those who do, most are utterly unaffected by what they have read. And these girls grow up to be mothers who fear their children reading as though they are dealing with rabid animals. But of course, they can kill for their children to score well in exams.
Alas, even reading a lot of books is no guarantee that one will grow up into a decent and useful human being. For a lot of people, it is just a pretty affectation.
Most people drift away after a while, even those who claim I influenced them deeply.
Most people betray their own professed ideals and ‘loves’ when the chips are down. Ideals and maxims are only for essays and speeches.
Most people have no high sense of achievement, especially of the sort that does good to others.
Most people become brain dead (and this regardless of whether they are surgeons or computer programmers or schoolteachers or insurance agents) by the time they are twenty five. And also, I find signs of brains in the most unexpected people, including those who have never had the benefit of an expensive education.
Advertizing works wonders. People by the millions actually believe that a certain tutorial will make their kids ‘brilliant’, a certain brand of pen will improve their examination performance, a certain deodorant will make them popular with the opposite sex, a certain smartphone will bring about ‘more love’.
Besides advertizing, the only things that drive them are ingrained personal habits and the herd instinct.
I believe I have understood what Vivekananda predicted more than a century ago – the coming of shudra raaj – in a sense that cannot today even be mentioned publicly without raising far too many hackles, so true it has proved to be.
I believe this is my own coinage, and I want to be remembered for it: A fool when he grows old only becomes an old fool.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The First Noble Truth

'Life is pain. If anyone claims otherwise, he is selling something'.

This was a remark made in a fantasy movie titled Princess Bride that my daughter showed me recently. 

The Buddha would have approved. And I prefer to heed the Buddha than Madison Avenue and its clones around the world, whether they are selling anti-ageing creams, insurance, cars or smartphones.

The point is how best to cope with pain. And the longer you live in denial, the harder it becomes.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bizarre highways

I truly liked this video. The 'Singing Highway' made me think 'What a lovely idea!', the Karakoram Highway left me worried, the one crossing an aircraft runway made me gasp, and the one that gets the prize is the one which doesn't allow cars to ply, except for rare exceptions.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Sixth August, 2015

Hiroshima Day. How the world has forgotten.

Since I wrote about Ruby, a lot of reactions have come in, many people expressing surprise, many of them saying thanks, many of them harking back to their own memories. Just to dispel the notion (for the creation of which I myself am to a great extent responsible) that I am a hardboiled misogynist, I shall write now and then about favourite old girls. One whose name springs to mind is Priyanka Mullick (née Pobi). Never knew she was fond of me, but she visited me a few years after marriage, and disarmed me with the confession that she had brought her little boy along because surely Sir wouldn’t scold her – if he at all wanted to – in front of her child. She confessed rather shamefacedly that she hadn’t done much beyond what I predict for most girls, namely getting married; yet she has turned out to be far more active and responsible a person than most people her age, happily playing a big part in the large family business even while being, I think, a good mother and daughter. And money hasn’t gone to her head: she went to a humble but very caring religious-run hospital to have her second baby recently. My daughter showed me her photograph with the child on whatsapp, and she sounded pleased but abashed when I called to tell her that not just the baby but the mother looks fabulous. I think what is common to the girls I still love is that they are fond of me, they know how to respect, they have no affectations or pretensions, and most importantly of all, they never ask for what they themselves cannot give. This is why I increasingly think that outside the family the only women one should deal with are thoroughbred professionals, whether they be doctors or ladies of the night. Most others expect too much, and are willing to give too little. There, I suppose I am back to being a misogynist again.

It is already that time of the year when I start saying ‘Sorry’ to parents who wish to enroll their kids for the next year’s class, and only God and my family know what I go through with people who just won’t take no for an answer. You might look up a post titled ‘Weirdos’ that my daughter wrote in her blog back in 2010. And talking of weirdos, I don’t know how many of you will believe this, but there are even folks who first show every sign of desperation to get their kids in – to the extent of filling in forms and paying the requisite fees – and then go and admit their kids to schools whose pupils I do not teach!

It has just struck me that it won’t be too long before this blog becomes ten years old. I have seen very few bloggers stick to it for more than a year or two, and even those who do write just la-la stuff and/or only two or three times a year, not fifty or more. When I do something I do it seriously, here’s one more proof. Which is precisely also why once I cry off, it’s for good. I swore I won’t enter the St. Xavier’s School campus again when I left in May 2002, and I haven’t. After a few years of orkut, I set my face against social networking sites, and look, I have lost nothing by ignoring facebook and twitter. If I use them or whatsapp or something like that again, it will be strictly for family- or business purposes. So with this blog. Ankan Saha, do you remember telling me to start a blog so that many old boys could keep in touch? You have yourself confessed – as have so many others – that you have been remiss in doing your bit, and so I wonder, despite the pageviews count that keeps climbing relentlessly. How much longer beyond the tenth anniversary should I continue?

Economics, history and psychology are three subjects which I never stop pondering over. The thoughtful among my readers and the grown-ups, have you noticed a secular trend which I have been observing over at least three decades – that while computers and mobiles and TV sets and cars and stuff get ever cheaper, the essentials of life, namely land/living space, food, medicines and education become ever more expensive? Any guesses why this is happening, and where it is leading us? To paraphrase Barack Obama, disaster is not something likely to happen during the lives of our grandchildren.

For now, a conclusion with another passing thought: my old editors at The Telegraph of Calcutta gave me opportunities to write lots of stuff on lots of subjects. Would some of you be interested in reading some of them? I have never displayed them publicly, and though one girl – a so called journalist – pushed the file aside when I offered to show her, there have been lots of others who have rifled through it with avid interest.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Just musing


I badly need a haircut, and no one in the household is up to it. Can any old boy do it for me?

Is Tom Cruise really dating his 22-year old personal assistant? Why the outraged denials? – Natural when looks and glamour and money are all working for you, so why shouldn’t he?

Just watched Boyhood the movie. Very well made, and extraordinary doesn’t begin to describe what the director and cast have achieved – following the growth of the same pair of children over a period of twelve years. Made me sad, too, watching how badly parental disharmony and discord hurts kids; how bad the worship of individual self-fulfilment can become if pushed too far (especially because ‘free’ people don’t do much with their lives anyway). I have always thought that very few people ought to be licensed to have children at all: that would solve a great many very serious problems at one stroke. And it feels good that I am neither a politician nor a celebrity on TV, so I can voice my honest opinions in public. The denouement made me sigh, of course, because I too have an empty nest now, though my family, and especially my daughter, are still far closer in the real sense that most people can dream of: I know adults who have told me they would ‘die’ if they had to live with their native families in their native place for a month. Oh, and for the umpteenth time: I cannot but wince to see how so much of the contemporary world has become so casually foul-mouthed. Just one of my tics, I guess. Watch the movie and tell me what you felt. I wonder more strongly than ever what kind of parents today’s youngsters – those in the 20-30 age group, given the way they have grown up – are going to make. Or are they going to leave all the caring and mentoring to the grandparents, in a throwback to older mores?

I got excited when they took away the walker and after the first physiotherapy session worked well, so I tried walking around (just inside the house, of course) without the crutches, and the pain came back. I am being much more careful now. But with the crutches I can do quite a bit, even venture to the local marketplace. And Pupu and an old girl worked wonders for my morale, the first by telling me that I look like Dr. House in the eponymous TV series, the latter by saying that the crutch gives me more character – not that I had been feeling I am much in need of that! And alas, it will be quite some time still before I can even drive a four-wheeler, leave alone the scooter. But I can travel to Calcutta in my own car within another month if things don’t go awry, that much I have been assured.

One thing about being handicapped for a prolonged period – you have to be careful not only to avoid succumbing to depression but not to become self-obsessed. No greater blessing than to have a fixed daily work routine. It also makes one think about a lot of things. How so many ordinary people matter in your lives: and I am not talking merely of family, to whom we often attach a bloated and quite undeserved importance. How important it is to practice charity at home. How useful it is to count your blessings. How to differentiate between those who really care and those who do not. How one might best cope with a future when one may never be as fit and ‘normal’ as one used to be (such as that I might never climb hills or walk fast for long distances again). How good it is to find real pleasure in the happiness of others. What a treasure children are, if you can attract their love. How wise it is never to expect anything from anyone in the long run. How more caution can save you from getting hurt in a lot of ways.

So I have been re-thinking the question of charity. I think I am going to go with ‘charity begins at home’, and set out on a systematic program of helping out people in need – specifically people who have helped me out in times of distress and helplessness. There are so many people who touch our lives in so many humble yet essential ways whom are too little valued. Even your cook and maid and the grocer who makes home deliveries when you are indisposed. And these are as a rule proud people, so you have to work hard to find out what they need, and when.

The season is beautiful, with occasional bursts of glorious sunshine alternating with long spells of rain. Making a virtue of necessity, I am sitting outdoors for hours in the daytime, helping the sun to speed up the process of synthesizing vitamin D which is good for the healing of my bones, and I thank God for being lucky enough to find so much time to admire the gorgeousness of the world around me: the azure of the sky, the play of the clouds, the lush rainwashed greenery all around, the profusion of flowers, the busy activity of squirrels and birds and butterflies in my garden… I can’t have enough of ‘standing and staring’. Sometimes it feels as though it was really worthwhile breaking a leg. How sad it is to be a busy man, really.

Rajdeep of the 1994 batch and Chitra of the 2000 batch visited recently. Thank you to both. It was good to see you after a long time. Chitra, as I told you, one reason I dislike female visitors is that they by and large have no conversation – do keep that in mind and I am sure both of us will enjoy your next visit even more. And keep in touch, both.

My daughter has already found a kind of happiness in college that she never got in school except during the very early years, touch wood. I have been pestering her to write about her entire school life. This is a reminder again, Pupu! And may your working life be even better…

In passing: I have got some truly gratifying reviews of To My Daughter. I only wish more people who have read it would get in touch with me. Or at least tell me why they can’t/won’t comment.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ruby

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Looking back and ahead, again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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