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Monday, January 21, 2008

The end of an era

Sri Ramendra Sundar (Ram) Bhattacharyya, my grandfather on my mother’s side, passed away at 10:56 on the night of Wednesday, the 9th of January 2008. He was three months short of 91. It is the 15th today, and I have been taking my time to compose my thoughts to write about him. Even so, my progress will be slow and halting – the memories are too many, too closely cherished, too painful to come flowing easily. I shall take my time over this.

This is not going to be either a biography or an obituary in the usual sense of the term. I am only paying my last, very personal tribute to a dear departed soul. He was the man I most loved in this world, with a kind of love that cannot be replicated in my lifetime (unless God in his infinite mercy lets me live to hug a grandchild myself); he was the man I owe most, and I think I resemble most by nature and temperament. He was also, quite simply, the nicest man, the closest to the ideal of a gentleman that I have known in all my life, and I am saying this with perfect dispassion; I have never felt the need to say nice and false things about people just because they happen to be family. If there is anything good in me at all as a human being, I owe all that to this man who is now no more.

He was born the younger son in a fairly well-off and educated family in North Calcutta of yesteryear – 1917, the year of the August Declaration in Parliament by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, when World War I was still in progress, the Russian Revolution was about to break out, and Gandhi was just beginning to become a household name. His father was a doctor and a highly literate man – not just an assistant to Dr. Bidhan Ray and Tagore’s household physician but also a fairly close literary colleague: the great man commissioned him to write a series of popular essays on health and hygiene in Bengali for his Lokshikshya series long before Reader’s Digest made such things well known in English. As a result, though my grandfather did not live a materially lavish life (children were not indulged then as they are today), he saw his father move in truly elite circles: men like Jamini Roy and Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali and Tarashankar Banerjee were frequent guests at home. My grandfather took a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Calcutta – one of the earliest batches, who were taught by the initiator of psychoanalytic studies in India, Girindrashekhar Basu, colleague of and correspondent with Sigmund Freud himself. He dabbled distantly, hesitantly with the freedom movement, and it still gives me gooseflesh to remember him telling me how in college, he once came face to face with the notorious police commissioner Sir Charles Tegart, who ambushed and killed Bagha Jatin in Orissa, and whom several revolutionaries including Gopinath Saha tried in vain to assassinate (I wonder whether these names would arouse even the faintest echoes in ‘educated’ Bengali minds today?). But football was his amour propre, and he gave the best years of his life to it. He made it to Mohun Bagan as a goalkeeper (besides playing on the Calcutta University cricket team), captained the Aryan Club the year they won their only IFA shield, and narrowly missed being selected for the Indian Olympic team owing to the characteristic petty politicking that has bedeviled Indian football ever since its inception. I keep telling everybody that he was the last in our whole extended family whose name and photographs appeared regularly for years on the front pages of Calcutta newspapers.

He had seen the legendary Goshtho Pal and Samaad playing, and worshipped them all his life. In those days footballers made no money, yet he chucked up two successively good jobs for its sake (he could have retired a general manager in the Indian Railways if he had stuck to one of them). Strong differences of a very personal nature with his father led to an abrupt decision to leave the family hearth without a penny in his pocket. Then, with young (and very pretty) wife and little daughter in tow, he spent several years scrounging for a living, literally sleeping on other people’s verandahs for some time and doing every kind of odd job imaginable until he could give his family a roof over his head: the little house he built in the swampy outreaches of Ballygunge, a place called Gol Park, more than half a century ago, is now worth several millions! The strain on his sensitive psyche was strong enough to give him a nervous breakdown in his early forties: yet never once did he go to beg his illustrious childhood friends (and there were many, including a former chief minister – still alive – and a chief justice of the High Court) for favours. I was born when he was only 47 (my grandmother was 36)! Pretty young for a grandpa – I am going on 45 now, and my daughter is only eleven years old.

My grandparents have always been my real parents and more. (About my grandmother I shall write separately some day; she too deserves that much, that utterly wonderful grand old lady). My grandpa’s not-too-frequent visits were the brightest spots throughout my otherwise lonely and somber childhood; he used to turn up sometimes with tins of milkfood for my baby sister under his arm or a welter of toys and always with a head full of lovely stories – I heard everything from Tuntunir Golpo and Teni-da to Aesop’s fables to the Zorro stories and The Three Musketeers and Sherlock Holmes and Dickens and Jim Corbett and Hercule Poirot and much, much more from him, and long after I had read and savoured all the books myself, and gone far beyond his level and sweep of reading, nothing could beat the happy memories of listening to him engrossed, carried away into a dreamy world of delicious imagination: my whole habits of reading and storytelling, the two things which have paid off so magnificently and kept me in gravy ever since I was 17, I have acquired entirely from him. The peculiar habit of interlacing very solemn talk with casual but always refined wit, too, I learnt unconsciously from him, and in the process of telling stories he taught me all the morals any man needs to know. Tagore was his god, and he brought me up in such a way that so it became for me. He was the humblest and gentlest man I ever knew – all his life he insisted he was ‘ignorant’, and the only time he was angry with me was when once, as a child, I struck my naughty sister in a fit of pique! He was my last living contact with history: I didn’t have to read much about World War II and the Great Calcutta Riot of August 1946 from school history books, for example, nor about life in Burma or how it feels to come back home in the middle of the night when a deadly cyclone has just ripped through the city. – and even now I can hear a thousand things he used to say, but nothing rings louder than his favourite words of approval when I did something good, an expression that he had picked up from a superior (British) officer a long time ago: ‘That’s like a good gentleman of the Eastern Indian Railway!’ My enormous nostalgia over the British Raj – despite everything bad I have learnt about it, and that’s a great deal – too, I owe entirely to him.

Going over to his house to spend my holidays was going to heaven – yet now I realize that he made it that way just by being the kind of man he was, not by offering me a lavish living and bribing me with expensive gifts: he could neither afford such things, nor did he ever let me feel that I lacked for anything. Travelling around Calcutta on foot and by double-decker bus, visiting the Maidan, the zoo, the great National Museum, the children’s museum, the Children’s Little Theatre and scores of other interesting spots – at many of these places he left little me alone for hours and picked me up again on his way back from work – I had all the joyous adventure that a little boy can want. I learnt what good parenting means from him, and if someday my daughter pays me half the accolades I have been paying him all my life, I shall know I haven’t been too bad a parent myself. I learnt the true meaning of romance from him, too, and the virtues of hard work, and patient caring, and love that expects nothing in return save the happiness of the loved one, and quiet courage in the midst of adversity; I learnt to think deeply and feel delicately about everything, I learnt the sense of wonder, and how important it is to keep smiling and make others smile even when life is a pain and a drag, and how great and rare an ability that is. It took me a lot of growing up to realize how hard he had worked, and how long, to keep the family’s head above the water (he held a humble salaried job till he was 72; one of my most abiding memories is of him crouching on the floor, leaning back against the bed, with an account book in his lap to pore over late into the evening, glasses perched on his nose, while still regaling stupid insensitive me with stories, never missing a beat, after a full day’s work, day after day, year after year, for decades together, and never once did I hear him say ‘I am busy’…) – and not just his own three children and later their children, but a whole host of cousins and their children on both his side and his wife’s passed years of the formative stages of their lives in his shelter before they grew wings and went away. From my grandparents’ lives I have learnt how some people can be endlessly giving, and also, from the way all their labours of love were forgotten as the decades rolled by, of the depth and cruelty of human ingratitude. It hurts me more than I can tell that he and his wife had to spend such a large part of their old age in loneliness and near-penury.

He was always far more comfortable with children than with grown-ups, so, though I lived with him or close to him till I was nearly 25, he gradually drifted away from me (was I growing too ‘adult’ and ‘intellectual’ for his tastes?), turning all his attention and love to the new-born grandchildren he had been gifted with. Did he ever know, I wonder, how the heart of a little boy ached for those halcyon years gone by, even as outwardly that little boy grew into a solemn scholar, a husband, a successful teacher, loving father, middle-aged man and unsocial cynic? Save the first three years of bringing up my daughter, I have never known happiness to equal what I got from my grandfather, and there can be no greater sadness, I think, than having to accept that he had nearly forgotten me. Or maybe he hadn’t? I shall ask him in heaven, and expecting to meet him again will certainly ameliorate for me the pain and terror and sorrow of saying goodbye to this world when my time comes. I hadn’t visited him for years (and neither he nor I was to blame, but circumstances that neither of us liked or could control); it was by a very strange coincidence that I happened to turn up at his bedside the night before he was admitted to hospital in critical condition for the last time. He couldn’t apparently recognize me, and my grandmother told me afterwards over the phone that he had loudly lamented later on, during a brief lucid interval, that he couldn’t caress me (‘one last time as of old’, I believe he meant). After spending a useless and painful week in the ICU (thanks to the ‘miracles’ of modern medical technology!), he passed away in a near-comatose condition – ‘multiple organ failure’ the clever doctors like to call it these days, though in saner times we should have said he simply died of old age. I only wish that a man like him hadn’t been compelled to suffer so much helplessness, indignity, loneliness and pain for so long; on that last visit I heard him moaning and cursing his fate, and that memory will stay with me till my dying day. I deliberately decided that I wouldn’t take photographs. He had once been a very strong man, and he had exercised lifelong, and had been quite fit till past 80, but he suffered his first stroke at 87 and became increasingly weak and fearful thereafter; even his usual walks stopped eventually. Three years ago his collection of memoirs was published in Bengali, and he had been writing little vignettes from memory, and poems as well, till shortly before his death, some of which were published in a few papers through the good offices of a few lingering admirers. But over the last year and more, he had become almost completely bedridden.

A minor Bengali daily noted that he had been admitted to hospital on the day itself (still they got his age wrong), but not one of the numerous major papers I checked carried the news of his passing. Who cares to remember someone who had grown decrepit and become forgotten decades ago? The world is a busy place, and anyway, no one looks back in wonder these days at people whose memories are not ‘sexy’.

So now my grandmother (poor old soul, she’s herself 80, and weighed down by age and debility) has been left all alone in that ghostly house. I have been praying for more than a decade that my grandfather be released from his mortal coils, and I shall from now on pray night and day that she follows suit soon: I am sure there cannot be words to express her agony, let alone commiserate with her. Save herself, I do not think that my grandfather touched anybody’s life more deeply than mine, though he touched so many: let me carry the burden and joy of the memories alone for a few more years before I, too, can go after him. Goodnight, sweet prince. I shall forever weep as I wept as a child every time you went away, promising to come back: only I know you went away from me a long time ago, and now you will never come back. I can only pity successive generations of children that they will never know a man like you. Everyone says my daughter’s a lucky girl; they don’t know what a lucky boy I have been. I could never do anything truly worthwhile for you; may this blogpost tell some people who care for such things that I loved you.

(finished January 20, 2008)
the three photographs on top are as follows: My grandfather with Rabindranath Tagore, once again in his sporting days, and blessing my wife at the wedding, 12 years ago.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

A small dose of political philosophy

Some people fondle puppies, some kick out at them or wrinkle their noses.

Some weep to watch tragic movies, some yawn or titter.

Some people litter, some go about cleaning it up unasked.

Some eat little and eat healthy, others bring great sorrow upon themselves through gluttony, but deeply resent the suggestion that they would be well advised to change their ways.

Some people cannot imagine there can be a more delightful and rewarding occupation than reading books, others consider them mad.

Some luxuriate in fine art or mathematics, others cannot see what is there in such things to be interested in.

Some people fight lifelong and at great personal risk and loss for the kind of justice that they have nothing immediate and personal to gain from, while some break the laws because they find it 'fun'.

Some people work hard and save and try to make life a little easier, a little safer, a little more comfortable for their families, some squander away their parents’/spouses’ wealth on partying and shopping for expensive and basically useless trifles.

Some try all they can to make the best of the chances life has given them, while some blame all their unsuccess on luck.

Some people take delight in silence, others do all they can to make noise.

Some give away much of what they have in charity, others call them fools.

Some try to love as many as they can, as much as they can, others scoff at love or pretend to love to milk their ‘loved ones’ dry.

Some worship intelligence and wisdom and courage and courtesy, others deny that such things exist, or that they matter, or that they ought to feel bad for lacking these things entirely.

Some would build lovely things, others can only destroy them.

Now consider thoughtfully for a while the host of paired opposites listed above. The latter types are always and everywhere far more numerous than the former, nobody can doubt that, I think. Nobody in her right mind should doubt, either, that the former kind are better people than the latter, if only because they cause less harm to themselves and others by the way they live, talk and act. Then reflect upon a very difficult conundrum we face in contemporary society:

Democracy insists that every man is entitled to hold his own opinions and live by them. I have no quarrel with that: if pressed, I shall confess that I concur entirely with Voltaire’s famous retort to a foolish critic: ‘I don’t agree with a word of what you are saying, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it!’ – because without the assurance that every man can have his say without fear of the tyrant’s rod, whip or gun, liberty and everything good that comes with it will vanish from the earth, and then life would be liveable only for unthinking and spineless clods. And if we withdraw that assurance, we should also being doing immeasurable injustice to the memory of all those millions of great and brave men and women, famous and nameless, who have fought all over the world for millennia so that someday (as now, in most reasonably civilized countries) all men may breathe the glorious air of liberty.

My problem with the democratic ideal is that, however grand and edifying that immortal line in the American Declaration of Independence sounds, all men are neither ‘created equal’ (a fact at even the biological level – compare two identical twins as they grow up even in the same family!), but, more importantly, don’t even want to be equal: while a few reach for the stars, regardless of all obstacles in their path (and so become Michelangelos and Faradays and Beethovens and Lincolns and Chaplins and Peles), the vast majority of us are quite content to wallow in the gutters lifelong, morally, intellectually and aesthetically speaking (what more could there be in life beyond leching, mall-hopping and pub-crawling, unless it were gossiping and lounging before the TV set?). I could condone even that – why should all men and women be expected to reach for the stars? – but the one thing I cannot swallow is the tendency (growing more and more insistent in recent times, I can see) to believe, and impose the belief on all and sundry, that not only do all men have a right to hold their own opinions, but all men deserve to be accorded the same attention and admiration and respect for their opinions. So the superstitious grandma’s opinion should be given the same value as the trained surgeon’s, the illiterate coolie’s opinion should be given the same value as the learned lawyer’s or economist’s, the schoolboy’s opinion about what is a good movie should be given the same credence as the veteran director’s, the man who never reads a book will demand (especially if he has an MBA, and can talk for two minutes on all subjects under the sun, but knows nothing about any one subject to talk intelligently for an hour) that his opinion on anything should be heard as attentively as the savant’s! Now we are living in such a highly-commercialised world that everything is becoming oriented towards just one maxim – that alone is good which sells in large numbers/volumes, be it food items or clothes, books or movies, lifestyles or philosophies. The inevitable consequence is that Everyman has acquired a bloated, monstrous importance: since trivial and uncouth people are the most numerous, their tastes and appetites must be accepted and made universal, so that sales can be maximized; and all that does not sell because Everyman does not like it or understand it must be sneered at, shoved under the carpet and forgotten. The world may not care that someone like me worries so much about this, but a day will come (and it isn’t too far away either!) when the Ajanta caves will be demolished to make way for massage parlours or shopping malls, when people worldwide will use the roadside as a toilet, and democracy (which Plato called a ‘pig’s philosophy’ with some reason - democrats voted to kill his master, Socrates) will drown and die under its own excesses.

So are you counselling despair, my readers will ask: is there no cure for the malady? I am no doomsayer, and I shall go on believing (or hoping) that things can be changed for the better, and there is still time – if only more and more decent people will acknowledge that there is a serious problem which needs curing. I am the last man to suggest something so foolish as the idea of a return to some kind of totalitarianism: that a small coterie of dictators, religious or secular, modern-minded or atavistic, should compel us how to talk, act and behave every moment of our lives. But this much we must all agree upon: the need for true leaders of thought and manners (and the need for them to be respected and obeyed, though never slavishly) will always be there. Some people will have to teach and persuade the rest to behave better, for their own long-term safety and welfare. In an age when so many of us blindly follow either our parents/bosses/netas or whatever the advertisements are saying, it is important for teachers at all levels, from the school classroom to the universities and parliaments, to convince people that there is a difference between high and low, vulgar and sublime, cheap and precious, fads of the moment and things of eternal value – and that the former ought always to be given up for the latter. We should all be taught to be free and yet at the same time remember that we ought to defer to our betters, because there are always people who are better than us, and we will gain, and the world would gain, if we could sometimes swallow our silly vanity and listen to good things that our betters are trying to tell us.

Friday, January 04, 2008

My latest holiday trip

I fell in love with travelling ever since a friend’s family took me along on a three-week trip around Himachal Pradesh shortly after my secondary school-final (ICSE) examinations. That was all the way back in May 1980. We travelled from Kalka to Shimla, then on to Kulu and Manali, and onwards again to Dharamshala and Dalhousie and Chamba, before making a very long bus trip to Kalka on the way back home. I was poor then, and had had no idea how I could afford long trips, but that particular journey was an eye-opener: because I travelled with a large group, and they made do on a shoestring budget, I ended up having an enormous amount of fun at almost no expense at all. And I still have very vivid memories of even tiny details of that trip – which is why I scoff at pupils in class 10 and 12 who cannot write interesting and fact-rich essays about trips they made only a few months ago! I swore to myself then that I was going to travel as much as I could, for as long as I could, alone and with friends and family, in luxury or otherwise… but travel I would. Over the last 27 years I have kept that promise to myself, and I am deeply thankful to providence that it has given me over all these years the continuing zest, good health, money, leisure time and family support without which it couldn’t have been done. I have travelled all over India, to famous places and obscure, all over the North and in some places down south, even abroad once, when I went to the USA in 1991. I could have done far more ‘phoren’ trips by now, but several reasons have turned me off – the lure of India’s own unending and yet-unexplored riches, for one, and the fact that so many loud, brash and culturally-ignorant newly-rich Indians are ‘doing’ those Thomas Cook/Cox and Kings budget trips these days (Europe in 14 days, when it should take that long properly to see just one great city like Rome or Paris!) that I would hate to be caught up with them and come back with disgusting memories. And I hope to keep travelling for many more years: it is one of the few pleasures of life that have not dimmed yet, though I have tried a great many. But one thing has changed: I now look forward more and more to beloved old boys travelling with me or at least making the arrangements for me (an old teacher’s privilege, which I am proud to say a lot of ex-students gladly grant): in another decade’s time it will be my daughter who does most of that, I hope, and feels happy to do it.

It has almost become a routine: I take two breaks from my teaching schedule every year, one in mid-May and the other at the end of December. Some years I visit my in-laws in Kolkata and go city-seeing during one of those breaks and make a long holiday trip the next; in some years (as in 2007) I make two long trips. So last May I went to Nainital (this was the third time, after 1987 and 2001), and on December 21st, 2007 I left with my family for New Delhi en route to Amritsar. I had wanted to make it a leisurely trip, with lots of sleep and adda and good food and walks and photo-ops. and not too much running around in cars, and that’s the way it worked out.

As is customary, I took a class till almost the very last minute, then caught the evening Rajdhani Express to Delhi. An old-boy was travelling with us. We were all bursting with excitement, my daughter only most visibly and unabashedly so, at the grand prospect waiting for us – of ten days of carefree relaxation, laughter and animated, no-holds-barred friendly conversation. In no time at all we were at New Delhi station, where Subhadip, a much younger but very favourite old boy who has become my point-man in Delhi over the last three years, took us in hand and ushered us off to a very cosy little hotel right outside the station where we could bathe, lunch, rest and chat over the languid afternoon (a lot of people won’t believe that at such a convenient location in the capital city you can get a three-bed hotel room with airconditioner, water heater, TV and carpet for a measly Rs. 650 per day, not to mention the decent and reasonably priced meals they provide. Beats the Rail Yatri Niwas or the retiring room at the station hollow any time!). The same evening we took the train to Amritsar. I was boarding the new-design Shatabdi Express coach for the first time, and both the layout and the d├ęcor were huge improvements on the older versions: if the food had been a little better and the speed a little greater, I could well have imagined I was travelling in Europe or Japan: my fellow-passengers did not even chatter or yell into their mobiles or litter their surroundings too much, as Indians are wont to do while travelling! It was pretty late night when we arrived at Amritsar – we didn’t find it bitterly cold as it had reportedly been only a few days ago – and checked into a pretty decent hotel that wasn't too heavy on the pocket either.

The whole of the next day was spent sightseeing locally. We took in the Golden Temple, of course – and I had to be content with prostrating myself before the Harimandir Sahib (the sanctum sanctorum), the crowd trying to enter being too huge and forbidding for my weak faith to tackle. The museum attached to the Temple is worth a visit, I will say this: a lot of people miss it. The afternoon ceremony at the Wagah border was quite a spectacle, though I found the whipped-up patriotic hysteria somewhat disconcerting. It was much better to see Indians and Pakistanis waving to one another at the end of the proceedings. My daughter’s sudden sickness gave me a jolt, but she recovered quickly and we had a very comfortable six-hour drive to Dalhousie next day. We put up at the PWD Rest House right next to the police station – it was not too posh, but with wooden floors and ceiling, an old (and disused) fireplace, a huge bathroom, quite adequate bed and blankets, a sunwarmed corridor (long live the greenhouse effect, given the chill in the air!) and an ever-ready-to-oblige caretaker, it had an old world charm with which we fell in love at once, and the local walks along the quiet roads with magnificent mountain panoramas all around and snow piled in drifts all along the roadsides were so enticing that we made up our minds at once that we were going to spend the next two days simply lazing around the town. (I have put up some pictures on my orkut album which all my ‘friends’ there can see). The mutton biryani at Sher-e-Punjab near Subhas Chowk was delectable, though your true Hyderabadi might turn his nose up at it.

In the last 27 years most hill stations around India have changed greatly for the worse, what with vastly increased population, traffic congestion, noise, garbage and smoke pollution, water scarcity and power cuts all the time; on top of that too many of them (like Gangtok and Nainital and Shimla and Mussoorie) have become too snazzy for my taste, with their cyber cafes and shopping malls and discotheques and pubs. Dalhousie charmed with its nearly-unchanged ambience. I had seen it as a boy, so long ago, and remembered it as a very laid-back little hill town lost in time and mists, a town which had nearly-forgotten associations with Tagore and Subhas Bose. Much before that, around 1853, Lord Dalhousie’s illustrious general Napier (the conqueror of Sind) had discovered it, dubbed it a ‘walker’s paradise’, seized it from the local rajah and re-christened it after his boss. What a delight it was to find, in 2007, that it had retained much of that old beguiling charm! May God grant that the Dilliwallahs (and their Gujarati and Bengali clones) with their huge families, bulging pockets, enormous cars and crass manners do not ‘discover’ it in sufficient numbers to drive that charm away within a few more years. Whatever such folks touch they spoil in no time at all – and then they go off to pollute Bangkok and Pattaya, Singapore and Dubai!

So Christmas was celebrated in Dalhousie, with my daughter Pupu painstakingly decorating the little Christmas tree that she had lugged all the way from home. Her smile removed all my secret niggling doubts about whether she would find all her efforts worthwhile eventually. At the local church, founded 1870, we found, of all things, turkeys strutting around and gobbling in a cage! True to character, Pupu befriended all the caretaker’s children and their local chums, romped around with them all day in the sunny courtyard, clicked photos galore on the Handycam she can now handle better than her dad and treated them to cakes and chocolate and icecream out of her own pocket money in anticipation of her birthday, so that they all had tears in their eyes when the time came to part. Not a bad achievement, considering it was all done within the space of two and a half days. Nor, though I say it myself, was it a mean feat for an oldie like me to be up and around on his feet, up and down steep hill roads, for seven and a half hours a stretch!

The drive to Chamba took us longer than expected, because we first set out for the famed valley of Khajjiar and then had to abandon the plan (the road was so snowbound that the cars began to skid in a way that was too hair-raising for my middle-aged domesticated tastes) and make a long detour. So we arrived in Chamba barely in time for a late lunch. We put up at the Circuit House, which was a pretty elegant pile, though, strange to say, they did not serve any meals. The walk around the little market town (also the district HQ which had just celebrated its centenary by putting up an ornate memorial gate on one side of its trademark maidan) in the afternoon sun was pleasant enough, though after the tour of the museum my wife’s shopping spree began to tell on my legs as I waited patiently outside. In the evening I went down with a stomach upset and a fever brought on by over-exertion: nothing spectacular or alarming, just a reminder that age is catching up on us, and from now on we must learn to take it easier as the years roll by.

We paid through the nose for the drive back to Amritsar from Chamba on the 28th, apparently because it wasn’t a busy regular route, so the driver charged us for the round trip. By that time our whole family was reacting the way it predictably does towards the end of every long holiday: home sweet home was calling us back loud and clear. We put up at the same hotel in Amritsar again. Waking up at 3:30 in the night was mercifully less harrowing an experience for sleep-lovers like us than we had feared it might be, and I, for one, managed to stay awake all through the train ride to Delhi. The same evening we took the Rajdhani back to Kolkata. We spent a couple of days attending to mundane tasks and looking up friends in the big city, then drove home in the morning of January the 2nd.

So that’s the kind of stuff we do everytime we make a holiday trip. Here are a few reflections on this last one:

· New Delhi railway station is the pits. And when I, no friend of all things Bengali, say that even Howrah or Sealdah are better by far in every way, that is some insult! I saw in the papers that Lalu Prasad is undertaking a huge project to deck it up and civilize it – he has my best wishes.
· If you are not on a business trip and not very very keen on the Golden Temple, don’t visit Amritsar. Just get a friend to mail you a video CD showing the whole flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah. And don’t try fish Amritsari by the roadside: if your wife is a halfway-decent cook she can fry bhetki filet far better, and she’ll burn a much smaller hole in your pocket. Also, funnily enough, I saw far fewer turbaned heads in Amritsar than I had expected.
· It’s not only deep down south that English and Hindi fail you! In the Punjabi heartland roadside dhabawallahs can hardly make sense of anything but their own lingo: our driver had to translate even the most short and basic of requests.
· Dalhousie was beautiful, but it only made my heart ache. Thousands of well-heeled Indians are now dashing off to Switzerland to savour its alpine charms, the way the Japanese used to do in the ’60s and 70s, so much so that (someone told me recently) road signs are being written in Hindi there these days! – yet our mindless government (of course, it’s made up of men whom we elect in our own likeness) will not give enough time and attention and money and care to preserve and enhance the beauty of all our fine Himalayan resorts, which, given a level playing field, could compete with the best Swiss and Austrian attractions, earn vast amounts of foreign exchange, refurbish our image as a civilized nation, greatly improve the economic condition of our hill people, and make Indians like me (I am sure there are thousands, if not millions) feel much better about ourselves. A thought: why don’t our biggest tycoons turn their attention to this sphere as a potentially lucrative business, I wonder?
· We heard about the great tsunami on TV in Shimla in December 2005, and we heard about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination similarly while travelling this time. Merely a coincidence, of course, but rather disconcerting, what?