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Monday, October 27, 2008

Request to frequent visitors

Would you mind if I made two requests?
1. Please take the trouble to vote on the poll posted on the right hand side (if you haven't already). I've got 90 votes: once it crosses one hundred I'll be able to make a serious decision about continuing this blog.
2. I notice that some readers have enlisted themselves as 'followers' of this blog (I didn't know that this facility existed!). I know, also, that lots of others visit frequently: would they mind enlisting themselves similarly? It would help me and many others to keep track of one another: clicking on the 'follower' link takes you to that person's profile and (if there's one) personal blog.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Politics: chhee chhee?

Now that the American Presidential election-race has really heated up, a lot of interesting things are happening on the Net in connection with it. I found the following link on the official Google blog particularly noteworthy:

Some American teachers are organizing a letter-writing campaign to the next President. I avidly read numerous 11th-grade (class 11) students writing about the issues that are close to their hearts, issues they want the next Chief Executive to think about and act upon: the war in Iraq, the price of gas (petrol), the state of education and healthcare, the matter of growing infringement of human rights in the name of ‘homeland security’, the gathering economic recession… It is not that all these young folks are very clever or very articulate or very well-informed; it does not even bother me whether the new President will really be much bothered by these letters (though the fact that an organization as big and far-reaching as Google has taken the initiative in this regard makes me hope that they will matter): I am happily surprised that so many of today’s American schoolgoing teenagers take such an active interest in political issues – that means they do understand that politics closely affects their everyday lives, and they want to make a difference by getting involved, even in a small way.

Contrast that with Shashi Tharoor’s lament (Tharoor is a writer and hotshot diplomat: he came within a whisker of becoming the UN Secretary-General last time) in today’s edition of The Times of India (p.8, Kolkata edition, 'The nation needs principled youngsters'):

Read the article. I have commented on this issue earlier on this blog: it will always remain a live and immediate issue with me. I entirely agree with Tharoor, who, like me, knows perfectly well why our educated urban middle-class has stayed (a little disdainfully, a little enviously, a little fearfully) out of politics for three generations or more, but nevertheless insists that India does not have much of a future unless today’s educated young Indians (at least the small percentage who have any values and ideals at all) realize that ‘not getting involved in politics is a copout. The nation needs you.’ For far too long all our ‘good’ boys and girls have been told to steer clear and aim at a vision of very narrow self-advancement in complete denial of the larger social realities. Unfortunately it’s not working any more.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Forty-five, and counting!

I was born, I am told, late in the evening of Thursday, the 17th October, 1963. By that count I have lived 45 years on this earth today. No matter what I look like, and what I feel like, or others think about me, it is a statistical fact that I am now firmly in “middle age” (even if I live to be 90-plus, which God forbid). Nice time to look back and jot down a few thoughts for the occasion.

In some ways it is not really very unpleasant. I had an on-the-whole unhappy childhood and early youth, so unlike many people (countless children are told to write and cram essays about how childhood is the best period of one’s life), I do not suffer much from nostalgia. Over the last three decades I have almost continuously been enjoying the present to the full, despite all the ups and downs. Besides, having grown up to be precocious, fancy-free, adventurous and widely-read, I have known from very early days how people are supposed to feel in their prime and as the shadow of old age begins to loom – the good feelings as well as the bad ones – so I cannot say I feel very surprised or sad or let-down: not even over the fact that the last 25 years (since youth began) seem to have flashed by in the twinkling of an eye. I am thankful that I am still reasonably fit and in full possession of my mental faculties; I don’t look bloated, sagging, haggard or decrepit like so many of my contemporaries, I do not suffer from poverty, and I have far more time than most to call my own and use as I (rather than my boss or that beast called ‘society’) like. I consider myself very fortunate to have a patient, intelligent, understanding, non-greedy and non-ugly wife with whom I share a lot of interests, and to see a beautiful and clever daughter growing up apace before my eyes, loving me as few daughters love their fathers, and developing so many interests (such as books and movies and music and self-control and caution with money and an inclination for charity) that I badly wanted to share with her.

I know I am slowing down, and I tire more easily, and have grown much more ease-loving than I used to be, but I allow myself some consideration: I have gone through privations enough, and slogged it out enough (far more than most of my contemporaries: their parents were fanning them and helping them drink green coconut water as they went through the ‘ordeal’ of the Joint Entrance examination with me, while I was earning my living teaching a horde of pupils almost my own age and writing freelance for sundry newspapers!), and now I am old enough. I regret some bad habits which I have not been able to get rid of – and which will probably kill me eventually – and the fact that the legion of beloved old boys and girls has not become as large as I wanted, and stayed as closely in touch as I wanted, and that so many people whom I have never harmed would be delighted to hear of anything bad that has happened to me, and that some whom I have always cared deeply for have decided to rub me out of their lives, but let that be: we are not given all things that we desire. The important thing is to be aware of how much I have got, and to make the best of it, and be thankful.

As things stand, I can even feel a cautious twinge of optimism. Perhaps I am going to stick around for a while still, and if I do, old age might be the best time of my life, after all, who knows? ‘Grow old along with me’, wrote Robert Browning to his wife, ‘the best is yet to be’. Keats called my age ‘the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Many of the men I most admire did their greatest works in old age. Susan Sarandon said she felt ‘girlish’ on her 50th birthday, and a recent survey, published in The Telegraph of October 15 (see bottom of page 2) says that men are at their most romantic in the eyes of women at 53! I also admire the naughty but loveable character called Uncle Oswald created by Roald Dahl, and he will remain an inspiration. Having got rid of a full-time driver, I am beginning to rediscover how much I enjoyed driving, and some day I might try my hand at writing poems in French again, and even flying a biplane, maybe: aeroplanes were one of my first loves. Very soon, I might go hiking in the mountains with my daughter and a few friends of hers in tow. And drink some of the best champagne: I haven’t had enough yet. In sum, I am determined not to grow too sombre and withdrawn to miss the very many pleasures that life might still have in store for me. If there are some readers who like me, they might wish me luck!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bengal's annual madness

It’s currently that time of the year when I cannot help wishing I was somewhere very far away from Bengal – in a more salubrious climate, happily engaged in the kind of work that I love doing all year round, with no noise and pollution of diverse other kinds, and specifically no crowds of Bengalis enjoying themselves on the occasion of the monstrous annual orgy they call Durga-pujo. I pray that that is how I can spend at least my old age!

Here are a few things I’d like folks to think about:

1. The kind of money we splurge during this month (essentially on clothes, jewellery, cosmetics, fuel, liquor, gambling and other luxuries) would be enough to remove all the most obviously ugly and pathetic traces of extreme poverty from this state (one of the poorest in a poor country), if used wisely and in a sustained fashion, for just one decade;
2. As any police officer will aver, the graphs of deaths and crippling injuries in traffic accidents spike during this month, owing to wild and drunken driving in the name of having fun, and any doctor would tell you that the greatest number of people fall seriously ill during this month owing to gross carelessness and over-indulgence in bad food and romping around town all night: how can people call this ‘enjoyment’ and still pretend they are either sensible or civilized?
3. In a state which very badly needs economic development, several tens of millions of working days are lost during this month because very little work gets done, since most government offices remain closed for the majority of days this month, although officially the number of public holidays aren’t more than five or six! Also reflect – how can so many of us have fun, knowing (or rather, ignoring the fact) that many millions get no holidays at all during this time, either because they are the likes of day labourers, or shopkeepers who cannot afford to down shutters during the season of the busiest business, or policemen, firemen, doctors and nurses on emergency duty, airline crews and hotel staff, power plant engineers and so on, who have to do compulsory duty during these days (though their wives and children might be having fun – who cares that hubby/daddy is slogging away to finance their ‘fun’?)
4. Millions of people who wish their fellow humans no harm but only want to be left in peace – like me, and people much older, with heart disease, and lung ailments, and weak nerves and so on – can neither walk in safety on the roads nor get a good night’s sleep for days on end, because so many millions of people are ‘having fun’ in the crudest and noisiest ways they can think of. Every night between 10 and 4 o’clock scores of buses park and spew out streams of revellers on the street on which I live, and the electric horns blaring and ‘happy’ people screaming at one another and blowing raucous trumpets by the hundred ensure that I get a splitting headache. And every morning I and some other neighbours have to hold our noses while we pour bleaching powder into the gutters where thousands have relieved their bladders (men and women, young and old, in full public view) all through the night! In a country where the government has gotten so concerned about not letting smokers hurt innocent others by indulging their bad habit in public, why doesn’t it strike anybody that pollution on this monstrous scale hurts far more people far more seriously?
5. Is this really how people ought or need to have fun? What about all those countries which have nothing equivalent to celebrate in like fashion: are they all, unlike us, terribly unhappy people? Has anybody bothered to find out?
6. Also keeping in mind how grossly the whole thing has become commercialized in the last couple of decades – nobody can disagree that Durga-pujo is now all about advertising, buying and showing off things that nobody really needs (or needs at a specific time of the year only) – why keep pretending that religion has anything to do with it? At this time of the year I always wish I was surrounded by scientists and communists and other godless people! Visit the shrines of any other religion – Christian, Jew, Sikh, Buddhist, Muslim – on any of their major religious occasions, and you are bound to notice certain stark differences. You will notice the quietness and cleanliness for example, and the fact that these occasions are usually not for gorging but fasting, not for splurging but charity, and prayer is given much higher priority than merrymaking. These days at the ‘pandals’, nobody below sixty even pretends that they have anything remotely religious in mind (not understanding a word of the prayers chanted by the priests in Sanskrit helps enormously, I’m sure) – on the contrary, virtually every kind of vulgarity is encouraged and practiced with gusto, from drunken dancing to lechery of the most obvious kind! True atheism is infinitely preferable to this kind of blasphemy and heresy.

It’s become, I notice, a fad to wish everybody health and happiness and stuff on this ‘festive occasion’ with taglines on one’s gmail i.d. or orkut profile or blog header. I’m sorry I can’t oblige. I cannot wish everybody well, but only decent people. I am sure there are still some around. Recent ‘robibashoriyo’ articles in Anandabazar Patrika mocking the Bengali’s pujo madness in divers ways give me reason for hope. So also the fact that so many Bengalis run away from Bengal during this time of the year!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Another old friend gone: Father Wavreil

Father Adrian Wavreil, s.j., passed away last night. He was over eighty, so I cannot call it an untimely death, but it is rather strange that he should have had to die of snakebite, of all things!

He was a member of that almost dying breed called gentlemen. He was, in my definition, an educated man (and I am sure most readers know just how finicky I am about calling anybody educated). Twenty years ago, it was he who, along with my old teacher Father Pierre-Yves Gilson, got me into St. Xavier’s School, Durgapur, and thereby not only significantly changed my life but, I suspect, those of a lot of other people too.

For reasons best known to him and the organization that he served, he never contacted me after 2002, when I quit. He is one of the few human beings I missed, and I am the sort of person whose memories never dim, so I shall go on missing him forever, as I miss Fr. Gilson and Fr. Wautier, both now long gone. Today’s young people will of course never know what they have missed. Maybe they will never need to know!

God rest his soul. I hope in another birth we can be friends and colleagues again.