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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

No luck?

Watching the 10-11 p.m. show on NDTV called Entrepreneurs Extraordinary on December 28, I heard both Ratan Tata and N.R. Narayana Murthy concur that luck plays a critical role in deciding who will succeed in this world, and how much (see this post of mine). While Murthy quoted Louis Pasteur that 'God helps the prepared mind', he also said that he has known a lot of very talented and hard-working men who haven't been able to go far, and their failure can be ascribed to nothing but bad luck.

No wonder trying to change one's luck artificially (through astrology, costly prayers and yagnas, fairness creams and what have you) has always been big, especially in this country. Alas, while I believe in kismet or Providence, I cannot believe that it can be manipulated: 'God is not mocked'! I guess the best we can do, knowing this, is to cultivate the high art of stoicism, in happiness and sorrow alike. And pray...

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Signing off, for now

This is to say bye to all my readers and friends for this year (or maybe not...). I'm going on holiday, and might be off the Net for the next ten days. Have a happy time, and stay safe, all. This has been a good year for me as a blog-writer. I hope to get more readers/followers/comment-writers next year, and make more friends. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance! May there be peace on earth, and goodwill to all men. I love you all, though some of you find it hard to love me back...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Fire-bird

Book review: Aagun Pakhi (The Firebird), by Hasan Azizul Huq

Dey’s Publishing, Calcutta, 2008

Price: Rs. 150, pp. 252

Language: Bangla

ISBN: 978-81-295-0820-1

winner of Ananda Puroshkar 2008


A very ‘common’ woman in rural Bengal, who grew up just before World War II, and lived through the weird kind of independence-followed by communal war-followed by partition that destroyed millions of lives and twisted and broke millions of others forever out of shape, narrates her own story. There was joy galore, and peace, and fun and tumult and horror and savagery and sorrow in huge dollops with disconcerting frequency: she has seen it all. In the simplest of rural patois, without the slightest affectation (which is a wonder, considering that the writer himself is a highly-literate male urban scholar) she tells it poignantly, and unforgettably. She has remained quiet, uncomplaining, wondering, half-comprehending, living the life of endless, backbreaking yet strangely-sweet drudgery that is the lot of daughters/wives/mothers in all so-called male-dominated and backward societies of the world, but because she has never stopped observing, thinking and feeling, she has continued to mature lifelong, and though she remains near-illiterate and in a sense simple forever, she simultaneously becomes far more of a sophisticate than most urban, educated, well-off and ‘liberated’ young women can even comprehend today (I am reminded of the quip: “Twenty million Englishwomen stood up and said ‘We’ll no longer be dictated to!’ and promptly went out and became stenographers.” Today we should read BPO workers). And in the end she does something awful – she chooses, in her habitual quiet way, to be free to live and die absolutely on her own. Her teenage far behind her, she decides to find out who she is. It is time now at last, she believes, and she can handle it, all by herself. Having done so much for so many for so long, she owes the rest of her life solely to herself: not even her husband, whom she has served and obeyed without question all her life may have a share in it against her will, leave alone children and grandchildren and surviving siblings.

In the last page, she says she made that decision to give up all she ever had for the sake of the land she had always known to be hers, because no one could convince her that there was any meaning in carving out Pakistan from India when she had grown up happily Muslim among Hindus all her life till they were told to turn upon one another, and when those two countries still harboured both Muslims and Hindus, after all the horrifying bloodletting. I am sure no man alive is wise enough to convince her that she was wrong. But the mulish determination – despite all her self-questioning – that compelled her to give up even on her family is beyond explanation, and almost beyond belief. In Raja Rao’s short story called Javni, the last line says about the central character that she seemed ‘recedingly real. Who was she?’ That was the question that arose in my mind as I closed the book. But of course, it is an author’s privilege to create alternative realities, and still truth remains stranger than fiction of the most fanciful kind…

Since Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Bhishm Sahni’s Tamas I cannot think of any other Indian book that has portrayed the mindless trauma of the Partition of India so searchingly, hauntingly, with such disarming yet searing condemnation (if I am missing something, readers, do remind me). Few authors anywhere in the world have depicted the subtly nuanced interdependence of the marital relationship so well either, even where it is outwardly so heavily gender-biased. Since the great Banerjee-s stopped writing, I haven’t known any other who was able to see life so intently and so well in both its glorious highs and its abysmal lows. And the book confirms my deeply held belief (which is echoed not only in the most hoary Hindu shastras but in sources as diverse as Shakespeare and D. H. Lawrence) that woman anywhere, at all times, is inferior only insofar as she yields willingly, or under the weight of unendurable restriction, deprivation and oppression, and even then she retains a core of fierce strength and independence which men cannot fathom nor crush, though they might destroy her only too easily. My respect for women is greatly restored: only, my heart aches that I can see so few of the type in my contemporary urban milieu, least of all among the smart set who talk of ‘happening’ lives.

I have long been lamenting the decline of great literature in Bengali, and I hadn’t read Azizul Huq before. I am sorry I hadn’t, and I want to put it on record that my heart is full. I didn’t know that such powerful, wonderful writing is being done in Bengali still. In various ways I was reminded of Tagore’s Strir Patra, and Ashapurna Debi’s Pratham Pratishruti, and Gorky’s Mother, and Llewellyn’s How Green was my valley, and many more profound and beautiful novels which have permanently enriched my life. I wish Aagun Pakhi could be translated by able hands into the ten most widely spoken languages in the world. Professor Huq would then most certainly, even in this grossly deluded and superficial age, be hailed as one of the great authors among us today.

[My earnest thanks to Subhadipta Mukherjee for persuading me to read this book]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reading to be forced?

This recent news item tells me that some educational authorities in India are slowly waking up to the realization that merely cramming a handful of textbooks through school and college cannot make educated and socially valuable citizens, and TV and net-surfing are not solutions, people need to do a lot of diverse extra-curricular reading from books the traditional way since childhood: and given the kind of country India is, maybe even that has to be made mandatory before people will do it (a lot of my pupils have to borrow books to read from me on the sly, because their parents regard it as a habit far more obnoxious than doping, and, unlike TV, the net, shopping and attending parties, a serious threat to what they call 'studying'!) I urge my readers very strongly to visit the thread called ‘Books and the good life’ on my orkut community to ponder over the things that have been said there, particularly the post where I wrote ‘leaders are readers!’
Now contrast that with what is happening in school and elsewhere by reading this and this. I could cite dozens of other examples from what I read and see with my own eyes. Of course, as you will see on those sites themselves, there are dissenting opinions, but judge for yourself.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Invitation

I should like some readers to visit my older posts, if only to look up some recent comments - as for example this one and this one (you've got to click on the underlined words/phrases to go to the indicated article - in case someone didn't know. All those who did, please don't mind: I didn't know myself only a few years ago).

Also, what Rochishnu has recently posted on his blog (and my comment on it) might provoke an interesting discussion.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

To those about to become ex-students

Around this time of the year I say goodbye to a lot of sixteen-year old pupils. This blogpost is about them, and for them.
As with every time, it’s been a mixed bag of feelings for me, some good, some bad, some memorable, some forgettable, some best forgotten. I’m sure it’s been the same for you all, too.
As always, there were a lot of people in my classes who had no intention of attending but had been forced in by parents or peer pressure, and who found nothing interesting in me or my classes, and who will forget everything happily and almost instantly. To them, my apologies: I wish circumstances had been such that I hadn’t had to bore you for so long. I hope you at least do well in your examinations, so that you and your parents do not have to regret giving me so much of your time and money. A few of you, though, might look back upon these classes with different and more positive feelings a few years down the line, and then get back to me to tell me about it. Some people keep doing that every year… people who were in my classes years ago. I shall look forward to it.
To those who came to dislike me and are determined to speak badly about me afterwards, I have just one request: speak only the truth as you came to know the truth about me. Don’t make up stories, or spread stories passed on to you. Beyond that, you are free.
To those who did enjoy my classes, and maybe are likely to feel bad when the classes are over, I have a few more substantial things to say. Firstly, no matter what you think now, for most of you that feeling of missing something good will be very temporary. Trust me on this: I have seen it happen so often that I know you better than you do yourselves. Most memories, for most people, don’t stick: they fade fast once someone is out of sight, and no longer regularly in touch. Five years from now, most of you will hardly be able to recall why you liked coming to my classes so much…
To that very small number who will retain strong and good memories, I not only give my love and best wishes for everything you try to do in your lives, but I hope that, as time passes by, as you grow and mature and grapple more and more intimately with life, you will appreciate ever more keenly what Sir did for you, beyond ‘covering the syllabus’ for some examinations, which, as he himself kept repeating in class, do not really matter in the long run (you will find out how right he was, that’s a promise!). It is this very tiny group which, as they keep growing older, become my friends, and those friendships sometimes grow closer and warmer with the passage of years. It is them I want to reassure that Sir will always have time for them, as long as he is around. Only, don’t fall out of touch for too long: these days I honestly cannot remember pupils who have not contacted me, even over the phone or by email, for more than a year at a stretch.
A few of you have already let me know, in diverse ways, that I mattered to you. To them, my gratitude. Just please don’t go on to do something later on that makes me feel bitter about having been grateful once (to know just what I mean, read this and this).
P.S.: Nov. 26: A couple of ex-students, who left my class ages ago, told me this morning they had read the above, and were feeling wistful, and wondering how so many years could have flown so fast, and how they wished they had 'taken more advantage of the classes' while they were with me. So I guess some people much older than sixteen might be reading this post. I shall be glad to hear from them. If some of them have a few words of advice to give to my current crop of pupils, they are welcome to send in that sort of comment, too.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Remembering 'Parashuram'

The Statesman yesterday carried this article reminiscing about Rajshekhar Basu, who wrote under the pen-name of Parashuram. I am writing this particularly for my literate Bengali readers, though that shouldn’t make it uninteresting for all lovers of good culture, even those who are not Bengalis. To read more about Parashuram’s multi-faceted genius, you might try this blogpost too.

In the days when Tagore was still shining like the mid-day sun in Bengal’s cultural firmament – meaning the 1920s and 30s – a lot of people began to worry that the next generation of creative people would be eclipsed in that awesome glare: after all, they said, only grass grows under a banyan tree! The truth is, however, that Tagore in his most glorious but waning years saw a thousand talents bloom in the arts and sciences, commerce and politics all around him. Though most of them acknowledged his immeasurable superiority in almost all works of the mind, they were – by the Lilliputian standards of today! – giants in their own right. I have in mind talents as diverse as Sukumar Ray and Satyen Bose and Prasanta Mahalanobis and Nandalal Bose and Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali and Subhas Bose and Biren Mookerjee and Radhabinod Pal… Rajshekhar Basu was one of the worthiest members of that splendid galaxy.

This is an age when millions of Bengalis are growing up to be ‘educated’ without reading anything outside textbooks and cram sheets for examinations (and ashamed or scared of reading anything but, especially in Bengali), when numberless doctors and engineers and accountants and suchlike are comfortable if not proud about the fact that they know virtually nothing outside their narrow areas of specialization (and yet get very angry if compared with carpenters and cobblers and plumbers – though I have never yet managed to understand what is so utterly contemptible about a man who can fix my water pipes, and so immensely admirable about someone who can mend boilers or bones but knows nothing else); an age when the vast majority of us can neither speak in chaste Bengali nor confidently speak or write anything better than pidgin English (witness the cover of a ‘Bengali’ magazine like Sananda, where half the stuff is English phrases like ‘latest beauty tips’ written in Bengali!); an age when we are all too ‘busy’ to read or engage in any of the fine arts seriously, though so many of us do little beyond going to (or taking our children to) tuitions, and indulge in pleasures none of which exercise the mind or even body in the slightest. It is also, weirdly, an age when most of the ‘educated’ among us are happy to imagine that we have ‘advanced’ greatly in the last half century. Well, Parashuram died almost half a century ago, and thinking about his accomplishments takes my breath away, especially when I compare him with 'achievers' among my contemporaries.

Well-enough qualified as a chemist to be hired by the legendary P.C. Ray for the Bengal Chemical Company, competent enough as an administrator to become general manager and secretary of the same company (which position he held for thirty years), also a trained lawyer, single-handed compiler of the first (and arguably still the best) real dictionary of the Bengali language, a brilliant word-spinner and illustrator who wrote some of the most idiosyncratically funny stories we Bengalis have read (I won’t even begin to discuss such gems where most readers will either not know what I am talking about or won’t understand), he also had time to write what, I believe, remains the most erudite yet lucid 700-page summary of the Mahabharata that has ever been written in Bangla, an absolute must for all those who will never get around to reading Kaliprasanna Singha’s magnum opus (which, I guess, would be 99.9% of today’s Bengalis!)… and maybe I am forgetting, or still don’t know about, other things that he did besides. He lived a life in the mould of the universal man, and he was truly a citizen of the world, in the best sense of that expression.

If that, even half a century ago, was what it meant to be a ‘successful’ man in Bengal, worthy of respect and emulation, how many of my countless students and ex-students under the age of 35 even understand what success means, let alone think of trying to reach for such standards? And how can they justify their not trying, except by either ignorance or apathy? Alas, as a cover story in a certain edition of Desh magazine firmly announced a while ago, there is no denying the fact that, for all our fancy outward show (so many NRIs, so many shopping malls, so many cars on the road), Bengali culture has become a matter of modhyomedhar joyjoykaar (a celebration of mediocrity): we may be moving about much more and much faster these days, and chattering our heads off, but inside our minds we have chosen the stagnant little pond in place of the ocean that we once loved and aspired to. And so those who still talk of oceans are regarded as weird, if not as enemies of the people: I shudder to think of what almost happened to the only man who could see in H.G. Wells’ horror story The Country of the Blind.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flawed capitalism


I found this article criticizing contemporary capitalism on the website of Forbes magazine: it attracted my attention both because the writer is a Bengali businesswoman doing well in Silicon Valley and because I am broadly in sympathy with her views. However…

I believe that no matter what her credentials in engineering and business may be, Ms. Mitra never really took the trouble to understand economics well, though her gut-feelings, born of personal experience, are on the right track. As for her early (I guess teenage-) fascination with Ayn Rand, the less said the better: if Rand was a philosopher at all, she was no more than the rabble-rouser kind. In putting overwhelming stress on the individual and the worth and need of individualism, she lost her head completely, and never bothered to find out about how the world actually works. In real-world capitalism, individualism goes only thus far, and that is not very far at all. Without a great deal of cooperation, coercion, persuasion of large numbers and subterfuge (which is just a polite and fancy word for cheating) modern capitalism would never work at all… even the most talented, intrepid and energetic entrepreneur, inspired by the loftiest of visions, would find it impossible to get vast numbers of people to work their behinds off for him (for basically trifling rewards) and to buy blindly whatever he wants to sell to them to make his dreams come true; a Howard Roark would make very little headway in this world without the wile, ruthlessness and manipulative powers that are the hallmarks of political dictators who make it big. Napoleon, a historical figure, was infinitely better endowed than Roark (a fictional character), and he knew better than all others how little he could have achieved without brainwashing, inspiring, compelling and just plain hoodwinking millions of less clever, less cautious, less farsighted and less greedy people! Individualism works with the lone artist or scientist, or sage or writer or even teacher, maybe; it is nothing but silly (and rather dangerous) romantic nonsense in the marketplace as much as it is in government. As Galbraith never tired of pointing out, top-level corporate managers are just as much ‘organisation men’ as the most dyed-in-the-wool Soviet central planners of a bygone era, though much more subtle and flexible, maybe: they have little patience with, or space for, mavericks among their ranks. The occasional genius of a maverick comes along and rocks the boat and quickly becomes the stuff of legends, that’s all… the exception that proves the rule. For every Henry Ford or Edison or Bill Gates, you have a hundred thousand wheeler-dealers who hardly deserve to be glorified with the label ‘entrepreneur’.

Ms. Mitra hasn’t even got all her facts right, as so many commentators have already pointed out rather scathingly: to take just one of many instances, ‘union-enforced inflexibility’ was certainly not the main reason behind GM’s long decline and recent collapse. Personal success does not obviate the need for serious research when one is pontificating publicly – unless, of course, you are a beauty queen, whose pronouncements are not to be taken seriously.

And while it is absolutely true that capitalism rewards the lucky and amoral speculator much more than the creative man (unless the creative man himself turns speculator), my grouch against it is that it also rewards the salesman, the publicist, the showman, the opportunist, the hustler, the con-man and even the goon (if he is clever enough to stay clear of the law) much more than the genuinely creative folks, especially those among them who have the double disadvantage of being both honest and lacking in the aggressive money-making spirit. Thus so many artists have died hungry, while mere traders have made vast fortunes by cleverly marketing their creations… and no one will ever convince me that the most successful stockbroker or building contractor is a more ‘talented’ person than a good musician, mathematician, nurse, storyteller or teacher, or contributes more to real social welfare or cultural progress. Even more seriously, capitalism rewards people with criminal inequality; why on earth should a ‘great’ entrepreneur ‘need’ billions as a reward for his entrepreneuring when so many others who do difficult and dangerous jobs, from scientists to commandos, apparently function very well without ‘needing’ such obscene compensations (besides, we know perfectly well how CEOs of companies going bankrupt still manage to wangle huge pay-packets for themselves – what ‘talents’ justify their earnings?) Worst of all, unbridled capitalism sends out a wrong and pernicious signal to society, especially the foolish young – that money making is more glamorous, and therefore more desirable as a career than anything else, no matter how the money is made, so why should one ‘waste’ one’s time pursuing careers where the chances of making big money are not so great? And so, as we can see all around us, everyone wants to climb onto the B-school bandwagon (unless they are going into showbiz): where will this society find its future teachers, librarians, judges, writers, policemen, politicians, zoo-keepers, firemen, plumbers and carpenters (leave alone thinkers!), except among the residual riff-raff, those who couldn’t even manage to get an MBA from a third-rate B-school? And what sort of society will it be when just about everybody is either a salesman or a showman or a con-man?

So, as a lot of people are beginning to re-realize (I hope the wisdom lingers), capitalism has its plus-points, but it always (and not just now and then, when hit by a crisis) needs to be sternly regulated and guided by government in the larger social interest. The real worry is whether governments are as a rule well-qualified to play that role. Do our lawmakers even know and agree about what is good in the larger social interest? Can I expect higher IQs, higher GK, more foresight and better taste among our MPs than among our general population? Right now, in India and the US, at least, the legislatures are over-full of people who are themselves bedazzled by, in awe of, and often in the (indirect-) pay of those whose pernicious social influence they are supposed to restrict and regulate, to wit the moneybags who benefit from laissez-faire. The western European nations offer much better models: to the best of my knowledge, they have struck the happiest possible balance between unfettered (predatory) capitalism and the Soviet-style socio-political straitjacketing which I am sure nobody wants to come back… if the recent worldwide economic crisis has set people thinking along those lines again, I shall say it has been a very good thing on the whole. I fear, though, that its effects have not gone far enough. In the town where I live, looking at the market for everything from real estate to jewellery to cars and vegetables, it would seem as if nobody has heard that there’s a recession in large parts of the world!

P.S., Nov. 13: Try this article to have a glimpse of what giant financial institutions do, and what they claim to be doing...






Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Kids raised badly by 'good' parents

It has long been one of my strongly-held beliefs that Indian parents by and large bring up children very badly, either through neglect and oppression or through pampering, while driving all kinds of stupid ritualism and superstition deep into their minds in the name of hallowed tradition - and that lies at the root of all the 'corruption' in this country that we beat our breasts over. Also, that things have gotten very considerably worse in this regard over the last three decades (during which period I have been a teacher). It is heartening to find that some other people agree with this viewpoint, publicly, such as here (someone has written a supportive letter to the editor in today's edition of the paper, too).

Read the article. Let me see what kind of responses come in: I shall adumbrate my own views thereafter.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Laughing all day

With reference to what has been happening in connection with St. Xavier's School, Durgapur, as has been flashed on so many TV channels in West Bengal all day today since the fracas this morning (a first for the school, and I'm sure they are all very proud of it!), I must put on record that I have been laughing all day. They had it coming: I told them so back in 2000, and then quit because they wouldn't listen, they all thought they were much cleverer and more worldly-wise than I am! It's always good to feel vindicated, though it sometimes takes ages... in this context, I should ask all my readers to read, or re-read, what I wrote here quite some time ago. Somebody objected to my using the word 'cesspool' then (see the comments). I hope, if that person has been following the news, s/he is now convinced that I was justified!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thanksgiving

Setting up this blog and keeping at it for more than three years without a break is the best thing I have done over the last decade. I cannot thank blogger deeply enough for what it has done for me. Every now and then, thanks to it, someone or the other who had lost touch with me a long time ago and badly wanted to get back in touch but didn't know how to, manages to contact me and say hello and pick up the threads. It has happened once again, with a very bright and pretty young thing whom I loved heart and soul when she was a child. She has now grown up into a fine young woman, and I didn't know she remembered so much and so well and so lovingly, and that she was so keen to say hello and start afresh. She has come back into my life like a gust of the purest scented air, and I suddenly feel ten years younger - though rueful, too, that so many years have gone waste. In the interests of privacy I cannot say who she is, but when she reads this she will know, and I guess she will join me in saying 'Thank you' to blogger.com. Long live the internet!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Anyways, whatever, lol, duh...

I would like every one of my readers to go through this article. Everyone who writes stuff like that ('yo, man, at the end of the day, that babe/dude's mindblowing/awesome...') needs to know that s/he is not being smart but simply stupid and crude, and I am not the only one who thinks that way.

As for textese, it goes without saying that I am one of those who are determined to fight the scourge all my life. Except on the mobile phone (and that too, I personally avoid doing it as much as I can), I will not tolerate the use of sms-text anywhere: anyone, but anyone, who tries that with me will be cut off and blocked for good. I don't want or need to know such people, and I don't care how many of them there are out there. They don't want to talk to me, the loss is theirs. Texters, I agree with John Humphrys, are "vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation, savaging our sentences, raping our vocabulary." They are no better people than those who enjoy mutilating children and don't bother to wash after shitting; they must be given no quarter. If that brands me as a 'conservative', I am happy to be called guilty as accused. A conservative is often a man who is convinced that something is worth conserving because it is of immeasurable value, but easily destroyed by moronic philistines who will never take the trouble to find out why and how it is valuable...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Shame!

This front-page story in The Telegraph today draws attention to one of the (numerous) reasons why I can neither be proud of today’s India nor gush over our many recent ‘achievements’, nor believe that she is going to be respected as a global leader anytime soon.

It’s not so much that half the population of India still shits in the open (but do compare the figure with China’s, which has an equally vast population, and with which, we often claim, we are nearly at par by many indices of ‘progress’) but that so many of our ‘educated’ populace either don’t know about it or don’t care, leave alone feel ashamed about, and dare to claim that we are nevertheless ‘progressing’ tremendously, witness all kinds of yardsticks like the booming IT sector and the growing number of our dollar billionaires and our prowess in cricket and NRIs winning Nobel Prizes and the sheer number of dazzling and mindless flicks churned out by Bollywood year after year…

A land where so many cannot or don’t bother to use sanitary toilets, and so many others, far better off, do not consider it a matter deserving immediate, urgent, all-out remedial action, cannot be acknowledged to be civilized, or even remotely interested in ‘progress’ of any sensible sort. And by the way, I think that this ties in quite neatly with the fact that there are so many ‘educated’ people in this country who never read a book if they can help it. These things go together in the mind, though to see the connection requires far greater cerebration than most of us are capable of, our college-degrees notwithstanding.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fool in the sea

Some people have been asking for personal reminiscences, especially of the out-of-the-way sort. Well, I have some pretty odd ones, but I don’t like much to write about them, because unembellished they don’t sound very exciting, and I hate embellishing or caricaturing real-life memories: I’d much rather write full-blooded fiction if and when I can. But here goes. If some reader’s fancy is tickled enough to ask for more, I might be encouraged.

This happened way back in 1986, when I was still at the university. I won’t go into irrelevant details, because I want to cut to the really interesting experience, so suffice it to say that we were a largeish party of students in their early twenties who were visiting Gopalpur-on-sea in Orissa. I have heard that things have gotten much more shabby and crowded since, but at the time it was a lonely sort of place, with hardly anything on the beach except the (rather forlorn-looking) lighthouse; there were certainly no cheek-by-jowl hotels and swarms of importunate hawkers selling foodstuff and knick-knacks of the sort that have been spoiling the beachfront scenery in Puri or Goa for a long time. We had checked into the Youth Hostel, and were putting up cheerfully with the rather spartan facilities available, because we were there only for a couple of days, and most of our time was spent revelling on the beach. Now this beach, unlike other places I have visited, was rather remarkable in that it sloped down very steeply, and unlike, say, in Chandipur or even Digha where you can walk a long distance before the water comes up to shoulder height, here you were out of your depth almost immediately you stepped into the water – which was a most disconcerting experience for landlubbers like us. And the sea was choppier than elsewhere, too: it didn’t seem wise to take risks with those rather scary, noisy, foamy swells as they came crashing on the beach. This was, by the way, just after the pujo-season in Bengal.

Anyway, for two successive days we spent most of the daytime on the beach, splashing about, yelling and shrieking and cursing and laughing wildly (there were several girls with us), swallowing large mouthfuls of sand and saltwater in equal proportions, sunbathing, singing raucously and tunelessly, gorging ourselves and getting slightly drunk late into the nights – enjoying ourselves foolishly, thoughtlessly and rather vapidly, as all youngsters are wont to do. The odd thing happened on the third morning. We were supposed to pack and drive off to the nearest railhead in a few hours: most of the girls had gone for a last-minute dekko around the little bazaar inland, most of the boys were still lazing in bed or tottering around groggily, complaining about the cloudiness and the slight chill in the air and the imminent prospect of departure homewards. In the event I found no companion to take a last dip in the sea with me, so I went alone.

Well, maybe I was still a bit sleepy, but I saw or sensed nothing out of the ordinary, and the sea looked unusually calm, and although the water seemed cool in comparison to the previous days (which I casually put down to the early hour), I had no premonitions at all as I waded in, and in fact, though I am most certainly not overly adventurous or brave, I didn’t think much about swimming out… and I kept swimming for quite some time, lazily, comfortably, without a care, until I began to feel slightly out of breath. Then I stopped, treading water, and turned to look back at the shore. And that is when I got the fright of my life.

It suddenly seemed to me that I had come out much too far, and for a panic-stricken moment the thought flashed across my mind that I’d never be able to swim back all that way; the landmarks on the beach looked tiny and hazy, and the sea seemed to be tugging me gently outwards. The bigger scare was the bizarre sight of an absolutely deserted beach: there was not a human soul as far as I could see, from the left horizon to the right, not a stray dog, not, when I looked up, a single bird wheeling in the sky. Why hadn’t I noticed such a huge and obvious oddity when I stepped into the water, for God’s sake? If I drowned, no one would notice, no one would know! But this wasn’t the worst of it. What really made my skin crawl was the out-of-this-world sensation of the sea in which I was bobbing gently up and down: there were no breakers, no foam, no noise at all, but the gigantic thing was heaving slowly up and down, as though it were a living thing breathing, a vast, silent, cruel leviathan which knew it had a tiny mite of a lonely human in its inexorable clutches, and was enjoying itself, biding its time…

I struck out desperately. I swam harder than I have swum before or since. In the process I probably did harm to my muscles and my nervous system, and actually lowered my chances of getting back to shore safely, for I could have exhausted myself and got the deadly cramps. In any case, I did get back to shore without much real difficulty, and already by the time I was heading back to the Youth Hostel I had begun to feel foolish about having given myself a fright for nothing. Oddly, though, they were looking worriedly for me by the time I got back. The sky was overcast, a wind was rising, it had started drizzling, and someone said something vague about a storm warning heard on a transistor radio. Well, the jeeps dropped us off at Berhampore station without incident, though it was raining now, not drizzling any more; but we even boarded the train and got going before all hell broke loose. The cyclone had struck with infernal fury. The thunderstorm was so violent that within half an hour the inside of our coach was dripping wet even with the windows tightly shut; the train crawled along at a snail’s pace for a couple of hours more before being forced to stop at a small wayside station, and we were many hours late in arriving at Howrah terminus – but we were the lucky ones, because the news told us that overhead power wires had been torn and railway tracks washed away in several places soon after we passed through, and the trains that came after us were delayed not by hours but by days. In Gopalpur, which had taken a direct hit, the banshee wind had driven thousands of tonnes of sand hundreds of yards beyond the usual limits of the beach, half burying buildings like the Youth Hostel we had stayed in, and enormous waves had pounded the shore with titanic power, hurling buses like toys off the roads a long way inland.

The point of this story is, I had found the sea behaving so oddly because that monster of a hurricane was coming up: it was the classic lull before the storm. Why had I been foolish enough to think of taking a bathe in the sea that morning, and why did I live to tell the tale?

Friday, October 02, 2009

Counterculture, postscript

Some serious readers might have been curious about why I was taking so long to write that third part I had promised, the part where I was going to talk about the kind of positive spin-offs that could arise out of mankind abjuring the high life in favour of what I – and a lot of other people – call the ‘good’ life.

Well, the fact is, I have been thinking, and reading those last two blogposts again, and I have begun to have the feeling that it’s not much use talking in this vein for much longer, really. Those who have already been persuaded do not need more persuasion; those who have not will never really be persuaded – much greater men than I have tried and failed – because they are determined not to be, so more talk will be a serious waste of breath.

However, since I promised something, and I do not like to renege on promises, here are a few bits and pieces:

1. There are some hints in the last posts already. There will be an end to (or at least a great amelioration of) problems like poverty and environmental degradation and corruption and excessively-stressed lifestyles and war only when mankind decides once and for all that it is essential to abjure the high life. Without that major global change in tastes and outlook, all talk of solving such problems is futile, and all time spent on criticizing or lamenting over them is a waste. Once upon a time, not too long ago, a global cataclysm called the Second World War forced a lot of people in high places to agree on this: that is why the UNO was founded (tellingly, the UNESCO Charter says that ‘since war begins in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences against war must be constructed’). The world has since forgotten, and gone back to its old ways. I belong to those who worry that another titanic cataclysm might be necessary – and looming – to jerk mankind back to its senses. History certainly tends to repeat itself if we don’t learn lessons from it: the current worldwide recession brought back eerie echoes of the Great Depression of the 1930s (and the Great Depression played a very provocative role in causing the World War!)

2. All mankind’s problems do not have technical fixes. This is because, among other things, every new technology throws up a host of new problems even as it ‘solves’ some older ones. Those who depend on technology to see us through all our woes are fundamentally childish, no matter how clever they may be with words and numbers. We have to change our ways. I am writing this on the birthday of a man who never tired of insisting that the world has enough for man’s needs, but not enough for man’s greed. Again, uncannily enough, a lot of very clever people who never called themselves Gandhian, such as Albert Einstein and T. S. Eliot and Charlie Chaplin and G.K. Chesterton and Ernest Hemingway and Erich Fromm and J.K. Galbraith and E. F. Schumacher have agreed on this. That is why I keep saying that those who refuse to listen are living in denial… the biggest problems of this century do not belong to the realm of physics or mathematics or even biology any more.

3. The greatest economist of the 20th century, John Maynard Keynes, who was an economist only by accident (as geniuses usually are), had dreamt wistfully in a little essay called Economic prospects for our grandchildren (that meant my father’s generation, actually!) that a time might come when ‘the economic problem would be solved’, meaning that thanks to the progress of skill, technology and organization, the world would soon be producing enough material goods to satisfy the basic needs of all human beings (assuming the world’s produce were fairly distributed), and then men could turn their attention to living the good life at last – the kind of life that the sanest and best of men have always wanted to live, the life lived in pursuit of all the higher things that only humans are capable of pursuing, knowledge for its own sake (rather than knowledge for power, or merely making a living), art, music, justice, good health both physical and mental, friendship and willing cooperation among all men and nations to achieve such ends that cannot be accomplished by men single-handedly, and cultivating the highest faculties of the mind, which are necessarily not just intellectual and aesthetic but ultimately spiritual. That is the kind of pursuit that only the bravest of men have been able to aspire to in the world so far, only those who were willing not only to live the hardest of lives but even to die ghastly and untimely deaths, such as being nailed to the cross. Sadly, brilliant as he was, Keynes did not anticipate two utterly horrible developments in the post-war world that have nearly put paid to his dream and set the clock back: the population explosion and the greed explosion. Either of them could be disastrous yet; combined, they are guaranteed to lead us to our doom.

Am I hopeful that things will change for the better? Well, yes and no. I want to believe that they can; what I see all around me, barring little sparks of light in the engulfing dark, prevents me from being too optimistic. Right now, indeed, the tide of global culture is strong in the opposite direction – China and India, which between them account for forty percent of the world’s population, are hell-bent on achieving per-capita consumption levels equal to that of the US, convinced beyond all persuasion that that is the only meaning of progress, and praying that it can be achieved without blowing up the whole world! Men in the mass do not learn easily, even if that learning is good for them, and these days there are lots of clever and ‘educated’ men around to keep assuring them that whatever they are doing is all right, and even good and necessary (such as a particular – common – brand of economist justifying every ill of the consumerist culture by claiming that it is indispensable for the world economy). I keep telling my daughter it is a very nasty world she is growing up in, much nastier in many ways, in fact, than the world I was born into despite all the vaunted ‘progress’ made in these nearly five decades, so like everybody else, she’ll have to learn to cope. But she, too, cannot afford to lose hope, or stop trying to contribute her mite to making things ever so slightly better.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Counterculture

This ‘counterculture’ (see previous post) I have been talking about has deep and ancient roots in Indian scripture, folklore and the popular psyche. It goes at least as far back as some verses in the Vedas, and much advice about the king’s duties and behavioral desiderata given in the two great epics, as well as those who have been portrayed as models of virtue, such as Rama (and Bharat while he was officiating in Rama’s place), and Bhishma, and Govindamanikya of Tripura whom Tagore used as a model for Rajarshi (The Royal Sage). A great deal in the Arthashastra, that famous how-to manual written by one Kautilya for his pupil, India’s first (historically-speaking) emperor, deals with the rules to be followed and ideals to be aimed at by anyone who wishes to be respected and remembered as a ‘good’ king: and among other things, it enjoins that the king, however rich and powerful, conduct himself not only as a wise guardian of his people, but one who sets standards of probity and sanctity that they may emulate for the greater common good, even though that may require that he sternly restrain all his greedy material impulses, including gluttony, lust and avarice. And it cannot be denied that many rulers all through Indian history at least tried to live the non-greedy and generous life, from Chandragupta Maurya himself through Harsha and Rana Pratap and Shivaji to Gandhi and Subhas Bose and Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai and Jayprakash Narain and a great many ICS officers, judges, doctors, teachers and other lesser lights too numerous to list here…

And it was not just about kings, either. I think India, more than any other country, has consistently idealized the non-greedy man, the saint, the ascetic, the scholar (not the technician, mind you, who is too commonly confused with a scholar these days), the artist in love with his art for art’s sake, the wandering or meditating wise man, and even the householder who lives a quiet, undemanding, self-controlled, socially-responsible and charitable life – the grihi sanyasi (which, I think Swami Vivekananda once said, is the hardest kind of sanyas to practice!) At least, it is India where not conquering generals and rich shreshthis or even kings who have been traditionally accorded the highest social esteem; rather, it was expected that such men who have won great worldly success be seen as prostrating themselves before those who have been recognized as ‘holy’ men. And whereas I am sure that the great majority of kings and tycoons did so only for the sake of form, to keep on the right side of overwhelming social opinion (the same reason why so many medieval European kings did not want to rub the Church of Rome the wrong way), there were many, from Ashoka, Menander (Milinda) and Akbar to Shivaji and the early Chogyals of Sikkim (and countless less-known minor princes and zamindars) who did so out of genuine conviction, esteem and awe of men whom they genuinely felt to be superior, men from whom they could learn lessons of lasting value. Maybe things have started changing rapidly of late, but even a hundred years ago (and that is only a blink in India’s history), Rudyard Kipling was quite right when he wrote that across the length and breadth of this land the humblest of folks considered feeding a wandering sadhu a matter of earning merit (punya); he was not sneered at or shooed away as an importunate beggar but treated with reverence as a better man. Also, I can say both from my reading as well as from direct personal experience that, while charlatans there have always been aplenty (as there are among scientifically-educated men today, such as doctors!), truly wise and holy men have never been lacking in this country either.

And if you ask why this ideal was so strongly held and insisted upon, well, I have found through very wide reading that it was because India discovered long ago (long before western socialists and environmentalists and psychologists started spreading the word around the world anew), once and for all, that high living is not good for you, as an individual and as a society. It ruins you in both body and mind, it makes decent social life impossible, it hurts the ecosphere that nurtures you too badly to be sustainable for long. Intelligent and well-informed people will realize that I am summarizing whole libraries here, but to give a few indicators of what I mean – look around yourself, and you will see millions of obese and brain-dead people glued to their potato chip packets, beer cans and video games or football on TV or hanging out at the shopping mall: that is a little of what I mean by saying it ruins you in body and mind. In a world of competitive high-living, where everyone is playing the game of consumerist one-upmanship all the time, everyone is bound to burn with jealousy and discontent and malice towards relatives, friends and neighbours; no society can exist in a healthy state under such conditions, because no one can wish anyone well, and widespread ‘corruption’ (which stems from millions of the undeserving, from rickshaw-pullers and police constables to MBAs and MLAs alike determined to access the high life by hook or by crook), frequent scandals, riots, insurgencies and wars will be inevitable: that is a little of what I mean by saying that it makes decent social life impossible. And the warnings that the environmentalists have been giving out for at least forty years now, about increasing pollution levels and rapidly-dwindling natural resources and ominous signs of man-made climate change are hints enough about what I mean by saying that it ruins the ecosphere and threatens the very continuance of human life on the planet. Those (from George W. Bush down to my fat neighbour who insists that she only has a thyroid problem and her pampered brat is not a lazy rascal but only ‘suffers’ from attention-deficit disorder) who choose to believe otherwise are living in denial: the best they can do is carry the world with them towards doom.

This is getting to be rather a long post again, given today’s typical attention spans (another sad sign of the consequences of ‘high’ living!). So far I have written mostly about the negative aspects of chasing the high life. In the next post I shall try to explain what I have understood about the positive aspects of abjuring the same.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ministers flying cattle class

The sudden hullabaloo over the so-called austerity drive launched recently by the Congress (and immediately imitated by lesser parties, like the CPIM organizing a khadi fashion show) first made me merely laugh sardonically – déjà vu absurdity, what else? Then I fell to reflecting, and it occurred to me that it was not a matter to be laughed at and ignored; there was food for thought here.

It is well-known that our politicians by and large like to live the high life; indeed, a great many people get into politics (have always done, at least ever since the British started letting in a trickle of Indians into government, way back in the 1890s) because they have decided it is the only way they can get a taste of the high life. It is not merely about dining at five-star watering holes and flying first class and staying at vast and grand bungalows at public expense, it is equally about being surrounded by armed guards and riding about in trademark white cars with sirens hooting and making swarms of secretaries and peons scurry about and keeping visitors waiting for ages just to tell the world how important one is, every waking moment. That is very much a characteristic of our political culture.

The interesting thing is that there has also been what I may call a counterculture, for want of a better word, of demanding that our rulers be self-effacing, simple in lifestyle, endowed with a philosophical bent of mind, dedicated to the ideal of service to the common weal, sage enough to know that to be honest in this world requires conquest of greed and brave enough to try conquering greed, regardless of the world’s opinion. That voice has never been completely drowned, and it grows strident every now and then – as now. This requires some understanding.

First thing to be noted: much of this strident criticism of the opulent living of our netas reeks of hypocrisy and double standards. Those who level such criticism – and those who focus and express it publicly, to wit journalists – are by and large middle class people who are themselves horribly greedy for the high life, and indulge in every kind of unethical dealing happily for its sake as long as they feel sure they can get away with it: I have been closely associated with the mass media myself, I have seen it all from the inside. I know how cheaply a reporter’s malleability can be bought – sometimes for as little as a suit length or an expensive saree or a bottle of good whisky or at best free tickets to Dubai or Singapore for self and the missus – and I despise them heartily when they write about politicians’ peccadilos, or sermonize about the importance of honesty and probity in public life. They deserve every bit of contempt I have heard politicians pouring on them. Their censure stems solely from impotent greed: they don’t hate the high life, they only hate the politicians who seem to be enjoying more of it than they can ever hope to. The fewer such people we have, the better for all of us. A straightforward crook is far more respectable than a pious fraud.

It is also a fact that our society (and that means not only the middle class, which has always been rather small till very recently, but the vast unwashed masses) has always expected the rulers to distinguish themselves from the ruled by grandiose and unabashed displays of pomp, pelf and power. Our folklore is replete with stories recounting, half-grudgingly, half-admiringly, the incredibly expensive and often unspeakably cruel ceremony and magnificence with which the sultans and badshahs, the maharajas and nawabs surrounded themselves. Single weddings, single monuments cost the taxpayer so much that great hordes had to be slaughtered to persuade other hordes to pay through their noses, and famine stalked the land afterwards and took off vast numbers again. It was not only accepted as part of the normal order of things, but even celebrated; after all, what were great sovereigns for, if they did not provide the masses with the spectacle and grandeur that they so craved, and could not hope to have in their own lives? Regardless of their avowed respect for their austere mentor Gandhi, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Md. Ali Jinnah carried this tradition of high-living into the palaces and courts of the new nations that were born under their stewardship in 1947 (Nehru was not dubbed 'The Last Moghul' for nothing!) Given that history, our current breed of rulers are doing nothing new or overly shameless and reprehensible; they don’t really need to apologise for anything.

Besides, the rulers of today – I wonder why they don’t have the guts to do it! – can very well point to the way the burgeoning middle and upper classes (by various estimates between 70 and 300 million strong) are living it up under the new dispensation, worshipping money and shopping and conspicuous consumption as the only things worth living for, all questions of ethics in making money be damned. Every other maidservant gets some jewellery made for herself whenever she can afford it, and tries to put her kids into an English-medium school; higher up the income ladder, every middle-class housewife splurges on puja shopping as though there will be no tomorrow, though her wardrobe may be bursting with luxury clothes already; look at how everyone spends on lavish weddings these days, and how nobody objects to the way the pujas themselves are becoming more ostentatious and expensive with every passing year, and fashion-show extravaganzas gain all-round approval, while money for poverty-alleviation programs is always scarce. And in case they dare to raise the inane objection that ‘it is our money we are spending’, they need only to be reminded that no money is their money by divine right: it is only a certain kind of social arrangement, a certain system of laws, that allows them to make and keep and spend that money the way they wish – and in allowing them to do so, politicians play a very decisive part (as in periodically hiking the salaries of government and PSU employees through one Pay Commission recommendation or the other, or in deciding how stiff taxes on businessmen should be). So why should the politicians themselves be left out of the party? Why on earth should the people expect them to be upright and moral and frugal guardians of a nation that is neither upright nor moral nor frugal when it comes to enjoying the material goodies of life?

Well, that brings us back to the insistent voice of the counterculture I mentioned earlier, the voice that is often almost drowned but never goes away, and that keeps making a lot of us feel guilty about our chosen lifestyles again and again. About that, in the next post…

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Poor little rich thug

(photo courtesy timescontent.com)

That is the photograph of Gaffar Mollah, a one-time rickshaw-puller who, thanks to a recent uproar in the mass media, has suddenly become one of the most recognizable faces in West Bengal, if not yet all over India. Goes to prove my contention that, given a little bit of luck and pluck, just about anybody can become a fifteen-minute celebrity these days.

He is the face of the dark underbelly of all that has been going on in the name of the development of the state of West Bengal over this last decade. As I said somewhere before, I once read ‘development studies’ avidly as a student of economics: the ground reality now makes me weep (but look, the happy cynic would say – isn’t this the apotheosis of the social-democratic dream: even a rickshaw-puller can aspire to live the five-star life in today’s India? What else is upward social mobility all about? You are just an elitist old fool for whom the grapes, unless you can get them yourself, are always sour…)

I should just like to say a few things here. First, don’t act holier than thou about ‘our sort of folks’ and pin all the blame on the Gaffar Mollahs and the political leaders who patronise them. They are simply on hire to do all the dirty work that the bhadralok don't want to soil their hands with; they are only members of the ‘executive committee’ (to borrow a Marxist phrase) of the moneyed elite who almost always manage to stay out of the undesirable kind of limelight – all bhadralok, doctors, engineers, actors, lawyers, NRIs, high-flying bureaucrats and businessmen of various hues – who create the demand for land that inevitably brings into being the landsharks and their godfathers. Where there is a demand, there will always be supply, sooner or later, by straight means or crooked. And when something is chronically scarce - such as land - the crooked means will always be resorted to, because the straight and narrow path is so difficult and unpalatable. So don’t call Gaffar Mollah or his political masters crooked while absolving the Raj Kishore Modi type or companies like Wipro and Infosys (see this news item) as ‘good’ businessmen, and the moneybags who want to luxuriate in the Vedic Village sort of vice-dens as ‘nice and innocent’ people; that is where you will go wrong. Nor do you need to shed too many tears for the farmers who are now up in arms (emboldened by the Trinamul landslide) against the land sharks – they are motivated by no nobler a sense of mission than to wring more money out of the buyers, now that all that hot money has driven prices up a hundredfold or more. All those farmers’ sons are now salivating over the imminent prospect of driving about in SUVs and lazing about in multiplexes and pubs, young and nubile and greedy females on their arms. Also remember: the Gaffar Mollah sort of fools deserve some pity. When the axe falls (as it does sometimes), chances are always ten to one that it is they, rather than their bhadralok patrons, who will be shot dead or locked away in prison for the crime of getting caught, while their real masters, the money-bags, can get away without getting singed, let alone put into serious trouble. So don’t envy Gaffar Mollah his few years of luxury.

Only, once and for all, get rid of the notion that a man deserves admiration or respect for the kind of car he drives, or the kind of hotel he stays in, or the amount of marble and granite in his house. Always try first to find out where the money came from. There will be no change for the better in India until every household begins to believe once more that one honest and hardworking man, though he makes only a humble living, is worth more than ten thousand rich and flashy crooks. And remember, too, that it is a really warped sense of values that can allow you to claim that the government doctor who gives protection money to his local neta so that he may not be posted away from the town where he has built up a cushy private practice (which gets the money to buy a bungalow in Vedic Village) is not a crook, but the neta who takes the money is!

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Ah, music...

They taught the Lord’s Prayer when I was in kindergarten, and I was so taken by it that I said it before going to bed virtually every night all through my school days.

As part of my curriculum while doing the higher secondary course, I came to know a little about the padavali (devotional poetry, directed chiefly to Ram and Krishna) literature of medieval Bengal (Vidyapati, Chandidas and Govindadas, among others), written in the artificial language called brajabuli and – I believe alone in my entire batch – I became convinced that this was the most important and precious thing I had learnt in those two years (barring poetry and humour in French), not all the nuclear physics and organic chemistry and calculus and stuff they taught in ‘pure science’. That did not prevent me from qualifying for medical and engineering school, but it may have been a major factor behind my deciding to opt out of such career choices. Maybe I was already convinced that my life and time were worth somewhat more...

In the course of studying economics in college and university (during which time, while teaching a great many students and winning medals in examinations and writing a large variety and quantity for diverse magazines and newspapers) I did a great deal of high-level math (only to find out how little it helps to figure out how to help people live better) but also somehow found time to read an enormous amount of subjects as diverse as environmental science and politics and sociology and history and psychology and linguistics and education and law, besides the literature of seven or eight different languages, and philosophy spanning three continents and three thousand years. And I became more and more convinced that Man was lost, and of his own choosing. Even skepticism and atheism and hedonism were thousands of years old – there was nothing in what the Sartre and Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg and contemporary management-guru types have been saying these last few decades that have not been said, debated and either blindly swallowed by some or laughed at by some centuries ago, in many countries. I learnt that sooner or later I would really have to become my own man and make my own choices. As the poet said about Reality, ‘It beckons and it baffles/ philosophy – don’t know/ and through a riddle, at the end, sagacity must go…’

So I began, as the years passed by, to understand more and more about what Socrates meant by saying ‘I know nothing’, and the Buddha meant by saying you first have to empty your mind, and Newton said about a child collecting pebbles on the seashore, and Tagore by dhulaar ja dhon taha jete dao dhulite (leave back in the dust what belongs to the dust).

While I have left behind a lot of things as boys’ toys, one thing that has stayed with me, and indeed grown ever stronger, is a profound affection for devotional music of any sort. The first notes of a really great piece of music, no matter what its age or language or denominational belonging, often transport me to a quiet ecstasy, and coming back to this world of here and now is a pain like no other.

Here’s a small but eclectic choice of my favourites. Youtube is a recent technological wonder that I am truly thankful for! Here is Achyutam Keshavam and Payoji Maine (pardon the ghastly graphics), here is Khwaja mere Khwaja, Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra played as the title theme for Stanley Kubrick’s classic science fiction movie 2001, Abide With me, and This World is not my home sung by Jim Reeves in American country style. I would have added something like Indranil Sen's rendition of Tagore's Daariye achho tumi amaar gaaner opare if I could find it on the Net. See if you can find it for yourself.

‘Ah, music!’ said Professor Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, ‘a greater magic by far than what we do here’.

Those who are interested might want to read what I last wrote on this blog about religion here.

I am not trying to convince or convert anybody. Just enjoy. And if you do find you share my tastes, get back to me, I’d love to talk to you.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Use the 'search' box

If you scroll down along the right-hand sidebar, you will see a little white window below a line saying 'Search this blog'. You can type in all sorts of key words, such as 'orkut', or 'religion', or 'democracy', or 'Harry Potter' or 'Obama' or 'children' to see if and what I may have written earlier on those subjects. Alternatively, please click on any of the 'labels' to find out what they lead to. I am requesting this because I have a feeling that a lot of visitors, especially new arrivals, don't find out about earlier posts (there are now lots of them) simply because they don't know how to.

Use these facilities, read earlier posts, and keep commenting. Nothing in this blog has yet become dated, and I would like renewed discussion on any of them. I am the last person who would say only the latest matters...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dirty Harry revisited


Film review: Gran Torino

Walt Kowalski brought back old and glad boyhood memories.

I haven’t watched Clint Eastwood since Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, but boy, he can still do his stuff! Old and bent and hoarse and tired, at 78, he brought back a rush of delight as I remembered the days of Dirty Harry, The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, Where Eagles Dare, For a few dollars more, and even Every which way but loose.

Gran Torino (name of a Ford classic car, actually) was released worldwide in January this year. The disk was lying with me for a few months: I wish I had made time to watch it sooner.

You can read all the summaries and reviews on the Net, so I won’t bother telling the story here. Or even to write an exhaustive essay about why I liked the movie. This is just to say that I am happily amazed to see that all the old fire is still there, though he doesn’t do one whit to make himself look and sound a day younger than he is. He wheezes up stairs, spits blood in the washbasin, can’t pull heavy loads any more. But he stubbornly prefers living alone to living with grown children who don’t want him or in an old age home. He is nastily narrow-minded and racially prejudiced and foul-mouthed, yet a lot of people can’t help feeling there is a good man in there, struggling to come out… always has been. A decorated Korean-War veteran, he carries bitter memories of a horrid past. His guns are always close at hand. He dies heroically to save people he apparently cared so little for that he called them gooks to their faces. He doesn’t even fight the way he used to in his old movies: the heroics are of a far higher, understated order. And he goes, the old diehard atheist, with a ‘Hail Mary’ on his lips, leaving his house to the church because his wife would have liked it, and his beloved Gran Torino to the only friend he had found. As some people acknowledge, he was a man, to the last.

Mr. Amitabh Bachchan - with all due respect - still has to learn a great deal from geezers like Sean Connery and Eastwood. I remembered the Modesty Blaise story A few flowers for the colonel (wonder how many readers will even know what I am talking about!) And I remembered the line from The Old Man and the Sea: ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated’. If Hemingway had been around, I think he would have begged Eastwood to play Santiago before he died.

Watch the movie.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Teaching!

In connection with discussing (I much prefer that word to ‘teaching’ in this context) Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn in class this evening, the conversation veered to concepts of beauty, its meaning for different people, the degrees of intensity with which different people admire and appreciate and remember things of beauty, how beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, how very many different things can seem beautiful to different people (equations, natural scenery, the human body, music, paintings) not only according as how people have different personalities and tastes, but also depending on how much attention they are willing to give, and how much patient reflection, and how in a distracted age where haste and hurry are not only obligatory but ‘in’ and ‘cool’, all kinds of appreciation of beauty might be in danger of vanishing, the ‘Love aajkal’ way, to be replaced by merely sensual and momentary titillation…
As is my wont, I tried to weave in as many diverse kinds of material as possible, examples, anecdotes, jokes, quotes, appeals to pupils’ own experiences, tips on what they could find out with a bit of googling (like a famous scientist agreeing that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’…). I was rewarded with some laughs, and some attentive listening, and some shining, focused eyes: but I could give my right hand, even after so many years of this work, to know what really goes on behind those eyes, how many of them enjoy, understand, think, remember, allow themselves to be subtly changed by what they have been led to think and feel and find out. How much has so many thousands of hours of talking mattered to people, beyond getting them some marks in examinations and me some money to live upon?
How hard it is to explain something without becoming dull, or crass, or highbrow, or just plain vague. And how sad that despite all one’s efforts, one can find out so little about how much one has succeeded!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Looking back on a nasty experience

If there is one important truth about me, it is that I have tried to be a true and good teacher to the best of my ability all my life. Nothing hurts such a person more than a sign that someone who pretended to be a devoted and special student for years and years finally proved to be an insensitive ingrate. I am referring to the blogpost I wrote on May 01, 2008, titled "Don't be a teacher with a heart". I do wish more people would chip in with comments on that post, telling me how they would feel if they had been cheated like that after they had done their best to be a teacher with a difference... and whether they can honestly condemn teachers who become scoundrels with not a care about whether their old boys and girls go to blazes after they have paid their fees in full, once they have had experiences as painful and galling as I have had.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Oh democracy!

The Washington Post apparently conducted a socio-psychological experiment in 2007 involving Joshua Bell, a great contemporary violinist. The sad results are provided and commented upon here. I thank my bright young pupil Harsha for bringing this to my notice.

Rarely do men and women of even the highest talent and skill and goodness get the respect and attention they deserve from the public unless they happen to be in the right time, place and ambience. That is because individuals among masses of people do not have minds and tastes and opinions of their own, they do just what everybody else is doing because that is ‘expected’ of them, and that applies as much to gossiping as to gaping at paintings of great masters in art galleries, pretending that they understand and admire…

In my very modest station in life, I have had enough opportunity to witness this phenomenon. When they come in droves to admit their children to my tuitions, they cringe and fawn as though they are begging an all-powerful emperor for favours (I am still embarrassed by the kind of language they use), and then they cannot recognize me at shops and hospitals and banks, and yet I know they would come in droves again if they heard I was being lynched, just to watch the fun.

Plato called democracy a pig’s philosophy, and despite still being committed to it myself (if only because I know too well how much more awful all other alternatives can be!), I can perfectly understand why he did so, and why the greatest democrats of all ages have rued its shortcomings, sometimes in good humour, sometimes bitterly, as when Churchill said he knew very well that though large crowds came to hear him speak, they would be far larger if they were going to see him hanged. And Einstein said he had no illusions about who would draw much larger crowds if he and a famous Hollywood star got off the same train. Democrats murdered Socrates, after all, being led by nothing nobler than mob hysterics, and Browning’s patriot found out only too late how foolish and deadly it was to trust public memory and adulation. It is a sad and pitiable world indeed, where the stupidest, crudest, most ignorant and aggressive of men and women are put at par, where questions of tastes and opinions are concerned – people who would prefer shopping malls and pubs and football brawls and wedding feasts any time over libraries and museums and research labs and philosophy – with the most learned, wise and decent of men. Since the vulgar folk form the majority almost everywhere, any society which pins all its faith in their tastes and opinions is always in danger of going the way of madness and decadence…the greatest democrats down the ages had hoped that education would make better men of the vulgar majority and so ensure continuous progress, but after several centuries of experimentation, there are now grave reasons for doubt and concern. Education as it is given and absorbed these days makes vulgar people richer and more arrogant and more demanding by the million, yes (the classic contemporary example being the Dursley family in the Harry Potter books… I can see so many like them all around me), but it certainly does not make men with more taste, decency, sensitivity, charity, imagination, courage … all the qualities that distinguish true elites from the riff-raff.

I have mused in the same vein myself time and again (as for instance here and here) on this blog.

Just one little ray of light: the first link says that at least a lot of children stopped to watch the musician, in wonder or at least idle curiosity. Children are born intelligent and sensitive, they are made dull and crude and ‘busy’ and callous by their elders (see the quote from the great psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, at the bottom of this page). But, as Tagore said, the birth of every child is proof that God has not yet lost faith in Man…

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Scary news and views

On some days the newspaper is bland and empty of content, and then there are days when it bombards you with strange news from around the world that is bound to put worry lines on any thinking man’s brow. Today was one such.

First, here is a startling revelation of how China’s much-vaunted ‘one-child policy’ (which had lots of loopholes and escape clauses I didn’t know about) designed to check explosive population growth is now backfiring on it, and they are so worried there will be too many old people around (too many ‘unproductive’ people to support) soon that they are thinking about relaxing the rule. They have even begun to feel that one-child families are not healthy – children grow up to be spoilt or lonely (we can see that all around us in middle-class urban India, too!) But then, China is three times the size of India and already very considerably better off, so their population pressure (except in big cities) can be nowhere as nightmarish as ours…

Then there is the update on the ongoing row over the arrest of a black professor at Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., USA, because the arrest was carried out by a white police officer. I was nowhere around, nor do I have the remotest chance of getting the inside story (even from neighbours of the professor), but the more I read the news the more I grow suspicious that this is a case of knee-jerk reverse discrimination: the white western world is bending over backwards to ‘make amends’ for all the nasty things that their racially biased and cruel forefathers did to the blacks in days gone by, and clever and none-too-nice blacks are having a field day taking advantage of all that accumulated social guilt… I wish that President Obama had not got into the fray with an off-the-cuff comment before checking on the details. Apparently the head of the Cambridge police department has strongly backed up Sergeant Crowley, the officer in the dock, saying that he has a perfectly clean service record, and was acting strictly according to protocol, and the prof in question, Henry Gates, had forced his hand by raising an almighty ruckus which could have been easily avoided. If Gates had been white, or if the policeman had also been a black, it might not have been news at all. Just because blacks have long been sinned against does not make all living blacks good people, nor should it be that whenever a black is ‘troubled’ by a white for what the law calls wrongdoing all society should scream bloody murder blaming the white for being racist in a stupid and dangerous attempt to prove how ‘liberal and open-minded’ they are. That only encourages opportunists and trouble-makers of all hues, until things get out of control. The same sort of thing is happening with women and other ‘disadvantaged’ groups in our country, because the law is now biased in their favour, and do-gooders with too much heart and too little brains are falling over themselves to help them regardless of whether they are guilty or not.

And then there is this article about how Britain is being taken over by folks of alien races and strange mores. It made me shiver. I shall desist from making any comments on it, beyond saying that I am all for good and healthy cultural inclusiveness (that’s what Rammohun Roy, Tagore, Vivekananda and Gandhi stood for, after all – enrich yourself by borrowing the best of every culture you encounter), and I see nothing to object to if native-born white Britons wear the burqa for fun, or vote for chicken tikka masala as their most favourite dish, or choose to marry Sikhs or Muslims of their own free will… but the things that Mr. Datta Ray has hinted make my skin crawl. Read, and you will see why. From all that I know and have read of him, I have no reason to regard him as an irresponsible and uninformed scare-monger. Maybe I won’t want my daughter to settle down in a country like Britain thirty years from now, after all!