Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Does death alone make us (momentarily) serious?

I read a bit of a haiku poem (in a James Bond thriller, of all places) that said ‘you only live twice/ once when you are born/ and once when you look death in the face’.

Having taught thousands of youngsters (and dealt with their parents) and watched them grow up over three decades, I smile wryly to myself to think how right the poet was. 

I don’t know what exactly he meant about the moment of being born (maybe I missed something there!) but if by truly living we mean being ‘wide awake’ to the world and to one’s own thoughts and feelings (Maslow’s concept of peak experiences), it is indeed true that most of us sleepwalk through life (look up this blogpost), waking up momentarily when we are just about to die, or when we watch someone close dying in front of our eyes. It has been well said that if all of us were told that the planet was going to be destroyed tomorrow, all the phone lines in the world would be jammed by people trying to call and tell long-neglected others how much they were loved (and confessing that they were guilty of all sorts of socially-enforced pretence earlier in not confessing their love). All talk of business deals and scientific breakthroughs and political manouevrings and attending parties and love affairs of the teenage sort would be instantly forgotten as utterly trivial. No wonder the great religious teachers (Schumacher aptly called them ‘great masters of living’) of all lands and ages have told us to live as if there would be no tomorrow.

It rankles particularly if you have been a teacher all your life. That too, someone who tries to ‘teach’ literature, and feels strongly about it (rather than merely doing it as a livelihood), and sees how thousands of people – including supposedly bright people – take  notes, practise answering set questions, get through examinations with good marks (which is all they have been told to care about), and forget everything – if they ever really understood anything at all – immediately afterwards; not letting anything they have been ‘taught’ to affect their behaviour, their outlook, their moral fibre, their lives in any significant way. I have not only had a pupil tell me 15 years after the event that he had at last understood the message of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (which, at least, was a gratifying thing), but I have lost count of how many old boys and girls I have had to give a patient ear to when they got back to complain or lament about hard lessons learnt later in life in the family, workplace, neighbourhood, police station, hospital, morgue and crematorium. And when I have sometimes pointed out to them that these things which now appeared to be of the utmost importance, these were the very things that were discussed in the course of our literature classes long ago when they were not really paying attention (or bothering more about their clothes and bikes and girlfriends, or science courses and college admissions and things like that), I have seen mostly blank stares, or worse still, the pathetic refrain ‘But now it’s happening to me’ – as if that really makes the tragedy all-important and deserving of special attention. And if I don’t fall clucking all over them, I come across as extraordinarily obtuse and hard-hearted…

I have talked myself hoarse trying to explain some of the great Shakespearean tragedies, and Shaw’s plays like Saint Joan, and novels like The Old Man and the Sea and Lord of the Flies, short stories like The Happy Prince, The Last Leaf, How much land does a man require, The Boss came to dinner, The Devoted Son, and poems like A Psalm of Life, Where the mind is without fear, The Brook, Lines written in early spring, The Man with the hoe… to cite just a tiny fraction of all the literary works I have had to deal with. Few people, I know, have learnt anything at all. More and more I realize you cannot teach anybody what s/he doesn’t want to learn. And especially so in this age, when no learning is valued for its own sake or even for its likely long-term benefits (such as knowing how to live well … to do which you need to learn honesty, and toughness, and courage, and self-control and acceptance, and empathy for others' suffering and laughter in the face of despair and things like that, infinitely more than you need any physics or math or biology). You hear someone cribbing about office politics and you remind her of something she had read in class with me, and pat comes the defence, ‘Oh, that was only a story; this is for real, this is happening to me!’ You try consoling someone who has been jilted in love by similarly reminding him of a warning that was part of a poem in his school syllabus, and you get the same reply. You try telling someone how he was taught long ago that one must learn to handle the fact that luck often plays truant and fouls up our best laid plans, and all you see is a displeased grimace, and you can read his mind – ‘Why shouldn’t I be different from all the rest of mankind?’ (and some people call me an egotist!)

Reminds me of the way the Buddha taught the woman who was distraught after losing her only child the supreme lesson of acceptance. I wish there were teachers like that around: we need them much more today. I have tried, but failed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Sachin, too!

I read in the newspaper a few days ago that Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography is about to be released. Only ten copies will be sold to start with, at a price of $75,000 each (that’s a little shy of forty lakh rupees).

Wait, there’s more: the USP of the book will be, not ho-hum stuff like ‘hitherto unpublished photographs’ of S and his family, but an actual drop of his blood, mixed into the paper of the signature page in the form of a resin.

The publishers, M/s Kraken Media based in London, have explained this ‘innovative’ effort as the best way they could think of to give the ‘personal touch’ to those of S’s followers who regard him as ‘god’ (and, it goes without saying, are both rich and damn-fool enough to part with that kind money for a book of this sort. Bill Gates paid a vastly bigger fortune for a book, yes, but that was the original handwritten diary of Leonardo da Vinci, for heaven’s sake!)


Even if, as claimed, the entire proceeds of the sale really go to charity, what kind of a world do we live in that this is how funds have got to be raised from stinking-rich oafs for good causes?

As for me, I was thinking of countless men and women who have lived wonderful lives and have written wonderful autobiographies, and would have died before they stooped to such utterly pathetic gimmicks in the hope of being seen a little more in the newspapers or making a little more money. Even after getting the kind of money and publicity that Sachin has got already...

Monday, July 19, 2010

Where would you live?

If you had the money to indulge your every whim, where in India would you like to build a house with the purpose of living in it most of the time?

I like to think of such things in my leisure time: it’s one way of making fantasies come true, at least in the mind.

As I have said before, I hate big cities: so I start by ruling them all out. Rural India, on the other hand, is (still, alas) far too backward to think of settling down permanently there, no matter which state you have in mind. Quick weekend getaways, maybe, living there, no.

So – for me, at least – it quickly boils down to some small town or the other. But there are thousands, and it’s hard to pick from them. There are problems with most towns I know, too: in one place there are daily power cuts that last forever, in another there is an acute water shortage in the summer months. Some are too cold, and some too hot. Some are plagued by militant insurgency: not my cup of tea. Some are getting too noisy and polluted for comfort: my Durgapur is definitely one of them, besides lacking in the most basic amenities that a man of taste looks for, such as parks and museums and libraries and art galleries and book shops and health clubs and green walks and a lot of nice places to go visiting within a few hours’ driving distance (as you could, for instance, if you lived in Shimla). And I should want neighbours who are either friendly or of the harmless, non-interfering sort.

Mussoorie, Chandigarh, Ranikhet, Udaipur, Shillong, Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar, Vishakhapatnam … or some place deep down south, which I haven’t explored?

Or have things come to such a pass that no town in India is anything to write home about any more? 

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Viva Johnny Depp!

I used to say that whatever Tom Hanks did in a movie would make me want to see it at once: he just couldn't help being deeply, compellingly watchable. Of late, after having seen Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Finding Neverland, Chocolat, Pirates of the Caribbean, and very recently Alice in Wonderland, I can say that Johnny Depp has definitely joined my very exclusive list of must-see-whatever-he-does actors. When it comes to portraying offbeat, eccentric, loveable-yet-sad and lonely characters, there's really nobody else around who can hold a candle to this man. I wish him a long, happy and highly productive life for very selfish reasons...

I was reading up about him on wikipedia. Maybe the facts that he is exactly my age, and a musician besides, and that I love harmless but brilliant cranks all have something to do with my admiration for him. I was also wondering what a director like Satyajit Ray might have done with him (if he had the money) and why Steven Spielberg (who I don't think is short of money) hasn't cast him yet. 

How wonderful it would be to live long enough to boast that one of my old boys has become a director or actor like these people!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

O tempora! o mores!

The mania for becoming doctors and engineers has been giving the expression ‘at all costs’ a new meaning of late.

There are factory-scale cram shops in different parts of India (Kota, Delhi, Hyderabad prominently among them) which annually send around touts to small towns like mine to hunt for potential ‘students’. It is part of their strategy to find out the names and addresses of well-known schools and tutors in the town, and approach them with offers of ‘commissions’ in return for persuading their current pupils to join those tutorials to be ‘coached’ for various engineering- and medical-entrance examinations. I have often been visited by such touts myself, that’s how I know. I also happen to know that they have many takers…

A few years ago an old boy, who was then studying in a certain private engineering college down south (let us mention no names, for they are all alike), came to see me, and said he was looking for some ways to make money, his dad finding it difficult to support him on a government salary. At first I was enthusiastic, for I have been fending for myself from a very early age, and encourage young people to sit lightly on their parents’ shoulders once they are past school. But then he turned me off by saying that he had become one of those touts himself, as the college had promised to give him hefty concessions on his own fees if he could rustle up a certain number of freshmen in his turn, and he offered me so many thousand per candidate if I could help him in this ‘job’. I shooed him away without much ado, telling him that in my book crooked wheeling-dealing was not the same as doing honest business. He couldn’t make out why I was so furious. I wonder what he is doing now.

I was reminded of this incident by this news item in today’s newspaper, which says that now things have come to such a pass that one such student-cum-‘recruiter’ has been killed by members of a rival gang, who had earlier kidnapped one of his newly-recruited milch cows!

And still the parents of my current pupils will not listen when I keep telling them that they need not utterly ruin their children’s bodies and minds all through teenage by pressurizing them to ‘study hard’ (which has come to mean merely turning them into dull, disenchanted and dishonest robots who can only cram and then cheat in examinations, excusing themselves with the plea that they are all doing it), seeing that – so long as they can pay – their wards cannot be poor enough students that they cannot become engineers these days!