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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.


Arijit said...

I read in a book that "Awareness is the first step towards the distant goal of excellence in listening." Death sometimes makes us momentarily serious but not always.Luck! This luck has always betrayed me and I simply don't believe in it because "Man is the creator of his own Fate". In class twelve I tried very hard in ACCOUNTANCY to score well,but couldn't quite achieve it. But I'm happy that I can still recall them when needed.As usual my father blamed me - "You didn't study hard." and my aunt blamed my "Luck".
Its true people have a wrong notion that story and real life is entirely different;for e.g. The film 3- idiots had many messages.One such message was "Ratta marke koi faida nahi"(No need of memorizing like a parrot),still my father says its only applicable to Cinema not practical life.Another thing is examination marks,in order to be educated you need to score high and fetch degrees.According to their view,one who can't score in exam is a fool.
Thanks a lot for this nice blog post.Hmmn..A lot of serious things to think about.Sir, don't blame yourself, its the fault of everyone.
I have met many teachers but hardly met a teacher like you.
Take care, and all the best.

Shilpi said...

Suvro da,
You switch tracks like a speeding train, and I still haven’t gotten used to it.

I remember reading that Bond ‘haiku’ bit and I couldn’t figure out what either part meant although it seemed to contain some element of profound truth.

The part about “living” when looking at death has always made me wonder.

For the next track change: I wonder what you would say about what an old, old friend told me once many years ago when I said “Yes, I can imagine” in response to something he was telling me for my friend said, “No, you can’t. There are some things you cannot imagine. You must experience them to know them.” I can't disagree with my friend nor with what you’re saying here...

What you say about 'learning' is what I’ve been having a nagging suspicion about as well. Some people will understand (at varying levels) because they want to/can. Most people won’t. And from the people who do understand there’ll be fewer who can actually apply that learning when it comes to living life because they’ve either never really thought about it in terms of their own lives or else they’ve only “thought” about it...

About your very last liner – I can’t see how you can think that you’ve failed as a teacher. And I’ve very often wondered whether The Buddha managed to teach what he would have liked to and whether he believed that anyone had sensibly imbibed his teachings. I wonder what his thoughts were on whether he had succeeded in doing what he had set out to do…

Thank you for this essay. It's one of those that one returns to. And thank you for the poem titles (and sorry about the long comment).

P.S: Arijit, have you read the essay ‘On chance, fate, and karma…’ and ‘Values and prices’ on this blog?...It might make you think some more on the matter of fate and chance….

Shilpi said...

....and no matter whether one thinks of anything, I hardly think that anyone is going to be thinking of remembered bits from accountancy or chemistry or math when they're facing death...!

Subha said...

People come into life with nothing and go away with nothing. When I hear people speaking of success, money and fame, I just wonder why people are running after all these things. People boast of so many girl friends, they enjoy going to shopping malls and wasting time there... I just hear those things, and wonder at what they are speaking about. These people speak about the western culture, everything Indian to them is "sadi hui Indian cheesein" (rotten Indian things). I just think of the kind of useless lives that these people are leading. And when you go to tell them that ultimately these things won't remain in their lives, the only reply you will get from them is, "aare yaar chhor na, yeh sab faltu cheesein sochne mein koi faida nehi... enjoy life yaar". There is no use in telling people that life like this is not worth living. People do not know what love means, they are intersted in changing girl friends everyday. Any sensible person will really be fed up of these kinds of people swarming around.

I have learnt only one thing in life - live your own life proplerly, let the world go to hell. I should not regret when I look back into my own life at the time of my death.

Arijit said...

Shilpi di,
My intention was not that, I know it very well that nobody is going to care about his or her personal gains and losses at the time of death.I only wanted to state an example of luck so I thought of sharing my personal experience. I have read about KARMA.
I read on the internet that three things that matter the most are:
1)How well you lived.
2)How deeply you loved.
3)How well you learn t to let go of things not meant for you..
Thanking you.

Rakendu said...


This was exactly what I was telling Somudra (whom you know, I think) a few days back.

I can accept that all people don't have the appetite for intellectual stuff because they are already "too busy" with their own life (which to me seems too ridiculous anyways). So they don't read books. But they watch movies which can be seen barely till the introductory titles keep rolling. Ridiculously, I haven't met a single individual who listen to a song for it's lyrics.

I believe along with food and air,little bit of literature is very essential for healthy living.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

This time round, I knew that no matter how many visitors there might be, few comments would come in, and that is exactly what has happened.

Faced with any really serious issue, people these days are struck dumb, even inside their minds.

A real sadhu told me long ago that folks like him play monkey tricks of the magician type because their 'customers' come only for the tamasha, only to be impressed by juvenile stuff, never to listen to serious discourses on things that matter. They talk seriously only to the one visitor in a thousand who is both ready and eager for it, because they dislike wasting their breath. How right he was... I only wish I could make a living by teaching like that!

Rakendu said...

People usually have a very weird way of "enjoying" life. Actually it appears to me that people don't sit down for a while and philosophize a bit.

It is very important for an individual to have a clear idea of what he believes in and where he is heading towards in life. And this is one of the most primary reason why people get distracted to such unnecessary glitters, i think.

I feel most people have eyes but no vision.

God help them !!!!

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

In our English classes in school, we weren't encouraged to do anything more than mug up lines of poetry or analyze a lesson in order to answer an exam question. That is the one thing that always rankled me about my school. As for luck, I don't have any opinion about it, I neither believe it nor disbelieve it, it is just that the "luck factor" doesn't even enter my mind most of the time. The more I look around the more I am convinced that there isn't really a pattern to what happens to a person. Things happen, good or bad and to blame it on ill-luck doesn't help at all does it Sir? "Why me" is the most dangerous question one can ask oneself because it leads only to self pity. I suppose one just has to live out the life one was born into with as much grace and strength of character as possible.


Anonymous said...


Regards..I would like to share a story with you..Emperor Akbar had this somewhat peculiar habit,albeit to many but himself,that...he used to wake up every fine morning,and worship his grave with flowers,all the while chanting.."I have lived fully,I have lived fully,I have lived fully..."...some of his courtiers could no longer resist their curiosity and asked him the reason behind this strange ritual...to which he replied that," I come closer to my death,the next great adventure after life,by each passing day...I remember to live fully each day,so as not to die..I live each day as if it were my last.."...Sir,life has so much beauty to offer..the Koran validates it by a profoundly deep statement.."The blind and the seeing are not equal..The blind see,but they do not truly see..The seeing are blind,but only to the visions of the blind..."...You'll catch my drift,Sir,I am sure...please let me know,at your convenience,how far you do agree with my exposition of the principle...because we generally agree with principles involved,rather than people??..don't we,Sir?

Yours lovingly,

Shilpi said...

What the US President said last week in a speech at Tucson, honouring the 5 grown-ups and the one child, who were killed by the gunman.

"...So sudden loss causes us to look backward – but it also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future...We may ask ourselves if we’ve shown enough kindness, generosity, compassion to the people in our lives...We recognize our own mortality; we are reminded that in our fleeting time on earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame - but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better."

Sorry about this extended quote - but I thought it was relevant...the US President is saying the same thing as you are and have been...: might make some more people sit up.

Take care.

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,
Until the eighth standard all I had read were Hardy Boys, Tintin, Archie’s, a bit of Sidney Sheldon and a few classics in abridged form, and yes, Amar Chitra Katha. In the ninth standard at Xavier’s, it was as if we were sitting in a dark room, and you suddenly came in and opened so many doors all of a sudden, exposed us to the richness of the world and its dazzling wealth that it almost hurt the eyes. I enjoyed your classes the most, went to school to attend your classes only, and ‘thought’ I ‘understood’ all of what you said, the moron that I was! Its only now, as I read more, grow older and richer in experience, do I only begin to understand what the messages of your teachings truly were.

Sir, it was in the eleventh standard when I found myself amidst the muck of ‘science’ students and fought the myth called ‘science’ (mainly in my own mind) that my experiences truly began. My interest in conventional education dwindled to zero and I took solace in serious reading and listening to Rabindrasangeet. Life now had a meaning: the school boyish day dreams vanished and I started to see things more clearly and pragmatically. I could now relate things – from what I read (in books) and heard (in movies) to what you had taught. At home, we often talk about how intellectual developments happen not continuously, but discreetly and in leaps and bounds. To quote Einstein – “…and the mind expands, you do not know why or how”.

I wasn’t entirely dull though, in those days. O Henry’s ‘After twenty years’, Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Model Millionaire’ are among a host of short stories from the school syllabus that are still fresh in my mind. But I have covered some ground since then. I have read up on philosophy (you introduced me to it by recommending ‘Sophie’s world’ almost six years ago), fiction, science fiction, fantasy, biographies, on death and religion, historical fiction – I am just starting out… and during these years some books more than others have influenced me to a greater extent; in the form of shaping my opinions and my outlook, forming my views and in general contributing towards the kind of person I am now. ‘The old man and the sea’, ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull’,’ Siddhartha’, ‘Buddha, a story of enlightenment’ come to mind immediately…there is a mystical quality in these books, and mystery attracts me more than anything else. As I write this I also make a mental note that the real purpose of education is to build character more than anything else. The essential message of science is not to discover, but to seek – as a scientist worth his salt might say (the seeking part needs character while any fool can keep day dreaming about discovering). To quote Einstein again – “I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves -- this critical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed empty to me. The trite objects of human efforts -- possessions, outward success, luxury -- have always seemed to me contemptible.” – Something you keep telling us time and again. I keep remembering bits and pieces of what you said in what I read and experience. You had given us pearls Sir; only our palms were too small then…

I often wonder, Sir, about what would have been had I received that jolt you gave us, earlier. That’s luck, as far as I am concerned…though it doesn’t bother me much, there’s still time. And this reminds me of that Haiku poem and all I have got to say is that I have just woken up. There’s a long way to go. The apparent contradiction between being predestined and making it through pluck has also ceased to exist in my mind. As Forrest Gump would have said “Perhaps its both…”
Thank you, Sir, and sorry for that long, incoherent ramble…
Sayan Datta

Sayan Datta said...

Sir, I made a typo! That word in the second last sentence of the second paragraph will be 'discretely' and not 'discreetly'.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you for looking back and acknowledging a debt, Sayan. Hundreds should be doing the same, but, as I observed in the blogpost itself, most people learnt nothing, took away nothing and retained nothing except a trivial marksheet, and besides, most are terribly 'busy' with their lives, so only a tiny handful ever think about doing this sort of thing. But every gesture like this counts with me, reassuring me that I have perhaps not wholly wasted my time...