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?'

Friday, September 24, 2010


Why haven’t I written for more than a week?

Fact is, I have been a little absent-minded. Alone at home for the largest part of the week, I was immersed in books and movies – in all the time that remains to myself after classes and marking homework and talking to visitors, that is. I have also been translating someone’s thesis on the influence of baul music on Tagore’s, and in the process listening to a lot of baul songs playing in the background while I was hammering away at the keyboard, and I was transported. Besides, I was reading up on the brilliant and hilarious literature for children written in Bangla by Premendra Mitra and Leela Mazumdar: old favourites whom I was visiting after a long, long time. And they didn’t fail to work their magic on me. How silly the world and its cares seem at such times, and how foolish of us to bother about them all the time! As long as a man has a roof over his head, his meals assured, and some time on his hands, he can find more than enough to entertain himself with, and pay not the slightest attention to the way the world goes. Our great creative artists have wrought miracles without end for us: if we forget them, the folly is ours.

Let me have Neverland, and others can make careers for themselves that will buy them Louis Vuitton bags and gold water closets… God bless them and their ‘success’.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Tonight our family was watching an episode of Ashapurna Devi’s novel Subarnalata, which has been recently dramatized for TV. There was a scene where the little girl pries on the central character, the mejobou in the joint family who has been reading a novel (incidentally, Tagore’s Gora) on the sly, and threatens to tell all to her grandma, who has driven it into her silly little head that for women to read books is nothing short of a cardinal sin. When mejobou later offers the girl’s mother to teach the girl to read and write, the mother warns her not to ‘ruin’ the child’s life.

Before today’s ‘educated’ reader turns up his (or even more to the point, her) nose at these benighted ancestors of ours, let us consider what has happened in (Bengali middle class) society in the more than eighty years since mejobou lived and struggled against harshly restrictive social norms. I can confirm that though my own grandmother went to school, she had to read novels on the sly after she got married, although big changes were coming about: the other grandma of mine actually taught lifelong in a school for girls. By the time my mother was growing up, most girls in ‘respectable’ families were going to college (and even becoming ‘smart’, if you read some of Tagore’s latter-day stories or watch the Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen movies), and I remember seeing as a child that it was considered okay, or at least customary, among ‘cultured’ families to give books as wedding presents. At least among urban middle-class Bengalis (I know just how small a fraction of the Indian population that is), reading seemed to have caught on in a big way.
However by the time I went to school and college, things had again changed in a big way (and remember, we are today’s parent-generation, all of us in our 40s and 50s!). True, for the eager book lover, there were still bookshops and libraries around, and some parents were even ready to buy books for their children, but their numbers were dwindling rapidly: I cannot vouch for the girls, but I know for a fact that in my whole batch at school and college I could count on my fingers how many boys ever read anything outside textbooks (and comic books), even among the ‘good’ students. Indeed, in all the years in college and university, I met only one female whom I could call a reader by my standards.

Now fast forward to the current day. When my daughter was reading a book while waiting for her school bus (she was not even ten then), the mother of another child asked my wife why she was reading something when there were no exams. around the corner. There are no libraries worth the name any more in this town, and no bookshop that sells anything outside textbooks and notebooks for examinations has survived. I have met hardly ten parents in all these 24 years of teaching in this town who have averred that they are interested in reading (reading anything beyond gossip rags and fashion magazines, that is), whereas I have been told again and again by literally hundreds of pupils that their parents regard reading as a cardinal sin: the same parents who think nothing of splurging on parties and clothes and cars, who maniacally insist that their children – girls and boys alike – must cram night and day for ‘good marks’ in examinations, who allow their children to waste scores of hours a month on trashy TV and computer games (can anyone tell me why?).

So 80 years on, we are back to mejobou’s condition with a vengeance! The only difference being that people are far more well off today, and most of them, male and female alike, take great pride in calling themselves ‘educated’. What does this augur for our future as a nation and as a culture?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Sadly different trajectories!

This article tells you how in the west – in the US especially – the ‘car culture’ is slowly on the way out. It is well known that cars (privately owned cars, especially) are bad with a capital B, in terms of the congestion they cause, the pollution they are responsible for, the number of people they kill and maim for life, and the kind of social class division and tensions they create: especially in poor countries. More compact urban design and vastly improved public transportation would be unqualified blessings for us all. So it is tragic that China and India – which between themselves account for a third of the total human population – are going all out the way the USA did in the 1950s, buying cars to flaunt their new wealth and 'status' like there would be no tomorrow, because by the time they reach US-levels of per capita car ownership, more people would be dying of accidents and pollution than in any wartime situation short of a nuclear holocaust. Here are some statistics about what has been happening on Indian roads over a recent ten-year period. Do we care for our children? Do our ‘educated’ grown-up children care even about their own lives?

By the way, I have not yet received enough positive responses to the first part of the story I started with the last post to encourage me to continue!

Monday, September 06, 2010

Beginning of a story?

[I have just started writing something upon a whim (a roadside vendor talking about his life and times). I don't know whether it's going anywhere, whether it will end up as a proper story. I am posting the first installment below: reader reactions will help me decide whether I should post later parts or take this off the blog...]

I sell paani-puri near the gate of a temple in a small industrial town. I have grown old doing this: I have been at it for nearly thirty years now.
            I first came here from a remote village in north Bihar, with a baraat, to attend the wedding of a cousin – he had got a truck loader’s job in a local steel plant, and had had to spend quite a bit of money to get in, and he urgently needed it back by way of dahej, so he was getting married in a hurry. I stayed on for a couple of days, looking around the town, and for some reason my eyes fell on this spot, and I got a little trolley, found a shack to live in behind the marketplace, and stayed. I am not too sure what gave me the idea of selling paani puri: someone must have put it into my head. That was thirty years ago, and I have never gone anywhere else, and now I am growing old. I have looked after my parents till they died, and married off a younger brother and two sisters, and brought up two sons and a daughter, and married off the daughter too, and built a tiny brick and tile house for myself and the wife – all by selling paani puri (they call it phuchka here in Bengal) for four hours every evening for the last thirty years. Leaving aside essential family occasions, and being sick and hospitalized once, almost twenty years ago, I have never missed a day.
            Things have changed around me, and not changed. There were many more trees around here back in the beginning, and the temple attracted much smaller crowds, and there were far fewer cars and motorbikes on the road. Jackals howled at eight in the evening as I trundled my trolley home. These days I often have to stay till past ten. I started selling paani puri at the rate of two for ten paise, now they go at six for five rupees. There are certainly a lot more smart young girls on the roads these days: they not only wear jeans and sleeveless T-shirts but cosy up to their boyfriends in public in a way we couldn’t dream of thirty years ago. And these people have a great deal more money in their pockets than boys and girls their parents’ age did. Those who came to eat phuchkas thirty years ago are their parents’ age, so I can tell.
            But so many things haven’t changed, either. Though the temple precincts are brightly lit, the road itself is still as dim as it was long ago, because the municipality forgot this street while it was replacing fluorescent neon tubes with high power sodium vapour lamps. And they still litter the roadside, though there is now an official ban on it. People of all shapes and sizes, from tiny girls to mountainous middle aged men take my breath away by how much they can eat. I wonder, too, that they can gorge on phuchka when folks are supposed to sit down for dinner – and though I shouldn’t do this, because they bring me custom, I sometimes swear under my breath when I have to go on serving them, even when I am dog tired and want to go back home, knowing that I will have to listen to my wife’s ritual complaints before going to bed, and wake up at the crack of dawn to start cooking for the next evening.
            I worked alone for many years. Then I brought over the younger of my two boys from home and put him behind the counter to help me. He is a grown man now, and I must start thinking about his marriage. He has mercifully proved to be a hard worker, and when I cannot work any more, I can leave the business safely in his hands. The older boy has been a disappointment. He has been a drifter and shirker since he was a child, and never finished school, and these days he is married and lives off his in-laws, though he likes to tell people he is a house painter. My wife has been a help all through. She looked after the family all by herself for many, many years, until the old folks died, and the children grew up and went away. She was getting lonesome after all those years, and there was little to cling on to in the village, most of the ancestral land having been sold off, and I had built the house here already (although it had only two rooms and a makeshift toilet then), so I brought her to stay with me a few years ago. Well, even that is going to be a whole decade soon. How time marches on. I didn’t have a white hair when I first arrived here: now you have to look very hard to find a black hair on my head.
            I couldn’t speak a word of Bangla when I arrived; now I can understand and speak it as fluently as my native tongue. But I talk very little, preferring to watch and listen as I work. And you cannot imagine how much you can learn about people if you quietly listen and watch. Most people talk too much, I think, and don’t listen enough, not even to themselves! It makes it easier for me that they usually think I am just a wall – no ears, no mind, no memory, so whether I am listening or not doesn’t matter. Many people will be amazed, even horrified, if I told them half the things I know about them.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

What's going on?

National Geographic has shown millions of hectares of barren land in Brazil where there was near-impenetrable rain forest even two decades ago. The Himalayan glaciers are shrinking at a breathtaking pace. The passages between continents in the Arctic Ocean have remained open in winter of late, which used to be unheard of. Climate rules have gone haywire all over the world, with Russia reeling under a sweltering summer, arid areas in Ladakh and Pakistan being flooded while people in Cherrapunjee, Assam – the wettest place in the world when I was a boy – are queuing up for water. It is well known that our capital city itself has grown used to living with power and water scarcity round the year. In my own little town, the muggy summer seems to be going on for ever, there has been too little rain all over south Bengal, and there are real fears being articulated in the papers that there might be severe water shortages round the corner.

And yet what is amazing is that people are so utterly apathetic, or maybe I should say unconcerned, about what is going on. They talk about growth rates, and the share market, and the examinations ahead, and the coming pujo-extravaganza, as though everything is just business as usual. It scares me. Are people going to wake up only when scenarios like Mad Max and Water World and The Day After Tomorrow materialize? What shall we do with our fine clothes and fancy cars and slick mobiles when the taps run dry? I remember how sudden flooding cut off the power in Hyderabad briefly a few years ago, and then people suddenly realized you cannot have an IT industry without electricity – but they forgot the lesson with such incredible speed! In the same way, it seems to me, the world outside New Orleans has forgotten what Hurricane Katrina did (strange that we remember 9/11 so much more vividly, although the damage was on a vastly smaller scale!) Is that what we have decided upon as the best strategy to deal with disasters, then: quickly forget every trauma so that we can go on pretending that we are making wonderful progress? Do we really believe that we can beat Nemesis perpetually that way?

I wonder whether anybody here reads the frequent new entries on the blog titled Worldchanging: bright green that I have on my blogroll...