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Friday, December 31, 2010

Goodbye, 2010

As I write, the sun has set on the last evening of the year: 2010 is coming to a close.

In one sense, it has been an eventful decade for me, and busy enough. Big family turmoil, successive surgeries on my wife and one on myself, minor accidents on the road, dad-in-law having and surviving a stroke, resigning my job and learning to be self-employed after I was past 38, getting used to the world of mobile phones and the internet, having some of my writing published, writing a whole book for my daughter, travelling again and again to different parts of the country, teaching thousands, bringing up my daughter, warding off and surviving all kinds of mischief-makers bent on giving me depression at best and a bad name at worst, buying a new car and a house, coping with at least two great bereavements and people who have taken me through emotional roller-coasters deliberately or otherwise, getting burnt and food-poisoning, saving obsessively month after month, year after year, being betrayed very badly by some I had loved and trusted… yes, I guess I have had my hands full.

And yet, strange to say (I was reading my journal entries nearly a decade old), time seems to have stood still. Were it not for the fact that my daughter’s grown so big, and that I have thinning grey hair and the beginnings of a paunch and twinges in both knee joints now when climbing stairs of winter mornings, this could still be December 2000. Very few really big changes have come about in my life and lifestyle in all these ten years, despite so many things happening: or at least I wonder why it seems that way. That is why it feels so weird to see and hear from so many people who were children then and are quite grown-up now, married, divorced, making a living, researching and teaching in their turn, raising children of their own, scattered all over the world, some having turned into snobs, some fancying themselves to be intellectuals, many ‘too busy’ to look back, some gone astray, some already thoroughly sick of life. When did they grow up? Have they really grown up at all? Have I grown old, or has Time somehow passed me by, so that I feel I am hardly much older than these people? Do all ageing teachers feel this way, or is this something peculiar to me?

They have put up colourful festoons and bright lights in the little industrial township next door: in a few hours’ time, the merry-making will begin there, as in millions of households and hotels and resorts all over the country, dancing, feasting, jesting, carousing until many of them have drunk themselves silly, and so another New Year will be rung in with head-splitting hangovers and surly mutterings. I have in mind the sort of people who write comments saying ‘Get a life!’, because I prefer to stay at home and think, and reflect, and write the year away. More sand trickling down the hourglass, but I don’t feel too bad about it. I guess I have stepped into what the poet called the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’, and though I crib sometimes, it’s certainly a vast improvement upon the hectic, confused and dreary adolescence and youth that I have had to live through. In the year ahead, I wish some of my readers will find serenity.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

There are such people around us, too

Tomorrow will be Christmas Eve, so I shall continue to muse on the Christmas theme…

It is not quite a coincidence that lately I have been handling stories in class on the essential spirit of the season, telling us what being human is and is not about, both for one’s own self and for others: Tolstoy’s How much land does a man require, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, and Ebenezer Scrooge invisibly and enviously watching the Christmas revelry at the Cratchits’ in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I have been musing, like a thousand times before, about giving and sharing and loving. I read in Robert Fulghum’s classic heart-warmer All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten about how V. P. Menon, who rose from obscure poverty to become the most powerful bureaucrat in Jawaharlal Nehru’s first government, had repaid his debt to someone who had helped him out at a time of great distress in his youth with a small gift of money by giving charity of the same amount many thousands of times to perfect strangers in need throughout his life.

I have also read in Reader’s Digest, November 2010 edition, how a self-made Austrian tycoon aged 48 is giving away all his wealth to charity, and insists that he is doing it because it’s brought him a kind of happiness that he never thought existed, just like Dickens’ Scrooge, because he has found he had been wasting away his precious life chasing things he had absolutely no need for (fancy villas, snazzy cars, expensive holidays, grossly-overpriced clothes with designer labels, getting sozzled on champagne, trophy wives), socializing with people who were just as shallow, aimless, conceited and wasteful as he used to be, while the lives of so many in the world out there could be made safer and healthier and happier with a little bit of his money.

And it’s not only mad millionaires who give away a great deal of their money. Hard on the heels of that article comes another one in this month’s RD, paying glowing tributes to those they have rewarded with the title Asians of the Year. The top award has gone to a 60-year old roadside vegetable vendor in Taiwan, who has been working since teenage, still maintains a backbreaking work schedule day in, day out, and yet has managed to give – hold your breath – the equivalent of fifteen million Indian rupees in charity so far, following a habit of simple living, careful saving, ignoring the follies of ‘high’ society and caring for everybody around her whose need is greater than hers.

The saints have said ‘Give until it hurts’. These people are saying it doesn’t hurt to give, it’s actually great fun, and brings a profound sense of satisfaction. And yet, when the editor sadly says ‘if regular middle-class families too made giving an important part of our lives, it will make a real difference… we have so much to learn from this elderly vegetable seller!’ I know, only too well, how much it hurts people like us to give away the tiniest bit of even things that we don’t need at all. It hurts to give up that obscene birthday bash at a fancy hotel, it hurts to forego the holiday abroad, it hurts to make do with a cheap watch or vanity bag for several years, it hurts to give a rickshaw puller five extra rupees when he has pulled you a mile through blazing heat, it hurts even to give away books we’ll never read and clothes we haven’t worn for ages, it hurts to express gratitude to those whom you owe a great deal, and it hurts to give sad and lonely people a patient and sympathetic ear…

I am reminded of the old Bengali doggerel ota ke re? / ami khoka / mathay ki re?/ aamer jhankaa / khash na kano?/ daante poka / bilosh na kano?/ ore baba! Which, crudely translated, would sound like this:

Who’s there? – just the kid
What are you carrying? –  mangoes under a lid
Why don’t you eat them? – this toothache’s horrid
Give them away then? – God forbid!

So Karl Rabeder and Chen Shu-chu make me bow my head in admiration and respect in a way that no tycoon or cricket celebrity or scholar or merely successful professional man will ever do. If that makes a lot of people gnash their teeth because they, highly admirable in their own eyes, find it unbearably hateful that they can’t extract the same respect from me, I am sorry for them.

And I shall consider myself deeply rewarded if a few readers, after going through this post, tell me ‘Now I know why you have always stuck to a lifestyle much less fancy than you could afford…’ Maybe I keep all that ‘extra’ money for better things!

P.S., Dec. 31: I should like my readers to look up this earlier post  in this context.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Santa Claus is coming to town...

The short winter set in this time with clockwork precision: the first really chilly day here was 15th December. I guess it will vanish as punctually as a German drill sergeant, too, which means I have just one month to savour all its charms. And by God, I am trying to.

It is deliciously cold if you go out on a scooter early in the morning or late evenings. Hot baths and hot soups are a pure delight, and so is sitting in the sun in the afternoons, soaking the warmth into the bones, and snuggling into blankets at night. Sometimes a balmy breeze blows up, and the sky overhead is a dazzling azure: I can never have enough of it. Fruits and fresh vegetables are available aplenty and in lush variety – even if they are not cheap – and a good walk stimulates the appetite for the simplest of meals (although I am ashamed I am indulging myself on my wife’s wonderful cooking). My workload is at its lightest around this time of the year, too, and so I have lots of time to laze around the way I like. Physically I am in good shape, there’s enough money in the bank to suffice for all the needs of anyone except those who are greedy and live to show off; there are people around who care for me and make it apparent, and lovely books to read and movies to watch and puppies and children to play with and a lot of bird song and butterflies flitting in the garden, and the year has passed without mishap. Above all, I don’t have to rush around to make a living, nor to cringe before and ingratiate myself with countless undeserving people, as, alas, so many people have to. My daughter is growing up like a blissful dream before my eyes. Truly I have a great many good things in life to be deeply grateful for. I only wish I could make a lot more people happy, and my only regret is that so many people are making the world so dirty and noisy and ugly merely because they have been brainwashed into the wrong way to pursue the good life…

Anyway, it’s the season of universal good cheer and goodwill, so I send out my most earnest regards, blessings and good wishes to all. May everybody have a Merry Christmas. May more people find out that all they need in this world is happiness, and the only happiness possible in this world comes from sharing and giving and loving (besides work that you enjoy for its own sake). Not from capital and technology, not from political power or fancy intellectualism, not from marks and degrees and pubbing and shopping. God bless us all with a little wisdom.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A waking nightmare

Jaded as I am, I had a most jarring experience in class yesterday. I had just read aloud Guy de Maupassant’s famous 1884 short story, The Necklace, and reached the horrible twist in the last line – when Matilda Loisel realizes that she and her husband have ruined their lives for nothing – an ending which makes me shiver forty years after I first heard my mother telling me the story, and believe it or not, many of the children in the class laughed! They found the wanton ruination of two human lives funny! These were kids in their early teens, too, people who you would think had not lived long enough for their innate intelligence and sympathy to be deadened by too much sordid worldly experience.

All I can say is Jesus Christ… what kind of adults are they going to grow into? People who will laugh to see parents or children being crushed by trucks on the highway, and carry on with life as though nothing very significant has happened?

Mind you, most of these are what these days is called ‘bright’ students, in the sense that they get reasonably good marks in school science and math tests, and (merely extrapolating from so many years of teaching experience) I can confidently predict most of them will be in medical and engineering colleges a few years from now.

Is the world filling up with monsters? Would I want one of those engineers to build a house for me, leave alone ask one of those doctors to look after me in my old age? (do scroll down a bit to the post titled Morality Training for doctors?)

One thing that I am now convinced about: you need to teach people to feel (good feelings, especially, not the brute ones like anger and greed and sloth and avarice and vengeance, which, heaven knows, have never needed to be taught) just as you need to teach math and science. Unfortunately, education worldwide has concentrated maniacally on the latter kind of teaching, to the detriment of the former in the name of ‘progress’ – assuming that people will just somehow learn to become good human beings by themselves, automatically. We are now beginning to reap the whirlwind.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Hurry, distraction and the net-on-mobile

Imagine a young Newton trying to work out one of those famous equations of motion or Wordsworth thinking up Daffodils or Bach composing one of his gems while answering the cellphone while zooming down the highway on a motorbike.

I had a little argument via email with my thoughtful ex-student Navin the other day about the wonders of the internet, and then I read this article about the epidemic of multi-tasking (also see the New York Times article mentioned therein). I hope everybody will notice that a writer and a medical-school teacher have complained equally vociferously about exactly the same thing. Look them up, all, then get back to me.

I can vouchsay that everything from new publications being full of howlers and typos (which I never saw in books of the 1940s and 60s, though the proofreaders had no computers to help them!) to botched surgical operations to bankers messing up statements of accounts to third-grade essays being written by high school pupils to the alarming rise in road accidents to the fact that kids these days cannot remember things they ‘learnt’ three months ago while those of our generation and older can easily call back what we were taught many decades ago – all this can be laid at the door of this multitasking scourge, to which the mobile-net addiction contributes mightily. Think: what kind of a romance can you have, even, when the so-called lovers meet up only to check messages from their respective friends every two minutes? Who says it’s just an unrelated accident that so many of my ex-students have already broken up with their spouses within a year or two of marriage?

I thank God that I can still enforce the no-mobile-phones-in-my-class rule very strictly, and I pity the schoolteachers who cannot (as is now true in many places). They are wasting time on those who have become incapable of learning anything (so many ex-students who are in college now solemnly assure me it is impossible to pass examinations without cheating!) I shudder to think of the world of the 2030s, when all the people in their prime will be like this: a thousand grasshoppers jumping around in their heads all the time, hopelessly incapable of concentrating on any one serious occupation for more than five minutes, whether it be a debate or a piece of engineering design or driving a car or listening to music. Already people are blasé about getting run over by trains and buses while talking into their phones, and utterly shameless about texting away at an office meeting – I only wonder how much worse things are going to get. How much longer before parents by the millions ‘forget’ to bring home their children at night (as they are right now forgetting to pay their wards’ school fees), and surgeons ‘forgetting’ to sew up after operations? Looking at the kids whom I teach today, I can assert that such a scenario has now become entirely plausible. In this connection, also look up this post on my other blog.