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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Amid the eastern Himalayas

Well, here’s the little travelogue I promised – though I know by now that very few readers are really interested.

As I said earlier, for my daughter it was her first flight (my first was in class two, and she’s in class nine now), so naturally she was full of eager anticipation. So was I. Mercifully it was an Airbus A320 and not one of those cramped and noisy little Boeing 737s of yore. Strangely enough – and I could be mistaken, my memories being twenty years old – even this aeroplane seemed rather small. It was clean and well-served, but these days on these low-cost airlines the seating is quite cramped, and the stewardesses have been reduced to salesgirls. Not that they have much to sell except a few grossly overpriced snacks and juices. Anyway, the flight was so short that it was over almost as soon as it had started. It was a cloudy day, so though we got a fine view of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks before landing at Guwahati, we missed the lovely sight of the Brahmaputra that I remembered from the last time. The road to Shillong is little more than a hundred kilometres, and the scenery is picturesque, though not as formidably grand as in the western Himalayas. But it is horribly congested, and though the widening project is visibly underway (making the trip very dusty), it took us all of six hours to reach Shillong, when it should have taken little more than three. Our hotel was, as always, decent though not fancy, but with all mod cons. That first night was pretty chilly. The next day we made a sightseeing tour of the town. Ninety per cent of the population seems to be cramped into a circle of half-km radius around the Police Bazar Chowk, and it’s basically a very crowded, noisy and flashy marketplace: all very brightly lit up on the occasion of Christmas. The whole city was in holiday mood. Most traders here are Marwaris, most tourists Bengalis, and the locals, the majority being of the Khasi tribe, seem to care little for work and a great deal for drink and revelry. The Elephant Falls and Shillong / Laitkor Peak offered some lovely views. It was good to see that these places are well-tended and guarded, and they help to earn the municipality a pretty penny. The Beadon and Bishop Falls were off-limits, because we were warned against rowdies who haunt those far-flung locations. Lady Hydari Park, the mini-zoo  and the Cathedral of Mary help of Christians all decked up for the season were particularly enjoyable.

On the 26th we drove to Cherrapunjee (locally called Sohra) and back. Lovely drive, with some more picturesque waterfalls (though, of course, if you want to see them in their full fury you must come during the monsoons), and the long stretches of heather and gorse on the low undulating hills quite justified the sobriquet of Scotland of the East. We gave the Mawsmai caves a miss, since we don’t like cramped, closed spaces and they were too crowded with tourists anyway, but the adjoining Sacred Woods were a treat, for the sheer tranquillity if nothing else. Along the way we stopped off at several viewpoints, including one from where you could look down at the plains of Bangladesh, and imagine the great ocean of dark rainclouds rolling in from the sea during June to August, which go to make this the rainiest place on earth.

The 27th was spent lazing, sun-bathing and boating at Ward’s Lake. While my wife went shopping, my daughter and I walked for two hours around the town, since both of us enjoy walking, and have begun to agree that you cannot really see a place if you stay inside a car all the time. It was quite an exercise, since we walked fast, and didn’t spare ourselves the steepest roads. It gave us quite a few photo-ops and a keen appetite, among other things. A large part of the town is under military occupation, it being the headquarters of both the 101 Area Command of the Army and the Eastern Air Command, under a Lieutenant General and an Air Marshal respectively, no less. Besides, there are cantonments of the Indo Tibetan Border Police, the CRPF and the NCC. It’s obvious that India is taking the troubles on its borders seriously, and no wonder, because both China and Bangladesh are only a few minutes by air. But the heavy military presence is largely responsible, I am sure, for keeping the town so clean and green. One awful thing about this place is that the food is prohibitively expensive, especially anything in the line of fruits and vegetables, since everything has to be carried by truck from the plains, so I was told that the locals survive largely on meat, which is relatively cheap, especially pork.

Shillong is special for me because there used to be strong family connections. My mother’s grandfather was a self-made tycoon, and he built a large part of this town, as well as the only highway (still locally called the Gauhati-Shillong Road) and Assam’s first bus transport service and departmental store. The family fortune faded rapidly after his death in 1947, but one of his daughters ran a primary school in her sprawling house where I visited almost forty years ago. Then the huge uprising of the natives began and went through the 1980s, so that most Bengalis had to sell out to the locals and depart. Now all history seems to have been wiped out. The house (N.K. Bhattacharjee and Co.) on Jail Road has been mentioned in Leela Mazumdar’s book Aar Konokhane, but the locals are mostly young and entirely uninterested in the past, and most old buildings have been razed and replaced, so that I could find no traces of what I was looking for. It was almost as bad as looking for Corbett’s house in Nainital…

We returned on the 28th. The drive back was just as slow as the first time round. The plus point was that we had a long panoramic view of Umiam Lake, aka Barapani. The temperature rose rapidly as we came down, so that freezing inside the car was speedily replaced by cooking. En route we stopped off at the famed Kamakshya temple, though I hung back, not being half as religious-minded as my wife, preferring to enjoy the view from the balcony of a house right next to the temple complex. Then back to Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi airport, which, unlike Dumdum/Netaji, offers a smoking room – and yet, they took away my lighter before I could reach it, because here, unlike in Kolkata, the rules stipulate that lighters even in the hold pose a security risk. Bureaucracy is equally cussed everywhere. The view of the lights of the city just before landing was the last bonus. We arrived at my in-laws’ place tired but happy. The next day it was my daughter’s birthday. Yesterday was spent visiting and adding a few more little touches to the new flat: for me it has become a biannual exercise! And this morning we took a Volvo home…

For photos, click on this link.

Four hours of the old year left. I wish all my readers a very Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Booklover lost among philistines

It amazes me to find among my pupils some (albeit a tiny number) who still want to read. And it makes me sigh to know that the more our schools are ‘progressing in keeping with the times’, the less opportunity these children have of reading – not just fiction but all kinds of non-fiction works, including stuff  that they need to reference for the ‘project work’ they are assigned from time to time, whether it is something about dinosaurs or the great depression or faraway stars or environmental movements or world wars. Most end up regurgitating copies of work done earlier by seniors, or material that their parents can beg, borrow or buy, or downloading stuff they have found on the net, or actually getting the project work done lock stock and barrel by professionals for a fee. And they grow up, even the bright ones among them, without having read a tiny fraction of what I’d consider absolutely necessary for someone who wants to function usefully and valuably in today’s world as an educated person.

An old boy who has recently gone over to a major university in Canada wrote back that one of his first strong impressions was that a lot of people read ‘big, fat books’ everywhere – in parks, on trains, at home. And others from some other countries aver that libraries are plentiful, well-stocked, and well-patronized. All I can do is sigh. I guess I was born in the wrong country. I would call any Indian city, including mine, civilized only when it accommodates haunts for bibliophiles like this (many thanks to Anindya Banerjee for sending me the link). I tried to buck the trend in a very small way for many years : as a schoolteacher, and even as a private person. Then I had to give up charge of the school library shortly before I resigned, and after suffering the agony of having too many books stolen and dismembered, and hearing too much parental abuse about how I was ‘misguiding and distracting’ their children I couldn’t take it any more, so I stopped lending out my own books routinely to my pupils, too. The generation of kids growing up in front of my eyes now, my daughter’s generation, has read virtually nothing beyond textbooks and comics ( a lot haven’t even read Tintin and Asterix!), so no matter what I ask them to talk or write about, be it parachutes or pumas, deserts or dreams, they evince an ignorance, or even worse, unconcern, that makes my heart ache. And I never cease wondering how such utterly ignorant folks can go on to get and hold down jobs that I once supposed required a great deal of knowledge!

So today, when I encourage young people to read, I have adopted a different tack. I don’t tell them merely that it would help them to become good doctors and engineers and business managers, because I now know that’s a lie: I rather tell them it will make them fuller, happier, more mature people, better able to cope with the challenges of life, having more real entertainment at their command than those who depend on parties and shopping and festivals, less likely to be swept off their feet by the siren song of advertizing, and proud of themselves for knowing a lot more about the world and about mankind than their peers do.

Imagine an eighteen year old who has grown up without having read (and remembered-) not only the world’s finest fairy tales but the Mahabharata and Shakespeare and Tagore and Russell, and not even Dickens and Conan Doyle and Wilde and Shaw and Wells and Kipling and Wodehouse and Hemingway and Asimov and Gerald Durrell and Herriot and Corbett and Jack London and Alistair Maclean and Nevil Shute and Chekhov and Pushkin and Tolstoy and Balzac and Hugo, nor even the great modern classics like Gone with the wind, All Quiet on the Western Front, Anne Frank’s Diary, To kill a Mockingbird, Grapes of Wrath, The Good Earth, How Green was my Valley, Exodus and The Agony and the Ecstasy… who has hardly even encountered any contemporary writer of greater substance than Chetan Bhagat! It takes my breath away, it makes me feel like a lone man on the Planet of the Apes. 

Saturday, December 10, 2011

AMRI blaze: who really cares?

At latest count, about ninety people, most of them helpless patients, died in the accidental fire that broke out yesterday at one of Kolkata’s premier (and most expensive –) hospitals. Most of them choked to death. See this report.

Virtually every adult in this country knows, of course, that our closed public spaces are high-risk fire hazards as a rule. Occasional disasters merely remind us of this grotesque fact, such as the fire on the Doon Express a few days ago, the blaze at Stephen’s Court, also in Kolkata some time ago, the news of a large number of schoolchildren who were roasted alive somewhere in south India before that, and a similar incident at a Delhi cinema a few years before that. We live with that knowledge, preferring not to think about it, since we all feel that very ordinary people like us cannot do a thing by ourselves to change things for the better, and praying is better than worrying that it may happen to us or ours, since worry only leads to bad dreams and ulcers.

The fact of the matter, though, is that it isn’t only ordinary people (who are most likely to be the victims) who don’t care: those in power don’t, either. Most places like schools, offices, bazaars, cinemas and hospitals either do not have clearances showing that they are prepared to handle such emergencies with minimum loss of life and limb, or even if their papers are in order, the ground reality is that they are entirely unprepared, both in terms of equipment and trained personnel. It’s like not only do you shut your eyes when you look at disaster hurtling towards your car, but your driver does too! So the security guards not only do not swing into action at once but dally in raising the alarm, the police arrive late, the firemen, despite their courage and best of intentions, are handicapped by woefully inadequate equipment too, and they all have to rely on the spontaneous and desperate assistance given by the men from the nearby slum – who, ironically, are personae non grata to the authorities in the normal course of things! They do their best, of course, but that best, being clumsy and chaotic, cannot prevent a horrific casualty toll. After a brief outburst of lamentation and indignation – maybe a roadblock for a few hours, a few buses burnt, a few low level functionaries beaten up, some compensation announced and some condolences offered – the public forgets, the media turn their attention to newer sensations, the police cases are covered up, the culprits (to wit the moneybags who run these profit-churning institutions and cannot bother to ‘waste money’ on safety precautions) let off with  minor reprimands and fines, and no strict, large-scale, exhaustive measures are adopted to ensure that such horrors will never be repeated.

That some people, layman or high official, claim to be shocked when such mishaps occur is what makes me want to puke.  Why do they pretend, grown-up and educated people, that they don’t know how uncaring and inept we are, most of us, at taking responsibility for others, even when that happens to be our job? The other day I had asked some pupils to write a short essay on the kind of fire-control measures they had at school, and they had little idea – no fault of theirs! – and when I told them about some of the rules (fire escapes, extinguishers and sandbags on every floor, at least a few full-body asbestos suits for emergency rescue, sick room with nurses skilled in first aid, police and fire brigade hotlines, regular evacuation drills and teachers trained compulsorily to handle such crises…) they laughed cynically, as well they might, knowing whatever they already do: ‘Sir, is there one school in this country which is fully prepared in that sense?’ And as for this particular hospital, let me narrate just one incident in which I was personally involved. About 11 years ago I had gone there to get a CAT scan done (there was a pain in the neck and the doctor suspected spondylitis). I asked about costs at the reception, and the figure they quoted sounded exorbitant to me, so I was visibly hesitating when the man asked ‘How much money do you have in your pocket (apni koto taka enechhen)? It sounded such a bizarre question that I felt I was talking to a carrion-eating vulture, not a human being. I turned around without a word  and went off to get the scan done elsewhere. This is the attitude of the personnel who deal with you first at that hospital. Is it any wonder that they would be ghoulishly unconcerned about patient safety? Tellingly, while a couple of nurses lost their lives trying to save sick children, a lot of staffers, including securitymen, allegedly ran for safety at the first hint of serious danger.

One Bengali newspaper (Shongbad Protidin, p. 4) has published a very sympathetic article today about the proprietor of the hospital, one S.K. Todi, saying what a nice man he is, and how hard he has worked to give the city a great hospital, how unfair it is of fate to deal him such a big blow in his declining years, and how this ‘utterly unexpected’ disaster has left him a broken man. CM Mamata Banerjee has promptly cancelled the licence of the hospital, and vowed to give the ‘harshest punishment’ to the guilty. It remains to be seen whether she would like to start with Mr. Todi. If he is not an arch criminal making money hand over fist with utter disregard for human life, can’t we at least agree that he is too big a fool (if he really thinks the disaster was ‘utterly unexpected’) to be trusted with running anything more serious than a street-corner paan shop?

One last word for the young and not-so-young who worship the wealthy like gods: these are the CEO types who drive about in BMWs, stay in seven-star hotels and go holidaying in the Riviera. Do you begin to see why I habitually wrinkle my nose when I hear of them?

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Bbuddah hoga terra baap!



Just watched Amitabh Bachchan’s Bbuddah hoga terra baap.

As one reviewer has put it: “Corny, a little desperate and contrived, but Bbuddah Hoga knows that and doesn’t care… Bachchan playacts here, but with chutzpah and humour and still has the power to make you smile and weep… for fans, it is one big, happy bear cuddle with the man with whom they’ve had their longest love affair.” And by God, it stirs nostalgia with spades.

The director says at the end that it is an unabashed and feisty tribute to the icon so many of us have grown up with (and like whom so many of us are growing old now), and many of us, even very solemn and learned and successful ones among us, have secretly longed to emulate, at least in some ways, at least at some stage of our lives.

What a career it has been, through so many ups and downs, so many disasters, so many write-offs, so many comebacks, so many avatars! Just glancing down a list of all the memorable movies and roles takes one’s breath away. Since the days of Saat Hindusthani and Anand we had Zanzeer, and Namak Haram and Chupke Chupke and Deewar, through all-time landmarks like Sholay, and then Amar Akbar Antony, Muquaddar ka Sikandar, Kaala Patthar, Adaalat, Trishul, Don, Silsila and Shakti, by which time he was probably the most famous Indian alive, through the disaster years that began with the near-fatal accident on the sets of Coolie, disease and family trouble and political mess and financial crisis, and then, when virtually everyone had given up on him as a burnt-out has-been, barring occasional blips like Agneepath and Suryavansham, there came the renaissance that started with Mohabbatein and has not run out of steam yet, and he has already given us as varied fare as Bunty aur Babli, Cheeni Kum, Black, Viruddh, Baghban, Paa, Sarkar, Bhootnath, Nishabd, Dev, Khaki, Rann and The Last Lear.  Along the way he made a huge success of KBC on TV, and has managed to impress all kinds of industry greats including Francois Truffaut and Satyajit Ray, for that unique trademark baritone if nothing else, and has even set his own benchmark as a playback singer (who can say s/he has been unaffected by Mere pas awo mere doston ek kissa suno or Main or meri tanhai or Rang barse…? you should try out this latest number too, if you haven't heard it already).

And he has never really been handsome and smart, either, except insofar as he defined those ideas to fit himself and persuade hundreds of millions of cinegoers, including those who were always a little worried about whether he could even act at all! What can you say about a man like that? What kind of staying power does it call for, what kind of talent and grit? All I could think of after watching Bbuddah was, be as solemn or corny or heartrending or way out as you like, Mr. Bachchan, only live and act some more years, and “do not go gentle into that good night… rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What does it mean to be intelligent?

An old boy recently wrote me a one-line email: ‘Sir, what does it mean to be intelligent?’ The best of my old boys are like that: they suddenly pop up with questions, not only because they are really keen to have an answer, but probably because they know I like people who make me think.

This is what I wrote back: “Ha! You could look up H.J. Eysenck’s books (such as Check your own IQ) for starters, I suppose. Then consider that many experts opine that there are different kinds of intelligence: someone who is great at chess could be hopeless in business, a physicist a dud in politics. Personally, I judge my pupils’ intelligence by how many times they have to be told the same things, how long they remember things they are told, how quickly they pick up hints and see connections between different things, how creative their imaginations are, how curious they are to know things ‘not in their syllabus’... things like that. As you well know, I don't call many people intelligent, and I see remarkably few really intelligent people among those who routinely ace their examinations.” I could have added that an intelligent pupil usually has a lot of questions to ask, and likes to argue every point – so intelligence can flourish only with encouragement from liberal minded, enthusiastic and intelligent teachers (parents importantly among them), especially in the early years!

I deliberately kept that reply short, but I do have a few things to add. First, that intelligence is a very interesting thing – most of civilization we owe to it. What is even more noteworthy about it is that all through history, hardly 10 per cent, or perhaps even less, of the human population could have ever been called intelligent by any yardstick (and I don’t care how ‘elitist’ this sounds – the same applies to other things, like for instance ‘beautiful’. These are facts: if you don’t like the way they are, quarrel with the Maker, don’t call your fellow men names out of frustration and spite!). Also, don’t ascribe worldly success to intelligence: statistically speaking, luck (including which parents you were born to), daring, diligence and ruthlessness, combined sometimes with some native skill which has found a lucrative market, like playing cricket in contemporary India, together play a far bigger role in your success than any intelligence you may possess – indeed, an excess of intelligence might be a serious liability in all sorts of worldly careers which require getting along with the herd and not noticing or bothering overmuch about all that is wrong and weird and stupid around you.

Intelligence sometimes makes you conceited, and helps to make enemies, so it is a good thing to temper it with modesty and quietness. However, whether or not an intelligent person is stuck up, it makes others jealous and spiteful, so it behoves the intelligent person to be careful unless s/he wants to be nailed to the cross, and reconcile to the fact that s/he will be lonely all through life, unless s/he is exceptionally lucky to have a few admiring friends. We hate clever people much more than any other type.

A lifetime of reading, observing and teaching at all levels has convinced me that academic merit has very little to do with intelligence, whether you are looking at the kindergarten level or at post-doc scholars. Learning, yes, sometimes, but not intelligence. Also, children are usually much smarter than adults are, and in that sense that chestnut which says ‘I was born intelligent, but education ruined me’ hits the nail absolutely on the head, especially given the kind of ‘education’ that has been drummed into people’s heads over the last two generations in this country and some others I could name. Which, of course, does not mean that any pinhead teenager who goes around with that legend on her t-shirt has a right to imagine that she should be identified as intelligent, mind you.

Some people of superlative intelligence are very narrowly focused, but I give highest marks to those who have a very wide diversity of interests and talents – the Leonardo and Tagore and Asimov types.

Emotional intelligence is not the same as being able to do complex math quickly in  the head: it means being able to imaginatively understand and sympathize with other people’s plight and points of view, and even think up solutions for their problems (which are not usually of a ‘convergent’ nature, meaning the sort they ask you to tackle in most tests for entrance to engineering or business school) even if you have not personally shared in their experiences. In this sense, many an old-fashioned grandma is far more intelligent than her grandson who has just graduated from a top-flight technical college. Technical/mechanical intelligence – the sort that makes successful inventors, scrabble players and entrepreneurs – I believe, is not only far more common than that of the emotional type, but is getting  dangerously  too common in a world which maniacally undervalues the other type both in academia and in the job market. You cannot expect decent people, leave alone saints, to flourish in a world where plumbers (or software writers, or mannequins) are far more highly rewarded, and not just in terms of money. For instance, so many people whom I once knew cannot understand why I should forget them or become cool and aloof when they try to renew contact after a hiatus of many years… that’s the sort of lack of intelligence I am talking about, and all these people are more or less educated, even bright if you go by their examination scores.

In close connection with emotional intelligence comes the question of wit. And I must insist on this: although wit can be taken too far, a keen appreciation of humour is one very important sign of the kind of intelligence I value most – perhaps because it is so rare around me. Intelligent people, unless they are depressive, laugh a lot, make people laugh, don’t take themselves too seriously, and limit their aggression to verbal barbs (never, of course, stooping to abuse, which is anything but witty).

Intelligence (and talent) can flourish only in a milieu where they are actively identified and patronized. It is no wonder that certain brief periods in the history of many countries have been emblazoned with the apparently ‘sudden’ appearance of a great many men and women of the highest intelligence. India today would rank pretty low in terms of how she values the kind of people who make good writers, lawmakers, teachers, judges and saints. Next to being a highly intelligent man, it is best to be a man who respects and values intelligence, especially if you are in a position of some power, whether as a school headmaster or a tycoon or a cabinet minister. Best for the country, I mean.

Paradoxically, exceptionally intelligent men are often far more sympathetic to the slow and foolish than people of quite average intelligence are: read Maugham’s short story Salvatore, and Tagore’s Balai.

Finally, I must bear witness to the impression that the more this country drowns in solemn and self-important mediocrity, the less it wants to see intelligent people flourish.

Here is also a link to something that some of my readers might find interesting for further reading.

Have I done justice to your question now, Amit, in case you are reading? Any other question on the subject that I can try to answer, readers?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Debjaan

I have always held that Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyay would have won the Nobel Prize for literature if he had had the good fortune to be born English or French or Spanish or even Russian: it was his misfortune that he was born a Bengali. Outside a very tiny circle of readers, his fame rests overwhelmingly on only one book, the Apu Trilogy beginning with Pather Panchali, immortalized in cinema by Satyajit Ray. He deserved much better. Aranyak, The Tale of the Forest, is certainly – to my knowledge, at least – one of a kind as a novel, and I hold it as one of the hundred greatest books I have ever read. His adventure saga for children of all ages, Chander Pahaar, The Mountain of the Moon, is likewise a gem of the finest cut: it still takes my breath away to think that any author could write so knowledgeably and evocatively about faraway places he had only read (and dreamt-) about. In Bengali, only Premendra Mitra’s Surjyo Kaandle Shona in the same genre can be placed on the same pedestal, and no Bengali writer, even with the internet at his disposal, has come close to equaling the feat in the last 20 years. So also Adorsho Hindu Hotel, which I encouraged my daughter to write about on her blog some time ago, and Ichhamati, and Ashani Sanket.

Now I have just finished reading and digesting Debjaan, another little novel of his, and I am filled with a sublime wonder. I had read it when I was a boy, but then, somehow, it didn’t make a very great impression: evidently I had to grow up a great deal before I could appreciate its true worth!

It is an adventure story spanning many worlds and many lifetimes. In one sense, it is cast in the mould of Lord of the Rings and Asimov’s Foundation series; at least, those who have read and loved those books would relish it most. What makes it unique is that it is unabashedly spiritual in tone and message, not merely carrying religious overtones like Lewis’ Narnia saga. Drawing from many Indian theological traditions, including the bhakti of the vaishnav and the advaita of the gnyana yogi (and blending them magnificently with many of the findings and speculations of 20th century science, such as distant galaxies beyond human vision and  supernovae and baby stars being born out of interstellar gas, and the possibility of intelligent life – though perhaps of a sort very different from the terrestrial – flourishing on many other planets, and that ‘reality’ could exist in many dimensions beyond those perceived by the human senses), it describes the soul’s journey through many worlds, many heavens, seeing the human drama unfolding with supra-human eyes, being reborn again and again, wading through all kinds of sin and depravity and yet struggling forever towards the light, pulled ever upwards by the all-conquering power of love, meeting incomprehensibly higher beings (gods/angels if you like), some of whom were human once – and all along trying, with ever greater understanding and still falling hopelessly short, to realize the Ultimate, the Absolute, both the alpha and the omega, from whom all things physical and mental arise and into whom they go back again, whom some call God, knowing whom is the only way to gain true freedom and joy and glory.

The Upanishad has been quoted here: adityavaranam purushang mahantam/ vedahametang tamaso parastat/ twameva viditwati mrityumeti/ nanya pantha vidyathe ayanayah (it is only by directly knowing the effulgent Being who stands beyond the darkness and the void that you can overcome Death: there is no other way). But I was also reminded of the medieval brajabuli poet Vidyapati writing in praise of the Supreme Lord of All: kata chaturanana mari mari jawata, na tuwa adi avasana/ tohe janami punah tohe samawata, saagar lahari samana (so many Creator Brahmas have been born from You who is without beginning and end, and died again, like waves on an infinite ocean…), and I remembered Emily Dickinson writing This world is not conclusion, a Species stands beyond/ Invisible as music, but positive, as sound/ ...To guess it puzzles scholars, to gain it men have borne/ Contempt of generations, and crucifixion, shown/ Faith slips, and laughs, and rallies/ Blushes, if any see/ Plucks at a twig of evidence, and asks a vane the way…

The book, I felt, and my daughter independently concurred, fills one with an ineffable sense of peace and confidence and cheerfulness. Once I allow the full possibility of the vastness of reality to pervade my mind, much ennui fades, much that I take seriously becomes trivial, and much terror begins to look silly. I wonder whether Professor Dumbledore had read the Gita, but he got it absolutely right at least twice: ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’ and ‘To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.’ Ekam satya, the truth is one, though maybe vipra bahudha vidanti, the wise sometimes call it by different names.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Idealistic horrors

Ideals? Yes, it is important to have some ideals, especially in a world which is rapidly becoming gross, totally obsessed with the here and now, convinced that just about everything goes, and mindlessly materialistic, nowhere better illustrated than by the way caring for skin, hair, teeth and nails has become a multi-billion dollar industry, promising to keep you eternally young and appealing, utterly at odds with the ineluctable fact that no matter how much we try and spend, we are all going to grow old and fusty, and then die and be forgotten all too soon, all of us except the blessed few who leave valuable things behind, and not even they for very long… It is important to love living things rather than gadgets, it is important to dream (and not just about making money!), it is important to hold on to certain non-negotiable values simply because one is convinced that they are good in themselves, it is important to believe that there’s more to life than bestial, sensual existence, even if that is a five-star existence… that’s the sort of thing I mean. And so (see my post titled 'Skepticism and cynicism') I celebrate when I see young people who do have some ideals, and I take my hat off to elderly people who still retain a few.

I am, however, congenitally the kind of person who is wary of wild enthusiasms of any sort, especially idealistic ones. It is possible to be too idealistic. One can simply be bone-lazy all one’s life and pass it off as an effect of idealism – I have personally known far too many people of the sort. They do no good to themselves and remain burdens on their families and friends lifelong, myriad forever-just-about-to-become-great artists and philosophers among them. The type is not unique to any particular age or race, but I am ashamed that there’s a preponderance of such folks among my own people, the Bengalis. Then there are people who are truly idealistic, loving, caring, deeply spiritual, but such a one too can be a cross for others to bear. The great medieval Marathi saint Tukaram wrote a song in a moment of total candour that while he spent all his time praising the Lord, the cow ate up the vegetables from his stall, while his wife wept and cursed him for not feeding his own children. In today’s world the type has grown pretty uncommon, but not extinct.

What led me to write this essay, however,  was this article about how the very great romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was not, in real personal life, halfway as wonderful a man as he comes across through his poetry. One shudders to think of the dichotomy, really, and thanks heaven that he never got a chance to ‘remould the world nearer to heart’s desire’, in Omar Khayyam’s words. It is this type who, when they do get a chance to wield power over men’s bodies and minds, become Robespierres and Lenins: and millions rue the day they stopped writing poetry and started making and executing laws. No wonder Shelley’s long-suffering wife fiercely wanted her son to become just a normal, ordinary man!

As my dear old boy Abhirup says, quoting a line from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I only seem to have a ‘choice of nightmares’. What would I rather have: a world with more Shelleys in it, or one filled with dumb and crass teenagers (of all ages… see my post titled 'Juvenilia') living it up at the pubs and shopping malls as if there need be no tomorrow?

[P.S.: The results of the poll have been fixtured at the bottom of the right hand sidebar]

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Post poll stock-taking

Well, I am writing with mixed feelings. 140-odd people apparently read my blog regularly and like it; as many as 85 have even done me the courtesy of calling the blog ‘educational’: that is most gratifying as far as it goes.

At the same time, I wonder a) why the number of members is so low still, given that so many people know me and so many people visit – what makes people so shy of publicly acknowledging that they visit a certain blog? It’s neither a crime nor a socially dangerous activity! b) why so many of the current members (there are more than 200 right now) didn’t vote at all, though I gave them almost forty days, c) why there are as a rule so few comments (I am comparing with some blog writers I know – not even celebrities either – whose every post attracts scores, even hundreds of comments), d) why certain posts that I write with great earnestness, whether it be a story or the essay I wrote just before this one, draw almost no comments at all, despite being visited hundreds of times, e) why I cannot attract more visitors to my other blog, and lastly, f) why some people visited my daughter’s blog eagerly when I announced its birth, but have since decided not to visit it again, or even if they do, never to comment on it. It would have been such good encouragement to a girl who is doing something better than what most girls of her age and social class do, which is nothing much beyond wasting their time and their parents’ money…

When there is no material expectation involved, one writes purely for the pleasure of sharing one’s most sincere and evocative thoughts with some friendly people. I write because I cannot help it: I have been writing all sorts of stuff ever since I was a little boy. But I wrote for a reading public only for a relatively short while, when I was into journalism. Since quitting that, writing has always been a private hobby, to be shared, if at all, only with a few interested pupils, family and friends. I got back into the public domain with blogging only because some old boys had urged me to make a beginning, saying that it would be a very nice way to communicate with a lot of people scattered around the world who want to keep in touch but cannot think of any other way – physical visits are rare or impossible, while conversations over the phone, necessarily brief and often abrupt and unexpected, are quite unsatisfactory. I did think it was a good idea (look up my second post) and took the plunge. I never do things half-heartedly, so – as should be evident – I have been at it assiduously all these years, writing not too much, but not too little either. And now I am beginning to wonder. Especially when I think of the paucity of comments, and when ex-students call or chat online and I get to know from them that they haven’t visited my blogs for ages. Is it time to give this up as a bad job, from which nothing much more can be expected? 

Give me a little encouragement, people, to show that my initial hopes were not wholly unfounded. If, that is, you really want this blog to stay alive. Otherwise, it will probably go the way of my orkut community, which is to say oblivion.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

India, twenty years after



It has been twenty years since the fairly ambitious economic reforms (grouped under the headings of liberalization-privatization-globalization) were launched in 1991 under the stewardship of the then Union Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, with the blessings of both the International Monetary Fund and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. Many of my readers have grown up over this period (I have in mind all who were less than 18 in 1991), so what went before is history to them; even, as I fear is likely, mostly unknown history.

In  short then, India did not really change course (that is, shake off its Nehruvian socialistic legacy, as modified in the Indira Gandhi era) of her own will; she was forced by extreme circumstances. The public sector driven model of growth had stagnated, if not entirely failed, technology had remained by and large primitive, the economy was in the doldrums, poverty and unemployment were rampant, shortages of essential commodities a part of daily life, corruption was perceived to be eating into the vitals of society like a cancer (sounds familiar?), and we had come perilously close to national bankruptcy. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the US was triumphant, China was growing spectacularly along the path of ‘market socialism’ shown by Deng Xiaoping, and Rajiv Gandhi had induced a vague sense of national urgency: ‘the future is being determined by drift and not by direction’. So it was decided at the highest level to give ‘new ideas’ a try (in a manner of speaking – basically it was a tentative throwback to 19th century free-for-all capitalism which had been thoroughly discredited and reviled worldwide three generations ago!) In  a nutshell, government began to relax controls and step back in almost all spheres of life, while encouraging private initiative and capital, both domestic and foreign, to ‘go forth and multiply’.  

What has happened in these twenty years, if we try to draw up a report card?

First, the good news.

  • We have jumped on to a much higher GNP growth curve, and for more than a decade we have been among the fastest growing economies in the world,
  • The economy has certainly opened up to a considerable degree, so that well-off urban consumers today can buy almost all global brands of consumer goods off the shelf,
  • Our foreign exchange reserves have ballooned,
  • Some sectors, such as telecom, IT, pharmaceuticals, automobiles and airlines have experienced spectacular growth,
  • We now have several dozen dollar billionaires (growing yearly), and more than 100,000 high net worth individuals (owning disposable assets worth more than a million dollars), and a comfortably off, high-aspirational middle class estimated to be anything between 60 and 150 million strong,
  • We are a nuclear power (but so are failed states like Pakistan and North Korea!), planning missions to the moon, and being engaged by big powers including the US, Russia and China in globally significant cooperative projects (albeit still in a rather small way, considering our size and our idea of our own importance).

However, the flip side list would be much longer (I’d prefer my readers to draw it up for themselves, perhaps helped along by a lot of things I have written here earlier!).

In order to emerge as definitely a great power respected worldwide within another 25 years (one generation), India, I think, absolutely must concentrate on achieving at least the following

  • Maintaining an overall annual economic growth rate of 7%-plus per annum,
  • Quickly reducing the annual population growth rate to about 0.5%,
  • Sustained pursuit of anti-poverty programs to reduce the proportion of desperately poor people to less than 5% (compared to varying current expert estimates of between 26 and 40%), and
  • Conserving and improving upon all the resources, natural, cultural, technical and spiritual, that we (still-) have.

In turn, in order to achieve the above, we must

  • Mount a serious and sustained national anti-corruption campaign, starting with massive electoral reforms,
  • Reorganise education so that it simultaneously serves two equally critical objectives: a) giving the vast majority of the population basic education and saleable skills (by which I mean everything from plumbing to surgery) for a living, alongwith a minimum of civic sense, and b) allowing the intellectual elite to flourish, so that a new outburst of creativity of the highest order is encouraged, equally in the sciences and the arts: there is no other way for a country to be regarded as a world leader,
  • Build infrastructure on a war footing – roads, ports, airports, canals, bridges, dams, power stations, housing, new cities by the score and the like,
  • Make the richest 10% pay for all the developmental expenditure in a much bigger way than they have done since 1947 through a war on hidden wealth and a combination of sternly implemented income tax, wealth tax, inheritance tax, luxury consumption tax and gifts tax (in 2006, they held 53% of the country’s total wealth: see the table under the heading ‘Living standards’ at this website. The figure has been rising continuously, and I won’t be surprised if it has crossed 60% in 2011: 10% of the population holding 60% of the country’s wealth – and that too, not taking account of the huge black economy!), because there are no other sources of the enormous funds that will be necessary, and tens of millions of people enjoying the advantage of good roads and clean drinking water is infinitely more important than a few thousands living in palaces and driving BMWs,
  • Ensure a far stronger, more efficient maintenance of law and order in day to day life, with particular attention to the weakest sections – women, children, the handicapped, the old and the ill, more especially the poor among these categories regardless of caste, creed and location  – than we have had the good fortune to enjoy so far,
  • Make a concerted and vigorous nationwide campaign to improve the natural environment and preserve the literary/artistic heritage (both being so neglected and so seriously on the verge of ruin at present as to raise fears that the country will soon become unliveable physically and barbaric culturally).

A few things must be remembered in this context:

  • Though our GDP (in purchasing power parity-adjusted terms) might exceed that of the USA by mid-century, by per capita income we are still likely to remain a rather poor country, given our enormous population,
  • Right now, we are rapidly becoming a dual nation – in terms of the rural/urban divide, the educational divide, the cultural divide, the income/wealth divide – can progress be sustained for long under these conditions?
  • We are not, I think, a hardworking nation: we work only if we are compelled to (which I think explains the success of NRIs). Is there a solution to this problem, without dictatorship of some kind (which I am against because of both strategic and moral considerations)?
  • We do not learn from past mistakes, unlike many other nations. Can this be changed?
  • The young among the most privileged sections, in terms of both education and income, are rapidly becoming sure that there is nothing to aim for in life beyond money and shopping: your degree of success varies only in terms of how much you make and spend (and how you make your money is unimportant: being a fashion model or video jockey or cocktail shaker is ‘better’ than being a teacher or poet or scientist or soldier if it helps to make easy money more quickly. Note well: their parents overwhelmingly agree – no ‘generation gap’ here!). Also, aping American slang is their only index of smart discourse, and ignorance, far from being shameful, is rapidly becoming okay, if not actually a matter of pride: one no longer has to know anything to claim the right to hold strong opinions. Has any nation become great with this quality of human resources?  Can google really substitute for both brains and consciences?

In March 2010, I wrote a post titled Join this debate. The response from my readers was rather tepid. I am trying to rekindle the argument. Let us see whether I succeed this time. For clarity’s sake, readers may comment categorically on a) whether they agree that I have a big dream for my country or not, b) whether it is a good dream, c) whether it is likely to come true within the near future, and d) what obstacles stand in the way. Do write in with thoughtful comments. Most of my readers are much younger than I am: remember it is your future that I am discussing here.

P.S.: I have been reading Sugata Bose’s new biography of Subhas Chandra Bose, and have been trying to think of India’s future as Subhas might have thought if he were alive now, and about my age (exactly the age when he vanished from the public eye). I refuse to believe that his thoughts would have been less valuable for India than Nandan Nilekani’s. No personal slight intended against the last-named: it’s only that I hate to see ‘dwarfs in giant’s robes’ being hailed as giants. As I wrote somewhere before, once we had the likes of Vivekananda, Gandhi, Tagore, Subhas and Jagadish Bose to look up to, now we have SRK and Dhoni and Nilekani and Hazare. Speaks volumes for the road India has travelled since 1947…

Thursday, October 20, 2011

IT glory!

An old boy of mine, who has been working for a top-of-the-line IT company for nearly two years, has written bitterly about his experience here. It makes me sad, firstly because I love the boy, and secondly because, despite this being the ground reality, millions of parents all around this country are still drumming it into the minds of their teenage children that they must 'study science' to the exclusion of all other subjects, then sit for the engineering entrance exams, then get a 'good' job - only to end up in this state of disillusionment and misery in their mid-20s: after which, if they blame their parents for ruining their lives, the parents would give the lame excuse that they only did what 'everybody' said was best for their child. The post also gives a glimpse of the sordid reality behind India's so-called success story. It takes a brave young man to confess the truth publicly. I hope a lot of my readers will not only visit that blogpost, but also comment here, saying  they now understand what I warn them about and against, though I know how unpopular it makes me with their parents who supply me with my daily bread...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Story sequel

This is a post with a difference, in the sense that I didn't write it. Some time ago I had tentatively posted the first part of a story in the making, and got disheartened with the almost complete lack of response. It turns out, however, that someone was deeply interested: my old boy Debarshi Saha (a student of engineering, too) has taken the trouble to write the conclusion of that story in his own way. I have pasted the thing as he wrote it below. Goes without saying that both he and I will be glad to read comments about how it went down...


PART-2

These people are incomprehensible; and yes, also frightening! How do you account for the wordless language that binds me and my customers together? No matter how strange the request, how varied the tastes, I never disappoint them. Earlier, when I was a novice, my customers would praise a certain seller and his lip-smacking recipe, and advise me to be more like the individual. Those days were strange- me combing the streets of this town to find the elusive recipe that would entice his customers away from him, finding it, and perfecting my art; Now, I come up with improvisations frequently, and love to deliver to my customers the tangy taste that lingers behind- and keeps bringing them back to me frequently! Over the years, I have learned to love them all- Yes, I love the bespectacled banker who is always in a hurry, the little girl who gives me an impish grin, the young couples who always fiddle about with their mobile phones, and even the schoolboys who chatter like magpies- I love them all. I have learned to live with the condescending sneer directed by some towards me, the mournful air assumed by hapless lovers, the happy smiles some bestow towards me, and the gasps uttered by some on finding my paani-puri too spicy!

I often look wistfully at the temple gates, and catch myself feeling equal, at par with everybody else, in front of the Creator- who, strangely enough, was the one who ordained me to be different from my fellow-men! Is Life one never-ending cruel joke? I have spent many seasons in the sun, spent countless hours trudging down the water-logged roads to home, getting drenched in torrential outbursts, but still, I have held onto Hope, maybe the most beautiful thing of all. Walking down lonely and dark roads, with only the stillness of the surroundings to keep me company- I have been able to hear my own voice for once, in this industrial town, where most people are stone-deaf. I remember the day, when, as I was wending my way back home along a dark alley, I witnessed an accident. The man was flung from his scooter like a rag-doll, which skidded and thumped onto the wall, sustaining serious damage. He hadn’t accounted for the careless patch of oil left behind by some callous tanker, which led to this disaster. I remember rushing to his side, and cradling his head in my arms- He looked up at me beseechingly, with eyes that wanted to live, out of a socket that had begun to bleed. I hysterically screamed at the top of my lungs, rushing towards a nearby shop for help- and after that, the moments seem to have gone by in a flash. He was helped onto a private car, and whisked away to a hospital- by the kindly owner of the shop. I returned home, and spent the rest of the fateful night tossing and turning about in bed, thinking about the fragile gift of Life, which we all possess; but so few of us cherish! I remember going down on my knees and thanking God profusely, clutching my wife and son tightly to my chest.

The next day, I went about my work as usual and I remember thinking, “I wonder if he’s all right. Let no man die before his time has come.” I do not remember all the details, but I remember the motorcycle that halted at my stall, the person who jumped off it and embraced me like a brother! The flush that filled my cheeks and the wave of joy that ran through my heart- sent my pulse racing, when I learnt that the person was the victim’s son, and that his father owed his life to my timely action, and that he was now on his way to recovery. His father had wished to see me, and so I accompanied him to the hospital- in the midst of Life we are surrounded by Death, aren’t we? The man was a private construction contractor, who offered me a daily job as a worker- an offer I refused, and wished to pass onto my prodigal elder son, who had returned home with an empty pocket and a heavy heart, rife with evil habits. He gladly accepted, and I returned home feeling on top of the world- Little did I know the evil design that Life seemed to have fashioned with the fabric of fate.

A fool and his money are soon parted; a drunkard and his life are soon parted too. Intoxicated with country liquor, my son fell to his death from 5 storeys above while trying to climb onto a precariously constructed porch. This happened six months after that day, and has been a memory that haunts me to this day. I cannot begin to assuage my grief still; as the thought torments me every waking hour- Did I send him to his death? He was my flesh and blood, and I will always love him, no matter what. I wanted him to be a man; he ended up a corpse. I wanted him to work hard with his hands and tools; he drove the nail not through the plank of wood, but through my heart. I attempted to drown my sorrows, partaking of the same victuals that pushed my son towards his death- As I stumbled back, with every drunken step leading me towards home, I started thinking; Was I better off dead, or a quitter? I had hoped a few drinks would help me forget him, but after one too many, I started shouting his name all over town, with slurred verses and blurred vision. I have put all those days behind me, with my wife’s love, care and support in those dark times. But, all I wanted was words, his words; and all I heard was nothing.

I now have a radio to keep me company- the foot-tapping, peppy beats of popular numbers that the garrulous radio jockeys belt out are a big hit with my younger customers. They affirm Life and its endless stream of energy, as do marriage halls bedecked and adorned with streamers and flashing lights, venues for the banquets hosted by Life. I have started saving money to arrange for my younger one’s marriage, so that his child will be born, not into a world of bleak landscapes and squalor- but into a world where he might have a chance to live his life. In my childhood, I wanted to be like Mohan, my neighbouring grocer; like Birju, the village fisherman- and then I never became any of them. I would want him to go back to my village, far from the madding crowd, and live a simple, yet happy life. Do I aspire too much for my family? I close my eyes for a moment and the moment’s gone, while all my dreams pass before my eyes with curiosity at my naivety. Had I not yet learnt my lesson?

Anything you do in Life might be insignificant; but it is very important that you do it- because no one else will. All we are, is, dust in the wind, a drop in the endless ocean of Time, the same old song- still, we are humans, albeit divine beings having a worldly experience. None of these words are mine, but the wisecracks by the inquisitive author, who happened to frequent my stall once and still does now, though nowadays he doesn’t linger that long- my stories are getting over quickly! Upon hearing my story, he remarked that a story worth remembering was a story worth narrating. He struck me as the sort of fellow, who, having endured snide remarks from his bourgeoisie friends, was impatient to exhibit an understanding of Life, far beyond his years. Well, he badgered me with questions and “read my eyes” for a long time, when at last he came to his best & final offer of letting me finish my story! How I loved him then, even as I started searching for answers- for becoming the hero of the story, the poor hero whom everyone loves but no one wants to emulate!

I proudly brandished the faded, smudged old sepia photograph of me and my family- the only one proof of our lives - kissed it, held it to my heart and said, “Tell them, let everyone know, that I lived a very happy life and died a very happy man. Tell them, living Life was the happiest moment of my life, although I didn’t know it!” If any of you read this story, or if he ever writes it- do stop by my stall to stare at Life, otherwise you might miss it altogether. My daydreams have transformed my beloved town into a town of signs and spectres; my experience with Life has left me with a map of society’s rituals and mores, and my photograph, with the story of one man’s broken heart.


PART-3

Hello everybody! This is the first time that my muse has granted me permission to reveal myself to you all, who might be reading his story. I couldn’t bring myself to accept the fact that the calluses on his hands, the way of feeling under-rated and unappreciated, the twinkle in his tired eyes when he laughed, were not enough to make him unhappy, to take away his courage, when he looked into my eyes and proclaimed himself to be a very happy man. I flung down my pen and stared at the ceiling, thinking to myself the same thought that would come back to haunt me again and again. You know the riff of a tune, the strains of a violin, and the whiff of the melody in a song that plays over and over in your head- this was the thought that pulled at my very heartstrings, when I realized that maybe Happiness was something you could only pursue, and never reach.

I attempted to visit him many more times, but he never set up his stall near the temple gates again. I wrote nine letters, five of which I put in envelopes, and none of which I posted- he was a man, who carried his home about in his very heart. I resolved to forget about him; He was just another man I had known, among the anodyne sea of acquaintances I had. But I never could. He taught me to keep fighting and to live, something I had never known. Whenever I snuggled into my cosy bed on a chilly night, whenever I sat down at the table to partake of a sumptuous meal, whenever I watched happy people milling around me, I remembered him and his eyes. He had the audacity to dream when Life seemed to be one un-ending nightmare; he had the tenacity to keep dreaming when he should have stopped hoping. Life had not granted him a field of dreams to till; he still had the courage to smile back at Life, when Life frowned at him. But, I did not tell you all this to serve as a mere homily- I wrote down all this so that you all could live your lives, before it is too late. It is never too late to live, is it?

[The paani-puri seller went back to his village, and set up an elementary school, with just two students- his younger son and Mohan the greengrocer’s son. Moved by his efforts, the villagers chipped in and built their school brick by brick. His younger son would go on to become the first graduate from their village, with the help of an NGO that received a letter from a certain individual. Coming back to the village, his son re-modelled his father’s dreams into the first school for his village and neighbouring villages- he named it in memory of his father, and dedicated its mission to the spirit of a brave heart, his father. His grandson would become the first doctor to receive the President’s medal for extraordinary services rendered to his countrymen. The NGO nominated his son as their President, and continues to serve many more fighters across the country. It all started with the letter from the author, who sent his friend’s life story to the NGO. He would go on to publish many more novels, after numerous initial rejections, and eventually win the Sahitya Akademi award. In his emotional acceptance speech, he would affirm that every beauty of Life, and Life itself, deserved a novel. He had dedicated his first published novel to the spirit of his friend, who taught him to live luminously betwixt the two legions of darkness.]

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs, RIP

Well, Steve Jobs is dead. Goodbye, Steve, and sleep well.

Something very personal first. Sudhirda was taken from me by the same disease, cancer of the pancreas. Money and fame gave Steve a few years’ respite, but not very long. No matter how cruel it might sound (and I say this only because Sudhirda mattered to me infinitely more than Steve did), I find it comforting to think that money and fame can take you only so far. I only wish, as one human being for another, that he had got the Biblical three score years and ten.

There is a global outpouring of ‘grief’ in progress right now, of course, and it is only to be expected. Most of these mourners are actually dimly conscious that when they assure the spirit of Steve that they will always remember and admire him, they actually mean that he will be entirely forgotten in, at most, ten years’ time. And that’s quite fitting, too, I think, because (and again I don’t care how unfashionable this sounds), the finest thing he did in his lifetime was composing that Stanford University 2005 commencement speech. As for all the other ‘world-changing’ achievements, he was just one of those techies with sharp marketing skills who got lucky (it only happens in the USA, too!) – anybody who really knows anything about the history of scientific invention and innovation (I wonder how many engineers today belong to that category) will concur wholeheartedly. Glorifying him out of all proportion is actually insulting lots of equally talented innovators who never made the headlines simply because they didn’t make much money; some among them actually helped Steve himself a great deal from behind the shadows. And basically he was nothing more than a toymaker (what’s the iPad more than a toy? And how important is it in our lives if weighed beside, say, electricity or chloroform? One might as well say that the men who designed Barbie and the zip fastener and the first aerated cold drink changed the world forever!). Gandhi was born this month, and this country finds it more cool to mourn Jobs right now than him, regardless of the fact that someone of the stature of Albert Einstein (who, I think, will be remembered a trifle longer than Jobs) had said at the time of his death that ‘generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth’. The father of an old boy of mine, a doctor, noticing the ‘mourning’ on Facebook, exclaimed this morning ‘A toymaker is more important than Gandhi now? The world has progressed a great deal indeed since we were of your age’.

Someone has saluted Steve Jobs on Facebook with ‘We are what we are because of you’. I wonder whether or not that would have made Steve squirm with embarrassment, despite his billions. I know for a fact that some great ‘successes’ are acutely ashamed of their success. Michael Jackson hated listening to pop music, and Andrew Grove, maverick founder CEO of Intel Corp, once remarked about what the internet was doing to humanity: ‘We are drowning in a vast ocean of trivia’. As for Steve’s success, the Dalai Lama would have said with a gentle deprecating smile that he was only one of those who created a world where ‘we have wonderful things to communicate with, and nothing to communicate’ (most sms-es are forwarded jokes and similar crap, aren’t they?). If that makes a ‘great man’, I can do without greatness. I shall think Solon and the Buddha and Michelangelo and Tagore and men of their ilk when I talk about vision and greatness. Let history judge. Very ordinary people can look like giants if we ourselves have become pygmies…

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Panagarh: perpetual nightmare

This is about something close to home that has been irking me no end for a long time. A tiny stretch of highway in a more or less permanently hopeless condition has been making an otherwise swift and pleasurable road trip to Kolkata a nightmare, and nobody really seems to care.

As I think I have said before, I regard the building of this new highway as one of the few unequivocally good things that have happened to this town in the last forty years. It has cut down travelling time to half, made driving a pleasure rather than a nasty chore, and greatly increased land values in and around Durgapur, among other things. It comes back to me that back in December 2000, when we were going to Asansol to catch a train for a holiday trip, we were marvelling at how much smoother and wider the road now was. And already at that time we were talking about how all the ‘flyovers’ had made things simpler for highway drivers (much of the time on the road earlier was spent idling at railway crossings), and how only a little narrow congested stretch through Panagarh was keeping things from being idyllic: how it had become essential for the road and bridge to be widened, and for a flyover to be thrown over the crowded market stretch.

In the years that followed, the luxury Volvo buses came into regular service, and travelling by road became a dream: I have sometimes done the trip in two and a half hours flat, sleeping comfortably all the way. Things had changed so much that the airconditioned coaches in the trains were rarely filled up any more. And yet, there was this one nagging glitch: people in thousands of buses, cars and trucks got stuck for long spells at traffic jams only at Panagarh.

And now, with the road in that short stretch having become filled with potholes and frequently waterlogged, the nightmare has returned in full force. People are getting stuck for hours together, and accidents, even fatal ones, have become a daily routine, as this news report takes note. I find it strange to think that despite the daily suffering of so many people, and the colossal waste of time and money, the authorities are dragging their feet over making essential repairs, leave alone starting construction of that long-delayed flyover. Ten years is not enough to address a major public grievance in this country, which, as so many people insist, is ‘progressing’ very rapidly. Apparently even the land needed to widen the road was acquired as long ago as 2003, and yet! If I know the authorities concerned (and I learnt a great deal about them in my journalistic days), the district magistrate would pass the buck to the National Highway Authority, who would in turn blame either the finance ministry for not coughing up the funds needed or the local politicians for creating hindrances every inch of the way, who in all probability would point at the strenuous objections of the hundreds of shopkeepers of various descriptions whose establishments line both sides of the road – objections which couldn’t be addressed one way or the other in a whole decade! As my father used to say, ‘Not taking a decision is itself a decision, and that is one thing we Indians are congenitally good at.’ I wonder: would this kind of a logjam have been allowed to persist for so long in either a capitalist country like Germany or a communist dispensation like China? Or is there something special about India that cannot be understood in terms of these paradigms?

[psst: Do vote on my poll if you haven’t already]

Thursday, September 22, 2011

New poll

Look to your right: I have put up a new poll after ages to gauge reader opinion. You may select multiple options. Polling closes midnight, 31st October. Many thanks for voting.

P.S., Sept. 25: 35 votes in just three days, and 19 of them have voted 'educational'! This is absolutely wonderful, a very big thank you to all who have voted already. I shall be waiting eagerly to see how the voting pattern changes over the next few weeks...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

America, the beautiful!


There was this front page article in my newspaper (The Telegraph) on September 12 titled ‘Osama gone, hunger gnaws’, discussing how poverty is now rampant in the world’s greatest country. The United States of America, with a population of about 311 million, has 46 million people living on food stamps – government handouts, being the only thing that keeps them from crime and/or beggary. My economist’s instinct assures me that there must be at least another 50 million who are only just somehow managing to hang on above the poverty line; the sort who sweep floors at Wal Mart and man the counters at Macdonald’s, who live in poky rented flats in crumbling inner cities and can never afford holidays, or to go to good hospitals when ill or send their children to college. This, in a country which boasts of the largest number of billionaires and celebrities, and which over the last decade has spent an estimated $2 trillion on the ‘war on terror’, besides at least another three quarters of a trillion in bailing out totally corrupt giant corporations which brought about the recession by recklessly piling up bad investments in a nationwide orgy of greed, and whose directors, proven failures if not also crooks, still continue to draw tens of millions in salaries and perks…

Meanwhile middle class America, used to ease and security for too long, refuses to work hard at downmarket jobs (which is one reason so many of them have been ‘Shanghai-ed’ or ‘Bangalore-ed’), while the rich (about a quarter million earn more than $1 million a year) are paying much less in taxes than they – or their fathers – did twenty years ago, even while the nation’s fiscal debt, now astronomical, is threatening economic catastrophe (or maybe a Chinese takeover). Want to check out these figures? Look up this article written by Warren Buffett, not only one of the richest men in the world, but one of the very few brave and honest billionaires I have ever known.

This nation was the brightest beacon of hope for much of mankind since the end of the 18th century (read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty here),  and great even two generations ago. I personally think the rot began in the late 1960s, though it only started becoming apparent when Dubya Bush took over the reins. Yet she is still big and influential enough to bring about a global disaster if and when she sinks, not merely because much of the rest of the world survives and dreams of progressing by exporting their stuff to her and learning all kinds of technical tricks from her, but because millions of ‘educated’ young people in the rest of the world – India in particular – cannot begin to imagine a world that is not led by the nose by the US of A, in everything from dress codes and ‘music’ to eateries to slang and divorce agreements. God save America – if only because it will still take the rest of the world a long time to grow up!

Friday, September 09, 2011

Hachiko




Just watched this 2009 movie starring (not really) Richard Gere. It’s about the oldest bonding in human history, something that long pre-dates civilization. I hope it endures if civilization vanishes for a while.

I must confess at the outset that I am an inveterate animal lover – well, all large intelligent animals anyway – and given another chance in life I might well have made a career of living with them, the way Jim Corbett, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell and Konrad Lorenz did. Dolphins, elephants, chimps, horses would have all been fine, but dogs especially so: I am slightly crazy about dogs, I think. That might go some way to explain why I found this movie so heart-warming.

I had known about a lot of real and legendary faithful dogs, but somehow not about Hachiko (look up this wikipedia article: that will save me a lot of labour). Although the story has been transplanted to the US – and I found no good explanation for how the puppy turned up there from halfway across the world – it has been educational for me, too, therefore. Many thanks to young River Ghosh for bringing it to me. You can look up this link to find out a little more about the movie, and the comments at this webpage, I think, can only tell you how widely different human beings are.

As I said, the dog is both the real star and show-stealer. I wonder what directors have to do to make children and animals act like that…

I found it good to see that the audience reaction was on the whole very positive, and to learn that in Japan the memory of the (real) dog is still revered, three generations after it died. And it made me ashamed once more to be an Indian, thinking about how animals are treated in this country as a rule.

If you watch the movie, tell me how you liked it.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Crusaders, stand up and be counted!

The last post I wrote about the ongoing anti-corruption ‘crusade’ (A most frightening prospect) has been visited and commented upon a great deal. Now that Hazare-ji is taking a breather and feeling, I’m sure, very pleased with himself while the Parliamentary Standing Committee takes into cognizance some of his demands, I should like to bring up a connected issue that has been bothering me a great deal lately. Who are these ‘crusaders’ behind him – leaving alone the Kejriwal-Bedi-Bhushan types, who are all well-off big shots with their private axes to grind, and who are obviously playing for very high stakes?

One thing that has caught my eye repeatedly on TV and in newspapers is the claim that a huge fraction of Anna Hazare’s supporters belong to the middle class, which is supposedly sick and tired of corruption. Now I have been born in this very class, and have lived cheek by jowl with it all my life in an urban setting – they even supply me with my livelihood. If I have known them even a little, I cannot help wondering whether this claim that they are ‘anti-corruption’ is not the biggest joke of the century, at least in this country. Let’s see whether my readers can deny that the great majority of the middle class

  • Think nothing of cheating in examinations,
  • Get fake birth certificates so that their children can get a few years extra in their jobs,
  •  Think as little about bribing traffic policemen as about bribing gods in return for undeserved favours (if the cop or god does not oblige, he’s bad; and the cop, especially, is bad because he takes a bribe in return for letting them get away with breaking the law…),
  • Demand dowries despite knowing full well it is a punishable crime,  and the more ‘educated’ they are, the bigger the dowry expected, ‘naturally’, 
  • Spread vile gossip about colleagues and neighbours who seem to be happier and more successful,
  • Absolutely refuse to think that job-shirking is serious corruption,
  • ‘Respect’ their elders (both parents and teachers) only to spout the vilest abuse behind their backs,
  • Litter the streets despite knowing it is wrong,
  • Derive great pleasure from making the maximum noise while celebrating anything, from weddings to pujas, much of the pleasure deriving from the knowledge that a lot of harmless people are being disturbed,
  • Steal everything they can from the workplace, from company time (chatting on Facebook) to stationery, to padding travel bills to using the company car for sundry family purposes, and indulge in petty shoplifting everywhere they go (I have written about this before),
  • Cheat the medical insurance companies with false bills (to such an extent that those companies are getting increasingly stringent with innocent and honest customers – this is public knowledge),
  • Grown children don’t want to know how much of daddy’s money is honestly earned as long as daddy can shower them with largesse, whether daddy is a clerk or a factory manager or a doctor or a contractor…

I can extend this list indefinitely, but I don’t think I need to.

These people are supporting the fight against corruption? These people want to live in a clean India – an India where so many of them or their parents could suffer a drastic fall in their standard of living, if not go to jail? Is this black comedy, or pure farce, or am I dreaming, or is there something very deep and subtle about India that I still don’t understand? Educate me!

P.S., Sept. 08: Hmm. My readers all belong to the urban educated middle class, and few of them have been forthcoming with comments!

In this article, Prabhat Patnaik, retired professor of economics at JNU, has clarified several important things. One doesn’t have to be a card-carrying leftist to see that he is largely right. See, for instance, this line in the first paragraph: ‘what was Hazare’s own movement all about? It was certainly not about “corruption” in any definable sense’… and he goes on to elaborate lucidly and incisively what should be deeply disturbing about this and similar movements, most notably the possibility that in the course of denigrating and weakening the elected constitutional government, these movements are likely to push India into the arms of laissez faire capitalists and religious zealots of the worst kind. The great tragedy is that those who are doing it, being ignorant of history (our ‘educated’ middle class today consists by and large of techies and traders, doesn’t it?), don’t have the foggiest notion of what they are doing, swept along as they are by their incoherent, self-righteous rage…