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Friday, March 04, 2011

Writing an essay, part two

This one comes in response to a large number of reader requests. It is a sample of the kind of essays which used to be graded as ‘excellent’ by our teachers in the olden days (meaning the 1970s).

Memory

I have a rotten memory. I forget names, directions, appointments; at times I even forget my own address. It annoys me to see people rattling off the latest stock quotations or twenty telephone numbers from memory. Poor things! Memory, I always feel, should be treated like a chest full of jewels. To use it as a lumber room for trifles is like getting a combination safe to keep one’s waste paper in it, like buying up Buckingham Palace only to break it up into tenements.
           
My memory, now, is like a bed of exotic flowers. Every so often, I go weeding it out. Then, when twilight breezes blow over my soul, I can step into the garden and be deliciously lost.

My memory is my own little story: a diary of my soul. If I look it up, I shall find it full of myself, like a mirror. Triumphs and glories will hail me: ‘This is you!’ Pleasure and laughter will bubble: ‘This is you!’ Defeats and bereavements will mourn: ‘This is you!’ Sin and shame will hiss: ‘This is you!’ – and all the nameless little half-sad joys of humdrum life that stand in the background like a chorus will press my hand and say: ‘This is you!’ When I want to look at myself I turn to memory: all I stand for is sure to be written there.

I sometimes wonder if others feel like that too. How does the old man feel, looking back on a life that must be (to him) a symbol of all existence as he knew it? What of the squalid sinner, whose cold black memories flow over his soul at night like a dark glacier? And what of little children, whose tiny pasts must seem to them so close to a former oblivion? But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the child’s short life has already filled its precocious memory with remembrances of jam cupboards that are no more? And who knows what comfort memory brings even to lonely, frightened sinners cowering by their night lights?

Memory is a postman to all men, bringing together friends half a world apart; he walks swiftly and takes no fee. What little ties of memory will bind two souls across an ocean; what love and hate will be hurled across continents through the mailbag of memory! The lonely mother hugging her memories of her lost son and the shattered victim losing sleep over memories of his accursed wrongdoer; the sweetly wistful memories of the man whose life was a poem, and the bitter memories of one who comes from the east end of life; one woman’s expectant memories of her lover soon to return and another’s weeping remembrance of one who will return no more. The mailman’s bundle is large and full. Joy, sorrow, hope, fear, love and hate – all these and more are delivered to men’s hearts by memory.

I have a rotten memory, but that won’t get me down. My head is no bin for the pettiest worldly facts. My memory is an album of precious things, sacred and intensely personal, to be shown to the world only when it is my friend.
…...

Having been condemned to mark mountains of trash all my life (of the sort that I put up in the last post), this kind of writing takes my breath away. And it’s not just a matter of masterly grasp of language. The level of GK combined with the richness of imagination (memory as a globe-trotting postman, buying up Buckingham Palace and breaking it up into tenements, cold black memories flowing over the soul like a dark glacier), the degree of individualism that is manifest in every line (without which the most ‘successful’ man is merely a cog in some vast wheel), the depth and variety of human sympathy, the kind of visualization that can only be called poetic, the perfect sense of proportion and balance – I am certain that neither those students who are called ‘talented’ these days nor the typical ‘teacher’ of English can dream of writing something like this (mind you, being ‘good at science’ instead of what are called the ‘arts’ has nothing to do with it: Jagadish Bose, Balaichand Mukhopadhyay aka Banaphool and Conan Doyle were all students of science who could write excellently). Even the ‘best’ essays that are written these days by high-school children cannot hold a candle to this sort of stuff (I do not think any child who has grown up with orkut and Facebook and sms-chat could write something like this, and that is indubitably a loss to civilization, not compensated by LED TV and iPad). If enough readers are interested, I can put up one that I recently graded myself, just for the sake of comparison…

16 comments:

Suvro Chatterjee said...

... and just to ward off comments/queries from idiots, I did NOT write that essay myself.

Aakash said...

Dear Sir,

The essay just took me back to the time when you read 'The Sea' to us in the class, imploring us to find a world beyond textbooks.

If it is possible I would love to read 'The Sea' again.

Aakash

Debotosh Chatterjee said...

sir,
the problem with our generation is that ,barring a few exceptions , nobody really made us feel what good essays should be like ;neither were we taught to write a few good essays.we grew up amidst too much ignorance and "gup-shup" , and in the process we forgot our priorities . it was not until some of us met you that we realized that we were going horribly wrong in most of the facets of life- the skill of writing a good essay was one such thing that was missing in us !

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

it is one of the best essays I have read. I do not think I would be able to write like this, let alone think like this.
Was it written when the writer was in class 10 ?

Navin

Shilpi said...

I read the essay out loud finally and poetic it is while being hard and unapologetic. It feels strange to know that the essay was written by a school goer because I needed to pause and understand some of the images. In some places I actually find myself wanting to argue with the writer before telling myself that the writer is a school goer who has written a lyrical but self-assured essay.

I'm left wondering as to how many people can understand essays of this sort leave alone appreciate or write anything in a remotely similar strain.

'Course the essay topic itself is something that resonates within so it was good reading it on multiple grounds. Regarding the topic - I'm instantly reminded of Holmes too who put it in somewhat less poetically but succinctly about the mind being an attic.

Thanks for sharing this one...

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Sir,
I have only to look at myself to see how much the standards have declined in the last four decades. I had to re-read a few lines to be able to grasp their meanings completely.

Speaking of the essay itself - to simply say that I am awe-struck will be a gross understatement. Though an ineffable feeling surges through me and I find myself speechless, I will at least try to put into words what I have learnt from the essay -

1. It takes a great deal of reading and thinking to write something so rich and lyrical. Never for a moment was the essay prosaic and the soothing tone coaxed, rather lulled me to hang onto every word the entire way, an attribute only writers very adept at their tasks possess.
Henceforth, I will never make the mistake of calling myself even moderately well-read. I know nothing, absolutely nothing compared to what the writer of that essay knew.

2. Although it isn't within the reach of a lot of us (I humbly include myself within this lot) to write as good as the writer of this essay, it is certainly possible that we become more mindful and aware of our mistakes and write correctly, grammatically and otherwise. The overwhelming majority is quite capable of achieving that, but (as you have lamented, Sir) they seem to have decided that they don't need to.

3. Sir, you had said in an earlier post that the only way a person can improve is by consorting with "betters rather than peers". Assimilation is the way forward. However,since it has become exceedingly difficult to find people with as much intellectual maturity as is needed for betterment, your post will go a long way in fulfilling that need.

4. The way I understand it, the need of the hour is for us to first accept that there are and have been people on a much higher intellectual pedestal than we are on. That way we open a portal which leads to learning.
Humility is a great virtue and its practice reaps rich rewards. Egoists are doomed to live their narrow lives forever.

Sayan Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

See, Sayan? So many visits, and so few have felt inclined to comment, even if only with a few words of admiration!

Aakash, I wouldn't waste a gem like The Sea by posting it here. I just don't think I have the right sort of readers. Maybe I could mail over to you...

Aakash said...

Dear Sir,

The essay in any form is welcome. I really would love to read it again.

Personally, I don't think I've written an essay like that.

With regards,

Aakash

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I have always preferred reading fiction to essays, but this one has opened my eyes. This shows how poetic essays can be, and they are not a bore either.
I remember you asked us to write more and more essays, which many of us, including me, lazily ignored. I still regret that. And I have treasured the notebook where you wrote a 'good' in one of my essys. It wasn't an essay though, it was more of a story.
Thanks and with regards,
Sayantika.

Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
It's really a pleasure to read this kind of essay. As you have pointed out, writing a good essay is quite harder and requires a lot more knowledge than to solve mathematics problems.It requires a lot of talent to write this kind of rich text.I liked the line-"My memory is my own little story: a diary of my soul." There are also other nice references too- as you have pointed out. I also faintly remember an essay which you read out in our class- I don't remember the name exactly- it was about a boy who looked at the starlit sky and thought-"I might be there someday".It would be nice if you put up that essay on your blog too.Was the writer a school-goer when he wrote this essay? He must have been a genius. I would also like to read the essay titled-'The Sea'.

With Regards,
Soham

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

That was simply lovely. I read the essay once and then went back and read it once more simply for the pleasure of it. It is the sort of writing that makes me wonder about the soul of the writer, for, to write something this beautiful, to conjure up such images as this essay does, surely the soul must be beautiful.
"Perhaps the child’s short life has already filled its precocious memory with remembrances of jam cupboards that are no more?" This line makes me smile, all the more for the bleakness of the next line. Thank you very much for sharing this essay, I know I will read it again and again.

Regards,
Vaishnavi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Ah, Vaishnavi, how utterly delightful to hear from someone who felt as exalted and blessed as I myself did when I first read this essay a long time ago! Yes, it makes you wonder about the nature of the writer's soul, doesn't it? And to think that it was a teenager who wrote it! Always reminds me of the likes of Anne Frank and Tagore, because I have hardly met the type in my lifetime, though so-called 'bright' students I have handled ad nauseam.

Which brings me to what you said, Soham. Though privately I do believe good writing is a vastly superior skill than being good at math (if only because I have seen so many people who can do math well, and so few who can write at all), I shall insist that there is something very seriously wrong with the way our youngsters have been educated over the last few decades: earlier, scientifically gifted people were not such dullards at expressing themselves, as I have said with famous instances in the post itself. These days, in most schools and families (in India), you have to be good at science and math and nothing else, and to do that you have to be bad at everything else, whether it be history and geography or at the art of writing! I actually know lots of parents who insist that it is a good thing not to know anything other than physics, chemistry and math...

Pritam Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

Maybe the parents who insist that it is a good thing not to know anything other than physics, chemistry and math need to be shown some essays like this one - maybe a few of such essays will change their minds!

Really sir, such depth of thought and such rich imagery woven so beautifully together by such skillful use of language, that too by a school-goer, simply leaves me speechless. Not even by a huge stretch of imagination, can I see myself writing an essay like this - and why this - I remember you reading to us a few other fine essays in class (I cannot recall 'The Sea' however, and would love to read it) which were not nearly as beautiful as this one, but were equally beyond the reach of my abilities .And so, I am left wondering - what really changed in these last thirty years? The essay's author, who was a school-goer thirty years ago must be a parent now - I wonder if his or her children can write similar essays today. I do not think that the average standard of students has deteriorated much (or has it?... I wonder) - why then, has the standard of today's 'good' deteriorated so much?... or is it that the students whom we call 'good' today were merely called 'mediocre' in the past, meaning that we have just lowered our bar for calling a student 'good'? But then again the question remains why the proportion of today's students who are of a caliber similar to that of 'good students' of the past so low. How and why did people start glorifying mediocrity instead of encouraging true brilliance? Is it simply because of corruption in the education sector, or is it privatization, or is it a combination of both compounded by other socio-political issues that resulted in our education system losing its way and giving rise to some very misguided notions about brilliance among the general population? I guess I am lost - truly lost - and I had better stop writing now...

Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Dear Sir,
After posting my comment-I thought for once more. What I have written is actually true for the present years. Actually I get very irritated when I see students doing seemingly well in maths and then tampering with the language according to their own wish considering it as smartness at the same time.My mother says that-'language is by far the greatest invention of mankind'- and I strongly believe that. When someone does a maths sum wrong-he gets scolded, then why doesn't he get scolded when he uses wrong and weird statements? But great scientists and mathematicians like Satyendranath Bose, Albert Einstein and others were equally good at expressing themselves by the use of language.I am not good at language either- but I try to be (you insisted on that very strongly, Sir and my mother does too).These kind of essays are truly like gems in your possession and hats off to the one who wrote it.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Let me try to answer you in the following way, Pritam: a) the country has become full of mediocre teachers, who encourage mediocrity in turn because that is the only level they are comfortable with (can you imagine the average teacher having to deal with potential Shelleys and Feynmans in class?), b) as a nation we are desperate to produce 'success stories' by the million, in defiance of the fact that real talent is very rare (Ramanujans, Kishore Kumars and Sachins are not born every day), c) low-level technical 'talent' (of the IT-industry kind) can be mass produced like sausages as cultural and moral talent cannot (I mean the Tagore or Subhas Bose kind): it is much easier to live in denial mode, claiming that technical skill is all that matters, d) our entire middle class wants its children to work for TCS or some private hospital anyway, and be mindless consumers in their spare time, and what sort of education are they likely to value? Why, especially, should they acquire anything beyond elementary reading and writing skills?

Soham, be grateful that you have a mother like that, and make the most of it. And as for being good at writing, remember that, as with everything else, the desire to improve and ceaseless practice makes one better, even if one is not born a genius!

Rashmi Datta said...

Dear Sir,

One of the most beneficial things that your blog(s) do to me is to let me stop and take a long and careful look at myself. I see this essay and the post doing that to me again.

The essay is indeed nothing short of poetic and it seems incredible that it was written by a school-goer. It makes me wonder about the kind of a person the essay writer is. The last paragraph of your post indeed helps me see that the writer is not only extremely good at English but is also an imaginative, well read, individualistic, honest and an intelligent person.

I would never be able to write such an essay and so, this post has renewed my zeal to always improve myself for the better.

Thank you very much for the post, Sir and I would request you to put up more essays of this kind.

Warm regards

Rashmi