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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Actors don't just act!

We in India expect the government to do everything for us that we cannot do ourselves – from getting rid of garbage daily to caring for the army of the poor to building roads and keeping them safe from predators. I don’t blame common Indians entirely for it: they are simply living up to a long tradition of public powerlessness and whining, which has come down to us from the Mughals and the British mai-baap style of government through the long era of Nehruvian socialism…

But people ought to be more active about caring for one another without relying upon and blaming government too much. People are only as powerless as they think. Much of their inactivity also actually springs from apathy, indolence and plain callousness: few parents teach anything like public responsibility in this country (if I am not blind, why should I or my children bother to get involved with caring for the blind?) Which is one reason that there is so much avoidable suffering in this country, and most of us clever people repeatedly fall victim to our own cleverness at times of distress and helplessness, when we can hardly expect people (just like ourselves!) to come forward and lend a helping hand.

I was reading about how George Clooney and fellow Hollywood actors and producers have been busy raising very sizeable funds in the name of the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation in aid of indigent actors and assorted technicians in the trade: people who are not rich, and who are now ill or handicapped or on the verge of retirement with an uncertain future looming ahead. The Fund was set up in 1921 by none other than Charlie Chaplin (so my own newspaper informed me yesterday) – a man of genius who rose to great fame and fortune by his own efforts, but never forgot his very humble beginnings. People sticking together with less fortunate members of their communities is one of the nicest things we humans can do for one another: I always say one charitable man is worth ten philosophers and a hundred technicians.

Of course I am aware that it is not an exclusively American phenomenon. There are numerous individuals and organizations working for the common weal in India too: some locally focused, some nationwide in scope, some very well known, some obscure, looking after all kinds of underprivileged groups and interests, from rural women and children and the old, handicapped and ill to traditional craftsmen, artists and musicians, environmental concerns and vanishing wildlife, slum dwellers and disgruntled consumers, all sorts. And I am not saying for a moment that they don’t do invaluable work. My point is, I have heard so many people who work at such things lamenting that they are chronically short of both money and manpower.

Which is indeed a tragedy, seeing that there are not only literally millions of people around who can spare a few hundred, or even thousand rupees for good causes (the total would run into hundreds of crores!), but tens of millions whose real problem is that they have too little work to do – and so they are always partying or gossiping, dressing up or chatting on Facebook, shopping like drunks or lamenting that they don’t have money enough to shop as much as they’d like to, or falling victim to mental disease born of boredom, loneliness, and a very low sense of self-worth – depression and drug abuse and crime and domestic violence and behaving like hoodlums on the roads in the name of political activism. We never seem to have a dearth of such people in this country, but good, constructive work of any sort – NO NO! In fact, virtually all schools turn SUPW into a farce to be sniggered at, and in college, bodies like the NSS go abegging for volunteers. This, despite the fact that the few of my friends and ex-students who have actually worked for some social cause, usually with this or that NGO, have all averred that it was one of the most rewarding experiences in their lives.

I have long reconciled myself to the fact that as a teacher in this land and age, my power to bring about change for the better is pitifully limited. But I never lose sight of the saying that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. If I can motivate fifty people in my entire lifetime into joining or otherwise helping some sort of social cause, I shall consider myself a successful man. And readers, I should very much like to know about the kind of such activities you might have been involved in, and the kind of experience you had. Even if they were not always very pleasant (as it wasn’t for my own daughter: see this post).

Monday, February 20, 2012

But the sun also rises

Since I ended the last post by saying I have always tried to be keenly sensible of whatever little goodness I have seen around me, let me recollect some nice and warm memories for my own satisfaction, and as a kind of public thanksgiving:

There have certainly been hundreds of parents who have not only spoken highly of me in their own circles, but insisted that their friends and relatives send their children to me in their turn: else I could not have been in gravy all these years, especially since I gave up my last job, and have never gone for advertising my services;

There have been old boys and girls who have cheered me up by giving me lovely cards and gifts (including their own paintings and touching thank-you letters) on my birthday, Teachers’ Day,  at the time of leaving and years afterwards;

There have been boys and girls who have carried around my photographs/messages in their wallets for years;

Ex-students and parents have turned up to say thanks years afterwards, for all sorts of successes which they felt they owed at least in part to me – from getting admission to some elite college to getting a good job;

There are people around who were decent enough to come over and offer to pay another month’s fee when the tuition was already over (in case they had made a mistake), and even offer to pay for the period when they were taught for free, because at that time the family had been going through financial difficulties;

There have been parents and students galore who have vocally acknowledged, to my face and behind my back, that I had contributed something to making them better, stronger, more self-confident people, more sure of their likes and dislikes, dreams and ambitions, more able to overcome what they could clearly perceive as their drawbacks after being under my influence for a while;

There have been many old boys who have expressed genuine delight about keeping in continuous touch with me, and about my dropping in to visit them now and then, and going travelling with them;

There are people around, now grown up and well-educated and doing responsible jobs, who have done me the high courtesy of saying they still regard me as a teacher on active duty;

There are current and ex-students who have furiously defended me when they have heard me being abused in public by foolish and coarse people both young and old;

When my daughter was born, eleven doctors came over to enquire after her well-being and her mother’s, to the vocal amazement of the nursing home staff;

When I was briefly hospitalized for surgery, scores of people of all ranks came over to see me within those two days and a half, though we had told nobody outside a tiny circle of friends…

I could go on for some time longer. What I have been trying to say is, the world is not entirely full of filth and baseness yet, and I never allow myself to forget that – not for long, that is.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On being mean, and petty, and foolish

Despite being publicity-shy, I put up a sign in front of my house seven or eight years ago, with ‘Suvro-sir’ on it, and an arrow pointing to my house, and my phone number below.

I was forced into doing it because I had been hearing complaints from literally scores of people every year that nobody had given them my address and phone number (so that they could contact me to admit their children to my tuition); that even some of my neighbours, when asked about me – these are people who have known me for decades, mind you – blandly said they had never heard about me. The same with some people who had been colleagues in a school for fourteen years.

Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why people should behave like this. One group thinks ‘Why should I tell another person about a good tutor? Suppose his boy/girl ends up getting more marks in exams than mine?’ while another consists of those who think ‘That man is making too much money anyway, why should I help him along by sending a few more people to him?’

The same category consists of people who, while worshipping money above all other gods, habitually try to buy things on credit from their grocer and eventually don’t pay if they can help it; boast loudly about how they have saved a few miserable rupees by haggling like fisherwomen with rickshawwallahs and porters, think that the height of socializing is dolling themselves up for wedding receptions, never read a book in their lives once they have passed their last examinations, tell their kids to steal my notes if they can from some of their friends who attend my tuitions while blithely telling their neighbours they didn’t send the kids to me because they know what a bad man and poor teacher I am, spread the vilest gossip about their own ‘friends’ and relatives, eat at parties as though they are starving beggars, and come in cars wearing jewellery worth lakhs to admit their kids yet dare to ask me ‘aksho taka com hobe na Sir?’ (could I pay a hundred rupees less?). And when I occasionally get to hear about what they do to their husbands/wives/children/in-laws at home, oh Jesus!

These are also the very same people who tell one another that I provoke the kids against their parents. Guilty as accused, because one of my highest aims as a teacher is to make slightly better parents of the next generation, so that the world becomes a trifle less filthy. All I shall add as a correction is that I don't actually provoke them, I only ask them to observe, think and judge for themselves, not blindly swallowing everything that guardians say as necessarily good and true.

That is how petty, how mean, how foolish people can be (yes, foolish, too, because even after all these years they haven’t been able to make the slightest difference to my career, and they are too dumb even to figure that out and desist). I wouldn’t have minded, except for the fact that all these people regard themselves as educated, worldly-wise bhadralok, and hate me because I mock the whole tribe routinely in class, and say that they make me puke, and insist that the kids will have got no education worth the name if they grow up to be equally trivial and disgusting human beings.

A very great man said it’s a sin to lose faith in man. But the older I grow, the harder it becomes to keep the faith. The great misanthrope Jonathan Swift said about his friend Dr. Arbuthnot, who was apparently a very good man, that if he knew ten men like the doctor, he’d gladly burn all his books. I find myself increasingly inclining to the same opinion of my fellow human beings. Especially as I see that most of my kids, despite my best efforts, become clones of the worst kind of parents as they grow up.

I have been writing this with full responsibility. For the last fifteen years, I have been a parent myself, and one of the very few things that I am truly proud of is that my daughter is not growing up what they call nyaka-boka in my native language… that she already knows there is much to hate and despise about this country, and she needs to strive lifelong to keep herself from sinking in the same mire. I have also been trying to sensitize her to whatever little goodness we see around us, and to treasure it, because it is so rare. 

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Debarshi's sequel to my old story

I wrote a sort of ‘story’ a very long time ago, and posted it here in 2007 (More on the lonely mind). Now young Debarshi, who is himself in his early twenties, a whole generation removed but still stirred by what I wrote, has penned his own ‘sequel’ to that story. I reproduce it below, just as he has written it.

More on the lonely mind (continued...)

“I carved the angel in the stone, till I set him free...” goes the famed line, doesn’t it? I am too drowsy to even think straight, let alone reason. One has to find a reason to think, or is it the other way around? Auroras of colour have started exploding like supernovae in my blurred field of vision, heightening my senses, putting me to sleep in this dark world of the senses, where all other fellow beings wake. My chemical romance has started, as I have begun to see my life through the kaleidoscopic vision of my inner eye. Someone has applied a red-hot poker to my very innards, and as I start twisting in pain, I catch myself in the mirror, with a contorted grin. I yelled out loud, demanding to know the identity of the apparition. “It is you, my dear. It is the likeness you have fashioned yourself into, and not the one you should have. Allow me to carve out the real you!” came back the answer. The glass shattered and the mirror cracked from side to side – of course it would, seeing as my hurled vase had found its target. Love built us, and pain shapes us, does it?

You rest your feet on the worn out, moth eaten pillow and stare at the ceiling, lost in thought. The endless stream of demands has finally died down, and you are left all alone with only your poor self for company. The thought gnawing at your mind now starts off as a furious tirade between two opposing factions, conceived in unity and separated by will – the head and the heart. “You must be yourself...”goes the debate. The frames per second rate of the movie playing itself out in your head are too fast to decipher. You let yourself go with the flow. Torn pages flying about, dusty walls, heavy metal, a lot of sound ensuing masking the innate fury, train journeys to nowhere, dying neon lights, dishevelled and shabby clothes, hours of boredom, and watching that ridiculously idiotic television set as if your life depended on it – images fly past, and you grow tired and weary of this world of distractions that is hell-bent on tugging at you with each passing minute.

Visions swimming past, reels changing tack continuously, all these provided me some meaning to this conundrum called Life. Now, they only seem to be the flashbacks of a fool. The chemist could help me out, you say? I laugh it off with a shrug of the shoulders, copying every move from a stereotypical alpha male you all like so much. The Eternal chemist does not even provide me euthanasia for all my prayers. I clutch the pillow tighter to my chest and try to doze off. Sleep will finally overtake me and send me off to a land where defeat and disappointment are accepted as natural precursors and successors to glory. In this madhouse, how does one even keep sane?

I have dreamt of corn-fields awash in the mellow moonlight, of picking up pink shells on the sun-kissed shores and listening to the sound of the old, old sea, of snow-capped peaks and valleys of lush foliage, of snowflakes and the emotions they imbibe in the eyes of all, of dark alleyways with a coffee-house at each turn, of lonely men in a pub sharing their stories as works of beauty which happened to someone else, of arched corridors and the delightful smell arising from old books with dog-eared pages, of stirring, soulful music which makes me free from myself, and of unending tales like the ones of Scheherazade. How can you sleep? You try to bury your head deeper into the pillow, and will yourself to give in to the lovely goddess of Sleep – how she entices you, with promises to play out all your sub-conscious fantasies! Pardon me, I am no Freudian, and so do not get your hopes up. All your defeats, the hypocrisy that masks our lives, the roles you keep on playing – drop the pretence, and be yourself in your own garden of memory, where sun-drenched acacias lend you shade, where the bluebells, germander speedwells, flash smiles at you, willing you to remember, remember your true self, so that you might not forget. Hey, you creep about in your own garden, stealing furtive glances at all others who wander into your memory! It is a dream, alright? How hard it is to be oneself!

You jerk yourself awake, splash water onto your face, grimacing as the cold reality hits you. You are what you have done, and what you will do. Humans are funny: they label this simple stochastic process as a law. You catch sight of yourself in the mirror, and it reflects the state of your soul, instead of yourself. Chaos ensues in your heart, and yet you search for peace! You finally realize that another evening has passed you by – Time is a harsh mistress. Let go of all of your fears, your expectations and start living! – You say to yourself. What’s that shrill trill? It is the beastly mobile phone, with your newest distraction widget, a caller photo flasher application. How can one plaster such fake smiles on their faces? As you start talking nineteen to the dozen, your voice fades away, and your dreams trail away; they realize the futility of a lost battle. Why can you not live between the wondrous moments that ensue between the two wing beats of the fly of Paradise? Searching for permanent happiness in a transitory, surreal, vanishing world, you realize that maybe your heartstrings are out of tune. How does one listen to this tune, amidst the deluge of cacophony? You sleep over it, and you know, your pain will soon be over. Maybe that’s why we realize all our lives, and unravel the mysteries, when we sleep forever in peace. My spirit is away on a wing and a prayer, free from itself finally!

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Cartoons say it all!

My wife says, only half-jokingly, that except for her, most married girls in the neighbourhood where she grew up are either divorced or otherwise separated from their husbands, and have returned to the parental hearth to raise their children. A lot of them have also sent their husbands and in-laws to police custody, if not also jail, for all kinds of alleged abuse – the law having tilted very strongly in their favour in recent times.

Some time ago, I read a very senior (woman-) police officer publicly grumbling that a lot of women are in their turn taking advantage of the law to abuse husbands and in-laws, or at least to have the whip hand permanently over the latter. I daresay I know some such women myself. Hence I wrote this post three years ago titled ‘A future for marriage?’ Now this front-page news item says today that the National Commission for Women (NCW) has itself observed that “80% of complaints filed under the seven-year old domestic violence act have been declared too trivial to address.” The Commission has said that most such complaints can be resolved adequately by counselling alone. It has simultaneously expressed fears that numerous much graver atrocities are still going unreported.

Alas, I am only too keenly aware of how both aspects of the situation are poignantly true in India: it’s such a complex country!

It is most certainly true that women are humiliated, abused, subjugated and restricted lifelong from doing all sorts of things they both want to do and can ably do in millions of households still, and not merely in the villages and urban slums. Indeed, I personally know a lot of girls and women who live the lives of dumb beasts in all strata of contemporary society – only, if they are lucky enough to be born rich or married rich, they live lives of highly ornamental beasts, and enjoy the privilege of lording it over their less fortunate sisters, the type who work for them as ill-paid domestic help. Girls are still being married off at 14 all around me, or sold off into prostitution, wives are being regularly beaten as entertainment and supported only to bear children and work as unpaid drudges, and even ‘educated’ women in middle-class families have had their fathers pay dowry through their noses in order to get ‘suitable’ husbands, and now live lives filled with gossip and TV and shopping and dressing up for parties and clucking over children’s exam scores, because that is all they are ‘allowed’ to do (in the town I live in, it’s still unusual to see a woman shopping except at the malls, I have seen men buying even underwear for their wives and daughters, and I have been told by countless mothers they can come to see me about their kids’ progress only when their husbands can find time to drive them to my house). And they quietly swallow all this indignity believing that going to complain against husbands and in-laws is something that ‘good’ women never do. Also, I  know what callous, uncouth, selfish boors many men can be as husbands and fathers, how intolerable they can make life for their women unless some sort of social/legal restraint is put upon them. So I have no hesitation in saying that a lot more women should go to the courts to seek redressal when all possibility of peaceful and private accommodation has failed.

But there is also the other side of the coin, and I can now speak freely, because no less an institution than the NCW has made things easier for the likes of me. A lot of women are using the law to ‘settle scores’ and ‘take revenge’, and that too over very petty and selfish issues (it is not merely apocryphal that a woman sent her husband briefly to jail on the accusation of violence at home simply because he had not bought her an expensive enough saree for the pujas, just to teach him a lesson!). It is one thing to say that a woman deserves equal rights with men, and quite another to say that, in a reversal of ancient tyranny, the woman must be allowed the last word in everything, no matter how irrational, foolish, selfish or high-handed her demands might be. And there is reason to fear that that is exactly what a significant number of women are now doing, and these women, it seems, mostly come from educated and affluent backgrounds. It does not speak highly of either women’s innate nature or of the kind of education they have received, at home and outside.

The most rabid feminist will concede that throughout the ages there have always been viragos; likewise there have always been timid and peaceable souls among men who have quietly borne with all kinds of impositions from their womenfolk. But if this now becomes a major social phenomenon, there is a chance that there will be a backlash against women in the not too distant future. Already among my old boys I see a marked unwillingness to tie the knot: a lot of them have reached their mid-30s depending on one-night stands and casual or live-in girlfriends, even when they are not turning to same-sex relationships as a ‘better’ option. A time may come when millions of old parents will be desperately looking for grooms for their ageing daughters whom nobody wants to marry. It’s all very well for young girls, in the full flush of their folly, to say that they don’t care, they can do very well without getting married, thank you very much. Most of them will feel very differently once they are into middle age, with neither parents nor children to look after them, and men looking at them only to say ‘Yuck!’ and turn away hurriedly. I have an unmarried aunt in her late-sixties, living on a pension and all alone. The whole family feels only pity and fear for her – and that includes herself, mind you.