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Sunday, September 23, 2012

Chanakya's Chant

This year has given me some really good reading of new Indian writers in English spinning yarns on quintessentially Indian themes, and writing well. This book is the latest in the broad genre of historical fiction that I have just tackled, and I am very upbeat about it. I finished reading it in a single day, and that is already saying something. Given both my work schedule and the background of reading that I have, not one book in a hundred can grip me so firmly these days.

This book, like those of Nagarkar, Tripathi and Liddle that I have mentioned approvingly earlier on this blog (and also like Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies), is an imaginative recreation of part of our hoary and glamorous past – in this case, the saga of how the worldly-wise sage Chanakya destroyed the Nandas of Magadha and united almost the whole of India for the first time in recorded history under one emperor, his brilliant and devoted protégé Chandragupta Maurya, in the late 4th century BC. But where it deviates from the others is in telling two parallel stories – the ancient one constantly alternating with a modern-day version, where a wily, ruthless, farseeing, personally humble but politically über ambitious mentor’s machinations, exactly in old Chanakya’s style, ultimately put his most promising disciple on the throne – read the prime minister’s chair – in New Delhi. The closest comparison I could recall is Shashi Tharoor’s The Great Indian Novel

Sanghi has done quite a bit of research – hugely aided by the internet! His language is less adolescent than Tripathi’s, though in my opinion it is still quite unnecessarily bespattered with coarse expletives and slang which serve no literary purpose. But there are flashes of intelligent wit and lots of allusion which would appeal to the educated reader (if such a sub-species still exists). He has put so many smart aphorisms in the mouths of his two gurus, borrowed from every kind of famous source, Napoleon to Mao ze Dong, Al Capone to Yes Minister, that he just might have been sued, if only he had not taken the trouble to acknowledge his sources.

Some loose ends remain. I shall mention just one – how did Gangasagar Mishra die so soon of old age and disease while his much older one time patron Agarwal-ji was still going strong? But I shall not play the spoiler; let the reader find out more for himself. I guarantee that will not diminish his enjoyment of the book.

I am glad that the book simultaneously reasserts two eternal truths about politics: that it is the last refuge of scoundrels, and also that it can be the noblest profession. It also clearly shows how big business and high politics make cosy bedfellows – so much for naïve folks who think that businessmen are ‘good’ people and only politicos are bad. Besides, it is delightful to see that so many contemporary young people are working hard to give the lie to the stupid canard that history is not ‘cool’. A time will come soon, I am hoping, when only chimps and engineers will think that way…

Sanghi has written only three books yet, and already I can draw not-absurd comparisons with masters like Frederick Forsyth, Robert Ludlum and Jeffrey Archer. I think he has a glorious future in writing. And to think he balances a life of ‘entrepreneur by day and author by night’, an MBA too! More power to his elbow. May he give inspiration to many of my old boys. And may the Indian publishing industry now go all out to make our writers celebrities worldwide, so that a day might soon come when the most talented of them can make very paying careers out of writing alone, and be shining beacon lights to youngsters growing up in their shadow.

The Chanakya legend, by the way, has a very special appeal for me, because I have in vain looked for a worthy disciple like Chandragupta all my life, and now given up, for my pupils, I have now accepted, have no big ambitions at all.

Many thanks to young Hindol Bose for having lent me this book to read.

[Chanakya’s Chant, by Ashwin Sanghi, Westland Ltd 2010, pp 448, Rs. 195, ISBN 978-93-80658-67-4, Rs. 140 on flipkart]

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teachers' Day and after

To start off, hearty thanks to all those who sent me cards by post and electronically, and sms to say  ‘Happy Teachers’ Day’. Too many to thank individually, so forgive me. I want you all to look up my blog anyway.

I have been reflecting over this blogging experience, and wondering how long I should keep at it. I am a teacher, and a thinking man, and that is what I shall remain till the end of my days. Writing publicly, that’s something else again. As I have said before, I started writing blogs on request at age 43 to extend my classroom over the net worldwide, and make the best possible use of that classroom – to share, classic Bengali adda fashion (not the roadside thek variety-), my thoughts on all kinds of subjects with as wide a range of people as possible, and engage the best of them in lively discussions which could perchance entertain while mutually enriching minds. It’s about the only thing that I do free of charge for people outside my immediate family, except for occasionally donating blood. I have been writing for more than six years at a stretch – those who were graduating from high school then are finishing university now; those then in college are working and married! – and have written more than 300 posts on this blog itself, besides nearly 200 on the other one. By any yardstick that’s a rich harvest for anyone who is interested in reading. The page views counter has crossed the 130,000 mark, I get almost 3000 visits a month on average (nearly 40,000 in just the last year), there are 270-odd ‘members’ of this blog, and most posts here are commented upon upto a dozen times at least: some have attracted more than 50 comments. A good enough record for most blog writers; indeed, many would be envious (there are countless blogs which don’t get a thousand visits and thirty comments in a whole year, yet sheer vanity and idleness keep the writers hammering away! Also, a lot of people, especially juveniles, give up what started as a lark after the first year or so). Still, there are reasons why I am not as happy as I could be. Let me list them for myself:

·      There are obviously hundreds of readers who refuse to become members that I may know – why?
·      There are also hundreds of readers who will simply never comment, even to ask a question or say thanks.
·     I have lately had to shut out scum who comment only to say ‘I hate you’ in various ways, and can obviously neither read nor understand what I write, so no sensible comment can be expected from them: why on earth do they visit at all?
·    Too many old posts are too quickly and permanently forgotten, whereas serious readers should be looking them up frequently and commenting again and again, seeing new significance in them in the light of their own growing experience of life. As I have said before, little here dates – seeing that I don’t write about the launch of smart phones.
·      I do write on virtually every subject under the sun except smut and shopping and cricket and partying: are those the only things most people are interested in, then?
·      Every year, at the time of leaving, scores of pupils promise that they are going to keep in touch, and agree that the blogs would be the best option, since I cannot keep individually in touch with so many via email and phone, but most of them simply fade away with time! 
·     The kind of excuses that people come up with for not following my blogs regularly are exasperating, to put it mildly: while the youngsters say “Mommy doesn’t allow me to use the net”, working people say they either don’t have a good connection at home or they are ‘too tired’ at the end of a long day…come on, if you were truly interested, such excuses would never even crop up in your mind! And yet so many of them, when they call or visit, insist that I believe they often think about me, and find it sad that I have forgotten them. People can’t accept that they make themselves forgettable!
·       There are those who take many months to reply to emails of mine, but when they write, they expect me to reply attentively, affectionately and adequately within a day or two. Of course, they themselves are too busy, all of them, and I am the only man they know who has all the time in the world. Many of these people, I happen to know, also loudly lament on many forums that people are falling out of touch!

No point in lengthening that list, though I could.

I also sometimes think of my erstwhile colleagues at St. Xavier’s Durgapur. Believe it or not, some of them once upon a time said publicly that they liked and admired and even respected me for various reasons. Ever since I quit, however, they have somehow found it ‘inconvenient’ to look me up, yet they have gone around assuring one another and everybody they know that I am an unsocial person! Also, they would say they have simply been ‘too busy’ working, shopping, doing chores, attending parties, saving, travelling, raising children, getting medical attention… the sort of things I do all the time, too, the only difference between me and them lying in the fact that I do not make a big deal out of these mundane things, nor think that one is human if one cannot simultaneously live a rich life of the mind. Most of them never had minds anyway, but of a few I had had some hope once upon a time. One, I hear, is growing old and infirm; hasn’t he still realized that I happen to be one of the very few human beings who ever really liked and to some extent respected him, and does he relish the thought that he would die without ever seeing me again? Does he reflect sometimes, in lonely moments, on what has happened to the memory of Fathers Gilson and Wautier and Wavreil? Do the illusions of the world still hold him back so strongly? And he’s just one of the many people whose shadows come back sometimes…

Of course, that school was only a part of my life. There have been lots of other experiences of the sort that people who directly became schoolteachers after graduating from college and never did anything else all their lives cannot possibly imagine – other places and people, other encounters, other realizations (can people without any experience of life outside the classroom ever become real teachers? I have never stopped wondering. Instructors, sure, but teachers?). Ghosts sometimes come out of the past, and some even say “I am so sorry I wasted so many precious years staying away because I didn’t understand you”. With a few of them relations are patched up; with most, alas, it is too late. It’s happened even to members of my own native family. People should think hard before deciding to fall out of touch… there is an email i.d. given on this blog for those who would like to communicate privately. Use it, today! I recently wrote to someone who had called himself my friend for many years, just to make sure it isn’t true that I don’t give people second chances; his reply assures me that he doesn’t want anything of the kind. I tried the same a couple of years ago with a sister whom I had raised like my own child – there are still people around who are living testimony to this claim – saying ‘I still love you as much as ever’, and she didn’t even bother to reply. If you are their type, okay, but let it never be said that any relationship was spoilt for want of trying on my part. That would be the only regret I don’t want to die with. Otherwise, after all, people just come and go, and so will I…

On Monday, in the course of the same day, even while taking the normal round of classes, I counselled people three separate times: a mother and son who had just lost the man of the house, two young girls who had quarrelled badly and were now feeling terrible about it yet didn’t know how to make up, and an elderly gentleman who was very worried about what his son was doing. All of them basically needed words of comfort and reassurance, tidings of good cheer. So easy to say, but it is evident that most people don’t find it anywhere, certainly not from doctors, lawyers, engineers and most teachers, else they wouldn’t have come to me. One very important purpose of writing my blogs was to share the same sort of comfort, cheer, reassurance and spirit of exhilarating freedom with a lot of people, and considering that my blogs are visited so frequently, it is evident that many people do find some use for them. So why won’t they let me know? Is there a chance that they have reason to be ashamed or scared?

One piece of news before I sign off for now: after 24 continuous years, I have stopped taking in plus-two level (classes 11 and 12) pupils this year, as I stopped teaching college goers many years ago. Those who have good memories of those classes may want to know why. In any case, as a result, starting November, at least for a couple of months, I am going to have Sundays off – after having worked seven days a week at a stretch for nearly two decades. I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it, though…

Sunday, September 09, 2012

A riot of Calibans

The subtitle of this article is ‘Why can’t scholars write more clearly?’ The author has pointed out some reasons already, but I should like to add a few more. a) Most people are not taught these days that it is important to write well, nor what good writing means, b) a lot of language teachers are themselves confused, and imagine that jargon, prolixity and opaqueness are actually marks of ‘good-’, meaning learned writing (the disease starts being spread in high school, I have discovered), c) a lot of people in academia secretly know that what they are writing, expressed in plain English, would be little more than blah, so they are desperate to cover it up (‘If you cannot convince, confuse’!), d) In the world outside academia, there is a kind of negative snobbery at work here, assisted by vastness of numbers – I am proud of the fact that I cannot write good English (or Hindi or Mandarin or French for that matter), since that puts me on par with my friends on Facebook, and we are the world, aren’t we? e) Most engineer-turned-MBA types understand little more by communication beyond quarrelling with spouses, haggling with shopkeepers and displaying charts, maps, tables and diagrams on Powerpoint, for which you really do not need more than elementary-school language skills anyway (most of these types find reading P.G. Wodehouse too challenging, think Richard Dawkins is an intellectual, and would break their teeth on Bertrand Russell…) 

When it comes to Caliban proper, that’s another story. I have taught The Tempest, so I know a little better than the average man what this writer is talking about, and I must confess I am in two minds. Prospero did disdain Caliban from the beginning, and used him like a slave: his hatred and contempt might have intensified after Caliban tried to rape his daughter, but maybe the post colonialist scholars are right, C was just trying to pay him back in the only coin he knew. How much P really exerted himself to make C a better human being remains an open question: we have only his word for it. Besides, Shakespeare, true to his style, has put at least one passage in C’s mouth that hints at a strong stirring of a poetic soul in him, which justifies the suspicion that he is more sinned against than sinning. But the lines in question, ‘You taught me language, and my only profit on’t  is/ I know how to curse’, has a peculiarly poignant ring for those of us who have been teaching language all our lives. I have known far too many Calibans myself, alas, ones unredeemed by any hint of having human souls. Truly, they have little use for language except to curse everyone they should be respectful and grateful to. I am sure I am not the only one at whom they spit upwards whenever they feel particularly unhappy with their lives. I wish Shakespeare could have met some of them, for I’d have loved to savour whatever he might have said about these monsters (this and this are links to two related posts I wrote some time ago).

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Abolish child labour?

Here is a front page article from The Statesman dated September 2, 2012, saying how despite existing laws, abolition of child labour in India is still a far cry. Do read it first before continuing to read this post.

I am aware that a) India still has probably the largest child labour force in the world, b) it prevails to this day not only because of an exploding population and widespread poverty, but also because prevailing social attitudes treat it as not really a great national shame but as at most a necessary evil which ought to be winked at while other, more ‘pressing’ problems are being solved, c) millions of children are paid a pittance for backbreaking labour under nasty or dangerous conditions, and have no better future to look forward to, and d) India will never be acknowledged as a ‘developed’ nation while major social evils such as this continue to fester.

This is an issue which has exercised my mind for ages – certainly since my college days (remember, I read economics, and engaged in journalism, and saw all kinds of socio-political activities from close quarters, besides teaching youngsters for three decades now, and watching them grow up into adult citizens). My opinions have changed over time, so that today I am far more doubtful about whether child labour is at all such a great evil as it is fashionable in elite circles to call it these days, and whether abolishing it entirely would be such a very good thing for this country. Read me out before clamouring that I be lynched right away…

Don’t get me wrong: of course I am all for doing away with the utterly inhuman conditions in which so many children have to slave – conditions which any civilized country would regard as unworthy even of animals – and I am all for giving them decent wages, which would allow them to make substantial contributions to the family budget, perhaps lifting them above the poverty line (I am talking of the kind of family where daddy is a rickshaw puller, say, and mummy works in five houses as a domestic help: certainly if two children bring in at least five thousand a month extra, that would make a very big difference to the kind of lives they live). I am all for making more stringent laws and taxing people like us and much richer much more heavily, besides stricter birth control and widespread social propaganda, so that such things can be brought to pass, and soon. Other countries have done it, so we have no excuse for postponing it for ever.

But consider also, what will happen when all children can afford to live present-day middle-  and upper class lifestyles: the sort of children I almost exclusively deal with. My quarrel is with the idea that children should not work at all, and isn’t that what this class of children have become used to? Who benefits from that: they themselves, their families or society as a whole? Most of these kids have become used to pampered, wasteful living, so they are growing simultaneously fat and fat headed. Few of them read anything unless absolutely under compulsion (meaning examinations); work means nothing more than scurrying round the clock from one tuition to another (many of which have become little more than adda-s!). Most don’t even have serious hobbies to pursue, and most can’t or don’t want to do the simplest household chores unless forced, and then they do it very clumsily, with very bad grace, as if they are doing their parents huge favours. Most treat their parents as no more than drudges who supply money and goodies, and yet are so unthinkably dependent (to people like me, who have been almost completely independent since age 17-18) that leave alone doing anything creative or socially useful on their own, they can’t even travel around town without their parents’ cars and chaperoning, nor handle their own bank accounts (most parents can’t dream of letting them, either, but that’s only part of my complaint). Most of these people, as I have written here more than once before, even when they say they are going to college to get a ‘higher education’, learn so little about such trivial things (what you need to become a hotel valet or an optometrist or a BPO data-entry operator or an airline stewardess or sales agent and that sort of thing) at such great expense that they are, frankly, no better than what economists call ‘disguised unemployed’, wasting three or four years of their lives in what they call ‘having fun’, and then going on to work at things which neither bring them glory nor joy nor very respectable incomes, and to produce more babies to mould in their own likeness… don’t children who work at brick kilns or dhabas or roadside auto repair shops or jewellery factories or even households contribute substantially more to the world at large as much as to their near and dear ones, if only by not living the lives of parasites – very politically incorrect as this may sound?

And has a moderate amount of useful work, no matter how humble, ever hurt anybody as much as lack of occupation does? Forget geniuses of the Dickens and Edison and Faraday and Chaplin type who started working in their mid-teens – the world will probably see the like no more – but even ordinary, humble, routine work has enormous benefits for everybody, doesn’t it, if only by keeping people healthy and out of mischief? Why should I want, and all society want, that our children should be basically idle till they are well past 20? And what right do parents have to be proud of kids who are good for nothing, even the small minority among them who do well in examinations but cannot change a fuse or give an accident victim first aid or stand up to bullies on the road?