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Saturday, December 14, 2013

That's it!

We are nearing the end of the year now, and this is my 52nd post of the year. Also, I have been writing non-stop, at a steady rate, for seven and a half years. It’s time, I think, to take a break. So I am bidding my readers – and I know there are at least several hundred – au revoir, though not adieu. And since the festive season is coming up, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, all, wherever on this planet you might be located.

I have nearly 370 posts on this blog now. I am glad and proud of having acquired a readership spread across the world, including a few hundred regular visitors. This blog has helped me to renew and deepen some old connections, and make some worthy new friends. I am especially glad that this year the visit count has accelerated: there have been more than 50,000 page views since January, and five of the ten most-read posts were written this year itself. All to the good…

Now, as I wrote in a recent post, I am beginning to falter. Firstly, because no one can endlessly think of new and interesting things to say. Secondly because I have already created a wide and varied corpus of musing here that serious readers should explore much more assiduously than they have till date: few people can claim that they have read all, far fewer still that they remember everything and have reflected upon everything – I know, because if they had, their manner of interacting with me, by phone, chat, email or face to face would have changed greatly by now, and permanently. Thirdly, because I hate to think that I am being forced to repeat myself, simply because some people won’t listen and remember and take to heart. Fourthly, I wait until I am satisfied that the waiting has been long enough, and the paucity of sensible comments on anything I write, in sharp contrast to the number of visits, makes me think I have waited long enough: it’s not a nice feeling having to talk to a wall (one of the primary reasons I quit journalism in favour of teaching: the latter gave me live feedback every day). Fifthly, because this year I really poured myself out, and there’s a point where one needs to tell oneself ‘Stop!’

Besides, after what I wrote in the last post, everything else would sound silly and trivial to me, whether I write about the passage of Nelson Mandela or the recent Supreme Court judgment on homosexuality or the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York. I leave that to people who have all the time in the world for trifles…I want people to engage with me henceforth, if they want to at all, because posts like that one have resonated somewhere deep and essential inside them. arasikesu rasasya nivedanang/ shirosi ma likho, ma likho, ma likho.

I am not going to stop writing here. I am only going to become irregular. Henceforth, only when the fancy seizes me. After a quarter million page views, I don’t have to prove anything to myself, and those who are really interested will wait, and prod, and talk to me.

So also with relatives, so-called friends, and old acquaintances. As I myself teach, all a man has to do to go to sleep in peace at the end of each day is to look his conscience in the eye and reply to its question ‘Did you try all you could?’ as I can say, with total and calm confidence, ‘I did’. After now, the ball is in other people’s court. They want to keep in touch with me, they will abide by my terms. Otherwise, I am well rid.

Just one request, all. Don’t pretend what you don’t feel. Be it respect, love, or longing... faking is faking, and it hurts.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Ah, music, once more, and despair

Taatal saikat e baribindu sama
suta mita ramani samaje
tohe bisari mann, tahe samarpilun
aba majhu habo kon kaaje?

Madhav, hum parinaam nirasha,
tnuhu jagataaran, deen dayamaye,
ataye tohare bisoasa.

(I have wasted my life bothering about child, friend, women and society, which are all like drops of rainwater falling on a heated beach - forgetting You. Now what good am I? Lord, I despair of redemption. But they say you save even the most hopeless and helpless, so I put my last trust in You: written by Vidyapati, about 700 years ago).

I found an incredible echo of this song in a 2013 Bollywood movie. Here.

I have loved too many, not wisely, perhaps, but only too well. Now there's only He. The only question is, when do I turn to Him at last? And how do I reconcile myself to the fact that a lot of pathetic humans will then lament they wish they had tried a bit harder to get close to me...?

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The shape of things to come?

Hunger - what a dirty word! - has not gone away from the Third World, and is gradually becoming rife and rampant in the First World again, too gross and obvious to hide, even as the number of billionaires multiplies. See here. So I am hoping for more literature of the likes of Dickens and Hugo and Steinbeck and Tagore and Bibhutibhushan and Premchand in the years to come, and less of the type that deals with the trivial angst of pampered,vapid techies and fashion models, the type about whom it can be truly said that once you've seen one you've seen them all, the type which, if they die by the million, will not be missed by anyone outside their families, and that for not more than a few months...

Many thanks to young Akash Ganguly for drawing my attention to this article. Here is a 15-year old I can respect much more than most people his parents' age...

and in this connection, here's a five-year old post of mine. As I like to boast, since I don't write about toys, nothing really dates on my blog.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Bangla once more

এক যে ছিল ছোট্ট মেয়ে 
 দেখত জগত দুচোখ চেয়ে 
বাবার প্রানের লক্ষ্মী পুপে 
ভুবন আলো তারই রূপে 
দেখতে খুকুর লাগত ভাল 
নিশার শেষে ভোরের আলো 
নিদ্রা মগন মা আর বাবার 
মাঝখানেতে রইত চুপে। 

একটুখানি বাড়লে বেলা 
আকাশ বাতাস চাইত তারে 
তখন ভারী ব্যস্ত হয়ে 
ডাকত সবায়  তারস্বরে 
সুপ্তিকাতর বাবাটিকে 
তুলতে চাইত প্রানপনেতে 
আঁচড়ে , কামড়ে , খিমচে , মেরে 
যত ক্ষণ না মামণি তার 
বাবার প্রতি মায়ার বশে 
অতি কষ্টে শয্যা ছেড়ে 
বুকের মধ্যে জাপ্টে ধরে 
দিয়ে আসত  বাহির দ্বারে 
দোকান ঘরে রূপার পাশে 
সেইখানেতে আধেক সকাল 
কাটত খুকুর হেসেখেলে। 

I am not much of a versifier, but I have written a poem now and then. I composed this one upon a sudden whim to entertain my own daughter, when she was about seven or eight, I think. Can't be sure...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Thank you, Dr. Rao!

Professor C.N.R. Rao, the first scientist to be nominated for the Bharat Ratna award since C. V. Raman, has in a recent interview done yeoman service to the nation by shattering some long held and most ridiculous myths about this country – though I am sure that very few Indians will thank him for it. Here is the link to the relevant news item. The text of the report on the front page of my newspaper is slightly different, but no matter.

This is also a subject I have written on, and not once, on this blog. Something very close to my heart, perennially.

I discovered that very little science is done in India – as westerners (who have, let’s face it, done 99% of all the science in the last 200 years) understand doing science – and that very badly, when I was still an adolescent. Otherwise, I might quite possibly have gone in for higher studies in some branch of science myself (and wanted my daughter to do the same): I had the brains, and upto quite an advanced age, sufficient interest. I am glad to be vindicated in my views by a scientist of such preeminence, though it has come rather late in the day, and Professor Rao, being in a very high public position, has pulled a lot of punches, as I don’t have to.

Still, I am glad that he has said a) IT has very little to do with science, and might actually be blamed for having done a lot of harm to science as a whole in the last 20 years (as cricket has done to every other kind of sport), b) a lot of scientific fields have been grossly and persistently neglected, c) the IT-rich (and other rich, and successive governments) have done much less for the advancement of science in this country than they should have, d) our scientists, many of them lazy careerists with too little interest in their work, too little nationalistic pride and ambition, must take a big share of the blame too, e) since Nehru’s time, there might actually have been a sharp retrogression in the development of a scientific temper in our society, f) neither science nor God have anything to do with superstition, which is what is rife in India, g) without spread of mass education with a stress on nurturing the scientific temper, there can be no real and long term development, no matter what the stock market says. I find myself agreeing with every bit of the above.

I wish India would become a truly cultured and progressive nation again. Which would mean being far less fanatical about fads (and I call the recent madness over Chennai Express as well as Sachin’s retirement – not Sachin’s career itself, mind you – fads), far less blindly, narrowly, stupidly, cravenly materialistic, far less superstitious (which – and I am with both Tagore and Subramaniam Chandreshekhar here – means being far more seriously interested in God, art, beauty, justice as well as real science, as distinct from technical gimmickry and dhandaa and hogging and partying), far less interested in pubbing and mall-crawling, far more keen on good reading, far more serious about real education (look up my posts under the label education: cramming a bit of physics and chemistry has very little to do with it). Which means that greater people than Nandan Nilekani and Chetan Bhagat and Anna Hazare must be called visionaries. Which means going back to the golden – or at least silver – age we had just before and after independence, when cerebral men living simple lives were accorded the highest social esteem, at least among those who dared to call themselves educated, when no mere bania, politician, doctor or engineer would have dared to talk as though he were the equal of Satyen Bose or Bibhutibhushan Banerjee or Nandalal Bose or Alauddin Khan sahib, when teachers were accorded the respect due to them because society at least dimly understood the value of what they do, and every Tom, Dick and Harry couldn’t become a teacher, when corruption would become a minor irritant and non-issue simply because the vast majority would have realized that life is not to be wasted making a bit of sleazy money…

P.S., Nov. 19: This editorial in my newspaper today, in connection with Sachin, science and the Bharat Ratna,  is one of the sanest things I have read in a long time.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thought past fifty

Having seen and heard what sometimes seems to be way too much, it occurred to me recently that it wouldn't have been such a bad thing to have been born blind and deaf.

Friday, November 01, 2013

Designer babies and related issues

The first part of this post is directed at Santanu Chatterjee, who has been very kindly and closely reading up and commenting upon several older posts. Why suddenly now, I wonder? But many thanks.

Also thanks for the prodding (this is with reference to your comment on my last post), but there were reasons why I haven't been writing for a while. Firstly, because I had already written four posts in October: that's about the monthly average. Secondly, I wanted the last post to stay on top for some time (you may be surprised to know that most visitors don't read anything beyond the last post - not even the comments). Thirdly, because a lot of momentous things have been happening in my life lately, and I have been rather more than usually preoccupied. Fourthly, I have written a very great deal on a very wide range subjects already over the last seven years and a half: no one is endlessly fertile with thoughts and ideas, and besides, one wants that readers keep visiting and reflecting and commenting upon older posts, as you have been doing lately: why should I have to keep coming up with new ones at the drop of a hat with unfailing regularity? Novelty for its own sake is neither very great nor good, and I don't work for Apple anyway... so thank you for prodding, but I hope this is a fairly adequate explanation.

Now as to things I have been thinking upon in between everything, here's one sample. Think about it, all, and let me know what you think. My take I shall mention if and when some sensible and thought-provoking comments come in.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

And so, it is done

I am fifty as of today.

For once, at a loss for words. Or rather, don't feel like writing much...

If you are interested, I shall point you to old posts titled 'Auld lang syne', 'Forty five and counting' and the recent one titled 'Almost there'.

Biggest lesson learnt in all these years: love is too commonly faked. And people do it quite unselfconsciously,  too.

Most important resolution: to be much more picky, and much less forgiving. I absolutely hate being taken for granted, and that's what everybody seems to do, sooner or later. Surely I am now at an age when I can do without it?

Enough said.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Best in years

It’s been a far better pujo than I had hoped for: indeed, the best in more years than I can remember.

First of all, the weather helped. It was rainy all through, even with the occasional chill, interrupted only now and then by muggy patches. Then, the luxury of sleeping whenever you like, as much as you like, without being bound to a routine, and with family around you.  Going around the city just once before my wife was convinced that staying at home and watching pujo on television would be a far better idea. And then having our own pujo downstairs... all the fun and colour and gaiety you want, with the added assurance that you could slip off unnoticed to the peace and quiet of your own flat anytime things got too much for you, either by way of fanfare or boredom. Saw the contemporary urban Bengali middle class at its best and worst: all the bonhomie and cattiness, all the friendly conversation and backstabbing, all the cultural wealth and crass parvenu ostentation (everyone from the auto driver to the doc brandishing smartphones – diamond jewellery is better to look at, at least!), all the obsession with rabindrasangeet that no one cares to reflect upon and ‘cool’ distortion of the mother tongue, all the gourmandizing, the drunken dancing and faux-respectful distancing of elders from such display of ‘oposanskriti’... I took in a  fun Bangla movie in between, and read up a bit of a new biography of Babur, and watched the gorgeous skyline of nights, and shubho Bijoya has arrived in the wink of an eye.

Made some nice acquaintances, too, aged between barely thirty and eighty. Our housing estate has a rather diverse collection of residents, many of them absentee owners who live elsewhere in India or abroad, but gather here for the pujo. This is the first time I was staying here for some length of time on a festive occasion, and it didn’t take long to be found out – ‘Aren’t you Suvro Sir? My son used to be your pupil many years ago...’ and bang goes my hope of coming and going incognito. And a lot of them told me to come over and open up shop in Calcutta. Which is where it all started, three decades ago! If only I were twenty five again, or at least had money enough to go haring off on another adventure...

Anyway, I have had to promise a lot of people that I am coming over for Kali pujo. And we are all together looking forward to a lovely long winter. 

For a few photos, click here

Thursday, October 10, 2013

pujo once more

It's pujo time once more, and everybody who knows me knows too what I feel about it (see the post titled Bengal's annual madness if you don't). What is new this time is that I shall be in Calcutta - for the first time in nearly thirty years, I think. Only because my family is there, of course. Wish me luck. And have a happy pujo your own way, everybody, without hurting yourself or making too much of a nuisance of yourself if possible.

Oh, of one thing I am glad, I cannot hide it: there's rabindrasangeet in the air, thankfully, instead of the crassest kind of noise from Bollywood 'superhits' that has passed for music in this country for longer than I can remember. And though there's been a brief respite from the rains since yesterday, there's a pretty serious cyclone coming up from the Bay of Bengal, I hear...

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Holy mother!

The first editorial in Anandabazar Patrika, Sunday 22nd September edition, was as follows (the translation is mine):

Mothers and lies

Worship of mothers is a perennial thing. It is taken for granted that a mother would hug her child to her breast and gladly make any sacrifice for its sake. A child may be a black sheep, a mother never, she cannot be. No doubt there is some truth in this notion, but a great deal of blind faith and melodrama also work to keep it alive. A stern look at reality will show us a lot of mothers who make mincemeat of their wards’ love lives and sex lives, or otherwise perpetually cramp their personal space and limit their individual growth as human beings. In most of the cases of ‘honour killings’ that have been reported in recent times, a mother has been either directly involved, or given her full consent to the horror. Giving birth is merely a biological ability: it does not by itself glorify anybody spiritually. To raise a child well and educate him to live a valuable life is no mean task, and to do that one has to work hard at evolving into a good human being first. Mothers all around us incite their children to win the ratrace even by hurting the interests of their friends, and drive deep into them the disgusting habit of blaming everybody but themselves for their woes. And in most cases they inculcate this kind of meanness because they ‘love’ their children. Just as many animals enthusiastically devour some of their young so that the rest might have a better chance of survival. A certain species of eagle watches quietly while the stronger of its fledglings bully and kill the weaker ones. The panda bear mother, if it gives birth to twins, nurtures one and abandons the other. Perhaps natural selection favours this kind of arrangement, but surely the babies that are rejected and killed do not find much truth in the adage that a mother’s love is the most wonderful thing in the world!

Recently an American wrote this obituary shortly after the death of his mother: ‘Six of her eight children are alive, whom she subjected to every sort of persecution all her life…on behalf of all the children she made part of her unholy, malice-driven life, I am happily celebrating her demise, and hoping that next time round she might be at the receiving end of the same kind of barbarous cruelty and humiliation.’ This particular mother might have been an aberration, but even ordinary mothers all around us beat their children, mock them harshly, drown them in the pit of self-loathing by comparing them endlessly with others to their disadvantage, obstructing every attempt they make to find a little happiness in their own lives, and drive myriad little needles so deep into their souls that the wounds rankle lifelong, and destroy all possibility of their living decent lives of their own. Many mothers are certainly good mothers; however, it is equally true that many of them are cruel, abusive, or at least totally indifferent to their children. On the internet you can find blogs titled ‘I hate my kids’; there are even ‘groups’ of such like-minded mothers. All relationships can be the cause of either joy or sorrow: the mother-child relation is no exception to this rule. Camus created quite a stir by asserting this unpleasant truth in The Outsider. In that novel it was the son who was unbothered about his mother’s death. One rarely meets mothers who are indifferent to their children, even abusive in dealing with them, in literature. But one does in reality.”

S.C.: To the above, I shall add only that I do not personally think this is a gender thing. It’s only that the indiscriminate deification of mothers gets to me sometimes, seeing that there are lots of fathers who try very hard to be good parents, and lots of mothers who don’t. The crucial point is that so few people work at being good parents, so few even know that it has to be worked at, or that it is such hard work: and yet, especially in this country, somehow manage to raise children who feel it is their ‘duty’ to feel love and respect and be attentive to their parents’ needs lifelong, including the need to be shielded from all criticism within the family and without: my parents, my parents über alles. Also, for the sake of variety I suppose, there are parents who try very hard, and eventually get kicked in the face for their pains... it is indeed the best of all possible worlds.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Almost there...

I just found this article in The Guardian. It’s about how people feel these days when they turn fifty. Since I am one of those myself, I was interested.

There are a lot of things said there that fit me completely, so read the article, it will save me much repetition. I am ‘creaking’ much less than most people do, though. I could have creaked much less too if God had allowed me to live a more vigorous lifestyle, but I count my blessings, and try not to crib. However, I don’t like people who joke about getting old, for a number of reasons: firstly, it’s not a crime; secondly, though I have been referring to myself as ‘the old man’ in my classes for a decade now, fifty is not that old, when there are so many busy people around in their late seventies and even eighties; thirdly, one grows old only because one has lived long and worked hard and done a lot of things for a lot of people, which is something to be proud of, not ashamed about, especially if they have done good things for people outside the family; fourthly because even in this day and age one does usually acquire qualities of a non-trivial nature, such as poise, self-possession, clarity of thought and equanimity, which youth is not distinguished for; fifthly because, as I have said before, I was in a sense forever ‘old’, sixthly because only those who are mentally teenagers think they are going to stay that way forever, and therefore cannot feel any empathy. I wish them luck with the botox injections, anti-depressants, tummy tucks and late night orgies which are going to become increasingly indispensable as they try to cling on in vain to passing youth for a little longer. So many like that are already in their forties and fifties!

About this blog – which I have called an extension of my classroom – the pageviews figure bothers me. No non-celebrity in as ‘boring’ a profession as teaching gets that kind of score. And so I wonder: who are those who are listening to me, who have learnt things that matter from me, whose lives have become better in a lasting sense because of me? Too many people assure me I should count them in, but then all too soon they seem to forget, and revert to saying silly things, or contradicting themselves, or irritating me, or actually hurting me after promising not to, and I get back to wondering ‘Have I ever taught anybody anything at all, or has this whole life gone in vain? Has it just been a bit of money in the bank after all? Have I even been able to teach anybody how essential it is to give basic courtesy to people I claim to like and respect, not just expect it from them?

I have been going through parts of the incredible amount of correspondence I have had with an enormous number of people over the last decades. So many of them told me ‘You matter to me… I shall always want you to be around’, and talked so much with me so intensely for a time – which sometimes stretched for years – and then vanished completely from my life. Do people really have anything called memory? Do they ever listen to themselves? Do they ever feel bad about how they have treated someone who tried to care so much for them once upon a time? Do they have any idea of the weariness and futility that weighs me down after all these years? Is it really very difficult for those who say they love me to figure out why I feel this way

For newcomers as well as old timers, it might be well to look up the post titled 'What sort of person am I? ', the link to which is fixtured on the top of this blog. Nothing written therein has changed, nor do I have any intention of changing anything. Read especially carefully the very last paragraph. Maybe it will help some people to understand better why I am writing in this vein now. 

As Shilpi was telling me, this year almost all my blogposts have been connected by a common thread. It’s called pain. I wonder how many others have noticed it, and to how many of them it mattered, as in making a mark on their minds. It has been a tumultuous year, a year of great changes, and now it is rapidly drawing to a close. Is there a little happiness in store for me somewhere? Do I dare hope?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Make up your own mind, part two

I was reading my 15-month old blogpost, 'Make up your own mind'. Read or re-read it, it won't hurt you. In the course of two days I have had to goad one person to get her tooth cavities filled before things get worse, another to decide upon which of several flats available to rent, another not to stay the night with me if he was unsure, another on whether he should make a job change right now or not, another to admit that it would be indeed much more convenient to have a car available for her work all the time... these are all reasonably intelligent and grown-up people, too, and while they sometimes clamour for me to decide things for them, they also sometimes resent my 'imposing' my decisions on them, despite knowing from long experience that I am most likely to be proved right (in their own interest, too, not mine!). Also, as a teacher/husband/father/mentor I have always insisted that people need to be able to make up their minds, and not after too much dilly-dallying, and it is my job to show them how, and persuade them why - not to make up their minds for them: not something I relish, really, even if some people believe to the contrary.

Are our lives guided more by circumstance/destiny or character? I have always said the two work together: as with the two hands of a pair of scissors, you can't say this one does the cutting or that. Of course, I am willing to grant you that one or the other plays the bigger role in different people's lives. Also this much I know - circumstances I cannot as a rule control, nor will they always be to my liking, but it definitely rests with me how I deal with them, and that says something about my character. I must be able to tell myself, at the end of the day, that I did all I could under the circumstances, decisively, diligently, sanely, farsightedly, and, if I am advising somebody, with her best interests in mind. Being decisive also has a vital time dimension - you hesitate too long and opportunity passes you by. It hurts and costs more if you delay going to the dentist, and starting to save when you are fifty isn't going to ensure a comfortable retirement! 'There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune/ omitted, all the voyage of life is bound in shallows and in miseries...' It is sad if not pathetic to see people in their late 20s and early 30s still looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. For heaven's sake, get a move on!

It has been well said that not taking a decision is itself a decision. In India, not only people as individuals but people as society and government, when they are not being guided by entrenched habit or custom, prefer to procrastinate endlessly instead of bearing the pain of having to take decisions and acting upon them, especially when the consequences are in some doubt (will the next job be 'better' in every sense? Will he love me back 'sufficiently' if I love him?  Will the public really appreciate the new law we are going to make?...) And so essential things never get done, or what is done is too little, too late: the filling is no good so you have to go for much costlier root-canal treatment or extraction, someone else gets that job or flat, love withers away, the new road takes ages to be built, the population explodes unchecked. All because people will not take wise and timely decisions on their own, and will always try to keep scapegoats available just in case their own decisions go wrong. I see little difference in this respect between teenagers and people in their fifties, for all the talk of 'maturing' with age. And from older people, all I hear is about regret, that most futile of all emotions: 'I wish I had done this, I wish I had done that... when there was still time'! May God spare me that, at least.

Making up your own mind also means having the resolution to stick to what you have decided, and not wonder endlessly about whether you are doing the right thing every once in a while after the decision is taken. People change their minds far too easily, I think. And it doesn't help that people have so many utterly contradictory desires. I have seen mothers who goaded their sons all through childhood to get into engineering college at any cost lamenting heartbrokenly, even to the kid's own extreme discomfiture, when it's time for the successful kid to go far away. I have seen ardent sweethearts vanish without a trace and without so much as a by your leave. I have seen marriages break up over trivial quarrels. I have seen 'dream jobs' souring up after just a setback or two. I have seen in my own professional life how people gush over you and how fast they forget - out of sight, out of mind. I keep dealing with people of both sexes who talk to me one day as though they adore me and another day as though they hardly know me at all... and blame it either on their being busy or distracted or my being moody, being offended because I express strong displeasure at such cantankerousness: me, 'moody', me, from whom so many have learnt to cultivate calm and steady self-possession in the face of all trials and tribulations!

One thing that often occurs to me is how greatly beneficial it is to have just a few strong and abiding desires. Socrates struck the keynote for me when I was hardly out of boyhood: 'The world is filled with so many wonderful things that I have absolutely no need for'. I know they are wonderful, I know they are without number, and I know I just don't have any real need for them. Be they rave parties or smartphones, fine hotels or closeness to celebrities, be it whether people are being impressed by my looks or 'exotic' locales which I have not yet visited. On the other hand, I have always been sure of things I need and want, regardless of what other people have to say about such things (and in this matter the opinions of parents and spouse and child are as immaterial as those of the most distant stranger). I have always hated to call someone boss; life has allowed me to do almost entirely without them (my father tried to boss me around, and the loss was his; two bosses I had I adored; one was an uncouth clown, I quit). I have always hated to get up early, and I have been able to survive and prosper without having to. Since my daughter was born, I was determined that no one will have higher priority when  she wants me, and I have  been able to convey her to the threshold of adulthood without having to break that promise to myself. I tried on a pair of jeans when I was ten and decided I didn't want to wear them: I have reached fifty without another pair. And so it goes...

People who are congenitally incapable of focusing on fulfilling a few clear, strong, permanent desires, people who cannot take firm decisions and stick firmly to them no matter what, can neither be real friends with me nor gain much from such a friendship. The sooner they accept that, the better. If it helps them to persuade themselves that I am not really worth knowing and keeping in their lives, so be it. I don't really lose much if I lose people to whom I am not indispensable. As I often say, I can die my own death, thank you very much. As far as I am concerned, I give people very long ropes, but if all they want with them is to hang themselves, there is little I can or want to do for them!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Calling in the debts

All ex students of mine who are currently located in Kolkata and have sometimes thought they'd like to be of some use to me, I need your help. Please do get in touch with me via email at suvrochatterjee.dgp@gmail.com

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Draupadi... and Krishna!

I said in my last post on the other blog ‘Ask if you want to know what I have been thinking’, and nobody has done so yet. So I shall go ahead and write about it anyway, for my own pleasure, and the few who I know actually love to read what I write.

Lately my mind has been full of Krishna – in spite of the fact that I have been just as busy and preoccupied as always: if not more.

In one sense it has always been, at least since I first read vaishnav padavali in teenage, around the time I wrote Natalie. Much the most important thing I read during that time, I still feel sure, though I also learnt enough science and math to qualify for engineering and medical college – passing and trifling details, much more so now, this far removed. And how interested I have been in Krishna, as distinct from things like wars and aeroplanes and money and fashion and stuff should be apparent to anyone who has read my post on the Mahabharata. My recent heightening of interest  has been fired by two absolutely wonderful books, Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold (the story of Meerabai’s ‘affair of the soul’ with Krishna as told by her earthly husband) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, the story of the Mahabharata in English, told in 360 pages by Draupadi. The first I shall not discuss here. The second I have just finished reading, at my daughter’s and Nivedita’s behest, and I shall try not to repeat anything that my daughter has written on her own blog about the book. Just read it. I am a proud father when I say I have taught thousands, both boys and girls, and I can say with total conviction that I know of only one other who could have written that essay at age 17.

To start with, the book is magnificently written. The prose is radiant and mellifluous – I can definitely say about it that ‘the music in my heart I bore/long after it was heard no more’. The imagination, too is Olympian: with a book as daunting as the Mahabharat, Chitra Banerjee has still managed to make her own oeuvre a permanently valuable re-telling of the eternal classic – I wouldn’t have thought that was possible in this day and age (I am ashamed to say I have heard it has been done by a few others, but I haven’t read Shivaji Sawant’s Mrityunjay yet. Sayantika has promised to help me rectify the defect). The book really takes you there, and I cannot think of higher praise. I also regret that though the book was written in 2008, it took me so long to read it. I believe and hope that it should be read by millions, Indians and non-Indians alike, who are too little acquainted with the glory and wonder and horror that India has been, but would like to know. And with Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth and Divakaruni alive and working, I can now confidently say that current Indian writing in English is as good as the best in the world, embarrassments like Chetan Bhagat notwithstanding.

Being narrated by one – almost wholly human – character (unlike, say, Vyas or Krishna), the book covers only a small part of the vast epic, but certainly it is the central part. It goes from Draupadi’s fiery mythic birth through her childhood, education, marriage, exaltation, dishonour, exile and the great war to her death on the mountain in the course of the Pandavas’ mahaprasthaan. Now she is one of the most powerful and absorbingly interesting women in the whole world’s literature, and even in the real world I haven’t heard of anyone quite like her. Not just because it was foretold that she was born to change history, or that she lived simultaneously with five husbands, either, though that too in no small measure. So this certainly gives the book a powerful appeal, just how Draupadi saw her own life and times, tumultuously eventful and epoch-making (or –ending) as they were. When the writer interpolates things born of her own imagination, she makes them sound not only highly plausible but most appealing. Also, even though you the reader may be a male, you deeply empathize with Draupadi, even when she is being (sometimes consciously) naughty or contrary or even perverse: and that is no mean feat. A woman in a man’s world, and what a woman! A woman who had to live so intensely, yet under the crushing grip of so many (and often so unfair) rules, and what a life she lived…

I developed a new respect and profound pity for Bheem, for he of all the Pandavas really and unabashedly loved her though she didn’t love him back the way he wanted, as much as he wanted, and he taught himself to find pleasure in being and remaining till the end her most eager helpmate. In some things the author has altered, as in turning Bheeshma into much more of a grandfather than all the other things he was, son, politician, warrior, protector, mentor and sage, she is charmingly persuasive; and in making Drona fanatical enough to be almost evil, she has my wholehearted support. In other things, she makes you think hard, and wonder. Did Draupadi, for example, really yearn like that for Karna all her life since she first set eyes on him, and did he yearn back so keenly, silently, hopelessly till the very end? – by the way, my conviction is reconfirmed that no Greek tragic hero has ever come close to Karna.

Well, I shouldn’t be any more of a spoiler: read the book yourself, and tell me about it. Besides, I really only wanted to talk about Krishna, didn’t I?

The way my daughter has ended her blogpost, it seems she, at such an early age, has already accepted him wholly as the God of all our longings, and is content with it. I wish her luck and give her my blessings. Me, at my age, I still only wonder, most of all. I think there was an oddly-dark skinned prince who grew up among commoners somewhere once long ago, and he was uncommonly bright and pesky and loveable and strong as a child, who had a way with the birds and beasts and the flute, and was a wonderful lover as a youth (in a way that Casanova or even Don Juan wouldn’t even begin to understand) to quite a lot of girls – and not all of them giggly teenagers either – who grew up into a very astute politician and leader of men and laughing sage for all seasons. The legends started growing and spreading even while he was alive, until some people were telling each other that he was a god, as Indians will when they see a great man, and some perhaps started whispering to themselves that he was no less than God himself, born human to correct our ways, to show us the way to the Life Eternal. Heaven knows there are countless signs, along with the miracles, and notwithstanding the Geeta, in Vyasa’s Mahabharat itself, that often he was very much ‘just’ a man: but yes, a man in a billion. Then there came all the stories that people made up and told one another over two millennia, along with the huge literature from the Bhagavat Purana to the Geeta Govindam and the charitamritas, and the lives of Meera and Chaitanya, and the legend was complete. Titans like Tagore were being fascinated right into the middle of the 20th century, as the likes of CBD and I are being today…who and what was Krishna? tnuhu kaise Madhav, kaho tnuhu moye…"We ask and ask, thou smil'st, and art still". adi anadi ka nath kahayasi/ jaga taaran bhaar tohara…

Now, despite those five exceptional husbands, despite her (alleged-) longing for Karna, it seems – CBD’s book only underlines it lyrically and movingly – she really always counted on Krishna to give her the best kind of company and advice and fish her out of the worst kind of trouble, although she doesn’t hesitate to call him ‘my exasperation’. And he was ‘always there’ for her, no matter how preoccupied he was elsewhere, no matter how many wives he had at home, no matter how godly or mundane he was being. In this passage from the episode of the quarrel among kings during the Rajasuya yagna, when all present have been traumatized by Sisupal’s attempt to kill him before being himself annihilated, Krishna soothes his Krishnaa sakhi inside her mind thus: “I said, ‘When I thought you had died, I wanted to die, too’. Krishna gazed into my eyes. Was it love I saw in his face? If so, it was different in kind from all the loves I knew. Or perhaps the loves I had known had been something different, and this alone was love. It reached past my body, my thoughts, my shaking heart, into some part of me that I hadn’t known existed. My eyes closed of their own accord. I felt myself coming apart like the braided edge of a shawl, the threads reaching everywhere. How long did I stand there? A moment or an eon? Some things can’t be measured. I know this much: I didn’t want it to end… then his voice intruded into my reverie, laughter stitched into its edges, just as I had feared. ‘You’d better not let my dear friends the Pandavas hear that! It could get me into a lot of trouble!’ ‘Can’t you ever be serious?’ I said, mortified. ‘It’s difficult,’ he said. ‘There’s so little in life that’s worth it’ ”.

In the final dialogue on the mountain, he comes back to her again as her earthly consciousness begins to fade and dissolve, though he is physically dead, and (in a scene hauntingly reminiscent of Harry’s meeting with Dumbledore at King’s Cross Station somewhere in limbo) she realizes that all her life she has found bliss only with him.

Did she ever really need anyone else, she who was loved by God? Meera knew she didn’t as a woman, Sri Chaitanya knew he didn’t, as a man. As for me, this yearning has become too great to bear, and am I looking for ‘just’ a man or woman any longer?…

[The Palace of Illusions, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Doubleday/Picador 2008, ISBN 978-0-330-45853-5, Rs. 399]

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Debarshi in the Netherlands

My favourite old boy Debarshi has just gone off to the Netherlands, to do a master's course in engineering at the University of Delft. He has written the following little essay about his first impressions.

From Durgapur to Delft

In Zuid-Holland, lies a city that is poetry expressed in reality, a municipality that finds its beauty from its canals, and from the breathtaking vistas of Nature bestowed on it so bountifully by the Almighty, and the place that houses one of the finest universities of technology- Delft. I made this journey with one objective in mind- I wanted to learn the way I liked to. It's not every day that the Rector magnificus asks his students to think of themselves as an academic family, where hierarchical power distance is almost non-existent- and invites all of his students to create, innovate and design solutions to real-life problems that affect society as a whole. "If Engineering doesn't change our lives for the better, really address the pressing challenges economically, then that technology is of no use, and just increases theoretical complexity." I attended the Welcome address this very day, and came back with an experience of a lifetime. Care, efficiency, and humanity in every single aspect- this is The Netherlands for me. The Dutch love their tulips, their cheese, their canals, their country- but they love people. Coming from a place that's seen more dog-eat-dog competition than camaraderie, the first days here tasted better than the sweetest chocolate! I found myself thinking- "Maybe it's because they have such a tiny population, in such a beautiful country that seems like a portal to a place back in Time- but, could it be that they had really known the secret to living the good life? It was to co-exist peacefully in harmony, both with their fellow-men and Nature, since all we ultimately are dust in the wind."

Finding luggage too heavy to carry? The Dutch are going to help you out, going out of their way, putting their GPS-enabled phones to real use at the same time while lending a hand with your luggage- and wishing you good luck, when they finally take your leave. Finding yourself in a spot at a busy ticket counter, because you are unable to comprehend their language, that seems to be full of misplaced consonants? The official manning the counter is going to help you out with every single step, and making sure that you understand the concept clearly. Can't seem to find a shop? They will ask you to sit on their bicycles (oh, what a common sight they are all around Delft- there seem to be more bicycles than people!) and get you in the correct direction. The University campus was already strewn with leaves in fall, yet all other alleys and streets and buildings were spotlessly maintained. Love is in the air in The Netherlands- love for beauty, for keeping it so, and comprehending so flawlessly that 72 different nationalities have different cultures, different economic background, diverse religions. TU Delft puts it all in one giant pot, and the concoction tastes sweeter than any other brew! Cooking, cleaning up, washing, studying at the same time- I don't have the warmth of family here, but have found the warmth of fellowship. It has been a long journey- but then the road goes on and on, and whither then? We can only trust that it goes back to the beginning.  

I am now waiting for Saikat to fill me in from the University of Rochester, NY, USA. That should be another blogpost.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Sen-Bhagwati 'debate', part two

The Pioneer of Delhi carried this article of mine yesterday. My bit for Independence Day this year.

And this is Gopal Gandhi's edit page article in The Telegraph today. I am glad the Mahatma's grandson thinks the way I do, and immensely proud that he has mentioned some teachers with respect.

To pick up the threads from where I left off in the last post:

First of all, despite being as keenly aware as the next economic historian of how much growth has done for humanity over the long term (I have myself written elsewhere that the average American factory worker today lives a lifestyle that would be the envy of medieval kings in many ways), I am with Galbraith in believing that growth is not a cure for all diseases, and growth beyond a point, unguided growth especially, can itself become a terrible disease.  

For one thing, anyone who knows how national income/product accounts are drawn up knows how much jugglery and fudging is involved (polite and canny economists refuse to mention such things to laymen). I won’t go into details here: ask if you are interested. But this means that growth figures not only hide as much as they reveal, but are also far too misleading to be regarded with as much awe and excitement as most economics-illiterate journalists do – are paid to do. For another, as honest professors tell even undergraduate kids, any kind of increase in output is growth: more lifesaving drugs yes, more narcotic drugs yes, too; more nightclubs count for no less in the aggregate national accounts than more schools and libraries and museums! So growth cannot be called a ‘good thing’ without strict qualifications, and a lot of serious value judgments. Third, growth has very unhealthy ‘side effects’, to put it mildly: witness the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, ADHD, casual crime and suchlike that invariably comes hard on the heels of the kind of growth that lets people eat more (of the worst kind of food), work less manually, and have too much leisure and ‘entertainment’ of the tweeting sort. Fourth, there can be near-‘jobless’ growth, as has been by and large the case in virtually all developed countries over the last three decades, so that average unemployment levels have been steadily rising. Fifth, the kind of growth that simultaneously causes rapid depletion of critical non-renewable natural resources and extreme forms of environmental pollution can be sustained at most for a few decades more: no economist can answer that except with the prayer ‘I hope not in my kids’ lifetimes, not at least in my country!’ I can extend this list considerably, but if my point is not yet taken, that is only because the reader just doesn’t want to listen. So it is already a sad fact that both Sen and Bhagwati are eager to assert that they are equally in favour of endless, aimless, pointless growth, important as that may be for the poor in the poorest countries still. Surely economists and politicians could think of higher aims. Once upon a time they actually did!

Now, even if it is admitted that growth is essential, there are still important things to think of.

1.   Who benefits from growth, and how much? The usual pattern – especially in the absence of correctional intervention by government – is that the already rich and privileged get obscenely richer, while the poor keep scrounging, or things get actually worse for them, or at best improve at an agonizingly slow pace (in a slight variation of the idea of ‘you will get your rewards in heaven’, economists keep telling them ‘things will get better in the long run’. Lord Keynes’ unanswerable repartee was ‘In the long run we are all dead’). The difference tends to become steadily wider, as successive generations of the rich get things ready made and cut out for them, and ‘money begets money’. Not fair at all. Only a very selfish or very foolish person will claim otherwise.

2.   They claim – the ‘neoclassical’ (currently mainstream-, because they are good with the calculus, matrix algebra and statistics) economists – that there’s no way you can get growth going without encouraging private entrepreneurship, and private entrepreneurs ‘need’ to make astronomical fortunes in order to keep going: deny them that right, and they will sulk and sit back and let things slide, and the whole nation’s fortunes will suffer. Now, there are three things I must note here: a) they have no real theoretical underpinning for claiming such a thing, for no theory really ‘explains’ growth unless you are willing to start off with all sorts of ridiculous assumptions about human beings, b) funny that only entrepreneurs ‘need’ the lure of vast fortunes in order to make them do their thing, when so many other socially valuable types, from teachers to musicians to soldiers can get along fine without similar blandishments, always done! and c) the historical record says that all countries, including that much-vaunted paradise of ‘free enterprise’, the US of A, have achieved growth and increased social welfare only by virtue of continuous governmental monitoring, regulation, intervention and assistance at times of dire crises in the larger public interest (indeed, American corporate tycoons have a glorious record of insisting on ‘freedom’ only when the going is good, and they run to the government for help when disaster strikes far more eagerly and shamelessly than the poor do – though it is always the poor who are blamed for wanting to live on ‘unearned entitlements’!), and indeed, the ‘best results’, from the collective point of view, have been achieved precisely in those countries which have neither tended too far towards communism nor pampered laissez faire capitalism but steered a steady middle course, from Germany since the time of Bismarck (barring the chaos between 1914 and ’45) and Japan to the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, New Zealand and the like. Growth may have been somewhat slower there, and they have far fewer billionaires to show off, but from the national point of view, it never really mattered. Both crime rates and poverty are far less there, and the highest average standards of living overall, even if you leave out cultural and environmental criteria.

3.   Sen keeps insisting not only that large-scale government initiatives on building infrastructure, spreading basic education and health care (government, because nowhere on earth do private businessmen want to spend on such things – too expensive, returns too low and slow and risky – though they want the benefits thereof: let the government build the roads while they make the cars, but government is BAD because it calls on them to pay for the roads through increased taxes!) are not only good things in themselves but they actually accelerate growth. I have never stopped wondering how supposedly educated and worldly-wise people could ever think otherwise, blind to all the evidence before their eyes. Whereas Bhagwati actually wants these things too, but seems to imagine they can happen without the presence of that ‘great evil’ called government!

4.   Bhagwati and his tribe see only efficiency and high productivity and maximum all-round social welfare ‘in the long run’ from unfettered competitive laissez faire, while government brings only ‘corruption’,  tyranny, red-tapism and stagnation. Half truth, and as usual, half truths are often more dangerous than outright lies. For one thing, governments do not have a monopoly on the aforementioned evils, as anyone who has lived half a life in the real world and does not have an ax to grind in favour of the private sector will admit (yesterday an old boy was telling me how he has got far better service in a public sector bank compared to a famous private one; and I, for one, have been cheated more than once by private insurance companies and others). For another, the private sector wouldn’t even exist in safety and peace without the protective umbrella provided by governments via the law, the courts, the police and the civil services: the rich actually need government far more than the poor.  For a third, we need governments for reasons far beyond the preservation and development of the economy, a fact that economists too easily forget; slavery would not have been abolished without government effort, nor sati nor child marriage and a hundred other ancient evils. The real debate should centre on how much government we need, without surrendering to extremist notions and perverse SPIN on either side.

P.S.: This editorial in Monday’s issue of my newspaper says that Bhagwati has come down to abusing Sen personally. No better admission of defeat!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Sen-Bhagwati 'debate'

Some of my most favourite readers have been asking me for my take on the currently raging debate between the two famous economists of Indian origin, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, over how central the need for economic growth is to India’s overall development. So I shall try to oblige, within my very limited powers. But here are a few observations first:

1.   The debate is not really new. The two (now very old-) men have been fighting over it for half a century now. I got in and out within less than a decade, and have become very tired of more or less the same things being said over and over ad nauseam. It’s only a new generation of journalists and politicians and maybe academics who have never read anything written before 1950 who can get all het up over it – and I know for a fact that you can get a first class master’s degree in economics from some of India’s best universities these days, and go off to hotshot US universities on scholarship, without ever having touched the seminal classics, basically doing only math and reading only textbooks and class notes instead. It still wasn’t like that in my day.
2.   It is not basically about which of the two stalwarts is more learned and more clever and better informed. It is ultimately a question of which values have priority for them – even if they deny it vehemently (as I think Bhagwati will, much more than Sen: support for unbridled rapacity still calls for more justification, at least among the educated classes, than support for human sympathy).If you accept that, you can avoid the quarrel altogether.
3.      Any serious reader with a memory will know where I stand on this issue, of course. You only have to have read my earlier blogposts like Values, prices, incomes; and Poor little rich thug; Counterculture; My mother is sixty; Good CEOs, bad politicians; Forests, tribals and sombre thoughts; I love Lalit Modi and India, twenty years after, to mention a few that immediately spring to mind. Read them now, or brush them up: it will save me a lot of repetition.
4.      My own views have not been quickly and easily formed. They can be traced back to the Bible, the Koran, and the many texts of Hinduism which enjoin upon us the need for sympathy and justice and brotherhood and charity as the highest desiderata in social life; to the teachings of Adam Smith, the father of modern political economy (and not just The Wealth of Nations but the book he wished all to read in tandem, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, but few have, even among economists), the loftiest (rather than most pragmatic-) urges expressed by the Founding Fathers of the US as much as the noblest socialists (‘the free development of each must be the essential condition for the free development of all’), and, among economists of more recent times, by giants like Joan Robinson of Cambridge (‘one great benefit of reading economics is that you will never be hoodwinked by economists again’) and the great Harvard professor of yesteryear, John Kenneth Galbraith. Anybody who wants to join issue with me must have at least digested Galbraith’s greatest books, including The Affluent Society and Economics and the Public Purpose (and also know that arch supporters of the worst kind of capitalism keep suddenly finding merit in him whenever capitalism undergoes major crises, as keep happening, most recently in 2008).
5.   I took away from the university a lasting disappointment with and contempt for the subject of economics, and much more so for what economists have become: all show and little substance, all arcane math and pretty jargon and little practical sense, all eager to advise statesmen and tycoons on how best to run governments and corporations, yet best only at making up ever more fancy models to explain why their advice led to disaster, and their predictions went hopelessly wrong. Really not much better than astrologers, and slightly worse than meteorologists. I won’t elaborate on this, firstly because it makes me tired at this age, and because someone far more competent – Dr. Ashok Mitra, an economist of impeccable credentials – has recently done it for me here. His article is a must read.
6.      One last thing to be noted: both Sen and Bhagwati, despite their professed philosophical differences over how the world should be managed, have done, and almost equally efficiently, the best for themselves that their profession allows, in terms of degrees, honours, money, fame and security. Also, their greatness as theoreticians notwithstanding, they haven’t really contributed to human welfare and happiness anywhere near as much as scores of great politicians, social workers and writers I could name. That’s my view anyway. Neither would compare himself with a Gandhi or Tagore, I am sure.

Now, to the main issue.

Broadly speaking, as things now stand, both Sen and Bhagwati claim that they agree that economic growth is important for national development and progress. Only, while Bhagwati is gung-ho in support of laissez faire capitalism, because that allegedly best guarantees rapid long term growth, Sen insists not only a) that growth by itself does little (little good, at least) without conscious large scale efforts to redistribute incomes, wealth and opportunity, but indeed such redistribution, according to the historical evidence, best ensures rapid growth, b) nowhere ever has unbridled capitalism produced the best results, and c) the ‘best results’, if you look at things from the collective perspective, are not achieved by saying ‘let the poor wait for whatever trickles down their way while the rich get ever obscenely richer, because there’s no other way the gross national product can grow rapidly’.

[Now this is getting to be a long post, and I know very well about average attention spans. So I consider it prudent to keep the rest of my comments for the next blogpost. Meanwhile those who do not want to bank purely on Sir’s pov might look up this link to see what others have been saying…]

Friday, August 02, 2013


To start with, here's the link to the post titled 'Bye bye time again'. It will help my current senior batch, who will be leaving in a few months' time. After you have read that post, don't forget to click on the link provided there!

More than one person asked, after reading the 'zen' story, 'Sir, a) do you really think that kind of passionate interest and devotion are possible?, and, b) is it possible in today's trivia-obsessed world, when anything you write can be forgotten as soon as another Katrina Kaif item number is released, or iPhone6 comes on the market?' My reply is, of course not. I was merely talking about two kinds of extreme. One type will gladly cut off an arm, another won't 'sacrifice' a Facebook account for Sir's sake, and yet would be offended if I laugh at their protestations of love and respect and devotion: they must be given 'reason' enough before they take such a 'drastic' step (but let it go on record that three people have already told me they have deleted their FB accounts after reading the last post, and I won't be surprised if a few others have done it without telling me).

I have decided I shall communicate much less directly with individuals than via these blogs. For one thing, individuals don't really matter much unless they make themselves valuable, but no sooner do I give them some leeway than they begin to take all sorts of liberties with me, and for another, the '200,000 plus page views' tells me something very reassuring: a lot of people are reading what I write, and some do let me know how they are being affected, in a way that gratifies me, so I don't need to bother about particular individuals anyway. Besides, I have said before that my blogs are extensions of my classroom. Those who come to my classrooms come basically to listen to me and learn from me, and perchance to remember and think about and be improved by what I have told them, not to give me the backchat they haven't earned the right, intellectually and emotionally, to try. I have noticed, and not with one person, that those who are only too eager to give me a piece of their mind (whatever passes for their minds) in personal conversations are far more circumspect about doing that on the blogs, to the extent that 'they can't think of what to say', even when I want them to. And maybe that suits me best. 

Also, some people raised the question of gratitude and ingratitude recently. No one of course will deliberately call himself 'ungrateful', but I sometimes think I have got more than my fair share, still. Look up this blogpost.

That's all for now. I shall write very soon again. Don't forget to look up the previous post: it's not grown stale. Language is everything.

P.S.: Looking at the map showing people currently reading, my curiosity is tickled again. I know who reads from Golden, Colorado, and from Kure, Japan, and from Auckland, New Zealand - but who is my reader in Calgary, Canada, in Nokia, Finland, in Mountain View, California, home of Google, and the 'unknown' in Nigeria? Why won't they ever tell me?!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Language, for the love of God, language!

Every human mind, wrote Nehru, is ‘a private universe of thought and feeling’, and no other human can look into it, except in rare (and usually faulty) glimpses. This is all the more true of intelligent, learned, reflective and complex minds. Yet we desperately need to communicate, not only for getting along in the workaday world, but because we are all at heart, at least sometimes, terribly lonely and scared and confused and in need of the warmth which only the loving, understanding and caring of other human minds can give us, short of direct contact with God.  And that can be done only, or at least primarily, through language, through the written and spoken word.

Also, language misused or abused can do immeasurable, often irreparable harm. It can break hearts, confuse and misguide minds, create the worst possible (and often entirely avoidable-) misunderstandings, ruin lives, trigger off riots and wars.  And it can have enduring effects on all history. Which is why Hammurabi and Asoka got their edicts carved on stone, which is why Aesop and Vishnu Sharma told stories, Socrates and Aurelius and the editors of the King James Bible chose their words with great care, which is why diplomats and lawyers take so much time and pay so much attention to ironing out drafts of official documents, which is why my textbooks in French were titled Le français et la vie... French and life. That’s right: language is the very foundation of thought and culture, and you cannot separate it from life itself. For God’s sake, even mathematics and computer codes are types of language, and you cannot explain a fundamental concept in physics or economics without language, no matter how good you are with graphs and equations.  I know. I have been teaching language all my life, among other things.

I have a very special reason for loving and worshipping language, of course. It has fed me richly, both my body and mind. It has ‘kept me from evil’, remembering that the worst evils are hurting the innocent and wasting your time. It has given me something to be proud of, as no mere material possessions and titles and family connections can make one proud. It has allowed me to be a lot of help to a lot of people in need. It has helped me to understand the world, and to know people – both in their richness and their banality. Indeed, nothing tells you more about people’s characters than the kind of language they use: that is why psychoanalysts depend so much on what their clients on the couch say while engaging in free association of thoughts, and even a teacher of mathematics, if he is worth his salt, will insist that his pupils get the successive statements of a proof just right; no shoddiness will be tolerated. So it shouldn’t be too hard to understand why I have always tried to speak rationally, succinctly, lucidly, illustratively... and even more so when I am writing, because writing is more permanent than the spoken word, and you have fewer excuses for shooting your mouth, even if you are writing on google chat. I have talked and written all my life, and said a lot of hard and harsh things to so many people too, yet rarely have I had to take back something I said, while I know people who have to do that twenty times a day. Not an accident. It needs hard work. And one puts in that kind of hard work day in, day out, only when one is convinced about how important it is, how much better a human being one becomes if one makes a lifelong habit of it. If one wants to become a better human being, of course, at least a little more than wanting to buy a better  cellphone or pair of shoes.

So nothing makes me wince or want to throw up more than seeing people mangling language, and saying things they don’t mean (or, “really mean”) simply because they won’t take the trouble. And then lamenting ‘Folks don’t understand me... X, Y or Z misunderstands me so much’! I don’t merely mean the way journalists routinely abuse language through the bad habit of thoughtless overuse and the knowledge that nobody really cares what they write. I don’t merely mean the Bangalore-based IT hack who writes on his Facebook wall, under a photograph of himself in front of the Taj Mahal, ‘1st time wid soooo wonderful creature n d world!’ He is not, after all, quite a human being. I don’t mean the teenage girl who, whenever she gets annoyed, exclaims ‘Oh, shit!’ imagining that makes her ‘cool’, though she cannot write a decent 400-word essay on any sensible subject under the sun to save her life: she’s got company, and there’s a faint possibility that given the right kind of teachers, she might still grow up, maybe by the time she’s seventy, and she can think beyond getting married and having babies and dolling up for parties. I am certainly not sneering at someone who can use her mother tongue with fluency and élan, though her grasp of the English language might be poor: indeed, I have met far too many people who can write/speak only pidgin English, or Hinglish/Banglish at best, and far too few who can handle chaste Bangla or Hindi, so I actually respect the latter kind. I am no martinet, as my best students can tell you: I too like the occasional bit of fun playing with caricatured language, including its textese format, or writing Bangla in the Roman script, or employing currently fashionable buzzwords. But there is somewhere everybody with education, good taste and self-respect must draw the line, and I do too.

It’s when people who know better – or should know better – do it, and keep doing it, despite knowing well enough it is bad, wrong, hurtful or at best vulgar: do it despite being told. People who are adults, people who like to think of themselves as educated, people who have read more than a few good books, who have themselves grimaced at or even suffered from others’ abuse of language, most of all people who have known me for sometime as a teacher, formally or otherwise. With such people, I feel like puking when I still see that anything can be hot as well as cool, it’s okay to say to anybody ‘I love you’ because they’ve learnt it from stage performers who are paid to blow kisses at audiences and scream ‘I love all you amayyzing people!’, anyone can be called great or awesome, from Alexander to the boyfriend,  anyone can be called foolish or worse, from an ex-classmate to Tagore or Russell because that helps the cause of democracy, I suppose; when such people are too quick to take offence at a reprimand, forgetting that I have never demanded less than and never renounced my dues as a teacher, forgetting hundreds of things they have reason to be grateful for merely because they feel this momentary compulsion to talk back in a hurry; people who have opinions on everything but are repeatedly struck dumb when I ask for their well-considered opinions on certain things because ‘they don’t know what to say’;  people who do not have the strength of character to admit and correct the fact that they contradict themselves too often (like asking for edification one day and telling me they don’t want sermonizing the next), people who hate to be compared with their betters instead of wanting to learn from them, people who insist, in denial of all their education, that others have an obligation to understand their intended meaning instead of listening to what they actually say, people who can dish it out to Sir but can’t take it from him and still imagine they have a right to his kind of attention...

For those who have lost me already, I suggest you re-read the first two paragraphs. You can wipe more than one thing with your handkerchief. How much truer and more significant that is with something infinitely precious and powerful like a language! Especially when it comes to dealing with a language worshipper like me, who has never liked to waste time on trifles or trivial people? I know how I talk when I am dealing with my family doctor, I know how much more reverential attention I shall give to someone of real and ineffable worth, like if I was talking to Vivekananda.  Whoever has been reading this blog consistently for a couple of years, even if s/he has not met me in the flesh, cannot help knowing, even if s/he never has the courage and honesty to acknowledge it and celebrate it, that I am not quite another Tom, Dick or Harry. Surely people ought to admit – especially when I have given them time enough, and I am not an impatient man, as my parents, sisters and the likes of Bijit Mukherjee know – that I have a right, beyond a point, to cut them out of my life? Professional interest apart, why should I keep talking to people who will not listen to me, who will keep irritating me either because they don’t understand they are doing it or can’t help it, and who will never share my love, respect and awe for language and all that it entails: given that that love, respect and awe has paid off vastly more handsomely than knowing such people has or ever will? After all, fifty years is a long time to have been around, and I can still count on two fingers the people to whom I owe anything of value at all! And if I limit my attention to those who are both able and willing to give me anything of value still, should I look beyond my wife, my daughter and my investment counsellor? Is anybody else likely to do better? – get my book published, or give me love (as I define love, not they, it goes without saying), or build a memorial when I am gone? Should I lower my expectations to the level of being invited to weddings instead?

Can anybody claim after reading this post through that I have written a single sentence outside my rights? This link is about how people react to cinema these days, but it fits in perfectly with what I have been saying here. This one, which Mayuri sent me, shows that others too are ruing how the facility of the internet is encouraging us to bring the worst of ourselves out on the surface for full public view. Also, it won’t hurt to look up the posts I have put under the label of ‘netiquette’. Because I know for a fact that I get much less lip and irrelevant chatter when people come over to talk with me face to face. Whether they are 15 or 50.  

All my life I have believed a) there is nothing more worth  having than an education, b) that education means knowing above all else what is crap and why it is necessary to cut out the crap, c) that I want to find a man about whom it can be said he is ‘one whose very company is a complete education’, completely sure that I will do anything for him, and I don’t use words loosely, d) I have tried consciously and single-mindedly to become someone like that myself, e) I have got more than a little acknowledgment that at least I tried, and so, f) I do not want to know people who think less than that of me. For those who can’t or won’t, the rest of the world is waiting. Try the gutter. Try the slums. Try the pubs. Try Facebook. I know that Tagore and Russell and Asimov and Galbraith would have agreed; I know that Pupu agrees, I do not have to waste time considering the ‘opinions’ of lesser creatures masquerading as human beings, no matter what their numbers are. You are above 21 and still use FB, after trying it out for a year? Don’t talk to me. And that you didn’t delete your account immediately after reading this post tells me all I want to know about you and what you really feel about me: how much I 'matter' to you when the chips are down.

I like to tell this zen story: the master was deep in meditation, and the would-be pupil came and kept waiting to draw his attention. It was snowing, and he was out in the open, and eventually he began to freeze, but he hung on. At last the master opened his eyes, and snarled, ‘What do you want, you rascal?’ ‘To be your disciple’, said the man. ‘And what are you willing to give up for me?’ The man drew out his sword, cut off his left arm with his right, and said, ‘Do you want more?’ Then he was accepted. Yes, yes, I know, by closing down your FB account and minding your language you will lose so many ‘friends’, and after all, it’s only numbers that matter, and ‘what will people say?’... alamativistaarena, they say in Sanskrit, don’t talk too much. They don’t listen anyway.