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Friday, June 28, 2013

Taking stock once more

My daughter has had an interesting and (for her-) new experience. Read about it here. This is one of the reasons I have sent her off to a big city, awful as the wrench has been.

Rashmi in her latest blogpost has been reflecting upon what I have done for her over the last few years. Anyone who reads it with attention will see this relationship with me has added a major dimension to her life, something she has come to value highly, and not something that has been a cause of any kind of trouble. Vaishnavi is another girl who could tell you. This is precisely the kind of thing I try to do with all my pupils, succeed in doing with a few, and have always dreamt of doing with very large numbers, as witness what I said in the post titled ‘Last Dream’. It needs a lot of intelligent interest, attention and faith on the part of the pupil, too, of course. So I fail with most of those who pass through my tuitions for a few years; no surprises there. Also, perhaps it’s really a good thing that I don’t have to attend to too many people outside my classes – one cannot really give that kind of intense quality time to thousands, or even hundreds of people at once, they all become mere Facebook-friends. An old boy on the phone reminded me yesterday. It has been well said that ‘Not my will, O Lord, but Thy will be done’.

I have always said that these two blogs are extensions of my classes. My best readers have told me they can often actually hear my voice while they are reading. Now that there have been 200,000-plus pageviews, 300-odd members, and this blog routinely gets 800 to 1000 visits every week, I think things are working the way I wanted. They will work even better if my readers interact more, with me and with one another, using these blogs as a common platform. I assure you, nobody with a mind of his or her own ever regretted doing that with me. And the hundreds of posts on these blogs can give you all the talking points you need. Do explore them a bit more assiduously: don’t restrict yourself to the home pages…

A passing thought: while the rumour mill among the parent generation in this town (my dad’s 25 years ago, and now my own) is still almost as busy as ever gabbling away about me to glory, few parents use the internet to read my blogs. The general public opinion about what sort of man I am would have become very very different – and much closer to reality – by now if they did. But no matter. They will die being busy with inconsequential things, as Rashmi has described. So many in fact have already!

The older I grow in teaching, the more deeply I realize how awesome a job it is, and how many of us spend our whole working lives without ever guessing that! Most of us never become more than mere instructors, ‘covering the course’ for some piffling examination be it in physics or history, cooking or gymnastics, painting or music, surgery or law; and it is all so pathetic, because those who can’t learn that kind of stuff from books on their own won’t, instructor or no instructor, and those who can don’t really need instructors at all! No one except he who can show me how to live better in a non-trivial sense (meaning makeup and jewellery and decking up my rooms) qualifies to be called a teacher, and understood in that way, most of us never meet three real teachers in our whole lives, in school or in the university of life. And I also understand that I have, more and more consciously over the years, tried to be the kind of teacher who deserves the title. Much of all the trouble I have had has stemmed from that urge, all the good that has happened has derived from it too. I myself have found all my real teachers only in books… the Buddha, Socrates, Tagore, Vivekananda, Russell, Galbraith, Asimov…; not one teacher I have met in my whole life could hold a candle to these men, in the kindergarten or the university. That is one of the few regrets I shall take to my grave. And maybe the satisfaction of knowing that some people have acknowledged, at least to themselves, that I tried uncommonly hard, much harder than anyone else they have known.

To those who do have this feeling that getting to know Sir up close will make a big difference to their lives, but are still not sure how to, or think they cannot help always having more important and pressing things to do, I shall only say, seize the day. Tomorrow it might be too late.

And you had better start by admitting two things to yourself: a) you have never really made good use of your time till this day, and b) whether you are 14 or 40, there is nothing that you need less than a great number of ‘friends’. They are holding you back from finding out who you are, what you want, and where you would like to go…

Friday, June 21, 2013

Khaled Hosseini's third

There are very few living authors about whom I’d say to someone who is serious about books ‘Don’t die before you have read him’. And I happen to know something about books. Khaled Hosseini is one of that elite.

He writes about love and hate, pain and longing, folly and illusion and evil and sin and remorse and redemption and finding out through long, diverse and intense experience who we are, what we were born for, how to make the best of our human condition against the most unfair and unmanageable odds, make peace with ourselves and be glad or at least quietly content when our number is up. Yes, the stuff of the finest works through the ages in every land…old hat. Only, some people do it their own way and very much better than others, leaving permanent footprints on the sands of time, making you thankful that they wrote and you read them.

He knows how to make pain, gut-wrenching pain, more beautiful and beguiling and fulfilling than even the sweetest pleasure. In this mind-numbed, crudely hedonistic age he defies your expectations of gooey happy endings and dares you not to read him. You go back to him even though you know you can’t take it any more. After The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I had sworn to myself I shall never read a Hosseini again. His new book has come out last month – five years after the previous one – and when Abhirup brought it along, it took me half a minute to forget my resolve: I finished the first hundred pages in a breathless hour-long rush, and I knew I was hooked, and had to finish the book no matter what.  

This book too, originates in Afghanistan; indeed most of it dwells on present-day, war-torn, poverty-ravaged, religion-and-drug-crazed Afghanistan, but it covers a much longer time span than the previous ones, travels all over the world from Greek islands to Paris to Spain to Californian suburbs and even fleetingly to India, and deals simultaneously with a much greater number and variety of characters, most of whom interweave and interact with one another in one way or the other, in the best tradition of grand narratives of yesteryear. There are poor marginal farmers quietly bleeding their lives away in back-breaking labour to keep their families alive and there are corrupt, violent warlords wearing masks before their childen that ultimately drop off, there are beautiful, dissolute, frustrated poets and math PhDs trying to understand them as parents and human beings as they themelves raise families and grow old; there are savaged, ugly but gifted women trying to live decently with a purpose and little boys growing into doctors trying to respect them and love them, there are homosexual masters who are nice but frustrated people and lovelorn servants who wish they knew with their dying breath they had done the right thing; there are ‘good’ men who eventually have to admit to themselves they are lesser human beings than their ‘bad’ siblings, there are faithful daughters desperately trying to find out what is missing from their lives and stern mothers who shame their grown up sons in the dusk of their lives by praising them, there are men and women and children suffering in exile and making do and changing and yet remaining unchanged… but always, also in the grand tradition, everything revolves over and around one basic template: two human beings who loved each other with an uncommon love, cruelly separated in childhood, longing and forgetting and remembering and searching all their lives for each other, and finding each other and bliss at last, more than half a century later, not in a way that makes for fairy tales but the sort that brings a wrenching cry from the heart – oh Allah, who is all merciful, it is not for us to judge, but could it not have been done in a kinder, nicer way? At the same time you are richer and deeply thankful for the experience: a master spirit has shown you what it means to be human.

The quote before the story begins is from Jelaluddin Rumi: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’. Indeed, the book reconfirms the truth of the French proverb, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner… and reminds us of Jesus’ admonition ‘Judge not, so thou shalt not be judged’. The best writers can do it far more persuasively than your run of the mill priest. And the book ends with a cathartic vision that, if you are capable of appreciating it, you will find it hard to forget.

Hosseini has single-handedly put Afghanistan on the world’s literary map: that is just one of his achievements. He reminded me once again why I read math and science and economics but chose to live by teaching literature, and also why a man may own all the baubles of this world but will die pitiably deprived and poor if he has not read a few good books of this sort. Also, how hard it is to be both a parent and a child. And what love and loving means. Those who know me will understand how hard it is for me to call someone my teacher: Hosseini has earned his place on the pedestal. I wonder what an incredible husband and father he must be. And he is the rare kind of man that I envy in this world – a man who has managed to do well by writing books that can find permanent places on the shelves of the most civilized among us. May God grant him a long and happy life devoted to writing. Visit his website at khaledhosseini.com, and do listen to the video where he talks about his new baby.

Statutory warning: Mutual sibling love of this ethereal quality surviving into adulthood is even rarer in this world than that between a teacher and his student. I should know.

P.S..: The stupidest people write book reviews these days, people who cannot distinguish Chetan Bhagat or E. L. James from Hemingway, Shaw or Shakespeare, and people who basically have nothing to say but are desperate to say it anyway – you can look up a few at goodreads.com  yourself. Talk about chattering apes, and what harm a smattering of education can do…

[And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 402, Indian edition Rs. 599, ISBN 978-9-3829-5100-1]

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

It bugs me, this

I grew up in a difficult family, and so I had a difficult childhood. Materially we were comfortable till I was in my mid-teens, when my father lost his cushy job with a public sector company, and we discovered he had never saved anything at all for a rainy day. The decade that followed gave me a taste of hardship and poverty first hand, and loneliness too – it went so deep that I have since then always had a profound contempt for people who have known such things only from books and movies, and a special respect for those who have fought their way through these things to a better life, be they day labourers or tycoons. Meanwhile, my academic career, after going excellently upto a fairly advanced stage, suffered a sudden big jolt: that is something I shall not discuss here; only let it be known that had things gone ‘normally’, I’d probably have been a senior World Bank official or an advisor to the Government of India today, as so many others, much less well endowed, have managed to become in my own time. Not that I am sad or envious that I didn’t – I know far too much about such positions and lives to find anything desirable or admirable about them, no real power, money or fame – just saying. My budding career in journalism, too, I quit early, because it paid very poorly in those days (I was desperate to fend for myself and find a little comfort and dignity in my life), and because I tired quickly of talking about what other people were doing and saying. My own life and work was not that unimportant; I had things to say of my own, and I wanted to work primarily for myself, and for the sake of people I personally cared for, and bring about little changes for the better that I could see with my own eyes.

Very few people, not excluding my parents, have ever done anything significantly good for me. The man I shall forever be most indebted to – after my grandfather and Sudhirda, that is to say – was Father Adrian Wavreil s.j., then headmaster of St. Xavier’s School Durgapur, who hired me as a teacher in June 1988. The rest, as they say, is history. I had taught privately ever since I was 17, and I now discovered that teaching was my calling and m├ętier, and plunged into it with all the energy and enthusiasm I could muster. God gives us opportunities and challenges; what we do with them defines who we are. I began to flourish early in my job, as much in pecuniary terms as in terms of pride and self-satisfaction. That was back in the early ’nineties, and it has been up, up, up all the way, though in a quiet, plodding, unspectacular manner. I haven’t been seriously ill for more than 25 years now, and taken ‘medical leave’ for three days only once, God be thanked. I built a house with my father, married off my two sisters and got married myself, had a daughter and brought her up happily. I helped my wife and father in law through major medical crises. I got my own two-wheeler bought with my own money only at age 26 (a few years before that even buying a bicycle would have meant several months of hard saving), and went on to a second-hand car first, then a new one. We began travelling often, and comfortably every year (juxtapose this with the fact that I first ever travelled air-conditioned class by train with my own money only when I went on my honeymoon!). I bought my wife a house of her own, and have decked it up comfortably to her satisfaction. I am nearly done setting up a fund that will take care of my daughter’s college education. If I live more simply than I could afford today, that is only because I deeply regard it as a good virtue, nothing else. Much of this has been done in a ‘jobless’ state, too, and I shall go on insisting that almost the entire urban Bengali middle class – that small part of it which reads me and meets me, that is – will do well to keep it in mind that that alone, besides a lot else, puts me poles apart from them, because they cannot imagine existing without ‘secure’ salaried jobs, all talk of self-worth and self-respect be damned when it comes to the crunch. All this done, too, without demeaning myself before anybody, without ever asking for a favour, without ever offering or taking a bribe, without ever stabbing someone else in the back for my petty immediate advantage. And now, if I can work just ten more years as I have been working all this time, I can retire comfortably…much of my life is done.

All this has kept me more than moderately ‘busy’, as most people understand busy-ness in this country. Now what I want to underscore is the fact that I still have always ‘had time’ for far more. From reading widely on every subject under the sun to writing almost as much (and never utter trivia), from watching thousands of movies to giving my daughter and wife the time of their lives, from doing the meanest household chores to charity to counselling old boys and girls on a more involved and intimate footing than most professional counsellors can dream of, from walking and swimming and pranayaam to helping out people with their doctoral theses. Yes, it has made me well-known to a lot of people, some of whom regard me with awe, some with disbelief, some with exasperation, some with the meanest jealousy. Yes, it has somehow never won me the kind of fame and wealth that could have allowed me to do all that on a much wider scale, for other people’s benefit more than my own: that I ascribe to karma and  nothing else. Yes, it has caused me much frustration and bitterness, seeing how little people remember with affection and gratitude once they have got what they wanted from me. And no, I am not sorry about the way I have lived, because it has helped me know myself as well as a lot of others most uncommonly well – indeed, as I often tell people both young and old, ‘I know you better than you know yourself, as you will perhaps realize someday…get back to me when you do, and then maybe we can spend more meaningful time together’.

What upsets me today, then? Well, to put it in short, the fact that I still haven’t been able to ‘cure’ myself of a certain weakness that people continue to take advantage of. As my wife diagnosed a long time ago, I tend to let people get very close to me – people who are lonely and confused and tired and sad, and show a need for my company and counsel – and sooner or later, they invariably start abusing the privilege, either because they never valued it enough, or because their ‘need’ has been served, or they are by nature too flighty to value a serious relationship, or too scared to get closer beyond a point, or whatever. And then it leaves me with a bad taste in the mouth: why on earth did I give so much of my time and attention and affection to this undeserver? This is a strange thing about my life: I have never really needed anybody to live my life my way, in the sense that I can live pretty well physically as much as mentally all on my own (I said earlier I owe very few things to anybody but God), yet I tend to get involved very intensely when I do, and I expect the same kind of sincerity and intensity in return, and I am disappointed, often very painfully, again and again. Yet I still have trouble accepting that human beings are essentially shallow, and I must not expect much from them. Maybe that is the last step of wisdom I still have to climb… to really accept that everyone counts upto a point, but nobody really matters. After all, somebody is going to burn my remains anyway, for their welfare, not mine – a rotting carcass is a threat to public health. So why should I care?

What rankles even more is that many of the same people can somehow find time to gush over celebrities, even write glowing tributes about them if they are literate, notwithstanding the fact that those celebs never really touched their lives in any meaningful way. I remember the raucous public mourning by drunken lumpens when Satyajit Ray passed away, I recall a female pupil mourning theatrically when Shah Rukh Khan as Devdas died in the movie which provoked her dad to wonder aloud whether she’d cry as much when he died. Now it’s happening all over again with Angelina Jolie’s mastectomy and Rituparno Ghosh’s death – nothwithstanding the fact that the latter’s biggest claim to fame was his penchant for cross-dressing and some in-your-face verbal mannerisms, who probably killed himself early through a lot of unnecessary medication and surgery (face it: where would Stephen Hawking be without his blessed motor neuron disease?), and he was, in his own words, not to be counted among the world’s five hundred greatest directors, so the less I said about that the better. It is a teacher’s fate rarely to be acknowledged publicly with that kind of respect, affection, gratitude and sadness at parting, I suppose. No matter how extraordinary an impact s/he made on real lives. And maybe that’s the crucial point: a teacher belongs too much to the real world, whereas tycoons and popstars and movie personalities are like the djinns and fairies and princes of old – about those we can gush to our hearts’ content, but how can we emote like that about real people, especially while they are still alive? What will people say? It would be sooooo embarrassing! Maybe I’ll have to die and come back to read the obits. And what makes it all the more painful is the fact that a tiny handful do write and talk in worshipful tones, to the extent that I have to tell them every now and then to pitch it down a bit! Their existence, by contrast, underlines the truth that real love, love which is not afraid but proud to make itself known, is so rare in this world, though so many pretend…see, once more, the post titled 'A girl who admired her teacher' along with all the comments: it is there on my most-read list.

So maybe I’d become a happier man if I really told the whole world, at fifty, ‘Pay me if you want to talk to me’? Or would I? And would that make me a better man to know? Could I have been of so much ‘use’ to so many people if I had become that way in my mid-twenties? If I really did cut off my email connection and took on a new phone number that only my wife and daughter and doctor would know and put a gatekeeper at the door to stop people I don’t want to see from coming in, would that be a nicer thing for everybody who feels it is important to keep in touch with me, yet would never do a few things that make me happy?

P.S. June 06: Well, we all live in a democratic world, a world of free personal choice. Only, as I never tire of telling people, that, without being balanced by other conditions, cannot make for warm, happy relationships. Your choice to play footsie with me, my choice to ignore you - that's democracy. Even my wife was telling me this morning that she hates it when I stop talking to her. Only, like just about everybody else, she can't remember for long that there are conditions: I am not a robot you can press to amuse you at your convenience. You need to give me things, too...