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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.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


আস্তে আস্তে স্তব্ধ দ্বিপ্রহরে আকাশ ঘন কালো মেঘে সজল হয়ে উঠলো, চারিদিকে নিবিড় স্নেহভরা প্রশান্ত অন্ধকার ছেয়ে এলো, ভারী স্নিগ্ধ গা শিরশিরে একটা মৃদুমন্দ বাতাস এসে সর্বাঙ্গে হাত বুলিয়ে দিতে লাগলো পরম যত্নে; জানালা দিয়ে দেখলেম, মাধবীলতা কেঁপে উঠেছে অনির্বচনীয়  সেই স্পর্শে - তখন দেখি সে নিঃশব্দে ধীরপদে এসে ঢুকেছে আমার একলা ঘরে।  কতকাল বাদে দেখা, তবু নতুন করে চিনতে হলো না; সে তো কখনো আমায় ছেড়ে যায় নি, শুধু আড়ালে সরে ছিল এতদিন, আবার আবরণ ঠেলে বেরিয়ে এসেছে আজকে, এই তো। 

চুপটি করে বসলো আমার পাশ ঘেঁষে। অনেকক্ষণ চোখের পলক পড়ে না, নির্বাক চেয়ে আছে মেঝের দিকে, নিশ্বাসের সঙ্গে বুকটি শুধু থেকে থেকে ওঠানামা করছে, এতটুকু চিত্তচাঞ্চল্য প্রকাশ করে ফেলেই বুঝি লজ্জায় জড়সড়। তারপর উঠে গেল জানালার কাছে; গরাদে হাত রেখে নির্নিমেষ চেয়ে রইলো নিরুদ্দেশের পানে; দূরে তালগাছের পাতা সরসরিয়ে বাতাস এসে লাগছে ওর আঁচলে, সারা গায়ে ঢেউ খেলিয়ে ভিজে চুলের গন্ধ মেখে এসে মৃদু তিরস্কারের ঝাপটা মেরে যাচ্ছে আমার মুখে। 

নীল বিদ্যুত তীরের মত আকাশের বুক চিরে মুহুর্তের জন্য ওর মুখখানি উদ্ভাসিত করে, আমার বুকে শেল দিয়ে নিঃশেষে মিলিয়ে গেল; আরো ঘন অন্ধকার ঘরটাকে আষ্টেপৃষ্ঠে জড়িয়ে ধরল আবার। তখন যত দেখলুম তার চেয়ে ঢের বেশি অনুভব করলুম, সে ভীত হরিণীর মত ত্রস্তপদে এসে আবার বসলো আমার পাশটিতে। মাথাটি ঝুঁকে পড়ল আমার কাঁধে। সেই অন্ধকারেও তার অতলস্পর্শ কালো চোখ  দেখতে পেলুম, তাতে টলটল করছে দুটো মুক্তো। তারপর ঠোঁট নড়ল, বুকের মধ্যে তার বুকভাঙ্গা প্রশ্ন শুনতে পেলুম - 'তবে কি তুমি ভুলে গেছ আমায়? আর কি তবে আমাকে তোমার দরকার নেই?'

মুখে কথা সরল না, চোখের পলক পড়ল না, শুধু অন্তরাত্মা অবধি তোলপাড় করে হাহাকার উঠলো - 'আছে, আছে, তোমাকে আমার দরকার  আছে আজও। তুমি ছাড়া এ মহাবিশ্বে আমার কেউ নেই, আমি একা, আমি অনন্যগতি, আমি তোমারই।'

তখন চোখের মুক্তো ঝরে পড়ল, তখন কালো অন্ধকারে আলোঝলমলে অনাবিল স্বস্তির হাসি তার ঠোঁট থেকে উপছে পড়ে আবার আমার ঘর উদ্ভাসিত করে দিল, তখন পরম তৃপ্তিতে দুহাতে আমার গলা জড়িয়ে সে মুখ লুকোলো আমার বুকে। আমি তাকে টেনে নিলেম গভীর আলিঙ্গনে।

তারপর বৃষ্টি নামল। আস্তে আস্তে সে আবার মিলিয়ে গেল পঞ্চভূতে। - তার চুলের অন্ধকার মেঘের গভীর কালোয়, তার অঙ্গের সুবাস ভেজা মাটির গন্ধে, তার চোখের জলের স্পর্শ খোলা জানালা দিয়ে আসা বর্ষণস্নাত দমকা হাওয়ায়। আমার কাছে পড়ে রইলো শুধু তার গলা থেকে খসে পড়া ফুলের মালাখানি। 

[My first ever post in Bangla. Written 23 years ago. Those who can see a great deal of Tagore here need not be surprised or suspect a coincidence - this was at a time I was immersed in him for a couple of years at a stretch, translating some of his works. The more interested and diligent of my readers might care to find out and tell me just which of his little essays inspired this one...]

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dutta vs. Dutta

It is no longer news that Bangla cinema is going through a renaissance of sorts: it’s been years since I used to say that I’d rather watch even Bollywood potboilers. Anjan Dutta’s Dutta vs. Dutta, though maybe not the finest movie I have seen in recent times, is certainly worth watching. It occurred to me that no schoolteacher should set her class to write on the ‘advantages and disadvantages of the joint family’ unless she and they have seen this movie, nor should any child be allowed to wax eloquent about the bliss of filial piety and sibling love until she has seen the worst that reality can serve up. For another thing, it brought back horrid, poignant and faintly comical memories of Calcutta in the throes of the ‘Naxalite-cum-hippie’ quasi-revolution which my generation watched with thumb-in-mouth bewilderment from the sidelines because we were at least ten years too young to take part in it and be burnt by it, while our parents were on average ten years too old. The third thought was that this part of the world has actually changed too little, despite the supposed miracles wrought by television, the internet, the cellphone and the ubiquitious motorcycle, besides higher incomes all around – our ‘with-it’ young hipsters today are going through the same motions that their fathers and even some grandfathers did in their salad days, poor zombies, imagining they are ‘enjoying themselves’ and ‘expressing themselves’ in a more novel and interesting way. Maybe Facebook helps to sustain the illusion. And lastly, I couldn’t help smiling wryly on being reminded of the Bangla saying ‘shongshaar holo shong er shaar’ … family life for most of us for the most part is black comedy.

A more than usually sensitive and gifted boy growing up in a severely dysfunctional family and dreaming of growing up to be a happy human being loved by at least one good person who loves him back and pursuing some relatively offbeat and creative career like music, writing or acting rather than engineering, medicine, accountancy or (as in this case-) law has become something of a staple with ‘movies with a message’ these days, so they can be graded only by how dexterously or clumsily they have handled the subject matter. I think D vs. D has been done rather well. It deals with a largeish number of flawed, even seriously eccentric characters without demonizing any of them. Indeed, more than one arouses one’s sympathy, to my mind none more than Biren Dutta the failed-lawyer dad of the narrator, despite his indolence, his name-dropping, his petty domestic tyrannizing, his gambling, alcoholism and pathetic philandering. He could never express himself well (alas, such a common failing!), his dreams were absurdly beyond his reach… but all he had ultimately wanted was a somewhat better life for himself and his loved ones, a little more dignity and recognition, a little less of lifelong helplessness and futililty. A man like that does not deserve to be beaten like an animal in police lockup for no  fault of his own, nor becoming a paraplegic in the dusk of his life, unable to die and almost unable to bask in the mild glow of wordly success that his nearly-estranged but beloved son has earned at last. I shall not grudge Providence all that it did not let me do in this lifetime that I know I could have done and well, if only it spares me an end like that. While I was watching, the old ABBA number kept playing at the back of my head: ‘People need love, people need loving…,’ probably even the worst of us.

No, this is not an expert’s learned and dispassionate review. It is an unapologetically personal response to something that moved me strongly, and I have tried, in brief, to explain why. In the hope that I may perchance persuade a few people to look at these things my way. Besides, who knows, maybe directors like to read comments like this from the general viewer, too?

Friday, July 05, 2013


Some people have been reading my short stories, and asking for more. Here is one I wrote (or rather composed orally, dictating in class, when they told me the board examination paper had asked them to write a story titled ‘Yearning’) back in 2001.

He said he’d come to see me again, the last time we met, and he will not fail me.

He was a very young soldier, tall and strong, with a firm jaw line, when I first set eyes on him. And he had such eyes – eyes that could flash with fire one moment and melt with kindness the next. A captain in the army, I learnt later, but the night I ran to him for help I knew him only as the kind and brave afsar sahib who alone could rescue me from the clutches of the ugly and pitiless demon who was taking me away to hell. And the sahib changed my life forever that night, in more ways than one.

I was a slip of a girl then, hardly fourteen, a dreamy country bumpkin, supposedly pretty, whom her poor and unloving uncle had sold to an oily, smelly, leery, bearded stranger for a fistful of rupees. I was being taken away, fearful and uncomprehending and feebly protesting, to the great city of Mumbai. The stranger had dragged me into a train, given me a paper bag full of dry grams to chew for dinner, and gone to sleep in a drunken state, after telling me he bore me no ill-will; this was just his line of business: he would put me aboard a ship at Mumbai and it would carry me to a faraway foreign land whose name I’ve forgotten, where I would become some rich man’s slave. My captor was soon snoring away peacefully, confident that I was too scared and too stupid to run away. But I had seen the military sahib at the station where he boarded the coach next to mine, and as I sat alone by the window, staring blankly at the darkness rushing past outside, a desperate plan began to form in my head. Twice in the night, when the train halted briefly, I saw the sahib getting out for a stroll on the platform. Twice I hesitated; the third time I rushed out and fell at his feet, crying piteously for succour.

In a trice he had pulled me up roughly by the arms, and demanded an explanation for my strange behaviour. People were staring at us, though the platform was almost deserted at three in the morning. I could see that he was baffled and embarrassed, but he was too innocent to disbelieve me, and too kind to throw me back to the wolves. He told me to take him to the bearded stranger. We got back into my compartment just as the train began to move. Inside, he shook the man awake. Bleary-eyed and frightened by the military uniform and flashing eyes, the rogue apparently confessed to more crimes than he need have, thus putting himself at the sahib’s mercy. And then the sahib made a deal with him – he would be allowed to go free if he agreed to let me go with the sahib without strings attached. God help me – I still feel ashamed to remember the dirty grin with which he waved me away, a grin which made the sahib very angry and red in the face.

He took me to Mumbai. He had no relatives there, he told me; he was just passing through on his long journey back to his frontier post after a month’s home leave – the best he could do for me was to put me up in an orphanage, seeing that I refused to go back to my uncle’s. And so it was that I became an inmate at a destitute girl’s home run by some Christian nuns. They would look after me till I was 18, and try to teach me to look after myself afterwards. The sahib left a little money with them – he was not a rich man, but I knew that he had done all he could for me. I worked hard at learning a trade at the Home, and waited and dreamed and prayed. The sahib came back a year later. He seemed glad to see me, and proud to hear of the progress I had made at learning how to make wickerwork furniture. He left some more money in a bank account for me: money that I could use to set up shop on my own after I came of age. Was he not going to come back any more, I asked. He said he would, and there was a look in his eyes that told me I had a right to hope. He left me an army address to contact if I desperately needed him – his place of posting was secret; no letters were allowed. And I couldn’t read and write at that time anyway.

I am 24 now, and running a small but satisfactory business of my own. My uncle’s family is only too glad to see me these days, and they often urge me to get married. Idiots. I must wait, go on waiting. After six straight years without communication, I wrote to the address they had given me. They wrote back, politely regretful, informing me that the gallant captain had fallen fighting for his beloved country during an incident of cross-border shelling. But of course that can’t be true, can it? He said he’d come again to see me, the last time we met, and he will not fail me.

That’s it. A very short, short story.

A lot of people will find it trivial, or overly-sentimental, or otherwise unimpressive and unmemorable. I don’t want to hear from them. A precious few will feel a very deep, deep resonance inside their hearts, because they too have felt like this, occasionally or very often, and as keenly, as inconsolably. Not necessarily for a lost love in the romantic sense, but for missing parents, or children, or spouse, or student or teacher, even. They might let me know. It is about the same kind of missing someone who is lost or who will never come that I wrote Natalie and Sorcery too. So did Tagore with Kabuliwallah, Postmaster, Aapod, Ak raatri, Samapti, Ghaater Kotha… and many others I could name. It could be yearning for God Himself, when one has realized that all human relationships are ultimately fake, or merely conditional upon mutual convenience (the Bard says, 'most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly'!): ‘e milon toma bina kotha achhe hey ishwar’, and also ‘amar shur guli paye choron, ami pai ne tomare’…