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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]