In the early days of my tutoring in this town, there were some people who did not pay their wards’ fees for the last month, guessing (rightly) that I was too self-respecting a man to come to their door over and over again to ask for my dues. These were all well-off ‘gentlefolk’, too. Eventually I made it a rule that everyone must pay their fees by the 10th of the current month, and that it is my right to throw out anyone who has to be reminded two months in succession. I am sure that earned me the reputation of a money-grubbing rogue in some quarters, but it has ensured that for nearly a quarter century almost no one has got away with cheating.
There have been teachers in several schools around this town who have abused me in the safety of their classrooms, but that has not stopped them from stealing my notes and passing them off as their own, or even sending their own children to my tuition when their time came.
Their children being counted among my favourites apparently helps some people to score some brownie points off their ‘friends’, so fathers have boasted that ‘My daughter is special to Sir’ and mothers have told me ‘After all, you are his real father’ ( I ask you!!!) And then, of course – you got that right, they have all forgotten me completely, if not bad-mouthed me too.
A girl I thought I loved, long ago when I was a boy, got back in touch after a gap of 27 years. She was on the wrong side of 45 then. She had had a very sheltered and luxurious upbringing. In one of her emails she asked ‘Are you very rich? I have heard that some private tutors make pots of money…’ and another woman, about the same age, and from the same ‘cultured’ milieu, when she heard that Oxford University Press had published a collection of translations of Tagore among which there were some contributions of mine, had only one question to ask my wife: ‘Sir will make a lot of money from this, won’t he?’
A very famous Bengali author, now long dead, got one of his novellas translated by me in a tearing hurry because he had to read it out at an embassy dinner in his honour. As a sort of afterthought, a few months later, he sent me the princely fee of two hundred rupees so that, the message said, I could get myself a new shirt and pair of trousers. This was in my early college days. Today for this sort of job I’d charge five hundred a page, half the total payable in advance. Another of his ilk, also on the editorial board of a national newspaper, passed off one of my articles under his byline. He maintained a lofty and strongly moral tone in almost all his writing, too.
As I have said before, a lot of people have borrowed from me. It started with a professor in the university I attended, who said he was in dire need and took six thousand rupees from me, ostensibly for just a month (that amount thirty years ago would be the equivalent of at least 40,000 today, and remember I was scrounging to keep my head above the water in those days). I had to chase him around for a year and eventually threaten to shame him in public before he returned the money, and that too with the worst possible grace. Many others, in Tagore’s words, have remained ‘forever indebted’ to me, literally. So it made me very proud when recently an old boy returned the full amount he had borrowed at one go the first time he came home from abroad to see me, without my having to bring up the matter even once. Glad to see there are still a few men of honour left.
There was a police booth at the point where the road crosses over to Birganj from Raxaul in north Bihar as it enters Nepal. As a tourist, I stopped at the checkpost and insisted over and over again that my old Yashica camera be registered as part of my luggage, because I had heard of people being harassed on the way back. The fat, leery, nose-picking cops refused to oblige and waved me through, saying there was absolutely no need. A week later, on my way back, the same cops waylaid me, pounced on that ancient camera, and fined me for carrying undeclared electronic goods which I had allegedly bought abroad. What is worse, they talked down to me, saying ‘How can we control the riff-raff if educated people like you break rules like this?’ This happened in 1994; it still rankles like an old wound which never properly healed.
There have been people who have borrowed books from me, knowing full well that books matter to me more than virtually anything else in the world, and then simply lost them or ‘forgotten’ to return them. If I remember them as vermin, I know I shall be forgiven from On High.
When I was in the process of getting married, my about-to-become brother in law came over to Durgapur to make a sort of background check on me. Someone at a bank who claimed to know me well assured him that I was already married. There are several thousand people like this one – many of them have hardly ever seen me, let alone knowing me closely – who know much more about me than my parents, wife and child, and little of what they ‘know’ is complimentary.
One neighbour, none of whose family members had ever deigned to give me a civil greeting when we met, came over to see me because he wanted me to put in a good word on behalf of his daughter, who had applied for a job in the school where I taught. Obviously I was not dying to do him a favour, but I merely told him the truth: that at that point of time relations between the headmaster and me were so bad (I quit the school shortly thereafter) that my recommendation would make it a dead certainty that the girl did not get the job. That family has never visited me again, nor even nodded on the street. Another one only recently accosted me in the local bazaar, insisting that I admit his two nieces out of turn next year, because, after all, we were neighbours, weren’t we, and he ‘respected’ me so much! (so much, indeed, that he too had never once bade me good morning or evening in 27 years). I gave him the short shrift, of course, ensuring that I had added one more to the huge list of people who call me snooty and unsocial and suchlike – but tell me, does it matter?
There have been people – their own children, once grown up, have confessed to me – who cringe and fawn and beg to get their wards admitted to my tuition, yet warn the same children that while they should take down my ‘notes’ very carefully, they should not pay any heed to a word of what I say ‘outside the syllabus’, all of which, they know, is dangerous nonsense. Naturally they cannot recognize me once their kids’ tuitions are over. And the most shameless of them come over years later to ask for special favours on behalf of their younger children or other kids in the family, because, I suppose, they think they once did me a big favour by sending their older children to me. When I send them off with a flea in their ear, they are merely confirmed in their opinion as to what a bad man I am.
Outside my house, I try to be as quiet, modest and self-effacing as I can. Alas, all I have got for my pains is the accusation that I am superciliously aloof. Also, some people take unthinkably crass advantage of it. A few months ago the father of an ex-student met me in the market, and asked ‘You here, at this time of the day?’ It was around ten in the morning on a weekday, and he happens to have a salaried job, so I would have been far more justified in asking him that question, but I don’t like to be nosey, and prefer silence to stupid questions. I laughed at myself instead, saying ‘A jobless man has all the time in the world!’ To which any half-civilized man would have said (as indeed, hundreds have, I have checked) ‘Oh, come on Sir, jobless, you?’ but this creature decided that the right thing to say would be ‘Oh, everyone would like to be jobless like you!’ I know a lot of people half his age who have a better appreciation of, and more respect for, what it takes to be jobless like me. Everyone, is it? And mind you, all these people are quite sure they deserve the label of bhadralok! I have been telling pupils for thirty odd years to reflect on the conundrum of how the country has become full of the corrupt and the base when all our parents are honest and decent folks…
I could go on and on. Life has been hard to me. I started off instinctively trying to like people and trust them and treat them gently, but the fire of experience has burnt a hard and prickly shell around me. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ I still consider very sage advice, but ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself?’ You’ve got to be kidding!