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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Child prodigy, birthday, and brilliant policies

A ten-year old girl came to see me with her dad and elder brother, having heard a lot about me from the latter. For a space of fifteen minutes or so, she bombarded me with questions – ‘How did magic originate? Do you believe in the curse of Tutankhamen? Does the universe have a beginning or end? Do you think Antonio in The Merchant of Venice was really a good Christian? Did the Red Sea really part? Do swans really sing before they die?’... I hope you get the drift. I cannot say when I last met a child of this kind of mental calibre, and how much I am looking forward to having her in my class. It goes without saying that she, unlike 90% of Indian children, is a voracious reader, and that most of her teachers regard her as a dangerous pest. I was reminded of Sigmund Freud’s aphorism that I myself have fixtured at the bottom of this blog, and I blessed her by saying, ‘Ma, grow up into a human being, not a mere female’.

My daughter became nineteen today. We celebrated with lunch at a fancy restaurant, and the crème brûlée for dessert was especially good. The waiters were superbly trained: they brought the customer feedback slip for my daughter to fill in, and the bill to me. Which is just as it should be in a world where girls were not stupidly dying to be treated as ‘equals’. The day I start treating women as equals, I shall not look back to see whether they are having trouble with heavy luggage, flat tyres, roaches, shortage of money or perverts harassing them on the road. And I shall expect them to talk politics, economics, psychology, history and philosophy with me. That will be the day.

Our leaders have finally woken up to the deadly threat of pollution, it seems. So one genius of a chief minister has ordered only odd- and even numbered cars to come out on the roads on alternate days, and another district magistrate of similarly sharp intellect has ordered that one block in his district will be closed to all private vehicles every day. It seems only our rulers cannot figure out the either disastrous or ludicrous consequences of the decisions they take. In the 1980s I was already writing that the way things were going in this country, lack of land for any kind of developmental activity and overwhelming pollution of the soil, air and water would eventually spell our doom. I quote myself: ‘By the time China and India catch up with the American standard of living, there won’t be enough oxygen left in the air to breathe’. Woe to this country that a few years after I wrote those lines in a national newspaper, our government embarked on a policy of wholesale Americanization of – if possible – every walk of life. Whereas if sanity had prevailed, we should have gone with the European/Japanese model as far as we could. In the sphere of transportation, for instance, a poor, overpopulated, resource-scarce country should have made an all-out effort to develop public transport, not indulged the latent craze for private cars. And now that today the floodtide of cars is threatening to overwhelm us, we are trying absolutely crazy ideas to control it. God help us.

Monday, December 21, 2015

As the year draws to a close

Towards the end of the first ten years of this blog, I have started making a few small changes. There was a widget called Members/followers till recently. I have been winnowing the list there, having discovered that being a ‘member’ has no meaning at all: most so-called members never write in (many have probably forgotten about it entirely), most of my readers are non-members, and one doesn’t need to be a member to read the blog or to comment on posts. I have never been a trophy collector on the net anyway (so many ‘scraps’ on orkut, so many ‘likes’ on facebook). So I have now removed that widget. Nobody has to be a member any more.

It’s 21st December, and very pleasantly cold. My work schedule is now much reduced, so I am in the relaxed mode. On this day every year for more than a decade we used to dash off on a holiday trip – this year has been different. My daughter has just finished her ‘end-sem’ exams and is living it up with her friends. The holiday has been postponed till January: I am hoping that with all schools and colleges having reopened, I am going to have a far less crowded experience this time round. So I am already breaking a routine that was set for almost two decades – taking classes right through the end of the year. I must see how the kids cope with it. Most have told me they’d rather not miss classes…

My leafy babies are giving me a headache. They are growing and blooming, but too slowly, and they have given me occasion to resent my fellow bipeds even more – did you know how many thieves there are who prowl the streets at dawn to steal flowers from people’s gardens, so that they can make offerings to some deity with the same? And you can talk yourself blue in the face without being able to persuade them that there is something wrong about the habit. I lock the gates every night, but that keeps out only the old and infirm among the miscreants. I’ll try this season through, then probably give it up as a bad job if the harassment and plunder is too intense to bear.

I have a diary where at each year-end I jot down the most memorable things that happened. The list starts with 1969, and I haven’t missed a single year yet. This year will be noted for just three things – my home loan was paid up in full, Pupu went to college, and I found out first-hand what being a cripple feels like.

The newspapers announced yesterday that Air India is beginning flights to Delhi from Durgapur airport. More flights, and to other metros, will presumably follow. Good news for a lot of people, including me, because when my daughter goes to live farther away, she can come and go faster, and so can I.

A rash of new schools has also come up – all of them privately owned, all of them expensive, all affiliated to the CBSE, all equipped with ‘smart’ classrooms and promising to turn every kid into a ‘genius’ (read engineer from some private college). We shall see a lot of fireworks in the near future. I hope I can just sit back, watch the fun, and say to a lot of people ‘I told you so’.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Robi Thakurer golpo

কালার্স বাংলা টিভি চ্যানেলে "রবি ঠাকুরের গল্প" নামে ধারাবাহিক ছবি দেখাচ্ছে। এখন পর্যন্ত দেনাপাওনা, সমাপ্তি আর মণিহারা  দেখিয়েছে, এ সপ্তাহে স্ত্রীর পত্র হওয়ার কথা। খুব যে উঁচুদরের পরিচালনা বা অভিনয় হচ্ছে তা বলতে পারি না, তবে এতে করে অশিক্ষিত নব্য-সভ্য বাঙালি যদি নতুন করে নিজের সাহিত্যকে চিনতে শেখে তো মন্দ হয় না, আর আমারও আবার করে গল্পগুচ্ছ নিয়ে বসার ইচ্ছে হলো।  রবীন্দ্রনাথের লেখা নিয়ে বেশি কথা ছোট মুখে বলার ধৃষ্টতা করতে চাই না - ওটা মার্কন্ডেয় কাটজুদেরই সাজে। আপাতত শুধু এইটুকু ভাবছিলাম :কত গভীর পর্যবেক্ষণশক্তি থাকলে, কত নিরাসক্ত, নির্মোহ চোখ থাকলে, সাহিত্যের প্রতি কতখানি আনুগত্য থাকলে তবে একই লেখক নিরুপমা, মৃন্ময়ী, মৃণালদের মত মেয়েদেরও সৃষ্টি করতে পারেন, আবার মণিমালিকাদেরও - "যাহাদের হৃতপিন্ড বরফের পিণ্ড, যাহাদের বুকের মধ্যে ভালোবাসার জ্বালাযন্ত্রণা স্থান  পায় না, তাহারা বোধকরি সুদীর্ঘকাল তাজা  থাকে, তাহারা কৃপণের মত অন্তরে বাহিরে আপনাকে জমিয়ে রাখতে পারে।" তবু বলব - হয়ত যুগোপযোগী ভাবেই - ওনার মেয়েদের প্রতি পক্ষপাত দোষ ছিল।  হয়ত আরো পঞ্চাশ বছর বাঁচলে ওনার আর অবরুদ্ধ পরাধীন 'অসহায়' মেয়েদের প্রতি অত মায়া থাকত না, হয়ত দ্বিতীয় কিসিমের চরিত্রই অনেক বেশি করে সৃষ্টি করতেন? বিমলা-জাতীয় মেয়েরা স্বাধীনতাকে কিভাবে কাজে লাগায়  সে তো তিনি একশ' বছর আগেই দেখিয়ে দিয়েছিলেন! 

আমি এককালে কিছু গল্প লেখার চেষ্টা করেছিলাম।  বলতে লজ্জা নেই, কারো কারো পড়ে ভালোও লেগেছিল। রবীন্দ্রনাথের চেয়ে আমি অনেক বেশি দরদী রোমান্টিক ছিলাম: মেয়েদের আমি তরলমতি, স্বার্থপর, কর্কশ, সুবিধাবাদী বানাতে পারিনি। আমার লেখায় তাই কষ্টকল্পনাই বেশি ছিল। বয়স বাড়ার সঙ্গেসঙ্গে বাস্তবের নিষ্ঠুর আঘাতে সে স্বপ্নময়তা কেটে গেছে, কিন্তু তার পরিবর্তে যে তিক্ততা এসেছে তাকে আর সাহিত্যের রূপ দিতে মন চায় না।  তাই অনেকদিন হলো সেধরনের লেখা বন্ধ করে দিয়েছি। 

[The misspellings are Google's fault, not mine. But my apologies, still]

Friday, November 27, 2015

End of November

So yet another year has passed by, and yet another batch is going to be ex from next week. I have written goodbyes before, so look them up if you like, all: I cannot think of something new to say to your lot. One of those posts, I seem to remember, was titled Bye-bye time again. Use the search bar, will you? And remember: I shall look out for the few who keep sincerely in touch, and forget the rest soon.

Ancient Egyptian records claim that Rameses II was ‘very old’ when he died; modern tests on his mummy indicate, however, that he was only 52 – just my age. Well, perhaps in those days people grew decrepit very quickly (in Bengali we have a saying about girls: ‘kurir agey chhunri, kuri perole buri’ – she’s a lass before 20, and a crone thereafter – and men only get a few decades extra) – though our epics tell a very different story. Anyway, I felt very old when I was 17, and surprised that I had survived to be 40, and now I see ancestors carrying on into their 80s, so I don’t know what to think any more! In fact till my mid-40s I could outwalk old boys fifteen years younger, and the little paunch has become prominent only because following the accident I have been virtually immobile for six whole months: maybe once I get back to my usual exercise routine I’ll be able to trim it down again to something respectable enough compared to the rolypoly teenagers I see around me!

Ageing is also to a very large extent a matter of mental condition. I certainly have much more grey hair than I did in early 2013, and no wonder: these last two years and a half have been one of the most traumatic periods of my life. There is a  chapter in To My Daughter with the title Expect the Unexpected, but it is always hard to take your own advice, so I have had trouble coping, and that is now showing in many little ways. My knees creak and hurt much more these days, too. Who knows if there’s a turn for the happier around the corner, I might be looking younger again in two years’ time, despite those knees…

I have been thinking aloud in class about how I am going to change my style in the years to come. Fewer girls as the years pass is one very strong possibility. Another is giving more time to stories and movies and games and quizzes. A most exciting option is going out on holiday trips with a largeish gang, provided some dads come along to help – and mothers strictly stay away (unless someone is a most exceptional mother, a type of whom I have seen hardly five in my whole lifetime). More frequent breaks, as my daughter travels farther away and I want more and more to go to stay with her. It will amuse me to see how this town adjusts to my changing outlook. Meanwhile, this year I have turned my mind to gardening, and there might be a dog in the offing.  A new car, too, maybe, and a trip abroad. But most of all I am looking for a housekeeper – remember Holmes’ Mrs. Hudson? Short of having a Watson around, that is the best I can think of.

An old boy – one of the few who have come back to this town with a decent job – took me out to dinner the other day, and I enjoyed it hugely, despite the fact that I have never much liked eating out, however fancy the restaurant. It was all about the company. Thank you, Abhik. I wish, so wish that many more like you could have come back to settle here. And until that happens, nothing bar nothing is going to convince me that Durgapur is ‘developing’. What they did instead the other day, as a small step I suppose towards making this a ‘smart’ city (how I hate that word!), was to bring a bulldozer and flatten some of the shanty shops along the main road near my house: shops selling all sorts of things from fruits to snacks to washing services. I know all these people – they are perfectly nice, harmless folks working hard to eke out a living in a country where government and society use them but don’t care a whit whether they live or die. Not like the fortunate few million parasites who have been lucky to get cushy jobs in non-performing public sector companies and government departments. I like them, I identify much more with them than with the brash, uncultivated but snooty, lazy, greedy, irresponsible, unsocial middle class. The only option they have is to turn to crime or beggary. Of course their shops were eyesores, and so this draconian step by those who wield power (all safe and comfortable themselves) can always be justified in the name of ‘beautification’ – they were littering the surroundings and bringing down real estate prices, weren’t they? Well, nobody ever took care of the root problem of an exploding population, and nobody seems to be even interested in making them permanent places to work out of, from where they can run registered businesses and even pay some taxes. Talk about poorly thought out projects. Naturally all those shanties have mushroomed again within a week. Where else would they go? Why don’t the big talkers in the ruling parties learn how it should be properly done – from a country like Japan, for instance, which too has a very dense population, and has managed to grow rich and stay spankingly clean at the same time? What a tragedy that a country which breeds ‘successful’ professionals by the million cannot produce leaders who can lead, who have even cared to find out what it means to lead!

Monday, November 09, 2015

Private tuitions, anyone?

My daughter has written after ages, a review of Go Set a Watchman. These days I often don’t have to do things because she can do them well enough for me.

One of the many ironies of my life is that, despite having been a private tutor all through my working life, I have been very ambivalent about private tuitions at best and a strident critic at worst – as thousands of my current and ex-students can vouch. I made a (modest-) living giving tuition to school and college students all through my own years in college and university; then came the long stint at school. In all those years I sent hundreds of parents away, unwilling to take their wards into my private classes because either I was emphatic that they didn’t need it if they were already attending my classes in school, or because I wouldn’t take in beyond a certain number (though alas, under ceaseless pressure over decades, especially since I left the school, that number has gone up much beyond my liking, and I still annoy a lot of people every year by turning their children away). I justified my own ideas to myself through my own daughter, who had a single tutor during the last two years of secondary school and none at all at the higher secondary level, and still managed to do perfectly well by just being somewhat more than average intelligent and studying by a routine every year. And my greatest sorrow is that I have been able to do virtually nothing to stem the tide, though the practice has kept me in gravy all these years. And today’s parents are the children of the generation I taught thirty years ago!

In the days when my father was young, teachers gave private tuition – mostly to very weak students, especially whose parents couldn’t coach them at home – to supplement pathetically meagre incomes. Already when I was leaving high school, the average quality of school education had taken a sharp nose dive, so lots of pupils were relying increasingly on private tutors, many of whom had begun to make significant money, especially in the metros. Medical and engineering college aspirants were signing up with coaching classes like Brilliant and Aggarwal’s in droves. Depending on whose point of view you adopt, things have grown much better/worse over the last three decades.

Contrary to common perceptions, it is not only the children of the affluent urban population who attend private tuitions; it is very widespread among the indigent and rural folks, too. Plainly, nobody trusts schools (or even colleges) to deliver the goods any more. Instead, a vast and vicious cycle has been created: a) the (very few) good and sincere teachers in school are roundly ignored, because the pupils are all attending private tuitions already, b) most schoolteachers don’t care to teach (or even to find out how to teach) because they know that nobody bothers, all the real studying is done at tuitions, c) the competent and ambitious among them take up jobs only to build up large private practices, after which they quit, d) parents are having to pay through their noses, though, at least in public schools, education is supposedly free, e) children waste many hours every day in school, and much of the rest of their time is eaten up running from one tuition to another (millions attend five or six regularly), so they have neither time nor energy left for rest and relaxation, leave alone reading outside the syllabus, with highly imaginable consequences, f) private tutors are now seriously rich, especially those who run statewide or countrywide coaching institutes (in West Bengal, it has been a dry joke for decades that no business really works here except for real estate and private tuitions!)

So if I happen to be one of those who have been able to take advantage of the situation, why am I complaining? It is because I wanted to become a good teacher and not just make some money; I also wanted to contribute to making teaching a respectable and aspirational profession again. And I don’t think I can boast of very much success with regard to either. I have got too little feedback in this lifetime about how deeply, lastingly and positively I have influenced my students’ lives – so much for knowing whether I have been a good teacher or not. So far as hard facts are concerned, I believe people come to me in droves to enroll their children for very mundane, immediate, temporary reasons, which I have listed in an earlier blogpost. And though they together pay me enough not to make me envious of the average doctor or engineer or government official, I never managed to get rich, partly because teaching is (still-) not highly paid in this country (consider for comparison’s sake how much a doctor charges for a service as basic as putting a leg in plaster, to cite just one example), and partly because I have always been too lazy to work round the clock, and had moral issues about running sausage factories (there are countless tutors who run classes of hundreds at a time, and so can easily afford BMWs – not that I ever wanted one!). As for the other ambition, virtually none of my good students have opted to become teachers, especially at the school level (with Vivekananda and Tagore and Russell, I have always believed that that is where most of our vital education takes place: afterwards it’s just imbibing facts, technical details and sales tricks), despite knowing full well that competent and hard-working teachers are minting money these days. Part of the reason I know – that teaching still does not assure that precious combination of security and social status that is so dear to the middle class (which is where the vast majority of teachers come from) – but somehow that seems to be neither adequate nor satisfactory.

In the few years left to me, I can’t do much more to become a good teacher, or to enthuse my pupils to follow in my footsteps. Should I then shed all inhibitions and focus on making money?

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Mahalaya tomorow. The day I was born, a long time ago. All through my childhood I used to wake up at dawn and wait with eager anticipation for the Mahishasurmardini programme to be aired on the radio, formally marking for millions of Bengalis the start of devipaksha. For many years now I have been sleeping through it, and not missing it much. The older you grow, the fewer things matter…

I have always been a reflective person, but now I can indulge it with far less feeling of guilt. I have done more than my fair share of work and shouldering responsibility, and I am now well and truly in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. More and more I just look back to smile or grimace. In Toni Morrison’s book Love, the narrator, now an old woman, says ‘Nowadays silence is looked on as odd… now tongues work with no help from the mind… back in the seventies, when women began to straddle chairs and dance crotch out on television, when all the magazines began to feature behinds and inner thighs as though that’s all there is to a woman, well, I shut up altogether… barefaced being the order of the day, I hum’. That’s just the way I feel.

Swami Vivekananda used to say ‘All is character’. The world is as it is, neither good nor bad I suppose, though some have called it a vale of tears. Be that as it may, the fact remains that our experiences differ because according to our characters we react very differently to what we see happening around ourselves, and happening to us. Some find fun and laughter even in concentration camps and hospital beds, I have heard. And some crib over examination marks and acne as though these are life-changing events. Maybe I am the cribbing and worrying sort, though God knows how much laughter and sunshine I have tried to bring into how many lives. And that is why, despite all the blessings that I have always desperately kept counting, life has seemed a grim, relentless, and often futile struggle most of the time.

Here are some things I have missed badly or rued, not because I have never got them, but the good ones happen so rarely, and the opposites are so much more common.

Lack of politeness and courtesy, if not compassion, for people around you. Is it that we as Indians – especially in the class to which I belong – put too little store by those things? What rankles is not just the absence of these markers of high civilization, but the fact that most of us are too ready to flatter and fawn when there is the slightest possibility of advantage to be gained, or danger of harm to ourselves if we get into someone’s bad books. I have had a surfeit of it as a mere teacher, so imagine what politicians have to handle! God knows they wouldn’t have survived without growing ultra-thick skins, especially because they know that the very same people who are falling all over you now will forget you as soon as you have become ‘useless’ to them, and even rejoice loudly if and when they hear that bad things have happened to you…

People pretending. It ties up with what I wrote in the last paragraph. And my God, I have seen far too much of it, among boys and girls, men and women, family and strangers… why do they do it? Why do they tell you things that they don’t believe themselves, or they will forget within days or months of saying? I love you, I respect you, you mean so much to me, you have given me such a lot to treasure. If that has soured me up very badly, can I really be blamed for it?

Contempt for, or indifference towards people who have no money. That, coupled with blind awe, if not worship, of anyone who has money by the sackfuls, no matter how he got it. This has to some extent always been there in our society – I have read Al Beruni lamenting over it, and that was the 11th century – but it has become virulent across all social classes, now that the most admired country, to wit the US of A, is globally triumphant, and dominated by the same outlook. America was not always like that.

Too little cleanliness and greenery around me, too much noise and litter and rubble and foul smells – and the fact that so few people care, as long as they have cars and houses of their own, and can spend hours at the shopping mall and beauty parlour.

Nothing called social security outside the corporate sector – and that employs a tiny fraction of the population. We the self-employed are entirely on our own since the day our parents let go, and till our dying day, unless the children care: society and government have done virtually nothing for us. Slightly lower tax rates at least for those who have no non-salary perks, and slightly higher interest on public provident fund deposits? But who cares? Certainly not the last ten finance ministers, unless my memory is failing me.

The fact that the best loved of my ex students go away, so far away. One of my dreams has hardly ever been fulfilled – getting them to come and talk to my current classes, speaking from their own recent hard-earned experience, telling the children how much they would gain if they listened more to me…

People calling and expecting me to remember them, though they were here many years and many thousands of pupils ago, and haven’t kept in touch for years.

Girls growing into utterly disappointing women.

That I could never persuade the vast majority of children in my care to read good books, and these days I cannot persuade them that the internet is good for far more useful things than Facebook and whatsapp. So the best among them score pitifully on impromptu quizzes I give them, and the essays they write are of a standard I once (in the days when I wrote If Winter Comes) would have associated with ten-year olds or younger. And yet they go on to land cushy jobs with Google, Amazon, HSBC, Bloomberg and suchlike, leaving me to wonder what such jobs take, intellectually speaking. My common taunt these days, when I am particularly disgusted with someone’s performance, is to assure him or her that s/he too will get a job like that, no fear. Who cares if you are literate as long as you can do sums and have the periodic table by heart? Besides, bosses rarely hire people who can show them up...

Friday, October 02, 2015

On Gandhi Jayanti

When one is handicapped, one gets nasty scares and also feels absurdly proud about doing very little things. This morning I cleaned the bathroom thoroughly for the first time since the accident – I mean thoroughly, not only scrubbing the wc and the washbasin but also the entire floor and even the drain pipe and grille. I nearly slipped and fell on the soapy floor once, and God alone knows what would have happened if I did, my leg still being held up by a plate screwed into the bone. Then I thought it prudent to kneel on the floor. After the first ten minutes the pain started becoming unbearable, and I began sweating like a pig, but worse was to come: when I tried to get up, I found I couldn’t! And I was entirely alone, it goes without saying, without even a phone in my pocket. I’d have died before I would scream for help. Anyway, to make a long story short, I managed to scramble up eventually by using both hands, the door handle and the towel rod – thank heaven one of them didn’t come off at just the critical moment. If this is a foretaste of the future, it is sombre indeed… of course I shall cope till I can’t cope any more, but karma could have been a little kinder.

Rajdeep sent me a couple of links that have made me sombre too. I just read a book about Japan going through difficult times, now that growth has slowed to near zero for decades. And yet an Indian who visited Japan recently found this. I am quite sure now that India will never catch up, not in a decade, not in a century. Meanwhile, what do Indians do? Well, an ex-justice of the Supreme Court goes around abusing Subhas Bose (can’t even think of original insults!) – someone who has personally achieved nothing in his life that will put him in the history books, too – while Tagore’s ancestral house is being allowed to degenerate into a slum, Arvind Kejriwal has (quite predictably) become a hugely forgettable sick joke, and while India ranked 135 out of 187 in the Human Development Index 2014 after 67 years of trying, the sickest (read most privileged-) part of the population is going gaga over how Zomato is ‘conquering’ the world and how our dollar billionaires are proliferating. And the absolutely real problem with this section is that they feel neither retarded nor ashamed. I would so like to know that a few of my old boys and girls are doing something meaningful for the India that matters: the billion people who still just keep scrounging to keep their heads above the water. One particularly moronic ex-student actually wrote that Facebook deserves 'respect' because it has a billion users. Respect. Respect.

The parents of a current pupil came over to discuss her progress, and in the course of the conversation told me that they run a clutch of family businesses, one of which has 700-odd employees. That impressed me, and I am not easily impressed. But what really made my eyes light up was hearing how much the lady’s old and ‘retired’ father contributes still – from managing the finances to looking after the household to dropping off the child at school and tuitions when the parents are not around: the woman tearfully and gratefully admitted that ‘without my father none of this would have been possible’. If I have any prayers at all, I would pray that I can be that kind of father to Pupu in the years to come.

It’s October now. How quickly the year has flown! The days are still muggy, but the nights are much less so: it’s time to start hoping that we’ll have a long, chilly winter. It rained heavily today, but that didn’t much help to get rid of the sweltering heat, so I am sulking.

When I narrated my ordeal of the morning to a class in the evening, several girls laughed. Yes, they laughed. Not one boy did.

oh, what the hell.

Friday, September 18, 2015

A week's holiday

Life is nothing if not full of ironies. All through the last year I was thinking and talking about taking more frequent if not also longer breaks. I ended up doing the single longest stretch of continuous work in probably my whole life – all of six months at the rate of seven days a week, except for a week after the accident! And for all those six months I never went more than ten kilometres from my house, either.

So I finally cried off after Thursday, the 10th of September, and next morning I had myself driven to Kolkata. Everybody’s fears notwithstanding, it was a smooth, uneventful and painless drive. And this last week I have enjoyed the kind of leisure that can come only from a clean conscience, a full belly and (reasonably-) good health after you have worked long and hard, also provided that the air-conditioner is working full time, and you have a daughter like Pupu with you.

We have watched three movies together – Gone Girl, Hercule Poirot’s Halloween Party and Inside Out. The first two were unfortunately about pathological killers; the third was good. Animation movies are so heartwarming and even thought-provoking these days that I sometimes think I’d rather watch those than the ones with real humans in them. I also read out Macbeth to Pupu, and even my wife found it fascinating enough to sit through the entire session. Good friends came visiting, as well as my parents. I finished a very serious and most interesting book on the socio-economics of contemporary Japan: Bending Adversity by David Pilling, 2014. Many thanks for the gift, Rajdeep; I am a more educated man now. It compelled me to wonder again and again – is that the direction India is heading? But heaven knows when I shall find the concentrated time to finish all your other books. …and now I have started on Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Bangali Jibone Romoni, something that I last read at least 25 years ago. I’ll write what I feel about the book at this stage of my life.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Jadavpur University campus. I had missed out on Pupu’s admission process because of the broken leg. This time, too, I had to be driven there and back, and I could only slowly walk around with a crutch, but I did walk and see a great deal. Nearly three decades have passed since I was a student there, so predictably there had been some changes. The road that skirts the campus is much greener and tidier now. The campus is swarming with cars and motorbikes – they were not allowed in our time (the head of the department of history drives a Mercedes: I wish the engineer-manager babus of PSUs in Durgapur could just see this!). Few girls wear saris, and almost all of them smoke – far more, in fact, than boys do! Everybody has earphones dangling, but when they chat face to face in groups, they rarely irritate one another by texting all the time. There are far more buildings around; most of them have lifts, and many classrooms are airconditioned (Lord, the tuition fee is 75 rupees a month). The posters and graffiti are as silly, strident and ubiquitous as they have always been.  The façade of the Arts Faculty Students’ Union office bears a painting from Tagore’s Shohoj Paath, alongside a quote from one his poems. I was glad to see that a lot of youngsters spoke good, fluent Bengali – and, as with the smoking, far more girls used Banglish than boys did. There were far more canteens and open-air eateries selling a much wider variety of food than before. Some of my professors had become history, as I saw with the Anita Banerjee Memorial Hall (she was wife of Milon Banerjee the then solicitor general of India, and my favourite teacher, not only because she taught public finance but she alone could speak English with the kind of fluency, accent, poise and allusive style that I would have expected an Oxford don to do, which distanced her from her very Bengali middle class colleagues). But the miracle was how much had not changed: walking out through the ‘Bengal Lamp’ gate to the line of tea stalls across the road, I might have jumped back in time. The young man behind the counter said he had been manning it for only eight years: when I told him I was a regular more than thirty years ago, he said his grandfather must have waited on us. The nicest thing I discovered was how handicapped-friendly the university has become, and the saddest thing was how the college crowd – they who belong to the most privileged and educated section of the populace – litter their surroundings, despite bins and warning notices all around them. Swachh Bharat, ever? I wonder.

I am thankful to my daughter’s new friends, both male and female, for giving me a most un-selfconscious and chirpy welcome. The one that made my day was the girl who said ‘Thank you for the next treat!’ I am heartbroken to have forgotten to take a group photo with them, but I’m sure I’ll visit again. I have told them that if their gang ever lands up in my place, I shall do my best to give them a gala time.

My twelve-year old car, with an ace driver behind the wheel, did the whole highway from Santragachhi Station to Muchipara crossing in two hours flat today. I did not know the old boy still had it in him!

And now I am back home to work, but cheerful and rejuvenated, and determined to give myself more and longer breaks, inshallah.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

'Nivedita on Sir' removed

I have, after two years of pondering, removed the blogpost titled "Nivedita on Sir" dated June 12, 2013 from this blog. This is because I am ashamed of what I wrote in it, having realized to my complete conviction that she didn't mean a word of what she wrote about me in her blogpost titled "Sir". I have never been her 'teacher, friend, father, mentor and confidant', for the simple reason that she never let me. I have no idea what led her to write such a preposterous post at a certain point in her life: I know she has moved on, and I never did matter to her in any sense that she would listen to me if it caused her the very slightest bit of inconvenience.

I am an ageing teacher, a serious man, not entirely unlearned, who thought he had a modicum of intelligence. So I would like to put on public record that it feels very bad to realize I can be duped so easily and completely and for such a long time by someone so young, still. Anyway, I can at least own up to my mistakes, bad mistakes, even, and that brings a little bit of solace. I can still learn, though the learning becomes harder with the passage of years.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

postscript to yesterday's

...and Lavona just sent me this, which is somehow of a piece with what I wrote yesterday:

Subj: Pondering  As I was lying around, pondering the problems of the world, I realized that at my age I don't really give a dang anymore. If walking is good for your health, the postman would be immortal. A whale swims all day, only eats fish, drinks water, but is still fat. A rabbit runs and hops and only lives 15 years, while a tortoise doesn't run and does mostly nothing, yet it lives for 150 years. And you tell me to exercise?? I don't think so. Just grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked, the good fortune to remember the ones I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.

Now that I'm older here's what I've discovered:

1. I started out with nothing, and I still have most of it.

2. My wild oats are mostly enjoyed with prunes and all-bran.

3. I finally got my head together, and now my body is falling apart.

4. Funny, I don't remember being absent-minded.

5. Funny, I don't remember being absent-minded.

6. If all is not lost, then where the heck is it ?

7. It was a whole lot easier to get older, than to get wiser.

8. Some days, you're the top dog, some days you're the fire hydrant.

9. I wish the buck really did stop here, I sure could use a few of them.

10. Kids in the back seat cause accidents.

11. Accidents in the back seat cause kids.

12. It's hard to make a comeback when you haven't been anywhere.

13. The world only beats a path to your door when you're in the bathroom.

14. If God wanted me to touch my toes, he'd have put them on my knees.

15. When I'm finally holding all the right cards, everyone wants to play chess.

16. It's not hard to meet expenses . . . they're everywhere.

17. The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

18. These days, I spend a lot of time thinking about the hereafter . . .. I go somewhere to get something, and then wonder what I'm "here after".

19. Funny, I don't remember being absent-minded.

20. HAVE I SENT THIS MESSAGE TO YOU BEFORE.......? or did I get it from you? 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

One's own education

A few of the things I have learnt from teaching for a lifetime:

People are overwhelmingly silly, too silly even to know what is good for them.
Far too many people are motivated strongly by overt or subconscious malice, stemming usually from greed, jealousy, fear and frustration.
People are as ready to flatter for trivial advantage as to jeer at others who do.
Girls as a rule don’t read, and of those who do, most are utterly unaffected by what they have read. And these girls grow up to be mothers who fear their children reading as though they are dealing with rabid animals. But of course, they can kill for their children to score well in exams.
Alas, even reading a lot of books is no guarantee that one will grow up into a decent and useful human being. For a lot of people, it is just a pretty affectation.
Most people drift away after a while, even those who claim I influenced them deeply.
Most people betray their own professed ideals and ‘loves’ when the chips are down. Ideals and maxims are only for essays and speeches.
Most people have no high sense of achievement, especially of the sort that does good to others.
Most people become brain dead (and this regardless of whether they are surgeons or computer programmers or schoolteachers or insurance agents) by the time they are twenty five. And also, I find signs of brains in the most unexpected people, including those who have never had the benefit of an expensive education.
Advertizing works wonders. People by the millions actually believe that a certain tutorial will make their kids ‘brilliant’, a certain brand of pen will improve their examination performance, a certain deodorant will make them popular with the opposite sex, a certain smartphone will bring about ‘more love’.
Besides advertizing, the only things that drive them are ingrained personal habits and the herd instinct.
I believe I have understood what Vivekananda predicted more than a century ago – the coming of shudra raaj – in a sense that cannot today even be mentioned publicly without raising far too many hackles, so true it has proved to be.
I believe this is my own coinage, and I want to be remembered for it: A fool when he grows old only becomes an old fool.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The First Noble Truth

'Life is pain. If anyone claims otherwise, he is selling something'.

This was a remark made in a fantasy movie titled Princess Bride that my daughter showed me recently. 

The Buddha would have approved. And I prefer to heed the Buddha than Madison Avenue and its clones around the world, whether they are selling anti-ageing creams, insurance, cars or smartphones.

The point is how best to cope with pain. And the longer you live in denial, the harder it becomes.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Bizarre highways

I truly liked this video. The 'Singing Highway' made me think 'What a lovely idea!', the Karakoram Highway left me worried, the one crossing an aircraft runway made me gasp, and the one that gets the prize is the one which doesn't allow cars to ply, except for rare exceptions.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Sixth August, 2015

Hiroshima Day. How the world has forgotten.

Since I wrote about Ruby, a lot of reactions have come in, many people expressing surprise, many of them saying thanks, many of them harking back to their own memories. Just to dispel the notion (for the creation of which I myself am to a great extent responsible) that I am a hardboiled misogynist, I shall write now and then about favourite old girls. One whose name springs to mind is Priyanka Mullick (née Pobi). Never knew she was fond of me, but she visited me a few years after marriage, and disarmed me with the confession that she had brought her little boy along because surely Sir wouldn’t scold her – if he at all wanted to – in front of her child. She confessed rather shamefacedly that she hadn’t done much beyond what I predict for most girls, namely getting married; yet she has turned out to be far more active and responsible a person than most people her age, happily playing a big part in the large family business even while being, I think, a good mother and daughter. And money hasn’t gone to her head: she went to a humble but very caring religious-run hospital to have her second baby recently. My daughter showed me her photograph with the child on whatsapp, and she sounded pleased but abashed when I called to tell her that not just the baby but the mother looks fabulous. I think what is common to the girls I still love is that they are fond of me, they know how to respect, they have no affectations or pretensions, and most importantly of all, they never ask for what they themselves cannot give. This is why I increasingly think that outside the family the only women one should deal with are thoroughbred professionals, whether they be doctors or ladies of the night. Most others expect too much, and are willing to give too little. There, I suppose I am back to being a misogynist again.

It is already that time of the year when I start saying ‘Sorry’ to parents who wish to enroll their kids for the next year’s class, and only God and my family know what I go through with people who just won’t take no for an answer. You might look up a post titled ‘Weirdos’ that my daughter wrote in her blog back in 2010. And talking of weirdos, I don’t know how many of you will believe this, but there are even folks who first show every sign of desperation to get their kids in – to the extent of filling in forms and paying the requisite fees – and then go and admit their kids to schools whose pupils I do not teach!

It has just struck me that it won’t be too long before this blog becomes ten years old. I have seen very few bloggers stick to it for more than a year or two, and even those who do write just la-la stuff and/or only two or three times a year, not fifty or more. When I do something I do it seriously, here’s one more proof. Which is precisely also why once I cry off, it’s for good. I swore I won’t enter the St. Xavier’s School campus again when I left in May 2002, and I haven’t. After a few years of orkut, I set my face against social networking sites, and look, I have lost nothing by ignoring facebook and twitter. If I use them or whatsapp or something like that again, it will be strictly for family- or business purposes. So with this blog. Ankan Saha, do you remember telling me to start a blog so that many old boys could keep in touch? You have yourself confessed – as have so many others – that you have been remiss in doing your bit, and so I wonder, despite the pageviews count that keeps climbing relentlessly. How much longer beyond the tenth anniversary should I continue?

Economics, history and psychology are three subjects which I never stop pondering over. The thoughtful among my readers and the grown-ups, have you noticed a secular trend which I have been observing over at least three decades – that while computers and mobiles and TV sets and cars and stuff get ever cheaper, the essentials of life, namely land/living space, food, medicines and education become ever more expensive? Any guesses why this is happening, and where it is leading us? To paraphrase Barack Obama, disaster is not something likely to happen during the lives of our grandchildren.

For now, a conclusion with another passing thought: my old editors at The Telegraph of Calcutta gave me opportunities to write lots of stuff on lots of subjects. Would some of you be interested in reading some of them? I have never displayed them publicly, and though one girl – a so called journalist – pushed the file aside when I offered to show her, there have been lots of others who have rifled through it with avid interest.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Just musing

I badly need a haircut, and no one in the household is up to it. Can any old boy do it for me?

Is Tom Cruise really dating his 22-year old personal assistant? Why the outraged denials? – Natural when looks and glamour and money are all working for you, so why shouldn’t he?

Just watched Boyhood the movie. Very well made, and extraordinary doesn’t begin to describe what the director and cast have achieved – following the growth of the same pair of children over a period of twelve years. Made me sad, too, watching how badly parental disharmony and discord hurts kids; how bad the worship of individual self-fulfilment can become if pushed too far (especially because ‘free’ people don’t do much with their lives anyway). I have always thought that very few people ought to be licensed to have children at all: that would solve a great many very serious problems at one stroke. And it feels good that I am neither a politician nor a celebrity on TV, so I can voice my honest opinions in public. The denouement made me sigh, of course, because I too have an empty nest now, though my family, and especially my daughter, are still far closer in the real sense that most people can dream of: I know adults who have told me they would ‘die’ if they had to live with their native families in their native place for a month. Oh, and for the umpteenth time: I cannot but wince to see how so much of the contemporary world has become so casually foul-mouthed. Just one of my tics, I guess. Watch the movie and tell me what you felt. I wonder more strongly than ever what kind of parents today’s youngsters – those in the 20-30 age group, given the way they have grown up – are going to make. Or are they going to leave all the caring and mentoring to the grandparents, in a throwback to older mores?

I got excited when they took away the walker and after the first physiotherapy session worked well, so I tried walking around (just inside the house, of course) without the crutches, and the pain came back. I am being much more careful now. But with the crutches I can do quite a bit, even venture to the local marketplace. And Pupu and an old girl worked wonders for my morale, the first by telling me that I look like Dr. House in the eponymous TV series, the latter by saying that the crutch gives me more character – not that I had been feeling I am much in need of that! And alas, it will be quite some time still before I can even drive a four-wheeler, leave alone the scooter. But I can travel to Calcutta in my own car within another month if things don’t go awry, that much I have been assured.

One thing about being handicapped for a prolonged period – you have to be careful not only to avoid succumbing to depression but not to become self-obsessed. No greater blessing than to have a fixed daily work routine. It also makes one think about a lot of things. How so many ordinary people matter in your lives: and I am not talking merely of family, to whom we often attach a bloated and quite undeserved importance. How important it is to practice charity at home. How useful it is to count your blessings. How to differentiate between those who really care and those who do not. How one might best cope with a future when one may never be as fit and ‘normal’ as one used to be (such as that I might never climb hills or walk fast for long distances again). How good it is to find real pleasure in the happiness of others. What a treasure children are, if you can attract their love. How wise it is never to expect anything from anyone in the long run. How more caution can save you from getting hurt in a lot of ways.

So I have been re-thinking the question of charity. I think I am going to go with ‘charity begins at home’, and set out on a systematic program of helping out people in need – specifically people who have helped me out in times of distress and helplessness. There are so many people who touch our lives in so many humble yet essential ways whom are too little valued. Even your cook and maid and the grocer who makes home deliveries when you are indisposed. And these are as a rule proud people, so you have to work hard to find out what they need, and when.

The season is beautiful, with occasional bursts of glorious sunshine alternating with long spells of rain. Making a virtue of necessity, I am sitting outdoors for hours in the daytime, helping the sun to speed up the process of synthesizing vitamin D which is good for the healing of my bones, and I thank God for being lucky enough to find so much time to admire the gorgeousness of the world around me: the azure of the sky, the play of the clouds, the lush rainwashed greenery all around, the profusion of flowers, the busy activity of squirrels and birds and butterflies in my garden… I can’t have enough of ‘standing and staring’. Sometimes it feels as though it was really worthwhile breaking a leg. How sad it is to be a busy man, really.

Rajdeep of the 1994 batch and Chitra of the 2000 batch visited recently. Thank you to both. It was good to see you after a long time. Chitra, as I told you, one reason I dislike female visitors is that they by and large have no conversation – do keep that in mind and I am sure both of us will enjoy your next visit even more. And keep in touch, both.

My daughter has already found a kind of happiness in college that she never got in school except during the very early years, touch wood. I have been pestering her to write about her entire school life. This is a reminder again, Pupu! And may your working life be even better…

In passing: I have got some truly gratifying reviews of To My Daughter. I only wish more people who have read it would get in touch with me. Or at least tell me why they can’t/won’t comment.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


I wrote in the last post that I expect to meet unusual girls about once in a decade. If asked whether I have met any at all, I shall say ‘Of course! Why else do you think I keep an expectant corner in my heart for all my children?’

Ruby was my pupil twenty years ago. She belonged to the batch which was invited to my wedding. A quiet, humble girl with no affectations or pretensions to being ‘cool’ despite going to Carmel School, she said little in class. Her parents became somewhat more than nodding acquaintances too. She kept in touch, through college, and marriage, and the coming of her children, and her artistic ventures and teaching experiences; she has always kept in touch, while every other member of that large group has fallen off completely. She never went in for trendy clothes or mouthing abuse or gushing and tittering over boys or posting selfies on Facebook as most girls do. With me, there has never been any fuss, any nyakami, any over-the-top protestations of undying love and devotion and that kind of rot, only a phone call once every few months when I know she expects to talk to a very attentive Sir for half an hour, and a visit once in a year or two when she is in this part of the country (she’s lived in Mumbai for a long time now). She is a very ordinary person in some ways, yet she has won an extraordinary place in my heart for two virtues that I so rarely find – integrity and constancy. She has never had to change her mind about what she feels about me, and she has till the time of writing maintained without a break, in her calm, slow, self-possessed way, that she doesn’t want to break off the connection. To someone like me, who has seen so incredibly many of the other sort, she is a rare gem indeed.

Now her poor husband is seriously ill, and has recently undergone surgery. Ruby has had a very hard time tackling everything on her own, including her two very lively little boys. It goes without saying that she has my most earnest blessings and prayers, and I am sure she has earned a lot of sunshine in her life hereafter.

I hope the little girl who recently wrote a passionate essay about Sir will read this and understand – a bit – what I meant when I told her ‘Rewrite this essay when you are thirty, if you still remember Sir.’ I know she wrote that essay ‘from her heart’, as it is customarily said; my point is that right now she doesn’t even know her heart, and chances are she never will, at thirty or at sixty. I am in a position to know what that means. But if she does, and if she turns out to be another Ruby, I shall have reason to be grateful and content, in this world and the next.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Looking back and ahead, again

After 35 years at it, I still laughingly wonder aloud before my most favourite ex students why people sign up in droves for my classes – indeed, I have to beg scores of parents to be forgiven that I cannot take in any more. Especially given so many handicaps, including my legendary bad temper, the fact that syllabi have been shrinking slowly but steadily, and even idiots get 90 per cent-plus marks in board examinations these days, with or without my help. Not even counting how hard my ex unlamented colleagues worked to give me a bad name once upon a time.

Many explanations have been suggested: a) that parents follow the herd instinct to the exclusion of almost anything else, b) I have become a local status symbol, c) that there are too few competent English tutors around, d) My market value remains high precisely because I play hard to get, what with all those rules and stuff, and throwing out the odd pupil now and then, e) lots of old boys and girls have given me precious word-of-mouth publicity, f) once students get in, they are visibly enchanted by some kind of sorcery, and parents can’t help noticing it, g) I have not yet made my services too expensive, etc. etc. Maybe all of them are partly true – but somehow that sounds rather unsatisfactory, like why someone got a heart attack, given there are 150-odd known risk factors…I mean, if somebody decided to wreck my reputation and livelihood today, how would she go about doing it?

I am being neither facetious nor vain. God knows that I had to learn the hard way how tough it is to build up a paying and satisfying career on your own: most people who got jobs through campus interviews while still in college will never begin to find out, and the desperation with which they cling to salaried jobs, however vacuous or unpleasant, tells me adequately that they don’t want to know in their worst nightmares. Indeed, though I have been teaching since 1980, my earnings became substantial only from 1992, and enough to make me happy only since I quit that school and set out on my own, just 13 years ago. Now, as I grow tired and a trifle bored and much irritated with the kind of students I don’t want to teach (a large fraction, believe me), the numbers are swelling to bursting point, and I have no idea how to deal with it.

It has been a long and relentless working life. I have been thirsting for a long time for more breaks, more holidays, more chances to do things I really like, whether it be travelling or social work or charity or romance or just sleeping twelve hours a day. I have been trying to figure out just how to accomplish that without completely retiring from work – which I can’t do, not yet, both because I need some income still, and I’d be bored stiff within a month. I had been looking forward to mid-2015, and now it is here. My daughter’s got into a reputed government college where she wanted to read the subject of her choice, she lives at home and can take better care of herself than most of her contemporaries, I had put aside enough money to see her through a good private college if need be, food, clothing, tuition, books, travel and all even if I am no longer around, and right now things have so shaped up that that would be considerably more than what she needs. My home loan will be fully paid up next month, and, to cut a long story short, unless I consider the compulsory savings I still continue to make, I am right now, at least financially speaking, more of a free man than I have been in the last thirty years, and solvently so. I am going through the seven-days-a-week grind as though nothing has changed – simply because I haven’t yet worked out how to change!

Raise fees, take fewer classes, keep the weekends free was one suggestion that came from the whole family. Then they themselves backtracked – realizing, firstly, what a riot I’d have to turn away, and secondly that I wouldn’t gain much from it, and since weekends are too short to make good getaways, I’d simply sit at home and brood. Much better if I could carry on with the normal routine for six weeks to two months at a stretch, then zoom off on a holiday, with family, daughter, some good old friend or ex student, or just by myself, for a week every time at least. Can I organize my routine that way without seriously hurting the reputation I have built up over so long? And can I at the same time figure out some way to filter out all but those I seriously like to teach – meaning those who have brains (not merely the math problem solving type), and hearts that can be touched, and lively curiosity about lots of things, and willingness to work earnestly at assignments I give them, and most important of all, those who show some signs that they will remember me fondly and respectfully many years down the line, and not break my heart by proving that I had expected far more from them as human beings than they were capable of understanding, leave alone giving? Females, it goes without saying, I exclude out of hand: let anyone prove that she is different from the average of her kind and I shall salute and hug her, but this I know – I might have to do that only once or twice in a decade.

There are things to look forward to. Relishing a very old and fond memory of what a friend’s father used to do, I have promised several of Pupu’s friends, all of whom were once my pupils and all of whom are now in Calcutta colleges, that I am going to take them out for dinner. I know they are waiting for me to get well. The college Pupu is going to is one on which we might be said to have a sort of family claim, and I intend to tour the campus with her, and smoke with her beside one of the landmarks – I’m sure that no matter how ‘cool’ her friends think they are, this will take their breath away. We missed a holiday trip this May because of my accident: that has to be made up for. As for travelling, I can’t make up my mind about what would be the best way – slum it out, as I have not done in twenty years, take trains or planes, or hit the road? If the last, would it be a good thing to buy a new car or would hiring one be a better idea, given how rarely my family makes road trips? I haven’t travelled long distances all by myself since 1992: would that be worth trying again? So many old boys have been calling for years from around the world – can I make it work?

How incredible this journey has been! main aur meri tanhayi/ aksar yeh baaten karte hain… I have vivid memories of what I was doing in and around the college campus in the early eighties: the stage that my daughter has reached now. So much hard study, so many loves, so much journalistic and teaching work, so many movies in the days you could only see them in theatres, so much flirting with drugs, so much family suffering and angst, such increasing hopelessness with academics (even earning gold medals and corresponding with Nobel Prize winners brought no solace and sense of direction) right through 1987. Then a period of blackest despair (look it up in To My Daughter), then the school job like a sudden unexpected ray of sunshine, then a rapidly building up reputation as a teacher. And then the next two decades, despite all the slogging without let up, passed by in a flash – so many little children of the early nineties are parents themselves now, and their kids are under my tutelage, or they are seeking my counsel and consolation that they are doing alright as parents. My sisters were married off, one settled abroad, my own marriage was quickly followed by my daughter, and a whole fabulous new story began, and now she’s nineteen, that magical age that Pilar told Maria about in For whom the bell tolls. My wife is growing old before her time and ill, but there’s a faint hope that she will turn the corner sooner or later. And I am looking at the prospect of maturing insurance plans and pension funds… just imagine, me! And so many little comedies and tragedies involving so many people who came and went: it will be a whole book if I could scribble down a third of the things I remember.  Maybe someday I shall get around to writing it. The only thought that holds me back is Shaw’s warning about writing autobiographies: those who don’t know you won’t believe it, and those who know will be furious.

Teeing off in another direction: here is a wonderful critique of Harper Lee’s classic To kill a Mockingbird. It is written soberly, sensibly and respectfully, and it has something of substance to say: that is how real opinions should be formed, and such opinions have become scarce indeed. Of course I don’t wholly endorse the writer’s views, and if we were talking face to face I’d have pointed out quite a few things he hasn’t noticed or ignored or glossed over which have helped very substantially to make it a great book – but I shall do him the courtesy of going through the book with a fine-toothed comb and making extensive notes before joining issue with him: it has been a cardinal virtue I have preached all my teaching life, that opinions are worthless unless supported by well-researched and coherent facts. Otherwise, they are worse than garbage, they pollute minds not merely streets. Consider this, for example, from the facebook post of someone who has gone crazy ‘fighting’ (from the safety of the bedroom via only the net, of course) for gay rights – such rights demand recognition in toto, because ‘Attraction is not a choice’. Nobody ever pointed out to him that the very same thing can be said about revulsion: try persuading a thousand normal girls how loveable roaches and spiders and lizards are. Someone told me long ago that you can be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

And how this disease has been spreading like a scourge – from American campuses around the world, it goes without saying – you can read here, though I might have almost written this article myself. That this is happening with a vengeance in India too you can see here. ‘Give me the facts’, they used to say in the age of Enlightenment; ‘If the theory does not fit the facts, throw away the theory’, said people like Sherlock Holmes; now apparently in American schools teachers say ‘Just your opinion, child, just give me your opinion’. All that counts is that your opinion should be politically correct. So millions of American schoolkids who can’t identify Lincoln in a photograph and can’t speak five lines about the Declaration of Independence grow up certified to be educated and responsible citizens eligible to vote. SAT verbal scores are at an all-time low, but what does it matter if they can sing rock, or play basketball, or shake cocktails or do nail art or, better still, work out differential equations in their heads – those are the ones Google and Facebook hire, don’t they? We don’t need educated people any more, we (the whole system) need unthinking technically competent drudges and consumers. And this is how it is being done – via that man-making/man-destroying system called ‘education’.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Rains, physiotherapy, history, accidents

The IMD predicted a scant monsoon this year, so it has been raining heavily all through June, and incessantly over the last few days. And I love it as much as ever, surrounded as I am by space, quiet and greenery. Things are far worse in the metros, I know, but it is good to hear that Calcuttans are now much better off than those in Mumbai, from what I get to hear from my family and ex students. Anyway, as I have always maintained, I shall never live in an anthill, unless I earn five lakhs a month post taxes at least, and can work from home. If I have to move about for a living, it had better be fifteen lakhs, and preferably a police car with a red beacon and hooter following me about. When I think of good living, I don’t think smartphones: I was not born a gwala’s son.

Physiotherapy is stopping just short of torture, did you know that? It comforts and it hurts, and slowly the latter’s proportion increases until they stop just before you think you are going to yell. I’ve been given crutches now, by the way. It hurts still, so I am interspersing it with the walker. I have defied doctor’s orders to go upstairs, and to visit the bank once already. But anything like normal will be another three months at least. I should have broken a bone 35 years ago: kids grow so fast! … this boy Hasan is good. I have promised to fetch him a lot of custom. He charges just one hundred rupees for a one-on-one session, can you believe it? It makes me see red when I think of so many people his age or thereabouts, whose ‘work’ does not have a hundredth of the social value, earning ten times that much. Many tens of millions should thank God that someone like me would never become a socialist dictator.

Surveillance and parenting and Big Brother. I posted a cartoon on the other blog, now read this article. Thank God again I quit that school before smoking on campus was banned, and the day they make it mandatory to install CCTV cameras in my classroom I am going to call it a day. All workplaces are becoming what prisons and lunatic asylums used to be only fifty years ago: that’s progress for you. Bengali readers, have you watched Ichchhe yet? Recognized somebody you know?

My daughter’s college life starts next week. With her, it’s almost become a time-honoured tradition to read history in our family. I couldn’t (or so I thought in my youth) afford it, so it feels good to think I have at least played a part in enthusing a few others in the days when they were growing up. Sad that I couldn’t pass it on to any of my thousands of bright kids, so many of whom have discovered in their mid-twenties or even later that history is a far more interesting subject than engineering!

I have passed yet another milestone in my life: a very pretty young thing actually asked to be petted in class (ador koro)! Soon I’ll give them permission to call me dadu. As for sitting under a tree in the rain at Humayun’s tomb, I guess Krishna wants I reserve that for Pupu alone in this lifetime. I have got much without asking; I shall not insult myself any more by asking those who cannot even understand what they were being given.

How much Indians care about things that matter (such as saving life and limb from road accidents) as opposed to say cricket and skirt lengths and ‘rights’ for homosexuals has always been an issue close to my heart (along with peeing by the roadside), as countless ex students can aver. That Indian roads have become the most dangerous in the world is, for obvious reasons, no longer just a statistic for me, if it ever was. I would give a very great deal to see laws enacted and enforced that would make our roads safer for our children. Mine was a typical hit and run case, with the biker driving at high speed along the wrong side of a national highway running alongside a very busy marketplace. And he got away without a scratch, without a beating, without a fine. Just one of thousands of such incidents happening every day in this wretched country. I insist, it will never happen in any truly civilized country, and that is an infinitely more important index of development than autorickshaw drivers using smartphones. Alas, what hope is there in a country where university educated folks in their thirties and forties are imbecile enough not to know what matters and what doesn’t? This I know – if their fathers, brothers and husbands became roadkill or were maimed for life, they’d weep for a week or two and then ‘move on’. With such an ‘educated and enlightened’ populace, what wonder that the government doesn’t care? Last year, after Gopinath Munde’s tragic death, the Modi sarkar had promised to bring in a tough amended road law – that seems to have died a quiet death, as this report says. Our aam janta is at one with the auto lobbies in wishing more and ever more vehicles with wild and reckless drivers on the roads: a few lakh lives lost and a million or so temporarily or permanently crippled is too small a price to bother about. And if we are intellectuals or hacks, we must spare time to think about terrorists – after all, they kill hundreds a year, don’t they?

This is a link to some people who do care. Think: could you do something to help them? For your own sake and for your loved ones?

Saturday, July 04, 2015


A prolonged convalescence has helped greatly to talk at length with my parents, and I have been picking their brains, tracing my genealogical and intellectual inheritance – my roots if you like. I had heard most of it in disjointed snatches over decades, since I was so high, but it is fun piecing it all together at this age, and discovering bits and pieces I hadn’t known. My grandfather’s grandfather on my father’s side was naib/dewan of the Maharajah of Burdwan (when his women travelled by palanquin through forests escorted by paiks – armed guards – the notorious dacoits who lorded it over those parts salaamed and moved aside when they heard it was his folks passing by), a famed astrologer, and more than a dabbler in tantra. His son made a fortune as a muqhtaar, and my granddad was part owner of one of the most famous bookstores in College Street, Kolkata in its time – Chatterjee Brothers – who saved a lot of innocent lives both Hindu and Muslim at enormous risk to his own out on the streets during the Great Riot of 1946, sometimes browbeating bloodthirsty mobs into quiescence by the sheer weight of his aroused personality. I can see where the temper has come from, and how valuable it can be, and anyway it makes me proud that I was not born into a typical Bengali middle-class family of mealy-mouthed, time-serving rats. The tradition has continued powerfully through my own father, who was never formally much of anything for most of his life, and yet chief ministers have sought his counsel, and violent trade unionists have sought his protection to save their skins, and on occasion he has had the ineffable gall to grab the hand of the Dalai Lama himself and put it on his own head, leaving the entire entourage open mouthed – as someone VERY high in the government said then, not many presidents of nations would dare do that. All His Holiness did was to smile and say ‘Happy? Can I have my hand back now?’ There are stories galore, but much has to be filtered for a blog, given the average quality of readership these days…

I have written more about my mother’s side, but only recently I discovered that Sagarmoy Ghose, the legendary founding editor of Desh magazine, to which Rabindranath himself used to contribute once upon a time, when he heard about me, remarked ‘Ore rokte lekha achhe toh’ (he has writing in his blood), because my great granddad the doctor had been a good friend since the days of his youth. What I didn’t know was that I was distantly related to no less a scholar/teacher than Basudev Sarbobhoum himself, with whom Sri Chaitanya stayed during his sojourn in Nilachal, being particularly fond of the malpua that Sarbobhoum’s daughter in law prepared, and whose recipe was handed down as far as boroma, Saraswati, my mother’s grandmother, a legend in her own right, wife of a self-made tycoon who made half of modern Assam (including the only road that still connects Guwahati with Shillong today), a devout and truly simple woman as only very deep women can be, coached in English at home in Shimla by the governess to the children of a certain provincial Governor, whose brother was a police commissioner terribly harassed and disgraced because he had sheltered ‘terrorists’ in the days of the Raj and let them escape, who distributed truckloads of blankets to the needy every winter at Kalighat and Kamakshya and died alone in dire but proud and independent poverty as an ancient widow in Vrindavan. She once defied the whole gang of purohits with apt quotes from the shastras to perform puja despite being a woman at the latter shrine. What do today’s girls know about strong women? One of her sons, my ma’s mamas, was a dashingly handsome playboy in the 1930s, importing Harley Davidsons on a whim and filling his dad’s cinemas with his friends, and another, a doctor, who could speak Latin and Sanskrit with the ease of a master and was a wizard at chess among other things, I have always been told, is the man I resemble most closely, though I shall never put anyone but my dadu in that seat. Add to that what I have done as a scholar and teacher and writer and father all my life, and unless you are the lowest of the vulgar who cannot judge a man by anything but his bank balance, his car and his TRP rating, you will concede I have more than enough reason to be an elitist or a snob ... not with the young and the good at heart, never, but yes, with creatures who will never learn even as much as I have forgotten, and still imagine, assured by the swarm of people of exactly the same mental caliber around them all the time, that they are knowledgeable, they can think, and they have both an ability and a right to form opinions on every subject under the sun. No wonder so many of that type have become either engineers or journalists! A doctor friend of mine, a far better human being than all the hacks he has had to deal with, used the term ‘presstitutes’ for them, and I agreed perfectly, a flood of memories bringing back the reasons why I quit journalism long ago, when it was far less of a sewer than it is now.

Anyway, I am glad I belong to a long family tradition where the permanent – if not always uttered and enforced – injunction has been ‘Consider only what you are leaving behind that people outside your little family will value and revere and cherish’. And I hope that my daughter’s life, and my book, and Shilpi’s thesis, and the fond and awed recollections of a few thousand students will hold back something of me long after I am gone – as Basudev Sarbobhoum is remembered in circles that matter, even six hundred years after his demise. Paris Hilton and Lionel Messi won’t, that’s for sure.