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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

ma amaar, godspeed!

Today, with the last bit of her public examinations over, my daughter turns her back upon childhood and school life forever. We were talking via Skype a while ago, and she said, though she was glad enough, and had been looking forward to painting the town red in her own quiet way, she wasn’t in the event feeling that anything very special had happened. Well, yes and no.  When you wait for something for a long time, it’s more or less always rather an anticlimax when it finally happens, unless it is a truly life-changing event – as her birth was to me, for example. But then, it is also true that tonight she ought to feel at ease, and rest content, and brace up for the long, long journey that lies just ahead now: adulthood. And being my daughter, she really will have an adulthood early, not beginning after she is thirty something.  

I am hoping that school having been a more than slightly nasty time for her, college will compensate her generously. In my case, it was a time full of torment, and lasted too long, despite the fact that unlike 99.9% of my compatriots, I was already leading a fully adult life. Much of that torment came from drudgery – which in turn stemmed partly from the fact that I was surrounded by lazy morons, classmates and teachers alike, and partly from the fact that I was dirt poor (my daughter knows how I walked thousands of miles around the city because I could not hang from buses often enough, and dreamt of saving enough to buy a moped someday! Today not only semi-literate sons of rural bank branch managers but loafers living in the slum behind my house drive around on snazzy bikes: that's 'development' for you). Also, frankly, my appetite for all the goodies of life was far larger than the world around me could supply – whom can I blame for that but myself? I keep talking about an eagle being forced to live the life of a sparrow. I learnt to compromise, but it was hard, and took far too long, because I had too many demons to subdue, like dreams and ideals, and overweening ambition. I am praying that in every sense my daughter will have better years ahead, if only because, thanks to daddy, she will be forewarned. It’s not a nice world, but it helps enormously if you are forewarned, and know what to expect and what not to fret over, and are convinced that the best deal is to focus totally on what you can do and fate allows you to do. As she has heard me tell countless times, if I hadn’t taken women seriously, and if I had stayed on in Calcutta doing what I have being doing for most of my life anyway, or at least quit the last job ten years sooner, I’d be a far less cynical man today, with far more millions in the bank.

I am dreaming now that she will soon embark on a career, remembering very firmly that, as I myself teach, a career is not only making a living but making a life worth living. She knows how wide a choice I have given her, so long as she works hard and is convinced that she is doing something that pleases her while not seriously harming anybody. It was my dream, in the darkest years of my youth, that I would not only be reconciled with my father but work shoulder to shoulder with him, me in my late twenties, he in his early fifties, for at least twenty years, building something good with our own hands, a business, an institution, an example of some kind we could be proud about. It didn’t happen. Maybe with my daughter I have been given another chance. As I tell her, and as she knows I dream, nothing would please me more in the remaining years of my life, be they five or thirty, than to be at her side helping in a very meaningful and profitable way with whatever she is doing, from running an eatery to making a countrywide tutorial to fighting big legal battles to raising a family.

So godspeed ma, and may God hold you in the palm of His hand. Baba, living and beyond the veil, will always be with you!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sorry, Mr. Lee

I had thought of writing an obituary on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, but having just read some stuff which has been written about him, I decided to spare myself the trouble.

Perhaps in private conversation, those of you who might be disappointed?

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The banality of evil

There are all sorts of irritants that rob me – usually briefly – of my peace of mind: one is an increasing frequency of people, young and not so young, turning up without appointment or accosting me on the street or telephoning to solicit a peculiar sort of favour. ‘I tutor people in this or that subject, and you are so very well known to students and parents, so do please send some to me’. I find this most irritating for all sorts of reasons.

First, I don’t like people who ask for favours: always thought of them as weak characters, parasites. I like doing some, but mostly unasked, and mostly for those who seem truly needy – not necessarily in the financial sense. Second, you don’t become a reputed teacher by asking around for students: you build your own reputation the only way, the hard way, over a long time, with skill and dedication and perseverance and a bit of luck, which I prefer to call God’s grace. It’s not a salaried job that you can wangle by buying fancy degrees and pulling strings or sucking up to the high and mighty.  Third, how lacking in self-respect can people be to be able to ask for favours from a complete stranger – it being understood that if I obliged them, they’d never come back to say even a formal thank you? Fourth, I can count on one finger how many people have done me any kind of favours at all, and most of them were done unasked anyway, because they were true gentlemen (or the – very very rare – woman). On the other hand, almost to a man (and woman), people have shown me that the worst in them – ingratitude – is brought out precisely when I have done them favours of any substantial kind, not excluding giving them attentive and sympathetic time when they were tired and confused and lonely. If life has made me misanthropic – I don’t hate men or women in particular, I dislike most people – can I be faulted for it? I urge you to remember that hundreds of people still take fond pride in claiming that Sir loves them, and has time for them, despite all that so many people have done to destroy his love of humanity…

Not very long ago, I wrote a post titled chhotolok (The mean and the base, roughly translated). The longer I live, the more I become convinced that most people are, beneath a (usually very thin-) veneer of civilization, essentially chhotolok, understood in the sense that a) they are pettily and blindly self-seeking, b) they feel no shame in seeking favours, but cannot even conceive that in a truly civilized society, that has to be a matter of constant give and take, c) they make a very big fuss when their sense of self-esteem or self-interest is hurt, but will either simply not admit that they are hurting people (perhaps thoughtlessly – I lost count long ago of people who said ‘I didn’t mean to hurt’) all the time in the course of their pursuit of pleasure and ease, or go to absurd lengths to justify why they weren’t really, seriously in the wrong, d) far too many people, alas, find pleasure only in giving hurt, some way or the other. When the expression ‘the banality of evil’ registered first on my mind while reading about the much publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann, it set many bells ringing, for I had long thought myself, without actually coining that expression, that most evil, and evil people, are basically banal rather than cinematically monstrous. The Vlad the Impaler or Eichmann types are very rare (and becoming increasingly so), whereas the girl who goes around breaking men’s hearts lightly, telling each in turn ‘I was only having fun, why did you take me seriously?’ or the housewife who nags and scolds the life out of the man who can neither kill her nor run away (remember Rip van Winkle and Joe Gargery and Walter Mitty?) can not only be found in tens of millions but they live long and enjoy their lives, in their own twisted way: they are both evil and banal. We ordinary mortals don’t have to cope with Vlads and Eichmanns in our quotidian lives, but only fate can save us from the latter types, and fate is rarely kind. The ex student who, pretending to be an educated adult interested in my mind, could read my essay on the Buddha (probably the one time I reached something like grandeur in a lifetime of writing) only to comment ‘What long sentences!’, and the scoundrel who lightened my purse with a sob story about a hurt labourer at a construction site are equally banal and equally evil, firstly because they whittle down my faith in mankind, and secondly because, having had to cope with a world full of such people lifelong has made me, ever so slowly, much more like them than I’d have cared to be. As the poet said, his ambition was ‘praanpone prithibir shorabo jonjal’ (I shall try all I can to cleanse the world of filth). Thank God he died young. That was part of what motivated me to become a teacher, and I often feel I have lived too long, given the very little good I have managed to do.

And when I say evil must be brought to justice, I am not thinking of Vlad and Eichmann.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Women's Day

It was International Women’s Day today. While saluting all outstanding women achievers the world over, especially among the subaltern categories in the poorest nations, I should like to put down a few discordant thoughts.

1.      Why does International Men’s Day get so much less publicity?
2.      Why do the women who have lived the most comfortable, pampered, secure and opportunity-rich lives complain the most about iniquitious mores ‘imposed’ by traditional patriarchy, and why have I met so few of them who talk little and work hard to ameliorate the lot of their far less fortunate sisters – such as the bais who do all the dirty household chores for them, and prostitutes with children, and poor women who have been abused and deserted by their men?
3.      I am proud to see the recent conversation between my daughter and a friend of hers in the comments section of her latest blogpost. I was marvelling to see two mature, sober, rational, highly articulate women, all of 18 summers, choosing to argue their differences as civilized human beings regardless of gender should do – why have I met so few ‘educated’ women 30 and above who can do that?
4.      When shall we go back to the age of Agatha Christie, Toni Morrison and Ashapurna Devi who were candid in admitting that lots of women can be just as bad as the worst of men, and they have special wiles which men cannot fathom, anticipate and fight off before it seriously harms them for keeps? That men who cannot wield sheer muscle power are at a disadvantage in every sense?
5.      Here is an article written in Anandabazar Patrika today by Ms. Swati Bhattacharya, who says there’s nothing either glorious or liberating about women becoming good, skilled and happy housewives. Women so easily sneer at their sisters whose kind of work they either cannot or don’t want to do. A good housewife is worth any number of clerks and hacks and office secretaries who are basically recruited as eye candy or drudges, no matter how bad that might make some women feel (how many women, despite every kind of advantage, end up in the kind of serious careers I have mentioned before?). And for every true ‘achiever’ I see among women of today, I see a hundred who remind me of Chesterton’s priceless chestnut: "Twenty million Englishwomen stood up, declared ‘We shall no longer be dictated to!’ and promptly went out and became stenographers". What’s so great about being paid a pittance to write op-ed articles which the owners (95% male)  insist on simply because they believe it will sell the paper better in the current socio-political climate?
6.      I wrote a long essay twenty years ago when the first World Women’s Conference was being held in Beijing. If anything, having followed the growing-up of thousands of young women before my eyes in the interim, I am far less willing to be sympathetic to their cause today, and God knows I have more than enough justification. I spend a lot of time warning my young boys against the female of the species, and most get back sooner or later to say a fervent thank you for saving them from very nasty experiences.
7.      One warning that will turn out to be very unfortunately and harshly true in the decades to come: women who want to have it all, women who are determined to demonize all males, women who think it is cool and in to spew half-digested anti-male rhetoric at the drop of a hat,  who ‘just wanna have fun’ but don’t mind making thorough nuisances of themselves doing it in the name of freedom, are digging their own graves. I am not alone among decent males of all ages who have grown cold to the real needs of harassed and abused women of late simply because their case has been grossly oversold, to the complete exclusion of lots of people – the very young, the very old, the handicapped, the very poor, the badly cheated, the state-oppressed, the millions of men abused by women lifelong – who suffer great injustice too, simply because such women typically cannot empathize with anyone except a female who has been raped (and - dare I say it? - because rape is so sensational for every tagtivist to talk about!).
8.      How long before women realize that if ultimately all their vaunted ‘independence’ ends up in getting married on their parents’ prodding after a few years of irresponsible flirting around, having realized that their sell-by date is fast approaching (several Bollywood starlets with fading careers having shown the way), and that too dressed up like girls from Jhumritilaiya, they had better pipe down, because they are making cartoons of themselves to all but their mentally challenged friends and ‘admirers’ on Facebook? Women above 25 can go on dressing and acting like koochie koochie teens (I have lost count of mothers coming to admit their kids dressed as though they are going to a wedding), but the whole world is not yet crazy enough to be ‘impressed’ by their antics and simultaneously take them seriously as thinking human beings! In fact, I can see a very clear pattern of ‘men’ who are fascinated by such ‘women’, and the less said about such simians the better. Let them take their time to learn their lessons: I am in no hurry. Time has a wonderful way of righting wrongs.

P.S.: I sought and got full approval from both my mother and daughter before putting up this post.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

prospects for the new year

‘Spring’, such as it is in this part of the world, lasted through February. Through the first half of the month I had a leisurely time, most of my pupils having dropped off to take their annual examinations. Then there was the once a year rush of admissions. I have reason to be content: my new classes will be full again, and the thankfulness I see in the eyes of the parents who managed to get their wards in and the desperation among those who are still waiting to be called gives me a nice warm feeling of having done something worthwhile in this lifetime and for my family – without soiling my hands, bending my head or holding my nose.  By God, it hasn’t been easy.

Now my daughter’s board examinations have begun, too, and so I came over to Calcutta for a long weekend. Still balmy weather, and good food, and long hours of sleep, and books and movies and long walks with trees and lakes around: heavens, things could have turned out to be so much worse. Just finished reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. All I shall say is that it is by far the finest book I have read against the background of the Second World War barring only Anne Frank’s Diary and Exodus, and that Zusak, to my mind, almost comes up to Remarque’s level: I cannot think of higher accolades. Read the review in my daughter’s blog – she’s booked it before I could. I cannot put into words the kind of thankfulness I feel that there are still people around who write and read books like this, rather than Fifty Shades or Chetan Bhagat, if they can take their minds off Facebook and shopping malls and beauty parlours at all, that is.

I am still in Calcutta – will be back tomorrow, Monday the 2nd. One thing I must say: despite the crowds and the noise, the city is certainly somewhat nicer and more liveable now than it was in my time, the early 1980s. The road in front of Jadavpur University is a lot cleaner and greener; far more buildings are freshly painted, far less trouble with power cuts; the metro and the ubiquitous autos and so many new flyovers have made travelling a lot less painful (the number of airconditioned buses is growing apace too), and soon my daughter and I plan to zip around on our own two-wheeler, which is far more convenient than the car except during the rains. Besides, probably because I only visit occasionally, I really don’t mind hearing rabindrasangeet at traffic junctions: at least, it beats political speeches and the lungi dance kind of stuff every time.

Back in Durgapur, I have installed an airconditioner in the classroom (I can hear so many old boys smiling to themselves, ‘At last the old skinflint has done it. About time too!’), so I can look forward to a less gruelling summer. Then there is the swimming pool waiting. Given the fact that the day I returned after depositing my daughter in Calcutta back in 2013 I literally dragged myself home, and was almost sure I wouldn’t last these two years, I feel miraculously delivered, and I am not exaggerating. Someone said ‘the days are long, but the years are short’, and for this once at least, I can say ‘thank God for that!’ How I was tested, how I remained sane and kept functioning as if nothing had changed only God and I and a very tiny handful of people know. But the important thing is that the nightmare – inshallah – is behind me now, and the wheel is turning, and unless I am suddenly struck down by a stroke or an infarction or cancer or failed kidneys or something like that, I can look forward to achchhe din again, no thanks to our prime minister. My daughter will be going to college in July, and, though I have no intention of discussing my finances threadbare on this blog, the fact is that by the end of this year I will be financially almost a free man, not really needing to earn a large and regular income any more beyond my personal upkeep (which has always been a modest requirement) – and I alone know what that means, a luxury I have not known for thirty years and more. I am in the process of dreaming how I intend to reinvent myself, and right now much is still nebulous, except for a few items: a) I’ll take many short breaks round the year, b) I’d like to travel much again, but definitely not to big cities and tourist hotspots, c) I’d love to luxuriate in the freedom of ticking off a lot of people with ‘Go away, I don’t want to teach you, because I don’t like you/ your parents’ anytime I feel like it (something I am going to announce as a warning in the very first class of the new batches this year itself), d) there might be a dog in the offing, if my daughter has her way – the only thing that has kept me from getting one is what to do with it when I go travelling, and e) there will never again be any question of going out of my way to be nice to females: any such who wants a share of my life had better come prepared to like me just the way I am. As my daughter says, and I have at last decided to believe it, ‘You’ve done bloody too much for vulgar and flighty ingrates, and only got kicked in the face for your pains. Learn a lesson, and keep your niceness for the few who like it, want it and earn it’.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention this: I will  grow increasingly more ‘eccentric’ with what I teach and how I teach, and I want to see how fast the numbers drop off (keep rising? stay unchanged?)  And yes, venture in a much bigger way than I have all these years into the stockmarket and charity.  And maybe writing fiction again.