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Sunday, April 26, 2015

When the earth trembled

Just before mid-day on Saturday, April 25th, I was listening to an old boy making a presentation of a scientific paper (preparatory to a scholarship interview) when the earth shook. I do not lightly use words like ‘eerie’, but this was one eerie feeling if ever there was one. There was no noise save the boy’s soft drone and something sizzling in the kitchen when my feet started tingling first, and then my head began to swim. I actually thought I was having a stroke. I got up alarmed (probably to check if I still could) and then noticed that both computer monitors were swaying, and a glass tinkling against a teacup on my table, not just the floor below my feet. The young man was so engrossed in his talk that he had not noticed until I told him we were experiencing an earthquake. It lasted nearly half a minute, and what I did next was to ask Mayadi in the kitchen if she was alright. She too is middle aged and suffers from high blood pressure, so she too had had exactly the same premonition as I did at first, and the poor woman had also nicked her finger on a knife. I was about to hurry both of them downstairs when I realized that the tremors had stopped, and some superstitious folk were blowing conches loudly from nearby houses.

The internet was soon flooded with spot news. It was just as I had figured: it was a fairly strong quake, measuring 7.8-7.9 on the Richter scale (anything that is 8 and above spells MAJOR devastation), and had originated close to Kathmandu in Nepal; the seismic waves had spread all over northern India, including Calcutta. Within the first day the death toll in Nepal had crossed 1800; it made me sad to think that the Dharahar Tower was no more, and the almost-grand Durbar Square was badly damaged. There had been significant casualties in Bihar, and even in north Bengal. A massive avalanche on Everest had sent several climbers to their doom. Our National Disaster Management Agency had swung into action: let us see whether it covers itself in glory or turns out to be a damp squib. The kids that afternoon were less excited and panic-stricken than I had expected them to be, though some living in multi-storeyed buildings had run out into the street, and some reported that cracks had appeared on their walls…

Last time this town experienced an earthquake, I was talking to a man outside my door, and all the kids started screaming inside the classroom, but I felt nothing! And the one I remember before that was very long ago, when my sisters were still very young and sleeping beside me; the older one laughed later and said ‘Dada is so used to scolding his classes that he scolded even in his sleep, imagining someone was playing the fool, shaking his bed!’ Durgapur has never, mercifully, had any real earthquake, and I pray fervently that it never does. I love thunderstorms, and who knows I might even watch a tsunami coming before it sweeps me away, but this takes the cake: I wouldn’t want to be caught in one. My parents lived through several minor and one really big earthquake during their sixteen year sojourn in Sikkim. I would not want my daughter to live in a place like that. Sick to think of being buried alive. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

in that sleep, what dreams may come...

A few years ago Sandip Mohapatra came over from Delhi and chatted for two whole hours of an evening. He was my neighbour more than forty years ago, and ‘Suvroda, technically I am your first pupil, you know. You were in class four when I was in class two, and I often came over to have my lessons explained’. That means I have been tutoring since I was ten years old. But joking apart, I have been paid as a tutor since I was just past 16, so that’s 35 years now. It’s been a long haul indeed, and I have taught people from five to 70, and more subjects than I can count (an old boy recounted on this blog that I even taught physics and he found it fascinating, God help me), alone and in batches forty strong, and now I begin to tire and wonder…

What I have learnt about people in all this time while teaching and counselling I have written elsewhere, more than once. What I feel as an individual, a man, a husband and father and social unit, is not entirely the same thing. Today, pushing fifty two, I bear a grudge only against God (which is a way of saying I blame no man, society, government or ideology) for not giving me a chance to rest when I want to. I went down from ease and comfort to poverty, and poverty hurt me, when I was far too young. Since then I have been struggling to make good – without compromising on any basic principle – and today all I have managed to do is to ensure that my parents and wife and daughter live comfortably, and will be high and dry if I pop off tomorrow. I am well-off only as long as I keep slogging like the devil, seven days a week, forty eight weeks a year. There is no pension waiting for me, no large lifelong royalties, no inheritance, no rentier income to look after me in my old age, nothing to support me if I simply want to take a long holiday of the sort I never had since I passed secondary school. For a long long time I was too poor to invest anything significant in the stockmarket, and when I finally got my head above the water, I found I had lost both the courage and the interest. I just look and wonder at so many young people who have grown up in the last twenty five years who never had to know what hardship or taking responsibility means, who earn modest or largeish sums only for themselves, and do nothing but live lazy and sybaritic lives, from one party to another, one shopping spree to another, one Facebook chat to another, one chance to sway one’s hips before slobbering crowds of horny morons after another… how much I could have done if I had been in their place when I was young! And when I look at old people, I more often than not feel like throwing up. It has been so well said, si la jeunesse savait, si la vieilleise pouvait!

Time. That is my biggest obstacle now, not money. They keep calling from all over the world, ‘Sir, please do drop in sometime, I have been asking you for a decade or more now’… and yet I just don’t know how I can make the time. How can someone like me make a trip abroad of only a week or a fortnight, and how can I spare more time than that? In the years just ahead, I shall certainly move around a great deal more than I have done in the two preceding decades, God willing, but only in little snatches, and that means they will have to be limited to within the country. But I’d have liked to look some people up in Japan, and New Zealand, and London, and Arizona and California…

As far as trips within the country are concerned, my daughter has vowed to accompany me as often as she can. At other times, I think, I’ll be a backpacker, if I can summon up the energy for it: no better way of seeing the land. Are some of my old boys game? Do let me know. Ruskin Bond had his Binya. I am going to look for mine. One thing I finally know: I won’t find her in the nyaka, self-obsessed, pinhead middle-class urban crowd (hahaha… if I had that kind of money, I’d retire to an old-fashioned chalet in the middle reaches of the Himalayas, say somewhere above Nainital, or the Sangla valley, with only a middle aged male help and a couple of dogs for company: at least until it was time to bring up my granddaughter. I saw village girls going to a school in one such place: I’d have loved to teach there part time, even for free).

Here, as I grow old, I remember more and more the days and years gone by. An old girl, now finishing her undergraduate course in psychology, rang up the other day to say ‘Sir, remember I once said that I find every new acquaintance interesting, and you wryly smiled and said, wait a few more years and then tell me again? Well, Sir, you were so right: I already find people so utterly the same, and so wretchedly uninteresting!’ And she is hardly 21. In my mind, the endless march of students has become almost a blur, more so those who have passed through in these last ten years. I turn to books more and more to realize that authors create so many characters and situations largely to get rid of the killing dreariness of ‘real’ life. Many of these are the same books that I read as a youth, but I read them differently now, having seen the ‘real’ world to my fill. I recently re-read Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape, for instance, and I was truly amazed to see how much of contemporary human behaviour, despite all its surface complication and sophistication, can be explained by remembering that we have basically been very aggressive and over-sexed carnivorous apes living in tiny colonies for several hundred thousand years, and started becoming ‘civilized’ only a few thousand years ago. I’d have liked to discuss with Morris what he makes of the fact that a few have become vastly more civilized than the masses, and the consequences of that… Colin Wilson’s A Criminal History of Mankind and Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine also make me think as most books don’t.

I sometimes think that like Michael Corleone, life has gradually turned me bad. I mean, people near and far have been such terrible disappointments and so often, that it is very lucky for a lot of them that I didn’t take up politics or crime or even business of the most rapacious sort, as in The Wolf of Wall Street. I might have fleeced and ruined a lot of people without a qualm in pursuit of self interest, perhaps, today, even enjoyed hurting them without ever culpably stepping beyond the limits of the law: read the Jeffrey Archer stories. At least, even if I am still kind and considerate to others, I sneer at myself for it. And I know I wasn’t born this way. Neither, I guess, were a lot of others. People cheat you simply because they cannot live up to the best words they utter, but they cannot help portraying themselves as deeper and worthier creatures than they are; it happens too often, and even the best of us are embittered forever. In my youth, I often wondered why some people, especially beyond a certain age, were so cold and rude, even churlish, without provocation; now I think I know. Anyway.

Another thing I now know: children are interesting and have potential as adults do not, and the harder the latter try to emulate children (while endlessly lecturing children to follow in their footsteps!), the more pathetic and despicable they become, whether it is by trying to look ‘hot’ by  sporting ever shorter skirts or by pretending to be learned and clever conversationalists. I shall happily keep any two-bit CEO or cabinet minister waiting if I am having a good chat with a sharp teenager, unless the former can entice me with a really big carrot (and by God, that will have to be BIG, because nothing turns me off faster than big noises!) By the time they reach thirty, the vast mass of them – most of them lazy dullards to start with – are tired and jaded and dulled by professional and domestic routine and have fewer questions than a ten-year old does; their bloated bellies and sagging skins are matched only by their risible bloated and brittle egos. I dealt with a few such recently: the disgust will stay with me for a lifetime. Much better to live out my life alone than to be so polluted.

I shall continue. I am posting this because I haven’t written for quite some time.