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Friday, May 29, 2015

Down but not out

Something unexpected and thoroughly nasty happened to me recently. Read about it as seen through my daughter's eyes, here

Thursday, May 14, 2015

In the days of the super-civilized

Dr. Pashupati Bhattacharyya, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, was the scion of a fairly well-known family in north Calcutta (his father, an engineer, earned the title of Rai Bahadur for playing a supervisory role in laying the Grand Chord portion of the Eastern Railway). He was also, for a long time, close to Rabindranath Tagore as devotee, physician on call, supplier of the great man’s favourite Bagbazaari rosogollas, and accomplished singer. He was a gifted man of letters himself, and, as I have written elsewhere, under Tagore’s commission he wrote the first general health care books for laymen’s consumption for the Lokshiksha series. He wrote  a little tome about The Mother of Pondicherry at Sri Aurobindo’s behest, and a book of reminiscences around Tagore too, titled Ontorongo Rabindrakatha (Rabindranath from up close), which I revisited recently after a gap of I suppose at least thirty years. It makes some difference if you read the same book first at twenty and then post fifty, even if the reader is myself. I felt some readers might be interested in a few short translated passages. Here is one.

Mohakobir moharaag (The great wrath of the great poet)

This happened a long time ago. That year in midsummer I stayed two months in Shantiniketan with my family. The Poet had said ‘If you come here during the summer holidays, I can give you a house to live in.’ We got a whole bungalow to ourselves, so it was a happy stay.

Dinubabu (Dinendranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew, noted musician and singer) was still alive then. The Poet had told him to teach us how to sing. He himself came over to instruct, especially when he had composed a new song. All the ashramites learnt, too. There was a gathering of an evening every now and then where the Poet would read out some new poem or story he had written.

Food was not a worry. Vast amounts of the best arrived from the communal kitchen twice a day. We only had to make breakfast and afternoon tea on our stoves. Every morning the Poet came over, umbrella overhead, to ask if all was well. Andrews (Charles Freer ‘Deenabandhu’ Andrews) was there; he too came over sometimes. My younger son, a naughty boy (my grandfather Ramendra Sundar… S.C.), would leap into his arms, but he only smiled, and didn’t mind at all. We ourselves went over to see the Poet, sometimes in the late morning and sometimes in the evening. He held us back for a long time, chatting, singing songs, treating us to tea.

I might have mentioned in passing that I was married on the second of ashaadh. The Poet remembered, though I myself forgot. On the first of ashaadh he said, ‘You must come to dine with me tomorrow.’ What was the occasion, I asked. He smiled and said, ‘It’s the first of ashaadh, isn’t it?’ (the allusion is to Kalidasa, find out for yourself – S.C.). It took me a while to take the hint. There was a lavish feast for us the next day, served on little square marble-topped tables; bouma (Protima Devi) supervised the service. Then it was decided that the Poet himself would take us before four o’clock in his station wagon to visit Sriniketan, where some sort of musical soirée had been arranged. On arriving there we found that arrangements had been made on a grand scale. Elmhirst was there (Leonard Elmhirst, agronomist, philanthrope, Tagore’s secretary and founder of the Institute for Rural Reconstruction); he showed us around the Sriniketan campus, and we had a good look at all the varied handicrafts produced by the inmates and students. Then there was a music recital, followed by a round of snacks.

When we set out from there, it was still not evening, but the sun had dimmed, and the sky was overcast. No one had looked up at the sky, though, everyone being happily preoccupied with seeing us off. Tagore himself was smiling merrily as we clambered into his car. Then we set off.

The storm broke within minutes. It was the first of the season that year. Instantly the surroundings grew dark with swirling sand, and so violent was the squall that the big car was buffeted about like a toy. When we tried to roll up the windows the driver warned us not to: we were reasonably safe with the windows open, but with all of them closed the car might easily overturn. We grew afraid of being crushed by some falling tree. Huge branches of the trees on both sides of the road were bending down, as if they might break off any moment. They swept down almost to touch our rooftop, then swung back again, whiplike. The car crawled along in the midst of this mayhem; one had to drive with utmost caution, so it was impossible to go fast.

We were dumbstruck with apprehension, but the Poet suddenly flew into a rage. He leant forward towards the driver and ordered, ‘Turn back, turn back at once; don’t go any further!’

The driver humbly replied that it would be very hard to turn the car around under the circumstances, and besides, we had come more than halfway already, so it would be wiser to carry on homewards. Much annoyed, the Poet thundered, ‘You want all of us to be killed by a falling tree, all these children too? Why didn’t you check out the sky before setting out? What kind of driver are you? Were you out of your senses?’
The poor driver was struggling at the wheel, and had neither time nor inclination to make a reply. He simply drove on.

The Poet grew even more indignant at his silence. He nearly yelled into the driver’s ear ‘Why don’t you reply? Don’t want to admit to a mistake, do you? Why didn’t you tell me a storm was coming? What am I going to do now?’

Finally the driver spoke up, ‘Please don’t agitate yourself, Sir. Just sit quietly, and I shall take you home.’

That seemed to enrage the Poet even more. ‘Do you imagine I am frightened for myself? It is you people I am scared about. You will die too if something goes wrong! And everybody is going to blame me! What a pretty pass you have got me into, you idiot!’

He kept on fuming and fretting all the way in the same vein. We were all startled, for we had all known him to be of a most placid disposition, and had no idea he could ever be so upset – least of all I.

Thankfully the storm subsided soon. It began to rain instead. The driving rain soaked the Poet’s clothes, but miraculously soothed his temper. He called out to the driver again: ‘Why don’t you roll up your window, my boy? You are getting all wet!’ His voice was very different now; as gentle as you could ask for.

The driver said, ‘It’s okay, I am fine.’

The poet grew very worried at that. ‘No no, you will catch a cold. I depend on you to get around; if you fall ill I shall get into big trouble’.

The driver only smiled and said nothing.

The Poet then turned back towards us and started chatting most cheerfully. He assured us that he himself had terrific immunity; getting wet never gave him a cold, and so forth. He told us stories about how he had got thoroughly wet in the rain more than once. He was a completely different man now. Of his towering rage only a few minutes ago there was not a trace.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Out of this world

An adult ex-student - no one important - once told me she gets 4,000 emails a day. When I expressed incredulity, she backed down a bit and said 'Well, every two or three days, including ads and other spam'. 

I should have thought only the public websites of national leaders and pop superstars got mail on that scale, but I am only an obscure provincial tutor, and I might be quite out of touch. Will you folks let me know if you are among the famous few whom thousands contact daily?

P.S., May 07: Hello, no one yet?   !

Friday, May 01, 2015

The White Tiger

I recently re-read Aravind Adiga’s 2009 debut novel The White Tiger, and felt it deserved to be commented upon, at least briefly. I shall not waste words summarizing the storyline: you will find an adequate job in this Wikipedia entry.

I shall recommend this book, especially to young readers (by which I mean anyone under forty) for several reasons: a) it is well written, and I am always proud to see fellow Indians who can write decent English, and that too with a minimum of vulgarity (there is far less here than in J.K. Rowling’s recent works!); b) its protagonist comes from the vast Indian underclass, of which far too little is written especially in English, and yet without knowing them and about them, you can never know more than a little of India; c) it will bring home to you in a shocking if not painful way how little the worst of India has changed in the hinterlands, despite all the surface busyness and glitter and wealth in the big cities; d) the writer is brutally honest about the plight of Balram Halwai and quite unapologetic about it, despite showing how the man suffers from occasional qualms of conscience, and even mocks cruelly at the likes of himself now and then, e) it will underscore in graphic detail why I am not gung-ho about the ‘development’ trajectory India has been following for the last quarter century, and f) what he has to say about the traditional Indian family and what he calls the chicken coop (in his opinion the greatest Indian invention ever) are truly worth reflecting upon.

The little conceit about addressing the book in the form of a series of letters to the visiting Chinese premier I shall leave unanalyzed. Make of it what you will.

Adiga’s prognosis is that anyone who wants to be what he calls an ‘entrepreneur’ and make good in contemporary India – Balram ends up running a taxi service for IT-sector employees in Bangalore – has got to be a hardnosed, amoral, aggressive wheeler dealer, and stop at nothing, from flattery to bribery to murder, as long as he can get away with it. Reminds me of the late-19th century America which was rebuilt by a host of robber barons. Well, if that is India’s fate, so be it. I am old enough to have stopped dreaming of better things. May my daughter’s generation forge ahead with eyes wide open and guarding their own flanks. But it won’t hurt anybody if the class that came to study with the likes of me remembered gratefully the sort of privilege they were born into. Maybe there is more to life than buying new shoes and smartphones every few months, just maybe?