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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.