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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.