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Monday, February 29, 2016

Admission trauma - make believe?

I have been in Kolkata this week, and was witness to the heaviest February thundershower in a century. For those who weren’t here, it was a deluge, I can tell you.  The temperature dropped sharply, which was a mercy. What I found pleasantly surprising was how little normal life was disrupted, and how quickly the city dried up.

I have also done something that I never gave myself the chance to do for donkey’s years: eating around the city. There is a far greater number and variety of restaurants to choose from than in our time, something to suit almost every pocket. Four nights out in a week, trying all sorts of things from shrimp to squid to lamb and varieties of pork: that’s a whole normal year’s quota for me! It’s such fun to have a grown-up and enthusiastic daughter around, and sometimes a few ex-students…

This news item in today’s paper caught my attention: well-heeled parents in the city are breaking their heads over getting their children admitted into the handful of  ‘elite’ schools (didn’t know that Modern High, where my daughter went, had a much lower vacancy to applicant ratio than La Martiniere!). In some ways God has been truly good to me – from prep school to college, her admissions were always a breeze. At two and a half she was invited by a friend of mine in the next street to join her Montessori classes. At the next step, when it was time to go to a regular school, my wife went to enquire with just two schools, and both agreed to admit my daughter without a fuss of any kind (no question of connections and donations and that kind of rubbish); we simply admitted her to the one whose admission date came first. The so-called interview was a joke, no more than the way we had been determined to treat it (I still vividly recall, though, the anxiety writ large on the stony faces of most of the parents around me, as if their daughters were about to be subjected to major and dicey surgery!) Twelve years later (and I know how snooty this sounds, but I can’t help it – these are the cold facts) I didn’t even go to Kolkata for her class 11 admission. Pupu and her mother went by themselves, applied to just one school, and got through without a fuss again, though the interview was much more substantial this time round. Leave alone strangers, even some members of my own extended family made it obvious that they weren’t believing me when I assured them I had pulled no strings, and paid not a rupee above the standard fees stipulated for every student.  Two years after that, Pupu again did mighty little worrying and even less running around, just getting admission to Scottish Church (being my daughter, she had been advised not to touch a certain college with a bargepole) for safety’s sake until the JU admission clicked (despite all the candidates on the first general category list having scored above 90% in their last board exams), and then she didn’t even bother to go sit for the entrance test at Presidency. As for the next step, she has known for several years now that whatever Master’s course she does, wherever, she must do everything by herself, because she would be old and smart enough by then: daddy will do nothing more than signing some forms if required, and paying whatever he thinks he can afford. So there you are – I am a living example of an ordinary parent in today’s India who has managed to ensure whatever carries the tag of a ‘first-class education’ in this country for his child without ever having to lose any sleep over it. Maybe it’s largely due to the fact that unlike the herd, and very like my own parents, I have all through refused to believe that this ought to be a really very serious issue in an adult’s life. If my daughter has good genes and is taught a few good habits (like studying daily by a routine and reading a lot outside the syllabus), she will get as good an education as she is destined for, period. If I have spent tens of thousands of hours moping, consulting and running around, and sackfuls of cash on a thing like that, it’s simply because I never had anything better to do, and my child is an idiot. But imagine, then, what a terrific number of parents don’t have anything to do, and have idiots for children! And apparently this is not a purely Indian disease, either: Pupu herself told me recently that affluent young American parents these days are ready to kill as well to get their toddlers into elite prep schools, as she saw in some TV serial show recently.

I notice the number of pageviews has crossed the 400,000 mark. I obviously have a large regular readership now, and it’s not too optimistic to think that I’ll still be around and writing when the counter tops half a million. I have become a serious blogger in these last ten years, then. Discounting celebrities, I don’t see many bloggers who have crossed even the 50,000 mark. If only my readers were also frequent, articulate and thought-provoking comment writers, this could have become quite a forum! – in any case, I am urging my faithful- (and curious new) readers to browse through some of the older posts again, not just the ones on the home page (use a tab, or better still, a regular computer – a mobile phone is close to useless for serious reading). Also, tell me what you would like me to write about next. This request is especially pertinent to those who have become ex students in the last three or four years and want to stay in touch.

P.S.: The number of dinners outdoors became five on the last evening, at Oudh 1590. Ambience wise, this was the best - they give you a feel of Nawabi dining, Lucknow style, complete with brass service, waiters in embroidered sherwani  and thumri on the music system...

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sudden trip, two glorious days

Just back from a  two-day, 550-km,  almost entirely unplanned road trip. And did I enjoy it!

Yesterday I rose at dawn, scrambled a breakfast, then Firoz and I topped up the fuel tank and set off westwards along NH2 at about eight in the morning. Off the highway at Asansol, and we decided to explore Garhpanchkot first. Nice place, but the Forest Rest House wouldn't let us in without prior booking, which we didn't have, and it was far too early to settle for the day anyway, so we drove away towards Panchet Dam. Funny I saw it for the first time at this age! Lunch off the NH2 again at Dhanbad, and since it was barely past midday, we decided to head for Giridih. Arrived there at about two, and checked into a very nice hotel. A wash, then off sightseeing. First the Usri waterfalls: the same where my grandfather's little sister nearly drowned almost eighty years ago (there must have been much more water then - neither falls nor river seemed very menacing to me), and where Professor Shonku used to take his morning walks (that must have been at least fifty years ago, too, in Satyajit Ray's mind - the forests would have been much denser). Then off 30 km or so in the opposite direction towards Khandoli lake: a very dusty ride, but well rewarded with an azure blue expanse of water and a mellow gold sunset. Luxurious bath, and dinner with tadka and tandoori roti at a roadside dhaba.Lazed in the evening listening to Hindi classic film songs on TV - something I rarely get to do  - and turned in very early. The afternoon had been hot, but at night there was a nip in the air.

This morning the day started early again. Drove to Madhupur to see the place so many of the Bengali gentry and not a few Englishmen used to go to once upon a time for 'a change of air'. Some of the old crumbling palaces deserve to be preserved.  Another two hours took us to Deoghar. Lacking piety and hating crowds, I gave the old Baba Mandir (Baidyanath Dham) a miss (visited it 42 years ago: enough for one lifetime) and went straight off to Trikoot Hill, of the Tapovan on top of which I still have vague but nice memories. There is a ropeway now, but strangely it wasn't working because of a high wind (first time I heard the excuse). We could have waited, but Firoz is scared of cable cars, and I have ridden enough not to be excited anyway. Climbing a mile of stairs was out of the question, so we drove away. Another lovely ride through beautiful countryside, the sal forests blazing, palash and krishnachura in full bloom, and the rich, sweet, heavy smell of mohua in the air: no one who hasn't taken in a lungful of it will ever know what wickedly-delicious languor means. Lunch just outside Chittaranjan, then we were on the highway again, and it was hardly four p.m. by the time we were back home, after having given the dear car a well-deserved wash on the way. 

This was the first time I have travelled without a plan and all by myself in my own car, though I have had a car for sixteen years - can you believe it? It could have gone horribly wrong in a dozen different ways, but the point is it didn't. The roads almost all along were smooth as glass (kudos to the Jharkhand government); also, my car drove like a dream. And if you can shell out the money, you can get good food and fine hotels almost anywhere you like. I really must do this more often. Is Firoz likely to evolve into something like Sudhirda? One thing I have discovered: one good friend is all one needs. And unless it's someone like Pupu, I'd much rather have a man with me.

This is also the first time that someone wished me well for the trip before I made it and wrote about it. Thanks a ton, Tanmoy.

For photos, click here. Videos, only face to face.

There is something else that I must mention here. The grinding poverty so painfully described in Bibhutibhushan's Aranyak is gone, or at least hardly visible. I saw hundreds of even girls going to school in very remote villages. But the forests are nearly gone, too. We must do something about it while there is still time. Other countries have managed, even some with dense populations, like Germany and Japan. Couldn't we stop aping the Americans before disaster strikes?... and even if it has to be America, can't we remember, no matter what our monkeys think, that America is also about the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson (who signed the National Parks into existence), and not just folks as trivial as Steve Jobs?

Whoever looks after me from Up There, thank you for the treat.

P.S., March 14: The US National Park Service is celebrating its centenary this year. In this context, read this essay. As I have observed, America was not always technology drunk, and I firmly believe she was a greater America then...

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Flowers, travel, and interesting women

Here are a few samples of my maiden effort at gardening, ably assisted by a friendly elderly maali. I started late this season, and the vagaries of the weather didn't help. I am wishing myself even better luck next time.

Another 16-year old whose wisdom eye has just opened told me today, 'You know Sir, you are right, just about everybody, no matter what they claim to the contrary, is guided by the herd instinct in everything'. 'Attaboy', I said, and promised myself to write about it here soon.

Since I have got a sudden holiday because all school examinations have begun, I am going to go a-wandering tomorrow morning. Just the car and driver ... haven't decided where I am going yet! I wish I had a few (male, it goes without saying-) ex students to take along. Happy memories, Saikat and Arko?

Summer is about to set in. I am dreading the admission rush, slated to begin in a month's time. But there will be the swimming pool to compensate.

Reading White Mughals. Here is a description of an 18th century Hyderabadi courtesan of high repute: "Mah Laqa Bai (was)... the most celebrated beauty of the age.... (she) was not just glamorous and seductive: she was widely regarded as Hyderabad's greatest contemporary poet (in such a completely so-called patriarchal age, mind you - SC)... she built a famous library... and commissioned the Mahanama, a major new history of the Deccan... later she became an important patron of poets in her own right... such was the Nizam's reliance on her wisdom that alone of the women of Hyderabad she was given the rank of a senior omrah... she also accompanied him to war...and gained a reputation for her riding skills, her accomplishments with the bow, and even with the javelin." (pp. 172-3, Penguin India paperback edition, 2002). Where have all those women gone? (look up Abigail Adams, more or less this lady's contemporary, in my post titled 'Those who love')

Friday, February 12, 2016

Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India

By William Dalrymple

Published by Bloomsbury, Great Britain, 2009, ISBN 978-1-4088-0061-4. Hardcover, £20, pp. 284

[synopsis: Dalrymple has taken a close and sympathetic look at how some non-mainstream people are coping, through religion, with the violent changes that are sweeping through contemporary India. Nine people, located at different points in the sub-continent – one already dead of her own choice since being interviewed – tell him how their traditional faith and practices help, but they do not pretend that life is easy. This book is sure to compel even the well-informed reader to modify his or her views about what really is happening to India, and perhaps make us worry.]

India is in the throes of massive and multi-dimensional socio-economic change. That has already – in some circles at least – become cliché. Also, a lot of people are determined to call this change unqualified progress, a clear sign that India is poised to take her ‘rightful’ position at the world’s high table soon. They make it sound as though everything about India, until very recently, was merely shameful or pitiable; there was no culture before Shahrukh, no technology before IT, no wealthy men before the Ambanis, no philosopher before Nandan Nilekani, and it is only since Manmohan Singh launched his programme of reforms in 1991 – before which there was no history either! – that things started changing suddenly and swiftly for the better. At the same time, a lot of people (myself included) keep pointing out again and again that many things both good and bad about India don’t ever seem to change at all, and that it is blind and silly to claim that every aspect of the currently ongoing change ought to be called progress of a sensible kind. When I read books like Jim Corbett’s My India, written 57 years ago, for instance, I sigh to think where all those proud, hardy, diversely-learned, simple and good folks have vanished – or did they only exist only in Corbett’s imagination?

In Nine Lives – in search of the sacred in modern India, published earlier this year, William Dalrymple of White Mughals and The Last Mughal fame says that if you care to look beyond the neon signs of snazzy and burgeoning metros, some of that India still survives, though maybe more doubtfully than in the past. Instead of poring over historical archives, he has, for a change, dived into the maelstrom of India’s roads to pick out a few non-mainstream (but still quintessentially Indian) people and find out what they have been doing with their lives – a Jain nun calmly starving herself to death in the time-honoured way, a teller of folk tales in Rajasthan who keeps thousands of pages by heart, a builder of idols in Tamil Nadu who has been keeping alive a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, a female sufi practitioner from Bihar who has settled at a shrine in Pakistan, a devadasi whose lot is now much worse since government made the custom illegal, a blind baul at the great mela at Kenduli, West Bengal … nine of them in all, nine highly-skilled, highly interesting people who are struggling to live life and even enjoy it and contribute meaningfully to it without being swallowed by the postmodern-urban-consumerist-passive-apolitical-technodrunk monoculture.

As Dalrymple says in the introduction, the urge to know such people was born in him one day during a trek to the shrine of Kedarnath, when he found out that the naked sadhu who was walking beside him was the son of a well-off politician, an MBA and a marketing manager with a well-known consumer electricals firm in Delhi till only a few years ago. While trying to get under their skins and find out what makes them tick, he has been neither patronizing nor judgmental: he has allowed them, as far as possible, to tell their own stories and justify their existence in their own eyes. And that is precisely what makes the book both readable and disturbing. These characters, for all their strength and adaptability, for all their esoteric skills, can no longer be happy or even at peace, free to live their lives their own way… they are all, like so many birds and beasts, threatened by the bulldozer of ‘development’ and in danger of becoming extinct. The devadasi has got AIDS, the tantrik has been prohibited from giving interviews by his ‘scientifically-educated’ offspring because they find him an embarrassment in their professional circles, the bhopa is chagrined to find that the literate young can no longer memorise tomes, the idol-maker is sad that the lure of easy money has made his son long to become (yet another!) computer programmer, the dalit theyyam dancer who becomes a god for a few days when he is possessed spends the rest of the year digging wells and guarding a prison full of psychopaths for a pittance, and the red fairy will probably be swallowed and crushed soon by the onrushing tide of the Taliban sweeping across Pakistan, who want to cleanse their faith by purging it of heretics who sing and dance and preach an easy universal benevolence…

I have read biologists and environmentalists lamenting that, thanks to rapid and rampant deforestation, we are losing thousands of species of wild flora every year, and very soon the world will be a much poorer place, because we shall have lost so many forms of life whose great utility (as in making medicines) we never had time to explore. Reading this book gave me the feeling (the same feeling I had when I was reading Carlos Castaneda’s The Art of Dreaming, and while watching the movie titled Australia) that the human world is also losing too much of its rich diversity too fast, and it will live to regret it – or, worse still, it won’t. While the UN, I hear, is trying to collect and preserve the traditional skills and wisdom of myriad indigenous peoples around the world, we in India (which, among other things, has the largest and most diverse tribal population in the world), are doing our best to wipe them out, with threats, oppression, neglect, exploitation and blandishments – the siren song of the laid-back, high-on-consumption-low-on-thought culture that is likely to produce such horror scenarios as portrayed in movies like Matrix and Wall-E. And, most disappointing of all, so many of the best ‘educated’ Indians are unconcerned; they find all knowledge of their own peoples and traditional ways ‘backdated’ and ‘uncool’ without ever having tried to find out! I don’t know how many foreigners will read Dalrymple’s work, but I hope a lot of Indians do, and feel ashamed, and go out and meet and learn about some of their fellow-Indians who are not like them, but perhaps better, cleverer, more talented people, even if they cannot write software or manipulate the stock-market and grow fat on bribes in government jobs. And I wish some Indian writers would follow in Dalrymple’s footsteps, rather than in Chetan Bhagat’s.

Postscript: It seems some intellectual types in India are trashing the book as yet another western attempt to stereotype Indian exotica, to portray us in a poor light. I doubt whether such folks have taken the trouble to read the book. They are the same types who criticized Pather Panchali and Slumdog Millionaire for the same reasons, and they believe that we can be proud only to the extent that we can clone all things western (or, more specifically, American) … though I notice that they are not as keen to take over the American attitude to work, and punctuality, and good manners in public, and fondness for museums and libraries, and concern for the cleanliness and beauty of their physical surroundings as they are keen on more Macdonald’s outlets and mobiles and big cars and bigger bombs to bash our neighbours with. India can do better without their wisdom. All I shall tell my readers is, read the book and make up your own minds.

 I reviewed this book shortly after it was published for culturazzi.org at their invitation. Their website seems to have gone phut. I thought I'd post it here for the record.  The book is now available much more cheaply in a paperback edition. Read it.

Dalrymple sent me a thank-you note by email too:


to me
Suvro, it's a lovely and perceptive review-- thanks very much indeed. As you note at the end, there have been some slightly bizarre reviews, and it's great to know there are also some appreciative and perceptive readers out there!

Keep well and thanks again,

Sent from BlackBerry® on Airtel

Friday, February 05, 2016

Go, girl!

My daughter made my day two days ago by telling me she's won a prize at a college fashion show (see this and this) as well as topped her class in the most recent exams. God is being kind to a lonely old dad...