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Thursday, June 30, 2016

A book worth reading

I have written often and again in this blog and elsewhere about books, and what they do for us, and how much I have gained from them. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, carrying my genes and having been brought up with all the focused and reasoned care that I could muster, my daughter has become an avid reader. And I am using that word in the ancient, respectable sense.

I used to tell her when she was a child, with reference to the parochial and foolishly bigoted Bengali middle class we are surrounded by, that there are nothing called boroder boi (books for adults), as they call erotica in these parts. If you can read them, they are readable; and if you find them readable, read. Only, learn to discriminate. If you are reading too much Enid Blyton or Mills and Boon or Chetan Bhagat, you are having trouble growing up. Look around you, and you will find lots of adults who have never grown up: they will cluck and simper and giggle and roll their eyes over Fifty Shades of Gray, but give them one serious book to read – leave alone understand, remember and discuss – and they will run for their lives. The last books they ever pretended to read were the texts that were prescribed in college.

So I am gladder than I can say that she has recently read, reflected upon and written about a very boroder boi – meaning one that 95% of adults I know won’t be able to make head or tail of, even if they can plough through the first hundred pages, and I am talking of ‘educated’ adults, mind you – Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom. Read it here. It has been one of the fifty most influential books in my life, and those who know me will understand what that means.

Wide and deep reading does not necessarily make a good or wise human being. I have closely known at least four whom books didn’t improve. Still, at my age, I cannot yet think of anything with higher potential. And so I am hopeful for my daughter. Also, sad, because, given the kind of mind she has developed, she is destined to be lonely for most of her life. But, as a very wise grandfather told his bright, headstrong, frequently wayward but essentially good granddaughter, being lonely isn’t a bad thing. It makes you strong as nothing else does. It can perchance makes you creative and valuable: such qualities are not developed amidst noisy crowds of idiots ‘having fun’. And, God willing, it can make you free, inasmuch as anybody in this world can be free.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

More memories

…but once one gets into the reminiscent vein, there’s no stopping it. It’s as if a mountain torrent, long dammed up, has suddenly burst forth. I can hardly decide what to touch upon and what to let go!

I often go driving through the ABL (once AVB -, now Alstom) township, not only because I love the tree-lined avenue that has remained unspoilt for more than four decades, but also because it brings back bitter-sweet memories. I have shared them with my wife and daughter, and today, so many years later, there’s no harm in talking about it publicly: the girl’s own daughter is past thirty. That place will always be associated in my mind with the one true love affair that I ever had. Not the first, not the last, but certainly the best. It was utterly silly, and wholly romantic, and entirely doomed from the start; it taught me better than any book what Tennyson meant when he wrote ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’, it left behind good memories as no consummated affair ever does, it gave me friendships (yes, in the plural) that I gained much from and long cherished, and it created a deep, lifelong affection for teenagers that thousands have benefited from: much more than the run of the mill affair offers, what?

The Kolkata years are almost unremittingly dark, so I prefer to draw a veil over them. There are indeed memories that still gleam like fireflies in the dark, but overwhelmingly they were years of learning, and hopeless yearning, and genteel poverty. Over and above everything, it drove the idea into the deepest recesses of my psyche that the world is not a nice place; and no matter how hard I try to look for good things, it is going to disappoint me and hurt me more often than not. Whether I was doing French or the calculus or economics, whether I was reviewing theatrical productions or teaching or working for my father’s fledgling printing business, whether I was living alone or with family, whether I was ‘into relationships’ as the kids like to put it these days or alone, not belonging, not being able to decide what I was going to do with my life, not being able to afford many of the simplest pleasures of life was what made living a gloomy burden. So many things seemed just about to work for me, but didn’t. Thank God I came away: I was saved. But working for a little-magazine-sponsored stall year after year at the Book Fair was one of the high points of my sojourn. There I met the girl after whom my daughter is named. And I am still very proud of writing columns called Potpourri and City Lights for my father’s weekly paper, Durgapur Perspective.

When I returned to Durgapur, I had been coaching final-year college students. Then I suddenly had to cope with schoolboys and –girls again. It was a bit of a climbdown, especially because I had had no idea that kids 14 to 16 years old had, on average (I had evidently not consorted with average pupils before!) so poor a grasp of spelling and basic grammar, had read so very little outside their textbooks, and were virtually clueless when it came to writing even a 400-500 word essay on their own. But people were willing to pay for learning that sort of thing, and apparently a lot of young people found my classes fun, so I had found my life’s work. It will soon be thirty years of it now: my first pupil here is 45. If anything, they have grown less admirable with the passage of time. They still read virtually nothing; they (or rather, their parents) are still obsessed with becoming engineers, very few of them have clear and well-founded opinions on anything at all under the sun. The only significant change that I have seen over a generation is that today’s girls are even more helpless and molly-coddled: nobody seems to be able to move around without being constantly chaperoned. And they seem to be quite happy about it. They much prefer to chatter away on Facebook or Whatsapp from their bedrooms all the time, unless daddy is taking them shopping or dining out. ‘Babies until they have babies’, my daughter sometimes says, and I feel like adding ‘If that!’ Real life is what they show on ‘reality’ TV. I keep wondering about what kind of parents the first generation of my pupils have become…

Speaking of reading brings to my mind a circular sent to all schools (I had just taken charge of the library) sometime around 1989 or ’90 by the NCERT, reminding teachers that they have a ‘special responsibility’ to spread the reading habit among young people. Inspired, I spent a lot of time and money, running around the town, organizing little bands of boys and girls, and managed for a while to run three ‘Student Reader Circles’ in three separate neighbourhoods. Playing Vidyasagar and/or Derozio. And like them, I learnt the hard way that it doesn’t work: India is not a reading civilization; parents who are desperate that their kids get ‘educated’ hate and fear books a little more than the plague. I lost money, and a lot of books of my own, and earned a fair amount of opprobrium to the effect that I was wasting the children’s time, misguiding them, filling their heads with all sorts of silly/bad/dangerous ideas, and, worst of all, that I was trying to make a business out of it (strangely, the same parents were all too eager to send their children to my tuitions!) The lessons that I learnt will last a lifetime.

Likewise with taking kids out on excursions. I think I have written about this in some earlier blogpost, so suffice it to say that I won’t do it again, however much my current pupils plead and crib, because I have discovered the hard way that it doesn’t ‘pay’: I got too little thanks for all the fun I arranged for, and the unpleasantries were too many and too undeserved. If people cannot appreciate the good things they get, I don’t have an obligation to keep supplying them with the same.

There was a time when people used to come over to invite me to preside over cultural festivals in local colleges and clubs as judge for elocution contests and suchlike, or to officiate as quizmaster. I obliged a lot of such people for a long time, until I began to get tired and bored (a lot of folks who would cut off their right arm to be on stage with a microphone before the floodlights and the cameras clicking away might find this hard to believe), and started asking for a fee. Immediately the invitations dried up: apparently people want your services most if they are free – meaning they want to fob you off with a car pickup, a bouquet of flowers, a packet of snacks and some kind of knick knack ( a tie, an alarm clock, a set of overpriced pens) for a gift.

It has been the same with people who want ‘a little bit of help’ with anything that involves thinking and writing. I lost count long ago of how many I have helped, with how many different things. Just to give you an idea, that means everything from love letters to applications for this or that college/university to speeches to addresses for puja souvenirs to preparing for various kinds of competitive examinations (from SAT to banking services, SSC and what have you) to drafting doctoral theses to a quick course in ‘spoken English’. And all these people impose upon you; they won’t listen however much you say you are tired and you don’t have the time; most insult me by implying that the favour they are asking for is neither big nor really important (and yet they can’t think of anybody else who can do it for them!), everyone forgets me after the job is done, and they all get miffed when I finally lose my temper and send them away unsatisfied. Very few even do me the courtesy of asking what fee I expect for my service, and fewer still (the only ones I look upon benignly, because money, alas, is one very robust sign of how much you are ‘worth’ in someone’s eyes, even if for a passing moment) make really handsome offers. So here’s a public warning: don’t look me up if you only want to use me for some immediate need, there’s no better way to turn me off. You won’t understand this if you are doing it for the first time, but you bring back a thousand unpalatable memories.

There have of course been happy memories too. The kind of help I have got at times of dire need from people is something that I quietly exult over in the recesses of my mind. Funnily enough, it has mostly been from those who owed me nothing! And going on holiday trips has been great fun again and again over the years when my daughter was growing up. December 21, for instance, will forever be etched in my memory as the day we took off every year for one destination or another, because my daughter’s school had just closed for the winter vacation. As a rule I took classes till hours before we caught the train, after many successive months of working seven days a week, so it was relaxing with true relish as we travelled, always. That schedule is beginning to change a bit, now that Pupu is in college.

And so the memories roll on, like waves upon the beach, unceasingly. I could go on forever. But let me stop, at least for now. It’s 1600+ words already. I wonder who reads this stuff, that the counter keeps jumping by several hundred every day! One ex student, just out of college, surprised me recently; I had not imagined that someone like her would be a regular reader. Oh, well.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Looking back again

Back in May 1988, I was feeling rather sorry for myself. Then, in June, I was suddenly called to teach at St. Xavier’s, my old school. There followed some of the happiest years of my life. What I still miss, and still dream of now and then, are the trees and the library.

Nothing good lasts forever, so of course things soured up after a while, and I started saying publicly that I couldn’t imagine dragging on for donkey’s years and retiring with a measly pension when I was sixty. And things so worked out that after fourteen years of it, I quit. My daughter was a shade over five then.

It’s been another fourteen years since. My daughter is going on twenty now. It was a busy time, working all alone, and it has passed in the twinkling of an eye. If I am still working fourteen years from now (I’ll be 67), I do hope and pray it will be for the sake of pleasure alone. Pleasure I have had aplenty, and He who alone matters knows how grateful I am for it, yet it has not been enough, and the long, thankless, rigidly routine-bound drudgery has taken its toll – I am much greyer inside than out. So it would be fun to relax a bit, not to have to work because I must. Indeed, it would be a novel experience too!

I like to think that I haven’t changed much over the decades despite all the usual trials and tribulations that life throws at everyone, but that is not entirely true. Some very big changes have indeed come about. I like physical comfort and ease much more than I used to. Function of age, you’ll say, and you are probably right. I expect far less of people than I once did, and prefer to avoid company far more aggresively. I care less and less about what people say about me (a lot for a non-celeb, it seems, still). Biggest discovery over a lifetime – most people themselves don’t think about what they are saying, and they certainly don’t remember afterwards, so what the heck? Also, I expect ever fewer good things to happen: if seriously bad things happen infrequently, that’s good enough for me. And though I have always deeply appreciated the little good things of everyday life, I do that more and more now. Every day when the sky is blue and the air is clean after a shower of rain, and the flowers blooming in my garden, and the wonderful lunch the family had together a few days ago, for example. Every good night’s sleep, every chore outdoors done without too much hassle. Things could have been so much worse.

While reading autobiographical works, I am often struck by the incredibly vivid recall that some people seem to have. I mean, they are talking of something that happened maybe twenty years ago, and they fill in details of every little sort, not only quoting others verbatim, but even enlightening us about what the colour of the sky was, and what birds were chirping, and what make of car went by honking and who was scratching the back of his ear, and stuff like that. Is that really humanly possible, or do they just make it up? I am supposed to have an unusually powerful memory, yet I can’t do it to save my life. Which is why, when I try to write about interesting things that happened long ago I feel distressingly inadequate. A few particular words and gestures remain crystal clear, while all the background, as it were, has become infuriatingly vague. Does that happen to you too, or is it only me?

That is exactly why I don’t reminisce too much here, though I have often been asked to. It will all sound so unconnected, and therefore so meaningless! I can remember a thousand little things about my time at college, and the newspaper, and the school, and the years during which my daughter grew up, but if I try to write them down, I don’t think it will make much sense to anybody…

I remember, for instance, the summer afternoon in Father Wavreil’s office at the school, with the long slanting rays of the sun casting a mellow golden glow all over the room, and the shadows falling all over the compound, and how delicious I found the breeze and the woods and the thought that I could come back. He told me ‘I need a few more male teachers around here’, and we discussed my latest book review for The Telegraph – Professor Amlan Dutta’s The Gandhian Way, and he said ‘Since I am assigning you to a senior class, you must stay one whole session at the least’, and I said ‘Done, but I must get a full salary from the first month, because I must go back to the newspaper office and tell them I’m quitting’, and ‘Bargaining already?’ he twinkled. That was all the ‘interview’ I had; in all the years I worked there nobody ever asked me to submit a formal job application letter or show them my cv.

I have vivid memories of organizing the school silver jubilee (they have airbrushed me out of the golden jubilee souvenir), and the first ever school excursion. I remember what fun we had, me and my old-boy gang, bringing my wife ceremonially over to Durgapur. I remember inviting the entire school staff over to my wedding reception, headmaster to gatekeeper: has any other teacher ever done that, before or since? I remember how I attended to my wife hand and foot, all night, while the nurses slept, when my daughter was about to be born – and her first cry is as sharp and clear in my mind as if it was yesterday. When I told old Father Wautier about it, he was standing upstairs on his balcony, and he danced a little jig with hands raised high in the air. I remember a lot of detail about America, and about deciding not to go back for a PhD, and about getting job offers from a variety of places, including The Times of India and Doon School and Oxford University Press (Neil O’Brien interviewed me for that one, and surprised me by listening to my long monologue about myself – I thought he had fallen asleep), as well as a request from the BBC Bengali service to work as a stringer – all of which I declined, because nothing seemed even remotely more attractive than what I was doing. And as the nineties rolled on, it was more and more about watching my daughter grow up, and participating vigorously in almost everything she tried her hand at.

I remember working hard and eagerly on the Tagore translations, and going over to Shantiniketan to work with our general editor, and the interminable wait before the book was published. I recall how I heard about the 9/11 attacks on a normal day at school. I remember telling a particular tuition batch in April 2002 ‘I have quit that school now. Do any of you want to leave?’ and nobody did. I remember that, even while the numbers were rapidly swelling, somebody commiserated with me on the street, now that I did not have a salaried job any more. I remember buying my first computer, back in 2001 (I had been using someone else’s for the previous six years), and how some old boys worried I couldn’t possibly handle it on my own – it was still such an esoteric machine for domestic use in those days! And I remember how To My Daughter came to me all in a rush: I sat and hammered away at the keyboard continuously almost every evening from August 2003 to February 2004, and it was done.

Kolkata passed through its darkest days – literally, with eight- to ten hour power cuts almost every day – during the time I was there as a student. I was glad to leave after eight years of it, and never wanted to go back there for a long spell again (indeed, from all I have seen and heard, that holds good for every metropolis on earth). But I kept visiting every now and then, of course, and it has changed before my eyes. What with so many flyovers, it is difficult to find my way about, and I increasingly rely on directions from my daughter. The only thing I am happy about is that apart from the crowds and the drainage, everything is better now. But many of my favourite old haunts are gone, or at least can’t be easily found.

More and more, when young people come over to talk to me, I keep thinking ‘This kid wasn’t born when I was finishing college, and look, she thinks she has earned the right to engage me as though she’s an equal!’ Those who are joining up my classes now were just being born when I quit the school, approaching middle age, and I am sure that they too will become insufferably presumptuous when they look me up ten years later. Unless they have meanwhile learnt some manners, I hope they don’t. I thoroughly dislike people whose opinions vastly outweigh their knowledge and intelligence, and who are hyper-eager to let me have the benefit of such opinions – and that, alas, describes the mass of mankind.

This blog is going to be ten years old in a month’s time. Beginning on this project: that too I vividly remember. Maybe this will remain a place worth visiting long after I am gone. If anything at all is remembered for more than a few months these days…