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…