…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.