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Monday, October 31, 2016


When my younger sister was growing up, there was a retired gentleman in the neighbourhood who ran a monimela for them in the local park, a children’s self-recreational community, and thanks to his long and untiring efforts many of them not only enjoyed engaging in a lot of healthy communal activities – from picnics to Saraswati pujo to Holi – but developed lifelong friendships. Indeed, my sister married one of the kids she grew up playing with. So here’s remembering Mukti Banerjee with deep regard and thanks: he was one of the most socially valuable human beings I have met in this town.

I had social instincts of the same sort, and I wished very badly that my daughter would enjoy the inestimable benefits of such socializing during her growing-up years. Alas, no father can give his daughter everything he wants to, and I couldn’t give her the experience that I would have liked. There was no Mr. Banerjee around in her childhood years, and the parents of her generation of kids did their damnedest to prevent them from making friends. Let’s bypass that subject: it’s too unsavoury to discuss. But I tried everything I could. So on Kali pujo/Deepavali nights, I have been calling over current and old boys every year to have fun together with lights and rangoli and fireworks and snacks. This year too the tradition has been maintained, but this was the first time in twenty years that Pupu was not with me, and it felt strange, though the children enjoyed themselves as always before. I wonder what the years ahead have in store – until grandchildren come.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Spring-cleaning, zen, distraction, dissolution

Spring cleaning can be cathartic. My mother and I agree that it can be done anytime, even in autumn, and done like a zen practice. While something useful is achieved – cleaning all the useless trash and dirt that keeps accumulating in any house over a period of time – it helps you to unclutter your mind and de-stress. My mother, even at her age, is wonderfully active in both body and mind: she is still teaching math and physics, and though she doesn’t have to, she keeps pottering about the house, sprucing things up all the time. She says it keeps her fit, and looking at clumsy lumps of lard half her age, I cannot but agree. And since I love things spick and span myself, having her around has proved to be a great blessing. For three years I had to do it all by myself, except when my daughter came over now and then, and I couldn’t cope as well as I would have liked to.

Mother and I also agree more and more that the very big trouble with people these days – at least all those who do not have to scrounge for a bare living – is that they have no inner life of their own, nothing to occupy themselves with without the help of other people and all kinds of gadgets and spectacles. That is precisely why they are chatting on the net all the time, or doing the same in the real world in their little gossip groups, and frantically running around from party to shopping mall to party, or staying glued to the television, and looking out for sensations (in response to which ‘need’ the mass media have turned more and more to mere thrill-mongering). And unless there’s something wrong with my eyes, there is no generation gap here: the same is true for a lot of people whether they are teenagers, or middle-aged housewives, or retired and old. Most people in this country do not read anything worthwhile these days (irony, in an age when ‘education’ is regarded as an essential more than ever before in history!); most do not have any hobbies worth the name – blessed are those who do, whether they are singing or painting or gardening or exercising or writing software for fun – and most would either go blank or be horrified if it is suggested that they should cultivate things of the spirit (I do not necessarily mean religious practice: doing math or reading history for the love of it rather than because it helps to get a job or just because everybody else is doing it is spiritual work). So it’s always buy and eat and dress up and chatter and post selfies on Facebook in order to count ‘likes’ thereafter. Or, even worse, ‘follow’ others who do exactly the same. How pathetic can people get?

Add to that the fact that most people, again regardless of age, are living in a perpetually distracted mode. The results would be horrifying, if people had not lost the capacity to take note. Pupils cannot remember lessons they were taught a few weeks ago. Bank clerks make wrong entries right and left. Patients of surgery cough up bits of cotton wool afterwards because the surgeon or nurse was not looking. Drivers run down pedestrians and other drivers day in and day out because they were talking on the phone, or listening to music, or had fallen asleep at the wheel. Parents leave babies behind at airports. Underwear is advertised with the slogan ‘It’s the next best thing to naked’. Journos go gaga over ‘surgical strikes’ as if such things have not happened a hundred times before, or about ‘startups’ as if a few hundred little drops in the ocean are going to make the ocean swell. And all this you can gather by just scanning the newspaper headlines over a week. The world has gone mad. My God, what progress! We have at last been able to shed drawbacks like sobriety and reason and foresight and common sense forever. I keep saying more and more frequently that I am never going to see a doctor who graduated after 1990 – I’d much rather trust my little box of homeopathic pills in my old age – and maybe someday I’ll decide to hoard all my wealth in the form of gold biscuits buried in some garden whose location only I will know. It will be safer than in the hands of thirty-something AMC executives I keep hearing about, those who spew management jargon and cannot spell or remember the date…

Which brings me to observe that the way ‘Indian English’ is evolving and spreading, no native Englishman is going to recognize it as his own language in fifty years’ time. No Indian is ever worried, he is only ‘tensed’ (not even ‘tense’, mind you); they never move house, they ‘shift’, they all live in ‘colonies’, there are some of us who call their spouses ‘siblings’, no one has heard words like ‘wonder’ and ‘conscience’, they are always angry on you and have very less money, everybody finds everything awesome and exciting and great and amazing; children growing up in rustic families and fed on American movies have learnt to address people vastly superior in every way with ‘Hey’, utterly oblivious of how simian that makes them sound. Once more, my God, what progress.  

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

That time of the year once more

Autumn is approaching. The sun has slanted southwards, and the days are already markedly shorter, though the muggy heat will not go away until Diwali is past. I am looking forward with relish, as always, to the three months from mid-November to mid-February. The sky is azure, but the sun is still far too hot, and hurts the eyes. I hope things will be better this winter than the last time, which was a big disappointment. The years zip by these days: the Darjeeling trip, back in January, seems so far back in the past already.

Of late, I have been brushing up my French on the net. My progress has been fast, because I remember much more than I have forgotten. But the language has changed somewhat in the last thirty years: they are using words now that we didn’t then. ‘L’internet’ needs no translation, but ‘ordinateur’ (computer) is now all over the place too; surprisingly, so is ‘robot’ – have robots become household gadgets in France, then? And as I suppose it is with colloquialisms in all languages, nice words have been replaced with crude or downright ugly ones, so ‘aimable’ (friendly) is hardly to be seen, since ‘sympa’ (short for sympathetique, obviously) is now preferred, though it also means just plain nice. And while in my time the verb aimer meant both to like and to love, they seem to be using ‘j’aime’ more and more to mean ‘I like’ only these days, reserving ‘j’adore’ to express ‘I love’… and yet ‘I love you’ is still expressed as ‘je t’aime’, the idiots. Anyway, after this is done, I might start learning something all new, or maybe something like Persian or Sanskrit, which I have longed to master for ages.

My daughter has got me hooked to all kinds of serialized TV shows. We have enjoyed several together, such as the Marco Polo series until it was inexplicably cut short, and the new Sherlock Holmes series, until they started becoming too bizarre for my taste. Then there was Boston Legal, and we have both become great fans of James Spader. So I have gone over to The Blacklist. And I am watching Castle too alongside, and the old Star Trek series, both 1966 and 1987. Alongwith which I have been reading a lot of new books, thanks in no small measure to Pupu as well as a few old boys, Rajdeep especially. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement made for very thought-provoking reading: why is our art and cinema, and literature in particular, deafeningly silent on the environmental question? A work of fiction that I especially enjoyed was A Very English Agent by Julian Rathbone – it’s about a mid-19th century James Bond, if you can imagine it, only without the glitz and swagger, and the author has managed to weave in everybody from the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria to Darwin, Shelley and Karl Marx into it. I am eagerly waiting to lay my hands on the sequel. And re-reading Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali’s Deshe Bideshe is a pleasure that never palls. I wish that Khaled Hosseini would read it, even in translation.

Then there are the long evening walks, and the occasional chats with my parents, during which we have a lot of old threads to pick up. All this, mind you, goes hand in hand with the two classes daily, and an extra one now and then. So I have my hands full. Only, I am beginning to withdraw myself even more than before from ‘society’. If I had much more money, I’d already be living in a moated castle, and the uninvited would find it very difficult to enter, leave alone see me. I had already begun to dislike the majority of my species by the time I was a teenager – too ignorant, too crude, too selfish and too distracted – and then I gave more than thirty years to trying to be good to them, and finding out whether they were worth befriending. I have now had enough. I am making it a rule to act upon my own warning: leaving aside a few old favourites, I don’t even communicate with ex-students who have stayed out of touch for longer than a whole year. For long I did them the courtesy of answering letters and emails, even if they had nothing interesting to say; these days I don’t. What is the point? There have been too many instances of being disappointed – the worst type being those who get back in touch with ecstatic expressions of satisfaction, and then drop out for good again after one or two exchanges…well, not the worst, maybe, because I keep recalling the many who at various points of my life averred that they ‘loved’ me, and have since vanished without a trace. I have had a lot of help in the process of losing faith and respect for humanity. So I keep the number of my Facebook friends firmly on zero, and my whatsapp status is a stern tickoff for people who would like to ‘chat’. My public phone is switched off for nearly half the day. The occasional pangs of loneliness are infinitely preferable to the ‘companionship’ of people who have literally nothing to give me, do not sufficiently value what I can give them, and will not cherish memories.

As for the worth of my profession, I regard myself as no better and no worse than, say, a cobbler. They need to get their shoes mended, I can help them, they come, get their work done, pay me, go away and forget. I don’t do something criminal, something I have to be ashamed about, but there is no pride left, no lasting sense of achievement and satisfaction apart from the money that I have been able to make, and the little good that has done for some time to those who have been dependent on me. I don’t think I have been able to teach anybody anything much, anything of lasting value to them and to society at large. I used to think I was making a difference: I am now old enough to believe otherwise. Alongwith that resignation has vanished all expectation. I no longer think that anybody should remember me with gratitude, affection and respect. Those were illusions that hurt a great deal while I clung to them: no more.

Which makes me wonder more and more: have I shortchanged myself all these years? If money was truly all that I could expect in return for my services, haven’t I charged people far less all along than I should have? If that is really true, it’s now far too late to do anything about it, but at least those of my readers who are very young – and they include, most importantly, my daughter – should learn something from my story, at least. As for me, I keep wishing more and more that I’d win a big lottery, or that some rich uncle would leave me a fortune… not that that is ever going to happen, because I don’t buy lottery tickets, and I have no rich uncles. Then for the rest of my life I’d be able to work just for fun, and God, little does this town know how picky I am going to become then! But anyway, I can see the shore now, and things are definitely going to change for the better in a few years’ time, inshallah.

I read about a young doctor in government employ in one of my newspapers today, here. God bless him. It is hard to believe that such youngsters still exist, and very galling to think that I cannot recall any old boy of mine about whom I can boast for being someone like that (are there any? Do let me know). I only pray that this young man does not feel, twenty years from now, that he has wasted his life on ingrates…

DurgaPujo around the corner once more. Yuck.