Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Back to poetry

হায় রে রাজধানী পাষাণকায়া!
বিরাট মুঠিতলে  চাপিছে দৃঢ়বলে 
ব্যাকুল বালিকারে, নাহিকো মায়া। 
......
দেবে না ভালোবাসা, দেবে  না আলো। 
সদাই মনে হয় আঁধার ছায়াময় 
দিঘির সেই জল শীতল কালো,
তাহারি কোলে গিয়ে মরণ ভালো। 

I have been reading Tagore deeply again. The above is an extract from the poem titled Bodhu, The Bride, and tells of the existential angst of a very young, newly-married girl whom marriage has transported to a prison called the metropolis.

I was not a girl, and I was not married in childhood, and I grew up in a small town, neither a village nor a great city. Yet when I read the poem first at about the girl's age, it resonated with enormous power with something in my soul. Barring a few short snatches, and the first three years of bringing up my child, my mood has reverted again and again to the way this girl felt, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago.

Perhaps no one less than Tagore can understand. In his youth he wrote

 মরণ, তুঁহুঁ মম শ্যাম সমান, O Death, You are the beloved Lord,

 and yet, when he was on his deathbed, he dictated 

দিবসের শেষ সূর্য 
শেষ প্রশ্ন উচ্চারিল পশ্চিম সাগরতীরে,
কে তুমি -
পেল না উত্তর। 

As Emily Dickinson wrote, 'through a riddle, in the end, sagacity must go'.

and meanwhile, for the rest of us,

যদিও সন্ধ্যা আসিছে মন্দ মন্থরে,
সব সংগীত গেছে ইঙ্গিতে থামিয়া,
যদিও সঙ্গী নাহি অনন্ত অম্বরে,
যদিও ক্লান্তি আসিছে অঙ্গে নামিয়া,
মহা আশঙ্কা জপিছে মৌন মন্তরে,
দিক-দিগন্ত অবগুন্ঠনে ঢাকা
........

উর্ধ আকাশে তারাগুলি মেলি অঙ্গুলি
ইঙ্গিত করি তোমা পানে আছে চাহিয়া,
নিম্নে গভীর অধীর মরণ উচ্ছলি
শত তরঙ্গে তোমা পানে ওঠে ধাইয়া;
......
ওরে ভয় নাই, নাই স্নেহমোহবন্ধন;
ওরে আশা নাই, আশা শুধু মিছে ছলনা,
...
আছে শুধু পাখা, আছে মহা নভ-অঙ্গন
ঊষা-দিশাহারা নিবিড়-তিমির আঁকা -
ওরে বিহঙ্গ, ওরে বিহঙ্গ মোর,
এখনি, অন্ধ, বন্ধ করো না পাখা।  

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Musing in early winter

Winter is in the air. The breeze is balmy, the sky is blue, the nights are getting long and chilly, it’s ever so much nicer to sleep.

Pupu asked, ‘Baba, why don’t you start writing stories again?’ Indeed, I have been wondering why the wellspring dried up more than a decade ago. As for stories from my own bygone days, I tell them impromptu without conscious effort, but when I sit down at the keyboard to write them down, they don’t come back to me. Maybe some of my readers will help to jog my memory?

Passing reflection: While driving around my town these days, it often strikes me that 90% of the creatures jaywalking or zooming around on bikes and posing a very nasty threat to public safety weren’t even born when I started teaching thirty years ago. Look at this article in my newspaper today (Ei Samay, November 05, 2017). Are you one of those who would shed a passing tear over the lost lives, or would you, like me, mutter ‘the more, the merrier’? My only concern, I am sure, is for all those luckless non-insane drivers and pedestrians on the roads whom these monsters endanger. When will the type be finally chased off the streets and highways, I wonder?

I looked up my twitter account after more than a year today. I never post anything on it, yet there are 126 ‘followers’ there. Heaven knows what they are ‘following’! And most of them haven’t ever got directly in touch with me for ages.

I am writing in my classroom, even as a lot of teenagers are quietly answering a test around me. How many years, how many batches have passed this way! Those who were bubbly kids are dull parents now; I thank my lucky stars that I can still hold the current crop’s interest much better than most people of my age can. It’s not just a romantic thing: they bring me my bread and butter. Some wise old advisors had expressed most solicitous concern about who would come to my tuitions if I quit my schoolmaster’s job. I am glad I have been able to lay their worries to rest.

It is not easy to keep many youngsters in a bunch interested, believe me – and that too with something as ‘boring and burdensome’ as studies, without being ‘cool and fun’ most of the time, day after day, year after year, for decades together, with a reputation for having a ferocious temper on a short fuse. Try it sometime. With me, the same parents who are so desperate to get their kids in here begin to grumble at some point about why those kids are so eager to come here even during vacations and school exams, and why they pay so much attention to things I say. One of the strongest reasons, I suspect, why those parents cut off all connections with me as soon as the ‘course is covered’. Most old teachers become brutes or bores, and it’s very hard not to. School- and college teachers survive only because their jobs are protected, whereas with private tutors, who are being ‘tested’ by every new batch, reputations soar, stagnate and then collapse within fairly short cycles: before my own eyes, many of them have sunk back into obscurity within twenty years or less. It is very hard and slow work to build up a reputation; keeping it is harder. These kids were born in late 2001 or early 2002. Those who were admitted to my classes then had already heard of me as a fairly ‘old’ and irascible teacher, then they discovered me. Now these kids are about to leave, and the children who are coming in next were born to the generation that passed through my classes in the early and mid-90s. It feels strange to think about how the kids of 2030 are going to regard me, if I am around and at it still. They’d be born of those who left my classes between 2000 and 2005!

A friend of mine, a doctor, keeps trying to build one successful hospital after another of which he can be the absolute boss. I was never so materially ambitious – I might even call myself too lazy for that sort of thing. I like my leisure too much, I strongly dislike being harried and worried, I prefer not to be beholden to a lot of people (as you invariably become if you want to make it even halfway big in business or politics), I have lived a large part of my life in the dreamy mode and greatly enjoyed it. But I have found to my own satisfaction that I am good with young people, so I might have done well for myself if I could set up a full-scale boarding school. Ah well, dreams, dreams...

I have been re-reading some of my old blogposts, and, in connection with everything that I have written about the kind of amoral capitalism that is currently rampant all over the world and the need for a new socio-political paradigm, as well as the sheer evil of growing economic inequality all over the world, I am smiling wryly to myself to see how an economist – Thomas Piketty – has suddenly become a bestseller with his Capital in the 21st century, which has not only pinned down said inequality as an incontrovertible fact, but also condemned it as an unmitigated, and quite avoidable, evil. Of course, like everything else these days it is entirely likely to be forgotten soon as a passing sensation, but at least an issue very close to my heart has for a little while found a place in the sun. And there is no harm in hoping that the world might actually sit up and do something about it, with a little more consequence than the launch of iPhone 49.

One supreme lesson that life has taught me is that humans hardly if ever learn to strike a balance in anything. We forever only keep swinging from one insane extreme to another. I noted this first in writing when I was drafting My Master’s Word in late 1993, and the lesson has only been driven deeper by all I have seen in the last quarter century. So in reaction to the likes of Richard Dawkins come movements like the Taliban and ISIS, and I greatly fear that in reaction to the era of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos we shall have the era of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot all over again. To use Conrad’s telling phrase, we only have a choice of nightmares. Perhaps the poet was right: always the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I have been reading a lot of serious books lately. Shashi Tharoor’s recent work, An Era of Darkness, was truly impressive: you would have to be as obtuse as Niall Ferguson ever to claim again that the British Empire was at all good for India. It hurts, though, because I belong to that breed, maybe long outmoded, who really thought well of the British for a very long time, and still cannot stop admiring them for a lot of things they did worldwide. Maybe, Tharoor would say, it is so only because I was lucky to be born among the privileged classes, and so we never had to face the full horrid brunt of colonial exploitation. Another recent work, Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee, has also likewise made me very ambivalent about a supposedly great man. I never went to the extreme of regarding Sir Winston Churchill as the ‘greatest Briton of all time’ (only an ass could say that, someone who had never heard of Shakespeare and Newton); I had always thought that with regard to his attitude towards Gandhi he was not only nasty but ignorant and petty-minded, but at least I always admired him deeply as a magnificent writer, a supreme master of English prose. But this book pretty convincingly demonstrates ( and I have read things like this before) that Churchill was almost personally responsible for killing off nearly three million poor and helpless people through the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, not because he couldn’t help it, but essentially because he liked the prospect, seeing that he thought of Indians (or rather, specifically Hindus, the majority of the population) as ‘a beastly people with a beastly religion’ who dared to challenge the authority of the one thing he loved and adored, the British Empire. Indeed, he lived long enough to admit that he had been wrong about them, but only in private, and the monstrous wrong was done and no amends were ever made about it (somebody, says Tharoor, has estimated that Britain owes India at least three trillion US dollars). I suppose by the time I die, I shall not have too many heroes left.

In the newspaper two days ago, I read this article about a young dance teacher somewhere in my own town lamenting that these days kids don’t seriously want to learn anything, and in this they are wholly supported by their parents, whose only ‘ambition’ is to make their children ‘famous’ overnight, if only by getting up to ‘perform’ (the word now reminds me of circus animals only) on the stage at the neighbourhood pujo. To think that Shakespeare wrote about young people chasing the ‘bubble reputation’ so long ago! What would he have said about us?

Yes, I know I have been rambling. So I had better sign off here before you get really exasperated. On the other hand, if you liked reading till this point, let me know, will you?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

My daughter and Brigadier Gerard

Storytelling has been a strong tradition over generations in our family, and I have carried it forward both as a teacher and a father. Now I have always been a man of many interests, so naturally my stories have covered a very wide swathe of life, but history has always figured rather largely, not only because it lends itself so well to storytelling (imagine doing it with chemistry!) but because it helps so much to know the ways of mankind, and yes, because I have always loved it dearly.

That perhaps goes some way to explain why my daughter developed an early and abiding interest in history and, unlike most middle-class Indian kids, not encumbered with desperate parental obsession with medical or engineering careers, she chose to read it in college. As she tells me, in her final year, she might not go on to become a professional historian, but she has definitely enjoyed reading her course. I have hugely enjoyed myself discussing her course material with her too: that has been a bonus; not too many parents can relish such a pastime. I have often egged her on to write about things she has read and thought about. Very recently, she wrote a term paper about the connection between formal history and literature, focusing on one particular classic work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. She loved writing it, got the highest marks in class for it, and I managed to persuade her to put it up on her blog, if only so that she can look back on it decades later and smile. Here it is.

I am glad indeed that I could not only persuade my own daughter at least that education is meant for enlightenment and enjoyment, not merely a means to a job, but could afford to let her take her time to realize it. She is going on 21, and I know she will not regret it, and neither will I. At the same time, I still do not worry about her finding a good career for herself. From all I have seen of life, with the blessing of Providence, any intelligent person who is willing to work hard for a long stretch can find a reasonably decent career. When most parents worry about how their kids can be ‘established’ in life (a very popular word in Indian English) unless they restrict themselves to chasing just one or two well-worn professions, their real worry is how their kids can ‘afford’ to be different from the herd. It is a sickness by which far too many young lives have been blighted: both as a father and a teacher I hope that my daughter’s generation will not fall prey to it as parents in their turn…   

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Obituary

The newspaper that my father put on its feet in Sikkim published this obituary on 17th September.

The full first page can be seen at the Sikkim Express website. Look up the Sept. 17 issue in the archives (search box in the top right hand corner). 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

To My Daughter redux

I first announced that To My Daughter was in print back in March 2014.

It's been more than three years since then. And surprise, surprise... the book has been selling slowly but steadily, which is far more than I had expected, seeing it is self-declaredly not an entertainer, and demands close and intelligent attention of any reader. The publishers had made a deal that I shall start earning royalties only after a certain number of copies had been sold, and this month they have remitted the first payment to my bank account. A very small amount, but it is the symbolic significance that counts. If you write a book, and it keeps selling, you will get paid for it as long as you live, and your offspring will continue to be paid long after you are gone. Besides, in a country like ours, it is rare for any author to get paid for writing, unless he writes textbooks or penny dreadfuls. I am being paid for nearly a decade and a half for my Oxford Tagore translations, and now here is this addition. I guess my daughter can take a bit of pride: not many of her friends can claim that their dads earn book royalties!

To all those who have not only bought the book but read it, here is a reminder request: please write reviews on any of the websites which advertise my book (see the previous post, linked above), or on goodreads. It will help to spread the word around, and that is the best kind of advertisement. This was not a commercial enterprise, so I am spending no money on publicity; the only publicity it will get is by word of mouth. And thank you all in advance. 

To those who haven't read the book yet, a gentle nudge: unless your attention span is no bigger than what it takes to read a tweet, try it. It will not be a waste of time and money. I have already been thanked by quite a number of people for writing the book.

In passing, I note that a 2011 post I wrote, titled A most frightening prospect, about Anna Hazare's anti-corruption campaign, which had then become all the rage countrywide and is now quite forgotten, has reached the most-read list today. Do take a look, and go through all the comments on it too. Doesn't it sound very quaint today? What does it teach you about the public character, and about sudden wild enthusiasms? To all my current and ex-students, this is what I mean by saying that I am always teaching, and this blog is an extension of my classroom. Whether you learn anything of value or not is, of course, entirely up to you...

Monday, September 25, 2017

Remembering baba


Ashok Chatterjee. My father who is no more. What shall I write about him? I have been thinking all the time about it over the last twelve days, yet when I sit down to write it seems to me that I either have to write a whole book or it will be nothing at all that makes much sense. Maybe the dam will burst someday. Right now, I can only sigh that we did not get the time of life together. I hope my daughter would be able to say we did, she and I, when I am gone.

Meanwhile, a photograph of his when he was barely 36. Imagine, eighteen years younger than I am now! And one of me below, as I look now. Remembering my father.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

He's gone.

It's 1:10 a.m. I have just returned from the cremation ground after setting my father's ashes adrift in the river.

He left us a little before six this evening. My mother saw him minutes before he stopped breathing. I broke up my class halfway and went off to say goodbye.

It was a long, difficult, complicated, and unnecessarily painful life. For both of us, for our sins. But he was at last quietly content after coming back to live with me.

I shall pray that after life's fitful fever he sleeps well.

Baba, farewell. We shall, I hope, meet again. In happier times and climes.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Lord, it hurts

I can see that a lot of people have been keeping an eye on this blog for an update, so thanks are due to them. I haven’t been writing for some time. It’s become tough enough to carry on maintaining a semblance of the ‘normal’ working life as it is.

‘There are,’ Professor Dumbledore said to Tom Riddle, echoing countless real-life sages of yore, ‘things far worse than death.’ I can see it happening to my father. It is not death itself that is horrid, but the dying – if the dying is so incredibly slow and painful and pathetic, for the person concerned as much as those around him who must tend and wait and beg for release.

For the last several years he has been much less than a whole man, and it’s been more than a year now that he has been bedridden off and on. But since mid-April he’s been a complete invalid, and that is going on five months now. Even with two nurses working alternately round the clock, it was becoming so awful a burden for my infinitely-suffering mother that both she and I, brooding aloud, have lamented that there is no law allowing for euthanasia yet: that such a law, at least benefiting the very old and terminally ill, should become one indispensable hallmark of any society that dares to call itself civilized. The least I can say for myself is that I would not want to hang on like this for my daughter to serve with sick and bone-weary despair, putting her entire life on hold. That is not love, that is socially-imposed torture of the cruelest sort upon the living.

Five days ago he began to choke, with fluid accumulating in the straining and failing lungs. We moved him into the ICU of a nearby hospital, where  they have been pumping out the fluid while keeping him under an oxygen mask and feeding him through intravenous drips. He is comatose most of the time, can hardly articulate his words when he is awake, and though there are short lucid intervals, what he says doesn’t make any sense at all most of the time. By some miracle he is not in any significant pain – probably thanks to the same brain tumour which has immobilized him – but what a ghastly way to hang on! What marvellous progress science has made, indeed, to be able to drag on a vegetative and deeply undignified existence for a few more days or weeks! Last night he was transferred to a general bed, but still in exactly the same condition, and all that the experts can tell us to do is to brace up and wait… as if that is not exactly what we have been doing for more days than we have kept count of.

I would not wish this upon my worst enemy, and this is my father I am talking about.

And all the time, day in and day out, I have to keep acting in the classroom and the neighbourhood as if it’s more or less just business as usual. Because I have to earn my daily bread, and I don’t do a salaried job or live on a pension or inheritance.

Dear God, have mercy.

P.S., September 11: He was back in the ICU yesterday after exactly one day in the general ward. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Old posts

I have been noticing on the visits counter with mildly amused surprise that an old post on Rani Rashmoni has been of late suddenly and steadily climbing towards the top. How can this be explained? It was hardly a ‘hot’ post, given whatever almost every Indian below forty considers to be hot. Could it have some connection with the fact that a biopic on the said lady currently showing on TV (Star Jalsa, I think) has become very popular?

On the other hand, have you noticed what I wrote in the last lines of the post titled Farewell to Tagore, and what has transpired by way of comments since I put it up?  Wouldn’t you say I was entirely justified in concluding the way I did – that with every passing year I have ever more reason to be convinced that given the sort of people the vast majority of my fellow countrymen are now, the time is not far when we shall have nothing called a heritage left nor miss it: that not only will the likes of Tagore have vanished from our minds but sites such as the Konark Sun Temple and the Ajanta caves will have been taken over by shopping malls, spas and private engineering/management colleges?

If some old posts can keep coming back up on the most-visited list (Growing up in Durgapur is one, I wish I had resigned sooner is another), why not The Worship of the Wealthy? I often laugh with my daughter about how history keeps repeating itself – especially the worst parts of it! – and that essay, written by Chesterton a whole century ago, sounds as though it was written yesterday, it describes today's world so aptly, and with such devastatingly disparaging wit. Wit and sarcasm are the last weapons of the quiet and civilized man, until they too are forced to fall silent under the jackboots of tyranny. And in our country, at least, the tyranny of the majority – the greedy, ignorant, philistine majority (many of whom can speak in pidgin English, drive expensive cars and have been to Umrica, so I absolutely refuse to identify them with one religious community or just the ‘lower classes’) will ultimately decide everything. At least until some kind of real disaster strikes, such as being conquered by China!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Through the glass, darkly

As some readers will have noticed, I let August 15 – the seventy first Independence Day, really, not the 70th – pass quietly by. That may come as a surprise, especially to long-time readers with long memories. I have waxed eloquent on the crying need for a little more patriotism among Indians, not once but again and again, publicly here. See, for instance, what I wrote in Free India is 65 today five years ago, and follow up the links provided therein to even earlier posts. So why was I silent this time round?

One obvious reason is that I am growing old and tired. But, as you might have suspected, there are other reasons too, reasons for deep and helpless disquiet.

Given the fairly strong resurgence of patriotic urges highly visible over the last decade, I should have been a happy man. Why am I not?

I remember that the greatest men that have ever lived, including Buddha and Gandhi, Einstein and Tagore, have condemned patriotism of a certain kind as an infantile (and very dangerous-) disease of the mind.

I remember what Japan and Germany did to the rest of the world a little more than half a century ago when they grew ultra-patriotic, and what in turn happened to them.

I remember being taught by the greatest of teachers that true patriotism does not hate other nations and try to hurt them or cry them down, it means recognizing the faults of one’s own nation and trying all one can to remove them.

I see much dark cruel stupidity of the past being revived in the name of loving and respecting ‘our culture’, I see a conscious effort to put a very large, diverse and complex nation into a very narrow cultural straitjacket (I won’t insult what is nominally my religion by identifying it with what is being passed off in its name), and I can see only mischief, violence, destruction and retrogression on the horizon, not progress.

I see a tragic and deeply humiliating mental contradiction which most of my countrymen apparently do not see – that of jingoistic boasting of all our ‘achievements’ and simultaneously a) reluctance to learn more about our own country and b) slavering over favours from stronger, richer, more advanced and self-confident nations, everything from jobs to honours to mention in their newspapers: an affliction that is very highly visible even among the most supposedly ‘educated’ and well-off Indians, so why blame the subalterns?

No one would have been happier and prouder than me if I could see a glorious future for India. No one is sadder that I cannot. And the ominous warning of a great sage rings in my ears – ‘Men who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.’ 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Samriddha

Samriddha Ghosh, going on 17, who was my pupil till the end of last year, came to see me two days ago. That in itself is an event these days, because, firstly, girl ex-students have traditionally forgotten me as soon as their classes ended, regardless of shrill protestations to the contrary, and secondly because in the last few years I have been making my dislike of them as a tribe apparent, primarily because they never have anything to say. So it is only the rare kind of girl who dares, and takes the trouble.

Samriddha made me happy. She told me she had started working part time already. Because, she said, she wants to acquire work experience and a modicum of financial independence. And as if that is not wonderful enough in the society I live in, she has started working as a teacher – a private tutor – something which I started doing exactly at her age, am still continuing, and love to boast of before people who have been by and large living off their parents until nearly thirty.

Indians, Bengalis in particular, hate work. They do it only if they have to, and as little as possible, as carelessly and shoddily as possible (that explains a very great deal about why things are in such a sorry state in this country – from the condition of roads to the tardiness in government offices to the woeful state of our public hospitals). Work, especially any kind of work that makes you either think or sweat (or, horror of horrors, both) is anathema; it is only for the chhotolok, the plebeians, who don’t ‘deserve’ any better. Here journalism very often means passing off press releases as news (I have seen this with my own eyes), and engineering means signing files or typing on computers, both preferably done in airconditioned offices. Here parents pray that their grown up kids will not have to work hard (and lament if they do), and, if they can afford it (even to the extent of getting into debt), keep their children from getting jobs as long as they can. Although things, I hear, are changing – very slowly – in the metros, everywhere else parents are shocked, hurt and offended if a teenager, and a female to boot, says s/he wants to work: it will cause the parents to lose face in society (since they cannot adequately provide for their ward), and the teenager to lose precious time which she can better devote to ‘studies’ (which has long ago been reduced to mean merely cramming textbooks and forgetting almost everything as soon as this or that examination has been ‘cracked’). Strangely enough, zooming about on bikes, watching TV or playing video games for hours daily, attending every puja and wedding in town, visiting the shopping mall several times a month, gossiping or simply spending half the day in bed, in the bathroom or at the dining table never ‘wastes time’.

And teaching, of all things? Isn’t  it hard, boring, frustrating and just plain frightening (in no other profession are you so completely open to immediate criticism and ridicule for your ignorance and shortcomings – especially if you are not protected by the kind of disciplinary threats that a school environment provides)? Isn’t that one of the main reasons why even parents with college and university degrees don’t want to sit down with their children’s homework – the boredom, the taxation of the brain, the terror of being found out for the oafs they are?

So Samriddha has my blessings. She deserves them as very few females I know do. If she enjoys her work, sticks to it, and makes a name and a good living for herself in the years to come, I shall be pleased indeed. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Farewell to Tagore?

I read in the newspaper today (see this and this) that a proposal has been submitted to the NCERT by the Shikhsha Sanskriti Utthyan Nyas, headed by the redoubtable Dinanath Batra of Wendy Doniger fame, that works of Rabindranath Tagore be excised from all school textbooks.

There has been a predictable hue and cry not only from political parties which sit in the opposition in Parliament but also from renowned scholars and savants, such as Shankha Ghosh and Pabitra Sarkar (alas, I shall have to look much more closely over the next few days or weeks to find out if any non-Bengali of note has cared to lodge a protest – Derek O’Brien doesn’t count). Tagore is our national treasure, far above politics, they have said, and such mischievous, petty-minded efforts point to a careful and countrywide effort to close minds and drag us back into a darker age.


Maybe the ruling party will decide that Tagore is too holy a cow to be touched, so nothing will come out of this, for now: after all, they haven’t replaced Gandhi on our currency notes yet. But my take on the issue, even as a Tagore devotee, is rather different from the expected wholehearted support from the saffron brigade or the howls of outrage from the so-called liberal, progressive intelligentsia. Mine is the reaction of a very tired and cynical mind, a mind moulded by teaching language and literature at high school level for half a lifetime. I don’t think it matters any more, one way or the other. Put in Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi and Ravinder Singh in Tagore’s place for all the difference it is likely to make. If my readers disagree with me, please let me know why; then maybe I shall explain or change my position. If there are no responses to this post, or very few, I shall take that as a vindication of my view. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

My God!


Do you notice something truly extraordinary about this photograph taken in my classroom? I did when I walked in. I was so amazed I did a double take, then didn't lose any time to click the scene.

Not one but several 15-year olds were reading big fat books - story books, and that too, believe it or not, not stuff like Chetan Bhagat but the likes of Khaled Hosseini and other authors of a similar level. They were reading books like that on their own, of their own choice, as they waited for the class to begin.

If anyone knows Durgapur and its 'educated' populace, adults wholly included, they would know it is almost as rare a scene as seeing a whole cohort of Olympic gold medallists or Nobel Prize winners walking down one of our streets.

I was charmed, thrilled, delighted. And if I can believe that I have contributed even in a very small way to the making of their tastes, I shall consider myself blessed. It is at rare moments such as this that I can still hope that India has a future, civilisationally speaking. God grant these children long and happy, fruitful lives, and may they keep reading till their dying day.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Mid-monsoon note

Yes, I know it’s been some time since I last wrote, and that is so only partly because I wanted the last post to be on top for a while. Fact is, I have been distracted. I took a break, spent some happy time with my daughter, read some books (the latest Muzaffar Jang mystery thriller, Crimson City, by the way, failed to satisfy – too many loose ends left loose – while Kings of Albion by Julian Rathbone was fun, 15th century Europe seen through Indian eyes, and found wanting in a great many ways; Pankaj Mishra’s The End of Suffering is an interesting and thought-provoking assessment of the Buddha’s relevance in today’s world), and enjoyed watching the Blandings TV series… Lord Emsworth, bless Plum Wodehouse, can bring a dash of good cheer even amidst the worst gloom.  And been attending to chores like filing income tax returns and replacing worn out plumbing. Besides maintaining the daily work routine, of course. More than that I cannot do, with the shadow of death looming over the house.

It’s the height of the monsoon we are going through right now. It rained all night yesterday, and very heavily again this morning [this is being posted two days after writing]. It is still drizzling as I write, and the met. Office says this might continue for a day or two. It’s so dark that I can’t read indoors without switching on the light, and the drains (does anybody have any idea why half-educated Bengalis always refer to them as ‘high’- drains? Is it a confusion with hydrant – a word nobody seems to know? Given that ‘mamlet’ was in such wide circulation till only a few decades ago – a mishmash of marmalade and omelette – I wouldn’t be surprised). I have always loved the rains, of course, but I found out the worst things about them during my Kolkata days and never got over it (now my daughter is doing it, and it’s a very good thing that she does not hate the city as I do, nor has to live in it during its worst days as I did, nor in the worst parts of it, where waterlogging is a recurrent nightmare). I was glad to have come back, and thank my lucky stars that I work from home especially during this part of the year, and that I have so little muck and slush around me and so much of greenery. One of my dearest sensations, ever since I was so high, has been listening to rain as I fall asleep at night, or half waking up in the wee hours to hear the rain pattering outside as I drift off to sleep again. God has been kind.

It just occurred to me that the pujo is only two months away. Christ. How I wish I could run away to someplace quiet and secluded and free of Bengalis during that wretched week – such as to a guest house in a tea garden – and come back only when I can settle into my routine again! If God had granted me a few more wishes, I’d have had rich favourite ex students who had such places to invite me to, rather than modest-income IT workers living in cubbyholes in Bangalore and Gurgaon. Not the latter’s fault, of course, just my bad luck that I couldn’t inspire young people to grow up into fat cats.

I have been writing little travel reviews for tripadvisor for more than a year now (see this), and they tell me that I have got a sizeable number of readers already, including some who write in to say thanks and ask questions about places I have visited. Funny how these things happen. I started off just to oblige some hoteliers whom I had liked. It would be nice if a time comes when they start offering me various concessions at hotels and resorts simply because I have been writing for them. There was an old boy who once told me about his plans to launch just such a travel website and pay me for writing about my sojourns here and there, though nothing came out of it.

I have just begun reading John Keay’s The Great Arc, the fabulous story of how early 19th century British military geographers measured and mapped India (a vast and arduous scientific exploit that puts many of the so-called wonderful achievements of scientists in the last fifty years to shame, though largely forgotten today), and Suketu Mehta’s book about the horror that is Mumbai, Maximum City, on my daughter’s recommendation, though I am not sure whether I can stick it till the last page.

I shall take my leave of you for now, dear reader. Until the next time, which may be when a sudden inspiration strikes me, or when someone has said or asked something which I find interesting enough to reply to. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Five hundred thousand pageviews

Eleven years.

It’s been quite a journey.

And I have reached this milestone without ever posting smut, or gossiping about cricket and shopping, or advertising snake oil, or stoking pointless quarrels which sound like the most important thing on earth for two weeks and then sink without a trace. Takes some doing, I can tell you, especially in an age when even someone who arranges for cabs via the internet briefly becomes a superstar. An age when like old Diogenes you have to search with a lantern even under a blazing sun to find one sensible man.

This is a time to congratulate and thank  my regular and long-time readers, too. There are occasional and one-time visitors aplenty, I know, but there must be at least a few hundred of the other sort.  It is them I keep in mind whenever I write a new post. Every now and then I am pleasantly surprised to hear from someone or the other who, without my knowing, has been following my blog for a long time, and gladly admits to having been influenced by the way I think. They invariably bring to mind those who pretended to be, sometimes very plausibly for a while, and have fallen by the wayside ages ago…

Indeed, over a very long working life spent observing people, I have come to decide that the vast majority of them are merely vulgar (khelo in Bangla sounds somehow more apposite to describe the type) and a not inconsiderable minority is stupid and often downright nasty. I am toying with a project now – one by one I shall describe how scores of individuals, pupils and parents, have dealt with me over the years and decades, and what exactly about their behaviour have led me to the above conclusion: me, who started out on life determined to love his fellow human beings. I have been dealing in generalities for a long time, now I am going to deal with specifics, and though I shall name no names, those indicted and people close to them will be left in no doubt that it is them I mean. By God, that will be a catharsis.

Writing a blog is akin to writing a diary. But my daughter recently pointed out one fundamental difference that has come about lately – earlier people wrote diaries in secret and got angry if others managed to pry (I am not talking about poets and suchlike, who perhaps wrote to gain posthumous notoriety); these days people write diaries (or miniature diaries, as in twitter) and get angry if others don’t read them. It was a salutary warning to me.  I would be dishonest if I claimed that I didn’t want readers – why would I be writing publicly, then? – but it would do me a world of good to remember that a genuine diarist writes primarily for himself. If he gets some earnest readers, fine, but that should not be the primary aim, for that way lies prostitution of the mind. Ever so slowly, lured by the possibility of quicksilver fame, one begins to stop being oneself and pander to the (mentally-) unwashed masses. To care overmuch about what others may think is the surest way to triviality.

So, for the next 500,000 pageviews, this blog is going to become more consciously and unrepentantly personal. Writing – and I am not talking of tweeting and journalism here, those pathetic refuges of failed authors and wannabe page three celebrities – in this day and age is the most elitist of hobbies. And you write to keep your mind alive. If you don’t, you will be shopping and pubbing and gossiping instead… what a horrible way to spend your youth! What an utterly ghastly way of spending your old age!!

P.S., July 03: I have updated the medical bulletin. Scroll down if you will. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hospitals and banks: the way things work

With all the hullabaloo in the media over remedies for the shoddy treatment and overbilling that have become the hallmark of private hospitals in our state, several very pertinent points are being systematically overlooked, or deliberately ignored.  First I want to put on record that I have been personally a beneficiary (besides having had the good fortune to talk to some people who have been the same) of the state run public hospital system, and I am grateful.  They serve you at rock bottom prices, with a lot of facilities absolutely free, and incredible as it sounds, there are still doctors and nurses and ward boys who give sterling service, despite all the pressure they work under, and all the amenities that are in short supply or non-existent. If the government were sincere about improving the health sector, they should greatly boost the system a) by encouraging in every possible way those who do so much good work while sternly punishing the other kind, regardless of party politics, b) by spending much more on health care, and monitoring the spending to cut down on waste, inefficiency and plain theft, c) by training far more doctors and nurses for next to free provided they are willing to give an undertaking to serve in the public sector for most of their working lives, d) by significantly raising prices, at least for non-BPL patients, so that a large part of the costs can be recovered – people don’t value things enough when they get things for free. The prices could still be kept much lower than what private hospitals typically charge, yet the burden on the public exchequer would decrease considerably. It would also help greatly if the entire non-BPL population were ordered by law to take out medical insurance. I wonder why that hasn’t been done yet, when everybody who buys a car or bike also has to buy insurance before he can even take the vehicle out of the showroom. Talk of the stupid governing the stupid, the blind leading the blind…

Not only the best doctors but also often the best equipment are in our public hospitals. The real problem is that the system is unspeakably overloaded, so most people who are not desperately poor want to bypass it for one that works faster – and that is the felt need which the private/corporate sector took advantage of to spread like mushrooms in wet weather. And now that they have been found wanting in a double sense, a lot of indignant voices have been raised, a lot of demands are being made to rein them in, to make them accountable by fiat, to force them to render better service at ‘reasonable’ prices. Sensing strong electoral payoffs, the government has responded by suggesting various remedial means, including fixing upper limits on prices for various tests and treatments. Predictably, doctors and hospitals have reacted with dire warnings, the gist of which is that setting such caps might strongly discourage them from offering their patients the ‘latest and best’ procedures. Some doctors have gone so far as to threaten moving out of the state. Everybody is trying to justify skyrocketing costs by arguing how wonderful and useful the latest gadgets, drugs and treatments are (which claim is often actually little more than empty publicity), and how expensive it is to invent/develop them  and recoup costs. The devil, of course, lies in the details. On the one hand, doctors have confided in me that ‘costs’ go so high because the directors of the pharma companies and equipment manufacturing companies ‘need’ to live seven-star lifestyles; or else it is the hospitals which are greedy, and pad expenses shamelessly. Both true, of course, but what is too rarely mentioned is how greedy a certain section of doctors have become: they measure success, nay, their very sense of self-worth, by how big and fancy the car and penthouse and luxury vacation they can buy, and how often, the Hippocratic Oath be damned. I have benefitted greatly all my life by following my own maxim, namely to find out what sort of person the doctor is, not just what fancy degrees he has, before I go to him if I can help it. And now that parents are paying ‘donations’ of upto a crore to admit their children in private medical colleges, children whose first prirority in life will be to recoup the expense and reap a handsome profit, God help the next generation of patients.  Or maybe beating up doctors and burning hospitals will become so much a mundane fact of daily life that no one will raise an eyebrow in the days to come, and that is how a certain barbaric balance will be struck between public service and private greed…

[P.S.: My newspaper on June 17 carried this article. It's a pent-up sigh about what doctors used to be like, and a few still are, though they are a fast dying breed in this 'advancing world']

On the other hand, there are the Augean stables of the public sector banks to be cleaned up, and they are making a sorry mess of it. At one time they were grossly overmanned; now they are so terribly shortstaffed that everything moves at a snail’s pace, despite the advent of computers and the internet (sometimes, it seems to me, because of them!). There is an infinity of niggling rules for them to keep their money safe (so, as I found out yesterday morning, it takes ages merely to close down an old, idle account, which I have done elsewhere in a jiffy, without even presenting myself in person); alas, it seems, that such rules exist only to harass the ordinary small customer, while tycoons run away with vast loans they never intend to repay, so that bad debts, now going under the fancy name of Non Performing Assets, have grown into a mountain big enough to threaten the stability of the whole economy. Their websites shrilly advertise how they are dying to serve us, while when we do visit them, we have to deal with the laziest, surliest, most unhelpful and/or incompetent people in creation. The only reason I have not yet moved all my accounts to private banks is the old, perhaps silly but very widespread fear that they, unlike the PSUs, can simply down shutters one fine morning and run away with your lifetime savings. But I have been closing accounts in public sector banks right and left, and maybe the day is not far when I will take the plunge. Unless a genuine revolution comes about, as I hope it would, and soon. For starters, why can’t banks run round the clock, seven days a week, if the railways and power plants and police stations and hospitals can?

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Essays, heat and rain, selfishness

He is never late for class. He sits like a Buddha with a long nose (I’d like to touch that nose!). He drinks endless cups of tea. He brings boring lessons alive. He sniffs too often. He marks homework meticulously. Sometimes he calls out answers so fast that I have trouble keeping up. He is very frightening when he flies into a rage, but he cools down quickly. He can stay calm even in the midst of family crises. He takes out the garbage himself. Time flies in his class, we have so much fun. I had heard lots of nasty rumours about him, but the real man is very different. I am going to miss these classes…

That was the general tenor of the essays that the current batch of pupils in class 10 wrote about Suvro Sir. Some cheerfully read them out in class, some had to be coaxed, some submitted the essays for me to read because they were too shy to read them aloud, and many of them, of course, didn’t bother – I daresay the majority of them dislike me, or couldn’t care less, belonging to the type who only come to collect notes or because their parents have forced them in. It pleases me, rather, to see that so many kids did take the trouble and wrote so many nice and curious things – sometimes they give me tips which help me to improve – and also to see that nothing seems to change: their mothers and fathers were hearing the same rumours and writing the same sort of comments thirty years ago, and, if I live that long and carry on, their children will probably be doing the same. Mobile phones have not made any significant difference here, at least!  

So thank you to those who wrote all the nice things: my blessings and good wishes. May you have gained something from me that will be of lasting value. As for the rest, go your own way, but try not to be mean and malicious afterwards out of sheer ignorance, stupidity and spite, as you have seen so many elders doing. Remember, it only says things about you, not about me. Remember, also, that something does not become either right or good or defensible just because mummy or daddy does it, whether it is talking on the phone while driving or spreading gossip born of idleness and envy. That is one of the very very wicked things that Indian parents manage to drive successfully into the heads of their children – they must be ‘thankful’ that two people brought them into this world, and thankfulness translates into covering up for those two all their lives!

There was a terrific thunderstorm on Friday evening, followed by torrential rain – the heaviest this year so far. I don’t know whether this is the first sign of the monsoon or whether this was some sort of ‘depression’ as the Met office likes to call them these days (the weather seems even more frequently ‘depressed’ nowadays than people are!), but from the very next morning it has been blazing again, besides being incredibly muggy – the downpour could have been a dream, were it not that the wet earth still bears testimony. This is the time of the year when only the airconditioners keep me going (and gift me with a bad cold that refuses to go away). Yet on a very hot June afternoon 34 years ago I bathed in the cold water of a deep well and fell fast asleep in the shade of a giant peepul tree in a village somewhere deep inside Bihar, waking up only when I was hungry again, and the sun was setting in crimson glory. Have I changed, or has the weather?


Talking of change, look at the picture below.


 I have been seeing this advertisement frequently in the newspapers lately. (Another one, put out by some coaching class, I think, promises to develop the ‘killer instinct’ in children so that they have a better chance of being ‘successful’ in life). Most people have always been blindly, stupidly selfish, of course, and never found out the joy of sharing and caring, but has petty, vicious materialistic selfishness ever been preached to children as a good thing on a vast scale this way before? Just what kind of adults are these kids going to grow up into? Oh, I know, I have talked to a lot of people in their thirties and forties, and the commonest and most asinine thing they say is ‘Sir, you take things so seriously… amra moja korchhilam Sir, we were just having fun.’ I think of the ‘fun’ that the young adults of 2035 are going to have, those who will become teachers and policemen and politicians and parents then, and I remember the fun they had at Auschwitz.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Razors and ice cream

I shaved my father yesterday.

He had gone unshaven for weeks, and had been complaining lately that he had started resembling a certain Osama bin Laden (yes, though he is almost completely bedridden owing to the diminution of motor functions, his head is that clear still). And we agreed that none of us liked the idea of calling in a barber very much.

His skin has been very soft and sensitive since the radiotherapy session. We had been told it shouldn’t even be rubbed vigorously with a towel for the first ten days. So I attempted the task with some trepidation, and only because he said he was confident enough about my ability to wield a razor. I dare say I didn’t do too bad a job, though I kept a bit of it undone for another day, and he said he’d given me full marks – certainly he didn’t wince once, and there was not a single nick. It took a bit of time, but it was curiously satisfying for both of us.

So maybe I could have been a barber too. Funny how many things a man can do if he puts his mind to it. Since my daughter was a child, she would never allow anyone but her daddy to prise tiny shards of wood and things like that from under her nails or lance boils or dress her wounds ever so gently. Nursing, also, then? Who knows?

The older one grows in this land and age, the more one feels that time – time with undivided attention and caring – is what we are most stingy with when it comes to loved ones. We try to make up for it by shopping lavishly for them instead. And now we are actually raising children who have been taught to believe that that is indeed what loving means. I keep reading essays about how ‘happy’ they are because their parents bought them this or that gizmo. Most of them have never been played with, never been read or sung to, and hugged rarely if ever since they grew out of infancy: I’ve checked. What a sad world we have made, really. The doctor, while discussing my father’s condition, sniggered that a lot of folks find satisfaction in spending little fortunes trying to hold back their old parents in this world for a few extra weeks or months through fancy but essentially futile medical procedures. I could add that they do the same again on lavish post-funeral do’s…I remember as I write a little girl neighbour telling my daughter more than a decade ago not to miss her great-grandmother’s shraddh feast, because there would be two kinds of ice cream. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Agantuk

Agantuk (The Stranger), expanded from Ray’s own short story Atithi (The Guest), was filmed in 1991 – it was his last film. The reason the movie has had an abiding appeal for me is that a lot of people have told me over the years that the protagonist, Manomohon Mitra the globetrotting anthropologist played by Utpal Dutt reminded them strongly of me, or rather, the many blunt and unpleasant truths about ourselves that they remembered me saying. I watched it first as far back as 1992 (strange to think I was not yet 30 then!). Now that these things are so easily and cheaply available at home via the internet, I sometimes look back, and so I did with this movie recently.

Before talking about the movie itself, let me mention a few broader things. I have always felt that short stories lose a great deal of their impact when they are stretched for the purpose of making full-length movies. This is true about Agantuk too. Secondly – and I first made this comment ages ago, in our own newspaper Durgapur Perspective, in connection with Ray’s movie Sadgati based on Premchand’s story – Ray should have focused on making works of fantasy like Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne, because we have had plenty of directors who could make fine ‘realist’ films with strong social messages, but when it came to whimsical imaginative fiction of pure genius, Ray stood alone in India (has anyone, even armed with vastly bigger budgets and far more advanced technology, made anything in the last fifty years that can hold a candle to GoogaBaba?). Pity that he, like so many other filmmakers, probably began to feel that he was not being respected enough as a ‘serious’ director, and that there was a need to correct the impression. How much did Indian cinema lose in consequence, I wonder? And thirdly, maybe owing to advancing age and failing health, Ray was slowly losing his touch in his last films – the nuanced sophistication that made watching his earlier works a pure delight was missing already in Ganashatru and Shakha Proshakha, and that is even more painfully apparent in Agantuk. It is simply overdone, too in-your-face, bordering on melodrama. Tell me if you feel otherwise, and why.

Yes, I know it’s basically about criticizing our urban middle-class society, which, yes, was already highly criticizable in the 1980s – Ray would probably have quietly committed suicide if he had lived to see it today. About that, in a minute. But first, why the exaggerations, and all the unnecessary mystery? Why was the guest being so coy about revealing details regarding his identity and background (why didn’t he, say, show them some of the scholarly books and travelogues he had supposedly written)? And why, if the hosts were so suspicious about whether he was a real uncle or fake, did they accommodate him at all, and if they did so, why didn’t they question him more directly – it can be done without being grossly impolite, you know? Why, instead, did they call over a friend to do the cross-questioning for them, whom they knew to be by nature impulsive with a tendency to be rude – who, almost predictably, messed up everything and drove the uncle briefly away? Why were they so anxious to make sure that the uncle had not come back to claim his inheritance: what would have been so wrong if he did? Why couldn’t they tell him they were sorry in a better way than merely buying him a new suitcase when he was leaving for the next leg of his world tour? … I hope you get my drift. With my very very limited knowledge of movie direction (but after a lifetime of watching and thinking about movies), I still do feel that things could have been handled with more finesse, made to appear more plausible – especially when it’s coming from someone no less than Satyajit Ray, and with a thespian of the stature of Dutt in the lead role.

All that having been said, I can now pay tribute where it is due. As I said, already in the mid-1980s the Bengali urban middle class was becoming insufferable to all decent people (and there weren’t even any IT-experts around then, God help us!), so someone had to come along and tell them where they got off. Who better than the man who was then the tallest living cultural icon they had to boast of? They were all very snooty about being educated and well-informed and highly cultured, yet most of them were little better at their best than skilled technicians of one sort or the other (you know, the doctor-lawyer-engineer types) who never read anything beyond textbooks, professional manuals and maybe a bit of pulp fiction, time servers and money grubbers who burnt with envy of those who had more, obsessed with being seen as ‘westernized’ at all costs yet incapable of borrowing anything more than the most superficial and gross aspects of westernism, something vastly and tragically removed from and inferior to the kind of ‘modernism’ that Rammohun and Tagore and Ray himself had successfully achieved, ‘smart’ in their own eyes yet in fact riddled with superstitions, unreasoned taboos, half-baked knowledge, silly preconceived notions about all members of humanity who did not belong to their own set (such as tribal folk), stuck in their little ruts mental as much as physical (the husband’s whole world revolves around his corporate office, his flat and perhaps his club; how many achingly tiresome clones of the same type have we all suffered, beer bottles in hand, gold chains and Nikon cameras around their necks, hairy legs sticking out from chic shorts, glued to their mobile phones, unable to talk without casually spewing obscenities and college-dorm jokes?) – in a word, as the uncle told his adopted grandson not to become, koopamanduk, frogs in the well. Heaven knows I have seen New York-returned koopamanduks without number for my sins, and been revolted. So in their eyes, all those who wore few clothes (unless they were film stars, I suppose) and indulged in relatively free sex and ate unfamiliar meat were savages beyond the pale, while the truly civilized man was the one who could wipe out millions of his fellow human beings with the press of a button and without a qualm, as the uncle tellingly says when he has been put on the mat. Nothing more starkly portrays their utter pettiness, their complete worthlessness as human beings than the way they are rendered speechless and awash in tears with shock and wonder as much as shame on discovering that the uncle has quietly left behind his entire patrimony as compensation for their (highly questionable) week-long hospitality – largeness of heart is so utterly, frighteningly alien to their mindsets – and, from all I have learnt about the vast majority of this class, alas, my own class, how true to life that is!


And so yes, I am deeply flattered that a lot of perceptive people have compared me with Uncle Mitra. I shall be glad if many old boys and their parents recollect to others that they have learnt a thing or two of lasting and non-trivial value from me, things that have forced them to think and look differently at the world thereafter. And when people want to find out a bit more about me, I could do worse than telling them to go and watch Ray’s last film. To all those who like to think I am just a nonsense-spewing oddball, I say, look at which people have inspired me and how. Russell is probably beyond their reach, Tagore they have forgotten, so try Satyajit Ray, at least, then tell me whether both he and I were wrong, deluded and irrelevant, and whether they have found better ideals to emulate!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Poor Economics, Doughnut Economics

Let no one think that just because the going’s got a little tougher than usual my mental life has stopped, that I am spending all my spare time either beating my breast over the family misfortune or wandering about in pubs, dance halls and shopping malls for solace and distraction. Yes, it did take a little time to get things back into gear again – I was especially worried about how my mother would cope, seeing that she is getting on in years too – but otherwise I have been just as engaged as I always am unless I am on holiday or in hospital myself. As proof, here are my reflections on a book I recently finished reading, and a movie I watched after a gap of a quarter century.

Poor Economics –  published in 2013, and a book which has inspired Pradipto Banerjee, a favourite old boy of mine, to plan his PhD project – elaborates the idea that poverty can be greatly ameliorated if not entirely abolished through aid, but much aid is stolen or wasted or at least very inefficiently spent because it has not traditionally been based on careful micro-level monitoring of the way it is actually utilized at the grassroots level. The authors themselves have done an enormous amount of detailed and pin-pointed field work to buttress their claims, building up an impressive 18-country data bank in the process, which a lot of agencies are now drawing upon in designing their plans for future aid disbursal and monitoring. They are neither too optimistic nor too gloomy about the prospects of removing extreme poverty (defined as people having to live on less than one US dollar a day) within this century. But, they insist, we must concern ourselves less with grand theories and sweeping ideologies and far more with the nitty gritty of facts on the ground, buttressed by a rigorously scientific method of testing hypotheses that they call Randomized Control Trials. And they give a wealth of fascinating examples of how things actually work (or don’t) in the real world – how poor people make bad choices despite being as rational (or irrational) as you or me, how they often starve though they can well afford an adequate diet, how they are often forced to borrow in order to save, how they often buy TVs rather than health care because it is precisely the best choice in their given circumstances, how the vast majority of small-scale entrepreneurs are so not by choice but by compulsion, and their prospects of ever becoming affluent are very dim, regardless of all the media hoopla about a microscopic few becoming overnight tycoons, how micro-finance doesn’t often work miracles for them despite the best intentions of the deliverers, and, most importantly, how a little tweaking of rules and conditions – letting petty bureaucrats know that they are being monitored for corruption, for instance, reserving seats for women in panchayats and municipalities and making working conditions tolerable for village nurses and schoolteachers, lowering banks’ security requirements for giving loans to fledgling micro-businesses,  giving voters more specific choices to decide upon, and sometimes, even small technical improvements (electronic voting machines and Aadhar cards, for instance, things started long before the BJP came to power, mind you) – can make very significant though usually small changes for the better, even in the long run.

Read the book, if only to find out there is reason for hope – those of you who have social interests, intellectual orientations and consciences as well. As for me (remember I was formally trained to be an economist), I find it heartening to see that some economists, instead of weaving grandiose cloud-cuckooland theories for creating utopias and then spending most of their time cooking up arcane and convoluted rationalizations for their failure, are doing solid if unglamorous work to  really earn their living (the mention of the Poverty Action Lab at MIT reminded me of the joint work of Mehboob-ul Haq and Amartya Sen decades ago to persuade the UNDP to adopt their Human Development Index to draw up report cards for all the nations of the world) – recalled to mind Keynes’ and my hero Galbraith’s hope (how many ‘educated’ people below 40 today are even capable of reading their books?) that, though economists have lost the status of Delphic oracles long ago, they might, if they try carefully, remain as socially useful if unglamorous as dentists.

At the same time, I shall continue to insist, unrepentant socialist that I am and shall remain, the authors are missing the real point. As they themselves say towards the beginning of the book, an economist of no smaller stature than Jeffrey Sachs asserts that the overall quantum of aid disbursed worldwide is too small to make a difference, no matter how cleverly dispensed: by Sachs’ estimate, US $190 billion, if given away every year from 2005 to 2025, could have done away with poverty completely. Let’s put that in perspective – the United States alone spends a trillion dollars every year on defence (which, not to put too fine a point on it, means provisions to kill people), and wealth inequality is now so great that a few dozen billionaires have more money than six billion people.

Therefore I am one of those people who continue to believe (and I refer you strongly to my four successive essays on the necessity of, and prospects for socialism) that there will be no major change for the better without revolutionary changes in the realm of ideas – as some technical people love to call it, a paradigm shift. People in the large will have to start looking for real alternatives to capitalism as we know it, convinced that it cannot solve far too many critical problems, and indeed, creates or exacerbates a lot of them (mass unemployment, rapid natural resource depletion, disastrous climate change, widespread socio-psychological anomie and a tendency to war, to name just five). People have always been searching, I must grant that. The last very significant effort to change the basics of economic thought and practice was made, as far as I know, by Erich Schumacher of Small is Beautiful fame. It didn’t work, of course, but it did inspire a lot of fruitful grassroots experiments that have made the world better in a lot of small, scattered, piecemeal ways. Now Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, is suggesting another carefully-thought out alternative. Thank you for letting me know about it, Rajdeep. I shall look forward to reading the book.

Alright, about Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk, in the next post, fairly soon, because otherwise, it seems, this one would get too long.