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Friday, March 31, 2017

Another new season

Summer has suddenly set in with a vengeance. Every day is hotter than the one before, and the air is still and muggy – just the kind of weather that makes me hate this country, at least until the next cloudburst. I wonder when the swimming pool will be warm enough to be comfortable again?

This is admission season, and the batches are filling up. I shall have a full hand from next week onwards, for the next nine months again. I sometimes feel I have lost count of how many times I have done it: even Pupu says this is the eleventh time she’s been helping me! It seems an odd kind of fun to see kids being admitted whose parents attended these classes years ago. Would I last long enough to see some of the grandchildren too?

My daughter will be a college graduate by the middle of next year. A full grown up, the way she has been brought up. After that, she will be more or less on her own, looking for a career that suits her. Daddy will be at her side, but only playing a petting, enabling and reassuring role, not breathing down her neck. I hope she still finds me interesting and useful for some time to come. Few grown up children do. That, in fact, is my only prayer today…

This is my fifty fourth year. I have been working since I was seventeen. I wasn’t given a very good hand to play by Providence (I have in mind kids who grow up into their mid-20s with their parents footing every bill, finding jobs for them and even carrying their luggage for them), and I have still insisted on being rather more willful than most people I have seen, so on the whole things haven’t turned out too badly, I’d say. Sixty is only a few summers away. I might pop off before that, of course – a lot of people do – but in case I don’t, it’s almost within reach now. I don’t have much respect for governments in this country, regardless of which political party is in power, because they have never done anything significant for the benefit of the vast number of people like me, the self-employed, either by way of tax relief, or cheap insurance, or subsidized loans, or special facilities for those who are ageing. All I want now is to be left alone to mind my own business. Therefore I shall not vote for any party which pursues policies that intrude into my private life, and conversely, I shall root for any that takes notice of the fact that the vast majority of people in this country still take care of themselves, but they need more attention as they get old and infirm, if only because they have been quiet, hardworking taxpayers lifelong. What else any party promises no longer carries much value for me. They can build temples or moon rockets or new mobile phone apps for damn all that I care. Nothing of that sort counts as ‘progress’ in my book.

It pleases me, however, to see that the local government seems at last to have woken up to the horrible menace of lawless traffic on the roads, as the news items on this page bear testimony. Stern policing – provided it’s not a flash in the pan – will go a long way to rein in the lawbreakers who kill and maim so many. I have said again and again that this is a far greater problem than terrorism or smoking, which seem to exercise the foolish people in power so much. Only, a few caveats: first, the hands of the police need to be strengthened (at present, their numbers and resources are pitiful, and the laws they can wield lack real teeth), secondly, they are cracking down on less important things, such as whether people are wearing helmets and seatbelts and carrying all the right papers, whereas the real focus should be on nabbing those who drive too fast, drive drunk, overtake on the wrong side, don’t bother about signals, switch lanes and turn around abruptly, overload vehicles, don’t get them regularly serviced… the kind of people who actually cause all the accidents. When can we expect good sense to prevail? How many more millions will have to be killed and crippled for life before that happens?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Debts, and food for wonder

I often think of the people who do a lot for me – for a price, yet they have become reliable long-time friends. Maybe they are the only ones who will actually miss me when I am gone.

There is our family doctor. I have known him for nearly four decades now. Suffice it to say that our debt to him cannot be repaid, though we have tried very hard, and I seriously fear the day when he will no longer be around. Doctors I have known aplenty, but I know no one who can ever fill his shoes for us.

Manikda, the doctor’s compounder, is someone much more than that for us, and his friend Shibu, the man who goes around collecting blood samples from door to door when tests are in order. There’s Mayadi who has been cooking for me for years, and Parvati, the slightly retarded young woman who has been cleaning the house for a long time, too. There is Sanjeeb the mishtiwallah, a good friend to chat with whenever his busy schedule allows him a few minutes of breathing time, and who was one of the first to cheer me unstintedly when I gave up my last salaried job – ‘Suvroda, you will be much better off now, you’ll see!’ There is Tapas, who takes care of all my needs that in any way connect to computers, and still goes around on a decrepit bicycle, though I know a thousand morons not worth his shoelaces who ride snazzy bikes at half his age. There is Firoz, the first driver who is likely to become a friend too, though I still don’t know him as well as I’d like to, reticent man that he is. There’s Mrinalda, who has been filing my income tax returns for a quarter century now, and Saibal, who kindly manages my investment portfolio though I am really too small fry for him to bother.

Ram Asan Singh the newspaperman has been a fixture for a long time now, and Baikuntho, who started off as a plumber and has become a man-for-all-seasons general contractor, someone I call up whether I want a new water heater or the wc flush is not working or the house needs to be repainted. Arvind the grocer is someone who is always there for me, and Indrajit who runs the cigarette-and-coffee stall. There are my favourite greengrocers and fishmongers and barbers. Not to forget Bhola, who has been binding my books and doing my photocopies and sundry other chores for more than twenty years now. With each of these I have a story to tell…

Funnily also, some such people who have enjoyed my custom have never become friends, or dropped off after a while, sometimes after decades of knowing me. I shall never figure out why, but I have not tried to find out. No point in naming them.

Then there are so many people who come to my door, either to ask for charity or to sell odds and ends – like brooms and boxes of incense sticks – who always make me wonder: why do they stick to it? Does it ensure a halfway decent living? Not all of them look hungry and desperate, either. Someday I really must sit down with them and ask them to tell me more about their lives. If so many people can make do with so little, materially speaking, why does this disease of running endlessly after more money afflict so many others?

There, I have said it at age 53 – it’s a disease. And the fact that, like tapeworm or snoring or obesity, it affects a very large fraction of the human population does not make it one bit less so. It’s a very bad world which passes off encouragement to such diseased people as ‘development’ and ‘progress’. Some day, when we are all much more civilized and sensible, we might think of progress in terms of making life easier for good, nice, hardworking people who are not greedy pigs and have real, harmless interests to pursue: interests which are not constantly manufactured by the advertizing industry.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Milestones, urgings, reminders

People seem to like reading my little travelogues – all three that I wrote recently have climbed high on the list of most-read posts. Good to see that.

I noted in a post dated February 29, 2016 that the pageviews counter had crossed the 400,000 mark, and today I see it has topped 480,000: a swift score indeed. I am apparently getting nearly 7,000 views a month now. At this rate, I shall very soon have 500,000-plus on the counter, and then I can take myself seriously as a blogger. Once I head past the million mark, I would wish that Blogger would highlight those particular blogs which have topped that milestone – leaving aside celebrities, there couldn’t be that many of them around the world. Are you listening, Google?

When I started writing this blog, Facebook was only two years old. Ten years before that, the internet was such a small place that you could actually buy a single-volume directory to all the important websites in the world, and in India people hardly knew what to do with it except exchange email. Today the scenario is very different in some respects, though it would take a lot of prodding to persuade me that the average person is using it for much beyond watching smut, booking tickets and playing sundry games. Blog writing – or reading – has certainly not become very widespread. Nevertheless, I have persisted. If and when I give up, that will be for good, but not yet.

I have been lately asked for advice by an ex student from nearly 15 years ago about raising her children well. That is the kind of communication that pleases me much. I admire such people, because they have the honesty, the courage and the earnest eagerness to seek advice on things more serious than nail art. It goes without saying that I wish them well. It is for such people that I wrote To My Daughter, and a lot of stuff on this blog itself – see, for instance, all the posts under the label of ‘education’. There is an ex-student, Shilpi, with whom I have been trying to spread my net wider, so that young parents can be benefited by the kind of advice I offer: maybe that project will bear fruit, maybe it won’t. You can watch this video to find out more about it. Meanwhile, do recall that I keep asking my readers – of the sort I have just mentioned – to open and continue dialogues on the blog by way of asking questions through comments which I can answer to their advantage. One question asked and adequately answered for one person can benefit a hundred others who had never asked: this is something that I have found out over and over in my classes, which is why I encourage serious questions just as assiduously as I discourage silliness and small talk. 

Remember, adults and youngsters alike, it has been said that the only foolish question is the one that you don’t ask.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Buddha Vihar

As I promised myself in the last line of the previous post, I have just returned yesterday afternoon from another three-day, 800 km-plus road trip in my own car, with Firoz (and at times myself) at the wheel. This time it was to Bodhgaya, Rajgir and Nalanda.

When I left home at 6:30 in the morning, it was still chilly, though things heated up rapidly after nine. I was armed with cold water and Coca Cola in a styrofoam box, as well as paper cups and a thermos full of hot tea. The air conditioner had been recharged lately, and the road being mostly in good condition – excellent in places, actually, though the planned six-lane superhighway is still a work in progress – we did the 300 odd km to Bodhgaya very comfortably in less than six hours, despite breakfast and one big traffic jam on the way. After checking into the hotel (booked online, all by myself: I am getting ‘smart’ in the currently popular sense), we freshened up, lunched at the Bihar State Tourism facility (overpriced), then went sightseeing around town.

There is a small airport nearby, and there are foreign tourists in large numbers, Buddhists from all over Asia, many of them obviously well heeled, and for their sake Bodh Gaya is maintained much better than the average Bihari town. It has helped that most of the visit-worthy places are monasteries, built and maintained by various national governments, and frequented by big people like the Dalai Lama and gora celebrities of Richard Gere’s ilk. Also that the biggest draw, namely the Mahabodhi Temple, is now an international attraction. Incredible to think that it had been quite forgotten for six centuries since Bakhtiyar Khilji’s devastating invasion, and the decaying ruins had been taken over by a Hindu mahant and his cohorts, until Sir Alexander Cunningham rescued it, and began the work of restoration and research. Anagarika Dharmapala and the then king of Burma did their bits to turn it into the Mecca of Buddhists once more. I sat in the compound on a mattress at sundown alongwith thousands of other praying pilgrims, and despite myself it gave me goosebumps to see the Bodhi tree under which the Master meditated until he attained nirvana… shameful to learn that it was a Bengali, King Sasanka, who had burnt the original tree.

The temperature fell swiftly at night. My hotel was located somewhat afar from the town centre, so there was a lot of dark open space around, with paddy fields and lakes and date palms, interspersed with brightly lit temples which made for a fairyland scene. We dined simply and cheaply at a roadside eatery which was named – predictably – Buddha Café. A walk in the quiet chilly night, then early to bed. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I was asleep before my head hit the pillow, though it was barely past ten o’ clock!

Early rising next morning, and we drove off to Rajgir, eighty km away. The road is beautiful in parts, especially when it is passing through hills, though the little towns we passed through were choc a bloc with noisy and totally chaotic traffic – nobody wears helmets, nobody obeys rules, autowallahs bicker with truckers like equals, and nobody pays the slightest attention to the police (we were joking about how utterly irrelevant Modi and his government is to this real India). We stopped at Gehlaur to see the handiwork of Dashrath Manjhi the ‘mountain man’, who worked singlehandedly for 22 years with hammer and chisel to carve a pass through a hill, reducing a trip to the nearest hospital by 40 km, after his injured wife died for lack of medical attention because he couldn’t carry her to a doctor in time. Feminists should think about this. It is both stupid and gross to take note only of men who beat their wives. And it says everything one needs to know about India that we worship creatures like SRK and MS Dhoni, while this man has not yet got a posthumous Padma Sree as recommended by the Bihar government, not even after the movie about him.

Rajgir was hot and crowded and dirty, though they have maintained a lot of little places of historical/mythical interest to pull crowds. The Vishwa Shanti stupa atop a hill, best reached by ropeway, is a nice place to see: it reminded me strongly of the almost identical shrine at Dhaulagiri in Odisha. I looked up all sorts of places – Venuvan the bamboo grove where the Buddha lived for some time after the Enlightenment, the Saptaparni caves where the First Buddhist Council was held, the Brahma Kund, the fabled treasury of King Bimbisara, and even older places, such as the akhara where Bhima of Mahabharata fame wrestled and killed king Jarasandha of Magadha. This place, after all, has very ancient antecedents: as Rajagriha, abode of the king, it was a large and flourishing city even in the seventh century BC, and it began to decline only after Ajatashatru moved the capital to Pataliputra near modern Patna.

It was a ten km drive to the ruins of the ancient university of Nalanda. Apparently some new discoveries have been made during excavations by Archaeological Survey of India experts even after Independence – housed carefully in the museum opposite the ruins – and now that UNESCO has made it a World Heritage Site, they are maintaining it very carefully. I wish I did not have to saunter around under a pitilessly blazing sun, and I consoled myself with the thought that it would be quite impossible a month from now. Any thought of Nalanda (or Takshashila, or Vikramshila for that matter) makes me wonder and sigh that there used to be a time when India was not just fabled for her material wealth, but for the kind of deep and diverse knowledge that drew scholars (including the likes of Fa Hsien, Xuanxang and I Tsing) from near and far. Art, science, education, breaking down social barriers like caste, spread of  vernaculars and caring for flora and fauna – India has much to be grateful to Buddhism for. And though I have read all about the revival of Hinduism and the Muslim scourge, I still cannot fully figure out why it virtually vanished from India, nor why Babasaheb Ambedkar’s mass conversion to Buddhism in the mid-20th century, followed by its worldwide revival, has so far failed to usher in a new golden age for Buddhism here. Their stress on simple living, silence, cleanliness and social welfare work would have made a huge change for the better in this country.

It was a nearly eleven hour round trip, for about five of which I was on my feet in the hot sun, climbing up and down stairs and scrambling over uneven ground, so my legs had started playing up, and I was dog tired. A quick bath, dinner and I sank into eight hours of the dreamless again. Next morning, a quick roadside breakfast, followed by a visit to the last of the monasteries – the Mongolian this time – and the museum, where I was the first arrival of the day. They have preserved a lot of late Buddhist and Pala era (‘Nalanda style’) artwork there, though much of it has been vandalized and damaged, as much by centuries of Hindu neglect as by the Muslim depredations. Pathetic that museums attract virtually nobody in this country: we are all for cinemas, shopping malls and circuses. And yet our parents are drumming it night and day into the ears of their children how wise they are, and how the kids ought to learn about civilization from them. Without the British, who started by calling us monkeys, we would not have had any civilization to boast about, only ‘sacred traditions’ like burning widows and shitting in the open and flattery and bribery to get jobs…

Then it was the long drive all through the afternoon back home. My poor car, though performing admirably all the way, had suffered a broken seal in the steering assembly, so we had to keep topping up with hydraulic fluid every now and then. Still, we were neither stopped nor delayed. Lunch at Khalsa Hotel in Dhanbad, and we were home by 3:30 p.m. Summer has arrived, and some early birds in Bihar have, I noticed, started playing Holi already. Thus ends my holiday season – for now.

For photos, click here. I shall be glad if some people write comments, perhaps mentioning highlights of their own travelling experience.