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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 (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.