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Friday, May 21, 2021

Lockdown again, and the corruption of English

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared a sudden lockdown starting Sunday the 15th May after repeatedly saying that she did not want to do it. Perhaps, given the dire Covid situation in the state, her hand was forced, but for once I am really upset with her, because she did it almost as suddenly as the PM had done it countrywide last year, and at that time she and many other opposition leaders had strenuously criticized him for bringing untold hardship and misery quite unnecessarily upon the lives of millions of people, particularly poor migrant workers who were left stranded and near-destitute. Photos on TV and in the papers, showing vast numbers of working people scrambling into buses and trains to go home all through Saturday bore witness to a repetition of the same unnecessary travails visited upon ordinary people again. Why on earth couldn’t they give at least a three-day notice before clamping down? Wouldn’t last-minute crowding in bazaars and transport actually help to accelerate the spread of the contagion? (Actually I have the same question about reducing the number of trains and shopping hours – but neither ‘experts’ nor leaders listen to the voice of common sense any more.)

Pupu says it is raining in Delhi, and the weather has turned pleasant. I am happy for her, and a little jealous too, because it’s sweltering heat in these parts, even while we wait for updates on a probable cyclone coming up from the Bay of Bengal.

I have been musing anew on how we are abusing and mangling the English language, especially in America and in this country (where we combine plain ignorance with awkward Indianisms and a desperation to ape Americans to make a strange ugly caricature of English), to which both the print media and the increasingly influential ‘social’ media contribute mightily. Once upon a time, we have heard our fathers say, people read newspapers like The Statesman or The Hindu to pick up tips on how to write English well: these days I use newspapers in class to give exercises to my pupils, picking out as many mistakes and examples of stilted or unidiomatic usage as they can. Adults develop bad habits, and children, not knowing any better, pick them up. So these days they are all ‘reverting back’ instead of ‘replying’; they write b’day and vacay and prep because they think it makes them sound ‘cool’ (rather than smart or elegant: such words have been forgotten); journos throw around stupid words like ‘Opposition slams government’, ‘Minister flays opposition’ without bothering to know what ‘slam’ and 'flay' mean, just as they write ‘heads will roll’ when they merely mean that some people will be removed from their posts. I was amazed to see someone recently using the expression ‘heart rending’, having long ago accepted with a sigh that everybody keeps writing ‘heart wrenching’ instead, simply because they have never learnt the right word. They are always ‘calling out’ someone or the other these days, simply because Americans no longer know the word ‘criticize’, and 'taking a call' when they could simply 'decide'. How many non sub-editors know that that species of animal habitually uses stupid abbreviations merely out of laziness, or merely because they are concerned with fitting a headline within a given number of column centimetres? – hence suddenly, in the race to vaccinate all humankind, ‘jab’ has become a synonym for ‘injection’. If only they knew how much a jab with a needle hurts, and how gently some medics or their assistants can give you injections if they know their job! Some people are even saying 'sick' when they mean wonderful!... and I read this gem in my newspaper this very morning, a high government official listing all the steps they are going to take if the situation ‘gets deteriorated’ any further (not ‘deteriorates’, as any literate person would say).

But there is much worse around us. I have said this again and again: I have always despised people who confuse independence of thought and speech with vulgar abuse of language, and now, at my age, I firmly draw the line at the foul-mouthed: I shall NOT give them their time of day. I am convinced that it is a civilisational thing, and spouting dirty words right and left without cause or provocation merely means you have an empty or twisted mind incapable of either good taste or reasoned and informed thought (perhaps you were never taught any better, but that’s bad luck for you); therefore there is nothing human about you other than your looks, and I shall deal with you accordingly. Netflix, in the name of spreading ‘freedom of expression’ (but obviously actually only to increase TRP ratings by pandering to the great unwashed – many of whom drive BMWs these days), has been particularly guilty of encouraging this pandemic of filth, so I was delighted to watch, in three movies currently showing there, two starring Denzel Washington (Roman J. Israel Esq. and Two Guns) and one called The Kingdom about FBI agents carrying out a lightning investigative raid in Saudi Arabia, where lead characters pointedly berated others for using gutter language. Perhaps the worst perpetrators are finally getting sick and tired of their own excesses! I’ll keep my fingers crossed. Are you listening, Ms. J. K. Rowling? I stopped reading you after the first Robert Galbraith book, and this is why. If you want to find out how absorbing adventure-thriller-mystery books can be written in perfectly clean and mellifluous language, books that a lot of educated adults have greatly enjoyed too, you might like to read up the Harry Potter series.

In fact, it is a wonder that there are still a lot of decent, soft spoken, polite people around, and they keep pleasantly surprising me now and then. I have told this story in my class over and over again: a senior police officer (and they are supposed to be especially foul-mouthed, as portrayed by Prosenjit in Baishey Srabon) had come to pick his daughter up from my tuition, and at the end of the class I strolled out to have a word with him. He had been talking into the wireless, but the moment he saw me approaching he hurriedly got out of the car, despite my urging him to stay put, saying ‘ami garite boshe thakbo ar apni mashtarmoshai hoye baire dariye kotha bolben eta ghor obhodrota hoye jabe Sir’ (it would be grossly discourteous for me to talk with you from inside the car while you, a teacher, are standing outside’)! God bless such folks. I hope the children grow up learning from the right kind of parents. This is not elitism, it is a cry from the heart to put the claims of civilization above the primordial slime…

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Navigating the stormy waters

Against the backdrop of thousands of high-level experts spouting wisdom and advice on the unfolding Covid scenario, the only reason I dare to open my mouth now and then is the fact that since they are saying so many contradictory things, all of them cannot be simultaneously right, whereas many, or even most, can be simultaneously wrong. In any case, these days I open my mouth (or rather, scribble on my blog) more to raise honest questions than to offer opinions or knowledge of any kind. Maybe they are questions only a simple-minded commoner would ask. For instance:

The Covid numbers (both new infections and deaths) remained very high all through December to early March, in just one state, Maharashtra, when those numbers were low and declining everywhere else – why did nobody notice, and why wasn’t it decided to isolate that one state almost completely from the rest of the country for a while, the way they did with Wuhan province in China, knowing that otherwise the contagion was bound to spread out like wildfire sooner or later across the rest of the country and make it virtually unmanageable?

Another question: The number of new infections has been surging in Kerala throughout this last month, but the (reported-) death rate has been very, very low (yesterday’s figures were new infections 37290 and 79 deaths, which works out to less than a fourth of one per cent, while they are respectively just around half a per cent in West Bengal and around three per cent in Delhi). How have they managed to keep the mortality rate so low, or have they just been very lucky?

Third question: why are they not building safe houses/quarantine centres in all hotspots on a war footing (literally, with army help if need be) to take off the pressure on hospitals? And why are the central and state governments still shamelessly bickering over the urgency and procedurality of rapid expansion of vaccine production facilities when so many lives are so obviously at stake? Indeed, why isn’t there rapidly mounting public anger over this issue?

To turn my mind to less morbid things – since I cannot move about at will, I am enjoying vicarious travelling via the internet as much as possible. One series on Amazon Prime, called Highway on my plate, took me around many beautiful familiar places in Uttarakhand and Himachal. It’s a series that focuses on eateries on the way, from tucked away resorts serving exotic delicacies to roadside dhabas dishing up tried and tested, plain but cheap and mouth-watering fare, something sure to gladden a foodie’s heart. I am no trencherman myself, but I love watching people eating to their heart’s content.

Locked up at home, my daughter, who has been coaching youngsters since she was a child herself, has started teaching online in a small way and enjoying it. Who knows but a career is in the making? I didn’t know in the early eighties that this would become a lifetime’s work! Another way we are trying to make the ongoing nightmare bearable is dreaming dreams of doing things we like together someday, one of which is, if we can, setting up one of those little resorts in unspoilt remote locations in the mountains, places that would attract only the sort of committed traveler who is gladly willing to forgo sundry urban conveniences, from electricity to piped hot water to internet connection in the rooms for the sake of communing with nature far from the madding crowds… a subsidized dispensary, a primary school and a local women’s self-help group perhaps tagged along. If we can find a generous sponsor with deep pockets, maybe.

After the six-month dry spell, we have been getting a lot of rain, even heavy rain, over the last ten days or so, and I am really, really thrilled, because this is very out of season. The garden looks very lush again, at least for now, and for a brief spell it is comfortable to go for walks. I hope we get a little more of this good thing before the monsoon arrives. The heavy spell is of course more than a month and a half away.

My dear old boy Swarnava Mitra the budding physicist-cum-mystery story writer, bored to tears with enforced idleness just like old Sir, has taken it upon himself to brush up my trigonometry and coordinate geometry preliminary to taking on the calculus, which I loved and handled with ease once upon a time long ago. It is all coming back very quickly, but how soon before I get tired of working out problems and throw in the towel, I don’t know. It will be a test of my teacher’s patience, cunning and skill, too, so wish him luck. And I have decided to get my grasp of French back. There too I am making swift progress – I covered nineteen lessons in two days, which I hear is longer than the beginner’s course that Alliance Fran├žaise is offering these days, and it has been child’s play, but it makes me sad that I am not living among native Frenchmen, because in that ambience I’d have been fluently swearing and joking and singing and philosophizing in French again within three months at the most.

So that’s an update, just to reassure my best readers that I am neither dead nor brain-dead, yet. Fingers crossed till we can see light at the end of this long tunnel again.

Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Movies to watch

Since the best thing I can do to while away the endless dreary hours these days is to watch as many movies as I can, I have been watching a lot of trash, interspersed with a few gems that make it all worthwhile. One I watched recently, which gave me a fresh perspective on people I thought I knew a lot about, was The Butler – based on the life of Cecil Gaines, who escaped from a Georgia plantation in 1926, the days when white owners could still rape and murder black employees (though not nominally slaves) with impunity, got a few lucky breaks and learnt to wait at tables in posh hotels, then became butler – and eventually head butler – at the White House, the highest 99% of blacks could rise during their working lives, serving under Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, living through momentous changes brought about by Kennedy and Johnson, suffering (though not entirely lying down) through Reagan’s terms, witnessing great improvements in American law and society and mores, becoming estranged from and later reunited with his elder son who joined first the Civil Rights movement and then went into politics, losing the younger in Vietnam and his beloved wife in old age, and living long enough to be felicitated by the first Black President. Anybody interested in history from an uncommon angle should not miss it, regardless of what you feel about the acting, the cinematography, the screenplay and the liberties taken with recorded facts. In many ways, stories well told teach far better history than textbooks, I have always held.

The other, Blind Side, also based on a true story, about the life of Michael Oher the star black American football player and the few lucky breaks that made him, nearly brought tears to my eyes while making me feel good, and that’s saying a lot in these dark, troubled and jaded times. His adopted dad and mama (played by Sandra Bullock, whom, even at her age, I cannot take my eyes off!) seem almost too good to be true, but they are apparently real people, still living in Memphis. Thank God there are still folks like that in this world. How I wish I could have made that kind of difference to even one human being who had an unfortunate start in life!

Both movies are now available on Netflix. The one I am going to watch next is based on the life of the legendary Black lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who became one of the iconic judges of the US Supreme Court.

Monday, April 26, 2021

Elections and lockdowns

My mother and I did our citizens’ duty today by going over to vote for the highly fraught state Assembly elections. I don’t take that ‘duty’ very seriously though: I’d have run away if I had seen a crowd, quiet or unruly. The heat was bad enough. I have been wondering for many years now why the polls cannot be held during the most comfortable months and why, in a land and age when so many things are being done by so many people constantly over the internet, facilities have still not been created whereby people can vote from the safety and comfort of their homes. I also never stop reflecting over the irony that the same neo-liberal thinkers who tell you, while teaching economics according to their favourite (and utterly fantastical-) ‘perfect competition’ model that your choices, as one consumer among hundreds of millions, count for nothing at all, turn around and solemnly assure you how important your single vote is!

The Covid scare is back with a vengeance, alas, and, after a straight six-month offline run, I have had to temporarily shut my classes down again, heaven knows for how long this time round. I have sworn that I shall not comment any more on this now-sickening issue (pun intended) any more until it is well and truly behind us, but I shall say that this ‘second wave’ was entirely man-made and hence avoidable – and when I say ‘man-’ I blame the governments at the state and central levels only partly. So many hundred million people need not have started partying and attending political meetings and religious fairs as though there would be no tomorrow as soon as the first wave started receding. As I keep saying wearily, I see only opposite kinds of madness pitted against one another all around me…

I am stuck at home, I cannot even go off to swim, the summer is roasting us, and there is no hope on the horizon of going travelling anywhere anytime soon. Talk about vegetating. How I miss the cool hills and scent of pine and snow in the air! It’s been two years since I had my last glimpse of the Himalayas.

My daughter is stuck in Delhi under lockdown, which they keep extending, though it should have become clear to the meanest intelligence that lockdowns don’t work, at least not any more – look at Maharashtra, where the daily tally of new infections, according to government sources, has remained more or less the same despite the whole state having been shut down for more than ten days now. And I suppose it will be West Bengal’s turn soon, as soon as a new government has settled in. Heaven knows how we are all going to carry on. Financial distress as well as mental health problems are spreading like wildfire, but there is too little attention and concern about them yet…

I wish all my favourite ex students, scattered all around the country and abroad, the best of health and spirits. I hope we shall prevail, and I know most of us will.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Meditations on death and dying, part three if you like

I was very tired at the end of secondary school, because I had suffered such a nasty, brooding childhood, and had read so much (it takes my breath away to see how little the vast majority of ‘educated’ people have read by age 16 these days, but maybe it’s good they haven’t…), and had grown up so achingly lonely and misunderstood.

Then came eight years in Kolkata. Went through high school, college and university; broke my heart over a love affair that was doomed from the start, had a very bitter disillusionment and rejection inside the family, read vastly more than anyone I knew, had more than a little brush with the working world, suffered the ghastliest of physical pain over and over again (look up memoirs of things like how a friend cut out a festering carbuncle with scissors and forceps with no anesthetic beyond ice and alcohol), discovered how utterly unsympathetic and downright nasty so many people could be, fell seriously ill, was thrown off the ladder of career advancement by a soulless fate, and came back to my home town. I was more tired than I could have believed I could be eight years ago. I had no idea how I could get on with life.

Life picked me up and got me that schoolmaster’s job. Then for a while it was roses and sunshine, though there were dark patches enough in between. I found a calling, and gave my heart and soul to it. It brought me rich rewards, in many forms. Despite much angst and heartburns and nasty unexpected turns of fortune every now and then, it was on the whole a wonderful time. For a while, I forgot the tiredness and bitterness and sense of futility aching in my bones.

And then my daughter was born. No, it was as if I was born anew, and truly, ‘bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven’. It was as if I had finally found what I had been longing for with all my being all those barren years behind me without knowing it: not religion, not politics, not socializing, not philosophy, not money-making, not romance, but the sheer, unadulterated, all-fulfilling joy of bringing up a child.

Two decades and a half have rolled by since then again. So many thousand pupils have passed through my classes in the meantime: so many have adored me and gushed over me, then forgotten me or remembered only to badmouth me. So many small and major cataclysms in the family, including yet more heartbreaks, and bringing home the parents I had thought I had lost forever, gradually losing my most loved ones including my lifelong dogsbody, my grandfather then my father, and watching my mother slowly growing old. My wife and daughter leaving the family hearth and moving farther and farther away, not just bodily but in mind and soul. I keep on ploughing my lonely furrow still, mostly because there’s not much else that I am good at, and it at least keeps me sane. These last years have been merely slogging away, pulling the oars relentlessly towards a dimly visible shore that now often seems like a mirage, knowing more and more that the world grows increasingly boring, repetitive and unrewarding, and eventually it will come down to dragging on mere bodily survival; ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’. Only hoping it won’t drag too long. Some people are so lucky; they are still working like a horse according to their old, old routine when they just drop down and die. Well, I do at least hope that it would be only a matter of days or weeks, not months or years. So you can treat this post as the third installment of my Meditations on death and dying… not everyone, at least at my age, and having lived the way I have, is afraid of dying as such. Which is why I feel like throwing up, in this pandemic context, that so many people, even much older than me or with parents who have long passed three score years and ten, are wetting their pants to think that they or those close to them might die off soon.

Greatest lesson learnt from this sojourn on earth: most people don’t care for us for what we are, and the very few who do are not understood, let alone appreciated. The mother of an ex student, now pushing fifty, recently communicated to me, after complete silence for nearly a  decade, saying she wanted moral and spiritual counselling from me, because, to quote her, I am different from everybody else she has met in her whole life. In very polite terms, I told her to buzz off: I am too old to get involved. She should have asked twenty five years ago.

If there is something called an afterlife, not a return to this world, please God.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Rain at last, and a few other things

It was one of the gentlest and most welcome nor’westers we have ever had that rained on us early this evening. Started in the classic way that only Bengalis grow nostalgic over and lasted a full hour. I must say a heartfelt Thank God, because the heat and dust were becoming overpowering. It is still drizzling outside as I write, and the erratic wind keeps blowing in squalls through the open windows – pure pleasure. But for occasional mercies like this, the papers would have started wailing about incipient drought in various parts of south Bengal soon. I hope it is repeated several times over the next month.

My new batches have all started off on a good note. After a gap of two full years (remember what happened in early April 2020)! And it is a wonder to think that I have been going on and on like this for so many years, no, decades… God in heaven, I love doing this so much, still, after so much grinding labour and boredom and tiredness and frustration and heartbreaks!

I won My Family and Other Animals as a prize for acing some examination or the other in class ten, forty two years ago. I must have read that evergreen wonder of a book at least a dozen times, and so have hundreds of my students. My original copy, bound after the first twenty years or so to hold its yellowing and brittle pages together, finally went missing recently, so I have promptly bought a new one. I hope it lasts me the rest of my lifetime and brings unalloyed joy to hundreds of students yet to come.

On Netflix, I have been watching a documentary series called Magical Andes, and they are giving me a fantastic tour of a vast chunk of South America which I’d in all probability never have seen otherwise, and in any case, I tell myself more and more that this is the best way to travel, in the luxury and security and comfort of home, pausing whenever I please, hardly spending a dime, avoiding the milling crowds and insufferable co-passengers and lost luggage and delayed flights and bad hotel rooms and food that violently disagrees with you and so on and on and on. Especially because I don't belong to the ever-growing crowd which travels only to return home and put up 'been-there-done-that posts' on social media. The landscapes they show are truly sublime, and there is such a wealth of it on display they could make a thousand splendid wallpapers out of them (also you don’t get to see one magnificent scenery after another like that in the real world unless you undertake interminably boring journeys in between, and you don’t see the special effects in real life either, like a whole glorious sunset in half a minute and clouds literally rushing across the sky and the stars glowing so brightly and visibly moving across the heavens and plants bursting into gorgeous flowers even as you watch…). For the first time ever I thought, for a fraction of a minute at least, that it would have been nice to watch the whole thing on one of those humongous large-screen TVs they are peddling at atrocious prices these days!

Speaking of Netflix, I watched Sleepless in Seattle – rather late in the day, as many movie buffs would say. I adore Tom Hanks, and have hardly missed or disliked any movie in which he has starred, and this one is very mushy and very much a fairy tale, I grant you that, but Tom looked so young and handsome and vulnerable in those days, and Meg Ryan I have always found a dear though never great in the acting line, and after all, what’s wrong with a little mush? ‘We have got to be sentimental once in a while; it is like a fresh-flowing stream that washes off the protective coating of cynicism which we wear in our everyday lives’, wrote Erich Maria Remarque in Shadows in Paradise, and I swear, that man knew something about bitterness and cynicism and gloom and despair. Besides, life would have been unliveable without our fairy tales, and the desperate, lifelong efforts of so many men, the likes of Jesus and Mozart and Lincoln and Edison to make the fairy tales they dreamt of come true, don’t you think? There were two other things about the movie I loved – the movie within a movie bit, harking back to an old Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr classic An Affair to Remember that apparently stole and broke countless hearts in its day and beyond, and the grand view from the 86th floor observation deck of the Empire State Building. I was there just two years before they shot the sequence, and glad memories came rushing back. For oft when on my couch I lie/in vacant or in pensive mood/ they flash upon that inward eye/ which is the bliss of solitude … those are lines not restricted to memories of fields of daffodils.

Tailpiece: Anil Ambani’s son has publicly lambasted the spreading lockdown culture in no uncertain terms. I post the link here without comment, but I must say I am vastly surprised, and I often boast that few things surprise me these days!

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/anil-ambanis-son-tears-into-govts-lockdowns/articleshow/81942731.cms

 

I hope, dear reader, you enjoyed reading this post.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Filling in, end March

These days, I am watching more documentaries than movies and TV series on Netflix. Those of you who are serious people and regular readers, I’d urge you to watch two such shows: Saving Capitalism and Inside Job. The latter narrates how shameless and rapacious neo-capitalism rampant since the 1980s is bringing about crisis after crisis in all major economies (in the course of which the poorest, weakest and most gullible suffer most every time, while the guilty super-rich manage to get away virtually scot free, and the former points out why it is becoming increasingly important to save capitalism from its own worst excesses, for the sake of the survival, safety and moderate comfort of the mass of humanity. If you have read my seven-part series of blogposts clubbed under the tag ‘socialism’, you will marvel at how much the narrators sound like me! (by the way, Netflix as an organization is very much a part of the liberal-capitalistic mainstream. That, I shall always maintain, is the greatest strength of the system, this ability to introspect, self-criticize and self-correct over and over again: all socialist systems devised so far have been far more fragile, insecure, and therefore unable to deal with timely and constructive criticism; that is why they always failed and collapsed sooner or later. If a better, more durable socialism is to be designed – and I believe it must, if mankind is to have any long term future – then the new generation of ideologues will have to do something about this enduring weakness.)

This time my daughter was not around, the first time since as a child fourteen years ago she started helping me (hugely) at the time of new admissions. She was away on a work trip. God be thanked, a large number of young and much older ex students willingly and most efficiently helped me out, so that over the last three days most of the hassle has been dealt with. I am hoping that I shall be able to embark on a ‘normal’ new academic year, regardless of the so-called second wave of coronavirus infections.

Pupu visited Ladakh for a week, and has just phoned in to say she is back home in Delhi. I am eagerly waiting for her to fill me in with the details. Meanwhile, my long-time suspicion has been adequately confirmed: Ladakh is too cold even in end-March, the air for some reason causes problems of discomfort including breathlessness even for those who are used to mountain travelling, and the so-called beauty appeals only to those who like barren deserts or moonscapes. I think as a tourist I shall give Ladakh a permanent miss. Give me Kashmir, Himachal or Uttarakhand any time.

Early summer is already making things unpleasant in this town. A day after I put up the last post here there was the first (and so far only-) nor’wester rains, first time in six months, and it made things comfortable by lowering the temperature and cutting down the dust in the air, but that pleasure lasted barely two days. I am praying the next storm comes very soon, otherwise we’ll start baking or boiling in early April!

Is there any hope of the swimming pool opening this year? I wonder…

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

To Delhi and back again

 I went over to my daughter’s place after four months for just a little less than a fortnight, and came back to a Durgapur already blazing. It hasn’t rained for six months – I can’t remember the last time this happened – and the dust in the air is becoming unbearable: I am waiting desperately for some early nor’westers.

My mother had gone along with me (I am too scared to leave her alone at home for any length of time after that last horrible scare in September!), and spry as she is despite her age, she took over the management of our little household in Delhi like a duck taking to water. I did my mite, including going over grocery shopping to C.R. Park and attending to some household chores, but it wasn’t much. A visit to Sunder Nursery (what incredible greenery even in early March!) and lunch over rumali roti and various kebabs and tikkas at Ghalib’s in Nizamuddin were two of the highlights of our sojourn this time. My daughter is currently doing a job which involves mostly working from home (except when she has to go on field trips), so I managed to share a lot of time with her, which is basically what I live for these days.

As usual, I did a lot of rich browsing in my daughter’s ever-growing repertoire of books. One of the most significant was The Cases that India forgot by Chintan Chandrachud, a very readable set of summaries of some of the landmark judgments delivered by our higher courts since Independence. The other two were both coincidentally written by  Indian women based in the US: The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan (a wonderful re-creation of the love affair of Noor Jehan and Emperor Jehangir – I am eagerly waiting to lay my hands on the two sequels) and The Satapur Moonstone, featuring the female lawyer-detective Parveen Mistry, set in the early 1920s, written by Sujata Massey: after the Mujaffar Jang books by Madhulika Liddle (I wish she’d write more), this was the best Indian writing in this genre by any Indian author that I have read: I shall make bold to announce that I prefer this sort of stuff over the Cormoran Strike books by J.K. Rowling.

We now have a bicycle in Delhi, and one afternoon I rode several kilometers along roads chock a block with speeding motor traffic: a pretty hair-raising experience. Seeing that a lot of people are again cycling these days, I hope the municipal authorities would see it fit to mark out dedicated cycling lanes along all major roads, and that soon.

The return trip to Durgapur was harrowing. I had set out from home with two hours in hand, and the drive normally takes barely more than twenty minutes at dawn, but that day everything went wrong, what with a never-before-seen traffic jam ahead of the airport (did it have something to do with the fact that the PM was flying to Kolkata the same morning?), followed by hopelessly slow and clumsy staff at the check-in desk, the usual swarming crowd at the security counter, and then a very, very long scramble to the farthest of the boarding gates, my poor mother huffing and puffing behind me – we boarded the plane with five minutes to spare for takeoff. I’ll probably go back to arriving at the airport at midnight and snoozing for four hours before the boarding gate. T3 is bursting at the seams already: the sooner they get the other terminal ready the better.

Here in Durgapur I am bracing myself for the usual admission rush at the end of this month. I shall have no more online-class nonsense, God willing, and I hope to start a normal session once more in April. I wish that the government(s) would make up their minds and announce something about when they intend to let schools reopen for the next academic year. Even if it is delayed by a month or two, a definite decision would go a long way to clear people’s minds. Trains and schools – those appear to be the only things that have not yet gone back to normal.

I have been avidly watching some of Karan Thapar’s interviews with Shashi Tharoor on YouTube, and I have also lately developed a fascination for the young but very articulate and dynamic Trinamul MP Mahua Moitra. Who says we don’t have polished, educated and intelligent people among our politicians? Perhaps our real curse is that the best of them don’t manage to rise to the top!

Have you started laying bets on the most likely outcome of the imminent Assembly elections in West Bengal?

Friday, February 26, 2021

Oracle mode (and mood): about 2050

 Everybody is a crystal-gazer these days, so why not me too? Here is what I anticipate about the world thirty years from now. Maybe some of my readers will still be around, and remember, and mentally tick off all the things that I got right.

1.    The population has stabilized everywhere except Africa, around 10 billion, but the metro cities are bursting, with some 40-50 million strong, and harsh limits have been imposed on entry and settlement by vast local support.


2.    If there hasn’t been a revolution of the French/Russian/Chinese type yet, the world is controlled by a thousand corporate CEOs and maybe fifty political honchos, all of whom personally have at least tens (some hundreds…) of billion dollars. Perhaps there are a few trillionaires already.


3.    ‘Strong’ men rule every major nation, and they are desperately trying to fend off assassination as well as all-out war with one another.


4.   If fossil fuels  and disposable plastic have not been almost totally replaced already, the air is becoming rapidly unbreatheable, and the soil, increasingly infertile.


5.   Water famines loom in most countries, and natural disasters like hurricanes, forest fires, tsunamis and earthquakes are becoming increasingly more frequent and more destructive.


6.   The world is politically so fractured along so many lines (gender, religion, caste, tribe, language, wealth) that traditional consensual democracy is on the verge of extinction.


7.    The old hugely outnumber the young in most advanced countries, and policies are having to be recast in their favour, because as an increasingly organized power with huge resources and influence, they affect politics profoundly.


8. Private transport is now a preserve of the super-elite, and increasingly self-sufficient gated communities with high levels of security have become the norm everywhere. Human driven vehicles have become a rarity.


9. China dominates Asia, having suborned all weaker nations into at least silent subservience, or impotent opposition. A Europe-America league is increasingly convinced that a modus vivendi with China is their best option.


10. Vast numbers live on the dole, addicted to the internet and other idle pleasures, probably kept on a tight leash from public misbehaviour everywhere.


11. The super-elite (the richest half million) are making grand plans for migrating to the moon, or even to nearby planets.


12. Many hundred million young people, thanks to the very new-fangled, experimental, hyper-liberal education they have received in school, are permanently unemployable.


13. Countless ageing parents are beginning to wonder whether the strict discipline insisted upon by schools and teachers in a bygone era might not have been a much better option, something that would have ensured that they did not have to bear with irresponsible, callous, self-obsessed, dependent, stupid and ignorant grown-up children.


14. AI and robots are becoming ubiquitous, and rebellious forces are organizing against them.


15. Resurgent religions are becoming an unavoidable force to contend with in every nation’s politics.


16. The traditional middle class is breeding itself out – their numbers falling rapidly everywhere.


I have only made some projections based on the current situation (as I have watched it developing over almost half a century). Many of these are likely to go wrong: I hope they will, so that my daughter’s generation might actually live in a far better world than I am here anticipating. I shall be long gone by 2050, but they will be only middle-aged,statistically fated to live on for another 30 years each on average. I hope they learn to cope well. My greatest fear is that too many of my projections are going to come true. And then there might be even nastier things that I did not anticipate…

Monday, February 15, 2021

About luck, again

I notice that it is nearly twenty years since I started scribbling (or rather, typing) these musings in my diary. I was 38 then, I am going on 58 now. My daughter was virtually a baby then, she is very much a grown woman today. Over these last two decades, I have been musing often and again over the role that luck plays in our lives. Of all things, reading Thomas Picketty’s unlikely classic Capital in the 21st century set me thinking about how luck has affected my life so far, and how it is likely to in the days to come.

 

I, for one, believe ever more strongly with every passing year that luck (or fate, or God’s will, call it what you like) plays a crucial role in everybody’s life (some are born to ├╝ber rich parents in advanced countries, some are born severely handicapped, some see their lives and/or savings destroyed by war and inflation) – and this, without giving up the firm conviction that every person ought to take some responsibility for his own life, and do his utmost to achieve certain aims he considers worthwhile. And so far as I am concerned, I can look back and see how strongly luck has affected my life, for better as well as for worse.

 

I have been lucky that

 

1.      I have lived so long. In India, it’s hardly something that can be taken for granted!

2.      I have been reasonably healthy and whole for so long: so many people become handicapped, ill or decrepit pretty early in life.

3.      I have had my parents around, fit and active for so long (so many people lose one or both in their youth, or have to carry them as helpless burdens).

4.      I have never had to do disgusting things (like crime, flattery, servility or some essentially mindless, pointless job) for a living, and I have on the whole greatly enjoyed what brought me and my family our daily bread.

5.      My daughter was born healthy and whole, I have been able to give her a good upbringing, all things considered (and absolutely delighted in it) and now she is an active, self-supporting adult.

6.      She still loves and respects me in very apparent ways, and even listens to me most of the time!

7.      A lot of people have tried to hurt me, and many have cheated me, financially, socially and emotionally, but no one ever managed to do really serious damage.

8.      I have been able to indulge my hobbies – reading, writing, watching movies, counselling people, sleeping a great deal, relishing good food, living in quiet, clean and safe surroundings, walking, swimming, travelling for pleasure – for so many years.

9.      I can still quickly strike a good rapport with youngsters in large numbers.

10.  The pandemic did not seriously hurt me!

 

… and I can easily add several items to that list without having to think too much. That was just to show that I am not a habitual whiner; indeed, many honest readers will admit that I attribute an uncommonly great deal to good luck for the way my life has worked out, instead of taking credit for everything I have ‘achieved’. Therefore, when I list some ways in which bad luck has troubled me, no one should decide that I am wallowing in self-pity.

I think I have been a victim of bad luck in the sense that


1.      Despite my parents being more than normally good people, I had a very lonely and insecure childhood, the scars of which still trouble my dreams, and, I think, have made me more permanently stressed and melancholy than I might have been.

2.      If my father had made better practical decisions when he had the choice – and he had far more than I ever did – my life could have turned out to be very different, though I am not saying necessarily better.

3.      If my immediate boss and the super-boss at the newspaper had not almost simultaneously resigned and left just when I was beginning to grow wings, I might have been a heavyweight senior journalist hobnobbing with VVIPs and pontificating on TV and syndicated columns in return for vast paychecks today: again, I’m not saying that would have been ‘better’.

4.      If all those hundreds of old boys and girls who once gushed over me had kept in touch and spread the word around, I would have been a celebrity today. I was just not destined for that sort of thing.

5.      If I had figured out much earlier that that schoolmaster’s job was simply wasting my life, I’d have been a much richer man today.

6.      So too if inflation had not remained consistently high and interest rates had not fallen so much over the last decade and more – things entirely beyond a single ordinary man’s control, and therefore attributable only to bad luck.

7.      So too that I live in a country where there is virtually no social security for ageing self-employed persons like me (though they number in the hundreds of millions), and that I fall in the same income tax bracket as the richest tycoons, who earn thousands of times as much as I do!

 

There have been one or two other things besides, which I do not wish to bring up on a public platform. Or maybe I will, when I am too old to care.

Enough of cribbing. I have always liked to look ahead. So here’s a list of things I wonder about when I imagine  how luck might affect me in the years to come.

1.      Will I be fit and active for quite some time yet?

2.      Will I live long enough to be a grandfather, and be one half as good as my grandfather was?

3.      Will I find one or two good friends in my declining years?

4.      Will I be able to live out my old age in at least modest security and comfort?

5.      Will my passing be quick and easy?

6.      Will I be remembered by some, or forgotten almost instantly?

 

I really do think that no matter what I choose to do from here onwards, it is chiefly luck that is going to decide those answers for me.

P.S.: It is always a pleasure to see some old posts coming back into the most-read list: A most frightening prospect (how the issue has dated and faded from public memory, just as I had sardonically predicted!), A girl who admired her teacher (nothing has changed in all these years) and What sort of person am I? Do look up some of the comments on those posts too: they make interesting reading.

(something's the matter with the line spacing. Readers, please excuse)

Thursday, February 04, 2021

Another story

For those who have been asking for more: have you read Satyajit Ray's Septopaser khide? Otherwise, listen to me reading it out here.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Dark days far from gone!

Joe Biden took over as the post-madness President of the United States today. We must not forget, though, that far more serious than Donald Trump the individual is the long-developing phenomenon that brought him to power and the legacy that he is leaving behind.

It is a fact that the inclusive, altruistic, cooperative, farsighted movement in human affairs with a pronounced concern for improving the condition of long-disadvantaged people (from the poor to Blacks, women and the LGBT tribe) started ebbing all over the world after the 1960s, and was rapidly rolled back ever since the rise of the Reagan-Thatcher consensus (conservative in social values, free capitalistic in economic conviction) in the west coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sharp turn of China towards a no-holds-barred materialistic/acquisitive/me-first culture around the same time (India more or less tamely followed suit, with no strong and separate ideology to guide us: real thinkers with constructive visions of the stature of Rammohun,Vivekananda, Gandhi and Tagore had stopped coming into the limelight a long time ago).That rather drastic shift did pay rich dividends, partly because the formerly mentioned movement had betrayed too many ideals, leaving behind a whole range of negative reactions from terror and horror  to merely a bad taste in the mouth, and partly because the opposite  effort sharply improved living conditions for a vast chunk of the human population within about thirty years, along with making billionaires by the hundreds and millionaires by the hundred thousand – the latter naturally got a huge stake in the new dispensation to want to do their utmost to keep it going unchallenged.

However, from the time that seminal book Globalization and its discontents was written (and actually much before that, as readers of J.K. Galbraith and Robert Lekachman know), it started becoming plain to the most clear-eyed observers of world affairs that all was not well with us. a) The physical environment was becoming rapidly and dangerously polluted as an unfortunate but apparently unavoidable spinoff of the kind of high-consumption lifestyles that more and more people were adopting; b) crime and social dysfunction proliferated, even at the family level, everywhere in the world as more and more people insisted that freedom and democracy meant not civilized negotiation, gradual compromise and quiet living but an aggressive attitude of grabbing, self-advertizing and thrusting forward in every sphere of life – every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost began to be taught as ‘wisdom’ in virtually every business school, not just in criminal gangs; c) people by the hundred million, feeling cheated, rootless, culturally disoriented, utterly insecure about the future in a scenario of ultra-rapid change (change which visibly and grossly benefited the already privileged), began to be attracted more and more to every kind of religious demagoguery that promised meaning and stability and community and certainty of better things ahead (even if that meant martyrdom as a terrorist!); and to control all this flux and chaos, d) more and more it became obvious that authoritarian rulers offering neo-fascist dispensations and miracle cures were becoming popular all over the world: they alone were confident of where they were going, they alone knew all the answers, they alone could lead their country towards a new heaven on earth. Their shrill, hyper-exaggerated (and plain lying-) messages were intensively, ceaselessly propagated to their increasingly blind and devoted followers through the bullhorns of social media, which gave them direct, continuous and relentless access to tens of millions of people in a way that Orwell would have marvelled at, and it became the despair of the regular, old-fashioned mass media which decided to become ever more noisy, trivial and sensationalistic to stay relevant. It is against this background that the rise of Donald Trump has to be understood, along with so many other ‘strong men’ all over the world.

It is one of my pet theories – buttressed by a lifetime of close observation and reflection – that any kind of excess in social manners and mores invariably provokes an excessive reaction in the opposite direction. Also, that nobody has the whole truth, nor does anybody tell the whole truth as s/he knows the truth all the time. If you accept these two premises, you will agree with me that democracy, if it is to remain healthy and effective, must always function in the spirit of tolerant debate, adjustment and compromise, consciously avoiding all extreme positions, every participant willing to obey the basic rules and to accept the majority decision taken without threat or coercion – however unpalatable or unsatisfactory it appears to him or her personally. Now a lot of people might dislike my saying this, but that does not change the fact that in the name of change and progress and improvement, far too many people of too many different persuasions have pushed the limits of civilized discourse too far for too long. To take a few examples, those who call themselves liberal democrats in the US and secular liberals in India have, all the while paying lip service to the ideals of democracy and free speech and tolerance, insisted that they alone are always right, and all those who disagree with them must be derided, shouted down, isolated and if possible ostracized, put beyond the pale. Therefore you are instantly branded racist if you so much as mumble that a lot of black people do take to drugs and crime too easily, and need to be dealt with firmly by the law, though never abused; you immediately and forever become a sexist if you dare to say publicly that women can be bad people too; you are instantly branded a religious bigot if you point to statistics which show that members of a certain religious community take to violent terrorism far more than others; they shut you out completely as a heretic if you suggest that capitalism (or socialism, depending on which circle you are rubbing shoulders with) might have a lot of faults; why, they call you a grammar Nazi if you insist on the importance of correct and polite language! ‘(I have every right to mangle a language as much as I please’). Notice, those who take most pride in calling themselves enlightened and civilized created this atmosphere: ‘You only have the right to agree with me: free speech for me/us/what is politically correct right now, not for anyone else’. How dare you say you don’t particularly thrill at the idea of homosexual love, when we in our own little ghetto have decided to worship it?

Top this off with the increasingly ominous development, hugely exacerbated by social media (which have become a major phenomenon only in the current century), that most people neither know nor respect facts any more. Democracy, or indeed any form of civilized discourse and decision making, depends crucially upon people basing their opinions on reason and facts. Now facts have always been difficult to ascertain, fluid and protean: science in the broadest sense has tried to, and hugely succeeded in, widening the ambit of facts that we can be more or less sure of, but, while its success with the natural world has been truly remarkable (physics, chemistry, even biology), the application of the scientific method to social affairs has been far less so. Things have not been improved by the fact that there are far too many ‘experts’ around on every subject these days muddying the waters, so that any fool of a bigot can call upon any number of experts to buttress his opinions, however far-fetched they may be (learn from the pandemic-scare experience). So there are still endless debates over simply what the facts are: are women really weaker than men, are Blacks really lazier and stupider and more criminal minded than whites, are Muslims intrinsically more fanatical and violent than others, are most Mexicans rapists and drug dealers, did China spread the virus to terrorize and dominate the rest of the world? And as these questions have become more and more politicized, so have the debates grown more heated, more acrimonious. The confusion is worse confounded by the fact that more and more people base their opinions on social media inputs (which are known to spread deliberate misinformation with mischievous intent), naively accepting the most extreme opinions disguised as facts most likely to be true, which makes for a very volatile, very explosive situation.

Now consider a third most unhappy development over the last generation: the kind of ‘democratic, egalitarian’ education that has been dished out to hundreds of millions of young people all over the relatively-free world was designed to insanely boost everybody’s self-esteem: everyone was talented, everyone had great potential, everyone could be tycoon, rock star or president; nobody could be called stupid, lazy, delinquent, undisciplined or unsocial any more (especially if he has made big money!). Everybody is, or has to be, a winner, no matter whether that is in a school track race or in a race for the Nobel Prize (people were encouraged to forget that winners need losers much more than losers need them: you can’t win something unless one or many others have lost!) Teachers’ criticism was muted by fiat, examination standards lowered and scores raised to absurd levels for the hoi polloi, at least up to the college level, so that Everyman could develop a swollen ego, brought up to think that they are all wonderful creatures and the world exists to serve their pleasure. No one, from street lumpen to cabinet minister, must say sorry and back down in acknowledgment of being wrong or unfair; self-assertion is the be all and end all. Just look around you, and maybe at the mirror, to check out whether I am right.

Then think quietly and calmly: what happens if this goes on for too long? All those who feel left out, cheated, marginalized, humiliated, even many gentle and reasonable folks among them, begin to yearn for a leader who would articulate their long-suppressed grievances, who would make the world look simple to negotiate again, who would restore at least some old-fashioned values (work hard, take responsibility, don’t abuse the elderly), greatly raise their self-esteem even if they didn’t deserve it, painlessly usher in either a return to a mythical, lost golden age (‘Make America great again’ is the war cry of a man who neither knows nor cares that America looked greatest in the world’s eyes just after she became the generous rehabilitator of half the world, having won a world war before that on behalf of tolerance and democracy!) or a new, crudely imagined heaven (where only upper caste Hindus prevail, or Bible Belt white Americans).

Donald Trump, like Hitler, did not appear out of thin air. Alas, we have stopped reading serious history – that is another great failure of the current era – or we would have known and recognized the processes by which such ‘leaders’ rise to power, over and over again. The most successful leaders, those who rise most meteorically, are the most cunning, most shameless, most callous and most opportunistic: they are guided solely by the raw will to power, and they know how best to knit together the angst of all the disparate disgruntled elements into a tsunami of reaction which will raise them to the throne. And if the volatile, explosive mix that I mentioned above lasts, Trump will be back again (remember, 70 million-plus voted for him still, after four disastrous years!), or someone even worse, because there will be vast numbers of fanatical idiots eager to raise him to power. Also remember, a lot of people manage to be content, if not actually happy, even under regimes like the Nazis and the Bolsheviks – until their nearest and dearest are put on the chopping block. As in ancient Rome, so in today’s world; as in the US, so in India. It bears worrying about.

P.S.: Nishant Kamath’s long comment on my last post on the subject clarifies a lot of things about how someone like Trump came to power. The book I am reading now, the latest from Pankaj Mishra (Bland Fanatics), goes some way to explain the phenomenon in greater detail (though of course I do not condone all his views), and also why it is not going to vanish with the departure of Donald Trump from the White House: the rot is very old, and runs too deep.