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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Books, boys and guns

I was working as a schoolmaster in those days, and happened to look after the school library on the side. There was a very nicely drawn up poster on the wall, telling visitors in big, bold letters about the rules they were all expected to know and obey in order to keep the books safe, accessible and in good condition. One senior boy – a ‘good’ student, if you judged from his examination grades – was once caught red-handed by his classmates, trying to tear out a page from an expensive encyclopedia. The matter was duly reported to the headmaster, who decreed that the boy must pay a hefty fine, be debarred from the library for the whole year, and suspended from the school for a short period. His father, a senior manager in a large local factory, came to expostulate in defence of his son. The boy should be let off lightly, he argued; a suspension would damage his ‘reputation’ and might prove detrimental to his long-term prospects. The headmaster called me over to discuss the matter with this gentleman. I discovered that he was expecting leniency on the plea that it was a first offence, and besides, his boy was a ‘star’ of sorts. Did he know that rules were supposed to be the same for all, and ignorance of the law cannot serve as an excuse for committing a misdemeanour? – Yes, indeed, he did; besides, he admitted that the boy knew that what he was doing was wrong. All right, then, would he condone the same sort of leniency towards a first-time burglar who had broken into his house, I asked. Did he realize that if we let that boy off lightly, he would actually go about boasting about it, and serve as an active encouragement to further, and worse, misdeeds? – The man remained sullen and silent. It was clear that he was accepting the punishment only under protest, and that far from being able to convince him that it was being done for the greater common good, I had made a lifelong enemy that day.

A couple of years later, an old-boy came to look me up in the same library. He had never been a particularly ‘good’ boy, and he was certainly no teacher’s pet; after high school he had acquired some sort of low-level technical education and was currently employed by a private-sector engineering company in a fairly humble capacity. He didn’t have much to say, yet he lingered on, looking more and more uneasy as the afternoon wore on; it was obvious that he was waiting for the hall to clear before he would tell me what he had really come to say. At long last, when I rose to go, he drew out a tattered old book – an entirely forgettable schoolboy thriller – with the school’s mark on it. He had, he said, forgotten to return it when he had left the school five years ago. I thanked him for taking the trouble, but he still wouldn’t go. I waited. There was no point in hurrying him: he would say his piece when he wanted to. Then I was locking up, and he was still lingering beside me, looking worried and utterly woebegone. It was when I was about to leave that he finally blurted out, ‘Actually, sir, I didn’t forget that book, I…I sort of stole it!’ And then the whole thing came out in a rush: how he’d done it on a dare, and how his friends had praised him for it, and how he had forgotten about it for a while, and how the memory of what he had done had been bugging him more and more of late, until he had thought it fit to come five hundred miles to return the book…was it okay now? He was really ashamed and sorry…he just couldn’t make out how he could have been so silly…would I please not despise him for the rest of my life?

It takes all kinds, I know. I only wish they made more of the second kind, and gave less encouragement to the first.

[I wrote this years ago: what brought the essay back to my mind was a horrifying little item in today's newspaper. In connection with the boy who recently shot dead a classmate in a Delhi school, it now seems that his father not only left a gun lying around at home and had taught his son how to use it, but - as the father has confessed to the police (The Statesman, Sunday, December 16, 2007, front page) - he had actually advised his son to kill his 'enemy' and get rid of the trouble. What a country our children are growing up in!]

Friday, December 07, 2007

A little bit of self-defence...

A lot of people are hurt or offended when they get back to me after ages and find me cold. I have a few things to say in my own defence:

Here’s one sample of the kind of people to whom I am deliberately rude. They come and literally cringe and fawn to get their children admitted to my tuitions (it disgusts me to see how little pride they have at that point of time, and how ‘unbusy’ they are – no matter whether they are doctors or engineers, and whether they have big houses and fancy cars and ‘important’ offices to hold); they pay for the course, and then, once the tuition period is over, they – sometimes both parents and children – cannot even recognize me on the street, leave alone offer a civil greeting, even over the phone! The worst of these types are those who, after years of cold shouldering, suddenly turn up at my door at the oddest hour to claim special privilege or admission for some relative, because I tutored them (or their children) years ago – in one case a man who had ignored me for thirteen years at a stretch despite living at a stone’s throw from my house suddenly appeared with such a request! Then there are ex-students who suddenly arrive to claim special attention (meaning free counsel!) for some sort of competitive examination they are appearing for, after six or eight years of complete silence and neglect. Needless to say, I shoo off these people, leaving no doubt in their minds about just how much I despise them, and making sure they’ll never come again. If that makes me ill-mannered and unsocial, I am content. I know I shall never gain anything worthwhile from such people anyway, and they will either ignore or abuse me behind my back no matter what I do for them, so the less I know of such people and the less thankless service I give them the better for me! At this age, as a devoted family man, I work only for love or money, and I find absolutely nothing wrong about that: if any man works with some other motive, he is either a nobler man than me or a fool. In any case, I don’t want to be like him.
As to whether I am really a cold and unloving man or not does not depend on the ignorant or malicious opinion of the above kind. I have scores of ex-students and their parents with whom I have over the years developed closer bonds than one can find in most families. Some of these relationships are now decades old, and have grown warmer and stronger over the years, as we have got to know one another ever better, and gone through a great deal of ups and downs together. But I shall admit this much: I give back profusely, but only when I receive goodness first. These ex-students whom today I love so much and am so grateful to for more favours than I can count or even remember never fell out of touch, or did so only briefly, and made very handsome amends thereafter when they got back – in word, deed and kind! Also, they have not become snobs without having done anything to be really proud about. I have found them to be good people, I consider myself blessed that there are so many of them, that their numbers keep growing every year, and I look forward to many years of happy and close interaction and mutual help with them. I keep wondering every year, as several batches become ex-students, just how many of them will join that list of very close friends in the years to come. It is they who make me feel rich beyond the dreams of avarice; it is they who have saved me from becoming a misanthrope, despite all the badness I have seen.
But I have two grouches to put on record. One is that – considering the number of people I have taught or otherwise helped out since I was a teenager myself – the number of such close bonds I have developed is woefully small. I know good things are always rare, I myself keep telling everybody that diamonds are far more scarce than coals, that is why they are so much more valuable, and yet I cannot help feeling that maybe a lot more people might have bothered to keep in touch. This, especially because so many of my old boys keep telling me that they have friends who once attended my tuitions (or classes in school) and have good memories, but now they feel scared about what kind of welcome they might get if they try to get back in touch after all these years. I am writing to assure all those that the welcome will be warm enough if I feel there is a genuine urge to get back, rather than a prickly desire to defend themselves for having been remiss. Wrong, in my eyes, can always be amended, as soon as one is willing to admit wrongdoing without reservation, without hiding behind lame and silly excuses like ‘I have been busy’. The second – and I am sorry if this raises a lot of hackles, but I am talking cold facts here – is that, although I have taught almost as many girls as boys continuously for 27 years, and although I know I have always treated girls just the same as boys (in fact, lots of my old boys grouch that they had felt the girls got more indulgence and affection from me), and although girls have habitually gushed much more than boys while they were attending my classes, so many more old boys bother to keep in touch than old girls do! And I am tired and sick of hearing the excuses: how can women not feel ashamed of saying they couldn’t keep in touch for years and years together, even by letter, email or phone, because they were ‘busy’, while at the same time insisting that I ought to believe them when they claim that they too have just the kind of good memories as the boys do? The proof of the pudding is always in the eating! – Also, the very fact that a few girls do bother to keep in touch gives the lie to the claim that somehow it is difficult or impossible for women to maintain old ties in our society: the obvious thing to conclude is that women, unlike men (though they can shed far more copious tears far more easily and frequently) as a rule care far less about matters emotional than men do. My wife – who is even more of a woman-hater than I am! – insists that this is true: with rare exceptions women, she says, live only for the moment, for their immediate friends and relatives, and for material satisfactions alone. But I have still not given up hoping. I hope that this post will not only go some way to explain to some of my old girls (and boys) why they find me so wary and aloof when they suddenly knock, say, 18 years after they last saw me, and I still dream that reading this post will induce some of them to get back to me in a way that I can sharply revise my views of humanity in general and womankind in particular for the better. I am raising a daughter, you see, and I want her to be a good, strong, all-round human being, not a typical (and despicable) woman, nor like all the uncouth young men who once crowded my drawing room merely for some notes while inwardly hating me and everything I stood for, or cursed me because I couldn’t take them in!

A word to all visitors, again!

[This is a re-issue of a previous post]
I am gratified to see that of late there have been lots of visitors to my blog (I have installed a counter). However, there are a few things I should like to say:

1. To those who are good folks, and read with intelligent interest, first - a warm thank you. Please do scroll down the right of the home page and click on the links provided to read older stuff - I have been posting since July 2006, and every time you click on an earlier post, you will see still older ones shown as links along the right of the page again. Maybe you will find and like something you have missed. I get lots of nice responses by email and over the telephone and face to face, but I shall be happiest if I get them here, on my blog itself. Also, please post your name (I am sorry, but I will NOT let in anonymous comments, or comments with weird names which are obviously fictitious - even if they say nice things!), and if possible, your email i.d., too, so that I might get back to you if I want to engage you in conversation. Go ahead and let me know who you are: only the mentally sick and those who are scared because they know they are writing offensive trash need to hide! - You might kindly suggest subjects on which you want me to write, and I shall try to oblige, within the limits of my interests and knowledge.

2. To those who dislike me, and/or are entirely incapable of reading (leave alone understanding) long and serious posts on any subject, my request for the umpteenth time is - please don't take the trouble of visiting! I won't miss you.

3. To those who are vicious enough and unemployed enough to keep trying to get through with pure and senseless abuse, I can only repeat, please stop wasting your own time. I alone judge what is to be allowed in as commentary, my own standards alone matter here, like it or not, and rude/silly/irrelevant/uninformed posts simply do not fit the bill, so they will never be allowed; as a rule I don't even read them through before I delete them (these days some of my ex-students do that for me too, so I never even get to see them!). That you bother to keep on hammering away merely reveals how desperately you burn with hatred and jealousy and the knowledge that you can't do a thing about it to rattle me. My happiness and enjoyment of my work is not something that your puny powers of invective can disturb.