Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Price: Rs. 150, pp. 252
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Monday, November 16, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Friday, October 23, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
Some people have been asking for personal reminiscences, especially of the out-of-the-way sort. Well, I have some pretty odd ones, but I don’t like much to write about them, because unembellished they don’t sound very exciting, and I hate embellishing or caricaturing real-life memories: I’d much rather write full-blooded fiction if and when I can. But here goes. If some reader’s fancy is tickled enough to ask for more, I might be encouraged.
This happened way back in 1986, when I was still at the university. I won’t go into irrelevant details, because I want to cut to the really interesting experience, so suffice it to say that we were a largeish party of students in their early twenties who were visiting Gopalpur-on-sea in Orissa. I have heard that things have gotten much more shabby and crowded since, but at the time it was a lonely sort of place, with hardly anything on the beach except the (rather forlorn-looking) lighthouse; there were certainly no cheek-by-jowl hotels and swarms of importunate hawkers selling foodstuff and knick-knacks of the sort that have been spoiling the beachfront scenery in Puri or Goa for a long time. We had checked into the Youth Hostel, and were putting up cheerfully with the rather spartan facilities available, because we were there only for a couple of days, and most of our time was spent revelling on the beach. Now this beach, unlike other places I have visited, was rather remarkable in that it sloped down very steeply, and unlike, say, in Chandipur or even Digha where you can walk a long distance before the water comes up to shoulder height, here you were out of your depth almost immediately you stepped into the water – which was a most disconcerting experience for landlubbers like us. And the sea was choppier than elsewhere, too: it didn’t seem
Anyway, for two successive days we spent most of the daytime on the beach, splashing about, yelling and shrieking and cursing and laughing wildly (there were several girls with us), swallowing large mouthfuls of sand and saltwater in equal proportions, sunbathing, singing raucously and tunelessly, gorging ourselves and getting slightly drunk late into the nights – enjoying ourselves foolishly, thoughtlessly and rather vapidly, as all youngsters are wont to do. The odd thing happened on the third morning. We were supposed to pack and drive off to the nearest railhead in a few hours: most of the girls had gone for a last-minute dekko around the little bazaar inland, most of the boys were still lazing in bed or tottering around groggily, complaining about the cloudiness and the slight chill in the air and the imminent prospect of departure homewards. In the event I found no companion to take a last dip in the sea with me, so I went alone.
Well, maybe I was still a bit sleepy, but I saw or sensed nothing out of the ordinary, and the sea looked unusually calm, and although the water seemed cool in comparison to the previous days (which I casually put down to the early hour), I had no premonitions at all as I waded in, and in fact, though I am most certainly not overly adventurous or brave, I didn’t think much about swimming out… and I kept swimming for quite some time, lazily, comfortably, without a care, until I began to feel slightly out of breath. Then I stopped, treading water, and turned to look back at the shore. And that is when I got the fright of my life.
It suddenly seemed to me that I had come out much too far, and for a panic-stricken moment the thought
I struck out desperately. I swam harder than I have swum before or since. In the process I probably did harm to my muscles and my nervous system, and actually lowered my chances of getting back to shore safely, for I could have exhausted myself and got the deadly cramps. In any case, I did get back to shore without much real difficulty, and already by the time I was heading back to the Youth Hostel I had begun to feel foolish about having given myself a fright for nothing. Oddly, though, they were looking worriedly for me by the time I got back. The sky was overcast, a wind was rising, it had started drizzling, and someone said something vague about a storm warning heard on a transistor radio. Well, the jeeps dropped us off at Berhampore station without incident, though it was raining now, not drizzling any more; but we even boarded the train and got going before all hell broke loose. The cyclone had struck with infernal fury. The thunderstorm was so violent that within half an hour the inside of our coach was dripping wet even with the windows tightly shut; the train crawled along at a snail’s pace for a couple of hours more before being forced to stop at a small wayside station, and we were many hours late in arriving at Howrah terminus – but we were the lucky ones, because the news told us that overhead power wires had been torn and railway tracks washed away in several places soon after we passed through, and the trains that came after us were delayed not by hours but by days. In Gopalpur, which had taken a direct hit, the banshee wind had driven thousands of tonnes of sand hundreds of yards beyond the usual limits of the beach, half burying buildings like the Youth Hostel we had stayed in, and enormous waves had pounded the shore with titanic power, hurling buses like toys off the roads a long way inland.
The point of this story is, I had found the sea behaving so oddly because that monster of a hurricane was coming up: it was the classic lull before the storm. Why had I been foolish enough to think of taking a bathe in the sea that morning, and why did I live to tell the tale?
Friday, October 02, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
And it was not just about kings, either. I think India, more than any other country, has consistently idealized the non-greedy man, the saint, the ascetic, the scholar (not the technician, mind you, who is too commonly confused with a scholar these days), the artist in love with his art for art’s sake, the wandering or meditating wise man, and even the householder who lives a quiet, undemanding, self-controlled, socially-responsible and charitable life – the grihi sanyasi (which, I think Swami Vivekananda once said, is the hardest kind of sanyas to practice!) At least, it is India where not conquering generals and rich shreshthis or even kings who have been traditionally accorded the highest social esteem; rather, it was expected that such men who have won great worldly success be seen as prostrating themselves before those who have been recognized as ‘holy’ men. And whereas I am sure that the great majority of kings and tycoons did so only for the sake of form, to keep on the right side of overwhelming social opinion (the same reason why so many medieval European kings did not want to rub the Church of Rome the wrong way), there were many, from Ashoka, Menander (Milinda) and Akbar to Shivaji and the early Chogyals of Sikkim (and countless less-known minor princes and zamindars) who did so out of genuine conviction, esteem and awe of men whom they genuinely felt to be superior, men from whom they could learn lessons of lasting value. Maybe things have started changing rapidly of late, but even a hundred years ago (and that is only a blink in India’s history), Rudyard Kipling was quite right when he wrote that across the length and breadth of this land the humblest of folks considered feeding a wandering sadhu a matter of earning merit (punya); he was not sneered at or shooed away as an importunate beggar but treated with reverence as a better man. Also, I can say both from my reading as well as from direct personal experience that, while charlatans there have always been aplenty (as there are among scientifically-educated men today, such as doctors!), truly wise and holy men have never been lacking in this country either.
And if you ask why this ideal was so strongly held and insisted upon, well, I have found through very wide reading that it was because India discovered long ago (long before western socialists and environmentalists and psychologists started spreading the word around the world anew), once and for all, that high living is not good for you, as an individual and as a society. It ruins you in both body and mind, it makes decent social life impossible, it hurts the ecosphere that nurtures you too badly to be sustainable for long. Intelligent and well-informed people will realize that I am summarizing whole libraries here, but to give a few indicators of what I mean – look around yourself, and you will see millions of obese and brain-dead people glued to their potato chip packets, beer cans and video games or football on TV or hanging out at the shopping mall: that is a little of what I mean by saying it ruins you in body and mind. In a world of competitive high-living, where everyone is playing the game of consumerist one-upmanship all the time, everyone is bound to burn with jealousy and discontent and malice towards relatives, friends and neighbours; no society can exist in a healthy state under such conditions, because no one can wish anyone well, and widespread ‘corruption’ (which stems from millions of the undeserving, from rickshaw-pullers and police constables to MBAs and MLAs alike determined to access the high life by hook or by crook), frequent scandals, riots, insurgencies and wars will be inevitable: that is a little of what I mean by saying that it makes decent social life impossible. And the warnings that the environmentalists have been giving out for at least forty years now, about increasing pollution levels and rapidly-dwindling natural resources and ominous signs of man-made climate change are hints enough about what I mean by saying that it ruins the ecosphere and threatens the very continuance of human life on the planet. Those (from George W. Bush down to my fat neighbour who insists that she only has a thyroid problem and her pampered brat is not a lazy rascal but only ‘suffers’ from attention-deficit disorder) who choose to believe otherwise are living in denial: the best they can do is carry the world with them towards doom.
This is getting to be rather a long post again, given today’s typical attention spans (another sad sign of the consequences of ‘high’ living!). So far I have written mostly about the negative aspects of chasing the high life. In the next post I shall try to explain what I have understood about the positive aspects of abjuring the same.
Monday, September 21, 2009
It is well-known that our politicians by and large like to live the high life; indeed, a great many people get into politics (have always done, at least ever since the British started letting in a trickle of Indians into government, way back in the 1890s) because they have decided it is the only way they can get a taste of the high life. It is not merely about dining at five-star watering holes and flying first class and staying at vast and grand bungalows at public expense, it is equally about being surrounded by armed guards and riding about in trademark white cars with sirens hooting and making swarms of secretaries and peons scurry about and keeping visitors waiting for ages just to tell the world how important one is, every waking moment. That is very much a characteristic of our political culture.
The interesting thing is that there has also been what I may call a counterculture, for want of a better word, of demanding that our rulers be self-effacing, simple in lifestyle, endowed with a philosophical bent of mind, dedicated to the ideal of service to the common weal, sage enough to know that to be honest in this world requires conquest of greed and brave enough to try conquering greed, regardless of the world’s opinion. That voice has never been completely drowned, and it grows strident every now and then – as now. This requires some understanding.
First thing to be noted: much of this strident criticism of the opulent living of our netas reeks of hypocrisy and double standards. Those who level such criticism – and those who focus and express it publicly, to wit journalists – are by and large middle class people who are themselves horribly greedy for the high life, and indulge in every kind of unethical dealing happily for its sake as long as they feel sure they can get away with it: I have been closely associated with the mass media myself, I have seen it all from the inside. I know how cheaply a reporter’s malleability can be bought – sometimes for as little as a suit length or an expensive saree or a bottle of good whisky or at best free tickets to Dubai or Singapore for self and the missus – and I despise them heartily when they write about politicians’ peccadilos, or sermonize about the importance of honesty and probity in public life. They deserve every bit of contempt I have heard politicians pouring on them. Their censure stems solely from impotent greed: they don’t hate the high life, they only hate the politicians who seem to be enjoying more of it than they can ever hope to. The fewer such people we have, the better for all of us. A straightforward crook is far more respectable than a pious fraud.
It is also a fact that our society (and that means not only the middle class, which has always been rather small till very recently, but the vast unwashed masses) has always expected the rulers to distinguish themselves from the ruled by grandiose and unabashed displays of pomp, pelf and power. Our folklore is replete with stories recounting, half-grudgingly, half-admiringly, the incredibly expensive and often unspeakably cruel ceremony and magnificence with which the sultans and badshahs, the maharajas and nawabs surrounded themselves. Single weddings, single monuments cost the taxpayer so much that great hordes had to be slaughtered to persuade other hordes to pay through their noses, and famine stalked the land afterwards and took off vast numbers again. It was not only accepted as part of the normal order of things, but even celebrated; after all, what were great sovereigns for, if they did not provide the masses with the spectacle and grandeur that they so craved, and could not hope to have in their own lives? Regardless of their avowed respect for their austere mentor Gandhi, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Md. Ali Jinnah carried this tradition of high-living into the palaces and courts of the new nations that were born under their stewardship in 1947 (Nehru was not dubbed 'The Last Moghul' for nothing!) Given that history, our current breed of rulers are doing nothing new or overly shameless and reprehensible; they don’t really need to apologise for anything.
Besides, the rulers of today – I wonder why they don’t have the guts to do it! – can very well point to the way the burgeoning middle and upper classes (by various estimates between 70 and 300 million strong) are living it up under the new dispensation, worshipping money and shopping and conspicuous consumption as the only things worth living for, all questions of ethics in making money be damned. Every other maidservant gets some jewellery made for herself whenever she can afford it, and tries to put her kids into an English-medium school; higher up the income ladder, every middle-class housewife splurges on puja shopping as though there will be no tomorrow, though her wardrobe may be bursting with luxury clothes already; look at how everyone spends on lavish weddings these days, and how nobody objects to the way the pujas themselves are becoming more ostentatious and expensive with every passing year, and fashion-show extravaganzas gain all-round approval, while money for poverty-alleviation programs is always scarce. And in case they dare to raise the inane objection that ‘it is our money we are spending’, they need only to be reminded that no money is their money by divine right: it is only a certain kind of social arrangement, a certain system of laws, that allows them to make and keep and spend that money the way they wish – and in allowing them to do so, politicians play a very decisive part (as in periodically hiking the salaries of government and PSU employees through one Pay Commission recommendation or the other, or in deciding how stiff taxes on businessmen should be). So why should the politicians themselves be left out of the party? Why on earth should the people expect them to be upright and moral and frugal guardians of a nation that is neither upright nor moral nor frugal when it comes to enjoying the material goodies of life?
Well, that brings us back to the insistent voice of the counterculture I mentioned earlier, the voice that is often almost drowned but never goes away, and that keeps making a lot of us feel guilty about our chosen lifestyles again and again. About that, in the next post…
Saturday, September 12, 2009
He is the face of the dark underbelly of all that has been going on in the name of the development of the state of West Bengal over this last decade. As I said somewhere before, I once read ‘development studies’ avidly as a student of economics: the ground reality now makes me weep (but look, the happy cynic would say – isn’t this the apotheosis of the social-democratic dream: even a rickshaw-puller can aspire to live the five-star life in today’s India? What else is upward social mobility all about? You are just an elitist old fool for whom the grapes, unless you can get them yourself, are always sour…)
I should just like to say a few things here. First, don’t act holier than thou about ‘our sort of folks’ and pin all the blame on the Gaffar Mollahs and the political leaders who patronise them. They are simply on hire to do all the dirty work that the bhadralok don't want to soil their hands with; they are only members of the ‘executive committee’ (to borrow a Marxist phrase) of the moneyed elite who almost always manage to stay out of the undesirable kind of limelight – all bhadralok, doctors, engineers, actors, lawyers, NRIs, high-flying bureaucrats and businessmen of various hues – who create the demand for land that inevitably brings into being the landsharks and their godfathers. Where there is a demand, there will always be supply, sooner or later, by straight means or crooked. And when something is chronically scarce - such as land - the crooked means will always be resorted to, because the straight and narrow path is so difficult and unpalatable. So don’t call Gaffar Mollah or his political masters crooked while absolving the Raj Kishore Modi type or companies like Wipro and Infosys (see this news item) as ‘good’ businessmen, and the moneybags who want to luxuriate in the Vedic Village sort of vice-dens as ‘nice and innocent’ people; that is where you will go wrong. Nor do you need to shed too many tears for the farmers who are now up in arms (emboldened by the Trinamul landslide) against the land sharks – they are motivated by no nobler a sense of mission than to wring more money out of the buyers, now that all that hot money has driven prices up a hundredfold or more. All those farmers’ sons are now salivating over the imminent prospect of driving about in SUVs and lazing about in multiplexes and pubs, young and nubile and greedy females on their arms. Also remember: the Gaffar Mollah sort of fools deserve some pity. When the axe falls (as it does sometimes), chances are always ten to one that it is they, rather than their bhadralok patrons, who will be shot dead or locked away in prison for the crime of getting caught, while their real masters, the money-bags, can get away without getting singed, let alone put into serious trouble. So don’t envy Gaffar Mollah his few years of luxury.
Only, once and for all, get rid of the notion that a man deserves admiration or respect for the kind of car he drives, or the kind of hotel he stays in, or the amount of marble and granite in his house. Always try first to find out where the money came from. There will be no change for the better in India until every household begins to believe once more that one honest and hardworking man, though he makes only a humble living, is worth more than ten thousand rich and flashy crooks. And remember, too, that it is a really warped sense of values that can allow you to claim that the government doctor who gives protection money to his local neta so that he may not be posted away from the town where he has built up a cushy private practice (which gets the money to buy a bungalow in Vedic Village) is not a crook, but the neta who takes the money is!
Saturday, September 05, 2009
As part of my curriculum while doing the higher secondary course, I came to know a little about the padavali (devotional poetry, directed chiefly to Ram and Krishna) literature of medieval Bengal (Vidyapati, Chandidas and Govindadas, among others), written in the artificial language called brajabuli and – I believe alone in my entire batch – I became convinced that this was the most important and precious thing I had learnt in those two years (barring poetry and humour in French), not all the nuclear physics and organic chemistry and calculus and stuff they taught in ‘pure science’. That did not prevent me from qualifying for medical and engineering school, but it may have been a major factor behind my deciding to opt out of such career choices. Maybe I was already convinced that my life and time were worth somewhat more...
In the course of studying economics in college and university (during which time, while teaching a great many students and winning medals in examinations and writing a large variety and quantity for diverse magazines and newspapers) I did a great deal of high-level math (only to find out how little it helps to figure out how to help people live better) but also somehow found time to read an enormous amount of subjects as diverse as environmental science and politics and sociology and history and psychology and linguistics and education and law, besides the literature of seven or eight different languages, and philosophy spanning three continents and three thousand years. And I became more and more convinced that Man was lost, and of his own choosing. Even skepticism and atheism and hedonism were thousands of years old – there was nothing in what the Sartre and Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg and contemporary management-guru types have been saying these last few decades that have not been said, debated and either blindly swallowed by some or laughed at by some centuries ago, in many countries. I learnt that sooner or later I would really have to become my own man and make my own choices. As the poet said about Reality, ‘It beckons and it baffles/ philosophy – don’t know/ and through a riddle, at the end, sagacity must go…’
So I began, as the years passed by, to understand more and more about what Socrates meant by saying ‘I know nothing’, and the Buddha meant by saying you first have to empty your mind, and Newton said about a child collecting pebbles on the seashore, and Tagore by dhulaar ja dhon taha jete dao dhulite (leave back in the dust what belongs to the dust).
While I have left behind a lot of things as boys’ toys, one thing that has stayed with me, and indeed grown ever stronger, is a profound affection for devotional music of any sort. The first notes of a really great piece of music, no matter what its age or language or denominational belonging, often transport me to a quiet ecstasy, and coming back to this world of here and now is a pain like no other.
Here’s a small but eclectic choice of my favourites. Youtube is a recent technological wonder that I am truly thankful for! Here is Achyutam Keshavam and Payoji Maine (pardon the ghastly graphics), here is Khwaja mere Khwaja, Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra played as the title theme for Stanley Kubrick’s classic science fiction movie 2001, Abide With me, and This World is not my home sung by Jim Reeves in American country style. Also, Indranil Sen's rendition of Tagore's Dnaariye achho tumi amaar gaaner opare (listen closely to the lyrics if you didn't know the song).
‘Ah, music!’ said Professor Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, ‘a greater magic by far than what we do here’.
Those who are interested might want to read what I last wrote on this blog about religion here.
I am not trying to convince or convert anybody. Just enjoy. And if you do find you share my tastes, get back to me, I’d love to talk to you.
Monday, August 31, 2009
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Film review: Gran Torino
Walt Kowalski brought back old and glad boyhood memories.
I haven’t watched Clint Eastwood since Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, but boy, he can still do his stuff! Old and bent and hoarse and tired, at 78, he brought back a rush of delight as I remembered the days of Dirty Harry, The Good, the Bad, the Ugly, Where Eagles Dare, For a few dollars more, and even Every which way but loose.
Gran Torino (name of a Ford classic car, actually) was released worldwide in January this year. The disk was lying with me for a few months: I wish I had made time to watch it sooner.
You can read all the summaries and reviews on the Net, so I won’t bother telling the story here. Or even to write an exhaustive essay about why I liked the movie. This is just to say that I am happily amazed to see that all the old fire is still there, though he doesn’t do one whit to make himself look and sound a day younger than he is. He wheezes up stairs, spits blood in the washbasin, can’t pull heavy loads any more. But he stubbornly prefers living alone to living with grown children who don’t want him or in an old age home. He is nastily narrow-minded and racially prejudiced and foul-mouthed, yet a lot of people can’t help feeling there is a good man in there, struggling to come out… always has been. A decorated Korean-War veteran, he carries bitter memories of a horrid past. His guns are always close at hand. He dies heroically to save people he apparently cared so little for that he called them gooks to their faces. He doesn’t even fight the way he used to in his old movies: the heroics are of a far higher, understated order. And he goes, the old diehard atheist, with a ‘Hail Mary’ on his lips, leaving his house to the church because his wife would have liked it, and his beloved Gran Torino to the only friend he had found. As some people acknowledge, he was a man, to the last.
Mr. Amitabh Bachchan - with all due respect - still has to learn a great deal from geezers like Sean Connery and Eastwood. I remembered the Modesty Blaise story A few flowers for the colonel (wonder how many readers will even know what I am talking about!) And I remembered the line from The Old Man and the Sea: ‘A man can be destroyed but not defeated’. If Hemingway had been around, I think he would have begged Eastwood to play
Watch the movie.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
If there is one important truth about me, it is that I have tried to be a true and good teacher to the best of my ability all my life. Nothing hurts such a person more than a sign that someone who pretended to be a devoted and special student for years and years finally proved to be an insensitive ingrate. I am referring to the blogpost I wrote on May 01, 2008, titled "Don't be a teacher with a heart". I do wish more people would chip in with comments on that post, telling me how they would feel if they had been cheated like that after they had done their best to be a teacher with a difference... and whether they can honestly condemn teachers who become scoundrels with not a care about whether their old boys and girls go to blazes after they have paid their fees in full, once they have had experiences as painful and galling as I have had.
Sunday, August 02, 2009