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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Missing you, my heart

I have recently got a taste of things to come, and frankly speaking, I don’t like it much.

There’s a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Alone is being just by yourself; lonely is when you long for company and can’t get it. One often wants to be alone; indeed, there are times in everyone’s life when one yells at other people ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’ I have needed a lot of alone-ness in my life, always: when I am reading, writing, thinking, watching  movies; even, sometimes, when I only wanted to sleep. My family has always been good enough to me in that regard – they have respected and granted my need for private mental space. If anything, I have had too much of alone-ness, which means loneliness; not wanting to be alone but having no choice. One can be very lonely in  a crowd, mind you; indeed, one philosopher has aptly described the denizens of all modern metro cities as ‘the lonely crowd’…

Most people always need company; some prefer to have much more of solitude. I guess it makes me kind of weird that I have always had an  equally strong desire for both. So on the one hand I have long avoided socializing, and on the other, I love teaching primarily because it gives me the chance of getting warm and close with so many people, new people year after year, and forging ties with some that last a long time. In the process of reaching out I have tried to be as intense as genuine; certainly far more than any other teacher that I know. It has scared some, exasperated others, made some suspicious and wary, while others have laughed, or simply ignored me as a crank. No matter. While there have been nasty surprises and bitter experiences and heartbreaks galore, the rewards have been deep, many, and diverse (indeed, if I told all, most people of my age would think it’s a fairy tale!): I wouldn’t change it one jot. And I am still hungry for more.

The job of a news reporter on the beat is always irregular and hectic, without a time-bound routine, and requires running around to all sorts of places most of the time. I got a taste of it and gave it up early in my career: I decided I liked to spend much more of my time at home, and at my own will, than that kind of life permitted. I am glad I could make up my mind early. Those who have bad wives and in-laws at home are glad if they can stay away most of the time, but I know too many men who live far away from home simply for the sake of having to make a living, and hate it. I am gladder still that the next job, at which I spent fourteen years, was that of teaching at a school, and that too, barely ten minutes driving from home. It was hard work, teaching school in the daytime and giving tuition at home in the evenings every day, but it gave me a lot of time at home, that was the important thing. And once I got married, things became even nicer, so I wanted to be at home most of the time: in fact, soon after learning that my wife was in the family way I stopped going to other people’s houses to take classes, and that’s been 17 years now. Once my daughter was born, I was only too happy to devote most of my time to the hearth, and God knows how richly I have been compensated. What made my life very unusual was that when I gave up that last salaried job eleven years ago, my daughter was barely past five, and ever since then I have been a complete home-body. Which means that, given my intense instinctive desire for and efforts to make a joyous family life, my wife and daughter have seen and got more of me than most wives and daughters do. I have enjoyed every minute of it – eleven years have flashed by like a dream – and I trust and pray that they have, too.

There have been bad patches every now and then – which family doesn’t have some? – but there has also been fun galore, chatting, reading, discussing books, watching movies together, playing games, making things with our own hands, going travelling all over the country again and again, planning things to do, swimming, shopping (yes, shopping too!), dining out, handling trouble… we were so close-knit a unit that we didn’t really need anybody else to stay occupied and happy, not even relatives, in all these years. The best proof of which is that even my wife and daughter have needed to socialize far less than most people do. And in between there have been so many connections built up with old boys and girls, face to face and over the phone and via internet, that my life has always been full. Which is why it is nothing less than weird that I keep aching for company. Shakespeare said of one particular and very exceptional woman that ‘she makes hungry where most she satisfies’. I can say that about all humankind – and that, despite all the worthless and disgusting and disappointing people I have known.

There can be no more telling fact about how much of a home-body I have become than that in all these eleven years there has been one solitary occasion when I went somewhere out of town without wife and daughter. And this despite their urging me again and again to go visit people I love and care for who live far away – not just in this country but abroad if I so wish. I just never felt a strong urge to do that: nothing else stops me, really, I know. My door is always open to anybody who wants to see me, as thousands of people have found out, but I rarely visit anyone, nor go to clubs, parties and festivals, unless my wife and daughter drag me along, which rarely happens… and all this time, I have been content.

So what about the line I started with? Yes, I’m coming to that. My life is at a turning point once again, I think. And that is because my daughter is going away.

A few people already know; to a lot of people it is bound to come as a surprise. That is why I put that line in a paragraph of its own, and put such a long preamble before it.

She’s grown up now, of course, and it would have soon been time for the fledgling to leave the nest for good and make her own way through the world. I had been struggling to reconcile myself to the thought for quite some time: after all, intellectually speaking, I have only scorn and derision for parents who refuse to let their children grow up. I know just how grown up I was at 16! And besides, I live in an obscure one-horse town anyway: there have never been any prospects here, so all but the stupidest and laziest of my students leave, never to come back, because there is neither a chance of a good education here nor decent jobs. This is neither Delhi nor New York that I could have sensibly asked her to stay back all her life. Only, she’s decided to speed things up a bit. She’ll go to college in 2015, so I thought I still have some time, but now she’s planning to go off to Calcutta already, and that means, of course, that the missus is going to be there much of the time too, and it’s going to happen within a couple of weeks, and though this has been the talk for several months now, I find myself all unprepared. “I suppose in the end the whole of life becomes an act of letting go...” says the eponymous narrator in The Life of Pi played by Irrfan Khan, and I understand. Eventually, as I have observed in my Meditations, you have to let go of your own life itself. But training for it is hard, especially when you love: Vidyasagar makes the sage Kanva weep when his foster daughter Shakuntala is about to leave for her husband’s place, ‘bujhilaam sneho oti bishom bostu’ (love – in the sense of strong affectionate attachment – is an awful thing indeed). As I was telling someone I also love with all my heart, the French say to part is to die a little.

Oh, of course, Calcutta is just a few hours away, the two of them keep assuring me, and they’ll keep coming over, and then there’s always the phone and email and sms and video chat, and I have my work cut out every day of the week, so why should I be lonely? Does anybody understand why? And does anybody have words of consolation or advice for me, things not in the nature of useless platitudes? 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Meditations on death and dying, part two

My daughter, when she was several years younger, asked her mathematics teacher – a devout Tamil Brahmin then in his mid seventies (his mother lived beyond ninety) – why he made it a point to rub some ‘sacred’ ash on his forehead every morning after the daily religious rituals. He told her it is a very old custom, meant to remind the wearer every single day of his life what he is finally going to end up as: a handful of ashes.

It is interesting to note that many religious traditions make it mandatory for seekers of salvation to go through a period of what is called shmashan sadhana – meditating round the clock at the cremation or burial grounds. It is meant to drive deep the great realization that, in the English poet’s words, ‘sceptre and crown will tumble down/ and in the dust be equal made/ with poor crook’d scythe and spade’. Death is the ultimate equalizer: tyrant or tycoon, great artist or sportsman, Helen of Troy and Hercules, brilliant scientist and heartthrob of millions, as much as the humblest hewer of wood and drawer of water is going to go back to the earth and become a part of it, and that, pretty soon. What is more, they are all going to be forgotten sooner or later (look up the ancient emperor’s pathetic boast in Shelley’s Ozymandias, and recall Kipling’s famous lines reminding us that it is the same with nations as with persons: ‘Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre’! There is also Kabir’s terrible song ‘Sadho ye murdon ka gaon’…everything is dying every moment, from the stars in the sky to the tiniest living thing on earth: keep that firmly in mind as you go through life.

Now focusing for any length of time on this most inevitable fact of life might, one could complain, make one very gloomy, frightened and depressed, totally unwilling to strive for anything worthwhile: if we are all going to die and be forgotten, why bother? Better by far to turn off all thought and live for the moment, to ‘seize the day’ and make merry for a while, indulge our senses to the fullest while we can, ‘take the cash and let the credit go/ nor heed the rumble of a distant drum’! One could argue that the glutton, the sleep-drunk, the shopaholic and the party animal are the wisest philosophers among us, for they have understood best how utterly transitory and purposeless this mundane existence is, and are determinedly making the best of their time the only way they can. Indeed, very clever men have actually preached this as the best outlook on life: the ancient materialistic sage Charvaka’s essential teaching can be summarized in the aphorism ‘javat jivet sukham jivet/ wrinang krityang ghritang pivet’ (live happily as long as you live, keep drinking ghee even if that puts you into debt). And indeed, if we were to make a global survey, we would quite possibly find that a great number of people, if they subscribe to any philosophy at all (many of us never even feel the need for it) actually believe this to be the sanest way of living. Whether we think about it or not, we are going to die anyway, so let’s all try to emulate Paris Hilton for as long as we can …

Well, obviously not all human beings through history have been satisfied with that outlook. Even emperors have been worried enough by the prospect of old age, death and oblivion to try all sorts of things to prolong their lives or at least their memories – from killing millions to raising pyramids to writing books of philosophy (Marcus Aurelius) to spreading religion (Ashoka) to looking for the elixir of life (Kublai Khan). Somewhat lesser men – the most gifted adventurers, scientists and artists among them – have often been motivated to doing great works at least partly by the hope that their deeds will fetch them a permanent place in history. Medical science still keeps searching as desperately as ever for ways to make us live longer, if not achieve immortality: far fewer people are engaged in seriously pondering over whether that is a very wise pursuit at all! As for the vast mass of ordinary human beings, we never can stop wondering and agonizing over what would happen to us and our loved ones after we die – hence much of the essential solace that religions provide (and one reason why neither mindless hedonism nor a purely ‘scientific’ outlook on life will ever be able to replace religion wholesale), hence the way we arrange funerals, write obituaries, build memorials and keep making love offerings to departed souls, hence the endless curiosity about the hereafter that has given birth to some of the most fantastic and beautiful art and literature in every civilized country, hence the unrelenting effort of scientists to figure out whether ‘entropy can be reversed’ (see Asimov’s priceless story The Last Question, or the one by Satyajit Ray where a computer self-destructs because it has become intelligent enough to want badly to find out what happens after death). No man with a mind can be truly happy to live with the thought that I matter as little as the bubble that rises momentarily on the surface of the ocean, and that I shall simply stop existing and vanish completely in a short while from now, leaving not a trace behind. In Hamlet, Shakespeare in the same short passage exults on ‘What a work of art is Man!’ and yet calls him nothing more than ‘the quintessence of dust’. Two of the most haunting lines I ever read come from a pretty cheap potboiler, Harold Robbins’ Memories of another day, where the protagonist begins a speech with ‘A man is born, he works, he dies. Then there is nothing.’

But is it possible to have the thought of the inevitability of death and eventual oblivion firmly fixed in mind and yet live a good, vigorous, interesting, meaningful, worthwhile life? At my age I believe it is, and I base my conviction on two things: a) the way I have lived my own life so far (remember that I brooded upon death at great length when I was only seven, yet in the post I wrote at age 45, I sound, I have been told, much more robustly cheerful about life than most people around my age manage to do), and b) if that were not possible, the finest men of thought and action would not have so strenuously enjoined upon us to adopt such an outlook (whether you think of the Buddha or the references to men like Tagore and Vivekananda noted in the comments on the earlier blogpost – these were not men who were tired, bored, frightened or despairing of life). And in fact I believe that it actually helps to live the good life if one makes a habit of reminding oneself every morning, in a calm, matter of fact way, as my daughter’s teacher did, that one is going to end up as a handful of ashes. About that, more in the next post.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

All you who sleep tonight

It’s poetry time again. Sometimes, prose just doesn’t work (old timers will know that I wrote about ‘Poems’ a long time ago). This one is by Vikram Seth.

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above –

Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one
And some for all their years.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

A teacher who shares my world view

Ms. Devi Kar, senior teacher, ex principal and currently director of Modern High School Calcutta, winner of various awards and advisor to several high level organizations, is one of the few contemporary educationists with a public profile whom I respect. She recently wrote this essay in The Telegraph about the gross and sad and continuous decline in educational standards in this country (which sits very uneasily with the loud public tom-tomming of the idea of how wonderfully and rapidly we are ‘developing our human resources’). For those who have read all my earlier posts on education (look at that label in the right hand side-bar) and the post titled The crying need for quality’, it will be apparent that I might have written this article myself. Do let me know what you feel about it, especially if you are an ex student of mine, or a parent of a teenager, or simply someone who is keenly interested in which way education is going in this country.

Some of you might also be able to relate this article with the contents of this essay whose link Krishanu Sadhu sent me only a few minutes ago.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Meditations on death and dying, part one

I shall be fifty in a few months’ time. Half a century spent on earth. A lot of my elders, not a few contemporaries, and even a sad number of juniors have already left, and obviously much less time is left for me than I have already spent: it does not make a very big difference now whether that is a few months or a few decades. The Bible says that a man who has lived ‘three score years and ten’ has had a full life and should be glad to go: I learnt about this when I was only a boy ( I spent my first long sleepless nights brooding over death at the ripe old age of seven!), and I have spent all my adult life marveling at what a wise saying that was, and how little it has been invalidated by several recent centuries of social change and technological progress. If I live on much beyond 70, I shall know I am living on borrowed time, and try to conduct myself accordingly. In fact, I don’t find it a cheery thought that a lot of my elders have lived into their late eighties…

My parents married very young. It was in 1988 that we celebrated both their silver jubilee and my father’s fiftieth birthday, and it seems as though it was only yesterday, and now it’s my turn to be fifty! Here is an excerpt from my diary written twelve years ago:

“The strangest thing about my life at this moment is that I’ve just turned 38 and I can’t feel a thing about it, except perhaps wonder (what is one supposed to feel anyway?), and the funniest thing is that I am very happy and a little sad about my life at the same time (is that the way most people without major successes and major troubles start feeling at about this time in their lives?) I distinctly remember feeling wise and old at the age of eleven, like young Scout at the end of To kill a Mockingbird, and wondering whether I’ll ever manage to turn 18 (and it wasn’t mere childish fancy – after five years of journalism and twenty years of teaching I know that I had read more and understood more and reflected more by the age of sixteen than ninety percent of people do in their entire lives, and a quarter century removed I also know that I am not very much wiser and cleverer than I used to be: in that sense I never found out what it means to become a ‘normal’ adult!). Now lo and behold, I’m pushing 40 already and there’s precious little to show for it, either by way of fame and money or even a paunch and grey hairs. Physically I’m just about as active as I ever was – I never was the athletic type anyway – and if it’s a telltale sign of advancing years that one becomes garrulous and pontificatory, well, I always loved to lecture people once I had overcome my intense innate shyness; now the shyness is all gone, but dislike of society (of society, not of all men) has taken its place, and if anything, I lecture much less these days; indeed, try to avoid talking to people outside the family unless they are paying me for it! If worry is another sign of middle age, I worried just as much as a boy as I do now: only I was troubled by examinations and my parents’ rocky marriage then, and I worry about the future of my wife and child now, so there. When did all those years fly by, and where did they go? It’s all passed like the rising mist – and that leads to the unavoidable but sobering thought that the rest of my life (another thirty or thirty five years, maybe?) is also going to whiz by, and before I know it will be ‘Sunset and evening star, and after that the dark…….’
I don’t feel down in the dumps like Macbeth,

            Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
            Creeps in this petty pace to the last syllable of recorded time
            And all our yesterdays have been candles
            Lighting fools the way to dusty death:

but who can disagree with Prospero when he declares

Our lives are such stuff as dreams are made on,
            And the end is rounded with a sleep…?

People have done Nobel Prize-winning work before they were 38, become Presidents and acknowledged saints and self-made tycoons; Alexander and Shankaracharya and Shelley were dead; my own father had spectacularly ruined what could have been a good career and sired three children by this time. After showing some early promise, I’ve only just managed to get a complete formal education and become a recognised hardworking schoolmaster, a family man, a strenuous saver and taxpayer, besides remaining a whimsical scribbler and bemused spectator of life and manners. So in a sense I have done nothing, my life is worth nothing. On the other hand, strange to say, I feel more secure and content with my life than I have ever been before – I feel so good, in fact, that my only real worry is that this idyllic existence might come to an abrupt end all too soon through some unexpected quirk of fickle fortune. You’d call that strange, wouldn’t you? How dare a man feel so good about himself with so little to his credit, and if he has somehow managed to work the impossible, why on earth should he still crib about feeling uneasy?”

Given that I was already feeling that way back in 2001, it is nothing short of bizarre that another twelve years have simply slipped away almost unnoticed, despite so much that has happened in between (see the post titled ‘Forty five and counting’, which I wrote back in 2008). I am definitely on my way to old age, I have a grown up daughter on the threshold of adult life now, and so many of my dear old boys and girls, now grown up enough to understand and appreciate the meaning of this essay, were far too young then to do so! I am not often at a loss for words, but I find it well nigh impossible to express just how I feel about this… but the overarching and undeniable fact is, the Shadow looms ever larger now.

[I pause at this point. Let me see whether some people would like me to carry on. Madhuchhanda Ray Choudhury’s remark ‘I wonder if it really matters’ on my last post gave me a big boost to start writing in this vein, so I guess she deserves a word of thanks, though I don’t know her at all, and she didn’t sound as though she was trying to be friends.]