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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Interesting developments

On two unconnected themes:

I am glad that the country’s lawmakers are beginning to move (however glacially) towards recognizing the open secret that men can be harassed and abused by women too. The UGC has notified that all universities must take cognizance of this fact of life. It’s a beginning; there’s a long, long way to go. Especially since, over the last few decades, women have been so relentlessly portrayed as victims who forever need special help, protection and consideration in every sphere of life (even the marital bed!) that it has become politically incorrect to mention that millions of women make life hell for millions of men, by being sirens, nags, shrews and viragos – the way they are born and brought up – always have. As mothers, girlfriends, wives and colleagues. If it had not been so acutely embarrassing for men to admit that they can’t do anything about it – unlike with women, we hate to portray ourselves as pathetic victims – it would have become a major political issue long ago. But maybe there’s hope yet. Maybe a time will come when men will start speaking up and admitting openly how much thankless trouble women have been in their lives, how much better things could become if we could draw legal lines around them as they have been so intent for so long to draw lines around us!

I wrote in a recent blogpost that ‘it is a very sick world where people are constantly trying to have fun… and whole industries are devoted to it’. In that context, Subhadip Dutta sent me this link to an article written by some yuppie. It merely confirms what I wrote. The only caveat I shall add is that the writer at least earns well – that cannot be said about millions like her, who barely survive yet have to pretend night and day that they are millionaires (if you are located in New Delhi or Bangalore, have people to support and have a post tax monthly income of less than a hundred thousand rupees, you are only a shade better than a beggar. Now how many can claim to have legitimate incomes larger than that… what percentage of our yuppie crowd?)

Friday, May 20, 2016


(click on the picture)

I have just returned from that trip to Kashmir which I had promised myself six months in advance. In many ways it was a journey down memory lane, because I was revisiting after nearly forty years. There are far more cars around, and the roads are much more congested, but, as I feel more and more frequently these days, the truly remarkable thing was how much had not changed.

We took a train from Durgapur to New Delhi, then a GoAir flight to Srinagar; we returned a week later the same way. Saves a great deal of time, which is good, because trains bore me more and more: that is one way in which I have changed. If and when I go again, it will be by air all the way and back. But the airports, clean though they might be, are another crashing bore: I wonder why they had to turn them into shopping malls. One funny thing about Srinagar airport is that there are birds hovering and chirping all over the lounge, and you are always at risk of being bombed with poo. And the multiple-level security check at daybreak on the way back really tests your patience.

The hotels are overpriced everywhere, but the service is good. Weirdly, all the tourist hotspots are choc a bloc with eateries offering shuddh shaakaahari fare: evidently, Punjabi and Bengali tourists have become a minority. The only time we tasted good meat was when we sampled Kashmiri wazwan in Gulmarg. The men, I found, are in-your-face chauvinistic about their good looks, but the girls are awfully pretty too, despite hiding almost everything behind their burqas – you can’t beat nature, no matter how short your dresses are. I was tickled to see that even the IndiGo airhostesses, normally attired in the tiniest of frocks, had been ordered to don trousers for the duration of their stay in Kashmir.

There are notices in English all around you, and the Kashmiris are truly creative with spelling. One sample: a sticker behind a car read ‘Peopels die, memory is feed, but love romens’. And the Pahalgam Development Authority uses the acronym PDA unabashedly even in parks; evidently, like those who named the ADDA in Durgapur, nobody told them. A restaurant was named Taj Mehal. I was pleased, though, to read the word ‘cashmere’ on at least one shop signboard. And one legend that I read on a great many cabs and autorickshaws was ‘Believe a snake, but not a girl’. Make of that what you will.

Something most irritating is that hawkers and touts (for everything from clothes and hotels to horses) crowd and badger you wherever you go, as though just walking around or drinking in the beauty of the surroundings without constantly paying people is a crime. And everybody sells genuine pashmina and kesar, like your joynogorer mowa in Bengal.

Walk around, and sit and look, if you really want to savour Kashmir. Yes, just walk, walk, walk. And don’t travel to too many places: you get all you want – hills, snow, forests and rivers, deeply soothing silence – in any one place you visit. My tip is, just go to Pahalgam and stay for a few days. It will be enough (add Gulmarg if you wish – it’s beautiful too – but avoid Sonamarg: there’s nothing different and special to see, and that is one place where they go all out to fleece you, the whole tourist business being totally unregulated).

Srinagar was warm to hot: in the afternoons the sun was blazing. The last light faded only when it was 8 p.m. The other spots were much cooler: in Pahalgam, after sundown, the mercury went down to about 20 celsius, if the internet app could be trusted. The shikhara ride is truly enjoyable, especially if you can make it early in the morning or late in the evening, but remember to bargain shamelessly. Climb up the hill to the Shankaracharya temple only if you are very devout (the temple itself being strictly ho-hum, artistically speaking) or if you want to enjoy the view – and it being a CRPF camp, photography is prohibited, remember. As for the famed Mughal gardens, we were lucky to see them in full bloom, but if you are in a hurry, just see the Shalimar. And stroll along the lakeside boulevard as far as you can; it’s a treat. But the ambience would improve vastly if all motor traffic could be driven off at least for a stretch along that road, as they have done in Nainital. The only vehicles that might be allowed are the spanking clean, bright red topless double-decker buses that saunter up and down inviting tourists to ‘hop in, hop out’.

Stopping by the Indus (on the way to Sonamarg this time) has always been a skin-crawling experience for me – this is the river after which the land and probably the religion is named, this is the river which bears mute testimony to so many thousand years of history, from Mohenjodaro to the early Aryans and the visit of Alexander. That was one high point of the trip; another was horse-riding in the rain around Gulmarg. Pupu agreed, which made it even more satisfying. Aru valley above Pahalgam could really be a part of the Tyrol were it not for the colour of the people’s skins: one could almost hear ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music’ ringing in one’s ears. At Chandanwari – where the pedestrian pilgrimage to Amarnath begins – the best thing was sitting beside a cascade gurgling from beneath the tongue of a glacier, azure sky above, lush green conifer-studded hills all around, the sun dazzling yet the wind cold even at midday.

But I am getting old, indeed, for I found that what I enjoyed most, after everything, was the leisure and escape from work. And having Pupu beside me and enjoying herself: it’s being rewarded far beyond anything one had hoped for all one’s life.

Countless thanks to Aakash for being there for us, twice over, in Delhi. It is old boys like him who make me feel truly rich, and blessed. I look at my current crop of pupils and keep wondering which ones will turn out to be like him fifteen years from now.

I came back to Durgapur tired but content to get back into harness again. And the weather has improved vastly, what with it having rained repeatedly over the last few days (indeed, we were chased around by rain from day one!): so my fear of being boiled or baked upon returning turned out to be unfounded. The first news I got was grand: after ages, someone from Durgapur has cracked the central civil services examination in his first attempt, and he happens to be an old boy of mine who remembers me with respect and I hope some affection, because he came over personally to give the good news, and we had a long chat. Power to your elbow, Debotosh Chatterjee, and keep in touch: I hope to hear great things from you in the years to come…

P.S.: Some photos can be seen here. I am tinkering with Google Photos, and compared to Picasa it 'sucks'. For captions, click on each picture and look for 'Info' at the top right - that's the best I could do for now.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Socialism, capitalism and human nature

Observation one: a lot of people are reading this blog now. I only wish that far more people wrote in like Rajarshi (see his comment on the post ‘Socialism calling’). Maybe most people simply can’t! What a pity.

Observation two: I mentioned human nature in the last post, and I intend to adumbrate some of my views on the subject in this one. But wait a bit.

Observation three: April has been the cruellest month in this part of the world indeed, in a way that Tom Eliot probably wouldn’t have survived. Temperature and dryness broke century-old records, and there wasn’t a drop of rain. You can gauge how bad it was from just one datum – on the night of Saturday April 30 a storm arose, and the wind seemed to be howling straight out of a furnace (at night, that’s right). Since then – at last! – the temperature has gone down a bit, but millions, like me, are waiting desperately for rain. Funny how all our vaunted technology can’t do a thing about it...

Observation four: The assembly elections have gone more or less peacefully as well as honestly only due to the imposition of near-military rule by the Election Commission. Again, what a pity, seen from one point of view; from another, what a salutary lesson. If I were the ruler of this land, I would not need anybody’s permission to rule with an iron hand, as long as everything I did was demonstrably for the greater common good. And it works, by God! All that I must do is ignore the journalists.

To come now to what I was saying about human nature. If you are an attentive and long-time reader (or even if you have simply looked up the links I provided in my last post), you will have some idea about my thinking. So this is only by way of an addendum. In connection with all that I have written so far about socialism and capitalism, I think the latter ‘works’ and the former doesn’t (or rather, hasn’t so far) primarily because capitalism makes efficient use of people as they are – mind you, I am not saying that that’s a good thing! – while socialism puts too much faith in the ‘essential goodness’ and/or malleability of human nature, which is by and large a sad piece of fiction. Men as a rule are not essentially good – or that has been my experience – Christianity was far closer to the mark when it claimed that every man is a sinner, and needs to be saved. And men can be restrained or encouraged in myriad ways, but there are strict limits to how far they can be changed. So, for instance, capitalism premises itself on three fixed aspects of human nature a) that most people for the most part are far more concerned about self-interest than larger, social ones – even if they pretend otherwise; b) that most are far more focused on immediate and obvious interests than on more nebulous, long-term ones, and c) for most people, material self-interest overrides all other forms of the same, whether they are chasing bread or private jets. Big capitalists are like that, and they safely assume that their humblest servants are like that too: nothing significant differentiates them other than the size of their earnings. So that’s the way capitalism works: by exploiting things that are (as soon as they go too far) essentially bad about human nature. The irony is that it has ‘succeeded’ hugely in increasing the overall material wealth of humanity, there’s no denying that: that speaks volumes about how right it has always been about what humans are like, and how they can be best manipulated. The problem is that it has succeeded too well, and, unless restrained and modified and sternly guided, it will bring doom upon humanity yet (as I never tire of saying, watch movies like Wall-E).  

Therefore we have our work cut out: not to try and change men, but to make use of their inbuilt characteristics to their own best long-term advantage. Most men are narrowly selfish – so try widening the ambit of self-interest: get people to identify more and more strongly with larger interests (to take just one example, by making them understand that clean air is more important to them and their children than motor cars) – by law and fiscal measures as much as through education, stern policing and relentless public exhortation. At the same time, give the fullest possible encouragement to people who are by nature less selfish, who instinctively care more for the greater common good – publicize and subsidize their work, idolize them, reward them – they are the ones who are doing the most to make a better world; lessen a bit the odds they struggle against. Tell people in the mass that one genuine social worker is worth ten thousand moneybags, movie idols and sports icons. It is bound to make a difference over a generation or two: from all I have seen of youngsters over a lifetime, they blindly imitate those who are tomtommed as social heroes. That is the herd instinct, and basically something bad, but it can be directed towards great social good. Why not? If bad things won’t go away, the best thing is to harness them and exploit them to advantage!

There are other things about human nature which are worse still, and I frankly do not know whether they can be either changed or used in any worthwhile way. Meanness and possessiveness, love of ostentation and jealousy (the Bangla word porosreekatorota is more vivid), and the urge to talk through one’s hat merely for the sake of ego assertion are among the most harmful yet powerful elements in our psyche, and both politics and politicians suffer from it: it makes the best of them world weary and cynical after a while, unwilling to lift a finger any more for the welfare of their ungrateful and perverse fellow men. I know: I didn’t need to make a career in politics to know how they feel.  Only education rightly understood – something unimaginably far removed from what our schools, colleges and coaching classes dole out night and day – can somewhat weaken their infernal grip, and it makes me despair, because the most vital part of that education begins with what parents teach by example, and as my whole working life has taught me, parents in this country, at least the last two generations of them, have made a complete mess of it.

There is a line in Tagore’s anondolokey mongolalokey which says sneho, prem, doya, bhokti komol kore pran..., affection, love, compassion and reverence soften and soothe the heart. The kind of man that I am, I have craved these things far in excess of any craving for the riches of this world, and found only demons and idiots chasing what I never much cared for, and mucking up the world more and more for the likes of me with their craving, chasing, flaunting and noisy make-believe, their hearts – whatever little they were born with – increasingly turned to stone. I gave all those four to literally thousands, starting from the family hearth, in the vain hope that giving unstintedly will make me somehow, someday eligible for getting some of it back.  Got kicked soundly in the face for it, not once, not a dozen times, but hundreds of times over, until today most people around me regard me as a very prickly, irascible, unsocial ogre, and quite rightly too: only they will never understand or admit that thousands of them have slowly made me like that over half a lifetime, and now it is probably too late. Show me ten good men like Dr. (John) Arbuthnot, the great misanthrope Jonathan Swift had said, and I will burn all my books. There you have me at 53 in a nutshell. Show me ten good men before I die, and I shall die a happy man. It’s not a nice world, and smartphones are not making it nicer, regardless of what several hundred million tech-drunk pinheads might claim. Let them live in their fool’s paradise: they have nothing of any value to share with me. A highly-advanced world which cannot produce one Gandhi and one Tagore is a desert. In another of his songs which will live ages after Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift are forgotten,  Tagore says kichhu bandha porilo na keboli bashona bandhoney/ keho nahi dilo dhora keboli shuduro sadhoney... no one fulfilled my desire, nor did anyone give me company in the search for the infinite: that could be a one-line description of my life. I have been shortchanged both ways. What do you think the cumulative effect on a thinking and feeling mind could be? These days I take a lot of pleasure in telling a lot of people to go to hell. Doesn’t make me proud, but under the circumstances, content.  When I thought they deserved better, I made an utter fool of myself. Why carry on like that forever? If there is an afterlife, I definitely don’t want to come back to this one.

Postscript: The rains came tonight, however briefly and sporadically. Luxuriated in the garden till late. Will sleep soundly. As long as I have my castle, and hundreds queuing up yearly at my door, the rest of the world can really go to hell. You are not someone I like and have specifically invited? The visiting fee is two thousand rupees for every half hour or part thereof, and God help you if there is something about your demeanour or language that irks me...

If there are to be comments on this post at all, I shall entertain only those from my long-term favourite old boys.