Explore this blog by clicking on the labels listed along the right-hand sidebar. There are lots of interesting stuff which you won't find on the home page
Seriously curious about me? Click on ' What sort of person am I?'

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Last free Sunday

Sunday evening. The last free Sunday I shall have for another long season. The admission storm begins next weekend. This year I am as amused as anxious, for I have sensed a panic among hundreds of people phoning and visiting over the last few months, and one ex student, whose own daughter is going to join up, told me the other day that the rumour is that a vast number have enrolled, and most of them are not going to get a chance, so they are sweating blood and losing sleep, while I am a little scared of being mobbed, and at the same time I cannot help laughing at the irony of the fact that my services are so much in demand now that I am less and less interested in carrying on making a more than adequate living. I needed money much more thirty years ago: where were all these people then? What very special service have I given the public lately that the demand (I am sure the right word is craze – I keep telling people ‘do not regard tuition as a shortcut to marks without merit and effort’, and insist that I don’t primarily teach for marks, and remind them that lots of kids get good marks without attending my tuition, but obviously all in vain) has surged like this? These people will do anything to get their kids in, from telling sob stories to flattering me shamelessly and embarrassingly – the only two things they haven’t done yet is offering extra money and threatening physical violence! Yet I know that most of these people will badmouth me foully if their kids can’t get in or are dismissed for some reason at a later date, forget me the moment the tuition is over and often explicitly order the kids never to see me again, and if and when my reputation begins to flag and the numbers dwindle, nobody will care two hoots whether I can survive and look after my family or not. I get more and more why real celebrities privately so despise the same fan mob they profess to adore and thank, and why they are so insecure despite making vast fortunes… think of Sachin Tendulkar today, all of you who are more than thirty, and compare with where he was even ten years ago.

We live in such an incredibly stupid country. A country where ‘educated’ people are so painfully lacking in manners and consideration for others, a country which is so violent and so bigoted despite pretensions to ahimsa and broadmindedness and the loftiest of ideals, a country so interested in trivia like fashion, a country so steeped in superstition. Despite all this talk about how it is compulsory to read science and go in for professions like engineering, people are still actually driven by the likes of babajis and movie stars and netas whom we have begun to adore. So as long as a man has not somehow made a mark as someone special, we can only nitpick and find fault with him – we hate few things more than to hear someone whom we consider ‘just like us’ to be praised for anything at all – but let once a man convince some people that he has something special (the power to work miracles, whether as a tutor or healer or politico) and we start falling over ourselves to get a sprinkling of his blessings. And now, I guess, I have become something like that, a brand name, a babaji, someone who can get kids marks in the all-important exams regardless of their brains and whether they have worked for it or not. The rest of what I try to teach be damned – indeed, I have heard often and again that many parents, the same parents who seem to be ready to kill for admission, warn their children not to heed all the ‘rubbish’ I say ‘outside the syllabus’. So now I am getting old and tired, and warning people that very soon I am going to reduce the numbers and become much more choosy about whom I take in and whom I allow to continue, but apparently that is serving only to fuel the panic, the craze to get in! Those of my senior old boys who know the details and wish me well keep telling me to make hay while the sun still shines – jack up your fees drastically, Sir, and for the few more years that you keep working, laugh all the way to the bank. I still have some morals left, alas, and don’t yet feel that particular need, but who knows, I might take their advice before it’s time for the last hurrah.

And the kind of things that people say is beyond belief. They ring up at daybreak or close to midnight to say they want to enroll their kids. They ring up to say they have heard I am a well-known teacher, then ask what I teach, and cannot figure out why I lose my temper. Some come five years in advance to ask when they should enroll the kid (one couple did a few minutes ago), and scores come at the last moment, long after the lists have been closed, to say ‘they didn’t know, but would I please make a special concession for them?’ and they nag and nag and nag, as if not knowing gives them a special privilege somehow (and completely ignoring the fact that I get angry after I have told them umpteen times very politely why some people cannot be taken in out of turn, and that they didn’t know – which I flatly disbelieve, of course: after thirty years, only those cannot know me who didn’t want to know – doesn’t make a difference). Some tell the most fantastic stories about why their kids must get in – the most common being that they couldn’t come on time because somebody or the other in the family was on the deathbed or something like that, though how that kind of condition can last in any family for months on end is something I’ve never been able to figure out. And these days a lot of old boys and girls are coming back to enroll their kids, and act as though they are hurt or offended that I can’t remember them, but have they looked at themselves in the mirror lately and compared with what they looked like twenty five years ago, and can they remember thousands of people who have never met them for twenty years or more?

Meanwhile I keep longing for what I probably will never get: interested old boys (and just maybe a few non-girlie girls) coming back. Within the last three days, in quick succession, one has done so, and another has expressed the desire to do so. Usually they get back with a lot of uncertainty and trepidation about what they might expect: most go away pleasantly surprised. There are cranks among them too: some, after joyfully re-establishing the connection, cut it off again, permanently, without a word of explanation. As I have said before and not once, my faith in and love for humankind has reached a nadir. In my worst distress and helplessness I have been hugely helped by complete strangers; those who should remember me with the greatest affection and gratitude have by and large cut me dead, or cheated me most horridly. I can no longer look at people except as either sources of income or worth avoiding like a disease. And yet I used to be so different. I had so wanted and tried to create that most hyped and overused word these days long before it came into fashion, a network of like-minded, decent, mutually caring and helpful people who have a lot of good conversation. Not fated for me, apparently. Ah, well.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mukutmanipur revisited

I was at a loose end, what with Ma gone to Kolkata and Pupu off to Mumbai. I was also rapidly running out of free Sundays, and didn’t want to stay at home. The new car needed running, and the weather was still tolerable to fine, with a chill in the air in the early morning before the sun rose. So I made a quick trip to Mukutmanipur on Sunday the 11th. Indranil Panigrahi of the ICSE ’98 batch, one of those old boys who have always kept in touch, happened to drop in on Saturday, so I took him along.

Mukutmanipur, which became a picnic spot ever since CM Dr. Bidhan Ray had a several-kilometer-long earthen dam put across the Kangshabati river close to where it meets the Kumari, is only 100 km away, but for some reason I visit rarely. The last time I went was in 2004, during the rains, and stayed at the Peerless Resort. I am glad to report that the roads have improved vastly since then, and our current CM has done a great deal to give the place a face-lift, so it was a very nice trip. Leaving home at about 6:45 a.m., we were there at the WBFDC (‘Sonajhuri’) resort in three hours. Unfortunately cottages had to be booked online, and there was a poor internet connection on the spot, so we missed out on that, but we were allowed to look around, and the staff was surprisingly friendly and accommodating, considering that they were government employees. The hilltop viewpoint gives a lovely panoramic view. We drove off to the Sutan forest, which is the first real forest I have seen in southern Bengal – never having gone to the Sunderbans – where we saw the ruins of a police outpost which had been blown up by the Maoists when they used to rule the roost in these parts, and then to Jhilimili, which is 35 km. from Mukutmanipur, and which you can safely give a miss. Back to Mukutmanipur, where we lunched at Sonajhuri, checked into a little hotel at the foot of said resort, and went to sleep in air-conditioned comfort. By the time we awoke the sun was setting, and it wasn’t hot anymore, so we went for a long boat ride on the reservoir. The whole surroundings were ablaze with palash flowers, and gradually it grew dark, and the lights of many colours, which were there in profusion, began to glow and twinkle, until amidst the silence of the river, with only the water lapping around us, it became magical.

The riverfront reminded me strongly of the seaside promenade at Digha and the Motijheel Park at Murshidabad: Didi’s signature is only too apparent. I have never seen a more tastefully designed Sulabh Shauchalaya anywhere in India. We sat in the little park for a long time, watching the multi-coloured fountain and listening to rabindrasangeet, then drove off towards the other bank, which is dark and eerie save for the Peerless Resort, and another hotel, Aparajita, where we stopped for a quick chilled beer. Then back to the hotel, where we eased back for a bit, and finished the day with dinner at Sonajhuri again, because we had liked the food. A quiet night’s sleep, and we woke up at dawn with a multitude of birds whistling, singing, warbling and chirping all around us in the woods. We went for a long walk along the dam. The breeze was strong and cool, and the sun, mercifully, went behind a large dark cloud again and again. Indranil remarked that though it was a Sunday, when the place should have been crawling with noisy tourists, we had the whole place nearly to ourselves, the Madhyamik exams. starting the next day having kept most people away. Stopping once more at the park to photograph the flowers growing in rich abundance, we drove off, stopping near Bankura for a quick breakfast of poori-ghoogni and hot nikhunti, and we were back at home by 11:30, so I had time to see Indranil off, do a bit of tidying up, a bath, lunch and half-hour snooze before taking two classes as on every Monday.

My old Indica was always faithful and true, but the new Dzire is definitely one notch above. Thanks, Maruti.

Indranil, I do hope you enjoyed yourself enough to want to bring over your wife next time around. And remember to ask your dad to arrange that trip to the Sunderbans at a time of mutual convenience.

I guess my travels are now truly over till at least end-May, but as I said, I shall be looking forward keenly to suggestions about little trips like this one, which can be done in one or two days at the most.

When I was a child, our family did only a few trips together, but I remember enjoying them. Immediately after finishing the ICSE exams, I went on a long tour of Himachal Pradesh with the family of a friend, and liked it so much that I vowed to travel all my life, to everywhere that sounded interesting. I am glad that God has given me time, money, health and continued interest to keep at it for nearly four decades now. And as I have said before, I’d like to take old boys along: that is a special pleasure. Of late I have got to know that several of them have stayed on or returned to settle here in Durgapur, and most of them are doing financially okay or better. I hope to build up a network with them – I never give up hoping! Kaushik, Anupam, Tuhin, Abhik, Shakya, Prashant, Sayan Roy (and the likes of him who live not too far away)… are you listening? Tell others you know about this, too, if you can.

For photos, click here. 

Monday, February 26, 2018


[Shilpi has written her own little travelogue, here. See how different people see the same things differently.]

Ever since Pupu grew up, I have been taking advantage of mid-to end February to go travelling. The weather is still fine to tolerable, my work schedule is slack, and it is ‘off-season’ almost everywhere, because millions of kids are taking year-end exams in school, and so their parents are tied up too. I have just come back from another long trip. This one was a repetition in some ways, and a first in some others. I took my mother along with me – for the first time in my life, when I am running fifty five. She was tough enough to cope with the whole thing and enjoy it. Not easy, when I see women half her age – and a lot of men too – who are decrepit already. But then she still teaches mathematics, and insists on doing a lot of the housework…

We started off with Hardwar. I am not religious in any conventional sense, yet Devbhoomi, as they call the Garhwal hills in those parts, holds an ineffable fascination for me. This was the fifth time I was visiting, the first being in 1989, when I took the Xavier’s kids along (is any of them reading? Those boys would be past 40 now!) I checked into my favourite hotel, the Teerth at Subhas Ghat, because it is bang on the river, and a few paces away from the most happening location in town, Har ki Pauri, where the river which is mother of India descends to the plains. We arrived late at night, so that day was wasted, but driver Munna Lal took us to Neelkanth Mahadev the next day, and on the way back we took in Laxmanjhula and Hrishikesh: it almost felt like coming home. Munna was just the kind of driver I like, courteous and friendly without being garrulous and presumptuous, and very staid at the wheel, so I fixed up the rest of the tour with him.

Off we went to Devaprayag, where the Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda and becomes Mother Ganga (-ji. They consider it sacrilege to refer to her by name without the suffix – a mannerism of which I strongly approve). Ma offered her prayers, then we pushed on to Rudraprayag, where the Mandakini, river of heaven, meets the Alaknanda. Checked into a roadside hotel, nothing special, but it overhung the river from a ledge, and the view was breathtaking. It was not cold until I had sat on the balcony watching a forest fire on the hill in front for more than two hours. The river sang to me all through the night.

Next day we followed the Mandakini to Chandrapuri, where the picturesque Tourist Lodge had been washed away by the terrible flood of 2013 (the office still works out of a tent). I had planned to stay the night there, but in the event the down-in-the-mouth cottages didn’t seem too appealing, so we pushed on to Ukhimath, where, as luck would have it, Lord Omkareshwar was residing (he comes down from Kedarnath for the winter every year). And so, agnostic that I am, I managed to pray to him without actually going to Kedar, which I probably never will, given my bad leg. Then back to the same hotel in Rudraprayag, stopping at Dhari Mata temple on the way (which they had removed to build a dam, and then came the flood, and so they are rebuilding it at the insistence of the locals, who don’t want the Mother to be angry again) and the Sangam, where I went all the way down to actually stand in the Mandakini and collect a bottleful of water for someone who had begged for it. I stopped also at the tiny Jim Corbett Park (opposite to the Panchayat office and RTO now – Corbett would have gaped) which marks the precise spot where he shot the notorious maneating leopard back in 1926. I badly wished that Pupu had been beside me: the story is so alive and vivid for both of us…

A very long drive to Mussoorie the next day, because we had to stop again and again at places where the mountain was being blasted, dug up and removed so that the road could be widened into a highway (presumably so that the Dilliwala fat cats with their luxury cars and coarse manners could drive up faster and easier). Stopped at Sahasradhara just outside Dehradun, and it was a disappointment. Dehradun itself has sprawled, become rich and brash and nearly faceless (but for the still extant greenery) like so many other cities around India ever since it became a state capital. The drive up to Mussoorie was, however, still just as beautiful as always. Munna drove us into a hotel he knew, and it was good, especially because they were offering a 50% off-season discount. The next day was spent in a leisurely way, strolling around the Mall, walking up to Landour where Ruskin Bond lives and visiting Kempty falls, the Buddhist Temple (close to the LBSNAA, where they train IAS officers – strictly a no-photography zone, enforced by stengun-toting and very stern looking commandos) and the cute little ‘Company Garden’. Mussoorie is even more troubled by monkeys than Hardwar: one took away and broke my teacup when I had turned away for ten seconds on the balcony!)  The city blazed like a carpet of lights below me. And it was the last cold night I had this season…

Down to Hardwar on the morning of the 23rd. I had invited Shilpi, who is now working in Delhi, to come over for the day. Ma was tired out, and wanted to sleep through the afternoon. They were hammering away somewhere on the roof of the hotel, so sleep wouldn’t come to me: at four I gave up trying and went up via ropeway to the Manasa Mandir for a bird’s eye view of the town. I am glad that two Bengalis have been greatly honoured in the Hindi heartland: Subhas Bose, after whom my ghat was named, and then there is Vivekananda park, where you see the swami’s diminutive statue standing right in front of the monumental Shiva as you drive out of the city. We watched the aarti at evenfall again, and strolled along the ghat and sat on the balcony watching the river flowing by till late at night. There was the wretched chore of having to get up at daybreak to take the Jan Shatabdi to New Delhi (that station is still the pits – you can’t get even a cup of tea on the platforms!), where the tedium of the long wait was greatly alleviated by Akash’s visit, and finally a quiet trip on the Rajdhani back to Durgapur on Sunday the 25th.

The Ganga was unbelievably green for mile after mile. When am I finally going to go rafting down her? Unfortunately, wherever there is even a small town or a place with some claim to holiness, there are now far too many people everywhere, and so also too many shops and motor vehicles – worse still, two-wheelers swarm the roads. The fact that our numbers have swollen by a billion since independence is becoming more painfully, intolerably clear with every passing year. These days you have to trek far beyond the motorable roads and the reach of TV-dishes and mobile towers to enjoy the beauty that is still pristine, and the silence amidst vastness that never fails to wash away the silly and futile cares of the world far below, when you can at last be alone with yourself. I have seen almost everything that metro life offers, and I promise you, until you have had this experience you have not lived. But one warning: if you travel around these parts, be ready to climb up and down thousands of breathless stairs, and live for the most part on pure vegetarian food (Well, that's two warnings actually!)

So my travels are more or less over for the season. Now summer is around the corner, and I have to gear up for the admission storm in late March. After that, two continuous months of class, then a mid-summer break, when Pupu will decide where I should go along. The rest of the year belongs to her. But I shall be searching for pretty and quiet two-day getaways all the time – any suggestions beyond the usuals, which I have seen already? I am particularly interested in the new homestay facilities which, I hear, are sprouting all around the state.

Photos can be seen here. Also, here is a little video that I have put up on youtube. This young man was playing the flute beside the Ganga at Laxmanjhula. That’s the kind of small roadside miracle that you can catch anywhere in Devbhoomi.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sign of the times

Read this news item, and this one. They speak for themselves. A lot of people who are not only very tech-smart but have made fortunes out of it in recent times are questioning what technology is doing to us, and trying to keep their children out of its grasp. If this still doesn't provoke many young educated Indians to start thinking about which way we are heading, and whether it's time to stop and take good stock of the present state of affairs - including, most importantly for the future, in our classrooms - then things have already gone past the point of no recall.

As a teacher, reader and father, I have long been saying that the current obsession with 'tech' has become a global disease. I can vividly see what staying glued to little screens from early childhood is doing to things like handwriting, memory, imagination, critical thinking, patience, empathy and even, unthinkable as it sounds to still-sane people, concern for personal safety. I hope young parents will take note. I am personally telling as many of them as will listen to me to urge their own kids to play and read and do housework instead of giving them tablets and smartphones, but my voice is too small to make a difference against the black vortex that is threatening to swallow us all... there are actually 'teachers' around who want textbooks to be rewritten in comic book format to hold the attention of the youngest generation now in school. How much time left till the ultimate meltdown?

P.S., March 04: I read this editorial in yesterday's newspaper. Apparently some sensible people are thinking along the same lines. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

This blog, Facebook and books

Looking back upon a post in April 2012, I just found that I was then eagerly waiting for the pageviews counter to cross the 100,000 mark. I had launched the blog in July 2006, and it took six years to reach that number – before which, I think, no one can call oneself a serious blogger. And now, already, within less than six more years, the number has jumped close to 550,000! At this rate, it will not be too long before I cross the million mark, if I stick around. How on earth did this happen? How did the readership grow so prodigiously within so short a span? What makes it doubly weird is that at the same time, the frequency of comments has dwindled: whereas in the early days some blogposts attracted twenty, thirty, even sixty comments, these days the number is at best below ten. So while my readers have swelled in number and/or frequency of visits, I must conclude that they have, for the most part, nothing to say about anything that I write. How is this conundrum to be explained?

One of the many reasons for the paucity of comments, I imagine, is that of late far more people are accessing the blog via mobile phone rather than via computer. The problem with this is that, firstly, internet access via phone is still very slow and erratic, and secondly, it is far more clumsy to use the facilities with such a small screen while you fiddle with your fingers: who knows but many people cannot even see the comments link, or have no idea how to use it! I don’t even know whether most of my readers have computers, but if they do, I would request them to use those in preference to their phones while reading my blog. One section of my readers tell me they follow my blog earnestly but can never think of anything to write as a comment. With them I can only despair. Even asking a question or supplying a nugget of relevant information can be a comment! There’s yet another category of older readers who say that after staring at the screen for ten to twelve hours at the workplace they don’t have the energy left … but if they can take time out to read my blog, why can’t they write comments at least now and then? That is something I have never been able to figure out.

I find it intriguing that some posts I wrote years ago suddenly come back into the most-read list. Rani Rashmoni has done so and stayed there for quite a while now; so did my reminiscence of my grandfather titled The end of an era for some time, and lately I can see my review of Sudha Murty’s book Wise and Otherwise has nudged its way in. How does that sort of thing happen, and why? I have no idea. But I shall once more strongly encourage my readers, especially newcomers, to click on the labels along the right hand column and visit old posts: many people get back to me after finding something interesting which I had myself almost forgotten, and that is always nice.

I like people with serious and abiding interests. Naturally, because I am one myself. I have been writing a diary since I was seven years old, and once the blogging facility came along I took to it like a duck to water, at the age of 43. I find it deeply therapeutic to write, and it tickles me that my readership is constantly increasing, even if I don’t hear from them as much as I’d like to (I also don’t think that any of my immediate neighbours even know of its existence! Make of that what you will). As you can see, I have stuck to it in a disciplined and regular way for twelve continuous years. Who knows what the years ahead might bring? One thing that has happened recently is that my Facebook page, titled ‘Suvro Sir’, which I launched purely as a notice board for current pupils (you can access it via Google by just typing ‘Suvro Sir Facebook’ without even having or logging into your own FB account, did you know that?) has very quickly caught on among parents, most of whom would probably never have read my blog, even if they knew what a blog is. So maybe I’ll publicize the blog a bit by linking it to my FB page. I don’t know if even that will persuade too many parents to do something as ‘boring’ as read a blog (as opposed to say shopping or gossip), but it would be good if a few at least did and talked around about it: it might go some way to dispel all the silly stories that have been circulating among the parent class in this town for decades, simply because they never made the effort to find out what sort of person I really am! Today’s parent class is in the late-thirties and early forties bracket; many of their generation were my pupils twenty five to thirty years ago. I hate to think they should remain as clueless about me as their parents were, even while sending their children to me in droves.

One last thing for now.  I have been trying for donkey’s years to spread the reading habit and a taste for good books among my pupils, against very strong resistance from parents, who (in my milieu at least, but broadly speaking all over India) believe strongly that it is a disease to be guarded against. I have succeeded with a small number; with a much larger number I have failed. I feel chagrined to see that the new generation of parents, many of whom as I said belong to the generation I taught 25-30 years ago, have caught the aversion from the parents, and many kids growing up right in front of my eyes, despite my most earnest efforts, have already, in mid-teenage, decided that their parents are right, reading is a disease best avoided, unless you are reading the Chetan Bhagat sort of stuff. The irony is that all those parents send their children to me to learn English well, and if I have said this once I have said it a million times, that you cannot really learn a language well by just doing some grammatical exercises and cramming a few textbooks: trying to do that instead of reading widely and well is like trying to stay healthy by popping vitamin and mineral pills instead of eating lots of green vegetables and fruits daily. Few things make me gloomier about India’s future as a civilization. Most of all the fact that so many millions are going around claiming to be educated but know nothing outside their narrow spheres of professional specialization (if that!), and read nothing, not even newspapers or serious magazines, yet claim a facile competence to comment confidently on almost every subject under the sun – as I once wrote long ago, journalists these days solemnly quote beauty queens opining on the government’s economic policy. You can have too much democracy, and that itself might eventually prove to be democracy’s nemesis! 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

A call to the other blog

Some of my more serious readers have complained that I have been neglecting my other blog. So I just posted a serious essay there which I could have put up here instead. It's called Indian values coming, beware! Please click here to read, and you can send your comments either there or here.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Google Doodle pathos

Of late, Google Doodles (the cartoon you see sometimes when you log into the Google India home page) has been ‘honouring’ notable Indians, especially women, on their birth anniversaries. I think it’s not a bad effort when I consider that the average netizen in India (definitely ‘educated’ in today’s utterly trivial sense, typically a B-grade engineer, journalist or sales manager) would probably never have heard about most such people otherwise, but it makes my lips curl with disdain when I reflect that Google does this cynically, with its eye on nothing but the bottom line: this is their way of currying favour with that (large-) section of the Indian populace whose custom they want to attract – nothing more and nothing less. So today they have drawn attention to Mahasweta Devi. Now she happens to be one of the few contemporary Indian women (well, all right, not exactly contemporary: she’d have been 92 today, and died in 2016) I happen to respect, and mine is not the kind of respect that is here today and gone tomorrow. Ask around in Durgapur about how many people besides me remember the once-legendary Father Gilson of St. Xavier’s and still talk about him eulogistically whenever the opportunity presents itself. But I wonder – will Google’s way of remembering make any real difference to anybody, and to M. Devi’s ideals and aims in particular? The ET story says the Doodle has ‘immortalized’ her. Do people like her need Google to be immortalized, or is it the Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump types who do? Yeah, yeah, I know the latter are vastly more numerous, so that proves what exactly?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Apology to recent comment writers

Several comments written by various readers, particularly on the previous post, including I think from Rajdeep, Saikat, Subhanjan, Sreetama, Tanmoy, Shalini, Siddhartha and a few others got accidentally deleted while I was editing this blog. My sincere apologies. This sort of thing rarely happens. Would you folks care to take the trouble to send over those comments once more, if it is not asking too much?

Monday, January 01, 2018

Kumaon trip, December 2017

(sunset at Munsiyari. Taken by Siddhartha Das, 2012, and posted on flickr, here)

The Kumaon hills, partly owing to their still undestroyed beauty, partly because of the honesty and simplicity of the locals, and partly owing to the Jim Corbett connection, have always been a favourite holiday destination of mine, ever since I went that way for the first time on a shoestring budget back in 1987. I have been to Nainital four times, including this one. Even Pupu has many clear memories of the last visit in May 2007.

Classes were over for the year on Thursday the 21st December. My mother and I took a bus to Kolkata on Friday afternoon, and Pupu was waiting for us at the Esplanade bus terminus. Mother went off for a trip to Pune, while Pupu and I had a very nice dinner at Shilpi’s place. Late next morning we flew to Lucknow. I missed the tongas this time round – they have almost vanished – and strolled around the city in autorickshaws, trying to recognize the locations shown in Badshahi Aangti, visiting among other things the new B.R. Ambedkar Park, a monument to Ms. Mayavati’s ego on an ancient Egyptian scale, a chikan factory, and the park along the Gomti at evenfall, having had lunch at the famous Dastarkwan galli in between. The next day was spent (re-) visiting the Residency redolent with history (Pupu had missed the museum the last time, when it had been closed for repairs), the Bara- and Chhota Imambara, the Rumi Darwaza, the Clock Tower and so on. The city, famed for its numerous parks big and small, is clean and well-administered on the whole, whether due to or in spite of Yogi Adityanath I wouldn’t know, but the half-kilometre radius zone of Chaarbaag, around the railway station, is in a state of hyper-congested bedlam: the sooner the authorities do something to clear it up the better for all concerned. The only advantage of checking into a hotel there was that at night we could walk into the station with all our luggage without the aid of a vehicle, a guide or a porter. A quick, modest dinner at the railway canteen, and we were off in the Kathgodam Express by 10 p.m.

The early morning fog was so dense that the train had to crawl for the last hundred odd km. It was eerie to look out through the window and be able to see virtually nothing outside even after dawn had broken. So we were an hour late in arriving, and I was glad to be served free tea by a Good Samaritan at Kichchha station just before Haldwani. A car was waiting for us. At Udupiwala Restaurant, just outside Kathgodam, where we stopped for breakfast, they served complimentary laddoos because it was Christmas Day. The Kathgodam-Nainital trip by road was, as always, a dream. We stopped for three hours at Nainital, strolling around and boating in the lake in the bright, crisp, balmy sunshine, drinking coffee which was delightful because of the cold, lunching at the lakeside and visiting the St. Francis’ Church before driving off for Almora, where we arrived at around 4 p.m. I was staying in Almora after a gap of thirty years, and the town had certainly improved. Perhaps the lovely panoramic view from the huge terrace of my Hotel Himsagar helped to colour my judgment. We took a long walk along the main road till almost outside the town to work up a keen appetite, dined at a very nice roadside restaurant called Bhumika run by a friendly middle-aged Kumaoni lady and two elderly assistants, and retired early, good long hours of sleep under heavy quilts being a very important requirement of all our holidays in the mountains. The ceiling glowing dimly in the dark with fluorescent stars and moons was a perk we hadn’t got elsewhere before.

Next morning we went on a six-hour round trip to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary. There was a three km. trek on the menu, and the views of the woods as well as the distant snowclad mountains from the so-called Zero Point – a 350 km range, from Nanda Devi and Kailash at one end through Trishul, Panchchula, Annapurna and Dhaulagiri at the other – were, in a word, divine. And I am more thankful than I can say that Pupu has come to love the vast vistas, the pine-scented air and the silence quite as much as I do. We could have sat there all day, but hunger drew us away. We lunched at the Binsar Eco Resort on the way back, and returned to Almora well in time for another long walk, this time visiting the little Ramakrishna Ashram built by the Swamis Shivananda and Turiyananda at the behest of Vivekananda himself (though I would have expected something much bigger and grander), and the District Magistrate’s office, housed on a hilltop in the middle of the town in buildings erected by the Chand Raja-s in the early 1800s, and apparently never refurbished save the occasional coat of paint since. I joked with Pupu that those who worked there, and had to climb up and down so many breathless steps at least five days a week, would never have to worry about obesity and heart disease! As always, the street dogs, plump, furry and perky, could have given the best pedigreed city bred domestic pets a run for their money.

Setting off at eight next morning, which meant waking up at 6:30, a truly ungodly hour for us in that kind of cold, we made a nearly eight-hour drive to Munsiyari, stopping at a riverside restaurant at Tejam for lunch on the way. Most of the road is in good to excellent condition, thank God: in the hills even more than in the plains, it makes all the difference in the world. At Munsiyari, we checked into a hotel called Milam Inn. The bellboy-cum-waiter simply pulled aside the curtain of the picture window in our room, turned around to raise a questioning eyebrow, and smiled contentedly to see our jaws drop. I am not given to superlatives, but the sight that met our eyes, the full Panchchula range bathed in brilliant sunshine, so close that it seemed you could reach out and touch them, took our breath away. I have seen many a Himalayan vista, but I can assure you that you won’t get a closer, grander view of the Himadri range unless you trek to a base camp at the foot of one of the great peaks. There was nothing to be done but stay rooted to one spot in the garden, shivering but deliriously happy, for more than an hour as the sun gradually set behind us, drenching the lofty peaks in front of us in a multitude of glorious colours, slowly changing from blazing gold to a softer hue, then purple, then crimson, and eventually fading away until they were only a faint outline in the moonlight more imagined than actually seen, and we were chilled to the bone as we headed back to our room for a very welcome cup of coffee and heavier stuff. Later at night someone lit a double line of controlled fire in the hills for our entertainment: the glow against the black backdrop of night was mesmerizing. That was the only night we used a heater before going to bed.

Next morning, the tap water was hot enough for us to brave a bath. Then we went out for a short but tough trek up a hill to visit a talao called Maheswari Kund. Afterwards our driver Vimal-ji took us down to the little town where we visited the Nanda Devi temple, a fine spot for a picnic on a hilltop, then a little tribal museum housing Kumaoni relics and lore before lunch. Walking around in search of the bazaar we had left behind, we managed to lose our way, and had to phone for the car to come and pick us up. The rest of the evening was spent reading out a story from Man Eaters of Kumaon to Pupu and watching a movie on the laptop. Early dinner (they feed you good stuff everywhere in those parts) and early to bed thereafter.

Friday the 29th was Pupu’s birthday. I had kept the best hotel for the last. We drove four hours down to Chaukori, where we checked into a place called Ojaswi Resort – and it is one of the best places I have ever stayed in. Fine view again, lovely walkabout in the tea garden before lunch on the sun-warmed terrace, where I dozed off for a while afterwards until the sun went behind the trees and the wind began to bite, whereupon we rolled up in our quilts for a late-afternoon snooze: for me, the very height of luxury. Another movie in the evening. I never watch TV when I am travelling and Pupu has her laptop with her. This time I watched four lighthearted movies in succession: Elf, Shrek, Zootopia and Ant Man. Talk about regression to childhood! Or detox, if you prefer Pupu’s vocabulary, and I can’t say I disagree.

On Saturday we checked out at 9 and drove down to Bhowali, where we stopped to pick up bottles of rhododendron (buransh) juice at a roadside shop, then lunch on the way, and at 4 p.m. Vimal dropped us off at Lalkuan railway station before bidding us goodbye. The once a week Lalkuan-Howrah Express left with us at 7:20 p.m., and next evening, the 31st, we arrived at Durgapur a little after 8:30, only four hours late (this is something that Indian Railways calls a ‘superfast’ train, meaning its average running speed is about 50 kmph – and I hear someone is dreaming of a ‘bullet’ train somewhere in this country. Good luck to him). Dinner at Kohinoor right in front of our house with rumaali roti and Chicken Patiala, and it was time for bed on the last night of the year.

My only real grouch this time round was that there were far too many Bengalis around (at Munsiyari and on the return train, they were almost all Bengalis). It shames me to say this, being a Bengali myself, and because Bengalis are the most enthusiastic tourists in India, but when will they learn that there is (or should be) something called public manners? – Four very important aspects of which are that you shouldn’t scream at one another in the name of chatting at all hours nor let your children do it, you shouldn’t discuss the most private and personal things, such as your bowel movements, for all and sundry to hear even if they desperately don’t want to, you shouldn’t order about hotel staff as though they are slaves, and you shouldn’t bargain at shops so strenuously and shamelessly that the locals have to work hard not to show how much they have begun to despise you. I appeal to all my readers who truly love to travel: don’t you think India would be a much nicer place to travel around if we all learnt to behave ourselves a little better? 

[Our photos can be seen here]

Sunday, December 31, 2017

End of year post

I came home after an almost flawless holiday only a couple of hours ago, and now Pupu and I are looking forward to eight hours of the dreamless, which is our favourite way of spending New Year's Eve. Have a very happy 2018, readers. The travel post will be up shortly.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Baba's birthday

The shadows grow long upon this year. It was one of the most painful years in recent memory for me, and yet, strange to say, now that it is drawing to a close, it seems to have passed at a breathless pace. As the poet said, ‘we wait, and the time is short but waiting is long’. Today my father would have been 79. He had expected to be around till 80, and so had I, but that was not to be. And at the end of this month, my daughter will have become a full adult, so the most important task of my life is definitely done. Not that she needed to be certified that way, because the way she has been brought up she became far more ‘adult’ in most ways several years ago than most people I know ten years her senior, but, you know, legally speaking she can well and truly be her own woman now. Let her find out how it feels, since I have been threatening for several years that from now till my dying day I will never tell her to do anything, only offer non-mandatory counsel if she seeks it. And she will have my goodwill and blessings to accompany her, and thousands of hours of rich memories. I pray that that would suffice. Meanwhile, I who have been without a guardian since teenage shall be looking forward to having her as a guardian in my old age.

Right now I am about to take off for my year-end vacation. Just waiting for my daughter’s exams to end. It has been a full year, so as always it will be a holiday well earned. Of late I have been slowly becoming more ‘technical’, having launched a Facebook page called Suvro Sir to be used as a notice board, so that if and when I want to escape at short notice, which I never could do for the last thirty years, I shall simply notify all pupils there and go. Now that even rickshawpullers have Facebook accounts, I thought it was time to make use of the facility. All pupils, and especially those who live far away, are being told to check the page before they set off for my house; after that, if they miss me, it won’t be my fault. I have kept myself bound to an iron routine for ages; now I shall be loosening up little by little.

The batch that has just left this year was a good one; I enjoyed having almost all of them in my class, and so, I think, did most of them. Many of them had been around for three continuous years, and they saw many troublesome things happening to me, including my own semi-incapacitation following the accident in 2015 and my father’s slow and painful passing. They adjusted beautifully; for that I shall remain grateful. I give them my love and blessings. Of course most of them will forget me soon enough; of the few that won’t, hardly anybody will visit, and of the very few who do that, most will be at a loss for words. Virtually nobody will sustain the connection over the long run even over the phone or email. So it has always been, so it will ever be. I have given up hoping for anything better. The few ex students who keep in touch meaningfully over the years are overwhelmingly male, and belonged to the batches prior to 2005. Something has changed with young people today, but so be it. It was good while it lasted, and they all paid me dutifully right till the last month; that’s all that finally matters. My enrolment lists for the next session are full and closed; I keep turning away people, telling them to ask me if there are vacancies after the regular admissions are over. So I guess I shall be in gravy for a few more years yet. A lot of people get frantic when they hear their wards might not have a chance. The kind of panic that they feel – or pretend to show – has always made me wonder: why? And if so many people are really so desperate to get their children in, why then do some (admittedly a small percentage, but still…) eventually drop out? Believe it or not, there are some who pay for admission and then don’t turn up, some who quit after the first day, and some even before the last month begins, when the majority are feeling bad that the class will soon be over! Some, I know, find the coming and going too taxing; some leave because my schedule clashes with ‘more important’ tuitions, but some, surely, do so only because they have started disliking me for one reason or the other – sometimes without attending a single class, or just a few. I wish I could find out why. Of course those seats are by and large filled up by others, but it keeps rankling that some found me so dislikeable. As I said, those who find me interesting are vastly more numerous, and their numbers have been rising inexorably over the years and decades, so this has never hurt my pocket, but I would have liked to know, even if from others, why some people quit. Anyway, it makes me feel good to think that there are numerous other youngsters who are dying to get in, having heard from older siblings what my classes are like, and also old boys and girls who are waiting to admit their children. Age has its compensations…

Sayan Bhattacharya of the 1991 batch came over from Thiruvananthapuram to stay and chat overnight after many, many years. He has had a difficult but colourful life, and I admire his never say die spirit. He and I share a love for writing – not a common thing in India! He has already written two books, both semi-fictionalized accounts of his own past and of his family, which I keep on my library shelf, and he is planning his third. I wish him luck, and hope someday to meet his family when I am travelling in Kerala. If you are interested, you can look up his books, Friendship Calling and A Case of Connections, on Amazon or Flipkart. More power to your elbow, Sayan.

We are having a very strange winter this time. It started becoming chilly in early November, yet today the sun is almost hot, and I am working in my shirtsleeves. I wonder what January will bring, but I do want to see a lot of snow where I am going, high in the Himalayas!  

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Tales from bygone days, part two

I have always been fond of dogs (and they have by and large reciprocated the feeling – as I have often said, any dog which doesn’t like me has something wrong in its character!), and only the fear that I will become stuck at home round the clock, all year round, has prevented me from having several of my own. Maybe I will, someday, when I am at last surfeited with travelling for pleasure. But dogs have sometimes got me into trouble. In my early teenage days, I used to go to a coaching class to learn how to play the guitar. I rode across several streets on my bicycle, the guitar box slung from one hand – how empty and safe the streets were in those days, and how unworried my parents! – to my tutor’s house for an hour’s practice once or twice a week. He had a huge young female Alsatian called Lucky. Being childless, the couple adored and doted on her like a human child. Lucky and I fell in love with each other. Her favourite way of greeting me was to lie in ambush behind the potted plants, imagining I couldn’t see her, and the moment I pedalled into the little garden, she would fly out and pounce upon me with a loud ‘Woof!’ More often than not I would fall off with her on top of me: heaven knows why I didn’t break an arm or the guitar. More than one passer-by gasped, imagining I was about to be torn to bits, but she would only lick my face wet and then turn around and brush it off with her soft, bushy tail, before trotting into the drawing room behind me. Then she would fool around the room, distracting both my tutor and me with her antics, until he scolded her out.  While we settled down to play, she would wait outside until she thought we had forgotten about her, then with infinite patience she would slowly make her way back, slinking past the curtain, under the sofa, until she was just below my feet, her wet nose tickling the back of my ankle and making me laugh. Believe it or not, my tutor got so jealous by and by that he eventually made excuses for not being able to carry on with the classes and cut me off.

Countless people have asked me if I believe in ghosts, have met true godmen, or have had a supernatural experience. I have always been mildly curious about such things, but fortunately or otherwise, never been edified. A few odd things have happened, though. The one that comes to mind right now happened during the school trip I organized – for the first time in St. Xavier’s Durgapur – to the Garhwal Himalayas, in December 1989. One crisp wintry afternoon, the whole troupe, around thirty odd I think, pupils and teachers included, had just finished lunch at the famous Dada-boudir hotel in Hardwar. The entire crowd had stomped out and were loitering about in the pleasant sun, leaving it to me to pay the bill, I being the treasurer for the team. I had just scanned the bill and put some sounf and sugar in my mouth prior to counting out the money, when a quiet bass voice spoke in my ear: ‘beta, khaana khila do’ (son, stand me lunch). I turned around to see a sanyasi on the threshold of middle age, tall, dark and sturdily built in saffron and with a shaven head, a jhola and blanket on his shoulder, stout cudgel and lota in hand, looking calmly at me. Now I must mention at this point that I have always been an agnostic at best and a scoffer at worst when it comes to ‘holy’ men: I never visit temples if I can help it, and have never gone to see a babaji or mataji. But there was something in those eyes… I grant you that it could have been a mere trick of hypnotism, but in broad daylight, and on a crowded roadway, with me distracted and busy as I was… it seemed those eyes told me that far from asking me for a favour, he was bestowing a huge favour on me. I nodded at the man behind the counter, indicating that he should add one more meal to the tab – evidently he was quite used to such things, so he didn’t bat an eyelid – and the sadhu walked in without so much as a backward glance, let alone a word of thanks. Yet he left behind a man feeling deeply grateful. I have done countless acts of charity before and after, to the tune of vastly larger sums, but I have never felt that way again, alas.

The same friend who had once played the surgeon on me took me on a most memorable trip across Bihar during my college days, in the course of which we visited Munger and Bhagalpur (I wrote an article in The Telegraph about a most interesting octogenarian wildlife enthusiast who was my namesake and whom I met in Bhagalpur during that trip. I remember the live python loose in his house, and the only parijat flower I have ever seen in my life carefully preserved in his collection). I stayed in his tumbledown house in his ancestral village for a few days. Many, many impressions of that trip are forever etched in my memory. Tasting wild honey freshly drawn from a hive – it goes down your throat like fiery liquor – finding out how hard it is to catch a chicken if it is allowed to run free around a large compound, listening to the Ganga lapping at her banks all through a moonless night as we lay on the ghat in a cannabis induced stupor. That was the only time I saw a baby leopard being dragged at the end of a leash by a forest guard, and the only time, too, that I was entertained with haanriya and homemade snacks (a mix of different kinds of lentils soaked in water and flavoured with salt and pepper) in the middle of the night by the womenfolk of a Santhal family in the courtyard of their own cottage while the men slept away blissfully. Someone among the men with me, a local, assured me that the women were in no danger: they were all armed with knives and knew how to use them, they could move like lightning, and any man who tried any hanky panky might not live to rue the day. I have always respected women like that, and it’s a pity I rarely meet the like in our cities. Strangely enough, though, one of the most memorable of those experiences was something that might come as an anti-climax after the things I have already mentioned.

We were staying in my friend’s country home in a small village close to the Bhimbandh Wildlife Sanctuary.  The same place where he had warned me the previous night to be careful while stepping into the makeshift toilet in the backyard, because apparently all sorts of snakes used it now and then as a comfortable refuge. Nothing untoward happened, of course, and the next afternoon I plunged into the pond alongside to take a refreshing dip. It was surrounded by taal (palm-) trees, I remember, and the water was muddy and opaque. Except for a dove or two whistling drowsily, the surroundings were quite silent. Well, so I took a deep breath and dived in, meaning to cross the little pond underwater. However, in the event I couldn’t, because I felt an immoveable barrier across my path, into which I gently bumped my head. It was big and hard and – hairy! I lifted my head above water, gasping, only to look into the slightly bemused eyes of a buffalo with enormous horns. He had been taking a dip too, and I had surprised him. We just looked at each other quietly for a few seconds; the buffalo did nothing, just kept staring at me without rancour, until I decided it was prudent to back off. I am dashed if I know why I am recalling this little incident so many years later and laughing over it…

There have been nearly three thousand page views since I put up my last post, but hardly any reactions! Whereas so many people have told me, by email, whatsapp, phone and face to face, that they enjoyed reading it. Why not here? As I have said, I write primarily for myself (and Pupu), but it would be nice to see comments from people whom I have managed to entertain, if nothing else.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Tales from bygone days

I have been going voraciously (all over again!) through the priceless works of James Herriot while simultaneously watching the once-famous TV-series All Creatures Great and Small on youtube – someday there will be a blogpost on these themes too – and wondering how he did it: how he remembered all those quirky little details from more than twenty five years ago and wove them together into such fascinating tales. I have thousands of little memories too, but they don’t hang together to make whole and meaningful stories! Which is why I feel so uncomfortable when Pupu goads me to start writing them down. In order to make me hunker down and get on with it, she even took the trouble to write out a short list of anecdotes she has herself heard and enjoyed over the years. So let me see if I can make something out of it…

Our department of  Economics at Jadavpur University has always harboured more than a fair share of nutcases. Some arrived that way, some went round the bend over the years. The reasons were many and various. For a few, at least, it was burning too much of the midnight oil that did it. One of my own classmates used to photocopy whole books as soon as any professor wrote out a list of recommendations, and assiduously stored the ever-growing pile in a special room, resolved to start reading them all together in the last few months of the undergraduate course (today’s pampered semester-oriented kids won’t be able to imagine this, but we had to read the entire course for the final examination at the end of the third year). We watched her with growing alarm, and then the inevitable happened: when the terrible finals were knocking at the door, we heard that she had attempted the impossible, suffered a nervous breakdown, and been forced to give the exams the go-by for that year. And I remember a senior, bearded and nice and wild-eyed, mild-mannered but evidently never all there – pity I have forgotten his name – who manfully struggled through the written part of the master’s finals, but lost it during the interview. We were loitering in the sun-drenched corridor, chatting about what was waiting for us, when one of the professors on the interview board rushed out, looking more harried than we had ever seen him before, and begged some of us to go in and rescue him (or maybe them from him). Apparently he had already been on a knife edge when the interview began, somehow answered one or two questions sensibly, but then blown a fuse: on hearing the third question he had gone into a sort of trance, and when the profs, imagining that he had either fallen asleep or was unable to answer, tried to prod him a bit, he had started rocking vigorously in his chair with a leery expression on his face, all the while chanting in a sing-song voice ‘jani kintu bolbo na, jani kintu bolbo na’ (I know, but I won’t tell you)! We had to coax him gently out and take him home. Heaven knows what eventually happened to him. How’s that for a little story?

I have heard Richard Castle yell after his teenage daughter going out for a late evening in the city with friends, ‘Don’t do anything that I would have done!’ I understand his feelings exactly, because over and over again I have done horrible things which make me shiver now when I remember them, and there is no doubt at all in my mind that I survived only because my guardian angel knew that I was destined to die another day. You have already read Fool in the sea on this blog, I suppose: here are three more that I can vividly recall.

During those college days, I often travelled from Kolkata to Durgapur by ‘local’ trains to save money, but whenever I felt like splurging, I took either the Black Diamond Express at dawn or the Howrah-Asansol (now Agniveena) Express in the evening. I have lost count of how many times I travelled on those trains, but a few trips I do remember. There was this one morning when I was coming home on the Black Diamond. It goes without saying that I had boarded a second class unreserved coach, and it was chock full of passengers, many of them with mountains of luggage, trunks and holdalls and all. A few minutes before the train would enter Durgapur station, I had jostled my way through the crowd towards the door opposite the platform: I had hardly any luggage, and I figured, young and lithe and silly as I was, that jumping off the train on to the tracks would help me get off much faster than fighting through so many people on to the platform. As luck would have it, I was leaning from the door, not even bothering to hold on to a rod or handle, when someone from behind, pushing his way ahead with an enormous tin trunk in tow, shoved me hard with it in the back of my knee. You know how the leg buckles involuntarily when you are hit like that? Well, the next moment I had crashed down on the adjacent railway line, and as a hue and cry went up on the platform opposite, there I was on my back, looking up dazedly at the sky, time seemed to have stopped, and the wheels, one after another in endless succession, were clattering past me, inches from my right hand. I got off with nothing worse than a few bruises and feeling like an idiot, but it isn’t the kind of memory that is easily erased.

There was a certain year – probably 1983, when I was twenty – when I suffered from carbuncles all over my body, from the bottom of a lower eyelid to a knee. Seven or nine in all, I forget. God, the way they hurt and bled, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Some of them were eventually cured by pills, a few were excised by doctors under local anesthesia, but one of them, the one on my left hip, I tackled myself alongwith a friend. I remember it had been giving me no end of trouble (I used to carry a cushion to college to sit on, and it frequently turned red by the time I came home – deucedly embarrassing, even if you discount the pain and the inconvenience) – and late one night, after we had been drinking heavily, we decided to get rid of it ourselves. Believe it or not, all we did was to numb the area with an icecube, put a pad of rubber between my teeth, and used nothing more than the scissors, scalpel and tweezers from a ‘biology box’, if you know the sort of thing, all perfunctorily dipped in boiling water and swabbed with Dettol. We scraped the whole ghastly thing out, while I screamed bloody murder at my friend the surgeon, then we lapped on a lot of Nebasulf powder on the gaping wound (not even stitches, because neither of us was confident enough with a needle and thread), put a rough bandage on it, drank some more and fell asleep. Next morning 90 per cent of the horrid pain was gone. I did take a Tetvac injection and a massive dose of antibiotics afterwards, but I don’t think any physician would recommend the process, unless you are on the battlefield, or have been bitten by a poisonous snake amidst some wilderness. And I most certainly wouldn’t like to do it again.

The same year – or perhaps it was the next – I made a holiday trip to Barajamda with an elderly friend. A young cousin of his lived there, working for Durgapur Steel Plant at the local iron and manganese mines. The tiny town is located on the Odisha-Jharkhand border, and can be reached either from Chakradharpur or Rourkela. It is (or at least was then-) surrounded by dense forests teeming with wildlife and tribal people, mainly Ho and Santhals. Look it up on google maps if you will; it is a stone’s throw from hamlets with interesting names like Bolani, Barbil, Gua, Kiriburu and Meghataburu; the Simlipal Wildlife Park is not too far away. One day the cousin, who was only a few years older than me, took me on a motorbike trip to the little town of Noamundi across the Saranda forest. The Tatas have been running an iron mine there since pre-independence days, and they have a nice club on a hilltop which DSP officers sometimes used as a watering hole. We enjoyed ourselves rather too long, so the shadows were lengthening when we set off for the return trip, and we were only halfway through the forest when it became pitch dark. And I mean that literally: townsfolk will never know what real darkness means. When my friend stopped for a few minutes and switched off the headlamp, I couldn’t see my hand before my face; and when he switched the light on again, we saw a long queue of tribals, both men and women, black as ebony, wicker baskets and axes slung on their shoulders, returning on foot from the day’s work in such uncanny silence that you had to rub your eyes to make sure you were not seeing things, their eyes glowing in the light like those of any wild animal’s. Eerie feeling, I can tell you.

So anyway, by the time we had reached the edge of the forest and could see some lights twinkling in the valley beyond, we had to stop, because I was desperate to relieve myself. My friend had barely turned off the engine when he heard a muffled noise very like a sneeze, and whispered, ‘What was that?’ but I was already heading towards a large boulder by the roadside. Then there was this truly heart-stopping moment when the boulder got up and started lumbering towards me, as tall as I was and three times as wide. Brother Bruin, probably drunk on mohwa or shivering with a malarial fever, had been dozing when our approach had rudely awakened him, and he didn’t like my intention one bit. He wanted to take a swipe at me, I guess, but I didn’t wait to find out. My friend only yelled ‘Suvro, bhalook, pala!’ (run, it’s a bear) kickstarted the bike and zoomed off, leaving me running desperately after him with nary a backward glance. Usain Bolt would have been hard put to catch me that day. The biker stopped only after he had gone almost a kilometre, and a truck was coming up the other way. You can imagine how I swore at him, but all he said was that in such circumstances it’s always every man for himself. I have never forgotten that lesson.

Just a few of the rather extreme things that have happened to me, but they might give you an idea why, like Harry at the end of Book Seven, I have had enough thrills to last a lifetime. 

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Back to poetry

হায় রে রাজধানী পাষাণকায়া!
বিরাট মুঠিতলে  চাপিছে দৃঢ়বলে 
ব্যাকুল বালিকারে, নাহিকো মায়া। 
দেবে না ভালোবাসা, দেবে  না আলো। 
সদাই মনে হয় আঁধার ছায়াময় 
দিঘির সেই জল শীতল কালো,
তাহারি কোলে গিয়ে মরণ ভালো। 

I have been reading Tagore deeply again. The above is an extract from the poem titled Bodhu, The Bride, and tells of the existential angst of a very young, newly-married girl whom marriage has transported to a prison called the metropolis.

I was not a girl, and I was not married in childhood, and I grew up in a small town, neither a village nor a great city. Yet when I read the poem first at about the girl's age, it resonated with enormous power with something in my soul. Barring a few short snatches, and the first three years of bringing up my child, my mood has reverted again and again to the way this girl felt, maybe a hundred and fifty years ago.

Perhaps no one less than Tagore can understand. In his youth he wrote

 মরণ, তুঁহুঁ মম শ্যাম সমান, O Death, You are the beloved Lord,

 and yet, when he was on his deathbed, he dictated 

দিবসের শেষ সূর্য 
শেষ প্রশ্ন উচ্চারিল পশ্চিম সাগরতীরে,
কে তুমি -
পেল না উত্তর। 

As Emily Dickinson wrote, 'through a riddle, in the end, sagacity must go'.

and meanwhile, for the rest of us,

যদিও সন্ধ্যা আসিছে মন্দ মন্থরে,
সব সংগীত গেছে ইঙ্গিতে থামিয়া,
যদিও সঙ্গী নাহি অনন্ত অম্বরে,
যদিও ক্লান্তি আসিছে অঙ্গে নামিয়া,
মহা আশঙ্কা জপিছে মৌন মন্তরে,
দিক-দিগন্ত অবগুন্ঠনে ঢাকা

উর্ধ আকাশে তারাগুলি মেলি অঙ্গুলি
ইঙ্গিত করি তোমা পানে আছে চাহিয়া,
নিম্নে গভীর অধীর মরণ উচ্ছলি
শত তরঙ্গে তোমা পানে ওঠে ধাইয়া;
ওরে ভয় নাই, নাই স্নেহমোহবন্ধন;
ওরে আশা নাই, আশা শুধু মিছে ছলনা,
আছে শুধু পাখা, আছে মহা নভ-অঙ্গন
ঊষা-দিশাহারা নিবিড়-তিমির আঁকা -
ওরে বিহঙ্গ, ওরে বিহঙ্গ মোর,
এখনি, অন্ধ, বন্ধ করো না পাখা।    

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Musing in early winter

Winter is in the air. The breeze is balmy, the sky is blue, the nights are getting long and chilly, it’s ever so much nicer to sleep.

Pupu asked, ‘Baba, why don’t you start writing stories again?’ Indeed, I have been wondering why the wellspring dried up more than a decade ago. As for stories from my own bygone days, I tell them impromptu without conscious effort, but when I sit down at the keyboard to write them down, they don’t come back to me. Maybe some of my readers will help to jog my memory?

Passing reflection: While driving around my town these days, it often strikes me that 90% of the creatures jaywalking or zooming around on bikes and posing a very nasty threat to public safety weren’t even born when I started teaching thirty years ago. Look at this article in my newspaper today (Ei Samay, November 05, 2017). Are you one of those who would shed a passing tear over the lost lives, or would you, like me, mutter ‘the more, the merrier’? My only concern, I am sure, is for all those luckless non-insane drivers and pedestrians on the roads whom these monsters endanger. When will the type be finally chased off the streets and highways, I wonder?

I looked up my twitter account after more than a year today. I never post anything on it, yet there are 126 ‘followers’ there. Heaven knows what they are ‘following’! And most of them haven’t ever got directly in touch with me for ages.

I am writing in my classroom, even as a lot of teenagers are quietly answering a test around me. How many years, how many batches have passed this way! Those who were bubbly kids are dull parents now; I thank my lucky stars that I can still hold the current crop’s interest much better than most people of my age can. It’s not just a romantic thing: they bring me my bread and butter. Some wise old advisors had expressed most solicitous concern about who would come to my tuitions if I quit my schoolmaster’s job. I am glad I have been able to lay their worries to rest.

It is not easy to keep many youngsters in a bunch interested, believe me – and that too with something as ‘boring and burdensome’ as studies, without being ‘cool and fun’ most of the time, day after day, year after year, for decades together, with a reputation for having a ferocious temper on a short fuse. Try it sometime. With me, the same parents who are so desperate to get their kids in here begin to grumble at some point about why those kids are so eager to come here even during vacations and school exams, and why they pay so much attention to things I say. One of the strongest reasons, I suspect, why those parents cut off all connections with me as soon as the ‘course is covered’. Most old teachers become brutes or bores, and it’s very hard not to. School- and college teachers survive only because their jobs are protected, whereas with private tutors, who are being ‘tested’ by every new batch, reputations soar, stagnate and then collapse within fairly short cycles: before my own eyes, many of them have sunk back into obscurity within twenty years or less. It is very hard and slow work to build up a reputation; keeping it is harder. These kids were born in late 2001 or early 2002. Those who were admitted to my classes then had already heard of me as a fairly ‘old’ and irascible teacher, then they discovered me. Now these kids are about to leave, and the children who are coming in next were born to the generation that passed through my classes in the early and mid-90s. It feels strange to think about how the kids of 2030 are going to regard me, if I am around and at it still. They’d be born of those who left my classes between 2000 and 2005!

A friend of mine, a doctor, keeps trying to build one successful hospital after another of which he can be the absolute boss. I was never so materially ambitious – I might even call myself too lazy for that sort of thing. I like my leisure too much, I strongly dislike being harried and worried, I prefer not to be beholden to a lot of people (as you invariably become if you want to make it even halfway big in business or politics), I have lived a large part of my life in the dreamy mode and greatly enjoyed it. But I have found to my own satisfaction that I am good with young people, so I might have done well for myself if I could set up a full-scale boarding school. Ah well, dreams, dreams...

I have been re-reading some of my old blogposts, and, in connection with everything that I have written about the kind of amoral capitalism that is currently rampant all over the world and the need for a new socio-political paradigm, as well as the sheer evil of growing economic inequality all over the world, I am smiling wryly to myself to see how an economist – Thomas Piketty – has suddenly become a bestseller with his Capital in the 21st century, which has not only pinned down said inequality as an incontrovertible fact, but also condemned it as an unmitigated, and quite avoidable, evil. Of course, like everything else these days it is entirely likely to be forgotten soon as a passing sensation, but at least an issue very close to my heart has for a little while found a place in the sun. And there is no harm in hoping that the world might actually sit up and do something about it, with a little more consequence than the launch of iPhone 49.

One supreme lesson that life has taught me is that humans hardly if ever learn to strike a balance in anything. We forever only keep swinging from one insane extreme to another. I noted this first in writing when I was drafting My Master’s Word in late 1993, and the lesson has only been driven deeper by all I have seen in the last quarter century. So in reaction to the likes of Richard Dawkins come movements like the Taliban and ISIS, and I greatly fear that in reaction to the era of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos we shall have the era of Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot all over again. To use Conrad’s telling phrase, we only have a choice of nightmares. Perhaps the poet was right: always the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I have been reading a lot of serious books lately. Shashi Tharoor’s recent work, An Era of Darkness, was truly impressive: you would have to be as obtuse as Niall Ferguson ever to claim again that the British Empire was at all good for India. It hurts, though, because I belong to that breed, maybe long outmoded, who really thought well of the British for a very long time, and still cannot stop admiring them for a lot of things they did worldwide. Maybe, Tharoor would say, it is so only because I was lucky to be born among the privileged classes, and so we never had to face the full horrid brunt of colonial exploitation. Another recent work, Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee, has also likewise made me very ambivalent about a supposedly great man. I never went to the extreme of regarding Sir Winston Churchill as the ‘greatest Briton of all time’ (only an ass could say that, someone who had never heard of Shakespeare and Newton); I had always thought that with regard to his attitude towards Gandhi he was not only nasty but ignorant and petty-minded, but at least I always admired him deeply as a magnificent writer, a supreme master of English prose. But this book pretty convincingly demonstrates ( and I have read things like this before) that Churchill was almost personally responsible for killing off nearly three million poor and helpless people through the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, not because he couldn’t help it, but essentially because he liked the prospect, seeing that he thought of Indians (or rather, specifically Hindus, the majority of the population) as ‘a beastly people with a beastly religion’ who dared to challenge the authority of the one thing he loved and adored, the British Empire. Indeed, he lived long enough to admit that he had been wrong about them, but only in private, and the monstrous wrong was done and no amends were ever made about it (somebody, says Tharoor, has estimated that Britain owes India at least three trillion US dollars). I suppose by the time I die, I shall not have too many heroes left.

In the newspaper two days ago, I read this article about a young dance teacher somewhere in my own town lamenting that these days kids don’t seriously want to learn anything, and in this they are wholly supported by their parents, whose only ‘ambition’ is to make their children ‘famous’ overnight, if only by getting up to ‘perform’ (the word now reminds me of circus animals only) on the stage at the neighbourhood pujo. To think that Shakespeare wrote about young people chasing the ‘bubble reputation’ so long ago! What would he have said about us?

Yes, I know I have been rambling. So I had better sign off here before you get really exasperated. On the other hand, if you liked reading till this point, let me know, will you?