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Monday, October 24, 2016

Spring-cleaning, zen, distraction, dissolution

Spring cleaning can be cathartic. My mother and I agree that it can be done anytime, even in autumn, and done like a zen practice. While something useful is achieved – cleaning all the useless trash and dirt that keeps accumulating in any house over a period of time – it helps you to unclutter your mind and de-stress. My mother, even at her age, is wonderfully active in both body and mind: she is still teaching math and physics, and though she doesn’t have to, she keeps pottering about the house, sprucing things up all the time. She says it keeps her fit, and looking at clumsy lumps of lard half her age, I cannot but agree. And since I love things spick and span myself, having her around has proved to be a great blessing. For three years I had to do it all by myself, except when my daughter came over now and then, and I couldn’t cope as well as I would have liked to.

Mother and I also agree more and more that the very big trouble with people these days – at least all those who do not have to scrounge for a bare living – is that they have no inner life of their own, nothing to occupy themselves with without the help of other people and all kinds of gadgets and spectacles. That is precisely why they are chatting on the net all the time, or doing the same in the real world in their little gossip groups, and frantically running around from party to shopping mall to party, or staying glued to the television, and looking out for sensations (in response to which ‘need’ the mass media have turned more and more to mere thrill-mongering). And unless there’s something wrong with my eyes, there is no generation gap here: the same is true for a lot of people whether they are teenagers, or middle-aged housewives, or retired and old. Most people in this country do not read anything worthwhile these days (irony, in an age when ‘education’ is regarded as an essential more than ever before in history!); most do not have any hobbies worth the name – blessed are those who do, whether they are singing or painting or gardening or exercising or writing software for fun – and most would either go blank or be horrified if it is suggested that they should cultivate things of the spirit (I do not necessarily mean religious practice: doing math or reading history for the love of it rather than because it helps to get a job or just because everybody else is doing it is spiritual work). So it’s always buy and eat and dress up and chatter and post selfies on Facebook in order to count ‘likes’ thereafter. Or, even worse, ‘follow’ others who do exactly the same. How pathetic can people get?

Add to that the fact that most people, again regardless of age, are living in a perpetually distracted mode. The results would be horrifying, if people had not lost the capacity to take note. Pupils cannot remember lessons they were taught a few weeks ago. Bank clerks make wrong entries right and left. Patients of surgery cough up bits of cotton wool afterwards because the surgeon or nurse was not looking. Drivers run down pedestrians and other drivers day in and day out because they were talking on the phone, or listening to music, or had fallen asleep at the wheel. Parents leave babies behind at airports. Underwear is advertised with the slogan ‘It’s the next best thing to naked’. Journos go gaga over ‘surgical strikes’ as if such things have not happened a hundred times before, or about ‘startups’ as if a few hundred little drops in the ocean are going to make the ocean swell. And all this you can gather by just scanning the newspaper headlines over a week. The world has gone mad. My God, what progress! We have at last been able to shed drawbacks like sobriety and reason and foresight and common sense forever. I keep saying more and more frequently that I am never going to see a doctor who graduated after 1990 – I’d much rather trust my little box of homeopathic pills in my old age – and maybe someday I’ll decide to hoard all my wealth in the form of gold biscuits buried in some garden whose location only I will know. It will be safer than in the hands of thirty-something AMC executives I keep hearing about, those who spew management jargon and cannot spell or remember the date…

Which brings me to observe that the way ‘Indian English’ is evolving and spreading, no native Englishman is going to recognize it as his own language in fifty years’ time. No Indian is ever worried, he is only ‘tensed’ (not even ‘tense’, mind you); they never move house, they ‘shift’, they all live in ‘colonies’, there are some of us who call their spouses ‘siblings’, no one has heard words like ‘wonder’ and ‘conscience’, they are always angry on you, everybody finds everything awesome and exciting and great and amazing; children growing up in rustic families and fed on American movies have learnt to address people vastly superior in every way with ‘Hey’, utterly oblivious of how simian that makes them sound. Once more, my God, what progress.  

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

That time of the year once more

Autumn is approaching. The sun has slanted southwards, and the days are already markedly shorter, though the muggy heat will not go away until Diwali is past. I am looking forward with relish, as always, to the three months from mid-November to mid-February. The sky is azure, but the sun is still far too hot, and hurts the eyes. I hope things will be better this winter than the last time, which was a big disappointment. The years zip by these days: the Darjeeling trip, back in January, seems so far back in the past already.

Of late, I have been brushing up my French on the net. My progress has been fast, because I remember much more than I have forgotten. But the language has changed somewhat in the last thirty years: they are using words now that we didn’t then. ‘L’internet’ needs no translation, but ‘ordinateur’ (computer) is now all over the place too; surprisingly, so is ‘robot’ – have robots become household gadgets in France, then? And as I suppose it is with colloquialisms in all languages, nice words have been replaced with crude or downright ugly ones, so ‘aimable’ (friendly) is hardly to be seen, since ‘sympa’ (short for sympathetique, obviously) is now preferred, though it also means just plain nice. And while in my time the verb aimer meant both to like and to love, they seem to be using ‘j’aime’ more and more to mean ‘I like’ only these days, reserving ‘j’adore’ to express ‘I love’… and yet ‘I love you’ is still expressed as ‘je t’aime’, the idiots. Anyway, after this is done, I might start learning something all new, or maybe something like Persian or Sanskrit, which I have longed to master for ages.

My daughter has got me hooked to all kinds of serialized TV shows. We have enjoyed several together, such as the Marco Polo series until it was inexplicably cut short, and the new Sherlock Holmes series, until they started becoming too bizarre for my taste. Then there was Boston Legal, and we have both become great fans of James Spader. So I have gone over to The Blacklist. And I am watching Castle too alongside, and the old Star Trek series, both 1966 and 1987. Alongwith which I have been reading a lot of new books, thanks in no small measure to Pupu as well as a few old boys, Rajdeep especially. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement made for very thought-provoking reading: why is our art and cinema, and literature in particular, deafeningly silent on the environmental question? A work of fiction that I especially enjoyed was A Very English Agent by Julian Rathbone – it’s about a mid-19th century James Bond, if you can imagine it, only without the glitz and swagger, and the author has managed to weave in everybody from the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria to Darwin, Shelley and Karl Marx into it. I am eagerly waiting to lay my hands on the sequel. And re-reading Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali’s Deshe Bideshe is a pleasure that never palls. I wish that Khaled Hosseini would read it, even in translation.

Then there are the long evening walks, and the occasional chats with my parents, during which we have a lot of old threads to pick up. All this, mind you, goes hand in hand with the two classes daily, and an extra one now and then. So I have my hands full. Only, I am beginning to withdraw myself even more than before from ‘society’. If I had much more money, I’d already be living in a moated castle, and the uninvited would find it very difficult to enter, leave alone see me. I had already begun to dislike the majority of my species by the time I was a teenager – too ignorant, too crude, too selfish and too distracted – and then I gave more than thirty years to trying to be good to them, and finding out whether they were worth befriending. I have now had enough. I am making it a rule to act upon my own warning: leaving aside a few old favourites, I don’t even communicate with ex-students who have stayed out of touch for longer than a whole year. For long I did them the courtesy of answering letters and emails, even if they had nothing interesting to say; these days I don’t. What is the point? There have been too many instances of being disappointed – the worst type being those who get back in touch with ecstatic expressions of satisfaction, and then drop out for good again after one or two exchanges…well, not the worst, maybe, because I keep recalling the many who at various points of my life averred that they ‘loved’ me, and have since vanished without a trace. I have had a lot of help in the process of losing faith and respect for humanity. So I keep the number of my Facebook friends firmly on zero, and my whatsapp status is a stern tickoff for people who would like to ‘chat’. My public phone is switched off for nearly half the day. The occasional pangs of loneliness are infinitely preferable to the ‘companionship’ of people who have literally nothing to give me, do not sufficiently value what I can give them, and will not cherish memories.

As for the worth of my profession, I regard myself as no better and no worse than, say, a cobbler. They need to get their shoes mended, I can help them, they come, get their work done, pay me, go away and forget. I don’t do something criminal, something I have to be ashamed about, but there is no pride left, no lasting sense of achievement and satisfaction apart from the money that I have been able to make, and the little good that has done for some time to those who have been dependent on me. I don’t think I have been able to teach anybody anything much, anything of lasting value to them and to society at large. I used to think I was making a difference: I am now old enough to believe otherwise. Alongwith that resignation has vanished all expectation. I no longer think that anybody should remember me with gratitude, affection and respect. Those were illusions that hurt a great deal while I clung to them: no more.

Which makes me wonder more and more: have I shortchanged myself all these years? If money was truly all that I could expect in return for my services, haven’t I charged people far less all along than I should have? If that is really true, it’s now far too late to do anything about it, but at least those of my readers who are very young – and they include, most importantly, my daughter – should learn something from my story, at least. As for me, I keep wishing more and more that I’d win a big lottery, or that some rich uncle would leave me a fortune… not that that is ever going to happen, because I don’t buy lottery tickets, and I have no rich uncles. Then for the rest of my life I’d be able to work just for fun, and God, little does this town know how picky I am going to become then! But anyway, I can see the shore now, and things are definitely going to change for the better in a few years’ time, inshallah.

I read about a young doctor in government employ in one of my newspapers today, here. God bless him. It is hard to believe that such youngsters still exist, and very galling to think that I cannot recall any old boy of mine about whom I can boast for being someone like that (are there any? Do let me know). I only pray that this young man does not feel, twenty years from now, that he has wasted his life on ingrates…

DurgaPujo around the corner once more. Yuck.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The miracle of compound interest

A lot of slightly educated people believe technology alone has made the modern world. The truth, as always, is considerably more complex. Four other factors have played a major role: ideology (think, for instance, of democracy and socialism – as society changing powers, they are hardly three centuries old), organization (think factory system and corporate structures, which divided risk, vastly increased and standardized production scales, and put millions into regimented employment), advertizing (hundreds of millions are simultaneously, daily, constantly told what to buy, from soap to processed food to education to healthcare to entertainment, lifelong, until they quite forget what it means to make independent choices) and the miracle of compound interest.

Few middle class people from non-business families really understand the power of sustained saving. Here’s a sample of what it can do for you. At 8% annual rate of interest (that’s roughly what you get at present from the PPF, income-tax free), compounded quarterly, you get Rs. 52,485 on an initial deposit of Rs. 1,000 after 50 years. Check out the figures for yourself here. Imagine, now, you are depositing Rs. 1,000 – yes, just 1,000 – every month for fifty years, and I leave it to you to figure out the kind of money you will have at the end of that time. A serious saver will put aside much more than a mere Rs. 1,000 rupees a month. And other kinds of savings are far more profitable. The BSE Sensex has grown 280 times since its inception in 1980. Which means that someone who invested Rs.100,000 in it at start has Rs. 28 million now.

Of course, interest rates will not always be 8%, and they might be compounded half-yearly, or even yearly, in which case the yields will be considerably less. On the other hand, there are times when yields are much higher – in the 1980s, when I started saving in a very small way, the Indian banks were offering interest as high as 14% on long term fixed deposits. Admittedly, that was a very special period; interest rates have never again been so high anywhere in the last 250-odd years. In fact, during the time when many people got seriously rich by saving and investing – say, the merchants in Europe during the early middle ages, or when the British-Indian government was raising funds to build the railways – the long-term interest rate on ‘safe’ investments ranged between 3 and 5 per cent. But that didn’t stop long-term savers from getting rich.

Why did relatively so few people get rich over time, then? Well, partly because too few of them ever had anything to save – historically, 90%-plus of populations lived from hand to mouth – and partly because of those who did, only a tiny fraction ever bothered to save in a sustained, long-term manner (that is just as true today as it ever was!), and some were unfortunate enough to have their lifetime savings washed away by accidental disasters, such as disease and war and hyperinflation. The key is time and diligence. Very few people with the ability to save do save month after month, year after year, for entire lifetimes, especially knowing that with humble beginnings, that process has to carry on for several generations for families to get seriously rich. But that does not change the fact that, apart from those who strike gold, only long-term savers get rich. These days, for obvious reasons, people are fascinated by the stories of those who became wealthy almost overnight, the sports celebrity- and Rowling and Zuckerberg types, but the fact is most of the richest folks in the world are those who ancestors have been saving assiduously for centuries. What fascinates me is the story of the Medicis, Fuggers and Rothschilds, or the Indian Chettiars in the south who financed Rajendra Chola’s expeditions to Sri Lanka more than a thousand years ago, or the great Jain seth who hedged his bets by lending to both Rana Sanga and Babur before the battle of Khanwa. Their descendants are still among the richest people on the planet, though, unlike the insecure and attention-hungry nouveau riche, they avoid hogging the headlines. Such men can truly paraphrase the poet and say ‘Kings may come and PMs may go, but we go on forever!’ And it’s all due to the miracle of patience harnessed to compound interest. Ask the Marwari community elders. Of course, looking at the way their descendants are burning money now, it’s a safe bet that many of them will be out on the streets pretty soon. There are laws of history that you defy only at your peril. You can do your own research on this.

So it frightens me to think that economic basics are going awry in a historically-unique way all over the world. And as with almost everything else that is bad, it’s America that has shown the way. Interest rates have dived so far that in some countries the banks not only don’t give you any interest at all on savings, they actually charge a negative interest on it, meaning you are penalized for saving. Simultaneously the credit card economy has led millions of not-too-well-off people to live far beyond their means, saddling individuals as well as whole nations with such enormous debt burdens that no one knows how it will ever be repaid. The motto seems to be ‘sacrifice the future for the sake of today’ – carpe diem pushed to a monstrous extreme. It reminds me of a horror story written, if I remember correctly, by Isaac Asimov, about a man who borrows so much that he has exhausted his credit limit, but he is so addicted to living the high life that he cannot stop splurging, and the bank persuades him to carry on, provided he signs off his son’s future too: the son will be born with an inherited debt burden, and spend perhaps his whole life trying to pay it back. That’s the story of bonded labour all over again, and repeating itself in a highly ‘advanced’ society! The long term implications are mind-boggling, and not just at the individual level. With China buying up trillions of dollars of U.S. debt, there may soon come a time when the Chinese own a significant enough portion of the American economy for major political decisions on behalf of Americans to be taken not in Washington D.C. any more but from Beijing. It will then probably be the first bloodless conquest of a major nation in history since Ashoka’s dharmavijaya of Asia began…

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bengaluru and Singur

I remember writing as a student of economics in the 1980s that the way things were going, all the big political problems of the next century (at least in India-) would centre around land availability, and in an earlier post on this blog itself I quoted a UN Secretary-General to the effect that all the wars (and of course, riots-) of the 21st century would be focused on water. Also, alas, these problems have no quick-fix technical solutions visible on the horizon.

So I was reading about the recent street violence in Bengaluru not only with sadness but with a profound sense of déjà vu. I simply cannot get worked up over such things any more, unlike most ‘educated’ people below forty today, who at least profess to be amazed and shocked like little children every time.

Conflict between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (erstwhile Madras province and Mysore) has been brewing, with occasional destructive (and broadly speaking futile) public outbursts for nearly a century now. The problem has only been exacerbated by a booming population, growing per-capita water demand (which is a certain accompaniment to the conventional kind of development that has been in vogue worldwide – even the Colorado no longer flows into the sea), and increased climatic vagaries which most scientists now ascribe to global warming. No government directive, no court order can make either party ever and permanently happy, for the simple reason that there is too little water to go around, and at times the shortage becomes critical enough for people to become violently angry. If you haven’t had to stand in line for water with a bucket for hours daily for years on end, or if you are not civilized enough to empathize with those who must, you will never understand them. Certainly the current street violence could have been sharply curbed if the state government concerned had been more vigilant and prompt in taking action: there is much reason to suspect that they deliberately sat tight until things got ugly enough for the central government and the Supreme Court to grow upset, and then it was curbed quickly enough (I saw what difference government alacrity can make during the anti-Sikh riots post Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, the difference between Delhi and Calcutta, when I walked around the latter city reporting on the carnage, which Jyoti Basu shut down overnight simply by calling in the army, as Rajiv Gandhi did not).  

But the anger and discontent will simmer, and boil over again as soon as another severe shortage strikes. Until – God forbid – two states decide to go to war. Don’t imagine that is something impossible: far worse has often happened. That’s the advantage of knowing history. India’s founding fathers were always afraid that centrifugal tendencies could rip the young nation apart, and if such a thing happens, it will most certainly be triggered by crises over essential natural resources, not over mobile apps and fancy startups with which the urban, well-off youth, comfortably cushioned and cocooned for most of the time, keeps itself happily anesthetized. The same anger and discontent are brewing among Punjab, Haryana, UP and Delhi over sharing the waters of the dying, filth-filled Yamuna, and between India and Bangladesh over the Ganga waters released (or not-) through the Farakka Barrage. One only prays that the apocalypse will be delayed a bit more. That it will come is almost sure.

Which brings me to the story of Singur. Following the Supreme Court judgment (the court and the army seem to be the only institutions left in which the people can still justifiably keep faith!) – that the state government took over 1,000 acres and gave it to the Tatas unlawfully – Mamata Banerjee celebrated with a ‘people’s victory party’ at ground zero. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown is a very old proverb, so it is rare to see the kind of relief and happy smile that was visible on her face yesterday. The internet will be awash with barbs and invectives, of course: they will all try to sound ‘progressive’ and ‘rational’, but they will be primarily motivated by pure dismay and envy. Funny that in a country where we so worship success, we can’t bear to see anybody being successful and happy, even briefly, unless it somehow serves our own petty vested interests (my son the bekaar engineer could have got a job at the Nano plant, maybe, or I could have got a sub-contract supplying nuts and bolts). Let her enjoy it, because her relief and happiness are bound to be ephemeral.

She knows as well as her detractors that her state desperately needs investment in infrastructure and industry. She knows land is terribly scarce in this grossly overpopulated state (90+ million, in an area much smaller than France or Germany). Fighting for the unwillingly dispossessed at Singur brought her spectacularly to power, so she can never admit, even to herself, that she was wrong. She knows that the public euphoria over the current success story will not last long. She knows that Singur might have sent the wrong signals in some quarters at least, and she needs to woo them back. That the work culture in the state is very poor, that bureaucratic red-tapism is bad if not the worst in the country, and that there is a mafia-raaj of sorts that she can rein in only at great peril to her own political existence are three factors that will work strongly against the inflow of new investments, and there are no magic wands to get rid of them (so no point in blaming her personally, at least too much – just ask yourself, could you have done better?) Add to everything else the fact that all kinds of landholders have now tasted blood, and will ask for the earth to give up their lands to future projects, which might easily make them unviable – it is happening more and more frequently with everything from airports to roads to hospitals. A devil’s brew indeed. Unless you are really very petty-minded, won’t you wish her luck?

Sunday, September 11, 2016


I missed out on the planned holidaying and travelling last year owing to the accident. I became mobile again by December, and the New Year resolution was to make up for the lost year. Three quarters of the year has passed, and that is the vow I have been assiduously fulfilling, as any regular reader of this blog should know.

This month all the schools have examinations, so my kids gratefully gave me leave, and I escaped for a couple of days at once. Two days again, Friday and Saturday, the 9th and 10th September. Early morning set-off, and I headed for Murshidabad with Firoz at the wheel. Strange that the town is so rich in history and only 170 or so kilometres away, yet I had not visited it in all these years!

Thanks to our incumbent President, the ride was silk smooth via Shantiniketan and Nannoor till Kirnahar. The whole countryside along the way was lush green, thanks to the season and the recent rains; in some places vast swathes of paddy were under water, and the kaash flowers were growing in wild profusion everywhere. Then from Kandi onwards the road condition deteriorated, and there was a massive traffic jam while entering Berhampore (apparently a daily affair now, what with all the vehicles and too few roads), so it took all of five hours to arrive at the gates of the Hazarduari palace, though I had – foolishly – reckoned on four. I put up at a modest hotel for a change, Manjusha, because it was right in the heart of the tourist circuit, located bang on the bank of the full and fast-flowing Bhagirathi, I took an instant liking to the proprietor, and because he promised to show me round his magic garden. About that more later.

A bath, a quick lunch and a snooze was followed by a round-the-town tour in a reserved ‘Toto’, now the vehicle of choice, the rickshaws having completely vanished and the tongas nearly so. We stopped at so many places I have lost count, but the highlights were the Katra mosque, the 1100-odd graves of Mir Jaffar’s descendants (there are graves for favourite slaves and pet pigeons too), the Nashipur rajbati, the Kathgola garden villa (built by a family of very successful smugglers in the 18th century), the house (actually the kutcherry) of the Jagat Seths – for a brief period one of the richest families in the world, which controlled a large fraction of the entire country’s trade and money supply – capped with a trip to the Motijheel. Kudos to our current CM for visualizing and laying out the new Park-cum-tourism complex there – look it up on the net, it’s still a work in progress. I particularly enjoyed the sound and light show.

So much for the first day. Happily tired out, I went to sleep at an uncharacteristically early hour, no drink or sleeping pill needed. Early next morning, Sanjoy the same Toto driver took us across the river on a boat, and we looked around. This time the big attraction was the Khoshbaag garden, where the nawabs Alivardi Khan and Siraj lie buried. At the Kiriteshwari temple – supposed to be one of the 51 peeths dedicated to the Mother Goddess – the priest insisted that he had seen me before somewhere, and asked for a cigarette. On the way back, we toured the Hazarduari (900 real doors, 100 false). Grand enough, if you consider that all that pomp and pelf was put on display after the nawabs had lost their freedom and power completely. To think that this city once ruled Bengal, Bihar and Odisha together, financed the Mughal throne, and getting their hands on it set the British on the way to a world-girdling empire! All that remains is crumbling buildings, the jute and silk trades, the Toto driving syndicate, the mango orchards, and thousands of young men gone far away to work as masons and builders.  And sighs. Nineveh and Tyre.  sic transit gloria mundi…

I am glad, by the way, that the Archaeological Survey of India has maintained so many monuments and laid out nice, neat gardens around them. I saw some few repair and renovation works in progress, too, but one could wish for more. Perhaps that will happen if Murshidabad is brought back to the centre of the tourism map from the fringes. Funny to learn that for a few days post 15th August 1947 it became part of (East-) Pakistan, only to be returned. But it is quite evident that Hindu and Muslim have been living cheek by jowl here for ages without much friction, leave alone overt and violent conflict. Heartening, that.

So at mid-day we returned to the hotel. As he had promised, the proprietor showed us around his garden. My God, if anyone has a green thumb, this man does, or maybe he has been blessed by the Ganga, but he has built up a botanical miracle in that half acre of his. What didn’t I see? Rare and precious plants from all around the country, indeed the globe, were blooming there, camellia, dolonchampa, rudraksha, triphola, jayitri-jayphol, camphor, white and red sandalwood, apples and mangoes side by side… I forget. He wouldn’t tell me his secret, fobbing me off with ‘shob i mayer ichchhe!’ I begged him to upload a video on YouTube, and promised to publicise his work all I could via tripadvisor, which keeps telling me to write reviews of places I have visited.

It was a smooth and fun drive back home, though the blazing sun kept the airconditioner running almost all the way. I drove for a bit, just to remind myself how much I enjoyed driving once. The old car glided without a hiccup all through, so my plans to buy a new one are indefinitely shelved.

The pujo is coming up, though I never go travelling during that time. It’s when the old boys come visiting. And Diwali I celebrate at home with a lot of enthusiastic teenagers. But where am I going in December, I wonder?

[for photos, click here]

Monday, September 05, 2016

Ode to the baul-s

Teachers’ Day.  Many thanks for all the gifts, cards and messages that have poured in. This post is to pay tribute to a special kind of teacher.

In the days when I was in college (that would be the early 1980s – my daughter is passing through that stage now), I often took the local trains via Bardhaman on my way home to Durgapur from Kolkata. One reason was to save money – I was very poor then, and the difference with express train fares mattered – but there was another, more pleasant one. There would usually be a baul on the Bardhaman Asansol local who would sing his heart out. I remember I used to splurge sometimes, giving him a twenty- or even fifty rupee note (that was a lot of money in those days, certainly to me) to park himself beside me for the whole duration of the journey instead of begging around and sing all he could, interrupted only by little earthen cups of tea, which we both drank with gusto. Many of those songs still play themselves in my mind’s ear, and I can see visuals, even, of the bauls – usually men – breaking into impromptu jigs, strumming on their aktaras and keeping time with their ghungroo-d feet, clad in the traditional white dhoti and saffron or multi-hued kurta, generally also with a turban around the head and a cummerbund. Many of those lyrics have stayed with me forever, too: ami kothay pabo tare/amar moner manush je re, dekhechhi roopsagorey moner manush kancha shona, praner bandhob re/dao dekha doya kore, khanchar bhitor ochin pakhi kemne ashe jaye… there was something in me that vibed very strongly with the kind of music they made, and it has never palled.

Decades later, therefore, it was my privilege to render some little assistance to a certain lady who was doing a doctorate on the theme of Tagore and the bauls. I was dealing with both Tagore and the bauls: few things could make me happier!

A revival of interest among the youth of today seems to be going on. Or so this article in The Statesman says. I, for one, would be delighted. Leaving aside my specific interest in baul music for the moment, it pains me that in India, which has one of the richest and most diverse repertoires of home-grown music in the world, the youth should be so unaware, so forgetful, so apathetic towards it. Mind you, I am no atavistic and chauvinistic propagandist against ‘foreign’ stuff – my own list of favourites from western music is very wide – but that has not prevented me from knowing, cultivating and loving desi stuff, everything from dhrupadi to folk to rabindrasangeet and Hindi movie numbers. What I rue, what fills me with shame and chagrin is that our young should be so ignorant, and ignorantly contemptuous, of our own culture in this matter (and alas, that is most glaringly evident among the urban ‘English-medium’ educated kind, the type I have to deal with all the time for my sins) – except when they hear that some sahibs are interested in it. So it pleases me no end to see a new generation of youth taking active and talented interest in Indian music again, as evidenced not only on TV but on YouTube as well. If there’s a lot of fusion stuff out there, I don’t mind at all, even though much of it is of indifferent quality – let a thousand flowers bloom, for every now and then a gem will emerge (I am still desperately searching for a pop-style rendition of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram that I saw in a music video on TV at least two decades ago – I think it was done by Raageshwari. If someone can locate it, please send me the link). It is good to remember that Tagore himself was the greatest fusion music maker of them all!

A woman in a man’s world whom I have lately come to admire is Parvathy Baul. You can search for her by name on wikipedia.

Here is a link to something I wrote about music several years ago. As for the reason behind my particular fondness for baul songs, maybe in another post. But I would like you to note that this is not something that has come with advancing age: I was moved by the same when I was barely out of adolescence…

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Landline gone

In the early 1970s, telephones were so scarce they were regarded as status symbols. I read at around that time that New York City had more telephones than the whole of India.

I remember that my father, who worked as a junior officer in a local public sector steel plant, was not in the normal (bureaucratic-) course of things eligible for a private telephone connection (yes, you needed official permission for that sort of thing). Because he was the founder general secretary of their Officers’ Association, he needed one, and he got it by personal recommendation of the then Chief Minister, no less. We had four-digit numbers then, and ours was 2788. So it remained for nearly a decade, before my father quit that job, moved to the then newly-developing Bidhan Nagar (still sneered at as a bucolic retreat – gondograam – by many), and got a new number: 6423. The years passed, until the Department of Telecommunications, which still controlled everything, took it into its head to add two numerals, so then it became 53 6423. A few years later, the ‘modernization’ drive still continuing, the numeral 2 was added ahead of that. And then the privatization drive began in right earnest, followed hard on the heels (I am talking of the turn of the century) by the onslaught of privately-sold and serviced mobile phones. Meanwhile the landline connection had been transferred to my name.

Almost a decade ago, we already had several mobile phones in the family. By that time the DOT had morphed into BSNL, and everybody knew that it was rapidly sinking into obscurity and insolvency, kept going only by endless government subsidies, and actively sabotaged, it was alleged, by the private operators. I had a dial-up internet connection, which was unimaginably slow by today’s standards, and I had a growing suspicion that they were overbilling me, so I got a cable connection instead (much cheaper and much faster – yes, even now, in comparison with those silly dongles). I was going to surrender the phone too, but a senior official, whose son was then a pupil, urged me not to, arguing that my number was too well known, and its absence would cause trouble to a lot of people. He told me to get a ‘Sulabh’ connection, which I did – I’d get incoming calls at a low, flat rental, and I could make outgoing calls (which in the event I never did) with a prepaid card. I put in a parallel line too, and got a cordless unit downstairs for convenience. That too must have been at least fifteen years ago.

Eventually I put my public mobile number on the signboard outside, and over the last two years I had been noticing that very few calls came in on the landline any more, either because the phone was out of order (which was frequently) or because people increasingly preferred the mobile instead – understandably, since half the time I, being outdoors or taking classes, didn’t answer the landline. So I was paying that rental for nothing.

With me, old attachments die hard, but I do bow to the inevitable sooner or later, unless it is too unpleasant a prospect to countenance. So this morning I turned in the landline at last. Now, in this matter at least, I am like everybody else. However, I see nothing to be elated about. Just a necessity, as the sanitary water closet once became. And I am not one of those who buy millon-dollar wc-s just to acquire some ‘status’ in the eyes of idiots…as they already wrote in a Bangla newspaper several years ago, real ‘status’ will soon attach to those who are (ostensibly-) too important and busy to carry about their own phones, as PMs and celebrities and busy surgeons and lawyers and suchlike already are.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Coaching for parents?

Only a few days ago I posted this news item in the other blog; now there’s this one.

There are parents who go riding bikes in rainstorms with little children in tow, not even wearing helmets, and there are those (increasingly numerous-) parents who feed their kids like pigs until they swell up like balloons and, when they finally start showing signs of morbidity, take them to the doctors only to get miffed when they are told that all that the kid needs is far less food of a far more healthy kind, along with a lot of vigorous and regular exercise. I am also thinking of all those parents – ‘loving’ ones, too – who frequently indulge in what to me seems gross physical abuse (only the other day a girl was telling me her mother throws anything at all at her, even knives and choppers, when she loses her temper, and I have seen children scalded on their arms and legs with hot irons) often for no better reason than that, being control freaks, they can’t bear to see that their kids sometimes won’t listen to some direct order, no matter how trivial the issue is (sometimes it’s like the girl wanted to wear the red frock instead of the white one). And also of all those tens of thousands of kids who die annually on our roads – one of my students did just two days before my own accident – because their ‘loving’ parents bought them motorbikes because they could not resist the importuning, or thought it important in order to keep up with the Joneses. Then there are those who are so obsessed with school examination scores as the sole determinant of a child ‘doing well’ that they hardly notice that the kids are either growing up into rote-learning machines totally deprived of intelligence, creativity, general knowledge and human sympathy, or falling prey to debility and diseases of weird kinds (hypertension, diabetes, gastric ulcers, breathing problems, migraine), or both. Add to that the recent phenomenon of more and more parents grooming their children like circus animals so they can all appear on ‘reality TV’ and perchance win some prize money. You think all these weirdos are sad exceptions? I beg to differ. Remember, I have been dealing with parents of youngsters all my life, and keeping notes. The saddest thing of all is that, if my experience is any guide, most of those unhappy kids, if they survive, grow up to be clones of the same parents…

There is a very broad presumption in this country that you need to learn a lot of things – music and painting and language and surgery and cooking and things like that – but there’s nothing to learn about parenting, or rather, couples automatically become qualified to be parents as soon as they go through the biological process of birthing (strangely enough, it doesn’t occur to anybody that you don’t even have to be human in order to do that: being four-legged suffices!). This is, of course, arrant nonsense, especially in a country where most people become parents only under the pressure of ‘social expectation’ or ‘accidentally’ – I apologize for stating this most unpleasant truth to all those  ex-student readers who are still young enough to be shocked. There was a little saving grace when most children grew up in joint families, where at least there were grandparents who not only had the time and inclination but also somewhat more experience regarding the essential do’s and don’ts than most young, harried and impatient parents, and therefore could provide some sane guidance and counsel. These days, apart from consulting their own peers (who are as a rule just as clueless or misguided as they are), they have nothing except memories of what their own parents did, and the results are there for all to see. Oh yes, a few are beginning to look for advice on the Net or in glossy magazines, but I have seen some of that stuff  myself, and alas, most of them encourage either hyperparenting or too little, apart from pushing the agenda of large companies selling every kind of expensive gimmick from ‘special’ soaps and shampoos to tablet phones and coaching classes aimed at toddlers below two.

I have been told that there are countries where you can attend classes if you are planning parenthood. There are three things I would like to say in that context: firstly, that first-time-to-be-parents should feel the need for such an education (remember, our society encourages them to feel they are know-alls, and most are really not interested in raising children well anyway, being far more involved in other things, including shopping and partying and beautifying themselves and chatting on Facebook); secondly that doctors, psychiatrists, good teachers and wise old parents should run such classes jointly; thirdly, that it would be a wonderful idea to gradually move towards a social setup where such classes are made mandatory, and failing the exams disqualifies you from having a baby.

Too draconian? I dare say it will sound like that to many, especially to those who are already good at it, and don’t want outside agencies to play nosey parker. Unfortunately, if a very large fraction (who knows but a majority) of the population cannot be trusted to do the job well, perhaps it has become necessary? If driving needs to be licensed following a test (and in some countries those tests are not easy to pass), shouldn’t parenting – beyond argument a far more important responsibility – be subject to similar checks? When it suits us, we proudly claim that we live in an ‘advanced and enlightened age’. Perhaps we need to do things to prove that to ourselves? Maybe instinct and tradition are just not good enough?

Monday, August 15, 2016

When shadows lengthen

I have been preoccupied with health issues over the last month. Not mine, my father’s. He has shrunk greatly from the hulk of a man he used to be, and behaviorally, as my sister put it, the lion has become a rabbit. My mother, having suffered him lifelong, is happy about it, but I am not. I miss the lion, frightened as I was of him more than any other man alive for decades, and often resentful: who could have imagined I was also secretly so proud? For having dealt with so many thousand fathers over so long a time, I know how few deserve the slightest attention, leave alone regard and respect and awe.

So anyway, he had a cataract removed and artificial lens implanted in one eye recently, but little did we know that it was the beginning of his troubles (he had had a severe breakdown three years ago, and though he had recovered somewhat, he had become uncharacteristically slow and quiet and hesitant). A dizzy spell induced by a sudden drop in blood pressure caused him to slip and fall while ambling about his room, breaking a femur near the hip. A few days passed in pain until the doctors were sure that he needed to be hospitalized for surgery. Same hospital and same surgeon that treated me last year. Having well-placed connections always helps in this country, as does having money, so the procedure – replacement of the hip joint ball with a prosthetic – went smoothly enough. He is convalescing well by all indications, but I am keeping my fingers crossed until he is certified fit to be discharged and can walk normally again. Heaven knows what is next in store for him… the father of a friend of mine, now 86, is in the ICU as I write, having suffered a massive brain haemorrhage, and it is near-certain that if he should survive, it would be only to drag on in a purely vegetative state for a few weeks or months more.

Is this what the techno-commercial society has done for us, in the end: prolonging life without being able to prevent the gradual decline and decay into helplessness, paying through the nose if one or one’s loved ones can afford it, and ending with a whimper, leaving only sad memories of glory days behind? Is this what is waiting for me, too, and for my daughter to witness and suffer? And is there really no way out of this suffering of the mind except to anesthetize it for as long as possible with shopping and partying and gaming on the cellphone? Is that all that six thousand years of civilization has given us? 

Monday, August 01, 2016

Lazing in Calcutta

I read out Othello to Pupu and Shilpi two days ago. They enjoy that sort of thing. I can now smile to myself at the thought that I have handled Shakespearean plays over a whole year and also at a single sitting.

Othello I last read a very long time ago: must have been thirty five years at least, if not more. It didn’t strike me as a great play then, and this time it sounded, frankly, melodramatic enough to be called silly. Seriously, much that I admire Shakespeare for (he has fed me for a long time  now), and however blasphemous this might sound, many of his plays are so far below par that I sometimes wonder what gave him the kind of reputation he enjoys, four centuries after his death. Maybe the succession of events that could have seemed plausible if drawn out carefully over a novel that spans several years (some people do change considerably over years) seems absurd because enacted over a play that is supposed to last only a few days! I mean, look at this man – widely regarded as not only a great military leader and pillar of society (though much reviled in some quarters for the colour of his skin), who supposedly won a young, innocent, sweet (ugh… I found it saccharine sweet) girl over with his noble-minded love, who thought the world of her – he could be seduced into mindless, murderous jealousy within a couple of days into throttling her dead! and then, convinced within minutes that he has done a great wrong out of stupidity and haste, kill himself? I don’t know about others, but I refuse to call it a great and tragic love story: at best I shall call it a most disturbing study in psychopathology, a remarkable instance of how some people, otherwise successful, can stumble for a while through life with dangerously immature emotions and unstable minds. On top of that the plot is obsessed with sex as virtually the only real meaning of love: it’s so adolescent it takes one’s breath away. Filled as the play is with standalone memorable lines, I was repeatedly reminded of Coleridge’s famous putdown that ‘Shake was a dramatist of note/ who lived by writing things to quote’. The lines I found most piquantly ironical come at the very end, when the Moor describes himself as ‘one that loved not wisely but too well’ (that’s true, if by too well you mean an obsessive possessiveness which can instantly turn to hate)… one not easily jealous (hahaha!)’. It’s like Hitler lamenting in his last minutes that all his labour and sacrifice for his country had gone in vain.

Talking of immature minds, I have been reading about this boy who died at a friend’s birthday party in Kolkata recently. The local media, obsessed with sensation, is predictably agog over it, given the drought in real news. I link here something that the mayor wrote on his Facebook page in this connection, and a rejoinder from a certain ‘adolescent psychiatrist’ which I found both pretentious and foolish. Can you figure out why? I’d have written at length about it, but given the lack of interest among my readers in writing comments, I was suddenly seized with ennui. But here’s one more reason for my refusal to use Facebook. What I think about adolescents and parenting today, I shall restrict to my classroom and my blog.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Mahasweta Devi, pronaam, Hillary Clinton, good luck!

Mahasweta Devi has just passed away. The internet is awash with obituaries, so I won’t add one of my own. This is just to say that she was precisely the sort of liberated and socially valuable woman that I respected, and I have seen very few in my lifetime. I say this despite her legendary foul mouth, her chain smoking of beedis, her two failed marriages, and because of the fact that she never had to bare her body or wear anything but saris to assert her independence and freedom of choice. ‘Feminists’ who are utterly materialistic, completely selfish, obsessed with exhibitionism and have nothing beyond shopping, dressing up, partying and abusing men to live for – no real purpose for being alive – might want to learn a thing or two from her, not just about how to be a remarkable woman, but, far more importantly, how to be worthy of the proud name of human. I saw her at close quarters only once, during my sojourn as a young volunteer at the Calcutta Book Fair in the mid-80s; I heard from an old boy who was escorting her in a cab, and when he started talking about her books, she burst into tears, saying ‘orey, era akhono amar boi porey!’ (Hey, these kids still read my books), and my sister the historian once got a great deal of unstinted help from her in connection with her research. A deep thank you to the departed soul, one of those rare few in this age I can call ‘noble’ and take inspiration from.

And now Hillary Clinton has won the Democratic Party’s nomination for the Presidentship of the United States. If she is elected, it will be a double whammy for the US to crow about – first black POTUS followed by the first woman. Maybe they will decide on a black woman soon? Tokenism, yes, but given the prominence and power of the post, tokenism of the highest significance. However, I read that while a large part of the electorate will probably vote for her because they want a woman in the Oval Office, a very large number of them have strong misgivings about her worthiness as a candidate, because she is widely unpopular as a person, and considered to be too much of a Washington insider to be likely to bring about major policy changes that have long been hoped for. We Indians could tell them that profiles don’t really matter – we have had Dalits and Muslims for Presidents, lived under a woman Prime Minister for nearly two decades, and several women are running several states at this moment. Their caste, religion and gender really don’t make much of a difference. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Women and I

This essay was written 21 years ago. It lays out, as clearly as was within my power, what I used to think about women then. I have changed my views considerably, and I am going to write hereafter how and why. But maybe not yet.

Friday, July 08, 2016


This blog is ten years old today.

I last wrote a birthday post back in 2008. Look it up and mark the contrast with this one.

One doesn’t learn a great many things in life after one is forty three – which is when I started this thing – and has learnt so much already (such diverse, curious and unpleasant stuff, too), yet this experience has taught me a few significant things still. And it has been an enjoyable pastime on the whole.

What a lot can happen in ten years, despite time often seeming to stand still! Of the boys who joined my classes in 2006, one is just about to go off for training as a civil servant, another, an architect engineer, is going to set up shop on his own. Sudhirda has been gone for a whole decade: hard to believe. So are my grandparents. My parents are back home. My little daughter is a college sophomore now. I have twice had surgery. The apartment that I was not even planning to buy then has been lived in for more than three years. ‘Smart-’phones, which were still a bit of a novelty then, are now ubiquitous. There are many more highrises all around, many more cars on the roads. The National Highway that skirts this town is being upgraded, and we’ve nearly got an airport. There is a looming water crisis. Education has absolutely gone to the dogs: people who can’t spell, compose one sensible paragraph or score more than twenty per cent in impromptu quizzes to save their lives routinely get top grades in public examinations. And so on…

One thing that using the internet has taught me over a period of nearly twenty years is that, while it is useful for things like booking tickets and home-delivery shopping and summoning cabs and exchanging business letters and hunting for information and suchlike, it is absolutely no good where establishing and maintaining warm, close, intelligent relationships is concerned. I say this after experimenting strenuously with ‘social networking’ sites for years, and Skype, and writing this blog itself. I don’t know how true this is about other countries, but it’s definitely true about India. Or that at least has been my own experience. So after an entire decade – so many posts (this is the 461st), on such a huge variety of subjects – I have realized that if I keep writing, it will be primarily because I enjoy doing so, and a little for the sake of numerous readers who rarely or never comment (I have published, in ten years, just over 4,500 comments, and trashed maybe another 500 or so which were merely abusive or nonsensical). I could never turn this blog into a forum for informed and thoughtful people, as I had originally hoped to since the days when the Net was just a gleam in some nerd’s eye. But I don’t blame myself.

I was re-reading the entries in the ‘earliest posts’ section. It’s like turning over an old photo album. They sound so recent! I am proud to see that virtually nothing has dated. Also, it feels strange to see the names of some people who were avid comment writers once, and who have dropped completely out of my life. Truly indeed in this age whether you keep in touch or not is entirely a matter of volition. So thank you, Shilpi, Tanmoy, Rajdeep, Nishant, Subhadip, Saikat and the handful of others who have kept in touch throughout. Think about it: what a pitiful number it is, considering the size of my ex-student crowd, and the fact that every year a very large percentage of them vow at the time of leaving never to fall out of touch! How offended they are when I laugh and tell them ‘You don’t know you are talking crap, but I do.’ Tells you something about humankind, doesn’t it?

I may or may not stop writing here at some future date. But I don’t think I’ll ever take the blog off the net. Perhaps someday my daughter will want to cull a few of her most favourite posts and make a book out of it? She can at least boast that her baba kept far more gainfully engaged in his spare time than most people of his generation did.

Speaking of generations, I met Mr. Parameshwaran at the marketplace a few days ago. Sir is past eighty, but he was teaching until recently, and he is still so active and sprightly that I can’t help envying him even while wishing him well. It feels more than weird to think that in seven years I too shall be officially a senior citizen. I hope if I am around at his age I can still be fully alive, mentally even more than physically. And maybe, like old Wang Lung in The Good Earth, I shall find love anew! What else is worth living for? Shoes, makeup, parties? Gabbling about new apps on my mobile?

I named the blog ‘bemused’. Those of you who have been reading it for years, don’t you think, in retrospect, that it was apt?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A book worth reading

I have written often and again in this blog and elsewhere about books, and what they do for us, and how much I have gained from them. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that, carrying my genes and having been brought up with all the focused and reasoned care that I could muster, my daughter has become an avid reader. And I am using that word in the ancient, respectable sense.

I used to tell her when she was a child, with reference to the parochial and foolishly bigoted Bengali middle class we are surrounded by, that there are nothing called boroder boi (books for adults), as they call erotica in these parts. If you can read them, they are readable; and if you find them readable, read. Only, learn to discriminate. If you are reading too much Enid Blyton or Mills and Boon or Chetan Bhagat, you are having trouble growing up. Look around you, and you will find lots of adults who have never grown up: they will cluck and simper and giggle and roll their eyes over Fifty Shades of Gray, but give them one serious book to read – leave alone understand, remember and discuss – and they will run for their lives. The last books they ever pretended to read were the texts that were prescribed in college.

So I am gladder than I can say that she has recently read, reflected upon and written about a very boroder boi – meaning one that 95% of adults I know won’t be able to make head or tail of, even if they can plough through the first hundred pages, and I am talking of ‘educated’ adults, mind you – Erich Fromm’s Fear of Freedom. Read it here. It has been one of the fifty most influential books in my life, and those who know me will understand what that means.

Wide and deep reading does not necessarily make a good or wise human being. I have closely known at least four whom books didn’t improve. Still, at my age, I cannot yet think of anything with higher potential. And so I am hopeful for my daughter. Also, sad, because, given the kind of mind she has developed, she is destined to be lonely for most of her life. But, as a very wise grandfather told his bright, headstrong, frequently wayward but essentially good granddaughter, being lonely isn’t a bad thing. It makes you strong as nothing else does. It can perchance makes you creative and valuable: such qualities are not developed amidst noisy crowds of idiots ‘having fun’. And, God willing, it can make you free, inasmuch as anybody in this world can be free.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

More memories

…but once one gets into the reminiscent vein, there’s no stopping it. It’s as if a mountain torrent, long dammed up, has suddenly burst forth. I can hardly decide what to touch upon and what to let go!

I often go driving through the ABL (once AVB -, now Alstom) township, not only because I love the tree-lined avenue that has remained unspoilt for more than four decades, but also because it brings back bitter-sweet memories. I have shared them with my wife and daughter, and today, so many years later, there’s no harm in talking about it publicly: the girl’s own daughter is past thirty. That place will always be associated in my mind with the one true love affair that I ever had. Not the first, not the last, but certainly the best. It was utterly silly, and wholly romantic, and entirely doomed from the start; it taught me better than any book what Tennyson meant when he wrote ‘It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’, it left behind good memories as no consummated affair ever does, it gave me friendships (yes, in the plural) that I gained much from and long cherished, and it created a deep, lifelong affection for teenagers that thousands have benefited from: much more than the run of the mill affair offers, what?

The Kolkata years are almost unremittingly dark, so I prefer to draw a veil over them. There are indeed memories that still gleam like fireflies in the dark, but overwhelmingly they were years of learning, and hopeless yearning, and genteel poverty. Over and above everything, it drove the idea into the deepest recesses of my psyche that the world is not a nice place; and no matter how hard I try to look for good things, it is going to disappoint me and hurt me more often than not. Whether I was doing French or the calculus or economics, whether I was reviewing theatrical productions or teaching or working for my father’s fledgling printing business, whether I was living alone or with family, whether I was ‘into relationships’ as the kids like to put it these days or alone, not belonging, not being able to decide what I was going to do with my life, not being able to afford many of the simplest pleasures of life was what made living a gloomy burden. So many things seemed just about to work for me, but didn’t. Thank God I came away: I was saved. But working for a little-magazine-sponsored stall year after year at the Book Fair was one of the high points of my sojourn. There I met the girl after whom my daughter is named. And I am still very proud of writing columns called Potpourri and City Lights for my father’s weekly paper, Durgapur Perspective.

When I returned to Durgapur, I had been coaching final-year college students. Then I suddenly had to cope with schoolboys and –girls again. It was a bit of a climbdown, especially because I had had no idea that kids 14 to 16 years old had, on average (I had evidently not consorted with average pupils before!) so poor a grasp of spelling and basic grammar, had read so very little outside their textbooks, and were virtually clueless when it came to writing even a 400-500 word essay on their own. But people were willing to pay for learning that sort of thing, and apparently a lot of young people found my classes fun, so I had found my life’s work. It will soon be thirty years of it now: my first pupil here is 45. If anything, they have grown less admirable with the passage of time. They still read virtually nothing; they (or rather, their parents) are still obsessed with becoming engineers, very few of them have clear and well-founded opinions on anything at all under the sun. The only significant change that I have seen over a generation is that today’s girls are even more helpless and molly-coddled: nobody seems to be able to move around without being constantly chaperoned. And they seem to be quite happy about it. They much prefer to chatter away on Facebook or Whatsapp from their bedrooms all the time, unless daddy is taking them shopping or dining out. ‘Babies until they have babies’, my daughter sometimes says, and I feel like adding ‘If that!’ Real life is what they show on ‘reality’ TV. I keep wondering about what kind of parents the first generation of my pupils have become…

Speaking of reading brings to my mind a circular sent to all schools (I had just taken charge of the library) sometime around 1989 or ’90 by the NCERT, reminding teachers that they have a ‘special responsibility’ to spread the reading habit among young people. Inspired, I spent a lot of time and money, running around the town, organizing little bands of boys and girls, and managed for a while to run three ‘Student Reader Circles’ in three separate neighbourhoods. Playing Vidyasagar and/or Derozio. And like them, I learnt the hard way that it doesn’t work: India is not a reading civilization; parents who are desperate that their kids get ‘educated’ hate and fear books a little more than the plague. I lost money, and a lot of books of my own, and earned a fair amount of opprobrium to the effect that I was wasting the children’s time, misguiding them, filling their heads with all sorts of silly/bad/dangerous ideas, and, worst of all, that I was trying to make a business out of it (strangely, the same parents were all too eager to send their children to my tuitions!) The lessons that I learnt will last a lifetime.

Likewise with taking kids out on excursions. I think I have written about this in some earlier blogpost, so suffice it to say that I won’t do it again, however much my current pupils plead and crib, because I have discovered the hard way that it doesn’t ‘pay’: I got too little thanks for all the fun I arranged for, and the unpleasantries were too many and too undeserved. If people cannot appreciate the good things they get, I don’t have an obligation to keep supplying them with the same.

There was a time when people used to come over to invite me to preside over cultural festivals in local colleges and clubs as judge for elocution contests and suchlike, or to officiate as quizmaster. I obliged a lot of such people for a long time, until I began to get tired and bored (a lot of folks who would cut off their right arm to be on stage with a microphone before the floodlights and the cameras clicking away might find this hard to believe), and started asking for a fee. Immediately the invitations dried up: apparently people want your services most if they are free – meaning they want to fob you off with a car pickup, a bouquet of flowers, a packet of snacks and some kind of knick knack ( a tie, an alarm clock, a set of overpriced pens) for a gift.

It has been the same with people who want ‘a little bit of help’ with anything that involves thinking and writing. I lost count long ago of how many I have helped, with how many different things. Just to give you an idea, that means everything from love letters to applications for this or that college/university to speeches to addresses for puja souvenirs to preparing for various kinds of competitive examinations (from SAT to banking services, SSC and what have you) to drafting doctoral theses to a quick course in ‘spoken English’. And all these people impose upon you; they won’t listen however much you say you are tired and you don’t have the time; most insult me by implying that the favour they are asking for is neither big nor really important (and yet they can’t think of anybody else who can do it for them!), everyone forgets me after the job is done, and they all get miffed when I finally lose my temper and send them away unsatisfied. Very few even do me the courtesy of asking what fee I expect for my service, and fewer still (the only ones I look upon benignly, because money, alas, is one very robust sign of how much you are ‘worth’ in someone’s eyes, even if for a passing moment) make really handsome offers. So here’s a public warning: don’t look me up if you only want to use me for some immediate need, there’s no better way to turn me off. You won’t understand this if you are doing it for the first time, but you bring back a thousand unpalatable memories.

There have of course been happy memories too. The kind of help I have got at times of dire need from people is something that I quietly exult over in the recesses of my mind. Funnily enough, it has mostly been from those who owed me nothing! And going on holiday trips has been great fun again and again over the years when my daughter was growing up. December 21, for instance, will forever be etched in my memory as the day we took off every year for one destination or another, because my daughter’s school had just closed for the winter vacation. As a rule I took classes till hours before we caught the train, after many successive months of working seven days a week, so it was relaxing with true relish as we travelled, always. That schedule is beginning to change a bit, now that Pupu is in college.

And so the memories roll on, like waves upon the beach, unceasingly. I could go on forever. But let me stop, at least for now. It’s 1600+ words already. I wonder who reads this stuff, that the counter keeps jumping by several hundred every day! One ex student, just out of college, surprised me recently; I had not imagined that someone like her would be a regular reader. Oh, well.