Friday, September 5, 2014

Happy Teacher's Day daddy

Today, I spent the eighteenth Teacher’s Day of my life. At least thirteen of these Teacher’s Days have been spent after I started gaining conscious thought and emotions. I have many memories about Teacher’s Day and about teachers in general. I even wrote once about Teacher’s Day celebrations in schools about four years ago. Yet, I have never thought about writing about the man who has been my lifelong teacher. So today I am going to do just that, as much for him as for myself. Baba, this essay is for you.

The first time daddy acted in a teacher-ly manner with me was a time that I have only very vague memories of. I have heard often about the incident from him, though. I do not remember how old I was at that time, but it was before I started schooling. Daddy took it upon himself to teach me Bangla. He told my mother not to worry about my learning English; that would happen automatically. Rather, they needed to consciously work on my knowledge of the mother tongue. My mother tried to do the Bengali letters of alphabet with me, but being the stubborn monkey that I was, I stoutly refused to learn them. Then, after many days of futile struggle on my mother’s part, daddy got fed up with me. One evening, after a particularly mulish display of obstinacy on my part, daddy took me in his lap and boxed my ears and held me down tightly, saying that he wasn’t going to let go until I read through the letters. I howled and threw a tantrum, but finally I did manage to read through them, and then gave daddy a tear-streaked, snot-nosed, toothy grin, saying “Ami parchhi toh” (“I can do it”)!

That was the beginning of a lifelong journey of fun and learning for me.

Daddy has always been there for me. I have always known him as a father rather than as a teacher. So, it was difficult for me to comprehend totally what his pupils really felt about him. All through primary school and middle school, I attended hardly any tuitions; I could handle most of the studies myself, and daddy was always there to sort out any confusion in any subject. But naturally, I was hysterically excited about starting my formal classes with him in high school. The thought that I would get a taste of the Suvro Sir that all his students saw him as was as great a motivation as actually being taught by him – probably more. In fact, I was so impatient to get into his classes that daddy actually started teaching class eight students to accommodate me and my friends sooner!

It is strange how some memories stand out so clearly in one’s mind that one can delve into oneself and relive the memory as many times as one wants. My first day in daddy’s class was something like that. It was a Saturday afternoon, and I went down to the classroom at 2.40, five minutes before daddy. It being the first day, he descended five minutes earlier than usual. The class was deathly quiet; my friends were sitting there with pale and subdued faces, studiously ignoring each other. I went and took the chair on daddy’s right, mentally making a resolve to claim that seat as mine permanently (which, by the way, I did!). Five minutes later, daddy came down with a broad smile. He greeted us with such warmth and kindness, that soon everyone started relaxing. After that, the class flew. Daddy told us the rules we would have to follow in order to make the most of his classes – “this is not school, don’t turn it into a zoo” is a good summary in more than one ways – and we went on to discuss a poem that the Carmelites were having problems with in school. Afterwards he dictated a model essay on “Education” to us, and we ended the class with some grammar homework. At the end, all the boys and girls left the room grinning broadly and chattering to their hearts’ content, as if they had known this man forever. Ironically, in all the three years that I studied with daddy, the only other times that I saw the class go so deathly quiet were the times when he gave us one of his famous “jhars”!

The year was a lovely one. Daddy took us on a new journey of knowledge that was definitely not restricted to English. His classes were a comfortable mixture of studies, discussions, and pure ‘adda’. We did so many interesting things: from group discussions and debates to writing essays about the opposite gender (I remember one of the boys naming his essay “The world is a garden and girls are flowers”!).  Time flew, and before we knew it, class eight was over. At that time we were not too sad though, as we knew that we would be back in class nine in a matter of a few months.

Classes nine and ten were a slightly different story. Right from the beginning we could sense a more disciplined and serious approach from daddy. There was less fooling about and much more hard work. Yet, the classes were nothing if not pure joy. Daddy was always so fresh and vigorous, he never let boredom settle in. He somehow knew how to make even drab grammar practice interesting. I now understand how much of that freshness has to be forced, and what gargantuan effort goes into that demeanor. Under him, the batch sailed through the examinations. But that came later. Before that there was the last day of class. That is one day that I try not to recall, but since I am reminiscing, I might as well get it all out. It was a sad day. The entire class was subdued. Towards the last half hour, more than half the class had glistening eyes. I tried hard to keep calm, knowing how much daddy dislikes public show of weakness. But when the hour struck indicating the end of class, I could control myself no longer. I practically shot out of the class, ran upstairs and rushed into the bathroom to lock myself up and have a good cry. When I was done fifteen minutes later, I came out and went to the balcony. My friends were still there in the garden downstairs, sniffling while daddy petted them reassuringly. It was then that I realized the full import of the situation: we were done with the classes, and they would never really take place again.

Except that they did for me. I keep gate-crashing into daddy’s classes whenever I feel particularly nostalgic. Thank you daddy for letting me do that.

Till now I have just been talking about daddy’s profession. But to daddy, being a teacher is much more than just a means of livelihood. Some people are born to do certain things. Daddy was born a teacher. His encyclopaedic knowledge about almost everything under the sun is actually only a tiny part of his being a teacher. It is his personality that does a great deal of the teaching. Anybody who has been his student knows the kind of attention he gives to every individual student. Daddy once told me, a teacher may enjoy teaching a bright student, but his real skill and credit lies in how well he can explain and simplify matters to the weakest student in the class. And that is exactly what he does. Daddy insists that practicing what one preaches is a fundamental requirement for a teacher. And there again, daddy is spot on. He tries to teach so many values in his classes, but none that was utopian or impractical. He insists that punctuality is an essential habit, and he himself is never a minute late to class. He stresses on neatness and organization in one’s work, and he himself has never been anything but. In fact, it is because I have had daddy as a teacher that I maintain such high standards in my expectations of any teacher. Mostly the teachers that I have fall way short of my standards. For the same reasons, if I call somebody a good teacher, there are probably few higher compliments that I can pay him/her.

Yet, if I restrict myself to daddy’s classroom avatar, I would be doing him a gross injustice. As I said right at the start, learning has been a lifelong journey with daddy, and only a part of that has been done in the classroom. Daddy has been a teacher to me in a much wider sense: he has taught me how to live a good life. It is easy to gather information; there are endless sources that can give us more reading material than we would be able to finish in a lifetime. But to have a guide and mentor is a far greater thing indeed. I have found mine in daddy. Daddy has shown me the way to a happy, fulfilling life. He has taught me to be self-sufficient and yet sensitive to the sorrows and joys of those around me. He has taught me kindness and patience, and also the need for anger and violence. In spite of leading an unrewarding life himself in many ways, he has helped me keep faith in humanity when the going is rough. He has insisted that I learn from his failures as much as from his successes. He has never been afraid to admit that he can be wrong, that no man is infallible. He has maintained the need to earn people’s respect and not claim it merely as an advantage of one’s age all his life. He has shown me the beauty that there is in being a loner. But most importantly, he has taught me the meaning of love and belonging. There are few lessons in life that I can call greater than that.

Daddy has tried to teach all these to his students as well. His eternal sorrow lies in the fact that so few of them are willing to take all that he has to give to them. The few who realize the wealth that is waiting for them in the form of Sir learn their fill and lead better lives for it. I wish for daddy’s sake as much as for theirs that the number of such students were greater. Also, I wish he had not had to suffer all his life so much from girls. He has tried so hard to be a good teacher to everybody, but even more so to girls. Yet it is they who have gone on to cause so much pain to him. Why do they have to tell daddy that they love him when they do not mean one word of it? He often laments that he has never got anybody other than me whom he can love so wholly. Still, I know that I will probably never be able to be a Chandragupta to his Chanakya.

The best I can do is try.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The 'Great Books' of today

 Lately, I have been reading some of the latest best-selling ‘young-adult’ books that have created waves among the readers of our generation. They have brought up certain questions and observations in my mind, which unfortunately are in great contrast with the worldwide enthusiasm and praise that have been showered on these books.

Take the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins for example. This I read on the raving recommendation of someone whose taste in books I used to admire. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future where a totalitarian government formed by the rich upper class rules with an iron hand. The society is divided into ‘Districts’, each of which specialises in certain specific economic activities. Intermingling is not allowed, and while some of the districts which are closer to the ‘Capitol’, the city of the ruling class, receive favours and mild treatment, the majority of the populace lives in poverty and under varying degrees of tyranny of the local government officials. The most defining – and the most horrifying – aspect of the society is the ‘Hunger Games’: an annual ‘sporting event’ reminiscent of the Roman gladiatorial games in which one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen are chosen from each of the twelve Districts to kill and survive the others until only one living winner arises in an arena designed and controlled by the Capitol. This event is held as an enduring punishment to the districts for a revolution that had been carried out against the Capitol during the early days of the formation of society. The story revolves around Katniss Everdeen, the girl ‘tribute’ from District Twelve and her male counterpart Peeta Mellark. As they both go through the Games, an astounding and dangerous twist in the Capitol’s plans occurs which makes another revolution imminent. Over the course of three books, we see the journey of emancipation of the people led by Katniss and her friends, as well as the development of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta.

After finishing this trilogy, I was disappointed, mainly because the person who had recommended it had led me to expect a lot more from it. The idea was interesting, and with a little more graceful handling of the characters and the language, the books would have been much more praise-worthy.

The series that I read next was the Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth. This one was quite a disaster. To say that the plot was predictable would be a major understatement, and if one happens to read it while the Hunger Games are still fresh in one’s mind – as I did – one will be disgusted by the number of similarities between the two plots; Ms Roth can easily be blamed for plagiarism. This series too is based in a post apocalyptic world, not quite as dystopian as Panem of the Hunger Games, but still regimented in strict groups. At the age of sixteen, girls and boys take aptitude tests that help them decide which faction they want to belong to for the rest of their lives. At the risk of giving out spoilers, I cannot help but describe at least some of the glaring similarities with the HG series and the utter predictable-ness of the books.

·         As soon as the factions are described, it becomes obvious to the reader which faction the protagonist Beatrice Prior is going to choose, so the author’s attempt to build up an atmosphere of uncertainty becomes rather boring.
·         Beatrice shares an uncomfortably formal relation with her parents, which is eventually softened as the dangers of the world come to light and through tragedy, quite like Katniss and her hostile attitude towards her mother.
·         Both girls are special – Katniss is the ‘Mockingjay’, Beatrice is a Divergent, and this makes them leaders, though both are unwilling to step into their roles.
·         In both books, the protagonists suffer a number of ignoble defeats and setbacks before they manage to come into their own.
·         The fear landscapes of Divergent are uncannily reminiscent of the Games arena of HG.
·         In the war that builds up, certain factions gang up against the others, just as certain Districts fight in favour of the Capitol till almost the very end.
·         Beatrice’s love interest Tobias ‘Four’ Eaton can easily be replaced by Katniss’s childhood friend and eventual crush Gale.
·         Four is two years older than Beatrice, and the fuss that has been made about this two-year age gap is frankly ridiculous, and if this is what happens in American society today, I have to say we Indians traditionally have had a much healthier attitude towards such issues (though the American attitude has greatly affected today’s youngsters).

In fact, I was so disappointed in the Divergent series that after finishing the first two books in a hurry, I decided to give the final part a miss. Maybe at some point when I feel like some chick lit again, I will eventually get around to reading it. In fact, I must admit that the only reason that I went through book two was because I had a fleeting crush on the character Four, and once I was past that, the book seemed little better than childish action thrillers.

The last in my list of YA fiction was the current worldwide rage, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Generally, I steer clear of teenage romantic dramas, but everyone in my class seemed to be talking about it. Even one of my old friends from my previous school – who never read books before I introduced her to the Harry Potter series sometime in class nine – was gaga about it. I wanted to read it just to understand what it was that was sending the girls of my generation – and women much older, I hear – over the edge.

The book is about two young people who are suffering from cancer. The girl Hazel Grace is terminal and knows it. She gets into depression, is forced by her parents to join a cancer support group which she initially despises, but eventually meets another boy who was a cancer patient a year ago but is now certified ‘cancer-free’ by the doctors. This boy, Augustus Waters changes the world of Hazel Grace and of so many women readers’, apparently. For my part though, I find nothing exceptional about him. He is described to be handsome, yes, but then most protagonists in teen fictions are. People keep talking about the ‘Augustus Waters experience’, but I did not have one. I found him to be exactly what he is: a young boy with a poor taste in books and who is a video game addict and given to bombasting and philosophizing about weird and completely unnecessary things. In fact, the writing style of the book is something like that, but more about that later. Hazel Grace is completely taken up by a book called An Imperial Affliction, the gist of which seemed to me rather unfathomable, and I cannot for the world understand why anybody would be so greatly fond of it. She recommends it to Augustus, who promptly falls in love with it. Any charm that the character of Augustus could have held for me was irrevocably destroyed when Augustus sends a text message to Hazel something to the effect of “OMG please tell me what happens next!” while discussing the book with her. OMG? Really?!

Eventually the two set out for Amsterdam to meet the author of the said book, who turns out to be a pompous drunkard with a marked lack of civility. They visit The Anne Frank House where they finally realize and accept that they are in love. This part of the book was what interested me the most, as I could imagine myself moving inside the historic place, which I surely will one day. And I am pretty sure I already watched the videos of Anne Frank’s father and other Jews mentioned in the book during our workshop with AFH last year.

Later, Augustus acknowledges to Hazel that his cancer has metastasised all over his body, and he is about to die. Hazel continues to stand by him through his deterioration and eventual death. A few days before he passes, Augustus arranges for a pre-funeral, where his friends Hazel and Isaac, another cancer patient, read him eulogies where Hazel acknowledges her love for him. The book ends with Hazel making a surprising discovery which serves to increase her love for him. That’s about it.

It is an okay book, and there are many others like it. The people in the book are if not positively unlikable, then thoroughly ordinary. I will not make judgmental comments, because I believe that people who are at death’s door have the right to behave as they please so long as they are not disrupting social order. However, my question is why will others want to read about such behaviour? Now about the language of the book. I am one for refined language. It does not have to be flowery; however, consistent use of colloquial language does nothing to enhance the quality of the book. The book is written from the perspective of a typical American teenager, and their manner of speaking has been depicted, and reading about the dialogues and thoughts of a typical American teen (or a typical big city English-speaking teen anywhere around the world, to be fair) is not a very entertaining or educating experience. The thoughts expressed are often obscure, and I got the feeling that the author has made a poor attempt at being philosophical, something like in the book Sophie’s World. This book, people are saying, shows us human love and suffering. But those exact emotions have been explored and expressed with so much more depth and variety in A Tale of Two Cities, How Green was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath, A Thousand Splendid Suns and scores of other books like them. So why this brouhaha about a chick lit?

After reading all these books, the real question that kept bothering me was the levels to which the general tastes of people have fallen. Many of those who are raving about these books have very likely not heard of the books that I mentioned, much less read them. Most will not want to read them, because reading and absorbing these books take so much toll on one’s mental and psychological capacities, unlike today’s young adult fictions. What is so saddening is that all that is called ‘great’ by today’s standards will never be able to hold a candle to the real classics, the really great books. Unfortunately, today’s sensation seeking ‘live-in-the-moment’ crowd had severely undermined the meaning of superlatives through gross overuse. Now, The Fault in our Stars is a great romance, just as Romeo and Juliet. A time will come, I suppose, when the John Greens and Stephanie Meyers will be replacing Shakespeare and Shaw in school and college syllabi. God-willing, I will be done with the education industry by then!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A little bit of fun

Whatever it is that my readers look for in my posts, I think everybody will agree that it is not humour. Not the easy-breezy brings-a-smile-on-your-lips kind anyway. And yet, those who know me intimately will sometimes associate me with the crazy class clown! After all, there is nothing like an occasional dose of  funny madness to lighten up your mood, right?

After going through a particularly stressful day, I sat back in my chair an hour ago to look through the day's newspaper. After finishing with the important stuff, I took out the daily pull-out called Metro to glance through it. And I found this.

It is aimed at Bengalis who will relate to it the most, but all my readers can take a look at it. It is nothing great, I warn you. Do not expect anything refined and high-brow. But it gave me a much needed laugh, and I definitely feel the better for it. Maybe I will go and enjoy some lyadh after a dose of Gelusil now! Enjoy :)

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Daddy's book for me

There are many things that girls boast about when they talk of their daddies. They talk of how rich their daddies are, how powerful, how strong, how much they spoil them... When I want to boast about my daddy, I can say that he has written a book for me. Now I wonder how many daughters can claim that. In fact, I cannot think of anybody but Indira Gandhi whose daddy devoted an entire book to her. And I feel blessed.

Daddy wrote the book a decade ago, and now it has finally been published. I am not saying this just because he is my father, but that book has taught me much, much more than twelve years of moral science lessons and all other self-help books/articles combined. When I say that this book is life-changing, I am not exaggerating. Now that it is available to the public, go and read it. Trust me, it is going to be one of the most worthwhile purchases in your life.

At the moment it is only available online. The details you can find here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What I don't like about living in India

The other day some friends and I were talking about where we would like to live afterwards when we became adults. In all of us, there was a marked preference for the West. None of us seemed to strongly want to spend our lives in India. We felt sad thinking that we would have to leave behind our families if we settled abroad, but mostly we felt this sacrifice would be worth it. Afterwards when I was thinking back on our conversation, I started thinking about the reasons behind our preference for the West. I realized it had a lot to do with the many things that we did not like about living in our own country that we thought could be avoided or maybe corrected if we lived in the West. I started listing some of the things that bothers me about living in this country, and the list became surprisingly long.

One of the things that I dislike most is the dirtiness of my surroundings. People seem to have a pathological dislike towards cleanliness. By common consensus, our roads are treated like huge dustbins. There are heaps of rubble and dug out holes all over the place. Rubbish is thrown out just about anywhere. Even where garbage bins and vats are available, people seem to prefer throwing waste just outside the bins. It is as if they enjoy the sight of piles of rubbish with flies hovering over them. Then comes the odour problem. So many places here have a perpetual stink of rotten food and excreta and all sorts of dirty things. Have people just stopped bothering about these problems? Evidently teaching environmental studies in schools and colleges is having very little effect on actual practices of most people.

Speaking of which, I must talk about another related and rather disgusting aspect of living here. So many people have surprisingly little concern about basic hygiene, both personal and public. They smell like tigers and are completely oblivious to the acute discomfort they cause to other people around them. Anybody who has visited an Indian market or travelled in a packed bus during summer would know exactly what I mean. Given the kind of climate of our country, I realize some problems are unavoidable. But surely a lot of it can be resolved if people were just a little more concerned citizens? I mean, how much can a bottle of deodorant or mouth freshener cost? And why is it so important to relieve oneself on roadsides? Women don’t do it, so nobody can claim that it cannot be helped. Spitting and blowing one’s nose in the open is quite rampant. Why, some don’t even know that they should cover their mouths while sneezing or coughing! This just shows the kind of families most people belong to, where such essential lessons are not taught at all.

There is another important aspect that many Indian families give very little attention to, and that is good manners. Most people are not taught that staring at someone is rude, that one should not interrupt people or shout down other people’s views while holding a conversation. During my father’s admissions, I often notice that the children do not even know that they have to look at a person who is trying to talk to them; that it is positively uncouth to keep looking around the place when they are being addressed. It is obvious that our society does not believe that these are important values. Parents would rather spend all their time and energy goading their children into memorizing physics and chemistry than teach them to become polite and well-mannered human beings. In fact, Indians are so used to rude behaviour, they sometimes feel that people from other cultures who have been taught these lessons of good behaviour are actually being hypocritical. I remember someone who had just gone abroad telling me that he didn’t like how the Westerners kept saying “nice to meet you” and “please” and “thanks” at the drop of a hat, because apparently “they did not really mean what they said”! Evidently this person preferred the rough and rude behaviour that is the common norm in our country, because it is not “hypocritical”.

People are not taught about public consciousness. Most people are either oblivious or unfazed about how their actions can affect others around them. This is precisely the reason why we have so much honking on our roads and blaring megaphones announcing all sorts of unimportant information. This is why people shout into their phones while carrying on a telephone conversation. Some, especially young people cannot imagine enjoying themselves without creating a huge ruckus wherever they go. Being in close proximity to a party is every peace lover’s nightmare. There is also the kind of people who go about picking fights with just about anybody. They are another category of imbeciles, in my opinion, who survive only to destroy other people’s peace of mind and spoil a good day. Oh, I wish we could be rid of such disturbing elements; our society would be much the better without them.  

Now that I think about it, our society does instill some rather twisted values in its children. The most common example of this would be the assertion that elders are always right. From the beginning, children are told to respect their elders and obey them, just because they happen to have been born before us. In fact, questioning the actions of someone older than you is seen as a grave misdeed. It is presumed that just because a person is aged he will automatically be much wiser and more responsible than a younger person. This is a very erroneous presumption. As my father says, a fool when he grows old becomes an old fool. Teaching children to blindly follow everything that elders say might be beneficial for the elders’ ego, but it mars the ability of young people to judge and decide for themselves. The same goes for touching somebody’s feet. Children are forced to touch the feet of all older relatives to show them respect, irrespective of what the children truly feel about these grown-ups. In this way, the question of having to earn one’s respect disappears, and grown-ups can behave as they like, without having to worry about how their actions might make youngsters feel about them, because after all tradition will force the young people to bend down and touch their feet no matter what kind of persons they are.

As a woman myself, I have to say that being a woman in India has its added problems. The common attitude of people is that one cannot do certain things just because one is a woman. Even today, people do not think it necessary to treat a woman as an equal. One of my pet peeves in this regard is something that is very common in our everyday lives. People stare. They do it no matter what you are wearing, though I concede the stares grow more lecherous if you are not covered enough. But that does not mean you will be exempted from gapes if you are wearing baggy clothes that cover almost everything but your face. The same goes for being harassed on the road. It does not always have to be overt molestation. Sometimes it is something as simple as choosing to sit beside a woman even though there are other empty seats in the bus, and then trying to climb into her lap! It may be that I have grown overly sensitive with time, but this is one of my greatest complaints about having to live where I do. In fact, if it hadn’t been for some of the good and wonderful men that I have met, I might have become one of those firebrand feminists who are convinced that men can be nothing but pigs. Believe me; the roads are overflowing with that sort of creatures.

Another thing that irks me is how insensitive people can be. Parents openly and often undeservedly criticize their children in front of anybody who cares to listen. People talk about others’ disabilities, sometimes in front of the concerned person, without sparing a thought about how the person in question may feel. Also there is the problem of over-familiarity. People I barely know come up and start talking to me like old friends. Some start offering completely unasked for advice and suggestions about everything from careers to good shopping centres. Some even start sharing intimate personal details and expect you to do the same! In all the three hundred and fifty years that the British stayed in India, why could they not inculcate in us the glorious habit of being stiff upper-lipped?

I could probably go on for a long time, and add dozens of other things to this list. For example, people’s lack of appreciation for natural beauty and preference for concrete malls and posh buildings at the cost of razing down green belts, or the lack of the spirit of live and let live, and how people love to interfere in other people’s business. Or even how the habit of reading is neither appreciated nor cultivated. In fact, some households actively try to dissuade their children from indulging in such ‘wasteful’ hobbies. But enough negatives for now.

There will be things that I will miss about my country if I were ever to leave it for any length of time. I will miss the various delectable cuisines and fascinatingly varied cultural practices that abound our land. I will miss the beauty of the tropical cyclones when they hit full force in the middle of April. I will miss Bollywood movies, some of them at least. I will miss the sound of shehnai drifting in from a faraway wedding on a dark lonely night. I will miss the sight of clothes being hung out to dry (I know, I am strange!). I will miss the sounds of the many different languages spoken here. I will miss many little things, I cannot deny that. However, it will be evident to anybody who reads this carefully that the reasons against staying back here, given a choice to do otherwise are so much stronger. I only wish it were not so. I wish I could truly say with all my heart, I am proud of my country and there’s no other place in this world where I rather would be.