Thursday, December 31, 2015

This and that and New Year wishes

So the year has come to an end. In a few more hours, 2015 will be history. Like always, looking back makes me feel that the year passed at a breathless pace, in the wink of an eye. But God knows that is not how I felt when I was actually living through some of the days. 2015 has been a truly remarkable year, and not always in a positive sense. It has been a life-changing year in many ways, and I cannot deny that I am relieved that it is coming to an end in a quiet, uneventful way. In fact, one of the most ardent prayers I have for the coming year is that it be a comparatively peaceful, uneventful, unremarkable one.

The year started out with my preparing and then appearing for the ISC examinations, the final step before passing out of the boundary of school. I did not have a very happy school life, so I was very glad to have reached the end of it. I spent the early months with dad in Durgapur, and returned to Kolkata to sit for the examinations in end February. The exams – only six papers – were spread out over a month, a tedious month that I spent shuttling between my two homes because dad had his yearly admissions bang in the middle of the exams. With the end of the examinations in end March (or was it early April? It is incredible how quickly memories fade) I spent a few days in Kolkata, sleeping off the examination weariness and “hanging out” with friends, as our generation likes to put it, and then headed for Durgapur. Dad had been looking forward to this year ever since 2013, because the long breaks meant that I could spend a lot of time with him in Durgapur. We spent a very pleasant April together, eating out, watching movies, going on long scooter rides, going swimming, eagerly anticipating my upcoming college admissions. All was going hunky dory, and then May 19th happened. I have already written about the accident so I will not repeat myself now; suffice it to say that it was a traumatic event – as all accidents are – and the aftermath still hangs heavily over us. Thankfully, dad has had a miraculous recovery, and he is walking around with his normal marching pace. In fact, we have a trip planned at the end of the coming week; we shall be off to the mountains after a gap of nearly eighteen months, and I’m certain we will have a wonderful time walking around the lovely mountain roads. Some pain persists, but it is bearable, and hopefully will not give dad too much trouble during our trip.

This year was stormy in more ways than one. I lost three friends – one of them a senior in college who passed away days before Christmas – and so it is little surprise that I have been thinking quite a bit about mortality. Does one really ever know when one’s time will be up? We humans tend to take so much for granted; we waste so much time under the impression that we have forever to get things done. We let friendships wane, love loses its flame, we delay vacations and family reunions – all the while thinking that we can do it tomorrow, the next month, five years later. But how do we know that we will be around tomorrow? If there is one resolution that I want to make for the next year and ask others to think about, it would be not to keep things for later, especially in terms of human relationships. If you have had a fight with a close friend, go ahead and apologise instead of waiting for her to do it. Get back in touch with people you were fond of but have fallen out of touch with. Do not hold grudges; let complaints pass as far as you can. If you fancy someone, go ahead and own up. And do it for your own happiness, because at the end of the day, “none of us is getting out of here alive” as some smarty pants said on the internet. Holding on to all the anger and pain and longing is just not worth it.

After that sermon, I have to admit that “do it now” is a dictum that I need to imbibe and practise in a lot of less abstract and philosophical situations. There is a term called lyaad that my Bengali readers will understand. The closest translation that I can think of is an extreme level of lethargy in engaging in any activity whatsoever. It is the sort of lethargy that makes getting out of bed feel like an insurmountable ordeal, and settling down comfortably in a cozy corner you feel like staying there indefinitely. I have been bitten by that lyaad bug, so characteristic of Jadavpur University students. The fact is that I have always had the tendency to being lethargic; I have now found an environment fantastically suited to nurture the instinct. How bad the affliction is can be judged by the number of blogposts I have put up this year. I enjoy writing, yet this strange apathy towards any activity keeps me from doing the very things I love. If there is one thing that I have done diligently this year, it is watching movies and TV shows. Which would have been fine if I had been doing more productive things alongwith, like reading books and writing and playing my synthesizer and learning French and even exercising. This is what I need to change for the coming year. No more procrastination. I will set myself assignments and deadlines if needed, but I will get things done!

The year has witnessed a lot of changing relationship dynamics for me. I have had a childhood friend drift away for no obvious reason and despite considerable efforts on my part to keep in touch. I had misunderstandings with a friend I made in my previous school, and we fell out of touch for months. It was only recently that I thought about it and realized how silly the entire fight was. I got back in touch with her, and thankfully things are all fine again. I made a couple of friends overseas, even got romantically involved with one for a while, only to face the inevitable demise that is the lot of most long distance relationships. But most interesting have been the various ups and downs with the people in college through the semester. By now I think I can no longer count how many times I have had to change my opinion about many people around me, and it has only been one semester! But in spite of the highs and lows I have met some really wonderful people, many of them with funny quirky habits, and I can only hope that some of these friendships last long. A very good thing about our college is the close-knit friendships that develop between seniors and juniors, at least in some of the departments. Or maybe I should not generalize at all, and just be thankful that some of my own seniors are delightful, and I can now think of quite a few of them as close friends. There is one particular senior that I am especially thankful to, somebody who made a conscious effort to talk to me when I was lonely and without too many friends. He helped me open up and make friends and even get over post-breakup depression. Afterwards I came to know that it was not just out of the goodness of his heart; he did have an agendum in his mind, but that does not make me resentful, because that does not change how much I enjoyed myself talking to him. I am fonder of him than any other friend or senior, and I am glad to have met him. Of course, most boys I am fond of tend to be more than slightly nutty, and that holds true this time as well. I am hoping the person concerned will never happen to read this, but even if he does, I have the feeling that he might agree with me!

But on to other things before I make this post sound any more like a cheesy chick-lit declaration of undying love! Getting into Jadavpur has been the undeniable high point of this year for me. Even till the beginning of the year I had thought of studying law, and I even prepared and sat for two law entrance tests. But to be honest I had lost all intention of joining law school after learning about life in law schools from a lawyer ex-student of dad’s. That kind of regulated, rushed, competitive environment did not appeal to me at all, and so I did not work too hard for the entrance tests. And in any case dad was due for surgery the day the results were declared. I did not even check which law schools I was eligible for according to my rank! Since dad and I had already made up our minds that I would stay put in Kolkata for my undergraduate degree, I did not apply to the Delhi colleges except for JNU. In Kolkata I had my heart set on Jadavpur University, though I did apply to a couple of other places. I was first offered admission to Scottish Church College in Kolkata, which I accepted with some reluctance. With Jadavpur it was a really close shave; I was 43rd on the waiting list for the General candidates, and I was the last person to be offered admission. I had given up all hope of getting admitted, so I went numb with shock when the admission office announced my name. The day of the admission and the first few days of class are blurred in my memory. My friends and I now laugh about some of my stupid actions from that first week. But I am a third generation JU student, the fifth from my family, and I could not be happier. For the first time I actually look forward impatiently to going to an educational institution and express thankfulness at the dearth of holidays, much to dad’s chagrin. I aced the JNU language entrance test and was offered admission about two weeks after classes started in JU, but I was already way too much in love with the place to even consider going off to Delhi.

My experience of the first semester in Jadavpur University will have to be a separate post by itself. There is so much to write about, so much to reflect on. From classes to friends to libraries to canteens to crushes to university politics – it has been a whirlwind. Some of the things I did were hilarious, some quite dangerous, and some downright silly. I dare not write candidly about all of it; someday I might have my own children reading these posts, and I do not want to scandalize them, or even worse, give them ideas! I am starting to have quite a collection of my own “don’t do anything that I would have done” experiences. Richard Castle would be proud of me! The second semester starts this Monday and I cannot wait to go back. This semester I hope to be a little more serious, a little more focused on my work. After all, I have only five more semesters left to make the most of my time here. Of course there is a good chance that I might continue with my post-graduation course here itself, but I hope to try for someplace else. Let us see how things play out.

Daylight is fading; the last day of the year is coming to an end. Soon it will be dark and comfortably chilly. I will snuggle into bed with a hot cup of coffee and watch Star Wars with dad. An ideal end to a less-than-ideal year. Here’s to love and hope and joy and renewed vigour and passion, and a wonderful time ahead. Happy New Year everyone. 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was in primary school. I was around the same age as Scout Finch and nearly as naïve, but that did not stop me from enjoying the flavour of the prose. The book left a strong impression on me, and I knew that I had just read a great book even if I did not know exactly what made it great. It was only after I reread the book first driven by nostalgia and then because it was part of my syllabus in high school that I came to appreciate the various shades and nuances of life and human nature portrayed by the author. It has been one of my favourite books ever since I first read it, and I am certain that I will learn to appreciate it at ever greater depth as I grow older; but I do not mean to discuss TKAM here. I finished reading the much-hyped so-called sequel, Go Set a Watchman, a short while ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

Much has already been written about this new book by Harper Lee; it has been widely reviewed and critiqued. The general consensus in the literary world seems to be that the book should have been left unpublished, as the author seems to have wanted to do all along. Though originally publicized by the media as a sequel to TKAM, it turns out that the script of GSAW was actually written a few years before TKAM, and Lee was encouraged by the publisher she saw about GSAW to work on the flashback scenes and childhood anecdotes mentioned in GSAW, which eventually led to the creation of the hugely popular American classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee herself refers to GSAW as merely”a pretty decent effort”, and I tend to agree. Having said that though, I would also like to point out that I find much of the scandalised outrage and wrath that the book has incurred greatly exaggerated and unnecessary and even unfair. I will justify my opinion in a bit.

The book starts with a train ride as Jean Louis “Scout” Finch returns from New York to her hometown Maycomb, a small town in Alabama. Jean Louis works in New York, and is on leave to visit her family and friends back home. “Family” is her father Atticus Finch, a lawyer struck by a bad case of arthritis, her uptight, prudish Aunt Alexandra and  her eccentric but lovable Uncle Jack. We are told that her older brother Jem had died of a heart failure a few years earlier, and Calpurnia, the black woman who had kept house and brought up the two Finch children was now too old to work and had been retired for some time. Then there is the boyfriend, Henry “Hank” Clinton, a childhood friend who has grown up under Atticus’s care and tutelage. Right from the beginning Jean Louis is keenly aware of the changes that her home town has been undergoing over the years. The activities of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) and the subsequent change in the status of the coloured folks of the town has changed the atmosphere of the place. Jean Louis finds a pamphlet titled ‘The Black Plague’ in her house and follows her father and Hank to a Citizens’ Council meeting. There she sees Atticus introduce a man who then goes on to give a hate-speech laced with racial discrimination and hatred of the coloured community. The revelation that her father, the man that she has held to be the most fair and just person in her life, is really a racist, prejudiced individual shocks and traumatizes her. She tries to put her head around the entire scenario, but eventually goes on to have a hysterical breakdown. She screams at Hank and blames him for supporting racial prejudices. When he tells her that he is forced to do a lot of things that he does not necessarily enjoy doing just to be able to fit into society and keep his place, she remains unimpressed and angrily declares that she will never marry him. She turns around to leave only to find her father standing there smiling at her. He asks her to talk to him but she ends up insulting him bitterly. She goes to Uncle Jack for solace and advice, and he tries to tell her that Atticus hasn’t suddenly become racist, but is acting the way he is because he feels that the central government’s involvement in federal matters will be detrimental to the south. She also visits Calpurnia, who she has looked up to as a mother figure all her life, but is treated formally and coldly by her, making her realize how much relationships have soured up between white and coloured people. Jean Louis is shattered and scarred and decides to leave Maycomb for good, and is on the point of leaving when Uncle Jack returns and forces her to confront the issues on her mind. Jean Louis finds that she can now think about the events of the previous two days without breaking down, and Uncle Jack says that this is because she is now her own person and does not depend upon her father for everything. She has developed an individual conscience and can now treat her father as a man rather than a god who is always right. The book ends with Jean Louis apologizing to Atticus, who assures her that he is actually very proud of her, and she confesses that she loves him very much.

The language of the book, the style of writing are as lucid and engrossing as Mockingbird. Like TKAM, I found that the words have a flow that grips you and makes you carry on reading till you reach the conclusion. However, so little actually happens in a book that is nearly 300 pages long that you cannot help feeling more than a little disappointed, especially since you know how very rich in content the author’s other book is. Jean Louis is no longer referred to by her childhood nickname, Scout, and this sets the somber mood of the book. Fifty pages into the narrative I was already inwardly grumbling about the dark undercurrents and general air of gloom. TKAM was in no way a trivial, shallow writing; in fact it probably dealt with a greater plethora of serious subjects than the current book, and was a wider study of human nature, yet it had a feel-good factor to it that is completely missing in Watchman. Maybe that is in tune with the fact that Watchman deals exclusively with an adult world which sadly lacks the innate cheerfulness and innocence of childhood portrayed in Mockingbird.

The best bits of the novel are undoubtedly the parts where Jean Louis reminisces about various childhood memories with her brother and their childhood best mate Charles Baker Harris, or “Dill”. My pet peeve about this novel is the elimination of Jem, who was definitely one of my favourite characters from Mockingbird. The images that Jean Louis looks back to from her childhood all recall better times, which made me sad. It is unfortunate how human beings always look back wistfully to that which is gone, essentially because that which is is not satisfactory enough. I also found the character of Hank to be quite annoying. This bit I cannot fully justify, maybe because my dislike was instinctive and perhaps not even wholly reasonable. I found his strong desire to ‘fit in’ quite distasteful, as well as his tendency to want to hold Jean Louis back in Maycomb just because he wants to make a home there. But this may well be because I am not a very romantic person myself and don’t much understand the nuances of romantic love and belonging. All said, I was rather sadistically happy at Jean Louis’s decision not to marry Hank after all.

Coming to Atticus’s character: this is where all the uproar and indignation and controversy arises. The Atticus of Mockingbird seems to be an entirely different person than the man described here. The Atticus that the children knew growing up was very much the moral compass of Maycomb. Here, we see him as a rickety old man with a pronouncedly racist mindset, who looks down at coloured folks as lesser humans as yet not civilized enough to deserve full economic and political rights. This is a very strange and somewhat frightening revelation, to think that a man can change so much over time. What may be an even scarier thought is that he had been this way all along, and just happened to be a marvelous actor who hid his true nature from those who were closest to him all through their growing up years. I find this quite hard to believe though, and so I feel that it is essential to read Watchman without being too influenced by the characterizations of Mockingbird. On a personal note, the last time I read Mockingbird, I found myself a little disenchanted with Atticus. He was a wonderful man, a little too wonderful and perfect to be real. I dislike human beings who try to come across as perfect, and I felt that that was what he did at times. I do not believe such perfection is real, and I feel that being good and fair can sometimes be stretched too far (those who have read the book may recall the incident with Mrs Dubose, where I felt Atticus was downright cruel to Jem in his attempt to be fair to the old lady: but this is a debate for some other time). As such, I feel that the Atticus of Watchman is more real. He is far from perfect, and his faults are quite objectionable, but at least he comes across as more honest. I prefer an honestly imperfect man to a human masquerading as a ’god’ any day.

I must say I was rather disappointed with the way the character of Jean Louis has been portrayed here. It is true that finding out unpleasant truths about those you hold dearest to you is a painful thing. But the manner in which she handles such revelations is very immature and unpleasant. She screams and cries and throws tantrums and eventually has to be slapped to come back to her senses. That is certainly not the way for a woman in her mid-twenties to handle rough situations. Jean Louis uses crass language at her father, once again showing that in some ways she has failed to grow up after all. After a point, the reader stops empathizing with her and begins to feel annoyed and irritated at her naivete.

It is important to remember that Watchman was actually written before TKAM, even though the timeline of the events puts it up as a sequel of the latter. It was from the script of GSAW that the characters and setting and events of TKAM developed, and fructified into the magnificent piece of literature that it is. GSAW was the author’s first attempt at writing a novel, and it is should treated as such. It is important that the two books be read as separate novels altogether, in spite of the fact that to understand the various allusions and personal relations mentions in Watchman well one needs have read Mockingbird already. Reading the two books as unconnected narratives would ensure that the characters of Mockingbird are not undervalued or looked at cynically. Mockingbird by itself will remain a great American classic, and that should have nothing to do with Watchman, which is nowhere near that pitch of literary finesse.    

The conclusion I have reached is that Watchman is a decent read, but if you do plan on reading it, make sure you can look at it as an entirely separate narrative from Mockingbird, that in no way affects the quality or worth of the latter. If you cannot, give GSAW a miss. Mockingbird is one of those books that one should not die without reading; Watchman should have been left to repose in the author’s memories as her first attempt at writing, unknown to the world.

Friday, May 29, 2015

The best laid plans of mice and men...

They say that Man proposes, God disposes. At no time is this dictum better understood than when tragedy hits. Lives change in a fraction of a second, and so many plans lie in ruins.

Last Tuesday, I was returning from Kolkata to meet daddy. My ISC results had just come out the previous day, and having done fairly well, I was coming with a happy heart. They were showing Piku in the bus, and those who have watched the movie would understand when I say I was a little depressed by the time it got over. I got down at Muchipara, and was surprised to see dad absent. I had called him some seven minutes back to tell him that the bus had almost reached Durgapur, and since he always stands at the bus stop waiting for me, my surprise was obvious. I had just started fiddling with my phone with the intention of giving him a call when a man came forward with his son, asked me whether I was Suvro Sir’s daughter, and told me my father had had an accident.

Autopilot kicked in. I vaguely remember the man assuring me that it was just dad’s leg that had been hurt; I think that was his way of telling me the accident wasn’t fatal. I crossed the road (thankfully, even under stress I had enough sense to make sure there were no cars nearby before rushing across), and found a large number of people gathered near a shop façade. Dad was sitting on the ground with his legs spread out. His right leg was strangely twisted and swollen like a mound just over his ankle. He was sweating profusely. He greeted me with a strained and rueful smile: “bhenge diyechhe ma” (“he broke it, darling”). It turned out that daddy had parked his scooter and started to cross the highway on foot. He is an ultra careful man, and had checked that were no cars coming down the one way lane. He was about to look at the other direction (the traffic on Indian roads being notorious for breaking all rules) when a man on a motorcycle came speeding from the wrong side and hit him. He somersaulted in the air and fell down in the middle of the road. His reflexes were unbelievable – he managed to land on his hands and feet and so saved his head, otherwise I shudder to think what I might have had to witness when I arrived. He tried to stand up, and the excruciating pain in his right leg told him that the bone had broken. He sat back down and managed to drag himself to the edge of the road. Even in such agony he was clear-headed enough to realize that he was in mortal danger as long as he remained in the middle of the highway. Thankfully, it was broad daylight, and the area being highly congested, a large number of people recognized dad and came running to help him. The motorcyclist had already recovered from his own fall and sped away for fear of being lynched by the public.

My brain was a swirling mess, and I still wonder how I managed to get through the next few hours without passing out or retching. There were a lot of people around dad, but everybody looked dazed and unsure about what to do. Ironically, dad was the most composed person in the gathering. He told me to call home and let the help know about the accident so that she stayed put at the house. After that, I called the family doctor and let him know about the accident. He arrived quickly enough, and put a basic bandage around dad’s leg. In the meantime, dad asked for a cigarette to calm his nerves. I had already called for an ambulance from the nearest hospital, but as we eventually found out, their ambulance service was abysmal. They kept us waiting for nearly forty five minutes before dad himself asked the people around us to arrange for a car – any car – to take him to the hospital. That was arranged, and I accompanied dad to the hospital, into the Emergency Ward. I had already let some people know about the accident, and they had promised to help.

Once dad was admitted to the Emergency ward, I started getting in touch with more people. I had already made a few phone calls, so the wheels had started turning. Two of my own friends had arrived, so I had some moral support. At first I was harassed by the hospital officials for money: they refused to even X-ray dad’s leg before I paid the requisite amount. My friend rushed back home to get me the money. But after that, following reprimands from higher-ups who knew dad well, they stopped mentioning money altogether. Later I found out that they had even given OT clearance already, long before even the first proper payment was made.

I was not allowed to stay in the Emergency ward so I waited outside with my friends. I had already signed the required admission forms. When I look back to it now, I realize what a blessing it has been that this accident occurred now, only a few months after I turned 18 and so acquired signing authority. Otherwise I would not have been able to do the required paperwork at all. After waiting some more, my friend Sagarika and I returned to the house while the other friend, Anushua, went home. I had not even had the chance to wash my face since 7.30 in the morning when I had left home in Kolkata, and it was already 2 in the afternoon. Returning home, I took a bath and both of us had a quick lunch. Dad had classes from 3, so his students had started pouring in. Sagarika and I informed them of the accident. It did not seem to register with many people that dad had been hospitalized. As we saw over the next few days, many people asked astoundingly idiotic questions, the most common being whether the class would be held that day or not!   

Anyway, we were back in the hospital soon, and found that dad was (finally) being transferred to a ward. The surgeon had paid dad a visit and confirmed that surgery would be necessary to set the bone. Apparently the leg had suffered from two fractures: one in the fibula just under the knee cap, which would heal naturally, and the other (the worse one) in the tibia above the ankle. That was the ugly mound I had seen. Eventually the X-ray revealed that the bone had snapped clean into two parts. This was the one which would have to be surgically fitted with a metal plate. Unfortunately, the surgery had been scheduled for the next night, because a medicine that dad regularly takes had made immediate surgery risky.

By this time the crisis was behind us. Dad was in good hands, of that I was sure. Enough people had been informed of the mishap, and were streaming in to visit. Mom was on her way to Durgapur from Kolkata. I had informed her of the accident immediately I arrived, and she had left home within half an hour. I was no longer alone. But nevertheless I was quite traumatized.

The evening passed quickly. Mom arrived, and Sagarika finally left. Another, much older ex-student of dad’s, Prodipto Da, had come to keep dad company, as had many others. I could go home now and take a breather. It is important to mention that in all this while dad did not once complain or bemoan his fate, even though he was in agony: he only apologized repeatedly for ‘putting me to so much trouble.’ It was seeing dad so calm and serene that helped me keep my cool. I visited him once more later that evening, smartly defying hospital rules about visiting hours. Later, I took a sleeping pill to get to bed; otherwise there would have been no sleep that night for me.

The next day mom and I reached the hospital by 9 in the morning, and found dad already shifted to a private cabin (he had been placed in a semi-private ward the previous day due to lack of private beds). He was drowsy with pain and drugs, and drifted in and out of sleep the whole day. Mom went home a while later; I stayed put. I was going to be dad’s 24-hour attendant. The day passed uneventfully. Dad had numerous visitors. By evening, he was being prepared for the operating theatre. The surgery was scheduled for 7.30 in the evening. Dad was taken into the OT by 7.45. I tried to keep an unfazed exterior, but inside there was a storm raging. Apparently I had watched one too many episodes of the TV show House MD, and could not keep out of my mind numerous horrible ways that things could go wrong on the operating table. After dad had been taken in, I went out to smoke a quick fag to soothe my nerves and went to the hospital cafeteria for a cup of coffee. The surgery was supposed to take around an hour. I had just started taking a sip when I received a call from the OT, telling me that there was a problem and would a family member please come quickly? Imagine my horror at that! I dashed upstairs and would have burst through the door had I not braked well. Once there, an attendant informed me that there wasn’t any ‘problem’ after all; a silly nurse had overturned the bowl where the surgical instruments had been soaked for sterilization, and so they had been forced to delay the surgery by half an hour! I was so furious I could eat the man’s head. The dullard had no clue about the kind of anxiety he had put us through by his stupid choice of words! Problem, indeed!

The surgery went on till 10.30. All the while I had live earthworms gnawing at my stomach, though Prodipto Da did his best to keep me distracted. The poor fellow talked incessantly for two hours just to keep my mind off things! Of course, I kept behaving like a jack-in-the-box, jumping up every time the door to the waiting hall opened or the telephone rang. Eventually, at around 10.45 we were informed that the surgery was over. I practically flew up two floors to the OT, and there we met the surgeon. At that moment, and I am not exaggerating here, I felt he was an incarnation of Divinity, sent there just to assuage my fears. The dear man told us that there were no complications, and we could go and meet daddy one by one. It was with an effort that I stopped myself from giving him a bear hug.

I was the first one in to meet daddy. He was fully conscious; they had given him a spinal cord anesthesia for the operation, so though his body was unconscious waist down, he could talk normally enough. He was shivering violently at that time; the air conditioner kept on during the surgery had nearly frozen him to the bones. Otherwise he was just fine. The rest went in one by one to meet him, and after everyone was reassured about dad’s condition, mom and grandma went back home. I saw them off, and then Prodipto Da saw me to the hospital elevator before heading home himself. It had been a long day for everyone.  

Back in the cabin, I made myself comfortable on the attendant’s couch to keep an eye on dad during the night. Dad had already been brought to the cabin. We requested double blankets for both of us. After tucking dad in well, I settled down for the night’s vigil. On Prodipto Da’s advice I did not try to stay awake all night. Instead, I kept snoozing after setting my alarm for every ten to fifteen minutes. The method was as clumsy as it sounds, but it worked for me. Dad was drowsy and sometimes half conscious, and I was worried about any problems during the night. But I could have slept peacefully. The night time attendant, a Rajput male nurse, was highly efficient and diligent at his job. He gave dad drips and medicines and replenished them at the right time. By four in the morning, dad had regained much of the sensation in his legs. He had been given his first meal at that time, and after that there really wasn’t much I needed to think of, so I finally gave in to my overpowering drowsiness and slept for the next hour and half.

The next day once again passed peacefully. Daddy slept most of the morning, and I snoozed. Later in the afternoon grandma took my place and I went home. I returned in the evening with my aunt, dad’s elder sister. After a long time, the accident had brought much of the family together. Even tragedies have some silver linings I suppose. Once again I spent the night in the hospital with dad. One day after the surgery he was already desperate to go home, despite the pain. He had been given a walker with which he could hop around, but even with that he was more self reliant than many healthy people can be. In the end, he even started smoking cigarettes in the room and managed to alert the security men in the hope of being kicked out of the hospital quickly. His wish was granted, and daddy was discharged from the hospital on Friday afternoon with strict warnings and threats from the doctors about how badly things could go wrong if he put his leg down under any circumstances. No weight-bearing was to be done on the right leg. So three days after the accident, dad was back at home.

Dad is stuck to the ground floor for the next couple of months. Mom and I are doing all the house work and the running up and down stairs. Mom will leave in a while, and then it will be all up to me. This is giving me very good practice of running a house, and all the climbing of stairs is making up for my lack of working out, so I’m not complaining. Dad, on the other hand is probably the most active and self reliant patient that ever lived. He has started his classes already, and is doing almost everything by himself. He is hopping around with his walker like an expert, and sometimes one has to make an effort to remember that he had a surgery just a week ago! Talk about independence!

So much for the summary of events. One reason why I wanted to write this post (other than the fact that dad was after my life about it!) was because these last several days have been an interesting study of human nature. I want this post to be a constant reminder to myself about how much good can come of even the worst time of one’s life. The amount of human goodness I’ve seen in such a short while is baffling and humbling. At the same time, there have been unpleasantries, but they have been mostly due to people’s ignorance and lack of good sense (mothers of students calling up to ask about their sons’ progress in class even though they know about dad’s accident) than due to malice, so I choose to ignore them. So this post is going to be my way of showing gratitude where it is greatly deserved.

Right from the time of the accident, dad has been surrounded by helpful neighbours and acquaintances. They have travelled with us to the hospital and stuck around as long as I needed their help. The man whose car it was that took dad to the hospital has not yet mentioned his fees or come to collect the money, even though he is a professional driver and a poor man for whom that money would make a difference. The number of poor, ordinary people who have selflessly offered help even after we returned home is humbling: thanks to their kindness I don’t have to worry about going shopping for groceries or vegetables or medicines, they are going to deliver it all to the house. I feel ashamed of myself now when I think of the number of times I’ve taken out my anger by unfairly blaming these ordinary good people for the quality of their wares and myriad other reasons.

Dad’s students and their guardians have also been very understanding. A very great number of them have called up to ask after dad. Not one has complained about the missed classes, and many have assured me that it wasn’t the classes that they were worried about at all; what mattered was that their Sir got better quickly. Now that dad has started teaching again, many have come forward suggesting that dad take a longer break to quicken his recovery. So many ex-students keep turning up or calling over the phone asking after dad constantly. We keep complaining about how self centered and mercenery people today are; this recent experience is ample evidence that not all is lost, that kindness and empathy exists still.

There are some people who I need to mention individually for all the help they have rendered. My dear friends Sagarika and Anushua have been with me from the day of the accident. Their moral support has been invaluable, and has helped me go through the time when I was feeling most lonely and lost. Thank you both for being there.

Little boy Swapnayu is not so little any more. He has been beside us throughout the ordeal, and helped in so many big and small ways, and is still doing it. His presence too has been a great psychological help to me, for which I’m infinitely grateful.

Prodipto Da has been beside daddy from day 1. He was the one who took up the very difficult task of keeping me calm during the surgery. I couldn’t thank him enough for that.

To all the jethus and kakus who did so much at the hospital and beyond, a big ‘thank you’. Things could never have gone on so smoothly if all of you hadn’t been there.

To all the other dadas who I know have been worrying their heads off about dad: Akash da and Subhodip da and Nishant da and Saikat da and the numerous others I don’t know the names of, thank you. Your concern is such a morale booster for daddy.

One of the many things that made me proud was the compliment paid by the (male-) nurse, who told dad he had never seen a patient as quiet, as cooperative, as gracious as dad in all his years at the hospital. “Most of them, especially those who stay in private suites, behave as if they own the place, and show it by being as bossy and abusive as they can.” Funny, considering that dad is emphatic about his belief that all men are not equal, and do not deserve to be treated as equals!

 And lastly, but definitely not the least, I have to mention a special friend. This friend of mine lives half a world away in the United States. He has never met me or my family, but when he heard of the accident, he was so agitated that he wrote a poem for us, wishing dad’s speedy recovery. Here is that poem.

Dear child in sorrow
I have naught words to spend
Not syllables suffused with sufficient grief
Or loving letters potent to mend
What harm and horror robs thine heart’s relief,
And steals all thought for the morrow

Yet with words fair, one might repair
The scattered, shattered pieces of thine world,
Might help to ease your troubled mind,
Soften ‘n soothe the pain upon thee hurled
And find the peace that might thine wounds bind,
Through the meager, desperate words of my prayer

For words have life beyond this realm of tears,
And live much longer than dusty lips
Whose uttering doth make them thence immortal
And which no shadow of time may eclipse
Unreachable through any temporal portal
Immune to all mortal fears

But my prayer goes to no court of Heaven
Though it ascends like holy breath,
Nor does it rot in a chamber of Hell
Though it seeks thee and thine brushed by death,
It flies with no demon, hampers no angel—
Only a wishful prayer, sent as comforting leaven.

My prayer and sympathy are for thee and thine,
Hidden by flesh from all covetous seraph’s glare,
It is for thee I weep and weave my far off cries!
Not for imagined glory, nor jealous divinity that I care,
For thine bleeding heart, swiftly, my love flies!
And so now I write my earthly prayer:

Lord of Love—essence of all human heart
Like the moon bewitched by night
Swallow all their sadness—loose thine healing art!
Lord of Joy—harbinger of the blessed
Like the noon bejeweled by light,
Bathe them all in gladness—banish all their dread!
Lord of Mercy—beloved instinct of the soul
Like the rune bespoken by sight,
Hide ye not in madness—collect no bloody toll!
And Lord of Hate—accursed poison of the mind
Get thee into darkness, cast off by the kind!
Lord of Agony—dread torment of the bone
Get thee into dust, cease thy sanguine groan!
Lord of Death—pitiless collector of the flesh
Get thee with Mercy!—spare whose blood is fresh!
And mortals with immortal tasks,
Human faces in celestial masks,
Let no Darkling worsen,
Shed thine grosser person,
Fight and slay and kill those vile specters
And take up thine appointed mantle as protectors
And if immortals do exist,
Born with but a grain of love
Demand thy profane brethren desist—
Beseech help from above!

Amen and Amen!
And let it be no mocking knell.
But let quick joy arrive again
And thus thine next letter excitedly tell
Of hope and healthy recovery swell—
That all is blissfully well
For it is on thee and thine father—
Though I pray half a world away—
On whom I dwell.

This piece of poetry has given me so much comfort during dad’s stay at the hospital and afterwards. I cannot compose poetry to save my life, but I can show appreciation where it is due. My friend insisted on remaining unnamed, much to my sorrow. But you know who you are, so once again, thank you for caring. It has meant so much to me. I have written derisively about Americans in my blog before; people like you prove that Americans can be so much more than just crass and illiterate and self centered.

My greatest takeaway from this entire experience is that I am now more devoutly spiritual than ever before. I believe that the fact that something much worse did not happen is because somebody Up There did not want it to happen. I believe that the reason I found the strength to take charge when I had to was because I was given it. If I had ever nurtured even the slightest doubts about divinity, it is now gone for good. So now my faith allows me to sit back and relax, and let the future take its own course. I am no longer worried; I know somebody greater than I is taking care of things. I can be at peace.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Women's empowerment and household chores

I did not mean to write a post for Women’s Day. I find it rather tiring to wake up in the morning and remind myself of my gender. I’d rather be just a human being. Wouldn't that actually solve a lot of problems, if people spent less time and energy asserting their masculinity or femininity, and treated each other merely as fellow human beings? Anyway, so here is the reason why I decided to write on a women’s issue at this point. All my Bengali readers take a look at this article. For those who cannot read Bengali, I apologise for not translating the entire essay. Here is a quick summary for them: The writer, one Swati Bhattacharya, has put forward the view that it is women’s attraction for and contribution towards all sorts of household chores – from cleaning and cooking to gardening and knitting – that has caused them to lag behind in the job market. The writer feels that the pursuit of such ‘banal’ and ‘petty’ activities makes women less willing to take up careers – something that would have automatically meant their ‘transcendence’ (uttaran) into better lives. She gives some valid examples about how there are much fewer women than men in most professions – journalism and writing and scientific research for example. She feels this is due to the fact that women have internalized the age-old dictum of their places being in homes and kitchens. She has lamented about how patriarchy has brainwashed women into wanting to return to the very families that abuse and torture them, and even, in some extreme cases, take their lives. She ends with the metaphor of prisoners wanting to return to their incarceration after the jail has been destroyed in order to free them: she feels that no amount of external freedom and opportunities can really free women unless they can throw away the ‘shackles’ that household work represents.

While I agree in spirit with the point Ms Bhattacharya has tried to raise about increasing participation of women in different fields of work, I am infuriated by the reasons offered by her for the gender divide in jobs. I have several things to say in this regard, so I will address the writer for the rest of this post.

Dear Ms Bhattacharya,

I am a fairly educated, independent, discerning young woman of the 21st century, brought up in a highly liberal family. I have career ambitions and high hopes for my future, and I am sorry to see so few of my classmates having the same. I have never been indoctrinated by the ideas of a ‘woman’s place’ and gender roles. But I have been deeply insulted and pained by the views you have expressed in your article for Women’s Day. I am guessing you are a feminist; I am not. I believe in rights of a much broader sort: human rights. I believe in the right every single human being has to decide what sort of life s/he wants for herself or himself. Every single person has the right to live exactly as one wants to, as long as one is not doing this by hurting or unduly infringing upon the same rights of those around oneself.

Don’t feminists always shout themselves hoarse about how men are always telling them what to do and how to live their lives? Well, Ms Bhattacharya, what makes you think that just because you are a woman yourself, you have a right to dictate to other women about how to live good lives? What gave you the idea that the path shown by you is the only one that will lead to the liberation of women? Have you not noticed that you are doing the very thing that feminists always blame men for doing: trying to enforce your opinions on fellow human beings who are quite capable of making their own decisions – because for some reason you think you are superior?

Speaking of liberation, why should this word have only one interpretation: yours? You have understood liberation in one way; other people might have very different opinions. Personally, I find the Islamic burqa a rather restrictive device, and would hate to have to wear one. However, there are thousands of Muslim women – and not just uneducated religious fanatics – who claim that they find a certain freedom behind their veils, and wear them of their own volition without any male ever trying to enforce it. As my friend commented in the previous post, to each his own, and the sign of true civilization would be the acceptance of such differences without the automatic presumption of one’s own opinion being the only worthwhile one.  

You say that it is the importance that women give to household work that has led to their lower interest in career building. Many women give up their jobs once they get married or have children, because they want to devote all their time to their families. I have thought about this at some length. I think that in this matter a lot depends, or should depend, on the individual under consideration. There are surely many women in our society who would have liked to build their own careers – however small or big – and are forced into, albeit not always through abuse, choosing familial responsibilities over career-building. These women have my full sympathy, and I think it is a shame that even today women are compelled to make this choice without any support from either their spouses or their parents. But what you, Ms Bhattacharya, have tried to assert is that all women make this choice under compulsion, and all women would have done better to choose careers over families. Now there are two things that I want to say in this context: firstly, this idea of having to choose is not a worldwide concept. Women in many countries have been juggling families and careers for many years now. It is very much possible, and once our society – both men and women – start accepting this more readily, this problem of choice will hopefully subside. Secondly, for all the women out there who willingly choose to build homes rather than careers, who are you to say whether their choice has been right, or even good?

You talk of how the only thing worth doing is bringing about ‘transcendence’ of the human condition. Let us consider the many women who do take up various professions. You are a journalist yourself. Think of all the page three material that journalists write about on a daily basis. Is that transcendence? Many women take up teaching in schools as a preferred career. Having recently finished my fourteen year long school life, I will say that the biggest contribution of my teachers in my life have been bitter memories. School teachers spend a large part of their time thinking up ways in which to torment, irritate, gag and manipulate their pupils. By choosing to build careers, these women have permanently tarnished the reputation of schools and the experiences of students. And the many women who take up jobs in various IT companies, earn pittances and then waste it on exorbitant objects of self-beautification, and spend all their free time moving their backsides in discotheques trying to attract males of the very same mental level: have they achieved ‘transcendence’ of any sort? You have used the word uttaran, which translates into ‘transcendence’, but can also mean ‘climbing up’. Do monkeys also achieve uttaran when they jump up walls?

The ISIS think they are bringing about transcendence of the human condition by chopping off the heads of all non-believers. Hitler thought the same when he tried to make the Germans the master race and exterminate all Jews and anybody else who did not fit into his description of the ideal Aryan. Maybe you will call their actions progressive and ask all your fellow working women to mete out the same treatment to their non-working contemporaries? And if not, why not? Because their views don’t agree with yours? Or because you feel comfortable to think that your views somehow have to be right?

And now I come to the part that I find the most offensive of all. You call household chores banal and petty. How dare you? Who on earth gave you the right to decide what is petty and what is important? You say that there is no glory in making a perfectly shaped luchi: and I suppose it is so much more glorious to be a saleswoman in a supermarket or a grumpy ticket seller in a government bus station? Or maybe, a journalist who writes on topics which are ‘in’ at the moment? And why should everybody have to chase glory anyway? If I enjoy cleaning and decorating my home and cooking for my family, I am one happy woman doing these things, and my family is one happy family with a warm and cosy home to come back to. So what if I am not helping to take forward some ‘greater cause’? Maybe I have found happiness and fulfillment in my life that way: why do you grudge me that? In the example you give of your writer friend lamenting about how her acquaintance gave up a career in writing in favour of gardening and looking after the dog, all I can say is that just because you may not love dogs it doesn't mean that all women mustn't! You say that somebody else could have fed the dog while this girl honed her writing skills. I suppose you will laud only the woman who lets somebody else bring up her children and look after her aged and ill parents while she concentrates upon her career. After all, parents and children are part of the family, that prison-like system that prevents women from becoming (mostly) professional mediocrities!

Are you yourself a pathetic cook who has never been able to tell the difference between tea and kalo jeera, and keep your room like a permanent battleground, depending on your mother or your daughter or your maid for looking after your daily needs, while you can look down on them with scorn from your throne of a woman who earns her own living? If that is so, I have nothing but pity for you. Yours is a pathetic lot indeed; having failed to do anything of real significance in your career (from starting your own company to a charitable institution that does some real work for deprived women to writing a great book), you are now taking out your frustration by sneering upon women who perhaps have found happiness in life through their families and households. Believe me, there are millions of such women all around the world. Thankfully, your voice is really of little consequence: I will still go on keeping house and indulging in my feminine interests like knitting and cooking and colour coordinating upholstery, and hopefully my husband and children will derive much pleasure from these one day, just as my parents do now.

But be thankful that you and I shall never meet, for I’ll make sure to put salt instead of sugar in your coffee and darn your white dress with black thread – just to remind you of the significance of household activities and of those who take these activities seriously.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Is humour the bane of civility?

A very belated happy new year to all my readers. It is shameful for how long I have been away from the blog. I have been suffering from a heavy bout of writer’s block, and maybe an even heavier bout of sheer laziness. Anyway, I am back now, and hopefully I will be more regular with my writing this year than I have been in the previous few years.

Though I have not written in very many months, I have been thinking a great deal all this time. A lot of issues and ideas have swirled around inside my head, clogging me up at times. I will talk about some of them as I write throughout the year, hopefully. Right now, I have something in mind which is, I think, very pertinent in every human life. I am talking about humour.

Humour is an integral part, a basic necessity even, of life. Nobody likes being around a person who is a grumpy old bore. One reason why Percy Weasley was such an irritating character was that he could not recognize a joke even if it danced in front of him wearing only Dobby’s tea cozy. A sense of humour quickly establishes a person’s goodwill. The lack of it, especially in people working in public relations of various kinds (in my personal experience, teachers are common offenders of this kind), can make life miserable for not only oneself, but even more so for people one deals with. It also comes in handy while going through the rough patches of life. The man who can laugh at himself and the troubles he faces is a happy man indeed.

What is it that makes people laugh? This question is universal in nature, and yet it will elicit vastly different answers from different people. What one finds funny and enjoyable, though seemingly a very personal choice, is actually influenced by a lot of external factors: which country and which time in history one is born in, the religion one follows, the tastes and preferences of one’s parents, relatives, and not to forget, one’s peer group, are some such factors. These factors are much more powerful that they are generally credited to be; they colour a person’s character and form his personality to a large extent. And that is precisely why there is cause for worry when a large section of the population starts “enjoying” themselves at the cost of another very important social need – namely, good manners.

To a person born in Roman times, gladiator fights and no-holds-barred chariot racing were sources of entertainment. The 21st century man shrinks in horror at the thought of it. How barbarous, he thinks! We have advanced so much now than those poor savages, he says proudly. We live in the age of human rights! Of free speech and expression! And then out he goes, and spends thousands of rupees to buy a ticket to a “roast” by AIB. Now this is what you call civilized entertainment. Right?

For those of you who don’t know – I was one of them till a few weeks ago, and not much of a loser for that – a “roast” is a “comedy show” where celebrities are subjected to insults of all sorts for the entertainment of the wider audience. Wikipedia tells me that this type of event was created as a mock counter to a toast. Originally, this was supposed to be an event where a guest of honour was subjected to good-humoured jokes – good humoured, mark you – at his own expense. This was supposed to be a unique way to honour a famous person. The idea was born in America (small surprise there) and was made famous by the channel Comedy Central. Now let’s come to AIB’s recent attempt at organizing an Indian version of the same featuring actors Arjun Kapoor and Ranveer Singh with director Karan Johar as the roastmaster. Oh and I forgot to mention, AIB (look up the full form if you care) is an Indian channel on Youtube which specializes in sarcastic comedy videos. They do have some interesting videos up there. Again, look them up if interested.

I did not watch the roast. As soon as I looked up the meaning of “roasts”, I was pretty revolted and decided to give the video a miss. But after a while, what with all the hype on the internet about the controversy over the video, my curiosity got the better of me, and last evening I skimmed through some parts of the video (it has been taken off from Youtube after complaints, but is still available on other sites). I was sorry that I did. The show, which is nearly an hour long (I did not watch for longer than ten minutes, all taken), is a splendid display of all that is crass and vulgar and disgusting about human beings. The so-called jokes are mean and dirty, and do not have a trace of humour in them. Or so I thought. It is evident that thousands of people disagree vehemently with me. The audience roared with laughter as the hosts and participants carried on their game. To watch some people get nastily humiliated in public seemed to have become the most entertaining thing ever!

Generally, I would have ignored the video as something irrelevant to my life and therefore not worth my time. But then, is it really irrelevant? A great number of people are finding this sort of thing funny and enjoyable. The concept is being lauded as the sign of the “open-mindedness” and “tolerance” of Indian society. People are talking about the freedom of speech and that sort of thing in this context. Similar arguments have been used in the context of the Charlie Hebdo incident: after all, the magazine did not criticize only Islam, it was even-handed in meting out insults to all religions. So, what is basically being said is that in both cases, it is their right to be rude and vulgar and deliberately insult and cause hurt to others. Since people who are in the limelight seem to have by and large accepted and even welcomed this idea of humour, it is hardly surprising that a great number of the common folk have started emulating them already. I have classmates who take pride in calling themselves rude (I know someone who openly boasts about that, not kidding), and are often invited to be hosts in school programs where their natural affinity towards causing offence comes in useful. Just before school ended, such a program was organized by the class twelve students for themselves. In this “award ceremony”, titles were given out to their friends, people they have grown up with. Some of the titles were “Dumbelina” and “I always cheat” – you get the idea. These were friends complimenting friends, apparently. This is what entertainment and laughter has come down to. In a world where teachers are being heavily penalized for reprimanding erring students, it is considered smart and cool to be crass. To protest against such dumb spitefulness is to display “narrow mindedness” and “backwardness”. Why are all the rights and freedom meant for the perpetrators of hurt and abuse, and nobody talks about the rights of the victim of such verbal abuse? Because abuse it is, nothing can convince me to the contrary. Has our world become quite so soulless that physical pain is all important, and emotional hurt makes no difference at all? How long, then, before physical abuse too is considered to be okay, and it becomes all about survival of the fittest, where people start moving about once again with weapons and killing and maiming human beings become a form of entertainment once more?

The world is becoming an increasingly more violent and uncouth place, and nothing shows that more than such comedy shows and other forms of entertainment. We have managed to get rid of all considerations of good manners and refined tastes in the name of freedom and equality. In the many comments and discussions I read in support of the AIB’s event, one common argument that has come up in their favour is that condemning the group for showcasing in a public event the sort of language and entertainment that people use all the time in their daily lives is hypocritical. True, but I have two things to say about this: in everyday life expletives are often just used in moments of great exasperation to convey irritation and displeasure. But when dirty language is used purely for the purpose of so-called “entertainment”, surely that cannot be equated with the aforementioned circumstances and condoned in the same spirit? Also, just because something has become a norm nowadays does not necessarily mean that it is a good thing that is worth conserving. Most people swear (I must admit that I myself am guilty of it occasionally, but I do try to guard against it), but when you come to think of it, does using abusive language really make one “cool” and “smart”? Does it not show an inability to express one’s thoughts adequately through polite vocabulary? How on earth can this sort of inability make a person any more suave and sophisticated than somebody who can and does express himself only through refined, polite language? In To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus says that bad language is a stage that all children go through; it becomes a cause for worry only when it doesn't pass with time. It seems today’s society has made a concerted decision to not get past that stage of juvenility.

Speaking of laughter, I was reading P G Wodehouse the other day, and almost fell out of my bed laughing. And guess what, there was not one unpleasant or abusive word in the entire book! Think about Gerald Durrell’s writings and the Don Camilo books. For my fellow Bengalis, bring to mind Narayan Gangopadhyay’s Tenida and his ridiculous adventures, and Ghonada’s preposterous stories. Tell me, then, is dirty language really necessary to evoke laughter and joy? Or will the modern champions of free speech and rights of creativity call such works too hopelessly prosaic and restrictive to match today’s expectations of entertainment?

It is highly telling, how the politest people we meet nowadays are salesmen and hotel managers and waiters – people who are try to sell us something. Is that what politeness has come down to? Merely a means to an end, to be employed only for monetary gains? I have seen my father and some others like him who try their utmost to be polite and considerate and even bend over backwards in their efforts to ensure that the people they are dealing with are not harassed and hurt, only to be exploited for all their gentleness. Will the world really be a better place if all such instinctively nice and polite men and women decide to give up on civility and take to exploitation and gross misbehavior wherever they can get away with it?

So where do people like us go from here? People who object to coarseness, who have an affinity for gentle, subtle humour and dignified conversations, who value politeness and decency, and try to act accordingly in their day-to-day lives? The world will call us prudish and backdated, but how exactly do we change our approach without giving up on what we believe to be good and valuable? Maybe it is best for us to keep to ourselves and not get too involved in what happens in the outside world. The life of the recluse seems to be the only one for the likes of us.