If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 14 August 2014


When Arundhati suggested that we visit the second most well-known sea beach in West Bengal during my rare weekend off recently, I didn’t feel excited because of my experience in the most popular sea beach in the state, Digha. Digha is possibly the dirtiest and the most disorganised seaside resort in the world and I didn’t expect much from its less illustrious cousin, Bakkhali. But in our house, I decide only important matters that could change the course of history. All minor decisions are taken by my wife. So last Saturday, we were off in our middle-aged car driven by a young Bubai.

We went along NH 117 which is reasonably good, although only two-lane for most parts. Intermittent rains and the small towns on the way slowed us down repeatedly and the one-hundred-and-thirty-kilometre drive took five hours. To make things a little more complicated, we had to take a ferry across a narrow river. When we reached the filthy banks of Hatania Dewania River teeming with brightly painted fishing boats, the men who run the only barge to transfer vehicles across were having lunch. In Bengal, we have stopped asking meaningless questions like why people who run an important public service should take breaks at a fixed hour like sarkari babus and shut down a highway in the process. Or why a two-hundred metre river on a busy national highway can’t be connected by a bridge in the twenty-first century.

But after reaching the sea-beach, we felt that the less-than-smooth journey was a blessing in disguise. Even in a Saturday afternoon, the place hadn’t been taken over by relentless fun-seeking city dwellers playing Sunidhi Chowhan songs. Shacks selling trinkets and small eats hadn’t encroached every square inch of the beach. There were visitors, but the beach was pristine and the pace was relaxed. Push carts were selling fried fish, corncobs, and bhelpuri. Some enterprising villagers were renting out plastic chairs to tourists, something that I haven’t seen anywhere else.

We hired two chairs from Ms Ankita Basak @ Rs.10 an hour. As we watched the monsoon clouds change colours in the setting sun, the sea was moving towards us in the high tide. We lazily hung our feet and waited for the waves to reach us. But before the sea could, a gust of rain from the Bay of Bengal dashed towards us.

Back in our overpriced but under-maintained hotel, we decided to play Scrabble sitting down in the second floor balcony looking into darkness. (My wife had forgotten to take the umbrella and medicines for emergencies, but luckily, I hadn’t left our Scrabble set behind!) Mother Nature possibly knew about our trip and decided to make it a full moon night. As we listened to the rustling sound of sea breeze blowing through trees, the moon played hide-and-seek with clouds. If there was heaven on earth, it was here, it was here, it was here.

We went to Henry Island next morning. Surprisingly, to reach this island you don’t cross any water body. The entire area is under the Fisheries Department of the state government. Entry is restricted and so there is no one there except for government employees who run the establishment. Their main job is to help fishermen and they maintain huge sweet water ponds to hatch fish. They also run two tourist lodges in one of which we had excellent luchi and alur dam for breakfast. More bliss!

From the entrance of the government property, a road leads to the sea through marshy lands with huge fishing tanks all around and deep green mangrove trees with their roots sticking out of ground. The land beneath our feet is soggy, thanks to many months of rains. Time seems to have stopped flowing here. Crabs and snails live their unhurried lives in peace with the universe. As I watch a snail undertaking a trans-continental journey, I recall Grapes of Wrath, where Steinbeck has given a graphic description of a turtle crossing a highway. The description runs into pages and as you read it you actually see the turtle.

We cross a colourfully painted flimsy bamboo bridge to reach the seashore. If only we didn’t have to go back! <>

Kolkata / 13 August 2014

Monday, 26 May 2014

Notes to my students: # 11: The present perfect – a bugbear for you too?

While I am waiting for the concert to begin, let me tell you the story of Shirley, one of my students.

A Malayali born in Kolkata, Shirley was an adorable child. She has lived in the city ever since. She studied at St. Thomas High School and then graduated in nursing. She worked as an intern at the Christian Medical College in Vellore for a year. Then she returned to Kolkata and worked in a private hospital. But the hospital was shut down in 2011 after an accidental fire killed 95 people, mostly patients. Out of job, Shirley decided to do master’s in Nursing. Two years later, with an M. Sc. (Nursing) on her CV, she joined a nursing college as a lecturer. She has been teaching there so far, but now she plans to migrate to Canada.

A hospital in Toronto has offered her a job provisionally.  She applied for and got a passport while she was doing M.Sc. Recently she has applied for a Canadian visa and work permit.

Shirley is an accomplished musician too. She has been learning classical music since she was a child and presently, she performs at concerts. At the moment, I am in Kalamandir, waiting for a musical programme to begin. Shirley is going to perform tonight. Look! She’s just come on stage.

Analysing language

The simple past tense: Most of the sentences you’ve just read are about the past. And the past has been described using three forms. One of them is the simple past. The sentences in this form are:

1.       … Shirley was an adorable child and bright student
2.       She studied at St. Thomas High School and then graduated in nursing
3.       … she worked as an intern …
4.       Then she returned to Kolkata and worked in a private hospital
5.       But that hospital was shut down in 2011 after an accidental fire killed 95 people …
6.       Out of job, Shirley decided to do her master’s in Nursing
7.       With an M. Sc. (Nursing) on her CV, she joined a nursing college as a lecturer.
8.       She applied for and got a passport …

You would see that in all these sentences, we are treating the past as a closed or completed action (Sentences 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8), event (Sentence 5), or state (Sentence 1). So please remember:

If you look at the past as something that is complete, something that you can put in a packet of history, you use the simple past tense.

We will now move on to present perfect tenses. Let’s go back to the passage above and turn to the other sentences that have something to do with the past.

1.       She has lived in the city ever since.
2.       She has been teaching there ever since …
3.       A hospital in Toronto has offered her a job provisionally
4.       Recently she has applied for a Canadian visa
5.       She has been learning classical music since she was a child …
6.       Ah! She’s just come on stage

These sentences are in the present perfect simple (Sentences 1, 3, 4, and 6) and present perfect continuous (2 and 5). We use these forms to describe past events that have some connection with the present.

1.       She has lived in the city ever since. ð she started living in the past and still lives there
2.       She has been teaching there ever since … ð began teaching in the past, she’s still teaching
3.       A hospital in Toronto has offered her a job provisionally ð the offer is valid as of now
4.       Recently she has applied for a Canadian visa ð her application is under consideration
5.       She has been learning classical music since she was a child … ð she’s still learning
6.       Ah! She’s just come on stage ð a recent event began a little earlier, which is also a part of the present

We use the past perfect (simple or continuous) to describe an event that began in the past and has some connection with the present.

I can hear you asking: What’s the difference between the past perfect simple and the past perfect continuous?

Well, you use the continuous form of the present perfect to talk about:
1.       An action that began in the past and is still continuing
2.       An action that continued for some time and has just ended

For example:
1.       Shirley has been teaching …
2.       She’s been learning music ð An action that is yet to be complete, she’s still learning
3.       Shirley looks tired because she’s been working out at the gym ð the action (work-out) is just over

Present continuous or present perfect continuous?

A common mistake committed by many speakers is: Shirley is teaching at a college since last year. û

As you are connecting Shirley’s present activity with the past (last year), you shouldn’t use the present continuous form here. You say: Shirley has been teaching since last year. ü

Continuous tenses and verbs that talk about states:

You do not normally use state verbs (some books call them stative verbs) like know, believe, etc. in continuous tenses. You do not say: I have been knowing Shirley since we were in school. û

You say: I have known Shirley since we were in school. ü

Also, certain verbs like begin, start, etc. which represent one-off actions are not normally used in continuous tenses. For example, you don’t say: She has been starting to practise yoga. û

You say: she has started to practise yoga. ü

Another point to note:

You do not normally use time expressions of the past with the present perfect tenses. For example, you don’t say: She has applied for a Canadian visa last month. û

The sentence She has applied for a Canadian visa” is fine if you don’t specify when she applied.

But if you wish to specify the time, you are possibly looking at the past as a completed event and you use the simple past instead: She applied for a Canadian visa last month. ü

The forms

The forms are:

A.      The present perfect simple:
·         I / We / You / They + have + the past participle form of the main verb
·         He / She + has + the past participle form of the main verb

B.      The present perfect continuous:
·         I / We / You / They + have been + the +ing form of the main verb
·         He / She + has been + the +ing form of the main verb


1.       Choose the correct alternative:

a.       Shirley was / has been born in Kolkata.
b.      Shirley has lived / lived / is living in Kolkata since her childhood.
c.       Shirley has been / was an adorable child.
d.      She graduated / has graduated in 2013
e.      She has been learning / has learned music, but she believes she has a long way to go.
f.        She has got / got herself a passport when she was a student.
g.       Shirley has applied / applied for a Canadian visa; she has a visa interview next week.
h.      Shirley invited / has invited / is inviting me to her concert next week.
i.         Look! Shirley just came / has just come in. Doesn’t she look awesome in her new dress?

2.       Correct the sentences if they are incorrect. Put a ü next to a sentence if it is correct.
a.       Shirley was always a sincere and hardworking student.
b.      In her first job, she has worked sixteen hours a day.
c.       The tragedy happened because the hospital owners have not followed safety regulations.
d.      A hospital in Canada offered Shirley a job. She will go to Canada if she gets a work permit.
e.      Shirley has been knowing her boyfriend since she was in school.
f.        Shirley looks awesome in her new dress.

3.      Think of your academic / professional career so far. Write a brief note on your own career, roughly in the line of the passage on Shirley.


Sunday, 26 May 2014

Thursday, 20 February 2014

A lot of nonscience

A lot of nonscience floats like smog in the cyberspace. This morning, I came across a post containing seven sets of statements, two of which I’m quoting below: 
  1. THEY SAID the sun will give you cancer. THE TRUTH IS exposure to sun will generate Vitamin D which will protect you from cancer.
  2. THEY SAID vaccines will protect you. THE TRUTH IS most vaccines contain thimerosal (mercury), and that will kill you.
I am inclined to believe this originated in the US of A, because in no other country would you come across such glorious heights scientific and intellectual creativity coexisting with such deep pits of ignorance and stupidity.

Let’s take the first statement above. I don’t think there is any scientific evidence that a twenty-minute exposure to the sun causes cancer. On the contrary, physicians routinely prescribe this for people who suffer from osteoporosis as sunlight helps our body synthesize Vitamin D, which in turn helps absorption of calcium. And I think it is also common knowledge that there is some correlation between skin cancer and prolonged exposure to the sun. So the poster I am referring to contains a half-truth, which we all know, is more dangerous than complete lies. It implies that any amount of exposure to the sun is good. And that’s a most pernicious message.

I respect the author’s right to believe what they believe, but if anyone spreads such questionable science without an iota of supporting evidence, we must politely tell them they are talking rubbish. You might think why I am reacting so strongly to an innocuous poster. But is irrationality really harmless?

Moving on to a different theatre, on the Kolkata Metro, I see on an average four out of ten people wearing on their fingers multiple gemstones that will supposedly help them overcome myriad problems of life, from failure in exams to failure in extra-marital affairs. On a serious note, if you, as an individual, believe in astrology, I have no problem. I would respect your beliefs. But collectively, if we calculate how many millions are being cheated by the humbug propagated by the astrology industry, the mind boggles. And it may not be difficult to guess why this business is so successful.

Superstition perhaps has a natural appeal to the human mind precisely because of its irrationality. It is not surprising that this post I just mentioned has been shared by a whopping 655 people. When we choose to believe something that is not supported by evidence, we are relieved of the mental stress of analysing issues. It’s a lot easier to believe than to collect evidence, analyse them, and to reach a reasoned conclusion. Unquestioning faith is also a part of the Hindu religion, of which willy nilly, we are a part. But the problem is that like in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People or Prabhat Kumar Mukhopadhyaya’s Devi, blind faith often leads us to untold misery. And it doesn’t stop there.

Many people in India today believe that a man, who built his political constituency by actively supervising the lynching of Muslims he was duty-bound to protect, will solve all the problems of India. I think this is as irrational as implying that the sun is generally harmful or vaccines are generally dangerous. In fact, the two beliefs might just be two sides of the same coin.

Kolkata / 19 Feb 2014

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Republic and an Ordinary Indian

Of the handful of men who have inspired me in life, one was my driver when I was a bank manager. Let me tell you why he is special.

But before that, a few words to set the scene. My office hired a car from a transport company for my official use. Let me confess that as a banker, my honesty was like 22 carat gold. The two carats of impurities were: I misused the office car and telephone without the faintest trace of compunction. B, a strapping young man with a ready smile, came in as a driver of the hired car. He earned a monthly salary of Rs.1,500 plus some overtime wages. How he made ends meet with that kind of fortune, even in 1995, remains a mystery to me, particularly because he wouldn’t filch diesel or fudge bills. But B never complained and was always ready to drive his boss around at any time of the day or night. In three years, he was never late by a minute and was never seen without a smile. That he was a super driver was a bonus.

Once, my wife and I went to Kalamandir for a music show. Because of traffic restrictions, B had to park far away from the theatre. When the show ended, a torrential rain was lashing Kolkata. It was long before cellphones and everyone among the audience was waiting in the foyer when a lone white Ambassador pulled up in front. In that deluge, we couldn’t even see the car clearly, but in a moment, B came out with two umbrellas and a beaming smile. I do not know how he found out when the show had ended. It is possible he had been waiting in the rain. 

Frankly, I haven’t worked with another Bengali who was more hard-working or one who did his job better. And all that wasn’t entirely wasted. 

When our contract with the transport company was about to end, I offered B a bank loan to buy a vehicle and rent it out to the bank. But he couldn’t beg, borrow, or steal the few thousand rupees required to be put in as “margin money” for the loan. He didn’t ask me, but I gladly gave him the amount. He repaid it in no time. 

This brought about a qualitative change in B's life and I wish I could end the story here with, “and since then, he has never looked back.” But life in the Republic that is celebrating its 64th birthday today isn’t quite that simple.

Over the last twenty years, B has been blessed with decent men and third-rate scoundrels as his boss more or less alternately. There were bosses who helped him, and thanks to one of them, B has a tiny flat in Kolkata now. But there have also been managers who exploited him ruthlessly. Some wouldn’t even pay him legitimate overtime wages, but leave him after midnight and ask him to report for duty within hours to send their kids to school; some wouldn’t think twice before asking him to do extra duty on Sundays …. One rogue manager even reduced his contractual pay! And almost every one of them made him work for as many hours as they fancied, with no consideration for how much his aging body could take. The power equation between managers and B being highly asymmetric, he has suffered in silence. And it shows. 

Now he has a slight stoop and looks much older than his age. The man who once was always chirpy and smiling has an air of defeat about him now. He hardly smiles. And he has had his usual quota of personal problems.

If you are a poor Indian and if you contract cancer, you would be fortunate if your malady remains undiagnosed. Unfortunately, B’s older brother’s cancer got detected early. The poor man lived and fought the disease for four years and by the time he died, all his farmlands had been sold to pay for his treatment. 

His daughter, that is B’s niece, is getting married next month and B came this morning to ask me for a loan to help him organize the wedding. It struck me that in the 20 years that I have known him, this was only the second time he has approached me for help, only in extreme emergencies, although all these years, he has lived from one crisis to another. 

So, what is the moral of the story? You may be finest practitioner of your trade and the most honest person in town, you may be prepared to work fourteen hours a day for years at a stretch without a holiday, but unless you belong to a privileged minority, this bloody Republic will not give you a fair deal. Period. 

Kolkata / 26 Jan 2014

PS: I  posted this story on Facebook too. Two of my colleagues, Shubhromoy Mukherjee, who was working in London then, and Ravichandran Aswin, who happened have had the benefited from Bachchu's services, read this story and chipped in with fairly large sums of money for his niece's wedding. So together, we did our small bit to support an orphan girl. Long live Facebook!