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

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Friendship therapy

[I love writing about my experiences: my childhood, the wonderful friends who’ve filled my life with light and laughter, and of course, the exotic places I visit and the people I meet from time to time. However, of late, I have been deeply affected by what’s happening in my country and the world at large, and I can hardly write anything personal.
Maybe, it’s time to take a break. Let me turn back to life writing and share with you something shameful I did to a buddy as a child :(. And then I’ll move on to an exhilarating experience I had much later :).
Were the two events connected?]
Academically, Rahul was one of the best in our reasonably strong class. He always came at or near the top of the class. Like all budding Bengali intellectuals, he was thin, wore specs, and avoided contact sports like football or boxing. If that gives you the picture of a boring bespectacled bookworm, it’s because of my incompetence as a writer. Rahul was charming, ever smiling, had no airs about his considerable academic ability, and was loved by all. And he preferred the last bench, unlike most “good” students.
When we were in Class IX, Rahul and I sat side by side across an aisle on the last row. It was the final period of the day. Like any normal fourteen-year-old, we were eager to hear the final bell, and looked at the sky and the trees outside, sitting on wooden benches that had been living trees once.
For some reason, Rahul was in a particularly mischievous mood that afternoon. Every time the teacher, Adwaita Babu turned towards the black-board, he (Rahul, not the teacher) would pick up a piece of broken chalk – he had saved a neat pile of them – and throw it at me. I threw it back, dutifully. We both were enjoying this little game on the side of the Algebra lesson.
I guess the teacher wasn’t entirely unaware of it. Towards the end of the class, as I returned Rahul’s last missile, Adwaita babu had just turned back and caught me in action. (But naturally he didn’t see the first part of the act.) It was one of those minor errors of timing for which you miss a goal, but in a classroom, mistiming could have more serious consequences.
Adwaita babu calmly walked towards me and without wasting time on preliminaries, pulled me up by the collar gave me a solid thrashing in the limited time available to him before EOD, as my friends watched intently with shades of emotions ranging from genuine sympathy to pure joy.
It was aeons before corporal punishment was banned in schools and our wonderful teachers had to resort to this time-tested procedure to control the bunch of rowdies under their tutelage. We considered an occasional manhandling by our able-bodied male teachers as much a part of our boys-only school as was the majestic brass gong and the wooden hammer that hung in front of the headmaster’s room on the first floor. We took it in our stride, quite gracefully.
So when the class ended, I felt no ill will towards Adwaita Babu. But I thought it would be a good idea to pass on what I got to Rahul, because of several reasons. Firstly, it was he who had started it; secondly and more importantly, he was even thinner than I was.
So instead of leaving the classroom, I tapped him and invited him to duel. Rahul, who was a sport, accepted happily. Friends helped by moving desks to prepare a makeshift ring. (Recently, as I watched the opening scene of Dangal, I recalled that moment.)
Surprisingly, he gave me a tough fight and pushed me to a corner, hitting me repeatedly stretching his thin, long arms. I regretted my decision to engage him in combat, but hung on grimly. But I knew my goose had been cooked. … Suddenly, I managed to land a good right jab on the left of his face. Rahul bent down in excruciating pain, cupping his left eye. I won on TKO, much against the flow of the contest.
Rahul didn’t come to school the next day. And he couldn’t take the annual exam shortly thereafter – not because of the injury, to the best of my knowledge, but because of some serious illness. So we were never in the same class. I graduated from school a year before him and we didn’t meet for decades.
The victory in the skirmish didn’t give me any pleasure. I felt miserable to have hurt a good soul like Rahul and secretly, I carried a sense of guilt that time didn’t heal. The normal thing to do would have been to go to him and apologise. I thought of it often, but being the stupid oaf I was, I never got round to doing it. Or maybe, things like apologising seem too theatrical if you are 14 or 15.
Much later, maybe after 30 years, another classmate, Dipu and I were loafing around in Kolkata on a lazy Sunday evening when he said, ‘We’re quite close to Rahul’s home. Shall we barge in?’
That day, I was suffering from a bout of back ache, a rather severe one. In fact, for most of my adult life, I suffered from a debilitating condition for which there was no cure. A group of strong pain killers gave me some relief – but doctors say they also chew up the kidney. And I had reached a stage when anything less than a steroid made little difference. So most of the time, I suffered in silence, like that evening.
I had wanted to say goodbye to Dipu and take a taxi home, but grabbed the opportunity to meet Rahul. As we were crossing Vivekananda Park, suddenly electricity failed, plunging the area into darkness, but opening up the starry sky. I looked up. My mind too was enveloped in darkness. The pain shot up and I could hardly walk, … I just managed to drag my feet.

In the course of our chat, I managed to slip in the line that had wanted to say for decades, ‘Rahul, I've felt terrible ever since that day. But I’ve never told you. I hope …’
Rahul instantly knew what day I was talking about. He cut me short, ‘Yes, I thought you had made chutney of my eyeball … couldn’t see with my left eye for a few days ….’
He said this as if he was reliving a happy moment and broke into a beaming smile that said he’d put the incident well behind him.
The litmus test of friendship is when you meet a friend after a long time. If you have nothing to talk, if you have to hunt for common topics, you know that your friendship is dead. Nothing like that happened. We went on yakking until it was late, and parted reluctantly – lots of notes had to be put aside to be exchanged at the next meeting.
As Dipu and I walked towards the bus stop, I suddenly realised I didn’t have an iota of pain.

Kolkata / Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Sunday, 1 January 2017

I won’t wish you a Happy New Year …

I won’t wish you a Happy New Year
For two reasons.

First, if you are a happy soul,
You’ll manage without good wishes.
But if you weren’t,
Mere goodwill wouldn’t possibly be of help.

Because – although it’s a timeworn cliché –
Happiness doesn’t depend on what’s outside,
But on how you are
within yourself.

Therefore, I’d just tell you
To keep being happy,
Or else, you must teach yourself
To be. No one else can.

To put it simply,
Let everyone become Bhutan.


I won’t wish you a Happy New Year
Because we’ve been wishing each other
Sometime from our heart,
Sometimes like programmed robots.
But it hasn’t really changed anything.

The year that’s going to end in an hour
And an added second
Has been terrible.
And if there was light
At the end of the proverbial tunnel,
We couldn’t see it.
You may say I am a cynic.
But in the time we live in,
It’s insane not to be one.

Haven’t we read about the Dark Ages,
That perhaps began with the murder
Of a woman, Hypatia,
A mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher,
And when a library was burnt down
In Alexandria?

These days,
Far too many women are being murdered.
And the contempt for
Scientists and social scientists
Is palpable.
Smart people do not think
They earn money … and live a good life.

Live a good life, enjoy!
Burn fire crackers
As the world is poised at the edge of a precipice.

Can we stop and think – 
What’s gone wrong?
And how much
I have added to the mess?

To put it simply,
Can we look within and say:
‘I’ll be the change I want to happen’?

And wish the world
Less violence,
Less falsehood, and
Less hatred
In 2017.

Bengaluru / 31 December 2016