A Eulogy for a Simple Man: My Grandfather, my friend

Written on 22-Feb-2012

He was my grandfather. He is no more. It is not easy to put into words, all that I have known, felt or thought about him. It is not easy, especially when he’s gone, to think long and hard about all that he did and all that he stood for – 92 years’ worth of thought, action, belief, love, kindness, generosity and support. He was all of these; and much more. And he has left us poorer. It is not easy to be all these things. It is not easy to write about such a man.

He was born in a dusty corner of Bengal, in 1919, when the modern world was being born – out of the embers of the Great War. With 7 younger siblings to guide and shepherd and an uncertain world to navigate, he surely had his share of burdens and demons. Cometh the hour; cometh the man.

My grandfather was a self-effacing man, a trait he probably picked up from his father. By his own admission, he was dismal at studies, though that never stopped him from demanding the highest academic standards from both my father and me. He used to say that there is no substitute for hard work and perseverance. And work hard he did; as indeed he needed to. There were younger siblings that needed to be put through school; sisters to marry off and parents to support. Although he had support from his elder brothers, their stories were cruelly curtailed, far short of their prime. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.

My grandfather lived through an earthquake, a famine, a world war, a revolution for independence, another famine and finally a partition – with the riots that followed. A little later, as a parent and a husband, he coped with the Emergency, the Naxals and the sharp downward spiral of Calcutta and Bengal. It was not a stellar existence by all accounts. Certainly there were people around him that were more famous, richer; there were mouths to feed, backs to clothe, bills to pay, responsibilities to shoulder and standards to maintain – in some of the most difficult times that India has faced in the last few centuries. My grandfather did all this and more with a smile on his face, good cheer in his heart, faith in his maker and an unshakeable belief of never deviating from the straight and narrow path of honesty and personal integrity.

My earliest memory of him was the sight of him bending over the teapot at tea time in the evening, pouring boiling water with tender loving care of a father, or the pained meticulousness of an eye surgeon. He would stir the tea, mix the sugar and pour the milk, all commonplace acts; but he’d make it look like the most exquisite strokes of a master-painter or sculptor. The spoon would be tapped a precise three times on the rim of the cup and then set down next to the cup, on the saucer and offered. It was simple, clean, uncluttered somehow pristine and pure. It was as if every cup was different, every drink somehow tailored to the person drinking it. I have never felt the same thrill and anticipation at any other proffer of edible material ever.

This pained meticulousness was evident in every aspect of his life, especially his clothes. There was never a crease out of place and most were sharp enough to cut butter with. His clothes were simple, but also somehow always contemporary and stylish. His preference for things that endured was never more apparent than in his choice of timelessly elegant attire. He was, in a very Kiplingesque way, the pukka sahib of the old Raj. Resplendent, at ease and disarming; a kind word here and a gentle nudge of support there – the very essence of the enlightened, educated and liberal Bengali that made both the Empire and India what it was.

What especially brought us closer in the heady days of my pre-teenage adolescence were the stories about “Bantha”. This dog of unknown origin and lineage belonged to a friend of his from the Army. And for hour after hour during weekends and summer holidays I would be found perched on his knee listening to the latest escapade of this dog and his staunch ally, the family parrot. There were dangers from assorted milkmen, cats, religious zealots and all sorts and hues of people. I do not remember a single story, but I remember feeling somehow safe. Somehow, life was better because of Bantha.

Elsewhere in these chronicles, I had mentioned what my grandfather felt about his father, and that perhaps, in some small way will mirror what we felt about him. In the end what it all adds up to is love; not love as it is described in popular magazines, but the kind of love that is affection and respect, order and encouragement, and support. His (my grandfather’s) awareness of this was an incalculable source of strength, and because real love is something unselfish and involves sacrifice and giving, he could not help but profit from it.

He was my grandfather; he was many things to many people. He lived his life in quiet happiness. He did not aim for the stars. He was content to be happy, with a little, to share that little with the people that he loved. Happiness, he once told me, was a choice that one needs to make. Dadu made that choice, every day; for himself and others around him. There will not be streets named after him, nor will there be monuments and statues dedicated to him. He will have to be content to be remembered by a few people – with great affection – as a good and decent man, who loved life and the people around him, who gave as freely as he received, who sacrificed a little of his future, so that others may have a far better one; and every once in a while be sought for advise, order and guidance about life and other acts of God that impede our time on this little rock.

It is not easy to be such a man; it is even less easy to write about him. But we will remember him, for who he was, what he stood for, what he taught us and what he leaves us with. It is a far greater calling, than he had in life – to be the light for those still here, from beyond the veil.


AN ODE: To a new old-friend, to good friends & to the beginning of the rest of our lives

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

~  Henry V (Henry V, Shakespeare William)

I’m at a loss for words. No, I really am.

A recently deceased former school English teacher once told me that the surest sign of proficiency in any language is not in being able to express a simple thought in big words; but in being able to distill the essence and feeling of deep thoughts in to simple words. If that’s so, then today I know that my English is not as good as I’d thought it to be. That’s because I cannot find the words to express myself.

I’ve never been a morning person. As a matter of fact I’m just slightly less allergic to early mornings than I am to religion, math and hard work. But even so, at a little after five-twenty in the morning this twenty sixth of March I’m up. I’ve been here before. All through-out the first year, I was always staggering to bed at such times; after a long and festive night. But today, for the first time, I stop to look. I’ve never seen the campus like this. The bright yellow-orange ball of fire rising above the new academic block and the mists clearing. The silhouettes of the trees gradually becoming sharper and then the warmth of the morning sun chasing all melancholy away.

There is relief, happiness; and a huge sense of achievement – but all of that is tinged with a certain sadness. Like a light sprinkling of rain on a hot summer’s day; it doesn’t do much for the heat, but you know it was there. Or a bitter espresso, lightly dusted with sweet chocolate. There, but just.

It’s as if you’ve just climbed up the difficult face of a mountain; as you make it into the sunshine, out above the tree-line, you realize that you’re standing in a moment of utter perfection – you’ve done something. But, with that also comes the realization that it’s over. Somehow the journey down won’t be that good. You leave a little something of yourself on that mountain. I’ve left a little something of myself on campus.

It slowly creeps up on you that feeling. Just when you’ve nothing at hand to do, or you’re taking a break. It doesn’t overwhelm you, it doesn’t burden you. It just stays there – like a cat. It doesn’t make to re-examine at things – it just lets you know it’s there.

Perhaps then, it’s like a break up. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind – graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. Perhaps it’s the blazing hot little pains you feel when you realized that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last – and yet will remain with you for life.

What I will miss the most about this place, is a combination of three things; a carefree walk around the campus, taken after dinner, with friends and spent mostly talking about nothing in particular and everything in general.

Even if I were to find any two of the above, I know that I shall never be able to get all three. There will never be such people, who will be so unconcerned about success, status, money and vices & prejudices; that will just be happy in each others’ company. There will also never be the carefree atmosphere that, even with assignments and tests, allows people the security and freedom to spend moments not worrying about the next day, the next meal or the next job. Most importantly, there will never be another campus. Quiet, clean and entirely our own. Never.

And so I leave, still not able to put the words to my feelings. There are people that I’ve met, people with whom I’ve laughed; people that have inspired me and made me a better person. There are people that I’ve met everyday, people that I walked to class with, people that I walked aback with. There are people that have helped me; people that have become as familiar to my daily routine as the sun is in the eastern sky.

And, they’re all far far away


I started writing this in the morning. It’s been more than 24 hours and I’ve yet not managed to write what I wanted to. Perhaps that’s because words are cheap. Feelings need not always require words, there are too many words to describe feelings.

The sounds of people playing Holi downstairs distracts me; this is my first Holi at home in ages – perhaps the first in half a decade. They are making merry, shouting all sorts of things; the young and the not-so-young all taking part in the melee.

And all I can think of is what will people be doing on campus. All I think of is when will I meet them again? What will happen to us? Who will remember us when we’re gone? Who will tell our stories?

A Little Something About Our Education System

This was written as a speech to be deliered to the staff and students of an imaginary graduate business school on their convocation, by an alumnus. 

Thank you Director, for those kind words of welcome; had anyone told either of us, when you taught me all those years ago that one day you would say – or be forced to say – all these nice things about me, that too in public; I daresay I would have asked him to bugger off. So would you, but maybe a little more politely.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls and lastly distinguished members of the faculty, please don’t let the platitudes fool you, I was and remain the foremost blot on the face of this institution –which is why I was hugely surprised and not a little shell shocked to have been ambushed by the invitation to be the keynote speaker at this convocation.

I do not propose to detain you for any longer than I have to. Not that long ago I sat in those very same chairs watching all sorts of posturing idiots pontificate from this pulpit and although suitably nauseated by the hypocrisy of this situation, I remember how it felt.

So, let me first begin with an apology for being the reason for your being dragged here. I have a theory that the “powers that be” in this place have their annual pay reduced if a student is found to be happy and contented with his life here. That’s why you don’t get proper holidays and the class timings are fixed with their comfort at the fore. If you believe that you are paying for a service, then surely it should be your convenience that’s the primary factor indecision making right? Obviously not.

I’d like to take this opportunity to talk to you about something that’s probably never addressed in a formal way in – what we call; for lack of a better word – our educational system. Happiness. When was the last time someone told you, or taught you to be happy? Just happy, no frills attached; no conditions. Nothing.

It’s not actually their fault. They are teaching the same hackneyed stuff that they were taught and this cycle can be traced back to time-immemorial. Please understand that almost none of what you learn in classrooms  here and elsewhere will ever be of any use to you. Ever.

On the contrary, what you will need is usually taught to you in the corridors and roof-tops of the hostels here. And that is how to deal with people, their prejudices and emotions. How to help someone, without expecting anything in return; what you learn there is what will enable you to network, conspire and wriggle your way to wherever you are destined to be.

But I digress. I was talking about happiness.You see, you are judged, and even you will ultimately judge yourself by the platitudes of others. That in turn depends on the number of shiny objects that adorn your living room. In order to buy those shiny objects you’ll have to sell your soul to the highest bidder and that’s why you have come here. To be bought and sold, by the dozen. I don’t blame you. I did it too. And not a day goes by that I don’t regret it.

All our lives we’ve run races. In school,college, universities and even in B-schools, we run against one another. At the end of the day, when we can’t run anymore, we realise that in the course of the race, we’ve done little else; and worse, lost those things that we were most proud of in ourselves.

We have nothing to show for our efforts.Sure, we may have the penthouse apartments and the large cars and the huge flat-screens; but do we have what we truly want? Do we have friends? Do we have contentment, or do we live with regret; like I do?

So, if happiness won’t come from being rich and having a large house and a German sports saloon; where does it come from? Simply put, it comes from within. It comes from wanting to be happy. It’s harder than it sounds, I assure you. Its not easy being content with little; being OK with someone else’s success. Society may call you unambitious. It probably will call you a lot worse.

But remember, they don’t teach you anything worthwhile in class. They don’t teach you how to love someone, how to tell someone you love them, how to tell someone you don’t love them, how to deal with losing, how to deal with dying, how to deal with a friend’s success, how to comfort someone, how to be awed by something, how to treasure something, how to laugh with someone, how to do something meaningful in life, how to express yourself, how to define your goals,how to make friends, how to stand up for something, how to believe; they teach you nothing of value.

They just tell you that you need to maximize shareholder value.

My parting words, my friends, is that don’t me; or a standardized version of what people believe you should be. Be happy. That’s all folks!!


The Voyager & Blind Willie Johnson: Some Thoughts At Midnight

In September of 2013, the Voyager-I spacecraft left the solar system. It was the first time that an object dreamt, created and operated by a species as new and as infirm as the humans had gone beyond the far reaches of the sun that had sustained the very life form that built it.

On that spacecraft were greetings in 55 languages, pictures showing life on Earth and 27 songs that were ‘representative of humanity’. One of those songs was “Dark was the Night, Cold wass the Ground” written in 1927 by the black jazz musician, blind Willie Johnson.

He was so called, because his mother had thrown rye in his eyes, after she was beaten by his father for allegedly being with another man. Willie died in penury, after contracting malaria, shortly after his house burnt down.

When in 1977 Carl Sagan and the Mars Voyager Team chose his song, it was part of the US Library of Congress’ selection of songs that were deemed to be ‘culturally significant’; Sagan wroteof the song that “…since humans appeared on Earth, the shroud of night has yet to fall without touching a man or woman in the same plight”.

It is significant then, that amongst the 1st sounds of the earth that a wandering extra-terrestrial may hear would be the music of a segregated, blind man, who never found peace happiness or joy in his life.

In the same month as the Voyager-I was making history, another queer circularity of life was making itself apparent. As the UK remembered Winston Churchill – arguably Great Britain’s finest and most remembered Prime Minister, a guest was signing the memorial book at No 10 Downing Street. Churchill in the late 1880s was responsible for the setting up of ‘internment camps” for African tribes’ men. These camps were not so dissimilar to the concentration camps of the Nazis. In one of these camps, there lived an African tribal elder. After a year in captivity, he was released. It was surely a twist of faith that the great-grandson of that tribesman was – the man signing the guest book that day in September 2013 – the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama.

These two instances, if anything, don’t call for either lessons or judgment. They simply are to be remembered, for they represent the opposites of the human condition. The loneliness of despair and the potential of human endeavor.

Robert Francis Kennedy, speaking to the black students of South Africa, on their day of Affirmation in June 1966 said,:

“There is discrimination in this world and slavery and slaughter and starvation. Governments repress their people; millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich and wealth is lavished on armaments everywhere. These are differing evils, but they are the common works of man. They reflect the imperfection of human justice, the inadequacy of human compassion, our lack of sensibility towards the suffering of our fellows.”

“But we can perhaps remember — even if only for a time — that those who live with us are our brothers; that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek — as we do — nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.”

It is perhaps this duality – that led Tagore to write, ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high’. In the battle between – what Shakespeare calls nurture and nature – while we struggle and fall to our baser instincts; our hopes, dreams and aspirations push us to pick ourselves up and keep climbing. Out from the dark forests, into the sunlight slopes. The battle will not be won in our life time. It may even not be won in the lifetime of the human species on this earth – but that should not stop us from fighting.

As Brad Pitt’s character in the film Troy said, “In a thousand years from now even the dust from our bones will have disappeared; what will people remember?” Let people remember that we fought. Not with each other, but with ourselves. Being human is not about empathy and sympathy, it’s about choosing to live our lives by something. As Kennedy said, ‘we can perhaps remember…….

If not, then as the Script sing, “if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for everything!”