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IF LIFE SEEMS JOLLY ROTTEN

The other day, Gopalkrishna Gandhi delivered the Kamala lecture, “My Bengal”, and I had the privilege of listening to it. I learnt that his Bengal was inextricably associated with sorrow and, like many others, he never responded to the epithet, “City of Joy”, given to Calcutta by Dominique Lapierre. He took care to explain that this was a “feeling” and not a “finding”. At this point of time most ordinary people living in Calcutta would feel exactly the same. We seem to have gradually lost everything — even our self-esteem, the one property we had in abundance.

Freud had warned us years ago, in Civilization and its Discontents, that “the plan of creation did not intend that man should be happy”. But being human, people try to be happy and people here try even harder to snatch moments of happiness out of their wretched lives. This is a characteristic that I have noticed in the ordinary people of our city. They demonstrate their sense of fun at the oddest of times. I remember being caught in a sudden downpour last October. It happened to be the peak time of the evening pre-Puja sales, and I watched a row of roadside sellers covering their wares with handy plastic sheets at lightning speed and then proceeding to munch leisurely on jhalmuri, which appeared magically from nowhere, all the while exchanging wisecracks about life, the state of the world and just about everything else. The wait for the rain to stop did not seem too bad — I think people here are inured to suffering more than anything else.

According to the sociologist, Dipankar Gupta, we are inured to bad news, which we see in the headlines day after day. “If good things were to happen now,” Gupta wrote in a recent article titled “Clueless in Blunderland”, “they would be sensational and eye-grabbing.” Perhaps it is because of the same principle that we get startled these days when a person on the street is polite or helpful, or when somebody does not demand an extra fee for doing a job that he is paid to do, or when a person comes at the time he said he would come or...there are far too many examples to cite. As with bad news, we also seem inured to bad behaviour, ill manners and a poverty of ethics.

So, whether we, as a people, relate more to sorrow or whether we have just become cynical, I decided to be perverse and write about some good things that happen to keep us going in this beleaguered city of ours. There is no point in deepening the general mood of moroseness, or else we will soon be labelled as a clinically depressed lot. Unwittingly we keep looking for our fair share of happiness, even if we believe that the people of this state are doomed to be in perpetual sorrow.

One way in which our spirits can be lifted is to be in a school. “If life seems jolly rotten/There’s something you’ve forgotten!/ And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing,” Mr Frisbee sings to Brian in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. It is unlikely that we will find life “rotten” or that we will forget to “laugh and smile and dance and sing” if we are in a school because one is surrounded by children who are natural mood-elevators. One is soon immersed in their world of uncomplicated joys and sorrows. Even in an institution that is exclusively devoted to the care of children with cerebral palsy, one finds a happy world that is humming with meaningful activity. One of the main reasons why the atmosphere in these places is charged with optimism and joy is because these institutions are insulated from the chaotic and hostile world outside.

Those of us who work or study in a school live out these hours in the artificial world of a gated community. If you are able to reach your school alive by foot, auto, rickshaw, bus or car after negotiating the crazy traffic, and if your eardrums are still intact after they are assaulted by the cacophony of horns around the No Horn signs in bold just outside the school building, you can be guaranteed a good few hours of uninterrupted work and play away from the seething turmoil of the city. To begin with, there is order and cleanliness — this is what I see in many schools, big and small, ‘privileged’ or otherwise. (I must hasten to add that it is not the norm in all schools.) Litter-bins are not stolen but used. If a scrap of paper or an ice-cream stick is found on the ground you can tell a student what to do with it or you just pick it up yourself and throw it in the nearest bin. You don’t see ugly graffiti on the walls and you don’t have people shouting into their mobile phones. You can ensure proper queuing and a timely response to bells. The things that you can do inside, but dare not try outside the school walls, are endless.

It is great to be shown courtesy and respect for these few hours — that is, if you are in a school where headmasters and teachers are not gheraoed, abused and slapped. Abusive language is now the norm on the streets and in public spaces in the city. I wonder sometimes if the respectful and well-mannered children we interact with in school everyday are learning to lead double lives — one kind of behaviour is reserved for school and another for outside.

Those schools that have a garden, a games field or just a patch of green offer an enviable proximity to nature in this chaotic city. Even an open space in the school compound that resembles a dust-bowl after a hectic term of sports and athletics is welcome because children play without the fear of being interrupted by menacing para dadas. Old trees stand tall, safe from the greedy eyes of real estate dealers and promoters, while the newly planted ones can be lovingly nurtured and allowed to grow. Some schools encourage children to tend their own little green patches and they grow flowers, fruits and vegetables. Plump, purple brinjals, deep amber sweet pumpkins, juicy sugarcane, pale green gourds, creamy cauliflower heads and tight-leaved cabbages — once you have seen the rich haul of vegetables from the children’s corner of the garden, you won’t like the ones in your local market. In my school garden in summer, the mildly fragrant giant ivory magnolias unfold mysteriously among the dark green leaves. Right through the year, the family of white owls stays out of sight until dusk, but a surprising variety of birds fly around tweeting and twittering across their own social network. They bring indescribable joy to us while we are in school.

This idyllic description of life inside a school is reading too much like a fairytale. So, I must be truthful and mention that school is not all peace and quiet and freedom from problems. Lately, I see that children are being strongly influenced by what is happening in society at large. Holidays are looked upon as a birthright. Why, I question, should a holiday be declared after every successful programme? Even parents have got into the habit of adding an extra day here and there to be able to get away with the family for a long weekend to some resort or the other.

We certainly do not lead dull lives in school. There is never a dearth of excitement, drama, argument, noise, interesting visitors and events. But what most schools can boast of even today, which the city in all honesty cannot, is civilized behaviour. Given the conducive and stimulating environment of a school, creativity burgeons and learning flourishes. Creativity is seen in innumerable forms in work and play, in music, dance, song, artwork, dramatics, writing and speech, while learning flourishes as teachers learn along with their students.

While we seize our moments of happiness in school, I know that there are several such oases of solace and cheer in this teeming and tumultuous city. They are, apart from some of our homes, libraries, art galleries, churches, cemeteries, theatres and museums. Perhaps we — the troubled apolitical public — deserve to be treated occasionally with some good news in the headlines because we are weary of bad news day after day. And because, tragically, we are inured to bad news and to suffering itself.