Friday, July 13, 2012

Only Man is vile

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interr’d with their bones…
(Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)

There were these parents of an ex-student who had come over for a chat, and they happily and gratefully recalled the time they spent when their daughter was a pupil here. I do not like to boast, but it made me feel good to see how well they remembered all the ‘special’ favours that the girl and her friends had been treated to as a matter of course – things that were special only because they had neither expected nor got the same treatment at any other tutor’s: a large, well-lit and airy room to study in rather than a dingy garage, a clean toilet always available, filtered water to drink, medicines whenever someone felt ill, our own clothes for them to change into when they came in from the rain dripping wet, the meals upstairs when some child was hungry, the assurance that the kids were safe indoors with us when a parent couldn’t help being late in picking them up, the punctuality which made things hugely convenient for them and their parents alike, the stories they heard, the games they played, the movies they watched, the quizzes they enjoyed, the countless jokes they laughed over, the meticulous correction and commentary on homework, the habit of disciplined regular work well within deadlines, which, if picked up here, helped them to do better in all subjects, the books they borrowed to read, the new vistas opened up of so many things they had never even heard before, things which came in tremendously useful later in life, whether they were taking a vocabulary test or participating in a group discussion or an impromptu writing contest, even at university level or while entering working life…

I told them that the real wonder was not that I did all this, but that they remembered still, long after my immediate utility was exhausted, and had even bothered to come over to thank me for it. I am not ungrateful to Providence: certainly for years and years lots of ex-students and parents have spoken well of me; nothing else can explain why such big numbers come over unfailingly to enroll with me at the start of session after session, despite all my failings, all the outbursts of temper, all the scathing remarks, all the worst that the scandal-mongers have spread. What makes me wonder is that so few people thank me directly for what they have got from me (even over the phone or the internet), and also that there is a sizeable number of people who, after having enjoyed and benefitted from everything good that I did for them, have decided, once they found out that I had maybe one fault or two, that I was an entirely forgettable person, or not a nice man to know. And this is not peculiar to someone like me: titans all through history have faced the same weird treatment from the people. One fault or shortcoming discovered (you know, Gandhi had sexual urges for women other than his wife!!!), and all the great and good about them is instantly forgotten. Talk about selective memory. Which is why I tell everybody that to praise someone is infinitely harder than to abuse. Anybody can speak ill of you, however noble you might be, and however petty and despicable a character he might have himself. It is hard to live long and not become a misanthrope. I think it was in this frame of mind that the poet wrote of a beautiful natural landscape ‘where every prospect pleases/ and only Man is vile’!


Arijit said...

Regarding good or bad I would like to say something. Good or bad depends on the way you perceive things. In our society those who don’t listen to their parents’ advice are considered to be bad. I’m narrating a very sad incident: Son married a divorced women father committed suicide. I don’t find anything bad in the marriage still why is it looked up in such a way that a man has to commit suicide? If one takes up commerce or arts he is a bad student. If a person works in a private company (CA’s not to be considered) he is an incompetent in order to be competent you need to work in a government sector.
In fact if someone analyses these things minutely one would definitely find out that the way our parents teach us to grow up is not hundred percent right? They want us to fulfill their dreams? Why so?

Regarding criticism serious criticism is only appriciable.

Rajdeep said...

What a coincidence that I was listening to the BBC recording of Julius Caesar yesterday and remembering your class!

After all these years, I'm yet to meet a person who teaches this Shakespearean play better than you.

I haven't read Alexander Pope so I did not understand the meaning of the last line that you quoted. Sorry for my ignorance. Can you please explain if you have time?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Okay, I might have been mistaken on this one - it seems Bishop Heber coined that line, not Pope. An old man's mistake. However, who wrote it makes no difference to the substance of my post.

And Arijit, I don't write for people who are obsessed with looking good before neighbours, relatives and parents, no matter how silly and misguided that may make them. Why should I have to repeat that over and over again? There is a post in the other blog titled 'Make up your own mind'. Some people can, most people cannot. I prefer to deal only with those who can, or at least try to.

Rajdeep said...

I don't even know who Bishop Heber is! (embarrassed laughter!)
And, I agree that who wrote it makes no difference to the substance of your post. It doesn't make any difference to me as well.
I just requested you to explain the meaning of the line ‘where every prospect pleases/ and only Man is vile’ as I did not understand the meaning. As a Japanese proverb says, "To ask is a momentary embarrassment, but not to ask is a lifetime's worth of embarrassment." Because not to ask something one has not understood means one will not know it forever. I don't mind if you think my intelligence is poorer than a five year old and will readily admit it myself if I may know the meaning of the sentence!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Sorry, Rajdeep, that was not meant for you in particular. I was just correcting a mistake I made, intending it for all readers. The meaning of the line is that sometimes one feels that Man alone pollutes the world which is otherwise beautiful.

No harm in asking. I don't judge people so easily and so nastily, as you should know by now! On the contrary, I do so wish a lot of readers would not 'feel bad' about asking what I meant, instead of staying quiet or writing irrelevancies, which make it embarrassingly apparent that they haven't understood at all!

Preetish Vaidyanathan said...

Dear Suvro,
I am overawed and deeply moved with your efforts to educate your pupils and not merely make them literate. Right from the facilities for teaching to the details of creating an atmosphere conducive for learning, the teaching methodology- you and your family only deserve praise.How i wish my boys had the fortune to attend your classes. The nation needs more of your tribe.
Some people tend to belittle the successful ones- please pay no heed to them.I know a sense of gratitude or appreciation motivates us to deliver better.I still think of our noble teacher Fr. PY Gilson, more than three decades after being his student, with reverence.Likewise,I am sure the overwhelming majority of your students cherish your classes and have fond memories of you long after their tuitions are over.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Nothing to be 'overawed' about, Preetish, but yes, that's what I have been doing for a long, long time, and I know that very few teachers match up, from my own daughter's experience. What I said in this post is that it makes me feel bad to think that so many people forget, because they don't remember anything 'special' about my classes at all. It has made me far more bitter about people than I would have been otherwise , and I tell my daughter that if she follows in my footsteps, she should be much more mindful about the material side of the picture right from the beginning. That way a lot of private tutors are driving about in BMWs in India today, and feeling far less bitter about what they tried to do for the kids in their charge all their lives... yes, I do know a handful of people who remember me with 'reverence', but the number, alas, is pitifully small, considering the number that has passed through my classroom.

In this connection, a little sad anecdote about Fr. Gilson's last days: when he was in the terminal stage of cancer, and needed blood transfusions very regularly, I remember precious few of his ex-students queueing up at the hospital door with me to give him blood, and his doctor told me that he died with a letter from me under his pillow... I made it a point to keep his photograph on the library wall as long as I was the school librarian, and just ten years after his passing, most kids said 'Father who?' That's a measure of how hard both surviving teachers and ex-students had worked to preserve his memory!

Rajdeep said...

Thank you for your explanation. It is easier to understand now.
I'm sad to hear about Father Gilson.
I haven't had the good fortune to meet him more than once or twice.
But I do have good memories of Father Watier. Probably because I have interacted with him so many times.

Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,

I do not know how this sounds, but it makes me feel good too (as it does, I am sure, many other well-wishers of yours as well) that some people have bothered to remember all that you did for them. There are some good people around as well, and they are the only ones who give hope in an otherwise thankless and bleak world.

I can see what you mean. I think it's the classic 'grapes are sour' mentality you have talked about somewhere else. A substantial person is the only kind they are afraid of because he/ she makes them feel puny; and they make the biggest mistake of their lives when they abuse him/ her, instead of trying to learn from him/ her, because all that does is make their littleness all the more evident.

Sayan Datta

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Of course there are good men and women around, Sayan, thank God. I can reel off a hundred names at a go in India itself: for you and other readers, here's a link to some news on just one such

What I find sad is that most people refuse even to acknowledge these heroes, or pretend they don't exist, or try very hard to prove that these people don't really deserve their respect. That way we can all happily continue to be selfish, petty, irresponsible frogs in the well and feel no shame or guilt about it. I can't tell you how many youngsters have told me that, whenever they have raised my name to make a point at home, their parents have lamely brushed off the argument by simply saying 'He's different', onaar kotha alaada, though I was neither born with a silver spoon in my mouth nor with the powers of some 'superhero', yet I have not even gone under, materially speaking, by trying to live by certain ideals and principles.

As Subhas Dutta has himself said in an interview, very little socially valuable education is being given in our schools today, so children are growing up to be morally empty, spiritually rudderless adults capable at best of becoming competitive and self-indulgent professionals. And therein lies the biggest threat to our future...

Sayan Datta said...


I read the article and your comment and I think I am now very close to getting what you exactly mean. It's not just knowing that they exist and that they deserve respect, but KNOWING that they exist and that they DESERVE respect. One needs to be mentally conscious about the fact that they are the REAL hereos all the time. It's not about reading and forgetting. It must hit us and make an impact at a very personal level. It's about being conscious about them and the work that they do at a very deep and personal level. Sorry, I couldn't put it any better.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I have just seen off some class 10 and 12 batches, and as usual I was enormously rewarded by the fact that so many of them left with tears in their eyes. I only hope that all they learnt, enjoyed and reflected over will not be soon forgotten. I won't even get angry if that happens, of course - it's just the way humans are, especially in this day and age - but it sure feels good to see, years later, that I have changed personalities and left permanent and good memories in some minds at least.