School Of Life


“THERE MUST BE SOME WAY OUT OF HERE,” SAID THE JOKER TO THE THIEF – BOB DYLAN

Landing in quick succession, the bombs made a deaf-ening noise. Okay, they were not real bombs. They were firecrackers. The locals called them “chocolate bombs.” I am not sure who thought of calling heart-fracturing fire-crackers “chocolate bombs,” or why. But the name stuck.

That’s how things go in India. Political leaders, traditions, and traffic tend to get stuck in ways that are as inscrutable as the deepest mysteries in existence. Not that anyone really cares. As long as we are having fun, why bother?

And we were having fun. Our class of thirty students, the top class of one of the most prestigious schools in town, had waited a long time for this. Twelve years of mostly gruelling and boring school life was almost over. The mock-exams were over. We had been registered to sit the final school-leaving exams.

Someone had hatched the bright idea to celebrate this momentous occasion by throwing firecrackers from the classroom, located on the third floor of the school building, onto the school grounds below. All during school time, of course. Everyone heartily approved of the scheme.

By the time the principal managed to reach the third floor to see who the hell was responsible for the commotion, it was time to call in the riot police. Some of us had toppled chairs and tables, while others had established a foot-stomping beat. The more rebellious ones had dismantled light fixtures, and the brazenly defiant were still dispatching “chocolate bombs.”

The principal threw a fit. We barely noticed. He was no stately Jesuit veteran. He was in water too deep for his liking. And we knew it. The bombs kept on falling.

EVERY PARTY MUST END

Things died down, of course. They had to. Where our affable yet inexperienced principal had been unsuccessful, our maths teacher wasn’t. We respected him.

By the time our maths teacher had brought things under control, the principal had decided that enough was enough. He expelled us for the rest of the term. The entire class. Since we had already secured permission to sit for the final Indian School Certificate exams, the expulsion was inconsequential. In fact, it was exactly what we wanted; exactly what we had planned.

Authorities confiscated the contraband: the chocolate bombs. All except one box. A classmate decided to hide a box in the front of his pants. Why waste something that makes a big bang, right?

Placing a box of firecrackers near your genitals is not the brightest idea. Firecrackers, especially Bengali ones, are not known to be the most stable compounds.

I know what you are thinking, but no, it didn’t happen. My classmate has played his part in delaying the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. In retrospect, he did admit that hiding a box of firecrackers down the front of his pants was a stupid thing to do.

SCHOOL OF LIFE

“The test of an enjoyment is the remembrance which it leaves behind,” the German Romantic writer Jean Paul Richter famously remarked. I suppose this is why I remember the “chocolate bomb” incident. In what was a rather uneventful school life, I did enjoy this act of sheer rebellion.

But what about the school of life? Is it merely an opportunity to struggle mightily to conjure those fleeting peak experiences, experiences we try to rehash, rekindle and relish during our twilight years?

If there was a definitive answer to this question, I certainly did not learn about it at school.

THE SCHOOL

Francis Xavier, respected by the scholarly faithful as “the greatest missionary of modern times,” arrived in India in 1542. Fellow Jesuits, an all-male Catholic order, soon followed. Their mission, in the words of their founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Ad maiorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem, to work “for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”

What better way to give glory to God than by educating humans about his glory? And so the Jesuits had set up educational institutions all over the country. Expectedly, they set up a few in Calcutta (now Kolkata ) – former capital of British-ruled India. If India was the centre-piece, the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire, Calcutta, back then, was the centre of that centre-piece. It was as much the intellectual and cultural capital of India, as it was the centre of the budding Indian independence movement.

Initially educating only European and Anglo-Indian boys, the Jesuit-run school soon opened its doors to all and sundry. Affluent local families vied to send their sons to the school. It guaranteed proficiency in English and a suitably cosmopolitan education: both prerequisites for a respectable career and respectability.

India gained independence from the British on 15 August 1947. But affluent local families still endeavoured to send their sons to the reputed Jesuit-run school—a move that continued to enhance prospects for securing a respectable career and respectability.

My grandmother worked hard to ensure that my father attend this school. It was a given that I would attend the same school too. Soon after I was born, my family made every effort to ensure that I did. They did not go in vain. A suitable kindergarten, a suitable English tutor, and a suitable home-library to foster creative potential were all key ingredients that ensured the family tradition would be maintained: my father and I would be “old boys” of the same school.

GROWING OLD IS INEVITABLE. GROWING UP ISN’T.

My father sounds enthusiastic over the phone. He has just told me that there is going to be an old boys’ get-together. Men in their ‘60s, men who went to the same reputed Jesuit-run school, men who now live in different continents from each other, would be getting together to see how destiny had favoured their school mates.

Destiny, true to her job description, had doled out varying dollops of fortune. Some had gotten what they wanted—a big slice of corporate and social prestige. Some had missed out on the prestige, but not on the money. And some had missed out on both the money and the prestige.

So the old boys would get together. The wine would help to revive memories. Some teetotallers, like my father, would hardly touch a drop, while others, having long abandoned themselves to the palliative effects of the world’s most popular drug, would do so once more.

In the warm afterglow of rekindling youthful memories, there would also be a lot of forgetting, forgetting that the easy confidence of youth has long since vanished, and in its place, uncertainty—uninvited, uncontrollable, and unavoidable, has made itself an unwelcome companion. Divorces have taken their toll, diseases have turned chronic, debts have multiplied and the shadow of impending death has become too long to ignore.

As the night wears on, one “old boy” will end up doing the inevitable. Intoxicated way beyond his usual limit, he will cut a tasteless joke at his old mate’s expense. Tempers will flare up. A fight will ensue. Other old boys, still sober, will quickly separate the two.

Old boys may have gotten old. But some things are hard to change. Doing dumb things is one of them.

RECLAIM YOUR INNER SAGE

Whatever excuses you have for acting stupid, you can always learn better ones. This mantra is one of the top five mantras that jostle for the allegiance of the Indian public. Corrupt politicians, mafia bosses, rapists, and a whole other assortment of thugs swear by it. It’s strange really, because one thing about growing up in India is that she offers innumerable opportunities to wise up—she offers innumerable encounters with death.

Unlike the West, where death is sterilised, sanitised and carefully sealed off from common view, in India, death is a routinely visible affair. You see it all the time. You see it on pavements, on railroad tracks, in corpses drifting down rivers and flower-decked funeral processions headed for the crematorium. I didn’t become aware of the impact of death till I was in my late teens, but I had been notified of his presence much earlier. My mother died when I was one month old.

There is another thing about growing up in India: spirituality is in your face too. You can’t miss it even if you try. In Kolkata, where I grew up, the biggest party is a religious extravaganza that continues for four consecutive days. The city is festooned with light shows, intricately decorated pandals (makeshift structures usually made of bamboo and tarpaulin) and food stalls. Since a party without music is no party at all, there is music too. Blasting loudspeakers, a few at every street corner, ensure that everyone—the living, the dying, and the ghosts—is doused with the festive spirit.

To prepare for this extravaganza, power stations regularly cut the power supply for many hours on the days leading up to the festival. The reason: to ensure an uninterrupted power supply during the four festival days, when power consumption goes through every conceivable ceiling. After all, hell hath no fury like a twelve million plus community deprived of its annual ninety-six-hour religious bash. And you thought religion was boring!

If India is famous for unparalleled religious entertainment, she is also famous for unparalleled depths in serious spirituality. When I say serious, I mean the kind that is based on millenniums of refined and sophisticated philosophical thought—the kind of thought that the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer labelled as almost superhuman. The American literary giant Henry David Thoreau drew a similar conclusion. Upon reading the Bhagavad Gita, the essential text of India’s perennial wisdom culture, he remarked that in comparison to the Gita, the modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.

By the time I finished school everything did seem puny and trivial. What death had done for countless humans in aeons gone by, he did for me too; he made me lose my appetite.

So begins the irrepressible human quest for transcendence. It begins when we become aware of death’s omnipresent murmur—an awareness that causes the cataract of melancholy to form over your eyes. You see the world and you see it devoid of joy; you see it devoid of meaning.

At this point, you have a choice.

You can choose amnesia, in a flavour that tickles your taste-buds. You can choose your mix of potent drugs, romantic liaisons, career-inspired hyper-busyness, extreme sports and extreme reality TV; you can choose how to forget that your actions have no ultimate meaning.

Or you can seek, and if you seek, then you will find. You will find that you are part of an eternal, unchanging, absolute, self-manifest, blissful, personal reality. We originate from this reality. Our life has meaning inasmuch as we endeavour to reconnect to this reality. Even a momentary glimpse of this reality is enough to dissipate the cobwebs of melancholy once and for all.

So say the sages of India. With great compassion they declare that we, who have now been placed in a human body, should make good our fortune, by reconnecting to our ultimate source. With great precision they describe how we can do this. If we ignore this offer, an offer meticulously presented in voluminous Sanskrit texts such as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, then what else is left?

We are left trying to relive old times doing old tricks that don’t really mean anything anyway.

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