Thursday, October 29, 2009

Re-visiting Srinagar

After a gap of thirty years chance has taken me to Srinagar twice this year. The last time it was in March when I went for a viva voce. And this time, again, last week, I chanced to visit Kashmir University again for a National Seminar.

On my last visit I was not happy. I kept comparing the city to what I had seen thirty years ago. Then it was different -- at least in my memory I imagined it as clean and beautiful, its people friendly and warm, its aesthetic natural charms intact. in my mind these charms had grown so much that when I was faced with reality it came as a shock! And then there was that fear in my heart that this is not a safe place to be in.That, too played on my mind. So, altogether, it was not a pleasant trip.

This time, however, there was a difference --perhaps it was all in my mind! There seemed to be pleasant vibes all around. The hosts were friendly, the people on the streets smiled and greeted us wherever we went. There were lots of tourists at the lake. I could not sense any hostility towards outsiders. And, of course, Kashmiri hospitality was at its best. Overall, it was an excellent visit. The host, Prof Aslam, was gracious and attentive. This is his picture!

What bound the various sessions of the seminar was the presence of one of the stalwarts of contemporary theory -- Prof Aijaz Ahmad. Although I have met him before this was the first time I really had a conversation with him and found that there was more to the scholar than just dry academic talk. The man has an interest in poetry too and showed some interest in attending a poetry session in Chandigarh. (I made a mental note to follow this up!)
In this picture here I am standing with Aijaz and the co-host (Dept Head), Altaf Tak --

A visit to the Dal Lake on the last evening, after the seminar ended, concluded the Srinagar experience. What I enjoyed most were the tall Chinar trees. I had my camera handy and wanted to capture the right shade of gold in the leaves but -- although I got lots of pictures -- the right gold remained elusive. Here is a poem written on the Chinar gold:


Because an idea is in my head

I can not stay indoors

I loiter in the chill instead

Awaiting its time to be born.

The sky turns pink behind the clouds

But the spark still won’t flicker on

The dry leaves rustle with words unsaid

But they are words I still cannot own.

The Zabarwan stands motionless and mute

Its head held high atop the sky

The Dal acquires a shimmery sheen

Almost unreal as the hours go by.

A lone shikara glides across the lake

Cracking the glass in a slow-motion drill

A trail of tired ripples in its wake

Against the backdrop of Hari Fort Hill.

Because an idea is in my head

I go berserk looking at the trees ---

The Cedar, the Chinar, the Hazel and its kind

All of them sighing softly in the evening breeze.

The idea hums and buzzes and grows

I can neither gasp nor moan

It forms a body, takes a shape and flows

With a voice, a note, a tone.


Eureka, Eureka, I almost bellow ---

No longer do I need to be told

That what I seek so madly high and low

Is nothing but the Chinar Gold.

The orange and the yellow and the rust of the leaves

Touched by the sun’s slanting rays

Filtering through the foliage, reverberating with ease

A golden haze in the autumn days.

I seek this gold, so green, so mellow

The trees a-blaze in a kind of haze,

The late sun, turning green into yellow

Spring into autumn in mysterious ways.

The leaves of the Chinar beckon and call

They rustle and whisper and announce the Fall.

I watch and wait, and know I will find

The idea that has long lingered in my mind.

The gold, the gold, the Chinar Gold

The warm colors of the valley before it gets too cold

The warm colours of the valley, the Chinar Gold!

24 October 2009

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


There are teachers and teachers.
I am one myself but I am no great shakes.
Anyway, this is not about myself, so let me get to the point.

As I was saying, there are teachers and teachers. Some of us are perpetually on a popularity binge -- chumming up with students, taking them to the canteen, treating them to chai, hot sams, GJs and the like, giving them extra marks to remain in their good books. Others are the parental guidance type -- the sugar daddies and melting mummies who love beta-ing or pontificating or preaching. Yes, they say the right kind of stuff (whether they practice what they preach is a different matter altogether!) . They love it when students come and touch their feet. They are good at histrionics -- always performing: in the classroom with the kids as audience, with their colleagues in the staff-room, in their living rooms with their family and relatives for audience. Sure, they are good at it. They do well, they are popular.

Then there are those wretched tyrannical ones who believe in not sparing the rod. Thank God there are no rods now, but the metaphorical ones remain and these mini-dictators use them liberally, missing no opportunity to tongue-lash and berate those on the other side of the fence.

And finally there are those who DON'T try too hard. They just do their work and do it with commitment. Thy are the true teachers -- committed, sincere, and honest. Thanks to them the noble profession still retains its credibility.

Miss Kalha is one such teacher. An institution that did not shout its wares. A mentor who taught not through homilies but through example. Who never raised her voice, who was never judgmental, who forever remained poised and dignified, no matter what the occasion. Who did not cut corners while teaching. Who gave us more -- much more -- than what was prescribed in the course. For whom teaching was not just a source of livelihood but a vocation.

I was Miss Kalha's student in the early 'seventies. I am still her 'shagird'. If I have to pick a role model it is she -- but I know, given my temperament, I can never be like her. And yet I owe her so much. I am what I am today because once upon a time I was fortunate to be sitting in her class.

" I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea's face, and a gray dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over. "

This poem, "Sea Fever" by John Masefield, is deeply etched on my mind ever since Miss Kalha read it to us in class, trying to teach us how to scan the meter. I find myself thinking of it often. When I wrote my book "Spots of Time" I made use of it too, but in a different way, using Sea Fever as a sort of obsession that can be overpowering. Every year I read this poem to my class -- a different set of boys and girls each year -- hoping that it will touch them the same way, ring the same bells in them that it rings for me.

Then there was "Cross of Snow" -- another poem Miss Kalha read to us. It talked about a personal grief that etches a deep 'cross of snow' on the poet's heart for 18 long years:
"Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died."

I remember scoffing at the poem -- "But this is absurd," I remonstrated. "How can anyone carry a cross of snow for 18 years?" But Miss Kalha patiently explained the metaphoric implications of the imagery and I was half-convinced. Half, not fully convinced until many years (5? or more?) later, being tossed about on life's rough seas, I though of the poem once again and realized what the cross of snow could mean. And then I wanted to read the poem again so I went to her and asked where I could find it. (This was in the pre-internet days, when one had to go to a library to find a reference). Longfellow, she told me, and off to the library I went, read the poem, and empathized with the poet.

And then, 2 weeks ago, in Beijing, sick and throwing up after having eels at a dinner, I remembered Lord Randall of the ballads:
"O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son ?
O where have you been, my bonny young man ?
I've been with my sweetheart, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.

And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son ?
And what did she give you, my bonny young man ?
Eels boiled in brew, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down.

O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son,
O I fear you are poisoned, my bonny young man.
O yes, I am poisoned, mother make my bed soon
For I'm sick to the heart and I fain would lie down."
I felt like Lord Randall and I remembered Miss Kalha who had read this poem to us while explaining narrative poetry.

As I said, there are teachers and there are teachers. But sometimes you come across an exceptional one who shows you a path, opens a door for you and shows you a whole new world beyond. The choice is yours -- whether you wish to cross the threshold or stay put.

"Much have I [since then] travelled in the realms of gold".
Miss Kalha opened up the world of literature for me -- and many others like me -- to explore. In her own quiet way she has contributed much more to society than a lot of pompous, self-promoting individuals who claim to be litterateurs. Through almost four decades of teaching her life has touched not just one generation but several generations of students who love and respect her.

Words are not enough, but thank you, Miss Kalha, for showing me the way, for enabling me to pursue a career I love so well!