Monday, November 15, 2010

Lessons amidst Red Alert

Last week I learnt of the passing away of Professor P. Lal, the lyrical poet based in Kolkata, transcreator of the Indian epics, the one man publishing force behind Writers Workshop India that unearthed writers like Vikram Seth, Asif Currimbhoy and numerous others.

I received the painful news from Shruti, whose usual infectious animation was subdued, almost absent. The Professor had meant a lot to her and my buddy. Also, the limited number of times the noble path had brushed mine had left a healthy residue of erudition and respect.

 My first encounter with him had been when Shruti had ingeniously hooked him up with her cell phone from a dingy Amsterdam coffee shop. It was that evening when she, my buddy, the shrink and I had been trying to figure out a plausible antidote for the financial crisis, our collective thoughts aided by the fumes of cannabis. That day, even our dope fuddled senses had been dazzled by his lucid commentary that cut across spiritual materialism and transcendental smoke.

I had not been able to travel to India to attend the celebration marking the fifty years of Writers Workshop, although I did receive an invitation letter etched in exquisite calligraphy – with the scholar's own hand – delivered at my Utrecht residence. However, I did hear the details of the fascinating evening from both Shruti and my buddy.

When I did make it to India early this year, during my self imposed year long banishment from the corporate world, I did visit the Workshop at 162/92 Lake Gardens.

Professor Lal by then was very sick and I was informed that he would be unable to meet me. I had to make do with an afternoon among the great man's labour of love in the cramped, dusty kiosk – the bibliophilic equivalent of diamonds amidst coal. I did return that day with an armful of newly acquired precious possessions, hardbacked volumes with covers stitched with saree cloth, the names in brilliant gold zaried calligraphy. The books themselves were works of art … and how could one even hope to Kindle sufficient electronic spark to hold candle to such products?

However, a delightful surprise waited for me when I reached my guest house in the evening. Professor had called up himself and left a message saying that he would be at home and ready to receive me if I was free the next morning. "It's difficult to keep oneself dammed up from one who has travelled all the way from behind the dykes," his missive said.

The meeting was brief. "The doctor has decreed that I cannot meet anyone for more than half an hour," he greeted me from his chair in his much written about study. Books peeped out of every nook and cranny and the learned man sat in white traditional cotton clothes on a chair while Yeats, Tagore and Frost looked on from portraits. "Like in the battle field of Kurukshetra, we must end our verbal jousting the moment the thirty minute sun sets on us. And there are trusted generals in my wife and my grand-daughter to enforce the rules and regulations."

I told him that I was wandering around the country, visiting places that took possession of my fancy. He nodded, smiling. "Oh, to be young and carefree. I am carefree too, but only my mind remains young. However, India cannot be discovered through the guidebooks written for the West. One needs not only the atlas and map for navigating through the immense space, but also similar devices to understand the glorious journey through time. Otherwise, all you see is an inept superficial caricature of the Western world."

I spoke to him about his autobiographical Lessons which I had picked up from the store. A year ago I had seen my buddy peering over it along with the autobiography of Neville Cardus. He laughed.

"You know what my name means in English? Lal literally means red. So, if I had chosen, I could have called it 'My Name is Red' and then Orhan Pamuk would have had to search for another title. So, I just decided to talk about others. Anyway, I was not too keen to be the miniaturist for myself."

I told him that it was precisely what struck me as unusual in his memoirs. It seemed a sum total of lives that had somehow intersected his own.

"Ah, but what is man but a sum total of all the deep connections he makes with the people in the world. In 1989, I was what I was because of the experiences with others that had shaped my life. In 2010 I have evolved. I now communicate through email, am called upon to join conference calls from Amsterdam's coffee shops, have a miraculous website of my workshop. I am an aggregate of all these excellent things that have happened to me, but could it have been possible if I had not come across the wonderful people who have shown me how to walk these new fangled paths of the global village?" He smiled. "Where would I have been in the electronic world if my grand daughter had not painstakingly typed in every email that I have sent in my life?"

I wondered whether connections really mattered all that much in the modern world. Nowadays men connect more than they communicate by virtue of the Web 2.0 phenomenon of social networks.

"Law of 10%," he smiled as he answered. "Something that I have learnt from my more than half a century of teaching. There will always be the select 10% that will make it meaningful. It applies to every mass endeavour. However, I am too fascinated by the marvels of technology. Internet reshapes the world in a way that I had never thought of as possible. The workshop has been there for over fifty years and the web site was set up only in 2004. And since then there have been orders from all around the world."

He paused and looked at me.

"Simon van der Wiel. You have strong Dutch roots if your name is anything to go by. No doubt you have read Herman. Williem Frederik Herman?"

I said that I had. Since we did not have too many great authors in our heritage we had to read at least Herman and Mulisch.

He shook his head, "Never say that, Simon. You never know. The Dutch are very protective of their privacy. Self propaganda is something that is out of necessity limited by their nature. With the publishing world being the racket that it is, who knows how many Hermans lie unread, unnoticed, even unpublished behind the dykes, in some box in the quaint brown, red and chocolate brick buildings? But, I am diverted, absent minded professor that I am. Herman. In Beyond Sleep he says something striking about photography. In the portrait age, people were defined by the artist's rendering of themselves in one single pose and posture. One solitary moment of time that brought out their qualities and virtues. Come the discovery of the camera, human beings woke up to realise that every moment they present a different face to the world. Features change with mood and medium. Man is not uniquely characterised by his static features, but by the dynamic sum total of expressions across time. Internet probably brings on a new dimension with un-thought of technological enhancement. Never in the history were connections more important in the life of an individual – something that characterises him, shapes his very existence."

He paused, and I wondered how much sense his words made in the day of Facebook.

We talked on for well beyond half an hour till his ageing yet charming wife, Shyamasree Devi, looked in to declare that it was time for him to rest.

"The ladies of our lives," the Professor sighed. "Ever since the days of Mahabharata they bind you with pledges."

Before I left, I promised to link him up during our next Cannabis Conference and, if possible, visit him again during my next Indian trip.

Well, we did speak again in a couple of Cannabis Conferences, and I guess Shruti or my buddy will want to tell the tale in full sometime down the line. With their superior writing skills they can do fuller justice to the nuggets of wisdom shared by the great man in his final few interactions with us. However, I did not manage to visit him again. The next time I looked at him, he was younger, peering into a book from a page of The Economist, inside a well researched and restrained obituary of his noble life.

I got on the web and tried looking up some of the local Indian dailies for a more detailed tribute, some welcome beam of light into hitherto unknown facets of his life. It was a disappointment.

All I came up with were three articles – two in dailies from Kolkata and one from Delhi – brief, apologetic attempts at journalism, lousily researched, callously misstating facts. One of them claimed that Professor had finished the trans-creation of the Mahabharata three decades earlier, whereas he had been at work even on the day I had visited him. Others were more or less trumpet blowers for the writers of the pieces in their pathetic attempts to rise that extra foot in the eyes of the world by stepping on the great man's departed soul.

When I contacted my buddy he laughed through the voice that wavered uncharacteristically.

"You are trying to find greatness under limelight? Things don't happen that way, my friend. Especially in India. We are too busy trying to remodel ourselves to fit the Western templates, to jump on the wagon to earn in the strong foreign currencies … we have no time to look inward and discover the treasures that lie in our backyard. The only people you will find under the glare of spotlight are the showmen acting their part since all the world is now their stage, their vast play-field due to the boon of globalisation. They can do no better than mouth words scripted by others, flickering shadows on a  screen that is as blank as nothingness."

I wondered how people could actually digest this pulp as the truth.

"The truth has changed form, Simon. It gradually metamorphosed itself to dollars and now with its ethereal presence in the electronic form, it is the unseen deity, the ever present God that can grant all your wishes.You have philosophised in the same vein, my friend. George Soros and Donald Trump are the philosophers of the day, the seekers of the truth. In India we had a term called satsang. Literally it means company of the highest truth – an internal glow that you feel after spending an hour with people who have reached the pinnacle of their spiritual being…"

I said that I knew what he was talking about. In my interactions with Professor Lal, as in my other encounters with people like Sifu Oelschalager and Sifu Subramanium, I have felt something within me which is very like the glow he mentioned.

"But look around you, Simon. The phenomenon of sat-sang has been redefined. People nowadays equate it with power lunches. The way a few chosen ones are given the privilege to sit around the table discussing ways and means to make more and more money with the One Seeker who has made the most. Money is truth. Professor's philosophy is relegated to a relic, and his death is manipulated into yet another stepping stone for many to utilise in their drive for power and plenty. But, let me not go into the ranting mode, my friend. Let us not soil the noble life."

I close my eyes and see people firing off mails, memos, circulars, news items –to the high and mighty in office, to the publicity sections of the newspapers, in the television channels – painting their words in red to highlight their contribution and hence worth. Sound and fury is the way of the world, flickering loud images on the backdrop of nothing.

And to think that the one who could have literally scripted an autobiography called My Name is Red chose to limit himself to Lessons.

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Simon van der Wiel is a fictitious character who appears in the novel The Best Seller by Arunabha Sengupta.

These lines are both collected from the novel and extrapolated from it - additional musings of the author through his alter ego

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Amsterdam, Netherlands