Reading Pirsig on road trips

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Ooty. August, 2013

It was a ride to Ooty in the monsoon of 2013. Being no good with dates, the ride registers a clear memory because Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Pirsig was in the bag. At the breakfast table, hundred kilometers down on the road to Mysore, ZAMM was making partial sense. Details and descriptions of the road, landscapes and the bike were identifiable. The thoughtful bits didn’t quite register with the same intensity as in later years when its pages were sought in moments when one wanted to feel enthusiastic about road trips all over again. For someone reading this classic in India it wasn’t a kulturbarer as Pirsig described in the book’s afterword. It was partly about biking and the rest appeared to be about the lives we live and the character of these lived lives. The words “strange and beautiful” were stuck in mind from a NYT review about ZAMM when the buying decision was made. Years later and at a time when I hear the news of author passing away, it feels glad to have come across this book. Beyond the culturally specific notes on life in America, the human condition and people coping with it is perhaps a worldwide phenomenon now, at least in the cities.

This morning when Prisig’s obituary came up, the only mental picture that flashed was a highway, breakfast table with a plate of idlis and coffee, ZAMM in hand, hurriedly getting past two pages to get back on the road. There was a pillion rider and it must be left at saying that those rides were good together.

Bandipur’s forest was bursting with green with the rain as it has every year that I have rode on its narrow roads. On the hills beyond, Ooty appeared cloaked in clouds. That must be the best appearance of this hill town of ruthlessly gashed hill sides to fit in yet another hotel. Coonoor’s YMCA had no guests staying in. That large bedroom on the first floor was almost a time travel. On a small table by the wall, by the evening’s descending cold a diary entry remembering the day’s ride was made.

Pirsig was along on that ride. Understanding what he wanted to convey in ZAMM was a progressive discovery. Some more insights flowed in even as the obituary came in today. It is remarkable that the man took that ride with his son, to square off the events that had occupied his life at that time. I haven’t known of many who reconciled things in life by taking the highway (before it was made fashionable by Bollywood) and returning home with such words and reflection.

There is a section in the book where he writes of teaching. It was easy to relate to. That year, I was about to begin teaching at Poorna. He speaks of experiments that the teacher does with his class, where through assignments on writing the students and he (as a teacher) both figure some important lessons – in seeing and what schools teach.

He writes:

As a result of his experiments he concluded that imitation was a real evil that had to be broken before real rhetoric teaching could begin. This imitation seemed to be an external compulsion. Little children didn’t have it. It seemed to come later on, possibly as a result of school itself.

That sounded right, and the more he thought about it the more right it sounded. Schools teach you to imitate. If you don’t imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated, of course; you were supposed to imitate the teacher such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with your own. That got you A’s. Originality on the other hand could get you anything – from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it.

These lines are striking in their relevance to teaching and grading that we do in our school. At the same time, it also makes a teacher cautious about these biases creeping in.

However, it was the metaphor of motorcycle took a long time to hit home –

“The motorcycle is mainly a mental phenomenon. People who have never worked with steel have trouble seeing this.”

Pirsig’s writing appealed to the traveler within and still does. May be it is that zeal with which he writes that is sort of enviable. Or may be about riding and living with this brief sense of being free to ride, take whimsical detours, enjoy the sense of arriving in new places and call it a day when it feels like.

 

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Longing for those gone by

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This was in the making for several years. Subconsciously, I have been scripting words to remember Derek and the bitter sweet time spent with him, until the day he flew into England’s harsh winter with a promise to return and find his resting place here in India.

His endless craving for streets of Calcutta, the descriptions of Liluah, Park Street and its cemetery, Esplenade, New Market, Chowringhee… remembered on walks in small town Vellore, is the way I experience these places even after countless visits to Calcutta. Derek’s Calcutta was of the 1940s. The Calcutta I came to know of is six decades later than Derek’s. By his intense longing for the city of his childhood, I came to connect to it just the same, with the same intensity, not because I knew no other, but the fact that Derek’s city is where I loved walking. Derek’s city had these Bangla jingles that he would sing ever so often. It was the city that a man longed for and wanted to be buried in.

Until I met Derek, I had known of people craving for various things in life but not for a plot in Calcutta’s Park Street Cemetery. In his 70s, is when life brought us together on the same seat in a Vellore bound train. That is how we met. Derek was a boy with looks of a 70 year old, sitting in the overheated train coach, comfortable and watching everything happening around, fanning himself with his handkerchief. It wasn’t until the last quarter of our journey that we bothered about introducing ourselves. Why would we, when there was India of 1940s and 1950s to be known from someone who grew up in a boys’ home outside Calcutta. This was thought to be the best way to raise the boys after their father’s death. The adolescent boys would remember every bit of these years after their English mother emigrated with them to England. For Derek, the years were only ticking away to bring him back to India. By the time train rolled into Katpadi juntion, the distance from Bangalore was filled with descriptions of places I had known but from another time. This is where Derek preferred to live. The optimist in him wasn’t hoping for a good time ahead, but only of a desirable burial. It was mildly disconcerting for a man in his mid-twenties to hear that sort of a wish. We got off the train agreeing to meet again. And that is how one of the most remarkable friendship in my life began . It would come to an end in the next three years.

In these three years, I learnt to identify days when Derek would hit the absolute bottom of his spirits. Hopes of a man in late years of his life are emotionally distressful to hear. At least this is how it was with Derek. Some of those days would begin with Derek asking me to make dal-pooris for him. These lentil filled parathas is what he would buy off the streets in Calcutta whenever he was let out of the boys’ home. Since the day he figured I could prepare them, he had found a way to create his virtual reality of his childhood days in our town in South India. With the dal-pooris he’d ask me to play Robin Williams’ song “Better Man”. This became the soundtrack of our friendship. And as he took small bites of dal-pooris, with the song playing, his eyes would brim with tears. The song on those evenings would be on loop and his tears a constant stream. I’d put off the lights and mind my business. I’d never know what was it that he lived in his mind as this one song played. By by the looks of it, something deeply regrettable mixed with intense longing, is probably what he was going through. I would never know.

All of this came with a gush that I knew was how his tears flowed on some evenings. The time from seeing Don Bosco Boys’ Home in Vellore pass by from the bus window to thinking of days spent with Derek, all of it made me long for him. I wanted to see him one more time. It was October or November, when having overstayed his visa he left in panic after we helped him arrange for an exit visa. I didn’t know it then that this would be the last that I will see of Derek. In England, he stayed with his sister, who was ailing herself. His best buddy in a brief two sentence mail told me that Derek was sick. All these men – Derek and his friends that I knew of, appeared remarkably, terribly alone in the evening of their lives. May be it was their choice, but it sure wasn’t a happy experience to see them in their states. Derek would always be upset with his brother who always wanted to talk about his dogs even on those occasional calls that Derek made overseas. It has been seven years since then. Messages to him and his friends have gone unanswered. He isn’t in India for sure, because if he was, he knew the address of our house – which we shared for several months, way too well to walk down even on a dark night.

I remember him sing along Sinatra’s “My Way” whenever I played it. Often he would ask for it. This was his lighter mood. Pensive yet holding strong. He had an LP record of it which he treasured a lot. We would look at that and play the same track from my laptop.
Remembering Derek is to find those three years of my early youth, which offered an experience of friendship unlike any that I’ll ever possibly live again. The clasp of palms to tell me that I’ll do fine in life, whenever anxieties got better of me, that nudge to go ahead and do a thing, the affectionate looks… I missed all of it this afternoon on the streets of Vellore.

Is there a way that one can live to its experiential completeness, the pleasure of a person’s company? Or does a person’s going away makes it even more unbearable – the thought of times spent together? One of the abilities that one can never perhaps have in life is to be able to handle loss, longing and remembering those gone by.

The ordinariness of Indian boys

Manu Joseph’s recent piece on how boy really gets the girl in livemint has been on my mind because it was a rather unusual (and unpopular, if one might add) view on courtship, as it happens between boys and girls in India. This is likely to be a rant.

He was, perhaps, making a reason for himself, for why Badri gets the girl in the movie Badrinath Ki Dulhaniya. It isn’t new for Bollywood to portray such a thing – a deliberately funny boy, confused and well-off falling for a good-looking girl and the chase for her and how they end up together happily a dozen songs later. What caught my attention is this remark that he later makes, on love –

In the real world, love occurs for the simplest reason, that it is very desperate to happen, and because it cannot wait it tends to reward not the extraordinary but the available.

That is an extremely interesting way to look at love and relationships. It is also less acknowledged. I see this happening ever so often – desperate people making hasty choices. Love is desperate to happen and that is why ordinariness works well. The exceptionally talented boy (or girl) doesn’t cut it because he is often not there to participate in the small and commonplace – daily things of life which sort of drive relationships. It is true in either direction. That walk in the park would be less preferred if any of them loves a good workout by running. The idle banter at a public place is likely to happen less if either of them is a voracious reader. These could be termed as personal preferences, but of course these are shaped by aspirations of the individual. One with the least, gets to make it to most of the mall hopping and ice-cream eating sessions late night or mid-day. And this ability to be there makes the ordinary win. Manu writes of this,

The regular guy is in the right place at the right time because he is up and about most times even as his formidable competition is hidden in solitary confinement working long hours on heroic dreams.

Whether heroic or not, those with a long list of things to-do, and which do not quite involve the partner, lose out on relationships often. Long working hours is a relationship killer. But wait, this may not be for all. Some people get along well, if they have to, but we’d be purists in assuming that love prevails over all odds. It doesn’t. It falls through, the moment either of the partner’s personal pursuits foreshadows the time that they can spend together.

It is a difficult terrain to write about as a man, although Manu’s piece appears to be from the male viewpoint. I am however of the opinion that the sense of ordinariness and being committed to a personal pursuit is true of both boys and girls. So, the issue can run in either direction. Also, that one’s own situation is likely to induce an analytical bias here. Being single, the piece looked like a compelling commentary on how relationships unfold, at least in urban settings. It could be seen differently by those who are married and that, after a long period of courtship. May be, it works differently for everyone, however, the observation that one is often surprised to see the choice of boy that a girl makes, hits home for me. And Badri… sort of portrays that well.

The odd thing here is that it is the ordinary which seems to have a rather nice and sorted life as far as relationship is concerned. The rest either have to make hard choices or fall by the side, sticking to their pursuits.