In the Roman army, a century was a band of tough, battle- savvy soldiers; in cricket, a century is a glorious batting achievement; and in human life a century is a signpost to the sunset. In this, my 101st essay, it is a moment for reflection.
The very first essay, in December 2016, about my memorable encounter with an elderly waiter in an Arab land, evoked a few friendly responses. Since then an unexpected abundance of mail has swamped me. I have been taken aback, not just by the volume of letters, but by their cordiality. Some have sent a polite note of dissent, such as the businessman who thought my put-down of Commander Nanavati a bit harsh; some have expressed reservations, such as the father who reads my pieces to his adolescent son and was troubled by a romantic liaison. But most readers seem to find a chord touched, a memory revived, a chuckle triggered, even a tear prompted. I am humbled by such generosity and deeply touched by its sincerity.
I have tried to write honestly about events, encounters and epiphanies in my life. In some cases, I have written of experiences people don’t usually talk about publicly. I do, because I believe it is the way to establish a genuine connection, whether in life or in writing. Some will flinch, others may be embarrassed. But I hope many others will find in those pieces an echo of their hurts and heartaches, joys and raptures. In life, I have been heedless and let all kinds of experiences come my way. Some have pained me, but many have thrilled me, and all have given me a measure of discernment. That is the motherlode I mine in sharing my stories.
I have moved around, done different kinds of work and met people of many stripes. These include scholars and skunks, bigwigs and nobodies, hotshots and hippies, windbags and wannabes. They have told me their stories or have, by what they have done, created stories. Some have been both fun and a nuisance. One hopes their stories are fun for others.
I insist I am not old, I have just been young much longer than most people. On these stories, some readers have asked for details, and I have provided those when I could. Sadly, not always. I am compelled to withhold particulars when my earlier work precludes breaking confidences. At other times I evade particulars to avoid hurting or embarrassing people. I may change a name or the location of an event if it does not change the thrust of my story. Truth is, of course, ever elusive and my memory is not faultless, but I take pains to recount a story as fairly as I can.
If I am grateful to the readers, I am also grateful to The Statesman for making them accessible to me. The Statesman is not just another newspaper to me. It is unique in the link it has with my family and me.
I guess I was weaned from my mother’s breast on The Statesman. As far back as I can remember, father had to have it under his glasses along with his first cup of tea. Then it would devolve to mother, who wanted to scan it before she left for work. When they both left, the paper became common property and us, three brothers, fought ferociously to have the first glimpse at the sports page.
When I went to college and became embroiled in student politics, the other pages gained importance. I wanted to know what was happening around me. Also, I did not want to seem an ignoramus in the charged discussions on the college campus. I began to read the editorial page in earnest when I started on the college debate team, for the adversaries included sharp-witted, silver-tongued people like Communist leader Hiren Mukherjee, eloquent professor Nirmal Bhattacharya, controversial Justice Ajit Nath Ray and glib, rising lawyer Siddhanta Sankar Ray (whom I met again after thirty years in Washington as the Indian Ambassador).
My interest included, for the first time, the business page when I started work for a large corporation on Park Street. It was really on Free School Street, very close to Park Street, but we often prevaricated as we shrank from the street’s dubious reputation for housing some red-light quarters.
The link with the newspaper became personal, when, by happenstance, an old friend from the insurance industry became its chief. At one point, he even broached the idea of my joining the paper’s staff, but I had by then signed a contract with a major public enterprise. That enterprise of mine did not last long, for I had, to my surprise, suddenly fallen in love. She, a foreigner, failing to extend her visa in India, insisted on my joining her in Washington. My friend gave me a farewell dinner and gifted me some special copies that contained his analysis of the notorious Emergency. Those I took to my new home in the US.
When I last visited Kolkata, the current Editor graciously took me to lunch. After many years I was back again on Park Street, where I had spent so many listless years, working in an European company’s hallowed chambers, disputing politics with friends in the restaurants, chatting at Flury’s with a Belgian priest and French technologist who became friends, learning to use chopsticks from the materfamilias who ran Peiping, teaching management to indigent students in the St Xavier’s compound, and in the glittering lights of an autumn evening losing my heart to a blonde, blue-eyed woman who had come only to discuss a project.
I stood on the street and thought: Wherever I live, I will never, ever leave Kolkata. I can’t. I will live with the city, its myriad streets, its grimy air, its vibrant people, The Statesman and its kind, affable readers.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]