In this ‘subjective’ piece Professor Avijit Pathak has narrated the experience of his spiritual recovery after his meeting with an old man filled with wisdom, particularly at a time when the ugly business of coaching centers in a city depressed him severely.
Avijit Pathak is a Professor of Sociology at JNU, New Delhi.
Recently, I was in Patna. I moved around the city. Everywhere I saw the huge banners advertising all sorts of ‘gurus’ – not religious ‘gurus’, but mathematics/physics/chemistry ‘gurus’. From ‘Jit Sir’ to ‘Bulbul Sir’ – coaching centre tutors seem to be all-pervading; they assure ‘success’ in all sorts of entrance tests for medical/engineering colleges. Yes, I am aware of this ugly aspect of our education system–the way the societal obsession with select careers and simultaneous collapse of school system have led to the phenomenon of a parallel industry of big/medium/small coaching centres. Yet, the way its imageries, mythologies and tall claims have invaded the geographical as well as cultural space of Patna is truly shocking. Yes, I know that there are people in Patna who feel proud of the fact that their city is becoming yet another Kota – the notorious town in Rajasthan known for its education shops destroying young minds, throwing them into a chain of hypothetical success, broken dreams and psychic restlessness causing nervous breakdown and suicidal tendencies.
I , therefore, continue to believe that what I saw in Patna reveals the character of a sick society – a society that has lost its imagination, reduced education into a ‘war strategy’ for cracking all sorts of non-imaginative/standardized competitive examinations, deprived young minds of a positive life-energy, made them into ‘learning machines’ for achieving the middle class dream of ‘lucrative’ careers, and transformed teachers into traders of ‘success mantras’ and aesthetically/philosophically starved guide books. Naturally, while moving around the city I was feeling annoyed. I needed a break; I wanted to feel something beautiful; I was eager to experience the poetry of life.
At this juncture, a student of mine came forward. He took me to his ancestral village Madhopur -thirty kilometers away from Patna. It came as a refreshing departure. No more the tyranny of ‘Jit Sir’ or ‘Bulbul Sir’ ; instead, the calmness of the village, its expanded horizon, its clean sky and its agricultural land gave great relief to my eyes. I felt immensely happy. And at this juncture, the miracle happened. My student introduced me to his grandfather. I looked at his eyes, his wrinkled face, his smile. I felt the grace of the 85-year-old man.
How do I describe him? At one level, he makes me rethink my urban self, my life-style, my notion of time, and my dietary habits. I begin to see the naturalness of ‘organic food’–something beyond Delhi’s elite shops; I see the wisdom of living beyond Deepak Chopra’s best sellers. Here is a man who asks me to reduce my habit of drinking tea; he offers me fresh cow milk; he asks me to take dry fruits; and then he shows me how to eat fresh mangoes. He speaks of the meaning of sattwic food. I keep listening with a great degree of humility and wonder. And everything that my metropolian self takes for granted–be it Mother Dairy milk packet, KFC chicken or Mc. Donald’s burger–begins to look unhealthy: a superficial packaging of fast food industry in the ‘global’ market. His immense energy–the way he gets up in the early morning, walks through the agricultural land he possesses, takes care of every detail in his village home (its traditional architecture, unlike the cage-like apartment in urban centres, invites openness, abundance and frssh air), and cares for everybody he meets–makes me realize the depths of wisdom associated with the process of ageing.
Being ‘old’, our modernist discourses tend to suggest, is a taboo; and hence it is ugly to see old people trying to look like the teenagers wearing colourful T- shirts. Instead, here I see a man wearing a traditional dress–dhoti and kurta, seeing the world through his oceanic eyes, and spreading the ethic of love and care.
What strikes me is his romance with ideas. Yes, retaining the land he possesses, or taking care of it is like his dharma. Yet, in his hidden self I see a constant urge to see beyond this domestic domain of worldly responsibilities, and feel the wonder of philosophies and ideas. He speaks of his quest for good books. He speaks of Gandhi, Buddha and Plato; he narrates a fascinating story of Leo Tolstoy; and finally, he speaks of the sky–its infinity, its eternal emptiness, its truth amidst the temporality of all that is fleeting. In fact, as he speaks, I begin to read a living book. My self-pride as a metropolitan/university intellectual crumbles. His wisdom enchants me.
At this juncture, my student takes me to the terrace of Madhopur residence. No noise. The silence of the village is soothing. Yes, I look at the sky. In the old man’s infinite emptiness I see the amazing full moon. I see him, his wrinkled face–the innocence and wisdom stored in his eyes. I undergo a purifying process of metamorphosis–from the ugly educational landscape of Patna to the amazing tales of the old man and the sky.