Sunday, March 14, 2010

What do you want to be when you grow up?

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I had nurtured different ambitions at different stages in my life. My earliest desire as far as I can remember was to become an oracle in the small temple in our village. Entranced, I would watch him preparing for his performance. Attired in nothing but a short thin red towel, he would collect hibiscus and other flowers and place then a fresh plantain leaf along with several items which included turmeric powder. Armed with a ‘sword’ that jangled, he would start dancing, ever so slowly to begin with. As he got into the act, the pace of the dance would quicken. Then it would enter the frenetic zone and he would be in direct dialogue with God. That’s when it would happen – he’d hit his skull with the sword. This masochistic game would go on until those who stand around him watching the spectacle were satisfied that he had lost sufficient quantity of blood. A lot of turmeric powder would be applied the forehead of the oracle would be all red and yellow. To my young mind, being hurt was a small price to pay if one could communicate directly with God!

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It was in the year I started going to school, that the dirt track connecting Cannanore and Bangalore which passed through our village was being upgraded. Workers were busy levelling the dirt road, carrying gravel in baskets and molten tar in tins or buckets, spreading the gravel evenly and then pouring the hot black liquid on the track, all this under the hot summer sun. I watched all this for about three days when a contraption I had never seen in my life appeared on the scene. Referred to as the ‘engine’ (Actually, they pronounced the word as ‘injun’) – it was coal-fired, and had two broad heavy metal wheels and a hooded cabin in which sat the driver, his hands clasping the steering.

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When everyone sweated it out in the hot sun, there was shade wherever he went in his ‘chariot’; when all others worked standing, walking or running, he worked at his seat; he was the first to be served at tea-time; he was so powerful that his fingers could move the behemoth he sat in. Wasn’t I impressed? I was enamoured by the perks his job carried. I wanted to be an ‘injun-driver’ when I grew up.

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It was in one of the bus journeys that I discovered my next passion: the conductor. His whistle stopped and started the bus; he collected all the money; he had the authority to decide whether (and how much) to charge for the luggage; he was the last word in deciding whether a child would travel free or on a half-ticket (or a teenager on a half-ticket or full fare). As passengers without seats struggled not to fall into the laps of those seated as the bus careened and swerved, the conductor was steady as the Gibraltar. I was naturally spell-bound. A bus conductor is what I wanted to grow up into.

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The job of the TTE in the train, somehow, did not appeal to me as a model profession I wanted to pursue. True, he was immaculately turned out in his spotless white trousers, black jacket, tie and gold-braided cap, but he did not seem to exude the authority of the bus conductor.

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All these were in my pre-teen days. A couple of years later, my ambitions changed – I wanted to be an English professor like Prof Madhukar Rao of Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam who treated his students as his equals and whose freewheeling classes were great fun. What if some used to say that the secret of the pink cheeks of his was the dash of rouge from his wife’s dressing table? He looked good and he was good. That was all that mattered to me.

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And then I wanted to be a math wizard like Prof Veeramony. Son of a clerk in a private firm, he was a self-made man. He had financed his studies by giving tuitions for those in junior classes. After getting a job, he continued the practice in order to supplement the income, but the question of their getting any favours did not arise at all. In fact, he respected students who did not seek tuitions. He has a booming voice that resonated in the classroom. He was a great singer, and would render the popular romantic numbers of Mohamed Rafi and Yesudas with such feel. Very handsome, he was admired by the girls in the college, but seemed totally unaffeced by all the attention he was getting.

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He was, of course, a great teacher. I have not come across another who could draw a perfect circle on the blackboard. In the Pure/Analytical/Projective/Solid Geometry classes, he would draw the lines and circles given in the question using a chalkpiece. As he said, ‘Draw the perpendicular from P on AB’, one could hear a series of taps on the blackboard and see a dotted line through P at exact right angles to AB. One wondered how he managed that and waited for the next time he’d do it. All he did was to hold the tip of the chalk, place it lightly at P and just run it towards AB. Voila! Instead of a solid line, you had a perfect dotted line. I must confess that it took me a fortnight’s practice during lunch recess to come anywhere near his seemingly effortless feat.

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Becoming a banker minding someone else’s money was never on my agenda; that I ended up as one is the greatest tragedy of my life.

8 comments:

T. Mukherjee said...

That was sad. As I kept reading, I was hoping that eventually you'd write what you finally discovered, that you want to be.

A Stoic said...

Doing well doing one's best wherever and whatever one is, alone matters.

I do not agree that being a banker was your greatest tragedy. Proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Agreed that you would have done more as a teacher, yes.

Ashok Menath said...

What is wrong with banking? where else can you be quite oblivious to realities of life? where else can you get your identity erased so easily ? and where else will you and your achievements be measured in terms of some inane numbers?

(And yet... how come you are still sane?)
Let me share a personal hypothesis about banking:
Remember T S Eliot's great work 'Waste Land'. Any idea why he chose the title?
Ans: He once worked in a bank!

Shanti, Shanti, Shanti..

A Stoic said...

I may add this, though.

I have interacted with Kerala bankers from 1976. I have found the majority of them to be, to put it mildly, 'pervy'. One might even say that next to the Kerala Police, they are the most sub-human of creatures.

Kerala has no PSB of its own. Kerala banking has always been Tamil-oriented in the South and Kannada-oriented in the North. I do not know if this culture-state is responsible for the 'oddness' of Kerala bankers.

Among such a species, specimens of enlightenment like wannabewodehouse are very rare.

wannabe said...

Trisha

I still seem not to know what I want to do! As recently as this week, I wanted to be able to sing well, paint or play the violin (when I grow up!)

Ashok

You said it! Banking wipes out whatever interests and faculties you may have. Not for nothing that what bankers work with are called numbers; ther are really numb-ers, that which numbs the souls.

Stoic

Are you a banker too? A typical banker is a uni-dimensional man, who eats, drinks and breathes banking, with no other interests whatsoever, and other than routine banking, he knows nothing. There are exceptions, though. It is tough to break the mould and come out.

Kaushik Chatterjee said...

Truly, sir, you do have so many feathers to flaunt! In this age of mono-dimensional specialists moving in finely chiselled grooves, it's a rarity to meet persons of such varied oeuvre and taste and liberal enlightenment!

With numbers, limericks, pun-fun, travelogues, monologues, word-play, wisecracks, you-name-it, you do with élan and style,so fluently, unimposingly.

It reminds me of the inimitable Sidhu Jetha, having shades of Microft Holmes, (played by Harin Chattopadhyay) in Ray's Sonar Kella who rued " ... Ami onek kichhu korlei onek kichhu korte partam... taai ami kichhui korini..." that is, "I could have laid my hands on so many different things that the very thought has unnerved me into doing anything worthwhile in life..."

It's a tragedy indeed that our society is essentially clueless about what to do with these men... and their flocks are getting thinner by the day....

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Enjoyed reading it KTR, as always. Your flair for so many things is fit to be envied. It is a gift, you either have it or don't. If you happen to have it, your life becomes interesting and it's good for the people around you too.

I agree with our Stoic friend, what matters most is you do well whatever you are doing. And even if you don't do anything special, you can still live a great life. We tend to forget that living well is too an art worth practising. Extending that logic, you could have had a great life as a bus conductor or an "injun" driver. But for personal reasons, I am happy that you decided to join a particular bank.

anilkurup said...

There is nothing to gain from weeping over spilled milk.
Now if life were to come back to you all over again , what will you want to be and what will you be ?