I usually travel for a little over an hour to get to work. In the off chance that I have forgotten to get a book to read, or am wedged up in some corner of a bus between oddly shaped humans, I think. I remember. My thoughts meander like the dribble from a sleeping man’s mouth. Several of them are nice memories – mildly cloying. Some others are the kind great novels and tawdry novellas make references to – bittersweet. And some are plain meaningless. I do know that at some point in time they must have meant a lot; why else would I remember them? But not anymore. I remember those times with strange, peaceful bemusement.
Anyway, one day, I got a nice comfortable seat near an open window with clean sills. The person seated next to me was slightly built and so discreet that I thought she was sitting on some-one else’s seat. I could easily open up a newspaper and read it without elbowing her like an untamed ox. (This analogy is by a thorough city-slicker..i don’t know of any elbowing oxes – tamed or otherwise.) So I opened a book and then drifted off. Some phrase in the book reminded me of my college life. It has been the only place in my world so far where I have seen people playing chess under trees between lectures.
Anyway, I thought of my Sociology classes that were held on the fringe of the main college building. It’s strange how I got to major in Sociology. Two years before my final year, I had a ready supply of absolutely purposeless angst. And as it is with angst, it wasn't too good for my academics. I didn’t fare well enough to get a roaring welcome into the department. This wouldn't have bothered too much had I not liked Sociology. Even with my charred sensibilities, I saw sense in the subject.
I loved reading and writing, and therefore couldn’t bear to take up literature. I didn’t associate analysis with appreciation then. It would’ve killed me to critique Heathcliff’s savagery, etc. Psychology was too highbrow, Pol. Science was too pretentious, Economics certified mindless bourgeois avarice, etc. etc. (The angst clouded my judgment, like I said earlier.) Sociology, on the other hand, was a subject I thought I could relate to. It was a large unwieldy humanities subject, but one with the heart in the right place. I thought, at least, I wouldn’t look at everything from an ‘I, me, myself’ perspective. I wouldn’t be so insulated. I would learn to have a conscience.
Anyhow, I had a teacher who saw some potential in me….potential for what, I’m not so sure, but there are those who see potential in anything – even the superficially bright ketchup sachets. Based on her recommendation I was granted admission in the Sociology Department after all. But the potential-spotting teacher was shifted to some other department thereafter. I had to fend for my fragile ego by myself. And an acerbic, vinegar-spewing, extremely intelligent, ex-JNU prof. didn’t make it easy.
A little bit of background on the kind of person he was: Well, he was erudite to say the least. In addition to that, he was also derisive of all things Mumbai – and especially, academics. You know, how to real fashionistas nylon is not a bona fide fabric? Well, to him, Mumbai students were not really students. They were foppishly stylized personalities with the intellect of stale, slightly squished dim sums.
Our opinion of him wasn’t too great either. He dressed really badly, wore mismatched socks, gifted pails to his mother-in-law (mowther-een-low, as he used to call her), and looked very bored when he taught us statistics. But he was a very intelligent man – who thought a lot and who thought deeply. He was one of those few people who are enamored of clear, distilled, strong ideas; ideas that are unwavering in the face of fake politeness. I remember he used to accuse us of being ‘theoretically bankrupt’ and having no ‘ideological commitment’. It used to pain him that none of it really bothered us too much. It’s not as if we didn’t agree with him; we did. But we just didn’t see it as a problem.
Anyway, there was one class where he was explaining Max Weber’s or Durkheim’s theory about social system and the discussion (by ‘discussion’ I of course mean a piercing monologue) veered towards the collapse of the political system. He was making a rather important point on something or the other and he got stuck trying to remember the name of a commission that got associated with self-immolation in late 1990s. I said something, and he looked at me and told me, “How can you be so comfortable being so ignorant? How can you manage that? Is that even possible?”
I felt as offended and mortally depressed as an 18 year old could. I suppose I could have forgotten it over several long years but I haven’t. And the reason I remember this is because he was not being scathing or derisive. He was curious – genuinely curious…the way the uninitiated ask of the great chefs – how did this soufflé come out so light or of the artist, how did you paint this flame so mellow…He asked not really wanting to criticize or make me feel bad. He genuinely wanted to know – is that really possible? I couldn’t answer him then. (was handicapped for hindsight.)
But I was thinking of just that as I sat at my window seat with lots of elbow space. I happened to turn back and I saw almost a hundred people squished together. A man’s stomach was almost pressed to a seated lady’s shoulder, and he couldn’t do anything about it. Lots of people were visibly very, very uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have known that at my seat by the window with clean sills and elbow space. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t looked back.
‘….Is that really possible?’ the awkward professor had asked me.
Yes Sir, it is.