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Workshop On Life

Arunabha Sengupta

Why did I read Lessons?

While browsing through the WW Checklist 2004, I came across a short write-up on the book, which proclaimed it to be a Testament of a Survivor in which Professor P. Lal shares certain of his realisations following his Near Death Experience in the United States in 1989. It was also mentioned that Lessons dealt with certain questions – questions that seemed basic and baffling, enduring and enigmatic:

Why are we here? What should be our priorities? Why do our trusts – bankbalance, blood relatives, God – fail in a crisis? What gives strength? If we arehere to learn lessons, what lessons must we learn, and who teaches them?

I wanted the answers to the questions. I wanted them badly.

With time, the questions seemed to become more cryptic.

Why are we here at all? In the aftermath of the carnage of due to 9/11, the destruction during the Afghan and Iraq wars, the mayhem in Gujarat and so on, the question had taken on a life of its own. If life had no sanctity, no surety, no safety … why are we here in the first place? All the much hyped rules of good
schooling, getting a good job, striving for perfection, being an upright citizen … seemed nonsensical in the light of meaningless loss of lives.

What should be our priorities? On entering the IT industry, my priorities had become a troublesome tangle where time and again terms such as home, family, wife, daughter, creativity, passion, humane, dinner, sleep were washed into the dim, distant background by the onslaught of words and phrases like deadline, commitment, proactiveness, onsite, conference call, appraisal, visiting client.

Why do our trusts – bank balance, blood relatives, God – fail in a crisis? The biggest crisis till then had been the slowdown of the US economy, and without being struck by the ultimate financial tragedy of the loss of job, I had reviewed my bank balance often enough to be sure of its total ineptness to tide
over the minutest of disasters.

The speed of life had made me into such a loner that I would be lucky to
recognise a blood relative on the streets.

As for trusting the divine, in the corporate world, God is a word
interchangeable with Client and this particular swear-word, in turn, is
interchangeable with crisis.

What gives Strength? A secure job? A steady income? A loving family? Meditation? High protein diet with visits to those equipment-laden multigyms which seem to grow everywhere like mushrooms? I satisfied all criteria. Why then did the slightest of quivers in the graph of life's highs and lows make me cower with fear and dread the worst?

So, what lessons were there to be learnt? I wanted to learn whatever was there to be learnt – to rid my mind of the insane insecurity and constant confusion.

Who was to teach them? If a mind that transcreates the Upanishads and manages to make them sound poetic and yet simple without a single footnote; a mind that
renders the entire Mahabharata into English sloka by sloka; if such a mind made itself compliant to share the lessons learnt from life, could I wish for a better teacher?

And so, during one of my visits to 162/92 for submitting the corrected proofs of my novel, Labyrinth, I procured a volume of Lessons and read it.

What Lessons did I learn?

n the different listings of the complete works of Professor P. Lal, Lessons is often categorised as an Autobiography.

I have read some autobiographies in my time. They have included ones of authors, of scientists, of politicians, of sports personalities. Some of them have been good, some of them sketchy, some opinionated. Some authors have underlined their
omnipotence in the literary skies; some cricketers have called upon divine benediction to proclaim their well known achievements; some scientists have made a major splash of their exploits as part time artists and ad hoc drummers; some Boxers have delighted us with the fabricated fiction of throwing Olympic medals into rivers. Sometimes I have even come up against stories of honest experiments gone wrong, resulting in munched and masticated mutton marauding about menacingly at midnight.

Without exception, almost all have lived up to their genre of being an
autobiography – my life story.

In contrast however, Lessons starts with brief biographical sketches of twenty -five people who had been associates of Professor Lal in some way or the other, from his schooldays to his days of renown. They are from all walks of life,
famous and not so famous. This is followed by the Professor's own experiences of the fatal few days of his illness, starting with the pre-indisposed period in Toronto filled with accounts of hacking into pornographic movie channels to the
ultimate discharge and recuperation on a wheel-chair.

After a series of grateful referrals to the people who played a part in the
miraculous recovery of the Professor – including the reminiscences of his
charming wife Shyamasree Devi, the focus shifts to Essays and Articles on Near Death Experiences. This is followed by Memorial pieces on five noble lives that had recently come to an end.

Thus, the biggest lesson that I have learnt from Lessons – I am not the centre of the Universe. My story is not only the story of my life. I do not exist alone. There are numerous other individuals, important or otherwise, each of whom has his or her role to play. And my own story is inseparably intertwined with theirs, an intricate network of inter-related karma. If I am important, so are they. Their story is as much a part of mine as my own.

The answers to all those questions of the first section? There are pointers to those answers, in brief patches. Small signposts caringly constructed for our guidance in the journey of life. They are eternal questions finding whose answers constitute the quest of life. No one can hand them over, bearing them
lovingly on a silver salver, served with the garnish of advice on leading our lives. And what is more, the answers to the questions are not static and invariant. They vary with time and individual.

Beginning and end of creation –

The knowledge comes whose way?

Ancient the Book, the first and last

Few pages have fallen away.

The answers to these eternal questions may have also fallen with the pages … to be extrapolated from the experiences of life. Professor here points his long index finger, helpfully guiding us to find the moon. Looking at just the finger
is futile and foolish without lolling in the lunar luminescence.

Other lessons I learnt from Lessons?

A reaffirmation of the truths that convoluted circumstances will sometimes lead us to think of as illusions:

Life is beautiful and precious. Life can find a way even in the most obstinate of dead-ends. There may be something beyond life after all. Good people crop up in the most unexpected of places.


A Lesson in the use of the lyrical language.

Voyeuristic wickedness can be described with such cantabile candour, with such elemental élan, etched with sizzling similies, meteoric metaphors and alluring


An hour's worth of flailing fornication in luscious Technicolour….A cornucopia of concupiscence would variously soothe, stir, shock and stun the priapic occupant…

A sixty year old smiling public man, Yeats' paragon of rectitude and
respectability, caught in the act! The gross fascination of continuous vicarious carnality! And to think that all those lush and lovely voluptuous lulus, and all those hunks of handsome studs, were nothing more than fleeting shadows on a false and flickering screen. It's chastening in retrospect, but it was gripping – gripping though also gruesome – at the time. I was trapped in the toils of play-acted passion on the bank and shoal of Arctic time. A maelstrom of kinky kama.