Ashim ‘Kaka’ Chatterjee
Tuesdays with Morrie disturbed me. This book disturbed me a lot. The story of Professor Morrie Schwartz is distinctive. There is not much of action here. Not too much description of life’s experiences. Colourful characters do not clash with each other in order to create a dramatic situation. What one encounters instead is death—in its full glory—and life arising out of death. Tuesdays with Morrie is a story of an old professor and his not-so-old student.
What kind of a man is Professor Morrie? He teaches sociology at Brandies University. Not merely chhatra-dardi or chhatra vatsal—to brand him thus will be saying a lot less about his relationship to his pupils. Students are his life. Naturally his home, the restaurants near his university, the lawns and nooks—all are sites for nurturing a peripatetic world of examined life with his students. His love of books and ideas is infectious. Love of life, even more.
He arrives at a class. A hall full of anxious young minds—waiting. But Morrie is silent. For 15 long minutes. First the students are bemused, mild jokes hover around, notes get exchanged, a certain uneasy restlessness pervades. Then there comes a moment of pin-drop silence. Hush. The professor begins. His subject of the day: the influence of silence in human relationships. Why do we get bothered by silence? Wherefore peace in utterance? This is the way the man wins over his students, commands respect and love. He is not as dexterous as his more famous fictional rival in To Sir With Love nor as historically vexed as Coetzee’s Professor Lurie. But Morrie is not against life. Though he cannot manage his steps, he would dance. Not a good singer, he would be immersed in music. Not a particularly skilful swimmer, he would love to go for a dip.
His student, who is narrating Morrie’s life, is bringing this world, a cosmos really, into being with utmost care and craft. The university life being over and done with, his students bring Morrie a brief-case, embossed with his name. They embrace—the teacher and his pupils. And part silently.
In such a lively man’s life there arrives a terrible tempest. All in a flash. Morrie gets infected with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS)—a motor neurone predicament. We all are familiar with Stephen Hawking and his encounters with this disease. Not much has been discovered yet about this condition and not much preventive or curative stuff is available yet. But death is imminent. Maximum duration of possible survival is 5 years. In Morrie’s case, it is 2. As Morrie comes out of the diagnostic centre, he notices the busy world going on with its daily activities. As the world refreshes, he withers.
Gradual, little, incremental changes are making him give up the small pleasures of life. He discovers in the morning that he can’t fix his car’s brakes—driving as an option is gone. Begins to trip as he walks and therefore requires a walking stick—end of independent walking days. In the locker room, in order to change his outfit, he needs manual help—end of privacy. Appears before his students one morning and announces that he might not finish his quota of coursework that particular semester and so they can opt for other courses or may drop out—end of his secret pride.
ALS, the writer tells us, in an evocative phrase, is like a burning candle. It will burn out and melt your nerves into a waxen residue. The process starts from your legs and usually travels up. After a while, you cannot stand on your feet. And then sitting too becomes impossible. Finally, if you are still alive, a rubber tube will facilitate your breathing. And all this, when you are fully conscious of the rapid changes taking place in your body.
The professor takes a profound decision: that he will utilize fully the rest of his living days. There is no need to feel embarrassed about the inevitable. Why not make his death a case for research? Is it not worth it to travel the boundaries of life and death and think afresh? With this thought in mind, Morrie begins to disseminate himself to others, to everyone. He gives a clarion call for meetings in his apartment in order to discuss the many variations on death threadbare. Not empathy or sentimentality he needs—but interviews, new connections, telephonic conversations— with an urge to examine life through death is what he would rather like to indulge in during the remaining period of his existence. He walks into TV studios. His student and now a well known newspaper columnist Mitch Albom had promised to keep in touch after they parted upon Mitch’s graduation from the university. He could not fulfil his promise. The rat race got him. Mitch responds now—after 16 long years and they start a new research agenda, like the old times: meeting his professor every Tuesday and thrashing out issues of life in their many hues—Society, Rights, Guilt, Death, Fear, Aging, Greed, Marriage, Family, Forgiveness and so forth. By that time Morrie is unable to conduct his everyday activities. Every Tuesday is downhill. But he is unfazed. He requests in a matter of fact fashion to a guest, “Can you please hold on to this bowl—need to take a piss?” Since he has no other option but to rely on others, he has no qualms or feelings of guilt. When asked in a television show about what bothers him about this dependency, pat comes his reply: “Soon someone has to wipe off my arse.” The final Tuesday was reserved for ‘Adieu’—as a subject of discussion. Only a few words. Morrie breathes his last the Saturday next.
Discussion on death and human preoccupation with death is timeless really. Yet it is also historicised in specific circumstances. The sons and daughters of Amrita have not been able to transcend death fully. The idea actually is not to transcend death but to encounter it, as part of our material living. The cells die. So do our bodies. Eventually. Those who think of decay and effacement in negative ways, will think of transcending death. They do not love life.
I remember my days in the 70s. I am not trying to personalize here, but actually trying to think through some moments. I remember Brihannal’s mother. She was an illiterate mother whose son, Brihannal was absconding, underground, farar owing to state surveillance and atrocities. His mother came to ask me to get back her son. Her son was not into any unethical work—why was she so troubled then? “Baba, my son will die,” she said. I replied, “Yes, your son may die in this warfare. Take him back. But promise me that he will never die. Until the sun and moon and stars remain in the firmament, your son shall live.” I gave her three books to read that day—about those some other day. I do not yet know what that mother understood. Nor was I trying to act the teacher. It was an exchange. She left on her own, without her son. Was she demoralised? Was she proud?
Morrie’s book is a best-seller So, it may be considered a popular read. Not deep enough. But I don’t know, I really don’t—why it reminded me of The Old Man and the Sea. Does a revolutionary have the right to feel good about such books?
Ashim Chatterjee was a student leader of (CPI(ML). Chatterjee broke ranks with Charu Majumdar in 1971 after the failure of the attempts to build an armed movement in the Debra-Gopiballavbur area iand due to the opposition of CPI(ML) towards the liberation struggle of Bangladesh. He was imprisoned during 1972-78. Chatterjee formed the Bengal-Bihar-Orissa Border Regional Committee, CPI(ML)as a separate faction. . Later Chatterjee formed the Communist Revolutionary League of India.