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“Living in the Here & Now”

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Book Review: ‘Long Way To Myself’ by Soham Anand

By Sudhir K Arora

The Doon Valley comprising Dehradun and Mussoorie, the schools’ capital of the country, has been a natural home to educationists and writers. Ruskin Bond, Nayantara Sehgal, Nergis Dalal, Stephen Alter, I. Allan Sealy, the Gantzers are just some of the famous Doon valley residents writing in English that come to mind. This tradition continues. We now have erudite, prolific writers like Sanjeev Chopra, Kulbhushan Kain (and the late Chaudhary Pradeep Singh, steeped in the history of the Doon, whose untimely demise is a sad loss to the valley, and a personal loss to me). For many of them Garhwal Post has become one of the mediums to reach out to readers, in the process edifying, educating and entertaining. To this tribe another name can be added – Soham Anand, accidental educationist, searing soul searcher and seeker.

Soham Anand

It was just the other day that I received a call from an army veteran, a dear friend and schoolmate – we go back six decades – that he had sent me a book “Long Way To Myself” which had been written by a Doonite friend that he wanted me to go through. The compact book duly arrived, was flipped through and, with typical procrastination, kept aside for reading “jab time milega”.  When I did get down to it, I devoured it in two sittings, revelling in the evocative imagery of Dehradun of the 1960s and 1970s which I could nostalgically relate to – old haunts came back vividly; vignettes of school and college in the Doon (which again dredged out old memories) and then the author’s saga as a teacher, housemaster and administrator in some of the country’s foremost schools. And much more so, hard-hitting lessons about life.

Soham Anand has had an unusual childhood. His family was one of the so many deeply scarred and displaced by the Partition. His parents migrated to India and he was born in an Ashram in Haridwar in 1949. Ashram life with its emphasis on purity of beliefs, service to humanity and a love for the environment left a deep imprint upon his psyche. This finds due expression in the opening chapter of the book, which is a distillation of what he imbibed, along with a deep desire to look within. As he says, “The joy of talking to the self is indescribable. I often talk when in doubt… I share my innermost thoughts and get free, frank and honest answers.”

Free, frank and brutally honest about himself, in particular, is the narrative that follows. How difficult was the penning down of his lived experiences? In his own words in the book, “I was thoroughly exposed to my inadequacies… I would sit and agonise for hours, gazing vacantly at the white sheets without putting down a solitary word.” So true for many a writer! Yet, what follows is immensely readable.

He starts with his first twelve years spent in the Ashram. Its spartan life, the deep imprint that Swamiji left upon him, the secular upbringing (the ashram had a Sikh and a Buddhist monk in residence), the discourses and the rituals, all instilling in him lasting lessons, timeless teachings and a striving for ‘awakening’ – an understanding of the self.

Then followed school, where he went through the years keeping largely to himself – painfully shy and self-confessedly unambitious, a trait his teachers and his father found frustrating. His first crush finds detailed mention, about the ending of which he states: “It isn’t the happiest of endings, but isn’t an ending at all. Stories don’t really end! They only take a different path.”

His path now led him to college in Dehradun [DAV (PG) College], the alma mater of many a Doonite who chose not to leave town for higher education. At some point of time, in order not to be a burden on his parents, he took up working in the college library. Soham’s life was coasting along lazily till it dawned as a rude shock that the money was simply not enough if he wished to settle down. He saw an advertisement about a teaching opening at Welham Boys’ School to which he applied on impulse. The then Principal there, SK (‘Charlie’) Kandhari – a gifted educationist known for swimming against conventional currents – offered him the post of teacher of English to senior school students, much to his trepidation. Anyway, the rest, as they say, is history.

The author got his grounding in Welham Boys, discovering the joy of teaching – the opportunity to shape young minds, going beyond the textbooks, imparting to them not only values but also a love for outdoors. This was also the time when the school was progressing from being a ‘Preparatory’ feeder institution to The Doon School to being a full-fledged senior school. Thus, the opportunities to learn and guide were aplenty.

After a relatively short stint at Welham Boys, the author quit and joined the famous Lawrence School, Sanawar, working under the then Headmaster, Mr Shomie Das (who later took over as Headmaster at The Doon School). This tenure lasted nearly a decade and the author looks back very fondly at this period in his life. (The book has a lot of pieces by some of his ex-students, which detail his personality, and add considerably to the narrative).

His next impetuous impulse took him East in the mid-1990s to the Assam Valley School (near Tezpur) which had just been set up by the eminent educationist, Mr Gulab Ramchandani, who had also served as the Headmaster of The Doon School. Then followed a period which the author describes as ‘the best time of my life’.  This however was destined to be cut short by a horrific car crash near Tezpur in which he sadly lost his beloved mother, and which left his wife with dreadful life-threatening injuries. He left for Delhi for his wife’s prolonged treatment.

The author then narrates about his experiences at heading institutions – tenures both satisfying and frustrating. (In all, he has served in eleven educational institutions in his four decades plus of teaching career). His insights into the way schools are run are deep and insightful. From family-run schools to those run by corporates to ones managed by trusts/boards of management, the environments are different – and so is the degree of freedom which senior staff have to mould young, impressionable minds. His views about these institutions and people are frank and critically incisive.

What runs as a common thread in this book are the author’s piercing, brutally honest insights into himself. He explores his difficult relationship with his father with candour. His adoration for his mother comes through so vividly. I wonder how many of us would go that deep into ourselves and then express our thoughts so candidly?

His reflections upon life show a soul forever seeking, searching. An extract from the closing pages of the book is indeed food for thought: “We are unaware that there has never been or will ever be another experience besides the present one. Once you realise you are in this moment, this instant, now and nothing else, then there is no history or future except for this one.”

Forcefully, the author advocates living in the here and now – rather than postponing and prevaricating “till I get there and then I will start living”. The narrative leaves the reader enriched by the author’s insights into life and his not-so-ordinary journey. Yes, we all have a long way to go to find ourselves.