The nicest part is being able to write down all my thoughts and feelings; otherwise, I’d absolutely suffocate. Anne Frank, 16 March 1944.
Anne Frank’s diaries are now part of literature’s legend and song. The young Jewish Dutch girl, who was gifted a diary in 1942 when she was barely 13 years old, poured her heart out in those invitingly blank pages. Over the next couple of years, hiding in a secret attic in Amsterdam to keep away from the depredations of Nazi occupation, she wrote prodigiously; about her growing up in such forbidding conditions, about her sense of self and above all, about the ever-present danger of capture and the dreaded concentration camps. In spite of all that, she constantly exuded positivity in her pages and thought nothing but good in the human soul and spirit. The best-selling book, The diary of Anne Frank ends on a high note of optimism. Describing herself as a ‘bundle of contradictions,’ Anne Frank had this to say about her general outlook on life. ‘As I’ve told you many times, I’m split in two. One side contains my exuberant cheerfulness, my flippancy, my joy in life and, above all, my ability to appreciate the lighter side of things.’ She could have been speaking for me as far as ‘appreciating the lighter side of things’ is concerned. I can barely bring myself to imagine what the darker side of things must have been for Anne.
My thoughts, however, are concerned more with the humdrum aspects of life that we used to post in our own diaries many moons ago. If that suggests going from the sublime to the ridiculous, so be it. Question: do people maintain personal diaries nowadays? I have met the odd person who does, odd being the operative word, and chances are that these oddities were born during the forties and fifties or perhaps even earlier. This is not to say that stationers, book sellers and some organizations do not print diaries (and calendars) which are avidly sought after, particularly during the dawn of a new calendar year. These specimens are essentially meant for those who are not quite au fait with the digital versions on their mobile phones or personal computers. I have also been amazed at how, when November and December came around, so many people would be seen running helter-skelter looking for diaries or calendars to cadge from wherever they could lay their hands on. It was almost as if diaries were about to become extinct. And that is almost true.
For the most part these diaries are the exhaustive repositories of laundry lists, provisions purchased, sundry expenses, not to mention birthdays and other milestones that one needs to be reminded of in order to send flowers or make that courtesy phone call. It carries infinitely more weight than being reminded by Facebook. My father, who passed on in his late eighties about twenty years ago, was a stellar example of a man who jotted down all manner of details about his family and close friends in a tattered and torn diary that was well past its sell- by-date. His diary would also contain faded newspaper clippings of anything that he thought might be of interest for future reference. If I was lost in trying to hunt down some old news item about somebody in the family, all I needed to do was ask him. Why his personal diary was considered a safe haven for these snippets, which also worked as bookmarks, was a closed book to me. That said, I know many people who acquired several diaries and simply stowed them away in a safe place, never having even opened them! However, try prising one of these moth-eaten items out of them and they will get all cagey and evasive.
During our boarding school days, and here I am harking back to the swinging 60s, some of us boys maintained little pocket diaries, or just a plain exercise book which worked just as well. Only we had to write in the date on which we were entering our profound thoughts. The school administration encouraged this activity during our spare time and holidays, as they felt it would improve our writing skills. That was a laugh. Most of the boys would vent their spleen on other boys, or even on the masters, in ways hardly calculated to improve their knowledge of the language. If the school honchos got their grubby hands on these incriminating tomes, there was hell to pay but that was a risk the boys were willing to take. Here are some samplers, drawn from varying imaginary dates. I have randomly chosen the year 1963 for no reason other than the fact that President John Kennedy was assassinated that year, Martin Luther King made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech and not to put too fine a point on it, I discovered The Beatles. These milestones leave a lasting impact.
25th July, 1963 – Acted in our school play, ‘The Language Shop.’ Was cast as the Weak Verb. Hell’s bells! Why couldn’t the director give me the role of the Proper Noun or something. I got awful stick from the Transferred Epithet and the Definite Article. The Indefinite Article, like the Weak Verb, was considered a pariah. Enough to drive anyone up the wall. I was the laughing stock of the school.
Actually, the play was pretty smart. Plenty of puns and humour calculated to enable us boys to appreciate the language better. But Weak Verb? I deserved better. I could have been the Strong Verb, if there is such a one. Wren & Martin, what say you?
17th August 1963 – Somebody has torn a huge hole in my mosquito net. I think I know who it is. It has to be that cowardly cur, Charlie the Chump. You’ve got it coming Charlie boy. Where is that old bottle of ink?
Not the finest example of the language of Shakespeare, but more on the lines of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Always remembering that we were in our early teens. As to what the chronicler proposed doing with ‘that old bottle of ink’ is anybody’s guess.
21st August 1963 – I got just 27 marks for my geometry paper. I first thought it was out of 50, until I was told by our maths teacher Mr. Caleb, that it was out of 100! Meaning I plugged! Shit -o! What am I going to tell my pop when I write to him this weekend? Bloody Pythagoras!*
That was a typical entry. ‘Plugged’ by the way, was schoolboy slang for failed. I don’t know what it is, but we always came out of our exam halls exuding disproportionate confidence. ‘I think I maxed it,’ was the standard, hubristic response to being asked how we fared. We might have cried into our pillows after lights out at night, but no one noticed. Matron had to deal with plenty of moist pillows in the dormitory next morning.
*As this blog is being put to bed, news has just filtered through, that educationists in India have questioned Pythagoras’ theorem and Newton’s apple gravity claim as being possibly fake and that they have most likely taken their posits from ancient Indian texts. Mera Bharat Mahaan!
29th August 1963 – I told the skip not to place that fat slob Ganga at first slip, but does he listen? He goes and does just that, and a dolly catch spilled off my bowling. Butter fingers! Screwed up my bowling analysis. I shall make sure to grass the next catch that comes my way. You wait and watch.
Ah, school cricket politics. It was worse than what we witness now at the BCCI. The fight for a place in the school eleven for any representative game was fiercely intense. Those who missed out made no bones about what they thought of the selector, namely, the poor games master. Invective was hurled, behind closed doors; or closed pages, naturally.
2nd September 1963 – How the hell did he pick Yousuf ahead of me? And why Ranjit, for God’s sake? Neither of them can hold a bat straight and they are the biggest, what’s the word, ah yes, liabilities on the field. Something very fishy going on here. I shall send an anonymous letter to the Warden.
22nd November 1963 – One of the house prefects comes barging into our dormitory early in the morning shouting, ‘John Kennedy is dead. Shot by some crazy lunatic.’ Big deal. What was John Kennedy to me? I was much more interested and excited by the news that The Beatles have released their second album ‘With The Beatles’ on that very day. Their debut album, ‘Please, Please Me’ was also released earlier in 1963. I mean, for a 14-year-old in the early 60s, given John Kennedy vs The Beatles, who will win? Go figure.
There you go. Most of us boys were not precocious beyond our years to grapple with deep, contemplative thoughts about the world, the theory of evolution or delve into theocratic or philosophical thoughts. Cricket, comics, classroom capers and pop music tended to fill our waking moments. Oh yes, girls did occupy our thoughts now and then and a typical diary entry would go something like this:
November 26th – Four of the boys went to visit their sasses today. They came back with autograph books for some of us boys to sign on the ‘Wall of Friendship.’ Guess what, I am on the list of three of them. What do I write on them other than signing the damn things? And why was I not on the fourth list? Woe is me! I shan’t sleep tonight.
In case you were wondering, ‘sasses’ was school shorthand for sisters. Anyhow, such was the childish silliness that our diaries were filled with. If you ask me why we were not inspired by the likes of Anne Frank, the answer is simple. We were not even aware of her till many decades later, and then too only because of her diaries. If there are those in 2022 who maintain diaries and jot down their thoughts and activities, I doff my metaphorical hat to them. I would like to maintain a diary again but the moment has long since passed. I write blogs instead. Oscar Wilde, who always had something memorable to say about anything at all said, ‘I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.’ Most of us don’t lead the kind of sensational life Mr. Wilde did. Which is just as well.