Very little about the town threw me and Maia even though throughout our time here they were picketing the government offices; there were murders and agitations, rallies and blockades, anger and fear. It was all newspaper reports to us. We saw nothing from our little cottage except pine trees and gravestones and the washing hanging outside other people’s homes. I would walk up to take my classes and then perhaps sit with a colleague in a tea shop, drinking cup after cup of over-boiled tea or eating from small enamel soup-plates of rice and meat. My fellow philosophers were men who had spent time in this town; some were born here, some drawn by the lure of the university. Nothing united them except the fact that they were all unhappy. I’d listen to their complaints for a while, and then leave determinedly for the library. I wanted to develop some of the ideas in my PhD on Immanuel Kant’s ethics into a book.
Come morning I’d be up early, making tea for Maia. The fact that the coming day was going to be more or less exactly like the previous one sharpened my appetite for it. Everything hummed with life. I loved my wife. I loved moral philosophy. I loved my students. They were eager and fresh-faced and ready to believe anything.
I’m out walking on the narrow pavements now; the air is dark with certain rain. Middle-aged men, beautiful girls, college boys — everyone wears perfumes that I inhale as I squeeze past. More than anything, the perfumes make me lonely. How can it be that this town is so full of people they’re falling off the pavements and yet only in dreams am I in someone’s arms?
All of yesterday they sang Easter hymns in the church nearby. I did nothing. I woke suffused with my usual dreams of Maia, only now I know they’re dreams and not portents, not promises. She’s simply not here. I tried to read, then went for a walk and returned, defeated by the downpour. I was determined to do better this morning. I planned to visit our haunts — the house on the hill, the university, her school.
I’m almost there now, reassured to see that anonymous, old three-storeyed building before the turning to the university. The same shops below, their awnings patched together with rusting pieces of flattened tin. The red mobile phone company signs stand out against the bleakness. And above, those enigmatic, dust-blackened windowpanes, cracked and broken with age, hiding behind them God only knows what sliver of bygone life, what secrets of genteel poverty.
But as soon as I turn to go up the slope, I find that I am somewhere else. This was not my path for those two bright years. Huge concrete monsters lean over, swallowing the road, and between the cars there’s no place even for a footfall. I cannot go up and yet I must — to fight what came over me on that ferry in Calcutta: passivity and helplessness. The world riding roughshod. That weak-kneed feeling; that shocking irrelevance of being old.
I struggle with my umbrella, which the wind is working hard against. I am going to go up.
‘Sir,’ says someone softly at my elbow.
A man in a woollen jacket with his collar buttoned up against the damp, his umbrella a rock against the same wind that is flattening mine. I shake his hand even though I don’t know who he is. The rain is relentless now and we take shelter under one of those tiny awnings while other people walk by without pausing, everyday expressions on their faces to match the everyday rain.
‘You don’t recognize me, sir. I’m John. You taught us Immanuel Kant in the fourth semester.’
I continue looking at him without changing my expression. John, I think. The small, silent, back-of-the-class, barely visible presence who would turn in the best-written, the most comprehensive assignments.
John. I’ve never forgotten him even though I didn’t quite recognize him just now in his little goatee and smart, new glasses. There is a way in which John is always present whenever I think of Kant.
I remember standing in a sunny classroom, expounding on Kant’s categorical imperative. I am explaining to my students that this was Kant’s big thing — his most important contribution to Western ethics. The categorical imperative, he believed, was the singular principle on the basis of which all human beings must hope to act. And what was this imperative? Act only on that maxim through which you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law. Be truthful not because it will win you favours but because it is desirable for there to be universal truthfulness. Do not steal because you don’t want all your fellow humans to give themselves the license to be thieves. Also, act in such a way that you always treat both yourself and other people never as a means but always as end. Do good to others not because you expect favours from them but because you value them as human beings. It is goodwill which determines the moral worth of an action, not its consequences. This was the German idealist’s view and it was grand but worth quarrelling with.