If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Friday, 8 September 2017

Being and nothingness

Swapna Chaudhuri

[On the Internet, we often come across brilliant writing by nameless authors. I often read wonderful writing on my friend Swapna's Facebook wall. Here is a translation of one of her pieces, followed by the original] The other day, Manju, one of my colleagues – she is an amazing singer – said with a touch of deep sadness in her voice, ‘Swapna, tell me, what have I done all these years? Nothing!’ I said, ‘even Rabindranath said, “Sadly, nothing has been done.”’ And that started me thinking. True, I’ve lived long, but done nothing. But in the autumn of my life, the song by Tagore is indeed a soothing salve on my utter futility. And there is some consolation: we can look at it from another point of view. The immortal writer Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya’s oeuvre is fascinatingly diverse and powerful. His novel “Ganadevata” (God among People) is an eternal jewel in Bangla literature. How many educated Bengalis have read it? In every short story, Jagadish Gupta fascinates us with his ability to bring in the unexpected in a myriad ways. How many Bengalis read him? I suspect that after a few generations, no one will read his work. I ask my husband’s students if they have heard Dhananjay Bhattacharya. The question of listening to his songs doesn’t arise; they haven’t even heard his name! But I always thought some of his songs would transcend generations. Abdul Karim Khan and Bade Ghulam Ali are two fulcrums of Indian classical music. But I’ve seen, even those who’re learning khayal haven’t heard their names. Let me stop, there is no point in extending this sad story. However, in my pointless life, they are my greatest solace. Should people read me, or Shirshendu Mukhopadyaya? Who will listen to my khayal when no one has time for Veena Sahasrabuddhe, Malini Rajurkar, or Kumar Gandharva? I am insignificant but happy. God hasn’t blown His bugle for me. But has given me boundless, profound peace. 08 September 2017 এক অনুভব ======= সেদিন মঞ্জু, আমার সহকর্মী, অসাধারণ গায়িকা গভীর মর্মবেদনায় বলে উঠল,"স্বপ্না, কি করলাম বলতো! কিছুই তো করা হল না।" আমি উত্তর দিলাম এই বলে যে, স্বয়ং রবীন্দ্রনাথ গাইছেন,'কিছুই তো হল না,হায়'?! তো বসলাম ভাবতে।আজ জীবনসায়াহ্নে রবীন্দ্রনাথের এ গান আমার অপদার্থতায় সান্ত্বনার প্রলেপ তো বটেই। সত্যিই তো, কিছুই করা হয়ে উঠল না এ দীর্ঘ জীবনে। তবে সান্ত্বনা-ভাবনা আরও আছে,এই ভরসা। অমর কথাশিল্পী তারাশঙ্কর--কি শক্তিশালী অসাধারণ বৈচিত্র্যময় তাঁর রচনাসম্ভার!'গণদেবতা' বাংলা সাহিত্যের এক চিরন্তন সম্পদ। কিন্তু শতকরা কতজন বাঙালি সে লেখা পড়েন বা পড়েছেন? জগদীশ গুপ্ত-তাঁর প্রতিটি গল্পে কি অতর্কিত বৈচিত্রাঘাত, কি সমৃদ্ধ তাঁর গল্পগুলি! কতদিন বাঙালি পড়বে তাঁর রচনা? এই বঙ্গে তো আর দুটি জেনারেশন এর পর বাংলা সাহিত্যের পাঠক পাওয়া যাবে কিনা আমার সন্দেহ আছে। অধ্যাপকের ছাত্র দের প্রশ্ন করলাম, ধনঞ্জয় ভট্টাচার্যের গান শুনেছেন কিনা। গান? নাম ই জানেনা। আমি ভাবতাম তাঁর 'চামেলী মেলোনা আঁখি' বা 'এমন মধুর ধ্বনি' একেবারে কালজয়ী। আবদুল করিম খাঁ সাহেব বা বড়ে গোলাম আলী খাঁ সাহেব ভারতীয় সঙ্গীতের দুই প্রধান স্তম্ভ। দেখেছি খেয়াল শিক্ষার্থীরাও অনেকে এঁদের নাম ও শোনেনি।
এ দুঃখের আলোচনা দীর্ঘায়িত করতে পারি তবে লাভ নেই তাতে। আমার এ তুচ্ছ জীবনে পরম সান্ত্বনা এঁরাই। শীর্ষেন্দুর বই পড়বে না আমার? কেন লিখব? বীণা সহস্রবুদ্ধে, মালিনী রাজুরকর,কুমার গন্ধর্বের খেয়াল শোনার লোক নেই আমার খেয়াল কে শুনবে?সময় থাকতে বৈজ্ঞানিক গবেষণা করতে পারলে হয়তো মানুষের কাজে লাগত! তুচ্ছ আমি,সুখী আমি! দুঃখের পথে আমার নীরব তূর্য জ‍্যোতির্ময় হতে দেয়নি আমায়! বড় শান্তি, নিবিড় আরাম।

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

NIGHT: “A slim volume of terrifying power”

When the slim volume arrived by courier, I’d been reading other books. I looked at the new arrival, read the blurbs, and smelled it for its deeply sensual pleasure. Then I decided to read a few pages before returning to Barbara Tuchman’s history of the Vietnam War.

I could put down Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT only after reading it completely, every word of it. 

If the lines above gave you the impression it was pleasure reading the 135 pages, you would be grossly mistaken. It was one of the most difficult and disturbing books I’ve ever read. It tells us about the monster that lives within each one of us. It is mind-numbing, and I wouldn’t even try to review it. I am just presenting the basic “storyline”. It will help you understand human nature better.

Eliezer Wiesel’s Jewish family lived happily in the small town of Sighet, Romania. Buffered by Austria and Hungary from Germany, they believed they were safe. Moreover, in the spring of 1944, “there was splendid news from the Russian front. There could no longer be any doubt: Germany would be defeated.” A deeply observant 13-year-old Elie watched elders going about their life, concerned about everything else except “their own fate”.

Their fate was foretold when Budapest radio suddenly announced that the Fascist Party had seized power in Hungary. In less than a week, the German army was in their street. And shortly, the entire Jewish population of the town was moved into and confined in two ghettos. Even then, they believed they would just live there in peace until the Red Army came to free them. “The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion.”

Soon all of them would be packed in closed cattle cars so tightly that they wouldn’t even be able to sit down. They would be transported to Auschwitz death camps, where 90% of the deportees would be murdered on arrival, after being shorn of whatever valuables they had on them, including gold teeth. Most would die in gas chambers. Children would be thrown into a fire-pit.

The healthiest 10% would live on to deliver hard labour on near starvation diet … and die slow, miserable deaths.

As Eliezer’s family entered the camp facing SS men and their guns and clubs, someone commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Just eight words “spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion” decimated a family. And many other families. That was the last time Elie and his father saw his mother and little sister, who – unknown to them – would be killed soon. He would meet his two older sisters after many years at a camp for war orphans.

The real story begins. The Nazis, with their famous eye for details, would have calculated the bare minimum nutrition needed for a person to survive. The prisoners got not a calorie more. Food consisted of watery soup, and bread, that too on good days. They went without any food many a day.

Hygiene was limited to a jar of disinfectants kept at the entrance of every block, with which the men had to soak themselves before having a luxurious shower followed by sleep on tightly packed hard wooden bunks without sheets. They would begin a day of hard labour early next morning.

They would be driven like than animals, but without the faintest trace of compassion that humans have for cattle, besides incessant abuses, threats, blows, lashes, and execution by public hanging for the slightest perceived lapse. (The extra effort was clearly unnecessary as people were shot at the drop of a hat, but I think the SS needed the spectacle to drive in the wedge of terror deeper into the heart of the prisoner.) Nazis had discovered a simple management principle, if you fell at work, you’d be marked for slaughter.

So the men toiled under the shadow of a chimney bellowing smoke a part of which had been living human beings a few hours ago. The men struggled to the limits of endurance literally under the shadow of death. Period.

If you thought things couldn’t be worse. You would be wrong, again. As the front came closer, Nazis decided to relocate the prisoners to another camp, this time, deep within Germany, in Buchenwald.

To the utter misfortune of the prisoners, the winter had set in. All they had for warm clothing were shirts and trousers removed from their dead comrades. Wiesel writes: “We each had put on several garments, one over the other, to better protect ourselves from the cold. Poor clowns, wider than tall, more dead than alive, poor creatures whose deathly faces peeked out from layers of prisoner’s clothes.”

An icy wind was blowing violently that morning. The prisoners were made to run on snow, pushed by gun wielding guards shouting, “Faster, you filthy dogs!” They ran through the day, they ran through the night. Their guards changed shifts when tired, but the prisoners ran on. Anyone falling behind was shot. But it was more for pleasure, because anyone lying on snow under a pitiless winter night sky didn’t have a ghost of a chance to survive in any case.

It is not clear how long the journey went until they are transferred to another cattle-car, this time, without a roof! And as the train trudges on through pouring snow and stops for eternity, the prisoners have nothing to eat or drink, except when curious German onlookers throw a few loaves of bread to the pitiable creatures on board. And as many men fight for the crumbs, people die. Eliezer – he is just 15 – watches a son snatching away bread from his dying father. They old man desperately clings on to his bread and pleads, “Son, you are killing me for a loaf of bread?”

By the time son achieves his goal, father is dead. The living desperately munches the food that might have saved the dead.

On the way, corpses are thrown out casually by men who themselves could have been cast away, dead. A hundred men boarded a wagon with Elie; only 12 get off at Buchenwald, where they would wait for death or liberation.

Some tragedy can only be described only in words, and not by pictures or films. Printed words can expand our horizon in a unique way and help us see the unseen, without which our world view would be much poorer.

Please read this book if you can. And think how well we have been able to deal with the monster that lives within every one of us.

06 September 2017

[Photo of Buchenwald Camp taken five days after its liberation by the Red Army; Elie Wiesel is on the second row from bottom, seventh from left, next to the plank. Courtesy the Wikipedia]

Thursday, 17 August 2017

‘He would never forgive himself if anything happened to her’

On 14 August 2017, New York Times published a few anecdotes by the survivors of the HIndu-Muslim riots 70 years ago, which killed more than two million people, according to the Wikipedia.

The estimate tracked people who left their homes in India and Pakistan, but never reached the other side, and was based on the census figures before and after the Partition. The actual figure would have been much higher. And the tragedies of raped women, broken families, orphaned children would be far beyond the scope of statistics.

I am sharing one of the anecdotes from the NYT written by Sohail Murad. Please read the story, it reinforces our faith in humanity.

"When partition was announced, my father, who worked for the British Indian Government, was posted in Bombay. He was advised that as a Muslim he would have better career opportunities in Pakistan. He was asked to report to offices in Rawalpindi as soon as possible. He left and my mother, Rosy, who was 20, and their six-month-old daughter stayed behind until he could arrange for their accommodation. Because of the chaos he could not come back to get them, so he asked my mother to take a train to Lahore. On the train a Sikh gentleman noticed my mother alone with an infant and asked her where she was going. When she told him Lahore, he was shocked and told her about the massacres that were taking place on trains going to Pakistan — my mother and father hadn’t known.

"He said he was traveling to Amritsar (30 miles from Lahore) but would accompany her to Wagah, a border town between India and Pakistan, because he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her. He told my mother that if anyone asked, she was his daughter. He thought her name, Rosy, was fine since it was secular. But my sister’s name, Shahina, was distinctly Muslim, so if anyone asked her name was Nina. He stayed with them until Wagah and walked with them to the Pakistani border, kissed them both on their foreheads and told them he wished he could take them all the way to Lahore, but he would not make it back alive.

"My sister, who lives in Karachi, is still called Nina by everyone in the family. My mother insisted on that."

16 August 2017

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Thotadhahalli In the Land of Coffee

In a way, the desk that I’m writing on is like a sepia photograph. Made of teak and intricately carved, it can be a hundred years old. It’s five in the morning, dark outside, but the world is far from silent. Sibilant sound of air rustling through thousands of silver oak trees is interspersed with gusts of rain lashing the tiled roof of our cottage. But unlike yesterday, the birds are quiet. Are they too soggy and dispirited after the long night of relentless rains?

Welcome to Thotadhahalli Coffee Estate, a short five-hour drive from Bengaluru, but it’s actually on another planet. Two days ago, on a sudden impulse we drove down to this place, which is 10 kilometres from the coffee capital of the country, Chikmagaluru.

As we left the tarred road that goes to Shimoga at Kaimara, Google Map died peacefully and Mother Nature filled our world completely. Fortunately, there were signposts to tell us that our destination was at the end of the narrow alley covered with black soil.

The bungalow, like the other planter’s bungalows, is large. On one side of the main building is a cemented flat space for drying coffee beans. On the other side are the cottages given as home stay. As we enter, quaint charm of a faraway past greets us.

Around a lush green garden, there are cottages with wide verandas with dark red floor and roofs covered with vermilion Mangalore tiles supported by solid carved rosewood pillars that have the stamp of the refined taste one comes across all along the Malabar Coast, in the Raja Rao country. The cottages and the verandas are strewn with ancient wood carvings, gold-inlayed Tanjore paintings, and artefacts from around the world. And not one of them is kitsch!

If you can turn your eyes off the pieces of art and look at the garden again, you will be greeted by orchids, aerophytes (plants that grow without soil, drawing sustenance from moist air), and bonsai plants, while majestic oaks that provide shade to coffee plants sway in the background.

It is a planter’s home, but it could well have been an artist’s – everything has a touch of class here, including the brass lock on our door which has the head of a soldier stamped on it with the inscription “Field Marshall Sir Thomas Biyami”. When did anyone make such a lock last?

Back to the 21st Century, our hosts Pallavi and Prakash make their guests feel at home, literally. The food offered is refined Coorg fare, and every meal is different from the previous one. While we have food, one of our hosts makes it a point to come and check that everything is fine.

Well, everything is, when old-world charm meets the convenience of modern amenities, with the added blessing of the absence of the TV and the Internet.

Ah! As I come to the end of another page in my diary, birds have just been waking up and filling the sky with warble, and the ground below is taken over by the aroma of the finest Arabica coffee. And the sky is clearing up; it’s time to go for a lazy walk through the coffee estate which has denser foliage than most jungles.

Thotadhahalli / 04 August 2017