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

Friday, 26 December 2008

An Indian traveller in a Connecticut snowstorm

The forecast was categorical. A snowstorm will begin at 9 AM; likely to continue for eight hours; eight to ten inches of snow. Having lived in the tropics all my life, I found the prospect appealing. But like many people born long before the age of satellite imagery and supercomputers, I have an emotional problem about relying on weather forecasts. A wonderful Bengali author, Syed Mujtaba Ali once wrote: “The problem with weather forecasts is that it’s risky to ignore them; and the question of trusting them doesn’t arise!”

The weather forecast is amazingly accurate in the US of A in the twenty-first century. I have been here for over three months now, and I find that the weathermen hit the bull’s eye with metronomic monotony. There are even hourly forecasts for big cities. You can plan your day with precision and can almost set your watch looking at the sky.

So, when there was no sign of snow at nine in the morning, I felt a little cheated. The sky was overcast, but that was about all. Warning about the storm – they call it advisory here – was repeatedly broadcast over radio and TV and schools were given a day off. But otherwise, the day began normally that morning. Not surprising: people here don’t bunk office even for much weightier reasons like the election of Barack Obama.

One of our neighbours, an elderly woman, leaves for office at seven in the morning and returns home by three. As I went out to pick up the newspaper, I saw her going out. Instead of taking the car, she left on foot.

The sky turned dirty grey and snow arrived one hour later than scheduled. Specks of white started coming down from the sky at ten. Soon, rooftops, roads, porches, and patios were covered under a sheet of white. Visibility was low, cars and trucks switched on their fog lamps. Within an hour or so, the tiny specs of snow became heavy white blobs and the white sheet turned into a thick quilt. Snow collected on the leaves of coniferous trees and the denuded branches of other trees. Smaller trees and bushes bore the brunt of the aggression, just as poor people suffer most in times of calamities. The hedges that serve as boundaries between individual compounds were all under inches of snow and were bent down to the ground.

When my wife and I went out to a nearby eatery to have a coffee, we found the place doing business as usual. People drove in, bought their breakfast and left. After exchanging customary pleasantries with us, the girl at the counter said, ‘The roads are treacherous! Take care.’

I told her that the chips they serve is great. She asked me if they make potato chips in India.

We couldn’t but take care. The cold wind was cutting and the ground beneath our feet was treacherous indeed. No one was on the road, but scores of cars went past as usual.

Street lights were turned on as darkness descended by afternoon. The roads were slushy, almost undrivable. Soon, some trucks with snow ploughs arrived like knights in shining armour. They strutted about, pushing snow to the shoulders of the road, even as other vehicles crawled gingerly. Men and women of all ages came out with shovels to clear snow from their driveways.

Our elderly neighbour returned home plodding through knee-deep snow. It was just another day in office for her.

Salman Rushdie wrote, possibly in The Satanic Verses, it is difficult to be an American outside America and be loved. How true. From Hiroshima to Vietnam to Iraq, so many stupid and vicious US governments tried so hard to make Americans unpopular around the world.

But when one is in America, one cannot but respect Americans for some of their qualities. In India, hardworking people are exceptions. Here, they are the rule. And everyone does their work without fuss. Back home in Kolkata, I consider myself lucky if the newspaper is delivered by eight, although the paper is printed ten kilometres away from my house. The place where I stay now is eighty kilometres from New York, but New York Times is delivered at our doorsteps invariably by six thirty in pitch darkness, wrapped in a blue plastic packet. (Two packets when it rains.) On the night after the snowstorm, plough trucks worked through the night to clear the roads completely. No one was stuck in the morning.

Many things about the American society are different from ours. One of them is the respect for physical labour. A plumber or a postman or the men/women who cleared the roads that night enjoy a level of respect that is unthinkable for their counterparts in India. The mammoth that the USA is today did not become a mammoth for nothing. Much sacrifice and persistent hard work over centuries have gone into building this gigantic edifice.

Hard work … that is one trick we have missed.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Friday, 19 December 2008

The first rebel

Radha Ballabh Gope was an activist I met when I was quite young. He was responsible for the first political action of my life at the age of six. Tram and bus fares had just been raised in Calcutta and an agitation was on against the move. One day, I was on a tram with my parents. When the conductor approached my father for tickets, I stood up, clenched my fist, and shouted ‘Baarti bhara dicchina, debona!’ (We won’t pay the enhanced fare, never!)

Radha Ballabh was a thin, dark, elderly man who was always seen in coarse white khadi kurta and pyjama. He was possibly of medium height, but looked shorter as he had a slight stoop. His bald pate and round glasses reminded me of Gandhiji, whose framed autographed photo hung in my father’s study. He called my mother didi, although he was old enough to be her father. Ma called him Ballabhda, and so did we, my sister and me. We knew he was not actually related to ma, and we didn’t know how she came to know him.

Ballabhda came to our house every week. He would deliver a periodical named Ganabarta, the mouthpiece of the RSP – the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The paper consisted of eight pages of convoluted Bengali printed in a primitive letterpress. Its masthead was corrupted by thin irregular white lines; possibly an ancient wooden block was used to print it. No one read Ganabarta in our house, except me. And I too did not understand a word of it primarily because Ballabhda died and the supply of the paper stopped before I was ten. Apart from his connection with the political mouthpiece, my sister and I knew nothing about him. We didn’t know where he lived or what he did for a living. But we loved him all the same, with the kind of unconditional and unquestioned affection that only children are capable of.

Ma would offer Ballabhda tea and snacks. He talked and laughed heartily as he drank tea. Evidently, ma attended to this simple, unassuming man with great respect. When she was not around, my sister and I assumed the host’s role. Never pressed for time, Ballabhda talked at length about why prices went up, why one shouldn’t pay the enhanced tram fares, why the poor people were poor, and how unjust Lord Rama had been towards his wife. He treated us as human beings, not as children. And I found in him a friend who could be trusted. Another thing that set him apart was his lively, childlike laughter. I am yet to meet another grown-up who can laugh as innocently.

We were not rich, but my father somehow found a big house for us. It was in the 1950s, the capricious times not long after the partition of India. Some relatives uprooted from what was then East Pakistan came and stayed with us from time to time. Besides, there were others who drifted around and found temporary shelter in our house, which had the smell of impermanence one comes across in railway waiting rooms. Although we were a family of four, I do not remember a day when there were only four of us around the dining table for supper. All our relatives and visitors treated Ballabhda with a special kind of respect. Even at that age of innocence, I knew that people respected him not for what he had, but because he didn’t have anything.

In those days, money had not become the common currency for all human exchanges. Greed was not the force behind every human endeavour. The roads of the city were much cleaner. Instead of the fumes from motor vehicles, clouds of a vague chemical called idealism used to hang in the air. And people like Ballabhda were perhaps inevitable signatures of the time.

The last time when I saw him, Ballabhda was leading a small procession of about fifty men, protesting against something. It was one of those processions one came across in Calcutta roads every other day. A few days later, we read a four-line obituary in a Bangla daily announcing the death of Radha Ballabh Gope, a former freedom fighter who had spent many years of his life in British jails.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


Diwali offered a long weekend that year. Early in the morning the day before, we boarded the only passenger train that goes from Visag to Kirandul, the centre of the iron ore mines in Bailadila. Some of the loveliest places on the Eastern Ghats are en route: Aruku Valley, Borra Guhalu, Mahendragiri and Semiliguda, which was, perhaps still is the highest broad gauge rail station in India.

Iron ore was discovered in the Bailadila range around the year 1900 by a geologist, P. N. Bose. It took another 55 years and a Japanese to rediscover the deposits for commercial mining. Professor Euemura drew the attention of the Japanese Steel Mills Association to these deposits after studying the old records of the Geological Survey of India. The railway track from Kirandul to Visag was laid in the late 1960s to facilitate export of iron ore to Japan. Mostly goods trains run on the line. The passenger train is a collateral benefit.

As I gazed at an endless train carrying haematite in roofless wagons coming from the opposite direction, I wondered how the Japanese could import ore from such a distant place and manage to sell us back finished steel at a price lower than what it costs in India. But soon, the enormous beauty of the hills drove away economics from my head.

As the train chugged on, the distant misty hills seen on the horizon came closer and Mother Nature revealed herself in all her riveting glory. The hills were densely covered by tall saal and other trees that were perhaps centuries old. The sun rose in the clear November sky and smiled on the lush green forest as we went through scores of tunnels that burrow through the hills. Thin, chiselled tribal men with bundles, and women with children on their backs got on and off the train. Where were they going? What lay at the end of their journey?

We reached Jagdalpur, the district town of Bastar, as the sun was going down. We gave the name of our hotel to a rickshaw puller and asked him how much he would charge. The wiry man looked at the ground and said, ‘Do rupaiah.’

Two rupees was a small amount even in 1986; no self-respecting rickshaw puller anywhere else would take two adults and two children and their luggage for such a pittance. Perhaps this little economic fact (we can’t run away from economics, can we?) indicated the centuries of exploitation that our tribal people have been suffering at the hands of people like yours truly. The adivasis here are poor, even by Indian standards, and marginalized. As late as in 1966, Maharaja Pravir Chandra Bhanj Deo, the erstwhile king of the principality of Bastar revolted against the Union of India for the rights of his tribal subjects. The maharaja was killed by police on 25 March 1966 in his palace. He took in 13 bullets. And “scores, if not hundreds” of tribals got killed trying to defend their former ruler. Even as I write this in 2008, in the adjacent Dantewada district, tribals are being dislodged from their homes by police and a government backed militia called Salwa Julum, so that steel plants by Tatas and Essar can come up there.

A clean and unpolluted small town, Jagdalpur had a few people and vehicles on its dimly lit roads. We had our supper at the hotel’s dining hall in dim light; the voltage was low. The power went off while we were eating.

The next morning we left for the Chitrakoot Waterfall, 38 kilometres away. Our bus went through arid plains with little vegetation and cultivation, and no hills on the horizon. After some time, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. The conductor declared we were in Chitrakoot. We got off, although we knew that we had come to a wrong place. Where was the hill from which water would cascade down?

Besides, there was nothing around to suggest that we were in the vicinity of the biggest waterfall in the country. No restaurants, no shops selling useless “souvenirs”, no tourist taxis, not even a cycle rickshaw. The tourism infrastructure of the place was limited to a ramshackle teashop with bamboo posts and a thatched roof, and a few wooden benches. The establishment was run by a thin, haggard looking Bengali, a former refugee from East Bengal who had been “rehabilitated” in Dandakaranya in early 1950s. ‘You have come to the right place,’ he assured us, ‘Walk a mile that way, you will find the waterfall. It rained last night; you’ll see a lot of water.’

We trudged through the barren plain, with nothing but small shrubs and trees on the distant horizon, but we still couldn’t figure out how that path could possibly take us to a waterfall. Then we heard water roaring at a distance.

Millennia ago, as the river Indravati was meandering along the rocky earth of Dandakaranya, she encountered soft soil at Chitrakoot. The flowing water eroded the soft soil, creating a waterfall. When we reached the river, we found ourselves at the top of the cataract. Water was gushing down hundred metres below, off a semicircular edge. The Chitrakoot waterfall is like her rich North American cousin, the Niagara, although much smaller. But unlike in the Niagara, the place was not burdened with concrete. Nature was at her pristine best.

That was the day of Diwali. Our seven-year-old son was worried that we might not find firecrackers in a remote place like Jagdalpur. But we were surprised to see the range that was available in the local bazaar teeming with holiday shoppers. And sweets were sold by the tonne. Sweetmeat shops had extended themselves halfway into the roads.

Come evening, the sleepy, dimly lit town of the previous day was transformed into a gorgeous theatre of light and sound. The entire population was on roads and it seemed one big family was celebrating Diwali together. Crackers burst, rockets whooshed, Catherine wheels spun thousands of golden suns on the ground ... Late in the evening, when stocks of crackers dwindled, women came out in colourful dresses, young ones in salwar-kameez, and married women with heads covered with the end of their saris. Each one of them carried a plateful of sweets covered under a piece of embroidered cloth for their friends and relatives. We were not left out either. The hotel owner sent us a plateful.

The next morning, we had to catch a bus at five. I left the hotel in total darkness and woke up an adivasi rickshaw puller who was crumpled up like a shrimp in his rickshaw. When I told him that we had to go to the bus stop, he jumped off his rickshaw, wide awake. I told him there were four of us and asked him how much he would charge.

He said, ‘Do rupaiah.’

Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia
Trumbull, Connecticut / 8 December 2008

Friday, 5 December 2008

Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan

A redeeming feature about the terror attack in Mumbai, if there can be one, was the professional competence of the NSG commandos. Not everything is lost. And what was heartwarming was how some ordinary people responded to the crisis with selfless courage, even putting their own lives at risk. I am sure you have read many of these stories, but let me have the honour of mentioning some of these heroes on my blog.

On 30th November, the Times of India reported the story of Vishnu Datta Ram Zende. On 2nd of December, New York Times / International Herald Tribune reported about him and a few others.

Thirty-seven year old Vishnu Datta Ram Zende, a Central Railway employee at Chatrapati Shivaji Terminal, announces arrivals and departures of trains. On 26th November, he heard a loud explosion just before 10 P.M. and saw people running in panic. He gripped a microphone and calmly directed the panicked crowd toward the safest exit. He announced which way they should go, alternately in Marathi and Hindi, “barely stopping to take a breath until the platform was cleared.” The gunmen soon located his announcement booth and fired, but fortunately, Zende was not hurt.

At the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, a chef, Nitin Minocha “was on duty at the Golden Dragon restaurant when gunmen stormed the hotel lobby. He cracked open the door, saw the commotion and promptly closed it. He and his fellow workers escorted diners” into less accessible private club rooms. They hid more than 200 diners there.

“Well before dawn, security officers instructed that guests leave in groups of four. The hotel staff lined up, as though in a chain. Some people got out. Others did not. Bullets suddenly came in a burst. That is when Mr. Minocha was hit twice in the forearm.” During the attack, six employees were killed and another was critically injured.

“At another hotel, the Oberoi, staff members ushered restaurant diners into the kitchen and out the door; at that hotel, 10 employees were among the dead.”

Do you remember the old Mohammed Rafi-Geeta Dutt song, a line from which I have used as the heading of this post? At some point, the song goes like this:
Milta hai yanh sab kuch,
Ek milta nahi dil.
Clearly, the lyricist, S. H. Bihari went overboard there. There is no shortage of empathy in the city of Mumbai.

You can read the entire NYT/IHT report "For heroes in Mumbai, Terror was a call to action" if you click on this link.

And here is the story on Vishnu Datta Ram Zende in the Times of India.

Trumbull, Connecticut / 4 December 2008

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Terror in Mumbai

The first time when I couldn’t sleep for something that didn’t concern me personally was in the night of 14 March 2007, after the carnage in Nandigram. … How could an elected government, which was supposed to protect ordinary people, kill, maim and rape them in a pre-planned, systematic manner?

A few days ago, as the horrors of the Mumbai terror attack sank in, I couldn’t sleep. On the night of 26/27 November, ten young men armed with modern killing devices attacked the populace of this wonderful city, killed 175 people, and injured 295. And the death toll will rise. But numbers reveal little. They don’t tell us about the emptiness of an orphaned child, the vulnerability of a widowed woman, or an old man who has lost his only son.

The most graphic description of the terror that I have read so far is from a private source. A friend from Mumbai forwarded an email from someone working in the Times of India Building:
“It's not every day that you hear gunshots and grenades going off outside your office at 10 PM. It was a scene straight out of a disaster flick … hordes of people running for their lives … some crawling on the road. Piqued curiosity takes me to the windows facing CST (Chhatrapati Sivaji Terminal) … as I pull the blinds away, I see two boys with black backpacks ... walking down the deserted station as if on a stroll in a park … before my numb nerve-endings could react to the sight, the kids turn to us … and open fire … sparks flying off their guns … the cold arrogant sense of victory in their walk will remain etched on my mind forever …

“5 hours later, I was standing under the same metal-detector that the boys were standing under … the deathly silence that had descended upon the building bore testimony to the massacre … so many lives changed irrevocably … mine is too perhaps, as the train dopplered away from CST, I thanked god … I was alive.”

The carnage was the latest one in a long series of insane acts. According to Los Angeles Times, "2,300 people died in 2007 in attacks by various groups in India, making it perhaps the country most affected by terrorism in the world." After every attack, the Press conducts autopsies. From what has been unearthed so far, the incompetence of some government agencies is as shocking as the cockiness of the terrorists. Can it be true that a government that can send a probe to the moon can’t find guns with telescopic sights for the anti-terror policemen in Mumbai?

I wish after every terrorist attack, the Press also asked how many innocents have been arrested and tortured by police. Besides our duty to preserve human dignity, these boys will have a good reason to become real terrorists in future.

But should we ask questions related to the security apparatus alone?

In Nandigram, the criminals were identifiable. But it is not so in terror attacks. They operate at three levels: the masterminds, who are virtually unknowable, the foot soldiers, who pull the trigger, detonate the bombs, and the people who offer them shelter. The home-grown terrorists are mostly disaffected young men from underprivileged sections, with no job, nothing to look forward to. As Barack Obama writes in his inimitable prose:
“I know, I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way it does the lives of children on Chicago’s South Side, how narrow the path is for them between humiliation and untrammelled fury, how easily they slip into violence and despair.”

It is precisely this powerless young who is a prime potential recruit of terror groups. Can we do something about him? Our caste-based reservation system has two serious flaws: (a) it leaves out many groups who deserve the support and (b) it ignores the family income of the potential beneficiary. We must demand that the government replaces this system with real affirmative action for all underprivileged people. It won’t be easy, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be tried.

Individually, we can do very little, but very little is better than nothing. Can those of us who can, help one such person, bring one of them from the brink of an abyss, and offer him or her an opportunity of a respectable life? If I am not capable of doing so alone, can I join together with a few friends and do so?

A friend and his wife have been supporting the higher education of a student, who they didn’t even know. These days, if you throw a stone in a Bangalore or Hyderabad mall, it will hit someone who earns over 50 thousand a month. How many of them help the underprivileged? Long ago, I read in Hindustan Times that Mr. Nandan Nilekani, the Infosys CEO, sets aside a fixed amount every month for charity. How many of his colleagues follow his example?

Another thing that we ought to do is to cleanse ourselves of prejudice. Let not the word “Muslim” precede “terrorist” every time non-Muslims use the term. A terrorist belongs to only one community. The colonel and the fake sadhu, who finance bombing mosques, are brothers of the terror masterminds who reportedly live in plush bungalows in Karachi. And let’s call the men who burn Christian homes in Orissa, terrorists too. Let’s hope the law catches up with them just as it catches up with the accomplices and the brains behind the mass killers of Mumbai.

Trumbull, Connecticut
Monday, 01 December 2008

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

A birthday as a birthday gift

When I met Manjari Fadnis last month, her first film had just been released. Manjari is a budding heroine who has been fighting it out in the cut-throat world of Bollywood.

Budding or fully budded, I should normally have nothing to do with a film actress, being the humble teacher that I am. But as you read on, you’ll see that this is an exceptional case. Every human being is related to everyone else in the world as they all dry their clothes in the same sun. But Manjari and I have a more intimate kinship. Firstly, she is the next-door neighbour of my friend Animesh in Mumbai; secondly and more importantly, she and my friend are served by the same domestic help. My friend took Subhadra, an orphan girl from Kolkata to Mumbai to look after his ailing mother. Subhadra also works part-time at Manjari’s house.

Recently, I spent three weeks at my friend’s place and Subhadra took good care of me. And didn’t she impress me by talking about her heroine didi? In fact, she wouldn’t let go one opportunity to mention Manjari didi: You like fruits? Didi too likes them. … You have a dog? She too has one. …But she’d be angry if you called her dog a dog. She says the pup is her daughter. …

Khuswant Singh once wrote: “I pity those who don’t know what pet love is.” (Or words to that effect.) I agree. I have also noticed that animal lovers are by and large nice fellas, although I am not sure why. I must quickly add that I’ve also met some lovable blokes who hate animals, particularly dogs. Humans are too complex a creature to fit into a stereotype, but it’s a fact that when you love your pet, you do so without expecting anything in return. (That pets give back much more than what you give them is a different matter.) Without getting into a controversy, one can say that if a girl seriously treats her pup as her daughter, she is likely to be tender and compassionate, and perhaps have a few bees in her bonnet. My friend’s wife Munmun told me a story that confirmed the first part of this sentence.

Once, Manjari asked Munmun, ‘When is Subhadra’s birthday?’

As Munmun didn’t know, Manjari said, ‘Please find out and tell me, but don’t tell Subhadra. I want to give her a surprise.’

The next day, Munmun told her neighbour that Subhadra’s birth hadn’t been recorded. She herself didn't know when she had been born.

Manjari was more surprised than disappointed. Possibly she was not familiar with a world in which human identity was so insignificant that one didn’t even have a birthday. But she couldn’t be put down by such technical problems. She said, ‘Would you mind if I gave Subhadra a birthday? … Let’s select a good day for her birthday …. Let’s make it the 14th of February.’

On that somewhat incongruous day of romantic love, when millions of dreams were realized and shattered in university campuses and elsewhere, Manjari invited Munmun for the first birthday of a girl without a past who was around twenty. She sang ‘Happy birthday …’ made Subhadra blow out candles and cut a cake, and gave her a teddy bear.

I met Manjari once on a Sunday morning, when she walked in to leave her fawn Labrador puppy with us for a wile. As I took the pup from her hands, I thought her face was as beautiful as her mind and I silently wished her well. I wished she becomes the Madhubala or Madhuri Dixit of the future. And I secretly hoped that when I had grandchildren, I’d be able to tell them that once I played with the screen diva’s dog!

Kolkata, 10 December, 2007

[I thank Ms. Manjari Fadnis for allowing me to use her name and photograph.]

Thursday, 20 November 2008

A note to myself

Do everything at a fast pace,
But don’t rush, nothing is worth rushing for.
Walk as briskly as your legs can take you,
But let your mind ponder
Over things that matter, and things that don’t.
Be as free as the wind
That blows over a rippling field of golden harvest,
And as bound as the mountain
That’s seen the rise and fall of many a kingdom.
Be strong as tempest
And gentle as a swaying blade of tender grass.
Try to help people.
Even if you don’t, the world will be fine.
But forget not this simple truth:
In the end, history won’t forgive
One who hurts an innocent.

20 November 2008

Thursday, 13 November 2008

The first cold-wave death of the winter?

Although Death speaks to everyone in the same language, we fabricate widely divergent meanings out of that immutable statement. As a matter of fact, we invariably fancy our chances as philosophers while discussing death. The resident mason of our project, Rasheed, is no exception to this rule. Normally a rugged brick and mortar fellow, he became a little emotional when I enquired about his house. ‘Saab, we live in mud huts. And when our time’s up, we shift from one mud house to another; the change doesn’t hurt. Bus!’ Obviously, for Rasheed, the builder of many a mansion in his lifetime, living in a mud hut rankles.

The NGO project we work in is in Jharkhand now, but till the other day, 14 November 2000 to be precise, it was a part of Bihar. It is in the middle of nowhere, a few kilometres from a tiny desolate railway station through which a solitary passenger train shuttles a few times every day. The place is thinly populated and totally unspoilt by civilization, except for transistor radios, the rail track, and that ultimate symbol of progress, coca cola. Incidentally, the teashop where we often have our evening cuppa has a red coca cola fridge with a transparent door. It serves as a cupboard as there is no electricity.

The area is blessed with an excess of natural beauty. A two-mile walk from our project site to the rail station in a moonlit evening is perhaps one of the most fascinating walks you could ever take. It is a gravelled path with vast, undulating fields on either side dotted with occasional shrubs and acacia and saal trees. Tiny dots of lights from distant shops vie with fireflies for attention. On evenings when the wind blows in the right direction, one can hear the soft sound of water flowing in an unseen, imaginary river.

A few weeks ago, during one of our mandatory evening-walks, we came across an old woman who had almost shifted her residence rather abruptly. Although we were still in November, the cold was rather fierce. The radio bulletins spoke of snow in Kashmir and a cold wave in the rest of North India. But for us, the news of the cold wave was superfluous; the sharp nip in the air cut through the sweaters and shawls that swathed us. The early untimely chill kept people tucked in their houses. When a train arrived, it would disgorge a few souls onto the road, but otherwise, the road was deserted. Only the sibilant sound of a lonely cycle passing on the gravelled path occasionally broke the absolute stillness of the evening. That was how it usually was, but that evening, we were surprised to find a small group of excited people standing around a fire beside the road. Despite the cold, the children were almost naked, and as usual, they outnumbered the adults by a handsome margin.

An ancient woman was at the centre of the commotion. She was thin, wrinkled all over and seemed to have shrunk due to the cold, old age and malnutrition. A reincarnation of Indir Thakrun of Pather Panchali, she was wet from head to toe and that was the reason for the commotion. She had tried to kill herself by jumping into a nearby pond, stark naked. Rescued by a passer-by and covered with a dhoti, presently, she was being dried and warmed up in the fire made of hay and twigs. While she impassively accepted the unfamiliar attention that was being showered upon her, about a score of men, women and kids standing around her animatedly discussed her destiny.

She spoke incoherently in the local dialect, Khotta, and didn’t understand a word of Hindi. But even when spoken to in her own language, she understood very little and hardly responded. Chaman Lal asked her name. No reply. What was the name of her village? An indistinct mumble that didn’t match the name of any nearby village … Did she have any relative here? Once again, a vague answer, which meant nothing, or perhaps, meant a lot. Looked like it was a case of dementia, or perhaps she had suffered a cerebral stroke. During the conversation, she made a few attempts to stand up, but her legs were too feeble for the task.

Apparently, her relatives had had enough of her, and thrown her out. The people around her vociferously condemned the raw deal meted out to her, and made it a mission to save her life. My colleagues and me wondered when she had had her last meal, an issue that did not unduly bother her poor saviours. As we offered her a ten-rupee note, it was intercepted by a man who almost snatched it from my hand and volunteered to buy food for the unfortunate woman. The Good Samaritan returned after a while, smugly smoking an incongruous cigarette in this land of bidis. He brought a packet of mudi and chhole worth about five rupees. I could not help reflecting that the cost of delivery of our humble charity was more or less the same as what donors of charities incur the world over. Being employees of an NGO, we had firsthand knowledge of the fact!

(Charitable people of the world, beware! If this piece ever reaches you – it would be uncharitable of me to presume otherwise – think twice before you put your hard-earned money in the offertory box of a Good Samaritan. Perhaps he needs a cigarette badly. And a few other good things of life!)

Messengers had been despatched to nearby tolas where the woman might have had relatives. A few of them returned with more onlookers in tow, but no useful information. After much deliberation, the little congregation decided that for that night, the woman would be sheltered in the veranda of the chamber of the doctor with dubious degrees. Harvesting had just been over and hay was available in plenty. As we left, we made peace with our conscience hoping that the woman would sleep under a blanket of hay and at least have a thatched roof over her head for the night.


The next evening, we enquired after the old woman. She had been packed off to her village, the name of which she could not remember, by the last train that left our station after ten in the night. It was perhaps a matter of minor detail that in that night of her journey to nowhere, the cold was freezing, and the old woman had only a dhoti on her slender, emaciated body.

[This true story (names changed) was written on 14 December, 2000 and published in WordPlus, a literary magazine. A Malayalam translation done by my friend K T Rajagopalan was carried in Matrubhumi.]

Friday, 31 October 2008

Work culture in West Bengal, a historical view

Much has been said about the work culture or the lack of it in West Bengal. A common refrain is that the decline started when the communists came to plenipotentiary power in the state in 1977. Is the statement true? Please read this anecdote and find out for yourself.

I was about ten years then, it was in the early sixties. One day, my father sent me to his bank to cash a cheque, which was a familiar errand for me. As I studied at a morning school, I would come home at 11 and after that, attend to my duties like going to the bank and the post office.

Banks were well fortified those days, although the moat was missing. A four feet high solid wooden partition separated the front of the banking hall from the rest of it. Above the partition, a heavy wire mesh screen went right up to the ceiling. Customers were confined to the front part, while the bank staff sat within the big cage. It was not possible for an outsider to enter the area reserved for the employees. Inside, a counter ran along the length of the partition at which the clerks sat. Cheques and tokens used to change hands through small holes on the wire mesh. No one had heard of a teller then. One would deposit a cheque and collect a metal token in the morning and come back leisurely in the afternoon to get the cash. Life moved at a gentle pace.

I guess I was only four feet and a few inches then, because I could barely see through the wire mesh above the partition. I could see what was happening away form the partition, but could not see the desk right below, where the counter clerk sat; I could only see his head.

On that particular day, my school ended early and I reached the bank earlier than my normal hours, at quarter past ten. Although the office was scheduled to open at 10, I saw no head at the “current account” counter. There were not many customers either. I waited patiently for the clerk to arrive. But although quite some time passed, no one came. Gradually, transactions started to pick up at the other counters; some customers came and left, but there was no one to accept my cheque.

At length, I peeped through the wire mesh and tried to attract the attention of an officer who was some distance away. But he was too preoccupied to notice a small boy fidgeting on the other side of the partition. So I stood on my toes and looked around to talk to someone else. And what do I see? Right below my nose, the clerk manning the counter is fast asleep, resting his peaceful head on the desk!

(Words – 488)

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Seeing the unseen

Last night, I drifted into sleep as I was reading an article on Attention Deficient Hyper-activity Syndrome or ADHS, a condition characterized by activity without thoughts, thoughts without focus and an overpowering lack of concentration.

In the 21st century, a good number of children suffer from this condition, as do many adults. People afflicted with ADHS run around for what they know not and fritter away time in purposeless activities.

Perhaps our perpetual rush to nowhere is a reflection of our present lifestyle, where we no longer enjoy the wonders of a journey as our eyes are permanently fixed at the speedometer.

This morning, I got up early; darkness had just begun to lighten and the indistinct contours of the buildings-trees-antennas-water tanks were still a vague lump languidly preparing to assert their individual forms.

Crows hadn't begun to caw, the first tram hadn't started its metallic journey, the milk vendor's cycle was still chained and the newspaper boys were turning uneasily in their sleep, subliminally aware that good times would soon be over. The city slept peacefully under a transparent mist of silence.

The world looked sombre. Even my boisterous dog looked solemn as he lay at my feet wordlessly reminding me about the morning walk. I sat at my writing desk and watched the colours of darkness, which were no less eloquent than the colours of daylight. A passionate gust of wind caressed my face. In the same wind, faraway, a kite dived down with quaint grace beside a factory chimney. Its wings were distinct but dark; they were yet to catch the first burst of sunlight. Kites are faraway creatures, seldom are they seen in close quarters; they never deign to nest in your garden, nor do they ever grace your windowsills. Perhaps this goes to show that they have an intelligent mind. Those who shun the human race ought to be sensible beings. As someone said, existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is proved by the fact that they don't try to contact us.

Kites don't wing their way through the sky. They glide across the grey canvas with effortless, unhurried, majestic ease. Not for them is the busy fluttering of wings like the lesser birds. They have quietly discarded the city below suffering from ADHS, and are flying away to the quiet splendour of a Jibanananda Das poem.

Am I too suffering from ADHS? When did I observe a kite last?

Words: 407

Monday, 30 June 2008

Never wish me long life

Where no physical violence is involved, I am a reasonably brave man. I routinely rush in where angels fear to tread. Yet my brave soul feels shaky if I have to call a friend suddenly or telephone an aunt.

The reason? More likely than not, I’d be greeted with a ‘You’ll live a hundred years, I was just thinking of you’, or ‘You’d live a hundred years. We were just talking about you’.

Have you ever thought how often someone thinks of you just when you had to do something with the same someone? Can such preponderance of mutual recollections be mere coincidences? Can such things be explained “scientifically” by the theories of probability or randomness? I believe no. Statistics is beyond my ken, but I know that our mighty science knows little about the human mind. I tend to think our mind has a sensor unknown to scientists. It gives us a nudge when a friend is just outside the door, and is about to press the bell. Or when my daughter at the other end of the country picks up the phone to call me ….

So far so good. To hear that someone thinks of me, that I have a room in someone’s mind, gives me a sense of belonging and warmth. But the hundred year bit? My god, living a hundred years!

Nair-da is a Malayali settled in Calcutta who speaks a beautiful flowery Bengali with a thick Malayalam accent. When I met him last, Nair-da, an archetypal bachelor and non-conformist, used to live in what could be described as the untidiest flat in Calcutta, surrounded by books, cigarette butts and unwashed tea cups. It was a house of openness and chaos, where nothing was swept under the carpet, literally and metaphorically. Needless to say, Nair da loved his Charminars and almost lived on them. I once ventured to lecture him on the evils of smoking and asked him to give it up.

He said, innocently: ‘Give me one good reason, and I will.’

‘You’d live longer,’ and I was trapped. Nair da shot back in his flamboyant Bengali, ‘Preposterous! For living this appalling, wretched, meaningless life longer, you suggest that I give up the only pleasure of living!’

I agree. I have not advised anyone to give up smoking ever since. ‘Live a hundred years’ could be the worst curse you could bestow upon me or anyone. Live hundred years, with friends dead and family drifted away, live in the company of cats and constipation, loneliness and Alzheimer’s. No, please don’t. If you are a friend reading this piece, never wish me long life. If you, dear reader, are a beautiful woman, ("Could I be so unfortunate that there would be none?"), smile your charming smile at these lines. I will trade my long life just for your smile.

The western world and Japan are groaning under the weight of an ageing society. Days are not far off when every working Japanese will have to support three old people besides their own family. We Indians need not worry on that score. We offer no social security to the old. We just let them decay and die.

‘Inqilab Zindabad!’, ‘Viva la revolution!’, ‘Long Live the Revolution!’ Twentieth century’s attempt to redraw the map of human evolution ended before evolutionary history could bat an eyelid. The Russian Revolution died at a young age of 76. China took less time to desert the god that failed. Another rebellion ended abruptly in the killing fields of Kampuchea, with a fifth of the country’s population dead. Perhaps these happened as the revolutionaries were more concerned with the longevity of the revolution, and not its quality.

On my tenth birthday, my dad gave me a book, on the first page of which he wrote: Dear Son, Live well, Live long.

Baba was one of those millions whose world had been shattered by the partition of India. Before that he had had the taste of a tough childhood after losing his father early. After the partition, he started from scratch all over again and had to fight a grim battle all his life. Thanks to an unbending faith in Gandhiji, he had an inflexible conscience and refused to make even the tiniest compromise. In the process, he had his moments of joy, but also suffered terrible failures and indignities. It was hardly surprising that he knew living well comes before living long. … In the end he managed to renounce everything except cigarettes and khadi, left home and died fighting fit, a smoker and hermit, long before Alzheimer’s could catch up with him.

The Russian revolution did die, but ideas don’t. Equality of all is a fascinating concept the time of which may not have arrived, but all the same, it is a concept that cannot be wished away by supply side economists, high priests of “winner takes all” and a greedy civilization that guzzles down natural resources at an alarming speed. My father is no more, the book he gave me has been lost to the tides of time, but I haven’t forgotten his words.

Next time when you are thinking of someone and they happen to ring up, please say: “I was just thinking of you. You’ll live a great life.”

Friday, 30 May 2008

Will the real Velayudhan Nair please stand up?

We, the officers of a public sector bank in the seventies, were a bunch of permanently displaced people. The bank would relocate us on an average every one and a half years. What was achieved by destabilising people so often – except helping out the railways and other transporters – was a closely guarded secret. Personally, it entailed a few hassles for us, the worst of which was finding a house every time we moved into a new place. The predicament was more complex for the bachelors of our lot. Prospective landlords firmly believed that every bachelor living on his own was a philanderer and possibly suffering from unmentionable diseases. Naturally, they had to be shunned. Some of us had to tie the knot prematurely and sacrifice our much-cherished freedom only to prove to the community of landlords that we too were respectable citizens of a free country.

One Sunday morning, my friend Damu, who had just been transferred to our city, and I got the information that one Velayudhan Nair, a retired Govt High School teacher had a house to let. If the description of the gentleman was sketchy, the address we had was more so. It was “Jagathy”, period. But being seasoned house-hunters, we decided to track down the said VN with the spirit of a real hunter.

In the late seventies, the populace of Thiruvananthapuram was as much familiar with multi-storeyed buildings as say, with the Parthenon of Athens. The city had beautiful small bungalows. Luckily, we found Mr Velayudhan Nair in the first house that we knocked at; he ushered us in. But soon, it was clear he was not the one we were looking for. He said, “Retired teacher? Then you must be looking for my brother-in-law. He too is Velayudhan Nair. His address is …”

The next VN had been a teacher all right, but not in a government school. More importantly, his only house was already too cramped and he was planning to construct another floor.

Slightly downbeat, but still persevering, we finally got Velayudhan Nair’s address at a local teashop. A senior citizen, he was tending his garden, with a Doberman in attendance. We mustered courage to open the gate, and walked in. After introducing ourselves as bank officers, we explained the purpose of our visit. The grizzled old man didn’t quite like the intrusion. He looked up from his adolescent crotons and said in a caustic voice, “You are bank officers, yet so careless! Why disturb me when you’re looking for somebody else? Which bank do you work in?”

The dog looked at us more sternly than his master. When we gave the name of our bank, he (the master, not the dog) said, “Thank God, I don’t draw my pension from your bank.”

As we silently thanked him for doing us the favour, He talked eloquently about the terrible state of public sector banks in the country. He was evidently pleased to find the two persons responsible for the mess, standing right before him, heads hung in shame. After half an hour, he decided to parole us, but not before saying, “Please give me your names, I must write to your managing director.”

Damu: “Sir, I am V Sreeram and he is Mr K C Peter” and we left quickly. The gentlemen who answered to these exalted names were the MD himself and his deputy.

We were delighted when the next Velayudhan Nair we met said that although he had never taught anywhere, he had a house at Sasthamangalam to be rented out. Prima facie, the building fitted the bill; and the rent was affordable. We were convinced that this particular Velayudhan Nair was an angel as he didn’t even quiz us on our marital status.

My friend Damu was a handsome young man then. He was, and still is, a perfect gentleman and an almost perfect Malayali. The modifier “almost” is necessary here as you can’t call a Malayali male who doesn’t sport whiskers, a perfect Malayali. (The accepted norm those days was a pencil line moustache; Mr Mohanlal was only a rising star then.) Velayudhan Nair seemed to have taken an instant liking for Damodar Menon.

At this point, a girl around twenty, tall, petite and pretty, breezed in, saying, “Achchan! …”. Seeing us, she stopped, blushed and breezed out, much to our disappointment. Her father said, “It’s more or less fixed then, let me get the car keys, I’ll show you the house straightaway.”

I thought it would be better if Nandini, Damu’s wife, saw the place, and interjected, “Sir, wouldn’t it be better if Mrs Menon also saw the house?”

“Mrs Menon?”

“Mrs Menon,” pointing at Damu, I said, “his wife.”

I thought Velayudhan Nair had a sudden bout of colic pain. Nothing else could explain why he turned so visibly pale. At length, he turned his gaze towards Damu and asked through his suffering, “Are you married, Mr Menon?”

“Yes,” Damu said most apologetically, “last month …”

“Please leave your phone number. You needn’t call, I’ll call you.”

I felt sorry for my friend. As we came out, I told him, he seemed destined to receive the rough end of the stick both as a bachelor and as a married man. My dejected buddy replied, “Can’t agree with you more. I’ve a rotten luck. Had I been a sailor, I would have had a mother-in-law in every port.”

Incidentally, the owner of my Cotton Hill residence was a VN, and so was the stenographer of our office. Incidentally, both were straight and nice persons. Although our mission failed that morning, we discovered an important truth: Thiruvananthapuram was teeming with Velayudhan Nairs. And although Kerala was to soon reach negative population growth, the parents of Velayudhan Nairs evidently didn't think they should deny the world of more Velayudhan Nairs. May their tribe prosper.

Kolkata, 13 August 2003

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The living ghost

When I was a little boy, an artist friend of my dad told me, ‘If you haven’t seen Birbhum, you haven’t seen Bengal.’ I realised how true the statement was when I landed a job in a rural school in Birbhum soon after graduation. Far from the madding crowds of the city of dystopia called Calcutta, it was a place where the river Kopai meandered unhurriedly through swaying fields of golden harvest. And miles of red gravelled earth dotted with palm trees stretched to the end of the world. The sky seemed much larger to someone who had lived in a city all along. And at night, instead of the dull grey, the black firmament opened a window to a different universe with countless dazzling stars split in two parts by the majestic Milky Way. My students, most of whom came to school barefoot, were refreshingly simple. A good place to be in, but it was not without downsides.

For one thing, daily newspapers reached the place only in the evening. Consequently, the mornings were uneasy and tense. But a far more serious problem was to find a roof over my head. There were no takers for houses on rent, and the concept of renting out houses was as alien to the people as air-conditioning would be to the people of Greenland. A post office and a police outpost were the only offices in the area – there was not even a bank – and our school was the only institution. Most of my colleagues were locals, although a few teachers used to commute from a nearby town by rickety public buses that carried passengers both within and on their roofs. One of them was Ajay babu, who insisted that I stay in the town. But small towns with their open drains and closed societies didn’t seem too appealing. I would rather be a village bumpkin and live in a countryside that came alive through the pen of Tarashankar Bandopadhyaya.

The secretary of the school committee, a wholesale trader of husk and jaggery, kindly offered me temporary shelter in his house. After overstaying his hospitality for some time, I got the information that a place was available on rent.

The house was at one end of the village, with hardly any other dwelling nearby. From the main entrance, I saw a lovely little two storied structure with a projected balcony, and I immediately fell in love with the place. Surrounded by a garden and shaded by leafy jackfruit, mango and neem trees, the small house had been constructed years ago by the local zamindar’s youngest brother, the architecture bearing a clear imprint of his avant-garde tastes. By and by, I came to know that Chhoto Babu (the youngest scion), was extraordinary not only in his architectural tastes. He was a bachelor and by far the most highly qualified person around. People still remembered him with affection as a simple upright man. He did not have any regular work, but was a great source of encouragement for the local youth, who he encouraged to go for higher studies. He offered them, what is nowadays known as career counselling, for free. Thanks to his guidance, a number of boys from the area became state civil service officers, railway engine drivers etc, careers about which village boys had hardly any idea those days. A quiet person, he spent most of the time reading. Every evening, Chhoto Babu was seen sitting in the first floor balcony attached to his bedroom, reading newspaper and drinking tea from a large brass tumbler.

The building was abandoned about five years before, after Chhoto Babu had hanged himself in his bedroom. It is possible that education did him in. If instead of living an altruistic life, he had – like many other junior scions of wealthy rural families – indulged in wine and women, possibly he wouldn’t have died at the age of forty.

That evening, as I was sipping my evening tea in a local teashop furnished with high benches and low benches, its owner, Mohan warned me, ‘Master Moshai, are you moving into that house?’

‘Yes, I might.’

‘Please don’t. Chhoto Babu’, Mohan said after quickly touching his forehead with both hands, ‘is still there. Many villagers have seen him in the balcony after dusk.’

‘Well, ghosts are indeed seen after dusk.’

My crude description of a respected soul was greeted with a cold stare and precise and detailed description of the apparition that lived in the abandoned house. And although I made light of Mohan’s and many others’ warnings, deep within, I was scared. The house was indeed beautiful, but after considering everything, I would have wriggled out of the deal if I could. But unfortunately, by then, I had occasions to lecture my students and colleagues about social evils like superstition and why we should look at life rationally. Not taking a lovely house offered for a song because of the fear of a ghost, that too of a man who had been absolutely harmless in his corporeal life, would have utterly destroyed my standing in society! Therefore, I had to accept the offer.

The house hadn’t been used in a long time and needed some repair and a coat of paint. The masons employed for the job wouldn’t work after four in the afternoon. Needless to state, that didn’t lift my spirits! Anyway, when the house was ready, I moved into my new abode with uncertainly and trepidation.

As I sat alone in the balcony with a newspaper and watched the sun going down across a vast expanse of open space behind a tranquil river flowing into eternity, all my fears were gone. Nothing unholy could happen in such a serene place, I assured myself. Darkness descended silently as I read the paper in the shaft of dim light that came out of the bedroom. Soon, sleep got the better of me.

At this point of my narrative, Dear Reader, I’ll have to disappoint you. I slept like a log through the night. No footsteps were heard from the terrace, candles were not snuffed out by sudden gusts of wind, the windows did not close and open on their own, the cracked mirror in my bedroom refused to join up and show me the reflection of a tall gaunt man in pyjamas. Even the village mongrels didn’t bark. The night passed off in a dull, prosaic manner and the morning found me as alive and happy as the chirping birds.

Ajay babu had been vociferous against the idea of taking a ‘haunted house’ on rent, and to avoid another pointless argument, I hadn’t told him that I was actually moving in there. So the next morning, when I met him on the way to school, I was anxious to tell him that the haunted house was actually quite harmless, and win a few brownie points. But Ajay babu seemed edgy and agitated. Before I could say anything, he almost shouted at me, ‘Have you heard?’

‘Heard what?’

‘The sub-inspector of our thana, Madhab Das is in hospital.’

Police sub-inspectors are durable specimens of human beings. They are not expected to be in hospital unless …. I guessed the poor fellow might have come in contact with a particularly nasty ruffian. So I asked, ‘Was there any robbery last night?’

‘Arre nah! Madhab Das was returning home last night at about 10 o’ clock, on his bicycle. On the way, he was crossing the house that you, in your infinite wisdom, have decided to move into. And what did he see? Chhoto Babu was sitting in the balcony, reading a newspaper! Although it was dark, he could be seen clearly. It was Madhab Das who had brought down Chhoto babu’s body hanging from the ceiling. Naturally, he couldn’t take it. After going a short distance, he fell off the bike, unconscious, and fractured an arm. He’s still delirious.’

A cold shiver went down my spine. I was sure I had gone to bed long before ten. Who did the policeman see? Could it be …?