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

Friday, 30 January 2009

The valley of fear

As the local train chugged out of Asansol station, the soft light of the winter afternoon flooded in. We were in a chair-car, with rows of seats facing each other, and an aisle running through the middle of the coach. The train was crowded, four people had squeezed in rows meant for three. We, Bengalis, love adda more than Omar Khayyam loved wine and women. Our group of eight perfect strangers soon started chatting, with the people standing on the aisle chipping in from time to time.

The amiable young man in a checked jacket sitting by the window was a school teacher. He enquired about connecting trains, ‘Do you think I can catch the 9.30 local to Canning from Sealdah? If I miss it, the last train is at 11.20.’

We didn’t miss the touch of nervousness in his voice. A student sitting in front of us said, ‘Going to Canning at such an hour?’

‘No, actually, to the previous station, Taldi. From there, I have to walk half an hour to reach my home.’

‘Wouldn’t it be risky? I mean’, the boy said, ‘going by what one reads about Canning and the places around it, don’t you run the risk of being robbed at that hour?’

The son of Canning smiled, ‘I know, it’s rather dicey. If I am lucky, I’ll come across a vigilante group before I meet the friends; in that case, the vigilante fellows will take me home.’

The strange use of the word “friends” confused me; he used the exact synonym in Bengali. But the other passengers got the drift. The student asked, ‘And if you meet the friends earlier?’

‘Well, if I happen to meet them first, I’ll reach home in my underpants.’

‘And you’d catch a cold in this weather’, quipped a man, who, we had found out, worked in a steel plant.

‘But should you take a chance in that case?’ enquired a senior citizen, sitting between the teacher and me.

The teacher responded philosophically, ‘Well, sooner of later, your turn comes. It doesn’t matter if it’s today or tomorrow.’ Then, as if to demonstrate the practical side of his mind, he added, ‘It’s twenty-third today, so there isn’t much risk. But if it were the first, when people go home with pay-packets, I could bet my shirt on being robbed on the way.’

The student: ‘Can’t you stay back and catch the first train tomorrow morning? It would be good if your name is on newspapers, but what’s the point if you can’t read it?’

‘No they don’t kill, usually. After all, they know us. Take for example Rahamat’s gang. Rahamat was my classmate. He was the centre forward and I was the outside-left in the school team. He scored many goals off my centres. Would he kill me just like that?’

We couldn’t refute such an irrefutable argument. But you would find Doubting Thomases everywhere. One such asked from the aisle, ‘Aren’t they scared that you might recognize them?'

‘Oh! You have to follow certain basic rules. You are not supposed to look at them. If you recognize them and try to exchange pleasantries, you are dead. So, you turn your head and pretend that you didn’t see them. After all, it’s your money they are after.’

After a brief pause, the teacher continued, ‘If you have a gun in your house, you run an unnecessary risk. Guns are in big demand. Our neighbour had a licensed gun. One day, some friends came in, faces covered. They called the eldest son of the house by his name. That family runs a business of poultry at their house. Salamat was playing cards; he opened the door expecting a customer. They put a shutter on his head and beat him black and blue. They took the gun away, and whatever gold and cash they could lay their hands on.

‘After some time, one of the friends walked in, his face uncovered now, and innocently inquired about the stolen goods. He was doing an audit; he came in to check if a part of the booty had been pilfered by a deviant gang member.’

The discerning reader wouldn’t have missed the peculiar use of the word shutter here. It is amazing how a respectable English word becomes part of the slang in another language. The shutter, meaning pistol or handgun, an instrument of death. My Oxford dictionary says it’s “a device that opens to allow light to pass through the lens of a camera”. The recent adaptation of the word in South Bengal stands for a device that opens to allow darkness to pass through its nozzle. But semantics apart, what surprised us most was the cool with which the teacher narrated the incident! It was as if he was talking of some real friends who had come in for dinner.

‘What was your vigilante group doing?’

‘The vigilante group operates from nine in the evening. This took place at seven.’ Then he lowered the voice, although he didn’t run the risk of being overheard by the thugs, ‘Some of the friends are members of the vigilante party too!’

‘You mean to say, everyone knows them?’

‘Of course, we do, most of them. The last time I went home, some of them dropped in for a cup of tea. I offered them sweets for good measure … You have to be polite with them. … One of them told me that he was in the business, but insisted that he operated only outside our village. The friends are invariably invited for wedding feasts.’

‘Do they take away the bride's ornaments while leaving?’ enquired the steel plant employee innocently.

‘No, never on the wedding night!’

‘But tell me’, the elderly man asked, ‘why nobody reports to the police?’

At this point, the train entered Bardhaman, my destination. Apparently simple things sometimes have complex causes. Like the falling apple. The teacher answered with a silent smile.

But we know the answer, don’t we? The answer was hidden not in what he had said, but in the air of resignation with which he had narrated the situation ... and the euphemism used for thugs. Over the years, our sensitivity has been blunted, we accept any report of crime with a sense of déjà vu. But this helpless acceptance of crime that so completely dominates an area turned my blood into ice. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Valley of Fear is being relived at a place two hours away from my home. The paddy fields of Canning would be totally unlike the coal mines in Doyle’s Vermissa Valley. But there are chilling similarities between the two. In both places fear dominates life. Places ruled not by law, but by illicit guns. Places with two classes of people, the organized thugs and the common people, the latter being victims and accomplices at the same time.


This happened on 23rd December, 2000. But for two fictitious names and minor garnishing, I have reported the conversation verbatim. On 3rd January, 2001, newspapers reported that in another place in the same district, 40 houses were looted by a gang of 35 hoods, who happened to be local people. One newspaper (The Times of India) even stated that the dacoits had put the villagers on notice a few months earlier. It was also reported that nobody dared to lodge complaints with the police.

Eight years have passed since then. Is the situation better or worse in rural West Bengal? I request my readers from the state to share their experience.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

A courtier and his king

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety …

Like Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor, Rahim Ansari too hasn’t been withered by age. He is a young man of seventy-five. Tall, lean, and muscular, Rahim has a weather-beaten face and a shock of salt-and-pepper hair combed back, down to the nape. Once he told me that he hadn’t taken a medicine in thirty years, by the grace of Almighty.

As regards variety, he is an electrician who doubles as a plumber. If required, he wears a carpenter’s hat too. In these underprivileged parts of the third world far away from cities, we don’t have the luxury of many specialists. In the few hospitals that we have in the district, one doctor often works as a physician, surgeon and pathologist, all rolled into one. Machines are rare here, and men who handle them are rarer. If one has to make a living wielding tools, one had better be an all-round handyman.

Rahim Ansari is also a retired dacoit. Long ago, he was provided free food and lodging for seven years by the government for his alleged role in a train robbery.

Rahim’s approach to his present profession conforms to the limited demands of his clients. He puts functionality ahead of style; his electrical wirings are perfunctory webs of criss-crossing wires with dangling electric bulbs. But the lights, fans, and water pumps work just as well, when there is power.

We were waiting in front of the railway station for a bus that would take us to our distant hamlet. As we sat down on a narrow wooden bench of a tea-stall, I asked Rahim Ansari about his family. A father of three sons and a daughter, he was rather embarrassed to mention his oldest son's name: Golden, an incongruous moniker that has stuck because of his fair complexion. Golden assists his father in electrical works. Rahim's second son runs a small grocery in their mohalla. In a poor neighbourhood, a small business cannot thrive, but he has been doing okay. I don’t remember what his third son does, but I recall that Rahim’s brow furrowed as he talked about his daughter: ‘I had fixed her marriage with a boy in Sahibgunj, but …’

‘What went wrong?’

‘Nothing … I just changed my mind at the last moment. I didn't want to send her so far away. I am now negotiating with a party from Giridih.’

Parental affection is a dangerous thing. Even former outlaws are not free from the affliction.

It was two in the afternoon. We had spent almost an hour waiting for the bus, listening to film songs blaring from paan shops and observing jostling crowds and sleeping dogs; but there was no sign of our bus. (We learnt later that the bus was delayed because its driver was getting his beard dyed.) I was hungry. It was during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and Rahim was on roza. I asked him if he found it difficult to go without food, particularly at his age.

‘Please drink your tea, I don’t feel like having anything. Actually, fasting doesn't make any difference. We can rinse our mouth, but water cannot be allowed to pass this’, he said, touching his Adam’s apple.

Such a response is common from the Muslims that I know here. All of them are poor, and almost all of them observe roza.

Less than a hundred years ago, an unremarkable hamlet called Madhupur grew in to a small town thanks to the patronage of absentee landlords from Kolkata, who used this place as their winter resort. The babus who had once added a touch of glamour to this place have faded into oblivion. Their successors have fallen into hard times and are selling off family silver and landed property. Some of the grand old mansions here are lived in by their new owners, but most of the buildings are tragic caricatures of their glorious past. And if you walk a few miles to the villages around, you’ll find that many bungalows have been dismantled, brick by brick, by thieves. The town and its surrounding villages stand as a crumbling signpost of a brief history of borrowed glory.

I asked Rahim how those babus were. Were they snooty? Did they treat the local people badly?

‘Oh, no! They were good. Bahut accha aadmi the. They treated us well and bought our chickens at twice the normal price.’

‘Were they rich?’

‘Most of them were. I’ve even seen a King’, he said with some pride.

‘King? A real one? I’ve seen kings only in theatres.’

‘No saab, a real king. Raja P.N. Tagore; he lived not far from here. His palace has been converted into what is now the Raj Hotel.’

The Toofan Express to Kolkata had been standing on the far side of the station, on what is known as the down-line in railway argot. As we talked, it started moving with a clang.

‘The Toofan Express was called the Toofan Mail those days, but it was the same train. The down Toofan Mail used to cross this station about the same time in the afternoon. The over-bridge too was there’, he added, pointing at the railway foot-bridge across the tracks. ‘The day the King was to return to Kolkata, his valets would swarm all over the station in the afternoon. When Toofan Mail arrived, messengers would run to the palace to report to Raja Sahib. And he would say “Gaadi roko!” … Then he would start walking, with a retinue of ministers and servants.’

At this point, a slightly abashed Rahim Ansari shared with me a secret pride, ‘And I used to walk behind him, holding his big umbrella. … The king would walk slowly, he was very old, almost fifty. He would cross the foot-bridge and get onto the train. The guard of the train would follow him, hands folded. Then Raja sahib would instruct the guard, “Bill banao, late fee kitna?”'

As a law abiding subject of the British Crown, the king would dutifully pay the penalty for detaining the train. He would pay hefty tips to the guard and the engine driver too. And the train would recommence its journey.

This happened during the lifetime of the narrator. This is young, first generation history. Yet, the story seems so absurdly far away and impossible today. Toofan Mail still runs, although with a slightly different name. The coal engine has been replaced with an electric locomotive. The wooden panels of the passenger coaches have given way to steel. The stout saal slippers under the rails have been replaced with pre-stressed concrete. The train is much more crowded than what it used to be in Rahim Ansari’s childhood, and obviously, it doesn’t have room for kings any more.

26 December 2000

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

An image from the USA

You will find this painting (Gas, 1940, oil on canvass, 26” x 40”) by Edward Hopper in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. What you see here is a photograph of the original taken with a digital camera. Of the many paintings and other images that I have seen in the US, this one seems to catch the essence of the country with rare insight.

There is only one man in the wide open space … A vast country where very few people live. (The cities are exceptions.) Another implicit message is Americans’ love for cars and roads. This country has a fantastic network of highways and every individual, from 16 to 86, drives. A person under 21 cannot buy alcohol here, but one is eligible for a driving license at the age of 16.

The contrast between natural and artificial lights adds an element of drama to the picture. But as I looked at the painting for a long moment, what overwhelmed me was the loneliness of the filling station attendant. The partly hidden and apparently unimportant character is a typical American elderly man: lonely and unsupported, he has to fend for himself. Many in the US cannot afford to retire even when they are 70, because the cost of living, particularly the cost of medical care, is prohibitive. And adult offspring almost never live with their parents.

Consequently, many people go through a long and forlorn evening in their lives. You will often find these men on the roads of New York, talking to themselves. You will find them sitting at railway station food courts with an empty coffee cup in front, reading an old newspaper, solving a crossword puzzle, or busily noting down nothing on a jotting pad.

The man in the picture must be tired and listless after a long day. Perhaps no one is waiting for him at home. A few hours later, when night descends, if he is still alone, he might recall this Bob Dylan song:

Though I know that evenin’s empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I’m branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.

Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there ain't no place I'm going to.

Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) was a prominent American realist painter who is famous for his personal vision of modern American life. He brought out the stark realities of human suffering during the great depression like no one else has possibly done. Like all great painters and writers, what he leaves unsaid is more important than what he says explicitly.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Radha Ballabh Gope, a postscript

Some of you will recall that I posted a tribute to Late Radhaballabh Gope, a revolutionary freedom fighter, whom I knew when I was a child. If you haven't read it, I request you to read the post The first rebel now.

This photograph and the following information has been found on the website of Andaman Cellular Jail.

Radha Ballabh Gope

Arms and Explosives Act

Born 1897, Domeshpur, Faridpur, Bangladesh , s/o Late Madanmohan Gope businessman. Read upto intermediate. At the age of 13 joined the Anusheelan Samity. Arrested in 01.09.1933 with arms. Sentenced to 7 years prison term under Arms Act & Explosives Act. Deported to Andamans.. Joined second hunger strike. Repatriated in January 1938. Participated in the hunger strike in Dum Dum Central jail in 1939 July duration 36 days. After the expiry of the sentence arrested under Defense of India rules. Released after the termination of the Second World War in 1945. Total jail period 12 years.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Please come to Boston

Please come to Boston for the springtime
I'm staying here with some friends
And they've got lots of room
You can sell your paintings on the sidewalk
By a cafe where I hope to be workin soon
Please come to Boston
She said No, Boy you come home to me
And she said, Rambling boy why don't you settle down
Boston ain't your kind of town
There ain't no gold, and there ain't nobody like me
I'm the number one fan of the man from Tennessee

Country music should say something about the country. This song by Kenny Chesney tells us a few things about Boston: a none-too-cramped city where there were art aficionados and unemployment, although it is difficult to imagine a bustling US city where there “ain’t no gold.” Chesney was alluding to the absence of goldmines here, like the ones in Tennessee, literally. That is just one of the problems with poets: they don’t use metaphors when one expects them to.

But he was quite categorical about one point, one should wait till the springtime to visit the place, a sane advice that my son ignored when he drove us northward to Boston on the frosty 30th December of 2008.

Boston is not one city, but two – Boston and Cambridge, divided by the Charles River. Cambridge here is similar to its namesake across the puddle: a university town, with two hallowed portals to learning standing close by, almost rubbing shoulders, Harvard University (set up in 1636) and MIT (much younger, born in 1861). The twin cities have four more universities, Boston, Brandies, Northeastern and Suffolk, not to mention the famed Harvard Business School. And the place is littered with colleges that teach almost everything, from architecture to theology. With so much enlightenment around, it’s no wonder that Massachusetts is a liberal place. It was the first US state (and the sixth jurisdiction in the world) to legalise same-sex marriage in 2004.

We crossed the river towards our hotel in Cambridge as the sun was going down and the gorgeous city was switching on the lights in its hundreds of skyscrapers.

The first stop was Harvard Square, an area near the university teeming with bookshops and eateries, a favourite hangout for students and others. Any world class centre of learning is bound to be a cosmopolitan place. Boston is a city where white Americans are a minority: we came across humans of all descriptions. According to a tourism brochure, here, one can play chess with an expert for as little as two dollars. But we didn’t find one of them.

I had heard about the bookshops in Boston. The only one that we could go in was Harvard Book Store (“Since 1932”), which, like all the book stores that I have seen in the US, is large and open stack. The unique thing about it is its three sections, new books, used books and remainder stocks. (Remainder stocks are copies of books that publishers are no longer interested in, and would give to booksellers at throwaway prices. Remainder stocks of British and American books are a source of easy profit for many book traders in India. They buy them dirt cheap and sell them as new to gullible buyers.)

In this store, remainder stocks are sold as remainder stocks, at around a third of the jacket price. There were quite a few buyers at the store, all of them browsing.

The next morning, we went to see the famous New England Aquarium in a blinding snowstorm. In the evening, we braved icy winds to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, which has the largest collection of Claude Monet, the first impressionist painter, outside Paris. But the museum had been closed early on the New Year Eve.

We were not totally disappointed though. Travelling by Boston metro was an experience. This city of just 600,000 people is served by a metro system where five major lines crisscross each other. You buy a ticket and can change trains any number of times to reach your destination at another corner of the city. The trains ply both underground and on the surface. Some of them have just two coaches and look like the trams back home in Kolkata. The trains and the stations are scrupulously clean. Boston subway system is one of the finest in the country, and also the oldest, set up in 1897.

I am sure I would have something to learn every day even if I lived a thousand years. The lesson that I learnt in the first morning of 2009 is that you cannot operate the microscopic buttons of digital pocket cameras if you are wearing leather gloves. I had to put on a pair as the temperature was 14 degrees Fahrenheit, which translates to a cool minus ten in centigrade.

We had a few hours in the morning before leaving, and I had taken an underground train to the Harvard station, much to the dismay of my overprotective wife. As I walked out of the deserted station to an equally deserted road, there was only another man walking, an intrepid Japanese with a long camera.

I walked around, watched the baroque architecture of the university buildings, and took a few pictures after removing the gloves. The landscape was full of white, and many shades of it. The 1st of January being a holiday, and maybe because it was so cold, the place looked more like a fairytale town where everyone had been put to sleep by a wicked magician. Soon, my right hand too went to sleep. I decided to switch off the camera and return. But try as I might, I couldn’t switch it off; my fingers were numb. I pressed the button against a corner of a railing to shut it down.

It was comfortably warm inside the metro station. The platform was absolutely empty save for myself and an old man (should I say another old man?). He was, rather incongruously, playing chess with himself on a magnetic chessboard.

As I wondered if he would agree to play chess with me for a fee, I rubbed my right hand to get some blood flow into the veins. But my right hand, cold and unresponsive, sulked. Said he, ‘Who cares for your stupid photographs? Look what you’ve done to me. Me, thanks to whom you earn a living.’

Me: ‘Ah! You and your despicable vanity! I earn a living thanks to my brain.’

My hand: ‘Pen pushers and keyboard punchers think they have brains. But the rest of the world thinks otherwise.’

‘Let them. You have no business to be so frail. After all, you are a poor man’s hand. But you’re behaving like the spoilt brat of a filthy rich father.’

‘That is the problem with you Marxists. Can’t think of anything without bringing in the class. Minus ten is minus ten; doesn’t matter if one is a rich man’s hand or a poor man’s.’

I snapped, ‘I am not a Marxist. I am only a disillusioned Marxist.’

‘That doesn’t refute my point.’

‘Okay, forget it. Think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. He went through much worse. Did he complain like you?’

‘Woh gora log to have been living like that for centuries. But I am new to this climate.’

The stupid hybrid language that my hand used invariably gets my goats, not to mention racist statements. But I decided to be patient. Said I, ‘Relax, as soon as we reach the hotel, you can have a warm-water bath and wrap yourself around a hot mug of coffee.’

But my hand continued to sulk. Said he, ‘I am not your wife, you can’t kiss and make up so easily.’

06 January 2009