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

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Footloose in New York

[On my recent trip in 2008, I found New York a safe place. The crime rate was quite low for a city of its size. But in 1995, when I visited NY for the first time, it had the reputation of being infested with cheats, muggers and other sundry criminals. On the evening of my arrival there, I had a few tense moments. This is what I wrote then.]

If you were about to visit New York for the first time and came across someone who had lived there, you’d be given a few tips so that you aren't raped or killed unnecessarily. Before I left India, a friend who had been in the US of A gave me a list of dos and don’ts, mostly don’ts: Don’t take your eyes off the luggage at airports, don’t become too friendly with strangers, don’t hang around at tube stations after the crowd has moved, don’t carry much cash on your person, don’t take a taxi alone, don’t enter a lonely loo …

I arrived at the Newark airport in a cloudy autumn evening. The flight was delayed by an hour, a matter of little consequence to a regular client of the famously unpunctual Indian Airlines. All the bad press that the city of New York has been getting didn’t bother me. My task was simple: I only had to take a twenty-mile ride to the Hotel Hilton at Manhattan, where someone would receive me and take me to my temporary abode at Queens.

The city of New York and all other big cities of our time make me think that the children of the twentieth century have limited imagination. No two mountains rise the same way, no two rivers follow similar courses, no two children smile the same smile; but most of the sky-scrapers in our cities look so soullessly alike! The Hudson showed up and vanished in a flash. Soon we were driving under water through the faceless Lincoln Tunnel that seemed to say, “OK, folks, here you are, but I couldn’t care less.” When we reached Manhattan, the clouds hanging around the upper floors of the buildings broke into a torrential rain.

The burly driver of the shuttle coach delivered me and my luggage at the gate of Hilton. The person who was to meet me there had left a note at the reception saying he was leaving after waiting for half-an-hour beyond the scheduled time! Fortunately, I had a friend, Murali Bagade, who had been posted to New York just a week before. I phoned Bagade at his office, but he had left for home. Called his home; no reply.

It was pouring and nothing much could be seen outside the chandeliered foyer of the hotel. The reputation of the NY cabbies being what it is, I didn’t want to take a cab towards an unknown destination, if I could help it. And my baggage precluded taking the metro. So there I was, a stranger in a supposedly dangerous city with an uncertain night looming through a deluge.

For a moment, I toyed with the idea of checking into Hilton, but rejected it quickly as I recalled that Fiedel Castro was staying there for a UN conference on that day. Both Mr. Castro and me were in New York on official work, and both of us are from the third world, but I reckoned he enjoyed a better daily allowance. A night at Hilton or an encounter with a mugger would make similar impacts on my wallet.

My colleague, JPN Thampi has a sticker on his table: “When in doubt, don’t!” That evening, I followed the dictum with slight modification: “When in doubt, drink!” I went to the bar on the ground floor of the hotel. It was a wonderful place teeming with people and TVs of various sizes, and a number of those ubiquitous vending machines that sell things like candies and condoms. The crowd was jovial, noisy, and smoking. No one noticed as I walked in, pulling two suitcases. The beer was awfully affordable and the food (succulent sausages) was on the house. I felt at home. Barring the vending machines, the place looked no different from an upmarket pub in Colaba Causeway in Bombay or Brigade Road in Bangalore.

After about an hour, I called Bagade again, and this time, he answered. One more hour and another beer later, it was a huge relief to see my friend walking in with a broad smile and a long umbrella, but thoroughly drenched, all the same.

The queue for taxis in front of the hotel was long and serpentine, and by the time our taxi was on one of the several bridges across the East River, it was quite late. Suddenly, the driver declared that he was not sure of the way to Queens. Bagade, having lived in the city for just a week, didn't know the way either. It was still raining and there was not a soul on the sidewalk. Our taxi was whizzing past at fifty miles an hour along with hundreds of other cars; there was no question of stopping and asking for direction from anyone. A strange situation: the vehicle was moving fast, but we were in a jam. My friend and I looked at each other.

Thanks to the efficiency of the American system, a photograph of the taxi driver along with his name in bold letters was prominently displayed in the passenger compartment. The name, Hidayat Ullah, and a South Asian physiognomy gave us hope. Maybe, the fellow was an Indian or Pakistani, which should make it easier to tackle him.

Actually, Hidayat Ullah was from Bangladesh. He and I speak the same language and his home in Noakhali is less than 400 kilometres from mine on a planet with a circumference of 40,000 kilometres! He was hardly dangerous. On the contrary, he was a scared, insecure young man, terrorised equally by police and the underworld. A brush with the law might mean loss of his driving licence and livelihood. And like all NY cabbies, he lived in the perpetual fear of the cold metal on his nape. He had had the experience twice and had lost whatever he had on him. Only an undying faith on Allah helps him carry on in this hazardous city, where he trades his personal safety for earning a level of comfort that is unimaginable back home in Bangladesh.

The Bengali language worked like magic for Hidayat Ullah’s memory. We were home and dry in fifteen minutes.

Calcutta / 11 December 1995

Saturday, 7 February 2009


I don’t remember how I met Subhendu Sekhar Mukhopadhyay, but I recall that I became one of his numerous fans in no time.

Subhendu-da was a research officer at Rabindra Bhaban, an institute under Visva-Bharati, when I was an undergraduate student there. A bachelor then, he lived in a sparsely furnished ground-floor room in a university guest house at Santiniketan. Even now, I can see it if I close my eyes. … An approximately ten by fourteen room divided into two parts by a rudimentary cot in the middle. On one side was a desk and a bookshelf, and on the other, a kerosene stove on which he prepared his frugal meals, and often, tea for us. From his room, we could see a wide expanse of the sky and the gravelled road lined by acacia and palaash leading to the guest house. Through two large windows that were always open, sunlight and breeze streamed in. The door too was usually open. Subhendu-da’s dwelling was as open and inviting as his mind was.

He wrote brilliant Bengali, both prose and poetry. (He also wrote brilliant English, but that I came to know much later.) It is unfortunate that he has written so little, but even that little, if compiled and published, will be a significant tome. And Subhendu-da could speak with authority on lots of subjects. His knowledge, particularly of Rabindranath Tagore’s life and works, was deep and wide. But if anyone seemed awestruck by his erudition, he would try to inverse the impression with a disarming smile and a caustic comment, ‘I don’t read books, I read only book covers and jackets. Only illiterates like you believe I'm well-read.’

We went through university during a turbulent time, the late 1960s and early 70s. The Naxalbadi movement began, spread and died during the period, and along with it died thousands of young men, as the genteel Indian democracy bared its fascist fangs. It was a time when protests swept like bushfire through campuses from Berkeley to Sorbonne to Kolkata. Students’ protests even lead to the fall of the De Gaulle government in 1968. Shortly thereafter, Bangladesh fought for and achieved independence at tremendous human cost. Through it all, in Viet Nam, the underdog decisively won the most asymmetric war in human history. It was a time when hope was pandemic. It was also a time when all young people in West Bengal, except the jelly fish, believed in a cause. And most were rebels.

Subhendu-da too was a rebel, in a very personal way. He lived like a hermit, was staunchly anti-establishment, but wasn’t part of any organized political group (as far as I know). It is possible that he had foreseen the future of the left movement in West Bengal. And he was remarkably free from prejudice. Once he said, ‘Despite 200 years of colonial exploitation, I forgive the British for three reasons.’

Surprised, we asked, ‘What three reasons?’

‘Cakes, chocolates, and ice-creams.’

I lost touch with him after graduation. In 1983, after returning to Kolkata, I picked up the threads. By then, he had married Hena-di, a wonderful person herself, and they had a lovely daughter, Tinni. Subhendu-da was the Head of Sahitya Akademi for Eastern India and had an office at a quaint corner of the city, in the stadium complex beside the Dhakuria Lake. My office was nearby and after office, I would meet him and walk long distances with him, followed by coffee and upma at a South Indian eatery. He would never allow me to pay for the snacks. And on every single occasion, I came home with a feeling that he had thrown light on some dark corner of my mind.

Subhendu-da had a brilliant sense of humour and would regale his audience with witty anecdotes, optimally garnished for effect. He also had the rare gift of repartee.

Hena-di is from the district of Srihatta, which was an early bird in spreading education, particularly women’s education, in undivided Bengal. People from the district were known for their clannishness and intellectual snobbery. Srihatta or Sylet as it was known earlier, is also a place not far from Myanmar and many people from there have features like stub nose and slanting eyes. A country cousin of Hena-di once said, ‘Subhendu babu, you must give it to us; no fool has ever been born in Sylet.’

The reply was instantaneous: ‘Neither a beautiful woman!’

Subhendu-da was always in a sparkling white khadi dhoti and kurta. Their two-storey house at Park Circus was large and sparsely furnished. They ate sitting on floor and slept on hard beds. Subhendu-da had an impressive personal library, but had no fancy bookcases, only straight open unpainted wooden racks that went up to the ceiling. The walls were white and largely bare, save for a few paintings by Hena-di, and a framed postcard written long back by his father. Among other things, the postcard said, “Sell your land, sell your house if you have to, but do study.”

Their house was impeccably clean, always. Tinni doted on our two children, who were slightly younger, and together with her big black gentlemanly Labrador Prama, they were a happy foursome. For my wife and me, Subhendu-da and Hena-di’s simple, no-frills lifestyle was a model.

Subhendu-da’s austerity also involved walking long distances and travelling by notoriously crowded Kolkata buses. He would never take a taxi even in scorching heat. Once, Tinni, who was in college then, was on a cycle-rickshaw when she saw him on the road. She stopped and asked him to get on board. But her baba refused, ‘Your dad might be rich, mine wasn’t’, and kept walking.

According to an apocryphal story, Subhendu-da was asked by his boss, who was in Kolkata on an official visit, to carry his bag at the airport. Instead, Subhendu-da came home and sent his resignation letter. At that time he was in mid-fifties, with no sign of another job on the horizon. I asked him, ‘How will you manage?’

He smiled, ‘Don’t you worry! I am not going to touch you for a loan.’

During that time, the West Bengal government was planning to bring out the complete works of Rabindranath Tagore. Subhendu-da was given the task of editing the volumes. He was given an office, an assistant, and two typewriters, but he refused to accept any remuneration, despite not having a steady source of income. I asked him why he wouldn’t accept a fair compensation for his efforts. His logic was simple: ‘The day I accepted government money, the bureaucrats would start kicking me around. I would much rather hold my head high and do the work for free.’

Towards the end, when his health was failing, he accepted a government vehicle, but still no money!

Subhendu-da died on his saddle at the age of 61. He was possibly one of the last specimens of a breed that cares little for filling their pockets, but would die, if it comes to that, to hold their head high. He was called Moni by his family, including his wife and daughter. Moni in Bengali means gem. Rarely does a name fit a man more aptly. He was one of the most pristine, pure, and coruscating gems I have come across in fifty-seven years.

26 January 2009