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

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Birth of an ornithologist

It is early morning in a bitterly cold January. Darkness is reluctantly making way for light, but this morning, the sun has clearly lost its battle against the fog. Trees and buildings have vanished as if by magic. Trains would have got stuck in their tracks, and cars-trucks-buses, on highways. Airlines passengers across North India are sulking at airports. And beyond the unreal world of airports, on roads and allies of fashionable cities and squalid towns, death is stalking people who don’t have roofs over their heads.

A short teaching assignment has brought me to a dusty township that has grown around a thermal power plant. It is a welcome reprieve from a cacophonic city just 60 kilometres away; the serene silence around me is broken only by soft trills of unseen birds.

In front of the guest house where I am staying, a barren field stretches to a private road through a fog that’s so dense that one could perhaps cut it with a knife. Beyond the road, the land gently slopes down into a lake, the background of which has faded into the mist. Not a soul is seen anywhere. Of the six gigantic chimneys of the power plant, three aren’t visible at all. The others have turned into three unconvincing lines on the horizon and look like inadvertent pencil strokes on an otherwise perfect water colour painting, waiting to be erased off.

The field in front of our guesthouse is barren and empty, except for the rusted crumbling remains of a concrete mixing machine casually abandoned after construction of the township. With its spherical drum lying face down on the ground and legs and wheels helplessly jutting out skyward, it reminds one of a metallic sculpture of a shattered man, perhaps a relic from a distant future.

A solitary bird has ventured into the field, away from the marshy banks of the lake, possibly in search of a more wholesome breakfast. She is not big, but not very small either: she has long, thin, black beaks, bulging shoulders and legs about eight inches long. From above, she looks a dirty shade of grey, and for a moment, I wish that I saw a more polychrome bird in such a dreary morning. For some time, the bird struts about haughtily, nibbling at grassroots. Oblivious of my presence, she comes right under my balcony. Looking up suddenly, she observes me for a long moment and flies off, perhaps reciprocating my lack of admiration for her looks!

The moment she is off ground, she becomes a different bird. The underbelly and the insides of her wings are milk white, or rather, whiter than milk. From below, she appears to be an entirely white bird with a surprisingly large span of wings that work through the misty morning air with the effortless grace of a master’s strokes.

So, birds too can have dual personalities. Here is one that looks gloomy and unfriendly on the ground but so cheerful and bright when she’s flying. There is something distinctly faraway about her, something different from the tropical birds that we see in this part of the world. She must be a visitor from a faraway land that is presently covered with snow as bright as the underside of her wings.

[Photo courtesy Wikipedia. Published in the Statesman on 2 November 2006.]

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Reflections on a faraway uncle

My mother’s father, Tarabhushan, was in his prospective father-in-law’s house in the evening of his wedding. Astrologers had decided that the auspicious hour for the wedding was late in the night; As the night grew old, most of the invitees left, it was pitch dark beyond the vicinity of the Petromax lamps. Shortly before the nuptial ceremony, he came to know that without his knowledge, but on his behalf, a handsome dowry had been obtained by his eldest brother, who incidentally was much older, and the head of the family. Tarabhushan called his brother aside and asked him to return the amount if he wanted the wedding to take place.

In 1911, such an act was extraordinary for two reasons. Firstly, it was long before there was any resistance against the system of dowry. It was a social practice unquestioningly accepted by people and Tagore was still writing his many short stories on the evils of the system. Secondly, facing up to an elder brother and head of the family was not an accepted social practice.

Over time, Tarabhushan and Sushama Pal had quite a brood: four sons and four daughters. They would have surely had more, if my grandma hadn’t died at the age of 37 of complications arising from frequent child bearing. Of the eight, one boy died at the age of ten in an accident. My mother used to feel sad and shed an occasional tear for him even sixty years later.

All my uncles and aunts were exceedingly affectionate, and were the source of much happiness for my sister and me. Of them, the person we met most infrequently was the oldest brother of my mom, bado mama, Manas Ranjan Pal. He lived in the faraway small town of Karimgunj on the other side of East Pakistan and shunned travelling. His forays to the world outside were rare.

I was in the capital city of Kerala at that time (1990, for the historically oriented). My uncle’s elder son, Nandan-da was taking his entire family on a “South India tour”, which, incidentally, is almost mandatory for every middle class Bengali family at least once in their lifetime, just as the Hajj is for a devout Muslim. The typical itinerary for the tour is something like: Alight at Chennai from a train. Dash off to Bengaluru on the way to Mysore, Ooty and Coonoor. Drop in at Kochi for a quick tour of the Jew Town and a visit to Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) for a day: including a few hours at Kovalam beach. On to Kanyakumari: offering puja at Devi Kumari Temple mixed with the secular pleasures of visiting Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial across choppy waters and waking up early next morning to see the sun rise across the Bay of Bengal, only to be disappointed by the mist that hangs with metronomic regularity every morning on Kanyakumari. Go inland to see Madurai Meenakshi Temple, return to the sea again at Rameswaram. Then on to the picturesque Ashram at Pondichery. All this is normally done in about fourteen days. On the fifteenth day, the exhausted holiday makers board the return train at Chennai, for rest and recuperation back home in Bengal or Assam.

I don’t remember if Nandan-da had such a grandiose plan for his family. On reaching Chennai, which was then Madras, he phoned me. He said he would be reaching Trivandrum after seven days. But After three days, I received a call at my office. It was Nandan-da, ‘Can you please come to Trivandrum railway station? … I mean, … we have a lot of luggage.’

I asked with a touch of worry, ‘Is anything wrong? Is everybody all right?’

I had reasons to be worried. Among the group of six, there were two elderly people, my uncle and aunt, and Nandan-da’s little son and daughter.

‘No, not that,’ said he, ‘the only problem was that after reaching Chennai, baba refused to go anywhere. He went on saying “Aamare Santanur kase loia chal!” (Take me to Santanu!)’

Therefore, Nandan-da had to cut short his trip.

So there was my uncle, tall and thin, happy, in a lungi and an undershirt, sitting cross-legged upon the sofa, taking a long draft of snuff and following it with some hearty sneezes of blissful pleasure. For as long as he was with us, he wouldn’t budge from the house except for his walks, and remained steadfastly loyal to his native attire. His family did the mandatory touristy things like driving down to Kovalam and Kanyakumari, but the head of the family wouldn't join them.

Once, he seriously embarrassed my daughter, who was around twelve then. My daughter has been, somehow, an anachronism – a memsahib in the family. She was always prim and propah, and couldn’t imagine being seen in anything but a formal dress any time of the day. She also spoke propah English. Once she had asked a roadside shop-keeper, ‘Could I have a loaf of bread please?’ The man was almost knocked off by the English punch.

She was going out with some clothes to the laundry, which was less than 100 metres from our home. When mama-dadu offered to accompany her, she dismissed him airily. How could she be seen with someone in a lungi?

She handed over the clothes at the laundry, collected the receipt, and as she turned around, she bumped into an old man in a lungi and singlet with a doting smile on his face! She pretended not to recognize him and returned home running, much to the amusement of my uncle.

He was not much of a talker. I do not remember seeing him having a chat with my mother, which was rather unusual in an otherwise garrulous family. He was passionate about reading newspapers: in our house, he read The Hindu and The Economic Times from the advertisement at the top left corner on the first page to the printer’s name on the last. If he came across something interesting, he would share it with us, reading it aloud with a heavy, sing-song Sylheti accent, occasionally followed by a cascading guffaw.

Reading papers passionately is not the only trait I have picked up from the gene pool he shared with my mom. Once, when I shouted at my wife over a trifle, my mamima, that is, his wife, gave me a long hard look through her thick glasses, smiled enigmatically, and said, ‘Myazaz khan paiso mamago mato!’ (You’ve inherited the terrible temper of your uncles!)

One thing that I haven’t inherited from my mother’s side is their phobia of machines. All my uncles and aunts were/are technologically challenged. Three and a half of them spent most of their adult lives in Denmark, England and Canada, and only one of them can drive. My uncle who lives in London cannot open an email even now. In my childhood, my ma wouldn’t trust herself with winding her (mechanical) watch; she would get it done by her husband.

My bado mama was a compulsive early riser. He would get up before the sun rose, make a cup of tea himself, and go out for a walk. There was a kerosene stove in their Karimgunj home dedicated to this activity. He never managed to learn the complicated trick of lighting a gas stove.


When my grandma died, her oldest son was 20, my mom was 10, and the youngest was 18 months old. My grandpa, who was a successful lawyer, didn’t do the done thing of marrying again, neither “to take care of the children” nor for less altruistic motives. Hence the children had to fend for themselves mostly, except for my youngest aunt, who was adopted by her maternal grandma.

My grandpa’s finances took a hit after the Partition, when a number of Banks crashed in Bengal. My mother used to say that he had lost his life’s savings of Rs. 17,000. But fortunately for him, and much to the dismay of his Muslim friends, Karimgunj was included in India through a referendum shortly before the Partition. I do not know why Mr. Radcliff’s scissors were not arbitrarily applied to Karimgunj like most other borderline subdivisions.

Three years later, Tarabhushan died, leaving behind depleted liquid assets and the responsibility of four minor siblings on my bado mama’s shoulders. He was a junior employee in an insurance company then, it must have been a tough ask. And as was to be expected, he discharged his responsibilities with some success and some failure. I haven’t heard my mother complaining about him ever, but his two younger brothers gave him hell, perhaps with some justification, one can never judge.

But there was no effort on his side to fight back. In none of the post-cards – which ma used to receive from him regularly – did he complain about anyone. He had few demands and was at absolute peace with himself and the world. A disciplined person, he would seldom deviate from the routine he set for himself. He didn’t smoke or drink, inhaling snuff being his solitary vice. But he had had a binge once, a fact revealed by my father.

Dad and I were in Hyderabad then, quite lonely, as my wife had gone to Kolkata for a longish period. I was also going through a bit of hell at office. One day, my bosom buddy Joe Manimury dropped in unannounced from Kerala. It was an occasion to celebrate. I told my father, ‘Baba, Joe and me are going to have a drink tonight. I hope you wouldn’t mind?’

Dad said, ‘Go ahead. I too had a few drinks in my time. Once, your bado mama visited us. We bought a small bottle of whisky.’ Judging by the distance between his forefinger and thumb, I guessed he was referring to a quarter pint bottle. After a little pause, he added with obvious pride, ‘We finished the whole bottle within a month!’

Kolkata / Thursday, 18 June 2009

Saturday, 13 June 2009

A gift of misery

The most fantastic gift that I ever received was also the cause of one of the greatest miseries I have ever experienced.

I was around ten years when I went to Barelly in Uttar Pradesh to spend a week with an aunt. Her husband was then a Major in the Indian army, and they lived in the Cantonment. I was amazed to see the picture-postcard neatness of the cantonment town. Its wide avenues lined with eucalyptus trees, smartly dressed jawans on spanking green Atlas bicycles, bungalows that seemed straight out of English story books, an orderly who made ice cream at home, and his queer machine with a handle for whisking the cream while it was being frozen: everything about the place was wonderful. I was puzzled by the fact that without exception, trunks of all the trees in the cantonment were painted white. Who did this, and why? When I asked my cousin, who was slightly older, he replied airily, ‘One of the basic rules of the Indian army is to paint everything stationary and salute everything moving.’

Another thing that I noticed, not without a deep tinge of envy, was my cousin’s sporting kit. He had a cabinet full of cricket bats and balls, stumps, hockey sticks, badminton rackets and a few footballs, which lay at the bottom, deflated, unloved, and uncared for. Such a treasure trove was unimaginable by me, and without doubt, by any of my friends. Even a football was a luxury for us. In the free periods in school, we generally played football with small rubber balls. It would have been an interesting sight, the whole class of thirty odd boys running after a tiny ball, which was scarcely seen. It was mostly hidden by us, just as the queen bee is hidden from public view in a beehive.

On the penultimate day of our stay, when aunt asked me what I would like to have as a gift, I felt just as our rishis would have felt when benevolent gods asked them to name the boon they needed. For me, there weren’t too many things to choose from: it could either be a cricket bat or a football. Which one? Chandu Borde or Chuni Goswami? In the end, Chuni Goswami won, I opted for a football.

Back home, a brand-new fully-grown football (size no. 5) instantly raised my stock among friends. I was a hero, the only individual owner of a real football in the whole school, someone who couldn’t be trifled with, rather, who had to be treated with reverence. I started enjoying my days under the sun; I could extract a chewing gum or borrow a storybook from my classmates at will.

A few days later, one afternoon, I left the football behind under my desk while leaving school. I realised my mistake soon after reaching home and rushed back to the school with my friend Swadesh. The imposing iron gate of our school had been locked and the shadow of the banyan tree in the compound had become long; our conscientious Ghurkha watchman refused to let us in. Swadesh and I begged with him, but his face was as impassive as ever.

After some time, when he saw me in tears, his heart melted. We ran to the classroom … Not a speck of dust had shifted in the room since when we had left it, but there was no sign of the football. The world crumbled around me in that forlorn empty classroom. I knew that my days of glory were over. A dream had come true without my asking, and I lost it because of sheer carelessness. It was devastating.

But as I left the school compound, rays of the setting sun met my eyes and someone told me from deep within that life was much bigger; that a football was not something worth being upset about. I was a little sad for a couple of days, but that was about all.

The most fantastic gift that I ever received was also the cause of one of the greatest miseries that I have ever experienced. And the experience taught me quite early in life that happiness and sorrow are two sides of the same coin. And at the end of the day, neither matters much.

[This story appeared in The Statesman sometime in 2007]

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Snapshots from a city called …

The following memoir has grown into what can be a slim book. It is far too big to be posted on a blog at a time. I have been serializing it on my blog as Fragments of a broken mirror since 31 March 2010. I would be delighted if you read the expanded version.

[The immediate provocation to write this memoir was some comments by Kaushik Chatterjee on my previous post. Thank you, Kaushik. I have added a small bit to this today, that is, 8 June 2008. I might go on adding bits and pieces to this memoir.]

If one looks from a historical perspective, one can say I missed being a midnight’s child by a whisker. I was born less than four years after Saleem Sinai. The bleeding wounds of the Partition (and the preceding communal riots) hadn’t healed yet, but as a child, I did not experience the stark realities seen in Ritwik Ghatak movies like Subarnarekha and Meghe Dhaka Tara. My father came to Calcutta long before the Partition. Although he had to struggle through his life to make ends meet, we lived in relative comfort in a second-floor flat.

The lake in South Calcutta served as the southern periphery of the city. Some of our relatives uprooted from East Bengal found new homes in a sprawling refugee settlement called Bagha Jatin Colony, way beyond that boundary marker. I remember an evening when we went there. There was no fly-over across the railway tracks at Dhakuria. It was an unending journey through semi-darkness along a dusty road. In the end, we stopped at a place where, in the middle of a field, there was a road-side teashop with a solitary kerosene lamp throwing more darkness than light. From there on, we walked though narrow, slushy alleys to a settlement of rudimentary huts made of shaved bamboo strips and cheap tiles.

That was my only foray into Ritwik Ghatak’s world of grinding poverty and deprivation. We lived rather comfortably, but the situation in my childhood was far from the affluence or even the opulence in which many middleclass children grow up these days. When we went to buy clothes, my mother would size up a frock for my sister and a pair of shorts and a shirt for me. We would try them on and look proud and prim in our snugly fitting clothes. Then my mother would invariably tell the shop assistant, ‘Give the same things, but two sizes larger.’ Consequently, neither my sister nor I have a photograph of our childhood where the frock or the shorts didn’t extend well below our knees. When I was a child, children were not allowed to outgrow their dresses.

The Calcutta where I grew up had cleaner roads; the main streets were washed by water jets every morning. In the evening, gas lights would be lit in lovely little parks that were seen perhaps only in a dream. The transistor radio was yet to be born, and the days of the omnipresent TV were a thing of a distant, almost forgotten future. In the afternoons, languid housewives switched on their massive GEC, Phillips, Murphy, and Bush receivers and listened to plays broadcast by the All India Radio while enjoying their well-deserved siesta.

Telephones, invariably black and with circular dials, were heavier than dumb-bells. They could be seen only in a few privileged households. Individual owners of cars were the equivalents of billionaires today. The gramophone was more common, and was a defining symbol of middleclass happiness. The HMV jingle said: Shukhi grihakon, shobhe gramophone. (Happiness is shown, if there’s a gramophone.)

Happiness became visible in our house when I was seven or eight. With enormous patience we would wind the heavy teak-wood gramophone every time we played a song for three to five minutes. A cousin of my father gave us a record of Pandit DV Paluskar: it had Chalo man, Ganga-Jamuna teer and Thumaka Chalata Ramachandra. It was much bigger than ordinary 78 RPM records. On Sundays, that uncle would visit us and listen to the song with a wistful look on his face. Much later, I heard Tamal Kaku was a hugely talented singer who forfeited his musical career as he had to take care of six younger siblings.

The Calcutta Tramways Corporation was still among the best transport systems in the world, the spanking tramcars were always clean and packed to capacity most of the times. Inside, above the wide windows, there was a broad panel with neat, hand-painted advertisements. Outside, the shape and colour of the lights above the driver’s cabin would tell you which depot the tram was headed to. The first tram rolled out at four in the morning and the last reported to depots only when the city was fast asleep.

Taxis – some of them Fords and Buicks – were driven by amiable stately Sardarjis with flowing white beards that fluttered like a flags of eternal peace. If you happen to write a history of the city, please mention that no sardarji taxi driver ever cheated a client.

There were private buses when I was very small, but gradually, they were replaced by state buses. These buses were all red, and many of them were double-deckers. Chief Minister Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the last major Bengali politician that wasn’t insane, established the Calcutta State Transport Corporation, and mostly employed refugees from East Pakistan to run the buses. The vehicles were also known as “Bidhan Babur bus”.

But for Dr. Roy, it is possible that the world of art would have been poorer. It is well known now that at one stage, Satyajit Ray had to stop shooting his first film because of shortage of funds. While his child actors were growing unacceptably bigger, he approached Dr. Roy for financial support, and it was granted. According to an apocryphal story that I heard being narrated by Adoor Gopalakrishnan many years later, Dr. Roy asked his Public Works Department to fund the film as Pather Panchali, and its English title, Song of the Little Road, had something to do with roads!

I travelled by a Bidhan Babu's bus daily for a year. Victoria Institution, where my mother taught, was my first school. It was a girls’ school, but they admitted a few boys up to the fourth standard. It was a good way to begin schooling: I had a number of girl friends, and among the bevy of beauties, had an almost serious relationship with a girl called Leena.

The Bus No. 3 that my mother and I took every day carried a notice written in English in bold red letters. With much effort, I deciphered its meaning. It read, rather, I read it as: “No some king!” That was my first lesson in proper behaviour in public: on a bus, one wasn’t supposed to behave like a king.

There were no ice cream parlours; vendors sold Magnolia ice cream from yellow push carts. Magnolia meant authentic quality, there were fakes too: Mangolia, Magnola, and so on. The pretenders used the same colours and font to paint their logos. But we were smart; we learnt to spot imitations as soon as we learnt the English alphabet! For some reason, the men who sold kulfi malai were always in dhotis and short white kurtas. They called out the name of their product with an extended m-a-l-a-i b-a-r-a-f in a somewhat ghostly voice.

Movies were rare gusts of happiness limited to Ben Hur, Ten Commandments or Do aankhe baara haath. Sport meant football: East Bengal, Mohan Bagan and the Mohammedan Sporting. We were prepared to kill and be killed for our team, but even in those days, the glamour sport was cricket, which was restricted to a solitary affair of an annual test match. And the enduring memories of a test match are a Kanhai hooking with disdain and a helmet-less Roy or Contractor ducking away from Davidson bouncers in an ethereal Garden of Eden.

The spectators were serious and knowledgeable. Once, there was a controversy about the Australian left-arm fast bowler Ian Meckiff. Many thought he used to throw, but Indian umpires, possibly because of a colonial hangover, wouldn’t call him. During a test match in which Meckiff was bowling, a spectator shouted from the stands – and the rest of the crowd heard him in hushed silence – ‘Mr. Meckiff, next summer, English umpires will tell you that you chuck. A chucker is a chucker is a chucker!’

Fortunately for Meckiff, he was left out of the Australian squad to England in 1961. But two years later, an Australian umpire no-balled him in South Africa four times in his first over, and that was the end of his cricketing career.

Only some people actually saw Rohan Kanhai, Pankaj Roy, or Allan Davidson in flesh and blood. (I was among the fortunate few because my Gandhian dad, who always wore khadi, was crazy about cricket and tennis.) The hoi polloi had to be satisfied with the running commentary given by Berry Sarbadhikari and Vizzy in English and Kamal Bhattacharya, Ajay Bose and Pushpen Sarkar in Bangla. The last named trio were icons, they added to the five days of a test match an aura that was perhaps matched only by Durga Puja. Mr. Ajay Bose was a class by himself. At times he would start describing a flotilla of clouds sailing across the azure winter sky, and so enchanted would he become with his own eloquence, that he would forget all about the match for a few overs. (I can understand Mr. Bose’s predicament; I have a similar weakness for my writing!)

In 1961, my mother’s youngest sister got married in Kolkata. The next morning, she left for her new home in Shillong. A large retinue of family members trooped to Dumdum Airport to see her off. (Those days, among my relatives, only those going abroad, or to the North East travelled by air.) The airport terminal was a small one-storey structure then, perhaps with an asbestos roof. She and her hubby checked in with minimum fuss. There were no policemen around. No one stopped us as we accompanied her beyond the check-in desk to the door to the tarmac. There we stood, right on the tarmac, waiting in the crisp December sun for the Dakota standing a little away to be ready for boarding.

My aunt was crying copiously through the process, holding my hand like a drowning woman would clutch a straw. After reaching the tarmac, I said, ‘Enough is enough, I think it’s time you stopped crying.’

She snapped in chaste Sylheti, ‘Sup kar! Amar ki fattharer pran?’ (Shut up! Do I have a heart made of stone?)

In my childhood, the Statesman carried their stories in impeccable English. Usha Uthup sang at the Trincas. The city was known as Calcutta to the world outside.

04 June 2009

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Street cries

Irwin Allan Sealy writes in his novel Red about an imaginary city: ‘Once upon a time the city, any city meant light: now it means noise.’

Having grown up in an overcrowded metropolis called Kolkata, my immediate reaction to this was: how can a city be quiet? Aren’t cities more sound than sight? Isn’t quiet city an oxymoron?

But then I recalled, once, as I walked alone from a Toronto suburb to the nearest train station four miles away, I heard no sound except cars whooshing past; and I didn’t come across a single soul. But such a conurbation is unthinkable in India.

Light and colours are relatively unimportant in our cites. Many of our houses have faded paint; the shanties that dot our cityscape are invariably in varying shades of dull grey. But we are never short of people or sounds.

A deluge of sounds rushes in as I think of my childhood. …

We lived in a main thoroughfare, where the morning was ushered in not by the Sun God, but the clang of the first tram rolling out unfailingly at 4 AM. The sibilant sound of roads being washed by water jets followed soon. At a street corner nearby, vans would unload newspapers.

Relatives from quieter places found it impossible to sleep in our house. Those who slept doggedly and survived the first tram had to wake up soon: the newspaper vendors would fight noisily to get their quota of papers. And crows kept cawing in the background.

The cinema flash opposite our house was a perennially noisy place. During intervals, vendors sold a variety of small eats, yelling the quality and price of their ware. Not a word of what they said could be figured out, but the place came alive thrice a day.

But not all sound was noise. The tinkle of the bell in the rickshaw puller’s hand had a quaint musical charm.

Lazy afternoons would come alive with lovely street cries. In my childhood, there was a popular barter system in which vendors exchanged old clothes for utensils. Afternoons were their preferred business hours. They would announce their arrival with lovely singsong calls. The barter system survives to this day, but one doesn’t hear them calling out.

Besides, there were men who would offer a range of services like duplicating keys, chipping grinding stones, sharpening knives or engraving names on utensils. Each of these tradesmen had their characteristic cries. The key maker needed no verbal effort: he would clank dozens of keys dangling from a huge key ring to announce his arrival. The men who roughened grinding stones with a chisel shouted: sheeel katta-a-ai. Neither the words nor the tune ever varied. The engravers sang out, basone naam lekhabe-e-e-e-n! Their voice would trail off slowly, only to accentuate the loneliness of the afternoon.

The man I remember most vividly called out mala-a-a-i bara-a-af in a calm, unhurried voice. Punctilious about time, he would pass by exactly at midnight. I never saw him as I was tucked in well before that hour; but whenever I woke up in a dark night hearing his mysterious voice, I would also hear the wall clock gong twelve times before I drifted off to sleep again. In my somnolence, I imagined a slender old man in white dhoti and short kurta trudging along, carrying an earthen pot of kulfi malai on his head.

I often wondered who would buy kulfi at that hour, particularly in rainy nights. One day, when I asked the question to my friend Ravi, he said, ‘Don’t you know? He’s heard, but never seen.’

‘But, why?’

‘How can you see him? He’s only a spirit!’

Looking back through a prism of fifty years, I think maybe, Ravi was right. Perhaps the frail old man in white was actually not human. Perhaps he was a visitor from the netherworld, who reminded us of the long cold icy night that awaits every one of us.

(4 Feb 2007)