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

Thursday, 10 June 2010

The company I kept

When we were children, parents had little time for their offspring. Except on Sundays, I saw little of my father, and my ma was always busy. I grew up in the company of domestic helps, much like Rabindranath Tagore, although unlike Tagore's family, ours was enormously middleclass. A friend, Dilip Paul later summed up the scenario neatly when he said, “We grew up like weeds.”

My first mentor was Motilal-da. A tall bony man in his fifties sporting a toothless smile, he walked with a slight stoop. He was always in a clean white half-sleeve kurta and dhoti, but was a colourful man otherwise. A vegetable vendor in the morning, he was father’s handyman for the rest of the day. He read, wrote in a neat hand, bought our provisions, maintained accounts, and fudged them. He lived in a tiny one-room hut alone, but often talked about his other house in the village, which incidentally was a mansion. He also spoke about the fish that were aplenty in his pond, his fields of golden wheat and the glorious cows that produced tanks of milk. Besides, he was in intimate terms with some leading film stars.

With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think he lied. Rather, he lived in two worlds. And who can say that the world that can be touched and seen is the only real world? Motilal-da enlightened me on many things, from Yuri Gagarin’s visit to the space to how people lived in villages to how biscuits are made.

Once I called him a son of a pig, which is a popular abuse in Bangla. Motilal-da left our house, never to come back. Under interrogation, I admitted what I had done and got the thrashing I deserved. Father went to Motilal-da’s house, apologised, and brought him back.

A carpenter, whose name was possibly Sukumar, was a regular visitor to our house. Father was fond of tinkering with whatever little furniture we had, and Sundays would come alive on our terrace with the sound of sawing and hammering. What had been a cot before turned into a partition one day courtesy Sukumar-da. A few months later, the same thing might be reborn as a bookshelf. In the hugely wasteful world of today, children are taught in school the three new R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Fifty years ago, they were axiomatic ways of life.

Sukumar-da was hard of hearing. While he worked, from time to time, he would imagine someone was calling him and would shout back, ‘Eije! Aami jachchi.”

While Sukumar-da worked, I watched with fascination sweat dripping from his brow and the deep concentration on his face. He became the work he was doing. Much later, one evening, while I was seeing Ali Akbar Khan play the sarod, Sukumar-da's image flashed through my mind.

At times, I would volunteer to help by holding a piece of wood he was working on. Overtime, Sukumar-da took me as an apprentice and would allow me to first scrape things with sandpaper and later to use the plane to smoothen a surface, and so on. Later, when I had to learn carpentry in high school, I found the work easy.

But more than learning how to use a chisel and saw, seeing him, I began to respect manual labour. Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), an African American leader said: “No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.” Americans learnt the lesson long ago. During my visits to that country, I felt four things separate them from us: honesty in everyday transactions, hard work, discipline, and respect for manual labour. There, the people who work with their hands are not considered intrinsically inferior to those who work with their head. The plumber who cleans the gutter of your house speaks with no less assurance than the architect who designs your building. It is perfectly normal for an American woman college teacher to marry a bus driver.

In our country, Gandhi tried to spread the same message through his life, but failed. Even today, we hear “educated” Indians with swollen heads calling IT workers “cyber coolies”. There is little doubt that our intelligentsia’s aversion to and disdain for physical work – a throwback to our caste ridden social order – keeps pulling us backwards.

Rajen-da was my first nurse, Sudha-di’s husband. He had been a signwriter in baba’s firm once upon a time. When he became old and frail, he did odd jobs – like mentoring me – at our house. The childless couple lived near our house in a ten by eight feet room with a solitary window looking out into a crowded road where girls played hopscotch and women collected water from a standpipe. One of the four walls in their room was hidden behind a neat pile of Betar-jagat, the fortnightly periodical published by the All India Radio giving schedules of their programmes and a few short articles. Rajen-da’s only earthly possessions were those periodicals and a radio, of which he was an avid listener.

In our house, Ranjen-da had little work and used to read most of the time. He would read aloud poems of Rabindranath. When he came across an unknown word, he would say there was a misprint and replace Tagore’s writing with a word that he knew. Rajen-da was fond of speaking English. Elders often had a hearty laugh – behind his back of course – at his many malapropisms. But my English being more or less at the same level as his, I didn't see what was so funny about them.

Once, when I was slightly bigger, I hurt my leg while playing football. The last three toes of my right leg got bent and I couldn’t wear shoes. The injury was not considered serious enough to be reported to parents. Rajen-da massaged my foot for months with hot mustard oil until everything returned to their rightful place. Neither the patient nor the physiotherapist had heard about dislocation of a bone. Or maybe, the therapist knew, but didn’t mention the word in order not to frighten the patient.


  1. This is hugely touching and amusing to read. I also enjoyed your previous post very much, where you have talked about how various events of the outer world impinged upon your childhood consciousness.

    And this post, where you draw a picture of the domestic world of your childhood, peopled with ordinary-but-special figures from your past is written with such empathy and gentle humour.

    Don't you think such lovely memories, so wonderfully expressed, deserve something less ephemeral than a blog? A book perhaps?

  2. Picking up the fragments, ones and twos,
    With corners sharp and few edges chipped,
    Vignettes of the past in myriad hues,
    Some vividly live and others, wings clipped!

    The lost tunes of the whither world,
    Sights and smells in a mist,
    The teacher’s frown and the dreams unsold,
    The unbought items in the list!

    Ranga pishi, sejo mama, heard my pussy purring?
    The gust of wind from the trundling tram
    A giggle of laughter from the passing pram,
    Seeing a squirrel gone scurrying!

    Faces aglow after a ponderous wait,
    And brows stitched for good,
    Snatching a glance at her lovely gait,
    To lift a sagging mood!

    Was it yesterday or the day just before?
    Seems so sweetly close and yet never so quite,
    Aah! let me enjoy the sun burning bright,
    Before ‘now’ becomes no more!

    Santanu da, carry on with your lovely, lovely memoirs and just let us read and feel and smile!

  3. Thanks, Sucharita and Kaushik. That I can reach out to people like you is a wonderful feeling.

    Sucharita, I am actually thinking of a book, and your views give me tremendous confidence. But easiest part about a book is writing it. Getting it published by a reasonably good publisher is a tall order for someone like me. Anyway, let me see.

    Kaushik, I am floored. Your poem is absolutely wonderful. I loved it. I'll look forward to more!

    All best.

  4. 'During my visits to that country, I felt four things separate them from us: honesty in everyday transactions, hard work, discipline, and respect for manual labor.'

    So true. My first few days in US made me understand the dignity of labor. Me and my friend was renting a car. It was a black car and was dirty after few days of rigorous drive. Took it back to the rental place. A charming looking lady in her suit was at the front desk. We told her our need. We were expecting to hear american version of 'Oh Ramu.. gaadi wash karke dena..'. Instead to our amusement i saw the lady, remove her over coat, pull the car to the side, washed it clean handed the key back saying 'Have a good day sir'. Those few minutes made be un-learn a lot i learned in India!

  5. Many thanks, Sujith. The incident you have described is very significant and it perhaps conveys what I wanted to say more vividly.

    You wrote about reading my piece on the veedu in Koodali, didn't you? Thanks for coming back. All best.

  6. "When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to capture whole, for they break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl on their own will on to a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book..." (Steinbeck in the preface to Cannery Row).

    Santanu, I am reminded of this passage every time I read you. But what I like best is the way your stories attract so many beautiful responses - Kaushik, just to mention the latest. Keep at it!

    P.S. Another reason you should keep writing is that you will never make a good after-dinner OR after-anything speaker.

  7. It happens when Fate decides that a semi-literate dumb fellow be friends with the owner of a brilliant mind. The former can understand that the latter is offering a compliment, but can't make out if it is right- or lefthanded.

    Jokes apart, Joe, I couldn't agree with you more on what you have written about Kaushik and others, some of whom prefer sending me mails instead of commenting on the blog. I'm proud of my readership.

  8. Thanks Santanu da and Mr Joe for spoiling me with your overly kind words! I know I don’t quite deserve them for it was a hurried, coarse effort on my part with solecisms many, but I’m overwhelmed! Actually, Santanu da with his disarmingly simple, endearingly warm style makes us feel, smile and talk back. I think the great litterateur Orhan Pamuk, during his Nobel acceptance speech made somewhere a point like this : Tell stories about others as if they were your very own and when you talk about yourself, make us feel as if you were talking about them all!
    Santanu da does it so admirably well and it has such a cathartic effect on us! He unconsciously relegates himself into an obscure corner from where he curiously watches his characters play out their roles live and kicking as if they happened just the other day and I could trace so many of the vignettes of the bygone days, my lost and forgotten relations, their smiles and frowns in them! And at times he is so devastatingly and ruthlessly unsparing about himself that I only wonder why can’t I ever be like him! And as my little sister, Sayantani somewhere commented in his blog, let me echo her saying that the paltry or “0 comments” his blog posts attract are just symbolic of what we all collectively feel, “We have no words!”

  9. Yes, i stopped by reading your post on Koodali. There is something unique the way you tell the story, its worth coming back!

  10. Sir another beautiful post! Reminds me of Krishnan carpenter from my childhood. I used to have a lot of fun playing around while he worked, I learnt quite a few things from that time..


I will be happy to read your views, approving or otherwise. Please feel free to speak your mind. Let me add that it might take a day or two for your comments to get published.