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

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Fun, frolic, and a bit of violence

[The photos are from Calcuttaweb.com. The old Howrah Bridge seen above had vanished long before I was born. The other three buildings are still there. In my childhood, the roads in front of them were not so empty or clean and the carriages were not drawn by horses, but the city did not look very different from what you see here.] 

As if to prove the adage A watched pot doesn’t boil, the shadow of the petrol station portico would take an eternity to reach a keenly watched point to tell me it was four o’ clock. I had to wait till that magic moment for going to Kalighat Park, which has stopped being a park and has turned into a water treatment plant.

Occasionally, after a game of football or cricket there, we bought ice cream from yellow push carts sporting the Magnolia logo. 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. And to distrust ... 

Memory acts like a sieve. Unhappy experiences pass through and disappear, but the happy ones remain. If, after reading so far, you felt everything was proper and pristine in Kolkata in the 1950s, it wouldn’t be my fault. That's how memory works. But I do remember a few sad things vividly.

Bengalis are not a martial race, but are quite prone to violence. Those days, it was common for teenagers and older boys of one locality to go to war against boys of another area. These young men wouldn’t always fight face to face when forces were balanced on the opposite sides. Rather, they would look for an opportunity to capture a lone soldier or two from the enemy camp and beat them to pulp. I was a witness to such cowardly violence many a time. It has had two impacts on my psyche. Firstly, I don’t think I will ever be able to hurt a defenceless person, not only physically, but even otherwise. Secondly, I have always had a mortal fear of being a victim of physical violence.

Sport primarily meant football: East Bengal, Mohan Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting. We were prepared to kill and be killed for our team. Even if a goal was scored off a corner kick against our team, we would be convinced that the scorer was off side! 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 or 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 total silence: ‘Mr. Meckiff, next summer, the 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 Pankaj Roy, Allan Davidson, or Ray Lindwall in flesh and blood. (I was among the 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 Pearson Surita, 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.

Besides sports, there were not many sources of entertainment for children. Movies were rare gusts of happiness limited to Ben Hur, Ten Commandments or Do aankhe baara haath.

These days, one doesn’t often see Bengali brides crying when they leave their parents’ home. In 1962, my mother’s youngest sister got married at a wedding hall in Harish Mukherjee Road. The next morning, she left for her new home in Shillong. A large retinue of family members trooped to Dumdum Airport to see them 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 little 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 the way a drowning woman would clutch at straws. I said, ‘Enough is enough, I think it’s time you stopped crying.’

She snapped in unadulterated Sylheti, ‘Sup kar! Amar ki fattharer pran?’ (Shut up! Is my heart made of stone?)

The Calcutta in which I grew up had clean roads, less noise, and lesser crowds. Roads were swept and main thoroughfares washed with jets of water every morning. There were hardly any taller than three-storey structures; the sky was bigger. The footpaths were paved with rough stones. There were hawkers, but they were yet to take over the city. It was a joy to walk the roads of the city. In the evening, gas lights would be lit in lovely little parks that were seen perhaps only in a dream.

Children were not at the centre of the family. Elders wrote letters and the postman delivered them at least twice a day. A man would be measured by what he had in is head rather than how much he had in his bank. It took longer to travel across the city, but people lived closer to each other. Usha Uthup sang at Trincas. Even the rich went to government hospitals for treatment. Some of the best schools too were run by the government. The metropolis, known as Calcutta to the rest of the world, was still one of the finest cities. People thought things would become better.

In the last fifty years, more gadgets became a part of people’s lives than what had in the previous fifty thousand years. More than anything else, technology has irrevocably changed the way people think. For example, no one will ever write, like the Bengali poet Naresh Guha,

If, upon return to Kolkata
As I whispered her name,
The evening mail brought in her letter – 
If she herself came?

[This brings to an end the memoir covering my childhood: Fragments of a broken mirror, posted intermittently on this blog.]

Friday, 2 July 2010

Printed letters - A postscript

For most children today, printed letters have been replaced by moving images on a TV screen, at least in our country. Very few fortunate children develop the habit of reading. After reading my remark “When I gave a book to a nephew … I saw a shadow of disappointment cross his face”, a reader, Sujith has commented that it is not so in at least one first world country, the USA. He writes:
… let me tell you how different (it is) here in NY. Kids are groomed to develop the taste for reading. My daughter is in kindergarten and it’s amazing how much emphasis is given to reading. Every week her teacher sends a book home and we have to read with her. Also parents are encouraged to buy books from a company and the company donates a book to the class library. Whenever I travel, I see Americans always reading something, on the flight or train or at airports. Now I know where it comes from.
I am obliged to Sujith for sharing this piece of information with me. My wife and I were in the US when my grandson was born at Yale University Hospital. Immediately after his birth, several counsellors visited his parents and urged them to read to the infant right from day 1. In fact, the reading had begun even before that. Researchers have found that babies in womb too respond to reading and would-be-parents are encouraged to read aloud for the benefit of the baby even before s/he is born.  I also found their system of public libraries amazing and wrote about it in my post titled Libraries in the US.

It was the time when Barrack Obama was trying to become the president. One of the main planks of Obama’s future plans was to make American children better students, so that they could compete with Indians and Chinese. Here in India, as opportunities are limited, some children study hard because they know they have no other choice. But I am yet to recall an election speech by an Indian politician in which education is mentioned even peripherally.

Coming back to the children who grow up with the TV as their main companion, I am sure their world is a lot more colourful and things happen at a much faster pace there. We used to gather information slowly, by reading. These days, children directly interact with the world beyond their immediate surroundings with two senses, eyes and ears. Also, they get to receive a lot more information than we did. As a result, they are vastly more well-informed than we were. And smarter.

But they miss out on one aspect. They “see” stories, mainly cartoons. We didn’t see things directly. For us, eyes were just a tool to decode the enormous wealth of information hidden in printed letters. We actually saw with our mind’s eyes. Whether it was a journey to the moon or the centre of the earth, every child in my childhood travelled to their personal imaginary destinations. Each young reader had their own perception about of Fagin’s brutality or Dr. Livesey’s gentlemanliness.

Many children of the twenty-first century, though rich in information, do not have the luxury of imagination. The see the way TV producers want them to see things.