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

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The third child

Our third child arrived when my wife and I were on the wrong side of forty, with two kids in their teens. A new arrival at such a time would normally cause some embarrassment. But this one didn’t, because he was a tiny little fox terrier puppy. He had a smooth white coat with black and brown patches, a long snout and a pair of mischievous button eyes. He was a spirited little thing that fitted onto a large palm, but wouldn’t stay there beyond seconds. He was the only male puppy in the litter, much more flamboyant than his docile sisters. We fell for him head over heels.

Since early puppyhood, he considered it a sacred duty to chase anything that moved, from double-decker buses to cockroaches to his own tail. I would say his tail was singularly lucky as he could never reach it. But in the process, he went round in a circle like a whirlwind. For this reason, he was christened Chorki, which means Catherine Wheel in Bangla. But Chorki could at best be a pet name; we named him Chakradhar Sinha Chaudhuri for formal occasions.

We expected him to cry on his first night at our home, that was what the pet-care books said. But he didn’t. He slept happily in a basket lined with soft cloth. At that time, we thought it was a sign of self-confidence, but later, we realised that it indicated, let me be honest, a streak of selfishness. He was not one to lose sleep over emotional issues.

That doesn’t mean he was devoid of emotions. He was still small when he did something that warranted a reprimand, the first in his young life. Early in the morning he got an earful. An hour or two later, as I was about to leave for office, my wife said Chorki couldn’t be seen. We searched our flat thoroughly, but he was nowhere. Normally, he would come rushing if anyone even whispered “Chorki!”, but that morning, there was no response to our frantic shouts. We were sure he had left the house at an unguarded moment. We lived in a busy road; a puppy wouldn't survive there for more than minutes. We braced ourselves for the worst.

He was found standing stiffly behind a curtain at the back of a TV, squeezing himself in the narrow gap between the curtain and the wall. When I picked him up, he turned his head away and looked elsewhere absently.

When Chorki was about two years old, we moved to a new flat. He was in his prime, an exceedingly agile and boisterous dog. He would express both happiness and dissatisfaction by barking loudly. Unfortunately for us and our neighbours, he would feel happy or displeased quite often. The Parnasree bus stand is about a hundred metres from our flat. If someone asked for the direction to our house, we would say, “Get off at Parnasree bus stand and wait for five minutes or less. You’ll hear a dog barking in a shrill voice. Follow the bark to reach our house.”

We hadn’t read Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat when we brought Chorki home. If we had, we would have known that some fox terriers are born with “twice as much of original sin”. The man who sold him – he was a genuine cheat – said with a straight face that no dog in Chorki’s line had ever bitten anyone. (“Believe me sir, Ma Kalir dibbi!”) We were naïve enough to trust him. It was even more foolish to repeat the claim to Chorki’s vet. Dr. Samanta smiled through a corner of his lips and said, “Let’s see, let him be eighteen months old. I am yet to come across a fox terrier that doesn’t bite.”

The day our son Ritwik was bitten by Chorki was the day he completed eighteen months of puppyhood and became a dog. Apparently, he liked the adult activity and repeated it many a time, often on unsuspecting admirers who tried to be too friendly despite our warnings. I have lost count of the number of prophylactic anti-Rabies injections we purchased and handed over to Chorki’s victims, besides offering profuse apologies. He is “one of those dogs that give dogs a bad name”, and make their owners a hated family.

But that was Mr. Hyde. There was also a Dr. Jekyll living between his shoulders. That Chorki was adorable, sweet, intelligent and ever ready for sport. Fetching a ball or a Frisbee was his favourite pastime. He would go on doing it for hours. Our arms would ache, but he wouldn’t give up. He would observe the thrower’s body language and try to guess the direction in which the ball would go. In nine out of ten cases, he would get it right. The next thing he liked most was to play a tug of war with a Tennicoit ring. He wouldn’t let go his side. If I lifted him up, he would hang on to the ring for many minutes.

For his size, he had incredibly strong jaws. If something on our rooftop caught his fancy, he would immediately bring it home. Once he tried for hours to take a bamboo pole through the terrace door. On that occasion, he encountered enormous problems and a rare defeat. But he would regularly carry bricks and small flowerpots home. At times, half way through the journey, he would lose interest in his mission and drop the flowerpot on the staircase. It was for us to clean up the mess.

He was a guard dog who slept rather well. One morning, there was an accident in our kitchen. A grain of daal got stuck in the nozzle of the pressure cooker. For some reason, the safety valve didn’t open. Under intense pressure, the gasket gave away at one side and the pressure cooker was flung in the opposite direction, just like a rocket. Fortunately, no one was in the kitchen. The cooker flew into the kitchen sink and the dishes broke with a huge clang. Our neighbours in the next flat were alarmed by the noise and came in to enquire.

But Chorki slept through the commotion peacefully.

He did try to contribute though. Thanks to him, our house has been free from cockroaches and lizards. Roaches were easy preys, but lizards were slightly difficult game. When he found a lizard on the wall, he would wait patiently for hours, and if the lizard made the mistake of climbing down, he would pounce upon the poor fellow. Chorki is old now, he wouldn’t chase even a dodo, but the cockroaches of our locality have been taught over generations that our house is a danger zone; even now, they don’t venture into our flat.

When I left my job and returned to Kolkata, he was no longer young. He slept under my writing desk for as long as I worked. And he would dutifully wake me up at five in the morning. Being a slightly pot-bellied middle aged male like me, he too needed his morning constitutional. I had no respite, even in the winter or on rainy days. We often walked on the terrace. I chose the longest diagonal and walked back and forth from end to end. Chorki followed, ten paces behind, at a slower pace. He cheated on exercising. As soon as I turned around at one end, he too made a U turn ahead of me. So effectively, for every fifty metres I covered, he walked only about thirty.

Chorki will be fifteen next month. Three years ago, he saw death from close quarters after undergoing a major surgery. This year, the winter in Kolkata has been the severest and longest in living memory. The temperature has been in low tens for almost a month. Chorki went into near hibernation. He would stay put in his bed, under a blanket. At times, he seemed to have stopped breathing. Even when he got up, he would walk gingerly and take care to keep the blanket over him wherever he went. But he had no complaints. He seemed to be enjoying the period of inactivity too.

The cold northern wind from the lake opposite to our house stopped blowing this morning. There is spring in the air. Chorki cast his blanket away and nudged me for a morning walk after months. He looks chirpy. He has weathered another winter.

I hope when I meet up with the near inevitability called old age, I would be able to face it with the grace and equanimity of Chakradhar.

Kolkata, 26 January 2010

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Put on your dancing shoes

Those who saw Roger Milla swinging hips after every goal scored by Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup can never forget his jigs, even if they forget his brilliant goals. In my memory, the people’s revolt against apartheid in South Africa is forever etched as a series of spirited songs and dances performed by thousands of people together.

In India, you cannot think of Punjabis without bhangra. Dances are central to marriage ceremonies not only for Punjabis, but also for many other North Indian communities. Neither can you imagine our tribal peoples, from Santhals to Nagas, without their community dances. Down south, one doesn’t see people dancing on roads, but Bharat Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathakali etc. are important facets of their polychrome culture.

We Bengalis do not dance. We are one of those dour communities of the world that do not express their joy by breaking into a jig, be it a wedding or a victory on the football pitch. What is worse, we dance at the most inopportune time, during the immersion of the Durga idol, when the Mother is leaving us for a year, when the occasion demands sobriety and quiet introspection. It’s almost like dancing at a funeral.

Ashok Mitra, an ICS officer and a fine writer of non-fiction, wrote that the dancing figures on temple walls in Bishnupur indicate that Bengal too had a classical dance form once. He suggests that just as the modern Orissi dance has been developed by studying the sculptures of Orissa temples, it should be possible to reinvent the Bengali dance by studying the temple figurines of Bishnupur.

These random thoughts crossed my mind as I sat beside a dance floor and watched a group of young men and women capering to the wild tunes of Hindi songs under wilder lights flashing from four corners. The celebration was happening at Ahmedabad, on the day before the wedding of a Sindhi girl with a Bengali boy. Maybe, Sindhis too are like Bengalis. Hardly anyone over thirty danced. And the dances were not traditional. They were very filmy.

The people of Gujarat make up for the total ban on alcohol by giving bizarre names to most innocuous joints. We came across the signs Coffee Bar and Ice Cream Pub. Had our stay been longer, perhaps we would have found a Lassi Inn or a Limejuice Tavern! The dance under reference was happening at a place with a truly hodgepodge name: The Buddha Coffee Bar.

We drank soft drinks or coffee as a giant statue of Buddha sat impassively at the far end of the dance floor. There were sofas around the floor. The walls were gaudily decorated with big red Chinese motifs. Possibly the designer wanted us to believe they were Tibetan. A screen on the opposite side of the Buddha alternately showed the dancing crowd and Omkara without the sound track. But the dancers were oblivious of the sinister designs of Langra Tyagi as they hipped and hopped, egged on by a DJ standing on an elevated stage. Most of the dances began slowly in near darkness, but as the crescendo approached, the steps and gyrations became faster and the light, more riotous. The sweating dancers came close and went apart, formed circles and broke them. The sound was deafening. One could see young hearts coming together and smell a whiff of jealousy from time to time.

As I sipped coffee sitting at a semi-dark corner, two slender girls in bright tops and black capris stood beside me. The older girl was about twelve or thirteen and the younger, maybe, ten. The older girl was dying to get on to the floor; her whole body was shaking with excitement. Clearly, the occasion was new to her. She possibly worried about how her parents would react if she danced in public. An invisible hand held her back. The younger girl was nudging her. Finally, the smaller girl gave her a mighty push and said, ‘Didi, Jah na!’

Didi obliged. She ran to the floor and broke into a dance as Towba teri jalwa, towba tera pyar! was reaching its crescendo.

Another young Indian girl broke off the shackles of hundreds of years.

Published in The Statesman on 6 January 2010

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Looking back

Bimochan Bhattacharya

[The author is my friend. He writes prose and poetry in Bangla. I am happy to share one of his reminiscences with you. The translation is mine. - SSC]

The year was 1978. A friend came to my office to inform that Amal, one of our close friends, was ill. He had been hospitalised because of food poisoning. I said I would drop in at the hospital in the evening.

After reaching the hospital, I came to know it was not food poisoning; Amal had had a cerebral stroke and his condition was critical. After returning home that evening, I went out again, to spend the night at the Medical College Hospital.

Not that night alone, we were at the hospital every night until the fourth of January, when Amal left us. But this story is not about Amal. It’s about someone else.

We spend the night at the hospital and come home in the morning, after a quick bite, go to office; on the way home, drop in at the hospital, and then go back again to spend the night there. That was the routine for ten of us during the time. We spread old newspapers and slept under the stairs. Another group of young men used to be there. Their patient was a boy of twenty/twenty-two years. We didn’t know what his problem was, but he would walk out of the ward to chat with his friends. He talked loudly, and often, in filthy language.

We were preoccupied with our friend and ignored his volley of profanities. But one day, we ran out of patience. A big fracas followed. The boy, who was the patient, shouted the most. One of the members of his group was Mir Kasim, a well known footballer of Kolkata at the time. After some time, when the temperature cooled down slightly, Mir took the boy into the ward. He came back and told us the boy was his brother. He was afflicted with blood cancer. None of us knew much about blood cancer then. Mir told us that the doctors had said his brother wouldn’t survive beyond a few days.

We felt awful and apologised to Mir. He said in a calm voice, ‘No, how would you know?’

Days and nights trudged past. Our friend’s condition fluctuated; he was better one day, and worse the next. We stopped reacting to the boy. On the contrary, we became friends with Mir and others of his group. One day, the boy even came to us and apologised for his rudeness.

One day late in the night, I woke up to find everyone sleeping. Someone was singing in a beautiful voice. The tune was perfect. A friend and me climbed up the stairs and saw the same boy, leaning on the banister of the first floor landing. He was looking at the dark sky beyond, and singing with his back towards us:

Tum na jane kis jahan mein kho gaye,
Hum bhari duniyamein tanha ho gaye …

Towards the end, when he sang

Loot kar mera jahan
Chhup gaye ho tum kahan, tum kahan …,

we too became a little emotional and returned to our place.

The next evening, a coffin was brought to the ward. We saw our companions for almost twenty days, Mir Kasim and his friends, crying bitterly. We were young then. We too hugged them and cried.

The boy who had been singing just a day ago came out as a corpse. That was the first time I covered my head with a handkerchief and put my shoulder under a coffin. The cortège left with him. The words “tum kahan, tum kahan” reverberated in my ears.

Exactly twelve days later, on the 4th of January 1979, we carried the remains of Amal to his home. We shouted “Hari Bol” on the way.