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

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Another time, through another pair of eyes

[I am posting this story for the second time for the sake of continuity in the Fragmensts of a broken mirror. If you have already read it, please wait for the next post which should arrive in a day or two.]

24th December: As soon as the train started moving, my sister and I stood up on a seat by the window. There were two rows of seats along the sides of the compartment. And there was another long seat in the middle with a backrest along its centre. On that, people sat back to back. We clutched the window rods and looked out. Rail stations, trees, houses, men, and women rushed past even as they stood still. It was amazing. It was as astonishing as hearing mother’s voice through a radio for the first time. Ma was telling the story of the War of Troy. I was sure that somehow, she had become very small and got into the radio, just as the Greek soldiers had got into the wooden horse. I looked through the grille behind the radio set, but didn’t see her. Ma has given “talks” over radio a few times after that, and each time, I have found it amazing. I am no longer small, but even now, I don’t understand how it happens. I asked baba about it, but what he said didn’t make sense.

We kept standing like that, with our back to other passengers, but we had to come down every now and then when bits of coal got into our eyes. Ma removed them by rolling a corner of her sari into a soft twig.

We got off at a place called Krishnanagar. Then we got onto a blue Bedford bus. (I know because my school has a green Bedford bus.) It was crowded. Many things were written inside in Bangla: “Don’t put your hand outside”; “Don’t spit inside”; “Beware of pickpockets”; “Company is not responsible for your goods” (Who is Company?); “Put children on your laps”; “No change for five- and ten-rupee notes”. There were many people on the bus, and a goat.

After some time, the conductor came and told ma that we could go to the “First Class” section if we wanted to. So we got off and boarded the bus again through the front door and sat behind the driver. A wire mesh behind us separated the first class from the rest of the bus.

Our journey ended at a marketplace, Haat Chapra. Babul-da and Mithu-da were waiting. I am calling them dadas, but actually, I hadn’t met them before. Babul-da is much bigger, he studies in class eight. He put our bags on the carrier of his cycle and pushed it along. Mithu-da is not much older than I. He said he goes to the market often, to see buses. (Both of them can ride bicycles. Will they teach me?)

Mashima, meshomoshai, their daughter, Alo-di, and a brown dog named Tiger welcomed us. Tiger is big, but very friendly. Uncle said all the thieves of the village are scared of Tiger; they never visit his house. Auntie gave us cold water in brass tumblers. They were so fat that we had to hold them with both hands.

Their house is not like the other houses. It is made of bricks. Behind the house is a big orchard with hundreds of tall leafy trees and a beehive. (Bees are dangerous.) The place is a little dark even during the day. Auntie cooks in a thatched hut beside the main building. We ate there, sitting on floor. The rice looked different from the rice we eat at home. It was reddish and the grains were much fatter; it tasted good. The pickle made of kul was great. A rack in auntie’s kitchen has a row of jars containing many different pickles. She offered us only one of them today.

25th December: In the morning, we heard the sound of a gong every five minutes. Then we all went to the church. Babul-da, Mithu-da and Alo-di were in new clothes. If you go inside a church, you will find that it is actually a big hall, with a stage at the far end. A priest in a long white robe stands there. Behind him are a big cross, a statue of Jesus’ mother, and many candles on large shining brass candle stands. On one side is a platform. It is for the church musicians. There are many desks and wooden benches in the church. Do they also hold classes there?

The prayers and the songs were in Bangla. The best part of Christmas was the roasted chicken that mashima prepared in the evening.

26th December: A fair has begun on the field behind King Edward Boys’ School (Established in 1852). There are many shops selling fried snacks, sweets, utensils, agricultural tools, clothes, and knick-knacks for decorating homes. There are merry-go-rounds and a Ferris wheel.

31st December: I love the Ferris wheel most, although it is scary and I get a funny feeling in the head when the basket tumbles down. My next favourite is shooting air guns. One day, I had spent all my cash recklessly and had no money for the Ferris wheel. As I stood before the Ferris wheel and watched it, a gentleman gave me a two-anna coin. I took it and took a ride. When I told ma about this, she became angry, unnecessarily. After all, I didn’t ask the gentleman to give me two annas!

Every afternoon during the last few days, there were contests where farmers placed their flowers, vegetables, cows and goats before judges. Auntie got a prize for a potted dahlia plant, and uncle got the prize for the biggest pumpkin in the show. There were also huge ash gourds and aubergines.

In the evenings, the fair ground came alive with magicians, jugglers and talking dolls under Petromax lights. (I forgot to say: there is no electricity in Chapra.) The magic show was not good. Babul-da could figure out most of the tricks. But how did the doll talk? How did it understand the questions asked by the audience?

We went to the fair all by ourselves. In a village, things are different. Children go round without an adult watching over them all the time.

I didn’t cry when we left.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Schools with buildings and without

[This is the ninth fragment of Fragments of a broken mirror]

Victoria Institution was named after the British Empress who ruled India from 1876 to 1901. Although a girls’ school, they allowed boys up to the fourth standard. My formal schooling began there as my ma taught at the school. It was a great way to begin: I was the only boy in a class of thirty and had a number of girl friends. Among the bevy of beauties, I had an almost serious relationship with a girl called Leena. Could I be so fortunate that she would read this memoir?

The Bus No. 3 that mother and I took every morning passed by an open space where monster cranes used to ram long steel joists into the ground. The hammer would be dropped through a casing from a great height and it would fall on the head of a joist with a huge clang. I would eagerly wait to see the spectacle of the hammer falling. On days it didn’t happen while we passed by, I would be badly disappointed. I could not have known then that an important chapter of my life would begin at that place. Much later, I went for an interview for a job on the thirteenth floor of the first Calcutta high-rise that came up there, a building named Jeevandeep.

In the bus, a notice was written in bold red letters. The authorities perhaps thought commands would be more effective in the former emperor’s language. With my limited English, I read it, rather, interpreted it as: No some king! After some thought, I came to the conclusion that on a bus, one was not supposed to behave like a king.

When I was at the second standard in my ma’s school, I took admission tests for class three at two Bangla-medium high schools, both exclusively for boys: St. Lawrence and Ballygunge Government High School. At St. Lawrence, the first question was “Write down your name.” I did. The second task was to write my father’s name. After writing the first two letters, I stopped because I didn’t know how to write the combination of two Bangla consonants that was a part of dad’s name. I did not bother to read the following questions and doodled until the time ended. That was the first recorded failure in my life. Many were to follow.

Our school was considered one of the best in Kolkata. At the entrance of the school compound was an old banyan tree, but it was too early for us to connect banyan trees with enlightenment. The football ground and the long two storey building with its wide corridor and big classrooms on one side overwhelmed me. So did the auditorium, where we would assemble for prayer at seven in the morning.

On the first day, Samir, with whom I shared a desk, kicked me through the school hours, while I rued the absence of feminine company. I was too preoccupied and timid to respond. Samir got bored, stopped kicking the next day, and became a somewhat condescending friend. He was a brilliant footballer. He used to play with much bigger boys of class five, and even amongst them, he dribbled through any defence and scored goals whenever he wished to. We all expected him to become a famous footballer, but he ended up in a bank instead. What a waste of talent!

The first thing that comes to my mind about my early schooling is the struggle to wake up, particularly in the winter, in absolute darkness. Ma would regularly carry a sleeping me and make me stand in the bathroom. I would wake up and start peeing the moment she splashed a mug of cold water on my feet. As ma and I waited for the school bus under the portico of Basusree cinema, municipality workers would wash the road with foaming jets of water. It would have been swept, and the detritus removed before we came out. By the time we boarded the bus, the city of my childhood would look like a freshly bathed beauty.

The school bus was driven by a burly man named Hiralal Babu, a strict disciplinarian. He wouldn’t even allow us to whisper while we were on his bus. That was my first brush with tyranny; since then, I have loathed every kind of authoritarianism. But there was no tyranny once we got off the bus and entered school. In winter, we loved to play hide-and-seek in the early-morning fog that enveloped the big playground in our campus. The watchmen would light a fire with dry leaves and we would warm ourselves during breaks from our sports.

Our headmistress, Aparna-di, was very fair, beautiful, and had a shock of curly black hair. She smiled all the time and was never angry; we loved her, and at the same time, were scared of her. She taught us Bangla in the fifth standard. Once baba took me to her house – she was distantly related to him. It was a small house with a handkerchief garden in front. I think she lived alone. She had a huge Alsatian for company.

At the primary school, we had both male and female teachers, all of whom were, I think, over thirty and mature individuals who understood children. Elderly Usha-di was our first music teacher and the first song that we tried out in chorus was Aguner parashmani. With thirty boys singing about twenty-five different tunes, it must have been trying for our teacher. I do not remember another music class when we all sang together.

Although we weren’t burdened with much homework, we were given weekly tests regularly, possibly on Fridays. That ensured we had a nodding acquaintance with the text books. While handing back the test papers after correction, the teachers would ask us to add up the marks once again. I do not know if it was a deliberate method to make us more confident children (who would have in the back of their minds that they could verify what adults did). No one would ever find a mistake. Only once I found I was awarded one mark more than what I should have been. I pointed out the error to our teacher. (After this point, my biography diverged from that of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.)

The teacher reduced one mark and added two to the total. He said, ‘The extra mark is for honesty.’

Corporal punishments were rare. My only experience was when we had gone to a place next to Bandel Church for a picnic. Anup and me went to explore an underground chamber in a dilapidated building there. Although we didn’t find any buried treasure, the adventure was highly successful and satisfying. But sadly, as we were coming out, we met with our assistant headmaster, Khagen Babu. I wouldn’t like to discuss what followed.

Rakhal Babu once told us the story of Christopher Columbus’s expedition to America.

‘When Columbus saw neither land, nor a shore based bird even after 28 days into the voyage’, our teacher said, ‘the crew became restive. Some of his sailors were convicted murderers. Queen Isabella had released them only because they had agreed to join the dangerous mission. Rations were running out, starvation and death stared the crew in the eyes. They were nervous and angry. The first mate had overheard some of them planning a mutiny … these murderers would stop at nothing. That evening, Columbus looked into the mist and endless gloom beyond the gunwale as an oil lamp swayed and threw light and darkness alternately … the sailors might kill him if he didn’t give into their demand and turn back … the lamp was swaying … there was darkness and then there was light … he knew he was destined to be a man of history. He was the chosen one to discover an alternate sea route to India ….’ The teacher took a group of spellbound boys aboard Santa Maria.

Middleclass families like ours considered education a valuable asset mainly because they thought it was the only key that might open a door to prosperity. We grew up hearing the doggerel:
Podashona kore je
Gadi-ghoda chade she.

Study well. As a matter of course,
You’ll drive a car or ride a horse.

But lots of highly educated people lived a much less glamorous life, in fact, in penury. Father’s only brother, who had a brilliant mind and was a master of many trades, was one of them. So there were serious doubts about the adage just mentioned and we heard another take on it:
Podashona kore je
Gadi-chapa pode she.

Study well. As a matter of course,
You’ll be trampled by a carriage horse.

Despite the somewhat iffy prospects of studying well, education was considered important and it was not pursued with pecuniary motives alone. In fact, it was considered valuable also because it opened a door to spiritual betterment, a goal that possibly more people pursued those days than now.

My father was a businessman who worked out of home. The first room as we entered our flat was his office. In that room was a huge table, the top of which was covered with a beige synthetic sheet of Rexene, a material that is not seen anywhere nowadays except in railway coaches. At night, the table would serve as baba’s bed. After supper, my father, who achieved little or no material success in life and was constantly dogged by financial problems, would lie down on the bare table in a white khadi dhoti wrapped around his waist, with a book in hand. Resting his head on an air pillow that ordinary mortals used while travelling on trains, he read until early morning. Every night. He had an eclectic taste and read anything from Indian philosophy – Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan was his favourite author – to palaeobotany, whatever that might mean. He loved poetry, but didn't touch fiction. He often quoted the Sanskrit saying: The king is worshipped only in his own country, but a scholar is worshipped everywhere.

Baba’s enthusiasm for gathering knowledge did not translate into me becoming a good student. I was just about average. But my sister and I were not under constant pressure to excel. A Bengali scholar, Rabindra Kumar Dasgupta, who was born in 1915, wrote:

[When we were children] no parent tried to make supermen out of their offspring. Some of the visitors to our house asked me what I would become after growing up. I didn’t know how to answer them. One day, I asked my father, ‘What will I be when I grow up?’ He said, ‘There’s no need to think about it now.’ I said that some of our guests asked me the question. He said, ‘Tell them you’ll be a vegetable vendor.’ I did not think it was an unusual proposition. After that, when a relative asked me, ‘What will you be when you grow up?’ I said, ‘I’ll sell vegetables.’

About forty years later, in our childhood too, there was hardly any pressure on children to become supermen, neither at home, nor at school. My repeated failures to excel in studies did not upset my parents too much and there was plenty of fun outside school. A longish vacation to some interesting place was common, particularly during the month-long summer or autumn holidays.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

The wheels of change

[This is the eighth instalment of Fragments of a broken mirror. The seventh, A radio and two confused children was posted on 6 May 2010.]

My father didn’t believe in saving for the rainy day, although rainy days were not uncommon for him. In general, Bengalis were not thrifty. I think that hasn’t changed much. They are still fond of good food and spend a large part of their income on “bread and wine”, the wine being a recent phenomenon and largely a male passion, till now. They also travel possibly more than any other community in India. Of late, Bengalis have also been spending large sums on their children’s private tuition. When we were children, “private tutors” were like telephones, meant only for the privileged few. Middleclass families earned so little that most of it had to be spent on food.

Bengalis ate rice, dal, and vegetables at lunch and supper. Most Kolkata homes had no refrigerators; food would be cooked twice a day by housewives or domestic helps.  Hiring a full-time help was much cheaper than buying a fridge. There was always a full-time cook in our house as mother went out to work. Fish was relatively inexpensive and was a part of our meals. I used to look forward to Sunday mornings, when I would take Rs.4 from mother and stand in a queue to buy a kilogram of mutton. In fact, if one walked through residential districts of the city on a Sunday morning, one would often smell meat being cooked. Chicken was a rare delicacy and cost much more, possibly twice as much as mutton. Milk was not freely available, the only supplier being one government run dairy farm. For their daily quota of milk, families had to procure a “card”, after overcoming almost insurmountable obstacles. There were long queues – queues were a common sight those days – before government run milk booths every morning. Bananas were available through the year, and mangoes and oranges in their seasons. But apples, pears, and grapes cost a fortune; they were expected to be consumed only by those who were unlikely to live long. (Personally, I recall having bought one apple on behalf of my family while I was in school.)

Today, all these are available in abundance and even the poor can buy milk and eggs, and to a lesser extent, poultry and fruits. This must have been one of the greatest achievements of independent India, particularly in view of the three-fold increase in population.

Hand-pulled rickshaws are extinct everywhere in the world except Kolkata. Although their number has declined, they remain as a definitive symbol of a city that lives in the past. Nowadays, mostly women and the elderly use this mode of transport, but one also comes across well-dressed overweight men carrying I-phones or Blackberries being pulled by scantily clad wiry rickshaw pullers. Bygone times drive the twenty-first century in Kolkata, both on its roads and in the realm of political philosophy.

Fifty years ago, the idea of man pulling man with bare arms was accepted without questions. In the morning, men were often seen carrying two bags overflowing with vegetables travelling by rickshaws from the marketplace to their homes. For short hauls, particularly in narrow lanes and alleys where no buses went, rickshaws were the only means of public transport. I think the rickshaws were cheap and the pullers earned a pittance for all the hard work they did. But they extracted their pound of flesh when the city went under water after heavy showers, which happened often. They were invariably from Bihar; Bengalis were either chary of physical labour or too snooty, or both, to undertake the job. Even now, rickshaw pullers of Kolkata are invariably from Bihar or Jharkhand, although mostly Bengalis run cycle-rickshaws, which ply in the suburbs.

Rickshawallahs lived on the roads of the city and many slept on the footboards of their rickshaws, curled up like shrimps. They ate dough of powdered chickpeas with salt and chillies. At quiet street corners, one would often find a man sitting with a weighing balance, a few shining aluminium plates, a bagful of gram, salt, chillies and an earthen pot of drinking water. Rickshaw pullers and other manual labourers had their meals there. Those were perhaps the most rudimentary eateries in the history of mankind.

Taxis – some of them Fords and Dodges – were driven by amiable stately Sardarjis with flowing white beards that fluttered like flags of eternal peace.  They were impeccable and saintly and never cheated a client. Women would board a taxi driven by a Sardarji without apprehension. Incidentally, I am writing this memoir thanks to one of them. Once I tried to run across a road ignoring the traffic signal. A taxi driver exhibited exquisite driving skills to save me. A bearded face smiled at me from the cab, said nothing, and drove on.

Sardarji taxi drivers of Kolkata have been replaced by men from Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh, depriving the city of one of its most charming mascots.

Newspapers claimed that Calcutta Tramways Corporation was among the best transport systems in the world. I was too young to make any comparison, but the spanking tramcars were always clean and packed to capacity most of the times. They had large windows and were spacious and airy inside. Above the 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 punctually at four in the morning and the last reported to depots only when the city was fast asleep. They continued to be punctual even until the seventies, when one of my friends, Jyoti, commuted from Park Circus to a jute mill outside the city. He took the first tram at Park Circus at four in the morning towards Sealdah station. In the four years he worked in the mill, the tram didn’t let him down even once.

Kalighat tram depot was a little farther down the road from our house, on the same side of the road. Once, late in the night, a tram driver mistakenly thought he had reached the depot when he came in front of our house. He turned the tramcar straight into the petrol station next to our house.

The only other means of public transport were buses. There were private buses when I was very small, but over time, they were replaced by “state buses”. These buses were red and sported the CSTC (Calcutta State Transport Corporation) logo with the head of a Royal Bengal Tiger. Many of them were double-decker Leylands imported from England. I now know that the Chief Minister of West Bengal, Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy was unlike Bengalis. He spouted no philosophy, but did solid work like setting up the largest dairy farm of the time (the sole supplier of milk to Kolkata), many heavy industries, several residential townships and engineering colleges, including the first IIT in India. As a child, I neither knew nor cared for his other achievements, but CSTC was a part of my world. Dr. Roy set up the public transport company and employed refugees from East Pakistan to run the buses. They were also known as “Bidhan Babur bus”.

I travelled by a “Bidhan Babur bus” daily for a year.

[The picture of the rickshaw is courtesy Wikipedia. The tram is from www.calcuttatramways.com]

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Picnic on a volcano

An American executive of the multinational company DuPont narrated this story to a friend of mine when they met at an international conference. DuPont had been setting up a plant in China and the person who my friend met had been in the team negotiating with the Chinese authorities. The Chinese laid before the foreign investors a map of the area and asked them to identify their preferred location. After they marked a point on the map, they were taken to inspect the place. The area consisted of an old village with people, homes, and everything. A few months later, the land was delivered to DuPont in the shape of a barren tract, shorn of every sign of the past human settlement.

The story fits in with the information available on China. The worst of both worlds seem to have converged there: greed of capitalism and ruthlessness of totalitarianism.

It is therefore paradoxical that the Maoists who are waging an armed struggle to protect the Central Indian tribals from forced eviction aim to set up a structure similar to the one in the People’s Republic of China. Arundhati Roy and others, who have emerged as their spokespersons, are not unaware of this. Roy says: “But can we, should we let apprehensions about the future immobilise us in the present?”

I heard Arundhati Roy speak in Kolkata recently . Much of what she and Goutam Naulakha said that evening is in Roy’s article Walking with the Comrades in the Outlook magazine (29 March 2010) that has created a furore. Roy goes deep into issues and raises the level of the debate to a height that is scarcely reached by the self-seeking politicians who decide our destiny. That evening, despite my misgivings about her sympathies, I felt I was hearing someone who history might treat with great respect in the future.

The Indian Forest Act, 1927, India’s main forest law, was created to serve the colonialists’ need for timber.  It redefined the traditional rights and forest management systems by declaring forests state property. Sadly, the Constitution of free India ratified the colonial position and the forest dwellers continue to be “encroachers” on the land they enjoyed for millennia. As the NGO Campaign for Survival and Dignity  put it, “Their lives became a legal twilight zone. At any time anything can be taken away; your land, your livelihood, your money and, if you resist, your freedom.  The forest guard is king, and, as the Warli adivasis say, is interested only in daru, kombdi and baiko – liquor, chickens and women.”

Until 1980, there were no Naxalites in Dandakaranya, the primordial, 60,000-square-kilometre forest that is home to millions of people. Three entities existed there: tribals, the largest among them Gonds, non-tribals, and the government. The entire commerce, including the lucrative trade in tendu leaves, was and still is in the hands of non-tribals. The traders made millions while the people were paid in paise. But the biggest scourge for them, Roy says  echoing the view quoted earlier, was the Forest Department: “Every morning, forest officials … would appear in villages like a bad dream, preventing people from ploughing their fields, collecting firewood, plucking leaves, picking fruit, grazing their cattle, from living. They brought elephants to overrun fields and scattered babool seeds to destroy the soil as they passed by. People would be beaten, arrested, humiliated, their crops destroyed. Of course, from the forest department’s point of view, these were illegal people engaged in unconstitutional activity, and the department was only implementing the Rule of Law.” [Walking with the comrades]

In 1980, a small band of Naxalites came in from Andhra Pradesh and began working among the tribals. They organised the local people. Protests and strikes followed, leading to better remuneration for the forest dwellers. Emboldened, they went on to throw away the forest officials and successfully fought the police who came in to protect the forest machinery. The Maoists claim that between 1986 and 2000 they distributed 3,00,000 acres of land for cultivation and “there are no landless peasants in Dandakaranya”  now. As of now, the Maoists run a government in much of the area and collect “tax” from forest contractors and mines.

The latest spiral of violence began in 2005, after Chhattisgarh government signed MoUs with Essar and Tatas to set up two steel plants, the terms of which are secret. The government backed militia Salwa Judum was set up the same year. Salwa Judum’s was a ground clearing operation aimed at clearing land for the steel plants and mines. They, together with the police, moved out people from their homes and herded them into camps. They stole chickens, pigs, and cattle, killed and raped, and burnt down village after village with impunity. The Maoists retaliated, killing Salwa Judum members, alleged police informers and policemen, including 76 men in a single ambush in April. The situation started drifting towards a civil war.

Did it have to happen?

Dantewada, which is at the eye of the storm, was the least literate district in India as per the 2001 census. Himangshu Kumar, a Gandhian social worker, has been providing educational and legal aid there since 1992. His Vanvasi Chetna Ashram was demolished  by Chhattisgarh police in May 2009. Dr. Binayak Sen was kept in jail for two years, without a shred of evidence against him. Chhattisgarh government does not tolerate even Gandhian activities aimed at improving the lot of the poor. Not even legal or medical aid to them!

In an article  in Hindustan Times (19 April 2010), Ashish Chadha, a former activist of Narmada Bachao Andolon (NBA) says that the non-violent NBA hasn’t made any impact on our rulers, whereas the Maoist armed struggle has. Chadha also says it is a people’s movement: “This is different [from earlier Naxalite movements] because this time there is no Brahmin, no intellectual, no middle-class activists leading them.”

Chadha has a point: our rulers are deaf to everything except the rattle of guns. They have squeezed out the democratic space and are out to achieve military victory. The Maoist violence is basically counter-violence: an extreme response to a pathological stimulus. It is possible that, in their quest to win state power, the Maoist leadership is using the poor merely as pawns. In an interview with Smita Gupta published in the Outlook (22 February 2010), a Maoist commander made a chilling observation: “They can only kill innocents, not us.

Even if we put aside the philosophical question whether violence can lead us to a more civilised society, by no stretch of imagination can we think that the Maoists will ultimately win and set up a People’s Republic of Dandakaranya. On the contrary, the situation is likely to go the Sri Lanka way, bringing untold misery to people and loss of countless lives on either side.

That can be prevented only if the civil society stands up and forces the government to work for the poor instead of working as agents of private capital like Tata and Essar. Also, the government must give dignity back to the forest dweller.

The proposition looks absurd at the moment. The mainstream political parties from the left to the right are ranged against the poor and people outside the conflict zones know little about the cataclysm. Only a few papers like the Outlook and the Statesman have been reporting the “other side” of the story. The electronic media are sold out on the government’s economic agenda and behave more like cheerleaders in a stadium than serious analysts.

Our tragedy is that while 70 million Adivasis in Central India are being pushed to the brink, no one cares. Rather, we are all engrossed in our private happiness. Aren’t we having “a picnic on a volcano ”?

[Agneogirir sikhare picnic (Picnic on a volcano) is the title of a Bangla book by late Ashoke Rudra]

Kolkata / 3 May 2010

Friday, 7 May 2010

He should be hanged, but ...

jin•go•ism / noun / [U] (disapproving) a strong belief that your own country is best, especially when this is expressed in support of war with another country <> jin•go•is•tic / adjective / [Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary]

I am a common man with just about average intelligence, someone who Americans would call an ordinary Joe who’s not a plumber. I haven’t quite got on in life, and to make matters worse, of late, I’ve been getting on in years. My son and daughter lovingly call me the oldie and I am not sure if my daughter-in-law too does. 

This self-indulgent intro is just to tell you that if you wish, you can jolly well ignore what follows as an old man's ramble, bakwas! 

During the last few days, ALL the 24x7 TV news channels (aren’t they actually 24x7/2?) have been talking almost only about Ajmal Kasab, one of the 10 terrorists who killed 174 people in 2008. To begin with, the speculation was around whether Kasab would be found guilty. Sadly, unlike cricket matches, bookies don’t decide the outcome of criminal cases. (Sadly for the bookies, that is.) He was found guilty. Then the debate turned into whether he would be given life sentence or death. No surprises there either. Chest-thumping public prosecutors and policemen congratulated themselves on their brilliant work leading to the death verdict (of the gun totting man who was clearly filmed by CCTV cameras and an intrepid photographer who risked his life to take the shot I have reproduced thanks to Wikipedia). Our TV channels, the conscience keepers of the nation, presented the story with the unmixed joy seen when India wins a cricket tournament.

But the debate is hardly over. The grave questions that are being debated threadbare are: (A) Whether the High Court and the Supreme Court will uphold the guilty verdict. (B) If they do – the public prosecutors will surely sweat blood to see that that happens – will they reduce the punishment to life sentence? (C) If the death sentence stands, will the President of the Republic show him mercy? (D) If she doesn’t, when he will be hanged! (E) And how?

Of the many impassioned commentators, let me mention one. Alyque Padamsee, a leading theatre man, demanded, with all the theatrical skills at his command, that mere hanging won’t do. Kasab should be given exemplary punishment. What was he hinting at? The man should be stoned to death at a public square, or maybe, at Brabourne Stadium? Ultimately, Padamsee suggested, in all seriousness, that a special jail be made in Lakshadweep (our own Guantanamo Bay?) where Kasab should be kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to meet another human for the rest of his life. With a twinkle in his eyes, Padamsee added, “He might even live another sixty years!” The salient feature of the punishment is – it was explained – the man must suffer!

The scope of the debate has been further expanded. In a discussion, anchor Barkha Dutt tried to impress upon her audience that India should not talk to Pakistan until that country has taken care of the terrorists there. That means, me thinks, never. I am waiting for the day when NDTV decides that India goes to another war against Pakistan.

One can understand the pain of the people who lost their near ones in the ghastly attack. It is perfectly normal that many of them want the harshest punishment for the mass murderer. A certain amount of anguish among the general public is also understandable. Although I respect the view that death penalty should be abolished, I don’t share it. I think Kasab deserves death.

But should we, can we pit a nation of one hundred and fifteen crore against a twenty-two-year-old misguided man? Are we not demeaning ourselves in the process?

07 May 2010

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The lovers of music

Fifty years ago, when I was a child, the telephone was invariably black, with circular dials and a heavy, dumbbell-like receiver. It was to be found only in a few privileged households. Individual owners of cars were the equivalents of billionaires of the present time. Pishemoshai had one, a black Hillman usually driven either by himself or a nattily dressed Gurkha chauffer, Samuel. The car was the chariot for our rare journeys to the other half of the world. Once, after seeing off aunt – who had just left on one of her many trips to England – at Dumdum airport, pishemoshai took my sister and me to Trincas, an upmarket restaurant in Park Street. It was shortly before noon on a Sunday, the place was almost empty. A European couple were dancing on the floor to the beat of recorded music. Sister and I ate banana split: half a banana cut along its length and stashed away between two slabs of ice cream sprinkled with nuts. For a long time, I couldn’t get over the surprise of discovering a banana in an ice cream. During childhood, it was our only foray into an air-conditioned restaurant with liveried waiters.

Unlike the telephone, a gramophone was seen in many houses. It was a defining symbol of middleclass happiness. Shukhi grihakon, shobhe gramophone, said the HMV slogan. (Happiness is shown, if there’s a gramophone.) 

Happiness became visible in our house when I was seven or eight, shortly after an aborted attempt by father to buy a new radio, a story I’ll tell later. The heavy second-hand teak-wood gramophone was housed in a large wooden cabinet in which a spiralling speaker was hidden behind a screen. Its timbre was magnificent. With enormous patience we would wind the gramophone every time we wanted to hear a song for four 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 songs with a wistful look on his face. Much later, I heard Tamal Kaku was a talented singer who could not pursue a musical career as he had to take care of six younger siblings. One of his brothers, Rakhal Kaku, did take music seriously. He was a disciple of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Whenever we went to their house in Bhowanipur, we found Rakhal kaku practising classical music alone, with the accompaniment of a tanpura. He did not become a successful singer because he died in his thirties, possibly because of substance abuse. 

In the 1950s and 60s, programmes of classical music were held in the winter in theatres and open-air auditoriums. One of my numerous uncles – I do not remember who he was – once took me to a music conference. We all sat cross-legged under a marquee on hessian mats covered with milk-white cloth. Every inch of that large make-shift auditorium was taken up by eager listeners who sat with rapt attention in pin-drop silence. There were many people outside the venue too. Amplifiers were fitted so that they could enjoy the music gratis as they braved the nippy Kolkata winter under an open sky. I fell asleep as soon as the first singer began his slow, languid prelude and was woken up when darkness was giving way to light. 

Although I slept through the programme, the seriousness of that audience was deeply etched in my mind. Much later, when I went to hear the Pakistani singer, Mehdi Hassan at an indoor stadium in Hyderabad, I was surprised to see tea and peanuts being sold and people talking even while Hassan was singing his lovely gazals. When I was a child, I didn’t know that no significant Indian classical musician would consider that they had had a successful year unless they performed in Kolkata during the winter, and was admired by the audience here.

The musical world of the city had space for the less highbrow genres too. On Sundays, Pankaj Kumar Mullick conducted a programme on the All India Radio (AIR) to train listeners on singing. Although the name of the programme mentioned sangeet, Pankaj Kumar taught almost exclusively Rabindra Sangeet or songs of Tagore. People listened to the programme with utmost seriousness, although most of them didn’t fancy their chances of becoming singers. Other musical programmes were popular too. AIR was the only body of its kind and enjoyed an importance that can be scarcely imagined by the numerous TV and radio stations of today. Also, despite having no competition, it didn’t drift into lazy complacence. The high standards of their productions were apparent even to us children. But the announcers were dull; they merely announced the names. They would hardly talk, unlike the present day radio jockeys, who build up a warm rapport with their audience. 

In the morning of the first day of the Bangla calendar, a music programme would be held in the theatre opposite our house. Almost all the famous popular singers and film stars would participate in the function. It would begin with junior artistes and as time progressed, more and more formidable performers would take the stage. The last slot was reserved for Hemanta Kumar every year.

The theatre accommodated about five hundred people, but at least ten times that number gathered outside to listen through amplifiers fitted by the organisers, as in the case of the classical music programmes. The crowd ignored the scorching April sun and stood on the pavement for the pleasure of listening to good music and to see film stars in flesh and blood. A ripple of excitement swept them whenever someone important turned up. The greatest excitement happened when Uttam Kumar arrived.

[Acknowledgment: The photograph Pandit DV Paluskar is from Wikipedia.]