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

Friday, 25 June 2010

Printed letters

“That morning, I was reading ‘Jal pode, pata node (Water trickles, the leaf trembles.)’. To me, that was the first poem written by the Original Poet. … water kept trickling and leaves kept trembling on my whole consciousness through the day.” – Rabindranath Tagore (Jeevansmriti)

I was introduced to the fascinating world of printed letters through a comic depicting the Ramayana. Those days, every Bengali child began with a few books by Upendra Kishore Ray Chaudhuri: Tuntunir Boi and Chhotto Ramayana. After a few years, they would read Abanindra Nath Tagore. Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli (Grandma’s bag) and a few more books with similar eponymous names were collections of fairy tales that smelt of the earth and waters of Bengal. Generations of Bengali children read the books, until a gust of “English medium education” – long after the Englishmen had left – changed their language, and to an extent, their cultural moorings. According to oral history, Thakurmar Jhuli was originally told by a village drummer or dhuli in a remote village in the district of Mymansingh, East Bengal.

Sona Dhuli sat under a pipal tree and narrated the stories to his bemused listeners. He became famous, but as he stopped drumming to tell his tales, he also became poorer. It happens if you leave a secure career in search of the esoteric. Sona Dhuli didn’t have enough to eat, but told his tales till the end. Dakshina Ranjan heard the stories during his visits to Dighpait, his mother’s village. [Dayamayir Katha, Sunanda Sikdar, Gangchil, Kolkata, 2010, pp 64-65].

Dakshina Ranjan did a great service to Bengal by recording the tales for posterity. One would never know how many such gems have been lost forever. It would be inevitable in a society where knowledge is passed on through speech. It reminds me of the Thomas Gray lines that my father was fond of quoting:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear.
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Till I reached the sixth standard, my school used to be over by 10.30 in the morning. I returned to an empty home as sister studied at a day school and mother too would be in hers. I spent the afternoons alone. The long solitary hours helped me create a world in my mind which I venture into even now, although not very often. As the languid street cries of the men offering many domestic services floated in from the deserted afternoon streets and crows cawed to accentuate the loneliness, I spent hours watching ants undertaking trans-continental journeys in the cracks and crevices of the parapet wall on our terrace. The room on the terrace had all kinds of junk, but it was also a space ship that explored galaxies.

I would also read a storybook lying prone on a mat with a pillow under my chest. The books in our house helped. More importantly, ma introduced me to the treasure trove that was her school library; in the evening, I would search her bag to check what book she had brought for me.

Dickens, Jules Verne, Robert Luis Stevenson and Alexander Dumas were my favourite. I read Bangla translations of The treasure island and the adventure stories of Jules Verne many times over. Captain Nemo was the obvious childhood hero, more so because he was an Indian who ruled the depth of oceans. Bibhuti Bhushan’s Chander Pahad (The mountain of the moon) was another book I loved. (I rate it among the finest in the world literature for children.) Besides, there was Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol (Abracadabra), a collection of nonsense verse which I think remains unmatched to this day in the two languages that I seriously know, even after taking Edward Leer and Ogden Nash into account. And of course, Sukumar Ray’s prose: Hajabarala (Abracadabra again) and Pagla Dashu (Dashu is nuts) etc. Sukumar Ray was Upendrakishore’s son. And his son, Satyajit Ray, created the legendary Feluda and Professor Shanku. Children’s literature would have been poorer but for this trio.

I was a subscriber of the children’s magazine Ramdhanu (The Rainbow). It was a matter of pride to see the periodical delivered at home with my name printed on the cover. The editor of the magazine was Kshitindra Narayan Bhattacharya, who also wrote lovely stories for children, particularly science fiction. (I read an article on him recently. He was a topper in M.Sc. in applied chemistry from Calcutta University and taught at Ashutosh College.) The magazine-office-cum-printing press-cum-the editor’s-residence was near ours, in Townsend Road, although the place was no longer at the town’s end then. (One of my best friends, Damodar Menon lived there too, although unfortunately we met only as adults.)

Kshitindra Narayan was the first author I met in flesh and blood, and naturally, I was a nervous. But he put me at ease in minutes and talked for quite some time as if he was talking to an equal. Besides, there was another magazine, Suktara (The evening star) that our newspaper supplier, Master Moshai delivered. In Suktara, there were many mushy stories that described orphan boys, badly treated by guardians or masters, run away and return years later after they made it big.

My friend Ashish Sarbagya ran away from home when we were in the sixth standard. Ashish had been afflicted with polio and walked with a limp. He lived near my house and we walked to school together after we were promoted to the secondary school. He walked fast and was none the worse for his physical challenge. It is not known if he made it big. No one has heard of him since.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The yogi and the bureaucrats

There was nothing feminine about the thin sadhu I saw on TV. He has a shock of silver hair, sunken cheeks, a flowing white beard and sharp, penetrating eyes looking out of deep, dark sockets. Yet, 82-year-old Prahlad Jani is called “Mataji” by his disciples. But that is a relatively unimportant mystery about him. His claim to fame is that he has neither eaten, nor drunk, nor relieved himself for the last 76 years. According to Mataji, when he was eight, Goddess Amba Mata appeared before him and touched his tongue with a finger. Since then, he hasn’t needed any nourishment, says Mataji, who reportedly survives on “solar energy”.

His is not one of the thousands of bogus claims made to sell magic potion or nirvana. In fact, Mataji has nothing to sell. I discovered from a newspaper report (The Hindu, 9 May 2010) that in 2003, the Defence Institute of Physiology and Allied Sciences (DIPAS) conducted extensive tests on him and didn’t find his claim phoney. DIPAS repeated the tests in 2010, with more sophisticated equipment. Top scientists of DIPAS, aided by 35 “super specialist” doctors kept him under the constant surveillance of CCTV cameras at the Sterling Hospital in Ahmedabad for fifteen days.

According to the director of DIPAS, during the fifteen days, Mataji did not eat or drink anything and passed no urine or stool, although he took bath and gargled occasionally. During the observation, the doctors did not record any appreciable change in his medical parameters, which is expected if a normal person fasts for long. What intrigues the doctors and scientists most is not that he survives without taking food or drink, but the fact that he doesn’t pass water. As yet, they haven’t found out what keeps Mataji ticking; they are trying to unravel the mystery. One does hope they will succeed.

The defence ministry, it is reported, wants to understand the process so that it might be replicated for jawans serving in remote areas where it is difficult send supplies.

That, in my humble opinion, is a ghastly exhibition of bureaucratic short-sightedness. We are at the threshold of solving the biggest problem of humankind, but the babus in Delhi can think of nothing better than saving on soldiers’ rations! If scientists figure out how Mataji survives and can replicate the process in other humans, if they can invent a solar battery that can power humans, our civilisation will start moving in a different direction. Hordes of people migrated from one continent to another in search of food and countless wars have been fought over the commodity. All that will have become history, finally.

As the first of the basic needs of roti, kapda, and makaan is struck off the list, people will be free from their biggest bother. They will also have much disposable income to buy clothes and shelter, giving a huge boost to the economy. Producers of food grains, poultry etc. will be hit initially, but they won’t have to worry about feeding themselves and will have the breathing time to look out for alternative careers. Maybe, they will start producing cotton, rubber and bio-fuel plants. People working at restaurants and pay-and-use toilets will become unemployed and will demand redundancy benefits. But even they will not be very badly off as they will have no mouths to feed.

The municipalities will have no solid waste to manage. Sewers will be empty. Cities will be clean and won’t reek of garbage. When we travel across the country, we won’t have to suffer the spectacle of people defecating on fields.

When all that happened, only one question would remain unanswered. Why was Goddess Amba Mata so horribly parsimonious about dispensing favours? Why couldn’t she take time off and meet at least a hundred poor men, women, and children every day and put a finger on their tongues?

[Kolkata, 10 May 2010 / Published in the Statesman on 3 June 2010.]

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.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Reaching out

For my sister and me, visits to the zoo and a circus show were almost mandatory in winter. Once a year, on the bare stage of New Empire theatre with the uncovered wall clearly seen on the back, magician PC Sarkar made a red Impala convertible filled with beautiful women smiling and waving at us vanish in a trice. Then he would himself disappear from the stage and materialise at the last row on the balcony before one could close one’s gaping mouth.

In December 1957, Prime Minister Nehru inaugurated electric trains at Howrah. The EMU coaches with their big doors, green and beige exterior, and no toilets, were no less magical. They had no stairs and would stop only at stations with high platforms. Unlike steam locos, these would pick up speed within seconds and zoom out of the platforms as passengers and onlookers watched dumbstruck.

Father used to take Ruby and me for short journeys on EMU trains on Sunday afternoons. (Taking one’s wife out was yet to become fashionable.) As air rushed in through large windows and swept our faces, we would go past the suburbia to green villages and watch men ploughing, women tending babies, and children playing under a boundless sky. We would get off at any station that caught baba’s fancy and walk down to a roadside eatery to eat rasgullas. Baba used to say it was always safe to eat rasgullas outside, they could not be made with stale cottage cheese. One of his many business ventures had been to run a canteen. He ought to have known!

Those weekend outings are some pleasant memories that will remain with me till the end. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I must add that the middleclass children of the twenty-first century, for whom good times mean taking some convoluted rides at an amusement park or buying unnecessary trinkets at a glitzy mall or eating out at overpriced restaurants, are deprived of many simple wonders that abound in this world for free.

Like Colonel Aruliano Buendia, I too was taken by my father to discover ice on an autumn evening. An American troupe of ice-skaters had come to town to perform a programme named Holiday on Ice. As the red, purple, and blue beams of lights reflected from the resplendent floor, young men and women in gorgeous costumes wove brilliant patterns on a temporary ice rink, with equally polychrome sashes flying from their arms and waistbands. It was a brief journey to another world. For the month or so while the troupe was in town, and for months thereafter, people talked of nothing else.

Bhawani, a friend whom I met much later, had shared the city of my childhood. After reading one of the many drafts of this, she reminded me of an experience that was in a way more fascinating than the Holiday on Ice. It was called Circarama, but I am not sure how it was spelt. It was a circular theatre in which the audience stood and watched images projected on multiple screens all around. The images had been captured by 360° cameras. As part of the audience, we felt we were travelling on a bus in the city of New York, with the Hudson and the Empire State Building whizzing past us. This would be old hat for the people who use Google now, but back then, it was a technological marvel beyond compare.

These days, when heads of states visit India, they usually give Kolkata a miss. Some years ago, beside a handbill promising cheap and hassle-free abortion in a public toilet in Hazra Park, I saw a hand-written poster: “Go back, Bill Clinton!” I wondered why whoever stuck the poster chose that particular place. There was no chance that the American president would pass water anywhere in Kolkata.

In my childhood, every dignitary visiting India would come to our city, and at times, hold public meetings here. Nikita Khrushchev came along with Bulganin. So did Zhou En Lai and Dalai Lama. These visits caused new ripples in a city that was not short on excitements even otherwise. The biggest ripple happened when Queen Elizabeth II came in January 1961. A big crowd had gathered on the terrace of my pishemoshai’s office in Ganesh Chandra Avenue to see her. It was a three-storey building. Below, footpaths were packed with eager onlookers. The queen, in her mid-thirties, looked exquisitely beautiful in a pink dress. She stood in a roofless convertible saloon, smiling and waving, as the car moved slowly by. The bald headed prince consort in funeral black stood beside her and waved too, but no one cared much for him.

Pishemoshai had, and still has, a penchant for doing the unusual. As refreshment for the crowd that had gathered on his office terrace, he provided extremely hot peppery chanachud in a jumbo paper cone. I could watch the queen only through my tears. There were “oohs” and “ahs” all around.

Another event that had left an impression on my young mind was Yuri Gagarin’s voyage to the space on 12th April 1961. The next day’s newspapers brought the news. I would have missed the school bus that morning. Motilal-da took me to school. As we walked the two miles, we discussed what exactly was meant by going to the space and how it could happen. I am sure that that morning, we discussed some hypotheses that would not come to the head of any space scientist. Incidentally, Gagarin too visited Kolkata towards the end of the year. So did Valentina Tereshkova, who piloted a spaceship for three days in June 1963. Her visit was an inspiring moment, partly because of her gender and partly because hers was a journey from a textile factory to the space. She had been a factory worker before being chosen to be the first woman astronaut. Students of many schools, particularly girls’ schools, lined up the streets of Calcutta to greet her.

Calcutta has not only become Kolkata. She has also lost touch with much of the world that speak other languages.