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

Tuesday, 17 November 2015


I think it was cultural psychologist Sudhir Kakar who said songs of Rabindranath Tagore is a shared memory of all educated Bengalis. It is true, but is the statement entirely accurate?
Rabindrasangeet – which is now the commonest compound word in Bangla – was hardly as popular in Tagore’s lifetime (1861-1941). It started catching up in the 1930s and 40s thanks to some marvellous singers: Sahana Devi, Kanak Das, Rajeswari Dutta, Pankaj Kumar Mullick, etc. By the 1950s, it had become a part of every Bengali middleclass home courtesy AIR (All India Radio) and a now-extinct but then-revolutionary gadget called gramophone. Today, you won’t possibly find an educated Bengali woman between thirty and seventy whose parents didn’t try to make a Rabindra-sangeet singer out of her when she was a child. In the process, we have had two generations of exceedingly competent (mostly female) singers. For example, the English Language School that I teach at, almost every Bengali woman teacher sings beautifully.
Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Tagore’s songs became a mellifluous bond between the two Bengals. While between the fifties and the eighties most of the famous Rabindra Sangeet singers were from West Bengal, towards the end of the Twentieth Century, Bangladesh produced an array of captivating young singers, and the tradition continues. Iffat Aara Khan, Rezwana Chowdhury Banya, Papiya Sarwar, Aditi Mahasin, are just a few names from this Hall of Fame. And there are brilliant Bangladeshi singers in other genres too, for example, the incomparable folk singer Anuseh Anadil.
Thirdly and sadly, Rabindrasangeet almost pushed the other genres out of the musical landscape of West Bengal. And this happened despite the presence of composers like Sachin Dev Barman and Salil Chowdhury in the second half of the Twentieth Century. I am sure lots of educated music lovers will disagree on this, but no one can contest the fact that other Bengali lyricist-composers, particularly some contemporaries of Tagore, Atul Prasad Sen, Rajanikanta Sen, Dwijendralal Roy, and to a lesser extent, Kazi Nazrul Islam haven’t got the attention they deserve because of the dominance of Tagore songs.
And this is where Sounak Chattopadhyay, can play, is playing a fantastic role. Sounak, who has had a long training in classical music, sings intricate Bangla songs based on ragas. And he covers the gamut of early twentieth century composers I have just mentioned, including Tagore. And I find Sounak interesting for another important reason.
The common music lover is fond of popular music. They just love it. However, if someone helps them to connect popular music with its classical foundation, untrained music lovers get the pleasure of discovering a fascinating world that is hidden behind the wall that separates music lovers and trained musicians. For example, being musically illiterate, I didn’t know that the Mira bhajan “Shyam mane chakar raakho ji” and Tagore’s “Oi asan tole” are based on the same raga, despite hearing both scores of times. Sounak’s songs are a delightful fusion between Indian Classical Music and well-known Bangla songs. And someone who is untrained in music can see how the popular songs created by Bengali masters evolved from their classical base. The blurb on one of Sounak’s albums says “Experience the evolution”. Nothing could be truer.
It is not that the fusion between classical and popular Bangla music is entirely new. But I am inclined to believe that earlier experiments were leaning towards one of the two genres. Sounak has managed to strike the balance beautifully. I bow to this brilliant singer who has been reinterpreting well known Bangla songs to lay listeners like me.
One evening about a year ago, my wife and I were at a Starmark outlet. We heard a fascinating song being played on the PA system that almost numbed us. And we bought the three CDs that you see in this picture. Welcome Sounak Chattopadhyay to our life.
Since then, we would have played these CDs a thousand times. You read good books and watch good films again and again, because they never become old, on the contrary, every time you read or watch them, you discover some finer shades, subtle nuances that you missed earlier. Take The Old Man and the Sea or Bibhuti Bhushan’s Aranyak. They contain layers and layers of fascination. They become better with time, like wine and friendship.
I am not comparing incomparables, but our experience with Sounak’s songs has been similar.
Bengaluru / 14 November 2015
PS: If you speak Bengali, you'll most probably love Sounak's songs. If you don't, these songs could provide a beautiful introduction to Bengali music for you.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Has Bihar confirmed that India will survive?

After the spectacular victory of the alliance of Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad, and Congress yesterday, I put a short three-line post on my FB page that read:
I bow to the people of Bihar. They have once again reiterated that the only possible idea for India is a democratic and pluralistic India. Let there be early Diwali, let fireworks light up the horizons of India, and everywhere else for people who value democracy, including people in Pakistan. Cheers.
I would like to share with you the response I got, particularly the negative responses. But before that, let’s go back in time for a moment.
For the last two years, it has been horrifying to note the deluge of bitter, uncouth, abusive remarks made by Hindutwa supporters on the social media against anyone who has a different opinion from theirs. I have wondered how people of a particular political camp could be so intolerant and aggressive. And I also wondered if there were really so few people among the social media users who would stand up for
  • freedom of speech and rational enquiry,
  • not redrawing the educational map of the country to suit political agenda,
  • running institutions by experts and not by incompetent people with “right” political connections,
  • respecting women, and finally,
  • religious tolerance and treating minorities with the respect every citizen deserves, nothing more, nothing less.
But yesterday, not only did the common man in Bihar give a categorical verdict against all that, since then, the common people of India has shown, through thousands of Facebook posts and tweets, that they support a democratic and pluralistic India. This I believe is as important as the victory of the alliance in Bihar. Even my humble three-line post on FB has got 61 likes, 16 comments, and two shares.
While thirteen of the commentators agreed with me three of my friends disagreed and questioned the choice made by Bihar. One of them, a well-known motivational speaker, wrote, “Yes, people like Lalu should be Prime Minister. The right leader for the right country!!”
Another close friend for whom I have a lot of regard wrote somewhat angrily: “What is your view on the Great Lalu? Do you feel Bihar shall not return to the good old days of "Lalu” (jungle) raj? How can a conscious person like yourself support a corrupt buffoon? Strange!”
Another friend too said something very similar.
I am absolutely certain what they have expressed is their genuine fear, and it is not unfounded. However, aren't all elections in India exercises to choose the least evil? In this case on one side was Nitish Kumar, a positive force beyond a shadow of a doubt. I agree Lalu will most probably pull him down and make his life difficult. I too fear that at least some of Lalu’s goons will return and there might be pockets of jungle raj in Bihar.
But on the other side was BJP, which has been attacking the very foundation of a pluralistic India. The people of Bihar have displayed tremendous political sagacity by rejecting a party which, given a free hand, will turn India into a Hindu Pakistan.

Coming back to Nitish Kumar, let me share with you a personal anecdote. When I went to Patna in 2012 to run some workshops, a taxi driver took me around the city. I was surprised to see a spick-and-span city. There was NOT ONE encroachment on the roads – only a few push carts selling peanuts etc. (Nitish’s new admirer, Ms Mamta Banerjee will do well to visit Patna instead of London to observe a model city. Eighty percent of Kolkata footpaths has been taken over by hawkers with her blessings.) At 9.00 in the evening, I saw young girls unescorted, going around laughing and enjoying themselves (something that is not happening in Kolkata anymore). The cab driver said, ‘Saab, I wouldn’t have taken you around at this time 10 years ago. Both you and I would have been robbed by now.’
He also added that there was something called “Rangdari Tax” in Bihar, every square inch of Bihar had been divided among dons who would collect tax from citizens. (Something very similar is happening in Bengal today under ….) I asked the driver, ‘Where have all the goons gone?’
‘Some have gone to Nepal, some to UP, and the rest are in jail.’
And please remember, this was only one aspect of good governance that Nitish Kumar offered Bihar, there has been spectacular all round development in Bihar in the last decade.
Therefore can we do anything but celebrate BJP’s defeat in Bihar? Another friend, Suresh Viswanathan has summed it up beautifully:
Suddenly everyone wakes up and is wishing that Lalu's association with Nitish will be his death knell. The people have given the verdict and from the verdict it is clearly visible that none of us had an inkling of the ground realities. Instead of wishing an elected Government well what is the point in wishing that they fall. Let us wait and see just like we are willing to give time to Modi why not to the Maha Gathbandhan. Bihar has chosen and they will live with that for the next five years as India will under the NDA!!!!!!

Bengaluru, 09 Nov 2015

Mother Patience and Her Children

We came to Bengaluru exactly a week ago. All this time, I have been observing a bird … almost continuously.
The evening we arrived, as I absently walked into the balcony adjacent to our room, a bird suddenly fluttered away almost violently. But she didn’t leave the balcony, she perched herself on the grille and looked daggers at me. It was a pigeon. In a moment, I understood the reason for her fury: there were two eggs in a make-shift nest at a corner of the balcony. She had laid the eggs there and was brooding upon them.
In the last one week, seven days, 168 hours, she hasn’t moved an inch from her nest. She ate almost nothing, and neither did she make any move to fly out and gather food. She has been continuously sitting on her eggs, rain or shine, with apparently no concern about herself. We were not sure whether we should go into the balcony and give her some food. However, after observing her for two days, when it was clear that she wasn’t actually eating or drinking anything, my wife gave her some grains and put a little water for her. And she helped herself.

Do mother pigeons go through the period incubation all alone? Yes and no. Her live-in-partner, who doesn’t live in the balcony, comes in every day exactly at 4.45 PM. He brings in a few blades of grass and maybe, a little food, but I am not sure if he brings anything substantial. He spends exactly 15 minutes with his partner and flies away – perhaps to chase younger chicks. I tried to take his pics too, but he seems to be terribly camera-phobic. The moment I touch my camera, he flies away.
So Mother Patience does all the hard work and starves herself, while Father Irresponsible has all the fun. I don’t know why Nature is so biased against females. My friend Uma Sankar’s daughter Ponni recently told me something very similar.
When I went to see her first-born, her mom gave four idols as gift. Apparently, it’s a custom among their community that the girl’s parents have to shower gifts on everyone around. Ponni then asked me a question to which I had no answer. She said, ‘Uncle, I do all the hard work to bring the baby to the world and my parents have to pay for it. Why should it be like this?’
But that too is perhaps “natural”. Mother Nature is biased against females, and the human society has made women’s position even worse, even more skewed.
I do respect women, like any normal civilized man. But I think Mother Patience has given me a great lesson and has helped me understand what it means to bring a new life to the world.
Saturday, 07 November 2015
PS: I hope the chicks will hatch normally. I am looking forward to the day.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The fake Big Ben: Pride or Shame of Kolkata?

Pashcim aaji khuliachhe dwar
Setha hote sobe aane upahar
Dibe are nibe, milabe milibe
Jabena phire, ei Bharater
Mahamanaber saagara teere
The West has opened its doors
People are coming in with gifts
They will give and take,
Join us and connect us with others,
But they’ll forever remain on the shores
Of the great ocean of humanity that India is.
When Rabindranath Tagore wrote these lines, he obviously referred to the culture of openness, the spirit of scientific enquiry, institutions of democracy and judiciary, and in general, modern ideas that came in from Europe like fresh air into a moribund Indian society groaning under the twin oppressions of feudalism and imperialism. Rabindranath also possibly had in mind people like William Kerry, Norman Bethune, David Hare, great Englishmen who devoted their lives to spread education and knowledge in colonial India.
When Rabindranath wrote these lines, he didn’t certainly think of Lord Clive and the succession of blood-thirsty Heads of British East India Company that followed him, or the later day British Governor Generals. Within the first 25 years of their brutal rule, these scoundrels turned India from the most prosperous country in the world – yes, India had 25 percent of the global wealth during the Mughal period – into a land of perpetual hunger, while ship-loads of Indian gold and silver set sails from Murshidabad, Calcutta, and Madras. The 190 years of British Rule of India was punctuated by periodical famines that killed millions, the last of which happened in 1943 when three to four million people perished in a man-made famine directly organised by the India-hating poster-boy of the British Raj – Winston Churchill. [Please read Madhushree Mukherjee’s Churchill’s Secret War. “It is a terrifying account of how colonial rule is direly exploitative and, in this case, made worse by a man who made no bones of his contempt for India and its people.”]
And where did our wealth go? To “Great” Britain of course, where else? Thanks to the ruthless exploitation of the colonies, particularly the jewel in its crown India, England became a prosperous nation and the biggest power on earth. London turned from a dirty beggar-and-rat-infested city into the most sparkling metropolis of the world.
The original
One of the mascots of the power of the nineteenth-century GB was the magnificent Tower Clock in the West Minister Palace in London. It is somewhat erroneously called the Big Ben, although actually the Big Ben is the huge bell of the Tower clock. The clock, which was known simply as the Tower Clock or St. Something Clock in the past, was rechristened ELIZABETH CLOCK in 2012 to commemorate 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. I am mentioning this just to show how important a cultural mascot the Big Ben is even now for the declining world power that the UK is today.
Returning to the history of the Big Ben (let’s call it by its popular nick name), it was designed by architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, who was celebrated for reviving the Gothic style. Interestingly, the Big Ben was completed in 1858, a year after the Great Indian Rebellion in which thousands of Indians who craved for independence were killed, some of them literally as cannon fodder. Therefore, will it be too far-fetched to say that the Big Ben contains a few bricks that had been bought with the blood of the famine-stricken farmers of Bengal or the sweat of cotton mill workers in Bombay?
I might also add that until now, the interiors of the Big Ben is out of bounds for outsiders, only UK citizens can visit it with the help of their MPs. It is difficult to guess why entry to the tower is restricted to outsiders, could it just be hang-over of Imperialist hubris?
Let’s fast forward to West Bengal 2015. For the last four years the state has been ruled by a party of illiterate goons most of whom wouldn’t know if the Big Ben is a clock or a brand of potato chips. And it is led by a party “suprimo” and Chief Minister who, whenever she opens her mouth – she is fond of talking on every subject under the sun – exhibits complete lack of education. I am giving you just three examples that have either been reported in newspapers or happened live on the TV. Thus spake the supreme leader:
(a) The despicable Hindu Sati system (in which the wife used to be burnt alive in the pyre of her dead husband) was abolished by the (post-independence) West Bengal Assembly. (The bill was actually passed by the British in 1829 after tremendous pressure had been mounted by progressive Indians lead by Ram Mohan Roy.)
(b) Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941) met the English poet John Keats (1795 – 1821).
(c) When a Bengali mountaineer climbed the Mount Everest, the Chief Minister encouraged him to climb even higher mountains.
And this wonderful Chief Minister, whose word is law in the state today, has taken it into her head that Kolkata should be turned into another London, (and if possible the Ganga into the Thames?). And with her somewhat limited sense of history, her initiative has been limited to copying some London landmarks thoughtlessly and putting them in Kolkata. Her original aim was to replicate the London Eye, an eyesore of a Ferris Wheel on the London horizon which very few Londoners can afford because of its prohibitive cost even by their standards. Unfortunately for the CM, the Central Government Authorities that control the riverfront in Kolkata didn’t allow her this ego trip.
The copy
So what? One of her minions has built a smaller version of the Big Ben on the main road leading from the airport from the city, so that every outsider visiting Kolkata is introduced to the intellectual vacuum that is the hallmark of the present state government. Let there be violence on the streets and college campuses, let college principals and vice chancellors be beaten up by ruling party goons, let industries run away from the state, let education reach abysmal depths, let policemen be murdered in open day-light by you-know-who, let rapists and murderers roam the city free, let women be scared to leave home in the evening … how the hell does it matter?
I am an insignificant person, but let me offer a suggestion to everyone who has some emotional attachment to Kolkata in particular and West Bengal in general. Let this stupid symbol of intellectual slavery be demolished immediately and replaced with something that has a connection with Bengal’s cultural or historical pride. Can we for example have a huge replica of a terracotta horse from Bankura, or a Dokra sculpture?

05 Nov 2015