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

Sunday, 31 January 2016

An Area of Darkness

A second-year college student from Kamduni, a hamlet near Kolkata, was returning home after taking an exam in the city. As she got off a bus and walked towards her village along a broken road through a drizzle, she must have been hungry and looking forward to her meal. But she never had another meal. Nine men forced her into a closed factory shed, gang-raped and murdered her. The level of brutality they exhibited was unthinkable even in Bengal where people’s sensitivity had been blunted by hearing the words “gang rape” as often as “road accidents”.
Personally, I remember I couldn’t sleep that night. When Aparajita’s (that is how she’s known) body was discovered later, she didn’t have a thread on her person and her legs had been torn apart up to her navel and her throat slit. Women are often targets of violence in India, but such violent disrespect to a woman’s body is seen but rarely. This instance of savagery – barely nine months after the Nirbhaya case – was another devastating blow to the nation’s collective conscience still grappling with the aftershock of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape.
Two of the nine men had bought goat meat the same morning and the nine were making merry at the closed factory shed, naturally accompanied by liquor. In all likelihood, they thought that a woman’s flesh would complete their revelry. To Aparajita’s grave misfortune, they knew she would cross their path in that desolate afternoon.
If I may digress a little, the present Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in West Bengal is of the goons, for the goons, by the goons. The rulers, having failed to create jobs and opportunities, have carefully cultivated a core constituency of criminals whose main purpose is to terrorise voters and ensure TMC victory in every election.
In return,
<> The hooligans get doles from the government in the guise of financial help to clubs for “promoting sports”.
<> They also corner all the petty sources of income like driving (often unlicensed) auto-rickshaws to setting up permanent stalls on pavements.
<> The more hard-core criminals, who are invariably connected to bigger fish in the ruling party, force people to buy over-priced, sub-standard building materials from their “syndicates”.
<> Or just extort money from ordinary citizens.
Like their predecessors, the Left Front – TMC too has adopted every criminal of the state. Whenever there is an incident of rape or other heinous crime by members / supporters of the party, the chief minister goes out of her way and routinely declares them as সাজানো ঘটনা or concocted stories even before the police start an investigation.
At least some of the nine criminals of Kamduni too had links with the ruling party and I am coming to that in a moment. However, given the public outcry, the chief minister couldn’t wish away the Kamduni incident and had to visit the victim’s family after 10 days. As is her wont, she grandiosely announced that a charge-sheet would be filed in the case in 15 days and the criminals sentenced within a month. However when some village girls, Aparajita’s friends, tried to ask the CM some questions, she refused to listen and seething with anger, called them “Maoists”. The arrogant lady didn’t realise that she had only managed to steel the resolve of the village to fight for justice.
Thereafter, the state government, the ruling party, and the police began a combined effort to dilute the case and buy witnesses. They threatened witnesses continuously, offered bribes in the shape of government jobs and even lured local boys with promise to induct them into leading Kolkata football clubs, and organised a phoney parallel group to hijack the people’s movement. Some succumbed to fear, some sold themselves, including the victim’s brother who – if my memory serves me right – accepted a government job after holding out for quite some time.
The West Bengal Police, the top echelons of which are a carefully selected bunch of plasticine men, who lie through their teeth on television to blatantly deny what the same TV channels showed the previous evening, who take their shoes off to serve sweets at Kali Puja in the CM’s home, who trail the CM like valets at public functions, tried their best to dilute the case. They even excluded two of the criminals, Rafiqul Islam and Noor Ali, from the first charge-sheet.
Let’s remember that in Kamduni, like in any other small village, everyone knows everyone else. The criminals were all local people from nearby areas and everyone knew who they were. The spirited villagers, supported by some gutsy city-based activists like Meeratun Nahar, Bolan Gangopadhyaha, and Samir Aich continued their protests and couldn’t be cowed down from testifying at court. Under pressure, the case was transferred from a suburban court to Kolkata, where manipulation would be more difficult. Also, the police were forced to include the names of the two they had left out initially.
Last Friday (28/01/16), two years and seven months after 7 June 2013, a city court pronounced its verdict. Of the nine accused, one had died during the trial. Six people were found guilty of murder, rape, destruction of evidence etc. And two were acquitted for the spacious reason of “lack of evidence.”
I read three vernacular dailies on the following day: Ananda Bazar, Bartaman, and Ei Samay. Every one of them says the two acquitted, Rafiqul Islam and Noor Ali – incidentally they had been excluded in the initial charge sheet too – are known TMC workers. It would be insane to believe that Bengal police have the guts to file charge sheets against TMC workers without incontrovertible evidence. The question is, why didn’t they produce the evidence in court?
Two of Aparajita’s torturers are already free. The quantum of punishment for the rest is going to be announced today. But our wonderful, fair judicial system gives every opportunity to law-breakers to prove their innocence if they have deep pockets. Remember, Salman Khan’s father said that Salman had spent Rs.20-25 crores to prove his innocence? How much did Ms Jayalalitha spend? TMC today may lack every vestige of honesty and dignity, but they have no dearth of funds. So Gentle Reader, it is too early to hope that the six remaining rapists and murderers will ever pay for their sins.
Why am I writing this?
Because I believe if we wish to move to a more civilized West Bengal or Tamil Nadu or Kerala or Chattisgarh or India in general, we the people must stop the corrupt self-serving politicians who are destroying the country. Information, and knowledge build consciousness and only consciousness can create the deluge of social forces that can throw away corrupt governments and politicians. It happened in 1977. It happened in Bengal towards the end of the thirty-four-year-old rule of the Left. It happened again in 2014 when people were disgusted with the Congress-led UPA 2 government seeped in corruption.
If the nine crore people of West Bengal rise as a body, the TMC goons won’t have a place to hide, just as the CPM had no place to hide during the last State Assembly Election. It matters little who comes next. Removal of TMC is a precondition for the survival of West Bengal today.
If you agree that knowledge is power and if you agree with my analysis, please spread this message around.
Kolkata / Saturday, 30 January 2016

Monday, 25 January 2016

Kolkata Winter: 2015-16

As we were watching disturbing pictures of the blizzard in New York and the rest of Northeastern USA yesterday, the brief Kolkata winter said goodbye to us.

When I was a child, we looked forward to the winter in Kolkata. November to February was indeed very special for us children. It was dotted with bursts of happiness like a visit to the zoo and the Botanical Gardens, playing hide-and-seek among the hundreds of aerial roots of the banyan tree there ... and our futile attempts to identify the main trunk of the tree. Most of the aerial roots were so wide ... it was impossible to locate the trunk. Winters also meant picnics at Bandel Church or an orchard in Baruipur, where my dad was invariably the head cook. And the crowning glory of course was the once-in-year test match in Eden Gardens, accompanied by the soft sun and oranges. And watching Gods coming down to earth in the shape of Richie Benaud, Neil Harvey, Polly Umrigar, Hanif Mohammed, Gary Sobers and so on.

And on languid Sundays, short train rides to nowhere for my sister and me in the suburbia. And as we looked out of the window, our already middle-aged father opening a few windows to the world for us.

When we were children, a fridge was a rarity. It fact, it marked the boundary between a middle-class home and a "rich" man's abode. Among my close school friends, only Jyoti's family had the gadget; the chilled orange juice that Jyoti's loving mother served us was the chief attraction for visiting their place in summer. Air-conditioners were something that only cinemas could afford.

In the short five or six decades that separate my childhood from now, the fridge is as common as the ceiling fan. And every middle-class home in Kolkata has an air-conditioner or two. 

But there is no winter.

The winter this year didn't stay for four months, but for a little over four days. This picture was captured in one of those rare mornings.

Kolkata, 25 January 2016

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Becoming a famous writer

Catharsis (noun, uncountable, countable) (plural catharses): the process of releasing strong feelings, for example through plays or other artistic activities, as a way of providing relief from anger, suffering, etc.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, © OUP, 2010

Thanks to my colleague Smita, I had the privilege of addressing a group of students in a creative writing class yesterday. It was a session on blogging, but ultimately, it turned out to be an interaction between eight aspiring authors and another. I told them I was just like them, I too am a writer in search of readers and publishers. In course of the discussion, the inevitable question cropped up: how does one become a “famous” writer?

Arundhati Roy
I said I didn’t know as I am lightyears away from becoming anything like that. I didn’t tell them, but I also believe becoming a famous author depends largely on luck, just as in any other field of creative work, from music to bank robbery. For example, The God of Small Things was rejected by three or more publishers before it was accepted by India Ink. Had Arundhati Roy been rejected by some more, maybe, we would never have had read a modern masterpiece. And I am absolutely certain that lots of equally fine manuscripts are lying in eternal sleep in cold dark drawers in various corners of the world, in countless pyramids of anonymity.

I also told them the story of an author who had taken a vow at the age of 23 that he wouldn’t earn a penny through anything other than writing. In the process, he didn’t take up a job and suffered tremendously. There are apocryphal tales that he even collected empty beer bottles in the streets of Paris at night to eke out a living. But ultimately, he managed to support himself financially when he turned 46, after his second novel came out. Who was he?

Well, the author was Gabriel García Márquez and the novel was One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I know, a Márquez is born perhaps once in a century, and it’s stupid to compare us ordinary mortals with the likes of Márquez. However, even ordinary practitioners of the craft can become writers only if we have a streak of Márquez in us. Yes, you will never become a writer if you don’t have a tremendous, overpowering urge to write, unless it is impossible for you to live without writing. It must become a kind of physical compulsion, like hunger.

And finally, let’s turn our attention to becoming famous. When I started writing seriously at the age of fifty, I wanted to become famous, to become another Rushdie or Amitav Ghosh. If anyone told you that they began writing without aspiring to be famous, they were lying. Yes, it is impossible to think of becoming a writer without the concomitant lures of glitz and glamour. And there is nothing wrong about it, it’s just one of the weaknesses that make human beings so endearing.  

In the last fourteen years, I haven’t lost my faith. I still believe I can become a decent writer. But the lure of money and stardom faded quickly as I discovered a fascinating truth: Writing is its own reward. The pleasure that you get when you think you have written a wonderful piece is unique, it is different from everything else, incomparable. Yet, it can be as fine as drinking the best of wines, as exhilarating as having sex.

And equally importantly, it helps you to come to terms with yourself. I’ll end this article with a real life story to tell you how wonderful writing can be.

Of the few hats that I wear, one is working as a content writer for a friend who runs a small firm that supplies its products to a large company, let’s say called ABC. ABC tries to squeeze every drop of blood from its suppliers, but being small, my friend doesn’t have a choice. Recently, at a vendors’ meeting called by ABC, I accompanied my friend to a sumptuous lunch. But I had no appetite for food after I heard the honcho of the company and his two sidekicks address the vendors.

Ah! What arrogance and what deep disdain for lesser mortals. We had to sit through a two-hour harangue that described how incompetent the participants were and how they could become better human beings. The speakers seriously didn’t believe there was any shortcoming on their part, that they could improve anything. Somehow, they had acquired an abiding faith that they had already reached the nirvana of corporate governance … there was nothing for them to do other than sermonizing the poor idiots sitting in front.  

I also noticed that arrogance is inversely proportional to the individual’s position in the hierarchy. If the big boss was plain stupid and arrogant, the second was sarcastic. The third was just despicable.

Since that meeting I was feeling a bit low. I was feeling bad for my friend, but more importantly, I was wondering why “successful people” could be so crass, so self-opinionated, so arrogant. Does it happen in all companies, or is it a malady specific to organisations?

I know without an iota of doubt that the answer is no, although it is largely true, because profit, that is, greed is the driving force behind capitalism. But returning to my original premises, I feel relaxed now. The depression is gone. Over the last hour or so, I have been coming to terms with myself while writing this.

Dear Young Writers, keep writing, writing can also be catharsis.

Gabriel García Márquez

Kolkata / Thursday, 21 January 2016

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Kumkum and a few lines from Tagore

Kumkum was one of the most beautiful girls I met at university, and I am not talking about physical beauty alone. A brilliant student, she exuded charm wherever she was. She was a promising singer too. A song she sang at our Fresher’s Welcome became a mini legend. We expected Kumkum to become a leading singer in the future, but she didn’t. I firmly believe it is not because she lacked talent, but because she lacked the inclination to aggressively market herself, which is an essential ingredient for success today, particularly in the field of performing arts. But she has not wasted her talent either. She has been running a fine music school in the second largest city in West Bengal for decades and has countless grateful disciples.

At university, she was beyond reproach and above controversies. She was a perfect girl liked by all. The only serious fault she had was that she would have broken countless hearts. And after after the passage of trillions of years, I don't recall if yours truly was among them! But I do know something for sure.

Life would be less complete if my wife and I didn’t have friends like Kumkum.

A few days ago I posted a pen-sketch of an utterly remote lake in Purulia. We were there in the afternoon, when in the light of the setting sun, some men were washing themselves in the lake after a hard day’s work. As I watched them, I wondered what kind of homes they would go back to, what women would wait for them ... and later collected my thoughts in a short piece. After reading it, Kumkum quoted these lines from Tagore:

বাহিরে কাজের পালা হইবে সারা
আকাশে উঠিবে যবে সন্ধ্যাতারা
আসন আপন হাতে পেতে রেখো আঙ্গিনাতে
যে সাথী আসিবে রাতে তাহারি তরে

True, Rabindranath wrote lines that would be so apt even today, prose and poetry that could describe such a multitude of human emotions …. I would not be able to translate the beauty of these lines even if I tried a thousand years, but here is a feeble attempt for my many friends who don’t read Bangla.

When day ends, he’ll get back from afar
It will be time for the evening star
Take the rug, gently spread it right
For the lover who’s coming tonight.

Kolkata / 13 January 2016

Monday, 11 January 2016

An inspiring story

These are a few words from a dear student, Anek Mukherjee​, who I met while teaching at an engineering college for a few months around 2001.

Anek is from a remote area of North Bengal. He studied at a small-town engineering college -- one of the new techs that came up in the 1990s in West Bengal, a college that didn't have an aura around it. (It still doesn't have.) They could hardly organise campus placements, and after graduation, Anek was without a job.

And that is when Anek showed his strength of character. Instead of wallowing in self pity, instead of blaming the world and giving up, he hung on doggedly, managing just to survive in Kolkata. He worked hard to find an opening and was ready to accept anything that came his way, including selling credit cards alongside school drop-outs. After switching jobs a few times, he got into Cognizant Technology Solutions, a leading multi-national technology company as a software engineer.

He has been working with them since then, has married a colleague, Sukanya, and they have a two-year-old son. He's lived abroad for many years now. By all accounts, he is one of the successful young professionals who have made India proud. On the face of it, there are lots of people like Anek, but can we say his story is special?

Yes, we can. Anek has travelled an enormously long distance from a small market town in Bengal where opportunities are not limited, but non-existent. Nothing has been served to him on a platter and he has had to struggle all the way. But even during his most difficult days, I never saw him without a happy smile. Even when there was no light at the other end of the tunnel, there was never a shadow of despondency on his face.

For some reasons, Anek believes I have contributed to his success. He has said so many a time. His words do fill my heart with joy, but I know that whatever he’s achieved he has achieved because of his intrinsic qualities and strength of character. Because of his sincerity, hard work, and honesty. And no wonder that such people will have a strong sense of gratitude too. Men like Anek just can't be defeated.

I am sure some of you who are reading this are in the situation that Anek was in 15 years ago. Let's all learn from him. Never say die, just keep trying. You can win.

I am proud of you, Anek. And you and Sukanya continue to put in honest efforts. I know that you will travel much farther. My very best wishes and Cheers!

Kolkata / Monday, 11 January 2016

Friday, 1 January 2016

Happy 2016!

“As we move from sleeplessness to nightmare
The crow caws”

অনিদ্রা থেকে দুঃস্বপ্নে আমাদের যাত্রায়
কাক ডাকে।

So said Samar Sen, a Bengali poet over half a century ago. And last night, as crackers burst, people made merry to ring in the New Year, these disturbingly sad lines came to my mind. True, we limp from one year to another hoping things will get better. But they usually don’t.

Indians began the journey of 2015 with new hopes: a new government was in power in New Delhi promising changes to our polity seeped in corruption and sleaze. There was a new leader brimming with energy. An excellent communicator, he managed to energise the entire nation too. People trusted him intrinsically and chose to forget his murky past.

And then things got better. Within two months, the victors were vanquished by a deliberately unstylish common man and his band of political novices whose political plank was to sweep away the cobwebs of inefficiency and corruption from public life.

But as the year unfolded, the Aam Admi Party showed that the only thing they were capable of sweeping away were unimpeachably honest and visionary leaders like Yogendra Yadav. They proved beyond a shadow of doubt that they were just another bunch of political fortune seekers, a few of whom had forged documents on their way to achieve power and glory. And collectively, they were so bloody inefficient – let alone corruption – they were incapable of even sweeping away the mountains of garbage that kept piling up on the streets of Delhi. Instead, they blamed everyone else for the mess. And was the story any better on a national scale?

Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) was rocked by waves of misdeeds by their top leaders – a central minister and a state chief minister were found helping an acknowledged cheat who had amassed huge wealth through the politics of cricket, which is the most lucrative field in India after politics. He is presently a fugitive on the run. But the BJP stood rock solid behind the tainted leaders, much like their predecessors, the Congress Party.

Possibly the biggest organised crime in the world has happened in Chhatishgarh, a BJP ruled state. The rulers there installed a parallel system of giving jobs and admission to medical / engineering colleges to the highest bidders. The system, now known as the VYAPAM Scam, went on remorselessly for years. And to cover the tracks, almost 50 people involved with the crime have been murdered, although technically, they died in accidents etc. After a national outcry, the case was handed over to the “Caged Bureau of Investigation” in the hands of the central government and that’s last we heard of it. And the leaders of this wonderful BJP promised transparency and to end corruption. LOL!

But by far the worst crime of the central ruling party is that a large section of their leaders and followers have been waging a war against a fifth of the Indian population, that is, Muslims. Most sadly, on a global scale, an unbelievably cruel and inhuman group, ISIS is killing innocent people everywhere in the name of Islam. This incarnation of the Satan has given a huge handle to Muslim haters all over the world, from Donald Trump in the US to Indian MPs and sundry sadhus owing allegiance to BJP to say that Muslims are at the root of all the trouble.

But no one ever blamed Christians because some of them, led by two gentlemen named Bush and Blair, destroyed an entire country and killed countless innocent Iraqis. Incidentally, they also contributed hugely to the creation of ISIS.

But religious fanatics, who are not known for their intelligence, will never realize that you cannot exterminate an entire community. And the more you mistreat them, the more fanatics you create. The Hindu majority in India must embrace Muslims if they want peace and prosperity in the country.

The last year also began with the hope that there will be no more woman to experience the horrors that Nirbhaya Jyoti Singh went through. Although there has been a deluge of good intentions, nothing has changed on the ground. Rape has become as common a crime as pickpocketing. In my state West Bengal, a woman was dragged out of train and raped in front of her daughter by criminals close to the ruling party. Our semi-educated chief minister, who believes she knows everything under the sun, quickly said it was a concocted story, a conspiracy to tarnish her image. But a few of her party-men had to be arrested after widespread protests. The victim and her daughter even identified the criminals. Everyone thought it was an open-and-shut case. But a few weeks ago, the rapists were acquitted, either because the case was deliberately botched up by the police or because judgment was bought. And a few days later, the monster who tortured Jyoti the most was let off because when he committed the crime, he was few months under 18. So he was given the benefit of “childhood” by a singularly unimaginative judiciary that interpreted the law just as a computer would.

The year also ended with a clearly man-made (or should we say woman-made?) disaster that partly destroyed the wonderful, proud city of Chennai and made countless people homeless paupers.

Cry, my country!

But despite everything, it’s time to wipe off the mountain of despair that has piled up in our collective consciousness. Let’s move on and follow Gandhiji – let each one of us become the change that we want to happen.

Happy New Year, friends and everyone who’s reading this. Let all your dreams for 2016 come true and …

Let the world become a better place to live in.

Kolkata / Friday, 01 January 2016