Friday, June 27, 2014

All for a song







Went for a morning ride after long today. Somewhere during the ride spotted two musicians, walking from door to door playing music for the inmates of the large houses, most of which remained shut. One of them was playing an instrument which resembled the one in the pic, the other a Mridangam. I stopped beside them and they played for about ten minutes for me. Mesmerised it took me back to October of 2013 in Calcutta, when creeping up the Shewli came the song of a Baul who sang,

'Tui amay pagol korli re..
doya nako korli..amare bhashali..
Gacher jamon shikod bakor..macher tamon paani..
Tumi tamon amar re..'

I normally don't carry a lot of money during my rides, but could fish out a Rs 100. They seemed surprised and thanked me repeatedly, which surprised me in turn. In a country such as ours creativity in any form always comes cheap. A 'Kannada gotilla' later, I was off..but their tunes stayed. Whoever you are, thank you for some soul space, in an increasingly barren land.


( Picture from the Internet)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

HURRIEDLY BREWED: THE TASTE OF A CITY

Ten in the evening, the sun has gone down since ages now, all that remains of the light is encapsulated in the halogen lamps placed at a seemingly random order. Beyond where I sit is the bust of a 19 th century great. Pigeons have immortalized him, his expressions priceless since then. Ganga strolls by; the evening wind is a witness to that. I watch the immense energy of the little flies around the lamps again, Red is their colour. The raw skies around, itching to burst over, echo the colour somehow, walking around like dreamers on no particular mission. I look at my Coke laced in Rum, Black from the city’s desire to hide. In far away homes, while I and the sky converse, children cry in heat and hunger, someone will swear at the slow trams, God will turn a joker once again. I become Calcutta on its streets and as the angel atop the dome in Victoria stretches its hands to try and touch something unattainable, I think it is pretty much echoes the story of the people inhabiting the city. Cities often change people, you are drowned in the soot, without the idea of what it makes of you or who you emerge off it, if at all you do. I’m reminded of Ritwik Ghatak’s short film, ‘Bari Theke Paliye’ and Calcutta through the eyes of a small boy. In many ways the city spills over, from buses, from trams, the sweat of rickshaw pullers, you wonder then what conclusions the runaway boy had come to wandering around in an alien city, whether it had corrupted him, made a man of him, taken away his innocence, paved the path for a poet in the folds?
I am in Hatibagan, North of Calcutta, this is an old locality. Walking down the streets one is reminded of theater houses that would light up many evenings, the green curtains that talk of sordid love stories, from cheap tin spoons that cut across my cutlet and yours. I look at it like an outsider now, this city, pieced together like a work of great art, callously strewn aside in the haste to rush on to bigger things. I’m reminded of –
You and I, might have met
in some nondescript coffee shop, tonight-
with the curtain of a thousand voices
and privacy in each public clutter.
In green curtains
sordid, from yesterday’s love,
rich in Bacteria,
traces of carelessly strewn Sambar,
running down your guilt free mouth-
hurriedly brewed coffee,
carelessly downed cheap whiskey,
half eaten bones,
lingering of another’s cheap smell-
In bold public stares
of his intimacy in you,
where cheap tin spoons
cuts a tongue,
where the stench of bitterness is loud-
There Calcutta loves.
From, ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’ street life weaves a fascinating pattern in the minds of those who want to see beyond and more. If I can see Ginsberg’s famous lines etched out ‘through the negro streets at dawn’ in Howl, I can imagine Shakti Chattopadhay crying out, ‘Abani bari acho?’. You wonder if poetry answers back in some dingy lane of Calcutta and the smoky death haze of literature arising out of the edifice of Nimtala burning ghats, will sustain.
‘Manhattan’ by Woody Allen springs to the mind. It had been a cold winter night when I sat mesmerized by the opening scene, of New York filled in Black and white, beautiful, powerful, there to stay. Through Woody’s narration of the city you see the high rise buildings, people walking, snow covered streets, buses, people, lights, grandeur, a city and its life. A viewer is mesmerized, even while the voice seems to take a back seat, the story too perhaps, the fact that a city moves in a zen like manner, while others breathe, revel and even write about it or screen it as a film somehow seems tremendous and yet there have been so many eulogies, profanities that have ceased to describe what the mind has felt, of such a place that refuses to die, refuses to change character, only remains.
So while the sun would set in New Jersey or in Calcutta, something don’t change. One is filled with the raw overpowering sense of enormity, of huge bulging proportions that overcome, of a linger in every sunset and rise, where all along the roads that lead to it or not, one is filled with a sense of dreaming, even while the lights fade one by one, the river dries, the soot overpowers, the forlorn becomes a habit and on someone’s radio Dean Martin takes a bow, I think of a city that has lived, the many that have lived with it. These are cities that somehow live, they never die, or their spirit doesn't. The children grow up crying and swearing in the same dreariness day after day, there is stillness in the beyond and in that a night ends, you and I we live.
The first call of the Azan, the smell of Rajnigandha and fake roses, the city lives on, as do we.
( This was written for The Bangalore Review http://www.bangalorereview.com/2014/06/hurriedly-brewed-the-taste-of-a-city/ )

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

'I write, so I can sleep well'

The summer of 2014 has been dedicated to traveling. I've visited big cities, small towns, road side villages, jungles and river beds. I've asked myself why I travel and travel alone mostly. Many friends can't fathom the urge to see things from my own perspective, to be on uncharted territories to live life beyond that which has been set as your horizon. Wherever I travel, it is always people that I am attracted to, more often than not people are generous, going out of their way at times to indulge a complete stranger. And in that perhaps you carry back the observations, minute little nuggests of wisdom that stay with you. It is perhaps also why I find a bit of me strewn into wherever I have traveled. And thus on many nights when I sit alone in a huge guest house from a British era or a tiny forest bungalow by the river bed, I'm prone to tracing myself across where I'm spread thin.

While traveling through Kurseong at a certain point, I stopped for some tea. While the tea was being made, I saw another woman sitting in front of a shop. She was sipping her own tea while arranging the fresh vegetables she had put on display on the shop window. My gardener instincts, led me to ask her whether she grew the vegetables herself. She seemed surprised and then happy at being asked, pointing at each vegetable she summarized how they were grown, why frost was a nuisance, how her dogs kept her company on the hills. She looked at me after a minute, as if as an afterthought and asked me what I did. I looked at her hands then, she reciprocated by looking at mine. I looked around me at the massive mountains, the terrific greens, at the little dogs playing around, at life so uncomplicated. What does one tell someone so rich in mundane happiness, what the writer does. The immensity of simplicity, on a road that bends on a tea cup, suddenly seemed over powering.


I told her then that I write. Why she asked and what. I remembered my friend Amandeep Sandhu saying, 'I write, so I can sleep well.' I wanted to tell her then that I write so I can keep your essence alive, I write so that I can find a word that describes the immensity of this freshness. I looked beyond and fell silent. She tugged at my jacket, gave me a piece of charcoal and showed me the wall of her house, 'likho kavita'

Friday, March 28, 2014

The death of a tree


I live in a house with a bamboo clump. The clump is rather large, with strong yellow stems that reach out high. Those who have stayed close to the bamboo, will know that they seem to carry innumerable secrets. Strange actually, because the stems are not bound together, the leaves small, you might actually think that no bird could make its nest there. But then the bamboo surprises you, not because birds actually do build their nests in them, but because of the language the bamboo speaks. It is hushed, like a soft secret, that only you were meant to know. Many are the nights I have spent listening to the yellow bamboo speak to me. Like when they thought the Geisha from the neighbour's curtains actually step out and walk around, like when the neighbourhood child with asthma cries in her sleep, the bamboo knows it all. For someone like me who has been cradled in the shade of two Thuja trees, for all of her childhood, plants and their love is permanent. 

So with great trepidation I notice one morning, like the sudden arrival of rain, insects. Millions of them, take over my bamboo. The bamboo resists them, as do I. We fight our own battles, in different ways. For the first time, I see the strength of the hushed bamboo. It grows wild and almost in every direction, spreads roots like fire trying to out grow beyond the inevitable oncoming of the thousands more. I'm reminded of the carnivorous plant in Satyajit Ray's story, the tree that makes a racket, has a temper of its own and is fierce. But the insects are persistent, they grow in numbers, you kill some thousands, the next day a thousand more occupy their place, quiet, resilient and seemingly perennial in their attack. Yesterday I burnt my bamboo tree. Raised it from the ground and burnt it. It is like amputating your own feet, not letting the gangrene take over. There is not an insect left, I have rid the tree of them finally and the pain that they brought to it.

All night their absent hush disturbed me, I wondered if the ghost of the bamboo had returned. I had burnt a bit of myself with the bamboo too. But nature is like a miracle, there is sudden rain at night and in the morning from some unseen corner a small surviving bamboo shoot shows its head. Happiness is sometimes in a single green leaf.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

IN HIS FOOTSTEPS: BANAPHOOL

Amongst the many pictures that you are confronted with, while you search the World Wide Web for ‘Banaphool’, I am stuck with one. A seemingly fat man, he wears a poite (the sacred thread) and appears to be writing in a preoccupied manner. The photograph is turned at a weird angle and I am loathe to turn it straight. For a man who has written some 586 short stories (and more), all of which are poised at different angles and often end in the unexpected, looking at him from a regular perception would perhaps rob him of the unexpected.

A prolific writer, Banaphool clubbed a career in medicine with that of writing and came up with novels like Trinokhondo, Boitorini Tire, Niranjana, Bhuban Som, Maharani, Agnishwar and short story collections like Bonofuler Golpo, Bonofuler Aro Golpo, Bahullo, Bindu Bishorgo, Adrisholok, Anugamini amongst others. The experience of reading Banaphool sometimes feels like being in a crowded coffee shop, finding a portly bald man next to you and looking away with not much expectancy without realizing that you are being observed with the most acute of lenses, stories about you and around you being filed away in some unseen storage space from where it shall later emerge in the shape of a miraculous tale, and in that his craft is almost magical.

The hallmark of good story telling is perhaps blending in so well with the story that one cannot find the writer in it, in the case of Banaphool we see this and yet each character speaks for him and through him too. That is the reality that each reader of Banaphool, is confronted with. The easy simplicity, with which he weaves the most casual stories into something overwhelming, is nothing short of being brilliant. It is also the reason, why this writer has a special place in Bengali literature and amongst readers worldwide. Perhaps the most remarkable hallmark of his writing is that it is prevalent in all times and uniquely he can be read in any mood and at any time. The casual style of writing and the easy language notwithstanding, he takes along the reader in an unassuming ride often.

But reading Banaphool is not as easy as it would appear to a casual reader. At a glance, he could be in your face and even forgotten, if the sub text is not understood. This mostly because if there is one constant in all of his work, especially the short stories, it is the sub text. You take the example of his story titled, The eyes where the protagonist meets his lady love after many years, now as a married woman. He is however shocked to find that she is blind, more so because he had always loved her eyes. Rumor has it that she had lost her eyes rather carelessly by applying some medicine instead of rose water. He meets her privately and says, ‘such beautiful eyes lost to carelessness’ and she replies, ‘If you don’t know why they were lost, its best you don’t.’

The gamut that is Banaphool is huge, one has the impression of a man observing society around him minutely and in microscopic detail and presenting them with such casual finesse that the reader doesn't realize it till he has read it once, stood aback not realizing what hit him and then comes  back curious, to read it again.

I read and re-read many of Banaphool’s stories and many a time there is something that I might have almost missed, if I hadn't been careful. There are abrupt beginnings and even more abrupt endings, so much so that one grapples with the fact that the story has actually ended without a further conclusion. But Banaphool’s stories often don’t have a single conclusion, in that they are often open ended and open to interpretation provided one has the curiosity to go back and check, the artistic ability to comprehend and the curiosity, to not discard it as a simple story.

To those who believe in the adage that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, there could be no better example than Banaphool to illustrate the point. Though he sets his stories in the socio-economical milieu of his times, his stories are as contemporary as that of many other’s and perhaps as important today as they were in his own times. He writes on the deeper aspects of society, of the human race and much more in a style that is often laced with humor and even sarcasm. You might find him asking questions, even to the reader, so that they are compelled to answer.

If stories like Tilottoma or Second to None deal with issues like men re-marrying at the drop of a hat, there are others like the story of Punti, who cannot find a decent husband since she is dark. He uses humour to plot the return of Punti with an eligible and hired husband in tow, who fools the village and yet somehow the writer manages to show her sense of anger and helplessness at society, even while the readers laugh at the trick.

In many ways Banaphool often draws our attention to the beauty of the small things of life, simple emotions, hard realities and simple poetry that is life. The story of Amla is that of a girl who has been ‘seen’ by several prospective grooms. In every case the dreamy Amla imagines happiness with the prospective groom but in most cases either the ‘price’ does not match or the bride doesn’t measure up to the groom’s expectations. ‘Finally the bride was approved, the price was right, the wedding took place. The groom’s name was Bishsheshwar. Fat, dark, rotund- a graduate and an employee in a merchant firm. When they set eyes on each other during the wedding, Amala’s breast was suffused with such tenderness! She was charmed by her quiet, well mannered, uncomplicated husband. Amala is happy.’

Often one notices fun and dark humour layered with deeper and more philosophical ideas which go a long way in enriching these stories. One is compelled to think, to speculate and return richer having been bathed in a quiet philosophy that is subtle and well placed. In The Tailor, a customer offers a substantial amount of money to a rather busy tailor to make flags that would greet Gandhi while he passes through their town’s railway station, two years have passed since that time, the same man again offers the same busy tailor extra money, only this time the flags are black. Gandhi is dead.

Reading Banaphool’s stories is like taking a walk with the writer. I've often wondered how interesting it would be to walk with such a man, who would find stories in the most mundane and draw your attention to the smallest detail, point out the sad hidden over time, make us revel in the small joys of life and observe the little nooks where his stories lived.

With Banaphool one lives anew, he teaches us that the most wonderful stories can be told in the simplest of languages and in the simplest of ways, provided we know how to appreciate them. His sudden twists and unexpectedness have earned him comparisons with O’Henry and yet his place in the history of short stories, remain unique. For a man who had written an amused poem on Rabindranath and yet drawn inspiration from him, Banaphool is one writer every reader must discover anew, for in reading him one is filled wonder and the feeling of, why didn't I think of this.


*Excerpts of stories quoted are from, ‘What Really Happened’ 

( This was written for and published in 'The Bangalore Review')
http://www.bangalorereview.com/2014/01/in-his-footsteps-banaphool/

Friday, March 7, 2014

'Chaina'- The story of an unwanted woman


(Sometime around early 2000 s, Salt lake Kolkata)

I was going through a phase where, I was doing some serious reading on the Bauls and Bishnu Prasad Rabha, wondering why songs as simple had no effect on the populace, especially when it came to understanding issues related to women and rejecting of caste. the songs of Bishnu Prasad Rabha had always spoken of caste reforms, uplift-ment of women, while the Bauls spoke of free spirited-ness, love towards all, amidst other such things.

We had a new house maid, in those days. A rather elderly lady, with whom I barely had any interaction, apart from the rather cryptic day to day instructions on what needed to be done. 'China mashi' as she was called, was a cheerful matronly figure, who would bug me into cooking and becoming more 'songshari'. 

Though, I had been a bit startled at hearing her name, it never occurred to me why someone was called after a country and like most others I had assumed that her parents were folks deeply deprived of imagination, especially when it came to names. 

For most abstract people, the light of dawn is not only sudden but that which often results in a whole set of new discoveries. It was perhaps the terrific heat of an afternoon and idle speculation that led me to ask her one day why her parents had named her 'China', did her ancestors have any connections with the country?

I still remember her face, bent while cutting the vegetables as she replied, 'amar jonmer shomoy Baba Ma bolechilo, arekta meye chai na. Tar thekei amar nam Chaina hoye geche' ( When I was born, my parents said they did not want another girl, thus I was named 'Chai-na', which in Bangla loosely means, don't want or not wanted).

All my reading had not prepared me for that face. Stoic. Resilient. Woman

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

2008, National Library and a Gost

It was around 2008, a sultry afternoon in the National Library, Kolkata.


Like many other people who have frequented the National Library, I had also heard stories about Warren Hasting's spirit roaming around the rather solemn building, that housed the library premises. It is rumoured that Hasting's spirit roams around the library looking for a black book that could save him from impeachment. It was a sleepy hot afternoon and I was searching for an old magazine, as a part of the research for my book on Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. The National Library being a store house of many such old magazines, I had spent a good part of the day already looking up some of the very old Bengali magazines from the 40's and 50's. there was a stealth to the air, some old fans stirred, pages creaked in some corner of vague rooms, faint footsteps in another random corner..


I was reminded of Ruskin Bond, a documenter and creator of some ghosts. Mr. Bond who has extensively written on ghosts once said that a young 10 year old reader had found his ghosts not too scary and had accordingly asked him,  ‘Can you make them frightful?’

By this time I was desperate to find a particular article about Suchitra Sen. Like anyone who has written biographies will tell you, at a particular point one starts almost reliving the life of the personality one writes on, and sometimes becomes almost a part of their spirit. There were evenings when I had walked on Ballygunge Circular Road and wondered if a particular lady with her head in a scarf was Suchitra Sen.

A copy of 'Prasad', suddenly fell down as I jerked open one of the rusting old drawers. On the open page, a stunning photograph of the lady. I could almost hear a certain Hastings chuckle.