Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jim Corbett-A chapter each night

My daughter came home yesterday evening somewhat earlier than her play time, terribly anxious and flustered at the fact that a small snake had crossed the road where they were playing. Her city upbringing and the basic distrust of anything other than human and even humans, rendered useless my advise that snakes are generally harmless creatures and will usually go away if you care to step aside and clap your hands, or make some noise. As someone who grew up close to the jungles and interacted much with the tribals, you learn to identify plants and fruits that will help you survive if you're stuck in a jungle, you learn which snakes will bite and which will not, which plants will help you when there is drought, to smell fear and walk on a tread...but most of all you learn not to mock at the jungle and understand its immensity and profundity. My daughter has of course been through an elementary dose of Rudyard Kipling but then stories are sometimes not enough, the real stuff happens only when you can feel the jungle. I felt this even more as I sat down last night to watch with her this short film by BBC on the life of Jim Corbett with focus on the man eating tiger of Rudraprayag.
It struck me then how little is written about the jungles, how less we talk about them, love them and look out for them, tell the stories behind them, stories not only for children but those for adults too. My travels throughout India have taken me to different jungles, as different from National parks, from the dense Nambar to the dark Western ghats. Many are the tales I have seen enfold in front of my eyes, whether it is passing a snake or watching a leopard from the terrace of my house. That animals never attack unless provoked is mostly true.

My love of the jungles and the stories that it hides began from an uncle who used to visit us often. He worked in a tea garden and would often tell me stories of the little leopards that crossed his path or the owls that screeched at him. Like an obedient student I lapped up all of this wide eyed, only to find my own stories much later as I traveled from one forest to another. These days, I tell stories to my daughter and while she like stories about cities, people and friends, it is the story of the jungle that attracts her the most.

I hope I would be able to impart through my stories, that to walk in a jungle is never to feel small, only beautiful, as different sometimes from the narrow confines of the city. Since a long time now, I have been reading a chapter from Jim Corbett every night and it has been the balm that the exhaustion of city living gifts us, a tradition I hope to leave behind in the safe hands of my daughter, who will then find her own jungles and listen to the stories that they tell her.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Dighir Pare

On certain nights there are nightmares, dull, blinding and dramatic. Every time the scene is the same, I run down the Sukleshwar ghat on the banks of the Bramhaputra and scream at the waters facing Umananda, I am angry that the waters have killed yet again, angry that its spate carries thousands of innocent heads and yet it stares back at me, dull, deathly, as if in great peace. Bhupen Hazarika’s song, ‘Bistirna paarore axonkhya jonre hahakar xuniu nixobde nirobe Burha luit tumi Burha luit buwa kiyo?’( How can you keep on flowing O Bramhaputra in spite of hearing the desperate cries of numerous men& women) haunts me for long, till sleep is a thing of the distance past. I go back to a conversation between a man and a woman, a woman who has escaped captivity and in being reunited with her lover talks of a strange and dry river. And then I recollect the Loire..
“The Loire, a completely un-navigable river..its always empty..due to its irregular course and sandbars..In France it is considered a very beautiful river. Due mostly to its very soft. If only you knew..”
“When you’re in the cellar, am I dead?”
“You’re dead..I loved blood since I had tasted yours..The world passes by above my head, in place of the sky of course..I watch that world pass by, hurriedly during the weeks, leisurely during Sundays..”
“I call your name softly”
“But I am dead”
“I call your name anyway, even if you are dead. Then one day I suddenly scream, loud like a deaf person..”
“What did you scream?”
“Your name, just your name, the only memory I have left, is your name.”
“I promise I won’t scream anymore..”
(Lines from Hiroshima Mon Amour)
Most of our understanding of culture and roots, take us back to the notion of home, the notion of things tangible or not, that represent who we are in the end. The idea of what we know now as home and the thread that makes it so, is often different from how one might have imagined it to be, say even fifty years ago. Not because homes, feelings or the lands have changed but because we have become translated creatures, irreversible in our contours, different from how we were conceived, loved and moulded. While our understanding of what home, its fragrance and notions are continuously challenged in a world that is irreversibly blurred, there are a few constants still remaining that perhaps compel us to tread that path, look back, smell and smile at the strings that were.
And while our notion of a childhood home or love for it, might actually constitute of elements that are rather vague, we’re often clear about the dots that join this trajectory of a much trodden path. My image of home thus runs through a parallel formed from rivers, dighis and more, through which I seem to have touched that land in ways minute and long. The songs and the stories I have heard spun around them like that invisible gossamer thread that binds a fine weave. Like my father’s or his father’s before, I cannot pin point at what particular time in period such water bodies touched or sought home in me, but like all beautiful things, the waft remains.
My father’s remembers his Dighi in what was home once in Sylhet, now in Bangladesh. A water body that was part of the house that they lived in, where the fish would breed, where villagers from near and far would come to enjoy the fish or spend numerous hours idling. That home is no more, the waters too perhaps, but memory and childhood stories are strange creatures, they cling and make a pattern out of almost nothing. In the same pattern I have fashioned home after many such water bodies that I have touched and which in turn have touched my life making fascinating inroads into it like a cartographer designing maps from memory.
It is almost sixteen years now since I have left Assam, the land where I was born, and yet memory is fascinating. In nightmares as in happiness, I am taken back to a river that glides through my mind. When my husband, soon after our marriage asked me to describe the Bramhaputra, I did as if it was a lover, many years later standing beside the same river he calls me to say that the river is in indeed beautiful, perhaps more than I had described it to be. I think then, that somehow every river you might have loved becomes a part of you and over the years in your memory, it assumes a cultural construct difficult to take away, by any other description but that which has remained with you.
Most of us today live in a multilingual environment where we switch modes automatically driven as if by some innate force not to remember. This self-construction is of course useful for those who cross borders and retain only a whiff of that beautiful memory and yet the river, it remains. In fact such is the force of history and childhood tales, that as children of homes both imaginary and real we return to the river as the only solace, where nightmares turn peaceful. You wonder then if you’ve build that bridge which takes you to the other side of memory, where the happy and the traumatic co-exist.
An island’s surfaced in the river
A bridge stands in the middle
Just one bank? Stay on both
The island is mysterious now
You have so much time
In the river an island’s surfaced
A bridge stands in the middle
~ ShaktiChattopadhyay (Translated by Arunava Sinha)

But not all rivers are about memories; there are waters that spell more, sometimes less and leave us wondering about the proportions that it might assume in our lives. And so it was, on one particularly dull evening when a friend from deep in the villages of Karnataka wrote to me about the loneliness of being by the Kaveri. ‘Far away from civilization, shops and humanity, the river is a lonely place to be.’ ‘But there is a song to every river’ I wrote back and told her the story of Dihing.
The National Highway 38 is dotted with fruit trees. Driving down this road that originates near Makum you come across little townships and villages with lyrically pronounced names. Digboi, Margherita, Borgolai, Ledo, Jagun, Lekhapani all of these seem to straddle little streams that connect you to some undiscovered plot. The ingenuity of planting fruit trees all along the road, strikes you. Jamun, Jackfruit, Mango, Jalpai-The Indian Olive, dot almost the entire highway and on a summer day you might see little children hanging from these trees, bring down the fruits, enjoying some and selling the rest to the curious traveler. As you travel further deep into the land, the scenario often changes, sloping hills filled with tea plantations often give way to paddy fields, somehow connected to little streams. Small boys standby near these paddy fields on the adjoining highway and sell fresh fish straight from these streams. ‘Baideo pabho mas lobo neki?’ (Sister will you take some Pabda fish) you are asked. You wonder then, if you could actually smell the fresh waters close by and whether you might see one peeping around the next corner, but then rivers are secretive in their youth, gurgling and happy and often hidden. You have to travel to meet them. One such river that flows languid and lazy in its pace between tea gardens and little hillocks, is the Dihing or Burhi Dihing as it is called. One of the largest tributaries of the Bramhaputra, I happily assume that it originates in my backyard in a story that takes me back to when I was a little girl.
As a twelve year old living in a largish house facing the Patkai ranges, in small town Digboi I was extremely worried that a little stream that has marked its way on the grass just below the hill, had yet to take off and become that gurgling stream, I knew it has the potential to become. I remember standing on the red tiles of my verandah while watching the Patkai suddenly turn white. Surprise and hurt filled my vision as the dear hills became invisible. The winds sounded crazy that afternoon, the Eucalyptus shorn of its bark and the lemon tree just beneath it danced like there was no tomorrow. As I watched, the forests were enveloped in the same white mist and even as my frantic eyes searched for the mountain and its beauty, the smell of rain washed over me like a hurried spray from somewhere set in distant time. And then they were there the rains, beautiful and majestic in huge drops that created a din on my sloped tin roof. As I stood drenched in the water that afternoon, bit by bit the land came alive, the haze lifted, the frogs croaked and my little stream filled with songs. Dihing had been born there I was convinced, somewhere down a twelve year old’s memory lane, that afternoon. I had drawn a pencil sketch to commemorate that day, and named it Buhri Dihing.
My daughter’s sense of Geography tells her that all the rivers in the world are joined to each other, much like our thoughts I think, from childhood to adulthood and thereon. How the little stream barely a trickle, turned into Buhri Dihing is probably less a geographical phenomenon and more a child’s fertile imagination that would have one believe in such a story. But then Buhri Dihing came back to me in other forms, in stories carried by an uncle. Working in the tea garden, he would visit us often and the quiet and curious listener that I was, he regaled me with strange stories of rivers, tigers, demons and fairies all of which I took in like a silent spider weaving its web in invisible silent magic.
Serene and tucked away as it were, with lazy white small beaches, the Dihing overlooks the woods near small town Margherita. Set amidst these woods was the house of an uncle and so it was that one such afternoon I sat beside the Dihing, as it flowed green and garrulous. As if not pleased by the description, further downstream she turned grey and muddy like a stubborn child, with a sour voice and a glum song greeting you. I wondered then whether my grey skirt reflected the mundane silence of the river, and then all of a sudden I heard the soft flutter of wings in the impending dark. Below the little white rocks, swift fish tailed movements stirred. I raised my neck and strange eerie like, felt the presence of a little white owl that had decided to share an evening with me. For a while, the river stopped, the leopard prowling somewhere, stopped too, I looked up and somehow become a part of eternity.
‘dighir paare surjyasto… dighir jal jhalmale shonali… Dui diganto theke pechar daak… Aar hatat kotha theke urey elo ekta saada, dhabdhabe shaada lokhkhi pecha’(sunset by the river in the golden waters..from both sides come the screech of owls..and suddenly as if out of nowhere flies in a white, absolutely white owl)- Ipsita Ganguli( Loosely translated by Maitreyee)
Memories of home and its rivers remain fresh, often blue in colour, transcending borders and the narrow confines of language. It stands out like the songs of childhood, its fragrance forever fresh.
Dighi is a term in Bangla that refers to a largish lake. Here it has been used to denote a water body.

This post was written for 'The Bangalore Review'

Sunday, August 3, 2014

-Rage is my colour-

'Oh you're a Brahmin too!' she had exclaimed-
with an expansive hand, and a sherbet 
syrupy sweet.
'Of course we shall accommodate your daughter'
'Why', I had asked then-
shame, in every goose bump.
'We are the same caste you see', she smiled-
showing me her God house, then.
Like dolls they lay, clothed, fed and content.

'Near your balcony, there is a Gulmohur tree'
I told her-
'Have you see it flower?'
She nodded her head, puzzled-
'Every morning, an old man sits there
Bhairavi, in his human voice.
My God and caste are there,
here, is too crowded.'

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


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 )

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.