Friday, June 27, 2008

Reserved Forest

I just returned from a short trip to a farmhouse resort in a place called Dwaronda. It is a village about 20 minutes from the town of Bolpur (adjoining Shantiniketan which is the home of Rabindranath Thakur’s Vishwa-Bharati). This farmhouse was part of a non-government initiative called Swayambhar (loosely translated as Self-Reliance) which was looking to make the poor locals self reliant. I say was because many of the locals have become self reliant and this farmhouse is struggling a bit now. The cooking is exquisite. The cook apparently was a bandit at one point of time. Now he is reformed, and has been dishing out these fantastic recipes for the last 19 years. The place is quite charming, though a trifle dangerous this time of year because it boasts of hosting poisonous snakes like Kharish and Russell’s Viper. Apart from that it is an idyllic place for rest and long walks in the forest (a wildlife sanctuary called Chaupahari or the Four Hills) or to the river or to the lake. All kinds of birds chirping, a slow rustle of leaves all the time, a bit of rain now and then – such a soothing effect is absent in contemporary holidays which rush you from place to place as if you are in a competition to see more.

The fauna of this place was as amazing as the flora. There was a warning in the welcome note framed on the wall. I quote:

Keep your eyes open – we are situated at the edge of the Chaupahari Reserve Forest, and so there is a considerable presence of wildlife within the project area. We have a variety of foxes, hnerols (a species of the wolf family), hares, mongooses, squirrels, mice and bats of different kinds, occasional turtles who venture out of surrounding water-bodies, snakes, scorpions, chameleons, monitor lizards, though they are hard to come by, and a substantial variety of birds and insects. Even a stray elephant has visited us on one occasion! However, there is hardly any reason to be worried, as long as you remember to look where you are stepping and check before you stick your hand into nooks and corners . . .

I did not find this exactly reassuring. We did see a few snakes from a distance not too happy. But in winter most of these become theoretical, thereby automatically introducing the concept of less thrill, more fun.

Such places give you a lot of time and things to think about. This is the first time in my life when I went three whole days without reading. I had my books around, but they stayed in my sack. Even my pen and paper remained idle. To be honest I did sleep a handsome bit, much more than I do at home (never at work). But long afternoons and evenings, when you can’t venture out in the darkness, were spent leisurely, luxuriously almost. Such casual disregard for time is what humanity is forgetting fast. The watch was only functional when it told us that we must eat – with the stomach’s help of course.

Thankfully there were no untoward incidents with wild or tamelife. There were so many lifeforms that I was left amazed. From the story of the elephant to the minute frogs that we saw, no bigger than the nail on my little finger, it reminded me of Rabindranath’s song:

The heavens brimming with the Sun and the Stars
Life ever fills the universe
Among all I have been given a space
Wondering stands awake my verse

(Please forgive my inadequate translation.)

The insects which filled our room, the geckos, even the dogs and cats which were a part of the whole project, had a curious sense of harmony. I was mortified when one tiny frog died because I had stepped onto it. It was hidden in grass, probably hiding because I the monster was coming its way, if it did not hide I could have avoided it. Such is life. I was wondering if it knew death! If it had anything more than instinct! Our planet is brimming with life. But can all of it be called life? Where does instinct end and imagination begin? How many animals are conscious of being alive? For that matter how many humans?

I guess it is because we have such an abundance of life in our world that we value it so little. Humans, being conscious of all, show the least amount of concern in this particular matter. As it is the world is too much with us, more so now than when Wordsworth had written; so this blatant disregard for life, human or otherwise, is not entirely surprising.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Best Policy

There is a joke, if there are a bunch of drunken, unruly Englishmen in a pub, how do you get rid of them? It’s rather simple really, you just go and say, “Please leave!” This, of course, is impossible. Even a race as allegedly disciplined as the English do produce football hooligans, they have their brand of rowdies, and they are in no way a backward nation when it comes to rioting, looting, stealing, colonizing, politics, raping, and all such noble things.

Having said that, one must, nevertheless, appreciate the basic honesty of the English in England. It might be true of all Europeans but I have only first hand experience of English systematic. It is wonderful how people will obey each and every signboard, not do what they forbid, and do what they ask to be done. There is little surveillance required to ensure that the prescribed rules are being followed or not. I remember going to the 9 century old Norwich Cathedral. There was a ban on photography inside the Cathedral until one donated £3 (although I am not against such donations because I realize the cost of upkeep of these huge structures, but trust the English to put a ticket booth wherever they can, Napoleon was not very wrong with his shopkeeper remark!). I went to every nook and corner of the Cathedral, with a camera visibly dangling from my neck, I found no one keeping watch. There were no receipts for the donation – a simple transparent plastic box received all the money. If I took photos and claimed that I have donated no one could legally argue. People were taking snaps – no one asked them whether they had bequeathed or not. Such trust makes you become honest. I did not feel the urge to take photos inside as I did not donate (at that point £3 was a lot of money to me) and I believe that no one but the most crooked would do it.

My friend was posted in Taunton at that time. He is as big a fan of cricket as I am. So he made a pilgrimage to the Taunton cricket ground because Sourav Ganguly was the Highest Indian Run-getter in the World Cup (1999) against Sri Lanka there. He told me that it is a lovely ground, and there are yards of low fencing around it. In India fences are minor details, they signify little. Unless there are other security arrangements, one can be fairly sure of the fence being defenceless – sorry for the pun, couldn’t resist! I remember there was a huge uproar because one of the golf clubs in Calcutta had wanted to repair a breach in their boundary wall, but people said that it served as a short cut, so it could not be repaired, the fact that it was private property did not matter. Thankfully the club-owners were expectedly rich and hence logic won. Anyway, my pilgrim friend told me that there was a little signboard “Please Leap” in a certain place. No Englishman would ever think of doing that, they will walk round and round and round, and go back with broken hearts. But the moment they come across this sign their faces will light up.

The other surprising thing I saw was that there were Luggage spaces in buses and people coolly left their bags and stuff and go to the upper deck! Even in the empty bus from Heathrow to the Hotel I had sat next to my suitcase and held onto it as if my life depended on it (to be fair to myself, it did actually did). This bit is not at all common in London. Of course, that is a place where you will actually have to make an effort to see an English face, I would say the ratio of ‘others’ to the English would be 3 : 1; of course they are redefining the term British to include all.

The image of the honest Indian is becoming something rather rare even in India. The Orientalist image of the spiritual Indian might be all very objectionable, but becoming corrupt is not the way to protest against it! The signboard thing I can understand. Recently I saw this huge expensive electronic signboard put up in Shyambazar Five Point Crossing – it advised people to drive safely. Such effort on part of the cops is quite appropriate but for two facts, first, people pay no attention to any kind of advice; and second, most people cannot read. The target audience being drivers, they barely manage to read Bengali and Hindi, and all these signs are in English. Otherwise, the other wise people already know that they should drive safely! As far as corruption is concerned, it is a global phenomenon. Poor countries with rich rulers would always have such problems.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Trousers Rolled

In recent days there have been many occasions when I have been reminded of my gradually advancing years. Not that I have reached the advanced age, which will come inevitably, but the fact that I am on the way is jumping out of the bushes and startling me in the most surprising moments possible!

The first one came a few years back. A couple of friends had come to my place and we were discussing everything under the sun. There was a time when we were great fans of horror/suspense movies (bits of nudity helped). But to my surprise I could not, and still can not, face all those disquieting scary scenes, the sudden shockers (the nudity bit is alright though). Even simple things like lots of death, dismemberment, blood, torture left me disturbed. And sentimental ‘heart-warming’ films actually warmed my heart! I could associate with those more than notionally. One of my friends was having similar reactions. The other one apparently was still intrepid. And he said, and I quote, “This is age!” Apparently we had seen life – which I think even till today the brave lad has not – and we could identify with many a thing from these movies. Movies or books or music or everything were no longer ‘academic’ experiences. Speaking of academic experiences, I think I should explain my ultra-erudite heading. It’s from T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Quite often I get questions from my students which are past-related. They kind of expect an antediluvian history from me. I politely but firmly tell them that when I was young my father did not take me by the hand and teach me how to kill two T-rexes with one stone.

Last night we watched a movie called Meet Me in St Louis. This movie, made in 1944, represents Hollywood musicals at their best. This is the nth time I watched the movie. There used to be a TV station called TNT, which had later become TCM (Turner Classic Movies), and they showed all these wonderful movies all the time. That channel is no longer there, and the classic movies are all gone. So I was quite pleased when I got Meet Me in St Louis on DVD, and bought it immediately.

Right through the movie I was on a nostalgia trip. The last time I had seen this movie, about 15 years back, my family was the true extended, alive, and close-knit thing one would covet. Since then there has been five major deaths – five people who kept the whole thing going. Three of them were old, so there was some logic, though no easy acceptance is ever possible. Two of them were young. I remember one of my aunts telling me when I was just a wee lad of 12 to go to her if I ever had any amorous causes. She herself was a pioneer – being in love with a slightly disabled man from the age of 15 and marrying him after a bit of impediment. She died one fine morning. She apparently had a massive cerebral attack. She was my father’s youngest sister. The other person who had always supplied me with all the toys and bats and balls (sports related term please) and wickets and books and bourbon biscuits was my aunt on my mother’s side. She died after eight years of prolonged illness. She suffered from something called Motor Neuron Disease, in which the brain remains perfectly functional but the body slowly deteriorates. The person dies fully experiencing the failure of each and every function of the body. One of the most horrible deaths invented by nature. Then I got married. Please do not read the last sentence as a continuation of the list of disasters – though I will accept that there are moments when I myself feel that way! And after a while things started happening. The person responsible for getting us together committed suicide – professional troubles as I have gathered, not out of remorse on our account. Both my brothers-in-law died within a year of each other. One from a massive heart attack, the other from a kitchen accident involving fire. Now our family is just a shadow of what it used to be, as is my wife’s own family. But I guess it is more or less the same with all families! When Judy Garland was singing my favourite song, I could not keep the tears away. The song goes like this:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
Next year all our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Make the yuletide gay
Next year all our troubles will be miles away

Once again as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow

Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now

The fates allow little in real life. Most of the faithful family is gone! The rest are drifting away for various reasons. I have shifted to a new flat. Everything that I know has changed. But that, I guess, is life.

I apologize for this long and morbid post. As I was telling one of my blogger friends, if there were no friends, life would become impossible. Thank God that I have many friends of many ages within and without my family.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Marriage Indian Style

My friend got married yesterday. The problem he was facing was in adjusting to the process of marriage in the Hindu tradition. As most of you know the Hindu system entwines the bride and the groom in a ritual where they have to circle the Holy Fire seven times. These seven holy rounds apparently are designed to bind the souls together for seven (re)incarnations. If the rebirth is as a sub-human species then I don’t know if that one counts. That of course would not be logical because no species other than Homo sapiens obeying natural laws have such elaborate mating rituals. So, one may conclude that only human rebirths would get this Holy contract.

Towards the end of the ceremony proper, which would last for almost 4 hours if thoroughly done, the groom puts some vermilion (sindoor) on the bride’s forehead and on the fore-parting of hair. Some say such red colouring of the fore-most-skin preserve in symbolic form the primeval system of bashing women over the head before taking them. (Taking them to the caves in case of pre-civilization polite people.) The same applies to the bangles and foot-ornaments – the latter gradually becoming obsolete – made of gold, iron, conch etc. They represent the chains and ropes with which these women were held before they were properly tamed. In most cases women were stolen from other tribes, and they were neither polite nor philosophical, so they had to be forcefully detained. I guess it was only after a good bit of bashing up that these women understood their predicament and surrendered. Of course, in essence, the A.M. system is mostly the same. Many cases still are as primitive, only superficially refined or redefined.

I should explain, the A.M. system is the Arranged Marriage system, whereas the P.M. system is the Precipitated Marriage system. The cases which stay clear of marriages are of course differently nomenclatured. They may be classified as LT1 and LT2 – Living Together and Lying Together respectively.

The entire ritual lasts for 36 hours, the whole ceremony lasts for 72. Beginning from the early morning fire-worshipping to the last bit where they are pronounced bride and groom is a period of 24 to 36 hours. After that it’s very social. The reception is where the groom’s side throws a party and receives gifts from people. The number of people treated can be anything from 10 to 10,00,000 or more.

When I got married I was trying to kind of interfere. It was after all my marriage. But I was summarily told that I had nothing to do with the whole thing. As a matter of fact I have a creeping doubt other than being the butt of all entertainment I was not even required. Even the smartest man becomes somewhat dazed when he is in two things – striped underwear and topor.

It was thoroughly impressed upon me that such a system is more about the family, the extended one, than any individual. I could not argue with such community communication. So I sat back and enjoyed. I did it all, incantations and everything. At the end of the day it was fun. One of the advantages of being the groom in a household where there are many able bodied people is that you don’t have to do a thing. And that is a rare privilege. After all, we ended up with each other, and in the process the whole family – uncles and aunts, grand-relatives, all my friends and colleagues, neighbours – got together and had a lot of fun. Some money was spent, but I would say it was well spent. The amount never matters, but the value you get for it is all.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sucharita Sarkar had tagged me.

Right now I am reading a play called Noises Off by Michael Frayn.

Here are the 6-7-8th lines from page 123:

Garry starts downstairs to
Frederick. But he is
still hobbled and in any case . . .

It is farce within a farce. As a play it is excellent, but I must mention that it is a bit of a difficult read. Primarily because it is not meant for reading but for performance. But that is a problem with all plays (not Shavian ones since he kept the reader as well the viewer in mind). The play within the play, the same character playing another one in the play within the play becomes a bit confusing at times. I am sure you understand that from my sentence. The lines are from a bit of stage direction. I would ask all those who are truly interested in theatre to read it, but for the uninitiated the movie (starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve et al) is a much more enjoyable bet.

I am tagging, for my severe friendly-blogger crisis, the following. Please excuse me if this is the umpteenth tag that you have had.

Peter Rozovsky


Mystic Margarita



Thanks guys. If there are any play-readers around, it sure would be nice to know them.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Wisdom Channeled

Yester-evening I had my sort of radio debut. Not that I am looking at or even dreaming of a professional career in sound business (is radio a part of show business? they show nothing!), it was just a request from a friend and colleague and curiosity on my part. Dr Sk Makbul Islam was to talk about his research on the comparative study of the Gita and the Koran (I have a translation which spells the text as Qu'ran), he needed someone to interview him, and for some reason he thought I would be good as that someone. I accepted without batting or bowling an eyelid. I have been to an FM studio before, Radio Mirchi, where a friend of mine worked. But to actually sit in the biggish air-conditioned, sound+echo-proofed studio with those big head-phones on your head, and speaking to a live audience, that was something. New experiences are always welcome.

This studio was different. Gyan Vani (Words of Wisdom) is an academic network. Its office is homely, in a residential locality and the people are nothing like the fast-talking jockeys that I had met in the other place. There was a gentle and calm young man, and a quiet and efficient young lady who were dealing with the technical stuff and making the occasional announcements. Patiently the gentle-man explained everything to us, both of us being new to the radio business.

Well, apart from a slight blooper from me at the beginning, everything went rather well. It was a live phone-in programme. Apparently this station is quite a favourite with many. The programme was of a nature that drew much enthusiasm and interest. After about 10 minutes into the programme (it was a 50 minute slot without break) phone calls rained in. Yesterday many parts of the city were under water, and we were flooded with phone calls. Some callers expressed gratitude, some had queries, and others wanted to share their take on the matter. Some people were precise. Some were regular chatterboxes. But overall it was an enjoyable experience. And the main speaker of the night, Dr Islam, was very capable.

His topic, the comparative study of Gita and Koran, is in itself fascinating. One of the reasons of it being fascinating for me is that I know nothing about either – but then how many do? It is all the more fascinating because these two religions are at each other all the time, and not with friendly garlands. The more we talk about harmony, the more we grow accustomed to the discord. Some surprising reactions came from the younger audience. One young man asked how religion can be made more popular, another expressed anguish that the present young generation is moving away from religion. A lady who studies Micro-Biology in our College wanted to expound how religion is undermined by science and why it should not be so. I am not a religious-minded person. For me the word ‘religion’ represents a structured institution which always has vested interests. I am not that sure about faith either. I am kind of a part-time faithful, believing only when there is a crisis, even then not very sure what I am believing in. But the idea of a supreme spirit attracts me. It is as much Wordsworth as Vivekananda I guess. This fascination with religious texts presents to me anthropological interests, nothing more. But if one wants to believe, no one has the right to disturb.

What was great about Dr Islam’s presentation (he is also called Ananda, Ananda-da to me because he is older; also, despite being a Muslim he is a disciple of the Hindu Sage Anukul Thakur) was that he pointed out that both the texts talk about lifestyles, none of them contain anything about intolerance. The moot point was that it is necessary to understand / realize, and not to blindly follow. I guess the major problem now is not religion, nor religious texts. But how they are misrepresented and misconceived. How they are politically manipulated. Dr Islam said that both texts speak to mankind; the Gita never says that its shlokas are for Hindus, the Koran never says that its wisdom is for Muslims only. Both speak to all humanity.

If only humanity spoke to each other!

Friday, June 6, 2008

Struck Again

Calvin was asked by his teacher “What state do we live in?” He did not know. So he just said “Denial.” The teacher could say nothing.

Whenever we calculate leave for the upcoming year, we crack the same joke. We can count on three extra holidays, because the political parties would be calling at least three “Bandhs” every year. The S word which ends with “trike” was illegitimised. But what it denoted is perfectly allowed. Such is the system in our great country. The number of Bandhs used to be one, one day of great fun playing cricket and standing in the middle of the usually killing Barrackpore Trunk Road; but since no party is number one right now (at least on a National basis) we have a coalition system of protest as well. Here in the East, in a state called West B, we have become habituated to this regular thing called a holiday if you have no money to lose, called a work-busting day if you have some money to lose, and a life-losing day if you are either dependant on daily wages or are sick. Of course, we have many such religious/ political / religio-political occasions over the year, but these days are hard to digest because of their motivation. Having said that, one may question this motivation. Political muscle-flexing is a good motive. Making a show out of an issue which is already settled is another motive. Envy, or competition is a much more idiotic motive. The first Bandh is to be followed by a second the very next day! And the second day’s action is a direct and opposite reaction of today’s tools-down. Only the result will be somewhat similar.

What has happened with all these stoppages, is that we are slowly forgetting to move forward. If you have any experience of the private bus system in Kolkata then you know what I am talking about. They stop everywhere. But the moment they see a competitor they become machines of destruction. They do not even bother to let passengers get off. If you object, anything can happen. If the operators are in their best of moods (the safe way of intercourse) then you get only a handful of learned descriptive socially explosive expletive appellations. If the conductor-helper-driver trinity is angry then you might even be pushed out of the moving vehicle! Such is the wrath of the street-gods. Similar things are happening in the state (development-wise) as well. After many stoppages there seems to be a sudden change of gear taking all by general surprise and some by nasty ones. And if you have anything to say, then be prepared to be shoved off. Even a couple of bullets may answer your query. Intercourse, sorry, talks or discussions are no longer fasionable.

The first bandh by the ruling party was favoured by the gods. It rained very hard all morning, so even if it was a normal day, the waiting-to-be-piped and dug and water-logged roads would have ensured low turnouts everywhere. The second one will have the entire management and political machinery against it – in such situations non-violence is unexpected. This fear becomes the perfect excuse for immobility. The holiday mood is creeping over, and once this inertia takes firm root, any kind of progress will become difficult.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Traveling Blues

I have recently left the area I stayed in for the last 30 years. I have shifted to a place which is about 10 minutes from my old locality. I have many very close friends with whom I am in constant touch. Today on my way to work I saw one of them also on his way to work. This friend of mine is very trend-conscious. He wears the latest Ray-Ban or Sen-Ban or Ghatak-Ban or such companies I have never heard of. He wears branded clothing, cheap but chic footwear. His watches, his handkerchief, his cologne are all carefully chosen. As expected I, rather gladly, tried to attract his attention. He was in the rear of the bus, and I was towards the front. This long distance communication failed like old trunk-call connections. I even tried calling him on his mobile, but apparently it was switched off. The net profit was that I had become quite a point of interest for the other passengers who were fascinated by my various gesticulations. Bus journeys are boring, anything with the slightest entertainment value becomes of immense merit. This situation was full of potential. Why I was so summarily ignored was a matter of great consideration. Someone even consoled me with bits of idiotic philosophy. I am just grateful that he was a he and not a she!

Later today I gave him a call. Not in the chattiest, old-friendly, full-of-bonhomie manner – but in a somewhat upset one. He was unapologetic. He told me that whenever he boards a bus, he puts on his sunglasses, puts his ear-phones in their rightful places, starts music, closes his eyes and withdraws like a saint in a deep bit of meditation. His mobile-phone plays 40 odd minutes (in which time he unravels one mystery of the universe each day I guess) of music, mostly the Blues, and unless traffic is unusually disjointed, often by the Reds, he reaches 5 minutes after the final musical bit stops. These 5 minutes are his safety period. He has overshot a couple of times because his bus had had formula one drivers on those particular days. He puts his mobile on the music-player mode and does not take any calls during the period! He plainly told me that he does not believe in wasting time, and this really is the only window he has for enjoying music. I could say nothing to such sanctity / insight.

Personally I am a person who likes windows. The window seat in a bus is the ultimate bit of temptation whenever I am on a bus. Consciously I tell myself that it does not really matter, the journey would be over in a matter of minutes. But deep inside I crave that window seat like a child. Not that the other seats are any different. A seat is a matter of much discord. People find all sorts of individuals’ rights and human rights and right and wrong in general in such issues. These discussions invariably end with a lambasting of the condition of the country. These discussions are invariably forgotten within 5 minutes of leaving the bus.

What I was wondering about was his claim of utilizing time. No one can question the value of music, or the necessity of it in one’s life. Though I know fantastic people who are not that habituated to music – such exceptional quality is a mark of genius. But this withdrawal into one’s self makes me uncomfortable. As I said, bus journeys are boring. But it is one of the fewest, growing fewer, times when people get to meet people. When I say people, I mean people I/we do not know. It is very important to be in touch. These people actually denote life. If you are not connecting with your environment, if you are increasingly moving within, then you are losing a large portion of life’s experiences. A window seat lets you see without, the rest is the inside, and even the greatest bits of daydreams or worries can take you completely away.

Day by day things are being invented which are alienating people. Technology has taken this role as if it is a mission. Chatting, e-mails, blogs and stuff are cold connections. Words on a screen. Even video chatting is digital. Let me clarify – I am not against it. As a matter of fact I am one of the fascinated believers in the tech-no-logic. But they should remain supplementary; they should not become the foremost social interaction. As it is urban life is selfish. Lack of green, lack of friends, lack of siblings, lack of family – all are contributing to this isolation effect. When someone pushes you or tramples your foot in the bus/train/plane/boat/van or whichever regular mode of transport you take, cherish that, cherish the fight, it proves that we are alive. All the stupid arguments show the face of the country, the face of its 95%. Of course if you don’t want to know it that is a whole different question. That is a choice we all have.

But those People, who move around in cars with air-conditioning and tinted windows (often accompanied by other flashy and flashing all-importance-claiming cars), move away from the streets. They move away from the nation.
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