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Ours: yours and mine.

First published (November 11, 2013) on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

“Time for you and time for me,

And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.”   T.S. Eliot

Today, it was one of those mornings again. You know the kind when I find myself in a purna chakrasan. It’s as if I’m watching myself from outside, arched backwards in an almost perfect circle, watching the world upside down, an imaginary vicious circle that I get myself into, from giving in to bending backwards beyond all bending norms.

If you are wondering what brought on this vision, it was the state of internal affairs on home turf: in plain English, the burden of the previous fortnight that had resulted in my taking on this yogic ‘wheel’ state. The ever-so-busy husband, who chooses to visit us whenever he gets a little time off from work, his meetings, conference calls, presentations, travels, interviews, more meetings and even more calls from overseas, happened to be travelling across the seas, again. And I being the one who, fifteen years ago in all my youthful eagerness chose to be the working-from home-mother (a decision albeit taken from the lack of proper knowledge of the trade) naturally end up with no option but to bend over backwards as I try to juggle as many hats as my honorary Home Ministership comes with, including filling up the shoes of the missing-in-action-better-half, at times.

Anyway, this morning as I sipped my below ambient coffee and he sipped his steaming cup of Darjeeling tea, the only solution that rushed through my mind to climb out of this twist was picking up a machete and making two neat halves of this household that we call ours. No, not hack down the home and hearth, for I believe in creating something beautiful, not destroying things. but in sitting down and equally dividing the headaches that are associated with playing the role of the wife to a time traveller, the mother and at times the father and friend to a just-turned-teenaged daughter, as well as the teacher to the eager and confused teen, slave driver to electricians/ plumbers/ carpenters and every kind of handyman required to keep the household in good shape, to the one who chaperones, waits with a book in every corridor outside the daughter’s guitar, vocal training, swimming, art classes as well as dedicates time, energy and thought to getting car brakes serviced, take care of chores at the bank, drawing up the itinerary for the forthcoming winter holidays,  fill in as a minor member of the building society committee, fight more fires and after all of this, finding the time and energy to do something I really want to do for myself – write that book .… phew. Yes, all that and much more. I’m sorry for the rant. But look around you, and look into your life Woman, and tell me, am I making up any of this? I’m sure you will have a lot more to add to this ever burgeoning list of responsibilities.

I kept watching him over the rim of my cup. He had finished with the day’s headlines, read the editorials and had moved on to the business section of the morning paper. Soon he would neatly fold the paper back and push it aside, glance through his Blackberry inbox, check his calendar, make polite conversation starting with ‘so what does your day look like…’ and get on with his day. I wrangled with myself not to start a civil war. This needed more time and not a sermon starting with ‘you ALWAYS find the worst possible time to start SUCH conversations’ and inevitably ending at ‘why pray are you in a hostile mood so early in the morning?’. I took and deep breath and slowly exhaled. I had to do it right this time, I needed to have time on my side, with proper homework in place, with ‘proof’ that the rest of the world relied on equilibrium for a sane and balanced conjugal life, be it one-size-fits-all or bespoke and that the word ‘equilibrium’ was missing from this apparently placid waters.

I needed a strategy. Wasn’t it better to locate the faults myself, find answers to my questions and then point out the loopholes, and put it upon him to set it right, for once? On one hand the machete was baying for blood, on the other the peace-loving me was reasoning with myself as to why it was absolutely unnecessary to cause ripples in this placid pool of domesticity and watch it lash back at me like a tsunami, on this cool, quiet morning meant for billing and cooing.

The machete needs to wait, I sighed. I needed to introspect and find inner peace. Then, silently observe, study the equilibrium that is holding the universe in place, take notes and create a docket that will bring forth the bigger changes. And eventually I would untangle myself from the tangle of frazzled nerves, the time traveller falling in line and picking up his half of responsibilities and all this without causing a ripple on lake placid, on cloud 25.

What you are about to read next are notes, from my secret day long ‘research’. First the close observations of several research subjects, mostly people I have known and watched closely enough over the years to know the necessary ‘domestic’ details and form an objective opinion. This is followed by a closer examination of each of the scenarios, followed by an evaluation and a foot note.

Case Study # 1 – This dear friend of mine had made it rather clear ‘I’m never going to set foot in the kitchen, consider that before you decide to take the plunge’ before she had said ‘I do’ to the smitten. Their conjugal life of 17 years has been blessed with two bright young brats, a beautiful house, potted plants, two cars, two maids, a driver and a cook.

Footnote : And I am clearly weak in my Maths.

Case Study # 2 – Neighbour from another city with new born son made it clear that the parents and parents in law have to take turns in rearing their grandson, for she had to get back to her demanding career, come hail or high water. Her two children are pretty little angels. The two pairs of elderly couples live between cities, happily raising grand children while their children climb the corporate ladder.

Footnote : I wonder if I had ever made one distress call, to near and dear ones, let alone setting such high expectations for them to live up to, living between cities, that is, to raise our daughter.

Case Study # 3 – Another dear friend, with a husband who has a rather flexible spinal cord, a clear sense of priorities and a huge appetite for work, for not only does he manage a high stress profession, he also finds time to iron out issues, her silks, clean their French windows, attend to their garden with her and who knows what all otherwise.

Footnote : I always just raise an eye brow, ‘rare, but such men do exist’.

Case Study # 4 – Friends from Forever, have set up two households in two different cities, across countries, because their staying-ahead-of-the-curve-career demands them to, stay married and stay in two different countries.

Footnote : No comments.

Case Study # 5 – Finally, I turned to the net for answers and ways to solve this inequation. But at the end of having gone through over thirty odd articles, mostly researched and collated in the West, I come up with solutions like ‘do the dishes together’, ‘wash the car while he mows the lawn’, ‘men should get their hands dirty by shouldering home-improvement and getting down to cleaning’, ‘partners who share household chores have a better sex life’ ‘More marriages break down over couples fighting about who does boring household chores or pays the bills rather than infidelity’ etc.

Footnote : I resign.

And all this brings you back to, yours sincerely, me. Again. Clearly, my fault finding exercise to seal seeming loopholes of my “unbalanced, lacking in method and sanity” life did not fetch much. In fact, the exercise had fetched nothing at all. The more I studied cases and watched people, the more I was convinced that there are as many methods to the madness as the number of couples. Each situation I gauged demanded its own quirk and those who had found their middle ground managed to stay afloat together as a couple – even if it meant the husband staying in a different city from the wife and children because both pursued challenging and rewarding careers. In a few rarest of rare cases, the husband had even stepped into the home-husband shoes while the wife chased her dreams, both happy in their roles.

Yet, I was still where I had started, machete in hand, wanting only a half of the pie I currently owned. None of the solutions seemed to suit my situation. I had no need for a house husband, no. Nor did I fancy a bevy of maids, cooks and drivers at my disposal, for in my opinion they tend to add to ones headaches rather than relieving one of any. Would I be happy with the husband’s cleaning, cooking or ironing skills? Doubtful, for I am too much of a perfectionist and I set very high standards – so no, I might not appreciate his use of spices for my favouroite kababs or his lack of finesse in washing dishes. A long distance relationship sounded like disaster to me, the saying ‘out of sight, out of mind’ loomed large as an omen. Solutions did not find their way to me. So I resolved it for myself, for the time being at least. I assured myself that my methods have worked fine for the last decade and a half in my madness, and trying to undo anything at this juncture will only upset the current balance. Yes, I realized an invisible balance, even though wonky, was at work, even within my walls and I was its fulcrum.

So, by evening, I had quietly straightened myself out of the yogic posture and had gone back to the drawing board to formulate my own recipe to deal with my own unique brand of madness. Perhaps the ‘mythical’ equilibrium is nothing but better communication, clever delegation, a clever head for Maths, setting ground rules before taking the plunge and perhaps an inflexible spinal cord that refuses to bend, come what may. The machete? Well, it will have to wait to taste blood, if at all.

Disclaimer : In case you find a close resemblance of yourself with any of the case studies mentioned above, kindly disregard and read on. It is someone else, not you.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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Posted by on June 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Carmic connection in a desert city and a new fleet of fiats

First published (October 4, 2013) on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

The deserts of the Middle East are oil rich, thus the sultanates and emirates are stinking rich, and as a result both expatriate and citizen earnings are tax free. I’m sure if one were to objectively judge the happiness qoutient among world citizens, the graph will peak here, in the land of black gold. No wonder we’re tying to build a war there forever. Any way, that is not what we’re here to spin yarns about.

We found ourselves on the move, again. This time we crossed the Arabian Sea and landed by the Gulf of Oman. This was just a few years post the millennium, the pre ‘information at your fingertip thanks to internet explosion’ days, so my notion about most of Middle East was still limited to deserts dotted with bedouin tents, rows of camels trudging along the scorching desert sand, men in flowing white robes saying “walllaah!”, women hiding under layers of veils, date trees and virgin oil wells, owned by whimsical sultans with cluttered, overflowing harems.

We had landed in one of those relatively docile desert cities, quietly rich with a very strong currency that had immense buying power. The neat white rows of houses, pruned lawns, long, empty serpentine six lane highways, swank malls, a lazy sea lapping the beaches and rugged hills had actually taken me by surprise. All my preconceived notions were replaced by spanking new cities, all chrome and glass high-rises, rivieras, obnoxiously lavish malls and an ever expanding skyline. And that again aligns me with my story about my carmic connections. Also, this is to give you the cue to close your eyes and imagine the car of you dreams. Aston Martin Vanquish? Audi Coupe or the top of the line A8? Ferrari? Maserati? Jaguar? Porsche? Bentley? Volvo/Saab/Lamborghini/Alpha Romeo? If one were to fence-sit by any Emirati, Saudi, Omani, Qatari, Bahraini city street you would see these cars parade past you, strut their stuff and unabashedly flirt with that dreamy look in your eyes.

A few months before I had descended upon the Gulf region, I had sworn not to touch the steering wheel of any ‘automobile’ after I had nearly crashed the traing car which could have killed my driving instructor, in the Good Gaon. It wasn’t my fault, no, not at all. Just that my novice eyes hadn’t seen the lamp post approaching the car neither could my inept mind gauge the distance up to which we would have been at a ‘safe’ distance from the post. But here and now, in the desert city, with those mean machines zooming past me in lightning speed, I forgave my little folly, cast aside my phobia and took to car watching in my idle Middle East life.

If I may, here’s a little insight into why a gulfie, after landing a job in the Middle East suddenly starts behaving like a Saudi sheikh. If you earn the ‘right’ kind of salary in the Gulf, you can buy almost anything that you have ever dreamt of. The currencies are so strong that they have the power to import the best brands from all corners of the world and fill up their whimsical empty shelves. The Sultans and Emirs don’t need their subjects’ money to run their countries, aka, emirates and sultanates. Instead, they make all the comforts of the world available to everybody, tax-free. Even cars. Yes, all those brands of cars I mentioned above can be bought at the swipe of a card.

But the provisio is to first ‘pass’ the driving test and secure a driving license. The search for the holy grail pales in comparision perhaps. I have, in my five year long idle stint in this desert city, attended several coffee mornings and lunches thrown in glee of ‘finally getting the driving license’, number of attempts at it varyin between five to fifteen times. It was always a raging conversation starter in the air conditioned comforts of friendly drawing rooms about how gruelling it was to train with the Arabic speaking driving instructor under the desert sun and even more difficult to appease the ROP personnel who would finally take the two tests. The Bee secured his in the third attempt and was I proud. But no, I did not throw a party, not even a small coffee morning. We celebrated by finally visiting the car showrooms of Wattayah, that had been eluding us for the last four months.

So what car did we settle for? Nothing too flashy. Just a humble Quartz Gray Audi A4. That too because while we were trying to decide from among a Jag, a Camry, a Rover and test driving the Volvo, a newly launched black Audi A4 overtook us. It was love at first sight with the beauty that glided ahead of us, almost hugging the road and poof, all else seemed worthless without the Audi. Our new car treated us like royalty. And the next few years sped past with us speeding through the silken smooth, serpentine highways, with a maximum speed limit of 120kmph, crisscrossing the rugged interiors of Oman, bashing wadis, driving up the picturesque coastal road to Sur, climbing jebals, knocking at forts et al.

And how did we treat the Audi? “Don’t bang the door!” “No eating crisps or chocolates on the back seat!” “I’m NOT taking THIS car into those narrow, filthy Ruwi streets; we’ll take Ujjwal’s cab instead!” “No banging the door!” “Call the cab to go grocery shopping please!” “Must we treat OUR car like a hitchhiker’s paradise?” “No lifts!” “Don’t bang the door!” “How I hate it when nincompoops open their car doors without watching – see that idiot left a scratch near the rear door lock!” “DO NOT BANG THE DOOR!” This is how he treated the Audi. Like the Britbaba’s second born.

As the reluctantly proud parents of the Quartz Gray Audi A4 we knew that our market value in the Indian Social Club of Muscat and among the confines of the maachh-bhaat-phootball loving pretty much parochial Probasi Bengali Social Club had risen meteorically. I suppose naive me had thought that we had left this vanity fair behind in saadi Dilli, this ‘size always matters’ as does the make and class of the car syndrome. Though initially we were hesitant but later we started to enjoy the attention, but always slightly reluctantly. Thus whenever our top of the line Audi, that came fitted with a Bose audio system, made a social appearance alongside us, we found ourselves walking a few inches above terra firma.

But all dreams must come to an end and one should force oneself to return to reality. The journey back was necessary. And the only thing that I still miss from the Middle Eastern Utopia is the Audi, the late night rides on it through sleepy deserted streets, through winding alleys by the corniche, stopping by to just smell the sea near the souk, a soft late night jazz playing on the Bose or navigating the broad silken smoothness of the Omani highway, chasing the sunset, to reach the beach before the sky had turned to dusk.

Reality was Bombay and return to the black and yellow Bombai hackney ala the fiat taxi yelling ‘Virar/Vasai/Versova’ in bold colourful letterings on their rear windscreens. Come rain or shine, the old faithful was back at our side as we set out to set up home, again, in this tinsel town of broken dreams.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
 
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Posted by on June 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

3 Fiats and other carmic connections II

First published (September 4, 2013) on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

Life in the capital city? For a newly married couple? It is riddled with quirks. Take it from someone who survived the city and its satellite for five whole years. I was told that Delhi was never known for being an easy city to settle down in.  And no matter how many notes on ‘how to survive Delhi‘ one refers to, they never come handy for the next new migrant. But some quirks are eternal and end up biting all neophytes who want to settle down in sadi Dilli against all odds. Like the wonky parameters of a Dilliwallah to measure another person’s worth – measured mostly by the location / address and size of apartment, brand of furniture, clothes, bags, shoes, jewellery, number of mithai dabbas delivered at the doorstep during Diwali and most importantly the make and size of car. The bigger, shinier, plusher, the better. And one instantly got an entry into the Delhiwallah‘s ‘notable newbie’ notebook.

Things did not pan out any differently for us either. After our first year stint at a posh alley of the Bengali ghetto in South Delhi, also known as CR Park, the Bee and I, we had bought our first car, a beautiful gray Matiz with leather upholstered seats. That’s when I realized that our next door neighbours actually knew we existed, that I was Soma, married to Sukanti and had been living in the white coloured house with our potted plants, white brick walled balcony, flowing white curtains, a desert cooler on the rear balcony and a renowned painter as our landlord.

“Nice car, Sukanti!” he had called out over his wrought iron railings, “let’s catch up over a drink some day.”  The almost raconteur Delhiwallahs had suddenly pegged us a notch higher and we had been promoted to the rank of ‘noteworthy’ neighbours overnight.

But our newfound status as ‘noteworthy and could be invited for dinners’ was not meant to last long as nor was our slowly growing faith that ‘things aren’t that bad in the NCR’. A hunky-dory couple of years later, we moved out of the comfortable confines of C R Park and moved to the ‘good-gaon’ bordering Delhi, with its skyscrapers that sold dreams of more skyscrapers post the millennium mark. A year’s stay cleared all misconceptions of how good the ‘gaon’ was. At the crack of a September dawn, our prized Matiz and the driver were on their way home after dropping the Bee off at the airport, when the car was stolen at gunpoint  by a pack of goons from another infamous neighbouring state.‘These aren’t regular car thieves, they don’t want the car but need it to settle scores with rival gangs’ had assured the officer on duty who took down our complaint that morning, leaving the badly beaten up driver (who had carried the tale home) and me wondering what it actually meant. Autumn chill was knocking on the door, our litany of woes and an unwell daughter demanded a stopgap measure while we hoped that the car found the cops before being sold off as scrap. What else could have come to our rescue?

A turquoise car, a model from the late 60’s I suppose, that had once been the pride of a dear friend’s family which in recent times was gathering dust in their ancestral garage, and perhaps awaiting the ‘vintage’ tag before breathing its last. Fiat number 3, a Premier Padmini, was god sent, for it saw us through the entire period of the daughter’s first brush with Bronchitis, that year’s Durga Puja and a biting Delhi winter. And even amidst the chaos that had suddenly enveloped us, you know, the case of the missing car, a cantankerous fifty something DLF club dwelling ‘I’m still worth a million in the market today’ land lady, changing houses because the GoodGaon policewallahs decided to use the stolen car as a leverage to extract Diwali ki mithai and daru bottles from the hapless owners etc etc – the turquoise fiat did provide lighter gray moments of jest.

It would find the most bizarre places to stall and not budge to any amount of honking, pushing, cursing, kicking, nothing – unless it decided to sputter back to life – be it the busiest intersection in CP, or while turning into ‘Ek nombor market’ in C R Park or trying to cross the highway towards Gurgaon. And the music it created when the key turned in its ignition every morning – any percussionist would feel challenged to keep up with the range of its beats. Its radiator fumed, its fan belt kept rupturing, its carburetor was forever thirsty. And its exhaust? It perpetually coughed and sputtered and spewed more soot into the already choked up Delhi air. All that drama with the rickety somnambulist (that went by the name ‘car’ in the year 1960 and something) actually helped to keep our minds off the more serious stuff. Once on the street, we behaved as if we were in a vintage car rally. Trust me, the charade kept us sane.

By the end of six months we realized that we had waited for the Matiz long enough and the fact that we would never get the Matiz back was a foregone conclusion. So we bought a smart, ‘utility over glamour’ car and our parted ways with the turquoise Fiat. But our carmic connection with the Fiat Premier Padmini was yet to be over.

The year 2003 was supposed to usher in a period of good Carma for us, so had predicted Ganesha. We bid adieu to the city of lost cars and car thieves, flew across the Arabian Ocean and landed in a car lover’s paradise, a desert city by the Persian Gulf….

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

 

 
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Posted by on June 13, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

3 Fiats and other carmic connections I

From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

First published August 22, 2013

We live in strange times and are, perhaps, moving towards an even stranger future. These days a conversation or a picture, at times even a comment, in the virtual space evokes emotions that the object of affection in the real world may not evoke or even if it did, it would to a much lesser degree.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon a Facebook update by a virtual friend about a Fiat. Between the first look and typing in my two bits, the ‘Fiats of our fathers’ update had gathered over a hundred likes and 40 comments. If you look closely, you will notice that at times Facebook updates have a Domino effect on people, and everybody starts falling all over themselves, feeling feelings that they haven’t felt in a long time and remembering things they had thought they had forgotten forever.

It was a memory that I had thought had been duly archived in some forgotten crevasse of my brain. That ‘battered tin can’ update suddenly recalled it and the mind turned into a flipbook of cars that raced back to the future from my past. The first car that emerged out of the mist was a white Fiat that I knew rather well; but it did not belong to my father. Our little para (neighbourhood), a cul-de-sac close to the ‘central avenue’ of the city, started with the high windows and the side entrance of the Mallik-bari and ended in a tiny square with a garage that evidently used to be the stable of the Malliks in their hey-day. The youngest scion of the Mallik-bari, the middle aged, fair, slightly balding, well endowed Felu Mallik, would be seen driving the Fiat out at exactly 9.15am every week day morning, where he would return at about 5.00pm every evening. It was a pearly white car with shiny chrome wheel caps, sparkling headlamps and beige upholstery. Most of us who would gather at the tiny square to play around the same time loved peering through the rolled up windows, mostly to admire the interiors. On Sundays, it would wear a dirty tarpaulin shroud, to keep it out of harm’s way and mis-fired cricket balls. And when it rained during the monsoons? Felu Mallik’s Fiat would be gently pushed out of the alley, and helped around a couple of tricky bends, all the way out on to the arterial central avenue, by a battalion of Mallik-bari men-servants, to jump start his day.

My grandfather’s house on that street, no. 10/C, is no longer our address. The notorious Gujju boys of the street have sobered, got married, fattened and moved on to the more affluent by–lanes of New Alipore, as have my long–haired, doe–eyed friends of yore. The alley, I hear, is nothing like what it used to be decades ago. And who knows what became of Felu Mallik, who never married and his pearly white fiat, that one day had lost one of it shiny headlamps to my eager, untrained cricket bat. Sold off as scrap perhaps?

The next car was also a Fiat. It is an integral part of a story from my very-early twenties, when I had missed the bus…err, car. Strangely, my otherwise elephant-like memory fails me when I think back to this car; I don’t remember the exact colour of the vehicle or whether it was shiny or in a state of disrepair. Perhaps because it’s a story that the mind is still not ready to accept and wants me to forget? Was it a sultry Summer afternoon in Calcutta, or was it a nippy Autumn evening? Never mind. All that I will allow myself to tell you is that for a very brief moment I thought I was being invited to ride alongside a young man with smiling eyes and an infectious boyish charm only torealize that the seat had already been taken, by someone else. She had slipped in beside him, he turned the key in the ignition, the old fiat coughed up some bad breath and before I knew it, had disappeared out of sight and eventually out of mind. In hindsight, I think that episode saved me from an accident that may have broken a few bones and a heart…

Soon it was time for me to learn new lessons about cars and men, in Delhi…

 

 

Picture courtesy : Joy Bhattacharya: Fiats of our Fathers

http://www.productioncars.com/photo-gallery.php?make=Premier&model=Padmini

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Tagore at 155 : Is Rabindranath really relevant to the modern Bengali’s life?

rabindranath-tagore-self-portrait
“আজি হতে শতবর্ষ পরে কে তুমি পড়িছ বসি আমার কবিতাখানি কৌতুহল ভরে?”
The greater part of my existence as a Bengali has been ruled by my indomitable Bengali chromosome, forever. I proudly possess Kantha and Dhakai sarees, terracotta artifacts that still smell of Bankura and Bishnupur, my great grandmother’s silver hair pins, old notebooks full of ‘authentic’ Bengali recipes passed down through generations, and among other such things typically Bengali, a bookcase that boasts of Parashuram, Upendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury, Sharadindu Bandopadhyay, Abanindra Nath Thakur, Mahashweta Devi, Sukumar Roy and Satyajit Roy. Strange though it may seem to the uninitiated, the pride of place in the bookcase is occupied by none of these; that place is clearly reserved for a set of sixteen beige, hard-bound volumes of Rabindra Rachanabali (The complete works of Rabindranath Thakur) with his signature, printed boldly in maroon, on the cover.

I had already read most of the Bard’s work from the collection that adorned my father’s book case much before I had reached my prime. But while moving out of Kolkata several years later, my Bengali core wanted to take with me, among other things Bengali, a new set of Rabindra Rachanabali, to increase the ” intellectual quotient” of my life away from home. Please understand that in spite of having such treasures in my possession, I do not consider myself an expert on Tagore, but a mere Tagore enthusiast perhaps.
Over the years, I have taken pleasure in attending most of the ‘Probasi’ Rabindra Jayanti evenings that I have been invited to; I have joined others gathered around a harmonium on many a sunny afternoon and sweltering evening; I have even given a patient hearing to various renditions of Rabindrasangeet sung at various decibels and scales and have sat through countless recitals and performances of Rabindra Nritya Natyas. Though I do not find myself among the “thus rendered proud by Rabindranath” Bengali mothers who seek out Probasi(non-resident) experts on Rabindrasangeet and Rabindranath to tutor their brood, perfect their pronunciation and recitation skills as well as hone them in the nuances of the Prem, Prakriti and Puja songs, even in a distant land, I have for the last eight or nine years encouraged my daughter to participate in Ponchishe Boishakh celebrations in all he cities we have found ourselves in.
But of late, after eighteen years of experiencing Tagore the probasi way, I have started to ask myself several questions. ‘Is Rabindranath really relevant in our lives any more? Do we really need him? Or is it that we have held on to him for too long? Is it time to move on?’ These questions had quietly crept into my thoughts when I spent a summer translating a book on Rabindranath Tagore’s later life, about three years ago. The story starts at a later stage of his life, after the Nobel Prize had been conferred upon him and he had set up the Vishwa Bharati University. His life was on the wane, his responsibilities as a father, as the patriarch, as the Zamindar, as the head of his university were weighing him down – at such a juncture of his life, he set upon a journey to distant Argentina. The story narrates how the ailing Tagore “lands on the shores of Argentina and conquers Victoria’s heart”, and how the two, Rabindranath and Victoria Ocampo, meet in the end by the river, Rio de la Plata, thus “bridging the chasm of a long wait”. I finished translating the book and it was duly published the same year and yet the questions continued to plague me. ‘Perhaps the way the writer has treated his life hasn’t gone down well with me?’ I wanted to reason with my thoughts.

But my last few visits to Calcutta only made me ask myself the same questions over and over again. It has been close to seventy years since his demise, and all that seem to remain of him in his city are microphones blaring his songs at busy cross sections. ‘Isn’t he being trivialized?’ I ask again. To make matters worse I find his songs being sung to Pop tunes, his plays being made a travesty in new age cinema, his stories revamped and made modern-age-ready scripts for main stream cinema and cheap, shoddy translations of his great body of work flooding bookstores to bring him closer to the new generation. ‘All in the name of ‘popularizing’ the Bengali ‘icon’ Rabindranath?’ I wonder.
I turn my gaze at my prized possession, at the neat row of much thumbed Rabindra Rachanbali proudly lining my bookshelf. There is Rabindranath as we know him, printed in offset, covered in hard bound, his knowledge, his philosophy, his art, his prose and his poetry meticulously divided into sections, years, seasons and moods. But this collection of books is now known more for increasing the ‘aantel or intellectual’ value of many a Bengali drawing room. To my mind, though he has been translated into most leading Indian languages, he seems to have remained the “Inescapable Icon” of Bengal alone. So long he had been forgotten there, among the petty parochial boundaries, on the bookshelves of most Bengalis, as an identity that was seen as an albatross around most Bengali necks. But five years ago as the world awakened to his 150th year of birth, a lot of us awakened to him again. But entirely for a different reason.

This time, some of us wanted a share of him more than a mere appreciation of his poems and songs from a distance. Now was the time to cash in on what was perhaps one of the last few reasons to feel proud as a Bengali. And how does one cash in on Rabindranath? Bring him up to speed, make him mass and especially youth-ready and give his work a makeover so that they sell well. I was aghast to hear Rabindrasangeet sung in RAP style and believe me when I say that such travesties exist. Couple of years ago, I was invited for the promotion of a film where I discovered that the much acclaimed Tagore play Tasher Desh has been remade in Bengali. So far so good, but imagine the new age Tasher Desh in an experimental form, shot in jump cuts, actors in neon costumes and the dialogues, a smatter of Bengali, Hindi and English? And I asked again, ‘has the Bard lost his relevance completely amongst this mediocre, materialistic milieu? Why else would anyone want to distort the works of one of the greatest poets of all times?’ I could not accept this effort to desecrate Tagore and his genius for personal gains and fifteen minutes of fame.
Later the same year I was sitting in at the practice session of a dance recital choreographed on songs from Tagore’s Nritya natyas. The programme was to be staged during the Durga Pujas. Honed singers, harmonium and tabla lent music to the choreography. And the late September rain outside added to the mood. Like every other year, my little girl was a part of the dance recital, too. I sat there wondering, ‘How I wish I was a little more Bengali. How I wish I had sat patiently through those Rabindrasangeet classes my mother used to line up for me, in the hope that someday I’ll feature in para programmes like these.’ I was happy that the little girl has turned out much better than me at 15. And that’s when the answer came to me. Rabindranath is immortal. He is timeless. He will continue to be relevant to the Bengali and to all those who embrace him. We do not need to impose him on the new generation, but take them by their hands and lead them to him, make them love his words, his music, his lyrics. He is much more than the shrill rendition blaring from speakers in an attempt to teach culture. His work is far superior than the travesties that people have made in trying to make poor copies out of. Mediocrity cannot touch him. He will forever continue to hold that prime place in Bengali literature, but in his entirety, with all his complexities, his moods, his philosophy and his devotion. And that is how the new generation should be taught to accept and appreciate him and not in ‘popular’, simplified, ‘popcized’ version.
 
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Posted by on May 10, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Kedarnath

From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

This is a story about the mighty Himalayas and some grand old people from a time not so long ago but from long before Uttarakhand had come into existance.

In Calcutta, Kundu Specials is an institution. The Kundu family run travel company, for four generations, took good care of the travel bug that lay dormant in a middle class Bengali’s mind, selfishly hoarding casual leaves, sick and rainy day leaves through the year and building a corpus for that one annual vacation, to any where the heart desired. Because, when it comes to vacationing, the Bengali represents the Japanese tourist in India. Travel where you will, and you are bound to chance upon the inimitable saree draped Bangali lady, with kids popping out of monkey caps and sweaters and the harried gentleman trying to fit all of them into his photo frame against the sea, mountain, desert or historical monument backdrop. Kundu Specials, over the years, have ensured that the Bengali gentry travelled in comfort to places they had only dreamt of visiting, ate four Bengali meals a day cooked by the Bengali cooks who accompanied the group and brought back albums full of memories from the customised-and-guided-yet-affordable Kundu Special trip.

This story is from the days when Kundu Travels had moved their Strand Road office to the heart of Calcutta, on Chittaranjan Avenue, closer to where my Dadu’s (grandfather) shop stood. The second generation Mr. Kundu, Kundu dadu to us, would sit in my Dadu’s shop, sipping tea and hatching plots of sending out his annual troops to various parts of North India, to cooler climes and also chalk out itenerary for a handful of his friends like Dadu, to the mighty mountains, to the maths and ashrams hidden in the valleys among those mountains, to Gomukh, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath. Dadu, on those days, would evidently return home happier, having reserved four seats with Kundu Specials.

My Dadu loved travelling and nothing could ever come in the way of his wanderlust, not even money. I remember his tale about one such trip, when he had spent a few months of his twenty-something years in heart of India, Madhya Pradesh, in the estate of Rewa, interning at the Royal estate, where the morning breakfast, among other things comprised of bread with a really thick layer of butter, “about 5 mm thick. Imagine biting into such a slice and ending up with butter smeared over your lips and teeth,” he would tell us, eyes glistening from the memories of his carefree youth.

The first four seats reserved for Kundu Dadu’s tirth yatra to the Himalayas would be that of Dadu, Dida (my grandmother), followed by her best friend, her Boudi (her brother’s wife) and her brother. Come our summer vacation, the foursome would pack their leather suitcases with clothes, woollens and thermals, roll up their hold-alls and be gone for their summer sojourn.

Someone whispers the names ‘Joshi Math, Kedar Nath, Badri Nath, Amar Nath, Shesh Nag, Gaumukh, Lal Baba ka Ashram, ek roti ek kambal….’ as I sit writing this post. Voices from the past surface, ebb, flow and pour forth stories of walking up to Gangotri, riding horses that trotted perilously close to the edge of the road, narrow passes that opened up into valleys in the foothills of snow capped monsters, freezing, moon lit nights spent in makeshift Kundu Special tents, eating Luchi-alur torkari on the way up to Amarnath, Lal Baba’s Ashram at Gaumukh that dictated the rule ‘ek roti, ek kambal’ – the traveller would be given blankets equivalent to the number of Rotis he would have – ‘to keep the cold and weary traveller warm from outside and from within’. I remember Dadu telling us about that one time when on their way up the treacherous mountaineous terrain, he had been separated from the group, having lost his way in a sudden blizzard, very close to Kedar Nath and his only hope to guide him through the storm was his horseman. His horse had trotted off into the blizzard, they had nothing to guide them, their cry for help enveloped by the howling, raging storm, the late afternoon had darkened into an impenetrable, pitch darkness, and only long walking sticks to help them discern between the road and the slope that plunged into the deep ravine below. “Part of the way we had to slide down the barren, snow covered mountainside, do you know how?” he would ask the little heads who would gather around his knee, eyes popping out in trying to imagine the snow storm. “After the storm had passed, we moved ahead a few kilometers, stopping every few feet to dip the walking stick in the snow before stepping there. Then the ghorawalla pulled out out a thick plastic sheet, perhaps a part of his tent, laid it flat on the snow almost along the edge. We thought we had seen lights in the valley below. He asked me to sit down on it, and as I did he gently pushed me from the back, following right behind me on his sheet. It was a slightly bumpy but smooth ride down, perhaps a kilometer or two long – who could tell in that darkness?” He would smile.

“And when he had finally reached the camp, after the storm had passed, about eight hours later, I had thought it was his ghost that had appeared before us”, Dida would add, who incidentally had spent those eight hours, according to Dadu, “only thinking about the worse and howling her heart out”.

I distinctly remember four of those summer vacations, when the fantastic four had galavanted to the mountains and had brought back bags of walnuts, almonds, Gods and Goddesses carved out of marble and bags full of stories. I have treasured some precious moments from those summers, reading big fat books that belonged to Chhotomashi, the late evening card games with my cousins, nights I spent lying under the stars on the terrace with Chhotomashi listening to Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon, the eerily dark corridors on the ground floor mostly populated by over sized rats, the quiet of the night broken by the abuses of the neighbourhood drunkard, lazy, late morning breakfasts – almost a circus of sorts. And some afternoons, wandering through the quiet house, when all else were lost in post lunch siesta, touching my Dida’s fine bone china, her starched sarees on her closet rail, going through my Dadu’s drawer, his hair brushes and his collection of old coins, I would feel a fear gripping me, ‘what if they don’t come back this time?’

Dida, after all these years, spends most of her time by her aging window, quietly lost in her forgetfulness, once in a while the past flashes through her mind and she tells us those stories, again. The neighborhood has changed, the bougenville that my Mama had planted outside the house the year Dadu passed away has climbed along the wall and reached the terrace, the afternoons are far from quiet and the house doesn’t seem so large any more or perhaps I have grown up finally.

The last conversation I had with her was on my last visit, last year. She had thought that I was her long lost best frind from her childhood, I had played along and we spoke about her childhood, her marriage to Dadu when she was just 15, raising her children in a big city, Dadu and Dida’s Saturday evening ritual of watching a movie together, their trips, Vaishno Devi, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Joshi Math… And she suddenly turned to me and asked, “What if he hadn’t returned after the storm had passed over Kedarnath?”

Today, when I sit and write this post, thousands are still trapped, hungry and cold in Kedar, awaiting rescue with time ticking against their destiny. And her fears and mine have suddenly come true.

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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“A very happy birthday….

to you” – read the simple, harmless message that I had typed out amidst a busy day, on my friend’s Facebook wall, about six months ago. What I didn’t know then was that that would be the last such message that I’d put up on any of my friend’s walls hence. The next day when I returned to Facebook, the little box in the right hand column announced the birthday girls and boys of the day, as it always does.

I surprised myself with ‘would I have remembered to wish them, in person, had I not logged in?’ and I had no answer to my question.  ‘What perfect timing to ask oneself such a rhetorical question!’, I chided myself, and logged out without posting my ‘warm wishes’. But the question hung in the air, waiting for a reply. I didn’t want to spell out the answer.

This might seem an absurd situation to someone who does not spend the better part of his or her day in front of a cold screen, at office or working from the dining table, like I do. It would have seemed equally strange to me, too, four or five years ago, when the cold virtual world was largely unexplored and I was accustomed to meticulously circling out ‘important’ days on the wall calendar, table calendar, the Bee’s organizer and mine. To refresh your memories, for it has been a long time since my last post, I need to remind you that I am married to a rather forgetful man, who barely manages to remember his own date of birth. Hence, I went through the exercise of making every ‘red letter’ day stand out and be counted.

…………………………….

It was my first year on Facebook and I was learning the ropes from those who had been there longer. I still remember the comment I had left behind on a friend’s update. His harmless update expressed gratitude to all his friends and foes alike for remembering to wish him on his birthday. Back in those days, I was far too honest for anybody’s wellbeing. So I added my comment ,‘dear XYZ, don’t thank us. Thank Facebook for reminding us :)’ to a long string of comments under his update. The ‘good’ friend is yet to forgive this loose cannon who decided to rain on his Facebook birthday party.

………………………………

What happens to all bottom drawers and top shelves of wardrobes, bookshelves and chest of drawers? They end up as our treasure keepers and all that was important to us in their prime. And one fine spring-cleaning day the 12 year old girl pulled out a cardboard box, frayed at corners, the lid hanging from the edges. ‘You need a new box for …. ‘and before she could make up her mind, her voice had got buried in the contents of the box. By the time I returned my attention to her, she had pulled out everything, thelittle notes, the letters, the greetings cards, a few address books from my Vth, VIIth and XIIth grade days – two ‘slam’ books and a bunch of hand made birthday cards held together with a piece of faded ribbon. She had finished with the rest. Her eager fingers were now unfolding each little card, scanning through the contents, giggling, sighing and moving on to the next. I joined in. Most of the birthday cards were made of ruled sheets of paper torn out of exercise books or white sheets torn out of drawing books and a few on blank cards bought from the stationery chap who sat by the school gate every morning. All of them were from the year 1988, the year before a tiny Archies’ gallery came up next to our school. “Why don’t my friends exchange hand made cards?” she wondered aloud, “and your friends were so good at painting!” she continued gushing over the heap of teenaged water colour trails and birthday sweet nothings, from a long time ago. I gave them a longer lease of life and a new box to live in forever.

………………………………..

I must admit that my birthdays over the last five years on the social network have been both flattering and rewarding. Every year, hundreds of messages appear on my wall from friends, colleagues, classmates, acquaintances and complete strangers and, as if by the rules of compounding, the numbers have only gone one way – upwards, year on year. It was the perfect complement to my erstwhile quota of phone calls, greetings cards, sms-es  and the visits of a few friends who dropped in to share my day. Now, wishes were flooding in from all over, from friends and foes alike, that too from across all the remote corners of the globe. Friends, who I had shared my school desk and lunches with, suddenly popped up on my wall, a classmate from my Philosophy class in college, neighbours from two cities ago, a bunch of smiling, gorgeous girls who claimed to be juniors from school, college, university, distant second cousins, and my husband’s friends and colleagues – don’t get me wrong, I was loving the attention.

But my old self, who loved hoarding greetings cards in boxes and marking ‘significant’ dates in the organizer; the person who preferred to call or drop in to wish friends/relatives/colleagues in person felt neglected and lost. She was slipping away as I was fast adapting to an ‘easy’ way out. I also ignored her complaints, ‘X used to call every year, why hasn’t she this year?’; ‘Y and I had this ritual of wishing each other at midnight, ever since eighth grade, whatever happened?’ ; ‘what happened to Z’s bunch of flowers and his smiling presence in the evening?’; ‘I have stopped making calls, and I was so particular!’; ‘How could I have forgotten A’s birthday – because there was no notification on Facebook?’ – she went on and on. The few reasons to call and catch up with friends and family were fast disappearing in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives and the convenience that technology provided. And my Facebook wall was becoming a beehive of ‘quick-and-easy-even-if-somewhat-impersonal-but-gets-the-job-done’ activities.

Of late, I have been feeling a sense of loss; a loss of warmth and the thought that is required to remember such dates and convey the requisite wishes – whatever the means. That old sentimental me, is once again craving that personal touch, at least from those that are near and dear. A phone call, a message, a visit – more than a ‘one among the many birthday messages put up on others walls in the course of the day, every day.  And I have taken the first step. I have stopped writing messages on all walls, that of friends and acquaintances alike. The next course of action is yet to be drawn up.

Considering the number of walls I skipped in the last six months, I foresee quite a few steely resolves to sit out from wishing me this year, at least on Facebook. It will definitely make the number of birthday wishes on my wall dwindle substantially this year. But I am helpless. I can’t do this any more.

From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

 
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Posted by on June 25, 2013 in Uncategorized