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Forgetful me

Read it on my TOI blog, Freeze Frame.

‘I am prone to momentary lapses of memory and at times it gets really embarrassing for me. Are you still sure? Think about it.’ The warning came on the morning of the first day of Baishakh, almost a decade and half ago. But that year the day had another purpose other than turning over the Bengali new year. He and I were also getting married the same day.

He had requested that he would choose the date, with the refrain that ‘that way, I’ll never forget our wedding anniversary.’ Either it was too late to back out or I was too much in love with him (and in retrospect, I think it was the former than the latter). Anyway, I gave myself no reason to reason with myself, to look back or think. I just took the leap. I draped the fuchsia Benarasi my mother had lovingly chosen for the occasion, allowed her to fuss over my hair, garlands, ornaments that had been passed down from generations, let her cry a little and basically have everything her way for, perhaps, this would be the last time. I had boldly signed on the dotted lines, next to his scrawl and was his better half, about a half an hour ceremony later. Social paraphernalia had followed a month later. The fairy tale had begun with a very brief courtship, a period not long enough to gauge the depth of his ‘momentary lapses of memory’. The nature and the depth of his ‘forgetfulness’ manifested itself once we had moved lock, stock and barrel to the Bengali ghetto in Delhi.

A memoir, if ever written on our life together, would definitely start with this paragraph: “Their new life was full of hurdles. He forgot his wife’s birthday. The wife took it in her stride and brushed it aside as a ‘minor’ glitch. He forgot other ‘important’ dates and she started maintaining an annual calendar of events that hung next to the dining table. She keyed in ‘important’ numbers in his phonebook, updated his address books, created files that lined the guestroom shelves to store forgotten bills/ prescriptions/ correspondence/ insurance papers etc, tried to remember the names of faces that she met for the first time so that next time he knew who he was talking to and much more that eventually became part of their history.”

    

One winter evening, I spotted fresh roses at the tiny flower-shop in our neighbourhood “Second market”, in CR Park, and left him behind to chat up with the florist from Bankura and haggle over prices. It did not take long to get a good bargain for a dozen long stemmed roses. But something seemed odd. Suddenly my questions were not met with his usual monosyllabic replies. So I turned to look for my husband. There he was, standing a few shops away, slightly blurry because of the fog that was slowly descending upon the dimly lit street, talking to a tall, elderly gentleman, in a long Kashmiri housecoat. I walked up to join the animated conversation.

‘And how are the daughters? Hope mashima is keeping well, too? I don’t see you taking strolls down our lane anymore.’ he was asking the gentleman, who had surprise clearly written on his aging face.

‘They are fine, but your mashima is still not used to the Delhi cold, even after all these years’, came the reply, in a halting, confused tone. ‘And I prefer to stay indoors these days. My old bones can’t take the biting cold either.’

Having found me standing quietly by his side and discreetly pulling him by his sweater from the back, he seemed to get the message. So he broke off with a, ‘Okay Roy Mesomoshai, do take care.’

A barrage followed. ‘What was that all about? Why were you pulling at my sweater? I can see you’ve got your roses. So? What do you want now? Did you forget your purse again? Need more money? What was it? Haven’t met Roy mesomoshai in a long time, so I was talking to him.’

So I had to tell him.

‘That was NOT Roy mesomoshai! Have you even forgotten what he looks like? You were chatting with a complete stranger!’

‘No? But Roy Mesomoshai always wears a Kashmiri housecoat and is as tall. He even wears a similar Nepali cap in winter. How can you be so sure? That was him!’ And only a visit to Roy Mesomoshai, who lived two houses away, allayed his doubts. ‘Minor glitch’ I sighed.

And such minor glitches continued. He would often come home from office with a bag of Salim’s Kebabs, even after being told that I had already cooked dinner (which in retrospect seems like an intentional lapse of memory, as those would be the exact days I’d cook vegetables like bhindi, bNadhakopi or pumpkin). He recognized faces and was capable of continuing a meaningful conversation but their names failed him, noticed things which were almost in his face much later than he was expected to. I was still not worried.

But when it resulted in him missing flights, both domestic and international, forgetting laptops at airport lounges, blackberries and phones in taxis (that too, on foreign shores), our driver with the car at the meeting venue and taking a ride back with his colleague or asking me the name of the person he had just finished a well-informed conversation with – it worried me slightly. You know the kind of thought that goes, ‘he might forget me at a bookshop some day’. That’s about it.

And also the fact that in trying to keep up with his forgetfulness, my gray cells are growing lazy. Of late I set up reminders on the Blackberry to remind me about things to do, appointments to keep, set up alarms to reach on time, maintain a diary of my daily chores, fill up the refrigerator with to-do-post-its etc.

But this is what it has come to pass. Just the other day, I was so excited about finally watching one of Soumitro Chatterjee’s plays in Bombay. I bought premium tickets two months in advance, alerted the husband and made him mark off that time of the evening as busy on his blackberry, marked it on my calendar et al and so that we both remembered, I even put the tickets in the husband’s ‘important docs’ drawer. And we were all set for, Monday, 9th of July to arrive.

Something struck me on Sunday evening. Perhaps the husband’s remark ‘how could have they planned a play for a Monday evening? They’re typically either on a Saturday or a Sunday. I’ll have to miss a conference call…’ I pulled out the tickets from his drawer. The date on the tickets read ‘Saturday, 7th July, 2012’.

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Andaman Chronicles, part III

“Leisure,” he said. “If people only knew! It’s the most priceless thing a man can have and they’re such fools they don’t even know it’s something to aim at. Work? They work for work’s sake. They haven’t g o t the brains to realize that the only object of work is to obtain leisure.”  (The Lotus Eater, W. Somerset Maugham)

Life on the islands is a strange life, redolent with a sleepy, listlessness – beyond the grasp of a wi-fi connected urban dweller like me. The sun, the moon and the winds are the only things that affect people and perhaps the change of seasons. With no trains to catch apart from the occasional ferry to other islands or a bus to a distant part of a larger island, 3 daily newspapers, a few radio stations and limited satellite television invasion, time seems to stand still here. Day begins at the crack of dawn and ends with dusk. I could almost hear Maugham say it with a slow chuckle “That’s one of the delights of …., that there’s never any hurry.” (The Lotus Eater, W. Somerset Maugham)

   

The realization, that the connotation of time on the islands varies a great degree from our clock-bound mainland life, hit upon us when we asked for a mid morning cup of tea at a roadside tea stall on Havelock, at 10.30 am. By the time we had reached the row of stalls lining the tiny bend on the road by beach number 1, adjacent to the main jetty, the big, noisy, brass kerosene stove had been turned down and the owner was busy washing used glasses. The battered, much used tins of tea, sugar and milk powder had gone back to their places on a shelf lining the sooty wall.

To my eager ‘cha hobe?’ (Do you have tea?) he returned a cold ‘bikele charter somoy abar cha paben.’ (Tea will only be available at four in the afternoon, again) without looking up and went back to cleaning the broad tin platform around his stove. Though it defied all logic for the always-connected-anytime-is-tea-time urban dweller – it made perfect sense for the islander. Thus my rather curious ‘why?’ was met with a half mocking, low laugh o which he added that he had been serving tea from four in the morning and this was his time to take a bath. He would come back at eleven-thirty to prepare and serve lunch till 3. Four thirty till six was tea time on the island. quod erat demonstrandum.

It did put a semi colon to our tea-plans for the late morning, but we were not surprised. We had been meeting with a similar fate for the last few days on the islands, both in Port Blair as well as in Havelock, whenever we were out looking for the much recommended seafood restaurants. A few seafood restaurants had come with very high recommendations and Facebook pictures uploaded by enthusiastic friends, to prove the delectable bill of fare. After the first few attempts we realized that life of a restaurant on the islands is largely governed by tourist seasons. So having landed in the Andaman Islands a few weeks after the ‘tourist’ season had waned, we had but very few ‘food’ options to explore. Most highly recommended restaurants had made high profit in summer and shut shop for the ‘dry’ monsoons devoid of the eager hoards of tourist. Some others had closed for the monsoons because their star chefs had left for the mainland on their annual leave. And the hand full of restaurants that still remained open to cash in on the now thinning crowd of tourists, had already wound up a host of services for the slow monsoon ahead. The robust menus promised a lot but the choices were rather lean. “Chicken, you will get everything, Sir. Tiger prawn, small prawns, also – but no King Crabs, Jumbo Prawns or the Lobsters. No good fish also. Wrong season, Sir.” Said a smiling Muthuswamy, almost apologetically, at New Lighthouse Restaurant, in Port Blair.

On day three we had a chance encounter with the new generation, Hindi-speaking, fully clothed Jarwas, along our 50 km long convoyed journey through the Jarawa Tribal Reserve forest as we headed towards the limestone caves hidden behind the mangroves of Middle Andaman. It was a humid day, heavy rain had replaced the drizzle as we changed over from our car to the ferry and then on to a speed boat. A ride through the treacherous bends of the thick mangrove and a trek through the wet tropical forest of the monsoon and we were suddenly entering almost a crack in a stone wall, a whimsical creation of nature, the Limestone caves, tucked away behind tall evergreen trees and later all the efforts were rewarded by tall glasses of fresh lemonade, sold by the locals.

      

It was day four. We tried keeping our foodie hopes afloat for Havelock, as the Makruz, a fast catamaran that takes one to Havelock in one and a half hours, navigated the straits between Great Andaman and Ritchie’s Archipelago.

But even in the days of Google and satellite images, nothing prepares you for Havelock and its white sand beaches. We have been to a few of the most beautiful beaches that line the Indian Ocean. Starting from the white beaches of Seychelles, to driving down parts of the rugged and beautiful coastal road of Oman, a drive down the western coast of Sri Lanka from Negombo to Galle, the pristine beaches of Bintan and some of the famous beaches of Thailand – none of them prepared us for the surprise that waited on Havelock.

      

It felt strange that the beaches of Havelock are known by numbers than names. Beach number one lazily lies adjacent to the Havelock jetty, the shore dotted with small speed boats that set out at dawn to fish and to snorkel. While most of the hotels and resort line up the shore between beach numbers three and five, it is beach number seven that waits patiently for you to arrive. Let me take you to beach number seven a couple of boring paragraphs later.

The first night in Havelock however had plans to ruin it all for us.

First came as a cause of a loud, scared shriek from the bathroom. And the cause was a largish, black scorpion even more scared from having felt the earth shake beneath it as the daughter had stomped her way in, now perched on the wastepaper basket. The brave Bee picks up the wastepaper basket, opens the door and dumps the bin on the grass outside for the scorpion to ease itself out and guess who walks in when no one’s paying attention? A plump toad. Needless to say that even after a lot of chasing the toad around the room, when it had safely ensconced itself under the mini-bar, I was beyond all consolation that the toad was more scared than I was. The hotel ‘house-keeping’ was equally helpful in allaying fears with ‘this is the monsoon, so toads are very common, and they tend to hop in if they find the door open’. It, in fact, nailed it for me and we first changed our cottage and then changed resorts. The next resort, one of the premiums on the island, passed my ‘strict’ inspections.

Beach number seven, popularly known as Radhanagar Beach, is one of the best white sand beaches of the archipelago and one of the 10 best beaches according to Nat Geo. A couple of sign boards warned the ignorant about the beach being infested with salt water crocodiles and several other dangerous creatures.

But once on the beach, everything else ceased to matter much. The innumerable shades of blue of the water that changed with the colour of the moody sky, the broad white stretch of sand, the lush forest that hugged the shore; the afternoon slowly mellowed into evening. The pockets of almost zero to very low mobile connectivity, the thick darkness of the night lit in places by a house or two, a car or two rushing homewards, glow worms lighting up in the depth of the distant darkness, the incessant drone of an orchestra of toads and crickets, the rush of wind through the trees and the drizzle that murmured to the leaves – at seven in the evening, it was night in Havelock and all was well in the islanders’ lives.

Suddenly, in the quiet of that languorous evening that lazily stretched ahead of us, it all made sense; the silence, the darkness, the untethered life, the well defined apartheid between day and night; this life was a mirage that drove us tethered, wired, bound-by-time-and-routine mainlanders in hoards to the island – to chase the ever so elusive leisure, moody blue skies, large expanses of the open sea, fifty shades of blue of the water and fifty one shades of green on shore and a yearning to lead a life of the Lotus Eater. Laze, eat, sleep, gaze at the sea, read a book on a hammock by a sleepy, empty beach, eat, sleep and laze. Perhaps, if I had the will to throw it all up, stop being a train car and not die a scrap iron death…

“Most people, the vast majority in fact, lead the lives that circumstances have thrust upon them, and though some repine, looking upon themselves as round pegs in square holes, and think that if things had been different they might have made a much better showing, the greater part accept their lot, if not with serenity, at all events with resignation. They are like train-cars travelling forever on the selfsame rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron.” (The Lotus Eater, W. Somerset Maugham)

But Maugham’s words rang in my ears “The will needs obstacles in order to exercise its power; when it is never thwarted, when no effort is needed to achieve one’s desires, because one has placed one’s desires only in the things that can be obtained by stretching out one’s hand, the will grows impotent. If you walk on a level all the time the muscles you need to climb a mountain will atrophy” and I chose will over the desire for a life of the Lotus Eater.

Back in Port Blair, it was day seven and the day we were to board our flight. We spent the last one hour before reporting time atop a hill, at the jogger’s park, that overlooked a fraction of the city and the entire air field. We met a group of islanders waiting patiently on the benches that faced the airport, engaged in a lively conversation. An exchange of pleasantries revealed that they came to the park every day without fail, at the same time, to watch the planes come in from the farthest end of the horizon and then take off. And I was happy that I had much more to look forward to after I had boarded the flight and was back in my wired urban life. I could come back, to chase leisure again, on yet another holiday.

 
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Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The Andaman Chronicles, part II

Continued from the Andaman Chronicles, part I ….

central tower from which radiate the five wings of the Cellular Jail or the dreaded Kala Pani, dating back to the colonial past of India. Originally, the prison had seven rows of three storey buildings radiating from the central tower. History has it that, in 1942 when Japan invaded the island, they drove out the British and took over the prison, to imprison the same Britishers. Two of the seven wings were supposedly demolished during that time.

A small detour awaited us on our right. A peek at the execution room. Newly painted in a funny shade of green, the old rafter on the ceiling had a new canary yellow noose, made from a nylon rope, hanging from it. The dreaded Kala Pani was never known to have had any prisoner hanged, said the guide, so the noose never had the chance to taste a freedom fighter’s neck snap under its pressure. We breathed easy and walked out of the small room with the green wooden walls and cheap vinyl floor.

Once out in the large courtyard, we crossed colourful turbaned men, women in bright Rajasthani ghaghras, a bus load of Telegu speakers, a few Bengali families from Calcutta, a newly wed couple posing for their camera in front of a prison cell. We left them behind and made our way up the stairs of the central tower that leads to the prison cells. If I may, this is what we do and would ask you to do, only if you are like us, who love to get a feel of a place, but in solitude, away from the other tourists, their bags full of chaos and flashing cameras.

Don’t go where the crowd wants to take you, take smaller steps, and fall back. By the time they, the people who rushed up the stairs to go ahead of you, have reached the second floor, to crowd the cell that housed Veer Savarkar, you will find you have reached the first floor. Walk out of the stairwell and walk out into opening that runs down on your right and left as two corridors. Two iron gates block off the entrance to the cells on this floor. Chances are that you will find them unlocked, but bolted. Feel free to walk in. Walk along the monotonous corridor, with long barred windows on one side. On the other side, a white wall runs next to you, interrupted in equal intervals by black 3’x7’ iron gates. That’s where history is standing still, right behind those ominous bars, waiting for you to come by and listen to the stories. Each of those gates opens into a 6’x8’ prison cell with a skylight high up on the rear wall for ventilation. Once you enter the cell, walls close in upon you. These were the cells that used to house hundreds of political prisoners condemned to the Kalapani for treason and conspiracy against the British Raj. Because the crowd has already left you behind, you can hear the walls whispering, the fresh coats of paints as if crack to reveal the dreary gray walls of the past and tell you tales of young lives, who raised their heads to revolt against the Britishers, banished to rot within these walls.

The rest of the tour of the prison premises did not take too long. Veer Savarkar’s cell, on the second floor, was the most crowded, as everybody needed to read the plaque on the wall, train their cameras at it and get a share of the historic dust on their forehead off the hallowed floor. A climb up a couple of steep flights of stairs took us up to the terrace that look out on to the sea. The breezy afternoon sky was once again gathering clouds; a shrill whistle blew out in one corner, signaling that it was time for the premises to shut down for the evening. And we found ourselves out on the streets of Port Blair, slightly wet from the drizzle that fell steadily. It was too soon to go back to the hotel and retire. It wasn’t even dark. Our choices were to drive around town, look at a few of the beaches or to shop for local handicrafts at Aberdeen Bazaar. Friends had warned us that evenings on the islands do not promise much in terms of ‘night life’. And we were not particularly looking for entertainment, apart from dinner, but later.

We chose to drive around. The roads in parts of Port Blair are hilly and run parallel to the sea. Roll down the window, let the breeze play with your hair, smell the sea. Keep driving along the road, stop at the promenade, watch the lazy waves or drive straight down to Corbyn’s Cove, a quaint beach and the prettiest in Port Blair. There is precious else one can do here, on these islands. And this is the most precious part of the trip. The sea, the breeze, the fresh air and the silence broken in places by the sounds of waves, wind rushing through leaves, a car or two rushing home – that’s about it. For everything else you can go anywhere else in the world.

Tomorrow was going to be an interesting day ….

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

The Andaman Chronicles, part I

So, there I was floating face down, riding one gentle wave after another, in a narrow channel between Havelock Island and one of its smaller neighbours. I could feel myself drifting further and further away from the shore. The only assurance came from the snorkeling vest hugging me and the tube that kept me afloat. On shore, I had been subjected to about a five minutes of ‘how to snorkel’ lesson before I was fitted with the mask and the tube. Now I breathed heavily through the tube stuffed in my mouth and lifted my head to look towards the shore. The small lighthouse standing at the edge of the island was growing smaller as were the two figures standing on the otherwise empty beach, waiting for my return. This spot on the beach was at the other end of the small island, far from the tourist snorkeling point, thus deserted and peaceful.

I turned my face away and concentrated on what lay some meters beneath the surface of the sea. The sharp tropical sun of the morning had turned the water into glass and there was an amazingly beautiful world looking up at me from the sea bed. Defused rays of the sun reflected off the playful neon coloured shoals of fish. Heads of sea anemones swayed in the undercurrent while a truant fish or two flitted in and out of the dancing weeds. Live corals of varied colours and types raised their heads from the sea bed and formed a live fortress for those amazing creatures of the sea.

(One of the neon coloured fish that played among the corals close to the shore was caught on camera by my daughter)

By this time a little voice in the head had suddenly come alive and kept telling me that I was quite far away from the shore. The mind was already on an overdrive, running all the ‘lost at sea’ movies in rushes. And just as suddenly, I felt a deep tug towards terra firma. I pulled off my snorkel and insisted that my snorkeling instructor take me back to shore, which by now was a thinning line. My adventures in snorkeling thus were cut short and I heaved a sigh of relief as my feet walked on the slightly rough, coral strewn beach again. The other two brave members of my family ventured further and saw “much more”.

Later, “In reality you were barely 400 mts from the shore.” was how my perception of having drifted far away from the shore was corrected.

The snorkeling trip had featured on day four of our trip to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Monsoon had already arrived before we had arrived at the archipelago for our seven days vacation. The days were moody; the sky was still trying to make up its mind whether to remain sunny or look dark and cloudy. Fickle drizzles came in fits and spurts and disappeared before one could unfold the umbrella. And the sea changed its shades from a brilliant blue to a dull gray with the moody sky going from sunny to cloudy.

The day we arrived, descending on to the tiny Port Blair airstrip had not been too smooth. Dark gray rain clouds and strong winds had kept us company from Calcutta and tossed us around a little while we prepared to land. The dark skies predicted rain and chances of spoiling our plans for day one. The itinerary for day one had Chidiya Tapu, a small fishing village at the southern most tip of the South Andaman and a visit to the Cellular Jail aka Kalapani, within the city of Port Blair. But rain kept playing spoilsport and we had to forego our trip to Chidiya Tapu.

So what did we do with a whole clear afternoon that had looked full till we landed in a rainy island? Well, nothing. Following a big lunch, we decided to lounge on the lounge chairs on our balcony, watch the rain shower in sheets over the sea and listened to the wind rushing through the tall trees.

Later in the afternoon, as we stepped in through the iron gates of the Cellular Jail, a colonial prison built to exile political prisoners to this remote island, my first impressions were quite mixed up. The ground inside had well manicured stretches of grass with bright cheerful flower bushes. There was nothing intimidating about the prison complex as I had expected, not even a dreary, gray exterior wall. Everything had been scrubbed, cleaned, painted and made tourist ready.

That was until we had toured the tiny museum situated near the main gate and arrived at the …..

To be continued.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Soumitro, the thespian

But his prowess didn’t remain confined in celluloid. His genius reigned supreme on stage, too. Every time the lights in the vast theatre dimmed and darkness surrounded the audience, a man emoted, laughed, cried, fretted, fumed, despaired, repented, loved or looked back in silent anger, time after time, in various frames as different characters. The same man, but every time a new face that changed colours like the chameleon in the shades that coloured that character. He is none other than the legendary thespian Soumitra.
In one of his interviews, Soumitra modestly attributes this vast array of characters portrayed on screen and on stage to his fear of becoming stereotyped. I attribute it to his sheer genius and a rare honesty that he breathed into each of the characters he transformed into, on screen. That is what made him an essential ‘star’ element in the strange alchemy of movie making and theatre. And to us, his viewers, the essential alchemist.
I remember reading an interview of the thespian. Soumitra’s journey had almost ended before it began in 1956, when he was rejected at the screen test of Neelachale Mahaprabhu. It finally dawned in 1959, a period when Bengali cinema was already heading towards its golden era. Satyajit Ray, whose contribution to Bengali cinema is often considered to be the greatest, had opened the doors of the silver screen to him. With Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar, the twenty-four year old Soumitra suddenly became a household name and the new promising star of Bengali cinema. The auteur’s new apprentice has had no reason to look back. By the late maestro, Ray’s, own submission, Soumitra had gone on to inspire many roles that Ray etched and executed in celluloid. The unmistakable charisma of Soumitra in 14 of Satyajit Ray’s 31 feature films somehow seems inevitable as the apprentice over time carved out a niche for himself as a master of his craft. This creative niche and his natural intellectual aura allowed him to work with other great directors of the sixties and the seventies in the likes of Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha, Ajoy Kar as much as with a new generation of directors in the new millennium. The playwright-poet-actor, to my mind, is still an essential part of both mainstream and parallel Bengali cinema.
While talking about his love for theatre, Chatterjee says, “The deep influence Sisir Bhaduri left on me is unforgettable. I loved to act even as a child. The home environment was not against these things then. My grandfather was the president of an amateur dramatic club and we grew up hearing his anecdotes from that life. My father acted in plays produced by a similar group. And he was brilliant at one other art – the art of reciting poetry. He won prizes at recitation competitions held by the University Institute in Calcutta. As children, we would often put up our own ”plays” at home, based on small booklets of children’s plays that could be bought from the market. I recall having ”staged” Tagore’s MUKUT at home, improvising the stage, using bed sheets for curtains, getting help for props and costumes from my parents. The neighbours and elders in the family would form the audience. We got a lot of encouragement from our parents. When I was in Std. V, I did a role in The Sleeping Princess for a school function. I loved the very feeling of acting. I found it fascinating. The praises, the back-patting, kept me going on to do more.”
As I watched him in awe, time after time, on screen and on stage, I often found myself wondering whether it was theatre that had made him the actor he is.
“Acting in theatre is acting in real time. It is continuous, sequential, chronological. The rehearsals for a play take care of the actor’s preparation for his role. The response too, is immediate. Cinema however, is not acting in real time. It is discontinuous, not sequential and not chronological either. There are no rehearsals for cinema. So, it is very important that the actor prepares for his role through discussions with the director, by reading and re-reading the draft of the script,” explains Chatterjee.
And while I write this small article on my favourite actor, I eagerly wait for 7th of July, the evening when I’ll be sitting among the audience in a darkened theatre, watching him embody Raja Lear.

“Maharaja, tomare salaam!”

Image courtesy : rottentomatoes.com

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Rajesh Khanna, the last romantic hero?

From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame

A toy train chugs its way up the winding tracks of Darjeeling and takes a turn, perhaps, at the Batasia Loop. A beautiful young girl sits by one of the windows, engrossed in a book. The camera closes in upon her as she looks up from her book to watch the hills in the distance. The faint sound of a harmonica draws her attention. The camera pans out on to an open jeep that drives up another bend and joins the road running parallel to the rail track. Two young men, in Nepali hats are seen on the jeep, one driving while the other breaks away from his harmonica and breaks into, “mere sapnon ki rani kab ayegi tu…”

The rest, as they say, is history. The dimpled, harmonica playing young man who smiled boyishly, crinkling his eyes rode directly into the hearts of almost all young girls of that time and a new star was born. His female following and their hero worship reached a new height for the first time in the history of Indian cinema. The frenzy that surrounded him, the way women threw themselves at him, lined the streets in front of his house to get a glimpse of him, wrote love letters penned in blood, married his photographs, the mass hysteria that surrounded him gave him the crown of the “super star” of Indian cinema. The first of his kind.

This had happened much before I could understand or appreciate cinema. By the time I started watching movies, it was the 80s. I watched him, but only on television, first in black and white and then in colour. By the time I had caught on to his movies, his super stardom was already on the wane.

But the radio had shared some magical songs with me during my growing years that I later realized were picturised on him. To tell you the truth, even though those were the songs I lived for in my adolescent days, wishing that some day some starry eyed boy would sing them quite as romantically, to woo me, I had failed to understand why he was called the “superstar”. His mannerisms, the nod of his head, the way he almost danced but never really did, the way he tilted his head and smiled, the wink of his eyes, the drama in his voice when he spoke – I liked all of that but never understood why they induced a mass hysteria among women of another generation.

Today, here in Mumbai, a light rain was falling from the morning. I was watching the last journey of the superstar of yesteryears, laid down on a bed of white mogras, and surrounded by white lilies and orchids. I watched the crowd that had brought traffic to a halt in that part of the suburb since yesterday. And I still wondered why. Was it only because that in India we place the man on the celluloid high above the celstial stars? Do we immortalize them because they match our fantasies? Do they embody all that we, as lesser beings, can never dream to become or achieve?

Later in the afternoon, I was strolling down the pavement, on my way to run some errands. The neighbourhood taxi stand was a little more crowded than usual and I would have passed by without wondering why. But I thought I heard something that drew my attention to the motley crowd of Sardarjis. They had gathered round an aging gentleman in a yellow turban and long, flowing beard, while he sang “mere sapnon ki rani kab ayegi tu…”  thumping on the bonnet of his taxi to keep the beat. The crowd cheered and a young man requested , “Abhi Anand da gana …”

I had also spent a part of the morning on three long distance calls. I spoke to three women, who want to remain unnamed, for reasons they know best and are from that generation when Rajesh Khanna was the superstar. Two of them had seen the meteoritic rise of the star and had witnessed the frenzy for the star among their peers. The third was someone who introduced me to the music that I still hold close to my heart and is responsible in shaping my likes and dislikes in terms of cinema. I asked them the same question, individually. I had to know “Why did Rajesh Khanna become the super star that he was? What was it about him that evoked such a craze among the women of his time?”

By their own submission, they belonged to a much more conservative time. Love, romance were things of another world, from another dimension, mostly found between the pages of novels. And as Jack Pizzey points out in his 1973 BBC documentary on Rajesh Khanna, “Eight Indians out of ten still marry by arrangement to partners they scarcely knew before the wedding, so they are fascinated by the story like this one where the hero falls in love with the heroine and then marries her.”

“Those were simpler days. We had much less to pay attention to outside our limited conservative, middle class life. Cinema was one of the very few forms of entertainment that vied for our attention and we had very few stars to admire. Watching a man wooing a woman in a dark theatre was thrilling. And afterwards, we had a lot of time to think and sigh about the hero, discuss his mannerisms and read tit bits of trivia available in film magazines. So the stars automatically became larger than life. I’d have my heart racing in anticipation just watching Rajesh Khanna tilt his head, wink and smile that smile of his.” came the first candid reply from a lady who I knew to be reserved. Discussing movies and movie stars in her presence were always frowned upon in my girlhood days.

“You have to understand that women by nature  are romantic while men most often find it difficult to express themselves. Men of our times were stoic and social norms came in the way of such open show of affection or expressing emotions. When Rajesh Khanna broke into the scene, there was none who were like him. The earlier heroes were either aging or lacked romantic appeal. His simplicity, the way he looked into the eyes of the heroine, the way he pined for love and that twinkle in his eyes – they were the sum total of everything a woman of our time could ever imagine.” Shared one of the voices on the telephone. “He embodied the romance that was missing in our lives. He was breathing life into the idea of romance as we always imagined romance would be.”

“You know, when I would hear all those songs on the radio, I would imagine the situation in my mind and when I watched him lip syncing with the same song on screen, everything fell into place. Everything that I’d imagine about the hero, the way he looks into the heroine’s eyes, the way he would embrace her or play with her hair perhaps, everything matched. His mannerisms were something that none had inflicted upon us before. His voice had a silky smoothness. His smile had a boyish charm. And the way he looked at his woman that melted our hearts to the core. That’s why he was so popular among girls of our times.” reasoned the woman for whom life was fun in spite of how twisted it was in reality.

“In most of the movies that preceded his, the hero always had to scale the wall that society would build between the girl and him or bridge social differences. Love would happen much later after a lot of the boulders were removed. The hero and heroine would perhaps sing a song or two and voila, the movie was over. Rajesh Khanna dared to break down that wall. He would dare to fall head over heels in love and did not make any bones about it. And the girl in question would become the centre of all his attention from the word “go”. And contrary to most of the heroes of his time, who were always larger than life, he ripped open his heart and cried if the character required to. That brought him much closer to earth, closer to where we dwelled in reality. And I’ve seldom seen anybody celebrating life the way he did in movies that saw him die at the end.”

“Who wouldn’t want to be wooed the way he wooed his heroines? What made him larger than life was his portrayal of a man closer to reality, someone who we could relate to. He seemed like the boy next door, the everyman and not a super human. We lived with an image of romance in our mind, an abstract idea. Our lives and times were devoid of the thrill of real life romance and he filled up that void with his charisma and sweet romance.”

So the man who is no more, did he symbolise romance on screen in such a way that his passing has taken away the promise of romance from a whole generation’s life? I wonder.

Picture courtesy : dailyjag.com

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

Moments, stories, reasons unknown

Every moment that passes by takes with it the story it held, carefully cupped within its palm. Often they go unnoticed, unheard. Solely because you were too busy to separate the moments from the time that flew by. But since I do have a lot of time to watch the moments, I do notice a thing or two. I turn a corner and catch a glimpse. Or hear a murmur. A dusty shelf. A gray head. A forgotten corner. At times the slanted rays of the sun, or the drizzle outside, even that old, decaying house that I pass by – each tries to tell me that story it has been carrying with it. The story that no one noticed nor cared to hear.

But I can do no more than notice or hear the murmur. The moments pass by me and the stories disappear forever. And I watch helplessly.

That is where I stand these days, watching every moment rushing past me. I will to jump at the next moment, catch a story and pin it down. Tether it. But the mind, I find, is unwilling still, for reasons unknown to me. The mind has a few secrets that it keeps from me. I know that I can never go back to those moments. Nor will they ever return to me. But reasoning with my unreasonable mind seems too daunting, too.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized