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Strange love : Still on the August trail

Holy matrimony seemed to have settled down with me and put to rest my search for August, or so I thought.  No, no, I was perfectly, happily married to the Bee.  Even the friends of the Bee swore in his presence that he had taken to Bengali like a Bong to fish, that he was actually speaking whole sentences in Bengali. Phew! I thought.  But who would have known then that life away from my Madna would get more complex. And little did I know that the affection for an abstract noun named ‘perfection’ would be the albatross round my neck and in trying to escape my Madna I was merely stepping into another Madna, only larger.

Why? Just read on.

Like the gasping, choking fish out of water, we,  the ‘freshly out of Charnock’s Kolkata’ in the Rajdhani,  found our first home at the heartland of Bengalis in Chittaranjan Park, in  South Delhi.The sleepy street with a long patch of grass separating the two neat rows of houses, the hint of Bangaliana in the terracotta name plates, the tastefully done up windows with chiks complete with a ceramic wind chime swinging in the gentle summer breeze, careless evenings spent on the wide terrace of our barsati and its row of potted foliage and the rusting desert cooler by the long french window – and like all newly-weds I thought the dream would never end. Because just like you, even I had thought that thenceforth it would be happily ever after in Lutyen’s, being far away from my Madna.

Thus, for a while I merrily found solace here, among the Bangali Mashimas, paanch phoron, bori, Ilish maachh, Durga  Pujo, Poila Baishakh, baro mase tero parbon and most things Bangali. And yet, somewhere deep down I pined for the language I had inherited. Something seemed amiss. And I kept putting it off,  distracted myself with  long summer afternoons,  the rattling, rusting desert cooler, andhis, pots of spider ferns and foxtails, holi and other  such idiosyncrasies typical only to Delhi.

It finally dawned upon me when my friendly neighbourhood Mesomoshai called me and informed me, “Are beta, ami to sedin sirf mazak korchilam“.  My Bangali chromosome was in for a rude shock. In the name of speaking Bangla, in the heartland of Lutyen’s Bong ghetto, they churned out a punch of Bengali peppered with  a liberal dose of Hindi .

That day I realized that however much I loved the nuances of a nuanced speaker of the English tongue, my Bong crux  cringed in seeing the thousand deaths my mother tongue died every minute. I winced in pain when the  Mashimas, Meshomashais, Boudis, Dadas as much as at the machhwalla, bajarwalla blurted out  with poker faces “Amar  naam Ghosh hochche“; “deyale chipkali dekhe bhoi pawar ki holo“; “Beta, eta tomar uncle hocchche“; “aajker Ilishta khub taza hochche“.

I even seriously considered opening a “ Eso Bangla shikhi” class, of course, pro bono with some snacks thrown in. So there I was again, reliving Madna among the displaced tribesmen from my tribe who were  perfect in their Bengali customs and rituals and utterly confused about their troubled tongue. I mean not too many Bengalis are known for their finesse in the national language.  But the way they had  acquired the ‘third’ language and made it a part of their daily existence  was a far cry from what my mother tongue was supposed to be.

In the middle of all this my tormented inner being  continued to forge ahead with its own faulty logic of  perfection.

One of those evenings I saw Agastya, standing by the flower shop at the corner of the Second Market.  Yes, he had stepped out of the alleys of my mind and  was watching me from the shadows, watching me betraying myself. He  seemed to question me, my sanity and what happened to my pursuit of ‘perfection’ and my pursuit of him. And I questioned myself, was it that I was in  pursuit of August or I was  still pursuing the old suspect Perfection?

Soon it was time  to move on,  but not too far , just a step away from the Bengali galli to the vast “good” gaon of Haryana.

The big guns had already set up the much promised land for the upwardly mobile corporates, for whom gentry, an X sized apartment decorated with Y brand of furniture, the newly launched Z car, Diwali gifts, weekend potluck, teen patti and some other inanities were but essential. I succumbed to the daily soaps that telecast the “pleier”  of  owning stuff, showing off faux couture with elan,  hosting cougar parties.Yes, I tuned in for a while, just to sit and listen. I was, perhaps, trying to tone down the compulsive perfectionist in me. Agastya decided to leave me alone with my trials and errors at fitting in.

Must I confess that I soon gave up on the “pleier” of watching the daily soaps and returned to “wrong pronunciations”, “grammatical errors” “they call this talking in Bengali”? The ennui gave way to an understanding that my perfectionism would flog me forever unless I learn to rein it and channelize it into, yes, you are right, planning an escape out of  this “still rustic at heart, still smelling of wet earth” Madna. Agastya still lay low, lost in the maze of my mind. I let him stay there. By now I had learned to live with him and was used to him appearing out of the blue as a premonition, perhaps.

Eventually, with the first escape hatch opening up, I was on a flight out of Madna, or so I thought, flying westward.  In four hours I had landed in Sindbad’s “land of black gold”.  As I headed out of the air-conditioned comfort of  ‘al mataar al masqat al dauliya‘  I thought I caught a glimpse of Agastya sporting a smirk, waiting by the automated glass doors which parted to usher me into the country with a gust of hot and dusty desert wind.

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Posted by on March 18, 2010 in Delhi, Uncategorized

 

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Strange love : On the Agastya trail…

Agastya’s envy had then blurted out, he wished he had been Anglo-Indian, that he had Keith or Alan for a name, that he spoke English with their accent. – English August, Upamanyu Chatterjee.

In my first year of college, on a wintry evening I fell in love with  Agastya August Sen, a snob and a dopey stuck among the primitives of  Madna. August, who “spoke, thought and respired”  in English.  August who had to survive, no matter what. August, a lover of jazz and who read Marcus Aurelius. And ever since that day, ever since I was 17, I  kept looking for him in crowded buses, in metro stations, in Nandan, in Rabindra Sadan, at Rotaract meets, at the university campus – in a Kolkata bustling with people but none like August.

No, I was not obsessed, I walked into it with my eyes open. I knew he was a storybook character. But he was the closest I had come to a suitable boy who believed in being unapologetic about his love for the Queen’s language and being uncompromising  for what he loved. That was where  my love story started and ended. With my ‘perfectionist’ core , I too wanted to sound like a native of the tongue I acquired, just like August. And my Bong crux yearned the glory of a well spoken, well read,  well bred and all the other kinds of “well” ness (of  Bangla) that a well brought up Bengali should be. Besides that, I too, in many  ways, had started to feel  trapped, living life among a well fed, ‘fair of skin’, pedigreed tribe – who flourished by weighing and selling  gold and silver by the gms. This was my Madna,  in the heart of a city caught in yore, among a confluence of  baniyas, mostly from the western part of the country, converged along the central artery of the city over the last century, lost in  a milieu who refused to   perfect the art of their mother tongue, leave alone the Queen’s tongue.

You see  my parents’  foresight had put us, my sister and me, through the rigours of “English medium convent education”. And I suppose it must have been there where the arranged marriage happened, between the love for the languages and me.  The prolonged presence of the  two languages, English and Bengali, made them a crucial part of my life. Hours of Wren and Martin, verse after verse penned by Shelley, Keats, Byron,   pages of Shakespeare, Shaw, Maugham; and then attending Ms Gomes’ classes on the nuances of Bangla byakaran, bisheshwa, bisheshan, kriya, sarbanaam, sandhi, samas, krit pratyay, taddhit pratyay, reading  and appreciating Bonophool, Moumachhi, Satyendranath, Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bankimchandra – phew! So by the end of it all,  the lack of  linguistic perfection in a person left something incomplete for me. And at times it even denied me the simpler pleasures of teenage and youth.

At 15 ,  I received my first love letter, from a ‘eligible in all respect’ boy from the English medium missionary school down the road from mine. But even with stars in my eyes I halted my reverie midway – three grammatical errors and five spelling mistakes! I know, I will sound like my fifth grade English teacher here, but can’t help it!  Mrs. Mandel would always say, “the search of perfection begins with detecting imperfection” and I may have had taken it too seriously. Ahem, you think so too?

All through college and university Agastya had the last laugh. A crush coupled with a few skipped heartbeats would inevitably be followed by a not so pleasant dawning of realisation that I was very much rooted in Madna. Love would quickly be replaced by the axiom  that my search for linguistic perfection was actually a wild goose chase as none would pass my “litmus” test in speaking,  writing or even thinking in  proper, grammatically correct forms of the languages they inherited or acquired.

The news syndication, was where my lofty pride of “walking, talking and breathing” English met the first reality check. I realized even I made grammatical errors, misspelt words and to quote my erstwhile editor, I was at times “a disaster”. In other words, lofty me was humbled. My Editor-in-chief  ran every piece of edit through her washer and dryer before it could be put to bed. Reducing beautifully crafted articles into shreds, at times with a pair of shears, was her forte and my nemesis. But the company of the enlightened veteran also ratified my belief that I was not paranoid, that  my Madna was real and Agastya was right.

Finally, a serendipitous  meeting and a couple of paeans of love later, I married a Brit  by birth Bee who also happened to be a pedigreed Bangali, but by accident.  He had been the only beacon of hope after my unrealistic love story with Agastya. The Bee was flesh and blood, had a commendable command over English and the same unapologetic fervour for the tongue (excuse me, his mother tongue, being born there and all that) so I lost no time in saying ‘yes’ to him. His Bengali was nothing to write home about, and here I made an exception, lest I thought I’d die a cantankerous spinster and also because I was sure it would correct itself under my supervision.

But …

To be continued …..

 

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On cloud 32 in Maximum City

It was a late afternoon in June. The white Honda Civic was waiting for us at the lobby. R and I were supposed to take the car and reach Bandra West . At “4:30, sharp!” – was what the Bee (the British punctuality bug personified) had left us with in the morning.

It had been 7-days since we had arrived in Mumbai. The Bee’s new company had put us up at a lavish apartment, with the bedrooms and the drawing-room opening into balconies overlooking the Worli Seaface. Monsoon had just set in, so while the Bee was away, the sky, the Arabian Sea and its lashing waves kept R and me busy. I also tried to effectively engage the brat in some writing and arithmetic to cork her young greys cells from rusting with excessive televiewing.

This particular day was the first day of our house hunting in Mumbai (and no, we hadn’t fussed at all about shubh muhurat, tithi, nakhshtra – but coming to think of it now, may be we should have!).

The Bee, who had better knowledge about Mumbai (having been in and out of the city on countless occasions) ruled out the possibility of living in town (hold on!) if we didn’t like anything decent between Napeansea Road and Mahalaxmi or stretching it a little more, in Worli. Also out was living in a suburb like Chembur, which “is literally closer to Pune than Mumbai”. So we pinned our hopes on Bandra West and Pali Hill.

That afternoon, riding through the happy by lanes of Bandra, I felt more and more at home – like I had on my earlier visits. The bustling restaurants, rocking pubs, neat rows of haute couture outlets and designer galleries with a healthy sprinkling of art galleries and theatres – all  amply hinted at a  “hep & happening” suburban life and promised a robust social life. The sights, smells, sounds of Bandra had me spiralling downwards in love already, now I fell in love with the windows, balconies, doorways of Bandra as well. I made mental notes of names of apartment stories –  to urge the real estate broker to fetch us one.

The car halted bringing my daze back to consciousness. Our first stop for the evening was ‘Sunflower building’, the wiry broker in a much worn shirt and trouser and a worldly-wise smile told us. I had already started to walk into the large-ish wrought iron gate with a uniformed gate man whose hand was also in mid-air in a salute to greet me.

“Madam, this way please.” The hand in mid-air dropped back to its earlier position of guarding the gates from intruders as I gazed past the gate into an innocuous alley. The apology to a sunflower, Sunflower (building) stood hidden from sunlight (permanently) in a dark alley between two large condominiums. Have you heard the sound of your hopes crashing around you like broken glass? Well, I’m sure everybody standing around me that day did! The three of us looked in utter disbelief at each other and then in unison at the broker.

The Channel V “brought to you Bai”, oops, the  wiry, worldly-wise broker couldn’t have hurled the reality back at us any better than “Itna paise me itnaich milega!”

Suddenly the multinational HRA seemed a pittance and we rode  on the fastest slide down from feeling  “upper middle class NRIs” to “lower middle class Mumbaikars” in the shortest span of time.

Yeh pahela wala haiNaya TDR building, niche char mala bangla tha, upar se pillar dal ke bara mal banaya pichhlasaal”

“Are rest of the buildings you are showing us today the same?’ I dared to ask.

Itna paise me aisaich milega.”

“Pali Hill?’

Itna paise me aisaich milega.”

By the time evening came to an end we had wizened with the ways of the Maximum City:

We could, with the HRA we were proud of only a day ago, live in a 850 sq. ft flat in Bandra, or a TDR building, or in rundown apartments assigned to MPs in Worli!

Living in South Mumbai, that is between Cuff Parade and Malabar Hills meant paying a rent of anything between 3 lakhs and 5 lakhs. “CEO log bahut raheta udhar?”

The rentals seemed to dip slightly between Mahalaxmi and Prabhadevi – a “reasonable hai” amount between 2.5 lakhs and 3.5 lakhs. That takes one to Bandra, and Bandra being Bandra was hopeful to fetch anything between 1.5 lakhs and 3 lakhs depending on the super built up area, not the carpet area!

By the time we reached the outer perimeter of Khar and almost crossed into Santacruz, the rentals seemed to have come within the outer fringes of the HRA. So why not Khar?

Khar had wonderful houses with an old worldly charm, renowned neighbourhood schools, a brimming Sindhi population and … erm … and thus vegetarian housing societies (!) where a whiff of anything that moved before it got cooked called for an eviction notice.

And we didn’t want to chase the goose down the Western Express highway from Santacruz past JVPD all the way to Andheri, Goregaon, Kandivili. So we switched expressways and started looking in Chembur, along the Eastern express highway. Between Worli and Chembur? No!

Chembur – the heartland of Tamilians in Mumbai. Green, quiet, some predominant Sindhi societies but also some good old Bangali societies (so we could have continued being carnivores), it promised fish markets selling Bangali fish and “true blue” Bangali vegetables like “Mocha” and “Thor” – so why did we move away from Chembur? The neighbourhood boasted of a fine educational institution which shut its window on my face (literally!) after bawling out a tirade of “no admissions available now!”.

And ever since that seemed to predominate our search. Looking for a school before we found a house. “But what will happen if we do secure the admission in a decent school and do not get a decent accommodation in the vicinity?”, we wondered aloud – the egg and chicken game was in play already.

I admit that we were also difficult to please. We wanted a 3 BHK of 1700 sq. ft, preferably on a higher floor, balconies, good view outside the window and not shanties, preferably in a new building, a big lift for the packers to deliver our belongings (which lay sealed in a container on the other shore of the Arabian Sea, waiting for an address) with ease and least damage.

And we made unreasonable demands – walking into a house fitted with wardrobes, we wanted them removed to fit in ours, in a house that had purple and yellow “designer” walls we demanded pearly white walls, a house that came complete with bare CFLs jutting out from sockets in ceilings and walls we wanted them to be covered with shades, we wanted our paintings up on bare walls, in short “sonar pathorbati” – loosely meaning a marble bowl of gold. Baffling!

A little over a month into this quest for the Holy Grail, we came to a new turn, the 2000 sq. ft guesthouse on the 12th floor facing the Arabian Sea, very politely pointed out that our stay was nearing its expiry, the company only stipulated for a month. In most cases, they also pointed out, the employees find a house, car and school in this one month. We were sure that this held true for simpler folks with simpler demands…

On one of those days, riding through a busy street in town, the nomadic life seemed unbearable. I wanted to be there, in the midst of life, where there was so much happening – Kala Ghoda, Fort, Colaba, Leopold, Sterling, Tea Centre,  – I wanted it all. We were approaching the Mahalaxmi Race Course by then, a steel and glass tower showered fire from a welder and I looked skyward in an earnest prayer, wishing for the impossible to happen in Maximum City. I desired for a home nestled in the clouds, overlooking a wide expanse of water, with enough space to hold us along with our tables, chairs, sofas, beds, pots, pans, books and greens. To this absurd wish list I added the wishes of a decent neighbourhood, a good school for R, a park, a promise of ‘life worth living’  with enough shopping and dining (hmmm…) a corner bookshop and of course a respectable gentry, phooof!

And one of those days, after the packers had left, the dust had settled and I had sent the Li’l R off to her school, I finally put my feet up and sipped my coffee. Then it struck me! We had landed ourselves a 32nd floor perch, an enviable address, with a wonderful view of the lakes in the hills (of course one has to crane the neck out at a 33 degrees angle from the extreme right hand corner of the drawing-room french window) and a handful of shopping and dining. But in my impossible list which was just made possible (by some universal conspiracy) I had forgotten to mention two essential elements of everyday life  – “a house in town” which was “near work”! Silly me! How I wish I  had wished with a little more foresight!

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2009 in city, humor, Mumbai, Summer, window

 

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