Thursday, October 18, 2012


I first heard the song 'Guilty' while watching Amelie. I was twenty and was initiated into the film rather late, thanks to a late night screening at 'World Movies'. Yet my watching the film was not uninterrupted. My parents were coming to visit me that night -- delayed by a flight, they had hit the road. I had bunked class and drunk beer at Oly Pub with friends that evening, and I was still in the phase when beer made me slightly tipsy and I was mortally scared of my parents catching me drunk. So when they finally reached home, I was extra cheerful and tried to make myself look useful. As I was unpacking the bag stuffed with Maggie family packs (my parents used to get half a dozen family packs of Maggie for me every time they'd visit, knowing how it was my comfort food), and the telly was blazing in the next room, I heard faint notes of the song for the first time. I dropped the packets and ran to the room to see Nino waiting for Amelie at the Two Windmills and the song playing in the background. It was cut short, but I would never forget the notes.

Months later I could finally lay my hands on the soundtrack of the film, and as Yan Tiersen's brilliant folksy tunes played in the background, I switched off the lights and relaxed in bed, appreciating the music. The seventh track made me sit up. It was 'Guilty', and this time, the full song. I played it in a loop and decided to find out more about the singer. I had never heard of Al Bowlly. To my utter amazement I found that this talented singer, born in Mozambique, had once played in my city, Calcutta. Traveling and performing all over the world, he went from Europe, to the Far East, to New York, until finally coming to London. He has sung versions of most of my favourite songs -- 'I've got you under my skin', 'Blue moon', 'My Melancholy Baby' and so on. I discovered that he was killed by a bomb during the war, right outside his flat. He had performed earlier that evening at Oxford Street, and declining an offer to spend the night there, he took the train home. Later that night the bomb would explode his room and the street, and although his body wouldn't be disfigured, he would be buried in a mass grave, tossed with other nameless victims. That night I had cried myself to sleep.

I am often moved by the little epiphanies of life. One afternoon this summer, we were goofing around with Macs, and I suddenly heard someone play this version of the song on a machine. I started crooning the words, got up, and looked around. Becky turned and exclaimed, "You know this song too?!" I said, "Of course" and we spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the scene in the film and the singer, of the many versions including beloved Ella's too, which unfortunately didn't go down as well with me as Al Bowlly's. For I am a magpie when it comes to collecting old music and memories in black and white; and having my ear cocked up for timeless classics always brings its own reward.

It is past midnight now, I'm running a high temperature, and it's Durga Pujo in a couple of days. Sickness makes me garrulous, and with the light turned off, the curtains withdrawn just a little bit so that I can see the idol diagonally opposite my window, I started singing "Heaven, I'm in heaven/And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak/ And I seem to find the happiness I seek/ When I'm out together dancing cheek to cheek", thinking of the Fred Astaire out there in the night who'll teach me to dance cheek to cheek one day. And before I knew it, I started crooning, "Is it a sin? Is it a crime?/- Loving you dear like I do./ If it's a crime I'm guilty/ Guilty of loving you." I can contain myself no more. I switch on the lights, turn my laptop on, and play the song.
The playlist has moved on now, and I'm listening to Nat King Cole's 'I love you for sentimental reasons', and I feel blissfully content.

I think of you every morning,
Dream of you every night
Darling I'm never lonely
Whenever you are in sight.

I love you for sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I've given you my heart.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Le Nouveau

Should I call it diversifying, or just as something new?

A few days ago I suddenly had the idea of creating a separate blog solely dedicated to books I read. I procrastinated and read some more, until today, in a spurt of technological creativity, I made this. It's pristine white, it's uncluttered, it's solely about the printed word, and I'm feeling ridiculously scared at the thought of writing down what I feel about books and making them public.

I named it after the Camille-Corot painting and I intend it to be just as it promises to be -- simply femme lisant or girl reading.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Infinitude, Variations, and Litost

On an unremarkable day last winter, I suddenly remembered that when I was little, my grandmother would narrate stories to me. Realising that I have forgotten all of them now, and curling in remorse, I decided to ask Thamma to narrate the stories to me once again, so that I could write them down and preserve them for the future. When I reminded her about the stories, she said, "But I don't remember which stories. It's been over twenty years." For  a long time I tried to enact snatches of a story I remembered, of a poor but happy farmer's family making pithe and hiding inside a bot gacchh or something along those lines. Thamma remembered the story, and we decided to fix a convenient time when she would narrate it to me.

However, the time didn't come. I remembered the bot gacchh and the pithe in dreary Delhi months later, and already consumed in litost, I kept blaming myself for not having heard the stories again when I had time. After I returned, I sat down with Thamma again and brought up the topic of the stories. This time she remembered three of them, I wrote down the titles, and we fixed proper dates when she would narrate them to me. A couple of days later, I went to her room to ask her to show me some of her pictures when she was young. Having seen them before, I knew that she kept them locked up in her cash baaksho. It was while talking about the photographs from seventy years ago that she confided in me intimate details from her adolescent years. I was surprised because despite having spent my entire life with her, and thinking that I knew every thing about her, that morning she shared experiences and anecdotes which I had no knowledge of. I could not forgive myself for asking so little about her, for knowing so little about her, and for being complacent and taking her for granted.

In a particular section of his The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about the infinitude that is inside man. The self-reproach that I felt on both the occasions relating to Thamma apparently is understandable (if not entirely forgivable), according to Kundera. Most of us are awed by the infinitude of the universe. Looking up at the sky late at nights, I have simultaneously felt a thrill and an unbearable sadness at the vastness of the sky, the stars, the moon, and the sun which was elusive then, but at which I could never look directly even when it was bright in the sky. Quite the same thing happens when we listen to the intricate variations of Chopin's nocturnes. It is forgivable to be an amateur and find it difficult to embrace this infinitude of the universe and music. The realisation that we can never internalise the epic lies heavy in our hearts, but we easily learn to live with it. However the schwierigkeit becomes unbearable when we discover how we overlooked the infinitude of the interior world, within reach -- the world inside each of us; how we lacked the infinitude of the people we spent our lives with, or whom we loved.

One summer, I was in love with this man. We met every day, and every night I wrote letters and mails to him. I had only one tropical summer to spend with him, and I was thankful for its bountiful days. As the end neared, I gathered every little piece of paper I had received from him, and pasted them in a diary not wanting to open it again. And then, on the very last day, I didn't go to meet him, and when he left my city to travel half-way across the world, I had consciously moved to a faraway city simply because partir c'est mourir un peu. I had stopped writing to him, and hence when he wrote to me months later, saying how he thought about me in a bar so far away from my home, I remembered the infinitude of man that Kundera talks about. In a certain bar in the heart of Mexico City, a certain famous writer, then an adolescent, would play truant and drink beer. He would revisit it years later when he would return to his old country. I had written about it to LG once, and discovering that it was a few blocks from where he lived, he drew imaginary lines in the air the next morning to help me visualise the Spanish and French settlement plan along that block. Months later, after a day of writing, he would visit that bar and remember the story exchanged halfway across the world, and then he would open his laptop again and sit down to write a long mail about that day. When I would read it a few hours later, I would vacillate between self-reproach and litost.
The bar was called 'The Invincible'.

A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are also like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensees, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into that other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world lying hidden in all things.

Beethoven thus discovered in variations another area to be explored. His variations are a new "invitation to the voyage."

Variation form is the form in which concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme of variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the wondrous depth of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves farther and farther away from the initial theme which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack the other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach. . . . All of us are lacking in our work because in pursuit of perfection we go toward the core of the matter but never quite get to it. 

That the infinitude of the exterior world escapes us we accept as natural. But we reproach ourselves until the end of our lives for lacking that other infinitude. We ponder the infinitude of the stars but are unconcerned about the infinitude our papa has within him.

It is not surprising that in his later years variations became the favourite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and their interior world of their infinitude of possibilities. 


Monday, October 1, 2012

Girl, Reading

When SD and I finally met last week, we didn't adhere to an important ritual -- drinking coffee together. Although all our detailed telephonic plans about the rendezvous revolved around that one action, due to an unprecedented set of circumstances we discovered that we didn't get around to reminiscencing over coffee at all. SD later pointed out that we did stick to one cliche however -- browsing and buying books.

Our usual spot for adda is college street where after browsing books at the numerous second-hand bookstalls, chatting with P.T. Kaku, climbing the stairs to Chuckervertty-Chatterjee and browsing books for an hour, we walk down to Food Station to share a pasta and drink the wonderful coffee that the place serves. However, this afternoon, bogged down by the heat, dust, sun, and humidity, generally depressed at the state of affairs, and feeling extremely lazy, we decided to go down to City Centre and pour our distress-stories over coffee for a couple of hours, exchange books, and return home. SD suggested going to this deli, and since I could kill for a cheese-cake, and SD had found out that this place served rather decent blueberry cheesecake, I decided to give it a try. It was while deciding the menu, that we strayed for the first time. Since we were feeling very hot, we ordered a ginger ale, saving the coffee for later. We then brought out the treasures from our bag -- I was carrying the Herriot omnibus All Things Wise and Wonderful for her, while she had brought The Inimitable Jeeves and Leave it to Psmith for me.

The cheque arrived remarkably quickly, and we then decided to check out the two big bookstores on the floors above. The classics section of Starmark is not exceptionally remarkable, but its merits were not completely overlooked by two young girls on that warm afternoon. There were two shelves dedicated to Penguin's children's classics, and a further two to Collins. I spotted a couple of Julian Barnes elsewhere, although The Sense of an Ending was conspicuous with its absence. I held the shiny copy of Arthur and George for a long time, having read from a dilapidated copy myself, before placing it back on the shelf, and walking back to the Penguin section. And then, on an impulse, I rapidly began to pull out books. Hence, most of the children's literature that I had read (sometimes in abridged forms) in school, were finally bought last week, on an unplanned book-buying spree. I owe two of my Burnetts, Kenneth Grahame, Anthony Hope, Andersen, Spyri and Kingsley to that afternoon.

While we were walking around the shop, SD and I discovered a box full of Agatha Christie. We made elaborate plans of carrying it away when no one was looking, and brought a chair to sit in front of it to guard it. Unfortunately, the chair was too rickety to withstand our ample physique, and the people probably suspected something foul, and we found ourselves constantly under the vigil of the workers. Damn.

At the Bengali section, I spotted Professor Shonku's diaries, and remembered the wonderful summer vacations when I would spend whole days reading one exciting adventure after the other set in far-off lands. SD bought the first installment of Professor Shonku and was in splits after discovering that his cat was called 'Newton'.

While getting the bill made, I discovered an entire children's literature section, with whole walls covered with Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl; of stories and adventures about witches, and treasure-hunters, and chocolate factories, of scones, and muffins, and lovable dogs, of little mice, and vacations spent in farms and following secret trails. I promised myself that someday I'd own them all. Beside this spread was another big shelf full of Nesbit and What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables, and my heart leapt with joy. It was only with the prospect of visiting another bookstore, that I tore myself away from this shelf.

We were tired by the time we came down to Crossword. I was looking for a Penguin or Collins edition of Nesbit's The Railway Children. I located a copy, and we sat down on cushioned stools in front of shelves full of Christie. I was looking greedily at the omnibuses, when a person asked if we wanted some refreshment. I jumped at the idea of coffee while browsing books, but being very thirsty, we ended up ordering iced tea and lime soda. There went our second chance to have coffee that day. While waiting for our orders, we had strayed to the Bengali section, and my heart leapt for the second time that afternoon when I spotted Teni-da nestling beside the Shirshendus. SD hadn't read Teni-da, and I narrated how, when I was in class four, my second language teacher complained that I could score much better in Bengali if only I read as many books in Bangla as I did in English. Baba had then bought several books for me, along which came Teni-da. I procrastinated for months, but I finally warmed up to the exploits of the four boys. I laughed with them, had adventures with them, flew kites beside the Ganga with them, and growing up in a sad little town in North Bengal, painted this romantic picture of Calcutta which I have always believed in. Many years later I would be disappointed with Basanta Cabin when I would visit it with a friend, although Dilkhusha with friends after classes in the university would be rather enjoyable. I read and reread Teni-da throughout my middle school, and tried to tell the stories to my disinterested school-mates. They didn't warm up. So many years later, SD, my friend from the university did. That evening, I took out the copy from the shelf, held it for some time, opened it, read the contents page after so many years, turned to the first novella Chaar Murti and read out the first paragraph to SD. She bought the book, and I paid my little tribute to nostalgia.

Picture 1: Johannes Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1657--1659
Picture 2: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's Young girl Reading, c 1868

Reading List: September

September has been a curious month. I was predominantly unwell, went flaneuring in an alien city, changed cities on very short notice, finished work, lived through another birthday, and so on. Until I returned to Calcutta, I hadn't had enough reading done to pacify my poor battered soul. After home-coming, the debris of depression settled down, and I found myself craving for classic Brit children's litt. -- the ones I grew up reading. Not possessing all the Enid Blytons, I went on a random reading spree during the third week, until I collected my thoughts and settled down to more focussed, light, but beautiful reading. I'm sure the list will show the capriciousness.

1. Tintin the Freelance Reporter
2. Tintin in the Land of the Soviets -- Herge
3. Tintin in America -- Herge
4. Five on a Treasure Island -- Enid Blyton
5. Asterix the Gaul -- Goseinny and Uderzo
6. Aunts aren't Gentlemen -- P. G. Wodehouse
7. The Railway Chidren -- Edith Nesbit
8. The Secret Garden -- Frances Hodgson Burnett
9. The Inimitable Jeeves -- P. G. Wodehouse

I am reading Wodehouse again after so many years, and I can barely contain my excitement. My reading spills into my laptop, and every time I turn it on, it is only to watch Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as Wooster and Jeeves respectively in the brilliant TV series. I'm also on the verge of taking out my copies of James Herriot, dusting them, and gobbling them up, and the only reason why I can still concentrate on my German lessons and 19th century social history is the promise of watching Christopher Timothy, Robert Hardy, and a dishy Peter Davison in the ubiquitous TV series All Creatures Great and Small, any time I want to.