Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Armenian's Axe

. . . It was the narrower part of our house through which one entered from the bigger courtyard. It then grew alarmingly wide at the back, and although it covered only the ground floor, in my memory it is more spacious. From the farthest side of the courtyard, one could traverse lengthwise and go round the house, and then come upon the tiny yard at the back, to which the kitchen opened. There lay wood for chopping; hens and geese ran about; the open kitchen was always in operation: the cook shouldered things out, or carried them in, and the little six-year old girl jumped about and looked officious.

A servant often chopped wood in the courtyard. I remember him best: he was my friend, the sad Armenian. He sang songs while chopping wood, which although I did not understand, tore through my heart. I once asked my mother why he was so sad. She said that cruel people had killed all Armenians in Istanbul and our Armenian had lost his entire family there. From a hiding place he had witnessed how his little sister was murdered. He had then escaped to Bulgaria, and my father had brought him to our house out of sympathy. The Armenian must have thought of his little sister when he chopped wood then, and hence he sang those sad songs.

I felt a deep love for him. When he chopped wood, I placed myself on the sofa at the end of the long livingroom, whose window faced the kitchen courtyard. I bent from the window and saw him, and when he sang, I thought of his little sister -- I then wished for a little sister myself. He had a long black beard and pitch-black hair, and appeared especially large to me, probably because everytime I saw him, he was raising his arms with the axe to chop wood. I loved him even more than Tschelebon, the shop-boy, whom I seldom saw. The Armenian and I exchanged a few words, but only few, and I do not know in which language. But he aways waited for me before he began with the chopping. As soon as he saw me, he smiled and raised the axe, and the wrath with which he knocked off the wood was terrible. He would then grow sombre and sing his song. As he laid down his axe, he would smile at me, and I would wait for that smile that he had for me, from the first refugee of my life.

[This excerpt is from Elias Canetti's 1977 autobiography, Die Gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free). I'm sure brilliant translations exist of the book, but I have been reading the German original, and I doubt if Canetti's mellifluous reminiscences can be conveyed in any other language. This section is one of my favourites, and blattantly ignoring the existing translations, I made my own amateur attempt, not only to make his thoughts accesible to my friends who do not read the language, and hence to partake in their pleasure, but also to give me the complaisance to make my own imprint on something so beautiful and personal.]

Monday, September 2, 2013

Moonlight Serenade

In a certain episode of the 2005 series of Doctor Who, Jack Harness waltzes with Rose Tyler in front of the Big Ben (no, really) during the height of the London Blitz with Moonlight Serenade playing on the background. In the last scene of the next episode, which brought this story to an end, one gets to see the Doctor too trying to waltz to this song. By a series of events I was reminded of this episode today, and I realised that I'd loved this Doctor Who episode when I saw it for the first time, and I had been extremely curious about the song, without succeeding in finding out then which one it was. When I finally heard it six months later in an ante-chamber of a tiny Charlottenburg restaurant, I'd forgotten about the British hero, and was irrevocably in love with the tune and the words. It had become my Berlin tune in the remaining days, humming it in the U-Bahn, listening to it in a loop as long as I was in the flat, and remembering it with equal parts of joy and agony between difficult classes. Today, the curious series of events finally linked the Doctor Who episode with the song in my mind, and I was thrilled and nostalgic.

I choose to write 'nostalgic', but the mix of emotions are layered and problematic. The part of me that longs to be a starving jazz singer in a London bar during the Blitz wants to serenade to the tunes in the streets during a blackout with a man in uniform. But thanks to the linear progression of time, that can never be possible. A considerable part inside me however, longs for that winter in Berlin, spent mostly alone, getting lost in the snow, having little epiphanies, reading books on the train, trying not to get lost, and discovering music. It was at a chamber theatre performance that I first heard the song, and throughout the drinking bout that followed, to the story of the prostitutes and abandoned mansions, and the drowsy walk back home, I tried to keep the tune alive in my mind. I woke up very late the next day, and my first instinct was to reach out for the tablet beside me and search for the song. I found many versions, most of them quite unlike the one the girls had sung on stage the previous night, and just as I was about to give up, thinking that perhaps the girls had sweetened the melody, I found this video.

Frank Sinatra and the obvious words of this song make me think of those black and white Hollywood movies, a bit of Frank Capra and John Ford, a bit of Delbert Mann and George Stevens. The lovers return to the girl's doorstep/wicker gate at the dead of a summer night and kiss goodbye. Sometimes they drive and the radio softly plays a popular tune. This setting would be in the outskirts of New York City, Long Island even. The other image that runs through my mind is another long walk in the dead of a summer night along the busy roads of New York City. Hearing this quintessentially American summer song in the height of Berlin winter would inevitably have some different effects. Hence, in addition to the lure of mid-century Manhattan buildings and gallant lovers in coats and hats, this song makes me achingly long for another big city, Berlin: the music in the streets, the hush all around, the wonderful walk across Unter den Linden, along Friedrichstraẞe down to the Spree. Being one of the crowd yet alone, hungry, poor, slightly cold, looking all around with awe, slowly dragging the legs to the Bahnhof because I simply don't want to go home: there's still so much to see! The modern large cities have occupied such precedence as a character in literature, dare I think otherwise? I want to shiver in the cold and stand outside Dussmann, looking at the Sphinx ahead of me. I then want to move to the left and stand close to the gigantic windows to check the printed timetables for any affordable concert sometime soon. I want to keep walking until I get that beautiful smell and know that it's the shop selling marvellous kinds of soaps, and I want to go inside and look around until that green-haired guy comes and strikes up a chat. I want to feel deliciously guilty at the firm voice inside which keeps on telling me to forget about the big city and think about cold stone, learning, and ancient, mossy walls. I want to recklessly reprimand that voice and walk further down to Admiralspalast and feel the thrill of looking at the poster of The Little Prince or rather, Der kleine Prinz. And I don't want to walk any further for it will bring me to the Spree, on the opposite banks of which the red top of Berliner Ensemble would rotate. It'd be very cold there. So I'd turn back from Admiralspalast and wonder where to go. I'm reconciled to the fact that I'm a vagabond, and though I have the whole city, I don't want to go too far. I try to walk down to Dussmann again, but with reluctance I turn right, cross the street, and enter the Bahnhof to catch the U-Bahn home. Yet, all this while I'm singing in my mind

The stars are aglow,
And tonight how their light sets me dreaming.
My love, do you know.
That your eyes are like stars brightly beaming?
I bring you, and I sing you a moonlight serenade.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


n. The sense that the future is arriving ahead of schedule, that all those years with fantastical names like '2013' are bursting from their hypothetical cages into the arena of the present, furiously bucking the grip of your expectations while you lean and slip in your saddle, one hand reaching for reins, the other waving up high like a schoolkid who finally knows the answer to the question.

via The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. I am beginning to believe that every sorrow I feel, though it cannot be quantified, has a name.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Ninety-nine years ago today, following the German invasion of Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany. This photograph shows recruits lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London that same day.

Photograph source and copyright (as always): Imperial War Museum.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Ninety nine years ago today Germany and Russia declared war on each other. This photo shows a Berlin crowd listening as a German officer reads the Kaiser's order for mobilisation on 1 August, 1914.

Photograph source and copyright: Imperial War Museum.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Solstice and the Moon

Do you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it.

                                                                                       The Great Gatsby

I didn't miss the longest day of the year this time. I very nearly would have after waiting two months for it, but the beautiful Google doodle reminded me just in time that the summer solstice had already begun. Earlier this month, when I was reading the first book of Parade's End (Some Do Not . . .), I had vowed that I would wake up at the crack of dawn to witness the beginning of the longest day of the year and attempt to gauge a quarter of Valentine's thrill at the rising sun. Of course she had spent a whole night with that Tory ox Christopher Tietjens, getting lost in the fog in the country lanes of Sussex, and seeing the fog lift magically with the rising sun as the longest day of the year unfolded. That would definitely seem blissful. As it appeared, I would have to wait for another year to be privy to that magic in the sky (without Tietjens of course). I spent an unremarkable 20th June -- unremarkable enough to forget all about it now -- and woke up when the boring humid morning had peered through all the crevices between my curtains, and yet another day had unfolded; but for the doodle, and the sudden remembering.

"The sun!" she said pointing. Above the silver horizon was the sun; not the red sun: shining, burnished.
"I don't see . . ." Tietjens said.
"What there is to laugh at?" she asked. "It's the day! . . . The longest day's begun! . . . And tomorrow's as long . . . The summer solstice, you know . . . And tomorrow the days shorten towards winter. But tomorrow's as long . . . I'm so glad . . ."
"That we've got through the night? . . ." Tietjens asked.

Once I made the discovery and had completed all my literary associations with the solstice, I spent a dizzy morning. I was dizzy with happiness to be aware of the change of seasons in nature, to be aware of how the universe moves on without our realising it. I was rather surprised at not having any one else notice or comment upon the significance of the day, the significance of having daylight for a very long time. While I was teaching, I looked at my students, and their absolute apathy to the higher working of the world surprised me. At least they were learning geography. When we were in school and learning geography, we would often realise with a bolt during the morning assembly that this would be the longest day of the year -- the one which the textbooks mentioned (the catholic school was obviously closed during the winter solstice). It thrilled me to find myself alive when beautiful creative changes went on in the greater world, in the realms of physics, without the interference of man. None of my students seemed to think along those lines.

On the way home I visited a relative in the nursing home, and my heart sang all the way back. It was past 6 pm and there was still bright light. I would keep a track how long it'd stay tonight. The Europeans are blessed with long summer evenings, with daylight lasting until 10 or 11 pm. I remember walking down the Champs Elysee at 8 and calling up my parents to say that it seemed as if it was still afternoon. Our tropics are not so abundantly blessed. By the time I reached home, the sky was welling up with clouds. I didn't know what this would eventually mean, and set about brewing the tea. By the time I carried my cup to my room, it had begun to drizzle, and I realised that I had been tricked. It was just after 6.30, and it was dark outside. As dark as any other ordinary monsoon evening.

I learnt from Facebook that the night following the summer solstice would be the night of the 'Super Moon' -- a banal term for some thing as grand as what I saw peeping from my gate before locking up that night. From posts the following night, I learnt that the 'Super Moon' would be visible the following night too, in some parts of the world. If I was lucky, I'd get a second chance to see how large the moon looked as it came closest to the Earth in many years. I was tricked again, of course -- it was a dark and stormy night. I lamented over it for twenty four hours, until tonight. After watching The Naked Civil Servant and letting myself be moved to the point of clapping, laughter, tears, and constricted neck muscles at several points, and feeling how pointless life was turning out to be, I called up a friend and indulged in existential angst. Having spelled out that our meagre lives was not turning out to be as we had hoped, and nothing could possibly be worse than being poor, I decided that I definitely needed some air. As I lit the lights of the porch, the grass outside my gate looked an unearthly green. This is what steady rains do to unwanted weeds -- they grow overnight and acquire an unearthly colour. I put the earphones into my ear and started walking. My entire neighbourhood had already turned in by 9.30 pm, or they were making a very good show of it: there wasn't the slightest sound to suggest human life. After bearing with second grade radio, I played Ali Akbar Khan's Darbari Kanra, stood in the middle of the lane, and turned to look at the moon.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan plays a long lingering alaap to the raag, and each of his renditions differs slightly. I was listening to my favourite and watching the moon go in and come out of clouds. It seemed as if the moon was moving. I started walking and it followed me, gallivanting between the patch of sky between the Bhattacharjee terrace and the ugly new construction. It reminded me of our road trips from Siliguri to Calcutta in the 90s, when we would start before dawn, and I would watch the moon from the car window follow us along ugly highways as dawn broke in and sleep rolled into my eyes. With considerable amusement I noticed that the surface of the moon looked like an irritated man's face, blowing air. The Doctor would have said that the moon people have a special festival today; or it could be my imagination, weighed down by my subconscious, thinking of the 280 new craters discovered on the moon. Bengali folklore talks about an old lady sitting on the moon and spinning yards of cloth. I remember another folklore from my kindergarten about the man on the moon with his dog. Then came of course the numerous western myths surrounding the moon and its captivating lights. All these seemed amusing to me tonight, though not without a hint of regret and self-reproach at not having read more about Demonologie and the infernal powers of the moon when I had the opportunity. Time goes by. Darbari Kanra came to an end, and I tore my gaze from the moon and turned back to my empty house. Back once again to the closed walls, pointless lives, lots of contrition, and the firm conviction that days blend into one another especially during the solstice.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day, 2013

Like many other people, I do not believe in commemorating a single day to celebrate love -- romantic or filial. I'd infinitely prefer to keep on loving the entire year round, than make some one feel special one day and then drive away and forget about him/her for the rest of the year. Today is International Father's Day, and of course the internet has gone berserk with every one suddenly remembering their fathers, and posting how much they love them. Although more than once today, I've had Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' thrust into my face, I must admit, some personal pictures and words posted by friends and acquaintances online are beautiful. However there are some which I find quite funny and a little bit rubbish. A girl posts about all the shopping she's doing in a mall, when she remembers that it's Father's Day (presumably by the sudden influx of photos in her own timeline), and quickly browsing through the media folder in her cell phone, retrieves a photograph with her father, posts it with the mandatory "luv u" words, imperfect spelling and punctuation in tow, and goes back to shopping.

I didn't wish my Baba a Happy Father's Day, because I didn't feel the need to. I often tell him through phone calls, texts, and in person, how important he is to me. I avoided the pageantry on this day, just as I avoided it on Mother's Day. I had a normal conversation a couple of times today -- just as routine and irritating as it is the rest of the year. I often try to diagnose the reason for the sudden irritation, and the only answer that stares at me is the fact that I've grown up too much and too soon, while my parents have remained stuck in a little town in a past decade. We barely see eye to eye on any thing; they keep interrupting me when I'm working; we speak different languages; they watch revolting populist television; they fail to see through people and trust every one blindingly, despite my warning them; Baba religiously sends thought-provoking texts in the wee hours of every morning (who does that?); reads quotations by famous writers and then texts them at night; we argue relentlessly on our differing political ideologies; he turns in very early every night and insists that every one should too; is extremely nagging at the dinner table about eating more fish and chicken and veggies; he fears ghosts and has a phobia of enclosed spaces, and so on and so forth. This summer I was finally forced to accept that I have moved on -- too far for my parents to keep up with me.

And then, as I was languishing on this still and muggy evening, I came across a few random posts online. I realised that if I was ever asked to choose, I'd select Atticus Finch as my favourite fictional father. Another post reminded me of the final snapshot from Mary Poppins and the song Let's Fly a Kite. Favourite literature had made me soppy, and with barely an hour until midnight, I sent a mail to my old man, attaching a link to a song with specific instructions on how to open the link and listen to it. I know that he won't check his mails any more tonight -- it being way past his bedtime hour -- but I couldn't help but drop in the words 'Happy Father's Day' in the subject bar. Since then, I've been listening to the song, and wondering that it always wasn't this bad.

The song is:

It'd be a pity if you didn't understand Bengali, because the middle-class sentiments expressed in this song, from the bun (hair and not food) to the kohl, to the father calling his little girl, is untranslatable into English.

As I listen to this song on a loop tonight, and read and hear the myriad emotions this song brings to the minds of friends and strangers, I realise with unbridled happiness that most of us have had a similar kind of a sentimental, and innocent childhood. The deep voice of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, whose birthday is today, stands for the quintessential nostalgia of Bengalis for their childhood and for their last century morals, which have been quite lost now.

There are many things I miss too. But things change, time goes on, innit? Happy Father's Day!

And Happy Birthday, Hemanta Babu. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Of Birds and Bird-calls

Last morning I was reluctantly getting some housework done, when I was roused from my indifference by the shrill call of a bird. Unlike my seventy-two year old teacher, who needs but listen to one bird-call to place the exact name and species of the bird, and who can softly whistle to lure birds to her window to admire them, I cannot, for the life of me, identify birds, or their calls. Having spent most of my life on the outskirts of little towns and overpopulated cities, I have been subjected to birds quite naturally, and hence like one who is so frequently exposed to beauty that (s)he takes it for granted, I took my daily dose of bird chirping with indifference and apathy. Until yesterday, that is. Feeling slightly irritated at my life-long inability to appreciate some thing that is close at hand, the call of the bird flung me through a labyrinthe of memories, and experiences, and observations. Although I still cannot remember the names of most birds that I've seen in my life, or their characteristic calls, I do recall what they looked like, and the curious set of circumstances that often accompanied their involvement with me.

Growing up in a quiet household of expat parents, the one bird that was often romanticised was the cuckoo. I had never heard a cuckoo's beautiful call in my childhood, and when I finally did hear it while visiting our ancestral home in Calcutta, I was thrilled. My cousin had suddenly barged into our room, and taken me by the hand to their balcony overlooking the road. Then he roughly pointed to a clump of trees in the distance and said, "Listen!" I remember my heart beating very fast and my jubilant cousin saying, "Have you ever heard that before? It's a cuckoo. It sings twice every day -- morning and evening. Stay back this time, and you'll get to hear it every day." And I did hear it every time I visited that house over the years. I had read all about cuckoos laying eggs in crows nests to avoid building nests of their own, and all my grandmother's jokes of cuckoos being lazy were lost on me. The Bengalis have an expression for a gifted singer, and the metaphor kokilkonthi draws on the sweet call of the cuckoo. The first few times when I heard the cuckoo in Panihati, my voice would choke at the beautiful yet sad call. When I moved into the neighbourhood years later, I would sometimes hear it, but the calls grew rare, until it stopped altogether. I now think it a testament to our old house: once so full of life and warmth and the call of the cuckoo, and now abandoned and silenced by death.

I should have technically begun this post with the book I received from our school principal on March 1995 for scoring very good marks in the finals despite having chicken pox. I remember feeling very happy and important to be gifted with books by our Sister Principal of whom we were mortally scared; and riding the autorickshaw home with Baba with a fixed smile on my face. Strangely enough, that book was full of little anecdotes about birds. I remember being a tad disappointed on discovering that it didn't have "proper stories"; nevertheless I read the book from cover to cover. I remember one particular anecdote about a city-dweller taking a vacation in the country to relax, and being awakened at the crack of dawn in the first morning by the shrill cries of various birds. He complained to his country-dwelling friends, and I remember laughing with them at his irritation at some thing so commonplace in my life.

Then there was the crane and the little Bengali rhyme that I had learnt perhaps nineteen years ago in our old house. Every morning, while my parents had tea, and I some boring health drink; as the sunshine poured though our open windows in the ground floor of our old house in North Bengal, my Maa would draw my attention to the crane that would come sweeping on the long, empty plots of land behind our house. She then taught me this rhyme,

Bok mama, bok mama,
Doodh diye jaa,
Narkol gaache poriya ache,
kuriya niya jaa.

Or perhaps something along those lines, I don't exactly remember. Bok being 'crane' in Bengali, and likening a crane to a maternal uncle shows the inherent Bengali affinity to familiarise animals into simple household customs, where every thing and every one is related to the family. I don't see cranes often now, and the cranes of my childhood quitted our neighbourhood once the real estate boom took over. 

I also remember the groups of little birds, often by the hundred, who would chirp loudly before dusk, and would make beautiful patterns every couple of minutes before resting on telephone poles and wires. I think they are called shaat bhai chowmpa in Bengali, but in all probability I'm wrong. I can now remember lying on our ground floor bed, all of six years old, and looking out of the open window on summer evenings to their staggering numbers singing chaotically and making majestic patterns as they flew. I can't remember how they finally vanished as darkness fell, and as my grandmother blew the conch shell in the next room to appease the gods at dusk.

Once for a school project we were asked to collect feathers of birds and label and paste them in a scrapbook. Unable to find any random feather that had dropped and was clean, I was finally taken to a shop which sold bronze utensils and colourful feathers. The proprietor was the father of a friend, and a friend of my father's, and he handed me an envelope containing beautiful feathers in bright colours of pink and yellow and green. When I asked him to which birds they belonged, he said, "Ask your father, he'll help you." The help comprised getting down our inherited Progressive dictionary, and finding out its entries about birds. We read about them together, and separated the feathers on the basis of their descriptions in the big book. By the end of the vacation my scrap book was full of beautiful feathers belonging to obscure birds who would never fly to a tropical country like the one I lived in. But I didn't mind. I was blissfully happy at having learnt the names of exotic birds, and having imagined their romantic, natural habitat. All of seven years old, I was already feeling a Sehnsucht for the places where these birds could be spotted.

My parents had box windows in their first floor room, and I would climb the bed to get to the window, and sitting comfortably, with my back to the sun, and legs dangling, would make up stories in my mind. One such day in '95 or '96, I discovered a nest behind the corner window with two little green eggs. I screamed and called Maa, who together with our odd jobs man, M, who was working, forbade me to touch the nest or the eggs, or they'd die. I solemnly swore that I wouldn't do such a thing, learnt that I was intruding into a family of sparrows, and fantasised a day in the life of a sparrow couple. Our prescribed school English reader, aptly named 'Gulmohar' had a story about a sparrow couple, and I read it again and again to acquaint myself with the daily chores and loves of sparrows. For many days I would visit the window and check on the eggs, waiting for the parents to return, for the eggs to hatch, and hoping to watch the parents feeding the chicks just as I had seen in the pictures. However, I never did find the couple. Once my school reopened, my visits became irregular, till one weekend I discovered that the nest had gone. M told me that there must have been some accident, and the eggs had rolled and fallen down. I had cried myself to sleep that night, and had held myself responsible for the death of the unborn chicks.

Yet Calcutta, with its old world hangover and crowded houses was not altogether corrupt. My best memories of my Mama-r bari are sitting in the balcony at night, while the family has a late dinner, and most of the para is asleep, and staring at the ancient Neem tree of the house opposite, whose branches spread across the road and can be touched from the balcony. The tree still stands, although most of the old houses in the road don't, and it was in those nights that I spotted birds' nests from such close quarters. The branches were full of crows nests, and they cawed from early in the morning. Still being city birds, they didn't fall asleep with dusk, but were quite active until late at night. When they had babies, I saw the hungry chicks waiting for their parents, and saw the latter continuously flying in and out at all times of the day. I would think of them in Berlin every time I'd see repulsive hairy ravens. 

I was still mortally afraid of eagles and kites; and at school, we'd often mistake the latter for the former. During the drills practice for Sports Day, we would often notice kites circling the sky overhead, mistaking lying children for corpses. The thought sent a shiver through my spine. Once driving to the forest near our home, we crossed a Zoroastrian cemetery, and I saw many vultures roosting around. I hated them, and was glad to drive away.

And then, at the beginning of the last decade, a pair of beautiful birds came to build home in our garden. Maa said that they were dahuk birds, but to me they looked like pretty black cranes. The pair had built a nest behind our swimming pool, and though I'd never actually seen their nest, we could see them at all times of the day, strolling around the pool. They eventually got friendly, and wouldn't mind walking around with us when we worked in the garden. They stayed for many years until Maa said that an evil snake had crept into our garden and had  eaten the couple. I was in Calcutta by then, and though distance and the news breaking over the telephone diluted the emotions, I did go to bed feeling sad at having lost yet another thing close to my childhood.

This was how it gradually came to be that I stopped noticing birds and their calls. Living in an unremarkable big-small town takes the mind off noticing little epiphanies. Yet at times, you have mornings like yesterday, when you're awoken from a reverie by the call of an unknown bird, and hark back to times when you marvelled at the tail of a bird that was calling in your garden, laughed when you learnt that the bird was called 'Bulbuli', and woke up at all hours of the night to cries of owls, and ran to your terrace to find so many of them sitting majestically. You even had the gall to name one white owl (or a lokkhi pyancha) Hedwig, before it scornfully turned its head towards you and flew away.

I sign off tonight with this brilliant video from BBC's Earthflight showing starlings flying in Rome before dusk, and a peregrine chasing them in vain. It's narrated by my favourite Scotsman, David Tennant.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Brief Encounter

I got acquainted with E solely by chance three years ago. It was a cloudy day, quite like today, and I was waiting at the Goethe Institut cafeteria after a regular day at the university, eating a chicken roll and reading a photocopied article on Edith Sitwell. I had a lot of time on my hands until class, and although conscious of the middle-aged woman sitting in front of me with a sandwich and coffee, I didn't feel particularly inclined to a conversation. She began talking first, and I remember that what followed was a rather fulfilling conversation, which when looked back, strikes as especially remarkable to happen in a random dreary evening on an unremarkable cafe. Strangely, I do not remember all that we talked about that evening after all these years, but it's one of those feelings of complaisance, which settles down after you've experienced some thing pleasant. I learnt that she was a documentary film-maker, that she was born in Germany to Bengali parents, and had spent a considerable number of years there before moving to Chennai, where she finished her studies, and where she still lived. We did talk about Bengal, and Bengalis, naturally lamenting about the sorry state of affairs, and after a quarter of an hour I went to class. Before that, I did promise to find her in Facebook.

I did find her and we became "friends", even having occasional online conversations; but not too many, or too often. In fact, this year we had more conversations than the previous three years put together. All these little details came to my mind when I was driving to Goethe Institut around noon today to meet her. Our previous plan for a rendezvous a couple of months ago fell through because I couldn't adjust my time-table. I was slightly apprehensive, afraid that she wouldn't remember how I looked in 2010, and my Facebook pictures wouldn't match my real appearance. These little causes for concern passed away when clutching an umbrella, I stood in front of the Goethe Institut gate, my way blocked by a massive lorry. After some expert manoeuvres I went to the table where she was waiting for me, not even realising that all my awkwardness and apprehension had passed because of an ineptly parked lorry.

Over lunch we talked about Dawn French's Absolutely Fabulous, and the hippie mommy urging her petite daughter to get some action; the new vicar's boobies being a "dead giveaway" in the misogynist Dibley; classic Doordarshan shows of the 80s; German medieval towns; NRIs in London; and Satyajit Ray's books. Over coffee -- by which time we had progressed to a nearby mall, failed to find a convenient time for a cinema in the plex, discovered a new mobile library service, and compared James Herriot and Gerald Durrell -- we talked more extensively about travelling and the Theosophical Society (of which she is a member), and tried to understand why Bongs, despite being the first to welcome Modernism, to always go the farthest, and progress the most, get the soppiest the moment they have kiddies. We talked about friends who dated for a couple of months, and one midnight decided to get married the following day, stayed in love for four years, and then separated to get embroiled into spirituality; of a friend who had a fling while travelling in South America and got pregnant and reared the child single-handedly; of classmates, who for ten years raised eye-brows at the prospect of someone else dating, but the moment they turned twenty, got married to complete strangers, and posted intimate honeymoon photographs on Facebook. Once E was travelling in Italy, and having spent a day in a little fishing village, was supposed to meet her friend at the station. When she discovered that she had missed the last bus, she decided to hitch a ride for the first time in her life. She admits to being extremely scared, but finally finding a willing woman who spoke no English or German or French, but only a certain dialect of Italian. E's broken Italian conveyed her destination, but during that one hour journey with a complete stranger who was driving her to a station in an unfamiliar land with an unfamiliar language, and laughing at the latter's jokes about her mother-in-law, E realised that language is not enough, and not the ultimate. There's some thing more -- humanity.

I tried to picture myself in a similar situation, and admitted that I would never have the courage to hitch a ride. I would be forced to call my parents thousands of miles away, and listen to their obsessive neurotic rant, which would of course carry no constructive advice. By that time, my parents had called me twice, urging me to return home, asking how long I would be, because until I returned, they couldn't go to the departmental store in the neighbourhood. We finished our cookies, and I expressedly declined E's invitation to catch the 8 pm movie, and her jaunty trip to a jewellery shop. Accepting that I would have to let go of myself from time to time, we walked down the wet streets to my car. In the midway I found her a taxi which would take her to a jeweller's, and after turning to laugh at some "Maru chicks", we exchanged goodbyes. I walked the slightly longish walk to my car alone, to allow an insensitive man to drive me around, answering to every whim of my parents who pay for his services, and for the car.

It's a night for listening to Van Morrison, and I called E half an hour ago, to ascertain whether her other plans had worked out. She extended an invitation to Mumbai, where she lives now, and I gracefully accepted, knowing that I could never travel alone there. After the brief conversation, I imagined what our future encounters could be like. She has promised to take me around Sudder Street in Calcutta, and I'm sure, if I ever went to Mumbai, she'd show me its rich colonial history. This bit of fantasy too, I'm sure, will be lost, just like the major chunk of the imaginary conversation I had made up in my mind today before meeting her.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Random Post #467

I often wonder why during the early 90s, before a cricket match was aired in Doordarshan, a close-up of each player of the Indian cricket team was shown, looking straight ahead (rather wistfully), some with their palms on their chest, with the tunes of Richard Clayderman's Ballade Pour Adeline playing in the background. Don't get me wrong, I love the tune. But every time I listen to it, I remember youthful faces of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble smiling slightly and looking straight at the camera, often in the white jersey of test cricket.


The other day I was watching the 1958 cinematic adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities starring Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton. Having read the novel for the first time in middle school, I remembered once again how irritating Lucie Manette is. Like most of the women characters throughout the history of literature, she has little function, little spunk, and has the likes of the brooding and melancholic Sydney Carton falling fatally in love with her. Perhaps it has some thing to do with her being beautiful, excessively campy, and looking virginal. Dorothy Tutin of course embodies exactly these qualities to perfection. In a fit of boredom, I was trying to imagine which woman character would be a perfect foil to Sydney Carton. The perfectness of my answer startled even me: Portia from The Merchant of Venice! Just imagine how that would be.


A couple of days ago I had an extremely animated telephonic quarrel with a representative of a private airlines company. It all happened on the premise of my asking for a free ticket on the basis of the miles I had accumulated. That wonderful woman informed me that I wasn't qualified yet, because my accumulated flying miles were short of the distance I was intending to fly. On exclaiming my surprise, she expressedly said, "The distance from Kolkata to Varanasi and back is more than the distance from Kolkata to Brussels and back, your last trip." After my telling her, "I'm sorry, but have you lost your mind?", she asked me to hold the line to ask her seniors, and came back after nearly ten minutes to say that nothing could be done. Through a text message I was informed that I didn't have adequate miles to claim a free journey. All because a few executives from an airlines company believe that Brussels, where I travelled to last January from Kolkata, is nearer to Varanasi, where I plan to travel this autumn.
I did not have enough energy to pursue the case.
What is this world coming to?    

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Stockinged Flowers

The winters from 2001 to 2003 in North Bengal were desolate. I was doubly alienated because, apart from experiencing the regular pangs of adolescence at home, I was isolated at school: I had no friends with whom I could share my ideas, ideals and choices. I loved reading -- no one in our class of over seventy students (in two sections) read even an excerpt from the newspaper; I loved a certain kind of music (vintage, sentimental, country) -- my friends all listened to contemporary hip-hop Bollywood. My hobbies made me the common laughing stock in class, persistently for years, and my habit of brooding quietly in a corner did not help in the integration process either. To add insult to serious injury, I wasn't really extraordinarily good at anything -- grossly overweight, abysmal at sports, poor in Maths (many others were much worse, but because I topped in the language papers, the former discrepancy was looked upon as an excuse to scrape through with good marks in the latter), and horrendous in creative craft.

At school we had a subject called S.U.P.W.: Socially Useful Productive Work. From standard VI to XII, all we did in our S.U.P.W. classes were various forms of creative craft. Throughout the years, the various assignments I had to submit for my S.U.P.W. evaluation deteriorated in degrees of sadness. My woolen doll was cross-eyed; my penguin was fat; my squirrel had a very pronounced, meandering stitch zigzagging across its back. However, the one item on my S.U.P.W. itinerary that ever looked beautiful (and perfect to my fragile adolescent taste) was the flowers we made from stockings.

I didn't start on a perfect note however. On the very first day of this new assignment, I arrived in class with my things only to discover that all my classmates had bought such wonderful stockings. Mine were monochromatic, and looked distinctly dull in comparison. On the other hand, my classmates had procured stockings whose colours faded from a dark shade to a lighter one from one end to the other. As a result, by the time the flowers were made, theirs had the hue of freshness and innocence near the base of the petals. Mine only opened wide and stayed dull. This was how they remained until a friend interfered and showed how I could bend the supporting wire to shape my petals like a half-opened rose. I went home and practised this new tactic on all the flowers I had made, and was awed with the result: they now looked like the multitude of flowers my classmates had made, save for their dull colours. Part of the crowd, yet removed because of their dullness. Ecstatic by my result, I bought more stockings, this time, careful to let the owner of General Stores know that I wanted stockings whose colours faded from a darker to a lighter shade. As my flowers began to look perfect, they seemed indistinguishable from the rest of the perfect flowers made by my classmates. My parents would often applaud my beautiful flowers, with their half-opened petals, and long, elegant pedicel made of green tape, and I would feel dizzily proud of my handiwork.

During the last days of winter that year we had our School Fete, and in the absence of our seniors, who were preparing for their ICSEs, we were entrusted with the job of organising it. I would be manning the momo stall with my friend on D-Day, and we would all pitch in to decorate the school for the event. We spent several weeks planning, having meetings, making lists, and distributing duties to each other. We ran into each other at Bidhan Market while buying streamers and coloured cello-tape. I mastered the art of making decorations with streamers. Someone came up with the idea of pasting our S.U.P.W. flowers on the pillars of the north balcony, and we returned home on the penultimate night to make bouquets of our flowers. I laid my flowers on the bed, admired each of them for hours, adjusted some petals, and slowly and with extreme care, made bouquets. I couldn't help but feel as if my babies were being put up on display to be admired by the world, and I held the final results before the mirror, carried them to my parents' room, displayed in various poses, before carefully putting them in a polythene bag to carry to school the next day.

I still remember School Fete that year. It was hectic, and the first time our batch had got such an important responsibility. My friend and I made several trips up and down the corridor, carrying massive hot containers of momo, and alternately manning the counter. By four o'clock I was completely knackered. Just as the crowd finally thinned, the blow came. Someone told me the flowers had gone.

Our table was so strategically placed, that I could make out the outline of my bouquet. Many times over the course of the day I would find people looking at it and admiring it, and I would myself count the number of the pillar on which it hung. When I first heard that they had vanished, I looked at the pillar. I couldn't see anything, and I blamed my poor eyesight. I jumped into the grounds, and ran towards the balcony. I can still remember being absolutely numb as I saw the bare pillar. I counted the pillars, hoping that this wasn't the one, but I was wrong. Besides it wouldn't have made any difference: all the pillars were bare anyway; all the flowers had gone. I didn't begin to cry right then. I looked around frantically, asking classmates if they knew anything about the flowers. Every one was clueless, but none as distraught as me. My friend from the stall finally joined me, and together we went round the school, looking for the flowers. My flowers. When at length she spotted a little girl, not more than six years old, with a stockinged flower, did she call me. It didn't take me a fraction of a second to discover that it wasn't my flower, but I reprimanded her sternly, and asked her if she knew about the others. She didn't. I found a classmate playing in one of the game tents, and handed her that flower, for it belonged to her. She had no clue, and muttering a jubilant thanks, rejoined her game. It was then that I started crying. And I went on crying in the car all the way home, telling Maa how unfair life was; and I cried myself to sleep that night.

The next day at school, I seemed to be the only one who was concerned about the missing flowers. Throughout the day I interrupted conversations involving predominantly the subject of cute boys from the neighbouring schools, to ask about the flowers. The one reply which made me cry again that night was from the girl who topped our class every year. She never read books, she didn't know what "good music" was, and watched only blockbuster Bollywood and the ubiquitous K-serials which were so popular in the beginning of the last decade. She said, "I knew this would happen. So I didn't give any flowers. I didn't buy streamers too. What is the point? Others are working. Let them work. And being in a stall, my god! So much work. I was a volunteer, and I stood in the shade of a games tent till noon, and then went home with my father. I didn't even become so sunburnt like you."

I never took a picture of those flowers. Nearly ten years later, I don't even remember how many I had made, and what their colours were, except for a violet one, which I had made from my first batch of stockings, and which I especially adored.
Why, after all these years, on a very hot and humid May day, which is also Robi Thakur's birthday, did I remember those flowers and those lonely winter days?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Tristesse et Lourdeur

Today it began with this stück from Puccini, to which I had stumbled suddenly one night four years ago, tired but naive, after taking a circuitous route. And since then the heaviness inside me has refused to leave. I was reading Aaron's Rod, at the point when Aaron leaves the splendid house of the baron to embark on an aimless journey across Italy. He has no destination, no plans, and very little money. Since listening to Puccini, my mind had begun to wander, and I snapped my reader shut; there would be time for Lawrence, I told myself.

For some months now, I've discovered I have a problem. But it's not something which makes one pick up the phone to declare, "Je suis malade." I have found my problem difficult to articulate, and I suspected that it would be more difficult for the other person to diagnose. Hence when my mother entered my room earlier today, and I told her, "I'm so sad, my heart is breaking. But I simply can't remember why", and she put down a very material reason to it, she confirmed my worst suspicions that this malade couldn't be cured easily, and it'd be best to keep it a secret.

I probably noticed it during one of those long, aimless evenings I spend alone. At one instance I spent nearly half an hour, racking my brain to remember what it was that weighed me down with sorrow. After a lot of machinations, did I finally remember the reason. But that was the last time. It is rather awkward for a person who is otherwise very precise about her emotions to fail to attribute a stark feeling to something. Every time I realise this unbearable, unattributed burden weighing me down, I find it frustrating. As if, I have left an important passage unread in one of the preceding pages, and have since read on, but every word alludes to that passage now, and I can't find the page. At times, I learn to accept my failure.

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Unconsciously I have acquiesced to weight.

I learnt a new word today: tristful. It means deeply and romantically melancholy. It is the adjective you use to describe that moment of listening to Marta Sebestyen singing Szerelem, Szerelem, late one night without understanding a single word. It is also the word you use to describe that feeling of listening to Sultan Khan playing the sarangi. And because you don't know any other word, you use this word again, when you suddenly have visions of places and gardens and walls and bridges you have never actually visited, but you think you have. 'Tristful' enables you to give in to more imaginary ruminations and conversations, each misleading you more and more to believe in things that never happened, but which (if they did take place) could have made you happy. You emerge from your thoughts more melancholy than ever. 'Tristful', which has its root in the Latin tristitia, meaning sadness, has thus served its purpose.

And there is 'melancholy', a very useful word which was drilled into our minds in standard VIII while reading Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, or rather Romeo and Juliet to be precise. Praise be to the system that teaches 'melancholia' and 'poignance' to impressionable thirteen year olds rather than 'mersmerising' or 'delectation' or even clarifying whether 'ecstasy' has a 'c' or an 's' or both. But of course 'delirium' does not carry the formidable pleasure of 'pathos'. Delirium is fairly easy, and very communal, which is why it loses its sheen for me. Pathos, on the other hand, is solitary and rather rare to find in its purest form, and hence encompasses sanctity within its folds.

One day, in the university, a friend had told me, "But there is a sense of pleasure in sadness, isn't it? Which is why we let it gnaw at our hearts." I acceded, but only after I reached home, in that twilight zone between day and night, did I remember another similar incident, involving similar words: two middle-school girls with bleeding gums returning home, and one telling the other, "But really, there is pleasure in tasting blood. I will not go to the dentist tonight."

Pan Comforts Psyche at Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.
Photograph by self.

Monday, March 25, 2013


Die Wolken treiben dahin
an diesem Morgen, wie die
Worte in meinem Herzen,

bis sie verschwinden, wie die
Wolken in diesen Morgen,
der Morgen in diesen Tag,

und der Tag in den Sätzen:
Das war eine Wolke oder
das war ein Morgen

verschwunden sein wird.
Ich denke, dass alles endet,
indem es beginnt,

und es ist Montag, und die Dinge
verschwinden, und ich gehe
aus dem Haus, über die

Straße, über den Platz, deine
Bemerkung erinnernd: ,,Unsere Liebe
ist wirklich'', wie dieser Morgen,

diese Wolken, dieser Tag,
wie die Worte in meinem Herzen
wirklich wirklich

gewesen sein werden.

Kurt Drawert

Bild: © Marion Gillet

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Suburban Gossip

Before I begin writing about what happened in the wee hours of yesterday morning in front of my house, I would be required to give a detailed map of our para. I can already feel the beginnings of a classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, with a detailed map of the vicarage on the verso page, but there wasn't any murder in front of my house yesterday (alas), and most of the elderly population here is more vicious than the murderers of Christie put together.

So, our locality is a closed compound, with a big gate in front which is usually kept wide open, and two little gates on the sides, with very low walls, used by the drivers and cooks of several families as a shortcut. On one part, the low wall is broken, and the residents have refused to mend it, because they think it's nice to have another shortcut for their domestic helps to come quickly to their service. The main gate has one old, bent gatekeeper in the daytime, and we're supposed to have a night guard. However, several incidents involving missing mobile phones kept beside the window at night has prompted many residents to refuse to pay for the night guard. When last winter there were news of many robberies around, our (elderly) president recruited a night guard who by sheer chance happened to be the most notorious thief in the area. What followed was a successful robbery at the temple -- the very temple which is located exactly on the main lane of the para, and has several houses (including mine) facing it; and several failed attempts to loot a couple of houses. I'm sure the robbers and our venerable night guard were not to be blamed for the failures. In one case, the pipe they were heavily relying on to enable them to reach the upper floors of a certain house broke down, and they fell with a crash on the floor, awaking the family; in another instance, the garage lock, which they were trying to break using a hammer stubbornly refused to yield. Yes, I can see a prospective David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd hit episode right here.

So, the main road leads from the big gate to the end, when you hit the garden wall of the Gomes'. You pass my house on the left, but I can give the instructions to that later. On the left and right are five little kutcha lanes on each side, which also have no lighting. The annals record some tiff or the other between the residents and the then president on the disposal of the fund. Most of the houses are spacious, and have a patch of garden, except my neighbour, who has a thriving garden on his terrace. As you might have guessed by now, the majority of the population comprises elderly people, some staying with their married children, while others have married children all around the globe. This population engages themselves in spirited morning walks, even more spirited evening walks, and gossip with a vengeance. That is, most of this elderly group except for my grandmother (who prefers to make delicious and fattening treats for me when others are walking and gossiping) and the three sisters on the first right lane (who prefer staying indoors with their doors and windows shut -- yes, the Dickens story was the first that came to my mind).

After the failed robbery attempts, the night guard was sacked, and the one who replaced him is a zealous martinet. This wonderful specimen of the night guard who replaced him, starts strolling and blowing his whistle from ten thirty at night, at a time when I begin contemplating what to cook for dinner. By eleven, since I'm the one person awake in the entire para (I know!), he lodges himself firmly outside my window and blows his whistle with desperation, hoping to lull me to sleep. I usually shut the window on his face and turn in three hours later. Incidentally, regardless of where ever I happen to live in this mighty city, I never fail to arouse unbridled curiosity of the fellow residents. I suspect being a young woman living alone with her grandmother in a massive house, with parents visiting every month, strikes them as (funnily) unusual. The conniving ones haven't ever come forward to strike up a conversation (although they know about my sleeping habits and my computer's on-off habits better than my grand mother), and consequently, I get their identities muddled up in my head. Till date, this hasn't been a severe cause for spanking (ouch).

Last morning, I was dreaming about petting a joey and feeding it parsley (don't ask me why), when I woke up with a rude start to several voices screaming outside. My first reaction was to roll on the bed and check the balcony (it's hot, and I'd left the wooden door open before turning in), and spotted Thamma in her pujo sari, with a gonga jol ghot in her hand, looking outside. Relieved that she was fine, I rolled down again, but some louder shouts made me spring from my bed and go to the balcony door. Thamma told me something about great danger lurking outside, and that I should definitely check it out, and from the corner of my eye, I spotted my handsome neighbour (and father of two), run from the right lane to the main road. Blind without my spectacles, I located them, put them on, manoeuvred to the door, discovered it wouldn't yield until I opened the lock, staggered to the drawing room, had an adventure with the main door, retrieved the keys from another room, and finally opened to see that an elderly woman whom I knew by sight, was sitting on the road, and another elderly lady (whom I knew and rather liked) was holding her arms and screaming for water. I thought I should be getting the water as "it" happened right in front of my door, but I should also be opening my gate, which mysteriously wasn't opening. Another neighbour came forward and insisted that I could pass the water from the spaces between the girders of the iron. I did that, and finally opened the gate, and then I learnt what happened.

The ladies were taking their morning walk when a stranger who walked two rounds with them, came from behind, snatched her immensely long and heavy gold chain, hit her on her head (which turned into a bump), and ran down the left lane which leads to the tiny gate over the low wall. This happened just before six thirty in the morning (ok, not very "wee"), when every single family in the para is awake and active (my house is represented by Thamma), the children are already playing cricket in the fields (I think they're bonkers; but one kid actually threw his bat at the thief, but the latter just kept running), and the temple was open, and two ladies were cleaning it. How could this happen in broad daylight (relatively speaking), in front of so many witnesses, was something that kept the minds busy the whole of yesterday. Anyway, with most of the para in front of my door, and with a lot of shouting going on, the husband of the injured finally came (half an hour after the incident, and their house is one minute away from the scene) and led her home.

The second part of the drama unfolded after that when the virile men of my neighbourhood came with sturdy sticks in their hands. I wanted to tell them from my window, that since the thief had scarpered forty minutes ago, he was halfway to Sealdah by now. But I decided to keep shut primarily because the drumming in my head wouldn't stop until I had some Darjeeling. While the leaves settled, I spotted Mrs. M (a diva in her early sixties) finally grace the gathering of virile men by walking down the road in her flimsy night gown. When the whole para was outside, screaming, she was in her house, doing what I dare not imagine. She spent a considerable time nodding her head and motivating the men, before swaying back to her house.

For the rest of the day, this was the sole topic of discussion in my para. My plumber, who came at seven fifteen, and had seen some of the action, commented on the discrepancy of the guarding duties, with the night guard leaving at five, and the bent gatekeeper arriving not before nine in the morning, and pointed out that our locality was going to the drains. Our cook who came a quarter of an hour later, brought fresh news about the injuries, which made my frail Thamma reach for her aanchol to wipe her tears (not before cursing the thief). She spent the rest of yesterday, and the greater part of today, firmly lodged in the balcony and asking random strangers about news of the injured woman. I had called up my parents (who were holidaying in North India) early in the morning and had succeeded in effectively scaring them for my safety. They arrived late last evening (not as a consequence of the incident, but because they were due to return in the evening anyway), and insisted that I lock and double bolt the doors at all time of the day and night. Every one who dropped in yesterday and today, predicted that the para would be busy dissecting this incident for a week at the most, before forgetting all about it, and reverting back to old ways. The lady from the temple, who came over this evening to talk about the anniversary of the establishment of the temple, gravely said that although many people were "outwardly" saddened by the turn of events, they all said, "I was the target. Bhabte parcho?" I said, ami bhabte parchina (I cannot imagine) and left Mother Dear and Thamma to deal with her, before retiring into my room to burst out into laughter.

At the dinner table yesterday, Maa, who even over phone had helped me identify the injured woman when I described her appearance, said that many months ago, Mrs. K, the nice lady who was helping the injured woman, Mrs. S, had noticed Maa in the balcony, and good-naturedly asked her, when she'd arrived in Calcutta. After a little chat, they (for Mrs. S was standing beside her, with her face turned in another direction) walked ahead, when Mrs. S asked rather loudly, "She doesn't stay here? Who stays here then?" After Mrs. K gently explained our situation, Mrs. S said (loud enough for Maa to hear), "Why? Why did they keep an old woman with a young girl, huh? What can an old woman do? Huh. Over smart people." On hearing this last night, I said, "Serves her right!"

Friday, March 15, 2013


One day late last week, I entered my room for the last time just before going out, and was greeted by a horrendous stench. I was running late, and didn't have enough time to question my Grandmother about the possible sources of the sudden effusion of bad smell. When I returned at night, the smell greeted me in sudden spurts, as if it was snoozing and waking up with a start, and remembering its duty to spread cheer. I spent half an hour sniffing all around the room, the windows and the balcony, and gave up in exasperation. When I finally asked Thamma, she said she had no idea. I reminded her that she was doing something in the balcony (which overlooks a tiny patch of garden) in the morning, and that the stench had begun directly after that. She coolly reassured me that it couldn't possibly result from her endeavours. She informed me that she had (mysteriously) procured a certain amount of natural fertilisers, and having perfected them for two days, had finally treated them to the soil. "It's spring!" she said, with unusual enthusiasm, "and the trees will be full of flowers! The neighbours pluck our flowers every morning, but we can't do anything about that. Now that I've put the shaar, you'll see how the trees lighten up with blossoms."

My Thamma's well-meaning enthusiasm about spring was lost on me. Last weekend, the temperature in Calcutta had touched 35 degree Celsius. The sun is already merciless, and the city is doing its best to avoid venturing out in the daytime. Every year around this time, I point out with a sense of impending doom that our generation doesn't experience spring anymore. We rush ahead straight to summer from a very mild winter, and from then on, until the Pujos in autumn, the weather is one's most sensitive topic of discussion. Bring up the idea of an adda at Maidan in the afternoon, and watch the Bong bhodrolok get visibly irritated. For most of the year, the Bong Babu dreams of having ice-cream in Darjeeling, and sitting at the Mall, wearing a monkey-cap, and watching smelly horses go by. (The Bong has actually shifted summer vacation plans to Western Europe now, but I love the '70s romanticism centered around the hills of North Bengal.)

However, it wasn't always this bad. My happiest memories from childhood are centered around the spring break in March. The annual examinations would be over, the children would be relentlessly infected with chicken pox, the sun would have just the perfect amount of warmth, and the breeze -- oh the breeze -- the harbinger of boshonto (both the season, and the disease) was so beautiful, mild, continuous, and achingly effused with the aroma of new mangoes (aamer mukul actually, and it sounds so much better in Bengali). Students would receive new books, and while my mother covered mine, I would spend whole days reading the stories from the books. My relationship with the Bible blossoms only in the spring, for the best spring years of my life (1995, '96, '97) was also the time when our catechism lessons in school involved reading Bible stories. In the mild climate, stories about the fickleness of Baal, the sudden breaking of a clay pot into hundred pieces, and so on, seemed so much more entertaining.   

And there was always the music. My family is devoted to Rabindrasangeet, and during one of those springs, my father bought a new album by Sriradha Bandopadhyay from Calcutta, and played it in a loop in Siliguri. Within a couple of days, I had learnt all the songs by heart which -- by an interesting twist of fate -- were about monsoons and love. Later every one I knew, from my parents to my Guruji would be disapproving of Sriradha's Rabindrasangeet singing style. I, however, revisit those songs often now, and with a bittersweet pang which only favourite music has the capacity to arouse, remember those beautiful, carefree, and simple days.

I finally called up my mother and told her about the smell. The cook here had not been very helpful with the diagnosis, and when my mother heard about it, and my suspicions about Thamma's mysterious natural fertiliser, she said, it had to be the latter. We laughed at the idea of putting so much effort into the pitiful little piece of garden that we have here, especially in contrast to the resplendent garden and swimming pool in our house in Siliguri. I made a great show of the stench disrupting my life, and convinced Thamma to remove it. The smell magically vanished after that.

The pictures have nothing to do with spring, however. These were taken last autumn. Reminiscencing about spring in my childhood made me crave for one of the most important things in my life, and one which is gradually slipping away -- the garden of the house I grew up in.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Voices of the City

That evening I had taken the Straßenbahn from Memhard Straße to visit R and N at S-Prenzlauer Allee. Since it was peak hour, I was standing by the door, and suddenly halfway through, I realised that I hadn't heard the sound of honking car-horns for days. The only sound that prevailed inside the Straßenbahn was the slow rumble of the wheels on the tracks, interrupted only by very soft occasional conversation in foreign tongues.

I began recollecting instances of sounds and voices on the streets of Berlin, but all I could remember was the soft rumble of engines. In the S-Bahn, one quickly gets used to the rhythmic beep of opening and closing of doors at stations, and the announcement of the station names -- fellow-commuters just don't talk. In the beginning, every time my phone would loudly play 'Careless Whispers', I would quickly snatch it out of my pocket and very self-consciously speak to my family in Bengali. Now that I think about it, the stations, especially the busier ones like Zoologischer Garten, Hauptbahnhof, and Friedrichstraße, carry a Geräusch of business, but only when you stand back to distill the essences of the noise, do you realise that it's only the sound of relieved boots on concrete after having slipped on snow, and the stamp of the ticket machine from the repeatedly entwerfen-ed tickets. Sometimes there are exceptions: during a problem in the S-Bahn route to Charlottenburg -- something very commonplace in Berlin -- I was waiting for a long time at Hackescher Markt. I then took the first train to Friedrichstraße, and barely having procured a seat beside the window, I heard the announcement of the driver, explaining the Störung, excusing himself and Deutsche Bahn for it, and hoping that we'll make it to our destination soon. This brought out a general response of laughter among the fellow-commuters, and for half a minute, total strangers looked at each other and laughed at certain expressions of the hapless driver.

My neighbourhood at Sybelstraße, Charlottenburg, is also quiet, with the occasional Hallos and Guten Tags when one looks squarely at someone at the street. As I would get dressed for class every day, I would suddenly hear the low roar of school children playing during a break. I'd then rush to the windows to look for traces of excited children, but I would bitterly remind myself that the view of the brick-red Deutsch-Polish school beside my building was hindered by the windowless wall of my bedroom. And almost as suddenly as it had begun, the soft hum of happy children would fade away before I even noticed.

And just as I was about to dismiss Berlin as the city of silence, occassionally interrupted only by the cawing of furry ravens, did I discover the saxophonist at Alexanderplatz. N and I were waiting in front of the S-Bahnhof, waiting for R to come. Suddenly I heard notes of 'Auld lang Syne' immediately behind me. I turned and my exclaim of surprise and joy were met with smiling pragmatism from N, who assured me that the saxophonist had played there all summer and throughout the duration of the Christmas market. It was rather cold that night, with temperature dipping below -6, and the saxophonist was so well-wrapped, that I couldn't make out his face. By the time R came, he was playing 'Speak Softly Love', and with relief we abandoned the cold for the warm interiors of the S-bahn, not before feeling guilty for the poor musician out in the cold, belting out beautiful notes of old favourites.

The next weekend, R and I met there again, and as we were crossing the road to take the U-5 to Kreuzberg, he was playing the love theme from Godfather again; and thus did he play it again a week later when I was coming out from Galleria to take the M2 to S Prenzlauer Allee. It is for his defiance to play the same song over and over again, that the saxophonist of Alexanderplatz wins over the two friendly trumpet players at Hackescher Markt, and Gianni's resounding voice while cooking at his little restaurant at Charlottenburg -- as the defining voice of the city.

For Berlin -- with its Philharmoniker, where Lang Lang played last week; with its Deutsche Oper and Staatsoper (conducting its shows in Schiller Theater because of renovation work in its own premises); its Konzerthaus; hundreds of Schaubühnes; little restaurants magically opening up to chamber theatres in hidden, inner rooms; night clubs in the underground, whose neon lights attract attention when you're walking alone, slowly on a late Friday night; with Dussmann, the Kulturkaufhaus and its free Kostprobes, where the queues go out into Friedrichstraße, and where we sit on the floor with friends, or peep through book shelves to catch a glimpse of the celebrity performing that evening; its numerous church choirs and stages playing religious and classical music -- has several voices clamouring to come out and be heard. Some are musical, some not much, roughened by the Berliner German accent, and manifested in the quiet eyes of elderly men sitting alone in bars and looking steadfastly at you. Then will pay for their beer soon, and climb to their flats above, where they had come as students after the war, and finding big houses empty, had immediately occupied them. They had filled the empty apartments with low moans of love, conversations, and eventually family; while the prostitutes on the street outside, whom they could never really afford, tried to get by the winter with silken voices to capture the attention of the new British man walking down the street.

I really want to know what O. Henry would have made of Berlin -- the city of Huguenots, saying "Ick weiss, c'est fait"; or the clamour of all kinds of music playing together; or the soft conversations over the phone with the loved one while travelling alone in public transport; or the 'tap-tap' emanating from the traffic signal beside you while you wait to cross the road; or the sad notes of the violin played by the propreitor of the Mediterranean Feinkost in his empty, dark shop late at night; or just the young man at the S-Bahnhof asking you, "Kann ich Ihnen helfen?" and carrying the heavy suitcase through the stairs, and just nodding at you before hurrying to catch the train.

Something tells me, it could be the last one.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Losing the Way

In Berlin I lose my way every day. When I told that to my teacher today, she corrected me by saying, ,,In Berlin habe ich jeden Tag verlaufen'' instead of 'verloren' which means ''to lose''. When a language has a different word which simply connotes losing one's way, then getting lost must be rather commonplace and accepted here. Nevertheless I still feel scared when I walk down an adjoining street at Charlottenburg, unable to find Sybelstraße in the dark, and passing through buildings which look benign in the day, but assume character after sunset. An old drunk, who's picking up empty liquour bottles from the pavement makes me clutch my heavy grocery bags even tighter and totter in the rain. Bakery stores are always the best indentifiers for me. Hence the bakery where Rita bought me my first chocolate croissant on my first afternoon in the city reminds me every morning that the institute is just a corner away. I could indulge in a croissant just to pay homage to that guided afternoon and to easy road directions. I am wary of U-Bahns and S-Bahns and Straßenbahns, for the complex circuitous routes they take. I have learnt my route by heart -- the ,,gleis 5-6'' platform from which my train leaves, and to reach it one has to pass the Vietnamese couple's flowershop, the instant photobooth, and then take the stairs to the left. The first evening when I was making the return journey alone, I got out of the wrong gate into a different street, and hurried back in the cold back to the platform, and to the stairs at the other end. When I spotted the flowershop, I wanted to give the couple a hug for being my identifiers. Twice every day, as I pass the shop, my heart sends a hearty wave to them.

As we were sitting beneath the train tunnel at Hackeshermarkt yesterday, drinking coffee and not thinking about the rain, Rita told me, ''There's nothing to worry. Nothing can possibly go wrong.'' So what if I take a wrong turn, or get into a wrong train, or walk an extra mile in the cold? I'll always come home in the end. I hope.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dieses Blog ist zwei Jahre alt! Soll ich ,,zum Geburtstag viel Glueck'' singen oder soll ich Ihnen nur ein gutes Neu Jahr wuenschen?

Es ist einen schrecklichen Jahresanfang, weil Morgen habe ich meine Pruefung. :(