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.