Monthly Archives: June 2010

Waiting – A Haiku

below the staircase

a forlorn pair of slippers

waiting in silence …

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[Reproduced below is a translation of this haiku into Japanese. I am deeply indebted to  Kalyan Dasgupta, Shinsuke Ikeda, Jun-ichi Itaya, Tomoichi Shinotsuka and, in particular, Tatsuyoshi Saijo, for helping me out with the project. Over time, I will probably revise the Japanese version further. An English transliteration of the Japanese version is provided at the bottom of the post.]

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matsu

dan no shita
wabishii surippa
shizuka ni matsu

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A Toothy Tale

In most issues in life, it is ultimately the heart of the matter that counts. Especially so, if the matter pertains to the heart itself. Or at least, to the affinity between a pair of human hearts. This elementary piece of wisdom has little relevance in practice of course. The essence of a human relationship is often so thoroughly obscured by a quagmire of trivialities, that even the involved parties remain ignorant of the bonds that hold them together.

Nirmalya Roy lived in Kolkata. He was a dentist whom worldly success eluded all his life. The fault did not lie in his stars, but in himself. His major shortcoming consisted of garrulity, which though apparently innocent, was in fact a deadly addiction. He spent excessively long periods of time with patients. And more than half the time so spent was wasted in idle conversation, frequently causing the ones in the waiting room to leave in anger and disgust. His unprofessional conduct cost him his career, but he was himself least affected by this, given that he never betrayed even a spark of an ambition to rise in life.

Mrs. Seymonti Roy’s outlook was the exact opposite of Dr. Roy’s. She was a housewife with a head full of social aspirations, built entirely around her husband; and she was ever impatient to see him dart across her universe like an inter-galactic missile. But her launching mission failed with stubborn regularity. Nirmalya Roy held firmly on to terra firma.

Persons as diametrically opposed as the Roys are not expected to be model examples of peaceful coexistence. And indeed, they were not. Their lives were marked by recurrent confrontations, war of words that usually degenerated into blood curdling cries, sometimes beyond human comprehension. Disagreement became a way of life with them, a habit as it were, irrespective of the subject they happened to wrangle over. As a result, their disputes varied from the profound to the ridiculous, bordering now and then on the farcical.

The following tale should elucidate the point.

One morning, Seymonti Roy woke up with a toothache. The pain having gotten the better of her, she finally decided to have herself examined by her husband. He undertook a thorough examination of the tooth in his chamber, which adjoined their residence, and declared that it had to go. She was visibly shaken by the prospect of a tooth being pulled out. And since they needed only the slightest of pretexts to start up an argument, she responded to his suggestion with cynical disdain.

“There’s nothing wrong with the tooth,” she observed, “you’re merely after my blood.”

Normal human beings might dismiss such a remark as a joke, even if unfair. But theirs was not a run of the mill household. Consequently, Nirmalya Roy let out his characteristic howl.

“Yes, I am after your blood,” yelled he. “Gallons of it rest assured!”

What followed was bedlam, with Dr. Roy, brandishing a hypodermic syringe in one hand and a pair of forceps in the other, performing around his petrified life’s partner the dance of a cannibal chief preparing to feast on the white man’s flesh.

He gave up anticlimactically however, and the effect was counterproductive. It transformed his wife’s attitude from one of mild hesitation to an obstinate refusal to part with the tooth of contention. She would rather bear the pain, she declared, than follow his advice. Strangely enough, the pain too subsided somewhat. Or so at least she claimed.

A few days later, they went visiting a dentist friend, whom Dr. Roy knew from his student days. They met in the surgeon’s chamber around closing time, planning to move on from there to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Predictably, the vague boundary between a social and a professional get-together faded away, the conversation veering on to such all absorbing subjects as decaying teeth and purulent gums and finally, much to Mrs. Roy’s resentment, to her ailment.

The friend was up on his feet immediately, probing brutishly into her mouth. She had to yield to the examination, reluctantly no doubt, being caught in a foreign territory. The dentist gasped with disbelief at what he saw and started screaming at Dr. Roy for his gross negligence. The latter too, refusing to be browbeaten, roared back in indignation. And in the emerging commotion, before one knew what was really happening, the tooth had abruptly ended its caries ridden existence, hanging helplessly in the claws of a gleaming pair of forceps, held securely by the beaming surgeon.

The dinner engagement was cancelled of course. As the friend saw the Roys off in a taxi, he addressed Mrs. Roy with an understanding smile.

“To tell you the truth Mrs. Roy, my wife too doesn’t have much faith in my professional skills. She normally visits other dentists! I was in total sympathy with both of you when your husband called me up with a script for the play we acted today!”

Mrs. Roy hissed with rage at this piece of intelligence from between her clenched teeth, which held on to the blob of surgical cotton in her mouth. Her husband on his part gloated with satisfaction over his one-upmanship, and made no secret of his merriment all the way back home. What added to his morbid glee was the fact that the lady was in no condition to open her mouth and retort vocally.

This author has no information on the course of action Mrs. Roy resorted to once she regained control over her vocal chords. She could well have discovered a way of taking her husband to task for causing her embarrassment, but if she did so, she must have been aware at the same time that it was his careful planning after all that had brought her relief from physical pain. It could not have been easy for her to resolve the conflict.

As for Dr. Roy, his character too was mysterious to say the least. Realizing that his wife’s ego would stand in the way of having him administer the treatment, he did not hesitate to sacrifice his own and employ an intricately woven subterfuge to alleviate her pain! Now, if he cared so much for her, why on earth didn’t he pay more attention to his practice and offer her a decent life style?

Since we are unlikely to discover what constituted the heart of the matter, it is best that we allow the curtain to descend on our story without further investigation.

Maganlal Magicwallah

Drawing by Argha Bagchi

And then one day Maganlal Magicwallah disappeared himself. He simply melted away as it were, like “a cake of ice on a hot July day”. Since nature preordains all humans to melt into nothingness sooner or later, Maganlal’s disappearance probably didn’t deserve the status of an event at all. Yet, an event of sorts it was, an event in fact that bore the semblance of a tragedy. And the tragedy lay in the fact that few who had known him during the days of his visibility cared to notice that he was no longer so.

Not that he had too much claim to visibility. Amongst other things, he had never been visited by material success, even if he was no run of the mill poor man either. There was a painful irony indeed that surrounded his poverty. He was a street juggler by profession, one who carried a shoulder bag full of illusions wherever he went, illusions of riches that could be produced out of thin air. The bag itself was no more than a sheet of black cloth whose four corners were tied together into a large knot and inside which, one suspected from the bulge of the bag, Maganlal carried not only the implements of his trade but the minimal necessities for his daily subsistence too. A bedspread of sorts perhaps, a clothing or two, simple cooking implements and other indispensable artefacts for a poor man’s nomadic existence.

***

This at least is the way the person has survived in the storehouse of my memories, memories surviving from a period of my life that has lost much of its sharpness, things having mellowed with the passage of time. I was a growing school boy, less than fifteen I suppose, during the days he was a regular visitor to the locality my family inhabited. It was not a posh neighbourhood and large scale entertainment was a luxury beyond the financial reach of the people who inhabited that part of the town. But our imaginations knew no bounds and compensated adequately for the amenities that more fortunate city dwellers were accustomed to.  

Whenever Maganlal showed up, my heart began to thump in rhythm with the beat he struck up on his hour glass shaped small pellet drum. He grasped it firmly by its waist in his left hand and deftly twisted it back and forth to produce a variety of sharp pitched percussive extravaganza, di-di-dum, dum-dum, di-di-dum, di-dum, di-dum … It was an unmistakable signal for his fans that the dream maker had arrived. At the same time, his right hand held on to an awe inspiring magic wand, made of an animal bone, with which he drew luscious arabesques in the air, conducting as it were the overture for his magic show.

He also delivered his pet abracadabra phrases, with great aplomb, to attract the crowd that would soon encircle him on the roadside, waiting in impatience for the show to begin. He was clearly not a Bengali and spoke mostly in what I supposed to be Hindi. Even the gobbledygook he started off his show with had an unfamiliar north Indian flavour to it. Or so the growing teenager that I was thought, not having been exposed till then to any language other than my mother tongue, which is Bengali. However, to my great delight, he did sometimes break into his version of pigeon Bengali too. His funny accent tickled my friends and me to no end and we giggled merrily as he smiled back in sportive response.

***

He was a tall man with a dark sunburnt face, sunken cheeks and penetrating eyes, separated by a prominent nose jutting out of his face above a long, twirling moustache. And his magician’s costume consisted of a once white turban, a long, loose brownish kurta under a black semi-velvety vest, studded with shiny trinkets. Afghani style salwars and a pair of nagras, both of undecipherable colour completed the attire.

He would begin his show by producing a carpet slightly larger than a doormat from inside a secret recess of his charmed bag and spreading it on the pavement under the open sky. Maganlal sat cross-legged before this once colourful carpet, frayed at the edges and bearing telltale evidence of the ravages of time. It was from this same carpet that Maganlal collected the means of his daily survival, coins (and notes on special occasions) contributed by those who could afford. Most of the people who watched Maganlal’s show were free riders though, I having been one of them too, a hazard of trade that all street performers must necessarily endure.

He entertained us mostly in a sitting posture and his repertoire, even though it rarely failed to hold me under a spell, lacked variety. It was more or less the same sequence of items every time. A few card tricks to start with, followed by a flowering plant growing within seconds of the planting of the seed, a dice disappearing from under the closed confines of an inverted cup, only to reappear inside the nose or the ear of some idler or the other, standing close to the spot Maganlal occupied. These, and a few other routine tricks were what he offered us on a regular basis. The repetitive nature of his performance notwithstanding, each of his numbers was greeted with an enthusiastic clapping by the audience and the aforementioned coins. One suspects that quite apart from his regular clients, he managed to attract a handful of newcomers as well during each of his appearances. 

***

He waited till the finale, however, to actually lay his hands on the meagre reward that lay scattered on the mat. And it was only in the fitness of things that he did so, for the last amongst his tricks belonged to a category that stood totally apart from the rest of his programme. Quite clearly, he himself treated it as the most striking amongst his numbers and I was so awestruck by it that on many an occasion, I would arrive late for school just to ensure that I didn’t miss that magnificent climax.

From the viewpoint of audience participation at least, what distinguished the last item from the others was that while claps and coins greeted the magician at the conclusion of each of his tricks, the last one made people react in horror and anguish, dodging their heads in reflex action and rushing for cover in panic, like chickens encountering a cat prowling about on a foraging mission.

It was sheer ballistophobia, i.e. a fear of being struck by a missile, that made Maganlal’s viewers behave this way. The entire trick was quite short lived, from beginning that is till end. Without caring to prepare the audience for an approaching cataclysm, Maganlal would fish out a solid wooden sphere from his bag, slightly smaller in size than a cricket ball, and throw it with full force at the people directly facing him, taking them by total disbelief. While he did so, his face turned fierce, emulating as it were the grimace of a yet to arrive Malcolm Marshall delivering one of his vicious bests. Simultaneously, he would yell out in alarm himself at the lethal potential of his own weapon, with his left index finger drawing the attention of the crowd towards the path being traversed by the missile.

The audience clearly saw the ball spring out of Maganlal’s hand, but then, to their stupefaction, it would disappear into thin air! It took a few seconds of course for realization to dawn, but once it did, everyone present sighed in relief. The same people that had felt physically threatened moments earlier arrived back to the congregation in small groups, wearing their lives’ silliest smiles on their faces. People standing closer to Maganlal would invariably burst out into laughter at the discomfiture of those who had been made fools of by the magician, and Maganlal himself laughed the most.

The show being over now, Maganlal collected his money, packed his stuff inside the make shift bag and went about his way. The audience too dispersed one by one, some smiling and some shaking their heads incredulously.

***

I had witnessed the show several times in the past and, after being deceived every time, I ensured that I positioned myself, as far as possible, behind Maganlal the next time I witnessed him. I was primarily motivated by a desire for self-preservation I have to admit, but, interestingly enough, it was from this vantage position that I finally managed to unravel the mystery of the disappearing ball trick.

As it happened, after watching his show one day, I concluded that it was too late for arriving in school even by my questionable standards of discipline. There was a reasonable possibility that my class teacher would send me back home with a strong note of admonition to be attended to by my parents. I would of course have to explain my absence from school the following day, but when one is young, tomorrows lie an eternity away. There was no way I could have arrived back home at that odd hour either. I decided therefore to follow Maganlal from a safe distance, as any free rider would, waiting for an opportunity to watch him perform at his next destination.

***

I was lucky, as lucky in fact as Maganlal himself. A few streets and around half an hour later, a little child ran out of her house and called out to Maganlal. “Come to our house Magic-wallah,” she cried out in excitement, “my mother wants you to come over.” Clearly, this was an invitation for a call show, so a fee would be negotiated, thereby guaranteeing a floor to Maganlal’s earning for that day. Soon he was there. It was a large old house opening into a portico. The lady of the house didn’t haggle too much in the interest of her obviously pampered child and Maganlal began the show. This was not exactly an open air show, since he sat under a shade this time. But the area was large enough and the kind lady didn’t mind idle passersby to gather around Maganlal to watch the show. The little girl and her mother of course stood at the top of the stairs leading into the house, maintaining a safe distance from the common folk, including their house servants and a semi-school dropout boy who had little use for the book filled satchel he carried on his back.

I watched the man totally engrossed as on other occasions, but there was a difference this time. Somewhere deep inside my subconscious, a desire had reared its head. The desire to become a magician! I was overpowered by a sense of commitment that I had never known in the past. A desperate need to master the art of wizardry took possession of my soul and I already saw myself attired and looking every bit like Maganlal, not excluding the twirling moustache. A saw him perform for the first time, not in my role as an involved member of the audience, but as a potential student of black art. My perspective had undergone total metamorphosis and I think this was the first time I became aware of a truth, even if with a touch of uncertainly. The only chasm that separates a learner from learning is the desire to learn. There is absolutely nothing on earth that is unachievable if one seeks it with total devotion. Many years later my half digested realization received a confirmation of sorts when I came across an engraving on the walls of the Dakshineshwar Temple in Calcutta that said: “Oh Wise Rama! There is absolutely nothing in the universe that cannot be attained by means of tension free commitment.”

***

On this particular day of course, I don’t believe I thought all that clearly. I was just a young boy who had vowed to find out where the flying ball  disappeared. A piece of wisdom had dawned on me, however. If I wanted to pick up the secret underlying Maganlal’s trick, the first thing that was essential for me to do was to force myself not to look towards anything he wished to draw my attention to. But this was not an easy task at all. I had to completely abstract myself from the words he spoke and keep track of what the rest of him was doing.

I found no success, unfortunately, with the tricks that preceded the last one and stood crestfallen by the time he produced the wooden ball from bag. Even before he began to talk, I knew that his left hand would soon point straight ahead towards empty space, a direction towards which the ball will certainly not travel.

I gritted my teeth and told myself, “No, no, no, don’t let his left hand distract you. Watch what he doesn’t want you to watch at all. His RIGHT HAND! His right hand alone, the one that will fling the ball towards the unsuspecting audience.” And this was possibly the first examination that I managed to pass. I daresay, I had possibly passed this test with flying colours.

I stared with rapt attention at his right hand therefore and was rewarded by a truly wondrous sight. Maganlal was a supremely skilful athlete, one who could make many a sports person turn green with jealousy. Not for once did he look at the right hand that held the ball. He looked straight ahead and made a violent show of throwing the ball. Despite the circular motion of his arm though, he didn’t throw the ball at anybody at all. Instead, with unimaginable dexterity, he threw the ball vertically upwards only a foot or so above his head. As he did so, the palm of his right hand remained open to catch it back during its descent. He took a perfect catch without once taking his eyes away from the audience. His left hand kept gesticulating all the while that his right hand remained rock still waiting for the ball to descend with clockwork precision.

Things happened with lightning speed. The ball retrieved, the right hand descended with practised accuracy and pushed the ball through the open end of his sack which he must have kept ready for the purpose when he produced the ball for the first time! All this while everyone else was staring where his left hand pointed. But, as intended by the magician, there was nothing to be found there at all!

***

I smiled with the others once the show was over, but not stupidly anymore. I smiled wisely. For once I had not flunked an exam. I was a success in Maganlal’s school. I did not commit the mistake of screaming to the crowd of course that I had seen him through. Instead, my heart was full of admiration for the skill he demonstrated.

An athlete as well as an actor he was. All the noise he made and the attraction he drew with his left hand was intended to make people look the wrong way. But the athlete, by ensuring that each and every person actually saw the ball leave his hand, lent support to the actor’s empty harangue. 

For many a week that followed, I tried to practise Maganlal’s trick with a rubber ball and might have even achieved a semblance of success. My worried parents, needless to say, had little appreciation for whatever absurd exercise I was engaged in with the ball, especially since I was not playing with the ball outside home. Instead, I was sitting all the time on the bed in front of a mirror and throwing the ball up and catching it back without taking my eyes off the mirror.

Soon enough the nonsense was put a stop to. A severe spanking followed in fact when one day my mother discovered that I was trying to solve a sum holding the pencil between the big toe and the second of my right foot. Maganlal had given me ideas I guess. But my mother wouldn’t be convinced about the merits of working out sums with my right foot when my right hand was not missing.

“Come and behold,” she said to the rest of the household with unconcealed sarcasm, “he can’t pass his tests with a pencil in his hand. So he is trying out his foot!”

When I think of her comment today, I can’t help smiling at the poor woman’s feeling of utter helplessness at her son’s refusal to fall in line with social norms. She was desperate and employed the only trick that came in handy. A thorough beating!

***

I have no more than a vague recollection of how long I kept following Maganlal. But follow I did, though I hardly know if he ever noticed me. My Maganlal chase did reap some sort of a harvest of course. I picked up many of his other tricks too by following the basic theory I had propounded for myself. Sometimes I managed to entertain my friends with these tricks, though I never tried out a public show of the vanishing ball trick. That needed a lot more practice than I could afford in my hideouts.

***

Times change irretrievably. Interests alter at a wild pace at that impressionable age. Magic, followed by soccer, cricket, a brief tryst with the stage and then the most absorbing of all hobbies, chasing girls, kept me busy through my adolescence. For a good part of this time, I am sure Maganlal and his tribe were performing in the streets of Calcutta. They could have wild admirers too, but quite unknown to me, I had ceased to be a member of the crowd.

This was surely unfortunate. Even though I had cracked Maganlal’s disappearing wooden ball trick with considerable success, I had failed hopelessly to figure out what he did to make himself disappear the way he did, i.e. lock, stock and barrel. And, to tell you the truth, I suspect that very few who had loved watching his shows had found the time to be present for his swan song.

And it is precisely the uneventfulness of it in the eyes of  the very same people whom he had entertained during his visible days that lends to his disappearance the semblance of an event shrouded in gloom, even if one cannot be entirely sure if the world at large would subscribe to this viewpoint.

Sudden Encounter by Rabindranath Tagore

[Translated by Argha Bagchi and Dipankar Daasgupta]

 

 

Never thought,
We could run into each other in a rail-compartment.

Many a time have I seen her in the past
In red saree-
As red as the flowers of pomegranate,
Today, dressed in black silk,
Her lustrous magnolia face,
Head covered,
She had created a dark, unfathomable distance,
That ran till the end of vast mustard-fields
And forests lost in the blue horizon.
My mind jolted to an abrupt halt
Seeing a known face in the garb of a sullen strangeness.

Suddenly, putting aside the newspaper
She greeted me formally
Clearing up avenues of social propriety.
I started up a conversation-
‘How are you’ and ‘how’s your family’
et cetera.
She stared out of the window,
With a look that had crossed over to the other side of our days of proximity
Offered brief replies to a query or two,
Did not respond to some at all.
With a restless waving of her hand
She conveyed that silence was preferable
To vain conversation.

I was sitting in a separate row with her mates.
She motioned to me with her fingers to sit next to her..
How intrepid! I thought-
But I went and sat on the same row with her.
Her voice concealed under the noise of the train,
She softly said,
`Do excuse me,,
Have no time to waste.
I am about to get off at the next station-
You will be travelling far,
Never shall we meet again.
Hence, I wish to hear directly from you
The long held up answer to my question.
You will speak the truth, won’t you?’
`I will’, said I.

Staring outside at the sky, continued she,
`Have our bygone days,
Gone truly away for good-
Leaving nothing at all behind?’
I fell silent for a while,
And then replied,
‘All the stars that fill up the night
Lie deeply hidden in the glow of the day.’

But then I doubted myself, did I make it all up!
She said, ‘That’s all. Go back to the other side now.’
Everyone got off at the next station.
I continued on my journey. Alone.

The Dog and I

He lived tensely. He was always keyed up, alert for attack, wary of being attacked, with an eye for sudden and unexpected missiles, prepared to act precipitately and coolly, to leap in with a flash of teeth, or to leap away with a menacing snarl.” From White Fang by Jack London.

that dogI made his acquaintance in Delhi. He looked strong and healthy in his shiny black coat, a big, handsome animal. But few recognized this, because he was a stray dog, a creature India is abundantly endowed with.

He combated daily for survival, partaking of rotting food articles, spilling out of wayside garbage bins. He was the fiercest antagonist of his rivals and a dreaded animal for passers-by.

I caught his fancy on my way back home one late afternoon, when, to my discomfort, he began to follow me. Dog lover though I am, I was cognizant of his savage propensities and watched him warily from the corner of my eye. Strangely enough, however, his personality had undergone a complete transformation, for he didn’t growl or bark and walked behind me like man’s best friend. I too behaved as casually as I could. He stopped, however, at the bottom of the staircase leading to my first floor apartment and watched me silently, till I disappeared inside its confines. He seemed aware of the boundaries of his territorial rights.

He repeated the act almost daily for the next few days. And I did not fail to notice his softly wagging tail, his tentative proposal that we socialize. Hunger clearly explained his behaviour. He was battle weary and hoped for me to bring him succour.

The next time he looked up longingly from the bottom of the stairs, I asked my wife if there was food to spare and brought it half way down the staircase and threw it towards him, aiming as accurately as I could. He ran and grabbed the victuals where they landed, overtly wagging his tail now, stealing grateful glances at me as he ate.

Over time, my wife and I slowly got used to the ritual as much as he, so much so that around lunchtime one day, he violated rules to climb up the staircase and wait in front of our living room door. The honour of the discovery was reserved for my wife. I was home and heard her say between giggles, ‘Look, who’s come for lunch!’

He sat there, his eyes as infinitely trustful and innocent as a child’s, his confidence in human friendship unshakeable. He got up on all fours as soon as he saw me and his excitement was evident from the vigour with which his tail wagged.

He earned his lunch and almost smiled as he bid us goodbye.

Our relationship continued and one day he went a step further. My wife was sitting on a couch reading a book and had failed to notice his arrival. But his self-assurance had grown and he walked straight into the living room, where he stood a few feet away from her and whined for the first time. Since she was looking away, he needed to rely on sound waves to catch her attention.

She was amused, but scared too. He was getting dangerously close. She described the incident to me when I returned back home and I too was not too pleased about the development. We discussed the matter and decided that we would need to find a way to take him to a vet for his anti-rabies vaccine. An elaborate plan was hatched about how to transport him in our car next morning.

As morning arrived and we readied ourselves for the adventure, the door bell rang. I went and answered the door and found the gentleman living next door at the landing.

‘Good morning,’ said he, ‘may I come in please?’

‘Sure, please do. Can I offer you a cup of coffee, we are still at the breakfast table.’

‘Why of course, coffee would be welcome on a chilly morning.’

We sat down at the dining table, exchanging pleasantries, as I wondered what had prompted the visit. He brought up the issue soon enough.

‘My wife is disturbed,’ he began, ‘by this dog you have been encouraging for some time. We have a young boy as you know. It’s unsafe.’

The message was clear. The dog had to be banished. Nonetheless, I informed him about our plan to get him vaccinated, but my explanations did not cut any ice with him. Vaccine or no, this scary thing must go. Embarrassing silence followed and there was little to argue about.

How do you explain to a dog, however, that he was unwanted? A plan was ready for him though when he arrived around lunch time. We kept our living room door securely bolted from inside and watched him unseen from a vantage point. He waited outside without any trace of suspicion that his hunger was not about to be appeased.

But his friends did not show up. He kept staring at the door stupidly, leaving now and then, only to be back again at his post, imagining perhaps that his biological clock had developed a defect. After an hour or so, he finally went away, but conditioned reflex ensured that he returned the next day and the one following the next. His trips continued for several days and then one day he didn’t show up anymore.

Within a month, I noticed that he was back at the garbage bin snarling and howling at his adversaries as he battled for his share of its putrid contents. I do not know if he noticed me anymore. Even if he did, he never asked me for an explanation.

Unlike human beings, dogs do not seem to bear you a grudge when you back out of a friendship.

The Born Loser

Prize‘I wonder why nobody don’t like me,
 Or is it a fact that I’m ugly?’

This immortal Belafonte calypso it would seem carries great wisdom, especially so when I look back at my unenviable performance in the circus of life. Indeed, it appears to me that I could be the only person I am aware of in my small circle of acquaintances, who clearly failed to turn out to be the hero of his own life. Indeed, I am a unique counter-example to the generally accepted fact that every cloud is endowed with a silver lining. Leave alone silver, the clouds that hovered over my head all through life did not betray any metallic connection whatsoever, not even to lead.

It is best that we move straight to the mournful heart of the groan-full matter — my career as an under-achiever. Putting it somewhat more forcefully, I appear to have earned meritorious distinction as an epitome of demerit in about all the contests I ever participated, with the result that the few prizes that ever came my way were invariably offered to me under questionable circumstances.

Take for example the time I won the third prize in a swimming competition. There was little to complain about this achievement of course, except for the somewhat embarrassing fact that there were exactly three competitors who took part in the event. Nonetheless, a prize was a prize and I carried my miniscule tin plated wooden shield back home with unmistakable pomp radiating from my face. But people near and dear, my very own flesh and blood, greeted me, not with awe and reverence, but with an emotion that wavered dangerously on indifference. In other words, it was a day that the cheer girls in the neighborhood spent in gloomy unemployment.

Fortunately or unfortunately though, Robert Bruce’s much advertised accomplishment centuries ago continued to be a source of inspiration and I tried for a while not to give up. The next opportunity to prove my mettle presented itself a few years later when I led the college team to a drama competition organized by the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. Like an inexorable constant of nature, there were once again three teams that took part in the show. Loreto House (an all girls’ college), IIT itself and us. And much to my glee, we won the second prize on this occasion, the first going to Loreto. However, there was a somewhat unsightly fly in our ointment of success. The judges had actually ranked us third and IIT second. The second prize was nevertheless offered to us on the ground that rules did not permit the home team to accept a prize and there were only two prizes to give away! And this piece of information was delivered to the audience over the public address system!

Such being my well-documented record, I was stupefied one morning when a letter arrived for me offering me a prize financed by an endowment in Kolkata University. I was then a student of the MA class in Economics and exams were still far away. By this time, I had reached a conviction, Robert Bruce notwithstanding, that the only way I could ever win a prize would be for it to be offered prior to the competition, before that is any one had had a chance to compete. Such prizes are not unheard of, not these days at least. If I am not too mistaken, Amitabh Bachchan as well as many other Bollywood dignitaries have received honorary PhD degrees. Degrees, in other words, which were not backed by PhD dissertations.

I was elated by the news that I too was about to be honored and assumed that it had little to do with my performance, academic or otherwise. But, after embarking on a careful study of the epistle announcing the news, I realized that this was a hard prize indeed that the powers that be were talking about, hard as in cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes and requested all my well-wishers to study the document under a microscope or at least a magnifying glass, or whatever it was that Sherlock Holmes and his cronies employed to establish irrefutable evidence. And the investigations revealed, that quite unknown to me, I had indeed bagged a first prize in the university, in physiology !

Now, if this piece of intelligence produces a skeptic wrinkle on a brow or two, let me proceed to offer explanations. Before I stepped inadvertently into the quicksand of economics, I was a student of the natural sciences and forced to study the holy trinity of physics, chemistry and mathematics, along with physiology, which, despite its status as a somewhat distant and possibly illegitimate cousin of the aforementioned disciplines, was elevated to the rank of a minor stimulant for the brain. And it appeared that I had, by a miracle that would put Noah to shame, managed to patent this minor tonic, the major ones having been reserved for greater minds than mine.

I am sure that heretics would be wondering by now if I was the only student in the university who had studied physiology that year and I shan’t blame you if you were to entertain such uncomplimentary thoughts. Thankfully enough though, the answer to your doubts is a clear ‘no’, even if the number of adversaries I faced was not large enough to attract the attention of the Guiness Book. To the best of my memory, there were around ten or twelve students amongst my contemporaries who studied this discipline in the university. And I, to my endless satisfaction, had been leading this mini-caravan. This was the closest I ever came to performing the Robert Bruce feat.

At least three years had elapsed between my accomplishment and the university realizing that an honor hungry talent awaited the bestowal of recognition. Accordingly, the papyrus (or was it parchment?) was despatched to heal the wound of long neglect. There were no festivities associated with the event of course. I was instructed instead to show up at the Darbhanga Hall offices of the university to be guided further about the procedures to be followed, to establish my legal claim to the booty. I proceeded as advised to the second floor of the august building and initiated inquiries, producing my mildewed document for the clerical staff’s scrutiny. Each one of them, as expected, disavowed connection with the prize of contention and pointed vaguely towards dark labyrinthine corridors leading to even darker chambers.

I stuck to my claim like a vice, however, and proceeded intrepidly, inspired by thoughts of the fabled cave in which Bruce observed the indefatigable spider building its nest. The surroundings where I stood did not leave much scope for imagination in this respect either. The room bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert’s cave. After laboring for what might appear to be an eternity, thereby outshining Bruce by several centuries, I finally found the spider, guarding his lair in the guise of a middle aged man who regarded me and the document I proffered with undisguised suspicion for about a quarter of an hour. First, from above the glasses he wore and then from under. I too stood my ground with iron determination, resembling no doubt the young son of Louis de Casabianca on the burning decks of L’Orient.

It was a battle of nerves, the only one I ever won. The gentleman finally exchanged my paper for the one he produced from a secret locker in his secretariat table, explaining most reluctantly the procedure to be followed thenceforth. His paper, as opposed to mine, was apparently a gift voucher, which I would need to produce to a renowned bookseller and the latter would in turn exchange the voucher for a book or two of my choice.

Success at last! I rushed off to the shop in nearby College Street without caring to check how much the voucher was worth. Robert Bruce surely snickered in his grave! Well, as I found out, the prize was worth exactly Rupees Ten. And I had decided to buy the collection of Maugham’s short stories, which, during Ancient Mariner days, cost a solid Rupees Fourteen!

Now, fourteen being a number that mankind has generally recognized to be somewhat larger than ten, my dream and I appeared to be standing on opposite sides of the Great Wall of China.

I tried to convince the seller that a large discount was in order for customers bearing the stamp of brilliance. But the sick old man remained as unmoved as Shylock in pursuit of his pound of flesh. I needed to bear a cost of Rupees Four (which was around 28.57 per cent of Rupees Fourteen, as far as my calculations revealed) for peaceful settlement of the murky transaction. It was an unheard of luxury for a university student with a middle-class background to carry Rupees Four in his pocket during the period of history we are dealing with. But once again, miracle prevailed. After frantically searching inside my pockets (mine, not others’ mind you!), trousers and shirt included, I was able to produce a pile of coins, which the mean fellow counted with supreme concentration before agreeing to part with his proprietary claim over the Maugham collection. I emerged triumphantly from the shop, richer by the four Penguin volumes, but poorer by pocket money that could possibly have lasted me two weeks or so.

I can’t recall exactly how my mom greeted me when I presented her with the news that I had squandered away the money she had allotted me from her less than bursting kitty. It would appear, however, that I managed to survive and I possess the books till this very day.

Whether they can be legitimately described as prizes remains, however, an unresolved philosophical problem in my opinion. To the best of my understanding, 28.57 per cent of the collection fails to satisfy the definition of a prize, though, I doubt that I shall ever be able to identify which amongst Maugham’s stories fall in the non-prize category!

Worse, there is no way for me to establish proof that any part at all of the collection was a prize. There is no inscription inside the books recognizing my dubious distinction and the suspicious clerk had taken possession of the only evidence I did have that the prize belonged to me.

So, if you were to test the veracity of this story, I will surely appear to you as a confidence trickster. And I in turn will then have little choice left other than pacifying you with a full-throated rendition of the calypso we started off with.

I wonder why nobody don’t like me,
Or, is it a fact I’m ugleeeee …
?’  

Bengal Politics: Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi Syndrome

The municipal elections suggest that there is a “Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi” (SBKBT) syndrome at work in Bengal politics. An unchanging coalition being in power for over thirty years defies not merely the logic of democracy, but every other semblance of logic as well. It reminds one of SBKBT which forced its inanity upon the tired viewers for years on the assumption that the idiot box was meant to produce idiots. The market culture finally played a curative role of sorts in the case of SBKBT. One suspects that its TRP crashed irretrievably with profit seeking advertisers turning wary of patronizing the serial.

Marxists detect skeleton packed cupboards in every corner of a market society. Consequently, free competition was banished from Bengal, including the freedom of democratic choice ever since their arrival.

Yet, matters were not appalling throughout the Marxists’ tenure in Bengal. They had cleansed the system of the misrule by their predecessors. Bengal got its land reform policy. The lot of the rural poor improved in the early days and the panchayat system was used for common good.

Was this not the case with SBKBT as well? It did start with a bang, but after an overstretched run, it departed with a whimper. The producers served the same wine in ever newer bottles, but the viewers finally refused to accept it as bubbling champagne. The idiot box failed to produce idiots!

The Marxists too did not perceive that the benefits of land redistribution would peter out. As farmers’ families expanded in size, land and income per head declined. But the panchayats were manned by Marxist musclemen to perpetuate the myth of classless development, following the idiot box model.

In the urban centres, the rulers had little idea about industrialization except for the half digested Marxist theories they applied to destroy growth possibilities. And to improve the coercion driven TRP, they nurtured militant trade unionism. Their failure to generate industrial progress was carefully hidden under a shroud of empty slogans. Armed with these, the torch bearers made inroads into every form of public utility, including hospitals, schools, colleges and universities. Kolkata earned renown for the ugly wall graffiti that greeted visitors, all in the name of the underprivileged! City roads have remained choked up by hawkers, public transport is allowed to violate every norm of safety and the police force has been reduced to a box full of tin soldiers. Even court verdicts against street congestion have been violated with impunity. The arrogance of power spread from the masters to the servants and the result is a destruction of work culture.

By the time sense dawned, the obstructionist policies had proceeded too far and, as Singur demonstrated, the rulers’ strategies themselves were successfully employed, even if guided by incorrect economics, to lead to their undoing. And with incompetence ruling the roost in every sphere of life, along with vast pockets of unemployment, people were bound to feel the pinch someday or the other. Even the Marxist cadre began to detect the absurdity of the promises made by leaders who refused to call it a day and allow fresh blood to flow into the system.

Now, much in the spirit of SBKBT, the municipal elections point out that an army of idiots has not emerged to help perpetuate the Marxist mega-rule. Few appear to exist in the state that are willing to watch the show anymore. Having endured things for more than thirty years and sensing that the once mighty rulers are a spent force, Bengal is about to pass a verdict against the rulers. What is particularly painful for the Left Front is that even the telltale improvements in municipal administration under their rule did not attract the voters’ sympathy.

Interestingly enough, in the TV serial world, one has not come across productions so far that are radically different from SBKBT. In the political sphere too, we need to wait and watch. Is it possible for Kokata to turn into London? If so, where will this oriental London hide its hawker jammed roads? Will Bengal metamorphose into Switzerland? If it does, will the black money stashed away in Swiss banks flow into the state?

[Published as a Guest column in the Hindustan Times, Kolkata edition, June 6, 2010.]