Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Nobody Called Somebody

Drawing by Argha Bagchi

Speaking figuratively rather than biologically, the link between Netaji, the name by which he was commonly known, and the man after whom he was named, though reminiscent of the Darwinian puzzle, did not constitute a missing category altogether. Far from it indeed, for he was known to have served in the INA and even participated in guards of honour inspected by the GREAT ONE.

Neither his appearance nor his activities betrayed any exposure to the martial arts of course. Even the closest amongst his buddies would hesitate to credit him with a height exceeding 5 feet on the outside, while his bow legged gait, as he roamed the office corridors somnolently, swaying penguin like from side to side, bore little resemblance to a gun-toting soldier.

To be fair though, he must have been agelessly aged, well past his military prime at least, when our first encounter took place in Yojana Bhavan on Parliament Street, where the Planning Commission is located in Delhi. He had joined the organization as a Class 4 employee in sterile official parlance, during an era when birth certificates were the least essential of documents needed for verifying the duration of one’s existence on earth since arrival. His official name too, like his date of birth, belonged to the realm of conjectures, and accustomed as he was to being addressed by all and sundry as Netaji, he could have lost track himself of the name his loving parents bestowed on him.

There was no trace left, either of the British Raj or his hero, at the time he started working for India’s planners, but his illusions surrounding the part he played in our freedom struggle probably continued to hold him under its grip. The well- groomed military moustache he sported, grey though it was, bore ample evidence to this fact, though the grimy, once white, safari suit like government uniform he was permanently attired in, failed to live up to its grandeur.

I was myself a new recruit at the Indian Statistical Institute when I made Netaji’s acquaintance. The Institute had a wing assigned to it in the Yojana Bhavan, a relic from the period when Professor P.C. Mahalanobis took charge of the Second Five Year Plan at Pandit Nehru’s behest. Our love affair with the Planning Commission had long ceased, however, when I joined the Institute. We enjoyed at this time the status of an insecure tenant at best, but we stuck to the Bhavan, like a vice as it were, since our new campus in South Delhi was not yet ready to be inaugurated by Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Besides, like Netaji, we too might have been basking in the reflected glory of our mentor, prodded by a self-deceiving belief that the Planning Commission considered our services to be indispensable.

There was an imperceptible bond, therefore, between Netaji and the Institute. He dreamed of battles waiting ahead in the jungles of Burma, while we kept offering unsolicited advice to the government on ways out of India’s poverty trap. Fortunately for humanity though, neither did he ever wake up to reality, nor did the government heed our policy prescriptions.

The nature of duties assigned to Netaji was not exactly clear, for he was one amongst the many underemployed workers in the government sector, starting from those sitting at the top right down to the ones in charge of filth accumulation in every conceivable corner of office buildings. If our governments are viewed as benevolent rulers committed to the cause of uplifting Indians at large, neither Netaji nor his peers could be held guilty of realizing that promise.

Yet, as we know in today’s environmentally conscious world, nothing in God’s creation, from crocodiles to white ants, lack a purpose. Each species is needed in optimum numbers to maintain the balance. Netaji too served a function, not related to conservation unfortunately, but to destruction. He posed, in other words, a threat to the environmentalist dream, but his actions did not violate the principal tenets of Hindu philosophy either, consisting, as we know, of the holy trinity of creation, preservation and annihilation.

To move from the abstract to the concrete, Netaji fulfilled his destiny by helping irresponsible occupants of Yojana Bhavan to contribute to atmospheric pollution. I know about this particularly well, since I was a direct beneficiary of the not-so- clandestine unofficial business he transacted, sitting on a bench in a corner of the wing my Institute occupied. He sold cigarettes and I, amongst many others, was a regular customer. We were located on the top floor of the building and, like everyone else in the neighbourhood, were lazy bums, who found it too much of an inconvenience to board the elevator, or walk down, to the ground floor to purchase supplies from wayside shops.

Netaji, though not as immobile as a sailing ship trapped in the Sargasso Sea, was not particularly inclined towards display of physical prowess either, as far as his official functions were concerned. But his agility was boundless in matters that lay beyond the call of official duty, to prove which he carried ample stocks of all the popular brands in his bulging pockets. And we in turn helped him run them down before lunch hour. This was no problem of course, since he would be back soon enough with fresh supplies for the post lunch session.

There was an unwritten law though that his shop would close its shutters for a certain duration following lunch. This was necessitated by his basic need for a siesta, which he enjoyed on the very same bench that served as his sales counter. None of us normally disturbed him at this hour, in deference to the lavish help we received from him to damage our own respiratory organs as well as those of non-smokers in our vicinity. Yet, I must admit, that I occasionally found it impossible not to raise him from his noonday dreams for a fag or two when my nicotine urge got the better of me. I can’t say that he was elated during these transactions, but he did not refuse to oblige a regular customer, steadfastly devoted as he was to his role of a demolisher.

I can’t recall exactly the number of years that our relationship lasted, but a rough calculation indicates that we carried on for four to five years at least. And on the first day of each of these passing years, he would invariably tap on the doors to our offices, peep in and greet us all, in a phlegmatic drawl, with the words — Naya saal Mubarak! It makes little sense to be emotional over such inconsequential incidents. Yet, I think I feel a lump in my throat when I relate this fact. There was an element of genuineness in the New Year’s greeting he showered on all he knew, independent of official status, especially so since he had nothing to gain or lose from this act, socially speaking. It was as pure a greeting as the innocent smile on the face of a baby in arms.

My contacts with Netaji came to an abrupt halt though, more to his discomfort as it happened, than mine. Our unsigned mutual separation occurred when, for the umpteenth time in my life, I resolved to quit smoking. So, one fine morning, without any prior notice at all, I walked past his shop not caring to even glance at him. I looked away from him, needless to say, to keep temptations at bay. But he probably interpreted my behaviour his own way, that I had shifted my allegiance and started patronizing his competitors in the building. And as I continued to ignore him on a regular basis, his vague suspicion turned slowly into firm conviction. This was all too evident from the expression I detected on his face from the corner of my eye every time I walked past him. It was no bewilderment that I discovered there, but a feeling bordering on hatred against the traitor.

I bore the cross however with bated breath, especially so since I knew that we would soon be moving out of Yojana Bhavan to the aforementioned new campus. And indeed, the movers too arrived according to plan. They packed the furniture in our offices as well as our books and journals and the caravan was flagged off towards its new settlement at the far end of the town.

On my way out of Yojana Bhavan, on the last day I attended office there, I felt I owed a good-bye gesture to Netaji, the soldier who had held fort with uncompromising devotion during my addiction-filled days. Unfortunately though, I had to leave early, soon after lunch hour, the time reserved for his siesta. Nonetheless, I recalled those occasions when he would break the rule to satisfy my thirst. So, I went over to his corner where he lay sleeping, facing the wall. I cleared my throat to attract his attention. But the noise I made, perhaps wilfully, out of cowardice, was not loud enough to wake him up. I kept staring in hesitation for a while at the little man, pockets bulging as always and finally walked away without turning back.

New Year’s Day was still a month or two away. I never found out therefore if he would peep into my office to say Naya saal Mubarak anymore.

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In Pursuit of Love

I have to admit that I do not feel too confident about this thing I just discovered, but now that the Right to Information Act is supposed to be in place, I can’t hold it back from you anymore. Those amongst you who haven’t already heard about this could even send me to jail for suppressing information. And I hate jails, because I suspect that the toilets there bear an alarming resemblance to the ones the TV guys claim they found at the CWG venue.

Actually, it was Max Mueller who turned out to be ultimately responsible for the unenviable position I find myself in. You see, he claimed that the Sun is no other than Pururava and the end of the night is Urvashi. This piece of information got me hopelessly worried, since I didn’t understand the venerable old man. What do I do? Keep it to myself or share it with the rest of the world? If I didn’t then Right to Information would be after me, if I did people could simply put me inside a straitjacket and send me over to a loony home, or, worse, to the CWG itself.

Consequently, I stayed up all night burning midnight oil to find out what Max buddy was pontificating about. Well, it seems you see, that a guy called Moon had eloped with a woman called Star (Tara) who was already married to yet another guy called Jupiter. Doesn’t look like Jupiter was particularly upset about the loss of his wife and let Moony carry on his Starry affair, which resulted in a child called Mercury. Mercury in turn married a woman called Ila and, this is where Max Muller comes in, because Ila gave birth to a son called Pururava.

So far so good though, because all the people involved appeared to be living in peace and harmony, including Jupiter himself, who could well have acquired several other wives after losing his beloved Tara. (If this was the same Jupiter they often refer to in Greek mythology, then he was quite a womanizer.)

Trouble started soon however, since before one knew what was happening, a female called Urvashi pierced out of Narayana’s thigh [uru (=the thigh) + vash (=to dominate) + a (= active voice) + ee (= feminine gender)]. I am not exactly sure where Narayana comes in here. I mean it could have been anyone’s thigh as far as grammar goes. I don’t have the information, so the courts won’t entertain you on this ground. Let me proceed therefore to reveal the rest of the events.

Well, anyone who is born the Urvashi way is likely to cause a good deal of problems. It appears that the King Pururava was once invited to Lord Indra’s dance hall where Urvasahi was performing. “How come this Indra chap never invites me to these shows?” I asked myself feeling peeved you know. Pat came the answer. King P was a mighty handsome chap, so handsome indeed that Urvashi felt she was probably falling head over heels in love with him at first sight. Not only so, she even missed a step or two in her dance programme. And this made Indra far too mad to keep under control his cupboard full of curses. “I banish thee to Earth,” yelled he at Urvashi, somewhat in the same spirit in which Hamlet had hit Ophelia with his “Get thee to a nunnery” speech.

Urvashi landed safely on earth, but a nunnery was the last place in her list of tourist spots. She went instead to the first one, viz. P’s residence and demanded that he marry her. Recall though that she had only pondered over the possibility of falling in love with him. Even she didn’t know if she was truly in love. The clever girl therefore demanded that he hug her no more than three times a day. (P could have hugged her only once a day and refused to un-hug you know. I am almost sure that she set a ceiling on the duration of each hug. Hmm… clever female.) The second condition she imposed was that he would not sleep with her unless she wanted him to. This was a bit of a torture, you’ve got to admit. And third, she absolutely refused to let him shed his clothes in her presence. The second and the third of her stipulations put together could make you wonder, but I won’t proceed further in that direction. However, I do think her love was somewhat suspect.

Yes, P agreed of course and lived with his wife for many years and they didn’t procreate, which is no surprise, given the contract. In the meantime, the Gandharvas in Heaven were getting impatient. They wanted Urvashi back where she belonged and ended up hatching a deep dark plan. It started with two lambs of all things, which they came over and tied to Urvashi’s bed. Just imagine, she allowed two lambs in her bed, but not her husband. Poor h! The lambs were her darlings, not so the h. P shrugged patiently as far as I could make out. The G’s, however, were less than patient. They managed to steal one of the pair of lambs in the middle of the night. Terrible! Buying a gift only to snatch it away! Urvashi was a light sleeper I guess and she found out about her loss in no time at all and pleaded with her husband that he retrieve her lost property. But P, though not sharing U’s bed, was not wearing any clothes on that night either. In his hurry, he forgot all about this and chased the thieves in the same state in which Archimedes was supposed to have run Eureka-ing.

Ha! the G’s were waiting for just this. They asked the clouds, which I guess were under Lord Indra’s control, to loudly thunder and send down a piece of lightening to reveal to the whole world, not just to Urvashi I mean, that P was not only running amok, but he was doing so in a state of stark “unfrock”.

The trick worked alas and Urvashi’s ticket for the return journey to Heaven was ready. P’s pleadings went in vain, which suggests, doesn’t it, that U was not really in love? Besides Lord Indra must have been in league with the G’s, or else, who issued U the visa to enter Heaven?

Anyway, P travelled far and wide till one day he discovered Urvashi in company with a few other Apsaras disguised as swans and floating on a lake. A man in love being a man in love, Pururava had no difficulty in spotting the right swan during this identification parade. Once again, having attained considerable expertise as a pleader by now, P began to plead. But Urvashi was hard to convince. (She had lost track of her dance steps, but not really her heart, to repeat my suspicion.) Finally, after being treated to the choicest garnishings of coaxing and cajoling, sprinkled in profusion over plates full of pleadings, she agreed to see him once every year and kept her promise for seven consecutive years, each year giving birth to a son. And believe me or not, the Pururava Municipality even has a record of their names: Ayu, Amavasu, Vishwayu, Srutayu, Drirhayu, Valayu and Shatayu. All ending in u’s notice. The naming could have been inspired by the fact that the whole affair began with a U too.

Ultimately though, the Gandharvas permitted them full husband wife status after performing a whole lot of other tests all of which P passed with flying colours. It seems they lived that way till the rest of eternity. So, unless eternity is over, you’ll find them blissfully in each other’s arms and don’t ask me how many children they have produced in the meantime, leave alone their names. That information they have doggedly refused to reveal.

I would have been happy to have left them alone you know but for this Max Mueller guy. He claimed Pururava represents the Sun and Urvashi the early Dawn. With the rising of the sun, a poorly lit dawn gets absorbed completely by the sunrays. Urvashi is the last vestige of darkness and Pururava is the arrival light! The love tale of Pururava and Urvashi symbolizes the victory of light over darkness. If Max Mueller is to be believed, then it is Love alone that makes Life survive.

Well folks, I have not concealed any information from you at all. If any questions still remain, you have to find the answers for yourself.