Monthly Archives: October 2010

Nishith-babu: Small Man in a Large World


There is a proverb in Bengali which, translated, runs,


While Emperors and Kings merrily fight,
The small fries suffer a dreadful plight!


The words conceal deep wisdom, as amply borne out by the treatment life meted out to Nishith-babu. Nishith-babu sold books, but he was more of a hawker than a seller. He could not afford to rent premises for a shop and carried his merchandise in a cloth bag hanging from his frail shoulder as he roamed from office to office in the Kolkata campus of the Indian Statistical Institute. Contrary to the fixed location of a normal book seller, where buyers converge, it was the clientele in his case that occupied a limited geographical boundary, to which he transported his fare from a different part of the city.


As with his customers, almost all of whom held covetable degrees in their respective disciplines and were active contributors to internationally renowned research journals, his books too bore a distinctive stamp. They were all publications of Progress Publishers in erstwhile Soviet Russia. Bingsha Shatabdi was their outlet in the College Street area in Kolkata and Nishith-babu was a private agent marketing their books. The production quality of the Soviet books was magnificent. Yet they were cheaply priced and, hence, highly subsidized commodities. This had been an important policy of Soviet Russia, of which low-paid professors like me were the principal beneficiaries. I was able to purchase some of my prized possessions of Russian literature at throwaway prices. They included Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin and other classics, as well as great Marxist works, such as Leo Huberman’s Man’s Worldly Goods. He also brought me brilliantly illustrated books for children, which I would carry back home to my little son’s delight.


The commission Nishith-babu received for these cheap books was, understandably enough, hopelessly inadequate. But he managed to survive somehow, being a single man in his mid-forties, living somewhere in a close to rent-free hovel. He did have a family though, especially a mother, but his relationship with the family was none too agreeable. They stopped living under the same roof, ever since he had left home as a young man, to join the Communist Party of India as a regular worker sometime around 1940. He participated in communist movements in Kolkata and the Bengal villages, sacrificing the lure of worldly success, all in the cause of a classless society. But he managed to acquire a modicum of education, either at home prior to his exodus or in night schools for party workers. Consequently, he was able to read up adequate quantities of Marxist literature, which party propaganda work necessitated. The Bengal Government, as history informs us, banned the CPI in March 1948, with the result that Nishith-babu and his comrades landed in jail. Some of the well-known Communist leaders of today’s Bengal faced similar fates, too. However, the ban was lifted eventually and Nishith-babu, still dreaming of a proletarian society, found his way back to his accustomed activities.


He was a small man, intellectually as well as ambition wise. So, he never rose above the rank of a party cadre. But his hardship was probably compensated by his illusions about world communism, till, much to his dismay, the CPI itself split and he had to choose sides. He stuck on to the mother organization, but it was the dissenting group that rose to power. His true struggles must have started around this time, since the CPI was now reduced to a much weaker organization. Its activities were too limited to keep the cadres occupied, which is what probably led to Nishith-babu’s metamorphosis from a party activist into an agent for Progress Publishers.


I doubt if he could afford a square meal every day. His appearance proved this beyond a doubt. He looked famished, a thin man with prominent cheek bones and jaws, a protruding hawk like nose, wearing the same clothes everyday as he showed up regularly in the afternoon with his heavy burden of immaculately produced books. He suffered through his privation with dignity, however, for no one had ever found him either begging or borrowing.


Youth, though, can be irresponsible as well as needlessly cruel. As a result, I must sadly admit today, he was a regular target of jest for many of us. We knew about his major weakness, the CPI. So, every now and then, a few of us would surround him and offer observations that would strike him right inside the heart. “Nishith-babu! We hear the CPI is now the principal stooge of the Congress party? Whatever you say, they are bloody hypocrites, aren’t they? Mrs. Gandhi’s friends, ha, ha, ha…Great communists. Did they invite you to their cocktail party last evening? ”


He was totally guileless. He could never see through the mischief and immediately reacted with set phrases he had learnt by rote during the undivided party days. It was a bit like listening to a lecture in a street gathering organized by a political party. He would strike a pose and embark upon his harangue. “No, it is the CPI (M) that has compromised with the establishment. They have forgotten the fact that the alienation of the worker from his means of production is the evil that capitalism has unleashed on innocent human beings. The only way to freedom is proletarian revolution, for that alone can prevent the exploiters from extracting surplus value produced by workers … Democracy is an imperialist conspiracy…”and so on, and on, and on…He provided for us free entertainment in addition to cheap books.


In the meantime all of us were getting older and life started imposing responsibilities that left us little time for childish pranks. So, while he kept supplying books, our interactions gradually diminished. He, too, appeared to be less inclined to be dragged into debates. A probable cause was that an interesting development had taken place in his life at the time. We learnt that he had finally made up with his estranged family.


Age mellows us all. And Nishith-babu was no exception, I explained to myself. Although our conversations did not go beyond short greetings at this stage of his life, once in a while he made a deliberate attempt to open up, not to speak of USSR vs. China, but of someone as inconsequential as his mom. Somehow or the other, he managed to bring her up during our short exchanges and I found it touching. This man had lived away from the warmth of a family for a long many years and now, late in life, he had rediscovered the comfort and care of a family. Nonetheless, there was something odd about the way he appeared to make a special effort to veer the conversation around to his mother.


My suspicion was confirmed, when he walked into my office one day and sat down on the chair across the table. He did not display any books. Instead, he watched me somewhat coyly, a look that surprised me to no end. What was he after, I asked myself? Does he want to borrow money? That would be odd, I thought. This man had too much self-respect to borrow or beg. I waited in embarrassment, trying not to look straight into his eyes. “Can you give me a piece of advice?” he began.


“Ad … v …v … ice?” I stammered. What possible advice is he seeking from me? I had nothing to do with politics anyway. Still, out of politeness, I continued, “Sure, but you know I am not a person anybody considers to be a repository of wisdom. My advice can land you into trouble…”


“No, no. Nothing very serious. A trivial matter really.” He smiled bashfully again. “You see, my mom was saying, I am getting on with age…” His voice trailed off. I stared straight at his face now and prayed he was not saying what I thought he was saying. But my prayers fell on deaf ears, for he concluded his missive with, “She was saying it’s time I got married and started a family.” This was a bombshell indeed. He must have been at least fifty-six by then. He hardly had an income to keep his body and soul together. And the idiot wanted to marry and that too under the pretext that he was doing so at his mother’s bidding!


Despite the age I had attained at the time, I felt my immature youth rearing its head once again, but I managed to keep my giggles safely hidden inside me and encouraged him to go ahead in gallant pursuit of a wife. “You think it is a good idea then…” he asked at his gullible best. “Oh, why not. Sure. Has your mother found the girl yet?” He mumbled something vaguely in reply and left the room.


I learnt later from my colleagues that the same drama had been enacted in other offices, too, and each one of us was shaking in mirth at the expense of the poor chap. The gossips surrounding Nishith-babu’s marriage went on for a while and, as in all such cases, slowly petered off with time. I stopped thinking about the man for yet another reason. I soon left for abroad and when I came back after two years, I joined the Delhi Campus of the Institute and stayed there for the next eight years or so.


I kept up my connections with my colleagues in Kolkata, of course, and was flying in and out every other month. On one such occasion, I recalled Nishith-babu, for his all too familiar face was not visible on any of the days I visited the Institute. Somewhat to my shock, though not so much to my surprise, I learnt that he was dead. Only one of my younger colleagues had kept track of him till his last days and it was from him that I learnt how Nishith-babu lived out the final scenes of his life.


The finale in Nishith-babu’s tragedy was not precipitated by his failure to find a bride. Of all people, believe it or not, it occurred instead on account of Mr. Mikhail Gorbachov. What with the USSR leading the bandwagon of globalization and the breaking up of the union, Nishith-babu sustained a rather deep injury. Progress Publishers ceased to exist. So, his simple means of livelihood disappeared into thin air. He had absolutely nothing to fall back upon and literally began to starve. I don’t know if his loving mother came forward with help. It is unlikely, since even if she was alive, she was at least as poor as the son.


Nishith-babu died in a semi-charitable hospital in unenviable condition. The young colleague I mentioned helped as much as he could, but he had his financial and other constraints, too. The interesting thing he told me about Nishith-babu’s last days was that he kept harping about a sum of hidden cash under his pillow. He was particularly worried about a wicked cousin who was after the money, though no one from his family was visible anywhere in the vicinity. The money was never discovered of course, so the expenses towards his last rites, if any, were probably borne by the same colleague.


As an economist, I have written a good deal in support of India’s globalization drive. But whenever I think of the issues involved, I find it very difficult to dissociate my thoughts from a shy-faced Nishith-babu dreaming about a wife. He goofed up, not only in his larger mission to help build a classless society, but in his simpler pursuit of conjugal happiness, and died in painful neglect. I doubt that he had even embarked upon a search for his bride.


Needless to say, nothing remotely similar, in terms of fate, awaited most of the leaders who guided him during his young, impressionable age. And, as we all know, Mr. Mikhail Gorbachov won the Nobel Prize.

The Harmonium


I doubt that I would be far from the truth if I assumed that few in this community have had the good fortune of listening to S.D. Burman singing some of his immortal creations from a distance of five meters or so. I happen to belong, however, to the rare breed of human beings who managed to achieve this distinction. Serendipitously so, I must admit at the very outset. My father came from a musically inclined family and it is no wonder that his niece and my first cousin, later Meera Dev Burman, took to music. She was a lovely singer and had trained under the best possible gurus. It was probably at one of these gurus’ school of music that Meera-di met SD. I am not really too sure about this. It could well be that SD himself was Meera-di’s guru at some point of time.

Meera-di’s mother, my paternal aunt was a great deal older than my father. Consequently, it shouldn’t be a surprise that my mother and Meera-di were around the same age. On the other hand, SD himself was far too old to marry the nubile Meera-di. I have even heard my relatives claim that he was only a little younger than his would be mother in law. As can be expected, the match, when announced, led to great furore. But Meera-di was quite adamant and, as far as I know, she had her mother’s support too.

These events occurred before I was born. That means a long many years ago and you can guess reasonably well how the marriage was welcomed by the conservative society of those days. In case you are wondering how Meera-di’s father himself reacted, you need not waste your time over the matter. Meera-di had probably never even seen her father. Not because he died young, but because he was a totally worthless person who tortured his wife physically to such an extent that his own father decided to bring his daughter in law back to her father’s home and leave her there. Legend has it that my aunt was pregnant and her husband kicked her in the abdomen when he returned home in a state of inebriated bliss. His father, whose bravery was no match for his son’s, was so upset and scared that he admitted to my aunt’s father (i.e. my grandfather as well as Meera-di’s, who was Chief Justice of Dacca High Court during those days) that he was not in a position to guarantee that his daughter in law would live long enough in his own house to deliver the child she was carrying.

It was a miracle that Meera-di was not stillborn. It was no miracle though that she never found the opportunity to go back to what could have been her own home. She was born and brought up in her maternal grandpa’s residence in Dacca. As I have already said, I don’t think she ever saw her father. In my living memory though, neither did I see my aunt wearing anything other than the white saree of a Bengali widow. So, the chap must have died at some point of time and that should have been well before I arrived on earth. In fact, I not only missed Meera-di’s wedding festival. Her own son Rahul too preceded me by around two and a half years. Rahul (i.e. R.D. Burman) was my nephew, but it was I who always called him “mama” (maternal uncle), he being older than me. I have happy memories of him from my school days. He lived in Calcutta with his grandma (my aunt) attending school because SD and Meera-di did not think that the film world in which they lived in Bombay was particularly congenial for the upbringing of an adolescent.

I have heard stories from my parents that the wedding was a grand event. Two of them remain embedded in my mind. First, since S.D. hailed from the Tripura royal family, he arrived attired in the bridegroom’s dress carrying the family sword! This must have been a thrilling sight, especially when you recall that he was never known for a Salman Khan physique. The other story relates to Ali Hussain Khan who played a shehnai recital for the occasion. He was rendering some raga or the other sitting inside the Nahabatkhana, when he heard a voice nearby singing mellifluous tanas in accompaniment. He looked around in surprise and saw that the singer was no other than Bhishmadev Chatterjee, one of the greatest classical singers Bengal has produced. (He was unfortunate not to reach the height he should have reached, having lost his mind for a variety of reasons.) Ali Hussain climbed down from the Nahabatkhana and dragged Bhishmadev up with him. Those who attended the wedding were then treated to a magnificent jugalbandi.

But as I said, I was not there to witness this fairy tale. I was too small when S.D. migrated to Bombay. By the time I became somewhat aware of his genius, I was already in my teens. And this is where my story starts.

No, this story has little to do with SD or Meera-di or RD. It’s actually a story about a harmonium. It resides in my home today and the only reason why I had to drag all these people into the picture is that it would not have arrived into my possession had it not been for them. None of them are living now. Even when they were alive though, they had no idea about a teenager’s emotions, emotions that crystallized into a longing that was strong enough to procreate the simple tale I intend to unfold. And this story calls for their presence only by way of a prelude.

As I was saying, I sat facing SD in my uncle’s home in South Calcutta, listening open mouthed to SD rendering “rongila, rongila, rongila re …” for a family gathering. I think I was around thirteen years old. Rahul sat behind his father whispering into his ears the parts of the many lyrics he had difficulty recalling. If I am not totally wrong, he was accompanied on the tabla by his favourite percussionist Brajen Das. Amongst other things, Brajen Babu was a totally blind person.

I have always been a music lover, having inherited the love from my father’s family I believe. So, I was completely mesmerized by what I was experiencing. I don’t think I shall ever be able to forget the scintillating music to which SD treated us on that far away afternoon.

But there was something else I saw on that day that I have remembered through my life. It was the look of the scale changing harmonium that SD was playing.

A Non-cooperative Bellow

His vocal chords reminded me of a freshly opened bottle of honey as did the hue of the burnish that glistened on the harmonium. The reeds were an immaculate white and the slider knob for changing scales shone like freshly polished silver. Even at that tender age, my whole being reverberated to the tune as my eyes remained riveted on the beautiful instrument.

I carried the scene back home with me. No cricket bats for me, no football boots either. No pretty girls. There was only one thing that I was dying to possess. A harmonium alone, like the one I had seen but didn’t have the courage to even touch.

“Ma, will you buy me a harmonium please?” I implored when an opportunity presented itself.

My mother was shocked and stared at me in disbelief. “Do you know how much we had to spend on your school books this year? Books that you neglect and fail in every exam! And what, may I know, do you want to have a harmonium for? To turn into a street singer and beg for a living? Get lost, will you?”

She was livid with anger I could see. She was almost in tears. And I couldn’t blame her, for my academic performance at school was the talk of the town. The poor woman had enough to worry about.

I did get lost for a while as advised, but the thought of a harmonium didn’t lose me. I slept harmoniums, I dreamt harmoniums, I lived harmoniums. My life was incomplete, as incomplete as a sea beach without the sea, a moon without the shine, a cup of tea made without tea leaves. I ruminated day and night over the matter therefore and discovered an alternative strategy, one that could possibly appeal to my mother.

“Will you send me to a music school Ma,” asked I one morning as I sat down with my books. Books I had no intention of reading, needless to say. The music schools, I argued somewhat unconvincingly to myself would surely be equipped with harmoniums and with some luck, I might even get to play them once in a while.

I kept staring at her with the same pathetic look that dogs display at the sight of biscuits. My mother’s heart, I think, melted somewhat this time. She looked out of the window, lost in thought, and then finally turned her face towards me. I thought I saw signs of an impending thaw and waited in suppressed animation for her verdict. What she came out with though shattered any semblance of a hope that I might have entertained.

“All parents love their children. They want to give everything that a child desires. But the child must also learn to understand his parents’ constraints. He should never ask for something he knows his parents cannot afford. If he does, it hurts them a lot you know.”

I admit that I appreciated her irrefutable logic. I even felt for her, probably more than I felt for myself. The result was that I kept away from music for several years that day onwards. My father did purchase a record player when our circumstances improved somewhat, but I was finishing college by then. My love for music had not left me of course, but I had pretty much forgotten about the harmonium. Things like a career had begun to matter more and there was hardly any time to chase harmoniums.

Life followed then onwards along its inevitable twists and turns. To cut down on the details, let’s move several years forward. I had by now set up household in Delhi. I had a wife and a child, but for reasons I cannot discuss, my financial circumstances were no better than that of my parents when I had asked them to buy me a harmonium. However, deep down inside me, the desire must have persisted.

My wife was a reasonably good singer and quite near our home a new music school had come up. The teacher was from Orissa and he had arrived in Delhi in search of a living. His fees were nominal and my wife and I decided that she at least could continue to sing under this teacher’s guidance.

What stood in the way though was once again a harmonium! Mr. Sahoo, that was his name, told my wife that she needed to practise at home on a harmonium. A harmonium that was conspicuous by its absence at our small rented apartment.

This time though, I had the independence to decide and I went ahead with my Mission Impossible. I located a music shop owned by a Sardarji in the Daryaganj area and landed there in the company of a colleague at office who was an accomplished sarodist. It was around the mid-seventies I believe. Prices hadn’t reached where they have reached today. But an Associate Professor at the Indian Statistical Institute probably earned no more than a 1,000 rupees a month. Of this, Rs. 400 went towards house rent. The balance allowed us to survive, but hardly permitted the luxury of a harmonium.

An S.D. Burman class harmonium sat in the shop and winked at me. The Sardarji knew from the way I was dressed that I wouldn’t be asking about fancy stuff. He brought out the cheapest one he had in his store. I cannot recall the price, but I am almost certain that it didn’t exceed Rs. 500 or so. Close to half my total saving at that stage of life.

I understood little about harmoniums, but soon after we reached home in the colleague’s car, I realized that you needed the services of a Dara Singh to operate the bellow. I didn’t know during those days, as I do now, that the sign of an acceptable harmonium was a soft bellow. You need no more than touch it very lightly for it to open or close.

My wife did not complain though and the music lessons continued till Mr. Sahoo vanished in search of greener pastures. We, on the other hand, were stuck with a harmonium that no one had any use for. I did try to play it on my own once in a while, but having had no training whatsoever, the harmonium dream did not exactly gleam.

And, in any case, I lacked the muscle power to fight the bellow of our harmonium.

A Ray of Light

I find it a little difficult to write this story, because it is not a clearly identifiable section of my life. Besides, it’s not a story that an audience may be willing to hear. I have to sew together little wayward patches to produce some sort of a continuum. The entities that constitute the story are really quite unrelated to each other unless you take account of the harmonium that kept the theme running.

I need to take a quantum jump therefore from where I left the story in the last episode, across time and space and land you in Calcutta towards the beginning of the 21st century. A great deal had happened in the meanwhile. Amongst other things, I had given away the harmonium I found in Delhi. It appeared to be more useful to people other than me. I have no idea anymore where it finally vanished. And once in a while I missed it too. It was the same harmonium I had used to play Raga Bibhas with after hearing a famous song by Paluskar. I had to literally extract the music from the non-cooperative box. Strangely enough, it did work once in a while.

But I really didn’t need the harmonium because that’s not what I had fallen in love with at the age of thirteen. My love continued, though I was a rejected lover. The harmonium I had loved didn’t even show up and finally, after waiting for more than forty years or more, I gave up for all practical purposes.

Yet, in the midst of hoplessness, hope survived. Even if unknown to my conscious self.

There is a difference between a harmonium and a community of humans. The instrument can be elusive, but it is not cruel. It is incapable of rebuffing the way humans do. It is inanimate and that’s why one can always keep hoping even after one gives up. Inanimates probably do not brush you aside forever.

This reminds me of an interview that Zubin Mehta gave over TV. They asked him the silliest question of all. “How does one learn Western Music?” He replied almost immediately. “Keep listening to it. Keep on listening. See if it starts talking to you. If it does talk, then you will know for yourself how to progress further. There is nothing more I can suggest.”

I know that the harmonium had truly spoken to me once, but it had disappeared too. So, I wasn’t entirely sure. Was Mehta correct in his observation? How could I ever listen to something that doesn’t even exist? It could be singing elsewhere to someone who had located it at the right moment. Besides, will it really respond to me? I was now close to sixty. Would it speak to me if I found it? I had not learnt to interact with it at the right age. And now wasn’t I a bit too old to learn? I had realized too that even if I found what I sought, I wouldn’t find a guru. No one in his senses could be willing to offer beginner’s lessons to a person as old as I was. Such people, by definition, are dispensable.

But a miracle did finally happen.

If you are a lover, miracles can happen, with a little help from God needless to say. The only time in my life that I experienced a miracle was when I found someone who said she was willing to teach me. I think she was somewhat sceptic when she began, but over time she realized that she had indeed come across someone who had not only started out on a long, long quest, but had stuck to it with dogged determination. He hadn’t given up despite the impossibility that life posed before him.

She would teach my wife too, but I made it clear that it was I who was dying to reach the goal. My wife would be a sympathetic partner, someone who appreciated the quest, but hadn’t felt the emptiness that I had carried inside me most of my life. At least not to my knowledge.

And then, the very next thing she said was that we would need a harmonium. Ah! A harmonium again. Grim silence followed. But I knew that there was still a chance. Now was the chance. I was in a position to pay more than Rs. 500 this time. Indeed, far more than that. “Please help me buy it, will you?” I requested my teacher. “I don’t know how to buy the right kind …”

She readily agreed and arrived on the very day the lessons started with a reasonably perfect harmonium. It had a soft bellow, it produced wonderful music, it was quite attractive. Only it was not IT. First, it was not a scale changing harmonium. Second, it was not the harmonium I had encountered as a thirteen year old.

I knew now that I would need to compromise. I could still keep hoping of course, but for the time being I would need to stick to the kind teacher. She introduced me to the art. It was not easy at all. My fingers were no longer nimble, my voice refused to climb the scales. G Sharp was about the only scale that I was able to stick to and that surely was funny for a man. Men, in general, wouldn’t sing G Sharp. But I found it literally impossible to make my voice play on a B Flat scale. Things had been impossibly postponed.

Our lessons continued nonetheless and this was a person who understood my craving for perfection. She did not reject my desire on the excuse that age stood between me and my quest. Instead, she watched me, she taught me and then one day after six or seven years of endless struggle, I was amazed by what happened.

She asked me to sing a song and played the harmonium herself. As we proceeded, I knew something strange was in progress. I looked at her with a questioning eye as I sang and she simply smiled back. When we reached the end, she asked me, “Do you know the scale I made you sing in?”

“No,” said I somewhat bemused.

“It was B Flat,” she continued to smile. “I didn’t wish to make you conscious at the very beginning, or else you wouldn’t make it. I just wanted to show you that it is not impossible. You have done it!”

I remembered Pandora’s story. The only thing that didn’t leave her box was Hope. For me too, Hope had won the race. In an imaginary island perhaps, in the middle of an imaginary ocean. It was a piece of land where few would want to travel with me.

I was almost in tears. This was not the harmonium I had sought, but it had succeeded in bringing me very close to the truth. I was old, I was withered, I was pretty near my end. But my voice had found the notes and spoken to them at the right pitch.

And it was precisely at this moment that deep inside me I heard a voice. “Go search for the harmonium now. You will find it. It will not hide from you anymore. You are finally ready for the harmonium. It’s waiting for you, just go and grab it.”

Journey’s End

I never pursued music with the intention of entertaining anyone but myself. This was a great advantage. It made my quest easier. If I had expected social applause, I know that I would have destroyed my love many years ago. I don’t think I would have kept on searching so endlessly.

My teacher was pretty comfortable with the harmonium she had brought, but I was not. It didn’t have the scale changing equipment and that made it look different from my first love. Besides, a scale changer does have its advantages as far as fingering is concerned. This hidden voice had revealed to me in no uncertain terms that the instrument was within reach now and I didn’t want to ask my teacher how to locate it. She had no need for the instrument that I sought.

I needed someone else to help me, not my teacher. But who? The answer struck me with the speed of lightening. Go to your friend’s wife, Ms. Sheymonti Banerji, said the hidden voice. And I remembered too that I had come across a harmonium quite similar to the one I dreamed of at her father’s residence. Her father was an accomplished singer and had even sung for Satyajit Ray’s movie “Devi”. Needless to say, Ms. Banerji had been well into music all her life.

“Ms. Banerji,” said I over the phone, “will you please help me buy the sort of harmonium your father owned.”

She was not surprised to hear this, having been well-acquainted with my sanity problems for many years. “I know just the right man for you. I will take you to him,” she said. I was simply thrilled to hear this and we made an appointment to meet at the shop she had in mind.

The day arrived and I was there on time. She was already waiting. But the look of the shop made my heart sink. It was hardly the flashy music shop I had visited many years ago in Delhi. It was more like a dark hole, a workshop at best. Some might even mistake it for an opium den. We were offered an old wooden bench in a corner to sit on. Someone came along with two plastic cups full of unbearably sweet tea. As I sipped the tea and looked around, I saw a number of harmoniums and tanpuras in different stages of their lives on shelves that badly needed a polish. A few workmen were sitting on the floor and working on whatever it was that engaged them. They continued to work with supreme indifference, while the owner of the establishment sat before us on a small stool.

His hair was dyed saffron, his looks were refined, a tall, thin man exuding signs of sophistication. He spoke to me politely, a sort of politeness that I wouldn’t have expected in that dimly lit room that was at best ten by twelve feet. The lady spoke on my behalf of course, for she knew that my knowledge of what I had come to purchase was rather limited. As he spoke, he worked simultaneously on a harmonium that rested on a stand before him. Quite clearly, he was tuning it and I could see immediately the deep concentration in his eyes as he pressed each reed and listened to the sound it produced. He kept working inside the box with an instrument that resembled a carpenter’s plane till he was absolutely satisfied with the note.

But the conversation kept running simultaneously. I began to mumble when he turned his attention to me. To make things easier, I admitted at the very outset that I knew very little about harmoniums. But I also told him that I wanted to buy something that was truly good. Could he help me?

He smiled politely. “Do you want the full range of scales?” he asked. I stared back stupidly, for I hadn’t understood him at all. “See, if you go for the middle ranges only, the instrument will be smaller in size and that could be an advantage. But if someone were to come to your home and you wished him to sing, there could be a problem if he chose a scale that your harmonium didn’t accommodate.”

I knew that the probability of the happening he had in mind was rather small. But then SD came back to me with an admonition. “Didn’t you want the best? Recall, this is your last chance. Don’t say no. Don’t compromise. Never compromise on love.”

“Yes, I understand,” said I to the shop-owner, without conviction. And then, almost as an afterthought, I asked him, “How much will it cost?”

He hesitated for a while, but then answered my question clearly enough. “Twenty two thousand,” he said with total confidence. I was mentally prepared for a high figure, but I didn’t know it could be this high.

“Oh really,” I found it hard not to raise my eyebrows.

His pleasant manners didn’t change as he went on to explain. “I understand this sounds somewhat exorbitant, but my costs are high too. Amongst other things, I don’t use anything other than Burma teak to make harmoniums. Also, the reeds are imported from Germany. And then of course, this being a scale changing harmonium, I will want to fix a coupler to it.” He went on to explain several other details, most of which I didn’t understand once again. However, I did know what Burma teak was.

“Burma teak,” I asked in disbelief. “Is it available anymore these days?”

“Not in the market,” came his pat reply.

“How will you procure it then?” I persisted.

“I keep track of old houses in the city you see. Whenever they bring one down to build a fashionable condominium, I go and buy up the doors and windows at the auction. Want to have a look?”

I didn’t know what he meant, but I followed him towards the back of the shop. He opened a little door and switched on the light in the room we had entered. This room was more or less the same size as the one his customers visited. But it had very little space in it for a person to enter. “This is my warehouse,” he declared. Indeed, it was spilling over with old styled doors and windows and a few tables as well as wardrobes. “These are the raw materials for my work,” he told me.

Not only was I a total novice with harmoniums, when it came to identifying Burma teak, I was much worse. I didn’t utter a syllable and returned back to my seat, the wooden bench I had mentioned earlier. Conversation resumed.

“Can I have a look at the instrument then please?” I asked with feigned confidence.

“Oh, it will look more or less like any of the ones you are seeing on the shelves.”

“But they are old pieces you are probably repairing. I want to see the brand new machine,” I insisted.

He appeared to be shocked. “I don’t have one to show you I am afraid.”

“But then how can you sell it to me. You quoted the price only a few minutes ago!”

“Yes, of course. But that was the price of the instrument I will manufacture for you once you place the order.”

“Manufacture for me? How do you mean, they don’t come readymade?”

This time he almost giggled. “I am sorry, I am not a readymade harmonium supplier. There are shops that could supply you at a moment’s notice for sure. But that’s not my way of operation.”

The shop in Daryaganj, Delhi returned to my mind. I had begun to feel the difference. I recalled having seen something that resembled SD’s harmonium at that shop too. “Thank God,” I whispered to myself, “I didn’t have the resources to purchase that piece.”

“When will you deliver it to me if I ordered it today?”

He scratched his chin, deep in thought. “In about six months’ time,” he said finally.

Oh no, I was not ordering a harmomium. It looked more like placing an order for a Boeing airplane. But I was not upset anymore. I knew I had finally arrived at the right place. The hidden voice told me once again: “You have waited for the last forty five years. How would six more months matter?”

“That’s right,” I replied aloud to the hidden voice. The man was taken by surprise. “I beg your pardon?” he said. “Oh no,” I said in some embarrassment. “I was trying to figure out when I should be back here for the delivery. I think it will be next February, right?”

He calculated and then agreed with me. “Are you placing an order then,” he asked.

“Of course I am,” I said.

And now the expression on his face changed. He looked as though he were calculating profits and losses. “You have to make an advance payment you know,” he ended up saying.

“How much?”

“I normally charge Rs. 500,” he replied, the businessman like expression still clung to his face.

I almost fell from my bench! An advance of Rs. 500 for something that costs 22K! I simply couldn’t believe this. The economist in me told me that he was not about to cheat me. He knew that irrespective of the sum I advanced, the harmomium he will produce will not lack a buyer, should I never show up again. I advanced the money and left his shop in the lady’s company.

And then waited and waited and waited. Every now and then I would phone him up and ask about the progress of the work and he kept on assuring me that he was on track. “Most of the music conferences will be over by then, I will have enough time to meet the deadline.”

Finally the day arrived, as all days finally arrive. Once again I went there in Ms. Banerji’s company. I needed her to test out what I was buying. What waited for us was the loveliest thing I have ever beheld. Mr. Biswas, this was the man’s name, was sitting behind the harmonium. It resembled the SD harmonium in every possible way I think, except for the colour. It was a dark brown in my case and there was a light that glowed deep inside the polished wooden frame.


Ms. Banerji played the harmonium for a while and was completely satisfied. I was about to try it out too when the man almost wept in pain. “Please don’t, that’s not the way. Let me explain things to you.” He had clearly no confidence in me at all.

He explained the mechanisms as clearly as possible and began to play on it himself. His expertise as a player was simply mind boggling. I had never expected to hear the notes that I heard. He made me drown in a sea of music. I almost lost my consciousness I think, but then he stopped abruptly. I gave a start and opened my eyes. He sat frowning at the harmonium.

“There is a tuning problem, I need to work on it a little more.” And then he started working on each and every reed the way I had seen him doing the first time I had met him. We waited in patience for the next two hours or so, after which he ended with a sigh.

I was not sure if it was a sigh of satisfaction or of grief. There was no way he could improve things anymore. But there was a distinct look of sadness on his face.

“Anything wrong?” I asked.

“No, no, there are no more problems I think. But you know, you should come back within a year and get it re-tuned. Don’t forget, it’s absolutely essential. Please don’t wait till it starts sounding out of tune.” Prevention is better than cure was the message he was offering.

I handed over the cash I owed him. He accepted it, but his face turned more and more gloomy. “Please take good care of it,” he said. The expression on his face resembled now that of a father giving away his daughter in marriage. I could see that he would be most happy if I changed my mind and refused to buy the harmonium. He loved it more than I did at that point of time. He was the father who had brought up the daughter with loving care. And I was the bridegroom about whom he had little knowledge. I was snatching her away from the security she enjoyed under his roof. Would I mistreat his daughter? That was the only thought in his mind.

I didn’t miss these details, but hardened myself to face the parting ceremony. I stepped out of the shop and one of his men carried the harmonium to a waiting taxi. However, at the last moment, he stopped me again. “Why don’t you use a cover for the harmonium.” Saying so, he showed me a cover made of strong blue canvas, one that fitted the harmonium box exactly. “It will protect the polish,” he said in a feeble voice.

“Yes, I will take that,” said I. He handed it over to me and I rushed over to the car and left before he could stop me again. I had no doubt by now that he hated me for taking the harmonium away from him.

Well that’s the end of this love story. It is way too personal to be shared. But I needed to tell you about my success, even if I had to act Ancient Mariner. Is there a moral to the story? Well I guess not. All I can say is that it was well worth the almost half a century wait. I don’t know where SD’s harmonium rests today. But my love was certainly reciprocated. My dream harmonium is sitting right next to me as I finish my tale. And yes, in case you are wondering, I did take it back for tuning within the specified period of time Mr. Biswas had stipulated. He had sighed once again, though with relief this time. His daughter was safe.

Gator-Eater: A Limerick

Drawing by Argha Bagchi

It is best that you munch your gator
While atop a volcano’s crater
And if the gator tries to bite
Just let it slip without a fight
To be roasted and savoured later.

Obituary – Tapas Majumdar (1929 — 2010)

Tapas Majumdar

It is hard to recount memories surrounding Tapas Majumdar, who died on October 15, without recalling the reasonably large, but not bedizened, first-floor living room of his Dover Lane residence in Calcutta. This room will remain etched in the minds of his students and colleagues from the days when he taught in the Economics Department of Presidency College, not because of its simple decor, but for the purpose to which Tapas Majumdar put it during the turmoil-ridden year, 1967. The siege laid to the college had forced the authorities to suspend classes. The economics honours classes, however, did not come to a halt, for Tapas Majumdar, who was departmental head, had converted his living room into a makeshift classroom where teachers were assigned class hours on a regular basis. A timetable had been drawn up, and even tutorial classes were not ignored.

Tutorial homes had not yet invaded us, and teachers like Tapas Majumdar treated education as a public good that was not for sale. It was no wonder, therefore, that his colleagues and he dreamt of converting the Economics Department into an institution of excellence. The result was the founding of the UGC-sponsored Centre for Economic Studies, located inside the departmental premises and dedicated to advanced research. The Centre exists even today.

Tapas Majumdar was the son of the archaeologist, Nani Gopal Majumdar, who was closely associated with Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay and has been credited with discoveries related to the Early Indus period. He was mistaken as a policeman and shot dead by robbers near the foothills of Kirthar of the Sind region of Punjab on November 11, 1938. His wife heard the news by coincidence over the radio and Tapas Majumdar, born January 6, 1929, had to bear with this tragedy at a very tender age. His performance at school (Mitra Institution) and college (Presidency College) was nonetheless exemplary. He joined Presidency College as an assistant professor of economics at 21 and had none other than Amartya Sen and Sukhamoy Chakravarty as students in the early part of his career. He completed his PhD at the London School of Economics under Lionel Robbins. His dissertation was published as a well-known book, The Measurement of Utility, and he continued to work and publish in the theoretically sophisticated area of demand and choice theory.

After completing his PhD in 1957, he joined Presidency College as a professor and taught there till he moved to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi as professor of economics and head of the Zakir Husain Centre for Education Studies. He contributed extensively to the area of education since then and served as a member of distinguished organizations such as the UGC, NCERT, ICSSR and the Justice Punnayya Committee on UGC Funding of Institutions of Higher Education. After retirement from JNU, he remained associated with the university as emeritus professor at the Zakir Husain Centre.

Throughout his life, he encouraged students to carry out empirical research as well as research on the abstract foundations of a subject, and would have understood the word ‘elite’ to mean ‘excellent minds’ rather than ‘enemies of society’ as is often the practice now. One vividly recalls his effort in reading the monograph, Theory of Value, by Gérard Debreu (who won the Nobel prize in economics in 1983) soon after it was published in the late 1950s. The book has remained a mathematically daunting piece of writing. It is a fair guess that few teachers in postgraduate institutions in India, leave alone undergraduate colleges, would be attracted to this work. Tapas Majumdar was successful in assembling a group of young colleagues and students interested in the enterprise and used his living room to deliver special lectures on the subject. He ended up writing to Debreu about a point that his group was unable to resolve. Debreu replied by sending him a letter that contained little more than a small hand-drawn diagram that settled the issue completely. Tapas Majumdar was delighted to hear back from Debreu and often spoke humourously about the might of supreme brevity.

Tapas Majumdar will reside in the hearts of his students and colleagues as a pleasant yet firm personality, always ready to extend a helping hand for the cause of education. It is unlikely that he ever confused quantity (examination scores) with quality (a genuine appetite for learning) in judging his students.

[Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 19, 2010]