Monthly Archives: November 2010

Debu-da: Large Man in a Larger World

Come to think of it, you can’t really blame God for failing to make all men equal, or all women for that matter. Not to speak of the rest of the living world, starting from cats, dogs and grasshoppers, all the way back to dinosaurs.

Inequality notwithstanding, God has ensured that what one loses on the swing, one’s almost certainly compensated for on the turnaround. To wit, a spider doesn’t feel too disappointed, or so I presume, that it’s not endowed with a Cleopatra charm. For God, in an effort to cover up the somewhat clumsy job he did on the spider vs. Cleopatra front, sanctioned for spiders an extra allowance of legs to keep them alive and, more importantly, kicking.

And I am almost certain that the same logic extended to Debu-da. I will simply call him Debu-da, following Bengali custom, because I never found out what his last name was. I was a student of Standard 5 or less I think, when Debu-da managed to catch public attention. I was too young to wonder about family names. Also, I was overwhelmed by the fact that he was the only human being I had come across who was literally taller than life.

Above 7 feet and a half in fact, give or take a millimetre. By Indian standards, and certainly by any stretch of Bengali imagination, he stood far too overstretched for the comfort of his neighbours, or at least his co-passengers in public buses. Indeed, Debu-da boarding a bus distinctly resembled a giraffe pushing its way into an igloo. It is unlikely that run of the mill igloo occupants would be too elated to entertain giraffes in their living rooms. And, unfortunately enough, much like a giraffe caught in polar wilderness, Debu-da too was quite as defenceless against the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. At least financially so, or else why would he need to board overcrowded public buses?

Going back to the somewhat pedestrian philosophy we started out with though, every bit of aberration in God’s creative adventures has a positive side to it. Debuda’s height didn’t turn into an unadulterated liability for him. Talent searching scouts spotted him and launched him off on a career linked to the celluloid world. An advertisement programme for the Metro Cinema, standing as it did in royal glory opposite the Ochterlony Monument (now Shahid Minar) on Calcutta’s Esplanade East area, made superb use of Debu-da’s height.

The movie version of King Solomon’s Mines, starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, if memory serves me right, had just arrived in India and the Metro was flooded with school kids from all across the city. To keep the children amused and ensure at the same time that the news would spread, the people in charge of the hall decided to post an usher who resembled a spear toting African tribesman, in full view of passers by. The role fitted Debu-da like a glove as he guarded the imposing gates leading to the theatre, looking, if anything, far more imposing than the gates themselves. They had painted him blacker than the blackest of boot polishes and dressed him up (or down, depending on the way you wish to describe his attire) as best as they could in imitation of characters in the movie.

Needless to say, this was not the best possible way to use his physical advantage. For example, basket ball teams should probably have been only too willing to pay a tidy sum to rope Debu-da in and train him up as their discovery of the century. But India went for cricket and soccer luminaries and no one in the sports world even noticed him. Besides, to the best of my knowledge, Debu-da had never demonstrated an inclination for ‘sportive tricks’.

Debu-da must have enjoyed his job though at least as much as the children loved watching him for the entire length of time the movie ran. I am sure, therefore, that the occupation brought him a modicum of compensation for the struggle he endured when forced to stoop in painful disgrace in packed Calcutta buses.

But then all good things in life, including life itself, refuse to last forever. Same for Metro’s stint with King Solomon’s diamonds and other precious stones. The treasures that Debu-da solemnly guarded lost their shine in Calcutta’s eyes ultimately and Debu-da had to give up his weapon as well as cannibal attire. He was about to join the ranks of Calcutta’s unemployed labour force when fortune smiled once again.

The Metro authorities had probably developed a liking for him and decided to absorb him as a regular member of their usher force. Debu-da underwent a magical metamorphosis as a result. The black soot covering him from head to foot was washed off, his ominous looking spear along with the smart warrior’s loin cloth vanished inside the jungles of primeval Africa and Debu-da emerged in a light grey usher’s uniform, sporting a navy blue bow tie, dimly visible somewhere up in the clouds where most of his torso lay hidden. Consequently, few people ever got to see the face that ‘looked down’ at them as they handed over the tickets to Debu-da’s hands prior to being admitted into the auditorium. For all practical purposes, it was a pair of ownerless hands that they interacted with when Debu-da ushered them in. His face remained shrouded in mysteries that appeared to call for expert mountaineers for a clear resolution.

I could well have been one of the lucky few who managed to have a glimpse of the face along with the bow tie that adorned his neck. My mom had taken me to the theatre to watch a children’s movie and just as we were being ushered in, she had a question for Debu-da. The subject matter of the question I can no longer recall. However, that does not matter. What’s important is that Debu-da had to bend low, double up in fact as he was used to during rush hour bus rides, and bring his ears to the level of my mom’s face to be able to hear her speak. And there was no way I could not have seen his face at that particular moment. He was hawk nosed and had eyes that were browner than those of an average Bengali. His eye brows twisted into a frown as he attempted to listen to what my mom had to say and soon after the conversation was over, he straightened up. That was the last time I ever saw his face in real life.

It is not clear how long Debu-da served the Metro cinema, probably a short stretch at best. I think he grew ambitious as he watched the endless procession of movies at the theatre and began to look for an opening for himself in the very same profession. Debu-da did not enjoy ushering people in to admire matinee idols. He wished instead that people be ushered in to stare at him on the screen. And, in a somewhat dubious manner to be described below, he did manage to fulfil his ambition, though I do not know exactly how he found his way into a movie studio.

He acted in his first and, unfortunately, last movie in a role that required him to disappear in the very first scene of the movie and remain in that state till the end. It was a Bengali comedy bearing the title ‘Adrishya Manush’ or ‘The Invisible Man’, and fanciful luck had decreed that Debu-da be chosen to play the title role itself. The role was comparable to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, though it was in truth somewhat worse. Caesar had kicked the bucket pretty early in the play and, except for a solitary reappearance in the shape of a ghost, didn’t interfere with the flow of events. At least, he never insisted that the audience expect him to be occupying what appeared to be an unoccupied stage. The situation was diametrically opposite in Debu-da’s case. It was invariably an empty and, more importantly, voiceless chair that substituted for him. The film script didn’t assign a single line to the vacant chair, thus ensuring that Debu-da’s acting skills were never put to test.

As an usher, Debu-da was visible at least torso downwards. Once elevated to stardom, he vanished altogether. And this, surely, was a tragedy, partly because a man of his size ought not to have been denied his most prized possession, viz. physical visibility. More importantly though, the director of the film displayed prophetic wisdom in choosing Debu-da for the role of an invisible man, since he never reappeared before the public following his brief experiment with acting. Neither his top half that is, nor the bottom!

What happened to him will remain an open question, to which God alone might know the correct answer. The only trouble though is that God, despite the loud hosannas we sang in his praise earlier on in this story, has remained, if anything, even more invisible than Debu-da.

And that too since the day the universe was created.

Misson Impossible

[This is a slightly revised version of an article originally published in The Telegraph, Calcutta on November 23, 2010.]

Barack Obama’s desperate bid to rescue the recession-plagued American economy stands in sharp contrast to events that occurred in the early 1970s when Richard Nixon was in charge of the country. His bête noire at the time was the then president of France, Charles De Gaulle, who demanded that the United States of America pay for its mounting trade deficits by gold shipments from Fort Knox valued, according to the Bretton Woods agreement, at $35 an ounce. The US refused to honour the agreement and forced upon the world the tour de force of an oil-backed dollar. Oil imports, in other words, had to be paid for by US dollars and this made it imperative for everyone to hold eagerly on to the dollars printed by the US government to support its trade deficits. The US trade deficit turned, therefore, into an advantage for its creditors, especially the ones, such as Japan, who were in dire need of oil imports to keep their economies running.

When Obama came to power, the trade deficit was still very large, but the US economy was in the doldrums. And things had not improved significantly by the time the midterm polls were due. This is clearly borne out by his press conference of September 10, 2010, published by the Wall Street Journal. As he admitted, “We lost 8 million jobs total during the course of this recession. That is a huge hole to dig ourselves out of.” The US economy has been sucked into a maelstrom of recession for over three years now and this makes Obama’s job far more difficult than that of Nixon. In contrast to the latter, who decided that Americans should continue to spend beyond their means, Obama needs to assure his people that they can spend at all.

With US industries thirstily awaiting a resurgence of growth in the demand for their produce and domestic demand continuing to be weak, Obama does not enjoy Nixon’s luxury to allow American trade deficit to keep inflating. Indeed, he needs to travel in a direction exactly opposite to the one that Nixon was headed for. He has no choice, in other words, but to reduce the deficit and, if feasible, convert it into a surplus. His recent whirlwind tour of the world has little purpose other than convincing foreigners to purchase American goods, for that can at least open up the closed factory gates in his country separating a sitting work force from the elusive work they seek.

His tragedy lies unfortunately in the magnitude of the problem he inherited. Worse, he has now less than two years to address the issue. “The huge hole” of eight million job losses that he needs to “dig” the US economy out of translates into providing a net addition of 330 thousand jobs a month on the average during the rest of his term, a task that might appear to be far more daunting than the cleaning of the Augean stables.

How has he set about to achieve this miracle? Despite all the hype surrounding his India trip, policymakers in this country ought to be aware that the $15 billion in deals promising 72 thousand jobs for the US economy is no more than a whiff of a consolation in an ocean of despair. The US Census Bureau quotes the figure of $7 billion as the US’s trade deficit with India for the current year till August end. If the $15 billion Indian expenditure is undertaken by year end, then there is a possibility of turning the deficit to a surplus.

Once the US turns India’s creditor in the trade account, it will be in a somewhat comfortable position to acquire assets in this country and it is no wonder, therefore, that Obama has left behind him material promises of investment in infrastructure and agriculture, cooperation in civil nuclear energy and, much to the chagrin of his Indian detractors, the suggestion of retail trade. He has made non-material promises too, such as a permanent seat in the United Nations security council, which has been viewed by the American media as “largely meaningless”. He did not forget to chide Pakistan. He has removed Bharat Dynamics, the Defence Research and Development Organization and the Indian Space Research Organization from the entities list. However, G. Balachandran, a non-proliferation expert has pointed out that the list itself consists of 24 countries. He has been quoted to have observed that “all that will happen now is, when Indian knocks at the gate, the US will ask the gatekeepers who it is and listen to what India wants. But a licensing regime will continue to be in place”.

Of course, all is not over yet. The Federal Reserve Bank has already flooded the market with dollars, thereby cheapening US money against most other currencies in the world and especially the Chinese yuan. It has been a long standing contention of the US that China has kept the yuan artificially low to hold the rest of the world captive to its manufacturing sector. This hurts the US deeply, needless to say, especially on account of its unwavering affair with a recession economy. The jobs that Obama is inviting for Americans will create incomes and these incomes will be spent. If they are spent on American products, then more jobs will spring forth and more incomes generated in a sequence that will make the final employment figure much larger than the initial dose of, say, 72,000 jobs created through Indian expenditure. Lord Keynes, the author of the General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, had famously called this the “multiplier” effect of any expenditure.

However, if the incomes generated are spent on Chinese goods, then the multiplier impact will fall on Chinese products. This makes it vital for Obama to insist on an appreciation of the Chinese currency. Even if he succeeds in this mission though, it is doubtful if the US will gain a competitive edge over China, given that Chinese wages and other production costs are low compared to those in the US. Consequently, the US, the most important force behind the jostle surrounding globalization, will have little alternative but to raise tariff and non-tariff barriers to protect its own economy.

This in turn could unleash a tariff war, which is the last thing Obama desires. Nor will such actions find favour with the US’s own business community, for which foreign markets are a vital part of its life support system. Hence, Obama has little option but to support the Federal Reserve Bank’s recent decision to come out with a massive rise in dollar supply. The price of the dollar needs to be kept low, quite independent of what is happening to the yuan.

In the meantime though, the world will be watching crude prices. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will not be elated to see itself caught in a depreciated dollar trap, the currency in which it earns its income. Either it will be forced to raise the dollar price of oil at breakneck speed, or the oil economy is poised for fundamental structural changes. And there is always the possibility that the dollars earned by oil importers will be spent in the US to purchase Chinese goods!

Every cloud has a silver lining. Despite India’s abysmal performance in terms of the human development index, we have succeeded in applying a veneer of sugar as it were to sweeten the US’s bitter pills. This has earned us a modicum of economic prestige in our role as a country that brought succour to the mighty United States economy. Similarly, although Obama is unlikely to get a second term, he has at least pocketed the Nobel Peace Prize, even if serendipitously. And finally, if history remembers him for failing to rid his economy of recession, he will at least stand delisted from the group of people responsible for its arrival in the first place.

A Dialogue between God and a Lover

(Original translation: November, 2010. This revised version: 21.12.2014)

-`If she were to roast you live in fire?' Effortless death is all I will desire -`If above the clouds she were to lift you then?' Into raindrops I'll splinter, sheer droplets of rain -`And if she chooses to grind you into dust?' Keep on flying wayward then I must -`Fly? Well, if she manages to clip your wings to size?' As I fall, I'll hold on to her branch, I surmise -`If she throws you off her branch, wretched fool?' What choice? Embracing herself I'll try and keep my cool Should I say more, Milord, have you warnings still? -`Oh get off -- enjoy lifelong agony to your fill!'

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Translation of a Bengali poem ঈশ্বর আর প্রেমিকের আলাপ by Joy Goswami। It was published in his collection আজ যদি আমাকে জিগ্যেস করো (meaning If you Ask Me Today) in 1991.

Mirthless Town

Mirthless town, if your wish I ever could grant, A tiny river may well be all you'll want, -Whose tears perhaps would wash your smouldered soul, And make the night stars snuggle up close and loll, Quivers in hardened, frozen shadows it'd arouse And turn them into a miracle's fleeting spouse. The mirthless town has lost track of the date She had a river. A drain today's her mate. Mirthless town, perchance if your needs I probed, For a cloud or two you might have just implored, -Your grimy sky the clouds would partly screen, With kindness blend the scorching sunrays' sheen, Timid longings perched on the wings of a kite Rubbed by the softness of clouds they'd go on a flight. The mirthless town can't recall the time anymore When in mires it lost the clouds that used to soar.

 
Translation-cum-transcreation of a Bengali poem দুঃখী নগর (dukkhi nagar, meaning Mirthless Town) by Premendra Mitra. The poem was published in his collection হরিণ-চিতা-চিল (horin-chita-chil, meaning The Deer-The Leopard-The Kite).

That Cloud

Don't pamper, or that cloud will surely Perch atop the crest. Will it thaw, or budge an inch, However much you request? It won't melt, oh no, it won't Totter from the peak Frozen aloof in vain conceit Will its feet on earth e'er rest! For thirsting birds and ploughed fields It won't send a drop of rain Once snowy white it turns alas These triflings seem a pain. It won't sweat and get all wet, For the mud and the slush of this earth ne'er fret, Castles up in the air alone It'll build with endless zest. Never pamper that cloud you meet It will perch atop the crest.

 
Translation-cum-transcreation of a Bengali poem মেঘটা (meghta, meaning “That Cloud”) by Premendra Mitra. It was published in his collection কখনও মেঘ (kokhono megh, meaning Cloud Sometimes).