Monthly Archives: January 2011

Kurani (Foundling)


Lips pouted, head tilted in rage,
Nostrils inflated, eyes ablaze,
Fumed the eight year old maiden fair,
“Stinking ape ! Marrying with you, I’ll never care.”

Such severe punishment, a misfortune more
Was well beyond endurance, in those days of yore.
Large were her eyes and Kurani was her name,
Fiercely gripping her ample hair, I slapped her to make tame.

Tears began to well up, but they froze, and remained still.
Started she to move away, and not a drop did spill.
Her anklets tinkled, as in suppressed anguish, I began to whine,
“Get lost – on these berries and mangoes, alone shall I dine.”

The frozen tears thawed, she smiled, and managed my hands to find,
And say, “I overlooked telling you, did I, that a female ape’s my kind?”


The fair maiden’s fifteen now, her eyes are overcast,
With the plush and wealth of thunder clouds, billowing ever vast.
A novice she’s in handling yet, her devastating charm,
In a figure slim, as the corner of her lips, lie hidden behind an arm
Of a smile mysterious, glowing in chorus, with a sprouting fun filled hue,
Distant she has turned and yet, so close she’s turned anew.

Her company though has grown all scarce, incessantly still,
Excuses I keep on seeking, frenzied yearnings to fulfil,
To this end, on jackfruit glue smeared branches of the trees,
I manage to trap a myna, a parrot, when Lady Luck decrees,
And present them to Kurani, who outright them rejects,
Saying, “I ain’t no more a baby,” her case she firmly rests.

My heart grows heavy, knowing so well, that I hardly ever can
Slap her across the face again, or scary warnings fan.


Kurani’s mother, showers her blessings, when I return home on leave,
But she bemoans, “I’m weary Mani, for can you really believe?
Kurani starts on nineteen soon, see how grown’s this lass,
As big as the hills and mighty mountains, but no bridegroom’s shown alas!”
“Will search for a worthy match,” I try, the mother to console,
My stealing glances, for the daughter though, fail to meet their goal.

Pale and speechless, all heartbroken, I leave to start my quest —
When out of nowhere, emerges a laughter, sharp and full of jest.
“Mother dear!” someone’s saying, “Your reasoning leaves me numb!
Who’ll search, for a groom for his own bride, unless he’s dumb?”

Suddenly, this message clear, halted all solar motion,
Suddenly a thousand birds sang out, all together in fusion,
Suddenly, the branches waved, in a wild and restless breeze,
And made the magnolias, each one of them, blossom forth in please.

Free translation of a Bengali poem by Manish Ghatak (1902 – 1979). He was a leading poet- litterateur of the Kallol era. He often wrote under the pen name Jubanashwa. Among his famous works are Pataldangar Panchali (a book of short stories), Kankhal (novel) and books of poems like Shilalipi, Sandhya. He was Mashweta Devi‘s father and Ritwik Ghatak‘s elder brother.

The Key

Your missing, much beloved key
E’en today, with me alone doth lie.
Tell me how you’ll open your trunk.

The beauty spot on your chin there still must be —
My soul! Then why for a fresh new land pine I?
Had to write this letter, to be frank.

The key dear I’d stored with loving care,
Only today the time at last’s arrived.
Do write, if you wish to have it back.

In the midst of all my junk memoir
Your face with sparkling tears alone’s survived
Do write, if you wish to have it back.
Translation of a Bengali poem by Shakti Chattopadhyay

A Flat atop the New Market

New Market

Connaught Place







Kuntal had an appointment with an insurance agent in Connaught Place in Delhi, but just as he was about to walk into the well-appointed office, he noticed Mr. Sharma’s name on a plain wooden door adjacent to the glass paneled office entrance. And, to leave nothing to doubt, the word ‘Residence’ stood out in bold letters on the door, defining clearly the boundary between agent Sharma’s private and public life.

Neither Mr. Sharma nor the door will have a role in this story however. They were catalysts at best in the chemical laboratory of our hero’s life history. Especially the door. Had Kuntal missed it, the story we are about to hear would have remained untold.

Kuntal was impressed. An apartment in CP, only a block away from the famed Regal theatre, an age-old landmark in Delhi, belonged to the same category as a dwelling in Times Square in New York or Oxford Street in London. Or, for that matter, a flat he had often been to on top of the New Market, in the Calcutta of yore.

Memories invaded like space ships in search of lost galaxies. Kuntal stood transfixed on the pavement in front of the agent’s office as his mind flew back to his youth. The Regal faded away slowly. So did Delhi. His thoughts travelled back to an evening thirty springs ago and he found himself in the company of Manasi and her older sister, Smita, in their parents’ apartment above the New Market in the posh Chowringhee locality.

He had not gone to visit Manasi, he remembered, because it was Smita whom he knew. She had been Kuntal’s contemporary in the university and lived with her parents. The spacious living quarters opened out into the terrace of the New Market, which served as an outsized balcony, large enough to hold a soccer tournament. The Globe theatre dazzled proudly across the street and the Lighthouse and New Empire theatres, the glory of old Calcutta, were a mere five minutes’ walk from the flat.

Smita and Kuntal talked aimlessly on the terrace, watching the brilliantly lit buildings of the pre-power cut days that surrounded them, when Manasi arrived out of nowhere as it were and pulled up a chair to join the conversation, quite uninvited.

Kuntal was unaware of Manasi’s existence till then, but the moment she showed up, he knew she was an attractive young woman, whose eyes sparkled like freshly poured champagne in a crystal wine glass. She spoke without inhibitions, though pleasantly so, and her beautifully chiselled, yet soft featured face reflected the colours of the sky set aglow by the setting sun. Her sister appeared in fact somewhat plain by comparison.

Kuntal’s whole being experienced a wondrous thirst in Manasi’s presence, a thirst he had never known before.

It had taken her less than a half hour to tell Kuntal, ‘You have a lovely voice you know. Do you sing?’

And then she persisted, ‘Come on, you’ve got to sing for us!’

Kuntal was pleasantly embarrassed. He was not a trained singer, but did manage to pick up songs played on record players. He was dying to oblige the young lady, but feigned unwillingness as custom demanded, only long enough to ensure of course that the topic did not change. And then he sang at the strangest of venues, a patio located above the New Market.

The accolades he received were far out of proportion to the quality of his rendition. He felt bolder.

‘Manasi, you have a wonderful voice too. Won’t you sing one for me?’ Kuntal asked, carefully avoiding the word ‘us’.

Manasi wasn’t shy. She came out with a full-throated performance of a Tagore composition. Kuntal still remembered what she sang: ‘monē holo jyano pēriē elēm ontobihin poth āshitē tomār dwārē …’ (It seems to me that I have travelled an endlessly long way to reach your door …) She had obviously gone through rigorous schooling and her vocal performance, like the rest of her, was nothing less than exquisite.

The lyric was loaded and his defences against her magnetic attraction were weak. Was it conceivable that he, a temporary lecturer in a Calcutta college, had charmed this fascinating woman? A wave of emotions crossed through his mind as they sat quietly after Manasi had finished. Her recital was so moving that silence was the only tribute one could offer.

‘Is this love at first sight?’ he asked himself. ‘But no, that’s foolish thought.’ Kuntal was struggling, when Manasi broke the silence with a bomb shell. ‘You will be a great teacher someday, a most popular teacher, I am sure! I can make it out from the way you speak.’ she announced glowing with confidence.

Smita was unimpressed by Manasi’s prophecies and reacted in a tone full of rebuke. ‘What’s wrong with you today Manasi? Gone gaga, have you?’ The elder sister was feeling awkward, Kuntal saw.

Manasi had received a jolt. She was about to proceed, but halted abruptly to scrutinize alternately the expressions on the two faces she faced, trying probably to judge if she was the celebrated third person who transforms company to crowd. The charm, quite obviously, was broken. She got up slowly and disappeared into the apartment, under the lame excuse that she had pending work to finish.

She left Kuntal burning with desire, but he was too shy to ask Smita if he might see her younger sibling just one more time before he left.

He spent an uneasy night, for he felt there had been love in the air, however incongruous, and he visited the apartment week after week to correct Manasi’s misconception about the nature of his relationship with Smita. Only, she never showed up again. The weeks ran into months and the months to years. Three long years went by, during which life took irreversible twists and turns and Manasi disappeared slowly into the depth of the subconscious.

* * *

Kuntal had a hobby, stage acting. And amongst his friends was the family physician, not much older than him. To his surprise, the doctor revealed to him one day his own weakness for the stage. There was a Doctors’ Club, Kuntal learnt, that held an annual stage show. The performance this year, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, was only a week away. But the doctor playing Banquo had disappeared without warning, in full knowledge of the fact that invitation cards had already been distributed!

‘This is short notice I know, but it is a short role too and you can surely fill in,’ the doctor pleaded. Kuntal could not refuse his friend, seeing how piqued he was by his fellow professional’s irresponsible conduct.

But his heart thumped as the physician gave him directions to the rehearsal room. He realized he did not need to be shown the way. It led quite unmistakably to the dream apartment. Till that day, he had no idea what the sisters’ parents did for a living. Despite his many visits to the apartment, he had never had an opportunity to meet them. He discovered now from his doctor friend the reason why the parents had not been around on earlier occasions. Both were busy medical practitioners!

He arrived on time and climbed up the imposing wooden staircase leading to the flat. This time he found himself in a large room bereft of furniture except for a few hard backed wooden chairs. The room was tailor made for rehearsing a play. He was introduced to the parents this time by his doctor friend. But there was no sign of either sister. He exchanged pleasantries with both parents, refraining with enormous self-control from drawing their attention to the fact that he was no stranger to the flat, especially the sprawling balcony it must have been well known for. Consequently, he couldn’t find any excuse to bring up the sisters, about whom he was dying to find out. What were they doing? Or, at least, where was Manasi now?

Soon the rehearsal was on and he was called upon to deliver almost immediately, since Banquo arrives and disappears towards the earlier part of the play. He got up and addressed the three witches in a theatrical quiver:

‘ … If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me …’

Strangely, however, the witches responded with highly un-witchlike expressions on their faces. They beamed with human warmth and smiled at the door behind him that led into the room. He was forced to stop midway, realizing to his annoyance that the rest of the room’s occupants had their smiling faces turned in the same direction too. No one, including the director, appeared to be interested in the rehearsal anymore. They had obviously been interrupted. Kuntal, still irritated, looked behind to identify the cause of the break and barely managed to sustain a breakdown himself. Manasi stood at the door, smiling elegantly in a black silk saree with a bright gold border, a matching blouse, a thin gold necklace and a pair of small, but glittering gold ear rings. Her social status had changed as the red vermillion mark on the parting of her hair indicated.

‘What a surprise!’ someone said. ‘When did you arrive? Your mom never mentioned you would be coming over. Come in, won’t you. Watching a rehearsal could be more fun than watching the play itself you know.’

‘I was passing by and thought of dropping in to say hello. Are you sure you don’t mind people butting in?’

‘Of course not, you are still one of us. And bring in your hubby too, where’s he hiding?’

‘He’s gone to examine a patient. I came alone,’ she smiled. Her eyes still lit up all the thousand and one Arabian Nights.

Kuntal felt uncomfortable for a reason he was hard put to explain even to himself as she moved in and occupied a chair, preparing herself to witness the play’s progress. It had become immensely difficult for him to concentrate on the role now. Yet, upon hearing the director’s signal, ‘OK, let’s get on with the rehearsal,’ he limped back from the ruins of destiny as it were and resumed in a hollow, mechanical voice:

‘If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear …’

The rehearsal progressed. Once the scene was over, Kuntal moved to a corner facing away from Manasi, though he was desperate to study her lovely face again and again. After the Banquo murder scene, however, he knew that it was pointless for him to linger on and he asked for the director’s permission to leave.

‘Sure,’ said the gentleman, ‘and do remember please, it’s same time tomorrow. ’ Then he added in some embarrassment, ‘Oh yes, thank you so much for agreeing to substitute.’

As he was leaving, he finally found the courage to look back at Manasi from the door. Her luminous eyes met his eyes immediately. The black silk provided a classic contrast to her fair and radiant face and bewitched him all over again, though, unlike Macbeth’s witches, she had no need to resort to witchcraft.

He forced himself to smile at her, but her ever smiling face failed to reveal if she was smiling back at him. He realized he would never find out if he resided anymore in her consciousness and asked himself miserably, as he descended down the wide staircase, if she remembered that she had treated him once to her view into the seeds of time? And, unfairly enough, his mind presented him with no queries at all about Smita. She had long ceased to exist for him anyway!

* * *

Like a patient coming out of a coma, Kuntal heard the Connaught Place traffic begin to hum and the signal went down for Time train to resume its forward journey from Station Past. The Globe theatre disappeared into the dense blackness of history and the Regal theatre stood in its place.

He walked into Mr. Sharma’s office to sign the documents, wondering if there were insurance policies that covered the scars of memory.

His lips stretched into a barely perceptible smile.

The Man who could not be a General

Masquerading as an officer above one’s rank, it seems, is one of the gravest offences one can commit in military service. A court martial is the inevitable consequence of being caught in the act and the most lenient penalty one can hope for is a retrenchment order accompanied by a certificate of condemnation. The strict censure contained in the latter guarantees that no respectable organization, after checking into past records, would ever employ the accused person.

Bishtu-da, as we called him, was found guilty of this very crime. His official name was Bishnuprasad Banerjee if memory serves me right and he was an officer, not in the Indian Army, but in the forces maintained by one of the princely states around the time India was achieving freedom from the British. He was pompous no doubt, but he was no crook. It was youthful exuberance, I think, that had tempted him to behave irresponsibly. As ill luck would have it, military intelligence spotted him in full regalia. What followed was inevitable. He invited a retribution possibly far out of proportion to the offense he had committed.

Following his misfortune, he could have started a small business of his own, a stationery shop perhaps, without much hindrance from the authorities. His impossible pride, however, stood in the way. He could not forsake his military ambitions at any cost whatsoever and went on dreaming that he was a mighty soldier engaged in the charge of the light brigade.

And charged he no doubt, but not at the forefront of his brigade. He charged backwards instead in full gallop, to his ancestral home in Kolkata. He began living there in a state of dubious distinction, dependant no doubt, on his family members for his upkeep. He was a young man at the time. His come back therefore could not have caused jubilation amongst family members. One heard stray whispers about his none too enviable status in the family. Yet, however paradoxical this may sound, the military personality in him sustained no dent in the process. Even if it did, the humiliations he suffered remained securely hidden in the mysterious corridors of his mind.

Notwithstanding the make belief world he inhabited, he must have been aware of a total absence of armed forces in his vicinity. But nature fortunately abhors vacuum and, in its infinite mercy as it were, filled up the void for Bishtu-da through a brilliant tour de force. A local scouting group was in existence and Bishtu-da found his way there as smoothly as water finds its own level.

I was a mere school boy and a member of this group and never understood exactly what role he played in our community. He was certainly no scout master, since I never saw him in scout uniform. But I retain vivid memories of his strict military demeanor, his immaculately washed, starched and ironed clothes and a stentorian voice that he employed to great advantage to yell out commands. And yes, of his strikingly handsome countenance.

He had been given charge of taking us through drill exercises and he carried out his responsibility with more than total devotion. The drills he imposed on us were far stricter than what run of the mill scouting groups would be familiar with, but I enjoyed what he taught us, despite the excessive physical strain they implied. Even at that young age, I could see the magnificent pattern, the superb neatness and awesome beauty of military discipline. Yet I lacked physical agility. So, my appreciation of Bishtu-da’s training was restricted to the intellectual plane. I am sure indeed that my movements never resembled those of marching soldiers, yet I am equally sure that Bishtu-da demanded no less from us.

He used to bubble with stories about military strategy, famous statements made by great generals in charge of the allied forces during the Second World War. He spoke his English, while relating these stories, with an almost British accent, which the scouts in the troop, coming as they did from Bengali middle class backgrounds, had great difficulty grasping. Nevertheless, it was fun listening to his speeches. It was a bit like watching a theatrical performance in a foreign language. He quoted from Ivanhoe out off the cuff. And he had opinions to proffer on all matters relating to government policy too. For example, when the discussion during a rest session touched upon the subject of inflation control, he hollered out, “A little inflation is like a little pregnancy. Once you have it, it grows and grows.” What the policy implication of this immortal quote was I have not understood to this day, but at the time I heard it, I found it most profound.

Over time, as I gained in maturity, I slowly began to understand that Bishtu-da, despite his ear splitting commands during the drills, was a man leading a pathetic existence. My first realization dawned when I figured out why he could not possibly dress up as a scout master. He simply did not have the means to buy the uniform! He had but a few trousers and shirts in his ‘wardrobe’ and, with use, they were slowly turning threadbare.

The lowly lifestyle he must have been leading in his carefully concealed room or whatever refuge he occupied in his ancestral home, showed up with crystal clarity when, one afternoon, after our scouting activities were over, he asked us in a rather off hand manner whether we knew anybody who might be interested in buying a squash racket. Squash was a game that was almost unheard of in the Kolkata’s middle class society at the time. Yet this racket was clearly one of his treasured possessions from military service days. They had taken away his uniform, his arms and everything else that could keep him alive without violating his dignity, but, comically enough, they spared him his precious racket. Of course, none of us knew a potential buyer and stared stupidly at one another, though I thought I heard a few of my mates sniggering at him. They had evidently viewed this as an attempt on his part to brag about his status.

Things continued in this manner till I had left junior school and joined college. My scouting expeditions slowly dissipated thereafter, for I found myself getting increasingly involved in other alluring activities, girl chasing being one of them. Indeed, though Bishtu-da lived close to my residence, I had no contact with him through my university life which, during those days, constituted a total of six years in all. Despite the damsels who bled me, I managed to complete my master’s degree, with no great distinction of course, and found a temporary research fellowship in a University Grants Commission sponsored research wing in Presidency College, Kolkata. I guess I wasn’t too involved in the work that was assigned to me and loitered around applying simultaneously to US universities for admission and financial aid to pursue a PhD degree. To cut a long story short, I succeeded in landing an offer in the process and resigned my position in Presidency College to prepare for my journey to the Promised Land!

And it was around this time that I had an encounter with Bishtu-da again. Actually, it was he who visited my home. I was more than surprised by the visit, pleasantly or unpleasantly I am not too sure. He was carrying under his arm a sheaf of what appeared to be newspapers and went directly to the point of his visit.

“Hey, Dipankar! Have you seen this magazine?” he began. He selected a sheet or two from the bunch he carried. They resembled no magazine I had seen, but the real surprise lay in the title the `magazine’ carried. It was called `Pratiraksha’, which, in Bengali, means `Defence’. It was a collection of articles on defence related matters, illustrated by neatly drawn pictures of different varieties of arms and ammunition. The one that caught my attention most was the drawing of a submarine showing the details of its battle gear. I suppressed a sigh as I stared at the stuff and leafed through the three or four pages of the magazine’s total length. Doubtlessly, it was he alone who had contributed to the magazine he was flaunting.

While I wondered, he asked in his ever confident tone, “Well, what do you think of it?” It took me all my self control to refrain from retorting back, “Bishtu-da dear! What is it? Before I can tell you what I think of it, tell me first, what it is.” But better sense prevailed. And, I simply smiled politely and replied in a monosyllable, “Nice.”

He was mighty pleased though to hear my reply. “Isn’t it? Now, isn’t it nice? You know, people are going crazy over this magazine. I managed to have it displayed in some of the magazine stores and they told me that the demand for it far outstretched supply. They are pressing me for a larger number of copies. I can hardly cope with this.” His lips half-twisted into the military smile that I had been exposed to a million times in the past.

“How wonderful indeed!” said I. And then, to keep the conversation going, I asked, “So, you are publishing a defence magazine now Bishtu-da! That’s great. How much does it cost?”

His smiling face turned serious and a crease appeared between his brows. “I had to price it low, because young people cannot afford to pay too much. Right? Yet they are so deeply involved with the subject. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I have priced it at 10 paisa a copy!”

I could not believe my ears. Ten paisa! Even during the days I am referring to, this was unbelievably cheap. Street beggars would have found the sum unacceptable, leave alone printed magazines! I stared at him open mouthed and found myself slowly sinking into a reverie. I could not help wondering how a man could delude himself all his life. At the same time though, I also thought whether Bishtu-da was an exception or the rule. Perhaps each one of us has pet illusions about his or her destination and never discovers the gaping holes in the carefully prepared facades for meeting the faces to be met in everyday life.

The reverie did not last too long and I came out of it when Bishtu-da proceeded to say, “I have saved a few copies for you and your friends and I came over to hand them over to you.” He relieved himself of his burden, comprising of fifty copies or so of this highly sought after magazine! I needed no further explanation and accepted the job without demurring.

The idea, frankly speaking, appeared so ridiculous to me, that I never even tried to bring it to the attention of my acquaintances and merely waited for Bishtu-da to show up again. And sure enough, he did knock on my door within a week’s time. I was prepared by then with my lie. “Oh, they all thought this was a masterpiece of a creation Bishtu-da. Your magazine sold, as they say, like hot cakes!” I cannot forget the smile on his face as he heard me out. No military pride, but sheer relief. He knew he had earned his lunch for the next day or two, after remaining hungry I know not for how long. I counted out the money to him and he happily went back home in the belief that he had not resorted to begging to keep subsisting in a world that had no need for him.

Matters continued this way, but soon afterwards I was gone and, sitting in US, I heard from my parents that Bishtu-da had been regularly visiting our residence with his fresh supplies. My parents too, following my request, kept up the harlequin act on my behalf. I learned though that, after a few months, his visits stopped. Perhaps the number of well-wishers he depended on gradually dispersed and he was left once again to fend for himself in a merciless world.

As the discerning reader will suspect no doubt, we are a stone’s throw away now from the denouement of this tale. Seven or perhaps eight years had gone by before I saw Bishtu-da again. I was back in India now, had a family of my own and was teaching in Kolkata. One morning I was at Gariahat junction, crossing over to the side of Rashbehari Avenue where the Cosmopolitan Coffee House, a haunt during our college days, was located. I was headed for a barber shop that I had patronized from my school days. And suddenly, out of nothing as it were, he propped up, staring straight at me with the same old twisted lip, one sided military smile. He sat pretty close to the pavement on the stairway that led to the coffee shop. And he had changed almost beyond recognition. He wore an unkempt beard, which was unthinkable during his days of military hallucinations. He had a white patch on the left pupil indicating a serious eye trouble. And to complete the picture, he wore a half-torn shirt and below it a white lungi, whose state of decay barely succeeded in protecting him from a state of stripped disgrace. Gone were his leather marching shoes too and he wore instead a pair of dust covered, black slip on shoes, made of jute.

He stared at me without recognition and it did not take me long to make out that he had lost much of his vision. I stared too and debated within myself whether to start up a conversation. And then decided against it. I could see that his needs were boundless now and my circumstances too were not particularly enviable. I was in no position to bring home succour to him and did not venture to put myself in a position where, however worded, assistance would be sought from me. It was a harsh decision, but I walked on without making the slightest attempt to draw his attention. Unlike him, I had learnt my lessons in life and did not wish to pose as a person I was not.

For all practical purposes, this was the last time I saw him, though I did locate him in the same outfit not long afterwards, walking uncertainly this time towards a goal I had no intention of probing into.

I learnt later on from people who knew him better that Bishtu-da had lost everything he had. The shelter above his head disappeared with their house being sold to a promoter for building a high rise apartment building. Truly or falsely, it was alleged that his siblings had managed to dispossess him of his share in the property. The grounds where our scouting activities were conducted had disappeared too under three mighty condominiums. Even if they had continued to exist, it is hardly likely that Bishtu-da would be in a position to give his drill commands clad in tatters.

I never tried to find out how the end arrived. There was little need to engage a Sherlock Holmes to discover the gory details.

A Chance Encounter with Eternity

Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar

 I was born in Kolkata, or what used to be called Calcutta those days, and arrived from the hospital on my parent’s arms to our home in Jatin Das Road. It was a quiet little road in South Calcutta, where we lived in a rented flat. 

It continued to be my home for the first twenty three years of my life. And this meant that it was my abode during the entire course of my formal education in India, starting from kindergarten, through junior and high school, all the way to post-graduation. 

We were insecure tenants, however, since house rents were visibly rising during my growing years and we were still paying a paltry sum as rent, which was the rate prevailing at the time my father moved into the flat a year before I was born. The landlord raised the rent from time to time, but, despite the increases, it continued to be hopelessly low by market standards. Unfortunately though, my father could not afford to pay more. The fault was partly his own of course, since he neglected his work on account of an incurable addiction. No, he was no drunkard, nor was he into narcotics. His addiction centered around one of the most innocent of human weaknesses. Garrulity! He was a compulsive ‘talker’ and wasted his time gossiping merrily with his acquaintances in the neighborhood quite oblivious of his professional call.  

Our refusal to move out of the flat led to legal proceedings. And the law being what it was, the courts came out with verdicts in our favor and we continued to survive in that quiet little street. But life for our household was hardly quiet. Having lost the suits, the landlord resorted to strong arm tactics. He lived on the second floor of the same house where we occupied a ground floor flat. Although man made laws went against him, natural laws appeared to be on his side. And one of these happened to be the force of gravity. Realizing this all too clearly, he began to treat our residence as a garbage dump and supplied us free of charge a variety of organic and inorganic waste on a regular basis. And of course, his wife and he also made violent use of sound energy, using the choicest expletives to describe their tenant from early morning till night. Much to my embarrassment, but, as far as I could make out, to the entertainment of our neighbors. 

The sound waves in question bothered me to no end, since the nature of my education stood in the way of replying back in the same language. Besides, I was never really sure where justice lay. The rent we paid was indeed far too little. I found it hard though to concentrate on my studies, waiting as I did with alarm for the sequence of abuses to commence. It was not a way of life that could make one proud. 

Yet, ‘in the midst of darkness, light persists’ as Gandhi had observed. 

One morning, as I was trying miserably to concentrate on my books, I heard sounds that appeared to emerge, not from the direction from which they usually did, but from my immediate neighborhood. A man was singing it seemed in the ground floor flat of the building right next to ours. I peeped out of the window and realized that the source of the music was the window immediately opposite to the one where I stood listening. 

It was pure classical music and the singer was clearly no ordinary mortal. He was not merely someone who was trained in music. He was a master artiste, an accomplished vocalist practicing his art, sitting less than fifteen feet away from me. I could not see him, since he sat hidden behind the window curtain, but his clear, mellifluous voice kept me charmed for the next hour or so. And then, to my delight, the ritual continued each succeeding morning. I continued to remain immersed in his great music everyday. He offered me protection from the horrifying screams from the landlord’s flat. His music was a pain balm for my much abused ears. 

Within a few days, a name plate showed up on this man’s door. And it said in no uncertain terms ‘Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar’. I found it hard to believe my eyes as well as my good fortune. Not many in India have been his next door neighbors! So, it was Ustad Aminuddin Khan Dagar who was treating me to his exquisite music every morning! My joy was endless as I realized this. 

I was quite young at the time to think philosophically. But when I reflect on this today, I cannot help feeling that life invariably has its compensations for the pains that it inflicts on you. Of course, I never mustered enough courage to knock on his door and request him to let me sit at his feet as he did his ‘rewaz’. But I hoped for an opportunity to speak to him someday. Or, at least, hear him speak to me. 

If you truly wish for something from deep within your heart, nature does come to your aid. 

Our door-bell rang one afternoon and I answered it. A man I had never met stood before me. My immediate reaction was fear of course. Has this man been sent by the landlord to deliver retribution? I stared at him not knowing what to say. The look in his eyes assured me however that the man had not come with ill intentions. He smiled pleasantly and informed me that Ustad-ji had sent him over. 

‘Ustad-ji?’ I asked totally confused.

‘Dagar-sab, you know,’ he explained, ‘he lives next door.’

‘Yes, of course,’ I stammered. ‘Dagar-sab wants to see us? But why? I can’t follow you sir.’

‘Oh no, no,’ the man continued. ‘He doesn’t want you to go and see him. He wants to know if he can visit you this evening. Will it be too much of a problem?’

I stood flabbergasted. ‘Am I hearing correctly?’ I thought. ‘You mean, Ustad-ji wants to come to our home? Why yes, of course, he is most welcome.’ And then I added, ‘It will be a great honor. Only I am worried that we have little to offer him. None of us here are trained in music you know …,’ my voice trailed off. 

‘Actually,’ the man clarified, ‘he wants to listen to your radio.’

‘What?’ I was incredulous now. But the man explained further. 

Ustad-ji doesn’t possess a radio set and All India Radio will be broadcasting him at 7 PM. He said that he had often heard the radio playing in your home. He was wondering if he could come over to listen to the programme.’

One of the greatest singers India has produced did not own a radio, leave alone a recorder, to listen to his own music! And, ironically enough, the only radio within his close reach belonged to a family that was being constantly threatened with forced eviction, lock, stock and barrel, radio included! The situation resembled a meeting between a hungry man carrying a bottle of water and a thirsty man carrying a bagful of fruits in the middle of Sahara!

Yes, Dagar-sab did arrive on time. He sat on a divan and listened to the programme, while I sat on the floor watching him spellbound. It was not too long a programme of course and it was soon time for him to leave. But before he left, he chatted with me for a little while. He said he had often heard ‘good music’ (his exact words!) being played through our radio. I felt stupidly proud of the fact that the music I listened to was ‘good’ in Ustad-ji’s opinion. 

And then he informed me that his elder brother, Ustad Nasir Moinuddin Khan Dagar had passed away some months ago and that he felt like an orphan. He didn’t enjoy singing alone, because the Dagar Brothers had always sung together. He looked infinitely sad as he spoke about his brother and ended up by telling me that his brother’s spirit visited him quite regularly, or else he wouldn’t be able to keep going! I simply absorbed whatever this immensely accomplished, yet humble individual was unloading on me. 

I knew even at that age that I would never forget our meeting. Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar had come to live in Calcutta in his capacity as the Principal of Birla College of Music I learnt later. I left India not long after this incident, so I never found out if he finally ended up buying a radio for himself. 

Here is a tarana in Bageshri by the Ustad.  As most of us know, the Dagar School specialized in Dhrupad, so the clipping is not a typical product. It merely demonstrates the School’s versatility. The un-copyrighted CD from which I ripped this piece says: This is probably the concluding part of a long concert, in which these short pieces were sung after … Dhrupad alap and composition.