Monthly Archives: June 2011

I, Ghost

Amongst the many deep, dark questions I have been assailed by through the years, there is none that disturbed me more than the one concerning supernatural creatures. Yes, you have guessed it correctly. I am indeed referring to ghosts. And the question in question is: Do they really exist? I have to admit that I am still searching for an answer, which means, amongst other things, that I often find myself in uncomfortable situations. Such as wondering whether the person sitting next to me in a theatre, say, is a … you know what I mean, don’t you?

Being fair minded though, I allow my neighbour the same right that I exercise. So, when the person glares back at me with misgivings in response to my repeated furtive glances, I respond with profound humility. In fact, I am even tempted to embark upon a conversation with such people on the subject of our mutual mistrusts, simply to assure him or her that I am as much uncertain of my own true identity as I am of others’. To be precise, I am willing to admit without any hesitation whatsoever, that I could well be a ghost posing as a living being, which, needless to say, leaves enough room for the reverse possibility too. The former option, however, sounds more convincing, since ghosts are known to be particularly well-endowed with abilities to transform their shapes whenever they will, except of course for the fact that I am not exactly sure if I myself am one such spirit engaged in the bizarre gimmick.

The only reason I desist from engaging people in such profound discussions is that I am almost certain that it would precipitate undesirable consequences. Understandably enough, ghost or no, I hate being the centre of attraction, be it in praise or revulsion. Normally, Lady Luck has favoured me with all the bounty at her disposal. Even if people doubted what I really was, just as I kept doubting all the time what they were, they remained poker faced, holding their cards pretty close to their chests.

Meanwhile, the river of my life, or after life for all I know, flowed placidly. No storm, not even a ripple, till of course the fateful day when Yamini arrived.

Yamini was a stenographer. Do you know what a stenographer is? She is someone who takes dictations from dictators who are too arthritic to write or type with their own fingers and occupy enormous chambers allotted to them in recognition of their disability. Medical records confirmed that the uric acid in my blood stream had reached alarming levels and facilitated thereby my entry into the aforementioned chamber, the enormous one, in case you have lost track. I moved into my newly decorated office, consisting of an outsized desk, five empty filing cabinets, six bookshelves full of dust but empty of books, I being as uninterested in them as the three geckos who shared the room with me. There was a room-heater of course to keep me warm when I dozed off on winter afternoons. Soon, like all high officials occupying enormous c’s with attached wc’s, I fell in love with my well-appointed facilities. And Yamini, whom I hope you haven’t forgotten on account of my garrulity induced distraction, was asked to submit to my dictates along with those of others elevated to my rank.

Since the nature of my work was not clearly defined, they adorned me with a designation, somewhat in the spirit of a Minister without portfolio, a recognition granted to prevent party MP’s from bickering. In my case, they worked out a rather pompous title. I forget though what exactly it was, because it was long and convoluted, apart from containing difficult words. As far as I can reconstruct from my rapidly decaying memory, the position I held sounded somewhat as follows: “Crisis Coordinator for Devastating Predicaments in the Absence of Emergencies of any Variety At All”. Long, as I said. Even the acronym CCDPAEVAA is a strain on one’s memory. I will refer to it therefore simply as cc. If nothing else, it rhymes well with the ec and wc that went with it.

I spent most of my time in my ec staring out of the window at a tree, watching multi-coloured butterflies flutter in and out. And when that bored me to death, I started dreaming, but sometimes screaming too, as I gave out orders to less big officials when the less big officials were themselves dreaming. And the lesser ones in turn did the same to even lesser ones. This is the way the office worked, right down to the least big of officials, i.e. the doorkeeper. Everyone kept himself or herself busy either dreaming or screaming. But the poor stenographers, whom no one recognized as either big or small, remained in a state of limbo so to speak, running from office to office, scribbling down whatever got dictated, or sometimes just sitting in front of the bosses when they fell asleep.

I soon realised that one of my unwritten duties was to keep Yamini, the little stenographer, running in and out of my ec. The thin, emaciated girl with large timid eyes would rush in pencil and pad in her fragile hands, ready to take a dictation. But, I would normally forget what I wanted to dictate! Which was embarrassing for me, being a cc and all you know. I would start out with something like, “OK Yamini, take a dictation.” “Yes sir,” she would whisper reverentially, her fingers ready to fly across her notebook. And we would be in that situation for the next several minutes without one more word being spoken. With the discomfiture mounting by the seconds, I would try to salvage little bits of my dignity by starting to rock in my chair, pretending to be deeply immersed in thought. And she watched me rock, sitting rock still herself, pencil poised, in stunned silence.

After a while, I would suddenly blurt out, “Dear Mr. Jhunjhunwala, How much longer do you think you will take to realise that the half-bricks you supplied us are turning out to be utterly useless to keep monkeys away from our premises. Please be advised that our aim being atrocious, the bricks we throw usually land in neighbouring buildings, destroying glass panes and sometimes hitting people instead of the monkeys. They have now gone to court against us and we have to prove that you never supplied us any bricks at all. Don’t send us bricks any more please. Besides, do try and appreciate that all my colleagues are descended from monkeys anyway. I, being their cc, am not allowed to throw bricks at them either.”

Having proceeded this far, I would start feeling rather important and satisfied that the job was on its way towards completion. I would pause and look forward to further inspiration to complete my letter. Usually, this led to more chair rocking and Yamini would start waiting patiently once more, her eyes riveted on her notebook. Emphasis on notebook, mind you.

On one occasion however, I rocked somewhat more violently than usual, thereby disturbing the centre of gravity of the total mass comprised of the chair and its occupant. As a result, the steel chair suddenly gave way and before I knew what was happening, I found myself sitting on the floor right next to the seat of the chair, which lay detached from its legs! The incident occurred in a split second. There was associated sound and fury of course, but by the time Yamini raised her eyes from her notebook to check out the source of the noise, I had already succumbed to gravitational pull. Needless to say, she was totally taken aback. For, she discovered that the cc, who was sitting on the other side of the desk only a while ago, had simply ceased to exist! Remember now that the desk was monumental and I was sitting on the floor, completely hidden from her sight.

Well I wasn’t exactly silent either. I was simultaneously cursing Godrej or whoever it was that had designed the chairs and uttering my ooh’s and aah’s as I nursed my posterior, which was the hardest hit area of my remains. These noises, on top of my complete disappearance, did not make a favourable impact on Yamini. Like me, she too must have entertained doubts about the real identity of the people she came across in her everyday travails. It would seem that she did not quite associate the moans with my vocal chords and there being no living animal visible in the room, except for the three geckos, not to lose track of details, she concluded that the supernatural had invaded. Whereupon she backed up her discovery by loud, piercing shrieks. There was nothing but alarm in her voice as she sat petrified in her chair, pouring out her agony in clear D-sharp scale, with an intensity that would amaze even Parveen Sultana. The day had been cloudy and it was somewhat late in the afternoon. The dusk had arrived early therefore, adding the necessary finishing touches to the atmosphere.

Soon enough, the entire office had assembled in my ec. Fortunately, they discovered me, but hesitated for a while to help me rise to my feet, being taken in by Yamini’s yelling. By this time, I too had regained enough of my composure to make out the only word Yamini appeared to have left in her vocabulary. And that word was “Ghooooooooooooost”, loud and clear. She repeated it in a variety of notes of course, with a twist here and a turn there, but the solitary word remained unchanged. Good singing it was, but a bit monotonous, lyric wise I mean. The assembly debated for a while on who needed more help at that moment of time. It was Yamini who won their sympathy, because by this time she had actually fainted and definitely needed to be carried out of the room in a make shift stretcher. They called in a doctor too as I was given to understand later on, who advised her a month’s rest to recover from her shock.

I found out in the meantime that quite apart from my posterior having sustained injuries, there was a little lump in the middle of my head, arising no doubt from a collision with the wall behind my chair. So, as I caressed my bottom with my left hand and my head with the right, an intrepid colleague actually helped his cc limp into his private wc and apply a towel soaked in cold water to the lump on his head.
When faced with tricky situations, ghosts normally dissolve into empty space. From the looks I received for weeks thereafter, I was sanguine that I had failed to live up to the reputation I had acquired following the Yamini incident. The lump on my head remained stubbornly in place for a few more days and the pain in my bottom too persisted, the way it does for most people beyond their prime.

But it was Yamini who did manage to disappear. She failed to join office after her leave expired. Some say she sought transfer to a branch the office had in Coimbatore. Upon inquiries though, I discovered that the branch had long gone out of existence. Yamini, it would appear, had branded me a ghost only to melt away herself. Like “a cake of ice on a hot July day”.

And that, dear friends, completes the circle, bringing us back to the vacuous inquiry we embarked upon. Who’s who indeed in this wide, wide world?

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To Puff or Not to Puff, That is the Question

Romantically inclined though I am, there are a thing or two I would never share with anyone in the universe. Leave alone with women. I don’t mean our respective beds of course. But there are boundaries I will not cross. For example, I absolutely refuse to brush my teeth with a pretty woman’s used tooth brush.

Nor would I offer mine to aid her. Now, don’t get me wrong dear. I am no stingy old Shylock. I recall, not without a touch of belated regret I admit, that I gifted an expensive collection of Rembrandt reproductions to an American girl I was dating in my youth. It was so expensive that the girl’s mother began to worry. They were Jewish and she even suggested that I convert to Judaism. I beat a hasty retreat of course and reliable sources in Israel inform me that a great grandmother had left it as a gift for the generations that followed, with a Wodehouse like cryptic inscription on the front page — ‘it might have been’.

Such were the thoughts that assailed my mind as I sat in a TV studio the other evening, waiting to be questioned on my perception of the direction towards which our much advertised economy was headed.

Now, now, don’t get me wrong. Chances are less than one in a trillion that you’ll get to watch me on TV. But once in a blue moon, they do ask me to show up and pontificate on matters of social relevance. Especially so, when the rest of the local economists are too busy helping the economy caught in a quicksand. Some of these TV guys remember me as a relatively unemployed economist and drag me to their studios to seat me in front of two objects, a camera and a monitor. The camera watches me and beams its perceptions into the monitor. In other words, the camera and I watch myself simultaneously, and believe me chaps, for someone who’s used to hip wriggling Aishwariya Rai-s on TV, watching himself in action, or even inaction, can cause acute pain. Hard realization dawns on you, as it did on the dwarf in the ‘Birthday of the Infanta’, when he saw himself through the princess’ eyes. According to Oscar Wilde, it broke his heart!

The TV chaps are aware of this tragedy I am sure and they try to treat me with as much kindness as they can afford. So, they initiate the proceedings with toiletry, engaging a young girl to apply a magic ointment on my skin, thereby producing an illusion that would deceive the smartest of sleuths from Scotland Yard. Or, hopefully so. As a preamble, she dusts my face with a miniature broomstick and then follows up with other artefacts connected to the art of making up a face. The treatment varies from station to station, but they all end up with a veneer of coloured powder applied with supreme care to every part of my countenance, including, as you might suspect, the top of my head, bereft as it is of vegetation except of the most scraggy kind.

Innocuous enough, you might tend to observe. Behind this facade of innocence though, lurks unsuspected shocks, as I discovered on the aforementioned occasion. It was a shock indeed, for I had no premonition at all of what awaited me as I whistled a light hearted tune standing alone in the elevator on my peaceful way up to the studio floor. As soon as I emerged though, I found to my disappointment that the nimble fingers of the make-up artist were already occupied with the face of an eminent politician, called upon to share the floor with me.

Like mine, his head too did not have too much to boast for itself. But unlike my pate, as I noticed with a feeling bordering on awe and marvel, a profusion of sweat beads shone on his, like the diamonds and rubies that are believed to have glittered on the walls of Sheesh-Mahal, as Anarkali faced a wrathful Emperor Akbar. He had collected these, no doubt, immediately prior to his arrival in the studio while delivering a thunderous speech in some public podium or the other. The girl of course was unaware of the resemblance and used a powder-puff to wipe off the sweat from the guy’s head prior to applying the powder itself. She wiped it dry, thoroughly so mind you, and then leaving this gentleman amply satisfied, she approached me, to my horror and dismay, with intentions that did not appear to me to be too alluring. The same brush, the same mirror, the same comb, the same everything. And, in particular, the same powder-puff, all in battle ready condition, to create illusions in the public mind that I was not who I always thought I was.

I watched her warily as she removed my glasses to apply the broom, or the brush, depending on the way you look at it. And once the intermediate steps were over, she produced the sweat soaked puff, which I was apprehending she would, to wipe my face with infinite tenderness. My first impulse was to run for my life, but the girl’s hypnotic charm held me paralysed, given my admitted weakness towards fair sex. I sat there as immobile therefore as ‘The Thinker’ of Rodin fame, deeply ruminating over the physiology of sweat glands.

And I have continued in that condition till this day, asking myself repeatedly where wisdom dictates the drawing of the line. Frankly, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. Would I have felt disturbed if the puff had explored a fascinating Waheeda physiognomy, instead of the one it slithered over, prior to its landing on mine? I mean, you know what I mean don’t you, would Waheeda’s sweat-soaked powder-puff count the same way in my list of untouchables as her used tooth-brush? Frankly, I am not too sure.

But I am certain that I don’t want to take chances anymore. If they ever drag me over to a studio, I think I will carry my own powder-puff. My only fear though is that the girl in charge may not take too kindly to a man who carries a powder-puff in his pocket. Of course, given that I have lived through more summers than I can remember, she may not really care.

And you know what? I just received a phone call from one of those stations for an interview tonight. Oh s***! I don’t even know where they sell this puff stuff!

A Rambler in the Loo

Takamatsu
Japan
Somewhere in time

Dear Son:

Ever since I reported to you my fateful experience in a Japanese restroom, I have tried my level best to stay clear of any discussion pertaining to that subject. But, as you get older, your resolves start wavering. And then, before you know it, you are back to your infatuation, driving people nuts in the process!

So, here I am, ready to pour out profanities once more. My only defence is that it was you who inspired me this time, by lamenting over the condition of public loos in India. You touched a sensitive chord in me, my son, and there is no way you can stop the tirade anymore, short of committing patricide.

Ah! What a pleasure it is to pontificate on the subject! And what better place to expound on it, except the loo itself? Rather curious this, you know, the Japanese john. The seats are dotted with little light sources, flickering in green, red and orange! And push button switches stare at you tantalizingly when you are at the job. Yet, the explanations written underneath the switches being in Japanese, you feel wary before succumbing to the weakness of pushing one or the other. Hopefully, you might think, the arrangements reflect Japan’s progress in the technology of defecation. But, I must remind you of the immortal scene from Chaplin’s Modern Times, where they had discovered a feeding machine to cut down on workers’ lunch breaks in factories. You cannot help worrying you know. Is this a contraption to make you stop loitering in lavatories? If so, who knows what the push of an innocuous button might lead to? A kick in the bare bottom perhaps? Worse still, suppose it were to activate a centripetal force designed to drag out the contents of your sluggish bowels and, that due to some malfunctioning or the other, it pulled you in instead, lock, stock and barrel! Spending the rest of your life in Japanese sewers is not an appealing prospect, you have got to admit. Pretty close to Dante’s trip through Hell. Even a vague familiarity with the classic would have a sobering influence on ordinary mortals, and prompt them to hold their hands stiffly behind their heads while seated on the suspicious machines.

Well, that at least was the way I was using the toilets till recently. Behind the closed door, I would start out by making apologetic gestures to the bowl itself, resembling Chaplin again in his efforts to appease the boxing rival in City Lights. I dare not sit down before I thought it was adequately propitiated. And even after I succeeded in executing the act of sitting, I remained in terrified agony till I was done. All my mirth gone! No impromptu bathroom singing stirring up my vocal strings! If you were to peep in, my posture might conjure up visions of a bank hold up.

Ever since the Garden of Eden days, however, the strongest of individuals have been seduced. A weakling such as I can hardly be an exception. So, one fateful day in late autumn, I fell! I yielded to the allurement of the all too inviting switches. And discovered the truth in Mephistopheles’ advice to Dr. Faust. Give in to your worst weaknesses, boy, and there follows rich enjoyment. Such indeed was my experience. For, lo and behold! A stream of warm water spouted forth from some region inside the bowl (that I was not acrobatic enough to locate, given the position in which I sat, and imagine the rest of humanity sits when it comes to rendezvous’ with toilet bowls), and began to … ahem! But imagine my surprise as well as glee!

Once you give way to greed, there’s no end to it, as Gautama Buddha would have us believe. So, I pushed yet another switch and almost screamed in delight. The tip of the spout had begun to move around! Gone were my stiffness and fear. Hands no longer behind the head.Bottom no longer petrified. It gyrated instead, in response to the music of the gushing H2O. Or, shall we say the Blue Danube?

Waltzing about the toilet seat reminds me of the great Tailangaswamy waltzing in the Ganges. He was a hermit who, instead of choosing the woods as his hideout, had decided to live in the rivers. Ganges mainly. Was an expert swimmer by all accounts, but had this habit of popping out of the water where least expected and scaring the bathers out of their wits. Partly because he never wore any clothes and insisted on delivering sermons in that state! It appears moreover, and do please forgive me if this spoils your lunch, that he could suck in the river water through his posterior and wash his intestines! In sterile scientific terminology, he had converted involuntary into voluntary muscles. Not a product of the market economy mind you. Pure yoga and that alone!

Amazing, isn’t it? A naked Indian sadhu, performing a trick that makes Japanese technology blush. Or, for that matter, the entire West. One feels proud of the Indian heritage. Unless of course, you stop to consider the other side of the coin. Swamy was polluting river water regularly as a by-product of his yoga stunts. Worse, he inspired all Indians in his vicinity, whether they possessed yogic skills or not, to pollute rivers with impunity, by merrily washing their asses in them. Which they had been doing in any case since the beginning of creation, or at least the birth of the Ganges.

Poor Ganges, enduring it all through the ages! Come to think of it, the blame lies squarely with Vishnu and Narada. In case you haven’t heard, the latter was a Tansen of sorts among the Hindu Gods. His renowned singing simply melted his listeners. Sometimes literally, as was the case with Vishnu, or at least one of his toes. It melted we are told, while its owner was too absorbed in Narada’s singing to notice, and metamorphosing into a gigantic mass of water, went on wandering hither and thither, like a lonely meteorite lost in outer space. Till, completely by chance, it entered the earth’s atmosphere and rushed downwards at ever increasing speed, presumably under the accelerating influence of gravity. No one was around to save you and me and Vishnu was himself too groggy to undo Newtonian laws, despite the fact that a miracle was in order. Sensing which, a team of weeping Gods ran to Mahadeva and pleaded with him to find a way out of the disaster. He was moved at the sight of the lamenting G’s, who, as far as I can make out, had too few miracles in their repertoires, to be able to solve the harder problems of universe on their own. Suggests a distributional inequality in divine society. Some Gods possessing better miracle kits than others. A bit unfair, you’ve got to admit.

M’deva of course was not stingy. Didn’t mind turning on a charm or two for a common cause. So, he came out of his lair and stood under the canopy of the blue sky like a veritable Atlas, waiting to keep back the irresponsible Vishnu’s liquefied toe from crushing down on earth. M’s head, with all his matted hair, was far bigger no doubt than the monstrous proportions of the molten toe. The miniature representations of M that you see in Indian homes are but caricatures of the real one. He has to reduce his size on occasions, to fit the imaginations of nubile Bengali girls, who, since time immemorial, have been taught to pray for husbands as qualified as a dwarfed Shiva. (Apparently, your mother too went through a lot of such rituals in her youth. The result, alas, was me!!) He was so big indeed that when he came out of his den, there was no place left for anyone else. Imagine how big his den was then. This now is a problem again. I seem to be caught between Scylla and Carbides. To save humanity from imminent destruction, M had to assume his full size, but this itself left no place for human beings either. My knowledge of mythology is too limited. So, I don’t know how the Hindus solved the puzzle. The scientifically minded might appeal to Einstein’s theory of an expanding universe. But the rest had better take recourse in nineteenth century romantic poetry, and agree to exercise a wilful suspension of disbelief. In other words, don’t be a bloody bore. Simply assume away the problem and proceed. Which I will.

Just when the holy T was about to submerge creation, M imposed a blockade. The water mass got completely trapped in his hair and could not find its way out. Everyone concerned heaved a sigh of relief and peace returned toearth. (I seem to recall that they plagiarized the idea of a large mass of water in one of Steve Reeves’ Superman films.)

Unfortunately, the poor kid was not allowed to remain concealed for too long. One King Bhagirath found out about her abode and began to grumble that civilization was on the verge of destruction, this time due to a shortage of water. No water to be found anywhere, except for that huge mass of untapped resource, tucked away in M’s hairy crest. By now, M had gone blue under the colossal weight on his head anyway. He must have been only too relieved therefore to unburden himself. Thus, the Ganges you and I know was eased out of Shiva’s head by Bhagirath and carefully guided through the drought-ridden plains of North India. Being a little pompous himself, the chap even called a part of the river Bhagirathi.

It didn’t take T’swamy and his tribe too long to discover the diverse purposes for which they could use the river. Given the choice, I am sure that Ganges would have preferred to freeze back to her pristine state, as Vishnu’s missing toe. But that was not possible, since V didn’t miss his T, as far as I can tell. Nor was M gullible enough to offer his head a second time for her to roost in. Instead, she had to find solace in the fact that she was decreed as unpollutable. The holiest of holies! Do what you like, you can’t defile her. Tonsure your head, take a dip in the river and voila! Your soul is purified forever, even if your body emerges with a dead frog clinging to your chest.

If the stench disturbs you in your quest for purity, it must be an aberration of your mind. As was the case when you visited a public utility in the not too distant past. Wondering, are you, what this last bit means? I guess I have to draw your attention to the scriptures. Appearance, they say, must by all means be distinguished from the essence. The material world around us is merely an illusion, be it the infinite variety of Gangetic scum or the gruesome sight of public conveniences. I actually read about it in a collection of pamphlets called the Upanishads. I am not sure of course if this is what they really said, because it’s one of the most difficult exercises I have ever subjected my poor brain to. Left me devastated for many weeks, till I found out that there were popular versions of the book also, for simpletons like me. The one I located was called the Bhagvad-Geeta. Don’t believe a word though of what they say about this book. It is no more user friendly than its predecessors. Far from making life easier to pursue, it asked me to perform a task that was horrendously difficult: to remain equally undisturbed in happiness and sorrow! I mean, whether it was an Income Tax Officer who summoned me, or Madhuri Dixit. That was the limit I thought. And recall that the Upanishads added on to this an inane corollary: the dissimilarity we perceive between your loo and mine is purely imaginary. Because, nothing actually exists. May be even you and I don’t. Descartes notwithstanding. Cogito without sum!Hey man! The very notion makes me miss a heartbeat, assuming of course that there is a heart for its miserable beat to be missed.

Perhaps M should have kept his philanthropic propensities at bay and let V’s toe carry out the destruction. That would preclude the existence, amongst lesser beings, of polluters of public johns, and amongst greater ones, of polluters of public minds. Those who scare innocent onlookers by spinning ontological paradoxes. Of course, in that event, the Brahmanda itself would have gone up in smoke. And along with it, the anda-s that fertilized into you and me. But then, what’s the point of creating a guy, merely to make him fret day and night that he may not have been created after all?

See what’s happened? Only a minute ago, I was enjoying my solitude, harmlessly pushing buttons here and there. Watching the multicoloured lights blink. Singing paeans to the potty. Not a care in the world. And now someone’s come out with the loony idea that I may not even be! Oh yes! M should definitely have left Vishnu’s toe alone.

And indeed, this is not the only instance of Monsieur Shiva’s indiscretions. On another occasion, he struck terror in the hearts of many by pampering a wicked, wicked chap called Illwal. Had it not been for the self sacrificing Agastya, I wonder where some of us would be hiding today. Possibly deep inside Veerappan’s jungles. In the interest of mankind, Ag’y boy even committed a supremely impolite act in public. But that story, with its sound and fury, must wait for later.

Tons of love.

Dad

My Wife, Vyasdeva and Other Creatures

Date and Place: Sometime, somewhere

Dear Son:

As far as I could make out, your Ma wrote two letters last night. The event was innocuous enough and you are surely wondering what on earth my reason could be for assigning it headline status. But no my son, I haven’t gone ga-ga. So, let me proceed directly to the point, instead of beating around a darned bush.

She wrote the two letters simultaneously, or so at least it appeared to me.

I have seen such feats being performed in circuses of course, which employ guys whose solitary interest in life consists of throwing hundreds of coloured balls into mid air with both hands at the same time that they keep catching them back during their downward descent. With the same two hands. Their own two hands mind you, not hands belonging to others.

It confuses you to no end. I can never be sure if the hands under discussion are engaged in catching or pitching. Normal people would not succeed in performing both acts at the same time to the best of my understanding. These circus guys are not trustworthy people, to say the least, because they remind you in turn of another class of individuals. This latter group invites you to wedding feasts and employs armies of goons to allure you to have one more cutlet, only to move on swiftly with the same request to the guest sitting right next to you, before, that is, you have found the time to make up your mind. You end up your day wavering between hope and despair, feeling as mortified as a Hamlet attacked by “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, unable to figure out if they wanted you to eat the offered piece of grub or give back to them the one you had miraculously snatched away from their iron grip when proceedings began.

Forgive me this detour, son. My mind wanders sometimes, as “lonely as a cloud”, like Wordsworth used to before he bumped into his oft advertised “host of golden daffodils” and withdrew from public view to spend his remaining days “in pensive mood” on a well-appointed “couch”.

Let’s go back therefore to your Ma’s mysterious conduct. Any human being, possessing even a modicum of scientific interest, would be attracted by an event as miraculous as the one I described when I started off. You can’t blame me, in other words, that I felt exercised by the goings on and sneaked up behind her, quite soundlessly, to peep into the works. Given her remarkable extra sensory perception however, she caught me red handed.

She turned around sharply and asked suspiciously, “What are you up to?” To save my skin, I observed that I was merely engaged in adjusting the shawl on her back. While offering this explanation though, I withdrew carefully from her vicinity, guarding my retreat with the additional information that, unknown to her, the shawl had slipped down her back.

“What?” she snapped back even more menacingly. “Since when have you turned so considerate about shawls slipping down my back? Don’t lie. You were trying to read my letters. Don’t you underestimate my intelligence! Why don’t you age a little more gracefully? You will be setting horrible examples for your grandchildren when they start arriving. Leave me in peace, will you?” She wasn’t exactly happy you might say. The tone of her voice made it clear that the “winter of our discontent” had reached freezing temperature.

I attempted to build up a somewhat weak argument in my favour nevertheless and stammered out, “Well you see, I was taken somewhat aback by noticing you — trying to — you know — write two letters … Normally, I don’t think people do this …”

She stared at me with incredulity. “What’s so strange about writing two letters? You write eighty six emails every day yourself. And that too to females you are flirting with. You should be ashamed of yourself. They are young enough to be your great-granddaughters. Adjusting the shawl indeed. My foot! ”

I knew it was not safe to proceed further. The more I attempted to explain, the worse my crime would appear in her eyes. It would only increase her conviction that I was not just reading her letters, but doing so with supreme concentration. For a while, she didn’t pay any further attention to me and resumed the activity she appeared to be enjoying as profusely as nightingales seem to relish their singing. I managed meanwhile to vanish into a relatively secluded corner of the room, slump down on a couch and resign myself to staring at the ceiling. My couch, mind you, not Wordsworth’s, in case you are entertaining thoughts to the contrary.

I admit of course that I did keep sneaking a look every now and then in her direction, forgetting in my senility that curiosity has been recognized since the very dawn of civilization as the most potent of cat killers. And in case you didn’t know, if there is one thing women cannot tolerate more than being interrogated about their personal business, it is the sight of men who gape at them stupidly with interrogative propensities written plainly on their faces, but lacking at the same time the courage to make themselves audible.

“Stop staring at me and leave me alone will you,” she said with a final warning and went back to the two aerogrammes she had before her. She resumed writing on them. It appeared as though she was comparing notes, assimilating the contents of one and then going back to filling in the gaps in the other and vice versa. Unless you can write with both hands, this is the nearest you can come to writing the letters simultaneously, right?

My mind was lost in contemplation you might say till I realized what she was probably upto. She was actually writing two letters simultaneously to two of her friends simply to make sure that she didn’t end up writing the same letter to both. Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Let me explain further. The gossips she wished to report to her friends, I felt sure, were the same, she being too lazy to find varieties of topics for her correspondents’ entertainment. So, the little woman was just trying to keep the styles in the two letters distinct, using active voice in one and passive voice in the other, present continuous in one and past perfect in the other and so on and so forth. I was pretty confident about the conclusion I had arrived at.

Yet, despite the satisfactory solution I had found to the problem that had been holding me in a state of suspended animation, I sank into a deeper reverie, wondering how it was that I had never realized in the past that I was married to a literary genius. And genius indeed, for there was only one other case that I could recall where something similar is said to have happened. Of course, I did not actually witness the incident. I mean it was not as though I had observed the happenings the way I did last night, but Hindus have been insisting on this from time immemorial and I have no reason to question the wisdom of my forefathers.

It appears that Vyasdeva, the same guy who wrote the Mahabharata you know, a story involving a number of people he had himself fathered, felt acutely productive when he decided to write his epic. He vowed therefore, somewhat in the spirit of your mother, to compose several chapters of the epic simultaneously! However, being more prolific than her, V buddy actually wanted to write about ten chapters at a time, compared to the two silly letters your poor mom undertook to compose simultaneously. Besides, the brilliant V also knew that his chapters wouldn’t resemble your mother’s letters, which were, mutatis mutandis, xeroxed copies of each other.

You can’t blame him of course. Given the size of the enterprise he had undertaken, viz. producing grandchildren, making them grow up and fight battles and then recording the happenings in a form that permitted TV serialization for several years in a row, he definitely needed to compose as many chapters as he could in one go to keep generations of yet to be born TV producers happy. He had the story worked out in detail in his mind of course, but what stood in the way was that, like you and me and most of the people we know, he possessed two hands in all. And, as far as my information goes, it was only one of these that he could actually write with. He decided therefore to employ a stenographer of sorts to dictate to, ten chapters at a time. The task was super-human, needless to say, and no ordinary stenographer would do. Besides, advertisements and interviews involved a great deal of trouble in that age, there being no newspapers, no space in the tapovanas to seat the candidates. And V. Deva was in any case too poor to pay for TA/DA etc.

You must be doubtlessly aware, however, that important members of the human race had direct access to the Gods during those days. Indeed, the Gods were at times embarrassingly obsequious in their dealings with these men, the so called powerful munis and rishis. Maharshi V belonged to this category according to most of the learned sources I was able to consult. So, he made a long distance collect-call to Lord Ganesha. It had to be a collect call you see, because Vyas-ji didn’t believe in paying his phone bills. And the reason why V chose G to pay the bill was that the latter was generally acknowledged to be more educated than his peers in the land of the Gods, Paradise presumably. He was expected to commit fewer spelling mistakes than most other Gods, except Devi Saraswati of course. But Vyas, however insensitive he might have been, did not have the heart to employ her as his steno. Besides, even if he had, she would have only two hands to write with, while Ganesha had a special advantage in being endowed with four, with all of which he felt equally at ease as far as writing went.

The story goes that G flew in, bearing four pens in four hands, brimming with confidence in his ability to finish the task at supersonic speed. But he made Vyasdeva sign a contract before he began. Vyas would need to dictate continuously. Or, to put it more clearly, G insisted that the deal was off if his pens stopped writing even for a micro-millisecond on account of a slowdown in Vyas’ prolific flow of ideas. Indeed, those in the know of things inform me that he had even shown some vanity by trying to suppress a disparaging smile. Vyas did not miss this, though I have no idea what such a suppressed smile looks like on an elephantine face.

As we noted, these sages in human shape were pretty powerful guys and Maharshi V, to teach Lord G a lesson, immediately shifted gear to make his mind travel at the speed of light. This inconvenienced G in no small way. For, although highly accomplished, he was ignorant of the fact that light was not just supersonic, it travelled a lot more quickly than sound. It did so even during Satya Yuga. Consequently, he had to request his employer to slow down somewhat, a humiliation from which he never quite recovered. Come to think of it, there is a bit of an error in this, because V, even if he thought at lightning speed, could not possibly have made himself audible to Ganesha at a speed exceeding that of sound. So, why was G embarrassed, if his stenographic skills had a supersonic rating?

It is quite possible that G had overestimated himself. And those who know their scriptures well seem to believe that a distinct patch of yellow showed on his dhoti where it covered his not too inconspicuous rear. Much the same thing happened to Pankaj Roy, the cricketer I mean, way back in 1959, when he faced Wesley Hall of West Indies in Eden Gardens.

I wonder though why the Lord did not venture to use, along with the four hands, his elephant’s trunk as well as his two legs to finish the monumental task. Perhaps that could have done more justice to his self-respect. But who knows, may be Vyas would feel insulted by the act. And in that case, he would surely shoot an avishaapa at Ganesha and turn him, for all I know, into a full-fledged elephant roaming the Kaziranga National Park. Unlike the MP’s and MLA’s, who are the best approximations of Gods these days, the ones who controlled human destiny in the distant past had to exercise utmost caution in their dealings with some of the same humans. So, Ganesha, in spite of all his bulk, was forced to do a balancing act on the tight rope.

If Ganesha appeased V. Deva by crawling at his dictate, I too had to do something similar to keep your dear mother in good humour. She gave me one of the two letters this morning and asked me to run to the post office and send it off. As soon as I came back home however, tongue hanging loose between my teeth, tail drooping, she gave me the other letter and asked me to run again.

I doubt that I shall ever find out the epic contents of her letters. But I do think I know why she made me run. First, not being scientifically oriented, she believes that a letter reaches its destination more quickly if one runs to the post box. And being as scared of her temper as Ganesha was of Vyas’, I did follow her order to the last letter.

I also have a vague notion now why the letters were not posted simultaneously, even though they were written together. Your Ma has become rather friendly with the lady next door. The latter is a dog lover and gives her pets morning exercises in the public park everyday. Your mother, I think, was merely trying out a variation on that theme by imagining that she too had a pet in the house.

Tons of love.

Baba

Paradise Regained: A Hairy Tale

Part 1

“Roop Parivartan Saloon” is a barbershop that has recently come up across the street from my residence. As the name suggests in no uncertain terms, it is an outfit devoted to a noble cause, the uplifting of the look-wise deprived and downtrodden, of social outcasts if you will, by imparting to their indifferent personalities the magnetic charm of a Gregory Peck or a Richard Gere! To settle all doubts on this score moreover, there is a painting hanging above the glass paneled swing door at the entrance of the shop, depicting the consequence of undergoing the promised transformation: a bunch of shapely females gazing in admiration at a clean-shaven man of indeterminate age, in blue jeans and a red tee shirt, sporting a flamboyantly futuristic hair style and flashing a toothy smile.

Though I am not young any more, I am utterly inclined towards surrender, whenever the prospect of worldly pleasures rears its head. My days normally arrive promise-laden therefore, luring me, as I muse with half-closed eyes in the comfort of an abundantly cushioned chair on my balcony, to hop into a brightly painted glider aircraft and take off for the unknown. Across endless skies stretching over distant hills, where hoards of captivating wood nymphs dance and sing to the murmuring approval of glittering waterfalls solely for my entertainment.

There is, however, a fly in the very ointment of my existence, the embarrassing state of the top of my head, congenitally inclined as it is towards barrenness. A lonesome plot of land as it were, deprived of vegetation except of the most rudimentary variety. Awareness of that fact often keeps my burning enthusiasm on leash, even as I ogle at females passing in front of my strategically appointed corner on the balcony. Unlike my dreamy experiences with wood nymphs, I am painfully aware on these occasions that the attention I shower on the damsels remains woefully unreciprocated.

The injustice jars me to no end. If a wigless Yul Bryner could have paired with ravishing beauties like Deborah Kerr and Ingrid Bergman, if Mausumi swooned at the sight of Rakesh Roshan in full knowledge of his phoney crest, why can lesser mortals not entertain somewhat mediocre hopes at least? Not appointments at Madame Tussauds for sure. But why not bouts of mortal bliss once at least in a blue moon?

And then one day, my prayers appeared to reach their destination. Or else why should Roop Parivartan Saloon materialize out of nothingness like the palace Aladdin sprung on the Sultan to woo his daughter? It is hardly surprising that the Saloon cast a spell of sorts over me from the very day of its inauguration. It loomed large before me like an irresistible fruit, suspended from the branch of a forbidden tree. Throwing caution to the winds therefore, I walked past the swing door one lonely afternoon in November in pursuit of an appearance that would raise me to the rank of the man whose picture hung at the shop entrance and seated myself on a barber’s chair right next to the window facing the street, just in case Aishwariya Rai happened to be peeping in approval.

My burning enthusiasm, however, sustained an initial jolt. I appeared to be the monarch of all I surveyed in the shop, or, to add a sci-fi touch to the metaphor, a miserable robot in search of life forms in Martian wilderness. I peered with concern into the back of the shop, where dark shadows lurked over mounds of undefined forms. Silence, however, reigned supreme and after a few more moments of solitary confinement, I decided that Roop Parivartan Saloon was probably a shelter built by a worthy philanthropist for the rest of humanity to sit inside and ruminate over illusions of change in a changeless universe. Not exactly my cup of tea, I began to think, when I perceived a movement from the corner of my eye somewhere near the aforementioned back-of-the-shop. Turning around with alacrity, I detected a diminutive human form emerging out of one of the mounds located thither, like a Valmiki aroused from transcendental meditation.

He rubbed a pair of drowsy eyes with one hand while his other hand gesticulated behind him in search of an unoccupied sleeve of a greyish barber’s robe hanging listlessly from his shoulders. He tripped over a side table of sorts in the process, toppling a lump of alum lying on it and then jumped forward with a shriek to catch it back in midair with the hand so far occupied with sleeve exploring to prevent it from splintering on the floor. The impromptu athletic performance impressed me to no end, for I found myself wondering if his name should be recommended as a substitute fielder for cricket teams during hours of crisis.

Beaming therefore at the man with confidence, I felt that I might well be able, with his aid, to turn myself into an object of visual appeal. The man too, it seemed, had been sufficiently restored to life by the exercise, for a confident smile now spread across his lips, above which his welcoming eyes twinkled under an arched pair of bushy eyebrows, set against an abundant backdrop of long, dark hair. His head, in other words, was richly endowed, a man with a mane he was, a shiny dark stallion, a comrade to be relied upon by the drought-devastated cranium owners of the world.

He appeared to possess a voice too, and a melodious one at that, which he employed now to the best possible advantage. “Do sit down, sit down sir. Make yourself comfortable,” he sang out in a clear baritone, restoring me back to my seat and my mind to its peaceful state. With practised skill he produced a clean sheet to cover up my torso, which now was relaxing back in the chair, ready to witness the transformation of the ungainly burden it had supported all its life, namely, my head. And then he pirouetted back at the barber’s appointed place behind the customer’s chair and waited in respectful attention, as we watched each other in the mirror I faced.

And waited, … and waited. His eyes expressed query, but his body stood motionless. This total inaction, following hard upon a magnificent display of physical agility, was disconcerting, but I assumed for a while that he was collecting his thoughts, as God himself might have done, immediately prior to the big bang of creation.

The mirror, like the one that had gotten Snow White into trouble with the wicked queen, revealed all this quite faithfully: a petrified barber staring at the reflection of the mystified customer, a shrouded body, and an assortment of barber’s tools and pomades on the table. Excellent subject for a still life portrait, fit though for a painters’ salon more than a barber’s workshop.

After several moments of passive interlude, he found back his voice. “Is there any way I may help you sir?” he said somewhat uncertainly I thought. His tone of speech clearly suggested that the nature of service I sought appeared to him to be fraught with ambiguity. Confusion reared its head therefore between the barber and his customer, as I asked myself simultaneously if he truly believed that I had walked into his shop with the intention of posing as an artist’s model.

I realized that the man’s questioning mind needed to be attended to. I cleared my throat therefore and he cleared his in sympathy, without disturbing the afore-described composition. I raised my questioning eyebrows — he arched his even further in response. Then I twisted my lips into a smile, to which he reacted with equanimity. There being little room for further experiments with the pantomime, I proffered the first lead for a conversation.

“Shoot,” said I with suppressed impatience.

The man was startled out of his composure rather violently. “What?” he managed to utter, as he arrested himself a second time from falling flat on his face. And then stammered nervously, “Whom? I mean, why?”

“No one man. No one,” I guaranteed him. “Start the proceedings. Shoot, my dear fellow, shoot your skill at my skull”.

He heaved a clear sigh of relief and beamed back a happy smile. “Oh yes, yessir … but I am wondering …,” his voice trailed off.

“So am I good man, so am I. And what, may I ask, is it that you are wondering about?” I was at the peak of my leadership drive.

He considered in silence, but not for long. “I was wondering sir, whether you wanted to go for the German technology or the Korean. The latter would cost you less for sure, but the former is likely to be more dependable.”

Part 2

My poise was under siege once again! I looked up sharply at the mirror to study the man, and then turned around for confirmation. No, there was no illusion in this, the chap stood there as solidly as the Rock of Gibraltar. And upon being requested to repeat what he had said, he summarized in unmistakable terms what I thought he had said indeed. Did I wish it the German way or the Korean way? An innocent question that didn’t appear to admit any simple answer. Or any answer at all for that matter.

Armies of doubts invaded once again. Oh no, no, no. This is neither a barbershop nor a philanthropist’s gift to instill philosophical awareness amongst the masses! This is clearly a head shrink’s chamber, rather than a head-beautifier’s, a hideout for loonies to hibernate in. And a mad man in the guise of a barber is to be treated with apprehension and dread, for barbers are known to carry about them razors, scissors, and other implements invented solely for the delight of the homicidally inclined.

I knew, however, that my only hope of survival lay in keeping the maniac engaged in conversation. So I smiled again with admirable effort. I could have patted myself on the back for being able to smile in the face of impending annihilation, but was prevented from doing so, given the somewhat complicated yogic posture I was tied up into at the moment, torso facing mirror and face facing the diametrically opposite side of the room.

“I don’t really care, you know,” I winked with feigned mischief, “so long as you manage to give my hair a Gregory Peck like dress up.” And then added on second thoughts, “Or at least one like Harrison Ford’s. A few rupees here and there make little difference.”

The man looked disturbed. He considered my question for a long moment and then transforming his bushy eyebrows into  perfect semicircles, scratched the back of his head, hidden somewhere under its deep, dark, hairy cover. “Hari-son, sir?” he finally uttered in some bewilderment. And then, shaking his head vigorously, concluded with renewed confidence, “No, sir. No. I think you mean Behari-son, sir. My father was Beharilal.” To remove all doubts moreover, he declared with a happy smile, “And I, sir, am Pyarilal. Call me Pyari, sir. That’s the name they all call me by.”

A contorted human shape in a barber’s chair under the watchful glare of a lunatic climbing up a family tree, would be a reasonable artist’s impression of the state to which events had transpired now. Not being artistically disposed though, I decided to startle him and while his attention was diverted, run for freedom. I produced therefore a noise that came close to a snarl and then glowering at him I yelled, “To hell with Behar and Pyar! Concentrate instead on hair. Hair, you understand? Hair!” My voice rose to a deafening pitch as I uttered the last bit.

The words I had shouted seemed to have made an impression at last. I heard him mutter to himself, “Hair? Hair?” He looked to his left, then to his right, then behind him and finally, as though to leave nothing to chance, he looked up at the ceiling. If there was anything he was looking for, he did not discover it. Nothing but emptiness greeted him from all sides. Then he slowly turned his puzzled gaze at me. And said again, “Hair?”

“Do you mean your hair sir?” he mumbled on with studied politeness.

“Who else’s,” said I in irritation, “certainly not yours!”

“Please do not lose your cool sir,” he replied with assurance. “I have no intention of offending you.” Following which, he proceeded to make amends as it were by caressing my sparsely camouflaged scalp with something akin to motherly affection, an action mind you, which cannot possibly stimulate filial sentiments, unless of course it was your mom in person who was engaged in the job. He added patiently thereafter in a voice drenched with the milk of human kindness, “I can’t detect any hair at all on your head you see, and that is why I had suggested that you go for the new technology. Hair grafting I mean, though I admit that the German method is overpriced. But senior citizens normally prefer the Korean technology. Perhaps that’s what you ought to consider too … since, after all, you know, you are unlikely to …” His speech stuttered to a stop here, in a somewhat un-motherly manner I thought.

Insult over injury. He’s no loony at all. Quite to the contrary in fact. The chap’s not merely casting aspersions on my baldness; he seems also to be implying at the same time that I was on the wrong side of ninety-three. My assessment was accurate, for as I gaped back at him, the deferential look in his eyes slowly disappeared and the emotions on his face underwent a series of changes, from confusion through concern and compassion, and finally to what unmistakably looked like glee.

He proceeded with some satisfaction now. “You see sir, I attend to two classes of clients. Those with hair,” he said pointing at the profusion on his head, “and those without, such as …,” he was about to point at me, but sense appeared to prevail as he quickly withdrew the accusing finger. “Once again, please do not take offence sir,” he pleaded. “The first type asks for haircuts and the second invariably opts for grafting. Seeing the state of your scalp, I would certainly recommend grafting, cutting being a contradiction in terms.”

I distinctly perceived a grin now on his face, and then a noise emerged from a hidden recess in him that appeared to resemble a giggle. He was preparing too, I gathered, to recede back towards the darker background of the shop from where he had materialized half an hour ago. Facetious scoundrel I thought, as I stared back at him chalking out a course of action. And I was quick too, for emulating his own athletic dexterity I jumped out of the chair and caught him by the collar. Hairless persons get particularly sour when the conversation veers around to hair related matters. Jokes on baldness, in other words, are normally not tolerated in the vicinity of a baldy himself. The man tried to escape but in the tussle that followed I managed to reach for the luxuriant growth on his head. I shall pluck out every bit of hair from his head I decided and make him suffer the rest of his existence in hairless ignominy. And I pulled at his hair with all the strength I could muster.

But, to my total disbelief, the hair gave way without any struggle at all. I found myself holding the man by his collar with my left hand, while my right held on to the enchanting bouquet that decorated his head only a minute ago. And there stood before me a person that I was seeing for the first time in my life. With a head as bereft of flora as the Sahara desert. It took me a while to figure out that the object I held in my hand was a wig, and a magnificently crafted one at that, one that the most sought after Bollywood stars would proudly slip on.

The surprising course of events diverted my attention from the collar I held with one hand to the hairy mass in my other palm. Taking advantage of the distraction though, he managed to break loose and disappear into the darkness. And then there was complete silence once again. I was back, in other words, to where proceedings had started.

Despite the puzzlement, it was my turn now to snigger. I looked back at the mirror and admired myself. Roop Parivartan Saloon had indeed instilled in me a state of confidence that I had never experienced in the past when my hairlessness attracted public attention. In addition, I also understood now what had taken the fool so long to show up as I had waited for him in the chair after my initial entry in the shop. The miserable thing was obviously adjusting its wig prior to appearing on stage!

Which brings me, my friends, to the end of this hairy episode. Hamlet’s standing notwithstanding, as the Killjoy of the Millennium, and his hallucinations about regimented bands of sorrows conspiring to carry out flank attacks on mankind precisely when it was busy protecting its rear, I have turned into a staunch optimist. Never indeed shall I need to kneel in hairless disgrace! If Pyarilal the barber can disguise himself, so can others. Including the living beauties that treat me with disdain. True, I shall never pull at their hair and put my hypothesis to test. But henceforth I can afford to sit unembarrassed on my balcony chair whenever fancy dictates and dream of Rani Mukherjee whispering sweet nothings into my ear.

Contrary to received wisdom in other words, a bird in the bush, or a nymph in the wood, could well be worth a million at hand.

Drawing by Argha Bagchi

Is Life Worth Living? It Depends Upon the Liver

Professor Lionel W. McKenzie

Professor Lionel W. McKenzie, who supervised my PhD thesis (jointly with Professor James W. Friedman) at the University of Rochester, NY, walked in on a spring morning to the departmental lounge for his cup of coffee, which he used to consume jointly with the New York Times. There were a few others present in the room at the time, including Richard Thaler, who now holds a prestigious chair at the Chicago University Business School. If I am not incorrectly informed, Dick was recently short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Economics for his original work on Behavioral Economics! On that particular morning though, he was merely a graduate student, my class mate in fact, pontificating on his dissertation topic. The topic was: How does one put an economic value on human life? Or, more simply, what’s the value of a human life? Not an easy subject, since human beings are not available for sale in the market. Slavery after all was an institution of the past.

We had no idea that the venerable professor was listening to the discussion, so engrossed he seemed to be in the newspaper. It was a total surprise to us therefore, when, on his way out of the lounge after he had finished his coffee, Professor McKenzie suddenly turned around to face the group engaged in the discussion. And then, in a stentorian voice that rang through the department, he said:

“Guys, let me assure you, human life’s not worth a s***!!”

Saying so, he guffawed and vanished into his office without waiting for a response. On that far away morning, all of us took his statement as an innocent joke and had a good laugh at Dick Thaler’s expense.

~~~

Now, almost 40 years later, Lionel McKenzie’s joke has returned to me with a vengeance and I have begun to wonder if his statement calls for rethinking. Given the events that have overtaken the contemporary world, I can’t help asking myself, “Had he made a prophesy? What indeed is the value of a human life in the world we inhabit today?”

Needless to say, terrorism has assumed a form now that raises serious questions about the value that humanity attaches to living. Indeed, one hears stories about emerging terror outfits where well-defined sums of money are spent to convert young individuals to human bombs. The science of economics would probably view this as a production process that converts inputs (living human beings) to outputs (exploding human bombs). However, to the extent that these people are moved by a cause, one can at least attempt to explain the phenomenon in non-market terms. Beliefs, after all, are not marketable commodities. (I think Richard Thaler would have a lot to say on this matter.)

However, two events have truly opened up a Pandora’s Box of problems in this context. The first was the case of an Infosys trainee who committed suicide at the unthinkably young age of 22, apparently because he could not deal with the pressures and the uncertainties surrounding his professional life. The second event was even more mind boggling. An insurance agent killed himself because he couldn’t afford to book a Nano! Apparently he had a working wife who still paid the monthly installments for a two wheeler they owned. She had allegedly refused to help her husband to fulfill his Nano dream, since she earned only Rs. 10,000.00 a month. If the media is to be believed, she had even suggested that they book the Nano after her two-wheeler loan was repaid. He couldn’t wait, however, and took his life.

I am afraid that I can’t fathom the depth of despair that could have led to these two incidents. In fact, however tragic, I find the two persons to have been driven by motives that were shallow at best. Why, one might ask, do we live? And the only answer to the question that my mediocre mind is suggesting today is: We live because every bit of life is worth living. Life is beautiful despite the struggles we endure. I can’t help being reminded of Sysiphus, who had defied his Creator by refusing to cow down before the absurdity of his existence. He would live on even if God himself had sent him the message that life for him was utterly meaningless!! Despite absurdities, despite ignominies, life is much too unique to be dispensed with so easily.

It is terrifying to bear the burden of losing one’s job, but is it more terrifying than engaging in an act of destruction that one can never undo? Such as bombing out of existence the Bamyan Buddhas? Can there be any index of material success at all that, if not achieved, justifies self-destruction? I tend to believe today that the answer to this question is a solid “NO”.

~~~

And it is not without proof that I have arrived at this conclusion. Not far away from my residence, there is a busy crossing where I have come across a young man several times in the recent past. He stands under the shade of a tree if he can find one and, in the blistering heat, distributes free pamphlets to passers by. They are small square sheets of paper with a message that few will be gullible enough to accept at face value. I have now received this piece of paper from him several times and even read it. It’s an advertisement by an unknown private organization that one could make a small earning sitting at home.

The look of the young man, who has obviously been employed by the company to distribute the slips, suggests to me that he has hailed from a normal middle class family. For a motive I will never try to prod into, he has been forced to accept this imaginably low paying job. But he accomplishes his task with total commitment.

His devotion to his work is only too evident, since most people who happen to pass that way avoid him like a leper. Many of them must have occasionally accepted his scrap of paper in the past and discovered its garbage value. And now, except for newcomers, most members of his targeted population make a small semi-circular detour before they are within his reach and ignore the proffered piece of paper in total disdain. I cannot imagine that he is brimming with enthusiasm to spread the news, especially so when the temperature hovers in the neighborhood of 42 degrees celcius. Yet, and this is what fascinates me most about the man, he has a special friendly smile reserved for each person who accepts the slip and he invariably follows it up with two pleasant words: “Thank you!”

It is all too straightforward to see that he has added a personal touch to this job, thereby making his task far more bearable for him than it would otherwise have been. More importantly, his innovative skill even for a job as small as this will sooner or later impress his employer and, hopefully, raise him higher up in the organization.

I think his fear of losing the job is no less intense than that of the well-trained Infosys employee. He would be no less pleased to buy a Nano than the insurance agent, knowing fully well that it was an empty dream. Yet, he lives. He lives because life is far too precious to be thrown away.

~~~

And now going back to my professor, he lives even today, believe it or not. He lost his wife as well as grown up children. He has crossed 90 and has few he can claim to be close relatives. Yet, though retired, he travels to the university regularly to attend academic seminars. His mind is still active and by all indications, he enjoys life. He is a living counter-example of the statement he made long ago. He has failed as a prophet but succeeded with flying colors as a human being. For a reason that has baffled his best students, he was not offered the Nobel Prize in Economics. But he did receive the Emperor’s Medal in Japan, a rare honor in that country as well as the rest of the world.

On receiving my condolence message after his daughter’s death, he had written back to me: “Believe me, it’s very hard to bear.”

But he has borne it with enormous strength for more than five years now. He is alive. He is kicking. Here is the New Year’s Greeting Message I received from him in January:

Dear Dipankar :

Thank you so much for the gorgeous table cloth* you sent me. I put it on my dining room table immediately. I am a little late responding since I had a small heart attack on Dec. 18. But I am in pretty good shape now.

Best wishes.

Lionel

P.S. On Jan. 26 I will be 90 years old!!

And this was followed up by an e-mail that said:

Dear Dipankar:

… The department gave me a lovely 90th birthday party on January 26. I think I may have lived too long but I still enjoy life. I go into the department every Wednesday for cookies and tea with colleagues. Also I gave an account of my research life to one of the graduate classes the other day which they seem to have appreciated.

With warm regards, Lionel**

____________________________

* Incidentally, the table cloth in question was a cashmere shawl my wife and I had sent him as a New Year Gift. He mistook it for a table cloth. What matters to us most, however, is that he loved it! Also, I was elated to know that he was born on January 26, which is India’s Republic Day. I am elated not on account of nationalist pride, but because I was born in turn on August 15, India’s Independence Day!!

** Lionel McKenzie passed away at 2 AM, October 12, 2010.

(This article was originally written in January, 2010.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

To Sir With Love

Professor Dipak Banerjee

Words, however beautifully strung together, are ultimately a weak device for capturing as complicated an object as a human being. Sizes of vocabularies notwithstanding, words are arithmomorphic or discrete by nature, while life is a continuum. A piano recital, irrespective of the quality of the performance, cannot capture the sheen of a bow drawn smoothly across violin strings or, for that matter, a deft sarodist’s nimble fingers. It is well to admit at the very outset therefore that it is more than a daunting task to sum up any person at all by means of words alone, leave alone a person as colourful as Professor Dipak Banerjee.*

It is hardly a coincidence that it is music that starts one off in his stroll down memory lane in search of Professor Banerjee. Amongst the many legends that will surround his name in the years to come, music probably will occupy pride of place. No student or friend who had ever come within his close periphery could have escaped being treated to the vast treasure house of classical music he built during his life. One recalls countless evenings when he would play recorded private performances of Vilayet Khan or Amir Khan on his music system for the entertainment of his visitors and relate anecdotes about great musicians in general, involving their amusing angularities as well as awesome genius.

Yet, Dipak Babu was primarily an economist who spent his entire career teaching undergraduates at Presidency College, Kolkata. And it is precisely here that mere words fail to construct the links that unify the diversity constituting a given human being, He joined the Department of Economics in the late fifties when he was freshly back from the London School of Economics with a glorious performance record and was one of the many stalwarts who adorned the college during those days. The leading personality at the time was Professor Bhabatosh Datta of course, a remarkable teacher endowed with a prophetic vision. It was mainly he who had assembled the glittering collection of young academics around him. Dipak Babu was one of them, but Professor Tapas Majumdar, Professor Nabendu Sen, Professor Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Professor Mihir Rakkhit, Professor Amiya Bagchi and many others stood out also.

There is little doubt though that Dipak Babu was the most charismatic of them all. Like the rest of his colleagues, he was a dedicated and a demanding teacher. In this connection, what distinguished him most from the others was his immaculate British accent. I am not competent enough to judge which part of the United Kingdom his accent owed its origin, but there is little doubt in my mind that it was as authentic as one could get. Unfortunately though, for the average student, freshly out of Bengali medium schools, it was somewhat challenging to follow his speech. Thus, quite invariably, he inspired fear in the hearts of many to begin with. Sooner or later though, the soft student loving person emerged in full view, and except for the few students who remained completely stubborn, he invariably ended up winning them over to his side.

Professor Banerjee taught theory all his life and made his students appreciate the beauty of pure logical reasoning with examples from economics. It was not easy though to fall in line with his unflinching attachment to this method of argumentation. But once a student saw the point he had made, it was literally impossible to forget what he had implied. And the reason was that, despite his strict adherence to rigour, he tried to lay bare the basic structure of arguments in terms so simple that even school children might be able to grasp it easily. I recall in this context how he explained to me the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. “When it rains”, he said, “the leaves begin to shake in the trees.” And then added, “The leaves could shake for other reasons too, so it is not necessary for them to shake only when it rains.” Perhaps others, with more logical minds, would not need matters to be explained in such an elementary manner. But I can certainly vouch that, after listening to this explanation, I never made a mistake in later life in distinguishing between a necessary and a sufficient condition.

And while all these events were taking place and some of us were getting closer to the man, we were being introduced to the other facets of the man. As I found out, he was enormously well read in English as well as Bengali literature and often suggested some work of fiction or the other, which I at least never failed to lay my hands on. He was also interested in History, but I never managed to access his knowledge house here, given that I was too ignorant about the subject and, more importantly, was even arrogant enough to believe that it was not particularly relevant for economic pursuits. By the time I realized my unforgivable error, it was somewhat late in life to start afresh.

It has often been pointed out that Dipak Babu did not do much research. This, to say the least, is an unfair criticism of the man. First of all, he never left the confines of an undergraduate college, where teaching is supposed to receive priority. The latter responsibility he carried out with admirable efficiency. Secondly, as a part of the faculty attached to the Centre for Economic Studies, he produced a scholar, Professor Ramprasad Sengupta, who achieved international repute. And finally, Dipak Babu himself wrote a reasonably difficult paper on lexicographic ordering and published it in a front ranking journal.** To the best of my knowledge, he did this last bit of work as a faculty at the London School, immediately prior to his visit to the University of California at Berkeley. He joined Presidency College a second time immediately after this, now as a full professor.

Given the sharpness of his mind and varied interests, one wonders nonetheless why he remained attached to an undergraduate college all his life and did not seek a regular position in a research-oriented institution. It is hard to come up with an explanation that is absolutely satisfactory. However, I do think that there were two distinct reasons why he did not spend too much time on research. First, he was himself an uncompromising perfectionist. As is often the case with such persons, he was probably dissatisfied with anything that was not top class. Finding entry into this class was certainly not beyond his ability. But what stood in the way I think, and this is the second reason I alluded to above, was his love for the college itself and the students he taught there. Presidency College has had the tradition of attracting some of the best students from state of West Bengal and outside Bengal as well as India. Teaching them was a pleasure that he could not deny himself. There was a time allocation question therefore and he opted for teaching in favour of research. However, while he clung on to teaching all his life, his was a familiar face in all major conferences in Kolkata. He sat patiently through each and every paper, however abstruse, right till the time the serious nature of his illness restricted his mobility.

The result of course was that he produced a continuous stream of internationally well-known students. The fact that he was held in high esteem by them requires no better proof than the publication a book in his honour.*** Four stalwarts whom Dipak Babu taught in the undergraduate class edited the book and they were Bhaskar Dutta, Shubhashis Gangopadhyay, Dilip Mookherjee and Debraj Ray. A large number of eminent scholars contributed to this collection, including Amitava Bose, Mukul Majumdar, Sugata Marjit, Tapan Mitra, Anjan Mukherji, Abhirup Sarkar and last but not least, Dipak Babu’s illustrious son Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee. The fact that these established researchers found it worth their while to create a volume exclusively in honour of Professor Banerjee goes to show only too clearly the opinion his students had of him, that these students, who have themselves risen so high in research, did not consider Professor Banerjee to be lacking in any way as far as original thinking went.

Reminiscing about Dipak Babu invariably brings back to one’s mind yet another aspect of his interests – gastronomy. He loved good food and was extremely well informed about the right places to visit for each particular item one might wish to look for. When I was a young research scholar in Presidency College, he took pleasure in educating me about the joints to visit for a wide range of victuals, varying from soft Bengali sandesh adorned with rose petals to exotic Lucknow style kebabs. I was never as adventurous as he was, but nonetheless managed to visit a few of the restaurants and food shops he recommended. Needless to say, the experiences I had each time remain firmly etched in my memory.

I recall in this connection an interesting comment he made to me quite recently. On my way back from trips outside India, I often made it a point to buy a bottle of Scotch for Dipak Babu, who, I was sure, enjoyed his drink. During one of my recent trips, I became somewhat more ambitious compared to my previous trips and picked up a bottle of Johnny Walker – Blue Label from a shelf in a duty free shop. When I did so, Dipak Babu loomed large in my mind and soon after I was back home, I made a beeline for his residence with the bottle. I hoped he would like the present I had brought him, but never expected to hear what he said about the way he thought a Blue Label was supposed to be consumed. “You don’t drink this”, he advised with a wink in his eye, “you lick it”.

He wanted me to join him in the licking exercise right away, but not being a connoisseur, I had to decline the offer. Even if I had accepted his invitation, I doubt that I would have been able to live up to his standards concerning the modalities of Scotch drinking. And that, amongst others, was one important reason why I decided to beat a hasty retreat. I have little doubt that I had disappointed him as a student of economics, and I did not want my failures to extend to broader domains of life.

Let me end up with anecdotes I have heard from my seniors about the way Dipak Babu survived during his initial years in England. He was exposed, we are told, to harsh realities of life as he worked in a variety of menial capacities in London and probably elsewhere too in the country. Some say he had carried heavy bags of coal on his shoulders in coalmines for meagre wages to keep his body and soul together. I have no idea about the veracity of many of these stories. But there was one that I had straight from the horse’s mouth. He told me that he had once been working in the kitchen of a well-known London restaurant, washing dishes mainly. While he was labouring at his job, an excited waitress came rushing in to announce that none other than Charles Chaplin was visiting the restaurant in the company of his wife (Oona Chaplin probably). This was a chance of a lifetime and Dipak Babu left his dishes in the sink and rushed to the kitchen door to have a close glimpse of the master.

What he did not know at the time I felt was that a time would soon arrive when students from all across the city of Kolkata and elsewhere would be flocking around his office to have a glimpse of Dipak Babu himself. Those who have not had the good fortune of knowing him in his younger days would probably not appreciate the importance of this observation. I do not have the slightest hesitation in saying that he was the handsomest professor that Presidency College ever had. It was a treat to watch him walk into the college with his self-confident swagger, wearing his tweeds in winter. The swagger never left him. This was all too evident when he was mortally sick but refrained from complaining about his sufferings to his visitors.

To the last day of his life, I believe that he retained his ability to enjoy a well-rendered “alap” in Hindustani classical music or an abstract argument in economics, while sipping leisurely his premium scotch, with Professor (Mrs.) Nirmala Banerjee, Mini-di to us, a wonderfully loving wife and a solid, life long companion, at his side.

_____________________

* The present obituary avoids biographical references to Professor Dipak Banerjee. These are adequately covered in the Preface to Economic Theory and Policy: Essays in Honour of Dipak Banerjee, ed. by Bhaskar Dutta et al , Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1990.

** Choice and Order: Or First Things First, Economica, New Series, Volume 31, pp. 158 – 167, May, 1964.

*** Dutta et al (1990) , op. cit.

Plutonic Love

A squall signals the arrival of rain. It is a typical monsoon afternoon in Kolkata. Torrents of water begin to stream down the facades of grey buildings lined along Mahatma Gandhi Road. Automobiles honk at each other in vain. Traffic coagulates.

Crowds of people jostle against one another under porticos. Searching in vain for elbow room, I catch sight of the entrance to the subway station a few feet across and run through it. 
 
I have no destination to seek whatsoever. Yet, I purchase a full three zone ticket, walk past the turnstile and take a flight of stairs down to the platform. To embark, as it turns out, upon a journey to the Kingdom of Pluto, deep inside the bowels of the earth. Like Orpheus in search of Eurydice.
 
I spot her as soon as I walk into the carriage, sitting primly between a fat schoolboy and a thin, nondescript man of indeterminate age. I stare at her in stupefaction. She hasn’t changed at all. The same captivating eyes, the same pair of specs, the same black mole on the right cheek, the same blue saree with black stripes. All reminiscent of the day many years ago, when we walked together along the narrow lanes that bordered our college compound.
 
We had been introduced, at my own request, near a bus stop of all places, a walking distance from the station where I boarded this train. It was too congested a place to even whisper to her my happiness at seeing her at close quarters. She was considerate though and suggested a walk to speak to each other for the first time in our lives. It was a walk that memory will never spare me of. 
 
I don’t remember what we spoke of, for I descended into a trance, not believing my good fortune.  She was the one in command though and soon enough glanced politely at the watch that wound her smooth womanly wrist, telling me softly, yet firmly, that it was time she retraced her steps. I took a peep at my watch too and realized that out of an eternity at her disposal, she had spared me a stingy half an hour at best. Inconsequential as I was, I couldn’t plead for a minute more and walked docilely back with her to the bus stop where our journey had commenced.
    
The bus arrived and we boarded the upper deck, where, fortunately, I found a seat next to her. “There will be time, there will be time”, I assured myself pathetically, and desperately searched for a clue to resume conversation. I had twenty minutes left in all. To tell her how much I enjoyed her proximity. But I failed to convey the message. Instead, in my confusion, I merely managed to utter my silly address. She looked straight into my eyes and smiled that curious unrevealing smile that women alone are capable of. The small golden earring she wore flickered as she quickly turned her eyes away. Twenty precious minutes thrown away in stupid indiscretion!
 
The bus jolted past Sealdah, Maulali and then the winding CIT Road, reaching the stop in front of her hostel. I had made no mistake at all in judging the time left to me. Twenty minutes — to travel through eternity in her company.
My thirst increased on that dying autumn evening, but not my courage. I could ask her nothing, nothing at all that was worth asking. I could not make her hear the drums beating inside my chest.
 
There are moments in life that are truly momentous. They leave scenes immortally etched in one’s mind. One such was the moment I had my first view of Sraboni. She stood on the balcony on the second floor of the college. Small and demure, just like today, looking down the imposing staircase leading to the Staff Room on the first floor, waiting for her professor no doubt to emerge for his class. She held her books in one hand, the other resting aimlessly on the railing she stood against. The afternoon sun had used up all the tricks at its disposal to light up her pretty little face. There was a crimson glow on her right cheek with that little black mole that threatened to launch all the seaworthy vessels on earth.
 
Only mine wasn’t ready to set sail. I floated paper boats at best on the dirty waters that flooded my street every time it rained. I didn’t know where they went, though I had hoped they would reach someone precisely like her. But her mysterious smile told me that my boats had probably reached the municipal dump instead.
 
Day after day, I kept going back to the College Street bus stop for her to show up just one more time, only to come back home in disappointment. And then, one day, I gave up. Time, compassionate time, took charge and opened up other nameless streets for investigation.
 
And I had kept walking along those streets, the “muttering retreats”, till this day, when all hell had to break loose and reveal her before me as though I was riding a time machine on reverse gear. Yes, she looks just the way she did that day. Her eyes still light up the heavens.
 
But unlike the previous occasion, when she smiled strangely at me to hear my address, she stares through me now without expression, in complete indifference. The carriage thunders through the darkness of the tunnel and the noise is too deafening for me to ask the priceless question I had reserved for her alone.
 
Sraboni, I want to ask you, did you really make a note of my humble address? Did you tell me through your wondrous smile that I could keep on hoping? For, you know Sraboni, in case you really wanted to find out too, the post did bring me a printed invitation card to the annual social of Lady Brabourne College, not long after I saw you off from the bus.
 
And I have wanted to believe all through that it was you who had asked your friends for the card and sent it to me to test out my courage to go alone to an all girls’ college. To assess my craving for the unknown. 
 
If you did send that card, then you know perhaps that I failed to show up. What you don’t know though is that I had tried desperately instead to read the few words the sender had written in small blue inked letters, only to scratch them out as an afterthought. Like an inexpert detective, I scraped the card with a razor, but it revealed nothing that was legible anymore!
 
Perhaps, you had waited for me on that balmy evening, perhaps you went back to your dormitory in mild despair. Did you Sraboni, did you?
 
I follow you out of the train at Tollygunge, a few steps behind you. As we come out into the street, I see that the sky has cleared and the sun is glowing softly, once more in late afternoon glory.
 
I even manage to catch up with you and feign a cough to draw your attention. You look up sideways and I know immediately that I should not have disturbed the universe. They are not the same eyes anymore, nor the same specs. Nor are you wearing the same striped saree. Your hair has thinned and what remains is greying. The mole is still sitting on your cheek. But it will not attract even a small dinghy. You stare back at me. No smile, no recognition. Perhaps even a trace of irritation.
 
I stop dead in my tracks. The last vestige of hope explodes in my mind as realization dawns on me. The question I had carried foolishly in the deepest recess of my mind will remain unanswered forever!
 
And then I hear a young voice. “Ma, what took you so long? Baba and I have been waiting here for almost half an hour!” The irritation on your face slowly melts, the mouth opening up in a smile revealing your unmistakable dentures. The smile is directed to a young beauty, wearing jeans and a bright yellow Tee shirt. You stroke her lush, dark hair and walk off towards a waiting car, with a stranger at the wheels.
 
I watch the scene with half-hearted interest and slowly turn around, only to be taken once again by surprise. A man stares at me from the glass showcase of a toy shop. He has lost most of his hair, his face marked by the deep scars of time. And I recall with a shudder that Orpheus had been warned against looking at Eurydice before they emerged from the caverns of Pluto’s empire.
    
Coincidences, like sorrows, often arrive in battalions. And the last of these awaits me back at home. I discover there a letter for me on my desk. I open it up carelessly, but my pulse rate begins to gallop as I read its contents. It is an invitation for Professor Ghosh to deliver a special lecture at an academic conference hosted by Lady Brabourne College! 

I laugh out aloud in my empty study in rhythm with the throbbing pain in my heart. But I decide without hesitation to accept the invitation.

Forty years too late, and that too for the wrong reason.

Tangerine

Once I leave this body
Won’t I ever come back to the world again?
I hope I do return
On a winter night
Bearing the pitiable flesh of a chilled tangerine
Right next to the sick-bed of a dying acquaintance.

Translation of a Bengali poem by Jibanananda Das

Dedication

Ask me not, when, nor whichever song,
To whom I had gifted, that’d all be wrong,
On the wayside it gathers dust,
Waiting humbly since it must,
For the one who’ll know it, to come along.

Did my message find, a sympathetic ear,
A shelter in your heart perhaps — to call it near?
Although I do not know your name,
I dedicate you the treasures — all the same —
That my meditations found — for you alone dear.

Translation of Samarpan (from the collection Mahua) by Rabindranath Tagore.