Monthly Archives: September 2013

Chivalrous Serenades

Come to think of it, a “chivalrous existence”, however appealing it might appear, has deluded me throughout my life. Especially so when it came to my earnest desire to act Sir Knight to damsels in distress. Not that I had ever draped myself in mail chain armour a la Ivanhoe, having decided that the mca’s must be somewhat heavy even to crawl around in, leave alone to engage in tournaments on horseback to win over a lady’s favours. Nonetheless, in my own small way, I did try to master the art.

With somewhat dubious consequences, as you have surely guessed by now.

Without beating about the bush therefore, I shall travel back in time to a crowded Calcutta tramcar, which I had not only boarded, but in which I had even been favoured by Lady Luck with an empty seat to rest my bottom. Instead of standing that is, squeezed between people holding on to overhead handrails with their sweating armpits dangerously close to my somewhat sensitive olfactory organ. Not that sitting in an overcrowded tramcar is a pleasant experience either, but the dividing line between standing and sitting is not exactly fine either.

Well, there I sat, in a state of dubious happiness, as I remember, trying to lift up my spirits on a grueling summer evening, whistling out of tune, hoping to entertain my fellow passengers, a weak substitute for the much awaited monsoon drizzle. The man sitting next to me was not impressed as far as I could make out from the expression on his face, but the Bertie Wooster in me was not in a mood to pay heed to Jeeves-like wisdom.

I looked away from him in supreme disdain in the opposite direction, that is towards the mass of suffering humanity which was unlawfully denied the right to a seat. Unlawfully I say, since the price of a tram journey has, to this day, no bearing whatsoever on whether one sits or stands on way to one’s destination. And almost immediately, my eyes detected her. There she stood, hapless as well as helpless, trying desperately to reach up to the handrails. Given her height, she had only two choices. Hang by the handrails or stand on the floor and hold on to thin air a few inches below the rails. And to top it all, she had a somewhat heavy purse on her, which anyone could pick, given that her hands were engaged elsewhere playing with nothingness. Quite oblivious alas of the unprotected belongings inside the purse.

My heart melted. My chivalry howled in silent protest. Is there no man around to offer her a seat? Degeneration, I lamented, thy name is MAN. There was only one choice left to me and I exercised it. I left my seat and attempted to draw the attention of the harassed lady. But harassed though she was, she displayed absolutely no propensity to admire my magnanimity. As with all other women, she looked in every direction except mine. I pushed through the crowd therefore to alert her to the existence of an empty seat.

As I have observed, chivalry has never paid me my due. Partly on account of my stupidity I am sure. As I left my seat, I had no one other than the lady in mind. In particular, I forgot completely about the disgruntled travellers that stood in my close proximity and such people have one track minds as far as I can make out. In this particular case, they were singularly focused on the seat I was occupying, with the result that as soon as I left the seat, the man standing closest to me lowered himself on it with vulture like precision. Not only had the lady not noticed my gesture; worse, even if she had, there was no longer an empty seat inviting her take it. On the other hand, despite all my chivalry, I didn’t exactly know how to rebuke the trespasser for occupying the seat that I had not given up for him! In fact, as I realized, no lawyer on earth would be able to argue out a case in my favour.

The lady unboarded the tram soon enough, while I stood for the rest of the journey in the sardine-packed tramcar. And I did not fail to notice that the man was still sitting there when it was time for me to get down from the car! I can’t be sure, but I suspect he was whistling his own tune too, quite oblivious of the tragedy he had precipitated, pulverizing my chivalry into subatomic particles.

But these particles, it appears, held a confidential conference and managed to reassemble into their former self and all this happened, quite unknown to me, as I was travelling in a suburban train compartment on my way to office one fine morning in spring. The train compartment was reasonably empty as I boarded it at Sealdah Station, but it began to get filled up by the time the train had reached the second or the third stop. It was filling up, yes, but unlike the tramcar, there was an empty seat still available to be occupied by a passenger and this seat lay bang opposite to the one I was sitting in. And out of nowhere a young woman with a baby in arms appeared. She spotted the seat quite naturally and made a beeline for it. By the look of her, she belonged to what’s fashionably called a below poverty line individual these days. This meant that she had very few well-defined rights that our mighty Parliament had been able to devise over the forty years or so of independence that we had enjoyed by then.

The gentleman occupying the seat right next to the empty one growled as she was about to sit down. “This seat is not for you,” he screamed. “I have been holding it for a gentleman who will be boarding at the next station!” The woman was no fighter and appeared to have few quarrels with the gentleman’s absurd demand. So, she simply stood meekly, holding on to the back of one of the benches as the train began to move. As I told you, my chivalry never went to the extent of fighting tournaments and I failed to haul up the gentleman. Instead though, I merely got up from my seat and, not having forgotten the tramcar incident, made sure that there were no contenders for my vacated seat. Then I called out to the woman and requested her to take my seat. A request she gladly accepted, given the precarious state of balance in which she was holding the baby.

I came out of the enclosure and stood near the door leading out of the train. It was not over-crowded and standing there was not particularly uncomfortable.

It was then that the tournament began. I suddenly became conscious of a semi-scuffle between a few people inside the enclosure that I had just left. Two groups had formed, it appeared, one siding with the man who refused the seat to the woman and another that found his action unacceptable. I had no idea that this second group existed, since no one had shown much interest in her when she was receiving a rough deal.

Voices were rising and I heard repeated references to the man who had left his seat, who, I had little doubt, was no other than me. An informal court of law was in session it appeared trying to pass a judgement on my action. The bully himself was shouting the most in support of his action and everything that was being said ultimately ended with the ultimate motive underlying my action. To my horror, I even heard someone claim that I had left the seat because I was about to get down and then someone else shouting that this was false, since I was still observable where I was burrowing my head. They were all but ready to drag me in to testify!

My chivalry being at stake, I knew that I would not be able to participate in the riot that was about to ensue. Fortunately, however, my destination arrived soon and I left the train as invisibly as I could.

But as I disembarked, I tried to peep in through the window and discover, if I could, a smile of gratitude in the woman’s face. And what I found was that in the middle of all the commotion, she was sleeping as peacefully as the child on her lap.

As I said, my chivalry never earned applauds.

Unfairness! Thy name is WOMAN!

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A Two Penny Opera

At the time, he was surely the oldest man alive in my world. I mean at the time I knew him. Short of a miracle, he cannot possibly be around anymore now, having renounced his title in favour of other two legged creatures, who, paradoxically enough, have managed to live longer than him. That is, if “number of years lived” were to be treated as a reliable index of living.

I was less than ten perhaps, when he was a regular visitor in the locality we inhabited. The short, toothless, hollow-cheeked, sun-burnt, emaciated old man was a known face. Life expectancy in India has improved significantly since those days and I suspect that this geriatric was no more than forty when he was readying himself for his final journey.

His attire, though not extraordinary, was not exactly ordinary either. It consisted of a homemade poncho of sorts running all the way down to an inch or two below his knees as the rest of his legs lay hidden under a lungi, if I remember correctly. It is unlikely that his clothes had ever been washed. Touched up by dirt collected from various non-discernible sources, their colour could perhaps be described as somewhere between dark brown to grey.

His head was permanently covered by a toupe-style piece of cloth, again of nondescript colour, tied into a knot hanging from the nape of his neck. The top of his head having been doggedly hidden from public view, I cannot be exactly sure of course about the nature of vegetation adorning it. I tend to believe though that he was totally bald and the head cloth was a costume he had devised to make himself presentable to his audience.

He had fierce eyes and a high-pitched voice, which served as the only weapons he possessed to establish his right to exist in a planet which was possibly not too eager to grant him that right. The voice sang out a number or the other from a limited repertoire, as his right hand fingers struck up a beat on a left hand held percussion instrument, the bottom of a used can of Australian cheese that policy makers in India still allowed to be imported in the early years following independence.

I don’t think I would ever commend him for his musical expertise and along with the stray dogs in our vicinity, my friends and I had accepted him as a necessary adjunct to our lives. We coexisted, in other words, quite oblivious of Herbert Spencer’s Darwinian thoughts on the survival of the fittest.

The planet’s indifference notwithstanding, middle class housewives in the areas he visited considered it, despite their limited resources, a God ordained responsibility to keep him going. And “keep on going” he did, from house to house, pouring out his toothless songs and collecting the one paisa donation to his one man show. The paisa I speak of dates back to pre-decimal coinage days and constituted a sixty-fourth part of a rupee. *

My mother too, as I recall, had a kitty, yet another tin can, which held her philanthropist’s collection of one paisa coins, reserved specifically for the tribe of street dwellers the old man appeared to belong to. And I had been taught to pick out a coin from her collection and hand it over to the man whenever he showed up, which, out of impatience, I often did before waiting for him to finish his singing.

He was a pathetic soul, which I could make out even at that tender age, but I don’t think I bothered much about the matter. Till the day arrived when the man proved that he could rise to the occasion when situations demanded.

Our next door neighbour had a son, Ratan, who was a year younger to me. Ratan was as acquainted with our man as I and was not surprised as he arrived one morning when the two of us were playing in their small garden. As I said, we were quite young at the time, but I wonder now, as I ruminate over this incident, what the cut off age is for boys migrating out of the world of pure innocence.

The songs the man sang mostly belonged to the category of folk music, laced with religion and a rustic brand of philosophy, for none of which young children like us had any use at all. Except for one song, which we were particularly fond of. There was a line in the song that said: I have arrived totally naked into the world and that’s the way I will have to leave it too! There is no point writing down the Bengali equivalent of the word “naked”, but I think the closest word in Hindi would be “nanga”. So, the song was telling us about the futility of accumulating worldly treasures, for “arrived we have on earth totally nanga and we have no choice but to leave it in an equally ‘nanga-fied’ state.” The philosophy embedded in these lines, however simple to absorb, made little impression on our minds. Instead, we were tickled pink to hear the word “nanga” being repeated several times in the song. And we wished to hear it over and over again. Possibly we felt sex in the air, quite instinctively I am sure, for no one had ever exposed us to anything remotely related to the birds and the bees.

Much to our dissatisfaction, however, the man did not sing the song of our choice on this particular morning. And as soon as he began, we knew that we won’t get to be treated the way we wished to. We quickly stopped him therefore and demanded that he sing that other song, the forbidden one as it were. The man’s fierce eyes turned somewhat angry as he listened to us.

But it was not really anger that had invaded his tranquillity. It was not his disappointment with the fact that his message concerning the senselessness of material possessions had failed to reach us that appeared to cause him annoyance. Quite the contrary in fact. We had completely misunderstood the expression on his face.

His face turned very grim as he said, “That song costs two paisas! I won’t sing it unless you give me two paisas.”

I was flabbergasted and began to protest. “Only yesterday, you sang that song in front of our gate and I gave you one paisa. Why do you want two today?”

The stoic philosopher remained quite unmoved though. “That song costs more nowadays,” he repeated.

I was too young I am afraid to argue out the case with him. Or else, I ought to have told him that he should sing it free, given its sermon. But I was no match for the “smart businessman” I was facing at the moment.

Neither Ratan nor I had that extra paisa. So we began to scratch our heads till a solution to the problem struck me. “How about my mother’s kitty? There should be more than a paisa in the tin box.” As soon as this thought struck me, I told Ratan that I might be able to steal a paisa from the home fund, if my mother was not in the vicinity. And Ratan of course readily agreed. It didn’t occur to either him or me that Ratan himself could play the same trick with his mother!

In any case, I ran back home and quietly stole that one paisa and came back to the venue of the musical performance. The old man was patiently waiting I found, as was Ratan. I was panting as I sat down on the steps leading to the garden. We sat side by side in our royal seats and the man then treated us to the song of our choice. And truth be told, he did entertain us sufficiently with his song, repeating the line we were dying to hear several times more than he usually did.

We giggled merrily each time the word came up. Who says markets don’t work? We paid more and he supplied us with the goodies.

Ratan unfortunately is no more, but his memory resides deep inside my heart. And whenever I remember Ratan, I feel guilty of cheating my innocent mother of her collection of paisas. And I cannot forget the old man’s amazing bargaining skill either.

Frankly, I will never be able to figure out who amongst the three of us cheated most.