Monthly Archives: October 2014

Exchange

revised_joined_picture

    In its stead then, you receive       A silent pool wrought just for you       A looking glass clear and painted blue       Water, light filled, glows --       Image of a branch, flowers bowed       The fluttering sail of a violet cloud       A fulfilled heart assures --     An inward eye can all perceive.     In its stead then, you receive       Musings mundane, void and bare       Dusty feet marked paths that stare       Winds sucked dry of tears --       A distant familiar voice might call       During a midday, bereft of all       No one turns and hears!     These too did you have to leave.

 
 
 
Translation-cum-transcreation of a classic Bengali poem বিনিময় (binimoy, meaning exchange) by Amiya Chakravarty. The poem was published around 1953 in a collection of Chakravarty’s poems entitled পারাপার (parapar, meaning ferrying across). I take this opportunity to thank my wonderful friend Professor Surja Sankar Ray for his interpretation of the poem as well as his advice on the many drafts of the translation. Without his help the work would have remained incomplete.

 
 
 
 
 

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গোমড়া মন

gomrah

রূপসী তৃণা

trina

পটল তোলা বুড়ো

bhut

প্রেম

prem

Slips of Conjugal Happiness

7

As I was boarding the bus that my hotel uses to pick up its guests from the station, I looked behind for my wife to help her in. But the landscape that greeted me was empty of my wife. And this was strange, for to the best of my recollection, she was walking next to me even five minutes ago! I asked the porter if he had an explanation, but he responded that the luggage I entrusted him to carry didn’t include my wife. The bus driver was honking his horn asking me to hurry up. I had to make up my mind. Leave my luggage to the mercy of the departing bus or my wife to the mercy of God.

Presence of mind! I stood in front of the bus preventing the driver from starting and searched the universe for my life’s companion, much to the irritation of the driver and the passengers in the bus. At such moments, I have learnt to turn deaf.

And then suddenly, she appeared from behind a parked Tata Sumo. It didn’t seem as though she was playing hide and seek. Looked more like she was limping as she held her right elbow with her left hand, apparently in pain.

“What happened,” said I.

“Fell down,” she replied grimacing in pain.

“How come?”

“Well I was looking upwards and walked into a pothole …”

“Why were you looking upwards? In search of God?” said I, lending her my shoulder to lean on, thereby transforming a limping woman to a limping man.

“No, not God exactly, I was trying to read the signs on the buses. These signs are normally not written inside potholes. And please note, in case you didn’t know, women in sarees tripping on the wayside take a while to get back on their feet to join stupid husbands. ” She glared back at me.

The lady was in pain and needed to be soothed. I did that as well as I could. Arnica 30 and Neosporin ointment did the rest. They were more potent than my observations on the art of walking in the vicinity of train stations.

Which reminds me of Okayama. We were visiting one of those pretty Japanese gardens. The garden was crisscrossed by narrow, winding canals. As we were crossing over to the other side of one, I thought I should take her picture on the little bridge. She struck a pose for me. Satisfied, I looked at her through the viewfinder. She had vanished! I searched everywhere in the world through the viewfinder, but there was no sign of her. And then it occurred to me that she might reappear if I looked for her with my naked eyes. I removed my eyes from the camera (or the other way round perhaps) and looked for her where she had last been spotted. Success. There she was. Only her pose had changed. She was lying on her back at the foot of the bridge. “You were supposed to stand, not lie down,” I said in dismay. “What could I do,” she said,” I slipped down the slope of the bridge!

My wife disappears every now and then.

Slips of conjugal happiness.

কষ্ট কাঠিন্য ?

koshto_4_7_15

 

 

 

 

A Question of Right

Last month, on September 1, I sustained a foot injury, left foot to be precise, that proved later on to be a fracture. Movements were restricted, the surgeon prescribed what he called  an ankle binder and my left foot had to remain in bandaged state 24 hours a day since that fateful evening. It might have to remain that way for the rest of eternity or the end of my life, whichever arrived later. Not allowed to take it off even when I went to sleep at night. A somewhat uncomfortable state of  existence. I don’t recommend that you try it out, or else, like Alice’s smile without the Cheshire cat, you might end up with a bandage without a foot.

Such stray thoughts were assailing my otherwise peaceful ruminations on life, when to my horror and dismay, I realized that my right elbow was sending intense pain signals as well. I could hardly fold my right arm at the elbow joint without “ouching” loudly. I didn’t know the source of the problem, for as far as I recalled, I never injured my arms, even in my dream. And I wasn’t dreaming as the pain alerted me. I was wide awake. I was disturbing neighbours the way you are not allowed to in Churches when a service is in progress.

She was reading a book right next to me and the ouch disturbed her concentration.  She was not genuflecting in a Church of course, but disturbed she was.  She turned her head sharply, asking nothing. I suspect she was trying to figure out if I had sustained a heart attack. The silence continued till my vocal chords produced yet another ouch, louder than the first one, this time accompanied by a visual signal, a pain distorted face. I have no idea how alarming an expression I wore on my face. But she knew I am sure and appeared to conclude that my heart was under siege and shifted her gaze back to her book in total indifference. I didn’t deserve her attention anymore.

Normally happy though I am, I find it difficult to put up with indifference to physical pain. Generally those that I suffer myself. So, I turned up my ouching volume a few notches higher to express my agony.

“What’s gone wrong?” she asked now in an annoyance radiating voice. “What’s this lugubrious noise all about?”

“My right elbow is in pain, can’t you see?” I retorted accusingly almost. “And the lugubrious noise you heard was the last gasp of a man in pain, one whose right arm has declared to carry out a non-cooperative non-movement.’

“No, I can’t see the pain. But I can hear coarse sound waves emanating from your direction. And I am tired of your ceaseless complaints. OK, what is it this time? And what on earth is a non-cooperative non-movement? You are misquoting the Mahatma and that is sacrilege!”

“I told you didn’t I? I am unable to bend my right arm at the elbow. Most painful. It’s a non-movement alright, Mahatma notwithstanding.”

She stared at me wide eyed for a long moment and then came out with her advice. “Well, since it is the right arm, your heart is safe. So if it is painful to bend it, then keep it straight and let it rest on a pillow. You can see a doctor tomorrow morning. At this time of the evening, doctors don’t fall like manna from heaven. Or at any other time for that matter.”

“But how can I keep my arm straight,” I moaned “if I need to reach behind for something?”

“Don’t try to reach for anything behind. I can see a pile of books behind you. Do you want anything from that collection of garbage? I can fetch it for you.” My books belonged to an untouchable category as far as I could make out from the nauseated expression on her face. She was being helpful probably, even though her tone didn’t suggest philanthropy. I began now to growl in pain. Physical as well as mental.

“No you can’t do anything for me,” I replied, in the manner I suppose of a terminally ill person lying on a hospital bed. “I don’t need books. No book on earth can help me now.”

She sounded more than amazed. “Then what on earth do you need behind you?” She searched the empty wall behind the table on which the books lay. If she was searching for a cockroach about to walk down my neck, it wasn’t there.

“I need to scratch my behind,” I announced, expressing distress in no uncertain terms.

She was completely taken aback, though I thought I detected the flicker of a semi-cruel smile on her face. But it vanished almost instantaneously. Controlling her emotions, whatever they were, she replied sternly, “Well use your other hand then, since you are not athletic enough to employ your right foot to serve the purpose.” I noticed with some satisfaction that she was well-informed about the condition of my left foot. I was not a victim of total indifference, thank God.

Nevertheless, she was being endlessly unsympathetic I felt. I stared tearfully at my bandaged foot. The silent tears failed to impress her. So, I sought refuge in my vocal chords once again.

“Don’t you see that it is my left arm alone that is usable?” I said, plaintiveness oozing out of my voice, reminding me of lambs protesting in vain on their way to the slaughter house.

“Then use it man, use it,” she admonished me. “Why waste a useful thing? Haven’t you heard the PM advising children not to waste electricity or other scarce resources?”

“But it’s not use-ful clever woman,” I let out a dismal scream now. “You are overestimating your genius. It’s the right bottom that I need to scratch.”

“Well, when did I suggest that you scratch the wrong bottom. Scratch the right one by all means, but do so after I have left this room. I don’t wish to witness the disgusting spectacle.” She got up on her feet, ready to disappear.

“I didn’t mean right as in wrong,” I made a pathetic attempt at explanation. She halted near the door, hesitating it seemed. Expressing sympathy perhaps? She kept me suffering in a state of suspended animation as it were.

When she finally vociferated, sympathy could well be the sentiment she expressed. But one couldn’t be sure. She looked up at the ceiling appearing to ask for God’s mercy to drop “as the gentle rain from heaven//Upon the place beneath”.

“Dear Lord,” she wailed, “why have you deprived this man of any semblance of grey matter? ”

To set things right, I yelled in greater desperation. “I meant right as in right. But my kind of a right bottom is not your kind of a right bottom, you understand?”

“No, I don’t,” was her instantaneous reply. She looked insulted and humiliated, as Dostoyevsky might have seen things at this point of time. Heaving several sighs of despair, she appeared to take a final decision of sorts. “Mental home, that’s where you need to be transferred. I think I should call an ambulance before you turn violent.”

“No, please no,” said I. “I am not a mental patient. I am perfectly aware of the difference between your bottom and mine. But you don’t seem to be aware of this simple difference …”

She didn’t let me finish my all clarifying sentence.

“First of all, you are offending a woman’s modesty by your crude reference to female physiology. Secondly, you are suggesting in no uncertain terms that I am soft brained. Not a mental home, you need to be reported to Women’s Rights Organizations. They’ll take proper care of you.”

I had no choice but to let her finish her sentence. And then I finished mine, the one which, if you remember, I had left unfinished.

“… between right as in right and right as in right. They are homonyms,” I ended up mournfully.

Confusion reigned supreme. As far as I could make out, there were at least three senses in which the word right had been used by now. Right as opposed to wrong, right as opposed to left and finally right as opposed to coercion. And she was showing an unmistakable inclination to stick to the third. So I decided to follow suit.

“Do you agree that a man has a right to scratch his bottom? Right, left and centre?”

“Of course I do you vulgar fool. But he doesn’t have the right to insult a woman.”

“When and how did I insult a woman?”

“But you just did. Insult all the way down to the bottom.”

“No, I didn’t. I was merely trying to make a grammatical point regarding your interpretation of a right bottom as opposed to mine.”

“Oh, that’s it, is it? A linguist scratching his bottom instead of his head? In search of a grammatically correct procedure for bottom scratching may be?”

Evidently sarcastic I thought. She continued before I could respond.

“And what is this grammatically correct procedure Sir, may I know?” The frown in her eyes drove a red  hot iron rod through my very soul. “You don’t expect my hand to scratch on behalf of yours, do you?”

Friends, to tell you honestly, the idea hadn’t occurred to me till that moment. But now that she brought up the possibility (or the impossibility perhaps) of the job, I muttered softly to myself, “Well, idea wise at least, that’s feasible, is it not?”

“I see, that’s what you expect do you?” she hissed now like a cobra disturbed in its sleep.

“Well no, I don’t expect you to do this. But assuming that I do not expect you to, will you do it? I mean, please?”

Something in the nature of an earthquake occurred now. Measuring around 15.8 in Richter scale. Rescue work could well be in progress, provided of course that civilization hasn’t breathed its last.

______________________________

I had no idea that it was R.K. Narayan’s birthday yesterday (10 October). But Google, my ever faithful butler, delivered the information as soon as I turned on the computer.

Kamala Bastralaya

As you meander down Manohar Pukur Road towards Rashbehari Avenue in Calcutta, you are likely to notice a paint store bearing the Asian Paints logo at the right hand corner of the meeting point of the two streets. I never had any use for the store, but have often wondered in the course of the last few years when it was that it came into being. For it didn’t exist when I was a child or even when I was a university student. Instead, it was Kamala Bastralaya that occupied this prime location.

I am not sure if Kamala Bastralaya, a tailor shop, was born before me. I had seen it at least since the days I was a toddler, so it could well have been older than me. And following natural laws, I still exist (or so I believe) and Kamala Bastralaya does not. It was a shop into which my elder brother and I  were herded as the Durga Puja Festival drew near. Those were days when readymade garments had not invaded the market and brand names were rare to come by. Parents and close relatives presented us with shirts’ or shorts’ lengths, whose colours invariably matched our school uniforms. With these we marched to the tailor for measurements to be taken. The proprietor of the shop, invariably clad in a long knee length milk white shirt and dhoti, a tallish man for a Bengali, wore black framed glasses and a squint in his eyes. He would call out numbers designating the sizes of different parts of our bodies and his chief assistant wrote them down on a note pad. This used to be an embarrassing experience, for his voice was loud and measurements of certain parts of my body, that I would normally not discuss in public, would be audible to all customers present in the shop.

I can still recall the assistant’s face. Darkish, a sharp nose protruding slightly beyond what would be called normal. I don’t think I had ever seen any of them smiling, either at the customers or at each other. If they did smile once in a while, it was a closely guarded secret. However, the expressions on their faces wouldn’t make a customer feel unwanted. There was a trick in this trade whose secrets I never managed to unravel.

There were other assistants too who were constantly whirring away at their respective sewing machines sitting on an elevated wooden platform located towards the far end of the shop. These were manually run machines, electric sewing machines were an unheard of phenomena in that Jurassic age.

A long wooden table separating the customers from the workers, ran all the way from the entrance to the shop to its end under the elevated platform. The strangest part of our regular relationship with this shop was that it never occurred to us that we didn’t know the names of anyone of its employees, leave alone the owner himself. But they knew our names, since our exchanges were recorded in a receipt book bearing names and probably addresses too.

Once our measurements were noted down, a date would be fixed for the trial and we had to show up without fail on that day. A second round of number crunching accompanied the trial ceremony and the master tailor used a flat, blue triangular  marker to indicate necessary alterations in the garments. I learnt from my mother that the marker was made of special stuff, the marks being washable once the final delivery was made.

I can’t recall if Kamala Bastralaya attended to my needs once I transcended from shorts to trousers, for by that time my friends included fashion conscious boys and they could have led me to dandier joints that catered to the classy customer. That should have cost me more money and endless hankering with my poor, dear middle class mother.

My father, on the other hand, stuck to Kamala Bastralaya all through, that is till he was able to make it to the shop without external assistance. And I have no idea if he had use of his physical faculties by the time the shop wound up. Despite his loyalty to the shop though, he never ceased to be critical of its sartorial skills. His trousers for example were always ordered at this shop and by the time the final product arrived he was ever prepared to walk over and pull them up. And this love hate relationship with the tailor would often lead to situations that bordered on farce.

On one occasion, he criticised them for delivering a pair of trousers with one leg shorter than the other. It was no easy task to make them accept the charge of course. But as far as I know, my father continued the battle with a measuring tape to make his point. Upon which they produced their own tape to prove him wrong. I don’t know exactly what the sequence of events was, but I suspect that he disappeared inside the trial room to put on the trouser and demonstrate his point to them. Whether they saw what my father saw is unclear, for they had apparently told him that it was not a trouser leg that was shorter but that there was a mismatch between the lengths of my father’s own legs themselves! How this explanation could have resolved the issue is anybody’s guess.

Yet, my father never chose a tailor shop other than Kamala Bastralya. As I remember clearly now, when my parents were living with us in Delhi, one of my father’s regular complaints was that he couldn’t get his pyjamas stitched at Kamala Bastralaya.

Well, both my father and his tailor have moved forward now and Asian Paints has made sure that the past has vanished for good behind their “Advanced Anti Ageing” commercial. I never found the courage to walk into this paint store to find out if they have really found an antidote for ageing and if they have then where on earth have the tailor and his grumbling customer disappeared?

Well Devi Durga came amidst much grandeur recently and now she is gone. Unlike my younger days, I didn’t go pandal hopping. Nor to purchase things to wear. But the Devi made sure nonetheless that I couldn’t detach myself from my past. Crowds of memories kept flocking in, the tailor, the stationer and the ever smiling salesman at Bata Shoe Store bang opposite Kamala Vilas on Rashbehari Avenue, where South Indians found refuge during their stints with Calcutta. But of that, some other day.