The Man Who Would Be Magician

I have caught this nagging infection that makes me travel backwards in time. Unlike Benjamin Button or Barnaby Fulton, it doesn’t make me any younger mind you. (In case you haven’t heard of Barnaby Fulton, you will be well-advised to watch Monkey Business on YouTube. It was made in 1952, when most of you were still to be born. I was there of course, not to speak of Cary Grant, Ginger Roberts, Marilyn Monroe and a few other inconsequential people.) The infection reared up its head, I suspect, since the day I cogitated about Kamala Bastralaya around three years ago. That was a tailor shop, let me remind you, at the crossing of Manohar Pukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue in erstwhile Calcutta. The shop has evaporated now having fallen victim to the ravages of time and the prime location is occupied by Asian Paints, which, paradoxically enough, gloats over its anti-ageing formula. But it is not Asian Paints that drags me back to my foggy past today.

Instead, I wish to dwell upon Rashbehari Avenue alone and a little man who once lived on an offshoot of that street called Jamir Lane. The busy road stretches from east to west, a road that is uncompromisingly straight compared to Manohar Pukur Road. The latter never fails to remind me of a rippling river winding its way along the plains. It is full of feminine curves as it were, charmingly illusive through rain and shine. Not so Rashbehari Avenue. As you walk westwards along it, you go past Deshapriya Park (recently redecorated), Kamla Vilas (the well-known hideout for South Indians of yore), Lake Market (which still sells the best fish in South Kolkata), Melody (a widely visited music shop that, unlike Kamala Bastralaya, has kept Asian Paints at bay) and then finally take a sharp left turn to reach the Keoratala crematorium with military precision. That’s the point of no return. Sunset land.

But return we must though today, for our time machine is driving in reverse gear. Let’s walk eastwards therefore to the other end of the avenue. Somewhat in the spirit of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, however, the road, like universe itself, appears to curve back on itself at its eastern fringe and begin to traverse back west. The secret of the trick lies in the almost unnoticed Jamir Lane that connects the eastern and western flanks of Rashbehari Avenue. It lends to Rashbehari Avenue a magical quality, making you believe that you are moving east, when in fact Jamir Lane deceives you back to the westward stretch.

Magic, yes, uniquely magical it is, this eastern end of Rashbehari Avenue. No wonder therefore that it is exactly here, where west swallows up east, stands Indrajaal. Indrajaal was a mansion of sorts constructed by TW’s GM as a residence. Though palatial during its early youth, it has assumed a somewhat stunted appearance now, facing as it does a gigantic shopping mall on the opposite side of the street.

TW’s GM was an acronym used by an American Magazine to refer to P.C. Sorcar, who had performed in the US, advertising himself as The World’s Greatest Magician. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of that magazine any longer. He was probably the most successful magician that India produced during his lifetime, which ended abruptly and far too early with a heart attack sustained during a performance in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, Japan. P.C. Sorcar’s passing away created a void for a while in India’s presence in the world of magic, till he was replaced by his equally capable son, known as P.C. Sorcar, Jr and the latter too held the world in awe for several decades.

I should have been a schoolboy then, and so was my younger cousin Rana. And we had a common ambition, to turn into master magicians. TW’s GM was still alive and kicking and we were avid readers of the books he wrote for youngsters, but we knew only too well that they could never lead us to the Holy Grail of sorcery. We needed a teacher and Sorcar Senior, given his eminence, was unreachable. Hence, we set out on a search mission for a Guru if you will.

The search led us to another name, a magician called A.K. Sarkar. Quite obviously, P.C. Sorcar was born Sarkar too and had changed his family name to Sorcar, to draw people’s attention to his link with sorcery. A.K. Sarkar held magic shows as well, but unlike Sorcar who performed in the best known auditoriums, Sarkar probably never went beyond the confines of make shift stages occupying pavements during seasonal festivities. And once in a while, he wrote in magazines for young people like us. Consequently, he was not a street juggler either, like Maganlal Magicwallah.

It didn’t take Rana and me too long to discover that A.K. Sarkar was related to P.C. Sorcar, though the exact nature of the relationship remains obscure. I assumed they were cousins, whether near or distant I have no idea. And for all I know, they need not have been cousins at all.

Even at that young age, we were shrewd enough to guess that a man with limited fame was likely to be more approachable than a famous person. We discussed the matter in depth therefore and then hatched a plan. Rana used his contacts and discovered that A.K. Sarkar’s residence was no different from P.C. Sorcar’s. They both lived in Indrajaal. The building was not far from our own homes, but we were not sure if we could gain admission into the premises, given that we were both teenagers. Nor did we have any idea about the plea we needed to forge to begin a conversation with Sarkar.
An adult was required to accompany us we decided. We were too young to attract attention.

In this connection, help arrived in the shape of Moni Kaka (Moni is a name and Kaka means paternal uncle in Bengali). Rana was Moni Kaka’s only son and despite his busy lawyer’s work schedule, Moni Kaka was never a spoil sport, especially when young people approached him with bizarre proposals. The proposal in this case was that he chaperone us to A.K. Sarkar, without any appointment whatsoever. Moni Kaka, Rana’s doting father and my doting uncle readily agreed and one fine evening drove us down eastwards along Rashbehari Avenue in his shiny black Ambassador (or, was it Landmaster?) and parked it in front of the imposing gate of the mansion. The gate was tightly closed. Even though we didn’t notice a No Admission sign, there was a stern looking gateman posted there with that telltale message radiating from his eyes.

Moni Kaka led us to this obviously unsympathetic man and struck up a conversation.

“Can we see Mr. A.K. Sarkar please?” asked Moni Kaka as casually as possible.

The watchman, who was eying us suspiciously, grew even more so. I tend to believe now in my old age that his overly suspicious behaviour had a solid foundation. Given Sorcar’s international recognition, he was probably used to dealing with autograph seeking tramps waiting for chance encounters with the master. He knew how to send them away. We, on the other hand, could well have belonged to the minority who ever sought an audience with A.K. Sarkar and he needed to assess our nuisance value. In the absence of Moni Kaka, the two cousins were sure to have been sent back immediately. But Moni Kaka being an adult and exquisitely well dressed in a dark suit, the man was on the horns of a dilemma.

“Who — umm — are you?” asked the man, somewhat heistantly.

“I told you I wanted to see Mr. A.K. Sarkar,” said Moni Kaka. “I have important business with him.”

The gatekeeper’s unbelieving eyes shifted from Moni Kaka to us and then back to Moni Kaka. Even if Moni Kaka could possibly have important business with Sarkar, what were these youngsters doing with him? But Moni Kaka too had his lawyer like looks and he used them to his advantage. The two of them kept staring hard at one another till the gatekeeper finally gave in.

“You wait here, I will go and inquire,” said the man and disappeared behind the gate, locking it from inside as we waited outside on the pavement. But Moni Kaka smiled back at us.

“Battle won,” his eyes whispered.

We were waiting for around ten minutes I think, before the gate reopened a chink or so and the guard signalled us to enter. We stepped inside gleefully, but were somewhat disenchanted to discover that we were not being invited inside the building. We had to stand unceremoniously on the courtyard in the gatekeeper’s company. A short flight of stairs led up to a ground floor balcony along which were located a set of rooms. Out of one of these a gentleman came rushing out, happily excited. He was frail and shortish, in his mid-thrties probably, if memory serves me right, dressed rather plainly. A Bengali style pyjama possibly and a loosely hanging un-pressed shirt. We could see his face clearly, since the balcony was well lit. He stared at us, as the gateman had done, but not with grim suspicion. Instead, a hopeful smile lingered across his lips.

“I am A.K. Sarkar. Are you looking for me?” he asked Moni Kaka, his face still glittering in excitement.

“Oh yes, Mr. Sarkar, we have come here to see you,” said Moni Kaka smiling brightly in turn.

“Which club do you represent Sir,” said Mr. Sarkar with endless naiveté.

“Club?” It was Moni Kaka’s turn now to lose his poise. He quickly recovered though and continued with remarkable grace. “I am not representing any club now, though I am a life member of several in the city. Today however, I am not seeing you on behalf of a club. I am here,” he explained further, “with a request on behalf of these two boys. My brother’s son and mine. They are deeply interested in the art of magic. I have brought them over to find out if you might agree to help them train.”

The expression on Sarkar’s face went through a series of transformations upon receipt of the message. The elation travelled downwards and ended up in a dark chasm of despondency. He was completely taken aback to hear what Moni Kaka had to say and kept gazing at Rana and me, totally befuddled. He was at a loss for words.

But then, suddenly, a trace of hope leaped out of the Pandora’s Box we had opened up for him.

“How did you find out about me?” he said in a voice that could remind you of a dying man catching at a straw. There was pathos in the air. I smelled it even at that immature age. Sarkar was not a sought after person as Rana and I had correctly guessed. Unfortunately, the magician had not learnt the most important trick of all. He didn’t know how to hide his emotions, suggesting to me what his status probably was in the family with which he resided. It was Sorcar who was known the world over. But here were people who had come looking for Sarkar! Was there a glimmer of hope in the horizon finally? Had Lady Luck herself wielded the magic wand?

It was my turn to speak out now, since I knew that Moni Kaka didn’t know the answer to the question Sarkar had asked, and Rana, being younger to me, was a little shy to speak up.

“We are familiar with the stuff you write for magazines. We learnt several tricks reading your articles.” I quickly responded.

My response resulted in a painful bursting of his temporary bubble of hope. I had driven in the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Hope gave place to gloom almost instantaneously. Seeing Moni Kaka’s smart attire, Sarkar had probably taken for granted that a wealthy party had arrived to hire him for a magic show in a carefully chosen venue. But that was not the case. He was being actually asked to tutor two juveniles in the art of magic! We were standing face to face with a monumental sigh.

I don’t think the conversation proceeded too far beyond this point and he found a way of getting rid of us without sounding too rude. I have forgotten how he excused himself or how, for that matter, the gatekeeper showed us out. Nor can I remember what Moni Kaka told us on our way back home.

Moni Kaka continued to flourish as a lawyer and Rana made a name for himself in adult age as the first person to run a private news channel in Bengali. Even though he didn’t turn into a great magician, hprobably taken for granted that a wealthy party had arrived to hire him for a magic show in a carefully chosen venue. Instead, he was being asked to tutor two juveniles in the art of magic! We were standing face to face before a monumental sigh.
I don’t think the conversation proceeded too far beyond this point and he found a way of getting rid of us without sounding too rude. I have forgotten how he excused himself or how, for that matter, the gatekeeper showed us out. Nor can I remember what Moni Kaka told us on our way back home.

Moni Kaka continued to flourish as a lawyer and Rana made quite a name for himself in adult age as the first person to run a private news channel in Bengali. Even though he didn’t turn into a great magician, he is well-known in India and abroad in the television show business. I managed to survive as well in my own small way.

What life did to Sarkar though continues to be a mystery. Soon after the senior Sorcar passed away, his son, Sorcar, Jr, took a prodigious leap into the world of magic. And while this phenomenal transition from senior to junior was in progress, Sarkar probably took a curtain call unaccompanied by encores.

Rashbehari Avenue may well know which way he went in the meantime. I suspect myself that he slowly crawled westward and never came back. But the avenue now, with its shopping malls, restaurants and traffic jams, is hopelessly uncommunicative about that last journey.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

কুম্ভীলক


বলেছেন ট্রাম্প, কেটে পড় বাবা তুমি,
যেদিকে দুচোখ নিয়ে যাবে সেথা যাও।
এদিকে হেথা যে ধূ ধূ করে মোদীভূমি, 
হায় মেক্সিকো, পাঁচিলেতে ঘেরা তাও!
অতএব মোরা মাঝরাতে যাই চলো, 
মৌন মুখর দুস্তর কোনও গ্রহে, 
নেই যেখানেতে শ্বাস প্রশ্বাস জলও,
হয় না বাঁচতে অলীক আশার মোহে।



 
 
 
 
 

Coffee — A Haiku



untasted coffee 
in a deserted cafe -- 
crowds of memories ... 

 
 
 
 
 

The Price Being Paid

(This is a slightly revised version of an article published by The Telegraph, Kolkata on 15 November, 2016. The link for the Telegraph article is http://www.telegraphindia.com/1161115/jsp/opinion/story_119149.jsp#.WCs58vl97IU)

There is an elementary piece of economic truth that remains unshaken since time immemorial. Put simply, it runs: “Nothing comes from nothing”! Or, using economic jargon, there is a price to be paid to ensure any outcome that generates comfort. At the level of the individual, a decent dinner calls for a payment. At the level of society, weeding out black money from the system calls for hardships as well. To be borne by millions of innocent common men and women queueing up in front of ATM kiosks to withdraw measly sums of cash to try and satisfy their demand for daily essentials. According to reports, the hardship has been somewhat extreme, for some senior people at least are said to have collapsed as they waited endlessly on the streets for their Rs. 2000 in cash. And died, as NRI’s sitting in Japan were clapping and giggling away in vulgar glee that the motherland they never intend to return to was being cleansed.

Quite obviously, the shortage of cash in the pockets of the unlucky ones living in India will ensure that they restrict their expenditure to commodities that are truly necessities. Since creating a shortage of currency in the economy was never known to be an antidote to profane corruption, essential commodities can well disappear for a while from the markets, hand in hand with dirty money. The example that comes readily to mind is the case of common salt. The price of salt soared up for no obvious reason from Rs. 12 to Rs. 300 per kilogram, if the news channels are to be trusted. Despite claims to the contrary, in some areas of the country at least, salt appears to have turned into the scarcest of commodities. When an essential commodity turns scarce relative to the demand for it, people need to spend more to acquire it and the spending in the present instance is taking the form of toilsomely acquired cash, recognized white cash, that is turning instantaneously into black money.

This of course is the least important of examples of the re-emergence of black money even as the common man is bearing the labour pains necessary to deliver a clean India. A new class of middlemen has sprung up that, according to reports, is exchanging bad money for good by charging a premium. How they are managing to get rid of the bad money they are accumulating is for the law keepers to figure out. However, there were at least two persons who were interviewed by TV channels, one located in Delhi and the other in Mathura, who claimed to be ready to perform, and openly so. One of them was ready to offer coins in exchange, quite independently of the total sum of money being exchanged! Hence, one probably hears further that Rs. 10 coins too now stand banned. These individuals could well have been bluffing of course. However, given that the formal banking system is yet to penetrate vast areas of the country, one can easily guess the nature of happenings right now, beyond the boundaries of the metropolitan areas.

Powerful money lenders have not disappeared from our rural economy. Nor have poor farmers and landless labourers. These latter groups of people are doubtlessly being charged steep rates of interest for the white money they are borrowing to sustain their hand to mouth existence. Classroom economics too teaches us that interest rates rise with a fall in money supply relative to demand, though the channel through which the rise comes about is quite different.

The immediate impact of stripping Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 notes of their legal tender status is a fall in the money supply. This results in the existing money demand as a whole (i.e. demand for currency plus money in the form of bank deposits) to exceed the new money supply (i.e. the sum total of bank deposits and the reduced currency supply). Textbook logic tells us that the excess demand for money leads to a sale of interest bearing financial assets in search of non-interest bearing money required to carry out daily transactions. The rush to sell off such paper assets leads to a fall in their prices relative to the face value of their nominal returns. This works out into a rise in interest rates. Whichever way we look at it then, interest rates in general are likely to go up in the near future, when the business sector, backed by the government, has been clamouring for lower interest rates. Ironically enough, we are told that Mr. Raghuram Rajan refused to serve a second term as RBI Governor on account of his disagreement with the government over the very same interest rate issue. He was not in favour of low interest rates, given his concern about inflation.

Higher interest rates can cause a fall in the demand for loans to purchase durable consumer goods, thus slowing down the manufacturing sector. It will also reduce the demand for loans on the part of the manufacturers to purchase raw materials. This in turn will weaken the demand for transport services required to deliver finished or semi-finished products and reduce along with it the incomes of daily wage earners in that sector.

There is yet another route through which such transport services can be affected and this is not linked to interest rates. Given the telltale signals that the problem surrounding the shortage of currency is not about to disappear soon, many of the markets where cash transactions dominate will come to a standstill. In such markets, neither will the grocers be able to sell, nor buyers be able to buy. Consequently, business activities will dry up in the “short run”, which in turn will affect the transporters to these markets.

The price then is being paid and will continue to be paid till the cash supply turns normal in the economy. Normalcy though does not mean smoothly working ATMs alone. Let us recall that a huge chunk of money has been banned from the system. Presumably the RBI will increase the money supply back to where it was before demonetization through repo rate reductions, open market operations and so on. The interest rate will fall again perhaps, but as most commentators have noted, this by itself is unlikely to eradicate corruption.

Instead it could well turn out to be a story of new black money driving out old black money. If demonetization turns out to be the chosen tool for getting rid of black money, then the policy has to be repeated over time. Perhaps this is what the government has in mind, going by the announcement heard from Japan. More is in store we were told, beyond 30 December. In the meantime though, the growth rate of the economy might fall during the second quarter. Combined with the first quarter low growth rate, the annual growth rate is almost certain to be lower than projected. And we have no clue at all about the inflation scenario that might emerge.

Robert Lucas, Nobel Laureate and father of the Rational Expectations School of thought had an important piece of advice for governments engaged with monetary policy. He believed, on the basis of his theory, that monetary policy was not likely to have any perceptible impact on an economy unless it took the shape of random shocks which caught the populace unawares. However, repeated random shocks, even if they produced intended results in the immediate future, were likely to destabilize the economy and result in unwarranted economic cycles.
Perhaps the Government of India has a lesson to learn from Lucas and stop gloating over the shock therapies it is planning for the nation. A price is being paid right now, but one cannot fool all men for all time.

The economy had better improve in the not too distant future.

Waiting — Flash Fiction # 13

They had been waiting for weeks when a few of them pointed out that they had waited for months, and soon enough the months changed to years, till, finally, those who were still alive forgot what they were waiting for, even though they felt vaguely that they had been waiting. 






Granny — Flash Fiction # 12

Granny too was excited to hear the patter of feet coming up the staircase on that silent afternoon, but they passed by the closed door of her empty home, climbing further up and finally moving out of her hearing range. As always.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Sequence — Flash Fiction #11

The man knew he was old, and so were all his possessions, dog included, and that, put together, the collectivity was beyond repair, but he didn’t know in what sequence they needed to be disposed of.







 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Girls — Flash Fiction #10

Hanoi. Inside a tourist bus hired by the university. I sat next to a student volunteer. Dressed in a pristine white uniform. Young and radiating health. She told me about her family. Her father was a doctor. Wasn’t he? Not sure. Could have been an engineer or an accountant. But certainly not a pilot or a restaurant owner. She suddenly turned towards me and asked, “Do you have grandchildren?” I must have been pretty old. But I grew even older with time. How old is she today? Forgot to ask her name. That nameless Vietnamese girl may still be in Hanoi. If you see an attractive girl there with a lovely smile, that’s she. 

***

Hong Kong. I was walking down a long, steep stairway leading down the hill from my home to my office in the university. To my left stood the colossal shopping mall, Festival Walk. It began to rain and I prepared to get soaked. When a smallish young Chinese girl emerged out of the huge mall. She briskly approached me and offered shelter under her open umbrella. We chatted as we went towards our common destination. She was a young undergraduate student and spoke about the courses she was taking. Once inside the university building, she took leave and went her way. I never saw her again. I forgot to ask her name. She should not be more than thirty five now. If you come across her do tell her that I can’t get her out of my mind even though I don’t remember her face. I wonder where she lives now. Her kindness has remained stuck to me like the empty smile of eternity. 

***

New York city. Afternoon. Avenue of the Americas. Pavement in front of Radio City Music Hall. I was walking aimlessly, when a young girl in a green dress rushed up and confronted me. She said, “I love you.” Her intonation was strange. I thought I heard her saying, “Love you?” I didn’t know her at all and stared at her dumbfounded for a moment. Then I tried to smile. I said, “You do?” “Yes,” she said and stood blocking my way, as though she was waiting for a response. Her eyes looked sad as she stared at me and her face wore an expression that I couldn’t decipher. The sadness in her eyes was too deep for her age and the manner of her voice was vaguely painful. I managed to skirt around her and briskly walk away. I had probably assumed her to be a drug addict, even though, on hindsight, she didn’t resemble one.

Like the other two, I never saw this girl again, but those sad eyes and the puzzling countenance continue to live and the enigmatic sentence she had uttered keeps ringing in my ears. Was she asserting or interrogating me about herself? I wish I had spent a few minutes with her and asked her name at least. Somewhere, now, she is a very old woman. She will not recognize me. It’s best to leave her alone.

***

Girls vanish.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

House — Flash Fiction # 9

He bought the house in a prime locality of the city, not to live there, but because he wished to sell off the property for a decent profit.

He sold it, as he had planned to. The man who bought it, did not intend to live in it. Instead, like the previous owner, he sold off the property for a decent profit. The next person who purchased the house did not plan to live there either, and sold it off for a profit as the previous buyers did. And so on.

None of the owners ever lived in that house. Liverlessly though, the house went on living where it was built to live. Till it was too old to live any longer.

Soya — Flash Fiction # 8


He stared across the Sea of China sitting inside a sushi bar in Otaru Port thinking absent-mindedly about that slim Chinese girl in Xidi Village when a tiny drop of soya sauce fell on his shirt sleeve and doggedly defied to be washed off for the rest of his life like the pretty, embarrassed face of the Japanese waitress.