Category Archives: English Compositions

Jr April 18, 2021 – The Mona Lisa Man

Morning arrived like every other morning. The usual chores, the usual rituals surrounding ‘toast and tea’. Staring for a while at the newspaper without reading it. Then, to prepare myself ‘to meet the faces that I meet’, a stroll over to the balcony. A sunny day awaited me and people were going about their ways, each towards his or her destination, too busy to notice me. Which reminded me. This had not always been the case. People who used to walk past our balcony in another part of the city during another epoch of history, did notice us, or at least some of them did. That’s putting things somewhat mildly though. There were passersby who not only noticed us, but actually made it a point to draw our attention towards them.

Amongst them was the old man we came across in A Two Penny Opera (to be called two-penny for short), the one who possessed dubious singing skills. And there was of course the other old man too, who could have offered him stiff competition as far as the nuisance value of vocal chords went. If memory serves me right though, the two-penny entertainer had given his last performance well before his rival showed up. Consequently, the tournament actually never took place. Which is not to say that a tournament was not fought at all. A somewhat violent confrontation in this context did actually occur, but two-penny had no role to play in it.

The aforementioned locality for the story, if you permit me to refresh your memory, was one of the right hand branches of Jatin Das Road that connected to Lake Terrace. Lake Terrace itself, despite its somewhat wiggly appearance, ran more or less parallel to the main stem of Jatin Das Road and, as I had told you elsewhere, I physically arrived on earth near the midpoint of this connector. If Jatin Das Road were to be likened to a river, the connecting branch that bore the same name, could well remind you of one of its tributaries. However, the same logic should have applied to Lake Terrace as well, except that for reasons unknown to me, the municipality refused to accord to this southern neighbour of Jatin Das Road the status of a street that allowed us an address named after itself. Not that it didn’t have a branch of its own too, but to locate it you needed to walk eastwards from the Jatin Das branch where I found my identity.

The cluster of neighbourhood buildings that constituted my customary hangouts during the Jatin Das days could be approached therefore either northwards from Lake Terrace or southwards from the Jatin Das mainstream. And people arrived there in their respective journeys with or without maps. Happy people some should have been. Some complaining about vague misfortunes. A few searched for addresses that never existed. A man who had completely lost his mind and visited our residence in the small hours of the morning looking for my dentist dad. He had, unfortunately, once been employed by my dad to carry out small errands. Many of them may rightfully show up some day or the other in these pages. The present story, however, will be reserved for two-penny’s successor and the duel he fought with a member of the opposite sex.

He was tall compared to two-penny, who was in turn shorter than most people I have known. The new arrival carried, like his predecessor, a tin can. Curiously enough, the can too was somewhat longer and narrower than two-penny’s. Its paper wrapper had disappeared, so what the tin originally contained when sold across the counter is a mystery we will not pursue. Unlike two-penny, he didn’t use the can’s bottom as a percussion instrument. He belonged in fact to the doleful category of visitors and simply begged in multifarious tones, collecting in his can whatever he was offered. Like most of his kind, his dark skin grew darker each day as the sun shone unsparingly on him. His hairless face sat above his bare torso, while a piece of cloth that had once been white covered him waist downwards. It was hard to make out if he ever washed either himself or the cloth. As I remember him, his face bore an inscrutable expression. His lips were permanently stretched in a manner that made it difficult to figure out if he was smiling or crying. He could well have been a real life male version of Mona Lisa, even if he failed to inspire any gifted artist to draw his portrait. Like two-penny, he too deserves a name. We shall refer to him therefore as Mona Lisa Man, or simply by an acronym of sorts, Mlm (to be pronounced Mlem).

There being little novelty in Mlm’s begging skills, he did not draw much attention to begin with. Soon enough though, he realised that he needed to turn innovative to increase his earnings. And lugubriosity being the only capital in his possession, he decided to sell it under the garb of music. In other words, two-penny’s successor arrived one fine morning in a new role. The role of a singer. This was a misfortune for us, for Mlm produced sound waves, or simply noises, that were totally out of tune. He was musically handicapped, and severely so, even compared to two-penny. Besides his repertoire consisted of a single number. And this was Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, the much popular bhajan sung all across India in praise of Lord Rama, the godly hero of the Indian epic Ramayana.

As most Indians know, the second line of the bhajan runs Patita Pavana Sita Ram. For those unfamiliar with Hindi, a rough translation of these two lines is in order. It says — ‘O Lord Rama,  descendant of Raghu! You and your beloved consort Sita are the uplifter of the fallen.’ The words ‘patita pavana‘ refer in fact to the fallen awaiting elevation by the royal couple.

Quite apart from singing this song out of tune, Mlm, regrettably enough, appeared to change its very meaning as well. Being asthmatic perhaps, he struggled to find back his breath by the time he reached the ‘patita pavana‘ part. He broke up the second line of the song therefore into two distinct parts, ‘patita pava’ and ‘na-Sita Ram‘. Since Mlm invariably applied extra emphasis on the ‘na‘ after finding back his breath, his version of the song changed Sita to na-Sita. Sita, replaced by ‘na-Sita‘ sounded like ‘no-Sita’, for ‘na‘ has a negative connotation in most languages. This produced a fresh new interpretation of the song, one that ran totally counter to its original meaning. Instead of rescuing the fallen, Mlm lamented as it were that neither Sita nor Ram were even available to perform the task.

But there was room I felt for yet another interpretation; that instead of praising Lord Rama, Mlm was moaning over the misfortunes suffered by a Sita-less Rama. And since Rama does in fact shed tears in the epic over Sita’s abduction by a demon King, the Sita-less Rama idea could not be entirely ruled out. Rama finally ended up killing the demon to rescue his beloved wife, but that part of the story has no bearing on the song in question.

Let us move on now to the second character in this tale, a woman, who is best described as a wandering minstrel. She wasn’t exactly young, but Mlm was definitely older than her. She wore cleaner clothes, a white saree and some sort of a matching top. Her plentiful hair was tightly bound into a knot above her head. She was dark skinned too, in fact more so than Mlm, with sandalwood markings on her forehead. These were unmistakable signs of some religious sect or the other to which she belonged. She carried a traditional one stringed drone lute, the ektara, which she played in accompaniment with a whole range of bhajans that she sang with remarkable grace. Her voice was endowed with both weight and range and it was clear that she had managed to be musically trained sometime in her unknown past. Begging might well have been a way of life that her religious beliefs dictated. But there could have been other causes, not excluding tragic ones, underlying her peripatetic lifestyle. No one, however, was particularly inquisitive about her past. It was her singing alone that concerned us. It was literally a balm for our ears, suffering as they were from the Mlm engineered bomb blasts.

As soon as the notes floated out of her voice, the residents in the area turned alert and quite a few of them gathered in front of their homes as the woman sang from the pavement. This was a treat for us all and she received alms way above what the middle class neighbourhood could afford. After entertaining her audience with a number of songs, she departed I think towards the Lake Terrace end of the Jatin Das tributary, to rest a while perhaps prior to her next performance. The woman had dropped like manna from heaven and we waited impatiently for her next show each time she regaled us with her charming voice. She was a happy surprise for an audience accustomed to little other than mundanity.

The treat was not destined to last too long. And that was a tragedy, though the tragedy had a comic touch about it.

The woman arrived one late morning in spring and pulled at the single string of her instrument. Her voice echoed back the tune and we ran to our ring side seats on balconies and windows. Soon she sank deeply into her music with half-closed eyes and her audience too responded with dreamy appreciation. She didn’t exactly dance as she sang, but her head nodded lightly to the rhythm of her song and there was a ripple in her body. Her feet too lightly tapped on the pavement.

This day though was different from the others. For, all of a sudden, we received a rude shock. Immersed as we were in the music, no one noticed that Mlm too had arrived on the scene from the Jatin Das mainstream. He had crept quietly behind the woman and, without any prior notice at all, jolted her with his inimitable first strain of Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram. We were totally unnerved by this unanticipated intrusion, though, to her credit, the woman sang on for a while, ignoring the interference. The man too did not stop. He stuck to his own performance ignoring completely the fact that someone else was singing simultaneously. And compared to her singing, his voice sounded as disconcerting as a loud drilling machine boring a hole through a metal sheet.

The woman was no Lata Mangeshkar needless to say, but the fiasco that ensued began to resemble the great singer being interrupted by the said drilling machine in her immediate neighbourhood. She was singing, if I remember correctly, Hari Mere Jeevan Pran. Translated, this should read, Hari (or, Krishna), thou art the very breath of my life. But Mlm was simultaneously treating us to his version of Raja Ram. Each ignored the other, with the result that the two lyrics mingled into a single one that left no scope for human comprehension at all. We were treated to a perfect fusion of tune and the tuneless, a musical cyclone of sorts. Some of us were irritated, but some smiled too, for what was happening in front of our eyes was buffoonery of the highest order. Even Chaplin might have found it difficult to reproduce.

In vain did we signal the man to stop. For Mlm, faithful to the name I christened him by, carried on his performance without batting an eyelid. The woman ignored the interruption for as long as she could, but eventually she lost her cool. And this happened, when much to her annoyance, she lost track of the notes and sang one totally out of rhythm. She stopped for a moment to correct herself, but failed again. And this is when the expression on her face changed with lightening speed from devotion to hatred. She swung around and faced the drill machine. Her entire appearance had changed and she was ready for battle. Now there was a single song being aired, the one Mlm sang, totally indifferent to the proceedings.

The woman screamed at Mlm in a voice that surprised us all. A ferocious battle cry it was which had no trace at all of musical softness in it. She was bitter and poured out her hidden supply of venom, one that could have been accumulated only through endless suffering. Her musical magic gave way to her torment ridden past. Music forgotten, she snarled like a leopard ready for the kill. However, before she could initiate her attack, Mlm too responded, for the first time throwing away his Mona Lisa mask.

They screamed at each other in a North Indian dialect that I could hardly follow, but I understood enough to know that there was no love lost between them. The woman, who had entertained us with her mellifluous voice so often, proved beyond doubt that she could get far more out of tune than Mlm. The latter at the same time swore at his loudest best. As I watched the scene, I wondered if either Rama or Hari were witnessing the incident sitting wherever they normally sit. Perhaps they did, but they certainly didn’t interrupt. The audience, however, finally lost its patience and began to disperse. Seeing which, it was the woman who decided to give up. A public road though being a public road, Mlm refused to budge. Not only so, he kept returning back to his na-Sita Ram refrain at the slightest sign that the woman might resume singing as well. She didn’t do so and simply walked away in disgust towards Lake Terrace and, sadly enough, never showed up again in our locality. In comic contrast, Mlm continued to sing at the appointed hour every day of the week. I cannot recall when his time ended, but he certainly did vanish one day, leaving the na-Sita puzzle eternally unsolved.

Our Jatin Das locality, however, has managed to withstand the test of time. Even during these rapidly changing days, the locality has not transformed too much, as I found out quite recently. The patch of pavement where the duel was fought exists still. The performers have disappeared for good of course, but that didn’t prevent in the least my ‘inward eye’ from resurrecting the concert from sixty odd years ago.

My eventfully eventless day is over now as evening is about to herald in yet another night. I have come back to the balcony to stare for a while at the moonlit sky. The street below is almost empty, except for a lonely street dog that passed by. Then suddenly, out of nowhere appeared a man with an open umbrella above his head. He walked away swiftly, protecting his head from the moonbeams I suspect, for it was not raining, nor was the scorching sun a source of discomfort. He was a loony no doubt, as lonesome as the dog. I have no idea where he is headed, but for a reason I cannot fully comprehend, I wish to follow the trail he left. Perhaps it can lead me back to my Jatin Das world once again.

Kanchenjunga — Haiku

Siliguri nights …

Stale hotels — till sunrise smiles

Siliguri nights …

Stale hotels — till sunrise smiles

On Kanchenjunga …

Photo —

Jr April 5, 2021 – Once Avenue Hair Dressers

What with Covid holding me hostage, the nature of daily happenings has undergone a transformation. Well, I still eat my meals of course, which is a sort of physical activity. I don’t mean chewing the food alone that I stuff into my mouth, causing muscular activities of sorts, of jaws, arms, fingers, or even eyes I suppose. Strange, I never thought of my eyes that way. The muscular aspect of my eyes I mean. But as I was saying, eating activates my entire body. Walking over from the bedroom or the study to the dining room. And then coming back where I arrived from when I showed up for dinner.

May be I should exercise a little more. Actually, I do exercise. With my brain, as I sit still in my chair. The brain engages me in weird thought exercises. Come to think of it, that’s a lot of exercise. More than what you do on a treadmill. The latter probably keeps Parkinson’s or whatever away. But thoughts, however irrelevant or useless, might save you from Alzheimer’s. I don’t know which is better. Lying in bed Parkinson’s doomed with your brain engaged in solving Fermat’s Last Problem. Or running up the staircase to ask your wife if she knew where to find your wife.

The other idle thought that I was assailed by today concerned the small, congested barber shop that has existed since my childhood days. Which was at least seventy years ago. In exactly that shape, more or less at the corner of Rash Behari Avenue and Lake View Road. Everything else has changed in the neighbourhood, except for that ancient barber shop. Shops adjacent to it dazzle in modern glory and the barber shop simply doesn’t belong there. Yet it stands there in dogged defiance. I recalled being attracted by that shop as a child, when barber shops were somewhat uncommon to come across. Barbers used to visit your home to give you a haircut. They don’t exist anymore. Where I lived, barber shops were quite uncommon. Except that this little one had propped up.

I don’t think I visited this shop more than once. May be twice. I was impressed by the chairs and the mirrors and the barber’s tools. And strangely enough, I remember the proprietor’s face. It was a longish face. But he was quite bald. This was odd, like a practising dentist without teeth. The bald barber was more expensive than the thick haired barber who visited our home. So, my mother probably didn’t let me visit the shop as often as I might have wished to.

I was standing near the shop one day, when things turned noisy. Adults in the neighbourhood ran towards the shop and someone emerged out of it. I didn’t know it then, but I do know now, that the man was totally drunk. He was big and people appeared to be somewhat scared of him. He was probably a local strongman and needed to be kept appeased. Now that I think of it, he probably didn’t pay for the barber’s services. That could have been the barber’s approach to stay out of harm’s way. The big man began to walk unsteadily and the strange thing was that his beard was covered with shaving foam. The bald barber soon emerged from the shop and followed him with a shaving brush dipped into a cup full of shaving lather in one hand and a shaving razor in the other. Since the goon’s beard was already lathered, I couldn’t comprehend why the barber was carrying the lather as well as the razor. It can’t be ruled out of course that the guy wished to be shaved as he sat on the pavement and that would need a second round of lathering. But I am really quite unsure. It might well have been the case that it was a haircut he had gone in for and the barber misunderstood him. A man asking for a haircut has a right to express indignation, drunken or otherwise, when instead of a haircut that he wanted, the barber prepared him for a shave, which he never wanted. Lastly, he could merely have planned to fall asleep in one of the barber’s chairs and be left in peace. People probably do not enjoy being woken up from a deep slumber by a barber trying to give them a shave.

The fellow tottered around for a while, yelling at the top of his voice till some of the people watching the scene intervened and managed to push him back into the shop, warily followed by the barber with the cup and the razor. I was endlessly shaken by the event. Why I cannot tell. Perhaps I thought that the man with the lathered face was a real life Fagin, though Fagin was not supposed to be fat. So I could have been terrified by his yelling alone. For several days following that event, I had wondered if the man did finally get his shave. I can’t rule out the possibility that the man had come out repeatedly, each time followed by the barber and that he had finally gone back home with his lathered face.

I don’t think I ever visited that shop again, afraid I suppose of seeing Big Fagin again. Or other wild creatures. So, I cannot tell you what else happened in the shop since that day. No one ever told me.

And then seventy odd years later, I saw the shop again the other day. It was located under a patio supported by strong pillars. I have no recollection of the patio, though I am reasonably sure that the patio is at least as old as the shop. I looked up and saw what looked like a residential flat opening into the patio. There was a french window and two other smaller ones through which light poured out indicating the existence of living beings inside. I have no idea who live there now. Do they smile? Do they cry? Do they sing lullabies for their babies. I suppose I shall never know if their great grandfathers lived there during my innocent days as a child. I am not sure why, but I am curious about the occupants of the lighted flat facing the patio. No one was visible of course. In the meantime, I was being watched silently, I felt, through the frosted glass door of the barber shop. It felt eerie sort of. The door had coloured scribbling on it and the light that shone inside should have been brighter. At least as bright as the lights in the patio apartment. The dim lights in the shop wore an accusing expression it seemed, pulling me up for not keeping track of its passage through time. It used to be called Avenue Hair Dressing Saloon I think. But no longer so. Its name has changed, but look wise it hasn’t changed an epsilon bit. The bald proprietor cannot exist anymore. Nor Big Fagin. I may well be the only person amongst the ones present that day who still lives. I have no idea who runs the shop now. It stands diagonally across the spot where Kamala Bastralaya, the tailor’s shop I told you about sometime in the past used to be. As you know, like the bald barber, the tall tailor no longer exists either. But unlike the tailor’s shop, the barber’s shop still stands under the patio.

Like me, it has no business to be in this world anymore.

Of Men, Women and Other Creatures

A little book available at

Excerpt from the first story —

And then one day Maganlal Magicwallah disappeared himself. Not because he wished to perform a disappearing trick ...


Maganlal Magicwallah

Debu-da: Large Man in a Larger World

A Flat Atop the New Market

Girls Vanish

The Dog and I

Of Crows and Men

Jr March 26, 2021 — Gangajal, or One Day in the Life of an Unknown Indian

This had happened well before the arrival of Covid. However, as is my custom, it invaded my stream of consciousness only this morning. I rarely know why I think about what I think about. For I have nothing much to think about to tell you frankly. Unless of course it is Descartes who pushes me to the edge of the ragged hilltop threatening me to think and think alone, simply to prove to myself and the rest of the world that my existence is not a dreadful illusion. I mean that is that … err … I am. I had better tell you about the matter, or else I could cease to be … well whatever that means … I could cease to be that “am” thing.

Well, you see, I had gone and joined the tail end of the serpentine queue leading up to the Speed Post counter at the post office. I really do not know why I did this. But I am sure that I did commit the act. The queue was long and spilled over to the pavement. Not that I wasn’t mentally prepared. I was armed with earphones to help me concentrate in peaceful boredom on my smart phone playing out the audio version of the Economist. I listened to the pros and cons of Germany’s trade surplus, Donald Trump’s latest spell of insanity, Cornelis’ prize-winning vegetables in Ngabang, Mr. Hapilon’s shelter in Marawi and so on and so forth.

Peace, however, was disturbed unexpectedly. “Non-peace” had arrived in the shape of a youngish bozo. He was snarling at me I observed, but strangely enough I couldn’t hear a word he said. I wondered for a split second if I was in the midst of a surrealistic dream. You know, the sort of dream sequences that great film makers, such as Fellini or Bergman, weave into their movies for the sole purpose of making you feel insecure about your intelligence.

I stared at him open mouthed till I realised that the earphones had turned me deaf to happenings within close range even as I was hearing about events occurring in remote South China Sea, both loudly and clearly. I removed my hearing hurdles therefore and switched my attention to the young man’s grievances.

“You have taken up my place,” he accused.

I looked behind me and found that I was still the solitary person guarding the rear of the queue. “But I am at the end of the queue! How could I have possibly usurped you?”

“You have,” he replied haughtily. “I was the last person in the queue and now you have taken up my place.”

He sounded as though he was trying to establish a territorial right and not his last position in the waiting list. Being peace loving, I moved back a few inches to accommodate him. He warned me not to disturb the order. “You are behind me,” he hissed. “Remember this.” Saying so, he disappeared wherever he had appeared from. I continued to guard the rear, quickly closing up the gap I had created for his use. But I was uncomfortably conscious that the rear that I appeared to be guarding was not exactly the rear that I was meant to guard. Which rear was invisible at the moment, but could pay surprise visits whenever it wished.

I plugged back my earphones. A woman with a perfect British accent greeted me with news about sex workers in Colombia. I decided to switch gear and shift over to YouTube to listen to the Schubert Serenade as I watched the faces that I faced inside the post office.

One in particular caught my attention. He sported a sparsely vegetated, large round head and rushed around a matching round table, clockwise at times and anti-clockwise at others. A mound of timeworn papers lay on the table and he took short breaks to feverishly sort them out. A grumbling crowd chased him, some clockwise and the rest anti-clockwise. I tried to figure out without success what the round chap was doing for his followers around the round table. It occurred to me, not without a tinge of jealousy, that I had never been sought after this way. And then I noticed posters on the walls. One said that you needed to link your postal savings bank account to your Aadhaar number, or else unknown things could happen to you. I happily recalled that I possessed no such account. The round man and the round table could well have a connection with the said savings accounts. He was probably an Aadhar distributor for the hapless Aadhar-denied. My jealousy rapidly disappeared. I had never wished to be chased by violent Aadhar seekers.

Yet another poster on the wall said that it was the Speed Post service that was keeping the country together, but that it wouldn’t remain open after 3 PM. This was disconcerting, I mean the possibility that the country was getting ready to fall apart after 3 PM. Schubert took leave as this new piece of intelligence invaded my mind. Worriedly, I checked my watch. It was ten past one. Life has its pleasant surprises too I thought. I still had close to two hours left on earth. Peace returned along with Schubert, since I forgot to ask where Speed Post parcels were likely to be delivered once the earth ceased to exist. I live in a fool’s paradise I suppose.

Someone behind me patted my shoulder. I looked around in mild alarm. He was a shortish chap, once again pretty young, but not snarling. Obligingly, I removed my earphones. Schubert, feeling neglected, began to vibrate inside my trouser pocket in agony as the man who didn’t snarl, actually smiled at me. I smiled back too with an amiable “Ah! How are you today!” expression, but had no idea who he might be. He responded audibly. “I am behind you,” he observed. This fresh new “behind” related allegation made me lose a heartbeat, for there was no room for doubt concerning his assertion. Before I could agree with him though, he too disappeared with an “I will be back here later” message. This undoubtedly meant that should anyone else come and stand behind me, I was in charge of explaining to her or him that she or he was in fact not standing behind me.

I don’t think I had found myself sandwiched between two persons ever before in my life, both of whom were invisible. It was a case of disappearing front and behind in Perry Mason language. The situation was unenviable. I went back to Schubert, however, and continued to watch the visible waves of perspiring humanity once again. There were wooden benches where people were dozing. I had no idea why you needed to walk over all the way to the post office to enjoy your siesta. I vaguely recognized one of them. I stared at him trying to recall where I had seen him in the recent past. The man returned my gaze and smiled. The smile was unmistakably familiar. Who could it be?

The man was helpful. “I am behind you,” he reminded me. The man behind me, even though not visible behind me, was not exactly invisible either. He was riding a bench, under a rickety fan, while I, his trusted lieutenant in the infantry, was holding the fort at the end of the queue.

In the meantime, the queue moved forward along with me immersed in the Schubert serenade. It was around 2.15 PM when I found myself to be the third person from the counter, not counting the invisible man behind whom I stood. He materialized though by the time I had moved up to the second position and taken out the earphones, ready to confabulate with the girl at the counter.

“You are behind me,” he snarled. As with the other man, I had no recollection of his face, but I recognized his trademark snarl. I let him squeeze in without a murmur. I am a peaceful person. I think I have already said that.

Soon, he faced the girl seated on the other side of the counter in a violet shirt and black trousers. Quite pretty in fact. She weighed his envelope and told him that the charge was Rs. 53. He produced Rs. 60 from his pocket, which the girl refused to accept.

“Sorry, no change available,” said Girlie.

“Where do I get three rupees from?” replied Snarlie, somewhat unsnarling.

“Go out and get the change from nearby shops,” replied Girlie.

“But there are no shops nearby,” Snarlie had rapidly melted and was close to whimpering now.

The invisible man behind me, the one who smiled, had now turned visible behind me and he began to offer his opinion as well. “Don’t delay us, come tomorrow with the change,” suggested Smilie.

Snarlie snarled at Smilie. Girlie though didn’t budge. I looked at my watch. It was half past two. I was getting fidgety, when divine help intervened. Like oil in Arabia, I struck coins inside my trouser pocket. In my left pocket to be precise. With an exclamation of hallelujah, I extracted them and offered three rupees worth of coins to Snarlie in broad daylight. Plenty of witnesses.

After this, the matter was settled in a jiffy. Snarly disappeared soon after as was his wont. Before he did so, however, he looked back at me and produced a mixture of a growl and a grunt. In appreciation I think.

This brought me face to face with Girlie. Except that it didn’t. When I turned my face from the disappearing Snarlie towards the counter, I found much to my horror that Girlie too had disappeared. The day was reserved for vanishing people. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes to three and the counter still empty. I stood there dumbfounded as the seconds ticked away. Schubert too was angrily protesting inside my pocket. The right pocket, for if you remember, the left pocket was where coins tinkled.

I looked everywhere. No girlie alas. I noticed instead a middle aged woman sitting inside a kiosk that said “Stamps” in bold red letters. Did people buy stamps anymore these days to post letters? What strange commodity was the woman selling? A closer look at the window resolved the mystery. A typed notice was pasted there. “Gangajal,” it announced. In two sizes, 200 litres and 500 litres. Not Bisleri mind you, but Gangajal! To wash away your mortal sins. A postal route to Heaven?

I began to pray. Sweet God, I will offer you a 200 litre bottle of Gangajal to make Girlie reappear.

The prayer was answered instantaneously. She walked out of the adjacent room from behind a curtain that had last been washed around the time of the Sepoy Mutiny, accompanied by two zealous male colleagues. “What medicine did you consume?” one of them queried. She whispered a reply. The other one reacted, “That’s the last tablet you should have tried. It makes you feel sleepy.”

Absolutely correct, I thought to myself, when super-potent Gangajal was easily available. Postal employees might even be offered a discount.

I didn’t have to wait much longer. Girlie handed over the receipt to me somnolently and I rushed towards the Gangajal kiosk to stick to my promise to God, only to discover that the lady in charge of Gangajal had vanished as well! The lights in the kiosk had been switched off, its door was locked and a Sold Out notice snickered!

In the meantime 3 PM had arrived and left, with not a drop of Gangajal available in the vicinity to hold back cataclysms. And if you are wondering how come you are still alive, I have a simple question for you to consider.

Who told you that you were still alive?

Descartes perhaps? Don’t trust him. Unless you wish to be known as a gullible person. I know of course that I am one of those myself.

Jr 23 March, 2021–Paper and Pastry

I can’t quite recall when I woke up this morning. Nor am I sure if I looked forward to my day ahead. In fact, I am a habituated non-forward looker. I see nothing much blooming ahead of me, except of course the final day. But there is a great deal that forces me to recede back into the past.

As soon as my brain began to whisper early in the morning therefore, I travelled back to January and ruminated over a tryst I had with destiny. Some call it a bank. My account there had been hacked. Most of its contents, otherwise known as money, had disappeared in less than 15 seconds, as I stared in wonder at my phone and admired the finesse with which the job was accomplished. By someone, who amongst other things, was quite invisible. Frankly his skill impressed me to no end and, had he not insisted on remaining invisible, I might have even agreed to pay him the rest of my money in the bank simply to watch him perform. But he was not visible. So I rushed to the bank, panting under my covid mask. The bank in turn prodded me to rush further to the police station and then rush back to the bank to tell it what the police had to say. The police actually had not said much. But one policeman gave me a number to be handed over to the bank. Which I did, not knowing what the bank needed it for. As I had correctly surmised, the bank didn’t know what to do with it either. But it did store that secret number in a secret enclosure and forgot about the matter.

Since there was not much point hanging around, I travelled further back in time to recall one of my favourite Beatles songs. This is the way the song ran — You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper/And in the middle of investigations/You break down. For those who are over-inquisitive, here’s the link .

That’s the way I spent the last two months. Forcing my vocal chords to crow this song in my inimitable soprano or whatever. My neighbours complained probably, but I remained blissfully immersed in my money music. For two whole months! There were intermissions of course. Vaccination for one and the time wasted in the vaccination centre, all because a large number of people had forgotten that each one of them will need to die some day or the other, some way or the other. I was at peace with myself though. Nothing to complain about, till a certain Saturday arrived. On that sacred day, at 7 in the evening, I was delivered a digital message by the bank that, in accordance with my request, my account had been completely deactivated.

After an agonising Sunday wait, when banks, like God, take rest, I huffed and puffed back one more time to the bank to find out when I had made the said deactivation request. And the guy said he didn’t know. Upon which, I produced for him the message I had received and inquired what seemed natural to me. Didn’t the bank send it? His reply was a confident “yes”. And as far as the reason underlying the bank’s decision to excommunicate me went, he was equally clear. “I don’t know,” said he with supreme confidence. He appeared to be an honest idiot. Honest, since he didn’t disown the note. Stupid, because he had no idea why the note had surfaced in the first place.

Alternatively, he could have been an existentialist philosopher, drawing my attention to the absurdity of existence itself. I stopped singing my Beatles song therefore and sighed. He sighed too, sympathy oozing out of his eyes. He stuck doggedly nonetheless to the principle he had enunciated at the very beginning of his speech, viz. “yes it is, but no it is not”. As far as a resolution of the problem went, like our mutual sighs, the guy stared at me for a while and I stared back at him simultaneously. Both avoiding speech as a means of communication. Which is when my brain waves brought up a new question and I found back my speech. “If you didn’t send this message, but it went from your machine all the same, could it be possible that someone who’s not you, but who’s you at the same time (somewhat resembling the “yes but no” theorem) walked into your office and shot the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune’ at me? Or, does it have something to do with that fateful number?”

“What number,” asked he, visibly shaken. “Your bank account number?” “No,” said I, “the one that the police guy gave me to pass on to you.” He was taken aback. He had no idea that a number had once played a role in the drama, however nebulous. And that was the end of the episode more or less. I searched the wall behind him just in case the mystery number was lurking there under the paint. Without success, needless to say. Those Beatles guys were super intelligent. They knew that a chap never gave away his number, creating thereby a breakdown. The mention of a number had a debilitating impact on the “yes-no” man. He collapsed in his chair and since I didn’t wish to accompany him to a hospital, I quietly left the bank in search of the rest of the day.

And during that search, I remembered Ashim all of a sudden, who lived next door during my youth in Jatin Das Road. Hard to avoid this. The past invariably keeps landing me there. Well, it so happened that Ashim had managed to arm himself with a pocketful of money and offer me a treat in Tiger theatre (it no longer exists) on Chowringhee Road (now Jawaharlal Nehru Road).

Quite elated, I accompanied him to the theatre where we purchased 2 matinee show tickets and waited outside the auditorium for the show to begin. In the meantime, Ashim felt hungry at the sight of rich cream layered pastries on sale right next to the entrance to the theatre. The large hearted chap offered to buy me a pastry too and I readily agreed. Unfortunately though, as he was getting rid of his money in exchange of the pastries, my attention was attracted by a poster showing Audrey Hepburn at her loveliest best. It was an ad for the next movie to be shown at the theatre.

Well, when Audrey Hepburn captures the attention of a teenager, he cannot be blamed I suppose for dismissing pastries to the realm of oblivion. Only Ashim had not noticed the poster and went on to procure the pastries in question and came back and stood next to me. “Here’s your pastry,” he said merrily I think. But at that particular moment, it was Audrey Hepburn whom my heart desired in helpless agony. So, I hardly knew what Ashim had said. I ignored him completely and concentrated back on Audrey Hepburn, forgetting alas the long tested wisdom underlying the proverb that a bird in hand is worth a million or so in the bush. Ashim repeated his offer. I hardly understood him and merely muttered, “Oh, I see! Keep it in your pocket!” I must have confused the pastry for his money and forgotten completely that the money had found its way into the vendor’s pocket and Ashim’s pockets were not exactly suited to store cream layered pastries. Then suddenly the bell rang, announcing the beginning of the show that we had gone there to watch. I turned around and caught the expression on Ashim’s face as he was trying desperately to push into his pocket the pastry of contention. He bore an expression on his face that appeared to be precariously balanced on a razor’s edge separating rage from homicide. It took me less than a moment to realise the blunder I had committed and I quickly retrieved the pastry peeking out of his trouser pocket. I am not sure if I consumed it finally, but I remember distinctly the cream smeared gooey state to which his pocket had descended.

Ashim didn’t speak to me for several days following that event. But finally we managed to make up, though he often reminded me that he liked my brother more than me. And Audrey Hepburn never spoke to me at all. Her picture merely ensured that Ashim lost his money, in those deep, dark prehistoric days. Long before digital money was born. But then, money was invented by humanity with the sole intention of losing it. Wasn’t it?

Jr 17 March, 2021

Frankly, this covid thing never really bothered me. I was not even planning to be vaccinated. Till of course they said that I was too old not to be vaccinated. And that meant I had to visit the clinic along with my wife. Which I did, my wife grumbling all the way, since she is a science hater. I think she thought I was planning to have her murdered by the vaccine.

Well we went through the motions. People were waiting there to be vaccinated. All as old as me, some even older. I was surprised to see them, because till today I thought I was the oldest man on earth. And I was amazed to see so many old people congregating to make sure that they don’t die too soon. There were endlessly many of them. I never even suspected that there were so many old people on earth who were not willing to die.

Anyway, this guy injected the venom into my arm, but I didn’t feel this happening. I was even suspicious that he had actually not even vaccinated me, but merely charged me for the service. What worried me even more was the fact that I didn’t develop any reaction at all till 24 hours later and that too was a mild pain in my arm. So, my fear increased. I would have probably died without the vaccine. But now the probability looked like a certainty. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as though I am not willing to die. But I don’t want the vaccine to kill me.

And then this morning, the newspaper announced that scientists in Britain and elsewhere believe that this variant of the vaccine can produce blood clots. I have no idea what blood clots do to you, but I distinctly recall that the clinic asked me if I was on blood thinners. I wasn’t and assumed that the vaccine might turn my blood thinner than it is. But it appears now that it doesn’t thin the blood, but coagulates it. That’s not a happy thought. I mean the idea of turning into a man whose blood, instead of flowing, actually coagulates. Worse, if I don’t die in the course of the next 4 weeks, they will give me yet another dose of coagulator. I think coagulated blood cannot be pumped by your heart to your lungs or whatever. Besides, my lungs enjoy consuming liquid stuff more than semi-solid things. I learnt this in junior school. I am likely to die therefore 4 weeks from now.

All because I gave in to the vaccinator guy.

No other thoughts as I stare blankly at the monitor. Except of course for the thought that I have no other thoughts worth recording. Nothing much happens these days. But there used to be happenings way back in the past. Such as the rainy days. Torrential rains that refused to relent. A frog had somehow found a secret passage through which it visited our living room. My older brother and I were the only people at home. I have no idea where my parents had disappeared. I think Naren was there too. Naren was a servant employed by my mother’s brother, who didn’t live far away. That was Jatin Das Road too, but not the tributary where we lived.

The frog began to hop. It took mighty leaps and I was scared that it might attack me. My brother too must have thought similarly. For he began to jump as well. Perhaps he thought that the jumping frog would imagine him to be a jumping frog as well and leave him alone. I can’t recall what Naren was doing, except that he was yelling at the frog.

Well the frog finally disappeared into thin air and the rain stopped. If it didn’t stop, it might have continued to rain till this day and the frog would have grown old like me and accompanied me to the vaccine centre.

The Father, the Son and the **** Ghost

Utpal Dutt and the Magician: A Tale of Two Performers ©

Utpal Dutt, before he turned into a professional actor commanding pan India fame, was a school teacher. No run of the mill teacher he was of course. Any student exposed to his teaching skills in the early days of South Point High School in Kolkata will probably affirm this. Not unlike a magician, he could make his students fall into a trance. The medium of instruction in the school was English and he taught us English literature. His English accent was immaculately British, which we admired to no end. But coming from middle class Bengali homes, as most of us did, we were fully aware of our own inabilities to pick up his brand of English. Despite Utpal Dutt’s sincere efforts, our limitations lingered.

Dutt was an amateur stage actor as well at the time and the founder of the Little Theatre Group (that later changed to People’s Little Theatre). In the interest of the students, his acting group often performed Bengali versions of Shakespeare’s plays in the school premises, translated by Dutt himself. These included plays such as Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and others. Thus, he was equally at ease with Bengali and English, reserving English for the classrooms and Bengali for the stage.

He was, however, not the only entertainer we were exposed to. On special occasions, the school had its students entertained by other varieties of performing artists too. This story concerns one of those, a stage magician, and his interactions with Utpal Dutt. The school had no auditorium at the time and shows were held on make shift stages. One such was rigged up for the magician in the manner of Dutt’s own stages and the students congregated there to watch him. Utpal Dutt simply loved the students and, as was his wont, he too joined the festivity.

The magician appeared to be earning a living of sorts from his skills, while Dutt was probably dreaming at the time about a professional acting career. In a way therefore, the two were not equals as far as their earnings from stagecraft went. Of course, the magician was not particularly well-known in his profession either and was almost certainly struggling to establish himself. He never found the success he sought, or so it would seem, for his name hasn’t survived the tides of time. No Houdini, or Sorcar, or Gilli Gilli Gogia Pasha he was therefore, or even remotely managed to turn into. As noted, Utpal Dutt too was then relatively unknown and neither performer knew the other personally. However, Dutt was destined to climb great heights in later life. The magician, therefore, had little idea about the great actor to be that he was facing on that long lost evening.

The conjurer kept us enthralled with a series of tricks and, encouraged by Dutt, we clapped thunderously at the end of each item presented. Quite unexpectedly though, one of those tricks caught Utpal Dutt on the wrong foot. The trick appears in hindsight to have been reserved for Utpal Dutt and him alone. It commenced with the magician stepping down from the stage and approaching the audience with a pack of playing cards. His eyes searched for the right face and landed quite randomly on Utpal Dutt. He confronted Dutt, requesting him politely to choose a card from the pack and reveal it to everyone present, except the magician himself. Dutt did what he was told and then replaced the card in the pack. The pack was shuffled thoroughly and the magician went over to the stage to place it inside an empty drinking glass on the top of a table. Following this, he turned back towards the audience looking directly at Utpal Dutt. And it was then that the fun began.

“Now Sir, why don’t you request your card not to hide inside the pack any longer?” began the magician. “After all, I am not acquainted with it. Can’t you ask it to show us its face?” The magician was speaking mostly in Bengali, which the students understood quite well. Utpal Dutt was visibly embarrassed by the idea of speaking to his chosen card, though the actor in him could well have done a great job of such conversation. However, he avoided that course of action and remained seated amongst the audience and simply smiled sheepishly.

The magician though insisted doggedly, which is when the English language invaded all of a sudden, for Dutt was asked to address his card in English with two simple words — “get up”. Simple yes, for he could well have used more sophisticated expressions like “reveal thyself” or, “come out of hiding, will you?” But it is unlikely that his acquaintance with the English language went that far. Worse, he was as ignorant of his own shortcomings vis-a-vis that language, as he was of Dutt’s outstanding command over it. Dutt could hardly refuse, for a room full of students were staring at him expectantly. He followed the magician’s advice therefore and came out with his version of the “get up” order in what sounded like trochaic meter, delivered in an Othello like booming bass.

Like any other magician, the one facing us possessed rudimentary acting skills too. He used them to his advantage now and almost collapsed on the stage in feigned fear as soon as he heard Dutt’s voice. Then, wearing a scandalised look on his face, he reprimanded Utpal Dutt in chaste Bengali. “If you scare the card this way, how will it even manage to peep out of the pack? Please don’t scold it so loudly, will you? Be polite, be nice to it? You are forcing it to remain in hiding!”

Then he went on to demonstrate the way he needed our teacher to utter the two fateful words. What he said sounded like a request alright and a passionate one at that. But there was a problem. The “get up” he insisted upon was somewhat songful in nature and spoken in a manner that made the words sound more Bengali than English. His tone bore a close resemblance to that of a doting Bengali mother urging her pampered brat of a child not to throw garbage on the heads of unwary passersby.

In short, his English was as far removed from Dutt’s as a tropical rain forest could have been from the Sahara desert. We, who were closely familiar with Utpal Dutt’s diction roared out in laughter, though our own pronunciation was doubtlessly far closer to the magician’s than Dutt’s. Yet the goings on appeared hilarious in our eyes, because we doubted that the teacher could reproduce the magician’s version of “get up” without distorting what he taught in his classes. The magician of course little knew why the students were laughing. He merely believed I suppose that he had excelled in his job. He responded with a wide grin.

Now, more than half a century later, I cannot fail to note a paradox of sorts surrounding the event. There is little doubt that no native English speaker could have understood what the magician had said to Utpal Dutt. Any such person would probably have expressed his incomprehension by merely scratching his head. But the thunderous manner in which we reacted amounted to jeering at the magician for his lack of speech wise sophistication. Quite obviously, we had developed into a bunch of snobs under Utpal Dutt’s tutelage, even though he had never intended things to happen that way. The paradox lay in the fact that Utpal Dutt ended up directing many a stage actor to speak the magician’s “Bengalified” English, purely for its comic effect. He must have spoken it himself too if the role demanded it. But on this day, Dutt the teacher refused to imitate the magician’s accent, which he could have done effortlessly. In fact, if he did imitate, his students would have gone back home with the impression that he had demeaned the man, not for being an incompetent magician, but for a reason totally unrelated to his trade. His fault would lie in the fact that he spoke his mother tongue more freely than he spoke a foreign language.

None of us would have reacted the way we did if the magician could have come up with Utpal Dutt’s English. This, however, was quite impossible, for the school he had gone to had almost surely not employed a Shakespearean actor to teach English. Unlike the students he was facing, he had probably studied in a school where English was not the medium of instruction. Most likely, even his English teacher taught the language in Bengali. Consequently, he was not familiar with the niceties of English accent. He could not speak King’s English. Nor could we.

Utpal Dutt probably realised the nature of the paradox the way I myself do today, having graduated out of my teenage asininity. Instead of mimicking the magician, he spoke the words in the manner of a boy soprano. Moreover, in doing so, he demonstrated his magnificent acting skill as far as voice control went. We heard open mouthed the range his voice could travel, from bass to treble. This did not quite satisfy the magician’s demand though, but he decided it was not as fearsome as Othello preparing to strangle Desdemona. He did not insist any further and much to everyone’s delight, the card in question did in fact climb out of the pack by itself and allowed us to verify its identity. Utpal Dutt came out with an earth shattering bravo and the rest of us clapped cheerfully.

A few days later, some of us came across the magician one more time. He was waiting near the school office, to collect his compensation for the performance. We began to chat with him and he turned out to be a friendly person. As all young people do on such occasions, we started enquiring about the secrets of his tricks. He told us vaguely about the art of magic and ended up at one point asking us to request the school authorities to start a magic course for the students. This was certainly unheard of. No school on earth meant for general studies offered a course in sorcery. Even at that young age, we concluded that the man needed a steady income, an income that would let him peacefully concentrate on his art without having to depend on a hand to mouth existence, which is what his stray performances ensured at best. We knew that his proposal was absurd and the matter ended there.

The magician’s own future could not have been clearly visible to him either, but one suspects that he in his turn too had undergone a professional change sooner or later and vanished, unlike Mr. Dutt, inside a dark alley of anonymity. Yet, one cannot help wondering, what could have happened if he was offered a chance to teach some subject or the other, say Geography or Mathematics, in the school for a regular salary. He would then have enjoyed the position of Utpal Dutt himself. Dutt was able to pursue his dream career, which could not have produced a dependable flow of income at that stage of his life. This did not pose a problem, probably on account of his regular income as a teacher of the English language. The magician’s academic qualifications did not measure up to Dutt’s, or even lesser teachers’ in the school. Not merely the school where Dutt taught, but elsewhere too. Besides, he was probably not inclined towards teaching either. He must have ended up in some lonely island or the other to earn his living and whatever work this might have involved, it could not have lent much support to his performer’s hopes. Also, who can tell? Unlike Utpal Dutt, who was able to walk miles to achieve his dream, the magician may not have possessed the grit to struggle against the unavoidable odds faced by a creative artist. It is a cruel world we live in.

Loving Thalia

Thalia the Greek
Whom I met by the creek
And instantly fell into a swoon
On a faraway, faraway, faraway noon
And I failed alas to teller
That I never ever weller
Loved a girl other than she —
Which was the end of her ‘n me.