Category Archives: Journal

I will try to write to keep up a journal, not necessarily about events that happen each day, but about events that happened long ago. Or may be events that never even happened but could have happened. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, I will just be recording my thoughts, however irrelevant.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Two Penny Opera


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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