Category Archives: Memoirs

Interesting experiences from my life. Giggles and sniffles.

That Patch of Green Behind the Bright Yellow House


As I was saying, Kamala Bastralaya exists no more at the corner of Manoharpukur Road and Rashbehari Avenue, but the roads themselves are yet to disappear. In fact, even though aged, they continue to bear the stigma of the names assigned to them at their birth. Unlike wizened old cities that is, like Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram, or Kolkata itself for that matter.

As you cross Rashbehari Avenue from North to South, near the corner that never fails to extract a sigh out of me, you part company with the lilting twists and turns of Manoharpukur Road and walk into Lake View Road, which leads you straight on to the Dhakuria Lakes. In the language of mathematics, if Manoharpukur Road were to be viewed as an nth order polynomial curve, then Lake View Road is the closest approximation to strict linearity. A no nonsense look so to speak that it has borne since the day at least that I was carried home displaying unmistakable signs of a new born baby. At the intersection of Lake View Road and Jatin Das Road, where Jeloka House towers still much to my disbelief, you need to take a sharp left turn and move eastwards along Jatin Das Road, past the pink building that used to belong to a grumpy old man (who, till his last days, stuck to his single minded grouse against youngsters, that they didn’t look after the stray dogs of the locality), till it forks out into a left and a right branch. Around four buildings down the right branch stands a three storied white washed bungalow and it was in the rented ground floor apartment at the front of this building that I transformed into a biped from a quadruped and even learnt the first few human noises I managed to produce.

_70jatindas

Like Jeloka House, the total changelessness of the building took me by surprise when I landed recently on this stretch of Jatin Das Road. How many of the occupants of the premises as I knew them are still a part of the temporal world I didn’t venture to guess as I stood across the street and viewed the windows that I was so familiar with in the distant past. The perspective then was different though, for I used to stand inside my home and watch the world outside instead of being a part of that same outside as I was now. I wondered if it was I instead that was now the object of scrutiny. Unlikely I thought of course, for the shutters in the green windows were firmly pulled down.

Perhaps this building had seen too much for too long to be interested anymore in mortal happenings. The multi-storied condominium that stood bang opposite and stared back at the older house with supreme disdain today was non-existent when I had started life. In its stead, there was a green plot of land surrounded by a waist level wall on three sides, a playground for children during those long lost afternoons. On the far side, beyond the boundary wall there used to be a yellow, two storied house occupied by a Chinese family that has now disappeared along with the house itself. It was the back of the building that faced our dwelling and my mind to this day cannot resist the temptation of climbing up the rusty spiral staircase that clung to its wall and disappeared through a door into a world of mystery. The morning sun that rose behind my home lit up the yellow house with its first rays and this is invariably the picture I have associated since childhood with the arrival of mornings. The back of a sunlit yellow house standing immediately beyond the patch of a green playground.

The green bid us good bye with the arrival of Dr. Sen who built up his residence on that plot of land. The yellow house disappeared too behind Dr. Sen’s construction and our playground spilled over to the pavements and the street. Soon neighbourly relationships grew up and Dr. Sen’s youngest son, Sudip or Bachchu, and I turned into playmates. His eldest son, Prateep-da, was still finishing his medical degree and at some point of time he left his home for foreign shores to earn an FRCS degree from Edinburgh.

It was the second of the three sons, Sunip, who stood out amongst the three sister-less siblings. Not because of his achievements, but for his handicaps. Unlike his two brothers, both of whom were good sportsmen, Sunip, or Sunip-da to me given our age difference, suffered from a serious ailment, related I think to his heart. His mother visited our home often as ladies used to in those days of yore. And my mother learnt vaguely about the problem, perhaps the only problem, this upper middle class household was afflicted by. Sunip-da had to be kept under perpetual medical care and was strictly forbidden from undertaking physically arduous tasks. The result was that while his brothers went for medical and engineering degrees, Sunip-da was sent to an Art School. I have no idea how deft he was as a painter, but he managed to clear his exams.

The mother was certainly not an impartial person and, though she did not display aversion towards her physically well-equipped sons, she was more than preoccupied with Sunip-da’s health. And Sunip-da did need all the attention in the world, given his telltale look of sickness. The contrast with the brothers was quite obvious. They were tall and well-structured, while Sunip-da was short and emaciated, his thick myopic glasses providing supporting evidence of his fragility vis-à-vis a world he lacked the equipment to cope with.

The Sens were wonderful neighbours who, despite their material success compared to others in the locality, were good friends, always ready to extend a helping hand as we were growing up through school and college.

Bachchu was two years senior to me. I was probably doing my Bachelor’s degree in college and Bachchu finishing his engineering course when Dahlia metamorphosed from a girl to a young woman. A woman that bloomed with a vengeance, doing full justice to her name. She lived with her family right next door to the Sens and Bachchu had fallen head over heels in love. This was open secret to all, but there were problems that loomed large for him. Dahlia was a Brahmin, one of the prettiest one could have ever had come across, and Bachchu, though handsome, was not a Brahmin by any stretch of imagination. Hence, there were complications that one heard of, originating from the direction of Dahlia’s family. But Bachchu was a sportsman who played his best to win. Fortunately for him though, Dahlia reciprocated with a gay abandon and Bachchu was soon the firm owner of her heart, but her father or mother (or whoever else I know not) were not yet ready to play ball with either Romeo or Juliet.

Dahlia kept on blooming ever brighter as the days progressed Marriage proposals were jamming up the living room in her residence as Bachchu agonized under a cloak of dark silence. Although Dahlia was his forever, I suppose he was not yet ready to elope. We youngsters were already familiar with their secret rendezvous spots, though we didn’t know the plans, if any, that were hatching between them.

Matters concerning the heart have a propensity to afflict without bias. Consequently, as Bachchu’s roaring relationship with Dahlia was travelling at supersonic speed, the heart patient in his household, Sunip-da, was passing through a turmoil of his own. Except for the fact that no Dahlia had as yet shown up in his life. The result was that the entire world full of budding womankind turned into potential Dahlias in Sunip-da’s eyes. He didn’t exactly chase girls, but the way he was staring at all the girls in the neighbourhood made their parents wary. And the wariest of all was his own mother. Given the physical state of his heart, the specialists had advised against marrying him off. As a result, his ailing heart was desperately wailing. So loudly and clearly in fact that his parents, especially his mother, were finding it far too difficult to make him stick to his diet of strict celibacy. The eldest brother, Pratip-da, must have been married by then. It was Sunip-da’s turn and Bachchu the youngest was finding it embarrassing to bring up the question of his wedding before his elder brother was married off. This was a tough situation. For Dahlia, as I said, was not in a position to wait much longer. Bachchu’s friends wondered if he was planning to jump the queue.

But then one day, Mrs. Sen came over to our home with an invitation card announcing Sunip-da’s marriage. A marriage it seems had been arranged, a risky matter as she told my mother. But it could not be avoided anymore if Sunip-da was to be kept away from a lunatic asylum. And one balmy evening, Sunip-da dressed up as a bridegroom, set off on a trip to marriage-land, accompanied by all the young people the family knew and I still remember the great feast we enjoyed that evening. In fact, the wedding reception was arranged in a hall located three houses down Kamala Bastralaya! Walking distance from my home too.

There was great fun and frolic and Sunip-da was smiling at last. He came back home with his young bride, whose name unfortunately I cannot remember any longer. But I do recall that she was pregnant soon after the wedding, which was only to be expected, given the state to which Sunip-da had been reduced during bachelorhood. Bachchu too probably began to feel relieved, now that the barrier in his home front had receded.

And it was exactly at this point of time that Sunip-da died. Leaving behind a wife and an unborn child. No one found out the precise details of the cause of death, but it appeared that he had slipped past a step while coming down the staircase. He rolled down to the ground floor losing consciousness, a loss that remained doggedly uncompensated. They put him inside a ventilator of sorts, or whatever it was that used to ventilate in those bygone days, without success. Dr. Sen, with all his medical connections, failed to bring his son back to life.

A pall of gloom had settled on that evening on the right arm of Jatin Das Road, with neighbours standing in silence on the road adjoining Dr. Sen’s house. The silence was so thick that one could cut it with a knife. Then the time came to lift Sunip-da’s lifeless body and start towards the crematorium. Following Bengali custom, someone gave the lead: Bala Hari, Hari Bol. This was a cue for a piercing cry, a heart rending scream emanating from the voice of the departed person’s mother. It broke the silence like the noise of shattered glass. I can still remember vividly what she had said repeatedly on that dismal occasion. With whatever strength she had at her disposal, she kept on demanding: Where are you taking him, where are you taking him, where are you taking him, no, no, where are you taking him …?

Like all fateful evenings, this one too was over and morning arrived as it never fails to. Dr. Sen’s family slowly found back its strength to face up to life and begin to hope too as the day of the baby’s arrival approached. Sunip-da’s young widow was often visible on their first floor balcony, vacantly staring at the street.

The baby to be born was not the only hope that was being nurtured in that family of course. For Bachchu still had his Dahlia to be shifted over from the neighbouring building to his own. His task was now ever harder to accomplish. Even if Dahlia’s parents were to agree, it was no easy task to raise the question of a wedding with his own parents. How Bachchu managed to solve the problem I can’t tell. But Sunip-da’s child was yet to be born, when Dr. Sen arrived at our home with a fresh wedding invitation. He was crying more than smiling, but he had to do what had to be done, for Bachchu must have put his foot down.

The wedding ceremony turned out to be a simple affair despite their means, and compared especially to the revelry surrounding Sunip-da’s wedding less than a year earlier. This was inevitable, since the yet to be grandparents barely managed to remain floating in their sea of sorrow, as time, cruel time kept the human drama alive.

I looked up again at the white house that had seen it all, and which I hadn’t. I left India for a distant destination before this tale had reached its denouement. But Einstein had told us, the universe with its space and time components tends to bend back on itself. No wonder therefore that I had come across a friend from this area, Tapas, many years later. He was visiting his daughter in Delhi and dropped by to see me at my office. As expected, the conversation veered on to the days gone by. And I asked him about the rest of the story as it had unfolded in Dr. Sen’s home.

As I heard him out, I realized that some tragedies at least continue without end. Sunip-da’s wife, I was told, gave birth to a son who became the apple of his grandparents’ eyes. They doted on him, which was natural, but the doting crossed bounds of propriety. He turned into a hopelessly pampered boy by the time he reached his adolescence. He grew up into an unemployable of sorts, one with no future to look forward to at all. At some point, as expected, Dr. Sen and his wife passed away and probably property disputes followed. The house was sold off and the condominium whose shadow I stood under came up in its place. Tapas didn’t know where Bachchu and Pratip-da had gone away to, but whatever their destinations might have been, they had lost all touch with the right arm of Jatin Das Road.

Perhaps the story is over now, but a whimper of an epilogue is still in order. Back in Rashbehari Avenue, I was sitting one day inside a shop purchasing a wall clock I think. Suddenly, as I looked out of the shop, I saw Bachchu passing by. An elderly, much changed Bachchu. Closely behind him was Dahlia, who bloomed no longer. Two middle aged persons going their way. I could have rushed out of the shop to greet them. But I didn’t. They were a part of my bygone past. That past, I felt, was no more revivable than Sunipda himself.

Like Manoharpukur Road, Rashbehari Avenue, Lake View Road and Jatin Das Road, the whitewashed house I was facing has survived the ravages of time. It had witnessed children playing on that patch of green beyond which stood the yellow house. And it had seen the rise and fall of the Sen family.

Along with Sunip-da though, the yellow house where the Chinese family had lived is itself no more, but unlike him, it still shines brightly in my memory. That’s where mornings will always begin for the rest of my own life.

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.

 
 
 
 
 

Prehistoric Memories — Radhakrishnan

Radhakrishnan.
 
R. Radhakrishnan. 

Ramanathan Radhakrishnan, to be somewhat more precise. 

Or, just Raddy to many of us. 

No idea how many of those holy “us”-es exist anymore. And that includes Raddy himself. 

But he did exist once upon a time. My classmate of course, a classmate who keeps floating up every now and then in my stream of memories. Among other flotsam I guess. I wonder why. He must have been special.

Radhakrishnan was a loveable chap, somewhat childish in temperament though. I mean as a student of Standard VI, if you take into account the number of times he would break into tears, literally so, when circumstances did not favour him. There were many such. And ours was a co-ed school. Raddy didn’t mind weeping in public.

One related to reading comic strips. It was a taboo in school during our time. Utpal Dutt and N. Vishwanathan were particularly strict as far as this law went. Not that it had any impact on us. We merrily read them at home and borrowed from each other. Johnny someone or the other who carried two guns, Roy Roger, Jessie James may be (I shouldn’t mention these names to you kids — highly unlikely that you’ve heard of them — I am inadvertently revealing my age to you!!). But Julius Caesar figured there too — original Shakespeare. 

As I said, all this was taboo. Reading comics was a sign of mental degradation. Only Mr. Dutt didn’t know how degraded we actually were. Except of course for Raddy. Not that Raddy was stupid. Just that he was innocent and didn’t understand why reading comic strips would stand in the way of his rise to glory. So, he brought the comic books to school and read them mostly during lunch hour and sometimes while a class was in progress. I can’t exactly recall the occasions, but Mr. Dutt could have been teaching us Milton with Raddy deeply engrossed in reading his cowboy comics. 

As I said, he was somewhat innocent. Which means he would get caught. And commotion followed invariably. Mr. Dutt (or was it Mr. Vishwanathan?)  would walk down the aisle and catch hold of the book Raddy had fallen in love with, snatch it away from him with a warning that harsher punishments would follow if he defied the law. A sheepish, though adorable smile, was what Raddy used to respond with, knowing probably that the book would soon come back to his possession, so long as he promised not to repeat the crime again. Perhaps it did. 

And then he repeated this heinous crime, again, again, again and then again and again. Till one day Mr. Utpal Dutt took hold of the book and tore it to pieces in front of the class. Now Raddy had probably borrowed it from a friend or a local library ( who knows). So destruction of the book mattered. He was liable to return the book. Tears streamed down his cheeks as on all such occasions. Not silent mind you. He wailed and accused the person engaged in the cruel act of chastisement. What sort of logic he came up with to defend his case I have no memory of alas. But that crying face continues to haunt. 

The crying face of a young boy. We were all quite young of course, but he was surely the one who stood out. On one occasion Raddy loudly protested through his tears and told Mr. Vishwanathan I remember that he was Mr. Vishwanathan’s favourite victim whatever “crime” might have been committed by whoever it was that committed it! How much truth there was to this accusation I can’t tell, but Mr. Vishwanathan even tried to argue in self-defense. Recorded history, unfortunately, does not have anything to offer on the manner in which this battle ended.

Raddy, was single mindedly devoted to science. I am sure he wished to grow into a scientist. And that was fun, at least for me. He taught me how to manufacture electric bells. We would walk over to an electrical goods shop near our homes (he lived 5 minutes’ walk away from mine) and purchase the necessary raw materials and before we sat down to work on the bells, we would discuss with great interest the theory underlying the simple devices. That was enjoyable, though we quarrelled once in a while too and Raddy would storm out of my home. Accompanied by rain, that is his crying as usual. On one occasion, I remember running after him to drag him back. 

Raddy was so scientifically inclined that he often mixed up his English literature work with scientific experiments in the Chemistry lab. Once he submitted a homework to Mr. Dutt which described a man quenching his thirst as he drank out of a beaker. Mr. Dutt had no idea what a beaker was doing in his literature class. He yelled at Raddy, “What’s this you have written?” Raddy replied calmly that he was speaking about a beaker. Which took us nowhere of course. I think Raddy had tried to impress the teacher by using what was classy English in his opinion. To no effect alas! Utpal Dutt wouldn’t accept a beaker to serve liquid refreshments. 

It was Raddy who taught me how South Indian Brahmins wrote their names. Ramanathan was his father’s name and Radhakrishnan was his own. Much later I learnt that Ramanathan himself would be preceded by the name of the locality where the family originated and Radhakrishnan in his turn would be followed by an Iyer or an Iyengar, depending on whether one was a Shaivite or a Vaishnavite. But as I said, I learnt this much later. By then I had lost touch with Raddy. So, the prefix and suffix in his case belong to the domain of unknowables for me.  

The other important lesson he taught me was that the word “Madrasi” was a Bengali invention. He explained to me carefully what he meant and I understood him quite well. But I don’t think I ever referred to him as a Tamilian. At that young age, he continued to be a Madrasi to me. Raddy was a Madrasi, just as much as Kamla Vilas was a Madrasi Guest House and Restaurant. 

They lived in a cramped looking flat in an apartment building (such buildings were rare at the time). I have a vivid memory of his father’s face, but not his voice. He had never spoken to me, or else I would. As I think about the man now, he was somewhat strange. The rare occasions I came across him at their home, he would stand at a distance and simply stare at me. Expressionless. Completely so. Otherwise, I would have concluded that the face reflected a hidden sadness.

His mother was different. She was able to converse in broken Bengali and would always come out with a warm smile when I visited their home. “Won’t you wait a little, Radhakrishnan will be here soon,” she used to tell me in her version of Bengali. Very motherly, dripping with kindliness. 

Many years later, when I was in charge of ISI, Delhi Centre, a cousin of mine (who had attended the same school) told me that he had news of Radhakrishnan. I followed up the link and tracked him down in US. He recognized me and replied to my email. I told him that I had fond memories of his kind mother. He informed me that she had expired under unfortunate circumstances. That’s about all that passed between us. He never responded to my mails after the first one or two. 

Also, Raddy sounded different. He didn’t sound the innocent little boy I knew. He was more like a busy professional. It was clear that he didn’t shed tears anymore. His tears may have dried up. He had shed them all as an youngster. 

It was my time to cry. Over my lost childhood. 

Chivalrous Serenades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As I said, my chivalry never earned applauds.

Unfairness! Thy name is WOMAN!

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.

A Sigh to Remember

The Sea of Japan viewed from Otaru University of Commerce

A sigh of relief is not exactly a sigh in relief, but the difference is more than grammatical. One has to travel all the way to Otaru to appreciate the point.

Otaru is a smallish port located somewhere near the foot of Mount Tengu in the western coast of Hokkaido, one of the coldest regions of the Japanese archipelago. The enchanting little town creeps steadily upwards from the harbor to the top of a mountain, where the Otaru University of Commerce perches, overlooking the magnificent Sea of Japan. During summer, the weather in this part of the country is the closest thing to an earthly Paradise. The winters, however, are long and cruel. Snowfall is a daily ritual and it falls not in flakes, but in heaps, often accompanied by rain. The resulting sleet then conspires with the incline of the city to transform a casual walk along the road into a gymnastic feat. Paradoxically therefore, the picturesquely serene township of Otaru has been nicknamed jigoku-saka or “The Slide to Hell”!

I arrived there one lonely autumn with a visiting appointment in the University. Already the “air” bit “shrewdly”, though I hardly noticed this, being more concerned about my ignorance of the Japanese language. Except for a handful of colleagues, few persons I came across spoke any English. Nevertheless, I had no choice other than English as a medium of instruction for my classes, which the students in their turn accepted with stoic indifference. The telltale lack of enthusiasm on their faces left little doubt about the futility of my teaching efforts. Each morning therefore, I plodded wearily up the road leading to the University, wondering if my situation was any different from that of a prisoner in solitary confinement.

This at least was the way I lived in Otaru till the arrival of the snow. One day though in early winter, a knock on the office door woke me up from morbid preoccupations with myself. I walked over and peeped out apprehensively. A smiling Japanese lad with a vaguely familiar face greeted me at the door and my surprise knew no bounds as he introduced himself to me in perfect English as a student in one of my classes! He wished to invite me he said, to a music performance by an amateur group. I accepted the invitation gratefully and counted on an evening of interaction with students.

I struggled down a slippery street on the appointed day and arrived at the theatre. My expectations were belied however, for the young Japanese students who filled up the auditorium maintained a cautious distance from me. I resigned therefore to being the odd man out till the orchestra struck up the first few notes of the Four Seasons and all discomfort soon dissolved in the elixir of Vivaldi’s creation.

Unfortunately, my involvement with the music grew feebler as we moved into the second of the four seasons. I had earlier treated myself to a few delicious cans of Sapporo beer, and these now made claims on my attention. Soon it was evident that I had no choice left but to take care of the problem. I sneaked out of the auditorium therefore and prowled along the empty corridors in search of the facilities. It was easy enough to locate them, but I found myself on the horns of a dilemma. The familiar pictographic aids of faceless entities, one sporting a Yul Bryner head and the other an over-starched skirt, were nowhere to be seen. In their place, two obscure inscriptions frowned menacingly down at me from adjacent doors. As I learnt to recognize much later, they were and , the Chinese characters for man and woman!

The emergency of the circumstance dictated a random selection. Without further ado therefore, I swiftly walked in through one of the doors, only to discover that I had committed a blunder. But the coast being clear and further delays being unbearable, there was no point fleeing. I rushed into the nearest enclosure I found and locked myself in. And then set out to heave a luxurious sigh of relief.

The sigh alas (though fortunately not the relief) was cut mercilessly short by the sound of approaching footsteps, followed by the incomprehensible chatter of a million feminine voices. My entry into the prohibited zone had obviously coincided with the Intermission. Leaving out the dubious case of Mrs. Doubtfire, there are perhaps two classes of middle-aged males who are likely to show up in the Ladies’ Room of a public building. The pervert and the unwitting. But a man in the Ladies’ Room being a man in the Ladies’ Room, members of the fair sex are not expected to verify his motives before calling in the police. And the Japanese police being Japanese, I would in turn be forced to present my case in pantomime! A Herculean absurdity, to say the least.

The only solution seemed to lie in a deus ex machina, for which I prayed fervently. When suddenly, a bell rang out. My heart jumped twice, first in alarm, apprehending the arrival of the Law, but the second time in pleasure, recognizing the bell to be an answer to my prayer. The scuffle of feet, attended by a tone of urgency in the voices, signaled unmistakably that Recess was over. I heard the ladies leave in crowded confusion, their animated conversation gradually fading into the distance, till total silence reigned once again. I opened the door a chink and peered as well as I could to check if there were human traces in the vicinity. Once assured, I strode into the corridor and slipped quietly out of the fateful building. Thereafter, throwing all caution to the winds, I walked, trotted, cantered and finally galloped along the dreaded jigoku-saka, defying the icy surface of the steeply rising street. And I stopped only when I had put in several hundred meters between the theatre and me.

Then, leaning heavily against a roadside tree, I let out the sigh of a lifetime, in utter relief.

Is Life Worth Living? It Depends Upon the Liver

Professor Lionel W. McKenzie

Professor Lionel W. McKenzie, who supervised my PhD thesis (jointly with Professor James W. Friedman) at the University of Rochester, NY, walked in on a spring morning to the departmental lounge for his cup of coffee, which he used to consume jointly with the New York Times. There were a few others present in the room at the time, including Richard Thaler, who now holds a prestigious chair at the Chicago University Business School. If I am not incorrectly informed, Dick was recently short-listed for the Nobel Prize in Economics for his original work on Behavioral Economics! On that particular morning though, he was merely a graduate student, my class mate in fact, pontificating on his dissertation topic. The topic was: How does one put an economic value on human life? Or, more simply, what’s the value of a human life? Not an easy subject, since human beings are not available for sale in the market. Slavery after all was an institution of the past.

We had no idea that the venerable professor was listening to the discussion, so engrossed he seemed to be in the newspaper. It was a total surprise to us therefore, when, on his way out of the lounge after he had finished his coffee, Professor McKenzie suddenly turned around to face the group engaged in the discussion. And then, in a stentorian voice that rang through the department, he said:

“Guys, let me assure you, human life’s not worth a s***!!”

Saying so, he guffawed and vanished into his office without waiting for a response. On that far away morning, all of us took his statement as an innocent joke and had a good laugh at Dick Thaler’s expense.

~~~

Now, almost 40 years later, Lionel McKenzie’s joke has returned to me with a vengeance and I have begun to wonder if his statement calls for rethinking. Given the events that have overtaken the contemporary world, I can’t help asking myself, “Had he made a prophesy? What indeed is the value of a human life in the world we inhabit today?”

Needless to say, terrorism has assumed a form now that raises serious questions about the value that humanity attaches to living. Indeed, one hears stories about emerging terror outfits where well-defined sums of money are spent to convert young individuals to human bombs. The science of economics would probably view this as a production process that converts inputs (living human beings) to outputs (exploding human bombs). However, to the extent that these people are moved by a cause, one can at least attempt to explain the phenomenon in non-market terms. Beliefs, after all, are not marketable commodities. (I think Richard Thaler would have a lot to say on this matter.)

However, two events have truly opened up a Pandora’s Box of problems in this context. The first was the case of an Infosys trainee who committed suicide at the unthinkably young age of 22, apparently because he could not deal with the pressures and the uncertainties surrounding his professional life. The second event was even more mind boggling. An insurance agent killed himself because he couldn’t afford to book a Nano! Apparently he had a working wife who still paid the monthly installments for a two wheeler they owned. She had allegedly refused to help her husband to fulfill his Nano dream, since she earned only Rs. 10,000.00 a month. If the media is to be believed, she had even suggested that they book the Nano after her two-wheeler loan was repaid. He couldn’t wait, however, and took his life.

I am afraid that I can’t fathom the depth of despair that could have led to these two incidents. In fact, however tragic, I find the two persons to have been driven by motives that were shallow at best. Why, one might ask, do we live? And the only answer to the question that my mediocre mind is suggesting today is: We live because every bit of life is worth living. Life is beautiful despite the struggles we endure. I can’t help being reminded of Sysiphus, who had defied his Creator by refusing to cow down before the absurdity of his existence. He would live on even if God himself had sent him the message that life for him was utterly meaningless!! Despite absurdities, despite ignominies, life is much too unique to be dispensed with so easily.

It is terrifying to bear the burden of losing one’s job, but is it more terrifying than engaging in an act of destruction that one can never undo? Such as bombing out of existence the Bamyan Buddhas? Can there be any index of material success at all that, if not achieved, justifies self-destruction? I tend to believe today that the answer to this question is a solid “NO”.

~~~

And it is not without proof that I have arrived at this conclusion. Not far away from my residence, there is a busy crossing where I have come across a young man several times in the recent past. He stands under the shade of a tree if he can find one and, in the blistering heat, distributes free pamphlets to passers by. They are small square sheets of paper with a message that few will be gullible enough to accept at face value. I have now received this piece of paper from him several times and even read it. It’s an advertisement by an unknown private organization that one could make a small earning sitting at home.

The look of the young man, who has obviously been employed by the company to distribute the slips, suggests to me that he has hailed from a normal middle class family. For a motive I will never try to prod into, he has been forced to accept this imaginably low paying job. But he accomplishes his task with total commitment.

His devotion to his work is only too evident, since most people who happen to pass that way avoid him like a leper. Many of them must have occasionally accepted his scrap of paper in the past and discovered its garbage value. And now, except for newcomers, most members of his targeted population make a small semi-circular detour before they are within his reach and ignore the proffered piece of paper in total disdain. I cannot imagine that he is brimming with enthusiasm to spread the news, especially so when the temperature hovers in the neighborhood of 42 degrees celcius. Yet, and this is what fascinates me most about the man, he has a special friendly smile reserved for each person who accepts the slip and he invariably follows it up with two pleasant words: “Thank you!”

It is all too straightforward to see that he has added a personal touch to this job, thereby making his task far more bearable for him than it would otherwise have been. More importantly, his innovative skill even for a job as small as this will sooner or later impress his employer and, hopefully, raise him higher up in the organization.

I think his fear of losing the job is no less intense than that of the well-trained Infosys employee. He would be no less pleased to buy a Nano than the insurance agent, knowing fully well that it was an empty dream. Yet, he lives. He lives because life is far too precious to be thrown away.

~~~

And now going back to my professor, he lives even today, believe it or not. He lost his wife as well as grown up children. He has crossed 90 and has few he can claim to be close relatives. Yet, though retired, he travels to the university regularly to attend academic seminars. His mind is still active and by all indications, he enjoys life. He is a living counter-example of the statement he made long ago. He has failed as a prophet but succeeded with flying colors as a human being. For a reason that has baffled his best students, he was not offered the Nobel Prize in Economics. But he did receive the Emperor’s Medal in Japan, a rare honor in that country as well as the rest of the world.

On receiving my condolence message after his daughter’s death, he had written back to me: “Believe me, it’s very hard to bear.”

But he has borne it with enormous strength for more than five years now. He is alive. He is kicking. Here is the New Year’s Greeting Message I received from him in January:

Dear Dipankar :

Thank you so much for the gorgeous table cloth* you sent me. I put it on my dining room table immediately. I am a little late responding since I had a small heart attack on Dec. 18. But I am in pretty good shape now.

Best wishes.

Lionel

P.S. On Jan. 26 I will be 90 years old!!

And this was followed up by an e-mail that said:

Dear Dipankar:

… The department gave me a lovely 90th birthday party on January 26. I think I may have lived too long but I still enjoy life. I go into the department every Wednesday for cookies and tea with colleagues. Also I gave an account of my research life to one of the graduate classes the other day which they seem to have appreciated.

With warm regards, Lionel**

____________________________

* Incidentally, the table cloth in question was a cashmere shawl my wife and I had sent him as a New Year Gift. He mistook it for a table cloth. What matters to us most, however, is that he loved it! Also, I was elated to know that he was born on January 26, which is India’s Republic Day. I am elated not on account of nationalist pride, but because I was born in turn on August 15, India’s Independence Day!!

** Lionel McKenzie passed away at 2 AM, October 12, 2010.

(This article was originally written in January, 2010.)

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

To Sir With Love

Professor Dipak Banerjee

Words, however beautifully strung together, are ultimately a weak device for capturing as complicated an object as a human being. Sizes of vocabularies notwithstanding, words are arithmomorphic or discrete by nature, while life is a continuum. A piano recital, irrespective of the quality of the performance, cannot capture the sheen of a bow drawn smoothly across violin strings or, for that matter, a deft sarodist’s nimble fingers. It is well to admit at the very outset therefore that it is more than a daunting task to sum up any person at all by means of words alone, leave alone a person as colourful as Professor Dipak Banerjee.*

It is hardly a coincidence that it is music that starts one off in his stroll down memory lane in search of Professor Banerjee. Amongst the many legends that will surround his name in the years to come, music probably will occupy pride of place. No student or friend who had ever come within his close periphery could have escaped being treated to the vast treasure house of classical music he built during his life. One recalls countless evenings when he would play recorded private performances of Vilayet Khan or Amir Khan on his music system for the entertainment of his visitors and relate anecdotes about great musicians in general, involving their amusing angularities as well as awesome genius.

Yet, Dipak Babu was primarily an economist who spent his entire career teaching undergraduates at Presidency College, Kolkata. And it is precisely here that mere words fail to construct the links that unify the diversity constituting a given human being, He joined the Department of Economics in the late fifties when he was freshly back from the London School of Economics with a glorious performance record and was one of the many stalwarts who adorned the college during those days. The leading personality at the time was Professor Bhabatosh Datta of course, a remarkable teacher endowed with a prophetic vision. It was mainly he who had assembled the glittering collection of young academics around him. Dipak Babu was one of them, but Professor Tapas Majumdar, Professor Nabendu Sen, Professor Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Professor Mihir Rakkhit, Professor Amiya Bagchi and many others stood out also.

There is little doubt though that Dipak Babu was the most charismatic of them all. Like the rest of his colleagues, he was a dedicated and a demanding teacher. In this connection, what distinguished him most from the others was his immaculate British accent. I am not competent enough to judge which part of the United Kingdom his accent owed its origin, but there is little doubt in my mind that it was as authentic as one could get. Unfortunately though, for the average student, freshly out of Bengali medium schools, it was somewhat challenging to follow his speech. Thus, quite invariably, he inspired fear in the hearts of many to begin with. Sooner or later though, the soft student loving person emerged in full view, and except for the few students who remained completely stubborn, he invariably ended up winning them over to his side.

Professor Banerjee taught theory all his life and made his students appreciate the beauty of pure logical reasoning with examples from economics. It was not easy though to fall in line with his unflinching attachment to this method of argumentation. But once a student saw the point he had made, it was literally impossible to forget what he had implied. And the reason was that, despite his strict adherence to rigour, he tried to lay bare the basic structure of arguments in terms so simple that even school children might be able to grasp it easily. I recall in this context how he explained to me the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. “When it rains”, he said, “the leaves begin to shake in the trees.” And then added, “The leaves could shake for other reasons too, so it is not necessary for them to shake only when it rains.” Perhaps others, with more logical minds, would not need matters to be explained in such an elementary manner. But I can certainly vouch that, after listening to this explanation, I never made a mistake in later life in distinguishing between a necessary and a sufficient condition.

And while all these events were taking place and some of us were getting closer to the man, we were being introduced to the other facets of the man. As I found out, he was enormously well read in English as well as Bengali literature and often suggested some work of fiction or the other, which I at least never failed to lay my hands on. He was also interested in History, but I never managed to access his knowledge house here, given that I was too ignorant about the subject and, more importantly, was even arrogant enough to believe that it was not particularly relevant for economic pursuits. By the time I realized my unforgivable error, it was somewhat late in life to start afresh.

It has often been pointed out that Dipak Babu did not do much research. This, to say the least, is an unfair criticism of the man. First of all, he never left the confines of an undergraduate college, where teaching is supposed to receive priority. The latter responsibility he carried out with admirable efficiency. Secondly, as a part of the faculty attached to the Centre for Economic Studies, he produced a scholar, Professor Ramprasad Sengupta, who achieved international repute. And finally, Dipak Babu himself wrote a reasonably difficult paper on lexicographic ordering and published it in a front ranking journal.** To the best of my knowledge, he did this last bit of work as a faculty at the London School, immediately prior to his visit to the University of California at Berkeley. He joined Presidency College a second time immediately after this, now as a full professor.

Given the sharpness of his mind and varied interests, one wonders nonetheless why he remained attached to an undergraduate college all his life and did not seek a regular position in a research-oriented institution. It is hard to come up with an explanation that is absolutely satisfactory. However, I do think that there were two distinct reasons why he did not spend too much time on research. First, he was himself an uncompromising perfectionist. As is often the case with such persons, he was probably dissatisfied with anything that was not top class. Finding entry into this class was certainly not beyond his ability. But what stood in the way I think, and this is the second reason I alluded to above, was his love for the college itself and the students he taught there. Presidency College has had the tradition of attracting some of the best students from state of West Bengal and outside Bengal as well as India. Teaching them was a pleasure that he could not deny himself. There was a time allocation question therefore and he opted for teaching in favour of research. However, while he clung on to teaching all his life, his was a familiar face in all major conferences in Kolkata. He sat patiently through each and every paper, however abstruse, right till the time the serious nature of his illness restricted his mobility.

The result of course was that he produced a continuous stream of internationally well-known students. The fact that he was held in high esteem by them requires no better proof than the publication a book in his honour.*** Four stalwarts whom Dipak Babu taught in the undergraduate class edited the book and they were Bhaskar Dutta, Shubhashis Gangopadhyay, Dilip Mookherjee and Debraj Ray. A large number of eminent scholars contributed to this collection, including Amitava Bose, Mukul Majumdar, Sugata Marjit, Tapan Mitra, Anjan Mukherji, Abhirup Sarkar and last but not least, Dipak Babu’s illustrious son Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee. The fact that these established researchers found it worth their while to create a volume exclusively in honour of Professor Banerjee goes to show only too clearly the opinion his students had of him, that these students, who have themselves risen so high in research, did not consider Professor Banerjee to be lacking in any way as far as original thinking went.

Reminiscing about Dipak Babu invariably brings back to one’s mind yet another aspect of his interests – gastronomy. He loved good food and was extremely well informed about the right places to visit for each particular item one might wish to look for. When I was a young research scholar in Presidency College, he took pleasure in educating me about the joints to visit for a wide range of victuals, varying from soft Bengali sandesh adorned with rose petals to exotic Lucknow style kebabs. I was never as adventurous as he was, but nonetheless managed to visit a few of the restaurants and food shops he recommended. Needless to say, the experiences I had each time remain firmly etched in my memory.

I recall in this connection an interesting comment he made to me quite recently. On my way back from trips outside India, I often made it a point to buy a bottle of Scotch for Dipak Babu, who, I was sure, enjoyed his drink. During one of my recent trips, I became somewhat more ambitious compared to my previous trips and picked up a bottle of Johnny Walker – Blue Label from a shelf in a duty free shop. When I did so, Dipak Babu loomed large in my mind and soon after I was back home, I made a beeline for his residence with the bottle. I hoped he would like the present I had brought him, but never expected to hear what he said about the way he thought a Blue Label was supposed to be consumed. “You don’t drink this”, he advised with a wink in his eye, “you lick it”.

He wanted me to join him in the licking exercise right away, but not being a connoisseur, I had to decline the offer. Even if I had accepted his invitation, I doubt that I would have been able to live up to his standards concerning the modalities of Scotch drinking. And that, amongst others, was one important reason why I decided to beat a hasty retreat. I have little doubt that I had disappointed him as a student of economics, and I did not want my failures to extend to broader domains of life.

Let me end up with anecdotes I have heard from my seniors about the way Dipak Babu survived during his initial years in England. He was exposed, we are told, to harsh realities of life as he worked in a variety of menial capacities in London and probably elsewhere too in the country. Some say he had carried heavy bags of coal on his shoulders in coalmines for meagre wages to keep his body and soul together. I have no idea about the veracity of many of these stories. But there was one that I had straight from the horse’s mouth. He told me that he had once been working in the kitchen of a well-known London restaurant, washing dishes mainly. While he was labouring at his job, an excited waitress came rushing in to announce that none other than Charles Chaplin was visiting the restaurant in the company of his wife (Oona Chaplin probably). This was a chance of a lifetime and Dipak Babu left his dishes in the sink and rushed to the kitchen door to have a close glimpse of the master.

What he did not know at the time I felt was that a time would soon arrive when students from all across the city of Kolkata and elsewhere would be flocking around his office to have a glimpse of Dipak Babu himself. Those who have not had the good fortune of knowing him in his younger days would probably not appreciate the importance of this observation. I do not have the slightest hesitation in saying that he was the handsomest professor that Presidency College ever had. It was a treat to watch him walk into the college with his self-confident swagger, wearing his tweeds in winter. The swagger never left him. This was all too evident when he was mortally sick but refrained from complaining about his sufferings to his visitors.

To the last day of his life, I believe that he retained his ability to enjoy a well-rendered “alap” in Hindustani classical music or an abstract argument in economics, while sipping leisurely his premium scotch, with Professor (Mrs.) Nirmala Banerjee, Mini-di to us, a wonderfully loving wife and a solid, life long companion, at his side.

_____________________

* The present obituary avoids biographical references to Professor Dipak Banerjee. These are adequately covered in the Preface to Economic Theory and Policy: Essays in Honour of Dipak Banerjee, ed. by Bhaskar Dutta et al , Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1990.

** Choice and Order: Or First Things First, Economica, New Series, Volume 31, pp. 158 – 167, May, 1964.

*** Dutta et al (1990) , op. cit.

The Man who could not be a General

Masquerading as an officer above one’s rank, it seems, is one of the gravest offences one can commit in military service. A court martial is the inevitable consequence of being caught in the act and the most lenient penalty one can hope for is a retrenchment order accompanied by a certificate of condemnation. The strict censure contained in the latter guarantees that no respectable organization, after checking into past records, would ever employ the accused person.

Bishtu-da, as we called him, was found guilty of this very crime. His official name was Bishnuprasad Banerjee if memory serves me right and he was an officer, not in the Indian Army, but in the forces maintained by one of the princely states around the time India was achieving freedom from the British. He was pompous no doubt, but he was no crook. It was youthful exuberance, I think, that had tempted him to behave irresponsibly. As ill luck would have it, military intelligence spotted him in full regalia. What followed was inevitable. He invited a retribution possibly far out of proportion to the offense he had committed.

Following his misfortune, he could have started a small business of his own, a stationery shop perhaps, without much hindrance from the authorities. His impossible pride, however, stood in the way. He could not forsake his military ambitions at any cost whatsoever and went on dreaming that he was a mighty soldier engaged in the charge of the light brigade.

And charged he no doubt, but not at the forefront of his brigade. He charged backwards instead in full gallop, to his ancestral home in Kolkata. He began living there in a state of dubious distinction, dependant no doubt, on his family members for his upkeep. He was a young man at the time. His come back therefore could not have caused jubilation amongst family members. One heard stray whispers about his none too enviable status in the family. Yet, however paradoxical this may sound, the military personality in him sustained no dent in the process. Even if it did, the humiliations he suffered remained securely hidden in the mysterious corridors of his mind.

Notwithstanding the make belief world he inhabited, he must have been aware of a total absence of armed forces in his vicinity. But nature fortunately abhors vacuum and, in its infinite mercy as it were, filled up the void for Bishtu-da through a brilliant tour de force. A local scouting group was in existence and Bishtu-da found his way there as smoothly as water finds its own level.

I was a mere school boy and a member of this group and never understood exactly what role he played in our community. He was certainly no scout master, since I never saw him in scout uniform. But I retain vivid memories of his strict military demeanor, his immaculately washed, starched and ironed clothes and a stentorian voice that he employed to great advantage to yell out commands. And yes, of his strikingly handsome countenance.

He had been given charge of taking us through drill exercises and he carried out his responsibility with more than total devotion. The drills he imposed on us were far stricter than what run of the mill scouting groups would be familiar with, but I enjoyed what he taught us, despite the excessive physical strain they implied. Even at that young age, I could see the magnificent pattern, the superb neatness and awesome beauty of military discipline. Yet I lacked physical agility. So, my appreciation of Bishtu-da’s training was restricted to the intellectual plane. I am sure indeed that my movements never resembled those of marching soldiers, yet I am equally sure that Bishtu-da demanded no less from us.

He used to bubble with stories about military strategy, famous statements made by great generals in charge of the allied forces during the Second World War. He spoke his English, while relating these stories, with an almost British accent, which the scouts in the troop, coming as they did from Bengali middle class backgrounds, had great difficulty grasping. Nevertheless, it was fun listening to his speeches. It was a bit like watching a theatrical performance in a foreign language. He quoted from Ivanhoe out off the cuff. And he had opinions to proffer on all matters relating to government policy too. For example, when the discussion during a rest session touched upon the subject of inflation control, he hollered out, “A little inflation is like a little pregnancy. Once you have it, it grows and grows.” What the policy implication of this immortal quote was I have not understood to this day, but at the time I heard it, I found it most profound.

Over time, as I gained in maturity, I slowly began to understand that Bishtu-da, despite his ear splitting commands during the drills, was a man leading a pathetic existence. My first realization dawned when I figured out why he could not possibly dress up as a scout master. He simply did not have the means to buy the uniform! He had but a few trousers and shirts in his ‘wardrobe’ and, with use, they were slowly turning threadbare.

The lowly lifestyle he must have been leading in his carefully concealed room or whatever refuge he occupied in his ancestral home, showed up with crystal clarity when, one afternoon, after our scouting activities were over, he asked us in a rather off hand manner whether we knew anybody who might be interested in buying a squash racket. Squash was a game that was almost unheard of in the Kolkata’s middle class society at the time. Yet this racket was clearly one of his treasured possessions from military service days. They had taken away his uniform, his arms and everything else that could keep him alive without violating his dignity, but, comically enough, they spared him his precious racket. Of course, none of us knew a potential buyer and stared stupidly at one another, though I thought I heard a few of my mates sniggering at him. They had evidently viewed this as an attempt on his part to brag about his status.

Things continued in this manner till I had left junior school and joined college. My scouting expeditions slowly dissipated thereafter, for I found myself getting increasingly involved in other alluring activities, girl chasing being one of them. Indeed, though Bishtu-da lived close to my residence, I had no contact with him through my university life which, during those days, constituted a total of six years in all. Despite the damsels who bled me, I managed to complete my master’s degree, with no great distinction of course, and found a temporary research fellowship in a University Grants Commission sponsored research wing in Presidency College, Kolkata. I guess I wasn’t too involved in the work that was assigned to me and loitered around applying simultaneously to US universities for admission and financial aid to pursue a PhD degree. To cut a long story short, I succeeded in landing an offer in the process and resigned my position in Presidency College to prepare for my journey to the Promised Land!

And it was around this time that I had an encounter with Bishtu-da again. Actually, it was he who visited my home. I was more than surprised by the visit, pleasantly or unpleasantly I am not too sure. He was carrying under his arm a sheaf of what appeared to be newspapers and went directly to the point of his visit.

“Hey, Dipankar! Have you seen this magazine?” he began. He selected a sheet or two from the bunch he carried. They resembled no magazine I had seen, but the real surprise lay in the title the `magazine’ carried. It was called `Pratiraksha’, which, in Bengali, means `Defence’. It was a collection of articles on defence related matters, illustrated by neatly drawn pictures of different varieties of arms and ammunition. The one that caught my attention most was the drawing of a submarine showing the details of its battle gear. I suppressed a sigh as I stared at the stuff and leafed through the three or four pages of the magazine’s total length. Doubtlessly, it was he alone who had contributed to the magazine he was flaunting.

While I wondered, he asked in his ever confident tone, “Well, what do you think of it?” It took me all my self control to refrain from retorting back, “Bishtu-da dear! What is it? Before I can tell you what I think of it, tell me first, what it is.” But better sense prevailed. And, I simply smiled politely and replied in a monosyllable, “Nice.”

He was mighty pleased though to hear my reply. “Isn’t it? Now, isn’t it nice? You know, people are going crazy over this magazine. I managed to have it displayed in some of the magazine stores and they told me that the demand for it far outstretched supply. They are pressing me for a larger number of copies. I can hardly cope with this.” His lips half-twisted into the military smile that I had been exposed to a million times in the past.

“How wonderful indeed!” said I. And then, to keep the conversation going, I asked, “So, you are publishing a defence magazine now Bishtu-da! That’s great. How much does it cost?”

His smiling face turned serious and a crease appeared between his brows. “I had to price it low, because young people cannot afford to pay too much. Right? Yet they are so deeply involved with the subject. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I have priced it at 10 paisa a copy!”

I could not believe my ears. Ten paisa! Even during the days I am referring to, this was unbelievably cheap. Street beggars would have found the sum unacceptable, leave alone printed magazines! I stared at him open mouthed and found myself slowly sinking into a reverie. I could not help wondering how a man could delude himself all his life. At the same time though, I also thought whether Bishtu-da was an exception or the rule. Perhaps each one of us has pet illusions about his or her destination and never discovers the gaping holes in the carefully prepared facades for meeting the faces to be met in everyday life.

The reverie did not last too long and I came out of it when Bishtu-da proceeded to say, “I have saved a few copies for you and your friends and I came over to hand them over to you.” He relieved himself of his burden, comprising of fifty copies or so of this highly sought after magazine! I needed no further explanation and accepted the job without demurring.

The idea, frankly speaking, appeared so ridiculous to me, that I never even tried to bring it to the attention of my acquaintances and merely waited for Bishtu-da to show up again. And sure enough, he did knock on my door within a week’s time. I was prepared by then with my lie. “Oh, they all thought this was a masterpiece of a creation Bishtu-da. Your magazine sold, as they say, like hot cakes!” I cannot forget the smile on his face as he heard me out. No military pride, but sheer relief. He knew he had earned his lunch for the next day or two, after remaining hungry I know not for how long. I counted out the money to him and he happily went back home in the belief that he had not resorted to begging to keep subsisting in a world that had no need for him.

Matters continued this way, but soon afterwards I was gone and, sitting in US, I heard from my parents that Bishtu-da had been regularly visiting our residence with his fresh supplies. My parents too, following my request, kept up the harlequin act on my behalf. I learned though that, after a few months, his visits stopped. Perhaps the number of well-wishers he depended on gradually dispersed and he was left once again to fend for himself in a merciless world.

As the discerning reader will suspect no doubt, we are a stone’s throw away now from the denouement of this tale. Seven or perhaps eight years had gone by before I saw Bishtu-da again. I was back in India now, had a family of my own and was teaching in Kolkata. One morning I was at Gariahat junction, crossing over to the side of Rashbehari Avenue where the Cosmopolitan Coffee House, a haunt during our college days, was located. I was headed for a barber shop that I had patronized from my school days. And suddenly, out of nothing as it were, he propped up, staring straight at me with the same old twisted lip, one sided military smile. He sat pretty close to the pavement on the stairway that led to the coffee shop. And he had changed almost beyond recognition. He wore an unkempt beard, which was unthinkable during his days of military hallucinations. He had a white patch on the left pupil indicating a serious eye trouble. And to complete the picture, he wore a half-torn shirt and below it a white lungi, whose state of decay barely succeeded in protecting him from a state of stripped disgrace. Gone were his leather marching shoes too and he wore instead a pair of dust covered, black slip on shoes, made of jute.

He stared at me without recognition and it did not take me long to make out that he had lost much of his vision. I stared too and debated within myself whether to start up a conversation. And then decided against it. I could see that his needs were boundless now and my circumstances too were not particularly enviable. I was in no position to bring home succour to him and did not venture to put myself in a position where, however worded, assistance would be sought from me. It was a harsh decision, but I walked on without making the slightest attempt to draw his attention. Unlike him, I had learnt my lessons in life and did not wish to pose as a person I was not.

For all practical purposes, this was the last time I saw him, though I did locate him in the same outfit not long afterwards, walking uncertainly this time towards a goal I had no intention of probing into.

I learnt later on from people who knew him better that Bishtu-da had lost everything he had. The shelter above his head disappeared with their house being sold to a promoter for building a high rise apartment building. Truly or falsely, it was alleged that his siblings had managed to dispossess him of his share in the property. The grounds where our scouting activities were conducted had disappeared too under three mighty condominiums. Even if they had continued to exist, it is hardly likely that Bishtu-da would be in a position to give his drill commands clad in tatters.

I never tried to find out how the end arrived. There was little need to engage a Sherlock Holmes to discover the gory details.

A Chance Encounter with Eternity

Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Dagar

 I was born in Kolkata, or what used to be called Calcutta those days, and arrived from the hospital on my parent’s arms to our home in Jatin Das Road. It was a quiet little road in South Calcutta, where we lived in a rented flat. 

It continued to be my home for the first twenty three years of my life. And this meant that it was my abode during the entire course of my formal education in India, starting from kindergarten, through junior and high school, all the way to post-graduation. 

We were insecure tenants, however, since house rents were visibly rising during my growing years and we were still paying a paltry sum as rent, which was the rate prevailing at the time my father moved into the flat a year before I was born. The landlord raised the rent from time to time, but, despite the increases, it continued to be hopelessly low by market standards. Unfortunately though, my father could not afford to pay more. The fault was partly his own of course, since he neglected his work on account of an incurable addiction. No, he was no drunkard, nor was he into narcotics. His addiction centered around one of the most innocent of human weaknesses. Garrulity! He was a compulsive ‘talker’ and wasted his time gossiping merrily with his acquaintances in the neighborhood quite oblivious of his professional call.  

Our refusal to move out of the flat led to legal proceedings. And the law being what it was, the courts came out with verdicts in our favor and we continued to survive in that quiet little street. But life for our household was hardly quiet. Having lost the suits, the landlord resorted to strong arm tactics. He lived on the second floor of the same house where we occupied a ground floor flat. Although man made laws went against him, natural laws appeared to be on his side. And one of these happened to be the force of gravity. Realizing this all too clearly, he began to treat our residence as a garbage dump and supplied us free of charge a variety of organic and inorganic waste on a regular basis. And of course, his wife and he also made violent use of sound energy, using the choicest expletives to describe their tenant from early morning till night. Much to my embarrassment, but, as far as I could make out, to the entertainment of our neighbors. 

The sound waves in question bothered me to no end, since the nature of my education stood in the way of replying back in the same language. Besides, I was never really sure where justice lay. The rent we paid was indeed far too little. I found it hard though to concentrate on my studies, waiting as I did with alarm for the sequence of abuses to commence. It was not a way of life that could make one proud. 

Yet, ‘in the midst of darkness, light persists’ as Gandhi had observed. 

One morning, as I was trying miserably to concentrate on my books, I heard sounds that appeared to emerge, not from the direction from which they usually did, but from my immediate neighborhood. A man was singing it seemed in the ground floor flat of the building right next to ours. I peeped out of the window and realized that the source of the music was the window immediately opposite to the one where I stood listening. 

It was pure classical music and the singer was clearly no ordinary mortal. He was not merely someone who was trained in music. He was a master artiste, an accomplished vocalist practicing his art, sitting less than fifteen feet away from me. I could not see him, since he sat hidden behind the window curtain, but his clear, mellifluous voice kept me charmed for the next hour or so. And then, to my delight, the ritual continued each succeeding morning. I continued to remain immersed in his great music everyday. He offered me protection from the horrifying screams from the landlord’s flat. His music was a pain balm for my much abused ears. 

Within a few days, a name plate showed up on this man’s door. And it said in no uncertain terms ‘Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar’. I found it hard to believe my eyes as well as my good fortune. Not many in India have been his next door neighbors! So, it was Ustad Aminuddin Khan Dagar who was treating me to his exquisite music every morning! My joy was endless as I realized this. 

I was quite young at the time to think philosophically. But when I reflect on this today, I cannot help feeling that life invariably has its compensations for the pains that it inflicts on you. Of course, I never mustered enough courage to knock on his door and request him to let me sit at his feet as he did his ‘rewaz’. But I hoped for an opportunity to speak to him someday. Or, at least, hear him speak to me. 

If you truly wish for something from deep within your heart, nature does come to your aid. 

Our door-bell rang one afternoon and I answered it. A man I had never met stood before me. My immediate reaction was fear of course. Has this man been sent by the landlord to deliver retribution? I stared at him not knowing what to say. The look in his eyes assured me however that the man had not come with ill intentions. He smiled pleasantly and informed me that Ustad-ji had sent him over. 

‘Ustad-ji?’ I asked totally confused.

‘Dagar-sab, you know,’ he explained, ‘he lives next door.’

‘Yes, of course,’ I stammered. ‘Dagar-sab wants to see us? But why? I can’t follow you sir.’

‘Oh no, no,’ the man continued. ‘He doesn’t want you to go and see him. He wants to know if he can visit you this evening. Will it be too much of a problem?’

I stood flabbergasted. ‘Am I hearing correctly?’ I thought. ‘You mean, Ustad-ji wants to come to our home? Why yes, of course, he is most welcome.’ And then I added, ‘It will be a great honor. Only I am worried that we have little to offer him. None of us here are trained in music you know …,’ my voice trailed off. 

‘Actually,’ the man clarified, ‘he wants to listen to your radio.’

‘What?’ I was incredulous now. But the man explained further. 

Ustad-ji doesn’t possess a radio set and All India Radio will be broadcasting him at 7 PM. He said that he had often heard the radio playing in your home. He was wondering if he could come over to listen to the programme.’

One of the greatest singers India has produced did not own a radio, leave alone a recorder, to listen to his own music! And, ironically enough, the only radio within his close reach belonged to a family that was being constantly threatened with forced eviction, lock, stock and barrel, radio included! The situation resembled a meeting between a hungry man carrying a bottle of water and a thirsty man carrying a bagful of fruits in the middle of Sahara!

Yes, Dagar-sab did arrive on time. He sat on a divan and listened to the programme, while I sat on the floor watching him spellbound. It was not too long a programme of course and it was soon time for him to leave. But before he left, he chatted with me for a little while. He said he had often heard ‘good music’ (his exact words!) being played through our radio. I felt stupidly proud of the fact that the music I listened to was ‘good’ in Ustad-ji’s opinion. 

And then he informed me that his elder brother, Ustad Nasir Moinuddin Khan Dagar had passed away some months ago and that he felt like an orphan. He didn’t enjoy singing alone, because the Dagar Brothers had always sung together. He looked infinitely sad as he spoke about his brother and ended up by telling me that his brother’s spirit visited him quite regularly, or else he wouldn’t be able to keep going! I simply absorbed whatever this immensely accomplished, yet humble individual was unloading on me. 

I knew even at that age that I would never forget our meeting. Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar had come to live in Calcutta in his capacity as the Principal of Birla College of Music I learnt later. I left India not long after this incident, so I never found out if he finally ended up buying a radio for himself. 

Here is a tarana in Bageshri by the Ustad.  As most of us know, the Dagar School specialized in Dhrupad, so the clipping is not a typical product. It merely demonstrates the School’s versatility. The un-copyrighted CD from which I ripped this piece says: This is probably the concluding part of a long concert, in which these short pieces were sung after … Dhrupad alap and composition.