Tag Archives: dipankar dasgupta

Once Upon a Time a Girl: Not to Speak of the Cats and the Skull

Spring, it would appear, is invariably followed by summer and summer in its turn by autumn, and so on and so forth. No wonder therefore that as the spring moonshine girl receded into the past, other seasons invaded. And I grew older. And older. Though not quite as old as I am today. In fact, I was quite young still, when the spring moonshine girl disappeared into a galaxy tucked away in an unknown corner of the universe.

I think I was a student of the MA class when yet another girl showed up at a forgotten crossroad of my wayward ways. Well, I exaggerate, for I have not quite forgotten the morning when Sovan-babu spoke to me as he sat in the well-appointed living room of a friend’s home. “There’s this tenth class girl who needs to be tutored. Will you be available?” he asked me with a fixed smile on his kind face. Sovan-babu was a regular at the friend’s home, having been a devoted student of his father, who taught History in the Jadavpur University. He wore a dhoti and a long shirt whose colour wavered between butter and buttterscotch, and never forgot to carry his umbrella. A bachelor by all accounts and a person devoted to old books. He was himself a collector of sorts, or at least one who was intimately connected to collectors of precious gems of our literary past. I cannot recall any expression other than a smile on Sovan-babu’s dark face. A smile that never failed to invite, not even the most insensitive specimens of our race.

The wages of my labour, Sovan-babu told me, would be Rs. 40 a month, which was a dramatic rise from the spring moonshine Rs. 5, that had sent me scurrying towards safety. I was elated frankly, since a bus ride from the southern end of Calcutta those days to its northern outskirts cost no more than 50 paise. And Sovan-babu being a totally dependable person, I jumped for the offer and showed up at the home I was directed to visit no more than a week later. I arrived exactly on time.

Sovan-babu was waiting there. It was once again a somewhat low
middle class room in a large two storied building. The building must have seen better times when it had been built perhaps three decades ago. Old, but not quite as old as the Red Fort. Somewhat like the older me compared to my moonshine day. What caught my attention, though, as soon as I entered the room, was a shiny black human skull sitting on a shelf filled with accumulated almanacs from the near and distant past. There could have been other museum pieces sitting there as well, but what I saw, apart from the skull, was a large sized bed inherited from more affluent days, going by the quality of the wood. However, unlike the spring moonshine home, the bed did not occupy the entire room. There was enough space left for a dark brown Burma teak cupboard too, jam-packed with unorganized books and papers that peeped through its panelled glass door. And there were a few straight backed wooden chairs as well and a writing table of unknown vintage once more. As opposed to moonshine, the student’s books were sitting there in a pile on the table under the scrutiny of the aforementioned skull from the wall at the far end of the room.

Apart from Sovan-babu, the girl’s father was expecting me too and at some point of time after I arrived, the mother showed up as well. Smiling, welcoming people and well-fed too going by their sizes. The father was clad in a somewhat worn out white fatua and a dhoti reaching down to the knees, worn South Indian style. It is difficult for me to recall what we conversed about, but whatever it was, we were soon nodding our heads in agreement. I had been hired as Aparna’s (name unchanged) teacher, to teach her mostly English and Mathematics. And I have forgotten of course at which point of time during the proceedings the pretty young Aparna had entered the stage. As I have already told you, I was older now, but not too old. Besides, Aparna wore a saree, unlike the moonshine kid, who was just a little girl in long skirts.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is no love story that I am weaving out for you. It will not lead to broken or joined hearts, if that’s what you are expecting. It is just a story of a growing young girl, who needed extra help outside her school. Aparna was a sweet young girl, full of reverence for her new found teacher. And the teacher was hell bent at that stage of his life on turning into a professional teacher some day in the not too distant future.

I arrived on the day we agreed upon for my first session and this time I had a better look at the inside of the building as I climbed up the stairs to the first floor. It appeared to be a house full of people as well as rooms. The people lived as separate families occupying two or three rooms each. Peaceful coexistence, for each family appeared to own the rooms it lived in and I ended up with the impression that they had once been a joint family. With time the family had grown in size probably, making joint living an infeasible proposition. The reasons could have been economic too, but I didn’t care much to exercise my brain over the issue.

The room this time was empty, except for Aparna and I sitting across the table from each other. Two people in a large room, leaving out the skull that stared at my back as I faced Aparna. It was not a particularly scary experience, I know not why. Skull it was, but it was a friendly looking skull, not entertaining deep dark thoughts against any one in particular. Since the skull was after all a skull though, I did inquire about it when I saw Sovan-babu next time. It appeared that Aparna’s father, Amiya-babu, had started out life quite differently from the way he was living now. In particular, he had not planned to raise a family at all and so Aparna’s appearance in this world was directly linked to Amiya-babu’s change of mind.

Amiya-babu, I was informed, had left home to live the life of an ascetic in his young days. And no ordinary ascetic at that. He had chosen to be a tantrik sadhu! Which explained the skull, perhaps the only relic he had saved from his tantra filled days. As I looked once in a while at the good natured Hobit shaped man, I found it most difficult to visualize him sitting on a corpse and practising whatever tantra yoga a tantrik performed. Quite clearly, he had been disillusioned and come back home to announce that he was no longer interested in tantric occupations. Instead, a family of his own and a pretty daughter attracted him more. God, being merciful, was not deaf to his appeal and hence, there I was, teaching Aparna under the ever watchful guardianship of the skull that had lost its charm. Or had it? I will have more to offer on this matter as we move on.

Aparna, as I found, was fairly weak in English and I had to work hard to make her learn. Her mathematics was OK as far as I could see, but it could have been better. She was not exactly a serious student and I soon found myself scolding her once in a while for not working hard enough. Her parents sat in the adjacent room and listened to the radio almost every evening I visited them. Sometimes though, my voice rose a few decibels above the radio waves, especially when I took Aparna to task for neglecting the work I had assigned her. And the parents would hear me clearly it seemed, especially the mother. Hidden behind the curtain separating the two rooms, she would join me in chiding her daughter in a shrill voice. An embarrassing situation for me, for Aparna reacted quite strongly. Not vocally though. Her eyes spewed fire, as she frowned in dogged defiance at the table. “I won’t forgive you for this,” she appeared to be yelling at me in thundering silence.

But there were interludes of entertainment as well. Provided by the father. As I recall, they owned a few cats that roamed freely inside their rooms. And Amiya-babu was obviously fond of them. He would speak to them whenever one or the other of them appeared in the adjoining radio equipped room. Quite invariably he invited them to his vicinity with a loud but affectionate “Meow”. Like my voice, his meow floated over in the opposite direction to where we sat and caused immense embarrassment for Aparna. She was not quite prepared to present a meowing dad to her tutor. There were variations too in the meow theme. On one occasion, the radio announced that a programme of light classical Bangla songs was about to begin. I have no idea why Amiya-babu began to imitate the announcement immediately. And he kept repeating the imitation at ever higher pitches and in a variety of notes and tunes, till suddenly he shifted gear and ended up with a few bouts of his meows. On some of these occasions, Aparna would turn red trying to suppress her embarrassment and, once at least, she left the room to bring her dad back to his senses.

Even though I maintained a straight face for Aparna’s comfort, I used to be greatly amused by these incidents and described them later to Sovan-babu. He was surprised the first time he heard about this and even went to Amiya-babu’s home to find out if I was imagining things. He came back with the message that Amiya-babu believed that he was engaging in these antiques to help me feel at home. I don’t think I ever produced the impression of feeling constrained or shy in any way, but Amiya-babu didn’t give up his efforts to make me feel relaxed, even after his conversation with Sovan-babu. He kept on maintaining the comfort level at his home to his daughter’s endless discomfort.

Amiya-babu and the skull in the room were the most interesting memories I have from my Aparna-teaching days and I often wondered who Amiya-babu was meowing at, the silent skull or his cats?

This is an inconsequential story, but it is a story with an end, and that end I have yet to reach. Let us proceed therefore in its search. Soon enough, Aparna’s Board examinations arrived and I visited her home a number of times while the exam was on to find out how she was faring. Following this, I had no further need to visit them and had begun to work as a Research Scholar in Presidency College, Calcutta. But God had willed otherwise.

Soon after the Board results were published, I received a call from Amiya-babu. I wasn’t prepared for this, but I went there to find out what he wanted. I was told that Aparna had done rather well in the exams and, most importantly, it was in the English language that she had scored best!! I simply could not believe my ears, for till the last day that I had taught her, I had been scolding her for being poor in English. I stared at her parents in dumbfounded silence. As far as I could remember, my own score in English for my Board exam had been worse. I managed to keep my emotions in check, however, and inquired why I had been summoned.

“You have to keep on teaching her” was the command I heard. And I responded with a “But …”, which they all ignored quite totally. “Look,” Amiya-babu told me in a no nonsense tone this time, “it is clear that you have taught her well, or else her results cannot be explained.” I tried to “but” back, but I but-ted in vain. “You start soon,” the father ordered and disappeared behind the curtain to his meowing retreat. There was no one else in the room, not even my student. So, I silently stared back at the skull for a while and came back home wondering whether it was the skull that could explain the miracle of Aparna’s performance. Perhaps it had its magical powers.

I remained in semi-incognito condition for a few days till Sovan-babu intervened once again. They had assumed, it appeared, that I had agreed and wanted to know when I could show up. There was a second question this time though. What should my wages be? She had risen to a higher class now and obviously required a better paid teacher. So, how much does the teacher wish to be paid? I saw a way out now. Without batting an eyelid, I said Rs. 41, i.e. a rupee more than what I was being paid till then. The news was dutifully conveyed and I learnt that the family was deeply engaged in a discussion concerning the demand. What did a one rupee rise mean? What, in other words, was one equal to? Whatever they concluded, I received the summons once more to begin and I too responded, if only to find out how they had solved the mystery of the numerical magnitude of ‘one’.

I began to teach and at the end of the first month Amiya-babu walked into the room wearing a face that looked more serious than anything even remotely close to his meows. He was carrying currency notes in his hand and he handed them over to me with a half audible noise. Something like a “umph” I think. Naturally, I did not count the money in the presence of my student and simply slipped the notes inside my shirt pocket. On my way back home that evening, I did count of course, and found that my wages had increased by Rs. 10. Made sense, since 1 + 0 equals 1 as far as I knew. By this time, I was so much at home with Amiya-babu’s family that I couldn’t care less. I carried on therefore till Aparna finished her Higher Secondary exam. She performed well this time too and I strongly believe till this day that she owed her success either to herself or to that magic skull.

And then she entered college to study English Honours with Mathematics as a minor subject. I asked her why she had combined Mathematics with English. She didn’t know. I asked her why she hadn’t consulted me. She didn’t know.

Amiya-babu called me back in the meantime and asked me to continue. I told him in no uncertain terms that this was an absurd proposition. I was a student of Economics. How could I teach an English Honours student? But the family was unconvinced and I had to oblige once again. I had begun to feel pretty stupid by now of course and informed them with all the strength at my command that I was available only on condition that they wouldn’t pay me a dime. They worried for a while, but ultimately agreed. They were convinced about my miracle value, though the skull obviously knew better.

I am pretty close to the end of this inane story now. While Aparna was following her English Honours course, I got a fellowship from the US and had to leave. Prior to my departure, I went to Amiya-babu once and asked him to read my horoscope for me. Sovan-babu had told me that Amiya-babu was trained in that area. He did not oblige me till I was very close to departing for foreign shores. And what he told me stunned me to say the least. “I looked at your horoscope. It’s good, but don’t get married. A married life will not bring you happiness.” Well, I didn’t follow his advice and after having spent 46 years of marital bliss, I am not sure anymore if he knew how to read horoscopes.

That was the last time he spoke to me. Yet an epilogue remains. Several years later, perhaps 20 years or so, I came across Sovan-babu once again. I was back from the US then and teaching at the Indian Statistical Institute. After exchanging pleasantries, I asked him about Aparna. Amiya-babu and his wife had passed away I learnt and Aparna was working in the State Bank of India. Sovan-babu even told me about the branch where she was posted. Only I did not pursue the matter any further.

We had seen the end of each other. She had her family and her children. So had I a wife and a son. We had our separate lives to lead and I wasn’t sure if our ways could cross anymore. Even so, as I write this piece now, I cannot help asking myself what Aparna is doing these days. She should have retired from service, that pretty little girl I used to know and scold. She is a grandmother possibly. Sovan-babu, alas, cannot throw much light on the matter either, having succumbed to mortality.

I also think that in this game of life, my student has won hands down. She had not only scored higher in the English language examination, beating her own teacher. But if she is a grandmother now she has still more to boast about than her teacher.

Her teacher. The one who is sighing in winter.



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.


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.


This version of the translation: 22.12.2014.

Make him a little more drunk. Or else this universe He'll find it mighty hard to bear. He's only a young man still, Oh Lord. Well then, to his middle age convert him now -- Or else this universe Will find him mighty hard to bear.

Translation-cum-transcreation of a Bengali poem মাতাল (matal, meaning drunk) by Sankha Ghosh. It was published in his collection নিহিত পাতালছায়া (nihito patalchhaya, meaning Hidden Shadow of the Netherworld) in 1967.


Photo of Howrah Bridge

Photo of Howrah Bridge

'Sky resounding -- what's this roar for Fretting and fuming and a ruin of health? Living itself will make life livable Dying causes certain death.' -- His eyes lit up with a hint of a twinkle, As the tipsy signor exhorted thus -- A swig or two need at most be consumed For what's to be borne -- to be borne sans fuss. 'Perch atop the Howrah Bridge And search way down or straight upright -- Only two classes you'll get to see One is daft and the other bright.'

Translation-cum-transcreation of a Bengali poem পাগল (pagol) by Sankha Ghosh. It was published in his collection নিহিত পাতালছায়া (nihito patalchhaya, meaning Hidden Shadow of the Netherworld) in 1967.

Note: Howrah Bridge is a well-known bridge across the River Hoogly which flows through the city of Kolkata.

The Black Legend

Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta on November 17, 2014


Manik Bandyopadhyay, in his classic short story “Prehistoric” (pragoitihashik) created an unforgettable heroine, Panchi, a beggar by profession. Her means for attracting public sympathy was a purulent ulcer that stretched from one of her knees down to the foot. And she employed every possible precaution to ensure that her ailment remained untreated. It was the capital on which depended her very livelihood.

Panchi was born in the world of fiction, but most of us are familiar with her true life counterparts, endlessly many of whom inhabit this country. And paradoxically enough, not all of them are street beggars. Quite a few amongst them belong to the highest echelons of society, people who travel in fashionable cars, fly business class every now and then and last, but not least, pontificate inside the cool comfort of television studios on the failure of governments in power to rid our society of the ills that plague it so. Moreover, like Panchi’s attachment to her ulcer, they are all too conscious of the dire necessity of the failures in question to defy mortality, or else, like Panchi, they stand to lose the very instrument ensuring their survival. Along with them, the all pervasive media suffers as well, for its survival too depends in turn on the survival of the professional grumblers, known otherwise as the hallowed opposition in Indian democracy.

In this context, one social malady that has resolutely withstood the test of time in India is the issue of black money, the accumulated flow of alleged tax evading Indian incomes stashed away in bank accounts located in tax havens lying beyond the reach of Indian tax authorities. The opposition benches, irrespective of the political parties occupying them, have never ceased to criticise the so called “incumbent” for its inability to recover Indian black money from foreign shores or even its deliberate policy of protecting the favoured few by turning a blind eye to the problem. Further, the criticised often become the critic with fluctuations in electoral fortunes. Amidst this table turning game, however, the allegation against the government that it is overtly or covertly continuing to avoid solving the grisly problem continues to act as an unalterable constant of nature. Not so much because it is an accurately diagnosed disease, but more probably because, like Panchi’s ulcer, healing it will leave the opposition without a meaningful occupation.

Whether a reliable method exists for estimating the quantum of black money is itself a million dollar question. Nonetheless, endlessly many estimates have been heard of. Amongst these is the startling figure of US $ 1.35 trillion, amounting to around 75 per cent of India’s GDP in 2012-13. This figure, according to unsubstantiated media announcements, was revealed by a confidential report for which the government commissioned a reputed academic institution. The total sum includes black money held both in India and abroad and does not probably clarify their shares in the aggregate. As opposed to this, the Swiss Bankers’ Association as well as the Government of Switzerland claimed that the citizens of India held no more than US $ 2 billion in Swiss banks. While no authentic figure has emerged so far, it is nonetheless interesting to compare the Swiss assertion with our own. The figure of US $ 2 billion turns out to be around 0.15 per cent of the estimated total of US $ 1.35 trillion. The Swiss claim could well be unsound, just as the Indian estimate might be wrong. However, both parties have to be more than horribly incorrect if black money hidden abroad were to be treated as a problem worth a government’s serious attention.

To go down to the bottom of the problem, the Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigating Team (SIT) to come up with a dependable report on the matter and the government is said to have handed over to the SIT a list of some 627 persons holding accounts in foreign banks. As the grapevine would have it, a substantial fraction of these 627 persons are NRI’s who are legally permitted to hold foreign bank accounts. Moreover, their deposits need not have been generated out of black money siphoned off from India. No numbers in this context have sprung up yet of course, and one needs to wait for the findings of the SIT before jumping to conclusions.

In the meantime, one must not lose track of other tidbits of information that are catching public imagination. Amongst them, one claims that the information regarding the 617 persons was not received from the Swiss or other suspected banks. It appears that an unnamed person had been able to access the details using unknown means at his disposal and they were passed on to Germany, France and possibly other countries. These countries then decided to oblige the Indian government by sharing the yet to be confirmed information. Why these other countries would find it in their interest to rely on a private person’s investigations relating to Indian black money in Swiss accounts is anybody’s guess. One wonders in fact how France or Germany would have reacted to a report submitted to them by the Government of India on black money tainted French or German nationals. Especially so, if the report were based on revelations made by a private person of dubious distinction.

On the other hand, if indeed it turns out that around 600 plus persons own US $ 2 billion worth of black money of Indian origin in foreign banks, then this must surely be viewed as a grievous fault, though one would need to devise a super-sensitive instrument to measure the grievousness itself. First, going once again by unsubstantiated reports, US $ 2 billion constitutes around 0.15 per cent of the estimated total of US $ 1.35 trillion of black money held by Indians. The lion’s share of the black money, viz. 99.85 per cent, is then held inside the country itself rather than abroad. One cannot help wondering why 0.15 per cent is a more worrisome figure than 99.85 per cent. Common sense suggests that the glaring fault lies in the 99.85 per cent, if indeed that figure is correct, though one is aware at the same time that the veracity of the these much advertised figures is yet to be confirmed.

If the quantum of the fault constitutes an important question, the flip side of the coin should address the nature of the fault, as far as the damage to the Indian economy is concerned. During the year 2012-13, US $ 5 billion constituted a meagre 0.27 per cent of Indian GDP, while the balance out of US $ 1.35 trillion, viz. US $ 1.345 trillion, added up to 74.72 per cent. If black money is to be treated as lost government revenue and hence potential capital for economic development, then the 74.72 per cent ought to be viewed as incremental capital output ratio for the economy that could not be utilized due to tax evasion by Indians living in India. On the other hand, the foreign black money constitutes a trivial 0.27 per cent from the incremental capital-output ratio point of view. The productivity potential of the latter is negligibly small compared to the former.

Yet, the battle continues. A battle based not on crystal clear evidence, but on the unfounded estimates of the sort that this article relies on. It is quite possible of course that, thanks to the Supreme Court’s directives, the cynics will be proved mistaken and we shall soon decipher the holy grail of India’s black money legend. However, the public at large had better realize at the same time that a complete resolution of the problem will run counter to the interests of Panchi’s peers, engaged as they are in expressing prime evening time indignation over India’s Black Money horror.



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

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


A Question of Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When and how did I insult a woman?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Kamala Bastralaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Without a Clue …

I have forgotten how to write I lamented silently. And then wondered for the umpteenth time why the elements had conspired to cause my Muse to send me to exile. I had no idea, none at all.

“I have no clue at all,” I sighed somewhat audibly.

“No?” exclaimed she.

My wife took me by surprise, I have to admit. Actually, now that I recount the conversation, I realize that I had committed a blunder at the very beginning. I had used my voice to express my thoughts. Thoughts need not be uttered with vociferation. At least my thoughts, not Mozart’s perhaps. But, as I said, I had enjoined my brain waves with my vocal chords. And forgotten all about the faux pas. Hence the confabulation that followed.

“No?” I fumbled, in response to what I mistook to be an unprovoked utterance on the part of my wife. “I mean what are you referring to?”

“I have no clue at all.” A clear soprano confronted me. Well, I have to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure if it was a flawless soprano, which Wikipedia identifies as lying between 261 Hz and 880 Hz, and I don’t know even vaguely what that means. But I am sure that I heard the words clearly.

“How do you mean?” I asked therefore. It’s best to leave as few controversies to vagueness as possible. I can’t recall the person from whom I inherited this piece of questionable wisdom. Disappearing behind a curtain of vagueness is also known to be a potent weapon to save oneself from embarrassment.

“I meant whatever you had said when you said whatever it is that you said.” Clear sharp answer.

You see, age has done things to my comprehension and it took me a good deal of mental struggle to simplify the somewhat compound sentence she had employed to refer to whatever I had said when I said whatever I had said. I failed of course.

So, I asked her, “Whatever did I say when I said whatever I said?”

She replied, “I have no clue at all!”

“But didn’t you claim only a second ago that there indeed was a whatever that I had said and that I did say it when I said it?” I shed a tear or two this time.

“Of course I did,” said she.

I was at my wit’s end now. Blood pressure, sugar, cholesterol and all the other things that conspire to make doctors examine your lipid profile or whatever, were rising.

It was clearly time for me to give up. So, I didn’t give up.

Instead, I said, “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly …”

It had the intended effect. Her confidence had received a jolt. There was a flustered look on her otherwise pretty face.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.

I tried to explain as best as I could. “It’s advisable to finish off unpleasant things with alacrity. Dilly dallying doesn’t help.”

“What unpleasant thing?” she asked suspiciously, her left hand surreptitiously searching for a blunt weapon I thought, should emergencies arise.

“Such as murder,” I explained. That’s what Macbeth had observed prior to killing Duncan.

“I knew, I knew …” she thundered this time, flourishing a rolling pin in her left hand.

“You knew what?” I said more than sheepishly now, swiftly taking cover under the dining table.

“I knew you were planning to murder me and that’s exactly what you were mumbling to yourself.”

“Mumbling to myself?” I bewailed hidden from her line of vision and ended up finally with a hesitant “What?”

“I don’t have a clue,” she wailed now hurling the rolling pin towards the object hiding under the table. The target was missed, for I heard the noise of splintered glass.

And in the meantime I keep wondering, still sitting under the table, why it is that I have forgotten to write.

I really don’t have a clue.

Train to Promised Land

The latest debate surrounding the government’s decision to hike passenger fares and freight charges for the railways has dragged a skeleton out of the closet making the country turn white with fear.

As any undergraduate student of economics should be able to explain, the price of a commodity is the sum total of payments needed to induce service providers to transform the raw materials they have paid for into final products meant for different uses. The services in question tend to flow towards the production of commodities that yield the best return for them and markets function in the nature of sluice gates that ensure free economic activity. Preventing the free functioning of markets amounts to closing the sluice gates during a flood or not opening them during a drought.

Of course, when the government itself assumes charge of production, the market law may not apply. The returns that attract the government are hard to measure in financial terms. The government’s much lauded objective is the generation of social welfare. And once social welfare takes the driver’s seat, dry economic logic begins to sink into long lasting coma. The disastrous impact of the economic coma is invariably perceived in the long run and this is exactly where violated economic principles have the last laugh as they watch the economy crumble.

The railways in fact are a case in point. It appears that the branch of the Indian Railways that is concerned with freight transport earns substantial profits. On the other hand, the passenger service division has been merrily generating losses, thereby making it next to impossible for the authorities to keep things in healthy shape since time began. It is not hard to observe here a conflict between the two goals, monetary returns and social welfare. As far as freight traffic goes, the railways are mostly serving the private business sector that is engaged in profit oriented ventures. Consequently, even though run by the government, profit seeking through freight transport need not be inconsistent with welfare motives.

Passenger travel on the other hand is a totally different story, if railways are run by a government instead of the private sector. The government’s objective in this case should be the generation of passenger comfort and safety. And for this to happen, the burden of the fare imposed on the public must not outweigh the latter’s perception of the value of the comfort. This is all the more true since a section of the passengers are daily commuters to workplaces in cities from suburban towns. Such passengers usually include a large number persons belonging to the lower echelons of society, viz. the informal sector labour force. These individuals are deprived of social welfare benefits, such as dearness allowance, provident fund and so on, that the so called formal sector takes for granted. A major reason why the passenger division of our railways runs at a loss relates to accommodating these passengers, whom the Indian Government, even after enjoying more than half a century of economic independence, has not been able to endow with economic liberty.

Hence the question of subsidizing the passenger section of the railways, that is charging a price for the service that falls short of the expenditure involved in producing it. The costs, being financial in nature, have to be incurred from some source or the other. In the case of the railways, the source is readily available in its freight division coffers. Freight transport generates profits and these are siphoned off to cover the losses incurred in passenger transport. According to the Finance Minister, the figure stands now at Rs. 26,000 crore.

Using the profit of one organization to meet the losses of another is referred to as cross-subsidization and cross-subsidization runs counter to the logic of economics. Profits earned by a producing organization is a major source for the enlargement as well as improvement of its capital base. In the case of the railways, the capital base consists largely of infrastructure. Maintenance and improvement of infrastructure, both its quality as well as quantity (the freight corridor being an obvious example), helps to reduce per unit cost of transportation. Even if other costs, such as the cost of fuel and labour were to rise, investment in infrastructure has the beneficial effect of keeping transport costs on hold and along with it the prices of the commodities transported. Needless to say though, infrastructure building is a time consuming process, and to that extent its favourable impact on prices cannot be realized overnight. A period of waiting is involved, after which prices might be tamed, but the immediate impact of a rise in freight rates can be inflationary.

Cross-subsidization, however, rules out even the delayed gains. It prevents adequate investment in the freight sector and this in turn clogs up avenues leading to cost reduction and inflation control. The government’s decision to remove cross-subsidization can therefore be easily defended, especially from the point of view of eventual price control. Indeed, not only has the government decided to do away with cross-subsidization, it has announced an increase in freight rates too by 6.5 per cent. Given that the freight division is making profits, it is not clear why the increase in freight rates was called for. It is possible that the government is planning for a massive improvement in freight infrastructure and this requires profits in excess of what the railway freight service is earning now. Hopefully, the upcoming Rail Budget will throw some light on the issue.

As far as the passenger section goes, the fare rise has to be justified, partly at least, by the decision to do away with cross subsidization. But the government has announced its intention to come up with world class passenger services as well. The extra fare to be raised from passengers is therefore expected not only to eliminate subsidies but also generate adequate surplus to create infrastructure. And it is here again that time plays a crucial role. The increased fare has to be shelled out immediately, but infrastructure investment will bear fruit with a lag.

The government wishes to initiate tough measures and make the railways follow market principles. This makes eminent sense provided the market logic is carried to its logical limit, which involves minimizing the time gap between payment by a customer and the delivery of the commodity. Quite clearly, the government needs the money right away and this is what lies at the root of its decision to increase fares. However, given that the fare increase (somewhat reduced now from the initial 14.2 per cent) is motivated by the need to improve infrastructure, it is essential to specify a time frame for its delivery. In the private sector, when a promoter accepts advance payment for constructing a new residential complex, there is a pressure on him to deliver the flats within a stipulated period of time. A government that believes in market principles and abhors subisidies cannot behave any differently from the promoter.

It is imperative therefore not only to announce a rise in fare, but also the time horizon chosen to deliver world class passenger comfort. The government itself admits that passenger services are in miserable shape and holds past governments responsible for their failure to meet international standards. The point is well taken and the government’s decision to raise fares to help Indian Railways reach the coveted destination makes eminent sense. However, till that destination is reached, passengers (and the less privileged in particular) will be paying more for a state of services that the government itself deplores.

If past governments have to be criticized for indolence, the present one needs to act with alacrity. The immediate escalation of fares ought not to yield results in the distant long run, when, as Keynes had observed, we are all likely to be stone dead.

(Published in Telegraph, Kolkata, July 7, 2014)