Tag Archives: students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sankari vs. Mathematics: A Moonlit Night’s Tale


On an evening parked far away in the mists of time, I had gone out for a stroll with a young and adorably pretty woman. Slim, charming and lively, she was my newly acquired wife, Sankari. I was around twenty nine I think and she must have been about twenty four. And, as I said, we were out for a walk on a balmy evening in spring.

Had I been Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice, I would probably have told her:

“The moon shines bright: in such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus methinks mounted the Troyan walls
Where Cressid lay that night.”

But I wasn’t Lorenzo. Nor was Sankari Jessica. Or else, she too might have replied:

“In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismay’d away.”

We didn’t exchange words even remotely similar. Yet, the sky was clear and a million stars glittered above us as they watched us in inquisitive silence. We went and sat on a bench in the nearby park.

“How beautiful the sky is, isn’t it?” said Sankari. This is the closest she came to Jessica.

“Yes, isn’t it? And have you noticed how endlessly the stars are spread?” said I. I couldn’t have been farther away from Lorenzo.

Sankari misunderstood my train of thought I think.

“Oh yes. Endless indeed,” she said, “fascinating little lights under the dark canopy of the sky. Lovely, aren’t they?”

“Right,” said I. “But how many stars do you think there are in the sky?”

“Oh, I don’t know … how should I know how many? Infinitely many may be. Like grains of sand on the sea shore.” Sankari stared at the sky in wonder. A mortal beauty, tucked away in an inconsequential corner of the solar system, looking up towards the immortal beauty of the universe.

“Yet,” said I, “each one has a name, hasn’t it?”

Her face turned sharply from the sky towards me. There was bit of a frown on her puzzled countenance. “Of course they have names. How does that matter?”

“Doesn’t it surprise you that there are infinitely many objects up there and each one can be distinguished from the other by name?”

She stared at me in silence for a while. The frown slowly melted away into an awfully cute smile of indulgence. “You are crazy,” she said lovingly and then went back to stare at the sky again.

“But you can’t name each particle that makes up the sky, can you?” I asked.

Once again the questioning look returned to her face. “What on earth are you talking about? Pulling my leg, are you?”

“Oh no,” I quickly intercepted. “I was merely thinking that the sky too is probably made up of little particles of some sort of matter, gases may be. And it is not possible to give each particle in the sky a name, is it?” I looked askance at her to study her reaction.

She didn’t appear to be too interested. The expression on her face had a stamp of incredulity. “Is this guy really crazy?” it appeared to ask.

But I pushed on. “The particles that form the sky are infinitely many and the stars too probably infinitely many. But in one case you can find distinct names for each particle and in the other you can’t. Isn’t that strange, Sankari?”

She giggled in reply, revealing her sparkling teeth in the light that shone down from a nearby lamppost. “You know what’s strange?” she asked.

“What’s strange?” I asked back.

“You!!” she said emphatically. And then she moved the conversation closer to Lorenzo and Jessica. “The moon’s so beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”

I had to admit this was the case. It must have been full moon or very nearly so. “Yes the moon’s lovely,” I responded casually.

“Don’t you want to tell me something, now that you have noticed we are sitting under a perfect moonlit sky?”

It was my turn to be puzzled. “About the moon?” I asked doubtfully.

“No, about me,” she said and looked away, disappointment writ clearly on her face.

I couldn’t follow her. She appeared to be upset. But why, I had no idea.

So I went back to where I was. “Do you see that there are at least two kinds of infinity? In one case you can name each object in the infinity you behold and in the other, you can’t.”

Her face was still turned away and I had no idea if she was listening. I failed miserably to perceive that I could reach out for the moon so easily on that evening and I was wasting that wondrous opportunity!

The moon above kept smiling of course. But the moon next to me wasn’t.

“You know, mathematicians have names for these different kinds of infinity. The infinity of stars is called countable and the infinity of the sky is uncountable.”

I was greeted by deathlike silence. Nonetheless, I went on.

“And you know why the very basis of mathematics is illogical? It is illogical because classical mathematics assumes that the uncountable infinity can also be named particle by particle. It’s called the Axiom of Choice. Without this axiom, which no one can prove, mathematics cannot progress a single step. Logic is just a convenient house mathematics chooses to reside in. In fact though, it’s hopelessly illogical!”

Sankari could have been a mummy resting under a pyramid. I sighed, seeing that her interest had still not been aroused. And then I shrugged.

“Well illogical or not, it works. So I guess we shouldn’t grumble,” I concluded.

“Who’s grumbling?” Sankari had finally found her voice. She was facing me now. Her beautiful eyes smiled at me. A smile charged with sadness.

Have I offended her somehow, I asked myself stupidly. She stood up.

“Let’s go back home, shall we?” she asked.

“Why? Do you have work at home?”

“Yes, I have work at home. Someone needs to work you know, to keep a family running,” she said. I didn’t fail to note the sarcasm in her tone. Gloomily I got up too.

“Well, what are you so upset about?” I asked. “Have I offended you? I said nothing at all to hurt you!”

“No, you didn’t say anything to hurt me at all. But I wish you did. I would have something to complain about.”

I was nonplussed. But I was reassured at the same time. “Thank God,” I whispered to myself. “I didn’t hurt my lovely wife.”

We had started walking back homewards. She maintained her silence. To help matters, I tried to start up the conversation again.

“How paradoxical language is really!” I said dramatically.

“What paradox?” she retorted. “I didn’t say anything at all!”

“Oh no, I wasn’t talking about you. Actually, I was talking about Bertrand Russell.”

She stopped dead in the middle of the road and stared at me, mouth half open. There was a distinctly scared look in her eyes.

“I am married to a loony,” they appeared to say.

I tried to make amends. “Actually, Russell pointed out how strange logical language can get.”

She still didn’t resume her walk. Instead, she quickly checked to see if the road was empty or not. If necessary, help should be around to protect her from her husband.

“Well,” continued I, “suppose you were to say that the barber on our street shaved all those people who didn’t shave themselves.”

“Why should I say something like that?” she challenged. “I don’t even know the barber.”

“Well, just suppose you did say so.”

She was petrified now.

“If you said that, then you would be committing yourself to resolving a very difficult paradox.”

She shook her head slowly, clearly lamenting her fate. But we had now begun to walk again. She had probably decided that, though mad, I wasn’t violently so. But her attitude suggested that she believed a visit to a head shrink was in order.

I had the field to myself now.

“You know what the paradox is? The paradox is that you don’t know who shaves the barber.”

She was almost livid now with anger. “Why the hell should I want to know who shaves the barber? I don’t even want to know any barber at all, whether he shaves or not. You go tomorrow morning and find out who shaves the barber. If no one else does, you do him the favour yourself.”

But I was desperate. “Please,” I pleaded, “just let me finish.”

She stopped again and faced me with stony indifference.

“You see, if the barber shaves himself, then he must be a person who doesn’t shave himself. Because we agreed, didn’t we, that he shaved only those people who didn’t shave themselves.”

“No I didn’t agree to anything of the sort. But even if I did, so what?”

“Well, if the barber doesn’t shave himself, then he is a person whom he has to shave,” I concluded with a note of satisfaction. “After all, the barber we said shaved all people who didn’t shave themselves.”

We had reached home by now and Sankari was unlocking the front door. She entered the dark apartment and I followed her in, turning on the light switch. The room was flooded with light. She looked so fascinatingly beautiful. And she had her engaging eyes turned straight at my face. There was a strange light that they reflected.

She sat down on the sofa and kept staring at me and suddenly blurted out.

“Is this what you get paid for in your office?”

I was confused. “Is what what I am paid for at my office? How do you mean?”

“I mean what do you do in your office? Spread such rubbish amongst students? I thought you taught classes. So I was asking if this is the gibberish you teach. It’s a total waste of taxpayers’ money. Anyway, forget about that. But let’s get one thing straight. I am not your student, understand? I am your wife!” Her voice rose to a final crescendo. I thought I heard loud sirens before enemy attack and beat a hasty retreat to wait quietly for my dinner.

And I have waited quietly for dinner every night since then. I have waited for her delicious lunches too during the thirty five years that have rolled by following that fateful evening. Sankari is still very pretty I think. But I have realised too late in life I guess that she will never ask me again what a golden full moon on a clear spring sky should remind me of.