Friday, November 22, 2013

The Island Desired

The island, with the three odd coconut palms jutting out like three fingers, so islandish in nature, almost like a slice cake of Andamans or Bahamas may be, didn't remain an island anymore. The monsoon had gone a few months back and the flooded patch of lowland that lent this tiny place the aura of an island is now dry and exposed. There is dried yellow grass, and human trails like hair partings serpent their ways to the knoll, with the three coconut palms still swaying in the afternoon breeze. With winter round the corner, cobwebs in the yellow grass now shimmer with the morning dew till the sun decides to take a harsh late morning stand. Sometimes it feels ridiculous now to look at this place, which like a treasured pain yearned for, was once so distant and inaccessible that you had to think of either swimming or bringing in a boat. It also seemed like the perfect time to reach this little island would be the midnight, with the moon or the fireflies for company. And the mere thought of taking a crash date of adventure to reach this place seemed so secretly justified a desire. And then the water, that once had shielded this little paradise from random visitors, starts ebbing off, leaving the shiny apple-snails stuck in the mud and the water lettuce dying a slow roasting death. Then the mud starts getting foot-marked; visitors treading on the half-baked surface still oozing with the scent of the wetlands. Then sprouts the slumber ferns with their perfect clover leaves peeping through the tangles of dying Spirogyra strewn across like green hair of some unknown maiden. It's now you know, that place, no longer a secret paradise, can be visited by anybody. By that time, the yellow grass has arrived, and with it the human trails that trample it. You don’t know when it exactly started, but you start to realize the fading charm, the desire that is no more. The longings now seem so foolish to visit this place in dreamy nights in mist and firefly lights. I am yet to know what another monsoon brings and how many monsoons a man has to enjoy in his lifetime. Or I’d rather say, endure in his lifetime.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Mohenjo-daro or “Old Spice”

For those uninitiated to the Indian History, or pre-history should I say, Mohenjo-daro (lit: Mound of the dead) is a four and half thousand year old city, unearthed during the third decade of twentieth century, along with a few such other sites like Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan etc. The fact, that fascinates me, about this city (and its sisters as well) is how the archaeologists made the buildings and the streets, the granaries and the public bath sites, the religious figurines and toys, the coins and seals, speak about the “time they had”. The people of Mohenjo-daro were short, as their doors speak. They didn’t know the use of iron, as their copper-headed arrows speak. They were animists, as their idols speak. They knew music and dance, as their figurines speak. Their town planning was flawless, as the streets and buildings speak.

Well, the other day, I was visiting a few plant nurseries for procuring saplings for one of my landscaping assignments, when one of the gardeners presented me with a tiny sapling, which I heard him say, “Old Spice”. “Old Spice?” I asked for confirming. “No, we call it ‘All spice’ as the leaf has the combined scent of bay leaves, cinnamon, cardamom, and clove. Grow this in your garden and you’ll never need to buy garam masala.”

Back home, I had no garden. So, I decided to plant Mr. Old Spice in a pot. Now, beside our entrance there were half a dozen pots with the plants long dead. The soil in them had caked hard. They’ve been lying there for, umm... may be six years; could be eight too. Anyway, I took out one of those pots and started loosening the soil with a makeshift trowel. My task at hand was to dig the soil, bring it out, break it into small pieces, mix it with some fresh soil from the yard and get things going for li’l Mr. Old Spice, all the while trying to swat the bold Ms. Mosquitoes swarming around my delicious elbows and ankles. But, never had it occurred to me that I will be unearthing relics; relics that would make me think about my own little Mohenjo-daro, just six years old.

Digging up, digging up, digging up... what’s this? A neat round shape that sent out a protesting clang on my trowel. Taking it between my forefinger and thumb, I rubbed it off the soil cover and... sparkle! Wow! A glass marble. A toy, I had spent much time with, like the other boys (and a few girls too) of my age. Archaeology at work; well, this could have been relegated to the unused lot long back and then probably swept out during an autumn cleaning. The pot, sitting right below the drain spout, must have gathered it along with the sweep-dust.

Breaking clods, breaking clods, breaking clods... what’s this? A twisted aluminium clamp. Eight years back, we had a new wiring done. The electrician had planted a cable along the wall of the reading room, nailing down a strip of wooden baton, and then attaching these little clamps to hold the cable along the baton. Nowadays we don’t use wooden batons anymore for wiring jobs. Electric wiring nowadays is called “concealed”, as the wires are drawn through conduits placed inside the wall.

Digging up, digging up, digging up... and what’s this? A shrivelled foil pack, colours tarnished to grey making the prints illegible. Six years ago, most of our tablets used to come in these strips. Now, we have blister packs for the majority. Pretty soon, all our pills will start coming in blister packs, and foil packs will be handed over to archaeology.

Sitting hunched, sitting hunched, sitting hunched... and Ouch! A sharp pain running up through the shin from the right ankle. Five years back, I had a bad fall during a hike and it had torn an ankle ligament. Crepe bandages, walking stick, walking slow... and gradually I had come back to normal gait. I had also ran about now and then, all the while thinking the pain had died. Now I realized, I hadn’t sat like this in the last four years, I hadn’t turned the soil in the plant pots, I hadn’t planted a sapling. Now call this the pain of Mohenjo-daro, or call it “Old Spice”!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happiness is a Leech

13th Aug, 2011

Incessant rain! It’s been like this for the last seven days. I watch the water gurgling down the spout near my window. I hear it drumming on the cast iron lid of the water reservoir. I see it bouncing off the waxed leaves of the pui shak (Basella alba). I hear mommy shouting in the kitchen, “The huge marsh rat is here again! How will I chase it off? Its home is under water.” I feel happy that I have a home that is warm and dry, well at least some parts of it.

I get out for the bank. Today’s the last date to pay my EMI. My mom calls me lazy. Papa calls me a procrastinator. My wife asks me the repetitive question again, “Why do you always wait for the last date?” I try not to answer my “first date” and just utter a “hmmm” coupled with a foolish smile that translates to “Well, you know me? Right?” I feel happy that she loves me and tries to cover my faults with extra work/worry on her part.

I wade out into the street. The huge potholes are hidden under the slushy brown water. Children wrapped in colourful raincoats with characteristic backpack bulges, trudge their ways to school. Crows that couldn’t find shelter sit helplessly on electric wires, shaking off the water from their feathers every other minute. At the street crossing, vegetable sellers display their wares on blue plastic sheets. Wet potatoes, slices of arums, leafy vegetables that look greener and fresher as the rain patters on them. Outside the blue plastic zone, the mud is marked with shoe prints of various sizes and shapes, bicycle treads, tent-peg holes where the elderly people have dug the sharp ends of their parasols, while bending down to buy. I feel happy to see that life goes on, as always.

At the bank, the manager calls me in for a chat. He offers me tea. The tea arrives in a little brown china cup on a white saucer that also holds a pair of perforated salted biscuits. An elderly lady – a pensioner walks in, still dripping. She takes the chair beside me and wants to discuss something with the manager. I offer her my cup of tea. Hesitantly she agrees to take it. The manager looks at me with an expression that says, “that was the last cuppa; the support bearer just went out you saw.” Fifteen minutes later, my task done, I venture out. As I unfurl my umbrella and take a final look at the bank, the elderly lady smiles and waves at me. I feel happy that my transactions in the bank count more in smiles than money.

I get down at my bus stop and take out my cell phone from under the plastic wrap. I call mom, “Have you finished with your shopping for fish? Shall I wait here and help you carry your bag?” She says she’s already home and Ms. Paul of the B-block has carried her bag through the potholed street. She asks me how far from home I am so that she can put the tea to brew. I feel happy that we have fish, and tea, and neighbors who care.

As I wade back, I see a man in a red raincoat on a motorbike. His raincoat bulges in all directions though he doesn’t have any back packs. I feel happy that I’m not as fat as he is.

A gas delivery boy has stopped his tricycle-van and stands under the sunshade of someone’s garage to wait out the shower. He has a transparent plastic bag covering his head that can only help in a drizzle. I hear him humming a classical song, “Mora sainya moh se boley na...” (My beloved doesn’t talk to me...). I feel happy that my wife always keeps talking to me and I sometimes have to ask her to keep quiet, poor soul.

I get home and hang my dripping parasol on the railing. Uncle serves me tea. As we sit together around the table, I feel an itch on my shin. I discover a three-inch long, beautifully striped leech feasting on my blood. I pull it out and throw it out of the window. As blood drips down towards my foot, I feel happy. Happy to see that my blood is red, warm, and flows like a cute little river.

Well, happiness doesn’t need a reason. It’s a reason by itself!

The Check Dam

"I threw a pebble in a brook
And watched the ripples run away
And they never made a sound.
And the leaves that are green turned to brown,
And they wither with the wind,
And they crumble in your hand." - Simon & Garfunkel: Leaves that are green

26th Nov, 2011

If you have ever been to the villages, where they grow paddy, you might know what a check dam is. Its purpose is to hold back water, where it is needed. Does that mean these dams never breach, or even overflow? Oh yeah! They do. But people are always ready for the patch crafts.

When I was eleven, I used to visit a neighbor’s apartment to watch a TV series called “Johny Socco and his flying robot”. We had plenty powercuts, termed as load-shedding, those days. On summer evenings, these powercuts invariably resulted in people flocking out of their houses to the nearby park for strolls and chitchats. On one such “load-shedding” evening, the neighbor’s daughter expressed her wish to hold my hand while we walked together in the adolescent darkness. Check dam! I stopped visiting their apartment even while I could hear Johny Socco command his flying robot to destroy the evil forces. Wish I could go back and apologize to the girl and to Johny Socco.

I never looked my age. The velvety sideburns that you see in my pictures today have appeared after my 27th year of existence. Till then I could boast about a God-gifted French cut (A carefully trimmed moustache and goatee modeled after some random Frenchman!).

In school, I was perhaps the only boy who never had a “girlfriend” though there were plenty girls among my friends. And mind you, that too with a deadly combo of being the second boy, a poet, a music composer, and a snake handler. Blame my dimpled baby face. Or was it my lack of being my age?

In the Botany major undergrads, we were 13 girls and only two boys. In those days even a gang of half a dozen girls would want a “gent” to accompany them while going out for shopping or watching a movie, probably due to security concerns. While the other boy in my class looked gent enough, I still had that karate kid look. And to get over the problem, one of the girls would volunteer with her eyebrow pencil for the noble task of darkening my moustache. And another would wait with a tiny vial of mascara (or was it eye liner?) for the final touch.

Nowadays, I hear the term “delayed milestones”. It refers to developmental delays in children, like delayed walking, talking etc. No, I was not a case of delayed milestone. I started doodling at a very tender age and had my first poem composed at two and half (my father wrote it down for me). At three I was ritually incepted into writing, in front of the Goddess’s alter. At five I was speaking my second language, English and at nine my third language Hindi. I guess the check dam appeared much later. At 21 I started learning French, but couldn’t go beyond “Bon jour” and “Mercy”.

Most of my friends have already got their scalps bald and cheeks sagged, while some have accumulated so much facial weight that recognizing them needs quite an effort. But people tell me that I look the same.

Now, why am I talking about all these? The fact is I visited my childhood place today. It’s the place where my father used to work. We had our staff quarters there. We also had a bank from where my father drew his salary. Now, he had to visit the bank today, like every other pensioner here needs, to show his face and get a “Live” certificate. I offered to accompany him to the bank.

Going to a place where you grew up is always sweet, though a bit painful. The Clerodendrum hedges looked ill-maintained. Thapa, the Nepalese guard’s son, who accompanied me in most of my monsoon fishing expeditions looks like a sad old man now. Pinu dada, the “Kabir Bedi” looking Casanova of yesteryears, walked along the bank of the lake with a fat woman, who he introduced as his wife. His beards have been sheared off, probably because they had greyed. Babita’s brother, the toddler who accompanied her when she came to our house for her tuitions is now the counterperson at the cooperative stores. Pavel’s father, a recent pensioner, is thinking of his son’s marriage. The neighbor’s daughter, I hear, is now a mother of two, and amusingly the older one is a son of eleven years. Will he miss going to a neighbor’s house to watch a TV series?

At the bank, a young lady stood in line in front of us, talking to the teller in English accented Bengali. When she turned round, I recognized her as Ajit da’s daughter. I remember seeing her in her mother’s arms when she used to come to the football field to watch her husband play with us.

Outside, the familiar Swarna champa tree spreads its shadow on the half-bald lawn. I feel an irresistible urge to climb up the tree, but refrain. Here, I discover a truth. Lawns and hedges look their age, while the Swarna champa does not. Another case of check dam.

A fruit vendor with his pushcart sells red ripe “Ber” and golden yellow Carambola fruits. A bunch of children gather around him. I too get in. My dad smiles.

Back home, I stand at the mirror. A close look reveals a few grey strands in my moustache. A strange kind of happiness envelopes me. While the world runs after hair dyes and anti-wrinkle lotions, I’m happy to age. Sometime, the check dam needs to overflow or even breach. Should I pick up the pair of trimming scissors, for a patch craft!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Last Christmas in Lost Lisbon

Background: Ten years back, when I was between jobs, a very accomplished cousin of mine was scheduled to visit my family on the day before Christmas, and I chose not to be at home. Was I escaping from him, or was it myself I wished to escape from I don’t know, but escapes like these played a major role to shape me up, and to make me what I am today. And now I also realise that escapades were better than resorting to addictions or plunging downhill towards a suicidal precipice.

Last Christmas in Lost Lisbon

The past; Bengal, early eighteenth century

The British were trying to gain their stronghold in India. But other colonizers were up in the front too: The French, the Danish, the Dutch, and of course the Portuguese.

The local rulers were busy in their game of “king of the castle”, and the Europeans vied for their attention. They would often send their troops marching for a particular ruler who would grant them some favour. This was also the time when the Mughals and the Marathas have spent up their energies fighting each other. While the Mughals took a backseat, letting off the reins on their Mansabdars, Subedars, and Nawabs, the Marathas formed invincible raiding bands called “Bargis”. These bands travelled like swarm of locusts, raiding and pillaging every settlement on their way. Janaki Devi, the just widowed Queen of Mahishadal, a small town in Medinipur, was a bit hesitant to tackle the hoard of Bargis all by herself. She asked for help from her superior, Alibardi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal.

Fortunately, the Nawab had a few notorious Protuguese warriors in his prisons. These warriors had made a failed attempt to overthrow the Nawab and were now behind the bars, begging for His Majesty's mercy. The Nawab summoned these firanghis to his durbar and granted them freedom and immunity on one condition – that they will settle in various regions of the Nawab’s kingdom and serve the local rulers to fight the Marathas and the growing menace, the British.

So, 15 of these firanghis were sent to Mahishadal to serve as the queen's commandants. Daring, ruthless, cunning, and well-versed with the art of land and sea war, these Portuguese warriors were immediately commissioned by the queen and given 100 bighas of land, free from revenue. The blue-eyed warriors settled in a village near today’s Geonkhali.

Fast forward; Calcutta, 24th December, 2000 AD

It sometime happens that the city seems to chase you day and night and a feeling of emptiness broods within you. I feel exactly the same – I want an escape, even if a temporary one. A need of self-actualization you’d say. But a look at the well-known Maslow’s hierarchy was enough to surprise myself – I am strangely after the topmost need, while the basic ones are still unachieved. I am jobless, living with my family of six in a rented house where pipes leak and doors creak. So, I call this escape “a search for a different Christmas; somewhere in the world”.

The city is geared up to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. Shops display their stock of plum cakes and fruit cakes. People queue up in front of liquor shops. Lindsay Street and Park Street dazzle in their best. The radio booms out carols and spirituals.

I sneak out, carrying a pair of rusted flintlock cameras, a few cereal bars, some packs of roasted peanuts, and bottle of water. I walk up to the Diamond Harbour Road, and catch a bus for Nurpur, a riverside daytrip destination. I have a personal stereo within my head. I put it on to play “Last Christmas…” the Wham chartbuster of yesteryears.

The bus moves like a snail, held up in a mega traffic jam at Amtala. The jam session intensifies with high-pitched speakers playing filmy hits – driver’s choice. Some of the seated passengers snore off peacefully, while others wiggle restlessly in their seats. Peanut sellers get on and off the queued up buses, one after the other, crying “bhaja badam chhilo, lebu lojes chhilo, chirey-badamer khaja chhilo, tatka chhilo, khasta chhilo…” as if everything “was” (chhilo) and nothing “is”.

A passenger decides to quit his seat and walk down the remaining half kilometre to his destination. I get a seat. I stir up a conversation with the man beside me, and as a rule I speak less and listen more. The fellow introduces himself as Md. Naseeb, a small time trader hailing from a village near Nurpur. However, most of the time he stays in Panipat, Haryana from where he buys blocks of bell metal, aluminium, and brass and sends them to Calcutta. Naseeb speaks about the cattle-wealth of the Haryanvis, about the cheap rice and flour, and about the wedding ceremonies he had attended there. He laments about the four kilograms of sweetmeat bought and carried from Panipat, which he lost to a petty thief at Howrah Station this morning. He stops and asks for water – I hand him my water bottle. I ask him if he is hungry, and getting a positive response I offer him a cereal bar. Hesitatingly he nips at it and then consumes it peacefully. He washes the last bits down his throat with another gulp of water and brings out his pack of beedies. We resume our talks with occasional pauses to let the smoke out. Meanwhile, the bus has come out of the snarl and speeds over beautifully asphalted roads. Naseeb states, “The roads were like hell, you know, but they were repaired before the Chief Minister visited Radisson (a luxury resort near Falta). Now we have the best roads here.” It reminds me of the story where a villager requested his monarch to visit his poor household and in the way got a road made from the capital to his village.

Three kilometres to Nurpur, Naseeb gets down. Before that he has begged me to get down with him and be his guest rather than going looking for some Portuguese village which nobody knows about.

At Nurpur, the bus belches out all its passengers. People proceed towards the jetty to catch the launch to Geonkhali or the bhutbhuti (country boat with makeshift engine) to Gadiara. Some of them stop a while to buy a palm-leaf hat or sip a green coconut. I ignore the call of the toddy sellers and board the launch for Geonkhali. On board, I ask several people about the Portuguese village. Some suggest me to catch a bus for Haldia and to get down at Sutahata. Others stare with blank ignorance or nod negative. I get down, brush past the cycle-van pullers calling for passengers, and follow the crowd to the bus stop. There again I start enquiring. After several vain attempts of describing the Portuguese by physical traits (like blue eyes, tall stature, red hair etc.) I decide to enquire about Christian people. After three centuries of mingling with local population, no race can retain their original physical appearance, but religion might be a mast they will stick to. An elderly person tells me the way to Christian Para (locality). I find his directions utterly confusing and look around for help.

Suddenly like the guiding star to the three men of Orient, appear five young men on three bicycles and offer me a ride to Christian Para. I tug along the one riding alone, but instead of taking the backseat, I offer to pull him. Happily he accepts the pillion. We ride on along winding country roads, beside canals and ditches, across harvested fields. A little distance away I notice a church spire rising up through the dense canopy of mangoes and banyans. We leave this church behind and proceed along the brick-laid road. Finally, we screech to halt near another small church, with a fresh coat of incomplete paint on it, across a grassy field. The place seems to be the end of the village, for a sea of rice fields extend beyond this point. My escorts almost vanish among an array of huge sound boxes, conical loud speakers, and unending coils of wires and cables. As they start untangling and fixing I understand they have come here to lend their sound systems for the Christmas.

A villager shows me the way to the Portuguese households. Hesitant, I enter a small courtyard surrounded by a few dwelling houses, a kitchen, and a barn. Asters bloom in their beds while Chrysanthemums are yet to flower. A bunch of young people are busy strapping tiny light-bulbs to bamboo frames.

An elderly person walks up to me. I notice his pair of porcelain-blue eyes and his pale complexion. As I tell him my intentions, he seems a bit relaxed but tired. He points towards a bench and we sit down. He speaks slowly as I ask him about his ancestors, and bit by bit the history unfolds before me. Looking around I find the other members of the family standing in a half circle behind us, eagerly waiting for their turn to speak. By now I know that the elderly person I am speaking to is named Stephen Tesra, but is known more as Ajit Tesra. All the people here bear two names, a Christian name for the church and a Bengali name to be called by.

One of Stephen’s sons, probably the eldest, comes forward and introduces himself as Bersoba alias Barun. He doesn’t have the blue eyes of his father. Beside him stands his wife, a typical Bengali lady complete with the conch and coral bangles worn as a sign of being married. Bersoba looks depressed as he tells me, “We have nothing left of our Portuguese ancestry. We have lost our language and our history too. Today we are indistinguishable from any other Bengalis. If you ask for Bersoba, very few will be able to recognize me, but if you look for Barun Tesra they will lead you to my house.” His wife quips, “It’s not our fault. Our ancestors didn’t have women with them. So they had to marry local women. And children learn their tongue from their mothers…so our original language was lost.”

Stephen resumes, “A few years back some people from Portugal came to visit us. Seems they were our kinsmen. But we couldn’t talk to them. They didn’t speak Bengali. Even their Goan escorts found it difficult to converse with us since we know very little Hindi or English.”

Bersoba hesitatingly invites me to duti daal bhat, a humble Bengali lunch of rice and lentil. I accept his invitation and can immediately see the happiness beaming on his face. Stephen asks for my permission as he leaves for a dip in the nearby pond. I get up and stroll towards the church.

Inside, young boys on step ladders decorate the ceiling and the iron beams with paper patterns and home-made chandeliers fashioned out of bangles and beads. Outside, painters give a new coat to the belfry. At a distance a white pig munches his fodder in his sty and grunts in disgrace. Some bubble-eyed fishes swim in a pond.

I return to the Tesra’s. The platter of rice looks like a miniature Mt. Everest. Side plates contain alur dam, some kind of fry, and an omelette. Stephen supervises my lunch. He talks about himself, his six children and two adopted children. I come to know that at present there are about five hundred people in fifty five families with Portuguese ancestry. They bear surnames like D’Souza, Rozzario, Pereira, Tesra, Rota and likewise. Stephen speaks on, “We still enjoy exemption from land revenue as given to our ancestors. But the government is on the move to impose revenue on us shortly.”

Coming out, I find old Mrs. Tesra on the porch. I try to photograph her, but she keeps on declining, saying that she will look ugly with her wrinkled skin. Stephen pursues her till she gives in to her husband’s request. As I shoot her pictures, she tells me about herself. “I have six sons and six daughters-in-law. The daughters-in-law dare not kick me because my sons are very caring. They spend a lot for my medicines. They say, “If one can’t look after his parents while they’re living, what’s the use in spending a lot in their funeral?” Some years back they celebrated the fortieth anniversary of our wedding.”

I ask her about the two churches – one big and the other small. “Ours is a humble church, theirs is a rich one”, replies Mrs. Tesra, “Do you know the poem about the sparrow and the weaver-bird?” She recites, “Babui pakhire deke kohilo chorai, kure ghore theke koro shilper borai…” (The sparrow taunts the weaver-bird, “how could you speak of art staying in a thatched shack?”). The old lady carries on, “They are the sparrows, their pomp and richness is made from other people’s money. But we are the weaver-birds; our church might be small and poor, but we have built it ourselves.” She points at the yard where the boys are still busy with the lamps and bamboos. “This decoration is not for our house, it’s for the church,” declares the proud mother.

Bidding goodbye to the Tesras, I come out to take a walk in the village before I leave. I find people busy erecting bamboo poles and putting up chains of lamps and coloured papers on them. An old man, with hazel eyes behind a pair of heavily frosted glass, ties paper chains to his fence. The sound system guys who escorted me to this village greet me. I wander off to find a cemetery. The old graves of the first settlers are lost. A tomb, overgrown with clumps of grasses, tries to speak to me about the past. Cow-dung cakes smeared on the brick-works interrupt our conversation. The sun sets with an amber radiance over the crumbling graves. Time spares none.

I take a cycle-van ride to Geonkhali. The puller stops now and then to take a sip from his sachet of Cholai, a strong-smelling illegal brew, I cross the river and board a bus. Homeward bound, I think about the little dollop of Portugal, fading away in Bengal’s melting pot.

Near Amtala, the bus is stranded in a jam again. Ahead of us a matador van carrying a picnic crowd sends off fumes of obnoxious music. Silhouettes dance to the nauseating beats. I try to close my ears; if only ears had lids like eyes…I put on the personal stereo that plays within my brain, “Silent night, holy night…”