Friday, November 24, 2006

Pressure Cooker's Confines

Dear BlogBug,

When a sumptuous mutton delicacy or a mouthtful of sweet, juicy paan holds out so much promise; when the promise is coupled with the prospect of being able to re-live good times with one’s friends and family, and when the prospect is ornamented with the hope of meeting up with a long-lost but oft-remembered someone, the beckon becomes difficult to ignore.

There are contrasts, and then there are contrasts. All I notice are the latter. One side of the street is full of hotels where business executives wrapped in fine formal-wear would drive in to attend conferences or party in general. The other side is mostly populated by slums or worn down buildings, interspersed with 'General Provision Stores'. The greatest contrast probably possible was that of an old beggar sitting on the stairs of a near-perfect looking, multi-storeyed hotel-cum-restaurant. If the grandiose architecture and lighting was the manifestation of a steady 8% annual GDP growth, what did the beggar represent? Ahh, one shouldn’t derive robust inferences from a single datapoint!

Everything can be had, but for a price. Have an income tax arrear of two thousand rupees payable to you? You can definitely get it as long as you give the IT Department official five hundred rupees as “lubricant”. Want a domestic gas connection? Pay a thousand rupees more than the declared price to get it in an hour. Follow the process and you’ll wait for six months.

Everyone is a demi-god here, in their respective realms. Over-attitude and defiance are the order of the day. Look at the shopkeeper vending his/her wares as if doomsday were near. Or the auto-rickshaw driver refusing rides at will, especially when they are most needed. Or the landlord treating tenants with the same neglect and disdain as a prison guard would his convicts.

It takes some conscious effort to overlook how evenly the good elements are juxtaposed with the bad. Every gruff and snappy bus conductor is matched by a considerate or beautiful fellow traveler, depending on the latter’s gender! The highest volumes of traffic thrive on the widest of roads, whereas the narrowest by-lanes host grocers selling the freshest of vegetables. Every next smell of human nuisance gets quickly countered by the trail of perfume left by a passer-by.

And then there are hopes and aspirations. Unfathomable and unbounded. I’ll conclude this account of the pressure cooker’s confines with two experiences that will warm my heart for a long time to come.

A road-side shed selling sugar-cane juice is a welcome sign for the weary traveller. I and my brother happened to stop at one such raswanti griha for a tall glass each, with an extra dash of lemon thrown in. The teenage lad manning the shop seemed to be a lot more hygiene conscious compared to the nearby competing juice sellers. Both in attire and the condition of the shed. After he handed us one round and saw us merrily sipping away, he came and sat down beside us. He talked about what he aspired to be and how he planned to get there. We wished him the very best, and ordered a second round of juice!

During one of my desparate search missions to secure a place to rent, I came across a real-estate agent’s office that seemed off-beat. That was because the young “agent” wasn’t swarthy, nor looked cunning or street-smart. Rather lanky in appearance and of average height and build, he was seated on a plastic chair and trying to concentrate on the mattered pages of an old book. Upon approaching him, I learnt that the real agent was out on business and would be back after twenty minutes. I decided to wait, while my companion returned back to his tattered book. Boredom and natural curiosity made me ask him what he was reading. He said he was studying electronics, and wanted to secure a job in a reputed electronics firm. Real-estate deals were for pocket money. I was impressed.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Kabir's couplets

Dear BlogBug,

I recently finished writing a description for a community for my erstwhile school mates. The name of the community is "The AG Era". The fun part of it is that the description is actually a poem, that too in Hindi. I've managed to learn to type in Hindi using a font-set.

Here's the use I've put it to:

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Bubbling Cauldron

Dear BlogBug,

The railway platform was very crowded, the area in front of the ticket counter was more so. I was sweating profusely but it was neither due to the heat nor the swarm of people returning from work. Try contrasting a checkered light-blue shirt and a creamish loose-fitting trouser; with a brightly colored tight, horizontally-striped Tee coupled with regular denims. Tough choice. Guess-work with identifying people you haven't already met, always has it's share of pitfalls. I thought the latter was funkier. When stupidity is mistaken for innocence, ignorance is bliss! That's why I got away with it.

"Ahh, so that's the field ... but this one is barren! So where's the grass; where are the shrubs?", I chuckled to myself. All 'essential' firearms, including state of the art, semi-automatic rifles, could be procured only a stone's throw away. You just needed deep pockets. Reassuring! And what about big daddy sitting on the terrace watching the parade? Hardly comforting. I never thought Yukta Mookhey was the cutest chick of the nation. In the first place, I couldn't comprehend why girls referred to each others as 'chicks'.

So I was a rural junkie. Cat Stevens and ABBA could do little to soothe my nerves. Nor could the cool breeze blowing in from the hills.

Come next morning, and I was so very late. And my knowledge of Joseph Heller's literary works was non-existent. All excuses fell apart. Lousy start! Managed to see the motion picture later. And the paperback's color was either steel or dark blue, never dark green. Lousy start indeed!

I was seated in an auto-rickshaw at the traffic signal of a densely populated street. A scantily-clad street urchin had walked up to the vehicle, one hand stretched towards me. Behind him, a sizeable group was awaiting the outcome of his venture, ready to pounce. When I reached for my pocket to look for change, I heard,"Why spoil him? If you're OK with spoiling this kid, what wrong have the other kids done?". Advice followed. "If you give a buck to him, you should give one to each of the rest". The traffic light saved me from having to take a stand.

The park was on the fringes of an unkempt, muddy inland waterbody. It was well past sunset, and yet populated with children on see-saws and slides. The kids were outnumbered by their guardians, anxiously watching over their wards. And thus was the setting for the longest one-on-one 'sermons' I've attended till date. Probably the most striking thought of the day was, "Isn't it ridiculous when someone can afford to wear jeans priced at a thousand bucks, but shies away when a needy person asks for five bucks for a meal?". Wasn't this discordant to what I heard earlier in the day? Wouldn't those five bucks make the needy needier instead of self-reliant? And, if one needy were to be supported, shouldn't every such be supported as well? The "one by one, one at a time" support model could rest in peace. By the time the sermon concluded, I could distinctly feel every blood vessel, every neuron-junction in my head.

Like millions of Indians, I ardently love road-side "junk food" despite my frail disposition. Bhel-puri, pani-puri, batata-vada, misal-paav, farsan, sugarcane juice name it. And who can forget mughlai rolls and chinese ( hakka ) fast food? Ahem! This subject needs wider treatment in a separate piece. That day, I opted for pani-puri, and got the stare for not opting for sugarcane juice, the healthier alternative. Thank goodness they were screening "Life is Beautiful" that night!

Late again the next day. And adorned with an unthoughtful, inconsiderate stubble.

A boiling friday made tolerable by oodles of aimlessness. The art gallery seemed decrepit and uninteresting. And so did most of the art. Why would someone have to pick a full bunch of coupons for an 80 buck per seat rock show when there was no intent to go watch it?

The hostels were a lot more peaceful than my expectations. Corollary therefore, that the University was abuzz with energy. I was already happy to have left the art gallery behind. The English department was on in full swing. Teachers doing what they did best...teach diligently. And students did the best thing they could...shirk classes. Absolute heaven.

The real treat was not the department itself, but the adjacent open air theatre. I had seen several OAT's before. But this one was open-air, and yet unbelievably cozy. It would give you a sense of belonging towards the Department and the University. It would also induce the bathroom singer within you the way it did to me! I was applauded for my 'strident renditions'. It didn't even matter that the language was incomprehensible to the majority. And here's for the creeps. Have you ever seen a girl writing a love letter to her boyfriend whom she was about to meet just an hour later? I did that day.

The canteen crowd was trendier than in most canteens I had been to in and around Kolkata. I was overjoyed to have found an empty table. The food was predictably tasteless yet fulfilling. And when it came to doing the Magi thing, I knew it was Cranberries given the stark disdain for surprises. Even crossing the road without prior notification was considered a deplorable surprise!

When there's an unshaved stubble,
there's bound to be trouble;
all potions will boil,
every cauldron will bubble.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Peas in a Pod - Part 2

Dear Blog Bug,

Let's take up the second part of the story at a much later stage ... nearly 19 years down the line. For the record, the pox marks stayed faithful to me! One fine day, overpowered by a sudden bout of nostalgia, I decided to track down some of my old school mates.

The internet seems to have robbed us of the romance and the magic that one would want to associate with "lost-for-a long-time-and-found" situations. Anyone and anything significantly significant is just a web-search away. And that's how I located him. He had posted a technical query on a rather hapless, inactive website. I decided to spring him a surprise: "Is this the same friend I knew?". It turned out that he actually was! A happily married man, he related how he and his love eloped and tied the knot within 14 hours of their elopement, ... stuff movies are made of. The ensuing months, albeit cold weather, were most enjoyable.

And then the good-old virus paid him a visit. It started with the appearance of a few pimple-like eruptions and a slight fever. Unmistakable symptoms. The doctor was quick in confirming our suspicions. My friend was reduced to a lone pea in a pod.

It was my next opportunity to observe human responses under trying times and complex circumstances. All his other friends and colleagues suddenly disappeared! His "faithful" co-worker slipped under the door, a letter from his office requiring him to refrain from reporting to work until medically fit. Never cared to meet him or ask if he needed anything. Another "dear" friend of his just about managed to throw in a medicine kit through the window from the street.

On my part, I got rebuked umpteen times by my roommates for spending time with him in his virus-infected home. Every one of them had had the pox before, but were afraid they might contract it the second time. "How could someone who had himself undergone the agony of an infection, choose to look the other way", I would ask myself. Things came to such a pass that I had to discontinue my visits to his place. And time helped aggravate my confusions.

The only good part was that he recovered much earlier than expected ...!

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I'm coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light-
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

- Billy Collins, On Turning Ten
From THE ART OF DROWNING (University of Pittsberg Press, 1995)

Monday, March 06, 2006

Peas in a Pod - Part 1

Dear Blog Bug,

I had just completed writing the annual examinations in class 2. And we recently moved to Sector 21. The flat baba had taken for rent, adjoined another flat rented out to the "Bangiya Sanskritik Sammilani", the Bengali cultural organization in Chandigarh. Our change of residence had brought us very close to the "Manav Mangal School", my school. There was only a school playground separating the school building and my home. During lunch recess, I would run across the field to the backside of my house and shout for ma to come to the balcony and wave at me. It was a treat to be able to do that in the middle of the day, during school hours !!!

Chicken Pox is a bad disease, especially if your near and dear ones are ridden with it. Worse if you're the sufferer. And worst if everyone in your family is struck simultaneously! That's what happened to me and my folks. I cut the ribbon, ... brought the virus home! At the peak of my infection, in heightened delirium, I asked baba to sleep alongwith me. He did, and since he wasn't infected yet, he too joined the club. My little brother also contracted it, so we three went down in quick succession !

That was the first time in life when I realised the true worth of a close-knit family. A very ordinary, modest, simplistic family. Driven solely by things worth living for and worth cherishing ... love, compassion, and sacrifice of personal interests whenever the situation so demanded. And I also had my first encounter with the ways of the world. Baba's best friends suddenly forgot him. The only guy who paid a visit, stood outside the house enquiring about our health and whether our refrigerator was still for sale. ( We were about to move to Kolkata ). Baba got a notice from his office directing him to report back to work only after securing a doctor's certificate that he was healed. The proceedings of the Sanskritik Sammilani stopped; including the singing lessons that used to be conducted in the Sammilani's premises. We were like peas in a pod, totally at the mercy of the sheath that surrounded us.

They say that when God closes all doors, he opens a window. Ma was spared by the virus. She took charge of all responsibilities single-handedly. Help came from unexpected quarters. Our landlady's daughter, Narinder, was two years older to me. She would give me comic books to read. Amar Chitra Katha, Panchatantra, Tinkle, Chacha Chaudhry, Phantom and Superman kept me busy. (I 'met' Spiderman and Batman later). The effect of those colourful pages on my tender mind were amplified by my delirious state. I used to look forward to the sound of Narinder's approaching footsteps and that beautiful smile. She was an angel. And her mother was no less. The landlady would help ma with all our shopping and bring over large quantities of neem leaves and turmeric sticks.

It was the end of the academic year and I was away from school for nearly a month. Had been trying in vain to top the class each year, only to be beaten repeatedly by Pramod. In a state of heightened self-belief and confidence ( blame it on the virus ) I told baba I'd top the class that year. And true to my predictions, my parents were euphoric when the report card came in !

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Opulent and Corpulent

Dear Blog Bug,

It was only a month that I had arrived in Hindmotor, Bengal. There wasn't even a single day when I didn't miss Chandigarh. Chandigarh had none of what Hindmotor had. No humidity, no stinking drains, no narrow brick-covered roads, no mosquitoes (and therefore no mosquito nets!). Ironically, I yearn today for the same stinking drains and narrow brick roads. Cleanliness definitely sucks, but we'll dwell upon that in another piece.

Baba ( that's what I call my father ) was looking for an English medium school to admit me into. We had narrowed down to two in the 10 Km radius of Hindmotor. One was a boys-only school and closer to home. The other was farther away, and a co-ed school. Naturally, I had no problems deciding, though I managed to give my parents the impression that I was OK with either. I was therefore divided between the depression resulting from having to leave Chandigarh behind; and the excitement of joining a fresh co-ed school that, for a change, wouldn't shove the Punjabi language down my throat.

One night baba told me to go to bed early. He wanted me to accompany him to go get milk the next morning. The house we arrived upon was definitely not what I had in mind... it was palatial! Is this a milkman's house? I was confused. The cattle shed located inside the compound was equally astounding. It was divided into two spacious blocks, one for cows, the other housed buffaloes. In front of the shed was a makeshift table-chair arrangement, and two rows of benches. The benches were for people who would wait for the cattle to be milked and take home their daily subscription. The "owner" graced the table-chair arrangement; he greeted us very warmly upon our arrival. That was Rashu kaku. ( 'Kaku' is for 'uncle' in Bengali ).

Baba and Rashu kaku were childhood friends... a big "Gotcha" for me! And Rashu kaku was huge. No no, I mean really huge. Had Goliath( of 'David and Goliath' lore ) or Ghatotkatch ( the giant from the great Indian epic, Mahabharata ) been born in his times, Rashu kaku could have easily put them to shame!

Everything mentioned, I was yet to discover the wonder of wonders... Rashu kaku's son. He was in every respect a deserving son... a scaled down version of the father himself. Squatting on the balcony in full view of everyone, he was helping himself to a huge tower of Arrowroot biscuits and what seemed to be a gallon of milk from a distance. "Could someone my age be so fat? How?", my tender brain tried to reason in vain. Baba introduced me to him. We had a timid inroduction that day, and I learnt that we were going to be classmates at school!

Time flew thereafter. We remained classmates all through secondary school. He loved riding his bike all around the neighbourhood, was an ace kite-flyer. I vividly remember how he once bought a box of Band-Aid strips to protect his fingers from reinforced kite string, popularly called manja at our place. And he loved music. With such passion that it would leave me awestruck at times. He introduced me to the likes of Michael Jackson and Cliff Richard... rarities for someone of suburban origins like me. On weekends he would frequently drop by my house. In retrospect, I'd suppose he liked spending time with me though most of the time he asked to take my exercise books to copy class notes. I always considered him street smart, someone who knew when to throw his weight around, and when to refrain.

Been a long time since I saw him. We'll probably meet again at Shibtala bus stop. I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Poster Boy

Dear Blog Bug,

I had heard a lot about him. Actually, "read" is more like it, since STD calls in those days were pretty expensive, given my frail financial disposition! Read all about how he would doze off in class; sleep peacefully like a baby. About how he was such a gifted painter and the blue-eyed boy of the University. About how he could come up with very meaningful posters in a matter of hours. He was a motivated activist to boot, always true to his cause. I even had the good fortune of reading some of the poems he wrote. Naturally, curiosity increased by the day.

It was half-coincidence, half desire that I finally met him. It was a bright sunny December morning... not a speck of cloud in the sky. I was actually a shade frustrated. We were waiting to give some stuff to him in the lobby of the Boys' Hostel. What a shame, I fumed! A couple of precious hours spent waiting for a lousy boozer, totally disregardful of our arrival. When he finally came down and we were introduced, I learnt he had stayed up all night making posters for the cause ! Frustration gave way to guilt, and guilt in turn to admiration. I thought I saw some acrylic paint on his arm. ( Or did he put it on intentionally at the last moment, just to complete the illusion? )

He was hardly 5'3'' ft in height. Spectacles of the nerdy type. Stout constitution, akin to that of a karataker. The most striking were his moccasins, such thick soles! For the first half, I was a mute spectator to very animated proceedings. I think he didn't like me, but that's beyond the point.

We toured quite a bit. The Art Museum was totally empty except for the two people selling tickets at the counter. The trains were as densely populated as they generally are. All my attempts to strike a healthy conversation went haywire. He had a mind that wasn't available for us to poke at. We let it and him be at peace. Long live the cause!