When I came to Israel, I had two wishes: To reach a point when I can call myself a mathematician and to see old Jerusalem draped in snow. While I am still struggling with the former, I took a short guilty break from it (lead by Jonathan) to experience the latter.
Yes snow was thin and slushy but it was still beautiful. While the pictures are poor quality because of my shivering hands, reluctance to carry a proper camera and in general lack of interest in photography, the experience of walking in snow covered streets of the old city, children having snow fights on old Jerusalem terraces, people skating on the slippery Jerusalem pavements and the smile on everyone’s face (of the few who braved the hail) was wonderful.
The heart wishes to compose some lyrics to fit the music life gave to me but I will get back to work for now. Chilly nights though! I don’t know whether the residents of the old city are ready for this inclement weather.
I had thought that I will never write a travel post again (which is why no photographs) but here I am again. I was in the beautiful city of Kraków, moved and influenced by the poignancy. I was hosted by kind Dominik who besides long, interesting discussions in mathematics also showed me snippets of pre- and post-communist life in Poland. I would like to share two gems which I found very curious (this is for you Subhajit):
1) In communist Poland, a lot of production was controlled by government. In the beginning of the year there would be a decision made on how much of what good was produced. If the production didn’t meet the demand, there would be corrections but in most cases that wouldn’t work. There were somethings always available though at very low prices, for instance, the works of Lenin (surprise, surprise). Somethings were available less so, for instance, toilet paper. The government then introduced a service where you could exchange paper material that you have with toilet paper. I will leave you to finish the story.
2) In 1970’s, Poland decided to allow Coca Cola and Pepsi in the country. They were extremely popular but the government didn’t like the competition that they created. So what can they do? They divided the country into regions: One in which you would find Coca Cola and in the other Pepsi. My host in his visit to France in the 1980s couldn’t believe that they can be kept side by side.
Perhaps my perspective of communism changed a bit after this. I leave you with a beautiful scene from a beautiful movie (Schindler’s factory is from Kraków):
What else is joy in life: Relishing the past, celebrating the present and waiting earnestly for the future.
If you were to pass and survive the mobile phone stores, sweet shops, roll shops, chinese food stores, the innumerable clothes shops in Golpark you might chance upon a lane of books, multicoloured books: In heaps, in stacks, high up on shelves, covered carefully in plastic covers, moth eaten, damp, fresh from the press…
A regular stream of people flows by. I am on the run to get a new pair of shoes and suddenly I am drawn to certain stack of books. I remember the owner (perhaps he doesn’t remember me) and there is a barrage of book suggestions. As I react, he picks up my preferences and the list slowly starts becoming more attractive. I yank myself out of his spell and flee.
Not long ago, I was attending a summer school in Seattle when I chanced upon a 2nd hand book store. I had a 200 dollars budget for the rest of my stay when I dragged my suitcase to the store, filled it with books and left with barely enough to survive and get back to Vancouver.
I grew up among books. My elder sister was and still is a voracious reader. This influenced me quite a lot. I went to several libraries near by but the second hand book stores hold a special place in my heart. It feels strange because I am not particularly well read. But I am certainly a hoarder of books; perhaps this is my only vice. There is a certain madness when it comes to it. I was just telling someone that Borges once said that he has so many books that he will certainly die before he finishes all of them; still he can’t resist buying them.
I walk to the lane and the bespectacled shopkeeper looks at me gravely as I point out another bespectacled man on the shelf.
“Tumi besh choto (You are far too young)!”
“Dekha jabe (we will see).”
I had heard about it far too often to ignore the “The Brief History of Time”. The price at the book fair was quite formidable (as book prices always were) and taking it on rent was the only viable option. I spent the following week to prove the shopkeeper wrong. Now that I think of it, I am not sure if I understood much then and perhaps he was right. But if it weren’t for the lane of books, I wouldn’t have had the chance to explore it.
I had just learnt about Mohammad Bin Tughlaq. Our history books were pretty concise for the rather illustrious leader. I walked again to the lane and rummaging through some history books found a wonderful introduction to Mughal rulers (including Tughlaq). Could my curiosity have been satiated by any thing else?
Amazon suggests me to buy Vikram Seth’s “A suitable girl” because I bought “A suitable boy” (or something to this effect). Nowhere to be seen though is a wonderful thin treatise by him on 3 Chinese poets except in some long forgotten corner of one of these book shops.
Not to mention the innumerable Chacha Chaudary, Twinkle and later Tin Tin and Asterix which I couldn’t have read otherwise. This was the blessing of these book shops.
I am hunting for a hard-bind Chekov and a Siddhartha Mukherjee’s King of Maladies. Soon, medical books are being thrown at me by the dozen. I quickly grab King of Maladies and change the topic to Chekov. The bookseller is relieved. I am relieved. Suddenly he shows my his Dostoevsky collection. I change the topic again:
“Bikri hoche? (How are the sales?)”
“Ei Cholche! Bhaloi cholche. (Going on. In fact it is going well.)”
“Acha!” (I see!)
“Bhalo boi pao khubhi mushkil hoye jache kintu (it is becoming more difficult to procure good books nowadays).”
(Disappointment from the shopkeeper as a Camus can’t be found (but this is not to ignore the rest of the treasure available)).
I cheer him up. “Aami aar ek minute aar thakle puro dukan kinne niye jabo. Palachi! (If I stay here any longer I will buy the entire store. I am running away!)”
They say that the book industry is towards its death. Business is rotten and being taken over by the online hegemony. Yet, I walk to a book store (and pay a bit more). I did try reading books online but somehow it wasn’t the same. Possibly the times have changed leaving me behind.
As I leave behind the bookstores and walk to cross the honking cars and bus-drivers shouting
“Park Street, Park Street, Howrah…” I lift my eyes and see
In an instant I am transported to the scene where the (impoverished yet prideful) zamindar looks up to find the exquisite chandelier covered by spiders in “Jalsaghar”: https://youtu.be/USjSuSG6vCw?t=48s. The pride of the city and its economical downturn came together in the crows perching on torn down billboard stands above one of the most important commercial hubs of West Bengal. Perhaps the billboards had been taken down long ago, maybe it was more recent! It doesn’t matter. Of course I deeply dislike the large ugly billboards and am happier with the crows but the truth is that not many are going to stay back for the crows.
This is a mashup of many different emotions. Old unpublished work, some recent events in life, love, longing, misery, nostalgia…
If just bricks were to make a home, wouldn’t just words make poetry and mud make life. Yes. This is a oft-repeated idea that a home is more than just concrete arranged in a particular way. Yet I forget it and life brings it back. And it makes me wonder. What do I want to achieve? Where do I want to go? And why?
I remember how with the crimson setting childhood of mine I wanted to run away. Leave! Explore. So I did. A few years later, I wrote one stormy day in Vancouver:
Birds headed far away hang against the blowing wind, What comforts do they seek to give up the peace within?
I don’t have an answer to these questions. But I know the home of my past is not there anymore. The tree beside which I used to sit and observe hummingbirds has disappeared, I don’t hear cherubic shouts of joy in the evening, the old kinara store is dying a slow death, people have left and every time it is a new story. Of course I have not remained the same anymore either. But this is perhaps not the reason why I have moved ahead.
Kolkata in my opinion is one of the most understanding and accepting cities that I have been to. Accepting? Accepting of my wishes, my aspirations, my differences. I have always found myself fit into the place right in. Lack of jobs, a general backwardness and slow growth are of course factors against the city. But somehow, my expectations have always been very high with the city.
My childhood was without much incidence. My broken Bengali would be ribbed some times; my table tennis coach would joke on my good days that I must have eaten dollops of meat and everyone would ask me about my father’s “business”. I took them as curious folk trying to understand another’s culture (I was of course aware that there were differences). But every place has people of all kinds. A couple of years back I was flying back to Kolkata armed with my flute. A bhadrolok (gentleman) struck a conversation with me and was impressed by the fact that I was a Bengali mathematician from Kolkata who is into music. I encouraged him a bit and he went on to say, “These Marwaris (a certain people from Rajasthan) are such a bane to our society…” I decided not to correct him that I was a Marwari and gulped the hate as it came. It wasn’t fun any more; it was an education.
This shouldn’t make home, less of a home for me. But lately I have started noticing more oblique and direct comments. Maybe I am overthinking. And then there are articles. http://scroll.in/article/768248/in-bengal-why-is-kali-pujo-being-wrapped-under-the-banner-of-diwali Now there is lot to be sympathetic: A man ruing over the loss of his culture. I do understand. But somehow references (commercialisation, vegetarianism, Diwali) makes me feel that he is perhaps laying the blame on the Marwaris and Gujaratis. The idea of home is somewhat problematic and sometimes painful.
But is this a post about others? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Let me wash away some of my saint. I grew up under fairly liberal surroundings. I knew nothing about caste and in general never cared about the religious background of my friends. Sometimes there would be a comment from my father and some aggression from my grandfather about Muslims (usually applying some stereotype and how they could not be real friends etc) but I brushed them aside; perhaps the pains and stories of the partition were fresher in their mind than, say, yesterday. It was only later when the question of marriage came up and caste entered. I will not go into my personal caste-relationship stories but specific instructions, though never accepted, have always been at the back of my mind. I can’t somehow get it out of my subconscious.
I consider myself an atheist (except that jolt in the plane and my eyes nearing sleep). I have some strange beliefs of god, purpose etc. but I don’t think I am spiritual either. On a day to day basis, I would think myself as practical and materialistic. It all came to me when I was young. I hate temples. Jostled by crowds, walking bare foot in filth and bowing down to an unknown entity. Perhaps more vivid were the innumerable men, drowning in poverty, bowing down in expectation of some relief. Each visit was a nightmare. I went as far as killing cockroaches with pictures of the venerated landing me in sharp rebuke.
Don’t think me as a heretic. I was usually very respectful to other people but when it came to beliefs there was always an urge to call the person in front of me an idiot. I have learnt to control my urges thereafter. I go to temples for the sake of my parents (to give them company), sometimes for nostalgia and sometimes just to observe. And ideas seep in, I guard myself but they still do.
But what does this have to do with the idea of home. Yes religion was part of my idea of home but the passage above was more about how difficult it is to keep your surroundings out and how inevitable is influence. Perhaps my biggest problem is this idea that I should respect others beliefs. Maybe I should. But should I? Should I keep quiet? Should I always argue? Is it worth the effort? Why? Why not?
These influences tend to create the idea of us and them, ours and theirs, fair and unfair, good and evil and therein lies the issue. I teach my nephew weekly. At some point while discussing history Ambedkar came up.
I: Who was Ambedkar?
Nephew: I don’t know.
I: You must have some idea.
I: Acha tell me something about caste.
Nephew: Oh wait! He was a Dalit.
I was shocked. He, of course, had no idea who a Dalit was. Frankly, I know that I never really will either. This conversation took me to my learnings on the subject. It was long ago as an undergrad I remember spouting a lot of crap about how students who come via reservations need to be shown their place etc. I later found that some of my close friends were from lower castes. Later I learnt what caste is about. Yes. There was something in my history books, in some stories but it was all very sheltered. It is a general perception among kids of upper castes that casteism is dead.
“Marry anyone but not a lower caste, a Muslim…” I am sure many of you would have heard this.
Perhaps my background wasn’t all that liberal after all. Is liberalism a relative quantity? I do not know. I now understand that liberalism is not not seeing caste and religion, the first step is understanding them.
But Nishant this is all very childish. What are you talking about?
No! This is not childish. People might call it: Keeping our traditions alive. I call it widening the chasm. These are the small seeds from which the vicious thorns of racism take birth. Ours and others, us and them!
Not so long ago my sister and her mother-in-law had to quietly listen to a man viciously shouting abuses in a local train asking them to go back where they came from. The words echoed in my ears, “Go back where I came from?”
Where did I come from?
Last summer, I visited the holocaust museum in Jerusalem called Yad Vashem. My tear ridden note-book echoes my childhood: filthy, dirty, uncultured, Jewish rat burrowing into the roots of Aryan supremacy. I don’t know why I cried so much that day, was it the horror of what I saw or was it the horror of what I might see later. Yes. I have grown up with such words about the so-called others. I never, of course, realised. And yet victims are often quick to forget.
And home sheds some more meaning. I wrote at a particular painful instance:
A Home It Must Have Been
Broken ledges and a grey façade, Long had the colours faded, The tree with the twirling yellow flowers And the bitter fruit Which one must not eat For the poison it carries. The verandah for cats on a winter afternoon, And paper boats during the rains, The narrow alleyways Where the sound of wood reverberated with the shouts of joy and despair While the glass lay shattered on the floor. The friendly store from that other street Had all that one may need.
Oblivious, a child whiled away hours Looking intently for the glimpse of the hummingbirds As the bauls passed by Singing some distant song (That) he wished (that) he could understand.
This ain’t your home or so you say.
The house still lays as grey as it had been, A few more ledges have broken down since, The cats laze around while the crows caw, But the friendly store from the other street Lies in tatters And no wood sounds in excitement anymore.
Not all is the same And not all has changed. Still, Every gust of wind brings forth a memory Every drop of rain enlivens a forgotten dream And yet you say That I do not belong.
You may be able to explain this to me; It is possible that I may understand. But will he understand, That little child Who is still swimming in the depths of the baul’s song As alien to the land now As the land considers him to be.
Who am I to decide whose home it is? Yes! Go on. Preservation of culture, traditions, economy… What culture? And at what cost? I don’t think I want to talk anymore. But perhaps I mustn’t leave at such a miserable note. I will leave with a beautiful graffiti in southern Tel Aviv which I had posted before.
All is not lost and everyday I hear and see another story of human compassion, one which transcends the many superficial differences. It is just that negative stories tend to prick more than positive stories alleviate. To me Kolkata, my home still feels home. It is comfortable and I know how to set myself in. I hope that this never changes.
People who know me know that I can be quite careless and how it reflects in all spheres of my life. As a kid I broke quite a few window panes and wall clocks while playing cricket. (Thank you for being the prime suspect, dear Ashu bhaiya.) I made silly errors all the time and it took me a PhD program to finally get a perfect score and some straight A+’s. My drafts are muddled with typos and when I clean the floor, I have to leave spots untouched. I have to break something or the other regularly; else my fingers become jittery (and then I break something).
As I was growing up, I realised that my belongings have the habit of running away. It was particularly funny when I bought a cycle while I was in Vancouver. Once I was blissfully sitting in a cafe when suddenly I saw a bus carrying a cycle very similar to mine. As I was laughing at the prospects of getting mixed up (if you have ever watched a nice double-trouble movie), I realised that it was not just similar but it was in fact my cycle and ran to get it. I had placed it in the front of the bus, forgotten about it and after completing its round, the bus had decided that it should return the cycle to me. Once on a certain hike I had dropped my camera, finished the hike to find the camera at same spot later. I haven’t always been this lucky but lets just say, life could have been much more miserable. My carelessness often earned me the ire of my elders and jokes from friends. I still remember how quickly the name Alzheimer’s caught on at ISI (thanks Ashay)! I forget why.
I guess this description fits perfectly into the mathematician’s garb but I do feel that I could be a bit more responsible at times. A man can be disciplined but there are some things fundamental to his nature which can’t be completely reversed. Don’t get me wrong! People change; I have changed but there are some things which refuse to budge.
Yet another box died an untimely death!
And I wrote:
Shards of glass
As I chewed the back of my pen And was thinking of words that I mean to write A throbbing pain in my fingers rose; Oh! It was the scar that the morning gave, The shards of glass that I had swept away!
I do realise that glass is brittle And that I often fumble on busy mornings, Yet I bought an identical box And as I came to forget the wounds , Suddenly A forgotten shard found my feet! In the sharp pain and dripping blood
I realised That though the boxes can be replaced There are some shards which will always remain.
I can go on and on but I decided against walking too long down the memory lane since it would be quite antithetical. (No! I am not lazy!) Let me bring you to the supreme elucidator instead. Here is a wonderful essay by Robert Lynd titled “Forgetting”: I Tremble To Think
I end with an apt quote from the essay. You may take it as my excuse or as a boast. It doesn’t really matter. I will eventually forget. “He may forget the fishing-rod as the poet may forget to post a letter, because his mind is filled with matter more glorious.”