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.”
Today is Israel’s independence day. Many years have past and the atrocities faced by the Yahuds is fading in people’s memories (including some of its own). It is important that we do not forget.
From its early years, Israel has faced numerous challenges and there are strong reasons why it is what it is today. I have spent the last few days across and about the country’s corners talking and understanding how people perceive this day. It is impossible to encapsulate their emotions into words and I will not attempt it. Instead I will keep to pictures, videos, poems and a few notes that I essentially kept for myself.
Day before yesterday, on the Memorial night, the country commemorated its fallen soldiers and people who died due to acts of terrorism. I was at an event which commemorated the loss of lives across the borders (here is the news article). Here is a snippet by David Grossman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91z7ls9ETJ4 .
In India, war has always been far away. Most Indians have no idea what it is to be a war stricken land. In Israel, it is a day to day reality and bereavement is deep and personal. War after all doesn’t kill one, the victim and victor both loose something, maybe a body and maybe a soul! Yet in these situations war and violence is inevitable. That we do not normalise it and find ways of ending this strife should be our ambition.
I was very moved by the end of the program when the Arabs and the Israeli sang together an old song called Chad Gadya with some necessary modifications.
Here is their version: Link. I translated it into Hindi and English (the latter was sort of available). Please feel free to translate it to your vernacular and spread the message (or give a better translation). I also sang it to present the tune. I am not that a good singer so feel welcome to use your creativity (while preserving the solemnity and the underlying message). We need this sung all over in greater numbers, in various forms, in groups, in solitude… Here is the English recording and the Hindi one (just to indicate the tune and rhythm if nothing else).
One Little Goat
My father bought for two zuzie, one little goat, one little goat! Then came a cat who ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! Then came a dog who bit the cat, that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie. One little goat, one little goat! Then came a stick which beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! Then came a fire that burned the stick, that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! Then came the water that doused the fire, that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! Then came an ox who drank the water, that doused the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! Then came the butcher who slaughtered the ox, that drank the water that doused the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! Then came the angel who killed the butcher, that slaughtered the ox that drank the water that doused the fire that burned the stick that beat the dog that bit the cat that ate the goat that my father bought for two zuzie.
One little goat, one little goat! On all the nights, I have had questions. Tonight, I have one more to ask: How much longer will this continue? Circle of horror, victor and victim, Circle of horror, beater and beaten, Victor and victim, beater and beaten, circle of horror. What shall I become this year Goat, cat, dog, butcher? My father bought for two zuzie, one little goat, one little goat! And once more we have begun where we had begun.
एक बकरी, एक बकरी!
पिताजी लाये दो पैसों में, एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर बिल्ली आयी, बकरी को खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये| एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर कुत्ता आया, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर लकड़ी आयी, कुत्ते को मारा, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर अग्नि आयी, लकड़ी जलाई, कुत्ते को मारा, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर पानी आया, अग्नि बुझाई, लकड़ी जलाई, कुत्ते को मारा, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर बैल आया , पानी पी लिया, अग्नि बुझाई, लकड़ी जलाई, कुत्ते को मारा, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! कसाई आया, बैल को मारा, पानी पी ली, अग्नि बुझाई, लकड़ी जलाई, कुत्ते को मारा, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! फिर परी आयी, कसाई को मार डाला, बैल को मारा, पानी पी ली, अग्नि बुझाई, लकड़ी जलाई, कुत्ते को मारा, बिल्ली को काटा, बकरी खायी जो मेरे पिताजी दो पैसों में लाये|
एक बकरी, एक बकरी! सारी रातों में कई प्रश्न आये, आज एक प्रश्न मैं करता हूँ, ये चक्रव्यूह कब तक चलेगा? भक्ष , भक्षक, ये चक्रव्यूह! हत्या, हत्यारा, ये चक्रव्यूह! भक्ष , भक्षक, हत्या, हत्यारा, ये चक्रव्यूह! मैं इस साल क्या बनूँगा? बकरी या बिल्ली, कुत्ता या कसाई|
पिताजी लाये दो पैसों में, एक बकरी, एक बकरी! और फिर वहीं से वापिस शुरुआत हो गयी जहां सब शुरू हुआ था |
The venue was attacked by several extremists and the government tried very hard to stop it from taking place. But it did.
It is worthy to note many things which this independence constitutes of. Here is one noticeable aspect. Last week I was in Bethlehem and was horrified to see the wall running through neighbourhoods of the city. While I understand the reasons for its construction I cannot reconcile with its existence.
Today there was a mighty airshow all over Israel.
And I couldn’t help but write
Exclaimed the little girl
Pointing at the sky
Seeing the bombers fly by
The sun-kissed beaches of Tel Aviv!
Children sprang to reach it
And I saw many eyes glisten with pride;
It was the day of independence
And a show of strength.
Little hands clasped the finger tightly
And the shelter trembled in fear
As the bomber streaked her sight;
It was alright
But only for the time being!
She seemed to search for her mother’s breasts,
Her father took her in his arms
And rocked her to rest
As another bomber flew in.
There is a line somewhere
Which separates the two
And my thoughts divide
As I glare at both.
On both sides do humans reside
But borders decide
Where humanity exists.
As I was lost in thoughts, I was greeted by an old man sitting beside me. He quickly befriended me and went on to tell me about the planes which were passing by. This informality of Israel if one of the great things about this area.
As I was coming back I was greeted by the guard of Palmach museum and I found that the entrance was free for the afternoon. I was quickly shepherded for a tour and given a quick gist of things that I had missed. It was an audio visual show and illustrated Israel’s war of independence and role of the Palmach. As I gave to tears during various points of the show the following simple poem touched me and I thought I should share.
A blessing on the match that was consumed and kindled flames.
A blessing on the flame that burned in the secret recesses of the hearts.
A blessing on the hearts that knew to stop for the sake of honor.
A blessing on the match that was consumed and kindled flames.
There is so much more that I wish to say and share but I think this is a good point to stop. Happy birthday Israel!
Before the fallen branches turn to dust He picks them up and builds his nest; Spring, the harbinger of love Whispers its arrival to me And I wonder, When this season comes to pass Will our souls remain entwined? Will the sweetness still persist? Will the mansion that we built brick by brick, Resist The temptations of the vagabond And turn into the mist that it was before.
I have a piece in the offing from a long time now. It is a collection of stories from my recent trip to the Himalayas. I tell friends that I am procrastinating, I am busy etc. It is an easy lie. Let me now try to post the more difficult truth.
I am not a travel writer. I write for friends (whoever likes hearing from me) and mostly for myself. To weave my silly tales with verses and photographs is like reliving the wonderful times. But I can’t overlook the fact that my writings makes these places more uninviting for myself.
I like to lie under the stars and be conquered by them, I like learning about ancient artefacts and be magnetised by them, I like being awed by ancient paintings and spiralling up into its stories, I love scampering up hillocks and testing myself against my attachments. I cannot do this if the person next to me is trying hard to lean over/displace me for his/her selfie. I was at Ajanta-Ellora last week and it was impossible to sit down in a cave and stare at the Buddha statues at length or to hear a wonderful historian (and not these louts of tour guides mind you) describe how many interesting tales are interlaced in a single section of the wall. What would the monks, who constructed these caves for meditation, contemplation and subsequent realisation, think of its current use?
The second article is a good illustration of my point. The experience at Kasol would have precisely been the reason I would not have posted the article; the writer is probably employed by 101 so has some sympathies from me. But I am not employed by anyone. Why should I write?
I am at conflict. While I think that people should travel, I can’t accept the outcome if they do. I personally have relied on some of these writings to find a horse ranch in the middle of nowhere in Chile and a small village to rest for the night while hiking along some Aztec trail (I don’t remember exactly which) in Mexico. But would I like them if they weren’t in the middle of nowhere (and crowded, noisy etc.)?
I could still possibly write for myself/friends etc and keep it private. But somehow, knowing my pride and attention-seeking psyche, I will probably not be able to keep it just that.
Many wonderful trips have passed me off-lately and not even the photographs have slipped my fingers; I am not sure how long this will last. For now I will try to keep away from such postings.
I know that there are many arguments and counterarguments here; I would love to see your point of view (in comments below or otherwise).