Sunday, 7 June 2009

Green of the Twilight

I

27 Vidyasagar Street, Konnagar. Year 2000. An old man of about 80 walks down the congested station road, supporting himself on a long, old-fashioned umbrella, which instead of guarding him from the sun, acts as his walking stick. His other hand clutches a packet of sweets. Clad in a crumpled white dhoti and a cotton kurta, he walks in a slow wobbling pace, eyes continuously held down on the road in fear of missing a step. He occasionally looks up – a bespectacled, cataract-eyed, twinkling look – a smiling look. Yes, even though age has made his sight weaker and his walking difficult, and the afternoon blazing sun has embittered the general populace, making them ill-tempered and prone to bickering, our old man finds enough good reason to smile. A toothless, optimistic, warm smile. It reminds one of love and beauty.

Mani Gopal Bhattacharya enters his family home, his smile getting wider, as the pet cats run to welcome him home. He enters the living room, and as he meets us waiting for him, he opens his arms wide in a worldly embrace, the umbrella and the sweets still in his hands, and starts reciting one of his own couplets in a thin voice trembling from excitement and exertion... That’s the picture of Mani dadu fixed in my mind like an old snapshot from the memory album.

Our association with Mani dadu was through his younger daughter who was a close friend of my mother. But, I’d better like to remember him as a pen-friend of my father. They shared a rare kind of bond and used to write letters to each other in the form of verses, many of them often reaching a higher philosophical plane. I remember reading those verses as a child sometimes, attracted by the neat calligraphy, but hardly understanding a word of it then. A few days back, I was reading a few of Mani dadu’s letters from one of those suitcases that my parents have used to store the countless letters from our near and dear ones. Many of the verses, I found, were inspired by a gush of optimism, love and a sublime feeling of eternity... And, thus, I’ve always attached the image of Mani dadu with poetry. A poem-like poet. I remember, the walls of the living room and the bedrooms of his house used to be lined by old bookcases of volumes of texts and manuscripts. Reading and writing were his primary passions, though by profession, he did none of those. He had been an employee in the Reserve Bank of India, Kolkata.

Mani dadu had long lost his wife. But, such was the deep attachment with his other half that there were little things that he did every day, which if one closely observed, would reveal the eternal flame of love. Having fathered two daughters, both of whom are established in their own fields, it seemed he took a retirement from the worldly world for the rest of his life. A sage whose religion was love. Naturally, as a kid, it was easy for me to picturise Gandhiji – “someone like Mani dadu”, I’d think. Same way, when it came to his famous saying, “Simple living, high thinking”, it was never difficult for me to understand how simple ‘simple’ could be or how high ‘high’ could be.

It was in May, 2006, that we met him last. He was ill and bedridden. He recognised my father and said in his frail voice, “I’m really contented, dear son. I’m fulfilled as much as any man can ever be. Perhaps, there’s only a small wish now: my children and all those who are looking after me during my last days, bedridden as I am, may do it with love. I don’t want them to do it out of a mere sense of social inhibition...” There was a trickle of tear in the corner of his eyes, as he said those words. I never knew if his last wish was fulfilled. But, even so, there still was the old warm smile, on his wrinkled face, that reminded one of love and beauty...

II

Sreerampur. The street just beside the ghat of Ganges. A block of apartments stands at the end of the lane: Hinterland Complex. Flat no. D/4. August 2008. The grandfather clock - that's what atleast the household refers it as - hanging on the light cream-coloured wall strikes 8 o’clock in the morning. The tap in the kitchen is opened slowly by an aged, wrinkled, trembling hand. A couple of cups, a tea-net, a tea-kettle and a spoon are washed in the running stream of water. The kettle is then filled with drinking water from the water-filter. The gas stove is expertly lit with the help of a lighter. On top of this, the kettle of water is put to stand.

The glass case of the grandfather clock, in the living room, is opened with a smooth noiseless activity, showing the good work of grease. Two keys lie on the wooden base. Each key is inserted into the respective keyhole and is rotated about seven times, one in clockwise direction and the other in anticlockwise. The keys are once again placed at the base of the clock and the glass door is closed carefully by the same pair of wrinkled, trembling hands. Next, the front door is opened. The newspaper and the packets of Dairy Milk are retrieved from the bars of the collapsible gate: the milk packets go to the refrigerator and the newspaper is placed over the tea-poi.

The water in the kettle has boiled by now. Tea leaves are added to the water, and the gas-stove is put off.

The radio, standing on the tea-poi, is switched on and the frequency is carefully set in by the trembling fingers. A couple of minutes later, an Indian classical vocal comes floating in.

The tea is ready. It is now poured in the two cups, washed earlier, with the help of the tea-net. A teaspoon full of sugar is added in each cup and the contents are stirred slowly, carefully, deftly.

A beautiful, old woman looks up and smiles as he brings in the tea. “Yes, madam. Here’s your tea!”, he, the owner of the wrinkled trembling hands, says.

Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay. 83. A Retired cashier of the Municipal Corporation, Konnagar. My mother’s father. My dadu.

Well, Dadu and Discipline. Ever since my childhood, these two words are almost synonymous. Dadu’s every move was scheduled by the clock. In fact, he loved clocks and watches of all kinds and assortments. He had this queer hobby of bringing down his collection of watches from the almirah once every day; and having a session with his old wrist-watches, pocket-watches and the old-day table clock with the glass-casing and the Gold-over-silver polish. Since, dadu was an arthritis patient for as long as I knew, his movements were characterised by a slow, unhurried, determined pace. Temperamentally also, dadu was an exceptionally calm person.

Dadu was the sort of person who loved home and who was in love with each of the big-to-small articles in his home. Some would term him as a ‘materialist’ and perhaps, he was one. Yes, he was never much of a thinker. Yet, he was a strikingly contented man, happy with whatever little he possessed. He seldom talked or thought about new purchases, unless that was necessary in the modern day living, like the refrigerator or the television.

Dadu used basically two sets of garments, both consisting of a lungi and an old-fashioned sleeved vest. When it came to venturing out of his house, which was really rare, he put on a kurta and a pyjama. Even though, it was to the utter dislike of dida, and even though dadu loved dida with the passion of a young lover, he never changed his attire when he was home. Self-sufficient as he was, he washed them himself and hung them outside to dry.

Dadu was kiddishly excited when it came to three things: politics, football and sweets. When dadu would be watching a football match, we all knew that he was doing so, because the flat would echo intermittently with a resounding ‘GOAL!!!’. He didn’t particularly support any team ever, his only interest was perhaps watching a goal being scored, whichever team that might be. And, there was only one thing that Dadu spent money lavishly over: sweets. He loved the juicy ones especially: rasgullas, gulaab jaamuns, rasmalai, raabri... And, there he would go, as the sweet melted in his mouth, relishing the sweetness and the juice, closing his eyes, meditating on the happy coincidence of the existence of sweets. In fact, his last wish was to taste a goja, which oddly is not a juicy one, from the famous small-town sweet shop ‘Felu Modak’.

It has been a little over two months that dadu’s death certificate was handed over to us by the nursing home. Accordingly, dadu shouldn’t be alive anymore. But, it still seems as if dadu is moving about, dusting the furniture, setting the clocks, doing the ting-tong of utensils in the kitchen... So alive! Has it got to do anything with material or its ‘ism’? Dunno, it just seems so much un-material to me...

III

Ramkrishna road, New Barrackpore. December 2008. Baba and I open the small grilled iron gate, with a slight screech, that’s the entrance to the two-storied simple abode. We enter the supposedly living space, which is not so much a living space because it is the dining hall. This dining hall begins almost immediately after the gate to the road and is kept almost always open, clearly barring no one and no thing. Taking a right turn, we enter the kitchen. The strong smell of the famous Bangla paanch forun being fried in the oil wafts towards us as we enter the breezy kitchen. A cool breezy kitchen. Something that I haven’t found anywhere else. We meet with a pile of freshly bought green vegetables kept at the doorway of the kitchen. A few steel and aluminium utensils lie cluttered around on the floor. A gas-stove sits in the centre. Facing it, sits a most un-matching figure. A tall, slim man, with pleasant features, on the brinks of old age, garbed in a pearl-white dhoti and a brown shawl flung over a full-sleeved khadi panjabi and a khunti in his right hand. He looks up, raises his eyebrows and his handsome face breaks into a smile, as he says, “Is my vision faltering these days?”

Purnendu Basu. A retired teacher of the Boy’s High School, New Barrackpore; and the torch-bearer of my father’s life. Punu jethu has been closer to me since my childhood days than have been my blood-relatives. Anyone who has read Sherlock Holmes, has listened to Pankaj Kumar Mullick and has seen Punu Jethu is bound to find a common chord between the three, I believe.

Punu jethu takes us to the first floor through a narrow ladder-case. The first floor has always been an attraction to me in the entire house. It includes the terrace and a room. This room is a large, spacious one, with four large windows on two opposite walls and with bookcases lined along the other two longer walls. In fact, Punu jethu meant this one to be the living room. At one extreme side of the room, beside the windows, stands a divan. The corners of the room are disarrayed with a jumble of various musical instruments: an esraaj, a tabla, a khol, a harmonium, a taanpura, a long-play record-player... Hung on the walls are a few portraits of great Indians, the most prominent and colossal being that of Tagore’s. The major portion of the rest of the room is left bare. Carpets and mats are laid over the floor. It is here that we presently take our seats. Punu jethu asks us to feel at home and gets back downstairs to make us tea. He moves with a spring in his step and waves off all kinds of help in the kitchen, saying, “This is my home. My family! You are my guests!”.

Punu jethu has stayed single. But, he never gives us the impression of being disgruntled or unhappy, as most bachelors do. He’s so completely a family man. A family of threesome: himself, his books and his music. Punu jethu is quite a popular and a lovable man in the little town he lives in. As a pastime after retirement, he teaches Sanskrit and Bangla to the kids of his neighbourhood. On weekends, a few friends of his – all well-above sixty and equally wise, cultured and simply dressed – come over for a homely get-together and a warm little adda and music.

On this particular morning, the sunrays, filtered through the long leaves of the date palm trees in the backyard, enter through the windows. The entire room suddenly seems to be breathing; enlivened by the grace of nature. A current passes through my entire being, as a sudden heavenly touch uplifts my soul. I muse, “People needn’t go for long, difficult pilgrimages to feel pure or to attain salvation...”

The clink of cup and dish lifts the trance off me. I realise that Punu jethu is back, and is presently offering me a cup of tea. After we talk a little, we ask him to play the esraaj. He adjusts the knobs and tightens the strings, and after a bit of a screech-and-a-hitch, begins to play. As he plays, the tune mingles with the light and the breeze in the room, with the sun and the green, out through the long leaves of the date palms, higher and higher towards the blue, towards the infinite...

4 comments:

Kaushik Chatterjee said...

Three short films. One merging into the other. Seamlessly. Strung together with a thread, hidden, but tautly spun. Of empathy, of passion, of a just, pure, feel. Of care and love. Humdrum. Nothing more.

Ordinary characters, their faces barely recognizable in a crowd. Each one tells a story through the interlocutor. Of life worth living for and of love worth dying for. She surveys her protagonists from without, as if she’s is directing them play out their ‘real life’ roles. Unhindered, no-holds-barred. No promises of frills interpolated or flashes, carefully crafted, to sever the monotony. No staccato images to lend the leitmotif a cutting edge. No imagined climaxes to break the rhythm of the predictable. No ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to try and capture the mind of the audience, to make them rivet to their seats. No desperation to provide refuges of convenient escapes. No, the films are neither a nourisher, nor a nemesis to the audiences. Events are part of the ordinary, repetitive, almost bordering on the banal.

And yet the director is part of her characters. She is seeing, feeling through them, enjoying her being within their very beings. Narrating the stories of life you must have heard earlier and decide not to hear it again. Ignorable, clich├ęd and hackneyed.

Like the omnipresent sun, the azure sky, the familiar light streaming through the swaying trees, the raindrops kissing the coarse parapets, jutting out of the balcony. The unexcitable love and concern that await us, knowingly, back home at the end of every day. Like perhaps it did yesterday and hopefully it would do for us tomorrow. And the day after. Quietly and undemandingly. Unnoticeable, familiar, contemptible and taken for granted!

Sudipto Basu said...

A most wonderful comment, Kaushik-da! You've captured the very essence of what I had to say.

No one lives in a rarified 'edited' atmosphere without getting entangled in the mechanics of everyday living. Chores, errands and details are part of one's existence. Her extraordinary capability is in finding a sublime magic and involvement even in little things like these; in trying to understand every one of them as they are, and as they do. A small snippet from the world of films: incidentally, there is a genre, Dogme 95, that attempts to capture characters in the scope of everyday life. There is no editing involved and neither any non-diegetic music.

By the way, the post does well to remind chaps like me that they must soon bridge that wide cleft between thought and action. I think too much and act considerably little! Bad-bad.

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Lovely little sketches of three different yet essentially similar elderly men. You have a fine grip on your pen, Sayantani.

Three men: one a thinker and writer of letters and poetry, the second, a disciplined, caring person who can have a clock as his personal logo, and the third, a musician and reader of books. The common streak among them is that they are all contented, happy, and none of them are after worldly wealth. What makes them contented, despite not having much, and what makes most people discontented, even if they have much?

The answers are simple, and we all know them. But we keep forgetting them every day. Thanks for reminding me … once again.

vaishnavi said...

This was a wonderful read Sayantani! Like the others have said, you have so wonderfully described people you perhaps come across all the time in your life, but probably don't take the time to really appreciate them. This has made sit back and reflect on the people in my life, who have come and gone, who ave stayed, some, who have always been there but maybe I haven't really appreciated them as much as I should have I hope to God there is no one like that! Thank you so much for reminding us all of such vital yet simple things. You have also given me an idea for a new post :) Thank you, shall come again :-)