Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Hill-billy boy, part one

There is something impersonal about flights. While it is no doubt a cut above the sterile steel atmosphere of Kolkata's metro trains, air travel is a poor substitute for a train journey. For one, I find the trained excessive courtesy of on-flight staff painful for both parties involved. Even if I'm the only one complaining about this, rouge-laden cheeks don't look nice.

Still, we took a flight from Kolkata to Lucknow on the 7th of June (to save on time, what else?). It was a one-and-a-half hour shuttle from 38 degrees to 38 degrees with the on-board temperature dipping to around 8. You can imagine the kind of torture inflicted on our skin when we stepped outside into the Amausi International Airport on the flanges of Lucknow. It was a relief when we checked into an AC room at our hotel just outside Lucknow Junction. 

UP's capital is dirty and crumbling. Some people live in houses built during Lucknow's moment of glory (the architecture speaks) and the city banks on historical heritage for the tourism industry. Yet the maintenance of some of these historical monuments are so poor you fear they're going to come apart any moment. The main streets, at least in the areas I have been, are clogged with swarming masses of people, blaring loudspeakers, sales calls and all the rubbish which such a populace should produce. I am no admirer of some of Kolkata's shopping districts, what with all thirty years of stagnation and turmoil, but we still fare better in matters of cleanliness. If you have been through the market just outside Sealdah station, large portions of Lucknow look just like that. Things being so, we stayed indoors throughout the day though I briefly toyed with the idea of revisiting the famed maze in Bada Imambara (this wasn't our first trip to the city).

Next morning around 8, we boarded the Garib Rath to Kathgodam. All in all it was a comfortable and enjoyable ride, though I must complaint about the inappropriate name. The train is fully air-conditioned - definitely not a luxury one offers to the garib passenger. I'll let the rath pass as poetic licence (was Lalu a closet poet too, like Mamata?). However, if the chariot used during Puri's Rath Yatra is any standard to judge by, I prefer travelling by a "poor man's chariot"; thank you! My co-passengers were fun. There was the civil-servant who was on his way to Rampur, and the pretty young girl going home to Rudrapur. Both of them had some moments of confusion, I presume, seeing a boy sitting alone with a book (Tharoor's The Great Indian Novel, for the curious) laughing every now and then. I, in turn, was amused by the perfunctory nods Mr. Civil-Servant gave to my father who bombarded him with the most obvious opinions on the most obvious of things. Sometime late in the day, the pretty girl brought out her laptop and played mainstream pop for the benefit of her co-travellers. I don't know how many enjoyed her idea of public service. I'd much rather listen to the train going "ghatak-ghatak".

As the train rolled into the foothills - around Haldwani, if my memory serves me right - we saw the mountains in the distance through tinted glass and smoke from urban industries. To someone living in the plains, that triggers a sense of delight best left undescribed. Kathgodam is a quiet little station: crowded in this time of the year mainly due to the influx of tourists. The station's main-entrance is in some sort of European architecture (my little knowledge prevents me from being more accurate), clean and well-maintained. A sight to look, I promise!

Our car, which was to be our transport for the next eight days, was waiting for us there. I know some people feel dizzy on mountainous roads - those that go round and round, up and up. Boy, do I love them! It's a delight to see that ten minutes of steep climb has succeeded in bringing you just 30 metres above the point you started from! Does that say something about human endeavour? The temperature fell as we rose, the sky was cloud-capped, and we saw the huge shadows of mountains and clouds shift on other mountains. Inspite of maa's feeble complaints, I kept the windows open. The wind played in my hair. We were on our way to Almora.

It took a goodish three-and-a-half hours to reach, and as we passed through those little hill towns I kept struggling with my memory trying to recall where I'd seen these names. Bhowali? Was it Ruskin Bond or Jim Corbett? Anyway, Bhowali has a nice fruit market (quite famous in those parts, wiki tells me). I, unfortunately, could not partake of its pleasures for the simple reason that I don't like fruits (except maybe those small, red Himachali apples). I prefer their visual appeal. 

We stopped just outside Almora at the Ramakrishna Mission. Bunda (pronounce boonda), our driver, stretched his legs and let his concentration slip for a while (I've tried keeping my eyes on both the road and the scenery and it has given me a sort of natural admiration for this man). We made our way down the stairs. Some bengali women sat by the entrance chatting. I don't know if this is a trait peculiar to us, but we bengalis love to let other bengalis know our shared linguistic identity when in some foreign land. Baba, who was talking in a low voice until then, suddenly beamed up at the sight and sound of those women and raised his voice as if to announce our arrival. A hitchhiker lost in the forest for days on end would probably not be as enthusiastic at the sight of fellow humans. It was sunset time, and the Mission has an unobstructed view of the sky. The result was that we had a stunning series of sunset snaps.

Almora, being a district town, was understandably crowded. Our hotel, Bhagwati Palace, was a little way down the Link road. Yet we could not get into our rooms. Some local politico had booked the whole place for a night - it was his daughter's wedding. A politico being more important than us, we were carted off some way up the steep Mall road to Hotel Shyam, Bhagwati's sibling (they're owned by the same man). Our room in Shyam was on the 4th floor. The stairs was steep, the stairwell cramped. It's obvious that whoever planned the building compressed as much utility as possible into as little a place. Which was fine for me and didi, not as much for maa and baba. Anyway, a fourth floor room with a big balcony facing the valley offers a good vantage point. So we hoped, only to be slightly disappointed by the sight. The panorama doesn't hold a light to Mussoorie's excellent view of the Doon valley - quite literally too! Still a higher altitude offers cleaner air, so we made our peace for the day.

Our room service was done by a pahari man in his mid 20's, who tried to make up for the inconveniences caused by his superiors with cheerfulness. Bhaiya, as I called him, was met with as much warmth. Yet I'm a little ashamed now. The tip I paid him the next morning for his services proved to be inadequate, as the expression on his face informed me (and his services were substantial - running up and down those staircases four or five times is something). I don't know why I didn't offer him more - was it misery? Or was it something that has become deeply ingrained in my nature, growing up as I did in a middle-class family - that one mustn't be paid more than the unsaid "limit" preset for him!

We deposited our luggage in Bhagwati Palace, which had been vacated and stripped off its "VIP - Reserved" status in the morning. Then we made off for Binsar. The Wildlife Sanctuary charges a considerable entry fee, but you'll not grudge it if you love nature. The 10 kilometre uphill track till the KMVN resort is narrow, shaded on both sides with giant oak and chir trees and is one of the quietest roads I've been on. I heard distant cries of birds over the silent hum of the engine and let the wind and shade play with me again. The car can't go up beyond the KMVN resort though there's a 2 kilometre long foot-trail which ends at the Zero Point (which commands a view of  Kedarnath, Trishul and Nanda Devi). We didn't see much of that, it being a day of white cotton-clouds, though the sun shone fiercely enough where there was no leafy shade. The trail is short if you can climb fast, but I'd recommend you to take it slow and easy. The wind was cool and lazy, and I had the benefit of being alone because of walking ahead of my family. It was quiet there; so quiet that if you ignored the distant call of birds and the murmuring grating of crickets, you could here the buzz in your own head.

Walking down the foot-track, we met some bengali tourists who promptly enquired what there was to see. No tigers? No 'points'? ('Point' is the term used to designate popular tourist attractions.) What a waste of money! And all the while their children roamed around freely. It amused me to think what they'd do in case a tiger really walked into the trail.

On the way down, we stopped and picked pine cones. We filled a bagful, witnessing two oxen charging each other in the distance. They stood snarling, stared a good deal (like they do in those duels in the Westerns) and wham!

There is a modest leopard sanctuary just outside Almora. Its five inhabitants are all man-eaters, though you can't deduce that from their demeanour. Four of them stayed inside their rooms and one was basking in the sun out in the courtyard. For all the tourists and their invading cameras, it maintained an ascetic indifference. Maybe it had grown too tired of us to even react. That's the next possible stage to hatred. Sometimes I come close to their disposition too!

We were back in the room by sundown and I spent the rest of the day reading and watching TV. I'd explored enough of Almora during my early morning walk to satisfy my curiosity. Next day we were to leave for Munsiyari. The place I loved the most!

But that's for the next post.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Affidavit filed, awaiting judgement...

Sayantani and me have long mulled over the idea of changing the url (for non-geeky people: that means the 'address') of this blog. As our oldest readers will know, it started with me writing alone on my passions of those days - which was Gandhi, hatred of chatspeak, and sundry other "serious issues" (my stances on which have softened and changed with time). Sometimes I feel embarrassed to even look at those old posts! Still, a lenient case must be made for a boy who was quite excited at the beginning of his 'intellectual' pursuits.

Anyway, once I admitted Sayantani to the blog and gave her co-owner status, I made the necessary amend of adding her name to the title. Which has since changed to exclude both of our names. What I didn't do was change the url, which remains the agonisingly bad "sudiptopondering" to this day! Why? Because I feared most of our readers, however modest the number, might not switch over to the new one.

Thankfully now we have a solution. The new url will be (it's less agonisingly bad, after all!), and it will be the acting address from 18th July, 2010. So please remember to use it 18th onwards, if you still wish to read us. I'm not sure about this, but maybe followers have to implement that change too! In any case, if you still type sudiptopondering in the address bar of your browser, we'll make sure that you redirect to the real thing.

Fine and all, everyone?

Post-script: Since changing the url deletes all previous comments, we have decided to stick with the previous one -

It was a real Horrorshow, O my brothers...

My generation possibly thinks that The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield are a new breed of horror entertainment. I'd like to counter their illusion - it's been done before (though on a different medium). Put your hands together for Orson Welles.

Blair Witch starts with a declaration that what follows is the edit of a documentary and its "making" video. It features three student film-makers - Heather, Mike and Joshua - venturing  into the forests of Maryland to film an urban legend. They start off by interviewing several locals in the town of Burkittsville. The word-of-mouth accounts are half-incredulous. The townsfolk don't seem to attach much credence to these, though they are afraid and alert enough not to venture into the forests where the Blair Witch is supposed to live. The film crew shares some of this ambiguity. Even with the possibility of it being all hooey, they think it's an interesting subject to film. Because it starts of with banter and laughter, and later descends into irrational nightmare; it scares us. Nothing frightens more than the preset pattern of our daily lives being suddenly thrown asunder.

Daniel and Eduardo, the directors of Blair Witch, achieve this effect with their calculated low-production values. The forest, photographed in winter, is cold and distant. The lighting is mostly natural; sometimes too harsh, sometimes too low. There are several minutes given to documenting just the three friends shouting at each other in fear, despair and hysteria. The handheld shots wildly wobble and go out of focus; making the film resemble a home video. In the final frame, the screen blanks out to signal that all three are dead. What reduces the efficacy of a studio-produced horror film like Psycho is that it doesn't hit our instinctual fears first. (Some cinephiles claim that the early creaky, clapboard worlds of horror B-movies worked precisely because they exploited our primal fear.) Anyone who has seen Cloverfield would also agree that it employs the same strategy as Blair Witch.

Their early predecessor is Welles' radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, aired by Columbia Broadcasting System on October 30, 1938 as part of their ongoing Mercury Theatre series. What makes the play effective - even disregarding the bloated reports of those years of yellow journalism in America, there was a little panic about a real Martian attack - is that it falls back upon itself, structured in the manner of a real news broadcast from CBS. The usual mundane rituals of dance music and enthusiastic radio-host banter is interspersed with terse reports, received from astronomical observatories, of unusual activities observed on the planet Mars. The Manhattan studio of CBS cuts to its reporter in Princeton, Carl Phillips. He interviews Professor Richard Pearson (voiced by Welles), a famed astronomer, about the strange occurrences. Initial denials of extraterrestial involvement, no doubt propelled by Pearson's scientific rationale and skepticism, are quickly disproved. There's a large thing that fell from the sky to a farm in Grover's Mill, New Jersey. And it's not a meteor.

What begins in a leisurely way slowly disintegrates into chaos. Carl Phillips starts his reporting in his usual calm, professional tone; maintaining proper protocol and impeccable manner (he asks his interviewee, Pearson, for permission to do even the most little things). With passing time his voice becomes strained, nervous and irritable (he brushes off an over-eager eyewitness of the "meteor fall" who wants to ramble). Welles employs overlapping dialogue and background sounds. Voices trail off as radio static becomes loud. Carl Phillips is killed by the Martians midway into the play (mirroring Joshua's mysterious death in Blair Witch). Notice that while there are reports of several onlookers being killed by the Martians, it doesn't quite affect us until Phillips' voice dies out suddenly. It's a clever ruse to familiarise us with a character's growing desperation and have him wiped out.

And then, civilian broadcasting is altogether discarded to give way to military bulletin. The listeners ride along with fighter plane pilots who bomb the aliens and rue the lack of any effect. This pattern of alteration of tone and pace connects two works separated by six full decades.

All matters of form aside, Welles places his best bet when he subversively plays on the American people's fear of imminent warfare. The historical perspective is underlined further when Prof. Pearson, who evades the marauding Martians, meets an officer of the Home Guard in a forlorn, tattered city. In what must be a very political statement rivalling Kubrick's in Dr. Strangelove, the officer reveals his sinister idea to use science to wipe out both the Martians and the remaining people who, for him, are disposable nothings. The officer's plan reveals the same alarming hatred and disregard for human life evident in Nazi propaganda across the Atlantic (no wonder Hitler was outraged at Welles' little joke!).

Prof. Pearson's personal account, which fills much of the second half, is also part of the reason why the play works. He trudges through charred cities and countryside, noting the apocalyptic scale of battle debris.
Next day I came to a city, a city vaguely familiar in its contours, yet its buildings strangely dwarfed and leveled off, as if as if a giant had sliced off its highest towers with a capricious sweep of his hand.
His chilling description of New York reads thus:
Walked up Broadway in the direction of that that strange powder, past silent shop windows, displaying their mute wares to empty sidewalks past the Capitol Theatre, silent, dark past a shooting gallery, where a row of empty guns faced an arrested line of wooden ducks. Near Columbus Circle I noticed models of 1939 motorcars in the showrooms facing empty streets. Over the top of the General Motors Building, I watched a flock of black birds circling in the sky. Hurried on. Suddenly I caught sight of the hood of a Martian machine, standing somewhere in Central Park, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. An insane idea: I rushed recklessly across Columbus Circle and into the Park. I climbed a small hill above the pond at Sixtieth Street and from there I could see, standing in a silent row along the mall, nineteen of those great metal Titans, their cowls empty, their great steel arms hanging listlessly by their sides. I looked in vain for the monsters that inhabit those machines.

The play begins with an introduction that says:

We know now that in the early years of the 20th century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
It is ironic that the Martians are conquered not by man with his superior intellect, but bacteria. The proto-ubermensch officer must be eating his hat, or whatever is left of it.

P.S.: Those who want the radio play and can meet me, ask for it. I'll be happy to share. Those who can't, may download it. And those who can't download it, may read it (there's a pdf version in the link too).

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Growing up

The other day my little niece wanted to go out walking in the streets alone. Now naturally she was forbidden, though she later had me for company. She looked up at me and said, "when will I grow up? I want to do things by myself." I smiled. I used to ask that question often.

Yesterday I'd been to a wedding reception. People talked and laughed, there was forced conversation and hollow guffawing. And I had to sit through all of that with a cheerful facade - often answering needless questions thrown to me. Children were running about, some gorging on the free cold-drinks and ice-creams on offer. A boy of about five walked up to a circle of old acquaintances, who were all chatting, singled out a woman and pulled at her sari. "Maa, I'm getting bored. When will you take me home?" I smiled. I used to ask that question often.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

The Expressionist

The surroundings were misty. (Or misty may have gone my memory!) The incense vapours from the nearby Vishwakarma puja pandals hung low over the township. I must have been then 3 to 4 years old. It was beside the fly-over connecting the temporary and permanent townships, in a tin-roofed shack that I first saw him. We entered through a wooden door, whose ends had rotten away with the recent monsoons of Bihar. He dodged under a low wooden bar that held the roof and appeared through the smog before us. His name was Prakash, meaning ‘expression’. But, none of us called him by that name. He was ‘gunga maali’/ ‘boba maali’ (meaning 'the dumb gardener') to all and ‘Maali uncle’ to me.

Maali uncle was hearing and speech impaired. People said he wasn’t so by birth. It was a fatal accident that had left him thus. He was a short-heighted, lean, curly-haired man, with thick lips. Our association with him was through Roy Chowdhury Jethu and Jethima, who were (and still are) our very intimate family friends. Since I’ve grown up far away from my relations, owing to my father’s transferable job, I regarded them as my very own and hence called them as Jethu-Jethima, without caring to mention their surnames. We had just shifted to our C-type quarters in Kahalgaon, and were urgently in need of a gardener to look after the bare plots of land in the front and the back courtyards. And, so, Jethu-Jethima mentioned ‘boba maali’ to us. It was, I remember, with great difficulty that my parents had communicated with him on the first day to ask him to come to our house. He was near illiterate and ‘read’ by matching the designs of the calligraphy, i.e., whenever he needed to read something, say a quarter number, he’d have it written on a slip of paper and then he’d find his destination by matching the letters on the slip with those on the wall. That is how probably he managed to find our house too: C-27.

The eight and half years that we lived in C-27, Maali uncle worked to make the NTPC quarter a sweet home. Those were the years that I started graduating from a blob of living matter towards a human being with senses. Maali uncle therefore had been an important part of my first senses, my growing mind and my childhood. He had a distinct smell on him: the soil that he played with the entire day rendered him an earthy scent. His quiet arrival was marked by that distinct odour and the swish-swash of his movements through the grass and the click-clacks of his shrub-cutting tools. Years after years, he cultured all kinds of plants from cactuses to creepers to rose bushes and big marigolds, dahlias and petunias. He brought colours and fragrance to our dull township life.

Sometimes, Maa would explain him things that she wanted him to do with frantic movements of her hands, which he would quickly pick up and respond with half-sounds straining his weakened vocal chords. It was not only a tricky task to ‘talk’ to him, but a trickier task at times to get what he was trying to ‘tell’ us. The mode of communication would often make us fall into peals of laughter. It’d be a most heartening time to see when he’d try to tell us ‘who’, ‘whose’ or ‘whom’. For example, while referring to me he used to point towards his left brow, to mention the famous black mole beside my left brow and would gesticulate with his palm faced ground-wards, to mention a little girl. While talking about my mother, he would first refer to me through the same gestures and then would signal with his palm faced ground-wards a level higher than himself and then point a dot on his forehead to convey a woman. While referring to Jethima, he’d make the same signs of showing his palm a level higher than himself, to mention someone tall and then would shift his elbows awide, to talk of someone stout; for Jethima was a person of large proportions.

After a year or two, when Jethu-Jethima moved to their D-type quarter, Maali uncle also left his shack beside the fly-over and moved to their outhouse. A disciplined man by nature, Maali uncle led a happy married life. As far as I recall, he had three children: Manoj, Anuj and Khushboo. The eldest son, Manoj bhaiya, often helped him in his errands. Maali uncle saw to it that his children learnt to read and write and sent all of his children to school. We later heard that the eldest son passed from an ITI college. His wife was a very practical-minded person. To generate more earnings, she stitched blouses and made a judicious use of whatever income came in, managing even to make some savings. He had a great regard for his wife. When he had to take leave showing extreme urgency, he would usually flare up his eyes and with an expression of extreme exigency would run his forefinger through the parting of his hair, indicating his wife.

Well-known for his intelligence and sharp senses, Maali uncle served us in several ways other than gardening. From small jobs of mechanic, electrician and driving, he even rescued many from precarious situations. Once, one of our switchboards short-circuited and a foul smell started coming. We couldn’t detect the source of the stench. My mother, the one who spends much time in the house, had been nauseated like heck, until Maali uncle came by chance to attend the garden. He volunteered to probe the situation at once. Through his strong smelling senses, he sniffed along the walls and reached the switchboard. He unscrewed the board out and discovered a dead lizard.

Another time, a couple of monkeys had entered our quarter. They climbed on the top of our Godrej Almirah and found it a most suitable place to empty their bladders. They refused to leave until minutes later, Maali uncle came and chased them out with a long stick. It was him who later helped us clean up the mess. A motion with his fingers pointing at himself with a nod of his head expressing “Everything will be fine. I am with you.” would put my parents at complete ease. He was the embodiment of the proverb “A friend in need is a friend in deed”.

He was also the unofficial decorator in all the birthday parties. With all the care and innovation with the rolls of crape papers, balloons and glitters, he’d put up a great show. He’d climb up a stool and from the motor of the ceiling fan, coloured ribbons would flow down to the far end of the walls. He’d even wrap the return gifts in beautiful packing papers. With the papery ribbons, he’d ‘write’ on the wall the purpose of the celebration, very much in the way as he ‘read’. I remember, on my birthday celebration every year, Baba used to write on a paper “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MIMI”, which would be copied neatly on the wall by Maali uncle.

Within a few years, he had bought a plot of land for himself and in fact began the construction a large house. He would often ‘talk’ to us about the number of floors, number of rooms and toilets he’d built in his house. It was a piece of quite amazing news for a while in the township households, as for many of us a house was still a distant dream.

It was Maali uncle, who helped us decorate our new D-type quarters. There was a hidden artist in him with a high aesthetic sense. We have never had many showpieces. All we had were a few sets of bone-china dinner-sets and tea-sets and abundant books. He adorned the showcase with the china and cutlery, while we took care of the books. We all worked together. He did the job so well that visitors would give us compliments for our otherwise simple abode for the whole of the three months that we stayed in those quarters. He was like a family member and seldom asked for extra money.

In April 2002, we left the place. The packers and movers were yet to become popular. So, we had our personalized packer. Yes, Maali uncle did all the packing with cardboards, newspapers, cartons and straws. He packed each piece of cup, saucer and glass with the utmost care and each bit of furniture with the touch of a loving home-maker. He sweated at it for one whole month and did it all with so much efficiency, that just seeing him at it put my father out of all worries.

Coming in Orissa, we unpacked the things all by ourselves. In unwrapping each piece of china and each bit of furniture out of the wooden cases first, then the cardboards, the straws and lastly the newspapers, in every step we realized what we had left behind. His dainty touch was in all of it. We dragged the boxes; arranged the beds, the tables, the chairs, the sofa sets and decorated our new quarter all on our own. We were short by one family member now.