Friday, May 4, 2012

Hanging in balance

Tickets-sold out. Jerseys 34 (Ganguly) and 5 (Gambhir)-sold out. Crowd-impatient, itchy, expectant. Loyalties-fractured.

When the knights from Kolkata take on the warriors from Pune on Saturday one wonders whether Eden Garden will sway the purple streamers or wave the blue flags. Kolkata is an emotional city and Dada gave it the bragging rights. Ever since his century at the Lord’s we Bengalis (I take the liberty of us being homogenous on this aspect) have worn him like a badge of honour. So when he was unceremoniously dispatched from KKR and then left unsold at the last auction there was a lot of heart burn albeit among the generations that have seen him flourish.

The newer lots have grown up watching the prowess of the Dhonis and Ghambirs of the world along with the ageless Sachin. So to them KKR is the home team and winning matters. SRK himself has an iconic status and his flying kisses, salutes and salams win a million hearts every match. His careless stubble, pensive looks and involved mindfulness makes him more than just an owner. He has become synonymous with what the team stands for and who the team belongs to. Now with Mamata Banerjee making him the brand ambassador for the state, he has a legal claim to be our own.

But when Ganguly resurrected his IPL career in the avatar of Pune Warriors skipper, he was hailed almost parallel to the Phantom, one who refuses to die. He had already gained an iconic status as the captain charisma. The myth gained credence when he led the Pune outfit to three successive wins and gave a hair-raising performance (literally) with both bat and ball. Then came the fall and what a fall it was. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men are finding it difficult to put the winning combination together again

Winning five matches on the trot looks impossible. But there is something beyond winning. It is about proving a point; it is about telling oneself—I can, I still can. And what better place than showing it before the home crowd that have loved, cared and worshipped Geoffrey Boycott’s ‘Prince of Calcutta’.

Gauti will have other ideas for sure. But the tempered holler is—what tells the weather!

The lost days of warm snips

It has been quite a while that I have been going to an up-market men’s saloon on Park Street. The glazed glass exterior of the shop, whiff of cool breeze from the ac vents inside, soft cushy seats and low dim lights mingled with a wide range of aroma of after shaves and shaving lather make for a perfect ambience within. A receptionist usually notes down my name and points me to one of the seats on the waiting lobby. A man comes with a glass of water and asks whether I would like to have a cup of tea or coffee.

As I carelessly page through a fashion magazine from a stack kept for those waiting, my name is announced and I am produced in the sanctum sanctorum and led to my chair. A young man, usually with a hair style one cannot imagine sporting in the most romantic dreams, softly creeps up from behind asks “What will you have today?”. After 30 minutes of a symphonic snip-snip and pampering I am ready to leave. This has been my routine once a month for the last decade or so. I have come to know them as professionals, who do a job like I work for an organization. The relationship is guided strictly by the mechanisms of demand and supply.

But it was not always like this. Not with my ‘napith kaku’. I have grown up in the suburbs of Kolkata, then called Calcutta, and most part of my childhood and adolescent years I have been to ‘Make-up Art Salun’ where saloon was spelt as salun. As a kid I was intrigued by the amount of clout the three men in the saloon had. I came to call the owner of the saloon as ‘napith kaku’. He was my father’s barber. He was always present in all auspicious occasions of the family that demanded the services of a barber. In fact my first haircut, as I remember, was in his hand.

Three years and some months old I was led into the dimly lit saloon with one DC (Direct Current) fan that ran on carbon sticks. The walls were mostly bare save three sets of mirrors, a framed photo of ‘Ma Kaali’ and general soot that had gathered on the upper stretches of the wall and all over the ceiling during a prolonged period of neglect. Seeing me he immediately took me up on his lap and said ‘Chotobabu chul kaatbe naaki?” (Chotobbau will you cut your hair?) in a manner that was both a question and its answer. (In fact the name chotobabu stuck on.) Then he pulled out a wooden plank from underneath the set of stools on the side and placed it on the handles of his chair and made me sit on it. By then in my tender heart it had already become a real hair-raising feeling left to the mercy of the barber. Seeing my father nonchalantly leafing through a newspaper oblivious to my muffled sobs, pearls of tears started welling up in my eyes. But he held my head in one tight grip as his scissors went snip, snip, snip with the other on my prized head even as I winced in anticipation of how the crop was going to turn out. After 15 minutes I emerged almost bald and unscathed.

It was my first encounter with napith kaku and for the next 18 years of my life I have put my head, with increasing comfort, to the mercy of his nippy fingers and scissors. As I slowly started going alone to the saloon and waited in queue for my turn to come, I was amazed to see the expertise of those thin string like fingers as it chopped hair –some straight, some curly, some wavy and others indifferent—from an array of skulls of different shapes and sizes. And all the while he would strike a conversation with his customers.

What scared me most was the way he sharpened the razor on the leather belt that hung from the wall. After five six strong skilled swipes he would ask his customers to raise the neck a bit so that he would begin his shave. For me it was a close shave everytime!

He was the local ‘kalpataru’ (Solution man). For he had an answer to all the queries starting from where had the local poultry shop shifted to the whereabouts of the new tenants who have moved into the last house of our lane. It was while waiting on those log stools that I realized that men could be such bi***** gossiping about everything they could lay their hands upon. And napith kaku was the catalyst, sometimes kick starting a topic and sometimes adding the necessary spice to fuel more speculations. And he would invariably begin with “Choto mukhe boro kotha hoye jai, tabuo bolchi…” (It may seem way out of my rights, but I have to say…).

The barber shop was visible from the verandah of my house. Every morning I would go to the verandah on the first floor to read the newspaper along with a cup of tea, a habit I had picked up from my grandfather. As I sat reading the paper I often noticed how napith kaku arrived on his cycle, perhaps the only thing that looked more worn out than him, and opened the doors of his saloon. Then he would walk up to the tea stall on the opposite side and have a cup of tea and light a bidi. He would broom and clean the shop and sprinkle holy water from Ganges stored in a bottle that had become opaque with a layer of dust. Next he spread out the wooden stool and open a Bengali newspaper and start reading till his first customer arrived. I don’t know how far had he studied, but by the day’s end he would have finished reading every inch of that paper. So he had an opinion about everything.

He was a part of our community that was inclusive of people from various strata of life. They were respected for their trade and taken seriously. More importantly they were treated like human beings. Nisith Pramanik or napith kaku was an elder member of the community whom I had learnt to respect and love. I remember when I passed my Madhyamik exam he had given me a free hair cut and massage. Strangely I never really got to know who else was there in his family during all my interactions! Then one day on returning from my college, I learnt he had died. He died in the shop on a summer afternoon soon after he had taken a lunch break. Later I had seen a burly man come and hang a big lock on the door of the shop. It was later sold off. My father had told me his son was a government employee and did not want to continue in the trade.

With that ‘Make-Up Art Salun’ was gone and gone one of those men who would slowly fade from being a part of a community to become part of an industry. Now when I get my hair cut I receive the best that money can buy, but somehow I miss those long twined fingers, the loving touch and warmth of a barber for whom I was chotobabu.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Forbidden places, forgotten heroes

A line from Peanuts has been a great source of comfort for me since my school days—“I think I've discovered the secret of life - you just hang around until you get used to it.” I held on to the line like a charm that helped me get through several downs.But all that was somehow forgotten as I grew up and matters more mundane became much more important for me. And maybe in this striving for the ordinary, I forgot being a superhero. Very recently all of that changed in waves of nostalgia as I stumbled upon an old cardboard box in the cellar on a wistful rainy Sunday afternoon of grey sky and callow breeze. Tied with a coir rope the box was stacked below a set of stools for decades, forgotten and wasted. A neat layer of dust had settled itself comfortably and the knot looked like a nice old button, like the ones with a blob that we wore on the woolen sweaters that have gone out of fashion now. I got myself a pair of scissors from the tool box and got rid of the rope with a quick snip.

Open Sesame! Stacked in two neat files were piles of Bahadur, Magician Mandrake and Lothar, Flash Gordon, Batul the Great, Nonte Fonte, Phantom and their mates. In one fine cut my entire childhood had come galloping back. Back in those days I was often seen as some geek who would often enact the actions of the superheroes while guffawing with friends. But yes they stayed by me like silent sentries of strength, resolve and often inspiration helping me chaff the right from the wrong.

Whenever I had an extra dime or quarter, I would run up to the local comic stall to buy myself a few flights of fantasy and adventure. In fact my father often got me to do a lot of household chores while my friends were busy playing hanging the carrot of a double volume of ‘Indrajaal Comics’. As I stood before my childhood heroes I once again felt dwarfed by their overwhelming presence and simplicity. It will not be a detour to remind you of how it all began, while I dust clean the pages.The verdict is still hanging in balance as to how the first comic book evolved. In fact there are several versions. One can trace it back to the cartoonish broadsheets of the Middle Ages, which were parchment products, created by anonymous woodcutters.

These broadsheets later evolved with better content and humor. The first formatted evidence of a comic strip could well be the popular Punch, an elegant British creation, which became the primary focus of documentary accounts of those days. But in reality the comic strip still stood in the alley, waiting to be born. Then Great Britain's Ally Sloper's "Half Alley" arrived-- a black and white tabloid that had panels of cartoons mixed with a sliver of news.Now while all this was going on in Great Britain, the United States had its own brand of evolution. Instead of magazines, US newspapers took the lead in creating the comic book industry and it was William Randolph Hearst who scored a knockout with the Yellow Kid. But these were not comic books. It perhaps arrived with Carl Schultz' Foxy Grandpa.

The Whitman Publishing Company, in 1934, took over the mantle of being the pre-launchers for the modern comic book. They published forty issues of Famous Comics, which was a black and white hardcover reprint. However, people really got the hang of comic books with Famous Funnies that featured such memorable characters as Joe Palooka, Buck Rogers and Mutt and Jeff.

But it really didn’t matter when it originated, what mattered was how my brand of indigenous magazines were my constant companion in the dim balmy afternoons, stormy dark nights and valourous peek-a-boos during the study hours, letting the untamed horses of imagination run wild.What began with ‘Thakurmar Jhuli’, ‘Khirer Putul’ and ‘Buro Angla’ silently slipped into the cover comic strip ‘Kaushik’ of ‘Sukhtara’ and ‘Roverser Roy’ of Anandamela. Aabid Surti, who published the first 3 panel strips Dhabbuji, also created one of my favourite characters Bahadur for Indrajal Comics that could easily compete with Phantom and Mandrake.

The character came into being in the 1970s when dacoits were rampant in north India. Bahadur, himself a son of a dacoit Vairabh Singh, grew up to be the principle protector after being adopted as a kid by inspector Vishal, who had killed Vairabh. He along with his love interest Bela rid the Chambal Valley of the low life much like an indigenous Robin Hood.

I was filing comics in neat rows when from behind a double volume of Mandrake and Lothar emerged a rag-tag ‘Batul the Great’. Narayan Debnath’s Batul, was the next door superhero we all admired as kids. Batul was chasing Bachchu and Bichchu, the regular thug-duo, in the story and threw them inside the lock-up with one fling of his arm. The story goes that Debnath thought up the idea of the superhero while returning from College Street. When the Bangladesh War of Liberation flared up, he was asked by the publishers to add an aura of invincibility to Batul. Debnath was reluctant at first because he was worried about legal implications. On assurance, he made Batul a superhero able to take on tanks, airplanes, and missiles. Bullets began to bounce off him. If batul was the homespun superhero Handa Bhonda and Nonte Fonte, two of Narayan Debanath’s other creations, were any prankster’s guide to a ‘helluva fun’ and I was no exception.

Two other Super heroes who ruled our childhood were Phantom and Mandrake. The Skull Cave and Xanadu were exotic hideouts of these superheroes. I remember I had once or twice as a kid tried to locate Bangalla, the mythical African country, where resided The Ghost Who Walks. If the Skull Cave attracted me for its exotic and mystic nature, Mandrake’s residence Xanadu enticed me with its hi-tech content, close circuit cameras, drop gates. While, the skull ring’s impression with the sound effect of ‘dhishum dhishum’ remained etched in the mind for years, as did mandrake’s hocus focus that changed pistols to bananas, guns to snakes and rods to sugar-canes. If for nothing Lee Falk will be immortalized for the adrenalin rush he had given to our otherwise staid childhood that had no cable televisions, no video games and no play stations.

We also had our share of sci-fi in the hip-shaking Elvis singing 1970s. And it was none lesser than Flash Gordon created by Alex Raymond. The comic strip followed the adventures of Flash Gordon, a handsome polo player and Yale graduate and his companions Dale Arden and Dr Hans Zarkov. The story begins with Earth bombarded by fiery meteors. Dr Zarkov invents a rocket ship to locate their place of origin in outer space. Half mad, he kidnaps Flash and Dale, whose plane had crashed in the area, and the three travel to the planet Mongo, where they discover the meteors were weapons devised by Ming, evil ruler of Mongo. For many years, the three companions have adventures on Mongo, traveling to the forest kingdom of Arboria, ruled by Prince Barin; the ice kingdom of Frigia, ruled by Queen Fria; the jungle kingdom of Tropica, ruled by Queen Desira; the undersea kingdom of the Shark Men, ruled by King Kala; and the flying city of the Hawkmen, ruled by Prince Vultan.

Another aspect that attracted me were the remarkable pets they had be it Chinmaya (dog) of Bahadur or Devil (wolf), Hero (Horse) and Fraka (Hawk) of Phantom. But perhaps the most unique of them were Vedo (dog) and Uto (the ostrich) that Batul had. It was quite a treat seeing the illustration of Batul riding the ostrich almost choking the bird in his vice grip on the neck. He of course did not mean it and Uto surely knew it.

While, these superheroes did not have the fancy web of the Spiderman, the avant-garde batmobile of batman or the kryptonite gene of Superman, they were heroes grounded to the earth with their set of follies and weaknesses that often made them look very mortal and vulnerable and hence the connect was deeper. What made them heroes was perhaps their capacity of overcoming their frailties in doing what was right, what was true and fair.

In contrast the aura of invincibility of the new age superheroes makes them larger than life and hence often too alien to relate to. Perhaps the only exception is Herge’s Tintin, who has survived time and has in his own affable way continued to charm generations of kids with the classic morals of discretion is the better part of valour and a stitch in time saves nine. The Tintin series was therefore not there in my magic box from the past as it had taken its place in the book rack along with his dog talking dog snowy.

I dusted the books and set them back inside the box along with a few series of Panchatantra and Chandmama, our moral police from childhood. I closed the box and set it back where it was. I searched my way back to the cellar door in the fading light of the evening. A storm was brewing in the horizon. I descended into the balcony of my house amid the ordinary, but as I walked into my room I could feel the superhero alive inside me once again.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

What if!

What if I become a stone!
A bright shining piece to play
Throw me around, build your house,
Use me any which way.

What if I become a river!
With water lapping a lonely bay
Raise a flood, quench a thirst
Use me any which way.

What if I become a paper!
That has been soiled every day
Tear to pieces or write your life,
Use me any which way.

What if I become a joker!
A joker -- silly and gay,
Snub me out or laugh aloud
Use me any which way.

Use me; abuse me I will never refrain
Who am I or what can I be;
But the day I pour down like a rain
Don’t run for a shade away from me.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Romance on wheels

Most of the time I have to travel by air. I go to the airport and catch a plane, I am hopping places. I reach my destination, attend meetings and then I am back at the base and that too in time.

As I have raced with time to keep pace I have wondered about trains...a huge coal engine chugging out of the station puffing black smoke and whistling. The locomotive wriggles out of the confines of the station, car shed and workshops...with an occasional passerby staring into its it fades into the valley...

A journey by train is very different from travelling by road or air. It allows you to be one with nature for sometime...not the ones we use now in the comfrots of the AC coops....the train had the effect of setting the mind at rest ....completely at one with nature.....thoughts wander in and out of the open window as the electric posts and wires play a game of catch-me-if-you-can racing with the tracks that constantly shine and meet and then part ways and move on.... sights outside the window spur some past memory and activate a new set of hyperlinks that lead us on to some old sad tales of little unhappay things or sweet buds that you pluck from the maze of time and let it blossom at ease.

I have always been fascinated by the trains since I was a child. There is some magical quality about watching an engine pull a series of rakes so a magician who would disaappear a handful of knives into his mouth and smile....I feel like sitting in the stomach of a huge serpent that noses through the valley, cuts through ravines, gorges through hills and criss crosses civilization with harmless ease. Long train journeys in my life have been rare, but the tramp has seen it all.

I had came across a parchment by Sandeep Silas on an old monk form India Mahatma Gandhi and his association with the Railways. It read :In 1901, Gandhi and Sir Pherozeshah Mehta travelled by the same train from Bombay to Calcutta. Gandhi had an opportunity to speak to him in the special saloon which was chartered for him. The kingly style of the Congress leader did not amuse him. The session at Calcutta, and his stay with Gokhale prompted him to tour the entire country in a third class compartment, to acquaint himself with the hardships of passengers. The first such journey was from Calcutta to Rajkot, with one day stopover each at Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur and Palanpur. Gandhi did not spend more than Rs 31 on his journey, including the train fare.

Third class travel, he thought, was the mirror to the plight of Indians. These journeys made him realise how India bled. His meagre travel kit comprised a metal tiffin-box, a canvas bag, a long coat, dhoti (loin cloth), towel, shirt, blanket and a water jug.The sight of a colossus seized by a few people, bound like Gulliver while the pygmies rejoiced, pained Gandhi. His experiences while travelling through India convinced him that swaraj (independence) was the only hope.

The Mahatma was born in a third class compartment of an Indian train. Gandhi preferred the ordinary train-life was closer to him this way. He has recorded vividly that the third class compartments were dirty and arrangements bad. He had an acrid experience of third class travelling on a journey from Lahore to Delhi in 1917. Twelve annas (75 paise) to a porter got him an entry into the overcrowded train through a window. He stood for two hours at night before ashamed passengers made room for him.

When we read about Gandhi, we realise that a lot of his philosophy emerged during the spare time he had while traveling. The train journeys gave Gandhi an opportunity to think and indulge in introspection.

I guess that is the magic of train journey. They help us make a connect with our own people. They also keep us a little removed from the world outside so that we get time to think....think and bring about we get into one of the ancient trains and whistle away into the darkness.

It's such a pity that as life gets faster, we move away from the trains to the the roads and get air borne. It takes away so much from a child and a dreamer like me...the cows, the endless pride of buffaloes...not herd...pride...the sudden conglomeration of trees before dispersing onto different corners of the paddy field, the water wheel that a girl paddles on as the glinting water pours into a takes away the sun and moon in all its beauty, the hillside, the waving hands, the run-along children frolic, the tune of a bamboo flute of a shepherd and many more.

More importantly it takes away the fear and anguish of losing it all...the pain of not knowing it at all and the joy of having stacked up the experience in the heart as we move on.......only the rails look forever un-weary and ready for the next journey...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Window on the Pointless

It happens sometimes. When the grey sky with droopy eyes makes the sun go to sleep… it happens. When you look out at the window pane and see one droplet collecting the other and the two knock on the next door brother…till they have gathered enough to roll down the pane and seep through the window sill into the lane…

In those uncertain moments I flicker like the last flash from a candle, before disappearing round the corner of my old street and stand right before my childhood. Those were the days when even a little rock-salt with green mango were laced with the most daring thrills of life. The run-downs to catch that yellow school bus… the wait-for-hours for the old ‘ektara’ seller to come to my lane on Sundays… the radio…Don McLean, Carpenters, ABBA, BoneyM…. Those old tunes… On lazy afternoons like this when the world goes past like a gushing pool of water and you stand at the doorstep not knowing which way the tide of life will take you….you think of these things sometimes.

I have creeper on my terrace…it has certainly grown a few inches in the last two weeks of rain…the fresh green leaves are filled with life…I touched and felt them like a parasite trying to feed off it…and then saw a quivering, withered yellow one hiding below the fresh tuft… my eyes welled up…pointless I know… but it happens sometimes.

A distant song filled the balmy air making it heavier. I know this song… When I hear this, I usually feel like humming it for sometime for it makes me happy, but today I looked up into the sky and slowly recited W H Auden…

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, Silence the pianos and with muffled drum Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead, Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves, Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West, My working week and my Sunday rest, My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song; I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Pointless I know… but it happens sometimes on lazy afternoons.