Thursday, 12 June 2014

Indexed Stories – 16

The “M” pages are full of interesting people and there are many stories that I wish to share. But, that will have to wait. I will depart from the self-imposed alphabetical protocol and narrate an episode from the 70’s.

The people in this story are real and though I have lost touch with them many, many years ago, I will still not use their actual names. A few of us from the Art College started an artists’ combine to share the work load that most of us had as freelance designers. So, at the end of the first year (mid ’73 and still in my late teens) we found a shared office space and put up a studio in an old decrepit building on Mission Row Extension. We then moved to an even more decrepit building on Clive Row. This was a large hall with scores of offices partitioned off with steel filing cabinets. It was in the heart of the stock market and was as noisy as any fish market. Finally we moved to another shared space on Chowringhee Road. We moved again and again and again, every time getting better locations. But, my story is located in our first Chowringhee Road studio.

The old property at the end of the alley has undergone much alteration.
Between Bible House that has Stephens Opticians on the ground floor and the YMCA building there is a narrow driveway that leads to a large old property which housed a small printing press, Photovisual Colour Lab, the offices of the Bengali magazine “Parichay”, Latif’s camera repairing workshop and a few other small business establishments. In this compound, Chhobida had his photographic studio. It was a single storied largish room under the shade of a large mango tree. 

As one entered the space there was a small office room measuring no more than 7 by 6 feet that contained a table and a few assorted chairs. On the right was a door that opened into another small air-conditioned cubicle no more than 5 by 6 feet. A narrow counter ran along one wall and two somewhat bulky upholstered chairs jostled for space. As one walked into the main studio there were two dark rooms on the right and Chhobida’s studio took up the rest of the space. The actual shooting space was curtained off and behind it was a tripod with a large plate camera and a hideous looking rexene covered sofa-cum-bed. On the left there were small windows under which were a long dirty sink and a table for making tea. The room actually was cut up into two unequal “L” shapes – the larger one was the studio and the smaller one contained all that I described earlier. The smaller “L” had a loft above which was to be our studio. The loft was low, about 4 feet high and accessible by a steep wooden ladder and as one reached the final rung one had to stoop and get on all fours and crawl towards our respective drawing tables set on the floor. We sat cross legged on cushions. Despite the low ceiling the space was well lit and airy, but, long hours in that kind of posture gave us leg cramps and we would climb down and sit in the front office, which Chhobida and we used alternatively. Sometimes we would find the front office occupied and so we would walk out on to the main road, turn right, cross Stephens Opticians and the shops that sold fake Rayban sunglasses and turn into another property just before one hits Lindsay Street. Here was a long single storied structure on the right, which was originally a row of garages (maybe stables given the unusual height) now turned into shops and store rooms. Behind it was a bamboo ladder to the terrace where Babu Das had his sign board painting studio. It was a rough bamboo structure with a tarpaulin cover part of the way and an open terrace at the far end that had a billboard which provided shade when the sun moved to the west. Here, we would sit on low paint spattered wooden stools and chat while sipping sweet tea and having a much needed smoke.

While we worked in the studio in the loft, we would hear the main door open and close with a squeak – people coming in to meet Chhobida. Sometimes we saw them, sometimes we just heard them. The ones we saw were mostly nondescript middle-aged people. There were others who stood out for their peculiarities or behaviour. One of them was an established actress whose coquettish body language contrasted with a face that feigned innocence. She was perhaps a bit more than mid-thirty and her career was on the wane. Let me name her “Nyakamukhi” (literally translated as a face that feigns innocence) for the sake of this narrative. She would usually be accompanied by a heavy set man who wore “safari suits” and expensive sunglasses and a flashy gold watch. The top three buttons of his shirt would always be open revealing a gold chain against a dark, oily, hairless chest. Despite his well tailored clothes, we were never convinced that he was a movie producer. Why else would Mr. Gold Watch spend hours in the small air-conditioned cabin with Nyakamukhi? In public they looked dotingly at each other. They were obviously having an affair we assumed. He was generous though when it came to sharing out expensive cigarettes or ordering “shingaras” for everyone.

The present owner's choice of colour.
The squeaky door remains.
One day when I clambered down from our perch, Chhobida was hanging out a few prints to drip over the sink. He looked at me and requested me to fetch a few clips from the dark room. I went into the dark room and as my eyes adjusted to the low light of a red lamp, I noticed prints of a nude woman. I looked closely and Nyakamukhi looked back at me. I saw that she was slender but her face registered a kind of bewilderment as if shocked at her own nakedness. I also noticed that she had bad posture. She looked ill at ease and it was evident that she was not used to this. The ill paid models in the art college were far more confident and graceful. While a hundred questions ran through my mind Chhobida yelled “Did you find them? Look on the left top shelf”. “Yes, found them,” I yelled back collecting a handful of clips and rushing out of the dark room. I handed him the clips and saw that he was looking at my face intently. Did my expression betray me? As I climbed back up, I saw him leave what he was doing and rush off into the dark room and a few moments later rush out with a manila envelope and go to what we had by now named the love cabin. I heard what seemed like a whispered argument, followed by the squeak of the main door and Mr. Gold Watch’s voice fading out.

I stooped over my table and started working while my mind was trying to sort out things. Why? I asked myself did Nyakamukhi have to do this. What were her compulsions? Although not so young anymore she was an established actress. Was Mr. Gold Watch actually Mr. Fixer? For whom were the photographs intended? I had heard much about the sleazy world of cinema and about casting couches, but, at twenty, I was still unprepared for this experience.

Needless to say Nyakamukhi and Mr. Gold Watch never came back. This incident did not end there. Unable to keep things to myself, I shared it with my colleagues and Bhombol started snooping in the dark room whenever Chhobida was out. His perseverance over months became a matter of great hilarity until we moved to another office on the 17th.  floor also on Chowringhee Road with a beautiful view of the city greens stretching towards the river.

A year or so later we learnt about Nyakamukhi dying a gory death. It was in the newspapers.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Indexed Stories – 15

“L” seems to stand for limbo, as I had kept everything in abeyance for far too long this time. My last post was in October 2013 and much has happened since then. No, I will not provide lengthy alibis, instead of which I will dwell on the surprises that life springs on us. These surprises may not always be pleasant; in fact, I have had my fair share of those. Over the years I have learnt to developed a thick skin. But, however much I try to ignore these; I am sucked right into its vortex and my self-created insulation fails me at times. As a consequence, I am left a bit frayed at the edges and a considerable amount of time is wasted in the healing process.

Writing this post is not just a form of catharsis, but is a sure sign that the process of recovery has begun. Some wounds however never heal completely and leave permanent scars and almost in all cases they are brought about by a feeling of betrayal.

Every individual possesses their own unique way of dealing with emotional turmoil and employ varying means for catharsis – some more efficient than others.  I used to laugh the most when my back was to the wall. But, I am too much of an optimist; a particularly bad financial year would be brushed away by convincing myself that it could not get any worse – it could only get better. The following year it would be the same and I would still say to myself – it could only get better! But, then I was younger, more energetic and full of hope. Nowadays, though I still laugh, I play solitaire when I am not working (which is most of the time), as if this game of chance will inure me to the pitfalls of risk taking.

As an incorrigible optimist (sometimes foolhardily so) I believe that life is too happening to give up! So, let me give you some examples of optimistic people that I have met.

A younger friend of mine, Lalu (not his real name) was a table tennis champ and then became a professional bridge player while running a successful business. He had his brother join his enterprise who promptly swindled him of his money and share of their paternal home. At that juncture in his life, his wife left him too. One would generally be devastated with such a combination of miseries, but, Lalu was unfazed. His business bounced back in a few years, he fell in love again and to top it all he funds and runs a primary school on the outskirts of Calcutta for children from economically challenged backgrounds. Lalu is a true fighter and to me, he epitomises optimism.

Although Shawji is not on the “L” page I cannot but tell you about him. Shawji’s life was a rags to riches story. He came to the city as a young adult from a small town in Uttar Pradesh with just a shirt on his back. He was a dark man with a trimmed moustache. He always wore spotless white dhotis and shirts and flaunted his gamchha almost as a style statement. He had started as a small time scrap dealer and by the time we met, although barely literate, he already owned a steel rolling mill, a fleet of trucks and trailers, a lot of property and other assets. He was dignified and courteous, even his “dehati” Hindi was without any rough edges. Despite the apartment he owned just below me, he continued to live most of the time in the tenement he grew up in. His humility was his endearing quality. One Sunday morning he visited me to sort out some issues regarding the maintenance of the building and after having concluded our business, Mr. Shaw asked me how we were coping in these times of inflation. “Guptaji kaysa chal raha hai is mehengai ke din me?” he asked. He knew that I was an artist and to most people, including educated people, being an artist is not even considered a profession. I explained that the going was not good, that returns on investments were decreasing, interest rates having dropped drastically, etc. He listened to me intently, but, all the while I could see that he was getting a little impatient. Now, I cannot write this in the language he used, so those of you who are familiar with the “dehati” Hindi of the Gaya region can try and imagine the tenor.

“I don’t understand why you Bengalis are so fond of earning from fixed deposits. How much do you get? 7% - 8%? That’s pitiful!” he remarked. I kept quiet.

“Look!” he continued, “Do you have a lakh to spare?” I nodded nervously.

“This is what you should do. You invest a lakh and the bank gives you the rest and you buy a road roller with it. There are many road projects on and they always need road rollers. You rent yours to one of the projects and earn. Do you know how much you can earn?” he asked. I shook my head.

“After taking care of expenses and paying EMI to the bank you will make about twenty to twenty five thousand every month. That one lakh would have earned seven or eight thousand rupees in a year from a fixed deposit and how much do you earn this way? Three lakhs! And that too, you just sit at home. No comparison!” I widened my eyes in disbelief.

“You will be paying off your loan in five to seven years and the road roller would be too old to run and de-commissioned, sell it as scrap and you make another lakh!” he continued. I feigned interest.

“See, I have been doing this for many years now. I arrange a loan from the bank and walk into the heavy engineering department of Larsen & Toubro and buy heavy duty cranes needed for building flyovers. Then I walk into the bridge building section of the same company and hire the equipment to them. It’s all on paper. I do not take delivery of the equipment nor deliver it to the project site. I arrange so that the monthly rental is directly paid into my bank and the bank adjusts the EMI. I sit at home and see my bank account getting fat!”
“But, of course you will not be able to handle this. You will need a good overseer who will handle this for you. If you decide to do it I will arrange everything”, he concluded and took his leave.

After Shawji had left, Smriti who overheard this conversation from the next room came over and asked whether I was planning to buy a road roller? “Why not?” I replied. “See what we get out of it! Money of course, no parking problems and we can take it for a spin on weekends! The downside of course is that to catch the evening show we will have to start immediately after lunch!” We finally decided not to buy a road roller; there was no boot space for our baggage.

Way back in the mid-seventies I had a friend (Laltu this time) who was really desperate to get married as all of us were spoken for and spent most of our spare time with our respective girlfriends. So, he decided that he should get married and started scouting around for a bride. We met infrequently at our rendezvous at the tea shop on Hindustan Road and he would bemoan his lot and complain that his search was proving futile. But, one day a beaming Laltu announced that he had finally found his bride. We started pestering him for details.

“What’s her name?” I asked.
“What does she look like?” demanded another.
“She is very pretty!” said Laltu with a smug smile
“When did you meet her?”
“I did not meet her” he said.
“So, you saw a photograph?”
“No” he said flatly.
“Then how do you know that she is pretty?”
“I met her father, he is a very good looking person!” he said in all earnestness.

There was laughter all around and a momentarily befuddled Laltu also joined in. That in my opinion is optimism by inference.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Indexed Stories – 14

It was about this time of the year when everyone in Calcutta would be expectantly waiting for the annual festival of Durga Puja to begin. Pandals would be witnessing hectic activity, the markets would be crowded with shoppers, traffic would start getting slower by the day and hordes of people from adjoining towns and villages would converge on the city in droves – wide-eyed wonder gradually morphing into a tired shuffle by early morning when the buses would take them home. By that time, new clothes would be drenched in sweat and cling to their tired bodies, new shoes worn with torn socks would have resulted in painful blisters and many would limp home in bare feet.

The scenario has not changed a bit except for the fact that everything has gone into a maddening overdrive. The pandals are more ornate, far more expensive, themes and material use - disproportionately more important than simple piety. The crowds too have swelled a hundred-fold and instead of their presence on the last four or five days, the throngs of people hit the streets much in advance – sometimes much before the Puja organizers have been able to put their acts together. The roads are almost un-navigable despite the police bandobast and it is sheer chaos for over a month.

On the flip side the dreaded haggling and threatening over Puja subscriptions have become a thing of the past – thanks to corporate funding. But that has also messed up the city. It is cluttered with millions of temporary bill boards and gates. The city nowadays is at its ugliest best. But, since ordinary people like me are not pestered for atrociously high donations, I prefer to look the other way. In fact, I do not even venture out lest my sense of aesthetics be violated. With the government wanting to market the Pujas as a touristic event and planning to fund Puja committees, I would like to suggest that such visual pollution be reined in and a design code be formulated for advertisers and sponsors to follow and any transgression must be heavily penalized.

The scenario was not so in 1983. The Puja ‘spirit’ was all there but the madness and chaos had not yet manifested itself on the collective psyche. I mention a specific year because I have fond memories of it. Our daughter Shohini was not yet three years old then and like any child of that age had an unending list of questions and an insatiable hunger for stories.

Shohini as a 3 year old.
We lived on Motilal Nehru Road in a small joint family with a clutch of live-in domestics. The Deshapriya Park Durga Pujo was a short walk away and I had a few friends who were among the organisers. This was the closest I have ever been to any local pujo and that allowed me access to the hallowed pandal.  It was the fourth day (Chaturthi) and the maids reported that the Durga idol had just arrived. Seeing Shohini’s impatience I decided to take her there. It was early evening and the little girl almost dragged me by the hand to the park and in we went into the pandal. There was hectic activity and I was concerned about her being hurt by getting in the way. I picked her up and walked around, pointing out Durga and her vehicle – the Lion, the demon – Ashur and Durga’s children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh. This was not an ‘ekchala’ composition, but free standing idols and as I explained things to her I made the mistake of climbing the dais and peering behind the idols. At that very moment everyone present heard this perfectly audible little voice ask, “Oder pyachhoney bnash kyano?” (Why do they have bamboos stuck up their behinds?)

I could feel the eyes of the people around turning towards us. Sacrilege! This was the Emperor has no clothes moment. I heard someone hiss what I was doing up there and that I should leave. I made a fast exit with Shohini in my arms – who was still insisting for an answer to her question. I strode out of the pandal and explained to her that the idols were made of mud and that the bamboos were intended as support. Her expression told me that she was not satisfied with my answer. I tried to divert her attention to the merry-go-round and giant wheel still being assembled and kept up a constant chatter to pre-empt any more discussion on the bamboos up the posteriors of the Gods and Goddesses.

All the way back home and into the late evening I quizzed her - who is Durga’s vehicle? The Lion! …And Kartick’s? The Peacock! ...And Ganesh’s? The Mouse! …And Lakshmi’s? The Owl! …And Saraswati’s? The Swan! By the time I was convinced that my subterfuge had worked and the question of the bamboos up the posteriors of the idols would not come up again, she looked at me intently and said, “Why are they made of mud?”
“That’s the cheapest and the most easily available material to give shape to any form” I explained, thinking that a direct and matter of fact answer would close the chapter. She looked unconvinced. While I was trying to think fast for a more acceptable reason, she grew restless. “Tell me why!” she demanded.

This meant that she was expecting a story. I knew I had to be consistent with whatever I had been telling her all evening and yet a story needed to be concocted.

“You see Durga’s children – Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartick and Ganesh were very naughty and they always fought among themselves and Durga had her hands full trying to settle disputes. She, despite her ten hands was always at her wits end like an over worked mother,” I started my story.

“What were the children fighting about?” she interjected.

“Oh! Many things, mostly small things like Ganesh licked Lakshmi’s ice cream and Lakshmi came crying to Mother. Kartick shot arrows as target practice on Saraswati’s swan and things like that. They did things that naughty boys and girls do.”

“What else did they do?” she giggled warming up in anticipation of a longer list of naughty things. This would be a long story if I keep adding to the list I thought and the story needed to be concluded fast.

You see this was going on for far too long and Durga knew that this would never end. Because children will be children and the children of the Gods and Goddesses never grow up. Have you ever heard of an old and infirm Durga or a bearded Ganesh? See! They never grow up or grow old! So, Durga was getting tired of all the naughtiness and was thinking of how to put an end to this nonsense.

Then one day Lakshmi sent her owl to eat up Ganesh’s mouse. Ganesh got another one from the pet shop and Lakshmi’s owl ate that one too. This continued for some time until Ganesh found that he had no pocket money left to buy any more mice. So, he finally confronted his sister and they started scratching, biting and fighting. Saraswati and Kartick egged them on from the sidelines and soon it really got out of hand. Durga got the opportunity she wanted and you know what she did?” I asked.

“What? Shohini demanded.

“Durga turned everyone into mud and the potters of Kumartuli started using that mud to make idols! There!” I concluded almost relieved to have pulled it off.

I had to repeat this story often, and I had to repeat many stories including the story of the Fat Queen that lived in the Victoria Memorial.

I intended to write about the people in the “L” pages of my telephone diaries and I just couldn’t begin. That will have to wait until the next post. This is what the Durga Puja festivities do to you. I do not go out pandal hopping because I detest being pushed around and my feet trampled upon, and yet at this time of the year even while sitting at home in front of the computer, the ‘spirit’ of the season gets to you.

Happy Pujas to you all.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Indexed Stories – 13

It’s strange how earning a living interferes with work! It’s irksome when one cannot devote as much time to the kind of things that one enjoys doing. I have been planning and plotting my magnum opus for quite a while now, but the pen is yet to touch paper. I keep processing things over in my mind and see it disintegrate and reshape itself. It’s like constructing a house of cards and watch it collapse in slow motion. My conscience tells me “you are making up all kinds of excuses!” But, conscience by definition is a prick. People, who know me well, constantly remind me of my awful time management. They tell me to think less and work more. Actually, they are right – at least partly right. Because, I don’t think too much – I dream a lot. Daydreaming is my biggest passion – almost an obsession.

“I have a dream!”

No, I have many dreams. These include becoming famous for all the great things I will achieve in various disciplines of art, as well as, for having proposed the best formula to eradicate poverty. But, in this scenario I see myself as the same middle-class person scraping the bottom of the barrel at the end of every month. So, I design that elusive solar powered battery the size of a cigarette packet that can power a whole household. I manage to make it with simple household objects and all of it costs me a pittance. I power my home with it and the power supply people catch on after a while when they are no longer able to hike my power bill just before the Pujas. Inspectors come and realize what I have done and the news spreads. Power Corporations all over the world fall over each other to buy the rights of my invention. I smell a rat and refuse to sell. Because I know that though I will be making tons of money, they will either shelve my invention and keep on with burning fossil fuels, building dams across rivers and generally play havoc with Mother Nature or make the batteries so expensive that people will not buy them…and Fukushimas will keep on happening. I confer with my friend Kunal Sen and ask him to write simple notes on the concept of “superconductors” and an instruction manual that teaches the public to make their own batteries. I confer with my friend Kunal Basu, as to how to popularize the invention using whatever inexpensive tools at our disposal. The Power Corporations have no way to stop that, thanks to the internet and since my invention has benefited humanity and saved the environment, I get the Nobel Prize! (The award money is not too big, but that much will do).

The solar powered battery the size of a cigarette packet is however yet to be invented. I am working on it in my dreams.

Yes, you have guessed right, I am on the “K” page and both the Kunals have been there for a long time now. Both of them have a few things in common – they are extremely good at time management and are also great teachers. Kunal Sen was my class mate in school and we almost grew up together. When I went to Art College, he went on to study Physics – that was around 1972-75. He would explain whatever he was studying then and make difficult concepts sound simple. His kind of lucidity I believe came from a clear mind and deep understanding of his immediate interest. On one such occasion he explained the concept of superconductivity. He had told me that if it became possible to create superconductivity at ambient temperatures it would be possible to reduce the size of batteries drastically. The idea of the solar powered battery the size of a cigarette packet must have been permanently embedded in my imagination from that day on.

Another thing common to both the Kunals is that they gave up smoking long ago. Although both of them have separately told me that they still crave it at times – which makes me believe that not smoking despite the occasional craving is an effort of heroic proportions. As for myself, I keep on smoking and dream of giving it up, because I can achieve anything in my dreams and the association of cigarettes with my dream of a solar powered battery the size of a cigarette packet is too compelling. My conscience tells me “you are making up all kinds of excuses to keep on smoking!” but it’s common knowledge that conscience is a prick. I now keep my cigarettes in a case that belonged to my father made of faux crocodile leather with silver trimmings.

This could be a stylish battery housing! Premium price!
Kunal Sen always loved both technology and art. He still does and has been trying to marry the two in very interesting ways in the form of art objects and video installations which he manages to create in his spare time despite his responsibilities as Chief of Technology Development, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Exemplary time management!

Kunal Basu and I met around 1991-92 when I had just given up my design business and began my career as an artist. At the same time I started to collect indigenous art. Kunal Basu and I share this interest with passion. His collection is from all over the world, whereas mine is basically Bengal. Whatever pieces I have from South East Asia and Africa are all generous gifts to us from him. 

Despite his busy schedule of teaching at Oxford University, writing academic papers, lecture tours, etc., he manages to publish his novels and short stories at regular intervals – he is the epitome of time management!
I keep meeting them at regular intervals when they visit the city and on each occasion I learn something new. Both of them speak without loading their sentences with jargon like post-modern pundits. The times I spend with them are always intellectually stimulating.

Talking about Kunal Sen I remember an incident from our school days. The Bangladesh liberation war was triggered off when the Pakistani Army massacred students and teachers of the Dhaka University on 25th March 1971. There was shock and indignation the world over and people joined protest marches everywhere. Senior students from our school also joined in one such protest march on a weekday in early April. We marched to the Pakistan Embassy (the same building that now houses the Bangladesh Embassy) in Calcutta and what seemed like college students tutored us to join in the sloganeering. An older student led the slogan shouting by our group.

“Yahya Khan!” he shouted.

“Wak thoo! Wak thoo!” we spat.

Having walked awhile under a scorching April sun, try as we might that glob of spit eluded us. Even then our conscience told us that the gravity of the situation was being compromised and the present re-telling too is bereft of sombreness, but I am no one’s conscience keeper, not even mine.

Ending on a serious note let me tell you that although both the Kunals are very close friends, not an iota of their time management skills has rubbed off on me. I always dream big but end up attempting very little – a true blue Bengali trait! But, I promise that one of these days I will…

Meanwhile, I keep strategizing on how to go about my magnum opus with a 1200 maybe 1500 word - attention span!

For more on Kunals Sen’s art and writings see: <>
For more on Kunal Basu see: <>

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Indexed Stories – 12

“J” stands for jinxed – at least that is what my telephone diaries reveal.  The first diary had twelve names, the second had six names and the last has only three. Of the three that remain two have held there places from the beginning, but, I have not called them in years. This is disappointing as far as relationships are concerned. It is true that many people have dropped out from my life, as I have from theirs and many more have filled in that void. This is not to say that some individuals are replaced by other individuals – it is the time one spends with friends, family and acquaintances that undergo qualitative and sometimes subtle changes – for better or for worse. There are some who have become misty silhouettes and there are others whose memories we cherish and continue to miss.

Apart from the names on the pages of my telephone diaries, there were quite a few whose names started with “J”. The first among them that I can recall is Judhajit Sarkar, two years my senior and my elder brother’s classmate in Guwahati in the mid-sixties. I met him again many years later as a film-maker and we are in touch thanks to Facebook. The next person is Jugabrata Roy a year junior to me in high school in Calcutta, whose elder brother Subrata was my friend – again thanks to Facebook we have connected. I have however, not yet exchanged a word with him nor enquired about Subrata. This social platform has its own set of rules and a very relaxed code of conduct. You may ignore, like, comment, share a status message or picture; join a discussion mid-way and leave abruptly; and you don’t “unfriend” unless the person is absolutely obnoxious. You don’t have to message your friends individually every now and then to reaffirm a friendship. Most interestingly, silence is considered a tacit statement of camaraderie! All it takes to remain “unfriended” is a few clicks of the mouse every now and then. The virtual world is generously undemanding.

Justine De Penning – a pretty looking performer from the USA is one such friend. She arrived on my doorstep one day to discuss a possible collaboration. Things did not happen for a number of reasons. I deleted her temporary Calcutta number but kept in touch on Facebook. Whenever I see a picture of her I simply press the ‘like’ button. It’s like I’m saying “Hey there! I am still aroundJ.”

Getting back to my diaries, I search every name for a story. There are a few obvious ones, but I am loathe to discuss them. There are, for example, a few senior artists on these pages – one more opportunistic than the other – wheeler-dealers all. There is Jayati Bhattacharya my classmate from school. There is Jayati Bose the theatre worker, who married two of my close friends in quick succession. There is Jalil Ali, the carpenter. There is June, the actress (or should that be actor?). Most of them have stories against their names, but these are too private to be published.

This leaves me with little scope to write a story. Should I jump to “K”? I decide to wait and think of a solution to this impasse. But, I have little time. I have committed myself to a weekend deadline and I must keep to it. What kind of madness is this? Why do I have to? What difference would it make if I reneged on a self-imposed deadline and took a few more days?  I mull over the issue in my mind and realize that I am getting obsessed. I leave the computer and start surfing the TV news channels. The usual shenanigans of the political class are on in full swing. Kamduni goes to the President. Sudipto Sen’s Sharada is next and for a moment I see a weak link - I think Jayrambati! “J” at last! But, then I realize I am at a dead end.

I sleep fitfully, tossing and turning in bed and then I am wide awake in the middle of the night. I stare up at the ceiling and when my vision clears - the usual chiaroscuro of patterns made by the street lights two floors below gets my attention. 

The shadow of the Jackfruit tree next to our bedroom window sways gently and stops as the breeze dies down. The shadows are still – very still. My mind suddenly does a flash-back and goes to a scene about 28 years in the past, when we lived on Motilal Nehru Road. There was a Dumur tree next to our window. Our daughter was two and a half years old, maybe three. Power failures were rampant then and the joint family had not invested in a battery inverter set, as the house was quite big and financial resources were in the doldrums. On summer evenings when the power would go, I would lie down on the cool red floor without a shirt and our little daughter, Shohini - clad in rompers would almost on cue lie down beside me, using my rib cage and floor as a stylish recliner. Thus positioned we would stare up at the ceiling. After the initial “tell me a story” wore me out, I invented a game to kill time and to defeat the darkness. Pointing our index fingers we followed the moving shadows up on the ceiling. Every time a car passed by, the headlights would catch the leaves and branches of the Dumur tree and the window grill and cast shadows on the ceiling and upper part of the walls. Then start moving from right to left until it was dark again. The room would be a swirl of wondrous shadows and patterns. As the shadows started emerging with the oncoming car head lights, the two of us – father and daughter would shout out mimicking the sound of a car zooming by, “Oiiii elo elo elo elo elo…!” (There it comes) and as the car passed by and the patches of light melted into darkness once again, we would cry in mock disappointment, “Jaaaa gelo gelo gelo gelo gelo…!” (Oh no…there it goes) and laugh a happy laugh.

“J” stands for “Jaaa gelo gelo gelo gelo!” the ring of simple mirth in this exclamation evokes delight even to this day.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Indexed Stories – 11

On the “I” page of the first telephone diary, my departed father – Inendra Nath Gupta’s name appears. If I were to write about him it would fill many pages. Stories of his boyhood years spent in Rajnandgaon in Madhya Pradesh, the escapades he shared with his two friends Ernie and Bernie and the jeep that had a jerry can strapped to the bonnet instead of a fuel tank held me spellbound. The plots of his oft repeated ghost stories used to get mixed up and we would noisily object at such deviations and navigate him back on track. I suspect that he probably did that on purpose. It was a good ploy that ensured interactive time, as he was almost always away on tour. He and his three brothers were tall, strapping men – they don’t make Bengalees that way anymore. He was not successful in his career, but that did not dim his laughter or of his enjoying the company of friends and Baba was a good cook to boot. Very late in life he started sharing a lot of stories from his past. After a sudden attack of Hypo-glycemia, the last 20-25 years of his memory was completely erased, but he was lucid when recounting earlier times. So, this was the time when I tried to keep up a constant conversation and asked him plenty of questions. He narrated incidents, events and mentioned many names that I had not heard of before. He had this condition that can best be termed “auto-edit malfunction”. So, he volunteered much information that otherwise would not have been shared. The things that he said, people that he mentioned were a kind of revelation to me. He spoke of a few women with a kind of wistfulness. I did not press any further though my interest was aroused. I thought I detected a trace of melancholia in his voice and have often wondered whether he had a Fermina Daza in the recesses of his sub-consciousness. I have been guilty of a few indiscretions, even if they were just imagined ones, so I have absolutely no qualms empathising with his share of dalliances – real or imaginary.

The “I” page also has my elder brother – Indrajit’s name with a Madras number and a cell phone number, because that is where he ultimately settled down after leaving the army and along with his wife Aloka runs a restaurant called Bayleaf.  But protocol demands that I should not write about people when using their real names. Ditto with Indrani, my classmate from school who is still in touch with me and whose daughter Rajashri was our daughter – Shohini’s classmate too.

In the last diary the penultimate name is Ina Puri - a comparatively recent addition. She was a few years my junior in school and she had another name then – Urmimala. We became friends about two years ago thanks to Facebook. But, there is one more name that I will not mention; she was my first crush when I was still in school. We exchanged phone numbers recently when we met at an ATM outlet. I never professed my love or said anything to that effect to her then or even later. In the last forty years or so I have met her maybe thrice and each time I was struck by her bearing and beauty. She is the kind of person that the Fermina Dazas of the world ought to be. When I was reading Love in the time of cholera, I imagined Fermina Daza as this tall and fair Bengali girl I knew. The novel has been made into a movie, but, I do not wish to see it lest my perception of Fermina Daza be compromised.

I have on many occasions wondered how the immense power of a well written story inspires imagination.  Another book had a similar effect on me, although in this case I had seen the movie first. While staying with my friends Kunal and Sushmita in Montreal many years ago, we watched the movie Dona Flor and her two husbands based on a novel by Jorge Amado.  Sônia Braga in the role of Dona Flor was simply beautiful and sensuous. She remained in my memory for years and back home in Calcutta after almost three years (2000) I created a work titled “Confrontation - IV”, but it had a nickname and it was “Dona Flor, her two husbands and I”.

"Confrontation - IV" (2000), acrylic and photo-chemical imaging on canvas.

In 2005 I went to Brazil on a fellowship for two months. I lived on the beautiful property of Sacatar Fundacion on the island of Itaparica. It was about an hour’s launch journey away from the city of Salvador across the Bay of All Saints. On one of my trips to Salvador – I found small booklets being sold behind the Mercado Modelo. I was told that they were called “Cordels”. Books hung up on strings and therefore the name. It was interesting to see that this was a product of folk or local writers and poets and each of them had a wood-cut print on the cover by folk artists. Again another group of people unconnected to the first two sang the songs in front of the Cordel book stalls. The songs are also called Cordels.

Top row: woodcuts by Borges. Bottom: three cordel books and woodcuts by unknown artists.

I also learnt of Jose Francisco Borges – a much celebrated folk artist. I studied his wood-cuts and had the good fortune of a print being gifted to me by my hosts. I decided to create Cordel book covers albeit in a much larger format and Borges the artist was my inspiration. I eventually exhibited these drawings hung from a string at the Galeria Do Conselho in Salvador.

"Celebrating Jose Fransisco Borges" (2005)
ink & water colour on paper.

In between all this and travelling to Salvador with LaShawnda my new found artist friend, I busied myself in the library where I found a copy of Dona Flor and her two husbands – I read it and realized that the story was set in the city of Salvador. My trips to Salvador took on a different meaning from then on. I visited all the streets and locations mentioned in the book, and to LaShawnda’s consternation I kept peering into doorways and taking many unexplained detours. What was more interesting was that the taxi driver we used a few times was called Cigano – the taxi driver in the novel had the same name. I was that close to finding my Dona Flor!

After returning to Calcutta via London with two weeks spent at Kunal and Susmita’s beautiful home in Oxford, I was asked by Unesco to write a report on my experience in Brazil. I answered all the usual questions and sang the usual paeans to Brazilian culture, but, how can a true blue Bengali not find fault in an otherwise impeccable arrangement? I had to be honest to my cultural upbringing. I thus ended the report with a sentence in capital letters …” BUT, I DID NOT FIND DONA FLOR.”


I took the “lancha” (launch) from behind the Mercado Modelo at the foot of the Elevador Lacerda in Salvador to get to the town of Mar Grande on the island of Itaparica on a day when the sea was unusually choppy. I would have preferred to take the more stable ferry boat from the terminal of Sao Joaquim that would have taken me to Bom Despacho. But, it was late and finding “combis” (VW vans) would have been difficult. I do not like choppy seas, but, left with no option I boarded the launch and found myself a strong iron post to anchor myself. The attendant, who by now knew me, handed me a can of Brahma beer – which was as welcome to me as a security blanket is to children. As I maneuvered myself between the post and an overloaded bench – I noticed a beautiful girl no more than 18 or 19 sitting in the Captain’s cabin. She had a baby in her arms. As the prow went up and then dipped down one wave after another, the salty spray washing the deck, I decided to concentrate on her rather than the scene of people throwing up. With every dip and lunge I saw her for short moments and I never saw her full head – the window came in the way. She had a luminescent bronze complexion and was beautiful beyond words. But, she looked sad and tired. I went back to the drawing board for yet another Cordel book cover titled “O visual Domina” (The visual dominates).

Dona Flor?

For more on cordels follow this link <>

Monday, 17 June 2013

Indexed Stories – 10

The H-pages on all my telephone diaries include people from many disciplines, starting from industrialists to upholsterers with artists and gallerists thrown in for good measure. The only exception is Haradhan Ghosh, but everyone called him – Ghosh Babu. He was the quintessential Bengali gentleman (bhadralok), a retired head clerk, who was very meticulous with paper work and wore simple but ironed clothes. He could be easily identified from a distance because of his shiny bald pate edged with a horse-shoe shaped band of white hair. Most of you who have lived in Calcutta or still live here must have come across at least one Ghosh Babu in your life. The name is almost generic, as it characterizes a kind.

I met ‘my’ Ghosh Babu under very extenuating circumstances. This was in the early 80’s and the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass was still in its planning stages. Therefore, land to the east of Calcutta was very cheap and many small time real estate brokers were dealing in large tracts of land and selling them as smaller plots, as it was evident that the city would have to expand eastward. At that time I was doing well as a designer and so had some expendable income. I did not understand money management or the share market. All I did was buy insurance policies and that is when someone suggested that I invest in land. I was still living in a rented house that also doubled up as my office-cum-studio. Therefore the idea of buying land appealed to me. I bought up little parcels of land with the intention of selling all but one when the time came. Smriti and I dreamt of a house with a garden, a separate studio and furnace room, may be a small pond – the whole works. But there were no roads leading up to these plots and it was difficult to visit our ‘properties” and we were told that the roads would happen in a few years time. So we waited patiently till the mid 90’s when the bypass had been completed and a road cut through paddy fields to a small village called Mukundapur. A short walk from there took us to Atghara, where our land was situated. By the time we made our first trip, we found that our lands had been taken over by squatters under the patronage of the CPI(M). So, Ghosh Babu - who was one of the plot owners swung into action and organised the Atghara Plot-Holders Association, convened meetings, kept the minutes, maintained the accounts and petitioned the local politicians for help. His efforts bore fruit and for a small amount of money the party would resettle the squatters elsewhere. Dates and times were fixed for the handing over of money in exchange for our land. All seemed well, but, on the appointed day, to our dismay we were told that the squatters could not be moved because they had switched allegiance to the Trinamool Congress!

Ghosh Babu was unflustered by all this. He immediately convened another meeting and decided to start talking to the local Trinamool Congress leaders. At every meeting these functionaries demanded more and more money. I did a quick calculation and realized that if we gave in to their demands, we would incur heavy losses and I had made up my mind to sell off the land anyway. Because by this time I had already moved into our new flat and I had shelved the dream of a home with a garden and studios et al for the time being. As luck would have it a broker approached me and offered me a price – it was not much. I was getting back a little more than my investments, but, holding on could mean a complete loss. When I conveyed my decision to Ghosh Babu, for a fraction of a second I saw accusation in his eyes - “Deserter!” it read. But, he smiled benignly and we parted ways. Today, that area is chock-a-block with non-descript houses resembling a shabby suburban town with unpaved streets and no drainage system.

I had yet to learn from this experience. Brushing aside the Atghara episode as a minor mistake, I took it upon myself to develop a property for my friends and family. I made a deal with a land broker and identified a large piece of land in Nayabad   (just behind what is now the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute).  I designed the place with a central park and a common studio and let it lie for a while. By the time I mustered up everyone’s support and garnered resources to build the boundary wall, I found that the land measured much less than what we had bought. The Jadavpur University Employees Cooperative had gobbled up a part of our land. No amount of talking and measuring with the Land Registry Office yielded any solution. Eventually, I set about selling the land and managed to pay back most of the plot holders - barring two. I am still somewhat embarrassed about it after so many years. The upshot was that I lost a part of my savings in the bargain.

However, our dream of owning a home with a garden remained strong. So, we bought a large plot of land in what was then the outskirts of Shantiniketan.  A land dealer showed us the area and asked us to design the roads and select the plot ourselves. So, we designed the roads and chose the best plot of land in the vicinity. It was in different levels and had a forest behind it. We even decided to call the area “Shonajhurir Dhal”. I always liked the station names on the way to Bolpur, like - “Pichkurir Dhal” and “Noadar Dhal”. I even remember a little girl ask her father, “Baba what is the meaning of Noadar Dhal?” A very serious looking gentleman authoritatively answered, “It means there are no other dhals after this!” I had decided then, that there had to be more Dhals. A few of my close friends decided to buy land next to ours too. We put up fences, built a guard room, dug a well and brought in electricity. We planted hedges around the compound and many trees.
We never had an ancestral home. The one that could have been legitimately ours was called Madhabdi - a village near Dhaka, but my grandfather moved to Calcutta sometime in the 1890s. No one from our family ever went back. I always wondered what it would be like to be able to visit it annually like almost everyone does. Therefore Shonajhurir Dhal was to become our adopted homeland, a place that the next generation and after could call ‘ancestral home”.  Thus we decided to call our future home here “Bhitey-Mati” (hearth land).

Visiting "Bhitey-Mati" in Shonajurir Dhal in 1996.

We set about planning the garden and on the west we planted Mangoes, Lichis and Kadambas. On the north-west corner we planted a Jacaranda. The house would be built on the highest level towards the north-west. The care taker’s house and garage would be in the tongue that jutted out in the south-east corner below the Gulmohar. We planted about fifty trees and donated as many to our neighbours and friends. Smriti and I spent a great deal of time designing and planning the house and garden. We would often argue about where we would position a favourite piece of art and if we did not agree, we started designing all over again. We finally decided to meet half way on the fourteenth design.

The place is now quite an eyesore with the ugliest of houses ever built, except the two that our young friend Bidyut designed and the local residents have named that place Shonajhuri Palli – how unimaginative! The trees are doing well, they have grown, but they are not ours anymore – we finally sold the land realizing that Shantiniketan would never become a substitute hearth land. We love the city despite its draw backs. So, instead of a view of the forest and a garden, we have settled on a view of a concrete jungle. Smriti however created this little haven – a roof top garden that she tends with loving care.

View of our roof-top garden in Kolkata.