Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Indexed Stories - 7

The room was sparsely furnished and surprisingly tidy except for an unkempt bed partly concealed behind a book shelf. A largish bay window overlooked the river. While making coffee Eva volunteered information about herself. She was just out of university and was working as a translator. “Don’t like it much…want to be a poet! Maybe I should become a nun. Food and bed for free and enough time for poetry,” she said with the hint of a sardonic smile faintly registering on her face.

Eugene wanted to tell her that he too had started off writing poetry, but decided against disclosing much about himself. Coffee finished, he thanked her and left. All the way home he kept wondering what’s with the Blue Girdle?

Photograph by Steve Lovegrove, Australia

A week later, Eugene visited the cobbler’s shop to pick up his shoes and thought he would look up Eva. On his way up he noticed that Eva’s bicycle was in its familiar spot leaned against the wall. He went up and knocked on the door.

After a moment Eva opened the door and without a word of greeting, let Eugene in, as if she had been expecting him. She wore a kind of smock – grey and coarse and the ubiquitous Blue Girdle was still in place!

He opened the brown paper packet and showed her the shoes for her approval. She merely nodded and asked “Coffee?” He nodded. While she was busy making coffee, Eugene went over to the book shelf and scrutinized the spines. They were mainly books of poetry. There was Heiner Müller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke, Günter Grass, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann and a few more. He pulled out a collection by Nietzsche for no particular reason, walked up to the window and flipped it open absent-mindedly. As he turned the pages his mind was annoyingly occupied with the mystery of the Blue Girdle. While his eyes and his mind were vying for dominance, Eva suddenly thrust out a finger and stopped him from flipping the page. She looked intently at the page and then with studied grace walked away to the far end of the room and took up a stance that resembled that of a fencing champion. Eugene was expecting that she would now say “En garde!” but instead with a flourish of her arm she recited...

This is no book: what do books matter!
What do coffins and shrouds matter!
This is a will, this is a promise,
This is a last bridge to break,
This is an ocean wind, an anchor-weighing,
A surging wheel, a steering course,
The cannons roar with white gun smoke,
The sea laughs, the monster —“
Eugene looked down at the page and parried with:
“This is no book: what do books matter!
To these coffins and shrouds!
The past is the prey of books;
Yet within lives an eternal present.”

The Goethe Institut in Calcutta had prepared him enough for this. He felt relieved. But, Eva had other plans. She continued her performance…

“In Basel, I stood undaunted
Yet solitary there — God have pity,
And I cried out: Homer! Homer!
Thus annoying everyone.
They go to church and then go home
And laugh at the loud crier.”

Eugene had read this one before…so he countered…

“Now I no longer mind it;
The finest audience
Hears my Homeric cries
And is quietly patient withal.
As a reward for this exuberance
Of kindness, here is my printed thanks.”

All this while Eva and Eugene is going around in circles like two wrestlers in a ring trying to guess the timing of the first lunge. They are in their elements, poetry flows fast and furious. Their movement around the room is getting frenzied and their recitation more emphatic. The whirligig suddenly goes out of control; the Blue Girdle comes off and with it much more. And then… Ki hoitay Ki hoiya gelo (one thing led to another), the primal sounds of groans and grunts and the rhythmic creaking of a loose floor board replaces poetry…the din they create is so loud that the landlady who has a distinct Anglo-Indian accent shouts from below “Stop your jiggery-pokery men! Or I will call the Polizei!”

Eva and Eugene continued to meet surreptitiously, the Blue Girdle banished forever; they exchange poetry between long stanzas of jiggery-pokery.

Scenario 2:

Eugene’s right hand is in a cast, the heaviness is somewhat reduced by the sling that takes its weight. Not used to using the left hand for everyday chores, he finds it annoying that simple duties are proving to be insurmountable tasks. In the first week after his release from hospital, he decides that making breakfast was too much work. So, he walks to the corner café every morning for breakfast. But, even there he finds it difficult to butter his croissant or pour himself coffee and stir in the sugar. His clumsy attempts are noticed by the owner – a pretty young Fraulien, who decides to help. A few words were tentatively exchanged on the first morning. Gradually, more and more words are exchanged. Then she starts having whole conversations while serving breakfast. Eugene starts to look forward to hearing her daily prattle. The Bangali Bhadralok is now emboldened and asks her out to dinner. That was at the end of the second week. At the end of the third week, while Eugene was trying to type on his laptop with the index finger of his left hand, Fraulien Greta Garbo traipsed in with a bottle of wine and her chatter. It was about three in the afternoon. After a glass or two of wine Greta shed her inhibitions and Bangali Bhadralok shed his armour. Ki hoitay Ki hoiya gelo (one thing led to another)…and after a tumultuous and scandalous affair they finally married and lived happily ever after.

Scenario 3:

After being released from hospital the managers of the residency arranged things in such a way that he does not have to worry about making his own breakfast or hunting for shoes. So, in the absence of distractions like Fraulien Greta Garbo or Eva Blauen Gürtel, he works on his book with the help of an assistant, who gradually becomes almost indispensible. She takes on more responsibilities including that of trying to infuse Eugene with a zest for life, which the Bangali Bhadralok seemed to lack. In her zeal she teaches him amongst other things how to play poker. One evening after work she invites him to play strip poker. He is uncomfortable and suggests they stop the game after she had lost her blouse. She insists that she will win the next game. She purposefully loses all the games and with it all her clothes and Ki hoitay Ki hoiya gelo…etcetera.

Whatever transpired between Eugene’s breaking his wrist in Basel and the eighteen months or so until his return to Calcutta is anybody’s guess. But, on his arrival, he announced that he was getting married. I was invited to sign as a witness and later to the wedding party. She was a Doctor of Russian descent. There may be stories in here too, but, these are real people with real histories and what led them to the altar is their private affair. I have been to see them in Aachen where they now live with a beautiful baby daughter.

The pair of shoes from Metro Galli had played out its life changing role. Every time Eugene visits Calcutta I tell him in mock seriousness “Have you been there? You must make it your annual pilgrimage!” He just smiles.


On the evening of the wedding I was introduced to his elder sister-in-law who spoke no English and I spoke no Russian. But, we kept up a continuous conversation with hand gestures and doodles on paper napkins. She left a gift behind for me – a bottle of perfume. I showed it to Smriti and asked her what she thought of it? “You must have been stinking that evening…did you shower that day?” was her experienced retort. 


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Indexed Stories - 6

The hospital in Basel was huge and stood surrounded by square miles of greenery and every morning a nurse would come with a menu from which Eugene chose the day's meals. Absolute bliss! The day he was released from hospital, he was “seriously depressed” he confided to me later. This was when the Binoyee Bangali Bhadralok in Eugene took over; he thanked the staff profusely and also sent emails to each individual throughout the entire period of his treatment.

Something must have occurred around that time – that life changing incident that I had mentioned in my last post. But, how did it all unfold? That is where I come up against a stone wall. Eugene is not too forthcoming except responding to all my questions with a sly smile. A smile that said, “Ha-ha baba…dekhley hobey? Khorcha achhey!”

My quandary is similar to a song by Harry Belafonte that I remember:

“When I was a lad of three-foot-three
Certain questions occurred to me,
So I asked me father quite seriously
To tell me the story 'bout the bird and bee.
He stammered and he stuttered pathetically
And this is what he said to me.

He said, "The woman piaba and the man piaba
and the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch.

It was clear as mud but it covered the ground
And the confusion made the brain go 'round.
I went and ask a good friend of mine,
Known to the world as Albert Einstein.
He said "Son, from the beginning of time and creativity
There existed the force of relativity
Pi r square and minus ten means a routine only when
The solar system in one light year
Make the Hayden planetarium disappear
So if Mt Everest doesn't move
I am positive that it will prove

That the woman piaba and the man piaba
And the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch.

Etc, etc…”

So, I went and asked a good friend of mine, known to the world as Kunal Basu, “How do I write this story?”

Trapeze Artist, 1926, William Johnson 
“Simple! Write that the woman piaba and the man piaba…”

No, I am joking. He actually didn’t say that. Kunal said, “Simple! Write that Eugene is forlorn and a little disoriented. With his arm in a sling and unable to write he thinks the world is coming to an end. That is when some of his friends wanting to cheer him up, take him to the circus one evening. That is where things happen. There he sees this “heavenly body” in a spangled leotard negotiating the trapeze with flawless precision and oodles of oomph. Every tiny movement, every bold leap, every somersault seemed to hold a special meaning for Eugene. He sits there mesmerized. While he gapes at her with his jaw open, she swings her way into his heart…and after a tumultuous and scandalous affair they finally marry and live happily ever after.”

But, that is Kunal’s penchant for fiction on overdrive! I can only attempt to concoct possible scenarios.

Scenario 1:

After that stumble down the stairs that broke his right wrist and friends taking him to hospital, Eugene realized that his pair of Metro Galli shoes – the culprit of the piece had gone missing. So, after being released from hospital his first priority was to find himself another wear- them-with-everything kind of pair, that too within a budget. Being new to the city, he had no clue about where to begin his search and to make matters worse; there is no Metro Galli in Basel.

He started looking in the market places that he had often walked by. He had not noticed earlier that the Market Place (Marktplatz) with its’ colourful Rathaus (Town Hall) only sold groceries and vegetables. The Flohmarkt in Petersplatz had a few stores selling branded shoes. They were either too expensive or not the kind he wanted. His search was getting him nowhere and the added discomfort of walking in borrowed shoes made his task that much more onerous.

One day he finally spotted a pair of shoes that he liked. It had some kind of a fur lining. Though he was not too keen on fur, the prospect of wearing ordinary shoes in the icy winter ahead banished his initial resistance. He walked into the store and asked the salesman to show him the pair. The salesman went away to find the right size and Eugene surveyed the shop. In one corner a young girl was trying on some knee-length boots. She wore blue cycling tights and a white tee. She was obviously riding a bicycle as was evident from the lock chain around her middle (the kind encased in plastic) – it was blue and accentuated her slim waist. Fraulien Blauen Gürtel (Blue Girdle) Eugene thought to himself. The salesman arrived with the pair and helped Eugene put them on. He walked a few steps gingerly, examined it closely and remarked that the fur was too stiff and bristly. “No thank you, this will not do” he told the man and left.

Exiting the store he hung around for a while thinking about where to go next and was surprised when Fraulien Blauen Gürtel suddenly appeared by his side and told him, “Take the pair. It’s a real steal.”

Before Eugene could repeat what he had said to the salesman about the bristly fur, she said, “I know a cobbler who could fix the lining.”

“But, where do I find him?”

“His shop is on my street, I can take you there, but not today. Meet me at four on Saturday at the corner café at Munsterplatz,” she said mounting her bicycle.


“I am Eva,” she shot back pedaling away.

Eva Blauen Gürtel! Sounds like a good enough name Eugene chuckled to himself. He went back inside and bought the pair of shoes and waited it out till Saturday.

Eugene was five minutes late to the designated rendezvous, Eva was not. She looked at him disapprovingly and without further ado, beckoned him to follow. She wore the same kind of clothes as last time and the Blue Girdle was still on her. She walked in long strides with her bicycle beside her and Eugene fell behind a couple of times, not because he could not keep pace, but, because he was quite taken with her swaying, cat-walking hips! She was sensuous. The Blue Girdle however was puzzling. It was always around her waist and never seen being used as the designer had intended it to be.

He noticed that they were walking along the south bank of the Rhine and in about fifteen minutes were in the locality of Breite. “Here we are” she said breaking the silence.

Cobbler's shop, Basel
Eugene had never been to this part of the city before. It had a mix of the new and the old and along the main street were small shops – florists, hairdressers, a second-hand store and a scooter shop, a few cafes, a bar and tucked away between all of these was the cobbler’s shop. Not exactly Metro Galli, but, a multi-racial neighborhood that made Eugene feel comfortable in. It did not take long to transact business with the genial elderly man who ran the shop. “Delivery next Saturday, same time”, he said.

Eva and Eugene walked out of the shop and she made it clear that the deal was done and mounted her bicycle. A befuddled Eugene stood there not knowing how to react. “Coffee?” she asked suddenly.

“Umm, yes good idea! I am parched.”

“Follow me”, she commanded.

She pedalled slow speed, zigzagged the street to accommodate his walking speed. She turned in on the third left turn and when he got to that point too, Eugene realized that the street ended on the river front. It was a short street that ended with a low wall with a pathway to the right that led to a flight of stairs to the top floor of what looked like a four storied tenanted house. Eva leant her bicycle against the wall and climbed up the narrow staircase. Eugene followed. She lived on the uppermost floor. She unlocked the door and invited him in.

To be continued…

Listen to Harry Belafonte sing “The woman piaba and the man piaba…”

Friday, 23 November 2012

Indexed Stories - 5

Recently my friend Ruma Chakraborty posted the following on Facebook:

“When I heard a friend had tried to call me twice and I had missed them...for a minute or ten I longed for the phones of the past…the kind that had no mute buttons but rang till your head ached and you picked up....the kind in the photo below! New Zealand Telecom recycles well!”
New Zealand Telecom SHEEP - TELEPHONES ART
Needless to say it got 45 likes, 2 shares 9 comments and I decided to include it in this blog. It made me wonder whether Calcutta Telephones or BSNL would have tons of old telephones locked away somewhere and whether they would commission an artist to do something with them. I suppose not – too much paper work to dispose off junk and this perhaps explains their huge properties!  Who knows what they conceal behind those walls…
Recently, a new found friend from abroad was coming to stay with us in Kolkata. He was coming from Varanasi. However much I tried to communicate with him, his brand new Indian cell phone did not work. So, urgent messages had to depend on nightly emails. When he missed his train due to the vagaries of the ticketing system of the Indian Railways and I waited at Howrah station for a train that was two hours late, there was no way to get in touch with him. I returned home to send frantic emails. Then I realized that to make matters worse I had not read the amended date carefully enough.  Finally, he did board a train the next day and arrived at my door step – smiling victoriously.
After breakfast and over a cup of black Coorg coffee I asked him,”So Steven, what’s the matter with your cell phone connection?”
“I bought this phone and sim card in Mumbai and gave all the documents they needed and yet the phone did not get activated. I tried to get it done from the next city I visited and they took all my papers once again and yet the damn thing did not work! Now I am on the last leg of my India sojourn and I will go back with so much credit on the phone which will be worthless elsewhere”, he explained.
“Why did you not call me from a public telephone booth? There are hundreds of them everywhere!” I asked.
“Telephone booths?” he asked.
“Did you not notice the STD booths…”I trailed off, immediately knowing what had gone wrong and I had that which you call a ROFL moment. After my belly ache had subsided I said, “Steven! STD is Subscriber Trunk Dial…not Sexually Transmitted Diseases. What did you take us for - a nation of promiscuous men?” This time we both laughed while trying not to spill our coffee. Steven left India with a dud cell phone as a memento and the knowledge that STD means much more than Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Why on earth did the Telecom department think of a name like that? Wouldn't National Network Telephones (NNT) worked as well? And International Network Telephone (INT)? Better still could one not simply write “TELEPHONE BOOTH”? There is an obvious disconnect here – the usual mindless public sector mandarins and there archaic mindsets bent on complicating things. Signage in India has a long way to go.
My E page has just two entries – just the same two names brought forward in all of them. Eureka Forbes Service Centre that services our drinking water filter and not something to write about. The other entry is my good friend Eugene Datta. I have many stories to tell about him, but, Eugene is a very close friend and I respect his privacy. So, after much consideration and a conversation with him I have permission to divulge just one anecdote.
Eugene is much younger than us – that is, Smriti and me. She met him during a trip to Bhutan about 28 years ago and that started an inseparable friendship between us. We have been privy to Eugene’s “evolution” as a young man and as an author. He did not like his job as a sub-editor in a newspaper and yearned to be a full-time writer. His trials and tribulations throughout have been many and eventful. One such event was his being invited to a writer’s residency in Switzerland for a whole year that was also extended for another six months! For a struggling creative person with stretched resources, I know what that entails. Clothes, warm clothes, coats and jackets, a sensible pair of shoes, an assortment of personal belongings and a bag to fit all of it in. The laptop needed servicing – a bag for that too. The list is long. His already stretched resources were now beyond stretching anymore. But, Eugene somehow managed to get everything together, thanks to some amount of judicious cutting corners.
One such item of purchase was a pair of sneakers that was not too informal – a wear- them-with-everything kind of pair. For this he searched the small stalls of Metro Galli. For those who have not been there, here’s a description of this alley crowded with stalls and shops.
The alley derives its name from the art deco Metro movie theatre on the main road and not the Metro Railway. The Metro Channel opposite and at the foot of Mr. Vladimir Lenin’s statue may have – I am not sure. The alley starts at this point and ends on that part of Moti Sil Street that has a profusion of shops selling all kinds of prophylactics - prompting the nickname Rubber Street. In between there are all kinds of shops selling cameras, clothes, watches, et al. There are also some that sell glass panes and mirrors. Glass House being the one that supplied most of my own requirements. As one enters Metro Galli from the Chowringhee end there are stalls selling shoes on the right. Eugene must have bought his pair of shoes from one of these stalls here. I too had bought a pair from there once and they were so stubborn that I had to damage them in order to justify buying new ones!
The stubborn pair before they were destroyed
Anyway, Eugene finally had his things sorted out and was soon in Switzerland. He spent a great deal of time writing and pounding the pavements of Basel. The Metro Galli shoe served him well for a while, but, finally gave way at the most inopportune moment. In a hurry to get to the opening of a show of his co-resident, he hurried down the stairs; the sole of one of the shoes came off. Eugene stumbled, fell down the stairs and broke his right wrist.
You think that this didn’t augur well? You are wrong…wait till I tell you how life changing this accident turned out to be.
To be continued…


Illicit and Other Stories


New Zealand Telecom SHEEP - TELEPHONES ART

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Indexed Stories – 4

People change. They change for the better or for worse. But, people do change in ways that they are almost unrecognizable from their original selves. Or do we all have split personalities? Is it about the Dr. Jekylls and Mr. Hydes nestled somewhere in there? Each trying to vanquish the other until there is an eventual victor? On this day while I am trying to articulate my thoughts, Durga Puja is being celebrated - rejoicing the triumph of good over evil. I wish that it were so – a non-negotiable perpetual situation. But, Evil seems to be getting the better of Good.

The incidents of three women being beaten to death in a “witch hunt” in West Bengal and Malala Yousufzai being shot at in the Swat Valley, despite their different geo-political locations, are manifestations of the same evilness inherent in the politics of intolerance. To think that we are in the midst of this reality is scary.

Should we “take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them?” Or play the Ostrich? I personify the Ostrich that grumbles…

The accessories of evil are many. Avarice is perhaps the single most powerful force among them, that which nurtures evil, while crass consumerism justifies it. An individuals’ greed for more – unjustly more, promotes criminality. How else does one explain the person listed first on the D page of my first diary?

Dipali Bhattacharya – Dipalidi, was about four years my senior in art college. She was a vivacious person who could disarm anyone with her warmth and affection. She once lived somewhere close to Lake Market. That was in another life. Now she lives with her husband in an old spacious house on Little Russell Street. I kept bumping into her once in a while. Among the people on the D page she appears first with a Calcutta Telephones number – still seven digits! Drops out in the second diary and reappears in the third with a cell phoned identity.

I try to convince myself that temporary lapses are forgivable – after all we are all fallible. I have had my moments of sheer badness too. But, Dipalidi seems to have changed inexorably for the worse, embroiled in controversies surrounding fake Rabindranath Tagore paintings that she insists are genuine! The case is sub judice and I will not go into the details. Suffice it to say that there is a coterie of people involved in this scam. What a disgraceful end to a career as an artist and an administrator.

On the other hand there was Durga Prasad Kar, a senior functionary of the Income Tax department who I had met under unusual circumstances. His name appears only once in the first diary and does not reappear ever, owing to his transfer out of Calcutta. My brashness at 27 got the better of me one day and I had barged into his office complaining about the harassment that I was facing from one of his minions. I had actually thrown a tantrum. He had listened to me patiently and did what was necessary. We became friends and the common thread between us was trees and plants. He had green fingers and was responsible for much of the greening around his home between Purna Das Road and the Vivekananda Park. He visited our home with his wife a couple of times and every time they would gift us a potted plant.

For just a while I had changed my opinion about income tax people, until I met the biggest rascal in the form of another Assistant Commissioner, who troubled me no end. The system has changed for the better ever since with the introduction of e-filing of tax returns. One does not have to confront greedy palms anymore.

Here I need to go back and ignore the protocol that I have set for myself. I have to go back to Bina Sarkar Elias because in my last diary her name appears above a note that says,” Sunil Gangapadhyay, Parijat, 11th floor” and his phone number. That is where I met Bina once. I had met Sunil babu only once on that occasion and his phone number remains in my diary by default. As I sit writing this post, the news of Sunil Gangapadhyay passing away is being broadcast on television.

Among the others on the D page, people who have survived through the processes of selective editing are my long time friends Dipankar and Shampa Home, whom I have not met in years and Deepak and Raj Dutt with whom I am still in touch albeit infrequently.

One other name that has remained all through is that of Debashis Deb, the cartoonist. Debashis and I first met in Don Bosco School, Guwahati, in Class IV in 1964. We left Guwahati at different times and met up again in Art College in 1973. One of my oldest friends Debdutta Sen was also from the same class and we met up when we both joined Clarion Advertising Services back in 1979…his name does not appear in any of my dairies and I have been unable to trace him since I last met him in Bombay way back in 1990.

Santhali Yama Pata
I started this post writing about Good and Evil. Being an atheist I cannot believe in Heaven and Hell. But, I like the concept of Hell – at least the way it was depicted in a museum by an organization called Prajapita Brahmakumari something or the other on Elgin Road. Heaven was depicted as lush green fields with cows grazing in the distance and under a tree sat a cowherd holding a flute in his hand. My friend and I (we were about 15 or 16 then) immediately decided that Heaven was boring. Whereas, Hell was a bustling city with night clubs, bars, restaurants – the works! There was no sign of any retributive activity there unlike the ones depicted in many pictures, as well as, the Santhali Yama Pata. However, since I live in Kolkata, which according to the Brahmakumari Museum - surely looks like their version of Hell. Therefore, in my afterlife I would be sent to a retributive Hell for my occasional badness. I however would like to go to Hell on my own aesthetic terms…
Yama Pata (Scenes from Purgatory), 2001.

SHUBHO BIJOYA to all of you.

To be continued…

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Indexed Stories - 3

While trying to remember people from the past, I realize that there were many that I knew who do not feature in my telephone note books. Either they did not have a telephone connection or they lived close by. Talking incessantly on the phone hadn't yet become an epidemic. Telephone connections too were pretty moody things then – you either could not get through, get cross-connected or the phone would simply be dead for weeks. Thus it was more convenient to walk down and meet the person rather than keep dialing and hoping to get connected by some miracle. So, a great deal of people that I knew as a school student and also in my early college years remains as memories outside the confines of these note books.

This character from one of my drawings
always reminds me of Ajit Bnyaka!
 One of them was Ajit Bose – Ajit Bnyaka (crooked) to friends. He was not crooked in the evil sense of the word; he just had this way of turning and craning his neck in a prolonged twitch that earned him the nickname “Bnyaka”. Ajit was a quiet and studious fellow, but his tentativeness in whatever he did amused us no end. In the paternal house just off Mysore Road that he lived in with many family members, there was a passageway with scores of look-alike sandals. Ajit would put his feet into one and “feel” for familiarity, he would continue the process until he was satisfied that he had found the right one! He also had this habit of leaving his house after a number of furtive glances to the left and the right, as if terrified that he might be caught in the act of going out. We would always laugh at his behavior and he would grin sheepishly and scratch his head. One day while walking with him, he suddenly dashed for cover under a shop awning. I was taken aback by surprise and dreaded some kind of impending danger, but burst out laughing when he peered out, looked up at the sky and sighed in relief at the sight of a departing airplane. Such behavior today would have immediately been termed schizophrenic – but, in those days our amused grins and a few back slaps later, everything would be back to normal. I am tempted to say, “Ah! Those were the days.” 

To give you an idea of those times…Kunal, Partha and Shovan studying for their Bsc Part-I exams, while Mrinalda types away at his desk (1973-74)…my sketches of course!
Ajit turned up suddenly about twenty years ago to sell me some insurance; I have not met him ever since.

It is strange how one can remember details of people and incidents if one tries to. They seem to lie dormant somewhere in the recesses of one’s memory waiting to be stoked. There is now a deluge of memories tumbling out from these unknown recesses and I am tempted to write all of them down. But, not now, they have to wait – I have digressed and must get on with the original thread.

Chitrabhanu Mazumdar was in the same school as me – Patha Bhavan, Kolkata. He was a few years my junior. His sister Aditi and my cousin Kumkum were friends and it was because of her that I made the first trip to the house of Nirode Mazumdar as official chaperone. It was an incredible house that was full of cats and dogs. In the first diary the page for C starts with his name.

Many years later when we first decided to set up base in Shantiniketan, we wanted to rent a house owned by Chandranath Haldar. The deal fell through because he wanted to paint the exterior of the house a hideous green – which we had to pay for! His name is at the bottom of the page, not because of the green though. Makes me wonder how difficult it would have been for me to survive in Kolkata if everything was painted green. Instead, a “bilious” blue (term: courtesy Ruchir Joshi) is being rampantly daubed on every conceivable government owned building and perimeter wall - which too is an eyesore, but I am surviving it. I try to avoid such streets or look at other things.

Every city has its own colour code, inherited over time, they are like cultural markers. Kolkata had its creams, whites, terra-cotta reds, pale ochres, browns and greens on windows and other woodwork. But blue it never was, except the sky - when it cleared. I fail to understand how one person’s whim can be thrust upon this city without consulting its’ stakeholders – whose money is being spent! Like the barber in the movie Great Dictator, I wish there will come a time when we will be able to exclaim “Hanna look! The clouds are lifting…”

Looking around the city today, one notices new monstrosities soaring up in the most lurid colour combinations possible - without regard to visual synergies. In time to come will this hideousness become the markers of this city’s visual culture? Anyway let me get back to the indexed stories - I have digressed again.

In between Chitrabhanu and Chandranath there are contact numbers of Cable TV, CESC complaints and Calcutta Telephones. But, what is Centre for Studies in Social Sciences doing here? Don’t remember that I had anything to do with them, though they were located next to my design office on Lake Terrace. This street was later renamed Jadunath Sarkar Street after the famous historian, in whose house the Centre was then located.

In the second diary none of them remain except CESC and Calcutta Telephones. This is when I had a pretty good working relationship with CIMA Gallery - I did a solo show there. Chitralekha Tagore reappeared just for one day almost fifteen years since we last met in college. Around the same time Chhatrapati Dutta held his solo show in Gandhara Art Gallery and that is from when we became friends, although I had known him for quite some time.

In the third diary all the names remain with the addition of Chandra Bhattacharya – introduced to me by Eugene. Chandan Bose our framer friend and Chiru Sur end this page for now. CIMA remains, but by then I had become persona non-grata there. Strange are the ways of the world. I try to find reasons and the only plausible explanation for this ‘separation’, I’d like to believe, must have been for one drawing in a suite of drawings that I had last shown in CIMA. These drawings lampooned consumerism and in one, which was titled “Sucker elopes with Vivek’s wife” there is a signage in the background which says “NEW TAILORS” with a baseline that read “WE ALSO SELL ART”. This must be it! My natural acerbity rides rough-shod over tact and strategies.

Sucker elopes with Vivek’s wife

 Politics in art is an oft debated topic. I have spent many an evening with friends – shouting ourselves hoarse trying to win an argument. After all, the whole point of an argument is to win it in the end. Otherwise it is a pointless exercise. A discussion is a tame affair and not an argument and some of us love arguing vociferously. On one such occasion, on a lovely winter evening in Nandini and Rupinder’s home in Delhi, an artist friend from Bengal proclaimed that there is no politics in art! What kind of a Bengali is he? No politics? A true-blue Bengali can and will smell one miles away even if there isn't any! And there should also be legislation to ban naivete!

To be continued…

(some names have been changed to conceal real identities)

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Indexed stories -2

Although I knew Bikash Bhattacharya as a student in Art College and interacted with him a couple of times later on in life, we were never close; in fact we did have a few unpleasant run-ins. So it is surprising that his name is the first on the B page. Badhan Das was close to me and my family, but his name comes second!

Chhotoder Karl Marx in Rimbik (1984)
Bikashda was called “Bicasso” behind his back. This was when he was producing canvases at a speed akin to an automated assembly line and no sooner that these were done, they flew off the shelf! By the same yardstick, Wasim Kapoor was called “poor man’s Bicasso” again behind his back. Badhan Das was called “Chhotoder Karl Marx.” This sobriquet was freely used in front of him. He used to laugh his good natured laugh. Much later Sanjay Bhattacharya arrived on the art scene, his outstanding water colours too sold like hot cakes. We called him “Bicasso Junior”. Both have now passed away (Bikashda and Badhanda). Their names thus don’t appear in my second diary. It starts with Bimal Kundu and includes Bibi Roy and Bajaj my next door neighbor. Basumati Press makes a quick entry and exit. We had printed posters supporting religious tolerance after the demolition of Babri Masjid (6th December 1992). We, that is, about a hundred artists, poets, writers, film and theatre people under the banner of “Samparka” made a trip to Ayodhya on the first anniversary of the demolition. 

In the third diary, Bikash Bose who owns a photographic studio specializing in black & white photography and whose services I used only once is at the top of the page. Bajaj and Bimal are followed by British Council and Bina Sarkar Elias. Seems there is a shift of focus here! Bibi Roy has been dropped – no fault of hers, it was my “Chokher Bali” misadventure. The last name is Bhutu (Shohini’s nickname) and Anirban with separate mobile numbers. Our daughter had just married and they had moved to Delhi.

The house felt empty at first, actually it still does despite the fact that they are back in Kolkata, lives two blocks away and visits us often enough.

Telephones however for me, remains a necessary evil, used sparingly for work related communication and emergencies. It irks me no end when someone calls up to chat. I used to be very impatient and curt in the beginning, but over the years my attitude towards the telephone has somewhat changed and I am now more tolerant, except for unsolicited marketing calls – with them, I am as rude as ever. Despite having listed our phone numbers in the ‘No Call Registry”, there are a few who push their luck. I pick up the phone and say, “This number is on the No Call Registry…I will report you to…” the line goes dead before I can complete the sentence! But truly, who do I report too?

Back in the late eighties, I actually looked forward to the long conversations over the phone with my friend Kunal who lived in Montreal then. Long distance calls were still expensive here and so Kunal used to call, he still does. Since the mid nineties these conversations happen through Skype. I can now call at will without having to watch the meter ticking away. In fact planning a long conversation on Skype is quite a ritual – drink and cigarettes on the ready next to the computer. This is bliss! I can even tell my friends – Kunal and Eugene, “Hang on a bit. Let me get myself another drink!”

But, even in the seventies and eighties despite friends calling up from overseas and having long conversations, much remained unsaid. So, we often wrote each other long letters, sometimes ten to twelve pages. I have preserved them as valuables should be…hope my friends too have kept mine. I still love getting hand written letters in envelopes with postage stamps and my name on it! But, with the internet becoming such an efficient tool, the art of writing letters is fast disappearing.

I used to write letters to Smriti both before and after our marriage. A few of these letters were written and hand delivered to her by me! No, these were not like memos; these were proper letters and sent in sealed envelopes. Many years later, when Smriti was staying in Shantiniketan, she had taken all our letters there and the house was burgled - we lost all those letters. The loss of belongings like clothes and household items did not affect us as much as the loss of those letters did…it hurt us to our very core as we felt that our privacy had been rudely violated.

Smriti in a new hairdo (1985)
When I would be traveling and would be away for more than a week, Smriti would write to me. When she sat down to write, our three year old daughter would also do the same. She was too young to know how to write, but refused to be helped. She spoke as she scribbled away and so Smriti is privy to all of its contents – thanks to the running commentary. I am still to decipher what these letters actually say (alas! the running commentary had gone unrecorded) except that they are filled with a delightful daughter’s baby talk. What more can a doting father ask for? 

Let me share one of those letters with you…

The author of the letter in 1984

To be continued…

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Indexed Stories - I

Having spent most of my ‘salad’ years as a phone-less designer, long conversations with my ears stuck to it never became a habit. In case someone called me and started yak-yakking away, my ears and hands became clammy and in the end I had to wipe the phone and then my ears and then my hands and then the phone again before I could replace the receiver back on the cradle! The phone would therefore carry much of the user’s sweat and gradually lose its sheen. This was actually a strict no-no, as the telephone was a status symbol and the user’s socio-political and economic power was directly proportional to the number of phones he or she displayed on the office table – they were like stars on an army officer’s epaulette! Great care therefore had to be taken to maintain these symbols of accomplishment. This resulted in the arrival of small time entrepreneurs who dedicated their lives as professional phone maintenance people. They arrived at regular intervals and cleaned up the phone, polished and perfumed them. You could opt not to have the local “Aguru” scent and provide your own smuggled and highly suspect version of “Royal English Leather”.

So great was the demand for telephones even  as early as the late 40’s that the Calcutta Telephone Company foisted the first eye-sore on this city – the stately looking Raj-era Dalhousie Institute building on the south of Lal Dighi was demolished in 1950 to build the ugliest monstrosity ever known - the Telephone Bhawan! The building is so uncouth that I refuse to include a picture of it here, lest it compromises the aesthetics of this space!

The Dalhousie Institute that was demolished in 1950 to build the Telephone Bhawan.

The “March of the Demolition Brigade” continued unabated after that. The question that bugs me most is “Whose city is this anyway? And why do we always elect philistines to high office?” Over time, telephone exchanges sprang up all over the city and they were all singularly large and ugly - as ugly as the Calcutta Telephone Directory! I searched the internet and found some interesting examples of Telephone Directory cover designs. I am sharing them with you.

Telephone Directory covers.
Let me now return to the “Telephone Diary” or as in the local lingo “Telephoner Khata”.

When one starts a second or a third diary for phone numbers one starts with the first page of A and re-enters a few names from the preceding diary. The first name therefore is always someone that you need to keep in touch with most or maybe a close friend. Both were true in my case. My best friends, as well as, my detractors feature in A! Sheer coincidence? I do not know.

The first page of my first diary had Adhip Ghosh, Askok Bhowmick, Aloke Sengupta, Aloke & Rita Basu, Aditya & Mamata Basak. The second page had Amit Sen. But, Altair Services (Upanita Sen’s firm), Abhik Mukhopadhyay, Artistique (Arundhuti Banerjee’s firm), Asit & Shukla Poddar appear much later. (Some names have been changed).

In the second diary Amit Sen, Abhik Mukhopadhyay, Alok & Rita Basu, Atanu & Minakshi Roy, Aditya Basak, Ashok Bhowmick, Dr. Arun Chowdhury and Arundhuti Banerjee appear in the beginning and in that order. Some of the earlier names were omitted and a few new names had been added. There obviously had been some realignment of relationships and we had begun to need a doctor too.

In the third diary the names have held their respective positions, except that Asit & Shukla Poddar reappears but had fallen behind and Aloke Bose and Rita Bose had been entered separately. Before you jump to conclusions let me tell you that they were a happily married couple. The separate entries were needed to accommodate their respective cell phone numbers. Oh! The cell phone – how it separates couples! But, then again Aloke Basu’s name had been struck off! You are wrong again. Alokeda passed away after a bout with cancer.

The first name in my first diary never ever reappears. It was permanently dropped and was a fall-out of my handing over my designing business to my erstwhile employees in 1991. Things started going wrong right from the very beginning and in the end, around mid 1993 - greed won over pragmatism. It also marks the beginning of a new life for me, which was when I once again re-appeared as a practicing visual artist after more than a decade. I tried to bury my past (found out much later that it was impossible to do so)!

Among all the names in my telephone diaries, some remain with me even today. Their phone numbers have changed many times in between and needed to be scratched out and re-written. Some of these relations go back to when I was yet to finish school. These are friends who were always eager to help me and continue to play an active role in my professional and personal well-being. Although I call them up only when I need something, they have never grudged me that. I always tell people that my friends are my life-line! Listing these names would be too gross – it would demean these relationships. There are others that have been added to my current diary. I meet new people regularly and I do make friends by the dozens!

With technology progressing by leaps and bounds, the telephone ceases to be a status symbol of the rich and powerful. The instrument has been democratised – which is all very good, but, the general obsession with it is amazing! My reaction to this phenomenon resulted in a work that I did in 2006.

 "Promoting verbal abuse" ink and water colour on paper.

The other fallout of this democratisation was the death of the art of writing letters. More about that in the next post…

Friday, 27 July 2012

Telephone Diaries

Everyone absolutely insisted that I should get myself a mobile phone. Some were simply incredulous - “What? No cell phone yet!” they exclaimed. The expression in their eyes revealed - sympathy and surprise. Sympathy - for not-so-old-a-person gone nuts! And surprise - at meeting someone from an alien world. Even service providers on the internet insist on a mobile phone number to register and log on. What cheek!

My recent stint in the Sundarbans changed all that. Shohini, our daughter gave me her old mobile phone so that I could keep in touch from that God forsaken place.

Actually, I do come from a time when a phone was not a gizmo that enhanced one’s status, a hi-fi music system and a good turntable was (a turntable is a record player). I did business as a designer without a phone. I employed messengers. Calcutta Telephone’s loss contributed towards generating employment in the private sector - and was far more efficient, which in fact I found out much later when I got my first phone connection. The stupid contraption sat there most of the time: DEAD!

The first phone that I ever saw and remember was when I was about 4 years old and was living in a joint family on Lake Road (miraculously that house still stands). This phone was a black heavy thing with no dial! You had to pick up the phone and tap the cradle a few times – almost like knocking on one’s door to attract attention. That was actually what the tapping was meant for. So a lady at the other end would respond, “Operator speaking. May I help you?” or at least that is what they were trained to say. The usual response would be a tired, “Hna number bolun” (yes, tell me the number). So you told her the number you wanted and she would connect you and order, “Neen, kotha bolun” (now speak here).

As I traveled a lot as a designer, in what I look back as my “salad days”- I had to keep in touch with Smriti. She would reach a friend’s house and wait for my call! I would ask the operator at the other end to book me a “fixed time call!” There were many instances that this connection never came about. The lines were either too busy or the operator must have goofed up. Sometimes when we did get connected and had just started to talk, a third voice would butt in and generally try to annoy us. This phenomenon was known as “cross-connection!”

At that time it was: Public Sector Monopolies Zindabad!

However, phones then were not intelligent. They had no knack for numbers unlike phones of today. The telephone company provided a voluminous tome called the “Calcutta Telephone Directory.” It was held in high regard by some and in their homes this book adequately made up for the lack of any other book. There were other uses for it too - it was very handy as a door stopper.

The Calcutta Telephone Directory was supposed to be updated annually, but that hardly ever happened. This created a lot of confusion as the company kept on bifurcating and re-bifurcating its’ local exchanges resulting in frequently changing phone numbers. This volume served every purpose other than finding a phone number. Even if you were lucky to find a name the number was wrong and vice versa. So, private hand written indexes had to be maintained. One had to jot down phone numbers in a little book called the “telephone diary.” I have one too many. I am sure many of you still do. Browsing through one of them I realized how much it concealed within its slim contours - and what they revealed were just not names and numbers!

Whoever invented the phone diary must have been a genius!

Just the other day, I was exchanging phone numbers with someone and realized that the cell phone memory would treat this entry as any other and dutifully arrange it alphabetically. I told this person that I still go home and write down a new number in my little telephone diary.  The person looked surprised. I said that I don’t have to worry about lost phone numbers when you lose a cell phone. I don’t have to email people with request to SMS me their numbers to my new phone or send out messages to every one on Facebook. Apart from that every entry has a story to tell! The puzzled expression on that persons face read like “man, you are daft!”

It was a seven digit number and read the notification!
My first telephone index was begun around 1988. We had just moved into 135 Sarat Bose Road (earlier known as Lansdowne Road) the previous year. This was our first phone. First phone? You may ask. Yes, you had to wait for years to get connected by Calcutta Telephones. Finally we paid a premium of 15 thousand rupees for a “Tatkal” connection.

We wanted an old phone with a dial, but those had just gone out of fashion. So, the one in vogue – a touch button design, came home. It was called “Priyadarshini” – named after Indira Gandhi, obviously by eager to please bureaucrats. This telephone however fell much short of her good looks and was definitely one of the ugliest contraptions ever designed.

I did not maintain multiple phone diaries all at the same time. A second and a third and a fourth was necessitated as the S pages got filled up first. I never imagined that I knew so many people whose names started with S. Soon after that, the A page filled up too and then the P and R pages.

There was one name each in Y and Z. There were none in F, Q, W and X! I never knew Wasim Akram or Kapoor personally! The lone entries in Y and Z were Yasin Khan and Z.A. Mallick. Both Islamic names and if I had known Wasim it would have been a trio of Islamic names. It would have been great if I knew people with names like Faroukh and Qureshi, my phone diary would not have had redundant pages. I can imagine that Wasim or Akram or Zulfikar or Qureshi would have started a second diary when their W, Y and Z pages filled up.

Do you know of anyone whose name starts with X? Other than “Xerxes the Great” I knew a senior student in the Government Art College in Calcutta. I knew him as Kshitishda - Kshitish Joshi. He later became a photographer and I bumped into him many years later. He handed me a calling card that spelt his name with an X – Xitij Joshi, it read!

To be continued...