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.