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).
For more on cordels follow this link <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wch_7we9jJw>