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.