Haiku

Vast Kangchenjunga

A living giant’s silence

Protects all of us.

Photo: Manik Banerjee, First a refined man then a mountaineer nevermore a journalist

Mettled ophidian

Brings loneliness within me

Freeing faculty.

A camouflaged friend

Butterfly, not a dead leaf

A nature’s beauty

A Recluse

No two roads I could find them near

Only one stood before me there,

As desolate as it could be

Fiery but placid; she glanced at me,

Lonesome and forlorn my digits felt

I overlooked how my soul dealt,

I took the one, the only one

Dismay despair then soon gone,

Light at end was apparent

To maneuver the impending bent,

Goodbye the burden bid,

To find my mind disinterred and freed.

The Vanquished

‘The fool doth think he is wisebut the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ – William Shakespeare in ‘As you like it.’

About a dozen furlongs away from the Peshok tea gardens in Darjeeling, the hills have suddenly rolled down hurriedly towards the Himalayas. The breeze here is cold, moistened and damped with the delicate warbling of the petite, dainty birds, elegant and opulent in color that never break  the silence of the surroundings. Here peace is in solidarity with the humankind without a proviso. The ridges may look same but nature never expresses in platitude and banality.

I was here in the tea garden with a friend of mine whom I knew since my school days, when the Corona Virus pandemic suddenly broke out. The news of expiration came quickly but in whispers. No one knew what it was. But they were sure that it was killing people calmly and quietly. There was no need of sound of cannons or military boots or muzzle blasts, but still people would succumb silently. None could speak of the wrath with conviction as nobody in his lifetime had witnessed anything of the sort.

I kept wandering carelessly along the immaculately laid dewy ground of bushes of the plantation cut to velvety slopes when glanced from an interval. I often sipped tea at the gardens with grace and dignity being a friend of the tea-garden manager and then rewinding myself to the lavishly decorated Bara Saheb’s residence. And then I was out again with a pack of sandwiches, flawlessly packed by the cook and the ardali. Life looked calm, pleasant and cheerful and I found myself displaying unusual nonchalant shrugs of confidence I had never delivered before. Life was easy here, worries and apprehension took a back seat and I felt more comfortable with my inner self, ready to dig into my mind’s core. Poetries arrived quickly, my mind ready to witness the chiaroscuro playing over the tea bushes and wait in patience for a new passerine to sail past, enlightening my consciousness and imagination in concert.

Then one day dreariness came in unexpectedly. In the midst of my own universe, I had lost the days and dates of the week, not bothered by the other world, having forgotten to reset my watch at the month’s end. A fortnight had quietly passed and the tea garden was readying itself to be closed, the virus having entered the plantation. Another two days passed in issuing instructions from the manager’s office. A draconian order from the government to close all institutions was dangling in hushed silence over Bara Saheb.

One morning while walking along the ridges, one unobtrusive path shielded with dust and stones, lead me to a thatched rather unnoticeable shelter at the end of the course rarely followed. Two boys, the older hardly eight, were waving at me fiercely to draw my attention. When their young mother came out of dwelling I was asked to be seated on a broken table obviously discarded by the garden authority. An air of achievement and satisfaction had settled on the faces of all three of them. The Bara Sahib’s friend was there as their guest. The mother was back with a small bowl of soup of some cheap leafy green flowering plant for me to taste. This unschooled lady had only been taught with one thing since her childhood – a guest is your god. It was the barest of welcomes but it was a welcome nonetheless. In the last fifteen days delving in the placidness of my heart  I had taught myself with the best of the etiquettes of the world and turned myself a palpable genuine gentleman. I decided to leave the table on which I sat and entering their place settled  myself on the dusty ground sitting cross-legged. A sensibility of affection and closeness filled my body and I thanked god for giving me the space for caring and feeling for this exhausted destitute penniless family of three. After the soup I left them, the boys and their mother still displaying their candid gratitude and waving at me.

After I had reached the foothills of Himalayas for the train I narrated the story of my visit to my friend’s bat-boy who had accompanied me to the railway station. Little did I know before that the mother had offered me the only food she had kept aside for her children.

Retrogression of Homo sapiens

How worth the present journey of the modern human race is?  I’m talking about Homo Sapiens , the ninth of the Homo species. And what is Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, the charismatic young professor of History at 46 is committing at the moment? On the contrary the modern human considers it has much to announce. Alas the contemporary man turned humanoid is unable to speak, suffering from some kind of ‘awake paralysis’, unheard of before.  Burdened with load of pride, egotism, contentment and arrogance the race is down with fever. It is delirium of the soul which turns the race frenzy. This wild emotion or furor, whatever one may call it, was imminent.

The present Homo Sapiens of the twentieth and twenty-first century is laden with chutzpah from discovery of antibiotics, science of blood storage, X-Ray, Magnetic resonance imaging, passage to moon, complete human genome discovery, Covid vaccine, James Web telescope, new findings in mars, CRISPR gene editing solutions, the most powerful quantum processor, artificial titanium heart and I must accept that this list is ceaseless and monotonous. Consequently I should stop permanently adding to the list. This fearlessness gives human beings recklessness and audacity that too some kind of a buy one- get one free bawdy show from the modern times.

Here, extraordinary fervor the human class has gained unconditionally brings a sense of doom that is hither to stay. It is for certain the phenomenal human brain could not anticipate the impending cataclysm. So if this inexorable catastrophe was inevitable, brewing mercilessly since long, looming over the head of Homo Sapiens , then what the consequences could  be? The fate is one and only, ‘the war’. This is not the exclusive bodily war one commonly assumes. It is the unhealthy war of minds, war of faiths, war of beliefs, war of perceptions, war of opinions, war of predictions, war of beliefs about beliefs or the meta, war against rationality and clarity of thought and war against truth.

I keep wondering whether this human evolution is like a wheel which is turning too assiduously, ultimately discharging the one at the top to a point down below to the trough. The devolution is on its way. May be dysgenics is only a few thousand years away. This bacchanal and frolic visible in many a part of the world across the human kind brings irrationality and foolishness. It admits ascent of the inferior, the lesser and the insignificant. It is the ascent of the menial mind that has lost its clarity, accuracy, certainty, directness and transparency. It is the climb of the unhealthy intellect, a child’s consciousness which has not been reared correctly by the parents. That limpidness and nobility of the mind is disappearing fast during its growth. It is a rarity these days to find a man or a woman who knows what he or she is articulating and perpetrating. That truthfulness and candor is probably losing its sheen. In microcosm fathers with poor logic are ruling their families. The macrocosm clearly reflects a similar strength. In a mess up of such kind the rise of the opportunists is inevitable. The crooks and the scoundrels hold a majority of this rise, the carpetbaggers having waited long in the queue impatiently. They have their own logic to defend themselves saying, ‘If one doesn’t steal, the other one will. So why not?’  The rogues, the unprincipled and the dishonorable ones, simply referred to as rascals  today hold a distinctly different intelligentsia.  And now they call the shots with elan.

The race has seen the best and the worst of times. It probably has reached the trough of its cycle. Will it rise or will it not from the ashes like the phoenix? That is the enigma. The ninth of the Homo Species has to wait with composure and fortitude. The whole ninth has turned a Robert Bruce for now.

A tragedy of laughter

Believe it or not, most ludicrously I hold the testimony of being duped, rather extraordinarily flimflammed an unbelievable number of times. I do not possess a record for this I know for sure but I dare miss enjoying at least one such outcome during my school days. A five-minute read will hold no secret about my pointless curiosities in dumbhead.

During adolescence  we had the opportunity to fiddle with an inexpensive, indubitably poorly printed  on newsprint, Bengali language paperback, a household object, called Panjika or better  be called an almanac of some sort  that bore clue to various Hindu rituals in honour of Gods with precise auspicious dates to be performed  following stellar conjunctions. For children it was a nasty useless book largely containing fancy statements in Sanskrit, mostly incomprehensible. But it had attractive quixotic advertisements, to be seen nowhere, brought forth by dubious advocates. One such display, better be called an enticing propaganda was on a ‘looking glass’ that could see through walls. It coaxed instantaneously a cousin of mine a growing peeping tom during his juvenility.

The other one which showered exemplary, innocent joy of endless magnitude was one from the sellers of a machine that would kill and destroy innumerable bedbugs in a matter of minutes. The announcement contained picture, quite illegible in print, of a machine of dubious origin looking like complex device often carried in space.  Seen this way or the other, even turning the page three-sixty degrees, it would divulge little of its source. It was perfectly economical and the trader guaranteed its quick delivery through VPP or a value payable post. Courier services were unheard of in the sixties of the last century.

After the order was placed the wait was a painful one. Though the consignment was made certain to reach the buyer within a fortnight, it never came through quickly. Payment was to be made before delivery and people kept wasting money often. But I was lucky to find my order to be favorable. The wait was worth and it was dispatched a month later.

The insubstantial, disposable cardboard box was large and heavy. Its look was appealing and engaging and I ardently started unboxing it. I cared little to lay my school bag, foxed in a state of surprise. On tearing the box open a fair amount of straw was in view. From there soon appeared another box of slightly less proportion. It was followed by another layer of identical but disagreeable and irritable layer of straw. The boxes one after the other kept growing smaller and smaller but the seventh one though tinier and petite looking felt heavy. It held a stunner of disproportionate delusion. Two small tightly packed stones one lay above the other. On one of it was carefully printed, demanding attention,  ‘Keep the bed bug here’ and on the other stone ‘hit the bed bug with this, forcefully’.  

Satyajit Ray’s Hamlet

It is a pity that ‘Kapurush’, ‘The coward’ , is Ray’s less talked about movie and I know not in entirety  why it failed to make an impact at the Venice film festival in 1965. It is a drama film where the protagonist is played by Ray’s all time favourite, Soumitra Chatterjee and the actress in it is Madhabi Mukerjee (plays Karuna’s role here and was also seen in Ray’s Charulata and Mahanagar). The plot is based on Premendra Mitra’s short story ‘Janaiko kapurusher kahini’, which literally translates into ‘story of a certain coward’. The story is an unremarkably simple one, dealing with the fate of two lovers, who love each other but never could make it to a marriage. And the accident in the story is equally elementary and unornamented when the two meet each other later  after the girl had been married off  to another man (played by Haradhan Bandopadhayay, as Bimal Gupta, a tea-planter). Ray’s storyline differs quite substantially from Mitra’s book in the sense that the backdrop of the movie is different which portrays some kind of a sophistication of an educated class and Ray’s actress had put herself in a cocoon shedding her childish sexual undertones, post marriage.  Whereas,  Mitra in his story paints Karuna  with adult sexual  connotation or more of an overtone who is desperate to leave her married life for Amitabha. But Ray didn’t alter Amitabha’s character making it an essential and pivotal one. This kind of a major change, which Ray had done in his other films lays the foundation for Ray’s human analysis, scene by scene in an austere and conservative convention. It is at par with that in other notable film makers worldwide, though to name only a few, who might have shared their beliefs as Ray did. The magic lies in the treatment of the celluloid by master craftsman and master story-teller Satyajit Ray and how he glorifies every character with lucidity and candor. Still it confirms to Ray’s taste for minimalism. Though himself a good weaver,  Ray had his help from a very able and skilled editor Dulal Dutta and you get the feeling of reading a book page by page when you watch Ray’s films as you get the feeling of a cinema while reading  ‘Tintin’ by Belgian Georges Remi who wrote under the pen name Herge. If one watches Kapurush very carefully a viewer will often be gifted ‘Double Entrendes’ by Ray through his script. It adds to the literary value of Ray’s films.

Even till the end of twentieth century, marriage had been the only ‘license’ an Indian society would offer to lovers to incorporate themselves lifelong in a society without others raising their eyebrows in abomination. Holding hands in public was not permitted. Staying together without getting married was a taboo and some kind of an anathema. Much of it now is changing fast. For a viewer from another country where marriage is optional, this should be borne in mind and appreciated with compassion before viewing Kapurush. Or else much of the tenderness and clemency from the part of the viewer will be lost, the viewer rising into a thoughtless cinephile . Most of the film’s background scenario rests on a small town in the foothills of the Himalayas at a tea garden, except for one or two flashbacks into the two lover’s growth in the metropolis of Calcutta.

Music had always been Ray’s passion which has stayed entwined with his yearning and appetite for moving pictures and he firmly believed that it delivers harmony to the whole film. Ray himself had been providing background music to all his films from ‘Teen Kanya’  onwards and he was more than adept in it. The very title music in Kapurush holds the disquiet and agony Ray had wanted to deliver directly into the heart of the viewers. It even behaves as an ostinato holding the events together. It is worth paying attention to his music in Kapurush. Here Ray had seamlessly moved from its western classical style to the Indian one especially when reversing from present day scenario into the flashback. His use of Beethoven too is nothing less than appropriate, understated but profound. But for viewers who are not conversant with the Bengali language and culture will miss the subtlety of two compositions of Tagore’s,  Ray had meticulously used in this film which portray the undercurrents together with Karuna’s  postmarital temperament and identity. One is a track from Tagore’s musical and dance-drama Chitrangada, ’De tora amay nutan kore de  nutan abhorone’ which literally transpires to  ‘Make me new with ornaments and decoration….’.

In Andrew Robinson’s The Inner Eye, Ray had made it a point to convey to Robinson that the film expresses some kind of a cowardice and selfishness. It must be accepted as a truth as it has arisen from the horse’s mouth, the director himself. But Ray in spite of his commitments had accurately developed a character bearing ‘Hamletian Dilemma’ in the protagonist, probably unknowingly. 

The protagonist Amitabha Roy apparently suffers from indecision in Kapurush .  In spite of Karuna’s optimistic statement that they both together can survive a happily married life, Amitabha proves himself to be slippery. At this he brings in a multitude of excuses to delay their marriage. To the modern psychiatrists, Hamlet suffered from some acute depressive illness with some obsessional features. It brings in hesitation to act promptly. It is some kind of a character defect which has the ability to terminate itself into tragic outcomes. In Hamlet a delay from the protagonist’s end to take a revenge brought in seven unnecessary deaths whereas in Kapurush it brings a torment in one and sleepless nights in the other. It appears true that Amitabha was not feigning a person suffering from indecision or he is a malingerer of some sort, as Harvard University through one of its lectures by Wilson and Fradella draws that ‘The Hamlet Syndrome’ confirms partly to feigning madness or ‘failed insanity’ defense. But it is well appreciated now that long standing depression leads to indecision. Amitabha suffers from insecurity and in his unconscious world it brings in some cognitive defects. He is emotionally devastated like the prince of Denmark as at one point of his journey he conveys a married Karuna that he has earned a comfortable life out of his present vocation but still it’s a meaningless one to him. Such depressive thoughts had earlier come to Amitabha which a viewer may miss if one loses his attention while watching Kapurush. Depression can drive such statements out from someone’s mouth.  Hamlet did suffer from depression, resulting in failures to make firm resolves, as confirmed by some modern day psychiatrists.

It is not a story of a love triangle as has been portrayed since the birth of this motion picture. Taking aesthetics into account, Mr Gupta the tea-planter, is no match for the heroic looks of Amitabha Roy within realms of possibility. When the three characters come face to face with each other the protagonist is probably not in love with his confidant (Karuna). The story literally builds itself upon the ‘faults in decision making’ Amitabha had sown in Calcutta. Ray builds it brick by brick in a step by step manner, never hurriedly and not displaying its scaffolding. He confidently stores and hides a tight slap on the viewer’s imagination which thaws the audience at the end of the script. It is a straight and simple case of Hamletian dilemma where tragedy is often the only outcome to embrace. I would rather not be surprised if one day it comes out that Ray knew that he was preparing a Hamletian tragedy for the cultured middle-class Bengali viewer, though later in his life he complained about the poor Indian audience.

Since the inception of this film, in comparison to the words spoken by Mr Gupta, a fabulous but seemingly voluble host who had rather boldly and brazenly declared himself a lonely individual, Ray had fed a rather childish and emotional script in the protagonist’s mouth. But one should not be fooled by the loquacious Mr Gupta who might have a full insight into the past and future of the coward.  Ray had deftly and delicately obscured this fact as a tool for imagination. In a blatant contrast, Karuna’s utterances and declarations are curt, concise and matured. This pronounces the effect of ‘Hamletian Dilemma’ in Kapurush.  But one must appreciate and not forget Ray’s symbolic assertions in the form of a passing fire brigade and a game of patience.

The film will lose its value when watched as a large canvas if one misses the use of bold diagonal stripes to imply a disruptive but energetic movement while on the other end narrow, near coalesced vertical stripes to confer a dramatic but not disruptive character with fluidity in the protagonist.

Kapurush, from Ray’s only double-bill is a slow but steady portray of complex relationships in the background of Calcutta’s own Hamlet in a turbulent post independence period. It is undoubtedly a period drama that should never be missed.

After twenty years

(Unwisely defacing a great man’s reflection in search of a new flavour)

The town hasn’t changed much. A few roads metalled and some electric poles fixed no doubt, but still they wait for incandescent bulbs to be fitted on them. The bare posts show signs of gradually wearing away, a disease of rusting indeed. No one cares for the town these days. Only big cars fly- past like aircraft from left to right and from right to the left from two distinguished cities that flank this little nondescript municipality turned rogue as time went by. The empty lands on either side of the road have been sold off long back to the realtors and estate agents to erect tall urban jungles.  But none dared after the stock markets nosedived some four years ago with the arrival of pandemic. Today it looks like a no man’s land. The gas station hardly serves a score of cars a day that pass through. They come mostly for a grub at the eatery that shares a piece of wall with the station. The clever owner stores a lot of food stuff and other alluring items here, caring little whether he can sell them off or not. They are mostly cheap odd stuff  like old world chewing gums, stick-jaws, pocket transistors that fail to sound  after a week’s purchase, flipper books or kineographs, small Japanese hand fans turned yellow with passage of time, one would rarely find in other cities. They are worth bargaining for a visitor’s irresistibly fake satisfaction that last a month or two. The shop owner likes his mostly senseless customers, slowly and steadily mystifying them with his sweet baritone voice while displaying before his aspiring buyers one item at a time, and winding the thread a fisherman would do to pull up his catch. The visitors chew and swallow their sandwiches dirtying the floor and sip hot espresso staring at the half nude lady on the wall that came up with a whisky advertisement some two decades back. But the man never sells his posters. He knows well, once the posters are gone, the customers are gone too.

Big Joe’ Brady’s restaurant still exists but its new ludicrous owner has foolishly dared to change the shop’s name for something crazy and modern.  Alas, it has not worked. Hardly a few eat here, mostly the kooky drunkards who guzzle even during day. They would find the owner quarreling with his wife all the time over petty reasons. Some rusty young boys often drop in to witness the squabbling couple. They spit awfully ugly jokes into air, blowing it deliberately toward the owner, and make the old deuce fight more for nothing. The boys drink and drink and drink, making the place a noisy and a nasty one. But Brady’s was different some twenty years back. It sold packs of cigarettes, sweat meats and non-alcoholic beverages. The high notes from the juke box filled the town with an old world charm that soothed the heart. The young girls swung their bottoms but none dared to pinch them for the shop owner was everyone’s old uncle. They loved and respected him. The town has changed unseemly since.

But one thing has not changed earnestly for centuries. It rains off and on here, it be summer or winter, and it keeps the roads wet and clean. The tyres make beautiful sounds when the cars zip through. It was one such winter and the roads were empty by eight in the evening. The television sets blared with the sound of the final rugby game while the owners with their families rested their long fatigued legs on the tables in front of them. The Brady’s has switched off a part of its glow sign, not much expecting a rare flying visit from some unusual visitor. But the rugged phone booth swung its door as the wintry gust passed through. It made the same eerie noise it had always made some twenty years ago. One man stood at the box waiting for his friend to appear, covering his face as much as he could with the raincoat and his hat to shield the drizzle too cold, that contorted him hard. The two are a rare breed of friends the world has not witnessed much. They had decided to meet here at the Brady’s some twenty years later in whatever state  they were, and  in whichever  part of the world they existed.

Jimmy waited inside the stuffy booth, cleansing the frost every other minute that gathered on the glass. It was dark outside and the drizzle was readying itself to turn into a pour. He looked at his watch, carefully wiping the layer of mist; fifteen more minutes had passed quietly. As he moved his eyes from his watch he suddenly saw Bob appear on the other side of the glass. Bob held his mesmerizing smile on him as he had always done. Darkness couldn’t spoil his smile.

‘Come on in Bob,’ said Jimmy, waiting for his friend to come inside the call box to avoid being drenched. But the booth was a meager one for two.  When Jimmy pulled out, it was too dark to see each other’s face that had changed indeed with the passage of two decades.

‘You got a match?’ asked Jimmy, still trembling with cold while he saw Bob hand over a cigarette lighter .

‘Oh! It’s the same stuff from Brady’s. Twenty long years….gone,’ smiled Jimmy, pausing in between words but they forgot to hug each other or shake hands.

‘It’s too rainy to talk here. You mustn’t have forgotten my home behind the second lane,’ said Bob.

‘Why don’t you join me for a cup of coffee after ten minutes at my home,’ he continued.

After he had left, Jimmy looked at his closed fist. Bob had forgotten to take back the lighter with him. Jimmy whiffed his cigarette, relaxed but concerned and waited for another ten minutes to pass. And when the drizzle slowed its pace and whimpered he crossed the road over to the electric post on the other end. The lanes across the road have not changed much since Jimmy had left for the west, some twenty years ago when he last met Bob, he wondered. His house stood third on the left and looked the same.

He pulled the bell once and it sounded twice. The gong has been struck more than once. Someone from inside answered reluctantly.

‘Who’s that?’ a lady’s shrill voice passed through the wooden door. The drizzle had turned a pouring rain by then.

‘Is Bob in?’ asked Jimmy, not in the mood to wait long to meet his friend after twenty long years.

‘Who’s that?’ she sounded once more. But the voice this time appeared fearful.

‘It’s Jimmy his old time pal, Ma’am,’ quick came the reply from across the door. But a discomforting silence fell abruptly. Ten odd seconds came like ten odd minutes to Jimmy and the lady alike who stood seamlessly but uncomfortably on the other side of the door. The lady was hesitant to reply.

‘Are you sure you want Bob?’ the voice had marginalized itself.

‘Isn’t it Bob’s home?’ said Jimmy eagerly, raising his voice above the noise from the rain, when the door opened all of a sudden.

‘Yes it is,’ said the young lady, looking anxiously at the new comer she had never met before. They looked at each other’s face, drawing a blank each time they raised their eyes, not knowing what to do. The lady had inadvertently forgotten to invite Jimmy in.

‘I’m Bob’s widow,‘  too low was the pitch of the answer, painful and awkward. It reached Jimmy though drowned by the vibrations of the downpour.

‘I am Bob’s widow,’ she repeated, softly and delicately.

When Jimmy opened his fist both could see Bob’ s cigarette lighter there.  The silence was too eerie to withstand for both of them.

She grabbed the lighter and rushed to the drawer where she had secured it long back. She opened the lock with the key she had hidden away from others. Stupefied, she saw the lighter was not inside the drawer.

DECAY AND DESCENT OF THE CALCUTTAN EMPIRE

PART 2

Story and future of its skyline

A crowd of about seven, mostly aged men and women, and a child reluctant to waste his time, waits at the corner of a pavement that borders the intersection of two prominent arterial roads, wide enough to be called a thoroughfare. It is evening and a scorching summer, the heat having risen from the melted tar. They are waiting for the breeze to pass from the lake located diagonally across the road.

The wind these days blows barely, hindered by vertical jungle of bricks and mortar that rule the city like imperious people. One has no authority here and now to complain about development of human race and rise of humankind. The crowd can only wait and wait and wait at the mercy of this concrete jungle and on every rogue for his or her insatiable greed that defies Mother Nature.

I wondered if one could lie down supine at the middle of the intersection of these arterial roads and look at the vault, the upper atmosphere, how much of the sky one would ever see. Heavy wires and pipes, cables and coils, having embraced the best of dirt and oil, leftover and forgotten by the rich and wealthy, dangles over ones nostrils. These uneven, unwanted lines now rule and bear the power to outline and sketch the blue sky soiled and stained by the excrement of growth and evolution. A myriad of banners and hoardings, mostly disregarding the basic principles of aesthetics hinder a rare display of rainbow bared by a rain- drenched sky. The view is strenuous and demanding. Only the exclusive and fashionable paint their façade, mostly in crude and garish tones, to enlighten the street on which they dwell. Others have their broken homes to exhibit. The sense and affection and an appetite for grace and refinement is near morsel today. It is a pity that a true aesthete is missing in Calcutta. The merit and worth of aesthetics had always been acknowledged by the learned and the rich, the latter for the value of it. But today, the philosophy of beauty, finds its home mostly with the fat cat and the arrogant.

Where is that man on the street who speaks of Tagore and Ray with casualness and poise? His existence would have barred and frozen the obnoxious and abhorrent banners and the loudspeakers too that blare the beautiful sky with music no less a cacophony. A customary oil lamp lit with the transition of sun into Capricorn rarely adorns a Calcutta roof. Its place has been occupied by cell phone towers.

In modern Calcutta flyovers crisscross in harmony in an unharmonious way that flouts the beauty of architecture. The LEDs on soaring sticks adorn modern streets crippling radiant stars. The children have forgotten the rhyme their forefathers memorized. To witness the artistry of ‘Victoria Memorial Hall’ partially imbricating ‘Howrah Bridge’ is a rare view to appreciate and the modern people have forgotten it, I believe. Sight of giant tree-lined avenue of Calcutta mesmerizingly complementing the blue sky, one must forget and wait for a studio to fake. Alas Bansi Chandragupta, Satyajit Ray’s art director is no more. It will be a rare event indeed to find Calcutta’s skyline cast a full shadow on the ripples of river Ganges. Hard time for an ardent, not impatient, photographer to click the dome of Victoria Memorial Hall with its gorgeous fairy against a clear blue sky is a common saying amongst the professionals these days. Too many skyscrapers can spoil a beauty like too many cooks spoiling the broth. The foliage is down in Calcutta for the city to breathe. If it is true then how can it elegantly beautify the skyline of Calcutta, I wonder hopelessly. The sky no more falls effortlessly on Calcutta and kissing it nobly with its azure tinge to glorify the city’s joy. In modern day, Calcutta is unceasingly battling, to upkeep its cerebral and creative beliefs. Only a true Calcuttan by belief can shrug the existent despair or else the charm and style of Calcutta’s skyline will exist only on ripped, collarless tee shirts for men and women.

The Locard’s Principle

They sat on the lawn elegantly scythed, that lay idle before the King’s College Chapel. This huge piece of sloping green monoculture, chequered alternately in light and dark existed in its same build and glory since 1720s.The abruptness gave way to a great deviation down towards the river Cam. In spite of its eternal beauty the college law prevented onlookers using it. ‘You mustn’t touch the grass’ the dictate was stern but polite. Still it was the city’s one of best known images.  Suddenly the signs “Keep off the grass” were seen being removed. And a word of mouth says that this ground is to be turned a wildflower meadow, a delightful walk through buzzing bees, efflorescence and other pollinators. This new endeavor though strikes hard but the bell is happily ringing in everyone’s ears, especially those who hate seeing possessions unused.

Arthur was two years senior to Sarah. But they cared little to see each other till Arthur was about to leave college in two weeks time. When they met at the cafeteria Sarah was sitting four tables away, quite a distance indeed for eyes to meet and hearts to render. The middleman or the interceder, as Sarah’s friends would prefer while referring to her, plainly because middlemen always faced the wrath of history, was Anne, a little known face in the refectory. Anne would always take her food to the college hall or eat in seclusion in the bar, reading over and over the plays of Chekhov or else a page or two from Brecht’s. It was a sort of an obsessive compulsive behavior believed her friends, but for her it was homecoming. Her biological mother was a Russian.

Anne that day, seldom she would have done, sat with her batch mates at the cafeteria. The book of plays left behind in the act of an accident, now what it seems might be ‘a mischance’ or evident and conspicuous, the stars having overpowered her moves, she reluctantly buried herself into the sandwich when it  struck her that she had a pass on her for Sarah for a special screening of Ray’s Charulata at the auditorium. She waved at her friend and Sarah arrived as energetic as firebolt, as if she had waited eternally for the movie pass.  Here before Anne her eyes met Arthur’s.

I was thinking about the stars. And what are you thinking of?  Who plays the trick, I wondered. The moon or the sun in the birth charts? It must be the moon I thought. Their eyes met, both having willingly abandoned their restraint, but the Saturn laughed in absentia. When all had left the place, they two were still together, talking to each other, deserted and forgotten like a last remaining fragment of a cake on the platter which refuses to be cared by a spoon.

‘You love movies?’ asked Sarah.

‘Surely I do. Have you seen Ray?’ answered Arthur.

Sarah’s eyes never looked so bright before. Lightning colors flickered through her eyes, but they missed the tinge of blue in it. Rarely does one care why. May be at the height of yearning one forgets to look into each other’s face.

‘I have one pass for Charulata, but I will manage a second one from Anne. I believe she would love to give it to me.

‘Would you join me?’ added Sarah hurriedly without pause, often stumbling upon words and allowing no second thought.

I told you about the stars, didn’t I? They work rather fast not even waiting for a nod from anyone or for the matter not even the readers. The stars did it. And this was the beginning of the end and a beginning of the principle.

Sarah didn’t marry Arthur. Their families had different systems of beliefs in divinity and so they both parted themselves. Looking into the future they decided not to break away from their families. They knew, it wouldn’t bring meaning and happiness to their homemaking.  But they didn’t do it willingly. Some accidents  bring happiness but misfortunes don’t. So after twenty long years when the alumni association invited them at the inauguration of the newly laid ‘wildflower meadow’ they both decided to attend it.  Right then Sarah had a lightning color flicker through her eyes, still blue but less dark with passage of time. Colors do change or fade away in one’s life.

When Arthur left, Sarah had gifted him a cardigan of hers as a parting gift. And Arthur offered her a shirt of his which Sarah would always love him to wear. Both their mothers knew of the gifts they had on them. Mothers do love their children and want them to be happy in their lives. Before Sarah got married her mother had quietly removed the shirt from Sarah’s special wardrobe, a thin piece of sufficiently crippled suitcase Sarah had carried with her during her stay at the college hostel. Arthur’s mother gifted Sarah’s sweater to an orphanage. But little did the mothers know about Locard or his principle.

Wisdom is something that one cannot grow forcibly. When people turn old they learn that many a things are not worth to be said or divulged. It’s not a truth that one suppresses or a lie one utters. It’s a reality too hot and too fiery to be handled by the human race. Arthur waited for Sarah at the same table in the cafeteria where they first met. The place had hardly changed since then. Only the people around had been replaced. And when he found Sarah approach her, their senses of sadness overwhelmed their joy. They sipped coffee but they forgot to utter a word. Then they moved to the garden and sat there, still not uttering a word. And while they caressed the flowers, Arthur took out a thread of wool from his purse that belonged to the cardigan Sarah had gifted him.

‘I couldn’t bring the sweater with me,’ said Arthur.

‘I too couldn’t bring the shirt with me,’ added Sarah, taking out a piece of button that made the shirt more handsome.

Sorrow can silently carry some people long distances in life.

DECAY AND DESCENT OF THE CALCUTTAN EMPIRE

PART 1

Story and future of its lingua franca

(Only for readers above the age of eighteen.)

The period of my animate existence and my fettle permits somewhat obscurely but not improperly to recollect Calcutta as early as 1965. I believe that by the age of nine or ten one is sufficiently schooled to savor his busy circumforaneous operations. This city’s overt but silent expression as a city of palaces is long gone. Some, though very little, of the palaces do exist today, but a palace does require a meaningful environment for its continuation. The pedantry for culture, education and civilization is now simply nonexistent and most of them have vanished without a trace.

Not many a metropolis in the world is capable of effortlessly using its demonym to fecundate, conceive, nourish and finally cultivate and sustain its aura in other man’s intellect. Romans and French are only a few who proudly refer to their country or a glorious city. You won’t find a European residing at Delhi for decades blissfully calling himself a Delhite. But for Calcutta, it’s contrasting. The city nevertheless small, suffering from spatial inadequacy for long retained its unusual fusion of youthfulness and wisdom. This took hard labour to cudgel one’s brain, done deliberately from all walks of life. As if everyone was quietly putting his effort to gain acumen, lucidness, sanity, good taste, poise, nous and compassion at one go. You may think it to be an impossible, unrealistic and absurd task to take up, but Calcutta’s population did it. Much of the advocacy and assistance came thoughtfully from the city’s cerebral community. The politicians who were a mixed bag of fortune either willfully supported the thinkers or never opposed them. And with it, stilly grew the language of Calcutta, what its men and women spoke and a distinct tranquil way in which they delivered their thoughts.  There were others too, the harsher and the disordered ones.  They were so meager in number that they suffered from inexistence, nothingness and unfruitful survival.

When one speaks it’s not only what the individual delivers that matters. The style, pattern and virtuosity with which it is dispatched, displays the ultimate kindness and urbanity one has imbibed during walking his or her life. A sane, evenhanded man or woman walks one’s life slowly and passionately, while gaining on the way the ethos, ethics, goodness and scruples a life is ready to offer. For the individuals in Calcutta it mattered much. Old writings, cinemas or even the demonstrations on streets reflect what I scribble here today. But it changed too indistinguishably to be appreciated. Many a thinker would define the period when Calcutta changed the way what and how it spoke. But to me it is harder than said. The process was too slackened and too instantaneous at the same time.

Today the intellectuals rise from within the strength of a political organisation or they themselves add to the clout of it. When you follow a dogma you lose your faculty of free thinking. And when you lose your unbigoted thoughts you are no more a cerebral soul to guide the common man. The consequences are apparent and evident. This ramification may be one of the multi-factorial reasons behind the decline and fall of the city of Calcutta. And when the city fell to the depths of adversity and misfortune, the newer means of communication developed. If you have your patience to follow the language of the street in modern Calcutta you will be astonished to find much of its characteristic has changed from stylized, stately and solemn to heavily rustic, harsh with backcountry overtones. The art and craft of delivering quality undertone has been lost since long. The dialect has turned bumpy, acrid and cutting. The tone is often hurting, miserly and stingy. Listening to this you finally earn a sense of sympathy for the speaker. The child has not been taught how to speak and in the bat of an eye he has turned an adult.   

The psyche of the Calcuttans is degrading and degenerating at an astonishing quickness. Much of which can be attributed to the lack of an entrancing ambience, loaded with goodness of thoughts and enveloping the psyche. This ambience is willing to nurture the latter. It is not easily acquirable and takes quite some time and effort to assimilate. And this is one such abstract existence which you can conceive through the eye of your mind. When a gentleman from Calcutta speaks he lays before you his ambience that he has carefully crafted for years, intermingling with other gentlemen who carried with them essence of good reading, good viewing, good listening  and good thinking. Most of this is gone now and the modern Calcuttan presently believes it is of little or of no value.  As if a child is hurriedly learning to pronounce his favourite word in the English dictionary, ‘floccinaucinihilipilification,’ just for the sake of it, without knowing its implications.

The psyche I am talking about has its power to drive the cerebrations, both unconscious and conscious. With no healthy ambience to guide it, you know what happens next. By now this psyche has turned vulnerable to aggression and influence from animus that has the propensity to hit-and-run. A friend of mine, a Delhite, once asked me “Is a Calcuttan’s psyche so fragile?” I couldn’t find a quick answer to his question. May be everything in this world is fragile or degradable and has been refused existence for life.

The populace of Calcutta is defenseless considering influx from other nearby areas that has been inferior across eighteenth through twentieth century. One may oppressively argue this substance of thought even for sake of a hearty debate. Alas the truth lives firmly. The influx slowly takes time, not bothering itself, finally gathers its strength and momentum and is able to dilute the psyche of a Calcuttan. The situation appears hopeless with the steady rise of the subaltern. The dialect changes and you know well that it can never revise for good at this juncture.

 At the street corner I find an association consisting of buskers and personalities from other organized groups demonstrate the fate of one modern civilized metropolis in form of a street theatre. And I find nothing can be more appropriate than this at this zero hour.

Three modern men and two women from the city have parked themselves on the pavement at the juncture of a major arterial road during rush hour. They sit on foldable chairs with their legs stretched right across the heavily flowing pedestrians who face difficulty in crossing them.  None from the group is bothered and the pedestrians do not complain. These three men are citizens of repute and all of them are either in their late fifties or in their sixties. They are in their best of gaudy dresses. But neither of them is an earning member of the society nor anyone of them have sufficient balance in the bank to meet the pleasures. They sit, idling away their time. Cups of tea, free of cost, from a nearby makeshift shop moisten their lips every hour and nourish the cunningness of these masquerading swaggerers. Soon a known passer-by comes from across the road. The time is evening.

First sitter. [Waving at the known passerby and yelling at him]  Hey Mother f****r, where had you been so long?

[The passerby does not object to the slang uttered by the first sitter and smilingly replies]

The Passer-by.  [Heartily and loudly replies]  F*****g my wife.

Second sitter. [Jokingly] Really?   Not your sister? You are popular as a sister f****r from your school days. You forget that?

The Passer-by. [In anger and clenching his jaws] Mind your tongue or else I will rape your mother in public here.

[The second sitter smiles but does not respond. The women sitting with them smile too. A few from the rushing public laugh at them while enjoying their dialogue but others hurry their way in shame]

My readers, whoever you are or wherever you come from should be aware of the truth that this new practice is to prevail. Shamefulness will disappear. These sitters are here to stay and they are in little hurry to leave their space. Soon their language will flourish and take center stage. People will write about them and don’t be surprised to find one of them inaugurating a ‘Book Fair’ or a ‘Film Festival’ in near future.

Preface to the play ‘Hold-up’

I had no intention of writing the play ‘Hold-up’ in the midst of excellent new ones, previously unheard of,  that keep coming  every now and then by promising new writers in English literature. Only a chance exchange with my sister-in law, a well read overtly no non-sense woman, a teacher by profession, who made her views clear that the human race over thousands of years has shed a bulk of its savage, brutal, rapacious constitution or characteristic as you may cautiously prefer to call it, to avoid insulting humanity. She was referring to the acts of gladiators of Rome and the two great wars of the twentieth century. A seasoned bloodshed was on progress across the north-eastern part of the globe laid flat by equirectangular projection over the television panel in front of us, while we talked about the gigantic development in engineering science the last century had bestowed upon us. I looked at the world map followed by a peaceful city of well laid palaces and offices and high-rise structures reduced to rubble by bombs and missiles, the best the modern science from the best of the brains could produce. And I wondered how pugnacious, the modern virility would prefer to call it beautiful, displayed before my eyes and the women and children fleeing their country in dire cold and hunger. Oh what a colorful sight of disgrace and humiliation unfolding before me, bodies strewed across beautifully arched wide roads and narrow lanes a reminder of forgotten lover’s lane. I wondered how far we have changed for good in these last thousands of years or so or for that matter, the last five to seven million years of existence of human ancestors on our holy earth. And suddenly I decided not to name the mother and the boy. It can transpire anywhere, anytime.

The Hold-up

       (A One Act Play)       

Characters in the play

The Mother

The Boy

The Radio

The king

The Minister

The public about ten in number

(The action takes place in an underground metro railway station where the citizens of a city have taken shelter during bombardment by its neighboring country. The time is well within twenty-first century.)

[SCENE: Bogie of an underground train waits motionless on the railway platform. About ten men and women all dumbfound, shattered and traumatized can be seen scattered across the station. Their unwashed face, their unclean dress and their bearing reveals all. They are discussing in a low voice the future of their country. Some are planning to get food which they believe will be in scarcity soon. One adult male with his right leg hanging and the left folded at knee is seen sleeping on an unused railway vendor’s van.  On the right advertisement from a ‘Life insurance firm’ displays benefits but with an asterisk which mentions ‘wars not included’. From the left a baby (not visible on stage) is heard crying. The platform is dimly lit and appears dirty, not cleaned for a week.

On the forefront a mother aged about thirty-five, lean and thin is seen seated on a stool. Unable to read a book for distractions, she rests it on her right knee balancing it with her right hand. She is wearing the same dress for almost a week. Her look is uncertain, her hair uncombed. Her ten year old son hugs her and fiddles with his mother’s dress. He holds a cellphone in his left palm. The time by the railway clock is eight in the evening.  Siren is often heard from above the stage, meaning from the road above. Near continuous sound of gun firing strains the platform below. Explosions from rockets fired and bombs hurled shatter the air beneath. Often a deadly noise from the rolling tank and the whump from its main gun hurt the ear. Today’s supper has not yet arrived from the NGOs who till yesterday had delivered.]

A boy is seen fiddling with his mother’s dress not caring much about the crowd around him.

THE MOTHER. [Not looking unkindly but disturbed, burdened with anxiety uses her left hand to free her dress. She speaks loudly but politely] Oh! Stop it.

[The boy frees his mother’s dress]

THE BOY.  [Ashamed of what he was doing]  Sorry Maa. [Pause] Is this a real war? [An earsplitting sound of bomb can be heard and everyone puts his or her hands on ears] When will this end? It’s boring and I’m so hungry, won’t they serve the dinner? How long will it take  Maa? [The son abruptly squats, tired of standing. Then he rises again. Undecided what to do.]

THE MOTHER. [Irked but not losing her motherly love looks wistfully towards her son] Bored? Bored with the war games in your phone? [Pauses] Or the real war bores you?

[Continuous noise from bullets fired can be heard with very little interruption.]

THE BOY. [Stamping his right foot in disgust and making a sound] When will this end?

THE MOTHER. [Calmly] Which one? [Points sarcastically, at the cellphone which the son holds.]   The real one or the one in the mobile?

THE BOY. [Displeased with his mother’s reply] Stop toying with me Maa.

[The mother bends and hugs her son affectionately.]

THE MOTHER. [Stops  behaving childishly and the agonizing truth is about to be expressed. Makes herself sit erect, her left hand rests on the boy’s right shoulder] I don’t know my son. [Pause] The adults are playing a ruthless game. It is a matter of honour and prestige for both of them.

THE BOY. [Inquisitively] You mean fame and power? Like our Maths teacher who fought hand in hand with History teacher in staffroom?

[The mother quickly puts her left palm over her son’s mouth, afraid that he might spill more beans. Some men and women laugh. Obviously someone is listening. ]

THE MOTHER. [Reluctant to support her son’s views] Don’t say that, they are your teachers.

THE BOY. [Pressing his views quite convincingly somewhat nagging, to what he witnessed himself]  But I saw them fighting Maa.

THE MOTHER. [A bit sternly]  That is none of your business.

[The boy stops arguing, but he is unwilling to support his mother’s view]

THE BOY. [Speaking softly in a painful tone] Why can’t they air some music or some quiz in the radio mother?

THE MOTHER. [Rather abruptly] Because of  war.

THE BOY. Then there will be music and quiz when the war ends?

THE MOTHER. [Not confident]  Hope so.  But it will take time.

THE BOY. [Looking at a distance  to find what all others are doing he restarts to fiddle his mother’s dress again and asks rather involuntarily] Then why are they fighting mother? [Looking at the group of people]

THE MOTHER.   The  border.

THE BOY. [Understanding clearly what his mother meant]  You mean the land? Which part belongs to whom?

[The mother in affirmation nods to confirm]

THE BOY. [Like a simpleton] What will they do with the land mother?

THE MOTHER. [Angrily] Stop asking silly questions. [She frees her dress]

THE BOY.  [Laughing, somewhat giggling] You don’t know the answer mom, so you are angry. Our History teacher often does the same when he had not prepared himself for the class.

THE MOTHER. [Uneasily] You seem to talk like an adult in these seven days.

[The boy listens, feels elated, but suppresses his feelings, not responding to his mother’s views]

THE BOY. [Inquisitively looking for his mother’s support] The maid next door was saying there must be some girl involved in the war.

THE MOTHER. [In utter surprise, not believing to what she heard, but somewhat smiling, raises her hand for a slap but she knows well, she will not deliver it.] [Angrily] These are the things you are learning in school.

THE BOY. Not in school Maa, in neighborhood. [The boy giggles for her mother’s wrong statement]

[The mother shyly accepts the ‘Freudian Slip’ she had committed.]

[Someone from the crowd laughs. One lady is enjoying the discussion]

A LADY [sitting behind the mother but cannot be seen] Your son looks intelligent.

THE MOTHER.  [Responding, she turns her head backwards]. Nothing  intelligent. He is just gathering all that dirty adult rubbish.

THE BOY. [Pointing at someone in the crowd behind] That uncle was saying that there are many dead bodies lying on the main square, even children.

THE MOTHER.  [Holds her tears.  Her hands clasped over her mouth. Her two thumbs touching her lips in silence.] Don’t say that [She pauses] Your father is fighting for his homeland there.

[The boy moves and calms his mother, his hands comforting her.]

THE BOY.  Then why are they fighting mum?  It’s so boring. No school, no friends, no TV.

THE MOTHER. [Recovering from her tears]  It’s not boring. The adults are enjoying.

THE BOY. [Unable to believe] Enjoying? Killing others?

THE MOTHER. Why not?  If you can do it in your mobile games, why can’t they?

THE BOY.  [In a nagging voice] Stop maa, it’s just a game. [The boy tries to justify his war games in computer]

THE MOTHER.  Don’t worry. You are learning how to do it.

THE BOY.  Do what? Killing harmless people?

THE MOTHER. [Convincingly] Yes.

THE BOY.  [In a very low voice] I will never do that.

THE MOTHER.  [Now raising her voice, she insists] Say loudly, ‘’I will never do that.”

THE BOY. [Looking at his mother and speaking very loudly]  I will never kill a man.

[The mother hugs her boy affectionately and brings him closer]

THE MOTHER.  I believe, the king who is killing, has never been brought up properly by his parents.

THE BOY.   Never?

THE MOTHER.   May be.  I don’t know for sure.

THE BOY.  Hated by his parents?

THE MOTHER.  [Angrily] How come I know? Hated or loved? [The mother chuckles] Stop silly questions.

THE BOY.  You only started the thread.

THE MOTHER.  It’s not Quora. Stop living in your computer world.  [The mother pauses]. What I meant was much depends upon your upbringing.

THE BOY.  What is upbringing Maa?

THE MOTHER.  Raising one’s child. To guide him what is good and what is bad. What to do and what not to.  And of course,  loving the child.

THE BOY. I know that. [Pauses] [Rolling the word on his tongue]  Upbringing.

THE MOTHER. Pretty smart you are. You know the word upbringing?

[The lady from behind laughs]

THE LADY.  [The lady cannot be seen]  I told you, your son intelligent.

THE BOY. [Looking behind at the lady who spoke] Not upbringing, it’s caring. My classmate who sits next to me always says that he is not loved by his mother. She hates him.

THE MOTHER.  It may not be true my son.

THE BOY. [Stressing]  No it’s true maa. The whole class knows that, even the class teacher. He says his parents always fight.

[The mother rather angrily and swiftly puts her palm over her son’s mouth for the second time, not allowing him to speak. The next moment the mother hugs her son affectionately.]

THE LADY. [From behind] You can’t stop the new generation.

THE MOTHER. [Exhaling in disgust]  May be. [Pause] [Looking toward her son] I don’t know.  I have to wait till your friend grows up. And find whether he has turned up into a good human being or not. [A longer pause] Some people are blessed with a quality to self-educate them and teach themselves good things.

THE BOY. Who blesses them Maa?

THE MOTHER. [Raising her right index finger pointing at the sky above]  Numen.

THE BOY.  Numen?  What is that Maa?

THE MOTHER.  The  almighty.

THE BOY. What is Numen doing right now Maa? Can’t he stop the bullets so that I can watch some TV shows at home.

THE MOTHER. [Answers indignantly] You don’t have the right to say like that.

THE BOY. [Knowing well what he said was not right] Only Daddy has the right? He keeps saying words like this.

THE MOTHER. [Vexed] Stop silly arguments.

[A long pause ensues.  Only talking amongst the public can be heard. They are still discussing their fate, their home, the war, politics between the two kings. The man continues his slumber on the vendor – trolley. A focusing light points at the sleeping man. And then it moves on a transistor radio lying beside him.  A silence of about fifteen seconds is suddenly broken by the boy.]

[The boy is seen fiddling with his mother’s dress again]

THE BOY.  Maa. Those who are not loved always turn ferocious?

THE MOTHER.  [Jokingly laughing] Like tigers?

THE BOY. Oh stop kidding maa . [Throws his right hand in anger]

THE MOTHER. You mean aggressive?

THE BOY. That’s right maa, you know so many exact words.

THE MOTHER. [Caressing the boy]  You too will learn, if I teach you properly. It’s important that you utter the right word at the right time. Most of us do not know how to speak, it invites misunderstanding, confusion. And if you are not aware of this you will have a growing list of enemies. Even if you are not fighting, you are losing your valuable time.

THE BOY.  You are lecturing me Maa? This is what Daddy often does to you.  [Pausing] And you get angry. When I keep on playing with the mobile games, Daddy keeps on saying, I’m losing my time. A wasted time never comes back in your life.

THE MOTHER.  Daddy says that? And you believe that?

THE BOY. [Pauses to answer, scratches his head] Yes I do, at least now I do.  When the adults are fighting and making me lose my time.

[One lady from behind is found laughing. But she cannot be seen]

THE BOY. [Questioning inquisitively]  You love Daddy?  Maa.

THE MOTHER.  Yes, that’s the reason I wait anxiously. [Pause]  And it’s not only your Daddy, for others who have nothing to do with the war. They have just been sucked into.

THE BOY. [Not understanding a word of his mother] You mean sucked into?

THE MOTHER.  Yes sucked into. Just like, being pulled into a vacuum.

THE BOY. You mean the ‘vacuum’ ? The vacuum from General Science?

THE MOTHER.  [ Laughing, hugs her child again] What should I do with my little Teddy.  [She pauses to explain the word ‘vacuum’.] Here vacuum means…… [The mother falters to explain, not finding the exact word]

THE BOY.  [Understanding that his mother is at a loss of words] I understand Maa. They are pulled into the war , to fight people and kill them though they don’t like it.

THE MOTHER. [Now relieved that her son has understood exactly what she meant] I told you, you have suddenly grown up.

THE BOY. [ Not believing what  his mother said] Are the people, fool?  They suddenly start fighting against their wish?

THE MOTHER. [Whispering in negation]  Uh-Hooh. [Then loudly] They are no fools but they can easily be tricked into the war.

THE BOY.  Tricked? Like in magic?

THE MOTHER. [She is quite serious and understands that her son is not yet ready for this] This is not my word my son, Goering said that. [Pauses] Forget that.

THE BOY. Who is Goering Maa?

THE MOTHER.  I told you to forget that. It was just a slip of tongue.

[The boy pulls his mother’s dress repeatedly and insists about Goering. The mother at last is forced to comply.]

THE MOTHER.  He was Hitler’s right- hand man, Herman Goering.  You will come to know of him when you grow up. And you must know him well or else you face the same mishap again.

THE BOY.  What’s  mishap  Maa?  [Pauses] And what is Right- Hand?

THE MOTHER.  The closest man Hitler trusted upon. To some he is God. To many a monster. 

THE BOY. [Quite inquisitively eager to know] Who’s Hitler Maa?

THE MOTHER.  I will tell you about him another day.

THE BOY. [Confused]  A  monster and God at the same time?

[One more pause ensues.  The boy now confused with what his mother said. ‘A monster and God’]

THE BOY.  [Speaks like a grown up man]  Am I losing my childhood Maa?

THE MOTHER. Who told you?

THE BOY.  From the Television,  Maa.

THE MOTHER.  A cinema?

[The boys nods in affirmation but does not speak]

THE MOTHER.  Yes.  And you are losing your time too. It’s more vital than a childhood.

THE BOY.  [Speaking convincingly] Then there must be a girl in between, what the maid said.

THE MOTHER. [Now angry and not smiling slaps the boy lightly on his back] Stop that adult rubbish. I told you earlier.

THE BOY. [Not proven guilty by the slap, abruptly joins the conversation without wasting his time] Then there must be money.  Hard cash’.

THE MOTHER. [Facing another blow from her son and shaken by the dreadful utterances from him] God only knows where you are being taken to. Where from did you hear these words?

THE BOY.  Television.  Maa.

THE MOTHER. [At a loss] God only help this child.  What the hell the T.V is teaching you?  [The mother’s anger is utterly palpable]  I will sell off the T.V when I get back.

THE BOY. You can’t Maa. Our city is put to rubbles. Our house is gone.

THE MOTHER.  Now it’s pretty bad. Who told you that?

THE BOY. [Again pointing out at a person who is sitting behind at a distance] That uncle, he heard it from the radio.

[One person is seen rising from the crowd and walks towards the radio and switches it on. The cracking sound wakes the sleeping man. The man sits up, as if panicked, quite confused and unable to gather whether it is day time or night. Others laugh at him.]

THE MAN. [Asking the person facing him]  Got a nice sleep?

[The man now sitting upright on the trolley doesn’t respond. Still confused. The other man keeps tuning the station in the radio set.]

THE RADIO. [Suddenly bursting into a high pitched speech]  This is the ‘City Radio’ giving you the news in HAM frequency. Our city has been wiped off by the enemy. Every building has turned into flames. Our reporter says no high rise exist as of now. The buildings have turned charcoal like. Even the Montessori school has not been spared. The Central Hospital has been bombed. There were about four hundred patients admitted and a full strength of doctors when it was hit by a missile. It was further bombed  by the tanks to ensure its complete damage. There are intelligence reports that the enemy is finding ways  to gas the underground railway stations where many have taken shelter. They may try the Sarin gas which is odorless, colorless and highly toxic. We warn those in the underground platforms to keep a close watch to what is happening and keep their eyes and ears and nose open. The next bulletin if possible will be after half-an-hour. [The radio is switched off]

—————————————————————————————————————————————

[There is a pause for about twenty seconds. Everyone is suddenly muted by some unseen  magic wand. None is found talking. Even the child has stopped crying. The boy waits near his mother, not speaking a word. One keeps watching the other in a stifling quietness. No way is left for them to escape. The stage suddenly plunges into darkness.]

THE CROWD. [Immediately after darkness, a noise like in chorus erupts] Oh my God. Oh my God

[Now, the crowd can nowhere be seen having plunged into darkness. The light solely focuses on two men standing with gas-masks on them, on the right hand corner of the stage. They are softly talking to each other, inaudible to the audience. One is dressed as a King and other his mentor is the Minister. The King stands on the right hand side of the Minister. The King breaks the silence first.]

THE KING. [Looking at his Minister] Hey Mr. Minister, can you hear me? [The Minister is looking at the other end of the stage searching for something. On hearing the King, the minister quickly turns towards him.]

THE MINISTER. [Shaky] Sorry Sir, I am slightly short of hearing in my right ear Sir. [Smartly points his right index finger toward his right ear]

THE KING. [Annoyed and sarcastic] Then I believe you do not require the right ear. Remind me to call the surgeon tomorrow.

THE MINISTER. [Afraid of losing his ear, he is not only shaken but stirred too. Trembling, he starts talking like delivering his speech, as if before a large crowd eager to hear him.]  Yes my lord, the holy king, the God of all, the future of truth, the future of verity, the future of honesty and genuineness, the future of accuracy- correctness-rightness and validity. I mean the almighty.

THE KING. [Happy with the minister’s speech] It is the first flawless speech I have heard from you. It seems you have corrected and mastered your speech well. Hence forth dare not to call me “The President”. I prefer to be called a King [The minister nods, still feeling uncomfortable.] Anyway. Where is the child who speaks like an adult? And where is his mother?

[The minister points his finger below to an area within darkness where the boy and his mother sat.]

THE KING. There is not much need of them. The child has already turned an adult. Superfluous ones in this over congested world. And where’s the public?  Discussing politics amongst themselves?

[The Minister points at the area in the darkness behind where the boy and his mother sat]

THE KING. [Turning his lower lip over the upper one in disgust]  The crowd too appears superfluous.

[Smell of gas emerges from the backdrop slowly filling the stage and the auditorium too.]

                                                                     

THE CURTAIN FALLS

The Jester Who Killed Himself

Arubankalai appears to be the last railhead to the south. Your keenness may carry you over a few more miles along the dead tracks beyond this station, but woefully it leads nowhere. They were destined to be buried alive within the bushes when the tracks first came here, some sixty odd years ago. This little township boasts of a cornucopia of rain and foliage while calm and tranquility follows as a matter of course. Idle chugging of railway engines and motorists reluctant to blow their horns is all praise for this nondescript county of a thousand long years. Countless temples dating back to ninth century A.D. bear a humble testimony to this serene landscape. But today, when I roll out the first few pages of this story, it has passed twentieth century.  It is Monday, beginning of a new week, inception of a new era and birth of a new century.

Thus far the sun appears bright. Clouds as still as a mouse, have abandoned their routine hover. This is the last day of the twentieth century, a day to remember, a Sunday and weekend too. A festive mood has already set in. Camp fires will be held at night but cheap wine will follow suit right after the lunch. Dinner will be free for all. About thirty square kilometers of this forest, a piece of land like others is still ruled by a chieftain. Only for a few it is a strange historical happenstance that this holy day also transpires to be one hundred years of anniversary of independence.   The chief has decided to pray for the well being of his fellowmen and to ward off evil spirits that drive people against his county. 

When Hugues, only thirty-five, left his bogie at Arubankalai station it was five in the morning. He had boarded the train some four hundred miles away last night, north of this town. His fauces felt dry. The train air-conditioners are too heavy here. They can chill overwhelmingly and kill you. The blankets those come with the ticket have a mouthful of mites, ready to give you hives. At five in the morning the railway platform felt fresh, redolent of a quiet remote sea side and comfortable. The sea is not that far off from this place, only a couple of miles away in lone digit and the rawness of the morning breeze caressed his face like a tissue paper bathed in eau de cologne.  Through the tranquil, hazy mist that suffused the cool breeze he could see a deserted makeshift tea stall fire its oven. Hughes is new here but not new to this country. After he put his first sip he noticed Nagarajan approach him. They were roomies at Oxford some ten years back and now Naga runs an NGO here.  

They walked for over a mile to a tiny hamlet of a kindergarten school, a five bedded hospital, an office and a residential area for those who work here. Hughes was put up in Naga’s room and after a shower they left for the chieftain for a courtesy call.

The middle aged chief sat before his crowd praising them, who cheered in return. On seeing Hughes for the first time with Naga he waved at him. ‘You have a new friend of yours, an Englishman I believe,’ said the chief looking at Naga. He spoke fluent understandable English with a veritable touch of his mother tongue.  He wore some sort of a half-pant

that looked like old Gazebos made out of tiger skin, to please the villagers. He had an authentic collection of feathers from rare birds that decorated his cap.

Hughes bowed, but the chief didn’t rise from his tailored pedestal that looked somewhat like a cathedra. He only made a delicate customary nod, respecting Hughes’ curtsy. It is a practice here. People or even foreigners don’t mind this gesture. The king shouldn’t leave his seat.

‘I am Conway, Conway Junior,’ Hugues said repeating his name again.

The chieftain adjusted his earplugs. He had a large derriere that stuck to his throne and he spoke little. His trade mark kinesics took care of the rest. This brought some kind of a phony seriousness and honesty to his otherwise indistinctive banal face.

‘Conway Sir, my grandfather, was here long back. I believe before you were born,’ Hugues spoke, but he quickly lowered his words aware of the chief not happy to hear about that. Nothing on earth can be there before a chief is born.

The chief smiled reluctantly and asked Hugues to take a seat before him.

“You mean Hugh Conway of Shangrila?’ the old man who sat beside the chieftain spoke with an eye on Hugues.

‘Yes Sir, my grandfather. We share the same name Sir. Hugh and Hugues.’

‘Funny,’ spoke the grand old man again. But Hugues couldn’t find anything funnier than what the old man spoke.  He sat crossed legged before the chief, the undeclared king of the region.

It looked somewhat like a circus. The crowd, the murky makeshift cinema screen erected at a distance, the giant wheel, temporary  shops from obsolete torn apart tarpaulins, the noise, the dust that blew in all directions, people selling crude, inexpensive goods shouting at top of their voice. The haze encircled those assembled, like a canopy. It looked amazing for some time, but the noise kept rising above the quaint flute someone blew, irked little by the lawlessness that arose. It is evident Hugues will be bored soon.

The chief, no less than a king, had ordered a goat to be sacrificed before the God. But a rather timid, uninspiring but not indeterminate and characterless ‘Association for the prevention of cruelty to animals’, under the leadership of mostly young school goers, now triggered by a bunch of cunning do-nothing seniors, had successfully   banished all the goats overnight.

Hugues had taken his seat in the midst of the conference when the chieftain appeared angry and now his anger was determined to blow up the beginning of the new century. Hugues didn’t recognize the jester sitting next to him. The man was dressed in a shabby trouser unwashed for days, tied to his waist with a discarded  elastic. His shirt looked equally awful, smelling when he raised his arms and his skin that peeped, bore marks of untreated eczematous lesions.

The jester stood up quickly from within the crowd and in a trice much like a magician, got into a clown’s dress he was carrying on him. Only at this juncture Hugues could notice a hatchling drool from his pocket. The young man now dressed in a clean cloak, looking like a medieval minstrel took out the baby tortoise from his pocket and said, ‘I know of this, Sir. Someone from the opposition must have intentionally hid all the goats to teach you a lesson of tit for tat. But don’t worry Sir, I have a tortoise for you.’

The crowd laughed at this, caring little for what the half-mad vagrant said. But the jester, disgruntled with his friends and paying little heed to the public, hurriedly made his way to the center stage where the chieftain sat, kicking his legs randomly to make his way.

It is true that there are ways penned in the sacred books some thousand years ago of sacrificing a tortoise in place of costly offerings like goats and other larger animals. Even the poor take pumpkins for oblation since antiquity. Bringing the offspring close to his lips and speaking a word or two quickly into the tortoise the jester laid it to rest on the hands of the holy priest. But as luck would have it the tortoise likely out of fear hid itself under its carapace. For half an hour or so a crazy commotion and ruckus ensued as if the moons of Neptune have unleashed a heavily laden box of pandemonium never witnessed before.  A resounding clatter was soon evident as every other capricious soul began trying his hand on the poor creature to bring out its head. The last man standing was the chieftain himself. And when he too failed the jester rose to his feet and suggested that there is one way out but it will be too difficult for the king to do.

‘How much will it cost the exchequer?’ asked the chief angrily.

‘Not much Sir, but it’s a difficult task indeed Sir,’ the quick rejoinder came from the jester himself.

‘There is nothing on this earth the king cannot do,’ spoke the chieftain in anger, his face enraged, sullen and fierce. The deputy has seen nothing like this before. Quickly accomplishing his face like an ignoramus person the jester said, ‘Sir, why don’t you put your head before the deity. It is the best you can do from your end. Moreover your head doesn’t have a shell to hide.

Silence fell abruptly like an intolerable vacuity and soon the lull shattered the bliss in a jiffy. A fearsome fate waited for the jester in reticence. No one had spoken a word for quite some time since the jester let his words slip his lips like a nincompoop. At this the old man rose from his seat and with a swift jerk to his neck from right to left he eyed  the law enforcers  to take away the jester. Then quickly coming across the stage he announced that the chieftain had forgiven the jester as he firmly believes the jester to be nothing other than nuts.

As the crowd waited in composure all of a sudden the jester could be heard once more. He freed himself from the clutches of the men who carried him and in a clear and loud voice said, ‘I too am ready to sacrifice myself if the chief hesitates.’ But before he could speak more he was ferried like a backpack by four black men to the gate outside.

The next day Hugues found the jester at the local police station. The lockup was too dirty, not even worth an hour’s stay. The dust and grime had found a permanent fixture on the walls and the floor. Even if cleaned every day, there air remained the same.

He was not much expected at the station, Hugues knew about that. His own and his passport’s colour went against him.

‘Your friend a reporter?’ the station officer asked Naga rather casually.

The Chieftain Turtle The Jester

‘A biologist,’ replied Naga, ‘a friend of mine since Oxford days.’

‘You mean the University?’ the officer enquired inquisitively, while his face filled with contentment. Oxford University has done the trick. The officer who was on a year’s contract was preparing for a permanent position in police services. Oxford’ was not new to him.

‘You mind a cup of coffee, Sir?’

‘I would be happy and happier if it’s black,’ said Hugues lithely, conveying that he was just a friend and nothing else. Marlboro did the rest.

The jester looked straight at Hugues from his seat inside the lockup. It was a small place, a ten by ten room, a lockup and a toilet. It was all that the station had.

‘Why did you do that?’ Hugues asked the jester still biting his nail, not seeking permission from the officer and looking straight into the lockup.

‘I am a professional jester Sir,’ quick was the reply from the depths of the darkness of the lockup.

‘A self made jester Sir,’ drawled the officer, disgusted with the happenings still unfolding.

‘I mean a self declared half-mad jester Sir,’ the policeman wouldn’t stop here. He rose from where he sat. He had a lean, stout frame in its dapper appearance, still enjoying the Marlboro stick, his fingers folded onto his palm to make a hookah out of it for more satisfaction.

‘You ask him more questions and he has his answers readied for all of them, plan A, plan B, plan C,’ the angry policeman had no intention of ceasing.

‘Look what he has done to my conscience, I can neither leave him nor hold him here,’ the officer stopped at last and took to his seat, disgruntled and disturbed.

‘They won’t believe me sir, I am nine generations into this trade, my forefathers were at the temple for some six hundred years sir,’ the jester spoke again from the darkness of his room.

‘You mean a court jester? Interesting,’ Hugues looked inside the lockup.

‘My great- great grandfathers had their names inscribed on the temple stone sir. You can’t miss that,’ the jester was not ready to surrender but stopped for a time managing his sullen breath.

‘Let them put me to the gallows, I don’t mind,’ he continued ‘after that, they may have to burn my effigy every year, can’t forget me sir, can’t forget me,’ he repeated in one breath with a laugh that sounded crazy and deranged.

‘He is talking bloody nonsense’ Hugues made a subdued statement staring at the rotten glass paper weight and rolling it, not expecting a rejoinder.

‘What can I do if the public has lost its wit?’ the jester spoke again. It sounded like a solo one act play.

‘Keep yeah mouth shut, it’s the only thing you can do that now,’ the officer shouted angrily at the jester. Hugues could see the jester bite a half- pound bread with the coffee.

‘Finish off your coffee fast, or they will finish me off,’ the officer spoke fast, faster than the jester could eat.

‘You tried to fool the government emissary with that tortoise? A very daring act indeed,’ Hugues couldn’t help making the statement, still fiddling with the paper weight.

‘If he can fool us with his tiger pants, why can’t I sir?’ pat came the reply from the jester.

‘He doesn’t seem like a half-mad man,’ Hugues added now looking straight into the officer.

The officer chuckled and said’ No sir, he has just made a screwball image cut out for his benefits, no half-mad he is.’

‘But I know of no other trade sir other than a pantaloon, just managing a free square meal from the temple, a harmless man sir, I am,’  mumbled the jester, still positioned in the depths of the darkness that was growing fast.

Some fifteen years later I got an email from Naga, a simple but a agonizing and heart-wrenching one.

‘You remember the jester? He has been put behind the bars for ninety-nine years.’

It would have been better if he would have been impaled that day.

The Witch

The sun was down and the caliginous surrounding appeared firmly under the grip of the waning gibbous moon. Bushes swayed against the wind, just the opposite we witness. No one noticed this, only the waiting street dog aware of the ruffled leaves that looked bravely, face to face with the mysterious zephyr, whimpered. But the innuendo was too low to break the unusual silence that overpowered the fifteen odd men who had assembled for the last Hindu rites. Each one of them, wherever they stood, cast large, tall shadows. In the next fifteen minutes or so, darkness fell quickly clouded by mist and the gust had unexpectedly stopped.

At the pyre

This is the hamlet called ‘Banshee’, one unobtrusive tiny village, with abounding foliage about fifty odd kilometres away from Calcutta. Only stunted rays from the sun can enter this place. When the sun sets, darkness falls over darkness.  But its residents are not bothered. ‘Banshee’ in Indian language is flute but little do the villagers know it’s an English word. Late in the eighteenth century when the East India Company men left this village after a short stint, they named this tiny plot ‘Banshee’ or the ghost, the other name for demon. Only the postmaster’s nonagenarian father, near bereft of life knows the story of Banshee.

The fifteen men, now looking rather strange and aberrant under the weird haze of the moon had carefully cleared a piece of land of the bushes, hardly ten by ten odd feet in size and laid the funeral pyre. They waited for the dead to arrive. The dead man, struck by an extraordinary appearance of a lonely firebolt, the sky still remaining rarely filled with cloud, is only twenty years of age, stout and strong. In a rare feat of dismal fate of the family, today happens to be his birthday and he had married his leman of over seven long years, only yesterday. The terse and morose marriage against the will of the clan was abrupt and full of hateful wishes. But he lay dead, heedless of the colossal abuses being hurled over his ladylove whose frozen torso stood unobtrusively hardly ten feet away, alone. She hadn’t spoken a word since yesterday. Only the priest stood beside her.

When her mother-in-law emerged from the crowd waiting at a distance, she howled at the lady, still in her bridal dress, in a shrill male like voice that had tortured her after hours of groaning. And then pointing at the bride she spoke aloud disastrously,

‘Bring the whore to the pyre, lousy witch not worthy of standing.’

‘Let her lit the pyre, bloody slut,’ she groused again.

The priest broke off four twigs from the bushes and lit it with a strange looking matchbox from his pocket, smoothened long back by his weight. It looked conspicuous with its earmark 666 but the darkness hid it. Only the priest was in his mind, reminding himself not to forget the steps of the ritual. He had seen many a dead like this. He held the bride by the arm and put the lighted twigs in her hand. She must now put the fire on her husband’s frail looking lips and touch it delicately. But the fire hovered over the mouth unable to caress it as if some depraved spirit has strained her hand.

The priest uttered once more, a little louder for the third time ‘Touch the lips with the fire.’ But still she couldn’t.

Only a faint wailing in stupor cried out for the first time ‘How can I, the fire will hurt him.’