Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Chorki, aka Chakradhar Sinha

Those who do not know what having a pet is are the second most unfortunate group of people on earth. (The first of course are those who have never enjoyed a fine drink in the company of good friends.) Our fox-terrier Chorki, aka Chakradhar Sinha went to meet his maker on a pleasant spring morning five years ago, but he still seems to be around.

If the introduction has given you the impression that Chorki was a loving pet, a dog that was eager to please people around him, I am sorry. Nothing could be farther from truth. In fact, I have never seen a more self-centred and opinionated dog than Chorki. Like all authentic fox-terriers, he honestly believed that the main purpose behind the existence of the universe was to please him. He loved to be at the centre of everything and instinctively knew where he ought to be in order to make his presence felt. For example, if any one of us was packing a suitcase, he would calmly move into the suitcase and pretend to be sleeping. He loved good food and saw to it that he was given the biggest slice of cake and the largest scoop of ice cream. He was a strong believer of the hedonistic philosophy: Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. On a summer day he would always sleep directly under the fan or the ac vent. In a frosty winter night, it would be impossible to nudge him out of his blanket. What was worse, he had a huge chip on his shoulder and was always ready to take offence. Unlike most people with dogs, we couldn’t tell people: ‘Don’t worry, our dog doesn’t bite.’

Sorry, but our dog does bite. On a conservative estimate, Chorki bit seventeen people in his career, and many of his victims had to experience the pain multiple times. Some of them were nice people who would themselves pay for the prophylactic anti-rabies shots, making us feel even guiltier, but to many others, besides apologies, we would offer medical facilities. It came to such a stage that if we hadn’t bought the shots for a couple of months, our friendly street-corner pharmacist Sona would ask me, ‘Ki dada, Rabipur laagbena?’

And if there was one dog whose bark was worse than his formidable bite, it was Chorki. He would be easily disturbed by any legitimate noise that passers-by made and would respond by increasing the noise pollution manifold. So if you had a car screeching to a stop or a cyclist ringing his bell in front of our house, Chorki would start barking, continuing for at least ten minutes after the reason for his displeasure abated. Mornings were the worst time. We Bengalis being broadminded people, whenever we say ‘Good morning’, we don’t just wish just one person, but the rest of the humanity too. So every time a morning walker said ‘Good morning’ a little loudly, Chorki would take off. And sound was not the only stimulus for him to bark.

Chorki firmly believed that whatever area he could see from our windows was out-of bounds for other dogs. So even if he saw the tail of a stray dog curled up at a distance, he would try to enforce his no-fly zone. Things were so bad that we would give directions to our house as follows. ‘Come to Parnashree bus stand and if you do not hear a dog barking already, wait for a few minutes. You will hear a shrill bark coming from a fourth-floor flat. Just follow the sound, and hey, Bob is your uncle.’

You might think: what kind of people could fall in love with such a cantankerous dog and why should anyone write about him five years after what should surely have been good riddance? And there lies the nub, Gentle Reader. Despite all his failings, Chorki had such a magnetic pull … and he loved us madly. He could understand practically every word of Bengali (except modern poetry) and if ever anyone could express feelings, information, and ideas with just their eyes, it was Chakradhar.

Once we took him to Bangalore to my daughter’s place. The plan was to leave him there for six months as we would leave for the US, where my son and daughter-in-law had just set up their home. The day we were to leave for Kolkata, Chorki understood the situation clearly and behaved like a dog possessed. He stopped eating and drinking and would run alternately to my wife and me. He would bark as softly as he could – in fact it was the only time he whimpered in his life – and look into our eyes with as much pathos as he could muster. No language could have expressed more clearly what he wanted to say: “Don’t go away. Please don’t leave me here.”

We were heartbroken but we had to leave. After much cajoling, my daughter managed to take him for a walk in the afternoon and we slipped away during the time. When Chorki returned, he realised what had happened and shot off immediately. There was a taxi with a driver waiting in front of the house and to the utter horror of the driver, a dog suddenly jumped into the vehicle. Chorki had correctly reckoned that the only way to catch us would be to take a cab.

But as Paulo Coelho has said, if you really want something, the whole universe conspires to help you get it. The present chief minister of West Bengal was a firebrand opposition leader then. A few days before our departure, she had called the nth bandh in West Bengal, as a result of which the train services had been disrupted. When we reached Krishna Raja Puram Station, our train had been cancelled.


Saturday, 04 April 2015

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The journey of zero

Every educated Indian knows that ZERO was invented (or should we say discovered?) in India. And most educated Indians know that Pythagoras’s theorem (the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle equals the sum of the squares of its two other sides) had been put forward by an Indian mathematician long before. But let’s keep it aside for the moment. What kind of a man was Pythagoras?

A student of Pythagoras, Hippasus challenged another theory of Pythagoras. In fact, he proved it wrong. How did Pythagoras solve the problem? Did he accept the truth? Did he try in vain to prove Hippasus wrong? No, he found an easier solution. He simply murdered his student.

The tradition intellectual dishonesty continues to this day. In fact, it is quite common, like the lack of common sense. You do come across ciphers that pretend to be knowledgeable.

And that brings us back to zero. Another word for zero is cipher, but cipher also means “secret code”. Now, do you know the answers to the following questions?

1. How did cipher or zero begin to be associated with secret codes?

2. Why did the city of Florence ban the use of zero in 1299?

3. Which Indian mathematician proved what is known as Pythagoras’s Theorem? When?

4. How did the Greek colony of Croton celebrate when Pythagoras proved his theorem?

5. What was the name of the Indian mathematician who not only introduced the concept of zero, but also invented the place value of digits in a number (units, tens, hundreds, and so on) and negative numbers? When did he do it?

6. How many centuries did it take for Mr Zero to travel to Europe from India? What was his route?

7. How did people do arithmetical operations (addition, multiplication, subtraction, division) before they learned to use the number system in which different digits have different place values?

8. Who introduced the concept of the irrational numbers? That is, a number that cannot be expressed as ratio of two natural numbers? When?

Since I began with intellectual honesty, I must reluctantly admit that if I had taken this quiz yesterday, I would have scored a big, you’ve got it right, zero. What is your score, Dear Reader?

To check your answers, please read this brilliant article by Brishti Guha, who teaches economics at JNU, Delhi.…/opi…/columns/the-story-of-shunya/

PS: If your score is close to mine, it would only indicate how ignorant we Indians are about our past. And how stupid are our present rulers, who instead of focusing on the great intellectual tradition of our country, try to prove that Ganesha’s story was a case of head transplant and a proof of plastic surgery!

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Peace in the middle of nowhere

The plains of Bengal crisscrossed by countless rivers are among the most fertile terrains in the world. Here, with little effort crops and vegetables grow abundantly. Many believe that the fecundity of the soil has made its inhabitants lazy and unambitious. On the other hand, for the same reason the Bengal countryside is lush green through the year and its beauty has captured the imagination of countless poets. One of the finest among them, Jeebanananda Das wrote, not without a touch of jingoism:        

I’ve seen the face of Bengal,
So I don’t wish to find out
How beautiful the rest of the world is.

And in this scenic state, Birbhum, which flanks the Chhoto Nagpur plateau of Jharkhand, is perhaps the most beautiful district. The land here is not green like the rest of the state or Bangladesh. It is red, and often undulating. The rivers Ajay, Kopai, and Mayurakshi meander through the district, its people are quiet and relaxed. It is also the land of bauls, the mesmerizing country singers. If you get an opportunity to visit Birbhum, please don’t miss it. I don’t, ever.

When we got off at Prantik, a quiet rail station near Santiniketan, the sun had set. Partho Ghosh, a friend’s friend, was waiting for us with his elderly Maruti in the dimly lit empty station compound. Soon we were driving through darkness along a red earthen track with a canal on our left and a jungle on the right. As the vehicle got into the thickly wooded tract, the track vanished. The car rolled, pitched, and groaned in pain, throwing up a cloud of dust. But sadly, the topsy-turvy journey ended soon and we got into a compound. At that moment we had no idea that we were entering a very special place.

Mousumi and Ranjan Datta visited Santiniketan years ago and fell in love with a tract of land in the middle of nowhere. So when Ranjan retired from the seventh floor of a landmark building in Kolkata, they decided to invest their life’s savings and energy to build a hotel with a difference. The result is Santisudha Garden Guest House, two acres of sheer beauty that has two stylish structures surrounded by a beautiful flower and vegetable garden. Fortunately, we were there when the winter flowers: asters, marigolds, cosmoses, daisies, phloxes, poppies, petunias – you name it – were in full bloom. 

And the vegetable garden was not far behind. From aubergines to cabbages to broccolis to our humble pumpkins, there was room for a wide range of them. The kitchen garden has been so successful that during the three days of our stay, all the vegetables on our plates had been from their own garden.

An open-air weekly market nearby; here local artisans offer their stuff at throwaway prices

From the airy light and spacious rooms, you get to see the meadows below reaching out to a wide open sky on the horizon. Next morning, as I opened a book sitting on the balcony attached to our room, I watched cattle grazing on faraway fields. They moved ever so slowly: the clock seemed to have slowed down. How I wish I had had a little more time to do nothing! But every few hours, there had to be a break: either for a long walk to the River Kopai or elsewhere, or an exciting journey to the kitchen.

On the way to the River Kopai

The chef and all-purpose handyman of the establishment, Jayanta is pleasing man in his early thirties. The way he took care of us – it seemed we were guests in his home. The garden fresh vegetables were distinctly tastier than their cousins grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. We got simple but exquisite food – any grandma would be proud to produce such fine homely dishes.

But Jayanta had kept the final surprise up his sleeves. When the taxi arrived to take us back to Prantik station, he came and very humbly asked, ‘Sir, will you mind if I give you a bag of vegetables to carry home?’

Would you mind, Gentle Reader?

Kolkata / 9 Feb 2015

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A fairy tale of our time

Mita, who came to meet us this afternoon after a long time, has changed a lot. If I had met her on the street, I wouldn’t have recognized her; I would have taken her as just another smart young girl in her early twenties in a red salwar suit. But actually, Mita is very special, because her story is very special. But before I tell you her story, I must tell you a little about her family.

Mita was born into a caste that used to carry other people’s shit on their head. The “tradition” continued well into the twentieth century India parallel to steel plants, airplanes, and televisions. The practice has been abolished, but it hasn’t improved the lot of Mita’s people much. They continue to be “untouchables”. More often than not, “they” wouldn’t be invited to sit alongside “us” in a community dinner. In the country, they still live in filthy unhygienic ghettos on the outskirts of villages. The so-called upper-caste has no physical contact with them except when the village gentry rape their women.

In cities, they live in equally filthy unhygienic slums. Mita’s family lived in one such not far away from our home when her mother Lilavati joined our condo as a sweeper. They still live there and her mother still cleans bathrooms and drains, besides sweeping. Twenty years ago, Lilavati was a stunningly beautiful young woman. Now, after six children, recurring ailments, relentless overwork and poverty, she is an old woman in her mid-forties. But for the sake of completeness, I must add here that in all these years of trials and vicissitudes, Lilavati has held her head high. She has borrowed regularly and always repaid her debts in time. But she has never ever begged. 

Her husband was a drunkard. He worked occasionally and beat her regularly. Fortunately, his liver couldn’t manage the amount of alcohol he had been consuming and he had to leave a crying Lilavati and a huge debt behind when he was in the prime of his abused youth.

Of Lilavati’s two sons, one makes an honest living as – what else – a sweeper and the other is a professional thief. Neither supports their mother. Mita is the oldest daughter, and the other three, much smaller, are triplets.

Lilavati put her children in school and struggled to pay tuition fees and buy books. She wanted her girls to live a decent life. However, Mita left school and started working as a domestic help with a family in our building. And soon, she became an expert cook. So, early in her life, Mita made a smart career move and broke the shackles that had tied her forefathers for two thousand years!

When her father died, they needed a lot of cash to repay the debt they had run up for his treatment. Needless to say, most of the money had been borrowed at usurious rates and the debtors were on their back. So Mita made the second smart move in her life – around five years ago, she managed to find a domestic’s job in Mumbai, a city that pays working people a lot better.

Now she is a happily married young woman brimming with pride for her prince charming. A housewife now, she even pays for her younger sisters’ education. Presently her husband is away at Bangalore on work for a week. And Mita has flown down to Kolkata to be with her family. I do not know if she ever dreamed of boarding a flight when she was a child, but it is a reality today and no wonder: her husband is a graduate engineer. He is planning to do masters and taking the GATE exam this year.

How did it happen? We didn’t ask her, but Mita was happy to tell her tale.

‘On the train to Mumbai, I was crying continuously. He was in the same coach. When no one was looking at us, he asked me surreptitiously, ‘Why are you crying? Are you being kidnapped? Have you been sold off?’

‘I told my story and told him I was scared to leave my family and home for the first time, that too for a distant city. ‘The family I am going to work for has promised to pick me up from the station. What if they don’t? I don’t know anyone there.’

‘He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him if I was in trouble. I didn’t trust him initially, but I did phone him after a few days. As luck would have it, he lived not far away from where I did. He even dropped in to meet me at my workplace. I was still not too sure about him, but the lady with whom I worked felt he was a good man.

‘From that family I moved to a women’s hostel where I cooked for forty inmates. It was tough. My day began with making tea and ended after everyone had had their supper. But the pay was good (12,000 rupees) and I could send money to ma regularly. Over time, we paid off all our debt.

‘And then we got married. Ma insisted on “legal marriage”. So we went to Alipur Court and got the papers.’

As Mita told us the story, time and again she told my wife, ‘Kakima, I haven’t met anyone else like him. He is wonderful!’

And every time she said this, her face lit up with happiness. My wife asked her if her husband’s family accepted her without any hassle. She said initially her mom-in-law in Begusarai wasn’t too happy, but after some time, things settled down.

As Mita left, I silently bowed to the ordinary small-town Indian who is her husband. If you didn’t know the Indian society intimately, you wouldn’t possibly know how deep-rooted the prejudice against people from Mita’s station in life is. Consequently, it would be difficult appreciate the significance of what this young man has done.

But let’s put sociology aside for the moment. Please join me in wishing Mita and her husband all the happiness in the world. May they live happily ever after.

[This is a true story. Except for changing names and some insignificant details, I haven't cooked the facts. I haven't even garnished the story.]

Kolkata / 4 Feb 2015