If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Thursday, 29 October 2009

How can you not love Hyderabad?

In Hyderabad, we lived close to Mozam Jahi Market in the main business district of the city. Our residential complex seemed to be an unwelcome guest in that locality. The main market was a circular structure of rough granite, where meats and vegetables were sold. But it was only a minor planet in a bustling commercial universe.

Beside the market was the famed Karachi Bakery, which sells the finest fruit biscuits made outside heaven. Often, there used to be a long queue in front of the bakery in the evening: people would wait patiently to buy their freshly baked bread. Across the main road was a huge fruit market. As one walked along a narrow lane treading on decaying leaves and broken baskets, one passed dingy shops on either side, with mountains of fruits. The shops changed their colour (and merchandise) every few months. Summer meant golden mangoes, numerous varieties of them. August and September, black and green custard apples in abundance. There were great deluges of grapes, oranges, and apples from time to time, not to mention the lesser fruits like bananas and guavas.

Shops in the nearby road leading to the Bank Street sold hardware and asbestos sheets. At its entrance was a tent house, an establishment that rented out tarpaulins, marquees, chairs etc. for functions like weddings. (A little away at Gunfoundry, one also found a row of red Cadillac and Impala convertibles eagerly waiting to carry bridegrooms to their destiny.) This road was always chock-a-block with shoppers, porters carrying baskets on head, push carts, rickshaws and small trucks. Walking along the road was a nightmare even in 1981. I shudder to think of how it is like today, with so many thousands of new vehicles on roads.

Adjacent to the main market, there was a road-side workshop where masked welders fabricated iron grilles. As I walked home for lunch, sparks from their welding guns flew in every direction. Whenever I crossed them, I recalled an earlier incident when an enterprising mechanic had tried to weld a leaking acetylene cylinder. The resultant explosion killed many, including some passers by. That recollection hurried my steps as I walked from home to office or the other way round.

The luxury of going home for lunch was not the only pleasure of living in Hyderabad. It was (and still is) a beautiful city with parks and lakes. At weekends, we used to go for long walks along the Tank Bund in the cool breeze blowing in from Hussain Sagar, or watch children frolicking in the Public Gardens. Although April and May was uncomfortably hot, with the first rains, Hyderabad would magically transform itself into a delightfully cool place. And would remain so for the next ten months.

Our children were toddlers then. Hasheem Chacha used to take them to their preschool on his cycle. Hasheem, a slender elderly man with a stoop, worked as a part-time sweeper in our bank and supplemented his meagre income with odd jobs like that. Hasheem sang in a mellifluous voice and used to render ghazals on radio regularly. If one is asked to talk about an Indian tragedy, one might recall the last floods or the latest communal riots. But the fact that a gifted singer like Hasheem had to earn his living as a sweeper was tragic too.

Opposite our house, there was a restaurant that sold mouth-watering but terribly spicy biriyani. Our children loved it, but it was most unfriendly towards their tender stomachs. Some evenings, my wife tucked in the kids early. When they were safely asleep, I would leave the house surreptitiously to bring home some biriyani for us.

Behind our house, there was an exhibition ground that came alive every few months with trade fairs. The constants in the fairs were the eateries, a giant Ferris wheel, a toy train and a motorboat on an artificial lake slightly bigger than a bathtub. But the stalls changed. At one time, it was a handicrafts exhibition, at another, it was an industrial fair. Our children loved these exhibitions. I too liked them … I always love the anonymity and aloneness offered by crowds.

In one of the fairs, we came across a stall that showcased a new motorbike. My wife and I looked at it from different angles. It was a time when only a miniscule percentage of salaried employees could afford to buy a two-wheeler. I was not one of them, although I was a bank manager. After working out the arithmetic of our savings and the quantum of loan available from office, we decided to postpone the venture to an indeterminate future. And forgot all about it.

At home that night, my daughter and son didn’t go to bed at the appointed hour. They were closeted in their study, discussing something. After a while, the discussion turned acrimonious, and a full scale war began. We were a little surprised because they rarely fought.

As we mediated a ceasefire, we learnt what the issue was. They were fighting over who should sit in front and who should sit behind when the bike was bought.

Bangalore, 30 September 2009

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Jibanananda Das

This day fifty-five years ago Jibanananda Das (born 17 February, 1899) died in a hospital after struggling for life for eight days. He had been hit by a tram near Deshapriya Park in Kolkata while returning home after an evening walk on 14th October, 1954. We wouldn’t know what thoughts made him so unmindful that he didn’t notice the oncoming tramcar. Perhaps it was something inconsequential. Perhaps, as many have suggested, he himself wanted to end his life. But the moment certainly made Bangla literature enormously poorer.

Jiban+ananda means “the joy of life”. His poetry does celebrate the joy of life, but he was an unhappy man trapped in a fractured marriage. He fought poverty through his life and oscillated between Barishal, a district town in East Bengal, and Kolkata, often in search of a job. He taught English at a number of colleges, but in most of them, he didn’t survive beyond a few months.

An anthology of his unpublished poems brought out three years after his death bears the title Rupasi Bangla (Beautiful Bengal). Much of his poetry is about rural Bengal. But it is not an overt celebration of her beauty. Rather, it is about the subliminal sadness, helplessness, love, and sexuality of its people.

Later, in the second largest metropolis of the British Empire, Jibanananda observed the “deep malaise” that had gripped the city, and “drank tea at a tavern in hell”. About the city, he wrote:

Night

A leper opens the hydrant tap to lap up water
Or maybe, the hydrant had been leaking.
Now, midnight descends on the city like a raiding hoard.
An automobile goes past, coughing, like an idiot

Spluttering restless petrol; it seems despite taking every care
Someone has fallen grotesquely into water.
Three hand-pulled rickshaws rush away,
And merge with the last gas light as if by magic.

I too left Fears Lane at a reckless moment
And walked miles before stopping in front of a wall
In Bentink Street, at Teritty Bazaar;
To breathe in air that’s dry as parched peanuts.

...

The tune is her very own, but still, a Jewish woman
Sings through her slumber from a second-floor window;
The dead smirk from above, ‘Is that music?
Or a mine of gold, paper and fossil fuels?’

The young feringees walk away, smart and neat,
An ancient African smiles through his sagging jowl
And cleans the briar pipe in his hand
He trusts the world much as a gorilla does.

To him, the noble night of the city
Looks like a jungle in Libiya
Where the animals are unique and overpaid,
In fact, they put on clothes out of shame.

Who has fallen grotesquely into water despite taking every care? Was he talking about the city and its people?

Three hundred million Bengalis today would have been a different people had Rabindranath Tagore not been born. And millions like me would have been different persons if Jibananda hadn’t written his poems. But sadly, he will at best be partially known to the rest of the world.

Jibanananda’s poetry is seeped in Bengali ethos and his language, in nuances that are typical of the place, people, and their history and mythology. Much of Jibanananda is untranslatable. Here is another of my unsuccessful attempts to translate him. The poem, Banalata Sen (written in 1934/35), is a milestone in Bangla literature.

I’ve been walking the paths of this world
For a thousand years. Much have I travelled
From the waters of Ceylon to the Malaya seas;
In the withering worlds of Ashoka and Vimvisara,
Where I lived in the still more distant city of Vidarva.
A tired soul am I, spindrift raging all round me,
I’d but moments of quiet, with Banalata Sen of Natore.

Her hair was like the distant dark nights of Vidisha
Her face – sculpted lines from Sravasti!
Like a ship-wrecked sailor who’s lost his compass
Finds a green patch of Cinnamon Island on a faraway sea,
I’ve seen her in darkness. Said she,
‘Where have you been so long?’
Looking up with her bird’s-nest eyes,
Banalata Sen of Natore.

As the day drifts to an end, darkness descends
Like the sound of dewdrops.
Kites wipe the smell of sunshine off their wings.
As the colours of the day fade, manuscripts take over.
And then the glimmering fireflies gather for tales.
All the birds come home, all the rivers;
All exchanges come to an end. Darkness reigns
And there remains, to sit before me – Banalata Sen.

[Published in the Indian Literature, July/August, 2008]

Kolkata / Thursday, 22 October 2009

Friday, 9 October 2009

A lonesome elephant

My friend Vishweswaraiah once told me a Kannada proverb: One attains wisdom only by reading and travelling. But for the first condition, I would have been a wise man by now.

On joining the audit department of our bank, I travelled continuously for two years. Should you care to accompany me, I can take you from the Chandragiri River in North Kerala to the bhul-bhulaiah in Lucknow to the city of Pune teeming with scooters ridden by lovely young women, which made the prospect of being knocked down on the road rather attractive. I can tell you the true story of a magician who took an equipment loan from our bank. He thanked the manager, shook hands, and vanished, never to be seen again. Or maybe, I’ll tell you the story of a distraught elephant in Parambikulam, although my stodgy prose is unequal to the task of describing the breathtaking beauty of a tropical rain forest washed by moonlight.

I was in Chittur-Palakkad in North Kerala. The Head Cashier of our bank there was lovingly called “Swami” by all. He looked a saintly sixty or thereabout, with a mane of silver hair and many lines criss-crossing his face; but he looked old only until he smiled, which he did often. A smile erased years and decades from his handsome face and turned him into a young man.

One day during the lunch break, I told him and his deputy, Sreeram that I would love to visit a jungle near Palakkad. It was a casual remark and I soon forgot about it. But after a few days Sreeram said a jeep had been hired, a forest bungalow booked, and six of us would be on our way to Parambikulam the following Saturday afternoon.

For the statistically oriented, Parambikulam is a 285 square kilometres wild life sanctuary 110 kilometres away from Palakkad. It is dotted with dams and reservoirs and mostly consists of teak trees, partly natural and partly commercial forestry. One of the chief attractions of the forest is the giant Konnemara teak. It is one of the tallest and oldest trees in India.

Our driver Raju was a wiry young man with a huge curling moustache and a matching fierce look. He could have been the twin of the notorious poacher and sandalwood smuggler Veerappan, maybe separated at birth. Though he looked scary, I felt we couldn’t have had a more reassuring man to drive us through a forest. But appearances can be deceptive. This would be proved once again during our trip.

The Wild Life Warden’s office at Thoonakadavu overlooks a picturesque dam. By the time we reached there, the sun was going down. The bungalow reserved for us was at Thellikal, a marshy area deep inside the forest frequented by herbivores. The Warden gave us a guide and told us to go to the bungalow immediately. He also asked us not to drive during the night as it was not safe for us, and more importantly, inconvenient to the animals. “In the jungle,” a poster proclaimed, “the animal has the right of way”.

As we were about to leave, the warden casually mentioned that an old male elephant had been recently dislodged from his herd and harem by a stronger, younger bull. The former was out in the open, unattached, lonesome and distraught. These single bulls often turn into rouges and we had to avoid him at all costs.

As we reached the Peruvazhipallam dam after a short drive, the jungle had been lit up by a gorgeous yellow twilight. The dam had a blue expanse of water on one side and bluer hills on the other, where our destination nestled. We had to take a jungle road, the entry to which was barred by a padlocked chain. At this point, our guide said he had forgotten to bring the key. (After all, he was a government employee!) A few of us stayed there as the jeep went back to collect the key. We sat under a banyan tree and watched night descend softly on the jungle. In the gathering darkness we also saw some moving bushes beside the river far away. Elephants drinking water, frolicking.

By the time we crossed the chain dividing civilization and the rapidly shrinking rest of the world, it was pitch dark. The jungle path was rough, narrow, undulating. It was closely hugged by lush foliage on either side.

The jeep was rolling down the hill gently and we were close to the stream beside which we had seen the elephants a little earlier. But for the headlights, darkness prevailed all around. From the soft rustling of water seeping through the whirr of the engine, we knew we were near the river.

Suddenly we heard loud trumpeting by elephants right next to us. Raju lost his nerve and swerved wildly, away from the sound. The jeep went off the road and nearly fell on its side.

The minor mishap was soon forgotten as we met some lovely animals. First, it was a tiny rabbit caught in the headlight beam. Scared, he ran furiously ahead of our jeep. He was too panicked to turn right or left. We had to stop and switch off the lights to end the unequal contest between a tiny child of Nature and human technology.

Next came a family of bison. A few luminous eyes reflecting the headlight soon revealed two huge gaurs and a little calf with humped backs and thin legs with white stockings. They looked quite different from the bison seen in zoos. Animals in captivity are not their real selves. The bison watched us intently for a long moment, crossed the path and swiftly vanished into the wood. One expected such huge creatures to be clumsy. But they moved with the effortless grace of a leaf caught in a winter breeze.

It started raining. Our jeep jerked along from one ditch to another. We were about two kilometres away from our destination on a straight road when we saw the elephant. He was alone, walking ahead of us slowly. We stopped, kept the lights and engine on and watched him move away from us. One of his tusks was seen from the side, glistening in rain and the headlight. Our guide explained that he was the unattached bull the Warden had warned us about. The pachyderm moved on and was not seen after a while.

We waited for a long time before cautiously restarting our journey. Nothing happened until we saw him again. Presently, he was walking towards us. Caught in the headlight beam, he looked magnificent. He walked towards us with the quiet grace of someone who knew he was the master of the situation. Perhaps he had no malice, but there was no way to check. Neither was it possible to find out how badly he was upset by the recent turmoil in his conjugal life.

The night was dark, the uneven jungle path slippery after the rain, and there was no space to turn the jeep. A huge tusker was coming nearer and nearer, with his tusks pitching and his trunk swinging like the hand of Fate. The overcast sky and the dark jungle behind him paled into insignificance as the impossibly large elephant loomed over us, covering the entire windshield. A line from Kenneth Anderson flashed through my mind: “It is okay if you meet a herd of elephants in the jungle. But beware of the single elephant. He could be dangerous.”

This time, no one could fault Raju if he panicked. He put the vehicle on the reverse gear, but released the clutch too quickly. The engine stalled ... the elephant was right over us, held back for the moment, possibly by the heat of the engine ... Swami, who was between me and the driver, caught Raju by his collar and shook him until he recovered his wit.

Each moment seemed like an eternity. Eventually, Raju managed to start the car on the reverse. He drove like mad towards complete darkness on a slushy, uneven path. If the elephant didn’t get us, our driver would. This fast forward on the reverse continued for a fairly long time until the people sitting behind shouted in unison and the jeep stopped with a violent jerk, dangerously close to a precipice.

Much later, we were able to reach the bungalow, an ancient tiled building surrounded by a moat. The ground beneath our feet was covered by a thick layer of soggy leaves. We stepped on a flimsy log to cross the moat. The mysterious bungalow stood like the last signpost of a forgotten civilization. By then, the moon had stopped playing hide-and-seek with mischievous clouds. A gibbous moon was greeted by tall trees that threw mysterious rivers of moonlight below. Crickets provided the orchestral score for a song whispered by wind blowing through leaves.

The teak trees were hundreds of years old, many of them taller that ten storeyed buildings. This is how the forest was hundreds of years ago. This is how it should be hundreds of years from now. Mother Nature stood before us in her primeval beauty. The twentieth century lost its meaning.

We sat outside the bungalow with the mandatory rum and Coke. All of us, including the most prosaic man in our group, agreed that it would be a crime to sleep on such a night.

(1999)