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

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Two governments and two babies

Thanks to the frequent incidents of piracy off Somalia coasts in recent years, merchant vessels carry armed guards these days. On 15 February 2012, guards on board of an Italian oil tanker Enrica Lexie opened fire at an Indian trawler on the sea near Kollam in Kerala and killed two fishermen. It looks like an unprovoked attack as the unarmed fishermen could not have seriously threatened the big tanker. 

Naturally, there was uproar in India. After a few days of dithering, Kerala Police took two Italian Navy personnel into custody. Since their own captain identified them, their defence can at best be flimsy. Their plea, that is, the incident happened on international waters and they mistook the Indian fishermen as pirates, will be tested in Indian courts. The second argument is somewhat strange as there has been no incident of piracy off Kerala coast possibly for centuries. 

Since day one, Rome mounted diplomatic pressure on New Delhi so that the accused were not tried in India. First, Italy rushed consular officials to Kerala and managed to delay their arrest by a few days, arguing that as the incident happened in International waters, Italy’s laws should apply. After the men were taken into custody, Italy sent their Deputy Foreign Minister to pressure India into handing over the accused.

The Italian government’s dogged perseverance to protect two of their citizens contrasts sharply with the Indian Government’s role in the case of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya, the expatriate Indian couple who have had their infant children taken away by Norwegian authorities.

You would have read about the case, but let me recap the main facts. Barnavernet, Norway's powerful Child Welfare Service (CWS) took away two-year old Abhigyan and his sister, Aishwarya, who was just a few months old, from their distraught parents in May 2011. 

Why did they do so? I heard Anurup on a news channel. He said two things: (a) Abhigyan exhibited autistic tendencies when he was two years old, and (b) Sagarika went back to Norway from India in the winter shortly after the birth of their second child. At that time of the year, there is little daylight in Norway. It makes lots of people depressed and Sagarika underwent a bout of post-natal depression which was possibly accentuated by the absence of daylight.

Abhigyan’s preschool reported his “deviant” behaviour to the CWS, who visited the Bhattacharya household and decided Sagarika was unfit to rear the children. Besides what has been mentioned above, there were other issues too. Anurup told NDTV, ‘They told me “Why are you sleeping with the children in the same bed?’’.’ The CWS also found it unacceptable that the parents fed the babies with hand. 

So they took away the infants from their parents and sent them to foster care homes. In a somewhat barbaric show of “civilized” social order, the Norwegian authorities not only took away the babies, but also separated the siblings and put them in different foster homes. As per Norwegian laws, the children can be reunited with their parents only when they are 18, and until then, the parents are allowed three visits per year of an hour’s duration each.

A bit of search on the Internet revealed two things. First, in Norway, a country with 4 million people, more than 12,000 babies were taken away from their biological parents last year on similar grounds, and a disproportionately large number of them were from poor and immigrant families. Secondly, foster parenting is lucrative business in Norway. Foster parents are given money for things like building houses and holidaying. 

Has the Indian Government done enough over the last ten months of Sagarika and Anurup’s ordeal? Has any minister visited Norway? 

Well, no one even heard of their case until January 2012, although the couple had pleaded to the Indian Embassy in Oslo immediately after the incident. The government woke up more than six months later, much like Kumbhakarna, only when the din made by the media made it impossible for them to continue sleeping. Some of our much maligned politicians – though none from the ruling parties – took up the cause and the CPIM MP Brinda Karat made it a personal mission to get the children repatriated to India. Yet the Indian government did nothing more than making diplomatic noises. Finally, after a huge outpouring of anger, yesterday, the government decided to send a special envoy to Norway. 

One government is pulling out all stops to protect two of their citizens who are charged with killing, and the other is being sweetly diplomatic to “expedite a custody row” on behalf of a family that has done no wrong, broken no laws. Does the Indian government have any sense of shame?

As I write this (28 February), the Norwegian authorities have announced they have decided to hand over the children to their uncle. The Hindu reports, “And yet the custody saga is not completely over. The district court is to hold hearings on March 23, when it is expected to overturn its own ruling sending the children into care until they become majors.”

As I watch my two grandsons who are about as old as Abhigyan and Aishwarya, I try to understand the huge sense of insecurity every child has. Separating them from their loved ones is simply one way of torturing them. It must have been an enormous trauma for the babies of Sagarika and Anurup to be suddenly surrounded by unfamiliar faces, language, culture, and environment. I only hope they are reunited with their parents soon. I also hope they do not carry any permanent scar from the devastating childhood experience. And finally, let us also spare a thought for the thousands of infants that are suffering the same fate as Abhigyan and Aishwarya. 

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Music and mystery

Santanu Dasgupta

Whenever a non-resident Bengali like me managed to visit Kolkata for a few days, high on the agenda was to attend a good, live concert of Rabindra Sangeet. But that’s easier said than done!

‘You mean visiting Ranga Mashi after so many years is less important to you than attending some obscure music show?’  Guardians were aghast at my total lack of warmth or concern for my greater family. ‘No’, they swung their heads in dismay, ‘This is not OUR FAMILY speaking. Living away from home has affected you very badly indeed!’

It was futile to explain to hardline Kolkatans my longing for any kind of Rabindra Sangeet, good, not-so-good or even outright childish.

We all have most of the good disks on Rabindra Sangeet in our collection. But listening to a live performance from an unknown singer was quite another experience.  Whenever a familiar song was rendered just that much differently, perhaps in the same sur but conveying a different expression of ecstasy, my heart rejoiced in resonance. How could those living in the swamp of Rabindra Sangeet ever share my yearning?

On one such occasion, overcoming all odds, I managed to get into a hall where a club was celebrating their annual Rabindra Sangeet festival. A relatively better known singer Tanya was the chief attraction, so the announcement said.

It was already dark by the time I could reach the auditorium. The Club Secretary welcomed all and tried in vain to recall how great Tagore was etc. A roar of catcalls greeted him as he hastily beat a retreat and called upon the first singer. Things settled down after that. The hall was only a quarter full. A mild round of applause followed each song.

I was thoroughly enjoying the melodies and swaying my head in the dark when an elderly gentleman pushed his way through to take his seat next to mine.

‘Has Madhumita sung already?’ he asked. As far as I could remember no such singer had yet taken the stage and I said so. ‘Good, that means I am in time. She is my granddaughter, you see.’

‘Has she been training for long?’ I asked.

‘Well, ever since she was a child. But this will be her first performance on stage’, he proudly announced.

Just then, a big round of applause greeted the next singer, Tanya. Whistles, catcalls and thumping chairs   filled the Auditorium.

‘It is all fake, you know’, Grandpa whispered. ‘Tanya has paid all these boys to clap for her. She is no match for my granddaughter. Of course you yourself will hear her.’

I could see that the doting grandfather was feeling threatened by all the applause a rival singer got. I kept my silence and waited for Tanya to begin.

Tanya was a stylish woman. Hair puffed up and dressed in a crisp cotton sari, she looked gorgeous. A few minutes were spent in establishing harmony among the instruments. And finally she nodded at the Esraj player and smiled at the audience, seeking permission to begin.

The Esraj player first   struck the notes Sa Ga Re Ga …. It was clear that Tanya would sing “Shedin dujone dulechinu bone …”

‘Oh! Why did you play the complete notes?’ interrupted Tanya, ‘Now everyone knows that I am going to begin “Shedin dujone”. There is no longer any mystery about my first song.’

The grandpa on my right stood up straight and shouted in a loud voice, ‘Are you here to sing a song or to write a mystery story? Just get along with your song.’

The silence that followed this statement was broken by a fresh round of whistles and feline whining. Tanya looked for grandpa in the dark and went on with her song.

‘I’ve put her in her place’, said grandpa, ‘She can’t get away with paid applause.’

At once I realised why my Kolkata relations were so skeptical about my attending just any programme on Rabindra Sangeet. Even a hundred years of singing … “Praner majhe aye”, which roughly translates to: “Come closer to my heart”, has not changed our habit of picking holes in others’ achievements.

I sat through the rest of the evening and joined my neighbor in trying to find fault with every singer thereafter, except of course his grandchild.

[Santanu Dasgupta, who has retired as a senior scientist from the Indian Space Research Organisation, teaches engineering in Thiruvananthapuram. Highly respected in professional circles, he is a person with diverse interests. An accomplished singer, he is seriously interested in literature and writes songs and dramas. Thank you to Santanuda, for sharing this story with my readers.]

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Biswaranjan Ghosh

Biswaranjan Ghosh passed away on 8 Feb, 2012 at Kolkata after just a day’s illness.

How easily I have written these harsh words! For Biswaranjan was not only a dear friend to hundreds of people in Trivandrum, but also the very personification of life itself.

He joined Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC), Trivandrum in 1973 as a rank-holder from Bengal Engineering College. In later years he made a significant contribution to welding Technology for steel; a technology that is still being used for all launch vehicles of the Indian Space Research Organisation.

He was one of the most active members of Trivandrum Bengali Association. He was there everywhere in most of the activities. Endowed with a God-given voice, he has regaled us with his songs on numerous occasions. His Rabindra Sangeet in a resounding voice mesmerized people here for over thirty years.

He sang folk songs very well too and his ‘Hey Dola, Hey Dola’ is remembered even today. When he sang ‘Jago Tumi Jago, Jago Durga …’ (an invocation of Goddess Durga) hearts stood still for a moment. Such was the magic in his singing. His last song in Trivandrum was ‘Peyechi chuti biday deho Bhai, Sobare ami Pronam Korey jai.’ (The toil is over, it’s time to go. As I leave, I bow to you all.)

Biswaranjan was also a regular in all the dramas enacted by the Association. His playful leg pulling of friends made rehearsals a lively event, often better than the staged drama itself. Our Puja Pandal lit up with joy and laughter whenever Biswaranjan made his entry in the Pandal. Children chased him shouting  ‘Kaku, Tombola! Kaku, Tombola!’  His humorous banter while he conducted Tombola made it the most enjoyable off-stage events in any Puja. Biswaranjan also conducted Mukta Mela (a food fest) most regularly. His great one-liner comments evoked peals of laughter and added so much fun to Mukta Mela.

He left Trivandrum for Kolkata after opting for voluntary retirement in 2007. I haven’t met him since and it pains to think that I never will. However, Heaven will now be a very lively place indeed! 

Santanu Dasgupta
Trivandrum Bengali association

[Biswaranjan Ghosh was an exceedingly lively person, always smiling, ever-ready to break into laughter. It is difficult to accept his sudden and most untimely death. Thank you, Santanuda, for sharing this. Santanu]

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Stories for Haroun: A fishy tale

In the lake in front of our house, the water is clear and shiny. When you stand beside it, you can see your face, like in a mirror. And you can see lots of fish in the water. There are so many fishes: red, blue, green, yellow, pink, black, white …. There are some with long pointed tails; they are the “sword tails”. There are some with black and yellow lines on them, the “tiger fish”.

In the morning, lots of children used to swim in the lake. Some of them were such expert swimmers! They swam across the lake and came back. They shouted and laughed and had a lot of fun.

The birds in the trees around the lake woke up and joined the children. They said twit-twit, caw-caw, and so on. The whole area was filled with happy children, happy birds, and the happy noises they made.

In the beginning, the fish were scared of the kids. When boys and girls jumped into the lake, the fish dived deep into the water and went right near the bottom. They would hide there in the weeds and wait for the swimmers to go away.

But over time, the fish lost their fear. They came near the children and began playing with them. One day, a pink fish bit Haroun as he was swimming in the lake. Haroun was not hurt, he was just tickled. Slowly, the other fish also started nibbling the children. For the fish, it was great fun. But all the children were not like Haroun. Some of them started crying.

Some of kids were so scared that they stopped coming to the lake. And you know, fear spreads from one person to another, like cough and cold. After some time, there was no one at the lake in the morning.

Their parents asked them, ‘Why don’t you go to the lake? You love swimming, don’t you?’

The children said, ‘The fish bite us! We don’t want to get into the water.’

So one day, the parents of all the children sat down in a big meeting. They drank tea, ate boring thin-arrowroot biscuits and decided to put a net in the middle of the lake.

The following day, hundreds of workers came in with miles of metal nets. Two divers went into water and chased away all the fish to one corner of the lake. And after that, the men fixed the net right along the middle of the lake.

The children came back. They swam on one side of the net and all the fish were on the other side. As the little boys and girls swam, the fish watched them from the other side, their faces very, very sad!

Do you think the children were happy? Yes, they were, at the beginning. But soon, they started missing the fish. They realised, the fish had never hurt them.
They had just wanted to play.

The boys and girls were so sad that they stopped coming to the lake. One morning, the lake was all empty. Not even one child came.

So the papas and mamas sat down once again. They drank tea and ate biscuits and talked and talked. In the end, Malu’s mother, Mrs Nair, came out with a brilliant idea. She said, ‘Let’s put a door on the net. Let the fish come in through the door and play with the kids. If they bite, we will push them to the other side and close the door.’

Akash’s father jumped at the idea. And Avana’s mother! And everyone else agreed.

The next day, workers came again and fixed a door on the net.

The fish came in through the door, played with the children. And the pink fish even nibbled Haroun and his friends once in a way. But no one was ever scared of the fish any more. They knew, to become good friends, you have to fight at times!

This happened many years ago. Akash and Haroun and Malu are big men and women now. But even now, if you go to the lake in front of our house you can see a net with a door. It’s right across the middle of the lake.

Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia

7 February 2012