Friday, July 21, 2017

Maximum City

I have a theory that with cities like Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai, you cannot be unemotional; you will either be strongly attracted to them or detest them equally heartily. These cities are living organisms by their own right, shaping and in turn being shaped by the lives and minds of their inhabitants. So when I read Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, a sprawling, grandiose narrative about Bombay, I could understand where his passion was coming from.

Having left Bombay as a teenager when his family shifted to the US – the most defining event that charted the course of his life decisively, including his turning to writing in order to come to terms with it completely – Mehta came back to the city after twenty one years in search of the home he had left behind. By the time of his return though, the city of his childhood seemed to have vanished. When Bombay became Mumbai, it lost much of the serene and idyllic character that the author’s childhood memories were imprinted with. It was now a city of breathless pace, of immense wealth and power and corruption, a city of gangsters and slum-dwellers, of mad cops and madder politicians, of ravishing dancing girls and cross-dressing men, of penniless poets and millionaire businessmen on their way to diksha and denunciation. It was a city bustling with energy and aspiration, a truly cosmopolitan haven attracting millions each year with the tantalising promise of a better life.

Coming back to Mumbai after his long absence, the author realised that he was now an outsider. He was more American than Indian to his friends and acquaintances and it would take him and his family a long time to fit in to the Bombay way of things. His experience brought to my mind the lyrics of a song – “so, here you are too foreign for home, too foreign for here. Never enough for both”. Yet for all those feelings of being left out, it was the American card that opened a lot of doors for the author.  A lot of people wanted to be written about by the ‘American’, from the goons and rioters to the notorious politician Bal Thackeray and even dangerous gangsters close to Dawood Ibrahim. They all wanted the same thing: that he should write about them honestly and let the outer world – the world of Americans – know of their true characters. It is this very sense of duality, paradoxes and contradictions that make the book come alive.

Mehta’s Mumbai is really two cities. There is the glitz and the glamour of celebrities and businessmen, the top echelons of the city, those living in ultra modern sea-facing bungalows and penthouses worth hundreds of crores. And then there is the Mumbai of the chawls and the jhopadpattis. This is the Mumbai of the masses, of the vast ocean of people who live hand to mouth through all sorts of dhanda. This is the Mumbai that the rioters and gangsters and bar dancers live in. This is a parallel world, a world that is often antagonistic towards the other, and yet sometimes the dividing lines get blurred. Every time there is a demand for extortion, every time an ‘encounter’ takes place, every time a director comes down to the slums to shoot an authentic scene for his or her movie, there is a coming together of two separate universes.

With Maximum City you get to visit ways of life you will probably never know yourself – the women’s committees in different slums petitioning for clean toilets, the seedy pleasure houses that cater to all sorts of often bizarre tastes, the inside stories of a high risk IPS officer’s career, the aspirations of an ordinary salesman who dreams of going to America not for himself but to bring prosperity to his family, all the way to the other end of the spectrum, to the world of cinema, the world where you visit Amitabh Bachhan’s home late at night for a script reading and are on first name terms with director Vidhu Vinodh Chopra.

It may be the exotica of a world unknown and vastly different from my own, but it was the lives of the aam admi that attracted me most in the book. The strange mentality of the jhopadpatti dweller who would not shift to an apartment because he felt part of a community in the very din and squalor of his slum, the hired assassin who pulled the trigger without batting an eyelid but was unable to sleep alone at night, the gangster who philosophised about God and the universe while doing his ablutions – these are men so far away from my world as to seem almost fictional. Yet they are very human with their own joys and dreams and fears and sorrows. Their aspirations are often very simple; a better life for their family, assured meals every day, a cemented house instead of a thatched one. Their daily lives are fraught with danger and distress; in many areas Hindu-Muslim relationships are like live wires, ticking time bombs waiting to go off any minute. Yet there is still a palpable wave of hope, a promise of better times ahead. These people are as enamoured of Mumbai as their chronicler, and that is what comes through most strikingly throughout the narrative.

Almost every emotion, every situation that the book expresses remains subjective. As you progress with the narrative, you become less and less certain about distinctions. The book is all gray, with only rare glimpses of black or white filtering through the uncertainty. The same man who is hero to one group of people is Satan incarnate for another. Ideas about life and death that offer one character solace remain absolutely reprehensible to another. You become increasingly aware of the relativity of good and bad, and are cautious about tagging anyone as evil. Your mind is opened to alternative explanations, and you are slow in forming opinions.

In a lot of ways, Suketu Mehta’s Mumbai is a microcosm for the Indian way of life as a whole. There is the coming together of a motley mix of religions and cultures that is so peculiarly Indian. There is the simultaneous existence of the frivolous and the dead serious, the riches and the rags, the East and the West, the absolutely materialistic and the intensely spiritual. The binaries of life and death, of good and evil, of the mortal and the divine are omnipresent. Indeed, Mehta’s Mumbai is Maximum City, city of extremes, more city than many others taken together.

You have to give this to Suketu Mehta, the man worked hard for his project. He left no stones unturned to get first person accounts from these people, people who very often live in the peripheries of civil society. He visited the slums to know their living conditions first hand, interviewed seasoned gangsters and killers at considerable personal risk, pulled all sorts of strings for all sorts of people and amassed a treasure trove of experiences, stories that he then wove together with infinite finesse and sensitivity, giving the text a throbbing, pulsating life of its own.

Suketu Mehta’s style of writing is very pleasing. There is the perfect blend of humour and solemnity that makes you laugh at the right places and ponder often. The undulating account of the many lives gives a sense of movement, a certain restlessness inherent to the traveller, making the book as much about the author’s own state of mind as about the characters he portrays. He has remained true to the people’s own ways of speaking, so that each character is brought to life through the dialogues. The titles to the chapters are strikingly evocative – from ‘The country of the No’ to ‘Powertoni’, ‘A City in Heat’ to ‘Sone ki Chidiya’ and ‘Goodbye World’, the names stay with you long after you have finished reading the book, like a pleasant aftertaste.

Ultimately, Maximum City is a book about the urban noir. It is a book about polarities and peculiarities and extremes. You will not find the stories of ordinary middle-class people, whose lives are safe and predictable in their regularity. These people with comfortable jobs that allow them to live in comfort and occasional luxury. The middle class professionals who form a major part of every Indian urban space are significant by their absence in this book. The author must have found too little matter of literary interest in their lives to include them – in fact, the occasional mention of this class comes when he talks about his own school days and some of his friends around the city, but only in passing compared to the study he has made of the others. For this reason, Maximum City fails to be a complete and authoritative work on the city of Mumbai. For all its intensity, it remains a selective account.

A fitting conclusion to this review would be a quick reverting to what I began the essay with. Cities like Kolkata and Delhi and Mumbai, you either love or you hate. And your feelings about the place are likely to translate on to any book you read about them. When I finished with Maximum City, I was mighty pleased and strongly recommended the book to my father. My father is the one person who has overwhelmingly shaped my own tastes in literature and we very rarely disagree on books. Yet he tells me he is finding the book quite revolting. Never one for big cities, he hates the long descriptions about the heat and the crowd and the criminals and the dirt and grime, and says that he might have to give up on the book before long. Funny how these things happen!

Sunday, June 18, 2017


When I started blogging seven years ago I used to write much more often. Over the years the number of posts have dwindled, and I can offer no better excuse than to admit rather shamefacedly that I have grown lazy. However, in my defense, I do write in a couple of other places on the Internet now. And seeing as I still apparently have a number of faithful readers who seem to wait for my posts even when they appear only about maybe twice a year, I think they might enjoy going through  some of my writings in these other sites. I will probably link them all here, eventually. For now, I will start with my Goodreads reviews. I discovered Goodreads many years ago, and I must say it is a useful website for those who enjoy reading. They let you keep a track of the books you are reading, have read, and want to read in future. I've even found a couple of good recommendations via Goodreads, which is saying something since I already have Dad and his vast personal library. I have lately taken to reviewing each book I read on Goodreads, partly so that I can come back to these later, and partly to keep up my writing habit. These reviews are between two-liners and a few short paragraphs, so all serious reviews are still kept as proper blog post material. Still, I think some of my readers will enjoy reading these short updates, and hopefully discover a few books that they want to read themselves.

I am not one who worries too much about readers' comments in general, but for these book related posts I will break with tradition and urge you to comment. I would love to hear from anyone who has already read these books or even plan to anytime soon. Do drop in your thoughts, even if they are just a line to mention when or why you read these books, what you liked or disliked about them, or if you have any book you might want to recommend to me, or anything at all that crosses your mind really, as long as they are book-related thoughts!

A Room of One's OwnA Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the greatest pieces of feminist writing of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own should be on the to-read list of everyone who wants to get a balanced, well-thought-out feminist point of view on women's intellectual life preceding and up to the early 20th century. As somebody who rather dislikes much of the so-called feminist ranting that is so rampant all over the internet today - ranting that reeks of privilege and misandry and showcases very little commiseration to their truly oppressed sisters - I found Woolf's writing not only refreshing, but greatly enlightening. The book, an extension of a lecture titled 'Women and Fiction' delivered at Newnham and Girton, explores the very many interpretations of the title; the myriad meanings and interpretations that 'women and fiction' can hold fascinates the author and gives rise to a chain of thought where she explores women's intellectual lives - real and as represented by men - over the centuries. Starting out with examples of the widespread barriers to women's liberation still very much present in contemporary England from her own experiences in Oxbridge, Woolf goes on to talk about the overflowing of literary opinions about women and their activities as expressed by men and the unfortunate lack of women's writings till before the 17th century. She explores the contributions of early playwrights like Ephra Behn and the effect her courage and enterprise had on later generations of aspiring women writers. Moving on to the 19th century, she compared the relative skills of Jane Austen, the Bronte sister and George Eliot, commenting on how their oppressive prospects often marred their geniuses. Eventually the conclusion she reaches, or rather, an idea that pops its head every now and then throughout the narrative, is the idea of economic emancipation of women as vital to their creative proliferation. And so the idea of a room of one's own and 'five hundred pounds a year' come alive in their urgency.

The narrative is a wonderful read and a delightful study in stream of consciousness. I might even go so far as to say that this surpasses The Old Man and the Sea in that respect, though it may be unfair to draw a comparison between works of so vastly different subjects. It is a page turner in its own way, and at a hundred odd pages, this can be finished over the weekend or even one long evening if one puts one's mind to it. This is a book that should definitely not be missed.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 8, 2017


Yesterday was the first official day of my summer vacation. I say first ‘official’ day because we have been on vacation since end of April for all practical purposes. Classes started dwindling since mid April and eventually got dissolved by early May, and after a brief ‘study leave’ our end semester examinations started on the 17th of May. I use the important sounding name – end semester examination – out of habit and to lend some gravitas to the situation. In reality, there were examinations on four days. Yes, just four days, and yet it had to be spread out across nearly three weeks. I have to give this to the private schools across the country, for all their endless problems and shortcomings they do usually manage to get over with examinations within a week or two, and that with nearly a dozen subjects on average. What does this say about our ‘elite’ public universities, and our national psyche in the matter in general? If there was ever a social decision to function according to the very antithesis of the ideal of “do it now”, it is the principle that guides our nation.

Examination days leave me feeling unsettled. I don’t think this has much to do with my level of preparedness. Even when I know that I have worked hard throughout the year and only unforeseen disasters could possibly make me fare badly in the paper, I cannot help feeling jittery and restless. I have a definite point of saturation beyond which I cannot revise, the words bounce off my head without making sense to me any longer. And yet I cannot concentrate on anything else either. Examinations seem to put my life on hold; they make me feel like I am in purgatory. If I ever have to spend any period of my life solely focused on preparing for any examination, I wonder whether I will be able to do it. I seriously fear that I will crack under the strain of preparations and revisions long before the actual tests come up.

As I walked out of the examination hall on the 5th of June, I realized with a jolt that I had officially finished the second year of my undergraduate course. Come July I will be starting on my final year here, the senior year in the Indian scheme of things. I don’t think the thought has sunk in quite properly yet; it seems like yesterday that I was walking in as the confused fresher who lost her way around the campus at least thrice a week. I look back and I realize the true import of the saying “the days are long but the years are short”. All those early classes with the attractive old professor, those initial days of bonding with seniors, that certain idealistic spark that formed our political inclinations and made us feel good about ourselves, the first tastes of the real world and the quick realization that followed about how inept our generation is at ‘adulting’ – the memories that threaten to flood my mind are bittersweet and each an engaging story by itself. The past two years have helped me grow and embark on a journey of self discovery, and I know I have only just started. I have a lifetime of exploration ahead of me, and that is one exhilarating thought.

Jadavpur has been home to me in ways I could not have thought possible. It has given me what I have always craved for – space. In Jadavpur I can be me, I can function within my own tastes and preferences without worrying about any external restrictions. I can be mad or composed, well turned out or bedraggled, a bookworm or a social butterfly, or an alarming mix of them all, and still find a cozy nook for myself there. I may or may not find like minded friends, but chances are I will not be actively shunned or made to conform to the tastes of anyone else. In a world that demands standards and norms and regularity, a short sojourn in this haven of disorderly but generally well-meaning people may well turn out to be soothing memory of a lifetime. I have met so many types of people here, strange and outlandish, starry eyed and optimistic, frivolous and forlorn, often quite eccentric. Some of them I have become close to, others I have only briefly come in touch with. A few I hope will continue to be a part of my life long after we have crossed the boundaries of college and gone on our very different paths. These two years have been wonderful, and I hope to have a terrific final year here, but now I am ready to leave. I can sense a certain loosening of ties, a certain longing for newer pastures, an urge to go out and explore. Just as I know that after the end of school, getting admitted to Jadavpur University had been the best option for me, I also know that I need to move on from here for the next step.

I have spent a lot of time lately thinking about what I want to do next, after completing my graduation. I do not want to carry on with History for my Masters, not because my love for the subject has dwindled, not at all, but because I have almost made up my mind not to pursue a career in the academia. I cannot see myself spending years writing theses and teaching reluctant college goers. I did not take up English for graduation, much to the astonishment of many of my peers, because I felt that reading literature as a part of my coursework will kill my love for it. Lately, I have begun to feel the same way about History as well. There is a sense of restriction that I suffer from; in spite of studying the subject I love I am often not able to study according to my own interests. My coursework needs me to focus on economic theories about modes of production when what I really want to read about is the history of modern Israel. I do feel set curricula suffocate academic curiosity; at least they do to me. I have this little personal joke where I think of my love for history or literature or any other academic subject to be like a man’s love for his mistress, which is based on sheer attraction and not social norms and legal expectations, and burns deep for that very reason. Once I am beyond the requirement of coursework, I feel I will be able to continue reading history as a passion for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I am on the lookout for anything interesting and unusual, anything that challenges my intellect and pushes me to learn. I am ready to go into the professional world and try my luck in different fields until I find something that suits my abilities and temperament.

This year has been a difficult one so far, and I can sense that there are more troubles lying in wait in the coming months. But there have also been many happy days and peaceful days. As time passes I get more and more convinced that life is nothing if not a mixed bag. It is on every individual to make the most of what they have, without worrying too much about all that they don’t. Tragedies will have to be faced, sadness will have to be dealt with, but it really does no good dwelling too much on them. Worrying just makes you suffer twice. And so I have decided to take each day at a time and make a conscious effort to enjoy myself as best as my situation allows. It was with that spirit that I began my vacation, taking myself out to a movie after the examination ended – the last movie of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a fun watch by the way, a fitting end to a successful series – and enrolling on an interesting online course about the ancient Egyptian civilization. I am looking forward to a fulfilling month, a refreshing break before starting out on the final leg of college life. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Weekending at Digha

Over the last couple of years, I have been trying to convince Baba to take more frequent breaks from his routine and go away for short weekend tours. He went on three such breaks last year, and January 2017 started on a good note with another weekend trip, this time with me tagging along. After much deliberation and changing and tweaking of plans we zeroed in on a two-night sojourn to Digha and its surrounding beaches.

Baba came over to Kolkata on Friday morning. It was a freezing winter day in Durgapur, Baba tells me, and he spent the first hour shivering in the car. His day started before sunrise, and he was at Kolkata by ten. A short freshening up later we were ready to set off.

Kolkata traffic can be annoying; we took nearly fifty minutes to get out of the city and start on the highway. To our utmost delight and not a small amount of surprise, the road to Digha turned out to be fantastic. It was wide and smooth as glass for long stretches, reminding Baba of the roads he had found in the ’States. We passed a little town called Nandakumar on our way, and I could not stop giggling at the name. I think of the ubiquitous chubby Bengali mama’s boy when I hear names like that. Then there was Contai – how the British had managed to turn Kanthi into Contai is a mystery to me. As we left the national highway and moved to the Nandakumar-Contai road, one thought that kept coming back to me was the striking similarity between different regions of India. At different points of the journey I found strange resemblances with the Kalimpong bus depot, the road towards Malan Dighi from Durgapur, and even the road from Srinagar to Pahalgam! But of course, travelling through Bengal’s countryside has a flavour of its own, something that has to be imbibed with all one’s senses.

We reached Digha at around three thirty in the evening after a four-and-half hour drive, including two short stops for refreshments on the way. Before checking into the hotel, Baba and I decided to stop at the Old Digha beach for a short stroll. The late afternoon winter sun and a mildly chilly seaside breeze made it a wonderful experience, and a particularly lovely photo that I took of a starfish embedded in the wet sand added to the charm. Around this time, Baba and I realized that neither of us had packed in appropriate clothing for romping around in the sea. We could only look at each other and grin sheepishly, but as it turned out eventually, the water was far too cold for any serious frolicking among the waves anyway, so we had not missed out on much.

We took a wrong turn and wasted some time going in the wrong direction, but Google maps came to our rescue, and soon we reached the hotel where I had booked our room. It was Hotel Seagull, and it was actually right next to the beach we had first stopped at. The hotel has to be reached through a narrow alley, and though it has a shoddy looking façade, the room turned out to be decent enough. There is a large “No outside cooked food allowed” notice at the entrance, a funny rule which I have no idea how they plan to enforce. Another notice read ‘Card swipe machine out of order’.

Soon enough we were back on the beach. The beach at Digha has been embanked to prevent erosion of the shoreline. The long promenade – aptly named Saikat Sarani or ‘beach lane’ – was a veritable shopping arcade and park rolled into one. Hawkers lined the walk with all sorts of beachside wares – faux pearl jewellery and shell artefacts to metal instruments and bag stalls. And there were a wide variety of scrumptious looking seafood on display; fried shrimp and pomfret and lobsters and crabs. My mouth kept watering at the sight and the aroma, but Baba pointed out that fish were the commonest source of food poisoning, so we decided to keep away from the fare. There was also a Madur Mela going on, a ‘mat fair’ where the indigenous mat makers of Bengal were displaying and selling the beautiful mats. As part of the fair, there was a cultural fest underway, and we saw the performance by a group of Raibenshe dancers. Raibenshe is a traditional form of Indian folk martial dance performed by males only. Their show included a number of hair-raising acts of acrobatics and complicated structure formations involving standing on top of each other and even on poles and earthen pots. It was a fascinating performance quite worthy of international recognition; it is a pity that we Bengalis have chosen to forget so much of our cultural heritage in our constant aping of Western practices.

We got to witness the changing of tides in the sea. As the night progressed, the waves came closer and got louder and bigger. Soon, the shoreline was under water and the waves travelled up the embankment. Looking out at the dark expanse of water before me, I felt a deep sense of peace and contentment. That is the magic of nature; the closer you get to it, the more comfortable and content it makes you feel. And yet, it holds the power to destroy life within moments. It is a small wonder that man has always feared and worshipped the forces of nature.

Back to the hotel and a quick dinner later – Hotel Seagull serves rather unpleasant food by the way; the palak paneer we ordered smelled of fish – we were sound asleep. It had been a long day, especially for Baba, and we relished the thought of a good night’s sleep. That was not to be however; we woke up with a start at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, jolted out of sleep by the blaring of the megaphone. We had noticed right at arrival the previous evening that the megaphone kept playing really loud music incessantly. There was a puja taking place. The manager at the hotel told us that they were celebrating Ganga Utsav, which is apparently the only big festival for the people there, and so they would continue playing songs and chanting mantras on the megaphone for three days. So much for a peaceful and quiet weekend!  

Saturday was a very crowded day. It was Poush Sankranti and it seemed that the entire population of Digha had come out on its streets. There were busloads of tourists heading into the city from Kolkata. The electric vans that were the local mode of transportation were constantly on the move. We spent the day exploring the other beaches near Digha. Our first stop was Udaypur, a lovely stretch of virgin beach that has been preserved in near pristine conditions. The sea was calm and the sun was bright and the cold winter air made us shiver as we stood knee deep into the ocean. Udaypur is definitely much better than the Digha beach. In fact, both Baba and I agreed that it was the best among all the beaches we visited. From Udaypur we continued to Talsari, which is in Odisha, though it is within a twenty mile radius of Digha. It is beautiful how seamlessly we crossed over to another state without any noticeable difference in landscape or demographics. In Talsari we found that people had the annoying habit of taking their motorcycles on the rocky pathway along the beach, causing a whole lot of trouble for wayfarers. The meaning of the name is self-evident: there is a palm forest skirting the beach, so it is quite literally a talsari!

Back to West Bengal, and it was time for lunch. We came back to Old Digha and stopped at a snazzy little cabin pretty close to our hotel. I was bent on eating crab, but they had run out of crab, so that is the one regret I have about our trip! Later, we continued on our journey and headed for the Mohona, the place where the river met the ocean. This was a fishers’ colony of sorts. The entire way we could get wafts of the odour of stinking fish. On our way we passed a fish farm where rows upon rows of shuntki fish had been hung out to dry. There were thousands of fish hanging from fences, and the surprising thing was that no crow or hawk carried the fish away though they were out in the open. We also saw large fishing boats being built, and they were named after various Hindu deities. One was called Baba Naru Gopal – the name gave Nandakumar a run for its money!

Next up was Shankarpur, which was another ten kilometres or so away. This too was a pretty beach, but nothing remarkable. What stood out was how we were stopped on the way by a group who were collecting money for some puja or the other. After Baba had made his contribution, they were supposed to let us pass. But there was this man on a bicycle who stood right in front of our car, looking completely unwilling to move. The local men had to physically push him away so that we could continue on our journey. It was a funny interlude and made me wonder how drunk the man had been. After Shankarpur we went on to the last beach for the day; Tajpur. There were a number of homely looking resorts on the way to Tajpur that we decided we could visit some time. The path passed through casuarina forests, and Baba and I found to our surprise that both of us had an irrational fear of bear attacks whenever we saw such forests. Can fears be genetic too, I wonder? The Tajpur beach had a long shoreline, and it being low tide, we walked a fair distance into the sea. The striations formed by the waves were remarkably intricate, giving me more photo ops. The Tajpur beach was my second favourite from the trip after Udaypur. We watched the sun setting into the ocean, and then we headed back to Digha after a tiring but fulfilling day. On our way back, we were stopped by the police for a random check. Baba was asked to produce the car papers, and the cops seemed irate at his producing them easily. The man asked him why he had the papers ready at hand; had we been stopped for another check right before this?!

That night we went out for another walk on the saikat sarani. Baba reminisced about the two times that he had visited Digha earlier, once as a little boy and another time when he was around my age. Digha has changed a lot since then, he said, and the change has been for the better. It is cleaner and better maintained, and the law and order problems that had been rife in the area are now mostly under control. Digha had garnered a bad name for harassment faced by tourists, especially couples. But now it seems it is a safe place to visit even for groups of youngsters. The beach has security cameras and a guard tower where policemen keep constant vigil. A tea seller told us that the beach was open till eleven at night and even after that families often sat there without facing trouble from the authorities. Dinner was at another small restaurant right next to the place where we had had lunch. The proprietor of this restaurant was a garrulous old man who seemed to resent the new restaurant that had recently opened next to his and was now stealing many of his customers with their flashy décor. He grumbled at length to Baba that night, and again next morning when we went there for breakfast.

After a quick breakfast on Sunday and one last walk down the beach, this time on the opposite direction, we checked out of the hotel at around eleven and headed for Mondarmoni. This was our final stop before we drove back to Kolkata. Mondarmoni is a much advertised luxury seaside spot with supposedly the longest beach in the country at fifteen kilometres. We found it to be a gross disappointment. The entire beachfront was covered with construction sites and hotel walls. The beach was nothing to write home about. We wondered at the popularity of the place, and agreed that coming to Mondarmoni by itself would have been a bad idea. The only noticeable thing about Mondarmoni was that we found a variety of dead sea life washed up on the sand – from a leach-like worm to tiny crabs to a torn turtle fin and even a small sting ray!

This concluded our weekend getaway, and soon enough we were on our way home. The drive was as pleasant as the first time, but it seemed to take less time, as return journeys are wont to do. We were back home by five thirty even after a short detour to Park Street. It was a sweet getaway, a welcome change early in the semester. Baba got his much deserved break, and he has gone back to his classes now with a refreshed mind.

Next up is Pondicherry in mid-February, and though that is still a month away, I cannot seem to wait for it!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Post-festivity venting

I am in a very irritable mood. I have been this way all through the evening. It is the first of November, but the temperatures seem to have no intention of coming down. Winter feels like a distant dream here in Kolkata, and instead of ordering boots and dreaming about hot cups of cocoa, I am still in my summer shorts and tees. But this is only an incidental cause for my present state of mind. What is really making me prickly is the seemingly never-ending season of festivities in this part of the world.

I belong to the tiny section of the population that cannot wait for the celebrations to end and life to go back to its routine of working days and weekends. The entire month of October has been one long period of limbo when it came to any sort of work getting done, be it in college or outside of it. People are ‘happy’; they are ‘taking a break’. A break from what, can someone tell me? As it is we Bengalis have a remarkable reputation for being lazy and unwilling to work. Anything that can be done in a week (or a month or more) will never, not even by mistake, be completed in any less time. And then there is the annual, month-long, socially acceptable excuse for dropping all work and wasting as much time and money as humanly possible.
Durga Puja did not annoy me too much. In fact I enjoyed shopping for clothes, going out with friends, going pandal hopping in Kolkata and Durgapur, the usual during festivals. But for some reason, the Diwali long weekend has driven me to tears of anger and frustration. It all started since last Friday, which was bhoot choturdorshi. I did not go to Durgapur for Diwali this year because I had to study and finish assignments and papers and I never seem to do any productive work at all when I’m back home with Dad. So on Friday I went out to Lake market to buy some abir for the mandatory Diwali rangoli (for the uninitiated, abir is coloured powder used to make designs on the ground – rangoli­ – during Diwali, and smear on each other during Holi). Lake Market is a busy shopping arcade on all days, but on Friday it was a sea of humanity. People old and young were crawling all over the area. Every second person seemed to have come in private cars, which led to traffic snags and parking lot shouting matches. Trying to navigate one’s way through cars and stalls and beggar children and dogs and cows was nightmarish. I did get the things I was looking for, and came away as quickly as I could. But the experience left me drained of energy and good humour. I spent the rest of the evening snapping at family and friends.
Kali pujo and Diwali (Saturday and Sunday respectively) would have gone fine enough, except that all around me people decided that the best way to enjoy themselves was to burst a whole lot of kali potkas and chocolate bombs and dodomas. Diwali is supposed to be the festival of lights, not sounds! It is deemed to signify the triumph of good over evil, light of darkness, hope over despair, not cacophony over silence! So many aspects of the celebration are beautiful – cleaning and decorating the house with fairy lights and oil lamps, drawing of the rangoli, making of mouthwatering sweets like laddoos and halwas, even the firework displays. I have nothing against real fireworks – fuljhuris and rongmashals, chorkis and tubris, various kinds of rockets that form coloured stars and parachutes and designs up in the sky. All of these are pretty to look at, reason enough to be used during Diwali. But what, pray, do you get from the bursting of bombs? Nothing but noise. It is beyond me why people enjoy the ear splitting explosions emanating from these pointless crackers. Why would you want to be reminded of battlefield bangs and booms for entertainment?
Diwali is one big reminder of how little Indians care about public inconvenience. The tyranny of majoritarianism becomes an ugly reality. So what if the elderly and the animals (and a few oddballs like yours truly) find the din physically painful and palpitation-inducing? The majority wants to have fun, the rest can go to hell. Then there is the added nuisance of songs blaring out from the speakers, volume turned up to the maximum. In fact, it is the middle of the night now, and still the scoundrels in my neighbourhood show no sign of turning the volume down. Just because they like to get drunk and dance like zombies to Bhojpuri songs, I have to listen to them too. Democracy and egalitarianism are nice concepts to think about and support; but right now if I could lay my hands on a gun I am pretty sure I would have caused a bloodbath here.
I just went over this post from four years ago. So much has changed in these four years, and yet so little. That Diwali was a happy one. The rangoli was beautiful. This year, I did make one, but it was uninspired and asymmetrical, an apt reflection of my state of mind.

I can sense that I am rambling; this sort of writing is more suited for the private journal I keep than the blog. But I had to vent out my anger in public. I feel much calmer now, and though the idiots here are still at it with their speakers and their crackers, I think I will be able to turn in for the night without shouting out my entire stock of expletives at them. Also, I had not written for such a long time. It feels good to be back at my writing. Maybe, just maybe it will not be months before my next post here. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Fear of Freedom

What is freedom? Does freedom mean the same thing for everybody? Is freedom necessarily a good thing? Is freedom an end by itself or just a means to a bigger goal? These are some questions that find answers and explanations in Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, or The Fear of Freedom as it is known outside North America. First published by the Berlin born psychoanalyst in the United States in 1941, it was written at the height of the Second World War, when the ideas of freedom and democracy were in imminent danger at the swift rise of the doctrines of Fascism and Nazism in Europe. The book is an attempt at explaining the psychological causes that, along with socio-economic and political causes, led to the rise of Nazism in Germany. However the thesis laid out in the book is a study in human psychology that transcends any specific time frame or regional boundary and remains as true in the 21st century as it was then, maybe even more so. As a complete beginner in human psychology as an academic discipline, I have neither the knowledge nor the intellectual capability to ‘review’ such a scholarly book. However, I shall talk about the various things that I learnt from this book, and the many thoughts that came to me while reading it.

Fromm begins his treatise with the very question that I started this essay with – what is freedom? Generally, one thinks of freedom as a situation of independence from an external, coercive force. However, Fromm does not stop at this explanation; according to him there are in fact two parts to the concept of freedom – ‘freedom from’ or negative freedom and ‘freedom to’ or positive freedom. Fromm maintains that ‘freedom from’ by itself cannot be an end, as gaining negative freedom from oppression without actively striving towards positive freedom that would involve active utilisation of the emancipated state from the earlier oppression leads to unfortunate results for the human psyche. Comparing this state with the natural progression of a child into an adult human being, he says that just as the natural bonds that a child has in its infancy and childhood with its parents are eventually shed as the child develops into maturity, leading to an intense sense of loss and vulnerability from the sudden absence of the sense of security that these bonds offer, so is the effect that ‘freedom from’ by itself has on human beings. The structure and consistency offered by oppressive authority in human lives – an authority that the people have become used to over generations as usually is the case with all social institutions – is lost once the people are emancipated from this external authority, leading to fear and hopelessness and lack of direction, rather than the joy and celebration that seem to be the more logical reaction to emancipation.

Fromm begins his study of the idea of freedom from the period of the Reformation in Europe. It was a period when the traditional feudal system collapsed and the wave of industrialization washed over the country at a rapid pace. The social structure of lord and vassal collapsed. It was a period when people lost the certainty of social position that the feudal hierarchy had offered. It was also a period of religious changes, as the theology of Protestantism became a powerful and widespread reaction against the oppression of the Catholic Church. Fromm explains the theology of Luther and Calvin as the religious extension of the Industrial Revolution, as it gave structure to the masses and prepared them for the requirements of the industrial world. Fromm feels that these theologies rose as an answer to the social needs of the time, addressing the newfound state of man as an individual entity separate from the social hierarchical model, yet maintaining a certain moral hierarchy with God as the ultimate controlling power as represented by the relationship between man and God in Protestant theology. The preaching of Luther and Calvin emphasized on work as the goal of life, as an end in itself, as work led to salvation and the grace of God. This was in fact a preparatory factor for the masses that were to become slaves of the industrial machinery, a social structure where work and frugality were most valuable. Fromm also points out that it was the middle class that underwent most social change in terms of religion, and shows how it was this class that faced most difficulties and upheavals that led to resentment disguised as moral outrage against the higher and lower classes.

Fromm moves on to modern man’s relationship with freedom. In this age of capitalism that had found its inception during the Industrial Revolution, Fromm feels that the principal of individualistic activity is of the utmost importance. It is this very concept that is found essential in the socio-economic aspects of capitalism that is reflected in the religious theology of Luther and Calvin. The emphasis on work as a major goal in life increases, as can be expected for the serving of the capitalistic institutions. There is an alienation in the relationships of man with man, as all contact continues to become impersonal where the individual becomes of little consequence, nothing more than a cog in the giant machinery of capitalistic institutions. It is from a situation like this that the seeds of authoritarian ideologies like Nazism grow, in order to fulfill the intense social emptiness and lack of structure and belonging. However, before continuing with the psychological sources of Nazism, Fromm talks about the various machinery of escape that human beings tend to take up in  order to escape the unbearable loneliness caused by negative freedom. He talks of the authoritarian character type that is both sadistic in his tendency towards absolute physical and spiritual control of his subject, as well as masochistic in wanting desperately to submit completely to a higher power. Surprisingly, Fromm shows these seemingly contradictory character types to be actually of the same origin and striving towards the same goal – removing one’s emptiness and loneliness through complete association with one’s subject. Then there is the destructive character type, an extreme form of sadism where the person tries to destroy the outer world that seems bigger and therefore ominous and beyond his control. He removes the source of fear in order to overcome it. And then there is the type that falls for automaton conformity – a situation where the person fully negates his individuality and becomes an unthinking automaton in service to a higher power. His method of overcoming the loneliness of freedom is by doing away with the ‘self’.

Fromm talks about the lower middle class in Germany – the biggest supporters of Hitler – as essentially members of the authoritarian character type. They looked up to Hitler with their masochistic urges towards submission, while their sadistic tendencies were fulfilled by the oppression of the very many victims of Nazism, most significantly the Jews. Hitler himself was a supreme example of the authoritarian character type. Fromm makes many references to Hitler’s own writings in Mein Kampf to testify to this. Hitler was obsessed with mastery over humankind, and yet accepted absolute slavery to Nature, God or Fate. Another section of the German populace that never supported Nazism but came to accept the regime without much opposition Fromm dismisses as the section that was psychologically tired and resigned and without much moral resistance. This chapter is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting chapters in the book. As a student of history I have read quite a bit about the economic and the political causes of the rise of Nazism. But I have often wondered about why the doctrine came to be as popular with such a large number of people, and also why in Germany specifically. This chapter greatly answers my questions. However, just in case somebody misinterprets Nazism as merely a psychological phenomenon, he clarifies repeatedly right at the beginning that a true explanation for the rise of Nazism can only be found by the study of the social, economic, political and psychological conditions in their entirety prevailing in Germany at the time.

Fromm concludes his book with a study of the meaning and value of freedom in democratic countries. He feels that the populace in democratic societies live under the impression of freedom, but in fact this idea of individuality is nothing more than an illusion. He maintains that the modern democratic man is not truly free; though he does not suffer the manifold external oppression that his forefathers faced, there is a great degree of internal oppression that keeps him from being truly free. He feels that the modern man is incapable of having truly individual thoughts because he is overwhelmingly brainwashed and conditioned by society. One cannot even adequately differentiate between original thoughts and ideas imbibed from the external world because these ideas have become so ingrained as to be a part of one’s own mind. What Fromm is talking about here is nothing other than ‘herd mentality’, often suger-coated as ‘social character’, a silent killer of all truly individualistic urges and activity. I quote here – “(Modern man) desperately clings to the notion of individuality; he wants to be “different”, and he has no greater recommendation of anything than that “It is different””. Does this not sound familiar to my generation? Is this not what we say we strive towards becoming? In this attempt at becoming ‘different’ together, we have only managed to become hordes of maddeningly homogeneous masses, all chanting the mantra of individuality while taking conformity to the highest level possible – conformity of thought and emotion!

According to Fromm, real freedom, or positive freedom is only achieved through “the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self”. The spontaneous self-expression without conformity to invisible social norms, without the constant urge to mix in and be one of the herd, is what the ultimate expression of freedom should be. According to Fromm, it is only when a person reaches this level of psychological maturity that freedom becomes truly meaningful – and even safe – in his hands. At this point he no longer feels the need to come under the forceful authority of external powers; it is only then that he is truly safe from submission to regimes and ideologies like Nazism.

 Fear of Freedom is undoubtedly one of the most enlightening books I have ever read. No amount of  rote textbook learning could have given me this sense of a certain level of understanding of my fellow man and his actions. In fact, Fromm himself talks about the ills of unthinking memorization of facts in this book as a deterrent to the growth of true individuality. How I wish we had more books like this prescribed as textbooks in high school. It might have led to a somewhat saner generation of human beings. Thank you baba, for recommending this book, as always. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Vacationing in Kashmir

The first thing that I must confess about the Kashmir trip is that I had serious apprehensions about it, mostly because my end semester examinations were set to begin less than a week after I returned from the vacation. I grumbled for days before the trip, not even silently all the time. Every time dad mentioned the trip over the telephone, my thoughts turned to the examinations looming ahead. So it was with none of my usual holiday enthusiasm that I set off to Durgapur on the 7th of May. But thankfully, enthusiasm is contagious, and by the time we boarded the Sealdah Rajdhani Express from Durgapur station on the 8th, almost all thoughts of exams had flown out of my head.

We started the tour with torrential rain while waiting for our train. That was a Godsend and an instant mood lifter, because we had had a terribly hot and dry April with no sign of our usual Kalbaisakhi. So though this was not strictly speaking a part of our vacation, it was a welcome add-on, and definitely one of the highlights for me. The sight of the sky overcast with dark clouds, the gusty breeze bringing with it the smell of rain, and then the shower of cold water rushing down from the heavens – it was delightful. The train was on time, and we settled down comfortably for what is one of my favourite parts of any vacation. I honestly love train journeys. I love the steady rhythm of the coach, the bunk bed, the curtains of the AC two tier coaches, even the uncomfortably narrow alleyways. I love squinting through the windows to try and discern the dark landscapes outside. This is one of the things in which I differ greatly from dad, because he prefers the time saving aspect of air travel to long train journeys. This time though, we had a bit of both, so we were both happy.

Delhi has to be my second favourite city after Kolkata (I know, it is quite unfair saying this despite spending my first sixteen years in Durgapur: but Durgapur will always be home, so there!). The minute we stepped off the train onto New Delhi platform – after spending an interminably long time crossing the suburbs of the city; Rajdhani turned out to be no different from Darjeeling Mail in this respect – I had a wide-toothed grin plastered on my face, which I wiped out with much difficulty in honour of decorum. Akash Da had come to receive us at the station. We went in his car to Connaught Place, where we got some snacks for our lunch. Connaught Place is a much bigger, much cleaner and more posh version of Esplanade, and quite the dream ‘hanging out’ place for our generation. If you happen to be there, don’t forget to try out the Chicken Quiche from Wenger’s, it is absolutely divine. Many thanks Akash Da, for the snacks and for the lovely drive to the airport. I do wish we got to spend more time with you and Arundhuti Di. Next time, hopefully.

Delhi Airport is prettier to look at than Kolkata airport. But the prices of everything in every store go right through the roof. While exploring the airport we came across a piano that was playing by itself, only of course it wasn’t! There was a pendrive plugged in a secret USB socket, but the initial amazement and sense of magical music was beautiful. We almost missed the final boarding call to our plane which is quite surprising given how alert dad stays on such occasions. Ours was a GoAir flight in the usual Airbus A320. Though I had been on flights more than once already, I still got nervous at the takeoff. Thankfully this time the uncomfortable sensation of gravity drop was practically missing, and I even managed to take a quick snooze, a sign of how accustomed (and bored) I had already become with air travel.

We got the first grand view of the mountains from the plane windows. The grey sky and the mighty Pir Panjal range looming right across. It is an eerie feeling almost, flying above the great Himalayas, on top of the world in a quite literal sense. Landing in Srinagar Airport, the temperature drop was like cold fingers holding you in an embrace. We were picked up at the airport by Mushtaq Ji, who was our driver for the entire tour. A short drive from the airport, and we were at our hotel right over the Dal Lake. One of the first things that hit me on our way was the physical beauty of the Kashmiri people. This was something that I kept observing and wondering and being envious of throughout our trip. With the miracle of genetics to help them and the mix of handsome races like the Greeks and the Huns and suchlike, they have the potent features that make the heart beat faster at a single glance. There are distinctly fewer women on the roads, something that became even more obvious once we left Srinagar for the smaller tourist areas, and those who do come out do so in the company of other women and are usually covered all over except for their faces but my, what angelic faces! There were ten year old head turners, make what you will of that!

We spent the first three days in Srinagar. The first day we went for an evening Shikara ride on the Dal Lake. Evening though was only after eight, when the sun finally set. The lights from the houseboats lit up the lake such that the locals had named the area ‘Golden Lake’. This was a little after the peak hour for the Shikara owners, so we got the ride for a reasonable rate. The next day was off to Sonmarg. The two hour ride – with a short stop on the bank of the Indus on the way – was lovely. Initially there was quite a traffic jam till the outskirts of the city, but once that was crossed the traffic was mild. The views are spectacular; snow-capped mountains on one side and lush green forests on slopes of the other side. The specialty of Kashmir is that all the tourist locations we went to were essentially valley regions, so unlike in other hill stations I have visited, most of the drives were through plain lands with only the last bit being ascends up the mountains. That suited me just fine, because I got the mountain views without a hint of motion sickness from the winding mountain roads. Sonmarg is on the same route as Kargil, and seeing the signs on the roadside indicating distance to Kargil gave me goose bumps. It reminded me of all the soldiers who had travelled on these very roads during the bloody Kargil War, never to come back.

Sonmarg was initially a nice experience. We went up by a local car to a hill slope where snow had fallen. We crossed a fast flowing mountain stream and dad negotiated with the locals for a sledge right. The journey uphill is rather inhuman for them, as they make the tourists sit on the sledge and pull them up the steep slope. But these mountain folks are strong as mules everywhere, so some of them were practically running up with their burden. I half rode, half walked up, falling on my hands and knees several times, though the driver assured me that I was doing better than most women. Whoever thought walking on snow covered slopes was such hard work! I was red in the face and panting by the time I reached, and dad seemed fitter than I, his broken leg and all! The ride down was hair raising, for my driver, a young lad, went down at quite a speed in spite of my repeated requests to slow down. Mentally I went ‘wheee’ as we rushed down, bypassing other sledges and rock outcrops.  Afterwards, there was another drive to various tourist locations including a viewing of the Zojila pass and Balatal, and another clambering up on snowy slopes. I think I have had my fill of snow; I definitely prefer lush green mountains to the barren, freezing cover of ice. The return trip was somewhat dampened by a needless altercation with the local car rental owners, who claimed a higher charge than the one settled on. Later we found out that Sonmarg is called ‘Lootmarg’ by Kashmiris because they make a habit of such dirty tactics with tourists. If you are planning a trip there, give Sonmarg a miss. You won’t lose out on much if you are travelling to Gulmarg and Pahalgam.

The next day was a local sightseeing in Srinagar. We first went for a Shikara ride in the morning. This ride was longer, and our boatman took us through the watery lanes and by lanes of their floating village, showing us their art emporiums and the homes of the locals and their small fields of crops, all on the lake itself. Afterwards, we started our drive with a visit to the Shankaracharya temple on a hilltop. This was not something I was overly keen on; I am not particularly religious and I generally tend to avoid holy places. My annoyance was aggravated because we had to leave our phones and wallets and belts and watches and anything made of leather in our car. Such superstitions turn me off, and in any case having to clutch on to your trousers all the time is rather unpleasant. Plus, there is a climb of two hundred stairs up to the temple, so not very easy on bad knees. Once up there though, the view is breathtaking. The entire Dal Lake can be seen, with large swathes covered by a colony of houseboats. It is reminiscent of a usual city on land, but not quite the same thing. Dad and I did not enter the temple; taking in the scenery from up there was enough for us. Afterwards it was the Mughal Gardens – Chashma Shahi, Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh in that order. My favourite was the Shalimar Bagh with its many different levels almost of water channels, each more towards the interior than the previous one. At one resting place in between the channels, there was a Kashmiri man playing his flute. The haunting notes carrying over the water takes you back to the times when the Mughal emperor Jahangir must have strolled in the gardens in his leisure with his beloved wife Nur Jahan. Shalimar Bagh is used as a water park by the locals; we saw many young boys and even a group of girls splashing about in the fountains and running up and down the channels. One even slipped and fell hard on her backside right in the middle of the stream, to an ensuing peal of laughter from her friends. It was in the Mughal gardens that I managed to capture the exquisite pictures of flowers in full bloom. More power to my Lenovo phone camera! After a quick lunch it was the Hazratbal Mosque. It is supposed to house a hair of the Prophet Muhammad, and so is considered ‘Medina’ by Muslims. The dome is beautiful, but I was miffed at not being allowed to enter the main prayer hall of the mosque, as is the rule for women in all mosques. And so grows my disaffection for religious centres of most religions for one reason or the other. Ah well.

The next day we left for Gulmarg, where we stayed for a night. Another lovely drive of a couple hours, and we had reached Gulmarg. Now this was undoubtedly the best part of the trip for me. I fell in love with the place the moment I set eyes on it. The green vales, the lush mountains, the bloom of tiny wild flowers on the slopes (hence the name Gulmarg, ‘gul’ means flowers), it was lovely. We had a small but cozy room in Hotel Fluorescent, with a spectacular view from our window overlooking a narrow mountain stream and a coniferous forest. Gulmarg is famous for its cable car ride up to snow covered mountains – they call the cable cars ‘gondolas’. But I do not like rope-ways, I suffer from claustrophobia and vertigo at the same time, and in any case there was a queue of a thousand people at least, so dad and I gave the ride a miss. Instead we walked down the roads and up the grassy slopes. Later, we had a Kashmiri Wazwan dish for lunch, a special Kashmiri pulao, and that frankly was one of the only two times we had good meat during our trip (the other was sheek kabab at a shopping arcade in Srinagar, opposite Nishat Bag). It is a shame that a horde of Marwari and Gujarati tourists have influenced most restaurants into turning vegetarian, and the meat that is served is usually rather bland, or at least they were in the hotels that we stayed in. So if you want to make a gastronomic affair out of your trip, ask for original Kashmiri dishes only. The sky was overcast by the time we had finished lunch. We took a horse ride back to our hotel across the meadows and on rocky mountain pathways. The horses are ponies, but my, what tough creatures! They wanted to gallop, and were quite annoyed because they had to trot with us on their backs! The locals have a saying, that Mumbai’s fashion and Gulmarg’s mausam (weather) are both unpredictable and change without warning. It started raining on our way back, and dad and I both got rather wet, and a little while longer and we would have started freezing! But we reached the hotel just before the rains got too heavy, thank heavens! After an hour long shower it was bright sunshine again. We went for a walk up the road leading to a place called Khilanmarg, and then back again down to the valley for a cup of Kashmiri kehwa, black tea infused with saffron and lots of sugar, and then back to the hotel to call it a day.

The next morning we were off to Pahalgam, and truth be told I was rather sad to leave Gulmarg. This time it was a long drive, five hours almost. Pahalgam is on the banks of the olive coloured Lidder river, a little way from Anantnag, the birthplace of many insurgencies. On our way we passed through apple orchards on both sides of the road, and the trees stood bare because this is not the season for apples. Our hotel was right at the start of the market road of Pahalgam, with a large car park and horse stand just across the road. After settling into the hotel we went for a walk, crossing the bridge and dodging horse owners all the way. Honestly, it gets to be a little annoying after a point when you have to refuse a horse ride offer every two steps. Dad jokingly said that they were more surprised than anything to see us walk around though we were not foreigners. And indeed all the time we went for walks in Pahalgam as well as in Gulmarg, I did not notice any Indian tourist who walked. This is very sad because people miss out on the real flavours of the place by constantly moving around in cars. You need to walk around to really learn about a place, especially in the mountains. We spent two nights in Pahalgam, so the next day was kept for local sightseeing. We hired a local car for this, and we went to three locations – Aru valley, Betaab valley and Chandanwari. Aru valley is all greenery in really freezing temperatures. Betaab valley has been turned into a park where the locals visit in great numbers, and Chandanwari is the beginning of the holy trek to Amarnath. Of these my favourite was the great expanse of the Betaab Valley. The rains chased us through the journey, and by the time we were done in the evening, I was quite tired. Here I have to make a special mention of our rather dashing driver for the day, Manzoor Bhai. He and I struck up quite a friendship and chatted throughout the journey. He even showed me how to write my name in Arabic, and my, is it beautiful! It is a pity I forgot to take a picture with him. Back to the hotel and a quick nap later dad and I went out for a walk up the horse route. Looking back, I realise how much we walked on our trip, a commendable feat especially with dad’s leg! All of it was lovely of course, but I just wish it didn’t cause dad so much pain.

The next morning we left Pahalgam and drove back to Srinagar for the last day of the vacation. It was quite a long ride, especially since Mushtaq Ji was going really slow that day. By this time I was tired and ready to go home. So the last evening in Srinagar was a quiet one with just some shopping and a last walk down the boulevard before turning in for the night. We had to be up by three thirty next morning and reach the airport by five. Srinagar airport overdoes it with the frisking and security checks. I have lost count of how many times we were stopped for checks, but I was relieved when we finally boarded the plane because that meant we were no longer being treated as would be terrorists! It was an uneventful flight that I spent sleeping, and very soon we were back in Delhi. The moment we got off the flight, the heat hit us like a solid wall. Some people were still wearing their jackets (!) and mentally I was screaming at them to take those off already. Thankfully we got an Ola cab without a hassle, which dropped us at a hotel in Paharganj where we had booked a room till the evening. Akash da dropped by once again during his lunch break, and by four we were in the station, waiting for our train. Another train ride and we were back home. A lovely trip without many untoward incidents, and we were refreshed and ready to get back to our routines.

Kashmir is beautiful, breathtaking even. But there is something I must mention, even though the locals will hate me for it. Now that I have been there, I feel that the ‘paradise on earth’ hype is a little overrated. I have been to many other Himalayan locales that are equally breathtaking. It is unfair that Kashmir should hog all the limelight when it comes to the grandeur and the beauty of the Himalayas. We had gone at the beginning of the peak tourist season, so we literally saw the tourist traffic surge in front of our eyes. There were distinctly more people on the day we left than when we had arrived there. The people of Kashmir seemed to be nice, kindly folks, who made an effort to make tourists feel welcome. It is sad to think of how the political clashes between two countries have ruined the lives of these people. Someday, I hope to go back there again, and next time I am going straight to Gulmarg and staying put for a couple of days at least. I am so glad I went on this trip, examinations notwithstanding. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Jungle Book

I have often felt that there are movies, and then there are Disney movies. Those people at the Walt Disney Company seem to bring magic to whatever project they take on, even if it is just producing. Their latest, director Jon Favreau’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale The Jungle Book definitely works to validate their reputation as magicians.

The tale of the little boy abandoned in the Indian jungles and brought up by a pack of wolves is synonymous with childhood, or should be. I remember my parents telling me the story when I was a little child, bringing alive all the characters until I could almost pretend that the animals were my own dearest friends. Later, I spent many delightful afternoons watching Disney’s earlier adaptation of the tale on TV over and over again. So when I chanced upon a poster of the latest movie adaptation of the tale, I made a beeline for the theatre the very day the film was released here, this last Friday.

Directed by Jon Favreau and released in 3D format, the movie is a feast for the senses. This was also the first time that I watched a movie in 3D, and it was a rewarding experience. The only time I had watched a 3D piece was at Science City, the science and technology park in Kolkata. There the 3D effect is such that the characters seem to jump out of the screen towards the viewer. That can get quite unnerving at times, especially since the piece I viewed there had mice jumping out and an enormous snake opening its jaws at the audience. But here the third dimension was shown inside the screen, almost as if the screen were a hollow tube in the direction opposite to the audience. The sense of depth did much to add to the beauty and real feel of the movie. All the time I was watching the movie, I almost felt like I was in the jungles myself, running about with Mowgli down the long stretches of dense undergrowth.

I must admit – shamefacedly – that I do not remember the original story by Kipling in detail. But that I think has helped me be less critical of the discrepancies between the story and the movie, because frankly that does not matter. What does matter is the way you are swept off your feet and whisked into Mowgli’s world from the very opening scene. The camera follows Mowgli’s route as he competes with the wolf cubs in a race with Bagheera the black panther training him to become more ‘wolf’. Right from the start one feels Mowgli’s anguish, his desperate attempts to fit in to the world of the wolves, to give up all his ‘man-ness’. He is frustrated when he is refused entry to the wolf council and watches from afar as the council repeats its vows about ‘the law of the jungle’. The movie follows a linear narrative, right from the time of the great drought and the ‘Water Truce’ at the Peace Rock where all the animals gather around and drink together. Hunting is forbidden because water is more important than food. It is there that one first encounters Sher Khan, the great Bengal tiger, the one creature that every animal in the jungle fears, that even Akela, the mighty leader of the wolf pack does not challenge if he can help it. He is despised by the jungle community for his wanton cruelty, his tendencies of hunting for pleasure. But Sher Khan himself has a deep seated hatred for man, ever since one man – Mowgli’s father, as we later learn – burnt his face with fire and blinded his left eye. He is hell bent on killing Mowgli, and vows to take the man cub’s life once the rains return and the Water Truce ends. This puts the pack in a dilemma, which Mowgli himself relieves them of by promising to go back to the man-village from whence he came. Accompanied by Bagheera he sets off on his journey home, and here his adventures begin.

There is a chase sequence just afterwards where Bagheera senses Sher Khan’s presence in an open stretch of tall grass and manages to warn Mowgli mere seconds before the tiger leaps onto them with a blood curdling roar. That sequence first made me realize exactly how good the animation really was; I had completely forgotten that the animals were just computer generated cartoons and not flesh and blood creatures, and I flinched at how narrow an escape Mowgli had from Sher Khan. The sense of reality was further enhanced in the subsequent sequence of Mowgli escaping with the help of a herd of Nilgai running down a muddy ravine. The brilliance of the cinematographer Bill Pope is captured beautifully in a scene where a few drops of water get splashed on the screen from the hooves of the Nilgai, adding to the sense of urgency and danger. At no time does the movie exude a false sense of comfort and security, despite being a children’s feel good production. There is a sequence of a landslide caused due to the heavy rains that brings down an entire face of the cliff, washing off the Nilgai and Mowgli to the swirling river below, a reminder of exactly how dangerous the Indian jungles actually are for all its inhabitants.

The story of Mowgli’s childhood where he first hears of the ‘Red Flower’ of the humans that destroys everything it touches is told by Kaa the python while she hypnotises Mowgli and tries to crush him in her deadly embrace, just to be saved in time by Baloo the bear. It is an interesting touch to change the python’s gender, and personally I feel that this is somehow more apt; Kaa is almost the femme fatale, the siren whose attraction is irresistible to man. Only I wish they had included that one line so synonymous with the great snake – ‘Look at me, come to me!’ I remember being terrified and fascinated at the same time as a child of that one line that had even held Baloo hypnotized in the original tale.

Baloo the bear is a sweetheart; the epitome of sloth who usually had others get his honey for him but eventually climbed a steep rock face and fought a monkey pack to save  little Mowgli. Baloo encourages Mowgli to stop worrying about becoming a wolf and embrace his ‘man-ness’. He convinces Mowgli that there is nothing wrong with his little ‘tricks’ that Bagheera so detests; that in fact it is the ‘Mowgli way’ of doing things. It is those tricks that Mowgli uses to gather honey for Baloo, and eventually even rescues a baby elephant from a trap set by the human, an act that astonishes his friends and gains him the respect of the mighty elephants, the lords of the jungle.

In the meantime, Sher Khan kills Akela and terrorizes the wolf pack, waiting for Mowgli to return so that he can kill the man cub. Baloo and Bagheera both keep this news from Mowgli, but when Mowgli is kidnapped by the ‘Bandar-log’ and taken to their king, King Louie the Gigantopithecus, the large ape tells him of Akela’s death while trying to coerce the secret of the Red Flower from Mowgli, which he thinks will make him like the humans. Baloo and Bagheera manage to fight the monkey hordes off, and King Louie dies when the old structure of his palace collapses on him, but Mowgli already sets off to avenge Akela. He steals fire from the village nearby and runs back to the pack, starting a jungle fire behind him. There the final battle of the animals against the evil tiger is hair raising just as it is beautiful. Eventually Mowgli manages to kill Sher Khan using one of his tricks, this time encouraged by Bagheera himself to fight the tiger like a man and not a wolf. The movie ends with the same shot as the opening scene; of a race between Mowgli and his brothers and the panther, only this time Mowgli wins by his tricks which are now an accepted part of his identity. There is a sense of closure, the coming of a full circle, where Mowgli has now truly become a part of the jungle community with all his uniqueness, his man-ness. As the narrator, Bagheera ends with the wondering pronouncement of how he had never seen all the animals of the jungle come together before as they had done in the destruction of Sher Khan, the bane of the jungle.

The one thing that struck me was the extent of power and ability in the human voice. All the animals, all the computer generated characters were brought to life, were given emotions and personality merely through the voices of talented actors. Rakhsha, the mother wolf was voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, and she brought the quiet dignity and strength and fierce motherhood to the wolf who had taken the man cub in as one of her own. Bagheera, voiced by Ben Kingsley exuded power and self restraint and love and companionship and even the occasional subdued humour. The wonderful Bill Murray voiced Baloo the bear, and no one could have brought out the character of the happy go lucky bear who lived life his own way and could die for his friends without a second thought better than him. The lovely Scarlett Johansson as Kaa had a bit role with no more than a few minutes’ of dialogue, but she was a fantastic selection with her sultry voice that was irresistible even as it oozed danger. Christopher Walken voicing King Louie the Gigantopithecus was comic even in his hostility and positively scary demeanour. And Idris Elba as Sher Khan was just phenomenal. That a man could bring so much hatred and power and pure evil into a cartoon with just his voice has to be seen to be believed. The director deserves applause for just his selection of actors to voice the characters if nothing else.

Twelve year old newcomer Neel Sethi as Mowgli is an appropriate casting selection. He brings in energy and charm even as his demeanour truly speaks of a boy brought up among the animals. What is commendable is how natural his acting is, especially since all the talking he does is essentially to himself on set. He had to imagine all the characters that he was addressing, and he does that beautifully. But unfortunately for him it is his imaginary co-stars who really steal the spotlight, making him look a little like a supporting artist.   

There is one little thing that I cannot help but mention, not as criticism but just as a bit of harmless humour for my fellow Indian moviegoers – the Westerners do make a terrible mess of pronouncing our words. They have managed not to distort most of the Indian words too badly, but watch out for their pronunciation of ‘Baloo’ and ‘Bandar-log’. It will definitely make you giggle a little

The Jungle Book is a tale of joy and laughter, of tears and pain, of love, of companionship, of adventure, of acceptance. It is wonderful how a good author or a skilled director can pack in so many flavours of adult life in a tale that is ostensibly for children. Do watch the movie, in the movie theatre if you can. The big screen and the 3D effect will really make a difference. And do you children a favour and take them along. You will be gifting them a lovely memory of childhood that they will look back upon for years to come. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Young Historians' Symposium 2016

Everybody living in India who has not been living under a rock for the past few weeks knows that a great debate has been raging about anti-nationalism and sedition, which had its birthplace in JNU university with the arrest of their Student’s Union president Kanhaiya Kumar. Unsurprisingly, students at Jadavpur University have stood up in solidarity with those demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar, and as a result the campus has been rife with discord and disharmony. In fact, students have become so preoccupied with the issue at hand that another landmark event has been nearly overshadowed. The department of history organized the first student’s seminar held over two days. This is remarkable not only because it was the brainchild of undergraduate students and organized by themselves, but also because I overheard out head of the Department comment that such a large-scale seminar is not even organized by the department of history in JNU, the most elite university of the country.

It gives me immense pleasure to claim that the Young Historians’ Symposium – as the seminar has been named by common consensus – was a success, and the response was remarkable given that it was the first time such a seminar was being organized by the department. Held over the 16th and 17th of February, we had paper presentations by students from various departments and institutions, and a debate to end with on the last day. Though it was nowhere near a full house, the audience that was present was still significant, especially since attendance was not compulsory. The kind of hard work and preparation put in by the participants was commendable. But I will come to this in a bit. For me, the success of the seminar brings pleasure on a deeper level. It is a sign of the enthusiasm and dedication of the students of the department, and the loyalty and love we have for our department despite the endless barrage of complaints and frustrations each one of us vents about it every day. The Economics department has been organizing their own students’ seminar for a number of years now, and the International Relations department also has numerous seminars each year. So it is good and right that the department of history should catch up in this regard, not least because it is a matter of departmental prestige and pride.

I remember the first day we heard about the seminar. It must have been some time in October, or was it November? My friends and I were lazing about, as we do, after classes ended, when I suddenly got a call from a senior asking us to join a delegation from the department that was headed to the vice-chancellor’s office for a meeting. We had no idea what this was about, but the prospect sounded exciting, and ever since Hok kolorob visiting the VC en masse has became a statement of protest, an expression of independence in the minds of many, so we joined the group without much ado. On the way we managed to squeeze some information out of those in the know: a departmental seminar was to be organized in February in Gandhi Bhavan, one of the auditorium halls in the university, and we were going to request (read coerce!) the VC into allowing us a waiver on the hall charges for the seminar. That sounded exciting, and I think mentally many of us prepared for a shouting match of sorts. That turned out to be completely unnecessary though, because the VC was happy to oblige. Mr. Suranjan Das, our present vice-chancellor, is himself a historian by qualification, and as soon as he heard our request he called up the exchequer and got us the required waiver. “Amar i department, eta kore dao” or something along those lines over the phone, and it was done. Thus the foundation was laid.

For much of the last months of 2015 and throughout early 2016, the seminar was on the top of a lot of peoples’ minds. The idea had first been proposed by some students of the third year, and naturally they were the most closely involved. Since my friends and I have quite a rapport with some of them, we used to hear first hand news about the progress made and the obstacles faced by them. As is the case in every group, some people work themselves weary, others sit and enjoy the fruit. Those in the former category happen to be my friends, so I often heard them fuming about the attitude of classmates and others involved, the tendency to upstage each other and the unfairness shown by those in power. Hearing them talk about their troubles, I often wondered why they bothered to take so much responsibility in the first place, especially since it was such a thankless task most of the time. But I suppose some people cannot help it; they just have to keep at it, no matter what.

Formal meetings about the seminar started taking place sometime in late October. Very few people from the first year were present. Nobody seemed interested in getting involved. The standard excuse was “We are just going to watch this year.” Be that as it may, a couple people, myself included, volunteered. In the first meeting the volunteers were appointed to specific committees. I was made part of the fund-raising committee. Somebody joked that I was now to be the official beggar of the class, chasing everyone for money for the seminar! There were about a dozen committees to begin with, ranging from abstract collection and report-writing to sponsorship and collaboration and food committees. More were added in later meetings – our HOD decided that a separate committee was required for serving tea during breaks! – and afterwards I was also made a member of the ‘flying squad’ to be in charge of the law and order situation during the seminar. Not that I had to do anything on the seminar days! But it was fun having my name on paper!

The bit that I remember most clearly about that first meeting was the debate over what the seminar was going to be called. This was after the professors had left. The students gathered around in a tight circle and suggestions started flowing. There was more fooling around than anything else, but the common consensus was that the name should not be a repetition of the seminar names used by any other department, and also state clearly that this was an initiative of the history department. ‘Young Historians’ was almost agreed upon, but ‘Meet’ was clichéd, and so were some of the other terms suggested. Eventually the gathering broke up and the discussion was carried on to the Facebook page started for the seminar. Travelling to Durgapur the next morning, the word ‘Symposium’ occurred to me. I suggested it on Facebook, and everybody liked it. So now I can claim with some pride that the seminar organized by the department has been named by me (though I try not to strut too much about it: this was a joint effort and my contribution was minuscule).

I will not be going into the details of every single meeting; though all of them are a perfect mixture of exciting and hilarious in my mind, it will be a tedious narrative for the readers. Suffice it to say that we met a number of times over the next couple of months, and though I did not have much to offer during the meetings myself, I found it interesting to keep updated on the progress made in terms of paper submission and collaboration with other universities and arrangement of sponsorship and things like that. The one down side of the seminar though was that the seniors became really busy with all the preparations and could spare almost no time at all to hang out with us. I enjoy spending time with them, and so I missed that.

And then, and then! Finally it was February the 16th. Actually, my friends and I had been all hyper for days before D-Day, planning out our attires to the minutest details (girls will be girls!). I must admit somewhat shamefacedly that on 16th I spent more time in front of the mirror dolling up than I usually do in a month. I was there at the venue by ten in the morning. A handful of the seniors had stayed back on campus the previous night to get things ready. It had been a busy night for them with little sleep, but my, did they look handsome that morning! Or maybe it was just me; all that departmental pride and loyalty was getting projected on the organizers. Anyway, we were soon inside the hall, and made ourselves comfortable in a nice shadowy corner. I had been given the responsibility to hand out food coupons to my classmates, but apart from that I had little to do, so I could very well concentrate on the seminar.

On the first day there were three technical sessions, on local and regional history, state and warfare in history and society and culture from pre-modernity to modernity. There were five speakers in each session chaired by various professors of our department and other universities too. From the first session, my favourite paper was one on the cultural and religious elements in the making of Vishnupur in 17th century Bengal by two students of our department. The speakers were eloquent and delivered well-researched papers, and even had pictures to display at the end of the session. The speaker who eventually went on to win the Best Paper Presentation award was also from this session, a student from the Department of Sociology from Presidency University, who spoke the connections of the goddess Kali and the naming of the city ‘Kolkata’. Another very interesting paper was also delivered by a student from the same department, titled ‘The evolution of wrong: on the question of moral turpitude among the peoples of Bengal’. Though this paper was, unsurprisingly, more on the lines of a sociological discourse on gender roles in terms of the creation of various taboos in the Bengali society, it was a well thought-out presentation and very interesting.

The next session, following a tea break where we were provided with food packets from the cake shop Mio Amore (a sponsorship that involved a lot of running from pillar to post, or so I hear), was the one on military history, and I must confess that I was not paying a lot attention during this. But the one paper that I listened to and found interesting was on non-state armed groups and their potential as state builders. The final session of the day was after yet another break, and this one was important for us, because we had a classmate presenting a paper in this session. Anwit Shahi from first year presented a paper titled ‘Protestant ideologies and statecraft – Ashoka’s Buddhism and Henry VIII’s Anglicanism’. He was wonderful, and this also happened to be the paper most understandable to the students of UG1 since the subject was close to what we have already studied. Apart from Anwit, there was also Anupam Da from the second year who presented a paper on cricket in colonial India, which was a hit among sports enthusiasts.

That was where the first day ended. We went home tired but happy, though some of us got caught up in the protest that had been organized in solidarity with JNU that evening. Anyway, on to the next day. There were two technical sessions on the 17th, the first on environment, economy and society, and the next on women’s studies. I got caught up with some work at home that day, and so I arrived late and missed out on the sessions. I did not however miss the lunch box provided that day. This again calls for praise to the seniors, some of whom themselves handled the entire arrangements right from shopping for rations to distributing the boxes for nearly three hundred people. Post lunch, there was the debate – Dialectic – and the motion proposed by the house was ‘Donald Trump is a product of American racism, just as Hitler was a product of German anti-semitism’. Two of my classmates – Manami Mondal and Annewesa Ghosh spoke against the motion, and both were very good. It was an interesting debate, and the coordinators did their job wonderfully. Eventually the majority of the audience as well as the judges seemed to be of the opinion that the arguments of the defender teams were stronger than the opposition. It was a fitting wrapping up of the seminar.

All those months of preparation and anticipation, and it was over in forty eight hours! But they were a wonderful forty eight hours, and already I cannot wait for the seminar to happen again next year. The students of the department hope to make this an annual event, as with the Economics department seminar. Next time round, I hope to be able to take a more active part in the business of organizing the seminar. This time, my participation had been token at best. The one regret that I have is not being able to present a paper this time. This was because of some miscommunication towards the beginning, as I was under the impression that members of any committee were not allowed to present papers. When I found out I could in fact present one, there were hardly seven days left until the deadline. So next time I am most definitely presenting a paper; and now that I have a year to decide and work on a topic, there will be no dearth of time.

The contribution of the third year students was phenomenal, as it was they who did practically everything, right from coming up with the idea of the seminar. Dipro da and Vishal da deserve a special mention – they looked after almost every aspect of the seminar. Of course were many others too, whom I would have mentioned by name if I knew them! As it is, the JU Young Historians’ Symposium is now a reality, and will, God willing, continue to take place every year and benefit students of every batch to come. To think that we were there at the start!...just suppose I come to attend one fifty years later?

Anwit being challenged with questions

Dialectic - Annewesa speaking

YHS 2016 professors and volunteers