Friday, November 8, 2019

Of winter, love, and other scents of beauty


A few weeks ago, I was stretching out in my living room after a long day of work when I got a sudden whiff of something familiar yet far away. The faint, crisp scent reminded me of the sweetness of fallen leaves pressed beneath a hundred footsteps, with just a hint of smoky wood-fire. It took me a few seconds, but I soon knew what it was: the first hint of winter was in the air. I smelt it before my skin felt the first goosebumps of chilly weather. The scent had me awash in a wave of pure joy and contentment. Winter was on its way.

More and more, I am convinced that I was a member of the canine species in my previous lifetime. My olfactory sense is arguably my keenest, and occupies the lion’s share of all my sensory experiences, shaping and dictating my choices and actions fairly often. Places, for example, have very distinct scents of their own, and my instinctive reaction to the scent of a city or town determines my overall impression of the place. The smell of mountains, regardless of the specific area, always fills me with a sense of peace. Mountains smell of pinewood forests and clean, sweet air. They smell of water trickling  down the slatey mountain walls. Quite often, they are replete with the  damp, hazy fragrance of fog , and walking through a particularly thick cover, one can almost taste the mustiness that accompanies the scent. It can be a revolting odour to some, but I associate the smell of fog with peace and leisure. The smell of mountains is so deeply entrenched in my memory that the mere thought of it brings the fragrance alive to my nose, bringing with it a heart-wrenching desire to drop everything and start travelling, stopping only when I am in the heart of Devbhoomi. 

Memories have un uncanny way of hovering right underneath the surface, ready to come alive at a moment’s notice. Years can pass by without an incident or an individual ever coming to one’s mind and yet all it really takes is the mere hint of the smell of the past for all the walls to come crashing down in glib reminder of the throbbing urgency of the past that never quite resolved itself. Then again, sometimes the memories are bittersweet, making one heave a melancholy sigh and breathe in deeply in an attempt to travel back to days – and people – from a long time ago.

In my mind, much of my past is arranged in boxes with their own assigned fragrances. One of the fondest memories from my childhood is of rainy afternoons in the family room, with the scent of petrichor wafting in through the window after the first showers of the season. I would sit with my parents around our massive bed, all of us engrossed into our own respective books, stopping every now and then to breathe in the earth’s luscious odour. Even today, few things give me more contentment than reading quietly in bed with a loved one. Petrichor comes alive for me out of season, and is all the better for it.

I have a mercurial temperament which often causes me intense emotional turmoil and suffering. Sometimes, one of the only things that can help me feel centred after a particularly rough day is soothing scents, usually of the very Bengali dhuno, or the somewhat more easily available lemongrass. These scents remind me of home, of love, and of belonging. Then there is the scent of pages from books, both old and new, each holding its own special type of allure. If amour had a scent, it would be the scent of ink on paper. Or perhaps it would be the scent of dew-drenched grass. A tough choice to make.

But really, as with most other times in life, it is the scent of people you love that really keep you going when the going gets tough. The fragrance of security when ensconced in a parent’s arms, the scent of pure adoration as the family dog nuzzles you, the scent of adventure that friends bring with themselves as they drop by… and, of course, the cozy smell of peace and belonging as you breathe deeply into your lover’s soft skin as sleep takes you over, and then again the first thing as your day begins… Life is beautiful if only one learns to appreciate the really important things, and smells.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Adulting

I wrote this essay while travelling home from Delhi for the weekend last night. It is a reflective piece, and captures some of the recent capriciousness of my mind. But writing it helped make me feel more centered. Maybe writing is indeed my meditation. 

What does it feel like to be a grown up? And at what point does one know that one has reached quite the right age to be deemed a fully capable, functioning adult? Is it a complete break from one’s childhood and adolescence? Does it arrive all at once, like a cloudburst? Or is it an innocuous process that keeps coming at you unobtrusively, growing inch by subtle inch, until you wake up one morning and you know that childhood is over? These are some of the thoughts that have been gnawing at my mind for many, many months now. And yet, I have no answers.

According to social and legal norms, I am an adult now. I have been so for a few years. I am nearing twenty three, and it is dawning on me increasingly what a strange and curious time of life the early twenties are. To borrow from witty Instagram posts, I have contemporaries who are married and in the family way, and then there are others who have to plead with their parents for permission to meet with friends. There is every other kind in between, from globetrotting solo backpackers to couples living in together, from ardent corporate kids to dedicated artists and social workers, there are the slackers and the workaholics, the party animals and the couch potatoes. And then there is me.

I finished the Young India Fellowship in June, and went back home to West Bengal for a month to relax. It was the first proper vacation I had ever had: the previous ones had always been term breaks and annual school vacations, with some examination or course preparation always lurking in the back of my mind. But this time, I had really reached an extended period of separation from my academic pursuits. This time, I was taking an ‘off’ period before embarking into a working life. I had made up my mind even before joining the Fellowship that I would work for at least a couple of years after the Fellowship ended before continuing with full time academic engagements. Accordingly, I started applying actively to job opportunities on and off campus since early into the Fellowship.  It was a strenuous and emotionally exhausting process, as anyone who has ever hunted for jobs would know only too well, but I had the privilege of choice between several engaging offers by the end of the year. Since I had also planned ahead for the vacation in July I informed every organisation of my availability from August. Meanwhile, I took the time in July to weigh between a couple of offers and finally decided upon an associate researcher’s position at Katha India’s Child Poverty Action Research (CPAR) Lab in New Delhi. I have been in love with this city for years now, and since Calcutta with its abysmal job opportunities beyond some tech companies could not be a meaningful option, Delhi was the obvious choice. Zeroing in on a job brought much needed clarity and contentment, and my mind was free at last to breathe easy and enjoy the leisure days. And enjoy I did, in my own unique way, consisting mostly of sleeping and eating and indulging in long awaited adda with my parents. And of course, there was lots of dreaming and fantasizing about the future.

The month passed all too soon, and on 31st July, I was back in Delhi. It is always with a wistful twinge of the heart that one leaves home behind, but I had the not-too-common privilege of being genuinely glad to be coming back to this city. It makes life so much easier if one can start a new life with more glad anticipation than mere misgivings. That first week back in town was a whirlwind time for me. I had already booked a room in a shared apartment in Chittaranjan Park – the mini Calcutta of Delhi – before leaving in June, and I meant to finish the work of moving in to my new home as far as possible in the few free days I had before work began on the 5th. I did so, with unending help from my gem of friends Alisha and Asmita, and of course Shilpi Di. The boxes and trolleys seemed unending, and by the time I was done getting everything into place, it was already Monday, and time to start my professional life at Katha.

There were two other people joining the CPAR team along with me – Kartikeya Jain and Pratyush Dwivedi. They were classmates and friends from their time in Ambedkar University for their Masters, and through a lucky coincidence, had both been selected to join CPAR in research positions. I went to office on the first day with a good amount of apprehension, my socially uptight, reclusive tendencies threatening to rear their ugly heads at any hint of discomfort. But these fears were laid to rest pretty quickly, and a few hours into the day we had already slid into a comfortable sense of camaraderie, relying on each other for help in keeping up with the information and instructions being bombarded at us. Shilpi Di was my boss now, of course, and Aparna the second-in-command of the team, and as the weeks went on, we continued to shave off rough edges, so that now, one month down the line, we make a group of perfect weirdos steering possibly the most eclectically productive team in the organisation, with Chikoo the old mutt our constant mascot!

 But this post is not really about starting a new job or getting a new place, though both of these form very important elements of how my life and thoughts have been shaping up lately. For both of these are integral to my quest of finding my own place in this world as an independent grown up. And so we are back to the question with which I started out. When does one know, really?

Much seem to have changed over the last two months, and yet, surprisingly little feels different. I am a salaried employee of a reputed organisation, with responsibilities and expectations toward my workplace. I have to pay the rent, the electricity and the maid, and I shop for groceries and cook my meals more extensively than I have ever done before. I am referred to as ‘ma’am’ much more frequently than I was used to. I have recently become the local guardian to a friend’s brother. I am seriously considering getting a dog in the not too distant future. I have savings and insurance plans in place, thanks to Baba, and I have short and long-term career decisions hanging in the offing.

However, I still have a tough time getting out of bed each morning, spending more time than I would like to admit bargaining with myself for an extra five minutes of snooze time. I have quickly established myself as the slightly clownish baby of the team at work, and play the happy combination of roles as butt-of-all-jokes and receiver of most pampering. I struggle while making healthy eating choices, giving in far too often to the temptation of cakes and ice creams. I get happy buzzed on wine and beer and romp around in my room late at night in my tattered, pale pink pajamas, singing mushy romantic songs. And I am still deathly scared of cockroaches, and call up my parents several times every day to chat and complain and wail about life.

I am the same person that I was two months ago. I enjoy the same hobbies and curl up in bed in the same peculiar poses. I have clearly not got over my college sense of humour, often leading to vague awkwardness at work. But somewhere, there is a faint hint of someone a little more somber, a little more restrained. I have taken to bringing work home at times, so as not to feel guilty about not earning my keep. My interests and expectations concerning love and romance have shifted significantly toward something a little more level headed, a little less tempestuous than what I have been used to these past several years. I am looking for a stable, peaceful individual rather than a fellow wild child. I am ready to put in time and effort into something meaningful and potentially long term, and am willing to walk away from half hearted attempts at ‘time pass’. And lately, I have been thinking deep and long about the meaning of life, the reason for my existence in this transitory world.


Do these changes make me more ‘grown up’? I really do not know. And, quite frankly, I do not care overmuch about it. I do not fear growing older; in fact, it has been a standing joke with my friends at Ashoka that I am the ‘mommy’ of the pack, always watching over them like a mother hen. I have never been the usual kind of youngster anyway, with very little interest in parties and shopping and living the ‘high life’. I do not really feel like a different person; maybe just a tad bit less higgledy-piggledy! I am writing this essay while on a flight back home to Calcutta after a long and tiring couple of weeks at work, not for a leisurely weekend but because of some medical troubles in the extended family. I am going home to stand by my mother in a time of need, and that, I suppose, is grown up enough. I can forgive myself for occasional slips into childish behaviour. So long as I can continue to tread this balance, I will be doing well enough, I think!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Reflections on money and the moneyed

When I was a little girl, my parents never gave me an allowance, or ‘pocket-money’ as it is called here. Instead, they asked me to lend a hand with household chores and gave me ‘payments’ for whatever work I did. Now I know a certain line of thinking about parenting would condemn this as a bad idea since children should learn to do household work as a matter of course and not as something for which they are rewarded; I do not want to go into that debate here, because while an interesting thought, it is a completely different issue from the one I now have in mind. My parents’ method successfully taught me the joys and responsibilities of owning money that is hard earned. In other ways too I was exposed to the family finances from a young age, and as such came to handle significant sums of money with confidence and care far earlier than most of my contemporaries; indeed some still probably don’t, particularly among the girls, and we are now in our twenties.

I never put a lot of thought into my relationship with money, though. I come from a well-off middle-class family, which puts me into the top 1% of India’s population. By God’s grace and Baba’s hard work I have never had to know financial hardship, and my only exposure to poverty has been through literature and cinema, and the fact that I live in a country with an abysmal and ever-growing gap between the haves and the have nots. In my family, the norm has always been to put money firmly in the role of an instrument providing safety, comfort and convenience, along with the ability to indulge in charity and the occasional luxury, the former being viewed as an integral duty by virtue of being human, the latter highlighting rare and special occasions such as vacations, the savouring of fine liquor or festive shopping sprees. Our family has always believed strongly in the value of living simply if not frugally with little attention to conspicuous consumption. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in a small town without ever using a ‘branded’ lifestyle product. Cell phones came late in our lives, smartphones later still. Eating out was done maybe once in six months, maybe less. The family car spent far more time in the garage than it did ferrying any of us about. And our lives were none the worse for any of this. I never felt any sense of loss or inadequacy from the absence of any material objects and experiences that most families in our social class see as integral parts of their lives, particularly in the big cities.

When I moved to Calcutta for my higher secondary education, I joined a somewhat ‘elite’ institution where a large number of the students belonged to one of the richest business communities in India. Soon, I got used to seeing luxury cars outside the school gate, and a certain snobbish stance in classrooms that translated into the financial and psychological equivalent of ‘tu janta nehi mera baap kaun hai’ (don’t you know who my father is?!), though the latter was never directed at me personally given that I was academically far ahead of most of them and somewhat intimidating in my physical appearance and demeanour! This crowd was conspicuously absent during my years at Jadavpur University, where the student body’s so-called Marxist stance in life made way for the reverse snobbery of turning up to class looking like homeless madmen who had just woken up from a roadside ditch the done thing. Since I moved to Delhi though, the high school variety of people have skyrocketed in my vicinity, particularly in my university, which attracts that very crowd through its social as well as financial model. I now reside and study in an atmosphere where branded merchandise rule the day, as do parties and ‘fun’ that involve all sorts of lavish lifestyle choices. And recently, from my time working at the India Art Fair in Delhi, I have first-hand stories about the uber-rich who throw money at artwork the way kids do in candy stores, and I am talking about seven-figure sums here.

I have had the time to muse long and hard about the issue of money and how it affects human lives. And at this point, I feel sufficiently confident of having seen the entire spectrum of financial capacities of people. And I must admit, I have come to despise money and the moneyed more than ever before. I also pity them greatly, and I will presently explain why.

My first and possibly greatest grievance against the moneyed class is how money and civility seem to be inversely proportional. This, I suspect, is particularly true about the rich in India. We as a nation do not place much value on politeness and courtesy to begin with, and the few of us who do practice these values to some extent often do so more from the fear of being called out for misbehaviour than from an innate sense of civility. As money brings a certain privilege and social protection with it, that fear melts away, exposing the natural rudeness and uncouth behaviour of the person. It is also a way for them to exercise their power over the lowly plebeians; after all, how many will raise a voice of protestation against someone who earns a hundred or even a thousand times as herself? This brings me to the inflated sense of self-importance that these people have about their lives and work. As part of my work for the Art Fair, my group had to collaborate with some fashion designers, upcoming names in the Indian fashion industry. One of them was an uncivilized lout who liked to strut about ordering people with a sense of importance that was frankly ludicrous for someone who is, in essence, a glorified master tailor. I am happy to say I had the chance to take the individual down a peg or two and made good use of it. Afterwards, as we trundled around the Art Fair thoroughly uncomfortable in the rather mediocre looking but cut-throat priced designer-wear, we were congratulated by several of the collectors (I have been using a rather less civilized term invoking the canine family to refer to them in private conversations, as it seemed to reflect their attitudes more aptly, but I will desist here for the sake of propriety) for our ‘luck’ at getting to wear them, and advised us to ‘enjoy’ it while we could. I could not decide whether to be more astonished by or full of pity at their idea of what brings joy in life.

That, I suppose, is my second biggest complaint against money, as well as the source of my contemptuous pity for those who have too much of it. The more one devotes oneself to the pursuit of money as the sole aim of one’s life, the more disconnected one seems to become from real love and joy and peace. Lives are given meaning through the possessions one owns, and the prices one pays for it. The art becomes insignificant unless the artist is expensive enough, the vacation becomes pointless unless it is where all the other millionaires also go and spend their money. The worst affected, of course, are not those who are the real earners of the millions, but those who are his family – usually the wife and children. The sense of entitlement they bring with them is mind-boggling, as is the stupidity that is often an unfortunate additive. But I suppose you do need the thick skin (and head) if you have to survive the plastic lives they do, with their kitty parties and leather bags and gossips about the latest ‘in’ things.

I feel saddest, though, for the middle class, the class that aspires more than anything to be like their uber-wealthy counterparts. And what they cannot emulate in earnings, they try to make up for with the spendings. We have more and more families that are aiming for designer trousseau and destination weddings but do not have adequate medical insurance or retirement funds. And, perhaps worst still, far too many people are giving into the lure of commodity fetishism and ‘living it up’ at the price not only of their futures but of their present mental and emotional growth.

Which brings me to the idea of charity. Increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that human beings are not inherently good and kind and keen to help others. They are often quite the opposite, in fact, and have to be coerced by social institutions into putting up a veneer of civility and self-restraint. Since no similar institutional coercive measure exists in the case of charity, it is a small surprise that few people, particularly among the rich, feel the need to do much about human beings subjected to poverty. A former friend from Jadavpur who belonged to one of the traditionally rich north Calcutta families and had no qualms while talking about his collection of pens worth lakhs routinely fought with poor rickshaw pullers over a few rupees and thought I was a gullible fool and a bit of a squanderer for giving money to the various aid seekers, usually the old and infirm, who regularly came to our campus for help. I am not denying that there are many rich individuals who give away huge amounts of their money for charity – I hear J. K. Rowling lost her billionaire status because she donated so much of her wealth. In India, however, it is too little done by too few. In my personal experience, it is often those who have to skip outings with friends because they have to buy groceries that make charity a regular habit. One of my history professors at Ashoka, while discussing communism in class, told us about how he heard people at his gym defending the Ambanis spending obscenely at the daughter’s wedding by arguing they had the right to do whatever they wanted with their ‘hard-earned money’ while criticizing the idea of loan waivers to farmers as it would make them lazy and encourage the bad habit of not paying back on future loans.  What does that say about the rich, and about those who aspire to be so?

I know many will consider this essay a classic piece of sour grapes, but I have myself considered this possibility and rejected it with a laugh long ago. As I started out by saying, I am acutely aware of my privilege of belonging to a comfortably-off family. Having said that, I have not been able to decipher how several more zeroes to the sum in the bank account would have made my life significantly more fruitful. Greater scope for charity would have been one, and it would have been nice, as Rowling had once said, never to have to worry about paying bills in one’s life, but apart from that? What could I have been able to buy that would give me greater long term life satisfaction? The consumer habits practised by the moneyed, I have noticed, is based almost entirely on the question of bragging rights. In my family though, the practice of discussing our incomes with outsiders or asking after another’s has always been seen as a sign of ultimate bad manners and unrefined culture, and the same goes for talking about the prices of our possessions. Growing up with such cultural inclinations, how on earth will buying a bag from Louis Vuitton or a watch from Gucci give me greater joy than my present ones from Dressberry and Titan respectively?


I will close with a reminder, to myself as much as to my readers, about what I said earlier about making money a mere instrument and not the master of one’s life. It is frighteningly easy to lose conviction if one is exposed to a frivolously wasteful environment for too long. Far too many of my friends in Delhi have Apple phones and laptops, and my open ridiculing of Apple users has, as a result, become more guarded. It is only a matter of time, I’m afraid, before a sneaking desire ‘invest’ in a designer accessory may take root in my heart. I hope I will remember to revisit my own writing then, to remind myself where that particular path leads to.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Goodreads Review: Twilight Falls on Liberalism

Twilight Falls on LiberalismTwilight Falls on Liberalism by Rudrangshu Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have the privilege of studying at the university where Professor Mukherjee is the Chancellor and Professor of History. I have attended some of his classes and been impressed by his command of the subject and style of delivery, and wanted to know how far his expertise was translated on to his writing. This was a major reason for my picking up this book, as also was my interest in the subject, and I must say that it was a worthy read.

Professor Mukherjee starts the book - closer to a long essay at 133 pages of a pocketbook - with introducing the current socio-political atmosphere around the world and the manner in which the ideology of liberalism is under attack from various fundamentalist and totalitarian forces. Then, true to his historian's method, he goes back to study the conception and growth of the idea of liberalism from its 18th century Enlightenment roots and its changing scope over the ages in keeping with contemporary world economy and polity. He touches upon the fundamental contradictions within the ideology and the paradox of its birth from the same roots that gave rise to totalitarian tendencies. He moves forward to discuss some of the critiques of liberalism and continues the chronological study of 20th-century eclipsing of the ideology through the rise of dictatorships across Europe. He traces the cyclical pattern of rising and diminishing popularity of the ideology through the century before closing with the 21st century socio-political attitude towards liberal ideals as displayed by the three major world events of the last several years - the election of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing governance in India with the coming of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.

The major drawback in the book is the lack of analysis or at least historically moulded informed guesses as to the reasons behind the rising tide of totalitarian tendencies across the world. While Professor Mukherjee has touched briefly upon the economic meltdown of 2008 and the growing threat of Islamist fundamentalism as possible reasons for the decline of liberal beliefs, these interconnections could have been explored at greater length, providing a more nuanced understanding of contemporary world politics for the reader. This would have been particularly helpful for the lay reader since Professor Mukherjee's ability to explain complex philosophical and political ideas in lucid language makes this book intellectually available to a wide range of readers. That apart, this is a most interesting book by way of introduction to the political ideology of liberalism and is sure to get the reader enthused about learning more on the subject. 

View all my reviews

Monday, January 7, 2019

Starting afresh

As I write this, I need to begin with an apology, to Baba more than to anyone else. Baba’s encouragement was the reason I started this blog all those years ago, and since then, almost every post has seen hours and sometimes days of Baba’s coaxing and cajoling before being finally written and posted. There has been a steady decline in the frequency of blog posts since I left Durgapur in 2013, simply because the persuasion has had to be virtual for the most part. And then I moved to Delhi - Haryana really; coming to that in a minute - in July last year to ‘live my own life’ and the posts dried up completely. It was as if I had forgotten about the existence of this blog. Baba kept on with his requests and prodding, but I always came up with some excuse or the other for not writing, the commonest being “I don’t have the time”. Now that is some serious poppycock of course; I had time to party and get drunk and even play with dogs. It was the more cerebral of my interests that took a backseat.

Funnily, though, I had anything but forgotten about my blog. In fact, I kept using it religiously to send in writing samples to various prospective internships and academic opportunities, and even employers. And it did come in very useful to me; thanks to the rather impressive number of essays that have accumulated on my blog over the years, I had a wide variety to offer, and it helped me get associated with some interesting and enriching projects, including the chance to review books professionally for The Hindu Business Line. Writing itself has also been a very regular part of my life all this time; I have done more writing assignments in the last six months than I had in the three preceding years taken together. The course I am currently pursuing, the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in Sonepat near Delhi, is a one-year multidisciplinary liberal studies postgraduate diploma course, and it includes a very wide range of subjects, all of which require extensive reading and writing. I write an average of two term papers every month, and other smaller essays every so often. Additionally, I am also doing a work project with a startup, as part of the Fellowship curriculum, that aims to build a database of graphic novels in India. Since I am part of the literary end of the initiative, it is my job to read and review graphic novels and write blog posts for the database (yay?). Long story short - I have been writing often enough, just not for my blog.

I have put some thought into why it has been so, and have come up with a couple of reasons. They are mostly to do with certain mental blocks that I have created for myself about this platform, and I am raring to dismantle those. In fact, I have plans to redesign this blog significantly, content-wise as well as visually. I have been experimenting with photography lately - who hasn’t, though, in this age of smartphone cameras! - and I want to see if I can use some of those to complement my writing. I have also been feeling more and more that I should go back and give fiction writing another try. After all, it was fiction that I began my writing career with, at the ripe old age of five. Finally, I have some projects in mind that I have been mulling over for quite some time now, certain internet-based startup plans which I could possibly link this blog to. Let’s see how that works out.

This much is a promise though, to Baba and to any other reader who still bothers to come to my blog. This blog will not remain the neglected suorani that it has been over the last year. The Bootle BumTrinket 2.0 is here to stay. On that note, have a wonderful new year, everyone, and welcome back!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Clouds


The monsoons have arrived in Kolkata. The skies are grey, and the rain comes down in drizzles, and sometimes in thick sheets. The one thing that you see every day now, almost like an omnipresent entity, often dictating the course of your day through their whims, is clouds. And Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds is an embodiment of the season and its harbinger, darkening the horizon. Like their geographical counterparts, the clouds in this book bring respite to some, distress to others, but spare none.

Clouds is a story of people and places, and the synergy that sometimes develops between the two. It is based in Mumbai – serendipitously I read a big chunk of the book during my own trip to the city this year, my first ever visit, and in a way it has coloured my view of the place. Clouds has two distinct narratives, of people belonging to two distinct worlds, yet both find their places in the metropolis. Farhad Billimoria is a psychotherapist spending his last week in his hometown before moving to San Francisco in search of greener pastures, in more senses than one. Having undergone a divorce not too long ago, he is ready to go back into the world of romance but feels that Indian society does not hold much promise to a man of his age – he has just turned forty two. But fate has a penchant for irony. After two years of a romantic desert, his last week becomes a whirlwind of feminine companionship. There is a heady mix of lust and the spark of connection that comes with the first flushes of amour. Zahra Irani, that feisty yoga practitioner who just happens to be based in San Francisco herself, is everything that makes man’s blood boil – she has grace and charm and a certain mystique about her, she is quirky and carefree, and she oozes sultriness, a siren call that is hard for any man to resist. With her Farhad’s ‘Billimoric’ self seems to discover a new energy in life, a new sense of direction and hope. And yet she is not the only one. A chance late night accident leads Farhad to the door of Hemlata, the five feet ten English professor whose domestic South Indian household and strong, restrained and more than a little domineering demeanour bely her research into the erotic lives of human beings. As the two keep meeting over the next few days, Hemlata’s self-assured, slightly mocking attitude challenges Farhad, calling to another deep-seated longing in him, something that no Zahra can ever fulfil. By the time his day of departure from the country arrives, Farhad has had experiences that have changed him permanently, forced him to grow, and has set him on a path that is quite unlike what he may have envisioned a week earlier.

On the other end of the spectrum there is the narrative of Eeja and Ooyi, their absentee son Bhagaban and their temporary caretaker Rabi. Stuck in Mumbai for Eeja’s treatment, far away from their home in Bhuwaneshwar, the old couple pine for their roots constantly, painting a picture of a Bhuwaneshwar of memory, to a point where it seems like that is where they still reside in their minds, even as their bodies must stay confined in a tiny apartment in the bustling megalopolis. Eeja and Ooyi represent a way of life familiar to a large section of the Indian population – the Hindu upper caste household where the patriarch is the unquestioned master, the mother a self-sacrificing, long suffering, religious woman whose entire being centres around her husband and son and her God, and their longing for the hearth and home, the roots built through generations of association. They have been left by Bhagaban in the care of Rabi, a spirited tribal boy of the Cloudpeople who has for some time been the former’s brother-in-arms in their fight against the Company, an elusive and almost demonic entity which threatens the very existence of Rabi’s homeland, his community and the way of life they have known for ages. Bhagaban is a successful film maker who has made the fight for tribal rights his life’s goal, much to his parent’s chagrin. To them, Rabi remains a mere servant and a lesser human being, and nothing that Rabi does seems to be able to change that. Until one fine day, when he tells them the story of the Cloudmaker, that childlike god of his people who has created man through his boyish games. Something seems to shift in the relationship these people share, opening up new worlds to them all.

Choudhury’s style of storytelling has an almost cinematic tone. Just like movies showcase disparate lives through separate screens while holding them together with the glue of some underlying idea, the two different worlds of Clouds never meet, yet it is easy for the reader to view them parallelly as though from above through a giant camera, unfolding at the same time in the same place, the common motif of clouds being their only connecting thread. It is almost as if the reader is looking down on them from a cloud herself, a keen but detached spectator. This is not a thriller, nor a mystery nor an adventure; not a lot ‘happens’ through the course of the text. And yet so much does happen in the minds of the people, even the most mundane, everyday occurrences come to take on enormous significance. The people change, they evolve, gradually but also overnight, discovering more about themselves, being completely new human beings one day from another. And life goes on all the time, throwing its own surprises and stumble blocks every now and then.

Farhad’s story is a close look into the dynamics between man and woman, and the different relationships they may share. It is not unidirectional; the varieties and possibilities remain infinite. And so we see Farhad happily contemplating a rosy future with Zahra in Los Angeles, thinking about possible professional collaborations, though mostly he is thinking about the breathless hours spent together in the bedroom and the almost surreal high they take him to – but before long there comes a darker hue to this idyllic dream, and all that seemed too good to be true now look prohibitive and suffocating to him. It is while in this dark state of mind that the city throws open to him a new face of itself, through a most unlikely source – Hemlata. The suave and snobbish South Bombay shrink is swept into a different world by the forbidding Borivali-bred English professor with the impossible-to-guess double life. “All the sex came from Zahra, all the text from Hemlata”, feels Farhad, and somewhere, some readers can hear a twang of recognition and relatability to this dichotomy in their own lives.

Through Farhad and Zahra, the uninitiated reader gets a sneak into the lives of Parsis, that once significant community from the Middle East whose vastly diminished numbers now battle on with a brave face in Mumbai. One gets a taste of their history in the country, as also some of their distinctive idiosyncrasies – Farhad’s most lasting love affair is with Zelda, his battered old Maruti 800, and Zahra’s uncle Sheriyar is the ubiquitous Parsi old man, rambunctious and flirtatious with infinite confidence in his often-hare-brained business ideas. Witnessing Farhad fall in love is also quite a comic treat for the reader – he steps into that same bubble of buoyant optimism and nothing-can-ever-go-wrong-again sense of confidence, and his mind builds the same castles in the air that do people decades younger than him. Love makes a happy, goofy fool out of human beings, and it is comforting to realise that people much older and more experienced than I can end up behaving in the exact same manner when assailed by the arrows of Cupid.

Mr. Choudhury’s female characters in the narrative are particularly interesting. They are from two separate generations, but three completely separate worlds. Ooyi is the all-too-familiar grandmother who cannot separate her existence from that of her husband’s and her son’s, yet has a level of self-possession and immovable faith in the God of her choice that seems to go beyond every other identity she may possess. Zahra and Hemlata, though contemporaries, have nearly nothing in common, at least on surface. Zahra represents the vivacious and ultra-feminine nymph whose very existence titillates men, a fact that she knows and enjoys. Hemlata is the firebrand feminist, with her cynical, slightly condescending attitude towards men and the tendency to aggressively assert herself as not merely an equal of but maybe even superior to the common man. But a little reading between the lines unveils a similar strength of character and quiet force of will in Zahra, something that Farhad soon recognises and comes to fear. Hemlata too has the same feminine softness and longings under her tough exterior, and her view of the world turns some of the most age-old and apparently conservative family values into potentially the greatest forms of rebellion in society. Both Zahra and Hemlata represent something of what the modern day Indian woman aspires towards, though Ooyi remains anything but an anachronism in a society that continues to be steeped in traditional values. As a woman from the fag end of the millennial generation, my only complaint, if you can call it that, about these early millennial women, is that they have ultimately put themselves in specific archetypes – I hope that my contemporaries and I would be able to steer clear of prejudiced stereotypes about flighty eye candies and sexless social warriors, and a find way to make the two types more mutually compatible than they have been seen to be so far.

The Billimoric shenanigans lend sensuality to the book, but Clouds finds its true depth and value as a novel through the narrative surrounding the old couple, their son and their tribal caretaker. Mr. Choudhury explores ideas about religion, politics and democracy interwoven with the personal trajectories of the lives these people lead. It was through this book that I was made aware about the Niyamgiri bauxite mining project, Vedanta’s involvement, and the protests by the Dongria Kondh tribe to save their land. The allegory is unmistakable, and brilliantly brought to life by the author. The high caste Hindu Bhagaban, a successful member of the urban elite appoints himself the messiah of the (fictitious) Cloudpeople and leads them on the way to democracy, encouraging them to fight the evil Company and its threat to their sacred Cloud Mountain through electoral politics. There is a certain sense of elitist saviourism in his attitude towards the tribal community, but here I remain conflicted about whether that is acceptable. Is it okay to treat tribal people as essentially juvenile and in need of guidance because they have continued to remain distant from the force of Western civilization? Or should they be accorded the right to complete self-determination in the full knowledge that they are at a distinct disadvantage in their indigenous ‘other’ness with the modern world? Their story also brings to light other questions about the traditional lives led by tribal communities around the country, the threats they face, and how far their ways of life are viable and sustainable in an ever-changing world hurtling far away from age old customs. In the midst of all these questions is Rabi, who has left his people and his home on the banks of Tinninadi and served his Bhagaban Bhai in Bhuwaneshwar, helping him prepare to contest the elections which Bhagaban means to win this time, and pass on the baton to Rabi himself the next time. Yet even as the days of elections draw closer, Bhagaban’s father falls sick and has to be transported to Mumbai for treatment and convalescence, and Rabi must look after the old people so that his Bhai can prepare for the elections in peace.

Cooped up in their convalescent home in Mumbai, with two cranky old people as company, Rabi spends a lot of time getting to know his own mind. Unexpectedly, he comes to form a bond with Eeja and Ooyi, as forced proximity sometimes does to people. The questions of caste and religion come up repeatedly, and Rabi’s mental anguish at being treated as a lesser being is apparent, and yet there is no sense of hostility. Gradually, grudgingly, Eeja comes to open up to him, and Ooyi comes to accept him, introducing him to the world of Hindu religion and custom. Stories are shared, traditions are compared, and before the reader’s eyes there is a coalescence between seemingly irreconcilable and oceanic gaps, and humanity emerges sublime. The novelist’s greatest victory is forcing the reader to think, to ponder on the greater questions of life, even while giving her a different reality to experience life through. Chandrahas Choudhury’s Clouds offers both in good measure. It is a coming of age story; by the end of the novel all the major characters are different people, having gone through turbulence and often ending up very differently than any future they had imagined.

When you think about it, you realise that life is like clouds: it floats about, sometimes as free and light as a bird and sometimes heavy with the weight of rain, it is sometimes scattered by an aimless, directionless wind, while at other times it hustles purposefully towards its destination, ready to wash away the misery of summer heat with its watery blessing. Sometimes it has a soft breeze for company, but sometimes it comes with its share of lightning and thunderbolt. The same uncertainties that make the misty members of the sky beautiful impart variety to life. In that sense, the story about the birth of Cloudmaker can be taken as the summary of everything that life entails. That one story alone makes Clouds a book worth reading and remembering, and maybe even rereading years later.

I read the book months ago, but the aftertaste has remained as fresh as ever. I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction lately, nothing that has made me think so much at any rate. This is Mr. Choudhury’s second book, released early this year almost a decade after his first. But I read both in quick succession, and I have developed a fondness for the lilting flow of his language. Like Arzee, this book too has a certain nebulous taste to the narrative, but it is much more contained. He likes to leave his endings open, but with Clouds anything different would have been out of place. As life unfolds, surprising us at its turns, so does Clouds, leaving the reader space to draw her own conclusions.

Hopefully, I won’t have to wait to cross over to the wrong side of thirty for the next ride through Mumbai on Mr. Choudhury’s wagon!

Ps: I was wrong, the monsoon has not arrived in Kolkata; we just had a few promising days when I started writing this piece. But read the book anyway, it will well make up for the ruthless and parched weather outside and quench the thirst within!

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Mid year vacation in Kasauli


I knew I had a vacation coming up at the end of May, but I barely had time to dwell on that happy thought until almost the last minute. The university took its own sweet time to announce the dates for the final examinations, and once it did, the dates clashed with our travel plans. So while Baba flew off to Delhi on the morning of the 28th, I still had two examinations to go, and too harried to anticipate the holiday. On 30th, the last examination was done and dusted, and after a quick farewell photo session with my friends, I rushed to the airport for an evening flight. This was already my fifth flight of the year and third flight alone, and so I took a chance at the self check-in kiosk. That worked out without a glitch, leaving me to feel quite accomplished and grown up. A laid back round of retail therapy at the airport, and soon I was aboard the Jet Airways flight on to Delhi. It was a lovely flight despite the rather strong bout of turbulence in the middle, and the view outside was mesmerizing. The sky changed colour before my eyes, and looked unreal, like a Van Gogh painting. But more about that another time. I landed at 8.25 and was out of the airport in another twenty five minutes. Baba and Shilpi Di were waiting for me at the entrance.  I must say, Baba coming to receive me at the airport and at a place away from home was a novel emotional experience for me, and I still haven’t quite recovered from the thrill and slight sense of disbelief of it. Baba said that I had the quiet and slightly bored demeanour of a seasoned flier about me, so I have definitely come quite a long way from the clumsy nervous fool I had been the first time round. Shilpi Di’s place is a not-too-long drive away from the airport, and soon enough we were home and relaxing with the beer that I had been demanding for quite some time. The rest of the evening was spent in easy jesting and some last minute packing for the next day, and then we turned in to catch the few hours of shut-eye before our trip.

We were up and ready to leave well in time the next morning. We were headed to Kasauli, a small cantonment town in Himachal Pradesh, not very far from Shimla. The ride was a long one – Google Maps had predicted six hours, but we ended up needing almost seven and a half what with the multiple tolls and tax counters on the way. We crossed Haryana and Punjab, and got a glimpse of the university I am about to attend next – again, this I’ll talk about later. The road was lovely and well maintained, something that we have been noticing around the country nowadays, so that is one thing that India seems to be definitely making progress in. The heat was unbelievable, and the air conditioning had to be kept on throughout the drive except for the last stretch up the hills. The upward climb was a short one, barely an hour, and we arrived at our hotel in time for lunch. The place is not in Kasauli proper; it is a small area called Sukhi Johri about eight kilometres away, and the resort is a quaint little place called Whispering Winds Villa. You don’t often see nomenclature that is so apt: the resort is a little way off the highway, across a winding dirt road that leads to the other side of the hill giving way to a lush pine forest, and on arrival we were greeted with the magical sound of the wind blowing through the trees producing a uniform rustling sound. The trees really seemed to talk to each other by the wind! It was a steep climb up to our rooms in the villa, which Baba traversed as nonchalantly as the local folk, but which left me huffing like an engine by the time we had reached. But the location and the view from the room made the effort well worth it. With clear glass facades on three sides opening out on a wide terrace and the view from the bed stretching across the pine groves towards the rear end of the hotel, it was everything that the mountain lover could ask for. Everything but the pleasant weather that one usually expects at the higher altitudes – we still had to keep the air-conditioning on in our room. Refreshing baths and a quick and simple lunch later, all of us dozed off for a well deserved siesta after the tiring ride. Much later in the evening, while it was still light outside, we went out for a walk, after first grabbing a beer to quench the ever present summer thirst. This was at a local restaurant called Giani da Dhaba that was being manned by an adorable Sikh grandma. I have always found it delightful how unflustered and matter- of-fact the hill folk are about drinking. Throughout our vacations cross the mountains, we have come across roadside liquor shops and bars run by women of all ages, and sometimes even little kids who will hand you your choice of liquor without batting an eyelid. Compare that to the stony faced men behind iron grills at the shops in West Bengal, and the difference in the social attitude towards drinking in these regions will become apparent to you. We ventured into the pine groves before it got too dark to see the narrow road track, and from there we looked out on the twinkling lights from some village on the far side of the hill. A little way below lay the tracks of the famous Shivalik rail that runs from Kalka to Shimla and crosses over a hundred tunnels along the way. We had travelled by the train way back in 2004 during our trip to Shimla. Now we could see that the railway was much more heavily trafficked than before, with trains crossing us by every hour. In fact, we had even been stopped for ten minutes at a level crossing to allow a train to pass the previous day while coming from Delhi. As we looked around, we heard the horns blowing from a long way off, and it was quite some time later that a small train of about six carriages lumbered by, whistling to announce its arrival. These were all ordinary carriages though, nothing like the luxurious Shivalik Express we had travelled by all those years ago. The rest of the evening was spent lazing around on the terrace. Since we were the only guests on that floor we got the entire place to ourselves, which added to our sense of comfort manifold. Dinner was a sumptuous affair of rice and chicken curry washed down with curd, out on the terrace itself. We watched the headlights from vehicles travelling along the mountain curves far away, looking like blobs of moving torchlight. Everything grew quiet and still, and it was silent all around except for the gentle droning of the cicadas and the occasional horns from the trains. Then it was time for bed. Baba read out one of my favourite stories from the Parashuram collection about the intrepid goat with the exceptionally long ears, and I fell asleep still quivering with laughter.

The next day was kept for exploring Kasauli town. A breakfast of oily aloo parathas later, we took off on a small road leading out of the highway with Google Maps as our guide. It was a lovely drive, though quite short. As we climbed higher – almost two thousand feet in the span of eight kilometres – the air got increasingly more pleasant, and finally we could make the most of the hills. Once there, our first stop was the air-force base that houses an old Hanuman temple at the top of the hill. There was a thorough security check and we were asked to leave almost all belongings behind ostensibly because the monkeys had a bad habit of snatching everything, and the warning ‘trespassers will be shot on sight’ did not exactly inspire confidence anyway. The place is named ‘Monkey Point’, with creative alternations like ‘Manki Point’ making appearances on signboards. Definitely a colonial era name; no Indian will risk the wrath of the great mythological sage by referring to his apish anatomy. We walked around a bit in the area, but gave the actual temple a miss. A combination of lack of piety and back and leg aches made the prospect of climbing hundreds of stairs up the hill quite unpalatable. But we did have a lovely cup of iced coffee at an air-force run canteen there, before retracing our steps to the car park. This was a little way off the main town, and as we drove back, I looked out over the numerous bungalows and villas dotting the hillside. Those who can afford to live up in the mountains are lucky people indeed. And many must share my opinion; on the plaque outside one pretty villa, along with the name of the owner was the exasperated turn-off  “this property is not for sale”!

Kasauli is a small place, even by hill standards. The main tourist hub with the mall road and the church is in an area barely a square kilometre in size. We made a quick visit at the Anglican Church, where the reverend turned out to be a Bengali gentleman, and afterwards went for a walk up the less frequented upper mall road. It was a steep climb, but shady and peaceful. There were bushes of wild flowers and shrubs along the pathway, and occasional benches for weary travellers. The military has put up many signboards venerating martyrs from the local divisions in various wars, as well as quotations that are hilarious in their self-aggrandizement; one went so far as to claim “Those who say the pen is mightier than the sword obviously haven’t seen automatic weapons”. We explored two small detours pathways, one that led to a hundred and fifty year old estate established by some Scottish sahib, all the while imagining what it must have been like all those years ago, with the lone Britisher clambering down the dust road on his horse. The other was a tiny track we found leading down to a quaint and somewhat rundown house that had the names of Khushwant Singh and Sir Teja Singh on a plaque at the roadside. It was not difficult to visualize that grand old man sitting down with his glass of whiskey in the garden overlooking the gorge, composing his masterpieces. Afterwards we were ready to return to our hotel, but only after I had managed to bag a lovely little birdhouse from the Heritage Market at the lower mall area. The return drive was quicker, as it often is on the mountains. Before retiring to our room, we spent a little time sitting at the edge of the pine forest behind our resort, listening to the whooshing wind and trying to slide down the soft tuft.

I spent the afternoon reading while the others slept. Around four thirty it was suddenly too dark to read, and there was an increasingly loud roll of thunder outside. Pretty soon it started raining in earnest. Baba was now up, and we went out on the terrace to watch. Thunderstorms in the mountains have a flavour of their own. Everything becomes grey and hazy and there is a distinct sense of otherworldliness about everything. The temperature declines rapidly, and before long we were wrapping ourselves with the hitherto untouched blankets. It rained for a long time, and afterwards there was a stillness in the air and a clarity of vision unlike anything you see down in the plains. We went out for our customary walk once the rain had stopped, and had piping hot puri bhaji at Giani da Dhaba. But a sudden power cut forced us to return quickly using the torches on our phones. Once again we moved to the terrace and stayed there for a while, and later called it a night earlier than usual, looking forward to a good long nine hours of sleep.

And then it was time to go home. It was the second of June, and we were ready for the long drive back by ten thirty in the morning. This time the journey was smoother, with much fewer stops on the way. We were in Delhi by five, Baba’s estimate being as impeccable as ever, and in bed by six thirty, after squeezing in a meal of sausages and sandwiches. It was the weirdest sleeping session we have ever had, from seven to ten in the evening and again from eleven to two thirty. Our return flight was due at 5.50 in the morning, but because I tend to be paranoid about these things, we were at the Delhi airport by three forty five! And I wasn’t too wrong either; even at that hour the place was milling with people and the queues seemed to be miles long. We were done with the formalities well within time, though both Baba and I got stopped at the security, him for his metal support from the leg fracture, and me from a metal refill that a pen apparently had. Talk about arbitrary airport situations! The flight was a peaceful one and I slept through most of it, and we were received at the newly opened Andal airport by Thamma. We were home in Durgapur before nine.

It was a short and sweet vacation, much needed after the examination grind of the last month. The one less than perfect element was the driver we had been assigned by this app based service called GoZo in Delhi. His control over the vehicle was good, but that apart there was nothing suitable about him. He either texted or made phone calls or worse still, practically dozed off at the steering wheel, all the while driving along the highway at ninety km per hour. He was also spectacularly uncooperative and constantly grumbling about having to move off the highway into mountain roads. To anyone looking to hire cars from Delhi, I will suggest that you give this particular service a miss. That apart, the trip went off without a hitch, and I am already looking forward to the next opportunity to travel, this time from Delhi itself.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Goodread Review: An Era of Darkness

An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in IndiaAn Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As Indians we are taught about the British Empire in school as a significant part of our course. We are given a broad out line of the events that saw the arrival and entrenchment of the British East India Company as a powerful trading and eventually ruling power in India, the takeover of Indian rule by the British Crown, the growth of national consciousness among natives and the nationalist struggle for freedom leading up to Independence and Partition in 1947. The trajectory of our colonial history is read and reread by students in school and even in college for those who choose to take up History, to the point where a sense of weariness and boredom sets in, and one gets desensitized and tired of its repetitiveness. This is essentially because the facts are often laid out in textbooks in a very dry and empirical manner, with the intention to impart data, not provoke emotional responses. It is hardly surprising, then, that a great many youngsters grimace at the thought of reading up on our colonial history once they are no longer compelled to do so by teachers and examinations.

Shashi Tharoor's book remedies this very shortcoming in this marvelous book of his. Written in the aftermath of his 2015 debate speech in Cambridge University that went viral and thrilled the country into sitting up and thinking back on the inglorious British Raj with anger, the book is 300 pages of un-putdownable prose filled to the brim with information and eloquent arguments. The speech that sparked off this project was in support of a debate motion about whether Great Britain owed its former colonies reparations. Tharoor argued that the answer to that is an unqualified yes, and An Era of Darkness carries on this very argument. A group of Imperial apologists continue to hold to this day that the British Raj was in fact a blessing in disguise for the backward and disorganized Indians. Tharoor decimates this argument piece by painstaking piece, taking up almost every so-called English blessing to India - democracy, rule of law, a sense of nationhood, and of course the railway - to show that these were in fact often unintentional byproducts of a system of commerce and governance that was built primarily to fulfill the need and more often the greed of the mother nation - Great Britain. He makes extensive use of figures and quotations from contemporaries to display the extent of British rapacity and callous disregard of the well being of natives while ensuring continuing domination by the Empire, leading to the decimation of indigenous industry and agricultural produce, loss of traditional socio-political systems, and even the occurrence of horrifying famines. He traces back many of the contemporary problems that India faces to having roots in colonial oppression, most significantly the communal issues in India and widespread shortage of national resources. Ultimately, he zeroes in on the English language, the game of cricket and the drinking of tea as the only lasting legacies of value from the Raj; a careful reading of the narrative so far describing the extent of damage done to the national character and condition by the British during their imperial days would make it evident how piteously inadequate and almost ironic such a legacy is.

An Era of Darkness imbues life and soul in a subject that often runs the risk of growing stale to the Indian of the 21st century. Tharoor of course is a gifted storyteller; the book is a joy to read as much for the lilting flow of language as it is for the cogent argumentation it presents. It will be worth a read by anyone who has an interest in History, and even the professional scholar should be impressed by the extent of research and substantiation of arguments with relevant data that has gone into the book - unless of course it is one of those scholars who expect all 'academic work' to be cut and dried and tear-inducing!

The book should be read by Indians as a reminder of our legacy and all its horrors, but perhaps more importantly, by the inhabitants of that erstwhile coloniser, Great Britain, to make them aware of the role their ancestors played in reducing one of the oldest and grandest and richest civilizations of the world to such lowly depths of poverty and backwardness. It is important that they realise the inhumanity of imperialism, lest they start considering it a favourable and even glorious feat, as a section of Britain is wont to do today.


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Friday, February 9, 2018

Arzee the Dwarf


When I picked up Chandrahas Choudhury’s Arzee the Dwarf, I did so more under the sway of emotions than from any genuine expectations about the book itself. I had read the author’s blog and knew his writing style was interesting and thought provoking, and since the book was easy enough on the pocket, I went and made the impromptu purchase. And boy was it worth every penny and more. Not once did I imagine that the unassuming little book, barely two hundred pages long, would leave me deep in thought for days.

Arzee – ‘Arzoo’ to his mother – is little. He is a grown up adult, nearly twenty eight years old at the time of the novel, and yet he is a ‘little man’. At three feet five inches, he is a dwarf, and that is the most defining element of his entire being, or so he has come to believe. Like Tyrion Lannister, probably the most recognizable dwarf character among millenials today, Arzee has come to wear his dwarfhood like a cloak, proclaiming it upfront to a world that will not let him forget what he is.  

At the beginning of the novel we find Arzee in a state of victorious joy. He seems to be a man coming into his own strength for the first time. He tells himself that the time has come for him to change, to grow, to be more than he has ever been before. And all of this realization has come not merely from his own inner reservoir of strength and fortitude – that is for later –but also from the promise of some very welcome news about a promotion and a financial increment of five thousand rupees in his monthly income, a sum that seems to him life-altering in the opportunities it can open up.  

And yet life throws up the most unexpected hurdles and pitfalls in Arzee’s way at the very moment when he expects matters to improve. Instead of the long-awaited promotion at work, he gets the worst possible news that turns his world upside down in a moment. Soon after this follows a revelation of his personal history that threatens to push him off the edge completely. In the maze of hopelessness and anger and abject misery he is plunged into, Arzee’s hold on reality, unsteady at the best of times, seems to slip through his fingers and drive him deeper into a land of nightmares.

There is nothing permanently dark and gloomy about Arzee’s state of being though; he perseveres, and emerges a winner. In the span of a few weeks, it is almost a new person that faces the world, ready to take on whatever life has to throw at him. The old Arzee is gone, in more senses than one, but not entirely. The process of self-transformation that Arzee had been so convinced about in the beginning completes itself only towards the end, and it is much less showy than he had expected. But it is more definite, more secure, and less likely to evaporate by a mere scratching of the surface. Our little dwarf is indeed a bigger man by the end of it all, and all the more loveable for it.

Arzee the Dwarf is a book about love and relationships, and not just between humans. The central relationship of the narrative is that between Arzee and the Noor Cinema, a historic but run down establish where Arzee has worked for the past decade as a projectionist. The Noor is more a home to him than his tiny family apartment. It is his kingdom; it is the one place where he looks down on the earth from the majestic height of his projectionist’s room, instead of staring up in awe at it. It is where he revels in the familiar femininity of the ‘ladies’. Arzee, lover of darkness, finds his own comfortable niche in the Noor’s perpetual gloom. His entire life’s  tapestry seems to be inextricably woven into the Noor’s looming presence, so it is of little surprise that when that unshakable presence is threatened, his life comes nearly undone, forcing him to move out of his safe haven and explore the world anew.

The other characters add spice to Arzee’s topsy-turvy world, and compete each other in eccentricity and the ability to catch the reader off guard. Mr. Choudhury has a special gift when it comes to creating people; his characters are unpolished and real, sometimes slightly repulsive, always very familiar. There is Deepak, the goon from the syndicate that Arzee has managed to get himself entangled with, the most unlikely and sometimes unwilling friend Arzee finds by him at a very difficult time of his life. There is Phiroze, the old Parsi head projectionist at the Noor, whose reticent and withdrawn manner is the perfect foil to Arzee’s own explosive persona. There is Mother, the all too familiar doting Indian parent who still treats her grown son like a child, and plays a vital role in the evolution of Arzee’s nature. And then there is the mysterious Monique, the lost love whose existence is central in Arzee’s story as much as her absence is formative. Even the minor characters, who are often mentioned no more than a couple of times in the novel, are invaluable to the flow of the narrative. Phiroze’s daughter with her pretty way of talking and her sad secret, Rajneesh Sharma, the elusive owner of the Noor who Arzee considers his biggest enemy until a fateful encounter towards the end, Dashrathji, Arzee’s friend and probably the most philosophical taxi driver on the streets of Bombay – it is the way that their lives cross Arzee’s for a few fleeting minutes, like the momentary brush of a woman’s dupatta on the streets, that make him the person he grows into, and the novel the quaint little pleasure it is.

And then there is Arzee himself. Mr. Choudhury has done something remarkable – he has made Arzee a little like everybody, but a unique specimen as a whole. Arzee never forgets his dwarfhood, and makes sure that everyone else remains perpetually aware of it. His deep sense of victimhood, of having been wronged by the world, gives him a certain air of entitlement. He complains incessantly about the hardships he has to face because of his stature. He is acutely aware of his position as the proverbial underdog, and this makes him bitter. And yet there is a philosopher hiding in that little body. The life of his mind is vibrant and serves him well as a constant companion. There is a childlike quality to him that sometimes peeks through the veils of worldly cynicism that shroud his mind, particularly when he is at his most vulnerable. He goes through the same anxieties about money and family, the same sense of vague confusion and lack of direction in his working life, the same pleasures and highs of lovemaking, the same gut wrenching pains of heartbreak that almost every young person experiences at this stage of life. I found myself stopping several times throughout the narrative, disconcerted at the way Mr Choudhury seems to have taken my thoughts and emotions and put them into his little dwarf. But that is the magic that authors know and wield. Arzee is loveable as much for his familiarity as he is distant through his own distinct experience of life.

Above all else though, Arzee is a story about Bombay. The city breathes life into the narrative, and the author returns the favour several times over. The descriptions are so vivid, never overly dramatized yet startlingly alive. It is in the minutest details that the impact is the strongest. The names of characters, the odours, the roadside salons, the overcrowded and squelchy railway junctions, even the colours used to describe the city bring out the urgency, the potency and the never-ending rush of humanity that is Bombay. The city is a living presence, always very close at hand, shaping the lives and thoughts of the human beings, making them just so and not a little otherwise. The city lover in me spent a most memorable few hours, savouring the word picture painted by the author, my heart doing a secret happy jig all the while.

There is no definite ending to Arzee’s tale. The narrative has an undulating style, sometimes rushed, sometimes more serene, always in sync with Arzee’s mental state. There are so many different threads, so many potential side stories, so many chance twists and turns, almost like the path woven by a bicyclist pedalling his way through a crowded market street. The reader’s attention is constantly pulled in different directions because Arzee is never stagnant. Even as the narrative draws to a close, so many questions remain unanswered. Arzee’s own future course of action remains uncertain. But unlike many other novels that are equally open ended, this one did not leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Turning over the last page, I was content to lie back and dream a little about what Arzee might have done next. I do not want a definite answer – life is sometimes about letting loose ends be, and this is one such time.  

This was Chandrahas Choudhury’s debut novel, and reading it has made me feel impatient for more of his works. He has a rather whimsical style of writing – there is a constant sense of wonder to it, sometimes veering towards a little wooliness, particularly during Arzee’s mental conversations. His sense of humour is unassuming even when it is sarcastic. It shows itself at the most unexpected moments. I imagine that this style may not find takers everywhere. Some may find the novel a little slow; indeed I myself struggled a little with the initial chapters. But there is an intoxicating quality to his prose. At some point you are drawn into a world of thought and ideas, and you find yourself drifting weightlessly through its stream. The experience can be best summarised through the author’s own words – “Do we live the life that’s given to us, or do we really live a kind of dream life? Isn’t our inner life really a life of the imagination?” The success of Arzee lies in the way that it stirs the imagination, and reignites the inner life of the reader, pushing him to exercise his own creative faculties and paint his own picture of Arzee’s future.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Goodreads Review: Uncle Dynamite

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
When you are feeling blue and morose and generally displeased with life, pick up the nearest P G Wodehouse you can find, and you are guaranteed to be transported to a world of laughter and wholesomeness, and, if it happens to be one of the Uncle Fred books, of "sweetness and light".

Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton, 5th Earl of Ickenham, Uncle Fred to his long suffering nephew 'Pongo' Twistleton and his friends, considers it his sacred duty to bring joy and contentment in the lives of those around him, using unorthodox and highly imaginative methods, never letting trifles like logic and legality hinder him. In this book, his mission quickly becomes to pave the way for marital bliss for his young friends and relative while ensuring they make what he considers the appropriate choice of partners for themselves. He completes his undertaking through a maze of fibs, impersonations, blackmail and adventure, all the while maintaining the impeccably suave air of the English aristocrat. The other characters are superbly entertaining by themselves - the overbearing ex-governor uncle with a fascinatingly alarming collection of African curios, his equestrian wife, his authoress daughter who makes everyone around her wilt before her beauty and her flashing eyes, the intrepid and strong-minded housemaid and her buffoon fiance the policeman to mention only a few. The narrative can almost be termed as a thriller comedy, and the impossible pace of events can leave you a little dazed at the end of it all.

Uncle Fred will probably not become a favourite Wodehouse character for me, because the woolly charms of Uncle Emsworth and the sophistication of the supremely talented Jeeves and his bumbling employer Bertie Wooster are difficult to surpass. However, as always, the world of Wodehouse provides a quick escape to a much happier place, and is the perfect getaway from the humdrum of everyday life. 


Saturday, October 14, 2017

How I Came to Write a Paper on The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

I took up History for my undergraduate studies because I love the subject. But in the last two and half years I have not written almost anything related to my subject, despite Baba urging me time and again to do so, and even supplying me with ideas about what I could write on. Hopefully I will  get around to working on one or two of them before I wrap up my formal education in History. Today though, I want to post something rather special and very dear to me. 

Term papers and regular written assignments should be a part of every academic curriculum. It isn't in my college though, particularly in our department, adding to an ever-growing list of complaints that many of us have against the department. But I don't want to gripe today. We did finally get a chance to try our hands at writing a term paper this semester for one of our papers on Modern Europe. The paper spans the time period between 1789 and 1848, a time of epoch making changes that the historian Eric Hobsbawm so rightly termed the Age of Revolutions. Our professor asked us to submit a paper on any event or aspect that would fall within the purview of our course.

The task was as daunting as it was thrilling. It was quite difficult narrowing down on any one topic from a period as intense and diverse as this. On top of that there were constraints of practicality - as an undergraduate student trying her hands at her first term paper with limited access to source material, and more importantly, time, there was only so much that could be done. Many of us came up with grandiose paper ideas in the initial excitement of the task and our race to impress the professor with originality, but these were quickly dashed when the paucity of time and resources as well as expertise dawned on us. 

How I came about writing on this topic is itself a funny story. This was in fact the first paper idea that had sprung to my mind; I have a distinctly easier time working with literature-oriented ideas, so this is hardly surprising. But my seniors warned me that the professor had a reputation for actively disliking the use of literature as source. I reluctantly gave up my plan and set about planning a paper with a rather convoluted theme involving deep history, environment and colonialism. I did not understand the idea very clearly - it was suggested by a senior - and went on postponing the work. So imagine my delight when the professor made a casual remark in class one day about how nobody in my batch seemed interested in working on literary topics. I literally jumped up from my seat with my hand in the air, and within five minutes it was fixed; I was going to work on Brigadier Gerard after all. Talk about lucky breaks!

For the next three days I worked harder than I had in the previous two years combined, and by the fourth day I was done, and in the nick of time too.I am rarely completely satisfied with my writings, but this one is an exception. I feel this is one of the best essays I have ever written. I was so pleased when I went through it, I realised that it did not matter to me whether or not the professor liked the paper and graded it well. He did in fact like it though, and while I generally find self aggrandizement distasteful, for one I will say that getting the highest marks in class was well deserved.

I hope some people will enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it. Baba has to be thanked of course, not merely because I consulted him constantly while writing the paper, but also because my love for literature as well as my inheritance of books comes from him. 

Also, it is Baba who suggested I put this one up on the blog. Thank God he is constantly after me about keeping this blog alive!


 History Through the Lens of Literature:
The Napoleonic Era as portrayed in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

There is much debate among scholars over the appropriateness of treating literature as a historical source. Historians of the realist imperialist school of thought refuse to accept literature as a valid source, while liberal post-modernists are more open to the idea. However, sometimes the best practice may be to draw one’s own conclusions about such matters. For that, making a study of a famous piece of literature in terms of its historical validity is a useful step.   

Napoleon Bonaparte once commented “what a novel my life is”. Indeed, the Napoleonic era continued to colour the brightest minds of the world throughout the nineteenth century. The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is a wonderful example of Napoleon’s impact on literature. Based at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, these are tales of adventure as narrated by the protagonist Etienne Gerard, now an old man living in Paris, about his days in the Emperor’s army. Across seventeen short stories, Conan Doyle, claimed by many to be the greatest storyteller in English literature, brought to life a period of great turmoil and flux making use of one of the most quintessential aspects of war: the soldier who tells tales to the enthralled civilians back home.  The tales work as a reflection of real battles fought by Napoleon’s army across Europe. Etienne Gerard, a Hussar in the Grande Armée during the Napoleonic Wars, originally from Gascony like Dumas’s d’Artagnan, spent the most glorious days of his soldiering life with the Hussars of Conflans. The young and dashing Gerard was the bravest soldier and the most gallant gentleman in all of France, or so he believed. The most outstanding quality about Gerard was his vanity, but his courage made a close second. Brigadier Gerard is probably the most loveable character created by Conan Doyle, and his astonishing conceit and remarkable thick headedness is not only forgivable but even enjoyable for the reader who savours a jolly good yarn based in one of the most exciting periods of human history.

The concern of this paper, however, remains the validity of the book in terms of its historical accuracy and content. And this is evident in almost every individual story in varying degrees. We learn about how Brigadier Gerard came to be a part of the Hussars in the story ‘How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans’. The war having come to a halt in Germany but raging fiercely in Spain, Napoleon sent Gerard from the Hussars of Chamberan to serve ‘as senior captain to the Hussars of Conflans, which were at that time the 5th Army Corps under Marshal Lannes’1 as reinforcement for the army in the Pyrenees. Here, Conan Doyle gives a very realistic picture of the second siege of Saragossa under Marshal Lannes, Napoleon’s personal friend about whom the Emperor commented that he had found the man a pygmy and left him a giant! The siege of Saragossa was symbolic of conditions throughout Spain. Doyle’s description of the city filled with hordes of Spaniard ‘soldiers, peasants, priests – all filled with the most furious hatred of the French, and the most savage determination to perish before they would surrender’ and the difficulties that the French soldiers faced in overpowering the city2 is as accurate as any historian’s. Napoleon’s peninsular conquest is considered by many scholars as one of the early signs indicating his eventual downfall. As Gunther Rotherberg points out, the great general failed to take into account the potential of a popular resistance supported by the armed forces with a secure supply route, while also being deluded about the precarious food supplies for his own army and the difficulty in movement and communication in Spain3. Ultimately, Napoleon’s ‘Spanish Ulcer’ played a significant role in his inevitable demise.

The same story also brings to light other factors of interest to the historian. In describing his adventures, Brigadier Gerard made repeated mention of the reputation of the Spaniards as cruel and prone to torture and mutilation. It is significant that of all the various reconnaissance missions that the brigadier carried out, this was the only one where he was given a vial of poison which he could use in case of capture. The Spanish reputation was borne out when Gerard found Monsieur Hubert, the French soldier whose mission Gerard had been instructed to complete, crucified to the walls of a house. The stories based on the Emperor’s peninsular conquests bring out various aspects of war as a whole, particularly the dark and inhuman sides of it, the side that the protagonist remained blissfully unconcerned about in the most part, focusing rather on the glory and honour of war. In Spain Gerard met some opportunists of the lowest order, ‘bandits, who embody atavistic values that enlightened Europeans thought they had seen the last of, and which can be seen in Goya’s paintings, the Disasters of War.’ In Spain he met El Cuchillo or ‘The Knife’, an ordinary man whose inner monster had been awakened by war, who was now a notorious guerrilla chief who found pleasure in blank verse and torture, such as burying French soldiers alive.4 Characters and events remained close enough to the reality to be an honest reflection of the experience of the Grande Armée in its peninsular encounters.

Throughout his stories, Conan Doyle placed his brigadier in battles and events the accuracy of which would make the historian proud. In ‘How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshall Millefleurs’ Gerard was seen taking orders from Marshal Massena after his 1810 offensive was stopped by the English army at the Lines of Torres Vedras, lines of forts built in secrecy on the order of the Duke of Wellington to defend Lisbon from French conquest. The Marshal’s frustration at having to retire from a failed conquest is likely to have been very close to what the real Marshal must have experienced.5 It was to Torres Vedras that Gerard was sent by Massena to ascertain the distribution of  Wellington’s troops in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’, and in ‘How the Brigadier Saved the Army’, he saved the troops of General Clausel from annihilation by lighting up the signal beacon for the general to fall back upon the main army, while himself coming face to face with the infamous guerrilla chief named Manuelo,‘ The Smiler’, and just about escaping with his life.

The Brigadier Gerard stories are a fascinating study of the prevalent view of the French and the English of each other, particularly to a student of cultural history. What is interesting to remember is that the author himself was an Englishman, and yet his hero belonged to the opposing camp. Gerard was excessively vain and conceited, a perception that Christopher Coker calls ‘a stock trope for a Frenchman in English literature, particularly in the late nineteenth century’6, and yet the Englishmen found in him a greatly loveable hero. Throughout his adventures, Gerard displayed admiration towards the English in various ways, particularly to individuals who he found honourable and came to consider as friends. In ‘How the Brigadier Held the King’ Gerard was rescued from the murderous El Cuchillo by ‘Milor the Hon. Sir Russell, Bart.’ with whom he struck up an easy camaraderie, a camaraderie that turned to partnership in the adventure of trying to capture Marshal Millefleurs, where the Bart had come with the same orders from Wellington as Gerard had from Massena: to hang the troublesome marshal. His disposition towards the English continued to stay unchanged even when he was captured by Wellington and sent as a prisoner to Dartmoor, from where he broke out and tried to escape before being recaptured and informed that he was in fact to be released and sent back to France in exchange of a Colonel Mason (How the King Held the Brigadier). The brigadier was particularly appreciative of the Englishman’s ‘sportsmanship’ even though his complete inability to understand English customs made him a source of extreme irritation to the English; in ‘The Brigadier in England’ he injured his English hosts while playing cricket and boxing through his misinterpretation of the rules of the games, and in ‘The Crime of the Brigadier’ he inadvertently destroyed a traditional English fox-hunt by killing the fox, earning for himself ‘a deep, steady and unchangeable hatred’ from Wellington’s army! And yet he earned the begrudging respect of several Englishmen for his heightened sense of honour.7 In the study of war, literature can sometimes be the best instrument to bring out the nuanced and contradictory interplay of human emotions between opposing camps, usually through the interaction of individuals.

The Brigadier Gerard stories are surprisingly accurate in the placing of some of Napoleon’s greatest Marshals. One learns about the various charismatic leaders from Gerard’s eloquently expressed admiration for them. There is repeated mention of Marshal Massena, ‘a thin, sour little fellow’ who was not a favourite with his men or his officials for he was a miser, who ‘clutched on to his positions as he did to his strong box, and it took a very clever man to loosen him from either.’8 Of Marshal Ney’s bravery in the Russian conquests Gerard said with great respect ‘one man above all rose greater as the danger thickened, and won a higher name amidst disaster than he had done when he led our van to victory’, calling him ‘Ney, the red-maned Lion’.9 Of Marshal Lannes he spoke highly in context of the siege of Saragossa. And yet despite the ample praise for their courage, there is sneaking criticism where it is due, worthy of any self-respecting historian. About the failed attack on the Lines of Torres Vardes, the brigadier made no bones about admitting that internal feud between Napoleon’s marshals led to missed opportunities. In his words, ‘Ney hated Massena, and Massena hated Junot, and Soult hated them all.’10 Of others one finds scattered references throughout the stories: Murat and Berthier and Mortier and Grouchy to name a few.

With the Emperor himself the brigadier had few encounters, but they were enough to set in stone his love and loyalty for Napoleon. Napoleon Bonaparte was a charismatic leader who had the power to draw the allegiance of the French not merely to the state but to him personally, through the Imperial Catechism, creating an almost cult status among his followers. He issued grandiloquent statements before and after battles, paying little heed to the truth and often fudging facts and figures to suit his conveniences. In the words of Gregory Fremont Barnes, ‘Napoleon was an unashamed self-publicist whose power rested on his extraordinary capacity to captivate his soldiers with his undoubted charisma and to win the hearts of the French people at large by feeding them on that heady diet whose appeal the revolutionary generation could scarcely resist: la Gloire - glory achieved on the battlefield’11This feeling of absolute loyalty is evident in Brigadier Gerard, who considered laying down his life for the Emperor a matter of great honour. Napoleon himself chose Gerard for certain mission because of his unquestioning loyalty, such as in ‘How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio’, where the Emperor needed to assassinate in secret some men from his Corsican past who had come back to haunt him, and in ‘How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil’ where Napoleon decided to test the loyalty of his men before setting them on a very delicate and dangerous mission. And yet the unequivocal devotion of the soldier to the Emperor remained unfortunately lopsided in its depth of emotion. There is an evidence of Tolstoyean irony in Gerard’s stories, in his lifelong faith and service to an Emperor who had little respect for him.12 Napoleon chose Gerard for some of the most sensitive missions because he perceived the latter to be simple minded despite his enormous courage, even awarding him the special medal of honour along with the dubious honour of calling him the man with the thickest head and the stoutest heart in his army.13 Napoleon was callous towards the suffering and losses his army faced for him, and remained unmoved by the fact that his conquests cost France the flower of a generation.

Napoleon’s Russian invasion of 1812 was the beginning of the end of the great French empire that he had envisioned. The invasion was riddled with various problems from the start. The most prominent were the lack of supply lines; nine large depots had been laid from Konigsberg to Warsaw, but available means of transportation could not keep up with the advancing army. Also, the massive size of the army and its frontage required the creation of new command structures and army groups. The technical limitations of the era prevented either problems from being resolved.14 Brigadier Gerard and his Hussars never went to Moscow, staying back at the communication lines of Borodino. In ‘How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk’, Gerard spoke in sorrow and resignation of the squalor and devastation he witnessed all around. Conan Doyle used a Tolstoyean eye to describe the long, black lines of retreating soldiers, snaking their way across the white plain.15 It was in Russia that the French army faced the ruthless Cossacks, who laughed at them in their misery and hung around them like wolves, ready to pounce at the slightest sign of weakness. This air of gloom makes this one of the saddest stories of the collection, with Gerard’s own despondency almost a signal to the imminent downfall of his beloved emperor.

It is a fitting end to the adventures of the brave brigadier that he would be given an important mission in that final hour, the Battle of Waterloo – a mission that he failed to carry out due to fateful turn of events – eventually bringing a close to his glorious days in the Grande Armée with a final valiant effort to protect his Emperor from capture at the hour of defeat by impersonating him to detract his English pursuers. Though history dictates that this effort had to be in vain, the brigadier earned what was possibly the greatest compliment of his life from his enemies; the Englishman failed to realise he was an imposter and exclaimed in admiration that the French Emperor was “such a horseman and such a swordsman I have never seen.”17 By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was well past his prime. He was wearied from years of campaigning and a year of exile, and ill on the very day of the battle. Waterloo led to Napoleon's final downfall, restored the balance of power in Europe and ushered in an era of nearly four decades of peace on the Continent, unquestionably qualifying the battle as one of history's most decisive.16

The last of the Brigadier Gerard stories holds that poignant note marking the end of something great. In ‘How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to His Master’, we read of an attempt by an old faithful servant of the Emperor, with Gerard’s help, to rescue Napoleon from his exile in St. Helena, only for Gerard to arrive at the moment of his master’s death. It is the last tale that the old soldier told his eager audience before going back to Gascony in his twilight years. This is the condition of many soldiers spanning age and space, veterans unable to let go of the past, civilians but ‘with an air and manner’, relics of a time long gone. In his closing chapter, Conan Doyle successfully brought to light the human cost of war, not merely in terms of those who die, but those who are forced to reintegrate into civilian society, a mere shadow of their battlefield selves.

 Like all works of literature, The Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard was essentially written to provide hours of enjoyable reading to the lay person, not to serve as a tool for scholarship for the historian. The tales are not a fair and balanced exposition of the Napoleonic wars or the French society of the time. The chronology is not linear, and there are so many fictitious incidents that sieving out fact from fiction is a tedious exercise. One glaring shortcoming of the stories is that the human cost of the Napoleonic epic is completely ignored. In his blind devotion to his master, the brigadier overlooked the fact that Napoleon, having extinguished liberty by enslaving half of Europe and fraternity by declaring war on the other half, had only just paid lip service to equality, even in his army.17 The stories are fundamentally action packed adventures of one soldier and not a representation of the army as a whole.

However, a student of history may yet do well to pay some attention to such works of literature in one’s studies. As has been adequately illustrated in this paper, Brigadier Gerard is an excellent example of all that literature has to offer to history, if only one knows how to extract reality from the generous coating of imagination that is any good work of fiction.