Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Brief Encounter

I got acquainted with E solely by chance three years ago. It was a cloudy day, quite like today, and I was waiting at the Goethe Institut cafeteria after a regular day at the university, eating a chicken roll and reading a photocopied article on Edith Sitwell. I had a lot of time on my hands until class, and although conscious of the middle-aged woman sitting in front of me with a sandwich and coffee, I didn't feel particularly inclined to a conversation. She began talking first, and I remember that what followed was a rather fulfilling conversation, which when looked back, strikes as especially remarkable to happen in a random dreary evening on an unremarkable cafe. Strangely, I do not remember all that we talked about that evening after all these years, but it's one of those feelings of complaisance, which settles down after you've experienced some thing pleasant. I learnt that she was a documentary film-maker, that she was born in Germany to Bengali parents, and had spent a considerable number of years there before moving to Chennai, where she finished her studies, and where she still lived. We did talk about Bengal, and Bengalis, naturally lamenting about the sorry state of affairs, and after a quarter of an hour I went to class. Before that, I did promise to find her in Facebook.

I did find her and we became "friends", even having occasional online conversations; but not too many, or too often. In fact, this year we had more conversations than the previous three years put together. All these little details came to my mind when I was driving to Goethe Institut around noon today to meet her. Our previous plan for a rendezvous a couple of months ago fell through because I couldn't adjust my time-table. I was slightly apprehensive, afraid that she wouldn't remember how I looked in 2010, and my Facebook pictures wouldn't match my real appearance. These little causes for concern passed away when clutching an umbrella, I stood in front of the Goethe Institut gate, my way blocked by a massive lorry. After some expert manoeuvres I went to the table where she was waiting for me, not even realising that all my awkwardness and apprehension had passed because of an ineptly parked lorry.

Over lunch we talked about Dawn French's Absolutely Fabulous, and the hippie mommy urging her petite daughter to get some action; the new vicar's boobies being a "dead giveaway" in the misogynist Dibley; classic Doordarshan shows of the 80s; German medieval towns; NRIs in London; and Satyajit Ray's books. Over coffee -- by which time we had progressed to a nearby mall, failed to find a convenient time for a cinema in the plex, discovered a new mobile library service, and compared James Herriot and Gerald Durrell -- we talked more extensively about travelling and the Theosophical Society (of which she is a member), and tried to understand why Bongs, despite being the first to welcome Modernism, to always go the farthest, and progress the most, get the soppiest the moment they have kiddies. We talked about friends who dated for a couple of months, and one midnight decided to get married the following day, stayed in love for four years, and then separated to get embroiled into spirituality; of a friend who had a fling while travelling in South America and got pregnant and reared the child single-handedly; of classmates, who for ten years raised eye-brows at the prospect of someone else dating, but the moment they turned twenty, got married to complete strangers, and posted intimate honeymoon photographs on Facebook. Once E was travelling in Italy, and having spent a day in a little fishing village, was supposed to meet her friend at the station. When she discovered that she had missed the last bus, she decided to hitch a ride for the first time in her life. She admits to being extremely scared, but finally finding a willing woman who spoke no English or German or French, but only a certain dialect of Italian. E's broken Italian conveyed her destination, but during that one hour journey with a complete stranger who was driving her to a station in an unfamiliar land with an unfamiliar language, and laughing at the latter's jokes about her mother-in-law, E realised that language is not enough, and not the ultimate. There's some thing more -- humanity.

I tried to picture myself in a similar situation, and admitted that I would never have the courage to hitch a ride. I would be forced to call my parents thousands of miles away, and listen to their obsessive neurotic rant, which would of course carry no constructive advice. By that time, my parents had called me twice, urging me to return home, asking how long I would be, because until I returned, they couldn't go to the departmental store in the neighbourhood. We finished our cookies, and I expressedly declined E's invitation to catch the 8 pm movie, and her jaunty trip to a jewellery shop. Accepting that I would have to let go of myself from time to time, we walked down the wet streets to my car. In the midway I found her a taxi which would take her to a jeweller's, and after turning to laugh at some "Maru chicks", we exchanged goodbyes. I walked the slightly longish walk to my car alone, to allow an insensitive man to drive me around, answering to every whim of my parents who pay for his services, and for the car.

It's a night for listening to Van Morrison, and I called E half an hour ago, to ascertain whether her other plans had worked out. She extended an invitation to Mumbai, where she lives now, and I gracefully accepted, knowing that I could never travel alone there. After the brief conversation, I imagined what our future encounters could be like. She has promised to take me around Sudder Street in Calcutta, and I'm sure, if I ever went to Mumbai, she'd show me its rich colonial history. This bit of fantasy too, I'm sure, will be lost, just like the major chunk of the imaginary conversation I had made up in my mind today before meeting her.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Random Post #467

I often wonder why during the early 90s, before a cricket match was aired in Doordarshan, a close-up of each player of the Indian cricket team was shown, looking straight ahead (rather wistfully), some with their palms on their chest, with the tunes of Richard Clayderman's Ballade Pour Adeline playing in the background. Don't get me wrong, I love the tune. But every time I listen to it, I remember youthful faces of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble smiling slightly and looking straight at the camera, often in the white jersey of test cricket.



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The other day I was watching the 1958 cinematic adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities starring Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton. Having read the novel for the first time in middle school, I remembered once again how irritating Lucie Manette is. Like most of the women characters throughout the history of literature, she has little function, little spunk, and has the likes of the brooding and melancholic Sydney Carton falling fatally in love with her. Perhaps it has some thing to do with her being beautiful, excessively campy, and looking virginal. Dorothy Tutin of course embodies exactly these qualities to perfection. In a fit of boredom, I was trying to imagine which woman character would be a perfect foil to Sydney Carton. The perfectness of my answer startled even me: Portia from The Merchant of Venice! Just imagine how that would be.

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A couple of days ago I had an extremely animated telephonic quarrel with a representative of a private airlines company. It all happened on the premise of my asking for a free ticket on the basis of the miles I had accumulated. That wonderful woman informed me that I wasn't qualified yet, because my accumulated flying miles were short of the distance I was intending to fly. On exclaiming my surprise, she expressedly said, "The distance from Kolkata to Varanasi and back is more than the distance from Kolkata to Brussels and back, your last trip." After my telling her, "I'm sorry, but have you lost your mind?", she asked me to hold the line to ask her seniors, and came back after nearly ten minutes to say that nothing could be done. Through a text message I was informed that I didn't have adequate miles to claim a free journey. All because a few executives from an airlines company believe that Brussels, where I travelled to last January from Kolkata, is nearer to Varanasi, where I plan to travel this autumn.
I did not have enough energy to pursue the case.
What is this world coming to?    

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Stockinged Flowers

The winters from 2001 to 2003 in North Bengal were desolate. I was doubly alienated because, apart from experiencing the regular pangs of adolescence at home, I was isolated at school: I had no friends with whom I could share my ideas, ideals and choices. I loved reading -- no one in our class of over seventy students (in two sections) read even an excerpt from the newspaper; I loved a certain kind of music (vintage, sentimental, country) -- my friends all listened to contemporary hip-hop Bollywood. My hobbies made me the common laughing stock in class, persistently for years, and my habit of brooding quietly in a corner did not help in the integration process either. To add insult to serious injury, I wasn't really extraordinarily good at anything -- grossly overweight, abysmal at sports, poor in Maths (many others were much worse, but because I topped in the language papers, the former discrepancy was looked upon as an excuse to scrape through with good marks in the latter), and horrendous in creative craft.

At school we had a subject called S.U.P.W.: Socially Useful Productive Work. From standard VI to XII, all we did in our S.U.P.W. classes were various forms of creative craft. Throughout the years, the various assignments I had to submit for my S.U.P.W. evaluation deteriorated in degrees of sadness. My woolen doll was cross-eyed; my penguin was fat; my squirrel had a very pronounced, meandering stitch zigzagging across its back. However, the one item on my S.U.P.W. itinerary that ever looked beautiful (and perfect to my fragile adolescent taste) was the flowers we made from stockings.

I didn't start on a perfect note however. On the very first day of this new assignment, I arrived in class with my things only to discover that all my classmates had bought such wonderful stockings. Mine were monochromatic, and looked distinctly dull in comparison. On the other hand, my classmates had procured stockings whose colours faded from a dark shade to a lighter one from one end to the other. As a result, by the time the flowers were made, theirs had the hue of freshness and innocence near the base of the petals. Mine only opened wide and stayed dull. This was how they remained until a friend interfered and showed how I could bend the supporting wire to shape my petals like a half-opened rose. I went home and practised this new tactic on all the flowers I had made, and was awed with the result: they now looked like the multitude of flowers my classmates had made, save for their dull colours. Part of the crowd, yet removed because of their dullness. Ecstatic by my result, I bought more stockings, this time, careful to let the owner of General Stores know that I wanted stockings whose colours faded from a darker to a lighter shade. As my flowers began to look perfect, they seemed indistinguishable from the rest of the perfect flowers made by my classmates. My parents would often applaud my beautiful flowers, with their half-opened petals, and long, elegant pedicel made of green tape, and I would feel dizzily proud of my handiwork.

During the last days of winter that year we had our School Fete, and in the absence of our seniors, who were preparing for their ICSEs, we were entrusted with the job of organising it. I would be manning the momo stall with my friend on D-Day, and we would all pitch in to decorate the school for the event. We spent several weeks planning, having meetings, making lists, and distributing duties to each other. We ran into each other at Bidhan Market while buying streamers and coloured cello-tape. I mastered the art of making decorations with streamers. Someone came up with the idea of pasting our S.U.P.W. flowers on the pillars of the north balcony, and we returned home on the penultimate night to make bouquets of our flowers. I laid my flowers on the bed, admired each of them for hours, adjusted some petals, and slowly and with extreme care, made bouquets. I couldn't help but feel as if my babies were being put up on display to be admired by the world, and I held the final results before the mirror, carried them to my parents' room, displayed in various poses, before carefully putting them in a polythene bag to carry to school the next day.

I still remember School Fete that year. It was hectic, and the first time our batch had got such an important responsibility. My friend and I made several trips up and down the corridor, carrying massive hot containers of momo, and alternately manning the counter. By four o'clock I was completely knackered. Just as the crowd finally thinned, the blow came. Someone told me the flowers had gone.

Our table was so strategically placed, that I could make out the outline of my bouquet. Many times over the course of the day I would find people looking at it and admiring it, and I would myself count the number of the pillar on which it hung. When I first heard that they had vanished, I looked at the pillar. I couldn't see anything, and I blamed my poor eyesight. I jumped into the grounds, and ran towards the balcony. I can still remember being absolutely numb as I saw the bare pillar. I counted the pillars, hoping that this wasn't the one, but I was wrong. Besides it wouldn't have made any difference: all the pillars were bare anyway; all the flowers had gone. I didn't begin to cry right then. I looked around frantically, asking classmates if they knew anything about the flowers. Every one was clueless, but none as distraught as me. My friend from the stall finally joined me, and together we went round the school, looking for the flowers. My flowers. When at length she spotted a little girl, not more than six years old, with a stockinged flower, did she call me. It didn't take me a fraction of a second to discover that it wasn't my flower, but I reprimanded her sternly, and asked her if she knew about the others. She didn't. I found a classmate playing in one of the game tents, and handed her that flower, for it belonged to her. She had no clue, and muttering a jubilant thanks, rejoined her game. It was then that I started crying. And I went on crying in the car all the way home, telling Maa how unfair life was; and I cried myself to sleep that night.

The next day at school, I seemed to be the only one who was concerned about the missing flowers. Throughout the day I interrupted conversations involving predominantly the subject of cute boys from the neighbouring schools, to ask about the flowers. The one reply which made me cry again that night was from the girl who topped our class every year. She never read books, she didn't know what "good music" was, and watched only blockbuster Bollywood and the ubiquitous K-serials which were so popular in the beginning of the last decade. She said, "I knew this would happen. So I didn't give any flowers. I didn't buy streamers too. What is the point? Others are working. Let them work. And being in a stall, my god! So much work. I was a volunteer, and I stood in the shade of a games tent till noon, and then went home with my father. I didn't even become so sunburnt like you."

I never took a picture of those flowers. Nearly ten years later, I don't even remember how many I had made, and what their colours were, except for a violet one, which I had made from my first batch of stockings, and which I especially adored.
Why, after all these years, on a very hot and humid May day, which is also Robi Thakur's birthday, did I remember those flowers and those lonely winter days?