Sunday, December 26, 2010

UNTITLED

It was six fifteen in the morning. An electric blue firmament sequined by twinkling stars with a beaming moon still wide awake like a playful child. I walked Mr. Snow Boot (my pet) around the Block who appeared to be quite moody today and turned homeward just after a few sprightly trots.

We galloped up to the first floor and softly rapped on the door to be opened by my sister who looked quite energetic despite the early hours. My bro-in-law looked cheerfully engrossed in the kitchen! Preparing the morning tea with a generous dose of “Matilda’s Secret” was his prerogative.

I got warm hugs from both of them. Soon after, my groggy nephew appeared like Jack in a box with a big red box and placed it right on top of the keyboard of my laptop that I was tapping away to glory, insisting that I open it post haste. I obliged. A fluffy cake of satisfactory size smiled at me shaking off the chocolaty flakes casually powdered on its cherubic face. Dark chocolate roses dimpled its cheeks. What a treat! I was prodded to knife a fat slice out of its body and offer it to all present, one by one, to the sound of a melodiously non-musical chorus of “Happy Birthday to You.” I did it grudgingly though. The first phase of celebration was completed thus.

The second phase began when my mobile tinkled and a soft, apologetic, unfamiliar voice greeted me a “Happy Birthday”. I was not surprised because the call was expected though not so early. We had a long, fulfilling chat.

The second call arrived when I was in the Metro, underground! My ears were gifted with the Happy Birthday song once again, this time, in a deep, surprisingly sonorous voice, which got cut off midway due to connectivity problem and resumed as I reached my office. The door of my cabi burst open to let in three happy faces who wished me all the very best for the day followed by my boss who had already once wished me over phone and now did so in person. In the afternoon a delicious parantha party was organized by our Departmental Head. Our Department is nicknamed as the Eating Department – my birthday was a mere coincidence.

I had not planned anything for my birthday and had decided to have a quiet one this year though my friend had been inciting me for the past one week, no, since the beginning of the month, to go in for a gala bash. I tried in vain to make him understand that my idea of celebration was a bit different than his. But to no avail. When I was a child, birthdays were something to be looked forward to with great anticipation. As I matured the exhilarations associated with the day diminished progressively.

It is not that ageing has a melancholic effect on me. On the contrary, though it may sound unusual, I have no qualms in accepting my age. The process is an irrevocable one giving a unique opportunity to off-load all those entrapments which we have burdened our shoulders with so that we travel light as we near the completion of our journey and there is a spring and sprightliness to our steps as we climb up the steep slopes of life with increasing ease and grace.

Although, for most age and experience are synonymous, I don’t think they supplement each other. But realization does dawn as the sun tilts towards the west. A cloak of equanimity envelopes the mind. Hindsight is gained. Musings are no more tinged with euphoria or guilt. I had once written a poem on this catharsis which one of my young poet friends severely criticized as didactic.

Honestly, I pity him. That is another advantage of age. You can have a hearty laugh over youth’s “innocence” anytime of the day, “Dus saal baad dekhenge yeh tewar kahaan jaate hain!” and gloat like a vain Cheshire cat. I often do secretly.

Coming back to a more serious note, I have always been attracted by Tagore’s tranquil acceptance of death. He has often mentioned in his songs and poems that he is in the process of finishing all his worldly chores so that when the ultimate end advances, he is free of all shackles (which may try pull him back, if not done away with) and be ready for the travel to eternity with a smiling face and joyous heart.

And that is exactly what I prayed for on my birthday that I should be waiting for Him with eagerness when the day comes for me to say good bye to this world “without a pang, a sting or a prick in the eyes” and follow the Lord with an unquestioning spirit and unfaltering step.

Amen.

Friday, December 10, 2010

THOSE WERE THE DAYS


There is an odd kind of silence when the snow drips from the sky and settles on the slopes of the mountains. As though the world has come to an end and there is nobody left to tell the tales of mankind – it’s efforts and endeavors, its achievements and failures, it’s desires and fears, it’s towering creations and it’s irrevocable devastations – as though a chronicle is left unfinished, the writer having vanished in thin air on a whim of a childish prank. Such is the hushed song of Nature when snow falls, spreading a cottony sheet on the crust of the earth with delicate hands of a mother who has just tiptoed out of the room after tucking the child in bed with warmth and care. People make careful plans to witness a snowfall. I experienced it unexpectedly at the holy shrine of Vaishno Devi years back in the ‘80s, when the going was comparatively tough, the mountainous tracks treacherous, steep and not properly paved and the travel was bereft of exotic extravaganzas as our meager savings did not permit the same.

The trip till Katra was uneventful and nothing much to write home about. The only thing that caught my attention in the railway map was the rail tracks vanishing mysteriously somewhere into the foothills of the grand Himalayas. The Jammu –Tawi Express dropped us unceremoniously at the last railway station of the Northern tip of India – Jammu. It was early morning. We took a bus to Katra. The uphill ride was picturesque but I don’t remember much of it as I sedated myself heavily to prevent from being hill-sick during the winding journey. On reaching Katra, we fixed a local coolie to carry our luggage, had our breakfast in one of the road-side dhabas and proceeded towards the shrine in all earnestness. The experienced travelers had told us to continuously chant the holy name while trekking up so that the journey could be made smooth and easy by divine blessing.

The downhill trek was more adventurous. We were the last to come down in the snow with a frail old lady who looked as though she would get swept away by the stormy breeze any minute and an ill clad boy shuddering in the bitter cold like the shivering leaves of a young, supple tree on a windy day.

An ancient cave which was feared would crumble down any moment, even by the feathery press of a mere whisper, led the path to the sanctum sanctorum. There were constant admonishments from the shrine administrators to chant the deity’s name softly which the passionate devotees shouted out as loudly and forcefully as they could.

We were inexperienced travelers in our maiden trekking venture, enchanted by the mesmerizing beauty of Nature at every bend – going uphill, we were accompanied, for a short stretch, by the Baan Ganga, with its crystal clear water, the silver fish swimming carefree just beneath the gossamer sheen of the flow mirroring the pebble bed underneath arranged meticulously by the careworn hands of an unknown architect; but of course the green forests adorning the slopes luscious in its rich, thick foliage never left us alone. As I vaguely remember, the Devi had brought down the Ganga to these mountains by the prick of an arrow or baan. That is why the name Baan Ganga!

Haathi Mattha, a much required resting spot for the tired trekkers, where the mountain peak takes the shape of an elephant’s head; here we had crispy, garam jalebis with steaming cups of tea. And not to forget Ardh Kunwari or the divine womb where Vaishno Mata had hidden from the demon just like a fetus within a woman’s uterine cavity! It was customary to venture inside the womb, a slender slice of a rocky tunnel, but seemed interminably long for those who traversed it. It was pitch dark inside. I had to slither through the claustrophobic hollow saving myself from the jagged ends of the rocky interiors, almost hysterically chanting the holy name, till a sliver of light a few crawls away told me that I had reached the end.

The evening fell quietly while we were still on our way through the dark, desolate, undulating incline. Taking a turn, we had stared eagerly at the far away garland of lights of the shrine! It was still a few kilometers away! The night was spent in an ordinary Dharamshala on roughly hewn blankets a few layering the cold floors and a few dumped on our exhausted frames. The fashionable accommodations were deliberately avoided.

It was dawn as we emerged from our room. The locals predicted rough weather during the day. The snow had started gathering on the higher altitudes. We could see the tips of the mountains tinged with white and a teeth chattering breeze brushing past our sides.

Early in the morning, we had to take a dip in the holy water which turned out to be more of a kind of communal bathing, thankfully, separate for men and women. In a big hall where women without any visible embarrassment doused bucket full of freezing cold water on fully clothed bodies. The water gushed out in full force from open pipes jutting out from the walls of a number of door-less cubicles that the hall was divided into. Then they changed over to dry clothes with nimble fingers and dashed for the Darshan. We followed suit.

We were fortunate to get a Darshan after a long wait in a serpentine queue. By that time it had started snowing. It was December. Our frost bitten feet found solace in the stream coursing through the cave which strangely felt warm and luxuriant to our naked skin, though it was freezing cold. We never felt so vibrantly alive as the ripples caressed our swollen toes. As usual there was the usual quota of queue breakers who were in a mighty hurry even to earn the deity’s blessings. No one could make these passionate pilgrims understand that the divine blessing was the only thing which was always available in plentitude and did not diminish or suffer scarcity with the passage of time.

The Darshan was a quickie, over too soon. The cave priests did not allow the devout to linger long. We returned by another passage, a longish tunnel wherein a spring cascaded from an unknown source down one of its uneven sides and mingled into the stream below.

The locals had earlier advised us to leave as soon as possible because a snowfall indicated closure of the shrine which in turn meant an indefinite stranded existence at one of the Dharamshalas. But none was available as these were already full with incoming devotees and those who had decided to stay back. Trekking snow clad mountainous tracks was a novel experience for us. We were told to follow the footprints of our predecessors lest we slipped and fell. If we did, chances were our carcasses would never be found. Measure after measure we covered snow-white ribbons of pathways entwining the sage like mountains. As the sky sprinkled on us generous sheets of snow, our clothes fell short of requirement. I for myself was wearing three layers of clothing and it was the same for others. But these were not fit for a snowy winter. Our sole aim was to reach the foothills which we naïvely presumed would be snow-free.

But how wrong we were! As we were half way down, the snowfall gave way to torrential downpour. We had not thought of that! The snow melting into rains as the altitudes lessened. We were drenched and sure that our luggage was too as it was not waterproof. We passed by the Baan Ganga, which once a silver ballerina, was now a deep pink scurry of turbulent water, the mountain sediments adding colour and vibrancy to her fluid, buoyant, graceful prance.

We landed at a tea stall, unpretentious but welcoming. Till now, we had trudged alone, apart from our group of four, there was nobody trekking downhill unlike the evening before when we were accompanied by a throng of pilgrims. Such is life my friend! Sometimes a joyous caravan of multitude and sometimes just a lone tread with quietude. So, we were at this road side tea pub. A man stood there at the doorway, an old ordinary blanket shrouding his face and frame. The other two male members in our group went hotel surfing. The bad news was that all hotels, motels, inns and taverns were teeming with pilgrims who were not allowed to leave Katra for the uphill journey. Every possible type of accommodation was choc-o-bloc. It was quite probable that we might have to spend the night in that tea shop itself.

But we would not have minded that at all! The reason was simple. The masquerader blocking the doorway hummed an intricate tune, a meandering mesmeric rendition of Mian Ki Malhaar. The rain lashed outside breaking the mountains in rhythmic lunacy. The aqua drops looked like polka dots tap dancing on the rugged terrains and the stranger with his face hidden inside the dirty folds of a frayed blanket sang the joy of rains in deep resonance which hit the steep slopes, the far away peaks, the earthy banks of the mountain rivers, the misty sky, the thick jungles, the over laden clouds and bounced back in frothy wavelengths to be eternally ensconced in the memory banks of two agog minds. We could have spent the entire night listening to the melodious strains!

The rest is ordinary. The night was spent in one room obtained with crooked maneuvers - an admixture of feminine pleas and curtly dropping a few names here and there of the rich and the famous. Sleep was fitful with torturous dreams of the trek back to Katra coupled with acute body pain. The only redeeming factor being the oven hot rotis and delicious red rajma which was our dinner in an infamous roadside stall! But the taste of it still lingers on. Threads of smoke curled up from our bodies as the crackling heat of the glowing angeethi around which we huddled to keep ourselves warm seeped into our rain soaked attire. By that time, our muscles were so stiff in the bitter cold that we had completely lost control over our limbs. We had to hold the strip of a roti in both hands and take it up carefully to our mouth and shuffle it in. Left to the right hand, the rajma sloshed rotis went inside the left ear before finding its right course to the quivering mouth. The same fate awaited as we tried to wrench the dripping clothes now glued to our frames. We did not know de-robing could be such a tedious and time consuming affair!!

The next morning we reached Jammu Station much before time. By the afternoon, the sun shone bright and crisp enough to dry our wet clothes on the empty platform benches before boarding the train in the evening. That is how my sister’s post marriage thanksgiving ceremony to the divine deity drew to an end. Even on reaching home and a month later, many a night, I’d wake up sweating profusely tortured - revisiting the shrine and braving the blizzard in my dreams!! It is said that a divine call precedes a successful pilgrimage. After the fateful first visit, we never till now had a second chance of visiting the shrine again. So most probably the divine invite has not been posted as yet. But those were definitely the days when such adventures lent additional meaning to life, though it might appear a little foolhardy on hindsight.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

KAALU THE VAGABOND

I am worried about Kaalu and not for the first time. She was born in the park adjacent to my flat. One of the nine puppies, scrawniest and a late learner, slow in everything - from crawling to fending for her own rights! But she was the only one who survived, became notorious for her mischief and grew into an imp of a mongrel. Her excessive fondness for my pet, Mr. Snow Boot, has always been a continuous source of stress to me.

This October, she steps into adolescence - one year old. But her body is not well developed. She still survives on milk. She has not attained “mental maturity” as the vets would say. She is still very much a child and she is pregnant!

I used to find her lethargically prostrated in the middle of the lane. Even on whistling and calling out her name, she would not respond and just watch me listlessly with a tinge of sadness swimming in those dark eyes! The progressively bulging belly spilled the beans.

She could guess that there was something wrong with her but knew not what.

When I come back home, in the evenings, from work, she sprints up, hugs me with her forelimbs and wails mournfully. Words are useless. Who requires the alphabets to fathom her plaintive cries? There is universality in womanhood, a kinship, a bonding, transcending species and genera which automatically lends speech to her undecipherable language, her clarion call.

I know she is hungry, always hungry, very, very hungry!

I run my hand across her back, her protruding belly, the sheen of her coat, now lusterless with dirt, mud and waste. I box her ears playfully. Her skin shows here and there – translucent pink epidermis in between jet black bush of fir. She has lost clumps of hair and urgently needs veterinary care. Nutrients, vitamins, minerals and above all food, sumptuous, luscious diet!

***

Maa is furious with me! The milk pan is half empty! Just two loaves sulk in the Bread Basket! She gives me an accusatory look. What do I do maa? Kaalu reminds me of all those innumerable “second sex” of this hapless country, who willingly or unwillingly, give in to the whims and fancies of hungry eyes and prodding hands in the dark silhouettes of nights or even during sunny morns and sultry noons. And thereafter carry the indelible imprints in their wombs – sometimes a nightmare, sometimes a shattered dream, infrequently a rosy remembrance of a soft dawn or a demure dusk but that is so rare, almost an oddity!!!

My sister protests! Kaalu is a threat to her sterile threshold. I keep silent. Will I be able to make her understand that when I caress Kaalu I reach out to millions like her, in human garb, languishing in the remotest of remote corners of this land - villages, districts, towns, cities, backwaters and even metros too! Mutely counting days while valiantly wading through thousand chores, traveling in overcrowded transports, bringing work load back home and sometimes making both ends meet, stretching themselves beyond the realms of permissible or legitimate ease.

Perhaps she will empathize, if once she hears placing her ears in the air. The breeze will carry wisps of whispered prayers. But I have never shared my thoughts with her. So, she continues to grumble and I make it a point to feed the overgrown pup, twice a day… at least.

***

But this morning was a surprise. I woke a little late and found my mother in the kitchen warming the milk and mashing the bread. “For whom?” I ask. “For your daughter,” she says, suppressing a smile. “Your sister brought in the bread and yesterday’s left over milk.” I was amazed. “But maa…..”I hesitated. She was brusque, “Before you go in for your bath, give her this. She is waiting outside.” She looked up.

The sun rays were streaming in from the open kitchen window. Maa stood there with her back towards the light. But did I see a glisten in her eyes? A twinkle and a flash of a smile lining the lashes! I have never told them in so many words. But I know they know, my mother and my sister, because there is a silver stream of oneness coursing through these malleable souls; a subcutaneous bond of universal empathy born out of similarity of fate? Perhaps a pathological familiarity which may at times border on contempt, at times other, on a more fraternal fellowship, withstanding the test of time, navigating through ages of rough weather and invincible chains, sometimes a deluge and at times a restraint, a refrain, the sparkling ribbon meanders through zillions of tumultuous currents restlessly simmering in the underbelly of apparently pacific, non-challant waves, cutting across species, genera and numerous other taxonomical researches and gains. It does not take time to dawn. The tale of repression and resilience is epoch long!

SHUTTER ISLAND TO SHUT YOU OUT OF THIS WORLD


I had heard a lot about Director Martin Scorsese. I “experienced” him yesterday late evening. The timing was perfect for the gripping movie called “Shutter Island” set in the 1950’s in an isolated island. Truly, going through the two hour celluloid treat by Scorsese is almost like savouring an unputdownable saga in print, speaking in cinematic parlance, the same would be something akin to “unpausable”

Edward Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio), a richly decorated war veteran and post war US Federal Marshal visits the Shutter Island, on the Boston harbor, on a mission to find an escaped mental patient. He is joined by Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), another Marshall, from Seattle.

Shutter Island houses the notorious Ashecliff Lunatic Asylum which is less a mental hospital and more a tightly guarded prison with electrified perimeters et al; its inmates are the most dangerously violent, criminally insane men and women shunned by Civil Society. They are the clinically hopeless cases declared to be beyond correction or cure. The penitentiary is as much known for its homicidal maniacs as for the monumental psychiatric researches and treatments conducted therein. More so, due to the charismatic persona and dedication of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley), the head of the hospital, who apparently believes that even the worst psychiatric patient can be reached across by patient understanding, love and care. Ashecliff is run on special grant by the US Government but inside its premises it is Dr. Cawley’s rules that reign supreme.

It is impossible to break in or out of this closely guarded mental asylum. But one of the convicts does – Rachel Solando, who is charged of cold bloodedly drowning her own children, runs away, in fact, disappears, from the asylum, without leaving a clue, one night. Rachel is cunningly shrewd, desparate, hopelessly incurable and an imminent threat to society if let loose. The primary obstruction in her treatment is her adamant belief that her children are still alive and that she is the owner of the hospital grounds while the doctors, nurses, orderlies and other staff of the hospital are in fact her employees – the milkmen, postmen, deliverymen etc.

It is Edward Daniel’s (nicknamed Teddy) job to find out Rachel and put her back in the cell, the assignment made tougher by the unrelenting Dr. Cawley who is reluctant to extend cooperation in any form, the inmates including the staff as well as the patients who seem to know more than they are ready to divulge and the staunch belief of the residents including the cops that it is impossible for Rachel to survive on her own in the violent storm ridden island outside the asylum and that most probably she is already dead. Suspicion thickens when Teddy learns that Rachel’s primary psychiatrist, Dr. Lester Sheehan, has been sent off to a long pending vacation the very morning they have arrived at the island to investigate her disappearance.

Soon Teddy is caught in a maze of conspiracies where his own sanity is very much at stake. Teddy confesses to Chuck that finding Rachel is not the only task he has on his mind. There is a personal vendetta too. Teddy is actually looking for one Andrew Laeddis, the maintenance man and firebug, who put the apartment on fire in which Teddy’s family resided and eventually his wife died. During trials, Andrew confessed that it was the “voices in his mind” which instigated him to lit the match. The Court lets Andrew go unpunished on medical grounds. Thereafter, Laeddis vanishes into thin air. But one George Noyce, a former inmate of Ashecliff, secretly passes on the information to Teddy that Laeddis is very much in Ashecliff though his name does not appear on records.

Teddy’s search for Laeddis leads to more mysteries. Who is the 67th patient in Ashecliff while the record shows only 66 patients? Added to this is the sudden return of Rachel without a scratch on her body as though she were never gone! Is she really who she claims to be? Then the mysterious Light House and the forbidden erstwhile military Fort or Ward C of the hospital which houses the most dangerous homicidal maniacs who are never let out in the open! The screams which disturb the peace of the night coming from the direction of Ward C! The unconscionable, medically unethical, psychosurgical experiments and the excruciatingly painful transorbital lobotomies rumoured to be undertaken in the dark dungeons of the Light House, on the poor patients to calm them down and transform them into zombies. The innocuous Guinea Pigs are those men and women who have already been branded as lunatics by the world and their protests go unheard as deliriums of unhinged minds. Lastly, Chuck, his co-Marshall, whom Teddy does not know whether to believe or not to believe, whether he is a friend or a foe!

And above all, Teddy himself! His blinding migraines! His acute photosensitivity and dizzy spells! The pills which are forced down his throat as antidotes in the name of relief! His haunting past! His unforgettable stint at the German Concentration Camps- the Dachau! His oft repeated nightmares! The little girl who invariably torments him in his dreams! The smoothness with which he has been brought to this island reeks the stench of a larger Governmental undercover operation and political intrigue! But the ultimate noose is tightened when Teddy comes to know that he cannot leave the island because the only one ferry which takes islanders out to the mainland is also controlled by Dr. Cawley. Is Teddy safe in Shutter Island?

Thus unfolds the teeth clenching, nerve ripping suspense thriller that is Scorsese’s Shutter Island. It is hard to tell whether the ambience jells with the plot or the plot is a deceptively innocent outcome of the ambience itself. The island with its stormy coasts, eerie graveyards, dense jungles and above all the gloomy penitentiary provides the perfect backdrop for the hair raising adventures of Teddy and Chuck! The background score adds considerable hair splits to goose bumps!

I am not a Leonardo De Caprio fan but I cannot imagine anyone else in Teddy’s role as well. And what to speak of the doyen of the silver screen – Sir Ben Kingsley as Dr. Cawley? The man who is an institution in himself! An actor who brings to life a character who is as much in the dark as he himself keeps others in dark. He has much to hide and less to reveal. He who has a unique and dual role to play – that of a doctor devoted to his profession as well as a human being committed to compassion and betterment of mankind.

Finally, the message of the movie because Martin Scorsese is just not two hour Hollywood Hungama! He raises the most controversial issue of this century, nay, era when he tugs at the thin line of demarcation between sanity and insanity. The parting dialogue of Edward Daniels throws to the fore the most contemporaneous question of today’s turbulent times. What is sanity? The structure of thoughts and mental frame approved by the majority in conformity with societal norms or is there any other definition beyond the stereotypical notions? A tortured mind is also a product of the ravages and oppressions of the social system in which he lives. So sanity rests with insanity side by side; the choice is ours what to adopt and embrace - what is the best way to be or as Teddy’s convoluted mind ponders “which would be worse to live as a monster or die as a good man”. I think we all need to think and rethink over that.

DE-CLUTTERING LIFE

I have been running pillar to post for a while now like Mad Hatter. Whosoever asks me where I am, my standard reply is "I have been busy", which sounds more like a show off's hooter than a factual statement. But when I , one day, sit down to sort out my jumbled thoughts and life as well and introspect on what exactly I am busy about, I can not find the right answer or keep my finger on the exact sport in which I have been enthusiastically participating for so many days to the exclusion of all other activities. My personal as well as official email IDs look cluttered with read and unread messages, which need to be sifted - put in recycle bin or archived. My office desk is strewn with papers which are in urgent need of filing or screwing up in crunchy balls of varied sizes. My study desk at home retells the same story, I am in a mess but I am distinctly busy - doing what I know not.


So one morning, I take up the mammoth task of de-cluttering my inbox and outbox, desks and files at home and in office. And after two days of this time consuming exercise, I feel clinically clean, hygienic, healthy and happy. The sort of feeling which you get after spring cleaning!!! Then I sit back and think.


What makes me so busy that I can not spend time in managing my own papers? A list of jobs shoot up before my eyes! Okay...Next question whatever these jobs that I am submerged in, are they worthwhile to devote so much time in ? Does it give me enough soul satisfaction...Do I really achieve anything concrete out of them? If not, then what am I doing getting involved in these unnecessary chores? So on so forth, questions after questions pour in!Questions to which I am still finding the answers but on the whole after the cleaning spree there is an odd feeling of "aah I have done it", the feeling which comes after a pre-Diwali clearance of old clothes. used shoes, over used riff raffs or lying- in- the- corner magpie gatherings!!


As I rummage my brain, a thought crops up quite suddenly. If I can de-clutter my life as well. How nice it will be! What satisfaction that will get me! That bring me to the most important point: How to de-clutter one's life? Simple, by collecting all the bad thoughts, bitter memories,negative vibes, haunting pasts and dreadful nightmares in a big sack, bundling them up and dumping them into the nearest trash bin. Great idea..but the only hitch is that I am yet to muster all my courage to start gathering the unwanted and the unwarranted , see eye to eye with them and finding that ubiquitous dust bin wherein I can throw these and forget about them forever!

Do please look around , you all, my dear friends and do tell me if you find one ....not only for myself but also for ye all!

TWO MEN AND A TIGER - PART III





This time the arrangement was a hush-hush affair. When I called up, my friend and senior colleague, who had had a mishap at Jim Corbett National Park a few months back, maintained a stony silence on how he intended to spend his Dushehra or Diwali holidays. However, on the last working day, before paying his compliments of the festive season, he informed me that that he was leaving for Ranthambore National Park (in Sawai Madhopur District, South-eastern Rajasthan) in the coming week and was quite sure he would be lucky this time in spotting a tiger. This season, thanks to CWG, we got a holiday on the day of the closing ceremony which was a Thursday. Next day was Durga Ashtami which again was a holiday. So, a Thursday and a Friday clubbed together with the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) meant consecutive four days off. My friend had applied for a few more days’ casual leave. Thus, a total of seven days! A whole week! Enough time to befriend a tiger and his entire family! I thought but did not show much enthue and wished him a quiet good luck.

But at the last moment, the trip had to be postponed slightly as his wife suddenly took ill. My friend did continue with his leave but to “wife sit” as he told me later.

Apart from this short delay, there was no other untoward incident to dampen my friend’s spirits. I knew he was excited but camouflaged it well and pretended to be extraordinarily busy prior to leaving for Ranthambore. Therefore, no phone calls, no elaborate discussion on arrangements made – just a simple “bye-bye” a day previous to departure!

The week passed by, Uneventful. My friend was to join on the next Monday. Monday came and went. Tuesday followed. No sign of my friend. I assumed he must be submerged in work being away for a whole week. After all, he headed a department!

Wednesday the phone rang. Yes, it was my “long lost” friend brimming with uncontrolled joy. He waslucky this time! Not only did he see a tigress but also her cubs gallivanting in the open jungles. He vouched never to visit the zoo again. A caged beast was an eye-sore now after having seen the entire family in their natural surroundings. “But why did you not ring up on Monday and give the good news?” I asked. He explained that he had extended his leave. “Why the delay in arrival?” I was sure he must have overstayed at Ranthambore itself. But the answer came as a shock.

“Well! Every good thing has a price tag, my friend,” He said. The story went like this. After the successful safari, the family had boarded the Ajmer Shatabdi from Ajmer (the visit to the Dargah was also included in the tour) on the due date. The coach was mostly full of pilgrims returning after paying their homage at the Ajmer Sharif. They carried heavy luggage but the train had limited space to stow them. As the train chugged on, one of the heavy suitcases toppled over from the luggage rack on top and hit my friend’s head. He almost saw stars as the mighty case crashed down on him. Fortunately medical aid was readily available on the train. A Colonel, who was a doctor in the army and was also traveling in the same coach, rushed to help. First aid was given immediately. But there was profuse blood loss. At Rewari Station, when the train stopped, announcement was duly made for emergency help. The assistance came in the form of the compounder as the Doctor on Railway’s roll was on leave. The man carried a heavy box which looked more like a railway gangman’s tool kit than that of a medical practitioner. One look at the box and my friend decided to forego the help so generously offered.
On arriving at Delhi, the first stop was made at the hospital. The gaping wound was stitched, antibiotics swallowed and two days’ extra leave got sanctioned over phone to recuperate from the shock and the cut. So much so for stealing a glimpse of Elsa’s daughters!!

Notwithstanding the traumatic experience, my friend proceeds undaunted to Bandhavgarh National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, by the end of this December. He plans to spend his New Year in Nature’s lap and in the company of the “regal clan”. Time and leave permitted, he may include a round of the Kanha National Park (which is nearby), as well in his itinerary. Going by the looks of it, I am quite sure that nothing less than a “cozy chat” with the Big Cat shall suffice or satisfy my friend in his forthcoming adventure. Needless to say, I eagerly wait to record the heart to heart conversation in my blog!!

Friday, October 29, 2010

WHEN RAKSHAKS BECOME BHAKSHAKS

It was Maha Ashtami. The most important day during the Pujas. We reached on time at the pandaal to attend the aarati. It is customary nowadays to go through security check ups in crowded and busy gatherings. Therefore, we were not surprised to find that there were security guards placed at the gate - two ladies. One was sitting by the gate the other one was standing. I was right behind my mother. Maa found it difficult to walk through the slightly elevated makeshift security gate. The guard who was standing tried to help her walk through.

Being a conscientious citizen, I always feel it is our duty to cooperate during security checks. While the lady guard who was sitting next to the gate seemed oblivious of her duty, I prompted her to check my bag, which later on, I felt was a stupid act on my part. The guard was distracted but as I reminded her of her duty and asked her whether she would like to check my bag, she suddenly became very duty conscious. She dug her hand inside my unzipped bag and started feeling around. I was surprised. Generally, the guards feel the bag from outside or at best peep in to be sure. This lady while almost rummaging my bag kept on prodding me to take care of my mother. I somehow felt that she was trying to divert my attention.

I had my camera, mobile and purse inside my bag. Her insistence that I should attend to my mother made me suspicious of her ulterior motive. Why was she telling me to help maa when I was right behind giving her support? I frowned at her. She became a little conscious and just left my bag. Thereafter, I checked ten times to ensure that all the stuffs were right inside the bag. So much so for encouraging security check ups!!!!!

I could hardly concentrate on the aarati!!!

While as a well aware citizen, it is our duty to understand the delicacy of the situation and help the Authorities in their job, it is also important for the Organizing Committee of such massive Puja arrangements to see that the right type of people get appointed at the security posts.
We do not want our rakshaks to become bhakshaks!!!

Do we????

I intended to give a peace of my mind to the organizers but could not do so as the next morning our programme changed and instead of our local puja, we went city, nay, puja hopping and never visited the said pandaal again.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

HE SLEEPS IN THE SHADE

She picks up the corners of her billowing skirt

tucks them in an unyielding knot

stoops down and picks up with both hands

the mammoth implement high above her head

bringing down with compelling force, right

on the stone bed supine on which rests a slim blade

of iron twisted in a strong braid.


The morning glides by giving way to noon

whence she balances rows of bricks

one on top of the other

on the fulcrum of her delicate head

and sways up the rickety bamboo steps

with a strange, sultry grace

while the unruly strands of her locks

waltz in unearthly haste in tune with the wind

atop the construct she works till the sun approaches doom.


In between her toil she steals a peep behind the ancient peepal tree

tied to whose sturdy branches is a make shift hammock

swinging indolently in the breeze.

Once-white now soiled beyond remedy a sheet of cloth slightly frayed

holds a slender sliver of life deep in sleep

forging an unfaltering bond with dreams

his innocence caught in a broken twig clasped tight

in baby fingers, soft and a little muddy under the nails.


As the sun scorches the mother’s limbs to more rugged sheen,

he sleeps in the shade of clumped leaves and branches of a parent tree.


As night kisses the sky the mother ambles down the lane

homewards, a solitary dame with a bundle carefully

locked in arms, reclining on her fragile blade.

Faraway on the other side of the stream a swirl of smoke

rises up the sky; hazed in the mist is a lonely frame

the damsel treads across the field towards her modest hearth

head held high, carrying the joy of her nomadic life

Mother and child embroider a tale every day

On a blank, colourless, threadbare, wanton sheet.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

KOJAGARI.........WHO IS AWAKE?


Bengalis celebrate the Kojagari Luxmi Puja on Kojagari Purnima, which falls on the chaturdashi or the fourth day from Dashami. On this day the Bengali ladies fast (sometimes without a drop of water like my grandmother used to do), cook Maha Bhog , in the evening draw rangoli or aalpana in the Puja room along with little feet of Maa Luxmi all over the house to indicate a wish that Maa should come and reside in the household permanently, chanchala chapala (restless and mischievous) as she is known to be. But Luxmiji does not listen to her disciples so easily. She makes them wait till midnight and tiptoes inside the house without anyone knowing. Thus, the name Ko-jagari meaning “who is awake” signifying that Luxmiji shall only enter that household where every family member is awake and waiting for her throughout the night!

In our family, the Kojagari Luxmiji is being worshiped for many generations. Earlier when we were a joint family (in Calcutta), the event used to be a gala affair. All the ladies of the household including my granny, mother, aunts and their lady friends would get together and cook the Maha Bhog which would not be less than anything lavish. Relatives, friends, neighbours, known and unknown, would drop in to attend the Puja and partake of the Maha Bhog. There would be Khichdi (a spicy delicacy with rich garnishing), Aloo Gobi ki Subzi, Paanch Tarkari (a mixed curry of five vegetables), five varieties of bhajis, luchis (light and crisp maida puris), paayesh (a preparation of sweetened condensed milk with loads of kaju and kishmish), tomato chutney (with dates and raisins), fruits and innumerable types of sweets (home or shop made) This list is just indicative and not exhaustive.


Cooking a Maha Bhog is the most difficult task as being the deity’s food, the Maha Bhog has to be absolutely flawless not only in proportion but also in taste – a perfect blend of quality and quantity.It is believed that if the Maha Bhog is correctly cooked, the Puja is blemish free, if it is not, the Puja is flawful.

The earlier joint family has now compressed into a nuclear one; therefore, manpower is less but rituals remain the same. Apart from the Maha Bhog, the house needs to be cleansed and purified, the idol (our family deity) has to be bathed and decorated along with the Puja Sthal and in the evening the Katha has to be read out and Aarati done within time. This season we expected a few guests too. So, the Maha Bhog was also cooked in a grander scale.

However, my mother, from the very beginning was not happy with the way things were going and found flaws in everything including the cooking. She is an octogenarian and very difficult to please as the indelible memories of Pujas of olden times propels her to make inevitable comparisons.

By the time, I sat down to read the Katha, it was quite late. But as I read on, I was imbued with a strong feeling of devotion and dedication. Through the Katha, I almost reached out to the deity and prayed for everything good that she had till date endowed us with, hoping that she would continue to do so in future as well. When the Aarati was finished, I was brimming with fulfillment and contentment.

But the doubts arose when we sat down to eat the Maha Bhog. Everything was wrong. The sweet in the paayesh was not right. The salt in Aloo Gobhi was a little less. The Paanch Tarkari did not taste so well. The only saving grace was the chutney which everybody agreed was cooked well.

In the night, when I went to bed after the day’s hard work, I did not know whether to be happy or sad. The Puja was very satisfactory but the Bhog was not. Being an integral part of the Puja, the flaws in cooking tarnished the entire ritual. Though we had put in our mind and soul into everything, the Puja seemed to be incomplete and half done. Was it a foreboding? Something bad in the offing? Was the deity angry or pleased with us? All sorts of negative feelings and thoughts are since then crowding my mind and heart. I still do not know what to believe in - the devotion or the ritual? The Puja or the Maha Bhog? The sincerity of our emotions or the extravaganza?

Pray Maa Luxmi shows us the way.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

THE MAGIC OF LATA MANGESHKAR - PART I


Pandit Jasraj, in one of his interviews, said that it was not what Lata Mangeshkar sang but it was how she sang that made all the difference. True enough. The incomparable Lata Mangeshkar, the legendary singer, turned 81 on 28th September 2010 and is still going strong. I call her God’s own child. She has recently recorded an English song for an international production house and a Hindi one for a Bollywood film. Though highly selective of what she sings now, yet surprisingly decided to lend her voice to a Western number! But she has always been like that!! Throwing surprises when least expected by her impeccable performances and renditions - be it a cabaret, a raunchy folk song, a romantic croon or a hauntingly sad number – she has always mesmerized the agog listeners. I remember those days when one of her songs would be released on air, be it Hindi or Bengali, we would be left spell bound and analyze threadbare what made it so distinctly different from the rest. Was it the voice quality or throw, the modulation, the swar lagaav i.e. the precision with which the notes were touched upon or the measured expressions? It is extremely difficult to fathom the magic of Lata Mangeshkar and I suppose that is what makes her a legend.

She sang at a time for heroines who belonged to the era of demurely coy femme fatale subscribing to Victorian ethics. Lataji’s “nightingale” sweetness perfectly fitted the image. It is said that the lyricists had to be very careful while penning songs for her as the lady just refused to compromise with decency and finesse. Understandably so, since she belonged to an era when ladies hardly crossed over the threshold to opt for a career that too in music. The songs were composed by music directors, par excellence, who had solid knowledge of the finer nuances of classical, semi-classical, folk and all other types of music unlike the “hep” tribe to which today’s Anu Maliks belong who do not even know that Pt. Bhimsen Joshi belongs to the Kirana Gharana and “Nimbuda Nimbuda……” is basically a Rajasthani folk song punched into a recent, popular film number. In short, a number of factors are responsible for elevating a song into a classic creation – the lyrics, the composition, the style of singing, orchestration, singer him/herself, picturization and choreography if it is a film song etc. etc. But on many occasions, several music directors of yester year have confessed that Lata Mangeshkar added an extra dimension to their songs however beautifully composed.

To illustrate this aura of Lata Mangeshkar, I present five songs sung by her, though it is very difficult to put down in words an abstraction, an intangible “something” which can only be “felt” and not deciphered. The illustrations are random and do not follow any chronological or other order. As all her songs are unique gems, I picked up those which came first to my mind. I have also, in my limited way, tried to enumerate the reason why these songs are masterpieces. However my rationale is my own and should not be taken as a professional’s generalization since I am no musicologist. It is an audacity to even speak of legends let alone review their work without sufficient knowledge. However, this is my way of paying a tribute to a lady whom I have admired from my childhood, not only the way she sings but also the way she conducts herself:

(1) The first song that comes to my mind is Bas ek chup si lagi hai, nahin udaas nahin” (Film Sannata, 1969). The song was composed by Hemant Kumar and sung both by Hemantda and Lataji separately (male and female versions). Generally, songs of those days were accompanied by heavy orchestration (at least 100 piece) which was considered necessary to fill up the gaps between the sthaayee (opening stanza) and antara (consecutive stanzas) of a song and also to cover up the flaws, if any, of singing. However, the song Hemantda sang was only accompanied by tabla and harmonium while Lataji’s version had very subdued orchestration, which speaks volumes about the flawless singing of both the artistes. It is also noteworthy that in olden times songs were recorded live at one go with the musicians after innumerable rehearsals unlike today’s track system where the singer just fills in the lines in the pre-recorded orchestra track. The latter allows a lot of leverage to the singer who can dub the songs in parts perfecting each line through a number of takes and retakes. The lyrics by the inimitable Gulzaar Sahib also add to the charisma of the song.

(2) Aa Jaane Jaa.” is the only cabaret sung by Lataji (Film Inteqaam, ). The music is by Laxmikant Pyarelal. In one of her interviews, Lataji said that it was strenuous to sing a Laxmi-Pyare composition as it required a lot of force to rendition the jazzy numbers. This song has been picturized on Helen in a “Beauty and the Beast” dance sequence. Those who have heard the song, and I am sure there are countless of them, will vouchsafe that the haunting echoes linger on for quite sometime even after the song is over. Lataji added a new parlance to cabaret when she sang this song in her own impeccable style and I think this is the only time she encroached her younger sister, Ashaji’s domain, cabaret and fast numbers were/are whose forte.

(3) “Neela aasman so gaya (Film Silsila, 1980) composed by the maestro-duo Shv-Hari (Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hari Prasad Chaurasia). The song, if I am not mistaken, is based on Raag Pahadi. In Hindusthani Classical Music, every raag is supposed to have a definite, inflexible personality, depicting a particular human mood. Raag Pahadi is the only raag which is believed to change shades in accordance with the geographical contours as it travels down from the snow capped mountain valleys of Kashmir to the lush, velvety plains of the East. The song is a simple composition of straight notes woven without any intricacy, most probably keeping in mind the male version sung by Mr. Amitabh Bacchan. However, straight notes are more difficult to sing and if not emoted with the right amount of panache can fall flat on the listener’ ears! But not when Lataji sings, lending a brooding quality to the song with ease, bringing forth the grief of estrangement of the naayika (heroine), Rekha.

(4) The song that immediately comes to mind after the aforementioned third song is “Aaye dile-nadaan” (Film Razia Sultan, ), composed by Khayyam. The song is picturized on Hema Malini i.e. Razia, traveling through the desert on camel’s back. The song epitomizes desperation and isolation of a lonely woman who rose to power but lost in love. The song again has a haunting, brooding tenor and shades of Oriental strains (reminds one of Arabian music), perhaps, because of the historical backdrop of the story. Jaan Nisar Akhtar Sahib’s lyrics go hand in hand with Lataji’s rendition which concise the vastness of the desert in a three minute song!!

(5) “Paani paani re khare paani re” is a Vishal Bhardwaj composition (Film Machis, ) and lyrics again by Gulzaar. The song has minimum orchestra and flows like a stream. The beauty of the rendition lies in the voice modulation and expression. The line “Paani nainon mein bhar jaa, neendein khali kar jaa” and the whisper soft stress on the word “khali” expresses exactly the emptiness of life without the proximity of near and dear ones. The song is picturized on Tabu who joins her extremist fiancé far away in the barren terrains of the hills, leaving her home and village. Only a Lata Mangeshkar can bring about this distinction of expressing the whole gamut of a mood by modulation of one word in an entire song! This quality of right intonation of a single word to depict the essential mood of a song reminds me yet again of another Madan Mohan composition from the film Dastak. Sung by another genius of the same era, Mohammad Rafi Sahib, the song “Tumse kahoon ik baat paron se halki” has the characteristic repetition of the word halki in increasingly softer tones emphasizing a wisp of a touch lighter than a feather!!

Lata Mangeshkar’s magic cannot be encapsulated in one review. So, there is going to be a sequel very soon!!!

STOLEN FROM SURAJ GHIMIRE'S COLLECTION