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












THE STORY OF THE STRANGE MR. BRIGGS


(Only for those who have a taste for the bizarre)

(i)

I am not exactly at daggers drawn with Mr. Briggs, my neighbour, but I don’t like him either. There is something very distasteful about him. Unfortunately, we stay in the same building. He stays in the flat opposite - both ground floor dwellers. That is why, most probably, in spite of my not wanting to have anything to do with him, our paths cross now and then, which always leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t know about Mr. Briggs though. In fact, I wonder if anybody actually knows anything about him. He keeps to himself, hardly interacts with anybody in the block and even if one wants to do so with him (under duress or in exceptional circumstance), his response is so minimal or monosyllabic, that one ends up wondering why at all the conversation is initiated in the first place.

It is said that a dumb person does not have enemies. (In fact, he cannot because the seed of enmity lies in exchange of words!). Mr. Briggs has not crossed swords with anybody either. But he has a few very odd habits which irk me to no end. He is a loner. His wife died quite a few years back. His children are married and settled abroad. Rumour has it that Mr. Briggs once had a very cushy, handsomely paid job but he retired prematurely due to some mysterious health problem but nobody exactly knows what it was.

Picking flaws is very easy. So, I enlist Mr. Briggs virtues first.

Mr. Briggs is a peace loving man (as I have said he keeps to himself). He keeps his house spotlessly clean. He keeps himself spotlessly clean. He does all the household chores himself. No maid is allowed in. In fact, nobody in the Block has ever seen the interiors of Mr. Briggs’ flat! He never invites anybody in! Every evening he religiously visits the temple, adjoining our Block. He is a devout worshipper of Lord Ganesha. I have found him prostrated in front of the deity, quite a number of times, his hands outstretched in a pranaam posture, the fingers almost tickling the tail of the rat sitting idly at the Lord’s feet.

Mr. Briggs is of medium height. Often, I have seen him going for an early morning walk with a stealthy gait which some may find graceful. He is not exactly a dandy but colours his hair (I do not know whether this is a vice or a virtue!). One can make that out from the brown streaks amidst a mane of black. But as usual he must be saving each and every penny and doing the job himself. Result, a slap shod work which makes his hair look grubby.

I detest everything about him. So does my pet Mr. Snow Boot.

(ii)

It is impossible to list out Mr. Briggs’ vices. There are so many.

Mr. Briggs has to have fish every day (giving Bengalis a stiff competition any time!). How do I know that? By the plastic trash bin bag that he leaves out every evening and which every morning lies tattered and torn in the middle of the lane with the fish bones scattered all over. Some skulking cat or dog doing the honour!

I have pointed this out to Mr. Briggs innumerable times. In response, he just smiles.

Oh yes! Mr. Briggs does not allow the sweeper in too! But then he should dispose off the grub in the MCD dump yard located further down the main road! But he doesn’t. He just smiles.

(iii)

I was woken up from my afternoon nap, by a huge commotion outside. It was the guard and the RWA (Resident Welfare Association) assistant. The latter was out on collection of the outstanding Society Fees, a nominal amount which is paid by each resident family towards the maintenance of the Block. Mr. Briggs must have skipped his. The assistant had therefore called upon him, rung the bell and then knocked on the door several times. Not getting an answer from inside, he got worried and called the guard to help. Between both of them, they almost hammered down the door yelling out Mr. Briggs’ name countless number of times. But Mr. Briggs did not open the door.

This is another one of his vices, if it can be called so. Mr. Briggs never answers the door bell during day time! He is just not seen in the mornings! Though he is equally incommunicable during the other half of the day, the difference is of degree and not of kind.

***

In the evening, Mr. Briggs was at the RWA Office depositing the pending Society Charges. I was there too with a complaint (No, not about Mr. Briggs). When asked about the morning, he apologetically coughed and said that he had taken a sleeping pill last night and the drowsy spell continued till late during the day. That was why he could not hear the banging on the door!!!!!!!!!!

Mr. Briggs has a soft, sing song voice which reminds me of something, I can’t place what it is now!

(iv)

Mr. Briggs is self centered………..

Mr. Briggs is contemptuous of his neighbours…………….

Mr. Briggs is unsocial…………..

Mr. Briggs is vain…………

Mr. Briggs hardly has any sense of humour………..

When he smiles his eyes do not lit up…………….


Oh! I can go on and on and on…………….

But most of all he is strange, very, very strange…………….

(v)


Lately, a cat has come to prowl in the vicinity. A dirty yellow cat with black stripes!

The other day I was working in the kitchen. As I looked up, I got a start. My eyes met a pair of dark grey ones staring at me unblinkingly.

My kitchen window opens on the front lane, just a few feet wide. Across the lane is a small MCD park.

The cat was crouching on the railing of the park and gazing intently at me. Expressionless! Or was there a peculiar taunt lurking in those gray depths? It was mid morning but a sudden chill ran down my spine.

In the afternoon, I saw him again. Sprawled on Mr. Briggs’ balcony, the door to which was surprisingly unlocked! In the evening, he was curled up on the parapet lining his front window, his bushy tail hanging down, lazily swinging in the mellow autumn breeze and a know-all smile hovering on his soft pink lips, eyes closed. I would not have been surprised if a hum of a tune had floated to my ears. He seemed to be enjoying the dying sun of the day!

***

Snow is bringing down the roof with his incessant barks. The yellow cat makes it a point to sashay down the front lane in an irritatingly unruffled gait and sometimes stops by to look at Snow in the most infuriatingly innocent way.

I hear Snow howling and impatiently pacing the front balcony like a caged beast dying to be let out so that he can confront his arch enemy, in all his fuming ferocity, once and for all.

***

I bumped into Mr. Briggs in the market place by chance. Where else but right in front of the fish shop! He looked faintly annoyed as I told him not to encourage the cat. I was sure he was the culprit who tore the bin bag and gorged on the fish bones. Mr. Briggs listened to me quietly with an intent look which was disturbing and at the same time frustrating. A few seconds and then he was gone without even a nod or a bye. Right inside the fish shop, his favourite joint!

Of course! I do not expect him to say a yes to whatever I propose………..that is, not in “so many words”, at least. But still. There is something called courtesy!!!

(vi)

Snow has a running stomach. He nudges me up at odd hours in the middle of the night to take him out.

It was 2 o’clock when Snow woke me up. Poor chap looked supremely uneasy. I grabbed a light shawl. There was a bit of a chill in the air and I did not want to catch a cold. As we walked down the lane by the side of the big MCD Park our footsteps echoed on the asphalt. An ancient peepal tree extends its branches out on the lane over the park wall, shrouded with thick foliage. Just under the tree, on the wall, sat a pair of smouldering grey eyes! I almost dropped Snow’s lead. It was the yellow cat mostly invisible in the dark but for his devilish stare.

Snow was up on his hind legs ready to pounce on him. The cat did not show any haste. I pulled Snow back with all my might. As I did so, I backed a bit, stumbled on a piece of stone, big and square, lying idle by the side and flopped down on its cold bed loosing a step. The grip over Snow’s chain slackened.

Snow was waiting for this. He lunged forward targeting the fat little monster which calmly stood up yawned and jumped onto the branch of the tree. Snow was furious, more so, because he missed a pretty chance of pawing his feline foe by a few slim seconds. The cat seemed undaunted and stood straight on the branch looking at Snow with undisguised merriment. And then he did something very odd. He lifted his right paw to his lips, a perfect set of milky white teeth flashed out gleaming against the backdrop of the dimly lit nightscape, his head bobbed up and down while his well fed body shook with unrestrained mirth. A spate of sarcastic, savage laughter followed! I was mesmerized and could not take my eyes off him for a few seconds.

A cat guffawing in the middle of the night!

Was I hallucinating?

I caught hold of Snow’s lead and we ran – I, chased by fear and Snow because of diarrheoa.

***

Late into the night, I lie restless on the bed. Sleep eludes me. A perfect set of milky white teeth, manifesting vilest of humour in all its satanic splendour, haunts me. Does it remind me of something or someone? The cacophonous laugh resonates in eerie jest around the pitch black room. Round and round it goes………round and round! I think I am going crazy. Obsessed is the word. Did I really see a cat laughing? Did I actually hear him? I can’t make up my mind. It was so real. Naah, it must be the anti-allergens I have been taking for the itchy skin rashes, I conclude ………..

As the first streak of dawn slips in through the thin slits of the tightly shut windows, the nightmare of the previous hours seems to slowly back off to a faraway zone of the mind till it becomes a nebulous dot in the distant periphery, something beyond doubt and recognition. Something which did happen but at the same time did not……………Something on which I want to put my finger tip and feel its presence but which slips away, far, far away, as I try to do so.

I vacillate between sleep and wakefulness.

I am there but I was not……………..

I was there but I am very much present in this room…………..

Queries question and answers scrape past my rationale.

The laughing cat…………………the running feet……………..the soft pillows and the warm, downy mattress with a sheet pulled up to evade the first weak light of the day….all jumble up in a garbled mass of haze and indecision, an abstraction of existence and non-existence, a maze of suspicion and belief, a tug between reality and delusion………..endlessly bewildering, bewitching and beckoning me till I surrender to my subconscious.

(vii)

On Tuesdays I make it a point to visit the temple in the evening. The temple is situated just outside the Block connected by a stretch of cemented alley running by the side of the biggest MCD Park of the locality. The block is dotted with myriad small and big parks. But this one is huge and a walker/jogger’s delight. The only minus point – it’s ill-lit. So is the alley, and at times, therefore, difficult to traverse.

Of course a street lamp burns religiously every evening near the gate which separates the Block from the alley. But because of the distance, the light does not cover the entire stretch, especially, those few yards at the far end merging into the street fronting the temple. There is a tube well where the alley takes a turn towards the temple. Next to the tube well lies always a wet heap of rubbish - stale garlands, flowers, leaves, broken mud pots and blackened earthen diyas – the residuals of worship.

As I walked down the alley one Tuesday (late evening - it was nine-ish by my wrist watch), I could hear the faint devotional music wafting from the temple. Punditji was singing a few shlokas and then explaining their meaning into the microphone for the benefit of all and sundry. Today I expected a crowd in the temple – devotees lining up for Divine Darshan and beggars queuing up for prashad (being Hanumanji’s day – even Gods have their days!). Strangely, the hum drum of a Tuesday temple scene does not infect the alley and one can not presage the commotion and the excitement of it all till one takes the bend by the tube well. The alley was as usual half lit and quiet.

As I neared the end, I could see a shadow approaching from the other side. Nobody had to tell me who it was. I would recognize him even if blindfolded. Mr. Briggs! He walked a few steps, suddenly changed course and stepped into the rubbish heap. He kept staring at it as though looking for something.

Apparently, he was about to squat on the heap, most probably, to rummage inside, when I came up right behind and called out softly,”Mr. Briggs! Have you dropped something?” For once I had the satisfaction of seeing him startled out of his wits. He leapt back, turned around, saw me and spun out of sight.

I had the distinct impression that he had been caught off guard.

***

This is another of Mr. Briggs’ vices. Why does he have to behave like an errant school boy caught red handed by the headmistress in the midst of making mischief?

Simply A-B-O-M-I-N-A-B-L-E!

Foul Mr. Briggs!

Obnoxious Mr. Briggs!

For me he is as much part and parcel of the garbage that he was about to scavenge!

(viii)

I love to watch Mr. Briggs whenever I get those rare glimpses of his.

Mr. Briggs mopping his front balcony on all fours!

How he crawls on the ground and moves with a waltz-like grace while doing so! His face close to the ground! His baggy muscles undulating underneath his thin snow-white vest as his limbs move to and fro in a rhythmic pattern. Mr. Briggs is quite agile for his age! He must be in his seventies? Sixties? Fifties? It is difficult to guess his age from his wrinkle free countenance. Mr. Briggs does maintain himself well.

Mr. Briggs dusting the grills….

Mr. Briggs brushing away the cob webs on the exterior walls of his unassuming abode……….….

Whenever I pass by his flat, my eyes are invariably drawn towards his kitchen window, which like mine, opens on the outer lane…………..flawlessly tidy inside…………..but I don’t remember ever seeing Mr. Briggs in the kitchen cooking…..Never!!!!

I wish I could view a little more of Mr. Briggs’ inviolable sanctuary but the drawing room window is heavily draped and most of the times remains closed (Doesn’t Mr. Briggs need sun and air?) I presume it will be as spic and span as his kitchen and balcony.

Mr. Briggs checking his mails…………..

Checking? Sniffing through his mails rather! The way his snubbed nose crinkles when he reads! It seems as though he smells each and every letter, word, phrase, sentence written on the page; his reading glasses, the one with the golden metallic frame, sticking to his eyes.

Maa says I cross the line of sanity when it comes to Mr. Briggs………….

Perhaps she is right.

The more I hate him, the more repulsive I find him, the more I stalk him.

Attraction of the opposites?

(ix)

The yellow cat is having a merry fest around the Block. He is omnipresent. Wherever I go, he is there. On the park railing, near the Mother Dairy Booth, outside the vegetable stall, in the alley leading to the temple...! He is every where.

But there is a subtle change in his behaviour. Nowadays, he chooses to ignore us, me and Mr. Snow Boot, and we, in turn, shy away from him. So far so good.

But Mr. Briggs has taken to him (Or is it the other way round?). He is always in and around his flat. In spite of my warnings!!!!!!!!!!!

On an unusually pensive note, I rationalize - Mr. Briggs must be feeling lonely, isolated, being so friendless. He also needs company. Old and alone that he is. And feline friendship is thousand times superior to human acquaintances. At least the animals are faithful and know what loyalty is unlike their human counterparts.

Is there a change in me too? I am surprised. A little at myself.

***

“Rainy days and Mondays always make me down…”

I wake up late, I am disoriented, I need time to get over my holiday hang over and come down to this earth; as a result I am horribly late. Inevitably.

Monday.

As I was hurrying down the main lane, towards the temple gate, to catch the metro to office, I saw the yellow cat sitting on the big MCD park wall, sun bathing.

The mellow autumn sun is a pleasure now, warm and soothing to the skin.

He was licking his left paw, engrossed. As I rushed past, he turned away his face slightly to the other side.

Did I hear a soft chuckle?

My ears play tricks sometimes…

(x)

A few bouts of rain and the city comes to a standstill. Bumper to bumper traffic and an indefinite stranded existence inside claustrophobic buses and cars!

I had dozed off inside the chartered bus – my chariot back home! It had halted somewhere far away from destination and kept rooted to the spot for hours sandwiched between rows and rows of vehicles with blazing brake lights.

It was still pouring. Evening had swum across to night and night would probably wade through to dawn. I had already informed Maa not to wait for me. I was safe with the co passengers who traveled with me every day and stayed in the same locality and around; a set of spare keys with which to let myself in home, there was nothing to worry about, I told maa.

My vertebrae were stressed by the interminable sitting posture. I desparately wanted to shift to the horizontal mode. A daily one and a half hour journey was stretched to infinity.

It was three minutes past eleven when my bus dropped me outside the Block. I suffered a shooting pain down my right leg as I got down. A five minutes walk down the damp, deserted alley doubled in time as the discomfort increased with every step. No rickshaw around. So, no option left but to limp home. It was drizzling softly. Most of the flats had put off their lights and called it a day. One or two left looked about to retire to bed too. The street lights seemed to have taken a day’s off too. (That’s what rains do to the Capital!). I could not see the night guards but could only hear their shrill whistles afar.

As I passed the big MCD Park with the old peepal tree, involuntarily my mind flipped back a few pages of memory and a pair of grey eyes incongruously pranced in front of my own. I shook my head and staggered on.

From this side I would be circumventing Mr. Briggs’ flat first in order to reach mine. As usual, the flat was dark. No, nobody was around except a black mound on the parapet, which, as I tried to quicken my pace, gingerly pulled up and stretched languidly.

I winced as the effort of walking faster made the pain worse. The drizzle had stopped. The clouds parted a little just then to let a streak of pale moonshine drunkenly fall over Mr. Briggs’ front walls. The mound had now taken the shape of an arched bow; its shadow danced wickedly on the lusterless wall.

I had crossed over and was about to open the front door when a muffled noise made me turn back. The lane looked desolate but I had heard footfalls. My eyes went up to the flat opposite, the shadow on the grim wall had changed shape appearing almost like a human form on haunches slightly stooped in front. My heart skipped a beat. I opened my mouth to shout but no sound erupted.

A whistle blew close by. The night guard was approaching. I almost ran a few steps, dragging my right leg along, to wave him towards this side. The guard saw my frantic gesticulations and reached me in no time.

Without looking, I pointed towards my neighbour’s wall,”Wahaan kucch hai , dekho!”

“Kahaan memsaab?” asked he.

I turned around to pin point - a blank facade stared at my face.

As I dismissed the guard with a mumbled excuse, the crescent moon winked impishly.

***

Were the shadows just convolutions of my tired but over imaginative mind?

Was it the yellow cat again?

It did look like a four legged beast straightening indolently on its forelimbs. But then it changed to something else which almost looked like...

I don’t know. I am not sure…

I am too exhausted to think.

(xi)

The yellow cat is up to mischief again! The freshly bought packet of fish left on the kitchen slab is missing!

Of course the window was open. I had just gone out to answer the door bell! It took less than a minute for him to whisk the packet off the shelf and vanish!

Though, to be very honest, I have not seen the cat lurking around my flat for quite sometime now! But who else can the mischief monger be?

Mr. Briggs is as usual hibernating! So, nothing more to do but fret silently!

Deep breathing to ward off stress as advised by my Yoga teacher!

***

A blood stained polythene packet lay mangled along with Mr. Briggs’ torn trash bag the next morning.

But all plastic packets look alike…

Benefit of doubt…. Mr. Briggs!

***

Cats are free spirited

Cats are Bohemian

Cats are distrustful

Cats are disloyal

(Not to their owners but their neighbours!)

Cats are THIEVES!!!!!!!!

***

Fourteen days more to go! We Bengalis have a habit of counting days as Durga Puja nears. This time I have applied a brake on my shopping spree. Painstakingly though! But what to do? I have already exceeded my budget and ever dwindling savings.

I had planned to buy a pair of gold earrings this Puja. No saree or any other artifacts. Just a “plain” pair of gold earrings ornamenting my ear lobes!

Man proposes but God disposes!

Mid summer, first the AC conked off. Then the TV started snowing. Both were beyond repairs, I was told by the experts. Both are indispensable – the AC for me (Maa complaints of increased joint pain under any artificial cooling system) and the TV for my mother (I am allergic to the Idiot Box).

I was still reeling under the impact of these sudden replacements when the plaster started peeling off the kitchen and bedroom walls due to seepage, source unknown!

The gold earrings as a result have been postponed till next Puja!

Autumn always makes me wistful. This year autumn looks bleak. Miserably so, with pangs of woe stirred, shaken and swirled in the mix!

(xii)

Mr. Briggs is half a pound more than plump, fair complexioned, dark eyed and sports a pair of moustaches. Needless to say, I hate everything about him. But I hate his smile the most.

We seem to collide into each other more often in the market place. The other day it was in front of the Mother Dairy Booth.

That reminds me of the Milk Episode!

My milkman, Mukesh, leaves the milk packets (Mother Dairy -Double toned) outside in between the grills every morning. Four packets placed one on top of the other. Two days back one packet was missing. A day previous a packet was found hideously pricked in the corner, as though by some sharp object, with the milk spilling over drip by drip on my rubber plant. By the time I picked up the packet, it was half empty.

Mr. Briggs was walking back home from his morning stroll. I stopped him, “Mr. Briggs! See what your cat has done. I told you he is the culprit. Why do you have to pamper him so much? He is always lazing around your flat. Why don’t you take care and feed him may be, a little more? Or better still, why don’t you shoo him away?” I was unstoppable. Bottled up exasperation was fizzing out.

But strange as Mr. Briggs is, he just stood there transfixed, keenly eyeing the packets as time ticked by. My tirade trailed into silence as I gaped at him open mouthed. Mr. Briggs stood peering at the milk packets, through the light morning mist. A thin, pink tongue intermittently jutted out lustily caressing the mouth in circular motion – Mr. Briggs kept on licking his lips greedily, salivating lovingly over the milk packets!

I think it was the call of the azaan from the nearby mosque which brought him to his senses. He hurriedly regained his composure, glanced at me sheepishly and grinned.

A bolt of lightening struck me. I knew exactly why I hated his smile the most!

My flat faces the easterly direction. As the morning sun streamed in, it illuminated every single line of Mr. Briggs’ smooth contour and settled on his upper row of neat little teeth, impeccably white, smooth and shiny which were rendered shinier by the dazzle of a gold tooth, just next to the right molar, peeping from the corner of his mouth. So intense was the impact that I shaded my eyes from its glitter.

The remorse of the missed earrings that had been dulled into a stupour suddenly churned up like an infant howling shrill for his timely doze of lactate and settled down and kept on throbbing in every nook and cranny of my heart, body, mind and soul.

It is odd how realization dawns on you at the most inopportune moments coupled with a kind of deja-vu as though you should have known a long time back what has just struck you now.

As the early morning rays played a peek-a-boo with Mr. Briggs’ facial features, I happened to notice things which had somehow escaped me earlier.

(Though I take pride in knowing Mr. Briggs through and through).

I always thought Mr. Briggs had dark eyes but they were actually greyish blue and had the most displeasing tendency of altering colour with the changing stance of daylight. There were deep hollows around his eyes and somber shadows patch worked his face –forehead, cheeks, down the sides of his nose. His salt and pepper moustache sprouted out like uncut harvest over his thin lips and was in desperate need of a trimming. His hair looked almost dirty, the brown streaks yellowing at the roots.

Mr. Briggs seems to have become careless about his appearance. Perhaps age does that to you!

(xiii)

It’s a month now that I have seen Mr. Briggs. In fact, nobody has, either. So says Mrs. Sharma, the snoopy Reuter of the Block. The yellow cat has vanished too. I am relieved.

But a nagging doubt still pokes its head at times. Where has Mr. Briggs suddenly disappeared to?

I am curious. Very, very curious……

(xiv)

My days of unproductive inquisitiveness ended on one fine Sunday afternoon. (Did it really?)

It was early winter. The days were still warm giving way to chilly evening and chillier nights. I was washing the utensils in the kitchen. The window to the front lane was wide open. Sun strode in along with a light breeze. The trees in the park shivered softly.

I hummed a tune as I worked. Suddenly a shadow fell on the sink. I was surprised. Was it going to rain? As I looked up to check, a gasp escaped my mouth. Perched daintily on the window sill was the dirty yellow vagabond cat back again intently watching me with a lop sided smile on his lips. His grey whiskers twitched, twirled and twisted as he tried hard to repress the smile from rippling into froths of guileful giggle.

Where was Snow? I instantly remembered that this shrewd imp was not a grain frightened of any beast, let alone Snow. As I stood there almost stupefied under his bold, hypnotic spell, the mood changed. The grey eyes lit up with something uncannily familiar and before I could pinch myself the lips parted in a wide ear to ear grin. Was I imagining? A set of pure white, uniformly moulded teeth bared in simpering vanity intercepted by a wee chink of gold next to the right molar half hidden by a furry mouth and strands of unkempt whiskers!!

There was a crashing sound as the unwashed bowl slipped out of my hand into the steel sink with a resonating clank. I dashed towards the back door and ran pell mell to the flat opposite mine. I could here Snow following me in equal speed barking loudly. Maa was calling out to me………But my body brakes had failed. The feet kept on pressing the accelerator.

The front door as usual was unlocked. I bolted in and would have almost hurled myself on the front door when a steel lock hanging by the latch jolted me to a stop. The door was locked. Mr. Briggs was not there. There was an unusual air of finality about the locked door.

***

I retrace my steps back home. A quieter, introspective me! There is something terribly wrong with me. I am loosing control over myself. My imagination is running wild and overtaking reality.

A must visit to Banerjee Kaku, the famous shrink, Baba’s child hood friend. I make a mental note to jot it down later in my “What To Do” note pad.

The kitchen was empty when I came back. The yellow cat had vanished into thin air.

Nothing seemed amiss except the bowl of fish curry which I had prepared for lunch this morning.

(xv)

I met Mrs. Nosy Sharma that afternoon.

(Why does she always remind me of a gushing hose pipe?)

Before I could ask she supplied the desired inputs.

“Do you know Didi Mr. Briggs has left for the States for good? Going to stay with his son now!” Mrs. Sharma continued in one breath. Given Mr. Briggs’ odd habits she really had doubts as to how long his son would be able to put up with him. I had my doubts too.

And after the catastrophe this morning, I wondered………I seriously wondered………

(xvi)

I am back in the kitchen in the receding light of dusk to brew a cup of tea. I place the kettle on the gas stove at the same time stretching out to open the window. My gas oven is placed right in front of the kitchen window. I feel washed out, drained, perhaps emotionally spent will be the right expression. My eyes fall on something.

A pair of gold rimmed glasses glistening on the kitchen slab. It was not there this morning.

Neither is it mine nor my mother’s.

But I know who it belongs to.

I have often seen it settled on the bridge of his chubby nose when he screens his posts.

Carefully folded on the clean, white marble slab lies Mr. Briggs’ reading glasses!!!!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

PROUD OF YOUR KHICHDI.......?


The language that we now use to communicate with our fellow beings and express our thoughts and feelings can at best be called a khichdi mix of English, Hindi with a dash of vernacular carelessly thrown in. But if we are asked the simple question whether we actually know our language, the answer, I suppose, will be an unabashed no. We glibly blame it on our cosmopolitan upbringing; we take pride in saying that we speak the common man’s language which is easily understandable; we give examples of such other words which have come to be used and adopted in the course of time but do not strictly belong to that particular language, e.g., bazaar in English, bus in Hindi, ijjat colloquially used in Bengali taken from Urdu word izzat so and so forth.

Blatantly hyped and extensively used by our media (TV News, Serials, Chat Shows Reality Shows etc.) this mixture of languages has become our notional language. With the exception of a few like Mr. Bacchan who prefers to use unadulterated version of whichever language, Hindi or English, he chooses to speak in, most of the times, our ears are assaulted by this “mixed babble” which has become our colloquial dialect. We pick up what we hear. This dialect has also invaded journalism, literary works, broadcasts (FM) etc. AIR is an exception. But who tunes in to AIR nowadays?

In this context, I remember an anecdote - my father’s childhood friend whom we fondly called Jethu (Tauji), was perturbed when his son who was settled abroad wrote to him that his Bengali friend and his British wife would be calling upon him for dinner. Jethu was known to be a close fisted person and would count every penny before spending (he left a fortune for his grandchildren!). But this time he was not worried about money. His only concern was how to communicate with the lady and whether he would be able to understand her diction. Jethu was an extremely well read person with a penchant for the theatre and the most embarrassing habit of vocalizing his political views (generally anti-establishment), loudly, to the shock and chagrin of the audience at large. He spoke English fluently but with a strong Bengali accent.

Finally the guests arrived. The much dreaded dinner happened to be a peaceful event. The next day when we asked Jethu whether he could understand the lady’s accent. He gave an impish wink and said it was the other way round. It was the lady who found it difficult to understand Jethu’s much refined English expressions!

Another example: our family physician Dr Sengupta was an affable soul with a florid smile. He belonged to East Bengal and spoke the dialect of the region fluently. So did his wife, a simple, middle aged woman who basked in the glory of her grand children. One evening in one of the community gatherings, we almost fell off our chairs when the lady on request, went into raptures and recited lines from Shakespeare ex tempore in perfect English. Later we came to know that she was an English graduate from an esteemed institution of pre-independence time.

Simple people leading simple lives with a love of language!!

Some of my learned friends have pointed out that borrowing words from other languages is a common phenomenon world over and is a part of cultural intermingling which enriches and enhances vocabulary. Agreed! When we cook we too put in a number of ingredients to garnish the dishes but at the same time we know the taste and flavour of each of the masalas that we are putting in. Stretching the same example to this issue my humble submission will be that before preparing the assorted linguistic gourmet we should have enough knowledge of each of the lingual ingredients that we lavishly throw in so that if one day if we are told to prepare a simple, unadulterated version of daal chawal in one language, we should not cut a sorry figure.

My grandfather used to say that proficiency in one language automatically facilitates proficiency in other language(s) because the underlying nuances are the same. Instead of hiding our deficiencies in several languages (Hindi, English and Vernacular) under the garb of a cosmopolitan tongue, shouldn’t we brush up our knowledge (read language) a bit?

We are fashion savvy, net savvy, tech savvy, mobile savvy, computer savvy and so on and so forth; can’t we also be language savvy? Or is it too out dated a concept?