Friday, July 24, 2009


In school, we had a subject called SUPW (Socially Useful Productive Work). It involved a lot of craft-related activities, and, later in senior school, some social project work. Being lazy and self-absorbed children, we dismissed the subject as Some Useful Periods Wasted.

I did not really mind wasting the period by making pencil-holders by wrapping colourful paper around old talcum powder tins, and other fanciful and useless things like making prints with cut slices of ladies’ fingers (the vegetable) and onion-halves.

What irked and bothered me was the compulsory sewing projects we girls had to undertake. I remember we had a lady teacher teaching us the subject for a few years, who would insist on all the girls sitting and learning various kinds of stitches. The boys, lucky idiots, were spirited away to some unspecified location, where they made unrecognizable clay models and wood-carvings.
We were stuck in the classroom with the needle often stuck in our fingers (especially in my hands, which seemed to be all thumbs). The simple run stitch seemed deceptively easy and my fingers would run away merrily with the needle, till the stern teacher would look over my shoulder and point out the unnecessary necessity of each stitch being of the same size and equidistant from one another.

The stem stitch and chain stitch were all right, I suppose, if you overlooked the variously sized links of the chain, or bits of the stem. The criss-cross herringbone always made me cross, although I enjoyed the neatly laid-out patterns of the cross stitch where I had only to follow the design laid out on the graph and where the stitches would automatically be of the same size, because the cloth itself was woven like a grid.

But I was completely flummoxed by the really intricate stuff like the neat hem stitches, buttonhole-stitches (my holes looked as if they had been forced by a particularly belligerent big button), French knots and the tiny satin stitches. I was really really bad at the fine art of needle craft, which was fairly surprising because both Maa (mother) and Didia (my cousin) spent long hours discussing patterns and colours and creating delicate gossamer embroidery on many of our dresses. Unfortunately, my admiration did not progress to emulation, and I remained handicapped at handicraft.

And so, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the stern sewing mistress left our school and was replaced by the affable Maity Sir, who taught both Bengali and SUPW. I put away the handkerchiefs with the uneven half-finished hems, and the round wooden embroidery frame and VIBGYOR silk threads. And happily spent the rest of my SUPW periods making unproductive and silly stuff like soap-gardens (where you had to stick paper flowers and leaves on wires into the soap and make a fancy fence-border with pins and garish plastic ribbons). Horribly tacky stuff, but easier to tackle than sewing.


Saturday, July 18, 2009


Power-cuts (load-shedding in local parlance) were a regular part of our daily routine when we were growing up (it still is, in most parts if India). Now we fight the darkness with generators and emergency power supplies provided by the housing societies. Then, our weapons were kerosene lamps wielded by the ‘ladies’ of the house. The men would usually sit still, or, at best, provide match-boxes or fumble for torches. It would usually be Maa (mother) or Barama (aunt) who would move sure-footedly to the window sills and light the lamps kept there, dispelling the darkness like Goddesses of Light.

There were three types of kerosene lamps used in our house.

There was the all-glass lampha (lamp), where the glass chimney was supported only at the base, which was also of thick glass. They gave a clear unhindered glow and were kept in the sitting-room, dining table and bedrooms (which doubled as study-rooms for us, with a wooden table placed in a corner next to the bed for that purpose). Being regarded as rather fragile and easily breakable they were generally not subjected to too much movement, but remained in their appointed place and shed a bright yellow light which allowed us to read or eat (and pick out tiny bones from fish-pieces, served with curry at supper) without taxing our eye-sight.

Then, there was the sturdier ‘hurricane’ or lanthan (lantern), where the glass chimney was encased in a supporting criss-cross metal wire, and which had a metal base. This wire formed shadow lines where the light fell and so it was not the preferred choice for light-intensive activities like reading or eating. It had a handle which could be held (and swung a bit, when the elders were not looking) and it was used in the kitchen and for going to the bathroom or toilets.

If the authorities did not deign to deliver us from darkness at bed-time, and the power-cut continued beyond that, then the lamphas would be extinguished or the lanthans left to burn very dim with the wicks lowered. Sometimes, Maa would light a small kupi, which had a tiny tin base and a small chimney and which gave a very faint light, which was regarded as a frugal compromise with the darkness at sleep-time (I could not find any suitable photo of this economical object which is still very popular in West Bengal villages).

The flames would inevitably lead to a gradual accumulation of soot which would darken the chimneys. A weekly job was the cleaning of the delicate glass chimneys with soapy water, gently patting them dry and fixing them back on the lamps. This ‘handle-with-extreme-care’ chore was performed only by Maa and Barama (or Sabitadi, the household help) and we would watch fascinatedly from a safe distance. We were allowed to move nearer when the lamp-bases were refilled with kerosene. As Maa unscrewed the base caps and poured the flammable liquid through a dingy green plastic funnel, I would bend low and inhale deeply. It might sound slightly crazy, but the sharp smell or virgin kerosene was (and is) one of my favourite smells (along with boot-polish, so now you know what an olfactory idiot I was).

One of my distant relations (the elder sister of my uncle’s elder daughter’s husband – if you want the Indian happy-extended-family exact definition) lived in a flat in Kolkata crammed with beautiful antique objects. On one of my several visits there (accompanying my cousin sister – in the approved Indian extended family tradition) I noticed, and immediately coveted, a blue Chinese porcelain lamp. But such delicate contraptions were for decorative display only. Because when the inevitable power-cut happened, it was the nondescript Indian-made sturdy lanthans that helped us to battle even the sophisticated South Calcutta darkness.


Monday, July 13, 2009


(Almost) Everybody goes through a FAN-tastic phase in life. One, at least. Or several, as in my case. Over those awkward, gangly-gawky growing-up years, I have been a fan of several different people from several different professions. Actors, singers, authors, sportstars…you name them, and I have had them up on my walls or deep in my heart.

Sometimes the adulation-relation has been a lifelong one – I just can’t get enough of Mr Amitabh Bachchan, for example. Or Agatha Christie.

But sometimes, the passion has been short-lived. And the intensity has been completely inexplicable once the phase passed. (OH MY GOD, HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO-O-O CRAZY ABOUT SO AND SO?) I have done this from oooh-to-eeks deflating journey quite a few times, actually.

Take the eminently-nonentity Rahul Roy. When he first appeared in the movie AASHIQUI, strumming a guitar and lip-syncing to the nasal-but-memorable songs by Kumar Sanu, floppy hair hiding half his face (and covering up for his complete lack of expressions), it was fan-dom at first sight for me.

I was all of seventeen, living in a hostel with a gang of girls (all in their swoony-moony adolescence), and completely swept off my feet by this screen-hero who waited for his girl with a bunch of flowers outside her typing school, who came from a broken home and hated his dad, who cried like a child in his mum’s lap when love seemed to turn sour.

Teenage romantic filmy classics like BOBBY and JULIE were before my time. For me, and some of friends in Lady Brabourne College Hostel (Lopa, this is for you), it was this ordinary, sensitive and vulnerable hero of AASHIQUI, who believed in love, not violence, who ruled our hearts and raced our pulses. We bunked college several times to watch and re-watch the movie. In fact, I think we saw it seven times in all. Six times at the theatres. And one time in a riskily madcap adventure.

Around eight of us had slipped off from the hostel with no intention of attending classes, intent on catching the matinee show of AASHIQUI once again. But the show (at the now-defunct LOTUS cinema, I think) was, as the board proclaimed, HOUSEFULL. Then one of us said that we could go and ask the nearby video-cassette rental shop if we could hire the AASHIQUI cassette and watch it at their shop premises, since it was not possible to watch it at our hostel. But the shop-owner did not grant us our request.

Very dejected, we dragged our feet outside the college, unwilling to go in. We loitered outside the strangely-named stationery shop, DOLPHIN (located close to our hostel and much frequented by us) and poured out our woes to the sympathetic young (and nice-looking) owner.

The chivalrous fellow immediately offered to help us damsels in distress. He invited us to his house (a three storey mansion right behind his shop), sent someone to rent the cassette and showed us the movie on his drawing room television. He even treated us to colas, a luxury for us perpetually cash-strapped hostelites.

When we returned to the hostel, giddy with another dose of Rahul Roy’s maudlin heroics and the Dolphin-owner’s generosity, we were severely scolded by the rest of our friends for being foolish enough to enter a stranger’s house. “You could have been raped, or kidnapped! The cola could have been spiked, you idiots!" they scolded, and not without reason.

But, being fan-atics, we paid no attention. Head in the clouds, we wore our fan-dom badge proudly and loudly, defending Rahul Roy against charges of non-acting, silly-sissy hairstyle and suchlike.

Once, my friend Lopa and I, the giddiest-headed-ever fans of Rahul Roy, walked straight up to a BATA shoe-showroom glass door, kissed the life-size poster of Rahul Roy smack on the lips (he appeared in ads for North Star shoes and apparel) and walked off again, much to the open-mouthed incredulity of the security guard. But then, fans are supposed to be crazy.

Thankfully, though, the Rahul Roy phase soon wore off, although I valiantly tried to keep the flame alive by faithfully watching his next few quite-unwatchable movies, and I mourned (a little) his passing into obscurity. Imagine my embarrassment when he turned up decades later, chubbier-than-before but as wooden-as-ever, with the trademark floppy hair in place, in that terrible reality show for all kinds of has-beens and never-was-esBIG BOSS. And he won it, too. Everybody teased me about my old and near-forgotten crush on the now-portly (non)actor. I almost died cringing.


Saturday, July 4, 2009


Recently, the television channels have been beaming this nostalgic, retro-looking ad for Cadbury's Dairy Milk Chocolate, where a dhoti-clad man is given a wad of currency notes by his Boss, "Banke, tumhara pagar (Bankey, your salary)" and the chorus breaks into the happy-go-lucky jingle, "Kuch meetha ho jaaye, aaj pehli tarikh hai (Let's celebrate with something sweet, it's the first day of the month)" - the "meetha" obviously referring to the chocolate.

When we were young, my Baba (father), who was an engineer working with the West Bengal State Electricity Board, would come home all happy and flushed on the first (or second, or third) of every month, one hand joyfully holding up a celebratory cardboard box of mishti (Bengali-style sweets) and the other hand cautiously clutching his trousers-pocket, which contained his monthly salary in cash (less the amount spent on the aforesaid sweets).

Most of his trousers had a special inner pocket (hidden under the lining of the front pocket) sewn on to them specifically for the purpose of guarding the salary - it was always paid in cash those days. As he usually travelled by local train, he had to be aware of pickpockets, who did brisk business in the early days of each month. In the crowded trains from Sealdah to Barrackpore, you had to take every precaution to guard the amount in your secret pocket.And that four-figure amount (which now looks almost impossibly meagre) was sufficient to provide for a family of six (my grandparents, parents, brother and myself) - food, shelter, clothing, education, healthcare and the occasional indulgence like the box of sweets.

The box usually contained the lethally high-calorie and syrupy "atom-bomb mishti". Perhaps Baba felt it was appropriate to start each month with a big-bang splurge. Sometimes, especially towards the end of the financial year when tax-cuts truncated the take-home pay, he would be more prudent and come home flourishing an earthen pot (a BIG one, mind you) of rasogollas (the famous Bengali sweet made of cottage-cheese balls boiled in sugar syrup).

For us, however, the effect was same. The beginning of the month meant a worthwhile wait for Baba to come back from 'office'. Sometimes, he would come late, because he would refuse to board too-crowded rush-hour trains. He would let the crowded ones pass, before getting up on a train which had space to sit, which made it difficult for pickpockets to pilfer your salary. But, late or not, come home he would. Spreading happiness and sweets. While we carefree-ly chomped on the calories, Maa (mother) carefully counted the currency and put the notes in various envelopes (for various household expenses) in the money box in the almari (cupboard).

Today, our salaries have increased by a few more zeroes at the end, and they are conveniently credited to our bank accounts. But the tangible thrill of clutching a fistful of hard-earned, my-own money and the small but immediate pleasure of splurging on a treat for myself and my loved ones has perhaps decreased to zero.