Saturday, December 27, 2008


Since my brother is visiting us along with his family for our annual bout of sibling revelry, here's a reminiscence about the daily bouts of sibling rivalry that occured when we were young and together.

Anything and everything edible given to us had to be shared equally. I was the more pugnacious of the two, and would set out complicated rules and regulations dictating the terms and conditions of the partition of every single morsel that came our way.

If there were two separate but similar things, like say, two toffees, then, obviously there were no problems. Each one eat one - was the rule.

If it was one piece of something which had to be divided equally, like say, a piece of cake, then the rulebook (authored by me) said - one of us would divide the cake (or cutlet, or...) and the other would choose his portion first. The rule was scrupulously fair in its nitpicking - the person cutting the piece would be very careful to cut it equally, because otherwise the other would get to choose the bigger piece.

The even more complicated rule for things that came in uneven sizes and in larger numbers (a bunch of grapes, or a bowl full of berries, maybe) was : the first person would take only one, the second would take two, and then the first would take another. Then this cycle would be repeated again and again till the entire loot was evenly distributed. WHY this particularly complex process, you may wonder. This was because the first person would usually end up getting the biggest piece (chosen first) and the fourth-largest piece, and the other one would get the second and third-largest piece. Now 1+4 equals 2+3, and although we never had weighing scales, we never had any complaints about unfairness either.

Ah, the deviousness of dharma (justice/righteousness)! Later on, when I read/saw the Mahabharata, I was amazed at the complicated routes taken by the righteous to achieve the victory of virtue. And, of course, I felt completely vindicated in my rule-setting, although everybody else felt otherwise, including my brother.


Monday, December 22, 2008


West Bengal, the state in India where I come from, has a long and unfortunate history of de-industrialization. Of mills and factories closing down, of sole breadwinners suddenly becoming jobless. Of the small dreams and security that a regular salary brings changing suddenly to a bleak-black-uncertain future. Of people trying desperately to cling to ‘respectability’ and not topple over into utter ‘poverty’.

We met such men on local trains, hawking plastic hairclips and handkerchiefs. We met the women behind these men going from door to door, selling small articles of daily use, depending as much on the buyer’s sympathy as on their own selling skills.

They were not the smartly dressed marketing professionals we see today. They were women who had never thought they would have to ‘step out of their house to work’. They had been content to toil within the bounds of domesticity and always blamed their “kapal” (forehead – where the inscrutable lines of destiny are supposedly etched) for pushing them out of doors.

When we were young, I remember three such women who were regulars at our house (and at the houses of all our neighbours, friends and relations – all part of a large network of ‘references’). With the intrinsic callousness of children, we regarded them more with curiosity than with sympathy, wondering why their eyes watered ever-so-often, wondering why our mothers ended up buying more than we needed (or more often than we needed).

I am sorry to confess that I have forgotten the names of two of these brave and gutsy ladies.

One lady sold ghee (‘clarified butter’, as they say), coming to our home once a month to fill up a jar of golden, rich-smelling ghee made from creamy cow milk. She was plump and smiling, with smooth dark skin that looked as if she had polished it with ghee. She would put down her heavy jars and sit in bedroom (all these women would come straight to our bedroom where they would chat with ma and barama over tea and biscuits; the drawing room was for strangers and male visitors), pour out ladlefuls of ghee into the ghee-er-shishi (bottle demarcated for ghee) and deliberately spill a little on the plate beneath so that we could lick the yummy ghee. When she left, the gheewali (as we called her) left behind the warm aroma of pure ghee.

Another lady sold us dhoopkathi (incense sticks) – indispensable in every household and used for the daily morning and evening puja of the household gods and goddesses arranged carefully on the thakurer aashon (altar). Maybe the close association with religious objects made her blame the Gods for her cruel fate. And blame she would, in a loud and continuous lament, pausing only to sip from her tea-cup or to count the change. She was usually disheveled and distraught, with faded sarees and straggly hair, and we (rather cruelly, I feel in retrospect) called her ‘Ghargheri’ (Hoarse-voiced).

In complete contrast was Rashmonidi. Thin, dark, neat as a pin, not a fold of her inexpensive saree out of place, she was more interested in hushed gossip than loud lament. She was an amazing job-hopper – she began by selling cotton chhapa (printed) sarees, then temporarily trespassed into Ghargheri’s territory by selling dhoop-kathis on the side. She could give new-born babies their daily maalish (oil-massage) and bath (a daunting task), she could help out when large numbers of guests came for weddings or pujas in the family. She was dynamic – doing whatever she could to earn enough money to put her son through college. And when this son’s wife and she did not get along, she opted out, willing even to accompany families moving out of Kolkata as their cook/maid/governess. I met her some years ago, still as thin, but with her hair cut short in a ‘boy’s cut’ for convenience, as gossipy and gregarious as ever. Fate has dealt her plenty of blows, but has not managed to blow out her spirit.


Monday, December 15, 2008


We did not have a telephone in our house when we were children. Perhaps this childhood deprivation scarred my psyche somehow, because till today I’m not really a phone-person, being rather abrupt and let’s-get-it-over-quickly on the phone, even on my soul/cell-mate mobile.

But when we were children, phones were immobile, kept majestically on their special pedestals (usually the top of some bureau/showcase covered in flowery-embroidered cloth, out of reach of pesky toddlers) and attached to wall with a special curly wire. I always wondered where it came out after going inside the wall. The phones just SAT, menacing in their big black boxiness, emitting a shrill loud unmistakable tring-tring to beckon the entire household if there was a call.

The neighbours across our house had one such big black phone (far more solemn than the colourful light cellphones we carry nowadays). My mamabari (maternal grandparents’ house) had another such. Having a phone in the house raised the status of the family in the social pecking order. It also meant having an enormous social responsibility. Because all the neighbours would troop to your house to make calls from your phone if the need arose (as it inevitably did). Also, inevitably, it meant taking calls on behalf of your neighbours and shouting from the balcony to them to come and speak to whoever was calling them. Because of these, er, network (social, not telecom) problems, telephone calls were restricted to necessities, not frivolities. Which is not a bad thing at all.

I was very scared of speaking on the telephone. Because, in those days, you never got directly connected to any familiar, friendly voice of the person to whom you wanted to make the call. The calls had to be made via the local telephone exchange, where there would be some gruff-voiced disembodied telephone operator who would listen impatiently to your request to connect you to the required number, BARKING at every hesitation you made, and, with an almost audible sigh of irritable exasperation at being disturbed, he/she would condescend to do so in a voice dripping with unfriendly sarcasm. I am SURE it was NOT like that at all, only that it SEEMED so to my shaky-scared ears and trembling-stuttering voice.

Even when the call was put through and some familiar person was on the line, the crackle and distance would somehow de-familiarise the voice and make it cold and distant (pun intended now but not felt then). And because I was nervous about not being able to hear clearly, I always spoke very quickly in a very loud voice, trying desperately to end the conversation ASAP and putting down the receiver with relief, my hands clammy with gripping too hard and ears burning with effort.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The current disenchantment with, and ire and fire against, politicians makes me remember my first brush (or should that be scrape?) with politics.

I forget the exact time, but it was before the general elections after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. There was a huge sympathy wave for the Congress-I, led by Rajiv Gandhi, the son of the assassinated Prime Minister. But, West Bengal, as usual, was a red bastion, a Communist (CPI-M) stronghold, or should that be strangle-hold?

Hectic campaigning was going on, with regular evening marches by the contesting party-members and their supporters (mornings were presumably too hot for slogan-shouting). Almost every available inch of wall-space was partitioned between the Congress-I and the CPI-M for wall-painting and poster-pasting, with, expectedly, the red-party hogging the major share.

My friend Mampi and I deeply felt the injustice of this unequal distribution. Why should CPI-M’s Tarit Topdar have his name written all over the place and why should Congress-I’s Debi Ghosal languish in (comparatively) lesser space? All our adolescent sympathy gushed over for the underdog (who was also the perennial loser in a chain of previous elections, and, like all losers, reputed to be a ‘good man’).

There was a dilapidated wall encircling an empty field opposite our houses, ignored by the political paintbrushes for its unprepossessing appearance. To redress the imbalance of political justice, Mampi and I took some white chalk and some broken pieces of red clay-tiles (we could not find the green favoured by the Congress-I, so we had fall back on the red colour of the 'enemy'), and, with painstaking effort, we etched the legend “VOTE FOR DEBI GHOSAL” in somewhat uneven handwriting all over the discoloured wall. We scripted the letters as big and as bold as we could make them, scraping over and over again to make the letters legible from a distance (feeling decidedly ‘un-bold’ at our own daring – we would drop the chalk and run away as soon as we saw someone coming, returning to our task only when the lane was clear). We also drew a large and rather misshapen HAND the election symbol of the Congress-I.

And so, this was my first idealistic, if anonymous and unsung, contribution to the political circus of the elections. The Congress-I won on a landslide of sympathy, but Debi Ghosal, as usual, lost with good grace. Mampi and I, however, felt that our efforts had been vindicated because the margin of loss had reduced considerably.


Monday, December 1, 2008


My first awareness of terrorism was in 1984, in October– when Sikhs demanding Khalistan assassinated our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. I remember a sense of unreality and disbelief, a sensation of being out of my ten-year old body. There was no continuous cacophony of television channels swooping in on newsworthy tragedies, like they do today. Only an eerie, tense silence, a suspension of activity for a long, stretched out moment.

In retrospect, it surely did not happen that way. The grainy black-and-white pictures on the state-owned Doordarshan repeated over and over again, the slow stumble and fall, the rumours spreading like a forest on fire.

The vehicles spontaneously stopped plying, the shops willingly downed shutters. Our school was declared closed, and we walked back home, saucer-eyed-apprehensive. A cousin who went by train to a school in Kolkata trudged back 25 kilometers on foot. She remembers the blisters on her feet. Our minds were blistered, too. The known, familiar social order had been overturned (we had grown up learning in our schoolbooks and from the newspapers – which we were just getting into the habit of reading daily – that the iron-willed Indira Gandhi the leader of our country, it felt that she had been so for ever) not by the ballot, but by a bullet.

What shocked my childish self most was the betrayal – the bullet which killed Indira Gandhi was shot by one of her own body-guards. As a ten-year old, loyalty came very very high on my priority list of values.

And then began the tearing apart of order and sanity. The anti-Sikh riots left us shaken. It was one thing to feel angry with the Khalistanis for trying to rip apart India, to feel enraged at the assassin’s betrayal in killing the hand that fed him. It was a totally different thing to see innocent Sikhs being pulled out of their homes and killed.

We had a Sikh family living in our para (locality); the husband was a strapping, jovial Sikh married to a Bengali Hindu wife. Of course, it was a love marriage, and of course, it seemed a very romantic and daring thing to elope with and marry a person from a different culture, defying your parents. Our young hearts were captivated by this love story. What fascinated me was the apparent ease with which this Bengali lady had adapted to her husband’s culture. She wore the salwar-kameez (not the then-ubiquitous Bengali saree), tied her hair in plaits instead of a bun and spoke in robust Punjabi to her family (switching to Bengali if she was talking to one). I remember peeping many times into their walled house which had a friendly, always-open narrow door, giving a view of the open courtyard which seemed full of bustle and people.

During the riots we were not allowed to go out-of-doors. After the bloodbath, when school re-opened, I remember gazing in grief at the disconsolate open door of their hastily-abandoned house, half-torn from its hinges. The empty courtyard, to which they never returned, spoke of another kind of betrayal – the betrayal of neighbours who had long pretended to be friends but who had nursed xenophobia in their hearts.