I turned up at their front door. I felt the sweat trickle down the back of my neck. A fly buzzed and settled there and I smacked it off. The sun was hot and made my eyes squint. I felt self conscio…
Source: Can I Come In?
I turned up at their front door. I felt the sweat trickle down the back of my neck. A fly buzzed and settled there and I smacked it off. The sun was hot and made my eyes squint. I felt self conscio…
Source: Can I Come In?
SEASON OF CROWS
A FAMILY PORTRAIT
ARJUN L. SEN
CHAPTER 4 Ancestors
CHAPTER 5 The Third Eye
CHAPTER 6 Tales of the Heartland
CHAPTER 7 Afternoon Sonata
Note on circumflex ^ over vowels : these indicate long sounds.
CHAPTER FOUR : ANCESTORS
Thapuna (My Father’s Mother)
Thapuna was what I called her, which was a childish mispronunciation of the word Thakurma meaning father’s mother. As this was what I apparently called her when I was three and before I went to England, the name stuck when I returned. No-one ever explained to me that I was mispronouncing the name when I first returned and quite some time later when I realised my mistake, the name stuck. It seemed churlish and inappropriate to change it to the formal title. Our relationship would have been unthinkable without the old, childish name, so it stuck right into adult life. But a lot later, when I visited her in Calcutta when I was in my forties, she would sit on her bed in a small room in Chhoto Pishi’s flat and refer to herself as your Thapuna. She would cock her head to one side and smile and the whole thing showed that she knew I was not a child any more but nevertheless, she hoped that I always still would see her at least a little as her beloved granny as she was when I was three.
Thapuna was a great one for telling colourful stories in a dramatic, yet dignified
style, that left little room for doubt or argument. She was herself a simple woman, born in
1895 in the final decade of Victoria, the Queen-Empress of India´s reign. She had not
finished her education beyond school level.
In those days in India, an educated person was automatically expected to combine both manners and knowledge in a single package. To call somebody ‘an uneducated person’ implied both defects of character as well as of schooling. This may be because literacy, book knowledge and superior values were all traditionally, at least in theory, the province of the Brahmin castes, and thus the lettered were also supposed to ‘know better’ in the fullest sense of that term. Knowledge had moral, intellectual and aesthetic dimensions. This was also true for Europe and is a point on which there was, for once, a conjunction of viewpoints, culturally speaking, instead of a clash or a difference.
Still thinking out loud, I’m not sure that the concept of knowledge is as comprehensive today as it was them. It is an important point, as far as it stands up, and it’s one of the things I do still appreciate about the old culture of the generation before me, the one that grew up before Indian independence in 1947. Nevertheless, at that time I was quietly starting to reject the institutionalized authority of elders to be unquestionably obeyed, which was also a part of that old culture. So indeed, in the sixties, some of us were in that transitional generation that had a chance to try and “get it right”, but for whatever reasons, it didn’t seem to happen. As I rolled into adolescence, an interesting division seemed to be emerging between young people who remained staunchly committed to the old customs and to absolute parental authority, and those who were starting to question that authoritarian culture, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly.
Traditionally, academic learning, however much revered, was nevertheless recognised as being less important than right character and values, underpinning the basis of superior caste values. Brahmins were expected to be morally better than members of castes below them in the ritual hierarchy of caste. It was, ultimately, a spiritual hierarchy. I really do think that broadly speaking they got that bit right. This part of me remains right in the old culture that came before me. I don’t expect it holds a lot of water generally today.
Thapuna’s profile fitted this old construct very clearly. In terms of literacy, she had
never got beyond high school, but her reading level was well in advance of typical high school leavers as she was a lifelong and assiduous consumer of popular novels in both Bengali and English. The lack of modern technology here is probably a blessing: today, someone like herself may well have been glued to the TV instead or tut-tutting over trashy magazines.
Paradoxically, her side of the family were Brahmo Samajis, Brahmin rebels from the Hindu traditions in the early nineteenth century, adapters of British ideas, rebels against ancient rituals and traditions about caste, profession and payment for services. Yet in character and manners, my grandmother was as perfectly Brahmin as her forebears a thousand years ago may have been.
Her personal standards were of the utmost respectability. She exemplified, really, the very best of the bhodrolok, true to the letter and spirit of what that Bengali expression – respectable people – meant. From the day my paternal grandfather died, six months before I was born, she wore a plain white sari and blouse. No jewellery, no tîp on her forehead or sindur mark in her hair parting as she wore it cut short, no make-up (which she never used, anyway). Her bracelets were broken and cast away the day of Thakurdada’s death, as is the Hindu custom. She was alone as a widow but never wanted to be married again or to be with another man. She remained surrounded by family who literally worshipped her feet. In her own way, she was at peace in a way almost impossible today. Her vigorous black hair, which remained almost unmarked by silver till she was past seventy, was cut short in a severe, monastic style that appeared incongruously modern to my eye. Her gentle, strong-featured face, appeared sterner as the years wore into it but time could not rob them of their essential nobility of spirit.
Thapuna remained in real mourning for Elder Grandfather for the rest of her life – she lived to be just short of one hundred. Tall and slim, her face was pale, angular, strong-featured, with skin as soft as rose petals. Her hands were large and strong : capable hands that could have done the work of a hospital nurse but instead, she made the most exquisitely delicious shingaras (Bengali pan-fried savoury pasties) I have ever tasted. Her expression could look solemn when she was still and drawn back into her own thoughts, but if she heard a good joke or told me an entertaining story, her face would crease into a huge smile, and her eyes would light up with great warmth.
Her attitude was practical and no-nonsense to most of the disappointments and difficulties in life, except when she spoke of my grandfather, a successful doctor and, when he was young, a medical officer in the British Indian Army and a decorated veteran of World War One. Then her face would seem to somehow break a little and her eyes would mist and she might stop for a moment and look away.
Even as a child, I was awed by such sorrow, and the intimation of a love so strong and so
enduring. I didn’t understand it but I felt its power on the human soul, that it could move
someone as strong as my grandmother for so long. And I would look up at the framed black and white photo of this man of middle height, standing next to my father, then barely more than a teenager, a gangling giant over six feet tall and towering over my grandfather Thakurdada. I saw a gentle face, looking keenly but without force, at the viewer. This was a man who died and whom I had never seen but who lived on in the hearts of others. I wondered, vaguely, if there was anything of him in me.
Thapuna could not and would not soil her hands with deals involving black money, a
Delicacy that carried with it the ancient distaste of the kulin brahmin Raychaudhuri family from which she descended, though she was of the Brahmo Samaj reformist sect by religious affiliation, and no longer technically a Hindu. In post-independence India, the black economy was traditionally very large, probably exacerbated by a punitive taxation system that made it even more attractive to evade taxes. Consequently, it was difficult to get the market rate for any substantial asset without accepting a significant element of the agreed price in black. Such considerations may seem quaint today to the younger educated generation of urban Indians in which marriage across caste and regional lines is now quite common. She was given the unusual name of ‘Bella.’ Thapuna told me she was named after an English lady named ‘Isabella’ who became her godmother in an undoubtedly interesting tale which I never followed up on. However, I’m not sure that’s the full story: Robi Babu (Rabindranath Tagore) refers to the much-loved white bela flower so famous in Bengal. Perhaps the name arose from a happy conjunction of both sources.
Thakurdada’s own father, born in 1847, was a convert to the Brahmo Samaj who were Hindu reformers, generally Bengali educated folk , mainly of high caste, either brahmon (priest), khottri (warrior) or boddi (scribes and doctors), who believed that Hindu civilization had become corrupt and caste-ridden and needed to reform by picking up the best ideas, through a careful process of selection, from Western cultures. My grandmother retained that very strong sense of moral correctness based more on ethical than ritual principles, that characterised the best of the Brahmo Samajis in the nineteenth century and who contrasted themselves with Hindus. Inspired by the intellectual landowner Raja Ram Mohun Roy in the 1820s, Brahmos believed that traditional Hinduism had lapsed into empty ritual and slavish adherence to caste rules, in a word, had become decadent.
By the time the Brahmo Samaj culture had filtered down to my parent’s generation, however, this puritan reformist vigour had largely evaporated. In the sixty one years since Thapuna’s birth and my birth, the Brahmo Samajis had retained the austerity and restraint of their rituals and ceremonies – in contrast to the colour and exuberance of the Hindu ones – but failed to retain that puritan earnestness of morality. Instead, a middle-class ‘decency’ or ‘respectability’ became the bottom line. The emotional commitment to this ‘respectability’ was absolute.
Calcutta society, such as it was, regarded my grandmother with confused feelings, of awe
and fear of her moral elevation (no-one would dare offer her a black market deal for her
property, for instance, or a bribe of some sort) while at the same time viewing her feelings as quaint, out of touch. Such complex evaluations I picked up, even in my childish innocence. from subtle or not so subtle remarks, for example : “Your grandmother will not take any dirty money (tomar thapuna nongra poisha kokkhono dhore na!) a visitor to the household might exclaim, face working with a curious mixture of awe and pity. I would see greed and shame both struggling in the contortions of that adult face, and ponder on it.
Clearly such rectitude had already become a social rarity, and worthy of special remark. Obviously, in practical terms the pursuit of self-interest is always been conducted in a two-faced manner. Bribery, corruption, dirty dealings, in business and politics, were by the second decade after Independence normalized and the idealism of the pre-war period largely disappeared, though politicians wore Gandhi caps and khadi-kurta and piously intoned idealistic goals of all kinds. India, released from the clear and sole objective pf independence from British rule had not surprisingly found it harder to agree on more complex and elusive goals, such as social justice, radical land reform, sympathetic management of rural-urban migration, freedom from want, security, and resolution of caste and religious conflict. In other words, the age-old problem of how this hugely varied and complicated family that called itself India was going to manage itself proved even harder to tackle than the prolonged struggle for independence that preceded it.
But ‘business as usual’ and my grandmother did not mix. Thapuna, who was widowed the year before I was born, remained an uncompromising example of rectitude in a sheepishly amoral Calcutta struggling with a multitude of mind-boggling conflicts in which the bottom line of the bhodrolok had increasingly little place.
Respectability was already starting to go out of fashion though it remained to awe the masses for as long as that generation and the culture of what I like to call the ‘socialist interregnum’ (1947 – 1991) lasted. After that, as everyone I have spoken to seem to generally agree, money and power have been doing all the talking. Respectability is now a quaint and not even a nostalgic memory. The very concept is liable to draw furrowed brows of puzzlement from many. It is increasingly an irrelevance. The more basic things that have always been essential – money, power, career success, influence – have moved into first place. Cultural things such as intellectual and artistic talents seem to be increasingly valued in the service of fashion and branding, either for products or for issues of social status, nowhere near as much in themselves as they used to be. Again, this is a matter of degree but, I think far enough to mark a fundamental shift in the tone and content of modern culture, as much in urban India as anywhere else.
Today respectability, and its alleged links with moral virtue, seem to be less important and there seems to more of a cruder and more direct relationship between money and social status than perhaps there was before. This is perhaps a global rather than specifically an Indian phenomenon. A half century of popular culture as much Indian as well as Western, plus the enormous pressures of political and economic change, has put into the grave the outdated moral universe of Ram Mohun Roy and Rabindranath, a world that took shape in the nineteenth century. Whether that it a good or a bad thing is of course entirely a matter of opinion. I rather like their high moral tone, universalism and even cosmopolitanism, but of course I would! Others may feel these are irrelevant in the modern world.
However, socially, for the Calcutta bhodrolok, it is no small matter that such an adherence to respectability, rooted in the genuine morality of the best of the Hindu way as well as the Brahmo, is now passé. By elevating respectability to a primary goal, this whole class of people, the bhodolok, made it quite hard for themselves as well as the younger generation to adjust to the pressures of the emerging, highly competitive Indian society. Agile adaptation to the mores of the present, a suitable survival of the fittest, will ensure the evolution of a leaner, hardier, more competitive generation moved on from the old gentility and moral reservations of their ancestors. I imagine that this was partly responsible for the mild tensions between younger and older generations and the rebellious style modes in which some sections of the urban educated Indian youth located themselves in the 1970s. I include myself in this group, of course.
Without a doubt, the educated generation of my grandparents were more idealistic than my parents who had to work out their lives in more cynical and confused times. My grandparents came out of the struggle for independence and they dreamed of an India re-born in which its troubles and conflicts – poverty, casteism, sectarian strife, technological backwardness – would be pushed away, if all were committed to high standards and worked to the common good. National struggles like this often generate such intensely positive feelings, for example, the collective spirit in Britain during and shortly after the Second World War that led to the founding of Europe’s first non-communist ‘welfare state.’
So it was with us. The generation of children brought up during the era of my grandparent’s struggle did not themselves imbibe the same heady dose of idealism. By the sixties, the old cronyism had washed over and buried most of the energetic idealism of the past. Once independence was gained, it was back to ‘business as usual.’ For my parents, moving their young lives forward in this already tired air, they had to find other ways of appreciating India rather than the comprehensive and holistic vision of building an entirely new country out of independence. For my father, it was competing in the market through modern business methods and succeeding at the targets set – which he more than did, except that he never made any money out of it; the owner of the business did! I have continued my father’s trick of remaining the modestly paid hired hand except that my position is humbler than his was. As for my mother, she retreated, understandably, into intellectual and aesthetic pursuits. She took up the study of French and of Indian art.
My own understanding of ‘decency’ remains, that good manners, considerateness and empathy work best if linked to a certain open-mindedness as well, a desire to include people even they are a little different. It’s a more informal interpretation, perhaps characteristic of my generation, less set in its ways.
In the case of India’s large Muslim minority, given the very long history of conflict between Muslims and the Hindu majority in India going back a thousand years, it is perhaps not surprising that Thapuna hadn’t examined her inherited prejudices against her own personal experience. I was not aware of any likelihood of a bhodrolok person of Calcutta’s narrowly defined Hindu and Brahmo educated middle class of meeting many Muslims socially. Muslims and Hindus appeared not to generally mix; the sectarian divide, created by centuries of history, signed and sealed in the blood of Partition, was almost seamless and cut across class lines -with some notable exceptions such as in the case of the affluent Khoja (Shi’a) Muslim trading community. It was only in my generation that things started to change, as middle class boys and girls from across the sectarian divide started meeting each other in English-medium schools.
“Muslims,” said my grandmother to me as I sat one sunny morning in her small flat in the big building, all of which was her property, “Are not to be trusted. Mark my words, little boy. You have much to learn about India. Their ways are not compatible with our ways.” She wagged her finger at me warningly as I told her about my new friend in school. He was a Muslim boy called Fayaz. Fayaz was one of the few who who would speak to me from the first day I walked into class. He was only there for six months before he moved to another city very far away: I think it was Bombay. Fayaz’s departure was a blow to me. I needed leadership. I got it from him and I lost it almost straight away.
Now here was my grandmother, dismissing “all Muslims” as unreliable. This did not fit in well with my limited experience but that experience seemed very important to me. Most of
the other boys in my all boys’ school regarded me as an oddity, on grounds of culture,
language and social responses. However, Fayaz spoke to me completely without any insincerity or patronising tone, and, as far I could see, without anything to gain from the connection as I was not a prized asset socially in my form group. Therefore, I could not see how my grandmother’s dictum could be generally true as it had failed this specific case.
Fayaz was not a sad case either. He was admired for being good at sports, reasonably proficient in his studies, especially good at mathematics in which I was a complete disaster, and quite tall and strong for his age. He was also rich and wore a gold Omega watch, which quite put to the shade my silver Seiko watch with the black dial which my grandfather had given me and which I liked a lot. Unlike my pudgy arms, his arms were toned with lean muscles. His pre-adolescent physique was well-exercised.
My grandmother’s judgement turned over in my head uneasily and I finally rejected it without it affecting the love and respect I had for her. However, I was disturbed to think that Thapuna’s dictum, was wrong. As a child I had no way of assessing the complex nature of Hindu-Muslim relations in India; I personalized all my generalisations. I had, I think, discovered the fallacy of the categorical statement, but I had not the capacity to see the matter in perspective. Daily experience of Indian life was already confounding my capacity to understand. I felt out of my depth but I also felt that people around me hadn’t got it right either. Everyone seemed to be sticking with some kind of narrow perspective or other on this or that. No-one was making a real effort to winkle out the truth, wherever that might be. This truth was certainly not easy to work out, either. I was out of my depth but I was unable to rely on truisms that did not fit my experience either.
Yet wrong, I decided, she was. I could not deny the evidence of my own experience. It was one of the first steps towards mistrust of the judgement of adults that was to mark the rest of my life. I couldn’t say it, of course. Respect for elders and their pronouncements were not optional in the culture in which I had now found myself. While I could argue with my parents, it was not possible to argue with my grandmother. It wasn’t that she was so severe that I would face capital punishment or grounding for expressing a contradictory opinion, although I would be put firmly in my place for doing so. It was more the divine patina of age, and the assumption of absolute certainty that she bore that reinforced that patina.
Arguing with my grandmother would be a form of the grossest misplaced behaviour, like
insulting the ancestors. This divinity of the elders was daily reinforced by the – to me
bizarre but squeamishly awesome – practice of touching the feet of the elder person –or pronâm. Today, as an adult, I find it touching and sentimental, and a practice probably extinct or nearly extinct. As a Western-educated child, however, brought into a household where this was commonly done, I was embarrassed. Ancestor worship was fundamentally alien to my mental make-up, whereas respect was not. I suppose what repelled me about pronâm were that firstly, I did not believe in the divinity of ancestors, and secondly, that my affection for certain older relatives in India was always an informal, intimate thing. Pronâm formalized the relationship, brought in concepts I did not understand and if I could have been made to understand, would have felt alien to me. Anyhow, it created a distance through institutionalisation and ritual and, by making it a requirement, sent a hidden message that the institutional relationship was more important than the intimate or personal one, which I did not accept.
What particularly struck me about the gravitas and social importance of this practice of pronâm was that my father performed it when he met his mother. He stood six feet two in his socks and had an athlete’s build – unsurprising as he played all the sports at school and university. He was generally amiable and sociable but I never saw him bowing and scraping to anyone, and he had the cheerfully gung-ho manner of someone trained in the American model. Yet when it came to his mother, he literally worshipped her feet.
Ancestor worship, therefore, was not an option in this culture, a lesson I absorbed the first time I watched, marvelling inwardly, as my father leaned forward his towering frame and, grunting, touched his mother’s feet with both hands. This custom impressed me both with its importance as well as with its alienness. Every time I had to do it I did it with a sadness akin to a fat man tying his shoelaces.
Both piety and conventional respect were alien to my restless cultural makeup. I retreated more and more into instinctive judgements about all sorts of things which I kept to myself, knowing that in most cases they would be found as culturally alien as they would be subversive, inviting a strict regime of correctional practices forthwith. The ingrained English child hid furtively under the cheerfully blank mien of the Indian schoolboy, trudging about in crumpled shorts and the beginnings of an Elvis Presley puff haircut.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Father’s middle sister was known to me as Mejo Pishi or Middle Aunt on Father’s
Side. Bengali society generally recognises many shades of relatives according to
seniority and consanguinity. Mejo Pishi was, to me, the most striking looking of my
father’s three sisters. Tall and nut-brown with her black hair done up severely in a bun at the back, occasionally she would let it it down and it cascaded down her long, slim back like a waterfall at midnight. She cut a handsome figure, even in middle age though her face was lined with disappointment. Despite this, she had a wide, generous mouth that opened wide in huge smiles and peals of laughter. Like her mother, she was always ready for a good joke.
She had her mother’s graceful form. Her face was fine-boned with high cheeks and a wide smile. But her eyes glittered behind her spectacles with a complex expression that as a boy I couldn’t really interpret and which sometimes made me uneasy. Much later, I would understand this expression better.
Mejo Pishi and her husband (Mejo Pishé – Middle Uncle on Father’s side), Mr and Mrs Ray, were completely shattered by bad luck. It is remarkable how some people seem to be dogged by misfortune and their spirits remorselessly drained away by adversity over the course of a lifetime.
Mejo Pishi was, according to family legend, cheated of her inheritance by a close relative. It all went back to Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, former Chief Minister of West Bengal. Dr Roy. Dr Roy was deeply attached to Thapuna all his life, though of course Thapuna was married to my father’s father (Thakurdada). . Dr Roy never gave up his affection for her and became effectively godfather to all her children.
Upon his death, it is believed that he had a left a will dividing up some of his properties and other assets among Thapuna’s children. A close relative, so the story in the family goes, managed to find this will and destroy it. As Dr Roy had not registered his will when he died at the age of 80 in 1962, he was apparently intestate. A fake will was said to have been produced that passed the property to this close relative. Mejo Pishi, of Thapuna’s children, got nothing. This relative was already well-off, lending credibility by example to the cynical truism that the rich get richer by depriving the poor of what little they still have left.
As can be imagined, that whole generation of siblings were upset by this betrayal of trust and never recovered from it. Mejo Pishi was not brought up to work but to be a respectable housewife, and despite a sharp intelligence and even sharper tongue, she was not able to pursue any economic occupation. Poverty was the result, and dependence on living with her mother for the rest of her life. Her younger sister also faced alienation from her husband during an era when neither female occupation for re-marriage were easy to achieve, but she managed to eke out a living running a professional beauty salon.
Eventually, the wound in the family impacted on me. I was handled in a slightly ironic way by certain relatives, which I picked up on quite early but did not understand the cause as, of course, it could not be explained to me. I can only assume that somewhere, my father sympathised with his middle sister’s plight, but otherwise tried to stay out of the bitter family intrigues. To no avail – within families, neutrality is allowed. Either a positive or a negative position will assumed on the part of certain persons endeavouring to be neutral, and the consequences upon relationships are passed down the line. I learnt early on, as all children of our generation did, that while they may have been regarded as ‘clean slates’ for adults to imprint on, the family situations themselves were certainly not ‘clean. It was up to the child to pick up on the roles or statuses defined by those situations, some of which may have happened before they were born.
Mejo Pishé, a mild-mannered, lean man with a stoop and a gently sardonic manner, had started life as a vigorous, energetic and highly motivated engineering graduate from Glasgow University. There were not that many Indian graduates of British universities in those days. A degree counted for something and a degree from a British university, the ruling heart of Empire, counted for more than all else.Thapuna reminded me of that more than once.
Mejo Pishé returned to India from Scotland, a free citizen, as my father did a few years later. Despite the horrors of partition where the streets and fields of India ran with blood, young Indians in their day, with the clear-featured, smiling visage of Indian National Congress Leader and first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to encourage them, felt that there was real hope.
Mejo Pishé and my father were members of what I like to call that lost generation, before the India started opening up to the global market after 1984. They were the ones that born and grew up during the decades of hope that came with the independence struggle, and then subsequently found their nation branded by the West and the United Nations as a poverty-stricken ‘basket case’ economy and derided for their moderate socialist economic policies and actively neutral politics during the height of the Cold War.
These two professional men had to find their way in a world unsympathetic to professionalism and expertise and committed to a culture of clientism, cronyism and backhanders. The government of independent India sank quickly into a vast system of patronage, the bureaucracy a paper, stamp and seal-dominated layer complementary to the patronage system running through to the very foundations of society, in town and country. In doing so, it merely picked up on existing patterns co-existing in the Indian structure of government prior to British rule, but massively worsened by injurious colonial policies, particularly land policies.
Perhaps Indian historians before and after independence were too engrossed in focusing on bad aspects of colonial administration but, particularly after independence, failed sufficiently to consider the Indian roots of the problems of the day. Colonialism has a lot to answer for, but surely it doesn’t account for everything.
A huge amount of talent swelled up out of that ‘lost generation’ and much of it dissipated into careerism, ‘brain drain’ to economically advanced countries or got simply swallowed up in the gigantic labyrinth of bureaucracy. Some fine talents went into public administration and got lost in ‘politicking,’ grumbling at bosses and local politicians, negotiating to climb their way to sought after promotions, careerism that became increasingly an end in itself as cynicism set in that administrators could really make a difference in an India mired in corrupt politics and backwardness of all sorts. This generation of talented people in all walks of life spent their finest hours waiting for something good to happen, something to clear away the cobwebs and start working on the agenda that began with Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘midnight speech’ on independence day, 1947. The cynical among them believed that this promise was already betrayed by Partition and insoluble. The challenge to hope was written in blood and the fracturing of the country into three fragments; the survival of hope was based on widespread expectations that either revolution or reform would save India from a vicious circle of stagnation and hopelessness, pulling in a huge variety of people from all ends of the political spectrum from Far Left to Far Right and everything in between.
The ‘lost generation’ boomerang-ed between pride in India’s glorious cultural past and anger and frustration with the apparently directionless present. A kind of impotent cynicism about politics entered every dinner time conversation in the land. This cynicism, inadvertently, reinforced the very processes it criticised, by normalising them, as it were. The system of politics seemed to be about simply holding the newly dismembered smaller India post-’47 in place, via whatever existing mechanisms there were that formed the structure of power and control. My Thapuna believed that Lal Bahadur Shastri, who died of a heart attack soon after his appointment as Prime Minister in 1966, was the last Prime Minister who put India ahead of his own personal power and glory. That was a sad comment indeed.
Of course, such a mechanism hardly satisfied the desperate plight of the toiling masses, or assuaged the bitter disillusionment of the generation of the independence movement. Into this gap in expectations and, behind the expectations, an inferno of destitution, insecurity and ill-health. came the extreme left as well as thoroughly politicized labour unions, as corruptly led by politicized cadres as the political parties themselves and in many cases substantially funded by them. This inevitably corrupted the legitimate grievances of the working classes and of industrial labour. As for the educated middle classes, anyone with any intellectual credibility whatsoever moved well to the left of centre and preferably, hard left. Mao’s thrust for a ‘third world’ communist way found many disciples in India among the younger generation and the ‘Maoist insurgency’, as the media like to call it, remains a potent challenge in rural India, and probably will as long as extreme poverty exists in India, and radical land reform is not done. The underlying catastrophe of the land system, very definitely a legacy of the colonial era in those parts of India directly ruled by the British, has had a staggering impact on the Indian scene, and has contributed both to Maoist militancy among the most desperate as well as the unchecked migration from countryside to cities with all the consequences you would expect.
In the mid 1960s, in Calcutta’s streets, offices and in factories, the city was in the grip of huge social and political spasms. Calcutta, the quintessential urban nightmare in Western legend, even if actually exceeded by Bombay’s slum city, knew no relief in post-independence India. The West Bengal division of the Congress Party hardly developed any vision of urban regeneration, and the Bengali Marxists who increasingly threatened to take over did not ally with the factory workers so much as the peasantry. Calcutta was wracked by hartâls or general strikes with violent pickets; enter a world of lock-outs, lock-ins, gheraos and the License Raj. Whether in private enterprise management, in engineering projects, or in public administration, the remorseless system of permits governed a weak official business environment behind which was a shadowy real economy which was ninety per cent black.
Mejo Pishé joined Durgapur Engineering College in West Bengal state as Principal of Bengal’s foremost training college for young engineers. He had vision. He gave up the chance of a comfortable career in Calcutta to do an academic job that paid a lot less and left him out in a small provincial city rather than in the social hub of the metropolis.
He was of the generation that wanted to do more than just earn a good living and have a glorious career : he wanted to help build a new India. His was the generation that saw their fathers fight for Indian independence as they grew up and trained. His was the first generation of Indians that strove with a new vision, one that would combine the best of Western technology and administration with Indian culture and virtues. A kind of ‘Asian model’ well before its appointed time. My father was part of this too, wanting to contribute through professional methods in business administration and marketing to the regeneration of the Indian economy. They were, in their own way, idealistic men and revolutionary too. You could call them ‘technocrats.’ They didn’t like the politics but they believed that if India politicians learned to respect and support professional skills and methods across the board and were guided by a genuine knowledge and the desire to develop the country rather than simply minions or masters of bribery, exploitation, profiteering and cronyism, this would make a huge difference. But they lived and strove in the age of the bureaucrats who were mostly not specialists themselves in any of these fields. The technocrats faced a generation of self-regarding windbags, pen-pushers, file collectors, yes-men, stooges, board room climbers. The bureaucrats were not accountable to any except the ministers and to parliament. Technocrats of the day their lives against the ‘system’ it as a wave hits a stone wall that shows no inclination to yield.
In a few short years, Mejo Pishé was destroyed. The students in Durgapur, like the students in Calcutta, were taken over by political factions. Politics could not be kept out of the
universities. In the late fifties and especially the early and mid sixties, students were heavily
unionised and unions were linked to political factions. This is because of India’s entrenched
clientist system: jobs after graduation in the public sector where salaries, conditions of work, pensions and continuity of employment for life were guaranteed, would depend on being a member of the successful political party in power. Therefore the intensity of political rivalry, especially between the ruling state Congress Party and the up and coming communist groups, especially the CPI-M (Communist Party of India – Marxist) led by Jyoti Basu, was widespread, intense and frequently violent. Examinations became farcical exercises, cheating and intimidation of exam supervisors and college administrations became routine, the degrees acquired became worthless. Teachers and professors ceased to take a serious interest in their work and became clerks and box-tickers for the administration. Enormous tracts of tertiary education across India, not only in West Bengal, became an exercise in issuing worthless bits of paper. Students picked up degrees for which they had not attended a single class or passed a single exam. The Indian educational system in West Bengal, to a large extent, had collapsed.
Poor old Mejo Pishé’s engineering college descended rapidly into chaos. Examinations could not be properly conducted. Cheating was rife, exam invigilators were intimidated and threatened, college lecturers were harassed and sometimes imprisoned in their offices until they gave in to student leaders’ political demands, resources could not be acquired, the reputation of the college as a centre of excellence went down.
A decade later, learning from the disasters of the sixties, the Indian government would succeed in setting up a network of top notch engineering and physics training centres, the IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) completely removed from political interference and under technically competent management. The Indian Institutes of Management were set up to train up management and business students to a high level of competence. Even before India started openining up to the global market, some leaders recognised that India had a potentially massive skills base and investment for that future needed to start as soon as possible.
All too late for Mejo Pishé. By contrast, my father picked up the early stirrings of this in the late seventies when he left the direct business environment and entered training of corporate professionals in the Management Development Institute in Gurgaon outside Delhi. Today, Gurgaon is a sleek and rapidly expanding suburban town, well connected by motorway. In those days a poor quality road, in some sections a dirt road, led to what was little more than a sprawling village, clucking with chickens and bleating goats.
Mejo Pishé’s luck did not hold. He had a nervous breakdown and collapsed. He never
regained his youthful vigour and decisiveness again. He lost his home and he lived for a
while with Thapuna in her little flat, pottering about and smiling ruefully and
making the odd mildly sardonic remark. Even I could see, at age ten and eleven, that
something had happened to this man. The light was gone from his eyes.
In a couple of years he was dead of a heart attack.
Mejo Pish, having lost her own home, lived with Thapuna in her flat. They sat about clucking together and playing cards. Her hair quickly lined with streaks of gray but, as with her mother, Mejo Pishi displaced her anger at the cards life had dealt her by smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and adopting a jovially pushy tone in her loud and raucous voice. She was a sharp, if untrained, intellect and a strong personality. She was the last generation of women in the urban educated class in India who were brought up not to work. There were no options open to her as she had failed to get her inheritance and her husband had failed in his career.
In a way, Mejo Pishi was just waiting a long time to die which I suppose what losing hope means. She had two children, it is true, but her own life was finished relatively early. It took her – how long, forty years, fifty? – to reach that goal and chain smoking helped her reach although her lungs were so strong that lung cancer didn’t get her till she was 78.
I suppose that’s why Thapuna never chastised her too strongly for smoking. Thapuna certainly berated my father for doing it and would have been horrified if she had known that I had picked up the habit in my early twenties – which she never did do. My father never smoked in front of her. But Mejo Pishi dhumm-ed away (as the Calcutta Bengalis say) right in front of her no-smoke, no drink mother, and cackled loudly in all our ears and didn’t give a damn, as someone who has lost everything of her own (her children, no, but children do not belong to you) might do. Thapuna could not really chastise her daughter who had lost almost everything from a simple pleasure and even if she did attempt it, it would have been brushed off with an impatient wave of the hand.
Mejo Pishi wore, like her mother, almost entirely white cotton saris after she was widowed, except that the saris had a border, sometimes navy, sometimes black. Despite it all, it was impossible not to be aware of her vitality and her physical beauty.
By contrast, my mother’s side was exceptional with all three girls, daughters of grandmother Dida, educated beyond school level. This owed much to my grandfather Dadu’s diplomatic career, as well to the influence of Dida who studied Sanskrit and Literature at Rabindranath Tagore’s spiritual and cultural university, Santiniketan. The girls were brought up abroad from age ten to twelve onwards and the family was influenced by Western norms. In England or America, a university education might still be merely a finishing school for a middle-class débutante, but it added the right touch of polish. In India, this was not so. Indian opinion , rather like British Victorian opinion, agreed that higher education had a corrupting influence on the minds of girls. Consequently, none of my father’s sisters had a university education. However, this did not stop Mejo Pishi from holding and declaring an independent opinion on most every conceivable subject that cropped up in conversation. She had the reckless bravado of someone who felt she had little to lose. This infirmity seems to have carried on like a current into the generation that came after her. I do not recall expressions “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” ever crossing her lips. If they did do, it would have been seldom.
Mejo Pishi had a tendency to speak rather loudly and even shout if I got excited. She kept telling me off for doing this. Eventually, she got tired of it and simply scrawled DON’T SHOUT! in chalk on a small blackboard in my bedroom which I used to practice my arithmetic tables at home. I wasn’t allowed to rub it off. She never looked cross when she scolded me : she simply told me off, quite loudly, and then guffawed heartily as she contemplated my crestfallen or irritated face. I couldn’t ever make up my mind whether I really liked her or not although I was told that she was fond of me. She seemed stern but unstuffy at the same time. I had never met anyone quite like her.
I remember being sent to stay with Mejo Pishi and Mejo Pishé in Durgapur once, probably
around 1967. I would have been about eleven. There was a train journey but I can
remember nothing about this except that Younger Brother and I were sent on our own and
we were picked up at the other end. We were a bit scared. Not many people from the urban middle class today would consider sending their children on a train journey on their own. The journey went through without any difficulties.
Durgapur was a refreshingly charming town, all low-rise and spread out, shining in the sun, with ponds of water and distant brilliant green rice fields. Rural India seemed somehow very near, even in the middle of town. The academic zone of the town was extremely clean compared with Calcutta.
The quarters of the academic staff at the Durgapur Engineering College were beautifully laid out in a planned environment with plenty of greenery. The house of the Principal was a European looking affair and dated from the colonial era. I seem to remember that there was lots of polished woodwork, and carpeting – normally unheard of in Bengal’s tropical flatlands – and two floors of rooms. There was nd a huge, rambling garden and paths and grounds all around, and an enormous, black-faced, panting German Shepherd dog called Nero.
Unfortunately, I had my usual problem with dogs and stairs : I duly tripped up over the dog, and went tumbling down with Nero on top of me, yelping with excitement. Never good at handling falls, I bawled my head off, which made me feel fractionally better. My ankle and lower shin hurt like hell and I had an angry weal across the shin.
Mejo Pishi came rushing around to see what the commotion was, while Younger Brother sloped off to stay away from trouble. Mejo Pishi’s solution was to drag me hobbling and howling twice around the garden as fast as she could make me trot, telling me all the while that the best way to get better was by exercising the leg and foot in this way. Fortunately, I hadn’t actually broken or dislocated anything. I couldn’t make up my mind whether Mejo Pishi did this out of schadenfreude or merely ignorance, but it didn’t help. For a somewhat timid child, appreciation of this over-the-top auntie came a lot later, in adult life, when I was capable of understanding and seeing the multifarious ways in which people have to cope with what life throws at them.
I do know that my Father and Mejo Pishi had a boisterous relationship when they were younger. Father told me that until he was thirteen Mejo Pishi used to beat him up because, like a typical younger brother, he was always teasing her about her alleged boyfriends and playing pranks and annoying her generally. After Father was thirteen he beat her up. This led to canings from Thakurdada until Father outgrew his loutish adolescence and learnt to treat a lady properly, even if it was only his sister. However, Mejo Pishi, being a tough character, could give as good as she got. When her muscles failed finally to control her enormous younger brother, she sharpened the use of her tongue instead. Despite all this, they remained very fond of each other. Maturity saved them both from the annoyances of the childhood relationship.
Somehow, Mejo Pishi failed to shift this relationship away from that generational thing. I got, in a milder way, the same sort of treatment as my Father did. Perhaps she thought I was bound to become a chip off the old block and wanted to draw the line clearly from the start! Indeed, she made this clear: if I did something silly such as say the wrong thing or do something stupid or gauche, Mejo Pishi would look at me with wide eyes through her gleaming spectacles and start guffawing. Shaking with laughter and pointing her bangled hand at me, she would scream ‘A-re look at him, ki ashchorjo! How absurd! Chip off the old block, ack-dom – ho-ho-ho!
In South Calcutta, Thapuna had inherited the entire property from her late husband, a sprawling three -story affair of some fifteen thousand square feet across the three levels with a giant, dark-leaved neem tree against a brick wall, and as extras, servant’s quarters, garden, garages, forecourt, gatehouse – lived only in a one-roomed portion with attached kitchenette and bathroom.
However, her flat always had someone in for company. My aunts were always drifting in and out of it, my grandmother’s younger cousin, an engineer and a bachelor, had given up on life and lived with her in retirement and pottered about as a sort of grand caretaker, and of course, Mejo Pishé.
Mejo Pishé died of a broken heart. It is fair to say that his physical deterioration arose directly from the failure of his dreams and the collapse of his career following the spiralling chaos of violence and breakdown in West Bengal’s educational system of which his own engineering college was an important casualty. I understood nothing of this but at a personal level, it was my own first brush with Death. I couldn’t believe that he had been cracking his rueful jokes with us a few days ago in Thapuna’s flat and now I would never see him again. It was a few weeks before I could really quite believe that he had gone. I often expected to see him walk through the door any moment, that stooped, gaunt figure, the lank lock of hair falling over the brow, the rueful smile. Then the whole business of him suddenly passing away would be acknowledged as nothing more than a tasteless joke.
Finally, when I accepted that he was really gone, I realised that Death was one of the big realities and not enough time and effort seemed to be invested in considering how to deal with it. Typically, I could not leave morbid issues alone and had to mull over them. I was concerned that big and strong as adults obviously were, and even though they gave the impression that they knew what was what, still, they didn’t seem to have the answer to this.
Thapuna and her favourite daughter kept each other company for forty years. Thapuna died aged ninety-nine. She had lived all her life in Calcutta apart from an early phase in Ranchi in Bihar State. In the last decades of her life she lived with Youngest Daughter, Chhoto Pishi.
I remember even in the sixties, let alone the eighties, Thapuna would say, ‘I am an old woman, why do I go on living? My family is all here to carry on the traditions. Life is for my children and grandchildren. I want to go to swarga (heaven) and get out of this existence. What is there to do except get up every morning and go to bed at night? It is a routine with no point to it! Then a pause and a thought and she would look at me.
‘What say you, khoka, do you want some of your Thapuna’s shingaras?’ and a broad smile if I opened my eyes wide and hung my tongue out panting in a cartoon of insatiable greed for her shingaras. Off she would go into the tiny American-plan kitchen and soon the exquisite delicacies would be sizzling.
She outlived all her children except my Father who was her youngest. When Chhoto Pishi
died, and Thapuna had to finally move to Delhi to live with my Father and Mother, she died before she could make the trip. She was just short of her one hundredth year. I am convinced she had been hanging on by a thread and simply let go when she felt that the time was right, like some Tibetan reincarnate lama of old.
I think that Thapuna’s heart finally broke when Mejo Pishi passed away. She had lost not only her favourite daughter but a long-standing widow like herself and the most important companion of her life after her husband. Yet, true to her tendency of an Indian mother, it was my father, her only son and her youngest, that she doted upon.
* * * * * * * * * * *
My father, who worked as a Marketing Manager for an ex-colonial distilleries group, and
who was a young convert to the raw energy of American methods and principles,
was not going to let his beloved city fall apart and held to ransom by the mob. His pride in his native city was nothing if not ebullient. He stood six feet two and had an athletic build. As a student he played all the regular sports and boxed for Calcutta University. In 1945 he got on board a U.S. troop ship coming back from the Philippine theatre of war, heading for New York.
He had a great deal of aggressive energy which went constructively into corporate life. As
one of the earliest generation of Indians educated in the new discipline of Marketing as a
specialism within Business Administration, he returned to India after a few years working
for US corporations in the period 1947-51. He got into bother over there not only for his forthright personal style but even for the use of a hard fist, on occasion. He told me that when he worked for one company with a racist manager above him who kept deprecating his efforts, he finally lost his temper with him and knocked him down. He showed me his clenched fist and below the knuckle of the middle finger was a deep dent . This was where the unfortunate fellow’s teeth were. I put my own fist next to my father’s. It seemed barely a quarter the size.
I was enthralled by the stories he told with great gusto – he was a born raconteur – but I was a little afraid of him as well, of his capacity for sudden violence, his sudden bursts of temper.
Almost every day in the mid-sixties there were strikes and hartâls as angry workers went on violent protest against factory bosses. Calcutta was a cauldron of third-world discontent and it was hard for the frustrated masses to disentangle anger against businessmen from anger against betrayal by corrupt politicians of the State Congress party. Jyoti Basu’s CPI(M) Marxists flooded the streets with hundreds of thousands of men in processions waving red flags with the ominous (to the Congress Party establishment cronies) hammer-and-sickle emblems of the communists. Factories were closed, bosses were gherao-ed (besieged in their workplaces and unable to leave) and political factions beat each other up in the streets. Transport and communications were disrupted, telephones were not working, the postal services faltered.
In the steaming tropical afternoons, suffering power cuts of several hours on most days, office workers in bush shirts slumped in wooden chairs with pens in their pockets and cigarettes perched behind their ears, sweat pouring off their faces in the fanless heat, huge patches of damp spreading like bloodstains across the backs of their shirts. They sweated in their cubby holes, peered through cracked blinds into streets and listened to the shouting of striking workers (or hired thugs of the rival political factions struggling for control of the Calcutta streets) and the swearing of riksha drivers trying to get their customers – perched fatly on their high seats, looking blindly around at the chaos – to wherever they wanted to go.
My father’s sense of continuity, the comfortable amplitude of the extended family home in South Calcutta, was shaken by Mejo Pishé’s death. However, once recovered from the worst of the shock he regained his focus. He was not going to let it all go to hell! Not his beloved Calcutta, a city for which he had great hopes. It’s hard for me to fathom what exactly they were as I never got around to asking him. I had little comprehension of the great city surrounding us. My world was composed of the house and grounds in which I lived and the school I walked to a few streets away, and the houses of certain of my relations.
Nevertheless, outside on the crumbling pavements, in stinking, trickling gutters, people lived, right there on the street. On our residential street itself, a long, winding lane lined by the tall house of the bourgeoisie, the visible poor were few. But once reaching the end onto Lansdowne Road, the city roared with life. Cars honked and belched, not sleek, modern cars but lumbering Indian-manufactured Hindustan Ambassadors, copies of the old Austin of Englands, or little Fiats or Triumph Heralds or even Sunbeams, some with perky tail fins in a nod to the iconic styles. Occasionally you might see a long, rumbling American Chevrolet or Dodge, gliding like a small ship through the pot-holed, excrement-marked streets.
Chowringhee and Dalhousie Square were then, as now, hubbubs of human activity, vast crowds swirling around rumbling tramcars and wheezing, decrepit black and yellow taxis. Buildings reared up, blackened with grime from vehicle exhausts, smeared into their walls from many seasons of monsoon rains. Thela wallas pulled their cartloads, skinny muscles stretched, backs leaning forward with the strain, veins popping on their foreheads, sweat oozing down their faces from under their sweatbands. They moved at a snail’s pace while beat-up black and yellow taxis lurched around and past them, swearing.
Crowds of people dressed in damp bush shirts and saris shuffled along the streets, sweating in the heat. And behold the masses! A great seething crowd of them, strewn tumbling on and over the lips of the broken pavements, lying on filthy grey cloths and sacking, handling tin and aluminium pots and pans, cooking washing, using public hand pumps, scantily clad in unrecognisable bits of cloth. A sea of stringy brown bodies, of all ages and sizes.
I avoided their eyes, disconcerted by their air of resignation and anger, the glittering fury in their gaze if it locked with a member of the comfortable classes. I felt no remorse for I was innocent of conscience or understanding; only a sort of visceral fear, a gut recognition that such as they and such as I must be enemies, ordained by nature, and some sort of sense of the enormity of things, monstrously large, writ upon the face of this city of smokestacks and huddled millions, over which no-one seemed to have any control whatsoever.
Here, in this city teeming with a thousand temples, its dirty skies scraped by the sharp spires of mosques, the poor and homeless were damned and forgotten by all, even by the political parties, by the bourgeois in their comfortable homes and offices, by the shopkeepers in their lockable godowns and shops, by the industrial workers organised into unions and struggling with factory bosses for better wages and conditions of work. Refugees from East Pakistan – as Bangladesh then was – and landless poor from all parts of Bengal state, northern Orissa state and worst of all, Bihar state to the west, all these entered the stinking inferno of Calcutta, where they rotted away, doing goodness knows what, living who knows how. The politics of West Bengal was being fought out in the major constituency: the countryside. Calcutta, the metropolis, was very big, but not big enough to pull itself to centre stage. With the heartland constituency of West Bengal remaining the countryside, Calcutta languished and festered. In 1971, a bloody civil war in Pakistan led to its eastern wing, East Bengal, breaking away to form Bangladesh. A huge stream of refugees from Bangladesh swelled the ranks already large and generally poor Muslim community in Calcutta and many of them went straight into the arms of the communist parties, for tactical reasons if not cultural ones.
My father was against the Marxist take-over of many of the key workers’ unions that were in effect shutting down much industrial production in Calcutta. Having returned to India from the United States an ardent professional of marketing, he knew, forty years
before India started opening up to the global markets, that Nehru ji was wrong with his watery, Hinduised socialism and he didn’t have much natural sympathy for Gandhian Village India virtues. The muddled economics of post-independence India were, to him, a disaster.
Many would and did agree, certainly, anyone in business. Many already believed that consumer goods in a privatised market unleashing the power of the profit-motive were the key to economic take off and ultimately, to the betterment of all. My father believed that all that was necessary to bring prosperity to India was to create demand and then supply it. The market could literally be magicked out of nothing. If there was the will to make it happen, it would. If his beloved city could be turned a city of striking workers and hapless unemployed living in the streets, to a city of consumers of Indian-made whisky, such as made by the distilleries company he worked for, and of manufactured goods of all sorts, then prosperity would come to Calcutta.
But the politics were against him and his ilk. Jyoti Basu and his Marxists were the bogeymen of the business community in Calcutta. They recoiled in horror. You only had to look at his pictures in the papers and it was obvious, was it not? Those gleaming spectacles behind the cold eyes and that severe expression; it was the face of a Stalin or even a Robespierre. The dead hand of Congress party red tape was about to be replaced by the deader hand of communist planning! There was apparently going to be little chance for unleashing the only force that could save Calcutta from its post-colonial misery and its increasingly complex social problems – the energy of private business.
It was my father’s bad luck, I see in retrospect, to be, in his own way, ahead of his time. He was a man of action, snagged by bureaucracy, all his life. By the time he came to retire, India had moved on the road to packing in its version of bungled Third World command economy, indeed, appeared to have dumped socialism altogether and went energetically for the marketing jugular.
I recall talking it over with my father the year before he died in 2000, about those days in the sixties just before he left, and I tried to get a feeling for his thoughts, his cast of mind, about those times when the Calcutta of his boyhood finally fell apart and he left.
Those decades, the fifties and sixties, when my father was still relatively young and full of hope for his beloved Calcutta and for India, like so many of his generation of educated youth, till just about when my father finally retired, those were the decades that India missed the bus, my father felt. It was an experimental time when India failed to develop any coherent sense of direction, but instead, wallowed between traditional caste-ridden torpor in the countryside and the stagnation stand off of communist unions against Congress Party thugs, presided over by a colossal weight of corrupt and self-serving of bureaucracy. Jyoti Basu and the CPI-M undoubtedly achieved a lot and the land situation greatly improved, but Calcutta itself stagnated under communist rule.
So in 1966 my father, before he gave up on Calcutta altogether, while he was still frustrated by the old-fashioned methods and views of the English burra sahibs in the boardroom of his firm, looked around for some creative outlet to his energies. He decided to get stuck into what he always had liked best : the life of his beloved Kolkata streets.
One shining Saturday morning he emerged from the parental bedroom transformed into a volunteer gendarme. His six foot two, broad frame was draped in khaki, encased in shining leather belt and baton strap across the chest. He carried a gleaming heavy wooden night stick, topped with brass. He might easily have been a figure of fun, but his imposing frame and solid forearms and the undeniable reality of the night stick precluded any idea of having a laugh at his expense. The Congress government of West Bengal had asked Calcutta’s middle class citizens to help control mob violence in the streets, particularly against communist unions and general sectarian street thuggery between Hindus and Muslims.
Every Saturday Baba went out dressed in this gear to a certain district where he had accepted his station and presumably engaged from time to time with goondas (hoodlums) , mobsters, and cadres. It went on for months before a semblance of calm was restored to Calcutta. As for the direction in which the city was headed, this was soon settled. Jyoti Basu had been arrested more than once in the early sixties but by 1967 he became Deputy Chief minister in the state government and the state Congress party was defeated.
It was the beginning of the end for my father’s dream of living in a regenerated Calcutta, in
a rejuvenated post-Independence India. Nehru’s ‘Life and Freedom’ speech, on
Independence Day 1947, was already beginning to look tired. Calcutta, in my father’s
jaundiced eyes, was beginning to decompose, a collective summation of the decay of the
hundreds of thousands of bodies that died comfortless on its filthy streets as a mater of
course. Between the Marxists running the unions and the state government, the Muslim
immigrants running many of the working class slums, and the dead weight of red tape, the
license raj that the businessmen railed against, it was all over.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Ancestors : the mother’s line
Younger Grandfather (Mother’s father), or Dadu as all the grandchildren called him – even the ones in Spain and the United States – had a glamorous career by the earnest standards of our respectably dull Brahmo families. Dadu, as all the grandchildren called him, using an affectionate diminutive common in Bengali culture, was an imposing man. He wasn’t a lot taller than I was at fifteen, perhaps one metre seventy five, but he looked taller because he was fit and straight and well-exercised. He was broad-shouldered and strong-armed and pale-skinned. His features were stern and regular, his eyes shrewd and his mouth set. He had a vigorous crop of slightly receding silver hair, brushed back from a high forehead. He looked like a man used to giving orders and not being questioned about it – which he was.
He held himself straight and only his neck seemed a little stiff, which you could tell when
he turned to look at you, the whole upper body and shoulders turning with the head and
neck. (In later life he suffered severely from arthritis, among his very few complaints, and
became wheel-chair bound in his eighties.
I once saw a photo of him when he was perhaps twenty-two, taken in Berlin in the tumultuous and disastrous year of 1921 when the Weimar Republic was still emerging painfully out of the chaos and economic vengeance of the Great War. Dadu had gone to Oxford on a scholarship to St Catherine’s House (later, St Catherine’s College) and after a year there, went to Berlin on his way back to India. How wonderful it would have been for us to read if he had written a diary about those times! But unlike myself, his memoirs were all about his work, especially as Director General of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the united Nations from 1956 – 64 following a stint as Indian Ambassador to the US. Prior to this, he began his career as one of India’s first I.C.S. (Indian Civil Service) Officers starting in 1922.
In those days, the I.C.S., India’s elite governing corps, had previously been closed to Indians. Following the end of the First World War, a violent period of British colonial administration and Indian nationalist reaction set in. These events had serious consequences, especially the oppressive Minto-Morley “reforms”, legislation that attempted to suppress nationalist agitation in favour of home rule and dominion status, and the Jallianwalah Bagh tragedy in which hundreds of Indian nationalists demonstrating peacefully in Amritsar in the far north west of India were gunned down by General Dyer and his troops.
It is difficult to underestimate the damage Dyer did by his action. In that fateful year of 1919, Indian Nobel Poet Laureate Rabindranath Tagore returned his Nobel Prize citation and thousands of other Indians employed in the service of the British or otherwise in receipt of recognition by European administrations or cultural institutions made their personal gestures against British – and by extension, all European – imperial rule. A whole generation of Indians who had distinguished themselves in various ways joined in symbolic protests. The movement for complete independence from British rule, began from this point, whether under Gandhi’s leadership or whether under other leaders with other views. However, they all agreed : the British must go. Dyer’s action was highly damaging to the British Raj. It was an irreversible mistake because it destroyed the carefully constructed myth that the British endeavoured to foster after the Revolt of 1857, namely, that the British Empire was held together by consent, not by force. An empire-wide network of princely states, answering to British advisers, was the glue that held together the patchwork of directly administered territory in the Punjab, in Bengal and in Western and Southern India. This system was now threatened by a gathering revolt of the masses.
Among this generation of early 20th Century Bengali achievers, on the other side of my ancestral line, was Thakurdada, my father’s father. He had served as a doctor in the Indian Army Medical Corps, moving swiftly up the ranks during the carnage of the Great War in Iraq against the Turks with the Seventh Gurkha Rifles. Elder Grandfather was awarded the Military Cross, next down from the Victoria Cross, for services in the field. He returned his citation to the British authorities and resigned from the Army in India, setting up in private practice in Calcutta.
Dadu was a nationalist too, but chose to work within the system. A highly ambitious recruit
to the ICS, having successfully passed the entrance examinations following his year at
Oxford and tour of post-war Germany in 1920-22, Dadu became a District Magistrate in
Bengal province in the district of Malda in North Bengal. DMs were immensely powerful
and Dadu exercised sweeping judicial and executive powers over hundreds of thousands of
people in the rural areas.
In the middle of the Second World War the British were hanging on to India as best as they could, locked in a deadly struggle against the Evil Empire of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and the Atlantic and their Far Eastern possessions severed from their grasp by the deadly advance of the Japanese armies. At the same time, a terrible famine, caused largely by bad colonial wartime management following cyclones and crop failures , struck
Bengal in 1943. Some three million people died before the government managed to deal
adequately with the problem. This figure represents probably the biggest single holocaust in
the Indian subcontinent, exceeding the numbers of all the Indian troops killed serving in the
two World Wars in the British armed forces as well as the carnage following the Partition of India into India and Pakistan and the subsequent civil war in 1947-48.
My father, a hugely animated story-teller, used to hold me and Younger Brother enthralled
with his stories of his youth. One of these was about a gruesome Bengali trader commonly known by the nickname of Herua Shankar (‘Bone-pile’ Shankar), Shankar being his given name. As a million peasants starved to death in Bengal’s devastated flatlands, their bones were picked off their rotting flesh by hired scavengers and taken in cartloads to a factory in Calcutta where they boiled the bones down to make glue. Herua Shankar made an excellent profit from this unusual industry and there was apparently no-one to fight for the rights of peasants, rights which had been systematically and ruthlessly eradicated over a century and a half.
As he told the story, my father roled his eyes, his arms rose into the air and his
spectacles gleamed. His round face epitomised the animation of story tellers since ancient
times. You had to believe that every word was true. I imagined, as he spoke, a scorching sun on great flat fields barely sewn together with lines of trees, turned to burnished gold by withered crops, and everywhere, glittering expanses of flood-water from the cyclones and burst river-banks. The prostrate expanses of fields and water littered with corpses. Here and there, a buffalo’s head with curved or broken horns, brown, swollen human corpses, arms and legs pointing up out of the water, accusingly, at the sky. Among these corpses, wading through still water and reeds, hunched and raking over the putrefying bodies of man and animal, the scavengers of Herua Shankar, machetes gleaming in the sun, ready to strip flesh from bone, sacks on their backs sagging with body parts.
Herua Shankar’s son went to college with my father. That’s how everyone knew about him.
But what about the relatives? I asked. Didn’ t they cry when they couldn’t find the bodies of their family members or the bodies had no bones in them? How would they have a funeral?
There weren’t any relatives, said Baba solemnly, They were all dead, too, and ended up in Herua Shankar’s cartloads.
How did they get things done afterwards if everyone in Bengal was dead? I asked.
Younger Brother chipped in : They didn’t, stupid! They got a load of farmers from Bihar state, and everyone knows they can eat locusts and ants and things; they don’t need rice. So they could survive the famine! Whereupon I smacked him for messing with the story .
In this century-old setting of famine and pitiless and exploitative land policies that lay at the rotten heart of the splendid conceptual and ceremonial edifice of the British empire, the British colonial administrators managed to develop a new class of zamîndârs to pick, vulture-like, over the corpses of the nations they had defeated or gradually acquired control over. They developed and used these new classes dependent on defending British colonial land tax systems. They wiped away centuries of long-established peasants’ rights as they did not respect the land system traditions of India : as new rulers, they believed they had the right to impose new, alien rules. Under a new hostile regime, the peasantry collapsed into chronic hunger and deprivation. Bengal, once the richest province of the Mughul empire, became a land of hunger and wretchedness , a reversal the like of what was not seen even in Spain or Ireland. The analogy of Bengal with Ireland, which in fact was colonially exploited for longer than India, is, I think, broadly tenable.
During this period, Dadu worked feverishly in his district and quarrelled bitterly with his
(British) superior officers in Calcutta over the handling of the crisis. He was noted for his
strong character and exceptional capability, a man of action and swift and effective
assessment. The family believed that his independent cast of mind, lack of fear of authorities, and aggressive pursuit of decision-making, rendered him in effect a problem even for the Indian authorities, once India became independent. The Indian government after 1947 dealt with this able but inconvenient enemy of corrupt and unaccountable administration by quietly removing him from India altogether, transferring him as Head of Indian missions to Yugoslavia, Italy, and finally, Washington DC.
Forced to realign his career objectives in a new sphere, Dadu became India’s candidate for job of Director General of one of the oldest UN agencies, the Food and Agricultural Organization (F.A.O.) in 1956. He was successfully elected and served an unprecedented three terms and travelled to virtually every country in the world, before retiring in 1966 to Calcutta. Taking the helm of dealing with the world food crisis , Dadu worked tirelessly to knit a programme together to solve these problems, turning the FAO from an advisory body to an active coordinator and funder of development projects in the food sector, starting the Freedom from Hunger campaign in 1964, urging the world’s top leaders to put aside political differences to solve common problems.
The shadow of Malthus lay heavy over the skies of the post-war world. Before the ‘Green Revolution’ in agriculture in the 1970s the sixties were a nightmare decade in the tropical belt around the globe, with a huge increase in population but also mass starvation, semi-starvation and malnourishment endemic in these areas, stagnating and insecure food production and little world cooperation to tackle these problems as the rich countries grappled with their primary strategic battles of the Cold War. It was no mean feat to get so much international coordination together, to persuade the rich Northern countries to pour money into funding thousands of agricultural scientists and other experts to develop food programmes for every country in the world and to set targets and establish best practice benchmarks everywhere. Dadu had enormous energy and travelled tirelessly. Later DGs had at least the Green Revolution and a maturing international system under the UN to help them. Dadu had to build the foundations for all this in a rock-bottom decade for food production in poor countries.
No wonder our family bowed and scraped after him as though he were a god. In the 1960s, there were relatively few Indians who were not politicians who had played such an important role in world affairs, even though as a mere administrator and diplomat, his profile was not glamorous and his work, though appreciated by governments and experts, went largely unannounced in the media. The family could point to him and say, look, Dadu made a difference, not only to India but to other countries as well. It probably helped that the sixties was also a time when there was a huge opportunity for the UN to make a difference, if strong personalities within it from Hammarskjöld downwards, could negotiate with the western powers, above all, the US, to invest in international development, and before this top down paradigm collapsed under a welter of North-South political tensions in the seventies.
By the time he was obliged to retire, compulsory under the UN system after a third term in office, he was not at all ready to give up the reins to anything. So he returned somewhat frustrated in retirement and champing at the bit.
It wasn’t long after our return to India in 1965 that Younger Brother and I went to Dadu and Dida’s (Younger Grandmother) home in Palm Avenue, along winding lanes smelling of warm, rotting bananas, shreds of discarded cloth, and faint perfumes from big villas and apartment blocks. I remember these visits with the comfortably selective nostalgia of a distant childhood. The skies always seem to have been deep blue with boiling white clouds, in these memories, though certainly sometimes, especially at monsoon time, they must have been shrouded with the black and grey capes of storm clouds, electrified and choking with the imminence of rain. Dusty palms and banana trees sprouted from languidly crumbling pavements and treacly asphalt, melting under mid-afternoon suns. People wandered slowly about, giving a misleading impression of sparseness as the majority hid away indoors, behind dark-shuttered rooms, inside the gloom of workshops and godowns.
We were trundled over in a big old Ambassador car, built like a huge beetle, heavy gears groaning under the urgings of a driver, camshafts pulling its heavy load over the tarmac. Cow droppings decorated its wearing treads. People squatted on roadsides or inside rikshas and stared lidlessly, languid in the heat. Warm air beaded upper lips and the napes of necks with sweat.
Crossing over the busy intersection where Syed Amir Ali Avenue becomes Ashutosh
Chowdhury Road, one moves from a hubbub of tram lines, buses and cars and a network of of leafy lanes and tall mansions. Palm Avenue itself changes from an ample plaza to a narrow, squalid lane of almost medieval straitness streaked with cow dung and lined on one side with a stinking gutter of thick, suppurating fluids, stagnant and floating with scum or running slowly with water from a cast-iron public water pump. As one enters from the south side, Palm Avenue has the Muslim basti on the left, a blizzard of red-tiled roofs and low-rise concrete houses, dark doorways of peeling wood painted turquoise, butternut or green, and ribbons of scarlet paan spit evaporating in the dust.
On the right, the high wall of Number Fourteen and Fourteen by Two. The car lumbers to a halt by the large corrugated iron gates and the driver honks the horn, a red rubber klaxon bladder, sticking out of the end of a black stick handle to the side of the steering wheel, Children in faded, printed shorts and torn skirts, noses running, stop and stare. Women squat and delicately pull a skein of sari over faces with slim brown hands. Dark, pugnacious looking men, often youngish, stand sullenly in lungis wrapped around their lean waists, eyes glittering, dark cheekbones riding high on proud and combative faces. A rikshaw driver squashes passed pulling his cart empty of passengers, giving out a shout of frustration with the effort of scraping past the car in the narrow lane without scratching the car. A volley of mild oaths follows between cart-puller and car driver.
The gate bolt screeches and clangs into place and the gates are pulled open by two groundsmen. A short gravel driveway, squarish, presents a surface on which to chunter to a halt, scattering smooth pink and beige stones from under worn treads. A garage, green-doored, is big enough to house three cars, and above it spreads the servants’ quarters, two stories high.
I remember that the main building was as big as Elder Grandfather’s mansion, three stories high, each with three and a half metre high ceilings, pale yellow, with a huge flat roof. Behind, a large, square straggly garden, gladdened with wild flowers along its flanks, graced with a huge old neem tree with ten metre high spreading branches thick with dark green leaves which, from time to time, would be shot into by a kid from a neighbouring house with an air rifle, resulting in an explosive firework of crows lifted in unison into the air with a crowing roar like a round of applause splitting the quiet hum of the afternoon.
A cohort of ground and kitchen staff bustled about. White-moustached Roshan Lal, who
worked for the extended family in both the Mullen Street and the Palm Avenue mansions,
the thinnest and apparently physically the weakest, might be there. If he was, he would
often take the heaviest case. He would laboriously hoist it onto his shoulders and then
stagger up, thin knees knocking below the hem of his cotton dhoti, red cotton porter’s coat
flapping, and totter up the green marble stairs, followed by sturdier fellows carrying, often
enough, lighter burdens. I have never been able to understand this arrangement. Sometimes,
Younger Grandmother would come downstairs to greet us, more often than not, she would
be at the top of the stairs on the second floor. Like all those private buildings built in the
1930s and 1940s, the ceilings were all tall, making the second floor a lot higher up than in a
typical modern building.
Younger Grandmother (Dida) appeared short and round, but basically she was delicate-boned and birdlike. The effect was enhanced by a slim, aquiline nose which, in anyone else, would give them a haughty, overweening look, but in her merely made her look hesitant and equivocal. Her eyes were shrewd but her smile was
Dida would have made an excellent Vice Principal of a school. She was used to commanding staff and members of family, staff by cajoling, complaining and ranting, family by gently exasperating negotiation. Her boss was Dadu, and with her full consent. Dida was Dadu’s second wife, the first having died a long time ago. Dida was born in 1912, one of a large brood of children, of which she was the second. Dadu always said that she was the perfect wife and host. Indeed, she was, and demonstrably well-suited to the role.
Dida followed her husband all around the world, hosting dinner parties in national capitals where Dadu was Indian envoy to this or that country, and in Rome as wife of the FAO DG. She acquired, with this exposure, enormous sophistication in the nicest possible way. She dedicated herself to doing the job Dadu could not do – being patient with people, making endless small talk, trying to take an interest in everybody, organizing parties, excusing her husband endlessly for retiring early from all the social functions the great man hated.
Dida had an air of gentle nagging, coaxing the people around her. As the servants hoisted the baggage through the ornate, wrought-iron inner gateway into the top floor flat, a huge long affair, she would wheedle around them –
‘Oh my goodness, Roshan Lal, be careful, you’ll knock that vase over!’ ‘ Ganesh (the
cook), ‘get some water to drink, we’re all thirsty, or have you got some lebu shrobot lemon
drink? ‘ ‘Atul’ (here addressing Ganesh’s sparklingly bright and cheerful brother, twenty
years younger), ‘make sure the table is laid out properly for lunch; has the
drinking water been boiled up today?’ and so on and so forth. The flat would be a hubbub
of cheerful activity.
Father, Mother, Younger Brother and I would troop in, hands comfortably empty of any
encumbrances such as bags, and scatter across rattan chairs and comfortable sofas in a
welter of talk. ‘Oh (groan!) the train ride was very uncomfortable, they didn’t put the
air-conditioning on properly, we were hot in the night…’ ‘ have the mosquitoes started
already or can we do without the mosquito nets, eh?’ ‘Younger Brother is doing pretty well
in science but Elder Brother is still hopeless at anything except drawing and water-colours,
but shifting him to another school won’t do any good, he’ll have to learn to take his studies
responsibly..’ etc etc.
The living room and dining room were conjoined in a single long room and were
remarkable for the splendid hotchpotch of furniture and knick-knacks from all round the
world, collected partly by Dadu and partly by Younger Grandmother, during the course of
Dadu’s international career. For an Indian apartment in the 1960s, it was an unusual
display. There was nothing of any great value except three
enormous nineteeth century Persian carpets, but there was a lot that was of great visual and
tactile interest. Japanese lacquer coffee tables, black and gold with heavy glass tops, jostled
alongside a red Moroccan leather pouffe, Chinese lanterns nestled beside Congolese jungle
drums of tight deerskin and crocodile hide, Indonesian gamelan puppets vied with ukiyo-e
prints and family photos. It was the antithesis of a planned apartment, a splendid hodgepodge of knick-knacks and mementos, somewhere in between an antique dealer’s tastes and those of a cultural anthropologist.
Bookshelves supported books behind glass cases from wall to ceiling in Dadu’s leather-bound study; books on travel, geography, obscure places, nineteenth century atlases, Greek
and Roman classics in translation, Shakespeare, H. V. Morton, long series of exquisitely
produced books on Italian Renaissance Art, sumptuously illustrated. Dadu had read few of
them but he collected them and kept them, a visual reminder of his curiosity about
everything rather than of his actual learning. Stacks of music, mainly baroque, that he recorded over the years in Rome from the state radio service, RAI, were stored on large-format round tapes and played on a big tape player. Dadu spent hours in his study, sitting with his face in his hands, pondering, or looking over books and files concerning his retirement work as a consultant on the World Population Council, a major UN advisory body.
His huge, massively heavy glass-topped desk faced a wide window that looked straight out
onto the Muslim bustee far below. If you looked out you would see this other world,
teeming with people living near open gutters, living in cubicles of cement and concrete. Tinny Hindi filmi music blared from loudspeakers, especially in the hot firefly evenings and after dusk when the muezzin had cajoled the faithful and the reluctant to prayer. The call to prayer, at the appointed five times a day, echoed through loudspeakers and claimed dominion, reminding me that the family mansion was a concrete pile rising up in a low-rise world very different from the one we lived in, separated from us by class, religion and culture. I always regarded this scene with a sort of mild alarm, sensing the potential conflict between privilege and under-privilege.
I felt uneasy at being somehow part of an ancien régime middle class whose respectable but apparently precarious perch on the socio-economic web of Indian life might fall any day – and justly so – to the red banners of the communist flags or the green banners of Islam. Palm Avenue seemed much more on the edge of what was really happening in Calcutta. By comparison, Thapuna’s mansion was much more comfortably located, being flanked entirely by comfortable mansions of much richer people than herself, Mârwâri businessmen and their families, and such.
Beyond the rusty green iron gates of the mansion block in which my grandparents and their
middle class tenants in the flats below lived, was this foreign world, and whenever I stepped
beyond these gates I did so inside a car. If I ever went out on foot, the citizens of this other
land would eye me silently and I would eye them back. Their eyes would be blank and
expressionless and their faces unsmiling. Mine, I’m sure, reflected barely hidden alarm. I
knew that comfortable and even imposing as this mansion was, I would not ever want to live here.
Dadu generally seemed benignly unapproachable. He was famous in the family for his shyness and lack of social skills, but actually I think he was simply not interested in chit-chat. Typically, he would preside over the dinner table, an old Italian walnut dining table and tall-backed chairs as you might see in old films, and smile benignly at his assembled flock – Dida, my parents, my younger brother and myself, occasionally making some remark whereupon all immediately ceased the general patter and listened with rapt attention. Otherwise, he busied himself vigorously munching up all his food – lots of rice, dâl, vegetable patia curries, chingri prawn in mustard sauce, ilish fish baked and studded with hundreds of tiny bones and finally, earthenware pots of red yoghurt (lal doi) and sondesh to richly sweeten the palate. Little bowls of hot water with a squeeze of lemon freshened soiled fingertips and mouths. A handful of dry green cumin (moshla) seeds were crunched to aid digestion.
Burping gently and holding our stomachs after such a huge meal, we would move over to chairs and sofas to chatter. Dadu retreated to his own big cambridge chair, and sat listening to the BBC World Service shortwave radio, his eyes shut, frowning with concentration, rubbing his cheeks and jawline in a characteristic manner and twiddling knobs. He was suddenly ‘not there’ with us and his now presence in the chair indicated polite acknowledgement of the rest of the family but that really he would now rather be somewhere else. I think to Dadu, family life, really, was one of those necessary appendages that bring a necessary respectability to a busy man’s life – and possibly even some kind of basic need for domesticity, but without requiring too much personal involvement. Some people feel similarly about pets, I think.
After ten or fifteen minutes, he would decamp to his study and sit in a huge leather chair and listen to the baroque chamber music he had recorded during his years in Italy, on the big, expensive double tape deck set.
My indicative memory of that flat remains an idiosyncratic combination of Bengali cuisine in counterpoint to the strains of Palestrina or the Elder Bach. At three in the afternoon, or thereabouts, Bach was rebuked by the plaintively urgent sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer again, outside where the kites circled high above the minarets and the canopies of coconut palms.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * ******
In Thapuna’s small granny flat, the walls were covered in framed photographs of members of the family. This was a tradition that carried down to my parents. My mother still has the walls of her flat covered with these photographs in addition to the the artwork she used to collect. Her flat is a shrine : there is an overwhelmingly powerful presence of family and of ancestors.
Urban Indian dwellings are like temples to the family. No one ever really dies; they live on in these pictures, they continue their existences in the hearts of their descendents who glance up at these walls every day as they go about their business, and in doing so, remember the admonishments, coaxings, praise, scoldings, advice, restrictions, opinions, mannerisms and expressions that were so familiar to them for all those long years … The Western technology of photography has extended the Indian cultural preoccupation with ancestor-worship, the prolongation of traditional values and the cult of the immortal soul.
Among the various pictures were a number that have disappeared over the years. I simply don’t know where they are any more, rather like a lot of other heirlooms my father had, such as his own father’s war medals, and that tiger skin that used to be on the wall, and, most importantly, Elder Grandfather’s old war diary.
Of those that remain is one of the very few pictures I ever saw of Elder Grandfather (father’s father), affectionately nicknamed ‘Thakurdada.’ This nickname was the one I and the rest of my generation, cousins on my father’s side of the family, were expected to use. ‘Your Thakurdada,’ Thapuna would say, ‘ Was one of the handsomest men I had ever seen.’ She giggled. ‘I fell in love with him straight away. When he proposed to me, I didn’t pause nor did I say I’ll think about it and let you know, I just said straight away, Yes! Even your Thakurdada looked surprised that I was so sure of my decision.’
‘Why was that?’ I asked.
‘Because there were other handsome young gentlemen who were also interested in marrying me. But I preferred your Thakurdada over them all and he knew it!’ Thapuna laughed her big, bell-like laugh, pleasant to the ear, and suddenly I could see the ghost of the young woman who conversed and relaxed in the company of an admiring flock of young men.
Many years later, I came across an old black-and-white photograph of my Thapuna, probably dating from around 1919-1920. The photograph showed a beautiful young woman centre-stage, leaning gracefully against a sculpted stone balustrade on some garden pavilion, wearing a European-style long dress tucked in with a silken band at the waist, her hair done short and bobbed and with the circlet around it, in the Roaring Twenties fashion. It suited her. In that picture, there was a very different grandmother from the gracious but sometimes stern-looking older woman who always wore widow’s white and no make-up, bindi spot on her forehead or bangles on her wrists, as indeed traditional Hindu / Brahmo widows are expected not to do, and whose youthful past resurfaced suddenly now and then in a giggle or a round of laughter over a joke.
A number of handsome young men stood around her in this picture, dressed in dazzling white, Indian-style: long panjabi shirts and pleated dhotis. One of the tall ones, I speculated, was probably Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, who became an extremely successful physician and went into politics, eventually becoming Chief Minister of West Bengal.
It was common knowledge that he was in love with Thapuna and wanted to marry her, but she chose Jyoti Lal, my Thakurdada. Dr B. C. Roy, also a renowned Calcutta physician – turned – politician, became godfather to all Jyoti Lal’s children from Bella Sen. I am told that he promised them each a property in his will from his large estate. He died intestate, however, aged eighty. Bella Sen kept the big house Jyoti Lal built, of course, the one which in which I returned to Calcutta from London with my parents. The other properties were annexed by a lawyer relative by marriage, so the rumour goes. Mejo Pishi, as we know, died in poverty; everyone in the family knows she was promised one of the properties but it could not be proved and there was no paperwork to show for it.
One other young man immediately caught my attention. He stood very close to Thapuna. He looked just as my father looked in his early twenties, slim, short, straight nose, middle height, spectacles. He looked not at her but straight ahead into some kind of middle distance, as though pretending that he was not particularly interested in her. There was a serenity about his posture, and a quiet self-assurance that I myself have never had and knew I could never possess. It was the picture of an attractive, charming and intellectually capable man.
That must have been Thakurdada, the young man who got the widely sought after Bella. The physical resemblance to my father must have been strong in the face but probably not in the body, as Thapuna said that Thakurdada had been only just above middle height, about the same as myself, perhaps an inch taller, whereas Baba was six foot two. Furthermore, Baba did not display much of an intellectual temperament: his tendencies were more applied and practical, in his case to business. Whereas, as Thapuna was proud to inform me, Thakurdada spoke fourteen languages before he was thirty. If asked, she would go through the list, tapping the middle finger of one hand with two fingers of the other, marking time …”…Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, English, Persian, Arabic, French, Italian, German, Dutch, Nepali, Assamese, Oriya, Polish…”
I remember being told this when I returned to India and was struggling to re-acquire Bengali and feeling generally over-challenged. I was, of course, completely over-awed, and indeed crushed, by the prospect of having to try and live up to such a benchmark of brilliance, knowing that it was impossible for me – I couldn’t even pick up one properly, it seemed! The idea that anyone could learn fourteen languages in a lifetime, or even four languages, was beyond my grasp. I didn’t quite know whether to believe my grandmother or simply accept that Thakurdada must have been a genius and unfortunately failed to pass on this undeniably advantageous (to our educationally inclined family, at least) attribute to me. I couldn’t possibly work out in my childish inexperience that Thakurdada obviously had a considerable flair for languages and spoke five or six rather well, but had smatterings of the others, enough to get by as a tourist for a week or so, perhaps. I assumed a full and complete mastery of all of them, in my literalist childish innocence, and decided that in him must have resided the concentrated genius of aeons of evolution, somehow abruptly dissipated immediately afterwards via some mysterious biological process, as I could see these signs of admirable distinction neither in my father nor in myself. My conviction in my own mediocrity was thoroughly reinforced through these ancestral revelations, however unintentional they were to do any harm!
There was another photograph of Thakurdada dressed in the uniform of the Royal Army Medical Corps, complete with red coat, white trim, sash and sabre. Only the ever-present spectacles gave away his calling as a man of books and learning.
It is no wonder that Thapuna, though surrounded by handsome, prosperous boys, fell for this dashing soldier with a medical degree. Thakurdada, who was born in 1883, was one of the first generation of Indians to achieve officer status within the British Indian Army. This was no mean feat: after the Revolt (or War of Independence, depending on your political orientation) of 1857, the Indian Empire entered the full and complex rigidities of a racially stratified system, one in which Indians, generally, had to be kept under command. The Army, in particular, could not be staffed by Indian officers. Paul Scott in his ‘Jewel in the Crown’ series of novels observes the poignancy of the British police officer Merrick whose profound disillusionment with India arises out of the fact that he knows that British paternalism (‘Maa-baap’), Queen Victoria proclaiming that she was the ‘Mother and Father’ of the Indians as their Queen-Empress, the whole metaphorical and institutional edifice of the British Raj, was not based on a reciprocal acceptance and gratitude on the part of the Indians. Indian nationalist historians, backed by some British ones, agree that the Raj was based primarily on force and the politics of divide and rule supported by an elaborate edifice of Raj ideology which the best of the British administrators, fine men who gave all they had to the service of India, not just the British administration, genuinely believed in. These exceptional men were the strongest plank of the British empire: their talents and sincerity were used to keep the empire appear convincing while it was actually run by lesser men for meaner goals: mainly profit and the hubris of empire.
Racial hierarchy was built into the Empire partly because of profound differences in culture, partly because of broad points in common (the British class / caste elites and the Hindu caste elites despised one another but shared a common fundamental respect for inequality) and partly because the Indian Empire after 1857 was built on a lie. The British no longer really trusted their relationship with the Indians after 1857 but pretended to built an imperial system based on trust. Part of the mistrust was excluding Indians rigidly from the echelons of the top cadres of the political administration, the I.C.S., and from the officer ranks of the Army. After 1919, the waves of unrest following Jallianwallah Bagh put pressure on the British to ease up on this policy, allowing opportunities for intensely hard-working and ambitious young men such as Dadu to get into the first generation of Indian I.C.S. officers.
In between the heyday of Raj racial supremacy and the Indian mass movement for independence came the First World War, when subsequent rebels against empire fought for that empire. Indians and Irishmen who later were alienated from the Empire by the post-war policy of ruthless suppression, were given to a chance to serve the Empire during the war, on the fraudulent assurances that after the war, colonial subjects in both these countries would be given significantly more say in the governance of their own countries. Thakurdada became a junior officer in the Indian Medical Service, the Indian wing of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC)., during the First World War. Jyoti Lal Sen, who ultimately retired from the imperial armed forces with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, ended that war fighting with the Seventh Gurkha Rifles in Iraq. Jyoti Lal was at the disastrous Battle of Kut-al-Amara in 1915-1916 where over twenty thousand British and Indian troops lost their lives in some of the worst fighting outside the European theatre of war. Besieged Kut eventually collapsed under General Townshend’s command under whom was, at one point, General Sir Percy Lake. British surrendered to the Turks. Over half the British and Indian troops died in captivity. Jyoti Lal was a medical officer in General Lake’s forces.
Baba once showed me Thakurdada’s war diary. It was when we first went back to Calcutta from London. In those early days, in 1965, Baba still felt his dead father close to him, and obviously very keenly indeed upon returning to Calcutta. His father’s presence, for him, was a very real thing throughout the flat. The diary was a rectangular, canvas-backed object, the red threads of the canvas frayed at the edges. The writing, in a clear, rounded hand, was faded to sepia on yellowing pages of soft card. It was a fragile thing and felt older than it was, really. The diary is gone now, along with the Military Cross medal that he was awarded from King-Emperor George V in 1919 for services to junior officers in the field. Who knows where it went. I would like to have still had it, as well as the medal. It’s all I would have had of a grandfather who died six months before I was born and who, from what I have heard of him is the most sympathetic of my ancestors.
I can recollect bits of entries, obviously not word for word, but as an act of recollection. I don’t believe it is harmful if I embellish what I remember of what he wrote with something of my own imagination. I cannot be a historian here, for the record is gone, but more of a teller of tales. I trust that this has its own sort of legitimacy, the imperfect recollection of what was once encountered and the embellishment of that recall with invention. Many stories are thus without ill intent.
“16.8.1916. Battle of al-Kût. The Turks, who were well settled into a ditch a quarter mile long and ten yards deep, staged a night attack without warning. We were all bunkered in and getting a fitful nap but the attack was expected. Our intelligence had warned us that it was imminent. Shortly before bleak dawn silvered the sky behind the low dunes to the east, we heard a distant cry, possibly ‘Allah-ho-Akbar’ but I’m probably imagining this: Turkish officers were not using Islamic war-cries generally speaking. There were a couple of flashes of mortars in the cloud-spattered sky and a sound like rolling thunder. I had knocked over my tin cup of coffee which had spilt a little on the knee of my trousers, in my haste to sound the order to fix bayonets. ‘Khukri lagao! ‘ My Gurkha troops were already at the ready. I could see calm and attention in every gleaming eye and taut jaw. We went over at the sound of the horn. They shouted ‘Leyó´le ku´ka´ri, ayo-le gorkha-li!’ as they ran fast and low across the slurring sand at the Turks, meandering to avoid a straight line of fire, and spitted the enemy at the ends of their long knives or fell in turn to a Turkish sabre. The gap between the two sides was short; the Gurkhas were good at getting through the hail of bullets and into close quarters.
“The Turks were pushed back in the first counter-assault from our Gurkha lads but they rallied and came back with a cavalry charge, cannon and mortar. I found myself at one point at least a couple of hundred yards in advance of the line of engagement, and with the help of my orderlies Naik Subedar Harka Gurung and Naik Subedar Man Bahadur Thapa, we removed eight men from the field on stretchers. I took a bulletflesh wound in my right hip and a graze on my shoulder but was otherwise unscathed. Harka Gurung was killed on the second sortie, brought down by machine gun. Rifleman Ram Singh, too, was killed, he who cooked the best chholé curry in the battalion when he was off duty and of a mind.
The pain from my flesh wounds was distracting but after hastily tying them up to slow down blood loss, I was busy working with my medical orderlies in getting fallen men away on stretchers and working with my men to achieve this end, and despite machine gun bullets whining around us. I had to shoot one Turk who came at me over a piece of rock, out of the near darkness of dawn, a flailing figure bereft of his regimental fez. He came at me despite the fact that he could see from the red and white cross arm-band that I was a medical officer. I remember he looked middle aged, his head was nearly bald, he had a full cossack moustache, his eyes gleamed whitely as though rolled back into his skull, as though he was aiming for me blind, as though he smelt, rather than saw, I was there, through the morning smoke and thin mist. He was not a well man himself and had only a knife in his hand, but I shot him between the eyes and he flopped down and lay still as a dropped sack.
A life is now here, quivering with heightened consciousness, and then gone, into the dark as suddenly as a stone thrown into the bottom of a muddy pond. All we have is life, and we throw it away with reckless abandon! As for the business of fighting, I see the irony of killing and saving lives at the same time as a matter for philosophical reflection at a later point. In this regard, medical officers, orderlies and nurses are in a uniquely ambiguous position. It is not easy to restore an enemy to health one moment in a field hospital and shoot the next one because he comes at you with a weapon. But I learnt from these engagements that you cannot reflect and act at the same time and this is what renders all human action fundamentally flawed. There isn’t much that takes place on the field of battle that is not morally ambiguous.
“Of the eight men, one was a Turk, the rest, ours. Two of these men died of their injuries that night. The Turk, who had a bullet through the neck, survived because it hadn’t, by a stroke of luck, severed an artery or the spinal cord, but his luck ran out a few hours later : one of my Gurkha lads cut his head off with a kukri in the middle of the night and left it by the side of the stretcher-bed to be found in the early hours of the next day. A number of horses were killed that early morning, on the Turkish side. The following day, we were asked to retreat to an escarpment that rose low over the Tigris on the safe side of the river to await reinforcements. Battles generally took place in the early hours or in the dark, to provide cover and avoid the worst heat of the day when men and horses could not run or move fast enough in the terrible heat. More than the Turkish mortar, we feared the sand flies.”
Thapuna told me that Thakurdada built up an enormously successful practice in Calcutta after leaving the Army.
“Why did he leave,? ” I asked.
Thapuna looked solemn. “Because of Jallianwallah Bagh,” she said. “You know, Robi Babu gave back his Nobel Prize, and lots of Indians vowed then never to work for any European government or to accept any acknowledgement from Europeans of any sort. The thing that happened there just broke the link of trust built up with the British Raj still there in the days when I and your Thakurdada were children.”
I thought for a while. Then I asked her, “But how is it that Baba still has his Military Cross medal?”
Thapuna said proudly , “But he got that for what he did in the war. He went into the battlefield with his Gurkha orderlies and got wounded men out while the bullets were flying.”
“Did anyone get a higher medal than Thakurdada?”
“Yes, of course” said Thapuna. “In that same battle there was one Victoria Cross. He was killed in the field the same day your Thakurdada got recommended for the Military Cross. There were lots of other medals in the course of that season of fighting.”
I found a reference to that now long ago event in the British Medical Journal’s issue of October 28, 1916. Under General Sir Percy Lake’s Dispatch list, under the R.A.M.C’s Indian Medical Service division, his name comes up after R. T. Wells and just before Lieutenants U. N: Banerjee, J.P. Canteenwalla and S. D. Sondhi.
I wonder what happened to Messers Banerjee, Canteenwalla and Sondhi. What tales they would have had to tell .. . if they survived.
In later years, Thakurdada must have blossomed in his post-military career. He built the big three-storied house with marble floors and a huge ‘neem’ tree in the garden and garages for three cars and three-stories of servants’ quarters and the sentry’s gate, the one I came back to in 1965 and where Thapuna lived in her granny flat while the other big flats were rented out, two to corporations, one to Baba. Thakurdada made so much money from his practice, he spent a lot of time travelling. His experiences in World War One gave him a taste for travel in pleasanter times. He and Thapuna took ocean liners in those halcyon days of sea voyages in the 1930s, to Europe. They went to England, Germany, Poland. What did he make of Germany in 1932, in the shadow of Hitler’s triumph? I’ll never know. I never thought to ask Thapuna what she thought either. Why did they go to Poland?
His medical exploits were remarkable for his time and his training as a general physician and military surgeon. Mejo Pishi’s daughter, my aunt Didibhai, got a brain tumour as a child. Thakurdada cut her head open and took out the tumour. She survived and finally died aged 50. He decided in his later years to stop simply treating the rich who could afford his fees. He opened a clinic for the poor in his house on Fridays. The queues on Fridays,according to Thapuna, streamed far out of the main gate and down the winding lane, out of sight. He supplied the medicines free of charge as well.
He belonged to a generation that still believed that the successful should share their talents and their wealth, with others. I wonder how much of that spirit remains among post-colonial professionals, some seventy years later.
The last thing I know about this grandfather I never saw is something about the manner of his death. The story stays with me because Baba told me the story and he always told them in a way that made them stick in my mind.
Thakurdada, though an extremely respected physician, took no particular care of his health in his later years. He was the opposite of Dadu, a fairly stern disciplinarian who practised yoga, kept his weight down, went for long walks and played tennis until arthritis got him down. Thakurdada had a huge taste for sweet foods – as I do – and more than my own father did. The Bengalis are famous for their ‘sweetmeats’ – milk-based sugar confections in a huge range – rings of sugary dough sizzling in oil (jilipi), flaky and sweet squares (shon-papri), plum-dark and syrupy balls (pantua), white and juicy, mouth-melting roshogolla, and chunks of silver-paper covered shondesh. He had them all, like myself two generations later, getting up in the middle of the night and raiding the refrigerator.
He got diabetes but kept raiding the fridge.
His kidneys and other internal organs packed up. He ended up in hospital. This was barely six months after my parent’s wedding, which was reputed to be one of the largest and grandest weddings of the Calcutta bhodrolok class in the post-war decade.
My father was there when he died. He held his hand. Thakurdada lay on the bed absolutely still. He had lost a lot of weight and his normally jolly, roundish face had become long and drawn. He lay perfectly still.
Suddenly he jerked himself up in bed, sitting bolt upright. His eyes opened wide. His mouth opened and he cried – “Ma- go! – Oh, mother!” His eyes did not see my father.
He fell back and he was dead. Just like that. He was seventy two. Of the two grandfathers I had, the one I’m sure whose company I would have enjoyed better, left before I could meet him.
Thapuna never looked to anyone else for comfort. She must really have loved Thakurdada very much because there was an imprint of sadness in her face, like the pattern of a delicate watermark, etched into her very bones, into the skin and the light that reflected in her eyes. It was permanent. I could even see it on the occasions when a joke would send her into a fit of giggles, and her laughter pealed like a bell rung in a church of long ago times when the pews were full. Only when she spoke of Thakurdada, her normally ebullient air softened, and she would after a moment or two, become silent and be somewhere far away.
CHAPTER FIVE : THE THIRD EYE
In 1966 or thereabouts, Dadu bought an old colonial bungalow in Kurseong, a little below Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills, as a holiday home from the tropical rigours of Calcutta. Specifically for when the weather got too hot in Calcutta and, I suspect, when there was felt to be a need for something approaching the refreshing air and ambience of the Europe they had left behind.
The family followed a fairly strict protocol for these visits, according to the timetable laid
down by Dadu, a man who enjoyed well planned routines in advance for all aspects of his
life. He preferred April to June till just before the monsoon rains started, and September-
October, after the rains had ended and before the cold season began. In the hills of the Eastern Himalayas the monsoon rains begin relatively early, in late October, whereas in torrid Calcutta, the temperature does not drop into the early twenties Celsius till almost the middle of December.
My parents were too poor to afford the train journey from Delhi to Kurseong. Although my father was greatly respected by his professional colleagues as a marketing manager and his hugely expansive and wealthy corporate employer, Mr. J, nevertheless this respect and consideration did not extend so far as to allow my father a comfortable surplus salary, sufficient to pay for an annual holiday away to another part of India. This fact alone shows how great was the gulf between the lifestyle of socialist India in which I was growing up and in which my parents were obliged to manage on relative basics, and the normal expectations of the professional salaried classes today. There were no “perks” apart from two important and very practical ones- the rental on a house or flat in a good residential zone of Delhi, and a car with driver for purposes of work. This, of course, is where the bhajan –singing Harbhajan Singh and his lumbering black Ambassador car came in.
My father was technically middle class, yet his means did not extend even to buying some comfortable (First Class) rail tickets with sleeping berths on a Northern Railway train even once a year, preferably on something fast and comfortable like the top of the range Rajdhani Express that took a typical 17 hours from Delhi to Calcutta as opposed to the more usual 24 hours, to cover the 1450 kilometres between the two cities.
To reach Kurseong or Dajeeling, you then needed a flight from Calcutta to go due north some 450 kilometres to Bagdogra airfield in Jalpaiguri District in the flat rice plains on the edge of the foothills of the Himalayas, and then a small gauge mountain train up the hills to Kurseong and on to Darjeeling, the former summer capital of the British administration in India in the days – before 1911 – when Calcutta was the administrative capital of the Indian Empire. Indeed, the itinerary itself suggests something of the complexity of an expedition that, even with connecting flights, took two days to complete in those days. Such travel was luxury beyond his means.
My mother had to ask Dadu for money to buy the rail tickets (and occasionally, the air fare to Bagdogra airport instead of the rail tickets to Siliguri). I sensed that she felt uncomfortable asking for this assistance and some years we did not go at all. Indeed, I seem to recall that the trips to Kurseong were roughly every alternate year between 1966 and 1975, and in some cases, with two year gaps, usually by getting a gift of rail and air tickets from Dadu.
Every time we went to Kurseong, starting in 1966 when I was ten, I had this sense of uplift and adventure. The trip to the railway station itself was enough to generate a huge sense of excitement. All bags and suitcases packed, clothes duly assembled, we piled into taxis that trundled through the buzzing avenues of South Delhi, past the seething shops and crumbling pavement edges of Andrews Ganj with its timber merchants and ironmongers, its battered blue and yellow Delhi Transport Corporation buses belching black exhaust fumes, along Lodi Colony with its yellow blocks of lower echelon government quarters like termites’ nests or desert dwellings.
On we would go, skittering past cows and bulls with long, slim black horns and dignified humps, bent-kneed on the carriageway central reservations, dodging rickety auto-rikshaws, through the long, disdainful tree-lined avenues of official Delhi with their huge, colonial-style bungalows of senior civil servants and expansive gardens drooping with neem trees and bougainvillea. My mother had been brought up in a spacious senior civil servant’s bungalow in one of these streets during the 1930s and 1940s, avenues grandly named after Mughal emperors such as Akbar Road, Jehangir Road and Humayun Road.
Still further, past the gigantic white-colonnaded Art Deco style double-circus of Connaught Place, built in 1931, with its swarming traffic and blizzard of shops, into New Delhi railway station. Here, jamming slowly along a street choking with scooter-rickshaws, black and yellow Ambassador taxis, shoals of people jostled shoulder to shoulder. Sweating porters in brick-red and brass-plated uniforms carried wooden chests and plastic suitcases on their shoulders and tag sweatbands on their foreheads.
Suddenly you confronted the majestic and improbable façade of the railway station, a sprawling flourish of red and white colonial architecture designed in 1911, in the year that the capital of India was transferred from Calcutta to Delhi, complete with a clock tower. The hubbub was deafening, and one’s view of the building was negotiated through a sea of rickshaw handles, like a phalanx of spears. Mid-morning the sun would be shining, the sky a bright soft blue, the scent of banana peel, red paan spittle, vomit and decaying newspaper in the air, pleasantly offset by the crackling aroma of hot coffee and tea with cloves in thick little glasses.
The organised chaos of New Delhi railway station with its blizzard of activity almost defies description. It is more reminiscent of train journeys in Victorian times in England as depicted in old prints and written about in classic magazines than anything one would encounter today in the West, except, of course, for its emphatically Indian flavour and the staggering scale of the scenario. The station is overwhelming and full of interest, if a little wearisome, during the full heat of the day, but in the morning, when there is still a trace of freshness left in the lime-pickle air, it’s part of the fun to bustle into the cramped long compartments with upholstered blue plastic seating and white napkins for head rests on the backs of the seats.
Sweating porters with stringy sinews taut with baggage shuffle forcefully past complaining passengers. Bush-shirted gentlemen in gold-rimmed spectacles and tooth-brush moustaches jostle hips and shoulders with fat dames in low-slung saris below rubber tire midriffs, sporting jowls, faint moustaches, scraped back head buns and grumbling voices. Squeaking children attempt to squash past the porters in pursuit of ice lollipops and sweets hawked by street vendors from large tin trays parked on wooden stands trundled on wheels.
In due course, baggage jammed into overhead luggage spaces and wedged behind seats, you squeeze into your seat, sweating gleefully, looking out of restfully brown-tinted
windows at the smeary glare outside, where the shouts can be seen in open mouths but
not heard. In a while the porters, tips stuffed into their headbands and turbans, have gone and the long compartment crammed with seated passengers has settled down into a murmur. All of a sudden, with a squeak and a pull on back and hips, the train moves slowly forward and rolls out of the station. The insulation provided by the tinted glass, the low hum of the air-conditioning that is just starting to gently sink in and dry the sweat off one’s back and the insides of the elbows, makes the hubbub and blur of figures on the platform, in drab off-white, dun and brown, appear slightly unreal.
This sense of unreality is exactly fitting with the mood of the moment. Holiday travel for a child is a glorious escape from the demands of daily life, school, parental appraisal. Movement is life and one’s normal routine at home is a never-ending circle of school and home, which, taken so much for granted, seems to be dull. Joy Bânglâ! We’re going east, back to Calcutta, back to the Source, and then onwards and upwards, to Heaven, to the hills, where the air smells eternally of spring flowers and up beyond the blue hills, the far promise of sun blinding on ice fields.
Those occasional train journeys that punctuated my annual round of home and school
instilled in me a hugely positive restlessness. It seemed to me that while I was moving I
was alive. The actual train journeys themselves, as opposed to arrivals and departures, do not surface strongly in my memory except for that tumult of arrival and departure at the start. I must believe, therefore, that they were blissfully uneventful.
There was always the prospect of railway meals, a delicious little adventure of mysterious
curried and pickled meats and vegetables padded out with cold rolled chapâtis and a
delicious North Indian milk sweetmeat to finish such as a creamy, green cardamom-speckled burfi
or a kulfi ice-cream, white and mud-hard near the centre, dribbling soft on the outer,
lickable side. The meals came on big steel trays and the foods in little pots: the thâlî
system that so graces a meal in India, somehow making the food more ravenously
irresistible than any china plate, however, beautifully designed, could ever do.
Yes, I remember those meals as delicious, though challenged by the heavy odour of the latrines, bleakly evil under blue-white fluorescent lighting, from which you escaped, after a night time visit, exhaling your held breath and pinched nose against the stench, and clattered down the dully-lit corridors back to your seat, blearily eyed by a sea of adult passengers, some holding snuffling babies or clutching pudgy sleeping infants in red woolly socks and bobble hats, all wrapped in dull-coloured army-style blankets against the cold of the air-conditioning as the dark and windy night rushed passed the occasional window that didn’t have its blind down, the engine wailing into the tenebrous wastes a warning blast to – who knew? – an oncoming train? A forthcoming railway station? A wandering cow come too close in the long, flat fields of wheat that wave goodbye to the long train snorting and puffing along North India’s great alluvial plain?
…And finally, morning, and around ten o’clock, the train chuffs slowly into Howrah
Station. Calcutta hits the eyes, the ears and the nostrils with a roar as tinted-glass windows are pushed open by passengers here and there. The hubbub shocks all the sleepy nerves of train-fuddled passengers. As the train strains to a stop with a decisive squeak of brakes and a thump, the doors are wrenched open and a pile of porters, again in the distinctive faded, much washed red and brass plate of the Indian Railways, charge in like special forces raiding a train looking for terrorists, or perhaps rather, bandits in search of booty from hapless passengers. These captive customers struggle fatly out of their seats, clutching aching backs and scraping on shoes and slippers, grumbling and fumbling, upbraiding the moustachio-ed porters as they haul away their cases and bags on strong backs or clutched in huge fists like wooden clubs. Evil water seeps from the latrine doors. It trickles and glints down the open steps as passengers stumble after the raiding porters, still arguing about the price of service, and into the blinding light of the platform.
Here are passengers waiting for the next train, and passengers dismounting from the ones
just arrived, liberally beaded with the red uniforms of the porters. Above, the sprawling
iron-work of the roof of the giant railway station like an enormous hangar, bookstalls on wooden trolleys selling magazines, self-help books, comics and newspapers, and poisonous-looking brightly coloured sweets. Here are pedlars of luchi-dom, of cinnamon tea boiling up from thick glasses into which the tea was ladled from battered aluminium kettles heated up on kerosene stoves, and pie dogs sniff bits of garbage and spilled foods such as chick pea chholé and chunks of celery dipped in salt, pepper and lemon. Bad water for drinking is doled out from buckets filled with rapidly melting ice, grey-looking, lethal.
Everywhere among the excited crowd on the platform are Calcutta’s orphaned or abandoned-looking beggar children, coffee skins smeared with dirt and coal dust, hair professionally bedraggled, snot smearing upper lips, bright eyed and grabby-handed, beseeching alms in little hordes, following one in brisk trots all the way out of the station, clutching at bags, pockets, hems of trousers, warm little fists around your arms. If in desperation or guilt you scrabble in your pockets and fish out a few coins the horde swarms you even more tightly and the children snag your legs, arms and clothing like biting midges, squeaking and chirruping.
In that wilting heat already getting strong long before mid-day, the air lazily speckled with
coal dust, the roar of cooling engines, the hiss of steam on doused ironwork, the snarling of
pies as they scrap over bits, the shouts of porters and customer-snatching taxi wallahs ,
the excitement and sense of movement is at once hellish and invigorating. The air is as
warm as stewed banana, and as thick as coal-tar soup. The stomach churns and turns
over slowly, threatening to lurch and spill. The heart beats fast and the legs pump, trying
to keep up with the remorseless stride of the porters. They are lean and gnarled,
wizened and rough-knuckled from years of carrying burdens, but their over-worked, wood-hard, flat bodies with red coats flapping skip along far more smartly than their shuffling customers who limp out after them.
Inevitably, outside, whether greeted by rapaciously grinning taxi-men or by the blessed
familiarity of private car and driver, there is the inevitable argument with the porters,
stonily rejecting limp banknotes, holding out their fists for more, even dramatically tearing off their sweat-cloths from their heads and striding off in mock disgust at their apparently
insufficient emoluments, and in some cases, accepting the offerings with good grace, a hand raised in salaam to the forehead and a shoulder-cloth flicked decisively back to close the deal before moving on to await the arrival of the next train. These porters are assertive working class. They’re in charge.
And the flight or train journey north? Curiously, no clear recollection of this! But surely
there must have been brilliant green rice fields, chocolate-dark glistening buffalo wallowing in sleepy ponds, scraping the humid air with wicked horns, shining white egrets and etched against scudding clouds in blue skies, the green line of wind-breaker trees at the far ends of paddy fields.
And then soon, sooner than expected, as Mâldâ, Gaur, Pândyâ and the lost cities of Old Bengal are passed hidden and unseen in that ocean of planted rice and banana plantations drifting behind us, at last! the faint blue hills, smoky streaked and set low on a morning-white horizon, of a great new country, the third dimension, the forecourt of the Great Himalaya, Abode of Snow.
* * * * * * * *
Place of White Orchids
More often than not, I remember nothing because we simply flew. A short journey, perhaps
an hour, and clearly of no account, not to myself, anyhow. But Bagdogra airport itself
suddenly imprints itself on my memory. Such a dramatic contrast to the massive uproar of
Delhi or Calcutta railway stations or Calcutta Airport, for that matter! Stepping out of the
aircraft onto the open steps leading down to the tarmac, there was an immediate and sharp
sense of adventure. It had a scent, this adventure, sharp as green grass crushed in a closed
palm, stirring as a sudden cool breeze come down from the big mountains to cut through the soupy air of the flatlands that stretch in a great green fuzzy carpet all around the small,
breezy tarmac of this strip airfield with a small concrete block of a control house. Last stop
before climbing the hills, and this cool breeze, this unthinkable, sudden coolness that is a
coolness not of the plains of India, not the usual mind-numbing heat, nor the smoky chill of
a lowland winter, but something altogether different, the air of a different place altogether,
the shock of the new and the promise of unknown horizons! What a relief to one who never
travels outside his own country, who always sees the same things every day. The same
neighbourhoods, the same drab, prescribed, narrowly focused situation. The only relief
from this sameness of people and setting comes from books and music in a world in which
there is no generally accessible TV.
And briefly, for contrast, you may shut your eyes for a moment against the green, clambering pine forests and the blue folds of hills and daydream: you are back in Delhi, this time inside a cinema hall, a wonderful palace of dreams, but only an occasional treat for a member of the salaried middle class, highly prized for its ice-cream air-conditioned, portico-ed, colonnaded baroque luxury of setting and sea-wide screens of glittering space-age technology in stupefying contrast to the crumbling, burnt-offering cow-and-marigold ancientness of the city outside. The cinema was a taste of luxury, even of grandeur. After you return from seeing a film in glorious Technicolor on a 70 mm wide screen and surround sound effect, even when the details of the film have faded a little from memory, you remember the heavy gold drapery of the giant curtains that draw back to reveal the screen – huzzah! – and the luxurious deep velvet burgundy seats and carpeting. A cinema ticket buys you a couple of hours’ escape from the battered oven street life into the luxury feel of a five star hotel with entertainment thrown in.
You open your eyes and you are back in the world of the green jade forest and the mist shuddering past your neck in mid-afternoon so you draw your coat collar against it, a world apart from the broiling plains left below out of sight, the seething concrete cities, the cinema halls and hotels, the mighty river of traffic. Now, this new air dries the permanent film of perspiration from the brow that is so much a part of life on the plains you have forgotten what it is to have such a simple thing as a cool, dry forehead, and it lifts the forelock slightly and pushes it back. Your hair flutters as a flag in a late spring breeze that speaks of mountains far away shining blue with ice and with clouds and orchid petals glittering with droplets of spring rain.
Ang Pema comes over, grinning, along with another man. Ang Pema is a Sherpa, big-boned
and shambling. He wears a gold ring in one ear giving him a vaguely piratical look but this
is belied by a general air of good humour. His face is wood-brown and deeply lined, his eyes crinkled at the corners into long seams that run right around to his ears. His cheekbones are sharp, his nose straight and his jawline square. His grin is gap-toothed and glints with silver caps. He speaks fluent Hindi, of course, but with a strong hint of something different.
There is a lilting cadence to it, a kind of slow swing, and the consonants are softer, slushy,
compared to the hard, almost Hispanic clatter of Hindi consonants and sharp vowels. You can tell that once he spoke something very different indeed, and it has left its mark permanently upon his tongue, like a child’s handprint in an old diary. Ang Pema’s ancestors came from a thousand kilometres north-east, from the plunging canyons of Eastern Tibet or Kham, hundreds of years ago. That’s why his people are called Shar-pa or Eastern People, in Tibetan- Bhotia in Hindi / Nepali, although the name Bhotia applies to all peoples of ethnic Tibetan origin and speaking dialects of Tibetan whereas Sherpas are a specific people with a distinctive origin.
They are a famous people because of their proximity to the highest mountains and they typically live in the highest villages in the Himalayas, especially around the zones of famous mountains such as Everest, which they call Cho-mo lung-ma, and Kangchendzönga. Famed for their toughness and immense lung power at high altitudes, and also their willingness to climb high peaks, disregarding religious taboos, they were the preferred porters for Western mountaineering expeditions traditionally, and still are today in the regions they inhabit. One of them, Tenzin Norgyay, helped Sir Edmund Hillary get to the top of Mount Everest in 1953.
Ang Pema’s sidekick is a short young man, pale-complexioned with the narrow eyes and flat features of the Western Gorkhas. Ravinder Thapa is his name. Like so many of his
countrymen, originally hailing from Nepal, he has relatives in the armed forces. His
grandfather, long since retired, served in the British Indian Army in World War One, against the Turks in Iraq. Who knows if he ever met my grandfather, by chance? It’s a romantic speculation for a young boy. Ravinder’s father served in Poland in World War Two. The military castes of Gorkhas spent their careers scattered far and wide across the conflict zones of the world, serving in the wars of their imperial European employers. Yet, no one was their master. Nepal was never and had never been, a conquered country.
Ravinder, a resident of the Darjeeling district, son of tea-workers and porters, shares with his compatriots a certain air of belonging to no-one rather than no-place. All Gorkhas have this cheery air of underlying freedom, that somehow, unlike most other people, they choose freely of their own sweet will what they happen to be doing at any moment, and they could with equal aplomb quit forthwith if they did not like your manner or the deal they had been offered.
Hindus they may be, the Gorkhas, and therefore in theory part of a deeply hierarchical society and mentality, but they are Hindus of a different stamp altogether, fierce mountain folk, descended from wind and ice, from lofty pinnacle and tarn. Nature fashioned them first in a tough mould before the traditions of caste and creed snared them into the human ladder that is the Hindu way of life. Rituals of caste purity are observed, of course, but they wear their creed and their habits lightly, and are ready to talk with anyone. You may employ a Gorkha but you dare not presume to own him.
Ang Pema and Ravinder stack our bags into the backs of Willis jeeps, camouflage-green or
clay-grey in their paintwork, like the army jeeps except a little smaller and obviously without the military markings and the vehicle number plates of the Indian Army. There is a huge army presence here, as is the case all along India’s Himalayan borders from the cease-fire line with Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir state to the north west, then following the snowline east two some two thousand four hundred kilometres to the fire-cloud, mist-and-jungle hill country bordering Burma.
The journey in those jeeps is a big thrill for a young city kid new to big mountains, even though it is as nothing compared to mountain journeys deep into the Himalayas and at higher altitudes. These foothills are low, gently rounded hillocks compared to the green-shouldered giants of the middle ranges, and stacked with fruit trees. The dirt road, a little pot-holed in places and sometimes with deep grooves like ruts, is basically sound and broad enough, not like the dangerously narrow, steep and twisting Pankhabari Road which is an alternative route up and down these hills. The drivers in the two jeeps cheerfully twist and wrench their steering wheels around blind corners, occasionally switch-backing up and down very sharp curves, to negotiate around, say, a commercial lorry, over-loaded, luridly coloured and festooned with ill-luck avoidance charms. These lorries lumber and roar slowly up and down these declivities. Grim, green-grey army trucks brook no nonsense from mere civilian vehicles which must give way according to two of the unspoken rules of the road: one, bigger has right of way; two, the army has right of way over everybody else. Nevertheless, horns are blared at every blind corner though a certain etiquette of precedence is generally observed.
At 4000 feet (it’s all in imperial measurements in that old India, although heights are starting to appear in metres as well) you know you are getting into the true foothills as opposed to the outer buttresses of the plains. The air is now definitely sharper; a mist starts seeping into the hills in patches, swirling and whispering in the slipstream of the jeeps as the road sidewinds through tall, dark pine forests. The mist gradually becomes thick, a white swirl that reduces visibility to a few metres. The mist absorbs sounds and produces a silence that seems almost a thing rather than a state, alive and gliding along the long defiles of mountain gulleys like a sparrow hawk’s wing. The hubbub of the big city seems very far away, and even the plains of North Bengal, wide and peaceful as they seemed, are almost beyond recall now.
The jeep wanders on along the road and I find myself drifting off into wild musings, the uncontrolled thoughts of an adolescent mind that is starting to wander away from any guiding hand, either of adults or of its owner. Behind these thoughts, the sound of the wind in the mist is the sound of ghosts. It seems to speak to you, of something lost, perhaps the recession of primeval wilderness, perhaps the vanished power of a mountain kingdom that once ruled here before the British came and the Indians of the plains. Something, at any rate; there is a feeling as though there is another world hidden behind this one, perhaps occupying the same space but in a different dimension. It is easy to believe that behind the fluttering orange prayer flags of Tibetan Buddhism that occasionally appear on some lowly shack-like wayside shrine or small whitewashed, water-stained tumulus, there really is something, some hidden realm of existence, or some kind of consciousness, that lies behind the gross realities one sees.
All this one senses, even as a child, for in India in those days, though the streets seethed with the brick, the concrete, the cars, the altogether uproar of modern times, nevertheless the ghosts of the old gods were alive in every breath and in every tree and stone and in the shade of every courtyard. All humanity, even the wretched, share that hubristic feeling that life is ultimately a grander business than merely procreating, living and dying, emerging out of some primordial chemical soup and then, after billions of years of evolution, and after finally making one’s point one way or another in this extraordinary experience we call human life, the top of the consciousness chain, so to speak, we merely return to the basic slime from which we emerged, swallowed up in the darkness of the Oblivion from which we came.
More than anywhere else I had seen, the hill country bore an air of secret knowledge barely hidden under its surface. Beyond the cheery grins of the ubiquitous bands of cheeky schoolchildren in their yellow khaki uniforms, – the fatly chuckling complacency of market traders and the quiet striving of peasants farming and carrying burdens, there were hints of other worlds, states of being. Was this whole way of life a homage to a figment of the imagination or truly a life-long ritual in search of another plane of existence that waited beyond the shadow of death? I looked for an answer hidden somewhere behind the inscrutable eyes of old lamas under their tall red hats, shaking incense in the portico of a Buddhist temple; the all-seeing painted eyes of the Shâkyamuni Buddha himself, his keen gaze replicated towards the Four Directions from chörtens placed by roadsides and hilltops; the determined faces and purposeful strides of young Buddhist novice monks, impressive in their wine-dark robes of the Red Hat Tibetan sects, sometimes with books under their arms.
There seemed to be nothing wishy-washy about any of them; they seemed sure of their chosen paths, certain that life had a meaning and a purpose arranged by a higher authority than the whim of any man or even the blind and gigantic forces of the material universe. At fourteen going on fifteen, an embryonic mystic in the making, I was looking for a vision in the ordinary scenes of daily life that played around me, the hidden needle in life’s haystack. But all I could see was this movement of purposeful life and, in homage to this other realm : the prayer-flags, the rlung-ta, fluttering in the wind, red, yellow and white, tied on long poles, moving against cloud-spattered skies of the softest blue.
The mountains and the mountain culture was my romantic escape from aspects that weighed down my heart in the India I was growing up in: overwhelmingly huge, unmanageable, oppressive, corrupt. India’s old Hindu temples, like the Kali temple in Kolkata, like the thousand temples to the dead in holy Vârânasi of the Ganges, like forbidding Kedarnath shrine, dusted with ice and forbidding on its black crag high in the mountains near the source of the Gangâ, all these temples were not the temples of the legends, not the temples of the stories I learnt about the child Krishna and his exploits, illustrated in the comic books about India in the days when the gods walked with men.
Where were the rooftops of precious stones, where were the white marble floors perfumed with attar of roses and blaze of marigold garlands? Where were these palaces to the gods? Could it be that the Muslim conquerors had stripped them all? What was the meaning, if anything, of a religious history of a nation in which six centuries brought together in a destructive relationship of conquest and expropriation the stripped temple of Somnâth and the white marble cosmos of the Taj Mahal? Was there no perfect Hindu temple or shrine still left, a shangri-la of the tropical forest, a Vilcabamba of Hindustan, hidden deep in a glade away from prying eyes, still waiting to be discovered? Was there a Muslim shrine to a sufi saint in which a miracle lay hidden in a ordinary place unnnoticed by thousands who walked by, the shade of a mango tree, the niqâb or prayer-niche in an ancient stone wall, and might I, among others, notice the secret that lay hidden that would resolve the meaning of life, would divulge that indeed it had a meaning and that I would take this ineffable meaning away with myself that I might share its fruit with others? Or might someone else stumble upon this secret and share it with me?
The Hindu temples I saw, they were dank and foul-smelling, their stone floors stained with urine, places more suitable for the sacrifice of goats, celebrations of death and decay, heaving with the frantic struggling of supplicants to pitiless gods and goddesses. These temples staffed by greedy priests demanding silver from the supplicants, rich and poor, were like the India outside the temple, consuming all living beings, the streets caked with the dust of the poor man’s struggle and his unsung death on pavements, on building sites, in fields of grain. And beyond : the mansions of the rich, their leafy suburbs abodes of comfortable repose and sometimes even of opulence, keeping the desperate clamour of the masses in Hell at bay with iron gates and khaki-clad sentries.
On the one hand there was the entrenched accumulations of superstition over thousands of years; on the other, hidden in the dung-mountain of supersitition, the gemstones of deeper spiritual knowledge, the keys to a higher plane of consciousness, the ecstasy of the soul even as the corrupted and crumbled body sank back into the dust from where it came. This was a very Indian response indeed, a denial of the material as the ultimate basis of existence, the logical corollary of Indian life in which ‘progress’ had no meaning and the concept of life was cyclical rather than linear.
Salaried middle class Indians generally did not have an opportunity to do much leisure travelling. Travel abroad was almost inconceivable, so great was the income gap and the difficulties in obtaining foreign currency. In our case, we could barely make it up to these hills once a year.
I was very aware of this. My previous existence, as a child in London, as the child who threw a coin into the baroque-sculptured, blue-tiled Fontana di Trevi in Rome in that sun-scorched summer of 1963 and was told that by doing so I was guaranteed to return again, that child of the wider world was gone, vanished as a previous reincarnation may have been.
I had returned to the land of my birth a prodigal son, bemused and alienated by the enforced adjustments needed, yet partially absorbed, and this was almost a physical experience, indeed it was a physical experience, the hammer blows to the emotions and understanding as real and perceived as the hammer of the tropical sun on one’s head and the parched lips and throat yearning for water on a blazing Delhi afternoon on some street where none is to be had. Indeed, it was as though I were a chicken, partially gorged into the gut of a hungry serpent, my head and body mulched in the gullet of an Indian cobra, my legs kicking for the imagined free air of the world outside.
Now all of a sudden here I was, still in India, but another world was opening up, one I had never known before was here, spreading across my line of vision from my feet up and and beyond to the snows peaks that were the traditional Abode of the Gods; above to the farthest limits of the sky.
I awake from my day dream and see that as the road clears the pine forests into more open country the view changes dramatically. The mountains open out into long green folds slanting down and away, far, far into the bush-dotted plains. The green flanks are no longer grassy but neat, countless rows of tea-bushes, over every visible hill, except in stretches where wild forest straggles splendidly unkempt to the upper reaches of the line of life till it meets the dead land of stone and pebble at the roof of the world where the kings and queens of the Himalayas are coroneted with snow. The farther flanks are bigger and higher, receding into the distance, blue rims on the horizon topped by great snowy teeth in a long curtain – Kangchendzönga, the Five Jewels of the Snows, the world’s third highest mountain at over eight thousand six hundred metres.
You know when you’ve arrived at Kurseong, (Kar-syang), Place of the White Orchid, as it
is called in the old Lepcha-Bhotia dialect, as suddenly the road enters a sprawling settlement of buildings: shack like shops, houses, government offices, slant-roofed hutments, and even the odd school compound. The road follows closely the edge of the narrow gauge railway track on which the ‘toy train’, built by the British around 1890, still runs. It chuffs alongside the road, cheerily blue-painted. The goggling passengers, arms hanging out of the iron-grilled windows, some eating fruit or sipping tea from tiny earthenware hâñris (pots) will look blankly at you and you might wave at them and they, astonished, continue to stare blankly back, except children who may shout cheerily and throw discarded sweet wrappers in your direction as you grind by in the four-wheel-drive.
And then you find yourself nudging slowly in built-up traffic past the long, low yellow building of Kurseong railway station which proudly states this fact and moreover, gives the altitude at that point as 4864 feet above sea level.
After the hour and a half long journey in almost complete silence through the hills, the
arrival, as so many arrivals on Indian journeys are, is loud and abrupt, with all the noise, hubbub of people, energy and lively activity that such a reminder would suggest. The usual sorts of scenes present as they would in most small town in India but set in a mountain location. There is widespread poverty in the long main street curving along a great flank of hillside, manifested especially in hordes of raggedy children running snot, scampering about apparently unattended along the road kerbs and the sleepers of the railway track. Adults are dressed in drab clothes – dun, brown, dirty white, cream. Women sport tight bodices in off-white and lilac and wear lungis wrapped around their waists and reaching to their ankles. Elderly men in Himalayan flat-topped hats and skullcaps totter about, hands behind their backs or holding walking sticks, the older ones sometimes sporting luxuriant white moustaches, wearing buff-coloured waistcoats and long-sleeved cotton shirts over dhotis and worn leather sandals on their feet, Tibetan refugee women are usually in traditional black chuba gowns tightly sashed in bright colour at the waist, kha-da scarves around their shoulders, coral and turquoise in worked silver adorning their necks, headdresses and ears.
Narrow-eyed pâhâri youths saunter everywhere, with that faintly disturbing air of the bored unemployed, eyeing up the new arrivals with inscrutable expressions. ‘Pâhâri’ (mountain folk) was the name my parents used to describe the majority ethnic group in the area, mainly of Gorkha-Nepali stock, immigrants who came to work in tea plantations in the Darjeeling district since the British acquired it from the Sikkim Raja in the 1830s.
Swarms of pâhâri children scuttle past chirruping shrilly, pointing fingers at the newly arrived passengers in cars, jeeps, buses and trains, waggling their hands cheekily and making rude comments, cackling with laughter.
And we go past all this and finally halt with a squeaking of brakes outside Monteviot
Bungalow Nº 3 or 150 Hill Cart Road, District Darjeeling, as the post office would prefer us to record the address. The road is some twenty metres above the house. Housekeeper Tendzin Norbu, long-faced with craggy cheekbones and deep lines around his eyes, and his wife Dekyi Drolma, chubby and apricot-skinned with apple-blush cheeks, come shuffling up the steep, stone and mud path that elevates in two sections to the roadside above. Their faces are creased in welcoming grins. Bags are unloaded, Ang Pema and Ravinder’s hands are
shaken and money is passed over, Tendzin picks up two cases in his lean, sinewy hands, big-knuckled and hard. Dekyi Drolma squats and manoeuvres a case onto her head, and
then shuffles stoutly back down the path towards the house. Indeed, this seasonal visit does
mean more work for them, but also gifts and a change of company.
Until I enter the world of employment many years later, I will not appreciate the
apprehension such visitations also cause, the stress of unknown and poorly understood demands from culturally alien employers who hold your home and your livelihood in their hands, their arbitrariness of whim and command, and the possibility of failing them over some triviality and being berated like a child. Such are the potential humiliations of employment in domestic service, especially for Tibetan refugees who have nowhere else to
Fortunately, my grandparents are in charge and they are generally kindly and appreciative employers, though grandfather is gruff and trap-mouthed and grandmother nagging and wheedling. For Tendzin and Dekyi, these occasional visits break up the quietude of the long periods in which they were the only ones in the house. It’s the early summer of 1970.
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A Room with a View : Kang-chen-dzö-nga, or, The Five Great Ice Peak Jewels
The stony path leads steeply down, guarded by green-painted railing. Below, a little path
bordered by roses, scarlet canna and golden gladioli, leads up to a green, leaded front door.
It is a large bungalow with a huge green pitched roof. Down at the house, pillars of
concrete and whitewashed walls without, dark, dark teak wood everywhere inside,
floors, doorways, furniture … lace curtains through which one peeps out at cypress and
poplar trees where parrots and ravens squawk. Down below, a great sweep of hillside, all
still my grandfather’s property, tough with wild grass and low bushes, chirping with crickets and the odd grass snake, furtive with field mice.
Below this sweep of uncultivated hillside there is a stream, churning its way down forcefully from distant blue hills. This is a tributary of the Tîsta, the river that rises in the snowy ranges of Kangchendzönga and flows through the hill state of Sikkim, then still ruled by the last of the Lepcha kings as a semi-independent state. This mountain stream perpetually roars in the distance, a faint but continuous whoosh! of sound like a waterfall far away.
Across from the porch, the view : range upon range of cloud-streaked hills, blending from green to blue and deep blue, and finally, the last dark line of blue, almost black, so far away. Above it Kangchendzönga’s tiger teeth, heavy and broad, rising to meet the toothless jaw of the sky, white and cold, pitilessly splendid, unveiled on clear days to reveal its face.
You could sit on that porch over toast and marmalade and hot coffee and imagine that you had left India for a completely different world, a place that looked something like pictures of Switzerland on boxes of chocolate biscuits imported from “phoren” (abroad).
And yet…and yet… not so. Somehow too enormous, and that feeling of being somewhere very far to the east of anywhere in Europe, even if you did not see a single soul in your line of vision. In other words, it was not really possible to suspend disbelief, even for a moment, and imagine that you were in Switzerland or the Rocky Mountains or anything like that. You always knew you were in the foothills of the Himalayas looking across at peaks that swung over eight thousand metres above the sea. The world’s real skyscrapers stood proudly before you. Kangchendzönga : the name itself redolent of the arcane, ultramontane mystery of the highest order, unpronounceable to people south of the Himalaya who adjusted it to ‘Kan-chen-jung-ga’. An outlandish name, nothing Indian or European about that name, a different planet, a different source, a different inspiration.
The mountain revealed its several faces, hung with wreaths of cloud like kha-da scarves of sacred offerings to its divinity, majesty and ineffable beauty. At eleven, I already sensed that I was extremely privileged to enjoy this view at will. In 1967, few came to Kurseong on holiday. They mainly passed on to Darjeeling to stay at hotels creaking with faded colonial charm like The Windermere (fire-places, china mugs and the smell of moth-balls and damp), or at smarter, modern Indian places for more money. Kurseong remained a blissful backwater, haunt of linnets and pâhâri urchins in khaki shorts.
In Kurseong, during the dry late spring and early summer before the monsoon arrived, we were lost in space and time. Kangchendzönga rose every morning, greeting us with a rose flush of light on its seven faces that slowly faded behind the blazing white shield of the sun as the day wore on. As the sun dipped out of sight at end of day, a line of soft cloud would draw a veil over the great mountain’s face and evening’s shadow quickened light breezes that stirred the leaves of innumerable trees in a long collective sigh.
If I was not with my brother and chose to mooch off by myself, as I often did, I might sit on a tussock on the steep hillside below the house on such a fine evening with crickets chirping on the edge of my canvas shoes and pine needles prickling my elbows. I might lean back and sink my eyes into the lilac haze of the far hills, and fancy that the sound of the trees were as though they were putting down the burden of a day’s debate and, clearing their minds, were settling in to rest, enticing mountain crows and finches to keep them company among their bough-rests and dark canopies.
Somewhere away to the left, the rose arch before the front porch of the house droops with a weighty smother of pink and white blooms now silk-grey in near darkness. Cypresses and gangling firs jostle for space on hillsides of tough grass and thorns. The stream far below and across the valley burbles endlessly as though there is never a moment when its waters might dry up or when it ceases to reflect aloud on the business of the day, on the many arguments it has had with smooth stones that it jostled and nudged along its bed all day long, or as though the snow melt in the high mountain was great enough and deep enough to guarantee fresh water forever and that it could continue to waste itself down the long, sweet declivity of its journey to join a greater river somewhere south in the lazy flatlands far out of sight. That is where, I imagine, the heat of a tropical day slows even the waters of snow into a dreamy amble and a sluggish amplitude that spreads its once leaner northern flanks now melted south into a wide straddle on its even longer road another world away to the darkwater sea.
Ah, such sweet solitude and nonsense thoughts before the dinner gong!
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Death in the Afternoon
Boredom sometimes set in. With the cruelty of pre-adolescent children, the following summer of 1967 we visited Kurseong again was when I was eleven and my brother nine. we spent golden afternoons pulling tough yellow stalks out from between thickets of nettles and twisting them into make-belief rope that fell apart under stress, and then we caught crickets and put the scrabbling creatures into a glass jar, put paper inside and set fire to the little beasts with matches.
I felt a vicarious thrill of power, watching these creatures struggle and die, and then
almost immediately after this, the most horrendous jolt of remorse and an exquisite horror.
It was not only pity for the harmless creatures I had killed, but really a kind of deep,
spiritual revulsion against myself, a feeling akin to my mortal soul being in peril, as well as
horror for the pain I had inflicted.
People often say that Hindus have no conscience, it is a ritualistic religion, God’s forgiveness can be bought off with alms, charity, almost any sin can be forgiven if the price is paid in support of Brahmins and temples and feeding of the poor, no inner transformation is required, the deed is sufficient. In that sense, Hindu life, as it is practiced, seems to be as external as it is ritualistic. But Hinduism as a way of life has never been just one thing, as K.M. Sen pointed out in his superb introduction published in collaboration with his son Amartya Sen in 1941. The life and principles of Mahatma Gandhi, the ancient philosophical investigations of the Upanishads, the Jain sect, developed at a time so long ago that Brahminical orthodoxy had not yet got a grip on the Hindu soul, were and are all manifestations broadly speaking of the Hindu mode of life, even if some, such as the Jains, might dispute that they are Hindus. As for the Brahmos, with whom my own family is affiliated on my father’s side, as reformers who broke from the fundamental caste principle, they were no longer regarded as proper Hindus at all and accepted the distinction themselves as an occupational hazard of the persuasion. However, sincere Brahmins of my acquaintance and, in some cases, friendship, believe not just in ritually correct eating but also in being honest and practicing ahimsa (non-violence) and hold that caste purity maintained merely through ritual is no purity at all without that the moral effort leading to a transformation of the soul…
No, no, I already knew these things in their essence as all Hindus do, although obviously I could not have explained them in this way, I had already become infused with the main Hindu ideas within a couple of years. What is more, I was made aware of Christian piety too – something which was not true of my secular primary school in London. Once, I asked my mother about what prayer was (I think I was about nine years old at the time) and she introduced me to St Francis of Assisi’s famous prayer Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…given my somewhat serious cast of mind for a boy of that age, I latched onto this prayer as something deeply significant rather than a passing moment’s curiosity.
Now, over this matter of the burning of the crickets, I experienced a kind of spiritual
epiphany, vowing never to hurt a harmless creature such a cricket again or, for that matter, even such an obdurate beast as an ant, which, until a couple of years previously, I was still inclined towards picking the legs off ants as so many children do, to see if they could walk on progressively fewer number of legs or not. Verily, the old saying that idle minds breed mischief, could not have been truer in my case!
So here I was at eleven, pondering ruefully over the Murder of the Crickets, developing a conscience, taking one of those early lurches towards earnestness, discovering the weight, the power and the sobriety of a sense of responsibility, and a kind of painfully pleasurable recognition that freedom without a conscience, indulgence of whims and excitements without direction and self-restraint, ultimately lead to some kind of deep rotting of the fabric of the soul, even as the emotions are sated with the pleasure of exercising cruel power over other creatures.
Younger Brother wanted to do the crickets again the next day – he hadn’t quite got to this point yet, his mind was happily innocent both of evil as well as of conscience, as a cat’s mind might be when playing with a bird or an insect – but I forbade it, fiercely – No! We will NEVER do it again, do you HEAR ME?” He looked at me puzzled and a bit hurt. All right, all right, calm down, don’t get all het up. They’re only bloody crickets! They don’t feel much pain…. YES THEY DO! How the hell do YOU know? …All RIGHT, we won’t do it again then, forget it will you…?
Most mornings we were obliged to go walking. We would tramp ruefully after our parents and grandparents for three or four kilometers each day along the Hill Cart Road towards Darjeeling, winding along great banks of pine and fir. The forests chattered with birdlife. The tall gloom of trees were sometimes shrouded in whitness or sometimes the tops of the trees were bearded with tendrils that looked from a distance in the cold, grey light of late afternoons, like necklaces of snow. Above, chunks of blue sky streaked with white clouds like pieces of jigsaw puzzles. We might round a flank of hill and suddenly the sun would burst out and pour over fold after fold slanting down from the heights to the hazy feet of the Himalayas where the hills met the dusty plain, flanks green and gold and burred with hutments of pâhâri folk who would often be seen here and there, women bent over washing, short and powerful legs planted flat on glistening wooden boards, skirted by snot-nosed children with impudent eyes, waving as we walked passed.
Clusters of schoolkids would come chortling and chirruping behind us, sniggering and
cackling, calling out what were probably rude names, occasionally intelligible … “Hallo
Mister, give me one pen, OK, why not?” … “Ho-aah! Walking walking, talking talking
Heh I am buddhoo, no? give me TWO pens!!” I would slouch along that road, dolefully accompanying my family, as the occasional overloaded commercial truck wheezed past, engine panting and rumbling, golden tassles dangling, sides gaily painted as in Hindi movie posters and maxims in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali and Punjabi, painted all over them, and shoes hanging on string at their backs to ward off the evil eye …”Buri nazar vâle terâ mû kâlâ!” A truck might use this hand-painted curse to damn another vehicle that didn’t exercise due care on the road, yet the trucks themselves used their weight and overwhelming presence to nudge other vehicles off the initiative as hippos in river water might nudge away smaller creatures.
There we were, dressed in jumpers, shorts, socks and shoes, my mother and grandmother in coats and saris, grandfather in topcoat and hat and a walking stick. My grandfather, doyen of the family, worshipped ancestor and platoon-leader, straight-backed, resolute, his walking stick tipping back and forth briskly, hat nodding gently, well ahead of the rest of us. We, the boys, sloped along next, looking back uneasily at the chirping urchins, some of whom ran ahead, snapping playfully at our heels like mice. My mother and grandmother shuffled behind. Dadu, surrounded by children, looked like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, his walking stick instead of a flute to mark time for the march as well as flourishing the seal of authority, while his flock swarmed cheeping and squalling around us.
Such entertainment was rarely to be had in these verdant hills so of course the local kids made the most of it! In that early time we attracted a similar level of public attention and interest from local children in our boots, conservative haircuts and English woollens, as hippies in seventeenth-century hair styles, tattoos and threadbare jeans did a few years later.
There was, I seemed to detect, though perhaps it was mere self-consciousness, a underlying hint of menace in this public attention. It certainly was true that hill society of the time was already about insiders and outsiders, locals and arrivistes – and to the pâhârî majority, we were the outsiders along with a lot of other people. The shadow of the ethnic polarization of the 1980s could first be felt in the 1960s in apparently humorous situations such as this.
The pâhârî folk did seem to give off an air of some kind of tribal possession – or at least advantage – in the hill country roundabouts regardless of who else was here : Tibetan refugees, Lepchas, Bhotia herders, Bengali clerks, Mârwâri traders, Punjabi and Râjasthâni and Bihâri transport men, itinerant cooks and porters from Calcutta and North Bengal, government officers and clerks from every part of India, and finally, a tiny smattering of genteel retired folk from the cities such as my grandfather who had acquired old British Bungalows abandoned by tea planters gone to Kenya or back to Vilâyet, after Indian Independence in 1947.
Descendents of immigrant labour from the Nepalese population explosion of the nineteenth century, they were prepared to use violence against minorities in order to enforce their demands. Shopkeepers in towns like Kurseong and Darjeeling, and Tibetan refugees bore much of their collective displeasure, whereas the Government of West Bengal in Calcutta remained generally immune from the effects of their attacks.
The pâhâri kids generally came from poorer families than the other minorities, although not exclusively so. In sheer numbers, the Gorkha-Nepali community could easily assert itself if it wished to do so and it was increasingly inclined to do it. Now that the old colonial property owners and administrators, the British tea planters and district magistrates and business wallahs, had gone, the Gorkhas were not inclined to respect the Indians, individual or corporate who had replaced their previous bosses. The British men in charge had generally inspired a certain amount of awe and respect although this had increasingly worn thin in the inter-war period; as a foreign power they could weither stay aloof from, or manipulate, the petty quarrels and rivalries of the sub-continent. Equally importantly, India was formerly an empire, Indians were subjects, but now India was a democracy.
After Indian independence, with the last vestige of the Raj mystique gone, it was back to business. Partition in 1947 had really set the tone for settling disputes – with blood first and negotiation afterwards. It was not a good precedent for an emerging democracy but it was done and could not be undone. As everyone knows, the door to peace and national cohesion had been unbolted and the proverbial horse had already fled before midnight. With rival political parties actively seeking votes from a democratic India, people power was a new factor and beginning to make an impact on the local culture.
Half a generation later, by which time I was living back in England again, these same children were grown into young men and women. Some must have become the storm troopers of the ‘Gorkhaland’ movement to wrest control of the area by force from the government of Bengal and to keep down all other ethnic groups in the area.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Revelatory Power of Stamp Collecting
In 1967 had brought some of my stamp albums to Kurseong to keep me amused. Like many a child of my generation, stamp collecting often went together with reading. The stamps fired my imagination in a minor way as way reading a book might do in a more extended way: in both cases the scenes and the settings are created by the beholder through a process of interpretation, not just passively consumed givens. You have to make them in your head out of what is suggested by the printed page or, in the case of a stamp, by the design on a single, very small patch of paper.
I had no interest in what generally tends to interest stamp collectors : rarity, odd printing effects, the sort of thing that determines the commercial value of stamps. I was interested in what they meant or implied, on what I could evoke in my mind from scrutinizing them.
Of course I was attracted to the big colourful stamps, of animals, butterflies, sports or space flight, often produced by small or obscure countries that looked in desperation to selling stamp issues as a way of raising national revenue.
But really, I preferred what I thought of as the real stamps. These were usually
monochrome, actually used to post letters and parcels, printed by stamp companies like Courvoisier SA in Switzerland, or printed in France by the state presses. They had a general air of authenticity about them, i.e. they looked like they were made to do the job of recording payment for postal service. They were mostly intricately etched woodcuts or lithographs, with ornamented borders. I specially liked the ones from regions of French West Africa, featuring Touareg on camel back in the Sahara Desert, or turbaned black women selling fruit in village markets, or, in the case of what was then called Oubangi-Chari, now called the Central African Republic, a leopard was shown padding sinuously through dense jungle foliage. Spanish Morocco and the French territories of North Africa such as Tunisia and Algeria featured exotic scenes strongly reminiscent of nineteenth century romantic prints. The designs and the scripts in dozens of unknown forms were testimony to the exciting variety of the even bigger world that lay outside the complex universe of India.
I was interested in checking out the date of a stamp; the historian lurking under the small boy’s guise would pop up here: I just knew that the date made a difference. A leopard on a stamp from Oubangi-Chari dating from 1908 meant you were in the Heart of Darkness-Conrad country, Albert Schweitzer country, a lost place, almost another planet. You were back at the end of the Age of Exploration in the heart of the least known land-mass on Earth outside the Amazon Basin – Central Africa! A street scene on a stamp from French Morocco with a postmark ‘Tanger, 1950’ evoked an altogether brighter and more entertaining scenario, a whiff of roulette tables, pastis , tuexedos, straw hats, exotic silks.
These imaginings were entirely European romantic, gleaned from the books I was reading, You could look at these tiny but detailed pictures through a magnifying glass of date palms and desert oases and spahis with shaded hats and rifles, and arches and porticoes in colonial streets, and straight away you were in the land of books by P.C. Wren or going back further, Rider Haggard. The British stamps from places like British Guiana or Bechuanaland, now Botswana, were equally fascinating. I decided that a woodcut did more for the imagination than a photograph or a painting in lurid technicolor.
And then, of course, there were the dull stamps, mainly featuring heads of states. I had a
massive Stanley Gibbons catalogue (one of those orange hardbacks from the late 1960s) and the Penny Black was then the world’s most expensive, oldest and rarest stamp – but dull, oh so dull! Queen Victoria, depicted rather like the bust of some classical goddess, seemed impersonal and unreachable, not at all a real person. It evoked nothing. If anything, it made Britain seem unfairly dull, while the British Empire itself, and especially the princely states, had some very interesting looking stamps with wonderful scenes like those you might see in etchings. Even the portraits were better : the turbaned and moustachioed personages on the stamps of semi-independent states like Travancore-Cochin in South India or Orchha State in Central India, flanked by tigers and elephants, seemed to carry a lot more character than the dull old Penny Black.
The same could be said of Franco’s head on Spanish stamps at the time, or Mao’s on Chinese stamps. You’d never guess, from their dull, respectable visages as depicted, that these were vengeful or bloodthirsty murderers and tyrants. You learned nothing meaningful from these depictions of heads of state.
All this was harmless, romantic fun and had a good educational aspect to it. But then I was tempted to do something in the real world. The here and now. Not merely the two-dimensional world of stamps or the virtual world of my imaginings based on stamps.
Then one day a yellow stamp caught my eye as I leafed through a crinkly page of an album in which I had mounted some stamps I hadn’t really looked at carefully. I used my magnifying glass. The design was poorly executed, compared to the European woodcuts of the British and French Empires. The paper quality was cheap. It showed a lot of writing in what was either Chinese or Japanese. I didn’t have the stamp catalogue to hand nor a magnifying glass so I peered harder at it. A bald, sad-looking man with a wispy moustache and enigmatic eyes peered out of the tiny woodcut, hard to see in the yellow colour of the black ink. Then below, in black lettering, ever so small – Sun Yat Sen.
China ! I happened to have very few Chinese stamps. This was a Chinese stamp from the old republic, before Mao Zedong took over. Sometime between 1911 and 1925. The postmark was hard to see on a stamp removed from the surrounding envelope. It seemed to be marked Nanking and some date in 1930 or 1931.
I went out to find Tendzin’s son Jigme Dorje who was about seventeen years old. He was the more intelligent brother of two. You could see it in his alert eyes, kindly expression and wide, uncomplicated smile. His cheeks were prominent with hectic pink spots in them, his jaw lean, his stature short but sturdy. His younger brother Pema, was taller, shambling, with an ox-like face, and wide, blank eyes. Jigme would probably use his mind in some way, if he got a chance. I knew that Jigme was in no way lesser to myself although he was disadvantaged in station. More likely, he would get past me easily if he had the chance. But as the son of a poor Tibetan refugee who had lost everything on the mountain passes as his family fled Tibet after Mao’s second and most devastating invasion in 1959, he had no easy opportunity to use those talents.
Jigme wasn’t around. I found Tendzin dressed in a white rolled up shirt and a
black sleeveless cardigan, whittling away at a piece of wood with a chisel.
I knew there was something provocative about what I was about to do. I knew the Tibetans had fled their homeland to come here. But I think I wanted a reaction and I was more impelled by this than restrained from doing what I knew might cause offence. I wanted to know how much it mattered and I thought I could get away with it. I suppose
investigative journalists must be like this. The desire to know, to get a reaction, seems to be sometimes more important than ethical questions, perhaps. Whether it’s justified or not depends on the context and is a matter for debate. Here, the adult and child separate: I didn’t think about the justification. I only thought about wanting to understand. Once again, still deep inside childhood rather than bordering adolescence, I vacillated between the conscience of the adult and the whim and impatience of a child.
I handed the yellow stamp over to Tendzin. What’s this stamp? Do you know where it
comes from? I waited. Tendzin peered at the stamp in his huge, knuckle-boned hands,
turning it over slowly and around.
Then – explosion! – with an oath, he flung the stamp onto the ground and kicked it.
The stamp was destroyed under his boot, the flimsy speck of paper, from 1930, smeared into the slightly damp dust of the ground. It was gone! Ironic, in a way, given that old Sun Yat-sen was the kind of principled democrat that might well have have negotiated a civilized deal with the Tibetans, if it had been his sort still in charge in 1950. But of course Sun and all he stood for was long gone in a China blown to pieces by the warlord era, by the ruthless military dictator Jiang Kaishek, by the even more ruthless communist dictator Mao, and by the Japanese militarists. China, to a Tibetan, stood for the end of human life as understood by a Tibetan, and the beginning of an era of slavery and annihilation. I had just bumped into one of the longest continuous oppressions in modern history. I already had an inkling about it, just from vague murmurs among the domestic staff, a chance remark by Dida or my parents, but nothing very clear. But it was enough for me to quicken an underlying curiosity. Somehow, I felt inhibited about asking directly about it, as though this might seem disrespectful. I wanted to enquire in a circumspect way, as though entirely innocently about something I knew nothing, and perhaps thereby deflect any anger while learning something new as well. I certainly learnt something and I was not excused the indignation.
I didn’t really care about the stamp or get cross with Tendzin for destroying my property although I was disturbed to discover that I had provoked such a strong reaction.
Behind such a reaction was evidently a most serious situation indeed. I needed to know more. I began apologising to Tendzin, saying I hadn’t intended to upset him, which wasn’t strictly true but it sounded appropriate. Tendzin didn’t wait. He stumped off in disgust.
Now things had not gone quite the way I had expected. I had expected to stay in control and I had lost control. I was learning the consequences of risky behaviour.
I had bitten off more than I could chew but, childishly mindful of my status as a little baba, I still wished that Tendzin had not been quite so abrupt with me even though I had offended him, but simply explained his anger better. I did presume a right to be treated respectfully, even if I had done something wrong, picking up something of the arbitrary assumptions of an employer. My inbuilt assumptions of superiority were affronted.
On the other hand, I also felt honoured that I had got this reaction. By getting angry in this way, Tendzin had not indulged me like a child. He had expressed his anger and called me to account and thereby implied that I should know better. This meant that at some level at least, he expected me to behave like a grown-up, to conduct myself responsibly. By treating my impertinent enquiry with the contempt it deserved.
Deep down, I never really did see Tendzin as part of my hierarchical world and therefore as subject in any fundamental way, to the rules of that world, even if outwardly, by circumstance of his being an employee of my family, he appeared to be so restrained. I knew that Tendzin came from another world, a world in which his position could have been anything, and not for me to question until I knew what it was, and even then, how would I evaluate it and in what way would I make any meaningful assumptions about who was accountable to whom? No, his accountability to me, as a spoilt little baba of the Indian urban elite class, was merely circumstantial. Who knew, I thought, that in some other context, the winds of fate could have blown me in some direction where I would be equally abased and subjected to others, perhaps even to the likes of those who were subjected to me now.
The poverty and desperation encountered every day on India’s streets was a daily reminder of other, horrible possibilities, and kept the comfortably situated Hindus hurrying regularly to the temples to offer to obeisance to the gods and goddesses of good luck. It was not for nothing that Ganesh and Lakshmi adorned the niches and prayer-alcoves of most Hindu households!
In Kurseong, I felt that we were basically in someone else’s world even though our
family owned a property here. We were in his world, Tendzin’s world and, of course, also the world of the pâhâri kids, the enemies and tormentors of these desperate arrivals in exile from a foreign land. Tendzin must have endured terrible and mysterious privations to get here. He had lost something, everything, whatever it was. He had the air of a man of consequence brought down by ill times into servitude. His normally cheerful mien and air of respectful obeisance was nevertheless marked by an underlying chagrin, of anger even, not at us, but at the circumstances that put him here, in these conditions, in this way. I remembered Dinesh the gardener, back in Calcutta.
As for the pâhâri urchins, I might dislike them for making fun of me and being ignorant and annoying, but still, it was their domain though it appeared that others controlled it. I felt that we had no right, somehow, to really be here, only to visit. We could have rented the property and it would have been all right but perhaps not really owned it. I was not, by instinct, a capitalist!
However, own it we did, and Tendzin did not. Life and events had dispossessed him, in some way, and opened the way for people like us to take over what others had been forced to abandon.
I saw Jigme the next day. He came round grinning, hands shoved into his pockets. He
spoke broken Hindi with that same chewy, exotic accent that his father had. I told him
what had happened the previous day with his father. I hadn’t seen Tendzin since; I think he
had been all morning in the market place, helping the cook, Ganesh, to buy fish and
vegetables. It’s worth mentioning that Tendzin and I got past this event and it wasn’t long before, so far as I could see, mutual trust was restored.
Jigme’s normally cheerful face settled into a serious expression as I explained. There was
silence for a moment or two when I had finished. He scratched the back of his neck. I shuffled my feet and eyed him uneasily. It was only a stamp, after all.
First Jigme apologised for his father’s show of temper, which I dismissed with an impatient wave of my hand. What’s this thing with China, eh? What did they DO?
As the afternoon wore on, Jigme slowly went through a story which was widely disseminated but nevertheless poorly understood, garbled in many places, and sown with Chinese disinformation and propaganda. Therefore it is worth summarizing how he put it.
Tibetans had been for centuries a proud and free people, from the herdsmen in the great icy plateau of Chang-thang in the northern province of Amdo, to the wild, long-haired, sword-wielding, horse-riding Kham-pa tribesmen of the south east, the farmers of Wütsang in the centre, and the holy city of Lhasa. A long time ago Tibet had been a huge empire, including a third of western China itself, but under the influence of Buddhism coming from India, the Tibetans had become relatively peaceful and also isolated from the rest of the world, partly as a deliberate policy to protect an increasingly pacifist Tibet from fiercer powers coming from outside. It was, perhaps, an oversimplified view of Tibetan history, ignoring the many internecine wars among monastic factions, for instance, but broadly speaking, this view was true.
Way back in the thirteenth century, the Chinese emperors had come under the influence of Tibetan lamas, and a personal relationship of mutual trust had developed: the Chinese emperor swore to protect Tibet from hostile powers and the Tibetan high lamas, specifically, the abbot of Sa-skya monastery, would look after the spiritual needs of the Chinese emperors. Over subsequent centuries, this relationship was lost although the Tibetans warded off loss of independence by cultivating a relationship with the Mongols who became the new big power in eastern Central Asia and China from the fourteenth century.
By the time the Qing emperors came to power in the seventeenth century, the agenda had substantially changed. The Chinese emperors increasingly wanted complete control over Tibet as they were an imperial people with huge numbers and great power, but hadn’t quite managed to do it. Tibet also faced a major threat from the south, from the fierce new Gorkha power in Nepal at the end of the 18th century. This only increased the feeling among Tibetan leaders that keeping away from the rest of the world and relying on the harshness of their highland terrain to deter conquerors and settlers, was the best policy. The British finally broke through this rigid isolation with a brutal military expedition in 1904 which decimated the Tibetan army armed with bows and arrows and ancient firearms, some of which didn’t work properly.
During China’s weak period in the early 20th Century, the Tibetans finally broke free of a now hated Chinese domination. However, the habit of isolationism, built in for centuries, was so entrenched that they could not shake it off.
Then finally in 1950, the hammer came down under the communist leader Mao. A battle-hardened People’s Liberation Army invade Tibet, armed with modern weapons, schooled in twenty years of warfare against warlords, Jiang Kaishek and the Japanese, aided by Russian weaponry and now masters of all China. They sought not only to take Tibet over but, fired by the new ideology, to turn the Tibetan people into a communist colony and control or destroy their beloved divine leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese communists believed that they were setting the Tibetans “free” by doing this. They were not interested in the opinions of the Tibetans themselves. Beyond such beliefs they were motivated by strategic interests : guarding China’s western borders, a traditional problem for China, and utilizing Tibet’s immense and virtually untapped mineral resources. The tiny, poorly armed Tibetan army stood no chance. It was all over in days. Later, a ferocious resistance would break out in Eastern Tibet (Khams) among the fierce tribesmen of the Upper Yangtze, Mekong and Salween rivers. This revolt simmered for years before it was finally crushed. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s supreme spiritual leader, had long gone by then, and Tibet’s second most eminent leader, the Panchen Lama, was a de-facto prisoner in Beijing.
When the Dalai Lama finally felt he had to leave Tibet after a tense interregnum of nine years since the communists arrived. Thousands of Tibetans fled the new brutal regime that was being imposed by Mao. Among them were Jigme’s father and mother. Tendzin had been a farmer in the Dingri area north-west of Sikkim and within sight of both the Mount Everest and the Kangchendzönga massifs in the immensely high mountains at the very southern edge of Old Tibet. This was where Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim (then semi-independent) and India all meet. He had been neither poor nor rich but he was certainly a free man. He had had enough land to feed his family comfortably, a herd of thirty domestic yak, goats, sheep, and an orchard of fruit trees. He also used to make money from knitting woollen clothing, a practice he and his family continued in India.
Tendzin’s decision to leave Ding-ri with his family was not the flight of the Dalai Lama in
March 1959, passing well to the east of Ding-ri via Gyangtse and Yadong into Sikkim and India, but earlier, when the People’s Liberation Army detachments arrived in the area after China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950, whose alien and brutal behaviour made it clear that things were going to change forever.
The PLA troops started forcing local people into collective “confession sessions” called thabzing (in Tibetan), extremely well documented in many books, films and records. Although these hadn’t reached the furious levels of the Cultural Revolution, which was to come a number of years later, they were sufficiently radical and brutal to deeply upset the people in the area. In a broad replication of collectivization in China and, decades before that, in the Soviet Union, free farmers were stripped of their land and turned into slaves of the new collectivised agriculture that was being imposed in the name of socialism, Buddhist monasteries were attacked and in some cases fired upon, monks and nuns stripped, tortured, imprisoned and in some cases killed, the people forced into public sessions to declare loyalty to Mao, loyalty to China and loyalty to the socialist revolution.
Tibetans in the area were being forced to give up the cultivation of barley, suitable for the great height of the limited farmland at between 3500 and 4500 metres above sea level, and instead, cultivate wheat, to feed not themselves but the Han in far-away China, as China itself was reeling under the impact of man-made famines caused by Mao’s disastrous land policies in the early 1950s.
The flight of the Dalai Lama made it clear that there was no hope of a suitable accommodation between the Tibetan and the new Maoist Chinese ways of life. Tibet was enslaved for the time being and was going through the darkest phase in its history – ever.
“We knew this was going to happen,” said Jigme. “It was foretold more than once.”
I felt a chill run through my back. “Foretold? What do you mean?”
“Hundreds of years ago, the Oracle of Tibet, the Nechung-chhökyong, saw it in a dream. He saw that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, His Excellency Thubten Gyamtso, would be the last. His present Holiness is the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Just after the Second
World War, the Nechung oracle of the day warned the Dalai Lama in a trance that mortal danger would come from the east, meaning China. It was hushed up but the present Dalai Lama has known about this prophecy since he was about fourteen years old His Holiness also says that whatever one may think of oracles, it is a strange fact that all the prophecies of the Nechung oracle have come true, not only this last and most terrible one. “
Jigme shrugged and we were silent for a minute or two.
“It’s karma”, he said. “We’ll get Tibet back one day. But probably not in my lifetime.” He
looked sad. I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine a lifetime at my age, eleven going on twelve to Jigme’s seventeen. To wait longer than a lifetime was to wait forever.
“Do you remember how it was? “ I said, “I mean, coming over from Tibet?”
“Not really,” said Jigme. “I was about three or four years old. I was born Tibetan but Pema was born in India, in Sikkim. But my Father and Mother said it was terrible. We had to wait till the end of the harvest season to slip away. The cold had started and the wind was high. There was already deep snow on the passes. Some of these were at over 5000 metres above sea level. My uncle had a bad chest. He didn’t make it. He died in Sikkim. My mother had to leave one of her sisters behind. They couldn’t get away, I don’t know the circumstances.
“Another aunt a very small baby. It died and was buried in the snow, at the foot of Kangchendzönga. We came to Darjeeling with nothing except small gold coins and our bundles of pots and pans. We started in a refugee camp set up by the Indian government. My parents were not used to Indian food and water. It was horrible. We got dysentery. Apparently I nearly died.
“Pema was born in Gangtok in a camp outside town a few months before we came to Darjeeling. In Darjeeling my father was doing some small trading, in wool and basic provisions. The pâhâri boys made life hard for Father. We were good at business and worked hard and they generally didn’t. Then your Grandfather offered my father a position as caretaker of this house and so we settled here.”
It was the first time I had ever come across someone who I thought of as an exile. Although I did not know that word at the time, I certainly now understood something of its emotional and situational significance. I thought of myself as something of an exile, culturally speaking, at any rate, and didn’t really know any longer what exactly I was – assuming that putting a person into a well-defined box was the right thing to do, which seemed to be what a lot of adults around me believed. I found my own movement from place to place at once exhilarating and painful, because these movements and these situations were not of my own choice.
I knew vaguely from some things my mother said about her early life that she also felt something of this except that for her the return to India from Europe and America in her twenties was an effective coming home and she was thenceforth emotionally and culturally committed to the land of her birth: it was a personal decision and, on he other hand, a resolution of identity. I was too young to have any such considered notions, my life and personal development was still in its relatively early stages, by no means did I find my return to India an effective resolution of any situation, and I was able to indulge the unproven notion that remaining in Britain instead of being in India was somehow a natural process into which I would have grown comfortably – a childish and simplistic assumption indeed, but that’s how I felt at the time. It would be a very long time indeed before I came to understand, both emotionally and intellectually, that being a marginal had its own cultural validity, whereas adults I knew skirted around this issue : they tended to present me with the practical problems such as how uncomfortable it would be not to have roots and to fit in, and how rewarding and reassuring it would be to make the transition to a readily definable cultural identity.
And now here was someone only a few years older than myself but having the manner and the reflective approach of a man. Indeed, in the land of his birth, he was a man. Jigme was cheerful and had a mischievous twinkle in his eye, but he was also responsible and serious, and about the situation of himself and his people he was heartbroken. Here was someone who knew exactly who he was, who had more roots than I had hairs on my head, but who was torn from those roots forever by the vicissitudes of history and flung into a world not of his choosing. His parents had a choice among death, slavery or exile in a foreign land. Like all the exiles of the world, he chose an uncertain future with the hope of salvaging a life of sorts out of the disaster, to the certainties of death or enslavement.
Jigme could not even remember what Tibet was like! I could remember what London was like. He had no hope of return in his lifetime. I might possibly return to London one day, and I might like it or I might not but I probably had choices. I realised, thinking over Jigme’s story, that “exile” covered a wide variety of states and mine was a cup of tea compared to the disinherited of the earth.
I, who danced a clumsy waltz between East and West, at least did not have to say “I have lost my country forever.”
That evening I sat on the porch alone for a few minutes, while the rest of the family played cards under the warm yellow light of the living room. I watched the dark come down like a soft brush against the cold cheek of Kangchendzönga. I prayed to the God of the Snows that he would look to his people to the north, and take care of their souls. His massive face was turned towards the darkness, away from my pleas and above his seven heads were the moon and stars.
* * * * * * * * * *
CHAPTER SIX: TALES OF THE HEARTLAND
“The past is a foreign country”
I was thirteen years old in 1969. One day my mother announced to my brother and I, in that
abrupt way she had of making a major announcement without explanation or preamble
(perhaps that was the best way?) that we were going to Delhi.
“Where is that?” I asked.
“A thousand miles away. To the north.”
“Why are we going to Delhi?”
“Because your father has got a better job there. “
I thought about this for a while. Then I asked, “Are the people different there from here?”
“Well, they are Indian people, like us”, said my mother. “ But they speak a different language. You’ll get used to it. I loved it there when I was a child. We lived in a lovely house.”
I was still thinking for a bit. Then I finally said to my mother , quite flatly,” I don’t want to
go to Delhi. Maybe I can stay here, with Younger Brother and Grandmother.”
A short pause while we looked at each other in silence.
“Well, we have to go as a family”, said my mother, finally. “Your father has resigned from his job here and has got another job in Delhi. Your grandmother cannot look after you. So that’s that.”
I considered this but I had no coherent thoughts. Once again I would have to meet an unknown cultural challenge.
In December of that year, we took a train north west. After a day and night of travelling, we got off at New Delhi Railway station, weary, laden with bags taken away by shouting porters in red coats and brass number-plated armbands. Above was a hard blue sky, as blank and unblemished as a sky in a desert. The air was chilly, chillier than any air ever was in Calcutta. It was a dry cold, such as I had never experienced in England. People milled about, dressed in kurta-paijama, shawls or dun-coloured blankets over their shoulders, speaking in strange tongues, which I later recognised as Punjabi and the village Jat Hindi dialects of Haryana State north and north west of Delhi. Blue-white smoke rose from dung fires.
There were a lot fewer people about than in Calcutta. Even on the bustling railway station
platform, Delhi felt like a village, as though I was somehow on the edge of the country
instead of in the heart of a great city. I realised, with that uneasy and yet excited lurch, that I had entered another country. My cultural encounter with the India of many tongues and
many ways, had started a new chapter. An entire new life was going to begin, like an open-ended play in school, though with an extended cast of characters, most of whom I
hadn’t met yet. Like most young children and animals, I didn’t like surprises.
I would discover that the capital of India, Delhi, was nearly one and a half thousand
kilometres north-west of Calcutta, and when we moved it felt truly like a move to a foreign
country. Different language. Different customs. Red dust storms coming in from the western desert in May. A drier, more savage climate, violently hot in summer, bone-chilling cold in winter. A place of ambition, even energy. Strong, rough people, rough accents and manners.
I was leaving Calcutta, its cosy certainties behind iron gates and in marble-floored homes but outside, its dirt- and soot-blackened homeless millions, the huge influx from the starving countryside, living on its crumbling pavements.
Its almost beguiling smell of death and decay.
Delhi in 1969 felt very different from the way it feels today, when big cities in developing countries have become mega-cities. With less than a quarter of today’s population, it was a sprawling collection of fragments, more a network of villages except for its imposing colonial and post-colonial centre. Its air was hard and clean. It was a city of endless blue skies and a fierce, light heat like a flame. You could walk a kilometre on pavements in central Delhi and hardly meet one or to people on the road on a hot, sleepy afternoon – almost unthinkable in Calcutta. In Delhi you could sense that the desert was not really far away.
Learning written Bengali had been bad enough, but the Hindi teacher at school was worse. He was one Mr Yadav, and he had a short, squat build like a bull-dog. Mr Yadav had a teak-brown complexion, hard, glittering eyes and salt and pepper hair. He wore a clipped white moustache and exuded a hatred of the middle classes. He also appeared to despise all the non-Hindi speaking Bengalis, Parsis, Sindhis, South Indians and other such dregs, regardless of their class status. Owing to his malign influence, I am sorry to say, I quickly came to associate Hindi with an ignorant and bigoted caste of mind in that way that children have of developing general attitudes to quite big things from personal experiences of individuals.
Mr Yadav was, in his own way, an idealist. It was clearly his moral as well as professional obligation to help India become a united nation by urging all his students to learn the legally appointed national language: Hindi. This sense of vocation was probably even stronger in places like Calcutta where it was not the official language and the agents of the new policy felt far from the support of Delhi. Today, of course, the conflict between Delhi-imposed Hindi and regional languages is more or less eradicated, and even in the far south of India the successful spread of Hindi as a practical language of verbal communication has led to its general acceptance. In the 1960s, however, India, still smarting from the old indignities of colonial rule, sought bitterly to free itself from dependence on English as the lingua franca, and superimpose Hindi. Only a minority of people in India actually spoke or understood the rather elegant if heavily Sanskritic Hindi of the area to the east of Delhi that commanded the attention of the politicians at the helm of power.
In many parts of India, people muttered that Hindustani, the language of the Hindi film industry, peppered as it was with Urdu words as much as Sanskritic Hindi, was a true, natural lingua franca, with its potential to link together the Hindu and Muslim communities. But politics determined that the official Hindi was the one being pushed by the government based in Delhi around all parts of India.
Hindi, thus presented, in its Sanskritic-Hindu incarnation was a rotten apple, both for the Muslims of India as well as for speakers of other languages, Bengalis in the east and Tamils in the south, in particular, felt that their languages were more developed and mature than the Sanskritised Hindi dialect of western Uttar Pradesh state, and had a far superior corpus of literature.
Picking up on this mood, I felt no desire to learn yet another language because Mr Yadav with his hard face and harder tongue thought I should. And an additional script as well! I started the road of retreating from the contentious maelstrom of Indian linguistic and cultural politics to the language I had never felt any issues with : English.
Unlike the other Indian students, who could be swayed by arguments such as ‘English is the language of our alien conquerors and must be eradicated’, I felt no such oppression. To me, English was the language of my old school playground, where I played conkers. I hit white boys on the chin and knocked them down. They kicked me in the shins and knocked me down. We swore at each other – in English. We shouted triumphantly when we won – in English. I rubbed shoulders with Scots, Sudanese, Nigerians, Arabs. I was knocked down by big girls in senior school when I was foolish enough to challenge them to a fight, and was sworn at – in English. Not the Queen’s English, to be sure, a very demotic English, but English nevertheless.
I had little concern with the humiliations of the colonial inheritance, although racial conflicts on playgrounds was undoubtedly partly a function of the imperial heritage. However, on these playgrounds, English came across definitely as an international language spoken freely by otherwise unrelated nationalities. Therefore I had already, by the time I returned to India, via the lingua franca of English in a London setting, come to see the world as the principle field of human existence, not the nation, even though the world remained divided into nation-states. In this sense London was rapidly becoming a peculiar place in the 1960s, a genuinely cosmopolitan city. A cosmopolis is not a place from which one can retreat to one’s roots except as a deliberate act of re-orientation. My mother, in retreat from cultural dispersion, had attempted to do exactly this as soon as she became a young adult.
Back in India, I had to try to re-scale my sense of connectedness from a global one, as I had encountered such a condition in London, to a national one, in India. As this was not my choice, I found myself playing a game into which I had been entered by circumstances and whose rules I was unravelling messily, bit by bit, through a continuous process of cultural trial and error.
It appeared to me privately that I was not ready to be fully assimilated, impressive and glorious as our national cultures and overarching identity seemed to be. As soon as I had returned to India I appeared to be running away from the land of my birth. For a while I kept looking back and trying to keep a mental hold of the place I had come from, seeking a terrain once familiar but receding further and further into the mythic lands of memory, into personal legend.
Always, like an archetypal vision hard-wired into my brain, I remember now as I remembered then, a place and a view which I thought of as my roots. Not an idea, not a relationship, not a language or culture, not even a family, but simply a place and a view! A sense of roots reduced literally to a sense of place, no more than a few square miles in area.
I see the view from my parent’s rented flat on the third floor in a building on Harrington Street, South Kensington, London SW7. Younger Brother and I are sitting at the window, looking straight across towards Cromwell Road and beyond that, to the neo-gothic spires of the Natural History Museum, etched like a monument in an Old Masters painting against a clear, late evening winter sky.
At the end of 1969, beginning our new lives in Delhi, I sensed I was growing up in a deeply religious country in every sense of the word, with Hinduism, casteism and Buddhism all clattering about in my head every day. Indians were as religious as Europeans were now secular, and passionate about the link between their religious way of life and their identity. Hindus generally were proud to point out that Hinduism was ‘a way of life’ and not just an aspect of thought and feeling, a part of life that could be hived off from the rest of it.
There was Hindu India, and there was Islam. Islam was very prominent indeed, certainly, with all the stunning architecture. And then all the poetry and music. Most people, including educated Hindus, agreed that modern Hindi poetry was limited compared to the grandeur and elegance of Urdu. The Muslim aristocratic culture was admired but for me there was an added facet : its internationalism, which I managed to divorce from its roots in the rigours of Islamic doctrine. Unlike Hindu India or Han China, both rooted in vast, contiguous heartlands, Islamic culture was unfurled like a giant bolt of embroidered cloth of gold across half the world from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific. I had little experience of Muslim fanatics as yet although I had met some of their Hindu counterparts, in my day to day life.
So curiously, for a Brahmo boy, my impression about Muslim high culture in India, all jumbled up with stories from a beautiful old English adaptation of the Arabian Nights for children exquisitely illustrated with René Bull’s Persian miniature-inspired illustrations, I started out with a romantic view of Islam and Islam in India. When I thought of Muslims I thought of elegant princes and fine food and castles with pointed domes and minarets. By contrast, when I thought of Hindu high culture I had no conception of the real high ground at all. Instead, I thought in caricature of Brahmin priests sneering down their aquiline noses, and a distorted and confused recollection of a visit to the Kali temple in Calcutta, dark, filthy, with Kali’s expression furious as she glared from her niche, dank and smelling of sewers as the faithful groaned and heaved around her, and their feet slipped on the wet and dirty stones.
And Buddhism? Initially, I had no tangible concept of this as I had never been to a Buddhist temple, not even in the Darjeeling district where the hillsides were aflutter with red, orange and white Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags and golden-topped shrines wreathed in mist peeped out from the sides of blue mountains. Just the odd book that talked about the eternal karmic cycle of life and how to get release from it.
I was enrolled in St Columba’s School in central Delhi. In many respects this was a relief
from the mindless terrors of La Martinière. (Today, of course, La Martinière, Kolkata is a splendid school and thoroughly updated!)
Typically, I would come back from school around lunch time – a very light regime by the
standards of the long school day that’s normal these days. St Columba’s was a rather stern
and academically focused school in Central Delhi run by Irish Brothers. They were serious looking, big, red-faced men wearing white cassocks and were extremely able in all the subjects they taught, assisted by Indian teachers of varying quality from very good to mediocre. Presumably, by some quirk of geography or cultural inclination, the good teachers seemed to be mainly from South India and the hopeless or vicious ones were generally northerners.
We moved from the huge three-story house in Calcutta to a small, rented house in South
Delhi. It was allowed to my father by the new company he worked for. Another distilleries company, it was owned by a tough, energetic Punjabi with a huge personality to match his massive girth. A virtually penniless refugee from what became West Pakistan following the carnage of the civil war of independence in 1947-48, he had married a Maharajah’s daughter through sheer force of personality and ruthless focus, it would seem.
Working for Mr J in Delhi was radically different from working for Shaw Wallace in Calcutta, both in management ethos as well as general cultural environment. The Delhi-based distillery was small but growing and needed sophisticated and energetic marketing, vision and energy to push its brands. This really was just what my father needed. Thus began a hard but remarkably satisfying career for my father, one in which he was able to apply all the techniques of marketing he had picked up from the Americans, and increase the turnover of his distillery company by a huge amount. My father trundled up and down the burning plains of India in a black Ambassador car, driven by Harbhajan Singh, the company driver. Harbhajan Singh wore a cream turban and a big, straggly black beard. He was in his early forties and a kind and sincere man and religious in the best sense of the word. He was always smiling and while driving, for instance, while taking us to school, he would sing bhajans from the Guru Granth Sahib he knew by heart. Harbhajan Singh was indeed well named!
* * * * * * * * *
Up the Country
My father told me many stories about his trips ‘up country’, to squalid towns and cities deep in the dark heartland of India – Meerut, Kanpur, Gorakhpur, Patna. Hindu towns, lost in the past, steeped in caste domination, their rural districts dominated by gun-toting landlords keeping down the Sudra farmers and the lower castes, the Dalits. But in these towns there was always a taste for the amber nectar, Indian-brewed whiskey.
The Ambassador car thumped and whacked over rough roads for thousands of kilometers, taking my father to rendezvous with distributors of whiskey, moustachio-ed gentlemen with thick forearms and wide smiles, and godowns stacked to the ceiling with crates and boxes of supplies. They stopped at roadside dhabas where, my father declared, the best food in India was to be found – at the trucker’s halts, where for a few rupees, mouth-watering spicy chicken, kebabs, steaming fluffy rice, hot daals and aromatic parathas could be guzzled in enormous quantities.
On the downside, the hotels and motels he stayed at were dismal places. Not having been to
any, I could only imagine what they might be like from my father’s descriptions and from
my glimpses of public hostelry from train windows on occasional journeys : rickety, wood
panelling to suggest a touch of luxury, rotting with woodworms, dimly lit by naked electric
bulbs, perilous with trailing wires, dark, dank staircases, sagging, musty-smelling beds
covered with faded, soiled patterned bedcovers, the sounds of grunts and oaths from
neighbouring rooms through hollow walls as travelling men drank their way through hot,
Often, there would be no bed, as such, but rather, a sagging chârpai, the Indian four-poster hammock made of loosely woven rope tied to posts. This crude piece of furniture could be found everywhere in the country. If old or loosely slung, the rope bent your spine into an arthritic hoop and cut into your flesh leaving weals. You groaned and turned all night on those things unless you were used to them. Far better to sleep on the ground on a piece of cloth, You could go down a dusty, sun-blinded lane in a country town and leave by the exit road and walk across a stony field and then come upon a single tree in a treeless landscape. Beneath the green-grey leaves of the tree, perhaps rustling with parakeets, would be a man lying on a chârpai, a rusty black bicycle propped up against the trunk, a fly circling lazily above his nose. The tree, yes the man and bicycle yes, but the chârpai ? How did it get there? More pertinently, why?
Small town India, such as I saw of it on the odd excursion with the family, was full of such minor mysteries of daily life. Behind them, I knew, were a thousand million stories, unknown to me.
The worst town for physical discomfort, according to my father, was Gorakhpur in Eastern
U.P. state. There was an important distributor there who did his best to make Father
comfortable, but even he could not find anything for my father better than a crummy motel without chârpais but nevertheless, with the regulation stinking beds. Next morning over a breakfast of boiling hot milky tea weighed down with sugar, and spicy omelettes and pan-fried parathas,: Neechey khatmal! Ooppar machcharh! – bedbugs below and mosquitoes above! That’s what my father said the hotel keeper in Gorakhpur intoned, sympathetically, as though the formal acknowledgement of such horrors exonerated the proprietor of any culpability much as a visit to a temple might wash away the sinful acts and thoughts of the day … and then Ho! Ho! Ho! And my father would roll about laughing and slapping his thighs while his assembled listeners around the family lunch grimaced in disgust at the thought.
Compared to my father’s roving life around the dusty flatlands of Northern India, from
Patiala to Patna, the rest of the family were virtually immobile. In May and June we were
stunned by the semi-desert heat of Delhi, it’s dry, sandpapery air in summer, razor sharp
lines of low-rise concrete buildings sprawling for miles. We were bewitched by the brilliant explosion of bougainvillea bushes cascading in torrents of hot pink, deep red and violet on white walls as blinding as mirrors reflecting sunlight. Jacaranda trees twisted elegantly up from side streets, bedecked with ey-watering lilac and violet leaves, somehow cool and dazzling at the same time in their coloration, and gul mohar, the peacock tail trees, as showy as gigantic poinsettias with their huge scarlet spreads.
Returned from school by two o-clock, I retreated to my room upstairs, the only room above ground level, with its own bathroom. It led out onto a roof terrace. The sun baked this room and the floor and concrete walls of the terrace into a brazen white biscuit. The bathroom looked out onto a narrow lane, dust-surfaced, set with flinty stones, through which the odd dog or chicken trotted. Domestics squatted or stood outside wooden back doors and chatted sleepily. Sometimes I heard the tinny whine of a pocket radio, held to someone’s ear, often a cricket match commentary. Air-conditioning was a luxury for well-off folks. There was one in my parents’ room but none in the other rooms.
It was commonplace for the power supply to go off in the middle of the night for hours. Delhi was growing fast and the electricity grid for India’s Northern Region simply could not cope with the expansion of the capital city as well as the massive water demand from the wheatlands of western U.P. State, Haryana State and the Punjab – a relatively small all area which produced a disproportionately large amount of the nation’s food supply, but also consumed a massive amount of water and energy. Within minutes, an air-conditioned room turned into a stifling, choking stillness even a ceiling fan on an emergency generator could not dispel.
My father, bare-backed, wide-shouldered, big-bellied, with shining, smooth brown skin, would stride into the living room, muttering. He would pick up the dusty black bakelite telephone and dial a number – the much-maligned DESU or Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking. Prolonged conversations would take place with various officials intoning their standard responses in what passed for customer services – and my father yelling his dissatisfaction back at these hapless fellows, both parties to the conversation knowing well that it did no good whatsoever, you could say, the honking of the horn in a traffic jam effect…
“Hello, Sir, this is Maintenance Engineer Office, yes sir, one turbine is down, grid South Delhi affected … zaroor aapko inform kareingey…. rest assured we will be informing you … kindly to be checking in three or four hours, thanking you …”
On other occasions, my father would be woken by someone dialling a wrong number. The loud, pealing traditional r-r-ring! r-rring! of the telephone brought everyone out of their rooms as there was always the risk that some emergency had occurred to someone. But ninety nine times out of a hundred, it was just a wrong number. The conversations were almost always inane.
“Haan jee! Kya number chahiye-ji? Kyaa?? Nahin, aapne wrong number dial kiye hain!! … Kyaaa? Phir sam jhaoon!! Wrong number! Galat dial kiya giya hai!” What? No , you dialled the wrong number! What? I’ll explain again.. YOU DIALLED…!!”
My mother stayed stunned in bed. My brother and I moped around nervously, hoping Baba would calm down soon. He did – after a good, sweat-trickling hour.
Baba eventually came to play his own games with these people, usually small businessmen trying to contact their families in the early hours after a whiskey –sozzled night in a dismal upcountry hotel, the sort Father was used to himself. “What? Oh, you’re looking for Chopra Saab? Chopra Saab has gone away! What? No, no…GONE AWAY! He left the country. He has gone to work in Iran… Who do you want to speak to? Mr Sodhi? I’m very sorry to say that Sodhi Ji has passed away, poor fellow! Where?? In Jullunder, of course, poor fellow, it was very sudden…!” Our horrified looks and my mother’s remonstrances were to no avail. He grinned in satisfaction, strode into the kitchen, pulled out a cold chapâti and a spoon of left-over dâl and ate it with relish, perspiration mottling his cheeks.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Manhattan Skyline 1945
One of Baba’s most loved stories was a favourite of relatives who often turned up at our place on a Sunday afternoon for a few bottles of Golden Eagle beer and Poresh the cook’s feast of Bengali home cooking which went down rather well to a chorus of A-re shabash!! Your Poresh is marvelous, what an amazing cook! (Oh –ho –Thapuna would say when told of this back in Calcutta – Poresh is a good cook because of ME! He was just a village chhokra, don’t you know? When he came to our house! I taught him everything!! )
But a lunch hour get-together with relatives was always better with one of Baba’s stories to round it off and one of the most sought after was his picaresque tale about his journey as a student to New York City in May and June 1945, on the ‘USS Greeley’, a troop-class warship returning from the Pacific Theatre of War Philippines Sector.
Baba got a place to study business administration at Columbia. Thakurdada was going to pay. The cheapest way for him to travel was by this troop class ship below decks. It was not a comfortable trip and it was a hell of a culture shock but my father remembered this as one of the most exhilarating adventure trips of his life. It was a tale he would tell often, frequently forgetting that he had told it before, or telling it again because he felt like it and repetition be damned. Or he might tell it again because the relatives egged him on anyway – Oh –ho!1 A-re Shonku mama, tell us again about that Greeley ship you went to America on, tell us !! And Father would grin a huge rice pudding grin and start … Ach-chha! The USS Greeley, now listen up you all, that was a hell of a ship, I can tell you! You’ve never seen anything so big and so mean in your life unless it was the Howrah docks itself…!
If there was any one thing that whetted my teenage appetite for seeking wider horizons and attempting uncalculated adventures, it was this. To repeat the story in words would not do my Father justice. A home movie might do it better: the big frame, seated majestically but leaning forward with the urgency of the tale, the upraised arms and emphatic hand gestures, the changing expressions in the face, the animation, the big laugh, the looks of astonishment, the humour and the drama, the overall compelling story telling. The rich mixture of English and Bengali with nuggets of Hindustani thrown in when necessary to convey speech from some ‘upcountry person’…
“Well I was just nineteen, and I had never been out of India, do you understand? I was a Calcutta boy through and through!” [big laugh]. ” A-rey, ackey barey Kolkatar chhele!”
He would start by describing his life wandering around the halls of academia, Presidency College, probably the most renowned in his day. Father was not particularly academic but he excelled in all the sports – football, cricket, hockey, rugby, swimming, rowing – you name it, he did it. And practical minded. He liked a good time! His own father, with his intellectual bent and scientific temperament was very different. “I was the apple of my father’s eye,” he said solemnly. “But once, when I was bad, I would get caned by my father.” Digressions, like ancient Hindu epics were a seamless ornament of his story-telling. (I haven’t succeeded in giving up my pleasure in the same sort of indulgence).
“Really!” I gasped. I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to cane Baba. He was just so big to me. “Was Thakurdada as big as you?” “Not at all!” smiled my father. “I was six inches taller than him when I was sixteen.”
I thought about that. Then I understood. Respect. It wasn’t that Thakurdada could force my father to submit to the cane. He required it. And there was no question of rejecting the punishment.
“So what happened?”
“Well, I had done a very bad thing, I had got into a fight, ” said my father, fidgeting slightly. He had that slightly shifty look of someone who knows he is technically in the wrong but in fact does not feel the wrong in his heart. “There was this other student, a friend of mine, but another fellow came up, not one of the students from the college, but known to him somewhere, and he pushed my friend, so I went up to him and knocked him down.”
“Oh,” I said. “Did you do any damage.”
My father looked at me from the corner of his eye and rubbed his big knuckles. “I broke two f his teeth and twisted his jaw. He had to go to hospital.”
Thakurdada called my father in when he heard of this incident and brought down the long strap that lay hanging on the wall, as a suitable reminder of the necessity for corporal punishment.
“Did it hurt?”
“Yes,” said Baba. “Thakurdada brought down the strap on my back four times, and each time was harder than the last. I had bruises but they quickly healed in about two weeks.”
“Did Thakurdada look happy to do the corporal punishment?” I said, thinking about the joy with which the likes of Mr Holmes administered the six-ruler trick or Brother Bela smacked a student who had got out of hand.
“No, he didn’t”, said Father. “He looked sad. I think he felt that he had failed with me somehow if it got to the point where he had to give me the strap.”
Clearly, the boy’s high spirits needed more of a free rein than could be satisfied by the domestic delights of the Calcutta streets. Father liked the good life – something, ironically, he was not really going to enjoy for most of his adult career – and the way to do that was, obviously, to make lots of money. As his own father wasn’t really going to give him much of that, I believe Baba wanted to train to go into business as a competent professional himself using the new American techniques of business management. Years afterwards upon his return from America, an early venture with a close friend into running a chicken farm in West Bengal State after his return from America was a disastrous failure (the chickens all died in a sudden epidemic) and he lost a lot of money and the taste for risky ventures on his own account after that.
But at the end of the Second World War, America beckoned, a still youthful, apparently idealistic and extremely rich nation bulging with new ideas. In 1945, business administration was a relatively new discipline, using insights from industrial psychology, advertising, operations research and other disciplines to create a new science of an activity that hitherto was always regarded as a talent, an art, a bent or a privilege. Certainly, the stuffy board men in old colonial firms such as Shaw Wallace in Calcutta would not appreciate his new-fangled methods – but such disappointments were for later. For now, he was an eager-eyed youth bursting with excitement, going to a new land – New York! Not stuffy old England, still clinging on feebly to the rotting carcass of empire, but the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave! The sky was endless blue and the road and open seaway for a nineteen year old with boundless energy and the will and optimism to make the future happen.
After a suitable digression about his life as a college student in Calcutta, he would wheel and turn back to the USS Greeley :
“We got on board this warship in Calcutta docks, ” said Baba, not allowing a little exaggeration to blunt the impact of the tale. ” O-re shorbonaash!! I’d never seen a ship as big as this before – never! It was as big as a town and iron grey. It rose out of the sea, bristling with gun turrets. In the ship there were dozens of different decks and some of them were as big as football fields. Me and Prabhu and Rishi from Madras and Chatterjee got on board with our haversacks. Oh my god, what a first day that was!” He wiped his forehead in mock dismay but his eyes gleamed with sheer fun as he remembered.
“We walked up the steel steps – there must have over a hundred of them – and when we got over the top and looked back, it was so far down it made my head swim and I thought I’d trip and roll down all those steps to the bottom – ” he rolled his eyes at that. Younger Brother and I did a sharp intake of breath as we imagined that iron-grey deck as high above the windy dockside as a cliff top above the sea.
“There was a sergeant checking over the docket, ” said Baba. “He would check the names and of course he couldn’t pronounce any of them. He snarled in a strange accent that was hard to understand. It seemed to be English but not English as I knew it or heard it. I thought he was speaking some kind of foreign language. ” Baba paused. “I knew later that he was from the South,” he said. “Georgia, Alabama, some place like that. I got used to lots of different accents in New York, of which the hardest were some of the southern ones, and the New York City accent itself. ” Here he would digress, doing an imitation of an NYC cabbie – Excuse me, do you know where is ….? Sure! It’s at Seventh and toity-toid (33rd) Street…get in…and even wander off further, telling us how New York was as full of busy people walking purposefully in straight lines, almost knocking other people out of their way to get to their fearfully important business, as Calcutta was full of amblers walking about the street at mid-day when they should have been sweating in their offices and godowns …”O-re Toonoo, kothai jaash, cha khabi-re? Have a cup of tea first, what’s the rush!!..”. “Excuse me,” my father would say, suddenly reverting back in mid-sentence from Calcutta to New York City … “Do you know the way to”…”Got no time!” The fellow would say, looking angrily at his watch, and stump off sweating along the broad hollering avenue with the fabled steam chuffing out out the sidewalks…
“Anyway,” he would resume at some point, “About this docket-checker fellow, it wasn’t just how he spoke but how he looked that we found odd. And also, to be quite frank, a bit scary.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” said Father. “He was shorter than I was and very red-faced. I had never seen a face as red as that before. The Englishmen in India all had rather pale faces, and sometimes grey, probably because they were sick. This American sergeant, didn’t look sick. He was twice as wide as me, despite being shorter. His face was square-jawed, he had grey eyes like chips of metal and a mouth as hard and set as a straight line. He didn’t smile. He just chewed gum. With his mouth closed. He asked us questions. With his mouth closed. It was hard to understand him when he did that.”
“How could speak with his mouth closed?” asked Younger Brother. “Was he a ventriloquist?” My father and I chortled.
“Well, no, not completely closed, ” said Father, “But not open much. He seemed to speak out of the side of his mouth. You couldn’t see his teeth. And it looked as though if you could they would be sharp and pointed, like a shark’s. ”
Here he made a hideous face, all grimace and glints of gold molars, and we laughed.
“Prabhu and I looked at each other and Rishi – whose real name was -” – Father loved to reel this off this partially invented or, at any rate, garbled, name – as it sent us in stitches “…Krrukkegovindamhrsishikeshanam…!
“Say it again! ” we shouted
He did and we roared.
“Don’t laugh!” said Father, pretending to be stern. “Rishi was from the South of India and absolutely brilliant at mathematics. He was going to study to be an corporate management accountant. ”
“Do they all have such complicated names in the south?” we asked.
“Absolutely!!” said Father. “This is what makes them all so intelligent. Just remembering their names properly requires the brain cells to be specially wired to cope with them, therefore making all the other learning they do down there possible, and much harder for us since our names are much simpler …” Baba loved to lace his stories with utter nonsense, knowing full well that we didn’t believe any of it so no harm was done. It was just a load of good fun.
Baba described the sea voyage which took just under two months. The Greely was a military transport ship built in 1944 and made several round trips between the US and the Pacific Theatre of war. On most of those trips there was a docking in India. It docked in Calcutta between 20 and 28 May 1945.
A large number of US troops were lodged in Calcutta at the time. Baba described how the US troops caused ‘havoc and consternation’ in Calcutta, which wasn’t used to this style of foreign visitor. These troops, hardened with several years of battling the Japanese, coming out of places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were not calm types. They roared through town running people over in their armoured cars, drinking heavily and getting into fights. The MPs (Military Police), noted for their special arm bands and exceptional mean manners, had to come out of their own drinking sessions and deal with the troublemakers. Head were cracked open with nightsticks; the blood flowed. Arrests were made at gunpoint. The respectable citizens of Calcutta gawped and fled, the rabble roared and clapped to see such fun. The naughtyAmerican sahibs, behaving generally as sahibs were not supposed to do according to the protocol of the British Raj, were dragged off foot first and unconscious, to cool off in cells, first in makeshift wartime barracks in Howrah and Sealdah, and then on board ship. British India, bound to its allies and desperately pressed by all-conquering Japan, maintained as stiff an upper lip and tightly set sola topi as possible, but in Calcutta, entertaining such wild and whimsical guests, one could see that the stiff upper lip had pursed in distaste and the topi had listed to one side in agitation.
Roaring Calcutta was left behind and the grim grey sea-wolf Greeley resumed its two month voyage. Even on board ship the fighting and drinking went on. The veterans were going home and by golly they were going to have a party and the darn party was going to start NOW. Of course there was also a lot of grief, war trauma and all the rest of it to put some of the fellows in a peculiar mood which being cooped up for weeks in a giant tin bathtub with gun turrets in a load of salt water did not help to overcome. Every now and then, somebody would get drunk and fists would fly and the dreaded MPs would come out and crack heads. It was mayhem on troop-class decks, especially in the evenings.
“For the first two days,” said Father, “we sailed through a boiling hot and calm sea, the Bay of Bengal, heading for the Andaman Islands, we got nothing to eat. We just sat around below in our troop class bunks, in underwear and singlets, sweating in the heat. If we wanted air and went above onto deck, it was terribly hot. The decks were all made of steel with wood planking on them. You had to sit on the planking. Some of the troops looked okay but others looked villainous. There were fellows who had tattoos covered over all their bulging muscles, and eye patches, and red strips of cloth as sweat bands round their heads, even though they didn’t have much hair on account of the military crew cuts they all had by order once a week. None of them were armed, fortunately, as all arms were taken from them, but the arms were kept ready to hand in store in case there were any possible stray attacks from Japanese fighter aircraft. After all, the war wasn’t quite over yet.
“Every now and then we heard a huge booming coming from the loudspeakers on the various decks. But no call for dinner. no-one came to see us. On Day Two Rishi said, ‘Come on yaar, we’re going to die in here- of starvation. You want these fellows to feed us to the sharks? Let’s go out and find something to eat! so we went up on deck and mooched around but no-one said anything to us. We saw the soldiers sitting around, bored off their heads, looking up into the blank blue sky, eyes blinking with sweat, drumming their knuckles on the planking.
At this point my memory of the story seems to falter, as well as my father’s precise words. His words and the words in my head run together. But that, surely, is how a story stays alive. It is not a recording but a constant re-working. It follows now as my version, my words and my father’s story echoing behind them, his last farewell to me, the part in which my father is eternally a youth of nineteen, the part he left behind with me after he was finally gone.
“The afternoon wore on. There was no sound except for the whooshing of the waves. The horizon looked quite short and the sea was a dark blue, like a very large pool. Despite its huge size, in the ocean the ship was like a paper boat in a pond – and felt like it. The ship and the sea seemed to wobble opposite each other. It was hard to work out which was doing the wobbling and our stomachs told us that they didn’t like it. We Indian fellows, despite being land-lubbers, were generally fortunate not to feel the pitching of the boat much. But we were damned hungry. You could get disoriented quite easily. An air of unreality got in quite easily. Now and then the calm of the sea would be broken by swordfish or marlin. They would spike out of the sea in a big curve and ripple back in again, barely making a splash, as though to show us how good they were at doing it. The sun gleamed off their dorsal fins and their sword-spikes like the blades of knives. Their flippers were like flags against the sky.
“Then by around six o-clock we felt that the only thing real in the world was that we were hungry and we didn’t know how to ask these guys how to get something to eat because when we tried they just grunted and snarled in some sort of American that we couldn’t understand, and then all of a sudden this fellow came out. He was a little squitty guy but he looked hard as nails like all these fellows, and his red face was peeling in places and he wore an olive green khaki uniform, very cleanly pressed and he had a chef’s hat on and he also had the regulation scowl on his face that anyone giving an order on board ship seemed to have. He was carrying a tannoy and the tannoy was a battered tin thing bigger than he was . He howled something through the tannoy. Immediately, scores of soldiers leaped up and began running down the deck.
We ran after them.
“It was a food line! We stood in line with these fellows and eventually got food. Weird food, to be sure, corned beef and hash and stuff like that, and American beans, and fried eggs, and American style chicken curry and rice with no curry or chilly that I could see or recognise, but that’s what they called it anyway. But there was lots of it and believe me, we ate lots of it! They didn’t mind us coming back a second time but they glared at us the third time so we left off after that.
“We later on worked out what that guy was shouting through the tannoy:
“ ‘Now hear this! Now hear this! All troops form a chow line on the port side of the second DECK!!’ But the hell we knew what it was that he was saying at the time ! In fact, we never worked it out by ourselves. We just thought we’ll never get fed, these American soldiers are a bunch of jabbering rakkhoshes (devils) and we would either die and be fed to the sea or we would have to revolt eventually and beat up one of the devils and take his dinner from him …
It just so happened that there was an Englishman on board, a civilian. He was a businessman and he had decided, for whatever reason, to take a very cheap ticket home to England. He translated it for us After that we made sure we knew what times and where we were supposed to be for breakfast, lunch and dinner!” Baba chuckled.
He moved on with the story. They docked in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known to the British, and swung in a huge curve up through the Arabian Sea into the Red Sea.
Father shook his head like a bulldog and his glasses flew off his face. He caught them as they came down with a deft grab.
“That was the hottest place on Earth!” he declared. “It truly had to be. If there was anywhere hotter, they’d be lying. The Red Sea must have been called Red because everything was burnt red. The troops all became red as lobsters, even sitting with their battered helmets on. They were too tired by the heat to fight and curse, even. They just lay on board deck, covered in strips of damp cloth, staring out blankly till the six o’clock chow shout, and then afterwards, back again in the still, brick in the face heat, till the lights softened and the first stars glimmered in a lavender sky.
“And the sea was like a nursemaid, crooning us all to sleep with its lapping waves, and we slept as still as stones against planking and coils of rope and metal struts and door jambs and piles of spare jeep tires and anything at all to lean on because it was impossible to even breathe below deck for the heat, and we awoke the next morning when the sun, like an angry shout, slapped our faces once again as it rose above the far edge of the water. “
Father would pause and look at us for a minute and then his face opened up into a great beam of a smile.
“One day, we saw an incredible sight. We had been through the Mediterranean and for weeks and weeks, it seemed, although it was probably only actually a week or so, we had been moving through the deep, grey Atlantic, a monster of an ocean. Sometimes, looking out across the water to the edge of the ocean that shone like a dull grey curved saber against the sun, and the sky boiling with thunder clouds and seabirds, we started imagining that the fellows from olden times were right, you know, the ones that said that the world was flat and we were all standing on a big dish and eventually, if we went west far enough, we would fall off the edge. This ocean just seemed like an endless big dish, it was so flat and grey and went on forever. We were lucky to get a relatively calm voyage despite some choppy bits, but the endless water sent you into a dream, and if a bird came and sat on a tall pipe along the shaft of a funnel, I might imagine it could be an albatross, folding its giant wings for a spell before taking off again for an inter-continental flight, but actually it was probably just a gull…
“Then, mid-morning one day, a shout went up on top deck. There was a roar and hundreds- no, I think maybe thousands – of American troops swarmed onto the decks and against the guard rails, shouting all over this ship that was so big you couldn’t make out any faces if you were on one end of the ship and there were men on the other, you just saw uniforms and arms and legs moving about like insects …and these fellows were all waving handkerchiefs, and some had US flags, the stars and stripes and somebody was singing what I was told later was the ‘Star-spangled Banner’ and a lot of other fellows joined in and somebody else started sobbing and saying he was going to see his mother…
“On the horizon, I saw a metal object sticking up like a pin. It got closer and closer. An hour later I saw it was a statue on a hill. It turned out to be a statue on an island. It was green and held something up. The Statue of Liberty. Then Ellis Island, where the immigrants all landed. And finally, the skyline of Lower Manhattan.”
He looked at us solemnly. “Boys,” he said, “You have to try and understand what that was like. For weeks we had been on this ship, with these zoo escapees, these bloody American rakkhosh troops,these uniformed savages, these Pirates of the Pacific who called themselves soldiers, in an endless waterworld. Life had been like a prison because whenever you looked out, all you saw was the blank blue sky and the whipped face of the sea. You might stop here and there, like we stopped in Colombo and Aden full of sweating British redcoats and Sikh policemen from our own dear motherland, and Port Sudan full black men in flowing white robes seven feet tall carrying barbed spears, but most of the time there was just WATER. And maybe some gulls or the streaming flipper of a distant whale. Nothing else.
“And suddenly, climbing right out of this sea, there it was, a whole city, standing right up till it hit the clouds. A city like I’ve never seen before, and quite frankly, I will never see again. There is no place in the world like New York and no view of arrival quite like coming by sea to Lower Manhattan. I’ve been lots of place since but I never remembered a homecoming quite like the way this ship came home to America.”
I think it was right there and then that I made up my mind that I would, for good or ill, see more of this world than what I could see now.
The Jungle Book
There were times, mainly before Younger Brother got ill, when Father would regale us with stories about his hunting expeditions when he was a young man in the 1950s.
Evening was the time for these stories, after dinner. There wasn’t much else to do except talk in those days. There were no computer games let alone internet, of course, and only rich people had televisions, such as our neighbour, a portly businessman who opened his french windows that looked out onto a little handkerchief strip of lawn such as all the houses had, on hot summer nights, and put his large television on. We could hear it blaring loudly, advertising to all his state of prosperity, and the blue-white glare of the screen reflected off our french windows enabling us to watch the film or chat show in reflection if we so desired.
We did not so desire. We wanted to hear Father’s stories. In my adult life I had unfortunately failed to connect with y Father very much. I am sure the feeling was mutual, my mother told me so many years later. However, when I was growing up, we all, lyself included, connected with Baba on the story-telling.
These sessions were among the wonderful moments of my somewhat stifling life of the time, and the only thing I would pass reading a book over for at the age of fourteen and fifteen. Younger Brother and I sat fascinated by these stories, but especially myself. After a while Younger Brother wanted to go off and do something else, but I continued to sit there and looked at Father and left the world I was in and entered his world, not a sepia world but a world in vigorous full colour, crackling with interesting personalities and incidents.
Father had tales of student life in America, especially the fun part, going down to Harlem Jazz clubs where he was the only brown face in a sea of black of all shades. He described a journey he made in a beat-up old Pontiac with four other Indian students in the summer of 1947, after completing his MBA, across America, rolling along the dusty highways from New York to San Diego, and through the Painted Desert of Arizona, and encounters with Navajo on a reservation and other other things. He told something of his first job selling for a big company called Karl Still and how his racist manager kept picking holes in his work and how one day he finally lost it and knocked him out. He would show me the dent in his knuckle as proof of this act.
Finally he decided that much as he loved America and its whole spirit and ethos, in 1947 India had become an independent country and it was time for him to come back home and build a life as a citizen of a gloriously free country, full of hope. Despite all the blood-spilling of Partition, Jawaharlal Nehru’s stirring claim that at the midnight hour India awoke to life and freedom rang in the ears of young men full of the energy and hope of their age.
But most of all, he told tales of jungle life, in the company of his friend Pradeep who could roast a freshly caught jungle fowl with simple camp equipment over a kerosene stove and make it taste better than the finest cuisine in the hotels of London or Bombay. He told of tall elephant grass, darkling sunsets at the edge of the jungle, snakes in the grass, the crack of rutting blackbuck locking horns during season, the snort of wild boar and, beyond the gently flapping ears of an elephant mount, once in a while, a long gleaming rope of striped orange stealing through the long grass: tiger!
“It was in Kanha, in 1953, that Pradeep and I nearly had our chips,” said Father, rolling his eyes solemnly and pushing his gleaming spectacles back up onto his short straight nose in a gesture of unconscious drama. “That’s when we were ambushed by two buffalo at once.”
“Tell us! Tell us!” we cried. “How did you get away?”
“Well, it was like this,” he said. “Kanha, you may know, is deep in central India, partly in the Chhattîsgarh district of Madhya Pradesh in an area of broken country and dense forests where the people are mainly tribals. It is very hot in the late spring and early summer but that’s the best time for the wildlife. The people in the area are tribals. In that
place, which is absolutely huge, nearly two thousand square kilometers, full of jungles and broken country, and here and there you find some broken old Rajput fort or ruin looming out from craggy shrub-covered hills like bandit’s lookouts…”
“Yes, but what about Kaziranga in Assam, with the rare Indian one-horned rhino, and
Ranthambore in Rajasthan with the maximum concentration of tigers?” we cried.
“You do have a lot of information from books you read and from what they tell you in
school,” said Father, “but have you heard the saying, a little knowledge is worse than
ignorance? ” We nodded our heads impatiently. “Mr Joseph in school keeps telling us this,”
said Younger Brother, “so what’s the point of going to school to acquire this little knowledge if it’s of no use? ”
“Come on Father, get on with the story!” I butted in.
Father raised a big arm into the air in a gesture of pacification. “Now, now” he said. “Just
let me tell it my way. What’s the hurry, boys? Let me set the scene and it helps me to
remember it more accurately.”
Chins in fists and elbows on knees, we stared at Father and waited. He looked a moment
away from us out into the firefly darkness, buzzing faintly with blue-white electric lighting
somewhere in the street reflected in the french windows and palely onto the short turf of the
tiny strip of lawn that passed for a ‘garden.’ Sweat trickled down our faces and along the
sides of our necks, unrelieved by the slow stirring of the ceiling fan on a cauldron summer
When I look back now, I fancy that Father, returning to his youth in his mind’s eye,
must have yearned for those good days that had gone by, days of incredible strength and health, no family and no commitments to worry about, life stretching ahead like a long and winding road with no end in sight and full of surprise turns in which each hazard was offset by at least two opportunities. Youth and freedom. Father as a twenty-six year old hunter, agile and strong, a .404 rifle in his hand, and the gold light of a lost sunset in the heart of India washing through his eyes and flooding out the jungle silhouette of approaching night at a time when his world was young and the objectives of each joyously lived day were self-evident.
And then he began and we were lost in the pictures he wove with his blunt, very physical,
Pradeep, his college mate from the old Calcutta days in the 1930s, was not only one of the
best shots my father had ever met, but certainly the best cook, in some ways better even his own mother – and for my father to admit that was a big deal! They would wander through
the jungle accompanied by Mahua, their jungle guide. Pradeep was as short as Father was
tall, but wide as an ox and with forearms you could stand a tandoor oven on. He was
improbably pale-complexioned for a Calcutta Bengali with dark grey eyes and a permanent
five-o’clock stubble, fashionable these days but bearing a wild look in those times. Those
were the last days of freedom before throwing in the towel, taking up jobs and careers,
marriages and children, status, responsibilities and tax liabilities. Those were the days when
you had the luxury of not having your nose rubbed in the corruption scandals of everyday
political and economic life, because someone else, like a father or uncle, had to keep the
show going and worry about it all. They were the last days of boyhood.
Mahua was small, barely five feet tall, a Gond tribal and lived very close to the way his ancestors had done a long time ago, out of choice, not necessity. He was chocolate-black and the muscles stood out on every part of his lean body. His bare feet had cracked soles as tough as leather. He carried a 12-bore shot gun but his intimate weapon was a dart-gun tipped with datura. A bandolier slung loosely around his torso carrying a gleaming belt of shotgun and rifle bullets gave him a distinctly piratical look, belied by a wide, incredibly genuine smile, and teeth as white and as perfect as can be for a man who has eaten very little sugar in his life, or indeed, very little refined food at all, and instead, relied mostly on the fruits of the forest and field.
Mahua was a highly skilled tracker. He could follow the large spoor of blackbuck or nilgai for up to twenty kilometres a day, twisting up steep and scrubby hill trails and through scrub jungle. Smaller trails of musk deer and pygmy hog could be spotted so faint in the twig-strewn maze of the jungle floor that a city dweller would have to look closely to see anything at all.
And finally, if there had been leopard or tiger, even if no spoor was to be seen, he could
almost sense if they had been there. Something in the wind, perhaps, telling a whispered story, you might imagine, as you see him stop, his head angled to one side, listening and thinking.
Sounds of the jungle floor. Distant bark of a jackal in the evening and the grunt of a hog. Lapping of water from some hidden pool, faintly audible in the distance.
“Bagh aya hai”
“How long ago?” He shrugs and then makes a strange gesture with his little finger, lifted up from the upheld palm of his hand and crooked down…”Three or four hours. I am sure he has fed and is well off the trail somewhere in the scrub, sleeping after securing his food.”
“Shall we look for him?”
“Not tonight,” Mahua might say. “Tonight we shall not find him. He is too far. He will know we are coming from far off and he will be gone. We will look for boar tonight. Then tomorrow, we will see.”
The Gonds, a Scheduled Tribe listed in the Indian Constitution, had been living in these forests and hills for thousands of years, from before the dawn of human history; before the gods of Aryans descended on the plains of India and built their shining cities of Hastinapura and Indraprastha on the banks of the Holy Rivers; before the mysterious Harappans carved their soapstone figurines of the Lord of Beasts for archaeologists to discover in modern times.
But it had to be said that individual talent came into it first and foremost. Mahua was especially noted among his own kin and among visiting sport hunters for his abilities and he was not cheap. He knew his own worth and he drew the respect from the sahibs that he deserved – or he would not serve them. You didn’t tell Mahua what to do or where to go. He told you.
But the day Baba and Pradeep handled the twin buffalo charge, Mahua wasn’t with them.
On a still, warm late afternoon in mid-February, they were walking through a zone of low, broken country, thorn forest, sal thickets, bush and tracts of open savanna. They were making their way back to camp after spending the day seeing wild hog, chital deer and blackbuck, and they had spotted a tiny musk deer, barely a foot high, nibbling from a low bush – quite rare to see. They had seen no large game so far, no elephant.
There was little sound as they went along, except for the soft crunching of thorn slivers and small stones under their feet.
“All of a sudden,” said Baba, “We heard a CR-A-A-CK! kind of noise.” He stopped for dramatic effect, eyes opened wide, hands up in the air, palms facing outward. We opened our eyes wide, entering fully into the story. We needed no wide-screen cinema to watch when he was telling the tale. Our Third Eye within was fully engaged in the visuals and the 3-D sensory experience.
“The bushes about two hundred yards distant were a straggly line across from a waving stretch of dirt country and a shallow, water-less nullah a strip wide, full of smooth stones. From this bush we saw the first really big animal we had seen all day, much bigger than black buck which is as big as a small horse.
“A dark shape loomed out, and on its head, two wickedly sharp horns, nearly two foot long each, curved around and a little forward. Easily over a thousand pounds in weight. The Indian bush’s most dangerous animal after rogue elephant : wild buffalo!
“The buffalo must have been in season and may have been disturbed while attending to a female. It was a male, as we found out later. We stopped dead in our tracks and stayed perfectly still, My heart banged in my chest. I could feel sweat trickling down my forehead and the side of my neck. I was very scared.
“The buffalo wasn’t mollified. He could smell us, even if he couldn’t see us very well, as we know that they don’t have great eyesight beyond a short distance. He gave out a short grunt and without further delay, charged me.
“I dropped down to one knee, lifted the heavy .404 Jeffrey bolt-action rifle to my shoulder, aimed and waited. My arms were trembling as I tried to hold the rifle steady. I don’t ever remember being so afraid in my life. But my brain was still in working order. It was working on automatic pilot, following the book. Wait till it gets close enough to see the chest area clearly and in focus, and the forehead!.
“Seconds passed. The grassland thundered.
“The buffalo wellied through the nullah in a skitter of stones and dust, scrambled over the low bank and kept coming. A hundred yards. eighty.
“My arms felt like lead; I could barely hold them up now. I could see his chest, chocolate and gleaming, rolling with muscle. I pulled the trigger. There was a sharp BANG! and the buffalo grunted and fell over raising a cloud of dust. I felt the ground vibrate with his thousand pounds turning over like a car turning in a ditch. I nearly lost my grip on my rifle as I jerked backward slightly from the recoil and there was a slight pain in the hollow of my shoulder as it had not been perfectly in position.
“I looked back and saw – horror! – there was ANOTHER wild buffalo! It was charging us from the opposite direction. Pradeep was facing the other way, just as I was, still waiting for the buffalo to get closer. Then he fired and the buffalo went down. It was only three or four seconds later than my firing but it seemed frozen in slow motion. I turned back, my head seemed to move slowly, yet it must have been quick enough but it felt really slow …”
“You mean like in a dream when you are trying to run but your legs just don’t seem to move, like they are wading through water?” I asked.
“Just like that,” said Baba. “All right, all right!” said Younger Brother, “Don’t interrupt! What happened next?”
“The buffalo I had shot, got up,” said Baba. “I had certainly wounded it but it was far from dead. ” He held his hands open in a gesture of dismay. “You have no idea what it takes to get up after you’ve taken a direct hit in the chest from a .404. A fully grown man would be literally blown away like a leaf, lifted and dropped yards away. His back would be taken out, believe me! But this buffalo, he was not done. He scrambled up onto his feet, snorting and coughing, shook his head, grazing his horns on the ground, and charged again. I dropped to my knee and raised the rifle again, holding it steady, ignoring the pain in my shoulder. I had been lucky to get the shot in just right – and I had to hold on to my luck!
” Sixty yards. Forty yards. Thirty.”
“Come on, Baba!” said Younger Brother, “Isn’t that too close?”
“It’s close,” said Baba, “But to be sure it has to be closer. You hit him between the eyes, when you can see the whites of the eyes, so they say. Of course I wasn’t going to put THAT to the test! To hell with the rule book here. I waited until I could see the forehead very clearly, bobbing gently up and down with the roll of the charge, and the horns circling.
“And then I fired, when the buffalo was less than twenty yards, and through the sight of the rifle his head seemed to fill the whole world.
“He dropped like a great sack full of stones and lay still.
” I waited. One minute. Two minutes. No movement.
“Slowly I looked around. Pradeep’s buffalo was dead, sprawled in a great heap, one horn curved up. Pradeep was sittiing flat on the ground, his legs out in front of him, his rifle on his knees. He was staring straight ahead, not moving.
“Suddenly,” said Baba, “The silence following the charge of the bush was broken by a huge whoosh and roaring flutter as a couple of hundred parakeets flung themselves into the air from a sal tree and made a green fountain in the pale blue sky. Somewhere in the distance, I’m sure I heard the yap of a jackal.
“We went on to camp in silence, taking great care not to make a lot of noise, and walking well away from dense thickets where we found them. ”
Of course the tiger skin on the wall of Baba’s large flat in Calcutta was never forgotten. Coming back from London this was one of the most dramatic reminders that I was in a country where such things were possible, and not merely tales in story books. Baba had a tigress skin, duly cured and the head magnificently treated in an open snarl, glass eyes cold, yellow and opened wide in a fierce glare. The canine teeth were three inches long. The hide, stretched open, made a giant orange and black decoration across the whole wall.
I was reminded of that after the buffalo story. “Tell us about the tiger skin, Baba! The one you had back in Calcutta” said I. “What happened to it?”
“Oh, that remained on the wall,” said Baba, “When your thapuna (grandmother) sold the house to that Marwari business family and moved to stay with your Chhoto Pishi (father’s youngest sister but older than he was, he being the youngest of five) while I had moved to Delhi by then. ” He laughed. “We have no space for something like that in this little house!”
“Did you feel sad about losing the tige r skin?” asked Younger Brother. “No,” said Baba. “I think it was better for the Marwari family to have it. I had looked at it for years and I felt I had finally done my penance.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” said Baba, “That tigress which I shot was the last time I ever hunted. You see, it was that hunt that made me realise that we should have been preserving Indian wildlife and not killing them. Look, when Queen Victoria was still the Empress of India, the jungle land in India was far, far greater than it is today, or even in the 1950s when I was still hunting. There were probably 100,000* tigers in those days and now there are less than 2000 tigers. The Maharajas and the British sahebs shot most of them. The Rajput kings and the Turks and Mughuls before them regularly killed tiger but they did it with spears and they couldn’t kill that many. But the English sahibs; they had guns and so, of course, did the rajahs of modern times.
“In a hundred years the guns nearly wiped out a million years of evolution. Look at the whales, and the American bison. Nearly gone. I was a tiny part of that process of destruction, the last generation that still thought it could enjoy hunting as though it wasn’t a crime. But it was already over and I came to that end, abruptly within myself, and a tiger died so that I could learn what was necessary. A tigress, actually, with cubs. A mother and babies.
He paused. “Nature is pitiless,” said Father. “But most pitiless is Man. And Man is the only part of Nature that Knows. To Know and to fail to Think and act correctly is a crime. This is Indian religion, our dhormo. We betray it every day”
He scratched his head and looked at us. “I think that’s what Evil means” he said simply.
“By the 1950s, India’s wildlife parks and game reserves had lost a lot of forest cover, human populations had crept in and eaten away at the wild territory, and poachers had taken most of the tigers. India is a poor country and very large and it is hard to find resources. Really, Pradeep and I were the last generation of hunters in India who felt that it was still okay to do it. But even then, we knew those days were coming to a close. You know, Jim Corbett- you boys have read his books from my bookshelf – was already a conservationist as well as a famous hunter of man-eaters back in King Edward’s day before the First World War. He picked up on ideas from ‘White Hunters’ like Selous in South Africa who was a conservationist in the 1890s and helped set up Kruger National Park.”
He paused and his face went a bit solemn and a bit sad as he remembered. He blinked, took his glasses off and wiped them with a white handkerchief. Outside, as he told the tale, the evening street had disappeared, and the darkness smeared by the off-white of fluorescent street lighting was replaced by an impression of vague wilderness, of bush and tree, the humming of crickets and crackle of small mammals scurrying through undergrowth. The vague intimation of a quiet suburban street in Delhi whose features were unclear from the interior of a house became a canvas for the imagination. We imagined jackals sniffing round the french windows, as once they indeed did do in South Delhi, when most of it was still wasteland and wildlife scratched around the ruins of crumbling monuments from the medieval past.
“Anyway, it was back in Kanha in the spring of 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation and of the conquest of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing, and I was with Mahua on my own this time, not with Pradeep, and we came to an area of low hills generously covered with dense forest of sal and hardwoods. It was very beautiful. You could smell resin from aromatic woods, and a fresh tang of wild herbs and as we moved through this cover, once I heard scuffling, a heavy scuffling in the vegetation, which may have been wild hog.
“And then the forest suddenly cleared and we were in an open spot about fifty yards in diameter, and trees all around. It was late afternoon, again, a time when wildlife stirs after the heat of the day and seeks food and water. The sun was gentling, and poured soft yellow on the dirt ground. And as we approached this clearing, Mahua grabbed my hand in a strong grasp and went CHHUTT! – meaning stop and be quiet!
“We stopped and stood perfectly still. I heard nothing. Silence. Then a very a very slight lift of breeze. A monkey screamed in a distant tree.
“A tigress walked calmly out of a dense thicket and straight into the clearing. I thought we were hidden but we were not; only still. She was slim and lithe and her fine muscles rolled under her skin. She was russet-orange and had deep brown and black stripes. She looked straight at me. She seemed to be enquiring. What are you doing here? Why are you in my forest?
“I felt no fear; only wonder and amazement. A moment like this comes few times in a hunter’s life in this very last age of the big wild mammals. We are near the end of a great extinction and even in the 1950s, we knew it was coming to a close.
“Without thinking, I lifted my rifle and fired.”
Baba paused and looked at us. I’m sure his eyes were moist.
“The tigress – for that is what she was – stood just as she was, with what seemed a look of enquiry on her face. Her eyes were locked on mine. They were not fierce, actually quite calm and gentle, curious eyes. For a moment she looked as a domestic cat might look, when it sees someone who loves it and feeds it. Then her face seemed to crumple and her eyes closed. I had hit her in the chest but I couldn’t see the hole where the bullet would have gone in.
“Her head leaned to one side and slowly, ever so slowly, she slid to the ground. And then she lay there perfectly still. But her eyes stayed open as she lay down and she looked straight at me. They stayed open, just like that, and on my face.
“I felt a chill of horror. I did not feel like a hunter but like a murderer. I felt that this tigress KNEW me before she died. Not me personally, but me as a Man, her inevitable murderer. As though she had been waiting for this moment all of her life and faced it squarely when it finally came.
“She could have turned away and run in a flash, faster than I could have reacted to kill her. If she was really upset, she could have killed me. But she just stood there and looked at me as if she was saying – you have a choice. One day, I know you will kill me. It may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, it may be the day after. But you will. But you’ll look me in the face and acknowledge me when you do it. That’s all I ask. Don’t shoot me from a car, dazzle me with headlights, bring me down with poisoned bait, maim me in a trap. Shoot me on the ground; face me when you do it. I will die but I will live on in your heart. You will remember me when I am gone. You will remember that I saw you and I let you do it.”
Father told us that he had never shot a tiger before. Deer, yes. Hog, yes. Tiger, no. They were secretive, splendid beasts of the night and lords of the hidden places of the day. He had never expected to kill a tiger. He knew, in his heart of hearts, those days were really over. The tiger was really a deity, not an animal. The tiger was the last ark, the final redoubt, the incarnation of perfection of a million years of evolution, the most elegant flourish of the poetry of the Ice Age transplanted sleek and flame-coloured to the green heart of the tropical forest. It was our destiny to destroy it and he was a direct instrument of that destiny.
Baba looked us hard in the eye. “That tigress had three cubs. Mahua found them in the bush. We bundled them into a canvas sack and took them back to camp. At camp we got more helpers and the tigress was brought back to the village on poles. The cubs, I don’t know what happened to them. I think they went to a circus. The tigress went on my wall.”
He looked sad. “I was young” he said. “I was not used to reflecting on anything. Such is the joy of being young. Pure and thoughtless action and adventure. But killing the tigress, literally thoughtlessly, filled me with the purest horror I had ever felt for anything I had ever done in my life.
“It was at that point that I realised that I was really a conservationist, at heart, not a hunter. And that’s how it sometimes goes; you realise a thing AFTER you have done something wrong and that’s when you know what it RIGHT. So something good can come of an evil thing but it is no comfort to the conscience.
“I put that tiger skin on my wall,” my father said, “to remind me every day of the crime I had done, so that I might suffer for it. The only way I could atone for my crime of murder – for that is what it was, I realised, too late – was to suffer for it through perpetual remembrance.”
It was the closest my father ever got, as far as I could see, to a religious state of conscience, in someone who was naturally ebullient and not inclined much to reflection. But this story showed a side to my father, a complexity, a possibility, that made him very much more interesting as well as sympathetic to me. It doesn’t matter that he attributed human feelings and thoughts to a ‘dumb animal’, but rather, that his myth about the tiger’s relationship with him before he killed it is of a separate interest, apart from any objective facts about what tigers are like or what hunters are like.
In his relationship with the wildlife of his beloved India, I think my father showed something of both his weaknesses and his strength of character : self-indulgence and concern, pure and thoughtless joy in life and also a capacity to learn from it and suffer for his actions.
Father packed up his rifle and his shot-gun and put it away in store with Manton & Co. in Calcutta, forever. He never brought out his guns again, even to look at. He didn’t sell them, either. It is as though he wanted to forget them, as one might a shameful act, a sin.
I don’t know where those guns are now. If Manton & Co are still around, I presume they still have them. Or perhaps they have disposed of them. I don’t want to see them either.
I wonder if that old tiger skin is still on someone’s wall somewhere. Or has it mouldered away, like so many countless thousands of others, to satisfy a momentary triumph?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
CHAPTER SEVEN : AFTERNOON SONATA
In mid-summer during the school holidays in our concrete oven of a little house, the heat stunned my brother and I into a kind of doze rather than real sleep. Commonly, I would remain awake till the early hours and switch off the lights when finally stupefied with fatigue. Sometimes I would awake mid-morning to find the electric lights still on but the light of day flooding whitely through the slightly open back french window and the billowing white net curtain curling over my toes. My face might be facing the stark yellow walls of the rear courtyard where the washer woman, wrapped in village red, pounded the washing in an alumimium bucket, brass bangles tinkling in harmony with the sloosh! of water and the sound of her singing a village song.
I would lie and read for hours, while the ceiling fan dried the perspiration from my forehead and kept me awake after I had let the book slip from my fingers onto the floor, till I fell asleep again, bludgeoned into oblivion by the heat.
The books were all in English and bought from a bookshop in Connaught Place, the enormous, colonnaded shopping centre in Central Delhi, around ten kilometres away. I read The Wind in the Willows. P.G. Wodehouse. The Râmayanâ in English. I felt a special affection for that old generation of Indian writers and translators who wrote in English on Indian themes. Their strength and rootedness and the sheer humanity of their minds was a solace and an inspiration. In particular, I liked Biren Roy’s Mahâbhârata, a wonderful English adaptation of the ancient Hindu epic that I lost some years later. By then, the Hindu epics made a lot more sense than when I was younger and living in Calcutta. Read in English, they acquired an intensity I could not arrive at in the Bengali versions I read because of my insufficiency in that language.
I read quite a few books I didn’t understand and can no longer remember even what they were, lifted from my mother’s bookshelves, bound in cardboard and leather morocco, gilt-edged for preservation. Even cheap paperbacks were bound in this way by a book-binder who came to the house, a very thin man, the colour of purple grapes, with white, white teeth and shrewd eyes. He charged very little for such a fine service. The reading was undirected, unfocused, whatever I could get my hands on. Factual books about the conquest of Mexico and Peru, and the discovery of Africa by European explorers. H Rider Haggard’s romances.
It was a remarkably lonely life to start with. I had succeeded in making a couple of friends
in this new Delhi school but we did not visit each other’s homes. Delhi seemed to have no
overall social cohesion. It was too vast and sprawling, too suburban. Like London, there were lots of communities within Delhi, often located by the area as immigrants from different parts of India came to live near each other, like the Bengalis of Chittaranjan Park.
People came to Delhi from every conceivable part of India. It was somewhere one came to for a reason, not because it was home, except to the traditional residents of Old Delhi north of the Ajmeri Gate whose age-old courtly Delhi culture and kind manners had been roughly pushed aside, it is said, by the desperation of a huge influx of refugees from West Pakistan following the civil war of independence. These first generation migrants post-independence, struggling to build a new life for themselves in an alien city, having left their beloved Lahore or Multan for this capital city of India, brought an edge and an earnestness to Delhi life that probably wasn’t there before, slumbering as it did the sleep of centuries of quiet decline from its grand Mughal days. It was re-awakened to the south by the British Delhi of the architect Lutyens, perhaps, but still, till independence day it must have moved slowly to the murmur of old bazaars, sleeping the sleep of hot afternoons whose stillness would be broken by, perhaps, by no more than the warbling of turtle doves perched outside wooden-shuttered windows on zenana balconies and the sound of the alleys of Chandni Chowk ringing with the hammers of traditional metal workers and the nearby call of the muezzin to prayer at the Jam-i-Masjid great mosque.
A generation following Independence in 1947, Delhi was most definitely a city dominated by first and second generation migrants, and they scattered like seeds on a sunburnt field. This process was not confined to professional people. I met scooter-rickshaw drivers from rural Bihar State a thousand kilometers to the east, and filing clerks in bookshops from the land of the Tamils two thousand kilometers to the south.
We ourselves were a Calcutta Bengali family out on a limb, an area called Defence Colony in south Delhi, mostly populated by Punjabis and Sikhs from the armed forces – hence the name, of course. It is curious how this spatial marginality seems to have resonated with our relative cultural marginality, but it was entirely coincidental: My father simply occupied a house available to him via his company.
The natural inhabitants of this area were sturdy, energetic people, speaking a vigorous and colourful language of their own and it would undoubtedly have done me a lot of good if I could have mixed in well with them, but I couldn’t make much sense of them nor they of me. To be sure, I was the problem, the Outsider, and therefore their politeness and general amiability was all the more creditable. I think perhaps if I had had a consistently Indian upbringing and been naturally more outgoing, I would probably have fared better. But my cultural heterogeneity and tendency towards dreamy introspection was not a compound calculated to work well in this practical and pushy environment.
Perhaps I needed to meet other sorts of people, less into martial arts and more into arts. That time would come later. Now, in the summer of 1970, I entered perhaps the most socially isolated year of my entire existence.
By the age of fourteen, I was, sadly, in a kind of chronic depression, not so far as to actually break down but, I think, hovering near the edge and holding on all the time so that it became part of my life, like a dull ache in a joint that never goes away. I became aware that something was not right with me and it frightened and embarrassed me. I was beginning to create an internal world in which I became a character in my own book, a fictional person. The “real me” stood apart; he was the happy one in the family photographs taken years ago, the one that “went away” somewhere. This Happy Person considered the possibility of another life whose profile was unfathomable. It was not long before this fragmented person that I had become, finding external life incomprehensible, looked for meaning and structure in some kind of inner life, and a secret drive towards some kind of personalised religion started developing, along with a mish-mash of introductory philosophical readings.
After returning home from school around lunch time, I spent hours in the late afternoon, and then in approaching darkness, in that softening time between sunset and twilight, sitting on a chair on the roof terrace and staring at the wall of the building next door. The wall was a flat expanse taller than our house, and eyeless. My brain inscribed images on this wall that rubbed off and became other images on other days. Or I would lean over the terrace edge, protected by a balustrade and looked below at the street. It was quiet and overlooked a great square grassy plaza, with low-rise houses all around. It looked most invitingly sociable, this huge square, but we knew no one in these houses, not even the people next door who we hardly ever saw.
People would pass singly, or in groups of two or three, dressed in drab whites and greys, or,
if they were youthful, in brightly patterned shirts, sometimes sporting very dark, gold-rimmed, aviator-style sunglasses. Brass rings glinted on knuckles. There was red paan juice spilt in the edge of the ditch, or perhaps a guava or pear, dropped off a vegetable-seller’s basket. The occasional smear of cow dung or faint paw-prints of a pie dog in the dusty verge bore witness to animal life.
I seem to recall that I once went as far as attempting to talk to a passing cow. I didn’t expect a reply of course, but I got one. It happened to low just as I had finished.
Many week days after lunch were spent alone upstairs with books and music, either classical instrumental or curiously dated pre-war light classical. The ceiling fans stirred air, huge white things that whizzed round at tremendous speed when on full throttle. The room was as blade-hot and bright as a desert tomb with an open door. I could spend half an hour lying flat on the bed staring up at the fan and the blades were a blur and the fan roared like a turbine. After a quarter of an hour my eyes would go dizzy watching this. Or if the fan was put on slow, it would go Whuck! Whuck! Whuck! Round and round and the blades trailed long brown tendrils of dirt and dust that waved in the hot, stirred air.
Spending months of blinding white solitude in my hermit’s eyrie upstairs, my mind
wandered restlessly between thinking vaguely about girls (I had no idea at all what they were really like, having always gone to an all-boys’ school) and thinking specifically, obsessively and incoherently, about religion. Of course I wanted to know what the meaning of life was, I had little other diversion around the company of others to keep me away from feverish introspection. Religion was clearly important in India though the fact that we were not a religious family was a paradox which I had not addressed, let alone dealt with.
Atheism, agnosticism or scepticism of any sort were not real options, given that the
overwhelming pressure I felt to assimilate into Indianness apparently precluded these options (I was not really aware of the full extent of diversity of Hindu tradition, specifically, the Lokâyata atheist school of thought) but in any case, atheism provided neither emotional nor aesthetic satisfaction.
In this, I was really quite Indian! I needed God as a friend as I appeared to have none, not a punishing authority figure. The Hindus were generally so much better at producing friendly as well as punitive versions of divinity; they ran little risk of producing their own varieties of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins with their tormented vituperations against a ferocious and terrifyingly nnreasonable Old Testament God. All Hindus I ever met believed in God and gods except the communists. Even some of them hedged their bets and trooped dutifully to the temples with their families when they were not busy plotting a Leninist takeover. Indeed, you could not take the Hindu completely out of the Indian communist.
I remembered that when I was eleven, in Calcutta, I asked my mother about religion. My
mother, like her father, was decidedly atheistic and if God meant anything it was in a strictly aesthetic sense, such as the sense of divinity in Hindu Art. However, my mother was energetic and decisive and always tried to find an answer to questions she recognised as serious. So she found me St Francis of Assisi’s prayer, Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace… and I was moved by the words which even at eleven years of age I could understand, for their simplicity, their grandeur and their self-evident truth.
I had acquired a serious, almost monkish, temperament ; the cheerful and moderately extraverted boy of the Calcutta days had completely vanished. I kept these new tendencies to myself, seeking instead to find answers in books rather than discuss anything with the people immediately around me – and I am sure this was a good policy. The sensible, materialistic and practical minded people among the majority of my family and relations abhorred both artistic and intellectual tendencies at bottom, although I believe that they were not altogether aware of this and I am sure, if pressed, would have protested strongly against such a description. On the contrary, intellectual achievement and artistic talent were roundly admired – provided they led to directly and quickly to the acquisition of wealth or reputation.
I, however, shut off mentally from the outward focus of family ambitions and values, was quietly determined that I must look to religion for answers in a country that was religious and demanded that I declare and support my cultural affiliations as a matter of priority. I have no doubt my nearest and dearest would have been deeply concerned if they had suspected me of being absorbed in such impractical pusuits, but fortunately they appeared to be not so aware and I was happy to keep it that way.
Concerns with cultural identity and intellectual enquiries into “the meaning of life” became muddled together, unguided by any sensible teachers. While it certainly wasn’t a requirement in my own family to feel this way, it was very much in the ambience in which I was growing up, at school and in the life of the shops and bazaars, to which I was becoming gradually accustomed. Science was all very well but I knew that the information we derived from it, though indescribably magnificent, was no guide to life. How on earth could the law of the jungle, evolution and the whirling of atoms tell us how to live? It wasn’t enough for me to just get up in the morning and eat my breakfast and go out with a spring in my step and the golden fountain of hope springing up in a youthful heart. No, I had to know what it all meant!
I certainly did not have the capacity to handle such investigations on my own. Nor were there any such among my relatives. There were engineers who could replace light bulbs and fix wiring, lawyers who could wrap you up in cunning documents and charge you a fortune, civil servants who could tell you about the tortuous manoevres in the corridors of power, and businessmen who could magic money out of a thousand cottage factories. But there was no-one who could help me fathom the innermost secrets of the human heart, or comment on destiny or explain why it was that only we in the known universe seemed capable of knowing fruitlessly that we were all bound to die. I was following in the footsteps of the Buddha but I had not a smidgeon of his intellectual, spiritual or emotional capacity and moreover, was born into a bourgeois age in which the spiritual life was regarded, ultimately, as the province of sadhus, madmen, and such. Only grandfather Dadu, being a Hindu rather than a Brahmo, retained that fundamental if slightly grudging admiration for spiritual gifts. He deeply admired Swami Paramahansa Yogananda, and, I think, because he did, so did grandmother Dida, for she, though very intelligent, followed his thinking in all matters, and in this respect, though a Brahmo, was very truly a devoted Hindu wife. Dadu, however, was the last person I would approach with such question, especially couched in a temper of thought I knew to be a little morbid and thereby, ipso facto, beyond discussion with a man so practical as he.
I turned sooner or later, as adolescents will, to scribbling poetry, sweating into the yellow electric light of fetid summer nights in the early hours, and sleepwalking to school. This “poetry”, kept private in a red, leather-bound slim volume, expressed in floridly metaphorical language, bordering on incoherence, was full of those typical inchoate yearnings for resolution of existential questions, and for finding someone or something through which that harmony and peace, that understanding, would be arrived at. I invented friends, lovers, adventures, situations.
My books at home were not enough : I scoured my grandfather’s magpie collection of heavyweight tomes and popularising books on intellectual subjects – mainly European classics, philosophy, history and exploration – and sneaked a few at a time out of his long lines of dusty glass-fronted cases and took them back to Delhi. I would read them – or rather, attempt to read them – and then return them. I was not generally discovered in this criminal act because the books were often two layers deep so it was easy to shuffle them about. Dadu himself rarely read them; he busied himself with the world news on shortwave radio, with his classical European music copied onto huge tapes and played on an old, giant double-tape deck – very expensive in those days indeed – and with papers relating to his retirement work as a senior consultant for the United Nations World Population Council.
I turned to Tibetan Buddhism at some point by the time I was fifteen. The stuff I was reading was quite beyond me – and still is – but I struggled to understand the essentials of the points being made in the misguided hope that a little understanding was better than none.
I read Tibet by Thubten Jigme Norbu, the elder brother of the 14th and current Dalai
Lama, and his book was filled with a most intense delight in the traditional life and the
beauties of the country he had to leave into exile following its violent occupation by the
communist Chinese. How, I mused, could Buddhist nihilism be reconciled with this love of
country and people? I read the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, and other autobiographies of
Tibetan high lamas like Chögyam Trungpa, by the time I was seventeen. I could think of nothing more wonderful than to be a monk or a farmer in the old Tibet, before the Chinese came, reading such books. Of course I knew nothing about the slaves or the life of some lower caste people; such sophistications were not widely known except to academic specialists. Most Tibetans seemed naturally dignified, proud and free people, embittered and saddened by the loss of their land, driven into exile, not from anything intrinsically nihilistic in their culture. Yet the Buddhist religion in itself sent out a message of absolute denial that made no sense to me. I wanted life to be lived, and understood in my childish way that there was going to be both pleasure and pain in that life and I wanted to just experience it all, not deny any part of it. I had more or less got England out of my head by then. I wanted to go to only two places : Africa and Tibet.
It was not long before, lapsing as I was every afternoon into a kind of heat and metaphysics-induced trance, everything around me, everything out there, became pregnant with hidden meaning. A cow wandering bone-white along an empty back alley in a Delhi summer afternoon. The cry of a vegetable seller receding into the distance. The sough of the wind through leaves. The rattling cough of a motor scooter. Voices. The shadow play of sunlight and leaf shadow on a wall or floor. Anything that moved, or made a sound, that drew my attention to its existence, made me wonder what it meant. An artist would have tried to paint or draw it. A writer would have made a story out of it. An intellectual would have challenged others to a debate about it. A social scientist would want to investigate it and compile some data first. I wanted to know why it moved me, what it’s inner meaning might be – I was determined that there was one – I only had to discover the mechanism for finding it.
I played old vinyl records inherited from my grandfather, mainly European classical or light
classical stuff, such as Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Prokofiev’s Peter and the
Wolf, Richard Tauber singing Schubertlieder and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons of which I liked
the slow movements best. The interplay between the deathly hot, silent summer afternoons
in suburban Delhi, almost bereft of the sight of people, and these strange, ethereally strange
European musical fantasias, turned my mind into a plane of its own orbit in which I was as alone as I might have been on a spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
While most other boys of my age seemed to be playing cricket or, if they were reading, were poring over diagrams of turbines with a view to becoming engineers, I was wandering
deeper and deeper into a curious and generally unrecognisable metaphysical landscape, largely of my own invention, influenced by smatterings of books in translation central to the Indian Hindu traditions that I was reading without much real grasp of the material, partly English books and European literature in translation. Of course, the Hindu epics, but also, a book about Indian philosophy by S. Radhakrishnan, Gandhi’s autobiography, the Dark Night of the Soul by St John of The Cross, and I even attempted to grasp something of Kant and Hume from Will Durant’s History of Western Philosophy. This was combined with music from baroque chamber music to recorded bhajans by Meerabai.
One of the few advantages of this strange encapsulated life is that I remained comparatively free of the conventional social prejudices of the culture around me except for some unexamined notions of class superiority based on the bhodrolok culture I grew up with. Some unusual aspects included the fact that Islam did not repel me, though I knew next to nothing about it, whereas it did seem to repel most of the middle class Hindu folk around me, even those who claimed Muslim friends. I was visually stunned by what I saw of Muslim architecture in Delhi : the Qutb Minâr, the Red Fort, Humâyun’s Tomb, Safdar Jang’s tomb, the 15th century relics of the Lodhi Sultans in the gardens named after them. The gardens, classically proportioned, gracefully conceived, the buildings, romantic and self-assured. This was a great civilization! Romantic Islam, the God of the Rûbâiyat , the God of Sheikh Sa’adi , the romantic poet god of wine, roses, dawn-light on minarets and turrets, the god of the Persian miniature paintings I saw in my mother’s collection of art books. The God of Redemption. The God of Sufi Islam, of course. I might have considered the whole thing more soberly if I had had a grasp of the rigours of the orthodox faith.
The search for identity, for roots and for practical solutions to intractable problems through religion, became fused together in a such a way that I could not disentangle any of these components from each other and gain an understanding of what I was doing. In this I was a particular individual with particular problems but in subsequent years I got to know many others who had similar problems in similar or different settings, all Outsiders one way or another.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The View from Alwar
I think of my final year of late childhood as the year 1972. At the end of that year, I sat my external exams for leaving school and the following year, aged seventeen, I went to Delhi University.
Very occasionally Baba would arrange a day trip somewhere to break up the long succession of family lunches at home. It was one of the last trips we did together as a family; perhaps it was the very last, I can’t remember. On this occasion, he chose Alwar, a tiny princely state, about one hundred and sixty kilometres south west of Delhi.
It is not that I remember many details of the visit. I don’t remember the Neemrana Palace although I seem to recall walking among parapets of golden stone and looking out across a mirror lake at hills clad in purple and green foliage, and at a sky as pale blue and clear as a water-colour.
But I remember something of the road to Alwar and back. It was such an Indian road, all yellow gravel and small stones and clouds of dust, in some places enough for two vehicles to pass each other, and in other places only one. We were driven by Harbhajan Singh in his trundling old company black Ambassador. As expected, Harbhajan sang religious songs all the way through. Every now and then he would forget he had a car full of quietly squabbling and talkative Bengalis, and start keening loudly some bhajan or intoning from the Guru Granth Sahib forcefully instead of droning quietly to himself, and then we would ask him gently to sing more softly. He would stop, looking hurt, go back down to a plaintive murmur for half and hour so, and then forget himself and start mumbling and singing loudly again, while the steering wheel juddered under his guiding hand. Had he stopped altogether, I am sure, the happy mood of the car would have been afflicted by an uneasy silence, as though something was amiss, for Harbhajan, in his simple but proud way, represented the essence of what was good about the India we lived in and deep down, none of us really wanted him to stop.
For the most part we never saw anyone on the road, but occasionally, perhaps, a small boy with a stick and a small flock of babbling brown and white goats. And every now and then, a soft hump of hill would rise hundreds of feet above the bush-dotted plain into the golden day. And on the way back we sat sated and happy with a packed lunch of shingaras (minced mutton patties) rice and chapattis cooked by Poresh in the inimitable magnificence of his home-cooked style, washed down with Coca Cola and Golden Eagle beer. Dry bushes redolent of herbs scraped the sides of the car where it got narrow and twice, peacocks scuttled across, honking and waving their fans with their hundred eyes, then disappeared with a grumbling warble into the bushes as the wheels of the car rushed by. The air smelled faintly of camel dung and desert rose.
As the journey wore on I lapsed into silence and looked out of the window. Younger Brother in the middle of the rear fell asleep. Baba, in front next to Harbhajan Singh, snored gently. Ma looked out of the window too, on the other side. The mid-afternoon heat was a white hammer blow. A fly settled in one corner of the open window. Tracts of semi-desert and bush country gave way now and then to cultivated fields of wheat. The last spurs of the Arâvali Hills gave out and smoothed into undulating flatlands, either cultivated or burnt-orange and dun under a copper sky. Kites wheeled and screamed above. A small town could be seen as a smudge of low-rise concrete in the distance. The road softened into lilac and grey in the evening light.
I remember looking back through the rear window and thinking that all life was motion. All was movement, the road, the view receding behind us, the hills and sand-blown landscape around us, our own lives. Today was not so different from yesterday except that we were on this lovely Sunday out instead of at home; yet, tomorrow would somehow be different. I only wished I could have had that sense of promise, excitement and adventure that should come naturally to a young person. Instead, I was suffused with a vague unease.
Was I just moody because that was the age I was at, at some adults said? Leave him alone, it’s okay, he’s at that age… Or could it be that a sliver of melancholy on a joyous day is more than that, could it be that feelings are interpreters of what really is and tell us something about the world around us? Where would the truths of poetry or song be without acknowledging these stirrings, without turning them over and making something of them? So I mused as sand hills and fields of green wheat flecked with white egrets rolled by.
I found myself unable to trust in good or simple outcomes and this took a little of the joy of out of the moment of beauty away from me, a faint sadness tingeing the splendour of the day. Ten years between five and fifteen and a shift in cultural location were enough to convince me that everything was more infinitely more complex than I had expected they would be when I was “little.” It seemed as though there was something like a natural law of entropy hovering over human life as much as anything in the material universe. India’s overwhelming problems, of which its size and its poverty were the most obvious and the most ubiquitous, belied a history rolling triumphantly with the names of kings, conquerors, of leading lights of art and thought.
The road ahead of the wheels of the car appeared as unclear as the road streaming behind us, hazy in golden dust. It seemed a metaphor for life for the life I had lived so far I found hard to understand and the life that lay ahead seemed unfathomable. I recalled my grandfather Dadu’s face – stern, sure of himself, the hint of a twinkle in his eye behind the shy and forbidding exterior. He knew what was what. What did I know? Was it the times and tides or was it just me? Why, in the end, could ancestors not pass on their wisdom to their descendants?
Still, I could see that this India of palaces and peacocks, of wild highways and huge, near-empty spaces, of dead kings and fugitive tigers, of peasants and huntsmen, of caste landlords with guns and huddled homeless on city streets, of centuries-old markets and minarets, of gloomy offices crammed to the ceiling with yellowing files and streets choked with traffic, really was as real and as beautiful and dramatic and as dreadful in all the obvious ways. It was easy to dismiss the clichés as simplistic until one saw that clichés, unlike exaggerations, are not necessarily false.
So what was the defining characteristic of this country, was it splendour, was it despair or was it collective negligence? Did clichés conceal any shining merit under their dull exteriors? Poverty, the dead hand of bureaucracy and cronyism, seemed to turn every ideal into a social infirmity, turn the steel blade of every fine resolution to rust. Ideals and visions rose up in leaders and revolutionaries from Shivaji to Gandhi, from Kabir and Nanak to Nathuram Godse, from Ashoka to Jyoti Basu. They all broke like waves against the immense weight of our social inheritance. History pressed like a heavy weight on every part of the world and in India it seemed to sit especially heavily on a nascent nation clamouring for a new path to life and freedom. Caste and creed still turned man against man. Customs like dowry, female infanticide and the rejection of widows penalised the life of half of India, turning their lives of millions of women into painful wells of blame, neglect, penury and suppression. India’s overwhelming problems were barely faced, let alone tackled, by defensive political and economic policies in which pious slogans to nationalism and self-sufficiency were preached by politicians but the nation remained prostrate, corrupted, fatalistic, angry and impotent.
And here I was in the middle of it all. The question was, therefore, what had I to do with all this? I saw my family members from my own generation moving towards sensible and focused objectives : rural development work, the professions, the military, civil service, even business – a rarity in our type of family in those days. But how could I, who could barely find a path among my own peer group in school and negotiate the tortuous shoals of the life and squabbles of the extended family, most of which I barely understood, involve myself in these larger battles, in these impossible questions? What could possibly be my role in life? Was I to be king, jester or fugitive? I seemed to think that I had to make sense of the existential questions before I could deal with the practical ones, instead of realising that first one must find one’s locus in ordinary life and then investigate the higher questions from a point of advantage.
I wanted to hold on to the beauty I saw around me as a definite thing I could understand and make a part of me, this beauty that was very real and which completely engulfed us here and now in its shining embrace.
My mother, rightly, had advised me to pick up on my studies and go on to do law. It would not be long now before I sat my school final examinations and I was still an indifferent student. Lawyers, she said, were well off. It was most important to be well off, and then one could look around for anything else you were interested in. Once again : a good piece of advice from my mother – which I had not the capacity to make good use of.
I failed to appreciate the value of money even though I was aware that the relative lack of it inhibited our own modestly secure way of life. It didn’t seem to be something I could really focus on, even though I could see the desperation around me every day for lack of it. Perhaps it was because we never really seemed to have any without actually being short of essentials.
The basics of life were always met but there was no little or no pocket money; my parents did not own their own house. The grand Calcutta residence had long since been sold and Thapuna had gone to live with her youngest daughter. We struggled to go on holiday anywhere. I never actually saw any money. It didn’t seem to be something real or something we could have. What was the point of asking me to go after money if we ourselves didn’t have any? Why didn’t my parents go after it? Had they failed in some way? If they had failed, why would I succeed? Wasn’t I like them?
The salaried middle class Indian was caught in a certain buffer zone between the beauty and the struggle of the Indian setting where they were privileged to see the former and terrified to see the latter. For youths such as I – and there were many in that generation going either way – for those strays and eccentrics not practically focused on a career path in the traditional professions, government service or business, and before the age when the new religion of the Market would take pre-eminence, there seemed to be only two alternative directions for middle class non-conformists: revolution or art. Revolution for those who were politically evolved and who felt impelled to enter an activist struggle to salvage a practical solution in place of the cynical cronyism that had replaced Nehru’s dream at Independence. I would meet some of them when I went to university in Delhi. Some were visionaries. Some were careerists. Some were seekers of power. All were ruthless.
And then there was art as a retreat for those such as myself, too absorbed in the struggle to find my own place in my own small milieu, let alone find a path in the bigger Indian drama around me. In the end, if one feels one cannot do anything, one can at least see, and be a witness. Art was imagined as a search for beauty and inner meaning in all aspects of life. It was a widely respected point of view.
I knew nothing about revolution at fifteen other than Mao’s variety which, encountered in the Tibetan exodus, held no appeal for me. Art was another matter. My mother’s house was full of art books and objects that were said to be artistic.
But I wasn’t sufficiently interested in art either if art only meant things made by men to move the soul, however awesome they might be. It seemed that what moved me more was the beauty that was already there before a man moved a hand to shape it. My eyes lingered on simple, natural things, like the beauty of the mountains and the effects of light on mundane objects: a wall, a floor, a parapet. I clutched at natural beauty as a way of salvation out of the overwhelming pressure of Indian life, the wretchedness of the masses, the threat of disaster ever present for respectable families trying to keep their heads above water, the frenzied ambitions of careerists, the implacable animosities of sectarian strife and caste oppression, the sheer physical challenge of climate and environment, rural and urban.
But this beauty I saw around me in places like on this road back from Alwar to Delhi seemed to be as ephemeral as the shifting light of the day, like water trickling down from a cupped hand. It beads the ground and evaporates, sparkling in sunlight. All that remains is a light stain in the dust, and then too, that stain is gone.
So this feeling of perpetual motion went on like the car on the road. There was the evident beauty that fled away and the elusive beauty that stayed in stillness, forever, if one could find it inside one’s self with the Third Eye and hold it in place with the mind and the heart. I admired those who seemed to grasp the divine and thereby right themselves, finding their centre in this vortex of Indian life that threatened to overwhelm and annihilate.
I wanted to be able to sing a Sikh raag like Harbhajan – Chintha Shhadd Achinth Rahu Naanak Lag Paee, ‘ Nanak has given up his troubles, he falls at your feet, O Lord, and becomes joyous and free’… I believed at that moment as Harbhajan sang that this moment was quite special and soon I would never really see India this way again.
Just as you turn the Autumnal Equinox, a slight but perceptible chill creeps into the air in the early morning and late in the evening. Wrought-iron railings turn cold to the touch; dark-green leaves of tropical hibiscus and night jasmine go limp and wet with evening moisture, a faint wreath of cloud wisps the night moon above the crumbling teeth of the Sierra de Mijas, whose sprawl cannot be discerned beyond the mist so that the wasteland behind the houses appears as though it were lowland. Earth-coloured terrace tiles turn faintly wet and a wind sighs, gathers the trees in its muscular embrace, and strips boughs of brittle twigs and dying leaves and strews them about. You can, in the approaching twilight, imagine that things are not entirely as they seemed a few hours ago. The turning season and the wandering hour opens a door into a magic place where the metaphorical becomes literal. As you muse on the approach of autumnal restlessness, you imagine Autumn as one of the ancient gods, a giant that treads with a great foot across the human landscape, bigger than all the houses and pushing aside the weeping trees in its determined march towards a still distant winter. – Finger painting on miniature digital screen.
“Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things–childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves–that go on slipping , like sand, through our fingers.”
Priyanka Majumdar posted this on FB in Aug 2012. Great quote.
My friend, Ashwin Mahadev who lives in Chennai, India, and is suffering severely from cancer, wrote this on Facebook recently, and I responded. I want to keep this on my Blogger as a record.
9th July 2012
She calls me in the cold dark morning
From five thousand miles away
I hear the mobile chirrup and my heart
Knots with the familiar slight dread
I hear her voice harsh as a crow’s foot
Scraping a dead branch in winter snow
‘Get me out of here!’ she cries
‘Get me out now or I will be dead soon!
They have kidnapped me!’
I can see her rolling eyes
And her mouth twisted in an old face
But I cannot help; the time is long gone.