Saturday, June 23, 2007

The goodbye game

What is it with goodbyes? Why is that when one bids farewell to a great friend or a beloved place, that it is never ideal? Why should it always be hurried, as you struggle for the right words and expressions to share your feelings? Before you realize it, that place or person is a distant speck, and the feeling of loss all the more powerful. Language seems to be such an inept tool then. A million memories flash through your mind like fireflies in the night, and you just cannot do justice to them all. Talking about them and reliving them all seems too superficial and overly sentimental a thing to do. The end result is a kind of embarrassing silence, when you know that there is too much to say and too much to be thankful for. Closest friends for years, but now parting ways, only to meet if ever fate plays a kind hand. But it so happens, that both parties settle for a quick hug, and an insignificant "All the best", and from then on an interminable wait for the journey to begin.

Embers of a Revolution

On my way back to Calcutta after a gap of nearly 7 years, I boarded the Jagannath Express at Bhubaneshwar station. Packed to the point of spilling over, the last minute nature of my travel plans had condemned to the usual crush of a General compartment. Amidst all the hullabaloo, a white dhoti-kurta clad Jat farmer lay sprawled along the length of the upper berth. Entreaties and threats from his co-passengers fell to deaf ears as he refused to budge from his luxurious horizontal position.

A woman, maybe 50 odd years of age, shabbily clad, someone who wouldn't look out of place amongst labourers in a construction site, stood up. She went up to the sleeping fellow and uttered in pure Bengali "This is a General compartment meant for the common man. No one, absolutely no one will occupy more space than he REQUIRES!" Though I doubt that the farmer understood a single word of what she said, the intent was clear, and the result immediate! He sat bolt upright and quietly shrank into the corner of the berth, hemmed in by the mocking smiles of his co-passengers.

Maybe this lady's belief in a doomed ideology hadn't brought her any benefit. She probably lives in the same squalor and poverty as she did when "privileged" people ran the government in her state 30 years ago. She still travels in the same completely uncomfortable coach as before, and faces a monumental struggle to get two square meals a day. But her faith in the dream was what was shining in her eyes that day.

The same horribly impractical dream that personal happiness rests in common happiness. That a man would not desire anything more than what his fellow men could afford. That equality would be the order of the day- rich and poor, powerful and weak, exploiters and exploited- all such words archaic forms in the dictionary.

And how appropriate it was that she was traveling to a city defiant on its deathbed, challenging the vultures of politics and sloth which encircle it ever so slowly, high in the sky. A city that sustains itself on lofty, philosophical hopes, and prizes idealism amidst penury.

Kulti Capers

The whole thing was a set-up! Right from the beginning to the final boarding of the train to Howrah, the story played to a script, and a very interesting offbeat script it was. Marriages are usually occasions when the most well planned things beautifully fall apart; an invisible law guiding the smooth disintegration. The occasion in this case was Putli Didi's (My cousin sister's) marriage. But this marriage was destined not to play by the rules.

Consider first, the primary groups donning leading roles. The bridegroom's side with a group of boisterous Haryanvis, whose simple and down-to-earth nature I have comprehended almost completely, during my four year stay at good ol' REC Kurukshetra. Add to that, the bride's side (my family) of mellowed down Bengalis, plus the American friends of Jiju and Didi who looked overwhelmed enough by their first taste of India, let alone a cross-cultural marriage of epic proportions.

Then consider the setting. The "continent" of Kulti, the hometown of the bride and also the place where my father, uncles and aunts had been brought up. The steel plant where my grandfather had worked had long since shut down, succumbing to the inefficiencies that plague most state run industries. The little town sustained itself through the requirements of the people who continued to live there. It was a golden place where golden people reigned in a golden age, if you sided with my fathers' family point of view, or you could join the cynical smiles of which too there was no shortage.

9th March '07 :

My arrival at Kulti station was an achievement by itself. It involved making an all out sprint through a packed Howrah station crashing into dozens of people without having the luxury of even saying a "Sorry" to board the train just in the nick of time. From Kulti station, it was a ride in Ashim Kaka's amazingly well maintained Amby (1961 First edition!) to his beautiful, old house all spruced up for the wedding. The last time I had been to his house, I was of a negligible age and the sprawling gardens surrounding his house had my imagination working overtime with impenetrable forests and giant pythons a distinct possibility. This time around, 18 years later, the place still impressed with such a vast expanse of space. Accompanying me was Mumun who promptly joined forces with Rupli Di, building 2/3rds of the fearsome triad of "saalis" that harangue every Jija who dares step into the Roy family. The trio would assume full strength with the arrival of my sister the next day.

Overworked that I was in the office that day, and as a result of the exertions of the dash to make it to the evening train I fell asleep turning a deaf ear to the accusations of my cousins. The accusations were in the vein of "You're so lazy! You come here to work for the marriage and sleep instead." Though it is a matter of mystery to me how by chit-chatting through the night, and labeling that as work, one adds value to the marriage as my cousin sisters claimed to have done.

10th March '07:

The next day was spent in wrapping up presents for the "totto"(Gifts sent between both the parties at the marriage), and trying to get friendly with Bhuli, one of the two pet dogs of Ashim Kaka. For some inexplicable reason, she remained immune to my charms throughout the wedding. Dogs have always liked me and vice versa but this one seemed intent on barking, growling and cringing away in fear whenever I approached. But sometimes in life, you've got to accept things for what they are! So was my acceptance of Bhuli's dislike for me. My efforts at packing the gifts took their toll, and I slept through the afternoon, leading to more accusations of that "lazy" nature of mine.

Sunday, 11th March:

The pre-marriage hullabaloo reached a crescendo. High pitched voices shouting conflicting instructions, dazed looks, people tripping up on strewn luggage, kids seeking desperate ways to grab attention (like going full pelt for the stairs), hyper excited dogs, a million people tramping in and out of the house, the arrival of the bridegroom's group and similar events kept everyone involved in the wedding on their toes. The day saw the entry of almost all the invited guests, and led to a flurry of trips between the various guesthouses and the house.

On the same evening, the big ticket event of the marriage, the DJ night disguised under the traditional name of "Sangeet", apparently a staple of all Haryanvi weddings. Enter DJ Ramandeep Singh with his crew, who had to be instructed approximately 10 times on the phone for directions to reach Kaka's house. Some politically incorrect sources put his confusion down to his religion!

Well, he finally arrived and set up a great set of speakers, strobe lights and we had an awesome dance-till-you-drop session from 7 to 11, enjoyed thoroughly by both the young and the young-at-heart. The sheer energy of the visiting team on the dance floor initially stunned the home team into a corner, but by the end of the evening the home team was matching the visitors step for step. The sweat dripping off everyone by the end bore testimony to the hard work involved. Once again stretched to the limit, I popped off to the guesthouse and as usual dropped dead.

12th March, D-Day:

D-day was here, and for me it had started before it was scientifically correct to call it a day. There was a top secret pick-up to be made in the wee hours of the morning from Asansol station, and this all important task was entrusted to the usual suspects, P. K. Da and me. Bleary-eyed we turned up at Asansol station to pick up Jhumpi Di who had the time off her tight schedule at IIT Kanpur, to just make it to the wedding. The pick-up was a completely smooth job with us entering the station just at the same time as the train, and we delivered her to the guesthouse just as ordinary mortals were stirring out of their slumber. While Jhumpi Di was being swamped by a pleasantly surprised horde of relatives, I like all good heroes was hoping to fade into the background, and catch up with my old friend, Mr. Sleep. But no such luck! I eventually got up with a scowl on my face, the kind you see when you've been lying in bed, for 2 hours and haven't been allowed to sleep (A special thanks to Didi and Dada for that). The rest of the day before the marriage ceremony was like a film in fast forward with the action only slowing for some great grubbing sessions. I was in the right place at the right time to sample the delicacies of the dinner beforehand, and prepare myself accordingly. Even the sampling session ended up in something like a second lunch.

Evening saw me dressed in a 'dhooti', that garment where every step is a potential disaster story. Thankfully it stayed in the place it was supposed to and later I was lighting big firecrackers wearing that very same blessed garment backed by some newly found foolhardy courage. The bridegroom arrived in Kaka's grand old lady, the Amby, and his party kept dancing for what seemed forever before he arrived at the 'mandap'. The dhol's beat was infectious, but I had 'dhooti' considerations to keep in mind. Putli Di was then air-lifted to the 'mandap' and the usual games of who's higher- the bride or the bridegroom saw a tough fight between Haryanvi muscle and Bengali presence of mind. The matter was settled by the fact that presence of mind is of no help for lack of sheer muscle power in some cases! Though the losing side continues to claim "We let them win, 'coz eventually they had to exchange the garlands!" Hmm… Whatever!

As the ceremony continued another professional hit job was carried out and the bridegroom's shoes disappeared into thin air, with yours truly playing the major role in the heist. This operation was to yield great monetary dividends later. The marriage ceremony was completed without any major hiccups, with the purohit's all-too-frequent reference to the book of 'mantras' a cause for mild amusement and confusion. The food which followed was just too good, and even the Americans were spotted hogging away at spicy Indian food; after-effects early next morning be damned! And all this while, a 'shehnai' player, who many claimed was imprisoned on top of the 'pandal' gate with the ladder which had taken him up put away, performed his job to the best of ability. No tempatation on earth could have taken him away from his task of continuously piping out tunes whose quality was strictly debatable. Nonetheless, he deserves a special mention for his sheer dedication to the cause!

Ceremony done, the time had come for Mahesh Bhaiyaa to withstand the real trial by fire. He had to survive a night with his bride's cousins and obtain his missing shoes without any heart-attack inducing financial losses. Supported only by two of his brothers, the prospects were grim, especially for the second condition to be fulfilled. The ransom was fixed and as usual the kidnapped shoes' owner feigned a total lack of interest in them. As we waited for the inevitable to happen, we killed time by playing a strange mix of 'obscure word' Antakshari, Dumb-C and also has an impromptu Shiamak Davar dance workshop led by Mumun. Two heavyweights from the bride's side switched their allegiance to the other side (Case in point, my sis and Rupli Di). Unable to withstand the shock of this treachery and the absence of P.K Da due to his tough travel plans the next day, the bride's team was creamed well and proper in all the above mentioned contests. As the Antakshari moved from obscure words to completely weird ones, and the songs that both sides were coming up with seemed suspiciously like on-the-spot creations, there came about a general confusion as to the purpose of the night. So led from the front by the bride herself, majority of the populace fell asleep just as dawn was breaking, including the so-called 'active' people. From then on in, it was sheer 3 rd degree torture as Rupli Di assumed the role of police interrogator and Mahesh Bhaiyaa unwillingly the role of the accused. The crime: Not paying enough money for the shoes. After a superhuman struggle, the accused accepted all charges leveled against him, and looked tired enough to admit to any crime at all. End result: The kidnappers were 5K richer.

13th March-14th March, '07:

Daylight saw me more on the road between Kulti and Asansol than the home itself, as I bounced to and fro from the house to Asansol station, first to see off the bridegroom's party and Jhumpi Di in the morning, and in the evening to bid goodbye to the newly wed couple. Sleepless as I was for almost 2 days then, I would have put a zombie to shame. When we returned post the departure of Putli Di, the house was quiet again and the 'pandal' almost completely dismantled. There was this overbearing sense of completion and emptiness that follows all great events, like this marriage surely was.

Then time again for some laidback chatter and well earned sleep, and after putting mom, dad and sis on the train to Gujarat the next day, I took the train back to Calcutta. Back to a humdrum existence and the killing monotony of office life. But now I had all the memories of this incredible marriage to turn back to, which never fail to bring a smile to my face time and time again.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Guilty pleasures

12th February, 2007

Much as I hate getting nostalgic about childhood like a doddering 80 year old, there are times when I just can't resist it. Today was just such a day, a day which wouldn't have been out of sync with my life 12 years ago. I bunked office today on a very flimsy premise of being slightly ill, and as if "rest" as prescribed by the doctor was the only thing that stood between me and death due to common cold.

Cycle back in time to a point when I am still in primary school and huddled under a mountain of blankets on a bright winter morning. It's Monday, as blue a time for me then, as it remains today. The exertions of a hectic weekend spent in video-gaming, terrace cricket and lots of purposeless running around had taken the mildest of tolls in the form of a lukewarm forehead. I complain in the most innocent, pure-as-driven-snow kind of voice that I am not feeling too well, and that's enough for Mom's piety to spill over. One or two quiet admonitions by Dad, on how one should take care of one's health, and how going to school is so very important later, the matter is settled. There was never any doubt over who was going to win in this emotional see-saw battle. The court always ruled in favour of "He's so ill. How can he go to school" side of things.

Covering myself with the blankets, I smile the most secret of happy smiles, one which no one would ever witness. All this while, I sense my sister's eyes drilling through the blanket, seeing through my sham, as she grudgingly got ready for school. Nowadays when I read articles about how kids are becoming more and more manipulative, I laugh! Tell me about it, you would be hard pressed to find a kid half as scheming as me!

Mom and sis off to school, while Dad leaves for office at 9'o'clock. So what does the sick boy do? He's off his bed in a flash like a wound-up spring, dividing his time between those rarely watched weekday morning cartoons and that video game monster that was crying to be vanquished. Come afternoon, and it's back into bed at about 1'o'clock, 'coz its time for Mom to return, and an appropriately saintly look on my face. In the evening, amidst a storm of protests and rebukes, I pop out of the house cricket bat on my shoulders, grinning in glee. The scam now stands exposed for all to see, but the bird has flown the coop!

The wind of yesteryears

It was the evening of the 25th of May. Engineering was all over but for a little slip of paper in our folders which would say "B. Tech, NIT Kurukshetra". Four years of mismanagement and brutish survival coming to a much awaited end. The hostel was nearly empty as most of my friends left behind their eventful RECK life with hardly a backward glance. I, assuming my usual place amongst the stragglers chose to extend my stay a day longer than my friends had chosen to.

As I sat enjoying my final evening at the "khokha" pondering over a cup of tea, out of the blue, there awoke a powerful wind. The sky darkened with approaching clouds, as they were dragged along by the persistent wind. The dust twirled along with the wind, as though it was drawn to its mournful wail. Walking back to the hostel, I could feel the wind exert itself as it rushed along to get to who knows where. The handful of people who were still in the hostel were all out on the grounds or in their verandahs, responding to some unspoken agreement. They laughed and talked aloud, but only to hide their anxiety for the bitter-sweet bits of their lives that the wind was sweeping away.

The wind howled and slammed its way through the now empty corridors, knocking on the occasional unfastened window. For sure in a couple of months, a new batch would move into the hostel and there would be life once more in that quiet place. But not the same persons that I had spent such precious moments with over the past 4 years, not the same jokes that we had laughed to and not the same fears that we had faced in moments of adversity. The sum of hostel life will probably never change, but the substance surely will, with every new batch. The comfortable pillow of familiarity that the hostel had provided us with was being ripped in to shreds.

The wind was intent on its purpose. Puff out the old, ring in the new! Abandoned posters, neglected clothes, forgotten photographs, all rustled along in a rush to get out of the way, as the circle of our lives turned yet another revolution.

Third time lucky maybe??

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars"
- Oscar Wilde

As far realist quotes go, it's quite difficult to beat this one with its wistful mix of both optimism and pessimism, also none more appropriate for my state of mind right now.

This happens to be my third attempt at starting a regular blog, and I sincerely hope that it does not meet a premature demise like its predecessors. Friends and strangers who may lose their way here, please bear with me. Writing has always been a passion with me, especially during periods like the four year incarceration at REC Kurukshetra, but never an activity which shakes out of the deep-rooted laziness that inhabits me. I'll try to be as regular with posts as I am genetically pre-disposed to be( Sorry for that one, Dad! Must be some mutant genes :) ), and you can hope to see a post a week!

What will I write about? Even I am not too sure. It may be some sappy nostalgic tale out of my childhood or a RECK misadventure, it may be a rant against the sheer monotony of a 9 to 5 job, a travel tale, a story of my menagerie of pets over the years or it may just be an abstract piece about how the rain pitter-pattering outside makes me feel!

This blog is my shrink, my clinic where I cut out out of the straitjacket of an office job, out of the reach of those engineering models, drafts and tolerances that keep me swamped 5 days a week! The metaphorical run through the fields, out to a spectacular view of the sea from a high cliff, with the surf breaking below and the wind in my face.

And as for writers who say that they write only for themselves, well, I ain't one of them. Hope that there will be regular visitors to my blog, and give me the ego-massage :) that'll keep me writing! Comments are what blogs are all about. Criticisms are welcome, even though I don't take to them too kindly and that is why I need them even more. Anger is something that might stir me out of my stupor. Virtual In'k'sanity, the online edition of my rambling thoughts is now in business!