Category: Writing


"Are my methods unsound?"

As kids, the three of us – Dibyajyoti, Joy, and myself – got interested in art both independently and together. Thanks to the lack of computers and cable television in our school days, drawing and painting were pastimes we indulged freely in. Dibyo was the most accomplished artist among us then, with surprising control over poster colour (no mean feat at that age) and winning a lot of medals both for our school and his neighbourhood club. He was also the only one among us to promote himself to oil painting, aided by a box of Winsor & Newton oil colours gifted by an NRI relative of his. Joy and I, on the other hand, were more into pop culture. Our interests ranged from comics to thrillers, from cartoons to mysteries, from superheroes to dinosaurs (it should not come as a surprise that we even co-wrote a detective story in Class V). Many a heat-shimmering summer afternoon were spent at either of our places, crawling over the floor on all fours, experimenting with cheap markers and drawing inks on cheaper art paper (corners weighed down with Rabindra Rachanaboli). The amateurish results were sometimes photocopied (a novelty in those days) with our pocket money to get a sleek, ‘printed’ feel. Incidentally, a side-effect to all these endeavours was that all three of us excelled in Geography and Biology lessons.

Then came a day when we discovered ‘The Great Artists’.

To those who don’t know about them, ‘The Great Artists’ is a British series of books on famous European and American painters (with an expected bias towards those from the island nation), 96 in number and affordable for the quality, that sparked the interest in art (and offered the attraction of sneaking a peek at luscious painted boobs) to many of our middle-class peers. When we started buying them, the price was 10/-. It never went past 30/-. The amount of lucid information and the well-chosen gallery of art packed in the 20-odd pages of each issue was astonishing. In no time we became collectors, picking up titles from book fairs and pavement sellers. Each outing to Esplanade or College Street was a pretext to hunt for the elusive titles – although the highest number of issues was bought from Gol Park and Dover Lane. I don’t know how many issues Dibyo and Joy have managed to collect till now; I have 89 out of the 96 titles, and hope to complete my collection someday (we also had our favourites at that age: Dibyo loved the Impressionists, Joy admired the Classicists, while I was into Baroque and Rococo).

‘The Great Artists’: a great series, and an inspiration that has turned me into a professional illustrator, Joy into an award-winning shutterbug, and Dibyo into a talented hobbyist of landscape painting and photography. Here’s to one of the building blocks of twenty-five years of friendship!

Capital Letters III: The Visitor

I am one of those people who don’t believe in ghosts, and yet wish they were true. My scepticism comes from my impatience towards superstition of all kinds, and from the conviction that every ‘inexplicable’ phenomenon can be rationalised by common sense. That said and done, I am a lover of the unknown. I like ghost stories, horror films, cryptozoology, unsolved crimes, urban legends, and conspiracy theories. And I am partial to sunny days rather than dark and stormy nights when it comes to the right moment for supernatural manifestations, because there’s something intrinsically eerie about a quiet afternoon that gets under one’s skin the way nights – when one is invariably on one’s guard – do not. I also harbour a strong wish to spend a night (or maybe an afternoon) in a haunted house. But to my regret, so far I have not been able to be in one of those situations that people recount to entertain each other in parties and gatherings; the sort of experience that starts with “There was this time I was alone in this house/apartment/PG/hostel…” and very soon betrays its roots to some famous story or other.

That is, until now.

It happened last Saturday. I was in my bed, sleepily trying to find out what was it that had woken me up at 6:30 in the morning. I was alone in the quiet second floor apartment, but I had indulged in my usual habit of shutting (but not locking) my bedroom door. When I realised that the cause of my interrupted slumber was a series of rapid knocks, my first thought was that they have been made on this door by our maid, wishing to gain admittance to clean the room. I mumbled out a “Come in!” in the relevant direction, and put my head back to the pillow. Several seconds later, I gathered that no one has entered the room. So I reopened my eyes. My second thought was also of the maid; maybe she was knocking at the front door because the key entrusted to her was not working (the front door lock is a bit tricky). It never crossed my mind then that she usually engages the doorbell in such cases. I was simply eager to let her in and get some more sleep. So I got out of bed, stumbled out of the room without my glasses (this would be important later), and lurched my way to the front door. Personally, I am very myopic, and feel quite vulnerable without my glasses. But it being early morning I didn’t bother to waste time by stopping to put them on. So I reached the front door, felt for the door handle, and opened it.

No one was there.

No, not exactly no one. Something moving close to the floor caught my eye. With my blurred vision I could make out a quadruped shape going silently down the stairs. It might have been a dog, but there was something off about the body language; it was more like that of a monkey or a human child, walking unaccustomedly on all fours. Halfway down the stairs, it stopped and looked back at me; or so I felt. Then it resumed its descent, and vanished around the corner. It was only then that I realised the hair on my neck and arms was raised, and my heart was thudding madly against my ribcage. I locked the door, went back to bed, and mercifully, fell asleep almost at once. I woke up a few hours later, and found out that the maid hasn’t come after all.

I’m not a Calcutta hater yet. But I’m not a Calcutta lover anymore, either. Reports of recent incidents from my hometown have started nurturing a conviction in me for quite some time that from a supposedly liberal metropolis (more of a myth than a reality, but we’ll come back to that later) it has turned into a myopic provincial town, currently lorded over by an equally myopic and self-destructive leader.

Before writing off the city as a hopeless case, allow me to look at these events in a socio-cultural light (a task which, I must admit, I’m not academically or professionally trained to perform). Why has Calcutta, like Delhi, become hostile to women? What do these two cities have in common? Two things: massive influx of people from neighbouring areas who were hardly integrated into the main population and were resettled into ghettos with their resentment intact, and a male population that feels threatened by strong-willed, independent women unless they are desexualised into mother or sister figures. This latter point, of course, is a curse of North India in general, but Delhi and Calcutta, being the two largest cities of the region, have always been under the spotlight regarding crimes generating from this hostile mindset.

One of the biggest nostalgic points I’ve heard repeatedly from my fellow Calcuttans is how ‘safe’ everything was before, like a magical example of ideal society. It needs to be observed that most of these reminiscences come from people who have been affluent socio-economically; middle-class at the worst, if not outright rich. And yes, traditionally Calcutta has been safe for these people – precisely because they have always lived in their comfort zones. But what about the other crimes – crimes that cut across socio-economic barriers, crimes that take place behind closed doors, crimes perpetrated by friends, neighbours, relatives, even parents? They are usually forgotten or hushed up, because the stigma and trauma associated with them are too intense to bear.

Which brings me to my second point: the uncomfortable ‘Us v/s Them’ hostility which has always been a major factor behind certain types of crime. Calcutta has seen two major refugee influxes: the post-Partition one of 1947, and the post-Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971. And these days we have become blissfully oblivious to the fact that these people were resettled into unplanned suburban ghettos lacking in basic amenities, only the fortunate being able to buy or rent properties in the city itself. And since our knowledge about these people comes mostly from the writings of a certain group of romantic Bengali authors, we never think of them as anything other than victims. Now, victims they certainly were; but it needs to be remembered that they were also fully-rounded human beings, with their own deep-seated set of values, prejudices and morality. And after the violent uprooting and rehabilitation which shook them to the core, they clung on to these prejudices with an intense defiance to their upper-class exploiters in a desperate attempt to preserve what remained of their ‘identity’. And this is where victims got divided into their internal hierarchies (a leftover from the panchayat days); some victims became more equal than others, so to speak. And those sensibilities – out of step with a 20th century metropolis, as it happens – were nurtured, strengthened and passed on to the next generation even as they became upwardly mobile. As a result, these days we have this curious mixture of affluent, English-educated people whose basic set of values is no different from the people chronicled by Sharatchandra in his cynical novel ‘Pollisomaaj’. The seeds of regression have been dispersed thoroughly and efficiently throughout society, aided and abetted by the equally regressive values practised by the city’s business elite; Calcutta is now, in effect, an emulsion of patriarchy in concrete towers. One need not go farther than to have a peep at the Matrimonials section of the Sunday edition of a popular Bengali daily to realise that the ghettoisation continues. Coupled with a lack of basic sex education and an innate hostility towards women who dare to be independent and not conform to the ‘caregiver’ stereotype, this has been instrumental in giving rise to wave after wave of men with half-formed sexual fantasies (shaped by popular media, and fomented by their equally clueless peers), permeating every strata, every religion, every locality. The present government is merely giving a hurried stamp of approval upon this intolerance, but it by no means created it; the attitude has been there all along, jostling for space with a different set of values which, I must say, has bitten the dust. There are no more cut-and-dried sets of culprits and victims as depicted by the authors of yesteryear. We’re now a bunch of glass-house dwellers whose favourite medium of communication is pieces of stone.

I came to Delhi last March. One of the recurring horror stories I had heard about the city from before (and had experienced in small doses) was about its auto-rickshaw (tuk-tuk to the Westerners) drivers: their arrogance, their absolute unwillingness to go by the meter, the sheer disregard of the nature of their profession by refusing to go to most places citing the unlikeliest of reasons – you get the drift. Sure enough, after coming here and starting to live like a local (as opposed to a tourist), I started experiencing it first-hand on a regular basis. When I look back at the last seven months, what strikes me most is that I have had only one major fight with one of these people so far – that too over change. But the experiences have been rich: the usual bunch of thugs who can smell your urgency pheromone and overcharge the fare by 20 to 30 Rupees instantly, the friendly young Turk who drives like James Bond while playing Bhangra music at full blast, the avuncular gentleman who discusses politics, inflation and healthy lifestyle while squinting through his thick glasses to navigate the furious Delhi traffic, the rare angel who starts the meter without a word as you board – but mostly it’s the thugs. Now that I have started taking the bus from Hauz Khas metro station on my way back from office, I don’t have to negotiate with them at the end of the day while at my wit’s end; that’s surely a relief. But the mornings are still like hunting for the elusive Greater Kudu: satchel strapped to my back, eyes scanning the horizon for the familiar yellow-green silhouette, trying to guess if it’s occupied (this is a skill in itself, and I’m getting good at it), and finally – if the auto-wallah stops – cajoling or demanding that he charge a fair price. And then slowly a realisation dawned upon me: the auto drivers are there for a purpose. They teach us anger management, to defeat our inner violence, to keep calm and stay on the path. It’s like one of those clichéd training montages of a martial art film: the defiant young protagonist slowly learns to be a detached professional who can focus on the bird’s eye through the chaos. And I started liking them. Without knowing it, they’re giving me more than a ride. They’re letting me make myself a better person; a mature, level-headed, focused person. What’s 20 Rupees more for a lesson like that?

 

 

 

Amoricide

I shall be Carthage
To your Rome
I shall circle you
And bite at the exposed flesh
Let these pillows be our Apennines
And your love for another my Alps

You’re fair, my sweet darkness,
As fair as the first Jewish bomb
On a June afternoon,
Beads of sweat collect on your neck
And you’re dynamite
With every drop obliterating a city

You turn and turn
To watch me,
To keep me in your crosshairs
But why?
Don’t you know that our fate has already been written,
That I am to die away from you, futilely glorious?
For this is our war
And I am Hannibal.

 

 

 

 

 

Flow into me

Like the warm trickle of blood into a knife-cut smile
Like the blue slush of poison into a pink-tinged mouth
Like the fish swirl of semen into an eager woman-cave

These are not the days of wine and roses
The vineyards and the gardens are now army camps
And the bottles have been emptied to make molotov cocktails
All over the world, sunburnt (wo)men have stood up
And are being digitised into geostationary satellites for our grandchildren

These are not the nights of moonlight sonatas
The violins and pianos have been turned into firewood
The sheet music into toilet paper
You can ignore the chaos, but the chaos will not ignore you

But
Once all this has died down
When man will again discover fire on his skin
In the hope of that technolithic future
Flow into me
Like the snake river of the cryptoIndians
On its way to meet the immortal salamander

Flow

 

Into

 

Me

 

 

 

 

 

A man in a gorilla suit
Sits on the edge of the water and sips coffee
While his head sits beside him
Smiling at a stray kitten.

 

 

An ivory-haired musician
Sleeps on the sidewalk
Hoping his snores would attract listeners.

 

 

Five young girls
Bathe their young brother
In monthly blood
And Hamilcar Barca looks on, armoured.

 

 

Flickering televisions on top of the watchtower
Thunder like cannons over the horizon
As samurais from a Kurosawa film walk down the staircase
To come out and massacre the market crowd.

 

 

A couple share a bottle
And a razorblade
Behind them, a horse dreams gently of retirement
And a life in the dormitory.

 

 

Text is everywhere:
Faces, breasts, cunts and dangling scrotums
And even on the plutonium-painted screen
(That is, until the power runs ou

 

 

 

 

 

Baba (my father) and I were in Dhaka, attending a wedding. I don’t know if it was of a relative or a friend; maybe it was of someone we didn’t even know. One doesn’t ask these questions in a dream – because they never get answered.

The building which served as both the wedding venue and the guest house for out-of-towners was huge, almost a castle. Built out of grey stone blocks, it had hundreds of high-ceilinged rooms and miles of labyrinthine corridors. It was not long before I realised that it also served as the headquarters for the local secret police. So, the room next to the bride’s boudoir might very well have a girl hanging by her wrists, naked, from the crossbeams. Or the banquet hall might overlook a chamber where an old man would have his fingernails ripped off and salt (no doubt borrowed from the caterer) gently smeared on the red, raw fingertips by smiling men in sweat-stained uniforms. I also met these men in the corridors, hurrying past with a preoccupied expression on their faces; they never talked. Nor did I.

The house started to suffocate me; the windowpanes were dirty and no sun would come in. the gloom made me restless. Baba and I decided to go out and see the city. We were assigned a guide, one of those nondescript relatives one encounters only at family reunions. He looked a bit like an old photograph of the writer Humayun Ahmed. He was timid and friendly, and eager to show us around. He had an accent that reminded me of stormy nights of my childhood when my cousin and I would curl up in our grandmother’s lap and listen to stories from her teenage in a Bangladesh village (of course, it was India then), all the time watching flashes of lightning filter in through the shutters of the North Calcutta house where she lived with her sons, my mother’s brothers.

This man (I never got to know his name) asked us if we had any specific destination in mind. We were at a bus stop; I had a backpack with my camera, water-bottle, and other knick-knacks in it. Baba had his omnipresent Shantiniketan bag slung over one shoulder.

“Is there a zoo here?” I asked.

“Yes, sir! A very nice one, too. Wait, there’s a bus that goes directly to it.”

A bus came. It looked surprisingly like an Amsterdam tram. Only the doors were open and people were hanging from it. I could never take Baba on this crowded contraption.

“It’s okay, that’s not our bus,” our guide said.

Another one came; this one was reassuringly like a Calcutta bus, with a battered tin body painted blue and yellow lettering on the side. It was equally sardined with people.

“This is it.”

“I’m sorry, I cannot take my father on this bus. How far is the zoo?”

“Oh, just about two stops from here.”

“Then we’ll walk.”

“You’re sure?” (to my father) “You, sir?”

“If my son says we walk, we walk,” Baba said with a smile.

“But the sun is too strong, and…”

“Then we shall walk in the shade,” I said. He didn’t get the joke (not that I expected him to).

We started walking. The streets were wide but without pavements, so we tried to remain as close to the buildings as possible. The traffic was curiously sparse, though, consisting mostly of cycle-rickshaws, and the occasional bus.

After a while, we decided to stop for a cup of tea at a roadside stall. I unstrapped my backpack and relaxed on a weather-beaten wooden bench. The tea came in thumb-smeared glasses, festooned with flies (on the house, I thought, amused). It was as all roadside teas are – stale, bitter, grainy on the tongue. Baba was even more finicky about his tea than me, but he seemed to enjoy it.

Ten minutes. We resumed walking. After a couple of blocks, I suddenly realised I felt lighter.

“Baba…”

“What?”

“I think I’ve left my backpack at the tea stall.”

“Ufff, you’re so scatterbrained! Run back and get it.”

“Shall I go with you, sir?”

“No; you stay here with Baba. I won’t take a minute.”

As I started running back towards the stall, it took me a few seconds to realise that the streets have changed. We did not walk these streets before; but now they were the only ones I could take. They were narrow, shadowy, deserted. Cold.

I came out in a broad avenue; a long shamiyana (like in old Bengali banquets) covered the entire stretch of it on my side. A feast must have ended just now; the ground was littered with plates made of sal leaves, rice grains, broken earthen cups, fish bones and splashes of curry. I kept on running, still under the shamiyana, bordered on both sides with rows of those long folding tables with laminated tops that can seat six at a time.

As I ran, I became aware of other people joining me from both sides. I looked back, and almost screamed. They were a ragtag group of brown, skinny men mostly in tattered lungis or pajamas, bare-bodied; and none of them were complete. One had a hole where his nose should be, another had stumps for arms, while a third had ears and lips missing. What they all had were two working legs, and they kept up with me effortlessly, all the while smiling the rictus grin of the freak.

“Lepers,” I thought. “I’m running with lepers.”

The shamiyana went on, endless, featureless, shadowed, mirroring the corridors of the house where we were staying. The lepers were on all sides of me now. Two of them were on my left; they were looking at my Fabindia kurta. One said to the other, “Expensive stuff, eh?” The other smiled and said, “Would look good on my wife.” I wanted to scream at them, beg them not to kill me, that I’d give them the kurta if they promised to spare my life, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak. Suddenly, I realised that it was my destiny, that I would never get my backpack, that I would never see Baba again, that I had to run like this, run with these lepers, these fleet-footed hounds of diseased defiance, run, run, run till all my blood would erupt from my mouth, and keep on running even then.

 

 

 

 

 

[An actual dream I had on the morning of 10th January 2011, with a little embellishment for dramatic purpose]

Love Died In ’91

Have you seen the multitudes thrive
In inhibited ignominy,
Licking stale blood off each other’s armpits?
No, you haven’t.
You live in a different tier of hell,
Don’t you, dear?
With your cars and your hounds,
The horned butlers
And the iron maidens,
You self-crowned empress,
The whore of Weelzewub.
This is your farm
These are your geese & pigs & calcified eggs
Harvested to be torn apart
And rejoined in a thousand new patterns.

I walk over the eggshells and mongol skulls
Towards your bed.
Your leopard, castrated, painted blue,
Leaps for my throat and chokes on its gold chain.
(I kick the carcass away to reach the final three feet.)

You’re still there: naked, proud, glistening
The Salome of slaughterhouses
Your skin smells of hair
Your hair of skin
Your lips taste of holocaust,
O mistress mine.

The arms open, the breasts sway,
Your nipples – erect – remind me of
Bayonets of riot police from a grainy past
As I, dazed, happy, sad, climb over
On all fours
(My butt thrusting sacrilegiously at your grandfather’s clock)
My chest hair shaved to form your name in the forbidden alphabet.

Your nails tear at my jaw
Your teeth pierce my shaft
You want my fluids, all of them,
As I want yours….. Mother.
Feed me at your breast,
Urinate on my face to wash my sins,
As we blend into each other,
Lost in our coitus fantasticus:
Purgatory,
Sweet purgatory!