Capital Letters IV: O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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.

Capital Letters II: Hometown Rumination

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.

Capital Letters I: Auto-Immunisation

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?