Monday, May 11, 2015

The Tide -- To Take or Not To Take

"There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries."
-- William Shakespeare

To gauge the efficacy of the Indian economy at a given time -- there is nothing as efficient and simple as to count the number of pages in the Ascent (the weekly job portal of the ToI). If the same has increased then the economy has improved. If not, then not. Because with improved conditions, the business houses start recruiting and that's reflected in the increased number of jobs on offer. In the times of the UPA-II, the Ascent degenerated from a thick, separate supplement to a mere 6-page extra inside the main edition itself and that too dealing with mainly teaching jobs.

In the one year of Modi rule, the number of pages of Ascent, alas, have remained the same. That means not many new jobs have been created, nor is there much hope of such creation in the short run. All this have created some amount of frustration, some alarm, in the minds of the common people, many of whom being Modi's staunchest supporters in the 2014 elections.

The main plank on which Modi was elected in 2014 was the belief that he would create jobs; would create conditions that would enable scores of Indians to pull themselves out of poverty, The middle class hoped to have a more competitive job market where he could bargain for a better remuneration. In essence, Jobs was the keyword and remains so, The focus must never deviate from that. All other things, though important, can wait for another day.

I do not doubt in Modiji's sincerity at all.  He is really trying very hard to change the ground situation, and we must allow him to do it in his own way. He has already changed a lot many things in terms of ease of doing business in India, and in many other ways; and he intends to do much more. But being in a minority in the Rajyasabha really does not help at all. It's a big impediment in passing necessary bills and it will take a few more wins in various upcoming state elections to change that.  Needless to say that this will be difficult as the easy states have already been won and the difficult states like Bihar, West Bengal, etc. are now in line. Under the circumstances, a conciliatory tone is the call of the hour. Arrogance and calling names won't simply do. In this light, the recent bonhomie with Mamata has been a very good move.

It is not for nothing that the country is not run by economists but by politicians. An economist sees only one side of the picture and has the luxury of thinking long-term. But a the politician has to assess all sides as he has to win the next election too. He has to see that steps taken towards a golden future do not crush the people  beforehand (for whom the steps have been taken), before the fruits start bearing.

In criticism of Modi, I think the "Minimum Government" thing has been a wrong concept. Neither minimum nor maximum is productive -- optimum should be what one should strive for. For example, starting with a minimal council of ministers was wrong because that overburdened the ministers beyond their capacity. Heaping two important portfolios like Finance and Defence on Jaitley was really a mistake, which resulted in the loss of precious time.

In my view, opportunity does not knock many times on one's door . If a perception sets in, reinforced by ground realities, that other than scams things have not much changed in Modi's time, NDA's winning a second time in 2019 with a majority will be much tougher. And if that happens, it will be really unfortunate for the country.

To stay on course, Modi must tread on his own path but at the same time should not shun the constructive criticism that is coming these days from reasonable people like Sucheta Dalal, T N Ninan, Arun Shourie, Swaminathan A. Aiyar, et al.  After all, paying heed to constructive criticism is a much better option than to listening to pure flattery. Public support is not a given thing and Congress party was taught this lesson not many months ago. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fault Line

Arvind Kejriwal of today replicates Narendra Modi of 2014…someone floating on cloud nine. Both leaders are similar in many ways. Both signify a departure from the age-old rule of the privileged class and that’s why both are equally despised by the Oxbridge-educated elite, though for the time being the latter has sided with AK as a tactical move.

There is not much to fear of the elite unless it is coupled with smugness on the part of the party, the belief of being invincible. Fame and public adulation are transient. The person/party at the top do tend to forget that between the victor and the vanquished lie only a few percentage points of vote share which can evaporate in the small time of a year or two unless a good chunk of what has been promised is delivered or seen to be on the path of being delivered. A make or break time for both the leaders – already started for one and going to start for the other.

A singular aspect of AK and his colleagues are they are easily accessible. To the common man, they are “our own”.  When a fan tries to touch AK’s feet, he feels embarrassed (just like us) and stops the guy from doing so, unlike our known politicians who will haughtily look the other way. Seasoned politicians simply cannot match the AAPians in this respect. MCD is run by the BJP and everyone knows how much corruption takes place there. Delhi’s transport system is horrible. Other than the Metro, the bus service is grossly inadequate – buses simply vanish for the greater part of the day. It compels people to own some sort of a vehicle, whatever be one’s level of income. Neither the Congress nor BJP have ever cared about the city’s bus service. The school/college education? One who have a small kid and have to go through the horror of getting him/her admitted in a school knows very well how deep the corruption runs there. The lady principal of a very famous school is known to personally grab a chunk of the huge donation money that comes the school’s way. About hospitals, even the low-income group has no other option (besides visiting quacks) but to get admitted in a private nursing home. The label of being anarchists really does not cut much ice because anarchism is in the DNA of the north Indian. Any sort of discipline is anathema to him. They even cannot stand properly in a straight, orderly queue at the milk booth or at the cinema ticket counter. Just observe them at public places – at metro coaches, in the malls, on the flight of stairs or escalators, and inside the lifts, and you will yourself know. “Anarchism? Well, say that again?”

Somebody well said that Delhi BJP resembles more a bunch of real estate agents than politicians. And politically inept too – they totally rely on Modi to rescue them when the battle begins. And the fact is that the 35% or so of the vote share that they get these days is mostly due this one man’s popularity.

I have mixed feelings about AK’s possible win. We will see some good action on the corruption front, particularly at the lower level. But in the long run, since corruption happens due to discretionary powers in the hands of some people, if that power is not taken away or reduced (through the reduction of the need of clearances at various levels and through more and more of privatization) then the present prescription of AAP (sting operations) will sooner than later turn into blackmailing tools. Also, proving 20k litres of free water is a totally regressive policy in a water-scarce region like Delhi. In fact, any type of freebies (except, perhaps, subsidized education and health) is a bad policy. And the biggest horror will be the Mohalla Sabhas. Endless bickering and politicking, catfights, us/them, lots of corruption and whatnot will ensue from it! We have seen it in West Bengal during the left rule where even family discords and petty thefts had had to be taken to the local party office and not to the police station for resolution (the same tradition continues in the TMC rule, perhaps in an even cruder manner).

AK is clever. He will find ways to put the blame on the centre. But know what? Yeh jo public hai na, yeh sab janti hai!

Coming back to the predicaments of BJP, their real test will lie in deliverance. As of now, it is mostly hope that we see, and also trust in Modi’s intention and capability. But Delhi election will dent that. Subramanian Swamy has very recently tweeted that important people in the party are discussing about the need of course correction. Hope that does not translate into going back to the cultural right abandoning the path of the economic right. This will be suicidal not only for the party but also for the country. In a heavily-skewed-towards-the-left country like India, there is even a greater need of an intellectual atmosphere where the economic right can grow, and the only party that can give that breathing space is the BJP. For the cultural right, I want to remind what Swami Vivekananda said – let the people set aside religion for at least 50 years and devote themselves fully to achieve material growth.

BJP came to power on the main plank of creating jobs, to uplift people from poverty through proper and productive employment, unlike NAREGA. Modi hits the nail squarely on its head when he says that for all diseases the only (and common) cure is development. People like Piyush Goel is doing a lot in that direction. Power plants have better stocks of coal now. In my native area, a broad gauge railway line is being laid through hills and jungles where the progress in the last six months is much more than what happened in the last 18 years. These things remain unreported, such is the bias of the media.

But there is also a feeling that Modi avers going the full hog. It seems like initially he believed that mere administrative reforms like ensuring punctuality at government offices and empowering the bureaucracy will alone be able to bring the goods home. When that did not fully happen, he brought experts like Arvind Panagariya on board. But the decision was unnecessarily delayed, that’s how I feel. The labour reforms are also peripheral so far. PM's website wher people are supposed to give their feedback/suggestions also does not function properly (I could not log in when I tried), and most of the various websites are as laggards and no-performers as they used to be during the UPA days. Let me give one example from the time of Sheila Dikshit’s reign. After the Nirbhaya gangrape and murder incident, a 24-our women’s helpline was established with much fanfare. But there was a glitch. when one tried to contact it, it simply went on playing a musical tune (as happens with all the customer care numbers) endlessly, and even if someone became successful in connecting, after say 5-10 minutes, she were simply advised to lodge a complaint at the local police station! Apparently, nobody, including Sheila-ji, ever bothered to check if the number really worked! They simply had to dial it for once to know. But she would, I suppose, find it below her dignity. I suspect the same happens now with the too. The test of the pudding is in its eating and the test of the job creation effort is in the increase in the number of pages of the weekly Ascent of the ToI which is not yet happening.

Media management is a big failure as here are the people who plays a big role in creating positive or negative perceptions of a person or a party in the public mindscape. Modi/BJP have been pariahs in the eyes of the mainstream media for a long time and this is why the natural reaction is to view these media guys with extreme suspicion. I have seen some some recent  tweets blaming Jaitley for cozying up to the lot of NDTV, Rajdeep Sardesai, etc. Well, fine, but have you guys been able to create an alternate space in the MSM so far? Except perhaps Swarajyamag? Domination in the social media alone will not do, which, in any case, is going to be emulated and even surpassed by rivals like AAP. SM is more an indicator of public thinking than a source of regular news. Tolerance of the media, however contrary their view may be, and finally turning them around, is a hard necessity that BJP supporters must learn. Let the left-Congress leaning media be there, and in the meantime bring up your own media.

BJP must introspect, not only for the reverses in Delhi but also for the not-so-good performances in the local body elections in many states. Winning states (what Amit Shah is doing) is also very important as otherwise Rajyasabha will be in the hands of the opposition which will block every reform. In fact blocking of important bills in the RS is one of the biggest impediments to many largescale reforms.

It is an absolute fact that Modi and his team of ministers, and maybe some hapless babus too, are burning their midnight oil for the sake of the country and doing a lot. Non-performers are being punished, even shown the door. But what happens away from the sight of the boss? At the local level? BJP functionaries elected to the state assemblies and municipalities and panchayats are much worse than their Congress counterparts. They simply vanish after winning in Modi’s name. Why Can’t Amit Shah punish them? Some point that is being overlooked to own peril?

Lastly, the leader also must not be above scrutiny. At present the person of Modi is getting the full PR cover, not the good work he and his team is doing. This must reverse. Plus, the mistake of self-name-monogrammed pinstripe must not be repeated – this is something coarse and creates a poor perception in people’s mind (perception is very important for a public figure). Even if it was a gift from an admirer and not a 10-lakh item as is being projected, it should have been refused – such tendencies on the part of admirers should nipped in the bud. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Effectively Reduce Corruption -- My Take

Whenever I think of corruption, I remember Ajay. I came to know him around 2003-2003. He was a young commerce graduate and worked as a support staff (people who type letters and carry out other computer-based work, maintains files, things like that) in our organisation on a temporary basis. Such graduates came dime a dozen, but he was hardworking and – well, this perplexed me a lot – though surrounded by a bevy of good-looking young girls (colleagues) never seemed to pay any additional attention to them.

I was quite friendly with him. One day, during one of our daily chit-chats, I asked him what his ambition in life was. The answer he gave was quite unexpected. “Sir, I want to make money, lots of it”, he said, matter-of-factly. It seemed that to him, making ‘money’ was the only thing that really mattered, other things came as secondary to it. At that time it appeared to me that here was a person who will not hesitate to take up a job which entailed taking bribes.

I happened to follow his career with interest. I am very happy to say here that he proved me completely wrong. It’s true that he made a lot of money in the following years, but every penny of that was above board.

Let me talk about the career steps he took. Firstly, he did his MBA through an evening course. After completing it, or perhaps in the midstream of it, he switched over to a big foreign company that worked as our contractor. In a few years, through hard work and intelligent application, he rose through its ranks. Later he made a few more intelligent switches, and is now very comfortably placed in a foreign company. So here was a boy who, in my opinion, had every chance of turning into a corrupt person but did not do so. And did this without failing to achieve his goal.

This was possible only due to the opening up, albeit partial, of the Indian economy a decade earlier, in 1991 to be precise, which was started by our the then PM P V Narasimha Rao. Though the process of liberalization has progressed mostly on tottering and hesitant steps till now, it still has succeeded in opening up a lot many fresh avenues, at least in the big cities like Delhi or Bangalore, for the promising youth of the country – where one can work in the highly professional and technology-oriented atmosphere brought by the international firms, where one can earn money without slipping down the path of dishonesty. In other words, this gave a chance to earn money, enjoy professional satisfaction, yet remain honest.

As I see it, this is the best way to, and the major part of, lessening corruption. The path is to create ample opportunities, and to make it easy for people to grab those opportunities. Unfortunately we are from a country where people have long been shackled with heavy iron balls to their ankles but expected to run (or walk). At the same time, we are lucky to be from a country where despite all the obstacles, people are still raring to go, where people are becoming more and more aspirational.

The next part in removing corruption is also important, the one which Arvind Kejriwal advocates. That of catching a thief, or putting it more seriously, the police-legal side of it. People also need to be afraid of the punishment that will come down upon them for being corrupt. For that, sting operations are only a small part. But probably an unwelcome option in the long run because it takes away this duty from the police to the mob. Or perhaps it will just shift the corruption from the local constable to the hidden camera-wielding member of the public. The real answer is largescale police reforms (as far as I know, a body of work prepared by Parkash Singh already exists but states do not want to implement it as it will diminish their control over the police force) and judicial reforms are necessary for that. Also, the need of the hour is to simplify the administrative procedure (at present, for doing any thing under the Sun, you need to go through the process of filling up myriad forms and too may officials have discretionary power over you). But who will bell the cat?

Saturday, April 6, 2013

My Trysts with Poetry -- The Curtain Falls

At this stage of my narration I feel a bit like the trickster who, after promising hefty returns, has delivered very little in terms of real money and is actively toying with the idea of turning tail unless he can quickly pull a rabbit out of his hat. That some life can still be brought back into my story by importing a girl or girls at this juncture is a fact I am acutely aware of. The only hitch is that none of the girls we were actively pursuing at that phase were even remotely connected with poetry. Read a few lines of verses to them and unless you have taken precautions of sealing all the escape routes, they would perform the fastest vanishing trick you have ever seen in your life, something to leave even the great Houdini mystified.

Why not just stick to the originally intended course, a little bird whispers in my ear. You began with poetry, or rather with your close encounters with it, then why this veering-sheering? Well, something in that.

The sixties and seventies was the period of the rebels throughout the world. The literary-political landscape of Bengal was not untouched… it saw the rise of a bunch of powerful, masculine, yet romantic poets like Sunil Gangopadhyay, Shakti Chattopadhyay, Tarapada Roy, Benoy Mazumdar, and many more… poets who in their youthful arrogance declared their arrival: Amra shashon kori raat-er Kolkata (we rule the nights of Calcutta). Breaking the shackles of Tagorean style of poetry, a process that started with the likes of Buddhadeb Basu, Jibananada Das, et al (surprisingly, this happened with Tagore’s own encouragement and blessings), thus came the full circle.

Memory and history both being my weak points, I feel uncomfortable and apologetic about my above facts. However, the main purpose of this being to give an idea of those tumultuous days, I hope I have managed to build the perspective right.

Personally I have always preferred Jibanananda above all the poets so far as pleasure of reading poetry is concerned (even above Tagore), him being the only poet perhaps with whom I could spend, unforced and with pleasure, a few whispering and leisurely summer afternoons, with a pillow under my chest.

To come back to the period I was talking about, poetry perhaps had never had it so good. Poets sprouted in such great numbers at every nook and corner that poet Shakti Chatto had to exclaim in his exasperation: Eto kobi keno? (why so many poets?)… had to admonish too, by cautioning: Shokolei kobi noy keu keu kobi (all are not poets, some are) – clearly laying the rule that it has to come from within, that there is a difference between art and craft, between creativity and skilled labour.

I learnt a few things about poetry at this time, mostly from my friend B and teacher B’babu. One, that antya-mil or mitraakshar – the craft of ending lines with similar sounds -- was not a necessity for all sorts of poem… rather it may be an impediment most of the times in expressing one’s thoughts. Secondly, chhondo, or rhythm (as taal in music, but not as rigid), though is something without which poetry won’t stand on its own feet. In other words, unrhymed yet rhythmic (amitraakshar chhondo) poetry will be great, but the opposite is usually a disaster.

These points are debatable, I know it. Why your failed poet cites all this hocus-pocus, you may ask. All this is just to make the point that armed with so much theoretical knowledge and with own attention divided between two girls, my condition was, as the condition of anybody in such situation would be, quite vulnerable.

Let me pitchfork and airdrop X and Y right here. X was lithe, Y buxom. Both from our area, both our good friends. We, the boys, lusted after both of them, collectively, without any friction between us. Collectively, yes, but my uniqueness perhaps expressed itself in the way I compartmentalised my attraction for each of them. X had been my romantic spot, Y, strictly set aside! Being a puritan deep down, the former of the sentiments was, needless to say, perceived to be something on a higher plane. Perhaps such compartmentalization was purely my own creation, as there was not much difference between them in real terms. Predator is the word by which you would like to describe them. Lured by the deadly duo who obviously had laid their eyes on much higher preys, who conceded but only stints of flirts with us in the way of pure time-pass, taking refuge in daydreaming and songs, and even in poetry when undone with a high fever… well, what else could I have done!

Our ancestors being Mukhopadhyays, one would think music would naturally come my way; that songs would naturally dangle from my lips. Dangled it for certain, but without, well, the accessory called tune. Each time I tried to haul it to a little bit upwards, I mean to attempt to sing in a higher pitch, the blasted thing just cracked! Even when playing in my comfort zone, the truant tunes slipped like a slippery fish! My bathroom songs, however, managed to reach the intended person, meaning X, and many a times she would also acknowledge this. Oh, I today heard you singing. Her ending after that abruptly would leave me foggy if my crooning had the desired affect on her, if it softened her wee bit; or the Tagore-Shome joint effort came a cropper. The only person who on some days complimented me on my extraordinary efforts at bathroom-singing, without being aware of its purpose of course, was my Mother; this too happened only on days when I picked up the “Duniya mein, ahah ha ahah ha, logon ko, ahah ha ahah ha” of RD Burman for my practice.

Some time in this period, probably on a bad-voice or X-less day, feeling gloomy and hopeless, I delved my hand into poetry after years. The funny part is that what I wrote or on which part of the day, under what atmospheric conditions, wind blowing which way, under what mood – in cloud nine or in utter gloom, etc, etc, were the lines written, a sheet filled with lines unrhymed and in faltering rhythm – I can hardly remember. A vague recollection of not having my heart into it, though, lingers. And with the sheet in hand, I showed it to B.

Apprehensive is the word that would rightly describe me of that day when with a thumping heart I spread the sheet in front of B. "Please offer your honest, on-your-face opinion on it," -- I pleaded him.

B had a hard look at it. “Well, as you seek my honest opinion, I’d say, or rather would have to say , that it is not a poem at all. And the reasons are, …” and then he went on listing there I went wrong, something I don’t remember at all after so many years.

I was flabbergasted, and that will be an understatement. But deep down somewhere, I felt relieved too. The relief that comes from moving out of a mismatched alliance.

After that day, I never had to write a poem again. Wrote a few short stories for college magazines, and after that, other than writing letters to relatives, friends and girlfriend, have been solely at your service, here in Blogger!

B is now highly placed with a PSU. He has expectedly turned into a fine poet and is regularly invited to preside over kavi-sammelans in far-flung areas. He still speaks in a dialect or style only poets are known to use… laced with words and syntax you would hardly find a commoner using in his speech. Hardly matters except in the way of providing us with some additional entertainment, behind his back, of course! What really counts is that to this day he remains one of my best friends.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

My Trysts with Poetry -- Part 2 (not concluded yet ;)

Between that squally afternoon and the fateful day that saw the poetic door slammed decisively on my face, eight years’ worth of swirling water had flown down our local river during the passage of which I grew from a wonderstruck boy of eight to an even more wonderstruck adolescent of sixteen. The objects of wonder, naturally, had shifted quite a bit in the meantime.

There is never any dearth of objects or incidents to engage the mind of a boy in his formative years, more so if that mind is overactive with imagination. In the first part of those eight years -- the part that was spent in school -- of the many things that occupied my life, a considerable ripple was generated when some teachers of our vernacular school suddenly felt the need of bringing out a yearly magazine under the combined tutelage of Bimalbabu and Prasunbabu -- our Bengali teachers -- apparently without any provocation. To dispel any misgivings that my previous sentence may create, I’d rather state here that I don’t bear any ill will towards the aforesaid teachers – after all Bimalbabu was not only a writer of considerable fame in the local literally circle and hence coveted, he was also the very person who carefully chose each and every book that I received at the annual school prize events. The cause of my consternation stems from another fact which will come out from the next few lines.

Since any school magazine worth its salt requires, besides a suitable name, also an Editor, that too from the student community, I was soon cajoled and coerced into the unenviable job, in a manner quite akin to taking an unwilling horse to water. But would it yield to drink, would it bite the bait? Well, terms and conditions apply. In my case, the terms were more or less in this line: I’d remain the Editor more or less on paper; the selection of write-ups that would finally find place on the pages of the magazine would be carried out by B’babu, whereas the printing part would be looked after by P’babu; my only contribution would be to write an article/poem/story, and also the Editorial if I so desired – otherwise that too would be ghost-written by… who else?

Meanwhile our school closed for the annual summer vacation, which used to span for a whole month in those happy times. As was customary with us, we left for Shillong, to spend the holidays at our grandfather’s place in the cool climes of the hills. The mornings filled with the scent of pine needles while I explored the forest nearby, the sights and sounds of water-falls and meandering streams which we visited on the weekends, the hustle ad bustle of Police Bazaar where we spent the evenings, the taste-buds constantly satiated with Hilsa and other assorted fishes cooked divinely by the Mother’s sisters, the nights under the quilts with extra warmth emanating from the cats slumbering heavily on our chests while a strong wind moaned through the tall eucalyptus and pine trees outside for the whole night – and you get a general idea of the idle contentment that pervaded our lives. Add to it the whiff of burnt petrol that occasionally seeped into the rain-washed, crisp air of the hills, and the picture of heavenly bliss gets complete. Amidst such contentment, how can a story or poem be churned out? I did not even try it. Creativity, after all, spurts out of a blockage, of a sense of un-fulfillment, and not from the opposite of it. Furthermore, the floor, though wooden, was too cool to roll on, an activity considered essential in any writer’s life.

I needed all the cold floors of the world to roll on when we eventually returned home at the end of the vacation, as I was yet to perform my only remaining duty towards the magazine (the Editorial piece had also been ghost-written by that time) – that of submitting my piece – and time was fast running out. However, though my rolls on the floor created a pool of considerable size on the floor with sweat, it did not help me at all to come out with a story. Not even a ghost story – the easiest of the lot. Finally, I settled for poetry. For a suitable topic, I looked around.

A framed, full-length, dhoti-clad picture of Subhas Chandra Bose hung nearby. Inspiration struck my struggling self like lightning. People in that era still talked and wrote about heroes outside the Nehru-Gandhi family. Those names and their heroic deeds still sent shivers down the spine of children and a sense of missing something ran through their idealistic hearts for not being born in the pre-independence era. But I digress. To sum it up, with just a few rolls on the floor and with very little acts of chewing the end of the pencil, I managed to accomplish the seemingly unassailable task of producing a poem – sort of a sonnet written in praise of Netaji.
The days drew into months, the months into years. In the meantime inches had been added to our stature, and while B had reached the eleventh standard and moved to college, I too reached my tenth, close on his heels, being junior just by a year. Not just friends from the same neighbourhood who were temperamentally very close, we both wore glasses and were so similar in appearances that on innumerable occasions I got earfuls from his nearsighted grandmother for commission of acts undesirable in her eyes (like fishing out a dirty ball of the gutter with bare hands) that were actually committed by him, and vice versa. B was a very good student, who by that time also got heavily into poetry. My interests lay more in prose and by then I could discern the writer of a particular piece just by reading a few lines from any place at random.  But since B followed poetry, I too tried my best to inculcate some of poetry into my system. B used to get his lessons from the renowned poets of the town while I mostly learnt second-hand from him. Sometimes I also visited Bimalbabu of whom I have already mentioned.


(Too long already… more next time)

My Trysts with Poetry -- Part 1

The first complete sentence that gurgled out of my lips in my infancy was, as is well known in the close family circle, in verses. This information, of course, do not find place in my own recollection. I was too young to remember those fateful moments. Nevertheless, the account can be held as authentic as it’s coming out of the horse’s mouth since it did the next best thing – it came out of the horse’s mother’s mouth.

That sentence, lest my biographers fail to notice this aspect, also clearly indicated my unambiguous choice of place in the food chain, that is, at the top, to which I stick unwaveringly to this day of going to press. The morning had shown the day, and the day remained faithful to that promise.

“Aang maang khaang” – was not merely a child’s prattle; it contained all the emotions –- pathos, yearning, determination, tears -- in short all the things that claw at one’s heart, things that true poetry calls for. Translated into plain Bengali (as Mother obviously had to do), it stood for a more prosaic “Aami mangsho khabo”, or “I shall eat meat.” That such earnest yearning, accompanied with clenched fists and ruddy cheeks, had had to be doused at the earliest, goes without saying.

Poets have always craved for their toothfuls of flesh proper, as is historically and globally well known, regardless of what the vegans and climate-changers would want us to believe, and yours truly was no exception to this rule -- both in his poetic phase and out of it.

Besides love for flesh born in land or in water, the next dearest thing in my line of interest has always been, well, the rains. Another poetic attribute I’d say, and in saying that poets (especially in a hot country like India) have always loved a bit of rains coming his or her way, I do not fear inviting defamation, such is the strength of truth inherent in that proclamation. Besides poets, I have always enjoyed comparing my fetish for rain with a similar trait in the colourful peacock, though the mischievous lot among my friends (and I have quite a lot of them, due to a gigantic lapse on the society’s part to strangle such pests at birth) have equally forcefully dismissed such a pleasant and truthful notion, only to substitute it, in their obnoxious way, with the traits of a less glamorous citizen of the amphibian world. But I do not mind even that. If my friends find some affinity between me and the frog, may that be. The similarity must be between our vocal cords, and not anything else!

Now, where does all this lead to? All this leads my readers, in case you are still with me, to an April’s afternoon, with the season’s first nor’westerly sweeping down upon our small town with full gusto. The wind twisted the tops of the slender betel-nut trees and snapped many of them; half-ripen mangoes were brought down to the ground, as if answering the prayers of the kids. Darkness at noon prevailed, and to turn the show into an even grander one, the sky relentlessly cracked with lightning. I watched this awesome dance of nature from our inner verandah, cozily perched atop a cane chair, as a few wayward hailstone splinters tried to reach my feet. As the wind grew fiercer and hailstones bigger, my poetic urges struggled to find expression. Against such a backdrop, I, a boy of eight then, penned my first comprehensible poem.

As I have often told or written about, I was given an exercise book by Mother to write stories and to draw sketches – in other words to put down on paper the gushes of creativity that so often forms inside the tinny head of a child and eventually dies within, unexpressed. Here, on the very pages of this exercise book, I had first discovered that writing poems in Bengali was not a difficult thing at all. Sentences usually ended with verves, and verves ended with ‘ch’ or ‘chh’ sounds, thus rendering rhyming into child’s play. If you look at it the other way, any attempt to keep one’s lines un-rhymed is well-nigh impossible.

On that tempestuous afternoon, Mother felt awestruck on reading my impulsive output. Mothers go all gaga over things like that, as the mothers among you must be knowing. The Mother of Valmiki, or of poet Kalidas for that matter, I am sure, felt no less elated when their little devils scrambled their respective first poems on.. er.. sheets of bhurja-patra.

Thus began my tottering steps towards a life of part-time poethood, and with an occasional drop here and a sprinkle there, was making a steady progress that would have resulted in a fully-blown poetic phase, unless… but before I disclose the stroke of providence at that juncture, just think of the consequences that would have taken place! My poetic ambitions, uninterrupted, would by now have seen the length and breadth of blogger or facebook being ceaselessly carpet-bombed with 'pomes', sending my friends scurrying for cover at the merest sighting of my name in their inbox.

Well, such horrors would surely have taken place, besides other more horrific happenings I shudder to think of, unless Bapu (one of my best friends of that time and not Gandhiji -- an aspiring poet in his own right) stepped in at the right time to, as the saying goes, stem the rot. 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

This Procession

Yaksha: Kimashcharyam? (What is the strangest thing?)
Yudhishthira: Every moment people are dying all around, yet man thinks he is immortal.

We called her Mini. Mini is a generic name in Bengali for all she-cats, just as Hulo holds for all Toms. We did not feel the need to give her any specific name. One just needed to call her: “Mini Mini . . . tch tch tch . . .aay aay aay”, and within a few seconds our milky-white cat would come running, from wherever she had been – her salt-n-pepper tail held high in anticipation.

She was very pretty, in a motherly fashion. A soft, full, round body, but not plump. With a sweet meow. The face was round, the eyes bluish grey.

She was a real lokkhi cat if there ever was one, but then you might not know what lokkhi means. Lokkhi means goodness, contentment and right conduct -- all these things personified, just what you would expect from the goddess Lakshmi. Lokkhi chhele (good boy), lokkhi meye (good girl), like that . . .  Unlike the other cats we had at various times, Mini never displayed that catlike urge to stealthily grab a piece of fish or mutton from our plates and run away. She would take her usual place by the right side of Father and wait patiently –– until Father would reward her with a morsel or two. The picture is still vivid in my mind’s eyes the way Mini would take up a very tidy posture at the time of eating. There was nothing cumbersome or disorderly in her manner. The tail nicely tucked to one side of her body, the arms and legs drawn closer, the pink tongue vigorously active. We were lucky to have her among us.

Have you ever seen a cat sitting guard over fish that has just been brought from the market? Mini would do just that. Mother would just had to admonish her: “Mini, I am going for a few moments, don’t touch the fish in the bowl”, and Mini will silently consent.

Mini had nothing of the arrogance and aloofness that is so typical of cats, even of the pet ones. One would not often find her walking over the wooden rafters of the roof and looking down at us disdainfully. Even when she took that walk over the rafters, she did it with the express purpose of chasing a mouse, or shifting her cubs to a safer place.

Shifting her cubs was one thing she had to do often. But before I tell you more about that, I must add that I was between five to eight years old at the period when Mini graced our lives by her company. Now, coming back to the point, Mini’s laying cubs was a big occasion in the house. Either Mother would discover this and tell us, or it was the other way round. For a kid like me, it was every time a novelty when after waking up in the morning the first thing that entered my ears was the soft meow of the kittens. It was a matter of minutes to find where the mother kept the kittens. My greatest urge was to touch and pick up one or two of the cubs, primarily to investigate if like all the other kittens, this lot too had their eyes shut (they take a few days to open up, you know). Mini was so good that she would even allow us handling her cubs to a certain extent, and that was quite a big concession considering the aggressive protectiveness that is intrinsic of all cat-moms nursing their newborn cubs. But mind I said ‘to a certain extent’. Even our Mini had a limit of tolerance, and when we crossed that, she would shift the cubs to another secret place.

The main reason for shifting cubs frequently, of course, lay elsewhere. There were many tomcats in the vicinity and that was a real danger. Now you know, nature has ordained the male cats to seek to kill the newborn cubs – a cruel but universal phenomenon. Thus the initial days of the cubs’ lives are very demanding on the mother – she has to protect, feed, train and discipline them, and at the same time also manage to sneak away for a few minutes to feed herself.

There was this guava tree I must mention here, otherwise my story will not be complete. It grew just by our puja room and I had spent, along with my friends, a considerable part of my childhood atop this tree. It was also a favourite spot for Mini to sharpen her claws. From top to bottom of the trunk, the bark was covered with scratch marks made by her.

Inconspicuous to us, Mini was getting old. She lost some weight and her gait was not so easy. She would prefer to lie most of time in the sun and ate less. Mother told us that twelve was a good age for a cat to live, and perhaps it was time she would die. When a cat dies, she usually tries to move afar from the house where she has spent her years. This is quite a mystery. But before this was to take place, something else happened which still sits like a stone on my chest and perhaps is the reason for writing this story here.

It was an autumn evening. The days had become considerably shorter and our playtime in the evening too had shortened. I had just returned home at dusk and after washing had heard a rustling sound in the darkness coming from the guava tree. Were a flock of parrots destroying the fruits – something that should be prevented? I walked to the tree; nothing could be seen in the darkness. I gently shook the tree and it swayed. More rustling sound from up there, as if something was struggling to keep its hold. I shook more vigorously. A white something fell from the height of about ten feet on to the disused wooden table that was lying just beneath the tree. Oh God, it was Mini! I fervently hoped nothing would happen to her. After all a fall of just ten feet is nothing to a cat, isn’t it? Mother and sister rushed our hearing my scream. Everybody was anxious, on the verge of crying. Mini was not able to move much. Mother brought some water and fed her with a spoon. Mini was leaving us. She was going to heaven where her place was sure to be.

In a couple of minutes Mini died. Her death came holding these very hands of mine, someone who loved her so much. To this day I cannot fully make peace with that. This blog, perhaps, is an attempt towards atonement?

It was my first acquaintance with death in all its starkness. Someone, with us just a few moments back, and now, gone, forever. The eternal procession – neither with a beginning nor with an end – had displayed at that very moment a glimpse of itself to me, but I was perhaps too young to fathom that. Later, as I grew older and encountered more deaths, the more the turmoil I felt on each occasion. Now, at 53, it strikes with great force every day that some time, unobtrusively, I too have become a fellow traveller in this procession!