Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Once, at this museum in Delhi…

When news of a midnight fire destroying Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History broke, and images of the building’s façade black with soot went viral, I was struck with a strange sense of loss. Strange it seemed, for neither did I grow up in Delhi for my childhood memories to feature trips to this museum, nor was it among the popular places I frequented as a student of Delhi University for five years, and later as a journalist. Why was I sad then? What was it that made me lament the mishap as if the loss of a museum is a personal loss? Was it because it made me remember a visit to another museum, once…

The National Museum, New Delhi, was the first museum my son saw, one afternoon in the month of April. He had just turned two. My husband and I had strapped him in the car and converted an otherwise lazy afternoon into one where we were ‘doing things’ with our bubba. I had teased him for his nine years in Kolkata, which that day proved him a Bengali-parent-type by taking a tot to teach in a museum before the said tot’s molars were out! He in turn had smiled and ventured with conviction how much fun it’ll be. Come on! So I packed a WW III survival kit with finger foods, juice, hat, spare shorts, mosquito repellent cream, wet wipes, water and his favourite book. I knew I would be sitting reading to him in a cool corner, as his father fulfilled his own childhood fantasies, not having got enough of those while growing up with his face shoved inside a museum window in museum land! 

And guess what? The book wasn’t needed at all! 

The feet which climbed the few stairs at the entrance went thappad-thappad, excited just to be climbing. But the steps matured into slower taps once inside. Suddenly, the roof was soooo high, the huge room had more than the usual four walls (one, two, three, four, FIVE, SIX…) and the shiny corridor leading us in was lined with rows of statues. Hello! Are you stone?

Suddenly, there was so much to see! Further and further in and up and up towards the sky. 

The moment we entered the grand building, my son entered his own grander world of imagination seldom disturbed with facts or need to eat or pee. Curious. Quiet. Contained. With his head turning angles to really, poperly see. With his toes taking his weight so inside exhibits he could do peep-peep. With ‘what’s that and that and that?’ the only question, whispered so as not to hear his unnerving echo, and with an enthu-father ready at his service with simplified answers. Enjoying the company of his thoughts he walked. Enjoying his ‘serious’ side we followed like followers. 

He had to see everything, right till the tiniest of artifacts which never before had seen so much attention. And we saw everything too through his eyes, as we looked at him seeing and describing everything in his limited vocabulary but with limitless joy. It is a joy I fondly remember when I think of it. I look at these to remember it…

Those who are remembering their visits to the National Museum of Natural History probably have memories of the place to turn back to in their most boring, idle, happy or lonely times. But no more do they have the same place. A lot of history has been lost in this fire, of course. Objects of immense value, which preserved within them a lifetime of stories, reduced to ashes. And then comes a question...   

When places vanish into clouds of smoke or wars of time, what happens to our personal histories; individual histories created as we live? Isn't it good to believe that even though places of note may be no more, or change faces like our hometowns, or be named anew on a whim, our memories of them cannot be taken from us? They are ours to own, like undocumented, dormant, sometimes silenced but always intimate thoughts which make precious home in our hearts and minds. Those bits which remain inside us till we remain, like unwound movie reels, sometimes forever, and other times flowing before our mind’s eyes in high speed. Triggered into limelight. Woken into remembrance. 

Just like this morning, when I watched one museum burn, I stepped into a different one. That was the first museum my son saw…

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The Speaking Ghost of Rajpur by Priyonkar Dasgupta

I read Priyonkar Dasgupta’s ‘The Speaking Ghost of Rajpur’ while on a vacation in my hometown. The mood was relaxed, the mango blossoms ready and the city noise forgotten. Before I began, the coincidence of ‘Rajpur’ as a shared name of a place between the writer and this reader struck me. But after I read it, I realized there was much else to the novel that anyone who grew up in the 90s, with a gang of friends perpetually looking for adventures (or trouble!) would find enjoyably coincidental! The book is about a shared childhood, ‘a most gigantic wonder and yet one that is everyday’, of five boys who are neither Famous not Fantastic, yet they hook us to their adventures because they are so like us.

The languid unfolding of the many events in the story happens one ‘long, carefree summer with its unending days and windy nights, and its mysterious sounds’ in the small town of Rajpur, ‘neither lonely nor crowded’. If a place could be made a character, then Rajpur would be a fine one! The strong local flavour  Priyonkar endows his tale with gives not just the setting a permanence in the readers’ eyes but often recreates the scenes around our reading chairs. 

Wooden louvered shutters painted green, garages but no cars, Kadamb and Tamarind trees with a droning Ghugu, sports clubs and lazy smokers, ‘Champa’ theatre, weekly markets, mini buses, borrowed cycles, one empty highway with long power lines looping along, the current in them buzzing in the quiet wilderness, an abandoned factory, and at a distance chimneys turning the horizon pink and pungent with smoke, fed by the coal mafia. So lovingly done are the details that by the time the book ends, you have not just been there with Shomu, Cousin Joy and the others but also done what all they end up doing... and undoing.

Nature is present in all its summery details, often acting an ally in the everyday affairs of these youngsters. Add to all this the 90s of Rasna, when ‘everyone had a positive outlook and they welcomed it, watched it on TV and discussed it among friends.

Priyonkar not just transports us to a new town, but he also makes us travel back in time to the era of summer vacations with cousins, video games which ‘were always difficult towards the end’, the dull ‘pitter-patter noise of the Censor Board certificate’ in a ramshackle hall, red and white packets of forbidden cigarettes and exotic magazines with golden-haired women, cold wet glass bottles of Cola shared in fairs, sun-mica covered restaurant tables and the Bengali Miss Universe. The 90s come alive! While this aspect of the book may not pull towards the depths of nostalgia those who knew not those times, it will make readers from other times know why some of us still wax lyrical about ours!

Girls are conspicuous with their thin presence in ‘The Speaking Ghost of Rajpur’. I would have loved to see Anjana in her purple frock riding alongside the boys, off to discover the ghost in the abandoned factory or eating ripe mangoes in the orchard, after setting them on fire. But I stopped minding my kind missing from being in the inner circle of boys when I saw the notable portrayal of boyhood, undisturbed in all its hues of friendship and betrayal, adventure and cowardice, in Priyonkar’s novel. Why is it notable? Because while it is real enough to make you say ‘Yes, boys are like that only!’ you would hardly find it typical. The things they do, and how, makes the story of the book unique and even endows each character with a personality, no matter how small (or shady) the appearance!

It was enough that we existed and that we were happy.’ Which they are mostly, boasting of imagined skills or proving a point, making animated descriptions of brave fights or hoping the other would ‘pull the brakes’ sneaking into a deadly tantric’s house! Many lies are born in moments of machismo and many moments lived by ‘sitting like two accomplished monkeys’ atop a bus, or near a girl. Jhalmuri-sellers are like family, the drunk jilted lover always a friend and the (ghost) ‘seeing-type of person’ the centre of attention on stormy nights.  

But being a boy is not all fun and games, right? There is the other side, the one that comes at the cusp of adulthood, standing torn between a playground and porn. The narrator, the youngest boy Shoumo, longs to be taller, ‘to be a part of their so-called team’, often lost, say trying to decipher what ‘never without a parachute’ could mean. We are privy to his innermost fears and fondness, because he talks to us, taking us along on his various trips inwards where all his boyish thoughts lie. Or the not so boyish ones, for example, how can cops be bad? They are supposed to be good? Aren’t they? ‘Everyone looked confused. What Tonu said not only did not fit into the well-founded ideas about the world we had lived with and been told and taught but somewhere, deep down, it also made us feel a strange thing such as we had never known before: the illimitable pain of desertion and betrayal.

While we feel close to Shoumo, who befriends us as he takes us along, all other characters also come through as flesh, sweat and dirty knees. Priyonkar has endowed each with a different personality, and Cousin Joy with ‘that peculiar way of making the most unexpected suggestions in the unlikeliest of situations … that made him an incorrigible rascal, who poked his nose in almost anything and everything in search of some intrigue.’ A desi Tom Sawyer? Not there yet but in the making, no doubt.

It is the bunch of boys, with the narrator at the helm, who steer the story of this novel forward just as they please and when they please. In keeping with how children talk, there is a lot of story-telling within the main story-telling and the reader is led into a space where she doesn’t know real from imagined, true from false. (Clever Priyonkar!) This helps keep the mystery, or rather some mystery or the other, alive throughout the book. 

Now, the mystery of the ‘speaking ghost’ is not the most constant and compelling thread, as the title may suggest. It gains prominence only in the climax. But that hardly matters now because these kids were creating suspense throughout, with madmen and talking skulls, each idea as serious as the previous one and yet nothing compared to the one that comes next. While they are doing it to add spice to their summer vacation, they have the reader’s full attention too. Ask them ‘How did you know?’ and one would say ‘I didn’t. It just came to my mind.’ What all? That I won’t tell! Except, that most days end with the thought ‘there is nothing more we could do to solve the mystery of that night, if there really had been one.’ 

The reader is completely involved, wondering alongside, throughout. This, despite the iffy bits in ‘The Speaking Ghost of Rajpur’. Iffy bits?

Sometimes, the narrator doesn’t sound like a child. While all the adventure and discoveries make this character grow, in some places it is the mature author’s voice which comes through, sitting on a philosophical note. That perfect separation between an adult writer and his child character fails Priyonkar a few times. In some places Priyonkar’s efforts to explain the mysterious events far exceed the need. Readers will join the dots without help. I also felt that the final scene of action in the factory falls short in that the characters don’t express enough terror and seem oddly calm (and too mature!) in so deadly a situation. I also wish the book was better edited, with clear paragraphs. 

Even if the last bit of the book disappointed me, I enjoyed reading ‘The Speaking Ghost of Rajpur’. I find myself wishing for more such books from Indian authors. Am I saying it because context affects reaction to a book (There’s a thought!) and I was sitting on a real Rajpur Road, steeped in nostalgia in a place where I made my own adventures? No. Priyonkar’s book is lovely for it makes you live those days when your ‘dreams were still real and we knew, not the ones which slip away the moment before things turn real.’ It makes you realize that there’s ‘a story behind everything’ and it makes you yearn to get up and create a vacation’s worth of adventure around it. You might just itch to tell stories of your own, knowing ‘one must add a little spice, you know or they take it too easy’.

A fun read!

'The Speaking Ghost of Rajpur' by Priyonkar Dasgupta is a Thought Balloon Books publication, 2012, second edition 2015.

[Review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]

Friday, 1 April 2016

Belonging to the Middle Class

I don’t know what being a part of the middle class in a statistical sense means. I think it has got something to do with economics, sociology, demography, perhaps history with government policies, subsidies and electoral speeches thrown in. I leave the division of the pie chart to those who know their numbers. I don’t. 

What I do know, totally personally, is what belonging to the middle class is all about. And that is the pie I’d like to talk about!

In the days of Chitrahaar and Krishi Darshan on Doordarshan (let’s say late 1980s, give or take a few ‘rukawat key liye kheyd hai’) we all seemed to be living very similar lives, where class as a label or a designer handbag was never important enough to be acknowledged. We didn’t even know what class was! It was only when a handful of oldies got together at the chowk to discuss the latest budget would we kids hear ‘where will us middle class folks go?’ Of course, the moment we over-indulged by buying a Chocobar instead of an icy Cola Bar we would be frowned upon by prying aunties - ‘Look how our middle class youngsters indulge these days!’  That didn’t really help to explain middle class to us imps, except hinting to us that none of the 23 rusty trunks in the house, with at least one turned into a settee, carried gold bricks. Money was precious. Chocobars could wait for occasions. Clothes could be handed down and Casio casseroles, cycles and curtains never gave up on a few generations. 

But who cared! We all seemed to belong to one, big, happy class. Except the heroines cast opposite actors, who drove open cars, wore big shades, with perms on foreheads and Pomeranians in their laps. They must be upper class! Us? No. No. Every man in every household drove a Bajaj Chetak or an LML, of the "Ley Matt Leyna" variety with one long scooter seat, instead of two with a safety handle in between. One helmet and many heads rode it, together, and the wife compulsorily had to hold on to her husband to stay aloft. Romantic! The cars on the road were Fiat Padminis, and Maruti 800s the rare show-stoppers. Especially the red ones, remember?

A sepia film of sameness of class seemed to cover complete townships in our child eyes, prominent tell-tale signs of which were present in every house we visited in my small town at least – languidly carrying freshly made idli-sambhar or for urgently exchanging coloured chalk for WWF trump cards.

What were those signs, tucked below mattresses like old gift wraps waiting for a new gift or filled up in trunks like 4 extra razais, with bleached white covers? Every morsel left after a meal found home in the single door Kelvinator, which served more humans successfully than the number of katoris stacked in pillars inside it. Two ladles of leftover besan mix or one half of a boiled potato could be turned into a snack for friends after the evening’s hopscotch, served in solid steel plates. Just like left over threads of gota-zari or sari borders, in a separate packet marked ‘needlework’ could convert an old suit into a new fancy dress for the little girl, puff sleeves included. Just about anything – from ink pens to brass show pieces to Tobu cycles to rectangular school bags with metallic clips which pinched fingers – anything could be handed down and received with love.  

Trunks as the best bet for storage were trusted like god himself, who resided in every kitchen in a small and sober temple in the corner farthest from the sink. Old utensils with broken handles were as important as LICs and debts, never forgotten, and old toothbrushes which could scrub just about anything (especially white PT shoes) never thrown. Umbrellas could always be mended, just like gaping shoe toes, lacy TV covers with piping and even relationships. A watch simply told the time, a car transported us, a ladies bag carried floral hankies and Relaxo rubber slippers could travel everywhere without cringing, after their boxes became robots for playing with! Telephones, those black beauties (maybe beige) made for good neighbours and loud trunk calls. 

When middle class became a puckered up ‘so middle class!’ as a term for looking down upon another’s status, I know not. But I regret it. Because the moment it did, those valuable characteristics which defined a middle class household and showed through these spots and signs got ignored as irrelevant. And worse, useless. 

Those days, one of the most precious things in our lives, enough to be kept in the locker of the dark grey steel almirah, were our school mark sheets and character certificates; given a better plastic folder than even our passports!  I look back today and find this symbolic… 

Hard work was worship, merit was god. Only then came well-deserved vacations, mostly needing no passport. Over a typical day, all members of middle class homes were following routines which seemed to aim at one thing – to contribute to the house as an organic whole; to keep it together. In a happy way. Because all parts of it were equally important and present and needing care and attention. We ate together, often on the beds spread with newspapers. We watched the same soaps, same prime time. We shared rooms without fussing and slices of water melon with kaala namak without a dreg of regret. We were never alone. We almost never wanted to be.  

Our families were like that big polythene bag behind the kitchen door, forever open to welcoming more into its fold. We wanted to keep it together no matter what it took, because it’s what mattered. 

That meant being thrifty and minimizing wastage, and which then took preservation and storage of things (and values!) to huge heights of importance. We were assured of a shelter from the rains for our little paper boats made of newspapers but there was also a continuous effort to ensure that shelter for the future too. Yes, some hand-knit sweaters for men were preserved beyond their threaded destiny, but then things became objects of desire precisely because granny made them or both father and son used them; objects became a sentiment, like my first block-printed table mats, dear and dearer by use till only their memory could outlive them.  

And we of the middle class variety were happy, once. Perhaps, a touch of humility came from acknowledging that in the social ladder this is what we are with what we have, a black and white TV with a family photo on top and a springy sofa with hand-embroidered covers sitting on mosaic-grey floors. There was always enough of the things that we needed. There were better jobs than our fathers’ to work towards and marriages and kids to dream about. Obviously! But there was also this plain and simple Contentment to aspire for, and that pretty little feeling was actually reached every rainy Sunday evening, 5pm, when bread rolls and chai tickled the noses of the neighborhood kids, and adults, to make them walk into our verandah chiming with a watering mouth - ‘What lovely weather. Feels like heaven!’ 

Yes. Heaven seemed within reach. 

It’s different now, perhaps because I’m writing this through an adult’s spectacles and viewing all those years with pigtails on my head. 

A lot of us seem to be constantly climbing into the next higher levels of ‘class’, class being something we are acutely aware of, making our kids aware of; something which has replaced the wish for a lovely rainy evening on cane chairs with wine-n-dine parties overlooking a rain-soaked valley from an air-conditioned room on the ninth floor. Through the glass windows. The hands never wet. The wind never felt. The property prime. The soaring ambition in place. One wonders if there is a definite ‘middle’ anymore (or was there ever?). If there is, why does it appear like the girth of a prosperous man wearing a Gucci belt, increasing, living in a home with much lesser space for old things, and even less space for extended families? 

Even as my son plays with a clown his father grew up playing with, I have stowed away some of his toys for my brother’s kids. Who is yet to get married! I’m thinking aloud as I catch those signs. Wondering, if in our bid to leave behind ‘where we come from’ we aren’t really shedding the life-jacket we rode the mobility wave in. And just maybe those very middle class values still flow in our systems, secretly, struggling to keep us grounded. Beneath the comfort of plenitude and beyond the layers of fineries. 

Because after all to them we once belonged. Without even realizing it!  

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