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Roller-coaster ride on vicissitudes of fortune

I had spent the last few days in the Brahmaputra valley. Now, as I leaned back in my seat and thought of the two leaves I had watched yawn and stretch and make room for a delicate bud between them, I remembered the dark hand of an unknown tribal girl reach in and pluck the two leaves and a bud. They withered and were then smothered, crushed and torn before being scorched in the searing heat of a burner that put them through hell. They were then sorted and packaged with caste labels stamped on them for the world to make discriminate choices of their favourite beverage. On the gate of the institution I had visited, by the waters of the Dihing, in a village called ‘Phatikachua’ (humorously translated it means “with a touch of booze”), they were planning to paint a slogan that would read “Tamaso Ma Jyotirgamaya” — lead me from darkness to light.

We fell a hundred feet. The fasten seat belt sign was switched on and over the PA came the crackling voice of the pilot asking the crew to be seated. We had hit unexpected turbulence.

The darkness outside was lit up by our lights reflecting off rolling cumulus clouds that we were tumbling through — and we realised we would soon commence our descent to Calcutta where over cups of steaming tea on Darjeeling-flavoured verandahs and dusty (permit the pun) street corners, heated discussions were conjuring up percentages that would swing from red to green and vociferous arguments about how, come what may, they would make our waters run incarnadine with the blood of innocents, for months to come.

As the aircraft shuddered and cavorted, the pilot pulled back on the throttle, for fighting force with force is a dangerous exercise and almost always a losing battle, and let down the guardian flaps to descend. In minutes we were gliding eerily through a starless sky and slowly down into a dim city of lights. We stalled for a heartbeat and touched down.

There was a disquieting quiet that had enveloped the airport and I had never seen it more deserted. Just the one carousel was turning its interminable circles with bags and cases that looked like clones of one another and belonged to unknown citizens who were arriving to cast a vote and then fly back to wherever they had come from with possibly not much more achieved than an indelible stain on the index finger they had used to point with, wag at and abuse brethren and curse fate for three decades and more.

Modern Mir Jafars

As I drove past Mir Muhammed Jafar Ali Khan’s house on Park Street, that once housed a traitor who sold India to the British, I thought of the unholy alliances we have all over our country and at the centre and the innumerable Mir Jafars who exist, ready to buy and sell the fortunes of our people for personal, ostensibly partisan, gain. With shocking new revelations almost every day, Gaddar-e-Abrar is fast becoming a common proper noun and there is a Jagat Seth lurking in every dingy corridor of power, banking on greed as our primary motivation. We sell our souls to the highest bidders and our people pay the price.

But the city of Ananda has a side to it that sets it apart from anywhere else. We Bengalis are a phlegmatically challenged race. Our droll attitude to a bombardment of misfortunes and misrules is what makes us super special and woefully unique. Unbelievably, we can laugh at ourselves and our bootless cries to heaven for judgement and retribution overheard are immortal tidbits of jocular nonsense that make the stench and squeeze of crowded buses and trains enjoyably bearable.

Violent reprisals and incessant bloodshed defying a freedom of choice, is an intrusion upon the Bhakti cult and psyche of Bengal that, in my opinion, reared its head after the frustrations of exploitation, deprivation and unemployment corroded our minds and ate into our beings with the unfolding of an immoral interpretation of Marxism. Stalin was a basket case as his personal physician’s diaries have recently revealed and when you hear of the frothing-at-the-mouth craze of Charu Mazumdar, of village headmen being buried alive because they wouldn’t embrace an ideology and mothers being forced to eat rice soaked in their son’s blood, it sends a chill down one’s spine. True or false, there are many unpleasant truths from the very recent past that stare us in the face and are undeniable. We all have our stories to narrate and have never had the guts to speak. Our villages and rural folk have tales of horror at the hands of communist cadres that gave birth to the Nuevo-Maoist movement that our consciences must confront and subdue with compassion.

The following morning, on my way to the 19th hole at the Tolly, I decided to drive past Mamata’s humble abode to reassure myself that the roots of change that everyone was craving were still firmly grounded in proletariat soil. There were no gun-toting commandos in trees or on rooftops and a group of volunteers were huddled in an adda while Didi was out campaigning.

Not far from her home I came across a few families of rag pickers who had no pickings that day and were having a holiday in their pavement homes. They lived on a swill of atta mixed with chopped onions and green chillies that was poured over a thin coat of heated mustard oil and cooked like an omelette. With earnings of never more than about Rs 40 a day, and no income this day, this was a luxury.

The old grandmother Kajol Ghosh came here, to this pavement, from Canning, 40 years ago. She was surrounded by her grandchildren who all lived with her. The little charmer seated on a heap of plastic and rags, clutching a magic broom to ride fairy tales with, was Master Avijit Das. His father, an alcoholic, has been bedridden on the pavement with a liver disorder for four months. Their older sister who sat patiently by her father’s head and fed him with her fingers was a beautiful girl with features and a stylish demeanour that could make her a star. Would they vote? Yes. For whom? For change. Would that change their four-decade possession of a pavement? Probably not.

Burning issue

Farther down the road lies Keoratola. Calcutta’s most well-known cremation ground. I decided to go there and meet those who faced the sadness and facetiousness of mortality, every day and night. Sambhu Mullick (no longer Sambhu Dom) was someone I had met and known from times when I had visited the place to cremate members of my family. We chatted at the base of the ovens while they gathered the asthi and bones for relatives to take away and immerse in the Ganga. The heat was unbearable and the stench of burning human flesh was as discreet as the scents of leather factories’ effluents in Tangra. A fleeting comparison that diddled my grey cells and made my stomach turn.

Sambhu’s wife was a primary school teacher called Ushasree, who had completed her schooling from DPS and then gone on to do her BEd. I had a long giggly chat with her. Sambhu called her “Mishtu” and warned me not to tell anyone that because it was the secret name he had adoringly bestowed on her. Sambhu’s companion at the oven was Naru Ghosh, not a dom, just a poor person who needed a job and willing to do anything to survive. He was happy. They were both happy and would definitely vote. I checked. They had.

Sambhu’s great grandfather was a dom at Keoratala but I got the feeling Sambhu wanted his son to move on. The Mullick title wasn’t a ruse. It was given to all doms, by the welfare department. A step in the right direction, I thought, but labels don’t remove, they only enhance, social stigma.

Sibani Naskar, whose husband is a priest in the Kalighat temple, is a great friend of Sambhu and his wife Mishtu and spends a lot of time socialising with them at the burning ghat. She was visiting when I arrived. She was a demure young lady who stood with me beside the ovens where bodies were burning and chatted about every aspect of life in our charmed city. Calcutta’s, Bengal’s and the Bengali’s attitude to religious faiths and castes are, quite pleasurably, unique.

As I stood among the doms and listened to what the elections meant or didn’t mean to them, there was a plaintive trill on a piccolo that drifted through the air, from time to time, at irregular intervals. It was only after I climbed up from beneath the ovens that I noticed a very old man in red playing a short flute with just one hand, which accounted for the broken strings of notes he played, while he clutched a Gita in the other hand. He played while priests chanted prayers over corpses and when the bodies were finally put into the oven and its doors shut, tearful and grateful family members would place a tip between the wizened fingers that clutched the Gita. The doms had never known where the flautist came from at daybreak or where he went after sunset. He was poor and old and alone and needed the money he made. No one questioned or ever stopped him.

Khichuri & phuchka

To understand the implications of the winds of change that were blowing across our land, I next went to the Marble Palace to meet Mullicks of another ilk. Sourendro with his friend Soumyojit were practising the Maand Raag, a morning raga, as if to herald a new dawn. For almost a hundred years their kitchens had fed more than 500 hungry mouths every single day with their family’s Lord Jagganath’s bhog of khichuri and one vegetable preparation. The huge vats were stirred with six-foot ladles and two Oriya cooks did all the cooking.

I asked the two young Ustaads who performed gigs around the world as “You & I”, about the elections. They smiled charmingly and Sourendro submitted that as long as their family was able to continue with traditions of service to the needy, the sick and destitute, facile changes in political scenarios would make no difference in their lives.

I decided to end my day with a visit to a phuchkawallah. Calcutta’s greatest attraction remains, indisputably, the hygienically explosive phuchka. It was too early to find them at street corners so I went to their dera. Lo and behold, I found myself with a Bihari called Vimal Shaw (pronounced Shah) who had been to school with Jeet, our famous movie star. He told me Jeet had visited him there. Shabaash.

Vimal introduced me to his mother, who sat beside handis that were steaming and boiling potatoes and the little granddaughter who would later help roll the atta was having her meal, with her rolling pin set down beside her, watching television. The girl’s mother was dressed in a maxi and taking pictures of me with her mobile. I was bowled over by the family’s amiability and hospitality. They insisted I stay and join them for lunch. If I hadn’t already eaten, their food looked tantalisingly tempting. What a shame.

So, would they vote ? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Depends on the weather and the mood. When it rained I figured the phuchkawallahs had all come out to vote and expect a transformation like the one Nitish had brought about in their distant villages and homes.

To the next 34 years...

Let me end this piece with a line from a small mantra that prays for the happiness of all peoples. Prays that rulers may rule righteously, paripalayantam nyayyena margena, and may they look after the welfare of cows and men of wisdom, gobrahmanebhyassubhamastu, and may all beings be happy. I shall ponder on the category that best defines me. Moo-t point, I think.

We’ve led with our chins for decades so now let’s not shy away from a kick in the tender derrieres we have exposed to political uncertainties. Wear an extra pair of underwear to absorb the shock.

But surely, come what may, Calcutta will smile and laugh its way through the next 34 years of rides on carousels like unwanted pieces of baggage and on merry-go-rounds of cyclical promises made and retracted and roller-coaster rides on the vicissitudes of fortune.

Contrary to popular perceptions, we do know what it takes to turn a fried fish over and eat the other side. Ours is the city of Ananda.

Will the basic problems of the people in Calcutta be addressed after this election? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com

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