July 31, 2009

Love These Days

Apart from an immensely charming Deepika, and an endearingly balding Saif Ali Khan, this chic Dil Chahta Hai reminder, is also many Bollywood firsts. Cool Indian woman who is not clingy, angsty, waiting to bear children for the hero in the next three weeks. She is hot and she knows it. She actively hits on the hero at a bar. Gets pissed drunk and it is not a fatal night of sin that she regrets for the rest of her life. A boy that is comfortable joking about his ex-girlfriend's present boyfriend. And about life that can be lived in its regular rhythms And two people who know that a day of uncertainty, ambiguity, irresponsibility makes for precious memories.

But over and above the cool-chick and nonchalant-boy that seem to be stamping the end of the era of love-Indian-family-prototypes of hetero-love, and pushing aside the end bits of turning all things around to fall in with Bollywood school of thought, Love Aaj Kal is a script of fragmented, ahem... postmodern... selves. The self that acknowledges doubt, admits multiple readings of the world, and dims the moment of climax with a pinch of irony. Controlling an urge to go on about fractured scripts of self, the Rishi Kapoor element is annoying, almost preachy. Pehle aisa hota thha, ab aisa hota hai angle wouldn't have been so bad, had it been a more scattered portrayal of the pehle-waale scenario (in consonance with the rest of the film) of options being limited, and circumstances being constraining. In which narratives solidify as cohesive because they are held by distance in time. Suddenly the pretty girl in pink shalwar has no freckles. The supporting mother has a grand moment of overcoming fear of social stigma. The boy has no other responsibilities tying him down. Moving between Delhi and Calcutta is that easy. Etcetera Etcetera.

All in all, an endearing film about self-absorbed people who sometimes have the courage to fall in love.

July 16, 2009


I write this a few hours into the twelve-hour Congress bandh. Digging up khuchro memories from my childhood and adolescence, where there was a belief that one could go to work and school on a Congress bandh. Because it was Congress after all. Maybe in the city, where it had some muscle, buses would be slow on the road. But definitely not in the hinterland. On the other hand, if this was a ‘lal’ bandh, one could safely assume that it would be a day of cha, beguni and gully cricket.

This is a cloudy July day. Perfect for a bandh. Many things have changed. Sumone had swooped into Bengal from his days of Pete Seger when I was thirteen. And and turned our rebellions jeebonemukhi (life-facing, mortality-facing). On a rainy afternoon, he entreated us to sing ‘Mon kharap kora bikel’ (can’t quite translate but sort of like twilight that brings sadness). And a whole generation turned jeebonemukhi (as if all this while they were facing immortality) and sung humdrum tunes of khuchro nostalgia and urban ennui. Sumone is today, Kabir Sumon, a triumphant Trinamool MP. Youngsters lament the loss of yesterday on Star Jolsha, one of the more popular Bengali satellite channels. On this lesser-known cross-road in deeper South Calcutta where I spent my childhood and adolescence, a wooden platform (not a stage really, but something like that) is raised, and an avuncular gentleman delivers boktrita on the PA system. I eat phuchka on the roadside and try to figure out what Kalar (colour/party identity) he represents. Turns out he is a Trinamool orator. Saying there are no jobs, nothing works, people are dying, these chaps are all bastards, what are we waiting for. Poornima-mashi says her young son goes to ‘party’ and she doesn’t like it. No mother likes her son to party too much, I say. I ask about the bandh climate. Whether there will be maar-danga (fighting, rioting). She says shob lal-kapor-er loke, aaj onno jaygay dhhukechhe (it’s all the red folks, they have now entered other domains).

I hadn’t seen a michheel (procession) in close to a decade. Until yesterday. Middle-aged Writers’ Buildings officials, of Congress leanings, protested the attacks on Congress leaders in Burdwan that was possible due to police apathy and negligence. There were hardly any banners, mostly slogan. Saying mene newa hobe na, cholbe na. (This will not be taken lying down, this will not do). Even as some tyres are deflated and buses burnt down in the heart of South Calcutta. The Congress is back. With a bang. Say the newspapers. These attacks have enthused our workers. A Congress leader is quoted. A feeble identity that was getting increased engulfed by the grassroot diva of the state. The good old pellet of political energy is back in fashion. The burning of the bus.

I think of disparate scenes from Ray’s Mohanogor, Gonoshotroo, and various Rituporno Ghosh films. Of middle-class dining tables, afternoon irritation, whirring fans, chilled bottles of water, khuchro angst - the texture of all being sharpened by the quintessential hint of a michheel. Memories of gentry lives lived in their whole range of pains and pleasures- from khuchro prem on lake-er dhaar to political outrage to business rivalries – across a continuing din of cholbe na cholbe na. Protibaad is a less popular word on graffiti these days. The words okormonyota, noirajyo- and various other versions of abyss, impasse, stagnation, anarchy, non-governance find adequate representation on posters of all kalars. Singur-e factory holo na kaeno is not seen as much as a question of land acquisition and industry, but a sense of the dramatised, deeprooted anger at the governing machinery was not being able to seduce an external mediator of capital/resource/modernity since they have not delivered goods themselves. This anger is not new. It would have been channelised very artfully into the tyre of a bus, into a chayer dokan session on a crossroad, or a PA system close to the bajar.

This protibaad strikes me as novel, even as its avuncular participants and their rhythmic shoulder-thrusts remain familiar. This is not a protibaad of not being treated unfairly, or an unkept promise, this seems the protibaad of aggrandisement, of opportunity. The protibaad of jostling one’s way in, as there seems no other way. Of a desperation to jump across a moat which one had seen in popular discourse as protective and succouring, and one has begun to see as a broken drawbridge keeping one from a nourishing pasture. I am shown around an industrial complex by a Site Supervisor, who proudly declares that power and water supply is impossible to interrupt, even during the Aila when the rest of the area had no power for hours, power here was disturbed only for half an hour. This is a space of exception. The pasture. From which others are kept out by a broken drawbridge and an alligator moat. Hence a disaster or a civil war or a spate of killings are not merely a cause for resentment, outrage. They are new handles to jump the moat. Having realised that the only way to jump the moat is by swinging on the alligator’s nostril. For that, one must do some odd jobs for the alligator.

It is also a time of new cravings. For one has sniffed the pasture. That promises one knows not what. But promises nevertheless. Joy Goswami, an age-old favourite angst-poet of Calcutta, reads somewhat hackneyed today. Stories of Pagli who ran out and never came back, of the seamstress who fell in love with the big city boy, suffocation of the suburban husband. Seem like they have been in storage for a decade. Jara brishtite bhijechhilo tara aaj Inox-er ticket ketechhe. (Those that got drenched in the rain have bought Inox tickets today). Mon kharap kora bikel sounds somewhat clich├ęd. And I lose a precious adolescent memory. Of reading Goswami’s Malotibala Balika Bidyaloy and thinking this has got to be the best modern feminist poetry ever written. I don’t think so anymore. And I don’t grudge them their burnt bus. It is their alligator-tooth. They have to swing by it.

Khuchro- small change
Protibaad- protest

July 14, 2009


I bent over to decipher the nature of fishbone. And the young land acquisition consultant continued his story. Yahaan road bana dein. Thhoda landscaping kar dein. To it will be ideal weekend getaway. Some tit-bits about the government not shelling out money on time. Delaying completion of project. Hmmm. Haan. Someone is yelled out for. He needs a reminder for the fish to arrive. I look up to find the second young man waits for his turn. Squares his shoulders. Leans back. Talks about the fragility of projects in their early stages.

I ask for his card. And smile. The consultant is pleased. Though the moment is awkward. I gather pen paper bag and leave, leaving the some fishbone undeciphered. I promise to look him up. Next summer maybe. For more stories of land-hunt. His work is most interesting for my research. I say. We share the same terrain. We examine similar landscapes. We ask questions and try to answer them. We like to bash government over lunch. We like the smell of fish. Especially when it gets a bit erotic.

July 8, 2009


An odd moment of Dalhousie confusion led me into a taxi. To look for Suruchi. An old Bengali restaurant on Elliot Road. Where my father used to take us on Sundays. Snaking into Royd Street from Surendranath Banerjee Street, the cabbie and I found ourselves in a labyrinthine world of autos, rickshaws, burqa-clad mothers, skirt-and-shalwar-clad daughters, rubber pipe repair works, iron frame manufacturing ones, new and air-conditioned biryani places, their older and shabbier, disgruntled neighbours, sudden empty boxes named after Marwari builders in the middle of a continuum of old concrete box-buildings. Lesser known churches and their lesser known schools scrambling for attention. And seventeen-year-olds in maroon skirts, schooled by big churches sashay out. It is the end of a schoolday.

Religion, strategies to dig into economic flows passing by, culture-clothing, culture-food make up the labyrinth of Royd Street and Elliot Road. Very close to sheen of Park Street, the energy of New Market, the business-as-usual worlds of commercial Calcutta. Feeding off them. Feeding them. Making spare parts for their airconditioners. Stitching their school uniforms. Squeezing into secular worlds, covering legs in shalwars. Donning spectacles. And ensuring that biryani sells better now that there is air-conditioning.