A box of incense sticks

“I often go to a temple.” He folded up The history of Jews in Cochin and pointed out a corner of the bookshelves behind him. I spotted copies of old translations of Upanishads in English, possibly by Max Muller and several books on Ramakrishna and on the hugging saint of India. “I am a fan of Ramakrishna, though I am a practicing Christian,” he added as a clarification.

I had meandered into the Williams residency and home-stay, draw in by the sight of a middle-aged gentleman—thick glasses, starched white short-sleeve shirt and bushy mustache—immersed in a book in the foreground of what appeared to be an indulgent library of pale books. We had started chatting triggered by his peering through the glasses and scanning me with a practiced efficiency. I had objected to his addressing me as “Sir.” “You are much older than me, and no need for formalities,” I had ventured, “you have an impressive collection here.” “I am a historian, I study the history of Cochin,” he had said.

“This is my house and I rent out the rooms, but I have a feeling you are not here for a roof over your head,” he looked at me amused.

“I am leaving Cochin today, and was strolling through the neighborhood, is that a copy of Menon’s History of Kerala? That’s a really old book, isn’t it? Nineteen forties right?”

“Even earlier, 1920 I am pretty sure. I am Anthony Williams by the way.” He continued with his amused self-assured smile as if he was going to pull a magic trick any moment and make the magnifying glass in his hands disappear.  “Sit down please, here let me show you something.” He pulled out a copy of  A history of Christianity in Kerala, from the mission of St. Thomas to the arrival of Vasco Da Gama. He ran through his bookmarks—made of neatly cut strips of tobacco filter boxes—and opened up one ceremonially. “Read please.” I obliged.

“You see, the history of Kerala is very interesting,” I hadn’t gotten more than a minute to read before he intervened. “Show me your hands.”  Ah, a palmist too, I thought. I tried hard not to betray my utter contempt for astrology and palmistry and offered my hands palms up. “Turn your hands, please. You see, that’s the landscape of all the things men have carved in history. Look at our hands. They are functionally identical. Yet, men have fought over the color of nails and the frailties of skins. The hands bear the mark of our adventures and misadventures. What do you do?” Ah, also a poet, I thought, “I am a scientist,” I offered loud. “Have you lived here for a long time?”

“Yes, all my life. I grew up in this house. I retired and now I read and occasionally have a guest I select. I start by saying “Sir” and some people, unlike yourself, much younger, never object. They get offended, treating me as someone who is just providing a service.” It was a test then, I thought to myself, one that I have passed. “A remnant of the colonial past, won’t you agree?”

“Yes, but the past is a box of incense sticks. If the past came to use, they wouldn’t be in the box.”

“You do love poetry, don’t you?” I said, inspiring a hearty chuckle. He took off his glasses and folded it up. “How long was your trip?” “Just a few days. I was here with my parents. They are getting old, so we did a trip through Kerala together.”

“I see,” he was walking in front me, signalling me to follow him over the wood threshold and into the passageway—white lime-plastered walls, dark brown wooden joists, terracotta-block floor tiles, I was admiring the colonial architecture—and into a central garden shaded by the house surrounding it from all sides. “This is a charming place!”

“A good fraction of that library is free you know? People can come in and borrow my books and donate theirs. I maintain it mostly because I think the poor should have access to books,” he paused to acknowledge my comment, “Thank you! Do you have family in the US?”

“Yes, wife and two kids. How nice! I love this cabinet, held together by wooden nails I see!” I was standing in one of the rooms he rents out. The accommodation was plain, the furniture dated but a charm of Indian mid-century decor has been preserved as old cloth-bound books on his bookshelves.

“That cabinet was my father’s. I used to hide Communist manifestos behind it during the Naxalite movement, ” he added with a wink.

“There are so many similarities between West Bengal and Kerala. My father also participated in the movement, he was tortured for days in police custody,” I added.

His eyes lit up. “That’s true. I am a communist, and Christian who loves to go to Hindu temples. You see, all these categories mean nothing. It is what you really believe. So what do you really believe in, young man? An American desi?” he patted me on the back before settling down in the rickety arm-chair. We were back downstairs in his library from the tour of the various rooms. The dust and smell of old paper assaulted my nostrils.

“I believe in science, because science doesn’t demand belief,” I said, feeling a bit provocative. He looked at me intently. “Oh, no, you believe in so much more than that, I can tell, ” he added mysteriously.  “I will give you something for your father. Here. Please give it to him, tell him, it’s an offering from one comrade to a fellow comrade. He will understand. Tell him he should come and see me next time.”

There, in his deeply engraved palms and glimpses of sooty nails, was a box of incense sticks.

 

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What is your India?

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I am traveling back to India for a duration of three weeks. A project that has often crossed my mind is to document the response of friends and strangers to the question:

What does India evoke?  What is your India?

What does the word “India” inspire? How do you relate to her personally? I am deeply interested in your perception, reflection, reminiscing, rumination… on India. I am deeply interested in how you connect to India’s culture, history, politics, landscape, people, geography, art, food, music, philosophy, science… you name it!

 To get started, let me offer a few questions you may wish to include in your response:

  1. What is your first memory of knowing the word “India”?
  2. What was your first exposure to India?
  3. What is your strongest attraction to India?
  4. What is your strongest repulsion to India?
  5. Have you been to India? Which part? If not which part would you like to visit first? 
  6. What is it you value most from the Indian subcontinent?  (food, music, culture, religion, spirituality, dance, philosophy, language… ) 
  7. What is your strongest connection to the country (yourself, spouse, friends, family…) 
  8. If India was a person, what’s his/her personality to you? 
  9. If India was undiscovered,  and you just discovered it, what would you like to say in a short column? What are the surprises and what are the common grounds? 
  10. What’s one event you would like to erase from India’s history? 

India to me is also a “place I cannot revisit”. The town at the foothills of Himalayas I credit my formative years to is a different town today. The Himalayas still offer those enchanting allusions to a grandeur undiminished with growing years. So many things seemed so tall when I was little, both figuratively and literally. Only the Himalayas continue to remain as tall in my perception. But India has shrunk and expanded, like an amoeba engulfing the detritus of time. Perhaps I am trying to understand, with your help, what I do and do not recognize in that transformation. What my biases are. What my deification is.

 

You can submit your note at whatisyourindia@gmail.com. That’s “what is your india” with no space. You are free to include photographs. You are also free to request the note to be anonymous. All notes will be posted here! Let’s begin a conversation!

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Jean Talon and Atwater market, Montreal

I wonder what makes a perfect cup of espresso. For it is not just the acidity in the roast, the virtuosity of the pull and the crema. It is also the smile on the waitress, the hustle of the market, the tapestry of sensual silk that extends around the moment.

The waitress placed the yellow espresso cup gently on my table and looked at me very apologetically and whispered with a French accent, “I am very sorry I was tied up at the register.” A gratis passion-fruit macaroon was balanced at the edge of the plate. Her glasses flashed in the neon light, the red mark across her left cheek contrasted the dark frame.The little girl at the table ahead of me was licking a raspberry gelato cone. The ladies selling produce outside my table at “Chocolats Privilege” were gesturing expressively at an older gentleman. There were perhaps three sips of dark liquid in my cup. Truffles, neatly arranged behind the glass, held together as moments soon to be filed away in memory. Or perhaps to be forgotten, because there are so many such moments. I found my mind wander off to cheese and wine in the afternoon. But I wanted to gather all my attention to this very cup of espresso. I wanted to enjoy it so thoroughly that years from now, I could look back at the heap of dusty files in the storage vaults, and I could revisit now with such primal intensity that the subdued bitterness of coffee would tingle my tongue again, and the macaroon would burst into my optic nerve in orange and creme. I had been reading “The New Zen Reader” today morning, and “emptiness” had whittled away the gnarls of pleasure. Now I find this empty espresso cup patently enlightened.

Both Jean Talon and Atwater are quaint markets in Montreal that we, living in Long Island, have been deprived of, however, markets like this are common in Europe and India. The reason my mind was wandering off to wine an cheese earlier, was a wedge of “Vento D’Estate” I had bought from a cheese store at Atwater, and was eager to put my hands on, along with wine. I don’t care terribly about pairing, and often invent my own, but I had in mind a strong Portuguese wine to go with it. “Vento D’Estate” is a cheese that has frolicked in hay,  has a mild bitterness and of course a strong summer hay fragrance; there are strands of hay still attached to the rind. I ended up choosing a bottle of ‘Cabeca de Toiro” Touriga Nacional and Castelao blend. Here I am, on a quiet afternoon, wife and daughter asleep, and I looking out onto the patio–the occasional swish of cars and voices in French under the window, of passer-byes heading to the Metro. The wine is settling in with a heavy handshake, like a Hemingway moment, about to break into a squabble. Not all is as tame as they first appear.

My one-and-half year old daughter said “Hi” to so many people in the market, in the adjoining bridge over the canal, and in the shops! They said “Hi” or “Bonjour” and enthusiastically indulged her eagerness to evoke response. She blew kisses. They reciprocated. The markets are animated with shopkeepers and older couples who carry their wheeled shopping carts and inspect the herbs and fruits. A Haitian man sold me a bag of trumpet and chanterelle mushrooms, and added a handful of extra when I chatted him up on cooking tips. He wanted my trumpet mushrooms to be sauteed for four minutes in butter, and remedied the problem that there weren’t enough in the mix for me to really appreciate them.

It is rather common to have freshly made stuffed pasta like ravioli, tortellini etc. available in the markets here. I am thinking of trumpet mushrooms with cheese tortellinis. It is time to cook.

 

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The Vaishnav padabalees

There is a long tradition of Vaishavite songs and folk-theater in Bengal. The padabalee is an old lyrical poetic format, often sung, and was transmitted orally by the bards of the Hindu sects. The Vaishnavites sung of the mystic love of Krishna and the Gopikas, of Radha and of Rasha-lila.

The padabalees are an excellent resource for studying the evolution of the Bengali language. A curious parlance of formal (Sanskrit-derived) and rural Bengali creates a very eclectic phonetic quality. This quality changes with the historic time and the sect (sampradaya) in which the padabalee was composed.

The poems are imbued with the Hindu philosophy of love–freely mixing the divine and the pure with the erotic. Translation is rather challenging because both the language and the references can be esoteric for someone not familiar with the life of Krishna or his lila (Divine Play). Nevertheless, following are a few of my attempts at translation–

***

Dear soi, this love is wondrous,
[Between] teenagers, suppliers and sellers [of love],
The well of ardent unions.
In moonlight lotus blooms
The lotus bud hides shyly.
The chakor bird is crazed by the moon’s glamor
And the blue lotus smiles!

The sun rises on the river Yamuna
In the domain of the stars,
Restlessly plunges, the night rises
What a strange tale this is!

On the golden boughs, a harvest of pearls!
Who is revealed in it all?
The sensitive one thinks
And sings the song of this poet.

~ Bipradas Ghosh

[soi = female friend of a female, chakor = A Himalayan partridge fabled to be enamored by the moon.]

সই প্রেম অপরূপ ।

কিশোর কিশোরী পশার পসারি

রভস রসের কূপ ।।

ইন্দু কিরণে নলিনী মোদিত

কুমুদ মুদিত লাজে।

চাঁদের ভরমে চকোর মাতাল

ইন্দীবর হাসে মাঝে।

যমুনা তরঙ্গে অরুণ উদিত

তারার পশার তথা।

চপলা ঝাঁপিয়া তিমির উয়ল

কিয়ে অদ্ভুত কথা ।।

কনক লতায় মুকুতা ফলিত

কেবা পরতীত যায়।

অনুভবি জনে ভাবে মনে মনে

কবিকন্ঠহার গায়।।

***

Do play your Cassanova flute quietly, Oh Krishna
We are overwhelmed by its dulcet tune.
Aren’t we women in households, staying amongst elders?
Don’t play with your deceitful charms.
Keep our request, just stay quiet
And don’t impale our helpless hearts.
All our family values we abandoned at the banks of Yamuna
All because of your flute-summons.
Our shameless lives, who knows whether your tunes
Will keep us alive or not on this path?
Elusive is your life, we naive hearts,
Our fate is in the hands of the irresponsible.
Krishna retorts, I don’t think so,
My flute is to hunt the helpless.
~Kobiballabh

মন চোরার বাঁশী বাজিও ধীরে ধীরে

আকুল করিল তোমার সুমধুর স্বরে।

আমরা কুলের নারী নই, গুরুজনার মাঝে রই

না বাজিও খলের বদনে।

আমার বচন রাখো নীরব হইয়া থাক

না বধিও অবলার প্রাণে।।

যেবা ছিল কুলাচার সে গেল যমুনার পার

কেবল তোমার এই ডাকে

যে আছে নিলাজ প্রাণ শুনিয়া তোমার গান

পথে যাইতে থাকে বা না থাকে।।

তরলে জনম তোর সরল হৃদয় মোর

ঠেকিয়াছে গোঙারের হাতে।

***

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Smiles

Tagore wrote rather complex songs.

Today I was listening to one such song being played at a puja pandal. The taxi was swooshing through a flooded street and merrily splashing water along the footpaths. The song went on playing in my mind long after it ceased to be audible. Standing at the bank of river Ganges at Dakshineswar–the pilgrimage of Sri Ramakrishna–and watching the boats pass by, the men and women dipping in the Ganges for piety, I went on humming the song to myself. In the evening I sat at a roadside tea-stall–the owner of the shop was gone–so we waited and talked to his little kids minding the shop. Happy kids. As we waited, one truck after another carried the Mother Durga idols for biswarjan (immersion). At the end of the four day celebration, as if to complete the cycle of life, Mother Durga’s animated idol is returned to dust. We say goodbye to the goddess and immerse her clay form in the river and it dissolves away. Unto death we commit the transient–the form.

A few idols were carried in simple bamboo palanquin on men’s shoulders. They were shouting, Asche bochor abar hobe (“Next year, it will happen again.”) While sipping my tea and watching this rather pensive moment pass by, I noticed another chant. Some men were chanting, “Bolo Hori Hori Bol” (Chant Hari’s name, say Hari). This latter chant is only used in Bengal when carrying a corpse to the cremation grounds. And sure enough, there amongst the Durga procession was a corpse–white dhoti as a shroud, nose plugged with cotton, tulshi leaves sheltering the eyes, marigold flowers on the chest–being carried on the raft palanquin. Along with the Mother’s clay form an old man’s clay form was also heading for dissolution into the elements.

The song began playing in my mind again. I asked the kids to sit at the bench.  They broke into smiles as I shot their portraits. I was trying to forget the comic persona of death–how like a good stand-up comedian it offers stark incongruity.

Here is my translation of the song:

“I feel such surprise looking at you,
From where did you appear in my heart’s core?
That visage, that smile, why do I love so much?
Why do I, quietly, drift in tears?
Glancing at you I remember,
You are the ancient in all of life.
If you do not appear hither, the flute ceases to play in my heart,
All my smiles and all this light, sinks in darkness.”

” বড়ো বিস্ময় লাগে       হেরি তোমারে।
কোথা হতে এলে তুমি  হৃদিমাঝারে॥
ওই মুখ ওই হাসি        কেন এত ভালোবাসি,
কেন গো নীরবে ভাসি    অশ্রুধারে॥

তোমারে হেরিয়া যেনজাগে স্মরণে
তুমি চিরপুরাতন        চিরজীবনে।
তুমি না দাঁড়ালে আসি   হৃদয়ে বাজে না বাঁশি–
যত আলো যত হাসি    ডুবে আঁধারে॥ ”

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Puja

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It began raining in the morning. The coconut-water-man (daabwalla) was splitting the shell of the green coconut I had drank dry a moment ago to scoop out the soft flesh. The torrents hushed the noise of city and replaced it with an untamed chiding.

I ran into the local market for shelter. Every sector in Salt Lake city has its own market. Groceries. Fishy smell. Plastic toys. Puja decor. Cosmetics and soaps. Grains. Garments. Incense. Sewing supplies. The musty smell of sizzling asphalt.

The puja pandal right outside my hotel room chanted the morning mantras for flower offering to Mother Durga. Oh Mother Durga, neither do I know any mantra, nor do I know any rituals, nor do I have any accumulated good karma,  nor do I know devotion, I just have this humble offering of flower, please accept it and fulfill me. 

I stood there repeating after the crowd as the priest recited these lines and the people around me—elderly women unable to stand, middle-aged women in saris, men is punjabi and dhoti, teenagers in jeans and T-shirt, young girls with flowers on their hair-bun, little boys and girls in colorful kurtas and cholis–with eyes shut, intent faces, as if in solidarity to my intimate confession of ineptitude to our divine Mother. There is a sense of helplessness in such offering. The imprecise notion of a higher states of consciousness in which life reveals an ineffable harmony, if it exists, has been completely missed in yet another year since the last time Mother visited this planet. Conveniently, Mother appears every year to listen to our whining about just how incapable we are. We ask for prosperity, fame, progeny, wealth, health, knowledge and liberation. Because she is our Mother our worldly desires are condoned—other mantras usually do not mention fame, wealth etc. so blatantly in the realm of prayers. Instead, one is urged to ask for wisdom and devotion. The sages were lenient when it came to the Mother Goddess. A round-table meeting. A pesky sage may have protested, let the masses ask for what they really want. Think of the mother-child relationship. You must allow for silly demands, and a lot of whining. Let it be so.

The rain poured on. I took a taxi and went to New Town. The green outskirts and the damp breeze evokes nostalgia. Water snakes ran across the windshield. Kolkata appeared enchanting, standing naked in the shower.

At night crowds gather on the street in the thousands. There are famous pandals. Elaborate, artistic, with a majestic idol of the Durga family and very creative designs. Numerous city-wide prizes encourage different facets of this transient artistic endeavor. People wait in serpentine lines along the cordoned off side-walks—sometimes for hours—to visit a pandal. I stood in one, jostling with the others as the wave carried me in. They smell of people. We are a strange bunch. Us humans. We kill perfect strangers on the excuse of religion and walk shoulder to shoulder with perfect strangers on the same excuse. The perfume on women. The stench on working men. The cologne on teenagers. The puja is an ultimate leveler. In her imagined iconic eyes, we are all inept!

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Ajad Hind

We are whooshing past the puja lights. The taxi makes a sharp turn at the flyover and honks perilously at the crossing, waits impatiently at the red,  a few men dashes across. Zooms past before the red turns green. We hit a bump and I am thrown in the air like a roti for flipping.

We just escaped the heavy traffic of Behala.  The sense of release is chat-masala. Men and women on motorbikes dart forth. The bus screeches and clamors, the ticket collector rattles off the names of the stops and a few men dive off the bus before it has come to a standstill. As soon as it does, women in saris pull themselves up, a bell tings, an indiscernible word is uttered and the buses rocks vigorously, the gears rumble with the bite of metal against metal. The sultry air blows hard on my eyes. We are on a mission. It is midnight. My feet are numb from walking in a deluge of Bengali pandal-hoppers in this puja. The dust and the sweat covers my being as palm-syrup on cotton. Yet I have no intention of heading back to my hotel room. At least not yet.

It is an hour long taxi ride all the way east to Salt Lake. “Do you know Ajad Hind? Want to go there? I will pay for your dinner!” I tempt the taxi-driver.

I was taken by him the moment I shoved myself in at a cordoned off crossing, with bamboo railings for the flocks of visitors at the pandals. He said, “Babu, please pay me a little more today on puja night” in a tentative voice and an Urdu accent. I nodded. He has presented the wish well. I was lucky to even get a taxi For Hire. All of the others were packed with families.

He turns around with an impish smile, “OK. Which one? Also I will eat vegetarian, babu!

“You eat whatever you want,” the cab is near Karunamayi. “How about the one in Salt Lake behind Bikash Bhawan?” We are talking of the dhaba, aptly named Ajad Hind (Free India)—its the sense of freedom a charred tondoori dish, Punjabi style, emits in its plump promiscuous aroma.

The air surrounds me with its shameless pungency.  A woman, precariously straddling pillion on a motorbike, displays her shiny tapering shoulder framed by her u-cut neckline, her silky blouse embroidered in lavender and gold. A lace tie meandering within the dark forest of her hair occasionally flutters, taunting the delicate hair on her back pinning little crystals of sweat. I am at the back seat of a the cab and yet I can see her so close. At the stop lights you can smell the perfume of the next taxi’s passenger. Here inches of space are fought over and won with ant-like maneuvers.  Cars would crawl over each other had they mastered the metachronal rhythm.

We at the dhaba. I dart out, My taxi-driver offers, “I will stop the meter.” I come back within a few minutes. The place is packed. An hour wait. No thanks.

I throw a bait, “There is another Ajad Hind in Salt Lake.”

“Yes, I know, let me take you there, babu.” he says enthusiastically.

“OK.” I am relived, I am really liking the idea of sharing a meal with this poor hard working man.

Off we go to the one in Sector 5. It looks packed too. The man at the gate says, fifteen minutes. We park. The meter is down. The road is humming with people scuffing  along lazily after a full meal. The place smells like the devil was high on bhang and conjured up a riot of marinades, and they all were tormented at the shish until they melted into pure sin.

One hour here too. The man at the gate was wrong.

“Well, well.” I volunteer, being a bit deflated in my silly plans to share dinner, after midnight, with a man who could be the mascot of this squalid city. “What do we do?”

Babu, if you have the time, I can drive to the third Ajad Hind in Salt Lake.”

I nearly blurted, “There is a third Ajad Hind? I shall marry your daughter, gopal-chand.” Damn, I am already married. One should never make promises one cannot keep, especially promises to a hungry man by a hungry man. Blood is involved in such enterprise.  The devil promptly turns tandoori into the Ganges of cumin blood throbbing in my temples. With mock-indifference I attempted to say, “You know where this other place is?” ,However, my voice sounded like a goat licking a jack-fruit.

“No entirely. I need to ask.” He stepped out of the car with an dazzling sense of purpose. I like this man. If he stood in election I would rally for him. If he stood at the corner of the street selling herbal eczema cream, I would buy ten. I happily imagined what else I would do for him. I woke up when the devil was ready to donate my kidney.

He is back. He has a thoughtful look. A faint betrayal of decisive information, is that what I see? “So?”

“Well, its close enough.” and off he goes.

I am debating whether I could risk amputating a leg in pulling him out from under a train. My head hurts. After twists and turns and jolts and jabs, here we are. This place is crowded too. Well, at most half an hour. OK. “Let’s go.”

Babu, one minute, listen. I can’t go in here. Not like this. You see, my clothes.”

“What the hell is wrong with your clothes.”

“They are not proper, not for this place. I can’t go in.”

“What shall I do? ”

“You eat in, babu.

“I am not eat without you,”  Evidently, it’s the season.

“Well, can you please order something for me to go?” he turns around and heads towards his taxi.

“Something? No wait. That’s too general. No. No. Wait.”

“You decide on a vegetarian dish babu.

“Hell, you are being shy. This is no time for such nonsense. ”  He is quiet. “Ok, how about a paneer dish?” I become impatient.

“Ok. ”

Roti or rice? ”

Roti.”

“How many? ”

Quiet again. Blimey.

I go in. The wait seems forever. I am the only one alone, most are big groups. Hell, I will wait here forever. I see the devil rear up. I slip a bill into the usherer’s pocket. I don’t want the poor man to wait no longer. I get seated in three minutes. I don’t know myself.

Now it’s another waiting game for the waiter to come over. There is a party of a million on the next table with tentacled arthropods as kids and belching seals at the head of the table. Used plates piled up like catacombs. The waiters scurried back and forth like rats at a granary.

I bewitch a weaselly waiter in his frantic state with a quick order and another bill slipped in. Yes, definitely, I don’t know myself.

The fish is here. The party of million is unhappy with their mutton rice. A cavalcade of atrociously colorful women squeeze in at the table next to mine. They are bubbly and rotund. Pinkish skin. Melting makeup. They gesticulate a lot with their hands. The bangles ring sweetly. The well-shaped fingers draw invisible lamps in the air, as their eyes light up, crease and synchronize with the alacrity of their laughter. Non-Bengalis, for sure. Possibly Marathis. One woman stands up and her long pink and green dupatta slides off her shoulder with the languor of a kulcha. I am gawking. idiot.The spicy heat of the tandoori rise along my temples.

I have pecked my plate clean. The take out appears after some coaxing.

“When will you eat?”

“I will drop you off babu. I think it’s two minutes away. ”

“OK.” I say,

I pay one-and half times. “Goodbye. I hope this is enough,”

“Yes. It was fun, babu. Have a happy puja.

I had a nightmare: the third Ajad Hind wss going in circle like the spellbound fingers of bubbly pinkish women.

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