Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Words (are all I have ...)

Magic lies in words. In their sound, their meaning, their power to raise dreams and memories and sudden emotion.

Consider this passage on names …
“the tribes of men use many names, the Sarmatians from the Germans and the Goths frequently from the Huns. Tutizar was a Goth and Ragnaris a Hun, but Tutizar is not a Gothic name and Ragnaris is Germanic. The Byzantine generals who in 493 fought against the Isaurians were Apsikal, a Goth, and Sigizan and Zolban, commanders of the Hun auxiliaries. Apsikal is not a Gothic but a Hunnic name; Sigizan might be Germanic.”

[The Language of the Huns, in O. Maenchen-Helfen's "The World of the Huns” (University of California Press, 1973) which I, of course, have not read. I found it on languagehat.]

Those names …. The clash of arms and the baying of war-horns, frost-rimed forests, the stench of horses after a gallop, ice crashing on black rocks and the terror of a burning town. All from the hard clanking echoes of Tutizar, Ragnaris, Apsikal, Zolban, a charivari against the ominous background chords of two names of terror, the Huns and the Goths.

History echoes through those names. And one of my favourite celebrants of history was a wordsmith par excellence, a modern-day Homer of India and of Britain, a balladeer and teller of stories who never fails to charm. Maenchen-Helfen’s paragraph on the names of the tribes brought to mind “Puck of Pook’s Hill”, the Beetle’s love-song to the land of his fathers and the tales of its history that he read and read through his growing years.

Consider now the craft in this list of spirits, a counting of dreams, a naming of names, a promise of stories to come …
“I saw them come into Old England and I saw them go. Giants, trolls, kelpies, brownies, goblins, imps; wood, tree, mound, and water spirits; heath-people, hill-watchers, treasure-guards, good people, little people, pishogues, leprechauns, night-riders, pixies, nixies, gnomes, and the rest - gone, all gone! I came into England with Oak, Ash and Thorn, and when Oak, Ash and Thorn are gone I shall go too.”

That invocation at the end, creating its own icons and sorcery! The man knew, above all, the magic of words. Because there can be no stories without words. Emotions and relations can spark wordlessly between lovers or enemies, but they cannot resonate till their story is told. Their very reality can be altered by the story-teller’s perception.

Would Romeo have been aught but a callow youth if Bald Will had not set him to music unheard? Imagine if his story had been written by Stephen Fry instead – would he not have been a delinquent teen, goaded to murder and suicide by the torture of repressed homosexuality? While the world, of course, bayed in laughter at the screaming fun of it all.

But to come back to Kipling and his craft. Here is the balladeer tuning up ’is bloomin’ lyre:
“I've seen Sir Huon and a troop of his people setting off from Tintagel Castle for Hy-Brasil in the teeth of a sou'-westerly gale, with the spray flying all over the Castle, and the Horses of the Hills wild with fright. Out they'd go in a lull, screaming like gulls, and back they'd be driven five good miles inland before they could come head to wind again. Butterfly-wings! It was Magic - Magic as black as Merlin could make it, and the whole sea was green fire and white foam with singing mermaids in it. And the Horses of the Hills picked their way from one wave to another by the lightning flashes! That was how it was in the old days!”

Tintagel and Hy-Brasil bring to mind T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, but I shall resist the temptation to digress.

The Beetle has much in common with my other Master. The creation of a world, but that is the skill of all great story-tellers from Chaucer to Tolkien. The celebration of an age, whether the Raj in India or the Home Counties in the lull between the Wars. A drawing upon the treasures of reading, the use of quotation and reference to pay homage to past masters and enrich their own work through it. The painstaking attention to construction, the long hours at their craft to polish each paragraph to a lapidary glow.

Above all, a consummate mastery of the language, the ear for its music and the sense that can cull a false rhythm. This is also the point where they differ, each setting his own signature rhythms that can be recognised at a hundred paces like “the set of a trooper’s shoulders”.

Kipling stuck to more basic rhythms, his language a means to an end, subsumed within the larger need to tell the story. The Master on the other hand revelled in the words themselves, playing with the language, spinning out a paragraph over half a page like an angler casting over a mountain stream, yet with such supreme mastery of the basics that neither clarity nor construction suffered in the process. Like a great batsman playing the push-drive to the sight-screen, he made it look so easy that we never realize the effect until the final moment.

“Belloc, to the consternation of Hugh Walpole, forthrightly declared him to be the best prose writer of the age (his exact words were “the finest writer of English in the 20th century”); Ronald Knox, most fastidious of scholars and stylists, rejoiced in him.” Evelyn Waugh, himself a fine craftsman and perhaps best known to a wide public as “the man who wrote the blurbs for Plum’s Penguin editions”, looked on him as “the head of my profession”.

Words may not suffice. The attempt in any case would be presumptuous, because words were Wodehouse’ forte.

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Three things that I’m happy about.

The first should be evident. The side-bar is up, I even have a CCL, I can take the Chicago gamer and the Uncut commentator out of my bookmarks. Thanks to He-of-the-uncut-locks and to Bhegoo-bhayya for their help.

Then … I now have an inamorata. Sleek, chic, quietly confident and capable. Petite, almost waif-like. But very very sexy. Oh, VERY hot. Think Penelope Cruz, but (pardon the sexist analogy) with tetas grandes.

Now to push Anil to activate the bloomin’ RIM card, then my baby and I can be really free … (He’s in sole charge now, he should get a move on.)

Finally, something that makes me feel good but also faintly embarrassed. People whose writing I admire have linked me on their blogs. Very flattering, especially in the case of a Writer of Repute who has a short blog-roll.

All very nice, but I hold, with Groucho Marx (through Woody Allen) that “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have ME as a member”. In other words, self-doubt lingers. If old TSE himself rose from his grave and gave me an approving nod, I’d suspect the Guv’nor had lost it.

Oh well. Enjoy it while it lasts, try not to feel guilty.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Positively the last Dhaka Diaries ...

(... for the time being)

The way it goes in Blogworld, reading follows browsing. Then come comments, curiosity, interaction, perhaps mail. Eventually, personalities emerge from the cyber-haze – at bloggers’ meets, in airports, once (as mentioned elsewhere) at a cricket match.

With me, of course, it has to happen the other way round. We met at the conference in Dhaka, exchanged smiles, pleasantries, bitched about the arrangements. Some time on the second day, my Net deprivation crossed reasonable limits and I took over the only available machine. Whereupon I was told, in passing, that there is a Blog. I went. I read. I laughed. I like. Check it out.


The other high point was dinner on the last night. S- (confusing, that. The three young people who were shovelling the shit for the conference all have that initial. One of them is even a descendant of a Chief Minister of Bengal) led me to Dhanmundi to buy CDs and to gormandise. The 'mall' could have been 'AC Market' in any given Indian city in the early '80s, except that it wasn't AC. And that there was a cornucopia of products that were all, pre-1991, very definitely for the phoren-returned.

The restaurant was tucked away on an upper floor of what seemed like an office building. The lighting was dim, there was a smell of smoking generators, the table-cloths were pink and blotched. Half the stuff on the menu was not available.

We ordered (in my case, with much trepidation), went outside to light up for a while, came back in ten minutes to find a procession of dishes arriving. S, my apologies once again for doubting you. I’d wondered why we were ordering what I considered ‘North Indian’ cuisine. We were served superb naan and a daal that tasted like haleem, a dish that overshadowed even the beef bhoona and the traditional Bangal muroger zhul. (And yes, if I visit Dhaka again I shall dine at Mama Haleem’s.)

The piece de resistance was a Bong fantasy, the kind of thing that Mr. Haldar from Paikpara and Mrs. Baidya from Akhon Bazaar moan about in their restless dreams, a dish of rui kaaliya that overwhelmed with its Brobdingnagian bounty. I felt like Cap’n Ahab in the MAD Magazine version of Moby Dick – ‘Now you’ve GOT it, what are you going to DO with it’. (We ate all of it. Eventually)


I wouldn’t go for a walk in Dhaka. Not, at least, in the town itself. North of the clutter, however, there are places that could pass off as Jodhpur Park or even Vasant Vihar. Past a pile of masonry that used to be one of the Gates of Dhaka; apparently there was a time when Dhaka was closed down at 10 p.m., the gates were shut, “nor all your piety nor wit” could get them to open again till 6 o’ clock the next morning.

Past tatterdemalion commercial districts, brash with neon and trailing wires and hoardings in execrable English, shop-fronts like painted ladies. Past a vast field ghostly under floodlights, while the Jatiya Parishad building loomed dark and unlit beside it. Past a million rickshaws, autos, Toyotas, pedestrians, even a couple of double-decker buses that could have pulled up at Gole Park or Dunlop Bridge.

I mentioned this to a friend and his answer made me think. “Dhaka has no Marwaris.” True. Nor the Tamizh cadences of Lake Market nor the Punjabi bustle of Bhowanipur. Calcutta survives as part of India, and I’m profoundly grateful this is not a Bangali ghetto. Kudos to Mumbai for rejecting Bal Thackeray’s insider theory.


Many uniforms. Every wing of the police - immigration, traffic, security - has a different uniform. Smart new uniforms, too, with flaps and epaulettes and wide belts. Apparently, every time the government is reminded that the police are paid so little that they HAVE to resort to graft to survive, they hand out new uniforms. My new friend was mugged a month ago. He says there was a policeman three feet behind him who just looked the other way.
A tribute to Bong innovation ... in Noo Yawk the women carry Mace to ward off muggers. In Dhaka, muggers carry Mace and pepper sprays because they work just as well in the other direction. *Shrug* Simple, innit?

Strange - Bangladesh has the 7th-largest standing army in the world. That's good in terms of employment potential, but the Bangladeshis I met did not seem to feel exceptionally secure. "Yeah right, our army's going to be very sharp if, like, China dumps on us. Or - oh boy! *and much rolling of eyes* - India wants to walk in and take over!" I coughed politely and changed the subject.

The great Bangladesh Rifles are not very popular either. I mentioned the murder of a BSF officer at a flag-meeting some months ago. "We never hear about that kind of thing here ..." So check the Internet, friend, you're supposed to be the new generation!

I mention the middle-years paradigm of the effectivemess of an elected government, that in a five-year term the first year goes for consolidation and the last two are spent preparing for the next election, leaving just the middle year-and-a-bit for hard decisions. "Here the entire five year period is spent with a single objective - making money. Why do you think we consistently rank as the most corrupt country in the world?"
I point out that greater visibility could be a factor, since there are so many international agencies working in Dhaka. He doesn't agree.


Wednesday 15th June

The hotel lobby, deserted except for flight crew from an unidentified airline. The women dark-eyed and sassy, two husky blonde pilots and a huge African, all chain-smoking. Helpful check-out desk, urging me to have a coffee while I wait for the airport shuttle.
Bunch of Americans munching stolidly in the coffee shop. How can ANYbody have breakfast at a quarter to 7 in the morning?!

All day for the last two days, there has been a sweating man in knee-high waders cleaning out the ornamental pool. Water occasionally slops into his waders as he moves. He worked on even when the rains came down.
The tables in the lobby, however, have not been cleaned since last night. I have to ask for a bunch of tissues to wipe away the glass-rings and the chanachur.

A flavour of Dhaka even as I leave. Twice, a car draws up to the porch and the (smiling) bell captain washes his hands in invisible soap as he ushers me to the door. As I step out of the door and my glasses fog up, the car zooms away. Back to the lobby …
Cloudy skies and a faint drizzle as the car finally pulls away from the hotel.

This time I have a seat ahead of the wing. The air-conditioning works. The plane takes off on time. As it climbs, the water-world appears below, all too briefly before the damp clouds wrap the windows in grey. All too brief, actually. I want to come back.

Perhaps in the cold weather. Walk under the coconut trees with people from my other home-land, search a map for the village where my grandfather was born. And sit on a steamer deck all night long, while the wind blows the moonlight over the Padma and bhatiyali songs float up from the after-deck.



Thursday, June 16, 2005

Duh Dhaka Diaries again

It's a small world. With large people in it. Both demonstrated when, in the mirror over the bar, I see a portly turbanned form with a designer stubble. It turns out B has an office here (and one in KL and one in Singapore .... basically, he's a hot-shot).

Breakfast in the coffee shop of the Pan-Pacific Sonargaon in Dhaka. The Delhi Ashoka must have mated with the Central Park in Bangalore to produce this pile. No, that is NOT a picture of the hotel on that web-page, don't ask me what it is. Nor do I know why it's there if it's not the hotel.

Everybody is so damn HELPFUL. Polite. Smiling. I'd feel effing guilty if I were to shout at them, but I've explained THRICE that I want THAT item on the menu, that that THAT one (stabbing at it till my finger almost goes through the pasteboard), now another smiling person has turned up with an omelette that I do NOT want and now I need to SHOUT at somebody!
Deep breaths, fourth explanation. Eventually I get some toast. And the omelette I wanted. With some cold cuts that taste like seekh kebab, how did they do that? And - I wouldn't believe this myself if I hadn't checked it out - a bowl of dried fish along with the baked beans and the kebab / sausages. Dude, this stuff smells, take it away!

I'm probably not the only one who feels this way. A big Australian in a sweat-shirt, jeans and Caterpillar-type designer boots sits at the next table over a coffee. The words "appalling" and "amazing" recur in the soft burr of his conversation.

A bonus - the bill for breakfast is just a little over half of what I'd expected. From the menu.
Again, what kind of hotel charges you separately for breakfast when you're part of a block booking of about a hundred room-nights?


The first night in Dhaka was .. weird. Driving in from the airport, everything looked familiar but faintly off-kilter, like your friend's face, that afternoon in college when you first smoked weed.
Then it hit me - this is like the parts of Calcutta that the visitors don't see (s***w you, Roland Joffe! You shot your film in Howrah). The little gas-lit sheds selling ornate furniture carved out of cheap wood, the sudden row of about a thousand shops all selling electrical stuff like plugs and flex, the mosquito nets, the narrow roads.
Or perhaps a backwoods town, a "mofussil" town
like Bahrampur or Alipurduar, where people go shopping for bright green plastic water-bottles because their children are going back to school the next week.

Right. The next corner had a 20-storey building with a humongous three-layer gleaming-glass showroom on the street level. Pacific Motors, the local Mercedes dealership. And the BMW showroom was a couple of hundred yards on. (The next day I salivated over a Porsche parked in the hotel porch. Convertible. The Porsche, not the porch.)

The first night (and the next) was weird for another reason. I fluffed up three large pillows (there IS something about a hotel room), drank a Diet Coke, sucked at my pipe. Then for the first time ever, I actually watched TV for hours. The Simpsons, Boston Public, even (wincing) Friends. Hours? About 70 minutes, actually. By half past nine in the evening I was sprawled across the bed, doing my celebrated imitation of Large Harmless (Mostly) Jellyfish. Another first. Ravelled sleeve of care be damned.
Night life in Dhaka. Hmmm.


Visiting Dhaka from Calcutta is nice. You merge right in, or if you don't, the locals seem genuinely happy to hear Bangla from a phoren specimen. They have such lovely warm smiles. So nice.
Till I realise that I have made three calls back home (total time 3:12. Minutes, not hours) and they have charged me nearly NINE HUNDRED TAKA. (OK, don't laugh, who pays $4 per minute to call 200 miles?) I slitted my eyes and tried to look tough, but it didn't work. They just smiled at me. Bloody stupid grins.

Tip: if you're visiting Dhaka, don't bother to activate international roaming. The strike rate on calls going through, cell-to-cell, is rather worse than Saurav Ganguly's. Slightly better when calling a land line. Even after my cell phone started working intermittently, all the calls showed some Delhi number. Added spice to the interactions, especially after I greeted my boss with "Hello, f**k-face", under the impression that it was my journo buddy from the capital.

Bangladesh actually has problems with telecom. I saw headlines with complaints, explanations, allegations. And it took six hours for a fax to get through.

Tuesday 14th June 2005

The hotel staff have a nasty sensayuma. Yesterday a housekeeping guy stopped me in the corridor and told me (with a smile, of course) that he'd put extra shampoo in my room. This morning a lady knocked on my door and handed me a comb. Do I need to be told my hairstyle's like Telly Savalas'?

There's a steel plate in the bathroom wall. There's a slot in the steel plate. A sign next to it says "Old blades here".
I squinted in for some sign of Beau Brummel or the Hellfire Club. If they were in there, they were keeping very quiet.

Wonderful exchange. Executive Floor guest in the lift, to the bell captain in a very patronising tone - "That's a new tie". Measured, deadpan response, "I have two".


Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Dhaka Diary (Pts. 1 - 432)

The start was ominous. A yawning airport lounge in the aftermath of a Lunch. (What a lunch ... those who rant about Calcutta have obviously been deprived of biriyani from the Bengal Club. And have no idea what Munna Maharaj can do with a mango).

I'd been warned that I might be offloaded if I didn't turn up in time, Biman is famously the only airline flying out of Cal that doesn't have a computerised booking system (the web-site just about sums it up). So, still sweating from biriyani + gilawati kebabs + heat, I rushed into the airport.
I was the second person at the check-in counter.

The other passengers (an A-300/310 can carry 325 passengers. Except when it's Biman, then it's configured to carry 580. Do the math) were squabbling at the X-ray machine behind a looming stack of about 7835 pieces of baggage . Mostly cardboard cartons tied together with nylon cords.
I swear there were even TVs in there. Who comes to Cal to buy a television?!
And of course the flight was late.

The lounge was different (from the lunch, that is). The crowd had B.O. And the man next to me had halitosis.

I moved. The television was too loud. To be fair, J.P. Dutta's LOC is probably loud even when you use the 'Mute' button.

I moved. Right to the other end. Baghbaan this end. Tolerable when muted, because of The Man. But of course it wasn't muted.

So I'm old and bald, but I LIKE looking out of the window. So I'd asked for a window seat. Got it, too. Right over the wing. Damn.
The air-conditioning didn't work. How much of a moron do you have to be to make people sweat when outside the plane it's something like -40 Celsius?!
And the bloke next to me also had halitosis.

Then the steward spilt Sprite in my lap. After I'd told him politely that I did NOT want his tray of scavenged scraps.

I woke up as we were landing. The part of the view that wasn't blotted out by the wing was amazing. Water. Except for the occasional patchwork divider, it was like landing in San Francisco (which is scary the first time, the plane skims over the waves, you can't even see the airport and a little voice in your head keeps telling you This-is-not-a-normal-landing-the-pilot-is-dead-up-there, we're-going-to-come-down-in-the-water-why-don't-you-panic)

But the glimpse of Dhaka was serene, beautiful, clumps of greenery and toy houses in an expanse of water that reflected the last of the light. Very Kevin Costner but without the stoopid costumes. I relaxed, breathed deep, thought long cool green thoughts.

Then they opened the aircraft door and my glasses fogged up. Cool. Yeah, right.

Thursday, June 09, 2005


Near-complete technological melt-down.

My last office finally woke up to the fact that I am no longer at their beck and call, that I am in fact only an ex officio operative. So I had to turn in my gun and badge.
(Guitars and a honky-tonk piano go berserk on the soundtrack as Dirty Al strides into the precinct, face lined and gaunt, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a dull metal star, then draws his .44 Smith & Wesson Magnum from under his arm, cracks open the cylinder to shower slugs on a worn and scarred desk, flips the cylinder shut with a flick of the wrist and throws it on the desk whence it skids into a corner .. CUT, yells the man in the baseball cap, we need to shoot this again with Clint, WHO let Danny de Vito onto the set?!)

Okay, they never gave me a gun or badge. I turned in my laptop.

My trusty steed, my lance and shield all in one. A dull black square-edged IBM Thinkpad that was so over-used, the keys had gone bald. (I need to read up on conditioning and habit - I'm only a sight-typist and yet I could cruise at 70 wpm on a key-board where most of the letters were worn away. Hmmm.) I'd lugged that damn box all over the country and hated its weight, yet when I had to return it I felt a distinct wrench.

Partly because my present office used to be run by A Moron who had No Idea about Laptops. I'm saddled with a Thing that weighs just a little less than the Reserve Bank Building, boots in about the time it takes George Bush to Get an Idea and does NOT connect to the Net under Any Circumstances.

AND ... the Net connection on my home PC is kaput, my office PC has to be re-formatted about thrice a day, I'm reduced to carrying my essential files around on a pen drive and I feel like Robert Redford (orl ROIGHT, so it wuz Peter Finch!) in Network where he goes to the window and yells I CAN'T TAKE IT ANY MORE!

Excuse me while I have a nervous breakdown. Normal service will be resumed soon. Like some time before 2009 ....