Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mid-air musings

At 38,000 feet above the earth, flying away from the setting sun and losing time with every minute flown, Brazil is a random patchwork of jewelled lights in the gathering dark. Over my left shoulder the plane’s wing cuts through the last glow of sunset on the fleeing horizon. The dimpled stewardess takes a minute to check with the flight deck, then tells me we should land in another 40 minutes. Not that it makes a huge difference – we have four hours to kill in Sao Paulo before our connection to Heathrow. One compadre will peel off to JFK – he has ten hours between flights and I’ve been telling him to spend the time riding the buses up and down Manhattan – leaving two of us to fly across the Atlantic. Landfall over Dakar, then north over the Sahara in daytime. That should be some view.

It’s been a little like “ten little Indians” from Buenos Aires onwards. S* had to fly back to Calcutta to meet a buyer. B* stayed back in Lima for another day, he was doing good business and anyway he had an appointment in Belem. N* will fly back via New York because he doesn’t have a UK visa. And my boss will stop off in London, leaving me alone on my side of the cabin to fly the last leg to Calcutta via Delhi. Can I collect and stow my luggage, check in and make a flying visit to Piccadilly on a late summer afternoon, all in six and a half hours? I’m risk averse, but the idea is tempting.

In my ears, Katra katra gives way to Khali haath sham aayi. Voices from home, and the yearning for my own armchair and a small wriggling armful welcoming Papa home becomes an almost physical sensation. Another 36 hours or so, and I’ll be sipping my Arabica as a familiar voice grumbles happily at me from across a glass-topped table. The captain’s voice comes over the PA and the A-320 begins the long slide down the sky to Sao Paulo. My ears pop. Time to shut down and pack up, but I can stay with Kishore on the headphones. As the plane loses height, the lights of each city sliding under the wing become clearer, brighter. City grids and highways appear, then tiny specks of headlights. The spangles remind me, Pujo is 3 weeks away. I’m headed home. Mmmm.

This daytime flight over the breadth of the continent has been rewarding. Minutes after the captain announced that we’d be skirting La Paz, a huge expanse of water appeared somewhere off to port. If it stays in view from 38,000 feet for over 10 minutes at 900 knots, it’s enormous. Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Two weeks ago in Bangalore, a friend told me that Bolivia, a land-locked nation, has a navy – a bunch of coast guard cutters on Lake Titicaca. I looked close, even used my camera zoom, but couldn’t see any of them. (Like Spike Milligan, who, when he boarded the train to boot camp in 1940, was handed a picture of Hitler captioned “This is your enemy” – “I searched the whole train but couldn’t find him”)

Earlier, somewhere in the Peruvian Andes, I saw a strange barren plateau. Flat for miles and miles without a trace of habitation, then suddenly the edge crumbled into precipitous ridges and canyons. A very high plateau, because the rim was dusted with snow. It looked like a coffee truffle cake with a bite taken out of the middle, the striation of millennia showing in the canyon sides like a cross section of chocolate layers. And yes, the icing on the edges.

Checking in at Heathrow, I was served by a fragile blonde with a German-Polish name tag. She was quick, helpful, positive. He was at the next counter, manned by a person with a sandalwood dot on his forehead and a bad-tempered mouth. Neither man was happy. I told him he should have flown Jet. He said no, Air India is more Indian than Jet. Say what? I shrugged and went off to find the lounge. (And abandoned my plans for going into town – everybody warned me about Friday evening traffic)

Later, in the lounge, we got to talking. When he introduced himself I was sure I had heard the name before. He told me the real reason for the Air India booking. His wife and he never took the same flight, and this time it had been her turn to fly Jet. I googled him. He’s into steel and distilleries, his father-in-law was a well-known Chief Minister and his firm had been named in a land and loan scam in Madhya Pradesh. But he was pleasant, polite, well-spoken. A good public school does have its plus points. When we taxied for take-off, he peered through from First Class and waved. I went up the aisle and peeked into his section. He was seated cross-legged, rocking a little, reading the Hanuman Chalisa. Fear of flying. What can I say, in the light of the Air France crash in July even I had been a little apprehensive about the long haul over the Atlantic.

Day 2, 11 a.m. Lima time. The stewardess serves me a second cup of coffee, no breakfast, thank you. We’re just over an hour from Delhi. Earlier, the mud-brown dirt-pile hills of eastern Iran and Afghanistan looked like a child’s tracks on a beach. I’ve learnt, though, that even if it looks barren from the sky, greenery is visible when one goes down below 20,000 or so. As I look out of the porthole, the hills have vanished and we’re flying over One Big River, tributaries meandering around it like baby snakes around a Big Mama Python. The fields on either side are big, straight-edged. Given the location, this can only be the Indus.

The next time I look down, we seem to be flying over a cloud-field. No wait, is that the sea? Are we flying south of Karachi? Then a speck of human habitation comes into view, a straight line cuts across the picture, and it all comes into focus. Those aren’t waves, they’re sand dunes. We’re over the Great Rajasthan Desert. It seems to go on and on, but that’s because I keep looking. Gradually the patches of green multiply, run together. As we continue towards Delhi, a flotilla of tiny white puffy clouds takes position over the Punjab, their shadows marking a grid over the checkerboard of fields below.

The captain’s Aussie accent comes over the PA. Half an hour to Delhi, and after that only one more airport and one more flight before I reach home.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Between the covers - College Street

Adults are biased towards stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. In that order. Children don’t really care, they just want to know “what happens next”. From this perspective, there should be more children on College Street. Although the maps will tell you College Street runs from Bowbazar to Mahatma Gandhi Road (Harrison Road as was), this is a part of Calcutta that has no discernible beginning nor an end. Every time you think you’ve reached one end of it, three more book-stalls appear under yet another tarpaulin-rigged awning. Side lanes, porticos, lobbies of peeling old houses, in this part of town they breed books like buildings elsewhere grow mold. On a late Saturday morning when the colleges give over early and the book-loving Bengali babu is starting his weekend, this para buzzes with activity like an ant’s nest that’s just sighted an aardvark. Our car inched through the little lane that runs from Harrison Road to the gate of Presidency College. We stopped for strollers, honked at carters, dodged tiny buzzing three-wheeled carry-alls loaded with (what else?) books, then finally gave up and walked the last hundred yards to the door of the Indian Coffee House.

Our story had its beginning in a conversation a week before our visit. An uncle of mine had dismissed the College Street boi para (roughly, “neighbourhood of books”) as a flea-market for crammers’ texts and second-hand potboilers. “Can you find anything in any language that is RARE, let alone interesting?” Out of nowhere, we fixed on Jadunath Sarkar, doyen of Bengal’s historians, as the touchstone. Could we find anything by him on College Street? So it came to pass that 11 o’clock on a cloudy humid Saturday saw us stepping gingerly through puddles, wiping our faces repeatedly under the combined onslaught of humidity and a faint drizzle, glancing with unconcealed disgust at stall after stall that advertised “CBSE-ICSE-ISC text” or “Medical – JEE – CAT”. Was THIS what College Street had been reduced to? Where were the bonanzas that our parents’ generation gloated over, the pamphlet autographed by Toru Dutt or the 1898 edition of the Materia Medica?

The Coffee House lane (Bankim Chatterjee Street) is entirely devoted to textbooks. (What a waste - even during our student days some decades ago, textbooks never figured on our list of priorities.) Yet it makes historical sense. Hindu College in 1817, Sanskrit College, the Calcutta Medical College in 1835, Calcutta University and later Presidency College – these were all started on College Street or just off it in the Potoldanga area. Small wonder that the College Street boi para took root, almost 200 years ago, from the textbook trade. For more esoteric books and for the latest rage, the gentry ordered in from the booksellers in the Chowringhee area. It was only at the turn of the (previous) century that College Street’s booksellers increased the ambit of their trade. And the stories of lost treasures glimpsed in dusty piles on the pavement took root, grew, gave rise to myths and tall tales.

These tales were most often told in the Coffee House, the adopted home of generations of self-proclaimed Bengali intelligentsia. Housed in the Albert Hall (yes, of course there had to be one in the “second city of the Raj”! This one was built in 1876), this was the place to enjoy the best adda, the slowest service and the most tolerant waiters in the world. Poets, economists, politicians, charlatans, they all spent hours and days over carefully nursed cups of coffee and shared cigarettes under the slow revolving fans strung on beams between the upper floor balconies. Every Bengali of note, from Rabindranath Tagore to Amartya Sen, has been a patron. One of the most enduringly popular Bangla songs is Manna Dey’s anthem to nostalgia, Coffee House-er shei adda. Yet like most things Bengalis hold dear, it has been on the brink of oblivion for years. It took a petition from the faculty of Calcutta University and the Presidency College to keep it from being shut down in 1958. Eventually, in 1995, Mudar Patherya led an initiative for essential renovation and again in 2007, Bengal Shelter cleaned and renovated it. Today it is almost chic in its ambience. Of course there are old-timers who miss the smoke-blackened walls and the chipped Coffee Board saucers. But they still serve the most soul-satisfying greasy “mutton Afghani”. I can vouch for this because, of course, we ended our College Street expedition there.

But again the time-line jinks. The book search, yes. We pushed through the crowds on the sidewalk in our search for old books, yet all we found within that tunnel of blue polythene rain-sheets was text-books. And children’s books. And self-help books. We crossed to the other side of the road and found a different world. Piles upon piles of pulp fiction, literary criticism, photography, yearbooks. Obviously this side, along the wall of Presidency College, is more fun. Subol Moitra from Medinipur peeped shyly from his book-walled alcove and edified us about the complicated system of rental and sub-rental that governed the economy of these six by four “locations”. But where oh where, among this rubble of Harold Robbins and Fashion Photography, were we to find anything by the great Jadunath Sarkar? Back to the other side we went, picking our way between reddish-chocolate mini-buses, bright yellow taxis and rickshaws with schoolchildren peeking out from behind the inevitable blue polythene sheet.

From an article by Amit Roy I found that six bookshops opened between 54 College Street and 70 College Street in the 1870s. One of these was Gurudas Chatterjee’s Bengal Medical Library, which is now the venerable institution of Chatterjee & Sons, right opposite the gate of Presidency College. But alas, the harried gentleman behind the counter was positive that they had nothing by Jadunath Sarkar. He could try and get it for us if we left an order, but that was not within the rules of the game. On we went, past an open shop-front that revealed no counter within, just piles of books in the semi-dark, like the Xiqian terracotta army waiting to be brought back to life. Craning my neck to check the shop-signs farther down, I saw “Dasgupta & Co. (P) Ltd.” Why had I not thought of this earlier? For many years Arabinda Dasgupta has been my go-to man when I want a book that’s not available over the counter, but we had never met in person, we had always been voices on the phone. We ventured in and asked for him. Within minutes we were sipping coffee at a small table in a room that seemed to be built with books. If one looked closely one could see an occasional patch of wall or a piece of furniture, but the foreground, background and middle ground consisted entirely of books and nothing else. The bonus lay in overhearing the impassioned conversations on the telephone. “Drugs and Cosmetics, have you sent that to Bombay yet? You should have it by Tuesday morning, call me if it hasn’t reached you.” “Where did you put that Swift on Grammar? Somebody from Raj Bhavan will be here in an hour to collect it.” “Hanif on Accountancy? Yes, we have a couple of copies, but it’ll take some time to get it to you in London.” The total experience, the combination of focussed business and casual erudition, was somewhere between a library and a stock exchange.

Coffee done with, we got down to the serious business of Finding Sir Jadunath. “But of course, I’m sure I saw something by him.” And Mr. Dasgupta shot off to hunt among the shelves, returning for a moment to hand me, as a sort of appetizer or amuse bouche, a collection of essays by F. Max Mueller (I point to India). Within minutes he returned triumphant, bearing a book in a slightly battered yellow cover – Introducing India, edited by K.N. Bagchi and W.G. Griffiths (yes, THAT Griffiths), first published in 1947 and reprinted in 1990 by Dr. Ashin DasGupta, Administrator, Asiatic Society, 1 Park Street, Calcutta. Seeing our brows furrowed, he opened it and pointed to an article on Indian history by, yes yes YES, Jadunath Sarkar! Our quest was over!

But not our expedition. We were led on a tour of the three floors of the shop. Up a spiral staircase of wrought-iron, through old doors under raftered ceilings, and in every room, books and more books. If there is a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this! Books the way they can be savoured best, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopaedia of Body Building lying atop a history of football on the Calcutta maidan and next to an anthology of travelogues from Central Asia, with In search of an equation sharing floor space with an illustrated history of Central Indian tribes. A balcony shaded by a gnarled old neem tree, with a view of College Street on one side, and on the other a wire-mesh window behind which a dignified old gent tapped away at a word-processor but with a trusty typewriter beside him as a back-up. It took an effort of will to leave, but deadlines beckoned. We took our leave and hied ourselves to the Coffee House to celebrate, where Javed Khan, in cummerbund and turban, posed for us after he brought us (as expected) the best mutton afghani and the worst cold coffee possible.

College Street had not done with us yet. As we descended the uneven stairs, we noticed a series of posters on the wall – “Mohamichhil (Great Procession) on –th July”. But that’s today! We’ll be stuck here for hours! Our well-fed saunter changed to a sprint. Sure enough, traffic was halted outside, a posse of policemen in white uniforms were massed along the tram-tracks and the head of a procession complete with banners was visible 50 metres to the south, opposite the University gate. Fortunately our car was parked farther north, our ungainly canter was just fast enough to get to it before the procession started moving and we were able to speed away before the road was closed off. This was one time we didn’t stop to find out “what happened next”. But true to form, College Street had started another story before we had quite finished the one before.

(Stodgy, yes, but I am reliably informed that some version of this has appeared in an on-flight magazine)