Monday, December 27, 2010

Yule like this

A check-out line on Christmas Eve is a good introduction to the Theory of Relativity. You know what I mean? One acquires an entirely different perspective of time. 17,492 people ahead of me in line searched in their handbags for discount cards, argued with the counter clerk about free gifts, held up the billing to add a dozen disgustingly twee key-chains from the Point-of-Purchase display. I waited. In a parallel timeline, seasons changed, empires rose and fell, glaciers melted, mountains grew. Still I waited. And thought with wistful admiration of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliament that, in1647, banned the celebration of Christmas in England.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the Grinch who stole Christmas. I don’t even say “Bah! Humbug!” in the manner of Old Man Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”. But standing in that check-out line and later, stuck in never-ending traffic, I contemplated emigrating to China. Or to Saudi Arabia, Iran, North Korea or Algeria. Because they don’t have any Christmas holidays. (On second thoughts, emigrating there may not be a good idea. Reports indicate that ignoring Christmas is just part of their policy statement about “peace on earth and goodwill towards all men”.) The celebration of Christmas – like Diwali, Durga Pujo, Holi, Eid, Moharram, Yom Kippur and the Chinese New Year – may be less about religious belief and more about the celebration of community, identity. The defining symbol is no longer the cross or the holly. It is the credit card.

Let’s face it, Christmas in its present form never really was about the actual birth of the Saviour. For one thing, the Bible mentions that the Wise Men sought directions from shepherds in the fields when they sought the Child. Shepherds. In the fields. Does that sound like deep and dark December? The Bible itself mentions no date nor season of the year. Besides, it’s no coincidence that Christmastide coincides with the much older celebration of the winter solstice. This was when the Romans celebrated – wait for it – Saturnalia! Which, of course, was a festival noted for its sobriety, piety and atmosphere of restraint. Not! The Church did not approve of the excesses of the Saturnalia. Very interesting excesses they were, too. Those Romans knew a thing or two about debauchery and decadence. Well anyway, the consensus is that the Church, believed that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Around the 4th century of the Christian Era, they quietly took over the winter festival, stripped it of the … errr, youthful high spirits, and converted it into the Feast of the Nativity. So perhaps the Grinch was not the first to “steal Christmas”!

Christmas, of course, has its own set of traditions. It’s quite interesting to trace their origins. The mistletoe connection resonates with Norse fertility rites and the legend that Loki used it to slay Baldur. Wassailers and carol-singers were pre-dated by the Roman Mummers, who travelled from house to house singing and bearing gifts. The Mummers, alas, often quite regrettably neglected to clothe themselves, and were usually the worse for drink, but let’s just say it’s the thought that counts. And be grateful that in the present day we are not assailed by the spectacle of fat Uncle Percy in the altogether! The tradition of deforestation is comparatively new to most of the world. It was common in Germany to put up Christmas trees; it must have been a natural outcome of having to clear acres of primeval forest to keep the wolves away from the castle drawbridges. It was only when German nobility were imported into the bloodline of English royals, and perhaps as late as the 19th century, that the custom of ruining perfectly good forests became common. With the result that more than 20 million trees die every Christmas in the USA alone.

It’s a little strange to note that Americans were originally a little chary of Christmas. They saw it as an English custom, and quite understandably Americans in the 1780s were not too fond of the English. Times changed. In 1822 Clement Clarke Moore wrote the poem that we now know as ‘Twas the night before Christmas. Apparently this popularized the custom of Yuletide gift-giving. In 1843 Sir Henry Cole commissioned the first set of Christmas cards. The flood-gates opened. Christmas moved from the church to the mall. Retail barons offer more deeply sincere thanks for Christmas than do many devout believers. And no matter how much they may try to enforce the First Amendment, America leads the world in Christmas commerce. Sometimes the emphasis on “the season for giving” seems a little contrived to me, even calculated.

And yet … The Wife and the Small Person were leaving Newmarket when a snot-nosed urchin tapped on the window to sell them safety-pins. Whereupon the Small Person piped up, “It’s Christmas, Ma. HE should get a gift too!” The Wife asked the waif what he really wanted. The child’s eyes lit up. He led them to the nearest toy store. And pointed to a little train. Now I, as far as possible eschew emotion. Impedes rationality and all that. The Wife was regrettably damp-eyed when she recounted this incident. And the urchin’s sheer delight when she actually handed over the train set. But when she told me of Small Person’s reaction – “Ma, this is all the Christmas present I need. Now I shan’t ask Santa for anything!” – I must confess that my self-imposed bar on sappiness creaked at the seams. Oh, bother! I’ll admit it, I felt good. And a little moist around the peepers. The spirit of giving? It’s still alive. Compliments of the season, readers, no matter whether you’re fellow cynics or dewy-eyed romantics.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Learning process

It’s wonderful to have a proper education. Unfortunately, school and college seem to get in the way. Most of us are so busy getting a degree, we never get around to getting an education. To quote the great sage Chuck Berry (better known for his views on women, drink and blues guitar), “When I think back on all the ***p I learnt in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.” When I first heard that, I thought it was the wisdom of the ages. Somebody famous had just validated my decision not to study maths or science and my jettisoning of a Master’s degree as soon as I got a paying job. It sounded good. It made me feel great. But that was before I met calculus. Oh, AND statistics. Together. The academic equivalent of being tag-teamed by Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker.

This academic mauling occurred many years ago, when I made a misguided attempt at getting what I thought would be an advanced education. What that really means, of course, is that I tried to get another degree. Not in this country; I winged it to the land which claims to be the true defender of democracy, the most reliable bulwark of freedom and free speech. To be fair, in the first few weeks the classroom atmosphere did seem refreshingly open and liberal. One faculty member, a long languid Californian who specialised in “kaampyutyshenul maahd’ling uv elactral trands”, gave me an A+ for an assignment wherein I savaged everything he had taught us in three classes. I was awed; I’d expected a poor grade, on the lines of a teacher in my earlier alma mater who gave me a 0 on a test because (she said) I had answered the question with reference to the wrong chapter! (This, mind you, was in the third year of college.) I became friends with the faculty member, a great guy except for his terrible taste in beer. (I quickly learnt that even boutique microbreweries can produce quite awful beer. In hindsight, that was one of the most educative aspects of my sojourn.) The groves of academe seemed rather pleasant, at least for a while.

Around the fourth week on campus, I asked myself whether I was learning anything. Statistics, a little bit. Calculus, maybe. But was I working towards a goal that held relevance for my job back home? A PhD doesn’t seem all that hot after you meet a girl who’s been working on one for seven years. With a thesis on – believe this! – “Sex Scandals and the American Presidency”. (She did have the grace to admit she’d left out JFK and WJC because either of them would have been enough for a thesis by themselves.) And how exactly would her thesis be of use? She shrugged. Not her business, she said. Her job was research; practical applications were not her look-out. This, I thought, was ethically one step away from Tom Lehrer’s satire – “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That’s not my department, says Wernher von Braun.” So what purpose did the research serve? With all this emphasis on statistical analysis, could we frame some rules? Make some predictions? Say, that a man who has been involved with more than three women and a washing-machine on one prom night is 67% more likely to get involved in a scandal if he is elected President? Nope. No way. Apparently every thesis had to mandatorily include (a) at least 120 pages of abstruse statistical analysis, followed by (b) a disclaimer that “No causal correlations are attempted”. Say what? We’re expected to get permanent migraines learning calculus and we can’t even use it to make a point?

In sum, I found the post-graduate scenario strange because (1) the topics of research tended to be phenomenally arcane (2) there was no attempt to find practical applications of research findings and (3) there seemed to be far too much emphasis on quantitative methods, without any results to show for it. But was I the only man on campus who thought this way? Autumn rolled around and with it, our discipline’s annual national conference. (Held, of course, in balmy San Francisco while we shivered on the East Coast.) We followed it on the Internet (although live video feeds were jerky) and lo and behold, I was vindicated! Because the Annual Convention was picketed by masked demonstrators who were protesting against … yes, arcane research topics, lack of practical relevance and over-dependence on quantitative methods! I was not alone! But why were they masked? This is the creepy bit – the protesters were mostly junior faculty who feared that they would never get tenure if they were recognized on camera. Obviously, the land of the free didn’t quite live up to its name on campus.

And obviously any system of education has its own rules, written and unwritten, that students are expected to follow. Systemic education may actually be an oxymoron. Perhaps the only real education comes from that rhyme that goes “I have six honest serving men / They taught me all I know / Their names are why and what and when / and who and where and how”. So is a formal education just a formality? I think we need to come back to this next week. Stay tuned.

Monday, December 06, 2010

An old love

The two events were a thousand kilometres apart. Not to mention a couple of centuries
In the autumn of 1983, I took a girl out to lunch.

Two hundred years earlier, 1783 saw the start of a famine in Avadh that is said to have lasted a decade. (This much is certain. The rest of the story is not substantiated.) Asaf-ud-Daulah, Nawab of Avadh, started construction projects to provide employment to the hungry farmers. The first, the biggest and arguably the most beautiful was the Bara Imambara in Lucknow. Every morning an army of workmen and their families would assemble before dawn, to work till sunset. These were mouths to feed. Wherefore each evening huge pots were filled with layers of rice and meat, the lids sealed with dough, then lowered into pits where charcoal fires had been lit. They would remain upon the embers all night, thus providing, next morning, a slow-cooked breakfast for the army of workers. An awesome breakfast. Because this, of course, was the origin of dum pukht biryani.

What a wonderful story. But alas, unsubstantiated. By common consensus, biryani actually came to India many years before Asaf-ud-Daulah. The recipe probably came over the passes of Kandahar and Baluchistan in the 14th century, with the hordes led by one of the most fearsome names in history – Tamerlane. Timur the Terrible, Timur the Lame, Timur the Scourge of the Infidels. His sack of Delhi in 1398 was a thing of blood and horror, but some of my friends might say it was a small price to pay for the next six hundred years of biryani delectation. (Not, I hasten to add, my own point of view; my friends tend to have extreme opinions.) There may be more than a grain of truth in the Timur story, though; it is at least likely that the idea, the concept of biryani came to us from Persia. Birian is the Farsi word for “fried when raw” or “fried without cooking”, which is a good description of the way the meat is sautéed for traditional biryani. But what IS traditional biryani?

Depends on the tradition, of course. Hyderabadis will assert that their version of biryani is the older one, brought into the Deccan when Aurangzeb’s governor started the Asaf Jahi dynasty. This version is based in Paradise, or at least the earthly version that has now opened branches across the twin cities. One of the nicest things about buying from there is the sealed pack. Voila! Biryani and haleem that one can stash carry on as cabin baggage!

Another version that also claims its origin in Aurangzeb’s reign, by a similar process of osmosis-through-Nawab, is Arcot biryani. This is even spicier than Hyderabadi and perhaps less well known for that very reason. After all, the taste of biryani should be very different from a spicy pulao. Otherwise grand old Boman Kohinoor, lord and master of the legendary Café Britannia in Bombay’s Ballard Estate, could claim that his signature dish of Berry Pulao is actually biryani in Iranian disguise! There is even a Calicut biryani which is supposed to have come across the seas with the Arab traders.A footnote to the southern saga is the development of Tahiri Biryani, supposedly for the Brahmins who supervised the Nawabs’ estates.

The Hyderabadi tradition of biryani is pretty elaborate. Apparently there were 26 distinct variations in the Nizam’s kitchens. The most major point of differentiation was and is the kachchi / pakki divide. In kachchi biryani, the meat is only marinated before being placed between layers of rice in the deg or handi for the slow cooking process. For pakki biryani, the marinated meat is sautéed with spices before placing it between layers of cooked rice redolent with ghee and spices. The specific spices, the precise meat – whether goat mutton, venison, pigeon or beef (chicken is actually a late 19th century entrant at the very earliest) – are secondary issues of improvisation. But I must confess I can’t accept a dish as biryani if it’s seasoned with kari pata!

The Calcutta variant of Avadhi biryani is a comparatively recent development, since Wajid Ali Shah’s retinue of bawarchis and masalchis only settled in Metia Bruz in the 1850s. For Calcuttans, however, there IS no other. Biryani is limited to the products of Shiraz or Aminia or Sabir’s or, for the hardier souls who can stomach cupfuls of ghee, from Royal on Chitpur Road. Or, more recently, Zeeshan and Arsalan. Straight up Avadhi biryani fragrant with ghee and spices, with the addition of a sautéed potato and – when it’s a plate of “special” – a boiled egg. Having been initiated into this most glorious tradition by the age of ten, I am definitely biased in favour of Calcutta biryani. I’ve tried the others, I don’t deny that some of them are very good, but the real stuff? For that, give me a winter evening with a nip in the air and the woodsmoke from the little lanes back of Park Street. And a table shared with like-minded friends, to scoff down platesful of asli biryani with firni and thick sweet “spesul chai” to follow.

And oh – that lunch date in 1983? It was my first biryani at Shiraz. Also my first date with that girl. Who, despite the fact that she’s now married to me, still shares my enthusiasm for the real thing. After some 27 years of dining at Shiraz, we took our daughter there last month. She loved it. And the waiters smiled benignly as one more generation was introduced to tradition.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Child's Play

I come out of the shower to find Small Person pottering about the room. No hugs, there’s a cold war on over one of her transgressions. As I button my cuffs, I ask sternly “Who went potty in their pants today?”
Large-eyed solemn gaze directed upwards at me from my knee-level.
I repeat the question … “Who went potty in their pants today?”
“PAPA!”, she replies with a gleeful grin before she scampers away on tiny legs.

* * *

Kids! You can love them to bits, but there will be times when you will think Herod and Kamsa had just the right methods for dealing with them. Not the views one should express, however, when invited for coffee and conversation to discuss the issue of how adults relate to children. This was with a group called “Childwise”, at a bookstore on Park Street last Wednesday. It speaks volumes for the organisers’ persuasiveness that I forsook my biryani on Eid and toddled along to hear wise (child-wise!) things about parenting, schooling, learning and disciplining. I was not disappointed.

I expected pontification. Piety. Platitudes. Instead, we got straight talk. I expected a fair amount of preaching on corporal punishment. In the next two hours, we discussed class sizes, power structures, reading habits, role models. (And I fell in love. But more of that anon.) The main question was (and is) are we doing right by our children? Of course everyone has a different answer to this. And of course 99% of parents will assert that they are doing the right thing, but … Those “buts” tend to hide the essentials. Of time spent with the child. Of teaching by example. Of not pressurizing a pre-teen to excel in six different endeavours. And where does the school figure in this picture? Can schools be more than cramming centres? Can they contribute to positive discipline? Some teachers outlined innovative new schemes for motivating students – red cards like a football match, a bank of points at the beginning of the school year. But frankly, those schemes alone do not seem adequate.

Thankfully, the whole issue of corporal punishment in schools was summarily dismissed by Mr. John Mason, who said that its rights and wrongs are no longer open for discussion once the courts have banned it. One well-intentioned lady opined that all punishment demeans the child, that punishments “reinforce an unfair power structure”. I think that’s sheerest tosh. Children are not angels. (Well, not all the time.) Positive examples and rewards alone will not suffice to keep them on the right track. Sometimes a child needs to be made to stand in the corner. Besides, they’ll grow up into a world that has unfair power structures. Doesn’t it make sense for them to get used to it right away?

I was a little disturbed by the clear divisions between parents and teachers, the “we” and “they” attitudes evident. Parents are resentful of teachers who think they know all about teaching. Again, some of the teachers were aghast at how little some parents knew about their children. Thankfully, both groups articulated their issues clearly and within the hour the milk of human kindness was flowing freely. Yes, large class sizes do make it difficult for teachers to devote individual attention to children. Yes, parents should not need to spend 4 hours every evening going over school-work with their children. But how does one get around the problems of competition for limited educational resources?

We benefitted from the clear thinking of several teachers present, including the redoubtable trio of John Mason, Sister Cyril and Brendan MacCarthaigh. Two points that they made stand out. First, on the subject of exams and competition, Brother Brendan pointed out that in sports, a coach is fired if his players fail consistently. Why is it that if a student fails academically, the child is thrown out while the teacher remains? This raised a laugh, but it is a very basic issue in teacher evaluation.

A couple of people pointed out that the supposedly large class sizes in our elite schools are wonderful when compared to the situation in many rural schools. One lady mentioned a school where in one room, one teacher had to teach 80 children across four classes. Sister Cyril (whose appearance, sense of humour and no-nonsense demeanour reminded me of my very dear great-aunt), addressing the issue of overcrowded classrooms, said that the best way to deal with it is to divide the children into groups. This can be done in either of two ways. If the better achievers are grouped together, the teacher can concentrate on the other groups who don’t do so well. If children of varying abilities are put in the same group, they can help each other.

And what about the home front? Parenting is not instinctive. Parents cover the spectrum from those who smother with love to those who forget about their children. Parents need to understand better what makes their children tick and how the child can enjoy learning. Sister Cyril revealed that she has been running interactions with parents on these lines for 32 years!

All in all, a very instructive evening and an experience that I would like to have repeated. One niggle remained, however. For a body with the laudable motto of “Connecting before correcting”, Childwise could have made sure there were more young school-going participants in the discussion.

And yes, my falling in love? The object of my adoration was Sister Cyril’s distinct Irish brogue, which has survived 32 years in Calcutta!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Getting there ....

After several hours of earning my pay (not a very pleasant exercise, at least in my day job), I took some time off today to browse. And by labyrinthine ways came I upon a blog I used to have, many years ago. In fact, the first blog I ever started (almost defunct, because I haven’t posted there since February or thereabouts). At the risk of boring the pants off the few readers I have left, I shall reproduce a post from 2004 (SIX years ago?!) which so matches my mood just now, as a perfunctory sun splashes its last tired rays on Park Street and starts its homeward slide into the haze behind Vidyasagar Setu, as I gird my loins for yet another meeting and a long drear November evening in office with piles of papers that make a mockery of the first nip in the air.

But the post also has content that brings contentment, for even though it’s taken six years, I can now put a couple of tick marks against my bucket list. Observe the parts emboldened –

* * *

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

And how shall I begin ... shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets. And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows … And one of them would have been me, standing at a window high above the Via Arriberti, looking out at the layered sky settling behind the chic hedgehog Duomo and the dome of a church in the next street.

The winter evening settles down With smells of steaks in passage-ways … except that in Calcutta, one would have to wait a long long time to smell a good steak. Perhaps in the CC&FC or Mocambo. Mem: Work on a good steak-house for the city. But as the weather slips towards December, it is nice to walk the darkling streets or perch (perchance) on a balcony and greet the chill of evening.

Life is very long … What does the week ahead hold for me? I need to change my job. Stay at home and tap away at this slightly speckled key-board until something emerges that I can parley for pelf.

Then take the money and run … to Peru to see the Nazca Lines and Macchu Picchu, push myself across a rope bridge in the Andes, stare down a llama … Or to Malawi, to walk the high veldt with a camera as the sun goes down behind the acacias and a stomach-jolting roar floats from the horizon … A wood-panelled pub in a narrow alley in Dublin, at a table scarred with burns and bitters, with the lilt of Irish talk around … Or on a road out of Istanbul with the Bosporus gleaming below, driving between two days and two continents as strange music pours from the radio … Perhaps a yurt on the steppes on the edge of the Gobi, lifting the flap to see the horizon distant as another day ...

Oh well. At least I have my coffee ... "black as sin, hot as the Pit and strong enough to float a horseshoe".

* * *

Observe, good my lords and gentles, that I have got around to fulfilling a couple of these wishes. In 2007 a couple of kind souls who liked my store window, to wit, this Philippic, actually started buying some of my efforts. No princely amounts, but the satisfaction of knowing that somebody thought my writing good enough to buy with real money. Post recession, the market has even picked up, to the point where my keyboard can subsidise not just my panatellas but even the occasional bottle of peaty delight. Score one for the dinosaur!

Peru … I know my limitations, so I did not venture the Inca trail with its precarious bridges, but in 2009 I did manage to visit Machu Picchu (Pick-choo, say Pick-choo, not Pitchu). I even saw the Nazca Lines from the plane, on the long flight back towards Sao Paulo. And while truth compels me to admit that I did not in fact stare down a llama, I did withstand the downhill rush of three of the uncouth creatures while climbing up to the threshing floor at Machu Picchu.

Istanbul was the year before that, 2008, an idyll of quayside coffee in Ortakay and leisurely walks down Istiklal (marred only by a series of meetings, how work does intrude most unfairly upon life!).

And of course, Mocambo and black coffee are two of the enduring pillars of my workaday existence. For once, this Old Bong has reason to go easy on the sadness! Sunrise in Malawi, the Gobi, even Dublin - I shall get there, no matter that it’s a long long way to Tipperary!

* * *

Monday, November 15, 2010

... the first stone

(The Bengal Post, Monday 15th Nov 2010)

On weekends, the Better Half makes breakfast for me. Very gratifying, but once in a while she gets the fried egg less than perfect. The yolk runs. Very sad. I do so love the first dip into the sunny centre of a good fried egg. My question is, when I don’t get my egg just so, do I have the right to criticise the Better Half? (Of course, I’d never actually criticise her, I’m a sensitive modern man. With a healthy instinct of self-preservation!) After all, she has given her time and effort to fry me that egg without any profit from the act. Does that place her beyond criticism? Is altruism generally beyond criticism?

I think we’re agreed that if the egg in question is ruined by the cook, a certain amount of criticism is warranted. (But very cautiously: good cooks are hard to come by. When Saki wrote “The cook was a very good cook as cooks go, and as cooks go she went”, he was merely outlining the demand-supply situation for skilled HR.) The cook is paid to do a job. If the job is not done to the client’s satisfaction, there is a monetary loss. Fine, that’s easy – egg ruined, cook gets it in the neck. But if there is no payment involved, is criticism still justified?

I’d say yes. Criticism may not be fair, it is rarely objective, but it should always be permitted. Now that I’ve established my credentials as a model of reason and fairness – who may, however, hate your guts for criticizing me, not that I’ll ever say so, oh no! - we can now move on to the next step in this argument. Suppose the cook just cannot fry an egg the right way. Criticism and advice have no effect. What then? Find a new cook, I’d say. What if every cook I find is still incapable of frying an egg right? To my mind, the answer is simple – do it yourself. (I do fry a mean egg.)

Can this progression hold true in every case? Last week, I ventured that if we are unhappy with people in public life, we should ask ourselves if we can do their jobs instead. Which brought upon my head both wrath and invective. One reader raised the question of doctors. If you’re unhappy with your surgeon, can you carry out a laparoscopy? Obviously not. But you are at liberty to read up on the subject and learn about the basics of the procedure. To carry this do-it-yourself argument to its extreme, if the medical procedure is really that important to you, you should have trained yourself to be a doctor. (Or to be John Rambo, who could sew up his own arm.) This is not realistic. People have different skills and training, they fulfill different roles in an organised economy. A doctor can criticise a baker even if he himself does not know how to make a plum cake. At the same time, the baker can crib that his doctor just couldn’t cure his allergy. The do-it-yourself option is not always viable. And criticism can result in improved services, especially when the media or the courts are involved.

But what about situations where specific qualifications are not required? To go back to my earlier theme about the people we all love to criticise i.e. politicians, no specific training or qualification is required to stand for election. What is required is effort. And time. If you think that no government addresses the issues that concern you, would you take the matter into your own hands? Would you stand for election? Would you fry your own eggs?

I have an example in mind.

In 1985, the owner of a restaurant named The Hog’s Breath in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, faced some problems in getting clearances for some modifications. So he ran for election as Mayor. (Reportedly, he campaigned for the repeal of a law that banned eating ice-creams in public.) He actually won the election by a handsome margin and went on to modify the downtown building codes. Having got the policy he needed, he finished his term and retired from public office. That’s do-it-yourself. The man had a personal history on those lines. He was (and is) an actor who had differences with his directors; he eventually set up his own company, directed his own pictures and went on to win two Academy Awards for Best Director. Take a bow, Clinton Eastwood.

I’m not saying everybody can run for election (or be Dirty Harry). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t criticise people for doing a bad job just because we can’t do the job ourselves. What I am saying is that in many cases, we waste our time in criticism when we actually could get the job done ourselves. The most awe-inspiring example is Dashrath Manjhi of Gahlour village in Bihar. Does anyone remember him? He worked for 22 years, from 1960 to 1982, to cut a road through a hill, a road that cut down the distance between his village of Gahlour Ghati in Bihar’s Gaya district and the town of Wazirganj. By the most conservative estimate, he single-handely cut and moved at least a million cubic feet of stone!! We speak lightly of resolve that moves mountains. He had it. The next time you have a problem – with traffic, with local hoodlums, with bad roads – think of Dashrath Manjhi. He never said “Yes, we can!” He just never doubted that he could.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The easy way out

I really need to start reading comics again. Except that comics no longer exist. These days we have "graphic novels". Thankfully, even graphic novels feature superheroes. Though superhero costumes are significantly different these days. No more undies worn on the outside, or so I'm told. I won't hazard a guess as to what has replaced the Phantom's diagonally striped briefs, but the Indian version of Spiderman reportedly wears a dhoti!

Graphic novels were brought to mind by a whimsy in Samit Basu's new novel "Turbulence" - that superheroes actually prefer simple exploits, like fighting muggers off an old lady's purse, to grand schemes for improving the world. Makes sense, if you think about it. Punch a hoodlum, save a lady, smile for the paparazzi, then fly off with the cape billowing heroically. Much easier than, say, identifying the bugs in health-care delivery systems. And so very much easier than actually thinking up workable solutions. Besides, try explaining fiscal reform to a guy who’s on his fifth beer. “Look, suppose this napkin here is the federal debt, and this salt-cellar is the bail-out package … ”. Nope. Wouldn’t work. You’d get a much better connect with “So we decided, these guys aren’t going to listen to reason, we need to bomb the **** out of them!” Keep it simple. And, if possible, suitable for television.

A brilliant example is the strange incident of the dog on Salisbury Plain, as recounted in the memoirs of the Rt. Hon. James Hacker. Remember that? Where the Minister spends several million pounds of public money to save a dog that's strayed onto an artillery range, all because it will earn him votes? Cuddly dog, convenient cameras, caring Minister, great sound-bytes. An event rather than an issue, more circus than bread. A showy gimmick that’s not only easier than a systemic solution, it's also easier for the common man to understand.

Gimmicks these days are much easier. Or principles easier to defend. They were rather tougher propositions in the past. In 1865, Sir Robert Napier led an army from India to Abyssinia to fight the Emperor Towoodros (Theodore II) just to free a handful of British prisoners. Nine thousand infantry and cavalry with their guns and artillery ferried from India to the northern tip of Africa, then 30 kilometres of railway built to take them up-country. And a last brilliant touch - 44 elephants to pull the guns into the mountains! Three months for the army to cross 400 miles of mountain and ravine between the sea and Towoodros’ mountain-top stronghold, Magdala. Then, anti-climactically, just one day to rout Theodore's army. With only 2 fatalities on the British side, one of them in a shooting accident during the march. (5 of the elephants died, alas.) Sir Robert Napier was lionized for his brilliant leadership. Parliament and a grateful Queen made him First Baron Napier of Magdala.

Then came the bill for the exercise. And the reaction. 9 million pounds? Too steep a bill to pay for Britain's glory! The press and public tore into him, and into the government that had seen fit to send his army to Abyssinia. Perspectives change when there's an election to fight.

The British political establishment, of course, was justifiably scared of being judged by the electorate, especially when the victory was long past. Isn't that what we voters do? Applaud as long as our leaders fight the lions in the circus, then raise the roof with cribbing when we find there's the devil to pay? Napier - and others after him, in other times and in other countries – faced the public attitude summed up by Kipling when he famously wrote about the British soldier. "Oh, it's Tommy this and Tommy that and Tommy go away / But it's Thank you, Mr. Atkins! when the band begins to play."

I suppose we all know the risks when we sign up for a life in the public eye. Whether it's on the hustings or the silver screen, success comes with the hazard of the pillory, the laurel wreath barely conceals the basket of rotten tomatoes. I wonder, though - do the tomato-chuckers ever consider how it would feel to be on the receiving end? Would we be as quick to criticise if we knew we might be asked to step up ourselves?

That's a sobering thought. Especially when I think of the names we like to call our politicians. The next time you think they're taking the populist route, evading the tough issues, beating up on the muggers instead of rebuilding Gotham City (to use the Superhero Simile), just consider - would you put your money where your mouth is? Would you stand for election?
And if you would not, will you be honest about the reasons why you wouldn't?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Probashi Pujo - apologium

I am Smart. I have realised that my commenters (kind, kind people who spare their time for this blog) also provide material for my column in The Bengal Post!

I have goofed.

In this column last week, I waxed eloquent about the shortcomings of Pujo as celebrated in foreign climes. It doesn’t feel right, said I. It lacks the true community feeling; it isn’t the real McCoy, quoth I. Then I sat back with a certain feeling of righteousness and looked upon what I had wrought. And lo, it did stink most mightily. For look ye, from sundry places in the western realm there arose voices of protest, yea, verily did they raise the roof. Wherefore I hied me to a place of quiet and safety and thought awhile of what had come to pass. And after much thought and beating of the breast (no rending of hair, I’m a little handicapped in that field), I came to the pass of repentance and correction.

Here’s the deal – Pujo as celebrated by Bangalis abroad is fine. No, really. It has everything that one looks for in Pujo here, and then some. The camaraderie, the common effort that leads to a sense of community, the preservation and reinforcement of traditions, even the food. They’re all there in the probashi Pujo. That is the sum and substance of my learning from the protests – dignified, reasoned but seething with indignation – that came my way when I posted last week’s column on the Internet. I was wrong. And I shall quote some of my critics to illustrate where I was wrong.

One commenter sternly reprimanded my “casual and irresponsible rhetoric” that thoughtlessly criticised “the people who have adapted miles away from their homeland, been creative in their undying efforts to recreate their childhood experiences and who have been perhaps more original and credible with less resources than their counterparts in Kolkata.” That’s a valid point. Their Pujo is not inferior just because it’s different. Some aspects are definitely far more commendable. With fewer people to organise each Pujo, there is far greater involvement. In a way, the sense of community is stronger. These Pujos are a celebration of Bangali identity, only in a different way. They establish a little bit of Bengal in “a corner of a foreign field”. I would, however, clarify that I had not criticised the Bangali in exile; I had merely (and perhaps thoughtlessly) stated that the experience of Pujo there does not match my experience of Pujo at home. In the process, however, I had missed much that is commendable and indeed enjoyable about the Pujo in exile.

I must be careful about that term too! One commenter from Dallas explicitly takes umbrage at the word “exile”. Here I hold firm – “expatriate” or “NRI” do not suffice to convey the precise state of mind. I must accept the other point she makes, that Pujo abroad is not significantly different from Pujo in “Bhopal, Pune etc.”

I am ambivalent on one other issue. A “higher decibel level seems sexier but this might be just another of those Kolkata phenomenon (sic) where something obnoxious first becomes acceptable and then lovable”. Well, for those of us who grew up in the ‘70s, the pandal microphones forged a major bond with the latest Bangla adhunik. Our generation’s attachment to RD Burman is partly due to “Pujo’r gaan”. Yes, our indulgent smiles at the incessant announcements over the microphone must be a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, but wait! Even the USA can be tolerant of some noise. A friend points out that even in Somerset, New Jersey, they “have some talented dhaakis too”. Glory be! That’s a major part of the Pujo ambience.

A major issue for probashi Bangalis is the authenticity of the food. My flippant (and passing) mention of chicken pizza has not gone down well and my commenters have taken pains (but of course!) to list the menus at their Pujos. “The standard fare is bhoger khichuri with labra, bhaja, chutney, luchi, payesh and mishti in the afternoon and the evening food is even more grandiose sometimes including dishes like ilisher paturi.” “In Boston and New York … didimas, mashimas and kakimas along with the meshos and kakus are toiling away in kitchens to make authentic bhog.”” Being vegetarian i cannot comment on the quality of the mangsho, but the khichuri is always awesome!” I am bested, rebutted, dismissed – and tempted!

Ladies and gentlemen, I withdraw in much embarrassment and confusion, my arguments blown to the four winds. I accept that I was guilty of “taking just one sample and bad-mouthing the entire population”. I repeat, however, that I had merely pointed out certain aspects of the probashi Pujo that, in my humble opinion, diminished the experience. Some of these are inescapable in a foreign land, where Pujo must of necessity be limited to two days on a convenient weekend and cannot encompass 5 days of celebration. And can a Pujo abroad have any equivalent of the immersion ceremony and the truck-ride that it usually entails?

On the other hand, we are now reassured that the spirit of Bangali Pujo is not only alive and well beyond our borders, it is even growing in strength. If the Bangali cannot come home for the Pujo, he will recreate his home where the Pujo is. Dhaak, montro, and the authentic food to cap it all – shall we look forward to Michelle Obama and perhaps Carla Bruni in laal paar next autumn?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In exile

(Again from The Bengal Post)

A chill wind and a sere sky. Drawing on a moody cigarette in the corner of a deserted car park, I grimaced as the cold stung my nose and made my eyes water. Time to go back inside. To the trestle tables and the scattered chairs. The half-smiles and the distant Durga. To the strange experience of Pujo in the eastern United States.

I’m quite proud of the fact that in the last 35 years I have missed only three Pujos in Calcutta. Of course I found Pujos to join elsewhere, but my one experience of Markeen Sharodiya was quite depressing. Now that our annual tryst with Birendra Krishna Bhadra is done, we have thrilled to the clarity of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s “Jaago, tumi jaago”, the school holidays have started, the pandals are nearly complete and half the Bangali population is out of town anyway, spare a thought for those who pass their Pujo in exile. Not for them the resonance of Mohishasura Mordini at dawn, or the clamour of passing dhaakis on Ponchomi. Not for them the luxury of slipping over to the mondop for a half-hour of adda before bed, while sipping tea and watching the passers-by. Not a chance, when the mondop is 20 miles away in a school gymnasium that has to be locked down by 8 p.m. And not when they live in a land where coffee is sold in paper cups and tea is hardly known, let alone the earthen cups that we in India take for granted.

The earliest Pujo I remember clearly was actually in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. It was then a suburb on the edge of the outer dark. Alaknanda did not exist, jackals yipped in the fields to the south, buildings were sparsely scattered, the “parks” were unfenced. Yet the Pujo was a great affair. In my memory, the pandal is grand, the protima awe-inspiring, the dhaak loud and the incense strong. And yes, the food was wonderful! I was young, Delhi was home and there was no sense of deprivation for not being in Calcutta. Pujo was a blast. Even my next experience of Pujo in Delhi, 15 years later, was warm and joyous. It most certainly would not have been exile, except that I was young and my thoughts lay in Calcutta.

So Pujo away from home can still be enjoyable. Or not. Forget the theories about religion, ritual, tradition, community. What are the specifics that make a Pujo for the average Bangali? Why did my experience in New Jersey seem so sterile, alien, like something out of Blade Runner?
The first thing that comes to mind is being home. Durga Pujo is about Bangali identity. Roots. The para. There has to be a direct link through either family or neighbourhood. The Pujo mondop must be located in a place that belongs to you by association. Which is why a “neutral venue” in the next county cannot give any sense of ownership. It doesn’t work.

Amit Chaudhuri, in these columns, identified another factor that leads to alienation: silence. Growing up in Bengal, a silent Pujo was unimaginable. Our grandparents grumbled about Pujo songs over loudspeakers; for us, they actually marked the hours of the day. We Indians are more tolerant of noise even in our daily lives. During Pujo, we live in a vast envelope of communal noise that is somehow reassuring. Where there is no hum, no dhaak, no announcements for “Bubai Mondal from Sodepur to join his friends in front of the information booth”, Pujo for us is incomplete. How can we immerse ourselves in the moment if we have to worry about the possibility of the neighbours complaining?

And of course there is the food. Let us face the truth – no Bangali celebration is complete without gormandising. And that really is not possible without the involvement of mashimas and boudis who, flushed from the kitchen heat, triumphantly bear the fruits of their labour to the communal tables. The products of the world’s largest fast-food chains may score more in terms of revenue, but they fail miserably as Pujo food. Mangsher ghugni, kochuri aloo’r dom, bhoger khichuri – how can chicken pizza and bagels compare with these?

The other thing that comes to mind is the sense of being only one of many. The knowledge that “our” Pujo is not the only one within miles, the competition to have a better “cultural programme”, a more gorgeous pandal, a more awe-inspiring Protima – these are not possible in an alien land where pandal-hopping can happen only in cyber-space. Alien. That is the keyword. Pujo cannot be thoroughly enjoyed except as part of a greater whole, it cannot achieve its fullest in an alien environment. As we enter the culminating week of Debi Pokkhyo, let us spare a thought for those less fortunate. Have a good one, readers.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Incident in Prague

Quizman said long ago that I’m “effortlessly pompous”. I agree. It certainly applies to the stuff I write for publication.

The Old Town Square in Prague is the most beautiful urban space I have ever seen.

I have fallen in love several times over the last few years. My first infatuation was Paris, where the flowers punctuate the awnings of the cafes on the Champs Elysee and every passing lady leaves a whiff of perfume. Then Lisbon with her laid-back attitude, a beauty in morning deshabille, stole my heart. Later, Istanbul’s joie de vivre marched into my affections like the earthy heroine of an H.E. Bates novel. But when I stood below the astronomical clock at the corner of the Old Town Square and watched the sunset fade on the spiky steeples of the Tyn Church (or, by its bhalo naam, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn), I knew without doubt that it is beyond compare.

Now aesthetic exhilaration is all very well, but we had spent the day driving round a fair part of the Czech Republic on very mundane work. The roads had been clogged and the weather beastly; the schedule of meetings had not left time for lunch. So even as the lights came on and created a quite unrealistically beautiful golden glow over the 12th century buildings, our corporeal selves intruded very forcibly upon our common conscious. My stomach thought my throat had been cut and protested in no uncertain terms. My companions and I looked at each other “with a wild surmise” and proceeded to seek sustenance.

I was firm in my resolve that we would have a fitting meal and not waste our appetite on fast food. I had seen, in the cobbled pedestrian passageway that lies between the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, a sign advertising “traditional Czech cuisine’, so despite the protests from my companions I marched them all the way to the Café Mustek (so named because it lies at the head of Ulice Mustek). We were accosted at the gate by a young man the size of a refrigerator, dressed like a medieval executioner. He turned out to be charmingly helpful and found us a table in a corner, gave us menus and directed a bright young lady to take our order.

Overwhelmed by the bounty on offer, we proceeded to order several different kinds of savoury meat – rabbit, duck, chicken, pork knee – and the waitress did not see fit to warn us that even our large appetites would not be able to do justice. When our food arrived, we were already rather full of Pilsner Urquell and so gazed with some alarm on the size of the helpings. Never mind, said I, and we set to. Now, pork knee as served in the Café Mustel is a ritual as much as a meal. It is served on a miniature spit balanced on a nice wooden tray, surrounded by little dishes of mustard, savoury dip and horseradish relish (the last being a close relative of the Japanese wasabi). For a quarter of an hour, conversation flagged as we carved and shared and sated ourselves. We finally paused in our labours, emitted long sighs of satisfaction, took deep draughts of our Pilsners and wiped our mouths with large napkins in the manner of Obelix.

At that point I noticed four pairs of hungry eyes at the next table looking longingly at our lavish spread. Young college students, they had ordered only a beer apiece (at that age, beer is always more important than food). As we watched, they started counting out loose change and ordered just one plate of French fries. My friends and I looked at each other, then at the untouched dish of roast rabbit. We conferred on whether it would be seemly to offer it to the young people. The consensus was that their pride would not permit them to accept. Despite our growing feeling of guilt, we decided not to commit the social gaffe. I had the remaining food packed despite my friends’ objection – they said they had seen no poor people we could offer it to. Never fear, said I, and we proceeded to amble back towards the hotel, myself swinging the packet of food as if it were a clouded cane.

A hundred yards from our hotel door there lay a nightclub of a certain sort. A sallow young man, stubbled and shabby, approached us with the offer of a free trial of the pleasures within. As he tried to hand me a little pamphlet, I had an epiphany. “I can’t give you any business, but would you accept this food instead?” It took a little explanation (his English was none too good, our Czech non-existent) but once he got the drift he smiled a large, large smile. Then he drew himself erect and, pointing to an even thinner and shabbier young man nearby, asked “May I give it to him instead?” I shrugged. Why object, as long as somebody’s hunger is appeased? The packet was handed over and we walked on.

As we turned into our hotel, there was a commotion behind us. We turned and saw the second man capering after us. I was alarmed. Was this a protest, maybe even an assault? No such thing. It was gratitude, expressed in a manner that filled the heart. The young fellow grabbed my hand and poured out an effusion of thanks. “I have not eaten so well in months! This is Christmas come early!” Then “Wait, I will thank you in the Indian manner!” and he actually prostrated himself on the sidewalk in front of us. Severely embarrassed, we escaped into the hotel. But talking it over later, we agreed that more than the fleeting sense of virtue, our day had been made by the youngster’s spontaneous expression of gratitude. Perhaps, for a moment, it even made the inchoate sprawl of Wenceslas Square more beautiful than the picture-book perfection of the Old Town Square.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Thoughts on 2nd October

Thanks to the Bengal Post, there should be at least one post a week on the Philippic.
More, if certain other things work out.

There are good reasons why the citizens of the USA consider their country to be the greatest in the world. The biggest reason is that Fox TV tells them so. To be fair, their present President does not repeat this statement as often as some of his predecessors. This may be because, in any speech by Obama, B.H., at least 30% of the time is spent in striking a statesmanlike pose and looking at a point about 3 feet above the left shoulder of the cameraman on Centre 1, which leaves less time for uber-patriotic affirmations. Most Americans take this as an indication of (a) statesmanlike intentions, though not necessarily ability or (b) a malfunctioning teleprompter. But any public figure in the USA must, in any public pronouncement, work in a reference to the USA as the leader of the free world and the guardian of democracy. This helps in building public consensus, patriotic fervor, even national unity. The method has been tried and tested by other world leaders such as Hussein, S., Hitler, A. and Dzugashvili, J. It seems to work.

Do these affirmations lead to an overwhelming question? Or does rhetoric lead to a blind acceptance of the maxim of “My country, right or wrong”? My question is limited to the context of our own country. Do we Indians believe in our country because we are told to do so? Or is there a deeper basis – whether rational or emotional - to our patriotism? As far as I am concerned, I live in India because I would not fit in anywhere else. This is my country. I would have no peace or comfort in a country where I can’t buy tea in an earthen cup. But I have sense enough to know that this does not make India the greatest country in the world (as, indeed, “Mom’s apple pie” is not sufficient proof of American superiority). One of the good things about my country is that I can still say this on a public forum without fear of the outcome.

Come to think of it, everybody says this. In the international media the concept of India, incredible or otherwise, exists in the future. We Indians agree. We’re getting there, we may be world leaders some time soon (a decade? A century?), but we’re certainly not there yet. Indians abroad (especially in world heritage sites like New Jersey) tend to have an extreme version of this objectivity. For them, practically nothing about India is acceptable. Not the infrastructure, food, medical facilities, education nor even the air. Not for them the empty rhetoric of world domination. (Curiously enough, this is the demographic that is most likely to buy into the Fox TV view of the USA. But we shall examine this phenomenon anon.) This clear-eyed pragmatic view, alas, rarely extends to Indian icons. The same Bangali who derides the work-culture of Bengal is most likely to get emotional over any criticism of Netaji. Or Swami Vivekananda. Perhaps Bangalis are not a good sample, since they can get equally emotional over Suchitra Sen and (on the evidence of lady friends from DSE) Kaushik Basu. No, let us examine the Indian at large.

Can you criticise his national icons in public and get away with it? Ambedkar, Bose, Nehru, Rajaji, Shivaji – can any of us afford to be less than respectful in our public utterances, without fear of an immediate and often physical reaction? The Americans are quite the opposite in this regard. They are as comfortable with depictions of Jefferson’s peccadilloes with the domestic staff at Monticello as they are with Jay Leno’s wisecracks about the current President. They accept the fallibility of their leaders and icons while maintaining the myth that their country is, by and large, above criticism. Those who do venture to criticise the country as a whole disguise it as criticism of a particular administration, of individuals rather than the collective. Doing otherwise would invite being labeled as a “Liberal”, which as we know is polite American usage for “wacko pinko Fascist Commie faggot”. In India on the other hand, the revered Arundhati Roy can write a brief 82-page essay in a leading weekly about the various ills of the Indian state, but a historian who suggests that the pride of Maharashtra was less than perfect must face a book ban.

I find this strange. What I find even stranger is that the efforts of one man were the single largest factor in creating this system whereby we live in a (reasonably) free and democratic nation, yet this man’s memory is reduced to dry paragraphs in history books and poorly painted portraits in government offices. This man’s life and even his views are beyond the realm of public scrutiny, despite his own experiments with truth which he recorded in frank and sometimes self-flagellating detail. It is sacrilegious, or anti-secular, or just plain traitorous, to suggest that despite his political acumen he made mistakes that led to bloodshed and misery. The real tragedy of the man’s legacy lies in this, and not in those three gunshots at a prayer meeting in 1948. By placing him above and beyond criticism, we have placed him beyond reality. And in the process denied his legacy the light of the truth that he believed in.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Pujo primer

(Not for the real Bangali - this is more like a Pujo primer, written for Jetwings on the request of the Skeptic)
(This blog will stop feeling like a blog if I just keep posting published stuff. OK. Shall be back soon. With a Rant. Or several rants. Rants are the life-blood of blogging)
(No, I lie. Comments are the life-blood of a blog. And my readers don't bother)
(Casts accusing look before exiting left)
(Pops head back in to thank those Good Readers who HAVE commented.)

(Oh, all right. The Pujo thingy is below. Go on and read it, will you?)

Saccharum spontaneum. Kaash phool. The sudden appearance of patches of greenery topped with these swaying white plumes signals an uplifting of the spirit, a sense of expectation. It’s supposed to be a perennial grass, but for Bangalis it is associated with one season.

It happens some time in September, after the rains. Suddenly the sunshine is sharper and mellower all at the same time, the morning air smells different. Even though you can’t admit it to yourself – especially if you’re over 40 and have a duty to be respectable – you feel like standing on the balcony and singing. It has to be Robindro Shongeet remembered from many years ago, even if you usually spend your evenings with Thelonious Monk. Singing loud, full-throated, a chest full of song. Because somewhere in your mind you can hear the rhythms of the dhaak, the pandal down the road is taking shape as a lattice-work of bamboos and is that .. yes, that IS a stray banner of kaash phool in the corner of the park.

Pujo. Sharodotshob. Durga Puja. The autumn festival, the high point of the Bangali year. Browning’s Englishman may yearn for England in the spring, but for Bengalis the one time when thoughts must turn to home is during the Pujas. Learned people can expound on the religious roots, the tradition of the Mother Goddess, the difference between Navratri in the rest of India and the six days of Durga Puja. But deep down, we Bangalis know that our Pujo is only incidentally about prayer. It is in the deepest sense a celebration of our identity, a reassurance of community, an affirmation that life can be good.

Puja starts with Mahalaya. Waking at 4 in the morning to switch on the radio, then snuggling under the covers while songs and mantras and the clashing of cymbals roll around the darkened room, interspersed with the theatrical intonation of Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Unique, inimitable, the voice of Pujo, Durga’s herald long after he died in his 80s. Mahalaya is the last day of Pitru Pakksha, the fortnight when Karna was sent back to earth to appease the souls of his forefathers. The more devout will flock to the rivers before dawn to offer prayers for their ancestors, along with offerings of food for the departed souls. Mahalaya also marks the beginning of Debi Pakksha, the fortnight of worship of the Mother Goddess. It is cause for celebration – Pujo is here!

The preparations for the autumn fortnight start nearly a year in advance. Every neighbourhood has its Puja Committee, and they vie to outdo each other in the splendor of their pandals and their images of the Goddess. A pandal is a temporary structure, a bamboo framework draped with coloured cloth. This simple description cannot convey a thousandth part of the grandeur of some of these elaborate structures reaching 60 feet high or more. Some are made as copies of famous shrines, amazing in their reproduction of detail. Last year one Pujo Committee recreated an entire Garhwal village along with the Badrinath shrine. Some are more ambitious fantasies, ranging from Hogwarts School to the space shuttle launch pad complete with Titan rocket and boosters. The objective is to ensure the maximum number of visitors, the maximum coverage in the media. And it’s all a labour of love, since the visitors are not charged a penny for the view.

Once carried inside the pandal by the choking rush of visitors, one may pause to wonder at the idols. These are usually made of clay in the potters’ quarter of Kumartuli (kumor = potter, tolii = neighbourhood), whence they are sent out to Pujas not only around Bengal but around the world. The shipping schedule apparently starts 6 weeks before the actual festival, with the first batch of idols carefully crated and despatched to expatriate Pujos in Seattle, Singapore and Saigon. There has even been a regular Durga Pujo in Switzerland since 2004! Of late, there has been a demand for more durable, re-usable idols, crafted in metal or even fiberglass. But each idol starts with a handful of clay ceremonially collected from the doorstep of a brothel, the rationale being that men leave their better selves there when they enter.

The Bangali Durga Pujo is actually an aberration of sorts. The Mother Goddess was traditionally worshipped in the spring. Myth has it that Rama invoked her protection before his battle against Ravana in the autumn (the festival of Rama’s homecoming, Deepavali, follows within a fortnight). Ever since, Durga has been worshipped in autumn, hence the local term Akaal Bodhan or untimely prayer. Part of the 4 day ritual involves the lighting of 108 lamps which symbolise the lotuses offered by Rama to Durga during his invocation. (He was short of two lotuses, so he planned to pluck out his eyes and offer them instead. This may have been somewhat counter-productive, since he sought the means to defeat Ravana.) As is inevitable with the contentious Bangali, there are different views on the rituals and even the mantras for the actual puja. Personally, it doesn’t make a difference. I am not particularly religious. The rituals are comforting, nostalgic. They bring back memories of schooldays, of aunts and grandmothers in red-bordered saris of white cotton who would settle themselves at the feet of the idol to chop huge basket-loads of fruits for the votive offering, gossiping all the while and chewing on betel leaf that reddened their lips.

There are claims that the Roychoudhury family of Barisha (now a southern suburb) celebrated Durga Puja regularly from 1610. The first such Puja recorded was organised in 1757 by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabajar in Calcutta; the unspoken truth is that it was actually meant to fete the conqueror Clive. The tradition of community pujas started 4 years later, from Gooptipara in Hooghly, where 12 young men (12 friends or baro yaar, hence the term baroyaari Pujo) organised a Pujo through community subscription. 250 years on, not only every neighbourhood but every apartment block must have its own Durga Pujo, no matter how small. As they say, one Bangali is a poet, two Bangalis form a political party and 3 Bangalis means 2 Pujo Committees!

There are other conventions about Durga Puja that are cultural or traditional rather than religious, but nonetheless defended with fervor. For decades now, there have been organised competitions for the best pandal, the best lighting, the best protima (idol). Bengal’s celebs (and not a few from Bollywood) troop dutifully round the cities to make their choices, and the results are often hotly disputed. One year it even led to litigation! Every periodical brings out its Sharodiya or Pujo Shonkha, the special autumn edition. Most of the finest and most acclaimed writers of Bengal, from Satyajit Ray to Sunil Gangopadhyay and Buddhadeb Guha, have featured in these editions that celebrate the Bangali literary tradition. The most enduring tradition, of course, is common to all festivities – the chance for the would-be Romeos to look sidelong at the flocks of preening young belles, the little romances that sometimes fade with the strains of Doshomi Pujo and sometimes last. Maddox Square in south Calcutta is by way of being a legend in this context; it is almost mandatory for the 18-25 age group to meet there at least once during the 4 days of festivities. The closest parallel is Chittaranjan Park in Delhi. And then of course there is the organised gawking, especially in Calcutta. Millions of people walk around the city from one pandal to the other, gazing slack-mouthed at the lights and the decorations, bowing deeply before the idol where the deity seems to look right into their souls. Little convoys wind their way through the clogged avenues and little by-lanes from dusk to dawn. Restaurants stay open well past midnight, street food stalls close only when their larders are empty. For those 4 days, the world becomes a heady rush of sound and perfume and bright lights, of friends and festivity and a warm feeling of togetherness even with comparative strangers.

Till the evening of the 10th day of Debi Pokkho, Doshomi. When the Goddess and her children must be bade adieu, carried down to the river in ceremonious procession, there to be set adrift to return to their abode on Mount Kailash. Leaving the Bangali with an after-the-party feeling that he seeks to counter with the Bangali version of next year in Jerusalem!” – Aaschhey bochhor abaar hobe”, once again next year.