ABC- The Absurd Bengali ‘Cyndrome’

I was born in the late 20th century and to be true to myself, am still stuck somewhere there. Bengal of the 1990s is perhaps very close to the Bengal of 2015. A Bengali joint family is dominated by absurdity. A kid born to one of those households, to which I refer, has to go through certain stages of initiation to be allowed in the inner circle of adults. These toddlers need to be proficient in the arts, music- both vocals and instrumental, dance and academics, of course.

When people ask me about my childhood, I recall my days as a kid in a joint family in north Kolkata. My day would start at 7 am with two slices of bread, eggs, fruits and milk. Shortly after, I would be packed off to school. Back in those days, the concept of carpooling and riding a school bus had not come into being in my part of the city. Hence, reaching school was an adventure in itself- a cycle rickshaw to the bus stop, a bus to the metro station, the metro, another rickshaw and finally, school. I was invariably late every day because I fussed about going to school till about the age of 10. After a lot of crying on my part and a lot of threats from the other side, I would walk into school with a red face brimming with tears.

My school was one of the most reputed and strictest schools in the city- South Point. It had a daunting make- one that looked a lot like Principal Nolan of the ‘Dead Poet’s Society’. It was stuck in the Victorian eras where the staff carried around long wooden canes to be used on the students. I was one of those unfortunate kids that got whacked on a daily basis for a variety of reasons ranging from not completing my homework to talking to a fellow bench-mate.

School would end at 1 pm when I would be brought home and granted a few hours of rest post-lunch. One needs to understand that a characteristic feature of Bengalis is that these boastful creatures need to sleep for a couple of hours after lunch in order to rejuvenate their already superior grey cells. Evening was the time my real education began—Bharatnatyam classes followed by Hindustani classical training followed by art class. I was not particularly good at any of these. There have been instances when I stepped on a classmate’s foot while dancing. Another time, my guru had to physically shut my mouth because I went really off-scale on a spur of inspiration. Coming back home, I would get my ‘jol khabar’ which is the third meal in a Bengali’s day. Yes, they eat 4 times a day.

This was not the end of my traumatic day though. The second last part of the day was sitting to study at a round table with my siblings supervised by an adult, usually a granny. You would be lucky to have your elderly grandmothers sit beside you, as compared to the mother or the aunt. They were kinder and much more benevolent. After about two hours of sharpening the grey cells, dinner would be served and we were allowed exactly half hour, by the clock, of television per day. Bengalis are sticklers for time within domestic boundaries only. TV watching was also a supervised affair. Once I remember having flipped to FTV and my aunt caught me in the act of admiring the models. The lecture that followed made me feel ashamed of myself and made me want to bury myself in the ground.

Such were my days as a kid in the city of joy. I used to want to escape the mundane life back then. But now that I look back on those days, I wish to go back and set things right. I wish I had paid more attention in those dance classes and corrected my staccatos in those vocal classes. If it were not for those forced classes, I would never know the charms of the arts and never be able to appreciate the freedom of flipping TV channels without anyone breathing down my neck.

Such is the absurd race of Bangalis. These people are so full of themselves that they will burst someday in the not-so-near future. Yet, you perhaps cannot find a race which is more balanced like theirs. These fish eating, Rabindra Sangeet lovers might have odd ways and loud voices- such loud that one cannot take a dump without the next door neighbor knowing- but at the end of the day, they too are harmless creatures trying to prepare their next generation to face a cruel world. For that oddity and strictness, I am, oddly enough, grateful.

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Obituary

Radhika Mukherji was born after giving her mother considerable trouble in the birthing room. She refused to come out into the world and as a result had to be forced out by the surgeons. She spent her life going around the world, not staying in a particular place more than 3 years. I met her during my tenure as a clerk in the same workplace as hers in the magnificent city of Paris.

During the brief time that I spent with her, she spoke to me about her wish to travel the world and to save endangered animals. She had an appealing demeanor and a friendly smile which attracted lonely souls. She was fascinated with art and hence, every piece of paper found on her desk had doodles over them. Once the boss found a letter to the Minister of Education doodled on by her and was furious, for obvious reasons. He even threatened to sack her if she did not ‘stop with the doodling already.’

I haven’t met a moodier person during my short stay on this planet. Her mood swings resembled a fashionista changing clothes. She was very indecisive about life and with every dawn came a new perception of herself. One day was a doctor and the next an art collector.

It would be wrong to call her a ‘lost soul’ but I am tempted to do so just because she was always searching for meaning. What meaning- she only knows. One of her major dilemmas in life was the existence of God. She liked to see life in black and white but would later come to terms with the fact that life is grey. Hence, in her youth she needed a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question of the divine.

She must have digested all the Holy Scriptures trying to find the answer but remained undecided on that note till a few days ago. A few days before her death, she called to tell me that she had finally found the answer. She said, “God plays hide and seek with me. She is there but I will never be able to figure her out and that is what makes her God.” I was content with the logic, if she was.

August 25, 2030 Radhika Mukherji was eaten by a lion she was trying to rescue from poachers in Africa. The lion had been a man eater and like most other things in her life, Ms. Mukherji had taken the threat posed by the lion lightly and hence, had paid the price with her life. Only her teeth could be salvaged. They were buried in a silver urn in a graveyard in Sussex on 30 August, 2030. She is succeeded by her 10 year old cat- Naomi who has now, sadly, become an orphan. May her soul rest in peace and may she find the ‘meaning’ she was looking for her whole life.

The Frenemy

ghat

When I hear the word Kolkata, my reflex says—Oh! Kolkata. Defining a city such as mine is a difficult task. Many have tried but only some have managed to reach even close. Among those who have succeeded, their efforts have lasted a lifetime and have been vigorous. The popular, text-book definition of this city is—the city of joy. But Kolkata, for me, is my frenemy.

My love-hate relationship with the city is bizarre, even to me. When I am breathing her, I am a bag full of complains and grudges. The crass and rude public transport; the heat and humidity; the crowd; the slow pace of the city, etc. are few on my many complaints against her.

But the moment I step out of it, I miss the same things I abhorred while there. The bus conductor’s shout of ‘aste ladij’ (careful, there is a lady); the unpredictability of the Kolkata rains and the momentary relief it awards against the summer heat; the kids playing football in the mud; the hype created during local football matches, very like the one during durga puja; the month long unofficial holiday- the time between the pujas and Diwali- during which lethargy is the order of the day and meeting up long forgotten relative is the norm; the street food and the sweet shop guy patiently trying to help you decide on a sweet; the ‘kakmimas’ and ‘mashimas’ (maternal and paternal aunts) of the neighborhood and their huge noses ready to poke into other people’s bums; the ‘dadas’ (older brother) and their ‘ami toh achi’ (why do you worry, I am there) attitude; the hustle and bustle of the farmer’s market and the vendor’s knowledge about which fish will go to who’s house—all these put together, the thought of Kolkata makes me choke.

When I left the city, I was cross with it- it had put me through a lot- and I had vowed to never return. But as days turn into nights and nights into days, my resolve weakens. I crave the indecision of the city and the way she mothered me. I miss the shadow of the literary figures and thinkers that lurk around the streets of north Kolkata in the form of graffiti on the walls. The blatant disregard of the inhabitants for rules and their quick-to-judge attitude feels like home, amusingly enough.

Someday, maybe not too far from now, I will go back and start with the complaining all over again.

Oh so you are a woman!

“Dude you are so not like a woman….” How many times have we heard this line as women?

You wear heavy glasses and tie your hair back in a severe bun but yet you smoke up.- Are you kidding me?

You are a nerd yet you can belly dance.- Fool someone else!

You have nose piercings and tattoos yet you go to the temple every thursday.- What in the world?

You have short hair and wear loose clothes and you say you are attracted to men?- Blah.

Childhood experiences and novels have told me– a woman is dignified, forgiving, understanding and independent. But I question all these ‘values’.

Today I wear a saree, I am the epitome of dignity. Tomorrow I wear shorts and tanks, I am a slut ready to sell my body for a price- waiting to be grabbed. Saree is dignified, shorts are NOT.

I am supposed to forgive the guy who cheated on me and get back with him knowing very well that he will do so again. Why do I do that? Oh what will the society think- say my elders- you can’t give up so easily. Yes I forgot that I had to burn my self-respect and flush it down the toilet because I am a woman and I am forgiving.

They told me– understand a man’s needs. He works day and night for you and he does deserve a drink at the end of the day. Bear with him even if he crosses his threshold and raises his fist. He will be sorry in the morning. After all you are a wife.

Oh yes have your own thoughts…that’s great. But do us a favour and keep it to yourself. Independence is good but under moderation.

What is a woman supposed to be? Is she the so-called ‘modern woman’? The same one I see on the cover of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The one with an expensive, hand stitched handbag preaching feminism even in her sleep? The one who fights for her rights and talks about equality, yet expects the guy to pay the bill? The same one who talks about having a voice yet follows convention blindly.

Or is she the one who is dutiful and poised? The one who does as she is told. The same one who is dumb and numb. The one who sits in a corner waiting to be addressed because you can’t talk unless spoken to.

Or is she the one who hates pink yet loves lace. The one who finds feminism highly confusing. The one who smokes; drinks; sings publicly; laughs freely; wears loose clothes; cuts her hair short; puts on studs; plays with the men; cooks rajma chawal; the one who swallows the forbidden fruit almost everyday; the one who is imperfect; the one whose sexuality is her own business; the one for whom society is just another immature kid meant to be ignored and chucked aside when he throws tantrums.

Why is it that a woman is always spoken of in the context of a man? Why is she born from a man’s rib? The story of genesis and birth of the famous Goddesses from their male counterparts, to me, seems like a failed attempt of a man trying to get his unruly daughters into submission.

Is woman anyone with a female sexual organ or does the concept of ‘womanhood’ cross the boundaries of gender and sexuality? Who the hell is a woman? Who am I?

And when will I stop hearing the line– Oh! So you are a woman.

A twist of taste, tongue and color- visit to Mosque road

Mohammed Abdul has been serving the finest pathar gosht in one small stall in Mosque road, Frazer town every Ramadaan for the past seven years. He is a bespectacled man who stands all day long instructing his juniors on the art of making the perfect mutton—juicy and soft with the smoky flavor. He likes to call himself Mr. A, for the benefit of those who are not much familiar with names such as his and often twist it to resemble something like a word spaghetti. “This year the stalls are really less and so are the people. Last year was much better—the number of people more and the food better. We did great business…but this year looks bleak,” he told me when I asked him how his stall was doing. According to the majority of the stall keepers, the residents of Mosque road had complained of the increase in decibel levels, the traffic jams and the inability to park their cars anywhere near their house. Hence, this year the glam quotient and hype of this place is a lot less.

I visited Frazer town on a Sunday—probably the worst decision I have taken off late. It resembled a fish market with hardly any space to move around. The food, I felt, was not worth the money I paid to get it. The biryani was bland; the firni had gone bad; the kebabs were good, however the pathar gosht was out of this world- totally worth the money.

There was a certain stall selling free Quran in English to spread awareness about Islam. I went up to one of the guys and chatted with him about the initiative. He seemed pleased and was willing to answer my doubts about certain things in the Quran that I didn’t quite understand.

The people around me were dressed like they were attending a marriage ceremony. Families had come for an outing determined to stuff themselves as much as possible. Men were burping shamelessly and pushing their chairs out to get themselves a third helping of kebabs. There were a few lone eaters, like myself, who seemed content to stare at the colors around them and enjoy their food.

I had gone to this place to eat. But along with my taste buds, all my other senses were awakened in this small expanse. My eyes saw varied colors of food- primarily meat; my ears heard bizarre conversations- two middle aged men were arguing over whose chicken was fatter when it lived; my nose smelled an interesting concoction of smells- the smell of cinnamon and milk somehow co-existed.

A word of advice to the people going there for the first time—be sure to look after personal belongings such as phones and wallets as there are high chances of getting mugged and be prepared to be squashed and pushed around.

A visit to mosque road will definitely give you a lot to ponder on once you are back to the comfort of your bean bag and laptop.