Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja 2018

A year has passed since I wrote my blog post “Durga Puja 2017” and now with Puja here in the city once again, it’s time to start writing my new blog post- “Durga Puja 2018”. Last year’s Puja was my first one in seven years. Since I spent majority of those seven years far away from Calcutta, last year’s Puja felt very surreal. On the other hand, this Puja feels like a regular event in my life largely owing to the fact that I have visited Calcutta about once a month since last puja and hence have largely been able to re-establish my connection with the city.

In my last year’s Durga Puja post, I mentioned that this festival is not just about the five day long rituals and the pandals and the crowds but is also about the Bengali literature that is  published before the festival in the form of puja magazines, the movies that come out in the theaters during the puja week, etc.  But unlike my last year’s post where I talked about the pandals first followed by the magazines and the cinema, this time I shall follow a chronological order and hence first start with the works of fiction that I liked from this year’s Puja magazines, followed by the movies and then the pandals.

Literature:

Pujabarshiki Anandamela comes out about two months prior to the Puja. About a month later Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika gets published, and right around the inception of the festival the local newspaper and magazine distributor puts a fresh copy of Sharodiya Desh at one’s doorstep. As a result, by the time of writing this post which is during Mahaashtami and Mahanabami, I have been able to read the Ananadamela almost in its entirety, a large chunk of Ananadabazar Patrika and almost nothing from Desh. So here are the novels I liked so far from this year’s Puja literature.

Mahidadur Antidote (The antidote made by Mahidadu) by Dipanwita Ray (teenage science fiction novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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This is first time I actually read a science fiction novel in Bengali which can be called hard science fiction without any qualm. As I had pointed out before in an earlier blog post of mine on alchemy, the much adored science fiction stories by Satyajit Ray are way too much on the softer side. There are almost no scientific details in those stories, most of the events defy scientific logic and hence seem highly implausible. On the other hand, this novel is quite a successful attempt at creating an extremely scientifically accurate post-modern world, where humans commute from one place to another in flying cars, visit artificial parks for recreation where rivers, fountains and sea beaches from the natural world have been replicated for human entertainment, human DNA is corrected at birth to bring out the best features in humans, etc. Though it all seems to be an utopia initially, soon there is a turn of events which makes the protagonist question everything that he has been raised up on. The DNA of most humans is corrected at birth by some other humans in power such that an average human is rendered bereft of the power of creativity, imagination, skepticism and dissent. Similar dystopian vision of the world has been dealt with in modern classics like “Brave New World” and “1984” (sadly I haven’t read either yet) or popular movies like “The Matrix” and “Equilibrium”. Yet the plot of this novel “Mahidadur Antidote” seems quite original with the traditional Bengali emotional touch to all the events in the novel, which are vastly futuristic and global in scope and scale.

For me, the beauty of this sci-fi novel lies in the details with which all the different aspects of the post-modern world have been depicted though it has been written for teenagers. But I can imagine that this level of technical details will reduce its entertainment value for a lot of general readers.  Nevertheless, since the society we live has become much more globalized and the amount of information an average person has access to has increased exponentially thanks to the internet, I feel it won’t be too inane to presume that such technically rich hard science fiction novels will capture the psyche of a Bengali reader, known for their intellectual curiosity and cultural refinement, and childish science fiction stories of Satyajit Ray with no technical details whatsoever will pass into oblivion. But sadly not many will probably read this novel. Rather they will continue talking about some Professor Shanku stories that came out forty years back and Satyajit Ray’ son Sandip Roy will make more big budget movies  on them. Another glaring example of modern intellectual Bengalis living vicariously through past legends and ignoring gems of the present!

Jipur Jawa Asha (Jipu Goes Back and Forth) by Sourabh Mukhopadhyay (teenage fiction novel) – published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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Another beautiful novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela, though very different in flavor from the previous novel. It is largely about the changing times, how schooling has become extremely competitive and grueling in the cities and how refreshing and productive it can be for a kid to take a break from urban schooling and study in a countryside school for a while. The kid here, Jipu, who is the protagonist of the novel, is forced to go to a countryside school because his father loses his job and is unable to pay the heavy tuition fees of his current school, which is meant for kids from upper middle class urban families. Though his parents are traumatized by the experience and are deeply concerned about the future of their son, Jipu falls in love with his new school, thoroughly enjoys the laid back countryside lifestyle and even shows significant improvement in the academic performance. The novel is a joyful, refreshing and yet intriguing read and makes us question the various choices we, ultra urban people, are making everyday  in our lives.

Mantra (Chant) by Binayak Bandopadhyay (novel) published in Sharodiya Anandabazar Patrika: 

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Sparsha by Krishnendu Mukhopdhyay and Tarabhora Akasher Niche by Srijato from last year’s puja magazines set my expectation very high regarding contemporary Bengali literature, and this year’s novel Mantra by Binayak Bandopadhyay did not disappoint. Just like Sparsha  and Tarabhora Akasher Niche, Mantra  has a very global feel to it. The events in the novel aren’t restricted to the periphery of Bengal but spreads across the globe, with a majority of the latter events happening in US- mainly on east coast academic campuses. According to me, contemporary Bengali literature, and in extension, the people can be broadly classified into two types- one which is affected by globalization and the one which isn’t. Quite naturally the former type seems much more attractive to me than the latter. In Mantra, the protagonist Uttaran spends his childhood in an Ashram  in Calcutta in the company of Hindu saints and experiences a very spiritual upbringing. An extremely meritorious student, he goes to a top college in Calcutta for undergraduate training in Philosophy and then a top university in US for doctoral training in the same subject. But throughout this entire time he does not desert his monastic celibate lifestyle until a girl, Anasuya, who falls in love with him in Calcutta, follows him all the way to US to spend more time with him. The plot is pretty epic in its scope and takes several twists and turns after that as it follows the spiritual and academic trajectory of Uttaran- his giving up of celibacy and starting a family with Anasuya, raising a mute kid as a single parent, acquiring professional fame through his scholarly works on the Gita, and so on.

Uttaran’s internal struggle regarding the life choices he makes or circumstances force him to make is the central theme of the novel. He is shown to be torn apart internally several times, unable to make a confident choice between a monastic, spiritual, celibate life and a passionate, emotional, lustful family life. What I really liked about the novel that it adopts a very balanced and neutral approach and depicts the bright and dark sides of both these life choices. At a personal level, I largely agree with the writer on various points. If everybody in this world chooses to be a monk, this civilization will indeed cease to exist in a very short time. Sexuality is the driving force behind continuation of our species, and hence all the passion and emotional vulnerability that come with it need to be embraced rather than be shunned. Also, even if a monk chooses to live a family life driven by circumstances, they can always go back to their original lifestyle and can pursue spiritual advancement again in future.

I personally think that whether you are a monk or a family man, a celibate or a casanova, a musician or a clerk, you have to survive on this planet, find your own balance and live your life. So it really doesn’t matter much in the end. And death will strike upon everyone one time or the other, Even the most spiritually uplifted monks aren’t exempt from that. Yes, they can claim that our consciousness does not cease to exist. Extreme amount of dedication to spiritual practices in this life can lead to a much more peaceful after-life or something like that. The slight amount of subjectivity that always pervades our experience of the world we live in and our lack of understanding of the functioning of the brain certain leave space for such ideas, but based on personal experience, I can say that delving too much in such metaphysical ideas has quite a chance of bringing more suffering in life than happiness. Death is gonna come eventually to us all, and whether anything happens after death or not can be found out then. It’s far more enjoyable to enjoy this “real”, physical world we live in in all its diversity and derive pleasure from little things in life than obsessing oneself with abstract stuff like metaphysics and spirituality all the time. The protagonist Uttaran probably also feels the same several times during the course of the novel.

Overall, this novel is a great read. However one thing that probably makes it fall short of a classic unlike Sparsha and Tarabhora Akasher Niche is its weak narration style. I read Tarabhora Akasher Niche the second time very recently and it felt nearly as good as reading it the first time even though I knew the entire plot this time. This primarily happened because Srijato is one of the best Bengali poets of modern times and even the prose he writes reads like excellent poetry. The words resonated in my consciousness like some soulful melodies played on the sitar by some maestro. The places in which the events of the novel happen got beautifully projected in my mind as if I was sitting in front of a Vincent Van Gogh painting in an art gallery and relishing it alongside a cup of hot black coffee. Though this novel Mantra had plenty of scope of reaching that level of excellence since it dwelt upon spiritual life in India and academic life in the west, it quite failed to do so. Hardly any picture connected to Uttaran’s childhood or adult life gets painted in the eye of the mind while reading the novel. I kept turning the pages of this really long novel strictly because of the content. Hence, now that I have finished reading it once, I don’t think I will read it once again in near future.

Movies:

Manojder Adbhut Bari (Manoj’s strange house), directed by Anindya Chatterjee

This movie is adapted from the  critically acclaimed teenage fiction novel of the same name, written by prominent Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. The novel came out several decades ago and kicked off Shirshendu’s Adbhuture series – a series of teenage fiction novels full of comic and mystical elements in a village setting. This series, along with Satyajit Ray’s Feluda series and Sunil Ganguly’s Kakababu series, forms the cornerstone of Bengali teenage fiction. I have read almost all the novels in this series barring this one- “Manojder Adhbut Bari”. But all the novels in the series have pretty much the same setting and the same kind of characters – a king who isn’t much aware of his surroundings, an ever vigilent thief, bunch of hilarious dacoits, a saint or a local lunatic who makes mystic statements which sound like rambling initially but later turns out to be extremely insightful, some conservative old lady and a few curious kids. The plos are also fairly similar – there is a treasure hidden somewhere in the village, its existence is never mentioned in the early part of the story but only gets acknowledged towards the middle and then rest of the story is about finding that treasure. As a result, though I didn’t know the plot, I had a fair idea of what’s coming next when I sat at the theater to watch the movie.

Probably for that reason and also because the plot turned out to be quite weak compared to Shirshendu’s other novels in the series like “Pagla Saheber Kobor”, “Jhiler Dhare Bari” and “Harano Kakatuya”, I didn’t enjoy the movie much. I won’t say that in the movie the director failed to bring out the typical Shirshendu brand of humor that pervades all the novels of the series. Rather I felt he was quite able to bring it out, just that it has stopped working on me. I had a similar experience when I read the Shirshendu novel that came out in this year’s Anandamela and the last year’s. Probably because I have read too much of it- the same humor and characters have been repeated every year in the puja edition of Anandamela for the last several decades. Also the world we live in has changed too rapidly since the inception of this Adbhuture  series and Shirshendu’s Adbhuture world could not keep pace with it. As a result, I felt much more sad than irate after spending a huge chunk of money and time watching this movie on the day of its release- particularly when the author Shirshendu himself made a cameo towards the end of the movie and pretty much looked as old and obsolete as the world of his imagination.

Ek Je Chhilo Raja (There lived a king), directed by Srijit Mukherjee

These days Durga Puja has become incomplete without the release of a Srijit Mukherjee movie. So I had to check this one out- though I haven’t ever taken much interest in the famous Bhawal Sanyasi case or seen the Bengali classic movie “Sanyasi Raja”, based around it. In the beginning of “Ek Je Chhilo Raja”, Srijit makes the claim that his entire plot, barring the characters of the prosecution and defence lawyer,  is based on historical facts and events .  So it won’t be apt for me to critically review the movie without knowing all these historical facts. But, since I am quite interested in the history of Bengal and legal philosophy, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie with its historical references, intriguing courtroom drama, clash of ideas like feminism and patriotism, etc. The short conversation between the two lawyers, played by Aparna Sen and Anjan Dutt, was the most brilliant part of the movie for me. Sen’s  dismissal of patriotism as an emotion centered around an abstract concept based  building borders on a map echoes similar ideas that I had nurtured before but do not entertain much these days. Yes, a nation is an abstract concept based on borders drawn on a map, but those borders drawn on the map are quite related to distinct features in the physical world like mountains and seas. People who lived on different sides of a mountain or a sea hardly interacted across the ages and hence formed their own cultures and thereby their own countries. So patriotism is not that abstract a sentiment as some intellectuals portray it to be.

Another thing I really liked about the movie is there is no clear right and wrong in the story, just like in any mature drama. Both the prosecution and defense side think they have the higher moral ground. The conflict among laws of the physical world, laws institutionalized by humans to govern society and  laws of the metaphysical or divine world, if anything like that at all exists, has interested me a lot over the years and this movie brings out that conflict beautifully towards the end. Overall, Srijit Mukherjee has made a brilliant movie once again and it shouldn’t be missed.

Using “Maharajo Eki Saje”, sung by favorite contemporary Rabindrasangeet singer Sahana Bajpayee, in the soundtrack made me even more happy about the movie, though the entire song seems to be lifted from her album “Ja Bolo Tai Bolo” that came out a few years ago as opposed to being reproduced specifically for the film.

Pandals / Street Art:

Here are some pictures from the puja pandals I visited this year. Much like the previous time, I only saw a few pandals in south Calcutta (Jodhpur Park- Tollygunge- Behala area) and some in North Calcutta (Hatibagan- Shovabazar area) this time. Here are the pictures from the very best of them.

 

Barisha Sarbojonin takes the city dwellers on a trip to the Anadamans, right among the Jarawas.

 

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Dazzling orange-hued pandal and idol of the goddess in Shibmandir Sarbojonin- brick has been used as the main component of their pandal decorations.

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Gorgeous interiors of old zamindar houses in puja pandals of Kasi Bose Lane and Ahiritola Sarbojonin

The old zamindar house atmosphere nicely emulated by Kasi Bose Lane Durga Puja Committee and Ahiritola Sarbojonin is present quite in its original form at Shovabazaar Rajbari.

The divine female, unarmed, rests in all her tranquility along with a repentant Mahisashura in an other worldly pandal made by Hatibagan Sarbojonin

 

That’s all from this year’s puja. Aschhe bochhor abar hobe.

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Calcutta Corner

Recurring imagery in Anjan Dutta’s music

After writing a few really cerebral posts which are so typical of my blog (the last one was particularly dark), I felt like writing something light and fun. So I chose something which is much closer to my heart than my mind- the music of good old Anjan Dutta, somebody who Bengalis both love and hate. His songs like “Mary Ann”, “Bela Bose” and “Mr Hall”  became a mainstay of urban college music scene in Bengal in the early 90-s. In the new millennium, just when people thought his popularity had faded and the themes of his songs- guitar, Darjeeling, cigarette and teenage love- had grown stale, he rekindled the enthusiasm about his music in people by making movies around his songs. Movies like “Madly Bengali”, “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na”  and “Aami Ashbo Phirey” that released in the 2010s were essentially celebrations of the music he made as a singer- songwriter a couple of decades back.

As I said, along with multitudes of fans, he has plenty of detractors particularly among members of the older generation, who probably cannot relate to his anglophilia, his free flowing hipster lifestyle and his obsession with cigarettes, alcohol and western country and folk music. The fact that his songs are not musically rich and are quite simply glorified poems is another popular allegation against him.  I defended him on numerous occasions in debates with elders, as well as some friends, and went to the length of saying that he is a better songwriter than Rabindranath Tagore. After exploring Tagore’s music much more in the recent years, I don’t think I can make that claim any more but I still see where my argument came from. Tagore’s lyrics is mostly abstract, he seeks some form of divinity in everything that he sees around him – clouds, rivers, flowers, meadows- and finds a sense of tranquility in them. On the other hand, Anjan Dutta’s lyrics is highly grounded in “reality”- he talks about the daily commute in the crowded buses of Calcutta, the lonely saxophone player in a five star hotel, two tiny rooms under the staircase with the plaster fading off the walls- the list goes on. Even when his imagery shifts from the crowded urban landscape to the serenity of the hills, he is still very “real” – the railing overlooking the steep slope, the yellow fingers of the piano teacher moving over the keys of the piano, etc. So in a way the contrast between Anjan Dutta’s lyrics and Tagore’s lyrics perfectly encapsulates the central theme of my blog- the real versus the abstract.

Okay, I again deviated from my promise of not making this post cerebral like my other posts. So let’s get back on track- I am simply gonna describe some of the recurrent imageries in Anjan Dutta’s music over the years and have a lot of fun in the process. I am not describing the most talked about ones here- everyone is well aware of his obsession with Park Street, Darjeeling, Anglo Indians, cigarette, guitar and Bob Dylan.  This post is about the less discussed ones, but strangely these images have repeated in a lot of his songs, starting from the early 90s to the late 2010s.

Buttonless Shirt- Why exactly is he so obsessed with a buttonless shirt? Probably to him it’s symbolic of a free flowing lifestyle, but since he has talked about it in multiple songs, for example. “Ache beporoya botam bihin shirt” from the song “Tobu Jodi Tumi” in the movie “Dutta vs Dutta” or  “Botam bihin shirt ta amar chhoto keno hoy” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”, one has to wonder what is this fetish with buttonless shirts really about. In fact what exactly is a buttonless shirt? Does a simple round neck T-shirt count as buttonless? For sure it doesn’t have a button. Or does he simply want to the convey the idea of wearing a shirt without buttoning it up? In fact he posed himself like that too often in the movie “Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona”, so probably that’s what it is.

Poor kids living on the streets of Calcutta, bathing under the roadside municipal taps – “Tobu-o neche uthey abar rashtar kol, Nachte nachte chaan kore jaay, rashtar cheler dool” from the song “Sokal” in his recent movie “Ami Ashbo Phirey” invokes quite similar images in my head as “Tumi dekhechho ki Hatujole 1 Loyd Street-tumi dekhechho ki borshay….sei langta chheletar hashi” from the song “Tumi Dekhechho ki”, composed in the 90s. All jokes apart, this imagery is really touching just like most of his other imagery and speaks volumes about his lyrical genius.

Japan- Anjan Dutta has some weird obsession about Japan. Sure, he considers his music to be international and it indeed is, and he often tries to transcend all political and cultural barriers with his lyrics and music. So he frequently talks about other countries in his songs, but he talks about Japan a bit too often- and the references to Japan are pretty arbitrary and almost have no context whatsoever. For example, he repeats the phrase “Ke Hindu Ke Japani” in the songs – “Que Sara Ra Ra” from the movie “Ganesh Talkies” and “Ami Ashbo Phirey” from the movie with the same name.Then again a couple of decades ago in the song “Aamar Janala” he wrote- “Keu janala khule Alabamay bangla gaan i gay, Keu porchhe Koran boshe tar Japani janalay”. Interestingly, he followed up the imagery of singing Bengali songs in Alabama and reading the Quran in Japan with that of playing guitar in Mexico. Probably back then he didn’t have much access to the internet just like the rest of us and wasn’t aware of the fact that the image of someone playing guitar in Mexico did not really break any cultural stereotype and promote a sense of internationalism unlike the previous two images- in fact playing the guitar was probably a very common thing in Mexico and still is.

 

Getting up early in the morning and watching the sunrise- Along with internationalism, the pain of growing up and missing one’s childhood is a dominant theme of Anjan Dutta’s lyrics. And he depicts it really well through his imagery, thereby making his songs one of the closest things to my heart. And just like he refers to Japan often to promote internationalism, he talks about not getting up early in the morning any more to watch the sun rise whenever he misses his childhood- for example, the lines “Bhorbela ar lukie dekha hoy na, Surjodoy dei je faki”  from the song “Koto ki korar chhilo re” in “Madly Bengali”  or the lines “Bhor bela te bhor bela amar Dekha hoye othey na je aar
Ke jaane ki karone” from the song “Monkharaper Bikele” in “Ami Ashbo Phirey”.

 

There are many other such recurring images in the lyrics of his songs, which together build up the world of Anjan Dutta- a world which I have always relied upon to provide me with support in moments of pain and with excitement in moments of joy. Most importantly in moments when I have got lost in some abstract world and felt detached from this world we live in, only to feel scared subsequently, his music provided me with the perfect “grounding”- something I badly needed. It reminded me of and made me embrace again my roots, my passions and my identity which I had tried to transcend with all the other worldly spiritual stuff, a journey which ended up being scary in the end.

 

Lastly, yes, the themes and images of his songs and also his movies are repetitive, and a lot of people I know have voiced their dislike for him because of that, but this is what I have always said in his defence- he is not a mainstream playback singer who sings songs written by other people like a machine- some being about romance, some about patriotism, some about friendship and so on. Instead, he writes his own lyrics and he writes them from within. As a result, since he is just one individual and has had a limited set of experiences, his songs and movies are bound to be repetitive. And that is probably the case with any original artist of modern times in any domain of art unless the name of the artist is Satyajit Ray.

 

 

 

Calcutta Corner · Poetry

Banalata Sen: Adaptation of selected poetry of one the most iconic Bengali poets- Jibanananda Das

Jibanananda Das is widely considered to be the greatest Bengali poet of the post Rabindranath Tagore era. Poetry books like “Rupasi Bangla”, “Dhushar Pandulipi” and “Banalata Sen”, which are essentially sincerest meditations on nature, feminine beauty, history, geography, life and death, have made him a common name in the Bengali household.

Here I have tried to adapt five of my favorite poems from his book “Banalata Sen” in English. I did not translate these poems word by word from Bengali to English since I believe that in such a manner it is very hard to reproduce the beautiful imagery of rural Bengal or that of far distant lands like Vidisha or Babylon that the poet created in the original poems, as his mind raced through both space and time in all its lonesomeness. Instead I have rewritten the same poems in my own way in English, trying to stay as close to the themes and imageries of the original poems as possible.

Please give them a read, irrespective of whether you are aware of the original Bengali poems or not. These five poems build on one another, so it’s probably a good idea to read all of them at one go, may be following the sequence in which they appear here.

 

 

Banalata Sen from Natore

 

A thousand years I’ve trodden paths on the face of the earth,

The seas of Ceylon and Malay I’ve voyaged through misery and mirth.

From Bimbisar and Ashoka’s fading city

Through endless streets of ancient darkness

Among even further away Vidarbha’s men,

Countless sojourns have made me listless

Until I found a moment of tranquility

In the soulful eyes of Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

Darkness of her hair reminded me of nights forlorn

In the city of Vidisha of long lost times. Sculptures that adorn

The temples of Shravasti inspired her countenance.

After a long lost voyage the way a sailor

Eyes a verdurous isle amidst the azure ocean,

Ohh I did see her with the same ardor

“Where wert thou all these days?”, asked she softly with a glance,

Tranquil as a bird’s nest, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

End of the day like the dewdrop’s sound descends the eve’s veil,

Smell of the sun on the kite’s gorgeous wings grows pale.

As the last hues on earth fade into blackness eternal,

And sounds of sentience drown into slumber deep,

All birds return to the nest, all beasts to the den,

So do all brooks, all streams. All blossoms do sleep.

All that’s left behind is darkness abysmal

And reposed in front, pining for love, Natore’s Banalata Sen.

 

 

A Windy Night

 

Last night was a windy night,

And a night of a thousand stars.

Scattered winds played with my mosquito net all night,

Swelling its bosom like the heart of a boisterous sea,

Making it long to escape the bed and fly into the stars.

Indeed, at times, half-asleep,

I felt like the mosquito net escaped from over my head

And set itself afloat in the turbulence of the winds, amidst all the azure-ness,

Like a white dove.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

All the dead stars were resurrected last night.

I sighted the fading countenance of my favorite dead amidst them.

They were effulgent like the eyes of a lover kite on a dark tree top,

Eyes moistened by dew drops,

Resplendent like the leopard skin, the queen of far distant Babylon

Used to drape about her bosom.

Such was the splendor of last night.

 

All the beauties, I witnessed whom dying in Assyria, Egypt and Vidisha,

were resurrected last night.

I sighted them thronging the foggy horizon,

Holding tridents in their hands, determined

To trample death under their feet,

To celebrate the triumph of life,

To erect the menacing tower of love.

Terrified was I, last night’s turmoil tore me from within.

Within the tirelessly flapping wings of the azure sky

Faded time- like a tiny earthly insect.

Such was the tremor of last night.

 

Wind raced in through my windows last night,

Fierce as a herd of zebras running frantically

Through the lush green meadows,

Terror-stricken by the menacing roar of the lion.

My heart reverberated in joy

Intoxicated by the smell of the wilderness,

By the excitement of the darkness that roared within me,

Like a lustful tigress, ecstatic in her union with her lover.

I felt like my heart escaped this earth,

And set itself afloat like an inebriated balloon in the turbulence of the winds,

And sailed through the distant stars amidst all the azure-ness

Like a swift vulture.

Such was the mystery of last night.

 

 

A couple of decades later

 

A couple of decades later what if our paths again cross

Far beyond this city that gathers our generation’s moss;

Back in the pleasant countryside where our roots are entrenched deep,

In autumn by a granary with harvest the peasants did reap.

 

When kites, golden in the setting sun, journey homeward bound

And the pall of eve descends on meadows like the dewdrop’s sound,

When the moon moves soft behind the forest boughs in her regal grace

With leaves pitch black and branches specter thin silhouetted against her milky face,

 

When the lonesome owl, hiding from a tree top, at the village path does stare,

And strands of hay, from the ducks’ nests, from the crows’ nests, waft in the air,

When indolence prevails over the paddy fields stretched wide,

In this meadowy path I’ve found you again by my side.

 

After twenty years moving about the city swept by life’s tide,

In this pastoral land I’ve found you again by my side.

 

 

Naked, lonely hand

 

Once more darkness intensifies in the spring sky.

Darkness,

The mysterious sister of light.

Like a lady who always loved me dearly,

But whose countenance I’ve never seen.

 

The shape of a fading palace in a long lost city looms in my mind.

By the side of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea,

There was once a city, a palace,

Where there were

Persian carpets,

Kashmir shawls,

Cockatoos and pigeons,

Shadowy boon of the mahoganies,

Orange sun,

And you, my lady,

You.

I haven’t searched for the beauty of your countenance

For centuries,

For centuries.

 

The spring sky brings back those memories, those stories,

From far distant lands, from long lost cities.

Fading manuscripts made out of leopard skin,

Window panes of rainbow colors,

Orange sun playing on

Persian carpets,

Curtains with colors of the peacocks’ feathers,

Glass full of wine,

Crimson red,

Your naked, lonely hand.

 

Your naked lonely hand.

 

 

Walking Along

 

I’ve taken solitary walks along endless streets of the city,

For years and years,

With a vague remembrance of some fading message.

 

Trams and buses move about the city, punctually, all through the day,

And then desert its streets to fade into their own world-

Their own world of sleep.

I’ve seen them sleeping in sheds and depots all night.

I’ve seen gaslights lighting the streets of the city tirelessly through the night,

Aware of its duties.

Bricks, doors, windows, signboards,

Drowned in slumber

Under the night sky.

I’ve absorbed their peace, their bliss, through my lonesome walks.

 

It’s late in the night,

Stars whisper around the peak of the Monument.

Have I ever witnessed something more seamlessly beautiful than this-

A starry lonesome Calcutta?

Eyes descend upon the grass,

Dew drops on the blades,

Strands of hay waft in the air.

 

Why did I take lonely walks along endless streets of Babylon

Through the darkness of the nights?

I still don’t know, even after a thousand years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calcutta Corner

Kolkata Literary Meet 2018

Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet (KLM) is one of the more recent additions to the wide repertoire of cultural events that the city of Calcutta can boast of. Though now there are more than fifty literary festivals in different parts of the country in a single calendar year, Kolkata Literary Meet still retains its uniqueness, thanks to the star studded list of speakers it has every year, the aura of the Victoria Memorial which hosts the fest and the rich literary heritage of the city which probably hasn’t faded over the years. The poet Jeet Thayil jokingly mentioned during one of the talk sessions of the fest that this year’s KLM kicked off smoothly with a poetry session- an idea that would invite some retaliation in some other parts of the country.

The first KLM I attended was in January, 2016, when I was in the city for a month’s break from graduate school in US. My mind was in quite a turbulent state that time owing to some emotionally draining events that happened around me then, and I was desperately looking for new ideas and philosophies. I attended several one hour talk sessions of KLM 2016 and each of them provided me with food for thought for the next several months. I ended up buying the books, written by the speakers in all those sessions, in the Kolkata Book Fair that followed the literary meet, took them back to US with me, read them with great passion for months and had long and intense conversations about the ideas in those books with my friends in grad school.

I wasn’t in Calcutta during KLM 2017, but this year (2018) I made it a point to be in the city during KLM. After attending Durga Puja first time in seven years, I feel like my bond with the city has been re-established and hence no way would I have missed KLM 2018. Here are my thoughts on the sessions I attended and found intriguing and some pictures I took at the sessions (This shouldn’t be treated as a comprehensive summary or review of KLM 2018, I attended only a few sessions and my thoughts here are more on how the ideas conveyed in those sessions  are connected to the central theme of my blog than on the ideas themselves):

Sesher Kobita Ekhono Keno Prashangik- Soumitro Chatterjee 

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It was surreal for most people in the audience including myself to not only see the iconic Bengali actor on stage, a few yards in front of them, but also have the opportunity to ask him questions. Even if this session had no topic whatsoever and the speaker simply talked of how he had spent his day, I would have been glued to my seat hearing the person, who played the roles of Apu, Feluda, Amal (Charulata), etc. on screen to perfection and formed a large part of my childhood, talk. The session however had a specific topic- the relevance of Sesher Kobita ,an iconic Bengali novel written by Rabindranath Tagore, in today’s times, and closed with Soumitro Chatterji reciting the last part of the novel, which is essentially a couple of poems where the two lovers bid each other goodbye, probably symbolic of the state of mind Tagore himself was in when he wrote the novel in the twilight of his career. The octogenarian actor elegantly reciting those poems with the darkness of the night slowly descending upon the magnificent Victoria Memorial in the background provided a mesmerizing moment that the people in the audience would probably remember for years to come.

Abastob, Agyato, Aparichito (Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar) – Md. Zafar Iqbal, Sirshendu Mukherjee and Binod Ghoshal 

The topic of the session was “Unreal, Unknown and Unfamiliar” in literature and the speaker panel most aptly included the iconic Bengali writer Sirshendu Mukherjee, whose novels for children were one of the best parts of my childhood and featured a lot of ghosts in a humorous way, and Bangaldeshi author and researcher in physics and computer science, Md. Zafar Iqbal. It wasn’t unexpected that a session on the relevance of ghosts and mystic elements in Bengali adult fiction would end up dwelling upon the possibility of existence of an abstract world or metaphysical realm beyond the physical world, which has been the major theme of my blog.

The most educated and well thought argument I have encountered so far in favor of the existence of the metaphysical realm is that there is a always subjective element to our consciousness. No two individuals experience reality the same way. Hence one should always be flexible about their conception of reality, leaving enough room for events that are labeled supernatural now but can be considered “real” in future. Author Sirshendu Mukherjee seemed to adhere to this view when he said that he neither really believed or disbelieved in ghosts. At least that was my take home message from what he said.

The most educated and well thought out counter argument to the above argument I have heard is that there is no empirical evidence to conclusively support the existence of the metaphysical realm. It is quite possible that the neurons in our brain fire in particular sequences to give us that “illusion”. Author Md. Iqbal probably seemed to adhere to that view when he said that in his opinion ghosts don’t exist but ghost stories do and being a physicist by training, he didn’t give too much importance to meta-physics.

Benche Thakar Lekha – Anupam Roy 

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The focus of the session with Anupam Roy, one of the most popular singer- song writers of Bengal in the current times, was on the poems, novels and song lyrics that he wrote so far as opposed to his music which had given him more fame and money. Anupam seemed to be particularly proud of his maiden novel “Somoyer Baire”, from which he read an excerpt that dwelt upon three smart young guys- an aspiring mathematician, an aspiring entrepreneur and a guy without aspirations, who followed different trajectories in their careers and lives, that crisscrossed a few times when they were munching peanuts sitting below the Shahid Minar in Maidan and reflecting upon their lives. It sounded extremely familiar and interesting to me. “Somoyer Baire” probably got into my “To Buy” list for the upcoming Kolkata Book Fair.

Performance of “Meghnad Badh Kabya” by Gautam Haldar and Naye Natua

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It will probably take me another few years of serious study of classical poetry, shadhu bhasha and theatrics to make a single comment about this epic poem and the performance. For now I just feel blessed that I witnessed this performance.

 

Calcutta Corner

Durga Puja, 2017

I don’t think any festival is celebrated in any part of the world the way Durga Puja is celebrated in Bengal, particularly Calcutta. The celebration of the arrival of Goddess Durga from her abode in Mount Kailash to our homes in Bengal is not merely restricted to a certain religion or group in the city. Though chanting of  stotras in reverence of the goddess, fasting and worship of the goddess’s idol form an integral aspect of the puja, they are far from being the only aspects of it. Rather Durga Puja encompasses all aspects of culture- art, literature, music, movies, etc. with preparations for pandal decorations beginning in the city almost a year ahead of the puja, craftsmen coming from remote parts of Bengal to the capital to display their trade and earn a living, literature being published at its finest in esteemed Bengali magazines like Desh and Anandamela a few months prior to the puja, new “commercial” and “art” movies being released at the theaters a few weeks before the puja and the city dressing up with meticulously crafted pandals, housing both traditional and modern sculptures of the divine, at almost every corner for the four days of the actual festival.

Though Durga Puja in Calcutta had been an integral part of my childhood and college days I haven’t been in the city or the country during the puja for the last seven years, so Durga Puja 2017 was really special to me. Here are a few photographs and short reviews of some pandals I visited, some new novels and stories I read in Desh and Anandamela and some new Bengali movies I watched at the theaters during this year’s puja.

Pandals/ Street Art: 

There is street art at almost every corner of the city during the four days of the puja, in the form of puja pandals. I visited some pandals both in North and South Calcutta this time, the decorations and Durga idols of which ranged from traditional to modern (“theme pujas”). Here are some photographs I took of the pandals I liked the most with brief descriptions of each.

Best idol:

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The iconic Durga idol of Bagbazaar Sarbojonin on the left- every year it’s a newly made idol but it is exactly the same as last year’s. Some things in life don’t change!!
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Durga idol of Chetla Agrani club sculpted in mahogany wood
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Mesmerizing idol of the divine in all her tranquility at Shibmandir Sarbojonin

Best exterior decoration: 

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Thailand’s White Temple, mimicked at Deshpriya Park, dazzling in white light.
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Colorfully decked bird’s nest at Jodhpur Park.

Best interior decorations:

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A musical performance at Kasi Bose Lane
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Nalini Sarkar Street (Real houses on both sides of a typical narrow lane of North Calcutta become a part of the puja pandal)
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Colorful interiors at Selimpur Pally
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A regal atmosphere at Mudiali Club. The background music beautifully added to the interior decorations.

Best lighting: 

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Ekdalia Evergreen’s street lighting as gorgeous as ever.

Literature:

I read this year’s Pujabarshiki (Puja edition) Anandamela (most popular magazine for new Bengali teenage fiction) almost in its entirety and also some of the novels from this year’s Sarodiya (Puja edition) Desh (most popular magazine for new Bengali fiction) and Anandabazaar Patrika . These are the novels/ short stories I really liked.

Nihsabda Mrityu (Silent Death) by Sukanta Gangyopadhyay (teenage detective novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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A very popular opinion currently in Calcutta is that Bengali literature, particularly children/ teen’s literature, is in decay. It is not hard to buy the prevalent opinion given the demise of Satyajit Ray (creator of Feluda) and Sunil Ganguly (creator of Kakababu) and aging of Sirshendu Ganguly (creator of the “Odbhuture”  series) and Samaresh Majumdar (creator of Arjun). However one detective/ adventure series that stands out in today’s teenage literature is Sukanta Ganguly’s “Dipkaku” series. It probably started about a decade back in Pujabarshiki Anandamela and I had always liked it. This year’s Dipkaku novel was no exception. The plot was quite intriguing, innovative and unpredictable. I know my opinion would raise many eyebrows but I would still go on to state that Dipkaku is the best sleuth that Bengali fiction has produced after Byomkesh and Feluda. Kakababu and Arjun, despite their popularity, were never really detectives. Their stories were mostly adventures with very few elements of puzzle solving characteristic of a typical detective story. Things just happened in those stories- the villain revealed himself to Kakababu and Arjun at some point, they didn’t really follow clues to reach the villain.  On the other hand, Sukanta Ganguly’s Dipkaku series is a textbook example of detective fiction, with the detective Dipkaku following each and every clue at the crime scene to get to the villain. It is probably time to lift Dipkaku from the not so read pages of Anandamela to the silver screen for next year’s Puja season.

 Tuatara by Debashish Bandyopadhyay (teenage adventure novel)- published in Pujabarshiki Anandamela:

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My first impression of this novel is that it is extremely dense. That’s probably a good thing particularly because the setting of the novel is also a very dense forest in the Garo Hills of north-east India. Not only is this short novel full of facts about the geography and folklore of Garo hills which were unknown to me before but also it is jam packed with action. I often turned back the pages to keep track of all that was going on.

Passages to the abstract world, of which I talked about in the introduction post of my blog, are present here in abundance disguised as tales in Garo folk lore. However keeping in mind the young audience or probably out of his own lack of interest about the abstract realm, the author did not let the readers indulge themselves in those mind altering trajectories. The monologue and actions of the main villain deep inside the cave towards the ending of the novel were still too violent and trippy for the teenage readers but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

One issue I had with the novel was that the story of the bad guy killing his twin brother and taking his place had been repeated too many times in Bengali teenage fiction, making the plot quite predictable. Satyajit Ray’s Feluda short story “Kailash Chowdhurir Pathar” had that plot and so did a Suchitra Bhattacharya’s Mitin Mashi novel, published a few  years ago in Anandamela (forgot its name, the setting of the novel was the Sundarbans).

Loukik (Real) by Samaresh Majumdar (short story)- published in Sharodiya Desh

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With Samaresh Majumdar being a veteran Bengali writer who mostly wrote about relationships and political activism in his novels, I did not anticipate this short story to be surreal at all when I started reading it. But to my surprise, it turned out to be an extremely well written surreal story of cops visiting a woman’s apartment and never getting out. The passage to the abstract world is present in full form in this short story that lasts only a few pages. Hats off to the writer and Bengali literary culture in general for this hidden gem!

Tarabhora Akasher Niche (Under a starry sky) by Srijato (novel)- published in Sharodiya Anandabazaar Patrika

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This novel by the famous contemporary Bengali poet Srijato tells the stories of Vincent VanGogh and a schizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta in parallel. The scrizophrenia patient was introduced to Vincent VanGogh and the famous “Starry Night” painting during his childhood. Since then he pursued painting actively and dreamt of becoming a famous painter one day, but had to give up on his dream owing to a lot of unfortunate and heart breaking events- death of his teacher and mentor from childhood who had actually introduced him to “Starry Night”, an act of plagiarism committed by his best friend and colleague, and of course discouragement from his middle-class family due to the uncertain future associated with pursuing a career in art. The suppressed desire of becoming a painter, coupled with the death of his dearest brother due to a misunderstanding between them, started making him hallucinate. The novel reached its climax when his wife, in order to solidify the distinction between reality and imagination in his mind, brought him to the Museum of Modern Art at New York so that he could see the actual “Starry Night” painting with his own eyes.

This novel probably epitomizes the journey of the human mind through a constant battle between solipsism and empiricism, which is the central theme of my blog. The novel has all the elements necessary to take the readers on that journey- post-impressionist art, a “crazy” painter, the experience of solitude, the nuances of brotherly love and sexual love, mental disorders and of course death. In my opinion, this is a landmark novel in modern Bengali literature and no Bengali reader should miss it. Also it certainly deserves a read by people who don’t know Bengali. I am hoping for an English translation of the book to come out soon.

Sparsha (Touch) by Krishendu Mukhopadhyay (novel)- published in Sharodiya Desh

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This novel by Krishnendu Mukhopadhyay is similar in style to Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. It also narrates two stories in parallel- one story set in the historical past and the other set in modern Calcutta. However the stories are very different in flavor from that in Srijato’s novel, but they are still equally serious and intriguing.

The first story here is of a Bengali pilot fighting for the Royal Air Force during World War II who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The second story is that of a young lady in modern day Calcutta who interrogates several surviving family members of the pilot to figure out why an old Jewish lady left a huge sum of money for the pilot at the time of her death. The novel is brilliantly written. It is extremely informative and has several touching moments that poignantly bring out the horror of the largest war fought in the history of mankind and the atrocities committed in the Jewish concentration camps.

In my opinion, these two novels perfectly bring out the contrast between two subjects I always found really fascinating- philosophy and history. Philosophy, particularly philosophy of the mind, analyzes events in the mental world of one individual much more than events in the physical world. Since it’s much harder for multiple individuals to agree upon details of events in their own mental world-s than agreeing upon events in the same physical world they all share, philosophy ends up having way more interpretations than facts. Also extraordinary events in the physical world like world wars don’t feature much in philosophy.

Srijato’s novel, which is of extremely philosophical nature and largely dwells on issues connected to the mental world of two individuals- Van Gogh and the scrizophrenia patient in modern day Calcutta- whether the world we live in is real or is an illusion, what is the nature of absolute reality, what is the purpose of existence- talks of very few relatively ordinary events in the lives of some people and yet scrutinizes those events with great precision in order to obtain deep insights regarding the mental world .

On the other hand, history is largely a study of events that happened in this physical world- mostly extraordinary ones which impacted the lives of multitudes of individuals, and hence deals largely with facts. It’s true that history also involves the act of interpretation and hence also deals with events in the mental world that ultimately trigger extraordinary events in the physical world. But still, history, as far as I understand, has way more facts than philosophy and the interpretations used in history are more simplistic than that in philosophy, at least at the level of an individual or relationships among a few individuals. For example, history books don’t deal much with how consciousness flows within an individual, how their thoughts move across in time, etc. and argue about the purpose of existence unlike philosophy books.  Instead the history books kind of assume that people living together in peaceful times are happy and only deal with extraordinary events like wars, famines, tyranny etc. that adversely affect the lives of those people and perturb their happiness.

This novel “Sparsha” also implicitly makes some simplistic interpretations about the meaning of life, on which philosophers have argued for ages. For example, it assumes that the purpose of life is to be happy and make your near and dear ones happy. Hence the Jewish family which was living together in a picturesque European village was indeed a perfectly happy family. Under that assumption the novel is all about how an extraordinary event like the Nazi attack of their village during World War II made their lives more complicated and miserable. On the other hand, in the other novel, Van Gogh, who also lived in Europe in peaceful times surrounded by mostly ordinary events, and the scrizophrenia patient who lived in a peaceful modern day Calcutta, both went through several periods of depression and existential crisis, and eventually killed themselves pondering over issues related to an abstract world that existed in their minds.

I myself have spent a lot of time over the last few years making myriads of interpretations about existential issues and the mental world with not much happening in the physical world, quite similar in spirit to the theme of Srijato’s novel “Tarabhora Akasher Niche”. After reading “Sparsha”, I have also become quite interested in learning more facts connected to extraordinary events in the history of mankind like World War II and then making some interpretations regarding how such a massive event in the physical world was caused by some events happening in the mental world of some extraordinary individuals and how it affected the mental world of the millions of individuals who suffered from it.

 

Okay now let’s stick to my promise of not making this blog too dark and grave, and get back to lighter stuff. Talking about that, the cover page of this year’s Pujabarshiki Anandamela deserves a special mention. I scratched my head for quite some time to figure out why there is an elephant in the picture given that the elephant is not the vahana of any of Durga’s family members. Wonder what staying away from Calcutta for seven years, doing a PhD and indulging too much in the trajectories to the abstract world does to your head!!!

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Movies

Kakababur Obhijaan, directed by Srijit Mukherji

Srijit Mukherji’s movies have apparently become an integral part of Bengali’s Durga Puja celebrations. Every year he makes one movie and releases it the week before Puja. This year he made his second Kakababu movie. It is based on the novel “Paharchuray Atonko”, which I read in a month long high school break between the end of final examination of fifth grade and start of classes of sixth grade. Nothing much happens in the first half of the novel- only Kakababu and Santu sitting in a dome on the top of an extremely tall mountain in the Himalayan range in freezing cold and making observations connected to the giant teeth of a mysterious animal often called the Yeti. Then suddenly in the middle of the novel Santu (or probably Kakababu) falls through a fissure and then the plot takes a sharp turn. The rest of the novel is jam-packed with action. As a kid, I loved that slow build up to that sudden twist and gave the novel several reads as a result.

The same thing is repeated in the movie much to my delight- the first half is pretty uneventful and the second half is jam-packed with action. The movie can be watched just for the sake of Aryan Bhowmik, playing the role of Santu. Equipped with amazingly good looks, martial arts skills (he is extremely comfortable in the fight scenes because he actually knows karate), dance skills (he is also a good dancer in real life but there was no scope to exhibit those skills yet in Srijit’s Kakababu series) and decent acting skills, he is certainly the next Tollywood megastar in the making.

The most memorable part of the movie for me is the theme song. The lines “Dur Digonte Prosno Hajar, Mati te pa tai porlo Rajar” have stayed with me even after I left the theater. Unless you read a lot of Kakababu in childhood you would probably not get why those lines are so special, or why is even there a mention of Raja (king) in a movie with urban middle-class protagonists.