Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh Calcutta!

Speaking for myself, I hate Calcutta in the pujas. I hate the crowds, the noise, the traffic jams, the din of the loudspeakers, the eternal shuffle-shuffle of feet all night, the bedecked people in "jeaner pant", and the pseudo intellectuals that abound. So each year I try to run away from it all, a few times I have even been successful. But yes, by and large, except during the puja madness, I do love Calcutta, (note, NOT Kolkata) and it is not something that came naturally although I was born here and the city has been my home for the better part of my life. No, this is a city that has grown on me, wrapped itself around my heart, its tentacles created by memories and nostalgia.
Yet, it wasn't always like that. As a child I quite liked the pujas, we had a family friend's place to go to and once there, the few days passed happily enough with me oblivious to the religious sentiments around me. Not being very religious by nature, or having any particular love and affection for the pujas, I never thought of coming home at the time while in college: so lazing on a hill in Pune or lying on a beach in Goa during the two days we got for Dusshera, I never even wondered what the fuss was all about. After I got married I learnt that people actually go for all night pandal-hopping and slt!!!! So I tried it once. Um, after an hour of so of jostling in crowds in the heat and dust and gazing at yet another brightly lit pandal shaped like (surprise!) a temple which you anyway saw better from the cool confines of the ac car, and pushing through endless traffic jams, and yet another Boltu and Bapi and boudis shouting "ei je, Pinku, kotahi geli?" at the top of her voice, and observing Roadside Romeos batting eyelids at Jhinchak Juliets and vice versa, I had had enough. Never again, I vowed! So nowadays even if I am stuck in Calcutta at this time of year, I hide away at home and hope I do NOT have to step out of the house for as long as it takes! But yes, the loud noise and shuffling feet and lights follow me into my bedroom and haunt my nights!
So even though I do not completely agree with all of it, today I came across this article shared by a friend on FB and thought I'd share this write up by Vir Sanghvi on Kolkata and Durga Pujas:

"What 'Pujo' means to a Bengali ?
Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity. Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a Maharashtrian city and he will take immediate offence. We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously.

Tell a Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways, it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense about being the nation's capital, about the international composition of the city's elite etc.

And tell a Bangalorean that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.

But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about is recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's more, no Bengali minds you saying that.
Rather, he is proud of the fact.

Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter
contempt for mere commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation. And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks as strengths in their
own way). Calcutta embodies the Bengali love of culture; the triumph of intellectualism over greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the
disdain with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all other aspects of human

That's why Calcutta is not for everyone.

You want your cities clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich and impersonal; go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full of draught
beer; Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city with a soul: come to Calcutta.

When I look back on the years I've spent in Calcutta - and I come back so many times each year that I often feel I've never been away - I don't
remember the things that people remember about cities.

When I think of London, I think of the vast open spaces of Hyde Park. When I think of NewYork, I think of the frenzy of Times Square.
When I think of Tokyo, I think of the bright lights of Shinjiku. And when I think of Paris, I think of the Champs Elysee.
But when I think of Calcutta, I never think of any one place. I don't focus on the greenery of the maidan, the beauty of the Victoria Memorial, the bustle
of Burra Bazar or the splendour of the new Howrah Bridge. I think of people. Because, finally, a city is more than bricks and mortars, street lights and tarred roads. A city is the sum of its people. And who can ever forget or replicate - the people of Calcutta?

When I first came to live here, I was told that the city would grow on me. What nobody told me was that the city would change my life. It was in Calcutta that I
learn't about true warmth; about simple human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions and caring; about truth and honesty. I learn't other things too. Coming from Bombay as I did, it was a revelation to live in a city where people judged each other on the things that really mattered; where they recognized that being rich did not make you a better person - in fact, it might have the opposite effect. I learn't also that if life is about more than just money, it is about the things that other cities ignore; about culture, about ideas, about art, and about passion.

In Bombay, a man with a relatively low income will salt some of it away for the day when he gets a stock market tip. In Calcutta, a man with exactly the same
income will not know the difference between a debenture and a dividend. But he will spend his money on the things that matter. Each morning, he will read at
least two newspapers and develop sharply etched views on the state of the world. Each evening, there will be fresh (ideally, fresh-water or river) fish on his
table. His children will be encouraged to learn to dance or sing. His family will appreciate the power of poetry And for him, religion and culture will be in
inextricably bound together.

Ah religion! Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in Calcutta and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say. Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a religions festival? I never know how to explain them that to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity.

The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in artistic expression and yes, the cult of the goddess. It may be about religion. But is about much more than just worship. In which other part of India would small, not particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of the country - is so much about food, about going from one roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails the smells of cooking?
To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to understand Calcutta, you must understand the Bengali. It's not easy. Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love Calcutta forever.
Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal.
It's a feeling that'll never go away."

well, then, happy pujos, everyone, let the madness begin!!

Friday, September 9, 2011

An irreverent look at : Karma.

I hate waking up in the mornings. Yet, each day these days you will find me up at an ungodly hour (yes, even 6 o clock is ungodly as far as I’m concerned) wishing I were back in the land of Nod. Why? Karma of course. And the fact that my daughter’s not very good (read: weak) in Maths! Now my dad always used to say that the best time to do math is early in the morning while the mind is still fresh and undisturbed. So following his advise I am experimenting with my daughter in the hope of early morning mathematical enlightenment to dawn!
Of course all through my growing up years I always was told that my life would come to naught because I woke up at 5:57 am and somehow brushed my teeth and changed (no, night clothes were not allowed in the dining room!) and reached the breakfast table by 6 am with seconds to spare! My father pointedly looked at the watch, my grandfather would loudly say that now since everyone was finally at the table, could he have his tea as it was going cold, and my sister would snigger at me from across the table. You see they were all early birds and had been awake for hours: busy at their morning walks and yogas and stuff and generally doing whatever early birds do at that hour!
That is a trick I rarely duplicated after I left home. The only sunrises I have hitherto seen are when I have been awake all night, or HAD to get up for a family puja or an early morning flight! Waking up early has never had any charm: the chirping of the birds, the light peeping over the roof of the next building, these things leave me unmoved.
Which of course brings me to the other reason why I am up. Why, Karma of course. That damn bugger has been deciding my life from day one! When Karma said “clean the kid’s poo” that’s what I did, when karma said “stay home and cook” or “now you can be the cleaner” or “today you are the bloody driver ‘cos the driver is too drunk to come to work”…..guess who fell in line? I did. So this Karma fellow has me running about trying to catch my own tail all day long. Sometimes I want to kick it in the balls: “hey, this is not my life, my life is simple and carefree and I do not have to get things done, they get done by others, I’m the one who orders everyone around!” Karma grins and says nothing. One more kick in the butt and I’m racing about again…..from piles of paper work to unfinished drafts to snotty clients to harassive solicitors to whiny kids to glowering judges to a bunking part time maid to a half wit driver to TV gobbling kids, I have it all! I feel like a hyperactive cowherd most days, constantly chasing after everyone in an effort to stay in one place and hoping to hang on to what’s left of my sanity too!!!!
Anyway early morning has one advantage, save for my daughter occasionally poking me to ask yet another daft question, which I try to patiently answer, I have the quiet smell of fresh coffee and silence around me. My thoughts fall in place, the clutter clears up and suddenly I find the room in my mind is cleaner, the windows are less dirty and there’s more light coming in! Memories suddenly become more lucid too and I start to think that I am feeling calmer………until I am jolted back to reality “Ma, do I divide or multiply?”
“Obviously, if its not one, it’s the other, read the sum again!” (yes, before you ask, for me, that is a LOT of patience!)
The daughter reads the sum over, I inspect my now empty coffee cup and sigh as I turn to her with an amount of frustration in my voice. I can hear the lock turn in that clean light-filled room in my mind! Karma rubs his hands in glee, he has a long "to do" list in his hand....I'm cornered, and I know it!
Until tomorrow morning, then!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Girls, girls, girls!!!

A few weeks ago, a friend came over and she and I sat with our drinks on the balcony, savouring the soft breeze and the easy companionship which does not have to be expressed in words, a friendship that does not need to be defined or expressed in speech. Ah girlfriends! What would life be without them? For at the end of the day, only a girlfriend will understand why you are upset that the pudding has not set or why watching the advertisement with that sweet chubby kid brings a lump to your throat! You can share your angst your joy and your pain and the girlfriend will be there to help you laugh it off, giggle at what you cannot change and give a fresh perspective on who you are. They are the cornerstones of your existence they sit and listen to your ranting AND they come back for more! That’s more than one can say about most men!
Having come from an all girl’s school, I should have more than my fair share of girlfriends and yes, I guess I do. But the ones that really count are ones who do not need a reason to be my friend. One look, one glance and bingo, there they are! It does not matter that there is almost a decade between us, it does not matter that oceans divide us or that the last time I spoke to her was over a year ago on her birthday and this year I didn’t get round to calling. Who needs a reason? I can call now, meet after days or months or years and I slip back into the friendship like that old slipper you never forgot. Take for instance this school friend who left school suddenly when we were in tenth grade. She was one of my best friends and I was pretty cut up about the way she suddenly disappeared. Now, two days ago, I reconnected with after twenty-five years! I had searched for her but had given up on ever finding her. Then, lo and behold, she pops up on facebook (of course) and we chat on the phone and I can feel the years melt away, we remember the old times, the quiet times and it doesn’t really matter, that gap of a quarter of a century! Who, but another girl will understand that?
So here’s to all my girlfriends, the ones we giggled about boys with, the ones who laughed at us because we were stupid or stood by us when we were hopelessly wrong, the ones who understand that the husband is being crabby so we have to cancel that lunch appointment, the ones who know kids can be so demanding at times they won’t let you talk on the phone in peace, the ones with who nothing is taboo and you are not judged or patronized, the ones who will agree to go on a bike ride with you at two in the morning “just because’, the one who will wear a swimsuit and get into the water with you even though she does not know swimming, the one who will take the blame when your father frowns at you for being late, the one who will take responsibility for she is the teachers pet, the one you can wake up at any hour of the night by honking loudly outside her door (never mind the neighbours!), the one who will agree to go “paaaarp” in a loud voice because your bike horn is not working, the ones who will sit with you in the moonlight on the top of a hill and let you shout into the darkness and then laugh herself and you silly afterwards, the ones who insist on writing your paper for you for otherwise you are not ready and might flunk, the ones who will share their last drink and last drag with you because you’re feeling like a lost kitten, the ones who will bring you in out of the cold and make you warm again, the ones you who soothe you when you are hurting so badly you cannot think, the ones who pick up the phone and instantly know that something is wrong, the ones that laugh with you and cry with you, the ones for whom a little silence is enough, the ones for who words are not necessary.
I think about all this and then I think there is so much much much more….and then I think one thing: I am so blessed to have friends like you. Thank you everyone, you know who you are!