Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Power Of Music

When summer comes, we hear the hums of
Bhisma Lochan Sharma.
You catch his strain on hill and plain from Delhi
down to Burma.
He sings as though he’s staked his life, he sings
as though he’s hell-bent:
The people, dazed, retire amazed although they
know it’s well-meant.
They’re trampled in panic rout or languish
pale and sickly,
And plead, ‘My friend, we’re near our end, oh
stop your singing quickly!’
The bullock-carts are overturned, and horses
line the roadside;
But Bhisma Lochan, unconcerned, goes
booming out his broadside.
The wretched brutes resent the blare the hour
they hear it sounded,
They whine and stare with feet in air or wander
quite confounded.
The fishes dive below the lake in frantic search
for silence,
The very trees collapse and shake – you hear the
crash a mile hence -
And in the sky the feathered fry turn turtle while
they’re winging,
Again we cry, ‘We’re going to die, oh won’t you
stop your singing?’
But Bhisma’s soared beyond our reach, howe’er
we plead and grumble:
The welkin weeps to hear his screech, and mighty
mansions tumble.
But now there comes a billy goat, a most
sagacious fellow,
He downs his horns and charges straight, with
bellow answ’ring bellow.
The strains of song are tossed and whirled by
blast of brutal violence,
And Bhisma Lochan grants the world the golden
gift of silence.

Source: p. 64, Images of Life, An Anthology of Poems by Neil O’Brien (Frank Bros. & Co.)Note: Summers are unbearably hot in most parts of India (this does not prove that winters aren’t cold enough though!). It is hard to tolerate someone singing out of tune in that crazy heat. This is a poem by Sukumar Ray, translated by Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri. Sukumar Ray is the Lewis Carroll of Bengali literature, much inspired by Carroll’s works. His poems seemed untranslatable till the gem of a collection The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray by Professor Chaudhuri (Oxford University Press) came into existence. Sukumar Ray’s famous son, filmmaker Satyajit Ray had also made an attempt to translate his father’s poetry into English and later highly praised The Select Nonsense of Sukumar Ray. This poem would go well with my previous post as well as serve as an introduction to the fantastic world of Sukumar Ray. Although structurally Bengali and English are very different languages, like in English, great poetry often rhymes well. This makes it doubly difficult to translate as much of the essence/ play on words would be lost if it didn’t in the translation.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Indian Puzzle

□ Women (1~144)        □ Men

There are two windows with two queues. One for women and the other for men. What do you do if you are male? Easy one! Stand in the queue for men. That’s right! Now, what do you do if you are male and your serial number is 128? Flummoxed? Don’t be! That is the situation I was in when I went to apply for my voter ID card so that I can participate in the elections. What did I do? I stood in the queue for men and waited my turn, only to be told to go to the other window. When I went there, people told me, “Are you blind? Can’t you see this is a queue for women?” I said yes and tried to explain that I was told to come here by the person at the other counter. They shout back, “Liar! Impossible!” So back I go to the queue for men, and tell the person in charge at the window that the other queue is for women and they are not letting me queue up. The man in charge shouts, “Your serial number is 128. You have to go there.” So back I went. By this time a few other men apparently with the same confusion are also trying to ask the person at the window for women whether they can get their work done there. The person takes all our application forms. By this time the women in the queue and the famous unasked for male helpers who appear out of nowhere and are there to give free advice, are livid. A slanging match ensues between the two parties as I barely manage to get away with my work done and without getting roughed up. I thank my stars for being “lucky”. What does the print over the window mean? Nobody knows!

The agony does not end there. There is still the photograph to be taken. The man at the window does not know where the photograph is being taken. So I go to the office on the third floor of the building. There I am told that the photographer should be somewhere in the building (an old sprawling one with many floors). So there I am marching up and down all the floors with the temperature soaring well above forty in the hot midday sun. Finally, I found the amiable cameraman in the basement ready with a digital camera. He asked me to stand against the wall and snapped me in a jiffy. Some progress at last! A modern digital camera!

It would take two months to make the ID card I was told. As we learn in India since childhood: “The fruits of patience are sweet.” Indeed!

The Homecoming

I am back in my hometown for a little over a month now. Back after two years, and this is my longest stay here after a period of six years. If you take into account another half a dozen years that I spent in college right in this same country but more than sixteen hundred kilometers away, then that makes it a full twelve years I have been but an occasional visitor. In many ways, I feel like Urashima Taro (nowadays sometimes called the "reverse culture shock" phenomenon), the legendary character in Japanese mythology who was whisked away to the bottom of the sea by a turtle he had saved before from being bullied by young kids. Right at the bottom, after many happenings, he met the princess of the oceans, where he married her and stayed with her before being homesick and wanting to go back after many years had passed. As a parting gift, he was given a box and asked to open it only if he was in real trouble. Urashima Taro reached his “hometown” but found everything had changed. No one recognized him and he did not recognize anyone. He remembered the box and curiosity got the better of him. He opened it, was enveloped in white smoke, and suddenly found that he had lost his youth and become an old wrinkled man.

Well, I am not a high school kid any more as I was when I left to pursue a university education, and though hardly visible, I have four gray strands. The lady at the barber’s (QB House 10 minute cut) had politely asked if she could pluck them out, but I had manfully refused wanting to remain a natural (that I probably always am!).

When I came back two years ago, the moment I came out of the airport, a few young men who tried to help me with my luggage though I did not ask them to, kept badgering me for just one dollar. I politely told them that I did not have one as I did not come back from a country where dollars are used. Since they had “helped” me, I offered ten rupees but they insisted on one dollar. So they ended up getting none as I really did not have any. Sorry folks!

This time though, these one in a million dollar guys were not there. I got a pre-paid taxi and moved on. The heat drugged me into a stupor, as the cosmopolitan mosquitoes buzzed to keep me awake! I reached home the following day by bus that felt like an air-conditioned roller coaster on the new high speed expressway.

It is election time in India so most news items are about elections and the Indian Premier League T20 cricket (the latest and shortest version of cricket) underway in South Africa at this time with swashbuckling players from all over the world taking part as warm up to the world cup later. Soon they will be switching sides when they play for their national teams!

On the very local front, the population of the stray “street dogs” seems to have increased more than the population of people living here, so much so that they have their own groups and frequent territorial fights. Are they planning to contest the elections too inspired by Animal Farm and the news that the pigs are down with swine flu? They are noisier than sloganeering people who pass by at times. But though these dogs would not allow me to go for a jog in the morning, scaring me out of my wits with bare white fangs, they usually wake me up half an hour before I set the alarm (free morning call!). Uncanny? Yes. Keeping me on my toes? Certainly!

Then there is the self proclaimed universal poet Mr. Sarkar at the house opposite. He used to write good poetry and also be an orator in his heydays. Especially, when he chose to climb onto the rooftop of his house and put his vocal cords to vehement use, proclaiming to the world his many talents. Legend has it that he built his own house. So what if the walls are a bit clumsy to look at! Imagine one man building an entire house by himself and even having tenants living within those uneven walls! It seems he has been learning all the while as he has taken to being a blacksmith now. Not that I have seen a single customer come by his hardware shop in the past one month. Maybe the neighbors do not complain because they have gotten so used to the clangings and bangings that they can not sleep without them! (Pavlov should have tried another experiment!) Night and day, whenever he feels gay, you can hear him clanging away! And even when he stops, I can hear them in throbs, that keep banging inside my head, wishing I were dead! Ggrrr! Anyway, now where did I get that instinct?!! Does that make me a good language student? I leave it to you to judge that. At present I am trying to learn a bit of a foreign language and the volume of my walkman has reached its limit.

So here I am, as the hot sultry unforgiving summer continues, with teasing promises of rain occasionally, as the clouds fly away faster than they gather on some mornings (once in a blue sun), relaxing and enjoying homemade meals and not trying to dwell too much on honing my meditation skills or the old proverb that home is home though it will never be so homely.

It is three in the afternoon as I type this on my computer. Thank God there is no power cut yet! First of May being a holiday, probably there is no one to cut the power! The other day, my friend (Roshmi) told me in jest that Indian politicians are so powerful that all the power goes to them. Hence, we have shortage of power! Maybe they are recharging their batteries for the elections! Some argumentative Indians are sorting things out in loud voices in the neighborhood houses. The wind is hot outside (in India people call it the loo … Brits beware of Indian English with double meanings! Things have changed a lot since you guys left?!), the windows are closed and Mr. Sarkar is at work again!