Saturday, April 17, 2010

A brief trip to Delhi and Guwahati April 2010

A brief trip to Delhi and Guwahati April 2010:

It started off a chilly morning which, by afternoon, morphed into a harbinger of summer with the skies blue, and the air warm. M, emerging from this swift and bitter winter like a post hibernating bear, plunged into the garden with both hands at this jewel of an afternoon. As I loaded my bags, she interrupted her work, walking up to the front of the house to see me off. I drove down to the end of the driveway. Before taking the turn onto the road, I looked at the rear view mirror. She was gone, vanished in a heartbeat into the sun and green. I began my 60 mile journey to the airport through Westchester roads that carved by lakes shimmering in stagnant silence, reflecting the grandeur of the blue skies and few scattered clouds.

I am in a packed non-stop 15 hour flight to Delhi, settled in in my little capsule of a seat, with copies of Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” and Bill Bryson’s “”Thunderbolt Kid” for company. As the aircraft taxis, and all electronics items are ordered subdued, my neighbour continues to work the keys of his Blackberry atop his lap, beneath a blazer thrown across for subterfuge. If not for the slight telltale glow of the LCD screen underneath the blazer, I would have misconstrued this unusual motion for something else.

Delhi airport throws a slightly different look every time I visit. Gone are the long drawn immigration checkouts--I am out in 15 minutes, in a car headed to the hotel at high speed on a sparkling 8 lane highway. As Delhi prepares for the Commonwealth games there are big changes underway. The metro rail will extend to the international airport and a new terminal is being built. There are signs of construction everywhere, of half finished work and rubble, and behemoth equipment by the roadside that form dark ponderous outlines against the sodium vapor lit sky. At night, in places, Delhi ceases to look like the Indian city of one’s minds, as you go from parking lot to highway to tollbooths and criss crossing overpasses.

After a quick check in, I have dinner at the Aangan, an Indian restaurant in Bikaji Cama Place. The food is good but it does not talk to me. Perhaps in my tiredness, I am unreasonable, expecting Delhi to cook up its magic to this prodigal son with a hungry stomach. But as the saying goes, that every soldier has a bullet with his name on it, I believe that every restaurant holds a menu item with the diners name: and for me, at Angan, it was finally the kulfi, that did me in. I fall asleep dog tired, in the cold chill of the airconditioner and the lights from a large gas station diffusing through the wall size window next to my bed.

I always enjoy looking out from the hotel window the first morning of arrival. Delhi has historical grandeur, but it is an ugly city with a harsh, gritty landscape, the swirling dust creates a haze that tinges the early morning light into warm colors. You can see treelines extending backwards, divided into distance zones, with each subsequent zone obfuscated a bit by the haze, till at the end they look like outlines of shades of grey in the distance that could be hills. It has been unseasonably hot in the city and the daytime temperature crosses 100 F (>40 C). I take a brief walk at lunchtime and, with the dry breeze blowing, it feels like walking into a thousand solar powered hair dryers at the same time.

Cricket, and the Indian Premier League have cast a spell over the country. One of the largest professional sports businesses in the world, the IPL teams are owned by consortia of the rich, powerful and the good looking. They are named in regional flavors (e.g. Rajasthan Royals, Kolkata Nightriders) and rostered by the best players in the world, recruited via auction. The league is a runaway hit and I see some of the matches on TV. Cameras at numerous angles, microphones and sensors dissect every aspect of the game from the speed, statistical distribution of the ball, and strokeplay. The participants look nothing like the players of the past. Compared to the rail thin Azaruddin or the dapper Gavasker of an earlier era, gods in human size and form, who looked like they could have been regular office goers who traded in their briefcases for pads and white flannel--many of these players are gladiator geared athletic specimens who immediately dispel any professional cricketing aspirations that a regular sized person might have. It may be a trickery of modern camerawork, but I get the distinct impression that the the game is played at a much higher level today (it is a similar matter with kabbaddi-- in Canada, where there is a semi-professional league among Indian immigrants, the game appears totally beyond the kabbaddi we knew, with average players standing six feet plus and 240 pounds).

Pretty people appear highly valued and superficiality is readily accepted. Breathtaking movie stars are feted whose acting talents (or even ability to speak Hindi in some cases) appear less critical than their musculature. A dashing junior minister, who enjoys a bit of a wallflower effect because of his looks and ability to speak clipped English (which always appears to impress, in general, in the ex-colonies) is embroiled in a scandal involving free equity from an IPL cricket team. Newspaper and magazine articles are full of clever sound bites, but lack depth. Today’s headlines introduce me to a new world: “Yuvraj may exit Kings XI after IPL-3”, “100 Crore-patis in Rajya Sabha”, “JEE Goof up leaves IIT aspirants in a tizzy”. The number of ads for educational institutes is astounding—there is clearly an explosion of private universities, and a national knowledgefest is underway. Employment opportunities seem very high for qualified people.

The next day I take a plane out of Delhi headed into a whole different world, Guwahati. Time has been held back somewhat in the North Eastern parts of India. The milieu waiting to board the flight to Guwahati and Imphal stand out at the airport--they are like it used to be three decades ago, of a child with his mother and aunts waiting in a dilapidated Calcutta airport. Shorn of the gloss and the straightened hair of the Delhi elite, they stand with sewn cloth bags, young women with colors that the globally urban might disdain, businessmen with worn briefcases and tired clothes, slightly tentative of the surrounding glitz, like the elderly lady at the Kolkata mall a few years ago who looked terrified in the new fangled department store, reminding me so much of my mother that I felt a protective rush run through me. On the aircraft, there is a comfortable unassumedness in their presence, as two children run the aisles in the airplane frolicking, and multiple passengers, undistracted by laptops, delight and indulgently partake in their fun.

Assam signifies a calm from the aircraft, with its greenery, its mountains, and the magnificent Brahmaputra river that flows in from Tibet. The outskirts of the city, where the airport is, still has remnants of old Assam style construction, elegant with wooden frames and sloping roofs. The aircraft taxis past the corrugated sheet hangar marked “Assam Flying Club”, which has been there since at least the early 1970s. The winds of change have begun to blow through Guwahati. I speak to an elderly cousin of mine in the financial profession, who complains of this new world of electronic tax filings and telephone support with automated voices. He flew recently using an online electronic ticket, changed his flights, was charged a hefty fee, and then mourned the loss of the process in which there could be a physical person whom he could have gone to for redress, coerced into re-adjusting the books. My mother marvels at a felicitory seasonal message texted to her cellphone from the medical clinic, and I explain to her the impersonal mathematics of mass mailings.

At night I am a ringside spectator to a spectacular Assam storm. The night is cool and breezy and swarms of mosquitoes are stuck on top of the mosquito net, trapped by the downward draft of the ceiling fan, as the net swings to and fro, as is in a giant mosquito amusement park. The storm announces itself without foreplay, with sharp crackling thunder, a lull, then the slow rise in volume of the sound of rain, distant at first, then creeping up, till it rings around you as if in the midst of a circular arena. It is a rich, intense sound, as I have only heard in Assam, of a deep, all encompassing, body of water. The sounds are many—falling on the tin roofs of constrution nearby, a harsh staccato, the blotchy drips of water onto large green banana leaves. Each sound has a temporal rhythm and these beat upon one another as the rain and the response of the surroundings to it set a happy equilibrium between themselves. The storm goes away, as it came, suddenly spent as if the heavens turned a faucet off.

In the morning we have visitors and one of them, a gentleman that I have never met before, hearing that I had arrived from the States, asks me about Jerry Garcia, out of the blue. This leads to a wonderful conversation and we talk about rock music in the North East, about Lou Majew, a long haired Khasi singer/songwriter who has been eccentric enough to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday with a concert every year for the last 30 years till the NY Times ran a full page feature on him last year (“I am broke, like shattered glass” was one of his comments). About amazing vocalists largely unknown, playing at music festivals in the hills of Nagaland and Manipur, about Anusheh Anadil a guttural, engine voiced Bangladeshi singer who will be very well known, very soon. Western music is widespread here In the North Eastern hill regions where children learn to play the guitar at an early age, an interesting offshoot of the spread of Christianity among the tribal populations here by Scottish, American, and English priests in the 19th and early 20th. centuries.

On the way back, by the side of the road leading back to the airport, across a field and next to some rural construction is a large billboard with a picture of Dr. Bhupen Hazarika, the singer who has held godlike status in Assam over the past 40 years. While studying for his Ph.D. at Columbia University in the 1950s, he was deeply influenced by American music and the blues. Upon returning, he wrote and sang one of the greatest songs to come out of Eastern India, on the Brahmaputra river, based on the American classic, Old Man River. Today, this octogenarian leader of the people and disciple of Paul Robeson, smiles gently from the billboard at passing motorists, peddling products for Star Cement as its brand ambassador. He seems to have made his pact at the mythical cross-roads.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Bhaddoloker Cheley

Bhaddoloker Chheley

(the way it was in the 70s and 80s)

“Bhaddoloker Chheley”. There are passport phrases in almost all languages. An implicative comment, it is a shorthand that categorizes an entire lifestyle, not much different from a file type tag. Such phrases offer a passport to the holder, to certain entitlements, or lack thereof.

Bhaddoloker Chheley in Bengali means son of a gentleman (more properly Bhadrolok), a refrain heard repeatedly in Bengal. A son of a gentleman, by implication, is a gentleman. He is to be held as opposite to the lesser used, but oft implied, “Chotolok’er Cheley” (son of a small man), he is the one who will cross a puddle astride a rickshaw, the one who could make a social call in the evening, his folded cuffs exposing the HMT wristwatch with its oversize steel band hanging loose from his wrists, tackling twin rossogollas on his plate. He is to be trusted with a certain modicum of behavior, admitted into your house, an entrenched participant in a rigorous economic class structure. He may or may not have money—this was not important. He needed to have an education but was not required to be an intellectual—for there is another word for that –“Buddhijeebi” (crafted in pompous self definition, literally, as one who lives exploiting his brains).

Things would be particularly tragic if a Bhaddoloker Cheley went astray. Someone might say, “he was a gangster, a Bhaddoloker Cheley, turned into a gangster after falling in with foul company, and then got shot and killed—how tragic”. It would have been understandable, if the young man had projectiled out of the slums to this violent fate. But the thought of a refined bhadralok family, their neat life sliced apart by this wayward irregularity, was a cause for concern, a warning to other bhadraloks to keep their feet at bay from the incoming surf.

The bhadralok family did not admit to physical work (at least in the 70s and 80s). There was child labor for that, in the form of household help (today, though I understand that thankfully many of these children instead go to school). The gentleman might be an engineer, but a loose switch in his living room called for the electrician. And if the electrician was a dhoti clad bhadralok, then his presence warranted a few minutes in the living room, with tea and a couple of rossogollas.

Machismo has never been the bhadralok’s forte. Mock threats abound—“had you not been there to restrain me, I would have broken him into two”--but rarely culminate into action. “Seven millions sons, oh devoted Mother, you have made into Bengalis, not men. “--Rabindranath Tagore is quoted as saying in a book by Sikata Banerjee. Tagore, the poet of Bengal, did much to define this band of brotherhood. The bhadralok’s daughter, waiting in the wings for marriage, would have been a practitioner of his songs every Sunday morning. Seated on her bed, she would flay alive the gentle beauty of the poet’s work--heaving bosom in mournful, pendulous consonance above the swaying leather bellows of the harmonium.

Machismo aside, the Bhaddoloker Cheley, at some point in his life, has tried bodybuilding. This typically involved lathering himself up in mustard oil and spending a couple of weeks waving godas (heavy cast iron clubs), dressed in small shorts in the neighborhood “gym”—a simple construction typically next to a small park (I will bet that this practice, in the described form, is probably no more). Some of these kids would continue working out, developing bulging biceps and pecs and at this point they would cease to be bhadraloks. Bodybuilders had a peculiar set of norms. They would eat lots of ghee (clarified butter) and chickpeas. Raw eggs worked their way in after the movie Rocky was released in the late seventies. The iron that the weights were made of was sacrosanct. You could not contact it with your feet—this was a mark of disrespect—“lohay pa ditey nei”! If your feet touched them, you folded your hands and touched your forehead seeking forgiveness. Consequently, most Bengali bodybuilders ended up with spindly legs.

Emerging from their roots in the landed gentry and professional classes of the 19th. Century, who both aided and opposed the British, the ultimate bhadralok of the 1950’s was personified by characters such as the writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri. Strong willed, opinionated, fluent in the literature of both Bengal and England, he dedicated his Autobiography of an Unknown Indian”, in a quizzical act:“
“To the memory of the British Empire in India,
Which conferred subjecthood upon us,
But withheld citizenship.
To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:
"Civis Britannicus sum"
Because all that was good and living within us
Was made, shaped and quickened
By the same British rule.

Taken in the context of the early 1950s, written by a man born in the late nineteenth century, the phrasing is understandable. Reading the book, one marvels at the extent of information available to the author in his developmental years. Most Bhadraloks in the decades following independence while not quite Nirad Babu clones, nonetheless retained an inherited set of values, albeit convoluted somewhat from what is reflected in Chaudhuri’s writings. The bhadralok was by and large an upright pillar of society, though not totally immune from an occasional trip to Kalighat (not for the right reasons) or some occasional graft during the time of the pujas. But their core set of values wove together in many instances a home environment where their children, wanting in many needs yet never lacking for books, had the opportunity to study and be mentored, and have equal access to knowledge comparable to almost anyone else in the world.

The bhadralok’s romantic sense of absolute expectation and its unfulfillment distinguished him. I have seen a gentleman walk into a test match and walk away just 10 minutes into the game, because he came to see the opening batsman Gavaskar play, and left after that wicket fell. According to him there was nobody else worth seeing and by departing, he made his point. And this is a constant theme, this separation on his own terms, figuratively or otherwise. “Class’ey keu uttar janto na, ami daralam, uttor ta diye beriye choley gelam class thekey”, said my chemistry teacher to me years ago, reminiscing his own days as a student—“nobody could answer the question, I simply stood up, gave the answer, and walked out of the class”— his departure was his exclamation point, signaling that he had nothing more to give, or take. V. S. Naipaul, in “A Million Mutinies Now”, describes the Presidency College physics professor Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, who did not do physics anymore because the problems that interested him, he did not possess the skills to solve, and the problems that he could tackle, did not interest him. Not letting his own limitations sully his high standards, he elevated himself out of this dilemma by quitting active research.

No description of a Bengali bhadralok is complete without a description of his organic urge to cross the mythical river. “Bolo Radhey, Brojosundari, par koro, par koro”—“Hey Radha (paramour of the god Krishna, and a general mythological figure), beauty of the forests, get me across (the river).” The theme is an important one, intended to bring about an equiibrium in the tired soul. Carried across the river he jettisons his weariness and his angst into the murky waters of the Ganga or Padma bringing closure onto himself at the opposing bank, into the comforting arms of “the mother”.

Much has obviously changed since those years. The internet has no doubt had a profound effect on the bhadralok. A few years back a modern “Bhoddoloker Cheley” sat next to me on an AI flight back to Calcutta. He was a freshman at MIT, returning home for the vacations. I mentioned to him how I, as a grad student in the US, had been excited on my first trip back to India some twenty years back and we talked about staying so far away from home. He looked at me as one might at an older practitioner of a trade. “I have heard that in those days you guys wrote like, letters and stuff?”.he asked.