Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Flight To Kolkata -- Part I

Very often, you can smell beauty even before you can see it. Just like I smelt her now, as she stood just barely inches ahead of me in the bus that was taking us from the airport terminal to the tarmac. Perhaps the aircraft was still being cleaned of the bottles and paper cups and napkins that people leave behind in the seat pockets, so the bus stood on the tarmac for an interminably long time. Passengers stood inside like cattle, but I did not mind one bit. For, she stood right in front of me, so close that I could tell that she had washed her hair with Sunsilk shampoo that morning and was wearing Jovan Musk.

She had earphones plugged, and the source of music was tucked inside her hip pocket, where she would reach every now and then, maybe to skip songs. But in the process, she would repeatedly draw my attention to her sculpted posterior, which did complete justice to the shape of her black jeans. I prayed they take another hour to ready the plane. Durga Puja could wait, so what if it was already ashtami and it would be almost noon by the time I landed in Kolkata? But before some good things can begin, some other good things must come to an end. The door of the bus slid open and she stepped out, putting her hand one more time on her hip pocket.

She headed for the rear door of the plane and I for the front. But before we began walking diagonally apart, she looked at me. It was a proper look that she gave, that lasted for a few seconds. Taken aback, I involuntarily ran my fingers through my hair, only to realise I have no hair now: it will be several weeks before my pate returns to normal. "But she still looked at me, not bad!" I smiled to myself and climbed up the steps.

It is rare for a Bengali man to run into a Bengali woman in Chennai, unless the two are already related, mostly by way of marriage, or are already friends. It is, however, not so uncommon for one Bengali man to run into another Bengali man in Chennai, but then, what does one do with a Bengali man? It is one thing to be a Bengali man and quite another to be a Bengali woman. The former can be irritating, but the latter is always irresistible.

It is with theese thoughts I boarded the phlight to Kolkata. My next seat neighbhaar ooaas, as usual, a man. God has been so aan-kind to me. He ooaas a north Indiaan man, the man next to me. Ebhen bephore he ooaas required to tie the seat-belt, he had opened a tiffin-box and phinished four alu porotas. I kaarsed God. One, he makes a man sit next to me, nebhar a oo-man. On top oph eet, he makes that man eat alu porotas, which is my all-time phebareet, right in phrant of my eyez. There is a limit to tolaarance. What the phaak? Tempted by the smell of his porotas, I ordered porota roll that happened to be on the menu oph the ayaarlines. They gave me leathery porotas philled with dry poneer. And on top oph it, charged me one hundred and twenty rupees for the stoopid phood. What the phaak was going on? The only thought that kept my spirits phlying ooaas the thought oph the garl who I met in the ayaarport baas -- the one who wore black jeans and who had taacked haar iPod in haar hip pockeyt. I could not see haar now, baat I knew she was somewhere theyar. And the phaarst thing I did on landing ooaas to look phor haar.

Didn't I just tell you that Bengali men -- and that includes me -- can be highly irritating, while Bengali woman -- whether they are residents of Kankurgachhi in Kolkata or K.K. Nagar in Chennai -- are always irresistible? Ms Black Jeans, however, lives in Kodamabakkam, as I learned upon reaching Kolkata airport, where we got a chance to make small talk while waiting for the conveyor belt to spit out our respective bags. Kodambakkam is a stone's throw from my place in Chennai, and she said she has been living there for five years now, all by herself, in the flat of a family friend who lived far away in Hyderabad. And then I wondered: where the phaak was I all these yeeaars?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Missing Mom And Other Stories

I must admit it feels good to know that your book is finally in the shops. Even better, that it is available on online bookstores. Till the other day I've been ordering books by Henry Miller and Eric Newby from these sites, and now it feels strange -- in a nice way, though -- that your book is also up there, being offered at the customary discount and all.

But it is also true that I am not being able to relish these moments the way I would have in the normal course. One reason, of course, is the absence of mother. During the two weeks I was in Kanpur after her cremation, a part of my mind believed that she would return one of these days and that her death was only a bad dream. But only after returning to Chennai did it strike me that her absence was now permanent.

The other reason I am in no mood to relish these moments is I am tired. Very tired -- my body and mind. I have hardly slept in the past three weeks. I am working on a new manuscript, and it needs to be done fast or else my thoughts would evaporate. The thought of writing this book came to my mind the afternoon my mother was cremated. I was standing by the Ganges, staring at the river, with some 20 bodies burning around me including that of my mother, when it struck me: this is Banaras, where people come to die; and what a waste it would be if I did not record my experience of being right in the womb of death?

Quite a few people, mostly Westerners, have written about the burning ghats of Banaras. But a visiting Westerner is so dazzled by the spectacle of several burning bodies simultaneously that he remains blind to every other colour dancing on the ghat other than the yellow of the fire. And here I was, who was not only dazzled by the yellow of the fire leaping out from the burning pyres but also someone who had his dear mother burning in one of those pyres. I had been through shit which a Westerner can't even imagine to be in. Who could be a better person than me to write about Banaras and its famous burning ghat?

Of course the book is not going to be just about a cremation in Banaras. There would be a lot more to it. That's how the publishers want it. They want me to tell a story. Since I know no story well enough other than my own, this book will be my story, more or less. In spite of toiling for the past three weeks, I've reached only one-third of the word count I am aiming for. But the real problem is: each night when I sit down to write, I am forced to recall my mother's death. I am forced to recall the same images again and again, in order to to be able to write. And that drains me out.

Worse, as soon as I finish this manuscript, I have to get down to working on the book on Chennai. The publishers have already paid me an advance for the Chennai book and they would not buy any excuse.

Fortunately, my mother was still very much alive and lively when I had told her about signing the contract for the Chennai book. "All the best, beta," she had told me. Those were her exact words. But now I feel tired. There was a time, just three years ago, when I was desperately hoping to find a publisher. But today I am desperate for a break. That maybe because I also have a job to keep.

Whatever the case, my back hurts. My eyes hurt too. Also a constant pain in my left arm -- the result of typing non-stop with my left index finger. Someone, please, give me, or get me, a job that lets me be. All I need is a little money that takes care of my bills and my booze and cigarettes, and plenty of free time to write and to travel. In return, I promise, I will give you undivided attention for five full hours every single day -- on days I am in town, that is -- which might just change your luck for the better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chai, Chai

My book, Chai, Chai: Travels In Places Where You Stop But Never Get Off, should be in the bookshops in a day or two.

A formal launch, by the Madras Book Club, is scheduled for October 15, 6.30 pm, at Taj Connemara. Veteran theatre artiste P.C. Ramakrishna will be reading from the book.

So, welcome one and all. The presence of those who have been reading me for a while would hopefully make up for the absence of my mother, who chose to depart from this world just a few weeks before this event. It would also be nice to meet people who I have known so far as 'anonymous' commentators.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Rite And Wrong

When I started this blog four years ago, I called it Bytheganges as an expression of my identity. As a Bengali who was born and bred in Kanpur, who went on to work in Delhi and then shifted base to Madras, I still can’t say with certainty who am I. The only certainty in my life is the river: I belong to the culture that has flourished on its banks for thousands of years, the culture which considers the Ganga, or the Ganges, not just a river but also a mother. But never had I imagined that someday I would be part of the multitude that observes elaborate rituals on the ghats of Ganga. For me, these were people meant to be observed, to be written about. They were my subjects. Now I have joined them.

This morning, I got my head tonsured and my moustache removed at the Massacre Ghat in Kanpur. The ghat is named so because some 300 British men, women and children were slaughtered here by Indian mutineers on June 27, 1857. It is one of the cleaner ghats of Kanpur because the polluting tanneries are located further downstream.

What a beautiful morning: an overcast sky, a powerful yet pleasant breeze sweeping down from across the river, and the river itself swollen and flowing so fast as if it is in a hurry to get to the next city. On a normal day, this would have been a good place to spend the morning, under the shade of the Shiva temple and in the company of monkeys and a handful of bathers. But right now I was required to offer food to my mother’s soul and then surrender myself to the barber.

I first lost my mother. Then I lost my looks. Mother won’t return, though looks will as the hair begins to grow; but it is not at all funny when you look into the mirror and find a complete stranger looking back at you. This is certainly not the time for a new look: it would have been far more comforting to see my old self in the mirror –the self who stood by me and helped me accept my mother’s death.

I am not a great fan of rituals unless they evoke nostalgia, and I could have resisted the tonsuring. But I did for my mother. She was a fastidious woman when it came to rituals, and I did not wish to let her down. It gives me immense satisfaction that I am doing this for her, because after this, I will never get another chance to do anything for her.

But I am sure my mother will forgive me for not strictly observing the do’s and dont’s prescribed for a man who has just lost his parent. Tradition demands that for 12 days after her death, I should cook my own meal, on firewood, in an earthen pot and eat in seclusion. The meal should not be anything more than boiled rice and raw banana or potato. For dinner, it should only be fruits and sweets. Anything that tickles the taste-buds is strictly prohibited. Alcohol is out of the question. Amid the gloom of death, such austerities can only fan the fire of emotions even when you are trying to take everything in your stride and move on.

While my lunch has been bland, I have been shamelessly indulging in samosas and jalebis. When you are in Kanpur, it is a bigger sin to resist samosas and jalebis. And since I have been writing most evenings, one can find bottles of whisky in my secluded room upstairs. That much liberty I can take with my mother. She was my mother, after all.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

By The Ganges Part II: Becoming A Man

Sometime ago, I wrote a post about how, someday, I would like to be a new-age spiritual guru whose commandment no. 1 would be:

Accept that death is inevitable: anybody who has been born has to die one day. The only question is when. Once you make peace with the 'when' factor, you have beaten death as well as the gloom that comes with it. Treat death like a girlfriend who just happened to knock at your door an hour before she was expected. Would you turn her away? No. You are most likely to say: "Oh, that's early! Am still in my pajamas. Anyway, now that you have come, please come in."

I am proud to report that I am very close to becoming a full-fledged guru because I tried the commandment, the most difficult one, on myself and came out with flying colours. Nine days ago, my mother died. Not a drop of tear. Not an ounce of sadness. But two regrets: that she died precisely three days before her 60th birthday, and precisely eight days before I held in my hand the first copy of Chai, Chai, my first book. I was deperately hoping that she got to see the book before anything happened to her.

I wish to ask her why she couldn't postpone her departure by just 10 days. Maybe she had a plan in mind whose import I will get to understand in the coming years. Or maybe she had no time to plead with Death to postpone her departure by a couple of weeks: she died in a matter of seconds, while having lunch with my father and brother at my brother's home in Banaras.

While my father taught me how to think, it was my mother who had taught me how to write. One rainy evening, some 30 years ago, she patiently explained to me how a story should have an intro, a middle and an ending. Since then, I have always worked hard on the beginning and the ending. The middle usually took care of itself. This, when I did not even know that I would someday write for a living. Eventually, it was the writer in me that rescued me from being devastated by my mother's death.

For years, ever since she underwent a bypass surgery in the year 2000 and was found to have a very weak heart, the thought of losing her had tormented me. Every now and then, I would torture myself imagining what my reaction would be when I got the bad news. But the bad news never came. When it finally did, I was calm. Very calm. I was getting ready for work that afternoon when my father called. After he hung up, I put on my jeans and walked up to the mirror and dabbed some aftershave lotion. I then smiled at myself in the mirror. I wanted to see if a man who has just lost his mother could still smile. I could. I had won.

I could afford to smile because I was no longer myself. I was now a writer who was out to cover the most important event of his life with an invisible notebook in hand, and if he were to be honest to his job, he could not afford to get emotional. I remember admiring the breasts of the Punjabi air hostesses on the flight to Delhi. I am not really a breast person, but the way they were portruding out of their airline uniform, I could not help noticing. I told myself: "Is it proper to be admiring breasts when you know your mother has just died?" But the writer in me quickly patted my head: "Your mother is not going to come alive if you turn your eyes away. So admire them if you want to, go ahead."

So I admired the breasts, had a few drinks upon reaching Delhi, and had a good night's sleep before taking the flight to Banaras in the morning. The only thing I did not do -- and could not do -- was eat. It was not out of sadness for losing my mother, but out of consideration for my father and brother. They had not eaten too: they were up all night, keeping a watch on my mother who was now lying on a bed of ice.

When I reached Banaras the next morning, I came -- finally -- face to face with the moment I had dreaded the most: watching my mother dead. There she was, sleeping calmly, as if she had had a long day. She showed no reaction when I walked in. That was when I knew she was really gone, otherwise she would have jumped up from the bed of ice and hugged me.

I stroked her cheeks out of affection, something I wish I had done while she was alive, and touched her feet out of respect, something I had never done before either. It had always been a hug, always initiated by her, that had defined the mother-son love all these years. I had never stroked her cheeks or touched her feet or hugged her on my own all these years simply out of the fear that she would miss me even more and feel miserable due to my absence. I wanted to be a man. But right now there was no harm stroking her cheeks or touching her feet: she was too fast asleep to realise my touch. And thus began my mother's final journey, snaking its way through the narrow streets of Banaras and ending at the Manikarnika Ghat, where every devout Hindu desires to be cremated. If you are cremated there, as they say, you go straight to heaven, freed at once from the cycle of birth and death. And not everybody is fortunate to be cremated at Manikarnika: there are plenty of people who, when they realise their end is near, come to live in Banaras. But when death takes its own sweet time in coming, their impatience takes them back to their respective hometowns. But the moment they set foot on their hometown, death decides to catch up. Their dream of dying in Banaras remains unfulfilled.

That way, my mother was lucky. The religious and god-fearing woman that she was, she must be extremely glad that she was cremated at Banaras. It was as if she had planned her death, without letting any of us know. I will spare you the details of the cremation: I will present them to you some other day, on some other platform. Suffice to say that the moment I touched the fire on her lips -- Hindus call it mukhaagni -- I was instantly transformed from a Momma's Boy into a Man. In Banaras, there is no room for tokenism: mukhaagni means mukhaagni, you really have to touch the fire on the lips of the person you are cremating.

Within three hours, my mother was reduced to ashes. Everything was gone, except her navel. Now that was a revelation: when you burn a body the traditional way, in wood, the navel is one part which refuses to be turned into ashes. In an electric crematorium, however, the whole body turns into ashes within a matter of minutes. But when you cremate a body on a wooden pyre, the navel remains intact, even though it is charred. I was handed my mother's navel in an earthen pot. It looked like a burnt piece of tandoori chicken. As instructed by the priest, I flung the piece into the Ganga. My act had delivered my mother from the cycle of life and death.