Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Of Ganga And Ganga Mail: 11 Years Of A Blog

I am mildly emotional about October 17 — I never seem to forget the date — because it was on this day in 2005 that I started this blog. That makes Ganga Mail 11 years old.
The blog was created in a setting similar to what I find myself in right now: a dark room, gently lit up by a lamp with yellow bulb; me reclining on the mattress with the laptop; music playing softly on the speakers connected to the laptop; a glass of whisky and ashtray at hand; an empty stomach. What more does one need to write?
I chose 'bytheganges' as the URL because I wanted something unique, something I thought defined me. The truth is that back then, the Ganges or the Ganga hardly meant a thing to me other than that I had grown up near its banks in Kanpur. Little did I know that by naming my blog after the river I had only provoked Destiny into ensuring that my path got intertwined with that of the river's. I even have the evidence.
I was 35 when I started this blog, and until then, in spite of having grown up by the river, I would have visited the Ganga — I am ashamed to say this — maybe seven times in all, and they include childhood visits. But ever since Ganga Mail was created, our paths have been crossing far too often — and they are bound to keep crossing in the near future as well with even greater frequency and intensity. 
But it would be unfair to hold Destiny alone responsible. The birth of Ganga Mail also marked the beginning of my journey as a writer, and, whenever, as a writer, I followed the smell of the soil in search of my soul, I invariably found myself sitting by the Ganga.
Chai, Chai, published in 2009, is my most popular book till date: it is an account of my visits to towns that are famous as railway junctions but about which very little is known otherwise. Many people, for example, know Jolarpet or Guntakal as railway stations, but how many of them are familiar with the towns of Jolarpet and Guntakal? That was the idea behind writing Chai, Chai.
One of the towns I included in the book was Mughal Sarai. I had had childhood memories of Mughal Sarai station. The train from Kanpur to Howrah would make a long halt there: the engine and the staff would change and lunch would be served to passengers in compartmented plates. During  my stay in Mughal Sarai during the writing of Chai, Chai, I decided to visit Benares, which was only 10 km away. And even though Benares did not belong to the book, I decided to include it anyway: the emotions I experienced in the ancient city was too precious not to be documented.
Shortly after Chai, Chai came out, a colleague told me, "My son is only 10 years old, he has read your book and he loves you."
I felt extremely flattered, but at the same time wondered why a 10-year-old, growing up in the era of budget airlines, should like a book about railway junctions.
A few months later the colleague threw a party at his home. I was invited too. As soon as I reached his place he took me to his son's bedroom and told him, "Here, meet your favourite writer. Won't you say hello to him?"
The child blushed and covered his face with a pillow. I removed the pillow and asked him, "Have you really read Chai, Chai?"
He nodded.
"Then tell me what did you like the most about the book."
"The part about Benares," he said and quickly covered his face with the pillow again.
That's when I understood that the charm of the Ganga transcended age, gender and location. And also felt mildly proud that I owned — no, not the Ganga — but Ganga Mail.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Durga Puja In Calcutta Makes Me Sad

Feeling a little emotional about Calcutta tonight, I sat down to put down my thoughts in writing but I am unable to because the radio is on — 106.2 FM, which describes itself as ‘Kolkatar gaan, Kolkatar pran’ (the songs of Calcutta, the soul of Calcutta).
I can, of course, switch off the radio, but that’s easier said that done when my kind of songs are plating back to back — Bengali as well as Hindi numbers of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. It is one thing to possess a collection of these songs and play them as and when you want to, quite another when the radio plays them. When the RJ plays these songs, he validates the fact that your choice is far from outdated. In Calcutta, someone born in the 1970s can never feel old.
And just when you think that you know all the songs created during that golden decade, the radio springs a surprise. Only minutes ago, the channel played a Bengali song that instantly grabbed my attention: sung by Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar and pictured — as I discovered on You Tube — on Amol Palekar and Sharmila Tagore in a 1979 film called Mother.
The song has made me even more emotional.
I am not alone. This is that time of the year when every Bengali living in Calcutta gets emotional. It’s Durga Puja, after all. But why should they get emotional during Durga Puja, the ultimate season of joy and festivity?
That’s because they spend the entire year waiting for Durga Puja, but once the goddess and her four children have taken their positions in the neighbourhood pandal, realisation dawns that the next four days will elapse in no time — and that they would have to once again wait for another whole year.
They would ideally like the calendar to bear only four days — sashti, saptami, ashtami and navami — and make life an everlasting celebration, but that would be like trying to hold on to the sand in your fist. The sand slips out: day by day, month by month, year by year. And that’s how we get old.
Fortunately for Calcutta, the end of Durga Puja does not mean the end of celebrations. Durga Puja is followed by a host of other festivals, lasting throughout the year, before Durga Puja stages a grand return once again.
But for a Calcuttan, a lot can change between one Durga Puja and another. One may not be around to see the next Durga Puja in the neighbourhood pandal for a variety of reasons: one could find a new job and move to another city, one could get married and move to another city, or one could just die of disease or accident during the intervening 300 or so days. To be present at the neighbourhood pandal during Durga Puja is an assertion of being alive — and that explains why the festival is such an emotional event.
I may not be a true-blue Calcuttan — I have been living in Chennai for almost 16 years — but of late even I have been marking my attendance on Planet Earth by visiting Calcutta every Durga Puja. That is why I feel so emotional today — that the festivities must come to an end so soon. Can’t good things last a little longer?