Thursday, August 08, 2019

August and I

My mother is now a memory. But memories of the August afternoon I cremated her in Banaras remain fresh. There are pictorial reminders, too, of that afternoon, hidden in some forgotten folder, but I have no desire to access it.

My mother died on 28 August 2009. I received the news in Chennai, flew to Delhi the same evening, and the next morning took an Indian Airlines flight to Banaras to cremate her. She would have turned 59 on 31 August.

At the time I was an unpublished writer. Chai, Chai was still in the press — I had no idea when it was going to come out — and I had just begun work on Tamarind City. The road ahead, as a writer, was still foggy. But while waiting at Manikarnika Ghat that afternoon, watching several pyres — including hers — slowly reducing into ash, I resolved that I must do a Banaras book someday. The thought transformed me from a grieving son to a writer who was collecting material. Her death was no longer a personal tragedy but an event I was going to report.

About a week later, when I was in Kanpur, killing time as I waited for the 13th-day ritual, the advance copy of Chai, Chai arrived. Shortly after I returned to Chennai, my head tonsured, the book appeared in shops and on October 15, a formal launch was held. At the time I worked with Times of India and my office was barely two kilometres away, and on my way to work I had to cross the Balaji temple on Venkatanarayana Road. When the manuscript was still with the publisher, I would tell Lord Balaji: “If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will get my head tonsured at Tirupati.” And now I was telling him: “Since you already got my head tonsured, make sure it sells 10,000 copies.”

Chai, Chai went on to become a blockbuster. Then came Tamarind City, in 2012, followed by the Calcutta book, Longing, Belonging, in 2014. Banaras was forgotten. Finally in October 2015 I set out for Banaras and spent nearly two weeks there. But that was when the idea of the border book struck me: 70th anniversary of Partition was nearing and I realised that if I had to produce a timely book, I must start right way. The Banaras notebook was put aside and I began working on what became Gazing at Neighbours, published in August 2017.

I could return to Banaras only in December 2018. Thereafter, no looking back. The notebook I had put aside filled up in no time. By now I had relocated to Calcutta, where I had finally set up a proper study. I would be at my desk by 9.30 in the morning and write till lunch time. As lucky charm I would wear a shawl gifted to me in Banaras by the writer Kashinath Singh. Once winter melted away, I placed a piece of cloth — sent to me by a well-wisher from Banaras after he got it blessed by Lord Vishwanath on Shivaratri — on the backrest of my chair.

The book got done in six months. It should be out soon. This is the fastest I’ve done a book. Perhaps because of the discipline. I had firmly told myself two things: 1. To write at least 400 words a day; and 2. To not reproduce stuff already known about Banaras.

Since we are into August, when memories of that afternoon make their annual visit, I find myself somewhat amazed by the timing. The book is going to mark 10 years of my mother’s death — and also 10 years of my becoming a published writer. As if destiny demanded this timely tribute.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

One Year In Calcutta

On the night of 13 January 2001, I boarded the Tamil Nadu Express at New Delhi station, carrying a large suitcase and a bag. The suitcase had all my clothes and documents, while the bag exclusively contained music: a two-in-one and dozens of cassettes. I was a faceless man — one of the countless journalists seeking sufficient elbow room in the city of Delhi — who had decided to move to Chennai simply because he had not never set foot in that part of the country. I didn’t know a soul in Chennai, and once the train began to move, even my newly-purchased Nokia 5110 lost connection, cutting me off from the rest of the world during the 32-hour journey. I had turned 30 a few days before, but I was born again on 15 January 2001, the day I arrived in Chennai.

Cut to the afternoon of 6 August 2018. I am standing in an empty house in Chennai, waiting for the landlord to arrive so that I can hand him the keys and leave for the airport. All my belongings, accumulated over the 17 years, have already been shipped to Calcutta the day before. I am going to travel light when I take the Indigo flight. In the evening I land at the City of Joy, this time not on a visit but to make a new beginning. I wanted to move before I was too old to enjoy the delights of the place I had fallen in love with during the writing of Longing, Belonging.

Today I complete a year in Calcutta. Despite all the complaints that people — especially those who no longer live here — have about it, Calcutta is indeed a delightful city. Living is believing. That way I am pleased with my decisions. I moved to Chennai at a time when most people considered it back of beyond and therefore got to experience it before it got crowded. And now I’ve moved to Calcutta at a time when most people with my background prefer to live in Delhi, Noida or Gurgaon — with some of the best minds living elsewhere and trying to fit into other cultures, I feel more important. I am a Bengali who made Bengal his home.

But even after spending 12 months here, do I feel settled? Not quite. Feeling settled would mean the death of the writer in me. Even during the 17 years in Chennai, I was frequently spending time in other places — travelling in order to write — so that I did not become accustomed, and therefore blind, to one particular place. Even of the 12 months that I’ve spent in Calcutta, six were spent in Banaras, finishing my next book. No, I didn’t live in Banaras during that period — sitting at my desk in Calcutta, I would mentally transport myself to Banaras between 9 AM and 2 PM every day, before setting out for my office at Dalhousie Square at three o’clock, looking at Calcutta with fresh eyes all over again, my phone always ready to take pictures.

What I find most striking about Calcutta is its lack of ambition. Bengalis are generally happy with what they have — City of Joy, after all — as long as there’s fish in the daily meal. For someone used to the ways of Chennai, it can be irritating as well as amusing to find shops in the neighbourhood — including pharmacies — shutting for the afternoon. Business cannot come in the way of adda or afternoon nap.

During my morning walks in the Central Park, a stone’s throw from my home in Salt Lake City, I always run into Marwari men who are invariably discussing either Modi or Money. Only the other day, I overheard a Marwari gentleman declaring, quite uncharacteristically, to a small congregation under a tree: “Main aap logon ko ek sher sunata hoon” — I am going to recite a sher for you all. Sher means a couplet; emerging from his lips, the word sounded like ‘share’.

On the other hand the Bengalis I come across — almost always elderly and an overwhelming minority in the park — can be heard whining about their health or speaking with pride about their children.

The lack of ambition, in my opinion, helps Calcutta retain much of the old-world charm. In most other cities, you will find the past in museums, but in Calcutta the past still stands on the streets and sits in people’s homes. If you want to see how the world looked or functioned 100 years ago, come to Calcutta — but come quickly, for things are beginning to change here as well. Until just five years ago, trams were a common sight in the city, today you’ll have to be lucky to spot one. But yes, they still run, and I’ve moved just in time before they become memory.

Should I, then, consider August 6 as the day of a third birth for me? No, I have merely relocated and not been reborn. The day of rebirth shall remain January 15, for it was in Chennai that I learned how to look and feel.

6 August 2018: Saju drives us to Chennai airport; arrival in Calcutta.