Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Machine

SUCH a day was not commonly witnessed even for a solar eclipse, one that took place during the Puja holidays.
Schools were closed, the exams were just over. Benimadhab’s Baba – Mr Satya Sundar Sarkar, out of his habit of saying it almost every year, recommended, “If you wish to visit the zoo, let’s go now, else I am not sure if I will be in the mood after your results are out.”
A circus party had hoisted their tent at Palpara ground. In the last few days their truck, ‘Roman Circus’ written on its head-board, and with images of a funny red-nosed joker juggling painted on the truck’s side panels was roaming the streets and distributing leaflets. Beni’s family goes to the zoo every year. Why not try the circus this time, he thought.
But that wasn’t going to happen. A thoughtful guardian, Baba, didn’t like to take children to the circus where short, fair-skinned, big-breasted, illegally trafficked Nepalese girls performed gymnastics wearing their colourful, skimpy bikinis. Tamed lions, horses and elephants, and the death-rider with his motorcycle lacking a silencer were also there; the clowns cut non-vegan jokes and the female performers who rode on the animals would be clad to the bare minimum possible. So the alternative outing during the festive holidays was undoubtedly the zoo.
In Baba’s respectable but unorthodox home, eclipses weren’t considered ominous signs that many would often see them as such; the residents of his home could quite unscrupulously eat and drink as the fade-out and fade-in of the Sun was taking place. They could even go out and visit the zoo during such an event, which by chance, Baba had decided to do that day.
Not everyone in the neighbourhood felt the same; they would empty the bathwater and refill it after the period of darkness had passed. Eating and drinking was quite questionable, and would try their best not to even swallow a knot of their dry saliva down their throats.
Exposed to Anglican culture, Baba was much influenced by Beni’s baromamu, Prasanna Chaudhuri who had converted himself into Protestantism, fighting all forms of superstition not associated with his personal beliefs. So, in case off-chance someone had sneezed behind him, which was considered an ill omen, Baba held his nose firmly in the other direction, paying no heed as he started his journey to the Centrale Téléphonique du Town-name without a moment’s pause, taking his bicycle every morning at 9 o’clock sharp. Ordinarily, his neighbours would have stepped back, sat down, and untied their boot laces, eventually tying them up again in about two minutes by which time the effect of the sneeze could be safely neutralized and the crisis averted.
It was on that particular eclipse-day trip from his home in ancienne colonie Française, Beni witnessed the machine for the first time.
On the train journey the brightness of the Sun had gradually dimmed to almost nothing. By the time they reached the zoo’s huge main gate, it had just started to brighten up again. Carved in the shape of the sickle, the light that fell through the gaps of the dense foliage of the tall trees, started to reform into fuller circles.
In that magic of illumination, Beni saw a huge iron wheel with teeth placed on its periphery much like a gear, and being turned by the force of a pair of well-crafted arms which obviously were part of a dark, sweaty body naked to the waist. He was decorated with a countrymade-gamchha that was turbaned on his head. A cluster of goat-bells were tied to one of the thick spokes of the giant wheel; at every turn of the wheel the bells jingled to the delight of the eager children.
Polished by the regular and dutiful thrust of those muscled grips, the lever rod that supplied the centrifugal force to turn the wheel had almost a glossy silver sheen. As the wheel turned, the gears would catch up to a substantially smaller wheel and in turn with another even smaller one, till finally they would end with a pair of steel-rollers being fed a cluster of yellowish canes.
A tumbler was placed at the receiving end to accept a flow of beige coloured nectar as it left the end from where the class struggle between the gears happened. The crushing oppression squeezing every sense of purpose out of the stalks, but united, they stubbornly stayed true to their form of shape and structure, almost to no definite resolution. The tumbler had an imitation cut glass look, but actually it was moulded and stains of brown-ochre dirt had settled between the laps of its raised patterns.
 Now, as the wheels went on rotating, it resembled, though on a much larger scale, the opened backs of Favre Leuba wristwatches that Beni has seen his father opening up occasionally. Satyababu liked to look at those tiny wheels, the hair-spring, and its balance-wheel, to move in minute gestures through his eye loupe magnifying glass and view them with love. Taking the watch to his ear he used to listen to it carefully. Maybe the magical light of the eclipse had blown up the wrist-watch to an enormous size.
The large pair of hands inserted dark spotted, yellowish sticks into the marginal gap between the adjacent steel rollers, which on receiving the crushed product churned out on the other side reloaded the not-sufficiently-crushed-enough material through the other end again. Consequently, when the tumbler became full, the same hands replaced the glass with another one, pouring the collected syrup into a small, equally-dirty bucket made of brass alloy which had a greyish piece of cloth spread over the top of it in the pretext of a filter; and then the hands continued to relieve the tumbler for its next term.
All of this happened alternately and with magical precision. And when there was absolutely nothing more to extract out of the then-good-for-nothing crushed yellow mass, the hands threw the byproduct to a corner where a rickety cow and a half-sized mule were very happily making mulch out of it.
Beni’s eyes popped out. My God! What a machine! It was really very difficult for a boy of nine to make out who was the machine and which was the man.
*      *      *
There was an additional element to the pleasure trip; one of his father’s colleagues, Mr Chakroborti, had accompanied them with two of his own boys under his fold. Chakroborti was short, darker-skinned and balder than Beni’s father; he was chubby, well dressed and spoke in a Bangaal dialect. Long before this, in the days when the Akashvani Kolkata still aired (AIR-Calcutta), its famous broadcaster Din Dayal Dutta, who, with all the pathos in his golden voice, demolished all the native dialects that had grown out of the native soil over the ages, and would dictate how the language should be spoken. Evacuees who had come from the then East-Pakistan during the Partition spoke in this dialect; Mr Chakroborti was one of them.
Though it was a long time ago, Mr Chakroborti didn’t change his style and continued speaking his preferred way. He was well connected. Though he had similar qualification as Satya Sundar, held a relatively senior post in the Centrale Téléphonique, where Benimadhab’s father was the officer-in-charge. The Chakrobortis used to stay in a prime piece of land at the forcibly occupied Government Colony No.2 but received various advantages from the government as refugees. It may be worth remembering what Beni’s Nanaji had said with a deep sigh on one such occasion, “See, how we are being pushed aside like Jews in our own promised land. This is the outcome of that Son-of-the-Gandhi’s misdeeds. If Chandra Bose could have made himself to the prime ministership instead of Nehru, the picture would have been very different.” Of course, Benimadhab could not understand the true depth of the anecdote at that time.
The two Chakroborti boys were always smarter than Beni because they ranked as the 1st or the 2nd of their respective classes. However, there was another story, which was the idle talk of every boy in Beni’s class, but never spoken aloud, that if these two brothers were unable to score the highest or so, back home they were to be punished harshly, their tongues being pulled out with kitchen tongs. To be honest, Beni, who always managed to escape the ‘Not Promoted’ category by a narrow margin, rarely had much of an interaction with them and would not be able to say if this was true. Also the two young brothers were very surprised on seeing the man-machine, but knowing the less-foolish course of action, they restrained themselves from expressing their astonishment.
Poor Beni could not resist expressing his curiosity, “Wow! What a machine!”
Naturally, as the legend goes, the smarter children must have been born of a smarter Baba. So just to make Beni more nervous, the smarter Baba smiled. Then, with an air of authority, he turned to him and declared, “It’s too early for you to understand the mechanism at this stage; still, take my word as an advice for your future – when you complete school, grow up enough and take up service in a business house or land in a Government job, you will know what it is.”

Friday, April 3, 2015

Where Do We Go from Here

It was a very dull morning when Anirban Konar encountered the District Magistrate Sumanta Majumdar for the first time.
Late in the previous evening the Leftists Front Govt was dismissed by the ruling Party at the centre. Though the official decision was taken by the President, everybody knew that the President, who could be heckled in his very office by his own party-members for losing his dhoti, was but a puppet in that God-forsaken country. Years prior or after his Presidential tenure, all the decisions were actually made by the Party chief and now the President had to sign on the specified rubber-stamped space. So the arrests of all the social activists had been duly made, and Anirban was picked up early in the morning by the police and produced in front of the District Magistrate by mid-morning.
Sumanta was a young and relatively short man in his late thirties, dark but already balding on both sides of his forehead, and had piercing sharp eyes. He smiled, “Sorry for the trouble, but you know, I had to do it; well, I do understand that you guys are not of the same feather as the so-called Leftists, but I had my orders. By the way, Mr Konar, where can I find a copy of that book written by Martin Luther King which you used to keep on your book-shelf?”
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community’ – was the book’s title. Anirban was surprised, “You read King?” –“Oh, yes”, Sumanta answered politely, “I’m well versed in Das Kapital too.”
Eventually all the seven, including Anirban, SRC and Asit Poddar were released from the custody after a fortnight, which turned out to be a hassle-free release altogether and Anirban was too involved to remember to get himself a copy of the book by Martin Luther King.
Two years later they met again in an entirely different situation.
In a distant village in the district, a group of agricultural labourers were not paid due to a dispute between the members of a land-owners family and when the police intervened, they apprehended a few labourers for agitating against the landlords and demanding to be paid. For Anirban and his group it was a fit case to raise a hungama in the DM’s office. They assembled the families of the labourers, a horde numbering around one hundred and fifty persons inclusive of women and children, in the premises of the district administrative headquarters and blocked Sumanta Majumdar’s office door. Soon the smart DM came out for a dialogue and the crowd gheraoed him at the wide veranda of the old structure of the former British colonial building. Mr Majumdar was given a chair in the middle of the gathering and made to sit surrounded by the villagers. Apparently the siege continued quite peacefully for more than six hours till the reinforcements arrived with their batons and guns.
The DM, Mr Majumdar, who was sitting pretty until then, jumped up to stand upon the chair and shouted aloud at the top of his voice and ordered to stop the progress of the police advancement, as if he had taken the agitators’ side. The baton charging police force halted and DM took the opportunity to pacify the situation. It was another pleasant surprise for Anirban; the arrested labourers were freed without any charges filed against them.
* * *
It was a semi-dark humid autumn evening during the height of the extremists’ movement. Carefully avoiding the hassle, Anirban was passing through the busy and crowded Park Street pavement. He thought it safer in the up-market locality rather than the empty narrow lanes where he could be isolated more easily; he was absconding from his residence since the extremist outfit annihilated a corrupt politician in that locale. All of a sudden, a forty-something non-descriptive person emerged from nowhere to push Anirban aside into a corner of and asked if Anirban was using his hideout at Tarakeshwar, a suburb known for its religious connection.
Astonished by the spontaneity of the incident, Anirban asked for the identity of the person and questioned about what the relation was between his staying at Tarakeshwar and walking through Park Street. Sumanta Majumdar’s smile made Anirban recollect. “I’m at the New Secretariat now working in the department of information. Better you believe me; there’s talk about not arresting you any more – but ... I hope you know what I mean. Please leave that place, go somewhere else. The department is tracking every move you make there. Trust me, and make no mistake ... you never saw me, officially.” And then the former DM vanished into the darkness as suddenly as he had appeared.

They never saw each other again.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bittersour taste of tender mangoes

Winter is going through its last lap; a few more days, and then it will be gone. The mango trees will become inflorescent and buzzing flies will envelop them. Then millions of tiny fruits will appear and engulf the branches. Most of them will fall littering the ground, and eventually something resembling tender mangoes will appear.

There was a time when children would start pelting the trees with stones right at that stage. Now that particular period of childhood has disappeared along with the bittersour taste of tender mangoes, freshly shot down.

There are very few who can still remember how exciting it was to write something with a tender mango seed on a neighbour’s freshly whitewashed wall. It was like writing with an invisible ink; when you give the first stroke, it would be marked like water, and then evaporate. Only afterwards would the angry neighbour notice the brown letters emerge.

 Slowly and gradually the writing would become prominent and darker by the passing day. To the utter disappointment of the owner of the wall, there would remain no option for him other than a repaint, to be rid of this vandalism. Nor was he able to catch the culprit, who would have long disappeared right after writing the slogan. Perhaps the most hostile and the ugliest part of it was the kind of graffiti that would resurface from underneath in a few days even after a repaint.

 Well, it was not like the boys would ever want to be caught red-handed. So in most of the cases the slogans used were some iteration of “His-name + Her-name”.  A few excellent surfaces for such anonymous “Blog-Posts” were the buildings that still under construction. There was less chance of getting caught and building’s newly cemented walls were so much smoother than the old houses.

There was local youth, a rail-company draftsman, who was asked by a renowned property developer of a suburb to produce a grand plan for a new school building for the local girls’ school. He did it meticulously well, being his first professional assignment as a building planner. In his Rail Company he was never given such a big responsibility.

The old and abandoned zamindarbari was already was in use as a temporary set up for the school and was brought for a pittance by the promoter, but it was pulled down part by part, piece by piece and the school’s routine also rearranged in a similar fashion. It was a promoter’s first experience in both construction and as contractor and it took a fairly long time. Small children enjoyed these long holidays more than ever, but the middle school girls had to share the same classrooms for an amalgamation of subjects.

Two sisters, one smart of whitish complexion and the other, darker, shy were getting late returning home one evening, being from a different locality as they were. The forced holidays brought intercollege boys an unexpected opportunity to flirt with them. In a dusky forthcoming evening, two youths stood at both sides of the only road, stretching a skipping string to its ends, blocking the sisters’ way.  The girls in sarees, could neither jump the line nor was there left any room to bypass the boys. The younger and smarter one ducked and passed, smiling meaningfully to the boy on the right. But the shy, elder sister stood there confused, clutching her books tightly to her chest and with tears in her eyes. The boy on the left had to loosen his end and let her go without much to say.

In the course of the next three years, their father gave his younger daughter’s hand in marriage to that flirty bright young man who had become a graduate and joined a merchant firm by then. But the shy elder sister had a fiancé who did not pass the exams and remained unemployed. Her marriage was then arranged with a suitable man in a different township, leaving him.

Eventually the school building was raised up to two storeys, but the doors and window shutters were still missing. One morning, the class-teacher of the junior section had found “Her-name + His-name” written with tender mango seeds all over the school’s bare walls; this was the fiancé’s last attempt to stall the marriage.

But it did not work, the girl was gone. She had disappeared just as a shadow melts into the darkness when the light evaporates at the day’s end and the writing on the wall was whitewashed.