16 January, 2016

Street smarts

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets       
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

I will be heading back in four days.
It is always either too long or too short, both for days and for words.
Predictably (and hopefully) I will write of the last couple of weeks in short bursts.

Like an exile in my own house, I look around. Almost like old men that stare just a bit longer than needed at the schools they attended, the streets they ran down, the cafes where they met and loved and lost.

I realize that I am searching more for a time that was Calcutta, than a place.

In the glaring embers of a smog-filled sunset, the soaring malls and their soaring prices, in the unchanging cups of roadside chai at Jadubabu's Bazaar.

I am also glad that I earn in dollars and not in rupees. Growing up middle-class in this city of suddenly-discovered consumerism would have been disgusting. I neither miss, nor glamourise, poverty. There is nothing noble -- at least not in the first person -- at having to save up for months to buy a first-hand book or a non-pirated DVD or make phony excuses to avoid watching movies in multiplexes with college buddies. Second hand ad infinitum ad nauseum sometimes kills little by little whatever in us was native and noble and nothing if not first grade.

There was a birth and a death, both of which I was lucky to see. La 'extended' familia.

There was a meet with a young and melancholy muse (exquisite!), a grim-faced ex and some remnants of the old guard and the new.

There was also poetry, old time bloggers and the realization that poetry alone is not enough for a life, although it is more than enough for magic.

But the times I connected most with the city of my birth and growth was when I walked the forever-dusty streets alone. Away from the glaring shopfronts with their blaring patrons, the noveau rich and their hipster affectations. Away from the tea and biscuits with reconnected friends and family.
That is not how I had lived in this hateloved city.
I lived those years walking alone on the streets. From bookstore to tea stall to lab to campus to home. With my dreams and simmering rage for ragtag company: a grief for footsteps that were not there in tandem with mine, rage for roads not taken, rage and fire to drive away the grey, the smog, the slime and the grime.
And that is how I shall remember my city, whether I wish it or not.
The company of lost ships and lost souls and the audacity to dream in a grey-grim sidewalk without a name.

Sometimes, when the truth stares at me like the dregs from a drained mug, I cease to wonder why I walk away from things. I have spent so long without, it feels a chore to be with anyone or anything.

01 January, 2016


Home is where one listens to Ebong Indrajit and mother makes breakfast.

It is also the room where one had written, fought, loved and bled for two decades.
It is also where now one ponders over roads not taken. I know.

30 November, 2015

On translation: Near scattered clouds

Near scattered clouds
(very loose translation from the Bengali song "Akashey chhorano megher kachakachi", By the band Mohiner Ghoraguli [Mohin's horses]) 

In tattered sky-scraps 'tween scattered clouds
One may catch glimpses of your house
A fleeting escape to those walls,
Of dreamscape azure and silver glass.

A tabby sunning itself on the roof
Weaving dreams of the mist and air,
And the timeless glare of the grey owl
Of hours and days (years?) uncounted.

And then the dark doors part in a sudden hush
And then your smiles are strewn in the wild flowers
Up the garden path, braving briar and nettle
Waiting for the clouds in the sky to settle.

There is no street name, nor address
For errant knights or postmen to follow;
Just a red-limned lane of half-bricks and dust
That touches eternity when it kisses the clouds
On a voyage into the setting suns of unknown skies;
And then the moonlit curve of stairs forever spiralling
Nameless and unnamed, the best haven for foundlings.

And there you wander and your song swells and throbs
In the sparkle of laughter and the throes of sobs
And fire-fettered the wind flirts with your wayward locks
As dark as shadows deep when the evening falls.

There is no street name, nor address
For errant knights or postmen to follow;
Just a red-limned lane of half-bricks and dust
In tattered sky-scraps 'tween scattered clouds
One may catch glimpses of your house

26 October, 2015

Seafood and Irish ditties

One of my housemates, a postdoc, is leaving for sunny California. A farewell luncheon was called for, which finally converged into a whole-day Boston trip. We had mughlai paratha and malai kebabs at a Bangladeshi restaurant in Cambridge while cricket matches played on mute from television screens. Then onward to a brief tour of Boston, a city I like for its cleanliness. Also remarkable in its lack of ethnic diversity. I am yet unsure whether I should like or dislike the latter, or simply learn not to bin the world into a histogram of only two categories.

We had dinner at the oldest seafood restaurant in America, opposite the oldest tavern in America. Something was fishy here. All puns intended.

The Irish pub had a bunch of mostly college-goers. The two old men in a corner were singing some very old Gaelic songs, that would not have been amiss in some mead-hall in the emerald isle itself. One of them later confided that he was astonished at the number of young folks wanting encores of some of the oldest of Irish sing-along songs. As we entered, the only bunch of Indians in a sea of proudly-Irish Bostonians, the bar broke into the chorus of Molly Malone.

And suddenly I was bellowing along with the rest of them, thumping my fist and sloshing my drink, as Molly traipsed down streets, regardless whether wide or narrow, for every soul in that tavern. I had heard it a decade ago while in high school from some friends who had been on an exchange trip to Dublin.

Later I get into a brief spat with a drunk man, walk with my friends around the unearthly cleanliness of the Boston waterfront, be sick on the shoulder of the interstate thanks to the merry overdose of seafood and explain the cause to a rather large and curious police officer.

The next morning one was more than a little glad to be Alive, alive ho!

07 August, 2015

Leaves of grass

It was June or July in Calcutta. 2008. I think a part of me still walks around Camac Street in the sweltering heat of a tropical summer, talking glibly of Geurnica, Guevara and Gandalf. It was a time of peace, of dregs of schoolboy humour and many farewells.

We had gone into Pantaloons, you and I, where I could afford to only glance at the Adidas and Nike racks. With an air of appraisal, considering which one to purchase. I couldn't have afforded a single thread. I had left behind thankfully the gaggle of the rest of the chaps with their back-slapping and bonhomie and cricket scores. They would all still be there the next day, the month, the year.

What I did buy, with some prize money that some high-school competition had favoured me with, was a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Why that American poet? Maybe a part of me was wishing to be close to that country, where my best pal since middle school was going for college. A part of me maybe wishing for something far, far removed from this city that I had anchored myself to for the next foreseeable years. The city where once, suddenly now in the past tense (!), we would spend our schooldays traipsing about, bending rules and breaking curfews, entering the girls' school in the next block under the flimsiest of pretexts or being idiot savants steeped in colonial public-schooling at the British Council Library (more idiot than savant, any day).

It was suddenly going to be very grown-up in Calcutta, I realised, after this high school business was finally over. And very solitary Calcutta. A part of me wishing that I had done more and spoken less, had more choices than to stay on in this city that I loved and hated in the same breath. It would be many years until that starry-eyed kid would be hammered enough on the anvil of mediocrity to realize "wishes are like dishes - they both need doing."

The sun was scorching outside, and the stark blinding light through the shop windows cast refraction shards of molten fury on the ceramic tiled floor next to the bookshelves. All show, no business. But on that day, the boy still clung on to the rhetoric and the sound and the fury. Clung on to the last iota of stubbornness, that this was not it, that there was another chance to battle and best that mire of mediocrity.  Inscribed the date onto the first book he had ever purchased with money other than his parents'. Spent the rest of the prize money sending chocolates to his best bud's sis. Considered it a deed well done, straight out of his Bogart-addled teenage.

And in the years that would follow, trudging along a path trodden into mud by my city's countless nameless, faceless others, that book and that day would be a gentle reminder that there remained a path less taken. That lilacs still in the dooryard bloom'd.

 The pages turned yellow very soon, as is wont to happen with Indian reprints. And now it sits somewhere in my parents' flat back in that city, nestling against Nineteen Eighty-Four and Gorky's Mother. I did not bring it with me when I made the journey to Whitman's land. It was needed no more.

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