Thursday, May 31, 2007

Myths and Memories: Benares May 2007


From ever since I can remember, I wanted to visit Benares. But now that I've been there and done that, it's a bit tough to write about. That's mainly because so much has been said and done on the city that I'm groping for some new idioms and symbols to make my own inner peace with this ancient and holy pilgrimage.A good start here was watching Satyajit Ray's Joy Baba Fhelunath & Aparajito all over again. Both the movies use Benares as a very strong symbol and the magic of Ray's camera captures the fascination of the ghats, the river Ganga and the lanes and bylanes of the city even better in some ways than one's own imagination.

The flight of doves that Ray has used in both the films was, however, missing from the ghats of Benares and I wonder whether the birds find the environment less hospitable now. A paddling of ducks out on a stroll by the river, of course, made my day when I visited the Ramnangar Palace. The building is a formidable fortess from where steps lead right down into the waters. The descendants of the former ruler of Benares still live in the palace - in what appears to be a kind of splendid isolation. This family, it seems, has not gone in for converting their palace into a heritage hotel as some of those in Rajasthan have done.
Of course, Benares is now covered by a security blanket and the narrow lanes adjoining the city's most powerful symbol - the Kashi Vishwanath Mandir - almost feel like an airport check-in. My hotel by the Assi Ghat provided a deckside view of the ephemeral Ganga and took me back all the way back to memories of a relative's house at Baranagar near Kolkata by the Hoogly. Living in a house which gives you a view of the river from almost every window and listening to gentle waters lapping around at night probably has a calming effect on everyone - but for my sister and me as children, the majestic view of the Dakhineshwar temple on the other shore was even more fascinating. And the ulitimate treat was when my father rowed us in a country boat to the opposite side even as the boatman himself stretched out and relaxed. My father had been a skilled oarsman in his salad days and had won rowing competitions in Kolkata. He often told us about the famous Head of Thames boat race in England where he had participated. Since my trip to Benares was in many ways inspired by him, the river flowed through my consciousness with its flood of memories of Baba and of happy childhood years. As I went on boat rides on the river and even took the proverbial holy dip to cleanse myself of my sins, I didn't feel any sense of filth or dirt that travellers to Benares often come back with. I would like to hope that this has something to do with the government's efforts in cleaning the river, the ghats and the city. And no, there were definitely no dead bodies floating by though the boatmen like to point out the Manikaran ghat to visitors as a place "where dead bodies are burnt round the clock". An interesting aspect of life by the river is that it has an early start. Even before day break, the river and its ghats are bustling with activity. If you're not performing the pujas yourself, just watching some of the ceremonies being conducted by others is interesting and non-intrusive. I found a couple of foreign tourists watching the sunrise sitting atop the rampart of the fort at Chet Singh ghat. The heat (abover 40 degree C) at this time of the year, doesn't seem to bother the American and Europeans, who form a large part of visitors to Benares.
My sister had given me the tough job of finding a Benarasi silk sari for her which matched one that came to my mother with her wedding trousseau decades ago. Armed only with my impressions about the sari's colour, weave and design, I undertook a journey into the other side of Benares - narrow gallis where Muslim weavers lived and created the fascinating saris on their looms. It takes them about 10 days to weave one sari, one of them told me. I didn't exactly find the twin of my mother's sari - though I did bring one back which is close enough! Benares has a very large community of Bengali immigrants from areas such as Malda and Murshidabad. A couple of Bengali rickshaw drivers took charge of my sight-seeing around Benares, when they found that I too spoke their language. In fact, after I had convinced then that I wasn't a foreigner, they shared with me the stories about how their parents had moved to Benares years ago in search of a livelihood. And on a rickshaw tour around the city, I discovered Banaras Art Culture, an art gallery housed in a 275 year old building. The owners, Shree Gopla Ji Goel & Shyam Das Agrawal are running a project to revive folk art and crafts in and around Benares. The large number of foreign visitors to the city probably provide a customer base for local artists.>
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Monday, May 28, 2007

Tiger Tales and More: Debjani Banerjee

THE Ranthambore National Park is perhaps the best place in the world to see tigers in the wild. I knew that the tigers we see on National Geographic and Discovery Channels are almost all natives of Ranthambore. I had heard enough stories of Genghis, the beloved tiger, who was famed for hunting down his prey into the waters of the lake. But what I found out was that there is much more to Ranthmabore than tiger trails. I will always remember it as a comprehensive jungle experience that leaves one thirsty for more.

Set amidst undulating topography with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, the open habitat of the park makes for spectacular views. The arduous hilly terrain which varies from flat topped mountains of the Vindhyas to the conical and comparatively steep ranges of the Aravalli, is interspersed with jungle streams. For the initiated, the area boasts of over 300 species of trees and 272 species of birds! The park gets its name from Ranthambore fort, the remains of which can be found on top of a hill overlooking the park.

Old fortifications that dot the forest claim a splendid architectural past for the area. The juxtaposition of the fort and the jungle is a constant reminder of the grandeur of the past nurturing majestic presence.

Once the place was chosen, I began working on the details and the creature comforts. Planning the journey was not without its usual quota of excitement! As soon as our travel and hotel reservations were confirmed, the park closed suddenly due to some legal issues. My aunt had organized a field trip with her students from National University of Singapore but they were not allowed into the precincts of the park. As we dully toyed with alternate destinations – Sariska, Kanha, the park re-opened again, just as abruptly. If my scepticism regarding travel and tourism in India had raised its ugly head with the government’s quirky actions, it was proved wrong as soon as I stepped on to Sawai Madhopur station. The station was comfortable and well organized and I had to give the thumbs up for Rajasthan tourism for everything I saw and experienced between my two stops at the station.

randeerdare.jpgThe hotel itself was a haven. We were a motley crew and the hotel had enough facilities to make everyone happy. If I was content to admire the purple haze of the imposing Aravalli right behind our cottages, the more energetic members of the group could toss a ball in the green lawn; the children were delighted with camel rides that made off into the wilderness; for the not so brave there were hammocks and sand pits. The more inquisitive amongst us marvelled at the thriving rose bushes and all of us appreciated the prompt service that provided good food and beverages all through the day just as they had promised on the website. All in all, they pampered us to the extent that if they had relegated us from a covered jeep to an open canter for the forest safari (to upgrade more privileged guests?) we chose not to be too offended.But it is the forest that held me in its thrall. I have prided myself on being rather a veteran of forest tourism in India-- Periyar, Bandipur, Mudumalai, Nagerhole, Sundarbans, Jaldapara, Bandhavgarh – each forest unique and spectacular in its own right. I was prepared for scattered clumps of trees or an extended copse may be. After all, Ranthambore borders the arid Thar desert, how could one have expected more?

I was proved pleasantly wrong. Not quite the “woods are lovely, dark and deep,” Ranthambore forest had a lovely golden-brown hue quite unlike the lush tropical forestation I had mostly seen and enjoyed in southern, eastern and central India. The vegetation is varied and forms an interesting combination of dry deciduous trees, tropical moist vegetation and shrubs and climbers that can survive in drier climates. The deciduous patches interrupted by evergreen glades make for some spectacular scenery. The main tree cover comprises of the dhok or flame of the forest (the tongue twister version of it is anogeossis pendula) as it is a hardy tree that can withstand spells of drought. Other than the ubiquitous banyan, I could also spot jamun, berry, teak, tamarind, kadam, babul, neem, mahua, khajur apart from plenty of bamboo. In fact, our local guide mentioned that the banyan tree at the gates of the fort was the second largest banyan tree in India, the largest being in Calcutta Botanical gardens. Later, I checked that this is most likely true. Local guides have never ceased to amaze me with their wealth of knowledge. We see so much of this ‘be proud of your heritage’ drive here in local counties and I think the wonderful local guides would be an excellent example of people who have being doing that for ages.

Ranthambore fort, situated at the meeting of the Aravalli and the Vindhya mountains, was our first destination. The ornate and intricate carvings have helped historians to conjecture that it was probably built in the tenth century A.D. by a member of the Chauhan dynasty. Because of its location it was one of the more invincible forts, it was also the point of control for central India. Amongst the ruins (the fort was clearly ravaged by many wars) the Badal Mahal and Hamir’s court are redolent of past grandeur. I was fascinated by the colourful stories regarding Alaudin Khiljee’s unsuccessful attempt at conquering the fort but it is Rana Hamir (circa 11 A.D.) who holds a special place in the hearts of the locals as the legendary hero who fought the superpowers to save the fort. The Mughals were finally able to acquire the fort in late 16th century; from them it passed as a gift to the royal family of Jaipur and was used as their hunting grounds. In the 19th century the fort was supposed to have become a prison.

While I was engrossed in the tales of the past, the others were busy spotting crocodiles in the aquamarine waters of the lake right below the fort. It is in the jaws of a couple of such crocodiles that the local star Genghis had met his end. There are plenty of lakes within the forest that serve as watering holes for the animals; Padam Talao, inside the perimeter of the fort, provides a kaleidoscope of animals as they come to quench their thirst. It is also an excellent place for sighting birds – we saw gulls, terns and storks.


Our onward journey into the forest had us quivering with excitement. Craning to catch a glimpse of the majestic predator, we encountered the lovely cheetal deer and a lonesome black buck. The chirpy langurs dramatic as ever, snatched, quarrelled and jumped swiftly from one branch to another. Nilgais, in large groups, moved across our path. Most animals in Ranthambore forest seem not to be too perturbed with human intervention. Herds of sambar settled comfortably on their own land and did not as much as glance at us as we drove past. The rufoustailed hare and the palm squirrels scampered across looking very busy. A jackal slinked across. The children were intrigued with their first glimpse of bats hanging from trees– being used to the more glamorous batman stories on celluloid. The rich birdlife was evident in the number and variety we saw; peacocks walked around leisurely. One of them even deigned to show off their glorious feathers. We saw parakeets, a beautiful golden oriole, kingfishers, wagtails, the Paradise flycatcher, Partridge, red spur fowl, and the odd camouflaged owl, the last being a unique sight, the memory of which never fails to amaze me. By 5.30 in the evening we had to leave the park; the rules here seemed to be more rigid than most Project Tiger reserves.

The next morning we were in the forest right after sunrise. It was our last opportunity and by then we were quite desperate for a private audience with the lord of the jungle. We mistook every shape and outline to be that of a tiger. If the bamboo trees swayed, so did our expectations, only to be dashed at the next turn. My son is convinced that he saw the disappearing beast on a mountain slope. Our hopes truly skyrocketed when we saw fresh pug marks en route. But alas, we did not get a glimpse of the elusive predator nor its sleek cousin, the leopard. The other jeeps/canters that went out that morning had all been rewarded but we returned empty handed…or have we? Even as I close my eyes now I can see that gorgeous kingfisher amidst a splash of blue or that deer, trying to reach the overhanging branches of the tree, wanting to sample new delights. As for the tiger tale, this is only the beginning…
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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Greetings from Ganga

I'm just back from my first trip to Kashi (Benares or Varanasi to many). It's been an overwhelming experience for me and I'll have to wait a bit for my thoughts to settle down before I can write a post. Till then here are some photos (on the right). Enjoy!

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Empire Strikes back - in High Spirits

It was recently announced (including by the Financial Times on May 17, 2007) that United Breweries (UB), the alcoholic drinks comglomerate controlled by Vijay Mallya had acquired the Scotch Whisky manufacturer White & Mackay for $1 billion. This now gives the Mallya organisation access to a production capacity of 40 million litres of Scotch Whisky, catapulting UB to the position of the third largest manufacturer of spirits in the world (after Diageo and Pernod Ricard).

This follows a series of investment deals from India concluded in 2006, when for the first time, India's outbound investments exceeded inbound foreign investments in value.

2007 promises to maintain that trend. According to the Financial Times report, the first four months of 2007 has seen 73 successful takeovers of foreign companies by Indian companies in deals totaling $24.4 billion, as compared to 38 foreign deals for Indian companies in the same period worth $17 billion. Tata Steel's $13 billion acquisition of Corus Steel led the way.

Vijay Mallya's declared objectives for the W&M acquisition was as much to help expand his Indian business as it was for foreign market penetration. In keeping with the rising sophistication of the Indian consumer market, the consumption of Scotch in India has been growing at 25% a year. Other premium alcoholic drinks are likely to increase in demand too, which has also prompted UB to earlier acquire the sparkling wine manufacturer Bouvet-Ladubay. This presumably ensures that when champagne corks pop in the UB boardroom from now on, they will only need to open bottles of their own manufacture.
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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Petition from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on Baroda

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak sends you the enclosed
page from
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Monday, May 14, 2007

Ranja Sircar: Creativity unlimited

Sometime back The Telegraph in Kolkata had an article on college and university campuses and some of the places and people who had almost become part of the folklore for the generations of students who have studied there. The article had stirred up quite a movement on the blog world with lots of people going on nostalgic trips about their own student days in Kolkata and elsewhere. While the article was mostly about the canteens and the 'addas', there's a person I can think of who's almost like a part of the legends of my years at Jadavpur University. Ranjabati Sircar will probably be remembered as an extremely talented dancer and choreographer, but at JU in the mid 1980s, Ranja was a symbol of beauty, talent and brains. She was the kind of girl on campus who drew the largest amount of male attention and again it she who topped the BA & MA exams at our English department and was awarded the UGC scholarship. In fact, the story goes that when Ranja was sent by senior professors of the English department to teach a class of engineering students an optional English paper, the entire faculty turned up and even ex-students wanted to join the class. The university authorities had to move the class - which had very poor attendance in the past - to a gallery, which had the maximum seating capacity.

While Ranja was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful girls on campus for many years, she was also cerebral, liberal, articulate and intelligent. Dancing was probably the passion of her life, but she was also a participant at debates, an active member of the super-intellectual film club and always among the main organisers of literary seminars and workshops. I remember a seminar on the poetry of TS Eliot where my classmates and me had heard Ranja making strong and relevant points after an overseas speaker had finished reading his paper. I don't really recall the details of the topic, but Ranja in an orange and green sari, with the trademark long bindi on the wide forehead had mesmerised all of us with her intellect and her grace. In fact, her fan following was both among girls and boys in college.

After her tragic death some years ago, I had written a tribute to her for the weekend section of The Economic Times in Kolkata (with my former colleague Madhumita Mookherjee). Unfortunately, I seem not to have kept a cutting of that article, which one of my colleagues had headlined very aptly: Amazing Grace. But the people who I had spoken to while doing that article had all provided rare glimpses into her truly amazing life. While Ranja and her mother Manjushri Chaki Sircar will definitely be remembered as the founders of Dancers' Guild and pioneers of a new movement in modern Indian dance - Ranja also belongs to the JU folklore and there have been very few like her who have made such a deep impact on fellow students.

Ranja topped in class and was a thinking and socially conscious being. She was also deeply artistic and creative. While on one hand she was travelling overseas for dance performances very often, she also joined the student protest movements which were very much a part of our campus life and again she was always there to donate blood at voluntary camps. And the adda sessions at the famous JU 'lobby' were never quite complete without her. So when her classmate and film-maker Mainak Biswas (now a faculty member of JU's school of film studies) made a short film called Grafitti shot on the campus, it was no surprise that Ranja was one of the protagonists. A shot from the film which had Ranja walking down the little bridge that separated the engineering and arts faculties of our university - had a poster with Pablo Neruda's poetry as the backdrop. The lines of the poem are etched in my mind forever - I want to do with you, what spring does to the cherry trees. She was a role model for many of us, her juniors and everything she did was different and unique. Ranja dressed differently and always managed to look stunning - "daring but not decollete" as her friend and film-maker Mandira Mitra had described to me after her death. I always felt that Ranja had the beauty and grace to make it big in films or modelling if she had wished to.

But that was not Ranja - she was a dancer, a literary person and even a college professor for some years. Dr Jasodhara Bagchi, our professor at JU, had shared with me her last meeting with Ranja in London, when they had watched Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth together. "We discussed the dance genre of that age afterwards, it was a very lively discussion and I had no premonition that I would never see her again," Dr Bagchi had remembered. Needless to say that Ranja was among her most favourite students in university. A lot has been written about Ranja's dance and choreographic career - but for me she was much more than just a famous dancer. Ranja was the symbol of a modern woman who lived life and perhaps even ended it on her own terms. She was beautiful and intelligent. She was literary and very well read. An old dog-eared and pretty tattered copy of the bold American novel: The Women's Room, that had been passed on to me by a friend's sister and which I had never got around to returning, is still a part of my collection of books. It belonged to Ranja and has her name written in bold letters on the flyleaf. Honestly, I don't regret not returning it - in fact it's symbolic that a book on the early days of feminism, that belonged to Ranja should end up with me, since I've always considered myself a fan of hers.

When I had written the article as a tribute to her after her death in 1999, I had started with a quote from W.B. Yeats. Mainak Biswas, I remember had appreciated the poem as the most apt portion of my article. I hope I've been able to zero in on the same verse again this time:
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,...
O body swayed to music, O brigthening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Besides, Yeats, it will also be very apt to quote from Cassandra, which also is the name of a choreographic creation by Ranjabati. While it marked the zenith of her artistic abilities, a close friend of hers had told me that in a way it was a reflection of an artist's ultimate struggle against waning creativity, mortality, death, decay and destruction. He felt that through Cassandra, Ranja's creative soul was struggling with the onslaught of psychological despair
"Alas for human destiny! Man's happiest hours
Are pictures drawn in shadow. Then ill fortune comes,
And with two strokes the wet sponge wipes the drawing out.
And grief itself's hardly more pitiable than joy." (Cassandra in Aeschylus' Agamemnon)

So when an editor in Delhi (also an ex-student of JU) had told me that my article on Ranja was not really suitable for the Delhi newspaper but should only be published in Kolkata, I was disappointed. After all Ranja was a dancer who had made an international impact and our paper did cover cultural issues during the weekend. But today I feel that the true spirit of Ranja is something to be shared only with those who lived and studied on JU campus in those heady years of the mid-1980s. She was a person who inspired those who lived those campus dreams and ideologies to the fullest. Ranja was no ordinary being and she inspired many of us to aspire and do better. And I like to think that we were a generation that didn't need to go to the malls to find inspiration. We lived and feasted on ideas that were generated on our intellectual campus.
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Thursday, May 10, 2007

No more seats on the magic carpet

The Magic Carpet that flies most of the skilled professionals from India (and other countries) to the USA is the H-1B visa. This visa category, however, is subject to an annual limit (65,000 at present). In respect of 2008, the limit for 2008 H-1B visa petitions was exceeded in a single day - in fact 150,000 applications had been received by mid-afternoon of the first day on which applications were processed !

Applications for H-1B visas are filed by the prospective employer, not the individual. The situation underscores the fact that U.S. demand for foreign scientists, engineers, computer programmers and other technicians continues to grow rapidly. For example, fully a third of Microsoft's U.S. based employees are foreign citizens. A spokesperson for Microsoft has gone on record as stating that .."We are trying to work with Congress to get the cap increased . Our real preference here is that there not be a cap at all."

Intel, Oracle and other corporations have also voiced their opposition to the visa limits. Robert Hoffman, an Oracle vice president, says .."..Our broken visa policies for highly educated foreign professionals are not only counterproductive, they are anticompetitive and detrimental to America's long-term economic competitiveness."

However, the reality is that these limits will probably not be increased any time soon, while the Great Immigration Debate rages on through the United States as part of the 2008 election campaigns. Lobbying groups for the protection of domestic personnel are vociferously promoting the case that increasing the visa limit will bring down wages in the technical sector and discourage American youngsters from pursuing technical careers.

Since the needs of Microsoft, Oracle and Intel and other companies (not just in the US but in the developed economies of Europe) will presumably have to be met, the portent for the future will surely be an outsourcing bonanza. If the bodies can't be imported, the functions will need to be exported.

The benefits will go beyond India, where there are signs that the supply of technical skills is already beginning to fall short of demand. A technical outsourcing boom is quietly taking place in Bangladesh, for example. The Danish Government, among others, has been investing substantial amounts of financial aid to develop the technical education facilities in Bangladesh, hoping no doubt to corner a significant percentage of that country's skills for Danish companies.
It appears the Magic Carpet will be flying Round Trips soon, not just one way.
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Will India open the door as globalized moral standards knock ?

The Telegraph of Calcutta, in its issue of May 7, reports

"..A 145-year-old law that bans sex “against the order of nature” has landed the foreign ministry in a quandary. The Canadian high commission has requested Delhi to clear diplomatic spouse privileges for two officials, a man and a woman, each married to a partner of the same sex. Gay marriages, allowed in Canada, are not legally valid in India............Foreign ministry sources said that as Indian law does not recognise same-sex marriages, the Canadian requests cannot be granted.."

It is interesting that Canada should have made this request of India - one must assume that the Canadian authorities would have been aware of the Indian legal position on this issue. The story seems to have been ignored by the Canadian media.

The full report can be read here

The issue goes beyond the posting of the diplomats concerned of course. It is fair to point out that same-sex unions have only been legalised in a handful of countries, and is far from the norm even in Canada's neighbour the United States. The two Canadian officials would probably find it difficult to receive full diplomatic accreditation in many countries.

The broader question is how India's tolerance of public behaviour will keep pace with global norms. Realisation is dawning that globalisation is not just about economic parity but an acceptable common code of behaviour that will straddle a wide range of cultures, morals and religious taboos across both the developed and developing regions.

Just a few days ago, there was the cause celebre of the Richard Gere- Shilpa Shetty kiss, as extensively reported by the world's media, including CNN

The Gere-Shetty Kiss story is far from over. The Jaipur Court's warrant against the offending couple is still in force, and a hearing has been set for May 26. Potentially the couple could be imprisoned under section 294 of the Indian Penal Code.

At least India apparently got through St. Valentine's Day 2007 without the sort of major trouble - destruction of McDonald's oulets, etc. - that reportedly took place in February 2006 !
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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Santiniketan on Tagore's Birthday

Santiniketan on Tagore's birthday, May 9, 2007. Photo by Sivaditya Sen (click on the photo to view an enlarged version)

Santiniketan, West Bengal is where Tagore founded his university, Vishwa Bharati (the microcosm of the world). Tagore's notion of the university was deeply spiritual - one one hand it was to be the meeting place of all cultures, east and west, and on the other it was supposed to connect education to nature and to its social context. Art and creative expression was central to his pedagogy, as was the sense of community.

Like every Tagore-obsessed Bengali, there are many things for which I repeatedly go back to his philosophy. But if there is one thing for which he is my unequivocal reference point it is his belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, irrespective of caste, class, gender, religion or ethnicity. During the recent debates on equality and access in India, I have been reminded constantly of Tagore's famous poem (he mor durbhaga desh - Oh my unfortunate land) in which he speaks of the tragedy of the innumerable social divisions which make up Indian society. Tagore undying hope was of India's transcendence into a society where such schisms did not exist.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

South Asia and the girl child: where fiction meets reality

In Kolkata in spite of the squelching oppressive heat and the duststorms that don't happen, one still celebrates…currently we are celebrating the birth anniversary of two great imaginative minds - Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. When the lens of the camera, the moving magic of cinema, defies the material and captures consciousness on screen, consciousness made visible through a writer's great art-there we have a real meeting of genius, a blurring of boundaries between fiction and reality.

Two images remain fixated in my mind of two young girls Ratan and Mrinmoyee – Ratan is the protagonist of Tagore's classic short story `Postmaster' and Mrinmoyee of `Samapti'. Both are child-women, with huge expressive kohl darkened eyes, destitute, abandoned by society living in the rural poverty of Bengal. Ratan has no parents, no sense of self and has been abandoned to the elements to survive. She wears a dirty saree not only out of poverty but she has no relational world, no one to live for or change her saree for. Mrinmoyee comes from an internally displaced background. All that I have read about in theory of the multi-dimensionality of poverty comes alive in these two films. Poverty not just as income-poverty but the many-sided vulnerability and powerlessness of being poor, abandoned by society, a girl and a child.

Yet with the combined genius of Tagore and Ray both the `Postmaster' and `Samapti' celebrate the agency, intelligence, creativity and sensibility of these two girls. Abandoned by society, within the world of the creative imagination, Ratan and Mrinmoyee wield extraordinary power over their lives. Ratan a waif, a child woman whips into action when the hero, the postmaster, highly educated from Kolkata, falls ill. She gets a doctor, takes care of him when he is ill and even protects him from a huge onslaught of the elements, a massive storm. Illiterate and ignorant when they meet she learns to read and write from him at a remarkable speed and most powerfully experiences an inner self-awakening intellectually, sexually and emotionally. It is through the consciousness of poverty-stricken Ratan that we experience a self-awakening in the short story/film and we watch the transformation of her understanding of her world. In contrast the Kolkata educated urban adult male leaves the village with a static consciousness, unable to adjust to village life, unable to embrace life and most importantly unawakened.

Tagore's trenching irony is supreme when the hero tries to appease Ratna's grief and tears with money, as he leaves the village.

In `Samapti', Mrinmoyee too is a symbol of freedom and autonomy of being, in spite of being a prisoner of poverty, displacement and gender inequality. A poor, rural girl, she too contests the thinking and choices of the hero a Kolkata educated, urban male. The film's unforgettable image of Mrinmoyee on a swing – celebrating her freedom, dynamic, lofty in space and buoyant – is mersmerising. She challenges society that marriage to an eligible bachelor is automatically to be regarded as empowering. The film powerfully grieves her loss of freedom, her attachment to wide open spaces in nature and her squirrel, her unbounded spirit and portrays by contrast the imprisonment of marriage and conformity.

Mrinmoyee's running away on her wedding night and sleeping outdoors, alone and free challenges powerfully even today…
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Friday, May 04, 2007

Adventures with my father

The sheer adventure and thrill of travelling in India has always been a fascinating aspect of my life and the person who I can thank most for it is my father - Rabindra K Dattagupta. He had an intrinsic love for speed and adventure which rubbed off in varying degrees on my mother, sister and me. We lost him a couple of months back and this is the first tribute that I'm dedicating to him. One of my earliest memories is that of trip from Baroda in Gujarat to Durgapur in West Bengal across more than a 1000 miles with Baba (my father) behind the wheel of his Rover car (don't really remember the model of the car but I do remember addressing the vehicle as Didi or elder sister). My father loved his car intensely and was as attached to it as a member of his family. My father, in fact, loved vehicles from as far back as he could remember. As an young boy he had sold a gold coin that had been gifted to him to buy a pair of roller skates. From his first bicycle to his motor bike that he rode during his years in UK, he was never without wheels. About cars, bikes, planes and engines, Baba's knowledge was almost encyclopediac, even though there was no Internet in those days for him to refer to!

My sister and me were about 4 and 5 years old and the year was probably 1969. Baba was all set to join a new job at Durgapur and after winding up from Baroda where we had lived for a year - he decided to drive down to Kolkata and then Durgapur - a steel industry hub where we then spent a good part of our childhood. Our first stop was on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border at the Temple town of Natgauda. The temple of Srinath Ji is now famous because of devotees as famous as the Ambani brothers and their mother Kokila ben. My memories of the temple and the darshan there is not very distinct, but I do remember a huge crowd of devotees surging forward and me perched on my father's shoulders and looking over the heads of others for a clear view of the temple's deity. My mother tells me that she had to cling on to my sister who was a tiny tot and was getting suffocated amidst the huge crowd. This, of course, is the typical scene at many of India's temples where devotees throng the sanctum sanctorum for a Darshan when the doors of the temple are opened by the priests daily. While memories of the temple town of Natgauda are very faint, my father always kept a photograph from the temple in our home as a mascot that would bring us luck.
While the darshan of Srinath ji was just the beginning of our long journey across India, the next stop was Jaipur where we spent some hours with relatives who lived there. My mother, I recall, had bought dozens of traditional Gujarati, hand woven saris as gifts for all the friends and relatives who we were to meet on the way. From Jaipur we drove to Agra, where my aunt (my father's sister) Indira lived. She was a professor of English at a college in Dayalbagh in Agra. The college provided bunglows for staff members on campus. I remember my aunt's house in Agra which was an old stone and brick building with a patch of garden in front. The campus was set amidst tree-lined avenues and my aunt's English department, where she took us all along, had a lovely green lawn in front. I also have indistinct memories of my aunt rehearsing a play with her students and colleagues - later I had heard from her that it was a Shakespeare production that they had been putting up. Dayalbagh is a small locality which is set away from the main town of Agra and is very quiet and peaceful. The evenings were peaceful and the nights very dark and quiet. In fact, I remember that my sister and me were scared of the darkness and remained close to the elders after sundown. Agra was the longest stop on our journey and we spent a couple of days as a happy family there. My parents and aunt probably visited monuments such as Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, but I have no memories of them from that trip at all. Taj Mahal - which I later visited with my mother and sister when I was about 10, had a very strong impact on me.

We usually started early in the morning and Baba drove through the day with brief stops for lunch and tea. But he never drove after sundown and we usually stopped either at guest houses on the way or with friends or relatives in towns where they lived. Accompanying us on the journey was Nemai, an auto mechanic from Kolkata, who sometimes drove when Baba felt tired or drowsy. He had accompanied Baba on many long drives and had often helped repair the Rover. However, when we got to Kanpur, he had some differences of opinion with Baba and decided to continue on his journey to Kolkata by train alone. For me, the most distinct memory from the Baroda-Kolkata drive remains the ravines of Chambal. My sister and me had never seen anything so spectacular before that. Baba & Ma's stories about the dacoits who lived in Chambal and looted visitors, heightened the excitement for us. I clearly remember Baba asking us to recite our nursery rhymes loudly so that he didn't doze off while driving along the rugged and winding road through the ravines of Chambal. Ma poured out hot water from a flask to make coffee for Baba when he felt too fatigued. We spent about 10 days on the road - but for my sister and me, it was like a lifetime with new horizons opening out in front of us everyday.

The holy city of Benares was another stopover before we reached Kolkata where my grandparents lived. It's a city that I've never visited after that, though my father had told me a lot about his own visits there, to offer prayers for his forefathers. It's also a city that Satyajit Ray has given a magical touch to through his lens and creative imagination. It's a city I dream of visiting sometime to pay respects to Ray, to the holy Ganga River and now to Baba too.
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