Saturday, September 29, 2007

What’s in your collection?

Are you a collector? I don’t really mean the uber rich, connoisseur kind of collectors who accumulate vintage wines or cut glass or diamonds etc. What I mean is simple things – that people collect either when they travel themselves or their friends get for them as gifts. From tiny miniature cars – which were called dinky toys when we were kids – to little plastic animals that came inside toothpaste boxes, which we referred to as Binaca toys – we were collectors even as kids. Many of my friends complain that their kids – despite belonging to the hi-tech, computer savvy generation – drag them to McDonald’s for Happy Meals just to collect the toys which come with them.

There's something very personal and warm about collecting little things which I dont think is matched by collections of Mercs or jets. As a girl, I collected postal stamps – as did many of my friends. But then those were the days when we wrote letters to friends and relatives, sometimes across thousands of miles. And when the envelopes or aerogrammes arrived from uncles and aunts or pen-friends living overseas – carefully detaching the beautiful multi-coloured stamps and putting them up in albums was something that many of us enjoyed doing. My grandfather – a very creative person – collected feathers that birds had shed and then made beautiful cards for us with them. In a similar manner, my aunt collects leaves and flowers and preserves them between pages of notebooks to make cards for her friends and family members.
My sister is a big collector of headgear – caps and hats – from all over the world. I remember my first trip overseas to Phuket when she had specially asked me to get a straw hat for her. I had risked the x-ray machine and other hazards of international travel to bring back the biggest one I could find for her. She has herself added many chic felt hats to her collection when she traveled to Tibet during an arduous pilgrimage to Mansarovar Lake and Mt Kailash. Her friends have got her berets from France and baseball caps from the US. My uncle Subir Sen, too, had a big collection of traditional Indian caps from various Himalayan states such as Himachal, Nepal, Uttarakhand etc. And he loved sporting them in Kolkata, thus creating an unique style of his own.
Maitreyee Chatterjee – an activist for women’s rights in Kolkata – collects statues of owls and like her I know someone who collects frog statues. My mother, Haimanty, has a collection of miniature animals in metal, stone and terracotta as well as a lovely collection of small bells. My friend Nilanjan in America tells me that he is collecting Minolta cameras from yester-years. Don’t ask me why I do it, he had said. Perhaps, because they’re a throwback to our past when photography was all manual and involved positives and negatives and elaborate printing processes. Maybe collecting things that bring back the past is about nostalgia.
My father Rabindra – who for me symbolized simple living and high thinking – didn’t throw anything away unless it was absolutely of no use. In fact, he believed in recycling stuff all his life – even before it became fashionable to do so. From hairclips to old pens and glass bottles, my father put small things – which we would have thrown into the garbage can – to some use in household repairs or in his unique creations. I remember collecting wine glasses from all the wineries that we visited during a trip to Napa & Sonoma two years ago. But that's a touristy thing to do and a part of the wine-tasting ritual. Squirreling is perhaps an inherent quality in many of us – and that’s probably why we keep adding to the collection!

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Monday, September 24, 2007


It's Diwali come early in Delhi - in Kolkata despite three days of heavy rains and water logged streets people are out with victory processions on the streets late at night! Sachin Tendulkar is at home with friends opening bottles of champagne. Shah Rukh Khan who watched the match in Johannesburg - is celebrating with the heros themselves!! Tell us how you are celebrating the BIG 20/20 Indian Cricket win!!!! Read more!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Last Lear: Some thoughts

It was a rather intriguing experience I must say ... watching Kolkata and what I had always known to be a very typical representation of quality Bangla theatre at its peak - at the Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. Rituparno Ghosh's Last Lear, inspired by Utpal Datta's Ajker Shahjahan had its world premier at the Toronto International Flim Fest last week. Naturally, the media has already discussed this ad nauseum, focusing on the "red carpet history", the presence of the crew, including Ghosh and Bachchan, but surprisingly little about the substance. About the latter, two things struck me in particular. For one, Ghosh provides an excellent critique of contemporary cinema and film-making and how it does not hesitate to demean other art forms as it considers necessary for asserting its own superiority. In the film, this ruthless self-referential, smug and insensitive character of contemporary 'young' cinema is represented through the director Siddharth (Arjun Rampal). But Siddharth does not only represent this ethos of contemporary cinema, but also, in my opinion, a certain faction of youth who possess the very same qualities.

I do not with to generalize, but the reckless, patronizing self-assuredness with which some of our younger generation treat the older generation (such as us) is something that may well resonate with many of us. Sometimes I envy them for their confidence. But more often, I am angered by their lack of interest in the past. The young, debonair, confident and yet somewhere violently confused director Siddharth wishes to use a veteran stage actor to essay his script; and yet has little patience, knowledge or sensitivity about the art form in which the actor excelled, much less about Shakespeare who the actor is obsessed with. This relationship between the young director and the veteran actor (Rampal and Bachchan) conveyed to me simultaneously the nature of the generational conflicts we see today as well as the superiority with which one artistic community views another.

The second feat that Ghosh has achieved is in presenting Kolkata - with all its specificities that one would not know if one has not lived there - in a truly global sense. How did he achieve that? As a hopelessly nostalgic Bengali, I think he focused on the attributes that manifests Kolkata's truly universal and cosmopolitan character: its love for the arts, for good theatre, off-beat relationships, conversations, the disconnect with materiality, the effortless evolution of friendships.. Perhaps we can now abandon the need to exoticize ourselves and celebrate the specificity of Kolkata, Bengal, or whoever, whatever we are without being ghettoized, or being limited to just that.

Finally, it brought back, inevitably perhaps, the memories of watching the great maestros such as Shombhu Mitra and Utpal Datta on stage.
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Friday, September 14, 2007

Of Mothers and Daughters: Debjani Banerjee

It was one of the rare sunny afternoons in August and we were celebrating my niece’s tenth birthday with a barbeque party. Watching her play around with her friends I was reminded of the day she was born. When the telephone call had come on a Saturday evening, I rushed over to my parent’s house to celebrate. My mother organized a puja to thank the Lord in her way and invited everybody over. We still had not stopped smiling when a well meaning neighbour came over to commiserate with my mother. ‘Don’t worry, may be next time.’ A neighbour who had just had a grandson echoed the same sentiments. I tried to picture my sister’s face and imagined people pitying her for delivering a beautiful, healthy baby girl. I was livid but my mother, having borne 3 daughters and 0 sons, was used to this sympathy and took it in her stride, just as she had remained calm for so many years in the face of much whispered rantings of ‘Who is going to look after them? They have only daughters.’ She had remained calm and confident as we had gone through our lives studying to be professionals (like other male children) getting jobs (like other male children) taking responsibility for our households (unlike other male children) and parents (like some male children). She remains equally calm now when the same commentators enviously say, (looking at us I hope) ‘It’s easier to bring up girls rather than boys.’ All’s well that ends well.

I was prodded out of my almost pleasant reverie by a news item on NDTV, ‘Bombay High Court upholds sex test ban.’ The petition was filed by a couple, Vijay and Kirti Sharma, residents of Lokhandwala complex in Andheri; they wanted to use sex determination to have a male child as they already have two daughters.

In their petition they said that in a ''less advanced society'' like India where a ''patriarchal mindset exists'' and where a ''girl child is not socially accepted,'' it is better that such children are not born. It was followed by a short and quick interview with Kirti Sharma, who said that, the ban on sex determination tests does not take into account the trauma a mother goes through when she finds out that the second child is of the same gender as the first!!
Others milling around the television found the incident funny. Someone suggested, ‘If I send my two hyper active two year old to them for a day, they’ll change their minds about wanting a son.’ But I could not join in their light hearted banter. It’s not an unknown fact that in many, perhaps the majority of the Indian households, the male child is looked upon as the ultimate blessing. The Sharmas perhaps even deserve a pat on their backs for trying to legalize something others are doing anyway. It is no secret that ever since prenatal sex determination tests have been banned in India people have explored many loopholes. For the right fee, doctors find ways around the law by revealing gender through gestures and codes. Advertisements saying, ‘Pay 500 now to avoid paying 5 lakhs later,’ are clear evidence of the existence of such practices.

But the issue that kept troubling me is that the Sharmas had two daughters and wanted a male heir; not only that they wished that the girl children were not even born? What message was Kirti Sharma sending to her daughters? That they were second best? That they were associated with stigma? Ten years down the line I could see the Sharmas struggling to put together a huge dowry to buy a son in law instead of turning right around and teaching their daughters to believe in themselves and be independent in social and economic terms. I cannot accept that my ten year old niece and five year old daughter, who are beautiful, intelligent, loving children, could be so easily dismissed as second-best. In fact, as a parent, is it not my responsibility to fight discrimination in any form? I thanked my parents for allowing us to live and blossom in an environment in the 70s and 80s where such inequalities were far away fictions. Looking around me now, I realize that it must have been a hard task and I congratulate them for that.

It is ten long years since my mother was consoled for having a granddaughter after three daughters. So much seems to have changed and yet so little! While women, in urban India at least, have made huge progress in every field imaginable, the Sharmas and perhaps many others seem to think that the girl child is not accepted in India. The Sharmas who live in an upmarket area in Bombay have argued that affluent couples who have the financial and social means should be allowed to choose the sex of the child as opposed to couples who use such tests to have only male children.
But isn’t that convoluted logic? Is it not one and the same thing? Is it not even more problematic to have daughters and sons and treat them as unequal?

There are two relevant issues to ponder upon and they may be linked. Firstly, there does not seem to be a way for the woman’s movement or individual women achievers to get through to this particular section of women – the affluent, upper middle class (if you like gradations) woman for whom modern India seems to have afforded a life of convenience and even moderate luxury. Women like Mrs Sharma are not able to identify with the fruits of the women’s movement, they have never had the conviction that women can be empowered in society or at least till they are, they can struggle for it.

Secondly, it seems to me that the Sharmas seem to be locked in the wrong battle. They are clearly vocal people who can speak up for their rights but perhaps their cause is a little misplaced? Why not use the same resources to challenge the “patriarchal mindset” that according to them, does not socially accept the girl child? Now, that could be a battle worth pursuing and it would make their daughters’ life easier. Why not fight dowry and other injustices that may contribute to the girl child being discriminated against? Wouldn’t that be a more concrete battle, improving the lives of their daughters instead of trying to add numbers to a population that is bursting at the seams?

The one silver lining in the whole issue is perhaps the stance of Justice Ranjana Desai who is among the few women judges in the Bombay High court. She has written that ''Sex selection is not only against the spirit of the Indian Constitution, it also insults and humiliates womanhood. It violates a woman's right to life.” It is not always easy to be so vocal about women’s rights even when and perhaps specially when one is in a position to do so. But she has come out and condemned the Sharmas’ arguments as shocking and upheld the ban in no uncertain terms.

So three cheers to her and to the spirit of our legal system!
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tagoreana: Sublimity encased in simplicity

As a Bengali who grew up in Bengal, Tagore’s songs or Rabindra Sangeet is something that I consider an intrinsic part of my life. Of course I know friends who probably outgrew Tagore’s songs or others who can’t relate to what they consider Tagorean upper class sensibilities. My sister too finds Tagore’s music somewhat contextually confined and has developed more cosmopolitan taste in music (except some renditions by Late Kanika Bandopadhyay the unparalleled exponent of Tagore songs). For me, however, it’s the sheer simplicity of Tagore that I can always relate to. I find most of Tagore’s songs a package of sublime thoughts wrapped in melodious tunes. They have almost all been touched with the magic wand of Tagore’s master craftsmanship when it comes to the poetry and for the musical scores he dips into traditions as diverse as Scottish highland songs to Indian classical and Bengal folk.
My grandmother, who was a grand-niece of Rabindranath had often related to us stories of how he would compose songs within a few minutes – sometimes as gifts for his loved ones on their special days. He had, in fact, written a humourous poem on one of my grandparents’ wedding anniversaries that he had spent with them. Tagore had composed various dance-dramas too – for performances by students of Vishwa Bharati University. He himself supervised these shows which were vibrant musical festivals in Santiniketan with Rabindranath himself as the focal point. But even though Tagore wrote some of his music and his poetry to commemorate day to day events, it’s the universal spirit in his work that has made it immortal. The simplicity of his sublime thoughts often bring solace to those who understand Bengali, even when they are far away from home or suffering from unhappiness and pain.

To end I’ll try a very rough translation of one of my favourite Tagore’s songs:

Diye genu basantero ei gaan khani…

I’m leaving behind this gift of a song of spring for you…
When the year ends, I know you will forget….
…But when another season comes and your eyes moisten over the nostalgia of this song, I consider that reason enough to compose it…
….And then Spring will come again and bring new people into your life and new melodies of life…

Probably when Tagore was talking about new melodies of a new spring, he was crystalball gazing into the present time when the copyrights on his songs have expired and people are free to do what they like with them – creative or otherwise. Who knows, it could be Rabindrik Rock perhaps!
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