December 19, 2014 1 Comment
December 17, 2014 Leave a comment
‘No, of course not’, said Sunderbabu hurriedly. ‘Of course not. But you’ll notice, whoever killed Niradbabu – and I’m not saying it was ghosts – didn’t actually steal anything. They merely tried to open a locked strongbox.’
Jayanta looked thoughtful. “And you say it was the same in the two previous cases?”
“Yes!” said Sunderbabu. “In each previous instance they managed to open the almirah and strongboxes, but didn’t actually take anything. Not money, not jewellery… nothing.”
“So clearly the murderers were looking for something else”, mused Jayanta. “There must be something else, otherwise nothing makes sense.”
Sunderbabu cleared his throat. “Well…there was something in the locked strongbox. Nothing important or valuable, just this silly little doll.” His hand dipped into his pocket and brought out a small porcelain figurine. An old Chinaman was sitting on a ram, looking quite satisfied with himself. The entire statute was about six inches high.
Jayanta plucked it out of Sunderbabu’s fist and peered at the design. “This is very old porcelain, and the craftsmanship is excellent. I’d say it probably comes from China’s more glorious times – a representation of the country’s rich artistic heritage. Sunderbabu, it might be news to you, but old Chinese porcelain is as rare and valuable as snakestone. That must’ve been why Niradbabu kept this ‘silly doll’ locked in a strongbox. Is this what the murderers were looking for?”
‘Could be’, said Jayanta, ‘but what about the other two victims? What were the murderers looking for in their homes? We haven’t found Chinese porcelain there.’
‘Lao Tzu!’, said Sunderbabu suddenly.
Jayanta and Manik stared at him.
‘Those two men!’, Sunderbabu exclaimed. ‘I knew I should have held onto them. Annoying twerps. I bet they know about the other two deaths. Hah!’
Jayanta brows crinkled. ‘What “two men”’?
‘Young upstarts’, snorted Sunderbabu. ‘Came along to the last crime scene, poking about and asking questions. I knew straightaway they were trouble. “Who are you?” I asked, “What d’you want?” They laughed and said they were looking for an adventure. Adventure! Imagine! Cheeky fools.
“How would like the prodding of a copper’s rule instead?” I asked, but they just laughed. “If the police prods us, we’ll prod right back. Prodding the police definitely counts as an adventure in our books!” Can you believe that? I was about to have these nuts thrown out when one of them saw this doll. “Lao Tzu!”, he shouted, “Look, Lao Tzu!”
Now, you know I don’t stand for that sort of tomfoolery, Jayanta. So I got right in their face and bellowed, “Get out! Get out of my sight right now!” My shouting voice is usually a force to be reckoned with, but these two were not fazed at all! They sauntered out, holding hands and laughing. Hoom!’
‘Did you get their names?’ asked Jayanta.
‘Bimal, Kumar… something like that.’
Manik sat up in his chair. ‘Bimal? Kumar? Sunderbabu, you don’t mean… could these be the famous adventurers Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu?’
Sunderbabu waved a dismissive hand in front of his face. ‘Who cares? I don’t. Adventurers indeed! What they are is a precious pair, just like the two of you. They spout gibberish just like you, and just like you, they’re barking mad. ‘Lao Tzu!’ Honestly! What does that even mean? Anyway, I’m off now. Lots to do’.
And so, with his mood apparently restored, Sunderbabu left.
Jayanta broke the silence first. ’I’ve heard of Bimalbabu and Kumarbabu too, Manik’, he said softly. ‘Amazingly strong, wonderfully smart, appearing when anything strange happens. If they’ve visited Niradbabu’s home, then something about his murder must have struck them as odd… which means they know more about it than we do.’
‘What about Lao Tzu though?’ asked Manik. ‘That’s what confounds me. What is it?’
‘Never heard it myself. Tell you what, let’s look it up in the encyclopaedia. Would you get the volume down?’
Manik not only got the encyclopaedia down, he started looking for mentions of Lao Tzu himself.
‘Here it is!’ he exclaimed after a few minutes. ‘Jayanta, listen to this! Lao Tzu is a person. He was a Chinese philosopher, born in 604 AD, and considered the founder of Taoism, an eastern religion.’
‘Hmm, so then the statue we saw must have been Lao Tzu’s’, Jayanta said almost to himself. ‘But what does a man living in China nearly three thousand years ago have to do with the death of a Bengali clerk in twentieth century Calcutta?’
Silence descended on the room.
December 15, 2014 2 Comments
Trawling zombielike through my Facebook timeline this afternoon, after a rocky, uncomfortable couple of hours of shut-eye, I came upon proof of happier times, when ‘pulling all-nighters’ meant loading the fridge with home-cooked goodies. Newly married, new in Bombay, living in one room in a guest-house and sharing one domestic washing-machine and one induction-base cooker with two whole floors of guests – man, those were the days. I remember, when I first posted about cooking through the night, a concerned friend asked, “But why the night-shift?” Before I could think of an answer, a worldly-wise wit piped: “Same reason why elevs make shoes at night. Newlyweds are magic!”
Here’s the post from FB. Enjoy the graphics :-|
After a night of peeling, chopping, dicing, coring, tossing, stirring, frying and juicing, we now have a wonderful assortment of reheatable food: one jar of excellent Bolognese sauce (made with mutton keema, tomatoes, fresh basil and dried oregano); a large bowl of pulao-daal; stir-fried korola and pumpkin (called tita-chhechki or teto back home); a spicy dry cauliflower curry; and lau-chingri (prawns with lauki — a light Bengali delicacy). Plus, fresh-squeezed musambi, apple and tomato juice. After achieving this incredibly marathon feat on ONE stove-top and ONE wok and ONE pressure cooker, we finally dined — at 7AM — on Maggi and one slice of leftover cheesecake. Now we’re going to crash, and be dead to the world till late afternoon. Call us, and I will personally darken your doorstep with a chainsaw.
December 10, 2014 Leave a comment
From “Introducing Phulmoni and Her Sisters”, Dangerous Outcast, the Prostitute in Nineteenth Century Bengal,Sumanta Banerjee, Seagull Books, Calcutta: 2000.
In his 4th century B.C. treatise on governance, the Arthashastra, Kautilya laid down rules and guidelines for the interaction between prostitutes, customers, and the state. Prostitutes were recommended to deal with customers is specific ways, and punitive measures were defined for defaulting or aggressive customers. Prostitutes paid taxes (worth two days’ earnings) like other skilled professionals. Their work was not a crime, nor a sin. Indeed, in Chandragupta Maurya’s time, their skill at making people relax and converse was recognised and used by the spy/intelligence system.
Centuries down,in the 1200s, we find anonymous Bengali poets extolling the beauty and grace of ‘the courtesans of Bengal’, concluding rhetorically, “who would not be bereft of his mind, to behold [such beauties] as the Bengali baranganas?”
NOTE: Some Hindu lawmakers, such as Manu, decreed that prostitutes belonged with thieves and blackmailers, and any Brahmin consorting with such criminals should be punished. However, as A. L. Basham points out, in medieval India at least, this stricture remained largely theoretical because brahmans – guardians and promulgators of Manu’s sacred laws – had their identity and very real economic existence tied to various temples, and temples had hundreds of prostitutes on their staff.
From rhyming record-keeping traditions, we find that prostitutes continued to be major partners in social and cultural festivities and royal expeditions in Bengal in the 17th century, as evident from the following description of the entourage accompanying a prince embarking on a journey:
Alim, pandit aar jyotish, ganak
Nana jantra, raj-beshya, gahon, nartak
(‘Learned Muslims, Hindu pandits, astrologers, astronomers; various musical instruments, royal courtesans, singers and dancers’. Please note that ‘dancer’ here is a male person.)
Such laudatory reference to prostitutes and eulogistic descriptions about their life style – which continued in Bengali literature from the medieval period till the early 18th century – indicate a continuity of certain societal values as well as of state patronage which allowed the prostitutes to enjoy a [relatively] privileged space in society. Their task as the cultivator of the arts, especially, provided them with avenues for participating in the wider society through cultural and religious events. For example, Vaishnavis, depsite their non-normative sexual behaviour, were welcomed to religious gatherings at caste Hindu houses, especially rich ones that could afford their musical/spiritual services.
In the prevailing anarchy of the early years of 18th century Bengal [the British were making inroads, the Portugese and French were establishing control at port-towns, local administration was in turmoil, attacking each other], faint silhouettes of the courtesan of yore were to be found among the free women living on the fringes of ‘respectable’ society – the singers and dancers from the lower castes; the Hindu widows who joined Vaishnavaite ‘akhras’ or clubs and were free to choose their male partners; and the so-called fallen women (those deserted by their husbands, or seduced by lovers to be abandoned later) forced to eke out a living after having been discarded by their families. NOTE: Not all of them could be strictly called professional prostitutes, since they made their living by being flower-sellers, milk-maids, barbers and so on, but their economic freedom gave them greater social flexibility than the average ‘mainstream’ woman in contemporary society.
Around mid-18th century, the depradations of the Marhatta raiders (known as bargis), created widespread anarchy in the countryside with the abduction and raping of women. In accordance with the conservative norms of Hindu society, families seldom took back these unfortunate victims, since they were considered ‘polluted’.
Then the disastrous famine of 1770 hit. It wiped out a third of the population of Bengal and forced the survivors to sell their children to survive. One could see boats filled with children coming down the river for open sale at Calcutta, stolen from their parents, or bought perhaps for a measure of rice. Many of these women and children ended up at brothels, or as personal slaves in rich households.
NOTE: Female Domestic Slavery: Indeed, a boom in slave traffic happened all through the 17th and 18th centuries, carried out mainly by the Portugese pirates from Arab settlements in Africa and South-west Asia, leading to the importation of large numbers of black women slaves (known variously as habshis or kafris in local Bengali) to serve in Muslim aristocratic households in cities like Dhaka, Murshidabad and eventually, Calcutta.
Rich Hindu families, too, had maintained dasis or female slaves from medieval times in Bengal, as evident from contemporary Hindu rules and regulations formulated by the 12th century Bengali lawmaker, Jeemutabahana, who laid down meticulous rules in his Dayabhaga as to the distribution of these dasis, along with immovable property, among male heirs of the family. According to Maheshwara, a later commentator on Dayabhaga, and interpreter of, Dayabhaga, the female slaves were used to satiate the lust of the household’s men, and whoever they loaned or gifted the women to.
Throughout the late 17th and 18th century, however, ‘kept’ women or mistresses had a social acceptability they later lost. Officers and lawyers of the courts of this period, when introducing themselves and their colleagues to some newly arrived bhadralok used to describe them in these terms: “This gentleman has built a pucca house for his mistress”. Building a pucca house for a mistress was considered a sign of honour and prestige.
The restrictive and punitive attitude adopted by the British administration in the 19th century was in sharp contrast to the permissive and accommodating policies pursued by generations of rulers in pre-colonial India, although the latter subscribed to the same patriarchal values that compelled the British to accept prostitution for their soldiers as essential. The British, however, introduced a moral dimension by attaching a stigma to prostitutes, and banishing them from society.
Sophisticated official measures like the repressive Act XIV of 1868 accompanied aggressive campaigns by the English-educated Bengali bhadralok against prostitutes’ participation in socio-cultural activities. These were accompanied by systematic psychological assault through verbal violence-abuse that were aimed at reinforcing their inferior and degrading position in society. Over the years, these abuses and sayings became a part of popular culture in Bengal – building up the stereotype of a blood-sucking vampire, out to fleece ‘unwary’ and ‘innocent’ men.
NOTE: Some English settlers – particularly senior officials who did not want their underlings ‘distracted’ or sympathetic to the local culture via local women – concurred. “The climate is undoubtedly one of the chief causes of this great propensity to sexual intercourse, the results of which prove generally so unfortunate to my countrymen”, one of them wrote. “The Hindoostanee women (under this denomination I class both Hindoos and Moslems)… form a cluster of delights, to the temptation of which it is not surprising if we see men, in other respects prudent, fall the victims.”
Capt. Thomas Williamson claimed in his East Indian Guide and Vade Mecum that prostitutes were part of a ‘debash and crafty’ Indian mechanism to trap and devour young officers: “Nothing can be more dangerous than this irregular indulgence; it never failing first to drain the purse, and, in a few days or weeks, the constitution also.”
In conclusion, Sumanta Banerjee sums up the situation thus:
Even in the state of comparative freedom enjoyed by the courtesan, she had to cultivate skills mainly for the entertainment of the male. But significantly enough, the cultivation did not remain confined to skills of sexual entertainment alone. It embraced the fine arts-music, dancing, painting.
In contrast, in capitalist society, like other wage workers in a system that thrives on intensification of the division of labour and specialisation of skills, the prostitute, also, is pushed into a strictly defined narrow space. She is condemned to the exclusive role of a specialist in sexual entertainment. Stripped of all emotional and intellectual attributes, she becomes the female body – an input required at one level in the long line of the production process in a capitalist society. Reduced to a source of purely utilitarian needs, her body is expected to produce the regular nocturnal fantasy of pleasure that deceptively fills up the vacuity of the soul of the alienated worker who comes to her as a client. She represents the ultimate in alienation in a capitalist society. The alienation of one section of the exploited feeds upon the alienation of another.
November 26, 2014 1 Comment
I’ve been very busy being bored lately, and have socialised mainly on social media, letting this blog whimper and slowly die.
But fear not! For I am back, with the magic of DIY!
And with a lot of empty bottles of rum and whiskey, the provenance of which I shall be obliged if you don’t ask.
This above is a bottle of the wondrous Old Monk, the lack of which, in my opinion, non-Indians suffer acutely from. Old Monk is a dark rum that is cheap, sweet, and hits you hard. What more could one possibly want of one’s rum?
The last time we finished a bottle of OM, I washed and dried the bottle, and then traced its strange shattered-glass design with bronze fabric paint put in a cone. Then, at the front where the label was, I wrote this legend in a creamy-white, stylised font:
কাউকে বেশি লাই দিতে নেই, সবাই চড়ে মাথায়ে |
It’s from Sukumar Ray, and translated roughly to my below-par Hindi, it reads, “Kisiko zyada chhut mat dijiye; Sab sar pe charhne ki mauka dhundhte hain”. Expressing the sentiment in English is rather hard, but I suppose, generally, it means “Never coddle anyone too much; everybody’s just waiting to walk all over you”.
October 21, 2014 6 Comments
Pepsi adverts are usually the pits, stupid writing and empty glitz, but this little short film on the importance of homecoming, family, and celebrations – with the barest glimmer of product placement – is touching, and rather sweet. Here it is.
The film is appealing on many levels apart from the sentimental. One of it the depiction of social changes that economic modernity has brought in India.
Unlike previous generations of Indian children, most of whom settled close to the son’s parents (if not in the same house), current young professional are setting up homes elsewhere, leaving elderly parents to tend empty nests without any real sense of fulfilment.
Urban parents of the previous generation also tended to have just one child or two, instead of the battalions of yore. If that child – or those children – happen to be daughters, then the chances of the parents leading such lonely and/or independent lives increase manifold. Not that all sons make their homes with their elderly parents, of course, but in our patrilocal society, there’s at least the expectation they might (whether or not that means domestic bliss); parents of married women are denied even that.
Of course, as the film shows, technology – not too long ago limited to shoddy overhead lines and whirly-disc phones – has seeped into most nooks of of our human living, simplifying it enormously. But banalisation of human interaction is often the flip side of that. It’s great to video-chat with one’s parents several times a week, but precisely because the technology of virtual nearness is present, distance might no longer makes the heart fonder, and regular family-time may begin to feel forced, banal and tedious. There is of course the convenience of shutting Skype off or hanging up the phone, but the discontent it produces ferments, and is either carried over into future conversations, or, as in the film, into deliberate silence.
On the other hand, in a country where intergenerational households are common, Indians are all too used to the multiple small and large conflicts of interest, lack of personal space and freedom (especially for women), and constraints on the development of individual tastes. Of course, marital units of a large intergenerational family saves more individually, and bringing up children becomes easier in a house full of adults and other children. But most people – again, especially women – who have experienced the lacks of a growing up in a joint family in post-liberalisation India are prepared to forgo these benefits for greater freedom of individual expression. Celebratory reunions, in such contexts, are sweetended by the small guilt of living apart (against social expectations), and the assurance that the holidays of memory-making are fleeting, and separation will soon commence again.
Unless the holiday reunions happen under duress, or the family has a troubled dynamic, I’d say this is what makes holidays in contemporary India happier for the ‘separated’ family.
But the reason I like the film especially, is because it depicts the elderly parents as agentive: not whiny, not aggressive, yet capable of standing firm and demanding their needs be acknowledged too. Such a refreshing break from the tradition of weepy, self-effacing, ever-sacrificing parenthood on Indian screens. For that stroke of realism or encouragement – depending on your own relationship to your parents and offsprings – I recommend the film even more.
October 1, 2014 3 Comments
The newspapers were in an uproar. Two horrendous murders had been committed within days of each other, and the murderer in each instance had escaped. However, beside each corpse, they had left a piece of paper with the picture of a dragon, and the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4.
It was in such a time, on a rainy pre-dawn, that Jayanta awoke.
The flute had always been a favourite of his. If he didn’t play the flute for a few moments every morning, his day didn’t feel complete.
That day, when he blew out the first notes of the Ramkali melody, dawn hadn’t yet broken. And yet within moments, someone began banging on his door. Irritated, Jayanta got up and undid the latch… and Maniklal stormed into the room.
“You!” exclaimed Jayanta, astonished. “It’s not even morning yet!”
“The dragon, Jayanta!” panted Manik, “The dragon has appeared again! The third time!”
Jayanta blew experimentally through his flute.
“A third murder, Jayanta! And the murderer has escaped again!”
Jayanta resumed the Ramkali.
“Are you listening to me? It’s not just a newspaper report, I witnessed it all first-hand this time!”
Jayanta lay the flue down. ” I can see there’ll be no music this morning, ” he sighed. “Well, go on then. Tell me everything. I don’t like listening to excited bits and pieces.”
Manik collapsed on a chair. Jayanta raised his voice to order breakfast for the two of them, and then sat facing Manik.
“It was past midnight when I left your place yesterday,” began Manik. “It was still and humid, and I had a hard time falling asleep. Finally, in the final hours before dawn, there was a short burst of shower, and a cool breeze broke the heat. Just as I was beginning to drop off, a scream shattered the night.
You remember the house next to mine, Jayanta? That’s where the scream seemed to come from. For the last six months, it had been the residence of Niradchandra Basu and his family.
Now, you can imagine what happens when one hears a blood-curdling scream in the middle of the night! I froze in bed for a few moments. And then an uproar went up from next door. Many voices started shouting in unison. I could discern ‘Murder!’ ‘Robbers!’ ‘Police!’. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window. There was still a drizzle at that point, but mostly it was a storm. The wind was high, and there were frequent lightnings.
Now, Jay, you know how the mind plays tricks on us, especially when we’re as shaken and confused as I was then. So when I what I saw, even I couldn’t believe it was really happening. Here’s what I saw: in a burst of lightning, a dark figure flew skywards from Niradbabu’s roof. Visibility was poor, but it looked human to me. Now normally, I would have dismissed this as an illusion, but I remember when the first dragon murder happened, some witnesses claimed to have seen a similar figure flying away from the victim’s roof.
Anyway, onto more concrete things. I shook off my stupor and hurried next door. I knew Niradbabu a little. We’d met a few times, and he’d asked me over for tea a couple of times.
Before you ask, this is what I know about Nirad Basu. He’s retired, but not more than fifty. His wife passed away some time back, leaving behind two grown sons, both married. Niradbabu used to work in Military Accounts. During the last World War, he was posted in China. He left that position abruptly to move to Rangoon, and a few years later moved just as abruptly to Kolkata. I don’t know why he left his job or why he moved back suddenly from Rangoon. Rich people are often eccentric, and Niradbabu was rather obviously rich.
When we reached the first floor, I saw Niradbabu’s lifeless body on the floor. It was horrible. Strong hands had wrung his neck, and terror was etched on his frozen face. Beside the corpse, there was a piece of paper with the picture of a dragon. Not too different from the pictures of dragons one sees in encyclopaedias and books: body like a huge snake, terrifying unnatural face, tendrils of fires snaking out of its nose. And on its back, there were the numbers 1, 2, 3 and 4. All numbers except the last had been crossed out in red ink.
There was an iron safe in a corner of the room. Scuffs on it showed that the murder had tried to open it, but fled because of the noise we made. His way in and out of Niradbabu’s room must have been the window, because the iron grill on the window frame was bent out of shape. But it’s a mystery how he entered the house, or how he escaped from it. There’s some fallow land all around the house, so the question of jumping from a neighbour’s roof doesn’t arise. Both the front and back entrances had guards – don’t ask me why – and they both claim they’ve been undisturbed all night.
This is what has brought me to you, Jayanta. Crimes are not uncommon in Calcutta, and most murders appear mysterious at first glance. But this one is absolutely confounding! How could a murderer enter and leave a locked, isolated house? Why would he leave drawings of dragons behind? And what was the dark, shadowy figure I saw speeding skywards?
Jayanta stood up and paced around the room thoughtfully. “There have been, as you say, two more murders of exactly the same kind in this city recently. Clearly, the same people – or at least the same brain – is behind all three. The first victim was Anathnath Sen; the second victim was Chandranath Dutta. This time, it’s your neighbour Nirad Chandra Basu. If I am to take up this case, I first have to see how these people are related to each other. About the flying figure: some of Anathbabu’s neighbours claimed to have seen a similar figure the night he was murdered. I would have dismissed that as fancy, but I am incapable of dismissing your testimony. But the most important thing, Manik, is that these three murders indicate a future murder. Have you caught onto that?
“How so?” said a startled Manik.
“I read in the papers that the picture left behind at the first murder, just the number 1 had been crossed off. Now, at the third victim’s murder, you say all the numbers except four has been crossed off. Clearly, there is a person or a group somewhere that has decided that these four people must die, only the fourth person is still alive.”
“Goodness!” breathed Manik.
“The dragon is an indicator,” mused Jayanta. “It’s the symbol of the person or group responsible for these crimes. Why would such people want these four dead?”
In the ensuing silence, heavy footsteps were heard thumping up the stairs.
Jayanta sat up. “That’s Inspector Sunderbabu”, he whispered, and picked up the flute. Sunderbabu had a distinct distaste for flutes.
The very next second, a wobbling tummy and shining pate pushed through the door, announcing Sunderbabu’s presence. Jayanta blew through his flute, pretending not to notice.
“Hrrump!” said Sunderbabu, instantly irritated. “Here I am, tearing my hair out, and you’re playing the flute! The flute!”
“Don’t be like that, Sunderbabu,” said Manik sweetly. “Jayanta’s only trying to soothe your troubled soul.”
“Don’t you make fun of me, Manik”, Sunderbabu growled. “I cannot abide your jokes. Especially at a time like this!”
“What’s so sombre about this time?” asked Jayanta, lowering his flute.
Sunderbabu jiggled into a nearby chair. The fight seemed to go out of him. “Just my luck,” he said dejectedly. “All the rotten, ridiculous cases always drop on my plate. If those blasted murderers had just taken Nirad Basu elsewhere to kill, I wouldn’t be involved in this ghostly mess. But no…”
“You’re in charge of the Niradbabu murder?” interjected Jayanta.
“Who else? It’s always this old soldier doing the dirty work. But ghosts, I ask you! Dragons! Flying shadows! My liver is quivering in my tummy, I tell you! I want no part of this. I’ll apply for leave straight away.