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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"If winter comes..."

When I was going up to class 12 (in St. Xavier’s Collegiate School, Calcutta), they sent me to participate in a ‘creative writing’ competition at Loreto House, which was almost next door on Park Street. I went without any clear idea about what I was supposed to do: after all, what was special about ‘creative’ writing? Wasn’t all writing meant to be creative? Anyway, several of us from different schools were assembled in a hall, and a girl came over to write three topics on the blackboard, out of which each had to select one. I have no memory of what the other two were, but as soon as she wrote ‘If winter comes…’ (first half of a famous line from Shelley's immortal poem), a flashbulb seemed to go off inside my head – the classic Eureka moment – and I literally saw the whole story full-blown in my mind’s eye. For the next half hour I was scribbling furiously, dead to the world, just copying out the story from my mental screen as it were, and then I submitted the story and walked out, leaving the girl gaping after me. No wonder: the time allotted was, I think, three hours, and many of my fellow-writers had just stopped chewing their pens and started writing slowly and laboriously, visibly bereft of ideas. Thus “Natalie darling” was born: the story of a young geologist cum KGB agent in late 1970s USSR who is sent off on an urgent mission to Siberia, leaving his sweetheart behind in Leningrad, and who survives an accidental and global nuclear holocaust out there in the freezing wilderness, the only human left alive on the planet, who spends his last months and days and hours scribbling letters to his lost beloved, even as his radioactivity-contaminated body falls slowly apart.

Our team coordinator was waiting breathlessly outside, and asked the obvious question. I remember I answered, with the overweening arrogance that only teenagers are capable of mustering at will, that if the judges were literate, I was sure to win first prize. Which is what I did, in fact, but Natalie brought me much, much more. When a year later I went to Jadavpur University and tried to introduce myself to some of the girls I had just met, several of them simpered ‘Oh, we know you, you are Natalie darling (sic)!’ Let us pull a delicate veil over all that has passed in the intervening decades, but even today I can bring tears to the eyes of many a girl by reading out the same story.

I don’t know why I suddenly wrote about this. But the story has a bizarre sequel. Many years after I wrote it, while I was a schoolteacher, I had to deal with a story by the renowned science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke called History Lesson. It gave me goosebumps to see how uncannily similar his basic storyline was to mine (though there wasn’t any love interest or any poetry in his version). I had never read that story before, and surely Clarke couldn’t have read mine. So maybe in the world of creativity the selfsame ideas occur to entirely unconnected people at different times and places?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The legend of Shiva

Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy has gripped me strongly. Book One, The Immortals of Meluha, and Book Two, The Secret of the Nagas I have read already; I am waiting to get my hands on the third book, The Oath of the Vayuputras.

In threadbare outline, it narrates how Shiva, a very gifted but minor tribal chief from somewhere near Mansarowar Lake in Tibet, comes to India almost two thousand years before Christ, falls in love, gets embroiled in pan-Indian politics, leads great armies to victory, discovers awful secrets about the eternal intertwining of Good and Evil, and lives up to the legend of a great saviour so gloriously that in his own lifetime he becomes a god in the public imagination, Neelkanth Mahadev, as other great heroes like Manu and Bharat, Rudra and Ram had done long before him. The books are racily written, and very cleverly meld and transcreate stories taken from the inexhaustible treasurehouse of classical Indian literature, with a flavour that should appeal to 21st century readers.

Judging  by the sales figures, the trilogy has been quite a success. I think it deserves much more. Amish is not yet a great writer, stylistically speaking – the sooner he can learn the art of writing a tighter narrative and drop the English-medium-schoolboy slang and expletive-loaded patois as well as typical Indianisms which should have been edited out (‘lightening’ for lightning, ‘pin-drop silence’, ‘past-time’, return back, persistent confusion between its and it’s…) the better for him, if he is aiming for recognition as a writer among educated adults worldwide, that is. I have issues with some of the content, too: Ram is portrayed as a very great lawgiver and ruler of men, yet nothing at all is said about how shabbily he treated his own wife; the whole story of the Mahabharata is entirely absent, except for passing mention of the tribe of Vasudevs; it is entirely part of the author’s imagination that the whole of eastern India was simultaneously settled and civilized along with the so-called Indus Valley culture (called ‘Meluha’ here); there are unreconciled contradictions, such as why the Naga Lord of the People would hurt the mother he craved to be reunited with in a sword fight; Parashuram’s explanation for killing his mother is radically different from the way the Mahabharata tells it, and of course the Parashuram we know never cut off his sword arm as a penance for wrongdoing (can one take liberties with both history and received legends?); no explanation is offered for how the deformed Naga warrior became the loveable and placid Siddhidata of contemporary folklore. Above all there hangs the question – yes, ancient India might have been far more scientifically advanced than most of us can imagine (I have written about this before), but brain surgery and life-prolonging elixirs and thought transference via radio waves, too? Isn’t that taking things maybe a bit too far?

But Amish is certainly good, given that this is a first effort, and the subject matter deserves far more attention and cultivation. There is a long and rich tradition in the west of recreating ancient stories for modern audiences in literature and cinema: too little of the sort has yet been done in India, though the resources available are so tantalizingly rich and diverse. This is a good beginning, and if it could coax young Indians to take a new interest in their own country, her past, her achievements and her potential, it will have done a magnificent and much-needed job. Among the urban, well off, Indlish-educated, technology obsessed babalog of contemporary India (to which class, surprisingly, Amish himself belongs – he is an IIM alumnus, and has done a long stint in the insurance industry: what background could be more boring?), few people read books, fewer try writing them, and if they do, they write teenage fluff, like Chetan Bhagat. History, which has stimulated the greatest minds of all lands and ages (Churchill as well as Zuckerberg!) is so uncool to them that they can hardly scrape through school examinations, and actually believe that it is necessary to be a dud in history in order to become an engineer… they should be reading this series by the millions and become slightly less simian. Meanwhile Amish has expressed a desire to write more books taking up themes from the epics, as well as about Akbar and Dara Shukoh. I shall certainly look forward to reading them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Growing up in Durgapur

What was Durgapur like in the days when I was growing up here?

Much quieter than it is these days, of course, much greener and with much more of wide open spaces which I sorely miss now. Far fewer vehicles on the roads (when my father bought a ‘Jawa’ motorcycle in 1967 hordes of people came over to marvel at it). No mobiles, no TV, no computers and video games; no shopping malls either. Private telephones were a rarity, and they all had four digit numbers (ours was 2788), had to be dialled, and nobody had heard of caller line identification. Today’s children hear about ‘trunk calls’ as though they were fairy tales. Far less dust and grime in the air, too. White skinned foreigners were a much commoner sight, though – we knew too little to distinguish between British and Russians and Germans, of course, but there were certainly no Chinamen around, except for those who made shoes and pulled out teeth in Benachity market. The first high pressure sodium vapour street lamps were put up on Central Avenue in 1977, I think.  High society flaunted huge American Dodges, Plymouths and Studebakers…oh yes, there were quite a few libraries around. The one at Durgapur Club was well-stocked, there was Anurupa Devi Smriti Pathagar for Bengali readers, and even a tiny outlet of the British Council: unthinkable in this age of philistines.

Children live different lives from adults. As Tagore in his childhood, though physically confined by and large to the four walls of the house in Jorasanko yet roamed all over the wide world in his imagination aided by his tutors and books, I grew up seeing very little outside the DSP township until my fourteenth year, so I knew far more of the great world outside than I did of my own town. I remember only occasional trips to the barrage before that, so even going to AVB township on the invitation of a friend was an adventure to remember, and likewise a bus trip through the nascent Bidhan Nagar, where I now live. It was like visiting another country, almost, and what I remember best is making a bicycle trip through the same place soon afterwards, thrilling to the knowledge that the streets I was passing through, bordered by dense jungle on both sides, would be the sole preserve of armed and vicious dacoits after dark (it was almost like that as late as 1990 on the same road which is now a blaze of multicoloured neon lamps and choc-a-bloc with guest houses, restaurants and hotels, humming with merrymaking crowds till late at night – where fireworms glowed and jackals howled even 25 years ago). And the hot and happening, crowded and bustling City Centre area was an open wilderness well into the 1980s. Yet, as I was telling my daughter only the other day, the really strange thing is how little  the town has changed in more than three decades!

My early years in school were spent during the time when the tumultuous Naxalite movement was at its peak, and yet, strange to say, our lives were virtually unaffected; though one morning we gaped over the school perimeter wall at a severed and bloody human head on the road outside (that was 1971), I worry much more about my daughter’s safety on the roads today, thanks to the reckless motorbike-crazy and often drunk kids zooming around, than our parents ever worried about us. I can hardly remember my parents asking where I had been when I came home late, morning or evening, wandering around the township on my bicycle. I travelled far and wide on that bicycle, as far as Panagarh and Ranigunj, even, yet it amazes me that I had never heard of Garh-jungle with the Shyamarupa temple nor about the little village of Kenduli on the Ajoy, famed for the medieval poet Joydev and the annual festival of bauls held in his honour, until I was well into adulthood…

Festivals like Holi and Diwali were observed in a much  more communal spirit, and therefore enjoyed much more, in our day. Kali-pujo was a red-letter day in my calendar, because my normally aloof father got actively involved with me and some of my friends in making fireworks with our own hands: truly a labour of love, if ever there was one (he wasn’t quite as successful in teaching me the art of playing with marbles and of flying kites). And today’s children have no idea of the fun we had organizing picnics (chorui bhaati) all on our own, with no adult help or supervision!

I was very fond of swimming, always, and Durgapur Club had a pool where I luxuriated for hours every day all through the long hot summers (and first discovered the charm of looking at shapely legs! Unlike in these much more 'modern' times, there was no gender segregation in the pools then. Also, I didn't notice so many schoolgoers wearing charmed amulets in my day. So much for progress). Many of my boys and girls might be surprised to know that at least up to the age of twelve, when I went down with a long spell of nagging illness (and turned for solace and comfort almost wholly to books) I was not above playing a lively game of cricket or football, ping pong or badminton, with any friends who were available.

As I have said elsewhere, my mother, her brother, and most of all my grandfather richly filled in much of my time with their friendly companionship and endless storytelling. To them I owe most of my teaching skills, such as they are.

For the rest, it was books, books, books all the time – an endless number of them, in both English and Bangla, on every conceivable subject under the sun.  Books have made me the kind of person I am: no two opinions on that. And some teachers. Most teachers in my life, as in most others’, were brutes or bores, but I think I was lucky to have an unusually large number of teachers who made strong and good impressions on me through my childhood. To them, a silent but deeply respectful bow in passing.

Summers were hotter in those days, I think, and only the very rich had airconditioning at home, so we really knew what blistering afternoons and sweltering nights meant. Winters have definitely grown milder: one no longer has to shiver deliciously under blankets these days until one is warm enough to fall asleep. The rains were wonderful to watch then, and thankfully so they are even today, living as I do amidst a verdurous ambience, and where waterlogging is not a perpetual menace.

Oh, this I forgot to mention: I have lived in 13 (or is it 14?) different places in the same town, including this, hopefully my last, house. That should be odd, I think. My own daughter has lived all of her first 15 years in the same house...

Memories have grown dim, sketchy and jumbled up with the passage of years, so I sense the imminent danger of this becoming a ramble making sense to no one at all. So let me pause and wait for readers to start commenting. It is their remarks that will make me decide whether it would be prudent to continue reminiscing.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Landmarks coming up

I am getting a little excited now – and as my readers know, I don’t use that word easily. Two reasons: the number of members publicly following this blog is approaching 250, which is respectable (since I know several hundred others visit without having enlisted as members, and since most personal non-celebrity blogs I look up have far fewer members), and the visit count is nearing the 100,000 mark; also, next month will see the tenth anniversary of my resignation from my last salaried job. Which is going to happen sooner, I wonder?

And meanwhile, will regular readers help me along by suggesting things they want me to write on – things that can be accommodated within the 1000-1200 word range I usually stick to? I especially ask those friends who have been devotedly following almost right since the time I started, back in 2006…

Friday, March 02, 2012

Lost in the great blue yonder

Sputnik went up in 1957, Gagarin went out into space in 1961, Alexei Leonov made the first space walk shortly after. Then the alarmed and insulted Americans scrambled furiously into the race, and lo, by the end of that decade the first men had landed on the moon (or so they claim, and not everybody believes them!) By 1973, with Skylab, astronaut-scientists were ready to spend months at a time in a space station far above the earth. That was the era in which my generation grew up (I was ten in 1973, and a voracious reader already). The whole world was agog: space was hot, and next to the Beatles maybe (“we’re more famous than Jesus Christ!”), space science was the coolest thing.  

Sci-fi imaginations ran wild, predicting wonders that went vastly beyond anything that the most daring scientists were then willing to contemplate, and yet such incredible and all-round progress was being made by those same scientists all the time that it seemed all the fantasies would come true only too soon. We talked avidly of hibernating spacemen and proton/ion engines, super-intelligent computers in charge and teleportation and hyperspace jumps and wormholes in the space-time fabric, and world government and intergalactic empires and how ancient psychological, economic, political and religious problems would re-surface in new guises in vastly distant and alien environments light years away – as though such things were sure to come true, if not in our own lifetimes, then certainly within those of our grandchildren. Meanwhile SETI seemed to hold forth another glorious promise: discovering different forms of intelligent life scattterd all over the universe! Those who want to know what I am talking about need only to look up the books written by Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke and Frank Herbert, and the incomparable Star Trek series on TV…

That vision has largely faded, leaving only a dim afterglow. There have been no big-ticket space projects since Pioneer, Voyager, Viking and the Shuttle program. Despite searching for more than three decades, no serious hint of alien civilizations (a la War of the Worlds, Close Encounters, Star Wars, ET and Independence Day) has been found. Given the technological plateau we have reached, interstellar travel, it has now become apparent, remains a pipe dream for the near future at least. These days, it’s only boys from Bankura who talk of specializing in astrophysics and joining NASA (most of them end up writing software code in Bangalore, or fusty post-doc papers which nobody reads at places like TIFR at best). Now that the missile race (which, as those in the know have known for a long time, was the real purpose behind all the PR drivel) between two superpowers has subsided – and since China doesn’t seem to be interested – no government can whip up public enthusiasm to fund big new exploratory projects either; much better to focus on very earthbound problems, such as finding new sources of oil and water, and better methods of pollution control, and how to make keyhole surgery on the heart. Programs like the International Space Station have hardly made a blip in the global media, and most of the current enthusiasm focuses on privately funded shuttles/hyperplanes designed to carry well-heeled and sensation hungry tourists into near-earth orbits for a few hours. Even fiction and fantasy seem to reflect the trend: if you think Matrix or Minority Report or Artificial Intelligence or Inception or the Harry Potter saga, nobody seems to be thinking seriously of leaving earth far behind – an occasional Avatar notwithstanding.

Shall we tell our grandchildren we were the last space crazy generation, then? Or were the sci-fi writers of the 1940 to 60s right all along: that such miracles were only likely to come about in a matter of hundreds, or even thousands of years, and we were getting all het up for nothing?