Hallelujah, or Not

The day I asked doctors to stop my father’s treatment, to let him go after a year of suffering, to just make sure he wasn’t in any more pain, a relative of mine said I was godless. I was violating the rules of humanity by not stretching out a dying man’s agony. It didn’t matter that no amount of medicines could ever bring him back.

Two days later, the clock stopped ticking. He had found peace. Presumably, on his onward journey, he would also find God.

But that relative of mine was right. I was godless. I felt it, as clearly as a cold draught of fear flowing through my insides. There was nothing there: no tears, no regrets, no prayer, no faith. There was emptiness, because I had lost a part of my being without finding a replacement.

I went on living, I couldn’t give up. My mother could. Less than two years later, without a fuss, she simply closed her eyes and didn’t open them again. She had become my baby: helpless, dependent, unable to recognise anyone but me, unable to eat unless I fed her. And now she was gone. And my being had taken another blow.

I stared at an abyss, and it stared back at me. I realised that for the past 15 years of my life, I had been inching closer to its edge. Now was a great time to step over it, surely. How could anyone blame me now for not being strong, after 15 years of hell?

What held me back was a blood tie, a baby who needed me more than I needed to run away. And so, without hope, without a clue, without light, from day to day, I pushed ahead, still faithless, still godless. What I lacked in courage, I made up for with routine, with dead habit. I didn’t have peace, but I had numbness, and frozen detachment.

It’s been almost five years since then. Surprise, surprise, it’s also been five years since I wrote anything for this forsaken blog.

Nothing dramatic has happened now to make me write this dreary account, except that a few days ago, I listened, really listened, to the lyrics of Hallelujah, to the soul-clenching, terrible, beautiful, disintegrating poetry of Leonard Cohen. And his bizarre, guttural singing to go with it.

Or perhaps it’s my numbness that is disintegrating. For it no longer matters that I can’t keep the faith every day of my life. It will come when it does, and it will often be cold and broken. It may also be holy, and still be broken. Faith is the crutch I used and discarded. Now, when I no longer need a crutch, it has come back as a companion who walks alongside.

I don’t take this to mean I’m no longer godless. My faith is still, at best, a nebulous realisation that I can allow some warmth back into a frozen ice pond. I argue violently with it often, but I acknowledge its existence. I feel it, as clearly as a cold draught of fear flowing through my insides. But I also, sometimes, feel it as clearly as the salty taste of tears on my lips. I have dared to cry again.

And I have concluded that God is an emotion. As love is an emotion. Or music is an emotion. I just need to reconnect to long suppressed emotions. Note how easily the mention of that mammoth task rolls off my tongue.

Visceral is not a word I’d use loosely, would you? No. Well, I’d use it for what you read below. I’m grateful to Leonard Cohen, for showing me again what true redemption looks like.

“Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the lord
But you don’t really care for music, do ya?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah

You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya
And even though
It all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”

~ Music & Lyrics by Leonard Cohen, 1984


Fading Music of the Darbesh

Kalachand derbash--Samir4

The Joydeb-Kenduli mela (fair), held every year in West Bengal’s Birbhum district on Makar Sankranti in mid-January is a gathering of wandering minstrels (Bauls, primarily) like no other in India. Gathering in almost equal numbers are lay aficionados addicted to the Baul and Fakir ways of life.

In 2003, young folk arts ‘conservationist’ (what else do you call an archivist, promoter, film music composer, documenter, filmmaker?) Deb Chowdhury was in Kenduli, as he is every year. But that year, he was on a mission, filming the performances of Kalachand Darbesh — the last of a rare breed of singers and philosophers, the Darbeshis.

Technically descended from the Sufi dervishes, Bengal’s Darbeshis are in a league of their own, because they incorporate elements of Vajrayana Buddhist principles as embodied in the Charyapada (8th-12th century), and the sahajiya principles of Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement teachings.

“There is a tendency to club Darbeshis with Bauls,” says Deb, “but it is an entirely different way of life, as are Baul, Fakiri and Shain.” More than a mere musical genre, Darbeshi is a religion, one which encourages a follower to talk about ‘Allah’ and ‘idol’ in the same breath.

Kalachand is the last adherent of the faith. A former headmaster of Dhupguri Junior High School, the B.Com graduate chucked it all up in 1981 when he began his quest for nitya (permanence). That quest is still on, but the 75-year-old has, meanwhile, performed in 16 countries, been felicitated by the likes of Amartya Sen and Ustad Vilayat Khan, and been blessed by Pandit Ravi Shankar, who was ecstatic about the swaraj, the traditional Darbeshi accompanying instrument, which is also fading into oblivion.

Kalachand’s principal source of income is the alms (madhukari) that he collects by singing on local trains. While voluntary begging is a Darbeshi tradition, for Kalachand, it is a need, because all that he has by way of a supplementary income is Rs. 800 that he receives from the state government. When he needed treatment for a heart condition, it was Deb and friends, who run the Sahajiya Foundation in Kolkata, who arranged it. His biggest hope now: a Rs. 4,000 pension from the Ministry of Culture.

Kalachand’s voice breaks as he talks about his dying art, of his son who refuses to “sing beggar songs”, and of his quest for the “param guru”, but the mood lifts as he describes how William Wordsworth’s poem Daffodils revealed God to him, how William Shakespeare is actually a Baul because Romeo and Juliet are Krishna and Radha, and how, for his international performances, he has been regaling audiences with Darbeshi versions of Daffodils and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

He calls them the bard’s “English Baul” songs.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on September 26, 2009. Photo courtesy Samir Jana

Cities of the Dead

A view of South Park Street Cemetery

Two men sit deep in discussion in a small, sparsely furnished office inside the South Park Street Cemetery (SPS), cups of tepid tea in front of them. Outside, the antique, silent tombstones stand cool under the shade of giant trees in the blazing noonday sun. The bustle of Park Street is a muted hum, nothing that the chirping of birds and squirrels cannot easily drown.

The men are Ranajoy Bose, executive member of the Christian Burial Board (CBB), and Dr Sudip Bhattacharya, a reader in the department of English, at Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira, Belur. And both are engaged in a task that has the potential to make the difference between survival and extinction for a large chunk of the city’s heritage – its colonial cemeteries.

Bose, a former member of Kolkata’s corporate circles, and Bhattacharya, who almost accidentally finds himself writing a book on Kolkata’s colonial cities of the dead, are united in one other respect: a fierce pride in their city’s past, and an urgent realisation that unless steps are taken now, cemeteries such as the ones on South Park Street and Lower Circular Road may well go the way that a few others of their kind have done – become irretrievably extinct.

“Outwardly, some of the cemeteries are in relatively decent condition, such as South Park Street, but without constant fund, maintenance and renovation, the existing tombstones will join those already ruined,” says the 41-year-old Bhattacharya. Bose adds, “South Park Street is one of the world’s oldest walk-through cemeteries, but not too many people in this city know that.”

As they take us on a guided tour of the eight acres of lush green land, Bose and Bhattacharya point out graves of historical significance. Mary Bowers, who died in 1781 after having survived the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta, young Rose Aylmer, a renowned beauty and the heroine of Walter Savage Landor’s poem of the same name, Sir William Jones, the celebrated Indophile, Sanskrit scholar, and founder of the Asiatic Society, and, of course, HLV Derozio, founder of Young Bengal and rebel extraordinaire.

A few blocks away, at the still operational Lower Circular Road cemetery, Bhattacharya points out an interesting fact. “You’ll find the graves of many American sailors here,” he says. “They came out on the ships that brought ice to Kolkata, which was stored in the old mint near Howrah Bridge. Clearly, the Europeans here had a weakness for natural American ice.” Interestingly, LC Road also houses the tomb of Rev Sudhir Chatterjee, a member of the IFA Shield winning 1911 Mohun Bagan team.

This is just one of his findings, one of the many that he has come across as he read up about the cemeteries and the people buried in them. “You know, I found out that when he first came out to India as a judge, Sir William Jones’ only priority was to save 30,000 pounds from his salary, which he calculated would take him six years, and then go back to England,” he smiles. “Without exception, Europeans came to this city to get rich. India was the pagoda tree for them.”

Bose adds, “When you look at the graves, you realise the enormity of Kolkata’s cultural diversity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and its tremendously cosmopolitan nature. As a Bengali, that is a source of great pride for me.”

Also significant among Bhattacharya’s findings is the fact that many of the deceased in these cemeteries died young, and of diseases as yet unknown to European medical science (the earliest death in SPS dates back to 1768). “On the one hand, they were forging an empire, and on the other, their doctors were trying to combat diseases for which they often didn’t even have names,” he says. So, with the cemeteries as his starting point, part of his agenda is to figure out the European plan of action in the face of the assault.

Neither is it possible to ignore the archaeological significance of SPS in particular. “This cemetery is probably unique in that it is a Christian cemetery with almost no crosses on the tombstones,” says Bhattacharya. “Instead, you have an explosion of Indo-Saracenic architectural styles that clearly indicate the influence of local builders and architects on the tombstones.”

A most remarkable example is the tomb of Maj Gen Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stewart, who converted to Hinduism and ritually bathed in the Ganges, though he was given a Christian burial. Modelled on Orissa temple architecture, his renovated tomb proudly attests to his flamboyant life and times.

Also clear is the economic significance of every burial. “Quite clearly, the more lavish tombstones contributed handsomely to the local economy,” says Bhattacharya. “An average tombstone would cost in the range of 900 sikka rupee (around 400 pounds). The more lavish ones could cost anything between 3,000 and 5,000 sikka rupees.”

At none of the other cemeteries, though, is one to find the level of renovation evident at SPS. As Bhattacharya and Bose both point out, the relatively happy situation at SPS is the result of the combined efforts of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia (BACSA), the CBB, and the Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India (APHCI). Add to that the efforts of retired archaeologist A Bandopadhyay and botanist Dr KN Ghosh, and SPS has a relatively decent outlook.

“At both Lower Circular Road and SPS, we are planning a botanical map of the rare plants on the premises,” says Bose. “And both are also potential ‘carbon sinks’, or green zones that provide much needed pollution control.”

Clearly, though, it will take several years for the same efforts to reach the Maniktala cemetery, for instance, which houses the graves of the remarkable poetess and novelist Toru Dutt and her family. Though partially renovated recently, the graves are lying in the midst of appalling neglect and ruin, as are those at the Scottish Cemetery on Karaya Road. The Greek cemetery at Phoolbagan is in a happier condition, but strictly keeps visitors away.

Happily for the Scottish Cemetery, the Kolkata Scottish Heritage Trust has taken up its cause and is seeking to at least restore parts of the cemetery, to it former glory, as was done with SPS. ‘These cemeteries are clearly among our most important colonial relics,” says Bandopadhyay. “Every single grave is worthy of preservation.”

While those preservation efforts may have come too late for some cemeteries and tombs, Bose feels the only way forward is to make the cemeteries more tourist friendly, so that revenue generation is a possibility. “These tombs are a testament to the social, economic, and political conditions that have shaped our present. We ignore them at our peril,” he says.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 27, 2011

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Where Have I Read This Before?

Manju Kapur
Random House India
Price: R 450, Pages: 415 (hardcover)

Familiarity can sometimes be comforting, they say. Which is why all of us seek familiar faces, voices, and spaces in the absence of other sources of comfort. The trouble is, for a writer, the thin red line between familiarity and repetition often becomes invisible, so what you get is one big sigh of having seen it all — or at least major chunks of it — before.

Manju Kapur does not repeat herself throughout this, her fifth book, but she does rely on certain old faithfuls who enhance our sense of déjà vu. Her award-winning debut, Difficult Daughters (1998), was a thoughtful study of the bourgeois, newly awakened Indian middle class, and the novels that followed, such as The Immigrant, followed suit, in placing the characters in posh, wannabe Delhi locales.

And so we come to Custody, where Raman, complete with degrees from IIT and IIM, works for a multinational. At home, his beautiful wife Shagun and two children, Arjun and Roohi, are models of perfection, until Shagun begins an affair with Raman’s boss Ashok. As she and Raman head for divorce, Kapur draws attention to the plight of the two children and their parents’ sordid battle for their custody.

Along the way, there are the mandatory aunty jis, and there is Ishita, another divorcee, who Raman is drawn to and eventually marries. However, as we are drawn slowly into their world of separation, pain, betrayal, anger, et al, a vital element that we miss out on is sympathy.

Apart from the children, whose pain we feel mostly indirectly, it is hard to be sorry for any of the others involved. Shagun is as petty and lifeless as she is beautiful, Raman seems capable of fusty self-pity and little else, Ashok is inexplicably unbearable, and Ishita, who starts out believably enough, becomes something of a cardboard cutout towards the end.

What Kapur does with these characters is endlessly balance and counterbalance, so we aren’t allowed to come to conclusions about any situation or character. More damagingly, perhaps, it also causes her to repeat situations and lapse into cliché-ridden dialogue that the book could well do without. The children draw attention, yes, but Kapur finds little that is new in describing the first awkward interactions between children and potential step-parents, or the signs of emotional disturbance that they exhibit.

It doesn’t help that most of the supporting cast are almost caricatures rather than real people. This is where you get the feeling that Kapur is overdoing her ‘focusing-on-a-small-section-of-upwardly-mobile-India-with-all-its-idiosyncrasies’ a bit. And she does with an obviousness that mars much of the pleasure of what could have been an engrossing read.

This book review first appeared in the Hindustan Times

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The Timeless Music Maker

Soumyojit Das, Stefan Stoppok, Sraboni Sen, Sourendro Mullick

As a youngster in Essen, Germany, in the 1960s, Stefan Stoppok laid hands on an album by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, a name that Europe was beginning to wake up to, thanks to the Beatles. “I heard it often, and the music went deep into my heart. And in the early ’70s, Anglo-American musicians thought it cool to include Indian influences in their music,” he smiles.

In the 1980s, having started his musical career as a street musician, he went to form his own one-man band, Stoppok, in 1982, and shifted base to Bavaria. As he went on to become one of Germany’s foremost folk and rock guitarists and singer-songwriters, however, his connection to Indian music remained confined to the memories of his childhood and youth.

Now, the wheel has turned full cycle. For the past few days, Stoppok has been stationed in Kolkata, working on an album of Tagore songs along with noted Rabindra Sangeet exponent Srabani Sen, and musician duo You & i.. (vocalist Soumyojit Das and pianist Sourendro Mullick), who Stoppok met in Germany in 2005, and whose idea it was to invite him, on his first ever trip to India, to collaborate on the album as a guitarist and singer. Incidentally, Stoppok was a guest artiste on the duo’s debut album, Back to the Future (2009).

The experience has been a revelation. Sitting in Sourendro’s north Kolkata home, Stoppok gestures freely with his hands and consults his mobile phone dictionary as he hunts for the right words to describe Tagore. “He is so rooted in this area,” he says finally. “What is wonderful is the way everyone here knows him, and I find it exciting to reinterpret his music, without any idea of how listeners here will react.”

Sourendro and Soumyojit say that reinterpreting Tagore the composing genius is the biggest theme of the album. And the other USP is that all the tracks have been recorded live, in real time, in a brave departure from the mandatory mechanised studio recordings.

“Tagore’s music is so timeless and versatile that you can recreate his songs in a modern soundscape for a national audience, even if they don’t get the lyrics,” says Soumyojit. “And we opted for live recordings, as they used to be done in the past, because we didn’t want the lifelessness of computerised rhythms.”

“What I love about this project is that it connects the past with the present,” adds Stoppok. “As a musician, when I look beyond the boundaries that I know, the East is exciting because Anglo-American music has become too familiar. Tagore is a different taste.”

So Khorobayu Boye Bege has taken on a contemporary romantic pop sound, aided by guitar, electric piano, and a few notes of Raga Bilawal. Aj Jemon Kore Gaichhe Akash features “Bavarian percussion patterns”, says Sourendro, or Kaar Milan Chao Birohi, essentially a dhrupad in Raga Shree, is embellished with the electric piano and electric guitar, and a hint of the theme from Manihara, the Satyajit Ray classic. Then again, Brahms’s immortal lullaby, Guten Abend, Gute Nacht, has found a spiritual cousin, according to Soumyojit, in Amar Raat Pohalo.

But that isn’t all that has kept Stoppok busy. He has also been shooting for a music video in Kolkata along with filmmaker Sebastian Niehoff, for Tanz (Dance), a solo that he has composed. The video is themed on Stoppok’s street singer days, which required him to pose as a street singer in this city, too. “In Europe, street singing is a completely different culture, but people here actually started requesting Stefan for songs,” laughs Sourendro.

If the response to the Tagore album is anything close, Stoppok certainly won’t complain.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on May 22, 2011

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With love, from us, to you

Distinctively yours... Aparna Sen

You & i.. in performance

A unique concept and a unique performance. That is an apt description of Lovingly Yours, a Valentine’s Day show based on love letters by famous people, staged at GD Birla Sabhagar on February 14.

Conceived by You & i.., the musical duo of Soumyojit Das and Sourendro Mullick, who also performed at the event, the show was also significant because it brought to the stage Aparna Sen, in a never-before appearance.
Also on the beautifully designed stage, in a cameo, was industrialist Harsh Neotia, who opened the show with a very competent reading of Gulzar’s translation of Shakti Chattopadhyay’s poem, Aj Shei Ghore.
The show essentially comprised Sen reading out the letters, chosen by Soumyojit and Sourendro, and the duo performing musical pieces to suit the mood of each letter.
It was interesting to note the combination of text and music, and though not all the letters were conventionally ‘romantic’, they clearly showed various facets of love.
While Sen did an outstanding job with the readings (particularly the letters from The Japanese Wife), musically speaking, worth a special mention were Tagore’s Ke Boshile, Tu Hi Re from the film Bombay, and a kirtan.
More such shows would be a welcome additon to the city’s cultural calendar.

This article was originally published in the Hindustan Times

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Five Things To Know Before Dating A Journalist

I’m slightly ashamed to say that the following post is not my own. But, as a professional journalist, I loved it so much that I stole it for myself, with all credit to Rockmycar.net

Ok, here we go:

Five things you should know before dating a journalist
By Tom Chambers

So, you’ve been eyeing that smart, attractive journalist you’re lucky enough to know personally. You’re intrigued. Your journalist is smart, funny, confident. Visions of Clark Kent taking off the glasses and ripping off his clothes to reveal a perfectly toned body in blue spandex coming to save you run through your head.

Who can blame you? Journalism is a sexy occupation.

But journalists aren’t like the bimbos you usually pick up at the bar. Nor are they the assholes you ladies continually fall for. No, journalists are different beings (which is why you’re attracted to them in the first place), and you should realize — before jumping in — that this isn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill, boring, lame relationship you’re used to.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. We can figure things out. Understand, we’re paid to dig deep, find the secrets and wade through bullshit. We can pick up on subtleties, so what you think you are hiding from us won’t be hidden for long. Sure, we’ll act surprised when you eventually tell us you starred in German porn as a freshman in college — but we already knew.

We don’t take shit from anyone, so don’t lie to us or give a load of bullshit. We spend all day separating fact from fiction, listening to PR cronies and dealing with slimy politicians. If you make us do the same with you, you’re just gonna piss us off. And don’t think we’ll be quiet about it. We’ll respond with the vengeance of an Op-Ed page railing against society’s injustices — and we’ll enjoy doing it.

Just tell us the truth. We can handle it.

2. At some point, you will be a topic. Either through a feature story or an opinion column, something you do or say will be a subject. Get over it. Consider it a compliment, even if we’re arguing against you in print.

Think about it: we live our lives writing about life. If you’re a part of our life, we’re going to write about you, your thoughts or a subject springing from one of the two.

Don’t be upset when an argument against your adoration of Hillary Clinton turns up on page A4. We’re not directing the writing at you, personally — your ignorance was just our inspiration (there, doesn’t that make you feel better?).

3. Yes, we think we’re smarter than you. In fact, we know it. Does that smack of ego? Absolutely — but that confidence is what makes your heart go pitter-patter.

We have a strong, working knowledge of how the world works. That makes us great in conversation. We can delve into the intricacies of zoning laws, local and national politics, where to find the good restaurants, what’s happening with pop culture, where the good bands are playing and more.

But there are pitfalls.

Guaranteed, when you say “towards,” we will automatically say “toward” — “towards” is not a word. We’re not trying to call you dumb (even though you don’t understand the English language), it’s habit. The same will happen when you say “anxious” when you mean “eager” and when you answer “good” when someone asks how you are doing.

We carry ourselves with a certain arrogant air. Embrace it (that’s what attracted you to us in the first place, after all). Don’t be surprised if we’re not impressed when you say, “I’m a writer, too.” No, you are not. The fact that you sit in a coffee shop wearing black while scribbling in your journal does not make you a writer. Nor does the fact that you “wrote some poems in high school” or that one day you want to pen “the great American novel.”

Look, we’re paid to write. Every day. What’s more, our writing matters. It changes opinions, affects decisions and connects people with the world around them.

We’re not spewing our angst or trying to fabricate an aura of creativity. We write about the real world — with real consequences.

Our words go through three or four cranky editors who make us rewrite before it’s printed a few hundred thousand times and distributed all over town. You don’t do that unless you’re confident, even egotistical.

You may have some great journal entries, poems and rudimentary short stories — good for you. Just don’t assume we’ll accept that as on par with what we do (unless you’re really hot, then hell, you’re a better writer than I).

4. You’re not less important than the job — the job is just more important than anything else. One doesn’t become a journalist to sit in an office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday.

We do take our work home. If news is happening, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing — even if it’s with you — to cover it. We’re always looking for stories, so yes, we’ll stop on the street to write something down, interview a passer-by or gather information for a lead.

On that same note, don’t get upset if you call us on deadline suggesting some afternoon nookie and we say, “I’ve got to put the paper to bed first.” That could mean hours from now, but we’ll have plenty of time to put you in bed later.

5. You won’t be disappointed. Journalists are intense, driven, passionate folk. We carry those same attributes into our relationships, making it an extremely fun ride well worth the price of admission. Our lives are never boring and each day is different.

If the pitfalls are scaring you away, consider this:

The fact that we’re inquisitive means we’ll listen to you. Even if it does seem like an interview, we’re paying attention to what you have to say (see rule No. 1).

We’ll write about you or your thoughts because you’re an important part of our life and we care about you (see rule No. 2).

Our brains are a great resource. Ever go on a date with an attractive person and wind up wishing you hadn’t because everything they say is just, well, stupid? That’s not going to happen here (see rule No. 3).

Yes, it may seem that we put the job ahead of you, but we’re driven. You’re not with that loser whose life is going nowhere and who’s completely content being mediocre (see rule No. 4).

There you go, five things you should know before dating a journalist. Feel free to add to the list, point out where I’ve missed something or leave a comment.

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