Sunday, March 27, 2011

Walking Down Bhiringi

When you land in Durgapur, fresh from the sanitised ostentation of Bangalore and the politically charged flag-waving cheer of Kolkata, the sudden quietness of this peaceful small town comes as rather a shock- especially when you realise that this place is going to be home for the next six months. You can no longer complain about there being too many malls in the city, exorbitant auto fares and boring weekends. The numerous trees, clean and well laid out roads and abundant numbers of birds should rightly be more enjoyable than all the trappings of urban living; I admit, then, that three years of living in three different cities have effectively ruined me for a quiet life out on the prairies or the moors (like I'd once hoped to have).

I'd like to conveniently rest part of the blame on living with people my age- you can't even watch Splitsvilla with your parents, let alone curse the copious amounts of inanity on it- but on the flipside, you don't have to worry about which take-away your next meal is coming from, so all's well. Now that I have plenty of time on my hands, I can introduce you to Durgapur. And we begin our virtual tour at Bhiringi More, which opens into a street lined with shops and populated by that portion of Durgapur which isn't flocking to the newly opened Junction Mall.

The shelves in the display case of 'Khawa-Dawa' are lined with metal trays; a man carries in a tray of syrupy brown gulab-jamuns and spills them into a waiting plate. Fingers splayed, he rolls his hand on the sweets, spreading them out, all notions of hygiene thrown to the wind. A customer scratches his ankle with his key before attacking his ras-malai, while his son points to a heap of fly-encrusted mysore-pak. My sanitiser-toting self cringes; but it is a generally accepted truth that food cooked and eaten in unhygienic conditions is delicious, provided you're prepared to ignore the after-effects.

The lights flicker and go off. Emergency lamps, giving out thin slivers of neon light, are turned on to brighten the dingy interiors of not-so-welcoming hardware shops and restaurants. 'Kwality Lodge' next door promises 'veg., non-veg. & delicious food' at the restaurant downstairs- quite a choice there- as floral curtains billow on the balcony in the breeze rising gently now, revealing doors behind which perhaps a budding writer is hard at work. (Yes, I am thinking of Rusty!)

In this part of Durgapur, Bhiringi, the roads are chock-full of pedestrians, rickshaws and two-wheelers. Occasionally, the outrageously coloured cuboidal tin boxes on wheels that pass for 'mini-buses' lumber by; they are packed with people sitting or holding on for dear life as they press against one another in the narrow aisle. The single door is always half-open, kept suspended in mid-air by the agile body of the conductor who calls out for people to join the merry fraternity within the bus. It lurches to a stop without warning, disgorging and swallowing, unleashing frenzied cries from pedestrians and passengers alike. If you're on a two-wheeler, you're sure to be reminded of the "accelerator-clutch-brake" advertisement on TV.

The shops are colourless, much like one another and uninspiring. Dust lies thick on the plastic sheets clothing stuffed toys and the glass counters displaying knick-knacks. A brand new furniture shop, freshly whitewashed and splendidly lit (and evidently provided with a noisy generator), stands out like a resplendent beacon of hope- of what exactly, I cannot tell at this point. A spooky, vine-covered building hulking in the dark turns out, on closer inspection, to be a school; it could well have emerged unscathed from the 1857 Mutiny. The general vapidity and uniform boredom of the area would make an early twentieth-century Main Street in Oklahoma sound like paradise. Some day, though, this place will awake with a start and spring a surprise. I know I should be revelling in the quiet and that not too long ago I raved over the advantages of small-town life. So I'll also warn you now about the difficult transition it can be, when you move down from a city that houses JustBooks, HRC and a house full of boisterous girls.

As I write, an unseen vehicle mounted with a loudspeaker is passing by, extolling the virtues of Monday in Bengali (or so I think). We're waking up already!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Living Off An Imagination

Roddy Doyle thought thus about receiving books as presents when he was ten: "Books weren't presents. I loved books, but they were a bit like food. I loved chicken, but a leg in wrapping paper would have been a huge disappointment." (Look here for the full article.)

I have always loved receiving books as presents. I just realised that when I mentioned that the volumes of Muriel Spark given me by Airborne marked the second time someone had gifted me books, I was wrong. At the end of Class 1, when we were moving away from Bhilai, my class teacher gave me two books; one a children's dictionary and the other a book of short stories.

I have no idea why she chose to give me books instead of a game or a doll as other people were wont to, but I think she was a very wise woman. On a long day alone at home (and newly unemployed, I'm going to have several), there is nothing that keeps you company like a book and your imagination. The book of short stories carried the tale of a princess who loved good things to eat and was thrilled by Turkish Delight, and for some reason I interpreted it as a whole recipe. I was determined to make it at home- I had decided it was something akin to pink-coloured, rose-flavoured ice candy- and I got as far as making ice cubes. I had not the vaguest notion of how to proceed from there, and whiled away the rest of the afternoon sucking at the ice cubes and hoping they'd somehow turn pink and rose-flavoured.

I could have been excused at that age for such ill-informed ideas; but what got into me during one summer vacation when I was fourteen or fifteen, I'll never know. I had grand plans to make reasonable inroads into my father's vast library; I ended up reading only two books in those two months. One was Larry Collins/Dominique Lapierre's O'Jerusalem- I read it very eagerly, appalled and enthralled by turns at the courage of the people fighting for what they believed in, and the means to which they were prepared to resort. I finished it pretty quickly and began Frederick Marryat's The Children of the New Forest, and I still blush to think I took so long to finish it. Part of the blame I can conveniently lay on my imagination- in the dim, curtained room, door closed and AC turned on, it was very easy to believe you were in the depths of a thick forest, the light barely let in by heavy foliage, fighting Roundheads with simple handmade weapons and weeding small plots of land. I stopped short at imagining I was having wild boar for dinner, because my vegetarian sensibilities rule over the romantic.

It isn't always easy to adapt a book on film, and several movies manage to warp the very idea of the book and create cardboard characters who seem the very antithesis of their originals in the book. Watching a movie made out of a book can be a very traumatic experience particularly if you live and swear by the book. Looking up adaptations of Little Women this morning, I stumbled upon a 1978 version, where the actress playing twelve-year-old Amy looked older and wiser than I do at this ripe old age of mine. An adaptation of Anne of Green Gables featured a pedestrian-looking Anne Shirley, without the spark of the eyes or the vim of speech that makes the legendary redhead the heroine that she is. An insult to the writer's imagination is what I call these shoddy adaptations.

Skipping lunch and writing this makes me feel a bit like Jo March, but I don't have a garret, apples, or a wonderful idea for a story, so I'll just rise now and betake myself to my simple lunch of cold rice, curd and potato chips.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Visitor

This article reminded me of a visitor at home in Vizag ten years ago.

On a train journey from Vizag to Hyderabad, my father met a few Sri Lankan people who were in India for some sort of navy-related training (that I cannot correctly recollect). He was coming to join my mother and me in Hyderabad, from where all of us were supposed to go back to Vizag together a couple of days later. It was rather a surprise, then, that the Sri Lankans were also travelling back by the same train. I had never spoken to any foreigners, and I was pretty excited at the chance to meet people from abroad and know what they thought about India. I didn't ask any profound questions, I just wanted to know if they'd enjoyed their stay here, and was delighted when they told me they had.

A few days later, one of the men from the group visited us at home. My father picked him up at the bus stop where he'd alighted, and as soon as my mother opened the door, prostrated himself full-length at her feet. "In our country, we venerate women," he explained, and insisted on calling her Mother. He referred to me as his sister- "I don't have a sister, but now I feel God has given me one."

He was of average height, with a serious face and a beard. He wore glasses on a string around his neck. This was around the time when Afghanistan was in deep trouble, and the Bamiyan Buddhas had just been destroyed. A Buddhist, he had been shaken by the incident and asked to see the newspaper as talk veered around the destruction of the Buddhas- he pored over it seriously, at the gaping cavities in the sun-backed rock where the statues had once proudly reigned. He was evidently disturbed, and his already reticent self seemed much quieter.

In a while, he handed my mother a light green tin of apricot-flavoured Ceylon Tea, saying this was something that was to be expected from a visitor from Sri Lanka. He rose to leave, prostrating again at my mother's feet, and saying quiet goodbyes. He called us once later to thank us, but we haven't heard from him since.

A decade has passed, and things have changed so much around the world, in the countries around us, in Sri Lanka and India. Afghanistan was followed by Iraq, the tsunami struck in 2004 and killed thousands of people, the LTTE was routed a couple of years ago, the fishing boundaries between India and Sri Lanka and the rehabiliation of Tamil refugees continue to be dicey questions. India grapples with its own domestic problems and corruption, and struggles to bring to book criminals who rape and plunder in broad daylight but evade punishment for long periods. If ordinary people can get along with one another and make things work, what really goes wrong at centres of power?

I don't know where our visitor is now, but I do hope he is happy and flourishing. Our bilateral ties with Sri Lanka might be steady, but a lot of work needs to be done on the points of contention. We need to move beyond mere civilities now and work with our neighbours immediately to improve the situation in the region.