Tag Archives: India

Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

It was Durga Puja. The air was full of the non-stop beat of pujo’r dhaak (drum), music, microphone announcements, children’s elocution recitations, honks of a thousand cars, autorickshaws, rickshaws, voices of screaming kids and parents, lost and found announcements, children bursting crackers in their toy guns (“caps”) that went off with loud booms, pujo mantras (incantations) and loud ghanta’s (pujo bells) for the last five days.

Now there is all silence.

Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa--Burosibtala, Behala)
Pujo Pandal. Gigantic boat on the Ganga where the waters are blue hands lifted upward asking to be saved (Ganga Aaamar Maa–Burosibtala, Behala, Calcutta)
Buroshibtala Pujo, Behala
The water is a million hands (top) and inside the pandal it’s cool (AC’s) with scattered fish, mermen, rowers and underwater creatures (bottom two pictures).

The roads were full of streams of crowds from all walks of life, mostly youngsters and huge groups from distant parts of the city and outside suburbs walking along the roads inside bamboo barricades, dressed in their best new finery (some of which had zari borders that glowed in the dark). They had to stop at police ropes at intervals, taking tiny detours around sleeping dogs who seemed pretty nonchalant, considering the crowds who were desperate to see the pujo pandals, either patiently waiting or getting into skirmishes with police and volunteers, lifting their hands as far above the million heads as possible to take pictures, posting on social media in real time, desperate in their desire to savour the moment.

And this morning, it’s all empty.  At least as empty as Calcutta can get. Continue reading Festival Art and Ephemerality: End of Durga Puja 2014

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Them in the City

Something or the other is always happening in Calcutta.

Many of these events would be quite outside the scope of my experiences in the US and yet here they seem to fit in so seamlessly with the daily course of things. The events I’m talking about could be as simple as an altercation with an autorickshaw-wallah regarding the lack of change while paying the fare or hearing of a hanuman (big monkey) sighted on my street in the early morning sitting and eating kachori at a popular roadside stall with other customers (even while in many ways city life here is in no way different from anywhere else in the world as people use smartphones and laptops and commute to work on buses and cars and the underground metro).

Here’s a really unexpected event that occurred this week which reinforces my belief that if you’re looking for stories, there’s no better place in the world to come to than our very own Calcutta!

On Monday evening, my parents are about to leave for the market. I am ready to see them off when we open the door to an unexpected sight.

Our very long term domestic help P’s saree is strewn all over the landing between the main doors of the two apartments that face each other. A bunch of black hair, clearly cut with a pair of scissors, is strewn on the floor next to it.

The hair looks dark and glossy and freshly cut. Continue reading Them in the City

Home on the Interweb

At the end of play or at the end of work, when the sun is rising in the wee hours of the day or when the sun is going down, when you pull the curtains on prying eyes at last or when you display your exploits in their splendour on the wall to envious eyes, you want to return home.

Home is where work gets done, or no work gets done at all, where a thousand voices descend on you the moment you enter the door or where you sit still in solitude deep in thought. It is where you are thankful for today or you wait for a hopeful tomorrow or you sit and wonder if this is all there is where one day fades into the next quite silently with indistinguishable footsteps where not even a mouse clicks in the dark.

When you stare into the distance of a blue river or a blank screen from your window or when you spot a poster on the wall (of paper or pixel) next door, you float up and down memory lane or look into the crystal ball of time from your couch at home.

Home has the old and the familiar box from where you shake out a dusty album or it houses the kaleidoscope of friends and relatives, living or dead, floating down a timeline at the click of a mouse, as though they were all there in your living room sipping tea and munching sugary biscuits this afternoon. [Such as when a pop-up floats about a sidebar and says “Say Happy Birthday to S today” when you know that that smiling S left both the world of humans and Netpeople three years ago and left her profile active to haunt us forever every year on this very day.]

Thoughts of homelessness spring to mind as you get away from home for home in another part of the world on a huge airplane. You look down from the window at the familiar skyscrapers and trees and river fading into the billowing clouds.

When you’ve moved many times, between home here and home there, so many homes are scattered in different places that there is no getting away from home although there is no living at home without all those other homes knocking at your door always to come home.

Continue reading Home on the Interweb

Memories of student life

Century Tower dominated our campus
Century Tower dominated our campus

There is something about student life that seems irreplaceable in later years. There is a capacity for bonding, for sharing, for taking risks to abandon ourselves to friendships that we keep losing as we get more and more fossilized into our set roles in life. For those of you who missed it, here’s a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my student experiences in a university town in Florida that some of you might identify with: Memories of Graduate Student Life.

Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US

This is the first apartment complex I stayed at. It's changed its name and management now.
This is the first apartment complex I stayed at. It has changed its name and management since my time.

It was all there. The little bits and pieces of India that had managed to pass through strict inspection. For some of us, it was in the form of three or four bottles of the leading brand of coconut oil, enough to last two years of our serious, nothing but scholarly existence in this well-populated university town in Florida. Enough to oil our heads and necks and the pages of our complicated advanced level cheaper Indian reprints of textbooks that had traveled with us through endless labyrinthine chutes of airport security.

Continue reading Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US

And so it was in college

In the afternoon they came unto a land
In which it seemed always afternoon.

A very long time ago, when we were young, emotions were pure and life was new. Nights were balmy, feelings were free from shackles, winters were mild, and all the best quotes were beautiful the first time.

A shock of unruly hair falling on a forehead or a deep stray voice heard in the midst of amateurish music on a makeshift stage or the pattering of dainty sandal-clad feet expectantly waiting next to the staircase outside the classroom could create a magical atmosphere like no other. The careless wave of a rolled up sheaf of paper with a boyish nod could make us obsessed drowning all other senses because perception was new and stimuli were plentiful.

Life was indolent, perpetually ready to receive, to feel, to take an imprint of that which passed around us in the atmosphere of perpetual idleness that was our college.
Continue reading And so it was in college

The phone call

The other day there was a sudden ring and a friendly voice on the phone. Unfamiliar yet somehow disconcertingly expectant. Sort of demanding almost.

“Hi,” said the voice.

“Hello.”

That was me in my most careful, professional manner at the unexpected intrusion, hiding that of which I’m quite not sure of myself. Wary.

“Do you know who I am?”
Continue reading The phone call

On global Indians and old friends in digital spaces

I’m remembering an unusually dark and very quiet night in Davis, California three years  ago.

It’s silent outside the house but my life is full of the busy humdrum of life. I’m sitting under the yellow glow of a table lamp at my laptop and looking at an old photograph I uploaded to Facebook earlier that day. Although the photograph is almost two decades old, it has acquired a life of its own like it has never been used to before in its plastic-wrapped life in various drawers for years in its travels through many countries until it has reached this very spot—the place-which-is-not-a-place and yet the place that so many of us “global” Indians have begun to inhabit in our daily lives.

This is the  real world of Facebook.
Continue reading On global Indians and old friends in digital spaces

Of bloggers, Birbal and birds: How to make yourself heard

How many of us bloggers are out there?

A mind-boggling number very hard to grapple with for sure.

Our sheer numbers  reminded me of a well known tale of Akbar and Birbal I came across recently on my flight back to the US from India. It was a version of the story in animation adapted for kids which I watched on the screen trapped in my little space in the sky.

It goes something like this: Continue reading Of bloggers, Birbal and birds: How to make yourself heard

When clothes travel

The new clothes I brought over from India last week, like many of the other times I travelled, are sitting on a shelf, carefully folded. So did my embroidered sandals sit in their boxes for the entire previous year from when I brought them over from a Kolhapuri emporium. I basked in the knowledge that they were there, a piece of home tucked away in the closet.

When clothes travel over vast distances, they give rise to many phenomena, including fusion in the fashion of the times. But sometimes they also do strange things to people.

A professor in college I suddenly remember, for example.

Even in the Calcutta summers, when the concrete outside our college building grew so hot that even a drop of water disappeared immediately as it fell on the ground and the street dogs curled up in shady corners of the canteen to rest and no one shooed them away, our professor was always dressed impeccably. Dark trousers, full sleeved shirt, tie tightly in place and big black boots.

The staff room for the professors was relatively cool, shielded from the heat by thick walls of the famous building built in the British era.  Everything  else was engulfed by the sweltering heat in the afternoons. Even the railings of the verandah (that you had to walk across to reach the English Honours classrooms where we students waited) were like superheated rakes in the scorching sun.

No matter what the weather, which was mostly very hot and humid, our “Sir” was always dressed the same even as we sat in out thinnest cotton salwar kameezes under the noisy fan listening to his exposition of the wild storms in Riders to the Sea. I half expected him to vaporize inside the contraption of boots and shirt and trousers one day but he never did.

Sometimes he would tell us stories about his time in England at Oxford or Cambridge, about how he rode a horse in Hyde Park in the early mornings while people watched him admiringly. There were other younger  “England-returned” professors in the department, but they had dropped the tie and embraced the open shoes and sometimes appeared in cotton Punjabis on hot days, but our professor  never did.

Many years later I was reminded of “Sir” when I had a similar (but reverse) experience in the New Jersey cold. It was at a gathering on the occasion of Saraswati Puja, the annual festival in honour of the Goddess of Learning all Bengalis take very seriously. Continue reading When clothes travel

Bottledworder is back

Delhi airport
The Delhi International terminal was amazing.

The long trip to Calcutta is over and I am back in New York. It’s difficult to believe that one can be in the midst of the scorching heat of the sun one day and so much snow the next. In both places, people will smile and say you haven’t seen the scorching sun/ real heavy snow if you think this is it!
Continue reading Bottledworder is back

Global Indians: Distance and the World

When I was a child in Calcutta in the late 80’s and early 90’s, we didn’t have the internet. When we wanted to see the world, we looked at a big globe which belonged to my brother. We would  twirl it round and round and look at all the countries separated by blue oceans and black lines, coloured in different colours and marked in little letters.

It would give us a thrill to check out countries that we had never discovered before. We looked at the antipodes that were the furthest from where we were and tell each other that it was night there while it was day here. That seemed so strange. Many of my friends’ favourite game was a rapid fire round of naming countries when you had to respond by naming the capital city.
Continue reading Global Indians: Distance and the World

What gifts to buy in a global culture?

I’ve been looking for gifts for the past few days for my impending visit to India from New York. And I’ve been looking in vain.

Last year I bought some bottles of perfume with people’s names on them –unfortunately not mine but say Calvin Klein’s or Elizabeth Arden’s or even Justin Bieber’s.  Sometimes they were not names but only initials. They appeared everywhere–clothes, shoes, leather handbags–with shiny tags that said CK, MC, AB, CD, EF, GH or something else.

I suppose that in the realm of gift-giving, even if there was some confusion as to who had given the gift, there would be no confusion as to whose idea it was. Calvin Klein’s.

But on my way, at my long layover in Dubai, I realized the folly of carrying these several bottles of unnecessary fluids and leather bags (yet so necessary for the human condition) over long distances.

Dubai airport was a great, wide, beautiful, wonderful mall which happened to also have airplanes. And it was newer and more sparkling than any mall in New Jersey or Florida.
Continue reading What gifts to buy in a global culture?

Privacy: The Indian and the American frames of mind

It was the sight of a small university town that greeted me the day I first landed in the US.  I noticed the big houses and the wide roads and the even bigger cars on my way to a student apartment where I was going to stay as a guest for a few days.

The next day, I took a bus to campus to do some admission paperwork. The buses, of course, were far less crowded than the ones I was used to in India. But the people, who were mostly young students, were also different in a fundamental way.
Continue reading Privacy: The Indian and the American frames of mind

Durga Puja, Fall, Kashful and the city

বাংলা: কাশফুল
Kashphool. The real deal. via Zemanta. বাংলা: কাশফুল (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I got out of my apartment building yesterday and there they were. A bunch of dried, white grass flowers framed by concrete next to a stern sign that read : “Private. Do not trespass.”

Kashful. Or its distant cousin has bloomed in Jersey City. Fall has touched even the concrete.

Kashphool
Kashphool in Jersey City? The World Trade Center is across the river. Photo credit: Bottledworder

Kashphool? Or Kashful? How do you approximate from Bengali? Wikipedia tells me it’s called Kans grass in English, a grass native to South Asia. (“Kans grass”! Sounds strange. Not much better than Saccharum spontaneum, apparently its scientific name.)

This Kashphool in Jersey City is different from the ones at home in India.
Continue reading Durga Puja, Fall, Kashful and the city

Blog, language and the global audience

It was a rainy day yesterday. Gray sky as dark as slate, a gray river with boats in muted colours stuck solid on the gray, opaque water of the Hudson in the low light. The air smelt of wet vegetation. The balcony railing had drops of water clinging from it. I breathed in the fresh air  and I thought, ahhh, a muri, telebhaja kind of day.

Oh wait. I’ll have to translate that.

A puffed-rice and assorted-vegetables-dipped-in-batter and deep fried kind of day.

I smiled. Continue reading Blog, language and the global audience