Sunday, June 5, 2011



Iqbal is dead. Tall Boy has been kidnapped.

What’s this I’m talking about?

Tall Boy is the Ritz we bought last year. A shiny Blue Ritz that the adverts described as “Tall Boy model with K2 Euro Engine”. Since then it was Tall Boy, a much pampered addition to our G 10 household.

As for Iqbal, he was a neighbour in Manimajra. Young, handsome, in his forties. He and Vickram had begun working together about ten years ago. They were almost inseparable for some years, working hard, travelling places, getting orders, eking out a living. Work became play and the bonhomie between them extended to both families that came together as a close circle. Then life took another turn. Vickram went to Vietnam for a spell and Iqbal moved to Canada with his family. Temporarily, he said. He planned to return after his children were settled in professional schools.

If only life were so easy! Iqbal fell seriously ill. A sudden, advanced stage of cancer, so they diagnosed it. The family returned sorrowfully to India and watched him waste away. The handsome face grew withered and pale. The sturdy body was racked in pain and began to shrivel up. They did the rounds of doctors, chemo, radiotherapy and whatever was advised. Nothing helped. The shrieks of pain grew louder. The limbs became twisted and deformed. In his last few days he was a caricature of himself, a huge, helpless subhuman mass of skin and bone. Death came almost as a relief, leaving behind a void that would never be filled.

The company had to be closed. The rented office space had to be surrendered. Vickram had kept it thinking that some day Iqbal would recover and perhaps they would begin working together again, revive the good old times. But that was not to be. Now the assets had to be disposed of, the desks, computers, air-conditioners. Vickram tried to put it off. Then, finally, he steeled himself and set out in Tall Boy to close shop. With a heavy heart he handed over the space to the landlord. Keep the desks and chairs, he said. We will take the computers and AC.

The AC and computers loaded into Tall Boy, Vickram drove into Iqbal’s house and began to unload. Tall Boy stood in the driveway, the boot and a door still open.

It was not all that easy. In the midday heat, perspiring freely, he tried to get the computers working again in what used to be Iqbal’s study. As Vickram mopped his brow, flopped in a chair, he heard the engine rev up and rushed to the window. It was Tall Boy, its tail-end disappearing around the drive. The car had been stolen.

What then? Did he run up and down the street trying to follow it? Or did he stand aghast at the gate, gaping with unbelieving eyes?

I am away from home and will never know. All I know is that he called me and asked me the registration number of the car.

Which car? I ask. And he says: the Ritz. It’s been stolen. What’s the number?

I do not remember the number. Nor does he. What do we do now?

Think, he tells me. Try and remember.

You try, I tell him. I can’t. All I remember are the last four digits.

Look at the photographs on your computer, he says. You may find the number somewhere.

Try the insurance guy, I tell him.

Inane conversation.

Have you filed a report? I ask.

How can I when I don’t have the number?

Okay, let me think. I will revert.

I sit and meditate under the rhododendron tree outside the IIAS. Then I go into the library and look up back files on my laptop. No photo to be found. I take out the portable hard disk and try again. Finally two photos are located. Tall Boy in all his splendour, on the road to Shimla last year. Another one of Tall Boy with Vickram leaning against him outside Applecart Inn. I note the number – CHO1 AA 1159 – and sms it to Vickram.

Now what?

The report is filed. We wait for further action. Fingers crossed. Will Tall Boy come back?

I try and look at the larger picture. Losing a car is a big loss no doubt. But there are bigger losses in the world. Ships sink, monuments get razed, people die. Tsunamis happen. Floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions. All sorts of irreversible damage. What cannot be cured must be endured.

And then I think of another disturbing issue. Tall Boy was parked in the driveway of Iqbal’s house. Everyone in the locality knows that Iqbal has passed away very recently. And yet someone, probably someone from the neighbourhood, stole the car from that very house. A dead man’s house.

To me the thought is revolting. It is like stripping off the shroud of a dead man. It appals me that human beings can sink so low. Stealing from the house of a man whose funeral pyre has barely cooled! It is unthinkable. It is obscene.

I do not know which anguish is greater? The personal loss of Tall Boy? Or the stark reality that human beings can be so depraved?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Winged Intrusions and Postcolonial Bulldozers

Of Winged Intrusions and Postcolonial Bulldozers

You’ve got to be in this shit mood to upload such a shit kind of blog entry. A mood that originates in the misdemeanor of a fellow human being, made worse by the onset of a migraine that shows no sign of abating. Further aggravated by these wretched birds which insist on building their nest atop my AC. All my efforts at demolishing encroachments of my space have come to nought. I have almost been reduced to a scarecrow, sitting in heat and dust, morning and evening, in the balcony, intermittently emitting cries of “shoo-shoo” and “hush-hush” to scare away those winged trespassers. At first it was pigeons that went gutter-goo all over the place, destroying my peace of mind along with my mid-day siesta, not letting me read or write. I bought some wire meshing, got labourers to fix it around their sitting place. The pigeons stopped coming after a few days and I heaved a sigh of relief. But only for a while; soon it was jackdaws who found a crawl-space under the wire meshing and started collecting twigs, odds and ends for a nest. My scare-crow act began again. The height of outrage was when I saw bird-footprints on my laptop the other day.

Looks like something HAS to be done now. I have to protect my territory against winged intrusion.

But let me not get distracted. Wallowing in this black spell, let me continue about my shit mood and what initially caused it. Actually it dates back to a symposium I attended recently.

So what does one gain from yet another symposium? One more line in the CV? A certificate? Some more jargon? Some new ideas, possibly. Some happy reunions and some new associations.

The names of some new bimaaris, too. Like this time I discover there is something called bursitis. Bursitis did not figure in my vocabulary earlier.

Ganga Bai (lemme just call her that! it makes her sound nice and 'desi') suffers from bursitis. It has something to do with the inflammation of the hip bone, or the bursa, or whatever. Apparently it does not affect a persons ability to speak, judging from the manner in which Ganga Bai did not give her vocal chords even a minute’s rest through the forty-eight hours of the symposium.

Inadvertently Auden comes to my mind. According to Auden all ailments are psychosomatic. So if a person breaks a leg, he probably wanted to break someone else’s leg and that caused him to break his own. And if you have a bad throat, Auden would say that you probably told lies, and so…. I am not sure how it works, and I don’t know how much one need believe in it but Ganga Bai's bursitis would probably be explained by Auden in the most interesting way possible. Perhaps she wanted to do a thumka – filmi style – or perhaps she resented the pelvic thrusts of Elvis or Michael Jackson, or whoever! Or may be she wanted to do a belly-dance. Or a jhatka, matka….

Until you actually meet her you simply cannot imagine that people like her exist on the face of the earth. True, her reputation travels everywhere before she does, but despite all forewarning, an encounter with her is like running into a heap of detonators that explode into your face. Like a mini-boat running into an iceberg. Or like a butterfly smashing into a bulldozer. Or like a honey bee falling into a tank full of hot, melted tar! She is like all of these – tons of fireworks, a titanic-like menacing iceberg, a bulldozer, a tankful of liquid tar. She is like all of these and much more.

One of the delegates recalls her last public appearance at another Indian university: GB reportedly came like a tornado, scolded everyone roundly and left. Scolded roundly – a term most appropriate if ever there was one! It suits her to the T. She is round. Round-faced, round-bodied, big round eyes and a round head. Ms Roundhead is an old woman now but she still spits fire every time she opens her mouth. She is an angry old woman on a lone crusade against the ills of the world.

“Why then, is she rated so high in academia? Why do people invite her?” I am curious.

“Why do people invite circus animals?” pat comes the reply from a fellow delegate. “Entertainment. Pure entertainment. Behold a real, live, fire-breathing post-colonialist. A dinosaur from prehistoric times who refuses to move beyond her first golden utterances. Look, she still has some spark left. Poke her and she responds. Actually, even if you are decent with her, she still gets provoked, much to everyone’s amusement.”

I look forward to meeting this extraordinary specimen. The host introduces her as one who is hard to describe. Like Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, a godly-ungodly creature who manages to unsettle all and sundry. I look at her again. She must have been a beauty in her days. The kind of classical beauty that (as Yeats lamented) gets ruined in politics of the market-place. With her ravaged beauty, she still makes an impact. The cruel sneer of the mouth does not strike you at first. But, more than Capt Ahab she reminds me of Laloo Prasad. The same hair cut, the same round face, the same disgruntled pout. And when she begins to speak, the same arrogance and disdain.

The mind of man, said Yeats, has two kinds of shepherds – those who move and trouble and those who hush and console. Willie Yeats probably did not know about lady-shepherds who can only grumble and scold and whine and crib. Which, incidentally, reminds me – when I first heard of GB she was described as the “Maud Gonne of Deconstruction” and a “much married woman” who had chosen to use as a suffix her firangi husband’s name (sure, she must have her reasons!) and became GBG i.e., Ganga Bai Goldsmith.

GB is unhappy because bursitis has chosen to make its home in her hip and the hosts in Vadodara are doing nothing about it. She is unhappy with the western world (which has actually given her an identity, name and fame for the last fifty years). She is unhappy with the Indian government which has done nothing to assist her in her social work in Bengal. She is unhappy with her recent experience in Bangalore where some people accused her of being an Orientalist. She is unhappy when someone is nice to her: she takes politeness and good manners as evidence of sycophancy. She is intolerant of everything and everyone – intolerant of those who are courteous as well as those who criticize her. She seems to have a tremendous grudge against people who are not malcontented or disgruntled with life. “Where is your passion?” she asks. "How can you be complacent?”

GB is GB and nothing doth please her. She is convinced that she – and only she – is right. All the books that we (wretched, ill-informed scholars in India) read are wrong, so she says. She pounces on one delegate for pronouncing ‘incipit’ with a /s/ sound instead of a /k/ sound. Later on, the delegate verifies that it is indeed the /s/ sound but when GB had pounced on her she was effectively silenced by the verbal deluge.

In another instance, GB quarrels over etymology: she insists that ‘gna’ has no roots in Latin or in Sanskrit. Again, a later investigation proves that the great madame is indeed wrong! She berates those who use phrases that they cannot explain. Yet she herself uses terms like “reproductive heteronormativity” (whatever she means by that) as though she were talking about the teddy bear’s picnic.

When asked to explain what she means by “the poetry of the decimal system” she embarks on a leisurely cruise around the proverbial mulberry bush, cleverly throws around some words and phrases without giving any definite answer. Man, you gotta give it to her! She is clever, she is articulate, she never runs out of words, and she is ruthless.

People humor her the way they would a mad woman. For whoever wishes to take up cudgels with one unhinged? Her words are poison darts dipped in acid. She is caustic and dry and ruthless. She never spares an opportunity to run others down, telling them they are wrong and she is right. The manner in which she roundly scolds everyone is inane and it is not surprising that people, after greeting her effusively in the first instance, soon clam up, refusing to enter into an argument.

She has spent a large part of her life waxing eloquent on subjects like “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Ironically, she herself is unwilling to let anyone else speak. The slightest sign of someone trying to wedge in a word brings a sound tongue-lashing from Ms Roundhead. Like the Ancient Mariner, she holds you with her tongue. You try and edge in with a word, an exclamation, a sigh but she pounces on you like a cat-in-waiting. She claims to be a great supporter of the downtrodden, the marginalized, the oppressed. Yet she silences all opposition. Yet she repeatedly harps on her high-class Brahmin Bhadralok background. Yet she talks about her well-connected and highly-placed siblings.

She seems obsessed with Amartya Sen. Thank God, she says, my parents did not find a nice Bengali groom for me: they would have found me someone like Amartya Sen and I cannot imagine a more boring life than being Amartya Sen’s wife! She repeats this more than once in the course of forty-eight hours. Is it some kind of wishful thinking? Or some suppressed desires? Mr Amartya Sen, are you listening?

She says she works at the grassroots – teaches in eleven schools in Beerbhum, in the rural areas of Bengal. But when a young Bengali scholar asks for specific details with the intention of visiting the place, she freezes and withdraws. Why, Ms GB? If you talks so much about your social work in India, why do you wish to hide the specificities?

I have been warned about her so I consider myself fore-armed. Yet she pulls the rug under my feet. First she attacks me for my bad pronunciation. I do not retaliate. I have been groomed in the rigorous Vipassana tradition that strongly advocates “don’t react”! So I paste a fixed smile on my face and listen to her attentively.

My restraint rattles her. She attacks my professional credentials: “Ha, you and your various fellowships? Your American Studies Associations! What do they mean? You value them because they give you some kind of acceptance in America. The Americans give you some recognition and you try to please them. They pat you on the back and you get taken in. You do not know that they jeer at your back!”

I am aghast. I have never thought on such lines before. “No,” I stammer, “I get enough recognition in my own country….”

But she snaps: “Oh, don’t you tell me about your country. It is my country too.”

“No,” I begin again, “What I meant was…”

She pounces again: “See, all your sentences begin with ‘no’. You are incapable of any positive thinking.” Pleased as punch, she continues her tirade.

Enough, I think. This can’t go on. This can’t be real. Atithi deva bhavo – this is the tradition we have been groomed in. She is a guest of my host and I should not embarrass my good host. So I deliberately keep mum. Instead I pull aside a chair to make way for her. Perhaps we can move towards lunch.

She finds another reason to scold me. “You think you are doing me a favor by making way for me?” she almost barks. “I can help myself.”

“Yes, of course,” I humor the crazed woman, switch off all reason and allow her to ramble on.

Bursitis and postcol. A deadly combo!

By the evening I have GB oozing out of my head. I try to avoid dinner but there’s no getting away. So I take a chair as far as possible from Bursitis. It isn’t easy because there are many others looking for a far corner.

The next day I leave early – before I can set eyes on her. Before she holds me with her tongue again. Before I am stupefied into silence with her verbal diarrhea.

At the airport I collapse on seat in the lounge, turning the two-day encounter over with my friend. Soon it will be time to board and I decide to visit the loo one last time.

“Take care,” my friend jokes. “You may bump into Bursitis again.”

“Good God,” I exclaim. “If I see her again I’ll scream.” And I head for the loo.

A minute later I rush back into the waiting room, shrieking my head off.

“What happened?” people crowd around me in alarm.

I recover my breath and explain to them that I had almost stepped into a humongous lizard hiding behind the door in the loo. Huge, creepy, slimy lizard, the size of a water rat.

My friend collapses laughing: “Oh, I thought you had run into Ms Roundhead.”

The shrieks meant for GB were indeed directed towards the fat rat-sized lizard in the Vadodara loo. Now what would Bursitis call it? Surrogate multi-normativity? Or what? Or would she invent some more jargon for it?

Not much difference between the reactions evoked by Bursitis and the Loo-lizzie!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Zandu Balm

...and the stench of his zandu balm assailed my senses and I was in a quandary whether I should smile and say "hi sweetie, good to see you," or if I should give into my immediate reflexes and simply hold my nose tight to protect my olfactory buds lest I should swoon into senselessness.

He explained that he had come fresh from the orthopedic who had spent a good half hour rubbing something like Zandu balm into his aching lower back..

hm-m-m-.... Plausible explanation but something in the romance seemed to suddenly wilt. The evening suddenly lost its bright orange glow and the sun sank quietly and unobtrusively into the western horizon.

For me the evening was over. Zandu balm had scored its victory over my passion.