From Moscow with Love

[I attended a two-day Creative Writing Workshop organized by the British Council and conducted by Richa Wahi and Chetan Joshi. In the last session of the workshop the participants were to write a story and this is what I produced.]

Yuri thought of first visiting the tailor and inquire about his daughter Elena’s dress. He pulled on his old coat over his back even though it was warm outside. As he stepped out of his old flat, he remembered to take the pain killer pills in his purse in case his bad knee gives a problem. He shuffled past people keeping his eyes fixed on the footpath that led to Rozy Tailors – Ladies Specialist – Home Delivery. The man at the counter hailed him, as he has been doing for the past twenty years, and said in Bengali, “Dress ready, Hari babu.” He replied, “Okay. Keep it with you. I’ll come to collect it as soon as I get my tickets ready.” The man at the counter smiled cordially at him and then turning aside gave a conspiratorial snigger to the tailor-master sitting on the sewing machine.

 

Yuri traced his steps back from the podium of the tailor’s shop and continued his journey towards the bus stop. On his way once he stood in front of a lamp post as if not being able to see clearly through his broken spectacles what lay ahead of him. It seemed as if he is going to take out his contact lens from his purse and wear it there itself. But it was too costly and he dare not wear it for fear of spoiling it. He had grown used to a life where he could live with paltry wants since he could not afford more. When he resumed his hesitating gait, the bus had arrived to take him to Sanskriti Art Gallery in Alipore – the haunt of his youth where he used to meet many people secretly.

 

The bus journey was noisy but he was able to dissolve all the noise into a dull drone of a police siren. There was a chase in a car. The car had swerved and climbed the divider in the middle of the road. All of a sudden the door of the car jerked open and he was thrown out. A policeman’s revolver’s nozzle was pointing at his head. He somersaulted and tried to get behind a taxi. But it was too late. The policeman had pulled the trigger. Luckily his brains did not blast because the hammer of the revolver had got stuck. That was his escape. He had jumped on to a running bus on A. J. C. Bose Road leaving the policeman dumbfounded, staring at the jammed contraption of his service revolver.

 

So when the bus stopped with a jolt he came back from his reverie though he had not reached his destination still then. He stared out of the window and felt a sense of nausea. He started searching in his purse and found a packet of Hajmola. He ate one and when the ticket conductor came towards him he even offered him one. He got down near Alipore Zoo and went straight to towards his friend’s art gallery. Yashin was there but was not exactly pleased to see him.  Yet he took him to his private chamber since he was an old friend. The two friends looked contrasting side-by-side in their appearance due to the difference in their social status today. That was not so twenty years ago.

 

Once they were behind closed doors, Yuri spoke, “Vasily, how you’ve been?”

Yashin replied, “Don’t call me Vasily. I’ve warned you a number of times. I am Yashin Merchant now. Got it.”

“Oh! Sure comrade. But it’s just behind closed doors.”

“Okay. I’m well. How you’ve been?”

“Fine… fine. I’ve ordered a dress for my daughter’s eighteenth birthday. Is there any news from Kremlin?”

Yashin gave a look of frustration and spoke gently, “You are again going back in time. Come to the present. Do you want a pint of Vodka?”

Yuri responded delightedly, “Always yes for Vodka.”

Yashin poured the drink and handed him a crystal glass. Yuri sipped the drink and mused, “I wonder since Chernobyl  the Soviets may one day dismantle the KGB.”

Yashin retorted angrily, “It’s all over twenty years back. This is 2011. Remember. I am not going to tolerate this nonsense any more. I have tolerated enough for the past years. You have to get over your grief. Get it right. There is no USSR now. The spy ring is busted. We have been disowned by Russia. Get to the present.”

 

Yuri squirmed and started muttering beneath his breath, “You have your family here. But they sent my motherless daughter to Moscow promising to follow her soon. But now I can’t go back. She’ll be waiting for me. I must go back.”

“No one is waiting for you in Russia. Not for twenty years now. Yuri doesn’t exist. You are Hari now and no one else. The alias is the real. The real is dead. All ex-spies have expired in the KGB files. And why did you visit Kanpur recently? Mrs. Malhotra called me up and told me to warn you against visiting her. She has a husband, a family, a hyper-tension and now because of you a nervous disorder.”

“But she is our Maria. She belongs to the spy ring,” he insisted.

“There is no such thing existing. If you don’t talk sense then I will have to ask you to leave. Take this hundred rupee and I am telling you for the last time now to go and visit a doctor. You probably have Alzheimer’s or something.”

 

Yuri took the hundred rupee note and exited. He kept the money in his purse and took out the Book of Chairs from it – a reminder of his last assignment, the unfinished one for which he stayed back in Calcutta, with the secret code written in it, which no one in the world now acknowledges, a lock locked with the key lost forever.

 

He trudged out slowly. Out under the sun he could hear an aeroplane in the sky. He looked up only to find the migrating Siberian cranes flying overhead. One of the cranes flapped its wings and a small feather dislodged from there. As the feather descended down slowly, swimming against the currents of the wind, he stood frozen in the middle of the road, staring at it. When it was within his reach he raised his hand to grasp it. The feather nestled in the palm of his hand and he caressed it.

 

The Story Writer

Shashi was a boy, who like all other boys went to school. But, unlike most boys, he was not allowed to decide for his own future. It was his father who decided what he will study, where he will study and how he will study. And also what he will not study, where he will not study and how he will not study. So, when the boy grew up to be a man, he found himself confronted with a world where he had to make his own decisions of which he had no experience. He tried to compensate for his lack by making such decisions that were not the obvious ones, decisions that created the greatest impact and gave him an enormous sense of responsibility in exercising them. Thus when friends invited him for picnics, he decided not to join. When an opportunity came for him to go abroad to study, he decided not to go. When he was offered a job, he decided not to take it. When there was talk of his marriage, he decided not to marry.

The one thing that Shashi loved doing was writing – writing stories. Fiction. In his stories he used to make his characters act rationally by making wise decisions for them. His characters went out to picnics with friends, went abroad to study, took up jobs and even married. He decided for them with as much responsibility as if they inhabited the real world and not the imaginary one that he has created.

Then one day Shashi fell in love – for the second time. His first love was writing stories but his second was a woman he met at a poetry reading session. She was a foreigner on a visit and they became friends. They kept their acquaintanceship over Orkut, Facebook and Twitter for a number of years. One day he expressed his love for her in a matter of fact way in a message to her. She confirmed love from her side too hoping for a consummation of their love and living their lives together. Some more time passed by soon. Then one day she asked Shashi exasperatedly,

“Don’t you want to marry me?”

He replied, “Yes. But I can’t. Long time back I decided not to marry.”

“Why?”

“Because then I did not love anyone.”

“But now you do.”

“I can’t reverse my decision. It is my responsibility to bear the consequences of the decision I have exercised.”

“But…”

“But I love you.”

The woman vanished from the virtual world from then on. The friendship froze.

Years later Shashi again saw the woman at a literary festival. She was now the companion of a famous writer known for his grumpiness. He stood at the end of the queue to get his copy signed. When he came forward the woman was surprised to see him. He in turn surprised the famous writer by inviting his companion for coffee. The famous writer accompanied them to the café. They had their introduction along with the coffee. It was then that Shashi made his pronouncement, “I want to marry you,” to the astonishment of both the listeners present. The famous writer coughed and the woman looked at him askance. So he added, “Because I still love you.”

She mumbled, “Why…”

He interrupted her, “I decided to override my earlier decision.”

He did not wait for her reply and left instantly. This time it was Shashi who disappeared from the virtual world – perhaps into his imaginary world, the world of his stories.

The Governor’s Email

Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi was the governor of West Bengal between 2004 and 2009. The state of West Bengal was privileged to have him as the governor not only because of his illustrious lineage, being the grandson of such eminent personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, but also because of his statesmanship and erudition. His translation of Vikram Seth’s novel A Suitable Boy into Hindi and his play in verse titled Dara Shukoh are prominent among his accomplishments. During his tenure as West Bengal’s governor he frequented many literary and cultural events in the state and mingled with the public. So when I went to Nandan for Amartya Sen’s lecture on “The Idea of Justice”, he was there in the audience. When I went to Oxford Bookstore for the launch of Sunetra Gupta’s novel So Good in Black, he was there to get his copy signed by the novelist. The governor was widely appreciated for his easy accessibility and friendly demeanor.

Now the governor also happens to be the chancellor of the state’s aided universities. So when in January 2006 I got myself registered as a doctoral researcher in Calcutta University, I was thrilled to have Shri Gopal  Krishna Gandhi as my university’s chancellor. I hoped that on completion of my PhD, I will be conferred the doctoral degree at the convocation from the hands of the person I so much admired. Time passed. My research work progressed. And in November 2009 I submitted my thesis to the university for adjudication. The next month the newspapers announced that the current governor’s tenure will end on the 13th of December 2009. I was crestfallen for it dawned on me that the incumbent governor will not be there as the chancellor of Calcutta University when I will be handed the doctoral scroll.

It was the night of 12th December when in a sad state of mind I emailed the governor a farewell message expressing how often I have been in his proximity and how I will miss his grace. I little hoped for any reply since it was the last day of the governor’s stay in Raj Bhavan and surely he would have received hundreds of farewell messages. But the next day there was this one message in my mailbox –

Dear Shri Amit Shankar Saha,

I thank you for your most generous mail. May I deserve it. You have my best wishes.

Sincerely,

Gopal Gandhi

It was then that I realized that I could not have been happier.

The British Council Library (1996 – 2011)

It was John Keats’ birthday when I became a member of British Council Library, Kolkata, in 1996. I had tried to become a member of the British Council Library earlier but the library officials stated that I had to be at least a graduate student to become a member. It was a haloed turf for me because the library had a great collection of English Literature books, which were of great interest to me. Located in Shakespeare Sarani (formerly Theatre Road), the library had an old world charm to it if a telescopic view into almost fifteen years past is taken from now. The wooden interiors, the manual catalogues, the lending of audio cassettes, the blue-covered notes on literature, all had become an integral part of my life.

As years passed by the interiors became plush, the audio cassettes gave way to CDs, computers took over cataloguing and issuing, the notes on literature got neglected, the cafe became in-house, a kids’ section was added, film DVDs were compiled, subscription of academic journals diminished, internet and photocopying facilities were introduced, and the library itself  shifted from its Shakespeare Sarani address to Larsen and Toubro Chambers in Camac Street. But my attachment remained undeterred.

It is so because when I didn’t have a college to go to, the British Council library became my college. When I didn’t have a university to go to, the British Council library became my university. When I didn’t have a professor to consult with, the British Council library became my professor. When I didn’t have a peer to lift my mood, the British Council library became my peer. I treasure the Pictorial Retrospective of V. S. Naipaul that I won at the V. S. Naipaul quiz organized by the British Council library. The six Best of Bookers shortlisted books, which I won in another British Council organized quiz, adorn my bookshelf. The library still provides me with books for sustenance and a space to cherish. It has been a constant in my life and will always remain so. I believe there are many people who have had intimate associations with this or other libraries in their lives.

One In Which I Mention Two Infections

It was the season of change and infectious diseases when even close bosom friends would avoid looking at your maturing infection. Into this change of season, one day, I let myself awake with my eyelids sticking together. But I shall avoid any sticky details here and rush straight to school because it was after all a school day and I have already been late searching for my goggles. In school I joined the goggle-eyed gang featuring spectacular spectacles over their eyes. We were the kings for the day and walked unopposed despite being late. Even Lawrence sir was not at his post to tackle the late-comers just to avoid us. Had He Man come out of the comics and held aloft his sword to say aloud, “I have the power”, he would have felt much the same as I felt that day. I would take out my goggles and in the same fashion say, “I have the Conjunctivitis.”

The classrooms were agog with students talking about the aliens penetrating amongst them. It was done surreptitiously as if in a horrifying science-fiction thriller. An innocuous-looking class, with no signs of extraterrestrial invasion, would suddenly become a Petri dish of chimerical infection. A boy, right in the middle of the classroom, would without warning stand up and declare that he has the infection. The whole class around him would burst out like a bomb being detonated inside a pomegranate. And if it so happens that an under-prepared teacher is present in the class at that moment then he or she is more likely than not to fall off his or her chair. Moreover, if there was one student, soon there were two and three and four and more until the despicable gang became a force in itself. The infection targeted without any discrimination. From the laggers and shaggers of the last benches to the pretentious elites of the front benches, all hierarchies and classifications were diluted.

Soon the word came in whispers that those who have conjunctivitis are to take leave for the day and to come to school only after they are fully cured. But who sent the word? Who authorized the mass leave? Was there any authenticity in the news? And what about the class tests that the students who take leave would miss? These questions remained unanswered. So the gang decided that we would go to Father Peter Arulraj, the Prefect, for confirmation and clarifications. Thus ventured out of the classroom the boys in white, flaunting their chic sunglasses, to seek out the Prefect. Father Peter, being experienced, anticipated such a move and was found nowhere in his office. We stood exasperated as did another similar group from another class. Christie blew at his fake Ray Ban. Talib did a Rajnikant with his sunglass. And we all decided to pursue Father to the remotest corner of the school, although the office staff did confirm our leave. We combed floor to floor, room by room, always missing him by a fraction of a minute. Many a class found Father entering their room at inopportune moments when he apparently had no business being there. It was only when we split into two groups that we were able to trap him from opposite sides into a classroom. Father Peter was a man of good disposition. And he dismissed us quickly with some words of consolation.

The second infection, which I have avoided naming in words, but which pervades the previous three paragraphs, is bonhomie. Anyone who enters the precincts of St. Anthony’s High School is bound to be infected by this spirit of exuberance and good-naturedness. The spirit seeps into the relationship between students and teachers. It is this bonhomie inculcated in me since my schooldays that helps me to spread the joy of living as I go about the world. But of late I find that some misguided people are trying to cure this infection by questioning the wisdom of the teachers. Providence forbids such a cure. Otherwise, how will the lamps be ignited without the spirit?

How this Dussehra Became Memorable for Me

Chicken Soup For The Indian Teenage Soul 003

Dussehra marks the triumph of good over evil. But symbolically the festival is representative of all good tidings in life. And such was the case with me this Dussehra – the twenty-eighth of September. Early last week Deepthi Talwar of Westland Publishers informed me that she saw an advance copy of Chicken Soup for the Indian Teenage Soul and the book looks lovely. The contributors’ copies and their cheques are in the process of being dispatched. The books were to reach the contributors, and the bookstores too, probably by the weekend.

I, being one of the contributors to the volume, was in anxious anticipation. The festivities during the Durga Puja weekend had reached a fevered pitch but there was a different kind of frenzy in my belly. I had not told anyone at home or any friends about this publication and I wanted to surprise them with the book hot off the press. The wait was excruciating. Gradually the weekend wore off in expectation without the arrival of the courier.

So, on the Dussehra day my spirits were quite down. The day started in melancholia – the melancholy of India’s defeat at the hands of arch-rival Pakistan in cricket, the melancholy of the last day of Durga Puja, and the melancholy of a weekend wasted in anticipation. But there was perhaps a divine conspiracy – for, despite Dussehra being a holiday all over India, there were people at work that very day as if specially to lift my spirits. The books intended for me, under the seal of AFL, were traveling miles from Delhi to Kolkata to reach me while I was staying put at home and moping.

It was about 1 O’Clock in the afternoon on the Dussehra day when the AFL courier rang the bell. He came like a Santa Claus, though not through the chimney, bearing goodies for a grown-up person with a childish longing. I signed my name and a packet was delivered to me. As the packet was opened everyone was surprised seeing its contents. It brought unexpected cheer to my family and friends. And it made this Dussehra memorable for me.

Re-visiting Amartya Sen’s Lecture on “Justice – and India”

justice

Luckily it did not rain on the “Rakhi” day – also the day of the Penguin Annual Lecture. So, when I reached Nandan, the auditorium was almost full. But a kind usher found a vacant seat for me right at the centre of the hall. Seating myself I felt like a pre-Copernican earth, that is if the attribution is neither pathetic nor a fallacy, with the sun, and the moon, and the stars going round me. The luminaries included the film maker Mrinal Sen and the West Bengal Governor, Gopal Krishna Gandhi, among others. The lecture was to be followed by Amartya Sen in conversation with Barkha Dutt of NDTV.

Aveek Sarkar, the Editor-in-Chief of “The Telegraph” and the chairman of Penguin India was to introduce Amartya Sen to the audience. Sarkar stated the difficulty he has in the task of introducing Sen to the people of his own city, Kolkata, without sounding trite and obvious. He would rather have the guest introduce the host. Eventually he introduced the economist and philosopher as two Sens – Sen A the renowned academic and Sen B the great humanist. When Amartya Sen came to the podium he continued with the thread of introductions by recalling an anecdote. Once, many years ago, he happened to visit a friend who lived in Hindustan Park in Kolkata. On reaching the house and ringing the bell he found a little girl at the door. Sen asked the girl her name and the girl replied in Bengali, “This is our house. What is your name?”

The lecture started on a hilarious note, though it did not lose out on gravity. Sen presented an alternative approach to the mainstream theories of justice like that of John Rawls. Rawls’s theory seeks ideally just institutions and societies, which appears to Sen as a utopian pursuit. Instead Sen’s approach is in line with Adam Smith’s theory, where the attempt is to make societies less unjust through public reasoning. Sen considers the transcendentalists’ search for ideal justice as looking for a black cat in a dark room when the cat is not there. A practical approach is to remove manifest injustices. He pointed out that the abolition of slavery did not make the society ideally just but it did redress a manifest injustice. Further to illustrate his point, albeit with a crude example as Sen himself acknowledged, he compared the situation to that of a man locked in a sauna with the temperature rising. The man calls out to his friend outside to lower the temperature. This friend, who happens to be a transcendentalist, insists that Sen first tell him the optimal temperature that he requires before he can act on his advice. Life really will be unbearable if corrective actions are stalled in search of the ideal state.

Sen goes on to show how ideal justice is elusive with the case of three friends – A, B, and C – and a flute that they all claim individually. A, Sen calls Ahmed, is the only one of the three who knows how to play the flute and so claims it. B, Sen calls Barkha, though not of NDTV, is deprived of any other toy and thus claims the flute. C, Sen calls Christine, is the one who has made the flute and hence wrests her claim on it. If each of Ahmed, Barkha (not of NDTV), and Christine been the only claimant of the flute then justice would not have been compromised. But here it is not so and therefore the problem. Marxists, capitalists, utilitarians, and others may have different opinions on justice here.

Sen’s argument is that whatever “niti”, rules and laws, is to be followed in the pursuit of “nyaya”, justice, what is to be avoided is “matsyanyaya”, that is in which the big fish devours the small fish. To avoid patent injustice is part of delivering justice. Different societies may have different policies and principles. The laws in a dictatorial country will be different from those in a democracy and even between different democracies. But justice is not only what has been legislated. It has to be acceptable in open public discussion. Public reasoning is a process and justice has to withstand reasoned scrutiny. Here comes the notion of an impartial spectator, coming form anywhere, not being directly involved in the situation but being well informed of it, who can reason whether justice has been delivered or not. In ancient Greece infanticide was legal but in the view of an impartial spectator it is not just. Therein is the idea of justice and it covers social justice as well as individual human rights. Amartya Sen elaborated on his ideas further while in conversation with Barkha Dutt, obviously of NDTV this time, after the lecture.

The Stratagem

How do you manufacture chance? The two very words, “manufacture” and “chance”, occurring side by side is an oxymoron. Yet that was the very idea that struck my teen mind that day in 1992, when I was in class eight. St. Anthony’s High School had its yearly allotment of B. Ed. trainee teachers, who were given an opportunity to gain first hand classroom teaching experience for a few days in the school. The students, in general, used to welcome such a change. But the B. Ed. trainee teacher, who replaced the regular English teacher of class eight, faced a tough situation. The English teacher of class eight was, in the eyes of the class, a genius. Hardly any student wanted his favourite English teacher replaced for even a day. So when the new teacher entered the class during the English period, she met with coldness on all her sides.

fuzzy-dice_~FuzzdiceI ardently wanted my English teacher back but was helpless. The new teacher taught well. She taught lesson seventeen – Man’s Landing on the Moon – and made beautiful charts and posters. She duly checked the class work and set questions to be answered for homework. It was then that the idea struck my mind – to make the best out of an uninspiring situation. The idea was to manufacture chance. For a teenager’s mind all things incredulous seem incredible. So was born in my mind, in the pangs of estrangement from my favourite teacher, the idea.

I had been writing poems, juvenile verses, for some time and craving for appreciation and encouragement. Remember it was a time before the advent of internet, mobiles, and such likes. But I was too timid to show my compositions to my favourite English teacher lest he disapproves of them or finds me wanting in any way. So neither could I risk myself falling in his estimate nor could I take my verses to show to someone else directly because that would mean giving priority and preference on an offering meant for my favourite English teacher. The only solution seemed to me was to manufacture chance at the opportunity afforded by the new teacher.

I used to draft my verses in an old exercise book interspersed with a melange of jottings from various other subjects. It was in that rough exercise book that I wrote answers to the questions from Man’s Landing on the Moon, while the rest of the class wrote their homework in their English exercise books. The next day I submitted the homework to get the answers checked and hoping that the new teacher goes through my poems too. I had almost concocted the potion and I just needed a pinch of luck to finish it off. It was all a matter of chance. But the possibility of being lucky, however slim that might be, was bought at the cost of an artifice – the stratagem of my teenage mind.

The exercise books were to be returned the following day, which was the last day of the B. Ed. trainee teachers’ classes in St. Anthony’s High School for the session. I was all in anxiety on that day. In the English period the exercise books were distributed back. I hurriedly opened mine. The homework was checked but nothing else was marked or commented upon. I was a touch disappointed but still hopeful that the teacher must have gone through my poems while searching for the homework in my exercise book. I stared at her intently as if trying to decipher some signs on her face as she was delivering her valedictory message. She thanked the students for their cooperation. She told the class that the regular English teacher would resume classes the following day. My eyes widened with happiness and yet they kept searching her visage for an elusive token. Then all of a sudden I heard,

“I have been fortunate enough to teach a bright batch of students. While checking your homework I even chanced to notice that one of you write poems and good ones they are. I wish you best of luck for the future.”

The bell rang and the period was over. She left the class with the students still trying to guess who among them was the referred versifier.

It was not more than a year, when my favourite English teacher started a school wall magazine, that one of my poems, “A Plant”, got published there to wide appreciation. But I still remember that day in class eight when the B. Ed. trainee teacher became by manufactured chance the first commentator of my juvenile compositions, without herself knowing who exactly the writer of those verses was. She was perhaps apprehensive that she has trespassed on a teenager’s private musings, but she might never know that it was her small token of appreciation that made me bold – for it takes courage to display one’s creativity.