Monday, May 31, 2010

Infantile Disorder

Growing up in Calcutta of the late 60s and early 70s we were taught ‘Naxalism’ is a bad word. In the early or middle years of school – we were in no position to comprehend the ideological import of the “movement”. As children all that we heard or saw were bombs, killings, curfews and ubiquitous armed CRPF jawans everywhere - including in temple precincts.

For the petty bourgeoisie (“bhadrolok”) Bengali – whose 3 basic pillars of life were – Mohun Bagan, Congress and Calcutta Club - anything “left” of center was politically incorrect.

I remember the mildly disparaging comments that people of my Dad’s generation would pass about the children of friends and relatives – studying at the Presidency College or doing their Masters at the Calcutta University – who displayed the slightest leftist streak – labeling them at once as “Naxals” (“Oor cheley /meye toh Naxal korey”).

A sinister tag was attached to the names of Naxal leaders like Charu Mazumdar and Kanu Sanyal - tho’ the same Bengal had produced many an armed revolutionary during the freedom struggle who are still deified by the people. When an ailing Charu Mazumdar was brought to the PG hospital for treatment under police custody – there was a quiet jubilation at the “people’s enemy” having finally been captured.

Kanu Sanyal (who recently committed suicide)’s sister – Sumita - used to play supporting roles in Bengali movies (she had also acted in a few Hindi movies like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 'Anand' and 'Aashirwad'). Barely coming of age, we found it difficult to believe how could the brother of such a comely woman be a “criminal”.

There was another reason for us to think the way we did was probably because, there wasn’t a family in Calcutta who hadn’t lost someone to the “movement” in those years – whether as victims of the Naxals or at the other end of the gun to “police encounters”. (Tho’ I am told the original Naxals thought it infra-dig to use “bullets” against their enemies. Stabbing a victim apparently expresses class hatred better. My mother’s uncle was killed with a sickle – near their village home in Chinsurah on a fateful Saraswati Puja eve in 1971).

Movies like Tapan Sinha’s Apanjan tried to capture the mood of the times. But, perhaps the most authentic account of the period is contained in Sunil Ganguly’s modern day epic novel “Purbo-Paschim”.

Much later, I had a closer brush with the Maoists in Nepal. To me it was a natural progression of the many waves of back-lash against years of misrule by Royalty and their elite coterie in Kathmandu. But like all other ‘revolutions’ before it – notably the watershed of circa 1990-91, that established the Westminster form of “democracy” reducing the Monarchy to a “constitutional” form – this one, which was to make Nepal a “Republic”, fast lost its sheen of idealism the closer they came to power.

Around this time last year – the West Bengal State General Secretary of the CPIM – whom I had met in some other connection – taught me the term “Infantile Disorder” an expression coined by Lenin to explain left wing extremism that has now become common parlance in Debates on Maoist insurgency now heard ad nauseam on Television.

(Note: Just to make things abundantly clear, Biman Bose' reference was to the neo-Maoists and not their principal political opponent in the State)

to be continued…

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The 'GhoseSpot' turns 100

It’s the first ‘century’ of my life. This is the 100th post on “The GhoseSpot”. I never fail to mention to those who enquire – with a degree of immodesty that comes naturally to me – that, I have been blogging since 2001. Much before most people had heard of the term.

Bloggers' Block and Testosterone Bosses

100 posts in 9 years is not exactly a Tendulkar-esque feat, I admit. (actually, the count is 102; I took off 2 pieces I had written on Kashmir – at the prodding of the wife - because they were attracting too much attention from, shall we say, – slightly disconcerting quarters of the world ). But then, I had gone into a lengthy sabbatical in between. Co-incidentally – that was also the period when I was working with the media. I have often wondered what could have been the cause of my “bloggers’ block” during those years - but haven’t been able to arrive at a clear answer. Not sure – if I was overly self-conscious being surrounded by journalists and professional writers or was it simply a passing phase. Probably it had something to do – as is very often the case – with my underlying emotional state, arising from the deep professional discontent I was nurturing at that time in a highly politicized and toxic work place (presided over by a testosterone driven boss).

Why do I blog ?

At some point - every blogger comes face-to-face with the inevitable question - “Why do I blog ?” ( I think this comes more naturally than – what should have been asked in the first place – “Why should I blog ?” ). Exactly 2 years ago, I had put up a beautifully written piece from the New York Times: Exposed – Why People Blog ( Click here to read), which says it all and more.

I am reminded of an anecdote narrated by the celebrated Bengali author – Samaresh Basu once on TV. He was asked by Leela Roy ( the Indianised-American wife of Annada Shankar Roy) - “Samaresh, tumi keno lekho (why do you write) ?” He replied, “Ami likhi manush-ke jaanbar janye” (through my writings, I come to understand people)”. To which Leela Roy asked him in turn – “Keno, nijeke jaanbar janye noy” ( Why, don’t you write to know yourself ? ). This is a conversation that still resonates with me.

The Ghoses of Kats

What I started in 2001 as a somewhat light hearted social diary of our hugely memorable days in Kathmandu ( I called it “The Ghoses of Kats” then ) has over time – become more of a personal journal. The style and tone of the writings have also evolved with age - I guess. Though I don’t often go back to reading the old posts – I am sure if I did they would trace - my own inner journey through – what has certainly been for me - a mellowing 40s.

Many friends who chance upon the Blog or stray into The GhoseSpot while trawling the net have remarked that, the earlier posts were much more carefree and spontaneous – with a pace and cadence of their own. They say, in contrast the later writings appear somewhat stilted and guarded – holding back more than they reveal. They also disapprove of my self-deprecating tone and the strenuous attempts at being unnecessarily risque. They are probably too polite and gentle to use words like “fake” or "affected" - but what they probably mean - in short - is that the pieces lack intimacy and, therefore, fail to connect. But again, that too can just be a reflection of my current existence – when the best that I can possibly do is drift with the tide.

There is no denying that all writers – bloggers included - have a narcissist under their skin. Otherwise, how can they be presumptuous enough to put their work up in the public domain – no matter how mediocre – thinking that it would be of interest to others. I too will be less than honest – if I were to say that I don’t derive my own little highs counting the number of hits the site gets. And, it does feel good every time someone takes note of a posting or acknowledge that they have been reading the blog – even if occasionally.

It's my trash

Sometimes critiques and criticisms can also flatter the ego. One regular follower (whose comments I routinely expunge) keeps urging me to take on an editor - assiduously listing all the syntax and spelling errors on every post. Once at the IIC Bar, a journalist friend of mine charged me point blank on my face – in her lolly Mallu accent – "why do you inflict such terrible stuff on your unsuspecting friends ? Please kill it (the blog) immediately - as soon as you can get to a computer", she admonished. I retorted in the same vein (emboldened – no doubt - by the alcohol) – “I write not for others but more myself”. Later, after many days, I was mightily tickled – when she mentioned one of my posts in passing – revealing that she had not stopped reading the blog after all - despite the revulsion she felt towards my literary atrocities. That's what good friends are for !!

Others have complained that, my posts are too long and make tedious reading. I have thought of reducing the lengths –if only in the interest of my own time. Very often – I don’t get to write for days – when thoughts just come and go. Shorter pieces would allow me to post more regularly – but I am not sure if that would be more soul satisfying.

The Blog is not just a 'release' for me - as some friendly readers tend to think. It's become a little retreat where I can run to whenever I need a break. Not a room where I shut myself out from the world, but a room where I can sit and enjoy a drink with close friends or simply put my feet up and gaze at the sky. The Blog has helped me retain my sanity through some very trying periods of mid-life and mid-career crises - holding the body and soul together (in more senses than one !!).

At times, I do wish that I could get more deeply personal in the blog. But, there’s only thus far one can go in public view living within the confines of work and family. And, who knows – may be my story is buried under this heap of 100 – only to be unearthed at a moment when I am least expecting it to show up.

So till then, I shall continue to write for myself – in the hope that, I will find my own voice someday. So what if it’s trash. It is my trash.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Loss of Innocence

This afternoon, I finally ended my extended affair with Fusun. It was an all-consuming experience lasting over several weeks. At the end of it, I am left drained and exhausted with satiety.

For those of you – who haven’t yet read Orhan Pamuk’s “The Museum of Innocence” (click here to read excerpts)– she is the heroine of the book and the subject of a tragic and obsessive love of the narrator, Kemal Basmaci – a rich Istanbulli playboy.

I discovered Pamuk a few years back with his – “Snow” – another riveting and haunting novel - which, I think, has been his most powerful book before this. As I don’t much care for historical novels – therefore, “My Name is Red”, for which he got the Nobel, didn’t quite appeal to me – though by all accounts it’s a masterpiece.

I think it was Kingsley Amis who said, writing is the ultimate form of telepathy. Through books thoughts are transmitted over time and space – and the author enters the reader’s mind. The Museum of Innocence is that kind of a book. It is almost maddening in its minutiae. He does not just invade your head but possesses it. Time and again thru’ its 532 pages, I have wondered if he’ll be able to pull it off – only to be surprised at being drawn inexorably to the next chapter as if in an hypnotic trance.

It is tantalizing in its Hemingwayesque simplicity of narration. There is a hallucinatory quality about the love story of Fusun and Kemal, painted against a rich backdrop of upper-class Istanbul society in the cusp of modernity (".... poised uncomfortably between modern and traditional attitudes to love and sex, with eros half out of his cage, but honour and shame still coordinating the perception of private conduct" as one critic puts it so beautifully. Inncocence, obviously, refers to virginity: "Kemal is happily engaged to Sibel .......who as he puts it – 'given me her virginity',...... and before long Fusun too has 'deliberately elected to give her virginity'.... and she vows not to sleep with another man - the deflowering is ominously juxtaposed with images of the Feast of the Sacrifice, with lambs being butchered on every corner of Istanbul" - James Lasdun, in The Guardian)

For me, the description of Istanbul in 70s and early 80s is not very unlike the Calcutta we grew up in - give or take a few years either way. Fusun’s family gathered around the television is so reminiscent of the good ol’ Doordarshan days. The art film scene of Istanbul could easily be compared with vintage Tollygunj of the same period. At some point, Kemal makes a remark : I had forgotten what I had forgotten (or something close to that effect). I was overcome by a similar feeling a few months back, when – following my Mother’s death – I was in Calcutta for one of the longest period of time in recent years. Chatting with visitors – friends and relatives – who were dropping by brought back a stream of memories (of people, objects and places) that I thought had had long ago slipped away from my cumulative consciousness.

Great literature – they say – teach us something about ourselves. Reading ‘The Museum of Innocence’ we recognize the shades of Kemal (or for that matter Sibel or Fusun ) in us. And like him, we too have nuggets of trivia and trinkets stacked in the attics of our brain – our own little Museums of Innocence.

"I would hate for it to be called a love story," said Pamuk in an interview. "The book is an exploration of how life treats us, how people, circumstances and geography — the chemistry of streets in Istanbul, for instance — change, and we mortals are left helpless as things go beyond our control."

Going by the graphic story-telling, it would be natural to surmise that, at least in parts, it is an autobiographical novel. Answering this - by now what has become a routine question for him at all Book Reading Sessions, Pamuk teases : “ Kemal is not Orhan, but then I can’t convince you that Orhan is not Kemal... (tho') the only similarity between them is that both "were having a good life in a poor country"( so true for the India you and I live in too). The challenge for a writer, we know, is to keep the reader guessing as to what is fiction, what is reality. That is the master novelist for you.

I am sure that, thanks to the publicity he got for the new woman in his life, Kiran Desai - there age difference - 57 & 38 - almost the same as that of Kemal and Fusun (click here). ‘The Museum of Innocence’ will out-sell all his previous books in India. Probably realizing that (or the influence of his girl friend) , Pamuk throws a generous smattering of India in to his book – such as the Tagore Museum in Calcutta or the Halal restaurant in Delhi. But, one thing’s for sure – after this Turkey will feature high on my list of places I want to travel to (just as, I belive, Goa has suddenly become popular with Turkish tourists after Orhan and Kiran have dropped anchor there to work on their respective new projects). May be I’ll go there in time for the opening of the Pamuk Museum

Read my takes on Amitava Ghosh' - The Sea of Poppies at "In bed with Ghosh" and "Sailing with Priyanka on the Ibis". Also Kunal Basu's - The Japanese Wife at Lady Canning Lives in Japan

muk Museum.