Thursday, July 26, 2012

Whispered Secrets & Other Stories…

Despite my best efforts, there were a few problems that needed my re-visiting the Olive Ridley Shelter, aka Bnasher Kella four weekends ago. The place wore a forlorn look. The floor had not been swept; plastic glasses lay strewn about despite my specific instructions towards garbage disposal. The dug out boat by Prasun was in ruin and the clay models of the children had disintegrated during the last shower – ashes to ashes, dust to dust and that was how it was meant to be. The house wore a hang-dog look, like it was no one’s baby; Phelu – the abandoned kid.

Amal Babu along with Shona - the neighbour’s son, who shimmies up coconut trees like a real pro was there to receive me. The presence of Shona meant a welcome drink of fresh coconut water. We were still going through the throes of an immense heat wave and this was more than welcome. Shona’s bright –eyed, sweet-faced demeanour is in itself a gift that could quench parched souls. For a moment, his shy smile lifts my spirit and Phelu smiles. I imagine the squeals of delight and the laughter of children, I imagine voices talking animatedly – the Bnasher Kella re-awakens from a fortnights’ slumber.

Ashramites at the "Bnasher Kella"

It’s just been two weeks since this place was a hive of activity and it makes me think how people define a place. As long as we were there and working, the chatter of workers, their banter, the coming and going of children, as well as adults, energised the space despite its stand alone location. Amal Babu left for the Ashram and asked me to meet him there later. I sat there in the shade without any particular reason and could not understand why I felt troubled. The fields around had turned a lush shade of green with the first pre-monsoon shower and the light breeze was laden with moisture.

I must have dozed off, because the next thing I remember was being gently nudged awake by a smiling Diganta. I bade him to sit down and asked him how he was doing, “Kyamon aachhish?” I asked.

His response seemed like the performance of a seasoned actor. He erased his smile and his eyes wore a far-away look as he answered me in a tired monologue, as if in a kind of a trance, “Like I always am, nothing different happens here, a humdrum life…school, studies, daily chores and living in the Ashram. Nothing to look forward to until I finish school and then maybe life could be different, maybe…I don’t know”. Coming from a thirteen year old this troubled me a bit. Did I touch a raw nerve there? I immediately rued asking him a seemingly innocuous question. Should I have just said hello and smiled and left it at that? Diganta – the boy who found amusement in fish swimming on the flooded school playground, had he grown up in such a short time to question his lot? Or was I blind to the reality of a destitute child abandoned by his father?

Whispered secrets…

In the few months that I have been living in the Ashram, the children have come to accept me for what I am. No illusions there. They have learnt that this elderly, white-bearded Kaku (uncle) is kind, but will not pamper them. He will not scold, but neither will he stand unruliness. A hurt, displeased look in my eyes would quieten them. But, my questions would be eagerly answered. If I listened to their ghost stories with unblinking attention, I qualified as a friend! Children far away from home (if they have a home that is) need so little to be happy and one needs to do so little to earn their trust!


Diganta too started trusting me ever since our ‘quality time’ on that moonlit night of ‘Dol Purnima’- the night he narrated the story of the fishes swimming on the flooded school playground. Later he trusted me enough to show me his mimicry of kung-fu kicks with appropriate yells. He told me that he liked History and English. I took a bit of an interest in his studies and helped him write a few essays in English – going over his tenses and mixed-up genders. His confused use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ became a contest between him and me.

“Diganta is a boy. She has red ribbons in her hair and she wears a frock!” I challenged.

“No! Diganta has short hair and he wears pants!” he countered angrily.

“Diganta is a boy. She has red ribbons in her hair and she wears a frock!” I teased.

“No! Diganta has short hair and he wears pants!” he laughed.

That exchange I think put paid to his gender-bender English. No self-respecting boy of thirteen likes being called a girl. I don’t know whether this strategy would work with a girl of that age. Our own daughter reveled in being a girl and she had no problems with language except for her wayward spelling! She has of course come a long way and I like her writing style.

On the issue of gender, I once asked Diganta if he knew girls of his own age, except the ones at school. He looked wistfully into nothingness. I let him a have a moment of ‘personal time’ and then waved my hand in front of his eyes. He came back to earth with an embarrassed smile and said “Yes, I did once,” and paused.

I respected his reticence and decided not to press the issue any further. But, to my surprise he continued as if in a reverie, “Payel and Shrabonti – two girls older than me.”

“Who were they?” I asked encouraged by this revelation.

“They were just two girls who had come to stay at our Ashram. I was about seven and one of them was two years older than me and the older one maybe three years older than me. They left after a very short stay,” Diganta volunteered as information.

I kept quiet. I remembered Amal Babu mentioning this to me once and had told me that he had to let the two girls go as the Ashram did not have the infra-structure or separate facilities for girls and in a village such as Maheshpur – tongues wag! There is a largish facility for girls just before you hit Shibganj, which is where one of the girls went.

“Those were the most memorable days of my childhood,” Diganta concluded.

“What about the time you saw fish swimming on the playing field?” I playfully jabbed him in the ribs. Diganta giggled like any thirteen years old would.

“…and what do you remember about home?” I asked.

“Yes. I had a home once. My mother was always sick. My father left us and married again. Mother passed away. When things became difficult for him, he became a sadhu. I hate such people,” he replied in one breath.

“You have no other relatives?” I prodded.

“Yes I have. My Mashi (maternal aunt) lives with my grandma close to Kolkata.  I visit them during vacations. I went there during Durga Puja. I like it there. Otherwise I like it here in the Ashram” he confided.

“…and what happened to your father?” I asked.

“He once visited me here looking like a sadhu – long beard and all and offered me a fifty rupee note. I refused it and told him never to return.”

We rose to our feet and I gave Diganta a hug. We walked over the bamboo bridge and Diganto rode off on his bicycle. I started walking towards the Ashram with Diganta’s last sentence ringing in my ears.

Just as I climbed on to the brick road, Diganta returned and started walking with me. “Go ahead. You don’t have to walk,” I tell him.

“No. I will walk with you. I like talking to you,’ he said in a matter of fact manner.

We walked back with Diganta chattering away incessantly about nothing in particular and then as we came near the Ashram, Diganta said “There is much that you will not understand about us. You don’t believe in ghosts!”

He gave me a conspiratorial smile and pedaled away, turning the bend and vanishing into the school compound. I stood there laughing to myself until the younger kids at the Ashram spotted me. “Kaku! Kaku! Kaku! Kaku!” they chanted surrounding me with gleeful smiles.


Dr. Annu Jalais about whom I had written in one of my earlier posts invited me to participate in a workshop "Forests, Sociality, Borderlands: revisiting issues in Deltaic Bengal" held at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti, New Delhi, on 6th and 7th July 2012. It was jointly organised by her and Dr. Amites Mukhopadhyay. Apart from speaking about my own work in Maheshpur, I heard the other speakers with great interest. Here was a group of men and women who have worked and some are still working in the Sundarbans. I felt enriched by all of this. I made a couple of friends like Dr. Sutapa Chatterjee Sarkar, Sayantan Bera, Neelambari Phalke, Priyanka Ghosh, Niranjan Jaladas, Aviroop Sengupta, Anirban Bandopadhyay and Dr. Garga Chatterjee.

Some people here in Kolkata keep asking me whether all my efforts were worth it. I can’t help but suppress a chuckle. Was it really worth it? I will let you decide…

Friday, May 25, 2012

Opening Lines…

Writing this blog has been an enjoyable exercise – one that let me meander at will through a variety of experiences, almost like the many rivers that pass by the Sundarban islands. But in doing so, I have willy-nilly raised the expectations of my friends, who insist that I keep on writing. It is indeed an honour, but comes with a heavy price – it taxes my abilities as a debutant blogger. I hasten to add that I have never; even in my wildest dreams thought of becoming a writer and this blog was not intended to test the waters.

The demand made on me to continue writing has yet another fallout – my responsibilities increases manifold as I do not wish to disappoint. So, I kept searching for a good opening line to start this blog-post that, by and large would deal with the artists’ workshop and the run-up to the opening day. It has all the ingredients of becoming a mere reportage. I looked high and low to avoid such a disaster. Finally while searching the internet; I came across various listings of the ten best opening lines in English literature. These are some of the most amusing, sometimes outrageous, sometimes witty, as well as, poignant lines ever written. From amongst all of them, the quandary that I find myself in is aptly described in the lines by Felipe Alfau:

“The moment one learns English, complications set in.” (Chromos, 1990)

This is quite similar to the situation that I was in when I joined the Art College. While still in school, I was confident that I could unseat Picasso anytime! But, once I started learning how to draw in the academic manner – “complications set in”. Therefore the above quote not only illustrates my shortcomings, I cannot appropriate it as my opening line. So, how about…

It was 37 degrees in the shade, when I made myself presentable in a starched white shirt and khaki trousers to receive guests, who despite their discomfort, greeted me with broad smiles that seemed to say, “If you can do it, we can too!”

The usually strong and salty breeze from the south had dropped to a faint whisper (now, I can fully comprehend the term “Zephyr”). The solitary pedestal fan dictated that people fall in line and a rough queue of plastic chairs positioned themselves strategically to catch the generator driven breeze. Those that could not find space braved it out and consoled themselves by saying that at least it was not as hot as back home in Calcutta, which was going through a hell of a heat-wave touching the 40 degree mark. I remembered the previous weekend in the city – in summer my home usually feels like a sauna, but, this time it was like living inside a furnace! So, when we started calling up friends to drop-in for the “open studio”, we were faced with rejection after rejection. “It’s too hot to travel!” they complained despite our assurances that the heat was much more bearable here in Maheshpur than in the city. It made me wonder how urban comfort has destroyed that couldn’t-care-less spirit of our youth. Or is it the over dependence on electricity and air-conditioning that compels the urban middle class to adopt a sedentary life-style?

However, it was heart warming to note that many of our friends and supporters had arrived and had stayed on for a few hours despite the 37 degrees in the shade. “Yes, you can too!”

Dr. Livingstone & Other Notables…

“So long you were working alone here in Maheshpur, we could look after you. But, there will be other artists participating in the workshop and there will be visitors as well. The incidence of dacoities has gone up in the last couple of months. So, please let the police know you are here,” Amal Babu pleaded. I therefore reluctantly visited Basanti Police Station and handed over a letter to the Duty Officer, who put it aside and said “OK” without even looking at me. I too behaved as nonchalantly as I could and did not even bother to get an acknowledgement and thought no more of it.

On Friday morning, a village functionary came to me and said the police want me to visit them right away. That was bothersome especially with so much left to accomplish. I asked him to call up the police station and let me speak to them. The phone was handed over to me and in my most authoritative voice I barked, “Yes, what is it?”

“Sir, you had requested force…they are standing by. Please pick them up and also bring them back every evening.” said the Duty Officer.

“I did not ask for police guards, I just informed you that we are working here. There is no need for sending forces”, I countered.

“But Sir, force has been sanctioned…it is an order from above!”

“Does not matter. I don’t need force and neither do I have the time to ferry them around.Thank you”, I said hoping to close the issue.

“OK Sir, let us know if you need any other assistance” we exchanged numbers and he rang off.

This sudden interest in us baffled me. Half an hour later, there was another call saying much the same thing. I was irked, but then I realized that the first Duty Officer’s shift had ended and he had not left instructions or any record of our earlier conversation.

On Sunday morning just as I had finished dressing, someone told me that the police had arrived and were looking for me. I looked in the direction of the street and noticed two police jeeps standing there with their engines running. I guessed there business would be in connection with the order from ‘above’. So, I walked down to the waiting police jeep – a little irritated at this sudden and belated show of concern. An officer, an ASI sat in one of the jeeps, not bothering to get down – an obvious display of hierarchy. However, he smiled good naturedly and asked, “Mr. Abhijit Gupta, I presume?” I could not but help chuckle to myself at the obvious reference that flashed through my mind, a classic – “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

As I smiled back at him, he got down from the jeep and shook my hand. “What is your programme today?” he asked.

“Nothing. We are going to have a picnic. That’s all,” I replied trying to keep a poker face.

“The IG Railways is visiting you. What is his programme here?”

“I didn’t know that he was coming.”

“But, if he has no programme, why is he coming?’

“Look this is a free country...anybody who wishes to visit me is welcome to join the picnic. You too are welcome to join us for lunch!” I said, making a quick mental calculation of the number of invitees versus absentees.

He declined the offer mumbling something about duty hours and left.

Later on that day, the cook seeing so many rifle toting constables vanished from the scene. I was told that he has a criminal record and thought they had come to arrest him. Luckily lunch had already been cooked by then and it was quite delicious!

Dr. Livingstone? Am I getting delusional? Who wouldn’t be in this creative environment? My friend Chhatrapati’s story board “Hamilcharit” refers to Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton's efforts to build an ideal society here, overlaps with the story of the Olive Ridley construction, he even uses my photograph. Abhishek refers to me as Titumir – the maker of the original Bnasher Kella (Bamboo Fortress). Piyali and Soumik’s touristy booklet on the “Bnasher Kella” prominently features me! I am in the company of notables and that surely stimulates delusional behaviour. I have done that many times before on lazy summer afternoons and it really feels good. For example, think of yourself as Tagore and Ms. Ocampo is looking up at you, sitting at your feet and you will know what I mean. Actually this example is not exactly to my taste. One of my favourite delusion induced reverie was when pretty women climbed out of the art books on my studio shelf in their birthday suits and just sat around me, as if that was the most normal thing to do! It felt so good that I lovingly painted this picture in 2004, but the text running across it read:

Though I had known them for a long time, their appearance in my studio had me flummoxed. “Let’s do it!” I exclaimed, immediately realising my mistake. They pounced upon this opportunity, “Look!” they chimed mockingly, “One more jerk!”

Posthumous conversations – IV, acrylic on canvas, 60” x 60”

However, I never exhibited this work - it seemed to betray the insecurities of a middle aged man. But, now it is not important anymore. So, whenever I feel that this humdrum life is getting on my nerves, I take a delusional trip.

In other words, I keep living my life through Casanova and his escapades, Dali and his kinky parties, Dr. Livingstone’s adventures, Hamilton’s pursuit of an ideal society, Beethoven’s music and much, much more. And in trying to tell you about it, I have drifted from the Matla in the west to Bidyadhari in the east completely ignoring the happenings at Maheshpur in between.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

While the Chief Minister of West Bengal (who is enjoying an enviable delusional trip sans the bothersome punctuations of lucidity) was branding everyone a CPM cadre or a Maoist in the Town Hall in Calcutta, Proshanto - our make-believe gunin (priest) was tying amulets on each visitor’s arm and reciting:

“Shaheb, chabuk, Aila, apod
Shabek bipod joto –
Thekabey shob bnasher kila
Rakhibey okkhoto.”

(“Sahibs, whips and guns,
And dangers ill and evil…
The bamboo fort will ward off all
Even Ailas terrible.”)

(The original Bengali text & English translation are both by Abhishek Sarkar)

The recitation of the poem and the faux-ritual of amulet tying was choreographed as a goodwill gesture – which was somewhat marred by the offer of money by a few, who thought that goodwill could be commodified. However, this marked the opening of the Olive Ridley shelter now christened “Bnasher Kella” (Bamboo Fortress) by popular demand, as well as, the Open Studio of the Khoj Kolkata workshop “Designs on a Delta: exploring the making of myths”.

The four day workshop went off smoothly…well almost. The digital printer had come without its driver. When a driver was found locally, the CD-Rom did not work. When a replacement laptop was found, it did not have a compatible platform. This went on until the very end, keeping everyone on tenterhooks. But, this did not dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. We worked, cooked, cleaned, splashed about in the beautiful pond next door and slummed it without complaint. This must have been one very different artists’ workshop - shorn of all the luxuries that artists are pampered with nowadays.

I had installed a signage similar to those that are found in front of archeological monuments, thereby underlining the theme of the workshop - exploring the making of myths.

Olive Ridley Update

I will let the pictures do the talking…

Detail of front door

Window under the awning
The Olive Ridley Shelter transforms into the "Bnasher Kella"
Detail of window

Workshop Pictures

Chhatrapati Dutta’s story board “Hamilcharit” displayed inside the Bnasher Kella

A page from "Hamilcharit"

Piyali Sadhukhan & Soumik Chakraborty’s photo studio

Piyali & Soumik's gift packet
Piyali Sadhukhan’s memorial to all the lost souls 

Prasun Ghosh’s interpretation of Noah’s Ark. 

The clay toys and objects were made by local children

For now, my work here in Maheshpur is over, but for a few loose ends that I must tie up next week. I shall also be going over now and then to check on how the Bnasher Kella is holding up. I will therefore travel at leisure and find the time to visit other places in the Sundarbans, as well as, find more stories on the Canning Local.

For those of you in Calcutta, we shall be organising a special presentation on the complete project and will inform you in advance. Please do attend.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Maheshpur Again …

May is a punishing month. The heat and humidity has started taking its toll in more ways than one. I have been avoiding overnight stays in Maheshpur, choosing instead to make day trips in the comfort of air-conditioned cars. Thanks to friends who are ever willing to accompany me and get a first hand feel of bucolic Bengal. The workers still on site seem to be infected with a quiet kind of ennui that seems to say, “This is our lot!”

Arriving at the point in the road from where the Olive Ridley shelter reveals itself behind a row of coconut and betel nut trees, one is usually impressed by the sight that looks somewhat unreal.  The white dome stands out amid the greens and the general drabness of local homes is suddenly banished from ones mind. I get off the car at the point where the fencing ends at the front of the Pandit’s paternal homestead and a bare mud embankment dividing two ponds leads the way to a narrow space between the pond on the left and a crumbling mud wall on the right, where a lone red hibiscus tree stands. One has to stoop a bit to avoid brushing against drooping branches of this tree laden with flowers. Despite having walked this path for a bit over three months, I cannot but feel a sense of elation every time I see the house revealing itself, bit by bit, as the screen of sickle-shaped shonajhuri leaves disappear overhead as one advances.

I get on the bamboo bridge and walk purposefully down to the ground floor only to forget my immediate mission and sit down on a bench and light up a cigarette. Despite the drops of sweat that starts appearing, the balmy breeze is a welcome change from the chill inside the car. I am greeted by Proshanto and all those who are there, including the usual gawkers, with whom by now, I have more than a passing acquaintance. My somewhat rehearsed greetings elicit an equally unenthusiastic murmured response.

In Search of Footprints…

I sit there casually surveying the site. The telltale signs that say work-is-still-in-progress remains scattered about. When will all this be cleared? I ask myself, a little annoyed. As a consolation I remind myself of Laurent’s comment that this house leaves behind no environmental or ecological footprint – except of course the numerous cigarette butts that I have strewn all over the place. On an impulse I suddenly get up to search for them. I find none except a few weathered empty packets of Gold Flake. I gingerly pick them up intending to deposit them in the bin meant for fuel at the Ashram. Amal Babu had told me once, “Don’t throw away anything! Everything here is of value – even your empty cigarette packets. They help in lighting the fires in our kitchen.” This reminded me of the aftermath of the cyclone “Aila”. With no dry fuel to cook with, school books were used for kitchen fires. Much of the bits and pieces and innards of the bamboos had therefore been carted off to the Ashram. I have kept some of the better pieces as material for the proposed artists’ workshop. These too will then become fuel for the kitchen fires at the Ashram. No footprints? I wonder!

Preparing to End it…

I climb the stairs to the upper floor and am instantly disappointed. Binoy has installed incomplete windows, the paint work has just started and the clay walls are yet to dry – despite the heat. The breeze inside is cool and the pivoted windows are helping deflect the breeze into the corners as well! That is something that I had not thought off. Small mercies!

As a culmination of the construction of the Olive Ridley shelter, this week six of us will be living here for a few days to participate in an artists’ workshop titled “Designs on a Delta: exploring the making of myths” and it perturbs me to think that the house is still not habitable. Proshanto assures me “You must not worry; things will fall into place before you arrive”. I talk about hiring a generator and decorators supplying us rudimentary sleeping mats and mosquito nets. “That too shouldn’t be a problem”, he adds.

At the Ashram I meet the children who greet me like I have been gone for years. They have much to tell me and I pass out sheets of paper for them to draw, as well as, to keep them quiet. I am not my garrulous self today. The drawings keep coming at a fast pace and I am soon out of paper. I promise to give them more paper next time around. Their eyes convey the epithet “spoilsport”.

After lunch I decide to leave for Kolkata right away. There was not much that I could achieve by hanging around. I resolve to complete the house with the help of my artist friends during the workshop. As, I say good bye to Amal Babu, he points in the direction of my erstwhile room and says “Have you decided not to enter it again?” I go in and see the all too familiar bed and the same arrangement, the bench with stacks of assorted things on it. The battery in the corner, the black plastic bags filled with I know not what and the locally procured phone charger with its red and black caterpillar clips…I feel a strange sense of attachment, but retreat fast as the heat under the asbestos roof hits me hard.

My room at the Ashram with the blank canvases

The Met Office says that there is no sign of rain in the coming week and the temperature will rise. In a way good news, because rain results in slippery mud and slush here in the Sundarbans and bad because it will be unbearably hot if the breeze stops. A generator might therefore give us some relief, but almost everyone always thought I am a bit daft, but now they are saying I am bonkers – why else would one schedule a workshop in mid-May, that too in a place with no creature comfort within miles?

This post got delayed due to my pre-occupation with organising  the workshop and much else in between. The next post will also be delayed as I will be back late on Sunday next with much to share with you.

Thank you all for staying with me!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Last of the shadows

My preoccupation with the construction of the Olive Ridley house has resulted in one victim, namely, my documentation of its progress through shadows cast on canvas. When I finally realized that I had overlooked much, it was already too late. Thus, before the scaffolding finally came down I hurriedly took photographs of the shadows cast by it on the plastered dome.

Looking at these photographs on my computer now, I feel a kind of sadness and nostalgia. It feels like a process has abruptly ended - that which will be impossible to replicate again. I congratulate myself for having captured these fleeting images for posterity, but, immediately doubt its' veracity. These images are not real; they are usually manipulated on Photoshop and therefore do not qualify as ‘real images’ of ‘real moments’.

Kunal Sen my friend from when we were at school, dropped in the other day. While discussing computers and digital photography – in terms of authenticity, as in, what is real and what is not, his observation seemed so very true. He felt that in the entire history of documenting images, the only period that may be considered comparatively unblemished, is the time between the beginning of photography and the coming of the digital age. Prior to these hundred odd years, artists manipulated the images – artistic license! What they achieved was always considered a good resemblance to the ‘real’. Again after the advent of the digital age, one can never be sure that an image has not been even slightly altered. This seems to imply that soon enough the virtual will be considered more real than reality itself.

To illustrate this he explained how the virtual and the real are getting mixed up. Generally, a computer game consists of various levels and on one; a player has to earn enough points to get a weapon necessary to win at that level. But, the worlds start getting mixed up here. He earns the weapon and sells it on eBay. Another player buys it in the virtual space of that game! So the actual transaction of money happens in the real sense for a virtual weapon…this is crazy! Or is it?

For me, this virtual world of writing blog posts is another reality. I am hiding my fears and agonizing about the safety of my design in the real world, but, admitting it on a blog is so relieving. Is this virtual space my retreat from the responsibilities of reality? I wonder.

Other Shadows & a Silver Lining

As, I was privately musing over these ponderables, I was disturbed by the incessant ringing of the telephone. The voice at the other end seemed flustered and I was rudely awakened to the responsibilities of reality. It had been raining cats and dogs for the last few evenings and the roof had begun to leak. It was spoiling the already finished and drying mud walls. A shadow of gloom descended on me as my worst fears were already coming true.

I put the phone down and called up Laurent and discussed the problem with him. He assured me it was a minor problem and that given the experimental nature of this design, much worse could have happened. Armed with a list of technical suggestions from him, I made arrangements to leave as soon as possible.

However, my euphoria of the past weeks had given way to utter dejection and had made the spring in my step disappear. I no longer looked forward to experiencing and fishing for happenings on the Canning Local. I hired a car and took along Smriti and Shohini (the last named is my daughter) as if for moral support! Arriving at Maheshpur we went straight to the shelter to survey the damage. Yes, there were leaks and the damage was much less than I had been led to believe. I breathed a sigh of relief. The problem was soon sorted out and repair work undertaken.

Interestingly, I found that everyone involved in the construction were deeply disturbed at the turn of events. I knew that this would hamper the completion of the house and therefore behaved as if this was a normal thing to have happened. So, “It’s no big deal”, I tell them. This seemed to lift their spirits, yet they tried to find someone or something to blame. “Now, come on, it’s my fault, okay?” I said. There was a moment of stunned silence and then they grinned sheepishly at me, as if chided by a school master for talking in class. I tried to explain the best as I could that “the plaster was not at fault, it was a flaw in the structure. This flaw will not compromise the structure when it comes to heavy rains or storm, but, what has affected it now is the weight of too many people working on the roof all at once. Since the structure is quite rigid, it led you to believe that it can take any amount of load. That is all. Now, let’s talk dates. The artists’ workshop will begin on…”

They nodded their heads in agreement. Responsibilities were discussed and designated.

I know I am an incorrigible optimist…no one needs to remind me of that! But again, I have to admit that this virtual space in many ways aids catharsis.

Rear view of the shelter and me. Picture courtesy Kunal Basu.

Shadows of Earlier Journeys

Traveling for more than three months between Kolkata and Maheshpur had settled down to a humdrum routine that I tried to make the most of. Watching people and noticing oddities had become a pastime that spiced up this not so comfortable journey. The auto-rickshaw rides between Canning and Maheshpur were absolute cliff-hangers. With Apiluddin becoming taciturn and not so dependable, Lal Babu’s contacts kept ferrying me.

The driver who served me most was Gautam Bera – a burly, dour faced man who drove like a maniac with a mission to kill as many as possible including me along with himself. I would not unsling my camera bag, and despite the reserved status of my auto kept my rucksack on my knees, poised and ready to cushion a fall. I would hold on for dear life as he sped past buses and trucks and hollered at laggards of the lesser variety of vehicles plying in this region. My knuckles would turn white and my face ashen (despite my dark complexion). After every such ride I needed a while to get my equilibrium back and for my hands to stop shaking. Finally, I decided that I had had enough. First I drove in and out once in my own jalopy with Laurent for company. That was pleasant indeed! But, then I could not find someone to accompany me. I therefore took the train and once again - Gautam’s auto was waiting. This time he fell asleep while driving. I suddenly saw the auto meandering dangerously. I shouted and woke him up. This happened again and again. I finally managed to stop him and offered him a cigarette. “What’s wrong with you?” I asked. “I am sleepy” he stated in a matter of fact manner. He offered me no other excuse. I finally reached the Ashram, my hands shaking much more than usual.

The last two times I went to Maheshpur was in the air-conditioned comfort of a hired car. Kunal and Sushmita Basu visited the shelter the previous week and this time was with Smriti and Shohini. The journey by road is not bad, especially, after you have had the patience to negotiate through the crowded bazaars between Rajpur and Baruipur. The road is lined with trees and their shadows make this journey quite pleasant. As always there is conversation to liven things up.

But, I miss my ritual chicken-egg roll without ketchup, the guessing games of station names, trying to make sense of snatches of conversation and imagining stories about unknown people. On the way back this time, I stop the car near the Canning station and buy us a bottle of chilled mineral water from my regular stall. “A sip of this chilled water never felt so good,” I remark as I pass the bottle. “Nectar!” agrees Shohini.

No new pictures of the Olive Ridley this time as I wish to reveal the complete shelter to you next week. Until then my friends!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

An Unseen Friend

In the first month in Maheshpur, while I was trying to read by the light of the solar lantern, pausing now and then to ease my eyes so they don’t develop a permanent squint, I overheard snatches of conversation between Amal Babu and someone at the other end of the line. Amal Babu’s tone went from banter to argumentative and at times the heated exchanges made me worry that this could be the last phone conversation he would ever have with the person on the other end.  But, their relationship seemed to be made of very resilient stuff. The next evening the conversation started all over again as if nothing had happened the earlier night. These snatches of overheard yet indistinct conversations intrigued me no end. Perhaps understanding my interest about this person, Amal Babu mentioned my name to him a few times in a way that I could clearly hear him. He came closer to my open window to ensure that my appetite was suitably whetted. I could not even guess what was being referred to, but, I presumed it was about my work here in the Sundarbans.

Amal Babu told me about him and thought we would become very good friends one day. “You will only need to meet him once and the two of you will hit it off!” he foretells. Amal Babu lovingly refers to him as Pagla or Kshyapa (both means crazy or madcap).

One evening Amal Babu handed me the phone and said “Kshyapa wants to speak to you!” I cupped the phone hurriedly and asked Amal Babu “But what is his name?”

“Chandan - Chandan Chakraborty.”

I introduced myself and asked “Yes, Chandan Babu what do you wish to tell me?”

Without much ado he said,” This house you are building will be of no use. It will all be under water very soon.”

“How soon?” I asked taken aback by this sudden attack.

“It will be sooner than you can imagine, ten, maybe fifteen years at the most. The Matla will shift to the east and should reach the school building”, he stated confidently.

“The Matla is about a kilometer from here to the west and there is evidence of large mud flats developing very fast on the eastern bank. How would this trend suddenly reverse itself?” I asked incredulously.

“I have studied this area; I am a Geologist and all our data points in that direction. All the rivers in this delta have a tendency to move eastwards. Why, you may even use Google map and actually see these shifts!” he said condescendingly.

Not knowing how to counter all of this and feeling a bit flustered about my ignorance on the subject, I switched tracks, “This makes my work on the Olive Ridley shelter all the more relevant. These experiments are necessary to prepare for the impending disasters that you speak of so eloquently. Should we then sit back and not try anything, just because some people in academia believe that doomsday is near?”

We got into an argument, banter and repartee continued for a while until we called a truce for the night.

Yet another evening and another phone call. Chandan Babu warns me not to use the water from the adjoining pond. “It is full of bacteria. They are used to it and you are not. I have experienced bad itches once. I carry my own drinking water ever since. If you sink a tube well which is not deep enough, the water is saline, if you sink it further in, the chances of finding arsenic is all too high.”

“What is the alternative? Rain water harvesting?” I asked.

“It’s all because of the lunar tides. All our problems would have been solved if we could shift the position of the moon a little further out!” he sniggered provocatively. I took the bait.

“Why don’t you write a project proposal on this and send it to NASA!” I quipped.

Chandan Babu laughed a genuine laugh probably for the first time.

Amal Babu is surprisingly up-to-date about the contents of my blog without ever reading them. There is no internet here. He stays informed because of Chandan Babu who relays the content of each post to his friend. The other day Amal Babu asked me why I did not report the incident with Kaushik to him. I explained that I had given the culprit a scolding and thought nothing more of it. I keep getting stories from all kinds of people and have never written about them in order of sequence. They appear in my blog only when they seem relevant to a particular context. Amal Babu smiled and said,”Chandan scolded me and said what kind of a teacher are you? Could you not teach your people to at least speak properly?”

I think I have a friend, who I have not met as yet. But, Google “Professor Chandan Chakraborty/ISI” and you will find him. I did that myself and was duly impressed by his academic achievements. To say that Chandan Babu is an accomplished person would be a gross under statement.

In the meanwhile he has been visiting Maheshpur on Sundays and therefore I keep missing the opportunity of meeting him in person. The reason for his frequent trips, I am told, is that he is keen on starting a project to study water level fluctuations, et al, so that he can take it to the next logical conclusion that would provide deeper insights into the subterranean nature of this area and could translate into benefiting the people of the Sundarbans. Needless to say, the Olive Ridley shelter could be temporarily used as a documentation and research centre equipped with gizmos that will transmit data directly to Calcutta. Laurent too wishes to do the same to collect data on how the shelter behaves during extreme weather conditions. I wish Chandan Babu all the luck in this world and hope that he will find dependable assistants from amongst the locals, who will deliver correctly and on time.

Through this blog, I warn Chandan Babu that whenever we meet, I will drop the ‘Babu’ affix. He can surely pull my leg, but, I will surely pull the age card on him!

Olive Ridley Update

 I was very disappointed with the overall progress made last week. The masons had done a shabby job. The bamboo scaffolding is down and has been taken away by Binoy to cut them up for furniture. So, to rectify the finish of the dome would entail buying more bamboo, which is not an option that I have any more. The clay is drying very slowly and to top it off, Binoy has not delivered the door and the windows. In fact from what I gathered, he has not started work on them yet. However, Amal Babu has intervened and given Binoy a piece of his mind, prompting him to promise delivery this week.

Despite the overall inefficiency and insincerity that the Olive Ridley house has been subjected to – it looks good. I promise it will look better when I am done!

The clay walls are yet to dry. They will resemble the ceiling colour when dry.

Laurent assures me that:

Wind calculations have been done to check overturning, as per national building code except for the wind speed which we took as 72m/s (Orissa super cyclone) instead of 55m/s. But, that is for overturning only. The strength of the dome and particularly of the overhangs above the openings has not been checked.

I think a huge cyclone would be able to ‘shake’ the dome and create cracks in the plaster, but probably not be able to destroy it”.

 And yet I have nightmares… 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Scratch Your B@!!$

Mahesh Company

In the twelve weeks that I have been in Maheshpur, I have tried to glean every bit of information on the history of this place. Sadly, not much could be learnt except that parts of the Sundarbans had been parceled off by leases since the time of the British Raj.  Environment, Population, and Human Settlements of Sundarban Delta a book by Anuradha Banerjee deals with and records, that after the East India Company took over, leases were granted between 1770 -1773 in order to reclaim land and supply timber. Thereafter one Mr. Princep (1822-23) designed the area into blocks and numbered them into lots or Lats and hence the name 24 Parganas originated. The area was mapped by Morrison (1814) and was the basis of Lt. Hodges (1829) land surveys and the task was completed in 1831 and is known as Hodges Map of Sundarban. Mr. Dampier the then Commissioner along with Lt. Hodges defined the line of forests that came to be known as the Dampier Hodges Line. Since 1830 almost 3800 sq. kms south of the Dampier Hodges Line had been cleared for cultivation and settlement. Land records from 1839 reveals that Zamindars were given 99 year leases. They were known as Latdars who could sublet to Chakdars, who could sublet to Raiyats and so on. Outright sales were allowed from 1865.

I gather from hearsay that Mahesh Company was the Latdar of the lot south of Basanti Bajar and hence our little village is named – Maheshpur. This bit is of course sheer conjecture, but, I like to risk it. After all, much of history is based on informed conjecture.

I do not know whether the Late Rakhal Chandra Pandit had bought his land directly from Mahesh Company or there were other owners in between, but, the fact remains that he had come before India’s independence and settled here is true without a doubt. It is also true that he established the first school in 1959 and named it after his wife – Jashoda, and to that end gave away 60 bighas (about 20 acres) of land.

Elections at Maheshpur Jashoda Bidyapith

The school is run by an elected committee. The committee members belong to different political parties and the electors are the parents of the students. All very well, but what do I see? Having stayed and studied in big cities I have never seen this excitement around a school election. Obviously they are all in the fray for big stakes. This election reached a crescendo last week. The contestants held meetings addressed by important political bigwigs, they campaigned door to door in the scorching sun and the rhetoric was acrimonious. For six seats in the school committee there are eighteen contestants. Some of them even cast aspersions on the reasons for the late Rakhal Chandra Pandit’s benevolence.

I asked around to understand this and was told that with the money drying up in the Gram Panchayats (village administration), the focus has shifted to the schools, as they are now considered milch cows. The list of candidates reveals much else.

The arrival of a contingent of policemen raised the ante in this otherwise sleepy hamlet. While writing this post I have been informed that the elections have passed off without incident.

Scratch Your B@!!$

Also in the last twelve weeks I have had few visitors from the city.  Smriti my partner of thirty three years and the ebullient Laurent Fournier have been the only exceptions. Piyali and Soumik came over for a day to discuss their projects for the proposed artists’ workshop. Chhatrapati too came with them and planned to stay a night. Just about when he had just dug in his heels and started to enjoy the photo - ops that Maheshpur presented him, the scare of a Tsunami tumbling over to Maheshpur sent panic waves through Kolkata and his family and friends made frantic calls for him to return. But, the person who sent some of the locals into a tizzy was Kaushik – Khoj Kolkata’s manager. Kaushik was born with physical disabilities which however has not deterred him from riding a motorcycle or climbing trees or excelling in the area of multi-media applications. In fact he has never tried to apply for anything under any handicapped quota. He does not consider himself to be incomplete or challenged. His ever smiling face and his willingness to extend himself is worthy of respect.

Kaushik posing in my "Canning Hat".
So, Kaushik arrives at the site on Saturday and is immediately surrounded by schoolboys and adults alike. They shamelessly stare at him and short of touching him they inspect his impediments.  This was irksome to say the least. I refrained from saying and held my peace. Then one of my workers gathered up enough gall to ask him, “What kind of accident were you in?”

“I was born this way,” Kaushik replied without the minutest change in his smile.

“Please don’t mind my saying so. But, I think you had done a lot of bad things in your past life,” the smart ass opined.

This got my blood boiling. I gave the smart ass a piece of my mind, but stopped short of telling him what I had heard only two weeks ago from a passing acquaintance in Maheshpur. This gentleman seemed to be well read and he had nothing but contempt for the locals. Allow me to narrate what he said.

“People here are all handicapped,” he suddenly started off. 

“Mentally and psychologically handicapped,” he clarified seeing my questioning gaze.

Before I could react and question him, he continued his tirade. “Most of them have one hand, because the other is busy scratching their b@!!$. If they could they would have applied for jobs and other opportunities under the handicapped quota! There are some who have no hands at all…both are occupied in like wise manner!” he signed off. I was bemused by all this as I had heard similar things being said many years ago about the Babus in Writers’ Building. That joke said that one could qualify for the job only if one does not have a condition known as monorchism. Full pay only if you can spend half a day scratching each b@!!

Yes, I am angry.

Olive Ridley Update

The construction is complete. I cannot show you a picture of the shelter without the bamboo scaffolding – Binoy has done the vanishing trick once again and the expert masons arrived two days late, necessitating an extended stay in the humid heat after the unsettling Nor’westers. Work on the clay interior has started and should be completed by mid-week. It now boils down to when all of this will dry off to allow for a coat of white wash inside. Dates for the artists’ workshop and the opening is therefore still in limbo. 

Ulu grass lining and preparation of clay.

Until next week friends!

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