Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dreams and other narratives

After the forced break due to the festivities of the previous week, as mentioned in my last post, things are back to normal.  Work on the Olive Ridley Shelter has resumed. The Canning Local has not thrown up any new surprises and I have thus invented a guessing game to keep myself amused. If one doesn’t know the station names in between Canning and Ballygunge and looks down at the platforms, which are singularly filthy; shops take up most of the space, passengers crowd too close to oncoming trains and the only difference is the number of people on the platform that informs us about the status of a station.  Somewhat empty platform? So, where am I? Too much green? So, where am I? The peanut seller by the lamp post? So where am I? The markers are endless.

Apiluddin has not been able to ferry me this week as he is on school duty taking students to examination centres. So, I am being treated to smoother rides on the new auto-rickshaw of Gautam Bera. I go on my routine walks through the village four times a day. The children greet me with their uninhibited smiles and pester me with questions on their favourite subject -ghosts. 

Gopinath's ghost catching fish
The early morning tuition held for the children by Haradhan Bera wakes me up and I feel a little irritated. But, the evening classes are something that I look forward to. Haradhan Babu sits on the floor with about ten of the youngest boys around him. The sound track is mesmerizing. Haradhan Babu’s multi-tasking skills are unbelievable, switching from one lesson to the next – dividing his attention equally amongst his wards. His patience however, is tested at times. He prepares lunch for them when the cook is absent, pays attention to the minutest of details and swings a fishing net with aplomb early every morning – making the simplest of meals come alive. In between all his chores at the Ashram, he cycles home a few times to look after his own affairs which includes farming. I quite often hear him singing old Bengali songs on lazy afternoons. Haradhan Babu is a veritable one-man army.

Haradhan Babu with his wards

The days are getting hotter and the trek back to the Ashram for lunch is becoming daunting.  My crocheted hat, made out of synthetic fishing net yarn bought from a touristy shop in Canning helps a bit. Amal Babu has connected a pedestal fan to the solar powered battery in my room and cautions me that the battery is old and I should not use the fan indiscriminately.  I use the fan for about an hour in the afternoon after lunch as the asbestos roof heats up the room.

My hat!
It became unbearably hot one evening. I waited for Haradhan Babu’s class to end in the adjoining room and the lights were switched off there. I took a bath and cooled myself sitting in front of the fan. I continued to use it till I went to bed.

As soon as I had switched off my lantern and tucked in my mosquito net, the heat hit me like a sledgehammer. I started sweating, but tried to sleep – believing that once sleep overcame me, this sense of discomfort would soon be gone. I tossed and turned in bed until I drifted off…

I am on the platform of Canning station telling the man not to put sauce in my egg-roll. The train compartment is unusually empty.

Almost empty compartment

 “Dui akkey dui. Dui dugunay? Dui dugunay ki? Dui dugunay chaar. Ball, dui dugunay chaar.”

Betberia Ghola…
A bunch of giggly school girls swarm in.

Sweat trickles down my neck. I wake up, switch on the fan and go back to bed.

Ghutiari Sharif…
Loud green on the walls…a young couple is pushed closer by the fourth person crowding a three-seater bench.
 “Hongsho boltey hnash bojhaye. Bongsho boltey bnash bojhaye. Hongsho ki? Hongsho holo hnash”.
 “Why don’t you tie every alternate joint? You are wasting my time. At this rate we will never finish this house”.
The boy sitting on his father’s lap throws up. Much of the vomit re-enters through another window down-wind. There are shouts of protest.
The young couple cozy up. She readjusts the position of her large bag on her lap to accommodate and conceal her boyfriend’s arm.

”a - oi, khuku nachey ta-thoi-thoi.”
The elbow re-emerges from behind the bag. People on the opposite seat unabashedly ogle the pair. The couple smile at each other. Her face registers a tacit consent.

The sound of a crashing branch awakens me and I am concerned about the battery running down. I get up, switch off the fan and go back to bed.

More bamboos are unloaded. Someone in my team says “This is better quality”. Green turning to a pale yellow. They hit the bamboos below with a ‘thwang’ like the sound of a loose cello string.

A cleaner platform that invites you to explore this little town.
The peanut seller sells me two slim packets for five rupees each and offers it to me with the tops cut off.
“Chhoto khoka boley aw – aa, shekheni tow kotha kowa. What now? This is the third time in half an hour that you want to pee!”
The fourth passenger gets up and leaves. No one takes his seat. The couple sits close to each other for just a while longer and then moves away disappointed with their loss of an alibi.
A man takes off his shirt with vomit on it. Selects a clean part and wipes himself. Fishing out a polythene bag from his shoulder bag, he stuffs the shirt in and treats it with utmost distaste. All the while cursing and muttering about fathers who are careless about their children.

My sweat by now had taken on the force of the Matla in spate. I wake up, switch on the fan and return to bed.

The boyfriend gets up and readies to leave. The girl lifts up her bag to hide a pout intended only for him to see - as in a stolen farewell kiss.
“Ram boney phul pare…”.
“Kaku bon ki?”
“Bon janish na? Sundarbaner chhele! Bon holo giye Jongol…onek gaach!”

I had a fitful night and was bleary-eyed when the morning classes began. But, instead of my usual irritability, I pricked up my ears to catch every word of Haradhan Babu’s lessons.

The morning was blissfully breezy as I walked down to the site. I met Haradhan Babu on the way. “North winds! The children will be ill. I must tell them to keep their shirts on,” he said pedaling away. Later on during lunch time I told him how much I appreciated the good work he was doing with the children. He gave me a shy smile.

Olive Ridley Update

The roof structure is taking inordinately long. But, the bridge and the stairs are done. So is the ramp down from the bridge to the ground floor. The bamboo railings are waiting to be fixed. I hope to complete the outer dome by next week, HORI willing!

For those of you who did not understand this lingo – my apologies. I am inept at translating these into English. And to those of you who wish to know more about the Canning Local– there are sixteen stations between Canning and Ballygunge (both included). They are: Canning, Taldi, Betberia Ghola, Gaurdaha, Piyali, Champahati, Kalikapur, Bidyadharpur, Sonarpur, Narendrapur, Garia, Bagha Jatin, Jadavpur, Dhakuria and Ballygunge. The train goes further – the next two stations are Park Circus and Sealdah. Try it sometime – you might find grist for your mill!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Of Battery Powered Noise & Other Distractions

In Maheshpur, I had expected relief from the incessant blaring of loud speakers from my neighbourhood Tara Ma temple in Calcutta. But, ever since I started staying in this village, my nights have been disturbed by loud speakers blaring devotional songs. I wondered how in this place, devoid of electricity, one could create such an immense racket. Battery powered havoc I realized to my horror! The sound carries very far due to the absence of buildings that act as baffle walls as in a city. Week after week the direction of this noise changed as each village in turn held a three to four, day and night long Horinaam Sankirtan. Now it’s Maheshpur’s turn.

On closer inspection of the handbill one notices that the programme is on the occasion of Bonodebi Mata’s Puja– a Hinduisation of Bonobibi: the Goddess of the forest. I will not write about Bonobibi here but, will once again recommend Annu Jalais’ book Forest of the Tigers for further details on the religious hierarchies of the Sundarbans. What I want to stress here is the power of the battery – it's giving me sleepless nights! I shudder to think what it will be when these villages are electrified. Of one thing I am sure – I will not be there to witness the decibel wars between competing villages.

Photo courtesy: Laurent Fournier
There is an irksome fallout of the Horinaam Sankirtan – some of my workers want to take leave to attend the festivities. “This is the most important annual festival here in Maheshpur”, they explain.  “So, Mr. Olive Ridley Shelter you have to wait. Religion comes first!” I tell the mute, half constructed bamboo skeleton.

Work had been stalled on more occasions than one for a variety of reasons and not being able to complete a project within a deadline is something that has never featured on my curriculum vitae. This is ridiculous! Expenses are mounting and I have a limited budget. I never believed that I would see this day. I tell myself not to get worked up. Working in the city is an entirely different ball game from working in the countryside with semi-skilled people. I confer with Binoy and decide to set strict deadlines for each week and hope that these are met. As I am a non-believer, I cannot even expect Hori to deliver.

Details of the roof work in progress

However, the structure is taking shape and that is my only consolation. There is much that remains to be done and hope they are achieved without any more hold ups.

Art Practices: Intended & Otherwise

Prasun has relieved me from spending the whole week in Maheshpur and I am ‘relieved’. He too has time on his hands when in the Ashram. Having struck a chord with the boys there, he has initiated them into clay modeling. He called me up to say that there were a lot of stuff under my bed and that I should photograph them for this blog. I found out that there was a lot of small works in clay in various stages of disintegration. The cat must have been at it or it could have been the large field rat that often scurries out when I enter my digs. However, I get the boys to take them outdoors for the shoot. I separate them in terms of subject. There was a lot of clay pots with wilted real flowers stuck into them. A few birds, carts and trucks, but what caught my attention was the number of diesel generator and pump sets.

These too were falling apart and looked like they belong in a junkyard. I shot them accordingly. This is a photograph by me of an installation of objects created by the children, directed by Prasun. The youngest member of the Ashram – Pathik, a three year old, Phelu for short, picked up the biggest of the generator-pump set-combo and claimed he had done it. I played along and told him that he had done a very good job. Emboldened, he decided to drive home his advantage, “Ami sob korechhi!” (I did it all) he proclaimed.

As for myself, I had taken along a few small canvases and they sat in my room for weeks. The light of the solar lantern did not encourage me to even try to confront these whites.  Finally, I did use them. A precious gift of a good camera helped in no uncertain terms. The canvases were waiting for images and that is what they received. It is a study of shadows cast by the Olive Ridley Shelter in progress.


 Canning Local Update

Well almost. This is an update with a poser. Does the “scratchitti” in the train compartments - an expression of passenger frustration, qualify as protest art?

 I leave you with this question. Until next week then!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Stories on a Moonlit Night

The boys at the Ashram without an exception believe that ghosts do exist and they will vociferously defend this contention. Apiluddin’s intervention resulted in the Ashram compound being lit up. My purchase of a solar lantern also helped during evening studies and in making my evenings a lot more bearable. But, these did not help to dispel their fear of ghosts. It seems that the darkness around is directly proportional to the fear of ghosts. I noticed on a number of occasions that a conversation starts with, “Do you believe in ghosts?” My answer in the negative does not satisfy them and they try to convince me that ghosts exist and almost immediately a story follows.  I would like to share one such story with you that I was told on the full moon night of Holi.

Subroto, a seven year old, narrated this story with appropriate seriousness and I was amused at the way he pronounced “Bhnoot” and “Pedni” (a male ghost and a female ghost respectively). I will retain these spellings. Here’s Subroto’s story:
The youngest group. Subroto is in the centre.
“There was a small hut and on one side stood a Babla tree and on the other was a date-palm tree. Many Bhnoots lived in the Babla tree. A vicious Pedni lived in the date-palm tree. They fought and quarreled with each other and the poor couple living in that hut got very scared and one day they fled their home. They went to live in their pishir bari (paternal-aunt’s house) in another village far away. Seeing that the humans had left, the Pedni thought it was more fun scaring humans than to fight with each other. So she called a truce and took over the house and started to scare anyone who happened to pass by. She became such a menace after sunset that the villagers were very scared to go that way even in broad daylight.

One day a friend of the local Prince and his wife were returning from a wedding feast and happened to pass by the hut. The man asked his wife to wait near the hut while he goes for a pee. On returning he could not find his wife. The Pedni had eaten her up. He started crying and ran to the Prince. The villagers by then had gathered and they complained too.

The Prince seeing the plight of the villagers, brought in his army at night, but the Bhnoots and the Pedni gave them a sound beating and scratched their faces and arms and legs and even bit of chunks of their cheeks. There was so much blood everywhere. The Prince thought hard and decided that something else needed to be done. He had this new idea. Since the Bhnoots and the Pedni never attacks anyone during the day he had to extend the day. So, he spent a lot of money to string up electric lights. There were search lights, big bulbs, hundreds of tuni bulbs (fairy lights) and the night dazzled like day. This did the trick. The Bhnoots and the Pedni could not go out to get food. They realized that they would starve to death and so they fled the place for good….and the couple came back from their pishir bari and everyone lived happily ever after.”

Did anyone know that ghosts need food? But, if Subroto says so, you better believe it!

The Government would do well if these villages in the Sundarbans are electrified as soon as possible, because, apart from lighting up homes it would surely help in driving away ghosts!

Dol Purnima & fish on the playing field

How did I spend Holi? I was with the workers on site. Some local women and children attacked us with colours. My workers were not spared, but, not me. I am allergic to powdery stuff. “System dishtub aachhey”, I told them. Back at the Ashram the boys had had their fun, the telltale smudges of red and blue on their faces and behind their ears was evidence of it. Much after Subroto had told me his ghost story and when everyone had gone to bed after dinner. I was sitting outside, when Diganta – a thirteen year old came to me and invited me to take a walk with him. “The full moon looks good from the school playing field”, he said. I readily agreed. There were quite a few boys from the school hostel there and two girls were learning to ride a bicycle. The place looked serene and the large pond next to it glimmered in the moonlight. We walked in silence for a while until Diganta asked me the inevitable question, “Do you believe in ghosts?” I had had my fill of this and changed the topic and asked, “Were you here during Aila?”

 “Yes”,he said.

“What was it like? Do you remember?” I asked.

“Oh! I was in class when the storm hit and from the second floor verandah we could see a large wave of water approaching this village from the Matla River. Soon enough this playing field was knee deep in water.”

“What happened next?” I urged him to continue.

“This field had a lot of grass on it, but all that has gone because of the salty water. But, that day people from the village ran to the safety of the school building and they brought along their goats and cows and chickens and ducks. The school became so dirty that it took all of us about a week to clean up the mess. There was also a lot of fish swimming around on this field. People caught as much as they could. They wanted to cook them in the temporary kitchen the school had set up. The Headmaster did not agree because there was little firewood. So, people grumbled and ate whatever was arranged and went to sleep with their catch of fish next to their heads. Soon the place started reeking of rotting fish! You missed it!” he exclaimed.

“Missed what?” I asked.

“The scene of so many fish swimming in the flood waters on the playing field. It was wonderful!”

Diganta was about ten years old when the Aila had struck.  At that age one remembers only that which is amusing.  Hope this world will present him with endless amusing moments.

Progress of the Olive Ridley Shelter

The construction is progressing well now although delayed by more than a week due to the truant head carpenter – Binoy.  The first level is complete and work on the outer dome structure has just been started. Hope to be able to post pictures of the final shape next week.  I have made a few changes from the original plan and redesigned the position of the windows. This too, I hope to post next weekend.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Dishtub Aachhey!

After every journey to Canning, one has to get on a motorized cycle van to reach Sonakhali, cross the Hogol River by boat to Basanti Bajar and get on another motorized cycle van to Maheshpur and use the same mode of transport on the way back. These locally made contraptions are very noisy, as well as, uncomfortable and if you happen to sit at the back you’ve had it. In fact after the first few bone shaking rides over bad roads my back began to hurt. The pain of a forgotten coccyx fracture 30 years ago returned with a vengeance.
So, looking for alternatives my search ended right outside the Canning Railway Station. On both sides of the narrow lane leading to the main road are small tourism booths advertising accommodation, boat and launch rides to popular destinations in the Sundarbans. I went up to one of them that looked a little less decrepit than the others and asked the proprietor if he could help. He was surprised at me for wanting to travel alone and I had to explain to him that I had a medical condition. He suggested that a car ride would be too expensive and he could offer me a brand new three wheeler that runs on LPG. He made a phone call and said -”I am Lal da speaking” - made enquiries and asked me to wait. Soon enough a spanking new auto rickshaw arrived. Lal da told the driver that I would travel alone and that I would be reserving his auto – a thing that is rarely done in these parts. Perhaps in order to explain why I was doing such a foolish and hence ‘boro-loki’ (like-the-rich) thing he told the astonished auto driver “Dadar komor dishtub aachhey.” (Dada has a back problem; dishtub = disturb).

I privately chuckled to myself on hearing this new use of the word. But I soon found that this phrase is common here. One of the solar powered lamps was not working at the Ashram and I was told “light-ta dishtub aachhey.” A bamboo section had warped in the sun, so “bnash-ta dishtub aachhey.”

Apiluddin with his auto-rickshaw
My hosts however did not quite approve of my ‘boro-loki’ and introduced me to Apiluddin Laskar, who gave me a much lower price. To my dismay his rickety auto breaks down quite often and it seems the springs and shock absorbers of his vehicle have been shot a long time ago. He however drives carefully enough, taking care not to aggravate my pain. Therefore, before getting on the train to Canning, I call him on the phone and he is there to pick me up for the about-an-hour-ride to Maheshpur. Apiluddin however flouts our original understanding that his auto is reserved and picks up a few extra passengers on the way. I have tried to tell him that this was not on, but, his nonchalance is amazing. Contract-ta dishtub aachhe!

Like Daylight!

To be able to read at night I invested on a small solar lantern, which I bought from a shop in Basanti Bajar as instructed by my hosts. Apiluddin was with me when I made this purchase. He started a quarrel with the shopkeeper over the price and when I ignored him and paid for the lantern he was aghast and complained about my ‘boro-loki’. All the way back he kept on grumbling and tried to explain how much money I would have saved had I bought less costly components separately and rigged up the whole thing myself. “It will be like daylight!” he insisted. He took the argument right up to my hosts – who agreed to give it a try. Apiluddin brought in an electrician and small LED panels were connected to the existing battery system. But, when I asked him about the cheaper system that Apiluddin was talking about, the electrician told me that there would be light but not enough to read by. “To those who are accustomed to living in darkness, the humble pidim (oil lamp) looks bright!” he said in parting.

Olive Ridley Update

Binoy Biswas

The house is shaping up, the lime is well slaked, the bamboo strips are resting in the pond and the earthwork at base level has been done. But, work was slow this week with my chief carpenter Binoy Biswas taking leave to finish and deliver a ‘biyer khat’ (nuptial bed – those that are adorned with freshly plucked flowers – get the symbolism?). The resultant slow down affected my planned schedule of work. Schedule-ta dishtub aachhey!

More Drawings

This time sample some drawings of elephants by the boys…

I have been receiving a lot of comments about this blog (mostly via email) and I deeply appreciate your encouragement. See you all next weekend!