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I first met him under a peepul tree, my favourite, because it sheltered me from sun and rain, and offered me a seat to rest on, and also held out the hope of imminent homecoming.

And this was in the town of Chinsurah that was once held by the Dutch; they left their signature in the divisional commissioner’s bungalow, the circuit house, and the Gustav fort — it survives still as the district court house, the original moat surrounding it now reduced to several discrete ponds.

At the end of classes each school day, I waited, at least three quarters of an hour (often longer if classes dissolved early) under my peepul, for the company bus to pick me up for the five mile trip home. Every once in a while older girls of the school nearby, or those from the Mohsin College (to which our school was attached), would tchk tchk at my plight in imagined sympathy. Little did they realise that I had a large number of birds, several stray dogs and the chai wallah for company.   

The tree had long lost its trunk but stood, in mature and verdure glory, on sturdy secondary roots. It marked the deltaic crossing of the roads that led to the Balika Banimandir, and the one that circled the central maidan and then meandered past the town centre, known as the ghari ghar (clock tower).

The elderly men of the locality, seeking the company of their equally elderly friends — all very lonely — had got the triangular island on which the tree stood, lovingly encased in a low brick wall, no more than a foot and a half tall, by subscription. The chai wallah would dutifully set up his samovar there at four-o-clock for their consumption, and the elderly men, some very old, would take their seats one by one on the short, brick rampart.

It was, at a very rough guess, about a couple of hundred metres from my school gate, quite a distance in the glaring summer sun and torrential monsoon rain, but the bus driver (Dulal-da, or Chacha, and sometimes Badyi-da) insisted on the spot for three irrefutable reasons. One, our school was off the route, approached by a narrow lane, blind at that, in which the bus couldn’t reverse without bloodshed. Two, girls from Banimandir had to be picked up from a spot just a little down — they were the weaker sex, after all. And three, the inviting ginger-laced chai and lambu biscuits from the ubiquitous vendor awaited him before he picked up the girls form the farthest point of his round trip.

The year was 1957 (the bicentennial of the battle of Plassey and the centenary of the Mutiny), the very year I had joined the Chinsurah school. It so happened that it was also the year of the second ever general election in independent India. I was still rather wet behind the ears (having just turned ten the previous November) and didn’t think of waiting in front of the girls’ school — a far better prospect for older boys — in the pleasant company of girls.

Our teachers were called up for election duty and had to attend orientation training at the court house every week day. That meant my wait for the bus was even longer. For that the headmaster had given me a carte blanche to sit in the library to read, or borrow books on my own, but never more than one at a time. That made the long wait under the peepul less of an ordeal. I also used to carry a small rubber ball, not more than an inch and half in diameter, that enabled me to play catch-ball against the nearest convenient wall, if and when I found the book boring.

The boy materialised from nowhere and startled me as I was engrossed in a particularly enjoyable game for I had caught the ball one hundred times and was still counting.

“Why play alone?” he asked me in Bengali, though he didn’t look one. He had an unkempt head of hair, large eyes, a hooked nose and was smartly dressed. Some palatal defect made his speech a bit difficult to follow at first encounter. Then he asked my name and I asked his, and we were friends before we knew it.

I didn’t quite catch his first name; it sounded something like Aristotle or Asteroid, certainly a bit curious. Without my asking, he volunteered to explain the seeming oddity.

“My family name is Aratoon; we are Armenians from Calcutta.” I wasn’t a bit wiser after this needless elucidation.

That evening I asked my all-knowing dad about it. At his behest I asked Aratoon, when I met him next, to write down his name on the back page of my rough book. A-R-I-S-T-I-D-E-S, he printed, as if that made things as clear as the sky that afternoon! My father took down a tome from the shelf and flipped through it to show me. Aristides, a brave general in the war against the Persians, and the most honourable man in Athens. “He was roughly a contemporary of Buddha,” my dad said, “and a Greek… many Armenians have Greek first names.” He also explained Ari’s peculiar speech defect. “Orthodox Armenians of India have inbred for far too long. They were likely to show up birth defects.”

“You’ll get it as you grow older,” he said, when I asked him to explain inbreeding.

Continued to http://wp.me/p1dQVh-iM

My other blogs are available at <apsendotcom.wordpress.com> and <jonakiblog.wordpress.com>

খুব কাছের, তবু দুরের, ভালবাসার, অনীহার,

তাঁর সে প্রিয় অভ্যাসের নিত্যকার বারান্দাতে বসা,

এশিয়া মহাদেশের মত পৃথুলা আর বেপথু তিনি হাসির ভূকম্পনে,

অঙ্কে তাঁর জুড়িয়ে যাওয়া চায়ের কাপ বিস্মরণে হতাশ,

পাড়ার খোঁড়া কুকুর আর আহত পাখি নিখাদ কোমলতায়

অভিভূত; কিন্তু যেই মিছিলে তিনি হাঁটেন অনুদ্দেশে

সেখানে কেউ পারেনা তাঁর সামিল হতে, শুধু

তাসার বাজনদারের দলের পিছু নেয়া কুকুরছানার মত

দূর থেকেই দাঁড়িয়ে শোনে, দুকান খাড়া, ধ্বনিমুগ্ধ চোখে!

হঠাৎ যদি বিপদ ঘনায়, শত্রু দেশের আকাশপথে হানা—

অভয়লোকের নিরাপত্তা থাকেনা তাঁর মানসসন্ধানে,

বিপৎকালেও নজর রাখেন—বিমানে নয়, পায়ের নিচের ভুঁয়ে,

ত্রিকূট পর্বতের মত অনড় থাকেন আরামকেদারায়৷

তাঁকে তো শুধু টলাতে পারে একান্ত তাঁর নিজস্ব বিশ্বাস৷

আমিও তাই তাঁকে পাঠাই আমার সব প্রতীতি, ভালবাসা,

প্রাতিস্বিক এই বিশ্বাসে যে তারই জোরে তিনি

দুঃখরাতের আঁধার থেকে দিনের আলোয় পৌঁছে যাবেন একা!

Scansion of the penultimate line is as under. <প্রাতিস্বিকেই­ \ বিশ্বাসে যে \ তারই জোরে \ তিনি> This clarification became necessary, for one of my very few readers thought that this line and some others didn’t scan properly. I’m rusty, no doubt, but not that rusty.

A few friends might remember that less than a month ago I had posted this George Barker poem on the Facebook — on an inexplicable impulse. Though Barker’s mother doesn’t resemble mine (not in her obesity and gin addiction, at least), nor does her time (WW II, I presume) coincide with my mother’s, a wispy desire to translate it into Bangla began haunting me at odd hours, till early this morning it began to take shape over my first cup of coffee. As I sat at my laptop after breakfast and having finished my daily four compulsive crosswords, it took me less than an hour to put it down. The result, partly portraying my mother, and Barker’s in part, is given above.

I took several liberties to fit my mother in Barker’s mother’s raiment — she who used to sit aloof in the first floor southern verandah attached to her bedroom with a cup of tea in her hand, never seismic with laughter, never with a gin, but wistfully looking at the verdant scene of rural Latbagan, and thinking forlorn thoughts of my long dead father, perhaps, our dog curled at her feet.  Here’s the original for comparison.

Most near, most dear, most loved and most far, Under the window where I often found her Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter, Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand, Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her She is a procession no one can follow after But be like a little dog following a brass band.

She will not glance up at the bomber, or condescend To drop her gin and scuttle to a cellar, But lean on the mahogany table like a mountain Whom only faith can move, and so I send O all my faith and all my love to tell her That she will move from mourning into morning.

My two other blog sites are <apsendotcom.wordpress.com> and <jonakiblog.wordpress.com>, the latter in Bengali.

Two: Birth of Maya

She was born Maya, nine years after independence—nine years of Right reign for the whole country, as also for the non-nation of the eastern ethos that was extensively covered in the first chapter of this yarn. That entity of doubtful name—the land of her birth—was cleaved uncleanly in two, as Jarasandha was, when the overseas rulers had handed over the reins to the duly elected Right.

The entire country was passing through an economic and cultural upheaval—more pronounced in the amputated Western Half of the Eastern Nation (WHEN, for short), as it was christened after the bisection, where the wounds were still too raw and sore for comfort.

Millions had crossed into WHEN—from the other half, for the rulers there did not want the tainted infidels, many more from the neighbouring entities within the realm too, for it was far better for the livelihood of the have-nots of the region. WHEN tolerated them as it did the countless blue-bottles that descended noisily from nowhere in the mango season; her neighbours within and outside the border did not. So you could see them infesting railway stations and city pavements of WHEN, cooking what little they could get by begging (from the less unfortunate), borrowing or stealing, sleeping and breeding there with the imagined privacy of plastic sheets, and braving bad weather.   

Might to muster the support of the millions, natives and aliens, with false promises, money, casteism and muscle was the policy of the Right, while the Left was too busy in rabble rousing. When they wrested power after three decades of struggle, the LEFT did exactly the same for the next three decades and more…

… Now, why was the just-born little girl of our fairy tales christened Maya, too grandiose a name for a lower middle class child, a girl child at that in a land where there is a history of the poor folks killing new-born girls by feeding them salt in place of mothers’ milk?

If you look up the antecedents of that name, you will come across a number of explanations. In Buddhist annals, that was the name of the queen who gave birth to Siddhārtha. It is also somewhat, but not fully, synonymous with prajñā or wisdom; illusion or sorcery; ahakāra or awareness of oneself; bonding or attachment with objects, places or persons, especially in the dialects spoken in WHEN; a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilisation; and a 3-D computer animation software. In everyday WHEN idiom, contrary to all etymological theories, it also means fellow-feeling. Was it the last that her parents meant? Or did they mean ahakāra—pride, hubris (ὕβρις)—in the modern WHEN sense? Both had been a subject of intense speculation ever since she emerged as a public figure.

It was not her fault that her parents belonged to the lower middle class— economically speaking and, perhaps, intellectually too. That should have been reason enough—the sense of being wronged by the upper crust of the soceity—for her to side up with the rebellious Left. That she chose the Right to launch herself surprised many of her colleagues and detractors. There is not an iota of truth in the rumour that she was inspired in her politics by Orwell’s 1984, for she had never even heard of it, though she had a Master’s degree in some obscure subject and also an overseas PhD without ever being abroad.

Some, perhaps many, of my English posts might have bits and pieces of Bengali.
That shouldn’t worry or detract the interested reader.
আমার বাংলা লেখায় অবধারিত কিছু অবাংলার মিশেল আছে; তার কয়েকটা অক্লেশে বর্জন করা যেত হয়তো, তবে তাতে আমার চিন্তাপ্রবাহ বাধা পেত পদে পদে৷ মার্জনার ভার আপনার, তবে আমি ক্ষমাপ্রার্থী নই৷ 

English (Ending with the latest)

Hooghly Collegiate School (One) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-p (memoirs)

Hooghly Collegiate School (Two) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-Q (memoirs)

Hooghly Collegiate School (Three) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-17 (memoirs)

The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part One http://wp.me/p1SeUE-A (memoirs)

The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part Two http://wp.me/p1SeUE-L (memoirs)

The Albert Hall Coffee House, 1962-65, Part Three http://wp.me/p1SeUE-X (memoirs)

Xenophobia and Prejudice(s) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-3m (essay)

The Schools for Patriotism http://wp.me/p1dQVh-1l (politics)

Debjān: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay http://wp.me/p1dQVh-1r (literature)

The Many Uses of Words: Insults (How we drag in animals) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-1B (language)

Hindutva, Surnames and Caste:  Modern Bengali Obsession http://wp.me/p1dQVh-1O (sociology)

The Indus and the Aryan People http://wp.me/p1dQVh-26 (history)

Bengal, Bangla, Banga http://wp.me/p1dQVh-2q ((history, language)

The Hindu Hypocrites http://wp.me/p1dQVh-2D (sociology)

Śālā, Thākur and Insh’allah (শালা, ঠাকুর ও ইনশ’আল্লাহ) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-2E (history)

Fairy Tales of the East (One) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-ff (fairy tale)

Fairy Tales of the East (Two) http://wp.me/p1dQVh-fN (fairy tale)

Bilingual

THE KING OF CHINA’S DAUGHTER by Edith Sitwell (My Bengali translation over four decades back) http://wp.me/p1dQVh (literature)

সিদ্ধ ভাষা, সেদ্ধ ভাষা http://wp.me/p1SeUE-3 (language)

বাংলা (সবচেয়ে নতুন সবার শেষে)

সাফাই http://wp.me/p1SeUE-1 (preface)

ছাড়াছাড়ি http://wp.me/p1SeUE-31 (কবিতা)

জন্মদিনে http://wp.me/p1SeUE-35 (কবিতা)

কলকাতার ফুটপাথ  http://wp.me/p1SeUE-3P (light spoof)

আবরু (কবিতা)http://wp.me/p1dQVh-bJ

সেই জোনাকিরা (১–৩)http://wp.me/p2GIXC-1u (memoirs)

সেই জোনাকিরা (৪–৬) http://wp.me/p2GIXC-64 (memoirs)

সেই জোনাকিরা (৭––৯) http://wp.me/p2GIXC-6b (memoirs)

সেই জোনাকিরা (১০––১২) http://wp.me/p2GIXC-6e (memoirs)

সেই জোনাকিরা (১৩–১৫) http://wp.me/p2GIXC-6n (memoirs)

সেই জোনাকিরা (১৬–১৯) অন্তিম http://wp.me/p2GIXC-6z (memoirs)

One: The Background

There was once a riverine nation on the eastern coast of a vast land of far too many realms, small and middling, kingdoms—proud or tired, suzerainties—oppressive or benign, principalities—effervescent or decadent, often at war with each other, for each had time, men and funds to spare at the cost of its hapless, oppressed denizens. Mountains and snow-peaks defined its north (though not in the tongue of its majority, nor in culture); a turbulent bay its east; the ethos changed abruptly to its south (where the dialects became increasingly agglutinative); and its west was blurred in a confusion of customs, cultures and lingos.

Much of it was once covered in lush forests, often secondary, for the land was perpetually underpopulated then, thanks to strange banes called Burdwan fever and chronic colitis, despite its fertility obvious from the lush growths everywhere.We call it a nation for want of a better term but, in reality, there were several separate realms of strange names: Gangaridae (Γανγαρίδαι), Samataṭa (समतट), Rārha (राढ़), Harikela (हरिकेल), Pattikerā (पट्टीकेरा) and many others. It was collectively and variously referred to as Land of Stinking Fish Eaters, Land of the People of Birdlike Speech or Land of the Treacle (गुड़) Mead (as opposed to the one made in the north from honest, forest honey) in ancient Saṁskṛta literature. By some never-defined curse cast, either by Mahavira, unto whom the unruly locals had set their dogs, hissing choo choo (hence the Saṁskṛta word kukkura for a dog), when he came to preach his newfound, atheistic and outré  religion, or by some other ascetic of Aryan descent who was likewise rankled by another set of indigènes, it was destined never to stand united for long enough to achieve anything significant.For brief spurts, when the stars were favourable and chances presented themselves, valiant local kings like Śaśāṅka (seventh century) or Divya (the upstart Kaivarta) did bring much of the diverse elements under one notional flag. But so powerful was the curse that they proved to be either too unwise or simply unlucky to hold the Pax Gaua (गौड़) or its equivalent for any meaningful length of time.

Eventually it was overrun by monotheistic Islamic conquerers who descended out of nowhere to take over the sleepy nation, fertile and full of skilled craftsmen, unskilled adminstrators, and womenfolk unbeautiful by Arabic or Turkic standards of aesthetics. Even before that, quite a few Sufi dervishes, minstrels and saints had already begun the process of conversion to their energetic faith. But so great was the inertia of culture that, in several centuries, only about a third of the population had converted, and that too with most of the old superstitions, prejudices and customs intact, despite the seeming servility. But decadence had set in after several centuries, during which the elite of the land and their underdogs flourished under a very open regime of overseas trade—not to speak of the local baniya class, and the avarice of distant and infidel foreigners was roused.

The new lot, with their pale skin (often ruddy), curiously coloured eyes and hair, and unctuous, tradesmenlike manners, took over the reins stealthily. So much so and in such small steps that not many noticed. And then they ruled for the better part of two centuries till some of the masses woke up as if from carefree and drunken slumber.

When they finally shook off the foreign oppressors, new ones came to the fore from within their own ranks by a new process of government formation. The process involved exercise of the peoples’ will, in theory, if not in practice. As one local poet (honoured recently by posthumously naming a metro station in the capital city after him, though he had never lived there or known to have used the mass transit facility) had aptly put: “The people were shocked/ When they looked aloft/ To gaze at the throne/ After the king was gone,/ Tho’ his moustache glowed in glory, Oh…”

Right Wing leaders, those who sat to the right of the king (when he was reigning) and enjoyed certain privileged rights, made room for the Left Wingers who were deliberately left behind. The six long decades after the freedom from the foreign rule were equally divided between the two lots—the Left and the Right—but the lot of the people at large remained as it ever was.

This fairy tale begins with the overthrow of both the Right and the Left by the exercise of Feminine Will, backed by unstinting support of a group called (but never defined) the Civil Society...

Qualities and Qualifications

When Fazlul Haque was the Premier of undivided Bengal, a young lad from his native village, Jhalokathi, begged for a job, like so many jobless others of that era.

    “How much education have you had?” the Sher-e-Bangla asked him. He had to know that in order to help him out. The government employed assorted clerks all the time, policemen for the interior countryside, and there always were vacancies in the government schools.

    Scratching his head helplessly, the lad owned up that, given enough time to form the letters legibly, he could just about sign his own name.

    “In that case you must wait till the next election,” Haque ruefully said, “for your qualification is suitable only for a minister’s job!”

Seeking admission for your ward to a reputable school or college? Your ward must have the necessary marks in the qualifying test and/or an SC/ST certificate. The only other alternative is to have oodles of money.

Mr Haque was absolutely right: to stand in an election you only needed the right contacts and/or oodles of the filthy lucre. No specific qualification is called for. That is exactly what the constitution guarantees: a level playing field for all aspirants. Nor is your criminal history, if any, a deterrent at all.

That, dear reader, is the first brass brad on the sandalwood coffin of democracy!

Rôle of The Administration

The entire electoral process, from finalising the voters’ list to declaration of the poll results, is supposedly the responsibility of the Election Commission and it must report to someone high in the scheme of things in the government. Since the Prime Minister and his colleagues are elcted by ‘popular’ votes which the EC is charged to supervise, it reports directly to the President of India. This titular figure too is, more often than not, a political creature elected notionally by the ‘electoral college’ as defined meticulously in our constitution.

The Election Commissioners, Chief and those for each State of the Union, are chosen from amongst civil servants. And we are brought up to believe that no political party or funtionaries thereof shall ever try to browbeat or influence any civil servant.

The EC must necessarily requisition the services of several branches of the Union and the State administration: armed security from the central services, the State Police for law and order, individual government servants to complete/correct/update the electoral rolls without prejudice, individuals again to conduct the polls and count the votes, and sundry others.

Since political parties ‘may’ not try to influence anyone, and also because government servants—officers or other ranks—must be apolitical, anyway, there is no reason to doubt the probity of the process.

Such assumptions are a few of the other brass brads on democracy’s decorous coffin.

The King of China’s daughter,

She never would love me

Though I hung my cap and bells upon

Her nutmeg tree.

For oranges and lemons,

The stars in bright blue air,

(I stole them long ago, my dear)

Were dangling there.

The Moon did give me silver pence,

The Sun did give me gold,

And both together softly blew

And made my porridge cold;

But the King of China’s daughter

Pretended not to see

When I hung my cap and bells upon

Her nutmeg tree.

_________________________

সুদূর চিনের রাজকুমারী
কোনও দিন ভালবাসবেনা, জানি,
যদিও তাদেরই জায়ফল গাছে
টুপি ও ঘুঙুর ঝুলিয়েছি আমি।
কারণ কাগজি এবং নারঙ,
সুনীল আকাশে উজ্জ্বল তারা
(আমিই তাদের করেছি হরণ),
সেইখানে ঝুলছিল দিশেহারা।
চাঁদ দিয়েছিল রুপোলি টাকা, 
এবং সূর্য স্বর্ণ খণ্ড,
তারপর দোঁহে মৃদু ফুৎকারে
উষ্ণ খাবার করেছে পণ্ড;
তথাপি চিনের রাজকুমারী
না-তাকিয়ে ফিরে গেল চুপি চুপি
যখন তাদের জায়ফল গাছে
ঝোলালাম আমি ঘুঙুর ও টুপি।
[অনুবাদ ৩০।১০।১৯৭১]

[Please also visit my other web logs at <apsendotcom.wordpress.com> and <jonakiblog.wordpress.com>]