Friday, July 24, 2020

REWA


Rama was a little girl from a Brahmin family in Rewa, then a small principality, and now a district in Central India. Her father Pandit Dwivedi was a priest, living off alms, that is the dakshina he was entitled to, for performing religious rituals. When the girl turned eight, the father found a match and married her off, as was the custom those days. The boy was also from a priestly Brahmin family, the Mishras, and was fourteen years of age. On the very second day of their marriage, calamity struck. Rama’s groom died of snake-bite, leaving her a child-widow at a tender age.

Since Rama was now part of another family, the so called gainers, the Mishra widow-sorority descended upon the loser-home and took Rama into their custody.

Rama had made such a pretty bride, in a red joda, red traditional bridal ghunghat, the henna on her palms and feet, the shimmering gold and silver bedecking her, forehead to toes. The Mishra-widows, three in number, claimed the distraught girl and whisked her away against the wishes of Dwivedi and his wife. One of the three wailed incessantly as if to the gallery, dwelling over the departed boy and the others joined her in cursing Rama at the misfortune she had brought upon the family. Once in the Mishras’ home, Rama’s little frame was hemmed into the centre of the courtyard by the wedding guests and curious onlookers. The trio first shattered her bangles, as if to illustrate her fractured future to her. She was shorn of her bridal finery and make-up and wrapped into the remnant of one of the senior widows’ tattered white dhoti. There was no blouse for her, as stitching one would take some time. Rama was in no state to respond in kind and was weeping away silently, now and then calling out to her mother. Unbeknown to her, by then, the village barber had arrived with his unpropitious implement-box, waiting to author the end of the Act, shearing the girl’s hair, that is.

Rama was understandably fond of her long golden tresses and the dreaded moment had arrived. She had not mourned sufficiently the departure of her groom for she was too young to contemplate the consequences yet, but the prospect of losing her hair was immediate, and meant the loss of all that she treasured of her persona, and she struggled to free herself from the clutches of the widows, grieving and sobbing, succumbing to the ritual at last.

The barber was a kind man, but the manner and technique of shearing the locks of such a small girl was quite repulsive. A child could not be expected to offer a stiff and steady pate to the shearer, and the only way out was for the child’s head to be held between the man’s knees, with the child’s face downcast. That was the socially accepted technique. The head, held thus in a vice-like grip could be shorn without much ado. The girl lost her hair, leaving a few bruises, on which the barber was considerate enough to apply some turmeric paste. The hair were cast on the pyre of the departed boy by none else than the barber.

The girl went through the trials and tribulations of being a Hindu child widow, but hair have a way of growing and Rama had to be relieved of the wretched stubble every fortnight, as per the custom. This meant a repetition of the obnoxious tonsure ordeal twice every month, till perhaps she should carry her own head.

Mercifully, though, the barber, who everyone called Thakur, was 65 years of age when the girl first underwent this abominable treatment. Though his hand was steady, he was wanting in hygiene and every fortnight Rama had to brace herself for this sweaty stench emanating from his privates. On his part, Thakur would drag his feet till the afternoon to arrive for the ritual, for tonsuring a child-widow was hardly a prospect a decent person would look forward to. For this he would get half-an-anna, and that too, at Panditji’s convenience. Rama though was quite comfortable with Thakur as a person, he was one of the few who would genuinely smile at her, and not consider her touch inauspicious like the others did.  

Life went on and Rama gradually adjusted to the fearsome regime. She took the starvation, the discrimination and the apathy in her stride. She was an intelligent girl, almost precocious, and taught herself the rudiments of arithmetic and language with the help of her late husband’s books. She made herself useful to the family, keeping accounts and even reading out the newspaper to her father-in-law who was losing his eye-sight with advancing age. The Trio of senior widows too lost its edge with the departure of the eldest, the most fiendish of the three. The next elder struggling against arthritis, became to an extent dependent on Rama.

But misfortune had not yet left alone of Rama. Around three years had passed when Thakur the barber died.

Thakur had five sons out of which the older four were away from Rewa seeking livelihood. The youngest was called Kanu and was eighteen. He was studying for his Matric and was a tall strapping lad, full of verve and ambition. He was also the sole inheritor of his father’s craft and the village counted on him. There was no way he could abdicate his responsibility, for he was now the sole bread-winner of the family. He was adept at his native job, having stood in for Thakur on occasion, and embraced the family calling without qualm or demur, certain that one day he and his family will move up the social ladder.

Even so, the death of an inconsequential barber had some grave consequences when it came to Rama. The technique of tonsuring her head was destined to survive the Thakur, so ingrained was it in the situation. Given the girl’s delicate physique, there was no other way it could have been done. Kanu had seen this hapless girl with the large liquid eyes when he had accompanied Thakur to the Mishra home now and then. Sensitive as he was, he had bolted from the scene when his father held Rama’s fine cranium so awkwardly.

On the appointed tonsure day, Kanu played truant. Rama too had prayed the whole day to Durga Maa for deliverance from such a mortification. Thakur was old enough to be her grandfather, but not Kanu! Rama, having crossed puberty by then, could not submit the way she did to Thakur. What was merely unhygienic in Thakur’s hand threatened to become an act of depravity in his son’s.

The next day saw the Pandit’s wife and daughter remonstrating over the crop of hair on Rama’s head and what it would do to the Brahmin family’s prestige. A messenger was dispatched to Thakur’s house who reminded Kanu of his filial and religious responsibilities, quoting extensively from the Bhagwad Gita. Kanu promised to be there by evening, and yes, before sunset.

Rama locked herself up in the tiny widows’ room and ate nothing the next day. I’d rather hang myself than submit to such lechery she promised herself. Evening brought with it Kanu and the unpropitious implement-box. The family left the two alone in the courtyard, lest they be distracted. Kanu decided to shear the head, carrying on in the way he would proceed with any adult. Spreading out his gamcha on the stone-paved yard, with his box to his right, he made the girl sit opposite him. Gingerly, his hands and body trembling, he held Rama’s face in his left hand by her cheeks, thumb to her left, four fingers to the right and placed the razor on the top of her head. This was the first time in his life he held a girl that way. He panicked and cut a gash on her crown, and there was blood everywhere! The turmeric paste of his however succeeded in stanching the blood-flow, but the mission had to be abandoned for the day.

Pandit Mishra was livid with what they had done to his court-yard. Your father was not a fool that he did it the way he did boy, he roared. Come early tomorrow and don’t disappoint your father again, he said pointing skywards.

The injury and the shower of blood had left the girl chastened and she lost all remnants of resistance, submitting tamely the next day. After what happened to the decorous courtyard the previous day, there was a change of venue. The ceremony was carried out in the widows’ room, door closed, only the two inside. The job was done quickly, observing utmost silence, skirting last evening’s gash, presumably following Thakur’s procedure. The girl sat sobbing inside and Kanu left hurriedly with his kit, without meeting anyone’s eye. The family sighed in relief, and the widows sitting on a cot outside simpered.

Nothing happened the next day, and the next, but what happened thereafter is recounted by people of the village to this day. Kanu and Rama eloped. For me that was poetic justice and I’m sure they lived an auspicious life at the good place that provided shelter to them.

Friday, July 3, 2020

RATNAGIRI

ABOLI
In everyone’s life there’s a Summer of ’42, and I am no exception. In my case it happened a decade ago, in 2011, which will be remembered as the year when the magic vanished from the Indian Classical stage, that is, when Pt. Bhimsen Joshi died.

There are string trios, there are piano trios, and there are even mixed trios, like Nirvana, and we dubbed ourselves a home-grown vocal trio, devoted entirely to Indian Classical Music, Hindustani, to be precise. Prajakta, Rutuj and me, Prathamesh. “Accompanying Prajakta Apte on the Samwadini is Rutuj Bapat and on tabla, Prathamesh Kulkarni”.. That is how we used to be announced, on the stray occasion a ‘comparer’ was around..

Our home Pune is different from the rest of the world so far as Classical music is concerned. There is a sense of mission, of ownership. The art and profession of music has reached a sort of critical mass here. There is money in Classical music, not in a crass materialistic sense, but in the sense of value. Our trio was not averse to worldly trappings, but our music meant much more to us. We equated the pursuit of music to the worship of Goddess Saraswati, everyone professes that, but we were Believers..guileless Believers. We saw the Goddess in our Guru, and if you belong in Pune, you’ll greet your senior by bending down to touch his or her feet, regardless of whether you are a musician or not.

Prajakta, Rutuj and I. Accidentally we had come together, like a planetary conjunction. They say, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Our Pune variant is: a serious vocalist with moderate means, must be in want a ‘reasonable’ tabalchi, or tabbalji as they respectfully say here, and a peti-wala. The three of us came together in the course of random molecular motion dictated by the mechanics of Prajakta seeking suitable accompanists.

Pune audiences will go to the world’s end to indulge youngsters and newbies, and we could as a trio keep busy by ourselves, the three of us were self-sufficient, in healthy complementarity  Of course the star was Prajakta and people beholding her on stage for the first time would be relieved to see that such a decorous voice belonged to a such a pretty face…

Just as the default instrument in Western is the piano, in Indian it’s vocal. The piano has fixed notes while the vocal chords are akin to a violin. That default instrument is responsible for the way the notes or swaras are defined in the respective systems. I was a physics student who took acoustics seriously and had familiarized myself with the science of swaras, based on frequencies. Prajakta was put-off by mathematics, like most of humanity, but her intuitive swara was strong. Rutuj was the happy-go-lucky type who had the intellect to understand harmonics, but was lazy.

Indian music follows the ‘natural scale’, consisting of the keynote, usually shadja, and its overtones. In the natural scale, the ratios of frequencies of any note with the successive note on the same scale are different. It is called the ‘just intonation’ technically and this is the point of departure for Indian Classical and Western Classical. Western, on the other hand uses the ‘equal temperament’ scale which involves choosing a set of notes having minimum mutual dissonance, so as to enable a fixed note instrument like a piano to play the widest gamut of tunes. But the Indian ragas require notes differing by subtle shades.

Western classical was always in the background of my consciousness, like a foil to the music we practised. There would be these huge arguments between the three of us on the relative superiority of Western Classical and Indian, Prajakta and I pitching in for, you guessed it right, Indian, while Rutuj was enamoured of Western. I had a sneaking suspicion about the finality of our claim, but one had to stand by one’s livelihood isn’t it? And stand by Prajakta…

Like many great Hindustani vocalists, Prajakta had this small difficulty with the tala, or rhythm. A tabalchi has a major responsibility in such a situation, and can make or mar the show. Aside from stretching and bending matras, or beat-intervals to accommodate her erring taans during concerts, I was also her tala tutor. You have to get the laya, the grace and tempo into your body and mind, I used to tell a nervous Prajakta before recitals. Madhya laya is your heart-beat. One of her birthdays, I gifted her an electronic tabla, prescribing that she set it in the morning to madhya laya of the tala to be used in the ensuing recital, and let it play endlessly in the background, so as to etch it in your RAM- the read-only-memory. That helped a lot and episodes of the type I have mentioned above became rare, and Prajakta ended up calling me Guruji in jest, when we took the stage.

We were young and it was human after all, the whole world seemed full of romance. Flirting is unknown in our universe. It would embarrass me to wake up sometimes in the night, ear-lobes flushed, choking, feeling Prajakta’s presence around, her soft breath mixing with mine, stinging in my nostrils like a tangy fragrance…embarrassing, for she was a fellow pilgrim on the path leading up to Saraswati. Keep it platonic Prathamesh, I would tell myself, but…hmm!

Normally accompanists cannot aspire to hang out with the lead, but in our case, rather than fraternize with her peers, Prajakta would abide with the two of us. We would reach the venue of our concerts on our bikes, Prajakta riding one of the pillions. My tabla would be in my lap, straddling the fuel tank. Rutuj was at a disadvantage when the pillion was involved, for he had to secure his harmonium on the pillion, unlike me. Anyway, even when we were travelling without our instruments, Prajakta preferred to ride with me, for I came out as safer of the two of us. It was sheer heaven when once in a while Prajakta’s soft frame brushed against my back.  I would sometimes discern this mischievous gleam in her eye when she alighted at the destination, her hand firmly placed on my shoulder for support. Or was I imagining things?

Amusingly, as the green shoots of endearment emerged, I started getting a different feel from lyrics, particularly semi-classical, like thumri or dadra. I started comprehending the poetry of the bols of the composition, which we always approached sort of mechanically.  Khayal gayaki was always indifferent towards the words of the compositions, and many great vocalists look upon words as so many pegs where to hang their swaras. Bols could be trite, like the usual gripe against ‘saas’ and ‘nanadiya’, whether the raga was light or sombre. Prajakta joked that the creator of most traditional bandishes, Sadarang, was perhaps blessed with a particularly nasty mother and sister! A big smile always appeared on her face when in the course of a recital she came to this part. I’m not sure it happened to her, or to Rutuj, but that was the first time I realized the emotiveness residing in allusions to rain, clouds, the piyu or sanwariya that is beloved, in light classical! Why only classical, even Hindi movie songs took on a new meaning, and some of the lyricists I disdained rose in my esteem!

Prajakta was simple, uncomplicated, a bit nonchalant, and was not ruffled easily. She did not appear overtly emotional, but once you got to know her better, she was as sensitive as anyone else. Bageshri, which moved me to tears, also affected her likewise. Rutuj was not our type. He was so deep into each raga at an intellectual level, you could say the familiarity bred indifference…

Prajakta had a striking built, and had a certain grace. A habit of hers which I found endearing was her constant humming under her breath. I read somewhere, happy people do that. Mostly it used to be some Hindi film song based on the raga of her forthcoming recital, for which she would practice hours on end. She avoided even listening to a raga which was close to the one she had to sing next, for fear of contamination. She had to sing Puriya once and I tuned in to Marwa accidentally, and boy…how she got wild at me! Between Rutuj and me, she tried to keep equidistant. Both of us had a tendency to look at each other’s plate so far as her attentions were concerned. Obviously, tabla and the harmonium were equally important for her!  I furtively kept a tab on the number of times she exchanged glances or nodded in approval sympathetically with either of us at some turn of musical phrase, we ran almost even! At our jokes even, she laughed and laughed in equal merriment! And even Prajakta’s parents, themselves musicians, showed an equal deference to the both of us!

Our trio by and by attained a respectable status amongst audiences, invitations trickling in mainly from upcountry places like Aurangabad, Nasik, even Indore!  In October, on 6 October 2011 that is, which was the Dussehra day, we were invited to perform classical, followed by abhang and bhavgeet at Ratnagiri. The recital was in the morning, and we would get to present morning ragas like Bhairavs or Todis, which are nowadays losing out to evening and night concert ragas like Multani, Yaman or Kalawati, as audiences prefer evening engagements. That is the charm of Diwali pahat or Dussehra pahat- audiences can listen to early morning ragas to their heart’s content.

Prajakta’s recital was arranged in the precincts of the Thiba Palace, which was in fact a revelation for the three of us. It’s a beautiful palace in Burmese Buddhist style built in 1910 by the British to accommodate the deposed, incarcerated Burmese King Thibaw Min. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the most illustrious son of Ratnagiri was exiled by the British to Mandalay from 1908 to 1914, and the Burmese King was exiled from Mandalay to Ratnagiri from 1905 to 1916! Whether this reciprocity was coincidental or by design, the Govt officials we met there could not tell..

We were to arrive in Ratnagiri on the fifth evening, perform on the morning of Dussehra, that is the sixth October, and depart for Pune on the seventh morning, thus spending two nights and a day at Ratnagiri. The road from Pune to Ratnagiri is circuitous and we went via Amba Valley in a cab. The journey was uneventful, but the post-rain Konkan was all emerald green and a pleasure to behold. We had been warned that the audience would be ‘discerning’ which somehow weighed on our minds. We were put up very comfortably at a swank new hotel, called Konkan Niswarga close to the beach and the roar of the sea and a heady oceany smell were our constant companions. I and Rutuj were on the third floor, sharing a spacious double room, and Prajakta, on the second floor in a similar room, which she had to herself. Rooms number 303 and number 202, two numbers I’ll always remember.   

The recital was scheduled for 6 morning and so we decided to have an early dinner and turn in by 10. We took a stroll after dinner, and Prajakta, who like all Marathi girls, had a fancy for bedecking hair with flowers, kept looking for flower-braids made out of kewra and aboli, for which Konkan is known. It’s too late for gajras we were told, we assemble them at 7 in the morning, a flower-girl told us, and you’ll find me at the local beach. We parted with the usual three-way hi-five, which was our custom.

As is usual for Maharashtrian venues, things worked with clockwork precision. The enclosures were full and audience, predominantly seniors. Prajakta sang Bilaskhani Todi, followed by Desi, topped with Abhishekiji’s Bolawa Vitthal, Ashatai’s Kenhwa tari pahate, and ended with a Panditji’s befitting Bhaja mana ram charan sukhadayi in Bhairavi, for which she got an encore. Indian audiences are parsimonious so far as applause is concerned, but that day, perhaps due to the early morning hour, sea breeze, and the classic ambience, the emotional build-up was unmistakable and there was a spontaneous applause. Throughout the recital there were ‘kya baat hai’s and ‘wah, wah, wah’s, mostly for Prajakta, a few coming Rutuj’s way. Audiences pay attention to the tabalchi mainly in instrumental recitals, in fact the tabalchi ambushes the audience till there is an applause! However, any day, I’m not the one to upset the lead with clap-traps. The chief guest happened to be a cashew-nut dealer, and we got a kilo of unshelled raw cashew-nuts each, in bonus! Breakfast, or rather the brunch was sumptuous, cooked in Malwani style. People came right upto the entrance to see us off, exchanging the usual vows to invite/perform next year, and the next! Someone would personally come to Pune with the album and the CDs and the recordings, we were told…

Suffice it to say that by mid-day, we were swimming in an ocean of bliss and contentment. This was perhaps our best show ever. The star of the Dussehra pahat was indeed Prajakta, who giggled endlessly at our jokes, and I couldn’t keep myself from admiring her flushed cheeks and wayward tresses all the time. A hundred waves would rush through my whole being, when our shoulders brushed…

We were to check out by 9 next morning and we rounded up the day after doing full justice to the aquatic delights of Konkan, that is the pomfrets the bombil, and the rawas. It was 9 by them time we took to our beds, and the two of us instantly fell asleep, exhausted emotionally and physically as we were…

Shortly, I woke up with a start, around 11... I did not want to lose Prajakta! My mind sank at the thought of parting ways with her someday! I wished to set my eyes upon her that very moment, look into her eyes, and ask her if she’d be mine for ever! I was certain that she cared for me. And if she said yes! The name Ratnagiri had always sounded felicitous to me, didn’t it? On an impulse I got up, changed into a silk kurta and trousers, brushed my hair, looked into the mirror and wished me good luck. She had her Masters’ exam the day after, and needed to read Pt. Bhatkhande’s Kramik Pustak Malika 4 which she was carrying, she had told us. Rutuj was asleep, snoring mildly. I opened the door and latched it, leaving it a little ajar. I walked on cat’s feet, preferring to use the staircase, Prajakta’s room was the second one towards the right. I could hear the rustle of pages turning, from the room. And a Chandrakauns being hummed. I reached for the door-bell, but shrank back, thinking it would be more appropriate to deliver a light rap, given the unearthly hour. But suddenly I developed misgivings about the propriety of this nocturnal mission for Prajakta’s quest. What will she think? Here we embark on a journey to expose our blessed art, and I hasten at this hour to propose to our Muse. I turned back, sanguine at my own decision, after all I could wait till we reach Pune, El Dorado was only of a day away!  
I came back relieved, took refuge in my bed, and pulled the soft quilt on my head.

It was six by the time I got up, still dark outside. Rutuj snored happily. I emerged from the wash-room, my morning chores over, after an hour or so, ready to take on the world! Rutuj was in jeans and a silk kurta. Did you step out for a morning walk, you appear to have changed…I asked. Rutuj whizzed past me towards the wash-room, mumbling something I could not make out.

We met, the three of us, for breakfast in the restaurant at around 8. There was a couch behind the dining table, and two chairs opposite. Prajakta, glowing in her pink dress, an aboli braid adorning her hair, eased herself in the couch, and hastily Rutuj claimed the other couch seat, which was somewhat unlike any of us, normally we, the boys would have taken the two chairs. They glanced at each other. Rutuj got me the aboli braid in the morning, she said excitedly. Shall I tell him said Rutuj to Prajakta, let him be the first one to know... Prajakta’s eyes were animated, and shone, as light from the morning sun fell on her beautiful face at an angle. Rutuj, she said haltingly, savouring each word as she spoke, knocks my door at 11.45 in the night, and standing in the door proposes to me…and Prajakta says I’ll ask my parents first, Rutuj laughed. No, I said yes first and then told you I should talk to my parents before we tell anybody, they’ll feel bad otherwise. True said Rutuj, taking Prajakta’s hand, I was so nervous till your came up and whispered Yesss through the closed door and no one was there when I opened the door…

This whole exchange lasted not even half a minute, and my world came to a standstill! That explains why Rutuj woke-up in his jeans and silk kurta, I thought.

It’s beside the point to tell you about my feelings, but I do go over that Dussehra day now and then, the day my Universe changed. I dismiss the thoughts of being a loser, it is only that at that instance Rutuj’s instinct was superior to mine, in any case I was standing before door number 202 half an hour before, and he happened to somehow breast the tape before me!
 

Saturday, February 2, 2019

TALE WITHOUT A MORAL

Hello!, God bless you sons…. Deo borem korum ! I am Julius Rebello, Father Julius Rebello. Not to be confused with Julio Ribeiro, the feisty policeman, the…what do they say, Paadma Bibusan Ribeiro. But names apart, there remains one more bond of mine with the old man. Both of us were in the police force, he before his retirement, and I before my ordainment. Only one alphabet distinguishes our ranks held last. He was a DGP, and I, a DSP…

Lest I forget, a word about what brings me here. I met this precocious Catholic girl of seven who is apparently a writer of some consequence…better than me, may the Lord bless her. I think Maria D’Costa, or perhaps Maria D’ Silva, some Maria to be certain….as our Bishop the Reverend Mario Castelino assures us, Maria along with her male and female variants Mary, Mario, Mariah etc. etc. is the commonest given name on the planet. Makes remembering less of a pain at my age…This young lady mostly writes in the vein of Dame Agatha Christie, but with a Biblical moral at the end, and one day, after the Children’s Mass, somehow held me with her query, two queries to be precise. One, why is there no organised crime of the Sicilian variety in Goa, rather in India for that matter, and two, why are names like Brasi, Sollozzo or Gonsalves, names which lend a rare menace to crime fiction, so rare in the annals of Crime in Bharatha, that is India. God bless her! Pertinent queries, well-meaning, not meant to offend the priestly order. After all they were put to an ex-cop…Moreover a priest cannot refuse to address a human query just because it is outrageous, he must measure it up against the Lord’s word.  It is certainly the right of every writer to seek fertile pastures for his or her prose, and of course as the Latin proverb goes, ut sementem feceris ita metes- you reap what you sow…

But first I must address the question that should now be uppermost in the attentive reader’s mind. Is it not oxymoronic- a policeman-priest? Agreed, ‘tis a bit tricky, a policeman becoming a priest. But in today’s world there is a tragic resonance between the two professions, if I may say so. As the Jesuit Post succinctly puts it, both are today “mistrusted groups with accountability issues”. Take that!

Aside from the philosophy of it, two practical issues stand out. One is the working language, the essential tool of trade. The two worlds, one, that of the Lord’s Law, the other of Man’s Law, work on entirely different planes. The simplest way to put it, one tongue was created by God, the other…could you guess it?! The police vocabulary has by now been largely banished from my processes. As they say, cum ianuam claudit Dei opens a fenestra - id est, God closed a door and opened a window, or still better, the other way round. In the ultimate analysis, aside of prepositions, articles and conjunctions, I’d say the only word common to Churchese and the police lingo is Son!

The other conflict is more daunting, touching upon the difference between ethics, Christian and Secular. Suppose someone from the flock approaches the confession box and admits, within the Sacrament of Confession, to a murder. The Lord’s commands are crisp and clear.  If the subject is contrite and agrees to the penance decided by the priest, the latter is bound to forgive the confessor in Jesus’ name. Of course the confessor as a Catholic must abide with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. No exception is made, whether you are an ex-DSP or an ex-DGP or an ex-Sheriff or a Police Chaplain. I have myself spent sleepless nights on the horns of one such dilemma, wondering whether the fact of my being a recipient of Government pension would have any bearing on God’s expectations from me. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, particularly 13: 1-7 is quoted by many as the Bible’s word on obedience to earthly powers, but according to many authorities, the interpretation is taken out of context to ‘bolster the bourgeois attitude of later Churches’, especially the Lutheran, God bless the Lutheran brothers ! Commonsense would ordain that as Jesus made such a huge sacrifice for us, civic rules should be held subservient to His Gospel.

My referee Fr. Kunnankal of Our Lady of Remedios Parish, Betalbatim,  locally called the Malate Church, also must have wrestled with the selfsame dilemma, vicariously, before the Parish sponsored me for my ordainment at the Patriarchal Seminary of  Rachol.  The first question he asked himself was cur vis faciam?  Why should he want to do it, that too abdicating a respectable Government service? Basically my own father had always wanted at least one son of his to serve the Lord. Father Kunnankal adored the sentiment, citing a…a Malay-alee proverb which roughly translates to “you will earn equal dignity if you have a priest or an elephant in the family..” Yes, an Elephant! I had faithfully attended the Mass, participated in Prayer Services, received Sacraments, which helped. So, with His blessings, at Rachol I did the three-year Philosophy course, with the Government of India chipping in with a degree from IGNOU of Delhi, which I took as a good omen. From thence to my parish at comely Betalbatim for my year-long Pastoral Praxis, ending with the four-year Theology Course, finally emerging as a priest, sure, after a diaconal stint at parishes, some near, some afar.

So why no Sicilian mafias in our Nation? Let me don my old police hat for a moment then…Well!  In our great nation, thievery has been practised more as an Art, not as a Science. The University of Chicago once commissioned a study of urban drug syndicates of America, and were delighted, what else, to discover that they were organised exactly like the McDonalds franchises, and in India one won’t be surprised to be told that such and such McDonalds outlet is run like a Pa and Ma store. That’s the West for you! The Orient, whether it is the spiritual walk or the artistic sojourn, relies on Individualism. That interesting gentleman Rabi Sankar could be sitting alone on the top of the Everest practising his ragas, and enjoying himself in fullest measure. But a Western Classical presentation works like giant clockwork, every cog and chime playing its part without the isolated performer having a clue about the symphony as a whole! And seriously I am sceptical as to the omniscience of the gentleman who waves so frantically at the head of the whole caboodle…

Now permit me to lead you unto anno domini 1961. The year of the liberation of Goa from the Portuguese yoke, or the liberation of the Portuguese from the white man’s burthen, there are always two opposing views. I hark back Maria  D’ Sa, seven years of age, to this year of turmoil. Here I plan to narrate my little story which as the papers of today put it eloquently, ‘showcases’ the milieu dear Maria yearns for.  

So this happened in 1961, in the twilight period when India was rushing in to reclaim the Goan bride, and the Portuguese were leaving Indian shores in haste. To give an illustration of the scramble, on 9th December 1961 the ship MV India arrived at Marmugao on her way from Timor to Lisbon : in spite of the instructions of the Government of Portugal to the contrary, 700 European Portuguese broke into the ship even as the Governor General Manuel Vassalo e Silva watched helplessly..

I was about the same age as Maria is today. It was a great upheaval, when the old order changed, yielding place to a new order, disorder, as many of my Catholic friends would aver. The mantle of western superiority our anglicised set dons is matched only by the xenophobia the Brahmin community of Goa glories in... The last word in this acrimonious discourse is what a perceptive Hindu Goan writer notes: I argue for a more layered understanding of the concepts of mimicry, hybridity and resistance in relation to identifications from these two communities, so he proposes. I don’t know what sense this makes to a non-Goan though..

Returning to our story, I don’t know what charm this childhood memory holds for me, but I can never walk past it. Perhaps the brattiness of the kid in the story strikes a chord, perhaps it has to do with the old Portuguese-Goan mystique, combined with the insecurity and peril that pervaded the times. Not that seven year old Julius had so much as an inkling of the issues, he was a contented lad growing under the benign shade of his grandparents.

Senhor Santiago Rebello and Senhora Ines Rebello were the parents of my dad, my Vovo and Avo, all the three of Portuguese stock, while my mother was a converted Brahmin. That makes me a Luso-Indian. The marriage ended in a separation, and I, sole product of the marriage, went on to live with my grandparents at Betalbatim, now known best for the Martin’s Corner. Grandpa and Grandma didn’t hanker after Portugal’s hospitality and now rest peacefully side-by-side in the cemetery at Our Lady of Remedios Church.


My Grandmother that is Avo Ines’s fond possession was a priceless set of exquisite  Portuguese filigree gold jewels, complete with a viana pendant, which was supposedly now serving the fifteenth generation in her female lineage, come to her as dowry. Pretty much of Betalbatim knew of its existence. In an unguarded moment, given the troubled times, the set was alas, stolen. The Police sergeant visited us suo moto but Grandpa, offered help, politely declined. The moment the police left, he made a couple of calls on the phone, and the phone replied soon enough. Grandpa spoke in Portuguese, which was alien to me, to my generation in fact, such was the schooling. He smiled grimly, donned his jacqueta and sombrero, and kissed Avo goodbye as he hurriedly stepped out.

The phrase he uttered as he hung up the phone sounded to me like “tram-carra-pour”, which rang quite exotic and amusing in my mind, and, as a kid would, I kept repeating it to myself, noisily wheeling and carting a little metallic tramcar that was part of my toy collection. The words had their own connotation for my Avo in the given situation and they apparently made her tense. She asked me to cease that bratty chant of mine. In return I asked what the words meant, she said “Lock the door”. 

I discovered the significance of those words years later when my Dad unravelled the tale to me. When the phone had rung back that day, a friend of Grandpa had called, informing him that he was now swigging feni at this small Portuguese café, and was witnessing noisy bargaining between two men over Avo’s famous jewellery, spread-out on a corner table. The exact words Grandpa muttered were “trancar a porta” which, intoned in his rustic dialect, sounded like “tram-carra-pour”... The friend had been instructed to lock the door of the café from outside.

The fate of the jewels became known to me forthwith on the evening of the theft itself. Grandpa had returned home with the missing jewellery in half-an-hour.

Hope that story assuages your curiosity to an extent, Maria, though I am sorry I can’t detect a moral in the story the way you so admirably spot in yours!

Monday, January 22, 2018

LOU: A SHORT STORY



My mentor in philosophy was the third Earl of Kingston, Bertie Russell, born  circa 1872, died 1970 oblivious of the ardent affiliation of mine. What he once wrote is relevant to our story here-“..between Theology and Science there lies a No Man’s Land…that’s Philosophy. Almost all questions of most interest to the speculative mind are such as Science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer sound convincing...” The only improvement I have made upon his words consists in the capitalisation of initials of some important words that are carriers of significant concepts…

It was in bleak December, and Kong Beloris, my dear friend, and I  were lounging at Swish, Shillong’s most ancient café, waiting for the dense Meghalaya fog to run its course. Inside, it was 4 in the evening, and outside, a dark freezing midnight. Bah Tito Syiem, the Café Manager, carefully purring on a hot coffee while trotting back and forth, waited patiently for the fog and the two remaining occupants of the café to disperse. Kong Dr Beloris Lapang, D.Phil and I were sitting at our usual corner table, debating the longevity of Philosophy, the subject Kong taught at Shillong’s excellent University, NEHU, and Bah and Kong are not Khasi names, but merely honorifics sans which gentlemen and ladies respectively may not be addressed by you.

Kong Beloris was lamenting the exponential decline in admissions to her Faculty, seeking comfort in her approaching retirement from service. It was here that I dusted and delivered the quote that forms the substance of our first para. Kong, said I, theology and it’s surrogate, religion, are in retreat, their territory contracting by the day. Simultaneously the canvas of science expands as she conquers territory after territory. The scope for Philosophy is therefore that much less. That is why philosophy as a discipline has lost fecundity and vigour. A day has to come when the sum of annual admissions in your departments all over the country equates itself with the sum of retirements…only replacement demand would remain! That was certainly a prospect Kong failed to relish. I don’t expect such negative vibes about my subject from you, Carl, she said… pinching me in fun..

The to-and-fro metronome movement of Bah Tito had continued in the background.  All of a sudden Bah halted in his tracks, turned around, placed his coffee mug on the mantelpiece of the fireplace which hosted a crackling fire, rubbed his palms vigorously at the fringes of the fire, and thus replenished with warmth, approached our corner with his Lajong mug.  Do you mind if I joined you, asked Bah, and upon our nodding cordial assent, pulled a heavy teakwood chair.

Khublei shibun, said he, I was listening to your conversation with some attention, an act of mine which deserves your indulgence, for the mention of the word Philosophy floods my mind with the memories of the delicate Lenore, Lou for short, and Philosophy is the world where I seek solace when I try to come to terms with her existence. Is it some kind of third-party-existentialism I felt like asking, but the sun-and-shade of emotions that flitted across Bah Tito’s thick brow compelled me and Kong to let Bah continue uninterrupted. Umm.. he said, in that sense Philosophy which is perhaps a matter of theory for you, is for me an article or a contrivance of daily use, like a bed-spread or a fishing-rod you may say…Nevertheless, Bah Carl’s definition deals me a strange relief today, how and why, I shall presently explain…

Umm I can’t help but begin with Lou’s eyes, said Bah Tito, for they had- note the had- had a special sparkle that lent a peculiar glow to her beautiful face, which again, being a Khasi face, had a measure of strangeness in proportion that Blaise Pascal would have commended- or was it Poe, or umm Poe quoting someone in...Eleonora?  Lou’s face had a high recall quotient on account of her special eyes, and like beams of light emanating from a car’s headlight they shone.  She was my youngest sister, 15 years in between, and when I went to fetch her, as a little girl, from the Laitumkrah bus-drop, I would locate her easily in the cramped Loreto school-van from a mischievous gleam of eyes sitting in a corner, brimming with joie de verve and an irrepressible curiosity about the world in general..

Well, umm, Lou was the beloved of the household, and as you must have guessed, she was the family’s khadduh- the youngest daughter, the inheritor of the family’s wealth. Ka khadduh, amongst Khasis, is the family darling, not for any motive, but it is a fact, simply stated, that ka khadduh is the recipient of much inquisitiveness and adoration, and Lou was such a source of delight!

She grew like the phases of the moon, blossoming into an exquisite beauty, tall, delicate, and boys would sway when she walked down the undulating streets of Shillong, on her high stilettos as only a Khasi girl can. Bright at school, she was, and the Shillong Choir would sound incomplete without her. In short, a daughter or sister to treasure, cynosure of all eyes wherever she went! A beautiful and fulfilling future awaited her expectantly...

She had just turned 18 when that year’s Nongkrem arrived, the Khasi thanksgiving festival celebrated at Smit in early winter, after the harvest, where the sacrificial goats are offered to the Gods, and where Khasi virgins and boys congregate, to dance in the steppe-like fields, scattering the golden hue of pure Khasi gold ornaments and crowns to the skies, to the entrancing accompaniment of drums and pipes...

Then it happened. We lost Lou. She disappeared...simply vanished from the face of this earth as it were, leaving no physical token of existence! Her friends saw her last at the altar of Ka Pah Syntiew, on the fifth day of the festival. Frantic messages went out to the head-men, the Lyngdohs, the Syiems...We combed the whole of Khasi hills for her, from the heights of the Nohkalikai Falls, to the depths of Dawki, to the wilderness of the Mawplang forest, where for 2 whole days in a feverish trance we negotiated the arms of the castanopsises and the pinus kasia, swaying and whistling wildly to the angry winds, side-stepping the poisonous cobra-lilies, ferns and pipers that inhabit Lou’s beloved sacred forest. We then remembered her obsession with Nohkalikai…

Here I blurted out something which I quickly realised was wholly misplaced, even as I intoned my last word.. “ but what did the police..welll.. say”? Bah Tito gaped at me, his mouth struck open and the only word there spoken by Kong was the whispered word “Carl”, Kong Beloris looking at me half in disbelief, half in amusement…a Khasi will rarely, if ever, approach the  police force over family matters unless he’s sure that an outsider was involved...

..and..continued Bah without allowing the sombreness of the narrative to flag...do you know how the tallest waterfall in the world got it’s name? Poor Ka Likai had jumped in anger and grief from the Sohra hill- that’s where the Noh comes from- when she saw the severed fingers of her child! So..I even checked the green plunge-pool half a mile below for our girl, to rule out the possibility of Likai having permeated Lou’s mind..umm..

Now you know Sir what it is to try to come to terms with someone’s existence! One day my dear child occupied the whole length and breadth of my world, and the next day she was gone! Mamma and Papa were of course disconsolate. They waited in vain all the time watching from our terrace the winding road that leads from Laitumkrah to our abode in Lummawrie. Umm..Mamma visited various churches and must have sacrificed at the very least a hundred roosters. Mamma  hosted many a Khasi ritual, the chief being the Egg Oracle, where the priest invokes the supreme God U Blei Nongthaw, breaks an egg, and from the way the shell crumbles tries to divine His command. By all indications she was very much alive and happy, so they said! How could she be happy away from her family..duh...!Much as I wanted to share my parents’ plebeian hopes, in the heart of hearts I feared the worst, though I must confess I would see the likeness of Lou in every girl approaching from a distance. Philosophy was my only succour and solace. Why did Lou go away? Ka tyrut? Khasi philosophy never attributes a mortal departure to the will of God- the machinations of the vicious spirit ka tyrut are believed to be behind every mortal event...and...

Umm.. Bah Tito paused, apparently in order to compose his philosophical interpretation of the events, and also to allow the lump in his throat to retreat....

”Strange are the ways of fate” I mused absently.

Well well, strictly speaking, we Khasis don’t believe in the way the Christian religion treats the concept of Fate, Carl, said Kong Beloris, looking kind of askance at me. Bah Tito nodded vigorously, for none other than NEHU’s Philosophy department seemed to be certifying his world-view..ka kambhah kambynta we call it, said Kong..and before she could elaborate, Bah, being better prepared thanks to Lou, jumped the gun..Ka kambhah kambynta said Bah Tito defines the way Fate is supposed to operate. The unborn child in her mother’s womb is confronted by ka Lei Synshar, our equivalent of the Hindi Brahma, with various kinds of fate and the embryo has to choose one, failing which she or he will remain still-born. How and why had Lou chosen to disappear? That was the question which we asked ourselves...

…Outside Swish the weather was worsening, as further reinforcements of fog arrived from the heights of Laitkor...Bah Tito’s mystery took on further lease of life..

Umm..said Bah years passed, the world went on and did what Father Marbaniang pompously says- is it not ‘ tempus edax rerum’  Kong? Tempus edax rerum...to be sure..Time heals, but when..?

Umm…about three years after the unfortunate events, I happened to be in Calcutta. All said and done, in spite of the emergence of Gauhati, Calcutta still remains the umbilical cord that connects the north-east to the mainland...Umm…I had gone to have a look at a second-hand frigidaire..there it lies in the corner... the skies were overcast just like today, I had taken a morning-walk  in the Maidan and was crossing the main-road near Grand, when I saw a well-dressed girl emerge from the Hotel, and she..was it Lou...? I missed a thousand heart-beats- the same stiletto-balancing walk, the same profile and...”Lou” I yelled in spite of myself, keeping my best manners under animated suspension. The girl froze, turned around, yes she was Lou indeed, the same shining eyes, the same tall forehead, same garden-fresh complexion...a bit taller…she had in the meantime covered her cheeks with her two palms like the figure in that scream painting and exclaimed, to my surprise, “Dada”, which is how they address an elder brother in Bengal. She regarded me most cordially and with affection, as the whole of Chowringhee spun around me, and conscious of the explosive potential of the situation, she hurriedly came across, held my hand, and promised to explain to me everything once we reached her home in Behala.

We clambered onto a rumbling tram, found seating easily, moving as we were against the morning traffic, and looking out of the window I sat, the montage of the past three years playing fitfully before me like an old movie print. Calcutta was the only place in the world where such dénouement could have unfolded…I consoled myself..

Umm..Lou was shaking nervously. We alighted at the Behala Chowrasta and reached her home, on the second floor of a decorous building behind the Museum. There was no one inside, seemed she stayed alone. The ambience bore the stamp of style and affluence, to my great relief. It was unusually cold for Calcutta and Lou was shivering. Bah Tito she asked, of course you have not given up smoking, let me get a pack of cigarettes for you, there is a pan-shop across the street, she picked up her purse and slid into the winding staircase.

I looked around the small house , it was neatly kept, as could be expected of Lou. The memorabilia in the showcase evidenced a trip to South East Asia, with those merlions and red-dragon images. A guitar hung beside the dresser in her bed-room. Good, there was a picture of the Christ, which bore uncanny likeness to the one back in our Shillong home, how this thing called habit works, I mused. I ventured into the little balcony. It overlooked the pan-shop Lou spoke about. I looked around but failed to spot our Lou wearing the red T-shirt with the number 10 on the back I had noticed when I last saw her hurry down the stairs…

And that was also the last I had seen of her. The elements had again played truant, and Lou had vanished. She never came back with the promised pack of Four Square.

We sat in stunned silence, I and possibly Kong, trying in our minds to apportion blame for the lost resurrection. I sighed, and just to relieve Bah Tito of the sheer burden of misery that overtook his weather-beaten face, reminded him of his resolve to explain the relevance of our Quote here, how it could provide poetic relief to him.

Umm.. said Bah Tito, you talked about the no-man’s- land between religion and science, did you not? As I realise, the hand of dark-forces stands ruled out by the fact of Lou’s reappearance. The territory of the known expands thereby, and thence I derive peace and quiet…but Philosophy will always be there for me…my bed and fishing-rod!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A NOBEL FOR FREAKONOMICS?

Most of us have experienced the phenomenon of ‘time-dilation’, that is when an hour seems endless, longer than what you’re used to, say while enduring a boring movie -or the opposite, ‘time-contraction’- time flees and an hour seems to be over in a jiffy, say in the company of the beloved. It’s definitely not on account of the omission of divinity to replace the ageing battery-cells of the Godly cosmic clock…

We just discovered that another temporal phenomenon that bugs us often, usually ascribed to the advance of years, is but a manifestation of the same time-ductility. 

Suppose you are reading the morning newspapers, say two or three of them, one after the other. After the session, lasting maybe an hour, you have the urge to revisit one of the bytes that you came across. I for one have to wrestle with the broad-sheets in the replay, and usually the item surfaces further back in the sequence of reading than the impression I carried. That is, it is buried under a greater debris of time than one imagined, so to say. It may even involve misremembering the particular newspaper you assumed carried the article..you think it was the ET while it turns out to be the Express, which in our case precedes other papers in the pecking order. Lots of our friends also have confessed to that nagging feeling, though some have reported the reverse- lesser actual time-debris than the perceived one.

Cut to Alfred Nobel. As we all noje, the 2017 Nobel for Physiology and Hygiene (he, he, he) went to Michael W. Young, Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey C. Hall for their discovery of molecular mechanisms controlling our circadian rhythms, or put simply, the biological clock. They isolated a gene (christened as the Period gene) that controls the biological rhythm in the fruit fly, which was simply the causa est in manibus,  i.e. case in hand, nothing special about fruit fly. The ‘Period’ gene in the fly’s cells creates and accumulates during night, a protein named the PER, which decays linearly, or may be exponentially, to almost ‘nil’ during the following day, thus marking the passage of time. This is essentially the same principle on which carbon-dating works. The accumulation of PER varies exponentially- the rate of production of the PER dwindles as the protein accumulates in the gene, ceasing altogether at the pre-determined full-tank level. Thus the process is self-regulating. That in a nut-shell is what the discovery is about. Such a hullabaloo I sayyyy...! 

Allied with the discovery, we find, should be an explanation to the phenomenon of ‘subjective time’ vis-a-vis ‘objective time’. The latter is also called ‘external time’, such as the time kept by a clock, while the former is progression of time as perceived by you, me or the humble fruit fly. The process of decay of the PER can be affected by various extraneous factors, impacting subjective time-lapse perception, and a possibility arises of a divergence of the two ‘times’, for the march of external time is relentless and unalterable. That is, for instance, why a boring college period seems to last say an hour, when actually it was half an hour long. As college students we’d think an Einsteinian time wave struck Don Bansal’s Determinants period, making the passage of time so excruciatingly slow.  This shenanigan lies at the heart of the freakonomic discovery recounted in this edition of our blog. Experts being experts call the phenomenon the ‘temporal illusion’.  Literature on the subject of TI lists illusions such as:

Ø  Telescoping effect, wherein people tend to recall events further back in time that they actually were (backward telescoping), no prizes for guessing what’s forward telescoping,

Ø  Vierordt’s Law- shorter intervals tend to be overestimated while longer intervals tend to be underestimated,

Ø   Time intervals encompassing numerically more changes may be  perceived as being longer than those covering lesser numbers,

Ø  The perceived time often shortens with motivation- boring tasks may appear longer than they actually are,

Ø  A task may appear longer if the progress thereof is interrupted,

Ø   Between auditory and visual signals, the former seem to drag on more,

Ø  Chronostasis, where the first impression following the introduction of a new task appears to be extended in time. An allied effect is the Oddball Effect- humans perceive duration of the initial event as greater, in a stream of identical events,

Ø  Emotions like awe, empathy, depression fear, or even age, drugs or diseases such as Parkinson’s, tend to affect subjective impression of time elapsed.

The above elegantly explains why the to journey always seems longer than the fro  journey- check Chronostasis and Oddball effect.

We come back to where we began. Our freakonomic streak suggests that in case of the newspaper reading business, when the subjective time-continuum is projected or mapped onto the objective time, what really happened, say, an hour back appears to have occurred maybe a quarter hour back. Forward-telescoping at work. The timespend on reading shortens in the imagination. Going by the fourth of the foregoing bullet-points, we are relieved at the vindication of our ancient belief that we enjoy reading papers and time has not yet taken toll of the motivation and excitement of reading the morning paper, even though R.K.Laxman is no more! So when trying to locate the article to be revisited, we should rather begin at the beginning. People who look upon the task as WORK, will be the ones succumbing to backward-telescoping, and will find the article closer at hand! Here is a pictorial depiction of what happened:

 
Amen!