Thursday, February 21, 2008

Times like these

How does one live
In times like these?
Does one have to live
In times like these?

I don’t remember last night. It rained heavily and I only have faint memories of being held up at a traffic intersection. My shirt collar was still wet when I felt it this morning; I had not changed my clothes. While I was asleep, the maid had kept a cup of tea on the side-table, covering it with a tattered copy of Humboldt’s Gift. And now my tea tastes of damp earth.

I take out a cigarette from a pack, crumpled in my jeans pocket. The match sticks won’t burn one after another. I get up and stumble towards the kitchen. I light the cigarette with the flame of the gas burner; I think a few strands of my hair also get burned.

I stand there, taking stock of things, and of my own life. I open the cupboard and peep into the small bone-china containers. There is no sugar. Only a little bit of tea leaves is left in another. A lump of ginger lies withering in one corner.

I close the cupboard and then return to the bed. The cigarette ash falls on the bedsheet. I remove it with a stroke of my hand. It leaves behind a grey line. I throw the cigarette in one naked corner of the room and slip back into the folds of the blanket. I try to remember last night.

I can’t remember last night.

What does one remember
In times like these?
Is there anything to remember
In times like these?

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Could I ever sleep?

On the road below
They keep on creating noise:
Hawkers looking for
Stale newspapers and empty
Whisky bottles
Beggars masquerading as ascetics
With a tin God immersed in mustard oil
Salesmen selling aluminum foil
And those who clean gas burners
And herbs for slow learners

I try to sleep
Over yesterday’s headlines
And hangover induced at midnight
And the stains that won’t purge
But the shouts that emerge
From the road below
Won’t let me sleep

A child begins crying too
And a scooter won’t start
A plane also flies overhead
While I toss and turn in the bed

During the night too
Someone snored in the other room
And the walls won’t keep it
To themselves
The sound kept on tumbling in
From racks and shelves

Can I sleep peacefully now?
Or do I have to wait till
I turn old
To sleep in my grave
Without hearing a whimper
As if in my ears
They have poured
Molten gold

The man with a tie

I like it when people pay attention to my stories. For a living I sell medicines – promote them, to be precise – but my real talent, if you really ask me, lies in storytelling.

Six days a week, I wear a tie brought from the underground Palika bazaar, comb my hair backwards, eat my breakfast of two boiled eggs (except Tuesdays), wash it down with a glass or a cup of tea, depending on my wife’s mood, and then make rounds of clinics and hospitals with my leather bag, telling doctors that the medicines and drugs produced by my pharmaceutical company are God’s gift to mankind.

Some of them are busy treating patients and ask me to come later. But some of them invite me in. They shift uneasily on their chairs while I tell them about new medicines introduced in the market. They quickly take free samples I offer, putting them inside drawers.

“And, what else?” the moment one of them asks me this, I assume my hidden role and regale him with my stories. There are so many anecdotes I know. Like about this neighbour of mine who dropped his wife from the back of his scooter in the midst of a bustling market and drove straight home, only to find his wife missing. It is rumoured that she did not come back for six months, choosing to stay back at her parents’ house. Or about this friend of mine who attended a meditation session and, afterwards, began to suspect that his mother was a monster. Or about this distant relative of mine who committed suicide one wintry afternoon. He was ironing his trousers as he waited for an official pick up. He had ironed one of the legs when he suddenly decided to end his life and did so by hanging himself with a Bombay Dyeing bed sheet.

Sometimes, I invent my own stories. I cook them up. Sometimes, I also offer diagnosis to doctors who know me for long now. Recently, one such young doctor looked sullen when I entered into his room. This doctor is also a writer, or at least he claims to be one. Behind him there hangs a portrait of Ernest Hemingway. Between thick medical encyclopaedias stacked on a shelf he has kept copies of The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast.

The young man is restless as I can see. I rub my fingers on my striped tie – the two fingers of my right hand between which I hold cigarettes. The fingertips have almost turned yellow and they perpetually smell of cigarette smoke. Adjusting the knot of my tie, I speak to him.

“Doctor sahab, it seems you are stressed out with work. I think you badly need a vacation,” I throw the bait.

He lets out a guttural laugh. He takes out his spectacles and keeps them gently on the table. “Do you really think so?” he asks. And then without waiting for my answer, he continues.

“Actually what I need right now is to be able to spend time with a
like-minded person who is either a painter or a writer. She (There he goes, I think, so he has facing difficulty with his spouse) and I could go somewhere in hills where we could create our own mini workshop. She could do her own thing and so would I and, in the evening, we could go for long walks, drink tea at roadside stalls.”

I see dreams floating in his eyes. Then I know that this is the time.

“Let me tell you a story, Sir, about this man who had this habit of rubbing his fingers over his tie…” And so I begin…

Friday, February 15, 2008

Our own Kolkatas

In the miasma of darkness, cars moved along the tall building. Their high-beam lights shone on the glass façade for a moment and then moved away quickly. Men did not have that virtue. They would slither through silently, some of them on rickety bicycles, their bottoms turned sore by cushion-less seats.

From the third-floor window of a restaurant, he watched it all – the grand trapezium of light and darkness, muscle and bone. The cigarettes, one after another, weighed heavily on his chest, like a secret kept for long. The dark rum numbed the pain in his lower abdomen. But it would return, as it did every night, keeping him awake to nurse hopelessness.

By the time he was on the road back home, the city had been put to sleep. Towards his left, the Qutab Minar stood absolutely still, its reverie broken at times by honking drivers who probably were in a hurry to reach home or elsewhere. But nothing awaited him; he was in no hurry.

In few hours, the flower market adjacent to the monument would buzz to life. Florists would arrive and haggle for better rates. Afterwards, they would carry huge bunches of flowers on their scooters. Later in the day, people would buy them for sustaining love affairs, decorating marriage venues, brightening up small office cubicles and even for feeling good while shitting in bathrooms.

A little ahead, frail men, wearing bright, fluorescent helmets on their heads, worked in an almost geometric pattern, trying to build a metro rail system for the people of the city. Many of its users would consist of men from their own villages, from the eastern part of the country, who would have gone to Kolkata once upon a time but now chose Delhi to be able to send modest money orders.

Eiy sajni re, eiy sajni re, eiy sajni
Piya gayen Kalkatwa eiy sajni
Kaisen chalan rahetwa, eiy sajni

How would it work for young brides when their grooms went away, a few days after marriage, to far and distant lands, only to come back once a year, or once in five years, or never? When the rain arrived, would they let it needle their anaemic skin?

He stopped his car. A car whizzed past him. Then another. He counted them for a minute or so. His last count came to around eleven. Or may be it was twelve. He opened the back of his car and took out a half-finished bottle of rum.

No one he knew had gone to Kolkata. But Kolkata, sometimes, could also be a state of mind. And now, he needed to find his own needles.

(Pic courtesy: Preeti Paul Kannath)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Let's remember each other by name

I have this very strong belief that all stories deserve to be told. For a
story-teller, imagination is like a whore. She entices him with fake lipstick. But despite her sagging breasts sometimes, a story-teller must conscript with her. He must be a debauch, or at least, act like one.

I have told you many stories. Sometimes you get too entangled into it. There are times when you think that every story I tell comes from my own life. Well, it may be true in some cases but most of the times it is my imagination which runs amok. When it takes a leap, I am forced to run along lest I be left behind. That, my reader, is the essence of my life. I am not capable of anything else except imagining (I may also produce exceptionally-well brewed tea or a finely garnished omelette at times). I spend most of my time day dreaming.

Let me tell you about this character of mine. He is a young man, let us say, in his early thirties, who knows a girl who is few years younger to him. They have never met in person; they have never known each others’ voices. And yet, they are very close. They share intimate details of life with each other. Probably also because they are separated with a veil of anonymity. I mean, they know each other, but only through SMS or an occasional e-mail.

One day, as the man lay on the top berth of a train, he feels alone. The train is taking him to a place where he has spent few years many years ago. The man wishes that all the faces he remembers would just fade away. A curtain is drawn across his berth and he lays half awake, trying to take stock of his life. His strongest urge, he realises, is to be able to lie next to someone. And then he remembers her.

“You remind me of hot chocolate,” he sends her a message.

She replies and thus begins a string of conversation that extends till wee hours of the morning. The girl confides in him, as usual, telling the man about a boy whom she is in love with. But she says she fears that she might lose him. She is a compulsive dreamer and is taken aback, sometimes, with the boy’s practicality.

“I want to grow old with him,” she writes.

The man realises that his dreams are similar to that of the girl. He doesn’t want to be rich and nor does she. She loves rain and so does he. He feels like putting her head in his lap and read poetry to her.

“I am knitting a sweater for him,” she writes.

All his life the man has waited for someone who would knit a sweater for him, like one of those characters in a Russian novel which he has read as a boy.

“Let us meet,” he tells her, “but we won’t speak to each other; we will just converse through writing. We will meet at a fixed place and may be sit in front of each other in a café.”

“But you will hear me when I ask for a mocha,” she replies.

“No, we will just point it out to the waiter.”

“I am smiling in the dark,” she writes back. He smiles too.

After he reaches home, he collects scraps of paper on which he could write and converse with the girl. She goes home to clean and feed a friend who is staying with her.

They might meet soon.

Not me. He. And her.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

At the Oxford Book Store

Speaking at the Oxford Book Store, Delhi during a discussion on Media Nagar 03.

"Writing is the most exciting thing in my life"

He teaches Marketing at the Oxford University, but if you read his three novels, you might take him for a historian. Unlike some of the Indian writers in English, his stories do not drip with nostalgia. A CPM cardholder in the 70s in West Bengal, Kunal Basu, by his own admission, is no longer a Communist. His latest work, a collection of twelve short stories, titled, The Japanese Wife is being made into a film by filmmaker Aparna Sen. In Delhi for the launch of his book, Basu spoke to me on subjects ranging from writer’s discipline to the changing world order.

A reader of yours made a comment about you recently, and I quote: “History seems to be his only fetish.” Does your latest work, in some way, try to break that mould?

Kunal Basu: It is very curious comment. The collection of short stories is different from my earlier works because these are all contemporary stories. There is a story in this collection called The Accountant which has deep historical coonections. But, in a way, yes, it is different from my earlier novels.

You have written about hundred articles in Marketing and you also teach Consumer Behaviour and Brand Strategy. How do you manage to juggle between your life as an academic and that of a novelist?

KB: I am passionate about my writing; I have always been an author at heart. The choice of a professional or academic career was to some extent circumstantial. We Indians, more than anybody else, should realise that our career choices often don’t reflect our true passions. At the time I was growing up in India in 70s, if you did not become a doctor or an engineer, most likely you became unemployed. As a middle class Indian boy, I studied subjects that really didn’t interest me as much as others. So when actually I should have studied literature, history and things like that, I studied science and engineering. And that took me down to a certain career path. I am not saying that my current academic job is completely uninteresting to me, but if given a choice I would have done it differently. And how do I manage the two worlds? I try to manage the academic writing and literary writing by being very disciplined in what I do. I also try not to think too much about the difference.

Your first novel is about opium and as per your own admission, you have never tasted opium. The second novel’s protagonist is a bisexual, and you are not one. Where do you get the inspiration for your characters?

KB: I do not write surface autobiography; some of us do. How can I take bits of my own life and that of people around me and turn it into a novel! The inspiration for a story comes from most unlikely places. Grateful Ganga, for instance, is a story which began forming in my mind after I read a small, little newspaper report about Jerry Garcia’s (Rock star) wife coming to India to sprinkle his ashes on the Ganga. And that was all that there was to the story. And I started seeing images of this woman arriving with the ashes. So inspirations from life, interacting with people, snatches of conversation, newspaper reports, day dreaming – that is how stories are born in my mind.

You grew up in Kolkata, and both your parents were really into activism. You were yourself a cardholder of the CPM during the heady days of Naxalism. Have those days in any way shaped what you are today?

KB: Very much. Not the politics, I am not a Communist anymore, but – let me answer it this way – if I hadn’t taken part in student politics, I would not have had an exposure to aspects of life which tremendously benefited me as an author. It would have been very easy for me to go through life or substantial parts of my life being very comfortable; afterall I had come from a middle-class household. I was reasonably well-educated and I had been to good universities. I could have spent my life in offices, in movie halls, golf courses, cafes, but life in politics took me to places that were outside my comfort zone. It took me to people whose living conditions are very different, very difficult - absolutely poor people, people at the edges of the poverty. It exposed me to a whole range of human sensations that otherwise I would not have been exposed to. So I owe a lot to my upbringing, although the politics of that period does not remain with me.

And why is it so? What has changed really?

KB: Sadly, the world has changed. If you read Lenin’s Café (One of Basu’s stories), in some way it hints to that. The world has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. And some of the things we took forgranted are no longer valid. The ways with which we saw our friends and enemies and so-called friends and so-called enemies, have changed. I no longer subscribe to a particular political philosophy because I have seen that, perhaps, it would not deliver the kind of society that I would prefer for myself and for people around me. But what has remained from that period is deep compassion for the underprivileged. And in many of things that I write, it seeps in.

We have this huge debate in India whether artists – writers, filmmakers, painters – should be turning to activism at all. Do you think a writer like yourself can detach himself from what is happening in his society?

KB: Nowhere in life and in any society at any point in time has one been able to build a wall between art and life. And why would you want to build that wall! When you are writing something, obviously you are commenting on society and the way people live. It is absolutely fine to do that. People can take issue with that; you can say that I disagree and say I do not like the way you have portrayed a certain reality. And that’s fine too. The world of art is the world of debate and arguments. One would hope that such debates and arguments are conducted in a civilised fashion. But you would want your authors to address substantial issues. What else would they be writing about?

There is this impression that the Indian Diaspora basically writes what we term as “nostalgic fiction” about India. Do you think that assessment is true, or fair?

KB: This field of Indian writers writing in English is so vast – you have got people like Salman Rushdie on the one hand and Arundhati Roy on the other. How on earth can anyone draw any generalisations from that! In fact, the generalisation is often made in the West and we Indians shouldn’t make that generalisation. There are so many different genres, so many different stories; I don’t think Amitava Ghosh’s novels are about nostalgia at all. Certainly, my writing is not about India. I have not left behind India, I have just gone travelling.

Salman Rushdie once remarked that writers writing in English in India are producing far more important body of work than the regional writers. What is your take on this?

KB: I completely disagree; the best Indian authors write in vernacular. I am a bilingual author – my early short stories and poems have been in Bangla. It is an outrageous statement for Rushdie to have made because, one: he doesn’t know and read and speak all Indian languages. All regional literature doesn’t get translated in a very stylish way around the world. It doesn’t win major prizes but that doesn’t diminish it any way.

What does your knowledge about consumer behaviour tell you about the present-day India?

KB: India is in the grasp of a consumerist culture that we have never seen before in the past. I am not saying all of India because all of India is not privileged and financially well-off. But the middle and the upper middle class is consuming with a passion and that has really changed the face of urban India in a significant way.

There was a time when you told someone in India that you were a writer and his next question would be: Wo to theek hai magar karte kya ho? Do you think that opinion about writers has changed here in India?

KB: Actually it hasn’t changed and it hasn’t changed in the whole world. I am given to understand that about 95 percent of all published authors in the English language, worldwide, have a day job. I am one of the 95 percent. Even the Indian authors I meet in various literary festivals, most of them have a day job.

Rembrandt once said: Not a single day without a line. Though he said that in context of painting, that holds more or less true for writing also. How discilplined are you as a writer? Do you write everyday? What is your writing pattern?

KB: Writing is the most exciting thing in my life. I wake up in the morning to run to my Study to start writing. Either I am writing text, or reading for my writing or taking notes, this is something which I do everyday – this is not something which is done certain time or certain days or certain weeks.

Your literary agent, I believe, keeps on asking you about your “Bengal” book? Is it coming?

KB: There are some Bengal stories in my story collection but after I put them together I was really surprised that there are more Delhi stories than there are Bengal stories. I am not at this point of time thinking – I might at some point of time – of sitting down and consciously writing a Bengal story. As a matter of fact, I do not write anything by first identifying a theme and then say, okay, I want to write about opium, what’s the story! I do it the other way. When I think of a story, I say, well, this is exciting, let’s do it.

The Japanese Wife is already much-talked about, also because it is a film now. Do you think that film as a medium does justice to stories such as yours?

KB: This is not new, vast number of films have been made out of novels. Look at India, Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay is perhaps the most-filmed Indian novelist. Sometimes you have got brilliant adaptations of mediocre stories; sometimes you have bad adaptations of great stories. But I am very much in love with Cinema; I have been connected with cinema as a child actor for Mrinal Sen. I am a film buff.

What next ? Have you begun thinking about what to do next?

KB: I have started work on my next novel set in India, but I am not prepared to say anything more than that right now.

(An edited version of this appeared first in The Sunday Indian weekly. Pic: Mukund Dey)