Telegraph Calcutta

Jeem, deem and a dream

How Guru Nandi is turning butterflies into steel. A glimpse of an improbable vault of imagination in Agartala

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Bishweshwar Nandi with Dipa Karmakar, his wife Soma Nandi and several butterflies at Agartala’s Vivekananda Byamagar

He carries an improbable vault of imagination in his pocket.

The display picture on his smartphone texting app is an elephant in sheershasan, its rotund tonnage pressed upon the coiled trunk, its hind legs flung skywards – an altogether tempting dare to credulity.

I hadn’t the heart to ask Bishweshwar Nandi if the image was a minor miracle of photoshopping; that would be to undermine the more unlikely magic Nandi himself has come to cast.

It’s not the Produnova that pupil Dipa Karmakar stopped hearts and stunned eyes with in Rio de Janeiro. It’s the satellite leap Nandi has made into the alien orbit of global gymnastics from Agartala’s terra infirma, a Third World breach into the protected precincts of a First World – or, Second World, to classically locate it – sport.

Consider where we stand this muggy evening: on a fringe of India that you cross another country to arrive in, the whole breadth of Bangladesh. Consider a cloud clapped so close overhead, it has stilled the air.

Consider a slender midtown lane banked by dwellings so low they creep along the earth. Consider a slush-ridden quadrangle opening off the lane, and to one end of it, a brick barracks overlaid with a corrugated tin roof: the Vivekananda Byamagar, or gym, Gandhi Ghat, central Agartala.

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Nandi at the tea shack. The tea arrives without Nandi having to order it, in small plastic tumblers, the measure of a vodka shot. He isn’t averse to being photographed in this mofussil setting, quaffing roadside tea; this is his world and he couldn’t be more comfortable elsewhere
Consider this warehouse setting – a cruddy mud floor, grime-ridden piles of foam, a tangle of crudely crafted beams of wood, a carcass-like set of muscle-building stations made to work beyond superannuation on doses of diesel.

The air oozes what men give off and machines consume, sweat and lubricant. It is also redolent with deficits; ask for water and someone helpfully heads to a leaky tap cocked on a wall at the far end of the courtyard.

Nandi is perspiring under his acrylic T and track bottoms, both embossed with India colours; he flexes uncomfortably and wipes his sleeves and brow. He is used to the requirements of this clammy clime, he has a hand-towel tucked into his waist.

“This is it,” Nandi says, ushering me to the comforts of a vinyl chair. “This is where we do what we do.”

Or a bit of it.

The other bit of Nandi’s workday lies three parallel streets away in Office Lane, the seat of Agartala’s babudom. Here’s where, on a first-floor room of the Tripura Sports Council, he plays out the part many think he looks – a babu, Bengali babu. Here’s where we had the first of our three assignations.

I arrived early and spent all my waiting time wondering if I was in the wrong place. A board tacked to the door did assign the room to “B.S. Nandi, Assistant Director” and “Dipa Karmakar, Sports Officer” but this didn’t remotely look like it belonged to two of India’s celebrated stars from the Rio Olympic Arena.

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Bishweshwar and “Mrs Soma Nandi, SAI coach”. That’s the only way Bishweshwar Nandi refers to her, in the third person particular, honorific attached. She’s been thinking how best to answer my question on her husband’s personal likes and passions. Just as we are about to leave, she whispers: “Uni toh shudhu jeem aar deem.” He likes only the gymnasium and eggs.

A short inventory of the precinct no bigger than eight feet by ten: a clerk’s workdesk and five plastic chairs, one with a signature towel thrown round the back; a helmet plonked on a midget steel almirah choked with files; gunny bags full of what might be track suits or tarpaulin; stray sheets of paper matted on the unswept floor; a padlocked toilet and, just outside, a washbasin bearing no sign of intimacy with water; overhead, a naked CFL bulb and a slowly whirring fan. A setting so appointed it would be familiar to whoever has had the pleasure of passing through the bottom rungs of a government facility.

But once Nandi arrived and took his place, he began to define the chair rather than the chair define him; the beatific air about him became the room’s ambience.

” Bolun,” he boomed, tell me. But before anything could proceed, the long tail that came attached to Nandi’s aura intervened. It is Teachers’ Day, and Nandi our most recently anointed Dronacharya.

There are pupils from the past arrived to pay obeisance with flowers and ribboned souvenirs; Nandi’s sneakered feet are in demand. No less the entirety of his personage.

There’s a string of petitioners and their brief carriers: “Sir, please grace us with your presence.”

A school function, a chamber of commerce event, a university annual day, a bazar samitireception, a women’s club, a Mahalaya “anushthan”. “Sir, please grace us with your presence.”

The Mahalaya entreaty fetches the firmest “No”.

“This time we have decided to strictly stay with our families during Puja, both Dipa and Mrs Soma Nandi and I, we are not accepting anything, this Puja leave us to ourselves.”

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Vivekananda Byamagar, Agartala’s gym nursery that produced Dipa Karmakar

But why, complains one among the pleaders, has Nandi accepted an event in faraway Bangalore and is turning away Bengalis?

“What do you mean?” Nandi retorts, affronted. “What is this Bengali-non-Bengali business? With me there is no Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, north Indian-South Indian, please understand. To me all are Indians. Do you know how far back the people in Bangalore invited me? What wrong has Bangalore done? I will come, but not immediately, please, I am requesting you with folded hands, nothing before Pujas, ami thakur bhakta… I am a devotee of God.”

God would recur in our conversations like a central character of the Nandi scheme; his mission rituals could remind you of what the late General K. Sundarji famously said of how the army undertook Operation Bluestar in Amritsar’s Golden Temple in 1984: “With humility in our hearts and a prayer on our lips.”

Nandi talks incessantly of praying: I prayed to God to make me an Olympian, that was my real dream, but it wasn’t to be; I prayed to God keep me close to gymnastics, and that has happened; I prayed to God for Dipa to qualify, she almost didn’t and then God made it possible; I prayed to God give Dipa nothing, but at least don’t give her pain.

That last prayer was brought on by what has brought Nandi and Dipa their fame: the Produnova.

The Produnova itself was brought on by a gym-floor spell so flat Nandi had begun to imagine the end of his days: “Gymnastics is my life, if I give it up I will quickly die because there will be nothing more for me to do. I had failed to get the ‘Olympian’ tag to my name, Dipa was not getting anywhere, I thought to myself we have to take some risks.”

From such a trough of despair, they together coaxed the Produnova, a high-risk frog-in-the-blender routine named eponymously after its first performer, the Russian Yelena Produnova.

Between leaping off your palms and landing on your heels, the Produnova requires the gymnast to pluck velocity off the air, double-twist and hurl into a forward somersault, shins akimbo, for the finish. It is accorded the highest degree of difficulty, but the Produnova is more than merely difficult.

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Bishweshwar Nandi with former national gymnast and pupil Banasri Debnath, who had come to pay Teachers’ Day respects to him

The Egyptian Fadwa Mahmoud nearly killed herself executing it at the world championships in Antwerp in 2013; she escaped a neck landing by a whisker, and earned the Produnova its other, ominous, name: Vault of Death.

Nandi did ask Dipa and her weightlifter father, Dulal Karmakar, if they were agreed on upping the bar, and peril. “Dipa told me she would do anything, she’s a gutsy girl. Her father was very helpful.”

Nandi doesn’t believe in looking at the competition too much; watching videos of classier gymnasts leaves him with the unease of imitation. “But for the Produnova, I read and I watched before we went in.”

Dipa sprang to her first Produnova in the foam-pit of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium on July 10, 2014, watched only by two: Nandi and Gurdayal Singh Bawa, India’s chief gymnastics instructor.

Two weeks later, she grabbed bronze at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games with a near-flawless leap and landing, only the fifth woman in the world to have done the Produnova after Egypt’s Mahmoud, Yamilet Pena of the Dominican Republic, Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan and Produnova herself.

I asked Nandi what could be common to all of these ladies. “Speed and the strength to jump,” he said.

I asked him what was most critical to building speed and strength. “Meats,” he said. What meat? “All kinds of meat – mutton, fish, chicken, pork, beef. Meat ektu beshi khetey hoy… you require to eat a lot of meat.”

I asked how many Produnovas would Dipa have done, and he said, “Countless, countless, mostly in training.”

I then asked him what was the most important muscle in a gymnast’s body, and he tapped his head. “The brain, the determination, the will, if you don’t have the strength of mind to do it, no muscle will help.”

At five, the Agartala sky has begun to darken, but the Vivekananda Byamagar has just become awash with colour. The foam-pit is a merry eddy of girls, most of them not yet six, not even able to fill their mini leotards. They are stretching, goose-marching, twirling on the beam, cartwheeling – butterflies training to turn to steel.

Dipa has bounded in from somewhere and blended seamlessly into the clutch of would-be Dipas. It’s only the champ-class trainers she’s wearing that set her apart from the rest; else, she’s just another girl at the Byamagar, putting herself through the daily routine.

The girls have conjured a compelling churn of energy and joy, oblivious and unmindful of their meagre circumstances. One topples off a beam, another little maiden jumps on, both cackling away, plunged in the vortex of a rapture all their own.

Nandi proposes tea; he can leave the kids a while to the charge of “Mrs Soma Nandi, SAI coach”.

Soma Nandi is Dipa’s first coach, and wife to her current one. But that’s the only way Bishweshwar Nandi refers to her, third person particular, honorific attached: Mrs Soma Nandi, SAI coach.

She’s been thinking how best to answer my question on her husband’s personal likes and passions. Just as we are about to leave, she whispers: ” Uni toh shudhu jeem aar deem.”

He likes only the gymnasium and eggs.

We walk out the squelched Byamagar yard, past a bay of motorbikes of which one is Nandi’s, and arrive at a shack round a turn in the lane.

Nandi slides into wooden bench and pats a place for me. Had he devoted his life to another sport – cricket, even badminton – Nandi wouldn’t be riding a bike at 58; and he’d probably not be walking around unattended by adulation. The celebration of all that Nandi has achieved appears fulsomely located in his wan smile.

The tea arrives without Nandi having to order it, in small plastic tumblers, the measure of a vodka shot. He isn’t averse to being photographed in this mofussil setting, quaffing roadside tea; this is his world and he couldn’t be more comfortable elsewhere.

“People have come with lots of offers, come here, come there, we’ll give you this and this and this. I cannot leave Tripura, never, just as I can’t leave gymnastics.”

On our stroll back, he asks if he may see some of the photographs. He scrolls the screen, impassively. Then he returns my hand-held and pulls out his own.

“Some of those pictures have turned out dark, but you know you can put light into them these days.”

He’s scrambling his phone for an app; it’s then that I catch a glimpse of the improbable vault of imagination he carries around in his pocket.

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Telegraph Calcutta

In My Chambers My Giving Gas

1908lazy

Do not begin to imagine fancy chambers, no please. Chambers of pots more like it, the place where chamber pots are stationed. Now you can imagine all and any manner of chamber pots, fancy ones too. Things happen around chamber pots. Fancy things. Furtive things. Fruitful things. Forbidden things. Fuming things. Were you to someday sit down with the authoritative “Chamber Pots, A Complete & Comprehensive History”, you’d discover for yourself the astonishingly spectacular array of things that have happened around chamber pots, or in chambers appointed for chamber pots. Illicit assignation. Vile whisper. Plotting. Preening. Conspiracy. Incest. Assassination. Private violation of public facade. Such things and many more things.

And here it is too that the ThingAMagic comes naturally to be, the ThingAMagic that we have wantonly let escape us and been wasting all this while, until we were otherwise and wisely altered by TheOneAndOnly. Gas, blessed ThingAMagic, which issues from varied holes and is the key to all. BlessedHolyGas! Liberation of all of us as we have known ourselves. Wake up, people, smell the gas, it is issuing from you. Or will soon. Or if it does not, you will have to remedy the situation so it does begin to issue. Gas, folks, it must issue, or else you’ll get blown. In chambers of pots, that too has come to transpire; people have gotten blown. Too much gas that could not, or was not allowed to, for one reason or another, issue.

Listen. Listen carefully. Not to the issuing, may the Gods forbid, but to what happens as a consequence of the issuing. Big things happen. You cannot see them happen, all of it, or most of it, being colourless if you know your Chemistry, but they do happen. Gas. Gas! Tea boils on it. Why would you think Mahadev sits the way he does all day as he brews his tea? On his haunches, knees folded, spine bent, nerves taut? It is how it issues, gas. It is how the flames are fed. It is, Mother of Energy, please make them understand how it is, please do not reduce me to putting out this graphic detailing in a piece in a paper we expect families to read. On a Sunday morning too – a Sunday, the Lord resting, the clan all at home, face-to-face, together, nothing there to separate them from nicety and what cannot be nice. Gas! Gas issuing away. On a Sunday morning, with report, or none, but issuing all the same. Or some folks, many folks, in fact, are waiting upon them to issue. With servings of tea and bad news, with more tea and more bad news. Gas! Issue!! Come forth. Come forth in the name of TheOneAndOnly! For he has so decreed.

Or, at any rate, he has announced upon us that gas is a good thing. A blessed thing, in fact. Look at what is happening. What they are doing, that divine couple. Nibbling, you think? Eating? Indulging their appetites? Nah, you unbelieving infidels! They are making gas. It is just that we are a concern that respects family concerns, on a Sunday morning especially, and so we have a presentable representation of how gas is made. Eventually. You eat, you eat lots, the rest is taken care of. Gases get made, don’t you worry. And to think these creatures you see are foul. To think they emit too much and too foul once they’ve done the eating. To think they issue too much and too loudly, so much and so loudly that they’re blowing holes as big as unknown planets in the ozone and rendering us open to too much infra and too much heating. Bah! They so not know a thing. Look at these Godly creatures! At God’s own work!! They are making gas. Once they are done with what they are doing, they will get on their way and then, prrrrrrrrrt!, they will shed their blessing upon us. Gas! Whoever said they prrrrrreerrrrted too much for our good? Whoever manufactured this myth of bovine warming? Let them feed, more and more and more; let them lavish upon us their arts beginning with an F, more and more. Get the pipes! Fetch the cauldrons!!! Harness every ion of such divine art beginning with an F. Or, rush to your chamber pots, each of you, and find a pipe and find a pit. You’d have done our nation proud, and this world a whole pot of good.

Better it comes from you
Than some sordid sewer
Try hard, you are due
We’ll keep you from any viewer.

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Telegraph Calcutta

The man with many faces – Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924-2018)

VAJ

He had gone from our midst long before his appointed departure, an insistent, genial, and very often brilliant presence shrivelled to the irreversible demands of time, defying expiry yet relentlessly fading away behind the high barricading of his bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi. The last most of us saw of him was in a photograph from 2015, being conferred the Bharat Ratna by Pranab Mukherjee, no more than his eyes and a lock of his fabled wavy hair visible. For quite a while now, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had existed not as himself but as a notion, become a memory in his own time, almost as if he were casting his last trick as an artist of the floating world, an orator of a long silence.

In death, as in life, he tormented grasp and definition. Who was the real Atal ji? He never let on, and that’s the caper he rode to become who he was – many things to many people, often too many for his own good, or for others.

Several times in his long roller-coaster career, Vajpayee lived on by threatening to announce his demise, by bluster and by blackmail aimed at his own. In 1972, he had the Jan Sangh in an angry twist with his description of post-Bangladesh Indira as an avatar of Durga. The party was in a roil, ready to throw out its president. When matters went to the general council, Vajpayee announced he was stepping down, he couldn’t preside over a court where he was in the dock. The party fell at his feet, he sugar-laced his facile victory with an elaborate peroration that many believed was an expression of regret. Decades later, when Venkaiah Naidu dropped the Advani brick on his prime ministerial foot, he recoiled in a petulant fit: “Agla chunav Advaniji ke netritva mein ladenge (We’ll contest the next elections under Advani’s leadership)”. Naidu was the first to fall at his feet in remorse. The party followed him. Vajpayee, satisfied at the quantum of apology heaped around him, declared fulsome intent to lumber on. “Naa tired hain, naa retired hain (I am neither tired, nor retired)”.

He spent a fair part of his public life attached with the promise of becoming prime minister, and eventually got there. To the seat that Jawaharlal Nehru, ideological adversary and personal idol, had occupied. He managed, after two faltering tries, a full run in office. He had his highs, his moments of triumph. He had his share of adulation, perhaps more than he deserved. For his insistent will to shake hands with Pakistan. For his Pokhran defiance. For carving the beginnings of a new course in Kashmir. For creating, in perception if not in reality, a soft core in a hard party. For being a deft practitioner of the hazardous art of coalitions – the first prime minister to last a full term astride a medley. For his agency to convene and conduct adversarial political forces. The first man in a long time to be conceded, even by adversaries, the title of statesman, even though many will quarrel with it, and for good reason. No matter what the colour or shape of your worldview or politics, it was forever tough to deny Vajpayee the stations he came to.

Vajpayee’s PMO was a construct of survival, a place where he jumped the barricades to escape the ivy embrace of his saffron brotherhood. In that sense, Vajpayee was like no other prime minister before him. He ruled at the expense of his own party and, when convenient, by feigning distance from its ideology. He ruled at the pleasure of his allies and very often at the displeasure of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the sangh. Govindacharya bequeathed public memory a few lasting truths about the nature of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The most durable among them was that the man was a mukhauta, a mask. He changed faces. All too often. He went to Staten Island off New York and told a congregation of Hindu priests he was a born swayamsevak. A day later, he corrected himself before a not entirely Hindu press corps; he only meant he was a swayamsevak of the country, not of the sangh alone. He moaned and groaned over the demolition of the Babri Masjid and wrote guilt-ridden poetry. Then he called the outrage the consequence of “nationalist sentiment”.

He lived with Narendra Modi and the Gujarat genocide. He arrived to wipe tears a month later when tears and blood alike had dried. He reminded Modi apparently harshly of raj dharma, shed sentiment at the Shah Alam camp in the morning and turned up to heap marigolds on Modi in the evening. He called Gujarat a blot but patted Modi on the back and prodded him to lead the party’s election campaign in Gujarat. He aped Nehru’s style and liberal demeanour, he flirted with Gandhi’s ideology. He submitted himself, repeatedly and regularly, to shadowy creatures from Nagpur. His poetry was about irreverence, revolt; his politics was downright conformist, slave to survival and other daily conveniences.

Vajpayee was a late-life accident in the era of compromises but he became a neuter core of those compromises. His wings reeked inertia and undoing when they needed to flap. He became shelter to sectarian hatred, he was sanctuary to all manner of perfidy. Not the least among them was the one that he got away with himself – his popular portraiture will forever abjure khaki knickers; the truth is, he always wore them, and seldom let on.

It is for nobody to guess what he would have thought of the unabashed power-cult that his successor BJP prime minister, Narendra Modi, has built around himself, and the politics of sectarian exclusion he belligerently and unapologetically spurs. What can be fairly said is that Modi’s bellicose demeanour has bequeathed the Vajpayee legacy the favour of being cast in a much gentler light.

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Telegraph Calcutta

I am From here From here From here

1208lazy

The name’s Marten, Pine Marten. Martes martes of gotra. Yes, just that: gotra. Did you by any chance think only you folks had it? And what do you folks have over us, anyhow? Not much, I would think. And what you do have over us is not much use, rotten stuff, destructive stuff, bigoted stuff, the stuff of aggression and animosity that often resides and erupts from your viscera and sets one or more of you upon others of your own kind. Not stuff we much care for. Look, we too have a life, we too survive, we too get about. But not the way you lot get about. We get about a lot, as a matter of fact. Ever taken a walk in Cumbria? Or Shropshire? No? Anywhere else in those Isles? No? England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, this side of the fence and that? No? Ah well. Been to the Himalayan foothills? Garhwal? Kumaon? Ummm… let me think. The Nilgiris? Ever been out in nature, in a forest, conifer or hardwood?

I roam free, no questions asked, where I go is my domain. You may have chanced upon me. I am a shy creature, and I prefer not mixing with you lot. You can see me, can’t you? Now you can, now you can’t. I wear camouflage. But that does not prevent me turning out smart. The name’s Marten, you see, Pine Marten; I can’t help my sartorial side. If I stretch on my hinds, I reach 26 inches above earth level, no more, but look at me: russet of fur with a variable ring of coat round the neckline, like a cravat – fawn, yellow, cream, white, varying hues. We don’t mind what colour we are. Or caste or creed or… Sex? Ah well, but that’s another thing, we shall talk about that another day. We aren’t endangered yet, so that should give you a hint.

My friend Olive is, though; Olive of the Ridley, turtle of the onyx carapace, turtle of the sea-and-sand paddle like nobody else possesses. Gotra of Lepidochelys olivacea, variable of weight and size. If your kind leave them be, they can get up to a fair few kilos and the size of armour plates. They come ashore, they slink into the sea without need for anyone’s permission, this side or that of what divides land from waters. And they swim with abandon. Kings of the midriff of this planet. You find them on the coast of Suriname, their cousins in Sri Lanka and Odisha, their cousins once or twice removed further along the warmer waters of the South China Sea, all the way up to where one colour of ocean meets another colour of ocean and becomes the Pacific.

But it isn’t land or water alone where radical contrasts with your kind lie etched. Shame showers down the skies no less. My Siberian mates, the big ones, also called Cranes, Siberian Cranes. Gotra of Leucogeranus leucogeranus. An airline like them hasn’t been invented, what fliers! No airside visas, no passports, no ID nor airport landing or parking rights. They just fly. From frozen reaches of the Arctic Tundra, from above the Urals and from the darkened remoteness of Siberia. Nine kilos of weight, 45-50 inches from beak to behind, but when you have a wingspan that goes 90 inches, jetspeed isn’t an issue. They swoop down the latitudes, one lot to beauteous, and warmer, patches in Iran, another, overflying the Three Gorges Dam and the Poyang Lake in China, to the vast nesting marshes of the Keoladeo Ghana Sanctuary in Bharatpur. Russian agents? Chinese intruders? No, nobody asks, we aren’t the sort, Sires, we are different, we don’t go about marking and labelling folks and docking and penalising and pushing and heckling them for where they may have come from. They belong. Among us. They are us.

Like ants are us. Ants of the gotra Formicidae, ants that are everywhere. Check your pants, Sire, they say a thing or two about folks with ants in their pants. The most pervasive, the most social beings, so social they have their own term for it: eusocial. Look at the ant in a corner near you and wonder where it may be from. Or they. Where there is one ant, there are usually millions. They work together, and they make for such an astounding example, you folks even made a movie out of them. You made a movie and you believed you had become the greater. Really?

So what do they say of Man, O Mahadeb, the Missing and the Omnipresent?

They have fences, poor things
But never mind
They aren’t evolved as beings
Just poor humankind

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Telegraph Calcutta

That shifting line

8edittop11

Over the years, Shahjahan had transformed himself into a full-fledged Indian. He had a voter identity card, a ration card and an Aadhar card… On the occasions that he travelled back to Barsila, Bangladesh, Shahjahan was careful to not carry any of his Indian identity documents… ‘If I am intercepted there, I will show them my Bangladeshi identity card. If someone asks me for identity proof in India, I will produce my Indian card,’ Shahjahan declared. I asked him if he considered himself an Indian or a Bangladeshi. ‘Ami Bangali,’ was the simple reply.” – Borderlands by Pradeep Damodaran

Folks that live closest to borders least see them. Equally, they are the most afflicted by them. Lines get drawn. Lives get halved, quartered, sundered. Borders come with consequences, most often unhappy consequences, unhappier than the reasons that caused them to be drawn. In a manner of speaking, the line Lakshmana had etched in the earth for Sita after Rama had gone chasing after the golden mirage of Mareech in the Dandakaranya bush was also a border. Sita crossed it; consequences followed – an abduction, an assault and an epic war, regime change. Borders can be tricky and troublesome things to violate. Yet they have forever tempted crossing, consequences no bar.

It is probably a fair surmise that the first boundaries our kind came upon were all natural – a forbidding and limitless ocean, a high and frozen range, an impenetrable length of jungle, a gorge of dizzying depth, a tormenting stretch of desert, the vacuous depths of space. They were all attempted and overcome. We are an itinerant species, we’ve gone more ways and farther than any other on the planet. We will not remain static, or bounded; for one reason or another, we will move – sustenance, commerce, conquest, wonder, wanderlust, often plain lust; it’s moot what Cleopatra might also have invoked in Roman legionnaires – other than prospects of more region and riches – for them to swarm south across seas and sands.

The first intimations of organized boundaries between one suzerainty and another come, in fact, from Cleopatra’s geography – Sumer in or around 3000 BC is where sovereigns partitioned communities with fair rigidity and control. But humankind always travelled, from one place to the other. It’s how the Silk Route came to be. It’s how Kautilya may have ventured all the way from Taxila to Pataliputra. You probably required a lot of daring and determination, and a fair bit of good fortune, but folks travelled in far greater numbers than history had time or care to record. The annals of borders remain hazy and conflicted. Some accounts reckon that the first organized border, as distinct from a frontier, which was a much looser and osmotic demarcation, in the Christian Era was the one that Andorra erected in 1278 to demarcate itself from what shape France and Spain were then. Other narratives would prefer a later date: 1648 and the boundaries drawn and agreed upon as a result of what’s called the Peace of Westphalia, a series of territorial agreements that brought to a close (temporarily, as we were to later and repeatedly realize) the ravaging religious wars of Europe. What was to soon follow the Peace of Westphalia was a comprehensive disruption and re-ordering across other parts of the globe – the consolidation of colonial conquests in far-off continents and the slicing and distribution of spoils, the beginning of the establishment of borders as we would come to understand them.

But, most certainly, that wasn’t the end of that process. It has not ended, because human nature will not let it. The arbitrarily drawn line somewhere turns into a challenge, even an affront, to both the human instinct and human endeavour; it restricts in ways that it begins to nudge and prod violation. If not through the self, through proxies – a mule laden with goods for exchange, a carrier raven taped with a missive, a spy, most often – nothing is able to dupe man better than another. The violation of borders is intrinsic to our kind, and it is often both the cause and the consequence of it.

For all the adamant insistence of nations on the iron-clad inalienability of borders, they remain, and will remain, an impermanent and changeable thing. Look around, and count the borders that have changed shape in our lifetimes. How did the wall that tore one Berlin from another and made two Germanys of Germans come to fall? How quickly did the satellite vassals of the Soviet iron curtain become other colours on the map? What’s become of Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia and the Balkans? In Africa? In Africa the colonials drew the vertical and horizontal lines so straight it’s plain to sense they couldn’t be bothered about who or how they were dividing up the native people of the continent once they were done with their ravaging, or even before. More awaits. Many frontiers await renegotiation and resettlement. Moscow’s claims over Crimean Ukraine. The on-now-off-now agitations between Russia and Japan over the Kurils. The bloodied, unfinished masonry of Israel-Palestine. The anxieties over Brexit in the Isles and on the European mainland, those too are about borders. The pulsing scar across the two Koreas. The contrary longing that may ring off that little island called Cyprus, not Greek, not Turkish, not either, merely neither. The plastered sentiment that often resounds off pubs across both sides of Éire. It’s the same cry you may chance upon the fledgling borders that came up in our parts – one a little more than a mere seventy years ago, another much more recently: ‘I am Punjabi’; ‘I am Kashmiri’; ‘I am Sindhi’; ‘Ami Bangali‘.

The modern nation state and its defined protocols and obligations are a reality that we, in our respective spaces and polities, swear oath upon and pledge to protect. But there are also people and their identities and requirements and aspirations, and obligations to them. As humanity to human beings. Humanity through history has been brutal upon its kind as no other species. It has, very often, also survived and prospered by being the opposite.

In a 2017 tract titled The Decline of Civilization: Why We Need to Return to Gandhi and Tagore, the Iranian political theorist and philosopher, Ramin Jahanbegloo, wrote: “Though the history of civilizations in all parts of the world has not always been peaceful and cultures and societies have remained isolated from one another, yet in the past the idea of common humanity triumphed over perceived differences time and time again. Each time polarizing revolutions and wars fractured civilizations everywhere at different periods of history an emphatic vision of common humanity emerged. The common shared sufferings were embodied by a common human capacity for empathy and exchange. One could say, therefore, that the core meaning of human civilization has always been related to the idea of appreciation of a common humanity. There is in the history of human civilization an emotional action beyond the facts and the events, in terms of human empathy.”

What was it that the Mahopanishad said? Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. Or there was, more recently, a certain John Lennon who sang “Imagine”. Lennon was shot dead, but that song is still sung.

TT Link

Telegraph Calcutta

And the Rain as Well my Drink

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In this rain. In all of this rain. In all of it that makes a cup of everything there is, and caps it and brims over and over like it couldn’t be bothered who’d do all the mopping after. In this rain that is determined on its trajectory and target – fall and spare nothing your embrace. Single-mindedly just come to fall upon whatever it is that is there to fall upon. In this arrowshot rain fired down from the skies. Each salvo aimed at a spot, each salvo headed precisely where intended by those bellicose archers up there that arrive astride those loud warrior clouds.

Rumbling across, rolling over all that falls in their path, like armoured divisions that would brook no obstacle, stop at nothing, expend every bit of their armoury, to the last pellet and bolt. In such rain, that only ever knows it must fall and fulsomely fall. It rains upon the rooftops where there are rooftops. And then it can rain like rooftops falling, a continual belligerence, rooftop upon rooftop upon rooftop upon rooftop, like there would be no end to the falling. In such rain. In rain that conceals and then reveals, its ravages or its riches, or what it has rendered drenched as proof of its passing.

But it reveals Mahadeb not just yet. If it’s at all falling upon him somewhere – and if indeed he is somewhere, lost to us, but somewhere, aware of his own presence, cognizant he is Mahadeb, inhabiting his own flesh and blood and bones, his own consciousness and his destinied part – it has him concealed yet in its darkened curtains. It isn’t time, or so we must assume and carry on living in hope he will someday be revealed and will return and make this patch of the street what he made it when he sat atop his cart and stove and served out sustenance in earthen bhaanrs that spoke to the senses of milky tea and petrichor. In such rain it is that people run away and people return.

In such rain is embedded relief. Or it can also be, if what such rain has concealed it eventually reveals. It has been said of rain, or of falling water, that it cleanses the body and the soul and the future. It comes to fall and it sweeps away malevolence that hangs about us, at least for a bit it does, and it is the only one that is able to do it in the fashion it does. It falls, a cascade, and it consumes – dust, fume, smoke, pollen, diesel, carbon, dead and living pestilence, all of it, what do they call it with alarm on the weather shows 24/7? SPM or whatever it is that it is. Okay, let us Google it, let’s not be lazy, let’s consult the Gospel of our times. Suspended Particulate Matter, that is what it is: SPM. Or, so Google says. But it needs no Google to say it comes down. It came down much before Google came. And it does what it does.

It bathes cats and dogs. And mice and gutter rats. Roofs and terraces. Marquees of plastic and marquees of tarpaulin and wimpy canvas. Eaves and awnings. The throats of surviving gargoyles. And the askance throats of lilies. Lanes and streets and high-streets. The tops of cars and often their mud-sloshed sides. Trees and branches and leaves. And fruits and flowers, the fallen even. And all of man’s goods vended under open skies – the apparatus of dubious remedy and dolls with wet frocks of lace, bolts of unsold gabardine and burqas that would have to be put out to dry. Baubles for boys and baubles for elder men for they, too, are only good for baubles now, no more. Towns and cities. Populations and desolations. Vast flanks of mountains and their narrow crevices. Escarpments of rock and runnels of gurgling earth. Rivers and valleys. And plateaus and mud plains. Ants. Centipedes. Millipedes. Birds. Bird eggs. Bird nests. Lairs and foxholes. Lovers and the lonesome, departees and arrivees. In this rain there lies a cleansing.

And yet it lies not. It wets and passes, and it is towelled and dried and nothing gets cleansed. Not our prejudices. Not our bigotry. Not our recourse to violence with fist and dagger and sword. Not our poisoned tongues, nor the put-rescence of the minds that wag them. Not our will for vengeance, none of our anger. None of it, none of all or any of what entitles us to be called humans.

So come down and do not stop

Come down upon us

We’ll complain and make some fuss

But come down, and give us another drop.

 

 TT Link

Telegraph Calcutta

Round Your Neck With Love, A Noose

You recognise the scene of crime, don’t you? No? But of course you do. It is a scene of recent crime, an audacity most foul whose after-effects are still eddying about. But such it is, this scene of crime, it lends itself. To violations of all manner. It has been wrung. It has been choked. It has been tied. It has been twisted. It has been lassoed. It has been stabbed. It has been slit. It has been chopped off. In the native parts, in my beloved Beehar, the charming euphemism they sometimes use when they declare intent to decapitate someone is chhau inch chhota kar denge… will reduce your height by six inches.

But others in far and other parts of this planet of ours too are aware of the perils that lurk about this space. Croat mercenaries and their protective practices, remember? We’ve exchanged thoughts recently on this. Such are also the resorts we take to while time away while Mahadeb remains gone – the unusual quirks and customs of removed peoples. Croat mercenaries would wrap silk round their necks when they stepped out to work. Then one among them, a clotheshorse or a sauceboat or both, decided to put a knot on that piece of silk. And thence it became a statement and began to be called the cravat – what the killer Croat wears round his neck.

A critical place, this neck, ground zero of many manners of threat; this is where you reduce the intended person’s height by six inches from: the neck. It’s what you might see in the illustration below. A versatile part of the anatomy. Crafted by whoever crafts such things for many and contrary purposes. Imagine. If a goat did not have a neck, where would you cut it for meat? In the hind legs? Or if a swan did not have a neck how would Pablo Neruda – the same Neruda, you are right, first cousin to Derrida and Feluda and Prada – have discovered that swans do not sing just before they die? (Not that they sing at other times, those raucous, fierce birds.) If a giraffe didn’t have a neck, would we even call it a giraffe? Poor thing would look as pathetic as a frumpily dressed jenny ass on a bad hair day whose face had gone all pear-shaped. Frogs don’t have necks and look how they look. They have to be redeemed by princesses having to kiss them. And we all know the blunt truth about that one – princesses only kiss frogs in fairy tales, and fairy tales are what they are. Wonder where princesses kiss frogs, though, even in them fairy tales, frogs have no lips either.

Lo! Yeh kahan aa gaye hum? But this is what happens in Mahadeb’s absence. It is so distracting – this no being there of Mahadeb – that we begin to digress. We were on the neck and we have seamlessly travelled to the lips. Not done, although it is a certain kind of practice, travelling from the neck to the lips. Some folks do that and think nothing of it. Some folks think it’s bad enough you got to the neck in the first place. God knows what you may have done next.

I mean do you not know when the Chhatrapati went to make his assignation with the Khan all those years ago somewhere in the plateaux? It was meant to be a hug – a galey milna – but the Chhatrapati wore knuckles tipped with blades and when he stepped up took the Khan in embrace, he dug those concealed blades into the Khan’s back and bled him so deep he fell dead. Iconic treachery. Some even call that brilliant tactics. But anyhow. Whatever. Alarming things can happen with this galey milna custom.

No wonder people are often wary, and afraid. Even those who have made galey milna the leit motif of their manner are sometimes wary and afraid. They’d hug at the drop of a hat or whatever else it is that can drop. But they will not be hugged. And when the hug drops on them, they recoil, like birdshit had taken them unawares. They complain. They begin to step back at the sight of a human approaching, they make barricades of extended hands. Beware! HugBug alert!! Run!!! Kahin galey naa pad jaaye! And what if in the process of necking me, he gets the real measure of the proclaimed size of my chest? God forbid. So you see, the neck and the sheer fright of getting necked. What is it that they say when you get it really bad? Do they not say you got it in the neck?

I am applying in triplicate what the heck

It’s before you for your perusal

What I want is only and no more than your neck

On which lies tattooed No Refusal.

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