We have tails. Did you not know? Okay. We aren’t meant to know everything. That’s perfectly understandable. The mad or the deranged will never agree they are mad or deranged. Paagal ho kya? Bigots may not know they are bigots. Or illiterates that they are being illiterate. And whenever did a villain see a villain in their own self? Adolf was only enriching the human race, giving it the purest form. What happened as a collateral to that process was, achchha, chhodo kal ki baatein, kal ki baat purani. But naye daur mein, the story that is being scripted is also the same old story but the writers of that story will not agree that they are writing or rewriting that same old story and that it is a horrific one. They never will. They never do.
You may not know, but there are more wisdoms than you would like to admit around you. An old saying goes in some languishing tongue from some forsaken part of this neighbourhood: Appan maath ke tetar kekro sujhaai chhai? Does anyone see the bump on their own forehead? Tough. Unless you put a mirror to yourself. And we know just how forbidding and unwelcome a task we find that one. Take pretenders. Do pretenders realise they are pretending? Everybody can see they are pretending, but they may not know. Or scheming folks who think nobody realises how scheming they are. They have so many schemes there is eventually no place to store them and they have to throw those schemes out. Everybody can see. Those discarded schemes. Or the discarded schemes that may be recalled for use again. All of that is understandable. All of that happens. But people know. And some folks think that others do not know, that they can go on being scheming and nobody will think it is but a scheme.
Everybody, for instance, has a tail as I said right at the beginning, but very few understand that. We came from those that had tails: the baanars, look them up. They preceded us. We came from them. Their essence hasn’t entirely died in us, their essence remains embedded in our bones and our blood and sometimes that makes us behave in the ways of the tailed ones. They had tails. In time, we lost those tails but not entirely. We have tail ends. We have tail bones. We cannot see them, but we do have them. Sometimes when those tail ends hurt we know they are within us, tail ends. Tail bones, they are called. They are what support us when we are ensconced on the throne. They also make the ends of that thing which some have and some do not. That thing is called the spine. The spine is a, well, good thing and a bad thing. When you can keep it upright, you can point to it and say, look, I have a spine and an upright one. When you cannot keep it upright, well, it may turn out to be a more useful thing than you think: a spine that is not a spine but a user-friendly thing. Just look at me, the successful one. I have a spine, and I use it well. I bend it when it suits me and I in fact do not even keep it with myself most of the time. My spine I have embedded at the back of my chair and that is what makes my chair a throne. What the keeping of the throne requires my spine does; it can bend this way, it can bend that way, it can swing backwards, it can stoop forwards, whatever’s required. A tail hangs by it, of course, but it is not a tail I tell. Most folks do not tell their tails. But remember we do have tails; try feeling the end of it someday. Especially if you sit on a throne, because you know everybody can see you and you know the tail’s there and it must be kept from being told.
Some things are pre-ordained. Like bad things. Horrible things. Things you wouldn’t expect would happen to you, or around you. Hobei. I mean Cupid was Cupid but was given the shape of a cherub that could engage in no Cupid-like things. You know what I mean? And Godi was meant to have a lap but all that happened in that lap was lapdogs. Can you imagine! Pity the OtherOnes of the canine species. But never mind. Never pity the
OtherOnes. They don’t take kindly to any of that. They seek the pity but provided it, they will snarl and snap. I speak from experience, don’t even try going there. Never mind. And sorry. But to return to where we were before the OtherOnes of the canines distracted us: Things happen. They are meant to be. Hoy. I have said this before. Hoy. Relax. You cannot prevent what is to happen from happening. It’s written. Written in.
In fact most things are. In fact of fact it is tough to think of things that are not pre-ordained. They come written, in the secret language of lines on the palm. Not sure anyone can read them right, but the inability to read them right cannot mean the prophecies do not lie scripted there in all their detail, day, date, time etcetera etcetera. Look at the lines on this palm. Try and read. Such a labyrinth of myriad things, happened, happening and about to happen. Seems like a forbidding circuit almost, touch a line, or a wire so imagined, and the whole thing will short-circuit somewhere and set itself aflame. No wonder what was said was said. As a matter of fact, it was not said, it was commanded: Press the extensions of your palm so hard, it will send out currents. What’s that finger for? That crooked one? Jab it in, make sure you jab it in. And once you’ve jabbed it in, the current will flow, and it will electrocute. That is what the extensions of the palm are for. To kill. Press. Throttle. Kill. That’s what the circuitry of the palm tells you. That is its destiny. That is what is written in. Make a choice, people, kill! You’d have merely made a choice on a button, the killing as a result would merely be collateral consequence. Go ahead.
But why? There are many reasons not to endorse, I have always felt this. The prime reason not to endorse is who does one endorse? This dunce or that dunce? And what does one endorse? What this dunce says? Or what that dunce says? Eventually it all comes down to that, choosing between this dunce and that dunce. So why choose at all? Why make a dunce of yourself, which you are anyhow? Every dunce brays a promise; every dunce seeks a vote. We endorse this dunce, then we endorse another and in the process we go on being dunces. Agree?
Well, I don’t much care. That’s what I have learnt too — don’t care. Do what you have to, say what you have to, the consequences will be what they have to be. Don’t bother what others say.
If you bother what the others say and be guided by that, you will not be yourself. You might as well become the other. Why bother being yourself if you have to bother about the other? Or being the other?
But what is this all about? This public introspection in print? Why? What has triggered this? If this is introspection why is it not silent and private? Why is it being played out in public, distributed about from home to home this Sunday? Why this exhibitionism? Thinking? Do it by yourself, quietly. Don’t pour it out in the open, like raita. But raita is what this is all about, this poison we want to serve out as a delectable dish. Have a taste of it. And while you do so,
Kyon? Hai naa sahi? But if you disagree tell me how so. Please explain to me. I am interested. I wish to know. How so? How so are you not anti-national? You lot? You infidels. But now, that is heresy, a heretic word to use: Infidels. But what do we do? We need to have a word for Infidels that we do not yet have. Please. Do you not understand where I am coming from? Okay. One day you will. And one day I shall have a word for it. A pure sanskari word, worry you not.
Meantime. Meantime. Meantime, this:
Which nation? Which people? Who do you think we are? Where do you think we live? Where have we come from? May we ask? And who are you to question? Who are you to ask? Where did you come from? Where do you belong? Which nation? Which people? Which agreement? What are you agreed upon that you seek our agreement? And licence? Who authorised you? So are you now questioning those that authorised you to question in the first place? That authority you may not possess, you know. We are the People; you are the elected. We are not changeable. You are changeable. You are dumpable. Every five years or so. Every fewer years or so. What do you think? What would you know? About who we are? About who you are?
Do you know who you are? Tell us. No, first tell us. Do please. Because you are asking who we are. Let us know who you are. To even ask who we are. What gives you the right? What deprives us of the right? Are these good questions? Tell us. Because we need to know. Who are you? Who are you to ask? Do you even know my mother? Were you even born when she was? Do you have the right? What gave you that right? Who gave you that right? The vote? That vote? That vote which is changeable every five years or less? So you get our vote and you get to question who we are? Hah!
But it does not seem to matter to you, does it? You will still question the unquestionable. Hai naa? You have the majority. Majority? Really? But you do not. Look across the street. Get a sense of where you are and with how many. There are folks here. They are not sheep. People. You know. People? You know what people are? You know what people can do? You should know. You are a consequence of what the People can do. You can become a consequence of what the People can undo.
Where we are today, there was no land, or place to be, do you know? But how would you? Know of the Tethys? It was a sea. Where we are was a sea. It was called the Tethys. Then things moved. The sea, the earth underneath it. Spaces receded and spaces were created. And there came to be stretches of land and streaks of water, which we came to know as rivers. And the rivers flowed and the rivers fed and that is how some of us came to be. But wherefrom? Would you know? Tell us. Give us a Postcode. Provide us an address we can post you a letter where you came from. Provide. Dikhaao Kagaz.
You are not who we are. We read the Preamble. We wave the Tricolour. We sing the song that we have forever sung under the Tricolour. We have rejoiced in all of the above. We will rejoice even more. We will meet. We will gather. We will congregate. We will sing. We will shout. We will cry.
This is our soil. This is our air and our sky. This is our land. This is the land of we came from. In truth, we all came from Africa. We are all Lucy’s children. Would you even know? Whatever comes we shall see
Caa! Caa! CAA! CAAAAAA! Kaun haaaa? That sound. That piercing call. That untimely, unseemly monosyllabic poke. Why? What’s the matter? Why now? This sound? That’s sharking into me? And ourselves? And the body of the politic? And each and every part of it? CAAAAAAA! Not a good sound, but it’s rising from everywhere, evoking a writhing sigh. Why?
Wake up! Listen! Come to your senses, time to, about time. Where have you been? In the age of cockadoodledoooo? That’s not the wake up call any more? The chickens have all been had. Killed. Stripped. Skinned. Gone into the tandoori and the tandoori all gone down the gullets. There’s no chickens here anymore to be had. The era of the chickens is over. Don’t be chicken. Are you chicken? Are you chickening? There. No. Please don’t be chicken. Chickens are the stuff to slaughter. And then to butcher, piece by piece, twelve, Sir, or sixteen? Gizzard, or no? And the neck? Wrung and limp and lifeless? Would you like that? The wrung neck? Of the chicken? They are things to rub and marinate, with this or that, red chillies and pepper, or honey and garlic, choose what you will. But chicken? Terrible end. Don’t be chicken. Although it is reasonable that you may be feeling like one at the moment, a chicken on the run, about to be wrung.
Quite. Right. A chicken’s not the bird to be at the moment. A raven is. The shroud of darkness, floating about, calling Caa, CAA, CAAAAAA!
They’d taken over our skies, these darkened wings and their clouds. These darkened wings and their shadows. These darkened wings and their flap that reek of something vile and acrid that will drop on you and suddenly you will no longer be you but something that even you cannot recognise. They will swoop. They will pick. They will tear. They will snap. They will do what they are wont to do to prey. They will prey on prey. They will pick flesh off bone. They will tear into tendon. They will snap your joints. They will leave you dead. Or gone. Have you ever noticed birds of prey overhead? Or what they do when they find what to prey on? They keep circling. And circling. They keep boring. And boring. They locate. They identify. Then, with a siren whoop and a deft swivel, they lock onto target. CAAA! Curse. Cursed. Banished. Marinated in the alphabets — NPR, NRC — and skewered. Roasted. Over a bonfire of papers. Your own papers. The papers that you thought you would wrap around yourself; the papers you thought would insulate you. Those papers, they will stoke the fires you will burn in and be gone.
But Papers can also save you. Get that piece of Paper. You are flesh. You are blood. You are bone. You are soul. Your are consciousness. You are a being. You accept space. You breathe in. You breathe out. You sense. You feel. You see. You talk. You are a shape. You are of a height. You are of a girth. You are weight. You are. You have a mother. Someone gathered you. You have a history, written into your genes that any qualified person can read and interpret. Nobody is denying that. Nobody can. You are. You are here. But do you have papers? Your flesh is worth nothing if you have no papers. Are you anything without papers? CAAAA! CAAAAAAA!! You are being announced. You are now bidden. The rooster’s been assigned the job, and he has to mimic the Raven, for a Raven it is that calls the shots. CAA!! This is the palace of the Throne of Papers, what do you bring to it? No Papers? Be gone!
Ran into, quite by accident, the other day, TukdeTukdeFang. Not a pleasant prospect, nor easy. Fang said hello, but bit in the process. Politeness bites. Proximity bites. And there was more fang than just one fang. So you know. You escape one polite fang, and a familiar fang gets you. But Fang seemed to have a point of view. And points of view should be permissible amongst us. Even acceptable, although a point of view, or several, may not be acceptable for this reason or that. But to have a point of view — that should be acceptable. Even welcome. And so TukdeTukdeFang. In fact, truth to tell as I earlier indicated, two fangs. And therefore not one tukda, but tukde-tukde, one tukda for each fang. And why ever not? Everything is tukde-tukde. Look around. Talk around. Friends. Family. Dear folks. Yaars, langotiaas. All tukde-tukde. You say one thing, they will piece it. They say one thing, you will piece it. Tukde-tukde. Maan lo.
That is how days begin, in pieces, tukde-tukde. That’s how the night marinates them and that is how they come to fall on fortuitous mornings. In pieces, tukde-tukde. I am talking of waking from dreaming and coming into waking, fraction upon fraction. Dream, but very often nightmare, moulting away and becoming, fraction upon fraction, waking. What were you thinking? Oh that? That beginning? But that too. That’s essential. The shedding away. Of night. And of soil. Bit by bit, tukde-tukde. If it happens. How you wish it happens. You pine for tukde-tukde, don’t you? Gotcha!
But that’s not all that’s tukde-tukde. You eat at some point. If you are fortunate. If you get a breakfast. Or that one meal. How do you consume it? Tukde-tukde, hai naa? You go off to work. If you are fortunate to have work. And then you spend a day at work. How does that go? Tukde-tukde. Hai naa? A bit of this and a bit of that. He said this. She said another thing. There was an argument. Tukde-tukde. He had his say. She had her say. We went our way. Tukde-tukde.
Oh, but in between we went for lunch. But that too was a little like that. Tukde-tukde. Where do we go? Tukde-tukde. What do we eat? Tukde-tukde. Tandoori Murgh? Tukde-tukde. Seekh Kebab? Tukde-tukde. No but we are vegetarians. We wish other things on the table. Shahi Tukda? Tukde-tukde.
And then we came out, having paid, tukde-tukde, and we heard people were on the streets. A few here, a few there. But no. A few hundred here. A few thousand there. Demanding this. Demanding that. Demanding one thing. Demanding just the opposite thing. And some of them were getting hammered. But one tukda was feeding into another tukda and there seemed to us, at one point, that those tukdas will all join and become one huge tukda. And it will become a tough task to call them tukde-tukde simply because they will have achieved a size too humongous to be called tukdas and tukdas. And also too humongous for fang and fang to bite and break. Not one fang. Not the other fang. Not the two fangs together, bhai samjhaa karo.
But you know what? This was just what I feared. A tukde-tukde waking up. Between dreaming and nightmaring and waking. The original tukde-tukde of each day, with all its tukde-tukde things still left to go through. No wonder she had cried. And no wonder she died crying. Bechaaari Meena Kumari. What a true and dripping tragedy she had already made of what we have now come to:
Tukde-tukde din beetaa Dhajjee-dhajjee raat mili Jiskaa jitna aanchal thha Utni hi saugaat mili.
There were a fair few thoughts and musings darting about there, at that point. At that moment I got up and I thought I should go. If for no other reason, to merely alter position, from a stasis of sorts to a little moving and shaking of things — feet, ankles, shins, knees, the connector bones and tendons. Is cartilage involved too? I wonder, such a supple and succulent thing. Cartilage, I mean. Anyhow, when those things move, they carry other things along, all of those things that come attached, a whole construct as big as a being begins to move. That is how we have been made, a collection of connected parts condemned to unison.
Try keeping your belly behind when you go out for a walk, if only to lighten things and be able to impart swiftness to your feet. But what would be the point of it? It’s to slash that belly that most folks go out walking, what a waste to leave it behind gathering fat and whatever else there may be on the bed? Or imagine leaving your head behind and walking off with merely your fancy wig stuffed in your pocket? But what would be the point of that either? If your head’s been left behind, what worth would be the weight of that wig? Who’d you be trying to convince about anything? That you have a thick and handsome mop of hair? But no head to plop it on?
But the strangest things happen. And that is the strange thing about strange things; they too come to happen. Sometimes body parts leave other body parts and wander off, without feet or ankles or knees or bones or tendons. Without cartilage. Without many more body parts. But one of them will suddenly and for no apparent reason, get up and leave.
The eyes leave, and begin to gaze on faraway things, vistas never before visited, locales nobody has ever showed you and you have never seen, dreams that are a shudder to dream — like dreaming that two fellows have arrived from somewhere and taken a billion people by the scruff of their necks; they are laughing and most of those being gagged are laughing too because they believe they are merely being paid attention around their necks. Such unreal, horrific dreams.
Or the heart flaps away, like a butterfly, silently, while the rest of the body remains idle. It floats and swims and then is slapped by a gust and it is either hurried back or is irreparably broken.
Or the brains toddle away, with or without that mop of hair, not caring whether a wig was in order, and begin engaging in imaginations. You’ve been static, the brain’s gone on some autonomous wander, striking conversations with back-of-the-brain ideas and folks, strange folks with whom you’d never imagine a meeting much less a conversation. Folks like BlondieDuck. Or HarHarGodi. Or OmitBlah. Or BoringBlondson. Or BiwiYahoo. Or TabiyatAurDoJaan. Or LaaDeMirPutIn. Or ImDim. Or, if you are beginning to miss him dearly in this list, ElevenTingMing, also known as Chini. How sweet! Can you imagine the nonsensical things the brain gets up to when it leaves you there and drives off on its own? But strange things happen, that is what they are meant for. Like you wake up and look up at the dawn and see a black sun rising, and everything is swathed in a light of darkness. Or you may think it is spring and rush into a garden and see ash blooming all around, and leaves the texture of dust. Phullan de rang kaale Surkh gulaaban de mausam vich
This season of crimson roses The flowers have all turned black; This season of ominous poses Your shadows are keeping your track.
There is perhaps no reason for an inconsequential little dead girl to be occupying this space. perhaps the editorial pages of newspapers should concern themselves with larger things — with men and women and events that make eras and epochs and history, however horrible a job they do of it. So why this inconsequential little girl? Why Shahida? She made no history. She made nothing; her life, in fact, was a life of constant and dreary unmaking.
She became a mother before she could fully become a girl — at 14 — and died before she could fully become a mother, eaten up in a hospital ward by a host of predators, including anemia, pulmonary tuberculosis, jaundice and that most terrible killer of them all: poverty. The fact is Shahida initially only had a few burn injuries in a domestic accident, the kind of injuries that are easily treatable these days. Her real problem lay not in her injury, her real problem lay in herself: she was poor, as poor as a million others in this country who die the way she did last week at age 16. But then Shahida died in Calcutta. That gave her death a signature.
In no other city would the death of Shahida Khatoon, pavement dweller, have made news. But here in Calcutta, she was on the front pages. Perhaps that is why she can justifiably occupy this space as well. Insensitive and crude as it may sound to Shahida’s kin, this has not so much to do with Shahida as with Calcutta. For all the stains on her stars there was one bit that shone for Shahida: she was born to Calcutta and she suffered and died there.
It rained the morning she was reportedly lying at the gates of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters. She had been very badly burnt, trying to save Jarmina, her one plus daughter, from a stove flame. She was frail and lacerated, she was in urgent need of attention and she had nowhere to go because she hd no money. The old man walking up to the gates of the CMC in the steady drizzle that morning must have read all that in the newspapers and that spirit called Calcutta must have driven him out of home, umbrella in one hand, a few crumpled notes in the other. It wasn’t a morning for limping old men to go out walking but this one was there, desperately seeking Shahida. Shahida wasn’t there that morning; the rain had pushed her out into a bylane by the piggery on New Market’s northface. Mother Jubeeda was there — she perhaps knows Calcutta well. she knew for sure that morning Calcutta would send out a few of her human beings. She was waiting for them right there at the CMC gates, where Shahida was supposed to have been. That is where she met the old man who had come with a plamful of rupees for Shahida.
It was a classic Calcutta moment unfolding: around the face of Jubeda. The old man stood there, rupees on his palm like crushed rose petals for offering. And Jubeda stood there grabbing the notes hurriedly and pushing them down her blouse, furtively ensuring nobody saw and loudly assuring the money had gone to the right place. It was poverty extracting the price of its spectacle. It was a scene out of a Ray film, or an avant garde documentary that routinely gets lambasted around coffee tables on one side of the intellectual fence for selling poverty in exchange for pelf. Jubeda that morning was definitely the face of a woman expecting and demanding money for her misery. She was the face of stereotype that had successfully been sold off as Calcutta; perhaps a white man in place of the old calcuttan would have given that stereotype the hype and edge you sometimes require in documentaries.
But depending where you were looking at the scene from, or depending on where the camera was positioned, there was another Calcutta moment unfolding: around the face of the old man with the umbrella and the palmful of rupees. He was no do gooderchasing fame; he had not brought reporters and camera crews in tow and it was clear he intended to do what he had come to do with the minimum fuss and in the littlest time required. He was no Richie Rich trying to get donation rebates on his taxes either; he hadn’t come with receipt books in his pocket. There wasn’t anything there apart from the crumpled notes he had come to give. He did not seem like a man who would have too many tax problems; his chappals were torn and the rain had worsted them more. Scarcely anybody noticed him arrive, give and leave. before Jubeda could put away the money he had brought the old man had become a walking umbrella among many walking umbrellas on Corporation Street. You won’t find that kind of man in too many other cities. In Calcutta, you won’t have to look too far. There is enough concern to be found, even in the time of the cholera of crime. Collapse on a street in New Delhi and collapse on a street in Calcutta, you’ll know the difference.
In no ther city would Shahida have died cared for and mourned as she was here. In no other city would they have had time for her. Calcutta has time for its dead, and a little bit of honour (if space in the newspapers could mean that). Which is why life still lives here.
For the India flying into the 21st century in Kentucky fried wings, satellite dish tucked in armpit, cellular phone in hand, this might be a great area of darkness. Why India, even for the Calcutta south of Park Street the city might be the great area of darkness where there are no air-conditioned Wimpy’s burgers and no Mexxs next to Allen Sollys. The prided Mero might have been sneaked afielf underground breaking the great north-south Calcutta barrier. But then, isn’t the poor northern underside responsible for the mess that the Metro currently is in? Those fellows in Shyambazar and DumDum do not know how to use modern tansport, they ruined it for Calcutta. But no, South Calcutta is not Calcutta. Not, at any rate, the Calcutta that is the area of darkness, the Calcutta where life still lives, the Calcutta where Shahida belonged — vibrant, throbbing, terrible, miserable, colourful, dark, bright, dead, alive. That is the Calcutta of the street and the slum, where man comes against man without his name, address or social label attached. That is where Calcutta scores.
Bombay has its showpiece in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia (that’s something to take pride in) and a convenient set for the film industry. What would they do without Dharavi? New Delhi has its share of shanty towns — the JJ (jhuggi-jhonpdi) colonies they call it. When the capital holds its big festivals — a non aligned movement summit for instance — its rulers put bamboo screens across the JJ colonies so its honoured guests are spared the ugliness.
Calcutta lives with its heart poured out onto the streets, nothing comes between people and their lives, not even the misery of poverty. take a ride one late night across Park Circus and Raja Bazar or Kadapara. It might teach you that life or joy does not necessarily have to do with that thing called money. bathing under streetside gargoyles can be more fun than eating a Wimpy’s burger — at least it is more unrestrained, more unrestricted fun. Or just be in Calcutta during the puja. It is celebration and everybody celebrates. There is, after all, no toll on being festive, not yet. And during the puja Calcutta is festive like no other city can be. And the important thing about the festivity of Calcutta is that the beaten underside of Narkeldanga, tied down with all the difficulties of a dying-dead economy, can be as festive and funfilled as posh Alipore or Ballygunge, The underside certainly is more unrestrained, more felt, more pristine joy.
Their lives and conditions would make the festivities seem so out of place — there is very little in Calcutta not to complain about. But there is very little calcuttans complain about. Perhaps because they are too busy living and making a life of it with a smile where there is so little to smile about. Shahida may be dead and a hundred others may be dying but they are less inconsequential than they might have been elsewhere. This is no dying city, this is a city trying to live. Someone got it terribly wrong.