Five random musings

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1.

the mirror looked back

her smile a glimmer

the stranger blushed

quickly hiding her song

behind lowered lashes

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2.

words like trembling fingers 

hesitant 

lest they startle the song 

gently tracing 

summer shadows on the skin

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3.

drawing the night 

a little closer

the dawn 

snuggled

sighing

reluctant 

to let go 

of the dream

nestled between 

eyelids

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4.

the colour of life

muted

the whisper

of dreams

dying

inside eyes

glazed

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5.

lurking words

dark shadows

of past

conversations

desolate

this landscape

of silence

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Through Mishran’s Lens

I’m yet to meet Mishran in real life, though he has promised to take me around the Nelliampathy Hills on his yellow bike if and when I visit my hometown of Palakkad, Kerala.

 

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Yesterday he sent me these photos he had taken just because. And graciously allowed me to use them in my blog. I did ask him to write captions, but he begged off. Just some random shots, he said, you can use them anyway you want.

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He did say though, that this dragonfly reminded him of me.

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Rusty, tired and a bit frayed around the edges – yet wouldn’t give up. I do see the resemblance.

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Thank you, Mishran.  Couldn’t have asked for a lovelier gift!

 

Thoughts from an adjustable hospital bed

My recent brief stint in hospital has taught me a thing or two, I tell you!

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For one, I have learned that it’s impossible to look elegant and dignified in a hospital gown, even when it’s a becoming shade of lavender.

Lying in the adjustable bed with its adjustable railings, multiple buttons and a remote controlled nurse-fetcher, stripped of everything but the shapeless robe that ties at the back, I am reminded of a meme that did its rounds on WhatsApp: Health insurance is like a hospital gown; you are never as covered as you think you are.

I suppress an urge to giggle – not only is it bound to be painful, giggling might dislodge stuff in/on/running through my body, that should not be.

On the brighter side, there is the fact that I am lying inert on my back, and am bound to remain so for a while. So never mind the inadequacy of the cover.

As it turned out, those good insurance guys did a better job of covering than my lavender hospital gown did, thank God!

***

Another very important lesson I learn is that my woes are never as bad the ones that my friends and family and neighbours and strangers on the road have gone through, in the exact same situation. Random conversations sound something like this:

“And what did she say?”

“That I need a D&C urgently.”

“Oh D&C?” Do I detect a slight note of disappointment there, or is it my wayward imagination?

“Everyone does it these days. In fact, my friend had her second one recently. It’s nothing.” Yes, ma’am!

“What’s your HB level? Did the doctor tell you?”

“Nine, I think. I’m not sure. She just said that I lost a lot of blood, and I’ll need to have heavy doses iron supplements…”

I am to be the Iron Lady of Al Nahda 2, Dubai… But wait, not so fast!

“Oh? Then you’re better off than I had been. Mine was eight!” I’m outdone, yet again.

Such is the story of my life. Sigh.

Which movie is it where Boman Irani’s character keeps haunting Amitabh Bachan’s with Yeh toh kuch bhi nahi! and launches a tirade about the bigger fortunes/misfortunes of the various members of his family including himself? 

Ok, this isn’t half as bad, really. I’m just being mean.

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I also come to understand that waiting for a calamity (I’m allowed a bit a hyperbole, in my condition) to happen can stretch one’s nerves thinner than the calamity itself does.

Quite possibly because the latter, in my case, happens under general anaesthesia. I go to sleep under bright white lights with benevolent eyes peering at me over white masks that tell me to breathe deeply, there, there… And voila! an instant later I wake up with my innards hoovered and fixed!

Then it’s just a matter of drifting in and out of the twilit zone trying to smile bravely at the world, but sleeping off in the middle, only to get up wincing, painfully aware of the fluids – clear and coloured – being pumped into me. I am informed that this one kills pain and stops bleeding, while the other is the hormone my body badly needs, and a third that looks like strong black tea is actually haemoglobin to replace what my body has been generously dispensing with for  a while.

The latter, despite all its innocuous black tea pretensions, turns out to be painful enough to make me protest, albeit feebly. There, there…let me flush this out. Then it will flow more easily, the smiling lady in aquamarine uniform reassures me. Impressive bedside manners, though I’m glad Indian nurses don’t use the first person plural to address their patients. 

I recall reading a Mills & Boon romance once where the red-haired heroine is in hospital, and her kindly doctor asks: Shouldn’t we go to bed now? It’s rather late. To which the lady retorts: Do you think there’s enough space in this bed for both of us?

You see the kind of muck my brain is filed with?

This time though, the memory does not even make me smile. And the ‘flushing’ itself turns out to be—  Ah well! The less said about it the better. 

***

But I was talking about the waiting-for-the-calamity part, before all this.

Not only am I painfully connected to various pieces of gadgets that sound like multiple hearts sinking at once in no particular rhythm, I am also being poked around with sterile equipment by serious people in white coats and uniforms. The collective frown on their faces when they do so is not reassuring either.

The worst thing, however, is the hunger. A cup of tea and an omelette wrapped in half a khubus – ingested before 6:00 am and nothing, not even a sip of water after – is just not my style. I function best on a full tank. Ask my family.

“Your room is not ready yet, so till we roll you in for the procedure, can you please share a room with another patient? We’ll make sure your room is ready by the time you come out.”

Of course I can! Anything  at all, as long as it does not require me to be vertical.

So here I am in a cheerless, artificially darkened room.  Horizontal, hungry, in pain and terrified – I’m never brave on an empty stomach.

From the other side of the floral print curtain, I can hear conversations.

There was a time in the past when I would have wanted to see the people involved, to engage in small talk, but I no longer have the will. So I listen, not particularly curious, only because I have nothing better to do. Italo Calvino, though light enough to hold with one hand, doesn’t mix well with painkillers and antihemorrhagics. 

The patient on the other side – a lady much younger to me, from the general drift of the conversation – sounds scared too, so her husband tries to be breezy enough for both of them. An older woman, his mother, not hers, obviously, gives sensible pieces of advice every so often which are taken by the other two with pinches of salt.

I hear lunch being rolled in, and then I smell it being opened. Agony!

“What’s this?” The mother sounds puzzled.

“Marrakech, an Arabic dish made of brinjal and olive oil and all that,” I hear him explaining.

Last I heard, Marrakech was not a dish, but a city in Morocco. I wonder if I should call out: That’s muttabel, not Marrakech!  Then I decide against it.

Instead I close my eyes and dream about the okra curry my friend’s mother had brought for me the last time I was admitted in a hospital, sixteen years ago. It’s good for you, especially since you have a premature baby to feed. I had been frightened then too, but strangely, it was her kindness that released the tears I had thus far suppressed.

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I’m hungry!

When are they taking me to the OT? I want this done with, and I really, really want to eat something!” 

“Another half-an-hour, they said,” my better half tries to console me.

And true to their word, they come on the dot of two, and wheel me out. The rest, as they say, is history. Herstory.  Mine.

***

Interesting how even the most fleeting brush with the grim reaper (of course, woh toh kuch bhi nahi tha, in real terms, I know) has a way of reorganising one’s priorities.

You realise that as you watch, unmoved, an ageing Tom Cruise going about his business with missions impossible and otherwise. And while looking outside the window at the buildings languishing in summer sunlight, with random thoughts flitting in and out of you. Later again when, while watching a Jolie-Pitt movie with artsy pretensions, you’re more excited by the sight of a Morandi print in a pub than by the explicit scenes the movie is generously littered with.

And you begin to feel that all the iron and hormones and painkillers you’re brimming with have done their good deed. For your mind if not your body. 

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Back home, what I feel is a sense of release. Coupled with a positive disenchantment with things that had me in their spell for a long while, without even realising it. It is with a deep sense of shame that I admit I had actually begun to count the ‘likes’. 

I don’t want to be doing that with/for the rest of my life.

***

Some are born good, while others have goodness thrust on them. I belong to the second category, where I’m repeatedly told that I’m a good person by those who love me too much to see the less-than-truth of it. Of me.

Maybe it’s time I gave an honest shot at goodness.

And guess what? The second generation of laughing doves have taken over the nest in my balcony, and begun the next cycle of life.

Which, I’m beginning to see, is beautiful indeed. Perfect as it comes. 

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***

All that matters

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The baby birds in our balcony are officially old enough to be left alone for short periods of time. Their mother now allows herself occasional short stretches of ‘me time’. She was absent when I came for my early morning rounds, and I was a bit worried when I saw the little downy lumps all alone and shivering in their nest.  They are yet to grow into their beaks, for God’s sake! But mommy arrived soon, and all was well and fawning. 

No Brexits rocking their world.

We had repotted the overgrown aloe in the balcony on Wednesday, an act that infuriated mamma bird. We took a lot of care to be silent, but ever since her chicks have arrived, the lady has been in an aggressive mood. She even tried to do a Hitchcock’s ‘Birds’ number on Appu when she caught him alone in the balcony!  

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At the end of repotting, we were left with a ton of aloe leaves, and it seemed a colossal waste to bin it, what with so many good things being said about aloe. So I looked up ‘how to store and use aloe gel’, and Google told me that I can skin the leaves, take out the gel, blend it with lemon juice and freeze it to store. Which seemed oh-so-simple on screen, but turned out to be a shoulder-wrenching affair in practice. Adu helped, but my motherly heart could not bear to watch his struggle with the wishy-washy gel and a steel spoon for too long, so I patted him on the back and set him free.  

The aloe gel has since been cubed and zip-locked safely in the fridge, and I’m now adding it to detox water – my latest fad. It’s all Juhi’s fault – she served us an ice-cold glass of one at the end of a hot sweaty evening when Lisa and I had gone over to her place. Mission Detox is now into its second day at home, and while I have no clue how long it will last, it’s good while it does. The clear liquid with slices of green looks good in its clear IKEA jar, and tastes fine in the summer heat – despite the aloe gel. 

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Did I tell you that the mint that has gone into it comes from my balcony garden? It stands next to rosemary and basil on my window sill, where I can reach it from the kitchen. 

I like to think that I have a green thumb, but Mrs M claims her green thumb is greener than mine. Maybe. She has populated my balcony with her own two bits: a mango sapling and a ginger shoot that have taken over my glazed grey pot are her contributions. 

So I love green. Green plants, green buildings, green peas curry (that’s my Malayali gene at its most virulent), cold drinks laced with crushed green chilies, green chutney, green vegetables…even Brussel sprouts for that matter. And though I haven’t tasted it, my green chicken curry is reputed to be good. I remember an F&B professional calling it ’Nilgiri Khorma’ once. I also remember feeling elated – the names does sound grand. I like green window frames too (like the ones we have back in our Kochi apartment), and green words as against white or red ones. 

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And yes, green dresses – how could I forget those! So much so that I recently bought some bright fluorescent green sports innerwear just for the heck of it. At my age, I can’t get away with wearing fluorescent green outerwear…

I’ve never seen anyone wearing green shoes, though. Wonder why. 

There’s the memory of a Salman Rushdie novel I’d read long ago that has references to a green widow – one that declared emergency, if I’m not wrong. It tainted the colour a bit. And there’s of course the green monster. 

Too bad. Green is such a lovely colour otherwise. 

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Yesterday, while at the radio station, I found out that there’s a ‘cough button’ for guests that allowed them to cough (what else?) if they needed to, without the entire city having to listen to it. There was none on the RJ’s side of the table though. If they coughed, they coughed for humankind.

I had sorely wanted to test it out, but for the whole hour I was there, not a single cough came to my aid. Today though, while having lunch, an errant rice grain landed in the wrong pipe, and I coughed until my nose turned red and my eyes were streaming. 

I have never been known for my timing. 

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After the interview, Namitha took us home, and we tasted the best homemade watermelon mojitos ever. Muskan, her daughter, had turned some cupcakes into works of art, and it was only greed that made me eat one – I would have preferred to keep it as a centrepiece on my living room. Later in the evening, my thoughts kept returning to the two of them. They have seen so much together; way more than most people have. Yet, like the birds in my balcony, they have created a nice, cosy world of their own, and embellished it with little joys, much like Christmas bells on a winter morning. Pain and sorrow can wait outside, if you please.

One part acceptance, one part attitude, and two parts courage. Perhaps that’s the recipe for good life.

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At twilight yesterday, I entered a mosque for the first time, and partook of iftar with a few good friends. The air of hushed spirituality and the sense of reverence with which the ritual was conducted were a revelation. Outside, over a thousand hungry men were sitting under a canopy and having their first meal since sunrise. I could see no difference between man and man right then. 

Hunger is a great equaliser. 

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Last night, before going to bed, I tried to capture a poetic Ramadan moon with marginal success. And fell asleep to random thoughts on letting go. Of good things this time – like a smile, or a song…or love. Open the hand…and the heart… Let it all flow, or fly away, or fade like mist. If it doesn’t come back, that’s okay too.  

You are.

I am.

The world is.

And that’s all that matters.

For now. 

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No Fixed Abode: an Introspection of Urban Isolation

I have a penchant for rereading books I like. A variation of the errant tendency that makes me repeatedly listen to the same song or watch the same movie till it becomes a part of my DNA. The thing is, I like the comfort of returning to a familiar space, no unpleasant surprises in store. And there is also the thrill of finding interpretations and nuances that were missed the first time round.

Recently, though, I have developed a new habit. I return to the same book just hours after I have finished reading it the first time. I think it started with The Pilgrim’s Bowl. I was so unwilling to put it down that I went back quite a few times, revisiting random lines, paragraphs and chapters. Now I find myself doing it with other books too. Maybe my reluctance to part is growing with age. 

When I finished reading No Fixed Abode, I knew I had to read it again, and urgently. The reasons were very different from those that made me return to The Pilgrim’s Bowl. If that one was about poetry and nostalgia, this was because it left me – for want of a better term – restless. The kind of restlessness one feels when one is not able to decipher the last couple of clues in a crossword puzzle. 

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No Fixed Abode is not a book that would ordinarily have crossed my path or mind. I got it at the recommendation of a friend, one with similar taste in words. The name itself was intriguing to me. For someone who lost count of the number of times she has moved homes, such a name would automatically ring a bell.

Then of course there is the seductive charm of a hardbound, beautifully produced book batting its eyelashes at you through its prim grey jacket. There’s no book-lover alive who can resist that kind of temptation. I couldn’t. 

A confession: It’s rarely that I read a book blurb before I’m through with the book itself (I know it doesn’t make sense, but then, that’s me – I hardly make sense), but this time the terms ‘ethnofiction’ and ‘fictional ethnography’ on the inside flap of the jacket caught my attention. Certain polysyllabic words are so irresistible that it is hard to leave them behind and walk away. You have to bend down, pick them up and hold them to the light.

So I did my usual back and forth with Google and came up with this definition by Tobias Hecht, an American anthropologist, ethnographer, and translator:  

Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.

I warmed up to the term – and to the genre itself – immediately. Marrying anthropology and imagination seemed like the perfect situation, leading to endless possibilities. The rest of the blurb actually piqued my interest further: urban poverty and the resultant isolation is not a topic I come across very often, except in essays and activist Tweets. 

No Fixed Abode, however, did not fit into any slot I had created for it. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from all of them. 

Narrated as irregular diary entries made by Henri, a retired tax inspector who can no longer afford to maintain a home in Paris, No Fixed Abode explores the growing distance between an individual and the wider society he has been a part of, in a personal yet curiously objective manner. 

I’ve always dreamt about escaping. It’s a recurrent night time scene. The scenario’s never entirely the same, but each time I find myself surrounded by enemies who’ve miraculously failed to notice my presence(…) I wake up suddenly, shaken and upset, and the relief at having escaped my demons – those demons I can’t identify but which return regularly to haunt me – soon gives way to anxiety at having to face the tedium of the daily round. 

Henri’s ‘escape’ from domesticity, and subsequently his identity, happens by degrees: a slow transition from being an ordinary citizen to one that veers off the expected course, warily treading the unfamiliar paths of homelessness. In relinquishing his possessions, Henri is also leaving behind everything that has thus far been integral to his existence. To him, being alone is no longer an imposition, it is something he accepts  without resentment.

Loneliness — it’s best to call it by its name — has nothing unbearable about it. Silence is less annoying than the efforts aimed at overcoming it, and it’s infinitely less painful to be quiet on your own than when there is two of you.

As his grip on everyday social requisites loosens, Henri finds himself faltering at the fringes of the normal, unsure of the way ahead. The ties that bind him to the community are fraying, and even being with friends is no longer what it used to be.

It’s difficult to play a role when there are no grounds for that role anymore, difficult to stay in your place when you’ve lost that place, or to exist in another person’s dwelling when you yourself have no fixed abode, are without hearth or home, are almost nameless.

Henri’s defining moment comes when Dominique, an artist who drifts into his life, invites him into hers, once again offering a chance to return to society. As Henri makes his choice, his readers are faced with the vagaries of a culture that has rendered their choices and priorities questionable at best. 

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Marc Auge

To me, No Fixed Abode is a rather dispassionate introspection of urban isolation in the form of a deceptively simple narrative. Written by Marc Auge and translated by Chris Turner for Seagull Books, the book poses questions that are both cultural and anthropological, leaving the reader a little disturbed – as if suddenly confronted with an uncomfortable truth.  

They say books appeal to us because we find bits and pieces of ourselves in there. Or because we find in them answers we have been seeking. In which case, I’m not sure why I felt compelled to immediately reread No Fixed Abode: whether I was looking for fragments of the self, or trying to find answers.

Perhaps I was merely attempting to understand the questions themselves better. 

All I can say is that the book left me just as ruffled the second time too. Some truths remain uncomfortable regardless of how many times you confront them.

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The cover of No Fixed Abode has been designed by Sunandini Banerjee from a photograph by Bishan Samaddar.

*Images courtesy Google Images

Indiana Jones & All These Children!

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The Hive is buzzing with activity these days.

I teach over the sounds (from the other side of the door) of shrieks and yells and lines uttered at deafening decibel levels by dozens of children, aided and abetted by half-a-dozen well-meaning adults. Every nook, corner and flat surface is filled with props and costumes and what-not . I have to dodge between snakes and skulls and masks and other deadly-looking stuff to make way to the teaching table…

My teenagers – who wait (in simple present, meaning a universal truth) to giggle at the drop of a hat – are now in a perpetual state of hysteria, and getting them back to thinking and writing about mundane topics like Cyber-bullying and Social Media has become a chore.

But everything said and done, I would gladly put up with all that and more. For now, at least. Because the excitement is infectious, and there is a method to the madness: The Hive is preparing for their D-day, June 3, 2016, when they take ‘The Adventures of Indiana’ to The Junction, Al Serkal Avenue, Al Quoz – Dubai. An ambitious venture directed by Jimish Thakkar and Malavika Varadan Sharma, the play is the first of its kind in the city.

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A massive cast and crew is getting ready (the details are below), and there’s so much ‘happening’ all around.  And I, with my zero experience in theatre, thought it’s only fair that I do my two bits – share what the directors have to say. So here it is, verbatim:

Indiana Jones is one of cinemas most revered heroes. He’s cool. He’s smart. He’s adventurous. And he has his heart in the right place. Plus, he looks like Harrison Ford and he once came to India.

We’ve loved watching him on screen for decades now (Wow! Aren’t we old) but it wasn’t until one fine Monday evening when we were unwinding after class that Jimish Thakkar uttered those fateful words. “I think we should do Indiana Jones on stage.” He paused. Dramatically….  and added “I mean, why not?”

Everything we have done since that day has followed that same mantra. Why not? Why not cast 56 students over 3 different batches in 33 scenes? Why not throw in 150 light and sound cues and why not get this prop and that prop and 148 more props and this costume and that costume and 97 more costumes. These numbers are not exaggerations.

This is where the journey had to begin. We found the film scripts of the Indiana Jones films, we watched and rewatched the films until every other person around us said “Really? Can we please watch something else now???”

We then combined the best bits – stitched them together with logic, words and mostly will power and created a never before seen script. “The Adventures of Indiana Jones”

Then of course there was casting and auditioning, rehearsing and re-rehearsing , integrating and executing and finally getting HERE.. To this very point. As a wise man once said, “I mean, Why not?”

We do this for one reason, and one reason only. As actors we understand that there is no feeling in the world more powerful than standing onstage, looking out onto the great infinity, the bright light, saying a line and hearing a room full of people react. That feeling is nothing short of divine.

And we know that once you have tasted this addictive feeling, you will be hooked for life.

Doing a play is also about belief. In a difficult world with so many questions and doubts, the one thing we can all do with is a little more belief. We believe that the rock in front of you is real. We believe in the magic of a potion. We believe in that word and this movement and we hope that YOU believe too.

‘Why not?’ seems to be the spirit from which the play has evolved. And – come to think of it – why not, indeed!

P.S. Harrison Ford, where art thou?

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Entry is by invitation; if you want to be invited (why does ‘invitated’ sound better?), please contact The Hive: liveathive.ae | (415) 388-5208 | info@liveathive.ae

Tumi Robe Nirobe…

My acquaintance with Bong Connection Dubai (BCD) came about as a happy accident when Sourendra Kumar Das, a friend who eventually left the UAE, introduced me to Sudip Kumar Saha. Sudip and his wife Rupa are among the driving forces of BCD, and along with a group of other expatriates from West Bengal, strive to keep alive the culture and traditions of their homeland here in the UAE. 

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The greenroom

This was the second time I had been invited to Hoi Choi, BCD’s annual cultural event. And even with marginal knowledge of the Bengali culture, I was more than happy to attend it. 

For one, the language fascinates me. It had, since my hostel days in Bombay when Deepa, my partner in many a crime (she is a very private person who would be mortified if I used her full name here), introduced me to Satyajit Ray movies in a week-long session that started with Charulata. 

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Selfie time!

To me, there is something sensuous, earthy, about the way the Bengali language rolls off the tongue, the manner in which the vowel and consonant sounds behave – with utter disregard for the accepted phonic norms that other Sanskrit-derived languages diligently follow. 

Bengali is also about Rabindranath Tagore, and all that the name implies. With Mini as my given name, need I say more? 

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Getting into the skin of the character

So when Sudip informed us that this year’s event was to commemorate Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary, I needed no more urging. Freshly back from Calcutta and Santiniketan with as many memories as could be collected in five days, I’m still under the spell of all things Bengali, you see. 

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Backstage….

There is also one other reason I diligently attend Hoi Choi.

The event, unlike the usual ones in the UAE, does not count on star power to gather its audience. There are no celebrities, if you discount the cast of sixty-odd dedicated actors and presenters. All the performances are put together by working people, housewives and students (as young as four) who took out the time to plan, prepare, practice and present. And how!  The aura of celebration, passion and enthusiasm at Hoi Choi was infectious.

Titled Tumi Robe Nirobe, (based on Tagore’s composition) Hoi Choi’s third edition, ‘an ensemble of songs, dance, poetry and short skits from the treasure trove of Tagore’s immortal creations’ was truly the fruit of love’s labour.  

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…and on-stage

Ideally, I would have liked to mention the names of all those amazing people whose efforts have gone into the programme. The presenters, for instance. Moving between Bengali and English with ease and grace, they made sure that we, the non-Bengalis, were kept in the loop at all times.

Young Joy Dasgupta was introduced to me by Sudip sometime during the evening, with assurance that there’s no other photographer quite like him, you’ll see! before hurrying away to play the tabla for the next programme. When, later, Joy sent me the photographs of the event, I knew what Sudip meant. My blog is richer for the beautiful moments Joy has captured, on and off stage! 

Once again, my kudos to the BCD team for putting together something as lovely as Hoi Choi. And hoping to be a part of more such events in the future.

Now the problem is, how do I get the song out of my head, the one that has been haunting me for the past ten days? Tumi robe nirobe… (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F5OFA6QKLio)

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Scenes from various performances: 

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All photographs courtesy Joy Dasgupta [joydasgupta@hotmail.com ]

Performing the Goddess

Among other things, I collect stories too. I pick them up from wherever I can. From friends, friends of friends, and strangers on the metro. From the wayside, park bench, and passing conversations. In fact, my box of collectibles – the wooden one with brass inlay – is full to brimming with stories.

I have them in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the flat brown ones with lichen growing on their sides, to those that gleam with opalesque iridescence. There are fairy tales, and fables with and without morals. There are stories of men and women and displaced children; of gods, demigods and goddesses… And among them is the story of a man who is also a woman, and transforms into a goddess by night.

The story of Chapal Bhaduri, once the ‘leading lady’ of the Jatra (literally, ‘travel’), West Bengal’s larger-than-life, theatre-in-the-round form.

That one came to me through a friend – by far the most avid collector of stories I have come across. He doesn’t put them in a box, though – he gives them wings and sets them free. In the hands of Naveen Kishore, Founder and Director of Seagull Books, those stories take the form of beautiful books. Or films. Or photographs. Or —

Well, with him, the possibilities are endless.

And so the story found its way to him, as they tend to. That’s the thing about stories – they’re like the Prince of Persia. They would do anything to get to their listener: cross the seven seas,  slay dragons… Whatever it takes.

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Naveen had first met Chapal Bhaduri while he was interviewing the latter’s older sister, late Ketaki Dutta, who was a commercial stage actresses. Chapal-da, as he is popularly known, was ‘a fleeting presence serving tea and biscuits’. As Jatra was a popular art form while he was growing up, Naveen recognised him and got talking.

“The only work he currently had was to transform into Sitala Devi, the goddess of small pox, for 40-odd nights a year. Roadside performances at the equivalent of a pound a night!” 

Moved by his story, Naveen Kishore shot some black-and-white photographs of the performance, and of him transforming into a woman and a goddess night after night. Those pictures later became part of a Sotheby’s auction, and among other things, a travelling exhibition called ‘Woman/Goddess’.

One day, Chapal-da felt comfortable enough to ask Naveen for a cooking job so he could earn ‘a thousand rupees a month to stay alive’. 

“Here was this ‘star’ with so much to share, and no government or private structure in place to look after him and others like him. I was surrounded, it seemed, by such people. An amazing cameraman who was currently out of work, a puppet-maker in Kerala… All out of sync, all with so much to pass on…”

So instead of giving a cooking job to an artist, Naveen decided to make a ‘talking head’ documentary on him. That was how Performing the Goddess began, as a photo essay about a once-popular female impersonator rendered redundant by the passage of time.

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To call Performing the Goddess a documentary would be misleading. It’s a heart-to-heart between a master performer and his invisible audience of one, punctuated with shots of the make-up process that transforms a man into a woman into a goddess. There is no voiceover adding innuendos to the viewer’s experience, and there is a touching lack of hyperbole to the narration – the drama is strictly reserved for the re-performances of milestone extracts from Chapal-da’s Jatra plays. There is just this intimate conversation that we are privy to. 

Chapal Bhaduri had entered the Jatra scene when it was hugely popular across West Bengal. As women were not allowed to be part of the Jatra, female roles were played by male actors. Chapal-da debuted as Marjina, the female protagonist of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and he fondly recalls the attention he received from male fans, who often courted him as they would a girl. As he animatedly talks, sometimes about his childhood, sometimes about the various roles he had played, we get glimpses of an era gone by, when his art meant everything to him.

Weariness sets in only when he talks about the present. Weariness is perhaps the wrong word here – what one sees is acceptance. Of the inevitable passage of time. Chapal Rani was eased out of the Jatra scene by age, and women taking over the female roles.

I’m no longer in the Jatra because the Jatra no longer has any use for me.

Yes, there is loneliness, the emptiness of being left behind by a world that has decided to move on. But there is no bitterness, no despair.

The condition I was in could’ve driven me to the streets, but here I am in front of the camera, speaking to you…

And he goes on to talk about his role as Sitala Devi, the goddess of diseases, and how it has altered his perceptions, his life.

***

The documentary should have ended there, in the normal course of things. But some stories have a mind of their own – they wander off on roads untravelled, and there’s nothing the teller can do but follow their course.

“The film had started life as any other exercise in interview-based cultural anthropology. Except that Chapal-da had other ideas. He came to my office 10 days before I was to edit and said he wanted to talk to me. Alone.”

And that was how the rest of the story unfolded.

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There are so many things… I sometimes wonder… Are they natural, normal? You know what I’m talking about.

As he talks about his troubled sexuality, the feminine emotions and biological responses he has experienced all his life, the Chapal Bhaduri we meet is a different man. Hesitant, anxious, and still vaguely haunted by the rights and wrongs of the society.

I really want to talk about this, but…

It is a vulnerable human being who speaks about a ‘certain someone’ with whom he had shared a deep physical and emotional bond for three decades, until he left him for a younger woman. The wounds have healed as well as they could, but traces of that great love still lingers in Chapal-da’s voice, his face, in the smile that is not quite one.

This raw papaya dish that I am making, this is a dish he was fond of, extremely fond of…

And yet there is a quiet dignity to him that transcends his words.

“He wanted his sexuality to be shared like his art—simply, and with amazing dignity. And the fact that the film premiered on a mainstream Bengali channel and got wonderful feedback from everyone proved that his instinct for dignity had worked.”  

With the film receiving much attention, Chapal Bhaduri was once again in demand. The media took an interest in him, as did film-makers like Rituparno Ghosh, who made a feature film based on his life. Performing the Goddess proved to be a new beginning for the old artist.

***

Chapal Bhaduri’s performance was recently staged as a fitting finale to the two-day conference on “Transgender Embodiments and Experiences: Problems and Possibilities” organised by Department of Sociology – Presidency College, Kolkata, as part of ‘Celebrating 200 Years of Presidency’.

Despite dramatically ascending the stage with cries of ‘Who am I?’, ‘Won’t anyone tell me who I am?’, Chapal Bhaduri did not attempt to address the topic of transgenderism as the representative of a community – neither the Transgender Development Board nor the LGBTIQ+ rights groups are of any significance to him. He spoke for himself, insisting that the world of 1950s and 60s with its homophobic legalities was a much better one for him. He has no slogans to raise, no rights to claim.

After a lifetime spent transcending and transposing genders with ease, Chapal Bhaduri, at 77, is still an artist first. And his sexuality, like his art, remains simple and dignified.

Navin Kishore - Installation

*All photographs courtesy Naveen Kishore, Founder & Director, Seagull Books, Calcutta – India.   (I had to take screenshots of some as WordPress did not accept the high res images. You should have seen the originals!) 

Please send your queries on Performing the Goddess to feedbackatseagullindia.com.

Also read:

http://raiot.in/chapal-bhaduri-bengali-folk-theatres-last-living-female-impersonator/

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/performing-the-goddess-chapal-bhaduris-story-documentary-screened-in-calcutta/1/256317.html 

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/33053