Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Cha Bar, baar baar

When people finish writing dissertations, or books, or any long writing project, seldom would one see an acknowledgment to the space where this mammoth task was undertaken. It seems odd to me, because more than any of the people that I spoke to, or the places that I went to, I developed my strongest bond to the one space I went back to every evening – MY table at the Cha Bar in Oxford. So on my last few days here, I want to write about it while I can still touch, feel and remember all the wonderful things this space has given me.

My routine here generally involves this – I walk in and take a deep breath (the deep breath symbolizing my leaving behind and cutting off from the city that I have a strong love-hate relationship with – more hate than love while I’m here). After a quick exchange with the durwan, I walk for about 15 minutes in circles, my eyes adjusting to the daily change in display especially at the middle row of every section. This is followed by a quick stop at the Calcutta section to read the back of the forty-five thousandth new book written on Calcutta and see if anything apart from the Naxals, the Left Front, the British architecture, Warren Hastings, or Jyoti Basu has been written about. Finally I stop to pick up the book I am in the middle of and then, a confident walk upstairs to the corner I love – almost like I own it.

Now the Cha bar in Calcutta is nothing like you've ever seen before. Its not your regular artsy cafĂ© tucked into a cosy corner of the bookstore. It’s very VERY different. It’s basically a strip of wood that hovers over the entire bookstore almost like a bridge – you can watch people come and go from under it, you can see the entire expanse of books from over it, and most of all, you can see Park Street from the window. This vantage point in fact allows me to see so much, that I’m always surprised I get any writing done here.

I can see for instance the two retired 70-something year old gentlemen who come here everyday, sit on THEIR table and read the Cosmo and the Vogue back to back while sipping quietly on their tall glass of strawberry shake. I can also see the young couples on their first dates here – devoid of THEIR chair, looking for one that is far from the public eye. Their pocket money typically allows a shared iced tea and a shared samosa, which mind you, is hardly inconvenient for them – successful sharing is after all the beginning of many wonderful new things! Then there is the occasional activist and her journalist friend from abroad (they are loud enough for everyone to know their professions, even through their earphones). Not only can they afford the whole nine yards, but they also know the ‘right thing’ to get – the cappuccino or the Ethiopian typhoo with a muffin or even a chicken sandwich if they’re hungry. Besides these regular folks of course there is the excitement of seeing non-regulars, who bring a new story with them everyday.

A final thing to see is the window-cut view of Park Street. A five-lane street, this is probably one of the busiest streets of Calcutta after Gariahat. You can’t see buses or autos – just yellow cabs and fancy cars and so many of them. There’s not a quiet moment on this street, except for a window of exactly two minutes when the entire street goes dead quiet with no cars. These two minutes start at 1 in the afternoon – when the direction of traffic changes on this one-way street – and there’s exactly five of us (that I know of), who wait eagerly and patiently for these 2 minutes – me and four street children. I watch it just to get kicks out of watching traffic zooming until 12:59 in a single direction, then dead quiet, and then again traffic zooming at 1:02 in the opposite direction. The street children however have a totally different agenda. All of them below 5 years old, this is the only time of the day that their mother, (a rag picker who has perched herself at the entrance of Oxford permanently) lets them cross the entire stretch of the street to and fro about 5 times, before grabbing them and tucking them under her expansive blanket again at the sound of traffic. Aah, little joys!

Now you might wonder if it’s ever possible to get any work done in the middle of all this chaos. It IS in fact! Once all has been taken in and some advance has been made on the book picked up – out comes the laptop, plop comes the passion fruit iced tea and fries, in go the earphones and whoosh goes the world! I write and write and write like nothing exists and no one matters – a level of concentration that the quiet corners of the Rockefeller library in Providence could never provide; a sense of ownership of space made possible by the waiters who never intrude and cheerfully accompany me in the act of pretending I’m in MY office; and finally, a brush with nirvana, made possible only amidst the madness that is Calcutta.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I havent really been writing in a while. Maybe its the weather. I've never quite understood Providence weather. I've been here four years and I still dont get it. I think the weather is partly to blame for my mood swings. The weather seriously swings. Its warm and sunny and chirpy and happy now, but any second we're expecting a thunderstorm, says the oh-so-white-and-unfazed-by-strange-moving-screen-behind-him weatherman. What on earth? Seriously? I dont ask for much. Just good old consistency. It makes me wonder if London is better than this. At least its consistently depressing. This is just plain ridiculous if you ask me.

Anyhow. This wasnt meant to be a post about the weather. I'm not even sure what I started out to write about. I was reading one of my older posts (umm yeah, like 4 posts old of the giant collection of 10). The one about music made me want to re-hash my musical thoughts. And unfortunately I realized I havent had any musical thoughts in a while. I used to when I was a teenager but not for a very long time. And so I dug out some Beatles. The Anthologies. My favourites when I was younger were definitely 'Imagine' and 'Let it Be', but for some reason 'Hello Goodbye' and 'Lady Madonna' and 'Across the Universe' resonated a lot more. I like 'em Beatles. I really do. How I've wished when watching their old videos that I could be a screaming groupie with flowers in my hair and devote my life to their cause. Or scream 'na na na na' at the end of 'Hey Jude' at the top of my lungs in a live concert. Like the concert where they let people come on stage and crowd around them while they sing '..make it better better better aaaaaaaaaahhhh!!'. Sigh. All I've got is crappy youtube videos that dont even hold the camera on McCart-breaking-my-heart-ney long enough for me to swoon.

But then going back to my musical thoughts, I did have one right now while orgasming over the thought of doing their harmonies for them in a crowd. I wish I were a backup vocalist. Thats what I wish. A famous backup vocalist if there ever were such a thing. The girl who sang for them all. From them Beatles and Queen, to them divas - madame Streisand and Aretha Franklin, or even to the new age acoustic-ers. Loverly. Mimi the backup. Or Mimi the back. Or just M-Back. Or maybe not. That sounds dangerously close to Tupac. But either way you get the drift. I would spend my time figuring out seconds, train my own little band of backups maybe, swing left and right in a little black dress, right behind Aretha, click my toes and snap my fingers and bask in the glory of their attention. And when I'm sixty I would tell my grandchildren how I was such a diva! Rather than such a sociologist. Umm yeah no.

Khair. Ab jo ho gaya so ho gaya. I will settle for youtube. But when I sing them backups in the shower, I will pray that someday Lennon's spirit will pass by my window and appreciate them vocals. Amen.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

25 (very) random things. About the me.

1. I am not half as nice as people think I am. I can be mean. In my head.
2. When I was young I wanted to be a Boutrous Boutrous Ghali. Only cos I loved the name so much. I still hold part of that dream.
3. I add Tabasco to everything. I mean everything.
4. I also dream of singing full time someday. Sandi Thom style.
5. I am very very scared of the dark, and till date look for excuses not to go to the second floor of my own house after 8 in the evening all by myself.
I’ve lived in that house 20 years flat.
6. I also hate scenes from movies or TV shows that involve blood and / or violence. They give me nightmares. For real. I stopped watching House for the same reason.
7. I want to shave my head one day.
8. I have so little time to myself, that I look forward to walking from one place to another. It’s the only break I take besides showering and sleeping.
9. I love traveling, but not ‘sightseeing’. Vacations are not supposed to be about jumping from one tourist spot to another.
10. I like rooms with wooden floors. I like my floor.
11. Until I was about 15, I assumed every movie and song that was in English, came from America. I wasn’t very smart.
12. My favourite hobby as a kid was to collect stickers and paste them on my parents’ cupboard door. I had collected about 121. Unfortunately my parents decided to re-paint the cupboard while I was at school one day, and I lost my entire collection to a layer of paint. I had to start all over again on my grandmother’s cupboard door then.
13. I can’t cook. Anything. Unless toast, instant noodles or coffee counts.
14. I am very proud of the frothy coffee I make.
15. I have an inherent fear of dogs, and I think they know. They always come to me first, even in a room full of dog loving people.
16. My worst fear is tripping over a long flight of stairs and dying. Or worse, ending up disfigured.
17. I love wearing flip-flops. So much that I wear them in winter too. With socks.
18. I don’t enjoy reading as much as I’m supposed to. I think.
19. Grad school has been my best and worst life experience at the same time.
20. It has taught me how to read 2 books in one day. Skimming is an art. I think I’m getting better at it.
21. When I think of my elementary school teachers, I always remember them being at least a foot taller than me. I was surprised when I bumped into one of them the other day and she turned out to be about the same height.
22. I forget that I’m short sometimes. I remember only when I’m walking with taller people and they’re taking the same number of steps, but getting further ahead than I am. I feel very short then.
23. I dream of tracing my roots when I’m older.
24. My post-retirement plans are clearer than my post-grad school plans. That might just be because the further you are from something, or the more distance you get, the clearer it looks.
25. I love staccato. In songs, sentences, as well as in my thoughts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Sitting in the middle of a LOT of people and listening to an ipod and blocking out sounds = super fun activity. Its like watching Charlie Chaplin in colour without Charlie Chaplin. Animated faces and lots of hand movements. It shuts me out. But when I look at them it keeps me guessing.

Note to self: Do it again. Once a day.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Because Gibran knows EVERYTHING

The Vision

There in the middle of the field, by the side of a crystalline stream, I saw a bird-cage whose rods and hinges were fashioned by an expert's hands. In one corner lay a dead bird, and in another were two basins -- one empty of water and the other of seeds. I stood there reverently, as if the lifeless bird and the murmur of the water were worthy of deep silence and respect -- something worth of examination and meditation by the heard and conscience.

As I engrossed myself in view and thought, I found that the poor creature had died of thirst beside a stream of water, and of hunger in the midst of a rich field, cradle of life; like a rich man locked inside his iron safe, perishing from hunger amid heaps of gold.

Before my eyes I saw the cage turned suddenly into a human skeleton, and the dead bird into a man's heart which was bleeding from a deep wound that looked like the lips of a sorrowing woman. A voice came from that wound saying, "I am the human heart, prisoner of substance and victim of earthly laws.

"In God's field of Beauty, at the edge of the stream of life, I was imprisoned in the cage of laws made by man.

"In the center of beautiful Creation I died neglected because I was kept from enjoying the freedom of God's bounty.

"Everything of beauty that awakens my love and desire is a disgrace, according to man's conceptions; everything of goodness that I crave is but naught, according to his judgment.

"I am the lost human heart, imprisoned in the foul dungeon of man's dictates, tied with chains of earthly authority, dead and forgotten by laughing humanity whose tongue is tied and whose eyes are empty of visible tears."

All these words I heard, and I saw them emerging with a stream of ever thinning blood from that wounded heart.

More was said, but my misted eyes and crying should prevented further sight or hearing.

- The Prophet

Monday, September 28, 2009


Lovers of whores
Are happy - fit and satisfied;
As for me, my arms are broken
from having clasped the clouds.

- Ouevres

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hail World History

As a child, I was always surrounded by books at home. Lots of books. Its one of many things we were taught to respect - no underlining, no earmarking, no folding, no keeping them on the dinner table, no spilling milk over them. No manhandling them period. I see now the value of that treatment, the books look as beautiful as they did when I was young, despite repeated readings. Of these, one of the books that I've always seen around and whose cover is almost ingrained in my head, is my grandfather's copy of the Glimpses of World History by Nehru. I've been meaning to read it for a while, and I finally did this summer. I couldnt finish it unfortunately, but what little I read I was fascinated. As an undergrad (and even as a grad student), I've been far too quick to criticize the nationalist account of textbook history, and embrace instead the subaltern accounts, without really giving the former a chance or without really trying to understand where it came from.

This book, written by Nehru between 1930 and 1933 is a collection of about 200 letters written from jail to his daughter, then a teenager. It is an extensive account of world history and world politics, dating from 6000 BC to his present, and perhaps constitutes the formative years of his perspective on the nation-state, and the premise of his foreign policies eventually. In a gigantic chart laid out at the very beginning he summarizes world history and puts it in a beautifully organized table with dates, numbers and important events. The main underlying idea in the letters is that there is no such thing as a nation's history - we must adopt a more integrated approach and think about the history and politics of the world. That given the vast spread of ideas, people and capital since times immemorial, it makes no sense to continue evoking the nation-state as the only legitimate container of history. It in fact resonates beautifully with post-colonial literature written almost a century later, that calls into question that very same notion of national borders, sovereignty and citizenship. Aside from being a fantastic narrative of history, it is also a narrative / diary of his struggle in jail (as an individual, family man and freedom fighter) and an account of the Independence struggle as witnessed from the confines of imprisonment in those three years.

Beautiful. Imagine reading these letters as a 13 year old. Imagine the kind of ideas you could be exposed to in your formative years. Imagine their power. It made me wonder why we never read this book in high school? Rather than having to search for history on my own as an adult, I would've learned to love history a lot more as a child. Rather than loving to hate my history lectures, I might have learnt to love and grasp world history at a time when learning was easier, and the ability to remember (not memorize) was sharper. Its still undoubtedly an elite account of history but not in the fashion taught to us by f***-all NCERT. As a well known post-colonial historical-anthropologist, Partha Chatterjee, writes:

"Those who had the misfortune to study the diplomatic history of Europe will remember the sleepless nights spent trying to memorize the unpronounceable names of remote provinces that were transferred on who knows which dates from one European power to another. This is how we were taught to relish the sublime beauties of sovereignty." (Politics of the Governed)

But why were we taught to relish it when we had access to something as beautiful as this book that questions the exact same? It makes no sense to me, but what does make sense is going back to the book again and again, and professing it to all that come my way, especially those of my generation.

P.S.: Speaking of my generation, whoever made this man GenX's mouthpiece?? (Thank you S, for pointing this one out):

"Really, whether Mr Jinnah did wonderful things or he did horrible things and whatever point of view your party likes to take — who gives a damn? How is this relevant to the India we have to build today? Are we electing leaders for the future or selecting a history teacher? ...let’s let Mr Jinnah rest in peace... And let’s not worry too much about this subject called History; let’s create a new subject called The Future."
- Chetan Bhagat, Dont Fix History, Look at the Future, TOI, 30 August 2009

Wait, what????