Eleanor Rigby: Fifty Years

Perhaps the greatest lyric, I mean song-text ever written. Go back and check it out and you’ll see what this young man from Liverpool who might have been my senior in school was capable of doing back in 1966 – not ebony and ivory but to suck the essence of modern poetry, what the hell, of modern film & literature, like a hummingbird from a wilting fuchsia and distil it into a scarifyingly simple lyric – won’t even talk abut the music – to the despair of all poets & songwriters.

Who starts a pop song with Ah, look at all the lonely people, eh? And then the images: Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in a church after the wedding and can be seen waiting at the window wearing a face she keeps in a jar by the door. I won’t go any further, though Father McKenzie joins the cast soon after in an almost Joycean opening to an unwritten, stillborn novel that will adumbrate forever.

And the joke is that Paul McCartney was 24 years old at the time. And the joke is that Michelangelo was 24 years old when he completed the Pietà. Which is neither here nor there, but I’m fascinated by Eleanor Rigby and the Madonna figure in La Pietà. Both are women, unhappy women in a church. Both have a connection with death and burial: one of them is even holding her dead son on her lap and looking more radiant and beautiful than any woman has ever done in stone.

Of course I’m overdoing things and I’m not even a Christian. I myself was a teenager in Kolkata when Revolver hit the stands. I don’t think I even noticed that a revolution was taking place, that a song had come into being which would affect and influence my attitude towards western pop music forever. But I noticed that Rigby’s personal ogre was somehow also mine – as that of every sensitive youngster anywhere in the world – a thing called loneliness. In the midst of a world full of people, all the lonely people.

How was Paul to know that another young man – just 20 years old at the time (his own time, not Paul’s or Michelangelo’s) – would be starting a miracle cure called the Facebook which would be the saving of all the Eleanor Rigbys of the world together with their daughters and granddaughters? We’re writing now the 12th year since the launching of “Thefacebook”, as the Germans say so formally and liturgically, whereas Mark Zuckerberg was worth around $46 billion as of December 2015, Wikipedia tells us. Which shows the number of lonely people in the world, Eleanor Rigby and self, a new Facebook user, included.

In short, both Eleanor Rigby and self are ‘connected’ now, so connected that we can’t possibly feel lonely any more. Don’t have to stand at the window and peep out from behind the curtain; just go into Facebook and watch people post selfies of themselves at the pyramids or in the shower.

And the face that Eleanor Rigby used to keep in a jar by the door?

It’s on Facebook now.


CID (2)

… “Yes, madam?” the kind marriage officer was asking. The bride kept silent. The marriage witnesses were waiting. The bridegroom was sweating. Will she, nil she – read the oath in English? Pindrop silence in the room – it’s the Tis Hazari Court building in Delhi, remember? Otherwise there’s no such word as ‘pindrop’ in English, I just checked in Oxford. Neither as a noun, nor as an adjective. Must be an Indian coinage.

The electric fan did not squeak. It was a new one and whirled at half speed gently stirring the papers on the marriage officer’s desk, while the accused as well as convicted criminals, for all I know, shuffled past on the corridor outside. And then the bride spoke. She continued speaking. I don’t think the Indian marriage oath – in English – has been read in a more sexy German-Polish accent in the history of civil marriage on the subcontinent. I could have married her for that marriage oath, for that accent alone.

What does that have to do with my CID, my cultural identity?

CID or C.I.D. is the abbreviation for the Criminal Investigation Department of India – as also the title of the famous 1956 film with Dev Anand in the male lead. Since then, there’s not an Indian dead or alive who has not hummed Leke Pahela Pahela Pyar while having a pee or while NOT having a pee, not everybody having a bathroom to sing in, in India. But check the song out all over again on YouTube or wherever and you’ll realise that it’s Indian rock n’ roll at its best, it rocks, it rolls, it’s pure rhythm, it makes you dance – from the days before the bhangra beat conquered India and the West in a kind of double whammy of reverse colonialism… where was I?

There should also have been a Cultural Investigation Department of India, for example, examining the bhangrification of Bollywood film music. This CID should have had a foreign wing operating from the embassies and authenticating the cultural bona fides of NRIs and PIOs and all the other phrases and abbreviations for expats that the Indian govt. comes up with from time to time.

The cultural attaché at the embassy could issue the CIDs, for example, to people like us, stating it in percentages: thirty percent Indian, twenty percent German, ten percent illiterate and forty percent dalda instead of ghee. Or the attaché could ask one of us Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin to read an oath of cultural allegiance in our respective mother tongues, such as Oriya or Bengali or Hindi – would be almost like K. reading the marriage oath in Tis Hazari. Can I or can’t I? Read Bengali after all these years, I mean. You see, school, college and university were all in English, and it’s been German ever since. You don’t seriously expect me to read this thing – out aloud, for God’s sake! – in Bengali, do you?

I had no difficulty reading the oath – in English – at Tis Hazari. It wasn’t half as sexy as K. reading it but she seemed to like it, so who cares. And who cares that I, we, didn’t have our big fat Indian wedding. We’d submitted our papers a month earlier and pushed off to Goa for our honeymoon – before the marriage? There must be a mistake somewhere. My stepdaughter – naturally not ‘our’ stepdaughter, silly – was with us. We stayed at a ‘holiday village’. It was in the middle of the monsoon, with the eight mile beach entirely deserted and nobody venturing to set so much as a big toe in the raging Arabian Sea, with armadas of cumulus nimbus rolling in to conquer the Indian peninsula in a swift two-month campaign. I took pictures: sea and sky all in black-and-white, as if before the discovery of colour film. The colour was all on the landward side, dark green and velvet because of the monsoon.

Mira Nair should have seen it.


Hankering back, hankering for the past, hankering for that which is not – that’s what the Americans call it. Used to be called nostalgia, in our days. They call it the Big Fat Greek Wedding syndrome since 2002, somebody was telling me.

Basically, let’s assume that you are one of the lucky ones who made it; you made it to the prosperous & liberal & secular & democratic White Man’s West – or maybe you didn’t even have to try, your parents made it – in any case, you’re living in the West and having a slight problem with your cultural identity, are you? Join the club.

There are two sides to that, the external and the internal, the objective and the subjective, I’d say – still talking about your CID, your cultural identity, so don’t buck. Let’s say we’ve reached the stage where YOU have practically started thinking that you’re an American, or a Canadian, or even a German, or whatever, in whichever country you might have landed, or your parents might have happened to land – in all over again? Tell an Indian that English is a foreign language and see what happens viz. he goes up in smoke.

Well, landing and take-off, those are two essential operations or activities in the lives of all migrants, from bird to man. You take off, you land; and then you take off and you land again, back where you started, unless the fox has eaten you in the meanwhile.

You lay an egg or eggs, as your parents had done, on foreign soil – and watch it (or them) turn into a bird very unlike you! You feel culturally cuckooed, though it’s just nurture screwing up nature – well, be thankful you don’t feel culturally castrated, as I do at times. They took away my child without even trying. She grew up into whatever young women – out here in the West – grow up into. ‘You don’t agree?’ my wife says: ‘Didn’t you marry one?’ Who or what is she talking about? Ah, that intercultural disaster, our marriage. She was so pretty and sexy and clever and free at the time, you see, I got carried away.

So what happened to my big fat Indian wedding? You know, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding. Came a full year before the Greek one, as a matter of fact. Repeat: so what happened to my big fat Indian wedding? I’ll tell you. It was in the Tis Hazari Courts Complex in New Delhi: criminal cases being heard all over the place, lawyers in black coats scurrying down corridors, the accused or the convicts being led around in handcuffs. My future wife – near future, just minutes away – my future wife wanted to have a pee. Was she nervous? Funny, I simply can’t pee when I’m nervous. Incompatibility, see?

Well, there were three scruffy and dejected looking men in handcuffs squatting in front of the closed – and padlocked – door of the toilet. So no pee for my future wife. Marriage yes, pee, no. That was her big fat Indian wedding, right in the middle of the monsoon, believe it or not! And almost twenty years before Nair made her film. She should have asked us.

And then my future wife – what future? It was all happening right then and there, in that small room in the Tis Hazari court building, with a Muslim marriage officer administering the oaths, the two parties to the marriage being a Hindu and a Christian, resp. All we needed was a Buddhist clerk and it would have been a marriage of religions to please the Pope.

And then it happened. That moment of stillness, that sudden cold shiver down the spine. The marriage officer was asking my near wife, my imminent wife, to read the oath – in English!

You see, we’d known each other for three years by then; we’d been lovers for two years and ten months; I knew she spoke German, Polish and a bit of Russian (learnt in school); we’d always spoken German with each other – but English? She’d had English in her lycium, why they chose the French word to designate a high school in Poland, I’ll never know, just as they call the tram tramway, pronounced tram bhai, which would be Brother Tram in Hindi … where was I?

What if she said, ‘Sorry, no English’ – in German? Or Polish. Or Russian. Can you imagine how long it would take to get a German or a Polish or a Russian translation of that marriage oath? We’d be old men and women by then, all our seven children born out of wedlock. That is what I was thinking.

‘Yes, madam?’ the kind marriage officer was urging…

(To be continued)

Love & Sex

I’m learning how to give catchy titles and keywords, see? Just imagine: you walk up to a desultory group of completely unindividuated men and women making small talk at a party, and ask them what they’re talking about and one of the ladies looks at you archly and says – love & sex. Bet you won’t walk away!

Funny thing is that if she’d said ‘Love’, or one of the men had said ‘Sex’ – with a grin – you’d have taken it for a joke and walked away. So my lesson is, your lesson is, if you want to get the attention of the women as well as of the men, never talk about the one or the other – love and sex, I mean – but about both – love and sex, I mean – see how clever I am? See how fast I learn? You’ve got to repeat the keywords as many times as possible – love & sex e.g. But that brings me to another thought.

Love and sex, men and women, Venus and Mars, women give sex for love, men give love for sex – that’s when I thought, why don’t we divide the world up into two countries, one for the men and the other for the women, with proper trade and diplomatic relations? The currency of the women’s country would be Love, a ‘soft’ currency. The currency of the men’s country would be Sex, a hard currency approved by the World Bank and the International Amatory Fund and trading well from New York to Shanghai.

The problem will be that men hold all the reserves of Love that the women want and vice versa – it’s as if the currencies had got mixed up in some way. So the only way to fix the problem is this slow transfer which has been taking place for ages, men have been exchanging Love for Sex and women have been exchanging Sex for Love, for centuries…

The joke is that Sex is found in abundance in the women’s country whereas Love is a rare commodity in the men’s country. So the men have always been getting more Sex for Love and the exchange rate has been getting worse and worse as the centuries roll by.

‘How much Sex do I get for my Love?’ the typical – male – question at the border. ‘What’s the exchange rate today?’

‘It’s a great day for poets,’ the dealer said. ‘They’re exchanging sex only for poetry today, just words, can you imagine?’

Yes, but keywords, I felt.


Was Spielberg really influenced by Satyajit Ray’s 1967 script, The Alien? I wouldn’t know and it’s none of my business anyway. But E.T. touches me in a very different manner. I see myself – and all expatriates – in E.T. Only that the story of E.P.s like us does not have a happy ending, making me think of what Maurice Maeterlinck said about fairy tales, that those last words – ‘And they lived happily ever after’ – already contained the seeds of a tragedy.

When I first started ‘phoning home’ from Germany in the early eighties, it was costing me four Deutschmarks a minute, that’s a bill of forty D-marks for a ten minute chat with my mom. E.T. wouldn’t have rung home and Spielberg wouldn’t have made the film under those circumstances.

Compared to the mobile telephones and PCs plus Skype and WhatsApp of today, our long distance trunk calls were very much like E.T. calling from the woods. It used to be a funny sort of conversation. I’d tell my mother all about life in Europe and she’d only be interested in knowing when I was coming home.

There was no question of anybody sending a spaceship from Calcutta – Kolkata these days – since even E.T.’s spaceship would have refused to land in Calcutta. In Kolkata neither. Would have been swamped by the slum kids – very unlike Elliott and his gang – who’d have stolen the very nuts and bolts so that the spaceship would have fallen apart in flight like a demure maiden being unclothed in public – I still love them, those bustee kids, used to be my friends and companions, after school hours.

What I mean is, you leave your family and your job to go to an alien country – hey, I thought I was the alien? – because you’re madly in love with this one woman in the universe… Now, what kind of a plot would that be? E.T. coming to earth and falling in love with an earthwoman to teach her Kama Sutra, galactic version, while she teaches him fifty shades of grey – will you stop mixing things up? Grey did the teaching, I’ll beg you to remember.

Being the E.T. who couldn’t go home, who’s still carrying around his glowing Bible card of a heart and the revived chrysanthemum, the only realisation that could save me – and did – was: how many of us, the E.T.s or the E.P.s, the extra-terrestrials and the expartriates, are out HERE, on earth, and not out THERE, in outer space. And we’re growing in number all the time, it seems. Poverty, wars, oppression, persecution, terror sends us scuttering to other countries and other shores. Or maybe just the hope of a good life? What an alien dream!

Between Staying and Going away (2)

For my farewell from the Huchukparah mess we made that trip to the lava mounds of Tulin with the lac trees growing among the boulders. We drank Mohan Meakin’s Saki (a blended whisky) sitting on pure geology and stared down at the lakes scattered among the green fields like the red earth’s blue, placid eyes. There’s a worm in those waters which eats into the skin between the toes and works its way up through the body.

The railway line and the Hindal aluminium factory on the other side of the highway looked like the history of civilisation but we were sad. We were sad because I was going away from Purulia – forever. Unless I returned as the Branch Manager some day. All my mess mates wished that I would. It’s the way human beings fool themselves when parting becomes inevitable.

I, we, the expat family, used to go to India every other year and I remember my mother’s face the day that we arrived and the day that we left. Like sunrise and sunset. Like that song in Fiddler on the Roof.

You see, human beings were nomads first, who stayed together wherever they went, it was the earth that moved. And then they built the villages, each village so far away from the previous one that they wouldn’t be able to see the smoke from each other’s fires and distance and absence and forgetfulness were born.

Mother never blamed me. Nor my siblings. Nor my father. Nobody in the family. They all left me alone with my guilt merely asking: ‘When are you coming next?’ And it was my turn to lie. Whereas I had disembowelled the family when I went away, I had taken away its centre, that’s what I believed. My elder sister heard that one and laughed: ‘Just who do you take yourself for?’ Her eldest son has migrated to Australia now, serve her right.

Mother standing on the landing in front of the entrance while we piled into the taxi, two taxis, as a matter of fact, would be ‘Taxen’ in German, as I was explaining to my younger brother, as if it was a joke, as if all languages were a joke, countries, jet flights and ‘When are you coming next?’ were a joke. Mother had her aanchal, that’s the border of her sari, to her mouth, covering half her face. Like all Bengali mothers, she knew it would be inauspicious to cry at the moment of departure. At what other moment should she cry, should we cry, can someone tell me? While writing a blog eight years after her death, perhaps?

If you want to kill a blog, try getting sentimental about your dear departed mother, or father, or even your youngest brother who was in a hurry to meet His Maker or maybe His Maker was in a hurry to meet him. God will know what do with such a soul, clever, compassionate, generous, gregarious.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to return to my theme, which is between staying and going away. I thought I was going away, huh! Mother didn’t even tell me when she went away, they rang me up later. My youngest brother told me when they were taking him to the hospices and we did talk a few times after that. But even he didn’t tell me when he’d be coming next.

I’ll come and see him when the time comes, he knew.


The very first blogger

The very first blogger was Love.

I mean that first love letter I wrote at the age of seventeen or eighteen to – we’ll let that be – in chinese ink, for God’s sake, with a sketch at the end of it like the illustrations to begin and close the chapters in an old Mitra & Ghosh publication. What did I think I was doing? Creating epistolary literature and ‘illuminating’ my manuscripts both at the same time? The lover and the poet? The poet and a novice monk out of Umberto Eco?

There used to be a large dose of asceticism as well as aestheticism in those analogue blog letters of mine, or should I say ours? After all, I’m talking about My Generation, about to disappear from view as if on a revolving stage. We were prudish too, hence no overt sexual allusions or innuendos in our letters. And yet sex used to rise like sap in those innocent scribblings. It was like W.B. Yeats the Irish poet going into the woods and crying out loud to get rid of his sexual frustration – as an adolescent. Same fellow would be writing the Crazy Jane poems later.

I couldn’t talk about what I really felt, in my very first love letter, so I talked about everything else – the parah or the block that we lived in, the city of which our parah was an insignificant part and I don’t remember what else. But I discovered the blog in the process, long before anybody had ever seen or heard of a PC – at least in Kolkata.

A blog is an oblique, crab’s way of approaching things. You watch a blog move and you’ll realise how naturally the thought runs this way and that, over this and under that, seems to go nowhere and then in circles – and still manages to do and to get what it wants, which can be food or sex or poetry. Blogs are insect life among the grass roots under the fallen leaves. Blogs are the biomass making up twelve percent of world literature.

Two of my girlfriends from the days when Muhammad Ali used to be Cassius Clay are still holding on to my first blogs, which they believe are love letters – as if every book were a love letter to the person named in the dedication.

In our days, love letters were the young man’s and the young woman’s first brush with literature – nothing adventurous like Hemingway going out and shooting greater kudu in Africa; maybe just that glimpse of the tiger in the reserve forest, of the lion in the game park, of literature in all her majesty yawning at the games that people play. Huh, Cassius Clay!

All literature is written as if a young girl were listening to it – like someone reading out Goethe’s Wahlverwandtschaften lying on a scented meadow in Falkau-Altglashütten in the Black Forest, while the girl chews absently on a grass stalk, otherwise stares dreamily at the silver fox farm on the opposite slope. Is she listening? And who cares whether Goethe wrote the stuff or I did?

All literature is narcissism – and that pond, that pool of water in which the poor fool saw his own reflection and fell in love with it, is the face of a young girl, a young woman, reading her first love letter – or what she thinks is the first love letter written to her, specifically to her. Let’s go back to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, if anybody still knows who the bugger is, or was.

Narcissus, totally in love with himself, was walking in the woods when Echo, an Oread or a mountain nymph, fell in love with him. Narcissus could sense he was being followed, so he cried: “Who’s there?” Echo only dared to echo back: “Who’s there?” When Echo finally told Narcissus that she was in love with him, Narcissus naturally told her to eff off – which left Echo heartbroken. She spent the rest of her days in lonely glens echoing her own sentiments and ours, I believe, in the process.

A blog is the echo that remains of all the unrequited love – for a girl, for a man, or even for art and literature –that life is made of and that we all carry in our hearts.