All Bengalis are poets

Some of them only at heart, thank God. In Bengal – I can only vouch for West Bengal, India, and that too some decades back when boys used to start writing poems at around the same age that the girls started to menstruate. Writing poetry used to be a sign of male puberty – at least for a certain class and category of educated Bengalis, mostly of the middle class, I hasten to add.

In the country that I come from, there are always about a million exceptions to any statement that one might happen to make about anybody or anything. At times the rest of the nation – the silent majority – will stand up and nudge one gently and say: ‘Hey! What about us?’ And it will be similar to being nudged by an elephant, with the consequences thereof.

But ‘All Bengalis are poets’ is possibly one of those generalisations which can hold water for nearly all classes and categories of Bengalis – especially if we go back in history. This is a nation and a language which had little or no use for prose till the beginning of the nineteenth century. Before that – and for some time afterwards – even our lists of groceries or the washing used to be in rhyme. We spoke Farsi – a form of Persian – in court and used it on legal deeds and documents, until English took over. Otherwise even Bengali bawdry used to be in rhyme, women gossiping at the well or telling religious tales, ‘fighting’ poets who composed their songs ex tempore – but in rhyme – and sang them in the course of a musical debate – you name it. A nation that had learnt to live in rhyme. The Dutch missionaries of Serampore/Srirampur had to invent Bengali prose because they wanted to translate the Bible into Bengali – a task performed by William Carey in 1801.

You know when the Bengalis stopped being Bengalis and turned into the ‘baboos’ of the British empire, the rest of the less educated – because less anglophile – north Indian folk taking over all other tasks from the sepoy’s to the coolie’s? It’s when we Bengalis lost our taste as well as our capacity to rhyme. From a race of poets we turned into a race of clerks.

But we did not lose the habit. We kept writing poetry, some of it fairly passable – we’re not talking about the established poets, Tagore, or the Kallol poets, or Shakti-Sunil’s ‘hungry’ generation. We’re talking about what the average Bengali churned out under the double pressure of sexual frustration and the remnants of a Victorian morality reinforced by Hindu edicts and ideals.

Your average Bengali still churns out bad poetry by the ream. But in the Bengal that I remember, poets used to chase readers/listeners as persons of African origin pester white Caucasians to buy their worthless gewgaws on Spain’s sunny Meditteranean coast – a racist image if ever there was one, but have you noticed how all racist images are somehow heartbreaking? And we’re out here to break some hearts for poetry and the poets, if only of Bengal, in case you hadn’t noticed.

My youngest brother – who is no longer with us but is guffawing from Heaven, I’m sure – my youngest brother and I were once talking about Bengal and Bengali poets on the phone, he in Ottawa, self in Bonn. My brother was an extraordinary lover of Bengali poetry – and of Bengali literature as well, his knowledge of such things being even more extraordinary than his love, if possible.

Oh, now I remember! We were talking about my poems – at my age? ‘Isn’t it funny?’ my brother was saying: ‘Writing poetry is perhaps the most difficult form of literature, and that is why it is completely useless, completely worthless, it has no market value whatsoever.’ Which makes it a labour of love per se – I joined. You can as little put a price on a poem as you can put on a kiss – I said. I thought I was being poetic. Eh? my brother said, puzzled. ‘What are you talking about? And what’s happened to your syntax?’ The same that’s happened to my poetry – I told him.

And then the two of us came up with this image to define the Bengalis’ very special relationship with poetry. Suppose you chance upon a poetry festival in Kolkata. You’ll find a hall full of people and a scared, seedy looking person sitting on a broken chair in the middle of the dais, glancing this way and that, as if looking for some means, any means to escape the ordeal. Ah, the amateur poet! you’d say to yourself. Another case of stage fright. To have to read out his poems in front of this kind of an enthusiastic audience, intense, emaciated, unshaven, bespectacled, some of them even clutching notebooks which they seem to have brought along with themselves – maybe to note down things, names of poets and lines from the poems and so on. No wonder the poet, poor fellow, is scared – you’d be saying to yourself.

And you’d be wrong. The hall is full of poets all waiting for their turn to go up on stage and give of their best, read poem after poem until they are dragged down or shot down – as in a Western saloon. While that scared, seedy looking man sitting on the broken chair in the middle of the dais is the only listener and an unwilling listener at that, one who has either been abducted or bribed into coming to the poetry festival.

You’d slowly close the door behind you, after you, and jump into the next tram – people have been known to throw themselves under the tram after attending poetry festivals in Bengal.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but we Bengalis are poets, you forget.

Of guitars, English and kalashnikovs

Right at this moment there are kids sitting anywhere from the favelas of Sao Paulo to a barsati in New Delhi to a high-rise in Seoul plucking away at those six strings which mean the world to them. Some of those kids are getting tears in their eyes because it’s so hard to press down the strings for the chords, your fingers don’t seem to have enough strength, and then the strings cut into the flesh of the still delicate and childlike fingers.

Just wait a year or two and you’ll see that kid in his or her first band – the girls usually go for singing and songwriting as well, or is that only in the West? Wait another year and you might be having a J-pop or a K-pop wonder on your hands. Kids, teenies, youngsters everywhere in the world have two ambitions in life: to play the guitar and to be able to speak English – even sing in English. Do both and you’re a star from Poland to New Caledonia – at least in your school. And the joke is that it’s not a dream marketed by Disney studios or Mattel, the kids thought it up themselves.

You see, the guitar – in its original, clearly feminine form, as well as in its latest Heavy Metal incarnations which look more like torture instruments – is sexy, to put it in a nutshell, and that to anybody, anywhere in the world, unless that person is over fifteen.

Secondly, it’s the one thing that’s neither on the school curriculum nor on the priority list of your parents when it comes to the progeny’s accomplishments: do we even realise that Justin Bieber is the true Harry Potter and JK Rowling the pseudonym under which his mother writes about her brat’s adventures? Oh yes, I’ve had friends back then before the moon landing who were practising away at their ‘spanish’ guitars – as opposed to the ‘hawaiian’ guitar – and looking for stray Goanese musicians in Calcutta to teach them the much-coveted ‘finger style’ of the flamenco guitar. Until they went off to study mechanical engineering in Jadavpur.

The guitar overtook English as the lingua franca of the world at around the same time that the annual turnover of the music industry beat the armaments industry for the first time. Can you imagine more guitars being sold than kalashnikovs? And the joke is that you’ll find a guitar in almost every place in the world – be it in the bush in Congo or on the streets of Moscow – that you’ll find a kalashnikov. Both are ubiquitous. This is what those aliens will be saying when they discover the earth in the distant future: “Those earthlings made music before they killed each other.’’

And they spoke English, or at least tried to – I’d hasten to add. “Was it their lanuage?’’ Not really, but they needed it for the song texts – I tell the aliens. “Was it difficult?” Not at that level – you just rhyme baby with maybe and so on, or shake you booty if you can’t think of anything else – I tell my Buddha-like guests. “And that made the earthlings happy?” Yes, all earthlings under fifteen – I tell them with a sigh. “Can we learn English?” ‘You’ll have to learn the guitar first,’ I tell them, upon which they board their flying saucer and whoosh back to outer space to the tune of Ground Control to Major Tom.

I was thinking about it after the aliens had left. Hadn’t English somehow been like my guitar too, throughout my life? Coming from the kind of circumstances that I do, a guitar or guitar lessons would have blown the family budget right up to Higher Secondary (just the Bengali version of School Leaving). So I concentrated on English instead. I taught it to myself as those kids teach themselves how to play the guitar. It certainly helped to go to school but that was about as much use as the music teacher to John Lennon – and we’re not talking about my vanity here. You’ve got to love the language. You’ve got to try out the phrases from Wodehouse to Joyce the way you try out the chords – until you begin to compose on your own. All the while you are dreaming of becoming a lit-star like Salman Rushdie – well, not quite, Midnight’s Children was the Origin of Species of Indo-Anglian literature. And then Arundhati came along, with a sensibility and a language and an X-ray trick of bombarding the central thought with images until the shape begins to emerge. There’s been Adiga’s ‘What the Driver Saw’ in The White Tiger since.

Maybe I should learn how to play the guitar.

Learning Doitch

The ‘language issue’ might have determined the whole course of my life here in Europe.

I got three shocks when I first came to Germany.

Firstly, it was as if my entire savings had been wiped out by a bank failure, as if I’d gone bankrupt. My English was suddenly worthless – like a currency that was no longer valid. Secondly, coming from a country where the kind of English you spoke practically decided your class, category and social status, it was surprising to find a developed, prosperous, western nation doing entirely without it. The Germans seemed to manage with their German. Translators and interpreters saw to the rest, where languages rubbed shoulders. Thirdly, I hadn’t known how difficult it would be to learn German, to attain the same level of proficiency in German as in English.

But I was perceptive. There were certain things which I saw or realized, some at once, some with the passage of time: that language or languages are a part of the geography of a continent, you can’t disregard them any more than you can disregard the Alps. Language represents the true borders of a country, its defences, its Siegfried and Maginot Lines – even its Chinese Wall! Nation means physiognomy, language and religion, in that order. These are the things that bind and the things that separate tribes, and keep them strictly divided from one another. Languages leave their mark on history and bear its imprint, in their turn. One can, with a certain effort of the imagination, conceive of a world with only one, or no religion, even a world where physiognomy and skin colour and the other anthropoid characteristics do not play a role – but it is difficult to imagine a world in which everybody speaks the same language, makes the same sounds to signify the same things – unless we all start speaking in smileys. Otherwise there will always be ‘us’ and ‘them’, meaning the others, once called barbarians, today simply foreigners or aliens. Or at best everybody will have to turn multilingual on an unprecedented scale – and we’ll have to demarcate the operative areas of the various languages as well: English will be the language of politics and poetry, Japanese of trade and industry, American of armaments and entertainment, German of law and order, French of love, Chinese of dogma, Italian of domesticity, Arabic of religion, Russian of the Black Market, Polish of immigration, Spanish of unemployment, Hindi of poverty and Swahili of starvation. Some such scheme.

And then there’s the question of the accent. In those early days, I was vastly surprised to see a Samaranch or a Perez de Cuellar speak a very curious kind of English, to say the least, and apparently nobody sniggered. Somebody like Kohl, the Chancellor of a mighty nation, might even need an interpreter to translate President Bush’s golfing jokes to him. Kennedy once declared, ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’, ‘I am a Berliner’ (which is otherwise a kind of sugared bun with marmalade in it), in an atrocious accent, and won the heart of the German nation. So it wasn’t necessary to speak everybody’s language with perfect ease, after all, or was it? Then why were the Turks laughed at here in Germany? Why was an ‘Indian’ accent so incorrigibly funny in Britain?

That was another problem: you learnt their language, they wanted you to get the right accent; you did that, and they wanted you to change the way you dressed, you cooked, you prayed, you beat your wife; you did that, and they wanted you to change the colour of your skin.

In any case, the main division in Germany was between those who spoke German, and those who didn’t, or spoke only in infinitives. The main division in the world was between people, otherwise dumb, ignorant people like you and me, who’d had the chance to learn a language from the age and the stage of an unaborted foetus upwards, and learnt it badly, but were still ‘natural’ to those parts by the joint operation of jus soli and jus sanguinis, and the others who had begun far too late, their heads and hearts full of some other kind of gibberish, their tongues twisted out of shape by other vowels, syllabic liquids, dipthongs, voiced and voiceless, aspirate or unaspirated or nasal, velar, palatal, retroflex, dental or labial consonants, not to mention the conjunct ones.

I found myself relegated to the second category and had no intention of remaining there. What I hadn’t taken into account was the fact that when an Indian spoke English, there was at least a major historical accident behind it. But when an Indian spoke German, it was a purely personal accident. And it has remained just that – a source of permanent despair and perpetual pain.

Learning Doitch. I did my best, of course, but I had difficulty remembering the gender and the appropriate articles, conjugating the verbs, declining the adjectives, forming plurals, deciding the cases, forming the participles of the strong verbs, keeping the various meanings of the weak, separable verbs separate in accordance with the respective prefixes, which are basically prepositions. The vocabulary had to be acquired. But English and German words often tend to sound similar, with just that shade of difference in the meaning. And English idioms cause so much of incomprehension here in Germany that it is fatal to use them in translation. And one should simply forget the prepositional idioms – which are basically the English equivalent of German separable verbs. One should either stick to the German separable verbs, if any alien has ever succeeded in mastering them, or even venture farther afield into German idioms, which are as phlegmatic as oxen waiting to be yoked.

The battle between German and English had begun, my poor Bengali mind caught between the mighty armies of two European languages, Dunkirk, German on the advance, English retreating.

I was there.

(To be contd.)

English Made Me (3)

…Mind you, the fairy tale was our first Rapid Reader. The main English textbooks were of the usual, Indian sort – child or goat could chew through them from January till December and derive as little moisture as nourishment. We had written examinations in each subject thrice a year. And in English the questions were set from those textbooks – there was a separate paper for grammar and a separate tome for it, Hall & Martin, about which later.

You must get the overall picture first: here’s your native Indian boy setting out in life to learn English. He’s got his textbook, his grammar and his rapid reader. The textbooks had lessons of the ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’ sort in them. The whole game, for the teacher as well as the pupils, was to devise as many questions as possible to each lesson, questions which could be neatly answered by merely quoting a certain number of lines from the text, verbatim. You either underlined the ‘answers’ in the text, or put them in brackets. Bracketing was better, since the answers often overlapped – so you could use the second and the third brackets as well, as in mathematics. The only trick, apart from memorising half the text (if not the whole of it), was to begin your answer by flipping the question over like a pancake or an omelette and getting your cue from it, so to speak. ‘What happened when Aladdin rubbed his lamp?’ Answer: ‘When Aladdin rubbed his lamp’, his arse exploded and his balls fell off and so on, all there in the text for you.

Perhaps the most mindless way of learning a language, trust us Bengalis to have discovered it or devised it, and perhaps not – since the Nobel prize winning German language author Elias Canetti learnt his German in a similar manner, it seems. His parents used to speak German as a kind of secret language and Canetti learnt the sounds, without a clue as to their meaning – that came later, after he had turned twelve – or that’s what I seem to have read. Well, we were slightly better off in the sense that we knew the meaning of the words (in most cases). We could read the language, even understand it, but we could not speak it. We could not form sentences on our own, of our own. That was the crux, that was the nightmare. I was under the impression that one had to memorise thousands of sentences in English to be able to speak the language.

I remember visiting a Japanese ship on the Hooghly with my uncle – they had a closed-circuit TV on it, that was the main attraction. I remember European sailors with tattooed forearms who reeked abominably of sausages and beef – as I discovered later. My uncle spoke to one of them: I remember staring at the pink knees of the sailor and the blonde hairs on his legs, while my heart swelled with admiration for my uncle, who’d learnt all those sentences by heart, and well enough to fish out the exact ones he needed, even in an extreme situation like that. After all, he was talking to a gorilla in its own language, somehow assuaging that sausage-and-beef-eating monster and keeping it in good humour so that it wouldn’t fly into a sudden rage and throw us overboard.

It went on like that right up to class four and then, towards the beginning of class five, Father, in his wisdom, took a foolscap sheet and wrote the word ‘Tense’ on it. Boy, was I tense! The page filled up slowly: Present, Past and Future; First Person, Second Person, Third Person; Singular, Plural; Indefinite, Continuous, Perfect and Perfect Continuous. The verb Father chose was ‘to go’, I’d be choosing the verb ‘to shit’ later, while teaching conjugation to my younger brothers: I shit, you shit, he/she/it shits and so on, right down to ‘I shall have been shitting’, that’s your perfect continuous, I was heart-broken later when they told me that there’s no such thing as perfect continuous: ‘I shall have been shitting’. What do they think I’ve been doing all my life?

All in all, I was formulating my own sentences in English before the end of the term, I can only compare it to learning how to ride a bicycle – you are suddenly released from gravity, from bondage, you take an evolutionary leap forward. You can suddenly pedal from one end of the sentence to the other, from one full stop to another, without crashing or having to put your feet down…

It’s been one of the few miracles in my life.

(To be continued)

Love’s story

The only literature Nobel laureate of India, Rabindranath Thakur aka Tagore, went and wrote a love story at the age of 67, some fifteen years after he had received the Nobel prize, which was back in 1913, the year that my father was born and Albert Camus was born and so on.

Sesher Kobita or The Last Poem was a Tagore kind of love story. The way Amit Ray, the bar-at-law from England, Bengali inellectual and iconoclast, courts Labannya, a ‘love object’ if ever there was one – just as women object to being treated as ‘sex objects’ these days – Amit is perhaps the worst kind of narcissistic romance-fantasizer in the guise of a woman-fancier ever conceived by man or pen – to plague women.

I must say in Amit’s defence that it’s Tagore’s daydream that we are dealing with. Nevertheless, to show Labannya sitting in the garden leaning against an eucalyptus (!) while the squirrels come to pick bits of walnut thrown by her – Tagore describes them as ‘hand-fed’ by Labannya – whereas I’ve seen these kritters behaving in a most obstreperous manner in Hyde Park, London, where they jump on to your shoe and hang by the crease of your trousers till you feed ’em… I mean, the Labannyas of today (eighty-seven years later) would have been up in arms hadn’t it been for the fact that Labannya dumps Amit in the end for a duller but more reliable and vastly more grateful nonentity called – you don’t want to know the name. Further, the ‘last poem’ of the title is not Amit’s but Labannya’s – and not just the last but the best poem in the lot.

So does Labannya win and Amit lose? There’s this undercurrent of competition between the two – or maybe there aren’t two, there’s only Amit and his daydream; maybe not even Amit and his daydram but Tagore and his daydream. As usual, when you read a love story written by a man – it’s a wonder women don’t laugh outright when they read the stuff men come up with, you know, about Labannya in the mellow morning sunlight among the misty Shillong hills feeding the squirrels – poor girl would have been ten times more worried about the spread of her sari on the grass; whether she should keep her sandals on or whether taking them off would be too much for Amit’s weak nerves; and, above all, how was she going to get up from the wet grass and not have Amit looking at her from behind and so on.

Women worry about things – well in advance – that men dream of, life has taught me. Women don’t improvise. You have to tell them from time to time that they are ‘spontaneous’ – huh, I’d like to see the woman who falls in love at first sight! A woman is merely mildly curious at first sight: is that hag hovering around him his wife or his mother? Ah, sister, is it? He’ll have to get rid of that paunch if he’s to have anything to do with me. He’s looking this way, he should see me in profile – and so on. And don’t tell me I’m being cynical. I was raised that way. By women.

Tagore was taking on the younger generation of Bengali poets who were beginning to show signs of unrest at his long reign. His way of doing it was to concoct Amit Ray as his alter ego, who, in his turn, concocts a ‘modern’ Bengali poet called Nibaron Chakraborty, and all of them rhyme away like a chorus of crickets not giving a damn about the fact that it’s supposed to be a novel. But that’s not how Tagore proves his modernity.

In The Last Poem, Tagore sets up Amit Ray as the archetype of the privileged, upper class, English-educated Bengali Romantic and then dismantles him while Labannya is like the moon rising at sundown, glow instead of glory, gentleness instead of passion. Women used to join the cloister in the olden days, Labbanya gets married and says goodbye to Amit and romantic love! She’s going to make herself useful! She gets married as she’d join an NGO!

I know where Tagore went wrong: in calling it The Last Poem, as if there can be a last poem – or a last word – in Love. A love poem will eternally be The Last But One Poem. Think of what the pill did to all the old plot lines for novels, from the romantic to the detective. Remember the old Frank Sinatra song? Love and marriage, love and marriage / They go together like a horse and carriage / This I’ll tell you brother / You can’t have one without the other.

You bet they can! And they can have love ’n sex too, all before, after and during marriage. The horse is inside the carriage these days, brother, ever heard of a thing called the motor car?

A murder of crows

Yes, Mr Corvus of the family corvidae which includes the common crow, the rook, the raven and the jackdaw. To be found in all temperate zones and continents except South America – why? How has South America sinned, or not sinned? And you wouldn’t dare to put Bengal, especially Kolkata aka Calcutta in the temperate zone if you’d lived there for just one summer, with the rains to follow. Just ask the crows. Why ask one, ask the whole flock, what the hell, go and ask a murder of crows – yes, that’s the other collective noun for a group of crows. How fitting.

Crows are now considered to be among the world’s most intelligent animals, Wikipedia will tell you. Now? Has it taken the human race so long to wake up to the fact? In which case I wouldn’t consider the human being to be among the most intelligent animals in the world. Look at me. Did I know that a crow has an encephalisation quotient equal to that of many non-human primates? Did you?

As a Bengali child growing up in Calcutta aka Kolkata, I grew up with crows. Right from the moment that the fish arrived from the market and the cook squatted down on the inner verandah with the long, mounted knife to cut and clean the fish – the crows would be there, sitting on the roof of the makeshift bathroom built around the cistern in the middle of the courtyard, or on the boundary wall, loudly informing each other of this diurnal opportunity for theft and/or daylight robbery. They’d grab the fish bladder, if nothing else, and then fight over it amongst themselves.

Crows are the punctuation marks of Bengali life, its diacritical marks, if you prefer, its commas and full stops, its interrogation (‘Caw?’) and exclamation (‘Caw!’) marks. Bengalis wake up ‘before crow-crow’, get ‘wet like a crow’ in the rain and look like a ‘crow in a storm’ afterwards – and naturally we have our own word for the scarecrow, kaktarua, I had an uncle who looked like that.

And the definition of emptiness, ennui and vacuity is the desultory caw of a crow breaking the monotony of a long and leisurely, soporific Calcutta afternoon in the middle of the summer holidays – something like this sentence, come down to think of it – ‘caw!’

Otherwise I’m neither an ornithologist nor the Wikipedia and there’s been cases of bloggers being hounded from the Net for stuffing their blog with too much information – whether about crows or about their (the bloggers’) grandmothers – hence I desist from all other details regarding crows except that when I came out West – was sent out West by the GOI in their wisdom – I found at least two old acquaintances who seemed to have accompanied me to my distant exile: the moon and the crows. So that I wouldn’t feel lonely, I suppose.

The moon seemed to be exactly the same as in Kolkata, though now it hung over Boppard-on-Rhine or over Bonn. If they need one witness in Heaven to hang me, it will be the moon, I know – the things it has seen! And the crows who used to live in the mango tree on the neighbouring plot on Hazra Road – next to the motor repairing workshop – the tree never produced any fruit because it had turned infertile, drawing its sustenance as it did from the whitish fluid trickling out of the carbide-heap for the oxy-acetylene – where was I? Ah, with the crows.

The crows are still there, just as the moon is still there. Now they follow me and Mika around on our walks in the Rheinaue, hoping to find the treats that even Mika’s hellhound nose has missed in the grass. Or I can see them from our office building: two large groups of maybe two hundred crows each who have chosen two huge trees – beech, I suspect – to do their communal roosting. So these two gangs of crows straight out of West Side Story return at dusk to their respective trees right next to the Rhine in a noisy ceremony which consists mainly of crowing and bickering and much flapping of wings and even more bad language, I’m sure – all because some crows of the one gang, who look exactly like the crows of the other gang, have landed on the wrong tree.

Can’t tell you how strongly that reminds me of the boys of our block back in Kolkata vis-à-vis the boys of the next block.

Or generally of Bengalis.

Or generally of the world.

So today when I drive to office, I see the crows of the Rheinaue gather for their morning’s conference on the overhead traction wires for the trams right on top of South Bridge! It’s the highest vantage point, with trams below and motorised traffic from all sides on two levels – hence safe as an island. And then I see the crows again towards evening – at least one flock or gang or murder – a fairly large one – who flutter around the glassy Post Tower now dripping in sunset colours. The crows look like a bunch of black handkerchiefs lost by a bunch of absent-minded widows. But they, the crows, do not seem sorry at all. They seem to be having fun, great fun, as a matter of fact – before they settle down in whichever hapless tree for their night’s unrest.

And the crows always have a friendly caw for me as I wait for the bus, which is more than I can say for most primates, human or non-human.

I know, I know, the sticklers among you will be asking themselves: how come he’s waiting for the bus if he drove to office in the morning?

That’s why I prefer crows.