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.

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E.P.

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

The fundamental problem with the modern world is that we are all getting more and more mobile as the world turns into a global village and people are constantly being confronted with the choice of either staying or going away – a choice not exactly unknown in the olden days but not half so acute or frequent as today, as you can well imagine.

People used to go abroad for higher studies and return in due course to the country of their origin to take up teaching posts and other posts of responsibility and importance. Something about their dress and their manners revealed to the end of their days that they’d been abroad. They were not quite Indians, Bengalis or Kolkatans any more. Maybe the pipe that they smoked; maybe the foreign car held on to until it disintegrated; maybe the foreign wife turning roly-poly like a Bengali masima (aunt) because of all the rich food – but that was about all. It was like eating curry and rice with a fork and a knife off china plates from a ‘proper’ dining table – remember that we Bengalis learnt how to eat the blighty way long before the sahibs learnt how to eat a mango anywhere other than in the bathtub with a bib around their necks and a towel around their midriffs.

What I mean is: (a) you went away – abroad; (b) you returned from the queen mother country to your native land; (c) you cherished the memories of Oxbridge and Charing Cross and the Inner Temple but were not necessarily unhappy or dissatisfied that you had returned to your ‘roots’.

The difference between those who go away and those who stay is as old as time. The moment you have a human settlement, it puts the sons of that settlement in the age-old quandary: do I stay or do I go away? The daughters of the settlement might get married within the settlement or away from it, creating other kinds of tension and other kinds of agony or distress. And then: what about those sons and daughters who were only too happy to get away – I mean to go away? Centripetal and centrifugal, see? The same forces at work.

When I was with the State Bank of India in the ’seventies, I used to get sent to various mofussil, that’s suburban towns on training. The first thing that I noticed when I turned up at the ‘Treasury’ in Purulia or Jalpaiguri was the subtle difference between the clerks who would or could remain posted to that branch till they retired, while the officers were liable to get transferred to some other branch or maybe to the headquarters after a stint of two to three years.

The clerks stay while the officers go away. They have to. They have no choice. I’ve seen head cashiers with ten times more influence than the ineffective branch manager simply because the head cashier was a local – potentate, almost. People feared him more than they loved him, but the entire cloth business of that place would have come to a stop without that head cashier. I was lucky. Bidhan-da decided to treat me, a greenhorn probationary officer on training, as a kind of wayward nephew from the moment I arrived.

I was going to stay at the Huchukparah mess with the clerks, I informed the Branch Manager. An officer, even a P.O., staying with the clerks? the BM frowned. It was my first turn away from home and I’d be damned if I was going to stay alone or in a hotel, I told him. So he had to agree.

A mess is a chummery, of sorts. Ours boasted some of the most colourful characters I have ever met in my earthly existence: Subhash with the unforgettable comment, for instance, that long hair was like a coconut tree on the bank of a pond, tall but with little soil at the roots, no wonder that they fell off! Satya used to slow cycle around our wooden cots when he had nothing better to do, winding in and out of the rooms on his Raleigh – otherwise he used to sing devotional songs to Goddess Kali in his spare time.

Mornings that unbelievably tall and lissom and jet-black and pretty Santhal girl used to turn up at crow-crow and cry out in her melodious voice: ‘Need dried cowdung cakes?’ As fuel for the kitchen fire, not for eating, of course. We’d still be lying in our cots, unmarried young men with the unfulfilled sexual energy of ten King Kongs – but polite as hell!

‘How much for you together with the cowdung cakes?’ we intoned unisono, making her laugh, I’m a fool not to have married her. I went away, you see.

(To be contd.)