Friday, 29 August 2014

The Laughter Memoirs - Dehradun 3

Years later, when I called up home from a sweltering Delhi in July – full and tense like a fat raindrop hanging from the roof ledge and unable to fall – I would try to recover some of the heady atmosphere of the mossy, incessant, cold rain of my childhood. On phone, my laughing Ma would put my yearning in place. Yes, saawan-bhado is here, she’d say… yes, you’re right, it’s indeed barkha bahaar... and the whole house is fragrant with the smell of wet dog…”.

Monsoon in Dehradun was not so much of a stormy exclamation mark as an implacable ellipsis bearing much endlessness. It set about its task with a grave playfulness that went on for days. It made the leaves glossy and full and the grass irrepressible. It did not let up even after the snails, earthworms and the occasional snake had emerged. Those that did not resist it – like trees and street children – become merry and redolent of life. Those that did resist – like the house, or people – became creakier, leaky and full of unexpected little crises like falling plaster and fungal infections.

Ma was right. The wet and harassed dogs always managed to make their way within – at least one of the six doors that led into the house was bound to be ajar, at least one of the people who lived there was bound to develop a compassionate chink in their soggy armour. Once in, they would take up a safe position under the dining table, tuck both paws under their chin and settle down to looking at the wet world with silent reproach.

The world seemed composed entirely of grey-black nimbus and a charged sky. Tiny human-scale houses and trees give them scope and context. The water condensed and fell, condensed and fell, like this would now be the natural order of things forever. It fell on this patch of the earth which had been woodland next to a river – a pahaadi naala called Rispana – just a few decades before I was born. It seeped into the soil and nourished and replenished and made fecund. It became the root of a new grass shoot, a stronger tree root. It made its way to the food chain, it played its part in the water cycle, it inveigled itself into the sensual sequence, it thickened the emotional circuit.

It’s not just the cloud-drop-earth continuum that makes the rain, we know. Rain is being made here on Baba’s forearm as he shivers and draws the khes – lighter than a blanket, heavier than a sheet – upon him. It’s being made here in didi’s desire for something crunchy and oily. Here, as we bite into that pataud, looking out of the window at the downpour, our tongues sharp with desire. Chachi and Ma have no choice but to worry about clothes not drying in time, but I can allow the cold moist wind to make my 15-year-old self feel a beauty and longing I don’t understand. Vaporous and being pulled, like the drops pulled by gravity. The rain is inside, on the skin, somewhere in the gut.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 4

For unsuspecting newcomers to the university, the mysterious terminologies of the left were laid out like a minefield-with-a-social-conscience. It felt like everyone but you knew what Dialectical Materialism, False Consciousness, Hegemony, and – of course – Lumpen Proletariat meant. When occasion demanded, the practiced ones could even take the sibilance available in Superstructure and deploy it with hissy venom in the entirely non-sibilant Comprador Bourgeoisie.

I used to mostly feel like a tiny shred of pickled carrot in a plate full of hefty aloo paranthas. But PK was a big help amid the heavy artillery, explaining to well-meaning seniors who suggested that he read Capital Volume 3: “See, I haven’t read Marx, Marx hasn’t read me, we are equal”. On the other hand, it wasn’t easy to take any such line with people like Raghav, who could take a trembling, malnourished statement like “Sorry, I can’t lend you my pen because I’m using it”; single-handedly attack himself with it; counter-attack with an emotional pitch on private property and state; and demolish you with that most terrifying of epithets: Bourgeoise!

Many of us worked fairly hard at not being bourgeoise. I, for instance, wore lungis and bathroom slippers, and read books while walking about on the campus roads (this is less dangerous than it sounds because it was a mostly vehicle-free campus). Those who date their peptic ulcers or falling hair to seeing me in that avatar some two decades back would be pleased to know that they were thoroughly avenged several years later.

At a film festival I was introduced to an erstwhile JNU student whom I didn’t know. But he clearly knew me. “I remember Zugghi”, he announced sorrowfully, his Malayali accent entirely unaffected by the vodka he was holding in a Limca bottle. “When I zaw her 10 yearz back, zee was reading.”Pause for a while as he looked at his feet. “In a buz”, he clarified. Pause as he rocked on his heels. Then, looking at the festival brochure in my hand, he said with a defeated sadness that still haunts me, “zee is ztill reading”.
(For the record, he then firmly grabbed a passing intellectual, caught hold of a fleeting Malayali cinematographer, introduced them to each other in two crisp sentences, stepped back in a marvel of wobbly decisiveness and commanded: “Have dialogue!”)

On full moon nights, the university resonated with legends of our senior non-bourgeoise worthies. Back in the 80s, one of them had painted on the wall of his hostel room: “The theory of Communism may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property”. Having looked at it long enough he decided – as political parties of the day often threatened – to take ‘direct action’. This consisted of taking pillows, books, ashtrays and sundry such objects from his first-floor room and throwing them to the well-populated depths below.
His roommate arrived to find his undeniably private property – socks, diaries, chappals – raining down like the quality of mercy, as a mess worker gathered them and put them to one side. The boggled roommate then had to conduct a simultaneous dialogue, shouting up at his friend (“Throw away your private property, not mine!” “No, no! All property must be destroyed”…), and expostulating with the mess worker (‘Sir, shall I take this bed sheet then?” “No, put it down, its mine”…).

The feeling of community and fellow traveler-dom that was generated amid all this was an act of constantly unfolding beauty. When Shom finished his PhD (remember the one it took 7 years to not do?) his friend and batchmate, who was clearly taking even the 8th year to not do, came by in the evening in a thrall of emotion. “You did it man”, he said, embracing Shom in a warm and liquid hug. “I did it”, Shom agreed, “I did it for both of us” (he, on his celebratory 3rd peg, was moist if not commensurately liquid). “You did it for both of us”, agreed the friend, his words muffled since he was kissing Shom’s ear profoundly. He then proceeded to kiss Shom 17 times, knocked off his specs in an expansive gesture, lay down on the floor and peacefully went to sleep. Shom still gets extremely sentimental when he remembers the episode… 

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 3

The day would often set  on our liquid glasses, mostly steel ones from the hostel mess, as someone put on a cassette – Kishore Kumar or Mohammed Rafi for choice. Or as some friend, more multifaceted than our gathering, burst in with the day’s campus headlines (The Vice Chancellor is doing dirty politics on that issue!… Administration is closing down Francis’s canteen because the right wingers are pressurising them!... Feminists have brought out a pamphlet against neutering campus dogs!...) 

Rohit would, in the midst of all this, insist on us appreciating how tough his life was. We’d settle down to the evening’s entertainment. He had spun two complicated and conflicting stories about why his non-work was in the state of non-progress that it was -- one for his thesis advisor and one for his family -- and with great difficulty managed that the two parties not get in touch. But his atrocious professor didn’t exactly seem to believe that there had been a theft in the house, and his Bhabhi had actually called up the friend’s house where Rohit claimed he was staying and working but obviously wasn’t…

As we grew more intoxicated, we would create our own little continents, alone or with whoever seemed to be led by the same firefly that night – a song, a joke, a grievance, a moon, a thought, a plan. One or two of us would step out for a walk. Sometimes a potential romance would peek out hopefully from behind the unmoving keekar tree. Sometimes the night would drive us to an excess of sensuous sentimental despair as Rahul recited in Bengali: “Chai go, ami tomake chai, tomake ami chai”, I want you, I want you, I want you… .

And we’d return to the room, as best described on T Shirts, Same Same But Different.

“…If you haven’t heard the Malayalam songs by Salil Choudhury, you’ve not really heard him at all”.
“Accha? In Malayalam?”

“Don’t worry about the term paper man, just give some angles”
“I’ll give angles but will he give Marx?”

 “Arre woh to poems bhi likhta hai bhai!”
“Haan, behnchod, mujhe bhi dikhayi thi! Tumhe wo ‘Individuation of the Self’ wali dikhayi?”

“Chalein? kucch grass ka jugaad hai?”
“Chalo, the dhaba will close”

 “You people don’t know with what difficulty I convinced Bhabhi that I’ve been…”

“What, drinking the midnight oil?”

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Laughter Memoirs - JNU 2

It was only at a slow and melodic pace that the JNU phenomenon called Doing My PhD revealed itself. You could see them dotted all over the campus, students Doing Their PhD… as they agreed to have a fourth cup of tea at the dhaba; conducted lavish romances on tree-lined lanes; sat in the library with UPSC study notes; explained to their Professors how ill their mother had been; argued furiously over the reservation policy, wrote pamphlets on fascism taking over the campus; or moved from hangover to intoxication with just a bun-omelette in between.

“Does it take seven years to do a PhD”, asked a wide-eyed non-JNU innocent addressing the question to Rahul, who was at that precise point on his 1st bun-omlette, 3rd tea, 4th romance, and 17th pamphlet. She addressed the question to him, quite correctly, since he was in his seventh year if you included his M Phil phase, and was utilizing the happy facility of a year’s special extension. “Does it take seven years to do a PhD”? “No”, Rahul answered with his usual gravity and exactitude, “ but it takes seven years to not do the PhD”.

I had seen some of the Not Doing close at hand. I’m sadly unable to give a first-hand account of Not Doing my own PhD since I had utilized the two years given to me for an MA in Not Doing the MA itself. So that had put paid to that. But the fascinating methods of my friends that I was privileged to observe were worth recording.

For Raju, for example, it meant buying prodigious quantities of assorted stationery and files in pink and green, in which he would Organise My Notes. When the inspiration took him, he would snatch a fresh file, a dark sketch pen and a ruler, neatly write his name on the top right corner, neatly inscribe the topic in the centre, underline it with the help of the ruler, and say NOTES in brackets beneath. Before getting on with it, however, he would be struck by the fact that since his dissertation had a contemporaneous relevance, he had thought of collecting newspaper clippings too. He would rub his hands in satisfaction – the newspaper reports were the most important resource of the lot. He would now pull out a different coloured file, write “newpaper clippings” on it, underline with a ruler and, as a considered afterthought , write his name on top.

At this point it would become obvious to him that a riot of heterogeneous news clippings in one file would be eventually catastrophic ; no work could proceed till he had made several files for different sub-topics. He would mentally recount the number of sub-topics (what a thesis this was going to be, though!) He would count the number of unused files left, and tally them with the sub-topics. The files would fall short.

It didn’t exactly feel right to start work until all the necessary tools for organizing that work were in place. He would thoughtfully pull at his beard as he compared the time it would take to walk to the stationery shop and the time left for lunch. It was inevitably too close to lunch and the project was postponed to tomorrow (there being an important dharna in the evening).

Years after I left the university, I kept meeting its PhD students in the nearby markets of Munirka or Ber Sarai. There I would be, my head full of salary complications or grocery lists, and on the horizon would emerge some just-about remembered face. Guilty at having forgotten his name, I would smile with emphasized enthusiasm and ask “kaise hain”? His answer would assume that the entire world shared the speaker’s context and concern. In just the tone you would use to reply, “Buss… badhiya hain”, or “Buss… chal raha hai”, he would say “Buss… submit kar rahe hain”.

And I would go back home happy with my phool gobhi and toilet cleaner, like someone having unexpectedly been given comfort food in a foreign land.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Travels: Time in Black and White, Shimla

There’s the Christ Church in front of me. It is a famous heritage building in Shimla, an 1857 British colonial artifact, by now quite literally a monument to time, shining with a fresh coat of paint as tourists take photographs with digital cameras in front of it. There’s the same Christ Church by my side, in the display shelf of a photo studio. This time it appears in black and white, romantically fading into a grey sky, with nothing but vast swathes of snow giving it context (sort of frozen in time, then). Further context is given by the coffee mug on which this black-and-white church presides. It’s a souvenir to be sold to tourists who come to Shimla.

For anyone who gives it a moment, and not just for a heritage-minded enthusiast, inevitably, the church-on-the-mug feels more ‘real’. The photograph hides what it carries most obviously and powerfully – appreciation of, and nostalgia created by, a black-and-white image, both for its evocation of an era long gone and its wistful beauty. It hides this seduction of black-and-white behind the form of the church (that has never been black and white in its 150 years old history, except in photographs) helping us make-believe: “this is how the church must have looked once, when it stood in solitary splendor on this now crowded ridge”.

 It won’t help at this point to be reminded that even then, 150 years back, the church was freshly painted and coloured. It won’t help to be told that this photograph is simply a black-and-white reproduction taken in an age when the church (then about 30 years old) was, in fact, a rather new church. And it would be a nearly rude shock to be informed that it has been digitally printed on hundreds of mugs, mass produced for the District Commissioner of Shimla, so they could be given to conference delegates as a memento.

Desire is stronger than fact. Not for nothing does the photo studio completely eschew selling contemporary coloured photographs of Shimla’s heritage buildings on its mugs.

A view of the Shimla Mall on a souvenir mug