How Do I Fish…

By Mitali Chakravarty, First Published in Different Truths

How do I fish? Let me count the ways.
I love to fish to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

(With due apologies to Elizabeth Barret Browning1)

Fishing is an activity that has always fascinated me.

After reading Huck Finn2, I realised the best way to meditate would be while fishing. You would put the bait in water and wait. Wait. Wait for the fish to bite. And when they bite, you would drag him or her (fishes have males and females) out and then roast them on slow fire! Or fry the creature, as my father would have recommended, in hot mustard oil after marinading it with salt and a smear of turmeric — typical Bengali cuisine! He even had that implemented at a family wedding in an air-conditioned hall without cooking or special exhaust facilities. As he was given responsibility for the menu, he wanted the very best for his beloved niece. So, the hotel staff was ordered to fry fish in mustard oil in front of the guests and serve it fresh! That the guests had to put up with gusts of smoke indoor and had streaming red eyes provided fodder for humour and very importantly, also served to imprint the wedding dinner in the minds of all the attendees. But we are not indulging in a discussion of wedding memorabilia or culinary recipes. We want to focus on fishing experiences!

In front of my house now, there is a river or a sea inlet — in Singapore most rivers are sea inlets. Now it is a freshwater reserve. They dammed the sea to collect rainwater — we have a number of them on the island. These collect not just rainwater but run offs too. I do not want to go into the water systems of Singapore but what I mean to say is, people fish there too. They stand with lines and the river is literally teeming with piscine life, turtles and otters. Sometimes you see the otters munch a whole fish. They just catch the fish with bare hands, rather paws, and have it uncooked, unsalted swimming in the river. You can hear the bones crackle as they bite. I watch some of them at play. They dive and disappear into the greenery on the opposite shore. They reappear again this time near their friends who are munching on fish. Their whiskers quiver when they eat. The latecomers try to grab the fish from him/her. The munching otters push them off and dive. The hungry bunch follows. Sometimes, the otters fight over the fish! Kingfishers and cranes too, dive down to fish. I do not know if the Brahmani kites ever eat fish, or, do they soar high to looking for mice or moles? Rodents scare me. But again, I remind myself, we were talking of fishing.

The monkeys I do not think fish. But they do occasionally swim in condominium swimming pools lining the river — like humans they prefer the privacy of clean chlorinated water to river water where monitor lizards, snakes, otters, turtles, fish live and eat. They once went into a home with open windows after a swim in an empty pool in the middle of tall stack of flats and munched on bananas on the table!

No. They definitely do not fish. But humans fish in the oddest places and postures. Sometimes, I have seen them leave their lines embedded in the sand by the sea or at an angle pitched on the shore while they sit nearby chatting with their friends or families. I have an uncle who I believe went fishing and he took lines and baits and wore a fisherman’s cap. He went, he fished, he returned home — except there were no fishes that rose to his bait!

My belief is fishes like humans are getting smarter as they evolve. While frogs continue to serenade me even in Singapore for cooking lettuce for tadpoles in China3 — that is another story where my sons told me to boil lettuce for ten minutes for the squiggly creatures they had adopted — fishes never react.  Or maybe, they have a grudge against me because I was part of a fishing crew!

Long ago, while attending a summer school in Oslo University, I was invited by one of my father’s local friends to Fevik4, a beautiful seaside town in Norway where people keep summer homes. At least, my father’s friend did. They would go there and catch fish and eat and relax over the summer. They had a toilet with a long drop that catered to all the residents of their summer cabin. Brought up with plumbing in India’s multi-layered society where homes like ours had multiple bathrooms in marble, I found living with a shared common long drop tough! But they were very kind and made the most of my quick one-night sojourn. They took me fishing. It was on a motorised boat that…

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Thy Filmdom Come…

First published in Different Truths. Click here to read…

Photo courtesy: Different Truths by Anumita

I was watching a movie — a Bollywood take on the grand Mughal emperor, Akbar1. A romantic one I guess as it was a movie about how he found acceptance in the heart of his Rajput bride, Jodha. I am not going to go into the historicity or the non-historicity of the movie or the quality of acting or music or recommend or unrecommend it to my readers, but I am going to raise another issue. An issue that is unique and practical and would hold perhaps for all stars of Bollywood, Hollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood and basically, all-wood named filmdom.

As the actor playing Akbar bent over the actress enacting Jodha to express an intense moment of meeting of hearts, as his face lowered on hers, inch by millimetre, a thought came to my mind, and I could not help but laugh out loud. If he had bad breath or body odour, what would the actress do? Would she continue for the sake of earning her daily bread or walk off the scene? Or it could be vice versa… what would the actor do if the actress had BO etc…?

You see I have this problem. When movies or serials become too long or emotional, I find my mind wander into other dimensions. As others discuss technical skills, acting and cinematography, I wander into the area of either somnolence or the ludicrous. My family gets upset for my conscious self leaves them watching the TV show or film. They grumble when after a refreshing nap on the sofa in front of the screen, while expressing my opinions in loud snores (a legacy inherited from my father), I wake up to ask them to fill me in. Or I am filled with a craving to re-watch the show. Sometimes, I have huge memory lapses and forget I have watched a film.

I am told — that is because I slept through most of it! What people do not understand is —my eyes close of their own volition! In any case…

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The Philosopher’s Stone

First published in The Thumb Print. Click here to read.

“…the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good…”

 — The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

Is it possible to change evil to good? Are we the right people to judge what is evil or good and go on a witch hunt and start a riot that disrupts lives? The words above were mouthed by a humanoid robot at the end of the novel — in a society where differences among humans persist despite technological advances. Human nature then seems similar to what it is now, though in a futuristic setting.

Recently, reading Devaki Jain’s autobiography, The Brass Notebook, made one thing clear. If you really want something, you can get it. But the desire has to be strong enough to override the feeling of having lost out because one often needs to pay a price. The other thing that is noticeable is Jain’s ability to override societal values with their judgemental outlook of good or evil, of what is acceptable and what is not. A South Indian Brahmin, born in 1933, she cast aside the patriarchal norms surrounding her to reinvent her life in the way she wanted. In the process, she was touched by many great lives and she touched many lives with her own work. She was a woman who with her convictions helped many less privileged and went on to prove that economics needed to be redefined beyond the reaches of patriarchal and colonial thought processes. 

Jain was sexually harassed a couple of times — the kind of molestation which could well be fodder for the ‘me too’ movement or for a less vocal woman, the incident could result in a feeling of being abused and losing self-worth. But she treated them as events to be merely brushed aside and moved forward to live the life she wanted — a strong woman and an influencer. The most impressive thing is that she published her autobiography after having crossed her eighties, at a point when most are obsessed with geriatric issues. Would she have been judged evil by the patriarchal society whose norms she upended? Would she be judged good by the people whose lives she changed with her open outlook and daring theories?

A woman similar to her was created by Aruna Chakravarti in her novel Suralakshmi Villa. Suralakshmi found her own groom late in life — a married irresolute man who she dumps when she finds him sexually molesting and trying to rape her ward, a young Muslim girl. She goes on to open a thriving hospital in rural Bengal and helps the less privileged. Suralakshmi would probably be living in a time parallel to Jain. Again, a strong woman not given to regrets and with the ability to brush aside smaller issues. 

One of the features that is truly inspiring about Chakravarti’s women in novels like Suralakshmi Villa and Jorasanko, her story of the Tagore family, is the strength she portrays in her women, who despite being surrounded by patriarchal values are able to stand for themselves and hold on to their sense of self-worth and independence, as seen in the character of Jain in The Brass Notebook. This is a recurring theme in Chakravarti’s short stories too, like Through the Looking Glass, where the protagonist despite being a victim of patriarchal abuse lives a life of struggle but feels like a princess near the conclusion. The “old, ugly, unloved Pomo Dasi had vanished. Rajkumari Promoda Sundari, only daughter of  Sreel Sreejukta Raja Raghobendra Chandra Rai, seventeenth in line from the Chandra Rai dynasty of Garh Bishnupur, was sporting with her companions in the royal gardens.”  

What could be this philosopher’s stone that makes a human regain their self-worth? 

(Click here to read the full essay)

The Escape

First published in Gorkha Times. Click here to read the full story.

The first time I met Isa and Lisa was when I woke up from a dream at midnight. I could not see Isa much… She faded away from my vision, a wispy, silvery-white haired child with strange light eyes. But Lisa grew vivid. She was a dark girl sitting on my bed with her braided hair looped on the sides of her head and tied with bright orange ribbons. The ribbons were made into florets. She solidified into a dark young girl of about six, wearing a bright orange cotton blouse and a stiff white and rust skirt with big floral prints. She had tawny eyes and they were tear-filled as she vehemently cried to be sent home.

Home was Lahore.

She had been there more than seventy years ago. She should have been an old woman by now. But, no, absurdly, she was a child who insisted on being a part of the story I was trying to write. I could not see her fit in, but she cried — one, to return home and, two, to be allowed into my novel.

I asked her to tell me her story. Like a spoilt child, she shook her head and refused to cooperate. I offered her a candy. She took it but did not tell me her story. Then I struck upon an idea and told her that I would help her get to Lahore if she told me a little about herself and also gave me some details of her life. Finally, I think I managed to convince her.

Lisa stopped crying. She had a small bag with her. She took out a slate and a chalk from her bag, wiped the slate and drew a picture, the picture of a two-storey house. ‘Is that your home?’

She nodded vehemently.

‘So, that is your home. How do we get there if you don’t have the address?’ I asked.

Lisa took my hand and made me touch the door of the house.

(Click here to read the full story.)

Potatoes and Chillies in the New Year

First Published in Countercurrents.org. Click here to read

“Oddly enough, it (potato) was introduced to the Himalayas by two Irishmen, captain Young of Dehra and Mussoorie and captain Kennedy of Simla, in the 1820s. The slopes of Young’s house, ‘Mullinger’, were known as his Potato Farm.  Looking up old books, I was surprised to learn that the potato wasn’t known in India before the nineteenth century, and now it’s an essential part of our diet in most parts of the country.”

— Rain in the Mountains (1993), Ruskin Bond

Potatoes thus, unified the gastronomic history of mankind as did the writer Ruskin Bond, who adopted a country that suited him and wrote of the love, kindness and warmth he found in local hearts. Or, perhaps, did the country adopt him? I do not know which would be the right perspective. The basic thing is that even chillies, which make Thai, Indian and Vietnamese cuisines not just delicious, but also add to the zest or spice of these, existed only in Latin America till 1492, when Columbus bit his first chilli! Food has actually connected the whole world together and spices have been added to create a wide array of cuisines that tempt our palates. Now potatoes grow everywhere as do chillies!

Despite the world being united by chillies and potatoes, as this year draws to a close, I am left wondering at the way humankind has got clumped into little boxes because of the mutations of a tiny virus. But if this virus is to survive, it will have to mutate to become endemic, and continue to share the Earth with man, as do other viruses. However, more than the dangers posed by the virus, the thing that really frightens me is the change in global perspectives towards foreigners and the acceptance of leadership that is questionable. The fact that the global community continues mute over the ‘annexation’ or ‘take over’ of countries by those who were considered extremists earlier is alarming. This silence does not do away with the mute suffering of the people in those regimes. I do not know if and when history will smoothen out the rough edges and give an opportunity to these challenged victims to rise up in rebellion against might and intimidation. How much will the people suffer before they speak up and rebel to come to their own? Do they even realize that some of the world, which is better off, views them as sufferers and worse off than those who totter under inequalities while servicing the privileged?

This lack of realization is something that has been written about earlier. Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) puts the muteness and unawareness of those who suffered quietly in perspective through the voice of his ancestor, an African slave called Kunta Kinte —“ It took him (Kinte) a long time, and a great many more parties,  to realise that they (his master or owner and their friends) didn’t live that way, that it was all strangely unreal, a kind of beautiful dream that the White folks were having,  a lie they were telling themselves; that goodness can come from badness, that it’s possible to be civilised with one another without treating as human beings those (slaves) whose blood, sweat and mother’s milk made possible the life of the privilege they led.”

Let me put it in further perspective. That the slave owners were ‘kind’ and ‘good’ to the slaves but would not allow them the freedom to live outside the boxes defined by their own rules which allowed the owners to treat the slaves as their personal property, was something that many of those victimised by slavery did not understand till much later. The concept of xenophobia was widespread as both the Africans and the Americans suffered from major biases rooted in colour and an inability to accept different or foreign ways of life. In Roots, Kinte was from a highly regarded and respected family in his village in Africa. To them the ‘toubab’ or the white man was as much of an alien as the Africans were to the American slave dealers, who stole and sold them as property. Do we have instances of such xenophobia and unacceptance now — long after the outlawing of apartheid and slavery ? How much have things changed in a world unified by potatoes, chillies and spices? An interesting question to ponder.

These days, when democracy takes precedence over all else (even human needs) and huge conglomerates employ many workers, social media is said to be creating an awareness among all people connected by it….

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Waiting For the Dawn

First published in SETU. Click here to read.

As I watch the setting rays smear the sky with hues of gold, red and mauve, the orange sun moves towards the darkness of night. I have been reading about another sky that had lit up with strange vibrant colours under a mushroom cloud to collapse into blackness, wrecking cities and destroying generations of humans. It had happened more than seventy-five years ago, but the residues impact the world and humans to this date. That fateful day, the Little Boy fell from Enola Gay’s womb to bring “peace”. Then, a couple of days later, there was the Fat Man…
I look at the river ripple reflecting shades of the sky and wonder why people miss out on the beauty of life and nature… Were the sky and the water any different that August in 1945? Why would we need nuclear warheads to maintain peace on Earth? Their toxicity destroyed both nature and humans. Was this the ‘peace’ that the last century leadership had brokered for us? 
Long ago there lived a man who tried to get justice as a citizen of the British empire for the unjust treatment meted out to Indians in South Africa. He was incredibly spirited. He wanted justice and he had faith in British fair-play. He returned to his own home country, India, with much fanfare for the young barrister had become a politician. 
That was in 1915. I read his biography. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. He was an ordinary man who became extraordinary to meet his need for a just world, a society where people were treated as equals. He said some good things. But was nationalism one of them? I think he wanted freedom from abuse and exploitation for all mankind.
He popularised Satyagraha. Satyagraha, to my limited understanding, is using truth to overcome violence with non-violence, through peaceful resistance and non-cooperation towards abusive laws.
An exhausted man, unhappy with the use to which his ideas were being misconstrued after his return to India, Gandhi wrote that he had made a “Himalayan miscalculation” in his autobiography, My Experiments with Truth.  This is how he described his “Himalayan miscalculation”: “A Satyagrahi obeys the laws of society intelligently and of his own free will, because he considers it to be his second duty to do so. It is only when a person has thus obeyed the laws of society scrupulously that he is in a position to judge as to which particular rules are good and just which are unjust and iniquitous. Only then does the right accrue to him to the civil disobedience of certain laws in well-defined circumstances. My error lay in my failure to observe this necessary limitation. I had called on the people to launch upon civil disobedience before they had qualified themselves for it, and this mistake seems to me to be of Himalayan magnitude.” Can this view be that of a nationalist? 
In any case, I do not understand this word – nationalist — or too many like it for ‘ists’ and ‘isms’ confuse me. I do not know much about Gandhi really or anything else. I am not a specialist….

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Wishful…

First published in Different Truths. Click here to read.

One day I woke up a silver blonde — like Steve Martin.

Almost half a century ago, I had wanted to turn into a blonde with blue eyes — I had never thought of this candy floss silver tuft. That time I also wanted to be a princess like in ‘Princess & the Pea’ or ‘The Frog Princess’ — only I did not want to kiss frogs to find my prince. Infact, I did not think of princes at all at that point.

The only time they dressed me up to be a doll-princess was for a play. I evidently needed curly hair as I was to represent a ‘mem’ or a Westerner. I remember now I slept the night before on my nose with curlers in my hair and discomfort.  I still recall the green brocade dress and long white gloves that was my costume. And my hair fell straight by the evening. Then, in the greenroom backstage, I noticed the other queens, the ministers, and the king – a polygamous one obviously as the story centred on his three queens — all had oodles of artificial jewellery. I was given none. That upset me and I refused to go on stage without some jewellery. Fair enough, in the serial, The Crown, the queen mother wears jewellery. So, why not me? Netflix did not exist then and neither did the soap! But ultimately, the director did understand my logic and got my message. No jewellery, no performance from the mem rani. Finally, they gave in. I was given some pearl strings so that I would go on stage. And then, I complied gracefully and with docility.

In my late teens, I wanted frizzy hair — my hair was as straight as pine needles. I slept with hairpins on at night in an attempt to have the frizzled look, combed my hair backward — tried all kinds of things, but again in a couple of hours my hair fell straight. I was pretty much in the predicament of the sage who tried to wear his pigtail before him, as described by William Makepeace Thackeray*.

There lived a sage in days of yore,
And he a handsome pigtail wore;
But wondered much and sorrowed more
Because it hung behind him.

He mused upon this curious case,
And swore he'd change the pigtail's place,
And have it hanging at his face,
Not dangling there behind him.

Said he, “The mystery I've found,
I'll turn me round.”
He turned him round;
But still it hung behind him.

The poem is a long one. I only share a bit to give you the gist of my feeling, my longing for frizzy hair. Just like the sage could not move his pigtail, I could not develop a frizz!

As I touched my twenties, I wanted jet black hair…

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The India I loved

First published in Countercurrents on 28/1/2021. Click here to read in full.

kitnaa hai badnasiib zafar dafan ke liye

do gaz zamiin bhii na milii kuu-e-yaar men

Exiled in Rangoon in the colonial British India, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar wrote these lines, which expresses regret for the fact that he was not allowed a burial in his own beloved country. Used emblematically as the figurehead for the 1857 revolt, he was the last occupant of Red Fort. He was born of a syncretic marriage between a Mughal ruler and a Hindu Rajput princess.

The Red Fort has always been an iconic location for events that determined historical overtures that led to different movements in India — some that heightened oppression, as in the condemnation of Bahadurshah Zafar, and some that lightened oppression like the trial of the INA officers in 1945 which led to nationwide unrests and finally to an overthrow of colonialism. The Red Fort, historically, hosted not only the Mughals but also King George and Queen Mary in 1911, Nehru as the first premier, and then a host of politicians who used the iconic backdrop to reinforce the existence of a syncretic, multicultural India. It was so iconic that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, when he initiated the ‘Chalo Dilli’ movement, wanted his troops to march to Red Fort. Three of his men hung from there and their death rode on a wave of nationalist sentiments that upheaved a new India.

I remember as a child watching not just the Independence Day speeches from the ramparts of Red Fort, but also visiting the monument. In recent years, we have revisited the fort. It has enabled us to bring history alive for our children, to show them how the river flowed right next to the fort, how unique was the history of a people which could home Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb in the same family — both brothers but different in their outlook. What made one tolerant and one intolerant? That is what history shows. Avik Chanda’s book called Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would be King shows prince Dara as a man — not just an ideal. The book would have drawn sympathy for young Aurangzeb as a neglected sibling if the emperor’s cruelty had not been recorded. The cruelties highlight the monstrosities of an intolerant ruler. But one wonders at the end of the book, if his elder intellectual liberal brother Dara Shukoh, who was contemptuous of conservatives and ulemas, would have been tolerant of divergent views? Are we falling into a trap reminiscent of intolerance when we condemn people who think differently…

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From my Diary: On the Advent of 2022

31/12/2021

As the last hours fade into darkness, waiting for the world to wake up to the dawn of 2022, a sense of optimism fills my being. What will the dawn of the new year bring? What will it be like?

However awful the past, however sad have been our losses, each year moves forward towards a new time we know nothing about. Not knowing can be seen as frightening or as hopeful. I choose to be with the latter. The current trends show that the virus might turn benign. Slowly and perhaps, warily, we will start taking baby steps towards a new normal. 

While we mourn the past, we continue to move forward to live in the present. The future unfurls out of the present. Our actions now will define the world for posterity. Will we survive creating new norms where we will adapt to live, perhaps, on the ocean? 

Midnight, 2021-2022
Happy New Year 🎉


The moment of magic 
starts as the old 
turns to new, a poem 
slips out of words

exploding like fireworks
at midnight as we wait
sleepy-eyed for the 
golden dawn of the 

first morn of the year.
The day gives life to yet
another fresh-born, 
washed clean by 

the downpour that 
accompanied the birth. 
How much hope each infant brings! 
How much hope each new-fledged year weaves!  
1/1/2022

The day has dawned bright and clear. I am convinced this year will unfold with much goodwill and string the world together with hope and happiness. I can hear birdsongs from the trees outside my home. The river runs turbid from last night’s rain but it will clear as the mud settles just as I hope the pandemic calms to an endemic this year.

Earlier barbarism was an accepted way of life. We moved from that to a more humanist stance. At this point, we can hope that people who faced violations and violence due to political upheaves in the past, will rise like a tide to move into better times. Climate change to an extent will force us to take steps to live in harmony with the planet. Then, there will be those who, over time, will find ways to extend our frontiers into outer-space and create new biomes for humankind making it cost effective enough over time to make it affordable for all. 

The rains and storms will continue to come and go as will the changes that dot civilisations’ development over the years. The word future itself hovers in uncertainties and fills one with dreams that stretch out unfurling a plethora of images. It is for us to pick the scenarios we favour and move towards those. If selling dread brings money, selling hope brings good cheer and happiness.

Let us choose and choose wisely so that we can leave a better world for posterity.

New year is the time to make resolutions. We have a fresh chance. Let’s swing it beyond just carpe diem and give the future a gift of goodwill.

Happy New Year — 2022!

— Mitali Chakravarty

Hope in 2021

This year has come to an end.

It barely seems to have started — there were no movements. We stayed indoors the whole year. The otters disappeared from the waterfront in front of our home just as the planes seem to have disappeared from the skies. I do not like being sad over anything. 

Much that is good has happened to me and mine though we have not been left unscarred by the deadly virus. The sadness of mankind tinges our existence. We live on an island but we cannot live in a bubble. The world stretches out its grief to us, its terror to us in pandemic proportions. Does the bug of sadness bite us? It does. 

Honestly from my heart it is difficult to celebrate against the misery that seems to have brought many to a halt. The misery of disease, death coupled with the inability to touch physically another human. It is all terrifying. Almost as if Asimov’s vision of Solaria is coming to life. And then there are wars over boundaries, hatred, anguish and anger. A very bleak scenario if we start listing, even if some of the issues have started moving towards  more hopeful outcomes with vaccines and the turn of world events.

Darkness is deepest just before dawn wipes away the blackness with its dappled touch. Maybe the rays of the new sunrise of the first day of the New Year will herald better times. 

I look outside my window at the clear skies, the sunshine and the golden orioles flying; the parakeets chattering and moving in flocks from tree to tree by the quietly flowing river and I feel maybe things will fall into place. Not in the way we knew it but in a new way. 

Maybe it is time for a fresh start, a new world, a new dawn and a new year. With that I wish you all a smoother journey in the New Year towards a happier world.