Looking for lions

One sunny day, we went to look for lions in Kruger National Park in South Africa. We spotted zebras, giraffes, a leopard, a rhinoceros, elephants, hippopotamuses, baboons, impalas, kudus, a variety of birds and more fawns and monkeys and even, warthogs and crocodiles…but not the elusive king of beasts.

We heard four lions had escaped from Kruger during our sojourn. But did we meet any of them?

I think I heard them at midnight as I woke up to the sounds of roars in my hotel room at Kruger gate.

My elder son and our guide heard them too around six in the morning when they were queuing up for tickets to enter Kruger. We had to buy a permit every time we went into Kruger. As lions are supposed to be more likely to be visible in the small hours of the morning, we decided to enter as soon as the gates opened at 6.30 am. The rangers had said the lions were at the bridge in the hedges.

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Lioness stalking it’s prey

We saw a lioness stalking her meal of water bucks around mid-day. Unfortunately, the waterbucks had sixth sense and walked gracefully to the other side of the waterhole, leaving the lioness hungry and lonely. She ultimately disappeared into the bushes.

On our last day, we saw three lionesses basking in the sun on a sand bank mid-morning. We were so excited that we got off the car and stood on the bridge watching them! Getting out of the vehicle is not something one does in Kruger for one could frighten the animals or become a prey to them incase they are hungry and starved, though they are supposed to be rather averse to human meat.

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Male Impalas

Impalas are popular on the menu for predators. We spotted a leopard stalking a herd of impalas. A drongo let out a warning cry and alerted the impalas. The males stood alert looking out in all directions for the leopard. The leopard was cornered. Our guide told us a leopard is wary of the male impala’s antlers, which could well injure them, thus, retarding their ability to hunt. And if they were not able to hunt, they would starve and die. The leopard tried to go into hiding in the bushes but the impalas got the better of him. Four males with big antlers stood facing him as at least twenty to thirty female and young impalas walked gracefully away… There was no running, no chasing, no roaring… none of the excitement we had thought would be a part of our jungle adventure.

Though we did not see predators chase preys, we did see impalas and wildebeests chase each other in play and we did get chased by angry elephants a couple of times.

Animals by and large liked to cross roads that were made for men to drive on in Kruger. We saw zebras crossing, impalas crossing, monkeys crossing, kudus crossing, wildebeests  crossings rhino crossing… and, we thought, therefore, as a matter of course elephants crossing…

The first time the elephant that was headed for the road got angered when my thirteen-year-old shouted for excitement on seeing a bull come towards the road and the car. Our windows were open. His voice carried and the elephant headed for us and our guide started the car and headed for the far distant reaches…

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An angry elephant

The second time, we queued up with a number of cars to watch a herd cross the road. The big ones crossed. The little ones crossed. The medium ones crossed. But, the biggest one had yet to cross. We were all watching one young elephant that seemed to have turned berserk and rushed every now and then to the road and trumpeted. We wondered what was up? We also wondered what had happened to the biggest one till our guide saw a huge, angry elephant charging towards the car in his rear view mirror as the vehicle was in it’s path. The big bright red object was not an obstruction the giant elephant cared for and she would have it out of her way…Suddenly with a strange purr, the frightened red object ran off at full speed!

The elephant crossed the road and passing cars heaved a sigh of relief and congratulated us on our lucky escape!

Why this sole elephant decided to cross the road where we had parked is an issue on which we still need to ponder and wonder…

One of the best ways for spotting animals in Kruger is to stop where there is a crowd of cars. That is how we spotted our lions, the elephant herds, giraffes and zebras…and a number of other sightings. And our car started the crowding for the leopard that my husband had found stalking the impalas. Other cars followed to watch the drama. In Kruger, humans stay in car cages and view the animals that roam freely. Sometimes, the animals walk right by your car. Occasionally, they walk with your car. Birds hop by. Once a flock Guinea fowls crossing the road held up traffic! Sometimes, it is monkeys…I recall how vehicles containing humans drew to a halt when some baby monkeys decided to play a game of hopscotch in the middle of the road!

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Calf drinking milk

Another time, we paused as not only were elephants meandering all over but also a calf had decided to drink milk from his/her mamma in the middle of a jungle path. Cars waited patiently as the animal finished it’s feed and frisked off merrily behind his/her mother.

Though we spent two-and-a-half days looking for lions in Kruger, we saw very less of the park as it stretches over an area that could contain more than 27 Singapores, and beyond to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Limpopo river. We only saw the part around Sabi River and drove out ultimately through the South Gate, close to Nelspruit. The land rolled out for miles beckoning animal lovers. It was relaxing and entertaining to watch crocodiles with their mouth open, waiting for their dinner at the water holes, hippopotamuses stroll into a stream and giraffes munch leaves in the afternoon sun. We even caught two young hippos play and splash water at each other.

A variety of eagles, vultures and birds dotted the landscape. At lunch, we were surprised by a Cape glossy starling waiting for crumbs. At dinner, outside Kruger gate, we had a night visitor from the park, a bush baby. It created a stir among the tourists. It did a round of the Lapa barbecue area and we were all taking pictures of it. Cute would be the right word for this exhibitionist! The next day, we had a picnic breakfast at a hilltop in Kruger and had a yellow-billed hornbill visit us. It even posed for our cameras…

There are many lakes, waterholes and hills. The part that edges Mozambique is very scenic. We saw the Orpen Dam with its lush vegetation, the South African blue crane, Egyptian geese, hippos and crocodiles. We watched the animal and bird life through binoculars as they were unreachable and far…

But we had still not seen a lion. The land with its unique vegetation and animal life concealed the king from us.

I was also wondering if humans had ever inhabited this vast landscape or had it always been home of only animals? There were no clear answers till I googled …The land had earlier belonged to the Tsonga people, who were evicted by Paul Kruger, the president of the Transvaal Republic between 1883 and 1900 and other nature park lovers. The first cars drove into Kruger in 1926. Paul Kruger played a heroic role in the Boer wars and left the country when the Boers faced defeat in the hands of the British in the 1900s. He died in 1904 and was brought back to South Africa to be given a hero’s funeral and buried in Pretoria.

I wonder what happened to the Tsonga people…Perhaps the lions that evaded us through our entire sojourn in Kruger could tell us…

Maybe the lions in Kruger National Park avoided us because we had seen a lion behind a caging of electric wires in the Lion Safari in Johannesburg. That time, we had got off the car on the way to the Cradle of Humankind and the lion was fenced…We did not explore the park as we wanted to experience the wilds in Kruger…instead we went to see the goldmines and were taken around by a Tsonga guide. She told us that her name meant ‘to give’ in Tsonga!

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The caged lion

 

 

In Quest of a Home…

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My home is anywhere under the blue skies. I enjoy drifting like a cloud, exploring the world and in my thoughts the outer space. I see no boundaries… no limits in space or time…no barriers of cultures, language, religion or politics…

However, when recently a friend asked me why I was not contributing to develop my home…the place whose language I use as my mother tongue and where my ancestors had paused for a considerable period of time, I grew defensive instinctively. I tried to condense my life… Then, I started to say that I believe in mankind and not borders…and therefore lacked a need to belong or to be tied down to a region. I explained I try to help people in need wherever they are irrespective of borders. I see myself as a citizen of the world, a term coined by my fourteen-year-old more than half a decade ago…

The simple answer would have been do I consider the place my home…? I have never lived there. My great grandfather moved out… and none of his children returned to the region, leave alone his grand children… his ancestors had lived there for probably a little less than one and a half centuries. Before that, they were in an area that now belongs to another country…The first time I visited the city for a few days was when I was sixteen. Subsequently, I have visited the town a number of times because I really like the place. The issue now is that for the last twenty-five years, I have not even lived in the country I was born. For, more than the last couple of decades I have been roaming the world. I have lived in a number of countries, including China…

And yet stories are made and songs are sung to glorify Man’s homing instinct. John Denver’s song… Country road take me home to the place I belong…is a song I liked all along… but perhaps I like it for the ‘blue ridge mountains’ and the ‘… river’, for ‘the misty taste of moonshine’… I am not quite sure…

I love L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, again a story that centres on the protagonist Dorothy’s need to return home. I almost wept when Dorothy after her adventures in the land of Oz clicked her magic shoe clad feet and repeated, “There is no place like home. There is no place like home…” and she was magicked back to her home in Kansas…to the farm…and to aunty Em…Dorothy’s whole adventure took place because she wanted to return home from where she had been deposited by a swirling tornado, in the wonderful Land of Oz with it’s rainbow, Emerald Palace and magical creatures…

Analysing my tendencies, I would probably have continued in the Land of Oz like the wizard, who could not leave because the balloon did not take off…yet the story is about Dorothy and not the wizard…

There is something magical about visiting unexplored lands, a kind of promise that opens new horizons for the mind and heart. I loved reading the travels of Marco Polo, even though it may have had it’s biases. Tagore has a song that says  “kothao amar hariye java neyi mana, mone, mone…” ( “I can lose myself anywhere in my mind…”).

…And I do find myself getting lost in the mists of time when I read Marco Polo. Those days they wandered in search of trade through so many lands fraught with so many dangers. Then, at some point Marco returned home facing more adventures, weaving more fantasies (he talks of unicorns the size of elephants, cannibals and men with tails!). Despite his wonderful adventures he returned home, first to be imprisoned, then to become a merchant. But, what endears him to the world is the retelling of his marvelous adventures by his co-prisoner Rustichello da Pisa…

Sometimes, I wonder if all our ancestors had returned to their home, like Dorothy and Marco Polo, where would we all be? In the heart of Africa where mankind originated, where Lucy danced in the wilds? And how many people would the continent support? If we also retained our original culture and homes, what would we be like?

Perhaps, that is why this summer I am off to find answers to these questions in the rolling plains of Savannah grasslands that beckon me with the lure of endless mysteries… I am off to explore the part of the landmass where our ancestors originated…

The land that was first populated by man rolls out an invitation to explore why we all did not return home or why we developed other parts of the world which we spread out to populate over centuries and millenniums…and not our original home…

 

 

 

Babel

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People started using a language to communicate at some point in history…They say about a 100000 years ago… could be more… some say 200,000 years ago… Intellectuals and scientists are still trying to figure out that one.

Linguists continue to cogitate and have agitated arguments over the issue of the evolution of the first language. But the point is, they can argue because language and words evolved and they exist. And it is a fact that language is what has separated humans from the birds, bees, lions, tigers, apes, fishes, crabs, whales, dolphins, elephants and Neanderthals. These creatures communicate too (or communicated too, in case of Neanderthals) with grunts, tunes, trills, gestures, dances and notes; but none of them can (or could) talk or communicate in ways as complex as humans.

Neanderthals evidently had the tools in them to talk, but were too primitive to develop speech, which ultimately fell into the forte of our ancestors, the homo sapiens, who evolved somewhere in Central Africa.

Sometimes, I wonder if the famed Ethiopian Lucy of the Australopithecus family called out to her beloved in words or grunts or notes? She has been much celebrated with words by not only intellectuals but also by songsters like Beatles and Elton John. And yet, perhaps 3.2 million years ago, did she speak? Would she be able to understand the serenades for her?

Would she be able to comprehend any of the modern languages we use today? Can you believe that currently there are more than 5,000 languages in the world?! It might seem an astounding figure, especially compared to Lucy’s times, but from a handful of people, the human family has to grown 7,500,000,000 large… quite a leap from Lucy’s lifetime, I believe!

At some point the first language must have started with grunts coming out of descendants of Lucy, the first men and women that lived in Africa and, eventually, in their progeny who walked out of Africa to create homes all over the world. We, the progeny of these walkers, now speak in complex sentences, using varied words in varied languages that probably our early ancestors would have found impossible to comprehend.

Languages, like their users, tend to run into each other. They share some words or some word roots in common. They could all exist in harmony and learn from each other if they did not join their users in a rat race to prove themselves superior or the most spoken. With a cutthroat cultural race among different nations and states, languages have become a commodity. Politicians use it to prove their prowess and power. Some languages have been wiped completely off from the surface of the Earth by invaders and rulers or sneers from people who considered them inferior. Some of the power brokers ironed out the differences among people who lived under their protection by ironing out their language and uniting them under the banner of one language that they called the national language.

Today, when a person speaks, he is immediately classified into a nationality, a class, a creed, a culture and a region. Henry Higgins of Pygmalion (play by G.B. Shaw, 1913) and My Fair Lady (Hollywood adaptation of Pygmalion) fame created more than a century ago made a pertinent observation on this issue. He says,

an Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him: the moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him...

We can apply this well in the context of  the spoken word, not just for English speakers or ‘an Englishman’ as he says, but for speakers of all languages. The minute we open our mouth, we are labeled.

There are people who frown on users of languages they consider spoken or used by hostile groups. But one just wonders, is it the fault of the language or the users? We associate the power of words with the negative impact the users have made on society…much like we associate the power of the atom with the devastation caused by the nuclear bomb.

Then, there is the case of mother tongue… when you do not speak, read or write it, people among your family and friends often frown… I have always wondered why? Perhaps, because of the theory that says language evolved from mother tongue, that is the sounds used by the mother to communicate with the baby… then it must have been in an arboreal environment… now, we do it in more than 5000 different ways! And yet, in this long linguistic list missing is the original mother tongue of all mother tongues that evolved in Africa 100,000 or 200,000 years ago! We do not even know what the language is…

Our research of speech starts with the written words. The oldest known written language is Egyptian or is it Sumerian…? I am confused! Logically, there must have been something they spoke before they built palaces and homes… and that would be the mother tongue of all the human race. That is what we all would be speaking if we went by tradition and culture…that is what our ancient ancestors spoke when they walked out to populate the beautiful green Earth. And that is what we have lost to the dusts of time…

Now the babel of more than 5000 languages have become sources of unhappy divisions instead of a means to communicate to make our own lives easier and happier. I wonder, how our great (to the power a hundred and twenty thousand generations or more) grandmother, the celebrated Lucy, would react to this medley of words …

 

To shave or not to shave?

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Many hundreds of years ago, the fictitious Hamlet was given these famed lines to cogitate over by the bard that gave him life, Shakespeare,

 

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

 

Hamlet was agitated over his fate. And I stand agitated over the fuzz I see growing on my son’s face. So, these are lines I dedicate to all the men who think the unkempt, unshaven look makes them appear macho… or men who are just too lazy to shave!

 

To shave or not shave… that is the question…

Whether it is nobler in the face to suffer

The pricks of fuzzy growth,

Or to take arms against a sea of hair,

And by shaving end them?

 

It has become my sorrow to see my twenty-year-old son’s handsome face concealed by a hairy outcropping most days of the week. When I tell him to shave, he grunts, and it rarely gets done…

And yet, I remember a long, long time ago, when my son was three-years-old and he had lovely smooth skin, he jumped with delight to see his father shave. He wanted so much to shave on a daily basis that he tried it on his own soft cheeks… luckily we caught him before any disaster struck. I occasionally try to revive his interest in shaving by recalling this incident. But, he just walks out saying,” Mamma!” in a tone laced with embarrassment and reprimand!

My friend had better luck with her seventeen-year-old. She whispered to him that he looked like an unkempt terrorist with his fungal growth. He went to the bathroom and came back clean-shaven.

I tried the same with my son…It failed.

When he was a child, I remember reading to him from a book called the Thingummajigs Book of Manners. In that book Thingummajigs were described as creatures with beards and long hair who rarely bathed and had very bad manners. It was in verse with colourful pictures of these creatures. He even enjoyed reading it himself. And he was so convinced by the book that he used to wonder if every long haired and unshaven man was a Thingummajig. We had to keep telling him they were not.

Then, there were the Twits, created by Roald Dahl, where the husband has mice, stale food and all kinds of filthy things in his unkempt facial hirsute outcropping! A book which all of us enjoyed and I would have thought it would have impacted my son for life…to shave regularly…But in vain!

And now he talks of Movember. That has become a reason not to shave… in May?! I googled Movember…It happens only every November… Actually Movember is about growing a nice, neat, trimmed, well-shaped moustache in the month of November to “change the face of men’s health”.

I, personally, cannot empathize with a moustache either…

I, like Tennyson, would like to mourn. He mourned the loss of his friend, Arthur Hallum, and I weep for the loss of the smooth, clean cheeks of my twenty-year-old. With due apologies to Tennyson’s poetic genius, I adapt his famous concluding lines from Break, Break, Break to express the sorrow of parting with my son’s smooth cheeks…

 

Shave, shave, shave

         At the root of thy beard, O Son!

But the tender face of the past that is gone

         Will never come back to me.

 

 

Book Review

Title: Me and I

(ISBN 978-93-5195-188-9)

Author: Nabendu Ghosh (written in Bengali in 2003)

Translator: Devottam Sengupta ( translated in 2017)

 

Me and I is a science fiction set in Calcutta, exploring the concept of Earth’s twin in the universe. It was written by Nabendu Ghosh for his two grandsons in Bengali, and then translated by one of them as part of his centenary celebrations. The translator, Devottam Ghosh, is a lawyer by profession.

I enjoyed the book. It is an ideal read from eight to eighty, a story well told. The protagonist Mukul has a twin in the planet that is Earth’s mirror image. His parallel is known as Lukum and Earth is spelt as Threa.

The explanation is given by an eccentric gentleman, Professor Noni Gopal Sinha,who is Mukul’s friend and mentor on Earth.

“They’re both, opposite yet identical. Mirror images, really. Just as there are a couple of hundred twins among a million people, similarly I’m sure you can find a twin — identical yet opposite — planets among the billions that exist out there.”

So, it is an inverse parallel universe which is dwelt on briefly as the story unfolds.

The story has multiple layers. On the surface, it is a story for children… a nineteen-year-old boy’s adventure with an alien in outer space. It has been woven very well into the fabric of Indian life. Perspectives on religion, science, society, countries and cultures are layered into the folds of the story. It explores the environment that leads to creativity and the environment that does not. An ideal needs to be somewhere in the middle… perhaps… a point for the reader to ponder…

The book has well-researched scientific facts… on different theories of the universe. Though the author, Nabendu Ghosh, says that he would like “to classify this flight of imagination as a ‘modern(or contemporary) fairy tale’”, it touches upon Einstien’s ideas on gravitational waves and theory of relativity. It dwells upon travel at the speed of light and it’s impact on humans.

A surprising novel from a writer of stories linked to social reforms…but then, one wonders at the end that has the author not made you think again of larger issues that are relevant even in the twenty first century…

Perhaps, because Nabendu Ghosh was into writing for films, this book is very visual and would make for an excellent movie. I can visualise the whole scenario as I read the book…

May we then expect a Tollywood(Bengali movie) version of Me and I in the near future?

Beyond Abhinav Imroz…

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Abhinav Imroz was an established figure in media by the time I met him in the 1990s. I was a student in Delhi University… and he was a celebrity…tall, lanky, hair streaked with grey and with a tremendous stage presence…

He had just been hailed as the man of the year by the Time magazine and had got an award for his autobiography. We had seen his picture on posters that lined the university but had not managed to get our hands on the magazine or his book. So, the curiosity remained… we wanted to know more…

He was an actor, an entrepreneur and a writer! All very impressive… he had been invited to talk to us on his life and experiences by the Film Club in the university. I was a member of the Film Club… I sat in the front row and waited for him to start.

He started to talk in a deep resonating voice, the kind that dreams are made of…

“I was born in what is known as Pakistan now, in the 1940s, prior to Partition. My earliest memories are of my parents in Lahore. I remember flying a kite with my father on the rooftop. I remember singing a song with my mother on the piano… I remember playing with our old help, a thin devout man who carried me in his heart and lap… I went around in a phaeton that my father maintained… but I have forgotten what my father was called and where I lived exactly… I have forgotten what my faith was… I have forgotten what my own real name was…”

“For, I was only three years old when my parents left their ancestral home, as far as I have been told…and made a run for India with me… I remember still the haunting fear when I heard the shout of the mob that attacked our home… The little man, who took care of me and prayed ever so often sitting on a mat, was pushed and thrown aside when he tried to shut the door on the mob. My parents and I watched from behind a bush outside in the garden and made a run for India with what we had on us. I remember my mother crying as the house was set aflame…”

“The next thing I remember was the stench in the refugee camp and then, I heard, my parents died. I was put in a bus and sent to an orphanage in India, where I was so unhappy that I ran away… I slipped out of the gate one morning and no one noticed… maybe, they looked for me… The security guard was sleeping in his chair when I ran out. I was a little fellow and there were so many on the street like me that I could lose myself completely… And, then I found myself… I have polished shoes, carried loads and I managed to survive. But, I wanted more from life. When I was probably ten, I enrolled myself in a night school and learnt to read and write…Everyone called me Bittoo then…”

“In 1965, when I registered for my higher secondary exam, I gave my name as Abhinav Imroz. I had decided that I would carve out a new future for myself. I worked and studied till I finished my graduation. It was a hard existence. Then I went and joined the film industry… when I made enough money as an actor, I bought a press and started printing a magazine, then a daily… I started writing… most of my writing talks of a world beyond borders… a new day where we will not lose ourselves in petty violence over borders drawn by politicians… I call myself Abhinav, which means new in Hindi, the national language of India. And Imroz, which means today in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan. I see myself as someone who believes in God, in all faiths, all religions, all cultures…. which are all but colours of a rainbow… and yet we fight, and yet we strive for borders that kill… my parents were killed as were and are millions like them…”

“Pakistan evolved when prior to what is called our Independence, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer, drew a line through the homes and hearts of families in the Indian subcontinent. Divide and rule, a colonial weapon to maintain supremacy of the ruler had at last struck the hearts and hearths of millions, who were killed crossing borders. Radcliffe justified the casual division by saying that no matter what he did, people would suffer. He also admitted he fell sick in India and was eager to leave the country. The line that was drawn by Radcliffe was a need for the ‘leaders’ who took over the reigns of the governments from the departing colonial power, not for the common man.”

I still remember as he paused to take a sip of water, the resounding claps that filled the auditorium. I still have his speech in my college album. The editor of our college magazine recorded the words and then wrote it down for all of us to read….

He continued with his speech… He spoke of his successes in the film industry and as a newspaper magnate. He spoke of the role of arts and literature in the current day world. He spoke of the needs of our times and how his book reflected on all the things that had made him. Oh, he was fabulous! He rose before us like a giant of our times…

Most of us were fascinated by his life… We were so inspired that I wanted to do project with street children… there could be more like him, with his potential … who knows? Suresh, an economics major student and the president of the Film Club, thought it was a great idea. But, the others from the club said that we should do something that had something to do with filmmaking. They wanted to try make a short movie about his life…not a documentary but a story based on his life…We had all completed our final year and were awaiting our results. We had the time to fiddle around with something new. Suresh said we could take up my idea later but it would be fun to make the film together as we would soon part ways.

Everyone agreed, especially as Pran, a postgraduate student of media studies, said, he had an uncle in Doordarshan, the national channel, and he would check if they could help us.

Some of us made an appointment with Abhinav Imroz and went to meet him after our final exams. I was one of the lucky people to be included… we wanted more details… He had asked us to go to his office. The building was a skyscraper owned by him. He told us to read his Memoirs to get a more detailed account… that was the book that got him his Booker prize…

To say I read the book would be an understatement…I gorged it… he was kind enough to give us an autographed copy which we all shared.

I wanted to hold on to the book but finally Pran got to keep it.

Pran’s uncle, Mr. Das, was fascinated by the story… He asked us if we had made anything of it…

Suresh had already started trying to dramatise it. I was helping him. We had bought another copy of the book and partly written our own script. But, I still wanted the original copy with the dedication to the film club. I do not know why but I was desperate for it…

Suresh and I were working day and night on the script together. Mr. Das approved it and allowed us to continue helping. He even paid us for our story. He took the book from his nephew, read it and returned it to him. Pran thought he was entitled to hold on to the copy as he had helped the film society gain experience with professionals! He refused to exchange it with me. He said, “You can get your copy autographed again.”

“It is not the same thing,” I said. “That is dedicated originally by Abhinav Imroz himself to the Film Club. This would be only to me.”

“We are all part of the Film Club. Why would you have more right to the book than me?” responded Pran.

I had no answer.

The time had come for auditions for the teleplay and then, in walked Ambar. Ambar was cast as Abhinav Imroz in the teleplay. He was tall, curly haired, fair with grey eyes and a red mouth. He reminded me of Michelangelo’s David… His delivery was amazing. For me, he brought to life the great Abhinav Imroz… Wow! I loved the voice… it sounded the same as that of the man he portrayed, the man whose ideas on harmony and a borderless world won me over for life…

I hung on Ambar’s words. When he was around, I had eyes only for him. I was hoping he would notice me. I had a minor role, as there were very few major roles for women. Abhinav Imroz had never married… He said in his Memoirs that there were enough children in the world, who needed homes, and he had created such a home for five or six of them. They were orphans like him of unknown faith and parentage. As they grew up and launched into the world on their own, he would take in new comers. They lived with him in a palatial home and were put through good schooling and university. The children in return loved him like a father. No one knew any scandals about him.

To me, he was perfection… and Ambar portrayed that perfection!

Everytime Ambar walked into the room, my heart beat fast and I felt the blood rush into my head if he turned or spoke to me. Pran teased me about it.

“You have a crush on Ambar, Sheila!” he said as he watched me blush and stammer when Ambar spoke to me. Suresh had been asking me out after we finished out exams. I avoided him and stared at and dreamt of Ambar.

Geeta, who played a grown up Muslim girl brought up by Abhinav Imroz warned me, “Sheila, Ambar and Abhinav are different… Ambar is a rich man’s son who is aiming to make it big in the glamorous movie world… you are socially aware person who wants to make things better in this world. You think about others’ welfare and a better future for the world… Do you think the two can meet?”

I was angry and irritated by the warning. “You know nothing about me or Ambar. Then why do you say bad things about him?”

Geeta looked shocked at my outburst and said, “I am sorry I meant no offence.”

Suresh looked dejected, “I do not know where we are headed with this film,” he mused. “But after this is over, I have to apply to the law school for my masters. Maybe, we should not have attempted this… it is eating into our time…” Like me, he had a minor role.

I was defensive about the film. “It will be a great film that promotes racial harmony, maybe something like Amrita Pritam’s book, Pinjar.”

Suresh shrugged and tried his luck, “Want to go for coffee after the shoot?” he asked me.

“Let’s all go,” I said and called out, “Ambar, do you want to go for coffee after the shoot?”

Ambar shrugged his shoulders and agreed.

As we all went into the cafe, a little child in rags came and asked for money to buy food. Just as I was taking out a ten rupees note, Ambar shooed off the child, “Bloody beggar! They just have nothing better to do!” I was a bit surprised but still he was Ambar, the great actor who understood Abhinav Imroz and played him to perfection.

I dreamt of dating him… but he never asked…

I found a seat next to him in the cafe and tried to start a conversation. I asked him what he thought of Abhinav Imroz, “Great guy!” he said. “Self-made and all that… Has made a lot of money… I want that too…money… my father has lots… He has promised to let me try my luck at Bollywood. He can fund me all my life. But one needs more… you know… and I like the idea of being a famous star! Abhinav, of course, great guy too! Is loaded…!”

He finished his coffee and said, “I am off… have a babe to meet at the bar across the street…Bye guys.”

Everybody said his or her goodbyes to him.

Suresh walked me to the bus stop. He asked me, “Should I drop you home? It is starting to get dark.”

“No. I can manage,” was my irritated response.

The day the film was being screened on television, we asked Abhinav Imroz to a little party we had organized in a hotel for the cast and crew… The party was in the evening, after the screening. We watched the telefilm in the ballroom of the hotel on a large television screen. Mr Imroz was aked to give a little speech. He thanked all of us for the great job we did and especially Ambar. Ambar was elated! He was on cloud nine. He drank glass after glass of champagne. Abhinav Imroz was a teetotaler.

After quite a few drinks, when Ambar seemed to head for the dance floor, I ran after him and asked him to dance with me. He agreed. It was a slow number. I felt uncomfortable as he held me tight. He smelt of alcohol and cigarette smoke. I discovered I did not like that much. He started groping… I tried to move away… I was embarrassed… No. This was not the way it should go, I thought. He was supposed to be respectful and decent. He was like Abhinav Imroz… Ambar moved closer and tried to press his body against mine!

Suddenly, I found myself facing Suresh. Suresh had tapped Ambar on the shoulder and Ambar was dancing with another girl, who he was holding close and groping now… looked like it did not matter who was at the receiving end, as long as the body was that of a female!

I felt sick at the pit of my stomach… I think it showed for Suresh asked me if he should take me home. I nodded.

On the way he told me that Abhinav Imroz had left after the speech, pleading a prior appointment.

I was sorely disappointed with the actor who portrayed him. Ambar was definitely not like Abhinav Imroz! Maybe Geeta was right…

Suresh was very kind and did not speak about it. He just dropped me home and left.

The next week, Suresh called up and told me he had made an appointment with Mr Imroz to thank him and to propose the project we had discussed earlier to help street children, the one that I proposed to the Film Club before we started on the film venture. My short-lived adulation for Ambar had distracted me from it through the movie making period… I was amazed that Suresh had remembered and pushed it through! Pran and the others had started working and had no time for the project, so only Suresh and I went to meet him.

We went by an auto rickshaw to his house. It was a huge house. We entered. I felt intimidated by the sheer size, though I must say the decor was tasteful and not opulent. A man in a white uniform showed us into the drawing room. Suresh settled down on the sofa with the newspaper. We were still a little awkward with each other after he rescued me from Ambar. I looked around. There were books lining a wall. I walked to the shelf and was looking at the titles when again that voice rang out,

“Hello, both of you… I am afraid I have forgotten your names again.”

We reintroduced ourselves and started thanking him for allowing us to make the film and being there for the telecast, when he said, “You do not need to thank me. You did a good job with the script and the film. I should be thanking you. But I have another appointment in a little while. So, I would really like to hear your proposal for helping the street children.”

Suresh told him our ideas. I joined them in the discussion. He promised to fund us if we turned up with a written project proposal.

Suresh and I were again at work together. I had to do most of the work as Suresh was preparing for his entrance exam in law. We were together very often. I noticed how kind Suresh was to me. He formed a contrast to Ambar. He was good for my ego…

We completed the proposal. The idea was I would start with the project with some more friends from my sociology class (who were willing to volunteer) and Suresh would help us whenever he could spare time. We were planning a shelter, where we would try to help children get back with their families (if they still had them) and we would make sure they got a good education in different schools. We were also hoping to have a little theatre group which would educate not just children but also disadvantaged adults… we wanted to educate them about the need for schooling and for standing up to bullying and crime…for all this we needed funding. Abhinav Imroz was happy to help. By this time, I was used to the voice of Abhinav Imroz.

He said, “You both are like my own children. I love your optimism and hope. Together, we can make changes. God bless you both.”

I was very happy.

As our proposal started materializing, Suresh and I drew closer. It was our baby… the project, I mean… delivered by the funding from Abhinav Imroz.

Suresh completed his studies and started practicing with a law firm. He had lesser time for my work and me. I missed his contribution as he always had a solution to every problem that we faced…

I missed his voice more than that of Abhinav Imroz.

That day, we were meeting to celebrate that he did well and had a great job and the success our project. Our project had  been written about in a major daily and Abhinav Imroz had run a feature in his magazine about our work.

I was raving about how well we functioned as a team.

Suddenly, Suresh asked me over chocolate ice cream, “Will you team up for life with me?”

I felt very shy and looked down.

“What do you mean?” I mumbled.

“Will you marry me?” he asked.

I agreed.

Wedding cards went out.

Abhinav Imroz was a guest as was Pran. We were of course thrilled to have Abhinav Imroz at our wedding…

When we unwrapped the gifts, we found Pran(who had started working for Doordarshan) had given us the book autographed for the Film Club and a tape of the movie on Abhinav Imroz as our wedding gift.

With it, he wrote a note,

 

“No one deserves this more than the two of you.”

 

Now, I had the answer to Pran’s question…because, then, I had not understood why I was so desperate for the book…the book, the movie and the project tied Suresh and me together in a way nothing else could! I knew that earlier in my sub-conscious but did not acknowledge it to myself… perhaps I had to grow up…

Abhinav Imroz had been the catalyst that inspired me to act and Suresh to admire and provide support for my idealism and dreams. But the bond that drove us to make everything happen lay deeper within our hearts.

When we ran the movie, I was surprised that I had found Ambar so like Abhinav Imroz at that time and attractive. He was nothing like Abhinav Imroz! Ambar’s face lacked character and intelligence…

However, the book, Memoirs, that Pran gifted us is the pride of our home and rests on our bookshelf in the hall at last!

 

 

The Inner Chamber

 

fortwilliams_sketch
View of Fort William  by anonymous British artist, 1849

Shikha was a travel writer. She loved her job and enjoyed both travel and writing. Off late, she had been doing a series on ancient palaces converted to hotels. She had an invitation to a new hotel that had opened in an ancient palace near Calcutta. Bhanga Bari, translated the Broken Home, had been renamed The Rangmahal. It was located in Chinsura. Shikha decided to drive down from Calcutta one weekend. She pre-informed the management of the hotel so that they would be ready for her.

The date she started was 22nd June. She planned to spend the day and night and drive back on 23rd morning. It was sweltering hot. Shikha drove out early in the air-conditioned comfort of her car. She liked early morning drives as there was less traffic on the road and the only interruptions were meandering cows and traffic lights. She reached the little township within a couple of hours. She was met by the eager manager of the hotel, Mr Bono Behari Das.

Mr Das folded his hands in welcome, “Namaskar, welcome to our humble abode. I am the manager of the hotel. The owner will come down to meet you around 11am. I will take you to your room and you can freshen up and have some breakfast … is that fine with you…?”

“Sounds good,” responded Shikha.

Her room was ample and big with an old-fashioned four poster bed and a mosquito net. The attached bathroom was huge with modern fittings. The balcony had a swing where she could sit and read under a ceiling fan. It overlooked the garden and a lotus pond. The view was idyllic and beautiful.

Shikha went down to a breakfast of loochi-tarkari by the swimming pool. As she sipped some Darjeeling tea, Mr Das announced the owner of the Rangmahal. Shikha had expected someone from the Bandopadhayay family (the title the family took on after they dropped the raja and the rai from their names) that had originally built Bhanga Bari but she was faced by a short marwari called Mr Gowerdhan Lal.

Mr Lal informed her he bought the house from the original owner and had it renovated with all modern fittings to make it into an exclusive hotel. What was most interesting was he not only had a room full of antiques recording the history of the family from before the battle of Plassey in 1757, but had also found some diaries written in the nineteenth century by the lady of the house. That diary could also be found in The Galleria, the name he gave the little museum housed in the Bhanga Bari.

“The history of the family spans the rise and fall of the British Raj in Bengal and the start of Independent India,” he said. “Before I take you for a tour of The Galleria and the hotel, let me give you a brief background of this house”

“A year before the battle of Plassey in 1757, the battle where the British gained suzerainty of Bengal, Bhanga Bari was bought by Krishna Ballabh Rai, the son of Raja Raj Ballabh Rai. He escaped from the clutches of Nawab Siraj Ud Daulah of Bengal. The Nawab put Raj Ballabh under surveillence for supporting Ghasiti Begum, the richest woman of Bengal and Siraj’s aunt, in a plot to dethrone him. Siraj Ud Daulah was known for his bad behavior, rudeness and lascivious life style. When Siraj took to harassing Raj Ballabh Rai , Krishna Ballabh’s wife was expecting a baby. The Nawab was known to be ruthless to his enemies. To save the baby and his son’s family, Raj Ballabh requested Mr Drake, the British representative who he interacted with, to give them a letter of safe conduct to the white colony in Calcutta. Seth Omichund, a banker and trader, arranged for their housing in this house in the Dutch colony in Chinsura. He had a number of houses in the white colonies. Also, it was considered safer for them to stay away from the British stronghold as Siraj Ud Daulah was angry with the British for raising ramparts in the fort at Calcutta. At that point, Calcutta was truly multinational. They had the British, French and Dutch zones. They also had Armenian and Portuguese traders. The French had also raised their ramparts to defend themselves but their representative did a better job of convincing Siraj Ud Daulah than Mr Drake.”

“Krishna Ballabh escaped with his pregnant wife and plenty of wealth to Chinsura. He paid Seth Omichund for the house. On 21st of June, 1856… Krishna Ballabh went to Fort William in Calcutta to thank Mr Drake in person for his help. That was the day Siraj Ud Daulah  struck with his army and took captive the white population and their supporters. Krishna Ballabh was rounded up with the supporters and jailed. More than a hundred ‘prisoners’ were stuffed into an airless room, which we know of now as the infamous Black Hole. At that time, it was occasionally used to confine soldiers  for short periods. Siraj Ud Daulah slept as his prisoners suffocated and died. His soldiers were too scared to wake him up and tell him that the prisoners were dying. The Nawab was capable of killing the guards too if he lost his temper. The next morning only 23 prisoners were pulled out living. The rest were given a mass burial. Krishna Ballabh was one of the victims. When he did not return, his terrified wife consumed poison and took her own life. The child, who was barely a few months old, survived. One of Krishna Ballabh’s cousins who had come as part of the entourage was kind enough to see he got his education and brought him up along with his own child as the heir apparent to all the wealth. The grandfather, Raja Raj Ballabh, drowned a year later when the boat that was bearing Ghasiti Begum and her supporters capsized.”

“The child grew up like majority of zamindar‘s sons. He drowned himself in wine, women and song. This went on for a few generations till their wealth was squandered off and the scion of the family dropped his title and started working.”

“Any questions so far?” asked Mr Lal.

“None as yet,” said Shikha. “It is all so interesting… hard to digest… like living through history…”

“There is more,” responded Mr Lal. “Let us now go to The Galleria.”

They walked from the poolside into the house. There were many rooms and coridoors.

“Were all these rooms part of the old structure?” asked Shikha.

“Some we added on. The swimming pool is an addition. But your room is part of the original structure. It is the largest bedroom in the old house. Mr Bandhopadhyay had told me that the rooms that side were probably the antarmahal ( inner quarters)where the ladies lived. They had been locked up for as long as he could remember. They used only a small portion of the house in front. The paintings you see on the walls were stacked in the antarmahal under a dirty tarpaulin… some of them are very valuable. I have a feeling Mr Bandhopadhyay never knew much about them. He regarded the antiques as junk. I have kept the portraits mainly in The Galleria. The Galleria is where the stables used to be…”

The Galleria turned out to be a longish hall full of odds and ends, which Mr Lal had found lying around the house. There were two men standing at the doors in security uniform. The stables had been converted into a gallery full of curios from the house. There were coins from different periods, an old gramophone with a horn, old tablas, harmoniums and even a sitar. There were huge portraits hanging on the walls and some fine antique furniture. Some of the paintings had dates and names of the people they represented. Mr Lal said he did not know the names of all the people and Mr Bandhopadhyay had forgotten most of them. The artists who painted them were not the best known. There were some kitchen utensils, some family statues of Gods and other small knickknacks. At the other end of the room were books and diaries. There was a newspaper from the turn of the century.

“Perhaps, one day I will have someone from a museum look over all the things I have unearthed in this house and see if I can make some profit from a museum or had them over to the government against money…I am sure some of the stuff will be very valuable.”

Shikha asked if she could take photographs and clicked away.

Mr Lal picked up a diary and told Shikha, “This is the diary I mentioned earlier. The diary was kept by the former owner’s great grand mother at the turn of the century. This was given to me by Mr Bandhopadhyay when he saw the galleria. He told me it belonged to his great grandmother and it deserved a place in the Galleria rather than his cupboard. It seems she rode horses, spoke seven languages and could discuss scriptures. Her father was a friend of the famous Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. She married the scion of this family for love…”

“Can I read it? ” asked Shikha.

Mr Lal told her that he was afraid the pages would crumble and the ink was faded as it was over a hundred years old…however, he let her handle it. Shikha found entries in Bengali, Urdu and English. She even found a page in what looked like French… this was surely an erudite lady!

After Shikha took her fill of pictures, she stepped back into sunshine. The two security men saluted her. “I have posted some security at the door of The Galleria as I do not want anyone to manhandle, touch or steal any of the objects. Later, if it proves profitable, I will get special casings made.”

“So have visitors started coming?” asked Shikha.

“I have had a few groups stay overnight and number of individual bookings… mostly tourists who want to take a look at the ancient homes or the Dutch cemetry in Chinsura. Things are picking up now that Chinsura has been declared a Dutch heritage site… but I could do with more guests. What really gets me my revenue is my restaurant. It is considered one of the best in Chinsura. I also charge day visitors for the use of the swimming pool,” said Mr Lal.

Mr Lal walked her over the whole house, pointing out the views and the older structures from the new improvements he made.

Shikha had sumptuous and grand meals at the restaurant, spent the whole evening at the pool and then ambled off to bed, hoping for an early start the next morning.

The hotel thankfully had wi-fi. Shikha googled the family history, Siraj ud Daulah and the Black Hole in the history of Bengal. She was so tired that she fell asleep with the light on and her head near her i pad.

Suddenly, she awoke… the lights were off and the furniture seemed different… strange and shadowy. She could hear a voice howling… the weeping drew closer. The door of the room screeched open. In the dark, she could see a shadowy figure of the woman head for a strange looking almirah. She opened the door and drawers… all the while the figure wept… slowly the figure sat on the bed where she lay. Shikha was terrified and covered her eyes with a sheet. Suddenly, she felt the figure fall on the bed by her. Footsteps were running up. She peered out of curiosity and could see more shadows of more weeping women… she was terrified. She could here a voice declare the body next to her as dead…. what was happening? Shikha passed out…

The next morning, Shikha woke up to urgent knocking at the door.

“Madam, is everything all right?”a voice was asking.

The lights were on and her i pad was under her arm…and she had been sleeping…My god! It was past ten in the morning…She had said she would leave by nine thirty…

The furniture was back to normal. She was still in one piece. What had happened? She had surely overslept…Had she had a bad dream… a result of sleeping in an odd posture and reading about the dark incident of the Black Hole? She had been browsing dark annals of history … from archive.org… ancient archived stuff that gave vivid descriptions of the incident…

When she finished breakfast, she told a sympathetic Mr Das of her strange dream. Mr Das merely smiled and said,  “Actually, yesterday was the 250 th anniversary of the death of Krishnaballabh’s wife, the 22nd night of June…”