Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Rana Dasgupta

From Rana Dasgupta's upcoming book about Delhi (Capital: The Eruption of Delhi):

"Until Partition, my grandfather was chief accountant with Commercial Union Assurance in Lahore, and it is from there that my father's earliest memories float back. They are fond: the family was affluent, the city harmonious. My father remembers affectionately the vibrant mix of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in his school, his gracious Muslim headmaster. But as his tenth year drew on, it became apparent that political machinations would mutilate this tranquil existence. As Partition approached, the Police Commissioner of Lahore, Allauddin Khan, who was my grandfather's bridge partner, became concerned for the safety of his Hindu friend: he sent his car to take the family to the railway station. He then deputed guards to accompany them on the train as far as Amritsar, on the other side on the imminent cleavage. Allauddin Khan probably saved their lives: in the ensuing violence, the building in which they had lived was burned down and the Hindu landlord and his family murdered. 

My father's family returned to Bengal, where the other, eastern, Partition was in progress, and my father found himself on the other side of the game. He remembers the unreal sight of slaughtered Muslims lined up like trophies in the Calcutta streets. 

Something seems to have snapped in my grandfather after those upheavals. He became moody and withdrawn. He secured another well-paid position, but walked out of it on point of principle. Suddenly there was no income for his family of nine children. The electricity was cut off. They could not afford food or candles. My grandfather borrowed from moneylenders to pay his bills; when they sent thugs to reclaim the loans, it was my 13-year-old father who had to plead with them in the street, for my grandfather, who wanted to know nothing of all this, was shut up in a room smoking cigarettes and reading English spy novels. 

Friends and relatives shunned them. My father got a job selling cooking oil door-to-door, and so kept the entire family from starvation. 

He sold, first of all, to people he knew. One day he knocked on the door of an aunt who, seeing how gaunt he was, offered him lunch. From there he took his wares to the house of another aunt, and she too offered him food. Since he did not know when he would be able to eat again, he accepted and sat down to the meal. But he was still in the middle of it when the first aunt came to call and saw him stuffing himself for the second time. Telling the story 60 years later, my father still shakes with the humiliation of having been caught out in such desperation." 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Outer Space

Dad and I went to watch Gravity this afternoon. It's been a while since I've watched a movie that left me so awed. The plot is simple enough: two astronauts stuck in outer space are trying to get back to Earth. And none of them is Bruce Willis. But from the very first scene with George Clooney drifting boyishly in the vacuum to the very end, after all the calamities have been endured, it was hard to look away. The eerie emptiness of space, the grandeur of the Earth as it spins in orbit, Sandra Bullock's terror at being severed from human contact. All of these were absorbed into a narrative that seemed to explore the vistas of inner space as much as it touted its obverse, astral counterpart. It's not an intellectual movie in the way Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey was; things here work very well at a visceral, gut-punching level. But Gravity still made me think about stuff. Like, for example, how human beings are constantly confronted with the specter of death. (How is a spacecraft bursting into flames different from a house catching fire? Bodies burning smell the same everywhere.) And how, even in the wilderness of space, a human mind can encapsulate the possibility of its own death and seek restitution. Outer space thus ends up being a mere extension of our corporeal selves; carbon, hydrogen, ashes, dust. All perishable save for a few moments of grace.      

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Memory of My Father

Every old man I see
Reminds me of my father
When he had fallen in love with death
One time when sheaves were gathered.

That man I saw in Gardiner Street
Stumble on the kerb was one,
He stared at me half-eyed,
I might have been his son. 

And I remember the musician
Faltering over his fiddle
In Bayswater, London.
He too set me the riddle. 

Every old man I see
In October-coloured weather
Seems to say to me
"I was once your father."

- Patrick Kavanagh

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mom & Me & Mom

"My mother's gifts of courage to me were both large and small. The latter are woven so subtly into the fabric of my psyche that I can hardly distinguish where she stops and I begin."

- Maya Angelou, Mom & Me & Mom

Sunday, July 14, 2013

From God we come and to Him we will return

It is the one thing we all dread. The unexpected message notifying us of the death of a loved one. Distance doesn't make it any easier. Nor practise or time. The shock still reverberates, maybe even amplified a little by the inability to connect with the family. There is no script for it. Every phone call undoes life a little.

- - -

One of our dear friends passed away today. An exceptionally kind and wonderful man, he had been diagnosed with chronic liver disease a few years ago. Not wanting to trouble his wife and children he kept the diagnosis a secret until the organ failed last month and he collapsed, needing to be admitted to the hospital. It was a dual shock for the family, finding out first about the illness and then its severity. Arrangements were made for a liver transplant; his children fought amongst themselves to be Baba's donor. My brothers had gone to school with his daughters; our mothers swapped recipes and gossip over the phone. We knew them well and their grief touched us. The family flew to Pakistan for the procedure and our friend passed away during the surgery earlier today.


Although my parents' age, he had been a guiding influence as I was growing up. Most people of our parents' generation sequester themselves away from the children. He sought out their company. He would talk to us about our lives, what we were doing, what our plans were for the future. Being a pediatrician, talking to children came naturally to him but it was more than that. It wasn't a performance. He didn't ask us to be cute for the amusement of others. He was truly interested in who we were as people. I remember a dinner party at his home. I must have been about ten or eleven. A girl and I were sitting in their living room watching TV while the adults talked amongst themselves elsewhere. I knew the girl. She was shy and hirsute and didn't have any friends. We went to the same school and she was always the last one to be picked for anything. We sat and stared at the TV until our host came in.

He sat down and asked us how we were, how school was going, what we liked about school and what wasn't so great. He asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. He directed the questions to us individually, looking us in the eye, listening attentively for our clumsy answers. We weren't used to being addressed like this by grown-ups. None of the other uncles and aunties had ever come by and tried to get to know us. Usually we were just praised for our good grades and then passed over. I was a little more confident than Mariam and spoke brazenly the words I thought he wanted to hear. Mariam was much quieter, almost uncomfortable with the attention, but by the end of our talk, even she was smiling. When I think about it now I realise that it was true of almost everyone who met him; they left with a smile on their face.


I last met him a few weeks ago. I was home for my annual holiday and my father told me he had been admitted to the hospital again. We hadn't met in many years and I was unsure about going. I felt like I didn't know him any more, my childhood self receded and our connection severed. A pediatrician myself, I saw his felicity with children as merely an extension of his bedside manner. I did the same thing every day; it was no big deal. My parents insisted however and I went. I didn't think it would be the last time we would meet.

He was lying in a hospital bed with his wife sitting beside him, eating her supper. He looked gaunt. The plump was gone from his cheeks. The skin looked sallow. I passed his wife some flowers and sat down beside him. He had trouble sitting up and she helped him. Without much preamble, as if he had known me all my life, he caught me up on the story of the diagnosis and the collapse. It sounded like a speech rehearsed for visitors, delivered fresh each time, with the same vivid eye contact. We talked about the upcoming transplant and he was excited about it. He was glad to be going back to Pakistan where all the family could be together. He spoke freely and without the usual adult jargon of disappointment. As ill as he was, he didn't seem defeated. He asked how I was doing, where I was. When I told him I was a pediatrician, a consultant like him, his eyes lit up. It's not often that you get to give back to the mentors who helped you and I'm always going to be grateful for this moment. We talked for about half an hour and then the nurses came in for a blood draw. I excused myself and wished him well, still charmed by  his demeanour, civilized by his kindness. For some reason I didn't say "see you next year" although by this time I was sure that I wanted to stay in touch, that things would be alright. He didn't say it either.


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