In Ten Sentences Or Less [1] – The Midnight Call That Wasn’t

The Midnight Call That Wasn’t

The call didn’t quite come at midnight, although it’s always so much more fun to say that it did because, after all, 12 a.m. is the witching hour, when, as is commonly speculated, nocturnal creatures – ghosts, witches, demons and the like – are thought to appear and be at their most active, fiendishly concocting magic of the darker variety, if you believe in that kind of thing, which I do whenever, in the guise of creative liberty, I use an embellished lie to trump a mundane truth, as in this case, though, for the sake of salving my conscience, I can always claim that when the call came it must have been midnight somewhere in the world even if it was closer to mid-morning in mine.

Though it emerged from the mists of an almost-forgotten past and was intermittently accompanied by the staccato, unsynchronised barking of dogs – three, as I was later informed – I recognised it to belong to the editor of this publication, although, at the time we had that first conversation, she didn’t exist, not as a practicing editor at least. Nor did this magazine, except as a concept in her mind, which, as I was quick to point out above the sound of canine conversation, appeared somewhat impaired if she were contemplating a new print publication at a time when magazines found accommodation only in doctors’ reception rooms and, that too, if they were at least six months old and the doctor was a dentist who wanted you to get used to the pain before he got to your teeth.

Subscriptions are bought more for the gifts that accompany them – the Black & Decker DIY drill kit, the collapsible telescope to see the stars even if you can’t ever reach them, the Weber BBQ grill to impress your friends with on warm summer nights and the chance, however remote, of realising the dream of owning a Mercedes Benz S-Class or taking a Caribbean cruise aboard a luxury liner – than the contents of the magazine itself, I told her, warming to my pet peeve of how television and the Web’s ready access to every form of news and entertainment at the mere punch of a few keys had killed the reading habit for anything that you could smell, swat flies with, turn the pages of and keep the sun out of your eyes with, magazines and books alike. “Ah,” she countered forcefully, amidst a renewed bout of barking that probably indicated that even the dogs eavesdropping on our conversation disagreed with my line of thinking, “the unfortunate state of serious publications can’t be compared with the gossamer, insubstantial, unimportant, whimsical, superficial, lighthearted and, in a word (if one more were needed), trivial stuff that this publication will be about and for which there’ll always be a place. If it was something significant, scholarly, consequential, profound, meaningful and, in a word (if one more were needed) serious stuff I was looking for,” she asked, sealing her argument and my fate, “would I have approached you to do the last page?”

Suitably chastised, adequately chastened and deeply appreciative of the onerous responsibility of writing a page that is almost always the first after the cover that one looks at while browsing through a magazine at a newsstand before, almost inevitably, replacing it in the stack and buying something less taxing, or while apprehensively leafing through it in a dentist’s den imagining the pain to follow even before the actual drilling begins, I ventured to ask what the last page would be about. “About anything and everything and nothing, or whatever catches your fancy, as long as you say what you have to say in ten sentences or less,” she said, with what seemed to be ambiguity at first hearing but wasn’t abstruse at all if you remembered that Seinfeld was a TV show about nothing that lasted seven seasons, set a new bar for audience appreciation and might well have continued for several years longer if the creators hadn’t cleverly decided to bail out at the height of its popularity.

“If you last even half as long as Seinfeld did, my cup would runneth over,” said my editor-to-be and, in appreciation of the solemn moment that a contract was verbally and wirelessly entered into, even her dogs kept their peace.

With one sentence to spare and, as is my wont, wishing to spread the responsibility for enduring the tests of time and circulation, I had the luxury of the last word: “I will, if you will,” I said.

 

 

The Goddess and the Housing Society

For most of the year, Sadanand Housing Society is like any other relatively new building complex in ‘postmodern’ Kolkata, though it would be somewhat fallacious to use a term that implies that the tremors one associates with modernism – or any change, for that matter – have actually worn off, when they haven’t. Nor are they ever likely to, not until the storm raised by the construction chaos that has been ripping the city’s innards for the last couple of decades passes over, or the housing demand that has been feeding its frenzy, dies.

For residents of Sadanand, a G+5 building of imposing dimensions, terraced floors and landscaped environs constructed on land that, till recently, was known more for its all-pervasive stench and the size of its cauliflowers than for sprouting multi-storied residential complexes of architectural inventiveness, it is a trial, as it must be for residents of similar buildings, to cope with the idea of collective living. Not that anyone ever actually puts his mind to it. Between pursuing individual self-interests and -indulgences, which occupies them for most part of the day and, for the rest, ruing their bad luck (kopaal) at having had to exchange company-leased accommodation, low-rent tenancies or family homes in a better part of town – for reasons ranging from joint family dissolutions to retirement – for one-of-sixty little boxes in an area that, till not too long ago, was the dumping ground for the city’s waste, there is little time left to live the community life.

For those suddenly bereft of company perquisites or denied the support structure of family homes, it is only to be expected that the road from affluence to effluent be paved with the most pious of intentions. Nor is it a surprise that the journey fails to instil in them any lasting feelings of peace, harmony and cooperation towards their fellow travellers – goodwill to one and all may be the most Christian of thoughts but it doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in Hell when your neighbour chooses the middle of the afternoon, when you’re trying to catch a quick shut-eye, to drill the wall next to yours, or gives license to his singularly untalented, 8-year old to pound, with endless abandon and malevolent purpose, the drum-set he’s been recently presented with, in some misguided attempt to encourage a musical talent invisible to all but his indulgent parents.

So it is, for most of the year, in Sadanand Housing Society.

But, with about three months to go for the start of Durga Puja, a phenomenon that seems to arrive many times faster than it did in my youth (or, with age, it might be that I’ve lost all sense of perspective), there are the first stirrings of social – I can’t quite call it, intercourse, but certainly – foreplay, for once not initiated by an alleged transgression of the House Rules by a resident or some insult – perceived or otherwise – that one Society member has hurled at another, always “for no apparent reason,” according to the party aggrieved.

It all starts like a game of Chinese whispers, gathering momentum as it travels down corridors and from one floor to the next, occasionally by way of the staircase but usually taking the lift, where most whispers tend to be generated, gaining in decibel count what it loses in fidelity.

Every new Durga Puja campaign – for, mind you, given the social and financial stakes involved and the face that one stands to gain or lose not just in Sadanand but also the microcosm of Kolkata society that Sadanand represents, it is nothing less – is preceded by the threatened resignation of the Puja Committee that had organised the previous year’s manoeuvre. While personal commitments, exhaustion, ill health and the impending arrival of children residing overseas are the most cited reasons for stepping down, the real reason, usually, is that key members – Jagdish Ganguly, Snehashish Mukherjee and Gopal Bhattacharya, to name the prime movers in Sadanand’s Puja Committee – feel under-appreciated for their efforts. That happens every year when unknown but not entirely unsuspected sources begin to circulate unseemly rumours about their probity, or the lack thereof, specifically designed to reach their ears, which they eventually do, as all rumours are prone to.

If nothing else, the innate artistry of the average Bengali ensures that the canards are creative. There are the standard ones, of course: misuse of contribution funds, abuse of authority, not reporting revenue from advertising, taking the family out for a meal at Oh Calcutta in the guise of entertaining TV channel executives entrusted with the task of covering neighbourhood Pujas, diverting a part of the daily purchase of fruits meant for prasad to one’s own household, ensuring that one’s kitchen can pull down shutters completely for the four days that free bhog is served, etc. Then, there are the more inventive ones, most of which started the year that the beshhyas (prostitutes) of Sonagachi decided to ban pujaris (priests) and potters from collecting soil from their doorstep.

Gopal Bhattacharya, resident scholar on all things priestly, was appalled. Without a handful of punya mati (literally, ‘virtuous soil’) from the nishiddho pallis (forbidden areas) in the mix of Gangajal, cow dung and urine that goes into the clay for idol making, the project was doomed and with it, the Supreme Goddess worshippers of Sadanand. Reluctant to devolve a task as onerous as this to a mere potter, or even a priest, who may or may not make enough of an effort (and even if he did, who was to know?), Bhattacharya volunteered, against the counsel of fellow Committee members, to venture out on his own. Whatever the odds – and news was streaming in that the beshhya non-cooperation movement was no longer confined to Sonagachi but spreading, like a virus, to other red-light districts across Calcutta – he was determined to beg, borrow or steal the soil, though, as per tradition, of which he claimed to be a master, the most auspicious method of collecting punya mati is to beg it from a prostitute and have her hand it to you as a gift, rather than through subterfuge or coercion.

What started the rumour mills working overtime was that Bhattacharya had to make as many as four visits to Sonagachi, each longer than the one before, the last even extending to the early hours of the morning, till, as per his own report, the nearly impossible mission he’d set for himself was accomplished. Whereas Jason of the Argonauts was bestowed mythological status for seeking out the Golden Fleece, for a feat no less perilous given the seething resentment of Sonagachi’s prostitute community against the age-old practice of collecting soil from their doorstep, Bhattacharya seems to have become a legend, and that, too, in his own lifetime, but for all the wrong reasons. The salacious gossip doing the rounds to this day, two years after the event, is that if what the priests and potters couldn’t do Bhattacharya did, it was not because he begged better but because he went as a paying client. And if he went as a paying customer, why did he have to make four visits when one should have sufficed? And who footed the bill for his unholy pilgrimages? And who’s to say that he actually got the punya mati in the end and didn’t just grab a handful from wherever he could?

Unfortunately, the only heroes that Bengalis genuinely revere are the dead ones.

As it does every year, it takes a series of exhaustingly prolonged meetings to persuade the key members of the Puja Committee to withdraw their resignations or, at least, hold them in abeyance till this year’s event is over. This is an important hurdle to cross. Without the firm of Ganguly, Mukherjee & Bhattacharya, warts and all, there is no Durga Puja because for every ten detractors of the Puja Committee’s way of doing things, there is not one willing to put his shoulder to the wheel and demonstrate how they should be.

Appeasement of the key members, particularly Gopal Bhattacharya, who is still smarting from the innuendoes that continue to surface from time to time about his Sonagachi sojourns, requires making some hard concessions. The hardest of all is to agree to an in-house talent show that Jagdish Ganguly has been pushing for, with the unstated objective of showcasing his teenage daughter’s Kuchipudi skills, which, if an impromptu recital she’d given at a dinner he’d hosted was anything to go by, were conspicuous by their absence. Whereas Kuchipudi proponents are quicksilver and scintillating, fleet-footed and fluidic, she’d shown characteristics quite the contrary, tending to be ponderous in movement, thumping the floor in a flatfooted manner to the tick of an internal metronome that was at complete divergence with the beat of the mridangam she was dancing to. A plaintive plea that a similar show three years ago had elicited unfavourable criticism and driven the audience, sparse to start with and almost non-existent at the end, to tears and distraction, fails to move Ganguly whose quick comeback is that his daughter wasn’t performing that year, as if that explains the bad reviews and poor attendance. He doesn’t mention that the main reason he’s reviving the idea is in expectation of TV coverage, which, he hopes, will give his daughter the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol had predicted for everyone 44 years ago.

The question of raising external funds and marketing the event – one dependent upon the other – dominates heated sessions over several weekends. Nuts, buttons, matchsticks, banana peels, coconut husk, ice, leaves, dried flowers, spices and condiments, newspaper, thermocol, fibreglass, etc. have all had their day as ingredients for idol-making. Their novelty is long over, the focus conclusively transferred from Durga and her entourage to over-the-top pandal decorations and illumination pyrotechnics.

And therein lies the hitch. With limited access to funds and advertising revenue – after all, there’s only so much that one can demand from residents and arm-twist out of suppliers – attracting television cameras, a primary motive for organisers to mount elaborate puja productions, requires inventiveness and enterprise.

“What we need is a theme that people can relate to,” suggests Snehashish Mukherjee, self-appointed marketing guru. “What about Durga in the image of our incumbent Chief Minister, slaying Asoor in the guise of a former Cabinet minister or the singer-songwriter MP who’s been giving her grief?”

Mukherjee’s infectious ingenuity – no wonder, he’s been a pivotal member of the puja organising committee for four years running – has his audience breaking into a round of spontaneous applause. However, Jagdish Ganguly, who, as a retired bureaucrat presumes to have insights about political matters denied lesser mortals, cautions that on the evidence of recent events, the Chief Minister doesn’t seem to be consistent in her reactions to stimuli such as the one contemplated. Given her unpredictability, it would be safer, he recommends, to veer clear of political statements, however sympathetic to her cause they might at first appear. As a further caution, he advises Gopal Bhattacharya not to minute the immediate discussion perchance it be deemed an official castigation of her methods and a motivated, mala fide attack on her unimpeachable character, either of which could land the entire Puja Committee in jail if someone with a score to settle or mischievous intent snitched to the Police.

“How about the dark knight rising?” suggests a Hollywood-addled younger member. “Catwoman as Durga and Bane as Asoor?”

“It’s certainly topical, contemporary and thematically relevant. And, undoubtedly, it has appeal for a younger audience, which isn’t a bad thing at all,” says Mukherjee. As resident marketing wizard, his commendation seals the deal, though, as a minor concession to tradition, it is agreed that Durga will wear white fabric instead of black and while she’ll retain the ears, they won’t do double duty as goggles, like in the movie.

With the biggest hurdles out of the way, the rest is pretty much routine for Ganguly, Mukherjee and Bhattacharya, not that there aren’t a few obstacles still to clear along the way, which they do with their usual mix of persuasion, threat, compromise and false assurance. First, there’s the outcry from Sadanand’s minority non-Bengalis about why they have to almost statutorily contribute as much as their Bengali counterparts when their own religious functions barely find mention in Sadanand’s social calendar, despite their revenue generating potential. (Who’s to argue that dandiya ras in skimpy cholis and ghagras over nine dancing, stick-wielding nights of Navratri, or a Ramlila spectacle of not one but ten decapitations to commemorate Dushhera, won’t draw TV cameras and sell-out audiences?)   The intensity of the protest, which rises every other year, is directly proportional to the aggression with which chanda is sought, or the colourfulness of the Puja Committee’s newest transgression to come off the rumour mill.

Then, there’s the whole issue of advertisers and corporate sponsorships – what to accept and what not to? If revenue aggregation is the main motive, why should any advertiser be ruled out at all? For example, if a popular brand of contraceptives is willing to foot the entire cost of pandal decoration and illumination, is it unfair to ask for a scantily attired Sunny Leone billboard across Sadanand’s front facade? And if one really wants a popular children’s TV channel to feature you in their local events capsule, you can’t just have Ganesh riding the Mighty Mouse. You might have to agree to the mouse in question bestriding Ganesh or, at the very least, perching conspicuously on his shoulder. And if tradition permits Durga to have from 8 to even 18 hands, what’s the harm if a few of them hold branded, everyday items, so long as the featured brands pick up the inflated tabs?

When a younger mind, more intuitive than mine suggests a Batman movie as Sadanand’s Durga Puja theme, he isn’t far adrift – organizing a five-day event in a housing society is nothing less than a Christopher Nolan production, with its interminable twists, labyrinthine turns, unexpected endings, new beginnings, scarred heroes, trauma-inducing villains and a week-long, mother-of-all climaxes. It’s an adrenaline rush that uplifts the heart, though one’s never quite sure what it does for one’s soul. Still, I’m glad for it because, irrespective of what goes before or what will inevitably happen after, for those five autumnal days, sixty disparate families in Sadanand have a unified sense of purpose and are as one.

I am also glad that Durga Puja comes only once a year and not thrice as I sometimes imagine, because if it did, it would be just too much adrenaline for one middle-aged heart to take.