An Excerpt

I arrived at Calcutta from my village and enrolled in a college. Sachish was studying BA. We must have been the same age.

Sachish looks like a luminary – his eyes are afire; his long thin fingers look like flames; his skin colour seems more like a glow. As soon as I saw Sachish, it was as if I saw his very soul; hence I loved him in a moment.

Strangely, however, many of Sachish’s classmates resented him terribly. Those who resemble the majority do not, without a reason, get embroiled in disputes with the majority. But when the radiant true Being inside a man rends apart the physicality and becomes visible, then some, for no reason, worship him with all their might, and some others, for no reason, insult him with all their might.

The boys at my mess had understood that in my mind, I revered Sachish. It always seemed to disturb their peace. Not a day went by without their speaking ill of him within my earshot. I knew that if a grain of sand falls in the eye, rubbing only irritates it further; where the words are coarse they are better left unanswered. But one day, such nasty rumours about Sachish’s character appeared that I could remain quiet no longer.

My problem was that I did not know Sachish. The others were either his neighbours or some kind of relative. With much force, they declared, “It’s the pure truth”. With even greater force, I said, “I don’t believe any of it.” Then everyone at the mess rolled up his sleeves and exclaimed, “What a rude man you are!”

That night, lying in my bed, I felt like crying. The next day, in a break between classes, while Sachish half-lay on the grass in the shade of Goldighi, reading a book, I blurted out to him – without any introduction – I know not what nonsense. Sachish closed the book and stared at my face for a few minutes. Those who have not seen his eyes cannot understand what that look is.

Sachish said, “Those who speak ill do so because they love slander, not because they love the truth. If that is the case, then what is the point in fretting to disprove them?”

I said, “Still, see, the liar – ”

Sachish interrupted, “But they are not liars. In our neighbourhood, the son of an oilman has palsy. His limbs tremble; he cannot work. One winter day, I gave him a costly rug. That day, my servant Shibu came to me, fuming, and said, ‘Babu, those shivers and trembles of that fellow are all an act!’ Those who dismiss the possibility of anything good in me are like that Shibu. They really believe what they say. An extra and expensive rug fell into my lot; all the Shibus in the country have decided definitely that I don’t have a right to it. I feel ashamed to quarrel with them.”

Without answering him, I said, “They say you are an atheist. Is that true?”

Sachish said, “Yes, I am an atheist.”

I hung my head. I had protested at the mess that Sachish could never be an atheist.

In the very beginning, I have received two great blows regarding Sachish. The moment I saw him, I had assumed that he was the son of a Brahmin. His face seems to be chiselled on white stone like a divine idol. I had heard that his surname is Mallik; there is an aristocratic Brahmin family in our village who are called Mallik. But I learnt that Sachish is gold-merchant by caste. We are a family of dedicated Kayasthas – as a caste, we hate gold-merchants with all our heart. As for atheists, I had known them to be greater sinners than murderers – nay, even worse than beef-eaters.

I stared at Sachish’s face without saying a word. Even then I saw that light in his face, as if a lamp of worship was burning in his heart.

Nobody would have thought that I would eat with a gold-merchant in this life or any other, and that in atheism, my staunchness would surpass that of my teacher. All of it I was fated to experience eventually.

Wilkins was our English professor at the college. He was as learned as he was scornful of the students. In his opinion, teaching literature to Bengali boys in a native college was equivalent to the wage-labour of teaching. That is why, even in a Milton-Shakespeare class, he would give us the synonym for cat: a quadruped of feline species. But Sachish was excused from taking notes. He used to say, “Sachish, I shall make it up to you for having to sit in this class. Come to my house; you shall be able to taste something better.”

The students said angrily that the British professor liked Sachish so much because the latter was so fair-skinned, and because he showed off his atheism to impress the professor. A few of the clever ones had gone to Wilkins to ostentatiously borrow books on positivism. Wilkins had said, “You won’t understand it.” That they were not even worthy of discussing atheism had only aggravated their grievance against atheism and against Sachish.

An excerpt from Play of Four by Rabindranath Tagore.


Neighbours, Visitors, Guests

So this is the world.


Quickly, before the crows come.


I just called to say…


… I love you.


none the worse after a shower
colours and colours
Is that a bit of stale bread I see there?
Look what I can do now!


Name unknown
Goodnight, love.


Images not for reusing. (Not that you’d want to, with stunning public-domain cat photos all around.)

A Tale from the Backyard

I have tried to understand why the idea of felling the trees in our garden sounds so catastrophic to me. A mix of a number of reasons suggests itself. The four main, large trees that stand there today seem to have been always there, ever since I can remember. It’s not that I have taken any special care of them, for I have never taken any care of them at all. But that is what gets to me: the fact that we have never done anything for them, except perhaps planting the seeds, half in earnest, and then they grew up, tall and strong and majestic and beautiful, all on their own. People have stolen their fruits, bent and broken their branches, threw litter at them, but they have never spoken a word. Once, half of a tree crashed down; turned out it had been infested with pests. We thought it wouldn’t survive. After some very basic treatment, it recovered and went on to give hundreds of delicious fruits for which we earned thanks.

The one at the south-east corner of our garden was out-of-reach tall and awe-inspiringly strong. Some months ago I noticed fibre-like things protruding out of its trunk. It looked diseased. I may or may not have reported it. Either way, we did nothing to help it. Neither did we realise the implications of some people burning dry leaves at its foot, so that its mighty trunk became charred black. And then one day, I happened to look up at its foliage and there was no foliage left.

It was peak summer, but every single leaf on its many branches, those that were still sticking to the arms, that is, were dried brown. Beside the other three in full bloom, the sight was not only unexpected but unnatural—uncanny and ominous.

A confused drama and blame-game followed. Everyone thought everyone else had misunderstood or was misunderstanding. I, I think, behaved inexcusably with my parents for letting this happen. Because it is always easier to transfer the responsibility. Then I decided to at least try to do something. I tend to be drawn to lost causes.

The trunk was charred five to six feet from the ground up. Around the foot of the tree was cinder and dry, grey sand-like soil. I scraped away the ash-like dirt from the foot. Then I started watering the dead tree.  My idea, I suppose, was more to apologise to the tree than anything else.

A friend is tenant to the vice-principal of an agricultural university—a very amiable gentleman. I sought his advice through the friend. There was the possibility, after all, that the tree had died because of that undiagnosed disease or both because of that and the fire. I could not ignore a fantastic hope either, that the fire had actually killed the pest or the poison that had been infecting it and that after a period of untimely shedding, the tree would start afresh. But these were distant hopes. The gentleman advised me to keep an eye on the branches. If any fresh leaf appeared, he would prescribe a medicine. Someone else suggested some kind of fertiliser. I stuck to my routine of watering it and the others. For the first time in my life, I was going to our patch of a garden regularly and doing any iota of work for the trees. Occasionally, my cat would follow me, try to play with me, be discouraged by the splashing, wait at a distance and then come back with me. It was peace.

Around a week or so ago, the wonderful happened. No, wrong guess, I did not spot fresh leaves on any branch. I don’t think there are any, though I’ll have to look more carefully. The tree has outsmarted us all. A few inches away from the still-charred trunk, on the now wetter soil, sprouted a little sapling, shiny green in colour, looking as if it has never known what flames are. A few days later, there were two more.

“Will you look at this? How beautiful is it?” I asked my cat, who was rubbing her back against the wall of the house.

Perhaps there was some life left in the roots, and finding the normal channel burnt, it brought itself out through a new channel altogether. Perhaps this too, will not survive. Perhaps it’s not even the same plant. Perhaps it’s a really bad idea to have the plant in that part of the garden, so dangerously close to the foundation of the house. Perhaps it will have to be felled one day.

Perhaps so many things.

Right now, the rains are coming to do their bit.

Image: Pixabay


Sunday is a bad day for a cat to get attacked by a dog or dogs. ‘Get attacked’, I say, following the phrasing one sometimes finds in case of other violences, like, ‘don’t get raped, women, be careful’. But to get back to the cat.

The kitten was playing in the garden, and then it went missing, and its mother began to sound a bit anxious. Couple of dogs were barking somewhere nearby. I saw the dogs. Yes, they could be fighting among themselves, but as I looked, I thought I detected the other pattern. One of the dogs was barking furiously at something hidden behind a clump of bush-and-tree-trunk-and-rubbish. They were also growling occasionally. Is it the kitten, I thought. I don’t know why I didn’t rush instantaneously. Perhaps because I knew that if it was the kitten then everything would be over except the long-drawn-out death, blood, pain, dulled eyes, wailing mother-cat and so on. I think it was pure escapism that made me delay for a couple of minutes. Then I stirred myself into walking hurriedly to the spot.

I wonder if you have ever seen a cat being attacked by dogs. This is at least the second time I have had the privilege. This is the second time I saw the cat completely off the ground, in air. The first time I saw this, the feline victim was in the midst of a toss or a jump. This time, it was between the teeth of two dogs, being torn apart. I almost mistook it for a piece of rag.

I didn’t even have to shout or brandish the walking stick I was carrying. Or I may have done both, unconsciously. Either way, the dogs fled as soon as I reached the spot.

A white cat with light brown patches; the commonest kind in these parts. Now smeared with dirt and mud. Or some of it may have been blood. Eyes already dulled. Mouth full of dark blood. I tried to hush it into some kind of comfort. I felt hopeful. It was not dead. It was moving a little. It could be saved. Right? I called a pet clinic, knowing it was almost hopeless. It was Sunday evening and everyone deserves a weekly off. My phone could not even connect to the number. I called another vet, hesitating a little at the prospect of asking him to come see an injured stray cat on a Sunday evening. I need not have hesitated. The number was unreachable. As I said, Sunday is a bad day for a cat to get attacked.

I rushed to the gardener of the park beside which the incident happened. It must be one of his many feline guests. He would know how to take care of it. I was reluctant to leave the injured animal alone, but I had to. As I hurried the few steps to the gardener’s shed, I saw the people in the park, children and adults, sitting, walking, playing, talking, relaxing, enjoying – in blissful oblivion. Why would anyone care or even notice if a cat was cornered, clawed and mauled by two dogs and then lay dying? Why, indeed.

The gardener did not spring into action. He kept asking whose cat was it. His, I assured him; I have seen it in the park. (Sure I don’t know all the individual cats, but it’s got to belong to his brood, and even if it didn’t, so bloody what?) Rather reluctantly, he came quite a few steps after me. When he saw the cat, he asked for my stick and then poked the cat with it. Why the hell would he further poke a severely injured cat I don’t know. Perhaps he had his reasons. Perhaps he was trying to ensure it was alive. Perhaps he was trying to goad it into action. Be that as it may, he then said that it was not his cat.

Take it to the park and I will bring cotton and medicines, I said. I just did not have the courage to try to pick up an injured, unknown animal. Maybe someday I will.

He will go and ask if the cat belongs to that house, he said, and walked off, not showing the urgency I felt. He was gone a few minutes. I watched the cat gasp and bleed through the mouth. I called the vets again. If it did belong to some family, maybe they would come and take care of it and the wait would be worthwhile, I thought.

After a few long minutes, the gardener called out from a distance to say that it was not the family’s cat, neither was it his. Take it to the park and I’ll bring medicines, I repeated. Can you just take it to the park? But he mumbled unintelligible counter-arguments and disappeared.

I made three trips to my house to bring mugfuls of water to gently pour on the cat’s body, hoping to wash away the dirt which I thought must be aggravating its wound. I also tried to pour some water into its mouth, but it jerked its head every time. The third time, I put some antiseptic into the water, hoping to clean the wounds better, not at all sure if it was suitable for cats and taking care to not pour it this time in its mouth. But the third time the animal had stopped moving. The second time it had uttered a few unnatural cries. They must have been a sort of death rattle.

Yup, the third time, it was dead. I poured the antiseptic water over a dead body, I think. Dusk had fallen and it was getting more and more difficult to see if it was breathing. But its immobility, its quietness told the tale. Till then, it had been trying to move restlessly, in hope of a shelter perhaps, or to find comfort.

Even at this minute, if you walk along that turn beside the park, you’d miss it. Only if you peered closely at the lighter patch in the dark grass and grounds, you would see what even this afternoon had been a cat in search for food.

I like to think it suffered less than an hour. I am glad and relieved that our kitten is alive and well – as of now. I still cannot bring myself to hate dogs. All my cats have gone this way. I have not seen any of them draw their last breaths, except one baby, two years ago. I am not sorry to have seen the sad inevitability of it all, this time. I wanted the animal to have someone nearby who would witness – and acknowledge – how it suffered. I like to think that I tried. I don’t like to think how grossly inadequate was the effort. I’ll get there someday. Someday, I pray that I’ll actually manage to heal one.


The Flute

Kinu Milkman’s Lane.

In a two-storey house

There’s a first-storey room with iron bars

Beside the road.

Patches of sand have collapsed from salty walls

Patches of mould adorn it.


A picture on ’merican cloth

Of Ganesh, the wish-fulfiller

Is stuck on the door.

Besides me, another lives in the room

For the same rent

It’s a lizard.

The only difference being

It does not want for food.


Salary twenty-five

Junuior clerk in a merchant office.

The meals come from the Duttas’ house

For tutoring their boy.

’Go to the Sealdah station

To spend the evening

It helps me not to burn the light.

The dhush-dhush of engines,

The sound of the whistle,

The passengers’ hustle

Calling the coolies.

The clock ticks ten-thirty.

Then return home to solitary silent darkness.


The Dhaleshwari flows by my aunt’s village.

Her brother-in-law’s daughter,

Was supposed to marry this hapless wretch.

’Twas proved that the hour was auspicious—

I ran away at the right hour.

The girl was spared,

And so was I.

She never came to my home, but she comes to my mind every day—

Wearing a Daccai sari, vermilion on her forehead.


Monsoon arrives heavily.

My tram fare goes up,

Some days, I miss my pay.

In nooks and corners of the lane

Collect and rot

Mango skins, pits, jackfruit flesh,

Fish gills,

Dead kittens,

And who knows what other rubbish!

The umbrella’s much like

Fined salary,

It’s full of holes.

The office dress

Is like Gopikanta Gosain’s mind

It always stays moist.

The dark shadows of the rains

Enter the damp room

And, like a trapped animal

Faint and become inert.

Day and night it feels as if I

Am bound tightly to some half-dead world.


At the turn of the lane lives Kanta-babu,

Long hair carefully combed,

Large eyes,

And a dainty turn of mind.

His hobby is playing the cornet.

Sometimes, the music rises

Through the horrible air of this lane—

Sometimes in the dead of the night,

In the pale of dawn,

Sometimes at late afternoon

When light glitters among shadows.

Suddenly in an evening

The note strikes Sindhu-Baroya

Across the sky plays

The longing of an infinite time.

Right then, in a moment, I know

This lane is a great lie,

Insufferable, like the ravings of a drunk.

Suddenly, I learn in my mind

There’s no difference whatsoever

Between emperor Akbar and Haripada, junor clerk.

Along the melancholy call of the flute

The ragged and the royal umbrella

Travel together to the same heaven.

Where this song is true

In a timeless hour of dusk


The Dhaleshwari river flows by;

Deep shadows of the bay on its bank;

In the yard

The one who’s waiting is she

Wearing a Daccai sari, vermilion on her forehead.


Translated from Rabindranath Tagore’s mind-blowing original.

The Devil is in the Details

I watched a film and read a book this weekend, both of which raised the same question in my mind. Yes, I know of the widespread tendency to dismiss such questions in the contexts of cinema or literature of these particular genres: I mean, when you are watching an unabashedly commercial Bollywood film or reading an Agatha Christie novel, a suspension of concerns about feminism or patriarchy is automatically asked for. But even after reminding myself of this disclaimer (“This content is not to be taken seriously”), I could not help being bothered.

Because those who think that there are contexts where these questions don’t matter may be making a dangerous mistake. Certain questions always matter. And even if there are a very few exceptions, a mainstream film or a popular novel is most certainly not among them.

I’ll begin with Dame Christie. A successful, independent, good-looking and intelligent woman is finally about to marry the worthy (reserved, chivalrous and so on) guy she has loved for a long time. The guy, suddenly not sounding very worthy any more, says, “…and you’re going to give up that damned dress-making business of yours.”

I wait before I curse him. Let’s hear how she’ll take it.

“You realise that that damned dress-making business is my venture, that I have built it up myself with hard work and made it into a success, don’t you” she says.

(That’s right, girl. You drive some sense into this misguided man.)

“And you have the nerve to say that I must give it up?”

“Yes, I do. You’ll give it all up and come and live in the country with me.”

“Oh, X, but that is what I have always dreamt of! Of course I will!”

You’re kidding me, right?

I mean, it’s not even incompatible—running the successful business and having a happy family life. And no, even at that time and that place it was not incompatible. It would not even have been difficult.

What I don’t understand is, why would Christie, who not only equalled men when it came to success, but outshone many, many of them, would write about this as perfectly normal. Or was she being supremely ironic and I missed her point? I rather hope so.

And now, the Bolly fare. Of course, if I sat down to list the instances of misogyny in Bollywood, I’ll be writing for a long long time to come. This, however, should serve as a good enough and random enough example.

I won’t name the film. It was funny, fast-paced, incredibly absurd and quite enjoyable on the whole. But how these came to be included—thought of, written, shot, directed, acted, edited, included in the final cut, passed by the censor board and then no doubt enjoyed by a fair number of people who do not share my concerns—baffles me.

  1. The two heroes have gone to meet a girl. She comes up slo-mo from a pool, clad in a deliciously tiny bikini. Regular enough. While one of the men talks to her, the other ogles at her chest. Till she raises her eyebrows. This is supposed to be funny.
  2. The heroine appears. She is a thief because she is bored and lonely, don’t you know. Our tougher hero insults her at every word and even handles her roughly. So of course she falls in love with him. And spends the rest of the film drooling at his rudeness. Wow.
  3. Our heroes are chasing an assistant villain and turn up at an underground den of sorts, where the most famous/notorious/popular (I forget how it was advertised) game of the city is held: a beautiful girl dances in front of a basement full of roaring men. After her performance, the toughest arm-wrestle to decide who gets to take her. At this point, you should be calling the human rights-wallahs already, except that if you do, you are taking this too seriously. For it’s all just mildly exciting. And our heroine, the same one who loves it when the hero snaps at her, has followed him here and starts gyrating in a micro-mini dress. Of course he will arm-wrestle-rescue her at the end. So why not have a bit of fun meanwhile with about a hundred would-be (or actual) rapists? Go, Bollywood.
  4. While our heroes were entering this dump, they met with a disturbing sight. It even made them, busy and preoccupied as they were, shocked and serious for all of a moment. Inside a chamber with a glass wall were trapped two women, clad in harem-like costumes, standing/sitting in calf-high water. One of the women seemed to be unconscious (or resigned to her fate). The other pleaded with folded hands to our heroes to save her.

Did they? They did, right? After beating the villain and rescuing the heroine and singing the song and dancing the dance, they did rescue these women, right?

So wrong.

The poor, beautiful, scantily-clad women about to be tortured were just details in the set-up. Adding colour, you know.

Not very funny, this. And really, really, not OK.



Ode to a Universal Phenomenon

Lower your voice and widen your eyes;

Punctuate your words with gasps and sighs;

Throw furtive glances behind your back—

If you do it well, you may have a knack.

Giggle in glee every other sentence;

You’ve shocked and you’ve thrilled your eager audience.

A dash of colour here, gory details there;

God forbid that you’d ever be unfair.

Today’s best friend may be tomorrow’s subject,

It’s a story well-told, so who would object?

I can see you can’t wait; to share you’re itching;

Let’s bring it on, then, start the day with ________.

The Order

I sat, waiting. Nervous eyes, frozen body, pounding heart. I sat waiting in a pool of blood. Why do they scream so, I wondered, my friends and family and strangers, while they are butchered? Did they not know it was coming? But then a hand reaches for me and I feel like screaming, too. No, not yet. They want me alive. So they tie my feet and hold the bunch in a tight grip and as I hang upside down, I start my scream. I don’t know how long or far we travel. I’m always tied-feet-up-head-down, and always screaming, except when I am too exhausted. Once, they stop and put me down sideways, and I freeze again, wondering. Wondering. What now?

Nothing but a recommencement of the same. An upside-down busy world and automatic screams. Finally, after the longest and giddiest journey, we stop, and it comes. At the softest part of my neck.

I hope you enjoyed the kebabs.

Animation Films Crossword

Merry Christmas!





2: How Nemo and Dory keep us busy (7)

6: Can you believe that they have a university as well as an incorporation? (8)

12: Destination of an unlikely but really enthusiastic police officer (8)

13: Think blue, yellow and glasses (7)


1: A leonine adaption of Hamlet? (4)

3: Out now – Hollywood’s take on psychoanalysis (6)

4: They came, they melted, they dawned, they drifted and they collided (6)

5: What do they do home alone? (4)

6: The latest of the lot, following in the footsteps of Brave (5)

7: Cuddliest warrior ever (5)

8: If you have one of these, then you’ll really need a training manual (6)

9: But it may melt your heart (6)

10: You’ve seen it in 2016, but it started as a ____ as long ago as 1894 (4)

11: A scientist’s daughter enters the world of tiny creatures who protect the forest (4)





Clipart: pixabay


When Prince Charming

With swag disarming

Got near the enchanted castle;


Oh no, oh hell!

Where’s the bombshell?

The girl he saw had ‘muscle’!


He’d, in his mind,

Pictured his find:

A pretty if revealing frock;


A face to launch ships

Fair to the fingertips…

The fellow got a nasty shock.


She was very much awake –

Was the promise a fake?

The promise of a sleeping one?


And beauty? Oh dear!

A cold, creeping fear

To clutch his heart had begun.


Shorts and shirt,

Smeared with dirt;

Skin of coffee bean colour;


Not even supine;

She looked quite fine;

He felt hot under the collar.


Size zero? Not she.

Manner: dreadfully free

Tall of height, short-cropped hair;


Didn’t swoon or gasp,

But tightening her grasp

On a stick, she gave him a glare.


Then he got it, phew!

“Not the princess, are you?”

He asked with hope and relief;


What ensued then

Isn’t flattering to men

So I’ll keep the story but brief.


Overstate they may,

But people do say

The prince didn’t fare very well;


Believe it or not,

When the chase turned hot,

He was said to have fled pell-mell.


The Princess, we gather –

For it was her, none other –

Advised in a calm, grave manner;


To go on his way

As ‘twas clear as day

That he needed more saving than her.


But when he took offence

And as a weak defence

Cited her womanly duty;


She hit him where it hurt;

His tears did start

“Oh, you ain’t no sleeping beauty!


“Mend your ways;

Don’t waste your days.

You need a man to tell you how to live.”


How she answered then

Is too outrageous to pen

‘Twas very like a woman, I believe.


Such is the tale

Of the forbidding female

Most unbeautiful, non-charming;


Details, if you must:

She was free, brave and just;

Altogether really alarming.


So if you have a plan

To save a Hapless Woman

You know where you should not go;


The Disenchanted Land

Where the prince was beaten and –

Fatally punctured his ego.


Image: pixabay