A visit to the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghalmari

Driving on a straight stretch of National Highway-60 from Medinipur to Balasore, you would be forgiven for missing the small sign unbefitting one of the most significant archaeological sites discovered in Bengal. After all, the sleepy hamlet Moghalmari, is similar to others in the southern part of Paschim Medinipur district, close to the border with Odisha. But after traversing a few hundred metres off the highway, you come across an impressive hillock, which locals refer to as the “mound of Sakhisena” and the “mound of Sashisena”. My own native village is in the vicinity so I’m familiar with the area, but even a day-trip will acquaint the casual observer with the geography of the region and to that the fact that this is an anomaly since most of the region is very flat.

In 1996, a local schoolteacher, Narendranath Biswas, informed Asok Datta, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calcutta about various ancient-looking artifacts villagers were finding near this mound. A very large number of medieval coins with Buddhist inscriptions, shards of pottery, and ornate bricks were being discovered.


In 2003, the mound and two other adjacent sites were selected for excavation by Dr. Datta. This small village, Moghalmari was hypothesized to be a part of a flourishing ancient center known as Dandabhukti. Further, just as today the village is situated just off of a national highway, in antiquity, it was thought to be on a trade route connecting Tamralipta, one of the most important ports in Buddhist times, to other sites of significance to Buddhism.


Further examination of the site led Dr. Datta and his team to believe that the Subarnarekha River, which now flows approximately 4 kilometers southwest of Moghalmari was close to the mound, further strengthening the argument that the village was once a center of Buddhist learning.

Excavation began in earnest, but proceeded slowly through five stages over nearly a decade, more often hampered by lack of sustained funding and bureaucratic bottlenecks, than by any shift in significance. Excavations leading up to 2012 revealed that the mound was the site of an extensive Buddhist monastery complex built over centuries and perhaps as early as the sixth century, the likes of which have yet to be discovered elsewhere in Bengal. Many human figures including that of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, bowls, terracotta lamps, tablets for worship, and seals were found within the central region surrounded by massive brick walled structures ornately decorated with stucco panels and floral motifs.


A brick stupa was discovered in 2012 along with proto-Bengali scripts. Shortly before Dr. Datta’s death in 2012, he wrote in a local magazine, Ebong Shayak that “Moghalmari possibly exhibits the largest monastic site so far discovered in Bengal.”

Not much has been gleaned about the Buddhist monastery complex at Moghamlari from the standard texts of the time that historians rely on for information. The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) may have alluded to it in 638, when he visited Tamralipta, but he did not mention any specific name. Tamralipta is extensively mentioned by Xuanzang and Faxian (Fa Hien) before him, but to date, no archaeological site corresponding to this major Buddhist centre has been discovered. As such, Moghalmari may be the best preserved site in the vicinity and could hold the key to unraveling the secrets of Buddhist society in Bengal at that time.

I visited the mound at Moghalmari in October, 2012. Up until that time, only small areas of the mound that had been excavated by Dr. Datta’s team. The area had not been cordoned off by the Archaeological Survey of India. In fact, the only sign mentioning the historic significance of the Buddhist complex at the location had been erected by a club of local citizens, who had also taken up the important task of safeguarding the excavated sites. Some relics had been shipped to Kolkata, while others had been kept in a small clubhouse converted into an archive. We were the only visitors that day.


This was in marked contrast to the situation earlier this month. The Directorate of Archaeology & Museums of West Bengal is currently undertaking a complete archaeological excavation and restoration of the Buddhist monastic complex at the mound. I visited the site last week and was greeted enthusiastically by experienced, local diggers who had previously worked with Dr. Datta, and state archaeologists, who guided me around the site and eagerly answered all my questions regarding the layout of the complex. Work is progressing rapidly and many artifacts are being uncovered every week. I also saw a flat site adjacent to the mound, which in the near future will house a small museum of antiquities.


I am very excited that we will finally learn more about this important site, and this unknown facet of our history, but I also understand there are underlying responsibilities. For many years, the Buddhist monastic complex at Moghalmari was safely buried under layers of soil because no one knew about it. With excavation will come the challenge of protecting the structures from tourists, vandals, and thieves. The structures will also be exposed to the vagaries of local weather such as high humidity and water erosion.


Elsewhere on the subcontinent, in Mohenjo-Daro, concerned authorities are contemplating reburying exposed structures under soil to protect them from further damage as exposed walls are crumbling from the foundation. Preservation is an ongoing activity, and the people I spoke to at Moghalmari this month told me that they had thought seriously about this important duty. I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to rise to this challenge. Moghalmari contains extensive evidence of our early cultural heritage which deserves closer inspection: the responsibility of protecting it lies not only with the authorities who plan to safeguard it, but also with us.


December 19, 2013- update: Archaeologists uncovered a gold coin from the Gupta period (likely sixth century A.D.) and a locket yesterday. The coin has the image of an emperor on the obverse, and the image of what seems to be a goddess on the other side.

(An earlier version of this post was published as a column for M3).

A conversation with a barber

I have been flying in to Netaji Subhas Chandra International Airport in Kolkata since 1980, but even after so many years, it is a thrill to arrive in Bengal after a series of long flights. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the new Kolkata International Airport was in service.

This year having arrived from a city that was literally below freezing when I left it, I was a little taken aback by the layers everyone was wearing in 20 degree Centigrade weather- scarves, sweaters, shawls, monkey-caps, and windcheaters. I am sure they all thought that I was some sort of lunatic for wearing a half-sleeve shirt and trousers during the evening! Apparently, there was a cold-spell going on at the time.

Speaking of evenings, the first few days after I arrive always go by as a blur and I’m never really ever sure if it is morning or night. However, because I travel internationally more than I used to, my experiences with jetlag have become more manageable than in the past. That said, I still find myself waking up very early in the morning for the first week or so.

But there is something I have to do within the first day or two of arriving in Bengal. And that is to get a haircut and a shave from a friendly barber.

Make no mistake, an interaction with a barber is not solely about getting a haircut or a shave, though certainly that is the primary goal. There is a binding contract that a grown man has with his barber. In America, my elderly Vietnamese barber is a well of anecdotes, unsolicited advice, and general chitchat. As time has passed, I’ve gotten to know more about her early struggles as a poor immigrant in America and as a single parent raising a daughter.

With Abhi, my barber in India, for obvious reasons, I have to schedule a session before I arrive through my in-laws, so that he can close shop to make a house-call. At the designated hour, I sit on a chair on a verandah with a gamcha around my neck. Abhi’s starts to work with his scissors.

“What news, Abhi?” I ask.

“Dada, did you know that the Khagen babu is selling his house in February? His daughter is getting married to a decorator.”

“Is it?”

“Yes, dada. Should I cut your sideburns, dada?”

“Yes, make them equal. Abhi, where did you hear all this about Khagen babu? How are you so sure of it?”

“Dada, I go to cut his hair. “

Abhi knows everyone in the neighborhood. We continue talking as Abhi puts the finishing touches on my haircut, and then starts to work up a lather for my shave. By the time Abhi has shaved my face, I have received a complete intelligence report on my hometown. Some of Abhi’s stories are invariably false, but they’re all very good stories.

As Abhi applies aftershave, he asks, “When should I come again?”

“I’ll send you a message.”

Achha, dada. Aaj ashi.”

Abhi packs up his tools, puts the money I offer him in his pocket without counting it, and takes my leave. I head straight for the bathroom to take a shower.

(An earlier draft was published as a column at M3).

Kali Puja memories

After you’ve witnessed many seasons along with the return and passing of holidays, they all seem to blur in the mind. A childhood filled with many Kali Pujas has turned into one massive remembrance for me. There were years I went with my parents to buy fireworks from seasonal stalls that sprung up in front of “stationery” shops in my hometown. There were years clapping in anticipation as we lit the aforementioned fireworks which often fizzled out with more of an acrid smell than a dazzling show of light and sound. There were years of bans on “burimar choklet boma” complete with waxing and waning enforcement of a 65 decibel noise-limit. There were years, we would all get into a car in the evening and travel to Kharagpur to see the massive pandals and puja mandaps that came up – as those with the right information mentioned with their voices lowered –through the patronage of well-to-do residents with very shady dealings. All these years have jumbled together to form an inseparable tangle of what I think of when I recall Kali Puja, except for one year, when I was still in college, which is vivid in my recollection.

Back then we celebrated Kali Puja and the day after, which was nominally called Dipaboli, but in reality just the second day of Kali Puja. Kali Puja was two days, Durga Puja was four, and Saraswati Puja one or at most two, and that was it. We had not heard of Dhanteras, and a five-day long Diwali with Kali Puja as an ancillary component was not the norm. I am talking about a time before the current puja inflation.

I didn’t visit mamabari every year, but that Kali Puja is special because it holds enduring images of boromama and chotomama –my uncles –and is one of the last times that I saw either of them. They chaperoned us, a boisterous bunch of cousins, as we went on a walk that commenced quite late in the evening after the crowds and the commotion had died down. I remember during that walk, boromama did not need a GPS or a map: in his mind he had charted out the perfect path so that we could see all the major mandaps in the town and loop back after a few hours of leisurely walking through neighborhoods, bazaars, and the banks of the canal that passed through Contai. Kali Puja is wonderful for walking in a way that Durga Puja generally is not; typically the temperatures are cooler and the chance of rainfall much lower.

The night was capped off by dinner, which we had at a restaurant very close to mamabari just around their closing hours. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves, so it was a very special. The first course always had to be moghlai porota, and everyone got one of their own regardless of age. After washing down this crispy, yet not overcooked treat with cold drinks, we waited for chili chicken accompanied by fried rice. A word or two about chili chicken is in order; there really is no single recipe for it. The only real requirement for chili chicken is that is contain chicken, sliced green capsicum, and an extremely spicy red sauce made from a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and potent chili peppers. I have not found it anywhere outside of Indian Chinese cuisine, but it is a staple of Bengali Chinese food where it is consumed with fried rice. There is also one basic rule to ordering fried rice that must be followed: if you order a chicken entrée, you pair it with vegetable or egg fried rice because to order mixed fried rice or chicken fried rice would be to waste money on the extra protein.

So, that night we all sat down to a meal of extremely spicy chili chicken and vegetable fried rice, both of very dubious quality. Of that experience I can say that I certainly have had countless meals that have been better, but to this day, I remember the taste that meal very well. Dining isn’t about the food; it is about the company.

And so it was that year. We had looked forward to it and it had not disappointed.
It has been many years since. Those of us, who were young and unemployed when we went on that walk, now have desk-jobs and potbellies. Some of us are married and have children. But when I think of Kali Puja, I always end up thinking back to special year.

(Also, appeared as a column this week)

On translating Tagore

Robert Frost once famously quipped that what was left behind was poetry, what translated, was in fact prose. Judging by this austere parameter, you could very easily argue that attempting to translate poetry is a perilous act. Jorge Luis Borges took the diametrically opposite view when he asserted that translations of poetry are in no way inferior to originals, only completely different.

For the most part I am inclined to agree with Frost, in particular when it comes to the translation of poetry from Bangla to English. Part of the difficulty is inherent in the language and cannot be circumvented easily by any translator: for example, Bangla, like many other Indic languages has three forms of “you” (aapni, tumi, tui) complete with complementary verbs, but no pronoun or verb form that distinguishes between the male and female “him” or “her”. But there is more that lies beyond the nuances of language and the mechanics of meter and rhythm. Words in languages have meanings with specific cultural connotations; they tap into unique symbolism which cannot be transferred. For example, because Bengal is inextricably linked to its rivers, words associated with their waters are metaphors for life, love, sorrow, and loss.

The “problem” is compounded further when you audaciously attempt to translate Rabindranath Tagore, whose mastery of words and rhyme are unparalleled in the Bangla language. I have come to the conclusion that it is simply impossible to convey an iota of the feeling expressed in his original poems and songs in any other language. Should you then resist the temptation to translate Tagore?

George Steiner in After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation argues forcefully that since language can only imperfectly express thoughts and ideas, all speech, even speech considered original, is translation, and that “attacks on the translation of poetry are simply the barbed edge of the general assertion that no language can be translated without fundamental loss.” In essence, what he is saying is that translations provoke our sentiments because we emphasize territoriality over languages and their incipient totems.

This leads to an obvious question: is the act of translating poetry useful?

Well, it certainly is useful to the translator. If I experience the majestic grandeur of a sunrise from a mountain-top, I am not dissuaded from sharing a glimpse of it in a photograph, even though the photograph cannot capture the thrill of being there. I perceive translation done with integrity to be similar. I was there when I read the poem, and my translation is a snapshot of it. Of course, by translating it, I changed it: I added filters of words and connotations, but it gave me pleasure to share it, even though it pales in comparison to the original. Isn’t the desire to share what is perceived as beautiful, universal?

Songs have an added layer beyond words. They are masterful, even if you don’t understand the language. Nearly 100 years ago, Prince Wilhelm of Sweden visited Jorasanko, the home of the Tagores, and was fortunate enough to listen to a private concert put together in his honor. Of this experience he writes in a memoir, “Seldom or never have I been present at a moment so instinct with feeling; it actually brought tears to one’s eyes, and one scarcely dared to breathe for fear of breaking the spell.”

Lines linger and often serve as bridges between others. Repetition and cadence add richness to meaning. I am certainly not the first to say so, but I do think that it is appropriate to represent songs, even in translation, not as they are written in their original language, but as they are sung. In listening to one of Tagore’s songs that is very close to my heart, today I had the wild temerity to attempt to translate it. I encourage you to view it from my perspective- as Vasco Núñez de Balboa looking for the first time at the wonders of the Pacific Ocean. But if you understand Bangla, the language in which it was meant to be seen, you really should visit it firsthand instead of looking at my discolored snapshot.


Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

I have picked them up; I have placed them at your feet
Take them, take them in your caring hands

When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
When I am gone, they will blossom in your lap
Let the fingers you use to weave garlands
Remember me in sweet sorrow.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither

The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The four-note koel cries of futile pain on this enchanted, sleepless night
The two of us whispering carefree words
The two of us longing desperately to be united

Lost… All is lost in a stream of moonlight on this dol purnima night!
Their traces will remain to be woven into a garland
For another day, for an afternoon you will spend absentmindedly.

Into the flow of this mournful breeze, tender blossoms wither


(A version of this post appeared earlier as a column).

Manna Dey, Sudhin Dasgupta, and Bengali romanticism

Manna Dey, the maestro is no more. When I first heard the news around midnight, my mind wandered to all the songs that have inextricably become a part of my life. I thought about each memory associated with each of the songs I cherish so much.

Manna Dey sang primarily in Hindi and Bangla. In Hindi, he worked with many influential music directors like S.D. Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Shankar Jaikishen, Naushad, and R.D. Burman in lending his voice to songs that are loved to this day. But I remember his singing in Bangla – particularly for Nachiketa Ghosh and Sudhin Dasgupta, two music directors almost entirely unknown outside of Bengal- with even greater fondness. His long-standing association with Sudhin Dasgupta resulted in some of the best film-based Bangla songs ever created.

Sudhin Dasgupta composed the music for approximately 50 albums until his death in 1982, with an unmistakable style fusing elements of avant-garde Western jazz and lounge music with technically-demanding singing. Even in the occasional dance number, his music is seldom loud, instead melding a few musical threads seamlessly into an unobtrusive, melodious tapestry.

By my reckoning, Manna Dey sang around 50 songs in approximately two-dozen films for Sudhin Dasgupta out of his total output of over 1,000 songs rendered in Bangla. But because Manna Dey’s buttery yet technically-sound voice fit Dasgupta’s style perfectly, these are some of best. One of Manna Dey’s few duet songs with Lata Mangeshkar in Bangla was for Dasgupta (“Ke prothom kache eshechi” from Sankhabela in 1966). Two years later, Manna Dey sang a particularly memorable song “Aami taar thikana rakhini” for a non-film album composed by Sudhin Dasgupta. Manna Dey also sang a few humorous songs over the years for Dasgupta (think “Chatur naar” from Padosan standard) such as “Banchao ke ache morechi je prem kore” from Chadmabeshi (1971) and “Agun legeche legeche” from Basanta Bilap (1973).

But the pinnacle of the collaboration over the course of the Sixties and Seventies and led to a young, clean-cut Soumitra Chatterjee capturing the Bengali psyche as an urbane, romantic hero (mainly in a half-dozen films in which he was cast opposite one of two gorgeous leading ladies – Aparna Sen or Tanuja).

There is a successful pattern to how the scene would unfold in these films. An idealistic Soumitra would share an intimate moment with his beloved. They would walk by the side of a river or on a sea beach. The sequence would have Soumitra singing in Manna Dey’s voice or Aparna or Tanuja in Asha Bhosle or Arati Mukherjee’s voice (Sudhin Dasgupta’s two favorite female playback singers). Nothing would be rushed.

These are some of the most captivating moments in popular Bengali cinema –

And this…

And sigh! This…

Also, this…

And although, not a Manna Dey song, I’ll end this post with this-


Durga Puja through the ages

In Ovid’s famous Latin poem Metamorphoses, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with a statue of a woman he had created. On Pygmalion’s entreaty, this statue was granted the breath of life by Venus.  Western literature and art is filled with many variations of the Pygmalion theme, of which arguably, the most notable is George Bernard Shaw’s play by the same name.

I bring up the Pygmalion myth for one reason in particular. It is not uncommon for an artist to be emotionally attached to created art, and certainly aesthetically pleasing sculptures of the gods and goddesses used for worship during Durga Puja qualify a art. But just as the idols used in Durga Puja are brought to “life” when they are granted eyes through a formalized ceremony, they are also immersed after the tenth day of worship. The only exception, I know to this general rule applies to festivals held outside South Asia, where for practical purposes, new idols cannot be transported every year.

As Durga Puja ends, a familiar sight unfolds in which the clay idols of the goddesses and gods are transported to the banks of rivers and immersed to the beats of the dhaak and to the cries of “How long with Pujo last? The idols will be immersed”. After the lavishly-adorned idols are thus dispatched, the followers return to their homes promising to each other, “It will happen again next year; we will move forward every year.”

I recall reading a passage from Christopher Isherwood’s Ramakrishna & His Disciples in my childhood that recounted how easy it was even then to get emotionally attached to the ornate idols. The moral of the story, however, was that it was imperative for the idols to be immersed after worship to demonstrate their impermanence. And that is the general principle even today: no matter how beautiful the sculptures of the gods and goddesses, they are temporary. A Pygmalion-theme tailored to Hindu gods and goddesses would require the destruction of the idols in the end, regardless of whether or not the sculptor fell in love with them.

That is why the clay sculptures used in previous centuries in the autumnal worship of Durga no longer exist. The only way to “see “them is in two-dimensional drawings and photographs. Of course, Durga, in her most popular form, Mahisasuramardini, the slayer of the demon Mahisasur, is visible beyond clay idols used in the autumnal Durga festival. Stone icons of Durga are very popular and can be found in many Hindu temples, extending from southern India to Indonesia (for example, the friezes in Borobudur).

The Indian Museum in Kolkata contains numerous artifacts of special significance. Unfortunately, this museum has not fully digitized their collection, so there is no way to view the images of Durga in their holdings from the comfort of one’s home. The British Library, on the other hand, has a number of priceless holdings that shed light on the iconography of Mahisasuramardini through the ages, that can be viewed online.

One of the most arresting images in their collection is a photograph taken by Nicholas and Company in 1880 at Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu, showing a sculptural frieze of Durga seated on a lion, shooting arrows at Mahishasur.


Here, Durga is depicted in battle riding a lion crafted in classical style and Mahisasur has the head of a buffalo. Another photograph of Durga is from sculpture panel on the façade of the sanctuary of Baitala Deula in Bhubaneshwar, from the Archaeological Survey of India Collections (photograph taken by William Henry Cornish in 1892). Here also, Mahisasur, is depicted with the head of a buffalo.


Among other images, is a photograph taken by Joseph David Beglar in 1872-73 in Dulmi (in what is now Jharkhand).


In addition to sculptures associated with temples, there are quite a few paintings and drawings of Durga in public and private collections across the world. However, there are fewer artistic depictions the clay models of Durga Puja as the autumnal festival from previous centuries. One of the few images, a watercolor from 1809 depicting devotees during Durga Puja (created by Sevak Ram in the Patna style), is quite spectacular.


While researching the topic, I stumpled across one of the most interesting images of the idols of Durga Puja hidden away innocuously in a book by Charles Coleman (The Mythologie of the Hindus, 1832). The drawing featured in the book is a reproduction of clay models for worship of Durga, Kartik, and Ganesh crated by the Bengali sculptor, Chitta Roy. Saraswati and Lakshmi are conspicuously absent from the representation. Karthik resembles the Bengali gentleman of the day, and at least in my mind, Raja Rammohun Roy. But the most amusing icon in the drawing is Mahisasur, who with long noticeable muttonchops, looks like an officer of the East India Company!


(This is a very lightly edited version of a column I wrote for M3.tv).

Durga Puja Vignettes

It is late evening on Nabami. Assembled in front of the pyramid-shaped pandal of the Tarun Sangha Sarbojonin Durgotsav is a huge crowd of men, women, and children decked in their finest attire. This is no ordinary pujo: This year, Ma Durga doesn’t look like Mahua Roychodhury, Mahishasur doesn’t look like Lionel Ritchie, and the lion doesn’t look like Rameez Raja. No, the club has spared no expense in arranging an Egyptian themed-pujo with idols from Kumartuli and lights from Chandannagar. There are hieroglyphics on banners and festoons (courtesy of Bapi Poultry House). There is a temporary fountain in the form of a Sphinx with water coming out of its human mouth. Ma Durga has been meticulously crafted to resemble Queen Nefertiti, albeit with the traditional ten hands. And the gods, goddesses, demon, and associated animals are all dressed like pharaohs.

People have traveled for miles by bus, tekar, and shared taxi to see the pandal here. And indeed, a short while ago, an entire family of fourteen members disembarked from a compact car.

The crowd is being directed by two police officers and a club-member on the microphone, “Please enter only through the gate marked entrance. Men, please don’t use the women’s entrance. Please keep the peace.”

The pandal and the fountain occupy the centre of a large field repurposed for pujo festivities. Around the perimeter of the field is a ring of small shops selling items such as imitation jewelry, plastic toys, balloons, and bright buckets. There are shops with mounds of piping hot sweets such as jilipi, goja, baborsa, and dhakai-porota, strained straight from the oil. There are also busy benches lined up with people enjoying bhejitabil chop, ispeshal biryani, moton roll, and coldinks. In various strategically located parts of the field are small carts with moshlamuri, bhelpuri and roasted nuts.


In a corner of the field, there is makeshift stage, in front of which are rows of occupied, red plastic chairs. A man wearing a baseball cap is hosting the para cultural festival (sponsored by Adhunika Jewelry Museum). Now, the host is announcing in his best baritone Satinath Mukhopadhyay impression, “Our next performer is Mishtu Pramanik. Mishtu, wherever you are, come up to the stage. The audience is waiting for you.”

Seven-year old Mishtu steps on to the stage holding her father’s hand. She is wearing a new pink dress. She steps up to the microphone and starts to recite Tagore’s “Shonar Tori”. Although she has practiced the poem many times, she takes one look at the audience and freezes. Tears well up in her eyes. She does not remember beyond the first stanza.

In a few moments, Mishtu’s father will comeback up on the stage and escort her away. It is no big deal. Everyone is here to have a good time. Tonight, her father will console her by buying a very large bar of chocolate for her. Tomorrow, she will wear another dress that she hasn’t worn yet and they will go pandal-hopping. She will be happy because she will see more thakurs than anyone in her class.

While Mishtu is trying to remember the poem she memorized, Avik is in the audience. He isn’t looking in the direction of the stage. Instead, he is scanning the crowd for a familiar face. Pujo has not been going well for him this year.On Saptami, he did not see Paromita as he roamed the streets with his friends. He did not see Paromita during pushpanjali on Ashtami morning. Tonight is his last opportunity. After all,the clock is counting down to the end of another Durga Puja!

And just as he is about to give up all hope, Avik sees Paromita in the crowd. She is with her friends. His face lights up. He straightens his collar and walks up to her. She sees him too.

“Avik-da, how are you?”

Avik wants to say that he was not well until now, but he doesn’t. “Bhalo. Have you come to see the pandals?” Avik stops. What kind of an idiotic question is that? Of course, she has come to see the pandals. “Avik Choudhury you will forever be alone,” he thinks to himself.

Paromita does not answer rudely, but rather smiles and answers in the affirmative. They continue to talk for a while and then awkwardly go their separate ways. Avik is on cloud-nine. It has been a successful Durga Puja. Tomorrow, he will wear a bright floral shirt and dance to his heart’s content with the procession of idols all the way up to the river bank. He will stay until the idols are immersed and return in the early hours of the following morning, making sure to walk by Paromita’s house.


(This is an edited version of my column.)

A pin on a map

I woke up and realized that there were still a few hours until dawn. But instead of trying to get back to sleep, I decided to take a journey.  In those wee hours, I flew over hills, rivers, and cities. I did not need to leave my bedroom; what I did instead was use the wondrous aerial maps available digitally on Google Earth.

Traveling through online maps is a hobby of mine. Sometimes, I visit wondrous locations like the Grand Canyon, the Great Pyramid of Giza, or Angkor Wat. But more often than not, I roam through West Bengal, the state I call my own. In the morning, I navigate meandering rivulets of the lower Sundarbans. In the evening, I take a leisurely stroll along the Hooghly River, from the Gwalior Monument to Prinsep Ghat. Sometimes, I walk down familiar roads to check up on the homes I’ve lived in and on friends and relatives. I stop by uninvited to say “hello” and often stay for tea and snacks. At those times, looking at the screen of a computer, tablet, or smartphone becomes a way to connect, and I willfully overlook the fact that online maps are not updated simultaneously.

That particular night, however, I did not walk through Kolkata or boat down the Sundarbans. Instead, I took my rusty bicycle out from the space underneath the stairs of my old home, wiped the dust off, and began pedaling down a road a friend and I had first taken twenty years ago. Both of us were in college then. On afternoons, we would ride past the boundaries of our hometown to the bank of the river. Feeling adventurous one day,we decided that we would not stop there, but that would keep pedaling as far as we could go. The beauty of it was that neither of us had the foggiest idea where we were going. Purposely getting lost is an audacious folly of youth, but we were young at the time.

As the sun began to dip, we passed paddy fields, hills, and dense forests of saal. And so, we pushed ourselves for miles though the beautiful terrain of rural Bengal. Finally, when we were exhausted, we stopped at a tea stall in a village, asked for two glasses of tea and lero biscuits from a glass jar. We dipped the biscuits and slurped the tea greedily. Having had our fill, we asked the proprietor, “dada, where does this road lead?”

“There are more forests, fields, and then you will reach a river-crossing.”

My friend and I looked at each other, at our watches, and the darkening surroundings and decided to call it a day. Thick clouds had formed overhead. By the time we reached our town, we were drenched to the bone like soggy crows. That day, both of us promised that we would later find out where the road went.

Twenty years later, I know that it has gone in a different direction for me. It has taken me away from the town of my youth to a new life in another country. It had taken me far from my friend, who I had not seen or spoken to in more than a decade. But I had not forgotten my town, it people, or these serene surroundings. All these thoughts went through my mind as I traced the road on the digital aerial map on my screen.

Quite recently, I had started to look at buying a modest plot of land between the river and the hills- on the same road that my friend and I had first traversed in our youth. I honestly cannot say if I will live near my former home again, or how often I will be able to visit. But if for nothing else, one day I want to be able to drop a red pin on a map. In times of despair, if physically I cannot reach it, I can say in my mind “This land is mine. I am made of this soil.”

Even wanderers need to find their bearings.

(From an invited column previously published here).

In memory of an uncle and a poet.

I am told that he was getting a little better. He was brought home. He smiled and asked after others. And then he quietly slid into the sleep from which no one ever awakens.

It is still difficult to process. I sense the loss of not one man, but of two men, who had been revealed to me over the course of decades of my life. The first was meshomoshai, my uncle, who I recall from childhood as a kind, gentle man. Whenever I saw him, he was dressed simply but sharply. In fact, I don’t think I ever saw him wear anything other than quintessentially Bengali attire –dhoti-genjis at home, or very crisp dhoti-panjabis outside. He had been quite handsome in his youth, resembling in many ways the Bengali actor of yesteryears, Nirmal Kumar, but with dreamier eyes and slightly softer features. He spoke very softly. In a perpetually loud world, you had to pay close attention to hear what he had to say. Meshomoshai was one of the last of an endangered species, the Bengali bhadralok.

Because mamoni, mashi, and meshomoshai lived only a kilometer away at a two-story house in my hometown, I saw them quite often. There was the year we had moved back to Medinipur; we would visit on Sunday mornings to watch Mahabharata on their 19-inch Weston color television. There were the countless evenings sheltered from the rain, hungry for some of the delectable goodies like pithes that mamoni and mashi made. There were the afternoons spent with cousins and very soon, in-laws, and then their children. Through the years, I would press the doorbell of that familiar, friendly house with a special ring- a long tone followed by a short one. Meshomoshai, who spent most of his time on the lower-level of the house, would come to the door. “Esho,” he would say with his distinctive smile and let me in. I would smile, open my shoes, and rush upstairs.

Meshomoshai’s small study on the lower-level, where he spent most of his hours was a mystery to me. In the room were yellowing hardcover books and files stacked upon files. I rarely spent any time in this room in my childhood. I had always supposed that the files contained documents of a prosaic nature, such as land-deeds or library records from his time as a librarian.

In college, I discovered the quiet unassuming man I knew as meshomoshai was Amar Sarangi, a literary giant in Medinipur. It was a revelation. Medinipur, primarily an agrarian district in southern West Bengal, was at that time the largest and most populous district in West Bengal. It shone for its contribution to the independence movement of India. Still, when meshomoshai was born in 1931, it did not feature very prominently in the literary map of Bengal. That did not deter him from his serious pursuit of poetry. When there were very few venues for local writers, he launched Piyasi, the first literary little magazine in the district, providing an inspiration for many others that followed. Due to his encouragement spanning decades, he nurtured the talents of generations of writers.

I first began to know the man as a poet, when I started to write myself. It was time of great turmoil for me. I had no prospects whatsoever, not in love, not in a career, and I certainly possessed no respectability. Paradoxically, this was also the most creative phase of my life. Along with other similar-minded individuals, I was first beginning to assess the world on my own terms. I had started to write in Bangla and had just published a short story in my college magazine and my first poem in Bangla in Mayukh, a little magazine from Kolkata.

I don’t remember exactly when, but it was around that time that meshomoshai’s first anthology of poems, spanning over four decades of dedication to poetry came out in print. I read it from cover to cover. The work was exquisite and in many ways was a bridge to the earliest examples of modernism in Bangla poetry. Meshomoshai’s literary career had started shortly after the Kallol movement and he had published some of his earliest verses in the leading outlets of his time including Buddhadev Bose’s Kavita. He had started writing when Jibanananda Das, arguably the greatest Bengali poet since Tagore was still writing and many of his early poems bear a similar unmistakable love for rural Bengal. Over the decades, meshomoshai’s poetry evolved in new directions and acquired a new finesse. As a poet, what I admired most about him was his phenomenal vocabulary and his humanistic vision. Even very recently, I had been trying to remember lines from his poetry and lamenting that I did not have a copy of his anthology with me. Idealism tinged with beauty, often of a melancholic nature was a hallmark of his work.

When I had first started to write in Bangla,  meshomoshai was one of only two published writers who encouraged me to continue writing even in the face of opposition from elders who wanted me to focus on solely on the vastly overrated practice of career-building (the other was the man, who later became my father-in-law). He would tell my parents that they shouldn’t be bothered if I continued to write poems.

I can never forget one particular conversation we had just as I about to leave for the United States. “Do not stop writing,” he said to me. It was my special connection with him.

After that I only saw him a few times over the next decade. I was completely absorbed in a new life in a new country. During this time, meshomoshai kept on writing poems, attending poetry festivals, and inspiring a younger generation of writers. He also finished a colossal project that appealed to the archivist in him- a massive history of the library with which he had been associated, and its immediate surroundings.

Each time I visited him every few years, after the customary “when did you arrive?” and “how long are you visiting?” he would ask, “Do you still write?” It was the only question that really mattered. I wrote research articles, commentaries, editorials, reviews and a massive thesis, but from 2001 to 2010, I did not write a single line of poetry. Poetry had deserted me.

The last time I saw him was in 2012. His health had deteriorated somewhat, but like always, he was very happy to see me. I was very excited because I had good news to share. Poetry had found its way back to me through my newborn son. I was writing again with a passion that I thought I had lost for good.

And now meshomoshai is gone. He has joined the increasing pantheon of individuals I have been fortunate enough to have known, who I will never see again. That house will still be there when I visit my hometown later this year, but that familiar smile will not greet me at the door. I will miss the man who was both an uncle and a poet.

An internal matter: brilliance in design.

I have just returned from a very long business meeting.  Having extricated my feet from a pair of painfully fashionable shoes, I’ve put them up on a sofa. My watch and belt are on a coffee table, my suit jacket is on the sofa, and my shirt sleeves are rolled up. Wherever I travel for business, there is a part of Bengal that is very close to my heart. And by close, I mean, literally. I am talking about the undershirt separating my skin from outerwear.

I have lived in many cities in many parts of the world, but I purposely buy all my undershirts back in West Bengal. And I am not alone. According to the website of the West Bengal Hosiery Association, Anand Mohan Mukherjee established the first hosiery factory in India in Khidderpore in 1893 with his patriotic vision for providing indigenous cotton knitwear to the masses. India has been well-served with swadeshi alternatives from the “Hosiery Capital” ever since.

But I do not prefer undershirts from Bengal for emotional or financial reasons; I prefer them because there is one particular style not popular in any other country that I have visited, but widely available in Bengal, which is brilliant in design. I am not referring to the standard, cotton round-necked t-shirt or the sleeveless vest (referred to as the Japanese-sounding sendo-genji in Bangla), which are pretty much available anywhere in the world. I am referring to a quintessentially Bengali undershirt that has a dipping neckline, very short-sleeves, and that tightly hugs the body.


Here are the reasons why I think it is pure genius:

1) The primary function of an undershirt is to serve as a barrier between the skin and outerwear. This may be to keep the skin away from irritating, yet fashionable fabric present in outerwear. It may also be to keep outerwear free from the stains and odors of perspiration. You can bathe as frequently as you want, add copious amounts of deodorant, and keep a spare shirt in your office, but if you’re being grilled in a board meeting you will perspire. The t-shirt fulfills this requirement very well. However, in this aspect, the cotton vest fails miserably compared to other types of upper-body undergarments because, horror of horrors, it doesn’t cover the armpits!

2) In business wear, a successful undershirt should be as discrete as possible. If I am wearing a tie, it doesn’t matter what I wear beneath my shirt, because it will not be visible, but many businesses have dispensed with ties in favor of more casual business-wear. If I button up my collar without a tie, I’ll look like a moron. If I keep my collar open, but wear a rounded-necked t-shirt then my undershirt is visible. Why would I want someone to see my undershirt? Also, loose t-shirts make wearing close-fitting half-sleeve shirts a problem too since they peep out. This is where the modified Bengali undershirt with dipping neckline is brilliant because no one needs to know what I’m wearing underneath my shirt. In addition, the sleeves are short and so I can wear it with half-sleeves too.

3) Finally, the modified undershirt has design enhancements that suit the Bengali male physique. It is made of “breathable” cotton and is thin so we don’t oversweat. It contours the body perfectly and sits tightly on the middle-aged Bengali paunch, so that at least we can be somewhat presentable without having to go to the gym regularly or forego our second helping of rice and khashi mangsho.

I have not seen any advertisements featuring film stars wearing this brilliant undershirt, which is really a shame. It has the best design for everyday male business wear conceivable, nay it is a practical work-of-art. If Michelangelo’s David wore a tight cotton vest, and the moai of Easter Island wore loose-fitting t-shirts, then The Thinker by Rodin would most certainly wear the Bengali undershirt.