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.

genjikaku

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.