Saturday, November 1, 2008

Silver lining for KGPians even in Hell!

The 50th Anniversary for IIT, Kharagpur was celebrated in a grand scale. Invitations were sent all across the globe and the response was excellent. We all went in big groups and were really taken care of. There were lively seminars, cultural programs, visits to respective departments, visits to respective hostels, dinners and what not!

During one of those cultural programs, the master of the ceremony (unfortunately I am unable to recollect his name) even assured us that for KGPians even death could be interesting!

An IITian from Kharagpur died and as usual went to Hell (all IITians are destined to go to Hell only and they really do not brag about it!). On the very first day Yam Raj (Caretaker of Hell) did not want to start with his punishment schedule and instead sent him with a Yam Dut (Hell’s Angels) for orientation.

While going around the Hell he found one IITian from Mumbai being fried in hot oil. It was too much for him to digest and he shouted “Oh! Why he is being punished like this?”. “ Don’t ask me for any explanation. He is being punished for his Karma Phal (reward and punishment for all his deeds while alive)” replied the Yam Dut.

He went some distance and found one IITian from Delhi being flogged mercilessly. He could not bear the sight and again asked the Yam Dut “Oh! Why he is being punished like this?”. “ I have already told you that don’t ask me for any explanation. He is being punished for his Karma Phal” replied the Yam Dut.

It went on like that till he found an IITian from Kharagpur having a candle light dinner with Aiswarya Rai! This was too much for him! He could not understand the reason and shouted “This is too much! It cannot be! I cannot just accept this injustice”. “ I have already told you so many times before that don’t ask me for any explanation. Aiswarya Rai is just suffering for her Karma Phal” was the reply from the Yam Dut.

Since then I am just waiting for that great moment and even humming the tune “Maron re thun hun mama sham o shoman (Death, you are just like my beloved)” in the bathroom. I am only afraid that if this is leaked out to Aiswarya Rai, she might even invite me for a candle light dinner while still alive instead of keeping it pending!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Off time with Satyen!

During our time it used to be very difficult to score high marks in language subjects particularly in English during our school leaving examination. I could not even become a five point some one in any one of them. However, Satyen was an exception. I do not recollect how much he scored, but it was highest in our batch, that’s for sure. He was very sober and used to sport a scholarly look (not like me who used to look more like a street urchin!) with his unkempt curly hair and thick rimmed glasses. He was involved in all sorts of literary activities in our institute (IIT, Kharagpur) which were beyond most of our capabilities. Even with so much of scholarly differences he accepted me as a good friend!

Normally during the off periods I used to go to canteen along with Gora, Debu or Swapan. Sometime, however, I used to visit our Library and go through some popular magazines like “Popular Mechanics” & “Popular Science” which used to be quite interesting.

Once I became little more adventurous and wanted to explore the Library and to find out what my other friends were doing. After saying hello and hi to some of my friends at various sections, I located Satyen in a cubical marked “English Literature” engrossed in reading a book with a huge pile of books in front of him on a table. On my enquiring Satyen informed me that he was reading short stories.

I cannot now recollect what bugged me then, but I innocently requested Satyen whether he could select a story book for me to pass the remaining half an hour or so. Satyen readily obliged and for the next half an hour gave me an extempore lecture on nuances of short stories, typical characteristics of various short story writers in English literature, what I should read if I were a novice (which I was!), what I should read if I could manage to graduate to a next higher level (which I never could achieve!) and so on and so forth!

Satyen went on selecting a suitable book for me (more or less with the same enthusiasm of selecting a “Suitable Girl” for me!) from the pile of books in front and discarding each one, saying that it was not the exact book he was searching for me!

By then my head was ringing and I could understand how innocent I was (and still am) about English literature! I would have drowned myself in self pity but for the GOD who saved me by announcing the end of the off period!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Unusual Courtesy

My friend Palash is a prolific “friend maker”. But for the difference in time period, I am sure he could have easily given some tips to Dale Carnegie.

He is fortyish, medium built, slightly pot bellied with a well trimmed “Baby Walrus” mustache. By profession, he is a career agent with the Life Insurance Corporation of India and could easily boast of more than five thousand extremely satisfied customers who literally consider him as a friend, philosopher and a guide. Like we try to preserve so called useful articles in our house lest they come in handy some day, Palash nurtures friendships by helping others during their hours of need. His customers are not only satisfied with his professional service but more for the “additional” service he can provide through his numerous “contacts”. They would not do anything worthwhile, be it children’s education or extracting a tooth without consulting him. Palash is always obliging!

Though he can now boast of a long list of rich clients, he had not forgotten those Muslim tailors behind the New Market in Kolkata who were his initial clients and who helped him during his hours of need. Although he has now a staff of ten to help him, he personally visits the tailors in New Market once a month to collect premiums as well as to enquire about their well beings.

It was a late afternoon in November when Palash was waiting near a street corner behind the New Market, for one of such clients. The day was coming to an end and he was worried since his client had not yet shown up, when he noticed somebody was watching him across the street while puffing a bidi (unroasted tobacco wrapped in dried kendu leaf). The man was of dark complexion, with shoulder length curly hair, clean shaven except for a thin mustache. He was bare footed and was wearing a blue and green striped lungi and a red T-shirt.
After a few minutes the man crossed the street and came and stood by Palash.
“Are you from police?” the man whispered without any preamble while puffing the bidi.
“No! But why?” Palash was startled.
“I saw you standing here for quite sometime while watching all the corners” the man replied with some authority in his voice.
“I am a LIC agent and was waiting for one of my clients” Palash replied with a wry smile.
“Then this place is really not very safe for you. There is a chance that you might get mugged or pick-pocketed” the man replied in a matter of fact voice.
“Most of the Muslim tailors in this locality are my clients for a very long time. I always come at least once a month to meet them. Frankly speaking, I never had any problem so far” replied Palash nonchalantly.
Mention of his local Muslim clientele apparently softened the man somewhat and he was no longer aggressive.
“Are you also from this area only” Palash asked the man after a while.
“What do you do for a living?” asked Palash tentatively, just to keep up with the conversation.
“I pick pockets” replied the man hesitantly
“What?” Palash was shocked!
“These days I really do not pick pockets myself” replied the man as if to pacify Palash “I control a gang who operates from Lindsay Street till S. N. Banerjee Road” he elaborated further.
Palash was stunned and did not know what to say!
“I think I must leave” Palsh said thinking he had enough for the day.
“My name is Habib. Come to me if you need any help anytime” said the man. “Come, I will introduce you to Munna” added the man as an after thought and took him to a nearby kiosk where a young boy was making bidis.
Selam Alaykum, Habib Bhai” said the boy with a broad smile while still continuing with his work.
Aleykum Selam” said the man and then added, pointing to Palash “Munna, recognize this man. If he enquires about me, just inform me”
Munna looked at Palash with a smile and gave him a nod.
Khuda Hafez, Habib Bhai” said Palsh before taking leave
Khuda Hafez, Sab (Sir)”

While going home, Palash wanted to forget about the whole incident without knowing that destiny was going to be different!

Next day during the afternoon, Palash had a chance meeting with one of his very important client, Mr. Bose.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Bose. How are you” said Palash with his infectious smile while extending his hand.
“Good afternoon, Palash” replied Mr. Bose while shaking his hand with a glum face.
“What happened? Why are you looking so sad, Mr. Bose” Palsh was worried.
“To-day was a bad day for me. While coming to office via Lindsay Street, I parked my car opposite to the New Market to purchase some medicine. While returning to the car after purchasing medicine my purse was pick pocketed” replied Mr. Bose with annoyance in his voice.
“Oh! Did you loose a lot of money?” enquired Palash with concern
“Not really much money as such. Say about two thousand. But I lost a talisman which always brought me good luck” replied Mr. Bose ruefully.
“Did you report it to the police?” asked Palash
“Oh, come on! They are not likely to break their neck locating my purse” replied Mr. Bose with frustration.
Palash thought for a moment and yesterday’s incident came to his mind.
“Mr. Bose, please come with me. Let me give it a try” said Palsh
“Don’t tell me that you have got connections with the underworld as well?” exclaimed Mr. Bose with surprise.
“Not really underworld in true sense. But I did make some contact only yesterday. Let me find out its effectiveness” replied Palash while hailing a passing taxi.

Palash along with Mr. Bose went to Munna’s kiosk and found Munna absorbed in his traditional work of making bidis.
Munna could recognize Palash and welcomed him with a broad smile “Selam Sab! Are you looking for Habib Bhai?”
Selam Munna! Yes, I am looking for him. Could you please inform him?” replied Palash.
Habib came to Munna’s kiosk within a couple of minutes and greeted Palash “Selam Sab! Are you looking for me?”
Selam Habib Bhai! I need your help” said Palsh with a smile and shook his hand. Then he introduced Mr. Bose to Habib and narrated the incident in brief.
Habib was listening to him very intensely and then asked Mr. Bose” Are you sure that you lost your purse at Lindsay street only?”
“Yes, I am very sure” said Mr. Bose emphatically
“Could you please tell me approximate time when it happened?” asked Habib
“Say about 10 AM!” replied Mr. Bose
Habib thought for a moment and then said “Come with me” and gestured them to follow.
Both Palash and Mr. Bose followed him hesitantly.
Habib crossed many lanes and by-lanes and stopped near a shanty which was locked from outside.
“Akram!” shouted Habib in general direction.
A lame man with a crutch came out from another shanty and said “Selam Habib Bhai” while casting a suspicious glance towards Palsh and Mr. Bose.
“Akram please open the door. Don’t bother about them. I know them” said Habib with authority.
Akram opened the door and stood aside.
Habib gestured both Palash and Mr. Bose to follow and entered the shanty.
Inside the shanty there were a number of bamboo baskets, all full of wallets, ladies hand bags, jewelry and other articles.
“Based on the area and the timing we always segregate the stolen items and keep them in the designated baskets for three days in case we have to return them due to connections at high places. After three days they are all disposed” said Habib in a matter of fact voice. He then located one basket and told Mr. Bose to search for his purse. Mr. Bose was really elated when he could locate his purse within a couple of minutes!
“Please check whether anything is missing” instructed Habib.
“Everything is intact” declared Mr. Bose after checking.
“You are lucky! Now you go home and don’t tell it to anybody” said Habib with a smile.
Palash was simply overwhelmed. He took Habib’s both the hands in his hands and said “Thank you very much Habib Bhai. I do not want to disrespect you in anyway but may I offer anything to you or to your colleagues?”
Sab, I did it only as a good gesture. Take it as a courtesy from a friend!” said Habib, still holding his hands.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nizams' Roll

I am sure Calcuttans of any age will still remember with nostalgia our once famous “Mughlai Paratha”! There is no historical record whether Mughal Emperor Babur or his last known descendent Bahadur Sha had ever tasted this heavenly delight. Their souls must surely be repenting if they didn’t!

Special dough made of flour, water, yeast and oil is stretched thin like a big saucer; a raw egg is then splattered at the centre, a dash of cooked minced meat, some chopped raw onion, green chili and salt added, and then the ends folded to make it to an eight inch square shape which is then fried to a crispy brown color to give the final shape to a Mughlai Paratha! There are, however, too many ifs and buts and I am sure nobody will be trying my recipe.
There used to be a number of local joints but Anadi’s Cabin at Esplanade was renowned to be one of the best. Chowringhee Restaurant, another famous joint, was right next door but we had unquestioning faith in Anadi. Mughlai Paratha with Kasha Mangsho (Bhuna Ghost or Stir fried mutton are only translation but can not match the taste!) at Anadi’s Cabin used to be our cherished heavenly meal!

Unfortunately the process of making Mughlai parathas was rather elaborate, requiring special skills and it could not even be partly prepared in advance. Also it was not possible to eat it while walking. Culinary experts in Calcutta were searching for something which could be equally tasty but could be made in a jiffy and could be eaten while on the move.

The Roll, which could be a fusion cuisine, was thus born to give hot dogs, burgers, and wraps a run for their money.

Succulent pieces of mutton or chicken are marinated for hours in tandoori spices, salt, yogurt, grated green papaya, skewered in thin bamboo or metal skewers and then roasted over a charcoal fire. The wrap is from dough made of flour, water. yeast and plenty of oil. Once the dough gains a certain elasticity it is flattened into the shape of a pan cake and then shallow fried on a flat griddle to make the outer surface slightly crisp. The roasted meat is then lightly fried on the griddle and rolled into the wrap with chopped raw onion, green chili, lemon juice, tomato-chili sauce and rock salt. The whole thing is then wrapped with paper and sealed at one end so that it can be eaten without dirtying your hands. The taste is simply heavenly!

Besides famous joints like “Begam”, “Badsha”, “Bedwin” and “Bawarchi” there are lots of roadside mobile eateries, operating only during evening, which are specialized in different type of rolls like mutton roll, chicken roll, egg roll and their combinations, adding to the gastronomical delight to the Calcuttans.

Though experts may differ, I feel Nizams in Esplanade is one of the best joints for rolls in Calcutta and could also be the pioneer. In the sixties they used to call it “Kati Roll” since the skewers were made of thin bamboo sticks (Kati in Bengali).

I was very fond of Nizams’ rolls for their heavenly taste. In mid-seventies I used to come to Calcutta almost every month and frequented Nizams along with my friend Debu (D. M. Mitra from L&T). We would go for some English movie either in Metro or Light House carrying ”to go” packs from Nizams and open the packs as soon as the lights were dimmed to fill the enter surroundings with the special aroma of Nizams’ roll. The collective sigh of despair “Oh! Nizams’ rolls” from the rest of the deprived audience used to add to their awesome taste!

That day, we were a little late for a movie and decided to visit Nizams after the show was over. The place was quite crowded but we could locate some vacant chairs near a corner where one guy was already munching a roll with his eyes shut with satisfaction. We quickly ordered two mutton rolls and headed for the vacant chairs.
“Are these chairs vacant?” Debu asked the guy very politely
Most reluctantly he opened his eyes and gestured in the affirmative.
Service in Nizams was extremely fast and we got our rolls nearly as soon as we sat down.
We just managed our first bite when that guy opened his eyes once again and asked
“What type of rolls did you order?”
“Mutton rolls” Debu answered innocently
“Are you really sure? I don’t think they are serving you mutton at that price. It must be beef” the guy stated like a “Mr. Know-It-All” .
Not that we were much bothered about having beef, but we could suspect that he was up to something.
“What type of roll have you ordered?” Debu asked him still sounding innocent.
“I did not take any risk and have ordered Chicken roll” boasted the guy.
It became clear that he was trying to spoil our fun and we decided to retaliate. As usual Debu outsourced the dirty job to me.
“I do not think a reputed joint like Nizams will ever serve beef instead of mutton for fear of communal backlash. Though we don’t mind even if it is beef. It could also be buffalo meat” I said nonchalantly while taking a bite of my roll.
“Why buffalo meat?” the guy asked with surprise, pausing in mid-bite.
“If they serve buffalo meat there will not be any religious backlash. Moreover buffalos are healthier so the quality of meat is excellent.” I explained like an expert.
The guy seemed to be convinced with my argument but was visibly disappointed that his initial move to spoil our fun had failed.
“By the way are you sure you are having a Chicken roll” I asked him with a tone of deliberate suspicion.
“What else could it be?” the guy replied with a hint of suspicion and stopped half way from taking his bite.
“I read some report that population of Cheel (Perrier Kites) near the trash dumping yards are dwindling. People are poaching them and selling them to railway caterings and restaurants. I was told they taste exactly like chicken and nobody could find the difference” I replied casting a doubtful look at the roll he was holding.
The guy made a face as if he was abut to throw up, gave me a dirty look, dropped the partially eaten roll on his plate and ran for the wash basin. We did see him stopping briefly to settle his bill on his way out.
Debu and I were very hungry and went on to order a second round of “mutton rolls”.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The haunted house (Concluding Part)

From the silhouette and the gait I guessed that it could be Bandhu.
“Who is there? Is it Bandhu?” I shouted with as much boldness as I could muster.
“Selam Sab (Sir)! I am Bandhu” the figure in the dark answered in a slurred voice.
“Bandhu?” I gave a sigh of relief. “What are you doing here at this hour?” I enquired

By that time Bandhu crossed the lawn and came up to the gate. He was holding a sickle in his right hand and a small object in his left. He was quite drunk and I could smell Mohuwa Tadi (country liquor). I was a little cautious considering he was drunk and armed. Tribals have a reputation for being temperamental and there have been several instances of unexplained violent actions with the slightest of provocation.

“There is an evil spirit in this house. I had consulted an exorcist in our village and planted a talisman given by him in the kitchen garden” he said. He was barely able to keep him standing. “Since you sacked me, I am taking away the talisman. Don’t blame me, if anything happens to you now” he added and walked away into the dark.

The conversation did not lift my spirit. As I stood there in complete darkness I realized suddenly that I was supposed to enter a house which till the other day no one dared to even look at during the night. “My God! I’ll have to cross about fifty meters to reach the main door, unlock the door and switch on the lights” I thought. Anyway I was able to do all that without fainting.

Once the lights were on, I got back my confidence, at least partially. It was a little warm. So I took a bath, changed and again set out for the club since there was hardly anything to do in the house. I had to go to the club anyway for my dinner.

Conversations at the club also did not go well. All my friends were quite anxious at the thought that I would be spending the night alone in the house but nobody ventured to give me company. All of a sudden I realized that most of my friends were authorities on the paranormal and had several memorable personal experiences with ghosts! By the time I left the club at about 11:00 PM after a few games of Table Tennis and a light dinner I was fully conversant with the modus operandi of ghosts of different kinds!

On reaching home, I dressed for the night and lay down on my bed with a story book in hand. I had the habit of reading at least for an hour before going to sleep. I was engrossed with the book may be for an hour when all of sudden I heard a sound “Dhoop…. Dhoop” as if somebody was walking on the roof with a measured gait! I was tense and had goose bumps all over my body! All of a sudden the sound stopped. After a few minutes again I heard the sound “Dhoop….. Dhoop…… Dhoop” followed by a sound “Garrrrr….Garrrrr” as if something was being rolled on the roof. I also heard some sound as if somebody was moving in the kitchen garden!

I did not know what to do till I remembered my mother’s advice that “if you hear an unusual sound, you must find out the source of the sound immediately. Otherwise it will only add to your anxiety”. I thought “If I do not find out the source of this unusual sound, I won’t be able to stay in this house”. I got up from my bed, took a two-cell torch and the house keys from the drawer and proceeded towards the main door. I searched for a suitable stick but could not find one. As an after thought I took the eight-inch blade hunting cum throwing knife which was hanging from a hook behind my bed room door. I was, however, not very sure whether a knife could give any protection against a sprit.

I recalled my mother’s advice and switched on all the lights in our bungalow. There were lights on all the four corners of the house. However, they were partially hidden by bougainvillea creepers, thereby creating a mosaic of light and shadow.

I came out from the main door, locked it and cautiously proceeded along the cemented foot path encircling the house to reach the kitchen garden. When I was going around the corner at the back, a dark object silently went past my head. I was startled and immediately looked up and directed the torch beam overhead but could not see anything. Suddenly from the middle of the kitchen garden which was quite dark, some dark shadows darted past the fencing. I stopped for a moment to compose myself and again proceeded cautiously to check all the trees and surroundings with my torch all the while holding my knife in ready position.

When I reached the guava tree which was at the middle of the kitchen garden, I found lots of partially eaten guavas on the ground with pug marks of dog like animals. I heard some sound overhead and directed the torch beam there to find lots of bats flying! I also got a feeling that somebody must be watching me from across the fence. You will always have this sixth sense if you have any experience of roaming in the forest. I directed the torch beam towards my right, across the fence and could locate the silhouette of a pack of jackals with their eyes gleaming under the torch beam. Though I was scared, I knew they were not going to attack me. I picked up a twig and threw at them and they ran away.

Now I could understand the mystery of the haunted house! The bats were feeding on guavas. Since the guava tree was covering a part of the roof, some guavas plucked by bats were falling on the roof making “Dhoop…. Dhoop” sound. Because of the slanted roof, some of them were even rolling down to the kitchen garden making the strange rolling sound “Garrrrr’. Jackals who are fond of guavas were feeding on the guavas being discarded by the bats. They were fighting among themselves and that was creating the strange sound of foot steps in the kitchen garden. I was sure that these bats were absolutely harmless fruit eating bats and that there were no vampires amongst them! And surely no werewolf among these harmless jackals!

I did not want to disturb either the bats or the jackals during their dinner and returned to my bed feeling satisfied that I had solved the mystery of the haunted house.

Santosh left for Tisco Growth Shop at Jamshedpur after a couple of months. I stayed in that house all alone for quite some time there after. I used to hear all those strange sounds from time to time but that never bothered me ever again.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The haunted house (Part II)

Ajit wanted an early release and left us within two days. We were quite low after Ajit’s departure due to the loss of a good friend and a gossiping partner. Next Sunday at breakfast, while Santosh was having his favorite Alu Paratha (stuffed Indian fried bread), Yogurt and Pickle, I broached the subject.

“Other day Muralidas told me that the so called haunted house will be renovated and offered to the willing bachelors who are not superstitious. He asked me whether we are interested,” I said casually.

Santosh was relishing his Alu Paratha and did not say anything, though I knew he was all ears on the subject.

“I told him that it is OK with me. But I can not take a decision without consulting Santosh who could be superstitious” I added, expecting a violent reaction.

“Partner (his usual address) how could you say that? I am never superstitious!” Santosh was pained. “Tell Muralidas by tomorrow itself, before he talks to anybody else, that we are interested” Santosh was quite empathetic.

Primary goal thus achieved, I immediately switched the topic, lest Santosh’s animosity towards Muralidas got the better of it and he backed out.

Early next day I contacted Muralidas to give him our consent.

“Good Morning, Mr. Muralidas; Biplab here. Finally I could convince Santosh although it took a lot of persuasion. You must give me kudos for it!”

“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta! I am really thankful to you” Muralidas was overjoyed

“The house, however, really looks haunted. Hope you will restore it before we move in?” I suggested.

“Oh! Mr. Sengupta! Please don’t worry. I will definitely bring it to its original shape and give it a fresh coat of paint. I will also restore the lawn and the kitchen garden” Muralidas replied with all sincerity.

That afternoon we found a platoon of estate workers working on the house. Within a week it was brought to such a magnificent state that I was wondering whether Mr. Muralidas really had a change of heart. Perhaps he really wasn’t as bad as we had always thought (which was rather difficult to believe) or maybe he was instigating the ghost to take retaliatory action on us immediately on our arrival!

The news that we were moving to the haunted house spread like wild fire and became the main topic of discussion in our club for the next few days. All our Bhabis were against our decision. Even our bosses were worried.

Anyway, we managed to maintain a brave facade although we had prayers on our lips when we finally moved into the haunted house within a couple of days along with “Bandhu” our man Friday.

Bandhu was a middle-aged tribal. With his salt and pepper cropped hair, half-grown beard, four jutting out crooked front teeth, a short dhoti above his knees and a flapping kurta on top, he used to give the impression of a moving “Scare Crow”. Work wise, however, we didn’t have much to complain about.

The bungalow was really magnificent! It was slightly below the road surface. A cemented pathway led to a huge Iron Gate on the left most corner. There was no street light on the arterial roads and the ornamental gate lights (maintained by the estate department) provided a mysterious halo only near the gates. A graveled drive way extended up to an open garage. Just by the side of the garage there was a small swimming pool. A cemented three feet wide footpath encircled the whole house. There were two big bed rooms with a very big drawing cum dining hall with separate servant’s quarters. The roof was slightly slanted towards the rear for the better drainage. The lawn in front was quite big. The kitchen garden at the rear was even bigger with an assortment of big fruit bearing trees like mango, jack fruit, jamoun and a very big guava tree with branches covering a part of the roof. The barbed wire fencing at the rear was also the boundary for our colony. Between the fencing and the highway there was a forest land about three hundred meters deep.

Nothing happened for the first couple of months except our mess bill went up quite substantially, which, we guessed, could not be attributed to supernatural involvement. We discussed the same with Bandhu who could not give any proper explanation except attributing it to general price rise.

After breakfast we used to walk down to our office which was about a kilometer away.

That day we both started for our office together but halfway down I realized that I left an important file at home.

Santosh, I left an important file at home and must fetch it. You please go ahead. I will meet you in the office” I said and hurried back.

While entering the house I heard some noise inside! Bandhu opened the door with a surprised expression. Entering the main hall, I found at least eight to ten kids, eldest may be around fifteen along with a very fat lady were having a great feast. I did not say a word; just collected my file and left.

During a tea break, I informed Santosh about the episode.
“Partner, what Bandhu did is unpardonable. We are already paying Bandhu more than the standard rate. Even when we asked for his explanation for the higher mess bill, he did not tell us the truth. I know, you may be feeling bad, but we must sack Bandhu immediately” said Santosh after thinking for some time while smoking.

We had an unwritten understanding that one will always support the other on such issues and hence the decision was taken immediately. When we came home for our lunch, we released Bandhu after paying him a suitable compensation. Bandhu probably could understand his fault and did not argue.

Same day Santosh went for a tour to Calcutta in the evening.

While returning from office, I went to club for a game of billiard and returned to our bungalow around eight in the evening. The whole house was dark since there was nobody to switch on the lights. While I was opening the gate it made a creaking sound and then I saw a dark figure in white clothing coming from the rear side of the bungalow! I froze! [To be continued]

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The haunted house

We were having a tea break after a grueling session of daily gossip, fondly called “Absolute Thinking” after office hours. It was early 1969 and all five of us had joined a unit of Larsen & Toubro in Orissa, about six months earlier.

Though we had lots in common, all were from IIT, Kharagpur, mechanical engineers, bachelors, extremely argumentative and lazy, we were also quite different in many other ways.

Ajit Mandal was from ’63 batch and was the senior most. He had the single ambition of going to USA!

Amlan Sen was from ’66 batch and was the best of the lot with regards to all human qualities. He was a connoisseur of everything good in life be it literature, music or playing bridge.

Santosh Singh did his M. Tech from IIT in ’68. He was a very intelligent, clean shaven sarder who always used to come up with some “Blue Sky” ideas and used to feel sorry for the world in general and us in particular if we were not supporting his ideas!

Sumit Satsangi was from ‘68 batch and was a sportsman to the core. He used to sport a mustache to look like army personnel in deference to his boyhood dream which could not be fulfilled due to a mysterious attack of bronchitis during army selection!

I was from the ’68 batch as well and as far as I was concerned there was nothing to write home about me except that I was quite popular with the kids in our colony since I could flip them on my shoulder. And most of the ladies in the colony had the misconception about my ability to fix up anything except broken hearts (a few attempts met with disastrous consequences)! So I had free access to all the families in our colony for cookies.

It was during the early stage of industrialization in India and our company acquired a vast track of hilly forest land in a God forsaken place called Kansbahal in the tribal heartland of Sundergarh district in Orissa. Kansbahal was about twenty five kilometers towards Bombay from the steel city called Rourkela.

Our unit was sandwiched between the Calcutta-Bombay main railway lines on one side and the Calcutta-Bombay national highway on the other. Workers’ colony, called South colony was relatively big and was near the railway lines. The factory was situated just after the south colony. The officers’ colony was called North colony and was on the other side of the factory, near the highway and was having hardly fifty bungalows.

Most of the carnivores, except jackals and a few friendly neighborhoods wolves left the area when the factory was being set up, due to the destruction of the habitat. However, snakes and scorpions were not wiling to give up and were putting up a spirited fight! The whole set up was very picturesque but danger lurked after every sunset. Till late night during the full moon period, we used to hear the faint melody of tribal folk songs accompanied by the haunting beats of madal (tribal drums). There were occasional reports of human sacrifice during the sowing season which, however, could never be confirmed.

If we are now unsatisfied with our poor infrastructure, it was simply non-existent in Kansbahal during the later part of the sixties.

After spending six months in south colony during our probation, five of us had just moved into two adjacent bungalows in the north colony. As you entered the north colony from the national highway you would be quite impressed by a wide concrete road with perpendicular arterial roads on both the sides flanked by bungalows. On the furthest end of the first perpendicular road to the right was our club, the sole entertainment facility in our colony. Our bungalows were just behind the club.

That particular day we were a little sad since Ajit had submitted his resignation and we all went to the club to douse our sorrow. Ajit, Amlan and Santosh were only occasional drinkers and were soon in a different world after a few glasses of beer. Sumit and I were sitting on the two extreme ends of the bar table and were still in our senses being teetotalers and had just finished our eighth bottle of Coca-Cola!

Suddenly I was startled with a gruff voice from behind “Good Evening, Mr. Sengupta”. I slowly turned and was surprised to see the smiling face of Mr. Muralidas, our estate manager!
“Good Evening, Mr. Muralidas” I replied, still in a state of sock.

We were not in best of terms. Some how or other, Muralidas would always give us a raw deal whenever he could. We would also fight it out with the active support of our bosses. We were a constant source of headache for each other.

“May I just have a couple of minutes with you, Mr. Sengupta?” said Mr. Muralidas almost apologetically.
“Sure” I said while moving out to a nearby sofa, still wondering about his intention.
“It is sad that we are loosing Mr. Mandal” said Mr. Muralidas while seating on a sofa opposite mine.
I didn’t utter anything, knowing full well that condolence could not be his main agenda.
“Mr. Sengupta, I have a proposal” said Mr. Muralidas after a swig at his glass.
I was alarmed! “It couldn’t be Deepika! She is too young. Anyway Muralidas would never select me as his son-in-law, unless he believes in those funny scientific theory of opposite poles attracts and would like to postulate that for human relationships as well!” I almost thought aloud.
“As you know, we are having a serious shortage of bungalows. We had to accommodate you in bigger bungalows since bungalows for you, I mean for junior engineers, are not yet ready. We are now having a lot of requests for these bungalows for family accommodation” said Muralidas taking another swig from his glass.
I was tense but still did not utter a word. My less than average brain was doing overtime to read his thoughts.
“At the same time there is a large bungalow lying vacant for quite sometime. I wonder whether you and Santosh would be interested in moving in there” said Muralidas.
“Which one?” I asked tentatively.
“On the first row, second from the right as you enter the club road” said Muralidas in an even tone.
“You mean the haunted house?” I exclaimed!

The bungalow he mentioned was one of the best bungalows in our colony. Long before we joined, the then chief accountant Mr. Gurubox Sahani used to stay there along with his family. He retired from the service and the day he was supposed to leave for his home town, he died suddenly of a heart attack. It was the first death in our colony and he was cremated on the bank of Brahmani river nearby. Death was quite normal but the timing was very unusual. Company then converted that bungalow into an extension of the guesthouse. The first guest was one Mr. Antia from our head office at Bombay. Nothing happened till the evening. But the next day Mr. Antia was found in a state of shock and was shifted to guesthouse proper. It was rumored that Mr. Antia heard some unusual sound on the rooftop and was under the opinion that it was Mr. Gurubox Sahani’s spirit! Since then nobody stayed in that bungalow and slowly it got the dubious status of a haunted house. Anybody taking the club road after the sunset used to pass that stretch very quickly without looking at that bungalow.

“You are young engineers from IIT. I don’t think you believe in all that nonsense. Do you?” he asked sheepishly, working on my male ego.
“Why don’t you move in?” I challenged him.
“I would love to” he said with pseudo boldness “but you know your Bhabi (sister-in-law) is, unfortunately, very superstitious. More over Deepika is so young” he added, pricking my sentiment.

I could understand that Muralidas wanted to outsource the dirty work of throwing us out to a ghost. If we were killed it would be all the more better. At the same time I was quite tempted about that bungalow. I was sure that there was no chance of our staying in such bungalows in coming ten years. I had to only convince Santosh which I was sure I could.

“See, it is a very difficult decision. Let me talk to Santosh when he is in a good mood. Give me a few days time” I replied with an impassive face.

“Oh, sure. Take your time” said Muralidas. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to convince Santosh even if he tried turning cartwheels or belly dancing. [To be continued]

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Effect of Musharraf's exit

Though the normal Pakistanis are rejoicing on the street with the news of resignation of Musharraf, its effect could be far reaching for the entire world and even for Pakistan.

Whatever could be his method of assuming the power, which is quite common in Pakistan, in the initial period, by all available account, Musharraf did his best to uplift Pakistan in all fronts like Economy, Education, Law & Order and International Standing.

Things started getting sour for him after 9/11 when due to pressure from USA, he got actively involved in anti-terrorist activities. His action against Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan made him unpopular and also invited attempts on his life. It only shows that Pakistanis in general are in for the “Radical Islamization” and its militant factions like Taliban and Al Qaeda.

It should also be noted that army recruits are mostly drawn from the rural population who would always remain politically and religiously polarized in line with general population. So even with better discipline (we should not forget that all the established terrorist groups be it Taliban, Al Qaeda or LTTE are also highly disciplined) they will always remain sympathetic to their original ideas. So it is no wonder that ISI which is a part of army is reported to be penetrated by Taliban and AL Qaeda! Most probably general Kiyani, with his ISI background, did a wise thing in not supporting Musharraf, knowing the mood of the public in general and that of the army in particular.

Not that I am really gaga about the moral aptitude of most of our politicians and the functioning of democracy under coalition rule, but our system has at least survived for more than sixty years. Whereas in Pakistan, with its mostly feudal societies, it is yet to get the foot hold.

The present Pakistani government which is yet to form a proper coalition is headed by leaders with dubious characters ( Zardari was against to reinstate the supreme court judges due to pending cases against him) and at least one is without any experience in politics ( Zardari just came to lime light due to the assassination of Benazir).

They just took the advantage of the popular mood and gave assurance to various radical Islamic groups to win the election. Hence it is no wonder that there are reports that they have made deals with Taliban and Al Qaeda to reduce their activities in Pakistan and rather concentrate in Afghanistan and India.
The Embassy bombing in Kabul and misinformation about the economic blockade in Jammu to ferment agitation in Srinagar are the direct fallout, I suspect, of these inside deals. As per the army intelligence report the infiltration which became all time low before the establishment of civilian rule in Pakistan has gone up considerably ever since.

It looks like UPA government did not want to be charged with the human rights violation just before the crucial NSG meeting ( some of the NSG countries who have raised objection for the nuclear deal on the ground of nuclear proliferation are also extremely sensitive to human rights violation) and took a soft stand against the agitation in Srinagar.

So what we are having in Pakistan as a neighbor?

A country with very tight economic condition, a very weak fledgling democratic government without any charismatic leader who could take difficult and some time unpopular decisions, general population and the army penetrated by radical Islamic organizations like Taliban and Al Qaeda! If you do not call it a failed state, then what it is?

During the reign of Musharraf things were nearly the same!

But at least there was a man with whom the world could speak. At least there was a protection that the use of nuclear arsenal will be guided by MAD ( Mutual Assured Destruction) and not be used for blackmailing! Though it is reported that the Pakistani army have dismantled the nuclear arsenals in such a way that the terrorist group could not assemble them even if they get their access, is no guarantee. Chance of using dirty bomb by suicide groups remains. India has also realized that today in Pakistan there is no leader with whom to speak who could give any commitment or follow up with the commitment even if it is given!

I feel, USA should concentrate on Pakistan and may be to Saudi Arabia to check the spread of terrorism than concentrating on Iran.

Though India is the victim of terrorism, it is my firm belief that it is mostly due to external instigation. Indian Muslims are much less radical and they love India as much as any other religious groups. Their involvements are mostly aberration and could be due to social discrimination, localized economic conditions and misguidance.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Good Samaritan ? (Concluding Part)

“Hello?” my mother answered the phone with a tired and anxious voice with all the drama happening in the morning.
“Thamma (Grandma), Rini here! How are you? What has happened? Your voice is sounding so tired? Baba was supposed to come to you today. Has he arrived?” said Rini, my daughter, from USA in one breath.

Rini and I are best friends. After I lost my wife in 1998, misunderstanding cropped up between us for sometime. It, however, got resolved with the passage of time and when we could appreciate each other’s grief. Now I am having the dual responsibility of being her father and mother and she is my darling daughter. We are friend, philosopher and guide to each other. We share all our secrets which might have bearing on each other, skipping the ones which are mostly irrelevant. Finding me behaving like an unguided missile, Rini even tried to arrange a match for me and finally gave up when she found me absolutely unmarriageable.

“Rini, I am OK. Just now I got a phone call from Bapi that he has landed in Kolkata and coming home. One Kashmiri girl is also coming with him” conveyed my mother.
“Whaaat? Baba never told me anything about any Kashmiri girl? When did this happen?” Rini was more bothered about receiving the information via her grandma than the information itself.
“I hope things are really not that serious. Bapi apparently met her to-day at Delhi airport. She was going to Bangladesh via Kolkata. Bapi is bringing her home since she is all alone and her flight to Bangladesh is later in the evening” assured my mother banking on her residual confidence in me.
“Knowing my father, it sounds plausible. Let me get the information directly from the horse’s mouth. Don’t worry Thamma, I will take care” assured Rini though not very confident herself.

My mobile started ringing and seeing Rini’s name I was elated.
“Hello! Rini sona (Bengali equivalent of darling) how are you? I am already in Kolkata and driving down” I said with all the sweetness in my voice.
“Is she there with you? Say it in Bengali.” Rini’s voice was cold as steel.
“Yes! Farzana also knows Bengali” I wanted to clarify.
Hearing her name Farzana also turned towards me.
“Oh! What a coincidence! If it is at all a coincidence in the first place” Rini was mimicking. “Anyway, just answer me in Yes or NO. Is she good looking?” added Rini with expectation in her voice.
“Wonderful! I knew you will never make a wrong selection!” Rini was mocking. “Is she above fifty?” she added, trying to discard any further possibilities.
“Above forty?”
“Above thirty?”
“Above twenty?”
“Yes! You are correct”.
“Thank GOD, you have not picked up a teenager!” replied Rini sardonically. “Anyway, I hope there is nothing between two of you, otherwise you would have told me before” said Rini with some confidence, being my daughter for a long time. “Give me a ring when you are free. Bye!” added Rini some what relieved after her grueling interrogation.
“My daughter” I said with a smile while still thinking about my recent conversation with Rini.
“You told me that your daughter is in USA?” asked Farzana suspiciously.
“The call was from USA only” I replied.
“How she could know about me?” Asked Farzana, still suspicious.
“Probably she rang up her grandma in the morning which she normally does at least thrice a week and her grandma might have conveyed the news” I could only guess.
“Oh!” remarked Farzana and again resorted to gazing out of the window.
Within another few minutes we reached my mother’s place. As soon as our car reached the portico, the guard came running adjusting his belt and the opened door on Farzana’s side. As Farzana stepped out the guard was regretting why he did not have a shave in the morning!

“Please bring the luggage” I told Harvans and took the lift with Farzana. My mother’s flat is on the fourth floor. When I rang the bell, it was answered by my mother’s maid Mina, a Bengal-Bihar joint venture, beaming from ear to ear with sparkling eyes as if she was seeing the seventh wonder of the world!

My mother as usual was seated on her sofa in her living room and was reading a news paper. She greeted Farzana with a smile and gestured her to sit near her. I was surprised to see that instead of normal “Adab” Farzana greeted my mother with folded hand and said “Namaste”! From my mother’s smiling face I was convinced that Farzana had already been taken into her fold and I have done the right thing in bringing her home. They started conversing in Bengali.

My sister, Ilu was, however, not so gullible and was still little suspicious. She started asking Farzana lot of questions as if to verify her credentials!

It was already 10 AM and I did not have much time left for my meeting. After having a cup of tea brought by Mina who was very eager to join the gossip, I got up and told my mother “Ma, I have a meeting at 11 AM. I must change immediately and head for the office. I will also not be coming for lunch. Farzana will take lunch with you and then take some rest. Harvans will drop her to airport at 6 PM”. By then Farzana was quite at home with the ladies.

I was ready within half an hour. Before I took leave, I just wanted to check Farzana’s schedule and ask “Farzana could you please check your flight time once again and confirm?”
“I am sure it is at 8:20 PM” muttered Farzana but started digging her hand bag for the air ticket, may be just to satisfy me. She handed over the ticket to me without seeing. I took a brief look at the ticket and exclaimed in surprise “Farzana, here it is written 2:20 PM and not 8:20PM!” Farzana literally snatched the ticket from me, had a look and almost came to tears just thinking that if I hadn’t checked she would have missed the flight!

Immediately we both started dialing different numbers in our mobiles……. Farzana to her mother in Kashmir to enquire about the mix-up …….. and me to our branch manager at Kolkata office to arrange for a separate car to take her to airport.

After a brief tempest in Urdu with her mother, Farzana said with tears on her eyes “Mother said she tried for this earlier flight but settled for the evening flight when travelled agent told her that the earlier flight is full. She did not know that the travelled agent did arrange for the earlier flight as originally requested”
“Don’t worry! Thank God that you didn’t miss your flight. A separate car will come for you by 11:30 AM and you must leave for the airport latest by 12 O’clock. An authorized porter will take your luggage up to the check in counter. The car rental company and the driver have been instructed accordingly” I assured Farzana.
“Thank you very much, Mr. Sengupta for all the trouble you have taken”.
“That’s alright. It is already 10:30 AM and I must leave now. I don’t think I will be able to meet you before your departure. Take care and Khuda-hafez!” I told Farzana.
“Khuda-hafez!” said Farzana startled, with a rare smile on her face.
I then took leave from my mother and left for office.

Through out the day I was extremely busy. But before I got bogged down I advised our office secretary to check about the car and to ensure no further mix-up.
When I returned home at 6 PM, I was told by mother that Farzana left at 11:30 AM after a quick meal. Mina was, however, bubbling with excitement to tell me in details. “Kaku (Uncle), your friend removed her churni (Mina didn’t have any idea about Hijab!) after you left. She had such a nice brown hair! Since we did not have much time, I just made egg curry for her and she relished it. Is she coming back once again?” Mina was excited.
“Mina, it is very nice that Farzana liked your cooking, but there is no chance that she might come back again” I replied without elaborating to Mina that I just happened to meet Farzana only today at the Delhi airport!

After the tiring day, I took a bath and was having a cup of tea when my mobile started ringing. I picked it up and found the call is from an unknown number.
“Hello?” I asked, little unsure.
“Am I speaking to Mr. Sengupta?” the unknown caller asked.
“Good Evening! Mr. Sengupta, I am Rahim Khan from Kashmir; Farzana’s father. Do you remember me?”
“Of course Mr. Rahim Khan. I do remember you. Good Evening to you. How is Farzana? Has she reached Bangladesh safely?”
“Yes, she has reached safely. She just rang up from Dhaka. She specifically requested us to inform you immediately. She told us in details what all happened! She is all praise for your family and particularly your mother & you!”
“Oh, Mr. Khan! That’s all right. What I did, I feel you would have also done the same for my daughter under the similar circumstances”.
“That’s for sure, but good gestures are becoming very rare these days. Mr. Sengupta, if you happen to visit Kashmir, please be my guest. You have won a friend” Mr. Khan said quite emotionally.
“Thank you very much Mr. Khan. Now you are also having a friend in Kolkata! Do visit us if you come to Kolkata”
“Khuda-hafez, Mr. Sengupta”
“Khuda-hafez, Mr. Rahim Khan”

After the phone call I was just pondering over the whole incident from the morning. I was sure that most of you may not support my action, but probably like the proverbial squirrel helping mythological Rama to make the bridge across the ocean, I might have helped, in my small way, in building a bridge for a different purpose.

There was some music being played in our adjacent flat. Subconsciously I started humming the tune. Then I realized it was “Knowing me, knowing you….” I like ABBA.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Good Samaritan? (Part III)

“OK” said Farzana with a half smile and with a tone conveying resignation to her fate and started pushing her trolley forward.
“Why don’t we switch; you take my strolley and let me push your trolley?” I said out of courtesy.
“No! It is OK” said Farzana with finality in her voice.
As soon we came out of the arrival lounge, my driver Harvans came running.
“Good Morning, Sir. May I help you?” said Harvans and tried to take the strolley from me.
Harvans is a burly sardar and was assigned to me by the rental car company for the last seven years. His nature was diametrically opposite to his physic. He was a thorough gentleman, extremely polite and courteous. He was my friend, philosopher and guide and used to take me under his fold whenever I came to Kolkata to visit my mother. He knew all my clients, my friends of all sexes, all my relatives and whoever I needed to meet or visit!
“Good Morning, Harvans! How are you? I replied and then added “Harvans, please take the trolley from Memsab (Lady)”.
Harvans was aghast! He had never seen me coming out of Kolkata airport with any lady not known to him. Not only Farzana was unknown but I could read that her beauty made Harvans completely nervous and confused!
“Good Morning, Memsab!” he said nervously and took the trolley from Farzana. Farzana did not object. When we came to car drop zone, Harvans told us to wait and brought the car from the parking area in a run. Once our luggage was properly loaded and we were comfortable inside the car I told Harvans” Harvans let’s go home first and then we will go to office probably after an hour”
“Shall we not go first to Hotel, Sir?” asked Harvans, looking at me through the rear view mirror with nervousness still written on his face.
“Which Hotel, Harvans?” I enquired.
“Sir, shall we not drop Memsab first?” asked Harvans politely.
“Memsab is going with us to our house” I replied.
Harvan’s shocked reaction was quite dramatic and he just managed to avoid the lamppost! “OK, Sir.” He said nervously. He was sure that something had gone wrong somewhere.

The house where my mother stays is by the side of Eastern Metropolitan by pass, a high way, on the south-eastern fringe of Kolkata. E.M by pass is connected to Kolkata airport via VIP road and a by pass high way skirting the Salt Lake City. The road connection was excellent but it used to take about an hour to reach my mother’s house from the airport. After driving a kilometer from the airport, Harvans took left turn to enter the by pass high way.

Since leaving the airport, Farzana had been looking through the window without uttering a word.
“Have you been to Kolkata before?” I asked just to start the conversation and make her feel at home.
“Only to Kolkata airport. I was always taking an earlier flight and never came out of the airport” replied Farzana without turning her head.
“Are you sure that you are not booked in that flight this time as well?” I wanted to be sure.
“My mother told me that she did try for the same flight, but could not get the reservation” replied Farzana.
“Then it is OK. By the way my name is Biplab Sengupta. You might have seen it in my business card”.
“O yes, I did. I am Farzana” Farzana said, turning her head and rewarding me with a very rare smile.
“Yes, I saw it on your boarding card”.
“Are you visiting Bangladesh to meet any relatives?” I enquired.
“No, no. I am studying there. I am a third year medical student in Dhaka University”.
“But why in Bangladesh and not in India?” I enquired without hiding my surprise.
“It is much cheaper there. Moreover they have a medical college exclusively for girls with hostels inside the compound. It is very secure” explained Farzana. “Also it is much easier to get admission there” added Farzana.
“Since you are already in Dhaka for last three years, have you picked up any Bengali?” I enquired.
“I can understand it quite well. I can also speak, but only a little” replied Farzana.
“Are you carrying some instrument? Your luggage was very heavy.” I enquired.
“No, no. I am just carrying medical books. They are cheaper here. Also they are in short supply in our college library” replied Farzana with a shy smile.

I was quite impressed with her economic considerations. Must be business people, I thought! I suddenly remembered that it was already 9:15 AM and I had not yet called my mother!

My mother is always a little different from others of her generation. At the age of 85 and even with her frail health she was still spending at least five hours for Puja (holy rituals), but remained absolutely liberal and pragmatic in all her ideas. She always had equal respect for all religions and never bothered about the cast system. In our childhood we had everything except any supply of money. My mother, however, in joint venture with my father, who was great in his own right, gave me and my six sisters the opportunity to grow up with dignity in a most congenial and liberal atmosphere. It was heartening to see how she could control all of us without raising her voice and not resorting to any tantrums.

Unless I am sitting next to her, she would expect a phone call from me everyday latest by 7:30 AM. One hour grace when I used to be in Europe. For lesser mortals it would be better not to call her on her wireless number till 8:30 AM, otherwise you might hear “I am expecting Bapi’s (my pet name) call any moment. Please ring up later” like a recorded message.

“Ma, Bapi here, how are you?” I asked her through my mobile.
“You are late today in calling?” my mother asked for the explanation.
“Ma, I took 6:30 AM flight today from Delhi. In that wee hour you must have been in deep slumber and dreaming about me only. I did not want to disturb you in your dream!” I explained.
“You must have landed at least fifteen minutes back. Was the flight delayed? Is everything all right?” enquired my mother anxiously.
“Ma, everything is alright. I just wanted to give you some news. I met a Kashmiri girl in Delhi airport. She is taking the evening flight to Bangladesh. So instead of her waiting in the airport all alone, I am bringing her home so that she can spend some time with you. Her name is Farzana and she knows Bengali. Probably she could use Rini’s room. I will, however, be leaving for my office by 10:30 AM. Is it OK with you?” I replied with an asking note.
“Yes, it’s OK” replied my mother in a tone that sounded a little unsure.
“OK then. We will be reaching home within another half an hour” I replied and hung up.

I discovered later that since she was staying alone, my mother was a little unsure of receiving and entertaining a stranger all by herself and rang up one of my sister, “Ilu” who stayed nearby to join her immediately.
“Ilu, Bapi just now told me that he is coming home with a Kashmiri girl…..” started my mother.
“WHAAT? What do you mean? How long has this been going on? You never told us anything before?” rattled Ilu in a state of shock without letting my mother finish her sentence.
“I don’t thing it is that serious as yet. Bapi told me that he met her in Delhi airport” replied my mother.
“Are you sure it is not an alibi? Probably dada (elder brother) just wants you to see the girl. How old is she?” Ilu was very agitated.
“I really do not know her age. Anyway, if possible, please come immediately” replied my mother.
“Don’t worry. I will reach within fifteen minutes” replied Ilu and hung up.
My mother replaced the receiver slowly on the cradle with anxiety taking a grip on her, when the phone started ringing. [To be continued……]

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Good Samaritan? (Part II)

“Yes!” I replied looking at him but still proceeding towards the check-in counter.
“Is this your only baggage?” ask the man, looking at my strolley.
That was an outright intrusion! “Yes! But why?” I replied, somehow hiding my annoyance.
“If you could kindly spare me a minute? I have a problem.” answered the man anxiously.
By that time I had stopped by his side since I was a little eager to know about his problem. Whether I could be of any help, I thought, could be decided later.
“See, my daughter is going to Kolkata alone and she is having a little excess luggage (An understatement, I thought looking at her luggage!). Since you are not having any checked in luggage, probably she could check in with you, if you would allow. Could you please help?” Pleaded the man.
Though the request was reasonable, it was really not advisable due to security consideration. At first I was inclined to refuse. But considering that those two pieces of luggage were after all properly screened as “checked in luggage” and my inborn weakness for damsels in distress persuaded me to change my stand. My boyhood involvement with the Boys Scout movement and their practice of “a good turn a day” also played a trick. I could hear myself saying “Yes” and shrugged my shoulder. I took the airline ticket from the gentleman and instructed the porter from Jet Airways, who was already eager to take my strolley, to take the trolley from the young lady instead.
“Good morning, Sir” said the girl sitting at the Jet Premier counter with a general issue smile, while collecting the tickets.
“Good Morning, Janet” I replied with a smile, looking at her name tag.
“Could you please help my companion to get a window seat towards the front?” I added, knowing full well that Janet must have already seen my bio-data in the computer monitor and I need not say anything about my personal preference.
“Let me search” said Janet, briefly looking at me, smiling.
“I can manage a window seat, but a little further down the aisle, 19F will it be OK, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Janet expectantly.
“That’s OK. Please go-ahead” I replied, much relieved.
“May I book the luggage in your name only, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Janet looking at the weighing machine.
“OK” I replied after being hesitant for a moment.
“Here you are. Your boarding card 3C with two luggage tags. Boarding card 19F for Farzana. Happy Journey, Mr. Sengupta” said Janet smilingly while handing me over all the boarding cards, counterfoils for tickets and cabin baggage tags. Janet also instructed the porter to put “Priority Tags” to our checked in luggage.
“Thank you Janet for all the help” I replied with a smile while leaving the check-in counter.
I walked to the gentleman and his daughter who were standing a little away and handed over the boarding card, counterfoil of airline ticket, cabin baggage tags and my business card saying ”Luggage tags are in my name because of excess weight. Since we will be seating separately, we could meet only at Kolkata airport. Please tell your daughter to contact me at my cell number, in case of any difficulty”. I did not ask for her cell number, out of courtesy.
The gentleman looked at my business card briefly, extended his arm and said with a smiling face, with all the worries gone “ Thank you very much Mr. Sengupta. It was very kind of you. By the way, my name is Rahim Khan. We are from Kashmir”.

I shook his hand with a worried face with lots conflicting thoughts passing through my mind. Mere mention of Kashmir made me little uneasy.

There was a time when Kashmir was synonymous to anything beautiful. The natural beauty of Kashmir, with snow capped mountain peaks, valleys with Chinar trees, flowing springs, river Jhelum, floating house boats and Shikaras laden with roses and tulips on Dal lake, even excelled the much adored Switzerland! It was epitomized in a famous Bollyood motion picture “Kashmir – ki – kali” (Flower (girl) from Kashmir). Anybody having the experience can not forget “Wazwan” fest with fine gourmet cuisine like rogan-josh, rista-gushtava, kahwah (saffron tea), and shawls made of cashmere wool, silk carpets and wood carvings. Kashmir is immortalized in the Urdu couplets of Ghulam Ahmed Ashai “Agar firdous bar rul-e-zameen ast, hamin ast – o – hamin ast – o- hamin ast “(If there is a paradise in the world, it is here, it is here, it is here!).

Everything is still very much the same, except it is now overshadowed by the advent of a dreaded disease called “Terrorism”. I really do not know who was at fault but the end result was the death of thousands of innocent people. A couple of years back it was still localized but it had now engulfed the entire Indian sub-continent. The actions which were perfectly normal and humane only a couple of years back would now be viewed with suspicion. I also could not help but thinking “Was it a ploy? Was I too gullible and have put myself and my fellow passengers at risk?” I started doubting ….. Whether the security screening for the checked in luggage was proper? did I check the security tags properly?.... did the girl in the check in counter check the security tags properly?...... whether the security tags were genuine? Literally I was totally confused and did not know what to do.

The airport was very crowded and while I was in the state of confusion, I saw Farzana and her father melting away in the crowd. Then I realized that the luggage was booked in my name and they would not be unloaded even if Farzana did not board the plane! I felt like kicking myself and did not feel like going to business lounge for a cup of tea even though there was plenty of time till the boarding announcement.

As soon as the boarding was announced, I went for boarding but could not locate Farzana. Even in the aircraft though I was in the front section, I somehow missed her. Meanwhile the aircraft doors were closed and our fates were sealed!

While flying also I could not get away from the uneasiness. I was really not very much bothered about myself but about my fellow passengers who were all relaxing without knowing their fate. I was too reluctant to go down the aisle to locate Farzana since that may not solve the problem. Suicide bombings were quite rampant!

Breakfast was served but due to my uneasiness I could not enjoy my “last supper”. I was much relived when I heard the announcement from the flight deck that we were about to land at Kolkata.

Jet Airways really take care of their business class guests and their priority luggage. By the time I reached the arrival lounge with Jet Airways’ special bus, I could locate Farzana’s two pieces of luggage on the conveyor belt. It was a relief then to locate Farzana slowly coming towards me, pushing an empty trolley in front. I had difficulty loading those two pieces of luggage on the trolley since they were quite heavy. Anyway, my duty done I casually asked Farzana “Will there be anybody to receive you? Or shall I drop you somewhere?”
“No! I will be waiting in the airport only. I have to take a flight to Bangladesh” said Farzana with a half smile.
“What time is the flight to Bangladesh?” I enquired without sounding too inquisitive.
“At 8:20 PM” said Farzana, matter of fact.
“8:20 PM?” I was puzzled looking at my watch which was showing only 9 AM. “How could you wait in the airport for almost 11 hours that too with so much of luggage?” I asked in bewilderment knowing the scanty facilities available in Kolkata airport.
“I have to manage. I really do not have much of an alternative. My friends will join me at the airport only, just before the departure” said Farzana.
“May I drop you to any of your relatives or friends” I said out of courtesy.
“I do not have any relative in Kolkata. My friends also stay outside Kolkata and I really do not have their proper addresses” said Farzana looking little nervous.
“Look, I will be visiting my Mother who stays in Kolkata in a big flat with her maids. My daughter is in USA. You may use her room; freshen up; have some food and relax; then my car will drop you to airport at a suitable time. I am too reluctant to leave you at airport all by yourself. Please rely on me” I insisted. [To be continued……]

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Good Samaritan ?

I heard the sound while still in deep slumber. Slowly I realized the ringing tone of the telephone. Instinctively I turned on my right side in the bed and lifted the receiver from the cradle with my left arm.
“Hello?” I said, still half asleep.
“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta. I am Nandita from reception. It is your wake-up call at 4 AM” said the lady’s voice from the other end.
“Good Morning, Nandita and thank you” I replied, already trying to remove the soft quilt with white satin cover covering me. At “ITC One” suite of Maurya Sheraton they really pamper you!
“Shall I give you a reminder call after five minutes, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Nandita, with expectation in her voice.
“No! No! Thank you Nandita, I am already fully awake” I replied
“Good day, Mr. Sengupta”
“Good day, Nandita”
I replaced the receiver and got up. The room was absolutely dark except for the foot light. I partially removed the heavy curtain from the window next to my bed, but the outside was still dark. Just then I heard the door bell. I switched on the bed side lamp to find my way and crossed the bed room and the living room to reach the suite door while tying the waist band of my dressing gown. I unlocked the door and opened it without peeping through the lookout glass (cardinal mistake!) to find our floor butler Sunil standing with a teapot on a tray. I opened the door fully and made way for him to enter.
“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta” said Sunil with a broad smile and went past me with a wisp of soft aroma of a very good quality Darjeeling tea filling my nostril.
“Good Morning, Sunil”
“Shall I pour tea for you, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Sunil, lowering the tray on the centre table near the sofa.
“Not necessary. I will do it myself. Please tell reception to keep the bill ready. Tell them that I have not used the mini bar. Also the car should be at the porch by 4.30 AM” I said while tipping Sunil.
“Thank you, Mr. Sengupta, I will take care” said Sunil while closing the door softly.
I drank two cups of very light tea without sugar & milk very quickly and headed for the bathroom for brushing my teeth and a shave. There was no time for taking a bath or other morning chores.
Within another 20 minutes I was fully dressed up and settling the bill at the reception
“When do we see you next, Mr. Sengupta?” said Sagarika, the lobby manager, coming to greet me.
“May be tomorrow!” I said half jokingly while heading for the waiting car.
“Good Morning, Sir” greeted the doorman with a salute while opening the door of the black limousine.
“Good Morning” I said pleasantly while handing him my small luggage strolley with a tip and getting inside the car.
“Good Morning, Mr. Sengupta” greeted Akram at the driving seat, looking through the rear view mirror.
“Good Morning, Akram” I replied.
“Is the inside temperature OK, Mr. Sengupta?” asked Akram.
“Absolutely! Let us head for domestic airport, Jet Airways’ terminal”

I settled down and pondered what a life! I hate to get up in the morning, at least definitely not before 6 AM. But with my touring schedule of more than 20 days a month, all over the Globe that was simply not possible. For maximum utilization of time, there was no other way but to take at least ten early morning flights and equal number of late night flights per month. Different time zones of different continents compounded my problem further. I was nearing sixty and my secretary and all my friends thought that I was mad. They cautioned that I would meet my end any day. Doctors were very unhappy with me since I did not give them any business even under these extreme conditions!

It was early September, 2006 and I came to Delhi only a day before from my corporate headquarter at Ahmedabad. I would now be taking the 6.30 AM Jet Airways’ flight to Kolkata to attend a meeting at 11 AM. Flying to Kolkata, of course, gave me the added incentive of being with my Mother who stayed there with a full entourage of maid servants. One of my nieces and four of my sisters, who stayed nearby, would also normally be staying with her by turn. Earlier I use to live with her. But after I lost my wife to cancer in 1998, I had become a bit of a bohemian and was still unable to settle myself.

In the morning Delhi looked really regal with its clean and spacious roads. Invasion of traffic was yet to start and we reached domestic airport, Jet Airways’ terminal within about fifteen minutes. I tipped Akram and headed for the entrance with my laptop on my shoulder and dragging my strolley behind.

Airports are always the melting pots of the corporate world! Anytime of the day you have to keep a watch for any known faces least you miss any of your corporate friends or clients who are all loaded with tons of egos. An ex-boss of mine, who taught me the nitty-gritty of marketing, told me that once he found his boss hobnobbing with Deelip Kumar. But later when asked how he knew Deelip Kumar so well, he literally fell from the sky and exclaimed “Oh my God! Was he Deelip Kumar? I found his face very familiar and thought he must be some corporate honcho and might feel offended if I fail to recognize him!” This is a true story and this is the corporate world!

Even in the morning the Jet Airways’ terminal was like a fish market. I was keeping a very watchful eye while negotiating with my strolley. I almost reached Jet Airways’ premier counter without locating any known faces (unless everybody were hiding behind the piles of luggage!) when I saw the girl! She was in her early twenties and was standing near the extreme left counter with a luggage trolley laden with two pieces of oversize soft-baggage and a middle aged gentleman in a dark suit standing by her side. She was strikingly beautiful with very fair complexion and pale blue eyes. She was wearing a spring green Salwar-kamiz with a white scarf tied over her head like Hijab. She was, however, looking very distraught with all the worries of the world reflected on her face!

“To help all the damsels in distress in the world could not be my sole responsibility. At my age I could not be the knight in the shining armor” I told myself and was trying to shift my gaze when I heard “ Excuse me Sir, are you flying to Calcutta?” and saw that the middle aged gentleman who was standing beside the girl had just stepped in front and was addressing me! [To be continued….]

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Three Dogs in Our Locality (Concluding Part)

He saw the chef running towards him with a big serving spoon!
“It was really not necessary to serve. I could have directly taken from the container. But Mukherjees are known for their hospitality” He told himself.
“You son of a bitch!” shouted the chef.
Kalu did not take any offence due to the mere mention of a fact. “It could have been little more polite” He thought.

He could feel that something had gone amiss when the chef added “I have not yet started serving my guest and you are already here to spoil it?” He was about to take off towards the exit in all fours when the long serving spoon caught him on the solder. He let out a high pitch painful sound “Whaoooo” followed by the typical cry of mongrels “Kaun, kaun, kaun….” and ran for the exit with his tail between his hind legs.

Near the gate he pulled himself up and thought that it might not be nice to look humiliated in front of his siblings. He pulled up his socks, gave a thorough shake up like all mongrels do to de-dust themselves and came out of the Pandal in as much dignified way as he could, smarting under his recent painful experience!

“What happened? You came out really fast” Inquired his siblings in surprise.

Gelam ar sathe sathe diye dilo (They served me as soon as I entered!)” Answered Kalu hiding his pain & humiliation and trying to look as cheerful and content as possible

His siblings were quite dejected to know that he was well served immediately on arrival and they were still hungry! “Somebody is really having all the lucks” They thought.

Still some time passed and nothing happened. The second one, who was smarter of the two thought “The brave ones are always rewarded”. He was, however, little scared to sneak into the Pandal. Finally the Hunger got the better of him.

“You better wait here. Let me sneak in to find out the reason for holdup” he told his third sibling and sneaked inside the Pandal. It did not take him long to reach his desired destination. This time the chef was prepared and noticed him immediately. “Oh! My GOD! I could not yet start feeding my guests and you have come back once again? Uttered the chef in surprise without knowing the difference. “Wait, I will give you a better treatment this time” Added the chef. Kalu’s second brother could understand that the welcome ceremony was not really proper. Before, however, he could take any evasive action, the chef scooped out some boiling water from a pot with his long ladle and threw at him!

Pain was excruciating! He let out a sound at a higher pitch “Whaoooo” followed by the typical cry of mongrels “Kaun, kaun, kaun….” and ran for the exit with his tail between his hind legs.
Near the gate he pulled himself up and thought that it might not be nice to look humiliated in front of his siblings. He gave a thorough shake up like all mongrels do to shake out water and came out of the Pandal in as much dignified way as he could, smarting under his recent painful experience!

“What happened? You also came out really fast” Inquired his third sibling in surprise.

Gelam ar garam garam diye dilo (They served me real hot!)” Answered Kalu’s second brother hiding his pain & humiliation and trying to look as cheerful and content as possible.

Kalu’s third sibling was quite dejected by now to know that one of his brothers was served immediately on arrival and the other was served real hot and he was still hungry! “I am really unlucky. Luck favors only the braves” He thought.

After sometime when things did not improve, the third brother could wait no more. “Enough is enough” He said to himself and sneaked into the Pandal for an on the spot survey. He could reach the kitchen without any difficulty but was confronted by the chef immediately. The chef was completely foxed! “My God! What a shameless dog?” Uttered the chef without understanding his mistake. “This time I am not going to let you go till I have entertained all my guests” said the chef and tied him to a bamboo post. When the dinner was over, the chef untied kalu’s third brother and gave him a kick for additional propulsion. Kalu’s third brother’s prestige was hurt but he did not want to show it to his siblings. He came out of the Pandal in as much dignified way as he could, smarting under his humiliation.

“What happened? You are so late? Inquired his siblings anxiously.

Chhartai chai na (Didn’t want to let me go!)” answered Kalu’s third brother hiding his humiliation and hunger and trying to look as cheerful and content as possible.

(Note for the animal lovers: This is not a true story. Just the fictionalization of a joke based on the double meanings (pun, best in Bengali) of the replies made by three dogs after their harrowing experiences. However, the plights of the mongrels in India, for that matter all over South East Asian Sub-continent, are no way better than what is depicted in this article.)

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Three Dogs in Our Locality!

Mongrels are everywhere in India. Every locality, be it a village or a city, can boast of a few, of different shapes and sizes. As puppies they really look cute & chubby. But when they grow up, they look either like underfed “Dingo” or malnourished “Fox Terrier” with shorter muzzle and longer tail!

They do not belong to anybody but the whole locality belongs to them. Though asleep most of the time, they are the first line of defence for a locality against intruders. Burglars are, however, spared. The burglars could always buy their flexible loyalties (like our politicians) with a few bread crumbs. With some more considerations they might even accompany the burglars to their destination!

It is still common in this part of the world to throw leftovers in open garbage cans. When hungry these mongrels will rampage through these garbage cans and “pick and choose” bones and other juicy morsels. Real peaceful coexistence!

Our locality also had its fair share of mongrels, the typical being a triplet! They were completely black and so identical that I doubted whether their mother could differentiate. We used to call them “Kalu

For the last few days they were very happy. They got the news that Arun Mukherjee’s niece was getting married within a couple of days. Marriage in a Bengali family is always a grand affair. There will be too much of good food, mostly choicest non-vegetarian dishes; too much of wastage and too much of leftovers in the garbage bin for the mongrels to celebrate! You could really “pick and choose” and had your fill!

They were monitoring the events very closely. A big Pandal (Enclosure) with bamboo frames with tarpaulin on top had been erected in front of Mukherjee’s house. The inside of the Pandal was decorated with colored velvet and satin clothing, giving the aura of Maharaja’s! It was divided into three sections. The front section, as you enter, was reserved for seating and wedding ceremony. Section on the left was for Indian style dining and buffet. The rear section reserved for cooking was the most interesting section for “Kalu”. Dinner in the evening would always be the grand finale for Bengali wedding!

On the fateful day, they took the strategic position near the garbage bin and were waiting for the good event to start. But nothing was happening! They were extremely worried.

“I really do not know what is happening? Bengalis really do not have any sense of time!” Growled Kalu.
Some more time past and the curiosity got the better of him.
“You two stay put. Let me just sneak in to find out what is holding them up”. Addressed Kalu to his siblings.
In no time he reached the cooking area. Smell was also very helpful as a direction finder. Though he overheard that the bride groom and his party would be coming late, he did not feel that it justified keeping guest like him waiting. Anyway he was never for small talks!

The cooking area was deserted. In the centre there was a serving table where all the dishes in their respective serving bowl were kept ready, with a thin muslin cover to keep away flies. He could not fathom “What is the matter?”

Kalu was simply overwhelmed! Fish Fry! Mutton Briyani! Chicken Chap!… ... My GOD! if he had set the menu himself!
“I think I should skip Salad and Raita and concentrate on non-veg” he told himself, licking his lips with the thought of impending gastronomical pleasure! He was about to start with the first course when there was an interruption! [To be continued.]

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Match Making (concluding part)

Like commercial break in TV serial there was a tea break. Two young boys in early teens who later introduced themselves as Archana’s brothers, entered with two trays laden with tea and sweets. Archana and her mother did not take anything except tea that too with our insistence.

Tea break gave some respite to Sanjay and Swapan who could concentrate in something sweeter than classical music and even could manage to ask a few mundane questions to Archana.

I was, however, not that lucky. I was already monopolized by Archana’s mother and her two brothers with tacit involvement of Archana. Earlier I was slowly getting out of my nervousness considering that I really do not have any stake in the selection processes. However, Swapan’s clarification about my coming to Delhi just added to my woes. To my horror I could see that Archana’s mother was more or less asking for my CV! It was more like Apu in Apur Sangsar (Apu’s world) where he had happened to be present in a marriage function and got drawn into playing the leading role. Archana’s mother must be knowing the oft repeated proverb a bird in hand is better than two in bush and could guess that I may be fulfilling two of the three main criteria for the romantic heroes for Mills & Boon. Though my Napoleonic height of 164 cm with socks could not be called tall with any stretch of imagination, I am sufficiently dark (My boyhood name kalu will confirm) and may not be positively ugly (….in the eyes of the beholder)! An Engineering degree (Whichever way I might have got it) and impending departure to Germany adding icing on the cake.

I, however, asked myself “Am I not making the whole scenario more complicated and may possibly be cheating Arup?” This was definitely not the original script. All just started in a much lighter note when I just joined as a lesser member of the team for the preliminary selection of a girl for somebody I do not even know. Friendship could be alright and that was also my original idea but any further emotional attachment will not serve the main purpose. I could understand that Archana’s mother, like mothers in general was working only from her heart but might not be with proper reasoning. More involvement from my side would only jeopardize the present proposal.

The conversation went on for some time till Sanjay thought about calling it a day. He assured Bhavani that he was quite satisfied with to-day’s meeting and would inform Arup and his family accordingly. “Wish you a happy journey” whispered Archana before we parted. I could only say “Thank you” with a meek smile.

Inside the car both Sanjay and Swapan jumped on me to vent out their frustration. Like children they were complaining that though I was supposed to play the fiddle, I just snatched the centre stage without giving them a friendly chance. No amount of my argument that I just wanted to help the damsel in distresses since they were more interested in the male members (Gay movement was not so strong in those days, otherwise it could have given me a better edge in my argument) could not cut any ice. They could have strangled me but for my long friendship with Swapan!

On reaching home we found Swapan’s mother and sister were eagerly waiting to know about the outcome. “Auntie, Biplab spoilt the whole thing” was the first remark made by Sanjay. “Whaaat? That is impossible!” remarked Swapan’s mother with her confidence on me slightly shaken. “Tell us in details what actually happened?” demanded Swapan’s sister. Sanjay and Swapan, with some meek protest from me in between, then explained in all gory details what all had happened. Verdict was prompt! “Biplab has not done anything wrong” declared Swapan’s mother (Being an underdog, I always get preferential treatment from ladies!) “Rather he has saved the situation. You two are to be blamed for what all happened. From tomorrow, I suggest, you two take classes on classical music. From what I gather the girl is quite a suitable match” added Swapan’s mother further. A smile on Swapan’s sister’s face confirmed that the judgment was unanimous!

Sanjay and Swapan were not really happy with one sided judgment but decided to meet Bhavani once again to collect some further details. But this time, only after I was safely packed abroad.

Next day I left for Germany and immediately got bogged down with my studies and adjustment with German culture which is so very different from ours.

I remembered Archana all the time and wished her well but have no clue to what finally happened, since in those days communication was not as easy between two far of continents and it would have of course seemed a bit awkward asking about friend’s …friend’s …friend’s probable fiancĂ©…

Even now sometime I ask myself “Did Archana expect anything from me? Did I deceive her in anyway?”

The question still haunts me like the cry of a red-wattled lapwing floating in the air and seeking answer night and day “Did-ye-do-it? Did-ye-do-it?”