They always talk about first love, but rarely in our documented history do we prefer talking about our other firsts?
The first job, the first salary, first car, first home….
You may call me severely materialistic, but all these hold a very special place in my heart, just like my first “Aam Panna” I shared with my husband, the first story that got published or the first ‘Phuchka’ that I had in Calcutta after returning from Europe after a year and a half.
Designing and making a ‘home’ out of a ‘house’ is always a challenge, especially if it is your ‘first’ one. You want it to be special and unique. My wishes were no different. I was a never a big ‘home decor’ enthusiast.
In fact, I often scorned at my mother who would scold me or my sister at the very sight of us sluggisly sitting on the sofa and squishing away her cushions. I was always the lethargic kid (“lyadhkhor”) as they call in colloquial Bengali), who loved her sleep.
Every year thousands of people from all over the world visit Switzerland and a vast majority of those tourists are people from the Indian subcontinent. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most beautiful countries of the world. But apart from that there is one very important thing that has influenced every one of us – the ones who grew up on the staple diet of Bollywood, SRK and the nostalgia of the 90’s, to visit the nation. No prizes for guessing the answer – Yashraj Films.
We have to accept it that when Sridevi romanced a ‘starting to be potbellied’ and sweater clad Rishi Kapoor, while wearing impeccable Chiffon sarees and pearls and singing – “Tere mere hoton pe meethein, meethein geet Mitwa” in Chandni in the lush green Swiss valleys – we all wanted to be there and do a role play!
And then came the game changer called “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (DDLJ) which has probably defined romance for everyone who belongs to my generation. When a young SRK flashes his dimpled smile and looks at his best onscreen partner Kajol to mouth the golden words – “Koi baat nahi Senorita, bade bade deshon mein aisi choti choti baatein hoti rehti hain“, we have no other alternative left other than going weak on our knees.
This is not a movie review. In fact, I am not qualified enough to be a movie critic. It is my humble take on the movie and a few lessons learnt about life in general from Ray’s last onscreen venture.
Agantuk (The Stranger) is a 1991 Bengali language movie written, directed and scripted by the master whom we Bengalis often prefer calling “Joy Baba Maniknath” (Satyajit Ray). It is based upon Ray’s own short story “Atithi”. But be rest assured that this is not a bong woman’s garrulous overdoes of why Tagore and Ray were the best thing to happen to India and Bengalis in general 🙂
Agantuk is the story about the dilemma that an upper middle class Bengali couple residing in a palatial house in the Calcutta of early 1990’s goes through when the wife’s maternal uncle decides to pay them a visit after 35 years. The ‘uncle’, who had been a briliant student and a painter, had left home as per his own wish to see the world. “Wanderlust” as he describes himself in the movie. The wife (Anila), played succinctly by Mamata Shankar, is the only living relation that he knows of and one who was only 2 years of age when he left home. The husband (Sudhin), played by Dipankar Dey, is a well placed corporate executive and has also inherited a huge amount of his deceased father’s property and priceless art collection. All of a sudden, just before the most celebrated Bengali festival ‘Durga Pujo’, the wife receives a letter written from Delhi by a man claiming to be her long lost uncle,in chaste Bengali, that he wants to visit them for a week before resuming his journey elsewhere. He mentions that there is a probability that there will be doubts about his identity and they were free to decline the overture. While the uncle also mentions about the ancient Indian tradition of treating one’s guests as god, the first thing that strikes the niece’s wonderfully decorated world is the fear of a thief impersonating as ‘someone’ about whom nobody knows. The husband is quite sure that this is a part of a plot to steal something from his deceased father’s art collection. While the wife is ready to give a benefit of doubt and see for herself if the uncle she never knew had indeed returned to his roots and to see his last known blood relation, the husband’s materialistic concerns blindfolds him to believe that this man is an impostor. In between two of them, there is a third member of the family, the child Babloo/Satyaki, who seems to be excited to meet one of his maternal grandfathers, who might be or might not be the real one.
I first watched Agantuk as a child with my parents. I do not remember the year, but I do recollect that my father had told me that it is indeed one of Ray’s finest works. Needless to say, I understood very little about the context of the movie, but at the same time I was never bored. Perhaps, it is the unique story telling capacity of Ray, that along with the kids (Babloo and his friends) in the movie, even I wanted to know what happened during a full Solar eclipse or a full Lunar eclipse. I re-watched it a few days back along with my husband and I realised why my father was correct about the movie being one of Ray’s best (click here to watch the movie with English subtitles). Anybody who is conversant with Ray’s work will probably count “Pather Pnachali”, “Charulata” or may be “the “Goopi Bagha” series to be the best works of him, but I will place “Agantuk” on a much higher pedestal, may be just after “Charulata”.
Utpal Dutta who plays the role of the stranger uncle in the movie delivers probably one of his most nuanced performances of his life. His acting calibre, like Ray’s directorial calibre, is beyond any question. But what is worth remembering that , Dutta and Ray together convinces you to be a part of this journey of discovering “who is this stranger?”. Deep down, Ray convinces you to reassess your views about yourself, your roots, your tradition and the human civilisation as a whole. And perhaps because of his genius, he manages to do it in extremely simple ways.
One of my favourite moments from the movie is the scene where the wife/niece asks his uncle, about whom she is still not so sure of, that how could he write such wonderful Bengali since he has spent most of his life abroad in the west. He answered that one’s mother tongue is something very close to heart, if one wants to forget it out of his own will he can do it in three months and if not, then probably 35 years is also not enough. While Ray remained a social commentator of the times he lived in, this particular aspect is a stern reminder of the times we live in too. I hardly see kids these days pronouncing Bangla or Hindi, two Indian languages I know, without mixing a splatter of English in to it. While this might be fashionable for the parents, I wonder how the beauty of multicultural and multilingual society will be lost in a few years from now. I will be happy if my children can read Shakespeare or JK Rowling in English but I will be happier if they do not need a translation to understand the beauty of Sunil Gangopadhyay or Leela Majumdar.
Coming back to the question about the journey of discovering “who is this man actually?”, the husband insists that the wife should not be carried away by emotions and insist on seeing his passport. While the uncle shows his passport on his own to the husband, he makes a valid argument about what does a passport prove? His name, his identity? No! A passport may be forged anytime (and we thought only our generation is fighting the crisis of identity theft in the wake of the popularity of social media) but more than that, it is a never a proof of human conscience. Later in the movie we see that the conscience which made the wife/niece to distrust this man and forced her to carefully remove two valuable figurines from the living room, replacing them in their original positions when the husband invites one of his friends to meet this man. The wife is convinced that he might be his uncle and not a thief but on the other hand she also fears that he might have come back after so many years to claim his share of family property.
The story takes a sharp turn when the husband’s friend visits their house to take a test of whether the uncle was truly genuine or not. This friend, played by Dhritiman, was known to be a lawyer with the ability of being bitterly straight forward. The uncle presumes that this might again be a visit from over inquisitive friends of the couple as the other day, but what ensues is a debate over what is civilised and what is not. The uncle’s views about the simpleton tribal life, people considered savage by the world that we belong to, the ones with whom he had spent a considerable time in South America and even in India, before he left for the west, irks the friend. He is convinced that the man claiming to be his friend’s wife’s maternal uncle is a fraud. He tells that to him on his face. While the couple is left red faced, they find that the man is gone. Ray depiction of Dhritiman’s characters is about being one of us. The ones like us who believe that civilisation is a licence to cut trees and then complain about the increasing temperatures. One like us who may decide to stick on to an age old belief of marrying a girl to a tree but on the question of some ancient tribal man and woman exercising their right of expression in matters of sexual choice, we do not think twice before dubbing that to be promiscuous.
The idea of development and civilisation as a whole is challenged when Dutta’s character questions about the homeless asking for shelter in the very ambitious city of New York. His questions on what we call as an advancement of technology is something that all of us have been thinking, but yet to find an answer to. If technology gives you power to destroy an entire city by just one click on your remote control, is that the progress that we are looking forward to? And then what gives us right to tag the lives of men and women in the forests as ‘backward’? By the end of the movie, I realised that Ray etched the characters of the husband, the wife and the straight talker friend as a reflection of our city bred selves. The parameters of urban life has changed since 1991, but at the core we still remain “Kupomunduk” (the frog who can never never leave his known surroundings and broaden his horizons). In fact the insecurities have always increased. The wife faces the dilemma of accepting his uncle and yet cannot overcome her doubts behind the actual reason of his return. The property factor plays on the minds of both the husband and wife while they try to be perfect Indian hosts. The friend is someone we all can relate to. It is us actually. In the race to be the brightest and the best, we indeed forget the simple joys of life.
The joy which the couple rediscovers while they trace the uncle near an Indian tribal village near Bolpur. Surprisingly, the uncle never faces a question about whom he actually was in their surrounding, nor about his motive behind the visit. Perhaps when you do not fear losing out on something, you are more open towards it. The couple apologises to the uncle who tells them that he will claim his share of family property. He leaves for his desired destination soon but are taken by surprise to find that the uncle had transferred his share of the property in his niece’s name.
His parting shot of advice to Babloo, the couple’s kid who grows much fond of his grandfather is not to be a “Kupomunduk” and to explore the world. Perhaps a bit of advice for all of us. In our day to day existence in a cubicle bound life, we often forget the charm of ‘wanderlust’. But even more than that, we tend to forget the importance of keeping our minds open. We boast of 5000 year old history and tradition, but nowadays even tradition seems to be measure in per sq ft basis 🙂
Perhaps this story is also a ringing truth and a reminder for us Indians who take immense pride in our culture and legacy. But the mould of idol worship that we have prepared over the years for our icons and the complete intolerance towards any criticism or satire towards them or for famous personalities in our living history, is something that we need to get over. All of us may not be lucky or rich enough to travel across the world, but we have a far more feasible solution closer home- Books. Reading opens doors which we may not have imagined earlier but on the other hand intolerance and the belief that what I think is the only way round is disastrous.
P.S. – The movie remains special to me because of the house it was shot. Those kind of houses with red flooring and beautiful windows and balcony are quickly disappearing from the face of Calcutta. My guess is that the house must be somewhere in Ballygunge. Do not know if it is still there though.
P.P.S.- Is it only me or Sujoy Ghosh deliberately named Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s character “Satyaki/Rana” in Kahaani? The eternal bong dilemma about Bhalonaam and Daaknaam 🙂
The very first thing every year I do after I get hold of the calendar (the Roman and the Bengali one, both) is to check the Durga Pujo dates. You may call it a habit, a glimpse of joy or a routine…anything. But I am sure that I am not the only one. Bengalis are by birth emotional and the degree attached to my idiosyncrasies is wee bit more. I am the kind who would cry silently in the bathroom after watching a few pictures of my city getting all decked up for Durga pujo on Facebook and then walk out perfectly happy and sane after thinking about the ‘to do’s in a ‘Probashi pujo’.
Frankly speaking, this is not the first time that I am away from home during Durga pujo, the significance of which in the life of an ordinary Calcuttan (and by that I mean all Calcuttans!) can be only understood by visiting the city during the time of the festival. I have heard many comparisons about Durga pujo being almost like Ganesh Chaturthi in Bombay, Hyderabad or Pune or for that matter internationally the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Amongt these I have experienced only the Hyderabadi celebrations and so I may not be qualified to comment but deep down inside, as girl growing up in a South Calcutta neighbourhood where pujo meant the excitement of discussing plans about decoration of the pandal and collecting funds way before the celebrations started, I know that Durga pujo in a Calcuttan’s life cannnot be substituted.
I have no qualms in admitting that Durga pujo for me and for many like me who grew up in Calcutta had connotations beyond being just a religious festival. And there lies the spirit and warmth which makes pujo so unique. I have seen, in Hyderabad for instance, that only people who follow a particular faith as mine, Hinduism, participating in the celebrations for Ganesh Chaturthi and during the day of Visarjan a curfew is often imposed in the old city area just to avert any chances of communal tension. And to think that we Calcuttans mark the beginning of our Durga pujo itinerary by making a mandatory visit to Arsalan and by devouring the mutton biriyani! It’s a pilgrimage, just like the chelo kabab or the prawn cocktail in Peter Cat or Mocambo. And of course the bhog that is served during the pujo days in the neighbourhood. Perhaps the only vegetarian fare which seems tasty to the tongue to the Calcuttan foodie 🙂 Durga pujo is as important for gastronomical delights to be explored as hopping through the makeshift wonders which dot the cityscape for the 4 days. People visiting the city first time during the pujo often wonder that so much of creativity and thought has gone for the preparation…and that too just for 4 days. I think there are already reams of data available on the internent over how Durga pujo celebrations is almost a cottage industry in Bengal ( I am not making a point for Industrialisation in Bengal).
My friends often wonder how can we Bengalis, and also the Calcutta Marwaris, Gujaratis and Biharis, who have called Calcutta home for a long time now and that includes many of my friends who subscribe to the tought “ghar mein veg bahar non veg” (eating vegetarian fare in the house and non vegetarian outside”), eat non vegetarian food during the time we are celebrating a religious festival. My answer to the often remains that it is the same fervour with which we devour the Biriyani in a neighbour’s house during Eid or eat the plum cake during Christmas. And if I miss out on the Langar food during Guruparab (also Balwant Singh’s dhaba food in Bhawanipore) it will be almost blasphemy and I will not be qualified enough to call myself a Calcuttan. Calcuttans are often called a ‘hujugey’ lot. One who go by the wave. What else will describe the city’s euphoria in descending upon Park Street on the 24th December night every year? There are numerous flipsides in attaching so much importance in celebrating every festival, but somewhere I feel that it attaches a non communal flavour to the city’s diaspora. And the Durga pujo is the biggest among them all. That explains the Councillor of my ward, who practises Islam, taking active interest in making the pujo a success and never missing out on the Ashatmi bhog. That also includes the Sardars who stay near Bhawanipore being an active support in all the pujo planning.
Yes, I pray every year…and piously give my Ashtami anjali, fasting for the first half for the day and planning where to eat in the night. That is in between popping two gelusil tablets (Bengalis and their acidity!) I make wishes before the Goddess and participate in the ‘Sondhi pujo’ where I see thousands gather to pay homage to the mother who saved mankind. The magical moment of celebration all women kind when the 108 lights bloom in full grandeur to express their gratitude to the power of a woman. That is religious for me, extremely religious. That moment often defines the understanding of me being a “Hindu”. A practitioner of the “sanatan dharma”. For me, it is not remotely related to anything including eating non vegetarian food, chowmein, carrying mobile phones, going to pubs and parties, wearing what I feel I look beautiful in, being confident about myself or being friends with people of other faiths or inviting them to share the Bhog.
Calcutta, I have heard and seen, is incrasingly becoming intolerant towards the fairer sex. A year ago also I could take pride in the fact that my city is one of the safest in India, not anymore. But Durga pujo every year gives me hope. A hope that the same people who put up posters about “praying in front of the Goddess” will learn a thing or two about how not to make snide remarks about a woman wearing something you find “sexy” in the crowd. Let her enjoy the pandal hopping or the adda ta Maddox square just like you do. Or to jostle inside the Pujo pandal just to grope her. Interestingly, it is also the time of the year when a significant number of eve teasing cases are registered in Calcutta. I do not claim I have never faced any during Pujo.
This year, I will be celebrating pujo in a faraway land. I will attend Germany’s biggest Durga pujo and one of Europe’s biggest pujo, in Cologne. I am looking forward to the excitement here…very much palpable among the ‘probashis’. The cultural program, the arrangements, the self cooked bhog….but deep down inside I know I will miss the crowds, the lights, the chant from the balcony while welcoming the daughter when she comes home a day before “shoshti”- “Thakur eshe geche” (“Look the deity has arrived”) and the spirit that is called Calcutta.
Pujo, for us Calcuttans, will always remain a celebration of life- food, friends, adda, nostalgia and planning for the next year 🙂
I tried to convince myself about not writing this particular blog post but could not resist. The point of writing a post titled ‘(In)Dependant’ when your phone does not stop beeping and your inbox is full of messages titled “Happy Independence Day”- is pure gimmicky. Yes! I am sorry but my nationalism/patriotism is not all aboutmy facebook display picture donning up the shades of the Tiranaga or sending ‘Happy I Day’ messages full of bulk sms writers wisdom laden meaning of what “Freedom” means. Seriously, it doesn’t. Also, I have nothing against Valentines Day or for that matter any day and I love all those celebrations and goodies on V Day that randomly show up every year, but it’s a humble request- Don’t kill the spirit of this Day, the 15th of August, the one we always pray to coincide with a weekday every year (This year it wasn’t). Don’t make it another Valentines Day. ‘I Day’ sounds hep- don’t know what Surjya Sen would have thought about it, but please don’t send me those sms es.
For every individual the term ‘Independence’ has a strict set of connotations attached to it. For me Independence is all about being yourself and supporting what I think is right. It’s a moral decision somewhere. And factual too. When you send me all those messages about India celebrating it’s 63rd I Day- get your facts correct. Count 15th August, 1947 too! Yes, dear…it is our 64th Independence Day and the 63rd year of Independence. subtlety you see-bulk doesn’t work every time. Also, when you fly that tricolour outside your house or buy a paper version of it (am sure, many did that today considering our fetish for everything Karan Johar produces and that includes the mass copies of the Manish Malhotra creation found in KarolBagh and Burrabazar)- show it it’s due respect. I have seen the tricolour being drenched in the rain or being put in a half mast(not deliberately but may be due to the wind) long after the ceremonial flag hoisting and the bhashanbazi is over. Or paper flags strewn all across the street. Try picking them up on 16th August or tey to stand up every time the national anthem is played in your 200 bucks worth Multiplex. These are very symbolic day to day measures which count in favour of your independent spirit. The one that separates you from the herd. The herd that goes on to study Engineering (while craving for Literature). No offences meant there. But that’s one very apt example which I thought will make sense for many young souls raking their brains over making a decision.
I am a law student and it’s part of my coursework to dissect the Constitution and research over all those tomes written over the haloed principles of justice, liberty and equality. Somehow in Law School, one thing I really enjoyed was studying the Constitution and everything related to it. But as a nobody I will suggest to everybody to read up the document. No, dear am not mixing up ‘I Day’ with ‘R Day’. It is one of the most succinctly (I am aware of it’s original length) put and brilliantly drafted piece of literature I have ever come across. Never mind all those ninety five and counting amendments that our legislators decided to put across. We have a habit of screwing brilliant stuff. Ask Sourav Ganguly, Shashi Tharoor etc. Nothing puts forward the true spirit of Indian Independence as beautifully as the constitution. When we had dominion status between 15th August 1947 and 26th January, 1950- our Constitution framers took extra effort to make sure it is an ethereal document out of bounds of time and space (I mean it. We do no need those amendments or those debates over basic structure.) It reflects the aspiration of a country born after it’s ‘tyrst with destiny at midnight’. A country which was torn apart and the flame lingers on till date (Kashmir anyone). A country where there was versatility of thought from the very inception (?) of the freedom struggle. A country we call our own. our Home. And even when that NRI jerk presumes over that matrimonial chat that the lady on the other side of cyberspace is homely and does not know what biking means you give him a piece of your mind and say dude! come to the Himalayas. Also, it’s the ‘reverse’ gear you know- let’s make that a trend.
Be the Generation ‘W’. Respect the fact that worshiping goddess Durga on one hand and stiffling the voice of your daughter in case she wants to marry in some other caste or play football is passe’.