Perilous Starlight

The violence and viciousness of a child’s world are well known. Samuel Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, the staple of English literature courses today, dealt firmly with this as he de-mythologised conventions of  the helpless and tearful child and showed how monstrous they can be. The unpredictable world of children has been the subject of countless books. Dickens’ children are a useful point of reference here- leading terrible lives of quiet misery.

 I remember watching Jack Clayton’s Our Mother’s House (1967) before I became a mother myself and being quite horrified by the unforgivingly cruel world the children chose for themselves. Burying their mother in the backyard and shutting themselves off from the outside world they established their own world within, with its chilling rules and rituals. More recently, The Karate Kid (2010) blends children’s savagery with issues of race, which I think are far more relevant in today’s world than Golding’s paradise-turned hellhole parable.

A black child in China, a brown child in small town white America, a Turkish migrant’s child  in Sweden, a Hispanic in Korea: the mind boggles at what such children are going through as matters of race, community, ethnicity and gender are decided  in playgrounds and schoolrooms.

A child’s world is hard work. The sudden quarrels that sunder familiar friendships, the bullying, the trials of strength, the taunts and mockeries that have to be faced each day  from other children can sometimes be more dangerous than in an adult world.

Salman Khan, the Bollywood actor, produced a movie named Chillar Party (2011) in which a group of privileged children in a modern apartment complex torment Phatke, a poor village boy as he tries to eke out a precarious existence as a car-washer. The scene in which the boy’s pet mutt is locked up in a car and left to suffocate as Phatke, tears coursing down his cheeks, begs the rich children for mercy on his dog may be mawkish to some.

But it works! Phatke was a street-child himself in real life and may have brought to his role the understanding of felt experience. India has no official figures of its street children but there must be millions of them: grubby bodies, scarred faces, glue-sniffing, rag-picking multitudes who live precarious lives of beggary and crime.

My son, who at sixteen has changed schools and joined a new one, brings home terrible tales of teenage brutality. Not the fist-fighting, drug-taking violence of Hollywood movies, but the more insidious tales of identity and belonging, of a closed circle of insiders and the rejected outsiders; of the new boys who hang around on their own, packless, while the old boys have hardened their ranks and refused admittance.

As the schoolboy Goggles Ledwidge, a minor  character who nevertheless makes an important point in Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless in Gaza realised, it is hard to belong. Huxley’s  novel  was about the turbulences in sexual and class-politics in 1930s England. But Goggles, like so many others who had gone before and would come after, realised soon enough that childhood  is the first  point of entry into the bitter lessons of life.


The Kitchen World

The world of the kitchen is almost Dantesque in preoccupation. Re-reading George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, a classic tale of sorrow and slavery in the kitchen pits of big hotels in Paris in the 1920s, I was struck by the references to fire and heat in the dark tunnelled world of a hotel basement kitchen.

It was lighted by one dim electric bulb, and four or five gas-fires that sent out a fierce red breath.” The hot steaming kitchen was a “stifling, low-ceilinged inferno of a cellar, red-lit from the fires, and deafening with oaths and the clanging of pots and pans”.

Orwell’s analysis of poverty has always struck me as being peculiarly effective, perhaps because of his real lived experiences.  Dorothy in A Clergyman’s Daughter or Gordon Comstock in Keep the Aspidistra Flying have the battered un-heroic poverty of the very middle-middle class, a world in which appearances have to be maintained and the dinner at an expensive restaurant has got to be paid for airily, languorously even,  although the heart is racing at what this means for the rest of the week.

In Down and Out in Paris and London we take a step further and walk down into those mysterious caverns from which the fine food emerges only to find a sordid tale of poor wages, hours of drudgery, fights, drunkenness, cursing and every other kind of folly and knavery that the outside world has.

Hundreds of years before, Shakespeare had given us similar insights. In Twelfth Night Or What You Will—a play performed in 1602—the genteel world of the nobility in which the  thwarted romance of Duke Orsino for Countess Olivia is played out, is balanced by the seamier sides of the kitchen world of Malvolio, Sir Andrew Agueheek and Sir Toby Belch.

The subplot traces the fooling of the steward Malvolio who is duped, confined to a dark room and driven half mad by a series of supposed acts of tomfoolery under the adroit planning of Maria, the lady’s maid.  There is something sinister in the world of the steward and lady’s attendant and their childish acts of pure cruelty that approximates tragic overtones.

Even in the heightened world of period dramas like Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, the lilting notes of Christmas cheer aired in the Christmas Special episodes are entirely at variance with the dark concerns in the downstairs world.  Barrow’s homosexuality makes him particularly vulnerable, but so are the army of maids who get into ‘trouble’ because of their liaisons with the lord of the manor.

The kitchen frequently became a war zone where sex, class and prejudice combine. Briskly stirring a white sauce or decorating a roast, Daisy and Mrs Patmore had fierce arguments over literacy, propriety and hierarchy.

“Gastronomy is the science of pain” said Anthony Bourdain in his 1999 classic article in The New Yorker entitled  Don’t Eat Before Reading This.

It most certainly is.

Not only in the systematic slaughter and decapitation that cooking involves, carving out head and heart and kidneys, skinning animals still warm with life, washing off bits of clotted blood but also in the appearances that have to be maintained: dressing stale food and passing it off as fresh, using the same ingredients in disguised ways to create a new-fangled soup, huge amounts of pretence in using the same old butter and garlic and cream in a hundred so called innovative ways.

And of course, the tiredness, the rudeness, the squalid lives of the men behind the glass door. Last month, at the Madras hotel in which I was staying, I saw a bitter looking man of twenty something send back his uneaten pasta thrice, complaining that it was tasteless.

Three times the waiters sent it back to the cook, and three times the cook sent it back again with new forms of pasta, garnishing, sauce and yet to no avail. The bitter young man had tasted pasta ambrosia somewhere and no earthly penne could soothe him.

“Everyone seemed to be in a hurry and a rage” noted Orwell. Yes. From Paris in the 1920s to Madras in 2018, from the sham shouting of Gordon Ramsay to the real humiliation of the chef at our hotel, the world of the hotel kitchen is the world of the Inferno. Unknown battles with flesh and vegetables become the Roast Mutton with Brandy Sauce.

Hell’s Kitchens in hotels and restaurants prepare our meals and wait for the depressing business of eating to be got over with before the shift can be brought to an end. Till it begins next morning again.


And so the tedium continues.



via Daily Prompt: Observe

All right. I’ve been observed all my life. In nursery school. At singing lessons. During examinations .

In my work place I am the observed again. Carefully placed cameras in the nooks and crannies of the college hall observe me walking to my graduate class students. The students, bored and unable to understand me, observe my teaching as a performance. I perform Macbeth and they watch my performance with a sigh while the Principal stands outside the door and observes …no judges me. I want to be free. I want to hear the cicadas and watch a drongo skip from branch to branch, I want to observe the specks of airplanes as they climb the skies. I want to be one with the twigs and branches, the baked mud and the parched earth.

But to do all this I must have sufficient means and to garner that means another round of observations and grading and measuring out my life in coffee spoons and core course periods. Still trapped. A poor life this if full of care/ we have no time to stand and stare.

Far Away and Long Ago

Once upon a time, though it seems so far away now, it was 1978 and I was a child. My father was an officer in the Indian Railways and was presiding over the phased withdrawal of steam and its eventual replacement by diesel and electric. Narrow gauge lines were being dismantled in favour of broad gauge, which meant a standard five feet width so that express trains could gallop past at alarming speed. The old locomotives were being sold as scrap, or put into museums or made to decorate the entrances of railway colonies, stations and offices.

We were in a small town in Bengal, so small that no one knows its name save for the fifty or so railway officers who lived in red brick bungalows in its tiny nineteenth century colony. The bungalows had front gardens, lily pools, back gardens, summer houses, green houses, Bougainvillea trellises, Rangoon creepers over the wooden balustrades and large tin baths in enormous bathrooms, under which lay coiled snakes as they glided in for shelter on a hot summer day.

As we played amongst the sunflowers and tamarind trees, the smell of Railway mutton curry drifted in from the kitchens,  prepared by the station cook in fiery chilly sauce. And in the evenings one set off for the Club, with its wooden ballroom where the moms and dads played rummy and sipped beer while the children scrambled around the badminton courts and gardens playing ‘catch’ or ‘Red Rover’ or the exciting “Wolf and the Lamb”.

It had been a terrible year for rains and flash floods had suddenly left us all marooned. My father was in a terrible state because all the lines had been flooded and train movement ground to a halt. Passengers were stranded, it is true, but the more serious trouble was the movement of freight.

When Lord Dalhousie built the first railway lines it was less for passenger movement than for the quick movement of troops, raw materials for industries and freight movement across the country. And so we put ourselves into a saloon car and travelled as far down as we dared while my father supervised flood relief work and I, cut off from my school in Calcutta, could enjoy three weeks of wondrous confinement in a train.

Oh, what a time I had! We baked in the saloon car by day, because there was no air-conditioning and the slatted shutters had to be pulled down. In the evening the carriage went for a spot of shunting and I hung my head out of the window as we wandered up and down branch lines, backward and forward, backward and forward till we were put on the ‘up’ or ‘down’ siding. And all the while our steam engine puffed and panted and whooshed, screaming  a thin tinny horn as the wheels went jhuk-jhuk-jhuk and the carriage clicked and rattled.

Saloon RA-6 (232)

Once every three days another steam engine would ponderously pull up alongside ours with a tremendous whooosh and the driver would give me a wink and tug at the horn as his mate shovelled across coal from his engine to ours for. . . . cooking, for the saloon kitchen had no gas range but a mighty coal-fed chula upon which meals were cooked. And yes, the sunny-side-up for my father’s breakfast was perfectly done.

We were the last Romantics! Alas, steam was out by 1980! Never again would I ride on a train pulled by a steam locomotive, with its tugging, jerky movements and its tremendous hissing and spitting as it breathed fire and brimstone and hurtled headlong into the night. I have travelled far and wide on clinical trains that pull noiselessly  in and glide gently out, but never felt the thrill of that first tremendous tug as the wheels pulled and the doors  slammed and we could smell the smoky air and had to dust the soot from the seat before settling in.

The British Raj took much away from India but gave some things in return and the Railways has been one of those things that has given so many of us life, sustenance and memories.

Is it any wonder that Bhowani Junction has always been one of my most favourite novels and movies? I lived in the last of the Bhowani Junctions.

I miss them.



August, Munnoo and Empire

Shashi Tharoor’s famed speech on British reparation for its misdeeds has always struck me as being the brilliant but theatrical rant of a showy man. Colonial rule was oppressive, money-minded and debilitating but it was also a historically complex phenomenon in which many Indians collaborated and benefits were sown. Leaving aside the Princely States who were frank defenders of British rule, the fact that I am writing this post in English from a beautiful high-ceilinged British-built bungalow of the nineteenth century in Calcutta which was the British city to beat all others  shows that I too may be a product of colonialism. My school and college institutions certainly were—the one set up by the Loretto Sisters in the garden house of an eighteenth century British judge, the other established in 1817 to facilitate Western secular education through the medium of English. Tharoor certainly is also a product of Empire. His voice is modulated to Etonian splendour and I’m really not sure if the shopgirl at Debenhams  in Liverpool would have quite understood him. But then he wouldn’t go there, would he! A spot of shooting with cronies in an impressive two hundred year old estate in the Scottish Highlands would be more his style.

Issues regarding identity have always been touchy though. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s masterly novel “English, August : An Indian Story” shows an English Literature graduate remembering his Milton and Pope in the grimy heat of fictional Madna which represents small town India. Agastya can make nothing of nothing and finds himself alien in the IAS society as well as in village life. A century and a half ago  Gilbert Elliott, the first Lord Minto yearned for the Scottish Borders as he sat watching a nautch in a sweat-soaking evening at the Governor General’s weekend retreat at Barrackpore.

When Lord Minto went to Java for a Company campaign, the Hindu Rajah of Bali presented him with a brood of young girls and boys as slaves. Lord Minto took a fancy to two of them, and as he tells us in his Reminiscences, named them Child and Man and took them back to Scotland in 1813. The good Lord Minto died before he could reach his home  but Child and Man had been sent on there in advance. What happened to them after he died? Sunk in history except for a few mentions in a Scotsman’s letters in the nineteenth century, I think of two Malayan children, torn from their home in Asia, alone in the chill green of a village near the North Sea and wonder what befell them.

Carrying slaves back to England was a bad habit in the nineteenth century. William Hickey (1749-1830) was a lawyer better known for his Memoirs, written around 1810 and giving us extraordinary glimpses of colonial life in London, Madras and Calcutta. In Calcutta his Memoirs provide a fascinating account of famous names and events, including the young Rose Aylmer, beloved of Walter Savage Landor, who died of a most severe bowel complaint “brought on entirely by indulging too much with that mischievous and dangerous fruit: the pineapple”.  Hickey returned to England in 1810 after burying two wives, one of which was his Indian mistress Jemdanee and their young son. On his return he brought with him his servant Munnoo and a pie-bald dog Tiger. Munnoo had been acquired some time before.
Here’s how:

“I engaged a remarkably smart, good-tempered boy about thirteen years old named Munnoo, who had then lived with me upwards of four years, without ever being of the least real use, his chief occupation being to make other servants laugh by his monkey tricks when waiting at table and standing at the back of my chair as he always did; his mother, who doated upon the boy, would not for a long time consent to let him go to Europe, until an offer of [approximately £60] which I made her proved irresistible; she accepted the money and agreed to part with her favourite Munnoo, and a more attached and faithful creature never existed than he has proved to me.”

By December 1808 Mr Hickey had taken a house in Beaconsfield to be near an old friend and his twin sisters. Here he resumed the life of an elderly English gentleman ( in great contrast to the peccadilloes of his youth) walking, reading, going to London. Here too lived Munnoo in a precarious in-between manner till the child took the matter in his own hands.

“In the month of February my favourite Munnoo, without the least hint or solicitation on my part upon the subject, expressed an earnest desire to be made a Christian.  I had upon first coming to Beaconsfield put him to school to be taught to read and write; his schoolmaster, having made the Catechism the first object, probably turned his thoughts that way.  I therefore applied to the Reverend Mr Bradford, Curate of the place, who very kindly furnished him with the books requisite to give him all the necessary information previous to becoming a member of the Church of England, and as the boy was extremely zealous, he soon entitled himself to receive baptism, which ceremony was performed in the church of Beaconsfield, by Mr Bradford, his sponsors being myself, a man-servant of mine, and my sister Sarah.  Upon this occasion I thought it would be as well to anglify his name a little, and therefore instead of Munnoo, I had him designated in the parochial register, “William Munnew”.

Poor Munnoo! Caught between two worlds, belonging to neither, Mr Munnew married in 1813 a girl called Anne and had two children, christened most unimaginatively Anne and William, before rising from servant to “licensed victualler”. He died in the 1830s and left behind a large Munnew family in Westminster whose descendants had little Indian in them save their genes. The image tagged to this post shows a portrait of Munnoo with his master and the dog Tiger, all three looking distant and thoughtful to India which they have left behind.

An interesting way of seeing the British colonisation of India  is to see it as one in a wave of colonisations and empires of over two thousand years. The British experience was no worse or better than the others.  And though Munnoo and Jemdanee, Child and Man lived fragile lives, they showed that humanity can adapt itself to the unfamiliar in many ways.


Remembering Tolkien


Though read today as a children’s book, J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit and its sequel The Lord of the Rings has also been the subject of serious study, seen as a conscious and systematic effort at creating a mythology for England. This combination of fairy tale and mythic elements creates a work that is stratified and complex. I also tend to find hints of contemporary allegory in the books, written during the Great War. Though dampened by Tolkien’s vigorous assertions that his work is pure fiction and has no relation to the stirring events of his time, I refuse to give up. Here are the reasons why.

The cue is set by Tolkien in the Foreward to the 1965 Ballantine Book edition which tells us all about the futility of devising allegorical implications. “As for any inner meaning or message, it has in the intention of the author none“. Tolkien continues by stating that he dislikes allegory, though curiously he uses allegorical images to describe his own art of writing: “In spite of the darkness of the next five years, I found that the story could not now be wholly abandoned and I plodded on, mostly by night, till I stood by Balin’s tomb in Moria. There I halted for a long time. It was almost a year later when I went on and so came to Lothlorien and the Great River in 1941.”

Though The Hobbit had been written in the early ’30s and published in 1937, The Lord of the Rings was written at intervals, between 1936 and 1949. At the time Tolkien was writing about the Shadow of Mordor spreading over Middle-Earth, of the defence of Gondor and Rohan, of the two towers and  of Sauron, our world too had been plunged into a vortex of anarchy and bloodshed. Militarism and violence, Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima, Fascism, slogans, mind games and propaganda and a thousand other weary deeds of cruelty, big and small formed the realities of the outside world.

Middle Earth was born amidst this tumult, in which case the books become an elaborate parable of power, the Ring a tangible embodiment of this power while the Dark Lord who created it is power at its most unnerving- Hitler’s Germany. As in World War II the whole of Middle Earth is plunged into action. All living creatures, be they plants, animals, men, other beings or even the non-classifiable Tom Bombadil-a kind of primal nature force- are drawn into the struggle. The whole atmosphere of war is evoked- the sudden desperate friendships, the joy felt from the ordinary things of life,(including a warm meal and tobacco) the parleys, strategies, reversals all bear uncanny similarity to the ceaseless plotting and endless movement on the Front. And here is an excerpt from Book III which reads like a real human war: “The mist was in Merry’s eyes of tears and weariness when they drew near the ruined gate of Minas Tirith. He gave little heed to the wreck and slaughter that lay all about. Fog and smoke and stench were in the air, for many engines had been burned and cast into the fire pits while here and there lay many carcasses. The flying rain had ceased for a time and the sun gleamed up above, but all the lower city was wrapped in a smouldering reek“. The wars of 1914 and 1939 unleashed disorder everywhere. In Tolkien’s world too the burden of evil touches everyone and all places including the tranquil Shire. Realpolitik and the ingenuity of political machinations are present even in the simpler The Hobbit. The Dale witnesses a brief struggle for power legitimacy between the Master and the Bard and the Dragon can only be outdone by elaborate strategy.

Mythologists speak of the “eschatological myth” which enacts the process of renewal and rebirth as also the renewal of life that characterises the Quest Hero. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings  enact this movement. Bilbo brings life back to the desolation of Smaug, Merry and Aragorn free Gondor from the clutches of Saruman and revitalise King Theoden. Frodo’s quest overthrows the Dark Lord. Perhaps Tolkien, like Joyce, had mythologised the events and lessons of the Inter-War years, as when T.S.Eliot felt Ulysses to be “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity”, which gave “shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history”. But there is so much more of hope in Tolkien than in Joyce. Perhaps, like the Fellowship, saner minds will resist hate and power and hold out promises for the pleasures of everyday life. In Bilbo’s words:

“Eyes that fire and sword have seen/ And horror in the halls of stone /Look at last on meadows green/And trees and hills they long have known”.


Photo on 22-12-17 at 6.54 PM

This is Bumpy Dog who died over a year ago on this day of natural causes. She lived in the compound of an apartment house in leafy Alipore which, as anyone familiar with Calcutta knows, is the posh neighbourhood of an otherwise squalid city. When we moved into our flat in 2005, my son was three and Bumpy Dog two-plus or minus a year and a half. No one knew where she came from but as Bumpy knew her place in the Great Chain of Being she was tolerated. She would sit in the car park but slink away  when cars came and the lordly sahibs and memsahibs disembarked, shouting into their expensive mobile phones and cradling their designer bags. She grubbed quietly in the rubbish bins and kept well away from the dachshunds, golden retrievers, pugs and labradors that went for sedate walks twice a day with their trainers and orderlies. She had three litters and watched helplessly as each one of her pups was crushed under the wheels of the imperious cars that dashed into the car park till I called in the RSPCA and had her spayed. After that she was safe, and watched gratefully as my son sent down  bones and biscuit crumbs twice a day. He named her Bumpy because it was the Enid Blyton stage of his life.

A memsahib with time on her hands and a cruel, cruel heart lived on the top floor. Propriety dictates that I keep her name a secret. This memsahib fancied herself to be a landscape-gardening expert and set about to take over our little front garden. She would bring in flower pots, bury them into the soil with the flowers peeping out of the ground and pretend that she had grown them. She forbade any of the children from playing on the grass. And she decided that Bumpy Dog was a threat to her flowers, so one night she kidnapped Bumpy Dog, put him into a sack and instructed her driver to hide the sack in her car boot and throw it somewhere far away. All was done secretly. I had heard strange squeals at one a.m one night but could not connect it to the disappearance till much later.

For three weeks we hunted everywhere for Bumpy. I drove despairingly around Alipore, then moved to the riverside, the railway station, all the major rubbish dumps and the three animal shelters in and around Calcutta. There were dappled dogs and brown dogs, black mongrels and white ones, lean and starving ones and well-fed ones but no Bumpy.

Finally I had exhausted all my options save two. I offered a reward for Bumpy of about 200 dollars.  And I prayed to the God of forgotten creatures to return her and restore my belief in the hope that we live in a moral universe.

Three weeks later my driver burst into the room. “She’s back.”

He had seen her limping in through the gate, spattered in mud, ribs showing, wounded in her front paw but alive. She crept in, went to her place in the corner of the compound wall and sank down amidst the dry leaves and tattered newspapers.

No one came forward to claim my reward. But a whisper went round the neighbourhood, amongst the maids and drivers,  that I had performed black magic and tracked her down.

Bumpy lived five years more. Although we left that apartment and moved elsewhere, kinder souls continued to feed her till she died, as quietly as she had lived.

And though the kidnapper was, I am told, furious, she must have realised that it was no longer about a garden and stray-dog poo. It was about wanton brutality on the poor, the defenceless, the forsaken.

And this time we won.

Photo on 22-12-17 at 6.53 PM.jpg

Stray Thoughts

Here’s a secret: I am partial to reading books in which the relationship between man and dog forms a part of the plot. I’m not sure if this is because I grew up on a healthy diet of Enid Blytons with Buster snapping and Timmy woofing and Loony dancing on the kitchen mat, or because my first real friends in this world were brown eyed mongrels sheltering in the garden of our railway bungalows or begging for waste chapatis at the outhouse door. Whatsoever may be the cause, an ill fed stray haunting  the rubbish heap for left overs still brings a lump to my throat.

Lately there are fewer dogs on the city streets. Sometimes I gather rice and bones and have to look for hours before I can spot a decently starving one. The ones that move in packs are huge fellows, battle scarred veterans of years on the streets, worldly wise and grave who disdain my offers. Wasted puppies have disappeared — perhaps they have all been crushed by the cruelties of urban life and its  shrinking spaces. So too has human tolerance — in my childhood the shanty dwellers near my grandmother’s home shared their meagre meals with a brown spotted mutt but the shanties are now pucca houses with television and computer and the mutt is no longer to be seen.

J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is the obvious choice for dogs as a metaphor for the unaccountable sadness of modern life, but so are lesser known classics — The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall with its wonderful evocation of World War II in which a boy and dog stay together to survive, Jim Kjelgaard’s A Nose for Trouble and surprisingly Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss in which Mutt the dog suffers a bleak end, befitting the general melancholy of Kalimpong split by the Gorkhaland agitation.


Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation has been one of the most influential texts in the world of animal ethics but another one which is no less informative and relevant is Hiranmay Karlekar’s Savage Humans and Stray Dogs: A Study in Aggression. Karlekar, a senior journalist, writer and thinker, who was in college with my parents, has done much to promote awareness of aggression against animals through his columns.

Hinduism, in its general inclusivity, has Bhairav, a manifestation of Shiva in his terrible form, with a dog as his vahana or vehicle. On the left is a favourite representation of mine: the God as a wanderer surrounded by a host of defenceless animals. I like to think of a day when man realises that he is, after all, a non-human animal. That and nothing more. Perhaps even less!

Bloody Scotland!

It’s been ten days since I returned from a crime writing festival called Bloody Scotland and what a bloody exciting experience it was! A kind of  David Lodge -small world recaptured complete with writers, critics, literary enthusiasts and book agents along with thousands of men and women celebrating late summer sun in picturesque Stirling. And sampling delicious crime! Irreverent snatches of conversation as I tripped to and fro the Albert Halls and Allen Park Church included “I hate Josephine Tey-however did they call her a crime writer” and “the Scots are a bit of a nuisance but they do their detectives well”.

Fellow panelists Lin Anderson, Doug Johnstone and Abir Mukherjee remembered Calcutta including the frayed nerves, yellow taxis, College Street and much else that is this vast chaotic churning city I call home. We also remembered Calcutta’s Scottish connection, the jute, tea and indigo, the Dum Dum bullets, the 1857 encounter, Byomkesh Bakshi and real life crime at Lalbazar. Abir read out an excerpt from his first novel A Rising Man while I did a short piece from my first book F.I.R. For an hour, at least, there was some corner of a foreign field that was briefly Calcutta.

Bloody India!

This was my first visit to the Scottish Highlands. As the train slid away from Edinburgh to Inverness I was struck by the change in landscape -hedges and homely looking pastures gradually shifting into bleak Northern scenery with a strangeness about the sweeping hills and still lochs as if they were frozen in time. So too were the sheep, motionless in the twilight, gathering themselves for the cold night, while bunches of woolly brown cows so different from our Indian ones fringed the meadows at what seemed like eight o clock at night in the long twilight of the Northern skies. Most of the stations we stopped at were deserted and looked like a detached almost surreal movie set, as in the 1970s series Sapphire and Steel with their flowers, benches, clocks and empty waiting rooms.

Loch Ness

I can think of no better crime scene than Scotland. No wonder Douglas Henshall, who played DI Jimmy Perez in the television series Shetland drew a packed audience at his event with Ann Cleeves!


In The Middle of the Night: Tagore’s Nisithey

I sit in a darkened room in a 300 year old crumbling mansion known in the neighbourhood as the Fox Kuthir with the Bhagirathi flowing outside my window. Doves coo in the wooden lattice shades of the enormous 20 feet high verandah, a bulbul trails incessantly from the branches of a neem tree and the oars of a lonely boat splash past on the still waters. Five hundred meters away stands the Hazarduari Palace. It is 1998 in Murshidabad and I  am watching television. Though the screen flickers with a patchy disturbed reel,  I watch entranced as Uttam Kumar stands on the rooftop of another crumbling mansion. I see a flock of wild geese reel and soar above him, beating huge black wings against the clouds as a woman’s face superimposed on the sky laughs a full hungry mocking laugh and asks “Who’s she, who’s she, who’s she.” The print is scratched, the visual blurred but the hero’s anguished eyes against the burning peal of laughter is indelible. The black and white screen creates a sinister noir effect as she laughs and speaks and laughs again “O ke go, O ke, O ke go“.

I did not know it then but this was the last time I would see Nishithey. The film was directed by Agragami and released in 1963,  starring the reigning king of Bengali filmdom Uttam Kumar and his famous co-star Supriya Devi. Frantic efforts to locate a print of this now forgotten movie before writing this piece led to naught. Possibly this is the reason why the article entitled ‘From fiction to film: Reading Tagore texts as visual narratives’, in a volume commemorating Tagore ignores this particular adaptation.[1] Resurrecting forgotten memories, it is my aim in this article to re-address Rabindranath Tagore’s use of the supernatural by referring to his short story Nishithey (In the Middle of the Night) and using it to show how Tagore’s artistic genius created a mood piece, almost Gothic in its texture that exploits the tension between the natural and the supernatural to create a masterly tale. Poe-like in intensity, noir-like in effect, Gothic in feel, Nishithey deserves  another look.[2]

Ever since his sensational appearance on the Western literary scene in 1913 as the author of the Gitanjali, Rabindranath Tagore’s overwhelming presence in world literature continues unabated. His corpus is formidable and the sheer range of his artistry include  poems, songs, plays, short stories and novels,  lectures and essays, letters, diaries and paintings.  He was a writer who had explored almost every genre and literary style.  It is interesting to find that at least a small but rewarding portion of his corpus are stories dealing with the supernatural.   These stories contain a network of romantic imagery dealing with  states such as  dreams, hallucinations, special states of the mind and consciousness and in at least one, the picture of the revenant returning to claim her lost jewel.[3] It is a commonplace to connect Tagore’s yearning for the mysterious and the unattainable to  his evocative childhood experiences as he wandered the rooms of his ancestral mansion at Jorasanko.  Pages from his autobiographical Jiban Smriti  and Chelebela paint a vivid picture of the call of the mystery in imagination. In his Reminiscences Tagore describes how “Looking back on childhood’s days, the thing that recurs most often is the mystery which used to fill both life and world. Something undreamt of was lurking everywhere, and the uppermost question everyday was: When, oh! When would we come across it? “[4]

Elsewhere, in an article on Tagore’s interest in folklore, Sukumar Sen                                                                                                                                                                                                      has described how the dreamlike languor of life in the Jorasanko mansion created in the writer Tagore  a love of the idiom of the simple, childlike motifs of folk myth. ” Rabindranath Tagore, as he tells us in his reminiscences, was a lonely boy from his early childhood days, in spite of the fact that he was born in a large family.  Before he came to the school-going age, he was left to himself during most part of the day. That meant he was confined in a rather narrow room in the servant’s quarter which had a window overlooking a garden and a tank beyond. At night, after dinner, he went to bed in an inner apartment, where a maid would recite nursery rhymes and fairy tales to put him to sleep quietly. These rhymes and tales made a deep impression on the mind and imagination of the boy. And he would often lie awake and ruminate on the images evoked by  the rhymes and tales…

The child had nothing to do during the long midday hours. And taking his seat by the window of the servants room, he would let his fancy work freely on the sights and sounds of the outside world gleaming through the window. Thus the fleeting clouds would conjure up for him a picture of the prince of the fairy-tales riding on a wind horse and out to rescue the princess in distress. The dark undergrowths at the foot of the banyan tree standing in a corner of the tank beyond the garden would appear to him as the den of the dreadful demons that kept the princess confined”.[5]

The child Tagore’s fluid blurring and mirroring of the real world and the imaginary are reproduced in the shadowy figures of his supernatural short stories.  In her masterly exposition  on Tagore’s supernaturalism France Bhattacharya isolates  ten stories that may be labelled as examples of supernatural stories. Drawing on  Todorov’s theory of the  supernatural fantastic[6], Bhattacharya analyses stories as varied as Ghater Katha, Guptadhan and Kankal  before concluding that Tagore’s moral preoccupations prevented him from exploiting to the full the possible outcome of the confrontation between the real and the unreal. “He resisted the temptation to play with the supernatural, to write a straightforward ghost story bhuter galpa perhaps because of his humanitarianism and concern for truth”. [7]

Modern criticism has however extended an understanding of Tagore’s supernatural stories from the realm of the bhuter galpa to the realm of the socially conscious. These stories are now considered in the light of the writer’s increasing engagement with questions about women’s marginalisation and their quest for self esteem within the narrow domestic space afforded them.[8] Nisithey thus transcends its supernaturalism to becoming a tale of a childless, ailing woman and her obsessive love for her husband. Though the wife magnanimously entreats her husband the zamindar Dakshinacharan to remarry after her death, the zamindar swears eternal fidelity. In the course of a few pages Tagore shows how feeble Dakshinacharan’s love is as he is irresistibly drawn to the physician’s daughter Manorama and neglects his wife with  cold brutality. The broken hearted wife dwindles into death, caught between her desire to believe her husband but pragmatic enough to understand these empty protestations of everlasting love as meaningless.

What follows is an inchoate sequence of phantasmagoric images as Dakshinacharan’s urgent attempts at fulfilling his desire for his new wife is thwarted by visions of his dead wife’s face haunting him, her guffaw of mocking laughter and her incessant question “Who’s she? Who’s she, who’s she.” Interestingly, although Monorama, the second wife is given a name, the first wife is nameless and only described as “my wife”. The nameless wife has a deliberate ambiguity of identity to match her faceless existence- childless, ailing, and trapped in a poignant death-in-life situation, harnessed to a barren bed and a sterile existence. Childlessness, sickness, the tyranny of a transgressive husband, unfulfilled desires are motifs repeated in other supernatural stories including Monihara, Khudita Pashan and Kankal.  Because these cultural images of wifehood and infidelity resonate with the magical or physically impossible world of the supernatural, they contribute to both plot and theme as well as the hypnotic effect. Nisithey is rich in readings of the paranormal contained within contexts of gender and identity.

The supernatural elements in the story bring in  a sense of unremitting doom. In terms of Todorov’s theory it contains the fantastic marvelous– in which explanations reinforce the sense of the irrational as well as the fantastic uncanny– that which is extraordinary but possible. Thus the peals of laughter may or may not be the screech of migratory birds, the zamindar may or may not be hallucinating under the influence of wine-“I had been drinking that afternoon, and my mind was in a fluid, maudlin state” and the dead wife’s disturbing return may or may not be the shadows of the mosquito net casting a gloom on guilty minds. “But someone came and stood by my mosquito-net in the dark, and pointing once at Manorama with a long, thin, bony finger whispered ever so softly and indistinctly into my ear, “Who’s she? Who’s she? Who’s she?” Tagore refuses to offer the reassurance of a closed ending or a redemptive conclusion containing expiation, for in the last sentence it is dark once again, with the zamindar pounding upon the doors of the physicians house ” The next night, halfway through, there was a knocking at my door again, and the sound of Doctor! Doctor!”

One of the hallmarks of Gothic fiction, the craze for which dates from Horace Walpole’s classic formulation of the genre in The Castle of Otranto (1764) was the fact that the tale commonly involved mysteries and terrors occasioned by economic or sexual intrigue, based on a curse, accompanied by supernatural manifestations in a castle-type setting. In the classic Gothic tale there would be an usurpation of an inheritance, and the infliction of violence, usually upon hapless female victims. Nishithey contains the trappings of  Gothic fiction – a large crumbling mansion, the wife associated in her sickness and in her dangerously distorted love with images of incarceration together with an extended psychological analysis of the paranormal events. Like these tales also the story contains multiple disruptions or clashes such as the supernatural clashing with the natural, the living wife bent under the shadow of the dead one or of death contending with life. In the Gothic tale nature came to be regarded as an objective co-relative of mental states: the ruined mansions or castles, the wild landscapes, the dark and dank labyrinths and the frequent storms and natural upheavals. Tagore’s story images these Gothic tales in which a darkly imagined counter world symbolizing the dark regions of human mind is set against the rugged landscape.”Suddenly the darkness over the jhau bushes seemed to catch fire: a thin, yellow crescent moon climbed slowly into the sky above the trees, lighting the face of the woman slumped in her white sari on the white stone seat. ” Later, as they sail away to forget the wild laughter the landscape is similarly portentous:” The awesome river had started her long winter sleep, lifeless and inert as a hibernating snake. To the north, barren banks of sand stretched bleakly towards the horizon; and in the villages on the steep southern banks, mango groves quaked and pleaded in the face of the river’s demonic power”.  Suggestions of a ghostly presence seen through nature introduce horror. “But the next moment we realized it was not a human voice, not a supernatural one either- just the call of the water birds scouring the sandbanks. ” Yet at the climactic moment the super-natural is not explained away but exists according to its own laws of cause and effect. This increases the imaginative experience. ” I decided I’d have to turn out the light or never sleep-but as soon as I did so and lay down again, immediately that strangulated voice returned to the darkness next to my mosquito-net, close to my ear: Who’s she? Who’s she? Who’s she? The story has the dark eerie fervor of many Gothic writings prompting at least one critic to note, in a debunking manner though, how it bears resemblance to Edger Alan Poe’s story Leigia[9]. Defending Tagore from charges of frivolity William Radice points out in his introduction how a taste for the macabre and ghostly had long been fostered in Bengal by folk tales . Tagore blended folk myths and supernaturalism, recreated in his short stories in a simple narrative style.

Tagore’s narrative begins with a frame narrative which creates a tension between narrative and frame, a sense of moving between different worlds such as the cozy known world of the doctor and the mysterious world of Dakshinacharan. By casting the story not in the realm of the fantastic but that of the every day, Tagore creates an effective ghost story which erupts within the familiar[10]. There is also a psychological crises not just in the young zamindar torn between loyalty to the first wife and his obvious attraction to the second but also in the character of Haran Doctor, the physician who treats his first wife. The latter could not have failed to notice Dakshinacharan’s increasing attraction towards his daughter, perhaps this is why he unaccountably places two bottles of medicines – one harmless and one fatal at her bedside along with repeated warnings which also suggested an convenient means of death. The world of Nishithey is a world of repressed urges, ambivalent motives and tortured minds which parallel, as it were, the dark winding complex Gothic architecture.

Tagore uses mystery, horror and the super-natural to give substance to his realistic concerns. Nishithey is the mirror of the real world and its characters are created with twisted images, dreams, trance-states and the feeling that the ultimate horror lies within. I am reminded of Tagore’s paintings in which cruel black shapes of menace abound along with dancing figures, portraits of an oval face, a smiling mouth, a slope of forehead, a touch of hair. The dream like quality of his pictures is reproduced in the chill shadowy forms of Nishithey and the noir-like movie poster of the 1963 film adaptation. If Tagore had written nothing at all but a handful of short stories then this one would command an impressive place in the world’s super-natural fiction.

[1] Sanjukta Dasgupta, Sudeshna Chakravarti, Mary Mathew, Radical Rabindranath: Nation, Family and Gender in Tagore’s Fiction and Films, Orient Blackswan, 2013.

[2]William Radice translated“In the Middle of the Night” in Rabindranath Tagore Selected Short Stories, Penguin Modern Classics 2000

[3] Monihara and other Stories, Rupa 2004

[4] Uma Das Gupta edited Rabindranath Tagore My Life in my Words, Penguin Books India, 2006.

[5] Sukumar Sen, “Tagore and Folklore”,Indian Literature, Vol 4 1961, Sahitya Akademi.

[6] Richard Howard translated The Fantastic A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov, Cornell University Press, 1975

[7]  France Bhattacharya, “The Supernatural in Tagore’s Short Stories,” in Rabindranath Tagore, Perspectives in Time, edited by Mary Lago and Ronald Warwick, Macmillan Press Limited, 1989

[8] Radical Rabindranath, ibid

[9] Pratap Narayan Biswas, “Rahasya Golpo o onanyo prabandha”, 1984 quoted in Santosh Chakrabarti Studies in Tagore Critical Essays, Atlantic Publishers 2004.

[10] Preface, M.R. James, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Reprint edition Wildside Press 2006