Masterji: As I remember

Yes, you wore many hats.
I remember you.
Those were the sixties of the previous century when rickshaws were everywhere. The migrants from our neighbouring state, Telugu speaking from Andhra Pradesh drove those cheap, but friendly and ubiquitous vehicles. They were early days to understand eco-friendly modes of mobility.Maybe, there was only a handful, rich enough to own private cars.
In your spare time which was very little, I’d imagine, you worked on these simple contraptions, repaired and even assembled them. There were quite a few of these rickshaws that you owned and employed many robust and hardworking Telugus at your popular outlet, near the erstwhile Capital Cinema Hall. Many who had seen this part of you either quietly sniggered in the shadows or shamefacedly criticised in front.
Now I know and understand the hands-on man, that was you: pioneering, courageous and entrepreneurial. Not for you were the cosy comforts of a staid world bound by non-enterprising mores or pettiness borne out of lazily held property or decadent riches. You were your own man.
I remember the three daughters in their very early teens in colourful Salwar Kameez or flowering skirts on bicycles would set the dry and dusty streets of Cuttack a flutter. They rode the lady-cycles without a carrier in front of the seat and without a care.From “Sati Chaura” to “Chauliaganj” they biked equally comfortable talking to boys as with the others.Eyeballs surely would have rolled like Chinese toys.The girls next door or the touch-me-not unmarried maids and mocking mothers would miss this liberating sight when bounded indoors for their stuck up elders believed that good girls were not to be touched by the polluting influence of the “chokris”.. If there were sighs, heartaches or secret desires seeking such freedom by the nubile lovelies inside of their homes we do not know but can only guess! That besides the cry and spit of contempt of the gentlemen and women could not be hidden and their evil gazes dotted the trail of these innocent, freewheeling cyclists. The mother of the Singh Family, however, dignified and distinguished both in looks and education lovingly let her girls fly.( And mind you, they could cook too!) Masterji was nonchalant, unfazed and happily cheered the family on, well ahead and above of it all. You were modern enough without the usual trappings.
I remember you could drink “lotas”(round vessel of brass or aluminium) of water through your nose and relish a full mouthful of fresh green chillies in equal measure with a “handi”(earthen pot) of Rasogoolas .Dread and awe transfixed the gazes of the uninitiated and the young while the matured and smug continued with their snigger. Who was to tell the latter of their native ignorance’s when they beheld these spectacular feats?
I remember the gather of the men, women, and children from Bihar who found in your home succour, support, and shelter. You were the mentor, guide and father to them who nostalgically missed their distant homes, families, and friends left behind through the humming and mostly loud singing of Bhojpuri folk to the accompaniment of Harmonium, dholaks and manjiras(little brass cymbals) clanging tunefully against each other. The taste of the wonderful choka, puris , dum alloo,dai bhalles and what-have-you still lingers of the many feasts of Holi, Chhat Puja, and Diwali. You made this happen Masterji to get the merry band of migrant Biharis coming together.One question though naggingly lingers.Was your politics not about the belted oversized khaki shorts, lathi and the white gangees(vests)?Just as an aside, good :they are good:those that wear the same today ,a lbeit in trousers they are! But well, that is another story.
Today, you leave me and many else wondering why do we remember now. Why do ideators,polygots,musicians, filmmakers, painters, and authors, artists philosophers while on their path-breaking and innovative drives during their lifetime seldom get recognised or discovered? Why do we not see the many flavours of life and its struggles that different people, cultural diversity, languages, and places bring? Why does it take time to see the seeds being sown for the many flowers to be born from the energy, courage, vision, sweat and toil of an unsung but tireless gardener?
Sadly, it is only, much after, that we do! In most instances, that is, By then, it is but the tale of too little too late I’ d suppose

P.S. After Pappu’s tribute.Another reminisce…

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a Mother to many !

I so remember…

Chhaya Chakravarty had to hit the Prabhabati Bhavan running.Quite literally.A feisty and remarkably modern woman for her times she quickly saw and understood the inertia, sloth and lack of organisation in the Banerjee family. She changed everything in that newly wedded home at Cuttack.

Prabhabati Bhavan Cuttack

She came from a predominantly Hindi speaking belt, a  city that was several hundreds of miles away called Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh. In her mid twenties then, having learnt to speak and understand Oriya and with an understanding and self-effacing husband in tow

Maa and Baba
she went on to sort out most pending land litigations, rubbed shoulders with senior Congress politicians impressing them no end while in the lead of many Community Development Projects set in motion by Pt Nehru in rural areas.(It may be recalled that the Bhoodan Movement and the Praja Socialist Party during these times were aggressive with their campaign for land reforms and anti-zemindari program and quite the bete noire of the Congress Party.)Very soon as a no nonsense woman, her fire and commitment for social service was noticed. She rose from the ranks to become a member of the All India Congress Committee in the mid sixties.

with Pt Nehru in the sixties

Thus her political pedigree was honed. It was a worthy and perhaps natural culmination of her politically vibrant student days, imprisonment during the Freedom struggle and mentorship under Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, the then Vice Chancellor of Benaras Hindu University (BHU).It was fortuitous too, that she came from a politically activist family in which her father,Late Bijoynath Chakravarty was a much revered Principal of an Inter College in Basti,Uttar Pradesh( Incidentally this College celebrated its Centenary very recently)

Dadu and Didima

.In those days Netaji had visited this school and exhorted its children to dedicate their lives to the Freedom Movement.She came from a large family of her own whose stories one would gather to tell some other day.

Jayananda was fortunate that his only elder brother Nityananda was unmarried and the latter bequeathed all or most of his share to the eldest son Swadhin Banerjee. Jayananda had four sons and two daughters

All the Six .From (l) to (R)Niloo,Laloo,Dula,Second Row L to R lina, Babloo,Merina
who grew up with friends and family in this rather big house which had been finally unified tactfully. The endeavour was sometimes freckled with suffering caused by the delay and frustrations of an archaic and slow moving courthouse. In this fateful resolution of organising the properties,Chayya Banerjee stood tall through her uncanny but supreme perseverance.

Never one to rest, her obsession to do some social good spurred her on to conceive in the mid sixties from within the premises of Prabhabati Bhavan, the Haricharan Banerjee Municipality Lower Primary School in the early Sixties( it stands even today at a nearby location with the prefix Haricharan Banerjee dropped though ) to provide free education for lesser privileged in the the neighbourhood of Dhobis,(washermen) keootos (fishermen) and goudas (milkmen), and the Nritya Niketan to encourage and nurture the artistically talented..Nabin bhai, Manu Da, Prafulla Kar, numerous vocalists and dancers who went on to earn subsequent fame were some of its illustrious alumni.
No story would be complete however without a mention of the religious fervour and ritual intensive flavour that the house was wrapped in from the late sixties while all these socio-cultural activities were on.Swami Ram Kripal Dasji,

On the snow filled route to the source of Mother Ganges.Maa,Swamiji,Durga mama and Baba

a sadhu (practicing mendicant) from Chirbasa, Gangotri then Uttar Pradesh had asked one of his disciples Mr Chakravarty, then in Nainital that he wished to visit Jagannath Dham Puri as a part of his religious pilgrimage. As desired by his Guru Mr Chakravarty immediately referred Ram Kripal Baba to unhesitatingly seek the hospitality of Prabhabati Bhavan where his younger sister Chhaya Banerjee lived by marriage and could boast of a few connections. Thus began a long and continuing association of the Yogi and the Zemindar.Chants, prayers, loud and soulful bhajans in chorus, the fragrant incense sticks, smell of fresh flowers, fresh clothes, the continuous rush to the bathrooms for an early bath, the never ending stream of the devout, ringing bells, clanging gongs and the mesmerising sound of conch shells all together.This transformed the house into a public temple for the spiritually starved. The Banerjees in particular were having their first real taste (or more correctly a feast?) at another level – of religion and spirituality.

Late Pt.Onkarnath Thakur.Guruji of Maa and

It was this doing perhaps that gave this rather unwieldy family a certain common direction and godly mooring. Much of the ubiquitous and complex contradictions that were manifest in this Bengali household had this bit added to its already fascinating platter. Today, Swami Ram Kripal Dasji is the fond Bada da (Eldest brother)

Swami Ram Kripal Dasji
to the Banerjee family by common weal.

It was around this time she won the Congress ticket to contest from Banki the village we belonged to. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came to campaign for this unusual woman.

With Indira Gandhi at an AICC Session

Sadly, she lost this election contest. The house by then had also transformed itself into a rich nursery for many an aspiring student, politician and job seekers. The likes of Sailabala Patnaik, Mausi of Dagarpara, Rama Devi, Pradumna BaL, Kuna Bhai, Gopal Kar, Sethi, Jena, Bagchi, Bijoy Chakravarty etc spent many of their lonely and hungry hours and days at this house. It never failed the aspirant: pretty much from any walk of life. In all of this Jayananda was the perfect foil – a devoted co-traveller silent and ever encouraging while Panchua the Man Friday, the youngest of the Gomasta family of the Banerjees at Banki (who can happily take credit for having groomed the entire family selflessly and with scant reward): what with the woman of the house being kept busy for matters more serious !

Interestingly, not much income was being generated. Rentals and the earnings of the fast vanishing agricultural land was all that was there. Frequent selling of small and sometimes large pieces of land kept happening to keep the family afloat. The luxuries and profligacy of a “Jalsaghar” was good to see on the silver screen alone. The Zemindari had long since become just another word. How the house and its expenses were managed would be therefore, just another guess. And it is this uncomfortable truth that stood in sharp contrast to the bonhomie and ‘bhoji’ (feast) culture the house seemed to symbolise. Was that then the mystique and allure of all that was decaying, dying or dead? Many later were left to wonder.11703255_10153528646004526_309295202289716903_o

A space secular it is and that is how I remember today. Friend and the stranger alike, struggler or survivor, the well-heeled or the less fortunate, politician , a has-been, musical or the vagrant, the Gomasta (rent-collector)or the bhag chasi,(share cropper) the keuooto, gauda or the dhoba all entered its ancient portals for succour and joy or some minutes nay hours of relief..There was not much but so much to share…Values of simplicity, gratitude and bonding were learnt by practice, of which -my parents, friends and family were a great example. It was a “muhalla” (tenement) of sorts. Everyone was family.

It is here that we flew kites, played marbles, “gucchi tandu,”” saat khapra” and “chor police”.Cricket was played with cork balls and hockey with broken cricket bats. Hockey sticks later came from Meerut city and some cheap pads after great cajoling. In the backyard- yes, many a hand and head was broken or bruised plucking and stealing guavas, mangoes, jamun, drumsticks and Musambhis, bel.Cricket with Tennis balls was too sissy then. Games were for real…many an intrigue that felled the local bad boys had their wicked seeds sown here too.It is here that so many childhoods were nurtured with joy and abandon.

Marriages with much festivity were held to see off the eldest daughter Merina to distant Lucknow as she became a part of the Chatterjees while Swadhin the eldest of the family brought home a nubile and shy Bengali girl from neighbouring Howrah.Alina the younger of the sisters but third in lineage chugged away for her nuptials to Behala in Calcutta to become a Mukherjee.The parents had done their bit to cut the umbilical cord of dependence and the new grown-ups were on their own for once. A well deserved rest for the parents there never was any, though and quite sadly so. Around this time Sukumar, Sunil and Sarat the last three of the family of six in their teens were still deciding whether to wear the shorts or trousers to school.
Friends thronged the busy and noisy household. Shankerbhai or affectionately Lobadiya a gangling sweetheart enthralled the inmates with his skills in Carrom,flying kites and playing cards while the ever-faithful and dependable

Tokon,Hari,Maa,gopi and Dula at Mou’s marriage in Delhi

Tokon remained the precocious adviser for all.Pappu,the little taciturn Bihari showed early signs of his ingenuity and inventiveness while patiently bearing many a taunt and tease .Gopi remained the bewildering Marwari gifted and talented offering his home of plenty for the hungry and sometimes greedy friends.Subuda became a part after having joined this very merry band of scrawny kids, bit later than others, to be the muscle of the growing and very pretentious brat pack.

Debjani, Alakananda,Ashima,Golap,Neetu ,Krishnadi, were the sister’s girlfriends we saw while peeping through the cracks of faded windows and doors. The tenants for their part shared happily their spaces with lip smacking native delicacies to eat, share tales and folklore,hum country tunes unfamiliar but melodious.Behenji with her consistent struggle, Masterji teaching the students to a sing song rote pattern, their intelligent children were a constant source of inspiration and a firm reminder of how difficult life could get. Susila Masi, Gokul Babu,Jamuna Bhai, Bharti, Jaisukh, Ramoo, Jeetu, Sabita masi, later followed by Manjula masi made many a festival a celebration to be remembered. They were Gujarati’s who had migrated  trying to make a living out of their their business and entrepreneurial skills in silver jewellery.The women were independent and hardworking.Very ahead of the times for slow moving Cuttack.They did their own shopping, marketing and were seen in the Bazaars holding their own with eyebrow raising confidence and self reliance. Lakhan da and Boudi were the Bengali goldsmiths from neighbouring Midnapore who completed the caboodle. The tenants were a heterogeneous bunch from different communities. Their sons and daughters always joined in to make the much desired numbers required for every game and it was all such Babel of fun. It was one jungle, where all animals and birds seemed to live contented albeit with not just  an occasional scratch and a scar. Maa smilingly and like always stitched this unwieldy bunch together with all the divergences

The Eighties saw the other remaining siblings ;Lalu, Nilu married to girls of their own choice and Dula to a girl from the interiors of Baidyabati in West Bengal.Quickly life had moved on.A third generation

The Third Generation : of lovely grandchildren

of grandson and granddaughters, friends and family grew up at distant places of Chennai, Mumbai,Kolkata and Delhi.New ways and mores were loosening the large unit that Maa had helped create and sustain.

Baba rests while on the climb to Chirbasa from Gangotri.Himalayas
Jayananda Banerjee(Baba),her husband ,silent companion and support had since passed away in the early nineties of the previous century

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A collage of Memories : on Baba’s passing away in 1993
.Maa remained quite the traveller moving from one son to another jostling and adjusting with the new women in the family.She welcomed all with a large heart but had to savour the pangs and confusion of growing children, new cultures and different lifestyles that the wives brought along.She has adjusted well,I suppose.Or did she suffer alone in her silences, too.Sometimes? Does she rue the passage of time and things changing bewilderingly?

At the Wedding of Appu.
At the Wedding of Appu.

She must be finding life no longer as uncomplicated and simple as it used to be.That is for sure.Today,she forgets easily.Her memory is short lived.She has a slight limp and a hunch with a support stick.She does make an occasional walk on a wheel chair while continuing to doing her own things and being resolutely her own self ;recognises the sarees that the Bahus and daughters so lovingly have given on various occasions and the many perfumes that she loves touching her frail skin with.She hates to see ugly men with big moustaches and white hair and women not so elegant.Even now ? She still talks conspiratorially in silent hushes of her grandchildren;Munta, she says was her favorite.But don’t you ever tell anyone ? she whispers.

She misses Jayananda,her dearest husband for many a grief is her very own.Her face comes alive when she recognises a familiar face and voice.She yells to her dedicated friend and help Hari to arrange for a lavish feast as of habit.She asks for Dula, the youngest one.Searches for the eldest Babloo

with sunuda,Badada and Dada at grand daughter Appu’s wedding Feast

and knows that Laloo the fifth one is around.She asks Hari where are the other three children and all the lovely Bahus?Of Tokon,

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with Tokon


with Sudha, wife of Pappu

,Gopi and their families and so many others….

Hooch the Labrador very much part of the proceedings.Stands Guard

.She forgets that she had just met them the day before…

All is well.Maa is up and about.Today,the Fifth of September is a great day.She is into the nineties ! Happy Birthday, Maa.11231043_10153528636444526_5718539052364962890_o May you show us the way like you have done always…

Khoob Bhalo Theko Bandhu ! খুব ভালো থেকো বন্ধু

Some six decades ago a child was born to Mrs. and Capt.Ghosh of “Kanta Griha” at Cuttack. I remember him some four years or so after his birth as Tokon or more correctly Tuhin Kanta Ghosh! Strangely numerous trivia – happy, funny and sad blink in colors bright, or grained when I sit and gape at a table across drowned with laughter and uncut bonhomie…

An angular, sharp-cut, thin boy in starched Uniform, well ironed, one size larger, perhaps anticipating quick and uneconomic physical growth, lots of oil in the hair (Maha Bhringaraj?) that most Bengalis put, if they had active Calcutta connections. Yes, that is how I recall! Ah, and his Cycle which was from the “Lost and Missing” list of the” Great Rayman Circus”. At least, that is how we made fun of his unique ship of narrow roads, humps and potholes. This one had a high perch that let your legs dangle like washed trousers of a clothesline on a windy day. The seat was rock-hard solid made to ensure”Brahmacharya” (celibacy) forever. A skilled juggler or a talented circus clown could ride this one and yes, have the entire audience applaud or be in splits. So could our very own Tokon .It was to keep friends from borrowing that he lent this specialty once in a while. All who tasted her delights had a sorry date with the devil. The sordid aftermath was a screamy bruised story of scratches, painful scars and lots of Tincture-of-Iodine. The tiny me, never touched this vaulting horse both for its weight and size. I was no gymnast, either!

He was blessed with a style known as:”Ghosh Riyaaz” natural to all the scions of Kanta Griha.On any given day the early morning or in the evenings the heritage house used to morph into an acoustic “Woodstockian Special”- a frenetic chattercomb, abuzz with the flutter and flight of whining adolescents, hovering dragon flies droning at the fount wells of wisdom. Astonished onlookers used to discover boys and girls of different age groups (the Ghosh’s were a joint family of several brothers and their children) engaged in the esoteric ritual of “mugging”: the art of memorising in different pitches, scales, tonal variations without affecting the concentration and focus of the other brother, sisters and cousins while quite literally, rubbing shoulders with each other. Yes if you are thinking of the “sargam” you are close but not quite. Memorex, that wonder drug for never-to-forget-anything is said to have been inspired from around this area! Do not however get the wrong notes here.Khukumadi,Manudi,Govindada,Tenten,Babua, Khoko,Rumni,Munmun,Buchkuni et all were uncut costly stones waiting to be burnished.Even before Wilma Rudolph had become a World champion, the pretty girls of Kanta Griha were setting many a sports field on fire in this little nook of Cuttack. As for the parents: distinguished lawyers and policemen instilling enough law and order to this human menagerie.

Tokon, the proverbial good boy could ill afford not to study. His marks were never a reflection of his sincere efforts and this caused a nagging self-doubt. He kept his head above the water though. The delinquents were mistakenly happy to have him as one of their own. He sat in the back benches.True.But; it was this deceptive quality that stood him in good stead. His effective and practical intelligence made him “a lambi race kaa ghodaa”. (A Derby horse?).Not many knew, Mr.Saunders,the Anglo-Indian English Teacher, lived longer, despite a troubled heart for mercifully not having known that the ‘chokra boy-Tuhin'(street urchin) had been graded first in the Sunday English Essay Competitions at the famous “Ali Tuitions” akin to the Rau’s IAS Study Circle of yore! The dreaded Senior Cambridge came and Tokon did not get his deserved grades as it was widely believed that the Hindi teacher had given him disgraceful marks bringing down his overall assessment for not having taken the mandatory tuitions.

Not many would have known either that he had also begun his career of social activism as Secretary of Naujawan Club (which boasted an active membership of 9 only) around this time. He had the unique distinction of having welcomed and escorted many future politicians on his much abused cycle-carrier !The early musical bands and their talents  like Mohd Habib and  Sangita Mahapatro of Cuttack had treaded gratefully the sacred portals of this unknown club. He had learnt early how to get along with the trendy and famous.

The Arts seem to have disappointed Tokon enough to help him make his first far thinking commercial-career move. A Bengali thinking of money was “Chi-Chi” and doing business was “kelenkari”(disaster). He had made his move .An early bird. Was he? Having graduated from Commerce he moved away to “Calcutta and Mamar Baadi.”He struggled with his Cost Accountancy while adjusting the Books-of- Accounts. The Marwaris, the big financial firms, Simon and Carves, Construction, Real Estate and Infrastructure, remote settlements, god-forsaken locations, cooking for self and colleagues by turn, washing clothes always, far away from friends and family must have taken its toll. The grind was hard but he silently plodded on. He was his own man always.

Things had begun to change. We met him only on occasions and during short leaves or extended holidays. We missed him while he missed us more. In any case that is how we thought it was.But; he never spoke or made a mention. His heart remained unseen to some friends as it missed many beats. The arteries of blood supply and oxygen choked. Later and in time, the sick heart healed with clinical care and Tokon came out singed and chastened. Maybe, a trifle frightened too. Doctors and medicine became a part of his life, like destiny. Friends had gotten married since and moved on.

Families grew and shifted while Tokon learnt to live all by himself. Kanta Griha went nuclear. His parents having passed away Tushar, his older brother and Boudi Kaberi with their son Abhinandan were his immediate and constant companions. He had his closed group of friend who still hung on at Cuttack like Subuda, Pappu’s and Dula’s family with his favorite Mashima and friend –of-friends Gopi.Slowly he gathered the pieces together and re-located at Cuttack together with the lonely silences and occasional bonhomies.A birthday of the new born of a long forgotten cousin, or a groupie session in mindless drinking, abusive gossip or aimless travel with friends, marriage feasts or funerals became his staple. He had hit the mid-forties by then. A happy best-man,always.He became the shoulder to  rest your head on when tired and frustrated, the trusting ear to most complaining wives and naughty husbands, the person to go to for the errant and disturbed young. He seemed to have begun to enjoy his single status and the freedom of being unfettered. It was a kind of paradoxical rite of passage. He was just like everyone else. Only sans wife…

All of this seems to have happened a while ago. Now most of us friends and family are not becoming any the younger. Some of us unforgivably lonely. Some tired of nagging husbands or worrying wives. Some still unhappy with the bank balances, or of children doing worse than themselves. Some still find the selfies not good enough for their wilting alpha-egos and fall victim to flighty fancies of what-could-have-been. In sum – still to make peace with their own lives.

Tokon, on the contrary meets more people than before, has more girl friends than the number of days in a year, is more sought after and trusted, sees and travels to more places than your nearest Travel Counsellor,laughs louder than I have heard myself to do ever, looks and wears better and seems good enough for many marriages! And, Yes! What is even better is that he does enjoy doing his own laundry and is not lonely. He is the renowned doctor without an MBBS managing, a flourishing diagnostic clinic. More importantly, his heart is doing well and is very large when last seen.

That said, I cannot forget, however one lunch day at Kanta Griha when Mashima (his mother) had said while serving”Tomraa shob keyoo to Bandhur Biyer Khata Bhableynaa? Ekhon to Anek Deri hoye gaychey.”(You all, never thought about the marriage of your friend? Now it has become very late).The pain of a Mashima haunts to make me sad one more time. Tokon, when asked now, however chuckles.

From L to R Niloo,Gopi,Sashi,Laloo and Tokon

Khoob Bhalo Theko Bandhu ! (Be Hale, Always Friend)