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A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Relaxing at home

When you are in an aeroplane flying above the clouds and switch on a movie for relaxation, and the movie starts with the camera moving through the clouds and a voice saying, "One small fact: you are going to die...when the time comes, don't panic," it is hardly a relaxing experience. I am not making this up, it really happened to me on the Emirates flight from Washington DC to Dubai on Saturday. The movie The Book Thief starts that way.

The fact that the plane was a Boeing 777, the same model as the Malaysian Airways plane that vanished a week ago was hardly reassuring.

Nevertheless, I relaxed like I had never done on a plane before. I watched 12 Years A Slave, Brave, The Book Thief and Wolverine in a row, listened to some music, photographed ice crystals outside the window, and even managed some sleep during my thirteen hour journey from DC to Dubai. I was going home after two years and two months, and the thought of seeing familiar faces and experiencing familiar sights and sounds made me happy. The journey from Dubai to Kolkata was relaxing too, but I only slept during this one.

That was exactly three weeks ago. I have been relaxing at home ever since, steadily growing in girth. I came with a two-week leave to get my visa, but that has been delayed for some administrative processing, and now I have no idea when I will be able to return. The only problem is, I am not enjoying this forced relaxation much since I am losing my hard earned leave days, and also losing valuable time from my research.


Friday, February 14, 2014

When I appeared on Zee Bangla

So it has finally happened. I was on TV last week, in a programme watched by millions of people, no less. While I cannot say that my desire to appear on TV was exactly fulfilled, it cannot be denied that this is the closest I have ever come to the real thing.

What happened is this: a popular reality show called Didi No. 1 that airs on Zee Bangla wanted to discuss Saraswati Puja on their February 4th episode, and they wanted a slide show of photos to accompany the discussion. They must have turned to Google for help and ended up on this very blog where they found a very photogenic child getting his haate-khori from his very photogenic grandfather.

To cut the long story short, my photo ended up on that show (at 17:05, in case you are interested). Here's a screenshot to prove it.

Zee Bangla has supposedly "blocked" their YouTube channel in the US, but that if they thought that would prevent me from stealing a look at their episode featuring my stolen photo, they need to think again. Before I end, however, I would like to mention that it is no less surprising that although my parents don't watch this show, at least two other people saw the photo independently, recognized my grandfather and called up my parents. That's how we came to find out about it.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Detour

As I opened my eyes and tried to come out of my sleep, I was greeted with an ocean of glittering lights beyond the darkness outside. The bus was moving towards those lights. Within a few seconds I was able to discern the all too familiar shapes among the lights: the semi-dark Freedom Tower with the tall spire on top, the irregular shaped Bank of America Tower, and most distinct of them all, the Empire State Building bathed in a deep red and yellow glow. I took out my phone from my pocket and messaged Amrita, "About to reach NYC."

And then I lay back in my seat and tried to take in the scene outside. The scene that was so commonplace for me a few months ago that I would have probably slept through it. People around me were trying to capture the city lights using their cellphones. I knew it was futile, because apart from the technical difficulties of the situation, a photo is only a pattern of light and darkness that does not capture the feelings of the photographer who took it. The brain is far better than any camera in capturing those. The bus moved closer and closer to the city before plunging into the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson. When it came out on the other side, our bus had become part of that ocean of lights.

I collected my things and stepped out of the Port Authority Bus Terminus onto 42nd Street. It was 11 o'clock in the night, but who could tell that from the state of the streets? I couldn't walk a step without bumping into people. I could read a newspaper by the neon lights. The ambient noise was such that I couldn't hear myself speak. Living near Washington DC had spoiled me. Midtown Manhattan assaulted all my senses at once and welcomed me with the fierceness of a long lost friend. The Friday evening crowds streaming in and out of the AMC theater, the women in mini skirts braving the near-zero temperature, the huge LED video displays advertising the Disney musicals, the smell of burning meat emanating from the roadside hot dog stands, and the steam curling out of the street manhole covers here and there, transforming 21st century New York to 19th century London without a moment's warning. Everything was so familiar, yet so new.

I stopped to appreciate all of this for a moment, then smiled to myself and walked on. I smiled to myself because I knew I wasn't supposed to be here at this time if everything had gone according to my plans. And how boring that would have been!

I had booked this trip when Atreyee had informed me from India during her month-long visit that she was bringing some Bengali sweets for me, and I should come and get them if I wanted them. This weekend was chosen because there was a Saraswati puja celebration in New Jersey on Saturday and I could hit two birds with one stone. But New York City was nowhere in my plans. I was supposed to take a bus from DC to Newark, and go directly to Amrita's house for the night. New York City, it seems, had other plans, and I ended up catching the wrong shuttle from work on Friday evening and missing the 6:15 Bolt Bus to Newark. The next best option was taking the 7 p.m. Greyhound to NYC and going back to Newark from there. Hence this detour.

And I smiled to myself because I realized I actually liked it. In an otherwise tiring day that had gone downhill from the moment I had got on the wrong shuttle, this plunge into Times Square was like a splash of cold water that rejuvenated me instantly. I was no longer my exhausted and nervous self standing at an unfamiliar Virginia bus stop looking at my watch a few hours ago. I was a cheerful and confident local trying to reach New York Penn station by the shortest route, and pausing to admire the chaos every few minutes. Once again, I could see that in spite of all that empty talk about wider roads, more greenery and a higher standard of living, Virginia has failed to diminish my love for this crowded and dirty human anthill.

That night I reached Amrita's house after half past twelve. The rest of the weekend went by like a movie played in fast forward mode. The playful half hour with Amrita's son, the Saraswati puja, the hours spent at Arnab and Suchandra' house, collecting the stuff from Atreyee, the time spent with my cousin's family in Edison, everything was enjoyable, everything was too short. But as I write this on my phone in the bus returning to Washington DC, I understand that without the short unexpected visit to New York City this trip would not have been complete.

And when I start the workday tomorrow morning, probably already tired from returning home late tonight, I'll be longing for my next visit to the city that never grows old, the city where it's always festival time. It will probably not happen for months, but I know for certain that when it happens, I'm going love it.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Jupiter's Moons

My father has a pair of binoculars which have fascinated me from my childhood days. If you look at the moon through that, you can see all mountains and valleys and craters. If you look at the full moon, you will have to look away because of its brightness. If you look at perfectly dark regions of the sky, you will find them full of stars that are invisible to the naked eye.

In spite of all its power, however, the binoculars did not make stars look like anything but points. Only when I looked at the brightest, unblinking stars could I see any noticeable increase in brightness or size. I learnt soon that these brightest stars were not stars at all, but they were planets of our solar system. As I grew up, I became really interested in astronomy through pre-dawn discussions with my grandfather sitting on the riverbank in Hooghly. In those days, the sky was much clearer in Hooghly and I even remember having seen the Milky Way, which I have been looking for ever since. Also, I had wonderful Russian books such as "Astronomy for Entertainment" and the book whose Bengali translation was called "টেলিস্কোপ কি বলে." This latter book was a true childhood favourite since it contained an imaginary trip through our solar system, stopping at the different planets or their moons and visualizing what we would see there. It was in this book that I  first read about the four largest moons of Jupiter - Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. Around the same time, I realized that these four moons could be seen using my father's binoculars, and in the following years, I tried to see them whenever I got a chance.

The binoculars had one problem. Since they were quite heavy and had to be held by hand, my hands shook. This happens with everybody, and it can be reduced with practice. I believe my hands would now be steadier since I am used to holding a heavy camera these days, but at that time my hands shook wildly when I looked through the binoculars, and I found it difficult even to look steadily at the moon, let alone a small object like Jupiter. So while I got a glimpse of Jupiter's moons through those binoculars, I would have to wait many more years before getting a good look at them. Over the years, Jupiter remained my favourite object in the night sky. This was also probably because it was one of the very few objects that I recognized. In spite of all that love for looking at the night sky, I was never good at identifying stars. I can recognize some constellations like Ursa Major or Orion, and maybe the Pole Star. But I can recognize the planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn when they are visible.

When my cousin bought a reflecting telescope last year, the first object that we saw after setting it up was Jupiter. This time I saw the moons quite clearly, but the telescope was large and difficult to point at anything in particular. I tried photographing Venus, Jupiter and Saturn from my Newark apartment but failed because of two reasons. Firstly very little sky was visible from that apartment and it was not possible to set up the tripod in such a way that I could point my camera at the planets. Secondly, Newark is full of lights and it is difficult to see too much in the sky, even after dark.

When I moved into this apartment in Virginia last November, I noticed two things: one, the apartment had a balcony, and two, there was a small wooded area in front of the building which meant the place was relatively dark. Naturally I was longing to take some pictures, but never got around to it until last week. On Saturday evening as I saw Jupiter rise over those woods, I set up my tripod on my balcony and took a few photos of Jupiter with all the zoom that I could muster. The windchill was -10 degrees Celsius, so I couldn't try too many different settings. Here's what I got.

Jupiter with its four largest moons.

Of course, my camera, lens and tripod may look like "heavy equipment" to laymen, but where astrophotography is concerned, my equipment is fairly amateurish. My camera sensor gets noisy at low light, my 70-300 mm lens when coupled with a 2x teleconverter generates a good deal of chromatic aberration and my tripod cannot completely prevent vibrations when this big lens is attached to the camera. So while taking this photo my equipment was operating at the very limit of its capability which means the photos are pretty bad. But even with the sensor noise, the lack of focus and distorted color, this is the best look I ever had at Jupiter's moons, and even this much was beyond my expectations.

Afterwards, I went out and tried photographing the night sky from the lawn in front of my apartment, and nearly got frostbitten fingers from the attempt. The photos were not very good, but the number of stars that I can see here are far greater than in Newark and I am hopeful that during the summer, I will be able to take some better shots of the night sky.

The eastern sky. The bright object near the bottom is Jupiter.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Chander Pahar

[This review has no spoilers. My longer Bengali review with spoilers here.]

Which is the scariest real or fictional creature ever? Dracula? Frankenstein's monster? Spiders? King Kong? Ghosts from innumerable horror movies? Septopus? Dementor? Velociraptor? The answers will, of course, be as diverse as people are, since what scares one could seem comical to another. That is the point where most horror movies fail - as soon as they show the cause of fear, a lot of their viewers simply stop being scared anymore. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay was no doubt aware of this problem when he was writing Chander Pahar, and so he decided to never expose Bunyip, the mythical beast that guards the diamond mines in his story. In my opinion this is where the story succeeds as a spine chilling adventure. Shankar, a youth from a remote Bengal village explores Africa with seasoned adventurer Diego Alvarez, and along with man-eating lions and black mambas and herds of elephants, he also runs into the mythical Bunyip lurking in the Mountains of the Moon. Who or what is the Bunyip? The tribal people say he is an evil spirit who guards the diamond mines. Diego Alvarez says it is an animal that killed his friend. Shankar never sees the Bunyip, but he sees what it can do, and he sees the fear in fearless Diego Alvarez's eyes when the Bunyip is mentioned. By the magic of his pen, Bibhutibhushan instills that same fear in the readers' hearts. While reading the novel we turn pages tense with anticipation. What will Shankar see next? What will the Bunyip do?

This is also where the  movie has its greatest failure. By showing the Bunyip as a mere mortal animal, it totally destroys that supernatural aura surrounding the beast. Whether the shown creature is scary or not is a different question altogether, but it wasn't necessary to show it at all. It really beats me why director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee could not understand this simple thing, whereas everyone I know seems to find this same flaw with the movie.

But the Bunyip aside, the movie is a very brave effort to bring Bengali cinema up to the international standard. Yes, most of the special effects were ridiculous, but the movie was made with a meager budget of Rs. 15 crore. Accepted, there were plot holes and inconsistencies, but it's a movie after all, and what movie doesn't have them? On the other hand, there were stunning visuals of Africa, an international cast and live African animals - something unthinkable for a Bengali movie. Most people including me were skeptical about the acting abilities of Dev Adhikari, the actor playing the main protagonist Shankar, but I am happy to say Dev was reasonably good in the role. Besides, the director knew of Dev's weakness in delivering Bengali dialogues and used voice overs in a lot of places. Gerard Rudolf is even better in the role of Diego Alvarez, and the way he handled Portuguese, English and Bengali dialogues is commendable.

When Bibhutibhushan wrote the book, research was difficult. He must have had to work really hard to get most of the facts right. However, the director's work was not easy either, since the viewer of today is raised on Discovery and National Geographic Channel documentaries on Africa. He had to shoot on location, show the real thing, or he would be caught cheating. He got that mostly right barring a few exceptions. The first lion sequence, the cave and the Kalahari have been shown particularly well. The scenes in Salisbury of 1911 are believable, though obviously the city was not shown on a grand scale. One particular omission that pained me was the absence of any mention of the strange baobab tree, something that immensely fascinated the Shankar of the novel. Also, due to a mix-up in the names of the mountain ranges in the original book, the film mostly shows the Richtersveld mountains which hardly have any forest cover. The real Mountains of the Moon would have been the Rwenzori range which has dense tropical rain forests just like in the book.

But in spite of its many flaws, the best part of watching Chander Pahar was the fact that I watched the movie in a theatre sitting in the US. Nobody can remember the last time a Bengali movie released here. Although the number of people watching the movie (9) was not encouraging, I hope Chander Pahar will make more producers and directors take up big budget productions like this and release them in the US. This was one of the very first novels that I ever read. I really wish to see more of my childhood favourites come to life on the big screen.


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