A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Scenes from the Backyard

This is how I spent the morning today. For the time being, the squirrels are defeated due to a liberal application of petroleum jelly, but I'm sure they'll be back with some other devilish idea. In the meantime, we amuse ourselves by the hilarity that ensues when they try to raid the bird feeders.

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Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Poet

I have been away from this blog for several months now, but that doesn't mean I have had nothing to write. I have been too busy to write here, but I have been saving up my experiences, and I hope to write them someday. Also, I have been writing posts on my Bengali blog, so my Bengali readers have not been entirely deprived.

Anyway, it is Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary once more and it's time for my annual translation of a Tagore poem. As usual, this poem, called "Kabi" (which means "The Poet" in Bengali) was selected for me by my father.

The Poet
                                               ~Rabindranath Tagore

The fact that I’m quite happy
              Or at least not weak with pain,
In my poetry, that fact would
              Be treated with much disdain.
That is why I seek deeply
              In the depths of my mind
A great sorrow remembered
Or forgotten, I must find.
But that is so distant,
              That is so deeply buried
The proof of its existence
              The poet doesn’t need to carry.
His face still holds a smile,
              His body all fit and sound,
Nobody can claim to know
              Where his pains may be found.
The poet isn’t what you imagine
              By reading his poetry.
His face isn’t all grim and dark,
Hasn’t an ever breaking heart,
And things such as deep sorrow
              He bears smilingly.
He likes, in social gatherings,
              To wear civil clothes in style,
He also likes to converse
              With people, sporting a smile.
When his friend jokes, he won’t
              Die trying to interpret,
And the point where to laugh
              He’ll most often get.
Doesn’t remain lost in thought,
              When he is served his food,
And when his friends arrive
              Doesn’t sit at home and brood.
When his friends say, “He’s funny”
              Are their words all untrue?
When foes say “He’s shallow”
              Is that really baseless too?
The poet isn’t what you imagine
              By seeing his poetry.
Watching the moon wide-eyed,
Doesn’t lie on the riverside,
And things such as deep sorrow
              He bears joyfully.
If I write I’m happy
              People say, “His life is small!
He doesn’t have great hopes,
              His thirst doesn’t engulf all.”
The readers belittle me and
              Say things out of spite---
They say, “A few petty jokes
              Sates his mind's appetite.”
So the poet must put in rhymes
              His documents of pain.
Even if that is false, reader,
              Make your eyes rain.
Then make a wish with
              Sad heart and choked voice
May the poet forever write
              Sad poetry and rejoice.
The poet shouldn’t, in real life,  
              Resemble his poetry.
Smartness he needs a bit,
And find time to wash and eat,
Like normal folk, the poet should
              Talk prosaically. 

(Translation by Sugata Banerji)


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Feathered Friends

It started when Poulami thought of sprinkling some grains of rice for the sparrows on our balcony in Virginia. It was early summer and the sparrows had started visiting our little balcony. So we gave them some rice and lentils on a plate and watched them eat it up.

Singing sparrow

Then the number of birds started growing. We noticed there were two different types of sparrows. They were gobbling up our costly basmati fast, and that's when we decided to get some wild bird feed from the grocery store. We also got a nice-looking plate so that we could restrict the birds to one spot and take better photos.


The bird feed mix attracted the cardinals. The red angry-bird-like couple were cautious visitors at first, flying away as soon as we moved inside the apartment behind the glass door. But soon they were as comfortable as the sparrows. We also had visits from starlings and robins, but they didn't stay long. They eat insects, and probably they had come only to see whether we offered a non-veg menu as well. We also saw a dove from time to time.


One morning Poulami threw out half a strawberry on the feeding plate. Soon, she heard a sweet mewing sound from the balcony and discovered that a new bird was making it while eating the strawberry. We later asked the Internet and found it was called a catbird. Among the other visitors was a tufted titmouse and a group of grackles. The titmouse looks like a blue-grey version of the cardinal. The grackles look like little crows with yellow eyes and long tails. They are quarrelsome territorial birds that pick fights with other birds and chase them away from feeders. However, the number of sparrows visiting our balcony at any given time had increased to over twenty by this time, and the grackles couldn't do much harm. They stopped coming after a few days.

Tufted titmouse
Sparrows. Lots of sparrows.

The birds were finishing sacks of bird feed faster than we were finishing our rice. They would arrive with the first light of the day and they would leave when it was almost dark. Poulami had first decided to ration their food, but she felt bad seeing them dance around the empty plate, so she had to put out food for them several times each day. The sparrows had a baby and she started visiting our balcony as soon as she was old enough to fly. It was easy to spot her - she could fly, but could not eat by herself. So she looked at her parents with an open beak and fluttered her wings pitifully until one of them fed her. She continued this practice well into adulthood. Whenever the parents got tired of her antics and refused to feed her, she would eat by herself from the plate.

Feeding time

Then, at the end of July, we left our apartment, left Virginia and moved to Lake Forest, Illinois. As we unpacked and settled down into our new house after a tiring move and an even more tiring week long honeymoon, we discovered half a sack of bird feed in one of our boxes. We wanted to feed birds here as well, but we realized that we would need a proper hanging feeder now since this was a house with a garden and no balcony, and the neighbour's cat would be too happy to find a feeder attracting birds on the ground. But as it turned out, just getting one bird feeder wasn't enough. As soon as we hung the shiny red feeder, a pair of hummingbirds started visiting it every hour to investigate. We were forced to buy a hummingbird feeder as well. Although the bird feeding didn't go too well here due to constant feeder-raiding by squirrels, the hummingbirds enjoyed their feeder very much and I could get some good photos. Among other birds, a white-breasted nuthatch often visited our feeder, but I could not take photos.


Now as I sit down to write this blog post, Thanksgiving approaches and we have already received our first snowfall of the season. The hummingbirds have gone south long ago, and most other birds have vanished. Only the squirrels, now fattened, can still be seen running around the garden. We have removed our bird feeder and put it away. Once the cold subsides in spring, we'll put it up again. We hope to make the acquaintance of many more bird species next year. We'll only have to work out a squirrel-proof plan for feeding them before then.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

The Apu Trilogy

This is not a review, because I would not dare to review three of the greatest movies of all time. This is just a small update on my experience of watching the Apu Trilogy in a theater in Washington DC. But, first, this video should provide a little bit of background for those who do not know what this is all about:

Since I saw Pather Panchali for the first time, I have always wondered why the film quality was so bad. I mean, I have black and white English movies in my collection - To Kill a Mockingbird, Psycho, Roman Holiday to name a few - and all of them are of excellent quality. Did Satyajit Ray use poor quality film? Were his cameras bad? Or did the film get damaged over time? No one would bother watching a foreign film like Pather Panchali, I thought, if the picture quality was so bad. So when I saw that video above, I was naturally interested to know just how good the restoration was.

The restored film premiered at MoMA in New York City a few months ago, and then slowly started releasing across the US. Google told me the trilogy would run at E Street Cinemas in Washington DC during the last week of June. I decided to go watch at least one of the three.

"The theater would be empty except for the two of us," I jokingly told Poulami. I still remembered the time when I watched Chander Pahar in Fairfax with eight other people in the audience. Even earlier this year, four of us went to see the Hindi movie "Detective Byomkes Bakshy!" at a theater in Maryland and we were the only people there. Pather Panchali was releasing on a Friday at 4:15 p.m. We decided to catch the second show at 7:00 p.m. Accordingly, we reached there around 6 o'clock and bought two tickets. Then we went away to have our dinner.

When we came back in front of the theater at 6:40, there was a Bengali couple standing there. "Oh, so there are going to be other people," we thought. We went inside and down the escalator, past the popcorn stalls and the gatekeeper into theater #1 with the face of Apu peering at us from a large poster, and when we entered the theater, we gasped.

There were 140 seats in the theater, and about 60 people were already sitting. In fact, if we had been a little late, we would not have got good seats at all. People kept streaming in until the movie started and there must have been close to a 100 people who saw the movie with us. Most of them were non-Indians. It was a proud moment to see so many people enchanted by the magic of Ray on screen, unhindered by the limitation of a foreign language and the backdrop of a time and place they could barely understand. But then, humans are the same everywhere, and watching Pather Panchali this time, I realized how much of the movie works without the dialog, just by using human expressions, silences, body language, actions and wordless lip-movements. A hundred people laughed on cue at the funny sequences, and sniffs could be heard all around me when Durga died.

Now, the film quality. In one word, I will describe it as amazing. I had no idea that Pather Panchali could look so good on the big screen. Not a scratch can be found on the frames, and the contrast and lighting of each black and white shot is perfect. The sound is crystal clear. In fact, I suspect Pather Panchali has never looked and sounded this good, even when it was released in 1955.

We liked the experience so much that we wanted to come back for more. However, we had other commitments over the weekend and could not find time for two more movies and had to settle for watching only Apur Sansar in the theater on Sunday evening. To complete the trilogy, we watched Aparajito at home on Saturday night.

The Sunday evening show was about half full, and again, most of the people were non-Indians. Many of them, as I found out from their conversation, had seen the 4:15 p.m. show of Aparajito. The old lady sitting next to me said she had watched the movies in the 1960s in South America and she wanted to see them again. She also informed me that Saturday was nearly houseful for the movies. I saw her wipe a tear when Aparna died on screen. People all around me reacted so well at the events on screen that at one point I began to suspect that they understood Bengali. However, in one scene, the subtitle was a little late and the late laughter there revealed that people were indeed reacting to the subtitles. This fact alone may not seem remarkable at all - of course people were reacting to the subtitles, what else are they supposed to do at a foreign movie? But when I thought of the things they had to understand to fully grasp the story - the way arranged marriages worked in rural Bengal, the way education and employment worked in Calcutta, the household chores that a newlywed woman would have to do - and a dozen other small things, I felt immensely respectful, both towards the patience of the audience and the skill of the master storyteller who could still draw crowds with a 60-year old movie and absolutely no publicity of any kind.

Thanks to Janus Films and the Criterion Collection for giving us an opportunity to see these masterpieces on the big screen, a chance that I had never imagined I would get. I would love to see more Satyajit Ray films on the big screen. I hope the response to the Apu Trilogy proves sufficiently warm for them to try and restore some of the other classics as well.

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Saturday, May 09, 2015

The Right Place

As the handful of regular readers of my blog know, every year I translate a poem by Rabindranath Tagore to English and post it here on Tagore's birthday. While translating, I try to maintain the rhymes and rhythms of the Bengali poems as much as possible. However, As I moved from simple children's poems to more complex poems over the years, I realized two things: first, I do not know enough Bengali, and second, I do not know enough English. But still, I keep trying, and here is my latest offering.

The poem translated below was selected by my father. It is a very beautiful poem and was also a little difficult to translate keeping the rhymes intact, though not as difficult as this one. I have tried to maintain the flow, rhymes, use of alliteration etc. of the original Bengali version wherever possible. I have also taken the liberty of changing some idiomatic phrases to English idioms rather than translating them literally. The illustrations accompanying my translation (except one) are by Nandalal Bose, but these were not originally drawn for this poem. The picture of the books was found on the Internet and modified slightly by me to match the style of the other pictures. I hope you like this effort.

The Right Place

~Rabindranath Tagore

What market would you be sold in,
  O my sweet song?
Where do you belong?
Where all the learned stay,
In the scholar’s land ---
Snuff-dust flies and fills the skies
It’s rather hard to stand,
A very delicate argument
Goes on and night and day
“Did the chicken arrive first
Or did the egg lead the way?”
No dearth of tomes that try
        Dark desires to defeat,
In a corner of that land
Do you crave a seat?
Hearing this my song hums
                        And hums out so ---
                                          No, no, no.

What market would you be sold in,
O my sweet song?
                Where are you drawn? 
There’s the affluent,
Mahogany mantels with 
Volumes five thousand---
The gold lettering is unmarked,
No one opens a cover,
Like untasted honey,
Or an un-inhaled flower.
        The servant dusts them daily
Takes every care,
O my rhythmic creation,
Would you travel there?
Hearing this, in my ear
My song murmurs so---
                                            No, no, no.


What market would you be sold in,
O my sweet song?
Respect where you’ll earn?
The young student bends down
For a test he must prepare,
His mind has but gone away
Somewhere else from there,
Unreadable text books
Lie open on all sides
In fear of his superiors
All poetry he hides---
There, among those ragged rhymes
And things mixed and wild,
Is that where you want to play,
My talkative child?
Listening in silence, 
Hesitates the song---
She wants to go along.


What market would you be sold in,
O my sweet song?
Where’s respite lifelong?
A place where the gentle wife
Busy in her pantry,
To bedroom runs at every chance
Whenever she’s free
The book there lies under her pillow 
She pulls it outside,
Its pages are all worn out
Tortured by her child---
Kohl-daubed vermillion-rubbed
Fragrant of her hair
Her bedside waits, in torn attire
Would you hurry there? 
Sighing on my breast
The song lies silently---
Trembling longingly.


What market would you be sold in,
O my sweet song?
Where you'll live strong?
Where a pair of young lovers
Roam in a joyful craze,
For hidden nooks and darkness look,
To shun each prying gaze,
The wild birds sing them songs,
A ballad the river sings,
From the flowers, leaves and vines
An eternal melody rings---
There, by the simple smiles
By the eyes full of tear
In the midst of Nature’s flute music
That place do you desire?
With a sudden happy laugh
Speaks out my song---
That’s where I belong.

(Translation by Sugata Banerji)


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