A Joyful Experience

...from Hooghly to Hyderabad and beyond.

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)


Friday, March 13, 2015

A few words on racism

Dr. Annette Beck-Sickinger, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Leipzig, Germany, recently refused an internship to a male student from my country, India, citing the ‘rape problem’ in India as a reason and implied she would be endangering herself and other female members of her lab if she allowed him in. Although I am aware that the German Ambassador already wrote to her and expressed his views in unambiguous terms, I still write this blog post to say a few things that I wanted to say.

In her now-public e-mail to the Indian student above (a mail written in English so appalling that I was almost convinced for a moment that it was fake), Dr. Beck-Sickinger says that India has a rape problem. I wonder how she arrived at that conclusion. If she meant it in terms of numbers, then I have to admit that she does not understand numbers very well. Sheldon Cooper, a fictitious character in the popular American TV series The Big Bang Theory said recently, “The only math biologists know is, if you have three frogs and one hops away, you have two frogs.” While I have a lot of respect for biologists in general, it seems Dr. Beck-Sickinger is one of the biologists that Sheldon was basing his observation on. I do not know how she does her research, but the way I do it is by starting with Googling some information. Googling rape rates per 100,000 people in countries across the world, one finds that the number in India is just 2 in 100,000. Wikipedia says, 
“Adjusted for population growth over time, the annual rape rate in India has increased from 1.9 to 2.0 per 100,000 people over 2008-2012 period. This compares to a reported rape rate of 1.2 per 100,000 in Japan, 3.6 per 100,000 in Morocco, 4.6 rapes per 100,000 in Bahrain, 12.3 per 100,000 in Mexico, 24.1 per 100,000 in United Kingdom, 28.6 per 100,000 in United States, 66.5 per 100,000 in Sweden, and world's highest rate of 114.9 rapes per 100,000 in South Africa.”
So if these 2 rapes out of 100,000 make India a country with a rape problem, what do the 28.6 rapes per 100,000 make the USA? What about UK with 24.1 rapes per 100,000? Does she deny internships to students from these countries too? How about Sweden with 66.5 rapes per 100,000? When she says female professors across Europe are planning to deny entry to Indian students (something she mentions in her email), does she consider Sweden and UK part of Europe? Or are rules different for dark-skinned people from third-world countries?

(It may be worth mentioning here that another biologist who confirms Sheldon's observation is none other than the famous Richard Dawkins. He tweeted about India having a culture of rape without bothering to check the numbers, and then hastily deleted it when the numbers were pointed out to him.)

Does this mean I am trivializing those two cases out of 100,000? Not at all. In a country of over 1.2 billion people, 2 out of 100,000 means a lot of rapes – about 25,000 rapes per year. But that number, while still about 25,000 more than what it ideally should be, is a mere 0.4% of the six million Jewish people Dr. Beck-Sickinger's countrymen killed during the Holocaust. Does that then make Germany a country with a genocide problem? I would like to know if Dr. Beck-Sickinger was ever denied entry into any country saying there are a lot of Jewish people in that country, and it would be dangerous for them if she was allowed into the country.

Actually I already know the answer - she wasn't. Because while she is a racist, most educated and civilized people aren't so. In the modern world, an act of judging a person based on his or her country, religion, gender or race is punishable by law, or at least severely frowned upon. This basic point somehow seems to have been totally lost on Annette while she was receiving big degrees and diplomas from reputed universities.

India has a diverse population of people from all countries, races and religions, and we do not have a culture of judging people based on their race and country of origin. Today, as the whole world is trying to progress towards attaining equality for all human beings, Annette sits like a frog in her well and denies entry to a prospective scientist on the basis of his race. Not because he is bad at science, or because that he himself is a rapist, but because he comes from a country which she feels has a rape problem. As a result, she has brought shame to all Germans, and to researchers and professors all over the world. She claims to speak for other professors across Germany and Europe, but I doubt that they would like to have her as their spokesperson. For instance, Jakob de Roover, a professor from Belgium, opposed Annette's views publicly.

Of course, some of my own countrymen have endorsed Annette's opinion. Ever since BBC released an illegally made documentary interviewing the convicts of the 2012 Delhi rape case on YouTube, some left-liberal pseudo-secular creatures on my Facebook friendlist have started denouncing all Indian men as rapists. One of them took this opportunity to get some free publicity and Facebook likes for her profile and argued that the racist actions of Dr. Annette Beck-Sickinger were justified. She went so far as to say all Indian men currently abroad should be sent back to India immediately since all of them were responsible for the rape culture of India. When I confronted her on this and started an argument on her Facebook wall, I was obviously called insensitive. Her so-called educated friends even came and tried saying that it was "natural" to think India has a rape problem and the German professor cannot be blamed for thinking that way.

I do not want to go into the details of the documentary here, although I strongly object to the manner in which it depicted Indian men. Whether it should have been made is a debate that can go on, but this post is not about the documentary. When I see a documentary about 9/11, I do not automatically go and judge all Muslim men. When I see a documentary about 26/11, I do not say all Pakistani men are terrorists. I got mugged on the street, not once but thrice, by black men, and yet I don't think all black men are criminals. And this woman has the audacity to question all Indian men (probably based on the interview of a convicted criminal) while she hails from the country that started two world wars and wiped out two out of every three Jewish people in Europe. She did issue a half-hearted apology after her emails became public and she was criticized all over the world. The standard stuff - it was taken out of context... I'm sorry if I hurt someone... blah blah blah. One would have thought she would have been a little better at apologizing, given her education and all, but evidently, education isn't enough.

Annette Beck-Sickinger's actions somehow remind me of Hitler's denouncement of Jewish scientists including Albert Einstein. I could have written pages about it, but what is the point? I could go on to say that Germans haven't learnt their lesson from history and are making the same mistakes again, but then I would be no better than her. As the German ambassador's mail clearly shows, all Germans do not share her views. In fact, I am sure most Germans do not share her views. So I will end this post with the hope that she mends her racist ways and stops judging people by their nationality or race. What good is a biologist who does not believe in the equality of all human beings? 

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