Monday, March 24, 2008

Happy Holi!

I wish all my readers a very Happy (albeit belated) Holi and Easter! Hope you enjoyed your weekend. Normal posting will resume soon.

[The photo shows my sister. I shot this on the 21st.]

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kolkata Book Fair 2008 - A few images

Do you know Mr. K. C. Paul? Not the famous umbrella manufacturer but the astronomer? No? Well, he has made one of the greatest discoveries of our era and spent the last four decades trying to convince people that his discovery is true. He has written books, given interviews on the media, and filled the walls of Kolkata and Howrah with graffiti preaching his theory. I had been reading his graffiti since my childhood days. But it was only in this year's Kolkata Book Fair that I had the fortune to meet him in person. I was photographing him, and so he gave me one of his pamphlets for free.

What is his theory? He claims he has proof that the sun goes round the earth and it is not the other way round. Is he insane? Probably, by all our standard definitions of sanity. Yet, he has the conviction and confidence that keeps him clinging to his foolish theory for forty years. And while I do not for a moment imagine his theory may be right, I cannot help think that Galileo must have been insane in his time too!

Kartik Chandra Paul is only one of the many characters one can see at the Kolkata Book Fair whose passion seem to be on the verge of madness, and one can only feel respect mixed with pity for them. This man, for instance, who sells funny books (in the photo). Just look at his banner, it says: "Buy for two rupees. You'll read for twenty minutes and laugh for half an hour. As you start reading, you'll start laughing. When you stop reading, you won't stop laughing." I visited the fair on two days, and this man was roaming around selling his books, carrying this large banner and in that posture. I wonder how many he could sell. Then there was the old artist who sat on the ground outside a stall with a stack of his paintings. He eagerly showed me some of them as I stopped by. I sadly realised that most people, including me, would rather buy a print of a European masterpiece to hang in their room rather than buy an original painting by this man. But then, that's what has been happening in the past too. Van Gogh couldn't sell a painting in his lifetime. I did not have the heart to take his photograph.

I went there twice: once with my sister to browse through books, and the second time with the Flickr Bangla Community members to do some candid photography. Although the book fair does offer wonderful opportunities for candid photography, one really needs large telephoto lenses to take pictures unobtrusively. One of my friends got into trouble because a girl had come into one of the photos that he had taken. Her boyfriend promptly snatched away his camera and dragged him into the police station, insisting on lodging a written complaint. It was really funny to see the policemen laugh at him as he became more and more furious. At one point he said he was with the Human Rights Commission, another time he said he was with the Press, and when I asked him if he knew what candid photography was, he whipped out his father's - yes, his father's - visiting card and insisted I show him respect. When I informed him with all due politeness that I did not recognise his father from his name, he asked me if I understood that his father was an IAS officer. Although my friend was a bit anxious to get back his camera at that time, we had a laugh riot later imitating that girl and her boyfriend.

The fair this year was smaller since the Publishers' and Book Sellers' Guild put its foot down on not having a book fair at all if the fair was not allowed to be held at the Kolkata Maidan. There were others, however who wanted to have the fair and it was held at the Salt Lake Stadium. Some of the big book stores didn't come. The fair was delayed by a month and the weather was really hot. Still, the queue at big stalls like Ananda Publishers was long and serpentine and stretched across the field in front of the stall. This field was full of small clusters of people who had come together and had decided to spend some time sitting in a group. As the evening progressed some sang, some brought guitars and played them. Others just sipped on cups of tea and chatted. A news channel conducted walk-in auditions for a newsreader's job. Some people were trying their skill there. Another TV channel had brought finalists of a music competition on their channel to the fair and they were performing live on request. Soap-bubble-blowing-apparatus-sellers were filling the air with bubbles and children tried to catch them. On Friday we stayed till the fair was closed at 9:00 pm. On Saturday I had to leave at 5:30 as I was going to Hooghly. By that time, it was almost impossible to see over peoples' heads in the fair ground.

Since I had grown up in Allahabad, I was unaware of the charms of the Kolkata Book Fair till 2001 when I came to college. Even then, I had gone to Allahabad on vacation during the Book Fair for the first two years. But once I had visited the fair for the first time in 2004, I eagerly wait for it every year. I missed it in 2006 since I was in Hyderabad, but was back in time for the 2007 fair. I don't know where I will be next year, but wherever I am, if it is not Kolkata then I will definitely miss the Kolkata Book Fair.

(The photos that I took in the book fair are available here)

Monday, March 10, 2008

Spring in the City

Palash tree in Salt Lake It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade. ~Charles Dickens (Great Expectations).

That may have been true in London, but here in Kolkata, March is not yet halfway through and the summer has already arrived in the sunlight and in the shade too. We call this spring.

Considering the fact that we live in an era of increasing global warming, the winter was unusually persistent this year. Over the last one month, several times it seemed as if the cold was gone for good, but each time it returned with a vengeance, assisted by a fresh spell of rain. This winter Kolkata saw its coldest day in the first week of February, a rare occurrence indeed. But when finally the cold went, the heat was surprisingly quick to follow.

Palash flowers in Salt Lake The wind has changed direction. The leaves have started dropping off the trees. The cuckoos are going berserk. These are a few signs of spring that one can see and hear in the concrete jungle. And yes, flowers! Flowers of all hues, sizes and shapes have covered almost every plant and tree in sight. The accompanying photograph was taken in my colony in Salt Lake - the tree is Palash (Butea monosperma). Both the tree and the ground underneath are covered with the flaming orange flowers. Similarly various other trees are covered by shades of red, blue, violet and yellow. The seasonal flowering plants like dahliyas, zenias, salvias, poppies, pansies and chrysanthemums are blowing out their last flowers. There are bees, damselflies and butterflies everywhere (in fact quite a few wasps and mosquitoes too at my house). The mango trees are covered in tiny blossoms, with mustard-sized mangoes just beginning to show. If you go and stand under one of these mango trees, you will be showered continuously with a fine drizzle of flower particles and mango nectar. The early morning air is slightly cooler, which causes drops of dew to cover the blades of grass which glow like jewels as they catch the first rays of the sun.

Butterfly and dewdrops

The sun is, however, ignoring all these signs of spring. The days are already obscenely hot with hot winds blowing. Very soon, the seasonal blossoms will dry up as dust storms arrive with the first sprinkles of rain. And even after that, even after summer has completely arrived in Kolkata, the cuckoos will continue their frenzied calls throughout the day, as if it were still spring.