Monday, May 09, 2022

Infamy

What I have repeatedly felt while reading poems by Rabindranath Tagore, is that he could express my exact feelings better than me. This is more true now, when I'm raising a child. There are many poems where he describes the parent-child relationship, both from the parent's viewpoint and the child's, and I have translated several of them in the past. This year, my annual translation is another such poem, where the poet defends the actions of his child.


Infamy

                                                ~Rabindranath Tagore



Dear child, why do you have tears?

Who has said bad things to you

Please let me hear.

While writing, your hands and face

With some ink got soiled

Is that why they said, “A dirty child”?

Shame, is that fair?

The full moon is smeared with ink

Call him dirty, I dare! 


Child, your faults are all they see.

I find anything you do

Makes them unhappy.

You go to play and come back

With clothes torn away

Is that why “Wretched boy!” they say?

Shame, how’s that true?

The dawn smiles through torn clouds,

Is he wretched too?


Don’t listen to what people say.

I find your infamy

Growing everyday.

You love sweets

That’s why all of them

Call you greedy and blame?

Shame, what to say. 

All those who love you

Then what are they?


                                                                    (Translated by Sugata Banerji)

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Death on the Nile - A Review

I just watched Gilderoy Lockhart's Kenneth Branagh's version of Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, and wanted to share a few of my thoughts about it. This review will have mild spoilers, so stay away if you haven't read the book or seen another version of the movie.


I'll start with the positives.

Kenneth Branagh isn't terrible as Poirot. In fact, he seems to have improved his act since the first movie, Murder on the Orient Express, and his accent is slightly more like David Suchet in this movie (who is the best Poirot in my opinion). I would keep Branagh ahead of Alfred Molina, Peter Ustinov, and of course, John Malkovich. He may even be better than Albert Finney. I like the rest of the cast as well - Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey and Armie Hammer fit into their roles. The visuals are great, and modern techniques, such as drone shots and CGI suit the story well. The digitally de-aged Branagh looks a little weird in a flashback scene, but I can live with that. Overall, anyone who is not fanatic about murder mysteries or Poirot would probably find this a gripping movie.

But I'm not such a person. I scrutinize murder mysteries with psychopathic attention to detail, and I'd not hesitate to end friendships over a disagreement involving Poirot. So here's my verdict.

First, the story is incoherent and full of holes. It's too much to think Poirot would go back to the heat of Egypt after having just come from there, whatever be the justification. Secondly, when people are dropping dead like flies, and everyone is trapped on a boat, is it believable that Poirot will not have everyone's belongings searched? And how does the murderer get the gun in the revelation scene, while Poirot himself remained clueless? The first murder comes a bit too late in the movie, and as a result, the movie drags on quite a bit longer than necessary.

The second aspect in which this movie fails is perhaps evident even from the poster above. Quick, look at it, and tell me who the main character is in the movie? From the beginning to the end, Poirot remains just a character in the movie, not the character. I would have blamed the director for this, but Kenneth Branagh himself is the director. If a person who played Gilderoy Lockhart and Hercule Poirot, arguably two of the most pompous characters in British literature, fails to make a movie revolve around himself, I don't know who can. I re-watched David Suchet's Death on the Nile right after watching this one and the difference between the two is stark. The older version has long sequences focused on Poirot, his mannerisms, his dialog, his idiosyncrasies. In the newer one, the other characters often steal the show. We never even see Poirot sitting still and thinking, exercising his little grey cells, something that the older version focused on often. The newer version replaces that by cheap thrills of a nimble Poirot chasing the murderer across the ship's deck, up and down stairs.

But the third and most vital point where the movie maker failed, and which was totally avoidable in my opinion, is what they did with Poirot's moustache. They gave it a back story.


I try to keep an open mind when it comes to interpretation of literature into film, and while I'm infinitely more fond of David Suchet's waxed version of the moustache, I don't blame Kenneth Branagh for trying to do something different. But whatever be the style, I do consider Poirot's moustache to be his pride, not his weakness. Characters like Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot are like superheroes in many ways, and their little oddities, however illogical, become part of their personalities. Imagine a Superman movie showing a backstory about why Superman started using the red cape, then trying to explain the cape using aerodynamics, and finally showing him giving it up so that he can fly/fight better. Would you like that movie? I wouldn't. Similarly, one can invent all sorts of backstories to make the character more real, but when they try to rationalize Poirot's moustache, or love for symmetry, with logic from that backstory, these things definitely lose their magic. These things are not loved because they are logical - in fact, I'd say it's quite the opposite.

Branagh has said he wants to do more Poirot movies, and this movie hints "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" is going to be the next installment. Will I watch that when it comes out?

Probably.

I'll watch it for the same reason I watch every new Jurassic World movie, every new Fantastic Beasts movie, every new Feluda / Byomkesh movie or Srijit Mukherjee's Kakababu movies - even when I know the stories and I hate the movies. I have grown up with these characters, and watching them say or do something familiar on screen still gives me a moment of  attachment to my childhood days, and harks me back to the carefree summer afternoons I spent binge-reading mystery stories lying on my bed. Watching any rendition of Poirot a rendition of Poirot that at least tries to stay faithful to the original will always recreate some of that magic for me, and Branagh's rendition is definitely in that category.

But if he wants me to love him as Poirot, he will have to do better. He'll have to stop trying to explain Poirot's eccentricities and embrace them for what they are, and make the movie all about himself, as Gilderoy Lockhart would have done.

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Mother-loving Child

These are bad times.

People are dying of COVID-19. People are dying from lack of oxygen. People are even being killed by other people. Sitting in this far-off land, the news from India is just unbearably depressing. And yet, I cannot travel back to India to be with the people I love.

So when Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary approached this year in the middle of all this, I had to think extra-hard about what poem to translate. I was tempted to look for some poem that talks about suffering or death (which I sort of did last year), but then I decided against it. There's enough of that already out there - there's no need for me to add to it. Then I realized the day of Tagore's birthday is also Mother's Day here in the US and since I had started to translate a poem about a mother-loving child sometime ago, it would be suitable for the occasion. So here's my Tagore translation for this year. The original can be found here.


Mother-loving Child

~Rabindranath Tagore


Those who live, mother, in the clouds

They call to me, call out loud.

They say, “All we do is play,

Morning to end of the day.”

We play a game of gold at dawn,

Holding the moon, a silver one.”

I say, “How will I go on?”

They say, “Come to the field’s end.

Stand there with your arms raised,

We’ll take you into cloud-land.”

I say, “But mother’s at home

Sitting waiting for me all alone,

Without her, how can I be gone?”

Hearing that they laugh and disband.

Better, mother, if I be the clouds;

To act as my moon you can try—

I’ll cover you up with my hands,

Our roof will act as the sky.

In the waves, mother, those who live,

To me repeated calls they give.

They say, “Singing is all we do,

From the morning and all day through.”

They say, “To what lands we flow,

Their locations no one can know.”

I ask them, “How can I go?”

They say, “Come to the shore’s end.

Stand there with your eyes closed,

We’ll take you into wave-land.”

I say, “But mother looks out,

In the evening my name she’ll shout,

Her, how can I live without?”

Hearing that they laugh and disband.

Better, mother, I’ll be the waves,

You’ll be some land from afar.

I’ll jump and fall into your lap,

No one will know where we are.


(Translated and illustrated by Sugata Banerji)


Monday, May 03, 2021

Death of a Teacher

I started learning Computer Science when I was in the fifth grade. We called it Computer Studies.

Throughout the first year, we learnt mostly theory: the characteristics of a computer, the parts of a computer, the history of computers, etc. Then in the sixth grade, we started to learn programming in BASIC. Little did I know at the time that this would become my favourite subject in school, and then I would go on to get an engineering degree and a Ph.D. in this field. Today, I am a professor of Computer Science, and if I try to trace the roots of my love for this subject, I will inevitably end up in those fifth and sixth grade classrooms where we learnt the basics of computer science and programming.

And I will inevitably end up remembering our teacher, Mr. Sandeep Chintamani. If I have to choose one teacher from my school who had the most influence on my life, it would be him.

I can still clearly remember his voice, his smile, his mannerisms and even his accent, as he taught computer science to us. Most of us had never even seen a computer when we started to learn about them, but he told us a secret: we did not need to actually sit at computers to learn programming. And then, the latter half of sixth grade onwards, we would form a queue and walk to the computer lab at the back of the biology lab once every few weeks and spend some time at a computer. There were only eight or ten computers for the fifty-odd students in our class, and they were old even by the standards of the day, but I still eagerly looked forward to these practical sessions and even theory classes with Mr. Chintamani. Of course, I may be biased, since I eventually fell in love with Computer Science, but I don't know whether that would have happened if the subject had been taught by another teacher.

I later had other Computer Science teachers, of course, and I remember all of them fondly. But Mr. Chintamani held a special place in my childhood memories, and even now, when I teach my students about if-else blocks, or loops, I hear certain words and phrases in my head in his voice. "How would Mr. Chintamani teach this?" has been a question that I have asked myself often, and used the answer to improve my teaching.

I bring this up today, because Mr. Chintamani passed away last week. He was on my Facebook friendlist, and when the obituary from my school appeared on my timeline, it was shocking and sad in equal parts. Just a couple of days ago, he had shared some COVID-related information on his wall. Little did I know that his life would be cut short by the disease within the week. Of the millions of lives this pandemic is claiming in India right now, this one is a little too close to my heart. He was only fifty-five. Rest in peace Sir, you left us too soon!

I don't feel like writing anything more. I don't feel like doing anything anymore. I want to be able to go home and see my parents again.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Karma

I have been practically living indoors for over seven weeks now. On the one or two occasions when I had to go outside for essential work, I had to clean myself obsessively after coming home. Even then, I inevitably spent the next few days worrying about catching the virus and dying. Between that and feeling anxious about family members back in India (not to speak of the millions of other people in the world), naturally, little else could occupy my mind during this time. So when I sat down to choose a Tagore poem to translate this year, I was still thinking of the pandemic and death and wondering whether the poet wrote anything applicable to the Coronavirus. As some geniuses on social media have already discovered, some Tagore creations are particularly suited for this situation.

So searching for a poem applicable to the pandemic, I came across a poem called "Karmaphal" (কর্মফল) which means payback for one's actions. While the subject of the poem isn't really pandemic-related, it can be argued that this terrible disease is a payback to Humanity for the blatant destruction of Nature and overcrowding the planet beyond its capacity. It also talks about dying and being born again in the same place, which is probably the most positive thing that you can think of when you are being forced to think about death all the time. So this was my choice.

Also, when I was thinking of a suitable English title for this poem, I realized the most suitable word was "Karma". Although the English language has pretty much internalized that word today, it is really the Sanskrit root in the actual Bengali title of this poem, and for the first time, my English translation of a Bengali poem has practically the same name as the original Bengali version (where it is neither a proper noun nor an English word). So here's my translation.


Karma
~ Rabindranath Tagore

If a next birth truly comes 
I know what is in my fate—
I’ll be drawn again to this
Capital of the Bengal state.
Poems and prose I’ve woven a lot,
In their snare I’ll get caught,
All faults in all that work will
Atone for their every vice—
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
.
In those days, if by chance,
Loving readers I still retain.
Their ears will all blush crimson
I’ll call them such ugly names.
Any book that comes my way
Page by page I’ll blaze away,
To ruin my fate, I will like
A mythic demon re-arise— 
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
.
I will say, “This ancient text!
Seems stolen from start to end.
I think even I can pen,
Baskets full of such nonsense.”
Other things that I will pen
Thinking now, it causes pain,
For cruelty of my next birth
Now I wish to apologize—
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
.
You, who often don’t say things
That I really like to hear.
If you too reincarnate
And as critics reappear—
My own self I will spite,
You will think of how to write
Rubbing pens in your dens
To my protest, fit replies.
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
.
I’ll write, “He’s a misfit poet,
Like a heron among the swans!”
You’ll write, “What hateful mind
Lies with such nonchalance!”
I will call you – ignorant,
You will call me – rude and blunt,
Then the things that will be written
By no means will they be nice.
You will write a strong response,
I will strongly criticize.
.
(Translated by Sugata Banerji)