Friday, February 21, 2020

The Laws of Twenty-one

This Bengali nonsense poem by the great Sukumar Ray talks about the strange laws in the imagined country of Lord Shiva. Such laws may or may not resemble real laws in real countries. The laws relate to the number 21 various ways.

Today being the 21st of February, the International Mother Language Day, AND Maha Shivaratri, the annual worship day of Lord Shiva, I couldn't resist the temptation to translate this poem to English from my mother language today.

In the land where Lord Shiva stays,
Terrible laws one must obey!
If someone happens to slip and fall,
A policeman will arrest and haul
To the court, and the judge opines,
He pays twenty-one rupees in fines.

There, before it's evening six
For sneezing you need permits.
Without permit, if a sneeze will come,
Bang! Boom! On your back they drum,
A dose of snuff the Chief applies,
Until you sneeze twenty-one times.

A loose tooth, if someone has,
They must pay four rupees as tax.
If whiskers grow on someone's face,
A hundred annas is their cess.
Poking his back, bending his neck,
Twenty-one salutes they have him make.

While walking, if someone chance
To cast left or right, a sideways glance,
At once to the king this news will rush,
The soldiers all jump and make a fuss,
They make him drink, in the sun at noon,
Water in twenty-one serving spoons.

With poetry, those who fill the pages,
They are caught, and put in cages,
And made to listen, in tunes variable,
Recitations of the multiplication table.
They have to read grocery-store ledgers,
And do additions for twenty-one pages.

If suddenly when the night is deep,
Someone snores while they're in sleep.
On their head they rub with glee,
Cow-dung mixed with apple puree,
Twenty-one times they are spun
And hung for hours twenty-one.

(Translated by Sugata Banerji)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Remembering Dadu

Very old readers of this blog may remember my post on my grandfather's birthday, fourteen years ago. This blog was only a few days old at that time, and I wrote more regularly.

Today is my grandfather's birthday once again. What's more, today is his 100th birth anniversary.

My grandfather, or Dadu, as I called him, was a man of many interests. When he got interested in something, he worked at it until he became an expert. The fact that these interests often had no practical value did not deter him at all. Some of the activities that he tried during his life (other than mathematics) are contract bridge, carrom, aquarium-keeping, candle-making, ink-making, spirograph, carpentry, book-binding, sandpaper-making, homoeopathic and biochemic medicine, and astrology. Most of these were before my time, of course, and so I only know these from stories I have heard since my childhood. I have also seen him making innumerable small tools and gadgets around the house. 

A spirograph design by Dadu
Dadu was a man of discipline. He woke up by 4:00 every morning and walked to the banks of the river Ganga, which is about a kilometre from our house. When heart troubles appeared later in his life, and the doctor advised against brisk walks, he went there by rickshaw. If I was visiting Hooghly at the time, I would accompany him there. The two of us would sit there on a bench and he would tell me stories from the Mythologies, incidents from History, facts from Geography, theories from Physics. He pointed out the Milky Way and talked about astronomy. He talked about old Hollywood movies. He explained to me the difference between the different kinds of boats passing in the still dark river. He recited verses from the Gita and explained their meaning to me. There was hardly a subject on which he couldn't talk. He told me about all these things throughout the day, of course, but during that early morning hour I had his undivided attention. Dadu also had a great collection of books. Most of those books are crumbling and somewhat obsolete now, but I spent hours with those books, looking at pictures and reading up about the world. He also bought many such books for me. I wonder if my daughter will ever develop an interest in those books, or if that interest will even be relevant in the age of the Internet.

A sample of Dadu's english handwriting

Dadu had a great sense of humour. He loved to joke and play pranks on everyone around him. When we lived in Allahabad, I sent a letter to him in Hooghly every week, and he did likewise. These letters were often very odd - I sometimes substituted words with little pictures. Both of us sometimes wrote little riddles that had to be solved to get the full message. He once even wrote a whole letter in heavily sanskritized bengali, describing mundane everyday things in a hilarious manner. Also, his handwriting was amazingly beautiful. Waiting for letters, writing of letters and reading letters is another set of pleasures that our next generation will never know. 

A bengali letter from Dadu (click to enlarge and read)

I could go on writing, but then, this post would never end. So there is no point in going on and on. The only thing that I wish on Dadu's 100th birthday is that I can use at least some of the teaching techniques that I learnt from him to teach my daughter. She wasn't fortunate enough to meet Dadu, but I hope at least she can learn from one of his students.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Fourteen Years

How long is fourteen years?

When I was a child and my mother used to tell me stories from the Ramayana, fourteen years always seemed an interminably long period for an exile. Later, when I read the Mahabharata, I realized that the Pandavas spent about fourteen years in exile as well - twelve years in the forest, one more year anonymously, and then about another year preparing for the battle (which lasted eighteen days). Again, a huge chunk out of the lives of our heroes.

And yet, when I look back at that night fourteen years ago when I started writing my blog, it seems just like yesterday. It will be an exaggeration to call this my "exile", but it does mark my time away from home. First in Hyderabad, then in Kolkata and finally in the suburbs of three cities across the USA - New York City, Washington, D.C. and Chicago.

While it doesn't feel like a lot of time has passed, a lot has changed in these fourteen years. I left my IT job, started and finished a PhD, did a post-doc and then became a professor at a college. I got married. I became a father. And fatter. In the world of social networks, Orkut died off, Facebook came to rule the world. Blogging went out of fashion, microblogging caught the fancy of the world with the introduction of Twitter. Cellphones became smart. Tablets and e-book readers came into existence.

I bought a DSLR. Two DSLRs actually, and started calling myself a photographer.

And in between all this, I started a second blog. In Bengali. While I hardly write in either one anymore, I definitely enjoy writing when I do. Nobody reads my blogs anymore, of course. Nobody reads blogs as much as they used to do fourteen years ago.

Still, it seemed like a nice occasion to commemorate by writing a post here on my first blog. I missed the actual date by a day, but what difference does a day make in fourteen years?

Thursday, May 09, 2019


Astronomy is making the news these days, with the first picture of a black hole becoming public last month. So I thought of translating this little poem by Rabindranath Tagore this year on his birth anniversary, whose Bengali title literally translates to "astronomy." It is based on a dialogue between a little boy and his elder brother. Once I and my slightly older cousin brother recited this poem at an event back home in Hooghly. Those days almost seem like another life when I think about it.

So here's my translation of the poem, without much further ado. The illustration is my attempt at digital art using the Wacom tablet I impulse-bought last Thanksgiving.

~Rabindranath Tagore

All I said was, “In the evenings,
On the kadam tree
When the full moon gets entangled
And can’t get himself free
Could someone then
Catch and bring him in?”
Why did big brother, hearing that,
Laugh and tell me, “Brother,
A fool like you I’ve seen no other.

The moon stays very far
How can we even touch?”
I said, “Big brother, you
Surely don’t know much.
When our mother smiles at us
Through the window bars
Would you then say that mother
Lives very far?”
Even then he told me, “Brother,
A fool like you I’ve seen no other.”

Brother says, “Where will you get
Such a large snare?”
I tell him, “Why brother,
The moon is tiny there;
To grab him, my two
Little fists would do.”
On hearing that why did he
Laugh and tell me “Brother,
A fool like you I’ve seen no other.

If the moon came close to us
You’d see it’s immense.”
I say, “Hasn’t attending school
Given you any sense?
When mother, to kiss us
Bows down her head
Then, does her face look like
A huge thing by our bed?”
Even then he told me, “Brother,
A fool like you I’ve seen no other.”

(Translated by Sugata Banerji)

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

A Dream and an Announcement

Let me start with the dream. It isn't mine, it was Rabindranath Tagore's dream. The original Bengali poem is part of a collection of easy prose and poetry aimed at children learning to read. This is the poem that I chose for translating on Tagore's birthday this year. This was very different from the other Tagore poems that I have translated in recent times, and was great fun. The poem doesn't really have a name, but I decided to give it the title "The Dream" in my English translation. I decided to use the names Calcutta and Bombay instead of the more modern versions Kolkata and Mumbai since those were the names used during Tagore's time.

The Dream

~Rabindranath Tagore

(Translated by Sugata Banerji)

The other night I had a dream
“Look! Look!” I heard Binu scream.
I looked and saw roof beams collide,
Calcutta on the go, nodding side-to-side.
The houses are rhinos made of brick
Doors and windows moving quick.
The roads, like pythons they crawl,
On their backs the tramcars fall.
Up and down go markets and shops.
Rooftops head-butt other rooftops.
The Howrah Bridge, giant centipede goes,
Harrison Road on its tail follows.
The Monument swings, an elephant crazed
Dancing, his trunk skyward raised.
Our schoolhouse runs with a clamor
The math book runs, so does grammar
The maps on the walls struggle and slap
Just like birds, when wings they flap.
The bell rings ding-dong swinging away—
Does not stop any hour of the day.
Millions of people say, “Stop please!”
“Wherefrom? Where to? This is craziness.”
Calcutta, busy going, ignores these calls—
Drunk with dance her pillars and walls.
I think to myself, worry there’s none,
To Bombay Calcutta can straight go on.
If Delhi, Lahore or Agra she’ll choose
I’ll wear a turban, put on jeweled shoes.
Or if today, to London she scoots
Like English folk, all would wear suits.
Then some noise made my sleep shatter
I saw, Calcutta was still in Calcutta.


Which brings us to the announcement. And that is very much mine.

My sleep is getting shattered by some noise or other every night now for the last two weeks, and so is my wife Poulami's. Unlike Tagore, we don't find our life restored to normalcy even when we wake up, because our dream has come true and has decided to live with us (while making all kinds of noises at all kinds of hours).

She is our daughter Shalmoli. She was born on April 25, 2018 at Lake Forest Hospital, approximately three weeks before her due date amidst a lot of drama. Shalmoli is the name of a flower that blooms in early summer in India on a dry, rugged-looking tree and contains letters from both my name and my wife's. Being a Bengali, she also has a nickname, and that nickname is formed by the last three letters of her official name. The nickname has a meaning too. Oli means bee in Bengali.

Oli also rhymes with Tuli, which is the name of my niece.

So right now, my parents are staying with us. They were supposed to arrive on the 26th anyway, and throw a baby shower for my wife on the 27th. Oli was born while they were in the air and the baby arrived on the day of the baby shower. Now I am finding it hard to do anything not strictly necessary (such as blogging), between the final exams week at the college, all kinds of extra work at home and pediatrician visits at, well, the pediatrician's office. Life has changed overnight - nothing is as easy as it was before.

And we're enjoying every moment of it.

Shirt painted by me. Photos not taken by me.