Little patch of green

“Even in the mud and scum of things, something always, always sings.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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We are lucky to have a little patch of green attached to our apartment block in the bustling and crowded part of South Kolkata. Across the boundary wall beyond this patch, is a largish pond surrounded by trees including an old and very large Gulmohar tree (Flame of the Forest) right in front of our place. Come summer, these trees are visited by all sorts of birds including kingfishers, woodpeckers, parrots, bulbuls,  and even kites. And of course the crows. Baba loves the crows as much as the other birds; in fact, he finds their character and constitution decidedly more interesting than the other species. Our little green patch thus benefits from the nearby pond and trees and provides baba and ma with much entertainment as they sit on the balcony, sipping their afternoon Darjeeling.

The balcony is the life of our house. It connects us to Nature. The cool wind and the rustling of the leaves never ceases, even on a hot summer’s day. There is only one problem. The denizens of the apartment have a habit of throwing their litter out of their balcony onto this patch of green – cigarette butts, discarded flowers wrapped in polythene from the daily morning holy rituals, Lays packets, and occasionally, yes,  discarded sanitary napkins.

Ma woke up one morning to find baba cleaning the green patch. He had put on his bright yellow gloves and much-worn hat and was patiently picking up the litter. He found a stick, and to my mom’s utter dismay, started pushing a sanitary napkin towards a corner of the patch. He seemed to enjoy the cleaning process and soon, within the hour, the leaves were collected and piled around the base of the trunks of trees, while the litter was collected and heaped into a neat pile by the side. He continued doing this every other day. Soon, people started poking their heads over their balconies, watching a frail old man clean up their rubbish.

And soon enough, the littering stopped.

I skyped with Ma today just to verify this out of curiosity. My call connected. She was out on the balcony doing her breathing exercises. I could hear a bulbul singing in the background;  the spring leaves were a lovely shade of green and the first blush of spring could be seen on the trees behind her. Baba was sound asleep. She tells me a mali (gardener) has been hired by the building committee and all is well.

I feel there is some message tucked away here. Baba was not quietly voicing his protest. He was merely clearing up the lawn so that he could enjoy the little patch of green. Somewhere along the way, he changed a few things.

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Science and Laughter

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Baba was more interested in having fun and impressing girls during his college days. He never focused on studies that much and there came a time when he decided to drop Honours course in Physics as it seriously interfered with his lifestyle! However, as fate would have it, he did pretty well in his exams and so was allowed entry into the hallowed halls of City College. This place was a grave place. An air of intellectual melancholy hung over the campus and permeated the very walls of the university. No one laughed that much. No one laughed, period. Professors hurried along hallways with intellectual purpose while students spoke efficiently and crisply about matters far-related from everyday life. The steely grey ambiance of the place would have been quite suffocating for Baba had he let it.

He didn’t of course.

Once every year a few students put together a play and entertained the very solemn student body. Very solemn professors occupied the front seats, their grim countenance a reminder that laughter was at best, an inconvenience. Bored, Baba offered to be part of the next play. On one condition. He did not want to come for rehearsals. “Something to do with the joy of spontaneity”, he vaguely mutters, sipping his black, Java coffee. Baba was to be the dance instructor in a play called Mess No. 49  by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. But the problem was he knew nothing about dance. So for the very first time in his life, he buys a movie ticket. A Bollywood movie where pretty woman danced for the better half of the movie. He had three things on his list ( You can’t really get the science out of science students, can you?):

  1. The sideways, rhythmic head nod
  2. Hand movements
  3. Outfit.

With these three things in mind, Baba sat through one Hindi movie after the other until he felt he was ready.

The day arrives. Curtains rise. The play begins. Silence. Then, Baba walks in. A titter of laughter followed by loud guffaws across the auditorium as he does the head nods and flicks his hands, imitating the Bollywood bevies. Later, long after the laughter had died down, a friend of Baba’s came to tell him how he watched (in sheer disbelief)  the professors sitting in the front row.  Dignity forgotten,  they cackled with uncontrollable mirth.

The next day, Baba comes to college. Another ordinary day. Not so ordinary people were walking around with the same air of purposefulness. As he walks down the corridor, one of the grim looking professor struts by…and stops. “Hey Balai, is that you? I really enjoyed the play. Well done, Man!” he laughs.  Shaking his head he continues to walk down the hallway.

 

 

 

 

 

Down the winding road

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Baba. 24.06.2014

 

Baba listens intently. As he listens, you can actually see the cogs of the wheels inside his brain whirling at an inordinately high speed, regurgitating and assimilating information. This information transforms itself into delightful anecdotes during morning hours at the breakfast table, usually over a cup of very strong coffee.

Baba is sitting in the staffroom in Chongwe, quietly marking maths papers. Chongwe is a remote city, around 50 kilometers south-west of Lusaka as the crow flies. In another corner, some of his Zambian colleagues are laughing and chatting about the day’s events.

In walks Mr. Whomweshallnotmention, an Indian compatriot whom Baba is not too fond of. Short, stout, full of himself.

“Did you know that Lal Bahadur Shastri has…..” his voice trails off as no one responds to his presence.

One of the Zambian teachers looks askance and finally asks, “…And who exactly is Lala Bahadur Shastri Mr. Whomweshallnotmention?”

According to Baba (and we should reserve judgment here, as Baba often exaggerates just to make the story more palatable), Mr. Whomblahblah’s eyes widen with horror while his jaws drop several inches into his neck.

“Don’t you know who this man is!!!” he exclaims in horror. “Are you serious?!!!!” This man, I’ll have you know, is the Prime Minister of India!! Do you know that he used to walk 20 miles a day to go to school??!!!”

At which point Baba’s phlegmatic countenance finally relents. A grin softens the furrow between his eyes, while a sardonic smile hovers at the corners of his lips.

Who is Mr. W talking to? he thinks. His mind trails back to a journey he had made with a Zambian colleague a year back. Mission? To fetch a cow from a remote village. Down the winding road, the truck chugs along slowly, its wheels grating against the red craggy gravel.  The brown, dry countryside reluctantly shimmers under the bland yellow stare of the sun. After almost half a day later, they arrive at a little school. The woods have been hastily cleared to make way for a small building. He looks around. The place is quiet. The students had left a few days ago.

They continue their journey. On the way, Baba sees s a tiny figure in the distance. As they approach,  a boy not more than  12 years of age, sports a huge suitcase atop his head. He turns to raise an arm in a cheerful greeting.

“Yeah…they all walk for over 25 miles just to come to this school,” Baba’s companion mutters, as he steps on the brake.