Monday, June 08, 2015

The Crows of Durgapur

Dr Nandalal Ghoshal used to play chess with my dad every evening. I must have been very young then to remember, but according to what my dad later told me, they spent hours walking each other back after dinner because the conversation never got over. From Edison Avenue to Newton Avenue wasn’t a long distance, and the nights in Durgapur were pleasant and breezy. What better than being able to converse with a learned friend especially when you were stuck in a Steel township that reminded you of the 19th Century Eastwood of Lawrence, narrow in its thinking like the dark tunnels of a coal mine? When he had just moved to Durgapur, my dad used to stand alone on the over-bridge of Durgapur Railway Station every evening, looking below at the trains headed to Calcutta, a city he missed so much.

“Each train reminded me of everything I left behind there, and even a remote chance of meeting someone I can talk to. So I started talking to myself.”

Talk of trains used to excite me and I invariably ended up asking “How far below were the electric wires? Could you touch them? Why don’t the crows perched on the wires die?” little knowing how lonely the man used to be. And then he met Dr. Ghoshal.

We moved from Edison to Joydev, and the frequency of their meetings came down. It was a good 10 km away, and it wasn’t possible for either of them to leave their family duties to go for chess on their bicycles. There were no telephones those days, and as time passed, the two friends grew apart. But I kept hearing about Dr Ghoshal from my dad—his first friend in Durgapur, and with a PhD in Sanskrit too!

When I was in class IX, in my search of a person who would teach me literature, I found Dr. Ghoshal again. I spent four years under his tutelage and believe he played a very crucial role in keeping me on track when everything else other than studies seemed so attractive. I was mostly a vagabond, riding my cycle to unknown places, coming home late, bunking classes, watching Hindi films (that's the worst a Bengali boy can do, watch Bollywood films), riding in and out of Einstein Avenue to catch a glimpse of someone, but I never bunked his classes. And for the first time in my life, I was regular not because of any pretty girl in the class (although there were a few), but for Dr. Ghoshal himself. He always managed to make us laugh. Once when I paid him his fees in an envelope from Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, he exclaimed, “Oh, our poet Lau Sen? When did he move to Switzerland?”

Among many weird ten-minute essays he made us write, one was The Crows of Durgapur. I remember mentioning how they nonchalantly perch on the overhead electric wires with no worries of being burnt black. There were some rules about writing these essays. You had to start the moment he gave you the topic, and not stop until the alarm went off after ten minutes. You could go berserk with your imagination, let all the absurd come out, forget about punctuation and syntax, and just had to write. The kind of things that came out of each one of our minds was fascinating. Shovon and I were his favourite students. By the end of four years, our minds were free and wandering, welcoming abstraction in any form, like The Dry Twig I Found. Many years later when I watched The Terminal, I remembered how he had asked us to write about being lost in Charles de Gaulle. I wonder if he had a brush with the rudeness that's French and why really Charles de Gaulle. Maybe Syed Mustafa Ali had told him about his university days in Paris.

When my dad passed away some years back, among many other things I found in his belongings, there was a letter addressed to Dr. Ghoshal and an old Parker pen that he hadn’t opened. Because we didn’t know where Dr. Ghoshal was, the letter never got sent. So I took it upon myself to deliver my dad’s letter to his first friend in Durgapur.

Durgapur had changed. There were shopping malls all around and the roads unfamiliar. I got off the bus at Newton Avenue and tried locating his place. The Steel township quarters were like single-story row houses earlier, uniform in shape and colour. But now people had changed all of that. They had built extra rooms on top of the houses and painted them wild. The entire area seemed to have grown like a formless protozoa, pretty much like the DDA apartments in Delhi have grown. Nobody in that area knew about him, so I was stranded with no clue about where to go. Suddenly I remembered Mintu’s cigarette shop and went a couple of streets further to find if it was still around. It was still the same, the same small gumti only now with billboards stuck all around. “Mintu?” I asked the bald man sitting crouched inside the shop reading Anandabazar.

Mintu was so surprised to see me, he bumped his head trying to come out of the small trap door. Shuvo! How come! You haven’t changed one bit, bro!

He didn’t have Capstan cigarettes any more. People smoke Gold Flake and Classic these days. Mintu himself had stopped smoking after a bad bout of asthma. We remembered how he had started the shop because of his love for tobacco. Although he was an outcast and most of our parents didn’t approve of that boy, I used to still go meet him every day. He had dropped out of school and had a lot of time to spare. And he was a master storyteller, narrating stories of movies animatedly. Watching him enact each scene was more mesmerizing than watching the real film.

Mintu told me about “Ghoshal Sir” and where he had moved to. He had moved from his quarters to a place further north. His children had grown up and moved out, so he stayed alone. He was still teaching after retirement and should be available now, Mintu said. He called the assistant of the neighbouring puncture-repair guy and asked him to look after his shop while he dropped me to Ghoshal Sir’s place on his scooter.

We stopped in front of the house and I asked Mintu to come in with me. He refused. “I didn’t finish school, Shuvo, and he had kept insisting that I do. Somewhere, I don’t think I can face him again.”

“But he loved you, Mintu, just come in with me.” But he just gave me a long hug and said, “good you never took to smoking, bro… it was good to see you.” I opened the creaky gate and walked in. There was an old button switch for the doorbell, pressing which made the bell scream in agony. 

And there he was, his hair all white, looking at me through the netting of the door.

“Wasn’t that Mintu who dropped you?” he said as he recognized me and opened the door.

He recognized me, which was a big thing given he must have seen thousands of students in his lifetime as a teacher. He was very happy to usher me into his living room strewn with books. “You should have brought that boy in. He had talent, that boy. He could have regaled any audience with his stories.” To him, we were all boys and always would remain so.

We talked about publishing in Delhi, the weather in Bangalore, and he asked if I had had a chance to see the leopard of the Yellagiri Hills. “If you remember, your dad used to read out Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson to you every night.” Yes, I remembered. I used to imagine the jungles in little detail and always wanted the machan to be placed high above the ground beyond the reach of the tigers. And I dreamt of big double-barrelled rifles in my sleep.

“Do tread the path Kenneth Anderson did when you are in South India, my son. Your life will be incomplete without that."

He was overjoyed with all the Penguin titles I had carried for him from my collection. “Warehouse clearance? Get me a job there, Shuvo! You really worked with David Davidar?” And it was a morning of stories and reminiscences that spilled over to lunch. “If you have a chance, find more of these Mintus. Don’t let them get wasted.”

On the way back from his place I thought of dropping by at Mintu's shop, but somehow my mind was filled with a strange jealousy I had never felt before. 

I might have been his favourite, but Mintu would always remain his Ekalavya.