Bravo, cruel sport!

Old man sees no escape from his weakening knees

Mom with kids says, I am worried about the fees

Farmer sprays chemicals but frets, oh! for the bees

Real estate baron feels ever so sorry for the trees

 

Fisherman cries for our ocean’s sake, God save the quays

Carpenter knocks on wood, can’t see the forest for the trees

Usurers pine, unable to milk enough off of the credit squeeze

As priestly pedophiles swear scandals blow over like a breeze

 

People with eyes solemnly shut pray at the altar of our Status Quo

While Thieving Corporation execs dressed formal find a way to go

Piling profits for self, God and country, and the national debt

Yes, it’s the inside track where you learn to hedge your bets

 

Statuesque lady in blindfolds lays down the law, but all-seeing

Judge bangs the gavel, smiling with sharp teeth showing

In shadowy dens, money and clout move quietly to appease

Policeman with baton barks, stand in line, and stay there, please!

 

Shyam Bhatya

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My mind now smells of garlic

A few days ago, rather reluctantly, I finished the final chapter of one great novel. Beyond a shadow of a doubt lingering on its luminous pages, this book, without mincing any words, is Nobel Prize material. According to Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, “If I were to choose a Nobel Laureate, it would be Mo Yan.”

The final chapters sent my spirits soaring into another country, another realm. The narrative is laced with a raw and unique blend of magic realism, vastly distinct in its handling from Kafka, Marquez, or Murakami. Each chapter begins with a short ballad sung by the blind minstrel  Zhang Kou (strictly an observer rather than a participant in the story) that is reminiscent of a Greek chorus. This simple literary device allows the drama to gently unfold, urging its spirit forward, and aptly summing up the mood of the moment. The precise and telling opening lines reflect deeper poetic sensibilities.

Poetry in narration

Layered, lifelike, and never linear, the plot moves seamlessly back and forth in time, bearing allegiance to overall significance rather than to a time-bound order of development. The plot structure unfurls architectural subtlety that is truly the work of a master. Racy,  compelling, and liberally steeped in romance and adventure from the very start to finish, the narrative is almost thriller-like in its un-put-down-ability.

What makes Mo Yan’s brand of surrealism unique is that the string of events leading up to the sad end is firmly grounded in reality. The story, played out by a handful of credible, well-rounded characters has an aura of authenticity and realism that makes it eminently believable. The bawdiness of the dialogues too — interspersed with gems of folk insight and wisdom — comes out of the mouths of common village folk. A “ring of truth” chimes throughout. A skilled story-teller is like a clever little spider spinning yarns apparently out of nowhere, to mesmerize and captivate the reader. The magical patterns shine like silver gossamer threads in the sunlight and in the moonlight.

The entire story is sprinkled with dream-like sequences. While the reader may often be transported to a magical realm, both his or her feet are always planted firmly on the ground. Towards the end of the book Gao Yang, one of the main characters,  is led away by two policemen, paraded through the town, handcuffed and in excruciating pain from his swollen, pus-filled ankle. A rooster appears from nowhere and starts to peck at Gao’s injured ankle. The dogged bird continues to peck unforgivingly, but Gao’s excruciating pain goes unnoticed by the callous policemen escorting him, until the rooster manages to pluck a long white tendon out of the open sore. It pulls the tendon a foot or so more from its source and swallows it whole like one big noodle. One of his tormentors, a fat cop, whispers into Gao’s ear, “He’s plucked the root of your problem.”

People struggle on

The Garlic Ballads sing in defense of peasants who have toiled ceaselessly under crushing government directives to grow garlic in their small fields, their only available source of livelihood.  Unable to sell their produce, and betrayed by the treachery of mindless bureaucrats, the peasants finally rise up in revolt.  Their honest labor reduced to naught, they have nowhere to go in the end.

Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Noble Prize for Literature is a supreme story-teller, who like  Scherazade in The One Thousand and One Nights, keeps the Sultan (you, in this case) whispering “What next?” from chapter to chapter. I wish someone would ask me, “What’s the best novel you’ve read in your life?” While my common sense will argue with my better judgement all night, in the pale light of dawn my heart may really have only one answer. Maybe there’s a very good reason nobody has asked me that question yet. So far, not about “my best novel,” “my best film,” or “my best song.”  So ruefully, it is here that I must rest my case.

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Damsel in distress

You had said you’d love nothing

else in the world as much as me

I believed you then and want to

believe you now, behind those

lurking shadows of self doubt

 

Longingly did I look into your

eyes, to feed my restless soul

but all you ever craved is

fame ‘n fortune, an eternal life

shackled to earthly laws

 

The more I clung to you

the more you clung to

your worldly possessions,

as if they’d do you any good

in Heaven, in the misty afterlife

Like a pharaoh transporting jewels

across Hades in a papyrus boat,

intent on securing the beyond!

 

My knight in shining armor:

Did you mean to lead me from

dark to darker forests, where

only shimmering neon signs

is all the light you hunger for?

 

Fondly, I bore you children

but they too look and think

like you, earth-bound alas!

by unsevered umbilical chords

yet from time to time they too

stare blankly at heaven, to

seek succor for their souls

 

If marriages were made

in heaven, why do covert

selfish agendas steer us?

Why do we fail and falter,

sabotaging peace on earth,

where we live and breathe?

 

Truly, does more mean less?

Will serenity come only when

our affairs cease to attach

to all that’s gross and mundane?

When will less and less begin

to mean more, infinitely more

in untold mysterious ways,

some unforeseeable day?

 

Shyam Bhatya

 

This poem was written in vicarious mode. Please feel free to critique it, if you don’t like something about it. I’m neither a poet nor a philosopher, just a self-taught nature lover.

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Here’s half the truth

Young people spend a lot of time looking down at the ground. Old people spend a lot of time looking up at the sky. People in the middle look neither up nor down. They look straight ahead — at waves in the sea bobbing up and down, at the ebb and flow of tides, at the ever-changing flow of life in its myriad manifestations — singularly focused on their bright, future prospects! Looking into the distance, being mindful of society’s pros and cons: this is what gives rise to conventional wisdom. As in organized religion, you never question its merits. If you do, you may be asking for endless argument.

Now, if you’re neither an optimist nor a pessimist — that is, if like me you see the bottle as neither half empty nor half full (never even stopping to ponder at which end the better half may be esconced) — you could be the only one looking in vain for the whole truth, some strange wispy cloud that flies across the sky at the speed of light. In which case, conventional wisdom is not exactly your cup of tea, nor is it mine, to be honest.

Of course, conventional wisdom is widespread everywhere, not just where you and I live. It competes surreptitiously with superstition and folklore. (Incidentally, superstition and folklore, as you might have guessed, are modern inventions too.) You may want to run for the hills when rumors fly about, but sometimes you might find yourself stuck. Since I’ve lived in North America for way more than two decades, I must share with you some sparklers of conventional wisdom doing the rounds in this part of the world.

1,2,3,4…there will be more!

First, verbal or written communication is grossly over-rated. Unlike as in the East, silence is openly misunderstood. Surely, it’s not regarded as sacred. To be pragmatic, telephone companies will urge you to call before making a trip anywhere. Of course, calls cost money, and so do wasted trips. They tell you to talk, talk, talk — before you act! No altruistic gesture by any stretch of the imagination, knowing that this practice only puts more money in their pockets.

Such abiding truths are all very well until “communication” is expected to solve all our mortal problems, big or small. You’re urged to talk to every offender (even hardened criminals, if that’s the case) — communicate, pontificate, prevaricate, argue, counsel, cajole, dole out free leaflets, ask them to read up on the Internet — and all your problems, like solar eclipses, will soon disappear. As you rightly guessed, communication implies getting your message across, not in listening to or hearing the other side of the story. At times you wonder, if communication ever had anything to do with silence, or if light has anything to do with darkness?

Secondly, many in this great big democracy agree that it’s just another human being under so many-colored skins. What they haven’t discovered yet (or may still be working on) is that human beings are existentially the same, whether man or woman, white, brown, black, yellow or colorless. With Mars and Venus theories, left-brain/right brain rationale bandied around and assuming infallibility sometimes, gender distinctions become hard to dispel. It’s a man or a woman thing, you’ll often hear said. So much so that boys are associated with the color blue, and girls with pink. You may even be regarded as queer if you beg to differ, resent the straight-jacket, or question the soundness of its limiting logic.

Someday, I might be tempted to extend my tirade against technology and/or foods that fall into the four “primary” categories, but I still have to gather my wayward thoughts on that subject. We may talk about it another day, if  that’s okay with you, just like we may talk about the value of education as we know it. Note, however, that conventional wisdom arises from what each community regards as important for its perceived survival on this planet, and not necessarily on truths that are universal, unchangeable, or transcending existence. It is an animal — loud, sometimes arrogant, with little or no patience for dissenters — that lives inside a box. Beware, gentle reader, the wide open sky could startle it!

Quite easily done

Once again, because Capitalism is just that — money, money, and more money — everything, I repeat everything, can be solved if you just had enough money. With money, you can buy enough food to feed the poor; inject medicines to heal the sick and ailing; reverse the ravages of time; research assorted age-defying paraphernalia; run schools to help kids think inside the box and stay within the tracks; silence your detractors; pump chemicals into Nature for her to produce more; acquire the latest armaments to annihilate your enemies; and enforce laws that even earth, water, and sky must obey. Q.E.D, as you learnt subliminally in Geometry,  it’s Quite Easily Done.

Fourth, in some ways an extension of the foregoing example, comes modern medicine, now exerting a vice-like grip on our mega metropolises. I’ve even heard Homeopathy being derided on TV by celebrity experts. You must really be kidding to think a medicine can increase in potency (in geometric progression too) just by repeatedly diluting it in water! And, Ayurveda?…must be another figment of saintly imaginations fueled by hallucinogenic weeds. Acupuncture, being apparently more tangible, may be more acceptable, especially if the results are quickly felt. We don’t seem to have time for the pain, so it makes sense to deride anything that’s slow, circumspect, or even holistic.  Every knee-jerk, reactionary solution (lockup for crimes, for instance) is the right solution. You don’t want to argue with half the population, do you, amigo? I don’t.

Again, you’re told not to trust strangers. This might be just another face of free enterprise and unregulated profit motives, I’m not sure. You’re encouraged often to suppress your gut. Don’t make friends with people you don’t know, or fall in love with someone brought up different from you (this has more relevance in our particular eastern climes). In short, spontaneity is suspect. But how do you make friends or fall in love unless fences are first broken? Racism and discrimination has to start somewhere. Maybe, this is where it all began…well…

I can go on rambling, and stray into areas that a thousand words fail to explain. But wait a minute. I have to get off my train of thoughts, just to check if there’s something fishy on the tracks. There is. Truth is only half told. Truth also belongs to words unspoken and sights unseen. Seeing has no direction, no end. Alas! what I, a poor scribe, can offer is only half the brimming glass.

Shyam Bhatya

This post is opinionated, no kidding! Please feel free to critique it below, if you disagree. 

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Stir-fried

The nation’s recipe cooks best in subterranean oil

Terrorist traders (on and off-shore) provide the foil

While easy money sinks deeper into deep pockets

Hapless corporations careen out of their sockets

 

Beyond thickly-veiled scams, scandals brew

Lucky reputations soar, unlucky ones stew

Quick! Get the guards to beat around the bush

So craft and greed may slide underfoot

 

Now, you’d have thought you were real brainy

But, who’d you think will yank whose chainey?

Tell you won’t be any Tom, Dick, or Harry

Sure won’t be a name worth collin’ Mary

 

Your prescription for anxiety, President? you ask

Is Healthcare that needs healing up to the task?

When thousands have lost their honest wages

And pensioners weep over life’s last stages

 

Infinite justice takes on a partisan stance

While “honest brokers” dine and dance

On deficits, dogma, and bailout-dripping drool

Everybody ends up being somebody else’s fool

 

Confusion soaked in oil reigns with military might

The deprived are easy to beat, even easier to slight

Power corrupts through the barrel of a blazing gun

To some it’s living horror, to others voyeuristic fun

 

Extremists on the West bank prefer Uncle Ben’s

For, Pondalisa’s rice is like cock-pecked hen’s

Warlords are not world-deep, but world-wide too

Cooked in oil, take em in your stride, G’ bless you

 

When the country takes its toll of troubled workers

What’s left is shocking, with shakers and shirkers

Let’s bust rabid moles in their mountain holes instead

When terrorists reign, what sense is trivial bread?

 

Artful dodgers slither in and out, a dime a dozen

Capital gangs (of four or more) get yet more brazen

Between you and me, Jane, and six-pack Joe

Oh, for the sins of our fathers, there will be more

 

But, wait! Where have all the flowers gone?

Shipped to Timbuktu or transatlantic Bourne

Whats come of good old-fashioned chivalry, you say

When money always keeps getting in the way

 

Don’t cry over spilt milk, you sentimental slobs

The cream’s been skimmed, corn’s off the cobs

Now’s the time for good young men to join the parish

If for nothing else…but for the good of evil to flourish!

 

Shyam Bhatya

 

This poem came up for air from under my dusty archives, hibernating as it were for more than a decade. Sections of it might still have relevance today. All we see now is small change. Hope the big one is coming! You be the judge. Comment or critique, if you wish.

Other poems you might want to read on this site are Bravo, cruel sport!, Damsel in distress, Morning shows the day…, and Time rolls by.

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Best keep your hands to yourself

CCI09302012_0001

Bad news has this habit of sneaking up from behind when I am relaxing in my rocking chair. Man has to wrestle with man-made laws, and high-handedness as you know is universal. Little changes from country to country except the rules of engagement. The pin hold on the individual remains the same, no matter where you live. Life, in the long run, will kill you. And then, as reliable soothsayers confirm, you die. But, what if you don’t leave the planet for good, and are left to nurse insult upon injury, as in the following report?

A Florida airboat captain, 63-year-old Wallace Weatherholt, who works for Captain Doug’s Everglades Tours, had his arm bitten off by an alligator this summer. The Indiana family, who were in the captain’s tour boat, saw the old hand dangle a fish over the side of the boat very close to water, when a pair of vicious teeth snapped.

The captain was rushed to NHC hospital in Naples, FA. Response time is used to gauge how emergencies are handled here, so a brisk investigation soon followed. According to law, the attacker must return the missing item, if criminal charges have to be dropped. Wildlife officers promptly tracked and killed the “main accused” alligator in front of frightened tourists, in order to retrieve the missing arm. News reports didn’t quite elaborate, but discerning onlookers might have even noticed alligator tears as the drama unfolded.

Getting out of hand

Weatherholt’s doctors at the hospital, so say reports, could not re-attach the arm. Killing the beast, however, was the only way perhaps to give fair warning to other animals in the area, and to demonstrate to all and sundry how far the long arm of the law could reach! Just in case you didn’t know, feeding alligators is considered second-degree misdemeanor in the state of Florida, U.S.A.

Sensing unfinished business, the law went after the hapless captain next. Collier County Jail records show that 63-year-old Wallace Weatherholt was charged with unlawful feeding, and later agreed to settle a thousand dollar bond, just to be able to stay outdoors. His next court date was set for August 22. Frankly, I’ve lost track now. U.S. law, unlike what it might be elsewhere, wants you to keep your hands to yourself, and not take things lightly should you let them stray.

Most people hate hospitals, courts, and jails. They hate bad news too. But day in and day out do they love soaking in the news, which never stops short of the good, the bad, or the ugly? Sitting in my rocking chair, rocked by the aforementioned report, I come across another twister — no wildlife, this time:

A woman named Angela Prattis of Chester Township, outside Philadelphia, may soon be fined for feeding school children in her neighborhood. She has spent the past few months handing out free lunches to kids while they were on summer break from school. The food, supplied by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is intended for low-income residents earning $19,000 or less annually.

Price to pay

The City Council has warned Angela that if she continues her philanthropy next summer, she will need a variance or pay a $600 fine per day! The variance could cost nearly $1000 in administrative fees. The Council had allowed Prattis to continue her random acts of kindness this summer on condition she files paperwork weekly, and a state worker monitors her moves on a regular basis. Angela Prattis, who is doing all this for free, was touched by the poor condition of her neighbors’ houses, with roofs caving in, months-old trash lying around, and unkempt backyards.

In America, no good deed goes unpunished, but Angela’s case may pale in comparison to the bleak future facing “alligator Weatherholt.” Disheartened as you are, your mind may be racing back and forth between the alligator and the missing arm. That was an unkind cut, I agree. But, being where you are, you’ve probably heard or seen worse. As I sit here in my broken back porch taking in the fickle New England weather, I can see clearly through the beer bubbles in my glass: Life is just not just.

Shyam Bhatya

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Oh yes, Kolkata!

Kolkata

I have visited Kolkata many times in the last few decades. Having been domiciled 10,000 miles away for over 20 years, for better or worse, it still is Kolkata — changed yet unmistakable! No more is it the Calcutta, reminiscent of British pomp and circumstance that I left a few years after Desmond Doig’s nostalgic Artist’s Impressions hit the scene! Although Kolkata prides itself of abundant artistic talent, I have yet to see sketches of the old city rendered with such sensitivity and flair. Desmond Doig was a brilliant writer, artist, and photographer. In those days, his work was featured in the prestigious National Geographic magazine, and for those who knew him professionally, a perfect gentleman! Mention should be made of his book on Mother Theresa, which gave the western world yet another glimpse of Kolkata’s outstanding missionary, thus deftly foisting her selfless image worldwide.

The Statesman then was blessed with indubitable talent, although the Junior Statesman could not survive the fast-changing realties of the market, or effectively position itself for a larger burgeoning mindset. Doig was its anonymous guardian angel. Realities aside, Desmond Doig’s charisma and charm won him many young friends, especially those who wanted to have a say on his juvenile forum. I remember doing a regular cartoon column then Fun with Shyamol, and occasional cover illustrations for the young magazine. Given his warmth and encouragement, one even summed up enough courage (I was barely in final year college then, and timid by nature) to contribute a few short pieces on Mondays for the elder Statesman’s Calcutta Notebook.

The Editor’s offices in those days bore an austere, foreboding look. Even the newspaper building carried an imposing post-Raj elegance, notwithstanding the busy factory-like hum on the lower floors of a daily newspaper tirelessly trying to set the record straight, and presumably setting journalistic standards too in the process!

On and off center

Men like Doig constitute the fond memory of a frenetic city that has undergone sweeping changes. In those days, when there were no flyovers, shopping malls, or the Metro Railway, and tramcars still seemed to welcome a breezy ride along the Maidans… rattling merrily past the stretching green fields that was home to so many of Kolkata’s popular sporting clubs. Not to speak of the Monument (long since renamed Shahid Minar), Eden Gardens, Victoria Memorial, the Planetarium, Calcutta Race Course, and of course, Fort William. My suspicion is: Pleasure co-mingles with pain, and those tramcars even enjoyed the dirt and incessant bustle of Kolkata’s busy streets, much like a cow’s tail tolerates obstinate flies swooping in on its wounds. Inexorably bound by fate to stay within its tracks; draw sustenance from electrified overhead wires; clang ever so gently to erring traffic; its easy pace, where hopping on and off didn’t appear life-threatening; even the unassuming but comfortable wooden seats in second class make Kolkata’s tramcar worthy of restoration. Not just for old times sake, but for living history! Which other Indian city can boast of such an unique, leisurely transport?

Most modern cities are concrete jungles, but it’s only in India that, despite its teeming millions, you see both the unspoken harmony and law of the jungle prevailing. Long live human nature! The Lakes along Southern Avenue that were once a welcome haven from the cacophony and pollution of the city is a sorry portrait of its former self, with ubiquitous water hyacinth, overgrown weeds, submerged and floating refuse. Tell me, have they gotten rid of stray cows from Kolkata’s streets altogether? And, is the Assembly of Dirt closer now to Writer’s Building or to the Governor’s House?

And what about the khataals in Kolkata’s densely populated residential areas, particularly in the north and center? Their odorous offerings exposed to a sun-dried sun would eventually adorn many a wary landlord’s perimeter walls in the form of dung cakes, cooking fuel for the city’s poor. I personally think the ugly posters and brazen graffiti of local political zealots are far more offensive. Despite earnest attempts to steer a recalcitrant population into affordable pay booths created for that purpose, urinating on walls seem to accompany voting rights for many. If politicians and their ilk may with impunity deface those walls, why not the common public? Another instance of poetic justice, you might say, with suppressed ire.

Everything changes eventually

The old cinema halls have taken a beating too. Metro, Lighthouse, New Empire, Minerva, Elite, and Globe have undergone “see” changes (excuse the pun). The Tiger is now a shopping plaza! The famous eating establishments seem weather-beaten too, if not yet assigned to history by the economy’s capricious twists and turns. Remember Firpo’s, the bakery? Beg your pardon, turned into a commercial beehive, for whose benefit? On Chittaranjan Avenue, Chung Wah now hobbles like an old racehorse that had once seen better days. Some of the restaurants like Trinca’s, Blue Fox, Quality, Skyroom, Flury’s, Mocambo, and Moulin Rouge on Park Street (note: it’s a one-way street during office hours) still hang on for dear life. Competition is upstart and unsentimental. Big name hotels too have carved their niche — Taj Bengal, Peerless, Hyatt Regency, Sonar Bangla, you name it.

One thing that was conspicuously absent in Kolkata in those days was any restaurant worth it’s name that served typical Bengali fare — you could spend a whole month’s pay looking for one, 25 years ago! No more now. Now, you have more than a dozen names that mirror the tongue-in-cheek lyricism of the native Bengali — Sholo Anna Baangali, Tero Parban, Bhajo Hari Manna, Esho Bosho Ahare, Oh Calcutta!, and 6 Ballygunge Place (you can google and ogle at them from abroad too)! The gastronomic delights simply would put their names in lights, or is it just me — starved from crossing a cultural desert?

Change of course is inevitable, but difficult to stomach when it actually arrives. India’s, and Kolkata’s especially, rapid overpopulation is a shocker every time you visit the city until, like diabetes, falling hair, or fuel prices, you learn to live with it. Except for true beautification (that’s exactly what I mean), one can only hope they’ll leave the Maidans alone! The last time, did I see visible signs of human encroachment, or is it just my imagination and near-retirement intolerance that’s seeing things? You folks down there know better. Being far away and with imagination as my only crutch, I am and will be resigned to your fair judgment. But, like the tramcar, please stay on track, and for God’s sake, mind those auto rickshaws and mini-buses!

Shyam Bhatya

 The above article first appeared in The Statesman, Kolkata under “Perspectives” on March 26, 2010. Voice your opinion, vent your wrath, if you think Kolkata is going (or gone) to the dogs!

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