It’s all in the game

Boarding school life has its fringe benefits and its fallout. I went to a boarding school in the Himalayan mountains for a good, long eight years. Here I was privy to the inside track, if you may. The grand old stone buildings, built to last several lifetimes, housed over 200 boarders. The school itself, some 6000 feet above sea level, found a permanent resting place high up in those massive green, brown, and white mountains we call the Himalayas. From our games field facing the main school building, we got a breathtaking view of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, on either side of which were close and distant siblings of the famous Mount Everest – fabled snow-capped mountain ranges that shone under a tie-and-dye sky of stunning color.

A waist-high stonewall bordered the top field, and approximately seventy feet down the steep hillside lay our lower field, where all major games were played. Games were compulsory for all boarders, and 200-meter races were run straight across the length! As boarders, we got to see most of our classroom teachers almost as often as we saw the cryptomaria trees that surrounded the campus. Such familiarity also bred mischief. We called our teachers by nicknames, instead of Mr. This and Mrs. That! (I am sure you had nicknames for your teachers too.)

What’s in a name?

Mr. Bimal Gurung comes first on my shortlist, not so obviously because of his height, which was challenged, but because of other attributes I will tell you about. When the weather got warm as it did around March and April, Mr. Gurung wore loose, flapping pants made of a strange silky material that allegedly whistled in the wind. This is why Mr. Gurung earned the nickname “Georgette Pants,” or later because of his piercing voice and body size, “Transistor.” You may not know this, but that was when inexpensive transistor radios had just hit the Indian market and were being carried around fondly by every Ram, Rahim, and Raghubir. Audio reception was outrageously poor and output metallic, sometimes very scratchy.

Another teacher, who had an equally shrill voice, was better known as “Black Beauty” because of the color of his skin, outstanding as it was on a sun-drenched games field. Later, not uncharacteristically, Black Beauty, although far from beautiful, went on to become Headmaster. Perseverance, not good looks, they say, is key to success. I have a thing about success, though. If it is propelled merely by an unabashed desire to get ahead, the unpopularity that comes in tow may be hard to shake off. Black Beauty was also derisively named “Shugrib” (from the epic Ramayana) — not something you’d call a popular teacher behind his back. To me, the latter name was quite appropriate because the science and math he taught always confronted me like warring monkeys.

Vicarious participant

Everybody called Mr. Choudhury, our games teacher, “Good Shot” for a good reason. Mr. Choudhury, despite his official designation, rarely entered the games field, which even as children, we innocuously presumed should have been his primary focus. Instead, he watched us play from the top field, once in a while yelling “Good Shot!” from above. His bulky six-foot frame was always sartorially correct, but flinging encouragements from high up was mostly what he did, in addition to living in a nicely-furnished apartment a stone’s throw away from the field, and collecting a decent salary largely by sniffing around the salubrious surroundings. On occasion, Good Shot would proudly sport a navy blue blazer that had the emblem of the Indian Olympic Swimming team, but to us kids that meant mighty little.

Good Shot could very well have been Mr. Malaprop too! Once, a group of us went up to him after a game to complain about the girls from our sister school calling us names. Occasionally a junior boys team would go over to the girls’ school to give their senior “first eleven” hockey practice. The girls’ team was pretty good; they had long been district champions. Good Shot listened to our varied complaints, and finally exclaimed, “Did you hear it with your own eyes?” Whether we heard with our own eyes or saw with our own ears, the issue was soon forgotten, for once again we looked forward  to playing hockey with the girls because the girls’ school always served scrumptious high tea!

Neither thinning hair nor an ostensible bald pate could spare our Art teacher, Mr. Roy the nickname “Paint Brush.” Quite a talented artist in his own right, he had this habit of swaying from side to side (an obvious lack of balance in many creative people, I am told) sometimes giving you the impression he was standing entirely on one leg. As he talked, he would lurch unpredictably like a paintbrush bent on leaving a lasting impression on canvas.

Both “Crocodile,” who taught Bengali while peering behind dark brown horn-rimmed glasses, and “Apache,” who taught History, were surprisingly docile, although any talk about achievements in history got the latter visibly agitated, as did tobacco snuff, which he pinched out of a little silver canister. There must have been other teachers with equally fanciful nicknames, but many of them were there before I joined school, or maybe after I left.

Heady heights

After my first year, the Scottish Headmaster who ruled with an iron fist left for greener pastures. The obvious choice then for Headmaster was K. A. Dowd because of his remarkable experience and seniority. Mr. Dowd was a brilliant English teacher and a wizard on the games field. To this day, I don’t know exactly why they called him “Choach.” I owe my interest in literature largely to this fascinating English teacher. Choach was also known to spin tall tales. He told us he had seen the Guns of Navarone with his own eyes during World War II, soon after the movie was screened in our Assembly Hall. He claimed to have fried eggs on the deck of his battleship while on a blistering mission in Africa. Despite some doubts about the veracity of these claims, Choach was always known to lead by example. So awe-inspiring were his batting skills, for instance, that never for a moment did we doubt his playing cricket for an English County or supposedly drinking beer with Sir Donald Bradman. He displayed equal dexterity on the soccer and hockey fields, so much so that, in our young eyes, K. A. Dowd was superhuman. As English teacher too, his classes were memorable.

The entire student population was divided into three houses named after a famous team of mountaineering heroes who had attempted Everest in the early 1900s. In early spring, Mr. Gurung would officiate as umpire in our inter-house cricket matches. He wore his usual georgette pants, which were quite a distraction, especially for the batsmen. The bowlers loved it because they had to put in little or no effort to bowl off breaks, leg breaks, googlies, cutters, or a variety of trick deliveries. Depending on which way and with what intensity the wind was blowing, Mr. Gurung’s pants would sway like curtains in Shah Jehan’s summer palace — thus turning batsmen bleary-eyed and bewildered. Some batsmen, understandably nervous, would even imagine a transistor playing in the background! Thankfully, Mr. Gurung ‘s dubious expertise was not called into play in our prestigious inter-school matches, where victory or defeat had aftereffects sometimes lasting weeks, even months. The school’s reputation was at stake, for often the girls from our sister school were invited to watch, thus making winning a matter of personal and collective honor.

Fruitful pursuit

I suspect Georgette Pants was not very well read, and therefore probably unaware of Jawaharlal Nehru’s famous quote about how it is not important whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. The decisions he brought about on the cricket field taught us acceptance and sporting spirit in the face of all odds. In addition, Good Shot yelling from the top field inspired us to keep doing our best. Choach always lead by example, and stood out like a beacon to ships lost at sea. We put in our best efforts always; playing the game without laying the blame, no matter what the final results happened to be! The aforementioned teachers imparted subliminal messages that I am convinced stuck deep in our fertile minds.

Most teachers, whether in or out of school, help us build character. Georgette Pants, Good Shot, and especially Choach were responsible for inculcating an overriding sportsman-like ethic in all of us. Getting ahead was never as important as playing fair. Now, isn’t that what karma yogis teach us about life? Continue to do good work, and never – repeat never – focus on the fruit! Even when failure comes to greet you with open arms, you must keep on playing. Sometimes I wonder if this very attitude could steer our nation away from the selfishness and greed that is jeering us painfully behind our backs everyday.

Wishful thinking, I hear you sneer, because public and private officials all over India are focused on nothing else but the fruit, more fruit, and yet more fruit! As I look through my broken windowpane into the world, and recall the endless pain that money and greed has wrought the world over, I can picture Transistor’s voice getting scratchier, Good Shot well dressed as usual but tongue-tied, and Choach rolling his eyes heavenward, glancing at the Don, wondering when in Heaven the umpires will step in.

Shyam Bhatya

Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real-life characters noted above is neither coincidental nor concocted. Boarding school students from the Himalayas or elsewhere might want to share their fond memories of school on this site, if they wish. Go ahead, amigo, make my day!

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Time rolls by

I have watched time

walk at a leisurely pace

in life’s cold shadow

it’s trembling hands

tucked deep inside two

empty pockets, while

the hours and minutes

loose their presence

 

At times, I have watched

time walk briskly up

an endless road, as if

to get somewhere fast,

its hands moving up and down,

to and fro, in agitated motion

 

By and by, time goes back

to where it came from,

its feverish hands behind

its back, walking pensively,

neither fast nor slow

pretending the present

is all that matters

while all the while

walking away from it

 

I have often wondered

where time comes from

where it goes, if it does

go anywhere at all?

 

Does time really stand

still, deluding us into

thinking about the past,

present, and future in

light years that thread

the darkness and void

of an eternity lulled

as it seems into

lasting significance?

 

Shyam Bhatya

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Durga Puja where the East India Company had gone before

Boys will be boys. A Bengali anywhere will always be a Bengali. Feed a Bengali some mutton curry cooked in mustard oil with steaming white rice and cut-up onions, green chilies, and cucumbers for salad on a Sunday afternoon, sit him or her in a rocking chair with Rabindra sangeet playing nearby, then watch his or her eyes roll heavenward and thoughts drift homeward. Nostalgia glides into the Bengali mind like monsoon mists in the Himalayas. The non-resident Bengali relives memories of childhood and good old days growing up in tradition-bound parts of West Bengal, like it happened only yesterday.

Durga puja back home is a time for much-awaited rejoicing. Every non-resident Bengali wishes he or she was there, particularly where childhood was spent. In far-flung metropolises of the world, come October, and the great grand festival of Bengal makes the heart beat faster, whether or not accompanied  by reverberating dhaks or today’s filmy geet blaring from public speakers.

Ma Durga travels faster than thought, beyond what the East India Company could ever achieve even in their wildest dreams…to Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Frankfurt, Zurich, Stockholm…wherever Bengalis call home. Bengalis, like the rest of us, pray that evil be thwarted, and promptly too! Light years ago, when the Heavens saw the forces of evil seeking to wreak havoc amongst mortalkind, the Gods gathered all the strength of earth, water, and sky, and embodied them in a vibrant, beatific-in-her-rage, savior — Ma Durga! Ma Durga is “shakti” personified, the symbol of power with a righteous purpose.

Bengalees without borders

Rarely uninspired, the Bengalees of New England, a representative non-profit community organization in the greater Boston area celebrated Durga Puja over the weekend of October 16, as did its rival group Prabasi. Weekends are suitable for obvious pragmatic reasons: to get around working weeks, sans Indian holidays, in the U.S. The puja itself, complete with traditional artisan-crafted clay images of the goddess and her entourage shipped in from Kolkata; alpana and homemade decorations; familiar Sanskrit mantras; resonating chants of anjali; fruit-laden prasad bitaran; and shindur khela is zealously performed here, just as tradition dictates. An indigenous twist to the celebrations in Boston (and presumably all around the world) are variety programs in the evenings, staged by local artists as well as popular celebrities, who travel all the way from Bengal to add their touch of class to the proceedings.

Local members work tirelessly to entertain with songs, dances, drama and the like while their children boldly stride on stage to display glimpses of “amazing grace.” The high points in BNE’s program this year comprised on Saturday of Satinath Mukhopadhyay, a household name back home, for his evocative reciting, acting, and anchoring. Satinath regaled Boston Bengalis with some brief literary gems from contemporary Bengal, transporting them into gullies and by lanes of Kolkata. He led them into Bengali homes — into bedrooms and kitchens — where the word “spice of life” took on a new meaning. Most of Satinath’s presentations — pithy, altogether delightful, and evocative — were poems and short stories by celebrated littérateurs on the current scene. One fascinatingly light-hearted love poem was penned by a lay weaver — a tanti, to be exact! Satinath’s deep, rich voice exalted these creative outpourings, further heightened by background music and sound effects. To most weather-worn Bostonians, Satinath’s presentation sailed into the auditorium like a breath of fresh air inside a dingy warehouse basement.

Soft lights, soulful sounds

Following close at heel was a sonorous and sweet 45 minutes of popular, folk, and bhatiali songs by local artist Sonia Mukherjee from New York who sang “Shaader Laau” before dinner; willfully or not is hard to tell (because that “green gourd” grows nowhere in these parts). Sprucing up such delectable fare further on Sunday was upcoming artist Sounak Chattopadhyay, mentored by none other than Swagatalakshmi Dasgupta and Pramita Mullick in Rabindra sangeet, and Ustaad Mashkoor Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan in classical music.

A 400-plus audience sat entranced listening to Sounak’s melodious repertoire of Rabindra sangeet and other inspirational songs. Sounak’s numbers added much-needed value especially in the sphere of musicality, where things in Rabindrasangeet often tend to sag and drag. Next, Jhinook Mukherjee from Kolkata, tutored by the famous Bharatnatyam guru Thankamani Kutty, captivated a packed audience with her beautiful sense of bhava, raga, and taala, before dinner on Sunday. Her dances added visual spectacle to many hours of sound entertainment.

Besides prayer and good wishes, Durga puja always brings together good food, good friends, and good fun. Many BNE members who witnessed the variety programs agree it has been many years since they enjoyed Durga puja so much. Bengalis all around the world know all too well how Ma Durga killed the demon Mahishashura, and vanquished evil from the earth. She does it again and again, not just during such auspicious weekends, and we hope will go on doing it for all time to come. Meanwhile, have Bengalis (in fact, all Indians) not forgiven and forgotten the East India Company? They have indeed, because they have now settled where the erstwhile, ambitious enterprise finally left off. Omn Shakti, Omn Shanti, Omn Shanti…

Shyam Bhatya

The foregoing article appeared in The Bengal Post on October 19, 2010  and subsequent shorter versions in community newspapers like India Abroad and India New England.

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Morning shows the day its way

Sometimes in the morning

I go back to sleep

trying hard to keep

my dreams from dispersing

or consorting with reality,

which in turn might whisper

to sounds of morning unfolding

The grandfather clock keeps

tick talking back and forth

tea kettles puff and pant

as milk boils over agitated

and hard-boiled eggs feel

the soft touch of butter

on toast. The coffee is cold

when afternoon rushes in

sharp on the hour at noon

as briskly as morning recedes

on the coattails of yesterday

Life begins and ends as it

always has, like never before

 

Shyam Bhatya

Poetry was never my forte, but like you, I have to get it out sometimes. Feel free to critique or comment below.

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Love and war in the time of Olympics

OlympicsIndia navigated the waters around the Cape of Lost Hope, and succeeded only in netting small fish — two silver and four bronze medals, no gold. We flunked in Archery and Shooting, and were hauled by our hind legs in Hockey, although that game is not our only justifiable hope. The results were unsatisfactory overall, by most standards. Yet, in spirit, many of our countrymen, blissfully addicted to optimism, followed the Olympics as if their lives depended on it.

Excellence always has to be appreciated, no matter who wins — which country, which race or socio-political environment produces formidable talent. Our innate interest in sports, irrespective of how we ourselves perform, is laudable. Despite nepotism and sycophancy in our selection process, we still do admire excellence, at the same time paying a heavy price for shady practices, lack of training and dedication, and disfunctional discipline back home.

Hark, how the words of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru resonate: It’s not whether you win or loose, but how you play the game! Shouldn’t that ideal constitute the core of our great Olympic spirit? But honestly, does it? Unfair or questionable decisions pop up every time “cross-eyed” judges decide the winner. The events are many, where managers, alas! not athletes, play the game and call the shots.

Faster, higher, stronger

In the distant past, the Communist Bloc — undivided Russia, East Germany, Eastern Europe, including China — swept up medals like they needed larger contingents to haul them away, in what may have been perceived as a demonstration of communist supremacy. Now the tables have turned, transforming internal pressures (practiced inside a country) into an external, worldwide force of muted manipulation.

Today the so-called free world — spearheaded by America and its western allies must win — if need be, by biased judging, altered rules of engagement, and by introducing events unfamiliar to an unsuspecting world. Win by hook or by crook is and always has been the motto. Today’s old boy network, which applies both in love and in war, flexes its muscles in the Olympics arena, as it does for instance, with Nobel prizes.

How else do you explain such dubious events as Synchronized Swimming, Beach Volleyball, and Rhythmic Gymnastics entering the fray? I can see you nodding your head, wondering if Beer Drinking, Dart Throwing, and Monopoly (the board game) could be too far behind?

The element of human error, it may be argued, could compromise judging decisions. But, why does human error seem to consistently favor one side, and not the other? In today’s world, fragmented Russia, Eastern Europe, and even China get the short end of the stick, to speak nothing of smaller and/or emerging nations. These countries are left to win by athletic superiority alone.The only way they could put down the Jamaican wonder, Usain Bolt, was when the Olympic president chose to chide him for the now-famous archer’s stance as frivolous and “disrespectful.” Wow!

Hunger for abuse

Judges decisions in gymnastics, boxing, and diving — wherever scoring intermediaries arbitrate — have raised too many eyebrows. Female American gymnasts strike gold like it was a foregone conclusion while their Russian, Rumanian, and Chinese rivals grind the enamel off their teeth. A U.S. male gymnast moves up from seventeenth position in minutes, to win the bronze! A Chinese coach shakes his head in disbelief. Discrepancies, too numerous to mention, make it look like soft sabotage pays rich dividends.

Indian pugilist Vikas Krishnan is stripped of victory against Errol Spence in the welterweight (69 kg) category after Team USA protests, and gets the decision promptly altered. Another boxer, Manoj Kumar, falls to “cheating,” after his pre-quarter final bout (64 kg) raises the home favorite, Englishman Thomas Stalker’s hand high in the air. (When Push comes to Shove, they whisper in each other’s ears.) Cuban coach, Blas Iglesias Fernandez, confirmed that Kumar fought just as well in the first two rounds, only to grudgingly extract a 7-4 decision in the all-too-obvious last round! Boxers from Cuba and Belarus nurse similar “injuries,” and the pain and suffering that goes with it.

Jawaharlal Nehru belongs to history, while the ideals of sportsmanship lie battered and bruised by existential realities — where survival and success reign, fueled largely by greed, ruthlessness, and cunning. Don’t say you weren’t warned: All is fair in love and war. The Olympics, leaping into prominence once every leap year, shows us how. ‘Tis with a heavy heart I sigh: Fare thee well, fair sport!

Shyam Bhatya

Like music, ice cream, and chocolates, who doesn’t love sports? We all have our opinions about what’s going on in the field of sports, especially if things appear biased and/or unfair. I’ve pitched my two penny/paise bit. Why don’t you throw in yours?

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