My Bengali Friend, Bhupenda
My Bengali Friend, Bhupenda7 mins 523 7 mins 523
He was a forward at his club. Now a days he plays forward only in whatsapp. His middle was moving forward at a rapid pace and his family doctor was forwarding his tenure on this earth. His father did some forward planning, got him coached in football and put him in the club. He was backward in academics and his father thought, at least, with some football skill, his son could move forward in life.
Let us call him Bhupenda. Bhupenda grew up in the football crazed city of Kolkata. For some it was the city of joy, for some others it was the city of the filth. For Bhupenda it was his “shonar” city. Bhupen had become some sort of a street-smart foodie. He knew where to get the best of the puchkas, rasagullas, mishtidoi, masala teas and to wind up Kolkata paan at the best of the price. So, it was with drool I had accompanied him on this food walkathon.
Bhupenda and I had met by serendipity while we were eating puchkas. I enjoyed the same and was complimenting the vendor and started chatting with him. It was then Bhupenda took over. Being a typical talkative Bengali, he went non-stop about the vendor and his father and how the taste of the puchkas hadn’t even changed one bit in-spite of generation handing over. Somehow I took to Bhupenda and as we chatted further he suggested kullad tea by the turn of the street. We walked to the vendor and Bhupenda signaled for two usual. As I sipped, instantly felt the lemony and pungent taste of the ginger, I complimented Bhupenda for his fine selection. “This is not the end Rajubabu, there is still the paan left and I hope you do eat paan?” he queried. I nodded my head. We then marched to the paan shop, where with a flourish the paanwallah had selected two pattas each for us, swiped the same with chuna and katha, smeared some chatni on top and sprinkled some flavouring powder, added a clove, cardamom and added a dollop of gulkhand and offered the paan neatly folded. I lit up a cigarette as I bit into the paan and offered Bhupenda one and we sat by the stone bench and continued to gossip further. It was a very satisfying evening and we exchanged our mobile numbers. This was a good 3-4 years ago. We had kept in touch by phone and occasional meetings when I visited Kolkata usually on work.
My love for the city began when I read the “The City of Joy” by Lapierre. Who can ever forget the Hasari Pal, small farmer who migrated into the city for a living. Millions like him have been accepted in reality by the city. It was, as I saw it, a city for the poor. They found a place to live on the pavements. Food was cheap. Middle-class and above could also find a way to live in the city. The city where I too got married. The city for a long time ruled by the leftist government until the Didi overthrew them. Now the city got painted in blue color of the TMC. As Bhupenda would put it jokingly even the red-light areas have been turned into blue.
Bhupenda often urged me to find time to visit Shantiniketan, where Rabindranath Tagore founded Vishwa Bharathi, meant the communion of the world with India. During one visit with my wife, we planned the visit to Shantiniketan. We sped on the highway to Shantiniketan in a SUV arranged by Bhupenda, who also accompanied us and reached around 9 am after a small breakfast stop. Shantiniketan, a nice little town with both the rural and the urban landscape merging in a continuum. While Vishwa Bharathi was the main place of attraction, the Shonibarer haat that took place each Saturday on the outskirts drew a lot of shoppers and the handicraft producers to the town.
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free. Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. ... Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action. In to that heaven of freedom, my father, LET MY COUNTRY AWAKE!”
The great poem of Tagore kept playing in my mind as we moved in the verdant campus. Bhupenda told us that Tagore wanted a wholesome education in which training of all the senses along with the mind and through activities such as arts and crafts. Classes were held in the open in the shades of trees. In fact, the campus was dotted with unusual sculptures not only of stone but various materials as well. Satyajit Ray, Amartya Sen were some of the illustrious alumni of this university speaks volume of the quality of education that was imparted to budding scholars.
We saw the museum where the history of the Tagore family materialized before us. Soon it was lunch time and the walking up and down the museums and other buildings meant our legs wanted a rest too. We took a final bow of Vishwa Bharathi and proceeded for lunch.
A typical Bengal thali that we ordered involved a heap of boiled rice, inland fish curry cooked in mustard oil, potato bhorto and greens and a bowl of dal. After a fulfilling meal we ordered a mishtidoi. We were fully satiated by then and rested in the SUV under a gregarious shade of a banyan tree until it was time to visit the Shonibarer haat.
Shonibarer haat was anything beyond my imagination. Having got used to exhibitions in limited spaces, what I saw was mind boggling. Spread over a kilometre or so under the canopies of a wood one saw unimaginable varieties of handicrafts and handlooms. One must confess the range on display was totally biased towards the female species. My wife was thoroughly joyed by the sight of wares on display and totally rejuvenated. We picked up some kurtis, stolls, blouse pieces and some handicrafts. There were plenty of local snacks which we partook once our lunch got digested and washed it down with lemon tea. What was noteworthy was the prices were down to earth.
By the dusk, we hit the highway in our SUV. I was lying on the bed at the hotel, and was masticating the day’s event. I imagined Gurudev Tagore, under the canopy of a gregarious tree, having discussion with scholars about where the mind was without fear. Surely, I thought, when the mind was without fear, creativity can happen; learning can happen and internalizing the learning can happen. Gandhiji too saw eye to eye with Gurudev’s learning methods and adopted the same. Amartya Sen and Satyajit Ray passed by saying hello. Somewhere record of Amitabh singing the Ekla Chalo re was playing and the song came floating by.
“Open Thy Mind, Walk Alone;
We Are Not Afraid, Walk Alone.”
As I drifted into my sleep, I was wondering why Bhupenda was by himself, all alone. That part of the story was something we had never discussed.
By morning, at the appointed time of 6 am Bhupenda and I were walking by the Maidan enjoying the cool breeze. Bhupenda then said how his wife had died during her first delivery while giving birth to a still born child. Her pregnancy got complicated and resulted in her death. She was a football fan and they had fallen in love. Bhupenda said he could never fill the void and was living a listless life until the evening he had met me. “Remember,” he said, “We had discussed so many things the first time we met. That left a great impression on my mind. Since then I got back to football coaching for boys from the nearby slums. Two of my boys have got into playing for the football league this year.” He had become emotional by then and I just nodded with an understanding. “I have stopped drinking beer and have lost a few kilograms and got back to my club this time as a coach and doing some administration work besides,” he concluded. Softly he sang the “Ekla chalo re” and by then we had reached my hotel, we bid goodbye although temporarily.