Friday, May 26, 2006

A Steel Plant and also my home

About a fortnight from now, I would be leaving Delhi for good. The city which I first visited as an eight grader, the city to which I came as a complete stranger like so many others (especially from the part of the world I come from!) to chase my dreams, the city which has been my home for the last five years. But if you are thinking that I am going to chronicle my five, rather six years of stay in this city or enumerate the reasons why I have fallen in love with it, you are in for some dissapointment. For this post is not about Delhi, it's about a small city I spent my childhood in.

I grew up at a place called Bokaro; Bokaro Steel City to be precise. It was a beautiful place to grow up. I remember the look of astonishment on one of my mother's uncle's face when he visited us for the first time, for inspite of being in Bihar (yes it was in the pre Jharkhand days) about which more often than not an outsider forms a definitive image in his mind, he found Bokaro to be a place he would love to spend time in. For a child like me, growing up in Bokaro was one of the best things that happened to me. It's a small city and so everything was nearby ranging from the shopping centre to the hospital to schools. Kids could play on the colony roads without any fear of intrusion of vehicles, go to schools in groups riding a bicycle, play in the rain, go picnicing during winters. To a fourteen-fifteen year old, life possibly couldn't be any better. The only big city that I had been to as a kid was Calcutta, the city I was born in. And since the stay was never too long, I failed to associate myself with it.

It's difficult to write about something when you have so many memories of it. You don't know where and how to begin. It's like meeting your best friend from school after a long time. There's so much history between the two of you, so much to talk, so much to catch up on, that you find yourself at a loss of words.

My first memories of the place go back to the Nursery School I attended, a mere five minutes walk from my home, a distance which I used to cover on my father's Jawa in the morning and with my mother in the afternoon, harping about the happenings of the day. I still vividly remember one particular day when this ritual was broken. Classes had ended earlier than usual on that particular day and as was my wont, I looked out of the window of my classroom to catch a glimpse of my mother waiting there for me. To my horror she wasn't there. I waited for about ten minutes in the sun waiting for her to arrive knowing little that she couldn't possibly have any inkling that my classes had gotten over. But for a four year old kid, his parents are supreme beings, capable of doing anything, knowing everything and being anywhere when he needs them. Anyway, it took a great act of courage from my side and one of benevolence from the rickshaw-wallah who used to carry some of my friends and who knew me and my mother, to finally alight on the rickshaw and head towards home. It was about halfway through the distance that I saw my mother. I immediately got down from the rickshaw while the rickshaw-wallah explained the situation to my mother. The crisis was over.

There were children of all ages in my neighbourhood and all of us used to play cricket together; even the girls (though all of them sadly were didis for me). The lack of a field nearby meant that everyday from about four to six in the evening, the small bylane in front of our home would be turned into a cricket field with a concrete pitch (who said in India cricket is played on slow low wickets :)). Cars would be made to vanish, the ladies would take care not to sit anywhere near the pitch in fear of green spherical objects being hurled at them, passerbys would wait for the action to get over before venturing to cross the field, mayhem would reign supreme for two hours and yes, I almost forgot, some cricket would also be played. Sometimes the venue would change too. The concrete pitch would be replaced by a clay one, the girls would be banned, there would be no leg side play, the lack of space meant that the only shots which got you runs were the square cut and the tendulkaresqe straight drive, a bus tyre would replace the stumps (God knows where it came from), nicks would be considered out, the friendly tennis ball would make way for the mean deuce ball and the punishment for hitting the glass window pane was to register a complain at the nearby maintenance office.

The Bokaro I grew up in was a very calm and laidback city. There were no traffic lights, no public transport buses on the roads, people knew who their neighbours were. Everything was very simple, very easygoing. The city was there because of the Plant and not the other way around so apart from the fact that most of the population comprised of people who worked there and their families, it also meant that that entire city had a very structured and planned look about it. True there were no multiplexes or Nike and Adidas showrooms but who cared. I had my friends, my family, the weather was great, school was fun, teachers knew you by name and often became aunties when you met them in the market places. The place where I lived was called the Russian Colony. Several Soviet experts used to live there earlier during the days the plant was being set up and though quite a few of them remained then and the majority of the place had been populated by Indians, the name had stayed. I remember one Mr. Edward, a Soviet expert who was my father's colleague and friend and his wife Madam Ella. We used to go their place once in a while and they also came over at times. My father was fluent in Russian so while he conversed in Russian most of the time with them, I and my mother managed with English. I remember seeing Edward uncle in a golden kurta my father had given him and aunt Ella in a saree which my mother had given her. They looked beautiful. He was older than my father. In fact he had a grandson who was called Anton and since my pet name was Taton, I reminded him of his grandson. He loved me and so did I. A few years later, he left Bokaro, forever.

The colony had in its centre, what we kids used to call, a jungle. It was basically a quite densly forested area with a few foxes as the only wild inhabitants. What it also meant that during the rainy season you could sit on the balcony of your home and see the rain falling in the jungle and the water making small streams in the mud. There were also the sparrows, the hummingbirds, the koels and the parrots to be seen. In short, it was a very green city with lots of trees and parks, little pollution (the steel plant was on theoutskirts of the city) and no water or electricity shortages. I used to boast about it all the time when faced with the power cuts in my maternal grandfather's home in Silchar which we used to go during the summer vacations. Life was good and I was as happy as one could be.

Gradually the years rolled by. Scooters replaced the bicycles, tuitions replaced cricket, we moved from Qr. No. 3016 to Qr. No. 1019, a few friends left, some things changed. I came to know about life in another city called New Delhi and all of a sudden, Bokaro became smaller and ceased to be the best place in the world. Nevertheless my family was still there and the bimonthly visits continued. But with each visit, the city kept shrinking. Delhi is great and spending my college life here is probably one of the best things to have happened to me but whenever I go to the place I spent my childhood in and walk the streets which used to be our playground, go to my school (which warrants a post in itself), visit old acquaintances; the floodgates of memories open up. I feel a strange calm descend upon me and however bored I get there after a few days, the day before leaving is always difficult. My father would be retiring in another four or five years and move to Kolkata. I wonder after that if ever I would visit that place, the place who's name more often than not brings the same statement from people I have just met..."Bokaro... oh Steel Plant....". Yes, Steel Plant but also my childhood, my home.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Thank you for the Music - 1

Even as the train ground to a halt in New Jalpaiguri station, hawkers and peddlers had already started making their way into our compartment. If you have ever travelled by train in this part of the country you would know what's the predominant item that all of them carry around. From digital watches to cameras to two-in-ones (yes this was early 90's and two-in-ones were still in fashion) contraband from across the border used to be sold as openly and matter of factly as anything under the sun. Being a ten year old kid, most of these flashy gadgets did not catch my attention unless it was a Yo-Yo with neon lights or a toy airplane or perhaps something which made a lot of noise. So it was but natural when I requested my father to let me have a look at "that thing" when one of the peddlers came to our berth and turned on the demo of the Casio SA-1. For the uninitiated, the Casio SA-1 is the smallest model of the synthesizers or keyboards or Casios as they have also come to be called, that are available in the market. Anyway, my father was both surprised and amused by this request as I had never before seen such a thing and so he thought that I had obviously mistaken it for another toy which did nothing but make a lot of noise.
Being a single child has its advantages and although I can assertively say that I have never been a demanding one, yet there was and still is an unspoken, unwritten code of understanding between my parents and I which grants me the right to request for anything I want anytime but at the same time respect their opinion about the same. This has done wonders to my relationship with my parents and in twenty four years of my existence I have almost never had to ask for anything to which they have had an objection.
Coming back to the incident, soon I had the instrument in my lap as the peddler started pressing some buttons and keys, showing us the various beats and tones that could be produced from it. After he had been done with his customary demonstration I finally had the thing to my own. So I started fiddling around with the set of black and white keys trying to produce a semblance of the latest Bollywood hit (I have no rememberance of the exact song) and to the surprise of all and sundry present there including me, within a minute or so I was actually playing it. For me, the journey had just begun.

Like most Bengali parents, mine were also very keen that I take to some form or the other of creative art. So it was around the time that I had moved into second grade that they decided that music was to be my leisurely activity. Tabla was chosen to be my instrument and to make it more interesting, my father himself decided to take classes in Hawaiian Guitar at the same time. The fact that the tutor they chose for the job was an expert in both the instruments certainly helped. Soon however owing to my father's lack of time (12-14 hour shop floor duties in a Steel Plant can drain you out) and my excess, it was me who was taking lessons in both, learning the nuances of Teentaal and Raag Yaman Kalyan at the same time. Within a year or so, though, the Guitar lost out to Tabla primarily because Zakir Hussain had become a household name and there was nothing else I wanted to become and also due to the fact that I realised that I was far better in understanding rythym than harmony. As luck would have it I had to change tutors too often and though each of them had their own ways and styles which ultimately helped me, yet it was unsettling in some ways. So two years down the line I had a new tutor who like my father was also an employee with the Bokaro Steel Plant, was undoubtedly the best Tabla player in the city and also a strict taskmaster. I still remember the way he used to keep a talcum powder case under my right wrist and hold my arm so as to make sure only my palms moved and the rest of the body remained still. I adored and respected him for his skills but more so because he taught me the most in the least time. So last year when I met him in a Durga Pooja pandal and touched his feet he introduced me to his wife and kid as "This is Atish, the most disciplined student I have had..." , it meant a world to me, not because discipline is the last word I can associate with myself now but because after all these years he still remembered me and that was prize enough.

Meanwhile my exploits with the SA-1 continued as I discovered that playing tunes was not that difficult a job and could be done in solitude without anybody's help. Soon I graduated to a Yamaha PSS-390 which had 4 octaves as compared to the former's 2. My desire to learn playing it properly (like the piano that is) meant that my parents were forced to look for another tutor. Surprisingly there was only one man in the entire city who knew how to play the piano decently. Or at least that's what we came to know from various sources. Soon I was taking lessons in Western Music, its wierd notations, the treble and the bass clef, sharps and flats, practising playing with both hands, learning chords. A whole new world was opening up to me. Sadly enough all of these lasted a mere three or four months as my tutor had other priorities and I was left stranded on the doorsteps of a wonderful world, one which I could see in all its glory but one where I could not reach. So there was no Mozart or Beethoven for me and I had to contend playing popular numbers from Bollywood.

Coming back to my first love, the tabla, my second guru also didn't last long owing to his similar working hours as my father's. It was about that time that a music academy opened in our city. Needless to say I got enrolled. Classes were held in the evening thrice a week which meant a compromise in my playing schedule. But such was the interest and enthusiasm that I used to reach the academy 15 minutes before time to practise on the best set of tabla. It was a different experience from the past two as it was more professional and had the air of a proper institution unlike the last ones which were held in the homes of the students. It was also probably the place where I, so as to say, flourished as there was more exposure. We used to have regular concerts in which the students used to play in groups. I also learnt to play the Pakhawaj and the Khol.

All this while I grew up on a regular diet of Rabindra Sangeet or songs composed and written by Tagore. There sure was Bollywood music in plenty, especially after the advent of the cable TV but as far as buying cassettes was concerned, it was mostly Bengali music. It wasn't that my parents discouraged me from listening to any other form of music. It was just that I simply loved it. Old songs from bengali hit movies, songs sung by Hemant, Kishore, songs composed by Salil Choudhury, folk songs, I loved them all and there was no need to go anywhere when so much was yet unexplored. Looking back today I feel glad I had those days, I feel delighted to have listened to those songs, because given the type of songs that I now hear, those days seem aeons ago.

Soon it was time for the first important examination of my life and although it had been nearly eight years since I had played the first bol, yet the change of tutors ensured that I had just about managed to learn the instrument for five years. Soon the pressures of the board exams and then the engineering entrance exams took over and my tabla tutor was replaced by others teaching organic chemistry and the like. In the meanwhile I also started dreaming of playing the Spanish Guitar (not the boring Hawaiian !!) and sing along with my friends sitting around a bonfire although I didn't know how to do either of them. So three years went by and then another as my quest for a degree from a particular engineering college took precedence over all other things that I loved. As fate would have it, the same place would soon make all my musical dreams come true............