Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Merry Christmas - A Postscript

Santa seems to have worked overtime this Christmas. After distributing the gifts to the children he must have thought about my predicament. My infamous Fame episode, that is.
Four of the six latenight tickets I purchased by mistake and left with the young man at the reception at his suggestion, could be resold and I could finally recover two third of the money I thought I had totally lost.Well, not exactly two third, for the nearly 10% extra I had to pay for online credit card transaction was lost in the process.
Something is better than nothing after all, even when the ego gets a hard knock.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas ?

Merry Christmas, world. Merry Christmas to you all.

Why the question mark ? The Christmas day has not been as merry as one would have wished for some in this wide world. That includes me too.

The passengers stranded at several European airports, huddled in the airport lounges in the icy winter and waiting for the next flight, possibly indefinitely, to take them to their desired destination, to their family and friends for this christmas have surely had their merriment curtailed. A newspaper picture showing two women stranded in an airport and raising their glasses in a toast indicates that the human spirit is indomitable and that, at least some can make the best out of a pretty bad situation.

The GSLV rocket that India launched on Christmas day to put a geostationary communication satellite in orbit exploded 47 seconds after liftoff. The launch vehicle just disintegrated in orange and white plumes and plunged into the Bay of Bengal causing another huge setback to the country's space programme which is otherwise noteworthy. The monetary loss is a little over 300 crores in rupees which of course is little change compared to what the successive scamsters have been able to swindle out of the country's exchequer. But it is not the money, it is the failure of our scientists to correct the engineering and technological snags that caused the crash which is of concern. I am indeed proud of the achievement of our space programme. Only the other day,we have been able to send an unmanned probe to the moon. We also have had a number of successful launches and some of the geostationary satellites in orbit must have been behind the succes of our telecommunication facilies available today.But three crashes out of seven launches should make everyone sit up and take serious note.

As for me, generally Christmas day is no different from any other day in the calendar, except that I receive some SMS greetings which I try to reply. But this time, my daughter wanted me to book some tickets online for a film showing in one of the multiplexes - Fame in South City Mall. My daughter-in-law has come from UK with my granddaughter for a visit. So she thought it was a good idea to go for a cartoon film to watch with them and of course my grandson. The children are just over four years old.
It was a very good idea, I thought. And as a computer savvy man, used to online purchases, I agreed. I went to the website, selected the movie and the date (today's ). When selecting the time, my mind was thinking of the children and I thought morning would be the best option. So I selected 10.30, clicked went to the next page, completed the visa card verification formalities and finalised the purchase. The page confirming the purchase came up and I informed my daughter over phone that the job was done.

When I got a printout, I was appalled. The time was 10.30 pm and not 10.30 am. It was impossible to go to watch a movie with the children at that hour. Why the children ? I would not be interested in going at that late hour myself. I knew I had messed up. I was so content in getting the movie seats at 10.30 which to my mind somehow appeared the morning hours, as if by some fixation, that I missed seeing the pm in the timing. I was really dejected, in fact shattered. I had already agreed to the terms of the multiplex that the online tickets, once purchased, won't be refunded or exchanged. So, it was a total loss. I had to inform my daughter and though, highly embarrassed, I did and told her the programme was off and I had lost around Rs.1450.00. Merry Christmas. For record, my daughter was quite nice about it, she did not embarrass her father a bit.

I thought of retrieving the situation, if possible. I got in touch with my son-in-law who came over within no time and we drove over to South City. But the young fellow at Fame said that he could do nothing, no refund, no exchange even though I was ready for an upgrade to their Gold Class on extra payment. He suggested however that I collect the tickets from the counter and leave them with him. He said he would try to sell the tickets, as many as possible and let me know after the show starts. I can collect the money,whatever that is or the tickets from him later.He gave me his card too with his contact number. I knew the chances were slim, this being a late night show but since I didn't have much of an option, I did as he told.

We two went for a cup of coffee from the food court. That I thought was our Christmas, but there too, the food court was so crowded, we did not get any seat. Sipped our coffee standing amidst a huge crowd and came back.

A note : This online booking for a movie in Fame is a farce.Even after you book the tickets and get a printout of the confirmation, you have to collect your actual tickets from their counter. You have to be personally present with the credit card used for the purchase and stand in a long queue to get the tickets. Why online then ? To enable people like me to make stupid mistakes and lose their money just by oversight ? And feel really old ?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Different Strokes 2

A few years later, when I was in college, a few of my friends and I decided to go swimming in the Lakes every morning. We would wake up very early in the morning, meet at one point in the locality and walk all the distance- three or four kilometers - to the public pool near Golpark.

The public pool - a waterbody separate from the main Lake, was ( and is ) quite large. It has on one corner, the Dhakuria corner, that is, the Anderson club, which I understand has been renamed as the Indian Life Saving Society. This club is a social and swimming club exclusively for members using part of the pool for its swimming needs. The rest was for us, the hoi polloi.

In summer, the pool used to be quite crowded. People of all ages could be seen there in the morning, some possibly for a dip but most for a swim. The front portion, quite a large portion ,was enclosed by railings, had waist deep water for learners and smaller kids.The rest was for swimmers and those who intended to swim.

The distinction is deliberately made. There were many accomplished swimmers who practised in the public pool. Some were participating in State or even National level competitions. On the other hand there were others like us who knew swimming but were untrained and untutored.What they did not lack was enthusiasm.

Soon, as the news spread of our morning venture, a few other boys of the para (locality) joined us. My younger brothers also did. It was quite a team, of fourteen - fifteen boys, all in their teens and of different ages , trudging along early in the morning to the Lakes to have a swim or learn how to.

Southern Avenue, the road we used to walk along, is one of the better roads in Kolkata both for pedestrians and vehicular traffic even today. Those days it was still better. The houses that lined the sides of the road were two or three storied, owned by single owners, each with a courtyard however small, with some flowering trees or plants and a car or two in the porch.The days of promoters and multistoried apartment blocks which line the road now on both sides , were yet far off. The pavements were wide and uncluttered. Though Southern Avenue does not seem to have been invaded by the army of hawkers even now, Kolkata streets were yet to come under their total dominance.The wide islands that separated the up and down roads for vehicles were well maintained and had always a splash of green on them. There were quite a number of trees which lined the roads on both sides - I suppose that is why it was named an Avenue in the first place.

I do not know whether Southern Avenue has been renamed. The renaming spree , of streets and roads, even of Calcutta to Kolkata, was yet to come. In the intervening years this seems to be one of the major achievemnts of successive municipalities in this State regardless of political affiliations.

This team of boys would walk every morning along the Southern Avenue to go for a swim. And walk back. There would be a lot of chit chat, cracking of jokes and pulling of each others legs.Time would really fly. We would see the morning sun rising from behind a distant rooftop reddish, golden in all its resplendence. We would see the roads being sprayed with water to clean them in the morning hours , a practice which gradually disappeared from Calcuta on its way to becoming Kolkata.

And the boys all learned swimming. None became an expert swimmer, but I am sure, they enjoyed the experience of those days and cherish it in their memory.

When winter came, most dropped off but the core group, the hardcore, so to say, continued.We would wake up when it was totally dark and set on our adventure at the crack of dawn as the veil of darkness slowly lifted.The water was cold, may not be icy cold, but bitterly so. We would oil our bodies quite lavishly with mustard oil, massage it well before entering the water. This reduced the feel of the cold. Such oiling would not be accepted in a proper swimming pool, but ours was like a natural waterbody - a large pond actually, though man made and the water plants that grew on its side and at its bottom and the rays of the sun, I suppose, protected it from any pollution.

On our way back, we would stop at a sweetmeat shop on the roadside near the Lake whenever someone had some money ( I rarely had any ) and buy some hot jelabis to share. ( I have continued to love the taste of jelabis and though I avoid sweets these days, I do take a jelabi or two from time to time. )

There were only a few swimmers in the Lake in the winter. Those who came were good swimmers, mostly practising for some competition of other. Most of my training was actually by watching them. I used to watch their arm and leg movements and imitate as far as possible. This improved my swimming skills. I was no longer a rustic as far as swimming was concerned but I always felt that I lacked the smooth and easy glide that many of them had. Nobody ever told me ( because I never had a trainer or a coach ) about streamlining the body, about the shoulder roll in freestyle, the high elbow catch and arm pull with a gap in your armpit or for that matter the nature of the flutter kick. These are things I learnt much later and would talk about in the next blog.

We saw for sometime Mihir Sen, the first Indian to cross the English Channel, practising. We also saw Kalyani Bose practise. Kalyani was the no 2 in West Bengal in the women's category.And we met Netai Pal, who soon became our Netai da. We used to notice this man practising his butterfly stroke for an hour or more. He would go around the whole pool, must be about five hundred meters , swimming butterfly in a slow and steady motion and then rest for a while to start afresh. His butterfly was a treat to watch. One day Netaida approached us himself. He was perhaps intrigued by these boys who braved the winter to come swimming in the lake. He was a number of years older than us, but quite easygoing and had no airs. We came to know that he was the reigning national champion in butterfly.

All these people who came to the lakes to swim on a regular basis were from middle class or in fact mostly, from lower middle class background. That very much included Netaida. I do not know where he got his first training, but when we met he was training himself or trying to improve his timing on his own. At the end of his session, he would take down an ounce or two of glucose which he carried in a piece paper rolled into a pouch. He would explain to us that it was to remove fatigue and revitalise him.

Looking back I feel athletes like Netaida never got the support that they deserved from the country. They did not have the training facilities or the nutritional support they needed nor could they afford these on their own.From the reports I see in the newspapers, it seems that the situation has not changed much.

Not that Netaida could have made it in the Olympics. Though he had wide shoulders, powerful arms and a strong build, his height at around five and half feet was a disadvantage. But with proper nutritional support, physical training and guidance of a good coach, he could surely give it a try. At least, that is what I believe.

Netaida wanted once to enter a team in a waterpolo competition. He chose a few of us. We had never played waterpolo before. But we practised under his guidance for a week or so. The time was really not sufficient to master the art of the game which apart from skill, needs a lot of stamina which you cannot develop overnight. So the inevitable happened. We lost miserably in the first round which was played in Hedua in north Calcutta.

I liked the butterfly stroke and used to try it out with a few tips from Netaida. Yes, I learned it to some extent but it remained an unfinished business, because slowly, as it always happens with me, my interest started shifting to another exciting sport - rowing. As we walked alongside the main lake, I would watch the rowers, whether in fours, or pairs or in a single scull and would be impressed by the rhythmic pull of the oars, the coordinated body movements of the rowers and the speedy glide of the narrow boats in the water. I thought this was it, for me. Speeding through the water in a scull alone, with the air brushing my face and body was suddenly an exhilarating idea.

There were a number of rowing clubs in the Lake - one of the few places where there was such an opportunity in the country. Fortunately there was the Calcutta University rowing club with a meagre subscription. I joined. I could persuade mother to give me the money required. As I became an avid rower, I dropped out of swimming and the team or whatever was left of it did so in no time.

I lost touch with Netaida and have no idea how far he went as a swimmer or what he became later but I do remember how beautifully he used to execute the butterfly stroke.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Different Strokes

I learnt to swim when I was around eleven.
There was no swimming pool near the place we lived in Kalighat. Nearest was the Dhakuria Lakes almost four kilometers away where apart from a swimming club,there was a public pool.It was too far for me at that time. So,the only option was the Adi Ganga which flowed by the famous Kali Temple nearby. It was within easy walking distance from our home.
Adi Ganga is an offshoot of the the river Ganges ( Ganga, the sacred river of the Hindus ), but is known to be the original channel through which the river flowed about four centuries back. Consequent to an earthquake or some such natural catastrophe, Ganga changed her course leaving this channel emaciated and depleted of the vigour of the mighty river. But it still had high tides and low tides, and though at low tide, the water went down to knee level or slightly more at some places, at high tide, it was still imposing and had strong currents. The river water was muddy at high tide and carcasses flowed at times, but it was not as dirty and polluted as it is now.
Hindus revere their river Ganga, it is Ma( mother ) Ganga to them,but they have no qualms about doing their morning ablutions on the river bank or throwing refuse or garbage into the water. It has been used as a sewage canal for such a long time and absorbed so much effluents, that the water today is almost blackish. To top it, the power that be keeps the sluice gates that joins it with the main river closed most of the time during the year, so the river has practically become a long stretch of stagnant water.
Fifty five years ago, it was not so bad. Or if it was, my eyes were too fresh and naive to detect it.
So, it had to be the Ganges for me to learn swimming. But the Ganges at high tide could be treacherous.Every year one heard of one or two cases of drowning- mostly of young boys.One of my cousins, two years older, had drowned a few years back. My father, a stern disciplinarian, would never allow it. Nor would any of the elders in the house. So I approached Shibuda (da- a honorific for an older person,like an elder brother ) who lived next door and was a friend of one of my elder brothers. Shibuda was like a friend to all of us young boys in the locality and ready to spend time with us. He agreed to take me along and help me learn to swim. All in secrecy.
This urge to learn swimming was part of the overall urges that I felt as a young boy to learn so many things, but it was special for some other reason.We are many brothers. All my elder brothers,my elder sister,even my mother knew swimming. They all learnt it when very young in village ponds before we came to Calcutta.Our ancestral home was in East Bengal, now Bangladesh - a land of rivers and water bodies where children were taught swimming very early in their life, at least in those days.Even my Dadamoni, my immediate elder, a little over two years senior knew how to swim. This last one used to irk me most. Dadmoni and I played all games together,we used to have common friends in our childhood and we fought a lot too.There was a lot of love and competition in our relationship as kids. And here was something he could do and I could not.I needed to change that badly.
Adi Ganga it was.Everyday, I would go through the newspaper to check the tide timings and Shibuda would decide on the appropriate time to go for a swim lesson.With a shorts for a change I would sneak out and with Shibuda and a few other boys who all knew swimming, would walk across to the Ghat - the steps built for devotees to go for a holy dip in the Ganges before they visit the temple.In a short time, I learnt to float and splash around with Shibuda's help . First round over, but my swimming saga would continue.
It may not be totally out of place to record how I learnt cycling about the same time. This also had to be done in secrecy, because our father always felt it was too dangerous to cycle in Calcutta and would never have allowed.
Our family's first stop after partition of India and Bengal was Basirhat a small town those days. Father was the super of the AG hospital there.He bought a Raleigh cycle and would go to the hospital or for other visits on it. Sometimes,he would seat both Dadamoni and me on that cycle and walk with it to the SDO's bungalow for a game of tennis.We used to look foward to these visits and used to look longingly at that brand new gleaming cycle. Dadamoni and I thought that one day we will ride that cycle.
Shortly afterwards,it was I suppose early 1949, we came to Calcutta and to our utter disappointment, Baba sold the cycle. He said Calcutta was not a place for cycles.
So, in this venture Dadamoni and I were together. Those days you could get small cycles on hire, possibly four annas (one fourth of a rupee) an hour. I don't remember how we used to manage that four annas (we were not given any allowance, children our age were not supposed to have any money and the school we both went to provided tiffin. So, there was no tiffin allowance to save from either ), but we did and hired the cycle whenever the money could be managed. One of us would ride the cycle and the other held it from behind. Calcutta had far fewer cars those days.Only an occassional car would ply on Sadananda road which has heavy traffic these days. And since there was only an wooden bridge connecting Chetla,( the pucca bridge came much later ) there was no traffic on that stretch of Rashbehari avenue. We did not have to fear much from a passing car.
We learnt cycling soon enough, though it involved some scratches here and there from occassional fall on the metalled roads. Later, it was Shibuda again for help and encouragement. He had a cycle and never said no when we asked for it for a spin. Even though those days my feet could hardly touch the pedals of the standard size cycle, I would borrow his often to move around. It felt great.

Shibuda had a lot to contribute to that feeling.

Thursday, December 16, 2010


It is like a sudden shower in the desert.It rains for a while but even before the flowers can bloom,the sun comes blazing and drives the rains away.The desert is back to where it was, arid and pitilessly barren.
What should be the title of this piece ? My aborted blogging effort ?
A 'body' in a state of rest continues to be in a state of rest unless an external force is applied to it. Newton was of course right, though he was talking only of inanimate objects. I realise increasingly that I am being reduced to one. Pressing the 'Restart' button is a renewed effort to move this mass of inertia.