Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Ritanjan's tale

This is a true story.

This is as true as the greatest story ever untold - the one that resides peacefully in Manmohan Singh's heart.

This is a story about Ritanjan. It also involves a lot of animals, but we will come to that later.

Ritanjan is a PhD in Development Studies (don't ask!) from the London School of Economics, which probably means that his level of enlightenment is on a different plane than mine. It also almost certainly means that he lives in England, which he does.

However, his academic pursuits are not the only aspects of life that sets Ritanjan apart from lesser mortals like us. He loves walking on trails, which is a passion as obscure to me as eating Rubik's cubes is; more so, since the guy had been a student of Patha Bhavan (without any doubt the greatest school the world has ever seen), and is an ardent follower of cricket (and a passionate player as well, taking leagues by the storm all over England).

So, off they went, the two of them, Ritanjan and his backpack. It was a rare sunny day in England (well, I assume it was a sunny day, since it makes a good story). They took the South Downs Way, one of the largest national trails in England (with Ritanjan everything is kingsize; that's the kind of person he is - had he been in India, Gold Flake would probably have made him their brand ambassador).

Of course, he wasn't walking the whole trail. He started off from a small town called Petersfield, and walked the rest of the trail. He walked and walked, and then walked some more (that's all you do when you go on trails: it's Ritanjan's idea of fun; London School of Economics PhDs belong to a different planet altogether).

He walked upto a village called Buriton. Note the way he went in a direction exact opposite that of human civilisation - London, Petersfield, and then Buriton. Given a chance he would probably have been living in a cave by now.

(For a vivid, very detailed description of the route from Petersfield to Buriton, click here.)

***

So far, so good. Our hero eventually went out on the much-awaited trail - that would take him from Buriton to further west - towards Winchester. Of course, it's not exactly obvious for people in the Western World to go further west, but that's another story. We won't deviate.

Ritanjan, immersed in the mesmerisingly picturesque mystique of the English countryside, soon came across a field. It looked like a rather nonchalant stretch of greenery, surrounded by ominous-looking fences across its perimeter. Inside the field were about eighty cows, grazing on the fresh grass in the same leisurely manner that cows have done in the history of cattlekind.

There may have been a few oxen among the lot, though, but Ritanjan wasn't one to stoop low enough (literally) to classify the cattle by gender. He is destined for greater things.

Anyway, he knew that the field was a shortcut to his destination, and decided to leave his footmarks on the expanse of lush greenery. He walked and he walked, for that is what people are supposed to do on this mysterious hobby that goes by the name of 'walking trails'.

***

Now, Ritanjan, despite his academic conquests, is a rather simple person at heart. As his trekking shoes made their way across the uninterrupted greenery, he did not notice that about half a dozen cows had distanced themselves from him, and were slowly forming a semicircle around him.

It took him some time to realise that there was something wrong. Cattle weren't supposed to go on a semicircular formation around human beings. Being an extremely intelligent and educated person, he also realised that there could be only one reason for them to act in such a non-bovine fashion.

Being the athletic person that he is, he turned around, and ran back as fast as he could towards the fence. He could hear the tale-tell sound of twenty-four or so hoofs thundering on the soft earth behind him and closing on to him as he managed to jump the fence just in the nick of time.

He decided to give it another shot. Mustering as much stealth as a PhD can under these circumstances, he crossed the fence yet again, possibly with the unrealistic hope of making a dash for it and reaching his destination.

Much to his dismay, the entire barricade of eighty-odd cows, now arranged in a neat, linear formation, took this attempt rather personally, and sped towards Ritanjan, as if marshalled by some invisible CowLord. He was ready this time, and turning a full one-hundred-and-eighty-degrees, he made it to the fence, this time rather comfortably, and panted on the other side of it, utterly defeated.

To his credit, Ritanjan acted like a true hero, and did not panic. Once he got over the initial shock, he did something that brought out the macho image of the man more than anything else: he made frantic calls to his friends, one by one, asking them the same question - predictable, given his situation, but a first for his hapless friends - "do you know how to dissuade, distract, or dissipate a battalion of cows?"

Unfortunately, none of them could come to his help. Meanwhile, the cows had retreated by a few yards; on the other hand, the eighty-odd cows had moved closer to the fence to have a closer look at this seemingly harmless alien.


***

What next? Ritanjan had to cross the field in order to pursue his trail (which, as we have mentioned before, held a larger-than-life significance to him). There was another route somewhere, but it was probably a convoluted, lengthy, and obscure one - and there was no assurance that there won't be any cattle on the alternative route.

He sat, confused, worn out, and devastated. He was soon overcome by hunger, thirst, and the sheer frustration of not being able to go on with the trail - the thing that meant possibly the world to him. These were not your typical rickety Indian cows. The Jersey Cows were larger, stronger, meaner, and looked like they meant business.

He waited for what felt like hours. Though it was rather early in the morning, he was so exhausted that it seemed that it was closed to sunset. He had forgotten, it seems, that The Sun never sets in the proud British Empire.

And then, along came a man, with the two creatures that made him a bonafide British - his wife and a dog. The dog was small one, possibly a chihuahua. Chihuahuas, as we all know, are possibly the most overhyped creatures in the world - even more than Amish Tripathi and Aishwariya Rai put together.

The man, possibly more British than a steaming cup of Earl Grey, asked Ritanjan the same question they often used to ask leading men in Bengali movies of the 1960s: "any problem, young man?"

Ritanjan, hoping to clutch on to the family of three in the same way that a Tata Docomo user does to the minuscule indication of the availability of a tower, poured out the details of his exasperation to the threesome.

The man nodded with a stiff upper lip.

The woman was surprised, and exclaimed "but cows are the most peaceful animals!"

The chihuahua kept quiet. Chihuahuas typically keep quiet during important discussions.

Ritanjan responded "till about half an hour ago I'd have agreed with you heart and soul". It was clearly evident that he had regained some of his composure, and had eventually got a grip on the time elapsed.

The couple assured Ritanjan, and offered to walk him across the field. The chihuahua, as before, kept silent, sticking to the policy chihuahuas have stuck to over centuries. Ritanjan accepted their brave offer somewhat reluctantly, the skepticism evident in his voice.

***

So off they went, the four of them. The very British man, his very British wife, the very bright scholar, and the very useless dog. Together they dared to challenge what few groups of four have been brave enough to do in the history of the third planet in the Solar System - take on a gang of eighty cows.

The grass, lush with the anticipation of an unmatched, gory confrontation, greeted them with the aroma of now-fading dew. The cows, watching them in rapt attention, formed a file yet again. Their intention was clear.

Ritanjan's throat dried. He tried to speak, but not a single word left his parched throat. The Briton and his wife didn't utter a word either.

But the chihuahua did. It barked. Twice.

There was silence. An absolute, numbing, pregnant silence. There would have been an audible sound even if a pin had been dropped. Unfortunately, Ritanjan does not rate pins too highly, and doesn't consider them a necessity while go on that grand hobby of his - which goes by the name of trail-walking.

They stood pinned to the spot, though.

And then, the unthinkable happened. The cows, petrified by the chihuahua's atrocious wails, retreated, keeping a safe distance from the Gang of Four. The foursome passed away, completely untouched of the awestruck herd that didn't dare to come any closer.

***

There is a small postscript, though. On reaching to the safe abode at the other end of the field, the woman told Ritanjan "This is how you tackle cows. They're rather meek creatures. I don't blame you, though - I'm sure you don't come from a country where you've seen a lot of cows."

***

PS: Other than the man himself, I guess I should acknowledge Bimbabati - the pocket-sized amazing talent who simply refuses to write - who was the first to narrate the story to me. Ritanjan, of course, helped me with the detailed information.

I could not find the man, his wife, their dog, or any of the cows for more details.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Story of David

Long, long ago, somewhere in the magical land of Baghdad, there lived a Jewish family. The family lived peacefully in the city that had one basked in the glory of Haroun-al-Rashid, and was later torn apart by a group of people who somehow valued petroleum a tad more than people are supposed to.

Anyway, this is not a story about Baghdad. This is a story about the family, rich and ripe in heritage. One day, the Man of the family, Israel Mordecai, decided to leave the sun-baked roads and the blazing deserts for good. Like all successful men, he had both the vision and the focus to succeed.

When he reached this destination - the new country, Israel Mordecai thought of starting a new business of his own. He thought and thought, and finally decided to start a baker's and confectioner's in the heart of the city.

Like all businesses, the shop did not do too well to begin with. However, since the British still ruled the country, and since the city was still the capital of the country, there were a lot of British residents in the city. This meant that there was a boom in the sales during Christmas, Easter, and other occasions.

When Israel Mordecai passed away, he passed the baton to his son, who, in turn, passed it on to his eldest son, Solomon. Solomon and his brother David took over the shop, and by sheer quality, warded off the stiff competition of the British and the local bakeries and confectioneries to achieve the number one slot.

Solomon and David soon became synonymous to the words 'bakery' and 'confectionery' in the city. Soon, the shop no. F-20, from where the brothers operated, became the talk of the town; their sales stretched beyond the limited bounds of Christmas and Easter, and their products were easily the most popular ones in town.

Years passed. The brothers mingled well with the Jewish community of the city, and with their prospering business, emerged among the elites of the community. After the country finally attained its independence, the British left the city in scores. The sales did not go down, though. Solomon and David had achieved iconic status in the city by then, and people- Indians - swore by their plum cakes, macaroons, and lemon tarts, and even the occasional baklava.

The jewel in the crown, though, was the walnut brownie. Wrapped in a thin paper-packet, the brownie was one-of-its-kind in the city. Businessmen, filmstars, sportspeople, politicians, office executives, clerks, students - virtually everyone in the city flocked to F-20 for the walnut brownies of Solomon and David.

Then, one day, Solomon passed away. With their younger brother Isaac now based in Israel, the helm passed on to David. He carried on the good work by their family single-handedly, and trained the younger members of the family in the business. He did not let the crown slip: if anything, he kept on adding more laurels to it.

David felt satisfied with his achievement. He was the happiest when the children came to his shop with their parents. The awed, wide-eyed lot gaped at the displays for an eternity. They had only read about shops made of cakes, candies, and cookies in their European fairy-tale books. They had dreamed of them since they had read about them. And now, they could see it in real, the only difference being that there was no witch anywhere. The sheer joy on their faces was the best award possible, thought David.

Times changed, though. Brownies began to be served in restaurants, often as sizzlers, smeared with hot chocolate sauce. Inexpensive cafes that had sprung up all over the city allowed the customers to sit and talk over coffee and savouries for hours, and it changed a lot of concepts.

Even the city changed its name. And character, to boot.

The price tag of products did not depend on quality alone: packaging and marketing became as important as the quality, and David's business began to suffer. He was still a favourite, though. But now, he had been up against a concept that had been alien to him for decades: competition.

He did not want to change his shop, though. He retained the grandeur of the Raj. He still retained his ancient wooden furniture - as well as the wooden cash-box that has possibly outlived a century. He did not open up franchises all over the city the way his competitors did. He did not even want to air-condition his shop. He sold quality and dreams, and refused to make his products or shop look pretty to increase sales.

With time, David's body could not support his willingness to persist with his shop. The monarch handed over his crown to a member of the fifth generation, Elias. He did not relinquish his other responsibilities, though, heading two synagogues, two schools, multiple charitable institutions, and virtually every Jewish organisation in the city.

David Elias Nahoum passed away a bachelor yesterday, virtually unnoticed. He took a substantial part of my youth with him as he left. I guess that house of candies and cakes has left us forever as well.

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