Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

Striptease in heaven

[What Dr. Samuel Johnson did to English, chemist Rajsekhar Basu (1880-1960) did to Bangla. His Chalantika, published in 1924, was the first “authentic Bangla dictionary” and was every educated person’s companion for a long time. Rajsekhar Basu will also be remembered for his translation of the Mahabharata into Bangla and his satirical stories written under the penname Parashuram. Here is a translation of one of his stories by yours truly.]

The king of the Gods, Indra said to his leading court dancer: ‘What are you up to, Urvashi? You are taken care of exceedingly well. You live in a prime bungalow with a manicured pleasure garden, get to wear the finest clothes and jewellery, not to mention the fat pay packet, what more could you ask for? And in spite all this, why on heaven do you want to emigrate to the earth? King Pururaba is no longer there to roll out a red carpet for you. In heaven, you enjoy eternal, unblemished youth. You’re adored by the finest of gods. If you go to the earth, you’ll turn into a dowdy old woman before you can blink your eyes, no one will even turn around to look at you, however much you might put on make-up.’

Urvashi looked at her toes and said, ‘Oh! King of Gods! I’ve lost my palate for the heaven. Here, I have conquered all the males and I am tired of their tedious words of flattery. When I arrive on the earth, I will find countless new admirers, and I’ll get to earn a lot more too. And after all, as soon as I notice the first signs of aging, I can hop back to the heaven, can’t I?’

‘Success seems to have gone to your head. Aren’t you fawned over enough here?’

‘I’d be adored much more by men. A human poet has written:
“The hermit gives up meditation to lay at your feet,
The fruits of his life’s discovery,
And when you look askance,
The three worlds tremble, youthful, n’ merry.”
Which poet of Amaravati can write such lines?’

‘Oh! Poets write a lot of trash! I’d let you go if you can prove that you have won over all the males here. Can you vanquish the sage gods or the great sages?’

‘They have been vanquished long ago.’

‘Okay, I will test you. Have you heard of God-men? Those who travel freely between the heaven and the earth? For example, Sanat Kumar, Sanatan, Sanak, Sadananda … Lord Brahma is their godfather. But I don’t wish to fool around with them. They are terribly short tempered. Three others have recently come here on vacation – the sages Kutuk, Parvat and Kardam. They are even-tempered and quite unflappable. Will you be able to conquer them?

‘Sure, if they are men. Why not?’

‘Good! They are friends of Devarshi Narada. I’ll ask him to invite them to my court to watch you dance.’


The three wise men were pleased to get the invitation through Narada. Said they, ‘We have watched peacocks and other birds dance. We have also seen dancing monkeys and bears, but we are yet to see a woman performing the act. We are indeed inquisitive, but … Urvashi is a heavenly court dancer, is she a woman too?’

Narada said, ‘Of course, she is. She is such a woman that for her a man’s “soul suddenly stands aside, / his blood dances in a tide.” You’ll be delighted to see her dance. Now get ready to visit Indra’s court.’

Parvat’s beard ran down to his neck, Kardam’s up to his chest and the sage Kutuk had beard down to his knees. To the extent possible, these august beings put on appropriate clothes and prepared for the occasion. Parvat put on the bark of a tree. As another bark could not be found readily, Kardam had to be satisfied with just a loincloth. The great sage Kutuk had renounced everything; he had neither a bark, nor a loincloth. He remained unclothed, perforce. Narada said, ‘Kutuk, wouldn’t you like to cover yourself at least with some leaves and grass?’

Kutuk said, ‘I don’t have to, I am pretty well-dressed in my long beard.’

King Indra received the three new sages with suitable offerings and due honour. He said, ‘Oh! Three of the most powerful sages who have achieved the ultimate through meditation! Tonight, my principal court dancer will present an extraordinary dance to entertain you three. It will be the dance of uncovering, the kind of dance that is called “strip-tease” by the ungodly people who live on the western hemisphere of the earth. The Gods such as Fire, Wind and Rain are present in this court, so are heavenly sages like Narada, and other court dancers such as Menoka. We are all honoured by your august presence. If you permit, Urvashi shall begin.’

The spokesperson for the three sages, Kutuk said, ‘Yes of course, of course, there is no reason to delay. We are eager to see the dance. Let her begin.’

 On top of a dress appropriate for a lascivious dance, Urvashi put on an overall and entered the court. After bowing down to all, she said with folded hands, ‘Oh, the Great Gods! Oh, the Sages who are like fire! The dance that I propose to present today requires that my body be gradually uncovered. I do hope none of you would object to that.’

Kutuk shook his head and his great beard, ‘Why should anyone object? Like all animals, your body too is made of the five elements. We want to discover where amongst them is your womanhood.’

Once again, Urvashi said humbly, ‘If you consider anything about my dance repulsive or uncivilized, please do tell me. I will stop immediately.’


Casting aside her overall, Urvashi appeared in her dazzling costume studded with rare gems and golden sequins. After dancing for a while, she cast her veil away.

The sage Parvat raised his hand and said, ‘Urvashi, stop! Your dance is grossly indecent. We won’t watch this corrupting exhibition any longer.’

The great sage Kutuk snubbed him, ‘We couldn’t care less if the exhibition corrupted you. You close your eyes, let her continue.’

Urvashi whispered to Indra, ‘King of Gods! The sage Parvat is vanquished.’

The dance went on. The sage Parvat covered his eyes with his hands, but unable to overcome curiosity, peeped through the fingers from time to time.

Gradually, Urvashi bared her top. At that point, the sage Kardam closed his eyes and said, ‘Urvashi, we won’t be able to meditate again if we see this despicable dance any longer. Stop it!’

Kutuk chided him, ‘Why should she stop? If you cannot stand it, you had better leave.’

Urvashi smiled with her eyes to tell Indra that Kardam too was vanquished. Then Urvashi shed her clothes and ornaments one after another and at the very end, stood still like a stone sculpture with her uncovered body, fair and glistening like the moon.

The sages and gods present in the court exclaimed in unison, ‘Wonderful!’

But Kutuk said, ‘Why did you stop, Urvashi? Shed more.’

The sage of the gods, Narada said, ‘What more is there to be shed? She has cast away everything.’

Kutuk said, ‘Are you blind? Can’t you see a fine, smooth, reddish white covering like the petal of a lotus all around her?

‘Can’t you see it is only her skin?’

‘Let her shed that too.’

‘Are you mad, Kutuk? The skin is a part of her body! It’s not another layer of clothing.’

‘It may not be clothing, but it is a covering all the same. Let her peel it off, I want to see what is beneath.’

Narada explained, ‘Let me tell you what is beneath. Underneath her skin is fat, under that, flesh, and then, a skeleton.’

‘And what is beneath that?’


‘Then where is her womanhood, that that makes “a man’s soul stand aside, his blood dance in a tide”?’

‘Her womanhood is in her clothes, ornaments, limbs, gestures, movements and in the minds of admiring men. You are beyond sensuality, you have burnt your mind, how can you see it?’

The response infuriated the great sage. Said he, ‘Did you invite me here to be cheated? This Urvashi is an animal without any substance, what is the difference between her body and that of a goat? Listen, Parvat and Kardam, let’s leave this place. There is nothing to see here.’

The humiliation of Urvashi was hugely enjoyed by the other court dancers like Menoka, Ghritachi, Mishrakeshi etc. They clapped in joy.

After the three great sages left, Urvashi cried silently, her head bowed.

Indra said, ‘Urvashi, calm down. No one is destined for unending conquests. I too was defeated by Vritasura once.’

Urvashi said, ‘Should you call it defeat, my Lord? That sage Kutuk is a useless lunatic unman, his sensuality is burnt to ashes. What did you gain by humiliating me in an open court with the help of such a creature? I’ll not live in heaven any more; I won’t go to the earth either. I will meditate.’

Thereafter, Urvashi shaved off her head, put on a garland of basil leaves, smeared her forehead with sandalwood paste and went to Golakdham, the abode of Narayana (which is at a level above the heaven) to seek shelter at His lotus feet.

1496 words / Translated on 31 October 2008

Thursday, 13 May 2010

An inane (a)political debate

Last night, I watched a curious debate on the forthcoming West Bengal municipal elections thanks to the TV channel Star Ananda. A junior minister and an actor represented the Left in the programme. (One could say two actors; aren't ministers actors too?) The Trinamool Congress (TMC) was represented by theatre director Bratya Basu and artist Shubha Prasanna, and the Congress, by two middle-rung leaders, Nirbed Roy and Arunhabha Ghosh. The odd man out was Saifuddin Chowdhury, the former CPIM MP who has been in the wilderness for long.

In the long discussion frequently interrupted by longer commercial breaks, nothing was mentioned about what the parties would do if voted to run the municipalities. There was not even a word of praise or criticism of the present municipal boards.

Time wise, the debate was dominated by Shubha Prasanna who spoke in long, complex sentences and often flew off at a tangent. His relative naïveté and inexperience in political wrangling was exploited by the Congress duo who attacked the respected elderly painter with a vengeance. They had obviously come prepared with a strategy and stooped low to unsettle him. Some samples: “apni to paanch koti takar maal kamiechen” (“You’ve made five crore on the sly”); “he paints crows and behaves like one”.  Shubha Prasanna swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker, lost his composure, and retaliated with equally wild allegations and personal attacks.

The Left representatives were better speakers, but their debating skills didn’t hide their woeful lack of substance. All they could say was that their rule should be perpetuated so that the anarchy of the 1970s didn’t return, as if the present anarchy is better than the anarchy of the past. The level of the political discourse was unimaginably abysmal.

The only person who talked sense and substance was Saifuddin Choudhury, although he hardly got any opportunity to speak. It was perhaps symbolic of Bengal today. Decency and reason be damned, street fighters rule the roost.

Despite their incoherence and lack of homework, the TMC duo at least spoke on behalf of the average citizen of Bengal crushed under a diabolical rule. They reflected the political reality of the time. The congressmen were often seen giggling and talking between themselves and made a mockery of the debate, quite literally. For more than an hour while I suffered them, they didn’t criticise the Left misrule once; it seemed their only objective is to prevent TMC coming to power.

In the assembly elections of 2006, the Left Front secured less than 50% of the popular votes in West Bengal, but won 235 seats as against the combined tally of 30 by all the opposition parties. In the parliamentary elections of 2009, the left was trounced by the united opposition. The left can win in the state only if the opposition is a divided house. It was expected that the Congress and the TMC would continue with the winning combination for the municipal elections too. But that was not to be.

Until hearing the debate I was not sure who broke the Congress-TMC alliance for the coming elections. I thank the two congressmen for removing all doubts in the matter.

Kolkata, 13 May 2010