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Nandita Chakraborty Banerjji

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The Mysterious Dreams
by Nandita Chakraborty Banerjji   

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Category: 

Historical Fiction

Publisher:  Pustak Mahal ISBN-10:  B004DL2JDS Type: 
Pages: 

264

Copyright:  December 2010 ISBN-13:  9788122311600
Fiction

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A poignant story of love, revenge, soul-searching, emotional oblivion, and alternate societies between a young Indian girl and a hippie, and an endless mysterious dream......

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The Book starts with the hope of another day, another place or opportunity to have a better life and ends with the same fervent desire for another chance - another day, another time, another place.....to utilise life's opportunities better or to rectify mistakes. The main character is disillusioned and determined to have the life she desires even if it means waiting for another lifetime!

Shibani, a young teenager belonging to a traditional family in uptown Bombay in the electrifying and revolutionary Sixties elopes with the liberated, free-thinking Chris....that promises a life of freedom from peers, society and even of destiny. Chris tries to discover love in the land of Lord Shiva...why was Shiva called the great yogi? How come he got away with being a bhang-addict and yet was worshipped reverently? What problems did Shibani have with her own society? What is the secret that led Chris to leave his society? Why was Shibani being devastated and ravaged by the same nightmare night after night? Time after time? or was it life after life?

What's the secret of hemp and meditation? Has the world made mistakes that is bringing its own downfall today? Are there any secrets that can refashion to world and bring back its original glory? Who and what are responsible for the destruction?

A romance that was meant to be liberating. - one that promised freedom, love and abundant thrills. A romance that could free one from the shackles of peers, of society or even of destiny. It is a story of an Indian teenager, Shibani, brought up traditionally  in the most happening place of Bombay (now Mumbai) in the days of the revolutionary Sixties and Seventies.

Is bhang such a bad word after all? Why were Indians getting westernized while the hippies turned to Indian spirituality? Did society help or plague its people? Was Lord Shiva addicted? 

It is a story of a hippie, Chris, rendered rootless by his own society and country who ambled into Indian spirituality and the taste of the Indian way of love and life in the land of Lord Shiva....and how drugs made them or wrecked them....what lies on the other side of drugs? The unique character of hippies is unparalleled in history.......

Are we still trying to fight the same evils that the hippies, the pioneers of fashion, music, and creativity, had taken upon themselves to solve 50 years ago? Why were some people of war-ravaged America going crazy? How did America produce this unique class of people? What were the people revolting against? Why did the hippies fall in the eyes of 'civilized' people? Shocking facts exist about the circulation of drug money! Did the oil tycoons shun drugs themselves? Were the intentions of hippies good or bad? Finally, what were they striving for?

Why was Shibani irresistibly drawn to a hippie when she always had mixed feelings for them - she hated the hippies as invading aliens who were corrupting her Indian Gods but why was she fascinated with them? She found it both limiting and joy in her Gods, like, Shiva, Krishna, Durga, Laxmi, Saraswati, and Ganesh. However, she harbored huge doubts. Was Lord Krishna really a flirt? Was Lord Shiva a bhang addict and what was the Somras that the Gods had? What happened when two people of different societies met and decided to make their fate together? What were the mysterious dreams that Shibani kept dreaming uncontrollably, devastating her being? Why was she suspicious about men? What was the mysterious link that bound the two of them? What was the secret that changed Chris' life? Why did he appreciate the addicted, crazy dancer called Shiva? 

Did Shibani finally find her love? What was the reason for Shibani's  desperate need.........to crave another place...another time...to live another day?

A book for the youth.....it demystifies a lot of mysteries about hippies and drugs and the great Indian spirituality....

 it is for the reader to decide if Shibani's love was really unrequited or an outcome of something sinister and beyond her?

 Chapter 1 Shibani

For Goodness’ Sake

I got the Hippy Hippy Shakes

I got the Shakes

I got the Hippy Hippy Shakes

Well, now you shake it to the left

You shake it to the right

Do the Hippy Hippy Shake

With all of your might

Oh baby, yeah come on shake

Oh it’s in the bag

Ooh the Hippy Hippy Shake

-       Beatles remix

‘Another day….. another place…………’

Shibani shook her head with fresh optimism. She had her own philosophy of life.  Whenever she was disillusioned with her cushy life, she wished she would find herself in a new place, possibly in a different reality, when she woke up the next morning. As if that would signify the end of her problems and catapult her to the life she desired. Each morning held the hope of catharsis for Shibani as she weighed her strange nightmare.

With a painful wrenching out of vital energy from her heart…a swift sitting up; the surroundings ink blue; a feeling of desperation, despair, and hopelessness engulfing her…. Shibani had woken up with a jerk. She had felt the jerk of falling from a great height and she had seen her head explode into pieces, spilling the cells of memory, recognition, and intelligence all over.

Clutching her head with both hands, Shibani opened her eyes and took in the yellow walls of her bedroom. It was typical government quarter yellow. She was perplexed and her vision was blinding with colors all around her. Her heart had started pounding. Though this happened every other night, Shibani felt the same horror each time. Running to the window, she even looked down to see if her body was lying on the hard compound of the building. She seemed to have lost track of time for a few fleeting moments. Shaking her head to get over the confusion, she tried to bring her mind back to the present situation. She looked around foolishly for anyone spying on her or they would wonder what she was looking for from her window the first thing in the morning. She quickly went back and sat on the bed. Feeling the cold wet bedding under her buttocks, Shibani jumped up. Her mother would be upset again. She quickly stuffed the soiled bed clothes in the bathroom and opened the window fully to let out the stink. She hung the red oil cloth to dry. The oil cloth had been her constant bed companion ever since her infanthood. Only it had grown in size with the years. Enuresis bothered her at least thrice a week. Her mother used to throw up her hands in desperation in the earlier years. But now she seemed more resigned.

Mrs Ganguly was completely unaware of her daughter’s recurring dream.

Shibani’s usual morning routine consisted of a little jig in front of the mirror humming ‘Hippy hippy shake’ or the more risqué ‘That’s the way aha aha I like it,’ when she gyrated and pretended to bump her imaginary partner. That was her secret way of exercising and welcoming the day. With hippies all over the area, there was an aura of novelty and excitement among all youngsters and she was no exception and aping the hippies was the ‘in’ thing. But on days such as this, she was usually more subdued and more worried about the stench of her bedclothes.

As strains of the Beatles number

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup

They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
Are drifting through my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Nothing’s gonna change my world……..Jai Guru Deva’

stung the air from the neighbouring flat, Shibani smirked. Rusty must have come home for his vacation from IIT Madras. She dreaded a month of Bob Dylan, and explanations of nuclear theory that he loved to unburden on her till he returned to his hostel after a month. And of course his usual doses of Women’s Lib ideas. He was a hardcore women’s libber it seemed. “Do you dig what I'm saying dude?” he would say. “Yeah, I dig it,” Shibani would nod with mixed feelings of irritation, inferiority, and awe. Even as she valued the serene thoughts of Paul McCartney’s numinous number that was now playing and his peaceful intentions (or was it George Harrison’s? ….perhaps both, she didn’t know), she wished Rusty had better taste in music. Wouldn’t ‘Sweet Caroline’ be a better choice to signal his homecoming to her? What did the Beatles know about Guru Dev and such?

In her purple and yellow top with matching pyjamas that conveniently served as her night suit, she thought she looked presumably clownish. Well, who cared? Purple was her favourite color. Her yellowish complexion exuded the hormonal glow typical of her age. All of fourteen, she was tall for a normal Indian girl and had thick growth of curly hair layered around her face that was normally held up in an unruly, untidy chignon. Her eyes slanted upwards towards her temples a la Ma Durga style. At least that’s what her friends had told her. Maybe that’s why her mother had named her Shibani – a limb of Lord Shiva. Tiptoeing down the narrow passage from her bedroom to the kitchen to ask for a cup of tea, she stuck her nose on the frosted glass window pane that overlooked the passage of the adjoining flat from her kitchen where the ……(she faltered for a suitable word to describe him in her mind). …yes! ‘awe-inspiring,’ where the awe-inspiring Rusty lived. The brainy nerd!  However, his ambitions were never clear to her. Three years back when she had asked him what his life’s ambition was, he had replied, “To get into IIT.” A very limited goal indeed but she had kept quiet as she was in awe of him.

Pulling her thoughts back to the irksome situation at hand, Shibani contemplated that the Beatles and the hippies around her looked the same. Anyone with long unkempt hair, blotchy pink skin, tall, with huge backpacks that had innumerable pockets and pouches, and loads of beady stuff, were hippies, as Shibani Ganguly had learnt in those many years of life that she had spent being wary of her existence as a human being. It was the winter of 1969 and Shibani was witness to the hippie counterculture in Bombay as a bubbly teenager.

“Shiuly! Why aren’t you ready as yet? Here’s your cup of salt water for gurgling. Hurry up or you will keep Mr Dey waiting again,” Shibani’s mother scolded.

Shibani accepted the cup from her mother petulantly. She was grateful to her parents that she had a nice flowery pet name unlike most of her cousins whose pet names she was mostly ashamed of though some of them had a nice tinkle to them. As if Buli, Tumpa, Rumpi, Tinku, and Bumpy were not enough, she also had heard of one named Putli that often reminded her of a cloth sack. However she liked some of them like Jhilmil, Bulbuli, and Tutul. The men were worse off – they were called Bumba, Babla, Piklu, Bhombol, Bukku, and she rather not think of the others.

Taking another mouthful of the hot brine, Shibani grimaced about the way she was being pushed around. Wasn’t she to be spared even a Sunday? She would rather cozy up in bed reading Arthur Hailey’s Hospital and swig ginger tea from her large purple mug. Instead of adding an array of spices to tea like the Gujjus, she liked different herbs and spices for different occasions, out of which, her favorites were ginger and Tulsi (Holy Basil) leaves. Other occasions warranted lemon grass, cardamom or cinnamon, pepper, and bay leaf. She loved the feel of tea rolling around her tongue the first thing in the morning. Tea had been described as the elixir of life in ancient Indian texts that treasured an amazing compendium of remedies. She considered it next to Somras – the elixir of the Vedic Gods as she had learnt in Indian history when she had learnt about the four Vedas. An unnerving thought familiarly tugged in a remote recess of her mind. The thought had often mauled her – what was Somras actually? Did it really exist in this world today? Did Lord Shiva really enter into trance with this drink or did He do the trick through meditation? If Lord Shiva was still being worshipped, the Somras must still be in existence, she reasoned. She found it discomforting because Lord Shiva was the furious God and she was really scared to question anything in His lifestyle. Trying to find a connection, she calculated that ‘Som’ was the Moon, and ‘Ras’ was juice. Was it the intoxicating essence of the Moon? Somwar was Monday and her mother worshipped Lord Shiva on Mondays and urged her to do the same.

”Why?” Shibani demanded of her mother.

“Young girls worship Lord Shiva to get a husband like him. Lord Shiva was the ideal husband who loved and respected his wife,” her mother continued, “and don’t we all women want such a husband?”

Shibani was puzzled. Lord Shiva was everything her father was not, she thought. Nor were the husbands of her cousins and aunts and they all worshipped Lord Shiva!

Her mother went further and explained that the Moon was the giver of emotions, the master of the mind and if Lord Shiva was pleased, the Moon would be appeased. Also, her cold and cough could be controlled by worshipping Lord Shiva on Mondays as the Moon attracted water and caused the colds. The Moon affected the mind, she had said. Did Somras open up an inner world of unity with the divine in the minds of those who consumed it? Even in the English language, the lunar body was associated with lunacy, she noted. So maybe Moon worship could stabilize the mind. Lord Shiva was definitely a weirdo. Anyway, ‘Somras’ was undeniably a cerebral drink, inferred Shibani. She would think about it later - some other time.

Tomar Holo Shu – u - ru…….. Aamar Holo Shara

Tomai Amai Mile Emni Bohe Dhara’

Tomar Holo Shu – u - ru…….. Aamar Holo Shara

Tomar Jole Bati Tomar Ghore Shathi  

Aamar Tore Rati Aamar Tore Tara…..’

….the soothing and earthy sound of the harmonium wafted in through the warm, moist air sounding like the organ in a choir….with the lilting music of Rabindranath Tagore’s eternal melody.

“Rounded words please. Stress on particular syllables.” Her music teacher’s voice cut in through the haze. The song had to be sung with a clear diction with a little drag at the end of particular words. It was rhythmic and yet sweetly soporific, somber in meaning, with the unmistakable and characteristic lilt of Tagore’s melody.

“The second ‘a’ of dha of dhara is on a higher note. You are not reaching that note. Have you forgotten? This song is based on the melodious Raag Yaman. When you don’t practise, I can easily make out,” Mr Dey smacked her on the head lightly with his pen.

‘How does it matter to anyone whether I stress on the second ’a’ or the first one? Who cares? Rabindranath dadu, are you listening? Really, these Raagas cause lot of raag in me! (Raag is the Bengali word for anger). They are so boring. My friends make fun of me and mimic sargams when I tell them I am learning Indian classical music. They make it sound as if I am shouting out aloud and doing the shake at the same time!’ Shibani’s mind rambled on.

Mr Dey played the harmonium sitting cross-legged on the red and green striped jute mat laid out on the drawing room floor. As the song progressed, Shibani tentatively sang,

Tomar Mone Voy  Aamar Voyo Hara…’

“Say ‘bhoyo’ not voi, your voice must be heavy with emotion…and yet softly romantic as if you are acting out the song,” croaked Mr. Dey, adjusting the broken golden-hued button of his starched, off-white kurta. The kurta that was brought from Kolkata used to be sparkling white. But when he shifted to Bombay to try his voice at playback singing, it changed hue. Bombay had muddy water. Football was his passion and his emotionally charged cheering at the Cooperage grounds the day before had overtaken his good sense in preserving his voice for his music lessons. From time to time, he would smoothen his shoulder length black hair that was combed straight backwards without a parting. His hair curled only at the end at his shoulders.

“Sing with feeling, Shibani! Do you understand the meaning of the song?”

“This is the problem with this generation, Mastermoshai. These children do not understand the depth of the Bengali language nor can they appreciate Rabi Thakur. They are just not interested. Their only interest lies in those foreign songs which make them shake physically,” Shibani’s mother complained.

Mr Dey took a bold attempt to explain the song to Shibani.

“It is about two people who could not connect to each other – a failed relationship causing a sad situation. In this song, the singer impresses upon the other the futility of their friendship:

‘”You dwell in the past; life is just beginning for you
I live in the present; my life is getting over

We are just flowing together with different expectations
Our shared past is now irrelevant and my present means nothing to you..

You are limited in your earthly possessions; I am moving ahead….beyond….under the stars….in the expanse of the universe….

You are scared; I am free of fear……..”

Seeing Shibani’s bewildered expression, Mr Dey hastened to explain further, “The gist of the song is that the singer is frustrated and laments to the other that they are moving in different directions in time. While the friend expects the singer to go back in time and undo things already done, the singer expects the friend to move forward and accept themselves as in the present. So they can never meet unless time collides.”

Shibani stared at the harmonium crossly. She knew the words by heart now and they impaled her with their somberness. She would much prefer to sing the more optimistic Neil Diamond number:

‘You are the sun
I am the moon
You are the word
I am the tune
Play me’

After all, the implication was similar to Tagore’s song, or so thought Shibani – ‘doesn’t the sun shine when the moon goes into hiding (and vice versa) –meaning opposite things as in the Tagore song? Okay man, interpret as you will’. Shibani’s mind revolted and she silently rebuked Rabindranath dadu for his renderings without thinking about the consequential sorrow to girls like her. Mastermoshai, this song is so slow! And don’t all the Rabindra Sangeets sound similar and outdated?

The thought of the friendly hippie waving out to her from his hotel window a few days ago while she hurried for school, occupied her mind.

The hippies intrigued her. Junkie Corner was her home. She grew up here and loved it. She knew it was the most happening place in ‘Bombay’ as the city was then called. After all, it housed the Gateway of India – Taj Mahal Hotel duo that was Bombay’s major tourist attraction. Her building was behind the magnificent Taj Mahal palace. Beside it stood Gulmohur, a restaurant aesthetically designed with artistic arches, domes, and mirrors. The grand carpeted regal halls of the Taj, their Maharajah-style turbaned chauffeurs and waiters, the majestic furniture, and the exotic ambience exuded an old-worldly charm that no other hotel of the times could ever compete with. The area was infested with hippies at the time. The wide pavements surrounding the Taj found a lot of hippies squatting comfortably in groups and smoking. Ironically, the area also housed the Salvation Army office. The Stiffles Hotel was a stone’s throw from her building and she could peer into their rooms with ease. This facility was enhanced by the huge grill-less windows of the hotel rooms that were equipped with long curtains. But the curtains were always drawn aside. On many occasions, she would visit the balcony to pick up a dried piece of clothing from the clothes line and find a nude hippie casually going about his day or a wet female hippie walking into the room straight out the bathroom, stark naked, with only her head covered in a towel wrap.

Their music raged and ranged from The Moody Blues and The Rascals to Carol King and Donovan, apart from their very own guitar chords, which Shibani found to be very high class. The sight of a man holding a guitar and jangling chords with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders enthralled her. Shibani feared developing a voyeur outlook but the scenes enticed her to return to the balcony again and again, not out of arousal but out of curiosity for a different set of values and a distorted lifestyle. Playing loud music for hours at home, especially Western, was a new concept. The Indians did not do it then. It filled the air with a kind of raw excitement….specially the beat and rhythm. And Rusty thought it was trendy. The beat culture, though imported from the western world, was coming in full bloom here too.

Rusty was known in the building and in the Bengali society that comprised the Bengali diaspora in Colaba, for being the most intelligent boy amongst them. He had made it to the IITs. Most of the people had not known anything about the IITs before Rusty made them famous. Every girl’s mother now dreamt of marrying off her daughter to him. He would grow taller for sure, they gossiped. He was only 5’4” in height but then boys keep growing you know, they said.  He was quite pleasant-looking and fair. His eyes were large like his mother’s and he had a permanently surprised look on his face. His facial skin was pimply but then that again was a temporary ailment. The best thing was that Rusty had nice thick hair and they all agreed that that reduced his chances of getting bald soon.

There were a group of tourists at the Taj Mahal Hotel who were also white-skinned, with silvery hair and grey eyes but they were not dressed in the way the hippies were. The ruddy hue on their sun burnt skin often looked like rash to the Indians. Even their accent was different from that of the hippies. They mostly wore T shirts and hot pants and carried their camera around. They were bulky and not skinny like the hippies. She often wandered through the tourist shops of the Taj Mahal Hotel and had conversations with people there. Why were hippies different? They seemed to be at odds with traditional middle-class values, even Western. They actually flaunted their bohemian lifestyle and overlooked the traditional social mores as illegitimate, thought Shibani. Their behavior discredited everything that she had learnt at home and at school. Most of all, she sensed the lack of authority hanging over their heads. In India we were always worried about pleasing the authority or conforming to standards, she thought. There were hippie families too with cute little kids!

In the office hours, this Fort area as it was called was busy and sometimes chaotic. It was the hub of Bombay where people came to shop for leather shoes, bags, kolhapuri chappals, and fashion titbits. There were jazzy clothes meant for shows, antiques, fashion jewelry, handicrafts and what have you. Eye-catching cotton kurtas bordered with glitter hung on stands along the bustling footpath of the Colaba causeway. And in the midst of all these items were huge metal statues of Shiva, Buddha, and all kinds of religious artefacts like incense holders, sindoor boxes, carved wooden furniture and the like. A marriage between fashion and religion. The stalls quoted exorbitant prices in broken English for these things to the hippies who were exuberant on possessing little joys like anklets and amulets or a little statue of Buddha.

Their carefree attitude absolutely amazed her.

Now take this example. Just this morning she had had a unique experience. Well, nobody in her house would appreciate what had happened for what it was worth and therefore, she found it of no use to tell anyone at home. Perhaps they would not even believe her, or perhaps reproach her. As if she owned the Colaba causeway, they would say. As she had been walking with head down and long strides, her mind dwelling dangerously on Miss Johnson’s face when she would complain to her about Anita’s cheating in the mid-term tests, a view of white entwined legs had thwarted her next step. She had been jolted out of her thoughts by an arch made up of two human beings pat in the middle of the lane that connected Mereweather Road and the Colaba causeway. The profile had looked like a male and a female hippie had been embracing or perhaps doing something more…..right in the middle of the road!

The profile of a hippie was typical in those days and one could make him/her out from a distance. Shibani was used to their leisurely gait and other unmistakable traits. She silently thanked her arch enemy Anita for occupying her thoughts or else she might have had to witness more hip brazenness. The hippies were expectantly waiting for her to pass in between them so that they could continue with their act! Damn! Suppose Babban, the neighbourhood Shiv Sainik who lived in the same lane with his family, had seen her with them? He would conjure up all sorts of stories about her and put her to shame as if she had asked them to make way for her in between them! Her thoughts moved to the female hippy. Her mind was clouded and she could not decipher what exactly the hippy had worn. A flash of bright pink embellished with long beady necklaces was all she could recollect. The beads were variously coloured and very attractive.

She always seemed to associate hippies with pyjamas that had queer cuts and variations. Either these weird pyjamas or bell bottom pants. The bell bottoms had large flairs that swished as they walked. Some of them had flairs with gathers. Observing that her father never wore any colourful shirts more for fear of ridicule by friends and colleagues, Shibani marveled at the bright orange, yellow and indigo tie-dyed T shirts that the hippies wore. In fact, wearing just T shirts were taboo in her house and they were to be worn only inside bush shirts. The more colorless you were the wiser and more successful you would seem in the imaginary social ladder of Indian society. As for hippies, the females never wore any bra and had their nipples thrusting out through their thin T-shirts nonchalantly or jiggling breasts while walking down the road that held all kinds of people, embarrassing Shibani no end. However, though she found their tie-dyed shirts quite hip, she had learnt to look away whenever she saw a female hippie, lovingly nicknamed’ hippini’ by her. They had no awareness of the most feminine part of their bodies that was usually doubly covered in Indian costumes, either by sarees or dupattas. She remembered how the whole family frowned at her mom if ever her saree pallav slithered down even slightly exposing her cleavage or her blouse-clad bosom. Even though the blouse was a decent, completely covered dress, the saree added a sense of completeness and decency when draped over it. In Shibani’s culture, the blouse was nothing without the saree!

Shibani’s mother was a very pretty lady. Tall for a Bengali lady as everybody always said, elegant, and with a curvy figure, her facial features were well positioned. She had long silky hair that should have been left loose but Konika always tied it in a bun at the nape of her neck. Fair-complexioned with a glowing skin, Konika still looked quite attractive. Shibani’s father was a thin, wiry man with ordinary features, a high forehead and a sallow complexion. He wore gold-rimmed square glasses and was equal to Konika in height.

“There! Now you missed a beat”! The embarrassingly cracked voice of Mr Dey cut in through Shibani’s mental miasma. “This is Keherwa taal, Keherwa.” Shibani swung her head up sheepishly from her reverie. From the world of hippies, she had drifted off into the world of Barbara Streisand and her kisses in the movie ‘Funny Girl’ for at least the last few seconds.

Mr Dey had been giving her music lessons for almost a year now. However, Shbani’s feelings for Mr Dey’s class were the same since it had started. She had learnt a few Ragas and some bhajans. Today she had perfected the bhajan ‘Darshan do ghanshyam nath more.’ Mr Dey had praised her for the bhajan and scolded her for the Raga Bageshri that she had goofed up. At least the rest of the day would be better, she thought. Shibani had reason to be happy. Her mother was taking her to watch Aradhana – the latest Rajesh Khanna release. Each time she watched a movie, she thought about it the whole night. She would know the songs by heart. Perhaps, her mother too was crazy about the celebrity. She did not miss a single movie of his. For nights afterwards, ‘Roop tera mastana’ played in Shibani’s photographic memory conjuring up images of herself with the superstar. However, as she watched more and more of Rajesh Khanna’s films, her favourite dialogue became ‘babaumoshai.’ She loved the dreamy quality of Rajesh Khanna’s voice as he uttered the word in the film Anand that released in 1970. The only Rajesh Khanna number that irked her was ‘Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu.’ Every roadside Romeo had it on his lips whenever she happened to pass by.

One evening, at tea time, she heard the elders of her family discussing ‘America and the Vietnam war’ in hushed tones. “These firangis have invaded our culture and are ruining the mindsets of our children. Spreading dirt, disease, and indecency,” they fumed. On many weekends, the parents huddled together and discussed such issues and children were just shooed off during these hush-hush get-togethers. Shibani had made it a point to eavesdrop on these conversations to satisfy her curiosity about the hippies. She gathered that the elders considered them as ultra-modern, spoilt brats of filthy rich American families who suffered from the disease of ‘opulence.’ “Here, we struggle to make ends meet and there these hippies roam the world to burn money, and some of them even have the gall to beg us!” grumbled the God-fearing, middle-class, educated Probashi Bengali families of Colaba. “And then they blow it all up on drugs! Hey Shiva!”

Once, when Shibani had mustered enough courage to ask her mother about the hippies, she was told that they were not happy in their country and had come to imbibe Indian culture. So America was up for scrutiny! However, Shibani thought they would be better named ‘happies’ because they seemed much happier than she and her fellow Indians did. Their ‘don’t care’ attitude excited her. How smart! What freedom, man!

Shibani scratched her right cheek and then her left cheek. She had a fetish for symmetrical sensations. If she scratched one part of her body, she had this compulsion to scratch the other side at the mirror image point. Busy in her sensations and in adjusting her short leather skirt, Shibani hadn’t noticed the hippie who was appraising her. On discovering him staring at her with a generous smile, she tried to smile back bravely. She was on a leisurely walk with her friend Shabina enjoying the cool sea breeze in the evening at the Gateway of India, observing the hippies who were squatting all over the place with their strange cigarettes. Some of them wore long cotton kurtas that seemed to be unwashed. One of them sported a monkey on his shoulder. Some of them begged for money. Shibani had been warned by her parents not to give them money as they begged for drugs and had wads of dollar bills readily sent to them from their rich ancestry in America. She noticed their dirty jeans, worn carelessly as if they were second skin.

Jeans were a symbol of Western civilization and a dashing attitude, amongst her friends. Branded jeans were something they would die for. The 1960s brought different styles in jeans - embroidered, painted, psychedelic, and so on. It was a dress of comfort.

And now denim skirts had flooded the market. Minis were moving on to midis. She remembered when she had been on her last vacation to her hometown Calcutta; the salesmen there had been bewildered when she had asked them for a denim skirt. When she had exasperatedly pointed out to a pair of denim jeans and told them that she wanted a skirt of that material, they had the gall to laugh at her saying she should have asked for jeans’ skirt! They stocked both jean’s skirts and jean’s pants they told her. She had been too tired and annoyed to explain to them about denim, the material. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, she had left it at that. She hated to go to Calcutta. Except for the delicious mishtis (sweetmeats), she felt out of place. The city always made her feel uncivilized, the exact opposite of what she felt in Bombay. When she had last worn jeans that had cuts around the knees, she was jeered at by Calcutta’s roadside urchins who declared that her father did not have money even to buy her a new pair of jean pants. Now who would have thought that the trouble she had taken to cut and discolor her jeans would lead to such speculation about her father’s pecuniary status? 

Also, leaving her hair loose was frowned upon in Calcutta. That was her usual style in Bombay and she thought she looked really hip and nice like that. As she grew up, she realized that the Calcuttans had their own rules about how a girl should handle her hair in the various stages of her life. In girlhood, it was bob cut or French cut or ponies or whatever but not below shoulder length and with a side parting. As she entered puberty, it seemed natural to graduate to two plaits, with the parting shifted to the middle. The parting was in preparation for marriage. Finally, in adulthood, the plaits would have to reduce to one and then, when she would be married, it would turn into a bun. So structured. She wondered how hippies co-existed with Indians and both did their own things.

The hippies hollered at each other by their first names. One could never make out who was who of their ‘families.’ Or perhaps all the men, women and children were friends? All treated equally? Vow!

Her mother would call her father ‘Shuncho?’ meaning ‘are you listening? Her father would call her mother ‘Eije’ meaning ‘here.’ Her cousins used to call their friends didi in case they were older. All males were kakus, jethus, mamas, meshos, dadu or dadas according to their age and the proximity of relation with her parents even if they were actually unrelated. All females were mashima, kakima, pishima, didu, boudi, or didi according to their age and relation, whether related or not. As if the whole world was related! Her cousins would call their senior classmates didis or dadas. Shibani never understood what all the fuss was about. It was too complicated for her.

Shibani hated bell bottoms if only for the fact that the hippies popularized them. They looked too dressy, she felt, flipping and flopping as she walked. But as it was in fashion, she did buy a pair or two.

In the evening she had to meet Rusty at the Gateway of India - their regular rendezvous when he was in town. Shibani put on her mini denim skirt. She had good legs and minis were not yet out of fashion. A chain belt added to that groovy look. She wore a red and white checked cotton handloom shirt with it that had trendy box pockets. She neatly tucked the shirt into the skirt. Rusty waited at the corner of Hotel Diplomat that was opposite the majestic Taj Mahal. From here they would walk down to Leopold’s Café, maybe sit on the rock benches of the Gateway for a while, enjoying the splashing waves and munching fried groundnuts from paper cones, then turn towards Dhanraj Mahal and back to the Gateway. In her childhood she had played hide and seek here, hiding as tiny tots behind the huge arched structure and its dark corners. The imposing structure used to be a huge play hall that echoed with children’s’ laughter. Many people lay down, sat and had picnics there right inside the Gateway. In the afternoons, it used to be full of tired people enjoying naps in the shade of the stony British arch. After dinner, she often came here with her parents to enjoy the sea breeze and the moonlight glinting in the vast Arabian Sea. The horizon used to be dotted with lights from ships that had been anchored in the dark waters. Her parents would chat up other Bengali folks and make friends. She could see the glow in their eyes when they spotted a Bengali in the milieu of diversely cultured people where they might be feeling lost, she thought. Their hometown was Calcutta and they were in a foreign land where they scoured around for people of their own tribe. As for her, she vehemently refused to make friends only with Bengalis and defended her friends. It hurt. It really hurt when her father always balked at the idea of making other friends, making her feel her friendships were worthless if they were not with Bengalis! It didn’t matter if they were from Bangladesh or Pakistan or Zambia as long as they were Bengalis. She sometimes wondered how her parents sat at Gateway when there were so many hippies who had made this foreign country their current home. They must be transcending all her father’s cultural standards and barriers. Her father, a curmudgeonly person, who intensely refused to celebrate the children’s birthdays with cakes and parties or even his marriage anniversary saying these were apocryphal occasions (sigh! sigh!), was thoroughly generous as far as Bengali sweets were concerned.

A prod from Rusty brought her back to the present and soon her mouth was sealed with a kiss and her eyes blinded by strands of her hair flying wildly in the wind.

Walking back home with Rusty and she taking different routes, Shibani pondered over the kissing hippies that she witnessed almost daily. They needed no privacy. One day she mustered courage to ask Rusty what the hippies smoked. The knowledgeable Rusty then took her to a place near St. Xavier’s college, where she observed some youngsters smoking in the same way. Suddenly a hippini took out a pouch-like something from one of her socks and poured it into her pipe. Soon she was lost in smoke and abandon. “You know what that is? It is the poshto that you relish at home!” said Rusty grinning from ear to ear. “These people are addicted to that stuff.”

Talking of addictions, poshto or poppy seeds were one of the favourite dishes of the Ganguly family. The dilemma of Mrs Ganguly in this regard needs mention as different members of the family wanted it prepared in different ways. While Mr Proshanto Ganguly wanted it fried into crisp dumplings, the children liked it curried, one wanted dry and hot curry while the other wanted it wet like a thick paste. But the least fussy was Mrs Ganguly herself who liked to have the ground poshto seeds raw, flavoured with raw mustard oil, and green chillies, and had with rice. And afterwards they all had a deep afternoon nap when their heavy eyelids literally stuck to their eyes. Poshto is the Bengali name for the seeds of the poppy plant from which the drug opium is prepared. The children did not know this and the parents did not volunteer this speck of general knowledge to them. It was only much later in life that Shibani learnt about the other side of poppy.

Another favourite delicacy of the Ganguly’s was Ilish or Hilsa fish (the Indian Shad fish) fried in mustard oil with salt and turmeric till golden brown. This was a Sunday ritual. Whenever Ilish was available, Mr Ganguly would bring a 2-3 kg good quality pink Ilish which was available normally during the rainy season. The fried fishes were then enjoyed with rice mixed with the mustard oil in which the fishes had been fried. Mr and Mrs Ganguly savored each mouthful of the rice with a bite of raw green chilly all the while, complaining in distaste that the fish did not taste like Ganga Ilish or Padma Ilish that they had back home in Calcutta or in Dhaka. After their meal, the sharp edges of their steel thalis would be lined with thin, white hair-like bones. The aroma of fried Ilish would pervade the entire building for a few hours. Mrs Ganguly (not many knew that her school name was Konika) would position the portable radio near the dining table to broadcast Ameen Sayani’s booming voice anchoring the ‘Bournvita Quizzzzz Contest.’  At times, when the maid agreed to do the needful, the Gangulies would acquire a handful of Neem leaves from the huge tree across the road that overlooked a Sardarji’s bungalow. The leaves would be fried along with small pieces of brinjal. This was again a delicacy the couple enjoyed while the children were coaxed and cajoled into having the same with rice. Extolling the virtues of Neem was a regular session that Mr Ganguly indulged in before the children underwent this ordeal. Either Neem or bitter gourd. These were Bengali starters for a meal. (Shibani and her brother detested them). They would much prefer chicken or macaroni with some cheddar cheese and mayonnaise. However, the one Bengali dish that they relished was mushur dal (orange pulses) boiled with mustard oil, onion quartets and green chillies. Rusty’s mother was another expert in Bengali recipes and Shibani hated it when she shared some of them with her mother. The chorchori with fish bones was an exception. It was a tasty mixture of juicy vegetables cooked as a dry dish with fish bones where the vegetables completely lost their identity and imbibed the flavor of fish. Shibani loved to suck the bones till their juices dried up and the bones had been chewed to a pulp.

Rusty’s mother was an over smart lady thought Shibani, always trying to project her ‘youth.’ She even attributed her long jet black hair to her young age claiming she was not even thirty-five yet. It was impossible thought Shibani as Rusty had an older sister who had two children in high school. One day when the lady had glowingly declared her youth again, Shibani couldn’t help asking her if she was the second wife of her husband and a stepmother! Rusty’s mother had gone tomato red. Aghast at this cheekiness, Konika Ganguly had profusely apologized to Rusty’s mother. Such was Shibani’s angst against unjustified talk or any kind of injustice for that matter.

Konika Ganguly was strict in the upbringing of her children. She had instructed them that whoever sat at the table for long and finished his/her meal last, would have to clear and clean the table. Fair enough. But even Konika had had to bear the wrath of her husband and sometimes her sister-in-law, who lived nearby and often visited, whenever they found her son cleaning the dining table long after all had gone off to take their afternoon nap. The problem was that her son, Bunty, was a very slow eater. However, the elders of the family always believed that it was Konika’s or Shibani’s job to clear the table. Bunty only had to study and take the family name forward by doing well in his career. And work or karma did not include such jobs that were a woman’s prerogative.

In those days, Shibani did not have the freedom to choose her own vocation. She was to be married to a guy in Calcutta when she graduated and her brother was to try to take admission in medicine or engineering. Boys either did what their fathers had done or went for these professions. And the girls had to rub and scrub their skins with various culinary herbs and oils till they became really fair or they would not find a good groom. Bengalis had a fetish about fair skin, she thought. Surely, the Aryans hadn’t forgotten that India’s original natives were the black Dravidians? Shibani loved history. The subject revealed man’s true nature through its monitoring of the chronological events that have shaped mankind. Further, the horoscopes of the bride and the groom had to match.  The astrologer told her that she had been a foreigner in her last birth. Also, the girls who had friends of the opposite sex were not considered ‘decent.’ Moreover, if Shibani had one close girlfriend for a long time, her mother started calling her a homosexual (lesbian was too bold a word in those days and not much in use  – perhaps it was the male prerogative in this field too).

Every girl had to learn some ‘hobbies’ even though they may be the least bit interested in what they learnt. Their religion was fixed. They had to worship Gods and Goddesses, chiefly, Lord Shiva, and three Goddesses: Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, and the elephant-headed God of success, Ganesh. But there was a positive side. She received new clothes for each of the four days of Durga Puja. The most tedious job was to write letters to all the relatives they had in India and abroad and send their Bijoya pronams to them after the Pujas. Shibani detested these stereotype letters that did not allow for spontaneity. She wished she could just send her wishes with the help of one magic click.

Her mother also worshipped the planets who, she said, governed our lives and gave us the result of what we did with our free will. It was not a question of choice but their way of life that was fixed at birth and had to remain that way till death.

Shibani contemplated further on her questions about life. The more she thought about what her mother said, the more she felt that society ruled her and not the planets or God. As she grew and learnt about the ways of life, she came to the conclusion that it was society who fixed the events of our lives and stifled our free will.

Shibani wondered how her mother excelled at so many things: knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening, and worship. Doing pujas and knowing how to do them was definitely a subject one had to know well. She got up early in the morning to serve tea to everyone every day of the year. And she never complained! Konika was a qualified physio therapist but her husband did not like her to work outside the home. Shibani wondered how her mother had given up so easily.

One Sunday, Shibani heard some rough male voices across the road. Some eunuchs had invaded Harpal Singh’s bungalow opposite their building singing, ‘Harpal sardu jaan ka dushman hai hai.” She was really scared of the eunuchs as they danced and sang and clapped in their unique style with the newborn baby in their arms. After that they negotiated for money. To Shibani, they seemed like demons as they were ugly and some of them grotesque and seemingly villainous in nature. They did not know to read or write and Shibani never found them at any job other than what they were doing. She wondered how dancing and singing could be their only livelihood. Many people closed their doors when they spotted the frustrated eunuchs. The image they projected to society was that of uneducated, unhealthy beings. And because they were so, they were restrained from entering any public place. They served as demons to frighten little children and as burdens to parents to whom they were born. They were disowned by their parents and relatives and given away. They had no ration cards, no right to education and no right to vote. Little did Shibani know that burying their pain in their hearts, they went about their lives, resigned to their fate.

In a few years, the beautiful bungalow was demolished and a hotel came up in its place. The Taj Intercontinental came up in place of the Gulmohur restaurant. Rusty announced his plans to leave for the US, never to return.

Everything was challenged. Nothing was revered and the outcome was an age we simply call "The Sixties."


Excerpt

"Young girls worship Lord Shiva to get a husband like him. Don't we all women want such a husband?" her mother continued. Shibani was puzzled. Lord Shiva was everything her father was not.Nor were the husbands of her aunts and cousins and they all worshipped Lord Shiva!




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