Wednesday, February 13, 2008

When the lights go out

Kolkata has recently been hit by a spate of power cuts, some of them pretty massive. The papers are busy reporting on shortfalls and how many hours a day we can expect to be without electricity; the West Bengal Power Department even issued a huge notice in one of the leading dailies about the unfortunate power cuts, and how the inconvenience is deeply regretted – and what they are doing (or not) to rectify the situation. It’s true the these power cuts are annoying, to say the least – our increasing dependence on electricity means that even five minutes without power can throw our entire schedule out of gear. This is more so for families without an inverter, like mine. But here’s the weird thing – despite all this, I don’t mind the power cuts. In fact, in the evenings, I rather enjoy them.

K and I returned to Kolkata for keeps late last year. This is the first time he’s been here to stay on a long-term basis, and as for me, I’ve come home after 10 years. We’ve been at out parents’ place while we look for one of our own – and the crazy experiences we’ve had house-hunting in north Kolkata will form the subject of a later blog – and I must say it’s been rather nice being home again after so long, back with, as Gerald Durrell would say, ‘my family and other animals’. So what do power cuts have to do with it? Simply this – in the evenings, when there’s no electricity, and therefore no way for our laptops to function or the television switched on or any reading to be done, we all perforce get together in one room lit by a flickering candle, and talk.

We do talk a lot with each other in my family, share everyday events, jokes, problems – but it’s mostly in a scattered fashion. In the normal course of things the days are taken up by work, looking after all the various dogs and cats, watching TV – but when you cannot do any of that because the lights are out, you have no choice but to sit around talking to each other – and that’s the part I enjoy most about the enforced inactivity that these power cuts have been putting us through. There’s something cosy about it too, sitting grouped on one bed, the candle flame dancing eerily in the background, the cats all cuddled up on the bed, too, filling the room with the sound of their companionable purring – and talking, laughing, discussing issues, problems, work. Sometimes we can prevail upon my dad to tell us a few ghost stories from his endless repertoire, stories he always claims are real and experienced personally either by him, or someone he knows, with my mom’s disbelieving cackles of laughter puncturing what were to be the creepiest moments. Holiday plans have been made, health issues discussed, jokes exchanged, the greater family talked about endlessly, work stories swapped, kittens played with, legs pulled – all till the lights come back on. Then everyone disappears to do their own thing, the television is switched back on – and I for one feel a little disappointed. I know things won’t be quite so comfortable during power cuts in summer, but for now, I’m not complaining about the power department. It’s providing the family with a good opportunity to come together and enjoy being together every now and then.
Two Obits

Are there really such things as omens, disturbing signs that all is not quite right with the world at large? Not that, in this day and age, in the midst of political and social upheaval the world over, we need the presence of a few extra signs to warn us of bad times to come; however, I have, since end-2004, had a somewhat fanciful feeling that there’s been a dark cloud of sorts hanging over the world at large, and over a lot of people I know since the new millennium began. On a global scale, it started with the events of September 11, the results of which have been nothing short of catastrophic, continued with the tsunami, and the end of 2007 saw Benazir Bhutto being assassinated. My sentiments with regard to the hype surrounding the beginning of each new year have already been documented in an earlier blog – but that’s not what I wanted to rehash here. I want this blog to be about two people who never did get to usher in yet another year – two people with whom I’ve had a fairly long association, and whose untimely deaths added considerably to my pall of gloom.

In November 2007, I received the news that Dr Jayoti Gupta, sociologist and on the faculty of the Delhi School of Economics, Department of Sociology, had passed away. She had contracted a rare blood infection that is more common in European countries and, while curable, went undiagnosed here. She had been in and out of hospitals for three months, had even had a surgery – but it wasn’t until it was too late that the real problem was diagnosed. I had known Jayoti for the last 10 years – she had been a very close friend of one of my aunt’s as well as living right next door to my grandmother and aunts’ place, where I lived once I moved to Delhi after my graduation. Everything about her spelt vitality, and the joy of living – she was big, tall and plump, with a shock of frizzy hair, a booming voice and throaty chuckle, and perpetually twinkling eyes. As K said, the one word that could describe her perfectly would be ‘jolly’. I cannot bring her to mind without recalling her smile, and her gusts of laughter – it’s hard to believe someone so full of life is suddenly no longer around.

I cannot call myself a friend – having met me when I was barely out of college, I guess Jayoti tended to look upon me as something akin to a niece. But with my aunts, I got to spend a lot of time with her – at her cosy little barsati that she’d livened up with plenty of the potted plants and herbs that she obviously adored, at our place where she’d drop in every now and then, at D’School, and at various seminars. I soon grew very fond of her – it was difficult not to – and I look upon the little dinners she’d call us to (she was a fantastic cook – I don’t know anyone who can whip up such brilliant Thai curries so effortlessly), where she’d generously share her cigarettes with me after trying – and failing – to deliver a stern admonishment, as being among the truly happy times I spent in Delhi. The last time I met Jayoti was a good two years ago, at my wedding – there’s a picture of her with Tripti, her close friend and companion, and I, all of us smiling happily for the camera, with absolutely no idea of what the future held. No, she wasn’t a friend, or someone I kept regularly in touch with, but for all that, I miss her. It’s unbelievable, and painful, to think that I won’t see her any more, that Jayoti’s friendliness, her intelligence, warmth and laughter, are just not there any more. One doesn’t know what happens after death, if there is a ‘better place’ that she’s gone to – what I do know is that the world is a tad colder because she’s no longer in it. It is said, though, that we are never truly gone as long as there are people to remember us – so going by the number of people who mourned Jayoti, I’d say she’s going to be around for a pretty long time.

Publishing legend Tejeshwar Singh passed away in December 2007. I had known him since 2001, which was when I joined Sage Publications as Editor. Again, it was sudden, a massive heart attack that took him away one night in Mussoorie. I remember debating the wisdom of his chain smoking and drinking endless cups of black coffee, not to mention his workaholism, when he already had a heart condition with my colleagues at Sage – but nobody expected his death, not this soon, certainly not this suddenly. As I said to a couple of ex-colleagues, it’s hard to think of someone as large (pun not intended) as life as TS (as he was known at Sage) not being around any more. Most people remember him from his Doordarshan days – strangely enough, I seem to have missed all the bulletins he read, so for me, he will always remain inextricably tied to the memories of my days at Sage.

I doubt even the most loyal employee at Sage could have called him a good boss. Alternating between demanding, infuriating, unreasonable, high-handed and bad-tempered, TS nonetheless managed to bring out the best that was in us, and instilled in us a quest for perfection and a regard for quality in whatever we did that I am sure will stay with us for the rest of our lives. He could be singularly charming when he wanted, and much as I hate to admit it, I have to say that for most of us, myself included, there was very little that was more gratifying than appreciation, or a simple word of praise from him. The story of how Sarah and George McCune picked him out of countless others to begin the South Asia division of Sage became the stuff of legend. ‘I started Sage from my own house in Defence Colony,’ TS loved to tell us, ‘there were just the two of us then; and now we grown to the extent that Sage Publications supports 107 [give or take a few] families.’ He was proud of his empire, of the ‘Sage family’, as well he ought, having built it up from scratch with a devotion that was inspiring, to say the least. Not for him the easy route of handing the day-to-day functioning of Sage to any of his all-too-willing subordinates – TS probably worked harder than any of us; he knew, at any given point in time, exactly how many books were in production and the details for each; and he knew just what was going on in every department of the organisation. His knowledge was phenomenal – learning from him was one of the greatest pleasures of being at Sage.

My parting with Sage, and with TS, was unfortunately rather bitter. I did meet him once after my departure, several months later, and thankfully that last memory is of a convivial nature. Despite my anger and bitterness at events preceding my resignation, I could not but feel sad at the news of his having to relinquish his command, and the changes, not all for the better, that inevitably followed. And now looking back, all I can think of are the good times, the way TS would laugh when something amused him; his patience and encouragement when he discerned genuine interest in us; the respect he managed to inspire in all of us regardless of his various frailties; the deep affection with which his daughters always spoke of him; of the way he managed to run his business ethically at a time when publishers all around were busy selling out; of the democratic way in which he always ran the organisation; of his various ‘pds’ – the ominous ‘please discuss’ notes that he would mark for one or the other of us, notes that always got our knees trembling; the memories, good, bad, funny, are endless. A publishing era has ended with TS, and he will undoubtedly be missed by everyone who ever came in contact with him.