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A December raga of a Calcutta winter

Raja Murthy |

As maybe with many, December is my favorite month – the cool sub-continental winter as Mother Nature’s balance to the searing Indian summer. By design or destiny, I am in my home city Mumbai nearly every December, seeing the merry lights of Christmas, the celebrations of happy hope for another New Year – the subliminal optimism in survival DNA of the human race.

In life’s changing music of moods, the winter sonata or December raga can be like year-end account taking: what was achieved during the year? Was it full of success? Or were there more bad times, sad times, challenging times? But life starts again each moment – not just 1 January 2017 – for the writing of a new story, 12 chapters of months and 365 more pages in the book of life.

The dictionary compilers say a raga in Indian classical music means “each of the six basic musical modes which express different moods in certain characteristic progressions, with more emphasis placed on some notes than others”. Likewise in the music of days, the raga changes with bitter-sweet tunes of memories – as on a Mumbai December evening, of seeing a sleepy red sun sinking into its darkening blue waterbed of the Arabian Sea, the Christmas decorations of Churchgate, the mind’s ragas sharpening during December.

Whether strolling down the festive river of lights on Mumbai’s Marine Drive, or through the cold early morning winter winds of Rishikesh, each place sings its signature raga of seasonal moods – from New Delhi’s Connaught Place, New York’s Mulburry Street, to Christmas markets in Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm becoming latest victims of mad terrorists. In the uncertainty of life, even Santa’s season unleashes demons.

In the certainty of life’s duty, the Himalayas beckon to me in a timeless destiny of endless service, like a Dhamma mother gently but firmly calling home her son. With the end of days nearing, memories loom stronger: such as Christmas in a city once called Calcutta. This was where and when I began another life in the winter of 1990 – including walking into The Statesman for the first time in this lifetime one Calcutta evening.

December is a re-run of memories of those unforgettable Calcutta days of 1990-91, when Roland Joffe was shooting Dominique Lapierre’s ‘City of Joy’, of meeting special friends I had never met before: Rohit, Urmila in their Benetton store off Park Street, often supper under the stars at their hospitable penthouse, Rajat, Ajoy and Sabarni, Abhijit and Babloo. And in 1991, in a city once called Bombay, meeting in The Statesman rare beings serving others without expecting anything: Ralph Pais, Mr K.K Nair, Rajesh Anand.

Infinite gratitude ensures that I cannot forget that winter of 1990 in Calcutta, those nights of sleeping on the cold floor at Howrah Station, when heaven was having a matka (earthen cup) of steaming hot tea and biscuits, and seeing the December morning light dawning over the City of Joy.

The writing day began with lemon tea in The Statesman newsroom, researching in the American Library, evenings spent in the Maidan, then walking down Strand Road, end the night at Howrah Station.

Challenging days when a certain ‘Psmith’ journalist was already experiencing his ‘cashless economy’: having no Reserve Bank of India currency to even buy a copy of The Statesman to see his published article.

That December was surreal: of sleeping homeless in Howrah Station and having meals for free in the city’s best known five-star hotel. The Oberoi Grand’s Food and Beverages Manager Sudhanshu Bhushan whom I had briefly met, insisted for no apparent reason that I eat at the Oberoi restaurants, including in the Executive Dining Room. I realized years later that Nature’s protection forces were at work.

Whether at a dhaba outside Eden Gardens or in the Oberoi Grand Coffee Shop, dal-chawal or a cheese sandwich was feast enough for me. Life in the streets trains the mind to lose fear, be happy with bare necessities, and experience a freedom that no life of luxury can provide.

Calcutta of 1990 was city of guardian angels: Rajat Chhabra became like an elder brother I had never met before. Instantly after knowing I was homeless spending nights at Howrah station, he asked: “Man, are you nuts?” and handed me the keys to his house – to a stranger he met two or three times! Those Calcutta days was experiencing truth of the saying: “there are no strangers in the world, only friends you have not yet met.”

Only years later, with experiential wisdom from Vipassana practice I realized nothing happens by chance. Nothing called ‘coincidence’ – everything that happens to us is due to the Law of Cause and Effect.

Each moment becomes a New Year, with fruits based on the seed of volition we sow in the fertile fields of life. No escaping the consequences, pleasant or painful. Nature rewards or punishes based on actual volition behind each action.

Rohit, Urmila took me around the city to celebrate that unique New Years’ eve of 31 December 1990; we spent the first day of my first New Year in Calcutta at their family house in Gurusaday Road. It all seems like yesterday, that memorable winter of 25 years ago – an undying raga serving an invaluable reminder: life has much goodness and wonder, but we cynically poison our worldview by focusing on the bad news.

In the impermanence of everything in life, Rohit died young – and hopefully found his most heavenly golf course in the universe. Urmila is in South Korea, far away from her favorite puchkas (paani puri) in Russel Street; Rajat who treated me like a younger brother, is a globe-trotting citizen of the world. Ajoy, Sabarni continue in Kolkata, Abhijit, Babloo live in Mumbai, Ralph Pais retired to Goa. Meetings and partings are part of this journey across lifetimes, so we will meet again in the Christmas of another life. Always, all merits I earn are being shared until you are liberated.

The writer is a senior, Mumbai-based journalist.