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Sunday, August 31, 2008

The hand-pulled rickshaws of Kolkata

Hand-pulled rickshaws were introduced in India in the early 1920’s from Far East, and they were adopted into the transport system by British colonisers. They have been described everywhere as so poorly designed that running them for a long time is likely to take a heavy toll on the health of the puller. In Kolkata, even in the twenty-first century, the hand-pulled rickshaws have been a matter of interest for all foreign tourists visiting Kolkata. These rickshaws are usually pulled by the migrant workers who just make a meagre living from them. In fact, these poor folks have been living a life of marginalised existence, on the fringes of penury for quite some time. Their plight has been a humanistic concern for long. Hence, their phasing out was evident; the only issue being when and how.

The hand-pulled rickshaw has been immortalised as a living symbol of Kolkata in films like 'City of Joy'. But due to the cause of concern for the well-being of the rickshaw-pullers, which would soon go off its roads with the state government deciding to replace them with other modes of transport. It was in August, 2005, that the West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee announced that as the hand-pulled rickshaws had long been considered 'inhuman' and that the practice did not exist anywhere else, a policy decision had been taken to take the hand-drawn rickshaw off the roads of Kolkata on humanitarian grounds. The farewell happened gradually, over eighteen months or so, amidst minor roars of protests, and token protests, and lip-service, given in a routine manner, on rehabilitating the poor rickshaw-pullers.
During Kolkata’s monsoon rains, when the streets are regularly flooded, rickshaws have been used widely, even for trips as short as across the street. The rickshaw-wallahs used to be busy during the sweltering months of spring and summer, when walking the streets seems a hellish ordeal. During these times, the Rickshaw Puller’s Union claims that its members earn approximately Rs. 100 per day, though this figure is almost surely exaggerated. I remember several trips down Lake Market, Gariahat, Minto Park, Ballygunge and Southern Avenue on a hand-pulled rickshaw, called 'taana rickshaa' in Bangla. During the cool days of late autum and winter, most rickshaw-wallahs would be seen sitting idle, clanking their dull-timbred bells against the wooden rails of the rickshaws in vain hope of attracting a passenger. Romantic sojourns along dark alleys on these modes of transport were not too uncommon, nor were the stray incidents of the rickshaws turning over, the passengers still firmly ensconced in the seats, while the rickshaw-puller would be seen hanging on to the side-bars, swaying up in the air till help arrived...... the only casualties might just be the hand-held belongings of the passengers. Such sights are now going to be a thing of the past. Scenes from a Kolkata that was.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Cinema Plus......

Cinema has always been my passion. I often tell my friends that I eat, breathe, dream, and live cinema. But cinema viewing took a whole new turn this year... I was never prepared for it.... But who knows, maybe it was meant to be....!!!

Why? Well, without getting to explicit about the whole thing, as I am extremely shy of unmasking the intimate experiences for all, even though I reveal pretty much about my favorites (which is nothing less than personal) here, on my blog.... I can just say that it became an eye-opener of sorts when I went to see 'Bachna Ae Haseeno' - a frothy rom-com at the Fame multiplex at South City, Kolkata, on August 19th, this year.
Why was it an eye-opener, it made me question the obvious..... some of the itriguing questions were as follows:
WHAT do I seek from cinema? What do I seek from Life? What makes me associate cinema with the immediate upheavals, the confusion and the hesitation that abound in my life? Is cine-viewing a catharsis of sorts? Can cinema be a substitute or a proxy for other urges, other fulfilling outlets or inlets? What has been the trigger for my passion for cinema? Is my appetite for cinema a cause for concern? Is it addictive to unhealthy proportions? Do I look for life-affirming experiences in or through cinema? Do I want reality to take its cues from the cinema that I endear? Do I want cinema to engender my living moments, my emotions, my life?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Greatest Joy

The greatest joy - according to me - is to look at a cute baby that throws its charms to instantly make itself feel wanted & loved. Well, there are different theories explaining the irresistible baby charm. One of them is that nature makes them that way to ensure the survival of the species. Babies are so cute, cuddly, adorable! Human babies need a longer time span to develop and be socialized and it is therefore important for them to be liked by their parents or other adults around them. Being so cute works in their favor. But they bring such joy into our lives, we feel blessed in their cherished company. There is no prejudice or hatred or fear in a baby’s heart, nor does the child make value judgments. No one can possibly find a more accepting or complete person than a baby.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008


"Persepolis" is an animation film. But it is much more than just an animation film. Being a lover of animation films, I grabbed the first opportunity I got to see this much acclaimed movie at the Fame Multiplex the day before yesterday, and I was pleasantly rewarded. It is the poignant coming-of-age story of a young girl in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It is through the eyes of precocious and outspoken nine year old Marjane that we see a people's hopes dashed as fundamentalists take power - forcing the veil on women and imprisoning thousands. Clever and fearless, she outsmarts the "social guardians" and discovers punk, ABBA and Iron Maiden. Yet when her uncle is senselessly executed and as bombs fall around Tehran in the Iran/Iraq war, we can very well feel the daily fear that permeates regular life in Iran.

As she gets older, Marjane's boldness causes her parents to worry over her continued safety. And so, at age fourteen, they make the difficult decision to send her to school in Austria. Vulnerable and alone in a strange land, she endures the typical ordeals of a teenager. In addition, Marjane has to combat being equated with the religious fundamentalism and extremism she fled her country to escape. Over time, she gains acceptance, and even experiences love, but after high school she finds herself alone and horribly homesick. After a heart-break, she feels completely ravaged, and then she comes back to Iran. But Iran had been crumbling all along, ravaged by senseless wars & destruction, and that includes the attacks on the society's moral & cultural fibre.
Like all women, she has to don the veil and live in a tyrannical society, the only comfort is being with her family members, her parents and her spunky grandma yet again! After a difficult period of adjustment, she enters art school and even marries, rather hastily. However, all the while she continues to speak out against the hypocrisy she witnesses. At age 24, she realizes that while she is deeply Iranian, she cannot live in Iran. She then makes the heartbreaking decision to leave her homeland for France, optimistic about her future, shaped indelibly by her past.

Marjane Satrapi's brilliant autobiographical graphic novels "Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood" and "Persepolis 2: the Story of a Return" (which I never had a chance to read) had won widespread acclaim in France, even before they were made into this film. She has herself directed this filmed memoir, alongwith Vincent Paronnaud. In the dubbed-in-English version that I saw, the voice cast includes Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and Gena Rowlands, alongwith Catherine Deneuve and Marjane Satrapi. Olivier Bernet's original score is amazingly beautiful. And the stunning black & white visuals (when the liberating colours are shown in the opening and the closing sequences, they have such a powerful impact!) have stayed with me, and will surely be etched in my memory for good.

The title "Persepolis" comes from the Persian capital founded in the 6th century BC by Darius I, later destroyed by Alexander the Great. It's a reminder that there's an old and grand civilization, besieged by waves of invaders but carrying on through milennia, that is much deeper and more complex than the current-day view of Iran as a monoculture of fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.
[courtesy: movies.yahoo.com, imdb.com, google.com, wikipedia.org)