Thursday, August 26, 2010


“Thisss eeezz Poveglia…!” and he let the words hang in the salt-thick sea air. I stared silently at the island as it floated on the mist and myth that surrounded it. It was almost dusk and as the sun set behind the silhouetted island, for a brief moment, the sea and the island’s bell tower seemed to have been set on fire… reminiscent of the tall flames that used to crackle on this island centuries ago… flames, the smoke and the screams… screams that rent sky, until the fire doused the screams…

But I’m running ahead of my story…

We had reached Venice. From Venice’s Marco Polo airport, we hopped into a water taxi that wound its way towards the Venetian lagoon and as the arches and canals of Venice drew closer, I went and stood by boat’s and prow, soaking in the spray and taking in the vistas. As the famed canals and villas of Venice closed in, I glanced to my left and saw a lonely island drifting by. Tall cypresses stood silently, imprisoned by a boundary-wall that surrounded the island. I asked the boatman, a young man in a baseball cap, about the island but he did not respond. I thought he hadn’t heard me over the din of the motor-boat engine but before I could complete the question a second time, he replied “Cemetery! The dead of Venice are here.” Separated from the bright lights of Venezia by a tongue of water, this island, like a bolt of lightning on a dark night, illuminated a terrible legend that was lost in the recesses of my mind - a forgotten tale of another Venetian island where horrible things had happened. It was the dark side of Venice that I’d forgotten about…“Is this… er… the haunted island?” I asked. The boatman turned, looked at me, blinked and said,“ No… it’s the cemetery.” Then he was quiet. A few awkward minutes passed and then as he navigated the boat into a canal that ran into the city, he said “Poveglia! …That’s haunted!”

Can we see it? Is it nearby? But Pierro, our boatman, shook his head. “No one’s allowed there… not us, not tourists…”. We reached the hotel. My friends picked up our bags and got off the boat. As I too was about to get on to the pier, he motioned for me to stop and moved the boat into open waters. We headed south, south-west, alongside the setting sun, glowing like a portal into another world. The boat stopped.

“Can’t go closer…”He pointed towards the horizon… “There’s Poveglia!” I strained at the horizon but couldn’t see a thing. Then as my eyes got used to the light, I noticed the silhouette of an island at the very edge of the horizon. “That’s Poveglia? Can’t we go any closer?”

“No one goes there”, he said. I tried again “If you don’t go, how’d you know if it’s good or bad. Maybe it’s paradise…” He looked up and said, “It’s not paradise.” He kissed a pendent he was wearing around his neck, came closer and took out his phone. “Listen… I was there…”

In the 14th century, neighbouring Genoa attacked Venice and since the island of Poveglia was in the line-of-fire, it was evacuated. Before it could be resettled, the Black Death, struck. On Venice’s congested waterfront, people were coughing and bleeding and dying on the streets, like flies falling dead in the heat. Self-preservation forced families to dump ailing relatives. Most died unattended. Mass graves were dug and bodies buried and burnt.

Health officials instinctively felt that separating the infected from the healthy, could prevent the spread of the disease. So, anyone with the slightest sign, a runny nose, a slight fever, was apprehended and packed off to the abandoned island of Poveglia. Though they didn’t know it then, but it was a masterstroke and Venice had less than half the fatalities per 1000 than the mainland. But there was a price paid. Many healthy individuals were torn from their families and forcibly removed to the island on mere suspicion of the disease. And there they walked amidst the piles of the dead and dying until they too contracted the disease and died.

So great was the fear of the plague that just coughing in public could result in a witch hunt ending in a send off to Poveglia, the Isle of Death. And fear makes us cruel. Many of the living were burnt with the dead by masked officials. “You can still smell them burning in Poveglia” said Piero.

“And if you go now, you’ll hear them scream…from the living graves and from the bell-tower”. In the 1920s, they built a lunatic asylum on the island. It is said that the haunted island drove many inmates to strange deaths and depths of madness, including the doctor who would strap his patients to their beds and open up their brains with a hammer and a nail to check what was wrong ‘inside’. He would perform lobotomies on them as they screamed in excruciating agony till they were overcome by pain or death. At such times, it is said, that screams of agony would erupt from every corner of the island, disembodied voices rising in chorus, reminded of their own agony by the tortured patient’s cries. These voices eventually drove the doctor to his own grisly death as he fell from the bell-tower. Some say he was thrown while others say he jumped.

The island’s been abandoned ever since. “The carbineri (police) won’t let you get any closer…”Piero handed me his phone… a video file… on the screen was a bell tower, shaking, as if the camera was held by unsteady hands…” “Thisss eeezz Poveglia…..!” he whispered into my ears. The picture became hazy. Now I could see feet, running along a path, overgrown with grass and brambles…“I couldn’t stay… I heard the screams,” he said.

I looked at the horizon. Far away, I could still make out the shadow of an island in the darkening gloom...I was far away, and hell, even I could hear the screams…


Thursday, August 19, 2010


This tale is not mine to tell but one I stumbled upon … last day in Antwerp and while my friends emptied out souvenir and designer stores, I wandered about the city square till I saw two tall towers, peering above the rest of the city, glinting in the fading light of a spent sun. It was the city cathedral. Inside the cathedral, stood proud old walls adorned with masterpieces by the Flemish master Sir Paul Peter Reubens. I started taking pictures of the cathedral’s tall spires. As I backed away to try and squeeze the length of the tower inside the frame, I stumbled and fell bum-first onto a low platform that rose less than three feet from the cobbled street. It was a stone plaque with a pen-and-ink picture of a big dog and a little boy with an inscription that said, “Nello and his dog Patrasche… symbols of eternal friendship, loyalty and devotion.”

Intrigued, I asked Pierre, our Belgian host if he happened to know what this was about. Pierre nodded “Ah… eetz a nice story!”

The path that led away from the cathedral was lined with taverns where people sat around little wooden tables, swigging away pints of golden froth. Pierre looked at them longingly, then walked towards one of the tables. I followed dutifully… he sat down and ordered one of their Belgian brews… and then having wet his whistle began his story…

The dog of Flanders (the Dutch speaking region of Belgium, French-speaking Wallonia being the other) they call it, and it’s a tale that stems from the quill of a lady of letters named Maria Louise Rame, a.k.a Ouida. She lived in England and loved animals and children, I was told. She’d travelled to Antwerp in the late 1800s. In those days, life was hard and the winters cold but in the early mornings on winding paths that led to the city; you could always count on the sight of a big hairy dog pulling a small milk cart with a cherubic little boy in a hat and a scarf skipping along to cheer you up. Ouida too must’ve come across these little milkmen of Flanders during her trip and one of them must’ve inspired her story…

On the cobbled road out of town once walked an old bent man called Jehan Dass and his little grandson, an orphan called Nello. Jehan would push along a milk cart to sell to people in town and together they eked out a living on crusts of dry bread and a bowl or two of soup. One day while walking along this road, they came across a big hairy heap lying by the side of the road… it was a large dog, the one they call the Bouvier des Flanders, or the cow herder of Flanders. Hungry and tired it lay, its flanks heaving with laboured breath. Nello knelt down and took the big heavy head in his lap and the animal’s feeble tongue gave him a tired lick. His fur was matted around the neck and chest suggesting a milk man’s harness with open wounds where the harness had dug in. These dogs are strong and brave but this one was weak and had been given up for dead by his master. Jehan and Nello dragged the dog onto their little cart and took him back home. There, under Jehan’s care and Nello’s love, the dog started back on the path to good health.

One day Nello and Patrasche (for that’s what they called the dog) were chasing sunbeams on daisies, while old Jehan was struggling with the cart but as he tried to push the cart along, Patrasche jumped ahead of the cart and wouldn’t let the old man go until he relented and placed the cart’s harness around the big dog’s thick neck. Thus started a partnership between the little boy and the big dog that would melt hearts on their way to the market.

Some years went by and little Nello’s heart would race ahead of him every time his eyes met the flashing blue eyes of Aloise, his rich neighbour’s daughter. They were both the same age but of course, Aloise’s father would never approve of poor little Nello, the milkman’s grandson. But little Nello had a plan. He loved to paint and he dreamed that one day he would become a rich and famous artist, just like Reubens whose paintings he knew hung on the walls of the cathedral. And as luck would have it, the city announced a painting competition. The prize money was sure to set up the winner’s career as an artist. Nello, the youngest of all, painted with such passion and vision that all who saw him believed that it was he who’d win the prize. But alas it wasn’t to be… the judges chose the work of a boy whose father was a respected town council member, and though a better artist than the winner, poor Nello went back a much poorer boy.

When home, the news was no better. There by the fireplace lay old Jehan. Patrasche licked and Nello cried but it was too late… old Jehan lay crumpled cold and dead.

Nello’s tears were yet to dry when a fire engulfed town. All fingers pointed at little Nello, and with no one to defend him, he just had to leave…

But Nello wasn’t alone that night. Patrasche, his loyal friend ran into the snow to be with his young master as he walked away. With no place to go, what did little Nello do? It was Christmas Eve and he was going to the cathedral… to speak to God and to see a Reubens. He had no money to give though and so he wasn’t allowed to see the paintings. But as the night wore on, Nello finds an open door… He enters with Patrasche at his heels and finds the paintings and there he kneels… in devotion and faith, in agony and out of breath… Patrasche knows his master is weak… he puts his big head on Nello’s shoulder and tries to comfort him from the weather and fate. Nello hugs the big dog and cries himself to sleep… Patrasche understands… he is tired and cold… oh so cold…

Next morning it is Christmas day…the doors open, people pray and the organs play…but suddenly it all goes quiet, for someone sees the boy and the dog…in that corner they lay… alone but for each other…in a lonely corner that’ll forever be theirs…frozen in time in the dead of night… lay dreams and hopes, love and pain, and two friends dead and gone…


Thursday, August 12, 2010


The harm that good men do’, was an essay by Bertrand Russell that I never finished reading but was a heading I oft en thought about whenever I heard the name Gandhi being discussed… I had oft en witnessed disparate schools of thought converging on the notion that Gandhi the man, as well as Gandhi the idea, had often done more harm than good to the cause of this nation’s freedom, from both communalism and colonialism. Many years ago, on this very day, the 4th of February, near the town of Gorakhpur, there once lay 22 charred bodies and a few blackened bayonets. And amidst the rubble and ruins of that day, there also lay the smoking ruins of a nation’s aspirations. The year was 1922 and the place – a little known police station in a town called Chauri Chaura.

At Chauri Chaura that day, a non-violent protest march, part of a nationwide Non-cooperation movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, turned violent when policemen opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing three of them. The angry mob went on the rampage and burnt down the police-chowki. Twenty-two policemen, too, were burnt alive inside the police station. Gandhi felt he had been betrayed, perhaps even shamed by his followers. For him, violence was not an option. His followers had committed themselves to ahimsa. And yet, they had weakened and given in to their impulses, thus jeopardising the movement around the country. He wanted to disown the action of the protestors at Chauri Chaura and therefore he denounced them and withdrew a movement that had galvanised a nation.

The protestors too felt betrayed. Not only were they being hunted down, but their leader had, in effect, given them up, holding them accountable for not just the death of the policemen but also the withdrawal of the movement.

But the sense of betrayal was greatest amongst the masses that had burnt their bridges and committed themselves to the Non-cooperation movement. Men, women and even little children had been carried away by the wave of nationalism only to be left stranded. That day in Chauri Chaura cleaved a deep divide between the methods and mission of a betrayed Mahatma and that of those who felt betrayed by the Mahatma. Amongst the latter were two little children in Punjab whose meteoric lives streaked across our national consciousness, in a blaze of glory that many say rivals the aura of even a Gandhi. One of them, a lad called Bhagat Singh lived a well documented life, but the other, a certain Sukhdev Thapar, has been reduced to a foot note.

Bhagat and Sukhdev met each other while in college in Lahore and became the best of friends. And from the day they met they matched each other step for step, all the way to the gallows. But what after that? What happens after a freedom fighter has made the supreme sacrifice? Well, there were many who actually didn’t have to die. They managed just fine with a series of protest marches, lectures and mild-mannered discussions around a few tables. The situation required consistent and delicate handling, but in return, the British bureaucracy and our democracy allowed them, and many of their descendents, the right to define our past, present and future. But what of those who did go all the way? In order to find out, I went in search of Bharat Bhushan Thapar, paternal nephew of the great Sukhdev. It wasn’t a pretty picture...

Sukhdev’s family had always supported his cause. His father Ram Lal Thapar ran a successful business and “…on occasions, Sukhdevji would come and take the day’s earnings because the party (Hindustan Socialist Republican Association) needed funds. His father and brothers of course were all happy to support him as much as possible,” recounted Bharat Bhushan.

But soon their world was to come crashing down on the Thapars. Sukhdev was hanged and his father was arrested and deported. “Neighbours, not wanting to be seen around the family of a revolutionary, avoided us like the plague. After numerous raids, the family business collapsed. We were on the verge of destitution. We’ve seen terrible times, and no one did a thing to help...” said Bharat. Freedom had demanded far more than death from Sukhdev Thapar.

The Thapars saw terrible times, and it didn’t matter if the nation was being run by those who Sukhdev fought against, or those who he fought alongside. The apathy of free India was as painful as the persecution of the British India. It is said that Bharat’s father, Sukhdev’s younger brother, Prakash Chand Thapar had to pull carts and sell grass to make ends meet. “We’ve only now begun to eat three square meals a day… I’m in my 50s now but for as far back as I can remember, life has been about survival. I wish I had the opportunity to sit with my grandparents and listen to the legend of my brave uncle, but I never had the time… its been hard…really hard”, lamented Bharat. Naughara, Sukhdev’s ancestral house in Ludhiana, where nine Thapar families lived together was handed over by Bharat to the local administration, in the hope that it would be made into a memorial or a library. “I didn’t want a penny…”, said a disgusted Bharat. “All I wanted was to hand over the property but they made me run from pillar to post and kept me waiting outside their office for hours…can you believe that? Recently, they renamed the Ludhiana bus stand in my uncle’s honour and that is all my uncle has been reduced to – a photo-op for politicians. I wasn’t even called. They picked up a random ‘Thapar’ to attend the event while I stood there unrecognised.”

Sukhdev’s battles aren’t over yet. One of his compatriots, Hansraj Vohra, had become an approver and he was the one responsible for the conviction and death of Sukhdev, Bhagat Singh and Rajguru. Vohra later became a journalist, but to add insult to injury, the cowardly Vohra tried to justify his actions by saying that he did it because Sukhdev, his guru, had turned approver first and also because… you’re not going to believe this… he ridiculously enough, wanted to complete his final year of college (??). And so he bought his freedom with their blood, which he now had tainted. Noted journalist Kuldip Nayyar who investigated the allegations once said in an interview that had Sukhdev compromised, “he wouldn’t have been hanged. It was Vohra, an insider who spilled the beans.”

Vohra claimed he was shown a signed testimony by Sukhdev which is why he believed Sukhdev had betrayed them, but as a friend and fellow revolutionary, Vohra was bound to have known better. Sukhdev, when a small boy in school, had refused to salute visiting British military officers in spite of a severe caning. And only such a boy could have embraced the hangman’s noose with a song on his lips.

Just before being hanged, Sukhdev had written a letter to Gandhi, declaring that he believed his country would be served better by his death. He also requested Gandhi not to ask the revolutionaries on behalf of the British to ‘give up violence’. This would only serve their intention of maligning revolutionaries in the eyes of the masses. But Gandhi did not stop appealing to the revolutionaries, and while all of India begged Bapu to plead for the lives of the trio and not sign the Gandhi-Irwin Pact, Gandhi went ahead and signed, thus sealing their fate. Many historians believe, Gandhi could have saved them. He chose not to… he would have had his reasons.

As for Sukhdev, on the 23rd of March 1931, at 1933hrs, his tall figure cast a long shadow as he joined his best friends on their way to the gallows. And the walls of Lahore Central Jail echoed his voice as he sang … Shaheedon ki chitaon par judenge har baras mele/ Watan par mitne waalon ka yehi baaki nishan hoga; Kabhi yeh bhi din ayega jab apna raaj dekhenge/ Jab apni hi zameen hogi aur apna aasmaan hoga.

Martyrdom is not a martyr’s alone for there are those that love him, miss him and suffer for him in his wake. And whether it is a Sukhdev Thapar or a Maj. Sandeep Unnikrishnan, a nation that cannot honour its heroes, surely doesn’t deserve any…


Thursday, August 5, 2010


I hate interrupting the travel diaries but what to do…? I’m not a happy man these days. Dinners aren’t the usual peaceful affairs they used to be in the Banerji household. We eat quietly and quickly and many things are left unsaid. A war of simmering silence is being fought every day at the dinner table and strewn around our plates lie the fish bones of contention.

The Bengali kitchen is an incomplete kitchen without the sweet aroma of well cooked ‘maach’. Fish is to Bengali cuisine what cheese is to the French… from bhapa (steamed) to bhaja (fried) and jhol (curry) to jhal (I’m a little fuzzy about that one but the literal meaning suggests a spicy hot flavour), the culinary arts of Bengal come into their own when fish is on the menu. And the presiding deity of Bengali fishdom is the Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) – or Ilish, if you care for the bong expression – a medium sized fish with silvery pink sheen.

Hilsa, more specifically Hilsa cooked in mustard sauce, is as much a symbol of Bengal as are Tagore and the tiger. There are odes written of lovers smitten, not by Cupid’s darts, but by the whiff of Hilsa well done. As a child I remember reading about the exploits of Gopal, the wise and witty jester at the court of King Krishnachandra, Bengal’s answer to Birbal. One of his most famous tasks was the challenge of buying a couple of hilsas and then walking all the way from the market to the king’s court without anybody speaking a word about the fish to Gopal or anybody else within ear-shot. That Gopal managed the feat is a different story but the fact that the whole court thought it an impossible task would give you an idea how childishly obsessive we Bongs can get about matters as diverse as fish and football (which reminds me, did anybody keep up the Bengali tradition of jumping off a building every time Brazil or Argentina got dumped at this year’s world cup?). Basically, Ilish maach is just ‘too maach important’ for the Bengali psyche.

Now back to the diplomatic snag at the dinner table. Now that you know where the Hilsa stands on the Bengali culinary pyramid, you also ought to know that July and August are the prime months for the Hilsa season. These intrepid fish live out most of their lives in the sea but around the monsoon, when it is time to spawn, they swim against the tide and go back to the river where their parents had given birth to them, to lay their eggs. And here in the delta where the rivers of Bengal meet the bay, it is said, swim the most flavourable Hilsas. So where’s the problem, you ask. Well here it is: I may be a bong but I’m also a vegetarian. Not a strictly very strict vegetarian, for I have been known, in exchange for a promise from the family to one day stop eating meat, bite into a morsel of lovingly prepared fish, on the odd, and might I add, extremely rare, occasion for the greater good (for didn’t George Orwell say in one of his books that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, or something like that?). So it’s been a running campaign at the dinner table where I’ve always gently tried to herd my family towards a vegetarian lifestyle.

But last night, I blew my top for not only was the family having fish but actually digging into a fair helping of roe (fish eggs). I’ve heard from my North Indian friends that they abstain from consuming fish during the breeding season because of ethical and ecological reasons but I guess we coastal folk just can’t get enough of fish in every season. And thus we’ve emptied our oceans and our rivers off all the fish. Fish numbers all over the world have declined at an alarmingly rapid pace. Dietary and the fishing industry mainstays like the blue-fin tuna and the sturgeon (caviar) are now highly endangered and closer home, fish like the Hilsa have grown progressively rarer and smaller over the last decade.

Once the pride of West Bengal, the Hilsa has all but disappeared from the state’s rivers. Of the tonnes of hilsa consumed per year, 80% come from Bangladesh, a country which has done a far better job of conserving Hilsa numbers than has the state government of Bengal, and the remaining 20% come from Gujarat. But even in these two regions, numbers are dwindling by the year.

And do you know why the Hilsa in West Bengal is practically extinct locally? Well it’s a fatal attraction. We have loved it to death. There are three prime reasons! One, it is illegal to capture juvenile Hilsas and fishing nets have to be necessarily designed with gaps big enough to let the khoka (juvenile) ilish escape. But since full grown Hilsas are rather expensive, there’s a big demand for khoka hilsas and fishermen, in violation of the law, capture these juveniles for our gluttonous consumption. And the government is apparently “too busy to carry out checks”.

Secondly, the Bengali habit of eating fish during the breeding season, roe and all, really damages the chances of recovery for a variety of fish populations. (And might I add, the dinner table debate has been unanimously resolved in the Banerji household with a resolution in favour of not consuming roe or fish during the prime breeding season. A decision that’ll hold all of us, fish, activist and hilsa connoisseur, in good stead in the future.)

Thirdly, the damming of rivers and pollution has severely compromised a river’s ability to offer habitat and protection for many of India’s spawning fish.

There are many matters beyond our control, but as consumers all over India and especially us Bengalis, it is important that we demand and consume fish like the Hilsa and others responsibly and sparingly, otherwise we risk losing forever the fish that inspires such passion and poetry.