Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Spring Comes Stealing

This was published in the TKP on Sunday, Feb 1.

Later today, perhaps another long post about Kolkata.

Spring comes stealing

The marshlands on which the city of Kolkata is raised experience a sudden withdrawal of winter, as if the fog tires of fighting for an etymological victory over the city's persistent smog, as if gradation is an unsolvable puzzle, as if there is no intermission between shivering and sweltering. There is no graceful exit, like birds take flight away from their winter habitat or deep-buried habits of hibernation thaw to a new tickle of sun: the sellers and mongers, the Babus and their horde of waddling housewives, the intensity and anger in the eyes of bus-drivers and rickshaw-pullers all persist, as permanent as the urine soaked sides of roads, the black-as-Kali's-wrath feet of Kolkata's denizen, the mildly stinging foam of smoke belched by union-backed two-stroke engines, and the destitution of gap-toothed two-rupees tea-sellers. Still, spring comes stealing to Kolkata and brings a burst of color that comforts the mind.

In this renewed garden, the eye becomes a small animal under the watch of an amused archer. It darts from one refuge to another, avoiding exposure to the colour of new hibiscus or old marigold turning crimson in its heart. But the eye is a bucket by nature, forced to scoop, and take account, of all sights new, all minute flicker of light and shade, so it labours under the slow torture of notice. It is, more than any other sensory organ, attuned to the acquisition of new knowledge. To it is given the concave surface where the greatest of all binary finds its playground: light and shade. And this idea shapes itself best on the facets, the lulling curves and pointing juts on the clay body of a Saraswoti being shaped by loving hands.

It takes colour from a new Gujarati Kotha sari a housewife decides to wear for the big day of puja, and it takes the colours of the bougainvillea she waters in the morning to invite vitality to the narrow strip of sun on her balcony. The eye watches as spring takes colour from the fresh-eggs gut of rohu fish in the market. Spring takes colour from the new date syrup for the city's sweets, and from the first peek of sun finally victorious over winter, and awakens in the eyes of the people slowly waddling to a chowk where Kumhars practice their art of building idols for each season's festivities.

The Kumhars, or clay-players, start early for each appointed date, perennially labouring, twisting dampened straw over a crude bamboo frame, rubbing over the shapes a clay and lime paste, using weeks to realize one form, like the incisive, derivative, meditative shape of learning any new idea. Because their shapes are applied with too much precision, they can't be kilned: fire is too harsh a judgement for any delicate idol. Ornaments, earlobes, meaningful curls of the lips and decorative nipples are added by hand as idlers stand to watch, drawing on their slow-smoking beedis, leaning on the handles of their long spades as they dig up the roads to change water mains, or to repair a road that never needed alteration, but the government being communist, unemployment finds a ready solution in the sunny prospect of digging aimlessly, endlessly, over any exposed public land, until the rains come chasing.

Not the Kumhars: their labours have nothing to do with ideology, or any other corruptible chain of human logic, but pertain to the skein that connects seasonal wisdom of sleep to its subsequent burst of awakening. They add one fresh colour each day to finished idols: red alta ring around the feet on Monday, black pupil of eyes on Tuesday, crushed-bougainvillea pink for the mouth on Wednesday, ochre blouse on Thursday, yellow silk for a sari on Friday. On Saturday, her swan gets its black-dotted yellow beaks, and silver strands strum to evoke the shellac-red veena in Saraswoti's hands.

And so spring comes stealing to the land, amplified in the swing and grunt of day labourers grateful for the mild clime. New flowers garland idols of Kali, and everybody smiles in the anticipation of puja that brings freshness to their demeanor. Lovers fight again in the streets, whispering urgently in rapid-fire Bangla, slapping away a hand that reaches for another. Fishmongers abandon their stalls to appreciate new shades in lilies and peonies, children clamber over tea-stalls to collect an unanticipated harvest of what looks like cherry blossoms. Each teeming window-box or balcony rivals every other in the uniqueness of its own bougainvillea.

All of this is witnessed by a Saraswoti who is assembled in parts over a long time and kept in the moist shade of a veil, an ancient woman of grace who learns each season the very lessons she teaches the world: to create, with effort and affection, to keep faith in creativity and new knowledge, to persist in the task. She allows Kumhars to create her every year, to be celebrated for a day, after which she is abandoned under trees or in the waters of Ganga: which of her disciples has escaped the same fate? Create. Persist in the effort. Give to the world a few new ideas to cherish. Then wither and return to the eternal void, just like the spring that comes stealing, then withers into parched soil and flowers that wilt in the mid-morning sun.

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