Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Tale of Two Hippies

(from The Heart is a Secure Address by Pankaj Thakur, translator: Stuti Goswami)

            The dictionary says...A hippy is a rebel against middle class values, especial during the 1960s…adopted an unconventional way of life, particularly in clothes and behaviour. Jim Morrison has this to say regarding hippies—
“I like ideas about breaking away or overthrowing of established order. I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder,chaos, especially activity that seems to have no meaning. It seems to me to be the road towards freedom-external freedom is a way to bring about internal freedom.”

            A Saturday in Mumbai . The name of the cinema hall eludes me now. After an evening with Barbara Streisand and Omar Sheriff in the  touching motion picture, ‘Funny Girl’, I was tracing my steps homewards, from Flora Fountain to the South Valley Guest House at Colaba where I was put up. Being a late night show, it must have been about twelve-thirty at night. The pavement bookstalls, the kolhapuri chappal , and other such stalls on the left, just at the entrance of the road from Flora Fountain to Colaba had long closed shop. Of course, a few steps ahead, at the Leopold Café the usual bustle of a number of foreign customers was still to be seen.  In the distance, on the other side of the road, the popular restaurant Delhi Durbar, famous for its tandoori-fish, too had luxury cars covering its precincts at that hour . Of course, the roads were fairly empty, nor was there much hustle on the pavements. The crowd, overall, was thinning out.  I was hastening towards my destination. Our guest house was about half an hour on foot, from Flora Fountain.
            In all probability, it was December. Taking advantage of the silence of the night,  a gentle gust of breeze slipped in from the sea through the tall buildings and reached the main road…and reaching there, seemed to whisper  something to the few odd pedestrians, like me. I checked if my shirt was firmly buttoned, to the uppermost. Just then I noticed a group of hippies on the footpath.  A couple of them were loitering casually. There were  four young men, and two girls in that group. At that time, most of India ‘s cities witnessed a surge of inflow of hippies . Mumbai especially had a large population of hippies. The  expanse of Mumbai city,it’s proximity to the sea, its varied culture and the impersonal nature of the Mumbaikars were said to be the factors that drew them to the city.
            I had great curiosity towards the lifestyle and philosophy of hippies. Apparently, they seemed to be advocates of  an aimless, disoriented and unplanned life, without the least sense of responsibility. However, I always believed that beneath this surface, there were significant societal questions associated with the hippy movement; at the same time as I believed it was important to analyse these questions. Because, it wasn’t merely to savour a different kind of lifestyle that thousands of people had suddenly given up their comfortable lives to embrace such a harsh and uncertain life what was it that lacked in the established social order, that had led so many multitudes plunge towards change… The question is—what was it that had created such ripples in the depths of their hearts to respond to such beckonings? What anguish led them to rebel against and violate the norms and rules of society?  They must have felt strangulated by the excesses of the Western lifestyle, their souls must have experienced a profound yearning, a fierce urge for alleviation of their emotions—in opposition to all those repressive prevailing societal practices and norms—those hippies sought a liberated society and a liberated life of love-warmth-and peace.  Therefore it is said, the influential class of society had  been scared and had tried to trample under its feet the rising hippie movement of the 1960s.  though the hippie movement had a  strong ideal, the movement couldn’t achieve permanence; because they couldn’t prepare a definite power centre that was required for them to successfully  hoist their flag of an alternate route of life. Their faith on life, their ideals were individualistic.they ever refrained from imposing their faiths on one another. Consequently, though each hippie was driven by an inner pillar of belief, they never had a united platform for themselves to establish themselves as a formidable force in society.
            Cuddling those thoughts inside my mind, I kept walking when suddenly I was conscious of somebody following me, and muttering something. I turned around and saw one of the two hippy girls I’d seen awhile ago, standing quite close to me. I became aware that she was saying something I couldn’t understand. The girl was robust, slightly taller than me, with  a shock of unruly muga-coloured hair.  She was wearing a brown skirt  and a loose black top. At the first instant, I took her to be a projection of the thoughts I was cuddling. But my illusion broke in a moment.  I saw that the girl was beside me, trying to keep pace with  my steps. I thought it would be better to lag behind;but at that instant the girl spoke up—“Please give me fifty rupees.”
            I wasn’t at all prepared for such a situation. As a student in an expensive city like  Mumbai, I had to manage things quite hard every month, given the limited money I received from home, every month. Except for helping someone in an emergency, the thought of donating money  never entered my thoughts. In fact, at that time, spending money on good movies was the only luxury I afforded myself. Therefore, thinking that if I kept pace with the girl, I’d have difficulty escaping, I quickened my steps. But, the girl didn’t give up. She too increased her speed and kept beside me. Then, surprising me all of a sudden, she clutched my shirt sleeve, and muttered, “Please give me fifty rupees. Give me fifty rupees. Only fifty.” There was a deep languor in her voice; but somewhere in her unconscious mind, there seemed to be the consistent pressure of a tumultuous belief—fifty rupees, fifty rupees. As if, getting that fifty rupees would erase all problems from her life, it was with such confidence that she was speaking.
            I felt extremely uncomfortable. I couldn’t decide what to do; how I could possibly free myself from the clutches of that hippy at midnight in a deserted Colaba street. The unconscious seemed kept hammering inside, “give her whatever you have in your pocket and run.” Because the picture of a lack of money brimmed clearly before my eyes,   escaping without paying the money seemed a better option that giving the money—at least that’s what my conscience kept harping.
             As I was thus tugged between opposing thoughts, the girl languidly placed her hand on my shoulder, and spoke gently, as if I was a dear one, “Only fifty rupees.” Without thinking twice, I took out my wallet from my pocket and handed her the only note I had (it was a hundred rupees note), and relieved, had taken just a few steps when she almost ran to me, and blocking my way, said, “I need only fifty rupees. This is hundred. please give me only fifty rupees.”
Now what! Even after giving the money, the problem didn’t ease. it was midnight then, and there was no way I could get a change at that hour in that near-deserted Colaba street. There was not a single shop opened. “That’s okay. I don’t have change”—the words voluntarily came out of my mouth.. the girl thrust the note into a bag tied to her waist, and said, “I can’t pay you back. But…”, she paused, and seemed to be in thought for a moment. Then,she grabbed my hand with both hands and , slowly, pulled it and pressed it over her breasts. This was beyond my imagination. I realized that young girl was trying to express her gratitude by giving up her last and most precious possession . but, I found it difficult to understand what suffering had degraded that girl to that state; and if such circumstances were a fall-out of that path to liberation of humanity, or, if a girl had to play with her chastity, the last of her possessions, for the sake  of mental/intellectual freedom, was such a  journey worthwhile? Does .such a life logical? such thoughts speedily entered my mind.  Mechanically, I drew my hand away. But, the girl didn’t stop at that; she once again  tried to pull my hand towards her, saying “Yeah, you can do that…”. For a few moments, my mind seemed to stop working. This time, without wasting a split second, I forcefully my hand away from her hold, and started running. When I finally reached the guest house, I found the old Parsee caretaker chacha at the doorway (we all used to address him so). He sensed I had some trouble, and on instinct, to protect me, ushered me in, in a paternal tone, “Go, go inside. Go to sleep, it’s quite late.”
            The incident had taken place,not far from  the guest house. The girl must have seen me hurry in. she followed me and arrived at the doorway. Of course, I got to know this a little later when chacha came to my room. He spoke in a Marathi-Hindi mixed accent,” Why did you go to such badnaami (i.e. infamous or base) girl? You seemed quite a good boy. you never seemed like Gupta at all (a gentleman called Ravi Gupta, another inmate of the guest house was known for his intimacies with several call girls)…chased her away.” After some time, he spoke in a softer tone, “It’s okay, hundred rupees was alright. She had showed me the note also.”
            Chacha’s words sent me into a stupor, and I could do nothing but gape at him open-mouthed. I could never explain to him, that the girl had actually come there to express her gratitude, and I wasn’t ready nor willing to accept the form in which she wanted to offer her gratitude, and it was to escape such a situation that I had run away…
            That girl’s behaviour didn’t arouse  hatred or abhorrence in my mind. Rather, what perturbed me was the thought that from some faraway unknown land, that girl had come here to experience a free life, and in what circumstances was she living here. I wanted to know what would she do once that one hundred was over. Did she leave her own home prepared to embrace such a life as this? Or, had she simply departed, unprepared—and when she arrived here, she had to face all these?  I sought to ask that girl. Did any conviction sprout in her, any conviction that motivated her  to easily embrace such hardships, and move ahead towards that desired point, that final goal? My reasonings couldn’t contend with such queries that flooded my mind, and slipping out of such enclosures my thoughts unknowingly entered the imaginary world. Where I saw innumerable unfamiliar figures like that girl advancing in search of an illusory truth, along a shadowy-unclear roads; but then, at the end of this journey, at its ultimate point no one had the keys to those riddles—such heavy realizations overcast my thoughts, and increasingly created a tumult inside me. At that moment, it seemed as if I would run nd find out that girl,and make her return….
            Even today, whenever I see a person who vaguely resembles that other girl, that hippy girl’s   suffering face brims in my mind’s eye.

            I had stopped at Calcutta on my way back from Chennai to Guwahati. At that time,my college friend Anup(Ajit Bhuyan) too was posted in Calcutta, as a senior officer in the Central Inland Water Transport. I had called hi up to inform of my arrival at the certain date and time, at the same time requesting him to book a room for me at Assam Bhawan, Calcutta. Anup promised that everything would be arranged. Once Anup took up a responsibility, one didn’t need to worry even a little. Therefore, no sooner had I landed at the airport and set out to look for a taxi, than I saw him standing at the exit door. It felt nice. At the same time, I was a trifle surprised too. For, I hadn’t asked him to come over to receive me.after some time, the matter became clearer: Anup was taking me to his residence at Park Circus, Anup hadn’t even booked a room at Assam Bhawan for  that purpose.
            Te next day was a Sunday. I was quite free. After my morning cuppa, I was lying on my bed, flipping through a magazine. At intervals, the sound of passing trams outside the window brought back to mind memories of traveling in trams during school-college days whenever  we came to Calcutta.
            At about nine, Anup informed that  he had to go to his office  at the Hooghly dockyard for some urgent work. He added that I could come along as well, if I pleased. After breakfast, we got onto Anup’s jeep. It was decided that while returning, we would have lunch at a Chinese restaurant at New Alipore.
            Clear Sunday morning. The jeep ploughed through the crowded streets. Anup was busy driving with care, while I sat beside him, free from all care and anxiety, enjoying the sights along the road. The roads and streets of Kolkata are always busy, choc-a-bloc with people. An assemblage of numerous multitudes. Varied people.busy people.  Everyone seemed rushing after something or the other. No one seemed to have time to spare,time to stand and stare at the sights and other people around. Shredding through such a timeless and everlasting crowd, our jeep carefully advanced,in the opposite direction to the flow of crowds. I sat there, enjoying the sights, unhurried, sans any anxiety. After sometime, leaving the main road behind, our jeep slowly entered a soft, a narrow earthy road in the Hooghly dock area. Even there, on both sides of that road, there was such an impassable crowd.  The crowds seemed to comprise workers of that area—diverse multitudes once the distance,I noticed a goods-carrying ship standing in the water.a musty smell-- mixture of the salty sea and sand-mud emanated from the area, and clambering across the wind, entered our nostrils.just then,the narrow road bent and laid before us a long wooden bridge-like narrow path.on either side of that bridge-like wooden path there were firm walls of thick bamboo. A little ahead, we noticed a group of labourers, covered with mud,trying to heave out a heavy something from the waters . the efforts of the labourers was noticeable even from this distance. There was something else that also drew my attention tothat particular group of labourers. At the same time, I alse became curios. Normally, Indian labourers’ skin  are tanned, but amidst that dark-skinned mud-covered group, there was oe who was extremely fair-skinned. . he didn’t at all look like an India.his features, his countenance,everything was so un-Indian.the only similarity was that, that fair skinned labourer too was pulling and tugging with all his might, as sincerely as the others, at that heavy object. My inquisitive mind quickly made a calculation--that fair-skinned labourer must have been a hippy who  had come from some country in the West.  Suffering poverty, and helpless, this man must have taken to working as a daily wage labourer in the dockyard here in Calcutta. This equation seemed quite sensible tome,and convinced, and proud and eager of my discovery, I  blurted out, “Anup, that white-skinned labourer, he is definitely a hippy. Poor fellow, out of hunger and poverty, he’s now…” But before I could complete my sentence, Anup spoke urgently, “Don’t say that! If anyone hears this,we’ll be in trouble.can’t you see? There are so many people around? We’ll talk about this later.” I hadn’t anticipated such a reaction.Why should Anup react in such a way to so little a thing?and that too, in such stern tone?it was just a guess on my part. People can make so many such assumptions. What was there to react that way! i fell silent, enmeshed in such thoughts.though I didn’t show it, I did feel a trifle upset. Whatever, I looked forward to Anup’s explanation—that, as he’d said, couldn’t be discussed with so many people milling all around.
            The jeep meanwhile came to a halt. Promising to return as soon as possible, Anup got down from the jeep and walked towards his office. I remained inside the jeep,observing the people and happenings around.
            After some time, Anup hurried towards the jeep. I thanked him for the cup of coffee he’d sent for me, from his office.the jeep cautiously passed through the narrow roads and finally entered main road. In the meantime, the musty smell that had ensheathed us till the too remained behind. The damp sea breeze too gradually withdrew. Both of us, sat silent. Anup’s reaction to my assumption of that hippy had,knowingly or unknowingly left behind some trace of hurt in my mind... Anup too must have concentrated more on the driving,since the roads were now even fuller….
            After some time, we arrived that Chinese restaurant at New Alipore.once we’d settled ourselves comfortably, and I had gulped down a glass of water, I brought out that hippy-issue. Anup smiled a little, and then began--“I knew you were upset by  my reaction then. But, I just wanted to warn you, given the milling crowds on both sides. That  fair-skinned youth that you’d thought to be a hippy is nothing like that. He’s actually the son of the Managing Director of the Mitsubishi Shipping Company,japan. You must be aware that the management system in Japan is of a high standard, and there, they value traditions a great deal. Though he’s the son of the MD, he won’t be able to sit directly on his father’s seat or at least beside his father, as is the case with so many of our Indian an ordinary employee, like every other humble employee,he too has to begin from the very  step. And then,he will move upwards, inch-by-inch,learning the nitty-gritties at every step.of course, compared to other workers or employees, he will get lesser time and the training period too will probably  be shorter. But he cannot afford to bypass any of those saw that ship anchored at the dock, didn’t you? That’s a Ship from the Mitsubishi Company itself.  The goods unloading work has begun since yesterday.that young man’s training has begun from here itself. He arrived here a couple of months ago. And now,he’s working alongside the other labourers in unloading the goods. Here he will learn such tasks and after four months, he’ll return home. It is this hands-on training that will teach him and make him realize how much time it takes in loading and unloading a ship,how is the loading process executed, the psychology of the people involved in such tasks,the nature of problems that labourers face and how can solutions be found out and so on..This way, the young man would receive a practical,  meticulous understanding of the nitty-gritties at their level. This is also the main objective of this kind of training.”

Anup’s words filled me with shame, for my habit of making presumptions and arriving at a quick decision based on those assumptions. In the environs we’d been through in our lives’ journey, we had never had even  an inkling of such profound thought. Probably this is one of the factors behind our ignorance and backwardness. Such planned, practical and rigid training  ways  has definitely and undoubtedly raised Japan’s position in the world.

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