by Pranab Bardhan
Another cultural benefit of my travels, particularly in early days, used to be my exploration of international cinema. I have already mentioned how going out of India I became exposed to a riot of European art films. In later years I also saw some superb art films from Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Iran, South Korea, and Taiwan. In the US in many cities some of these art films were not always easily available, and I sometimes saw them in visits to New York or London, though with some lapse of time Pacific Film Archive in the Berkeley campus showed some good international films. Every time I went to Kolkata my friend Samik Banerjee told me about the new Bengali art films that came out in the months I was away and sometimes took me to their special screenings. Through him I came to know some of the major film directors and actors in Kolkata. Meanwhile the quality of American films improved a great deal. But the general commercial film world in the US largely catered to adolescent fantasy worlds or antics of superheroes from comic books or dystopian science fiction, none of which held much attraction for me. Even in more grown-up American films one often missed the sharp, witty, historically informed, and politically engaged conversation of friends and also a kind of cerebral sexuality that I used to associate with French films, for example– a character in Godard’s film Contempt famously said in bed: “I love you totally, tenderly, tragically”.
Then, of course, came the days of DVD’s, and I became an avid member of several video stores in Berkeley. Different video stores, particularly the smaller ones, gave me the opportunity to savor a wide variety of international movies. I remember once when I heard about a new video store opening in a corner of Berkeley, in the very first week I went there and tried to see in what way their international DVD collection was distinctive. I got to talk to the young man who was the store owner-manager, and soon we were deep into our respective likes and dislikes in movies. I told him that there were some international movies which were in everybody’s list of all-time greats but not in mine (to take examples just from 1960’s films, say, Godard’s “Breathless”, or “Last Year in Marienbad” by Resnais—I actually liked the latter’s film “The War is Over” much more–, or “L’Aaventura” by Antonioni). Similarly, there were some movies that critics or film scholars did not quite rave about but I wanted to see them again and again (say, “The Double Life of Véronique” by Krzysztof Kieślowski from Poland, or “We All Loved Each Other So Much” by Ettore Scola from Italy, or “Landscape in the Mist” by Theo Angelopoulos from Greece)—I think it was more a matter of harmony with my temperament than technical qualities of the films. The young man gave me his preferred lists and we animatedly discussed them. At one point he shouted toward an inner room in the store where his wife was busy sorting out their new arrivals of DVD’s. He told her, “You call me a movie-maniac, come and see, here’s another one!”
Once I was telling a Romanian student of mine how I had liked some recent Romanian films. She was thrilled to hear that, and in a couple of weeks her mother in Romania sent me a gift package of DVD’s of about a dozen recent Romanian films which were very difficult to get outside the country. Then after some years the days of DVD’s subsided, their stores folded one after another, and the era of streaming services took over. But in the latter, while I appreciate the convenience of not having to go to stores and of exploring and watching online, I miss the multitude and diversity of international movies I was used to, earlier in my travels and later in the DVD days. Maybe there are specialized streaming services catering to tastes like mine, but I have not yet quite found it.
Let me end my travel stories by narrating some experience of hotels where I stayed in various journeys. The interior of big hotel rooms these days often looks similar all over the world with only some token flourishes of local culture, in the flower arrangements or some of the furnishings (in Japanese hotel toilet commodes, for example, there are arrangements for water sprays from inside them, with different angles and temperature, washing your bottom). There is somewhat more variation in the food in the hotels (for example, in east Asian hotels at breakfast time I much prefer the lighter Asian offerings to western breakfast) than in the interior arrangements. In these look-alike hotels waking up in the morning I sometimes had to think for a minute to remind myself where in the world I was.
Once in a hotel in Pattaya, Thailand, very early in the morning I was woken up by a lot of commotion from the hotel swimming pool outside a few floors down. I saw from the window a Japanese tour group of elderly people having their swimming adventure orchestrated by a group leader with a whistle and a flag, and people jumping in and out of water together following the whistle. I have always been struck by the ease of collective action in Japan under different circumstances, particularly in contrast with the easy indiscipline of groups in India (where it is more like ‘herding cats’).
Another time I was similarly woken up very early in the morning in an Indian hotel. My mother wanted me to take her to the Himalayan foothills where she had heard that the water in the river Ganges was clean and blue, compared to the muddy and dirty Ganges water in the plains she was familiar with. I took her to the town Rishikesh where the Ganges water was quite blue and swift-flowing. We stayed in a hotel by the river, and the sound of the rushing water was soothing for sleep. But early in the morning we were woken up by the loud sound of what seemed like a continuous metallic sound of things hitting one another, like some giant cymbals clashing. I could not figure out what it was. I went out of the hotel to the river bank and saw something strange. Then talking to people I realized what it was. Upstream in the river near the temple large numbers of pious pilgrims throw coins into the holy river, and a few miles downstream some resourceful people have put up big magnets where masses of coins in the swift current hit and get stuck. I saw a few people collecting the coins with big nets. I thought this upstream-downstream system was a neat mutually-beneficial one, with pious people upstream gaining in virtue, and not-so-pious people downstream gaining in more material terms.
Recently I reached a big hotel in central London from the airport a bit late in the evening. I was hungry but the hotel restaurants were about to close, so they advised me to go to the bar where they served food until quite late. I sat down there with my food and drink. After some time a young brunette with dark attractive eyes entered the bar and was obviously looking for someone. Her makeup and high heels suggested some edginess in her appearance. Within a minute or so, she came over to my table and asked if I was Ashok. I told her that was not my name, but if I could be of any help. She said, “Ashok had asked me to come to this hotel, I knocked at his hotel room for a few minutes, but there was no response. So I thought I’d check in the bar. You look Indian, and Ashok is an Indian name, right?”. I said that neither she nor I seemed to know any Ashok in the bar. She said she’d try Ashok’s room again after a little while. Then she gave a tired look at my food and drink, and said that as this was a big hotel beer must be quite expensive. I then asked her to sit down and said that I’d treat her to a glass of beer. She seemed glad to sit down.
Her drink came and we talked. She was from Romania, where she had finished college. But there was hardly any decent job there, so she had come to London to try her fortune in the call-girl business. She had enlisted in several escort agencies, and they sent her to customers, often in big hotels, and charged 40% of her income as their commission, but they took care of advertising online and some other overhead costs. While we were talking a phone call came, and she took it and spoke in her own language for a few minutes and seemed to hurriedly finish the call. She said the call was from her mother in Bucharest, and with a wry smile commented that her mother thought she was in London for her studies, and would “kill” her if she knew what she was doing.
I asked her if she was sufficiently aware that she was taking a big risk of disease. She said she was, and got frequent medical check-ups. Then after some moments of brooding silence she said she had come to this “line”, neither out of any particular self-generated eagerness nor had anyone really forced her, she sort of drifted into it. While in college she had fallen in love with a town boy with roguish charm, motor bike, tattoos, and “bad” friends; they used to take her to dazzling night clubs and wild parties, where she got initiated into casual sex and some drugs. When she finally got over the spell of this company and tried to get a regular job, she realized the kind of jobs she could scrape would not allow her to maintain some expensive habits in clothes and accessories she had meanwhile acquired. Then with her tired eyes she gave me a prolonged upfront gaze, and said, “I figured out that spreading my legs for a short while would earn me a lot more than those trite jobs I’d otherwise slog in”. So with a couple of other similar-minded Romanian girls she headed for London. She liked London (except for the infernal patchy rain and cold); in particular it was much safer for her than Bucharest in the kind of life she had chosen. Then, abruptly, she shook her rolling dark hair, thanked me for the beer, and went away in search of her customer.
I remembered my earlier experience in a Bangkok hotel in the late 1970’s. These were days when the Vietnam War had just wound up, and Bangkok as a center of “R&R”(rest and recreation) for American GI’s was in some decline. There were more pimps and painted girls in the streets than customers—a brothel in decline was a sad sight. The organizers of the United Nations conference I came for had put me up in a 5-star hotel. Even there lying in your bed you could see the ceiling framed in glass mirrors where you could watch yourself whatever you were doing in bed. One night I was a bit tired, and went to bed a bit early around 11 PM, and quickly fell asleep. Shortly after midnight I was woken by soft but insistent knocks at my door. With sleepy eyes I opened the door and found a little mini-skirted high-heeled teenage Thai girl who asked me if I needed a body massage to relax me. I loudly said no and slammed the door. But going back to bed I thought I should not have been so rude with this unfortunate girl, and did not sleep much for the rest of the night.
This stab of regret at my rudeness came back to me when much later I read a poem by Robert Hass (my ex-colleague in Berkeley English Department, and an American Poet Laureate):
“…in the thick heat
Of the Bangkok night. Not more than fourteen, she saunters up to you
Outside the Shangri-la Hotel
And says, in plausible English,
“How about a party, big guy?”
Here is more or less how it works:
The World Bank arranges the credit and the dam
Floods three hundred villages, and the villagers find their way
To the city where their daughters melt into the teeming streets,
And the dam’s great turbines, beautifully tooled
In Lund or Dresden or Detroit,…….
Have become hives of shimmering silver
And, down river, they throw that bluish throb of light
Across her cheekbones and her lovely skin.”
* * * *
Following the mantra of Charaiveti I have travelled extensively in this wide world—the northernmost point I went was Trondheim in Norway (I gave a lecture at the university there), not very far from the Arctic Circle, and the southernmost point for me was Dunedin in New Zealand (where I gave a lecture at the University of Otago), not very far from the Antarctic Circle. Starting from the obscure crevice of a poor neighborhood in north Kolkata I have traversed a stretched-out rather cosmopolitan life, the many memories and anecdotes of which I shared in these pages. Memories are, of course, by nature too multi-dimensional, elusive and unstable to be easily captured this way. In his highly perceptive Booker-winning short novel, The Sense of an Ending, the English writer Julian Barnes meditates on the malleability of memory and its construction by an unreliable narrator. This should actually apply to all narrations of memories including this one.
Nearing the end of this journey, amid the darkening shadows, it seems three things in particular preoccupy my weary mind. One is the memory of the number of people, friends, relatives and valued acquaintances I have lost on the road. The curse of old age is the paralyzing sense of pervasive loss, more than one’s own physical infirmities and indignities. I pine at the thought of so many things I still wanted to talk to the lost ones about, so many feelings and emotions I wanted to share with them, but they were snatched away from me. I remember one brief section of the 1976 Italian animation movie Allegro non troppo by Bruno Bozzetto, where against the background music of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro you see the inexorable journey of evolution of different creatures where as many drop off by the roadside, others, the survivors, carry on in the onward trudging to their destiny. The chorus in Agamemnon, the famous play by the Greek playwright Aeschylus tells us: “He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart…”.
The second thing is special to first-generation immigrants like me, their particular restlessness, that they are at home nowhere. In his novel Snow Orhan Pamuk writes about his character Ka, a Turk living in Germany, thinking of the 19th-century Russian writer Ivan Turgenev:
“Ka loved Turgenev, and his elegant novels, and like the Russian writer Ka too had tired of his own country’s never-ending troubles and come to despise its backwardness, only to find himself gazing back with love and longing after a move to Europe”.
This longing on the part of the deracinated in melancholy exile and yet disappointed with one’s origin country is not unfamiliar to me. I also think about Saadat Manto’s satirical Urdu short story where, after the Partition India and Pakistan exchange the inmates of each other’s lunatic asylums; and one Sikh inmate from the Lahore asylum, the man from Toba Tek Singh a town now in Pakistan, decides to lie down in the no man’s land between the barbed wire fences of the two countries, refusing either country. Sometimes I feel like that man from Toba Tek Singh; other times I feel like belonging to all countries.
Finally, a kind of deep political despair makes the footsteps in my remaining journey increasingly weary. When I was young I could never imagine that I’d live through a day when a hateful intolerant majoritarian and authoritarian poison will vitiate the air of many countries in the world, and will be a serious challenge to the pre-existing (flawed) liberal order, and also retard the progress toward meeting our new challenges of environmental degradation, public health crisis and corrosive inequality and insecurity. Faced with these challenges and the dysfunctionalities of our current social and political institutions in meeting them, some social commentators are turning to apocalyptic terms to describe the future which I cannot bring myself to share, but I have deep worries. I have now written a book for a general readership, titled A World of Insecurity: Democratic Disenchantment in Rich and Poor Countries (Harvard University Press, 2022), where I try to discuss a diagnosis of the problems as well as tentatively indicate some possible though narrow and slippery pathways out. I have adopted there an attitude of what might be called an upbeat skepticism: pushing for things to get better while being aware that they may not -–this is somewhat akin to what Antonio Gramsci, writing in Mussolini’s prison, called “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. I hope against hope that my grandchild will grow up in a better world.
[This is the last column in the Charaiveti series. For those who are interested, a revised version of the 64 Parts will be aggregated into 15 chapters in a book titled Charaiveti: An Academic’s Global Journey, to be published by Harper Collins India in 2023.]