Foxed at 40? It’s Basic Instinct, Stupid!

Sharon Stone felt she was at her sexiest best after she turned 40. It was a challenging phase for the actor since Hollywood, as People magazine quoted her in a 2019 issue, would shy away from heroines after they entered their 40s. A couple of years on, the 40s are making a comeback, for all the wrong reasons, though.

Even before the world could unwind from a state of shrunken living through over two years of a viral onslaught on lives, economies began contracting. The early 1980s suddenly became a focal point for most nations, at least for those that dictate the world order, with their treasuries facing the scariest threat in 40 years. The scar that the recession of 1981-82 had inflicted on the US economy was the worst between the Great Depression of 1929-30 and the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-09.

The ghost of recession came haunting yet again in 2022 with crude oil prices shooting through the roof, unemployment scaling record highs, prices beginning to singe, and currencies being battered. The average American paid more than 8.6 percent to buy the necessities in June 2022. Such an escalation was seen last 40 years back.

If shared prosperity is the only way to sustainable prosperity, then crises can’t be left unshared in a globalised world. The slowdown snowballed in the United States and crossed the ocean to freeze Europe and, in turn, Asia. The frost bit the economies deeper than the wound the seductive novelist Catherine Tramell’s ice pick had caused to rock star Johnny Boz in Basic Instinct. Much the way Boz bled to death in the film, the coffers of the governments kept bleeding.

The unemployment rate in the US climbed to 3.7 percent, from over a 40-year low of 3.5 percent in July, as more Americans came off the sidelines to look for jobs and didn’t find work immediately. A sub-4 percent unemployment is not an alarm in most parts of the world but in the US economy, even this small rise in rate indicates a significant drift. Economists at the Bank of America Securities had in June forecast a 40 percent chance of a US recession next year. But now, after the second straight quarter of contraction, the economy has technically slipped into a recession.

The waves of economic turbulence felled the British economy next, with the inflation scaling a 40-year high and the pound down to record lows. The United Kingdom may see its annual inflation doubling to 20 percent by early next year, if assessments by Goldman Sachs come true. The next in line to join the 40-year-woes league was Germany as the fate of the entire continent slipped into a deeper uncertainty fostered by the Russian invasion on Ukraine. The euro came crashing to equate with the US dollar on the back of choked crude supply sending the Euro Zone energy inflation near 40 percent in July.

Russia, however, looked blank at the red eye of the mightier West and kept ravaging a sovereign people, leaving large swathes of the planet reeling under the dual threats of crude oil supplies running dry and food prices blazing. Sanctions against Russia scripted and sold to the rest of the world by the US reeked of an attempt by Washington to dig out from the grave the Cold War rivalry with Moscow.

As the novelist played by Stone on the screen put her murder plot straight from a fiction to a fact that eventually led Michael Douglas, who played the detective in the movie, crack the mystery murders, the US ban on all things Russian backfired on it. The two warring nations account for nearly a third of global wheat and barley supplies, and two-thirds of the world’s exports of sunflower oil used in cooking. Ukraine is also the world’s fourth-biggest exporter of corn. Wheat booked a 40 percent hike in prices since the sanctions were slapped on Russia.

Back home in India, even before the economy could catch forty winks with the China-US standoff far from being resolved and fresh bouts of Covid in the neighbouring nation sending businesses back in a halt, the economic recovery began slowing down and prices started rising. The rupee fell in the melee to a historic low of 80 to a dollar. The journey from 40 rupees a dollar to 80 took 15 years – the time it would take for the Indian economy to heal the wounds of the Covid pandemic – if the Reserve Bank of India estimates are correct.

The Indian economy recorded a 2.5 percent growth in the January-March quarter of 2020-21 from the previous year but shrank 6.6 percent for the entire year. This was the worst contraction in more than 40 years. In 1979-80, the economy faced a double whammy of severe drought and crude oil prices almost doubled amid supply disruptions triggered by political unrest in Iran.

The current crisis has threatened the country’s aspiration to be a $40-trillion economy by the time India would turn 100 in 2047. Goldman Sachs revised lower its growth projections for the economy after the April-June quarterly GDP readings missed market estimates. India’s real GDP growth increased 13.5 percent in the reported quarter over a year back, short of the 15.2 percent forecast by economists polled by Reuters. This creates a downside risk of 40 basis points to current fiscal year growth estimates, wrote Morgan Stanley.

Unabated uncertainty in global markets, continuing geopolitical crises, inflation sustaining well above the central bank’s tolerance level of 6 percent – all these have pushed Indian equities into a phase of extreme volatility with the benchmarks surpassing record highs and suffering steep declines in frequent intervals. Seasoned traders are holding their patience for the volatility index to reach 40 when it would be considered to have bottomed out.

The boisterous indices of the Indian markets resemble the highs and lows in the life of the troubled cop Nick Curran in his plight through a suspension of disbelief. The headwinds have ruffled India’s growth outlook. With crude oil lingering above $100 a barrel, wheat prices surging 50 percent, and edible oil prices rising 20 percent – all these are critical imports either from Russia or Ukraine – are likely to keep the Indian government in troubled fiscal waters despite a robust revenue. With the currency sinking into an abyss never seen before, the country’s import bills inflated beyond proportion. The resultant drain on the foreign exchange reserves will also weigh on the current account balance.

Pulling the economy out of these challenges would require more doers than dreamers. A resilient India relies on its robust fundamentals, hoping that these are potent enough to withstand the storm, keeping the impact of such external shocks marginal. The results of growth-enhancing policies and schemes and higher infrastructure spending are expected to kick in from 2023 and lead to a stronger multiplier effect on jobs and income, higher productivity, and more efficiency. But honest execution of various policies hold the key.

India is not chasing its economic dream on a Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, which gave Tramell the speed she desired. India has got a Maruti Suzuki that has seasoned for 40 years to rule the roads to success. The government’s vision of ‘made-in-India, made-for-the-world’ is rapidly changing the face of the industrial dynamics in the country. “This is the beginning of a silent revolution,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said about electric vehicles, which are fast transforming the automobile industry, one of the largest employment generators in India. 

In the last 40 years of its history, India has treasured a host of memories that have made it more and more robust to take on its mightier rivals. From political emergency to economic liberalisation, from one of the worst industrial disasters to domestic industry’s rise to global standards, from producing the first car for the middle class to acquiring one of the world’s most premium car brands, from caste-based reservation to emerging as a nuclear power and from sending a man in space to hosting international sporting events – the country has done it all along its journey from being a slave state to be a global leader.

As India outsmarts its former colonial masters by growing past the UK to be the fifth largest economy in the world, it stays its course to the dream to be a $40-trillion economy in the next 25 years. The economy has made major strides by averaging an annual growth rate of 7 percent through the last 40 years. It has learnt in the process the art of facing the external adversities undeterred but it’s still grappling to mend its core with a burgeoning population, poor literacy, and teeming poverty.

Even as it turned 75 this year, India is yet to get some of its basics right. The country is yet to bridge the gender divide with only 40 percent of its working women earning as much as their male counterparts, keeping their contribution to the GDP at 17 percent – far from the projection of 40 percent by 2025. The producer of 40 percent of rice grown world over still has 10 percent of its people living in extreme poverty and starvation, according to a World Bank estimate. The manufacturing hub for the world still has internet confined to only 40 percent of households.

“Making India self-reliant, five things are necessary – intent, innovation, investment, inclusion and infrastructure,” said Narendra Modi, referring to the country’s aspiration to be an economic superpower. If these five are addressed, it’s instinctive that India will succeed.

The Trespasser’s Tale: Bangladesh

She was a foreigner, but became an alien, as soon as she asked for a fork at the small eatery. Hilsa Bhapa can’t be had with a fork and a spoon, not even by the people who swear by the fish. “Amio ei desher meye (I too belong to this land),” she said, grinning, after savouring the fish with her amazing acrobatics with the fork in seeking out every pinch of the delicacy hidden between innumerable fine to finer bones through more than an hour.

The ‘daughters of this land’ are no rarity across the border. But her manoeuvring with the fork in managing a hilsa delight was perhaps unseen to the shopkeeper. “Shohorer apader byapar tai anyo rokom (It’s an altogether different ballgame when it comes to sisters from cities).” The shopkeeper was all praise for her. Her face was beaming with sheer bliss when she stopped talking and sank into the epicurean wonder with all her concentration invested in it.

Her lust for hilsa was so strong that the 30-minute unofficial permit to walk into Bangladesh across the Meghalaya border became least important to remember. Not tempted by fish at all, I was in a hurry to return before the Border Guards Bangladesh (BGB) launched a manhunt for us. “Journalists are always under the lens. So, watch out,” a senior BGB official had alerted, of course flashing a smile, as he let us enter the country without any papers.

My adventures with breaching the borders to Bangladesh began long before the pain of shattered dreams of Bhrigu and Anusuya in Ritwik Ghatak’s Komal Gandhar touched me. The incredible imagery of a ‘plus’ sign in rail lines on the Padma riverbanks turning into a ‘minus’ sign after the land was split attained immortality. And, every time I went past the border, I felt the pain. It was perhaps its severity that had levelled the people across the border – much the way the Ganga and the Padma unite and divide.

The river used to flow a few feet closer to me every year. I had been hearing about the river drifting deeper into the land since I started going there as a child but never realised it until I found an entire tree had disappeared and with it was gone my name etched on its trunk. As a small child I used to be excited to spot the tree every time I visited the place and check out the capital ‘K’ my uncle had inscribed on it.

Raised up in a city, I was too inexperienced to comprehend the plight of these villagers, living by the Padma and living with its whims away in the border district of Murshidabad in Bengal. A bicycle ride from my maternal home to the border was exciting but the thrill was more in looking at the life across the river. There was hardly anything different between the two sides of the water, not even the faith the people practised, yet everything was stamped different.

I was in my teens when, for the first time, my friend took me to the other side on an illegal boat that would ferry smuggled goods across the border. The village in Nawabgunj district of Rajshahi was just like Mithipur where the Padma was eating up the Indian soil. The excitement of visiting a foreign land without any document drove us back to the adventure trail several times till my visits to Murshidabad became less frequent and eventually stopped.

I was intrigued when I heard the story of my friend’s village school in Tripura. Every morning they would cross the border to enter the campus which had its gate in Bangladesh and the building in India. Their playground flattened the divide the nation-builders had erected. I couldn’t make it to that specific village, but I travelled to remote places in North Bengal and Assam where the international border was all about just a piece of stone with the two nations demarcated on it. Villagers often use it for drying their clothes or tying their cattle.

Politics had divided the people based on their faith but the borders are blurred every day when people in many such villages cross over for saying their prayers. The nation is celebrating the 75 years of its identity and so are the partitions but the need for a place of worship based on the geographical boundaries never came up in their mind because it is nothing but faith that unites them and transpires as a legacy of humanity down the generations.

The flattened borders of faith in an India that’s unknown and unfamiliar to most people encourage me to still believe in a world without any country, without any religion, without anything that could be a reason to kill or die for.

The Trespasser’s Tale: Pakistan

Waps aao (come back),” the command came from behind us. “Aabbhi waps aao, warna goli chalega (come back right away, or there will be firing),” the alert this time sounded harsher, perhaps louder, too. Jolted, we stopped, and turned back.

The huge rock with a white line separating two nations stood some 100 metres back. India was behind us. We missed it as we walked through knee-deep snow and crossed over. The Border Security Force personnel yelled at us from the other side of the rock. Even before the reality could sink in, we saw two armed soldiers walking at us from a little ahead. There was no trace of humans till a few moments back. And, now we couldn’t move, we were caught in the middle.

Aap Pakistan mein ho (you’re in Pakistan),” said one of them in a stern face, keeping us under a microscope, while the BSF soldiers kept shouting from far behind in support of our innocence.

“Don’t go deep inside the forest,” we were told when we stepped out of the house a couple of hours back. The Line of Control runs through the other flank of the forest across the valley, we had gathered. But there was an inexorable interest to explore the area. 

The pine trees in the faraway forest forked out of the virgin whiteness in a desolate grey, some broken shoots and leftover tree trunks jutted out at places, quite apologetically, from spotless flood of white snow, and the early morning sun flickered in the icicles hanging like crystals from the leaves of shrubs. It began snowing since last evening and continued through the night. The sleepy hamlet in the high ridges of the Pir Panjal range had just woken up to another day of freezing cold and chilly breeze.

Rashida didn’t probably believe that we would grab the invitation. But she was visibly happy when the five of us jumped to the idea of visiting her village for her sister’s marriage. We had two weeks to prepare for the trip to one of the most dangerous places on earth at a time when the terrain turns almost inhospitable for anyone used to a privileged urban life. 

After a train journey from Delhi to Jammu, an arduous 15-hour bus trip to Srinagar, a night at a rickety homestay, a two-and-a-half-hour trekker ride to the destination next morning, we hardly had any life left in us for a trek to the village some 5 kilometres deep inside the Poonch district of Kashmir. But there was an excitement that overpowered all the fatigue in moments. We suddenly discovered ourselves in the middle of an abundance of breath-taking beauty. We experienced heaven.

Over twenty years back, Kashmir was still licking its Kargil wounds with diplomatic salve, while militants had an easier access through the porous borders that were yet to be barbed. The Valley was seething and trying to wriggle out of a bond in pursuit of a fairy-tale freedom – from ‘Maqbooza Kashmir’ (Occupied Kashmir) to ‘Azad Kashmir’ (Independent Kashmir).

We were called cub reporters then, and kept away from more serious and sensitive issues like Kashmir. What could be a better way to sense the matter than being there, how many of the seasoned editors had been to places like this among the people who make it the most serious affair in this land – perhaps all of us had similar thoughts playing in our minds as we walked through the snow silently.

Did the mythical ceasefire help us that day? Standing in that frost in a land of protracted rivalry, without anything to prove our innocence, our fate hung in a fine balance between beliefs and bullets. We were encroachers by all means, aged precariously to be anything from an agent to a terrorist, and unfaithful for our religious identity in that land of extreme fundamentalism. The few moments of silent observation by the Pakistani soldiers seemed like eons. Words phased out, confidence melted away, and hope fizzled out as seconds ticked by.

We could spot words like gumrah (astray) and mulaqati (visitor) – that we were familiar with after a day in the Valley – in their Pashto-Punjabi conversation about us. Their hands were on their guns that one of us later identified as Kalashnikovs and our hearts jumped to our parched throats. It was not just the black rock with India and Pakistan written big and bold with a white line separating the two words, we overlooked at least two check posts sticking out of the snow within 100 metres from us, and didn’t even care to notice the Azad Kashmir flag painted on a couple of tree trunks around us. We watched everything blithely, without uttering a word, and waited for freedom.

Some 10-15 minutes passed, probably leaving us older and weaker, till one of the Pakistani soldiers waved at his Indian counterpart and we were called back by the BSF. As we ran to the black rock, we didn’t know that there were all possibilities of hitting a landmine any moment. It was not the diplomatic understanding between the men of power at the capitals, it was basic human soul in that obscure border village that set us free that day. Humanity had set aside polity for us.

Rashida and her family members were called by then and with them a motley crowd of at least a dozen villagers gathered outside the BSF check post, waiting anxiously for us. It was common in that village sitting on the LoC to have people and cattle straying into the enemy territory but we were aliens to this land, divided by boundaries, yet so united to the bottom. We realised that day we were too privileged to be one with these people living on the edge and fighting for their survival.

As we left the mountains of Kashmir for our cosy habitats in Delhi, we knew that we would probably go back to the Valley several times in future and spend millions of words on the plight of these people but we won’t be able to come any closer to them ever.

Dust had settled on the memories of my first illegal border breach when a sandstorm had covered most things away in the deserts of Rajasthan years later. A visit to Jaisalmer was like a pilgrimage to me because I always felt it carried the touch of my hero Satyajit Ray. I was on an official assignment to this desert town when the ghost of Poonch returned to haunt me, all over again.

India had by then fenced most of the 3,323-kilometre international border with Pakistan. But a portion of the fencing was brought down in Jaisalmer to make an opening for farmers who had part of their farmland on the Zero Point or across the border in Pakistan. Two check points were also being built on both sides. My task of writing on desert development activities took me very close to the point that day. A meeting with the BSF officials was part of my agenda and had the permit to visit the Zero Point.

Sandstorm since morning had left all the work on hold till afternoon. There was frantic activity on both sides of the divided subcontinent. The unnatural schedule in the region had thrown up an opportunity for me to brave the barriers. The two nations were following an official truce at the time with regular exchange of sweets and greetings between the border guards. I didn’t have to plead much to make way for a talk to a Pakistani Rangers official. A brief narration of my Poonch plight made us friendlier.

And, then I put forth a request. “Would you take me to your side for a while? I want to be in Pakistan once again.” I don’t know if it was the nonchalance of my request or the madness in my eyes that had intrigued both the officials. I pleaded again: “Ek baar aur. Is baar jaan bujhke (Once more. This time knowing it all).”

I was in Pakistan in the next two minutes. But without anything with me. My press card, my wallet, my laptop, everything was kept with the BSF. Did I feel nervous being without any identity and as a nowhere man? Perhaps I was a bit, but I lived the excitement to the brim, for the next half-an hour I spent in Pakistan, as an encroacher, yet again.  

Sundown is amazing in the middle of a desert. It was outlandish that day but there was a hint of gloom somewhere in the molten crimson of the descending sun. The barbwire had left a bleeding mind. Like always, the border made me excited but left me wounded. 

An Abacus for Her Jigsaw of Life

The forty-nine phonetic letters of the Kannada alphabet gave Sunitha a tough time negotiating when she began taking evening classes at a literacy drive by an NGO. Three years on, she was able to teach her two children the basics of the language so that they needn’t wait till their thirties to spell their names. Literacy gave her the right to dream but it didn’t resolve her distress.

Husband Suraj Divakar’s income from farming was just about their everyday sustenance. There was hardly anything left at the end of the day for their tomorrow. Sunitha remained just a housewife until 2013 when a fellow villager prodded her to start painting on fabric – a common cottage industry in the Madwanagar area of Udupi district in Karnataka. She spent up buying food and clothes for the family whatever she earned in the next couple of weeks selling her painted fabric. Then, there was nothing left with her to buy fresh cloth. Dreams parched in drying coffers.

“My daughter made a confession on the day I made my first earning of Rs 200. We had chicken and rice in dinner. At the bed at night, she said she wanted to be a teacher, just like the smart ladies she saw teaching at the private school in the town,” says Sunitha. Dreams are contagious, and most often, they overlook the hurdles until they met with reality. “I didn’t know everything will suffer a nosedive in just a few days.” 

Sunitha stumbled upon a relationship officer from a microfinance company a few weeks later. He was interacting with fellow village women. He briefed them about collateral-free loans his company offered. She became a member immediately and took her first loan of Rs 10,000 to start afresh. The loan had come with a rider. She had to use the entire money on buying raw materials for her handicrafts. “That was my first lesson in managing finances,” she says. She followed the rules and resumed her unfinished journey as an entrepreneur and contributor to the family.

Sunitha was not alone to avail of the loan. Most of the village women grabbed the offer to ease their financial woes. But the microlender didn’t stop at lending alone. It mandatorily enrolled each of the borrowers and urged all other women to sign up for a class in the weekends. They discussed one of the most important aspects of life – savings. 

Microfinance Institutions Network (MFIN), the umbrella association for microlenders in the country, invests in developing films on credit awareness, which teach the borrowers the importance of saving money, and making timely repayment of loans. These films use characters and situations similar to those of the borrowers so that they could identify with the messages.

“Microfinance entails providing credit to women mostly from the BoP (base of the pyramid) segment in rural India. So, it is extremely important to ensure that they understand credit and its management and the lending processes followed by the MFIs,” says MFIN Chief Executive Officer and Director Alok Misra.

Banks are often out of bounds in a remote village like that of Sunitha’s and organised lenders keep off borrowers like her because they lack the required credentials and for their apparent uncertainty in repayment. The microlenders throw the lifeline for these people. The MFIs give them small amount of funds to realise their small dreams. MFIN has about 56 members, while the country has over 200 microlenders, including small and non-profit MFIs.

There was no dearth of apprehension of default when the MFIs began their journey but the BoP borrowers have shown flawless repayment – in a stark contrast to corporate loans that have saddled big banks with huge burden of bad debt. The reliability of BoP borrowers is based on the premise that they continue to have access to small-scale financial services. Client centricity is evident from the microlenders’ ability to offer diversified services, lowering the cost of credit, despite doorstep delivery and adapting to the digital world.

The success of MFIs depends entirely on loan repayment. “Credit discipline is integral to any financial literacy drive. We teach these women to borrow only if needed, to use the loan only for the purpose it is sought, and to save to make repayments on time,” says Misra.

Capacity building for the borrower is part of the client onboarding process for all MFIs. The borrowers are taught how timely repayment helps them build up their capacity for higher credit. The lenders host compulsory group training (CGT) for about a week to make them aware of the credit, importance of borrowing as per need and the perils of over-indebtedness.

Sunitha is now going through her third-cycle loan of Rs 60,000 and utilised most of it to buy quality raw materials in bulk. With growing business acumen, she is now planning to make wallets, bags and other accessories. “I want to expand my business to nearby districts as well. I want to display my products at the exhibition centre in the town to attract more customers,” she says, beaming with confidence. She reaches out to the Muthoot Microfin relationship officer who had given her the first loan whenever she needs a top-up. “The bank babus are in regular touch with us – through the weekend classes and doorstep visitations.”

This one-to-contact forms the foundation for success of microfinance in India. “We use our financial literacy camps as a community get-together, where participants are given video-based modules by using a laptop and a projector. We host nukkad nataks (street plays) at places, tie up with various NGOs and development organisations to reach out to a larger section of the mass,” says Soham Shukla, Chief Operating Officer – Rural Banking at Fincare Small Finance Bank. Fincare has developed a business model in such a way that more than 20 lakh customers are met by the bank staff at least once a month.

The financial literacy camps also give the women exposure to a suite of financial products and services available to them like health and life insurance and pension schemes. They are also told about various government schemes. “Women are more conscious about staying out of poverty than men, about providing a better future to their children, and willing to plan and act to achieve the desired result,” says the Fincare executive.

The outbreak of COVID-19 early in 2020 and the lockdowns threatened the future of every sector, driving the entire global economy to a screeching halt. MFIs survived the headwinds because rural India was less affected and the revival was faster. The bank representatives taught the villagers about the option of moratorium and its consequences. Surprisingly, there were too few takers for moratorium among the village borrowers, and most MFIs stayed in the black with very little impact on repayment.

The lockdowns and various measures adopted by the authorities to contain the pandemic gave a boost to digital transformation in India. MFIs moved into the digital landscape faster than anticipated. Digital drive helped the lenders assess the creditworthiness of an individual faster and eased disbursement of credit to the borrower’s bank account.

India is home to 17 per cent people on the planet and around 74 per cent of the 130-crore-plus Indian populace is literate. Financial literacy is still at a nascent stage in the country with only 24 per cent of the people being financially literate till 2020. The government’s push for financial literacy through the National Strategy for Financial Education (NSFE) aims to bridge this gap by 2025.

In step with the government’s financial inclusion initiatives, L&T Financial Services launched its Digital Sakhi programme in 2016. It combines inclusive development with digital finance and thereby directly supports gender equality and women empowerment. The Digital Sakhi programme aims to create awareness on digital payments among rural and semi-urban communities.

In its entrepreneurship development programme, Digital Sakhi has 1,000 women practising goat-rearing, poultry, dairy and tailoring. These women are given training to upgrade their skill for better yields. They are also taught to collaboratively develop market linkages and ascertain higher bargaining rights. “All these entrepreneurs are trained to perform their business transactions through the digital mode by the 100 Digital Sakhis,” says a spokesperson for the company. 

The words like financial literacy and cashless transaction often turn muted in heartland India that hosts the bulk of the 8.4 crore people living in a literally cashless condition. MFIs and other organisations working on educating the mass face a tremendous challenge. “In a country where there are possibly 40,000 ATMs across six lakh villages, it is a sheer challenge to create a confluence of financial education and poverty,” says Jaydeep Ghosh, CEO of Jagaran Microfin.

[This article was published in Outlook Money]

Unmaking India. Remaking Indians.

70,00,000. That’s about 8 per cent of India’s labour force. That’s the number of people who were left jobless in April alone. A higher number of comrades are likely to join in May as the virus continued to ravage the nation on its second onslaught.

Which one is a bigger cause for concern? Seven million people falling out of jobs in just one month or three lakh lives being snuffed out in just one year? Both the realities inexorably drive home the most pertinent question of this time: How to save whatever is left?

The second wave of the pandemic is expected to cost India around $74 billion or Rs 5.4 lakh crore in the April-June 2021 quarter, predicts Barclays. The brokerage estimated the economic cost of the partial lockdowns that various state governments have imposed to check the spread of the disease at $8 billion per week in May – up from $5.3 billion a week in the last two weeks of April – and well above the $3.5 billion a week estimated early in the second wave.

India’s bleeding coffers has begun weighing on its human capital with more than 230 million people skidding below the minimum wage floor. A steep plunge in consumption reflects in the sluggish growth in factory output despite a low base effect of April 2020. Partial lockdowns drove mobility down and a sharp sequential contraction in e-way bills indicates slowdown in economic activity.

These downside risks can potentially impact the recovery process for the economy. The Indian economy was valued at Rs 145 trillion (GDP at constant prices) in March 2020. Record number of deaths and rapid pace of infection in the second wave prompted most agencies to revise their growth projection for the Indian economy to 7 to 9 per cent for 2021-22. On a low base effect, this level of GDP growth hints at a sustained slowdown.

Although a steady decline in the daily fresh cases of infection and a reducing number of deaths imply that the second wave is on the wane and help revive the investor sentiment, the whiff of a third wave could be a drag on the economic revival. The Barclays report says the economic cost would rise by at least a further $42.6 billion if another round of prolonged and stringent lockdowns are imposed later this year.

In the absence of a vaccine, the government had to make a binary choice between life and livelihood last year. It had locked down the country even before the crisis escalated to the level where it was needed and, consequently, it had to be revoked at a premature state. This time, the government banked too much on the vaccine perhaps without adequately taking stock of the logistics and the supply channel. The result was seen in daily infections making a global record shooting past 4.14 lakh, and Covid deaths docking India to the top-three league with toll mounting over three lakhs.

The impact on businesses was evident with the stock markets showing wild volatile movements, consumer spending, especially in discretionary products, going downhill, manufacturing and services facing the brunt of lockdown and restricted mobility, and commodities going for steep corrections. Aviation, hospitality, restaurant, tourism, media and entertainment, microfinance, retail and real estate have been hit hardest by the uncertainties wrought by the second wave.

Prudent decision by the Reserve Bank of India and upbeat corporate earnings, however, helped avert a deeper wound on the fiscal front. 

Large-scale unemployment, rising inflationary pressure, deepening financial crunch and the constant fear of staggering healthcare costs since the outbreak of the second Covid wave have dragged life into severe uncertainty. The average Indian is now all the more cautious to safeguard their todays, rather than securing their tomorrows.

Despite the odds, the life in Covid has been a learning experience for every individual, irrespective of their economic and social background. When we question, how to protect what we are left with, we need to look deep into this learning for an answer.

A health cover never seemed so precious, neither did the small amount of money left in a bank account for a rainy-day matter so much. Distribution of wealth across various asset classes suddenly became an immediate task and we comprehended the significance of sharing every detail about our assets and liabilities with our family members, especially when the breadwinner’s life is in question. We have understood how we can ensure future for our family members by making a simple will.

Perhaps Covid has taught us the worth of life more closely and meaningfully. We have learned to care more for ourselves and our loved ones, and realised the importance of being more methodical when it comes to protecting our families. In a post-Covid world, we are trained to face the reality head on, and triumph.

[This was published in Outlook Money, India]

A Dirty Dance of Democracy

Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya…
Har fikr ko dhuyen mein udata chala gaya…

Remember Mohammad Rafi humming for Dev Anand in the film Hum Dono? The song was revisiting my mind since early Sunday morning when tubes began beaming how the fate of this state would be sealed this day – in the ruins or in the wrecks.

Does it matter, really? It does, perhaps, when you look at your child in his pre-teens and try to convince yourself that he is being raised up in an environment conducive for his growth as a human being, and not a human bomb, well, metaphorically.

Perhaps one of the dirtiest dances of democracy in the history of West Bengal came to an end on Sunday with the Trinamool Congress retaining power for the third term and the warring sides taking a break from spewing venom on each other.

The two sides – the incumbent Trinamool Congress and the ‘outsider’ BJP, though they would not club themselves as Hum Dono – have never been frugal in spitting toxins through the last several months. Each one has been baying for the blood of a friend, who’s turned his coat, and became a foe. They clocked thousands of airmiles in these months only to warn and threaten their rivals. And, in the process, they dangled endless carrots to voters, the ostensible deciders of fate for these political leaders. It’s easy to lure in votes by strewing promises before a starving populace a quarter of which still survives with a per-capita income of Rs 360 ($4.86) a month.

The high-octane polls in a land riddled with severe funds crunch have seen over Rs 100 crore being splurged on air travel for political chieftains whom we select to seal our fates. The rulers or the ruler-aspirants are draped in green or saffron or white, and they’re at ease to change their shades, well, almost anytime. But the ruled remained in the red since the days of the Red and through the sweeping Green and the intimidating Saffron.

Facebook alone cornered Rs 3.74 crore from the political rivals on the battleground Bengal. Social media became the virtual rehearsal room for incessant campaigns and counter-campaigns, amplifying the development clonk of the politicos. The state was abuzz with the deafening slogans of a golden sunshine, eclipsing the second Lilliputian invasion of a microbe on an army of 133 core Giants.

The toxins that some of the leaders of the world’s largest democracy threw up over the last few months of campaign for the Bengal corner room would not choke you to death like Corona virus but sting you to sulk and seethe. You gained nothing this Sunday, but you helped many of them secure their lives. Instead of prodding people not to breach the guidelines set for the pandemic, they indulged you to step out and crowd up in their show of might. At the end of every rally, you returned home with the looming fear of being counted among the over four lakhs being infected by the virus every day in this country. 

We watched blithely through these months as the leaders belted out all sorts of expletives that rarely a political dais has staged. We saw how they went from professional attack to personal onslaughts. We witnessed both sides making vulgar gyrations, saying abusive skits, and displaying a pathetic absence of basic minimum respect that a human being deserves. Let’s not talk about the rampant clashes that marred the eight-phase election process and claimed several lives. 

What did we fight for? The question keeps coming back to my mind. Is it for safeguarding my religious identity or is it for securing my economic future? It serves none, to be precise. Religion takes a backseat when finances are on the blaze. In a state that has seen industries melting down across regimes, nothing is dearer than a life of peace and security.

The triumph of Mamata Banerjee is commendable in the backdrop of defection by some of her trusted lieutenants. The drubbing of the fundamentalist forces could be comforting in a state that has rarely seen religious riots in the last several decades. But what about the future of an individual, of whatever religious belonging and of economic background?

Escape. That’s the answer. Bengal cannot beckon its brains unless it cedes its tradition of political euphoria and focus on itself more constructively, instead of letting these leaders use its land for belching out the negatives they harbour.   

Mohammad Rafi kept crooning in mind.

Barbadiyon ka jasn mana ta chala gaya…
Har fikr ko dhuyen mein udata chala gaya… 

[This write-up was published in The Daily Star, Bangladesh]

একটা স্বপ্নের মৃত্যু

ললিত ভোরের রাগ… একটা অদ্ভুত পেলব উষ্ণতা ছুঁয়ে যায় মনকে… তোর মনে পড়ে, গভীর রাতে তোকে ঘুম পাড়াতাম দূর থেকে… বলতাম, তোর চুলের মধ্যে আমার আঙুল গুলো খেলছে… শুনতে পাচ্ছিস, আলী আকবর-এর সরোদ-এ দরবারী কানাড়া… তোর অস্ফূট কথা মৃদু থেকে মৃদুতর হয়ে হারিয়ে যেত… আর আমি প্রাণপনে ডাকতাম তোকে… প্রায় প্রতি রাতেই এক ঘটনা…

একসময় তুই ঘুমিয়ে পড়তিস… আমি চুপ করে যেতাম… অন্ধকার নেমে আসতো আমার এই ছোট্ট পৃথিবীতে… কিন্তু আমার সমস্ত একাকীত্ব আর যন্ত্রণা ঢাকা পড়ে যেতো তোর উষ্ণতায়… আমার এই রোগক্লিষ্ট শরীরটা নিয়ে থাকতো আমার নিরব প্রতীক্ষা… ভোরের জন্য… ভোরের ললিত আমাকে আরো গভীরভাবে জড়িয়ে দিত তোর ভালোবাসায়…

প্রায় চার বছর… অনেকটা সময়… দুটো মানুষের ভালোবাসা, আনন্দ, হাসি, কান্না, আরো অসংখ্য মুহূর্তের আধার হয়ে থেকে যায় সময়… আলাপ থেকে জোড় আর জোড় থেকে গৎ হয়ে ঝালা… শান্ত, কোমল আবেশ থেকে ধীরে ধীরে একটা উন্মাদনার সৃষ্টি… আরো কয়েক বছর হয়তো সেভাবেই কেটে যেত আর থেকে যেত আরো কিছু বছর… এভাবেই থেকে যেত একে অন্যকে ভালোবেসে বেঁচে থাকার, খুশি থাকার, আর দুজনে একসঙ্গে দেখা একটা স্বপ্নকে সত্যি করার অঙ্গীকার…

নরম ভোর যেমন দুপুরের উষ্ণতায় গলে, মিশে একাকার হয়ে হারিয়ে যায় বিকেলের সূর্যাস্তের আলোয়, ঠিক সেভাবেই আলী আকবরের সরোদে ললিত থেকে আহির ভৈরব হয়ে জীবন উত্তীর্ণ হয় ভূপালি আর ইমনের আঙিনায়… কখন যেন মালকোশ এসে বলে যায় এবার ফেরার পালা…

কোথাও হয়তো ওলট-পালট হয়ে গেল সব… বুঝতেও পারলাম না কখন ললিত, ইমন, মালকোশ সব হারিয়ে গিয়ে বেজে উঠল বেহাগের যন্ত্রনা… সুর মেলাতে পারলাম না আর… আমার ওপর অভিযোগ আমার সীমাহীন দাবি আর অন্তহীন প্রত্যাশা শ্বাসরুদ্ধ করে দিয়েছিল যার জন্য আমি শ্বাস নিতে চেয়েছিলাম সেই তোকেই…

ভালোবাসার ঝাঁপতাল বদলে গিয়ে ছিল… সকাল, সন্ধ্যে এখন শুধুই বিলম্বিৎ দায়বদ্ধতা… তুই ঠিক বলেছিলি… স্বপ্নটা আর যেন ধরা পড়ে না… আমার চাওয়া, পাওয়া, আর দোষারোপের অন্ধকারে ধর্ষিত তোর সতস্ফুর্ততা… মুক্তির তীব্র আকাঙ্ক্ষা আর তার সঙ্গে প্রতি মুহূর্তের দ্বন্দ্ব আমার জন্য… স্বপ্ন মালহার-এর উন্মাদনা থেকে উত্তীর্ণ হয়েছিল বৃন্দাবনী সারং-এর গভীরতায়… কিন্তু মীর দিতে গিয়ে ছিঁড়েছিল তার… ছোট্ট বাড়ি, দুটো মানুষ, অনেক বই, আর এক সমুদ্র ভালোবাসা… সকাল বেলার আলোয় এখন শুধুই বিদায় ব্যথার ভৈরবী…

হয়তো খুব তাড়াতাড়ি খুব কাছে যাওয়া যায় না, হয়তো খুব ভালোবাসলেই খুব ভালোবাসা পাওয়া যায় না, হয়তো বাঁচতে চাইলেই বাঁচা যায় না… আলী আকবর-এর সরোদে এখন একটানা মারওয়া-র বিষন্নতা… যে স্বপ্নটাকে আঁকড়ে ধরে বাঁচতে চেয়েছিলাম, নিজেই হত্যা করেছি তাকে… মেরে ফেলেছি যে আমাকে বাঁচাতে চেয়েছিল সেই তোকেই…

তোড়ি বড় দুঃখের রাগ… মাঝ রাতে আলী আকবরের সরোদে বেজে ওঠে মিয়া কি তোড়ি… বড় চেনা একাকিত্বটা হঠাৎ যেন ভয়ঙ্কর এক শ্বাপদের চেহারা নেয়… তার স্থির চোখে মৃত্যুর অবয়ব…

এখন বড় একলা লাগে… ক্যান্সারের যন্ত্রণায় অস্থির হয়ে নিজের ওপর প্রচন্ড আক্রোশে ধ্বংস করতে থাকি নিজেকেই… সব পেয়েও সব হারিয়েছি আমি… তাল হারিয়েছে বন্দিশ… আজন্ম-এর খোঁজ আজ দমকা হাওয়ায় উড়ে যাওয়া শুকনো পাতার মতো… ভোরের কোমল ঋষভ এখন দীপক-এর আঙিনায় পড়ে থাকা একমুঠো ছাই… হয়তো আবার কোন উতল হাওয়া এসে উড়িয়ে নিয়ে যাবে কোন দিন… ছড়িয়ে যাবে সব দিকে… আর কোন দিন আলী আকবর-এর সরোদে বেজে উঠবে না বাহার-এর মূর্ছনা…

এখনো রাত্রি আসে আগের মতই… শুধু নীরবতা গ্রাস করেছে মুখর কবিকে… শব্দ, ছন্দ সব হারিয়ে এক রিক্ত, নিঃস্ব অস্তিত্ব… প্রতীক্ষা শুধু শেষের… আলী আকবর-এর সরোদ আর বাজে না… ভোর আর আসে না…

Closer to the Dream, After a Year of Nightmare

Three… Two… One… And the world cheered at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2019. It would be the same yet again just a few days from now. But the year in between has changed the face of the earth, forever.

A microbe, far smaller than the reaches of the eye, threatened the very existence of the human race and shuddered the towering might of global superpowers in the interim. The Lilliputian onslaught on an army of over seven billion Giants made the authorities confront a trade-off between life and livelihood. Life was the obvious choice, although it shunted around 4 billion people away in their homes, shut down all means of livelihood, and made living a tougher battle.

More than 1.64 million deaths later, a frailer world with a $12-trillion poorer economy, hopes for a happier new year 2021.

With the Covid-19 outbreak at the dawn of 2020, the business world had come to a fork in the road: Down one route, there were a deafening silence and shuttered offices. Down the other, companies embraced work, reinventing a way for businesses to survive, and thrive, with a fully remote workforce. We took the second road and outsmarted the seemingly invincible.

And green shoots of recovery showed up soon. “We are in a resilient place but we cannot take the financial stability for granted,” the IMF alerted with the emergence of early signs of revival, and warned against complacency, saying the impact of the crisis would cause a $28-trillion loss to global output by 2025 unless policymakers take urgent, co-ordinated steps towards beefing up digital technology and infrastructure. “The world is desperate to jack up productivity and investment,” it said.

Despite a synchronised slowdown in almost all sectors of the economy since long before the Coronavirus hit its shores, India whirred back to life faster than anticipated from the world’s longest and strictest lockdown it had imposed to save its human capital. The economy was at its nadir with consumer confidence at a record low and unemployment at its decade high when the lockdown was slapped on March 25, 2020.

Growth rate in the country’s gross domestic product reached an 11-year low of 4.2% in 2019-20 from 6.1% a year ago, led by a 15-year low manufacturing growth at 2% from 6.9% in the same period. A host of internal factors like continuing impact of demonetisation, poor implementation of GST, historically poor automobile sales, a flat growth in core sectors and a steady decline in investment into construction and infrastructure aided the slump.

The country’s fragile fiscal infrastructure suffered a major setback when most public sector banks began gasping for breaths under a huge burden of bad debt. It led to an obvious freeze in lending and the banks rushed to make provisions for their non-performing assets and seek deposits. The economic woes translated into a 2% depreciation in the Indian currency since January 2019. By December 2019, inflation reached a six-year high of 7.35%. Strong headwinds over funding and a sustained slump in rural infra activity and small and medium enterprises (SME) decelerated the growth of non-banking financial companies to 10-12% in the year of the worst nightmare in human history.

Despite the doom and the cloud of a seemingly endless uncertainty, there was something to cheer about India as it became the fifth-largest world economy in 2019 with a GDP of $2.94 trillion and moved up 14 places to 63rd spot in the 2020 World Bank Ease of Doing Business ranking. India was also one of the top 10 recipients of foreign funds (FDI) in 2019-20. At $49 billion, the inflow was up 16% over the previous year.

With India showing signs of a sharp V-shaped recovery, national banking regulator Reserve Bank of India said the economy was out of the contraction zone and would be in the black with 0.1% and 0.7% growth in the quarters ending December 2020 and March 2021. It meant that the Indian economy had bottomed out from its pandemic shock. And, accordingly, the RBI revised its projection for the country’s GDP contraction for 2020-21 at 7.5% from 9.5% it had projected earlier. 

Consumer sentiment, which is the ultimate growth driver for the economy, is yet to shrug off the woes. Hacked in the headcount and pruned paycheques have inflicted major damage to the country’s 50-crore-plus workforce. Various government policies have been put in place to soothe the frayed nerves and revitalise the country’s most precious asset.

The broad-based recovery needs to be sustained over the longer term. A change in the dynamics of global trade with the US and China locking horns over taxes, puts India at a vantage position to charge towards its goal of emerging as the manufacturing hub of the world, adding momentum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make-in-India mission. 

As the economy wobbles into a new year, India teeters at a decisive edge along its journey towards prosperity. The economic crisis triggered by Covid-19 could spur reforms that would drive the nation back in the fast lane and create jobs for around 90 million workers by 2030. And, letting go this opportunity would risk a decade of economic stagnation, said McKinsey Global Institute.

If India fails to introduce measures to address pre-pandemic trends of flat employment and slowing economic growth, and does not manage the shock of the crisis adequately, its economy could expand by just 5.5-6% from 2023 to 2030, with a decadal growth of just 5% and absorb only about 6 million new workers, marking a decade of lost opportunity.

The Modi government is now confronting the challenge to remake an India unmade by a sustained economic slowdown. It’s now Make India out of Make-in-India.

[This was published in Outlook, India]

The Wall

So what if Chaurasia creates magic, the raga turns a ravager between the flute and the female, when she needs to flare up at the man she loves the most.

“Come out of this, stupid ass, or you’d be stuck on the wall like a goddamn lizard?” slammed Bhupali. “You’re 43, stupid, and you’re still stuck at six. You don’t need to hold on to the wall anymore. Or, you still need someone to hold your hand down the road?” she kept breathing fire at Iman.

“It’s festival time. Pujo is round the corner. There’s light all around you. The whole city is beaming. And, look at you. You’re not exiled, for heaven’s sake. At 43, you’re not at anybody’s mercy. It’s your life, you’re the master of it. Don’t kill yourself like this.”

F’s were in the abundance in a flurry of expletives.

Bhupali paused for a breath. “Look at those children,” she pointed to a noisy clutch of boys across the road, playing with the remains of a rubber ball, deflated and de-shaped, yet good enough for a kick-ass evening.

“They live in the ghettos. They barely have a new shirt and most have either a worn-out dress their mothers picked up from their employers, or nothing at all. Do you see them grieving? They find their happiness themselves. And, you, still clutching the wall on the dark roof just because you think there’s none by your side.”

Twenty-two years separated the two lives, but when they met again, they began where they had parted. And they moved on, this time, together. They meet almost every day. They never wondered what draws them down from one corner of the city to another, come rain or shine.

Is that love? An affair outside the hackneyed marriage? Sometimes the thought gnaws Bhupali. “Bullshit! Bloody monstrous vermin.” Allegations and abuses seem to far outweigh their love, yet they can’t stay away from each other.

“You’re talking shit, Pali.” Iman dared between her soprano and contralto. He had shortened her name when they were in school. “The life isn’t the same for everyone. Look at people around me – my relations, my friends, colleagues – they don’t feel it’s hard dying but harder living. Every moment is a bloody fight for survival for me. In fact, often I confuse between Darwin and Nostradamus. Perhaps I was the focal point for both the clairvoyance and the theory.”

“Poetry is simply melting away in prose.” He was more disgusted than exasperated. Breathing is slowly becoming a labour.

“Have you eaten your head, jack ass? There’s no other way to look at your life?” Bhupali retorted, maybe, on a lower octave this time.

“Every day I’m fooling my husband, kicking the butt of my family, and showing the middle finger to the society. For whom? How many people have you seen in such a sexy affair with a dame like me?”

“Don’t make a fun of everything, please. It’s always easier said than done,” Iman fumed.

“I was 22 when cancer gave my father a ticket to ride out of the rigmarole. I was left gasping for breaths under a huge debt load. I don’t know why my mother sees a bugbear in me. My darling wife dumped me because I couldn’t buy her the luxury she wanted and now waiting for my final bow out. My daughter is the saving grace because she’s too small to say anything yet. And, by the time she would talk like her mother, I’d be in a photo frame dangling on the wall.”

Bhupali gave him a patient hearing almost to the end. But a tight slap came down like a bolt from the blue the moment he talked of the photo frame.

“Why the hell are you so violent?” Iman cringed in pain.

“That’s what you deserve if you talk like a dickhead. Do you think I should love you for such words?”

“Umm… Pali… It’s been ages since you loved me last. Love me, dear.” And, he moved closer to her.

“Now you’re inviting yet another slap. And, mind you, it’ll be a real nasty one.”

“Are you a woman or a hammer-head shark?” he sniggered.

“Lay off, you headless bastard. Or, I’ll kill you.” As Bhupali tried to push him away, Iman held her more closely, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“Headless body in topless bar,” he whispered into her ears. He told her about this witty headline of a British tabloid many times. Another round of abuses drizzled and disappeared in their laughter. Between her chortles, Bhupali began melting in his embrace.

A strange chemistry binds the two. Both are in their mid-forties but their interactions resemble a teenage love. They fight over almost everything. And, the next moment, they cry for each other. “It’s like the rains. It’s sunny now and it’s cloudy at the drop of an eyelid,” she says often. “Don’t forget I’m the rain maid.”

Raindrops bring out the child from behind the woman. Iman loves that frivolity. He saw the ballet of the clouds as she danced in the rain. He saw parched leaves turning green with her touch. He felt gloom fading into in her giggles.

A depression engulfs Iman around this time every year. Durga Pujo spells the doom in his life when the entire community dazzles. Flooding lights, madding crowds, blaring music – everything slanders him because, he feels, he is undesired. Iman could never find an answer why he is so brutally alone. He saw since he was a child how happiness would override woes in every life around him during the festive days. He saw people making merry no matter what pulls them back. But he could never join the league. An invisible wall kept all this out of bounds for him – as if he was banned from celebrating the festivals.

Like any other household, the festive fever would sweep through their ubiquitous joint family in North Kolkata. Everyone looked happy, save for the little Iman. The child didn’t know why the chemistry didn’t work out between his parents. When the entire city was decked up with light, an overcast darkness reigned in their room. His father would sink into his black-and-white world of books and his mother would be fast asleep after a hectic day attending to the relatives. That’s what was every evening of the five-day celebration.

All his relatives, cousins and friends would go out in the evening hopping from one pujo to another. He was the only one left out. Iman can’t figure even today what was wrong with him that he was not taken along. Even when someone called him, it would always end up with just one or two pandals in the neighbourhood and then, the youngest in the family used to be dropped at the doorstep.

The wall of the roof got the touch of the tiny little fingers since then. He would stand on the roof, leaning on the wall for hours and watch the endless sea of people hanging around the iconic festival ground just a few minutes away from their house.

Years have gone by. The tiny hands have grown, and so has the little child. But nothing has changed between the wall and the touch. “The Tramp would take refuge in the rain to hide his tears and I look for a shelter in the darkness of the roof to hide my pains,” he had written to Bhupali. 

As the advent of festivity begins to fill the air with celebration, Iman feels choked. Since the unconventional life of a journalist didn’t give him much room for what others do, Geetasree had decided to take the daughter along to spend the Pujo with her parents and siblings. Iman began taking up extra load at office to stay up till late.

He couldn’t negotiate for the last day, though, as it was a press holiday. Mother’s miffed disgruntlement in everything life had thrown up and her deep breaths of disappointment, the endless ticking of the clock, the emptiness of the house – there was no dearth of elements that would chase him to the roof in search of darkness to escape what the world greets as light and happiness.

Bhupali is just poles apart. She loves to enjoy life to the hilt. Pujo brings to her a respite from the everyday life. Community lunch, hanging around with friends in the housing complex, fashion shows, gossips and endless laughter flatten all walls of isolation around her.

But, every year, her celebrations would erect an unscalable wall between the two protagonists of this story. Bhupali fails to find time for Iman through these days. It doesn’t create distance between them but disputes are inevitable. Iman often shoots his mouth off in a wild fit of rage. His pent-up anger, frustration and his barbs do not take long for Bhupali to flare up.

There’s little she can do on these few days. Kolkata turns impossible for commuting. Neither can she ask Iman to come over, nor can she step out to meet him. Moreover, Rohit’s office stays shut through the Pujo. She doesn’t go out with Rohit but they stay at the housing complex with other families.

It was the first Pujo after Geetasree walked out of Iman’s house with her daughter. The low-profile, introvert man suddenly became a subject of curiosity. He felt every pair of eyes was chasing him down with a bunch of whys. There was nobody he could open up to. He shied away from his friends, too. As an impregnable darkness slowly swathed him, Iman reached out for Bhupali all the more, in search of a shelter, in order to breathe.

But he groped in the dark in vain. She was nowhere around when he needed her the most. And, finally, when the phone rang after an entire day of stifling solitude, Iman failed to put a leash on his anger.

It’s been five years since he picked up a fight with cancer. Rogue cells have begun invading different organs. He fails to identify which one is harder to bear – the pain of the disease or the toxin pumped into the veins that sets all things ablaze. If cancer had pruned his half-life, then radiation and chemo scorched most of what he was left with. He seethes as the light dies out slowly. When the pain becomes intolerable, he prays for death, and again when he sits in front of Bhupali, he craves for life.

The six-footer looks somewhat shrunken. As days pass by, a patch of tiredness thickens on his face. Bhupali found her boyhood friend grown up to a lanky, successful journalist, but with little ability to comprehend the complexities of human mind. He has made a wrong decision in every relationship.

“Can you deny the fact that no one is responsible for your fate other than you?” she had told him once. “It’s neither your father, nor your mother, nor your wife, and certainly not anyone you trusted. You just let things happen to you. You’ve always been taken for granted and you chose to be the order supplier to all.”

When they met first after two decades, Bhupali saw a broken down man with shattered confidence and extreme pessimism in life. She saw for the first time how a man could crave for a drop of love. “I wanted you to come to my life like a splash of rain. And, you stormed in like a flood,” Iman said so many times.

What creates a relation? Is it the blood, genes, or is it the oath taken in front of the God or is it chanting of hymns around the fire or signature on stamp papers? Or, there is some invisible bond that binds two individuals? Sometimes she thinks of walking out of the man.

“I can never make you happy, Iman, and in fact, no woman in this world can make you happy. You love being depressed and you drive everyone around you into depression. You’re simply jealous of everything. What do you expect me to do? I should shut myself out from the entire world only because I’m the be-all and end-all in your life? But it’s not the same for me. I have other things too and I can’t stop everything only for you.”

“All I want is just a slice of your time. I can’t breathe without you. It’s like my blood transfusions. Don’t shoo me away like this. I can’t live without you,” Iman pleads like a beggar.

“Spare me, for God’s sake, I can’t handle this anymore. Your expectations will never end no matter how much I try. Please let me live my life the way I want to live it. And you live yours.”

Bhupali’s blazes scorched Iman every time she talked like this. The sheer fright of risking his biggest treasure would drive him in an insane rush to bend backwards, apologise for his every “cooked-up disappointment” and coax her not to spoil the relationship.

“Don’t stop everything like this. I promise I’ll withdraw myself slowly. I’ve started recoiling. Just give me some time. I promise I’ll set you free.” he told her several times.

But old habits die hard. “Live your life with your family, friends and your Facebook. I know you’d be happy without me around.” Iman could never leave his barbs behind.

Those barbs are potent enough to kick off a riot yet again. What do they want? Social marriage? Living in? Or, just a shelter in each other. It won’t scratch any balls if they live happily like this. Every relationship needn’t be tagged and neither has to have a binary ending. They don’t know what awaits them. Their relationship that has weathered blazes and blizzards more than springs and autumns remains uncertain even after so many years.

“Displacement is a vector quantity. It has a direction by default. Without a direction there’s no motion,” Iman tried to read her mind about a future they had planned once. “Nothing moves without an objective, Pali.”

Bhupali evades such issues now. They did spawn a few dreams but she doesn’t know why they began withering away. It could be because of her failure to live up to Iman’s endless expectations or his untiring accusations for her actions.

“What would you have said if you were in my shoes?” he questioned.

“I’d have long gone. You’re the lone warrior in your battle. I’m not as strong as you are,” she said.

“And, what about the relationship? Where is it headed?”

The more Bhupali tries to avoid, the more Iman presses her. “You have to say. I won’t let you go unless you say what’s on your mind.”

“I won’t answer. All bullshit.”

Bhupali feels scared these days. Her words have often been the triggers for squabbles. Iman would stress on the spoken words. Sometimes he grates on her nerves with his long, meandering explanation on etymology of expletives and their inherent meanings and ramifications. She can’t hold her patience for long. So, fights are inevitable, though she is far more careful now before she says anything.

“You’ve killed my spontaneity. I need to measure every word before it leaves my throat. I don’t need to care for my words so much while talking to my friends or anybody for that matter,” she told Iman.

“Leave me, please. I can’t meet your demand.”

They even had a fight over the origin of abuses. “Know the meaning of what you are saying. You’re not illiterate,” Iman told her.

“What the F! Abuses are the most spontaneous expressions. They’re not supposed to be measured, goddammit,” she rebuked.

Countless battles they fought in the few years since their reunification. “Even Germans hated each other earlier. But there’s peace now. Why can’t we get along?”

Bhupali prefers silence to scoop out an answer for Iman. The man has changed a lot. She knows what he undergoes through this duel with the disease, she feels how helpless he is, she realises that loneliness is killing him faster than malignancy. But what could be done? She can’t leave her family behind to stand by him. She, too, has the right to be happy. What’s the harm if she indulges in a few hours of fun with friends? There’s no breach of trust. She’s not a bitch, after all.

“Yes, I couldn’t contact you through the day, because there were people surrounding me and I don’t want anyone to look at my phone. I care for my privacy. And, yes, Rohit was with me. I haven’t walked out of my marriage and I can’t deny my responsibilities,” she blasted.   

“A woman needs to show off a lot of things in this society. And, you would never understand a woman’s predicament. You’re bothered only about yourself.”

“Cut the crap, Pali. Shove your excuse up your ass,” Iman’s rants inflicted deep wounds. “All your love is flushed out when it comes to pose with your hubby. How long, Pali? How long will you go on saying that all these are nothing but advertisements? If you’re not in love with someone, how could you let him hold you so intimately?”

F’s do not cost a dime, and he makes no frugality with the F’s in venting fire on her.

“When everything is over for the day, you’re about to retire, then you find five minutes for Iman. You become groggy even before I begin to talk properly. Everything is convenience and nothing else,” Iman goes on, “I can make do without your bloody bounty.”

Iman had scheduled his radiation two weeks ahead of the Pujo. He had to prepare for yet another lone battle. “You know, Pali, I’m beginning to loathe myself,” Iman said.

“What? What the hell do you mean by that?”

“There’s so much of blood. I don’t like it.” The man who looks for all the hues of life in black-and-white words, resorted to his favourite Calvero of the Lime Light. “I hate the sight of blood, but it’s in my veins.”

“I bleed so much these days that I can’t take it anymore. There’s blood in the stool, there’s blood in the vomit. It stains my teeth. I feel dirty.” His face was full of disdain. “I’ll never be fine. It never gets cured from Stage III. There’s no reason to stay alive like this. I’m tired of this battle.”

“You’re wasting your time, Pali. How long will you stick along? Trust me, I won’t sulk, I won’t be angry with you, if you decide to move out of this relationship. Just one request – let me know before you go.”

Bhupali is a raga of early evening. It’s not about sadness. She holds his hands tight. “I won’t go anywhere, Iman, I’ll be there with you, all my life. And, I won’t let you go either.” She tries to wipe out the last strains of Behag from his mind but the raga of loss and despair resounds from deep inside the lone warrior’s weary mind.

Iman doesn’t get sleep most of the nights now. “I can see that beast yet again. It had disappeared after I found you but it’s back now. I’m scared, Pali. It’ll catch me soon.”

She tried to cordon him off with all her resolve. “Don’t be afraid, my hero, you’re guarded on all sides. Nothing can scale that wall,” she said, silently, holding the face of the frayed man close to her heart. She knows he hides a lot from her these days – probably not to make her feel scared. She knows Iman encounters some strange incidents – no reason or logic can explain such things – but rarely shares with her. They drive him into a darkness that she can understand.

She herself experienced something eerie just a few days back at his place. They had lunch together and then long chats. She didn’t know when she crashed out. When Bhupali woke up, she saw Iman sleeping on the floor like a child. She hated to wake him up and dodged her way to the washroom. Suddenly she noticed a weird smell of sandalwood. She knows for years that Iman was allergic to it and there was no trace of sandalwood in his house because he feels breathless. The smell on her elbow was intense.

Bhupali returned to Iman’s room quickly. He had just woken up. “Can you smell something on my elbow?” she stretched her hand to him.

“Uh… How did you get that? You know how I hate sandalwood.”

“It’s strange, Iman. I woke up and found this smell. It was not there when we were awake.”

She spotted a sudden change in him. “Don’t come to me, Pali. It may not be good for you.” Despite her repeated asking, he kept quiet.

As the Pujo comes near, Bhupali sees a rapid change in Iman. He’s getting lonelier by the day. She wants the five days to get over at the earliest. No matter what he feels, she knows how Iman’s pains are draped around her. She knows her limitations but there’s a steely faith that she can keep him safe from all odds with her willpower. They had a brief fight over the phone just a while back on something very trivial.

“I goofed up in whatever I tried to do since this morning,” she told Iman, “I had this feeling that something unfair was on the cards.”

“You must haven’t had enough of Facebooking. Go ahead and catch your Romeos. All will be fine.” Pali let go his slight. “You’ve grown up enough to be a granny yet you can’t mend your habits,” he kept on poking.

“Go and call your mum a granny,” she was at her wit’s end. And, then quickly jumped to stop yet another round of brawl. “It’s just a way of saying. I didn’t really demean your mother.”

“Huh… How does it matter? Have you left anything unsaid about anyone? Do you even know that there’s something called a leash that we need to use before saying something?”

“Go, you stupid bugger, we’ve had enough of chatting. Go and get back to work, Iman,” she said. “I stay at home doesn’t mean that I’m idling away my time.”

“Why don’t you admit the fact that you’re done with me, at least for now. And, you want me to simply fuck off.”

Pali restrained herself yet again. She has noticed Iman has mellowed down on her. He deliberately overlooks many of her actions even if he’s hurt. Perhaps he, too, doesn’t want to ruffle feathers. Squabbles lead to internal bleeding, fresh drop in platelet count, and back to hospital. Is this some kind of a mutual understanding, or compromise? Such things happen between spouses. But Bhupali and Iman are not husband and wife. They’re not bound by any social bond.

“You gave me an open sky to unfurl my wings and fly,” she had said when Iman wondered what drove her to love him.

The autumn sky, the advent of the festivity, the pandals, the happy faces of people – behind all these lurks in shadow the roof of a four-storey house in North Kolkata and its wall on the flank facing the main road. It is soaked with the pain and deep breaths of a little child through his years of growing up to a youth and then to a man in his midlife. He waits for the last day of the festival when the goddess is sent off.

On the day of immersion, the deity is smeared with vermilion, and women believe a dash of this holy power on their faces brings health and prosperity for their spouses. Geetasree used to take part in the ritual every year like a devout Hindu wife.

She made an exception this year. She turned up at Iman’s house on the Bijoya Dashami evening. She didn’t go for the ritual. In fact, there was no trace of vermilion on her forehead. Iman is far from these beliefs but she had started wearing it as a Hindu ritual in respect to a married life after he told her about the disease a year before she left him. Geetasree said she had gone vegan.

“Perhaps she has started practising for her widowship,” Iman had texted Bhupali, recollecting the orthodox Hindu system of women being barred from eating fish and meat after the death of their husbands.

Neither Iman nor Bhupali had a clue how that night of immersion would sink them into an abyss of darkness.

“How could I stop her from visiting the house? She has the right to visit. After all, we’re not divorced,” Iman said when Bhupali poked him later that night.

“Why don’t you live with your ‘right’ if that’s what matters so much?” Bhupali couldn’t control her rage. “Who gives you the right to get into a relationship with me? What right do you have to ask me to listen to your ailments?”

Seven lakh rupees was not small amount of money for the cash-strapped cancer patient. Iman had spent up everything he had gathered through his twenty years of service on his treatment. And it didn’t stop there, it dragged him deep under a burden of debt. Nobody ever came up to help him out before the lone dove stood like a messiah. Bhupali kept all her jewellery mortgaged to help him pare his debt and breathe again.

“On what right did you take all my jewellery to fund your treatment? I gave you everything without being asked for it. I don’t even know if you can ever return them to me. Those are memories of my life. And I gave it to you without a second thought. You’re such a shameless bastard that you took everything from me and now telling me about the right of your wife.”

“Did I ask you to part with your wife? Did I ask you to come to me? Did I ask you for anything at all? You used me for the money. And, now your wife’s rights are all that counts. Just get the hell out of my life. Go and lick her ass, you fucking bastard. Bloody cheat.” She slammed the phone down and turned it off.

The cursed night of immersion came like a lethal blow to the man. He was frayed beyond repair. Bruised and battered, Iman lay on the washroom floor for hours. He had surrendered himself for the first time to someone. He never imagined the woman who was his reason for staying alive could thrash him like this.

Bhupali had snapped all her ties with Iman on that fateful night itself.

The next morning a man limped to her home. Bhupali had met a shattered Iman and, five years on, she found him hammered to fragments standing across the door. He seemed to have only as much life left that could take him to her doorstep. He was gasping for breaths like a fish out of the water.

She couldn’t understand whether it was mere sympathy or sheer love that melted her down. “I need you if I got to live, and I need you if I got to die.” He could barely mutter the words.

Bhupali’s love overpowered her ego – probably for the first time in her life. She grabbed him and led him inside.

What gives someone the right? Is it the signing on the stamp paper, or social recognition? Or, the vermilion? She never asked for any rights. She has walked out of many rights that she had earned herself or that were thrust upon her. There’s nothing that she could ask for. “Hail your rights, my baby,” she stretched her hands for the poor man. 

She took out a small box from the closet and dipped Iman’s thumb into the red vermilion in it. While dragging his finger on her forehead, she said calmly, “I give you all the rights. Now come out of the roof and leave your wall.”

Bhupali didn’t leave Iman behind despite knowing that he would leave her very soon, and she would be left alone to see the light from the dark roof with her hands clutching the wall.

[Adapted from a short story called, পাঁচিল, by Debjani Aich]