Archive for the ‘Footloose’ Category

Spectre of a Sceptre

Posted by Dev Baul - 12/09/23 at 11:09 pm

King Ottokar’s Sceptre was published in the Late 1930s when Europe was in a big turmoil. It was published as a  serialised weekly comic strip in a children’s supplement of a Belgian Newspaper. The book has intrigued Tintin scholars for decades, and they have researched the backstory and contents with an energy generally reserved for more serious literary works. While they have differed on nuances and details, they have converged on:

  • It was an indictment of dictators and megalomaniacs in general.
  • That it was a scathing criticism of Nazi expansionism—Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and Herge named the main baddy Musstler, a portmanteau name derived from Mussolini and Hitler.
  • That there was a subtext of political power drawing legitimacy from religion—the king could ascend to the throne only on the designated St Vladimir’s day,

It was courageous of Herge to publish the book in 1939—Belgium was to fall in the next few months to Germany.

I read the book in 1977—I was fresh out of school; the Emergency had ended; Indira Gandhi had been voted out of power; The dictator lost, and Janata(pun intended) won. Those were euphoric “ballot over bullet” times and the Syldavian King’s story appeared so alien. We were a civilized and enlightened people—we could select or reject our rulers based on their performance. Unlike the unenlightened rest of the world, our rulers did not draw legitimacy from some divinity-ordained sceptre or a royal lineage.

Flash forward to 2014: We, the people, rejected an earlier set of rulers and elected a new set with a massive majority. This party, with a highly rated world leader as PM, has been in power for the last 9 years. That they got re-elected in 2019 with an even higher majority, was a vindication of their ideology and a victory for their crusade-like campaign. It was the grandest spectacle of democracy. But on May 28, 2023, things changed and changed hugely. On the inaugural day of the new parliament, a group of holy priests presented the PM with a sceptre, Sengol—a symbol of transfer of power (as per GOI communiqué). It was so reminiscent of King Ottokar’s investiture ceremony on St Vladimir’s day.

Here was a ruler who, despite enjoying the support of the masses and the attendant power, was still seeking the legitimacy of his throne from divine powers. Future researchers may investigate the compulsions and motivations for this course of action but for now, as they say—the more things change, the more they remain the same.

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BooMillennial Dialogues

Posted by Dev Baul - 26/03/22 at 07:03 pm

This is a record of a series of conversations between a Boomer father and his Millennial son over a period of thirty years. While it does not claim to answer any question of earth-shattering consequence, hopefully, it will strike a chord in some other parent or child.

Boomer:         the generation born roughly between 1946 and 1965

Millennial:     the generation born roughly between 1980 and 2020

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Abide with me

Posted by Dev Baul - 29/01/22 at 11:01 pm

Abide With Me

I have walked a bit in Shanti Niketan—in and around the various departments of Viswa-Bharati University.


The Kala Bhavan premises are strewn with works of art from the master artists/sculptors and students—Ramkinkar Baij’s eight sculptures stand out amongst them.


Owing to the unavailability of suitable material and financial constraints, Ramkinkar made do with materials like concrete and laterite mortar to create the masterpieces. This has given an earthy feel and helped to weather the elements for eighty-plus years. Also, granite or bronze would be a rather unbefitting material for Ramkinkar’s spartan subjects—Gandhi, Buddha, Santhal Family, and Sujata.


The Gandhi statue was under repair at the time of my visit. The scaffolding around the statue made it surrealistic—as if the Mahatma would come to life and break open the fetters and walk away from the pedestal.


Curiously, the ruling entity of the day always found it convenient to keep Gandhi under fetters or on a pedestal. Whenever the British needed to move Gandhi away from the action, they would arrest him and release him unconditionally after things cooled off—in 1942, this cooling-off period stretched to two years. After 1950, the newly elected government found it handy to use him on currency notes, put him on a Father-of-the-Nation pedestal, unfollow him, and run the country as per its own counsel.


The present government has dropped all the inconvenient Gandhi shibboleths and has officially decided not to abide with him.


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The Mobile Camera : A Modern-day Madame Defarge

Posted by Dev Baul - 16/11/21 at 10:11 pm

Circa 1780s, France

Dickens in “A Tale of Two Cities” talks about how Monsieur the Marquis runs down a child with his carriage and moves on after throwing a gold coin at the hapless wailing father. Now, the Marquis was a member of the French nobility and would not have lost much sleep over the death of such an insignificant commoner. He might never have been “brought to justice” but for one Madame Defarge.

Madame Defarge was the wife of a wine vendor in downtown Paris. Through the day, she sat at the shop knitting. She kept a mental note of all excesses perpetrated by the nobility and knitted down the names of the perpetrators in her knit—on a later date, the list would be used to bring them to the guillotine. The Marquis’s name also got registered on the list.

Circa 2021, India

Not many had heard of Lakhimpur Kheri, UP,  one nondescript village of the six lakh villages in  India, before October 3, 2021. On that fateful day,  an SUV hit a gathering of farmers from behind,  ran them down killing four farmers, and fled from the spot. The SUV  was the lead vehicle in a convoy of cars—the convoy was carrying workers of the party in power, both at the centre and the state. The lead car belonged to the son of the Home Minister of  India and as per the FIR, he was driving the car.


That it was not an unfortunate accident but a deliberate act,  was amply established through the mobile camera videos that surfaced after the incident.  Like the gold coin thrown by the Marquis, some money has been promised to the bereaved families. But what is bizarre is the brazenness and alacrity with which the ruling dispensation has gone about shielding its home minister and his son. And this is happening despite the Supreme Court taking Suo moto cognizance and driving the investigation.


A period of 250 years or a quarter of millennium separates the two incidents; but the more the things change, the more they remain the same—just the actors and the stages change. Do we need another Madame  Defarge and the attendant judicial system to give justice to the dead farmers? The thought is mind-numbingly scary.

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Lord Jagannath Strikes Back

Posted by Dev Baul - 12/07/21 at 10:07 pm

The word juggernaut (derived from Jagannath) was taken to Europe by some missionaries in the 14th century. The story of an enormous carriage carrying a  statue of “the lord of the world” caught the imagination of the English and juggernaut became a popular word connoting a massive force, campaign, movement, or vehicle that crushes everything in its path. The “crushes everything” part is attributable to the legend that devotees threw themselves in the chariot’s path.

Although the English had the word in their lexicon and mindshare for long, they did not get to see a “Jagannath Rath” till the 20th century. In 1968 ISKCON celebrated “Rath Yatra” for the first time in London.


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I happened to be in London on the 40th anniversary of the London Rath Yatra and by a turn of events landed up at Hyde Park—the starting point of the yatra. Not being overtly religious, I never felt an urge to take part in a Rath Yatra while in India, but in unfamiliar surroundings of London, I found myself pulling the rope of the chariot. 

The cavalcade of three chariots with Balaram, Subhadra, Jagannath, and priests of non-Indian descent started slowly from Hyde Park and reached Trafalgar Square, passing Harrods and Piccadilly on the way. The three-mile journey was made in over two hours. For two hours, normal traffic was allowed only on one side of the road and people had lined up on the sides to witness the spectacle—I saw some youngsters climbing up the Piccadilly fountain to get a better view.

The three chariots ensconced in front of the National Gallery of Modern Art did not seem out of place at all—it seemed as if the NGMA dome had spawned three smaller domes. 




Note: I am forced to use standard stock images from the internet as I  had run out of battery in my camera


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The Migrant Worker Family

Posted by Dev Baul - 21/05/21 at 07:05 am

The Migrant Worker Family

Corona has turned out to be pretty much an equal-opportunity affliction in that it has not discriminated between religions, castes, genders, or social hierarchies. But there has been a marked variance in the way lives of the haves and the have-nots have been affected by the pandemic. Urban poor, mostly migrant workers have been worst affected. Loss of livelihood, lack of transport, and desertion by society at large underwrote their despair. In their desperation they started walking for home—some reached, few fell on the way.

Using my privileges, I managed to escape the lockdown-driven cooped-up existence in Kolkata and go to my all-time go-to getaway–Shanti Niketan. The walks I undertook were serene, quiet, and eerie at the same time. In Kala Bhavan premises, usual tourists were conspicuously absent around Ramkinkar Baij’s Santhal Family.

Santhal Family, sculpted by Ramkinkar Baij in 1938 is widely considered to be the first modernist sculpture in India. It depicts a father with a child carried in a basket, a mother with another child on her left flank, and a dog from a Santhal family carrying their scant possessions and going in search of a  new life—uncannily similar to the images of migrant worker families moving back from cities to their villages on foot. It was as if Ramkinkar had some oracular vision to foresee events that were to unfold eighty years down the line.


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Big-Endians vs Little-Endians

Posted by Dev Baul - 15/05/21 at 11:05 am

Big-Endians vs Little-Endians

In the course of his travels, Lemuel Gulliver met two warring factions in  Lilliput—Big-Endians and Little-Endians. Big-Endians broke their boiled eggs from the bigger end while the Little-Endians did the same from the smaller end. In earlier times, a crown prince had cut a finger while breaking the egg from the bigger end. Whereupon the emperor decreed that his subjects were ordained  to break their eggs from the smaller end only and default would result in stiff penalties. People resented this law and rose in revolt multiple times. These rebellions, often aided and fomented by the monarchy of neighboring Blefuscu, resulted in a loss of life of one emperor and thousands of Big/Little-Endians. At the time of Gulliver’s  visit, Lilliput and Blefuscu had been engaged in a war  for “six and thirty moons(three years).”

I came across this bulletin board while walking around in a modern Egyptian museum in Cairo and was reminded of the Big-Endians vs Little-Endians story. Here were two peoples with identical prophets but for the names, engaged in an eternal war. Their salutations (shalom vs Salaam), headgears (kippah vs taqiyah), rituals (brit millah vs khatna), and concepts of purity (kosher vs halal) are similar too. They agree even in their taboos (pork) but keep firing rockets at each other and have kept at it for decades! Unlike the Big-Endians vs Little-Endians story, there is no egg in play here let alone the big or small ends of the egg.

Jonathan Swift had used Big-/Little- Endians as metaphors for Protestants/Catholics and Lilliput/Blefuscu for England/France. I have examples from closer home in mind but desist from citing them lest I  hurt someone’s sentiments and go behind bars under UAPA/NSA.

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Talking the Walks

Posted by Dev Baul - 03/05/21 at 03:05 pm




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My Cormorant Tree

Posted by Dev Baul - 13/03/20 at 07:03 am

My first brush with cormorants was in a Bengali rhyme ‘পানকৌড়ি পানকৌড়ি ডাঙায় উঠনা’ – ‘Cormorant(Pankouri), O Cormorant stay in the water’ . Interestingly the Bengali moniker connotes a glutton or a diver. There can not be an apter description of this bird’s behavior – it is a voracious eater and moves around in deep waters like an otter. In Bengal, fish farmers lay crisscross ropes laden with colored swags above their ponds to keep away the cormorants.

A Satyajit Ray story was my second encounter , wherein Ray talked about how cormorants would use their lungs as ballast tanks as in a submarine to float up or dive into the water. Much later in life did I learn about a US defense department research project in which a submersible aircraft ( called Cormorant was to be developed. While inside a submarine tube the aircraft’s wings would be folded around itself and while floating up to the surface , wings would unfold in preparation for launch – very similar to the Cormorant Bird’s under-water and in the air movements. Is that Science imitating life !!


Flying Submarine Cormorant
Photo Credits Mike Hanlon (

My third meeting with cormorants in the world of words was in the least likely of places – in a Bond Novel, where one would not expect to accost birds with feathers. In “You Only Live Twice” Bond takes refuge in a Japanese fishing community. Fisherwomen out there would not use nets or lines – instead, they would use their cormorants for fishing. A snare would be put around the cormorant’s neck to prevent it from swallowing bigger fish. The bird with a fish in its gullet would be brought back to the boat and made to spit the fish out into the bin of ‘fresh catch of the day’!!


Fisherman with one of his cormorants. The bird’s throat snare is on the bird’s neck.
Photo by Frédéric Lemaréchal, alias Maboko – Originally from fr. Wikipedia;

Having grown up in antediluvian pre-internet times, I did not get to see a cormorant in a picture or in flesh and feathers till I hit my early 20s. From my reads, a certain mystical imagery had developed in my mind about cormorants. Thus, the first sighting at Joka Marshes, my institute campus in Kolkata) was laced with a sense of underwhelm. Here was a bird with an ungainly body, dull feathers and an awkward low flight. But then it started growing on me – I started noting and marvelling at its aircraft-like take off with run-up ; its landing using its webbed feet as landing gear; the periscope-like look of the head with the body inside the water; the sudden disappearing dive and the equally sudden erupting reappearance 100 feet away. The voyeuristic affair continues – hopefully till I hit the bucket.

I am a newbie birdwatcher and get fascinated by the things that seasoned birders would brush off with a knowing smile. Paths of cormorants and mine have crossed a few times, but no other meeting has been as unexpected as the one in the heart of a desert in Dubai. It was an artificial lake made with desalinated sea-water. The lake was in a large residential complex. This was not an aviary, but a whole ecosystem created with desalinated water !! I have recorded Bulbuls, Cormorants, Lapwings, Hoopoes in Dubai – most are introduced or vagrant species not native to Dubai.

Collective noun for a group of cormorants is an unusual but fitting word – sunning. Sunning is what a sunning of cormorants needs to keep doing when out of water. A cormorant with its wings spread out in a sunning position is the most photographed pose of the bird


Cormorant Sunning

Protagonist of our story, My Cormorant Tree is housed in Rabindra Sarobar , an artificial lake created by the British – a creation as grand as the Victoria Memorial or the Howrah Bridge. I guess it is home to some 500+ cormorants and they regularly compel me to interrupt my walk and watch their antics. That my cormorant tree is thriving in a lake surrounded by a concrete jungle is a most gratifying bliss.

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