Born in Simla in 1938, Veena Bhargava, started out as a young medical student in Calcutta, however, by the time she was in her second year she began to realise that she was in the wrong field of studies and that her heart really lay in the world of art. So Veena left the Medical College and instead she got herself admitted into the Government College of Art and Craft. She graduated from there with a Diploma in Painting. Primarily a figurative painter, Veena is an artist with a conscience. Victims of oppression and suffering, both man and beast, have featured frequently in her paintings. However, it does not mean that for Veena life is only about suffering, on the contrary some of her most delightful paintings are based on the popular imagery of the clown and street performers expressing the joyous aspects of life.
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1. First Excerpt
1st April 2020
What can I say? Seismic shock waves with lightning speed have struck planet earth, across national, religious and tribal boundaries, regardless of caste, creed or colour. This has taken us unawares, numbing us into a deathly silence. Despite the combination of artificial intelligence, science, technology, knowledge and wisdom, we have been cut down to size and rendered helpless. Was this a deliberate plan to compel us into an abrupt halt, to enable us to pause and take stock of our continuous and indiscriminate abuse of nature? Was it to remind us of our vain, ambitious, self-centeredness and man eat man instincts, with scant regard for other living species? Was it to reprimand us for polluting the planet and disrupting nature’s delicate environmental balance? The unimaginable lockdown of cities across the globe has happened overnight, and bludgeoned us into submission. This is a bizarre science fiction nightmare come true …..and now what ?
“History is everywhere, we cannot escape history. There is no future because it is a projection, there is no present as it is continuously slipping away, so there is only a past.” A past full of the pleasures or the routine of everyday living. Whatever it may have been, we have now been jettisoned into a, “new normal,” or call it what you will. The mysterious, infinitesimal invader is now part of our present reality, drastically altering the established order that we have grown up with.
Spring is drifting into summer and temperatures are rising to 38 degrees. A gentle breeze hums throughout the day. The afternoon sun is harsh and humidity levels are increasing. The smoky haze is gradually giving way to clear blue skies, while radiant spring blossoms softly sway in the breeze. Orchestrated bird sounds at dawn gradually rise to a crescendo, culminating in a Sunrise symphony, to fade away at dusk into the silence of darkness. Avians are reclaiming their rightful space on this planet, as are other species, such as the dolphins on Marine Drive, in Mumbai.
The cacophony of bird sounds is more audible through the day, breaking the uneasy calm of the city. Summer blossoms and a sap green mosaic of leaves are making a quiet debut in the April summer. Soon, the tall handsome Delonix Regia or Gulmohur with its graceful branches adorned with resplendent vermilion blooms will spread out into a graceful umbrella. By the end of the week, we will have a grandstand south view of soothing green leaves, with an array of clusters of fiery red florets. This is such a welcome counterpoint to the grim reality that we are living through.
An ugly brown kite has reappeared after several years. The shrill screech of this carnivore drowns the soothing sounds of smaller birds. This dominating creature, intermittently emitting a jarring shriek, has chosen to perch on a branch of the tree just outside my south window. I am afraid to stand at my window, as it makes a threatening dive towards me, trying to establish its territorial rights on my turf ! Most annoying!
It’s amazing how quickly one adapts to spending time with oneself. Earlier, no transport on a Sunday and the heavens fell. Now everyday is a Sunday. On reflection, so much of what we do is unnecessary, simply because we have time on our hands. Normal living too is a habit, just as the present new normal has become. We are creatures of habit. Repetition….. year in and year out. Sunrise to sunset, day leading into the night in a 24 hour cycle. The weekly cycle from Monday to Sunday and the four seasons Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter culminate in an annual 365 day cycle, leading to the New Year…… Religious events too are cyclic. Life is an ongoing cycle of birth, death, decay and maybe….. rebirth?
2. Second excerpt
The city is teeming with overcrowded bustees or slums with families living cheek by jowl with inadequate basic facilities. How can slum dwellers practise social distancing or hygiene? The infection is bound to spread, however much they are brain washed with instructions. These conditions apply to most over populated cities with impoverished local and migrant labour. Shanties are spread all over the city, interspersed with smart upmarket houses and high rises. Many slum dwellers work as domestic help in neighbouring homes. This is a symbiotic relationship of convenience. Covid 19, it is said, is an import from overseas. International travellers have unknowingly infected family, friends and domestic help who commute to work from neighbouring areas. Kolkata is dotted with slums juxtaposed with affluent homes. One infected person is enough to create a spread, given the nature of this deadly virus and the living conditions the poor have been cursed with. A large number of infected, “containment” zones have been identified and locked down with barricades in Kolkata and in other districts in Bengal, as also in other states across India. Dharavi, in Mumbai has the largest high density slum in Asia, inhabiting a population of over 700,000, occupying 2.1 square kilometres. Understandably, the spread there has been rapid. Maharashtra has the highest number of infections in India. Ironically, Mumbai is the commercial capital of India where the rich and famous reside. Slums and plush upmarket buildings exist side by side, as in the plush neighbourhoods of Malabar Hill and Worli.
Constant misuse of land for industry, construction of townships with high density skyscraper apartment blocks, malls and recreation centres are responsible for unhealthy over urbanisation. In addition, there is the indiscriminate use of motor cars, air conditioners and generators. Water bodies too, have been usurped in the garb of urban land use. Excessive urban consumerism has become a way of life. The smart young upwardly mobile generation with twin salaries, like to live it up, revelling in the fast track, on the go lifestyle. The internet generation is constantly on a smart phone, computer or focussed to a TV screen. The continuous bombardment of advertising has had an adverse influence on people across strata. I’m veering off track from environmental concerns, but it is this hypnotic attraction to a consumerist lifestyle that is responsible for our environmental damage . Depletion of forests, proliferation of concrete jungles and the resultant excessive pollution are the causes of climate change and global warming. The fall out is an increasing rise of abnormally high temperatures, both in tropical and temperate zones. Added to this, is the freak flooding, high speed cyclones and hurricanes, melting of glaciers in arctic zones and of course, the adverse health effects on man. The animal world, bird life and aquatic species too, have not been spared. Man is king, or so he thought, till this invisible enemy attacked us.
A large number of flamingos have flown into the suburban lakes in Navi Mumbai. Ducks walk unhindered in front of Comedie Francaise in Paris, wild boars walk into residential buildings in Haifa in Israel. Jackals have reappeared across the vast expanse of the Tollygunge greens, in Kolkata. Flocks of birds and animals are returning to a cleaner and quieter planet. What if the extinct dinosaur is reborn again, in a new avatar to destroy the human race and crush the mighty corona. George Orwell’s Animal Kingdom can reclaim planet earth in its natural grandeur and establish its supremacy over man. If the infinitesimal corona can traumatise and displace man across continents, then a new order too, is possible. Man has to learn to establish a symbiotic live and let live relationship with all the living species that inhabit this planet. We cannot continue to dominate and destroy nature, as has been the practice over centuries.
3. Third Excerpt
19th & 21st May
Cyclone Amphan in the Bay of Bengal, is scheduled to hit Orissa, Bengal and Bangladesh tomorrow . The grim warning is that it will be very severe, with high wind speeds of over 150 km per hour. As predicted, the cyclone struck after 4 pm on the 20th, gaining momentum at lightning speed to attain its fiercest peak at 185 kilometres at landfall. According to reports, the highest wind speed in Kolkata was 135 kilometres at Dum Dum, at 7.20 pm. I was attending a residents’ committee meeting in the office at 4pm.The lashing sound of heavy rain and whistling wind, accompanied with intermittent crashing sounds of flying objects, kept resonating in our ears. We continued with considerable distraction and unease, when at about 6pm the power supply snapped. Engulfed in total darkness, mobile torches began to flash. Along with a slew of other precautionary measures, we had been warned to keep our torches ready. More mayhem followed, when some neighbours and security rushed into the lobby to inform us that water was gushing down the stairs, from the terrace. After a few minutes, the power supply was restored. A short reprieve, as midway, while climbing up to the 5th floor, the power went off again. With water pouring down, I returned to my apartment using my mobile torch. Though it was pitch dark, I managed to locate a leftover packet of Diwali candle discs. The glow of two or three candles strategically placed, was sufficient for me to move around with trepidation in my surreal space.
The Gulmohur tree outside my verandah, was swinging wildly in the torrential rain, with a wind velocity of supersonic speed. My splendid glory was caught in a frenetic brawl, fighting the combined forces of the wind and rain. Sheaths of vermillion petals were being tossed wildly and scattered in every direction, at the mercy of nature’s fury. Sitting on a chair facing south, I sadly watched the silhouette of the swaying trees before me. Fortunately, the wind direction was from the north-east. My Gulmohur survived but with substantial damage and depletion of its branches. It is a sad apology of what it was a few hours earlier. Many branches were ripped off in the storm. Some had snapped, lying prostrate on the roof of the neighbouring house.
It takes a few hours to wreck a densely populated city, with humanity living on the edge. West Bengal has been severely battered and bruised with Amphan killing more than 98 people, whose misfortune it was to be caught in the cyclone at the wrong time – was this their destiny? Kolkata, and its environs have been reduced to ruins. Dwellings made of bamboo, mud and thatch or tiles have been flattened to the ground. A lifetime of savings and possessions are now a medley of scattered fragments. Homes that were carefully built to create a secure nest, have been wiped out in a flash, and this too, in the midst of a pandemic. The inhabitants have perforce, been shifted to make-shift shelters. To even think of distancing and hygiene in a ghetto, is a cruel joke. Why are our dispossessed, battered and repeatedly tortured, always at the receiving end?
It is over a week since Amphan struck. Some parts of the city are still without power, denying neighbourhoods both electricity and water! Angry citizens are out on the streets, protesting. The wreckage is immense. Over eight thousand trees have been uprooted, electric poles wrenched and bent across the road, enmeshed in a tangle of assorted cables. Mobile, internet and TV services have been severely disrupted, putting a stop to those working from home. Many are in a state of panic without their gizmos, internet or mobiles functioning. Innumerable lives revolve around a dependency on their gadgets, verging on addiction. Withdrawal symptoms are manifest in those with tunnel vision. While the well to do bemoan the temporary loss of their techno toys, a mass of humanity suffers in stoic silence and helplessness at the total destruction and loss of their entire life’s possessions.