The Art of Bonsai
Mahbub Morshed authored three books including a novel called Face by Face (2010), which focused on new kind of social media communications and Facebook relationships. Born on 29 January 1977, Mahbub obtained his Honors and Masters degree from the Faculty of Archaeology at Jahangirnagar University. He is currently working on two non-fiction books: Guru o Chandal, a memoir on Selim Al Din and a film journal called Cholochitra.
At first, we had not noticed the Bonsai at House 33 of Shaheed Baburam Road in the city. It was a spring Sunday. Stepping onto Baburam Road, which lay by the closed 'Oriental Talkies' building like a dead snake, for the fourth time that Sunday had startled us. Walking carefully in the darkness that comes after the evening, we were preoccupied with a thought: the number 33 is divisible 11 times by three. Bashabi Dutta was also startled when she opened the door. It wasn't our intention to surprise her. But her apparent surprise made us happy. She must have thought that we had mistakenly come to the wrong floor, confusing the 'ground' floor with the 'first'. But it was not a mistake, we were not there that day to meet Amitra Di who used to live on the first floor. We wanted to talk to Basabi Datta. Letting us in Basabi said, “Let me make some tea for you. I will send Dada over so you guys can chat.” They were most likely in the prayer room, which is probably why Dada's clothes smelt of incense. But we could not really pick up a conversation with him. Our eyes would constantly wonder to the flaky plaster of the ceiling, which made Dada even more uncomfortable. So, he would get up to either adjust the speed of the fan or rearrange something on the table. But we could do nothing. Finally, he moved to a corner of the room, where the Money Plant vines filled the window pane. This suddenly drew our attention to a particular subject. We became aware of the plants that surrounded the small house. I asked Dada, what the scientific name for the Money Plant was. This lit up the conversation. Eagerly he started talking about Money Plants. In the midst, Bashabi appeared with the tea, dark spots underneath her eyes, her forehead gleaming with sweat. After serving tea, she joined the conversation, acting as if she had been there from the start. They had a cinnamon tree and the tea smelt of cinnamon. But so engrossed were we in the conversation, we had forgotten to thank her for the tea. We did not even talk about the fern, cactus and Bonsai that were present in the room. It was not that we had not seen the Bonsai, but we did not pay it much attention. But somehow, we had remembered the Bonsai. If asked later, we would fail to recollect the scientific name of Money Plant, but we would remember the details of the Bonsai vividly. We did not forget the day either. It was to be our last meeting with Basabi Dutta.
It took us a few months to find out that those plants in Basabi's house were called Bonsai. It was not due to a lack of curiosity, we were just busy. In order to save some of our meager earnings, we had to move away from the city to a town near the Brahmaputra. People thought we had moved to a far away place, and that was what had almost happened. We couldn't find any jobs in the city.
It was during this time we sent our first and last letter to 33 Baburam Road. We had heard that such letters, written to the same city, would travel to Rajshahi, then Dhaka, and then the main post office of the city. At that time, we were thinking about Amitra Di, our regular conversations at Baburam Road and how our letter had reached Basobi Datta at 10:30 am on Tuesday via Dada. Since then, 76 10:30ams has gone by. But we never did find out if Basobi Datta had received our letter. We never received a response.
We were slowly beginning to forget about everything related to Bonsai. Having busied ourselves chasing news while working for 'Dainik Kallyan', we thought it best to remain detached from such matters. Sitting amongst the ink of the printing press, a locked-up telephone set and government-supply newsprint, we would search for news to fill our four pages. It was at this time that we happened to watch a show on plants on a 14” Philips television. A botanist was explaining how we can use the reaction of plants to sunlight to shape the growth of its branches in an artistic form. How we can use metallic wires and the outgrowth of branches to give them the shapes of waves, curves, circles or spirals.
Then one day, we came to know that a local newspaper had brought out a supplement on Bonsai. Back then we did not know what Bonsai was. Each day, we would return home late in the night carrying the newspapers and periodicals with us, in the hope that we would be able to write some feature stories based on them. That is how we came across the Bonsai magazine. We learnt what Bonsai actually is. The pictures in the magazine, reminded us of the Money Plant vines climbing in through the window. It was in that very magazine that we found written that Bonsai is an art. This reignited our old curiosity. We used to think that in working for a paper, we were quite close to the field of the arts. So, just one question came to our mind: “How?”, but soon after, dark shadows of fear and uncertainty engulfed our lives and thoughts.
One day we were telling Majnu Saha, “Just imagine, Bonsai is called an art.” Majnu could have been our cousin, uncle or friend. “Let me tell me you a story”, he said, and started narrating a true story. His narration was furtive, inside a double decker bus or may be a Thai restaurant. A man went to Dhaka to start a business. He even ran a motor parts business for three months. Suddenly one day, he disappeared. Days turned into months, and months into years. His family had lost all hope of his return. It was at this time, the man was found, near the left side of the Farmgate over bridge. His limbs were missing; his eye sockets empty and he was begging for money. Who knows if he remember anything about his past life? Majnu Saha thought that he was a human Bonsai. These days, however, people say that we never did talk with Majnu Saha, because neither do double decker busses ply these roads, nor are there Thai restaurants in this city.
Regardless of if the story is true or false, in those days, we often used to see blind, crippled people on the roads begging money. It could be that we had created Majnu Saha's story by observing these people. Even if we did make up the story, the sight of these people constantly reminded us of the wired, suppressed, tied Bonsai plants. We started evaluating the artistic value of Bonsai. But failing to do so, we became apprehensive. The doctors advised us to stay away from Bonsai. After a long, hard search, we rented a house in the Cantonment, hoping that inside the area we would be protected from the Bonsai beggars. We could see the soldiers march past our house. Every morning we used to wake up to the sound of the march. The soldiers would walk past our house either to the marketplace or to the movie theatre. The olive colour of their uniform became our favourite. We tried our best to identify and remember the individual faces, all clad in the same uniform. And the soldiers too, knew, that we work for “Daily Kallyan.” One day, a diesel run, olive colour Toyota stopped in front of our door, and Major Khalequzzaman stepped down from the car. Extending his strong hands he said, “We wish your youthful endeavors every success.” Thus we tried to set up a small school for the young children, within the boundaries of the premises.
Here the influence of military riguor was very strong on the children. The children were brought here with the belief that they needed to be groomed from an early age. And then for the next six years they were raised in a controlled and regimented environment. They were taught only around a thousand words to communicate, and beyond these words they couldn't express themselves. The essence of their being was “patriotism”. The only word relating to sexuality was 'March ahead'. We were in awe seeing so many children march in front of us, wearing the same uniform. “Impressive,” we said. A teacher of the school standing next to us, smiled. “We get some of the most talented students here,' he said in an ironic tone. Our gaze wandered to the blooming flowers while observing the march-past. And then to the trimmed grass ahead. “You can compare them to the trees or the grass. And we can be compared to a gardener,” the teacher added.
We stared at our friends in the army with a look of discomfort. Major Zaman, sensing the look of treason in our eyes, warned us to be careful. As soon as we could, we returned to our room and dozed off. But it had triggered the crisis. In our sleep we could see the big school premises, but there were no students; only rows of Bonsai – all six year old. This was the second time a snake crawled upon my heart, waking me from my shallow sleep. The next day, our military friends said that marks of treason were very prominent in our eyes. We had to get over this fear, and thus we were left with no other option but to move out of the house.
Our new neighbourhood was not as sensitive. University professors used to live there. Groups of college going youths used to come and go. It was a neighbourhood that always seemed to be alive. On the fourth day after moving into the neighbourhood, we met a bald professor at Professor Pahar Gopinath Mohastho Road. “Come over to my place one evening. We shall have tea together,” he said. We even noticed the man standing next to him. “Remember the invitation. Come over one day,” the stranger reiterated. Back then we didn't know, but later, over a cup of tea, we learnt that the other man was the professor's student.
“You know what, your profession always deals with new things. It is always interesting. We have a very boring job, very repetitive. We have been teaching the same syllabus for the last 21 years. I'll be right back.” The professor said, excusing himself. And he went to the adjacent room. Then the student started talking. “Teaching actually involves a lot of repetition, you know. Imagine how boring it is to talk about the same thing everyday.” The professor returned and asked the student to bring salt biscuits for us.
“He has been with me for the past six years. Very brilliant. He is the most knowledgeable in physics in this city, after me.” The professor continued, “I have groomed him. Bit by bit I have educated him. You can call him a six year old plant. He had this air of uncouthness about him before. He used believe in astrology. But I have purged his unpolished thoughts. I have refined him with philosophy.” Our old fears gripped us on hearing these. The tea, served in melamine cups, tasted distasteful. We got up saying, “ We have some work to finish.” We started work late that night, wandering about in the streets in the damp evening.
We looked very pale even the next day. At least that's what a stranger said at the Gopinath Mohastho Road crossing.
“There are so many Bonsai around,” we said.
“So what? The universe itself is Bonsai factory.”
We took him for a philosopher as he used the word “universe”. Later, however, we realised that considering him to be a social scientist was incorrect.
“How?” we asked.
“So many obligations and bindings. Come to think of it, when the first law was enacted, it suppressed a human potential. And gradually more laws, more articles, more clauses, were enacted; innumerable human possibilities were suppressed. And then the evolution of society. Society is like a small bowl. People plant themselves in this bowl in the name of codes and rules. Modern society demands maximum possibilities out of a human being planted in this tiny bowl. Even the meaning of the word 'maximum' is decided by the surroundings. The temperature, light and air will determine the growth of the humans, as it happens in the case of plants.”
“What is your name?” we asked him. He tried to avoid the question. “The question is whether Bonsai is an art. Why don't you ask society this question? You are having doubts about something that has universally been accepted as an art. Why are you not considering the possibility of having lost your sense of aesthetics?”
“Bonsai scares us.”
“This is the result of staying away from your family. Fickle-mindedness.” He said, as he walked along the road leading to the river. He was never seen again either at the professor's colony or at the Gopinath Mohastho Road. For a while we thought he came form some other town. Later however, we learnt that he was a local resident. Apparently, some people saw him looking for K-2 brand cigarette about a year back. Then the K-2 brand cigarette disappeared from the market, and so did he. He was a lecturer of economics, so his students called him K-2 Sir. Influenced by the words of K-2 Sir, we turned our thoughts towards family life. Initially, we started socialising with a middle class family. There we tried to avoid conversations related to art or plans. There was no alternative to overcome our fears.
Often we would visit a family at Thanapara. One day we saw that the husband was not at home. No one came to the drawing room in his absence. We sat still for half an hour. Maybe fifteen added minutes had passed. We were surprised to hear a woman's voice addressing us. “Why do you people come so often?” A woman's voice – slightly rough, aged – was coming from behind the curtains. “We are afraid of the blind, disabled, school and college going children, and Bonsai,” we said.
“There are three grown up daughters in this house. And your presence here, hinders their movement.”
“What is the problem? Even we need a family life,” we said in the direction of the curtains. From the other side we could hear sighs of irritation. Someone was ranting against the master of the house. “For the past six years, I have groomed the girls into trees. No one bothers about their marriage. And these boys, coming over whenever they want,” she complained. We realised that for six years these three girls have been groomed in a controlled environment, we were reminded of Amitra Di. So, we straight went to Amitra Di's house in Shaheed Baburam Road from that house. Failing to stay away from Bonsai even in our family life, the desire to see Amitra Di burned in our hearts. We even promised ourselves not to get scared of the crippled, blind, or school-college going kids. Later, we let ourselves go to the whims of the prevailing sense of art, saying: Bonsai is an art. Be that of plants or people.
Translated by Saba El Kabir &
Tasneem Tayeb Kabir