Thursday, August 08, 2019

August and I

My mother is now a memory. But memories of the August afternoon I cremated her in Banaras remain fresh. There are pictorial reminders, too, of that afternoon, hidden in some forgotten folder, but I have no desire to access it.

My mother died on 28 August 2009. I received the news in Chennai, flew to Delhi the same evening, and the next morning took an Indian Airlines flight to Banaras to cremate her. She would have turned 59 on 31 August.

At the time I was an unpublished writer. Chai, Chai was still in the press — I had no idea when it was going to come out — and I had just begun work on Tamarind City. The road ahead, as a writer, was still foggy. But while waiting at Manikarnika Ghat that afternoon, watching several pyres — including hers — slowly reducing into ash, I resolved that I must do a Banaras book someday. The thought transformed me from a grieving son to a writer who was collecting material. Her death was no longer a personal tragedy but an event I was going to report.

About a week later, when I was in Kanpur, killing time as I waited for the 13th-day ritual, the advance copy of Chai, Chai arrived. Shortly after I returned to Chennai, my head tonsured, the book appeared in shops and on October 15, a formal launch was held. At the time I worked with Times of India and my office was barely two kilometres away, and on my way to work I had to cross the Balaji temple on Venkatanarayana Road. When the manuscript was still with the publisher, I would tell Lord Balaji: “If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will get my head tonsured at Tirupati.” And now I was telling him: “Since you already got my head tonsured, make sure it sells 10,000 copies.”

Chai, Chai went on to become a blockbuster. Then came Tamarind City, in 2012, followed by the Calcutta book, Longing, Belonging, in 2014. Banaras was forgotten. Finally in October 2015 I set out for Banaras and spent nearly two weeks there. But that was when the idea of the border book struck me: 70th anniversary of Partition was nearing and I realised that if I had to produce a timely book, I must start right way. The Banaras notebook was put aside and I began working on what became Gazing at Neighbours, published in August 2017.

I could return to Banaras only in December 2018. Thereafter, no looking back. The notebook I had put aside filled up in no time. By now I had relocated to Calcutta, where I had finally set up a proper study. I would be at my desk by 9.30 in the morning and write till lunch time. As lucky charm I would wear a shawl gifted to me in Banaras by the writer Kashinath Singh. Once winter melted away, I placed a piece of cloth — sent to me by a well-wisher from Banaras after he got it blessed by Lord Vishwanath on Shivaratri — on the backrest of my chair.

The book got done in six months. It should be out soon. This is the fastest I’ve done a book. Perhaps because of the discipline. I had firmly told myself two things: 1. To write at least 400 words a day; and 2. To not reproduce stuff already known about Banaras.

Since we are into August, when memories of that afternoon make their annual visit, I find myself somewhat amazed by the timing. The book is going to mark 10 years of my mother’s death — and also 10 years of my becoming a published writer. As if destiny demanded this timely tribute.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

One Year In Calcutta

On the night of 13 January 2001, I boarded the Tamil Nadu Express at New Delhi station, carrying a large suitcase and a bag. The suitcase had all my clothes and documents, while the bag exclusively contained music: a two-in-one and dozens of cassettes. I was a faceless man — one of the countless journalists seeking sufficient elbow room in the city of Delhi — who had decided to move to Chennai simply because he had not never set foot in that part of the country. I didn’t know a soul in Chennai, and once the train began to move, even my newly-purchased Nokia 5110 lost connection, cutting me off from the rest of the world during the 32-hour journey. I had turned 30 a few days before, but I was born again on 15 January 2001, the day I arrived in Chennai.

Cut to the afternoon of 6 August 2018. I am standing in an empty house in Chennai, waiting for the landlord to arrive so that I can hand him the keys and leave for the airport. All my belongings, accumulated over the 17 years, have already been shipped to Calcutta the day before. I am going to travel light when I take the Indigo flight. In the evening I land at the City of Joy, this time not on a visit but to make a new beginning. I wanted to move before I was too old to enjoy the delights of the place I had fallen in love with during the writing of Longing, Belonging.

Today I complete a year in Calcutta. Despite all the complaints that people — especially those who no longer live here — have about it, Calcutta is indeed a delightful city. Living is believing. That way I am pleased with my decisions. I moved to Chennai at a time when most people considered it back of beyond and therefore got to experience it before it got crowded. And now I’ve moved to Calcutta at a time when most people with my background prefer to live in Delhi, Noida or Gurgaon — with some of the best minds living elsewhere and trying to fit into other cultures, I feel more important. I am a Bengali who made Bengal his home.

But even after spending 12 months here, do I feel settled? Not quite. Feeling settled would mean the death of the writer in me. Even during the 17 years in Chennai, I was frequently spending time in other places — travelling in order to write — so that I did not become accustomed, and therefore blind, to one particular place. Even of the 12 months that I’ve spent in Calcutta, six were spent in Banaras, finishing my next book. No, I didn’t live in Banaras during that period — sitting at my desk in Calcutta, I would mentally transport myself to Banaras between 9 AM and 2 PM every day, before setting out for my office at Dalhousie Square at three o’clock, looking at Calcutta with fresh eyes all over again, my phone always ready to take pictures.

What I find most striking about Calcutta is its lack of ambition. Bengalis are generally happy with what they have — City of Joy, after all — as long as there’s fish in the daily meal. For someone used to the ways of Chennai, it can be irritating as well as amusing to find shops in the neighbourhood — including pharmacies — shutting for the afternoon. Business cannot come in the way of adda or afternoon nap.

During my morning walks in the Central Park, a stone’s throw from my home in Salt Lake City, I always run into Marwari men who are invariably discussing either Modi or Money. Only the other day, I overheard a Marwari gentleman declaring, quite uncharacteristically, to a small congregation under a tree: “Main aap logon ko ek sher sunata hoon” — I am going to recite a sher for you all. Sher means a couplet; emerging from his lips, the word sounded like ‘share’.

On the other hand the Bengalis I come across — almost always elderly and an overwhelming minority in the park — can be heard whining about their health or speaking with pride about their children.

The lack of ambition, in my opinion, helps Calcutta retain much of the old-world charm. In most other cities, you will find the past in museums, but in Calcutta the past still stands on the streets and sits in people’s homes. If you want to see how the world looked or functioned 100 years ago, come to Calcutta — but come quickly, for things are beginning to change here as well. Until just five years ago, trams were a common sight in the city, today you’ll have to be lucky to spot one. But yes, they still run, and I’ve moved just in time before they become memory.

Should I, then, consider August 6 as the day of a third birth for me? No, I have merely relocated and not been reborn. The day of rebirth shall remain January 15, for it was in Chennai that I learned how to look and feel.

6 August 2018: Saju drives us to Chennai airport; arrival in Calcutta.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

An Ending And A Beginning

Today is Vijaya Dashami. Usually on this day, for the past few years, I’ve been taking the flight back to Chennai after spending Durga Puja in Calcutta. This year, however, I did not take the flight to Chennai. That’s because I no longer live in Chennai. I now live in Calcutta, having moved here on August 6, after having spent close to 18 years in what I call Tamarind City.

Why did I move to Calcutta? I will tell the story some other time. Or may be there is no story at all. Ever since I began work on Longing, Belonging, in 2011, I found myself belonging as much to Calcutta as I did to Chennai; and this shift is a mere technicality. It’s like being on roaming: I remain rooted to Chennai even as I connect with my cultural roots in Bengal.

This morning I woke up very late, exhausted by successive nights of pandal-hopping. Before lunch I read a few pages of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines; it was a struggle to keep the eyes glued to the pages — so used to they are now to the phone screen. There was also distraction is the form of dhaak beats, being relayed from the neighbourhood pandal over loudspeakers mounted on bamboo poles.

A part of me wanted to be at the pandal: to say parting prayers to the goddess, to take pictures of women applying vermilion on the goddess and on one another’s cheeks. Then an announcement was made on the loudspeaker: women who still hadn’t done the vermilion thing could do so only until three o’clock, after which the goddess and her children would head for the river.

After lunch I hurried to the pandal, just in time to catch the last woman, perched on a ladder, applying vermilion on the fish-eyed goddess. She had barely finished when the men took over: first removing the weapons, then removing the idols, loading them onto waiting trucks. I got into the car and asked the driver to take me to the riverside — I had no particular destination in mind; any place from where I could watch the immersion — it could be even a boat — would do. I was, however, pretty much sure that the car would not be allowed anywhere near the river today.

Near the Maidan I found myself tailing a Durga-laden truck. “Follow this truck,” I told the driver. We curved around the Maidan, past the Eden Gardens, past more Durga-laden trucks, before arriving at the ghat where dozens of such trucks were already parked. The air pulsated with the beats of dhaak — near as well as distant. I switched on my phone camera and jumped out of the car.

The sight, alas, was too spectacular to be captured accurately with phone or even words. The sun — a soft orange ball — was swiftly lowering itself on the horizon marked by the Vidyasagar Bridge. And against its fading light sprouted numerous silhouettes, of the ten-armed Durga — all beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, works of art that were being gaped at at their respective pandals until late last night. And now they were about to be consigned to the river; the clay would return to where it belonged — the riverbed.

The immersion was in progress. People carried the idols down the steps and pushed them, as gently as possible, into the water, and filled clay pots with the water — shanti jal — to carry them back to the empty pandal in the neighbourhood where people would be waiting to have the water sprinkled on them. One moment Durga was there, the next moment she’s gone — another 360 days before she returns again.

Why does Durga have to go — months of labour and excitement washed away in a matter of minutes?

There are people better qualified to answer that. I have my own answers, though. Imagine Durga idols being made of, say, marble, and installed permanently in neighbourhoods — there would be worship but no fun! Not to mention the loss of annual assured income for hundreds of thousands of people — artisans, decorators, labourers, electricians, caterers, it's one long list. And if Durga did not go, how would the Bengali look forward to her arrival, year after year. Looking-forward is vital to human existence.

I have another way of looking at it. Perseverance — yes, Durga's departure teaches you perseverance. When that beautiful face, admired by millions for five days, goes below the surface of the water, a knife pokes your heart: over those five days the clay face would have acquired a life. And then you start from scratch all over again — again and again.

I walked downstream to Millennium Ghat, descended its steps, put my hand in the water and sprinkled a few drops on my head. The water was not only blessed by Durga — it contained many Durgas.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Gazing At Neighbours: New Book, New Horizons

It's drizzling this morning as I lie down by the window of my Chennai home to write this post.

Some will call it a pleasant day; many others find such weather to be gloomy — it all depends on your state of mind. My mind, at the moment, is somewhere else.

Exactly two years ago, around the same time, I was at the Attari station, standing under a scorching sun, sweating profusely, waiting for the arrival of Samjhauta Express from Lahore. That journey marked the start of a new book, Gazing at Neighbours: Travels Along the Line That Partitioned India.

And sitting by my bed right now is a small carton that contains the 10 complimentary copies sent to me by my publishers. That makes this my 'fastest book' so far: everything — the travelling, the writing, the editing, the revisions, the printing — was done in under two years, even though I travelled far and wide for it, from Punjab in one extreme to Tripura and Assam and Meghalaya in the other.

As the title suggests, the book records my travels to places that sit on the two lines that Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew on the map of the subcontinent while partitioning India. Yes, he drew not one but two lines — one split Punjab and the other, a much longer line, carved out a province called East Bengal — even though when people talk about Partition, particularly these days, they confine themselves to the line Radcliffe drew across Punjab.

What makes Gazing at Neighbours particularly special for me is the trips I made along the boundary of the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh): they took me to places I had never been to before and probably would have never visited in my lifetime: what a loss — oh, what a loss! — that would have been.

And the most unforgettable moment from Punjab? Well, it wasn't exactly on the border but in Amritsar, at the Golden Temple, at four-thirty in the morning:

"Wearing a headscarf and my underwear, I stepped into the tank — the pool of nectar. The water was pleasantly warm and after bathing in it I felt my sensory system sufficiently refreshed to appreciate the magical hour of dawn. I suddenly saw better, heard better, felt better. I reflected upon life as I lingered in the water, listening to gurbani, the words of the gurus, being sung in the sanctum sanctorum. That’s when I realised why I felt so good."

The writing of the book was not just about visiting places I might have never set foot in otherwise, but also learning historical facts I had remained foolishly unaware of all my life. For example, independent India was born on the midnight of 14/15 August 1947 without knowing where exactly its boundaries with Pakistan lay: the maps were made public by Lord Mountbatten only on August 17. It's a fact, but I didn't know it — and many still don't.

The travels taught me something as well: that if you actually travel along the border, you will never really hate Pakistan or harbour ill feelings towards Bangladesh. You will find how everything is just the same: from the colour of the crops to the colour of the people. Which is why you will never hear anti-Pakistan cries on the border: you hear them either in the air-conditioned, insulated TV studios of Delhi or on the streets of Mumbai, which is a good 1,000 km away from Attari.

As Mark Twain noted more than a century ago: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." His words hold truer today.

So pack your bags. The next best thing would be to get hold of a copy of Gazing at Neighbours. It is equally fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, trust me.  
Behind me you can see the Samjhauta Express pulling into Attari station.

Right behind me is the Bangladeshi village of Tamabil, in Sylhet. I stand facing Dawki, a village in the state of Meghalaya.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Of Ganga And Ganga Mail: 11 Years Of A Blog

I am mildly emotional about October 17 — I never seem to forget the date — because it was on this day in 2005 that I started this blog. That makes Ganga Mail 11 years old.
The blog was created in a setting similar to what I find myself in right now: a dark room, gently lit up by a lamp with yellow bulb; me reclining on the mattress with the laptop; music playing softly on the speakers connected to the laptop; a glass of whisky and ashtray at hand; an empty stomach. What more does one need to write?
I chose 'bytheganges' as the URL because I wanted something unique, something I thought defined me. The truth is that back then, the Ganges or the Ganga hardly meant a thing to me other than that I had grown up near its banks in Kanpur. Little did I know that by naming my blog after the river I had only provoked Destiny into ensuring that my path got intertwined with that of the river's. I even have the evidence.
I was 35 when I started this blog, and until then, in spite of having grown up by the river, I would have visited the Ganga — I am ashamed to say this — maybe seven times in all, and they include childhood visits. But ever since Ganga Mail was created, our paths have been crossing far too often — and they are bound to keep crossing in the near future as well with even greater frequency and intensity. 
But it would be unfair to hold Destiny alone responsible. The birth of Ganga Mail also marked the beginning of my journey as a writer, and, whenever, as a writer, I followed the smell of the soil in search of my soul, I invariably found myself sitting by the Ganga.
Chai, Chai, published in 2009, is my most popular book till date: it is an account of my visits to towns that are famous as railway junctions but about which very little is known otherwise. Many people, for example, know Jolarpet or Guntakal as railway stations, but how many of them are familiar with the towns of Jolarpet and Guntakal? That was the idea behind writing Chai, Chai.
One of the towns I included in the book was Mughal Sarai. I had had childhood memories of Mughal Sarai station. The train from Kanpur to Howrah would make a long halt there: the engine and the staff would change and lunch would be served to passengers in compartmented plates. During  my stay in Mughal Sarai during the writing of Chai, Chai, I decided to visit Benares, which was only 10 km away. And even though Benares did not belong to the book, I decided to include it anyway: the emotions I experienced in the ancient city was too precious not to be documented.
Shortly after Chai, Chai came out, a colleague told me, "My son is only 10 years old, he has read your book and he loves you."
I felt extremely flattered, but at the same time wondered why a 10-year-old, growing up in the era of budget airlines, should like a book about railway junctions.
A few months later the colleague threw a party at his home. I was invited too. As soon as I reached his place he took me to his son's bedroom and told him, "Here, meet your favourite writer. Won't you say hello to him?"
The child blushed and covered his face with a pillow. I removed the pillow and asked him, "Have you really read Chai, Chai?"
He nodded.
"Then tell me what did you like the most about the book."
"The part about Benares," he said and quickly covered his face with the pillow again.
That's when I understood that the charm of the Ganga transcended age, gender and location. And also felt mildly proud that I owned — no, not the Ganga — but Ganga Mail.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Durga Puja In Calcutta Makes Me Sad

Feeling a little emotional about Calcutta tonight, I sat down to put down my thoughts in writing but I am unable to because the radio is on — 106.2 FM, which describes itself as ‘Kolkatar gaan, Kolkatar pran’ (the songs of Calcutta, the soul of Calcutta).
I can, of course, switch off the radio, but that’s easier said that done when my kind of songs are plating back to back — Bengali as well as Hindi numbers of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. It is one thing to possess a collection of these songs and play them as and when you want to, quite another when the radio plays them. When the RJ plays these songs, he validates the fact that your choice is far from outdated. In Calcutta, someone born in the 1970s can never feel old.
And just when you think that you know all the songs created during that golden decade, the radio springs a surprise. Only minutes ago, the channel played a Bengali song that instantly grabbed my attention: sung by Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar and pictured — as I discovered on You Tube — on Amol Palekar and Sharmila Tagore in a 1979 film called Mother.
The song has made me even more emotional.
I am not alone. This is that time of the year when every Bengali living in Calcutta gets emotional. It’s Durga Puja, after all. But why should they get emotional during Durga Puja, the ultimate season of joy and festivity?
That’s because they spend the entire year waiting for Durga Puja, but once the goddess and her four children have taken their positions in the neighbourhood pandal, realisation dawns that the next four days will elapse in no time — and that they would have to once again wait for another whole year.
They would ideally like the calendar to bear only four days — sashti, saptami, ashtami and navami — and make life an everlasting celebration, but that would be like trying to hold on to the sand in your fist. The sand slips out: day by day, month by month, year by year. And that’s how we get old.
Fortunately for Calcutta, the end of Durga Puja does not mean the end of celebrations. Durga Puja is followed by a host of other festivals, lasting throughout the year, before Durga Puja stages a grand return once again.
But for a Calcuttan, a lot can change between one Durga Puja and another. One may not be around to see the next Durga Puja in the neighbourhood pandal for a variety of reasons: one could find a new job and move to another city, one could get married and move to another city, or one could just die of disease or accident during the intervening 300 or so days. To be present at the neighbourhood pandal during Durga Puja is an assertion of being alive — and that explains why the festival is such an emotional event.
I may not be a true-blue Calcuttan — I have been living in Chennai for almost 16 years — but of late even I have been marking my attendance on Planet Earth by visiting Calcutta every Durga Puja. That is why I feel so emotional today — that the festivities must come to an end so soon. Can’t good things last a little longer?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some Thoughts About Chai, Chai — Over Whisky

Yesterday morning my publishers mailed me reviews of the Hindi translation of Chai, Chai appearing in three leading Hindi dailies  Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta — and that set me on the reminiscence mode.
I signed the contract for the book in November 2006, seven months after I got married my wife sometimes jokes that while she brought me all the good luck, I brought her only bad luck, which is probably true but it wasn't until July 2007 when I started travelling for it. I no longer remember what took me so long to get started, but I do remember receiving calls from my anxious publishers, who had already paid me an advance of Rs. 50,000.
So it was in July 2007 that I formally began my journey as a writer, when I stepped out of Itarsi station on a drizzly evening. I had no expectations to live up to, not many travel writers to look up to — my reading was limited to Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. I had only a vague idea how a book was to be written — and the idea was, basically, to have fun and let things happen to you, rather than you chasing things: if things didn't happen to you, so be it.
I no longer remember when exactly I made the journeys to the other places described in the book — yes, Mughal Sarai was in November 2007 — but I do remember finishing the journeys shortly before 5 March 2008, when I joined the Times of India. The paper was soon going to launch its Chennai edition.
And then I sat on the project for months together, as I coped with pressures at the new workplace. It took a couple of more calls from the publishers to get me started with the writing, and once I got into the rhythm, there was no stopping. I would write from midnight till 4 a.m., wake up at 11 and go to the gym.

I emailed the manuscript in March 2009 and, after spending two days in Pondicherry, went to Kanpur. I had no idea I was seeing my mother for the last time.
Back in Chennai, as I awaited the publication of the book, I began to pray. I lived in T. Nagar and my office was located precisely 2 km away, in Nandanam. Every day, I would pass the Balaji temple on Venkatnarayana Road, and I would tell Lord Venkateswara, "If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will go to Tirupati and get tonsured."
But even before the book could come out — it hit the stands in September 2009 — my mother died. As per rituals, I had to get my head shaved. God had turned out to be unfair, unkind. I told Him, "I have done my bit, now it's your turn. Make sure the book sells 10,000 copies."

This time He heard me.


Today, looking back, Chai, Chai is a book I am at once possessive and embarrassed about.

Possessive, obviously because it is my first book, to write which I did things I can't imagine doing today: such as getting off at strange stations and, no matter what time of the day or night, setting out in search of a hotel. What if the town had no hotels? Well, I had no Plan B. Neither did I have the luxury of homework: almost nothing was available to read, online or otherwise, for me to get even remotely acquainted with those towns. Everything had to be experienced first hand.

Embarrassed, because I would do a far better job if I were to write the book today. I would spend more time in each place, search harder, dig deeper. It would be a thicker book, with less of whisky and more of chai — but that would also mean less kick.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Have Will, Will Travel

I often come across this quote, that life is like a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

When you read those words aloud you also, without realising it, make fun of people who do not travel. But to travel you often need two things: money and will. Many people don't have either, some neither.

But there are people who travel for a living people who spend most of the week in airports and hotels, or in trains or buses — selling corporate solutions or FMCG products. I don't so much envy those living out of airports and hotels: they basically hop from one boardroom to another, and these days most boardrooms are usually located on the outskirts of a city. But I very much envy those who, to promote their brand of tea or toothpaste or chocolate, travel to the remotest of shops, occasionally hopping onto a passing truck or tractor if required in order to cover the areas assigned.

These fortunate people, since they have one eye fixed on the watch and the other on the target, largely remain blind to the places their work takes them to. They travel, but they wouldn't be called travellers.

Who, then, is a traveller?

A traveller, to me, is someone driven by curiosity: What lies there? The there could be a neighbouring town or a neighbouring country or a country 10,000 miles away so long as you go there out of curiosity you are a traveller (if you go there only for the sights you are already familiar with, you are a tourist).

Which also means that you do not really need money to travel. I shall always cherish the trip I made to the town of Chandragiri, near Tirupati, in September 2011: I had driven down from Chennai with a friend and together, we would not have spent more than Rs. 2,000. We could have managed with even half the amount had we not chosen to stay in AC rooms.

There is another journey I shall never forget: I even remember the date  — August 4, 2015 — because it happened to be birth anniversary of my idol Kishore Kumar. On that day, I took the morning flight from Chennai to Calcutta, and in the afternoon — after listening to a few Kishore Kumar songs on FM took the flight to Bagdogra.

From Bagdogra airport, I was to drive south to Cooch Behar, to work on a story about the Bangladeshi enclaves that had merged with India just four days before. As the driver led me to the parking, I noticed a car with a red number plate, the registration number painted in the Devanagari script.

"The car you are looking at is from Nepal," the driver — a very nice man called Bindeshwar Yadav — satisfied my curiosity. "The registration says it belongs to the Bagmati zone of Nepal."

"How far is Nepal from here?" I asked him.

"The border is not even 30 km. Everything is close from here. Bhutan is hardly 70 km, Darjeeling 90 km."

My destination, Cooch Behar, was the farthest: 150 km.  To come so close to these places — Nepal, Bhutan, Darjeeling — and yet not to be able to even peep into them, the thought saddened me. "I must come back someday," I silently willed, even though the possibility of another trip in the near future seemed remote, very remote.

Perhaps the hills heard me. Not even a year has passed since then, and I have already been to Nepal, Bhutan and Darjeeling.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

15 Years In Chennai

Every January I fall in love with Chennai all over again. That’s when the sky is blue and the clouds are white, when the weather is at its pleasant best, when there is happiness in the air and when, for me, the sensations return — the sensations that had gripped me when I first set foot in the city and walked its streets.

Two days ago, January 15, I completed 15 years in Chennai, and because it is January, the memories of the initial days are once again playing in my mind in high definition. The reason I recall my arrival with such fondness is that I came to live in the city out of choice and not compulsion.

I was someone who could have idli and sambar for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and I never saw my lack of Tamil as an impediment. If anything, I found it very romantic that people you were trying to communicate with did not speak your language and you did not speak theirs. The ‘language problem’ was a delightful evidence that you had travelled — all the way — to live in a new land.

In short, I came to Chennai without expecting it to adjust to my ways, and instead came prepared to adapt myself to Chennai. And even though I had come from Delhi — north India — it helped that I was a Bengali, related by my surname to the land that had produced Tagore and Vivekananda. Even though the truth is that until 2001 — for that matter until 2006 — I had barely spent time in Bengal and had a ‘north Indian’ upbringing.

My very first home in the city was a lodge called J.K. Mansions located on Natesan Street in T. Nagar. The street ran parallel to the famous (or infamous?) Ranganathan Street. Every time I climbed up to or climbed down from my second-floor room, I would notice the hand-painted warning on each landing: “Female visitors not allowed” and “Consumption of liquor strictly prohibited.”

The first in-house rule was impossible to violate, but the second was violated with impunity because one evening, two days into my stay at the lodge, I found the manager escorting a carpenter into my room and getting the sole window secured with a wire mesh. “What to do, sir, people drink and throw empty bottles out of the window,” the manager explained, “neighbours are daily complaining.”

I wasn’t one of the culprits because I hadn’t discovered the wine shops of Chennai yet. On the evening of my Day One, I drank at the bar of Hotel Peninsula on G.N. Chetty Road, and on Day Two, I had drinks and dinner with my new colleagues at the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Ranjith in Nungambakkam. I was rich at the time: my father had given me Rs 40,000 — big money at the time — to start a new life in Chennai.

From Day Three onwards, however, I was having my evening drinks with select colleagues at a ‘bar-attached’ wine shop on Commander-in-Chief Road (Ethiraj Salai), which was right next to a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant called Shamiyana. We referred to the bar as Shamiyana.

I do not miss anything more in life than the sensations of those initial days in Chennai. Sensations are difficult to capture in words: the nearest you can get to doing that is by recalling memories.

Such as waking up to songs to Minnale wafting in from the window — who wouldn’t fall in love with the tune of Nenjei poopol?

Such as remembering, on waking up, that water would flow from bathroom tap only for half an hour — if you happened to sleep through those precious 30 minutes, you were screwed.

Such as sitting with bated breath in an autorickshaw as he took me flying from T. Nagar to my office on Club House Road (the journey lasted barely 10, at the most 12, minutes) — and feeling the rush of adrenalin as the autorickshaw sped down the hoarding-lined Gemini flyover.

Such as strolling out of office and stepping into Spencer Plaza, the only and the most happening mall of Chennai, mainly to visit Landmark, the bookstore, and Music World — my two favourite escapes.

Such as slowly emptying my quarter bottle (180 ml) of Old Monk rum in the company of colleagues-turned-friends at Shamiyana, and very rarely having an additional “ninety” or “cutting” (90 ml) — those days, don’t ask me why, alcohol and ambition went hand in hand; I could dream better while drinking.

Such as finding wine shops open even on Republic Day (in Delhi, almost every other day was dry day) and escaping death on the Republic Day of 2001 when, returning from an excursion to Mahabalipuram where we all drank vodka sitting on the seaside rocks, the colleague riding the bike lost control and I went sliding, face down, on the road — I survived only because ECR or OMR had not been constructed yet and there was no speeding vehicle coming from behind.

Such as sitting in the last row at those book launches that were followed by cocktails, totally in awe of those on the dais and eagerly waiting for the bar to open — but secretly hoping to be on the dais someday.

Such as having dinner from a roadside stall, either steaming idlis or hot parotta with ‘full-boiled’ egg (poached egg tossed upside down on the pan so that the yolk got fried as well) — the steam made you more hungry.

Such as going to sleep with the songs of Minnale still wafting in through the window, either from a neighbouring home or from the transistor of a watchman stationed close by.

Such as moving in, after spending precisely two weeks at J.K. Mansions, to the privacy of a flat in nearby Murugesan Street — a street I shared with Illayaraja for almost 14 years before shifting, in November 2014, to a street on the opposite side of North Usman Road.

The Chennai of January 2001 is not the same as the Chennai of January 2016. Everything has changed — everything — from the time I first set foot in the city.

T. Nagar, back then, was a residential area which also had commercial establishments; today it is a commercial area where some residential properties still exist.

Autorickshaw drivers no longer speed because there is simply no space on the roads to turn up the accelerator.

Wine shops and their bars, once run efficiently by private parties, are today run by the state government and the less said about their condition the better — anyway, the last time I stepped into a wine-shop bar was in March 2008.

I no longer go to book launches for the free drinks but to see, sometimes, my own books launched. What’s more satisfying is that one of the books is about Chennai.

My office on Club House Road has now transformed into Express Avenue. Spencer Plaza is a ghost mall. Landmark and Music World have shut down across the city.

There are far, far more places to eat and drink — and not just Dhaba Express or Harrisons.

The city limits no longer end with Thiruvanmiyur in the south and Mogappair in the west.

And as far as music is concerned — correct me if I am wrong — melody is nearly dead. Songs — even those created by the so-called Mozart of Madras, who gave several gems in the late 1990s — come and go. Nothing in the past 15 years to capture the popular imagination the way the songs of Minnale and, to some extent, Kaakha Kaakha did. But then, as far as melody is concerned, the city already sitting on a pot of gold: the music of the real Mozart of Madras, my neighbour of 14 years.

Three things, however, remain unchanged. Karunanidhi remains the leader of DMK. Jayalalitha remains the leader of AIADMK. And every morning, you find a freshly-drawn kolam outside every door.

If the city has changed, so have I. Naturally. Fifteen years is a lifetime. I came as a man who had just turned 30, today I am 45 — everything that has happened to me has happened to me in Chennai. So much so that I am no longer able to recall what I was doing with my life before I moved here.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On Turning Forty-Five

About a couple of months ago I spent some time in Benares, where one day, while walking to the Manikarnika Ghat, I chanced upon the Pashupatinath Temple, built there about two centuries ago by the king of Nepal.

I was immediately awestruck by the peace that prevailed over the temple. You could stand on its terrace and gaze at the Ganga without realising you are in Benares, a city overrun by pilgrims: just the perfect place for a one-to-one with Pashupatinath, or Shiva — my favourite god.

But since the temple is located right next to Manikarnika, India’s most famous cremation ground, you cannot visit — or exit — it without noticing the piles of wood or the smoke rising from the various pyres. Was the temple purposely built near Manikarnika so that devotees could realise that even if Shiva granted their prayers, they could not escape one reality, which was death?

I wasn’t sure of that, but during my stay in Benares, I visited the Pashupatinath Temple several times, and during what turned out to be my final visit, a young caretaker gifted me with a poster of the original Pashupatinath Temple, located in Kathmandu. I wanted to be in Kathmandu that very moment — just to complete the journey. But I did not see myself travelling to Nepal in the near future, and so I accepted the poster and told myself, “Okay, someday.” I had no idea, back then, that ‘someday’ would arrive so soon.

I have been in Kathmandu for the past two days now, and since today happened to be my birthday, I decided to begin the day with a visit to the Pashupatinath Temple. I prayed for myself and for people who matter to me, and then moved to the rear side of the temple — to a terrace overlooking the Bagmati River.

As I looked down the terrace, I saw a Manikarnika-like ghat below me —there were bodies either being cremated or being prepared for cremation — only that the Bagmati turned out to be so unbelievably narrow and shallow that you could hardly call it a river. Oh, the familiar smell of burning flesh!

On the steps across the river stood mourners — friends and distant family members of the deceased — who weren’t directly involved in the rituals of cremation. There was something very dignified and official — and not impersonal, as it happens in Manikarnika — about these cremations.

Suddenly it struck me that I was the birthday boy, who should be celebrating birth and not observing death, and I moved away from the terrace — but not without the reinforced realisation that every single birth has to meet death someday.

Perhaps that is why the two Pashupatinath temples — in Benares and in Kathmandu — adjoin cremation ghats, so that devotees know that no matter how much they please Shiva, they cannot escape death.

I wouldn’t have thought on these lines had I been 10 years younger: I would have got drunk — or had mindless sex — to celebrate my birthday. But once you turn 45, as I did today, you realise that death is a part of life. It is a different matter that you still feel your life has only just begun — miles to go before you sleep.

Thursday, December 03, 2015


Lives lost, homes left
pets lost, strays dead
plans postponed
dreams abandoned
opportunities washed away.

So we start — again
some from scratch
some after a pause
praying for everything
but another Rain.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

10 Years Of Ganga Mail

Someday, my feet could model for Alberto Torresi slippers. That is, if someday my face becomes famous enough to sell products.

About five months ago, I bought a pair for Rs 1,700 from Express Avenue in Chennai, and the humble brown chappals turned out to be the most loyal set of footwear I've ever owned.

They clung to my feet as I walked along the border with Pakistan in Punjab, walked the border with Bangladesh in West Bengal, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam (and sometimes even stepped into that country), strolled though the fields of Plassey where Robert Clive's forces once met the army of the Nawab of Bengal, walked on the beaches of Kerala and Karnataka, roamed the town of Udupi, returned to my hometown Kanpur after a long gap of three and a half years, walked on the banks of Brahmaputra and the ghats of Banaras. Wearing them, I stepped into planes, trains, taxis, boats and cycle-rickshaws.

As far as I remember, they have been properly polished only twice in these five months: once, when I had deposited them at the footwear-counter at the Golden Temple, and again when I stood with a boot-polish wallah at the door of a moving train (I was travelling from Malda Town to Murshidabad) and he offered to shine them.

The other night, as I was leaving Kanpur, my father handed me some money, saying I must buy new clothes for Durga Puja. I thought of buying a pair of sandals with that money, something I could wear on formal occasions as well, but instantly decided against it: the pair of Alberto Torresi had given wings to my feet — I never travelled so incessantly as I had ever since I bought the slippers — and I wanted to use the pair till it lasted. Call me superstitious if you like.

Travel: the word defines me today, even though the truth is that most of the time I am absolutely stationary, reclining on bed in the 'Vishnu pose', head resting on the palm (left palm, in my case). But while Lord Vishnu can be seen reclining on a slithery bed of serpents, enjoying the attention and receiving the services of many divine characters, I usually laze on a cotton mattress, alone, my thought process aided by the supply of Gold Flake Kings. On waking up I often wonder where I am, and once I assume the 'Vishnu pose' I reflect on my location.

The other morning when I woke up, I found that I was in a train. My travels were coming to an end, for now. My feet and lower back hurt. In Calcutta, I walked into a Thai spa. After the happy ending, I suddenly remembered the tagline of this blog —  'Account of a journey. Destination: salvation.' And then it struck me that I had coined those lines exactly 10 years ago.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

In Benares, A Satisfying Day Turned Sad

Today I did some of the things I had been wanting to do in Benares. I had two freshly-made, hot rasagullas (only Rs 10 each); I had not one but three Banarasi paans (the idea was to have only one but I quickly returned for two more); and, above all, covered nearly all its 84 ghats on foot — travelling a distance of about 7 km — from Assi Ghat on the southern extreme to Prahlad Ghat on the northern.
I made the return journey by boat, choosing to be its sole passenger, for Rs 500. The boat was steered by two 13-year-olds, though they looked much younger, and as we glided on the Ganga in the most glorious moments of dusk, I saw something I had been wanting to see: a body floating in the river. At first I thought it was a buffalo, but as it bobbed closer to the boat, I could see the outline of a human head. To be doubly sure I asked the boys, “What’s that floating?”
One of them replied: “Laash hai, laash!” — It’s a body.
A rewarding day on the whole. While I was walking on the ghats, the most exhilarating moment was the discovery of the Pashupatinath Temple, built by the Nepalese some 200 years ago, on Lalita Ghat: totally empty, a perfect place to meditate, and it also gives you a commanding view of the river. Then I lingered for a while at Manikarnika Ghat, and then walked on before stopping at Panchganga Ghat, where I climbed up the steep steps to visit the shrine of Trailanga Swami, considered an incarnation of Lord Shiva.
At the shrine, an elderly man, who looked south Indian, was meditating in front of the life-size figure of Trailanga Swami, also depicted in the meditative pose. As a caretaker showed me around and told me about the life of Trailanga Swami, the man got up and came closer to listen.
“Will you please translate what he is saying,” the south Indian man requested me.
I told him whatever the caretaker had told me, and then asked him, “Where are you from?”
“Chennai,” he replied.
“Where do you live in Chennai?”
“Thiruvanmiyur. Why, are you familiar with Chennai?”
“Yes, sir. I work with The Hindu.”
“Wait a minute, are you —?” He mentioned my name.
“Yes, sir.”
“Well, we are already friends on Facebook!”
The long walk, in spite of the company of the river and of Shiva, had been quite a lonely one. Suddenly, I didn’t feel lonely anymore.
The two young boatmen dropped me at Shivala Ghat from where I climbed the steps and walked back to my hotel. My feet hurt but I was happy about the day being well spent, and that I had no deadline dangling over my head to keep me up all night. I wanted to have two drinks and go to sleep, so that I could wake up early and catch the sunrise.
But as soon as I flung myself on the bed and looked at my phone for notifications — as one instinctively does these days — I learned that Ravindra Jain, the music director, had passed away. The smugness evaporated and sadness crept in. I sent the room boy to get me half-bottle of whisky. Ravindra Jain, after all, defined my childhood: R.D. Burman came into my life much later.
Geeta Gaata Chal released when I was five or six, and after the watching the film in the theatre, with my parents, I would often try to imitate Sachin as shown in the title song — a happy-go-lucky youngster carrying nothing but a flute and a small bundle of clothes and singing away to glory. I wouldn’t have pretended to be Sachin had I not been attracted to the song, and if the song was appealing to even a six-year-old back then, imagine what Ravindra Jain’s music must have done to the grown-ups.
Needless to say, most of his songs were a hit those days, especially in the part of the country where I grew up. The singer might have been Yesudas, a Malayali, or Jaspal Singh, a Punjabi, but the rendition always made you smell the soil of the Gangetic plains, the heart of IndiaI
Since I am a Kishore Kumar fan, and since Kishore Kumar and Ravindra Jain shared a healthy rapport as long as both were alive, I would like to present five songs they created together — songs that went to become legends as well as songs that I personally cherish:
2.  Har haseen cheez ka main talabgar hoon, my most favourite Kishore solo; 
4. Na aaj thha; I could die for this song — beautiful!
5. Premi sabhi hote hain deewane — Oh, the way Kishore Kumar throws his voice into the microphone!
Very sad that Ravindra Jain earned only a Padma Shri. He should have got a Padma Vibhushan long, long ago — considering his music smelt of the soil of India.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Fashion TV And I

Shortly before I decided to move to Chennai — the decision was taken in the year 2000 — I read a report in Outlook about how the conservative city was changing and becoming more hip. To support its claim, the report had cited the opening of a new pub called Hell Freezes Over, or HFO, where the young and the happening were descending every night to party until the wee hours.

The report had contributed, even if in a small way, to my decision to move to Chennai from Delhi. My salary in Chennai was going to be Rs 18,000 per month; whereas in Delhi, even with a salary of Rs 15,000 or even less, I was going to the discotheque every now and then. I imagined myself sitting in HFO almost every night, buying drinks not only for myself but also my new friends and shaking a leg with them.

Fantasy and reality, however, rarely see eye to eye. Once in Chennai, my evenings were spent in filthy bars that are attached to wine shops. To know about those experiences, click here. As for HFO, I visited it precisely twice during the years it remained open in the city.

After having three drinks in a filthy bar and dinner (usually parotta and fried eggs, from a roadside stall), I would come back home, read and write (longhand, because there was computer or internet at home back then), and because there was no internet, I would also watch TV before going to sleep. I had two favourite channels at that hour, SS Music and Fashion TV.

SS Music had a midnight programme called Hot, Hotter, Hottest (an expression often used to describe Chennai’s weather), whose intention was to arouse the male audience. It must have been quite a task for its producers to scan the archives, on a daily basis, and select only those songs that took more pride in the cleavage than the composition.

Once the programme got over, I would switch over to Fashion TV and subject myself to the unending sight of skinny models walking down the ramp in locations so remote, culturally and geographically, from Chennai. I would keep watching until I had seen enough topless models — those days you saw plenty of them. In between fashion shows, the channel would also show footages of parties held to celebrate the opening of the F Bar (nightclub promoted by Fashion TV) in some Western city or the other. Back then I believed that if one got invited to such a party, one had arrived in life.

Last Thursday, when I walked into office, I found a black, diamond-shaped card on my desk waiting to be opened. It invited me to the opening of the F Bar in Chennai. On the one hand the invite didn’t mean a thing, because a new nightclub opens every other day in Chennai and such things no longer interest me; but one of the other hand the invitation, seen in the light of my belief during my younger days, meant a lot. And so I showed up at F Bar on the night of its opening, and also had the picture below taken — just to remind myself of the old times when, in the absence of internet at home, I would watch Fashion TV. Chennai seems to have come a long way, and so have I.


Friday, June 05, 2015

Maggi And I

One afternoon, when I was in the eighth or ninth standard, two men (one of them bearded) walked into our classroom, carrying cartons. To each student they handed two yellow packets — our introduction to Maggi noodles, or, for that matter, any noodles. Since my younger brother also studied in the same school, we came home with four packets.

Looking back, it was such a smart move, to target the children. Some years later, when I had left school but my brother was still there, a new brand of sanitary napkins — I forget which brand — took the same route, but the company was stingy unlike Maggi: I remember my brother telling me about the girls in his class being summoned to the library and handed one napkin (and not a packet) each, and the girls bringing them back to the classroom by hiding them between the pages of notebooks.

Back to the Maggi story: so that afternoon we had four packets of noodles at home. Since they had come for free, they had to be tried out. My mother opened one packet and put the contents in boiling water, though I am not sure if she meticulously followed the instructions printed on the packet, because what materialised was a plateful of white earthworms with the masala sprinkled on them. Inedible: I spat out the noodles. Another packet was opened, but the outcome was hardly any better. I don’t remember what happened to the remaining two packets. But what I do remember is that both, my brother and I, came to love Maggi in a matter of months. Once again, I do not remember how the transformation came about, and that too so soon, but I do remember that Maggi noodles, back then, came in three flavours — masala, chicken and sweet-and-sour — and each time we cooked the chicken noodles, our cat would get supremely excited and demand its share.

Even though I came to love Maggi, I wouldn’t say my life depended on it. Maggi, to me, was always a great option, but not the best option: nothing looks more attractive to me than a plate of steaming rice topped with steaming arhar daal. Add a few slices of onions and a spoonful of pickle to the plate — that’s the best meal one can ever ask for.

But then there are times when you really crave for Maggi, even when you don’t feel too lazy to cook. In fact, making Maggi, the healthy way, can be more tedious than preparing just rice and daal. My Maggi always contains green peas and finely-chopped capsicum, carrot, beans and, occasionally, cauliflower. Just when the noodles are ready, I add to the pan one boiled egg (sometimes two boiled eggs) and finely-chopped tomatoes and onion. To me that is a wholesome meal.

There are also nights when I am wifeless and when I am writing, and when I do not want the thought ‘So what I am going to have for dinner’ to interfere with my writing — that’s when Maggi comes in handy. And now the authorities say that Maggi isn’t safe and are taking it off the shelves. But then, what is safe — certainly not the air we breathe and the water we drink. First give us clean air and water, then we shall talk about the safety of the food we consume.

This evening, as I shopped for groceries at the supermarket, my eyes fell on the shelf carrying Maggi noodles and was surprised that the packets were still on display for sale. I instantly picked up a four-pack noodle packet and put it into the basket. This was at 6.30 pm. By 8.30 I learned, from tweets by friends, that Maggi has been banned in Tamil Nadu. I felt lucky: anything that is banned becomes more alluring.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why A Writer Must Take Notes

I wish I had the habit of keeping a diary or journal, looking back at each day before going to bed or recording thoughts and impressions as and when they came — of course, leaving out parts that no one other than me must know.

No harm retaining the parts the world shouldn’t know, as long as no one reads your diary or you know how to keep it safe — or if you have a family that is tolerant of your behaviour. Brutally honest diaries often make for good, even great, literature; only that they are usually published — quite naturally — posthumously. One such great work published: The Journals of John Cheever. Must-read.

Coming back to keeping a journal, I think it is very important for a writer or an aspiring writer to get into the habit for two reasons. One, the daily introspection keeps alive your ability to synthesise thoughts into words. Two, the matter you produce each night adds up to being a goldmine: you can create several masterpieces out of it, fiction or non-fiction, without having to invent a scene or a situation, because it is all recorded in the diary — raw.

The idea is to always look and listen, and instantly note down anything you find intriguing or interesting. For that you always need to carry a notebook and a pen — something I always ignore unless I am out for a story.

Recently, while dining at Koshy’s in Bangalore — and I had not gone to Bangalore for a story — I overheard a conversation between two old-timers which I thought was worth writing about. I was carrying a pen, but no notebook. So I quickly jotted down the conversation, before it vanished into thin air, on a paper napkin. Back home, the wife discovered the napkin in my suitcase and wondered, even though she is past caring about such things, if it was a love note. I explained to her that the scribbling was a conversation I had overheard between two old-timers at Koshy’s: one of them urging the other to keep coming back for dinner so that Koshy’s — the old Bangalore institution — remains alive.

Had I carried a notebook, I would have had no explanations to offer and got far more details to record. Memory, after all, is slippery and often fails you when you need her the most, but the written word is like a piece of rock — the more you write down your thoughts and impressions, the more rock-solid your story is.

That is why V.S. Naipaul is such a rockstar, especially when it comes to writing about places. The Granta magazine, in an issue devoted to India some years ago, had an entire chapter devoted to Naipaul: it reproduced the first four pages from the journal that Naipaul kept when he was visiting India — this was his second visit to the country of his ancestors — to write India: An Wounded Civilisation. Each handwritten page is faced by a transcribed version of the same so that the reader doesn’t have to struggle to decipher his handwriting, even though Naipaul’s handwriting is pretty legible. What the handwritten pages prove is that there was very little difference between Naipaul’s notes and the prose he eventually produced — and how important it is to take copious notes.

I now wonder if my books would have been richer if I too had meticulously taken notes while roaming the towns and cities I have written about. Not that I did not carry a pen and notebook, but the compulsion to take/make notes always melted away when I found myself in situations worth writing about. I wanted to live the situations rather than distance myself from them by taking out my notebook. But there is one way you can not only live your experiences but also write about them in a distanced manner: by writing a diary/journal at the end of the day.

Here is what Vinod Mehta (it’s so painful to prefix ‘late’ to his name) has to say about Naipaul’s style of functioning, in his autobiography Lucknow Boy: “Vidia (V.S. Naipaul) never carried a notepad, much less a tape recorder. One hot afternoon in Lucknow, after walking through the narrow, filthy lanes of Chowk… we came to our hotel ravenous and thirsty. Vidia skipped lunch and locked himself in his room to make ‘notes’. His memory was awesome. He could reproduce long conversations without getting a word wrong.”

After a long day, a lesser mortal like me would rather unwind with a drink or go shopping. It is too much of an effort to lock yourself up in a room and write down all that you encountered in a day. Had I done that, I would have taken half the time to finish each of my books and they would have probably read better. Memories are richer when written than recalled.

From now on I am going to follow Naipaul: make notes at the end of each day while working on a book. I have already purchased six new notebooks, all world-class, and four new fountain pens, all sturdy and India-made, so that I don’t fall short of stationery while visiting the city I am going to write about next. Just that I shouldn’t feel too lazy to makes notes. It is laziness, more than anything else, that stands between a genius and could-have-been-genius.