Monday, April 06, 2015

Now Is The Time To Say: 'Oh Calcutta!'

I last visited Calcutta two months ago. Somehow — and quite suddenly — Calcutta didn’t feel Calcutta enough.

Was it because I was done with my book and was now looking at the city as a visitor rather than a curious writer? I don’t think so. If anything, I was looking at Calcutta even more closely, just to see how it has changed from the time I set out researching the book four years ago.

Central Park looked just the same. Park Street looked just the same (except for the closure of Music World). The old warehouses near the Howrah Bridge had still not collapsed. Many streets of Shobhabazar and Shyambazar still led to the 19th century. Trams still ran on the roads. The small neighbourhood sweet shops still produced the best rossogollas in the city.

What, then, felt different?

I am unable to put my finger on anything in particular, but certain things struck me more forcefully than before. They may not mean anything at all, or they could be indicating the direction in which the great city is headed.

For example, for the first time, I saw saffron overshadowing red. There were far more posters of the BJP adorning its streets than those of Trinamool and the communists put together. It felt as if Narendra Modi was also the Chief Minister of West Bengal, apart from being the Prime Minister of India.

I noticed that many Bengali households are now addicted to Hindi soaps on Colors channel.

I noticed that it is easier to get tickets for Bengali films than for Hindi films in cineplexes. English films, on the other hand, hardly run in this former capital of British India. English songs are nearly extinct.

I noticed that the FM channels played far less Bengali songs during prime time than they would until only a couple of years before. In fact, if you discounted the commercials, which are invariably in Bengali, you could be Allahabad or Bareilly.

I noticed that the most-frequently played commercial on the channels urged Calcuttans to become members of the BJP: “I am going to join the party right away, what about you?” (The only jingle that remained unchanged over the years, despite changes in regimes at the state and at the Centre, was that of Breeze leggings).

I noticed, in public places such as malls, Hindi and (and sometimes a mix of Hindi and English) being spoken more commonly than Bengali.

Communists, who ruled Bengal for nearly 35 years, are often blamed for the decline of Calcutta. But now that they have been out of power for four years, their virtues become more evident. They had kept Calcutta alive as a Bengali city — something that Calcutta soon may not be.

Under the communists, even a petty tea-seller’s opinion counted. Ideology outweighed money. And since the Bengali was never good at building wealth, it was the ideology that preserved his identity.

The Trinamool is a party with muscle, the BJP is a party of the moneyed. The typical bhadralok neither has the muscle not the money — he is the mind man, the ‘thinker’. His biggest need in life is the daily adda sessions where he can voice his views of almost every subject under the sun. But today’s Calcutta, driven by money, is too impatient for his kind.

Money dictates culture. Just look how American our lifestyles have become in just two decades. Since the Bengali does not have the money, who will preserve his culture? He will remain at the mercy of the non-Bengali industrialist, who usually obliges because he wants to give something back to the city that has earned him his millions.

But given the way things are today, it is not unimaginable that tomorrow the same industrialist, whose fortunes depend on decisions taken in Delhi, tells a visiting delegation of bhadraloks: “Look, I am ready to sponsor your Durga Puja — it is a matter of great honour — but will you please place an idol of Narendra Modi somewhere in the pandal?”

As it is, Bengali culture is on the decline, though I would like to believe it is going through a rough patch. Uttam Kumar, the Dev Anand-cum-Rajesh Khanna-cum-Amitabh Bachchan of Bengali cinema, died in 1980, but he has not been replaced so far. There is no director yet who can match the stature of Satyajit Ray. There is no writer or poet who qualifies to be in the same league as Sunil Gangopadhyay or Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay. In other words, Bengal, more specifically Calcutta, has not produced a national — leave alone global — icon in a long, long time.

Having said that, I must also add that a lot of good Bengali films are being made these days — films that are immensely watchable. I can watch films like Dutta Vs Dutta and Jaatishwar (and listen to their songs) any number of times, but how many people in Calcutta have actually seen these movies and heard their songs?

Many dear friends believe that filmmaking in Calcutta is back to its glorious days because of works by directors such as Aparna Sen, Rituparno Ghosh (who died recently), Anjan Dutt (the famous singer and the maker of quintessentially-Calcutta films including Dutta Vs Dutta), and Srijit Mukherjee (who won national awards for Jaatishwar and Chotushkone). What they forget is that great films by these directors are only watched in multiplexes by a select audience.

The darlings of the masses, in the great city of Calcutta, happen to be Dev and Jeet, who act in Bengali films where the choreography is Telugu-style, the fights are Telugu-style, the extras are actually Telugus and not Bengalis, and even the number plates of cars involved in chase sequences begin with the letters ‘AP.’ Even the songs of their movies are often bilingual — Bengali and Hindi — something I can never imagine happening in Chennai.

Chennai, where I live, is fiercely protective about its Tamil identity. It has a robust film industry which has its own equivalents of Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. In fact, the Tamil stars have a fan following that Bollywood stars can only dream of. And when Tamilians look for sponsors for cultural events, they don’t have to go to Marwaris with a begging bowl: there are enough wealthy Chettiars and Nadars to lend a helping hand.
There was a time when I felt incensed because FM channels in Chennai didn’t play Hindi songs (even though the city has a sizeable Hindi-speaking population). There was a time when I felt incensed because the Tamil Nadu government wanted every shop/establishment to repaint its signboard in Tamil. There was a time when I felt incensed because the state government gave incentives to students from the Tamil-medium.

Today, I salute the Tamil Nadu government for its pro-Tamil measures and wish the West Bengal government followed suit. The power of money, after all, can only be fought with the power of legislation. It is high time the rulers of Bengal recognised that, or else Calcutta, in 50 years from now, will cease to be a Bengali city.

Monday, February 02, 2015


It was the March of 2011
when spring was middle-aged
but I was a boy, stepping into Calcutta
for the first time with a notebook.

One year passed, then another
and then another:
from Spring it was Spring Again
the boy grew up, a book got written.

Now is February 2015
spring is in its youth
too hot to get under the quilt
too cold to switch on the fan.

Yes, spring is in its youth
but the boy suddenly middle-aged
weather is always lovely
but time spares none.

Now you know why I asked you
yesterday: to hold my hand and
show me your Calcutta?
So that I feel cared for and young again.

Friday, December 26, 2014

In Which I Ask Mr Gloom To Get Lost

Today I am 44 years old. I never thought I would reach this age so soon. I always believed that time would be partial towards me and move at a leisurely pace in my case, but that was not to be and that is never going to be. Wasn't it only the other day when my father was 44?

Much of my time is spent pondering over 'wasn't-it-only-the-other-day' questions and wallowing in the gloom they induce. Gloom and I have become good friends of late, which is why, for the first time in many years, I did not throw a birthday party. I wanted to mark the passage of time in the company of my most loyal friends: the yellow lamp, the laptop, and the glass containing golden liquid. Gloom is there too, sitting right next to me, as I write these lines. He is, in fact, looking over my shoulder while I type.

Not too long ago, it was Shivani who sat in his place. She would bring me to Ganga Mail almost every other night, and seduce me into pouring out my mind. But she left one night, once she realised that I had become too busy for her, and Mr Gloom took her place. Mr Gloom has a thick skin: he stays put even when I am rude to him -- even when I ask him to get out of the house.

It is nice to have a drink with Mr Gloom once in a while: he keeps you in touch with reality. But I hate it when he inhibits my thoughts. Very often he tells me, "The subject you are going to write about is nice, all right, but what are you going to get out of it?" And so I drop the idea. This has been happening for a few years now, and in the process Ganga Mail has become orphaned.

I must find Shivani and bring her back. Mr Gloom, you can fuck off. Go find another friend.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two Flowers From The Garden Of The 1980s

How quickly one gets used to change. After shifting home nearly a month ago, not once did I mistakenly end up in my old address, Murugesan Street, where I lived for 14 years; nor did my heart ever ache for the old home (and the lovely view of the sky its windows offered). In fact I quite like the new house, even though it's almost half the size of the old one.

The most painful aspect of the shifting, for me, was sorting the books. Pulling out nearly a 1,000 books from cartons, dusting them and wiping their covers clean and arranging them in racks by their authors -- that can be a back-breaking task. I finally accomplished this task yesterday -- on a pleasant Sunday afternoon -- and found that a single author to occupy the most space on my bookshelves is V.S. Naipaul, followed by Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Bruce Chatwin, D.H. Lawrence (in that order). But their books, put together, turned out to be in minority when I finally surveyed my entire collection, after having dusted the last book remaining in the carton.

Once the books were in place, I set about wiping clean the music CDs. I must say I have been very negligent about CDs, unlike books: I would copy the songs on my computer and leave the CDs to gather dust in some corner of the large house. I would buy CDs in Calcutta, often spending a lot of money, and forget about them upon returning to Chennai. Yesterday, while digging into the 'music' carton, I discovered a three-CD collection of Bengali songs by R.D. Burman and Asha Bhosle, titled Together. I must have bought it from Calcutta, obviously, but I do not remember when -- I certain do not remember playing the CDs before.

And so I randomly plucked CD no. 3 from the album and put it into the player, hoping to listen to some familiar songs while I cleaned the covers of other CDs with a wet cloth. One way of belonging to a new house is to have your old favourites reverberate in its air. But two songs blew my mind -- they were R.D.-Asha duets I had never heard before even though I was in possession of the album for god-alone-knows how long. And I thought I had heard everything that R.D. Burman had created!

I ended up replaying the two songs 12 times -- yes, 12 times. They changed the tempo of my Sunday. As such, there is nothing special about the songs: they are pretty run-of-the-mill and can even sound meaningless and stupid to the discerning listener, yet there was something extremely magnetic about them. They bore the signature rhythm of R.D. (much sought-after these days) and the innocence of the 1980s (also much sought-after these days) -- but at the same time sounded fresh off the recording studios.

To me, the songs were two fresh flowers plucked out of the garden of the 1980s and held under my nostrils. I wonder how they will smell to you; here they are:

1. Dak pathale kal shokale

2. Aar ki tomay chharchhi.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


The sky can be the blandest thing on this planet; it can also be the most beautiful. It all depends on how lucky you are -- and whether you have the time to gaze at it.

Sometimes it is a blank sheet of paper; sometimes a scintillating watercolour that only a child called Nature is capable of producing; and at other times it is its usual self -- the sun, the moon, the clouds -- and how beautiful you find it depends on what mood you are in. Sometimes, though, the very sight of a blue sky can lift your mood. I know this because of late -- for the past one year or so -- I have been spending a lot of time in bed, writing, and since the bedroom window opens out to the sky, I have been closely watching it change colours. Ah, the blue wiping away the blues; the grey carrying in its bosom the romance of rains. And then there are nights when I wonder who has placed that halogen light outside my window, only to find it is the moon -- and then rush to take a picture, only to realise that the smartphone camera does not effectively capture what the eyes see.

The sky, however, is at its beautiful best at dusk. I am sure it must be as beautiful even at the crack of dawn -- but then I am not a dawn person. Moreover, there is fundamental difference between dawn and dusk. Dawn brings along the burden of yet another day; whereas dusk marks the end of the day, when the burden is off your shoulders and when you become the master of your own time. Dawn is responsibility, dusk is romance. Under the orange glow left behind by the sun, the world looks beautiful. The light is sufficient enough to see what you like to see, and yet insufficient to hide what you don't want to see. That's the time to look up at the sky.

I suspect there is also something deeper about my recent fascination with the sky: ambition.

Every time I feel hopeless and wonder where I am headed in life, I look up at the sky and find it urging me to keep climbing up to it. I keep climbing, even though I know there cannot be a destination up there. The sky is limitless: even when you are in an aeroplane, way above the clouds, you still find a sky above you.

And so each time I look up, I receive the message: Screw the destination -- there is no such thing as a destination -- it is the journey that matters. Therefore, I journey on.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Kishore Kumar Songs That I Am Embarrassed About And Yet Supremely Proud Of

I have written a lot about my admiration for Kishore Kumar -- on this blog as well as in the paper(s) I have worked or work for -- so I don't what new to write on the occasion of his death anniversary today.

Had the singer died in the present day, TV channels would have shown the news throughout the day as 'breaking news' and probably some reporter would have thrust the mike at Amit Kumar's face and asked him, "Now that your legendary father is no more, how do you feel?"

But back then, when he died, on 13 October 1987, there were no channels except Doordarshan, which had only two news bulletins -- in Hindi and English -- in the evening. Doordarshan policy was clear: news about politics/prime minister first, news about entertaintment in the end. And so the news of his death was the last headline to be read out, even though it broke millions of hearts -- my own 17-year-old heart being one of them.

Friends who know me and have late-night drinking sessions with me at home know that I assume the role of the DJ once I am pleasently drunk and force Kishore Kumar songs on them, one after the other: "Now listen to this, I am sure you haven't heard this before", "And now listen to this, I am sure you haven't heard this either." As a DJ I am so impatient that I don't even let a song finish before clicking on another.

But there are certain Kishore Kumar songs that I never play to friends, even when I am peasantly high. These are songs that really give me goosebumps, and I play only for my personal pleasure, never force them on others. They are my secret treasures: I pull them out of the closet every once in a while, admire them, and put them back safely.

The reason why I don't play these songs to others is that they might think I am crazy to be liking such songs. I fear that they may ask, "What is in this song? It is outright silly! What makes you like it?" I don't want to be accused of having poor taste in music. As it is there are people -- and that includes, well, my wife -- who think that the fact I prefer Kishore over Rafi shows that my taste in music is not exactly refined.

But it is in these songs -- the songs that I am embarrassed to play to friends -- that the quality of Kishore Kumar's voice shines through, even though their picturisation may be idiotic or even hilarious. Everybody likes a good song; but to admire how a singer does justice to his part even in a supposedly bad song -- that requires courage. I am proud to have that courage and, therefore, for the first time, presenting a shortened list of such songs:

1. Uljhan hazaar koi daale (from the film Chandi Sona). In the film, as evident from the You Tube clip, both Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey's parts have been truncated; listen to the orignal recording. Signature Pancham!

2. Lapa changa mein naache (from the film Ek Se Bhale Do). I listen to this song when I am stepping up my speed on the treadmill.

3. Jhoom jhoom ke (from the film Paatal Bhairavi). Oh the clarity of his words!

4. Mehmaan nazar ki ban ek raat ke liye (from the film Paatal Bhairavi). Oh, the voice! The voice!Even though my sensibilities don't agree with the ek raat ke liye (one night) business.

5. Hum donon mein kuchh na kuchh hai (from the film Khatron Ke Khiladi). How he lifts a mediocre song with his rendition. But the lyrics so familiar!

6. Lo aa gaya hero (from the film Mard Ki Zabaan). Oh, how this song made want to be in Jackie's shoes back then! The bindaas voice of Kishore Kumar!

7.  Yeh hawaayen yeh baarish (from the film Sachche Ka Bolbala). Self-explanatory, why I love the song.

8. Bheegi bheegi aankhen (from the film Ishq Ishq Ishq). What a beautiful song! The woman tells the man, Seene se lagaa loongi main teri pareshani (I will embrace all your troubles), and the man's reply comes in Kishore's voice.

9. Kaala kauwwa dekhta hai (from the film Mera Haque). Had watched this film in Kanpur's Poonam Talkies shortly after Kishore Kumar's death. It gladdened my heart that the film had a song by him. And this song plays at the end of the film as well, and so when we were walking out of the theatre at the end of the show, Kishore Kumar was still singing out loud -- immortal! (Years later, when I would play this song in my Chennai home, crows would gather outside my window -- and I am not joking).

10. Gumsum si khoyi khoyi (from the film Badalte Rishtey). My friends who truly love me, if you ever realise I am dying, please play this song for me. I will either come alive or go to heaven.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


The evening of October 3. Some said it was Navami evening, some others said it was already Dashami evening. For me, it was the evening of my departure from Calcutta, after having spent two sweet-bitter weeks in the city.

As soon as I secured the seat belt, an air-hostess walked up to me and said, "Do you mind taking the seat next to the emergency exit? As per rules, someone must sit next to the emergency exit, at least during take-off and landing?" I agreed, even though, as a rule, I always ask for an aisle seat because I do not like the idea of being sandwiched between strangers, invariably men.

As the plane took off, Calcutta came into view: a matrix of luminous yellow dots. Suddenly, I was gripped by a sense of belonging. Didn't I now belong to those yellow dots, having written a book about the city? Shouldn't I be pandal-hopping under their glow right now, precisely what hundreds and thousands of its citizens were doing at the moment?

But one must leave in order to be left longing -- I should have spent some more time by the river; I forgot to visit Oxford Bookstore; I should have had some more rossogolla and shingara; I should have bought some Bengali CDs; okay next time -- and it is the longing that brings about a sense of belonging. The longing, of course, comes from loving.

I was a faceless outsider when Calcutta became my hometown-in-law in April 2006. I was only a journalist then, working for a Madras paper; I did not know I was going to write books someday, leave alone a book about the city. I was familiar with writings on Calcutta, but not with Calcutta. My wife began to show me around and after initial reluctance sowed by writings that maligned the city, I began to like it. And once I began to move around on my own, I began to love it.

Calcutta, I realised, was a city like no other in India. It was a delightful salad of the old and the new. One moment you were biting into the old and another moment into the new: the experience was worth writing about. Thus was born the idea for Longing, Belonging, in October 2010 when, a couple of friends and I spent an evening in Trincas. Today, exactly four years later, the book is out in the stores and, considering my picture is on the back cover, I am no longer exactly a faceless stranger.


Two hours later, the pilot announced the descent to Chennai. From the sky, all cities look the same. Chennai, too, was a grid of luminous yellow dots as the plane prepared to land. I felt gripped by a sense of belonging again: Ah, this is my city, I have already written a book about it, Tamarind City, and the book had a picture of me in the inside pages. But I walked out of the airport coach a faceless man, proceeding to the conveyor belt to collect my luggage.

As I took a pre-paid taxi to my home in T. Nagar, I made a wish: when history judges the two cities by the books written about them, my books should count too. Doesn't matter if I don't count.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Longing, Belonging: A Few Thoughts

It is ten minutes past midnight and I am still not hungry. Old habits die hard: for many years now I’ve been having my dinner at two or three in the morning, the reason being I cannot write on a full stomach — I need to be hungry for my mind to work. And so I have made myself a drink: Signature whisky.

But if I am having a drink, I must also be writing, or else I consider the drinking to be a waste, and since I have nothing to write at the moment, having just finished Longing, Belonging, let me at least share a few thoughts about the book:

1. Longing, Belonging was entirely written in bed, with me lying down on my stomach in front of the laptop — sometimes on the bed in the bedroom, sometimes on the mattress in the guest room, sometimes on my favourite cot in my wife’s home in Calcutta. That’s been my ‘writing pose’ since childhood, though large parts of Chai, Chai and Tamarind City were written in the upright position.

2. Longing, Belonging took me three-and-a half-years to write. But in between I also finished writing Tamarind City, revised Chai, Chai and wrote a foreword (the revised edition, with a new cover, will be published later this year) and wrote a 2,500-word prologue for a future book.

3. Longing, Belonging was written at the cost of my health, social life and friendships. Friends came from abroad to India on their annual vacations, but I couldn’t meet them. Friends from outside Chennai spent weeks and months in the city, but I still couldn’t meet them because every evening was precious. Worse, I haven’t visited Kanpur — and seen my father and brother — in two-and-a-half years. Each time I took leave I went to Calcutta. They could not come down to see me either because the two dogs back home need pampering 24/7. The younger of the dogs met with an accident sometime ago and had her hind legs paralysed and now she drags herself — maybe that’s another reason why I have not made a sincere effort to visit home. I hope to make amends soon.

4. Longing, Belonging has been the most difficult book to write, so far. When I was writing Chai, Chai, just a quarter bottle of Signature would keep me company till I clocked 1,000 or 1,500 words a night. But with the Calcutta book, I could not produce beyond 200 usable words a night; no matter how much I drank or how many hours I spent lying on my stomach in front of the laptop.

5. I am no longer sensitive to criticism. In late 2009, when Chai, Chai was published, I was so upset with a negative review in Outlook Traveller (the only negative review the book had received) that I wrote an entire blog post expressing my anguish. I wouldn’t do that today. If a book is truly good, it will sell word-of-mouth, irrespective of what reviewers think of it. And if it doesn’t sell, then the writer must introspect as to why it didn’t.

So far I have not been faced with such a situation, but in future if I am, I know what to do. I would reread what Herzog wrote to a fellow filmmaker when the latter whined that people were not coming to watch his films. Herzog told him, “Quit complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five Years Later

Exactly five years ago, on this day, I set out on the most dreadful journey of my life. I took the evening Indigo flight to Delhi, where my wife and I spent the night at her sister’s place before taking the Air India flight next morning to Benares, where my mother lay on a bed of ice.

I had not wanted the journey to end, but both the flights had departed — and arrived — on time. My mother’s departure, however, had been untimely, even though not entirely unexpected. She was only 59. Had she lived for three more days, she would have earned the distinction of being born and dying on the same day. And had she lived for eight more days, she would have probably held a copy of Chai, Chai — her son’s first book.

This narrow-miss tormented me for a long time: how could God be so cruel? If there is God, and if God has a purpose behind everything he does to you, then what could be the purpose behind letting my mother die barely a week before the publication of the book? Why didn’t she die six months before — or six months after?

But eventually you make peace with God because you want to prevent more such sorrows coming your way. So God prevailed, the pain too weakened. The untimely death of a loved one is a wound that never heals; you slowly learn to live with it, and there comes a time when it ceases to bother you.

Today, five years later, I am no longer torn by that regret. I have moved on, worrying about things that I need to do before I die. We are all selfish.

I was being selfish even on the day my mother was cremated, at the world-famous Manikarnika Ghat. While a part of me played the dutiful son, carrying out the rituals and lighting the pyre, another part absorbed the scene as a travel writer would, hoping to put it all in in a future book. As a son, this was the worst experience I could have; but as a writer, this was the best.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Khushwant Singh, The Original Idol

Sometime in 1990, the magazine of the now-defunct Sunday Mail carried a cover story on the writer Khushwant Singh. The cover picture showed the writer seated comfortably on a sofa, his feet resting on a cane stool (moda) placed horizontally, with book-lined walls serving as the backdrop.

I suddenly wanted to be Khushwant Singh. There was a sofa at home. Getting a moda wouldn't have been a problem. But how was I going to get the persona? How was I going to acquire those book-laden shelves? And even if I was going to sit on the sofa and place my feet on the moda, pretending to be a Khushwant Singh, what was I going to do sitting like that? I wasn't even 20 at the time, and was unsure where my life was actually headed, even though I nursed ambitions of becoming a journalist someday.

The ambition to be a journalist had come early, because my father was always a member of some 'magazine club' or the other at his office and would bring home almost every English and Hindi magazine that was being printed at the time. I grew up turning their pages. Many of them no longer exist today: Illustrated Weekly of India, Sunday, Probe, Mirror, Onlooker. By the time I was 17, I was spending more time reading these magazines than textbooks. But journalism wasn't a career option in the society I grew up in.

In the society I grew up, the career options were as follows:

A. Medicine
B. Engineering
C. Armed Forces
D. None of the above.

If you ticked D, you were considered a loser -- good for nothing. This is not to say that journalists were considered losers; it's just that no one among the people I grew up with ever seemed to think that journalism -- or for that matter advertising or marketing -- could be a career. The concept of marketing -- the most highly-paid profession today -- was synonymous with medical representatives impressing upon doctors to precribe their brand of drugs. Creativity, since it did not see you through an engineering entrance or earn you a stable job, was more of a curse.

From the time I wanted to become a journalist till I actually became one, I sat through several engineering entrances, knowing fully well that I was going to flunk. But I sat through them only to please my parents and my inquisitive neighbours: 'at least the boy is trying.'

At times I really wished I got through one of those entrance tests, because every other evening, my father would return from work with news that the son of some colleague or the other had gained admission into a prestigious engineering college. While my father would convey the news in a matter-of-fact manner, my mother would always take it personally: she would get hysterical about me not studying hard enough. The entire evening would be ruined, with my mother often refusing to cook out of sheer anger. She would blame my father for not being strict enough with his sons.

It was during this period of uncertainty that the copy of Sunday Mail -- with Khushwant Singh on the cover of its magazine -- got delivered at home. The cover story had been my first formal introduction to the Dirty Sardar, who wrote freely about Scotch and sex and seemed to have all the fun in the world. I remember my father -- unlike my mother, he idolised journalists and writers -- telling me at the time: 'Do you think it is easy to be another Khushwant Singh? It calls for a lot of hard work.'

And so the dream took root. For a long time, even after I became a journalist, I wanted to be another Khushwant Singh. He was my idol. Soon I outgrew him and wanted to be another Somerset Maugham. Soon I outgrew Maugham and wanted to be another Hemingway. Soon I outgrew Hemingway and wanted to be another Bruce Chatwin.

Even as the process of outgrowing idols continues, Khushwant Singh remains the original idol. It all began with him. He may have breathed his last this morning, at the age of 99, but he breathed life into Indian journalism like no one had before -- or after him. His soul will rest in peace.

Friday, January 03, 2014

My First Selfie

The first selfie I ever clicked is the profile picture you see on this blog. It was taken sometime in October 2005, for the purpose of starting this blog. Wonder why the selfie should be in news now, when people have long been familiar with the pleasures and horrors of circulating self-clicked pictures.

I may have forgotten the date this picture was taken, but I still remember the sensations. It was one of those pleasant evenings, during my girlfriend-less days, when I would find great pleasure in the company of my newly-purchased laptop and was still discovering the joys of being online from home.

Laptops those days did not come with inbuilt cameras, but Airtel had given me a free plastic webcam along with the internet connection. It wasn't the best of webcams, but it worked just fine. One evening, realising that the setting was near perfect for a picture -- I always write with lights off, except a lamp with yellow light by my side -- I decided to click myself. I had shaved that day and was wearing my favourite grey T-shirt. For effect, I lit up a cigarette. I pressed a key of the laptop and the webcam captured a picture.

I was happy with the result. The focus of subdued yellow light, in a darkened room, can do wonders to one's looks and -- I believe -- one's thought process too. That reminds me, this blog, when I started it, was called Thought Process. How cliched -- and idiotic. After a few months I changed the title to what it is today.

But the profile picture remains the same -- my first-ever selfie -- even though eight years have passed since I clicked it. I haven't had the heart to change it for a variety of reasons. One, I still don't want to believe that I look very different from how I look in that picture -- who wants to willingly surrender to the progression of life. Two, that picture serves as a reminder of the best days of my life. It was under the glow of that lamp, and in the company of that plastic webcam, that I became a writer. To replace that picture with a high-resolution image, now that I have the means, would amount to disowning my humble past.

I shall change the picture the day I find myself looking drastically different from the man in that image. It is a bad thing to lie to the reader. I only hope that day doesn't come very soon.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Birthday Thoughts: What I Was and What I Became

I was 34 when I started writing this blog. Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, the digits will interchange. A journey of nine years recorded on Ganga Mail. Even though I have had very little to say in the recent years, I believe the reticence is also a statement -- a sign of growing up.

I would love to blog every night, as I did once upon a time, but of late I feel embarrassed to talk about myself and my thoughts. Why should people be interested in knowing what I have to say or think? But tonight, to mark my attendance on Ganga Mail, I'll present you with a list of 10 things that I would, or could, do when I was 34 but which I don't any longer at 43:

1. I could write a 500-word piece in two hours, now it takes me two nights.

2. I wrote to seek the attention of women I fancied, now I, usually, run away from attention, especially when it is excessive.

3. I would end my day in dirty, dingy TASMAC bars, now I find those bars too dirty and dingy and can't recall when I last stepped into one (TASMAC stands for Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, which runs the wine shops across the state).

4. I would often have a drink or three during the day, now I don't like to touch alcohol before sunset.

5. I thought writing about sex was cool, now I think it is idiotic. Wise people enjoy sex, only the foolish take pleasure writing -- or reading -- about it.

6. I could spend entire nights chatting online with strangers, but now I end up ignoring messages of even best friends because I just don't have the time.

7. I would pluck out the grey from my goatee and moustache, now I let them be. The women I know say the grey looks nice and sexy.

8. I dreamed of writing novels, and my heroes were Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway. Now: I am a published writer, but I write literary travelogues instead of novels. My heroes are Ryszard Kapuściński and Bruce Chatwin.

9. I would never leave home before doing 10 rounds of surya namaskara, or sun salutation, but now I do yoga once in 10 months. Having said that, back then, I could not run for more than a minute on the treadmill, but I can now easily run for 10 minutes at the rate of 9 km/hr. And can do 10 chin-ups -- back then only four.

10. I was happy then, not so happy now. Back then, even though I was constantly anxious about the health of my mother, who suffered from a heart condition, I felt good about life and looked forward to it. Now, when my mother is long dead -- she passed away four years ago at the age of 59 -- and when I have no anxieties eating me up, I still don't find the happiness of those days returning to me. Maybe because I was 34 then, and 43 now. At 34, you can still be an eligible bachelor, whereas at 43, you become a 'Sir' -- that's how most young women call me these days.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sachin: Good Boy Of Cricket, But God?

By the time Sachin Tendulkar started playing for the Indian team, in 1989, my cricket-watching years were almost coming to an end. Even though I was only 19 then, I had somehow lost interest in sitting through matches -- my heroes had retired, and commercials had taken over the telecast -- and would only occasionally catch up on a game if the TV happened to be on, either at home or work.

I did follow some tournaments after 1989. Such as the 1992 World Cup. But all I remember from that tournament is the explosive batting by South Africa and the hero's performance by Imran Khan who, at the old age of 42, finally earned the Cup for Pakistan. I don't even know, or remember, whether Sachin was in the Indian team for that tournament.

Then the 1996 World Cup. All I remember today from that tournament is three names: Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. I don't even know, or remember, whether Sachin was in the Indian team for that tournament. I was working with Press Trust of India at the time, and I had watched the important matches of this World Cup on the TV in the editor's room -- but I have no memories of Sachin.

Though Sachin must have been an established bastman by then, because one morning, the general manager of PTI, M.K. Razdan, burst into the editorial room with the latest issue of Time. In an interview to the magazine, Shane Warne had said that he found Sachin more difficult to bowl to than Brian Lara -- and Razdan had wanted that to be put out as a news item. And one of the sub-editors -- was it me? -- quickly sent a four-para story over the wires. But I don't remember being in awe of Sachin at the time. Somehow, he never registered in my cricketing-conscious -- if such a term exists.

I am sure the loss is mine. I should have followed cricket more closely. But whatever little cricket I have followed between 1989 and 2013, while I remember watching Sachin Tendulkar bat, I don't remember anything of his batting. This is strange, considering I remember some other things: such as Stephen Fleming's gutsy batting as the New Zealand captain in the 2003 World Cup (my heart broke when his team lost); Laksmipathy Balaji's bowling in Pakistan in 2004; long-haired Dhoni's batting in 2005, Sohail Tanvir's bowling in IPL 2008.

In short, I am not able to recall a single exciting contest in which Sachin single-handedly rescued the Indian team from the jaws of defeat and delivered it into the safe hands of victory. And yet Sachin is considered the God of (Indian) cricket.

Really, where was I all these 24 years, when Sachin achieved one milestone after another and went on to become God? I must have been busy chasing my own dreams. But no matter how busy you are, you can't miss the creation of a God in your midst -- do you? Then how did I?

But at the same time, I have been reading and watching his interviews all these years, and what strikes me consistently is that there can't be a better behaved cricketer than him. He speaks like a statesman: not a word or thought out of place. He is the good boy of cricket: a student every teacher or principal would like to have. Which is why he did not want to be the captain: he preferred to be the statesman than a politician.

Good boy of cricket, then how come the psyche of a lay, non-fanatic spectator such as mine did not register his cricketing feats: X number of matches, Y number of runs, Z number of centuries and so on? Maybe because all of Sachin's milestones were his personal: they never really had anything to do with India's chances in an international tournament. Sachin did not intend it that way, of course, but his personal success has rarely been directly proportional to India's success in crucial tournaments. Then why call him God?

In crucial tournaments, it has always been a lesser mortal who steered India to victory. But the same lesser mortal, once he went out of form, got kicked out of the team. He was never given the numerous chances that Sachin has been in his 24-year-old career. Each time Sachin went out of form, the general view, including that of the BCCI, was, "Wait and watch, he will bounce back." As a result, he went on to play for 24 years, a quarter of a century, and went on to achieve those milestones.

One wonders if Tendulkar would have lasted his long had he chosen to remain the captain of Indian team -- the post he held only briefly in the mid-1990s. Sachin was wise enough to realise, very quickly, that a captain's job is a dirty job and had given it up. He had wanted to remain clean and focus on his batting, something he did very well over the decades  and in the process achieved several personal milestones.

Tendulkar is the good boy of cricket. The brightest boy in the classroom. But to call him the God of cricket is highly inappropriate.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What's In A Name

'Enough is enough', she said, 'Now make up your mind, whether you love me or the laptop.'

'Give a moment, baby,' he said, 'Just one more song to be downloaded. Then am all yours. You know when did I last hear this song -- the one I am downloading? I must have been fifteen, maybe sixteen.'

'You are crazy, do you know that?'


'OK, I am crazy about you, do you know that?'

'Sort of.'

And then, with his leg, he gently pushed the laptop to the edge of the bed, and rested his head on her lap.

'Why are you looking at them,' she said, 'I know they are big. God, I hate them.'

'No, I am not looking at them,' he said, 'I am just looking at your face. But they are not big, trust me. They are just right.'

'I knew you would say that. Men, I tell you!'

'What has this got to do with men? I am not speaking on behalf of other men. I just told you what I thought.'

'But don't you think they are a little too big?'

'No they are not. They are just right.'

'Anyway, mister, big or small, you are now saddled with them. You don't have a choice, do you?'


'By the way, did I tell you that I have names for them?'


'Well. This one is Bob, and this one is Dylan.'

'Sorry? Which one is what?'

'This one is Bob, and this one is Dylan.'

'But why can't the left one be Bob and the right one Dylan?'

'My choice. But you can interchange the names if you like. As long as they add up to Bob Dylan. You know how crazy I am about him.'

'I know.'

'Don't you love them?'

'I do. But if I had a choice, I would name them Sahir and Ludhianvi.'

'Sahir and what?'

'Sahir and Ludhianvi. You see, Sahir Ludhianvi was a great songwriter. He wrote some of the best songs ever written for Hindi cinema. In India, he is as big as Bob Dylan -- maybe even bigger.'

'But how come I never heard about him?'

'Maybe because you have lived away far too long? You are more American than Indian, aren't you?'

'Oh baby, don't say that. You can call them Sahir and whatever you want them to. But do love them and do love me, will you?'

'Of course I will.'

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


"Do you see that orange glow?" she asked him, pointing to a patch of sky over the elevated railway track. "Whenever the sky turns orange at night, it means it is going to rain."

"That orange light?" he looked in the direction of her finger, "That looks to me like the light thrown by the headlamp of a train. Wait and watch, a train must be on its way."

Within moments, a train appeared on the skyline and glided over the chaos of traffic on the ground.

"Look, I told you," he smiled.

She smiled back. Her nose-ring shone under the roadside lamp.

"OK, see you then," she said.

"See you," he said.

Back home, he took out the sheets of paper on which he had scribbled some thoughts the night before. He put them on the bed and went to the kitchen to pour himself a drink. Back in the bedroom, he found the sheets flying. The curtains were up in the air and empty plastic bottles toppled. There were flashes of lightning and then thunder.

He collected the sheets and settled down to write  to the familiar sound of rain.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Return Of Ganga Mail

It doesn't seem so long ago -- though it is: almost eight years -- when every evening, after getting back from work, I would ask myself: So what do I blog about tonight?

Invariably an idea would strike, and I would set about expanding on it laboriously. For company I would have music and whisky -- and always the gentle glow of the yellow lamp.

I would rarely finish before three in the morning, but go to sleep a happy man. What can be more gratifying than being able to publish your own writing -- instantly, uncensored, unedited. When I woke up six or seven hours later, I would open the blog the first thing and check for comments. Even if there were a couple of them, my day would be made. They made me feel accepted.

Those were happier days. I had dreams, but no responsibilities. I had ambitions to be a writer, but no commitments to deliver manuscripts on time. I was single, carefree. My mother was alive; I lived in the protective shade of my parents -- and since they lived far away in Kanpur, it also meant a lot of freedom.

Blogging gave a new dimension to that freedom by letting me have my say -- on a range of subjects I felt strongly about -- without my worrying about how many people would read me or what they would think of me. The whole process of transferring your thoughts onto the computer screen, in an engaging manner, was highly gratifying. The comments were an icing on the cake.

I distinctly remember one night: there was no power at home when I got back from work, but I still wrote a lengthy post, finding my way around the keyboard with the help of the light generated by the laptop screen. Those days, the modem would work even during powercuts, so I was able to publish the post too. I could have waited till the next evening, but I had urgently wanted to say something. What was it that I had to say so urgently, I don't recall; all I can say for sure is that the urgency was self-imposed.

Tonight I miss the old me, the reason being that someone, of late, has been reading my old posts and leaving comments on them. Since comments get notified on email, I happened to click open some of the old posts and was surprised, rather horrified, that it was me who wrote them -- how could I write on subjects such as sex? But I had always written the truth, or what I thought was the truth -- then why should I blush reading the old posts?

Maybe because I am much older now; I was 35 and single when I started the blog, whereas I am 42 now and the author of two books -- what will people think of me? Moreover, there is now Facebook: one no longer feels compelled to transform a one-line thought into a 400-word post. The thought becomes status message.

But let me not forget that I belong to Ganga Mail as much it belongs it me, and that I owe my identity to whatever I have written on it so far. The idea, therefore, is to resume writing on it without worrying about what people will have to say. I really don't give a fuck -- so why pretend that I do?

Monday, August 05, 2013

That Night Again

Sixteen minutes to midnight, which means it is still August 4 and I can still pay tribute to Kishore Kumar, who was born on this day and would have turned 84 had he been alive. Though it is impossible to imagine Kishore Kumar living that long.

I have already written so much about him on Ganga Mail by way of tribute, so why again? That's because not writing about him tonight would be like skipping an important ritual; like a Shiva devotee not visiting the temple on Shivratri. Then there is another reason.

But first, about the devotion -- and in my case, it dates back to sometime in 1985 when I bought my first Kishore Kumar cassette. It was an HMV cassette, which cost Rs 18 and was titled Magic Moments. Side A began with Ek ajnabee haseena se (Ajnabee) and Side B ended with Phir wohi raat hai (Ghar). In between there were about 10 other songs -- I still remember them and also the sequence in which they played.

Strangely, the sequence of songs, when you listen to an album in an younger age, usually remains ingrained in your mind all your life. For example, if Saara zamana happened to be followed by Chhu kar mere man ko in the cassette of your younger days, the sequence will stay in your mind even in later years: each time Saara zamana ends, the opening notes of Chhu kar mere man ko will automatically spring in your mind even though this could be an altogether different collection.

Coming back to Magic Moments, the song I came to cherish most in the album was Phir wohi raat hai. The tenderness of the song began to grow on me. I loved many other songs too in the album, such as Pyaar deewana hota hai (Kati Patang), but this Ghar song had the effect that silent people have on you: they always play on the back of your mind and intrigue you with their silent intensity. And thus I became a Kishore Kumar devotee. It didn't matter at the time that the song was written by Gulzar or the music was composed by R.D. Burman. Those days, I even liked Bappi Lahiri -- I still do, actually.

Only much later did I come to realise that I had been hearing a truncated version all along, with the first antara missing.  But it was too late to matter.

Three decades on, Phir wohi raat hai remains a beatiful song, a tender song, a song of dreams -- indeed a night song. You can't relish it in broad daylight, but only after the sun has long set, when you have had two drinks and are mellow, when your gaze is fixed somewhere faraway in the darkness and your mind is reminiscing.

This is not a song I listen to very often; in fact I listen to it only rarely for the fear of wasting it. Phir wohi raat hai is like single malt: you have it when you are in right spirts and in right company -- when the night is just right.

Tonight was one such night, when I was reminded of the song.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


Deboleena is a talented young artist who lives in Canada. She read Chai, Chai and liked it and has now sent me a gift as a token of her appreciation. Even more flattering is the artist's note given below -- can't believe she is only 15. Thanks Deboleena!

Title: Ingenuity
Artist: Deboleena Chakraborty
Medium/Surface: Pencil crayon on Photo Paper
Date Created: Friday, August 2, 2013
Artist’s Message:
Ingenuity is a representation of Mr. Bishwanath Ghosh (BG), who has proven to be the finest author for non-fiction pieces. Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop but Never Get Off is by far my favourite piece of non-fiction. This artwork is composed using pencil crayons, which happens to be a minor art medium; however, it signifies the flamboyant potential within BG. His approach to ordinary aspects in life is truly intriguing, which is illustrated through the vibrant colour palette within the composition. These rich colours also enhance the fact that BG, as a person, is vividly distinctive. Finally, the organic folds of paper bring forth the element of delight, which is evident in his pieces. The two respective books he has written are quite enjoyable because the pleasant writing style captures the reader’s attention and also allows the reader to fully experience the occurrences within the context. It was sincerely an honour to compose a portrait of BG; I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pran Is Gone, But Life Will Go On

When I was growing up, I knew two Prans.

One was the black-and-white Pran, who was always the bad man. You hated the very sight of him and rejoiced when, towards the end of the movie, the tables were turned against him.

The other was the colour Pran, who was invariably a colourful character. Sometimes he was a bad man in the eyes of law, but he was always good at heart and would eventually become a friend of the hero. You loved this Pran and shed a tear if he died.

This evening, Pran -- black-and-white as well as colour -- died. He was 93 and had, obviously, long been out of action. Newer generations would not have even heard of him. But for people my generation and older, Pran was one of the pillars of our times. His death is a reminder that these generations are also slowly wrapping up -- a thought that always terrifies me each time a pillar falls.

One knew the end was not very far when pictures of Pran appeared in the papers recently: a bird-like figure now, recognisable only because of the familiar aquiline nose, receiving the Dadasaheb Phalke Award at his home in Bombay.

He was almost given the award about 15 years ago. I remember that afternoon -- this must be 1999 or 2000 -- when journalists on the information and broadcasting beat had gathered in the office of Arun Jaitley, who was then holding the portfolio. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award for that year had just been announced, and it had been given to the director Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Jaitley was telling the journalists about the chat he had had with Mukherjee when he had called him up to convey the government's decision to give him the award. 'He is so humble and childlike,' Jaitley gushed, 'and he was worried if he would be able to walk up to the dais to receive the award (Mukherjee, like the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, had just undergone a knee-replacement surgery).'

And then Jaitley said, "It was really a tough choice this year. We had to decide between Pran saab and Hrishida."

Indeed a tough choice. How does one choose between Pran and Hrishikesh Mukherjee? It is like answering the question: Who do you love more, your father or mother? Both had done movies that you could watch any number of times -- each time seeming to be the first time.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Anand, Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke, Baawarchi, Namak Haraam, Gol Maal.

Pran: Madhumati, Zanjeer, Majboor, Upkaar, Johnny Mera Naam, Victoria No. 203, Don,  Kaalia, Kasauti, Chori Mera Kaam -- to name just a few. Not to forget his memorable role in Amar Akbar Anthony. The movie would be nothing without the parts of Pran (Kishan Lal) and Jeevan (Robert), even though it has Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor playing the lead roles.

I did not grudge the fact that the award went to Hrishikesh Mukherjee that year -- he was one filmmaker who could make the entire nation laugh or cry -- but I did feel a little sad that Pran had lost out.

Fortunately, they remembered to bestow the honour on him nearly 15 years later, while he was still alive. Most people don't live till 93, and it now seems as if Pran had remained alive all these years so that he could receive the highest honour that had eluded him 15 years ago. But that was not the case, of course. Pran did not need a Dadasaheb Phalke Award to tell the world could know how great his contribution to Indian cinema has been.

His contribution to cinema will live on in his films -- films that we will watch again and again -- even though he is now dead.

I suddenly recall what my father, a man of few words, had once said a long time ago, when I was still a kid and when families across the country gathered in front of the TV on Sunday evenings: He had remarked, "Pran thhakle cinema ta jomey aar ki" -- You relish a film if it has an actor like Pran.

The last film that I watched of Pran in a theatre, while he was still a working actor, was Duniya. This was sometime in the mid-1980s. I had watched it in Majum, a theatre that was closest to my house in Kanpur but which is now defunct.

Duniya, according to me, is one of the best films ever made in Bollywood. It has Dilip Kumar, the honest guy, who spends a chunk of his life in jail after being framed by three villains -- Pran, Prem Chopra and Amrish Puri. Upon being released from jail, he makes sure that each of them dies -- how he goes about, is the story. Rishi Kapoor and Amrita Singh serve as  the romantic pair, and the songs they sing in the film are some of the best that the combination of Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman and Javed Akhtar has ever created.

It's nearly 30 years since I watched Duniya in the theatre, but I still remember the name of one of the villains: 'J.K.' It was Pran who played Jugal Kishore, or J.K.

First published on The Hindu Blogs at

Monday, April 01, 2013

An Iyengar Family

Sunday noon: I am in Triplicane, the nucleus of everything Iyengar in Chennai.

The blazing sun has emptied the streets around the temple; only a sprinkling of shrivelled elderly men, naked except a thin white dhoti around their waist and the elaborate Vaishnavite mark on their foreheads, lie half-asleep in the shade of trees or verandahs of their crumbling houses.

I am in the home of Thirumalai, whose son Ramanujam is standing erect under the spinning ceiling fan. “Here, look,” the son tells me, “my head is not touching the fan. But my younger brother has to duck all the time. He is 6 feet 3, I am only six feet.”
Ramanujam may be narrowly missing the fan, but even he has to bend each time he enters his home and goes one room to another — so low the doors are. “Our house is like a hut, sir, the kind you see in villages. This must be about 150 years old,” smiles Thirumalai, 57, as he watches his strapping son demonstrate the negligible gap between his head and the spinning blades.
Thirumalai, who works in the advertisement department of a local paper, also grew up in such hut-like houses, including this one — all in Triplicane — but not tall enough to have to negotiate fans and door frames. But given his young sons’ heights and their lofty ambitions — Ramanujam, 22, wants to be a financial analyst and his younger brother, who is 17, a fast bowler for the Indian team — he may finally have to consider moving to a new dwelling someday.
That would also mean moving out from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first.
Over time villages metamorphose into towns, and towns into cities — but the bustling metropolis of Chennai, in existence for nearly four centuries now, still holds on to its bosom small clusters of such village houses that date back to the ancient times.
These houses are part of the agraharam, or the garland that the humble dwellings of Brahmins have historically formed around a big temple — in this case, the eighth-century Parthasarathy temple.
Whether these huts stick out like sore thumbs in a modern city, or whether modernity sticks out like a sore thumb in a setting that so belongs to a folktale — depends on which side of heritage you are in. But Triplicane is a living museum. Changing times may have stamped out the garland-formation but there are remnants from the holy necklace that continue to preserve the old — lock, stock and tradition.
Thirumalai’s house is right next to the temple; and the room we are standing in is the largest in the house, about eight feet long and five feet wide. Aged pictures of Lord Vishnu, in his various avatars, adorn its walls.
In Brahmin Triplicane (there is a Muslim Triplicane too, dating back to the times of Aurangzeb) it would be sacrilege not to have his pictures on the walls. Even greater sacrilege to display pictures of others gods, such as Shiva. Staunch Iyengars firmly believe that Vishnu is the tallest in the hierarchy of gods and that it is he who has appointed Shiva and Brahma to their respective divine positions.
In the space between picture-frames are scribbled mathematical equations and phone numbers that must remain handy. A Haier television set, resting on a low stool, adds to the clutter. “There are eight of us living here. My parents, me, my wife, my two sons, my sister and her son,” Thirumalai tells me as I survey his home. A small space abutting this room serves as the kitchen.
There must be a bathing area somewhere around — I don’t ask where — but I know there is no toilet. The houses in this agraharam use a common set of toilets located down the street.
We troop back to the living room, which is the only other room in Thirumalai’s humble dwelling. In the narrow passage that connects the two rooms sits a sleek desktop — broadband connected — on a table. It’s the only symbol of the present in a house so symbolic of the past. The background image on the computer screen is that of Lord Vishnu.
The living room, barely six by six, is furnished with a cot and two chairs. I share the cot with Thirumalai’s father, who is sitting uncomfortably upright — as if he has just recovered from a bout of coughing and is trying to suppress another.
“How old is your father?” I ask Thirumalai.
“What’s his name?”
“How does he spell it?”
The young Ramanujam points to an aged nameplate, which reads: ‘Sthalasayanathuraiwar Swamy.’
“Just Sthalasayanam will do,” Thirumalai interrupts as I open my fountain pen for the pleasure of putting it to use. “It’s one of the names Lord Vishnu is known by.”
“When did he move in here?”
“1970,” replies a hoarse voice. The father, who I thought was trying to suppress a bout of coughing, starts speaking. He tells me that he was born in 1929 in Mahabalipuram and spent much of his childhood in Kancheepuram before coming to George Town in Madras in 1942 to become a scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil.
Sometime in the 1950’s — he is unable to recall the exact year — he got the job of a Sanskrit teacher in a girls’ school in Triplicane. Ever since then he has lived in Triplicane, moving into this house in 1970, even though he went on to teach in Corporation schools across the city.
Suddenly it strikes me: in this six by six room, I am surrounded by three generations of devout Iyengars — Sthalasayanam, 83; Thirumalai, 57; Ramanujam, 22. What makes them family is not just the red flowing in their veins, but also the white they are attired in. Each is wearing a white dhoti, with a piece of white cloth thrown over bare shoulders, and the white Y-mark on his forehead.
There are two sects of Iyengars — the Vadagalais and the Thengalais. The Vadagalais paint a white ‘U’ on their foreheads; while the Thengalais wear the ‘Y’ mark—they have a tiny line descending from the ‘U’ to cover the bridge of the nose, making it resemble a ‘Y’. It is the Thengalais, considered more orthodox, who call the shots in Triplicane.
Thirumalai explains to me the significance of the Y-mark. The ‘V’ on the forehead stands for the feet of Vishnu, while the small line descending to the nose depicts a lotus: “the lotus feet of the lord.” And the thin red line that runs in the middle of the ‘V’ represents goddess Lakshmi. “We wear the mark twice a day,” Thirumalai tells me, “once in the morning, immediately after bath, and once in the evening. It doesn’t take long, not even five minutes.”
Wearing the Y-mark isn’t all that they do to prove their loyalty to Lord Vishnu, who lives, in their case, just a shout away. Thrice a day, they chant out 12 particular names of Vishnu by touching various body parts — each name corresponding to a particular body part — and also recite the Gayatri Mantra a minimum of 26 times, each time. And they know the Divya Prabandham — a collection of 4,000 Vaishnavite hymns — by heart.
I ask Thirumalai if they are always dressed like priests at home. “Always,” he emphasises, “only when I go to work do I put on a shirt on top of my dhoti. My sons, when they go out, wear shirt and pant. But at home we are always like this.” He seems rather proud to be living within the halo of the temple.
“Don’t you feel cramped?” I ask him.
“At times I do. But I can’t afford a bigger house with my salary. Here the rent of just Rs. 1,000.”
The rent is paid to a trust run by a family of Mandayam Iyengars —they are Thengalais who traces their origins to Melkote in Karnataka. Much of the sum collected from tenants in the agraharam is spent on maintaining the Thengalai temple the Mandayam family has built in Ayodhya. The landlords, says Thirumalai, have often wanted to demolish the huts and build new structures for the tenants, “but where will we go in the meantime?”
I ask him what’s going to happen once his sons get married: will the daughters-in-law fit into this house? He says he doesn’t know, but he is particular about one thing, that both his sons marry girls from the Acharya Purusha sect of Thengalais.
I turn to the young Ramanujam. I ask him if fellow students ever made fun of the Y-mark. “Yes, initially they would tease me. But they soon got tired of it.” I ask him if he was going to marry a girl of his father’s choice. “Of course, without doubt,” he replies shyly.
“Will you bring your wife here?”
“I don’t think she can adjust here,” says Ramanujam, “that is why, as soon as I get a job, I am going to take up a new house and move there with my parents. But getting a new house in Triplicane is impossible, it will be very expensive, so I will build a house in Kancheepuram.”
So he plans to kill two birds with one stone: Kancheepuram, less than 80 km from Chennai, is an important seat of Vaishnavism; and that’s where all the jobs are these days — the manufacturing plants of multinationals are all located in Kancheepuram district.
Seventy years ago, where the jobs were in Madras, his grandfather came to Triplicane to teach as well as to be near Lord Vishnu. And now, Ramanujam plans to move in the reverse direction for same dual purpose. Once he does that, life will come full circle for this devout Iyengar family.
A couple of weeks after I met the family, in June 2012, Sthalasayanam passed away.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Eight Years To Go

The last rays of the sun streamed in from the door of the drawing room that once hosted many luminaries and still draws celebrity visitors.

Ajay Das and I sat on either side of the door, with the sunlight illuminating the lines of my right palm which he was reading with a magnifying glass.

'One thing I can tell you, you are highly ambitious,' Das told me as he felt the palm.

'But will I be famous? A famous writer?' I asked him.

'Yes, but not before the age of fifty. You still have eight years to go.'

'Eight more years? Nothing before that?'

'What I mean is,' he leaned back on the chair, 'you will reach the peak of your popularity at fifty.'

I thought: what's the point reaching the peak of popularity at fifty when I would already be climbing down the hill into the waiting arms of old age? Then, second thoughts: these days, when life begins at forty, and considering that I published my first book only at thirty-nine, recognition at fifty isn't such a bad deal.

Das had been watching a Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal match on TV when I called on him at his ancestral home in north Calcutta. At eighty, he is one of the oldest surviving members of the K.C. Das family, the famous confectioners. He had abandoned the match to show me around the four-storey house, built in 1929, and as our conversation veered from one subject to another, Das, a bachelor, revealed that astrology and palm-reading were among his hobbies and had offered to read mine.

'When you come next time, bring your horoscope along. If I go through it, I can be more precise with the dates,' Das told me as I got up to leave.

I lied to him that I would. I did not want precision: a fair degree of uncertainty is always good when it comes to the knowledge of your own future. In fact, uncertainty is the only truth when it comes to the future. Yet one likes to hear nice things from astrologers. You secretly borrow hope and confidence from them even if you don't believe in astrology. I walked out of the K.C. Das home with a smile. But I had other reasons as well to smile.

I started working on the Calcutta book in the spring of 2011, and in the two years that have passed since, I have gathered sufficient material to paint a first-class portrait of the city. But the question is: will I be able to? It's one thing to collect material, quite another to transform it into an engaging book. For a writer, an experience is of little use unless he is able to express it in words effectively enough to make the reader undergo the same experience.

At least I've gathered the ammunition: that's forty percent of the battle won. When I landed in Calcutta two years ago to write the book, I was banking mainly on friends living there to help me discover the city. But, as I have increasingly realised over the years, people who you consider to be friends are of little help when you need them the most. Your life is of no interest to them. In contrast, people whom you barely know and expect very little from turn out to be your biggest benefactors in times of need. And so, I had total strangers holding my hand and leading me into the lanes of Calcutta. I don't wish to embarrass them by naming them here, but I shall remain indebted to them.

But now comes the path that I will have to negotiate all by myself: writing. It is so much easier to post a picture on Facebook: it takes barely five seconds. But to describe the same picture is words, five hours -- even five days. Why describe, then? That is because when you post a picture, readers merely 'see' it, but when you take the trouble of describing, the readers get inside the frame -- they 'experience' it. Pictures merely show, whereas writing tells.

And so, the journey begins. Long, lonely and arduous. I have for company two laptops, two Rubberband notebooks (with chrome yellow pages) that arrived this afternoon, several fountain pens and about three dozen books that I have kept aside to dip into from time to time for relief and inspiration. It shouldn't be so difficult considering I have been through it before: twice.

What I can't believe is how quickly these two years have passed. Wasn't it only the other day when I left Times of India and spent a month in Calcutta before returning to Chennai to join The Hindu? If two years can pass even before I could blink, can eight years be too long a time?

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Sub-Editor

Today, February 1, I complete 20 years as a journalist. One news agency, five newspapers.

I can't say if the journey has been worthwhile, or whether I would have done better in another profession, but there has never been a moment of regret. I wanted to be a journalist, I became one, and it's been a smooth ride so far.

Some of the sensations from that beautiful spring morning in 1993 are still alive. Pioneer, the Lucknow paper which had recently launched in Delhi, was now going to start in Kanpur as well. I had been hired as a trainee sub-editor (salary Rs. 2,000) and my appointment took effect from February 1. The first 15 days were to be spent at the Lucknow office, learning editing skills.

So on the morning of February 1, I took a bus from Kanpur and arrived two hours later at Charbagh in Lucknow. I remember wearing an off-white turtle-neck T-shirt with grey trousers and a navy-blue blazer. I reported at the office at 10 o' clock only to find the thick smell of newsprint and cigarette smoke hanging in the air -- hardly a soul in sight except a few peons. But I instantly fell in love with the smell: to me, it was the smell of journalism and it remains so, even though newspaper offices have long become no-smoking and shifted their printing presses in remote locations.

Back then I did not know that coming to a newspaper office at 10 o'clock is like ringing the bell at someone's home at four in the morning. I was told by one of the peons to come back at four. So I strolled down Hazratganj, inhaling the fragrant air the first day of February had to offer. I was 22, I had just got a job, that too the job of a journalist; I was now 'Press'.

I stopped at Ram Advani Booksellers and purchased -- I didn't know much about books then -- a copy of Roget's thesaurus (I still preserve it). Then I walked into a Raymond's showroom and bought myself a bottle of Park Avenue cologne. Lunch was at a plush old-fashioned restaurant (I forget the name) located right on the mouth of the road that led into Hazratganj. After which I watched Jackie Shroff's King Uncle (at the time I was a huge fan of Jackie Shroff and would even go alone to the theatres to watch his films). While walking back to the office, I opened the bottle of cologne and rubbed a few drops on my face.

At four o' clock, I met the resident editor: Sunil Saxena. I had met him during the interview but now saw him closely. With the goatee and the pipe hanging from his lips, he cut an impressive figure. He spoke only in English, even when communicating with the peons. He ordered coffee for me and said, "Have some coffee." I was too nervous to even lift the saucer in his presence but I had to. (Eight years later, in 2001, when both of us had left Pioneer way behind, I happened to spot him at the Press Club  in Delhi, where I usually had my lunch. I walked up to him and reintroduced myself. I told him that I would like to work with him again. 'But I am now in Chennai,' he said, 'are you willing to shift?' I replied, 'Of course.')

When I walked out of the resident editor's cabin that evening in 1993, the teleprinters were already screeching and typewriters rattling away. Computers, back then, were used only for the purposes of pagination. Soon I was handed a typewritten copy to edit. And then more copies. The senior who oversaw my work said, 'You see, the idea is to make a copy crisp and coherent. That is what editing is all about.'

Later that evening, a jeep took me to the Pioneer guest house, where the cook had prepared a home-like meal. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to write a letter to my girlfriend (no mobile phones or internet those days) to tell her about my new job. But each time I wrote a sentence or two, I would tear the page off the pad and crumple it into a ball and throw into the bin. I wanted to write a perfect sentence. I realised I had become a sub-editor.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Random Thoughts

This evening, spent considerable time at Music World on Park Street. Bought a number of CDs, almost all of them -- predictably -- compilations of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. The real treasure among them being a new release called Parampara, a set of two CDs that feature  songs of the Burmans that have been inspired by traditional Bengali music. Was surprised to learn that Jaane woh kaise log thhe jinke (Pyaasa) was influenced by the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana (play the two tunes in your head and you will see the similarities). What fun!

At Music World, Hindi songs by Abhijeet were playing in the background. Perhaps he has released a new album, or maybe a new movie in which he has sung all the songs. Listening to his voice, memories went back to 1977 or 1978, when I, as a child, had watched Abhijeet sing live in Kanpur during Durga Puja. At the time, he was the lead singer of an orchestra group run by a local legend called Prashant Chatterjee.

Prashant Chatterjee -- Proshanto for Bengalis -- lives on The Mall: his house sits right where the Murray Company bridge begins. Those who are familiar with Kanpur will know. I hope he continues to live there (I did notice the familiar signboard, 'P. Chatterjee', until a year ago); I also hope he is still alive. These days you never know, considering that 2012 has particularly been a year of goodbyes: even A.K. Hangal, who had one foot in the grave for many years now, chose to breathe his last in 2012. Basically, the generation that nourished us and played the cushion against realities of life is in the process of taking the final bow. It's our turn now to take over.

I turned 42 about ten days ago -- my first ever birthday in Calcutta -- but somehow I don't feel that old. When my father was 42, he seemed old to me because I was already 16 by then. He had shaved off his moustache at the first sign of greying in order to look young, and he remains clean-shaven ever since then. Whereas I happily wear the grey on my chin, because I believe that you can't shave off the years by merely shaving off facial hair. Age lies in attitude, not in appearance. You can't beguile people into believing that you are still young, the idea is to make them realise that you are still young despite the grey on the chin.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Confessions Of A BJP Reporter: How I Outgrew Its Charm

Beautiful Sunday morning. Two headlines in the papers — Shatrughan seeks Gadkari resignation and Pollster predicts Modi sweep — brought back memories.
I was only ten when, in 1980, Jana Sangh became the Bharatiya Janata Party (the idea behind the change of name was to adopt a secular face that would be acceptable to larger sections of India). When you are just ten years old, you are more familiar with the names of reigning film stars than those of political leaders.
But by the time I was twenty, BJP leaders had become stars in my part of the world, the Hindi heartland of Kanpur, which was being swept by the winds of Hindutva. They were seen as our saviours: Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati. In the riot-stricken city, it had become fashionable for middle-class Hindus to put up BJP flags atop their homes.
In 1996, I began covering the BJP; and for five years I spent almost every afternoon at 11, Ashoka Road, the party’s headquarters in Delhi, sniffing for news. In any case, one had to be there for the 3 o’ clock press briefing. As a cub reporter, I would be a little intimidated to engage the likes of Vajpayee and Advani in a conversation, something that seasoned journalists did with enviable ease; but I would spend a lot of time with those who were easily approachable — the late Kushabhau Thakre and Sundar Singh Bhandare being among them.
On the whole BJP was fun beat: the party took great care of reporters. The snacks at the 3 o’ clock briefing was always something to look forward to; one was put up in the best hotels when travelling to cover the national executive or national council meetings; all facilities to ensure you are able to file your stories in time.
It was impossible not to be impressed with the works. And impossible not to be sympathetic towards them when you spent afternoon after afternoon in the company of leaders whose dedication to their ideology you admired, even if you didn’t agree with the ideology. You even felt sad for each time their coalition missed the majority mark by a whisker.
But dedication and discipline kept the BJP functioning like a well-oiled machine: the face of Vajpayee, the mind of Advani, the brains of Kushabhau Thakre and Govindacharya, the management skills of Pramod Mahajan, the PR skills of Sushma Swaraj, and silent contribution from countless others who remained in the shadows. Quite natural that one felt happy when the party finally won in 1998. It was a vicarious pleasure; my life remained just the same.
In early 2001, I left Delhi and moved to Chennai. And once I was out of the charmed radius of 11, Ashoka Road, something magical happened. I no longer felt the sense of bonding with my beat: from the distance, all the parties looked alike. The dark side of the BJP began to emerge. Bangaru Laxman, whose coronation as the party president I had attended in Nagpur only months before moving to Chennai, was now seen on TV, accepting wads of currency notes.
Gujarat happened. Egos grew. Personalities clashed. Dedicated old-timers were sidelined. And governance, as the 2004 elections proved, fell below expectations. It took just five years in power for a robust machinery to fall apart.
Today the BJP is a sum total of negatives: no leadership, no agenda, no vision, no orator, and — without these — possibly no future. I don’t know how 11, Ashoka Road looks like these days, but the party itself resembles a haunted house that was once brilliantly lit up by dedication, discipline and the dream to rule India someday.
I am reminded of the very first day I had stepped into the BJP headquarters. This was the summer of 1996. The office was largely empty — most leaders were out campaigning — and I nervously walked through the corridors peeping into the rooms, hoping to find someone to talk to.
Suddenly I came face to face with a man who wore a cropped beard, a kurta and a warm smile. When I introduced myself, he showed me into one of the rooms. We had a longish chat, and I took notes.
Finally, I asked him, “And sir, your name?”
“Narendra Modi,” he dictated as I jotted down, “National secretary, BJP.”
At least one man from the party has gone on to do very well — for himself.