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.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Beautiful Mind, Ugly End: One Simple Lesson From The Death Of John Nash

A Beautiful Mind, the movie, ended beautifully — you left the theatre with a tear or two.
 
But in real life, that beautiful mind has met with such a tragic end that you read and reread the news of mathematician John Nash’s death in disbelief.
 
Disbelief not because he died — he was already 86 and not very far from a natural end — but the manner in which he died. You expected someone like him to die peacefully in his sleep, having lived a full life, and not getting ejected out of a speeding taxi that hits the railing and to lay lifeless on the road.
 
Each year, a handful of bespectacled scientists are chosen for the Nobel Prize: they remain anonymous until they are named for the honour and, outside their fraternity, continue to remain anonymous even after they have got the Nobel. It is usually the Nobel-winning writers who get all the attention and, as far as I know, the only ones who get to make an acceptance speech.
 
In other words, very few people had heard of John Nash until 2001, when A Beautiful Mind, a movie based on his life, released, with Russell Crowe playing Nash. By then Nash had already won the Nobel for economics, in 1994, for his work in game theory.
 
The movie’s objective was, obviously, not to educate the public about game theory but to tell the story of the beautiful mind behind it — the story of a man who fights paranoid schizophrenia and goes on to make remarkable achievements in the world of mathematics.
 
And to imagine the man who won a Nobel and whose life story won four Oscars, lying on the road, lifeless, at the age of 86. And he had just landed from Oslo, after collecting the $800,000 Abel Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of mathematics. What a way to die.
 
The only consolation is that died with his wife, Alicia, 82. She too was flung out of the cab when it hit the railing. The accident spared them a lonely walk to sunset, because one of them would have certainly died before the other had they both not died together. Very few loving couples, who have spent five or six decades together and who would feel totally lost in case of them dies, earn that kind of an end. That way, the beautiful mind had a beautiful ending.
 
Only the manner in which they died was anything but beautiful. And that’s why Nash’s death, just as Nash’s life, has become hot news.
 
After I read about the terrible accident — on my Facebook timeline, where else — I immediately googled ‘John Nash’. This is what Wikipedia told me: “John Forbes Nash, Jr. (June 13, 1928 – May 23, 2015) was an American mathematician whose works in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations have provided insight into the factors that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life.”
 
Insight into the factors that govern chance and events inside complex systems in daily life? I guess no one, except God, if there is one, is entitled to such an insight. Nash certainly did not have that insight when he and his wife took the cab in New Jersey to go home, having just arrived from Oslo. His death, even though his life was all about complicated mathematical equations, leaves us with a simple lesson: wear the seatbelt. Nash and his wife weren’t wearing seatbelts.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Bengali Woman

She walked out of the restroom gingerly, as if not to distract fellow diners with her footsteps, and took her seat noiselessly — as if she wanted her existence to be a whisper. "Please be very honest with me," she said, "am I boring you?"
 
"Boring?" I replied, "I am sitting with one of the prettiest woman I have ever known. Another beer?"
 
"Yes, please. But am I boring you with my stories?"
 
"I am a good listener."
 
"You don't have to be polite. Anyway, now I will tell you how I met Pascal."
 
"Pascal, who?"
 
"That French guy I was telling you about the other night?"

"Ah, your French boyfriend."
 
"I don't think I can call him a boyfriend. I met him only once, four years ago, but I can never forget him — never. I preserve his number, you know, even though I have changed phones. But I have never had the courage to call him all these years."
 
"Why?"
 
"What if he sounds different? Worse, what if he sounds indifferent? There have been times when I almost dialled his number, but I held myself back."
 
"Interesting."
 
"Interesting or silly?"
 
"Very interesting. So how did you guys meet?"
 
"Oh yes, so coming back to the story. I was in Paris at the time — I had gone there on work. One afternoon, I was at an antique shop, just looking around, when my eyes fell on a guy who was looking around as well. He was tall, well-built, the first thing I noticed about him was the tattoo on his upper arm — it said Om Namah Shivaya, in the Hindi script. Our eyes met more than once; and even though I was curious about him because of the tattoo, I was careful not to keep looking at him."
 
"You could have said Hello and asked him where he got the tattoo from, no?"
 
"How could I make conversation with a total stranger? What if he wasn't interested in someone invading his privacy? You know how foreigners are."
 
"And then?"
 
"Well, he walked upto me and said, 'Hello, I am Pascal, you from India?'"
 
"Wow. And then?"
 
"And then he asked for my phone number. But I refused. How could I give my number to a total stranger? I quietly walked out of the shop. Later that evening, I went to a bookshop for a poetry reading. Some French poet had just published a book of poems, which had also been translated into English. The French part was read by a very handsome Arab — perhaps an Algerian. And the English part was read by guess who?"
 
"Who?"
 
"Pascal!" A tear escaped her left eye. "I sat at the bookshop transfixed. It was as if Pascal was reading those poems for me. How beautifully he read! I kept looking at him. I wanted to tell him, with my eyes, why he wanted to have my phone number when he could have me! You have no idea how magical that evening was."
 
"And then?"
 
"And then we went to a cafe where Hemingway is supposed to have got drunk often. You have heard of Hemingway?"
 
"Of course, I have."
 
"Like Hemingway, I too got drunk, really drunk, but I remember everything — everything. Pascal drank as much as I did, perhaps even more, but he was sober. That's the thing with Western men, they usually hold their drink and rarely get obnoxious even when drunk — unlike Indian men. Indian men put me off when they drink."
 
"I am Indian!"
 
"But you are a dear friend."
 
"I was kidding. I know I act silly when I am drunk, though I don't remember putting anyone off. Maybe I have — who knows — one doesn't remember things when drunk."
 
"But I remember that evening so well."
 
"So what happened next?"
 
"Pascal asked me to spend the night with him. He was staying a walking distance from the cafe, maybe a kilometre or two. My hotel was far off."
 
"So you went with him?"
 
"It took me a while to decide. At first I wondered, being an Indian women, should I spend the night with a stranger — that too a white man? What will people say? How shall I explain my absence from home to them? Then suddenly I realised that this was Paris, where I did not know a soul and where I did not have a home. It did not matter to anyone, including me, whether I spent the night in the hotel or with Pascal — and I had already fallen in love with him."
 
"So you went with him?"
 
“Of course. And you know what, one of my sandals broke as soon we came out of the cafe. I walked with him barefoot, carrying both the sandals in my hand. He offered to carry me home — in his arms — but that would have been too much, so I said no. But how romantic, the whole gesture! Once we got into his flat, he made coffee for both us — and then we made love."
 
"Was it good?"
 
"I am not going to give you details," she smiled shyly, taking a sip of the draught beer, "but let me tell you one thing: I am a small-made woman, even by Indian standards. I am petite. Pascal, on the other hand, is huge. He has a huge chest. And you know what I found on his chest?"
 
"What?"
 
"A tattoo showing the portrait of Lord Shiva himself! That turned me on even more."
 
"And then?"
 
"Well, when I woke up the next morning, I found the sheets stained with blood. I cried at the sight of the blood, not because I felt scared, but because I was elated."

"Elated?"
 
"Because I had been practising abstinence for many years. Four years, maybe five years?"
 
"But why?"
 
"You must put that question to my husband. By the way, he is also a Bengali — like you."
 
"What do you mean? You are also a Bengali."
 
"I am. But I am a Bengali woman."

Friday, May 22, 2015

Two Chief Ministers: An Afternoon In Chennai

The movements of Jayalalithaa, and the arrangements for her swearing-in tomorrow as the chief minister, brought traffic in Chennai to a grinding halt today. Fortunately I did not have a flight or train to catch or an important meeting to attend.

But I did miss work. I got into a cab this afternoon and had travelled barely 500 metres when, on G.N. Chetty Road, I found myself in a traffic jam. After 10 minutes of waiting on the road, the driver began to get impatient and suggested that I take an autorickshaw. I stayed put: autorickshaws don’t fly. But soon I figured that at the rate the traffic was moving, it would take me two hours to get to work — a distance of less than 6 km — and asked the driver to drop me back home.

Relieved, he turned into the first lane leading out of the road but soon, on Thirumalai Pillai Road, we again found ourselves in a jam. I decided to walk back home and got off the cab. Soon I found myself walking past a red building — a typical two-storey Madras bungalow. I stopped.

The old-fashioned bungalow has always been almost a stone’s throw from my home. In the 14-plus years that I have lived in Chennai, I have gone past the building countless times and occasionally thought of stopping by, just to take a look inside, because it always looked deserted and accessible. It was in this bungalow that K. Kamaraj, Tamil Nadu’s tallest Congress leader, lived after he became the chief minister — and died. It serves as a memorial now.

Today, I found the gate open and walked in. Not a soul in sight. I could have been the first visitor of the day — or, who knows, the first visitor in months, maybe years. The house has been preserved the way Kamaraj left it: a room with sofas and a single bed; another room with bookshelves and an easy chair at the centre; the hall with a dining table and a show case. A simple man’s bungalow. In a small room by the hall sat two men, perhaps the caretakers, who were chatting away. I looked at the enlarged black-and-white pictures hanging from the walls, obviously placed in the recent times, showing Kamaraj with dignitaries from across the world (including the king of Ethiopia). The captions seem to have been written by a semi-literate man: Leningrad is ‘Lenin Grat’.

The walls of the bungalow separated two worlds. Outside, the noise preceding Jayalalitha’s oath-taking ceremony; inside, the orderly silence at the home of a man who took oath thrice as the chief minister. Outside, the noise generated by Dravidian politics, where personalities tower over principles; inside, the gentle calm of the Nehruvian era. Outside, a woman was being deified (‘Amma, you are god!’); inside, a silence brought about by death — not just the death of its one-time occupant, but also the slow death of his ideology. To understand where the Congress stands today in Tamil Nadu, one should have spend this afternoon at Kamaraj’s home, like I did.

Travel Writing

This evening, coming back from work, I found myself locked out of the house. I had forgotten to carry the keys and the wife had gone out and was expected to be back in an hour. To kill time, I had idlis at Grand Sweets near my house and then walked down North Usman Road and walked into New Booklands, a basement bookshop that mainly sells Tamil books but also has a small collection of English books.
 
There, I found a book which had been missing from my collection for many years now (I have no idea how I lost it): a collection of short stories by Salman Rushdie called East, West, his only work of fiction that I found easy to understand.I had bought my first copy in Delhi, probably from one of those bookshops in Janpath, in 1998 or 1999. The price, I remember, was written in pencil on the opening page: Rs 80. This evening I bought it for Rs 399. I also bought, for Rs 895, Travels in Asia and Africa by Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan explorer, one of the greatest travellers (and travel writers) to walk on this planet.
 
Back home, I lit a cigarette and opened the Battuta book, and in two hours finished 200 of the 340 pages. My phone remained untouched as I raced through the book, finding it difficult to put it down having begun the journey across medieval Asia, including India. How vividly he describes the practice of sati! It is a marvel that such a documents exists, describing life in 14th century India (even before the Mughals arrived) — and a matter of great shame that I never read it before. Never too late, as they say.
 
I don’t know what exactly got me interested in travel writing — I am talking as a reader as well as a writer — but I guess it has something to do with the books I read (and reread) during my younger days: My Son’s Father and Never at Home, both by Dom Moraes, and An Indian Summer by James Cameron. These books, even though autobiographical, are mostly about places, and the writers combine observation with introspection to make you feel you have made the journeys with them — growing older with them, getting wiser with them. It is one thing when a writer takes you to a place, quite another when he takes you along.
 
Incidentally, the very first book I ever bought (discounting the books on improving your skills with the English language) happened to be a travel book: An Area of Darkness, by V.S. Naipaul. I bought it sometime in 1993, from Current Book Depot in Kanpur, barely months after I began my career as a journalist, with The Pioneer. Naipaul would not call it a travel book: he would like to call it a book of inquiry; but since the book was a result of his travels in a foreign land — India — I would call it a travel book. While in Kanpur I never bothered reading the book, even though I took great care of it.
 
In 1994, when I moved to Delhi, supposedly the Mecca of journalism, to join the Press Trust of India, the very first book I purchased there, from a long-defunct shop called Bookworm in Connaught Place, also happened to be a travel book: Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days. I don't remember reading it with great interest because it sounded like the script of a documentary — it was intended to be one.
 
It was only after I bought — and read — Dom Moraes’s My Son's Father that places started interesting me. I bought the sequel, Never at Home, soon after, and a few months after that, James Cameron’s An Indian Summer. The chemistry between the authors and the places they live in, in these books, made me want to document my own chemistries with places. And then I read a few more books: George Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris, William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. I became convinced that in order to extract the full value of your association with a place or places, you need to record your experiences and share them with readers — in the form of a book. Oh, how can I forget Hemigway’s A Moveable Feast, perhaps the finest portrait of Paris ever produced.
 
In 2001, after I moved from Delhi to Chennai, I fell in love with Somerset Maugham. Almost every story of Maugham has the protagonist travelling to a new land — and travelling in great style. For several months, I did not have a TV at home and I would invariably have my dinner — usually hot rice and arhar dal — over a Maugham novel.
 
And then one day I discovered Paul Theroux, and thought he was the greatest travel writer ever — this was after I finished reading The Great Railway Bazaar. Soon I was buying books by Bruce Chatwin and Colin Thubron. Great writers, great places to be written about. Wow. This was around 2005.
 
Today, 10 years later, when I am far wiser and have myself produced three books about places, I find myself worshipping a different set of idols: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Trevor Fishlock, Jonah Blank, David Yeadon. These gentlemen understand the soul of the soil they are writing about — and help you write better — but strangely they are hardly written about.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

What Piku Did To Me

And then Piku rekindled the longing, just when I had settled to the rhythm of my life in Chennai.

This evening, as I sat in the theatre to watch the film that almost everybody is praising, memories came rushing of all the legwork for Longing, Belonging, my Calcutta book. Today, for some strange reason, I feel the book was written many years ago, but the fact is that one of the characters featured in it was interviewed as recently as 10 months ago: Piku pinched me into realising that I was roaming the roads of Calcutta, looking for material, until only the other day.

I watched with delight and a bit of jealousy  as Amitabh Bachchan, playing a 70-year-old Bengali called Bhaskar Banerjee, bicycled around the city, visiting the same places I had visited while researching the book: Maidan, Dalhousie Square, Shyambazar.

Jealousy, because I now feel proprietorial about Calcutta: I also felt jealous when Irrfan Khan and Deepika Padukone were shown visiting St. John's Church (where I spent a chilly afternoon in December 2012 after having some difficulty in locating the church; where Job Charnock lies buried), and when they spend time by the river in old Calcutta (something I always do during every visit to the city; my friend Sajal and I always go to one of the ghats and take the ferry to the Howrah Station and back).

Piku reminded me of my resolve to spend my retired life in Calcutta. If things go the way I dream them to be, which includes luck intervening unexpectedly to endow me with riches so that I do not have to earn a living, I shall retire at the age of 50 and settle in Calcutta. Each day would begin with a walk in Central Park, in Salt Lake, and end with dinner in one of the restaurants on Park Street — and dusk always devoted to gazing at the river from one of the ghats. On Friday afternoons, I would pack my bags and take the train or cab to one of those fascinating forest destinations that I've only read about or seen in the movies: Jaldapara, Gorumara, Palamau, Chaibasa — and sometimes to Shantiniketan. Though I don't see the need to wait for Fridays because I would be leading a retired life anyway — it would be easier to find accommodation in these places on weekdays.

By then, hopefully, some of my sensible friends would also have relocated to Calcutta, and most of these trips would be made with them. Even if they don't relocate, they would, hopefully, come to Calcutta on holiday and travel with me. I would want my life to be a repeated rerun of Aranyer Din Raatri. After all, the whole idea behind wanting to retire at 50 is to devote at least a decade of my life to being totally carefree while I am still fit enough to savour adventure — and therefore savour life.

Adventure and the Indian way of life are often mutually exclusive. Indians are so often bogged down by duties and responsibilities throughout their lives that they rarely get to do what they want to do. Take the case of a woman, or even a man, who gets married at the age of, say, 25 and has a child at, say, 27. Until the age of 25, she or he is driven by the demands of parents; from age 25-27 by the demands of in-laws; and from age 27 onwards by the collective demands of the child, of in-laws and of ageing parents. If you are employed, then the demands of your workplace too. When does one have the time for oneself? Can one afford to go to the railway station one cloudy afternoon, just like that, and purchase a ticket to somewhere? The answer is a big no.

But that's exactly the kind of life I want to live: to be able to walk into the railway station on whim and buy a ticket, or tickets, for the next train headed in the direction of a forest. Basically I want to be my own boss and enjoy life.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Chai, Chai Chugs On

Uniformed vendors constantly walked up and down the aisle, selling snacks, as the double-decker train hurtled in the direction of Chennai from Bangalore. One man sold vadas, another sold samosas, yet another sold bread-omelette.

What makes snacks even more tempting is the manner in which the hawker calls out. Each develops a signature style over the years, and if his cutlets or samosas make you hungry even when your belly is full, you know he is a seasoned hawker.

But the most-frequently heard sound in the train that afternoon, quite expectedly, was: "Chai! Chai!" "Chai! Chai!" The hot tea seems to melt regional accents. No matter which part of the country you are travelling, you will find hawkers calling out in one particular manner when selling tea: "Chai! Chaaaai!" "Chai! Chaaaai!" This sameness is the same as the sameness with which arrivals of trains are announced at railway stations across India.

My train was crossing Ambur station when it suddenly began to rain and the window resembled a sweaty torso. I finally decided to have some hot tea. All this while I had had vadas and cutlets that were ice cold. The vendor, as soon as he had handed me a cup of steaming tea, cried out "Chai! Chai!" for the benefit of other passengers and moved on. I felt proprietorial about the sound.

More than five years have passed since I wrote Chai, Chai, and even though I wrote two more books after that, it remains the book I am best known for. Which is heartening and also sad. Heartening, because it continues to sell: it is very flattering to find praise still pouring in in the form of emails and Facebook messages even after five years.

One young lady from Gujarat is using the book for her M. Phil dissertation; another lady from Karnataka is using it for her Ph.D dissertation. I wonder how Chai, Chai, written so casually, is going to help them earn prestigious degrees. But if they find it worthy enough to be studied, who am I to compain? One housewife from Nashik recently wrote to me saying that if someone were to conduct a quiz on Chai, Chai, she would win hands down because she knew every sentence in the book by heart. Another housewife, from Cuttack, said she would sleep with the book placed under her pillow.

Men too write to me, though their number is fewer, and none of them, thankfully, talk about sleeping with Chai, Chai under their pillow. I can never forget a mail I once received from a man in Pune. He had bought Chai, Chai just to gift it to his father, a retired railway officer, but the father died while he was half way through the book. The book lay open, face down, on the father's desk until the son picked it up and read it — and wrote to me saying how much he loved it.

Now, the sad part. Chai, Chai overshadows my two other books, Tamarind City and Longing, Belonging, even though they are far superior in terms of craft and content. The writing of Chai, Chai was a stroll, the other two was like training for marathon. They may have earned respect, but Chai, Chai got love. Love that translates into sales.

When Chai, Chai came out, I worked with Times of India. One afternoon, shortly before its release, as I passed the Venkateswara Temple on Venkatanarayana Road while on my way to work, I told the Lord: "If the book sells 10,000 copies, I shall come to Tirupati and get my head tonsured."

The book had barely come out of the printing press when my mother died. My brother and I had to get our heads tonsured. The next time I crossed the temple, I told the Lord: "Since you have already made me shave my head, make sure the book sells 10,000 copies." I think he heard me this time.

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

Spring

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

Sky

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

Faceless

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.