Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some Thoughts About Chai, Chai — Over Whisky

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

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

This time He heard me.

*

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

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

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

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Have Will, Will Travel

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

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

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

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

Who, then, is a traveller?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 17, 2016

15 Years In Chennai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On Turning Forty-Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Chennai

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

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

10 Years Of Ganga Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 10, 2015

In Benares, A Satisfying Day Turned Sad

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

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Fashion TV And I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Friday, June 05, 2015

Maggi And I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Why A Writer Must Take Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.