Friday, December 28, 2007

Post-birthday Thoughts

Yesterday, on my birthday, I had a few friends over for dinner. Before they arrived, I cleared the clutter from the table in the drawing room and left only three magazines behind: Newsweek, Cosmopolitan and an Indian edition of Hello! that I had bought a few weeks ago.

Hello!, on its glossy cover, had a picture of Benazir Bhutto sitting on the lawn of her Dubai home. Inside, there were many more pictures of her. A colleague who arrived first kept turning the pages of the magazine to kill time, and wondered how, with such lavish pictures, it was priced only at Rs 50.

I looked at the pictures as he turned the pages, and from a distance, I could see Benazir.

This evening, I went to Inox to watch Welcome.The movie was just picking momentum when I got a text message: "Benazir shot dead." Only last night, she didn't look the kind who would die such a gory death -- or even die for that matter.

By the way, I loved Welcome. I wonder why people are saying it's bad. It's good. I am a great fan of Akshay Kumar, but I kept looking at the watch while watching Garam Masala, Bhaagam Bhaag and Bhool Bhulaiyya. But Welcome kept me engrossed, and no matter what reviewers say, the film's strength is not Akshay Kumar, but the performances by Nana Patekar and Anil Kapoor. Go watch it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Birthday Thoughts

It is about 10 in the night, and I just received a text message:

"Though I am a couple of hours early... HAPPY BIRTHDAY. When you celebrate have one drink for me."

The sender, a well-known person, is lodged in a prison somehwere in South India. I don't know if he has really committed the crime for which he landed in jail, and it does not matter to me. What matters to me is that he became the first person to wish me this year. Not many people remember birthdays: I am very bad at it too. I mean people do remember birthdays, but they tend to forget that the day has arrived. They are like: "Oh shit! Today is 15th?! I forgot. So sorry!"

The relationship I share with the man in prison is that of a writer-reader. He religiously reads Sunday Spin, the column I write in the paper, and writes long letters to me. Two weeks ago, I was going through a letter of his when the peon placed another letter on my desk. I tore upon the envelope, and found that it was a letter from a serving judge, who said extremely nice things about Sunday Spin and wanted his views to be published.

And then it struck me: in one hand I was holding a letter from a man lodged in jail, and in the other a letter from a judge's desk. It would be an understatement to say I felt important. When I started writing the column two years ago, I had not imagined that people would actually react to it. Till then, I was writing mainly about politics, and the occasional slice-of-life piece as and when I felt strongly about something.

Sunday Spin helped me strengthen my faith in myself: perhaps I am not that bad at all, maybe I too can reach out to people. So every Tuesday night (since Wednesday is the deadline), I toil for a few hours to put together 650 words. At times I like what I write, but people don't. At times I churn out something half-heartedly, but people say nice things about it. Most often, I don't even know what I am going to write about till I pour a drink and switch on the computer. Like tonight. Once I finish writing this post, I will have to sit and write a column, and I have no idea what I am going to write about.

But gone are the days when I wrote whenever I wanted to. Now I write because I have to, because I have a column to feed, and when I sit in front of the computer, I can see dozens of faces looking over my shoulder while I type. Some nod in approval, some smirk, and I keep wondering how to make all of them happy. Painful.

But then, I am loving it. A journalist or a writer usually does not earn much by way of money, but when you know you've touched or stirred a heart, you feel very, very rich. Money can't match the gratification.

It is 11.32 pm now. I will be entering the new day, my birthday, while in the process of writing Sunday Spin. And when I pour yet another drink, I shall raise a toast to you, dear reader. Don't ever go way: be around. I need you.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Writing a Book

It is one thing to write a newspaper column or a blog post, quite another to write a book. I am not stating anything new, just that I am realising it the hard way (as if there was any other way). Writing a column is like running a 100-m race. You pump yourself up and start running: the finishing line is in sight and you know have to make it, come what may.

But when you are working on a book, it is like being the sole participant in a 10,000-m race. Doesn't matter how long you take, but you have to reach the finishing line at some point. Since publishers are not going to wait till eternity, you have to keep running till your senses tell you that you've reached what looks like the finishing line. But that could just be a mirage: what looks like the finishing line to you might not be so for the publisher. So you sweat on, like a Kenyan runner.

And when you are writing a travel book, it is not just the running that matters: you also wonder about the style of your running. Should it be sprightly like Bill Bryson? Or have the lazy pace of Pico Iyer? Or consistent like Paul Theroux?

As you run, you also find two people standing on either side of the track and bucking you up: "Run like me!" One of them is a bearded West Indian called V.S. Naipaul, and the other a bearded Indian called Pankaj Mishra. You can't ignore them: Naipaul became famous only after he started travelling, while Mishra became a celebrity after he travelled to some small towns in India and noticed butter chicken being served in Ludhiana.

But end of the day, this is my race. None of the gentlemen I've mentioned above is going to hold my hand and pull me to the finishing line. I've to follow my own rhythm and style to complete the 10,000 metres. And since I am the only participant, I will never know whether I've done well or not till the crowd cheers.

Monday, December 03, 2007

December Thoughts

1. In 23 days from today, I will turn 37. Which means three years short of 40. Which means almost middle-age. Which means half a life. How did this happen? Only the other day I was 30, but calling myself 29 in chatrooms. Compare '29/m/Chennai' with '37/m/Chennai'. The first is bad enough, the second has no hope.

2. I was on the Deccan flight from Kolkata to Chennai. I always ask for the aisle seat, for two reasons. One, as an extension of the habit developed in the trains -- in the aisle seat, you can get up for a smoke as often as you want without disturbing your neighbours. Two, if there is no woman seated next to me, there could be one across the aisle.

Anyway, this time, next to me, was a Marwari couple. Their prosperity reflected on the man's waistline and the Nokia handset that he was carrying. What irritated me was that he not only ignored the announcement asking people to switch off their phones, but also kept talking throughout. He must be talking to someone at the destination, for the wife, who sat by the window, kept butting in, "Ask him to send a big car." She was repeating the 'big car' so often that he gave the phone to her, and she told the person on the other end, "Listen, send the big car, ok? There's lot of stuff." I distinctly remember that while I watched her talking on the phone, Kolkata airport was already whizzing past and the plane was taking off.

The problem with Deccan is you have to shell out money for the snacks. I had already spent Rs 450 at the airport for Mark Tully's new book, and was in no mood to spend more. So I ignored the stewardess when she came along. The Marwari man, however, asked for chips. He was handed a packet of Lays. Suddenly, an evil thought crossed my mind. I asked for a packet of cashew-nuts. Mighty expensive they are, and expectedly so -- a dozen or so nuts for Rs 80. I tore upon the pack with my teeth and started savouring the salted-chillied cashew while reading the book.

"One minute," the Marwari man hailed the stewardess, "can I have cashew?"

"Yes, sir."

The man examined the packet by turning it around and upside down. "How much?" he asked.

"Eighty rupees, sir."

The man went into a quick confabulation with his "big car" wife, and then called the stewardess. "Sorry, nahi chahiye (Sorry, I don't want it)," he said. I felt a sense of victory -- as if I had avenged his refusal to switch off the phone.

But back in Chennai, I pondered over it. The man returned the cashew nuts not because he could not afford it, but because he found it silly to spend Rs 80 on it. That is why he has the money, while I have cashewnuts.

3. I saw two movies during my vacation. Bhool Bhulaiyya and Om Shanti Om. I still haven't figured whether Bhool Bhulaiyya was supposed to be a comedy or a scary movie. Will someone tell Priyadarshan to take a break? Ok, I will tell him that when I see him next time in the Leather Bar. Om Shanti Om, at least, did not pretend to be a serious movie. It was fun all the way, especially for those who have a fair idea of the films of the 70's and the 80's. One hilarious scene I can never forget: Shah Rukh Khan telling Deepika that how in friendship there's no scope for 'sorry' or 'thank you'; and the young Sooraj Barjaatya noting that dialogue to use it in a movie that was to come years later. That's ultimate comedy, according to me.

And what more can I ask for than the hottest movie of 2007 opening with the bindaas voice of a man who died in 1987? You know who am I talking about, don't you?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The River

The river that inspired the URL of this blog.

By the Ganges. At dusk. In Kanpur.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Diwali Thoughts

Just when I was beginning to blog with some regularity, it's time to travel again. Technically, I am going home for Diwali. But practically, I am going to collect raw material for my future blogs, future columns, and future books. That's the most enervating part of being a writer: you never travel or go on a holiday for the fun of it. The most active part of your mind is always busy taking notes. Even when you are sitting at home and doing nothing, you find a story knocking at your door. Even when you eat food cooked by your mom and go out meeting your old friends, you find nostalgia nudging at you to take notes.

I am not really complaining, because I believe that one way of extracting the meaning of life is to write about the small, little day-to-day things that constitute it. When you write, you impart permanence to even the smallest of events that would otherwise had gone out of the radar of your memory. When you write, you justify your existence. Not writing is like going on honeymoon without a camera: there would be no evidence of those special moments.

On that note, I would excuse myself for a short break. Do miss me. And yes, a very happy Diwali.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

I'm a Capri

Stole this from someone's Orkut album. Am not sure of the spelling of the last mentioned trait, but pretty much sure about everything else.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Tumi Aamar, Aami Tomar

Didn't know the Bengali version of this song existed. Heard it on FM last month in Kolkata, while driving back late in the night after pandal-hopping. Since then, been looking for it, and now, I have found it! Enjoy.

Ektu aaro nay kaac...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Two years of Ganga Mail, and the five people I dedicate it to

Sometime this month, without my realising it, Ganga Mail turned two years old. Right now, when I am on my second drink after a long day, I feel like saying, "Who cares!" But let me not forget the days when I started blogging. At the time, I had felt like a mouse gatecrashing into a party of lions: who will read me, and why should they read me, when there is so much of good stuff around?

After two years, I haven't become a lion. But I am no longer a mouse either. Maybe I have become a dog, whose loyalty makes him snuggle up to the reader every now and then, irrespective of the reader's moods and whims. But let me tell you, at the cost of sounding pompous, that whenever I have written a post, I've worked very hard at it -- usually spending the entire night grappling with sentences before clicking on the 'publish post' button. Whether that's been worth or not, I do not know. Whether I have succeeded or not, that also I do not know. End of the day, I feel happy that I have a blog in which my emotions during the most important phase of my life remain recorded.

And as I pour my third and final drink for the night, I would like to raise a toast to those five people who have kept me going, and who will keep me going even in a situation where I might feel like giving it all up.

1. W. Somerset Maugham: The books published by Vintage carry a picture of him on the back cover: Maugham, who appears to be in his late thirties in that picture, looks straight into the reader's eyes. Six or seven years ago, when I was heavily into Maugham, I would stare into those eyes for hours, hoping that my gaze would bring him alive and make him impart his writing skills to me. Of course, I would be pissed drunk during the gazing sessions. I stopped the practice once I learned that he was gay.

2. Ved Mehta: I stole one of his books from a library I would not name. Stole as in, I never returned it. And I am proud of it because the book is long out of print, and is unlikely to be available unless... you know what I mean. The book, called The Portrait of India, contains some of his most brilliant essays. If there's a writer whose style I love and would like to imitate, that's Ved Mehta. Read his account of his meeting with R.K. Narayan in New York, and read Narayan's account of the same meeting. You will know what I mean. Mehta, by the way, is blind; and if you keep that in mind while reading his descriptions, you will gasp: "What the fuck!"

3. V.S. Naipaul: A House For Mr Biswas is a book I would like to keep in my puja room and light incense sticks every evening. But there are people who would like to spit on An Area of Darkness every morning, even without having read the book. But between these two books, he wrote dozens of short stories, including humorous ones -- stuff every aspiring writer should turn to for instruction. Try A Flag on the Island. I am so glad I saw the man, in flesh and blood, during a book-reading and got that book (Magic Seeds) signed by him. But I wasn't glad to see his temper: he scolded his wife, in public. She was sifting through the papers that contained questions put to Naipaul by the audience (the couple had announced that only written questions, that too the ones they selected, would be answered). The rustling of the papers kept irritating Naipaul, who was busy answering questions with utmost concentration and sincerity. When he couldn't take it any longer, he turned to the wife and growled: "It distracts me when you do that." The wife did not know where to look.

4. Dom Moraes: When I read his autobiography, My Son's Father, ten or twelve years ago, I decided I wanted to be him. When I read the sequel, Never At Home, my decision became firmer. Dom was my role model. Whatever he wrote subsequently was a rehash of some chapter or the other of these two books. Still, he was my hero. In 1997 or 1998, when the filmmaker Basu Bhattacharya died, Dom faxed a touching poem to the paper I worked for then. Dom and Basuda were close friends. The editor, who fancied himself as the Almighty's gift to mankind (rather womankind), put the fax copy into the wastepaper basket. I was heartbroken. Years later, I met Dom in Chennai. He had come to promote his new book, whose name I forget, which he had co-authored with a woman called Sarayu. He was frail, suffering from throat cancer, though he chain-smoked throughout the evening. I bought the book on the spot and got it autographed. He told me: "Please get it signed by Sarayu as well." I ignored his instruction and instead, pulled out the two other books I was carrying: My Son's Father and Never At Home. He affectionately wrote, "For BG", in their yellowing pages, and I did not mind dying the next moment. But within a few months, Dom was dead.

5. James Cameron: No, not the director of Titanic, but the respected British journalist who covered pre-Independence politics as well the 1971 war in Bangladesh, and in between acquired an Indian wife. An Indian Summer, which he wrote while recuperating from a near-fatal accident during the war coverage, is the most sparkling and from-the-heart account of the India that the present generation has missed out on. Thankfully, the book is still in print. In the past 10 years, I have bought seven copies, including two for myself. No, I don't possess two copies: sometime ago I had lent my copy to a girlfriend, who later denied having seen the book at all. "I think you were too drunk to realise which book you were giving me." That was that. I discarded the girlfriend, and bought myself another copy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Letter From The Land Of Kama Sutra

By the time I made it to Khajuraho, the cows were returning home. Every few kilometres, they would be lording over the road, sometimes in dozens and sometimes in hundreds, marching like weary battalions. Their commander would invariably be a sun-beaten old man carrying a twig for a weapon. On a normal day, I would have stepped down from the car to savour this most magical hour of a North Indian village: it is called the cow-dust hour, or godhuli, when the dust raised by the returning cows mingles against the setting sun, with the smoke rising from freshly-kindled mud ovens. But right now, the setting sun was bad news for me.

Throughout the five-hour journey from Jhansi, I had been visualising myself admiring the erotic sculptures and taking pictures. But once in the town, I found myself looking for toothpaste, a toothbrush and shampoo. The hotel gave me Medimix soap and a towel, and wearing that towel I settled down for a drink. I wasn’t carrying a book, so I killed time by going through the menu card in the room again and again. The card was bilingual: English and Korean, and there was a separate category of Korean dishes, one of them being the ‘Korean veg. paratha.’ I did not realise when I fell asleep but when I woke up, I remembered the ancient saying: Whatever happens, happens for the good.

I was the sole visitor when the first rays of the sun lit up the world-famous temples of Khajuraho. The place could have belonged to me: not a soul in sight. All the temples stand within a radius of about half a kilometre, separated by lush green lawns. My first stop was the Laxman Temple. I climbed up the stone steps and walked around. In the early-morning silence, the countless figures on its walls almost spoke. And in the middle of them, an image of an orgy — the central figures being a man and a woman who are standing and have their legs entwined. One leg of the man, however, has been cut by the sword of time. I clicked away. As a memento, I wanted a picture of myself standing below the erotic panel. I caught hold of a passing gardener — an old man who was unlikely to have held a camera before. Each time he was ready to shoot, the camera would go on stand-by mode, and I had to run to him to put it on. He managed to take some pictures, but in each of them, the orgy was left out. When I showed him in which angle he should hold the camera, he said with a frown: “Oh, you want to include those statues! You should have said so.”

Another gardener, this time a friendly young man, happened to be passing by and he took over from the old man. Perhaps he could see through my interest, and he became my guide. “Come, I will show you something. Come down.” He took me to the side panel of the podium and with the flourish of an artist unveiling his most precious work, waved his hand, “Look here! Kama Sutra!” For a moment I was stunned, and the next moment I felt a little embarrassed, and then I decided to look at the sculptures as a work of art. But it was impossible not to think of the sex. The acts were taking place in every conceivable manner, and it was not always between a man and a woman. “Look, horse,” the man said. Oh my god!

He took more pictures for me and excused himself with a namaste. I went over to the other temples — the Kandariya, Jagadambi, Chitragupta and the Vishwanatha. The designs are similar: each is erected on a high podium, and has a porch, a vestibule, a mandapa and the sanctum. If time has a smell, you could smell it inside these temples. When you stand alone in the sanctum, it almost feels as if the Chandela kings, who built the temples a thousand years ago, had performed an elaborate ritual just the evening before.

I sat for a while on the steps of the Vishwanatha temple and watched a squirrel enjoy its breakfast. Suddenly, a whisper from behind. “Soovar waala dekhna hai?” (You want to see the one with the boar?) It was the young gardener. I followed him inside the temple and on the inner wall above the entrance, I saw a boar mounting a woman. He pointed to another sculpture right on the entrance to the sanctum! A man and a woman in what they call the doggy pose.

He did a namaste and disappeared again. By now the sun had risen high and I walked across the lawns. A group of Westerners had gathered around a smartly-dressed guide and were listening to him. The guide spoke fluent English and from a distance I could catch the words “bestiality”, “homosexuality”, “vices,” “illusion and delusion.”

When I got closer, I realised he was explaining the presence of erotic carvings in a temples. He told the foreigners that when you enter the home of God, you should get rid of all worldly distractions — that’s the message of the Khajuraho temples. And then, like a chemistry teacher, he summed up: “Lust converts to love, love converts to devotion, devotion converts to spirituality, spirituality converts to super-consciousness.” I got the point.

I came back to the Laxman Temple, to take one last proper look at the carvings on its podium — the most scandalous ones. Two foreigners — a man and a woman — came up and I could see they wanted to burst out laughing on seeing the orgies. But they wore dignified smiles and moved on. An Indian family arrived — two men and three women. The women, who looked like housewives, broke into giggles. The men discussed dynamics of the complex postures and that made the women giggle even more. One of them mock-admonished the men: “Don’t look at them in a dirty way.” Another woman arrived — Indian and alone. As soon as she saw the images, she pulled out her camera, but the moment she saw me watching her, she put the camera back. I decided to leave.

Outside, a hawker accosted me. He was selling postcards of the erotic images and pocket-sized Kama Sutra books. For memory’s sake, I bought one book, titled — what else — Kama Sutra. Back in the hotel, I turned its pages. My eyes fell on the instruction:

If a man mixes rice with the eggs of the sparrow and having boiled this in milk adds to it ghee and honey and drinks as much of it as necessary, he will be able to enjoy innumerable women.

I wondered if I should have been born a thousand years ago.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The City Of 'Enthu'

One really feels sorry for the Bengalis. For 361 days they wait for something that lasts only four days. So when Durga Puja arrives, they are more sad than happy. As my car snailed out of the Kolkata airport on the evening of Sashti — the first day of the Puja — a caller whined to the host of Meow, a new FM channel dedicated solely to women: “My heart is already so heavy. Soon it will all be over.” I decided to make the most of it while it lasted.

But it poured heavily throughout Saptami morning. I won’t be surprised if an over-emotional Bong composed a poem on how even the heavens were crying because Ma Durga would go away in a couple of days. Anyhow, the rain gods decided not to mess with the spirit of Kolkata and the skies cleared by the afternoon. I was set to celebrate my first Puja — or Pujo — in Bongland. It began with the mandatory visit to the neighbourhood pandal in Salt Lake, which was modeled after the fort of Jhansi. Statues of Lakshmibai (atop a horse with her child strapped behind her) and Mangal Pandey welcomed visitors. The artistes didn’t have to work their imagination to create Mangal Pandey: he looked exactly like the long-haired Aamir Khan. Bhog — or the community feast — was being served: khichuri (rice and lentils), labda (mixed vegetables), cabbage, chutney, paapad and rasagolla. (The taste of the khichuri and labda lingers on a Bong’s taste-buds throughout the year).

Even though a Bong’s favourite destination after a hearty afternoon meal is the bed — for a couple of hours sleep, that is — we decided to check out another pandal in the area. It had been in the news for copyright violation. The pandal was a lookalike of Hogwarts Castle, and the organisers of the Puja in the area had received summons from the Delhi High Court. The summon, which ran 394 pages and mentioned J K Rowling and others as the plaintiff, said they could carry on with the Puja after paying a fine of Rs 20 lakh. Obviously the matter had been settled, because the pandal was in place and attracting thousands of visitors. The young ones posed before the statue of Harry Potter, who stood right in front of Ma Durga.

The evening was fixed for Maddox Square, supposedly the most happening pandal of Kolkata. Happening, because the most happening women in the city supposedly come there — in miniskirts and all. All I saw was a crowd of some 50,000 people. I was too busy feeling my wallet all the time to notice the women. And it is pointless to notice women when you go pandal-hopping with your wife and her extended family.

Day Three is Ashtami, the big day. We went pandal-hopping in North Kolkata, the nucleus of Bengali culture. Manicktalla, Kasi Bose Lane, Kumartuli and many more. These are places where you see trams rubbing shoulders with hand-pulled rickshaws, where roadside food is famous and where people don't frown at roadside food — they relish it. This is the Calcutta that the West is familiar with — filth coexisting with affluence, 19th century coexisting with the 21st century. Culture is the leveller.

Day Four is Navami, the last day. More pandal-hopping, this time in South Kolkata: Jodhpur Park, Babu Bagan, Selimpur. Don’t go by the names: these are places where Bengalis dread to go because of the crowds. But when you go there, you find the entire population of Kolkata descending on the narrow streets of these localities, waiting in the queue interminably for a two-minute glimpse of the pandal.
Stampede is always a possibility, but it never happens. Bongs, after all, are bhadraloks — decent people.

Enough pandal-hopping. Time to party. So straight from the pandal, we headed to Venom, the most popular disco in Kolkata these days. It is the autumn of 2007, but Kolkata was dancing to Summer of '69. And the time was 1 am, when Chennai and Bangalore would have long gone to sleep. I shouted at the top of my voice to ask the DJ if he had any R.D. Burman songs, and he waved a ‘no’. The shift changed and a new DJ took over, and his favourite seemed to be the new craze, Hare Ram Hare Ram, Hare Krishna Hare Ram (from Akshay Kumar’s new release Bhool Bhulaiyya). He must have played the song half a dozen times. A couple of hours later, yet another DJ took over. This chap had read my mind even without seeing me, and off came one song after the other — the remixes of 1980s hits of R.D. My evening was made.

It was 4.30 when we left, and people were still walking in. Someone suggested, “On the way back, can we stop by at the Park Circus pandal?” Another rebuked her: “You’ve got some enthu!” ‘Enthu’ is the short for enthusiasm: Bongs use it so often that it sounds more like a Bengali word. I should know it by now, after the four days of ‘enthu’.










Thursday, October 25, 2007

Amrita

"Why don't you straightaway say I look fat? When did you last see me? Five years? Ok, four. That's a long time. That time I was a woman who was clueless about life. Now I am happily married.

"Of course you called me fat. What else does pleasantly plump mean? Anyway, Indian men like plump women only.

"Plump in the right places? God, you've no shame or what! Talking to me like that?! Anyway, let's not discuss me. I am what I am, ok? My husband loves me this way. Any problem?

"He has gone to Chandigarh for a couple of days. He was on the line before you called. Such a sweetheart he is, calls me every two hours: 'Darling, did you have your lunch?' 'Darling, are you missing me?' Such a sweetheart!

"Ok, you tell me now. Why haven't you got married yet. Still chasing women, eh? Do you even remember how many you have slept with?

"What do you mean by nonsense! The whole world knew what I kind of a character you are. Mr Flirt!

"You never tried it with me? What rubbish! It was me who kept you at an arm's length. If there was one guy who I would not be seen dead with -- that was you! Such a rogue!

"Ok, ok, fine. Won't talk about all that. So tell me, why no marriage yet? You could have easily found one from your harem. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! God! Anyways, good to hear from you. But listen, find someone soon. It is nice to be married.

"Of course am happy. He is a sweet guy, yaar. Very sweet. First thing in the morning he makes tea for me, can you imagine that? He clears the dishes, pays the bills, everything! Miss him so much, poor guy.

"You got to go? Ok, will catch up sometime soon. And hey, thanks for calling. Yeah, take care, bye!

*****

"Yeah, he came back two days ago. Yes, from Chandigarh. Do you ever pay attention when I talk? Achchha listen, am I disturbing you? Please let me know whenever you think is not the right time to talk. You are the busy man."

"Never too busy for me? Nice to hear that, Mr Flirt. But it is not going to work with me, ok? And don't forget, I am now a happily-married woman. Achchha, I am still curious to know why you haven't got married yet?

"Find a girl for you? Why should I do that? What happened to your harem? They all ditched you or what?

"Who will marry you, yaar! And you want me to find a girl for you! Have I gone mad or what? That poor girl -- she will come after me with a knife. But let's hear what kind of a girl you want.

"Ok... ok... go on, go on.. Ah, Smart, intelligent, well-read, sense of humour, same wavelength as you, and what else Mr Flirt?

"And good at sex? Ha! Ha! Ha! You can't think of anything beyond that, can you? Let me tell you, marriage is not all about sex. It is a lot more. I don't know if you will understand.

"Achchha listen, why I called was, I wanted to tell you not to call me after six.

"I know, I know you don't keep calling. Just telling you. After six he is back home. Looks a bit awkward.

"Yeah, he knows we talk once in a while. I tell him everything.


*****


"I had thought I would never call you again. Never, never again. But stupid me.

"What do you mean by what happened? You should know what happened?

"Do you expect me to tell you everything? Do want me to say, 'Hey, it is my birthday, please wish me?' I thought you would call. See, I told you you never pay attention to what I say.

"What sorry? Fuck your sorry. No, no, no, this is unpardonable.

"No, no, no, don't darling me now. I am very pissed. You and your bloody work! I hate you!

"No, yaar, what does it take to make one call? You know he is not home at that time. Anyway, now I know you don't care.

"No, no, no, it's ok. Leave it. No, leave it.

"Now why do you want to know that? I am not telling you.

"No, why do you want to know what I did when you didn't even remember to call me?

"No, nothing much. We went out for dinner. He bought a cake. And guess what, he gave me diamond ear-rings. Can you believe that? Such a sweetheart he is. Anyways, it was your call I was waiting for.

"No, don't darling me now. I am very pissed."

Midnight Musings

It is 12 minutes past midnight, and after a long time I am sitting down to write a blog at this hour, even though I have no clue what I am going to write.

Maybe I should write about my trip to Calcutta. Ever since I got married last year, I have been visiting the city off and on, and I must say that I am falling in love with the place. Not that I am any less fond of Chennai, but to tell you the truth, Chennai is beginning to bore me now. Chennai is the city I grew up intellectually (that in no way means I am an intellectual) and discovered myself. But having discovered myself, I suddenly feel the need to move on -- to a place that suits my temperament better.

I went to Calcutta for Durga Puja, and the moment I stepped out of the airport and got into the car, my wife asked for the FM to be switched on. The first song I got hear was, Bachna ae haseenon lo main aa gaya (Kishore Kumar, from Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin). The second song, Jaanu meri jaan (Kishore Kumar and Rafi and Asha and Usha, from Shaan). The third song, Ek main aur ek tu (Kishore and Asha, from Khel Khel Mein). The music for all three have been composed by R.D. Burman. It was as if the RJ knew I was coming to Calcutta!

Such luxury is not possible in Chennai, where FM channels mostly play Tamil songs. Not that I don't like Tamil songs. I have a playlist of awesome Tamil songs sitting on my desktop, even though I don't really understand the language, but you know what I mean. I have grown up with Hindi songs of the 1970's and 80's, and that's where my heart will always be, no matter where I am.

But as of now, I am a resident of Chennai, and who knows, I may live here for another 15 years. Only this evening, I was discussing Tamil songs (with the very few Tamil words at my disposal) with my driver. Maybe I was a little drunk. I was humming some of my favourite songs for him, and suddenly, I felt so proud that I live on the same street as Illayaraja. I can listen to his Raaja raaja (sung by Yesudas) a million times and still not tire of it. And then there is Guruvayurappa, sung by S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and S. Janaki -- a song that makes me fantasise to be the conductor of Illayaraja's orchestra.

But end of the day, I am an outsider here -- that's what every trip to Calcutta makes me feel. That city stands for all that I am about, even though I have hardly lived there. Am I speaking the mind of my wife who is a hardcore Calcuttan? I do not know. Time will tell.

Meanwhile, I have a confession to make. Sometime ago, a fellow blogger, who had mentioned me among his five favourite bloggers, had asked me, in return, to list five of my favourites. Now, I am not a regular readers of blogs, or anything for that matter. It's been ages that I've even read a book. But a list had to be made, so I picked up five blogs at random and praised them. One the blogs was that of Compulsive Confessor. If you don't know who Compulsive Confessor is, you are not seriously into blogging. I had seen her blog a few times, thanks to friends who would forward me the URL, but I never got down to reading it seriously.

This evening, a colleague forwarded me the link to an article in London's Telegraph, which was all about Confessor's popularity as a blogger, thanks her projection of herself as a woman who smokes and drinks and loves sexual adventures. All this while, I was not very sure about Confessor's identity, but now I know. I have seen her as a child, and that's because I'd worked with her mother years ago. But that's irrelevant. What matters is that she writes really well -- and only when you write well that you get readers for your story. Badly-constructed sentences, no matter how confessional and graphic they are, won't engage you, leave alone titillate.

After reading some of her posts (and re-reading the Telegraph article on her), I was tempted to abandon Ganga Mail and start a new blog under a pseudonym that would describe my adventures. There is so much to write. But then I thought: should I? Maybe I will, when I am 65, when the women concerned are too old to be bothered about being mentioned provided their names are changed. But who would be interested in the past conquests of a 65-year-old man? That's the disadvantage of being a man.

If a man were to write, "An insect bit my nipple", it would evoke either a laugh or no reaction. But if a woman wrote the same, you would hear the collective gasp of the (male) readers. Ok, you could still hear the gasp if a man confessed, "I playfully bit her nipple." But if a woman confessed, "He playfully bit my nipple", you wouldn't hear a gasp but a collective moan.

So I would rather let my stories remain buried in my heart. I've got a big heart.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

My Favourite Tamil Song

Here's one of my favourite Tamil -- or should I say Tamizh? -- songs belonging to my favourite era, 1975-85. Sung by S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and S. Janaki. Enjoy! -- you don't need to understand the language to do that.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

Thums Up to Happy Days and Kishore Kumar

The other day a friend said she'd mailed an article, but since I could not find it in my inbox, I went to the spam folder. I found the article there, and along with it, dozens of messages that relentlessly promise penis enlargement. One of them caught my eye:

Prove your manliness! Take MegaDik and be a man!

What impressed me was the directness of the message. It took me down memory lane, to the innocent days, when advertisements were to the point and did not play on the charm of a sexy model to convince you into buying a product. Some catchlines from the past:

Iodex maliye kaam par chaliye (Rub Iodex and get going)

Vicks ki goli lo khich khich duur karo (Take Vicks tablets and cure your throat)

Sirf ek, sirf ek, sirf ek Saridon (Just one Saridon to get rid of your headache)

Khao Gagan, raho magan (Use Gagan oil, be happy)

And my favourite jingle:

Happy days are here again, everybody is feeling great on Thums Up! Refreshing cola, Thums Up...!

By 'happy days' they meant the summer. Those days, no one drank soft drinks (or 'cold drinks') during the winter. And when the sun turned up the heat, the jingle sounded enticing

Thums Up also happens to be my favourite drink. Nothing else matches its tang, believe me. It is very sad that Thums Up is not available in Chennai: my grocer tells me there is no demand, so no supply. I think I first had Thums Up in 1978 or 1979. Those days, Parle made two other drinks, the lemony Limca and the orange Gold Spot. Gold Spot has long disappeared, but Limca, touch wood, still adorns the fridges of the grocery stores.

The arrival of Coke and Pepsi turned the soft-drink market into a highly aggressive market, and that aggression has evidently spilled over to the commercials. As a result, having a soft drink is no longer a way to beat the heat or thirst, but a very macho thing to do. The Mountain Dew ad shows two men conquering their fear and driving down a cliff. The Thums Up commercial, inspired by the new sport parkour (the chase scene in Casino Royale), shows Akshay Kumar jumping down a building. And which soft drink is that whose commercial shows a boy asking Shah Rukh Khan and John Abraham to step aside so that he could get to the vending machine?

A soft drink is supposed to make you cool, not to make you look cool. But that's the USP these days. Happy days have gone away, I don't even get to drink Thums Up! Refreshing cola, Thums Up...

That makes me bow before the manufacturers of Nirma. Even decades later and in spite of stiff competition from Surf Excel and Ariel and what not, their basic jingle remains the same:

Washing powder Nirma
washing powder Nirma
doodh si safedi
Nirma se aaye
rangeen kapde bhi
khil khil jaaye
Sabki pasand Nirma...
Washing powder Nirma
washing powder Nirma
NIRMA!!!


Now before I sign out, let me remind you that today is October 13, 2007. Exactly 20 years ago, Kishore Kumar died. There was only Doordarshan then, and only one evening bulletin, and the news was announced in a matter-of-fact manner by the newsreader. Today, that would have been 'breaking news' on all channels.

Of late I've written a lot on the singer, and I don't wish to bore you with more of my thoughts on him. This song should suffice: it is my most favourite Kishore Kumar song.

If I may suggest how you should listen to it. Set aside everything that you are doing. Pour a drink. And when it begins to mellow you down, put on the earphone and click on the play button.

The special song is dedicated to you. You know who.

Main akela hi apne...

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Musical Journey

Till the age of about 15, I had no preferences in music. If somebody had to ask, What kind of music do you like?, I wouldn't have had an answer. Music, then, was everything that played on the radio and on Chitrahaar, the weekly programme on Doordarshan. Of course, as a boy, one preferred 'new' over the 'old'. The singer or the composer did not matter. I don't know if you are even familiar with the name Vijay Benedict, but there was a time when I liked him, because he had sung the title song for the Mithun Chakraborthy-starrer Disco Dancer. "I am a disco dancer, zindagi mera gaana..."

The song that activated 'love' in me was Gunche lage hain kehne. I was nine years old then, in class four, and every time I heard the song, it would make me pine for a classmate of mine, Sweety. The song is from a movie called Taraana. Sung by Shailendra Singh and composed by Ram Laxman.

In class five, the famous Rocky song, Kya yehi pyaar hai, made me fantasise about another classmate, Vandana. The fantasy would be meeting her in the school field during one of those rare evenings when the setting sun illuminates the sky with deep orange, so deep that you can barely see anything beyond the outline of people's faces. Just me and her. Sex was not even remotely on the horizon then, so the ultimate gratification lay in having her full attention. How desperately I wanted to be Sanjay Dutt. Whoever thought of R.D. and Kishore Kumar! That was 1980.

Soon after, I became an R.D. fan, thanks to Satte Pe Satta, which was released in 1982. The song, Pyar hamen kis mod pe le aaya, made him my God, and he has stayed on the altar ever since. But Kishore Kumar remained just another singer. I liked him, but that's about it.

In 1986, I was appearing for my board exams. I had always found it difficult to study without a source of music being at hand, and now I didn't have to rely on the old Murphy transistor or the Bush tape-recorder (a small slab with just one speaker): my father had just returned from a project in Germany (West Germany, then), and he had got a red, gorgeous Sony two-in-one.

From 4 to 7, my mornings would belong to text-books. At 8.30 am, Ameen Sayani would take over. The famous host of Binaca Geetmala, the programme that kept millions of Indians glued to their radio sets in the 1970's, would, in his inimitable voice, advertise the new releases. The advertisement would be followed by a song from the movie. I would listen to the programme (I forget its name), from 8.30 to 9.30, while doing last-minute revisions, filling ink in the pen, and getting dressed in the school uniform. At 9.30, I would be off for the examination hall, on my bicycle.

One Kishore Kumar song had caught by attention, and I looked forward to it every morning. It was from a newly-released Rajesh Khanna film called Adhikaar, and it went like, Main dil tu dhadkan, tujhse mera jeevan, kaanch ke jaisa toot jaoonga, toota jo yeh bandhan... (I am the heart, you are its beats. I will break like glass if our bond breaks). I taped the song on a blank cassette so that I didn't have to rely on the radio programme, and soon, I was madly in love with his voice. I went back to his other songs, and I didn't have to look hard because in 1987, he died and the market was flooded with his cassettes. I went to the altar, shifted R.D's image a bit and placed an invisible statue of Kishore Kumar there as well. My musical journey had begun. I knew what I was looking for.

The next 20 years were spent on a mission -- a mission that continues even today: to know everything about the two, to collect all their songs, to convert people into worshipping them. Along the way, Main dil tu dhadkan was forgotten, till I found it again, thanks to internet. Nothing gives me more pleasure than sharing music. Not even sex, believe me.

So here it is, dear reader, the song that started it all. As the Vividh Bharati announcer would say: "Aawaz hai Kishore Kumar ki. Swarbaddh kiya hai Bappi Lahiri ne. Aur film ka naam hai Adhikaar."

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Me And I

If you scroll down a little, you can see a few pictures that were taken during my recent visit to Mahabalipuram, about 50 km from Chennai. As usual, a couple of the pictures show me -- in one of them, striking a pose at the shore temple, and in the other, smoking a cigarette. The idea for the latter was my wife's: you can see the setting sun almost touching the tip of the cigarette, as if I was lighting it from the fading ball of fire.

Some of the commentators, quite understandably, called me a narcissist. After all, I was posing. But they were fun poses. If I really wanted to keep looking at myself, I would have uploaded pictures of myself staring grimly at the sea in the backdrop of the setting sun. Perhaps with a cigarette touching my lips. I would have looked like an 'intellectual'. Or a 'thinker'. In fact, that's usual my pose in real life: even as I write this post, I am typing only with my left hand (I am a southpaw), while the right hand, which is holding a cigarette, is also supporting my forehead. And the forehead happens to be wrinkled because I am wondering what to write next.

Ok, I've thought of the next sentence, and that is: What's wrong in being in love with yourself? Everybody likes to take a look if a mirror happens to be at hand. People who don't do that are narcissists in other ways. Politicians, for example. They don't look into the mirror 15 times a day because they know what it will show: a rotund, old man. But they can't wait to see their pictures in the papers.

Why do women fall in love with men who possess qualities that they like? That's because they love themselves and want the men to cater to that self. Narcissism! Why does the average Indian man love to have a wife who could also double up as a maid? That's because he loves himself so much that he hates the idea of entering the kitchen. Narcissism! Why does a boss dislike certain people and like certain others? Narcissism!

End of the day, we are all looking at an invisible mirror and admiring ourselves. And why not? Because end of the day, we are nothing but ourselves. We all are alone in the journey assigned to us in this world, and there is no other faithful companion than our own mirror-image. The image never deserts us.

Everybody in India loves Amitabh Bachchan today, but who was with him when he slept hungry in Bombay's railway stations in the late 1960's? People love his success, not him. Even Jaya Bhaduri would have ignored him if he had not shown the signs of a promising actor. If someone truly loves him, that's his own self. And that's true for every living human being.

Ten years from now, I don't know what will become of me. I could be a successful writer, which I aspire to be; or a failure. In either case, when I sit down to take stock of my career then, I would find myself having a drinking with -- who else, but myself! Ok, the wife might be there. And maybe a couple of friends too. But my most trustworthy companion will be me.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Hotlist

I am in love with Gul Panaag. Last evening, giving in to tremendous persuasion by wife, I sat down to watch Dor. A movie with a name like Dor is not exactly my idea of spending the evening. I would prefer something like Chor -- a name that promises all the thrills of the 1970's. But the very first scene of Dor shows Gul Panaag resolutely hammering a nail on the window of a wooden house, and I could not take my eyes off the TV after that.

Her grace, gait and mannerisms set her apart from everyone else in filmdom. And till I saw the movie, I did not even know what she looked like! -- even though I had heard her name. Perhaps some credit for the way she acts in the film should also go to the director, Nagesh Kukunoor, but she is undoubtedly awesome. She now figures in my hotlist along with Tabu and Sandhya Mridul. Oh yes, there is someone else too.

Vidya Balan was like a fresh flower in Parineeta: a flower that is fresh because it has been plucked just a few minutes ago and not because its chopped stem is dipped in water. This evening I saw Hey Baby, and she still looks as fresh in many of the scenes. But what made me fall for her is the opening scene in Salaam-e-Ishq, where she wakes up wearing just a white shirt, teasing the audience with her nearly bare, ample thighs. At first I thought she was one of the new heroines, but the moment I realised it was her, the white shirt scene assumed an erotic value. It is a different matter I did not watch the movie beyond that first 20 minutes -- it is the stupidest film I have ever seen. No wonder the VCD cost only Rs 38!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Not Far From Khandwa

Today, August 4, is Kishore Kumar's birthday. Am sitting in Bhopal, not very far from Khandwa, where the singer was born 78 years ago. In other words, Kishoreda, had he been alive, would have turned 78 today. He would have been an old man, shrivelled and without many of his teeth, and yet hummed some of his old songs for TV channels whose determined reporters would not have left this recluse alone.

But TV channels celebrate only the dead. An old man, long out of spotlight, is no news. Maybe that is why Kishore Kumar chose to die young, at 58, so that he would be celebrated forever. It is impossible to imagine an old, doddering Kishore Kumar -- even his name means someone who is doubly young.

Presenting a song that is my all-time favourite. It is from the flop film, Anand Aur Anand, which Dev Anand had made in the mid-eighties to launch his son Suneil. In this song, Kishore Kumar lends his voice to both Dev Anand and his son; and if you listen carefully, you will notice that in the second half, Kishoreda modulates his voice to suit that of an older man, that is Dev Anand. The music has been composed by R.D. Burman.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

I am a Malayali

With no offence meant to my brethren from Kerala (some of my best friends belong to God's own country), presenting a clip I was forwarded a few days ago:

malayali.mp3

Friday, July 27, 2007

Blogging in the Time of Commentators

Of late, I've been trying not to contribute to my comment box, the reason being I do not want to push up the number of comments with 'Thank yous.' I have seen posts that have, say, 20 comments; and when you open the comment box, you find that 10 of them belong to the writer who is expressing gratitude to each commentator individually. Therefore, the '20 comments' figure is not only misleading but also meaningless. In any case, a heart-felt 'thank you' is supposed to be felt, not spelt out. Every sensible commentator will know that his or her comment has been read with a deep sense of gratitude.

Still, I felt compelled to reply to an 'anonymous' comment on my previous post, but I decided to stick to my resolution. Then I realised there's a more effective way of replying -- by writing a post. The commentator, obviously a very well-meaning one, said:

If only i was an editor ... i wld ve removed the first three paras from this art coz they are unnecessary and have been written just to attract the attention of the readers, according to me!!

Just to attract the attention of the readers! Now, isn't that we all do? We write for readers, and if we fail to attract their attention, we have failed as wordsmiths. Why else do editors insist on 'catchy' headlines and intros? When a story has to be told, it has to have a beginning, middle, and the climax. That is why it takes filmmakers three hours to tell a story that can be told in four lines: Girl meets boy. They fall in love. But there is a villain. The villain gets killed and the girl and the boy get married.

Most Indian movies are based on these four lines, yet people watch all of them and have different opinions about each of them. And that's because of the narrative -- the way each story is told. So it's not a crime to capture the reader's attention: in fact, it's a necessity.

But to be honest -- and do trust my honesty because a glass of sparkling, golden liquid is sitting on the table -- I don't feel obliged to attract the reader's attention when I write a blog. My only obligation is to write in a manner that it can be followed easily by anybody -- even my driver, if he ever were to go online and check out Ganga Mail.

If my posts begin in a certain way, that's because that's the way I am thinking at that moment. Most often, I do not know what the next sentence or paragraph is going to be. One thought usually leads to another, and only when I realise I've made a point I try to wind up. Though there are times when I write a post with the prior knowledge that I am going to make a point. But even then, what is the hurry in making the point. The blogosphere is your own space: you can stroll to a point instead of jumping to it.

Also, there is something called 'Killing two birds with one stone.' There are times you know you have a point to make, but as you go along, you decide to tackle a few other points that have been sitting heavily on your chest. So if you can squeeze in several points in one post without making it sound jerky, what's the harm?

The real harm would have happened if you, the well-meaning but anonymous commentator, happened to be an editor. Thank God you are not one. But I still love you.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sex and Spiritualism

Sex and spiritualism: they figure in my Blogger and Orkut profiles as two of my passions. For many, the combination might seem like the mixture of oil and water. What to do, mindsets can be made of concrete. A famous editor of a certain newspaper does not approve of articles related to yoga and meditation because he believes they are synonymous with Hinduism and are unscientific and therefore should not find place in his 'secular' paper.

If an editor, who is supposed to be the embodiment of intellect and knowledge, indulges in such discrimination, you can imagine the horror of a lesser mortal when he finds you glorifying sex on one hand and talking about spiritualism on the other. But what the hell, I shall include scotch as well. Believe me, the cocktail of the three S's can make your stay on this planet really worthwhile -- provided you mix the right quantities.

My recipe for happiness would be: connect to your soul early in the morning; do your karma yoga throughout the day; down a couple of scotches in the evening, and then sex at night. The order could be interchanged, as long as you don't do something at the cost of the other.

But then, it is always easier said than done, and that is why we are what we are, and thank God for that. Imagine a world full of perfectionists who followed a time-table: 6 am -- meditation, 8 am -- breakfast, 10 am -- in office, 7 pm -- drinks, 8 pm -- dinner, 10 pm -- fornication.

So back to the cocktail of sex, scotch and spiritualism; and the people who look down up or laugh at it. Sex and alcohol are often seen as natural partners (therefore the cliched phrase, Wine and Women); but alcohol and God, or sex and God? -- that's blasphemy! But read what South India -- The Rough Guide has to say about the Ayappa cult in Kerala:

"One day, when the two male gods, Shiva and Vishnu, were together in the pine forest, Shiva asked to see Vishnu's famed female form Mohini, the divine enchantress. Vishnu refused, having a fair idea of what this could lead to. However, Shiva was undeterred, and used all his powers of persuasion to induce Vishnu to transform. As a result of the inevitable passionate embrace, Vishnu became pregnant, and the baby Ayappa emerged from his thigh.

"Pilgrims, however, are required to remain celibate...
" And it goes on to talk about the famous pilgrimage undertaken by thousands every year in South India.

Per se, it is a good idea to resist physical desires for 41 days: it cleanses your mind and body. But why connect this abstinence to a God who himself was born out of a momentary physical desire?

But then, somebody -- certainly not God himself -- must have made the rules at some point, and people are merely following it. Just like elderly people in villages still follow the unwritten rule that even the shadow of a low caste must be avoided at all cost. Only the dark corners of the mind are at work, and such people, all their lives, are consigned to darkness.

A God-loving man is usually happy, but a God-fearing man is necessarily unhappy. A God-loving man gives a fuck: he has his own devices to tide over the vicissitudes of life. A God-fearing man, on the other hand, is chained either by insecurity or greed. If I were God, and if a devotee came to me pleading, "Please ensure that my film is successful. If you do so, I shall tonsure my head," I would ask the devotee to turn around and plant a solid kick on his ass.

But then, I am not God. Though I know what God is like. God is sitting right inside you: all you need to do is connect. If you are a thief, and after the day's theft you sit in an isolated place to ponder whether you are doing the right thing, and then you hear a voice from within that says, "You loser, can't you work to earn a living instead of stealing?", you have found God. You don't need to go to Tirupathi and pray, "God, if you rid me of my habit of stealing, I shall donate Rs 501."

Very often, alcohol brings you closer to God like nothing else. Because when you are a couple of drinks high, you are yourself. And that is when God is likely to make an appearance. God hates it when you fake it. So be yourself, and chances are God will rescue you.

But most people behave like coy brides when it comes to God. My mother, for instance. She has a set of 'puja clothes', which she washes everyday and makes sure no one touches them when they are left out to dry. Every morning, attired in those 'fresh' clothes, she will sit for puja, but not before she has personally washed all the utensils on which God has to be served. God's food usually consists of tiny sugar-balls, and when I ask her: "God is the one who is feeding us, so why do you need to feed him?", the staple answer is: "How can I leave God unfed?" If I argue, she warns me, "Don't fly too high, God can always ground you."

I pity her, and I pity the millions of others, who undertake so much of hardship to please a so-called God. Imagine standing in the queue for hours and hours, just for the sake of a darshan, or a glimpse, of the deity. And in those few moments you get the glimpse, you don't even relish the sight of the deity because your heart is busy pouring out dozens of selfish requests. And even before you finish with your list of requests, the priest rudely asks you to move on to enable the next guy in the queue to have his darshan.

India, in spite of its population, has no dearth of vacant places. Such as the beach or the riverside. Even a small temple where people hardly go. So please go there, sit comfortably, shut your eyes and talk to yourself. You will find God. Doesn't matter if you have had a few drinks -- in fact, that would make you more honest. Doesn't matter if you have just had sex -- that would rid you of the burden of lust.

Sitting alone, completely at peace with yourself -- that, according to me, is true spritualism.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Being A Bengali

Last Monday, three things happened to me that made me ponder on my being a Bengali -- if that at all I can claim to be one, that is.

Many of you must have seen, or heard about, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand, in which the mortality of a cancer patient is immortalised by Rajesh Khanna. Next to Khanna's performance, the most outstanding feature of the film is its music: composer Salil Choudhury was still on a creative high and he gave songs like Kahin door jab din dhal jaye, Maine tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne, and Zindagi kaisi hai paheli.

Kahin door jab din dhal jaye, like most Salil Choudhury's numbers, has a Bengali version. (Some of them have a Malayalam version as well). The Bengali version, Amaye Proshno Kore Neel Dhrubo Taara, has been sung by Hemant Kumar.

Monday morning, while ritually digging into music on the internet, I found a clip in which Salilda speaks at a function and goes on to sing the same song! For the devotee of modern Bengali music, the clip contains the voice of God. I downloaded it without wasting a second (I've attached it in the end).

Then in the evening, I went to my favourite pub. On one of its walls is a rack displaying some coffee-table books, which I never bothered to look at carefully because I never got to sit near that rack. That evening I did, and I noticed, right on top of the pile, a book titled Satyajit Ray at 70. It was basically a compilation of black and white pictures of Ray captured in different moods and a collection of tributes paid to the director by various people associated with or influenced by him, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. (Ray died soon after). I got a call and that's when I realised that I had already finished a bottle of beer and without even speaking a word to my wife, who was silently nursing her cocktail.

The caller was a friend from Calcutta. I said, "Hello, hello", but no response. When I listened carefully, I heard, in the background, Usha Uthup in full flow, singing R.D. Burman's favourite Puja number, Tumi koto je doore. Pancham has used the same tune in Saagar, at the moment when Rishi Kapoor watches Dimple bathe in the sea, and also for a song in an album being produced by Gulshan Kumar. Gulshan Kumar, a former juice-seller, scrapped the album idea but retained that song, Aaja Meri Jaan, for a movie with the same name which starred his brother. S.P. Balasubrahmaniyam, or SPB, has narrated very often how we was nervous to sing Aaja Meri Jaan but Pancham insisted, "You bloody fellow, that is why I called you all the way from Madras."

The friend came on line only after Usha Uthup had finished the song, and asked: "Shunley?" -- did you hear? God bless her! That's what friends are for: to remember you just at the right time.

Sitting now, in front of the computer, and drinking the only brand of whisky that the neghbourhood booze shop had to offer, and relistening to Salilda's voice, I wonder: why was I not born in Kolkata instead of Kanpur?

In Kolkata, I could have had had a glimpse -- at some time or the other -- of either Salil Choudhury, Satyajit Ray or even R.D. Burman when he came to the city to record the Puja songs. That is besides the pleasure of living in the same city whose streets they walked.

Today, in Chennai, I live on the same street as Salilda's erstwhile guitarist and a musical genius in his own right -- the great Illayaraja. I adore Illayaraja's songs, and am proud that I am his neighbour, but still, why not Kolkata?

I also wonder: who am I? A Bengali who has grown up in Uttar Pradesh? Or a UP-wallah whose mother-tongue is Bengali? Or a Bengali-speaking North Indian who now lives in Madras and loves, apart from RD and Kishore, the Tamil songs of the 1980's?

I have no ready answers. All I know is that my roots lie somewhere in Bengal -- and calm lies in tracing them -- may not be in the physical sense, but at least in seeking to know what Bengal Bengalis are all about. It is like Tamilians in the US watching a Rajnikant film, or being more finicky about rituals than Tamil Nadu Tamils.

As a child, I grew up in the Hindi heartland, with Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor as my chief idols. And the songs then were invariably the products of just two men: Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. Yet, when there would be a powercut, my father would tell stories written by Bengali writers or sing Bengali songs. The songs didn't make much sense then, but then, when you listen to something when you are eight or nine, it remains with you forever.

At the time, my Bengali was hardly any good, in spite of my father's short-lived effort to teach me how to read and write the language. After a point, he must have thought: "How is it going to matter whether he can read or write Bengali. He is going to live in UP, after all." For my mother, my proficiency in my mother-tongue was hardly a matter of concern. She always dreamt of me as an Army officer or an engineer or a doctor, who could be speaking even Swahili. She hated poets and writers: she thought them to be sissies.

She also hated people who drank: only on one occasion did my father taste alcohol. I remember that evening clearly -- it was my seventh birthday. Our neighbours -- a retired Air Force officer and his wife -- had been invited over for dinner, and when they walked in, I noticed the old man hiding a parcel behind him. I was certain it was a gift for me, and even more certain when he beckoned me with his finger, as if about to tell me a secret. But all he told me was: "Ask your mother to send two glasses." Next thing I know is my mother admonishing father for having touched the forbidden liquid, and father sticking a finger into his throat to puke out the only drink he had had. Today, the same woman has a man for a son who is an aspiring writer and an amateur poet and a professional drinker.

Coming back to being a Bengali. Well, Hindi was the language I could speak with maximum ease then. Not even English, even though I could write in English well enough to get good marks. Interaction with fellow Bengalis was hardly of any help: I ran the risk of pronouncing 'roshogolla' as 'rosogolla', unmindful that the 'sh' sound is so sacred to the blue-blooded Bengali. Dropping the 'sh' sound accords you the status of an infidel, and there are many infidels around outside Bengal, especially the progenies of people who had settled decades ago. It was 'shomoy' (time) and not 'somoy'; 'shaanti' (peace) and not 'saanti'.

Kishore Kumar came to my rescue. He is one singer who sings with great clarity, be it in Hindi or Bengali. With his songs, you don't have to wonder: "Er, what did he say just now?" His pronunciation is "sposhto" (very clear), as opposed to "sposto". So I began to purify my Bengali by listening to his Rabindra Sangeet. It is a different matter that Kishore Kumar sang Rabindra Sangeet by following the Devnagiri -- that is Hindi -- script. The beauty of the Devnagiri script is that it can instantly make you sound like a sophisticated Frenchman or a Bengali bhadralok.

And bhadralok I had wanted to be. The knowledge of pure Hindi helped too: most words, especially the difficult ones, are of Sanskrit origin. If you know how to pronounce them in Hindi, uttering or understanding them in Bengali is not difficult at all. Soon, I was more Bong than many other Bongs in Kanpur. My father, meanwhile, was attending Hindi classes in his office: it was part of the Central government's drive to promote the national language.

By the time I reached college, we had begun subscribing to only Hindi newspapers; and when I joined a journalism course, my parents hoped I could find a job with one of the local Hindi papers in case I failed to become an 'English' journalist.

Once in Delhi, I met the blue-blooded Bengalis, including my firend-cum-philosopher-cum-guide called Sanjay (originally named as Sanjoy), who took over from where Kishore Kumar had left me. Wine and women were our common interests, and to pursue those interests under his tutelage, I had to learn to think and talk in pure Bengali. Not that he did not know English, but it would have sounded strange if two Bong men did not speak their mother-tongue.

Courtesy him, I got to know the bad words in Bengali first, and then the songs. Many of the songs, it turned out, were the ones that my father sang during the power cuts. I set about collecting them -- not only to affirm my being a Bengali but also to please my father by taking him down memory lane. Father was pleased no doubt, but certainly not excited: he had already been there and done that and was now reconciled to life without those songs. For me, however, listening to those songs not only certified me as being a true Bengali but also helped me reclaim my childhood.

Today, I am proud to be a Bengali, but more proud that I am a Bengali raised in Uttar Pradesh. I have the best of both worlds. On one hand, I gorge upon the songs composed by Salil Choudhury and sung by Hemant Kumar. On the other, I am able to devour the lyrics of Sahir and Majrooh and Gulzar.

The Bengali connection seems to be helpful in the South too. For a long time I took offence to the fact that I was being compared, in the looks department, to South Indian, especially Malayalam, heroes such as Mohan Lal and Jayaram. More than a compliment, the comparision meant I was as fat as them. Or was it my moustache? Anyway, I discovered it helps to be a Bengali while at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala a couple of years ago. The resident priest, presuming that I was a Malayali, spoke to me in Malayalam. When I told him I did not understand the language, he asked, in English: "So what's your mother-tongue?" When I said it was Bengali, he replied: "Ah, same thing!"

Amay Proshno Kore....

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dead Boy Walking

I don't like to be incestuous, but then.

This morning I woke up to a front page picture in the Hindu, which showed Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai patting the cheek of a boy. The caption read: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai talks to Rafiq-Ullah, a 14-year-old Pakistani suicide-bomber, at the presidential palace in Kabul before freeing him.

Below the picture was the story, headlined: "Pardoning a young suicide-bomber."

How can you talk to a suicide-bomber? How can you free a suicide-bomber? How can you pardon a suicide-bomber? A suicide-bomber is beyond your reach: he is already in the so-called paradise after having blown himself up along with many others.

No wonder the copy, filed by the French news agency AFP, carefully avoids the expression. It only says, at various places, "the boy who was sent to carry out a suicide attack."

Many newspapers these days hire foreigners to spruce up their design. Time they hired foreigners to write the headlines and captions as well.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I Am In Love

In the beginning, the personal blog is like a pet dog. You feed it everyday, take it to the vet when required, bathe it and so on. But after a while, I guess, it assumes the status of a street dog: you are not obliged to feed it, but when circumstances permit, you throw a bread or two. You know it will survive.

Something similar is happening to Ganga Mail. Time was when I used to wonder: "When to write?" These days I wonder: "What to write?" Am I running out of ideas? I am not, and I better not, for ideas are my bread and butter. Just that I don't know which of the thoughts to freeze on the blog -- there's so much happening, pleasant and unpleasant.

The unpleasant bits can remain buried in my chest. As for the pleasant part, maybe I am in love. Almost everything about love has been written by poets and lyricists, and there is nothing new for me to write, except to recall the famous song Pyaar humen kis mod pe le aaya from Satte Pe Satta, in which Amitabh Bachchan, in Kishore Kumar's voice, hums:

Jab koi ginta hai raaton to taare
Tab samjho use pyaar ho gaya pyaare:


When someone begins to count the stars at night
You know he (or she) is in love.

Those into Hindi movies must be familiar with the song. Those who haven't, please listen to it: the song was composed a quater century ago but can sound fresh for another century. It is one of the rare songs that vouches, at the same time, for R.D. Burman's genius and Kishore Kumar's versatility. Meanwhile, would you like to know how the song was created? Here's how:

Pyaar Humen Kis Mo...

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Pancham

Today, June 27, is the birthday of Rahul Dev Burman, or Pancham. To me, he is not a composer, but a commodity I cannot do without even for a day, such as the soap or toothpase. Only after I've had a bit of him that I find myself ready to face the world. In the evenings, though, he becomes my soda -- to add fizz to my drink and my life.

Something to celebrate his spirit:

Jaye Re Jaye Re.wm...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Mind

The urge/emotion that Ganga Mail has been trying to articulate in thousands of words, lyricist Yogesh has put it so beautifully in a few lines:

Kai baar yun hi dekha hai
yeh jo man ki seema rekha hai
man todne lagta hai...

Anjaani pyaas ke peechhe
anjaani aas ke peechhe
man daudne lagta hai...


Often I have seen
these limits set for the mind
the mind seeks to break...

Unknown thirst
unknown desires
this mind seeks to chase...

Kai baar yuhin.wma

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Ramgarh Revisited

There are two kinds of people who take the road from Bangalore to Mysore. One, whose destination is Mysore or one of the towns that fall in the 120-km stretch. Two, the connoisseurs of Sholay, who treat the road as reverently as the Silk Route, traversing it to relive history. Presently I fall under category no. 2.

I am waiting at the traffic junction at Ramanagaram, a town 40 km from Bangalore. Sholay, the 1975 blockbuster, was shot somewhere here, as testified by the rocky terrain that flanks you as soon as you approach the town. This is also the constituency of H.D. Kumaraswamy, the Karnataka chief minister. But that’s only for record’s sake. For the connoisseur of Sholay, the territory is called Ramgarh and it belongs to Gabbar Singh.

Sholay ka shooting? Take a U-turn and then left,” the man selling sliced cucumber at the junction gives directions. So there we are, the driver and I, entering a narrow road off the highway, under the gaze of brown hillocks that loom large on the horizon. We snail past a ‘Men’s Beauty Parlour’ and a few timber shops, and then stretches of barren land on one of which stands a signboard: ‘Site for sale’. Then comes a nursing college: young boys and girls trickle out of it in white coats. From their gaze, it is very clear that a passing car is not a frequent sight on that road. Then comes a village, Konkani Doddi, and soon tiny boys with mischievous eyes and with catapults in their hands start running alongside the vehicle. Every adult we ask for directions points further down the road. So we snake through isolated huts, trying to evade roaming goats and hens all the while, and finally climb up a bit when the road terminates in front of a tall iron gate. The arch over it reads: Sri Pattabhirama Devalaya – Rama temple, in short.

Is Ramanagaram – and therefore the fictitious Ramgarh – named after this temple? I have just begun to wonder about that when the driver, looking relieved that he has finally deposited me at some significant-looking destination, asks me how long I will take. Thirty-two years, I want to tell him. But I hear myself saying, “Maybe an hour or so.”

“In which case,” he grins, “can I go and have my tiffin? You know we have been out since eight.”

I tell him he can take his time.

The search for Ramgarh begins with a steep climb. The temple, I soon make out, is right on top of the hillock that I am now climbing. As I pause once in a while to catch my breath, I realise I am the only living creature there apart from the birds and the insects – such is the privacy. No wonder the rocks along the steps bear innumerable graffiti that testify ‘love’ between people with every conceivable Indian name.

I soon realise there is someone lonelier than me: the priest of the Rama temple. Still, he treats me as if I was the 75th visitor since the morning and dutifully pours, on my joined palms, the holy water. He tells me that Sholay was shot around that hill but that he was too young then to remember the shooting of the movie. “Maybe you can ask the elders in Konkani Doddi,” he suggests.

One side of the temple offers a bird’s eye view of a terrain that could have well been Ramgarh. On the other side is a huge boulder, on top of which stands a small Shiva temple, a small dome (even its ceiling is cluttered with love graffiti – God alone knows how) and a water tank. Standing under the dome, I look at the other side of the hill – that too looks like Ramgarh. As I stand there wondering which could be the real Ramgarh, I notice an old man climb up, panting and holding on to his bag and umbrella. He walks into the control room of the water tank, and when he comes out, I ask him if he knows anything about Sholay. “Oh Sholay! I worked for it. I was a carpenter (on the sets).”

Meet Parasuram. He is 66 years old now and looks after the maintenance of the temple. He led me to the edge of the rock and points to the land spread out below: “That’s Sippy Nagar. The Thakur’s house stood there. And that was where they shot the Holi song. And there, do you see those rocks? Behind them we had built the bridge where Amitabh Bachchan dies.”

As a carpenter, Parasuram helped build the water tank from where Dharmendra threatens to commit suicide, and also the wooden posts on which the hands of Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) are tied up before being chopped off by Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan). “At first we put up temporary structures (for the hand-chopping scene) but they kept falling, so (Ramesh) Sippy asked us to build proper wooden pillars. Oh, what a scene that was!”

Other scenes that Parasuram recalls vividly include the one where the shrouds fly off the faces of the slain family members of the Thakur, the Holi song, and the shot where Gabbar orders Basanti (Hema Malini) to dance on broken glass. “Oh, such a fine actor! What a personality he had! The way he said, ‘Naacho!’” Parasuram says of Amjad Khan.

Parasuram reported to Aziz Sheikh, the construction manager, and his most difficult moments happened during the shooting of the Holi song, when he had to keep fixing the roller-coaster featured in the sequence. “Sippy was just not happy with the way it was going. He would keep saying, ‘Cut, cut, cut.’ It took 15 days to picturise that song. How much money must have been spent!”

He surveys the landscape and goes on: “Sippy was a lion-hearted man. By 4 pm everyday they would start counting the money to pay us. Four o’ clock sharp, everyday. And apart from the meals, we would be treated to puris and omlettes and kababs. Along with the sets, he had constructed a (makeshift) temple, church and a mosque for his unit. He had also installed a telephone line to talk to Bombay.” He says Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan were quite friendly with the locals, and so were the “two foreigners” (Sippy had hired stunt directors from London).

According to him, the shooting of Sholay, which was released in 1975, spanned three years. Sippy would shoot for four summer months each year, providing temporary livelihood to people like Parasuram and hundreds of other residents of Ramanagaram. “At least one member from every household in this village worked for the film,” says Elamma who, now in her sixties, sells knick-knacks from a wooden stall in Konkani Doddi. Her brother, for example, had lent his bullock cart for the sets.

But there are people whose lives the shooting altered forever. Such as Kadamma, who doesn’t know her age but is certain that she is past 70. Back then, she was young enough to have a daughter who was old enough to fall in love. And fall in love she did, the daughter, named Shanta, with a man called Shankar who was assigned to drive Dharmendra from and to the Ashoka Hotel in Bangalore every day.

“When I first got to know that my daughter wanted to marry Dharmendra’s driver, I thought it was some kind of a hoax. But Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan came home with the proposal. That was exactly eight days after Amitabh Bachchan’s daughter was born. (Jaya Bhaduri was pregnant during the shooting). I had made food for them but they did not eat. So I gave them tea and sherbet,” says Kadamma. Shanta and Shankar now live in Mumbai, where Shankar runs a taxi business. They even have grandchildren.

Kadamma, meanwhile, continues to be in awe of Hema Malini (she recalls the actress’ looks as “super”) and remembers how during the shooting, rice and sambhar had to be cooked separately for her and her mother (who accompanied her on the sets) because they could not stand non-vegetarian food.

Soon a small crowd gathers and the men complain about the lack of amenities in the village, most of whose residents are daily-wagers in nearby silk factories. “There are some 150 houses here but only one borewell and four taps. There is no proper sanitation. No government official ever comes here,” says Bairaiah, a neighbour of Kadamma. Kadamma, meanwhile, has begun to narrate the story of Sholay. Time for me to leave.

As soon as I get into the car, the boys with catapults arrive. Nothing has changed in Ramanagaram, or Ramgarh, in these thirty years. Each of them could have been a present-day Basanti, trying to aim at raw mangoes the whole afternoon because their mothers or aunts want to make pickles, or just for the fun of it.

By the time we hit the highway, the sun has begun to dip. Thirty-three years ago, Jaya Bhaduri must have been lighting oil lamps very close to the village I had just left, to the background strains of the mouth-organ, possibly played by R D Burman himself.