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...