Saturday, February 28, 2009

Hi! I'm Shivani, And Here's My Story

Hi. My name is Shivani. This is not my blog, as you can see. But since I don't have a blog of my own, I am using some space here to tell you my story. Am sure the owner of this blog won't mind: he is usually nice to women. He is nice to men too, but no one notices that. And if he likes women, what's wrong in that? As a woman, I too prefer men over women as friends.

For the record, I have half-a-dozen good female friends. But they are good only for going to the movies or to the mall. I can never bare my heart to them, I can never share my inner troubles with them. If I share my troubles with them, that would only amount to inviting more trouble. Let them imagine I am the happiest woman on this planet. Let them stew in the juices of jealousy.

It is only with a man I can really share my innermost thoughts with, though I have had no such opportunity in the real sense. Six years ago, I knew a man. He was nice and all, good-looking and all that. He was also married. But the problem was not that: the problem was that he was too much in love with his wife and was also petrified of her. So that fizzled out. But in the short time I spent with him, I learned that a man is more understanding. He doesn't bitch about you. He cares for you. He even respects you. He might be having the thought of sex in some corner of his mind, but he can be forgiven for that. He is a man, after all.

It is not as if we women are any better. It is just that we don't talk about it. Now why am I suddenly talking about sex? Maybe it's the influence of this blog. Mr Ghosh, you are a bad influence! Are you listening? Hey, just kidding. I know you are a nice sort and all, Mr Ghosh. And, well, I haven't told you about my status message on the Gmail page. It is a quote from the writer Erica Jong, which says, "Someday every woman will have orgasms -- like every family has color TV."

Well, don't read too much into the status message, guys. Damn, did I send the wrong signal? It's not what you think. It's, in fact, as simple as this: each day of your life, you wish you could take a break and go on a holiday; but is that really possible or practical? Same goes for orgasm. Shucks, why am I talking about all this? I am here to tell you my story.

Okay, let me begin with the figures and facts. I turned 40 last December. I am 169 cm tall. My vital stats -- well, no big deal revealing that, since you will never get to see me -- are 34-28-34. I've been married for 14 years now and have two kids, 12 and eight, but many think I still look young and fit enough to walk the ramp. They might be exaggerating, but I know there is an element of truth in what they say. My kids go to school at seven, and my husband leaves for work at nine. When they all leave, I step into the bathroom.

The few minutes that I spend watching myself naked in the mirror before stepping into the bathtub -- that's when I am myself. All my life, I've been someone else -- first a daughter, then a wife, then a mother, and now a daughter-cum-wife-cum-mother. Where was me? The me didn't matter: that's the price you pay for being a woman. But standing face to face with your own naked self: that's the only occasion I get to meet myself. And standing in front of the mirror, I do realise that I am still good-looking. Really, nothing has changed even after the two kids. My friends are right, actually: I am still sexy and can walk the ramp and give those dumb models a run for their money. But how foolish it would be to agree with my friends? What if they don't really mean it? I mean, how can you claim yourself that you are still hot. Won't that be outright silly? So I prefer to change the topic every time they talk of my looks.

Looks don't matter anyway. Not anymore, at least. I would prefer to be known as a woman who has the brains rather than someone who stands out for her beauty or her boobs or the butt (I'm sorry for being crude, but I just realised that all the men's obsessions start with the letter 'B').

And even if my looks still mattered, what would I do with? I am no longer waiting for the prince who would be charmed by me and hold his hand out and ask for my hand. My prince is the man I married 14 years ago. I might not have seen him as a prince back then: he was just a man my parents wanted me to get married to. "You shall never find a guy like him again," they had told me. At the time, I was just 26. The year was 1994. Those days, good girls listened to their parents. Moreover, I hadn't found a prince by then. Most of them thought I was a queen, who was fit only for a king, so the princes stayed away. Whether it was my loss or theirs, I would never know.

All I know is that I am happy today. I love my husband. He has been around, tolerating me, for 14 years now. He is a reservoir of patience. And above all, he is the father of my two kids. Touch wood!

But I have my moments of resentment too. My hubby is doing well, my kids are doing well at school, my parents did well by marrying me off to him, but am I doing well enough in life? Now that's one question I have to grapple alone with myself. Old-timers in the family will tell me that if my hubby is doing well at work and if my kids are doing well at school, then I should be doing well too in life. After all, I live for them, just like I lived for my parents before I got married. In short, I had to take permission then, and I have to take permission even now.

No one, just because I am a woman, spared a thought for my desires. I wanted to paint. I wanted to write. I was good at both. My teachers said, "You must pursue these crafts. You have it in you." My family said, "Do whatever you want to, but first get married." Well, that was my parent's way of getting over with their responsibility so that the society didn't point fingers at them. Parents are usually selfish, to tell you the truth. I am going to thumb my nose at them now. I am going to watch DVDs of Sholay and Satyam Shivam Sundaram, which they did not let me watch back then. I am also going to have a bottle of wine all by myself, maybe when I am soaking myself in the bathtub. I am also going to do my upper-lip and underarms and legs and feel sexy and gloat in the fact that I am -- still - highly desirable. Which I am. Just that I don't feel like telling the world.

At 40, there can be only two choices. Either regret not doing things you always wanted to do, or feel good that you are just 40 and that there is plenty of time to make up for the lost years. I will, obviously, settle for the latter.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Anyone Listening To Me?

I had never heard of Elizabeth Gilbert till this evening, when someone mailed me a link to a piece in which she has expressed her thoughts on writing and getting published. She seems to be a writer of some standing: clearly, I don't keep track of the literary world well enough even though I aspire to be its resident some day. But then, it is not mandatory to know about the existence of Jeffrey Archer in order to become a writer.

I don't know about Ms Gilbert's books, but her piece will certainly light lamps of hopes in the hearts of those who read it; maybe even change their lives. Read it at leisure, I have given the link in the previous para, but I would like to reproduce the bit that fucked my mind:

I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog. My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: "Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it's certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work."

If you listen to Herzog, then 90 percent of your problems in life are taken care of. You will never blame the world again for your stroke of misfortune. The world has no time for you: it won't even notice your existence and will unknowingly trample over you. You have to give the world what it likes; don't expect it to pamper you.

That is why I feel sorry for people who look down upon Manmohan Desai or Subhash Ghai and wax eloquent about Satyajit Ray or Mrinal Sen. Manmohan Desai was not a fool: he too could have made art films, but he wanted to entertain the lay Indian, even if it meant weaving a story around incredible coincidences. And he succeeded, because he gave the world what it wanted. Even today, I would not want to watch a Mrinal Sen film even if I was paid for it, but I would gladly watch Amar Akbar Anthony for the 59th time.

Art film directors, not surprisingly, have always been bitter about the shabby treatment meted out to them. But they simply refused to see the truth: why should a bank employee or a mill worker, who is already burdened by problems thrown up by life, like to spend time and money on watching films that only portrayed problems? The new crop of directors, however, understand this. That is why they make films that are a cross between commercial and art cinema -- we know it as the multiplex cinema. They have an impressive star cast, music that smells like fresh flowers and a story that makes you think. When people walk out of the theatre, no one complains, because the films have something for everyone.

So next time, when you feel neglected or ignored, don't blame the world. Just peep into your mind and be honest with yourself. A child doesn't necessarily go to sleep just because it is required to go to sleep at a certain hour. There are times when you need to tell the child a story. So tell that story to the world. It will listen to you. That's something I learned, rather relearned, today, thanks to Ms Gilbert.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lost And Found

My last cover story for Express, which appeared exactly a year ago. I thought I had lost the links to all my pieces because the Express website has been revamped. But to my great joy, I found the links are still there. Ah, those were the days! Here goes:

Must travel, will write

Bishwanath Ghosh
First Published : 24 Feb 2008 12:00:00 AM IST

“Well, I sell soaps for a living.”

“Me? I am a student. Physics.”

“I teach the Indian martial art, kalari.”

“Hi, I am a software engineer.”

“I used to work at a call centre.”

As perky young women and men introduce themselves in the multi-purpose room of the US consulate in Chennai, you realise you are standing in a small, select bazaar of aspiring writers who are presently waiting for the greatest living merchant of travel writing, the author of The Great Railway Bazaar.

But Paul Theroux would not find it very flattering to be identified with just that book. During the two hours he spent interacting with the wannabe writers, he did not even mention the book once. In fact, he did not mention travel writing at all.

Clearly, he is seeking his place in the sun as a writer rather than being classified under a particular genre, and understandably so, because his works of fiction outnumber his travel books.

In a literary career spanning over 40 years, he has produced nearly as many books, which means an average of one book a year, including the autobiographical Sir Vidia’s Shadow, in which he describes his three-decade old relationship with friend and mentor V S Naipaul and how it ended.

Presently Theroux walks in, wearing a white T-shirt and a white waistcoat. At first you don’t even realise it is him: as a travel writer, he has given a face to exotic places but has himself remained faceless unlike his contemporaries. He looks like the kind, elderly neighbourhood ‘uncle’ who you run into during the morning walks or in the elevator. At 67, he does not look a day older than 47 — the result of a slow biological process that reflects in the title of another of his travel books, Fresh Air Fiend.

“So how do we go about it? Should we discuss my work or yours?” he enquires gently. (The participants of the workshop had already sent in samples of their work). Since there is silence, Theroux settles down to discuss Monkey Hill, a novella he wrote for the New Yorker and which happens to be the opening story — the story of an American couple spending time in a spa in the Himalayas — of his latest book, The Elephanta Suite. (Link to the online New Yorker version of Monkey Hill was emailed to the participants in advance).

His first advice to aspiring writers: write your story in long-hand before you type it out. Writing with a pen, according to him, makes you think and rethink what you are about to write. While on the computer, on which writing happens very fast, every sentence seems final. To illustrate his point, he reads out the first line of Monkey Hill:

They were round-shouldered and droopy-headed like mourners, the shadowy child-sized creatures squatting by the side of the sloping road. “Now, you can’t write that on a computer. I can see this being written very slowly,” he says. “Each of my books has at least four versions. I believe in revision. You have to persuade the reader that your story is great.” He cites the case of Ernest Hemingway, who rewrote the first page of The Old Man and the Sea 19 times.

One of Hemingway's four wives once told Theroux (for a moment he can’t recall whether it was wife no. 2 or wife no. 3) how Hemingway hated writing. “He found writing very difficult, very slow. What he really liked was drinking with his friends and fishing. He loved to fish, and the old man in the book is clearly his alter ego,” Theroux tells his audience. He then tells the young Chennai crowd how they should be able to relate to the ‘old man’ because the beach is just down the road where fishermen are waiting for their stories to be told.

“You could go meet one of them and write about him. They are battling the elements all the time, just like Hemingway’s old man.”

For budding wordsmiths, he also recommends Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. He even recommends a short story by Khushwant Singh, whose title he recalls as Rape, and then proceeds to ask with genuine curiosity, “Is Khushwant Singh still alive?”

Then more advice: “Don’t worry about publishing. Think about expressing yourself, about giving it your best.” And: “Get a job and get away from home. At home, they will always ask you uncomfortable questions, like ‘What are you doing?’ You’ll say, ‘I am writing.’ Then they’ll ask, 'What are you writing?'"

He should know. Theroux, who was born and raised in Massachusetts (he and the current New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, were classmates), discovered writing only after the travel bug bit him into going to Malawi, in central Africa, in the 1960’s.

He took up the job of a teacher. "I became a writer by leaving." That was the time when the Vietnam War was beginning. "I am the same age as Dick Cheney," he reminds an awestruck audience in Landmark, Chennai’s leading bookshop, later in the day. "While I was carrying placards in front of the White House, Cheney was applying for jobs. He is my evil twin. Or maybe I am his evil twin. Today he is the Vice-President of America, and here I am, talking to you. But he has a pacemaker, while I am healthy because I love fresh air."

While in Malawi, Theroux wrote Waldo, his first (and naturally autobiographical) novel which, in hindsight, he rates as bad. He then moved to Uganda, where he wrote for Transition, a magazine edited by a Bengali migrant called Rajat Neogy. “The magazine was very famous those days. Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Achebe, V S Naipaul — they all published in that magazine.”

That was the time Theroux met Naipaul, who was nearly ten years older, and the three-decade long friendship began. “He believed in me as a writer. When someone who is impartial believes in you, it means a lot. He was hard to please, his criticism was brutal,” he says. His association with Naipaul helped him hone his skills.

“Writing ain’t easy. It’s a test. You need to extract the story from your imagination and suffer over it,” he says. And that’s just a part of the problem. The biggest challenge, according to him, lies in achieving the 'breakthrough’ — something he has seen Naipaul struggling for even for days. "He would write a sentence, say, 'George came to the room.' But what after what? He would write a sentence, then strike it off. Write another sentence, then strike it off. He would spend the whole day worrying. You need to sit down and suffer and make a breakthrough."

The end of their friendship, in the mid-1990s, coincided with Naipaul’s second marriage to Nadira, a vocal Pakistani woman. Whether Nadira didn’t like Theroux, or whether Theroux detested Nadira for replacing him as the person closest to Naipaul — questions like these shall never be answered conclusively. But Theroux has made peace with the breakup. "Friendship is mutual. When it is over, it is dead, unlike a love affair which might be rekindled."

So while he acknowledges Naipaul as his mentor, he also makes it amply clear that Naipaul is not his God. In fact, he even goes to the extent of levelling the mentor-student relationship. "There was a time when I was doing very well and Naipaul was not doing very well. I had just published The Mosquito Coast, while Naipaul was a lowly writer — I mean an ordinary, salaried teacher who did creative writing. Today I am just Mr, while he is Sir Vidia.”

He hastens to add: "I speak without envy. That's part of life’s rich tapestry." And that he is relieved that the friendship is over. "He was a problem man. He had become hyper-critical. He thought E M Forster was terrible, he thought Somerset Maugham was terrible. And now he thinks Nirad Chaudhuri is terrible. I was really relieved when I wrote the book (Sir Vidia's Shadow)."

And then he goes on to quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward to say how governments always like second-rate writers; and that how some of the truly great writers, such as James Joyce, Henry James, Borges and Graham Greene, did not win the Nobel. "The Nobel prize is not a measure of anything. It is all about whether the Swedish Academy likes you." Point noted, Mr Theroux.

And you, Mr Reviewer: you grabbed Mr Theroux’s collar when he wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow. But show us another man who could write a book like The Great Railway Bazaar, or The Old Patagonian Express. Theroux is the First Free Spirit of the world, and it wouldn’t be wrong to presume that he got more out of the people he met in Chennai than those people got out of him.

Of Dreams And Ambition

I had a strange, albeit predictable, dream last night, rather this morning. I dreamt that I've received an email from my publisher, informing me that my book has been published and that it has already earned me a royalty of 2,400 euros. Attached to the email was a scanned version of the book cover. The cover, I vividly remember, was beige-coloured and the title of the book, to my great horror, was five or six words long, and not the two-word title I had thought of. I tried very hard to read the title but I just could not, even though the point-size was big enough for a blind man to read.

It was while trying to decipher the title of my own book when I woke up. Wife had already gone to work. The maids had come and gone. And there was one message waiting to be read on my phone, from Airtel -- a reminder that I must pay the bill. In dreams, it is usually impossible to read or run, even though one can fly. There were plenty of times when I've flown over skyscrapers at my sweet will. I've read that such 'flying' dreams are a manifestation of ambition. I am not, therefore, surprised that I haven't had a single flying dream in the last few years, especially after I got married. Marriage kills ambition: it merely makes you think of doing well in life. If you have realised your ambition, you might be doing well in life; but doing well in life does not necessarily mean you have achieved your ambition. Ambition is about lighting the fire, and doing well in life is about dowsing the fire -- the choice is yours.

To give you an example. Time was when I didn't have a computer at home (because I didn't really require it then) and I would hand-write my pieces and then take the sheets of paper to work the next day and type the matter out. While typing, I would automatically edit what I had hand-written the previous night. All the writing would be done with a fountain pen -- be it the humble Parker or the somewhat expensive Lamy or Sheaffer. At the time, the dream was to own a Mont Blanc.

In March 2005 I bought a laptop. Except for the rare occasions when I felt too lazy to get out of bed, most of the writing was done on the laptop. I found it silly that I should write something first in longhand and then transfer it to Microsoft Word. Why not do it there straightaway? But trust me, nothing beats the pleasure -- and the quality -- of writing when you have nothing but a pen and pieces of paper. Try for yourself and you will know what I mean.

When you have a pen in hand, you plunge deeper into your thoughts; whereas, when you are typing away on the keyboard, you don't care to weigh your words carefully because it is so easy to press the 'backspace' and retype. Writing with a fountain pen is like making authentic mutton biryani, while typing out your words is like making a burger -- any bugger can do it.

But then, life throws up difficult choices. On one hand, you can take a cycle-rickshaw ride, when you can soak in the sights and sounds and smells of a place as the rickshaw moves at a snail's pace; and on the other, you can take a taxi, so that you can cut the crap and reach your destination as quickly as possible. Considering that humans are mostly impatient, it is natural that they would settle for the taxi rather than the rickshaw. So I stopped writing long-hand and began typing. But when I got married, the first gift I received from my new wife was a Mont Blanc fountain pen.

Today, I have three Mont Blanc pens -- minus the one that my wife gifted me because someone flicked it (may those kleptomaniac fingers be stricken by leprosy) -- but nothing to write with them. Those pens, when I choose to tuck one of them in my breast pocket, serve merely as a status symbol. And only three years ago, I so badly wanted to possess just one Mont Blanc pen so that I could discover the pleasure of writing with it. That's the difference between nursing an ambition and doing supposedly well. Ambition is like a sizzler, and 'doing well' a bowl of bland soup.

Back to my dream, though. Dreams are something you have no control over: they can be outrageous as well as irrational. Outrageous, because I've often had erotic dreams about people who -- oh no, not a word more. Irrational, because I don't understand why I should be calculating my royalty in euros and then converting the amount into rupees, that too when I am fast asleep? I guess that's what dreams are all about.

By the way, how many rupees is 2,400 euros? I think the sum works out to slightly over a lakh of rupees, and I sincerely hope and pray that early-morning dreams indeed come true, as many of them firmly believe. But in reality, I have no control over the number of people who choose to buy my book as and when it comes out. One thing is certain, however: the cover of my book is surely going to be beige-coloured. You must take some clues from your dreams, after all, shouldn't you?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Nakedness Of Life

Two reasons why I give so much of thought to sex. One, I like it, at least the thought of it. Two, I do not want to think of things that are eagerly waiting to engage my thoughts -- they are demons who, in their eagerness to seek my attention, often assume the form of a seductress and do a striptease in front of me. I know the stripping is nothing but a trap, but since I happen to be a virile man, there are times when I am tempted to look at the nakedness. The nakedness of life, that is.

We all devote so much energies towards getting people naked -- be it at work or the bedroom. At work, the nakedness is figurative, when you seek to prove how shallow the other person is; while in the bedroom, it is literal. And yet, no one wants to see life , that desirable bitch, the ultimate seductress, in her naked form. Because watching her naked only reminds you of one thing -- you have come to this world stark naked, and naked you shall depart. And also that you must depart someday -- you have no choice there. Worse, you do not know when that 'someday' would be. It's all in the hands of the seductress. So sad you can't fuck her, but only get fucked by her.

If she gives you death, it is fine: you can't really complain because she's the one who gave you life in the first place. But I hate it when she, like a feudal lord wanting to prove his supremacy, derives great pleasure from making you die several deaths during your lifetime, just to remind you that you are enslaved to her. That's why she invented this situation called 'circumstances' -- that's her idea of having fun at your expense.

Take the case of my widowed mother-in-law. Twenty years ago, she and her husband painstakingly built a handsome three-storeyed house in Calcutta: it was meant to the nest for their two daughters and two sons-in-law and their respective children. Even the dining table they got made was big enough to accommodate ten people -- the old couple, the two daughters and their husbands, and two children of each daughter. Happy family! Today, my mother-in-law dines on that table alone.

Ditto for my own parents. I was 14 when my father bought a small piece of land, for Rs 35,000, in what was then supposed to be a posh area in our neighbourhood. Getting the land wasn't easy, considering my father, who was almost as old then as I am now, was a salaried man and Rs 35,000 was not a small amount those days. There were anxious moments when the deal seemed to be slipping out of hands, and as a small family of four, we lived through those ups and downs. What a pleasure it was -- living through those ups and downs and then getting to know that the land belongs to us. Finally, construction began and soon we had a house of our own. Didn't matter if the construction ate into my father's PF savings.

Today, my parents live alone in that house, looking forward to one of their sons coming home for a holiday. Their only source of succour is Nano, the mongrel they made the mistake of adopting a couple of years ago. Nano doesn't let them go anywhere: even if my parents are missing for two hours, attending a wedding or something, Nano would first cry his lungs out and then angrily pull down all the curtains at home. And if he happens to have access to the garden, he would flatten all the plants, in revenge. But in the nights, he must sleep on the same bed as my parents, with his head placed on one of the pillows.

So what is the solution? Do I stay on wherever I am, just because I am earning my bread and butter, or go back home and rejoin the family and live happily ever after -- the job be damned? I am really working towards the latter, when money would not be a problem and I would be my own boss, having one foot in Kanpur and another in Chennai or wherever. In all probability it would be Chennai, because that's where the people I love live.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Of Specs, Sex And Adolescence

A few thoughts I want to share today. I do not know where to begin. Okay, my glasses. Today, Sunday, was the first day I went to work wearing my new glasses. To my relief, or should I say disappointment, it didn't cause a stir at the office. Barring a couple of comments like how I now looked like a Bengali intellectual, there was no major eyebrow-raising. Partly, because I didn't wear them all the time (and I don't want to), and partly because I had forgotten the fact that my appearance doesn't really interest others. I am, however, suddenly interested in people who wear glasses. I now look at their frames closely and ask about their power -- things I was completely blind to in the 38 years of my life.

And after 38 years, arises a basic question. A man and a woman -- both of them wear glasses. Both of them are colleagues and they work on the 12th floor. One day, when they are all alone in the elevator, passion overpowers them and they decide to kiss right away, without wasting a moment. What happens then?

1. Do they swiftly remove their specs before locking their lips? If they do, then the kiss becomes somewhat planned and is no longer spontaneous, which mean 80% of the fun is lost. And if they don't remove their specs, then:
2. Do the specs collide with each other and stand the risk of breaking? Or,
3. Is there a way of kissing without making (bespectacled) eye contact?

I look forward to finding the answers sooner than later.

In my 38 years, I have seen women quickly removing their glasses and folding them up and keeping them at a safe distance as soon as the fire is kindled. In fact, the removal of the glasses if often a signal that the fire has been actually kindled. But there is a flip side to this too: there are times when she removes her glasses but the fire, for some reason, refuses to catch. Now that is a highly embarrassing situation, not only for the woman but also the man. In such cases, while the man keeps fumbling with the ignition button, there is only one thing you can see on the woman's specsless eyes: indignation.


Yesterday, Saturday, a friend of a friend of my wife came home. A truly rich guy, who recently bought two buildings on Usman Road so that he could set up his showroom in Chennai. Nice guy and all, and he offered to show us the property, barely 500 metres down the road. As he took us up the three floors of one of the buildings he had bought, explaining the hardships he is going face while turning it into a swanky showroom, I noticed a small bookshelf on the second floor. Mostly self-help books and some old issues of Reader's Digest. Still, I couldn't help pausing and looking through them. Gems are usually hidden in such neglected stacks.

"Whose books are these?" I asked my wife's friend's friend.
"It must be the previous owner's. Take whatever you want."

I picked up two volumes of J Krishnamurti's Comments On Living and the May 1987 issue of Reader's Digest. May 1987: I was just over 16 years old then, but the urge to become a journalist was burning inside me like a forest fire, thanks to the Bofors scandal. In less that six years I had realised my dream, and today, I've spent 16 years in the profession, wearing all sorts of hats -- from being a humble sub-editor to being a political reporter to being an editor who discovered travel-writing.

And now, going back to 1987, the only thing that struck me was the simplicity of those times! The advertisements -- which are reflection of the times -- only sought to seduce you gently, they didn't aggressively force products down your throats. So you had ads of Limca, Gold Spot and Campa Cola whose catch-lines merely told you how good it felt when you had any of these soft drinks -- but they effectively left the choice with you. 1987 was also the year when Indians still didn't seem to know if they should go for branded underwear, because the number of underwear ads outnumbered that of any product put together in that particular issue of Reader's Digest. In those ads, men's underwear was synonymous with machismo and the women's with softness, but the brand was same: VIP.

The strange part is: I don't even remember the brand of underwear I wore in 1987, even though I remember that I drank Limca and Thums Up and Gold Spot and showed off my Bata-made Power sneakers to my school mates. Those days, courtesy Imran Khan, it was fashionable that your undies should line your white trousers while you played cricket. But I just can't recall my brand of undies. But thanks to the 1987 issue of Reader's Digest, I was able to recall a bit of my adolescence.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Love And Lingerie

The Google-talk status message of a colleague wonders, "If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?" I don't know if that line is borrowed or fresh off his head, but watching it for the past few days has set me wondering.

Actually, there is nothing to wonder here. Love may be blind, but sex definitely isn't. For the fire to be kindled, you need to see and be seen. Many men go wild seeing their women in sexy lingerie -- at least many women believe so. Though, personally speaking, I don't see why so much of thought and money should be spent on something that is meant to be taken off anyway. It can, in fact, irritate the hell out of you if the lingerie doesn't come off on time. That way, the lingerie is the least significant part of a man-woman relationship. And that is the fact.

If lingerie matters so much, that's because the woman wants to look good to herself and feel good for herself. It's one of those moments when she dresses, rather undresses, for herself. She knows very well that this fine art of self-indulgence is lost on the lecherous man, who is dying for the underwear to come off. Love is not at all in the picture here. Not even lust, because when you are overpowered by lust, it does not matter one bit whether the lingerie is bought from the pavement in Ranganathan Street or from Marks & Spencer. It's just vanity at play.

As for love being blind, there can't be anything more laughable than that. A man notices a woman at a wedding: he likes her eyes, he likes her hair, he likes her smile, he likes her innocent face. He notices her the whole evening, even though she might be oblivious of his stare, and by midnight he is in love. Ditto for a woman: she has male this colleague who is a great worker and has a great sense of humour and a cute smile and a cute butt. And he is single -- or maybe not. Even before she realises, she is madly in love with him.

In each case, a strong eyesight has been the primary requirement for falling in love. And to call love blind?

But the truest kind of love, however, is blind. That's the love you have for yourself. Self-love. You can go to any extent to make yourself feel loved. You go to any extent to get the woman your desire, only because you love yourself. You go to any extent to get the man you desire because you love yourself so much that you hate the idea of another woman having him. If you love someone, you wouldn't want them for yourself -- you would just let them be. But then, we want to own them -- as if they were a car or an expensive fountain pen or a diamond pendant. What happens to the blindness theory? If anything, it's lust that is blind.

Come to think of it, in most love marriages, it's only narcissism at play. Both, the man and the woman, bask in the fact that they have been found desirable -- or acceptable -- by each other. It's only a matter of time before the narcissists in the man as well as the woman are challenged, and then the marriage settles into a routine or, in worst cases, breaks up.

As far as arranged marriages go, you have no choice but to 'love' your spouse, do you? 'Loving' your spouse, in such cases, is like making a refreshing cup of coffee for your soul and dignity, doesn't matter if you are at times tempted by the paani-puri being sold next door. But then, paani-puri is bad for health, it might cause cholera; so stick to the steaming cup of coffee.

Yet, there can love between a man and a woman. Such love, for which you willingly make sacrifices and forget your own self, happens over a period of time. A time comes when she is blind to his generous paunch, and he finds her sagging breasts just as sexy. And they walk together every morning in the park, incomplete without each other. That's when love becomes truly blind.

In other words, what you think is love, is usually not love. It's most often a cocktail of lust and self-love, with a dash of sympathy and kindness. Blind love is something that is earned, over the years. Even then, every time you go out for a walk, lust and self-love chase you like hawkers determined to sell their wares. Unless you are so old that you know there's no hope. Unless, of course, you are a Sean Connery or an Elizabeth Taylor.

Monday, February 16, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

Did this for a friend who had tagged me on Facebook. I thought, why not bring it here as well, 25 random things about me.

1. The night of November 26, 2008, when people were still being killed on the streets of Mumbai, I too had a close shave with death. It had been raining incessantly in Chennai and trees were falling all over the city. One tree fell on the car that was taking me home that night after work. I escaped without a scratch.

2. I dread dying in an unknown city or in the train -- especially when the train is in the middle of nowhere, with the next station still eight hours away.

3. I dread snakes. The only reason why I have never returned to the Sivananda yoga ashram in Kerala is because two snakes -- a viper and a cobra -- were caught and killed during my stay there in 2004.

4. I would run miles away from someone who has oiled his or her hair. Even if she is the most desirable woman on earth -- desirable in my definition that is.

5. A desirable woman, in my definition, is slightly dusky and has a sharp nose and a sharp mind. Other women should think of her as a bitch.

6. Intelligent bespectacled women with cropped hair also fit into the definition.

7. I like women: not just because they happen to be from the opposite sex, but also because they are, by and large, sincere, caring, thoughtful, scrupulous and hard-working. They don't shirk work. They are dignified. Ever seen a woman ask, "Can you lend me hundred bucks?" As a male, I have immense respect for them.

8. I like women who admit they like sex. Ok, one doesn't have to go out of the way to admit it, but you don't have to turn up your nose at the mention of it, just to show what a virtuous woman you are.

9. The most peaceful experience of my life, so far, has been the first long chat I had on February 26, 2006, with my soon-to-be wife. It was Shivaratri, the night of Shiva, and I was in Kanpur. The chants of priests could be heard from the nearby temple, and I was on the phone with her, almost the entire night. That time I didn't know I would be marrying her in less than two months, but I knew my life would never be the same again.

10. People whose names start with 'S' have always played an important role in my life. I don't know what's with the S-factor, but it works. Spooky.

11. I prefer Chennai over Delhi, but I prefer Bangalore over Chennai. Weather apart, people in Bangalore dress very well, and dressing well makes you feel good.

12. But I love Chennai because it's the only city that let's you be. It doesn't make you feel inferior just because you are wearing a five hundred-rupees pair of Bata chappals.

13. I sport a moustache because I used to be a great fan of Jackie Shroff. I outgrew him but never got the courage to shave it off.

14. I am never going to colour my hair or moustache. Never ever.

15. As far as the style of writing goes, I look up to Ved Mehta, the blind writer. He is my role model.

16. I am usually very nervous during flights, and breathe easy only when the capatain announces that we are approaching the destination.

17. I suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder. Fortunately, it is limited to checking the taps and switches several times before I leave home. When I do that, I know am being foolish and that I can stop doing that, but then, that's why it is a disorder.

18. I suffer from hypochondria.

19. I am a habitual smoker, but I hate cigarette smoke when I am not smoking.

20. I love cats. They can be as nice as dogs.

21. My favourite yoga pose is chakrasana or urdhva dhanurasana, also known as the wheel pose.

22. It is my dream to be a yoga teacher when I am a little older -- teaching in a cute, little ashram either by the sea or on a hill-top. Beautiful students, handsome fees.

23. It is also my dream to be a successful writer sooner than later so that I don't have to depend on a job to earn my living. I detest timings, I detest having a boss. (God, help me realising this dream, please).

24. During a conversation, I am the listener.

25. I hate my name. Fortunately, most people call me BG.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

V-Day And Vision

Having already burnt a hole in my pocket, thanks to the recession-induced 'Sale' signboards that have swamped the malls, I decided to gift my wife something of utility value this Valentine's Day. She had been talking replacing her spectacles, so I decided that a new pair of glasses it is: she would be reminded of my gesture each night after taking off her contact lenses.

At the shop, while she went through the numerous frames, I got my own eyes tested. I had never got it done before, and it cost just seventy bucks. Well, the girl who put me through the test told me I had minor power, 0.50, and that if I didn't wear glasses, it would get worse over the years. When I looked hesitant, she said, "At least wear them when you are working on the computer or watching TV."

So my wife and I gifted each other frames for Valentine's Day. Since it was Valentine's Day, we settled for branded frames -- she for Tommy and me for Esprit. We walked out of the shop wearing love for each other on our eyes. The money we had just spent could've bought us several candle-lit dinners at one of the best restaurants. But never mind: when the constant talk of recession depresses you, nothing works like retail therapy.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Being An Actor

Ever wondered about this? Your grandmother cooks so bloody well. Bloody hell, she can give any celebrity chef a run for his money. But how come she is far from being a celebrity even in the home? That's because she is the granny -- a silver-haired women who is expected to cook well. When granny was young, she might have had a million dreams and cooking must have been the last thing on her mind. But then, granny was forced to get married while she was 16, and back then it was important for her to acquire culinary skills in order to make a good daughter-in-law. So she learned whatever she could and, over the years, by the method of trial and error, became an accomplished cook.

In other words, she is an actor who honed her acting skills over the decades. Deep inside her heart, she might have hated the idea of cooking, and yet she blossomed into a brilliant cook. That's because she was a great actor.

That way, we are all great actors, truly great actors -- unworthy of the millions of dollars or awards like the Oscar only because our canvas is very small, often not beyond 1,000 sq ft of space. In every small, little Indian home -- or even a big home for that matter -- there exist actors who play their roles so well that no one has a clue that these actors are actually capable of thinking beyond the written script. The husband is a man who comes home at six every evening, after a hard day's work. The wife is a woman who keeps the food ready. The granny is the woman who parts with secret recipes. The aunt is a woman whose job is to... well, how well they play their roles.

We are always sons, daughters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers and so on. We are never ourselves. Our only obligation is to play our characters well. Because if we don't, we are called 'loose' characters. So a man doesn't look at women other than his wife. A woman doesn't entertain the thought of a man who is not her husband. Such good actors we are.

The Search

A post a day keeps... Well, I don't know what all it keeps away, but it can certainly keep me occupied late at nights, now that I have no columns to write and no new book to work on. Post midnight is the time when my mind is most alive and active, when I can't of think of being in any place other than in front of my laptop. So I might as well blog.

But what do I write about? Once you are happily married and have a job that keeps you on your toes, there is no time to let your thoughts ferment and transform into a piece of writing. In the past, I have made even minor incidents, such as discovering a long-lost song, into a full-fledged post. At times when I return to those old posts, I impress myself.

But these days, even if something blogging-worthy happens to me, I tell myself, "Fuck it, why bother?" For example, I was determined to write a lengthy post, with pictures and all, about my visit to the Dakshineshwar temple in Calcutta. This is one of the few places that bring me calm, especially the sight of the 12 Shiva temples in a row, silhouetted against the serenely flowing Ganga. The place pricks the balloon inside you and yet at the same time fortifies you with spiritual strength.

I wanted to write about the trip because it almost didn't happen. For two days that I was there, it rained heavily, as if the rain gods were taking a revenge on Calcutta. Miraculously, on the morning of my departure, the rain stopped and the sun shone. And when I made it to Dakshineshwar, I was one of the few visitors there. The place was so deserted that you could idle at the feet of Goddess Kali without the worry of being pushed out by guards who otherwise don't let you linger there beyond a few seconds. And imagine this was Diwali-eve, just hours before Kali Puja.

Why did the rain have to stop precisely that morning? Had it lasted for two more hours, I would have abandoned my last hopes of making it to Dakshineshwar. Was it just a coincidence, or a miracle orchestrated by faith? I will never know, but I would choose to believe the latter. There are miracles, and there are miracles. Most of them are coincidences. But there are instances when, say, you rush home to visit your ailing parent. But there are no seats on the plane. You give up hope, but not your faith that you will make it. Suddenly, there is a cancellation and you are in. If you look around, you will find quite a few real-life instances like this. These are nothing but real miracles, because they are so perfectly-timed that only someone up there can orchestrate them. To call them a coincidence is either ignorance or arrogance. There is God. But he is not there to take of care of your greed. He will be there, however, when you are in real need. Real is the operative word here.

Coming back to the point. I was all charged up about writing about this trip, but the moment I reached Chennai, my enthusiasm drained out. I found telling myself, "This is something personal, why should the reader be interested in your brush with miracles? Just drop it." So I let it be. There have been times when I have almost finished a post but in the last minute abandoned the idea of publishing it. As a result of which, there are at least a dozen posts waiting in the 'draft' form -- I did not have the mind to publish them, but at the same time did not have the heart to delete them simply because a couple of hours and a couple of drinks had been invested on them.

But now I realise, rather re-realise, that this blog is my personal space. It's a diary, a tool for introspection, a medium to tell the world that I too have a mind -- a mind that is alive. In short, this blog is my true identity. It was criminal on my part to have neglected it for so long, and now I realise how much I have been out of touch with my own self. It's been ages that I wrote about R.D. Burman or Kishore Kumar, which means I have been indifferent to them all this while, which in turn means I have not been my own self at all. Really, what the fuck has been happening?

So from now on, one post a day. But what do I write about? It's simple: Monday: Sex. Tuesday: Spiritualism. Wednesday: Kishore Kumar. Thursday: Women and relatonships. Friday: R.D. Burman. Saturday: Yoga. Sunday: Nothing, just take a break.

I only wish if it were that simple. I can only write about life. And life can be very lonely, no matter who you are or where you are. We are all lonely souls, soldiering on in search of that missing link. Life would be so rich if we find that link, but we don't even know what that link is, leave alone knowing where to find it. This blog will celebrate The Search.

If I ever made a movie, I would end it with the words, The Search. Because there is no 'The End'. One ending is the beginning of another search. And thus life goes on. Happy Valentine's Day, dear reader.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mantra And I

Aum Bhur Bhuvah Swah, Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi, Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat

As you might know, this is the Gayatri Mantra, which is usually an integral part of a Hindu household that is steeped in tradition. There are homes where not knowing the Gayatri Mantra is considered as bad as not knowing how to brush your teeth.

If you Google-search and understand what the mantra means, you will realise it has very little to do with religion or rituals. It basically boils down to making a humble plea to God to direct you to the right path. What better way to start a day than chanting this mantra, say, three times at dawn? Anyway, that's besides the point. The point I am trying to make is that I never got around to memorising the Gayatri Mantra in the four years that I've been trying to discover my spiritual side. On the contrary, I easily memorised the far more complicated Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra, which is a prayer to Lord Shiva to seek deliverance from the cycle of birth-and-death. Maybe I memorised it because of the old bond I share with Shiva. Or maybe because of my hypochondria: once, in an ashram, I was sitting under a tree with a sadhu, and he told me, "Even a dying man will escape death if he sincerely chants Mrityunjaya Mantra."

So Gayatri Mantra eluded me, for four long years. I would remember Aum Bhur Bhuvah Swah, Tat Savitur Varenyam... and then blank out. I would also remember the last four words, Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat, but what's the use if I could not recall the three missing words in between? A mantra is something you should be able to chant with authority, without fumbling for words. And this was a strange situation: I knew the beginning, I knew the end, and yet I could not memorise those three words in between which could've made me say with pride that I know the Gayatri Mantra.

And then it happened suddenly, as if by magic.

For the past two days, thanks to viral fever, I have been confined to bed, dividing my time between fighting violent bouts of coughing and trying to imagine rosy days ahead by looking at chiselled male bodies in the Cosmopolitan magazine my wife subscribes to. "I maybe feeling miserable today, but tomorrow I'm going to get back to the gym and sculpt a body like this bugger" -- that's how I have kept myself going.

But last night something strange happened. I was going through the same Cosmo magazine -- reading the same stuff all over again, just because I felt too weak or lazy to get a book or another magazine -- when I felt drowsy. The antibiotics were having their effect. I switched off the bedside lamp and went to sleep. I don't know if this happened while I was still awake or already asleep, but I distinctly remember a voice telling me, "Those three words are, 'Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi'. Now your Gayatri Mantra is complete. Go ahead, try it."

I woke up. It is not unusual for me to wake up like that on nights when I don't drink, but this time I woke up with a sense of calm and achievement. I recited the mantra as directed, and realised I had indeed found the missing link. Still, I couldn't believe it. I switched on the bedside lamp and wrote down the mantra, and in order to compare notes, dug out a yoga book which discusses the importance of mantra meditation in one of its chapters. To my great surprise -- or should I say, shock? -- I discovered that my version of Gayatri Mantra, written in a state of near slumber, was accurate!

For four years it eludes you -- be it for your lack of will or whatever -- and then one day, when you are unwell and half-asleep under the effect of antibiotics, it comes to you like a mathematical solution. This is one solution that will dance like a question mark on my chest for a very, very long time to come. Thankfully, this question mark is a liberating one and not the one that weighs you down.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Sipping Pondy Pleasure

I wouldn't be exaggerating if I say that I feel like a middle-class, middle-aged man from Uttar Pradesh who has just discharged the responsibility of marrying off his daughter. He had been carrying this burden from the day she turned 20: will I find the right match for her? Do I have sufficient money to arrange for an impressive wedding? Will I be able to make the arrangements single-handedly?

Now that burden is off his chest. There is, however, something new that bothers him of late: will the in-laws treat my daughter well? But then, his inner voice tells him, "Look, you have done your duty. Now let God take care of the rest." Relieved, the man goes to sleep. I, however, went to Pondicherry.

I am no authority to talk about writing books, considering that I have none to my credit so far, but that's how I felt when I turned in the completed manuscript to my editors last week. Writing a book, just like marrying off a daughter, is like pursuing a dream. In both cases, personal ambition and prestige are at stake. And the anxieties don't just end with the wedding. You keep worrying about the acceptance. You never know whether your reader will be the kind variety of in-laws who welcome you with open arms, or the harsh variety who consider it their birthright to find faults. That's the nail-biting stage I am in right now, and that's why the escape to Pondicherry.

Walking on the streets on Pondicherry has always made me wonder why weren't colonised by the French instead of the English. We would have automatically inherited the fine rt of appreciating good wine and an impeccable sense of dressing from our parents and, as a result, gained automatic entry into high society in India today. But since we were colonised by the Brits, we are required to be good in studies, do well in exams, earn prized placements, earn a respectable designation and a salary and eventually earn a name in a society that doesn't consider you sophisticated enough unless you know your wine and dress well enough. Wouldn't it have been simpler to be the subjects of France, so that you could inherit sophistication instead of acquiring it after years of labour?

In any case, I fail to see the difference between an English engineer who earned 50 pounds a month at the time and a French writer who had 50 female fans. While the former toiled all his life, hoping to marry a decent woman someday, the latter fucked his way to glory, sleeping with dozens of such decent women and knowing fully well that they would come to his rescue in case he had no money to buy food.

Writing is one area where you can't fault me for being partisan towards France: literature would have been poverty-stricken today but for the broad-mindedness of the French. It was the accommodating spirit of Paris that produced literary giants like James Joyce and Hemingway, not to mention controversial writers of the times like D H Lawrence and Henry Miller, who would have remained unknown if publishers in France didn't have the balls to print their works.

For a lay Indian like me, living in Chennai, Pondicherry is as good as Paris. I don't know how Paris must have felt like in the 1920's and 1930's, but am certain it must have been quiet enough then as the French town of Pondicherry today to nourish writers like Joyce and Hemingway and Henry Miller. Had Paris of the 1930's been today's Pondicherry, you would have had Hemingway bumping into Joyce at Satsang, one of the finest French restaurants in the town, or Henry Miller lingering with friends at Rendezvous, another restaurant that serves continental food.

I have always loved the quiet of Pondicherry. But this time, it was the ghosts of Hemingway and Henry Miller that made the lovely little town more endearing to me than ever before. They sternly reminded me that I might have married off the eldest daughter, but there were many more daughters waiting to be married off once they reach marriageable age.