Monday, January 25, 2010

Ah, Those Awards!

My wife, during a recent trip to Kolkata, got back with a bunch of movies, which she had picked up at the recommendation of her friends there. Three days ago, we watched one of them, Antaheen, while having lunch. And yesterday, to my great astonishment, I read in the papers (I don't watch news on TV) that it had won the national award for being the best film!

There is nothing wrong with the movie as such, but I didn't find many things right either. To begin with, from the look of the screen, it felt as if you were watching a serial. The 'look' of the screen, what in cinema parlance would perhaps be called frame, matters a lot to me. It is the 'look' which tells you, the moment you glance at the screen, whether the film was made in 1978 or 2008. It is the 'look' that also tells you whether are you watching a film or a serial. Maybe the 'look' is determined by the sets, the lighting, the cinematography, the background music and so on -- a technical person should be able to explain better.

So to begin with, Antaheen looked like an extended serial. Two, the dialogues were saccharine-sweet: all the characters spoke so sweetly, in the typically Bengali way. Where was the intensity? Three -- the movie should have been titled Laptop -- all the characters were foreover sitting in front of laptops. True, the laptop, or rather the internet connection, was crucial to the story of the movie, but you can't let the laptops distract from the emotions on the faces of the characters. Boy, almost all the characters were on their laptops almost all the time, bearing artificial expressions that clearly showed they were not actually laptop-dependent in real life. Who would know that better than me? And who would know better than me the expressions and the anguish of a man who is addicted to chatting online with a woman whose mind he has seen but not the face?

Two things, however, are very powerful about the movie. One, the storyline itself, whose presentation, I think, could have risen above the saccharine-sweet dialogues and been more intense. Two, the role of Mita Vashisht. But were they sufficient to get Antaheen the national award for being the best film? A good film stays with you long after you have finished watching it, and Antaheen was certainly not one of them.

But then, this is my view. My wife doesn't agree with me at all (she has threatened to post a comment if I ever blogged about the film). It is true that while I was watching the 'laptop' film, I also had my mini-laptop resting on my stomach, but I did have my ears and eyes wide open.

A day after we watched this film, wife dragged me to the club, where they screen movies on the terrace on certain Saturdays. That Saturday they were to show London Dreams, starring Ajay Devgun and Salman Khan, which did not interest me one bit. But I reluctantly tagged along, thinking that while she watched the movie, I would sit in the adjoining open-air bar and drink. One can drink on the terrace too while watching the movie, but you can't really smoke unless you choose to be outright impolite to the fellow audience.

So I sat with wife for a while and watched the movie, waiting to get away as soon as a boring scene or a song came on. But I found it impossible to tear myself away. I had always liked Ajay Devgun. Not that I've watched too many of his films but I find him intense. Salman Khan, on the other hand, is someone I can do without. But in London Dreams, I found it impossible to keep my eyes off Salman. Two particular scenes I can never forget: one, in which he moulds the same lines into different genres of music, and two, when he proposes to Asin. What an awesome actor! -- no wonder he is still very much up there. Maybe he just needs better scripts and needs to appear more 'cerebral' at least to the media. But believe me, his performance in London Dreams was top class. Perhaps his best performance till date.

A mainstream commercial film or a commercial actor is, however, never in the contention for the national awards. I wonder why. Though under the BJP regime, Raveena Tandon did get a national award for a commercial film, but she also subsequently went on to head the Children's Films Society. Clearly, the government loved her (though I must say I liked Raveena, even though I am not a heroine person. Also in my like-list are Sonu Walia, Sangeeta Bijlani, Tabu, Konkona Sen and Sandhya Mridul. There is something different about each of these women, though only a few of them can be counted as good actors as well).

The trend set off by the BJP government seems to be still in fashion. Even though I am against the practice of the national awards going only -- and always -- to actors in serious regional films, I still find it difficult to believe that Priyanka Chopra's performance in Fashion was any better than many others that year. I still can't believe why Rani Mukherjee has not got a national award yet. Something, obviously, is wrong somewhere.

What else can you expect from the government? Today they announced the Padma awards. They gave Aamir Khan a Padma Bhushan, which is fine. They gave Saif Ali Khan a Padma Shri, which is also fine. Aamir, after all, is senior to Saif and is extremely careful and choosy about the kind of movies he does and that's what set him apart. But Rekha being chosen for a Padma Shri as well? Excuse me?

How dare the government put her on par with Saif, who is a novice compared to Rekha, and below Aamir, who was still wearing half-pants when Rekha was already an established actress? Imagine Rekha, the Rekha, getting a Padma Shri in 2010 -- an award she should have got in 1990? It's a national shame, an assault on the sense of judgment of millions of Indians.

It is hardly surprising that people have no faith in the government's acknowledgment of people's worth, because the judgment is either politically motivated, callous or driven by sheer indifference. Last year, Ameen Sayani got the Padma Shri. The man who had been the voice of India for 50 years -- a household name in the literal sense of the word -- and still being found good enough for only a Padma Shri. I am not sure if Ameen Sayani accepted the award -- too tired to Google up -- but had I been him, I would have said, "Thanks, but no thanks." That's too politely put though.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Blogged!

When you blog frequently, and if the blog is of a personal nature and not social or political commentary, then all is not well with you. Something must be needling you or worrying you, some pent-up emotion begging to be let out. So much so that you feel terribly lonely, in spite of having company, and feel like reaching out to those who read you and -- perhaps -- understand you. It is a different matter that you never really share what you are tempted to, because real stories can never be told, and end up writing about something else.

I say this from experience because during the happy and calm phases of my life, I have found myself ignoring the blog. In fact, during the happiest and the most peaceful period of my life, which was March 2006, I did not write a single post except this, which I still value as my most favourite post so far. Rishikesh had made me peaceful. I suddenly had nothing to say, nothing to share. Life was like sitting by the Ganges and watching the river glide away.

But for several months that preceded the trip to Rishikesh, I was a prolific blogger. I was single and very lonely, and I would write lengthy posts in order to reach out and, in the process, maybe connect with that elusive someone. The soulmate never came, but by then the writer in me had found his voice. Till then the voice was tentative, subconsciously looking for an idol to style itself after. But after about half a dozen posts, it had found its own style.

Today when I look back at those days, they all seem to belong to the distant past. But in reality, they are like weekdays leading up to a Saturday that is today. I started the blog in October 2005, got married in April 2006 and had a couple of meetings with the publisher that year, signed the contract for Chai, Chai in March 2007 and travelled for it rest of the year, wrote the book in 2008, got it published in 2009, expecting the second one to be out in 2010. One thing has led to another in quick succession.

I still remember the day I signed the contract for Chai, Chai. I hadn't thought of a name yet, but in the contract I was supposed to make an entry. "Write anything that comes to your mind. This is just a formality. You can change it later," the publisher told me. He is a busy man, and sitting right in front of him, I considered it inappropriate to ask for a smoke break so that I could think of a title. So I wrote out a name, just to quickly finish the ritual of signing the contract. According to the contract, the book should have been called Don't Pass Me By.

Today Chai, Chai, at least for me, is history, even though it is barely three months since it came to the bookshops. I am no longer the person who wrote it. The person who wrote it -- a carefree man who was smug about his conquests but did not know what personal loss meant -- died the day my mother died. Today I am a slave of my moods -- at times bitter, at times sage-like, but rarely happy. On top of it, many battles waiting to be fought, starting with the wrestling matches with words.

That should explain why I am so regular on my blog these days.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Screenplay

(Strains of shehnai in the background. Ashok Kumar and his wife welcome Shammi Kapoor to their home).

Shammi Kapoor (beaming, the air of a royal): Baaraat theek aath baje pahunch jaayegi. Magar hum ek baat to kehna bhool hi gaye...

(Ashok Kumar's face falls. He looks at his wife.)

Shammi Kapoor (in an assuring tone): Nahin, nahin, ghabraiyye nahin, humen kuchh nahin chahiye. Hum sirf itna chahte hain ki baaraatiyon ka swaagat Pan Parag se kiya jaye!

Ashok Kumar (relieved as well happy that someone shared his choice of pan masala): Oh, oh, Pan Parag. Humen kya maloom ki aap bhi Pan Parag ke shaukeen hain (reaching for a tin in his kurta pocket). Yeh lijiye!

Shammi drops a spoonful of the masala into his mouth. Jingle begins: Pan Parag pan masala, Pan Parag!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wandering, Wondering

These days I day-dream a lot. The reason is my decision, rather determination, to move out of Chennai by early next year. So at times, I imagine a 40-year-old me leisurely walking down Brigade Road in Bangalore, window-shopping and looking at pretty faces. Or idling away evenings in Kolkata's Citi Centre, admiring some of the most stunning women on this planet. Or wandering around Connaught Place in Delhi, one of my favourite pastimes that never bores me, running into the gorgeous women I once knew.

It is true that there is more to life than just women. But what is life without them? Life is not a stag party. But the bottomline is, I am currently weighing my options. There is no compelling reason to leave Chennai; in fact I am game for spending another decade here. After all, if anyone ever writes a book titled Madras Made Me, it has to be me. But 10 years, according to me, should be the cut-off point. Anything longer would make me lose the 'outsider' tag, which I so zealously guard.

A human being, on an average, lives for 70 years. The first 20 spent in the home town, and the remaining spent in five different cities, 10 years each. If you still think you have another decade to go, then settle down in one of these cities (better still, a small quiet town, like Aluva in Kerala) or your native town. That, according to me, is life fully lived. Or, as they say, a life well-lived. The air in your retirement home, no matter where you live, will be the sum total of India. India is such a diverse country that you get to see only one colour of the rainbow if you spend your lifetime in one particular city.

However, this is my personal opinion. Others need not agree. My opinion stems from the fact that I was born and raised in the Hindi heartland of Kanpur, which is a big city but where you can't spend your working years if you are into English journalism. If you want to make a career out of English journalism, you have to be in one of the metros.

But even if I was born in Delhi or Kolkata and had an ancestral home there and I took up English journalism as my career, I would have still contemplated changing cities after a while. I am a compulsive traveller: a vagabond. I will always be overpowered by the charms of cities I have not lived in. That's how I am. People look at me in different ways, and most often, they look down. And why not:

I am a Bengali, but I have never lived in Bengal. I was born in Uttar Pradesh, but still not a UP-wallah because my mother-tongue is Bangla. For a long time I worked in Delhi, which is no man's land anyway. And then I moved to Chennai. Whether the man who moved to Chennai was a Bengali or a 'north Indian', I still don't know. And now I have spent 10 years in Chennai, which means I am almost a Madrasi, but I am anything but one. From Chennai, I made countless trips to Kerala, where people very often mistook me for a fellow Malayali and upon discovering that I was not one, would ask where I came from. When I told them I was a Bengali, they gave me an invisible hug and made me feel like one of their own. But that does not make me a Malayali either, and at any rate, not the kind of Bengali that a Malayali in Kerala imagines me to be. So who am I?

Some of my good friends call me rootless. They all hail from Kerala but who live in Chennai to earn a living. They call me rootless because I don't conform to their idea of a Bengali, but that's hardly my fault. I mean, to be very honest, I have watched Pather Panchali as a kid and found it depressing. Since I don't aspire to be a filmmaker, there is no compelling reason for me to go hunting for a DVD or pretend to be ecstatic when someone finds one. I would any day settle for Amar Akbar Anthony or Hum Kisise Kam Nahin. These are movies that make me feel good.

The whole idea of watching a movie is to feel good: the good guys winning and the bad ones licking dust. Don't you find it difficult to change channels when you find the villains being beaten up? You know the end result, yet you want to be part of the process. Having said that, I am a fan of Satayajit Ray myself, but I don't have to like the Apu trilogy in order to be one. My favourites are Nayak, Aranya Din Ratri and Ghare Baire. Ghare Baire holds a special place in my heart because it also has an orchestra-less rendition by Kishore Kumar.

That, by the way, speaks volumes about Kishore's appeal because Ray could have settled for either Hemant Kumar or another 'Bengali' voice. Kishore, even though a Bengali by birth, was essentially a Hindi singer. And yet Ray used him for two landmark songs in two of his landmark movies. It is true that Kishore Kumar contributed to the making of Pather Panchali by chipping in with Rs 5,000, but I will never believe that Ray, a perfectionist to the hilt, would have got Kishore Kumar to sing his songs just to return the favour.

So back to my rootlessness. Who wants to be rooted? I am a wanderer who carries tales to tell. As of now, this wanderer is wondering where to go next. The choice is between Bangalore, Delhi or Kolkata. I need some more day-dreaming to arrive at a decision.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Like, Love And Lust

This post is inspired by the present state of mind of a friend. Once upon a time, she was in love with someone. It wasn't exactly the kind of love in which people did things together and also did things. It was the kind of love in which two people know they love each other and feel warm and secure in the presence of each other and are unable to do anything more than steal glances or exchange a shy smile.

She was in this state of love for a couple of years and then they got talking. Love began to be expressed in words. But soon after, circumstances led her to move on. The man her parents had found was likeable; also, she too had grown ever since she had first set her eyes on him. The parting of ways was amicable. For the four years she has been married now, they have been in touch. And then, the other day, he got engaged. My friend lost her sleep. "The whole idea that another woman will control his life now is killing me. I am plain jealous," she confessed.

So love, eventually, does not figure in the picture, even though it was love that it all started with. If you really love someone, you would say, "I am so glad he is moving on too. I am so happy for him." You would not ponder over your dwindling importance in someone's life and lose sleep over it.

In my opinion, there is nothing called love. There is only like and/or lust. And I think 'like' is a far more strong and honest and worthwhile emotion than 'love', a word that has become hollow and meaningless because of prolonged misuse. You are sitting in a coffee shop and there is something about the girl on the next table that you like. It could be her eyes that you like or maybe her nose or her lips. Or maybe her shapely breasts or -- when she goes out to take a call -- her shapely butt. Whatever the case, it is either 'like' or 'lust' that are at play in the coffee shop. Where on earth does 'love' come from, when you don't even know her? And yet they use expressions like 'Love at first sight'. What a fucking sham.

Even logically, you first got to like a person in order to love him or her. Or do you first fall in love -- whatever that might mean -- and then go about liking a person? To tell you the truth, I get great sadistic pleasure when I hear about love marriages breaking. Couples who wait for each other for hours on public benches or in restaurants end up waiting -- individually and alone -- in the premises of the family court. Where did all the love go? There was no love in the first place, only lust -- not just in the physical sense but even in other aspects such as money and good life. Only that you misread the lust as love, or at times deliberately mispell lust as love.

Liking is not only an honest emotion but also the solid foundation for any bond or relationship. If you don't like something, how can you love it or even lust for it? If I am not a pen person, but still claim to have "fallen in love" with a Mont Blanc foutain pen in the showroom that looks good and costs Rs 42,000, it is not love speaking but only lust. Once I acquire the pen, it would be no different for me than the ballpoint pen they give out for free in Kingfisher planes. Alternatively, I would be so conscious of the price of the pen that I would keep it locked up and never use it. But if I am someone who likes using fountain pens, then I would like to acquire that Mont Blanc someday and after acquiring it, would fall in love with it someday depending on its performance. I wouldn't fall in love with it just because it is good-looking and costs Rs 42,000. What if it doesn't write smooth enough?

That's what happens when you fall in love first even before you like something. What if the pen doesn't write smooth enough? What, then, happens to all the love -- doesn't it become meaningless? That is why couples, madly in love only till recently, head for the family court: they never get to like each other, they only masquerade their lust as love and when things don't turn out to their liking, they choose to call it quits.

Love is something that is earned or built over a substantial period of time. Wanting to bed a man or a woman is not love, but only an attempt to cleanse your Indian soul of guilt. Which is why you will find people telling each other "I love you" when the sex is good even during a one-night or one-afternoon stand. I mean, till the intercourse happens, you don't even know the other person from Adams, but the moment penetration takes place, the bedroom reverberates with orgasmic "I love you" screams. Love, my ass! Why can't one just say, "You are quite good at it. I like you. Maybe we should do it more often" instead of trying to clothe lust in the cloak of love?

If you like someone, say so. If you want to sleep with someone, say so. Why fire from behind the sandbags of 'love'? I love my wife today not because she is my wife or because that's politically the right thing to say. I married her not because I loved her, but only because I liked her. But over the last four years, after liking the various small little things about her, I have begun to love her.

But the human mind can be crazy and behave in strange ways, and that is what keeps 'love' still in circulation. I have known many fools who can kill as well as die in the name of 'love'. But such people, who I can only consider as mentally ill, are driven only by the fear of their dwindling importance in the life of their so-called lovers. They never spare a thought for the happiness of their loved ones -- which they would have had they been true lovers.

There is one particular breed of people whose psyche I fail to understand and who have corrputed the meaning of the word 'love'. These are people who, in spite of being so much in love with their respective spouses once upon a time, get swept off their feet by some damsel or dude at some point in life and dump their happy homes in order to set up new ones.

If it is a genuine case of 'liking' making amends for 'lust', it is fine. But most often, at least for men, it is lust that leads them from one partner to another. On the face of it, they might say, "My present wife understands me much better than my ex-wife." But what they actually mean is, "My new wife fucks much better than the old one." Obviously so, for the 'old wife' had had many family responsibilities to fulfil other than good sex, and it is just a matter of time before the 'new wife' too acquired her own set of family responsibilities.

It really escapes me how people can dump their wives for a girlfriend. If they can dump the wife today, they can also dump the girlfriend tomorrow. These are men who easily get swept off their feet -- men whose balls are weaker than their soles. It is one thing to like a beautiful woman, and quite another to fall in love with her just because she is beautiful. If beauty is the only parameter, then there are many women waiting down the corner with a beautiful pair of eyes or boobs. But when it is all about liking, even the smallest of bottoms becomes shapely and highly cuppable.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Success

On 6 October 2005, I bought from Landmark a book called One Man's Chorus, a collection of essays by Anthony Burgess. I know the date because the receipt got preserved in between the pages. But I do remember the circumstances under which the book was bought. I was with Express, and the good, old Express office was still on Mount Road. The annual sale was going on at Landmark, which was just across the road.

But there was a problem. The salary hadn't come yet but was most likely to be credited that evening. So armed with the accountant's assurance, Saju and I walked across the road. Books were spread out like an elaborate wedding buffet. We attacked the spread from different directions. Saju, the seeker of depth, went in search of Latin American writing. While I dug for my kind of books which, at the given moment, could have been a rare travelogue or some kind of an anthology.

I chanced upon Burgess' One Man's Chorus and grabbed it. I also picked up Kubrick, a slim biography of the filmmaker written by none other than Michael Herr. (The two books had something in common, which didn't occur to me then: Kubrick had made Burgess' A Clockwork Orange into a film). I also picked up the autobiography of David Blaine, the magician who I idolise. I felt so rich! Only that I didn't have the money. All along, I eagerly waited for a vibration in my pocket: I would be getting a text message as soon as the salary hit my account.

Till the time the text message arrived, I moved around uneasily like a man who had had three bottles of beer and was now unable to locate an urinal. Finally, relief!

"Saju, look what I got, Burgess!"

Saju was plain angry. "You better hand it over to me. Since when did you start reading Burgess?"

When he saw the cover, he was visibly relieved. He had heard the name as Borges, the father of Latin American literature, though his name is pronounced differently by serious students of literature. But then, students of literature don't necessarily have to be lovers or makers of literature.

Having bought whatever we wanted to, money no longer an impediment now, we went to the wine shop next to Melody theatre and spent the rest of the evening there. After downing about six drinks each, we descended, around midnight, on the Safari Hotel in Royapettah. There, as usual, we demolished, between us, 20 aapams and four plates of mutton korma. That was, to tell you the truth, our routine after sunset. But today, both of us felt extra good because of the purchases we had made.

That night, Saju dropped me home and went to his wife. I didn't have a wife then, neither did I have a blog (I wrote my first post exactly 11 days later). So I began reading. Burgess' style sucked my attention in like a striptease artiste, and I kept at it all night. By 5 in the morning, I had finished One Man's Chorus.

Then, as it usually happens, the book lay hidden and forgotten in one of the shelves. There were occasions when I wanted to go back to it, but who is going to look for it? It is not as if I have a huge library -- though it is not a very small one either -- but the problem with hunting for a particular book is what if you are not able to find it? You are instantly heartbroken and you spend the rest of the day asking yourself: Where could it have gone? Who could have taken it? Best not to look for it.

Fortunately, I found the book this Sunday. It had been sitting right under my nose. But then, you are always blind to things under your nose or within your reach. So I read the essays again. My own circumstances had changed drastically since I had last read them -- and now I looked at them in a new light. I had a protective mother back then, but no wife. Today I have a wife who protects me from the vicissitudes of life, but no mother. Back then, I had a column but no book. Today I have a book but no column. And many more such reversals. The only things which remain common are Saju and the salary. He is still my best friend, and I still wait for the phone to vibrate at the beginning of every month.

Anyway, the whole point of this obscenely long post is, as I said, I saw the chapters in a new light. They made so much more sense now. I guess that's true for every good book. As Naipaul once said, "Reading my books once is like taking the dog to the theatre." But there is one particular essay by Burgess that fascinated me equally then as well as now, though I didn't have a blog then to share it. So I am quoting from it now. The essay is titled 'Success':

"I regard my vocation, which I came to very late, as that of a novelist, and I have to consider now whether I have had any real success in it. The trouble with fiction is that there are two ways of looking at it: as a business and as an art. Just up the coast from me at Cannes, sitting glumly but royally on his yatch, is a man who succeeded indubitably with the novel as a business. His name is Harold Robbins. He is, however, not satisfied with having sold a great number of copies of books about sex and violence: he wants to be regarded, on the strength of his evident popularity, as the greatest writer alive. Nobody will so consider him and this makes him somewhat sour. It does, of course, sometimes happen that the most popular novelist is also the best -- Dickens, for instance; perhaps even Hemingway -- but the one doesn't follow from the other. We expect great fiction to be too subtle or complex for popular acceptance. A good writer will often worry if his work goes into too many impressions: he will feel that he has not been subtle or complex enough. He will feel that he has been inattentive to his craft and turned out something like John Braine.

From the business angle I can point, though cautiously, to some small success. In twenty-five years of professional writing I have been able to make a living. Even if this means no more than being able to afford an egg for one's breakfast twice a week it is still a matter of pride: one has called no man sir, except perhaps a New York black cab-driver, and one has been able to telephone from one's bed at eleven in the forenoon and tell someone to go to hell. This living, however, has come from steady application to the craft, a determination to write at least one thousand words a day, and not at all from the kind of reclame that greets a Catch-22 or a Princess Daisy. A lot of the money has come from journalism and from writing scripts for films that were never made. A fairly exiguous amount has come from fiction. If there is any money in the bank it is there because I have gone on bullying a fairly small public into buying a Burgess book every year. I have had, in other words, to keep at it."


Back then, I had found this passage amusing. Today I find it inspiring.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Nine Years

On this date, exactly nine years ago, I was in the train. I must be somewhere around Bhopal around this moment, having left Delhi the night before, excited about the 24-hour journey that still lay ahead of me. I was coming to south India for the first time. I was coming to Madras.

Memories of those days somehow remain frozen. Songs of Minnale were a rage. The streets were clean. The roads were still empty. Autorickshaw drivers could not dream of buying a mobile phone. The building I live in was packed with people. My neighbours ignored the number of women visitors I had; instead they chose to be impressed by the number of books on my shelves. A picture of Swami Vivekananda, sitting on the bookshelf, also helped.

Today. There is no such Tamil song which can be considered a big hit, registering even in the ears of those who don't understand the language. The streets are either dug up or littered with garbage (cleanliness is being compromised ever since Neel Metal Fanalca took over from Exnora). The less said about the roads the better. Even the maid carries a cellphone. As for my neighbours, there are not many people left. People my age or younger are all in the US, turning the building into an old-age home. People who remain have gotten used to my ways.

What I miss most is the silence of my street. I remember the days when I would run out of cigarettes and walk out of my street into the busy North Usman Road, buy cigarettes and come back and smoke one on the street standing outside my gate, listening to the birds chirp. Today, the street has become a thoroughfare because of the new flyover on North Usman Road, which begins right in front of my street. Vehicles not taking the flyover keep piling up at the mouth of the street, causing a constant jam, and all those who want to avoid it find my street to be the escape route!

Some things have not changed, though. Muni amma is still there. The day I moved into the flat nine years ago, it was Muni amma who had painstakingly cleaned it up with 'Surf water'. When I tipped her Rs 50, my neighbhour admonished me saying it was too much. Twenty-rupees would have done, she said. Muni amma subsequently became my maid, always being kind and motherly and never raising an eyebrow at my lifestyle. Once in a while, though, she would hint to me that it was time for my kalyaanam, or marriage. Today, she lives in the building, her son being the new watchman. She walks with a limp and has become too old to work as a maid. She is one person I've known the longest in Chennai, and she was one person who cried when she heard the news of my mother's death. My mother could speak Tamil and got along very well with Muni amma.

And then the fruitseller at the end of my street. For the first few years after coming to Chennai, I would buy apples from him on a regular basis. He must be 40 years old then, and he would sit there with his son, who must have been 10 or 12. Soon supermarkets sprang up in the neighbourhood and I stopped going to him. And after I got married, it was wife who was shopping for grocery anyway. The fruitseller was forgotten. Just the other day I noticed him again. He must have been there all these years and months, but I had somehow become blind to him. And now I saw him: his hair had all turned grey and he did not get up from his stool upon seeing me, like he did before. I had become a stranger for him. His son was now a man. And why not: if he was 12 then, he must be 21 now! How silly of me to have expected him to remain a small boy. That's when I realised that nine years have passed.

Did similar thoughts cross the fruitseller's mind too when he saw me the other day? If yes, what were they? Maybe I don't want to know them.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Idiots

Since I have not read Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone, I cannot say how much of the book is shown in Aamir Khan's 3 Idiots. I saw the film this evening and quite liked it. And since I am aware of the controversy, about Bhagat not being duly acknowledged by the filmmakers, I waited till the end when the credits started rolling in. Only towards the fag end, when half of the audience had already walked out, did one get to see the tiny words on the screen rolling down, "Based on Chetan Bhagat's novel Five Point Someone." If the movie is acknowledging that it is based on the book, shouldn't the credit come right when the movie starts? I think that is highly unfair and, to me, looks even deliberate.

If the movie has used only 10% or 15% of the book, as the filmmakers claim, then the credit line should say, "Partially based on Five Point Someone" or "Inspired by Five Point Someone." Even then, the credit should not have come at the fag end when the theatre is almost empty. I am no fan of Bhagat -- simply because I have not read any of his books except Two States, which I found hilarious in parts only because of its candid (at least from an outsider's view) portrayal of Chennai -- but I do get a feeling that his book was hijacked. Even if the idea was hijacked, that's good enough reason the author to get pissed; who cares about the screenplay or the details?

It is the idea that makes 3 Idiots click, the idea being: Do what your heart says, be what your heart wants you to be, and not what your parents or teachers want you to be. Needless to say, the film is doing so well. It is bound to strike a chord with millions who wanted to be something in life but ended up being something else, but at the moment are in the process of forcing that something on their own children.

Personally, I am familiar enough with the idea to have pursued it with a zeal 17 years ago when I became a journalist at the age of 22. But what a pity that I wasted three years before that, sitting for engineering entrances knowing fully well I was not going to get through. My fetish for stationery and the smell of fresh ink made me spend a lot of my father's hard-earned money on guide-books and correspondence courses meant to equip me for IIT-JEE. Looking back, the three years were not actually wasted: under the charade of 'preparing' for engineering entrances, I was silently equipping myself to be a journalist by reading up every single newsmagazine that was printed at the time. Sadly, many of them have closed down: Illustrated Weekly, Mirror, Probe, Onlooker.

But those were the most depressing days of my youth: almost every evening, father would come back from work to announce that the son or the daughter of a certain colleague has been selected to some engineering college or the other. A pall of gloom would instantly descend on our home. I would feel like the academic equivalent of a man suffering from erectile dysfunction. If at all there was an outing plan for the evening, that would stand cancelled -- just because someone else's child had got into an engineering college. That's the sad part: you are rarely judged by what you are, but always by what the other person is.

Only regret, today, is what if I had spent that money on literary books instead of guidebooks? Would that have made me a better writer? Perhaps. But I had no example to look up to and emulate. Everybody was busy 'preparing' for something or the other. But on the whole, no regrets at all because I got what I wanted.

When I became a journalist, the number of engineers who were joining the profession was not funny. They were doing the same thing as I was doing. If they eventually had to sub copies, what happens to the time and money they had spent on becoming an engineer? Was the race worth it?

At an age when they should be watching movies and having ice-cream with their girlfriends/boyfriends, they remain buried under books out of fear and pressure -- what if they are not able to make it? And once they are not able to make it, the inferiority complex robs them of whatever little self-confidence they are left with and inhibits them from displaying any other talent that they might have. What a tragedy. A degree might earn you a job, but it is not sufficient to get you a life.

Chetan Bhagat himself is a good example. It was writing that brought him fame and fortune. And once he realised his writing was selling, he junked his prestigious degrees. Degrees are dispensable. It's only determination that counts.

P.S. The highest point of 3 Idiots, according to me, is the performance by the boy who designs the helicopter. His role was short but packed with intensitiy.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Interview

For someone whose duties include interviewing people, be it a doctor or a bureaucrat or a writer or even a police constable, it was a welcome break and a change to sit back and give interviews -- all thanks to Chai, Chai. This is one interview I can take the liberty of reproducing here because it was not given to a newspaper or a news agency but to the in-house publication of a company. Since you might not get to read it online, I would like you to read it here:

We know that the inspiration for Chai, Chai came about when you found yourself standing on the platform at Itarsi, waiting to change trains, and you wondered what the smallsville beyond the station yard was like. How did you take it from there?

The thought that struck me at Itarsi – what all might be lying beyond the station yard – was very momentary. I forgot all about it as soon as the train moved and came back to Chennai. Those days I was writing a Sunday coumn for the New Indian Express and was also doing a lot of travel pieces. Till then the travel pieces we carried were rarely written in the first person. The column too had a large following. I got fan mails from a wide spectrum of people, from a prisoner in the Chennai jail to a sitting judge of a Kerala court! That’s when Tranquebar (there was only Westland then, Tranquebar was yet to be born) wanted me to do a travel book. They wanted something different. For many months I did not know what I should do in order to be different. Finally, on a subsequent trip to Kanpur during Diwali holidays, the Itarsi idea returned to me. I looked up the railway timetable (my father reads it as a pastime: that gives him the vicarious pleasure of travelling) and discovered from the map that that the busiest junctions in India are actually very small towns about which we know nothing. So I thought, why not go to these places. I am so glad the publishers found the idea to be different enough.

So you didn't have difficulty finding a publisher…

On the contrary. I remember the evening Saeed Mirza had come to Chennai for the launch of his book Ammi. I think this was February 2008. Tranquebar had been just launched and Mirza’s book was the first to be published under this new imprint. Gautam Padmanabhan, the CEO of Westland, introduced me to Mirza saying, “He is also going to be a Tranquebar author soon.” I felt proud as well as ashamed. Ashamed because I had not written a word yet, even though I was done with most of the travelling. Of course I paid a huge price for the procrastination because my mother, who I was so eager should see my first book, died just eight days before it came off the press. But I also believe that the words have to come to you; you can’t go to them. What people call procrastination, I would call it fermentation.

Reviews of Chai, Chai have been either laudatory or plain negative. How's that?

There are only two ‘plain negative’ reviews, that too, very strangely, from magazines belonging to the same publishing house. Fortunately, for me, such reviews are in sheer minority. Chai, Chai is a very Indian book, written by an Indian. You should have travelled by trains and spent some time in small towns in order to appreciate the book. Which is why most of the reviews are laudatory. But if you are one of those who finds ultimate romance in small-town France or Switzerland, or who totally identifies with a Western writer’s non-stop cribbing about the heat and dust and corruption in India, then Chai, Chai may not be your cup of tea. One review that was part laudatory and part negative said the book had been “dumbed down” for the Western audience! Excuse me? I live in south India, most of my readers are in south India. I can’t presume they will all understand those dialogues in Hindi, can I?

Were you surprised when your book went into repritns so soon after publication?

Yes and no. Yes, because writing a book, just like making a movie, is a gamble. You never know what is going to work and what is not. Your sole companion is your conviction. You can only hope for the best. But in the end, only 265 people might actually end up buying your book. That fear is always there. But given the subject, a part of me was also confident. Chai, Chai is a book in which everyone gets to see a bit of himself or herself in it. As I said, it is a very Indian book: there is no scope for either borrowing the lines or the setting from the Western books you admire. It talks about the real India, live and kicking and, at times, not-so-kicking.

Is there going to be another book?

Many more. Immediately next in line is a portait of Chennai, the city where I have been living for nine years now.

What will it treat with? Travel again?

You can call it travel if you want to. In order to write about a place, you need to retain the traveller’s eye even if you are a resident. Nine years is a long time to understand a place well, and short enough not to become blind to it. All I can say is it will be a first-of-its-kind book about Chennai, about which people up north know so little, except that it is inhabited by Madrasis who eat only idli and dosa and who are conservative and God-fearing. How many know that Chennai is India’s first modern city? While the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal were still under construction, the British were already building Fort St. George in Madras. Calcutta and Bombay weren’t even born then while Delhi was still very much the Mughal capital. The book will pull the curtain of notions from over the face of Chennai.

Monday, January 04, 2010

India File

The book is so small I wonder how it survived the shifting of homes and cities. Small because the font is smaller than the usual and the lines are not double-spaced. Clearly, the Indian publisher had tried to save on money. I had bought the book more than 10 years ago from a shop on Janpath in Delhi. The inscription is intact: '"BG, 5 Feb 1999." The price printed on the back cover is Rs 80.

Rs 80, even in 1999, was peanuts. My monthly salary at the time, if my memory serves right, was around Rs 18,000. Those were the days when I spent a substantial amount of my salary on books that cost Rs 300-400 each. Today I am pretty careless about my collection but back then, I would spend almost every Sunday dusting those books and arranging them in a certain order on my modest cane bookshelf. Many of the books I never got around to reading, but I preserved them like embryos just because I had spent a fortune on them. Therefore, it was a big surprise that this book, which cost only Rs 80, should have survived when I shed excess baggage each time before shifting homes and cities. I mean, I could have easily -- and smugly -- given it away to somebody: "Here, take it. It's a good book. Remember me when you read this."

I am so glad I didn't. The book in question in India File by Trevor Fishlock, once upon a time a foreign correspondent stationed in New Delhi. It was published in January 1983, when I was 12 years old. He subsequently wrote another book based on his experiences as the India correspondent, On The Cobra Road, which I bought a few years ago in Chennai and read and reread it only because I spent Rs 400 on it. But India File sat untouched on my shelves for more than a decade. Maybe the small font had put me off. But this evening, I do not know why, I pulled it out and flipped through its yellowed pages. And then I started reading it from the beginning. I had no idea -- what a fucking fool I was to have judged a book by the font size of its text -- that I actually had a gem sitting ignored on my shelves for more than a decade.

If you want to know about India, even if you are an Indian, please read India File. But I think the book is out of print: can you imagine how lucky I am! Let me reproduce the very first paragraph:

"At last the gasping newcomer floats free to take up his inheritance of India. If it is a son there are murmurs and grins of pleasure. A conch may blare and the midwife's fingers close over a large reward. If it is a daughter there is neither tip nor fanfare. Birth is the beginning of what Hindus believe is the soul's adventure on earth and one of the tutting women around the nativity notes the time of day, for the family starmonger will want to know what planetary and stellar forces were tugging when the cord was severed. This sage will consult his charts and draw up a horoscopic identity card which will have to be produced by its owner at life's checkpoints: before his ritual toddler's tonsure, before marriage, examinations, journeys, a new job, elections, war, ceremonies, crop sowing, business transactions and other gambles. Indians embrace the universe and their fated imperishable souls move to its mysterious awesome rhythms, out of one life and into the next, sins and atonements inked in heavenly ledgers."

Mr Fishlock, are you there? Please remove your shoes and socks. This Indian wants to touch your feet.

Friday, January 01, 2010

2010

New year, new book. Pencils have been sharpened. Ink filled in my various fountain pens. Two new notebooks sitting on my desk, waiting to be filled with thoughts and quotes and info. Reference books at hand. People and places waiting to be visited. And the brand new mini laptop, which I fell in love with at first sight and treated myself to as a new year gift -- my thought processor and my new second wife. I begin tonight.

I wish I could survey 2010 like a road spread out in front of me. But all I can see is a fog of mystery. It is the mystery that makes you want to live, live on. Yet, personally, I can look forward to 2010 with optimism. Of course, it will have its share of downs and many hypochondria-triggered trips to the doctor. But on the whole, it promises to be a busy and a pleasant year.

Also, 2010 will be my last year in Chennai. Unless, of course, dentiny intervenes. I am determined to move on, for, by the same time next year, I would have spent 10 years in Chennai. Yes, 10 years -- a decade! Too long for a vagabond like me.

When I left Delhi in January 2001, I was pretty sure that I would be back in a year or two. I had things to go back to. I had no idea that I would fit into Chennai so well that I would end up spending a decade here. I am so glad that when I finally leave Chennai, I will have a befitting parting gift for it.

Happy New Year!