Friday, April 30, 2010

Best Days Of My Life

Supposing I was Guru Dutt, who lived for 39 years and three months, I would have been dead for over a month now. But what a shameful death it would have been: nothing to leave behind for this world, nothing to show to the maker. God would have asked: "Why the fuck did I send you there?" Or exclaimed, Gabbar Singh-style, "Khaali haath aaye ho!"

Guru Dutt, if you look at the body of his work, comes across as a man who must have lived up to the age of 70 or 80. But in that short span of 39 years, an age when you are not grey enough to be taken seriously by the world, he built an university of cinema where thousands of people still enrol every year, as students as well as spectators.

To tell you the truth, I am not a great fan of black and white cinema. I find it very difficult to sit through Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar films and avoid them altogether, but somehow colour (or the absence of it) ceases to matter whenever I watch a Guru Dutt or a Dev Anand film. (Those days Guru Dutt and Dev Anand, both almost the same age, worked mostly together.) That's because their films were marked by intensity.

Intensity, in my opinion, is not something that can be forced upon you through melodrama, with actors going overboard with facial expressions and a dozen violins or the esraj playing a sad note in the background. Intensity is best conveyed when a film or a scene -- or even a book -- sits lightly on your shoulder, so lightly that you are able to make friends with the characters and step into their shoes. And after having stepped into their shoes, you feel their pain. That's intensity according to me, and that was the hallmark of Guru Dutt's films and many of Dev Anand's films with which Guru Dutt was associated.

There can't be another movie like Pyaasa. What the Taj Mahal is to India, Pyaasa is to this nation called Intensity. The intensity of the film was, in fact, was born out of a marriage between sensitivity and sensuality. The sensitivity of Guru Dutt, S.D. Burman, Mohammed Rafi, Hemant Kumar and, above all, Sahir Ludhianvi, married to the supressed sensuality of the women in the film, portrayed effectively in Geeta Dutt's voice, "Aaj sajan mohe ang laga lo, janam safal ho jaye; hriday ki peeda deh ki agni, sab sheetal ho jaaye..." -- Take me in your arms, my love, so that I am fulfilled in this birth; so that the ache in my heart and the fire in my body are taken care of. What a song, erotic and yet so aesthetic.

This post is not about Guru Dutt, but about the body of work he left behind in spite of dying at 39 years and three months and how I, in spite of having outlived him by a month so far, have nothing to show for. I have only written one book (which hundreds of others have done in India alone), have maintained a blog for four years (which thousands of others have done too) and have a few hundred bylines to my credit (so do a few other millions). So what am I, the bloody fool, doing, in spite of knowing that time is running out?

I will tell you what this bloody fool is doing. As of now, he is thinking of getting a tattoo on his upper arm because he believes that will make him look sexy and also slow down his march towards middle age. Time does not recognise tattoos to be an enemy, but the fool is still wasting his time debating whether he should get the sun or the trident (Shiva's symbol) impaled on his arm. His wife, always the wise one, is laughing and convinced that he would not undertake such a misadventure in "old age."

But now, the other side of the story. What a bitch life is, a real cock-teaser: it first gives you a dozen examples that make you feel miserable about your existence, and just when you are on the verge of giving it all up, it presents you with examples that, no matter how old you are, make you jump in joy and drive you to the nearest gym, if not a tattoo parlour.

I think life has a way of testing you: whether you think by your balls or your brains. If you let the balls take over your life and let the brains rust, then the end is near. Very near. But if you let the brains do the thinking, you will recognise that the balls need servicing every now and then and you will take corrective measures as and when required.

Really, why should one give up at 39 or 40, when the fun has just begun? If Guru Dutt died at 39, there is Gabriel Gacrica Marquez who became a full-time writer only at 40 and went on to win the Nobel prize. Then there is Frank McCourt, a writer I recommend to all, who published his first book at the age of 66 and won the Pulitzer prize. At 66, in India, your ambitions are long buried and you wait for your funeral -- in the interim, you play with your grandchildren. Forty-two per cent of Robert Frost’s anthologised poems were written after the age of fifty. Mark Twain published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when he was forty-nine and Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe at the age of fifty-eight.

In other words, I still have the time -- to fool around, to get a tattoo, and work towards my goal of being a writer (when I say writer, I mean someone who has the ability to write books that bring him enough money so that he does not have to worry about holding a regular job).

Come to think of it, these are the best days of my life. I am not as silly as I used to be when I was in my twenties, either as a person or a writer, though back then I believed I was the best. And I am more mature than what I used to be during my thirties. Today, as I near 40, I have learned how to combine the 'carefree' spirit of my 20's with the 'careful' approach I had adopted in my 30's. The end result is fun. Really, these are the best days of my life.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Things I Want To Know But Don't Know Who To Ask

1. Where is Sadashiv Amrapurkar, the man who played the dreaded villain in Hindi films in the late 1980's and early 1990's, these days?

2. Is Competition Success Review still published?

3. Do they still sell the Nirodh brand of condoms -- the yellow pack with a red strip running in the middle?

4. Are Mandrake the Magician and Phantom still alive?

5. Is there anything you can still get for 50 paise? Apart from a toffee and a match box?

6. How much does a post card cost these days? And an inland letter? And how many rupees do you need to spend to post an envelope?

7. Do they still air Sangeet Sarita and Hawa Mahal on Vividh Bharati? (Does anyone listen to Vividh Bharati at all?)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Living In The Present

This is one post I am writing more for myself. I wish to record a debate raging in my mind because thoughts, unless you put them down in words, can evaporate or change colour in no time, leaving you to scratch your head.

This is an exercise in seeking clarity, being convinced and arriving at a conclusion. Unless the debate is resolved, I am going to find it difficult to proceed with my next book, and I better find an answer by the time I finish writing this post.

The debate is: should the book, a portrait of Chennai, be written in the past-tense format or the present-tense format? On the face of it, it is a silly conflict: after all, what you write is more important than how you write. But how you write is very crucial in conveying what you write.

In case of a 500- or a 1000-word piece, the format, in my opinion, is quite irrelevant. But when you are setting out to write 60,000 to 100,000 words, you have to decide beforehand on a tone that will suit you narrative as well as hold the reader's attention.

I am still wondering what the reader will like:

The first rays of the morning sun burst through the curtains like flames leaping out of a dragon's mouth. I looked at the watch: 6 AM. I had set the alarm for seven. Ah, never mind. I just earned an extra hour of the morning freshness. I jumped out of the bed and walked to the door, still naked, to get the newspaper
.

or

The first rays of the morning sun are bursting through the curtains like a dragon spewing fire. I look at the watch: 6 AM. I had set the alarm for seven. Ah, never mind. I have just earned an extra hour of the morning freshness. I jump out of the bed and walk to the door, still naked, to get the newspaper.


Both versions create vivid images in your mind, yet there is a difference. In the first version, the past-tense format, there is a sense of action. You are following a man who has been there, done that, and you want to know what happens next. In other words, you are always on the edge of the seat while reading.

But in the second version, the present-tense format, you, the reader, are very much a part of the narrative and therefore you don't feel compelled to be on the edge of the seat. On the contrary, you lie back and soak in the experiences of the narrator at your own pace, as if you were the narrator -- what more can a writer ask for!

Both formats, if the narrative is gripping enough, can pull readers. But you have to make a choice. I wrote Chai, Chai in the past-tense format, and it worked. But then, there was no other way of writing it. I wrote the book long after I had finished my travelling, and since the places I'd written about about were so faraway, geographically as well as in terms of the time that had elapsed, a past-tense description was the only honest way of presenting them.

But Chennai is the city where I live: the first few thousand words I have written so far for the new book have instinctively been in the present-tense format. That had me worried, though: is it possible to be lazy as well as racy? Shouldn't I replicate the past-tense format of Chai, Chai, which most people I know have read in just one sitting?

I sought the opinion of two trusted friends -- the only people I turn to for literary advice because they have good taste when it comes to good writing and tell you off politely if you don't match up to their expectations. Past tense or present tense, I asked them.

One of them said the present tense worked the best for her, but in case I had a doubt, I could always write out a passage in both the tenses and compare. The other friend turned out to be a big fan of the past tense, but she thoughtfully added that since I was writing about a city I was living in, the present-tense format made sense.

So that settled that. I was going to write in the present tense. But as a conscientous writer, you don't merely go by what friends tell you -- no matter how trusted or well-meaning they are. Their opinion adds to your conviction of course, but in order to be convinced, you need to find your own devices, your own reasoning.

Past-tense or present-tense format?

Almost all books documenting travels within India, including the ones I so admire, are written in the past-tense format. But that's mainly because the writer in question -- usually a white man -- would have typed out the manuscript long after leaving India. India, for him, was past tense. But one book which I have always considered as my Bible, Ved Mehta's A Portrait of India, turned out to be, to my immense relief, in the present-tense format.

I must have read the book about half-a-dozen times during the past 10 years, without caring about the form of the narrative. But this evening, I dug out the book and wiped off the dust and read a few passages all over again. I realised the present tense can be as gripping as the past tense, provided you know how to tell a story.

Ved Mehta is one writer I have always aspired to be. He is a blind man, but the way he describes sights, sounds and smells makes you feel jealous of his craft. A Portrait of India, which solved my dilemma in a matter of seconds, is long out of print and happens to be my only ill-gotten wealth. I got the book issued from a government library 12 years ago and chose not to return it. Why should I, when the book was acquired by the library on "7.X.1970", that is October 7, 1970, a good three months before I was born, and nobody bothered to get it issued for three long decades till my eyes fell on it?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hotel

If there is any place I love other than my home, it is the hotel. I have stayed in the most splendid and the most sordid of them, but there is something common in them: they have let me be. A friend's home may be as warm as your own, but still it's a friend's home, not yours. You can't laze around naked, unless the chemistry between you and your friend is such that you are better off without clothes; you have to eat what everybody else eats and when everybody else eats; and, above all, you can't be aloof whenever you want to be.

But a hotel room, as long as you are paying for it, is your tiny little kingdom. You don't have to lift your little finger: everything is at your beck and call. For a writer, there can't be a better place than a hotel to transform an idea into a manuscript, provided he has sufficient money (and leave, in case he is employed) to put himself up in a small, clean hotel, not necessarily fancy, in an exotic town. Paulo Coelho, as far as I know, lives in a hotel. He has two rooms to himself: in one he lives and in the other he writes. But then, he is Paulo Coelho: the royalties from The Alchemist alone must be sufficient enough to take care of the basic rent.

You don't really have to be a Paulo Coelho in order to afford a hotel where you can write in peace. In towns like, say, Kannur in Kerala or Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, you can get a fairly decent, airconditioned room for Rs 500 a day. Add another Rs 300 for food and drinks, which means you are spending only Rs 800 a day. And considering that a decent book can be written in a span of six weeks -- well, Evelyn Waugh took only that long -- you spend less than Rs 35,000 to turn in a manuscript. In the bargain, you also get to check out a new town.

The hotel can be a home but the home cannot be a hotel. When at home, the constant doorbells keep reminding you that you exist. But in a hotel, the choice is yours whether to declare if you are still alive. Home is where you are bound by responsibilities and commitments, but staying in a hotel is like being in a relationship with no strings attached: you can depart or return at your will. No one questions you, neither are you obliged to explain anything.

What can be a better way of starting the day: you get out of the bed and pull back the curtains and look out at a new town. You then call room service for tea or coffee, and over coffee, read the newspaper. If you have run out of cigarettes to give you company for coffee, you can always ask the waiter to get you a pack. And then the breakfast, which is always very special in a hotel, considering the choices you are offered. After a good breakfast, you can easily clock 2,000 words by lunchtime, when you order a beer and write another 1,000 words till the food, of your whim, is brought in by the waiter.

Whether you write after lunch or take a nap, the decision is purely yours -- there are no doorbells to answer or appointments to be kept. Around five in the evening, you take a walk around the town which you are now getting familiar with, treat yourself to some street food and return to the hotel by seven. You shower if you feel like, watch TV for a while and then order your drinks over phone. You sit down to write again, clocking another 2,000 words before it strikes you that you must eat something now. You don't have to go through your kitchen or fridge shelves to decide what's for dinner: there's a telephone within your arm's reach. And so the day ends, with you having done 5,000 words. Multiply that by 42, which is the equivalent of six weeks, and you have 2.5 lakh words to show for!

Considering that a regular book contains only 60,000 to one lakh words, you can perhaps take it a little easy and treat yourself to little pleasures of life that are best savoured in the privacy of a hotel room. But make sure you don't fall below 2,000 words a day.

So easy, isn't it? But then.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ranganathan Street

From the second anniversary edition of Times Of India, Chennai:

A SHORT WALK DOWN DISCOUNT LANE


Ranganathan Street: The Spirit Never Sags At T Nagar’s Golden Mile For Shoppers

Bishwanath Ghosh | TNN


IF the people after whom streets are named got paid a small token amount, say 50 paise, for every footfall, then the kin of Rangaswamy Iyengar would easily be one of the richest families in India. Not that Rangaswamy Iyengar would have accepted the money: the sub-collector of Madras Presidency, who built a house in T Nagar after retirement, was so humble and god-fearing that when the civic authorities suggested that the street on which he lived be named after him, he requested them to name it after Lord Ranganatha instead. So, what was about to be called Rangaswamy Street became Ranganathan Street.

If you want to punish someone for a heinous crime without being brutal, make him count the number of people on Ranganathan Street from 10 am to 10 pm everyday, till he gets the accurate figure: chances are he will count heads for the rest of his life, so crowded the street is. At 2 pm, with the sun blazing overhead, the crowd may be thinner, but only compared to what it was in the morning –– for the rest of Chennai, it is still the most crowded street, even at that hour.

Till a few years ago, two sugarcane juice shops on either side of the street, greeted you as you entered Ranganathan Street from Usman Road. One shop displayed its loyalty to the DMK on its signboard, while the other declared its love for the AIADMK. When election results came out, you didn’t have to switch on TV to know which party was winning: you could tell from a glance at these two shops. If the DMK-supporting shop had downed its shutter, you knew the AIADMK had won, and vice-versa. But some time ago, the AIADMK juice shop became a garments store, leaving the portrait of a smiling Karunanidhi, gracing the signboard of the rival shop, to welcome you.

In an upmarket mall, you might, in a genteel fashion, call them lingerie or innerwear. But out here, on the pavements, the nomenclature is without any frills –– just bra and panty, so is the display –– dozens of pieces piled up in stacks, serving as the front office for vendors who also sell nighties and hankies and towels. Rubbing shoulders with them are those who sell cheap toys and ‘Rolax’ watches. Looming over these vendors and their wares are the big stores –– gigantic in size, exhaustive in range. Cool breeze wafting out these air-conditioned shops create pockets of respite as you walk under the sun, wondering why anyone, at this hour, would stop by one of the stalls selling cutlets and vadas glistening with oil. But tastes differ: the stalls are doing decent business.

Even the elderly, sunbaked woman who sits almost in the middle of the street with a basketful of jasmine is unruffled by the fact that her flowers are wilting under the sun. She knows she will find buyers. That’s the thing about Ranganathan Street: the hawkers don’t run after you. They know that of the thousands who walk the street, a small fraction is bound to stop. As for the gigantic stores, the attendants behave as if they are doing you a favour by responding to your call.

One sari store is so huge that it even has a reception lounge, as if it is a corporate hospital. In the air-conditioned lounge, women, in small groups, are squatting. They are clutching bags bursting with saris, but they all seem to be in a daze, as if they have a close relative fighting for life in one of the wards. The women, who seem to be from neighbouring towns, are clearly dizzied by the size of the store and the variety of saris they have had to choose from.

You keep walking. More bras, panties and nighties. And then yet another big store, which can easily the one-stop shop for a man marrying off his daughter. A board outside the shop gives an important piece of information:

Gold 1 gm Rs 1448; Silver 1 gm Rs 29.60

You walk on. Suddenly you notice Mambalam railway station. You’ve reached the end of Ranganathan Street. Once again, the smell of crushed sugarcane pervades the air, but this juice shop seems to be apolitical. You really don’t need to be loyal to any political party in order to make a living from Ranganathan Street: all you need is common sense.

Look at these two women: one of them is selling raw tamarind as well as safety pins — what a combo — while the other is selling drumsticks as well as ladies’ hankies — what a combo again. But look at their business sense: while you are looking at the hankies, you might suddenly remember that you have run out of drumsticks to prepare the next day’s sambhar; or while you are buying drumsticks to prepare the next day’s sambhar, it might suddenly strike you that all your hankies are worn out and it’s time you bought some new ones.

And the best part is, while rest of the city takes a lunch break and indulges in an inevitable post-lunch laziness, Ranganathan Street, even under the blazing sun, has its business — and business sense — alive and kicking.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Ganga Mail at 400

This evening, a careful look at the dashboard made me realise that Ganga Mail is almost 400 posts old now -- 388 to be precise. Not a very large number, considering that this blog has been around for over four years and that there are 365 days in a year. But not a small number either, considering each of these posts have been painstakingly written, mostly in the dead of the night.

Only the first 20 or 25 were written during the afternoon, but that was because I was a bachelor then and lonely too and I didn't know how else to spend a gloomy, rainy day other than drinking and writing. Those days I was not required to show up at work all six days. And those days the blog used to be called Thought Process. But soon after, I discovered someone else had a blog by that name too. Moreover, I was myself not too happy with the name: I had wanted something that would be in sync with the URL of the blog, www.bytheganges.blogspot.com. Then it suddenly struck me.

Only about a year before that, I had travelled to Haridwar and to Allahabad, in immediate succession, and I had written a piece for the paper comparing the Ganga to a long-distance train running across the Hindi heartland: the coaches, the seats, the toilets are all clean when it starts from the originating station, and by the time it nears its destination, they all get soiled. And yet, thousands and thousands of people take this train every day in search of that elusive destination called salvation. I had titled the piece On the Ganga Mail.

Suddenly, I had found a new name for my blog. Salvation is always elusive, but in order to live you must seek it, and in order to seek it you need to make the journey. This blog is nothing but an account of a journey -- the journey that began two months before my 35th birthday and continues even three months after my 39th birthday. Was I really making the journey, or was I just standing on the bridge all these years, watching the Ganga flow under it, carrying with it the embers of my youth? I don't know.

Whether you are journeying or standing static, you can't avoid being carried piggyback by Father Time. And so you grow old. And at times, you also grow. Readers of Ganga Mail, those who want to know the real me, should read the first 200 posts. After that, it is the modified me. Did marriage change me? I don't think so, because one night, barely two months after our marriage, when my wife was to take the flight to Mumbai the next morning (she was going to be away for a month), I remember keeping her waiting for dinner and writing a post on idlis.

At times I regret having done that: after all, I was just writing a blog post, not even a cover story or a column for the paper, and that too on idlis! How shameful! But there are times when I think: what's so shameful about it? As a writer when you are seized by an idea, you are bound to become blind to everything else till you have finished saying whatever you had set out to say -- doesn't matter if the subject is as frivolous as idlis and if the publishing house is as insignificant as your own blog. What matters is the urge to write and the obsession to put your thoughts across as simply as possible.

My wife, very fortunately, understands all this and lets me be. The fact that I could conceive and write Chai, Chai only after I got married and can now think of writing many more books speaks volumes of the luxurious atmosphere she has created for me at home in order to write. This, in spite of the fact that she writes too. And unlike me, she does not need alcohol or an unending supply of cigarettes or the tranquil of the night to write. She has a repository of short stories, some of which I have read. My first reaction, as soon as I began reading her stories, was to straighten out the opening sentences without even knowing what followed next. Finally I decided to keep the trained sub-editor inside me on a leash and read through the stories like a lay man, only to silently wonder in the end, "Why didn't such ideas ever come to me!"

When you have a woman who is a sensible wife and a sensitive writer and above all a dignified human being, the least you can do is to keep her sensibilities in mind while writing a personal blog. In that sense, marriage has, over the years, changed the way I write. Even then, the change has only been minor: the things I write about still remain the same, only that they are now expressed more in the general sense than personal. Literary licence has its limits too: it may work fine for a book but not necessarily for a personal blog.

Age also is a factor, why blame marriage alone: at 30 or 35, you can openly write about your fascination for, say, breasts. But when you are touching 40, you are slightly dignified about the manner in which you express your thoughts. You either avoid a direct reference or call them mammaries instead of boobs or tits, at least while writing.

But then, what's in a name. Really. A sheep's clothing does not turn a wolf into a sheep, does it? So the journey continues, my dear friends. Welcome aboard Ganga Mail.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Two Questions

Being a journalist, I can find easily the answers to these questions with a bit of legwork or by making a couple of phone calls, but at times it gives you more pleasure to wonder aloud and throw up questions instead of searching for answers which may only turn out to be silly excuses.

1. Why doesn't Chennai, instead of painfully doing up its existing airport, have a brand new airport somewhere on the outskirts? The airport is located on GST Road, a very busy road, and no matter how much you renovate or expand it, the volume of traffic on the road will remain unchanged and will increase with time. What is the point of having a swanky airport if you still have to grapple with traffic on your way to catch a flight? Why not free the road of airport traffic? -- it will be good for the road as well as for passengers: both can breathe easy.

The planners of Bangalore and Hyderabad were not fools to have built swanky new airports way outside the city. In each of these cities, passengers headed for the airport are usually free from general traffic within 20 minutes of leaving home and for the next 20 minutes they zip across breathtaking terrain, breathing some fresh air on the way, before making it on time for the flight. And the moment you step into these airports, it is like stepping from a developing nation into a developed nation. Till 20 minutes ago you were part of third-world traffic, but now you are an international-class passenger!

All this while I was mighty impressed by the Delhi airport, which has truly reinvented itself into world class. The departure lounges even have a revolving brushes that shine your shoes. Then there is the new Bangalore airport, standing in the middle of breathtaking barrenness, which could give the Kuala Lumpur airport a run for its money. But it is the new Hyderabad airport that takes the cake. It is easily India's pride, as far as the aviation industry goes. Words can't describe its handsomeness or the beauty of the landscaping that surrounds it for a couple of miles.

Chennai airport, compared to it, is like a bus-stop: it does not even have a decent bookshop or a restaurant/cafeteria. It treats domestic passengers like cattle-class who deserve nothing better than rows of chairs and electronic display boards. Even if it matches Bangalore or Hyderabad in five years from now, big deal: things should have happened five years ago!

2. Why doesn't Chennai have radio cabs yet? Okay, there are radio cabs, what we call the 'call taxi', but they are nothing but a fleet of battered, non-airconditioned Maruti vans and Ambassadors run by private operators in their respective neighbourhoods for the benefit of passengers headed to the railway station or the airport.

But when you get out of the Chennai airport, the only decent mode of transport available is the 'pre-paid taxi', which is necessarily a rickety, smelly yellow-and-black Ambassador car whose driver often begs for a tip upon reaching the destination. This is 2010 and not 1970: why should the Chennai passenger still settle for a 1970-built Ambassador which smells like a horse and which has no air-conditioning and still pay through his nose? Why can't he stride out of the airport in style and hail a Meru cab and get to his destination in style and comfort?

For the uninitiated, Meru is a company that has changed lives in Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. It runs a huge fleet of cabs, mostly airconditioned Tata Indicas, which are fitted with digital tamper-proof meters that give you a printed receipt and an automated voice system that warns the driver: "You are crossing the speed limit. Please slow down." The voice, that of a woman, can be irritating when you know your driver is speeding only because there is no one on the road for miles ahead, but it still does its job of pricking his conscience. Why should a Chennaiite still have to make do with smelly, rickety Ambassadors, whose drivers behave as if they are doing their passengers a great favour by bringing them home and sulk if you don't tip them?

Any answers?