Sunday, May 30, 2010

Of Samosas And Abuses

Bhaiyyon aur behenon, it's time for some chai-samosa and gaali-galauch.

As many of you know, I was born in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh and lived there for the first 23 years of my life and go there at least once every year. Two things I miss about living in Uttar Pradesh: the samosas and the gaalis. Both lend flavour to the culture that bred me. This Sunday afternoon, as I pour myself some beer after a late breakfast of dosas and coconut chutney, my tongue is suddenly craving for Tiwariji's samosas and my ears are yearning to overhear some gaalis.

Before we proceed, let me caution you that this post is not for the genteel reader who gets easily offended by or cringes at the mention of obscene abusive words. So if you are the kind who plugs fingers into your ears whenever you find two men fighting and showering abuses on each other, my apologies to you: kindly skip this and proceed to my previous posts. Better still, read the post and pretend that you haven't.

My deepest apologies also to Mother Ganga, for writing this dirty post on the Ganga Mail. But then, it is in her lap that these profanities that I am going to showcase have prospered over the centuries. Also, what is the big deal: many Indian writers, starting with Khushwant Singh and Shobhaa De, have used dirty Hindi words in their books.

Just that dirty words sound dirtier when mentioned in Hindi or any vernacular language. 'Fuck' is so commonplace these days that no one bats an eyelid either while uttering it or listening to it. Now try saying the same word in Hindi (though 'fuck' or 'fuck you', as an exclamation, does not have an accurate equivalent in any other Indian language unless you bring in mothers and sisters into the picture) and it will sound crude. But that does not absolve you of the crime: why should 'fuck' be sexy and acceptable and its Hindi translation crude? We need to break the colonial mindset. So here goes.

First, the samosas though. Tiwariji runs a mithai shop in my neighbourhood in Kanpur. His samosas, I can vouch for it, are the best I've ever had. Too sad he will never get to read this blog. There are other shops in the neighbourhood which make samosas that are almost as good, only that they fry fresh samosas at particular times of the day -- usually at eight in the morning and five in the evening. You are extremely lucky if you happen to be at any of these shops when a bunch of samosas is just being ladled out of the boiling oil. Tiwariji's shop, however, has a heated glass case that keeps samosas fresh and warm long after they have been ladled out.

Outside of Uttar Pradesh, the samosas have been utterly disappointing for me. A good samosa, according to me, has a crisp shell: the moment you bite into it, you run into mashed potato flavoured with fried cumin, roasted cumin powder and dried mango powder. But in samosas that I've had elsewhere, the shell is hard and oily, and once you break through it, you find mashed potato richly embellished with paneer or other local delicacies. Worse, I have never seen them being freshly fried: the attendant heats it up for you in the microwave oven. What the fuck! Samosas and jalebis are something that become immensely delectable only when a karhai filled with oil is in sight.

Samosas being freshly fried for you: they are symbols of small-town innocence and honesty that become more defined as you move towards eastern Uttar Pradesh. Land up in any roadside shop in eastern UP, especially in a small town by the Ganga, and have a glass of tea and two samosas -- you will remember the experience for the rest of your life. That's the true flavour of Uttar Pradesh!

Now the other flavour -- the gaalis. As long as you are not the recipient, the gaalis are as delectable as the samosas. The gaalis, even though crude, have a certain zaayka (tang) and tehzeeb (good mannners). The same gaalis, by the time they reach Delhi, become more Punjabi and crude to listen to. But within the borders of Uttar Pradesh, they are so listenable and I so miss them.

"Teri maa ka bhosra!" These were the precise words that woke me up on the morning November 2, 1984. Indira Gandhi had just been assassinated, and there was curfew in most of north India, including Kanpur. People were supposed to be indoors. On that sunny winter morning, a policeman on a bicycle mouthed these dirty words as he chased the last of the cricket-playing boys out of the ground that my house overlooked. It was so funny, and still not so funny.

The best abuses come out spontaneously during day-to-day situations, be it a boy arguing with a friend, be it a police constable scolding a tempo driver, or two colleagues having a heated discussion. But when two men at each others throats exchange abuses, it's the right time to listen in and build your vocabulary of bad words.

Sitting in Chennai, however, these are some of the common expressions that I sorely miss:

"Aukat mein raho, samjhe? Nahin to gaand kaat denge tumhari."

"Jis din gaand kaat ke haath mein de diya na, sab rangbaazi utar jaayegi, samjhe bhosrikey?"

"Teri maiyya chodoon."

"Jab gaand pe do laath padegi, tab samajh mein aayega."

What kickass statements! There are many more. Many, many more. But it's time for lunch. So got to go.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On The Ganga Mail. Destination: Salvation

It turns out that my previous post, on the moon, was the 400th on Ganga Mail. A nice way to touch the four-century mark, considering that I quite like the moon post. It could have been better -- but that's always the case.

By now, after four and a half years and four hundred posts, I realise there is enough on Ganga Mail to make for a voluminous, autobiographical book. Alas, publishers don't touch blogs, unless you are a 'name'. About two years ago, during one of those moments of high when I felt Ganga Mail could be a book, I wrote to a publisher. The reply, surprisingly, was prompt: "Unfortunately we do not publish blogs. Please get in touch with us when you have written a novel."

Well, you can't really publish a blog. A blog is something already published. How can you publish the published? But there are people who are either allergic to or ignorant about the internet, and people who derive the pleasure of reading only from printed pages and not with the help of the scroll-down key. When you hold a book in your hands, the author belongs to you, at least for the moment; but when you read him on the internet, he is just one of the many people out there: if you don't like a particular piece, you hop over into the arms of others who are eagerly waiting for your attention.

So yes, it would be nice to see Ganga Mail in the form of a book, especially because it encapsulates the journey of a man who was still a boy even at 35 -- at times petulant, at times lonely, at times adventurous -- and who is now trying to grow up as he nears 40. And strangely, for me, it was during these five years that life-changing moments chose to visit me, one after the other, after having ignored me for three and a half decades: I got a wife, I lost my mother, I had a book published.

Ganga Mail effectively captures -- or so I think -- the various rollercoaster rides that I've had in recent years. It is, basically, an account of my life. It would be extremely gratifying to see readers carrying the account, in the form of a book, in their hands. Not because of vanity, but because my story is their story too -- only the circumstances and the timings might be different. Nothing can be more satisfying for a writer than finding readers discovering themselves in the sentences written by him. Someday, someday soon -- when many of the posts I've written are altered and expanded to be accommodated in a new book!

But irrespective of that, Ganga Mail continues to be the evidence of my existence. It is the most authentic bio-data that I can ever boast of, provided you take the trouble of wading through the archives. What I may appear to you in person might just be make-believe, but what I am in Ganga Mail is real, very real. Ganga Mail is my secret diary which I have left open for all to see.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Moon

I live on the fourth, the topmost floor, of a building that has no lift. Every night when I get home, which is around midnight, I have to negotiate eight flights of stairs in total darkness since the watchman would have long switched off the lights and gone to sleep. Since I can climb the stairs blind-folded, thanks to years of familiarity, I haven't felt the need to ask the watchman to keep the lights on.

But the other night, something magical happened. As I got into the staircase, mentally prepared to climb up in darkness, I found it gently lit up. I looked up. The tubelight was switched off, as usual. Perhaps a neighbour's door was open, letting the light out? That was the not the case either. Then I spotted the source of the silvery light: the moon. Oh, I had forgotten that the moon gives light. So I climbed slowly, guided by the natural light of the night at every alternate flight of stairs, trying to recall when was the last time I did something under the moonlight.

I could not recall then, but I remember now. It was in Kanpur, four or five summers ago, when I was drinking with my brother on the terrace of our house. It was like drinking under the glow of nature's zero-watt lamp: gentle, but bright enough to see the facial features of people around you and even read the label on the whiskey bottle. It is only when you do nothing that you notice the moon, and it is only in Kanpur that I do nothing.

The moon, however, has always been there. It still shines the way it shone when poets and songwriters were inspired by it. Only that we don't notice it anymore because we neither have the time nor the place. Today we all live in flats, in which the sky visible from the window is as good as a wall; and even if we have a terrace, who really has the time to go there and bathe in the moonlight? I can only hope that Uncle Moon, pissed off by the lack of attention and admiration he has been enjoying for centuries, does not decide to stop shining. You never know know, he might just tell you one fine day: "You silly buggers, you deserve tubelights and neon lights. I am off. Don't call me again."

I hope the day doesn't come till I've fulfilled two desires of mine. One, to throw a moonlight, or moonlit, bash in a farmhouse (preferably by the sea) where the dance floor and the bar are illuminated solely by the full moon. How gorgeous the women would look in the silvery glow!

Desire number two, to make love on a charpoy on the terrace of a house in a small town where no building is tall and close enough to overlook the terrace you are holed up in. The gentle light of the moon lets you see what you want to see, and yet it doesn't let you see what she doesn't want you to see.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

The Magic Of 50 Paise

Here's a thought -- rather a scheme -- that comes to my mind once in a while. Alas, it is going to remain a thought and in never going to materialise, but no harm sharing it with you all. Who knows, some of you may even thank me.

What does one rupee mean to you? Forget one rupee, what does a 50-paise coin mean to you? Nothing, right? Even a beggar considers it an insult when you drop a 50-paise coin onto his or her palm. And it is only once in a blue moon that you actually find a 50-paise in your wallet these days. If a one-rupee or a 50-paise coin drops off your pocket, you are most likely to let it go because in order to pick it up, you have to bend, and bending can be such a pain, more painful than losing just half a rupee.

Such a useless piece of metal, the 50-paise coin! What can it get you these days, apart from a toffee? Even matchboxes cost Re 1. In other words, a 50-paise coin is something anyone can part with, even the poorest of the poor.

Now let's do the math. The population of India, till a couple of years ago, stood at 1,139,964,932. Assuming that on the average, four people make a household, the figure tranlates into 2,84,991,233 households. Go to each of these households and beg/ask for a 50-paise coin. If your ego comes in the way, invent a cause: child care, cancer care, saving the planet, saving the animals, and so on. Your enterprise will increase your bank balance by Rs 1,42,495,616! The idea might sound a joke, but the money isn't!

By my calculation (I am a bit drunk now), the amount works out to Rs 14 crore. Even if you invest Rs 4 crore in reaching every nook and corner of India to collect the 50-paise coin from each household, you are still left with Rs 10 crore. Ten fucking crores! And considering that lakhs of sympathetic households will oblige you with a lot more than just 50 paise, you can easily add a few more crores to the amount collected. That should make you worth about, say, Rs 15 crore. Fifteen fucking crores! You can either buy a house in London or a house each in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata.

Too lazy to travel or plan for things outside your city? Never mind. Stick to your city. The population of Chennai, I am told, is 4,631,704. By my calcutation, that should work out to 1,157,926 households. Now go to every household and ask for a 50-paise coin, and in no time you will be richer by Rs 5,78,963. Nearly Rs 6 lakh! And considering that thousands of sympathetic households will oblige you with a lot more than just 50 paise, you can easily be richer by Rs 10 lakh overnight!

Now imagine if you were to collect one rupee instead of 50 paise from every household by coming up with a scheme, 'Save the planet: one household, one rupee.' You would be richer by Rs 20 lakh overnight. Considering that thousands of sympathetic households and business houses will oblige you with a lot more than just one rupee, you can safely hope to make Rs 30 or Rs 40 lakh overnight. Who needs a housing loan from HDFC?

If you are shamelessly lazy enough to venture out of even your neighbourhood, then collect Re 1 from every household in, say, T Nagar or Adyar. In a matter of weeks, you would collect enough to make a trip to Bangkok and get a Thai massage, if not a trip to Paris. I would chose Paris, to take a look at the cafes where Hemingway wrote. But I just don't have the time to beg for so much of money, so I would rather earn it one of these days and take off. But then, it is not a bad idea at all: to go door to door and ask for 50 paise.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Hawker

Whenever I am in Kanpur, I am woken up, every morning, by the call of the vegetable hawker. He pushes his cart, or the thela, street to street, calling out the names of the vegetables sitting in small heaps on the cart. It can be very irritating to be woken up by a shrill voice drilling into your ears, but each morning, the moment I go up to the terrace and light my first cigarette of the day, I forgive the hawker. He is, after all, doing his job.

It is not easy being a hawker. You are the managing director-cum-salesman of your one-man company whose fortunes vary day to day. The company's policy is clear: keep starvation at bay. So each hawker comes up with a signature tune to get housewives out of their homes and wave him down. I don't know if hawkers try out various ways of calling out before settling for one particular style that catches their fancy, or whether they naturally evolve a style during their initial days on the job. Either way, they know how to be effective.

Why don't you ever miss the call, Chai! chai!, which usually modulates into a throaty Chaayeh! chaayey!, at railway stations? Not only that: the way he calls out actually makes you want to have tea!

Ditto for the vegetable hawker. There are usually about half a dozen varieties of vegetables adorning his cart. So which vegetable should figure first and which the last in his self-made, crude, orchestra-less jingle? And what should be the order of the vegetables that find mention in between? Obviously, there is a method to it -- a secret the hawker alone knows. All I know is that he is bloody effective: the modulation in his voice tickles your gastric juices and makes you buy his stuff. He spares you a trip to the vegetable shop or the supermarket, while you spare him of poverty -- at least for that day. In other words, his target for the day has been achieved.

Now look at the number of CEOs who, in spite of sporting medals of education and experience on their chests, keep getting fired every other day for failing to achieve targets. And this guy, the hawker, is not even educated. He is not even a poet or a lyricist or a copywriter. Yet he is able to compose a one-liner and set it to a tune that is catchy enough to draw housewives out of their houses and flock to his cart.

The way I look at it, the CEO merely seeks to implement what he has learnt in the classroom, whereas the hawker, who has never seen a classroom, has his finger on the pulse of his target audience. You will notice one thing about them: no hawker ever apes the other. Each one tries to be distinctly different while calling out.

Also, classroom-educated CEOs are usually scared to deviate from what they've read in the textbooks. They are scared to take risks. The hawker, on the other hand, has no textbooks to fall back on. Hardship is his textbook, and he does not hesitate taking risks because he has nothing to lose. It is, therefore, not surprising at all that many of the business magnates who get written about in the papers today were once upon a time hawkers or petty shopkeepers.

Of what use, then, is qualification? Qualification, at best, can earn you bread and butter and maybe a decent life. That's about it. It won't take you up there, where you want to be. Dhirubhai Ambani never went to a business school, Amitabh Bachchan never went to the film institute, Hemingway did not take a course in creative writing, Mahendra Singh Dhoni did not enrol in an expensive cricket academy, Capt. Gopinath was only a pilot and not a businessman -- the list is endless. The finest sub-editor I've ever come across, Peter Mosley, the former and highly respected news editor of Reuters, never went to a journalism school. I spent two weeks with him in London, learning the nuances of news writing and editing, and the humble man never shied away from mentioning that he started off his career in Reuters as the boy who served tea.

Why are these people what they are? Because, in some way or the other, they are like the hawker who wakes me every morning when I am in Kanpur.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Dinner Date

Tonight I was about to write about Kishore Kumar, because this morning I read something very heart-warming about him. But about an hour ago, two friends -- a man and a woman -- happened to be passing my house and they asked me if I could come down to say Hi. They thought it was too late for them to come up. So I pulled a T-shirt over my lungi and went down and sat in their car.

Thirty minutes past midnight. Murugesan Street at its quietest best. Good time to talk. We enquired about one another's work, about common friends, and also discussed people who may not be common friends but of interest to us. This man, that woman, the babe we met the other day, the good-looking guy who has not been seen for a long time, and so on. The enquiries about the men did not interest me much -- how do I care, but my antenna was very much up when the women's names were being lobbed. The kind of names that sizzled in the chilled air inside the car: the charming best of Chennai! But then, these friends of mine happen to be high-society people, who consider any drink other than wine with suspicion. Whereas I buy my quota of alcohol from the government-run 'wine shops' and have spent most of my life in Chennai drinking from the filthy, dingy bars attached to these shops.

Whether you are a 'wine' man or a 'wine shop' man, who doesn't like to hear about women, that too when the women in question are worth aspiring for? I knew of most of the women whose names were mentioned, but I did not know anyone -- not even remotely. When one particular name was mentioned, I felt a little emboldened to press for more info, and my friend, the man, said in his clipped accent:

"Well, she is the hottest babe I know. But if you really want to know her, you probably have to take her out to dinner in one of the best places in town. Get her the best wine, the best food, only then she might agree to come."

"Oh really," I found myself whispering. He had heard it.

"Why not? Just imagine this, when she comes, she is going to dress up for you. What more do you want, brother?"

I have this terrible habit: the moment a scenario occurs to me or is described to me, I lose no time imagining it. So there I am, with Ms X or Ms Y, at the table of a dimly-lit restaurant with only a candle and a bottle of wine separating us. Two waiters are standing at a respectable distance, just in case we need something. She gets up to go to the restroom, and that's when I check out her posterior, and when she walks back, I try to assess the overall package from a distance and quickly return my gaze to the glass of wine the moment she reclaims her seat. There has been no conversation so far, only small talk. More small talk over the pasta that follows. And then the waiter gets the bill: Rs 4730! The waiters deserve 10% of it as tip, but it is much easier to square off the amount by adding another Rs 270. So Rs 5000! -- only to check out a woman! No, thanks. No, really, thanks. I would rather have a woman take me out in order to check me out -- oh, I am just joking!

But seriously, think of the things you can do with Rs 5000: you can buy 10 best DVDs of your choice, or 25 books that you always wanted to buy but never had the money to buy them in one go, or, simply, stock up on you month's quota of liquor that will perhaps make you write 50,000 words of sensible stuff. Who needs a woman!

But you need women, of course. I mean, why the hell are you slogging, after all. But the kind of women that help you slog and share your spoils are not the kind who expect to be taken out for an expensive dinner before they decide to set foot into your world. They set foot on your world, and you set foot into theirs, only because two wires have connected. Why let the hotel play the prohibitively expensive electrician who merely touches two wires to see whether sparks emanate? What if there are no sparks -- the money goes down the drain, doesn't it?

My approach has always been simple: get a local electrician to connect the two wires first. He won't charge you more than Rs 10. If there is a spark, you can regally stride into a candle-lit restaurant and get down to the business of feeling good, unfettered by anxiety and the obligation of making small talk. Chances are even she might foot the bill!

In any case, the route from the bed to the candle-lit restaurant is any day more gratifying and sunlit than the anticipated route from the restaurant to the bed, which usually stinks of a scheme and is fraught with uncertainties.

So where do you find the electrician? Well, you don't even have to dial for him. All you need to do is log on. If she says 'definite' instead of 'definate', you know the electrician has got the right set of wires to connect. And if the first sentence she types or writes makes you want her to type many more, then you know the sparks are beginning to fly. And if her sentences make you toss and turn in bed, then the sparks are flying full-fledged. You are on. You have checked her out, without spending a penny! Oh fuck the money, we are talking about quality.

Tell me honestly: would you prefer a woman who doesn't know you and dresses up to impress you, or a woman who knows you well and still dresses up only for you?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Touch

Touch. It is perhaps the most deceptive word in any language. On the face of it, it is all about the surface, but in reality, it digs into your depths.

'Touch' is a word that denotes the most superficial and harmless of acts, physically speaking, yet it invariably acts like a ladle that plunges deep into your mind or body and stirs your insides, bringing to the surface what is hidden deep inside and sending to the bottom what floats on the surface.

The touch of a live electric wire can kill a man, while the touch of a woman he desires can bring a dead man alive. On the other hand, the accidental touch of shoulders between a man and a woman deeply desiring each other but who have not yet touched each other so far can electrify the atmosphere -- be it a crowded bus or a claustrophobic elevator or the hallowed corridor in the workplace.

When you have to pacify a child who has not done well in the exams or has lost a football match, you begin with a touch. When you want to console a friend for a death in his or her family, you gently place your hand on the shoulder. The touch has always the desired effect as long as it is an honest one: the feelings permeate the flesh and the bones and reach the desired destination that is located deep inside.

Even in bed, the wildest of actions begin with a touch. She may be well aware what is on your mind, and you may have a fair idea what's on her mind too (or else why'd she be there in the first place?), but you still have to follow the protocol of 'touch'. Doesn't matter if the fingers touch the fingers, toes touch the toes, shoulder touches the shoulder, or something else touches something else. But touch one must. Or else what is the difference between a dog who will make a dash for the mutton biryani at a buffet, and a human who will first have some soup (even if he is not used to having soups), then lift a plate and queue up and allow some biryani to be served onto it?

Once the biryani is on the plate, it does not matter how you eat it: like a dog or a human. But if you are a human, you have to go through the drill of touching, in this case a warm ceramic plate.

Today, most of us have everything we need on our platter, yet we lack -- and crave for -- the basic thing that stokes wants in life: the touch. It is not as if touch is in short supply. Touch, in fact, is in abundance. You only have to stretch out your hand to touch or to be touched. But elusive, forever, is the touch you most crave for, and the object you most want to touch.

Why did I write about 'touch' tonight?

This morning, I went to Sholinganallur, a township on the outskirts of Chennai. In the peak-hour traffic, I noticed a bike snailing alongside my car. Astride it was a young, handsome couple. Since I do not drive and like to be on the backseat smoking a cigarette and watching the world go past, I had the luxury of taking a close look at the couple. In spite of his helmet, I could tell that the man was in his late 20's. He was well-built. The woman on the pillion was just my kind of woman: a dizzying beauty who perhaps did not have a mirror at home to tell her what a head-turner she was. She sat rather awkwardly on the bike, squinting under the sun. I almost held open the door for her, "Babe, just step in." But the words that actually escaped my breath were, "Wow, what a couple!"

The traffic began to move. So did the bike. That's when it struck me: they were not a couple. The woman, all through the bike ride, had just one preoccupation: not to let her breasts touch the man's back. The traffic came to a sudden halt every now and then, but she held on tightly to the grip at the backseat to save her chest from the man driving her. Finally, at one traffic junction, when the red light was still on, she climbed down from the bike and waved goodbye to the man. The man smiled and waved back and became part of the general traffic: my eyes were no longer following him.

But the eyes at the back of my mind still followed the woman, who was now long lost behind in the chaos. Who was she? What did she really mean to the man who had just transported her from point A to point B? One could spend a lifetime guessing that, but one thing is sure: the woman had ensured to keep something completely out of the way -- the touch. And that goes on to show the importance of a touch in human lives and the kind of things it can trigger, even if accidental.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Template, Contemplate

Of late I have been thinking of changing the template of my blog. It is a minimalist template, the sort I like, but it does not have many features or applications that present-day templates have. Not that I really need those features, but when I see other people's blogs, I feel outdated. I guess it is time to change.

Yet I am hesitant. For one, it is tedious to look for a template that suits your taste, especially if you are looking for a minimalist template. I am yet to come across one that would make me abandon, without regrets, this particular template that I have been faithful to for over four years now. Had I been a techie, I would have meddled around with the codes and created one to my liking. So that's one obstacle.

Obstacle no. 2 is my own mindset. The look of this blog is the only thing about me that has remained unchanged over the past four years. Everything else has changed and is changing rather rapidly. This is the only relic that remains from the era of happiness, like a grandfather's pipe or pen. Should I exchange it for a new pen?

I remain undecided. The Ganga, meanwhile, continues to flow.