Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Malibu Delight

At times, at times, comments such as the one reproduced below are such a delight to read. In just a few paragraphs, this man (or woman?) has held my hand and taken me on a guided tour of Ruskin Bond's Mussourie and Naipaul's Trinidad. I imagine the person to be living somewhere by the sea, where the sun is setting now and he, or she, has just shut the laptop and is reaching for the white bottle of Malibu. Cheers!

Very well written. You have a wonderful way with words Ghosh-babu, please don't waste it by writing odes to Kishore Kumar all the time.

While you were writing about the books you love, Ruskin Bond would have probably written about the bamboo rack you so casually mentioned. He would throw in a description of the dingy corner store in Mussoorie, he bought it from, and a paragraph about the unkempt store owner, who must have quarreled with his wife in the morning. If you want to feel how powerful words can be, you should read a short story he wrote describing his last day with his father. I remember tearing up the first time I read it.

Naipaul is another man. I remember reading An area of darkness in the eighties, shortly before making a trip to the Caribbean. I almost wanted to see the Banyan tree in the botanical gardens, where the Hindus would perform their ceremonies after taking permission from the authorities. The man is brutal, and spares no one. His description of the boring north Indian style of architecture in Trinidad, brought over by the indentured workers makes you feel like there is no future for us Indians. I remember a little section where he makes a trip to his ancestral village in India, only to be followed around by a distant relative carrying a sack full of rice, who wanted Naipaul to have his fair share of the family's inheritance.

He probably treats Kashmir with a little bit of respect. While Ruskin Bond would have gone around smelling the Deodars and the Chinars, Naipaul simply restrains himself.

I think you picked an awesome book as your first one, but if you like to enjoy your small-town hopping trips of India, taking mental photographs of the quaint bungalows and airbrushing the weeds out, Naipal will shatter your dreams. He definitely broke my heart when as a Desi in Pardes, I could no longer resist the tugs of home.

Will look forward to more such posts from you. Time for my Sundowner, it's amazing how good life is when Malibu tangos with pineapple juice...

My First Book

This post is being written at the request of BlogAdda, which is running a contest on 'My Oldest Book and its Memories'. I am writing it, not with the hope of winning a prize, but because it gives me the opportunity to escape from an incomplete manuscript one more night.

I grew up surrounded by books at home, but they were all Bengali books. All hard-bound, all smelling delicious. I think my father wanted to be a writer. As a child -- I must have been eight or nine then, and my father about 35 -- I have seen him filling up a bunch of foolscape papers night after night. I was too young to ask what he was writing or who he was writing for. At times, I would find chunks of the manuscript crossed out with a red ball pen. I am not sure if he ever published anything. Or else I would have known.

My father's habit of reading and writing was eventually killed by my mother. She would keep on badgering him to take on more responsibilities of running a family, and soon, my father became like any other father in the neighbourhood. The foolscape papers disappeared first and then the hardbound books. After that I never saw a book at home. Though there were magazines floating in the house all the time: Manorama, Grihashobha, Saheli, Sarita, Filmfare, Star & Syle, Showtime, Stardust, Cine Blitz, India Today, Sunday, Probe, Mirror, Society, Savvy, Women's Era, Eve's Weekly, Femina, Gentleman... I grew up on them; they were largely responsible for my becoming a journalist.

It was on February 1, 1993 that I became a journalist. I reported for work at the Pioneer office in Lucknow, where I was to spend two weeks before returning home to join the soon-to-be-launched Kanpur edition. At the Lucknow office, I was told by the resident editor to return at four; that's when the newsdesk of a paper comes alive. So I went for a stroll in Hazratganj. There, I bought my very first book, Roget's Thesaurus. But a thesaurus cannot count as a book; in any case I rarely use one because I feel it only makes you adopt words that you don't need. A theft is a theft, why use 'heist'?

My first book, which I bought with my own money, with the knowledge that I was buying a book, was V.S. Naipual's An Area of Darkness. I bought the book sometime in 1994, shortly after I joined Pioneer. I used to be a regular reader of Gentleman magazine, and a guest columnist had once listed this book as one of the 10 must-reads. So I went to Current Book Depot on Mall Road, and bought the book.

I tried reading the book, but could not proceed beyond the very first paragraph in which Naipaul describes his landing at the Bombay port (his first ever visit to India) and being asked by a Goan who had been sent by the travel agency to see him through the customs, "You have any cheej?" It was not clear to me if the Goan actually meant cheese, or simply cheez, which means "stuff" or "goods." Naipaul himself did not seem to be clear about it. I left the book at that.

An Area of Darkness, therefore, is the oldest book I possess. When I moved from Kanpur to Delhi in August 1994, it travelled with me along with about half-a-dozen other books. Once in Delhi, I bought a small bamboo rack, big enough to hold only 30 or 40 books. I never thought I would ever need or come to possess more number of books than that.

Today I've lost count. The number of books in my collection could be anything between 800 and 1,000. But An Area of Darkness will always be special.

Back then, occasionally at nights, I would pull the book out from the bamboo rack and try reading it. It did not appeal to me the way, say, the autobiographies of Ruskin Bond, did. But it did plant the seed of travel in my subconscious -- the idea of travelling in order to discover people and places, and in the process, discovering yourself.

It's been a long journey since then; today I won't be able to recognise the young man who walked into Current Book Depot and bought An Area of Darkness. I've read the book several times since then, and each time it means something different to me. The last time I read it, which was a few months ago, it read like a complaint book.

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Sunday, November 28, 2010

'In The Dark All Cats Are Grey'

The advice Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States, gave to a young man on the choice of a mistress:

June 25, 1745

My dear Friend,

I know of no Medicine fit to diminish the violent natural Inclinations you mention; and if I did, I think I should not communicate it to you. Marriage is the proper Remedy. It is the most natural State of Man, and therefore the State in which you are most likely to find solid Happiness. Your Reasons against entering into it at present, appear to me not well-founded. The circumstantial Advantages you have in View by postponing it, are not only uncertain, but they are small in comparison with that of the Thing itself, the being married and settled. It is the Man and Woman united that make the compleat human Being. Separate, she wants his Force of Body and Strength of Reason; he, her Softness, Sensibility and acute Discernment. Together they are more likely to succeed in the World. A single Man has not nearly the Value he would have in that State of Union. He is an incomplete Animal. He resembles the odd Half of a Pair of Scissars. If you get a prudent healthy Wife, your Industry in your Profession, with her good Economy, will be a Fortune sufficient.

But if you will not take this Counsel, and persist in thinking a Commerce with the Sex inevitable, then I repeat my former Advice, that in all your Amours you should prefer old Women to young ones. You call this a Paradox, and demand my Reasons. They are these:

i. Because as they have more Knowledge of the World and their Minds are better stor'd with Observations, their Conversation is more improving and more lastingly agreable.

2. Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a 1000 Services small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.

3. Because there is no hazard of Children, which irregularly produc'd may be attended with much Inconvenience.

4. Because thro' more Experience, they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclin'd to excuse an old Woman who would kindly take care of a young Man, form his Manners by her good Counsels, and prevent his ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.

5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the Fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part: The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding2 only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.

6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her for Life unhappy.

7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflections; none of which can attend the making an old Woman happy.

8thly and Lastly They are so grateful!!

Thus much for my Paradox. But still I advise you to marry directly; being sincerely Your affectionate Friend.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Attraction

Twenty-two years have passed, but the sensations still linger. And then, last night, while trying to give voice to certain thoughts that kept criss-crossing my mind, I suddenly remembered that song -- and the film! Memories gushed back, and the sensations were ignited over again.

It was sometime in 1989 that I watched Aakarshan in a theatre called Sundar Talkies on Mall Road in Kanpur. (The theatre is now shut, like many others). The lead caste: Akbar Khan and Sonu Walia.

That was the time when I watched only two kinds of films -- the ones that had Jackie Shroff, and the soft-porn films exported from Kerala. Most of the time these soft-porn films would be dubbed in Hindi, but many of them retained the original soundtrack. The Hind-heartland audience, however, did not mind the Malayalam because they would come to the theatres to see and not to listen. But all these films would be given Hindi titles for the north Indian market, and the titles would invariably contain either the word 'Jawaani' or 'Jungle' or both. Only one of them had a numeral title: 4+4. I still can't figure what that denoted but that film had far more 'scenes' compared to the other Jungle-Jawaani films that I had seen. Oh yes, there is something else I remember from 4+4: the face of the lead character, a tall Malayali man with thick moustache, who was known as Dr Dinesh in the film -- a doctor who wore hawai chappals to the clinic.

So why spend an afternoon watching a film called Aakarshan, which had Akbar Khan, of all people, as the hero? I really don't know. I don't remember what made Anish and I stop by at Sundar Talkies and buy balcony tickets. Anish was my best friend.

Aakarshan turned out to be one of those films that lingers on your mind for days after you have watched it. The only other film that has had a similar affect on me was Rang De Basanti, which I watched first-day, first-show, in Kripa theatre in Trivandrum. The film kept disturbing me, tickling me for days after I had watched it, and so did Aakarshan.

Aakarshan affected me even more because at the time I was only 18 -- an age when your heart is like an empty canvas and your hormones are raring to paint a picture on it. Aakarshan: the magnetic attraction between a male and a female -- oh, the director brought it out so well!

In the film, Akbar Khan plays an actor and Sonu Walia an actress. They happen to work together in a film and come closer emotionally after a particular incident during shooting. In one of the shots, Akbar Khan is supposed to rescue Sonu Walia from a fire, but it so happens that there is a real fire accident on the sets during the fire scene, and Sonu Walia is trapped in fire for real. Girish Karnad, who plays the director, refuses to say "Cut!" because he wants to capture the authenticity of the rescue.

The real-life dare-devilry of Akbar Khan, therefore, makes Sonu Walia get emotionally intimate with him. Subsequently, due to the ups and downs of stardom, Akbar Khan is paralysed (I don't remember if the paralysis was caused by a stroke or a road accident triggered by emotional distress), and Sonu Walia eventually nurses him back to health, and they both go on to live happily ever after as acclaimed actors.

Sonu Walia was naturally sexy and glamorous. She was one of the few actresss, perhaps apart from Sangeeta Bijlani, who did not have to don extra makeup to look glamorous. Then there was Akbar Khan, the youngest of the handsome Khan brothers. Even though he could never step into the shoes of his elder ladykiller brothers, Feroze and Sanjay, he was quite hot in Aakarshan. Then there was Girish Karnad, the charismatic director. That afternoon, there were three women sitting right behind us in the theatre, and each time Girish Karnad came on the screen, they gasped, "Oh my god, he is looking so good!"

There was pin-drop silence in the theatre when this particular song, sung by Kavitha Krishnamurthy, came on:

Faasla rahe na, ek ho jaayen
Tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen
faasla rahe na, ek ho jaayen
tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen

Maine teri dhadkanon to sun liya jaanam
maine teri dhadkanon to sun liya jaanam
maine tujhko meet apna chun liya jaanam
kuchh bhi soche yeh samaaj, ek ho jaayen
tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen

Waqt jo guzra abhi tak bojh ka guzra
waqt jo guzra abhi tak bojh ka guzra
milke tujhse zindagi ka karz to utra
aaj se apne mijaaz ek ho jaayen
tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen

Dhoop mein saaya bano, saaye mein humsaya
dhoop mein saaya bano, saaye mein humsaya
shukriya ki waqt mere zakhmon ho sahlaya
kyon rahe thodi si laaj, ek ho jaayen
tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen

Faasla rahe na, ek ho jaayen
tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen...

What a song, what a song! The song, which had the Niagra falls in the backdrop, ended with a lovemaking scene between Akbar Khan and Sonu Walia under the gaze of the same world-famous waterfalls. And that's when I, and perhaps Anish too, realised that erotica is not about what you show, but what you hide. At one point, when Sonu Walia bites at Akbar Khan's ear, we would hear gasps emanating from the women seated in the row behind us. So powerful the scene was!

There is something very powerful about aakarshan or attraction. Not many people experience it during their lifetime. Most people, when they marry or choose their partners or choose to fall in love, are either guided by commonsense or by well-meaning advice from friends or elders; or are simply driven by madness and obsession.

But it is rare, very rare, for a man and a woman to be instantaneously and mutually sucked into each other's magnetic fields. Mutually is the operative word here. Aakarshan, the film, raises to a toast to that attraction.

Such an attraction sends thunders clapping and tames lyricists into writing simple, soothing poetry and arm-twists composers into creating a tickling tune:

Maine teri dhadkanon to sun liya jaanam
maine teri dhadkanon to sun liya jaanam
maine tujhko meet apna chun liya jaanam
kuchh bhi soche yeh samaaj, ek ho jaayen
tod ke rasm-o-riwaaz, ek ho jaayen.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Of Love, Life And A Book Launch

The primary purpose of this post is to invite those of you who live in Chennai to the launch of Urban Shots at Landmark (Apex Plaza, Nungambakkam) on December 1, Wednesday at 6.30 pm. It's a collection of 29 stories by 13 writers; yours truly has contributed two.

The stories, all set in urban India, celebrates what Ganga Mail stands for -- love, life, relationships; above all, basic human emotions. The writers live in different cities, and all of them are very young -- a majority of them biologically and the remaining, at heart (yours truly, who turns 40 in exactly a month, choses to be in the latter category). The book, therefore, promises to be a heady brew or a cocktail, if you please. So please come dear reader, it would be great to see you, to know you.

The secondary purpose (or was this the primary?) is to take the opportunity to share a few thoughts on love, since the book is about love. Well, the book is not just about love, because there is a lot more to it, but come to think of it, everything eventually stems from love.

It is love that gives birth to every single emotion under the sun. If you find a lost friend, you are happy. If you lose someone you love, you are sad. If you love material things, you create greed. If you love sex, you birth to lust. If you love the idea of being famous, you become a champion of ambition. If you are dumped by someone you love, you realise what a heartbreak is. If you love your job, you know what satisfaction is. If you love your motherland, you become an example of patriotism. And so on. Love, therefore, is the driving force of universe. No love, no nothing.

Yet, when you think of love, the image that instantly comes to your mind is that of a boy and a girl, or a young man or a young woman, exchanging shy glances and shy smiles. That's the kind of love about which I feel like sharing a few thoughts tonight. And as a self-proclaimed nostalgia expert, I am tempted to introspect about how the whole concept of love has changed over the decades. Basically, Then and Now stuff.

Back then, it was considered heroic and exemplary to fight for the woman you loved and to get her at any cost. If you won the battle, you were considered a hero, and if you lost, you were considered even a bigger hero because you sacrificed your life for love. But why don't they make movies like Heer Raanjha, Laila Majnu, Sohni Mahiwaal anymore? That's because today's society no longer has the patience and sympathy, leave alone admiration, for men who are so blinded by love that they ignore their own self. If they don't learn to love and respect themselves first, how how can they love a woman? The ditto holds true for today's women, I guess.

Today, if you happen to fancy a woman and subsequently discover that she belongs to a different social set-up and that her father has several goons at his disposal who could easily take care of you, you instantly escape from her magnetic field and settle for the next best thing. Life is far too precious to be squandered away for a woman. Today love is pragmatic and success-oriented: you carefully weigh the pros and cons before falling in love. No one, be it a man or a woman, wants to be in love with a loser. No one.

If you are a woman, touch your heart and ask yourself: would you like to love a man who meditates upon your name throughout the day and who always waits outside your window, sunshine or rain, just to catch a glimpse of you and who, if you ask him to do so, will readily jump into a river -- or a man who is normal and free of obsessions and is productive?

The loser belongs to the last century -- and he is far too entrenched in grave to hope for resurrection. Yet there are people I come across every now and then, who fail to understand that they first need to love and respect themselves in order to find and earn love and respect. I only feel sorry for them.

Then there is something else, apart from pragmatism, that stands between love then and love now. That is technology. Even today I am not sure whether techonology is of great service to lovers, or a great disservice. If you look at the plus points, you can thank technology with tears in your eyes. Today, two lovers can stay in touch real-time, through SMS and internet chat and Facebook. They don't have to meet up physically all the time. They can express their feelings for each other -- be it an overdrive of affection or a bout of sulking -- on Facebook by writing philosophical status messages or by posting songs from You Tube that effectively convey their emotions for the moment. Of course there is SMS and Gmail chat -- to profess love, to make love, to make amends, to make peace, to settle scores.

But the tragedy is that lovers don't write to each other these days. By writing, I mean the kind when you put a pen to paper, which is a mode of introspection. You can rarely lie when you are composing a sentence on a piece of paper with the help of a pen. The moment you hold a pen, especially a fountain pen, you plunge deep into your mind and come out with the truest sentence possible. A piece of paper, after all, does not have the 'Delete' or 'Backspace' button -- you better be accurate in describing your feelings in the very first attempt.

But on a computer, the 'Backspace' and 'Delete' buttons rob you of honesty. You are often tempted to speak your mind, but upon realising that what you speak may not go down well with the person on the other end, you keep fiddling with those buttons until you have composed a sentence that causes no offence. If you still think some damage has been done, you swiftly add a smiley or two to nullify its effect. You know what I mean, don't you?

Back then, the moment a letter arrived, you could tell from the handwriting that it is from 'him' or from 'her'. Not to speak of the smell of the paper. It always smelt of 'him' or 'her'. And the fact that thoughts could not be exchanged real time back then, unless you were face to face with the person, made you look eagerly forward to the letter. The letter was the sole substitute for the physical presence of your lover. Ah, the love letter.

Today, the love letter has fragmented into bits and pieces -- into 20-word text messages, 15-word status messages, 50-word emails and so on. And the fragments no longer bear the distinct handwriting of your lover -- they are all about fonts and font sizes. As a result, the email from your lover looks just the same as the email from your boss.

The battle is on right now, to smell one set of typed words from another. People are succeeding, I can tell you.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Drop Of Water

The train was going to stop at Guntakal for a while.

Guntakal was a big junction, and there, a few more bogies were to be attached to the train before it proceeded to Bombay. At Bombay, her husband would come to receive her, but some 30 hours still separated them. Right now, she was travelling with her two children -- a daughter who was five, and a son who had just turned three. They were travelling from Bangalore.

When the train came to a halt at Guntakal, she saw most male passengers getting down, to stretch their legs and loiter on the platform, to fill water, to have tea, to buy eatables for their families. It was a long stoppage, so no one was in a hurry.

This was the first time she was travelling unaccompanied for such a long distance. And this was the first time she was going to Bombay. Her husband had got posted there only six months ago, and now she was taking the children along for summer vacation. She looked at the water bottle. There was water but that might not be sufficient. She wasn't sure when the next station would come.

'Looks like the train is going to wait here for a while,' she suggested to herself, 'why not fill up the bottle?' She got up and stood at the door of the coach, looking out nervously at the length of the platform. She could see two taps sprouting out from opposite sides of a tiled pedestal. Not very far away. She walked up to it, filled up the bottle and was returning to the coach when she saw the train move.

She ran. The train was leaving her behind. Worse, it was carrying her two children away! Actually the train wasn't. Only the extra bogies were being attached to it -- the momentum makes the entire train move by a few metres, something that seasoned travellers were familiar with. She ran, and just as she was about to hop into the coach, she slipped and fell through the gap between the train and the platform. She died.

The train left at its scheduled time. Why should it wait, anyway? Guntakal was just one of the numerous stations that fell on the way, and she was just one of the 1,500 passengers it was carrying. Accidents happens, life goes on. The individual does not count.

Instead of the bogies being attached, had a moving train rammed this stationary train from behind, and if a few hundred people had died, then the value of each individual's death would have been jacked up manifold. In that case, it would not have been just an accident, but a rail accident. A rail accident makes banner headlines in newspapers and counts as breaking news for TV channels. But the news of a lone woman dying in a freak rail accident would not interest TV channels; though newspapers often find such news handy as a filler.

But if you view the death of this woman from a magnifying glass, you will find countless heart-wrenching questions staring back at you. What happened to her body? What happened to the kids? When did the husband get to know? Did he get to know at all? Are the kids safe? But no one probes these questions. After all, it is the death of an individual. Who cares!

Every drop makes an ocean. But individually, a single drop does not count; it has no value unless it joins other drops and forms a river, if not an ocean. As an individual, it can only wait to dry up or be wiped off by a human. The same is true for humans. If a hundred of us die together in a terrorist attack, news channels are bound to flock our respective homes, asking our grieving families what we ate for breakfast that fateful morning before falling victim to the terrorists' bombs or bullets.

But if one of us, an individual, gets killed in a freak accident or by the bullet of a goonda in the neighbourhood, we are mentioned in the 'Crime Briefs' column of the local newspaper. It does not interest the media one bit whether we had a hearty breakfast or good sex before being put to sleep forever.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Music And I

The songs you cherish the most are the ones that you grow up listening to. You grow out of many other childhood fixations -- such as the fascination for an actor or a sport -- but music is something you become more possessive about the older you grow. There are times when you wish you could've put all those songs that appealed to you in a bag and carried the bag along across the years.

I would classify the growing-up years as between the ages of five and 20. Before the age of five, you are too young to be a discerning listener, and after you are 20, life throws up other fascinations and pressures for any new kind of music to get into your blood stream. After 20, you mostly like stuff that resembles what you've grown up listening to. The degree of resemblance may vary, though.

Here, let me make it clear that I am speaking for myself. Music, even though it is created for the masses, is a highly personal, rather personalised, matter.

During the years when I was growing up, that is between the mid-seventies and the late eighties, we were totally at the mercy of the radio and Doordarshan. If they played a rare song that you happened to like, you had no choice but to wait until they played it again. If you were lucky and thoughtful enough, you get to record the song on a blank cassette, but that would have meant sitting by the radio all the time.

I was 14 or 15 by the time I developed the strong urge to possess my kind of music, and by then we had a Sony music system at home that let me record songs from the radio. However, for every song I managed to record, from start to finish, there were two others I could not, for the simple reason that they rarely came on radio. Their cassettes weren't available either, and even if they were, the song(s) I was looking weren't contained in those cassettes. As far as music is concerned, I grew up in a strange era -- LP records were almost dead and CDs were yet to be born (the concept of iPod or internet downloads still qualified for science fiction).

I still remember very clearly, none of the Hum Kisise Kum Nahin cassettes had the four-song medley I was so desperately looking for. None, I tell you, and I had no idea why. Perhaps because we weren't a consumer-oriented country then and had to suffice with whatever shit was being served to us. I started hunting for the medley since 1985, and it was only in 1995, in Delhi, when I found a shop in Connaught Place that recorded songs on a blank cassette straight from an LP player. Oh, I still possess the cassette, with the shopkeeper's slip inside the cover bearing my name, "V. Ghosh". But look at this: for 10 whole years I was deprived of a set of songs my ears had been yearning for. What for?

Let me give you a brief list of songs which I wanted to possess from the age of 14 or 15 -- songs that I wanted to hear again and again and again -- but which I could rediscover only 10 or 15 or -- even -- 25 years later! Just a song, and yet so long!

1. The Hum Kisise Kum Nahin medley, starting with Chaand mera dil: a wait of 10 years.

2. Heeralal Pannalal songs, especially the Hemant Kumar-sung Aaja mere pyaar aaja (which every father should sing for his kid daughter): a wait of 20 years. Apart from this song, other songs from the movie are still not available in the shops. Find me a CD if you can, but no internet downloads please.

3. Mehmaan nazar ki ban jaa (what a Kishore song!) from Pataal Bhairavi: the wait still continues!

4. Raat banoon main aur chaand banon tum from Mangalsutra: 25 years! What a song, what a search! Aao baahon mein aao!

5. Main tere liye, tu mere liye from a Dev Anand film called Main Tere Liye. I am not sure if Dev Anand himself acted in the film because it never got released at the time when its songs hit the radio. All I know is that the hero was Dev saab's son Suneil and the director his brother Vijay Anand, a gem of a director. Anyway, this Bappi Lahiri song was very, very close to my heart when I was a 15-year-old and it still remains so. Only that I can't find the song anywhere else except on You Tube even after a search for 25 years! I did buy a cassette of the songs of this film, in 1987, for Rs 17! -- and listened to the song so often that the tape got demagnetised within a year or two.

Many people dismiss Bappi Lahiri as the disco king who made it big by plagiarising popular Western numbers, but he is a great composer. He was, in fact, a prodigy -- as at least one elderly person who knew him from his younger days testifies. Bappi's melody numbers are real gems, and even though I might be the craziest fan R.D. Burman ever had, there are several Bappi Lahiri numbers that give me the goosebumps. All his detractors must watch this film called Apne Paraaye -- you will end up with tears in your eyes. Heard Yesudas's Shyam rang ranga re, har pal mera re...?

Bappi Lahiri never failed to entertain you (entertainment being the operative part): on one hand he gave you a 'cheap' song like Jee lele jee lele (perhaps the only song to be sung on screen by the elderly and venerable Om Shiv Puri), and on the other gave you gems like Chalte chalte, mere yeh geet and Pyaar maanga hai tumhi se...

I don't know how many of you have heard of Anup Ghoshal. Well, he is the guy who sung Tujhse naaraaz nahin for R.D. Burman in Masoom, and I really can't think of anyone, not at least in my midly drunken state at this hour, who might not have heard that song.

Anup Ghoshal is an acclaimed Bengali singer: he sang for many Bengali films of Satyajit Ray, but his first brush with national fame was with Masoom. Oh what a song -- or so I thought, till I heard Anup Ghoshal sing this beautiful, beautiful number for Bappi Lahiri that I am presenting now. I found this song, finally, on You Tube -- 25 years after I listened to it for the first time and got mesmerised by it!

Back then I was an adolescent, today I qualify to be a middle-aged man. During the interim decades, the song was only a memory. But it has come back to me now and still gives me goosebumps. Please click on 'play' and listen to the song carefully. The lyrics are thought-provoking, the voice mind-blowing, and the music -- ah, vintage Bappi Lahiri!

video

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Five Things I Miss In Hindi Films Today

I don't watch too many new Hindi films -- except the occasional Akshay Kumar-starrer or the ones that have Irrfan Khan -- but I have a fair idea of what's going on. I am not sure if I like or dislike what's going on -- though storylines and scenes are far more credible and the production more Hollywood-style -- but I certainly know what I miss in them. I miss the fun, flavour and the mindlessness.

Watching Hindi films has now become some sort of an intellectual exercise; you take them far too seriously and in the process miss out on the enjoyment. The idea is to leave your brains behind when you enter a theatre, and not to put it to use once you lean back on the comfortable seat. I crave for the good, old dal-chaawal-roti-sabzi, the staple diet I've grown up on, and not exotic salads or basil-laced pasta. Here are five things I miss the most -- you don't really find them in Hindi movies anymore:

1. The fight scene: Today, the hero has the muscles, but there is very little he is required to do with them. Back then, they had no muscles, yet they took on 20 men single-handedly. Dhishum! Bhishum! I am not sure if these sounds were made from the mouth -- most likely they were -- but in Jawaani Diwaani someone certainly did use his mouth to make the Ae dhishum, Ae dhishum sound every time the not-so-macho Randhir Kapoor exchanged blows with the bad guys. Fight scenes were so much fun. You anticipated them and sat on the edge of the seat. Quite often it was with a fight scene that the hero made his entry into the film -- the camera focussed on a pair of feet that would walk slowly and steadily into the scene, while trumpets and violins built up the tension in the air and set the tone for confrontration. What was a movie without Amitabh Bachchan, and what was an Amitabh Bachchan movie without its share of fight scenes? Two fight scenes that I cherish and still relish are the ones that took place between Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna in Khoon Paseena and Amar Akbar Anthony. Amitabh Bachchan, apart from being a versatile actor, was Bollywood's most popular action hero, even though he did not even have the muscles. The action hero died once he aged. Today there is no slot for the action hero, which can certified by the fact that the two heroes who could have filled the slot, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn (who is the son of a popular stunt master), are better known for comedy. Fight scene, RIP.

2. The bike/car song: When I was young, I used to be a huge fan of Jackie Shroff. The moustache I sport owes his existence to the hero-worship. I am no longer crazy about him as I used to be those days (collecting his pictures from magazines, going to the theatre alone to watch his films, considering writing to him), but it is too late to do away with the moustache because it has become part of my identity. In any case, I now live in the south, where the moustache can never go out of fashion. So there was this bike song filmed on Jackie Shroff and Meenakshi Seshadri, Jhoomti bahaaron ka samaa, pyaar ki umange hain jawaan from a called Dahleez. Doordarshan often showed the song on Sunday mornings, and I would switch on the TV only to wait for that song. All songs sung on the bike or car have a sense of movement -- they pack in melody as well as high energy; and you can never, ever, go wrong with them in case you are looking for quality music to lift your mood or to store in your iPod. My most favourite car song is a little-known one, Kaho kahaan chalen, from the film Bulandi, and favourite bike song -- oh there are so many, including Rote huey, aate hain sab (please watch this video carefully for words of wisdom from Kader Khan) from Muqaddar Ka Sikandar. And who can ever forget the ultimate bike song of Hindi cinema! -- can you hear Pancham playing the mouth organ?

3. The courtroom scene: "Order!Order!"
"Main jo kuch kahoonga sach kahoonga, aur sach ke siwa kuchh nahi kahoonga."
"Objection overruled!"
"Objection sustained!"
"To us din raat ko gyarah baje, aap kahaan thhey?"
"(Laughter) Order! Order!"
"Yeh jhooth hai judge saahab!"
"Saare sabooton aur gawaahon ke bayanaat ko madde nazar rakhte huey, adalat is nateeje par pahunchi hai, ki mulzim Dinanath..."

Fuck man! Don't you miss these lines? Place your palm on the Gita and tell me that you don't.

4. The comedy scene: The action hero is dead, and along with him, the comedian too, simply because the action hero has replaced him. Don't cite Rajpal Yadav please, I will puke if I see one more of his so-called comedy scenes. God, can you please breathe life back into Mehmood, Om Prakash and Keshto Mukherjee? These are people who did not have to mouth funny lines to make you laugh, their facial expressions were enough to lighten up your mood (Mehmood and Om Prakash were two rare comedians who could also effortlessly make you cry: I have a colleague who can't hold his tears each time he watches Mehmood's Kunwara Baap). Mehmood and Om Prakash, according to me, were the biggest comedians Indian cinema ever produced. There is, of course, Asrani, who you still see in Priyadarshan's films, but he is far too talented to qualify solely as a comedian. And if you want to see the power of Asrani's acting, watch Khoon Paseena. God is so unkind: he first snatched away the comedians, and then snatched away the slot for the comedian. At least give Kader Khan and Shakti Kapoor back to us, will you? If I still believe in you dear God, it is only because of Paresh Rawal.

5. The Climax: There were villains and there were villains. There were the sophisticated and the larger-than-life ones like Ajit and Amrish Puri ("Inspector saahab, main is sheher ka ek shareef aur izzatdaar insaan hoon"), and the dreaded ones like Amjad Khan ("Haraamzaade!"). But nothing to beat the two slimeballs, Jeevan and Prem Chopra -- the ultimate bastards you always wanted to kill with your bare hands. Hindi cinema will never see them again. The villain is a dying breed as well: the hero is grabbing his role too. Oh, how much I miss the bastards. Today if I watch Amar Akbar Anthony again and again, it is mainly because of Robert, that is Jeevan. Then there is Pran: but Pran mostly played the good guy throughout the 1970's and 1980's, the decades I was growing up, so I have no hatred towards him. Needless to say, it were these villains who inspired the climax of films during those days. And the climax invariably unveiled itself in a fortified godown or a hideout. You knew the movie was ending, you also knew the manner in which it was going to end, yet you sat on the edge of the seat, enduring the fight scene (with a bit of comedy thrown in when the heroine or the comedian hit back at the bad guys), waiting for either of the following lines:

"Hands up! Koi apni jagah se nahin hilega."

"Gireftaar kar lo in sab ko."

"Sab apni apni bandooken phaenk do."

"Khabardaar jo kisine hilne ki koshish ki to."

Inspector saahab, main kahaan hil rahaa hoon. Bollywood hil gaya hai.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Urban Thoughts, Urban Shots

I've been blogging frequently of late, so much so that someone recently left an anonymous comment, wondering if I had lost my job. The anonymous soul thinks that if you are fired, you have all the time in the world to blog. On the contrary: a man who has to keep his kitchen fires burning and who has lost his job will be hardly at peace to think up anything blogworthy, or to think of blogging at all.

But frequent blogging is bad for me, nonetheless. Each post that I write eats into the precious time that I should be investing in the Chennai book, which is stranded in the half-done state for several weeks now. But I am weary of weighing words. You take a word in each palm and weigh them mentally for several minutes before deciding which one fits in better in a sentence -- it can be monotonous and tiring!

With the blog there is no such worry: it's your own bedroom, and no one is going to judge you whether you wear a torn lungi to bed or a proper night dress. The blog satisfies your itch to play with words without having to worry about how you put them across. Moreover, Ganga Mail is not a stickler for grammar; its sole guiding spirit is simplicity and honesty.

So of late, each night after I get home, I find telling myself, "Oh no, not the book again. Let me write one more post and then I'll give it a break. I am sure I will find something to write about." A blog post, unlike a book, is about instant publication, and instant publication leads to instant gratification. Therefore we all blog, even while nursing dreams of giving in the hands of the reader that one book whose pages smell better with every passing year.

In any case, it is going to be a long, long time before people reconcile to the idea that reading books no longer requires the physical presence of books. It might have happened in the case of music -- today a gadget tinier than your thumb can store a thousand songs -- but it is one thing to enjoy music and quite another to enjoy reading (enjoyment being the operative part).

To enjoy music, you need only a pair of ears that are in working condition. But to enjoy reading, all the physical senses simultaneously come into play -- the look, the touch, the smell, the sound, above all, the feel of holding a book. When you are reading a story online, you are a slave of the gadget on which you are reading it. If the gadget fucks up, you are screwed. But when you are reading a book, you are the master of what you are holding in your hands.

It is a lot like sex. The computer may provide you with virtual sex and give you the requisite orgasms, but it can never provide you with replacement for a smooch or a penetrative intercourse or even something as simple and gratifying as a mere touch -- no matter how much technology advances. Advocates of technology may argue what's in a touch when it comes to reading -- you now touch books, tomorrow you will get used to the touch of your iPad or Netbook or whatever. What's more, you can take your iPad (or even laptop) along to the bed or to the toilet, just like you carry a book.

But then, society is yet to validate online writing as works of literature: it will take perhaps another 50 years before bloggers become eligible for the Booker, and another 100 before they are considered for the Nobel Prize for literature. Or maybe even more. Till then, we will have to continue producing real books in order to be in the race, in order to be heard, in order to fulfil our ambitions.

My ambition, ever since Chai, Chai was released in September 2009, was to publish one book a year till I attained the age of 45, so that I could look back at my life with a small sense of satisfaction for having gone beyond the arduous task of keeping a job and yet at the same time feeding my ambition to be a writer. Success might eventually come at the age of 50 when I might develop erectile dysfunction and may not need the money that may pour in at that point of time -- but at least the success would keep my brain functional and yearning for more till the time I dropped dead. There can't be any worse death for a writer when his mind dies before his body.

In keeping with my ambition, I was hoping that my Chennai book would published this year. But fantasy and reality, idea and execution -- they are lines that rarely meet. And it is not easy when you are writing about a city you are living in. Each day you wake up to a new idea and to new people, and suddenly you find the complexion of your book changing and the word-length expanding.

I signed the contract for the Chennai book many weeks before Chai, Chai was released. My mother was alive then, and I remember her wishing me "all the best" -- I still remember making that call to her from the car park of my office. In spite of her death, I was confident that the Chennai book would be published in 2010 -- it was highly doable and I did try my best to make it happen. But then, mind is not a machine: it demands far more holidays and breaks and incentives. Needless to say, my next book will reach readers only sometime next year.

But, very strangely, destiny did not let me down. In 2010 too, I managed to get published, thanks to Urban Shots. Urban Shots is not my book, it is a compilation of 29 short stories, only two of which happen to be mine. But what a pleasure it is to hold a book in your hands and flip through the pages and find the sweets of your hard work embedded somewhere among them. Ladies and gentlemen, please buy Urban Shots and read the short stories, not just because Ganga Mail noses its way into it, but because the book is the collective result of enthusiasm and enterprise, of ambition and aspiration. You will know what I mean only when you read it. As far as I am concerned, I have fulfilled, albeit by default, my quota for the year 2010.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Airport

Arrival lounge: smiles and embraces!
Taking a taxi to the city of Life
Return to the visitor's lounge --
to see off fleshly baggages, one by one.
Return again, without baggage
for the wait at the departure lounge.
Some flights are on time, some delayed.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Sexy

"Bhaiyya, jaldi gate kholo," she curtly told the security guard as she reached inside her bag for the car keys. She was in a hurry. It was 7.20 am now, and she had a meeting at eight. She put on some lip gloss, made the thin, dark lips rub each other a few times, and turned on the ignition.

At 7.20 the roads were empty and the air chilly. She rolled down the window. The drive to work -- that was the only time she had for herself. But today there was a meeting, and there was no time to enjoy the drive.

"Fuck you!" she muttered, as the car in front of her at the signal lingered for a few moments even after the lights had turned green.

She imagined herself at the meeting. Two prospective clients were coming to see her. Mr Dutt and Mr Rajshekhar. She tried putting faces to their names: dashing? balding? clean-shaven? pleasant? scowling? She gave up after a while: reality is always different from the imaginary.

Just then, a bike carrying two young men slowed down by her, and the man on the pillion shouted, "Hi sexy!" Before she could spit out her anger on them, they had sped away.

"Bloody bastards," she muttered. "Hi sexy! -- how dare they!"

She adjusted the rear-view mirror and looked at herself. First at the eyes, then the nose, and finally the lips, which were still glowing. She smiled.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gratifying Sip Of Chai

Yesterday morning, I received my first royalty cheque for Chai, Chai. Neat sum, neat sales. Thank you, everyone, who bought the book and liked it.

But this morning, I received something which I found more rewarding (and touching) -- a mail from a reader in Pune:

I'm not much of a reader. Randomly, I would pick up a book off the shelves from a Crossword or a Landmark. While searching for a birthday gift for my father, CHAI CHAI caught my attention. The railway tracks with the cup of chai and a few birds flying here and there.

My father spent half of his life on the railway tracks. he went wherever his work took him. I thought I couldnt get a better birthday gift for him. He started reading your book. Might have completed a chapter or two. And well, the heavens took him away.

After a few months, I found the book in his files and papers, and I started reading it. Apart from it being an absolutely stunning read, the book someohow kept taking me back to dad and I was lost in the words you weaved across the pages.

It got me closer to my dad in some or the other way.

I just wanted to thank you sir. And all the very best for the times ahead.


If Chai, Chai has taken someone back to a departed parent, it was worth writing it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Kishore Kumar: Random Thoughts Past Midnight

Kishore Kumar's voice is like your car. You like it, you love it, and you need it every day, except maybe on the odd holiday when you stay at home. It cruises you through the roads and streets of life. The day your car goes for service, and you are forced to take public transport, it feels like being imprisoned in the home of a host who has nothing but Mukesh or Rafi in his music collection, and you have to pretend to feel the pain as one song after the other whines about heartbreak.

And then there are days when you drive your car not to get to your destination, but just to get the feel of driving it. One of those days when you on a long drive, only because you love your car. Today was one such day for me, when a friend and I were in the Kishore Kumar mood/mode, exchanging his songs and listening to them and feeling ecstatic. What a pleasure it is when your friend has never heard of a particular mind-blowing number that you cherish, and you proudly unveil it for him or her, as if you were the creator of the song!

Needless to say, Kishore Kumar has been humming inside my head since morning. Therefore this post.

It is very rare that I have agreeable company whenever I am get into the Kishore-Kumar mode. Even though those are the moments you badly crave for company -- not just anyone, but someone who feels exactly like the way you do for Kishore Kumar. But how can I find company at three or four in the morning? That's when, once I finish my quota of writing and drinking, I go to You Tube and listen to Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. The rarer the videos/song, the more joy they bring. Alcohol, of course, magnifies the joy. Often I share the joy on Facebook, by posting a song or two -- a completely meaningless exercise because I am posting something that people are perhaps already familiar with, but how else does one share joy online?

The thing about Kishore Kumar is -- well, his voice. The way he 'threw' his voice into the microphone; the way he modulated it, as if it was a highly malleable piece of metal; the way he infected you with it -- a sheer work of genius! Rafi was a genius in his own way; there are songs I can never imagine anyone else singing -- the two that instantly come to my mind are Koi sone ke dilwala (Maya) and Dard-e-dil, dard-e-jigar (Karz). If Kishore Kumar is the car, Rafi is the bullock cart, who gently takes around the countryside, the bullocks kicking up the smell of Indian soil.

The only composers who recognised their respective talents, and showcased a healthy mix of them in movies, were the father-son duo of S.D. Burman and R.D. Burman. Guide, Jewel Thief, Aradhana, Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin, Yaadon Ki Baarat -- they all had Kishore and Rafi singing their own kinds of songs without overshadowing each other.

But.

When you think Aradhana, you think Mere sapnon ki rani or Kishore humming Eh hey, ah ha ha, ah ha (before singing Kora kaagaz thha yeh man mera); when you think Guide, it has to be Gaata rahe mera dil; when you think Jewel Thief, the songs that instantly come to your mind are Yeh dil, na hota bechara or Aasman ke neeche. When you think of Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin, it has to be the lively Bachna ae haseeno, lo mein aa gaya.

Well, that's the difference between Kishore and Rafi. Rafi is the glass of drink that soothes you after a long day, but Kishore is the minty toothpaste that shakes you out of slumber and energises you in a matter of seconds -- and it doesn't have to be only in the morning. Yoodlee-oo!

May be continued.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Shopping, Then And Now

Today, Nilgiris, the 105-year-old chain of supermarkets, inaugurated its 100th store right next to my office. Needless to say, many people at work were seen walking in with Nilgiris carry bags. Not to be outdone, I took a 10-minute break and visited the store. The great thing about shopping in supermarkets and malls is that you walk in without being in the need of buying anything, and yet you walk out with purchases that make you feel extremely good. Some people call it retail therapy, I would call it a disease.

This evening, when I walked into Nilgiris, I knew I won't come out empty-handed. The question was, what to buy? Vegetables would have been a great option. Imagine, wife waking up in the morning and finding the fridge stocked: what pleasure! But it would be embarrassing to carry back to work a bag that has various gourds sticking out of it. Eventually, I found myself standing in front of the all-too-familiar shelf: the one that stocks grooming products.

The thing with grooming products is, they make you see a brighter tomorrow. Their very touch fill you with positive energy, and you secretly imagine yourself to be one of the male models who graces the advertisements in GQ or Esquire. You find telling yourself: "Fuck man, no more drinking from tonight. I am going to use these products from tomorrow and look good and get all the women."

Tomorrow, alas, never comes. It is always tonight.

So, I picked up a large bottle of Dove shampoo, a bottle of Neutrogena facewash, one Brut deodorant and a bottle of Yardley cologne (the original, not Indian-made). On the way out, I was handed a loaf of bread and a packet of atta -- they were gifts I was entitled to for having made the purchases.

"But I don't want atta," I told the attendant handing out the free items, "I saw people getting pieces of cake."

"But that's for minimum purchase, sir. Your bill is high."

"But I don't want atta."

"Can I give you another packet of bread?"

"Ok."

Back in office, I called up wife to announce the gifts: two packets of bread. After all, she is the breakfast person, while I wake up only around lunchtime. I thought she would be happy.

"But what all did you buy to get those gifts?" she asked me.

I told her.

"But aren't there so many bottles of shampoos and aftershaves already rotting at home?" she asked.

I told her they were all bound to get empty, sooner than later.

"If at all you were itching to spend money, you could have bought something for me."

"Well, I almost bought something for you."

"What?" she asked.

"Vegetables."

"What?"

After she hung up, I pondered over my purchases. I had just spent Rs 1,500 on things I did not need at all. Fifteen hundred bucks is peanuts all right -- even though that was my take-home salary when I entered journalism 18 years ago -- but to spend it mindlessly was criminal. With that money, I could have bought five Wality fountain pens fitted with Sheaffer nibs, or three good books, or one Calvin Klein T-shirt, and so on. The list is endless, and yet I fucking spent the money on shampoo and facewash and cologne.

That's what the supermarket does to you. It plays on your greed, not need.

One Sunday morning when you wake up, your wife announces that there is no turmeric powder at home. So you wear your clothes and head to the nearest supermarket to buy a packet of turmeric powder. But once at the store, thoughts such as these cross your mind and rapidly translate into action:

-- I just saw only three eggs left in the fridge. Shouldn't I pick up a dozen more?;

-- The wife did not ask for it, but no harm picking up a couple of packets of puffed rice. Maybe she forgot to mention it;

-- Oh yes, Maggi. Let me grab a few packets of noodles. Saves a lot of trouble when the cook or the maid doesn't turn up;

-- Hey, this new Nivea facewash, it says it lightens the skin. It would be criminal not to try it out;

-- Ah, a nice pair of toothbrush! One is supposed to change toothbrush every few weeks;

-- Olive oil? Awesome! It is good for the heart, zero cholestrol and all that;

-- Wait a minute, let me pick up a pack of Real juice. Why one, let me pick up two. Who the hell is going to come to the store again and again;

-- Hey, wait, wait. Ages since I had lime pickle;

-- Wait, wait, wait, how about some appalam! They go so well with sambhar and rasam;

-- Wait a minute, did I see them selling water bottles? I need one to take to the gym, and another to keep in the office;

-- Ok, let me check out of the store now. But wait, why not pick up that Gillette aftershave?;

-- Oh, before I forget, a few packs of Gold Flake Kings. There they are!

And so, there you are! You come to buy a packet of turmeric powder, but you exit the store carrying two heavy bags. They contain stuff you don't need at all, but you convince yourself into believing that you need them all badly. Reality hits you when the bank, at the end of the month, sends you the credit card statement, but even then you refuse to learn.

Oh how much I miss the olden days when, armed with a ten-rupee note, you could run to the neighbourhood grocer and buy a dozen eggs, a packet of Modern bread, a hundred grams of turmeric and other stuff, and still be handed back a few coins in return. Now what to do with those coins? With those measly coins you bought kampat -- each kampat cost five paise back then -- and the kampat was the commission you charged from your parents for every trip to the grocer. Does anyone even remember what a kampat means, leave alone its taste?

Those were the days when the shopkeeper asked you, "Kya chaahiye?" Today, standing inside a supermarket, you ask yourself, "Aur kya chaahiye?"

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Roadside Life

Three in the afternoon but it's dark in Chennai, raining off and on. A cyclone is supposed to be on the way. One of those days when you just want to stay home and look out of the window and watch the coconut trees dance in the shower. Well, I am home: it's Sunday.

While I am sitting at home and writing this, there are people who are enjoying the weather (or climate, as many say) outdoors, by way of a long drive or a romantic walk on the beach or elsewhere. I don't envy them because I just had my share of outdoor experience: I walked down to the supermarket to stock up on cigarettes in case the cyclone gets too harsh on Chennai. It was a pleasant walk, I must say.

But I can't help sparing a thought for people who have to be outdoors, sunshine or rain. People like us, who are out in this lovely weather either on business or for pleasure, have the choice of returning home whenever the rain becomes too steady for comfort. But there are people who live on the footpaths, for who the comfort of watching the rain from the window is as distant as my dream of owning a villa in Cannes.

I am not talking about the pavement-dwellers in general: they constitute such a large chunk of urban India that if you start feeling sorry for all of them, nothing will be left of your heart to be spared for the women who come your way. I am talking of people like Senthil, who made the pavement his home out of choice. People like him are honourable citizens of the pavement, who neither beg for a living nor curse their fate or the government.

I worked with the New Indian Express group for seven long years; and of those seven, five were spent at the sprawling Express Estates on Club House Road off Mount Road, before the offices shifted to faraway Ambattur. Today, Express Estates has become Express Avenue, Chennai's biggest and plushest shopping mall, while Club House Road is now better known as the address of the hotel Taj Mount Road.

Taj Mount Road was still a skeleton of bricks when we used to look at it while sipping tea at Senthil's shop, and wonder if anything was ever going to come up there. For years it was just a skeleton: perhaps the site was caught in a legal dispute. Senthil ran a tea stall on the pavement just outside the main gate of Express Estates. The table on which his stove and various jars of biscuits sat during daytime became his bed at night. In 2006, when we said goodbye to Express Estates and moved to Ambattur, I wrote a post about Senthil.

About a year later, while we were drinking at a TASMAC bar in Ambattur, I learned that Senthil had died. It had been raining in Chennai, and one night while asleep, Senthil had rolled off the table and fallen on the ground. He lay unconscious for hours, maybe a day or two, but no one noticed him because heavy rains had kept people away from Club House Road. Finally he died, under the table on which he lived -- a citizen of the pavement till the last breath.

Then the other day, I was walking down Venkatanarayana Road in the afternoon, when I noticed a body laid out on the pavement under a tree. The body, in shroud, was kept inside a glass case, and a few people sat mournfully around it. Next to the glass case was a table, on which lay a heap of tender coconut shells and twigs. In the heap there were a couple of tender coconuts that were yet to be hacked open.

I found it odd that people should place their dead on the pavement and mourn publicly, so I made enquiries. It turned out that the body belonged to the tender-coconut-seller, who was found dead that morning on the pavement. He had a family: some of them lived in Chennai, some in Madurai. But he, for some reason, chose to live on the pavement, selling tender coconuts, right at the spot where Venkatanarayana Road begins (opposite T. Nagar Club. I wonder if any of you were ever his customers). The spot under the tree was his home, so it was only befitting for his body should be laid there, bedecked in flowers, while the family waited for his daughter to arrive from Madurai. So here was another life that was spent and that ended on the pavement. The sun and the rain are best friends of such people, though such friends, like any friend, can turn treacherous at times.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Diwali Thoughts: Life Isn't The Same

Change is inevitable; some changes you embrace, some you are resigned to.

When your son grows up and fits into your shoes, you embrace the change even though you realise that you are no longer as young as you used to be. Most often you don't even have the time for the realisation because you are so busy being proud that your child is now your height.

But when you lose a parent, you have no choice but to resign to change. Suddenly, you find the road behind you having disappeared. Suddenly, you are bereft of the biggest luxury of life -- the protection provided by parental love. Once you lose the luxury, no other luxury matters or can compensate for it. Of what use the luxuries if the person you want to share them with the most, or who would have felt extremely smug at the thought that her son has earned those luxuries, is not there anymore?

What will always rankle me is that my mother died very young -- she was only 58 -- that too at a time when I badly wanted her to be alive for a few more years. But destiny rarely lets you have your cake and eat it too.

In two months I will turn 40, and in these 40 years, I have never, ever, been away from Kanpur during Diwali, except twice -- last year and this year.

The Diwali of 2009 could have easily been the grandest of my life: the debut book of an aspiring writer had just hit the stands -- what timing! I could have savoured the fruits of my labour in the form of Tiwariji's samosas and sweets, burst a few crackers and lit a few anaars in celebration of Diwali as well as the publication of Chai, Chai, had some chai with the family (no sugar in my mother's tea as usual) in the verandah while watching sparklers light up the sky, and then retiring to the room upstairs as usual with my brother to drink, then, smelling of alcohol, going to Kali Bari -- Kali temple -- late in the night to mark the passage of time. The neighbourhood Bengali uncle who was once dashing is now old and balding, and this wife, the aunty, walking with a limp. But their daughter, once a snotty little girl in the class, has now flowered into a stunning Bong beauty: fuck, why didn't I ever think of marrying her! Finally, we return home, that would be lit up all night by the countless chains of tiny lights. Ah, my home!

But look at the timing: my mother died just a month and a half before Diwali. She even missed the book by just eight days -- after all the painstaking effort she had taken during my childhood to teach me how to write a story. So the Diwali of 2009 was spent in Chennai, in mourning, though there was a pleasant distraction: a formal launch of Chai, Chai took place at Taj Connemara just two days before Diwali. My father had come to attend the launch, and on Diwali night, we went around the city, first to the Ramakrishna Mutt, then to Citi Centre and finally to Kali Bari in Chennai. We missed Kanpur, but we didn't mention it.

The Diwali of 2010 -- that is today -- could have easily been the second-grandest of my life. Today also happens to be my brother's birthday. Since he is November-born, Diwali always threatens to coincide with his birthday but the last time it actually did so was perhaps 25 or 30 years ago. What an occasion it would have been this evening! -- celebration of Diwali, celebration of the younger son's birthday, celebration of the minor success of the elder's son first book and the fact that he had signed contracts for a few more, celebration of a nuclear family.

Alas, I could not be in Kanpur this year. I just took a long leave to go to Kanpur to perform rituals related to her first death anniversary and to spend time with my father and brother. I have no more leave to avail of this year. Even if I did, it would have been no fun being there without mother. She would have been very conspicuous by her absence. So that is why I am here, in Chennai, putting up with the ear-splitting sounds of crackers being burst since early morning.

Mother isn't around to serve the bitter-gourd juice, father isn't around to serve the morning tea, brother isn't around to share the evening drink with. Till recently, it used to be just the four of us, and we were quite smug about that. During Dhanteras, which falls two days before Diwali, it is considered auspicious in north India to buy either utensils or jewellery on that day. One Dhanteras evening, a few years ago, when I went out drinking with friends in Kanpur, my mother, who wasn't feeling too well to step out of home, had entrusted me with buying something -- as a token -- for the occasion. On the way back home, I picked up just two spoons from a very crowded utensil shop -- in any case, they were just supposed to be symbolic of a new purchase. When I reached home, my mother told me, "Whenever you pick up something like this, always buy four. Because we are four. Tomorrow, though, when you both are married, you may need to pick up six."

Dhanteras does not make sense anymore. Though this Dhanteras, I unwittingly treated myself to a Vality fountain pen. It is a chunky pen with a transparent ink-tank -- sheer pleasure to hold. You instantly feel scholarly and writerly. Many illustrious men in Tamil Nadu, starting with chief minister Karunanidhi, are loyal users of this pen. What's more, mine turned out to be fitted with a Sheaffer nib and therefore cost more: Rs 250, compared to the usual Rs 90. With this pen, I intend to write my onward journey, now that the road behind me has disappeared.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

What Does She Think Of Herself?

A few years ago, walking down the road in Kanpur, I noticed a small boy, holding his mother's hand, walking in front of me. Suddenly, the boy broke free from his mother's grip and ran. He almost came under a car but the driver, a young woman, applied brakes just in time.

"Kya samajhti hai apne aap ko!" the boy's mother yelled while looking at the car -- What does she think of herself!

I was quite suprised by her reaction: instead of scolding the boy, she was getting angry with the woman who had actually saved her son's life by applying brakes in the nick of time. Then I realised, had the driver been a man, she would have at the most shouted, "Dekh kar nahin chalte kya?" -- Can't you watch out while driving? But the sight of a woman on the driver's seat (in the car as well as in life) was a bit too unpalatable for this boy's mother. And therefore, the 'What do you think of yourself.' The mother kept throwing angry, backward, glances at the car till it was out of sight, and only then did she give one slap to the boy for sprinting out of her grip.

It is the 'What do you think of yourself' syndrome that bites the Indian, man or woman, whenever Arundhati Roy writes or says something in public.

I am neither a fan of her, nor a baiter; I haven't even read her, though I am aware of what she writes about because of the noise made in the media. And I think it is commendable on her part to raise issues that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. In the process, she at least creates awareness and every newspaper-reading Indian gets to examine or re-examine the issue she is raising. The opinion you arrive at after examining the issue is a completely different matter -- you are free to agree with her or disagree with her.

But why go after her hammer and tongs as if she was a witch going to eat up the nation? It was to understand, and perhaps explain, this question that I wrote my previous post. But the point seemed to have been lost. As far as Kashmir or the Maoist movement is concerned, your opinion may be different from mine and I have no quarrel with that. I only sought to address one simple question: why does the whole of literate India seem to be seething with rage every time Arundhati Roy opens her mouth?

She is hardly a threat, after all. She does not run a political party that can influence people. She does not even command a small-time political outfit. She is not even as influential as individuals such as Medha Patkar or Baba Amte. She is not even being a writer -- just a one-book wonder. And yet, so much of rage, so much of anger -- coming from people who have learned to live with the likes of Bal Thackeray and Raj Thackeray?

The answer is simple. Arundhati Roy is a woman -- a woman who is attractive and articulate, defiant and daring, who effectively uses glamour and celebrity to draw attention to the issues she raises. Too unpalatable for Indian sensibilities. Indians must revolt: What does she think of herself?

Had the same views been expressed by a khadi-wearing, jhola-carrying gentleman called Arun Roy, instead of Arundhati Roy, no one would have wasted their time and emotions in retaliating.

There is a genial doctor called Binayak Sen, who spent the best part of his productive life in Chhattisgarh, treating and fighting for the oppressed, and yet languished in jail for allegedly being kind to the Maoists. Now tell me -- and do tell me the truth -- how many of you had even heard of Dr Sen until he was released from jail pretty recently following intervention by the Supreme Court? And yet you bristle with anger and activism when a certain Arundhati Roy speaks her mind on the same issue. Why so?

An Indian woman is supposed to be shy and coy and conforming to the rules set by the society. Until very recently, the storylines of many Indian films, including Hindi films, have been about taming the tomboy. In the first half of the film, the heroine defies tradition and raises eyebrows, but in the next half, she is tamed by the macho hero into being as soft as a snowflake. The audience gave out a collective sigh of orgasm: "Wow, he taught her a lesson." It walked out of the theatre with a smug look, happpy that the social equilibrium remained undisturbed.

The mindset hasn't changed since then. Problems still arise when a woman stops being a doormat and decides to raise issues and ask questions. That's when we Indians take a big gulp and exclaim in outrage, "How could she? What does she think of herself?"