Friday, January 08, 2021

The Story Of My Cats: Arrivals And Departures

Today I formally complete a year in the active service of cats — a year that feels like a lifetime because, thanks to COVID-19, a better part of it was spent at home in their company. It was on the night of 8 January 2020 that I found two cats, not more than four or five months old, peeping into my verandah from the grille gate.

At the time I only had Dude, who was more of a visitor than a pet — which is how he still is. Sometimes he would come every day, sometimes he would be missing for days, even weeks; if I happened to I spot him on the streets, he would sometimes make a noise in recognition and sometimes look through me. When he came home he never expected to be fed; he just wanted to spend some time and enjoy the attention. It was in his company that I wrote Aimless in Banaras.

Dude was home when these two kittens showed up exactly a year ago. Hearing me make welcoming sounds to them, he sauntered out to the verandah to take a look. He wasn’t quite amused by the visitors, but at the same time remained indifferent. I got some milk for the two tiny ones, and that was that — they stayed on. I named them Chunnu and Munnu.

The wife, when she noticed them a few days later, renamed them Tinni and Minni, which worked out well because soon the two were joined by their sibling, who was conveniently named Rinni.

So there was Dude; and there was the trio of Tinni, Minni and Rinni. I began to order cartons of Amul milk from a neighbourhood shop and Whiskas on Amazon. In no time the three were joined by their mother, who was promptly named Linda by the wife, who strictly adheres to the convention of giving English names to pets.

Cats being cats, while they liked to be fed by me, they wouldn’t allow me to touch them. They remained suspicious of me for a long time in spite of my giving them food and cleaning their poop. Eventually they came around, one by one. The most joyous moment was when Minni — the most beautiful and expressive of them, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen — allowed me to stroke her. As the proximity with them grew, I discovered Linda wasn’t their mother after all: she had testicles. She was renamed Jason.

One fine afternoon I discovered that Minni, my favourite, was pregnant. The bulge in her tummy was growing by the day. I cushioned a carton with rugs to make things easier for her, but the night she went into labour (precisely when Modi was making his atmanirbhar speech), she left home, with her siblings following her.

The following morning the rest of the cats returned. I was hurt that Minni had chosen to deliver elsewhere. The same evening she too returned, her stomach no longer bulging. She began sticking to me longer than usual, and that made me wonder whether she indeed had a kitten or kittens lying somewhere else.

Then, on the morning of May 20, just hours before Cyclone Amphan hit Calcutta, she bought a kitten in her mouth. At first I thought it was a mouse and began chasing her out, but she pleaded with me to let her stay. This encounter was as human as it could get and even today fills me with guilt. The moment I realised it was her baby and not a mouse, I lifted them both and placed them in the carton, which I hadn’t dismantled.

Minni, however, was too small herself to be a responsible mother, and two days later the kitten died. The death was followed another discovery, that Tinni was now pregnant. The culprit was none other than the one we thought to be their mother: Jason.

Tinni, unlike Minni, wasn’t the emotionally dependent kind; therefore I didn’t find the need to set up a carton once again. On May 28 — yes, I remember the dates by now — I saw Tinni on my bed, feeding her newborn. It was so tiny that I instinctively named it Chhotu.

Each morning I would walk down into my study wondering whether I would find Chhotu alive. I would exhale in relief when I found that he has. Chhotu was exactly two months old when Tinni, his mother, disappeared. Fortunately, he had begun eating solid food by then, but he was suddenly lonely. He wanted to play with Minni, his aunt, but she was pregnant once again and didn’t appear inclined to indulge him. But over time, she adopted him and when she once again delivered — three kittens this time — on August 18, Chhotu was the happiest. He had not only got new playmates but he was also getting to drink Minni’s milk. She would feed him and lick him as if he too was her newborn.

Ila, Bella, Stella — these were the names given to the new ones. When they were a little over two months old, Ila and Bella disappeared. Stella, who was bonding with Chhotu, stayed put. Then one morning, Chhotu, about seven months old by now, also disappeared: only the night before he had been extra cuddly.

By the time I left for Banaras the day before Christmas, there were only two resident cats: Minni and Stella (renamed Steven once it developed genitals). There was, of course, Dude, who likes exclusivity and now prefers to spend time upstairs; and there was Rinni (the sister of Tinni and Minni), who regularly came for food. From Rinni’s belly, I could tell she too had given birth and was still feeding her newborn(s): I was curious to take a look but, after all the emotional rollercoaster, was glad that she had given birth out of my sight.

The morning after I returned from Banaras, as soon as I opened the doors of my study to let in sunlight, I found a tiny and exceptionally hairy kitten curled up on the bed I’ve created for the cats in the verandah. It was Rinni’s kitten. When I stroked its head, it woke up and looked at me in alarm — the most beautiful kitten! It sprang out and went out of my reach and regarded me from a distance: “Who the hell is he!”

Rinni, who could never fully overcome her suspicion of me, had obviously brought the little one here in my absence because she felt it safe. But now that I was back, the kitten could no longer occupy the verandah and at the same time not go back to where it had come from. As a result, the tiny thing caught a cold and once the condition got worse, it surrendered. I arranged for oral drops and a nasal spray and handfed it boiled fish. Today, about a week later, the kitten who ran away from me insists on sitting on my lap.

In fact, both are sitting on my lap as I write this: Steven and the little one. These are all I have at the moment. I am not counting Dude, who remains a visitor, and Minni, whose behaviour has suddenly changed after my return from Banaras; she’s overnight become quiet and withdrawn and hardly comes anymore; the primary reason, I suspect, is the presence of the tiny one.

As the two cousins sit on my lap, I am trying to enjoy their warmth as much as I can. One doesn’t know how long it’s going to last. That’s the thing with cats: you can never be sure. Unlike dogs, they have a mind of their own and do their own thing, and sometimes, in doing their own thing, become vulnerable to circumstances.

But I’ve learned to live with these uncertainties. All thanks to Banaras. In the earlier days, I would rely on the maid for the poop to be cleaned. On most days, I paid her extra money for this unpleasant job. Then I told myself: “If I can feed them, why can’t I clean their shit. The person I am asking to clean is also a human like me.” I realised that I was doing a far better job than her. Why did I say Banaras? Because Banaras teaches you that nothing is too disgusting, and that life gives you both: flowers and shit.

And then, Banaras also teaches you that life is all about arrivals and departures — it is not in your hands to restrict either, you can only learn to live with them. The cats don't belong to me anyway; I didn't go looking around to adopt them, they came to me. Our common maker has merely assigned me the job of feeding them and cleaning their shit as long as they are with me. So here I am, glad that I could put some of the learning to use.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

15 Years of Ganga Mail

There was a time when this blog was all that I had. Facebook was still hiding in the future, my books were still in the womb of my ambition. I did have a column in the newspaper I worked for back then, and even though it was a slice-of-life column where I had a wide canvas, which I often painted with personal experiences, the voice was that of a journalist and not a writer.

It was this blog, therefore, that helped me find my voice as a writer. For several years I nourished this space like a sincere gardener, growing plants of several varieties. Today the garden has gone to seed. Thoughts are now shared on Facebook. Once upon a time I would pour myself a drink and expand on a thought — sometimes as mundane as the moon, or idlis, or touch — to produce a decent blog post.

Today Ganga Mail completes 15 years. I have nothing much to say on the occasion — there's a lot to say actually, so much that one is better off being reticent — but since the milestone needs to be marked, I am taking the easy way out by sharing a small portion of something I wrote this evening:  

In Chandannagar, some of the shops, sitting slightly apart from one another, happened to be tuned into the same radio station. Or maybe the whole of Chandannagar had just one station. The song that was playing, therefore, accompanied them for a while as they parked the car and walked towards the Strand: Gapuchi gapuchi gam gam, kishi ki kishi ki kam kam. A lightweight song — from the film Trishul, now a childhood memory — which still drenched him with youthful freshness.

‘I have a confession to make,’ she said.

‘Go on.’

‘I know the opening lines are silly, but I still love this song. As a kid, whenever someone asked me to sing a song, I would sing this.’

‘I love it too,’ he squeezed her hand. ‘And what a coincidence, only the other day I was reading about this song in a book. Sahir Ludhianvi wrote this song, and it’s not a typical Sahir song, but it seems the opening lines were given by Yash Chopra, who thought they would catch the attention of the younger generation. I think he was so right, because even today the song feels like someone handing you a chilled bottle of Limca while you are walking in the sun.’

‘Didn’t Sahir write the songs for Kabhie Kabhie as well?’

‘Of course!‘

‘I love every single song from that movie.’

‘I would like to tell you something.’


‘First let’s settle down by the river.’

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Small Prayer For Myself As I Step Into 2020

In my memory — I just turned 49 — no year was as eagerly awaited as 2019. Elections come every five years and those five years usually pass in a blink, but the 2019 elections were crucial: will Narendra Modi stay or go?

Modi hasn’t gone, but 2019 is going. Passage of time is the most powerful force on earth; no government or ideology can stop it — not even God. The boulder rolls on and eventually snuffs out everything — egos, ideologies, thoughts, greatness — before new life sprouts on the flattened land, only to be revisited by the rolling boulder decades later.

In other words, nothing lasts. What exists today, won’t be there tomorrow. You never know when you are going to come in the path of the boulder. So make the most of today. Be happy. Be happy with — and grateful for — whatever little you have. These aren’t my thoughts; they are borrowed — from Banaras.

2019, for me, was synonymous with Banaras. About seven of the 12 months were spent writing Aimless in Banaras; the remaining five waiting for it to come in the market. Now that I have a copy sitting on my desk, I can say that 2019 is ending on a satisfactory note. My first book, Chai, Chai, came out in 2009: that makes it five books in 10 years. Not bad.

It is a different matter that the five books haven’t made much difference to my life, though it is extremely gratifying when some reader or the other writes to say that my work has made a difference to his or hers. My life remains pretty ordinary. Only this afternoon I had to walk all the way to the ATM to pay the chap redoing my mother-in-law’s mattress. The ordinariness is difficult to gauge from pictures on Facebook.

Not that I am complaining. 2019 has been enriching in ways other than monetary. I made whimsical but memorable purchases, such as acquiring a Mont Blanc 149 and a Pelikan M1000. I acquired good friends. I developed a new-found interest in plants. I developed a new fetish for leather — pen sleeves, pen holders, rucksacks. I did up my study — decorated with plants and pictures — and finally have a space of my own, which I share with no one except Dude, the cat. All my life, until I moved to Calcutta in August 2018, I’ve never had a proper desk because I was more comfortable writing lying on my stomach on the bed or a mattress. My mind didn’t work unless I was reclining. Now my mind doesn’t work unless I am at my desk, sitting erect.

That way, yes, someone visiting me after a gap of 10 years would tend to believe that I’ve arrived. The truth is far from that. Personal tastes may have changed — as they sometimes do, with increasing age and exposure — but the struggle remains. And the struggle is essential — equivalent of the water and sunlight that a plant needs to grow. Going by Banarasi wisdom, struggle too is Shiva. So the five books are mere milestones, not arrival.

Only one prayer I have for myself as I step into 2020: that I become a practising Banarasi. Life becomes a lot easier when lived the Banaras way. If you want to know what I mean by that, read Aimless in Banaras.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

August and I

My mother is now a memory. But memories of the August afternoon I cremated her in Banaras remain fresh. There are pictorial reminders, too, of that afternoon, hidden in some forgotten folder, but I have no desire to access it.

My mother died on 28 August 2009. I received the news in Chennai, flew to Delhi the same evening, and the next morning took an Indian Airlines flight to Banaras to cremate her. She would have turned 59 on 31 August.

At the time I was an unpublished writer. Chai, Chai was still in the press — I had no idea when it was going to come out — and I had just begun work on Tamarind City. The road ahead, as a writer, was still foggy. But while waiting at Manikarnika Ghat that afternoon, watching several pyres — including hers — slowly reducing into ash, I resolved that I must do a Banaras book someday. The thought transformed me from a grieving son to a writer who was collecting material. Her death was no longer a personal tragedy but an event I was going to report.

About a week later, when I was in Kanpur, killing time as I waited for the 13th-day ritual, the advance copy of Chai, Chai arrived. Shortly after I returned to Chennai, my head tonsured, the book appeared in shops and on October 15, a formal launch was held. At the time I worked with Times of India and my office was barely two kilometres away, and on my way to work I had to cross the Balaji temple on Venkatanarayana Road. When the manuscript was still with the publisher, I would tell Lord Balaji: “If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will get my head tonsured at Tirupati.” And now I was telling him: “Since you already got my head tonsured, make sure it sells 10,000 copies.”

Chai, Chai went on to become a blockbuster. Then came Tamarind City, in 2012, followed by the Calcutta book, Longing, Belonging, in 2014. Banaras was forgotten. Finally in October 2015 I set out for Banaras and spent nearly two weeks there. But that was when the idea of the border book struck me: 70th anniversary of Partition was nearing and I realised that if I had to produce a timely book, I must start right way. The Banaras notebook was put aside and I began working on what became Gazing at Neighbours, published in August 2017.

I could return to Banaras only in December 2018. Thereafter, no looking back. The notebook I had put aside filled up in no time. By now I had relocated to Calcutta, where I had finally set up a proper study. I would be at my desk by 9.30 in the morning and write till lunch time. As lucky charm I would wear a shawl gifted to me in Banaras by the writer Kashinath Singh. Once winter melted away, I placed a piece of cloth — sent to me by a well-wisher from Banaras after he got it blessed by Lord Vishwanath on Shivaratri — on the backrest of my chair.

The book got done in six months. It should be out soon. This is the fastest I’ve done a book. Perhaps because of the discipline. I had firmly told myself two things: 1. To write at least 400 words a day; and 2. To not reproduce stuff already known about Banaras.

Since we are into August, when memories of that afternoon make their annual visit, I find myself somewhat amazed by the timing. The book is going to mark 10 years of my mother’s death — and also 10 years of my becoming a published writer. As if destiny demanded this timely tribute.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

One Year In Calcutta

On the night of 13 January 2001, I boarded the Tamil Nadu Express at New Delhi station, carrying a large suitcase and a bag. The suitcase had all my clothes and documents, while the bag exclusively contained music: a two-in-one and dozens of cassettes. I was a faceless man — one of the countless journalists seeking sufficient elbow room in the city of Delhi — who had decided to move to Chennai simply because he had not never set foot in that part of the country. I didn’t know a soul in Chennai, and once the train began to move, even my newly-purchased Nokia 5110 lost connection, cutting me off from the rest of the world during the 32-hour journey. I had turned 30 a few days before, but I was born again on 15 January 2001, the day I arrived in Chennai.

Cut to the afternoon of 6 August 2018. I am standing in an empty house in Chennai, waiting for the landlord to arrive so that I can hand him the keys and leave for the airport. All my belongings, accumulated over the 17 years, have already been shipped to Calcutta the day before. I am going to travel light when I take the Indigo flight. In the evening I land at the City of Joy, this time not on a visit but to make a new beginning. I wanted to move before I was too old to enjoy the delights of the place I had fallen in love with during the writing of Longing, Belonging.

Today I complete a year in Calcutta. Despite all the complaints that people — especially those who no longer live here — have about it, Calcutta is indeed a delightful city. Living is believing. That way I am pleased with my decisions. I moved to Chennai at a time when most people considered it back of beyond and therefore got to experience it before it got crowded. And now I’ve moved to Calcutta at a time when most people with my background prefer to live in Delhi, Noida or Gurgaon — with some of the best minds living elsewhere and trying to fit into other cultures, I feel more important. I am a Bengali who made Bengal his home.

But even after spending 12 months here, do I feel settled? Not quite. Feeling settled would mean the death of the writer in me. Even during the 17 years in Chennai, I was frequently spending time in other places — travelling in order to write — so that I did not become accustomed, and therefore blind, to one particular place. Even of the 12 months that I’ve spent in Calcutta, six were spent in Banaras, finishing my next book. No, I didn’t live in Banaras during that period — sitting at my desk in Calcutta, I would mentally transport myself to Banaras between 9 AM and 2 PM every day, before setting out for my office at Dalhousie Square at three o’clock, looking at Calcutta with fresh eyes all over again, my phone always ready to take pictures.

What I find most striking about Calcutta is its lack of ambition. Bengalis are generally happy with what they have — City of Joy, after all — as long as there’s fish in the daily meal. For someone used to the ways of Chennai, it can be irritating as well as amusing to find shops in the neighbourhood — including pharmacies — shutting for the afternoon. Business cannot come in the way of adda or afternoon nap.

During my morning walks in the Central Park, a stone’s throw from my home in Salt Lake City, I always run into Marwari men who are invariably discussing either Modi or Money. Only the other day, I overheard a Marwari gentleman declaring, quite uncharacteristically, to a small congregation under a tree: “Main aap logon ko ek sher sunata hoon” — I am going to recite a sher for you all. Sher means a couplet; emerging from his lips, the word sounded like ‘share’.

On the other hand the Bengalis I come across — almost always elderly and an overwhelming minority in the park — can be heard whining about their health or speaking with pride about their children.

The lack of ambition, in my opinion, helps Calcutta retain much of the old-world charm. In most other cities, you will find the past in museums, but in Calcutta the past still stands on the streets and sits in people’s homes. If you want to see how the world looked or functioned 100 years ago, come to Calcutta — but come quickly, for things are beginning to change here as well. Until just five years ago, trams were a common sight in the city, today you’ll have to be lucky to spot one. But yes, they still run, and I’ve moved just in time before they become memory.

Should I, then, consider August 6 as the day of a third birth for me? No, I have merely relocated and not been reborn. The day of rebirth shall remain January 15, for it was in Chennai that I learned how to look and feel.

6 August 2018: Saju drives us to Chennai airport; arrival in Calcutta.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

An Ending And A Beginning

Today is Vijaya Dashami. Usually on this day, for the past few years, I’ve been taking the flight back to Chennai after spending Durga Puja in Calcutta. This year, however, I did not take the flight to Chennai. That’s because I no longer live in Chennai. I now live in Calcutta, having moved here on August 6, after having spent close to 18 years in what I call Tamarind City.

Why did I move to Calcutta? I will tell the story some other time. Or may be there is no story at all. Ever since I began work on Longing, Belonging, in 2011, I found myself belonging as much to Calcutta as I did to Chennai; and this shift is a mere technicality. It’s like being on roaming: I remain rooted to Chennai even as I connect with my cultural roots in Bengal.

This morning I woke up very late, exhausted by successive nights of pandal-hopping. Before lunch I read a few pages of Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines; it was a struggle to keep the eyes glued to the pages — so used to they are now to the phone screen. There was also distraction is the form of dhaak beats, being relayed from the neighbourhood pandal over loudspeakers mounted on bamboo poles.

A part of me wanted to be at the pandal: to say parting prayers to the goddess, to take pictures of women applying vermilion on the goddess and on one another’s cheeks. Then an announcement was made on the loudspeaker: women who still hadn’t done the vermilion thing could do so only until three o’clock, after which the goddess and her children would head for the river.

After lunch I hurried to the pandal, just in time to catch the last woman, perched on a ladder, applying vermilion on the fish-eyed goddess. She had barely finished when the men took over: first removing the weapons, then removing the idols, loading them onto waiting trucks. I got into the car and asked the driver to take me to the riverside — I had no particular destination in mind; any place from where I could watch the immersion — it could be even a boat — would do. I was, however, pretty much sure that the car would not be allowed anywhere near the river today.

Near the Maidan I found myself tailing a Durga-laden truck. “Follow this truck,” I told the driver. We curved around the Maidan, past the Eden Gardens, past more Durga-laden trucks, before arriving at the ghat where dozens of such trucks were already parked. The air pulsated with the beats of dhaak — near as well as distant. I switched on my phone camera and jumped out of the car.

The sight, alas, was too spectacular to be captured accurately with phone or even words. The sun — a soft orange ball — was swiftly lowering itself on the horizon marked by the Vidyasagar Bridge. And against its fading light sprouted numerous silhouettes, of the ten-armed Durga — all beautiful, sometimes breathtaking, works of art that were being gaped at at their respective pandals until late last night. And now they were about to be consigned to the river; the clay would return to where it belonged — the riverbed.

The immersion was in progress. People carried the idols down the steps and pushed them, as gently as possible, into the water, and filled clay pots with the water — shanti jal — to carry them back to the empty pandal in the neighbourhood where people would be waiting to have the water sprinkled on them. One moment Durga was there, the next moment she’s gone — another 360 days before she returns again.

Why does Durga have to go — months of labour and excitement washed away in a matter of minutes?

There are people better qualified to answer that. I have my own answers, though. Imagine Durga idols being made of, say, marble, and installed permanently in neighbourhoods — there would be worship but no fun! Not to mention the loss of annual assured income for hundreds of thousands of people — artisans, decorators, labourers, electricians, caterers, it's one long list. And if Durga did not go, how would the Bengali look forward to her arrival, year after year. Looking-forward is vital to human existence.

I have another way of looking at it. Perseverance — yes, Durga's departure teaches you perseverance. When that beautiful face, admired by millions for five days, goes below the surface of the water, a knife pokes your heart: over those five days the clay face would have acquired a life. And then you start from scratch all over again — again and again.

I walked downstream to Millennium Ghat, descended its steps, put my hand in the water and sprinkled a few drops on my head. The water was not only blessed by Durga — it contained many Durgas.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Gazing At Neighbours: New Book, New Horizons

It's drizzling this morning as I lie down by the window of my Chennai home to write this post.

Some will call it a pleasant day; many others find such weather to be gloomy — it all depends on your state of mind. My mind, at the moment, is somewhere else.

Exactly two years ago, around the same time, I was at the Attari station, standing under a scorching sun, sweating profusely, waiting for the arrival of Samjhauta Express from Lahore. That journey marked the start of a new book, Gazing at Neighbours: Travels Along the Line That Partitioned India.

And sitting by my bed right now is a small carton that contains the 10 complimentary copies sent to me by my publishers. That makes this my 'fastest book' so far: everything — the travelling, the writing, the editing, the revisions, the printing — was done in under two years, even though I travelled far and wide for it, from Punjab in one extreme to Tripura and Assam and Meghalaya in the other.

As the title suggests, the book records my travels to places that sit on the two lines that Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew on the map of the subcontinent while partitioning India. Yes, he drew not one but two lines — one split Punjab and the other, a much longer line, carved out a province called East Bengal — even though when people talk about Partition, particularly these days, they confine themselves to the line Radcliffe drew across Punjab.

What makes Gazing at Neighbours particularly special for me is the trips I made along the boundary of the erstwhile East Bengal (now Bangladesh): they took me to places I had never been to before and probably would have never visited in my lifetime: what a loss — oh, what a loss! — that would have been.

And the most unforgettable moment from Punjab? Well, it wasn't exactly on the border but in Amritsar, at the Golden Temple, at four-thirty in the morning:

"Wearing a headscarf and my underwear, I stepped into the tank — the pool of nectar. The water was pleasantly warm and after bathing in it I felt my sensory system sufficiently refreshed to appreciate the magical hour of dawn. I suddenly saw better, heard better, felt better. I reflected upon life as I lingered in the water, listening to gurbani, the words of the gurus, being sung in the sanctum sanctorum. That’s when I realised why I felt so good."

The writing of the book was not just about visiting places I might have never set foot in otherwise, but also learning historical facts I had remained foolishly unaware of all my life. For example, independent India was born on the midnight of 14/15 August 1947 without knowing where exactly its boundaries with Pakistan lay: the maps were made public by Lord Mountbatten only on August 17. It's a fact, but I didn't know it — and many still don't.

The travels taught me something as well: that if you actually travel along the border, you will never really hate Pakistan or harbour ill feelings towards Bangladesh. You will find how everything is just the same: from the colour of the crops to the colour of the people. Which is why you will never hear anti-Pakistan cries on the border: you hear them either in the air-conditioned, insulated TV studios of Delhi or on the streets of Mumbai, which is a good 1,000 km away from Attari.

As Mark Twain noted more than a century ago: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." His words hold truer today.

So pack your bags. The next best thing would be to get hold of a copy of Gazing at Neighbours. It is equally fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, trust me.  
Behind me you can see the Samjhauta Express pulling into Attari station.

Right behind me is the Bangladeshi village of Tamabil, in Sylhet. I stand facing Dawki, a village in the state of Meghalaya.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Of Ganga And Ganga Mail: 11 Years Of A Blog

I am mildly emotional about October 17 — I never seem to forget the date — because it was on this day in 2005 that I started this blog. That makes Ganga Mail 11 years old.
The blog was created in a setting similar to what I find myself in right now: a dark room, gently lit up by a lamp with yellow bulb; me reclining on the mattress with the laptop; music playing softly on the speakers connected to the laptop; a glass of whisky and ashtray at hand; an empty stomach. What more does one need to write?
I chose 'bytheganges' as the URL because I wanted something unique, something I thought defined me. The truth is that back then, the Ganges or the Ganga hardly meant a thing to me other than that I had grown up near its banks in Kanpur. Little did I know that by naming my blog after the river I had only provoked Destiny into ensuring that my path got intertwined with that of the river's. I even have the evidence.
I was 35 when I started this blog, and until then, in spite of having grown up by the river, I would have visited the Ganga — I am ashamed to say this — maybe seven times in all, and they include childhood visits. But ever since Ganga Mail was created, our paths have been crossing far too often — and they are bound to keep crossing in the near future as well with even greater frequency and intensity. 
But it would be unfair to hold Destiny alone responsible. The birth of Ganga Mail also marked the beginning of my journey as a writer, and, whenever, as a writer, I followed the smell of the soil in search of my soul, I invariably found myself sitting by the Ganga.
Chai, Chai, published in 2009, is my most popular book till date: it is an account of my visits to towns that are famous as railway junctions but about which very little is known otherwise. Many people, for example, know Jolarpet or Guntakal as railway stations, but how many of them are familiar with the towns of Jolarpet and Guntakal? That was the idea behind writing Chai, Chai.
One of the towns I included in the book was Mughal Sarai. I had had childhood memories of Mughal Sarai station. The train from Kanpur to Howrah would make a long halt there: the engine and the staff would change and lunch would be served to passengers in compartmented plates. During  my stay in Mughal Sarai during the writing of Chai, Chai, I decided to visit Benares, which was only 10 km away. And even though Benares did not belong to the book, I decided to include it anyway: the emotions I experienced in the ancient city was too precious not to be documented.
Shortly after Chai, Chai came out, a colleague told me, "My son is only 10 years old, he has read your book and he loves you."
I felt extremely flattered, but at the same time wondered why a 10-year-old, growing up in the era of budget airlines, should like a book about railway junctions.
A few months later the colleague threw a party at his home. I was invited too. As soon as I reached his place he took me to his son's bedroom and told him, "Here, meet your favourite writer. Won't you say hello to him?"
The child blushed and covered his face with a pillow. I removed the pillow and asked him, "Have you really read Chai, Chai?"
He nodded.
"Then tell me what did you like the most about the book."
"The part about Benares," he said and quickly covered his face with the pillow again.
That's when I understood that the charm of the Ganga transcended age, gender and location. And also felt mildly proud that I owned — no, not the Ganga — but Ganga Mail.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Durga Puja In Calcutta Makes Me Sad

Feeling a little emotional about Calcutta tonight, I sat down to put down my thoughts in writing but I am unable to because the radio is on — 106.2 FM, which describes itself as ‘Kolkatar gaan, Kolkatar pran’ (the songs of Calcutta, the soul of Calcutta).
I can, of course, switch off the radio, but that’s easier said that done when my kind of songs are plating back to back — Bengali as well as Hindi numbers of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. It is one thing to possess a collection of these songs and play them as and when you want to, quite another when the radio plays them. When the RJ plays these songs, he validates the fact that your choice is far from outdated. In Calcutta, someone born in the 1970s can never feel old.
And just when you think that you know all the songs created during that golden decade, the radio springs a surprise. Only minutes ago, the channel played a Bengali song that instantly grabbed my attention: sung by Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar and pictured — as I discovered on You Tube — on Amol Palekar and Sharmila Tagore in a 1979 film called Mother.
The song has made me even more emotional.
I am not alone. This is that time of the year when every Bengali living in Calcutta gets emotional. It’s Durga Puja, after all. But why should they get emotional during Durga Puja, the ultimate season of joy and festivity?
That’s because they spend the entire year waiting for Durga Puja, but once the goddess and her four children have taken their positions in the neighbourhood pandal, realisation dawns that the next four days will elapse in no time — and that they would have to once again wait for another whole year.
They would ideally like the calendar to bear only four days — sashti, saptami, ashtami and navami — and make life an everlasting celebration, but that would be like trying to hold on to the sand in your fist. The sand slips out: day by day, month by month, year by year. And that’s how we get old.
Fortunately for Calcutta, the end of Durga Puja does not mean the end of celebrations. Durga Puja is followed by a host of other festivals, lasting throughout the year, before Durga Puja stages a grand return once again.
But for a Calcuttan, a lot can change between one Durga Puja and another. One may not be around to see the next Durga Puja in the neighbourhood pandal for a variety of reasons: one could find a new job and move to another city, one could get married and move to another city, or one could just die of disease or accident during the intervening 300 or so days. To be present at the neighbourhood pandal during Durga Puja is an assertion of being alive — and that explains why the festival is such an emotional event.
I may not be a true-blue Calcuttan — I have been living in Chennai for almost 16 years — but of late even I have been marking my attendance on Planet Earth by visiting Calcutta every Durga Puja. That is why I feel so emotional today — that the festivities must come to an end so soon. Can’t good things last a little longer?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some Thoughts About Chai, Chai — Over Whisky

Yesterday morning my publishers mailed me reviews of the Hindi translation of Chai, Chai appearing in three leading Hindi dailies  Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta — and that set me on the reminiscence mode.
I signed the contract for the book in November 2006, seven months after I got married my wife sometimes jokes that while she brought me all the good luck, I brought her only bad luck, which is probably true but it wasn't until July 2007 when I started travelling for it. I no longer remember what took me so long to get started, but I do remember receiving calls from my anxious publishers, who had already paid me an advance of Rs. 50,000.
So it was in July 2007 that I formally began my journey as a writer, when I stepped out of Itarsi station on a drizzly evening. I had no expectations to live up to, not many travel writers to look up to — my reading was limited to Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. I had only a vague idea how a book was to be written — and the idea was, basically, to have fun and let things happen to you, rather than you chasing things: if things didn't happen to you, so be it.
I no longer remember when exactly I made the journeys to the other places described in the book — yes, Mughal Sarai was in November 2007 — but I do remember finishing the journeys shortly before 5 March 2008, when I joined the Times of India. The paper was soon going to launch its Chennai edition.
And then I sat on the project for months together, as I coped with pressures at the new workplace. It took a couple of more calls from the publishers to get me started with the writing, and once I got into the rhythm, there was no stopping. I would write from midnight till 4 a.m., wake up at 11 and go to the gym.

I emailed the manuscript in March 2009 and, after spending two days in Pondicherry, went to Kanpur. I had no idea I was seeing my mother for the last time.
Back in Chennai, as I awaited the publication of the book, I began to pray. I lived in T. Nagar and my office was located precisely 2 km away, in Nandanam. Every day, I would pass the Balaji temple on Venkatnarayana Road, and I would tell Lord Venkateswara, "If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will go to Tirupati and get tonsured."
But even before the book could come out — it hit the stands in September 2009 — my mother died. As per rituals, I had to get my head shaved. God had turned out to be unfair, unkind. I told Him, "I have done my bit, now it's your turn. Make sure the book sells 10,000 copies."

This time He heard me.


Today, looking back, Chai, Chai is a book I am at once possessive and embarrassed about.

Possessive, obviously because it is my first book, to write which I did things I can't imagine doing today: such as getting off at strange stations and, no matter what time of the day or night, setting out in search of a hotel. What if the town had no hotels? Well, I had no Plan B. Neither did I have the luxury of homework: almost nothing was available to read, online or otherwise, for me to get even remotely acquainted with those towns. Everything had to be experienced first hand.

Embarrassed, because I would do a far better job if I were to write the book today. I would spend more time in each place, search harder, dig deeper. It would be a thicker book, with less of whisky and more of chai — but that would also mean less kick.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Have Will, Will Travel

I often come across this quote, that life is like a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

When you read those words aloud you also, without realising it, make fun of people who do not travel. But to travel you often need two things: money and will. Many people don't have either, some neither.

But there are people who travel for a living people who spend most of the week in airports and hotels, or in trains or buses — selling corporate solutions or FMCG products. I don't so much envy those living out of airports and hotels: they basically hop from one boardroom to another, and these days most boardrooms are usually located on the outskirts of a city. But I very much envy those who, to promote their brand of tea or toothpaste or chocolate, travel to the remotest of shops, occasionally hopping onto a passing truck or tractor if required in order to cover the areas assigned.

These fortunate people, since they have one eye fixed on the watch and the other on the target, largely remain blind to the places their work takes them to. They travel, but they wouldn't be called travellers.

Who, then, is a traveller?

A traveller, to me, is someone driven by curiosity: What lies there? The there could be a neighbouring town or a neighbouring country or a country 10,000 miles away so long as you go there out of curiosity you are a traveller (if you go there only for the sights you are already familiar with, you are a tourist).

Which also means that you do not really need money to travel. I shall always cherish the trip I made to the town of Chandragiri, near Tirupati, in September 2011: I had driven down from Chennai with a friend and together, we would not have spent more than Rs. 2,000. We could have managed with even half the amount had we not chosen to stay in AC rooms.

There is another journey I shall never forget: I even remember the date  — August 4, 2015 — because it happened to be birth anniversary of my idol Kishore Kumar. On that day, I took the morning flight from Chennai to Calcutta, and in the afternoon — after listening to a few Kishore Kumar songs on FM took the flight to Bagdogra.

From Bagdogra airport, I was to drive south to Cooch Behar, to work on a story about the Bangladeshi enclaves that had merged with India just four days before. As the driver led me to the parking, I noticed a car with a red number plate, the registration number painted in the Devanagari script.

"The car you are looking at is from Nepal," the driver — a very nice man called Bindeshwar Yadav — satisfied my curiosity. "The registration says it belongs to the Bagmati zone of Nepal."

"How far is Nepal from here?" I asked him.

"The border is not even 30 km. Everything is close from here. Bhutan is hardly 70 km, Darjeeling 90 km."

My destination, Cooch Behar, was the farthest: 150 km.  To come so close to these places — Nepal, Bhutan, Darjeeling — and yet not to be able to even peep into them, the thought saddened me. "I must come back someday," I silently willed, even though the possibility of another trip in the near future seemed remote, very remote.

Perhaps the hills heard me. Not even a year has passed since then, and I have already been to Nepal, Bhutan and Darjeeling.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

15 Years In Chennai

Every January I fall in love with Chennai all over again. That’s when the sky is blue and the clouds are white, when the weather is at its pleasant best, when there is happiness in the air and when, for me, the sensations return — the sensations that had gripped me when I first set foot in the city and walked its streets.

Two days ago, January 15, I completed 15 years in Chennai, and because it is January, the memories of the initial days are once again playing in my mind in high definition. The reason I recall my arrival with such fondness is that I came to live in the city out of choice and not compulsion.

I was someone who could have idli and sambar for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and I never saw my lack of Tamil as an impediment. If anything, I found it very romantic that people you were trying to communicate with did not speak your language and you did not speak theirs. The ‘language problem’ was a delightful evidence that you had travelled — all the way — to live in a new land.

In short, I came to Chennai without expecting it to adjust to my ways, and instead came prepared to adapt myself to Chennai. And even though I had come from Delhi — north India — it helped that I was a Bengali, related by my surname to the land that had produced Tagore and Vivekananda. Even though the truth is that until 2001 — for that matter until 2006 — I had barely spent time in Bengal and had a ‘north Indian’ upbringing.

My very first home in the city was a lodge called J.K. Mansions located on Natesan Street in T. Nagar. The street ran parallel to the famous (or infamous?) Ranganathan Street. Every time I climbed up to or climbed down from my second-floor room, I would notice the hand-painted warning on each landing: “Female visitors not allowed” and “Consumption of liquor strictly prohibited.”

The first in-house rule was impossible to violate, but the second was violated with impunity because one evening, two days into my stay at the lodge, I found the manager escorting a carpenter into my room and getting the sole window secured with a wire mesh. “What to do, sir, people drink and throw empty bottles out of the window,” the manager explained, “neighbours are daily complaining.”

I wasn’t one of the culprits because I hadn’t discovered the wine shops of Chennai yet. On the evening of my Day One, I drank at the bar of Hotel Peninsula on G.N. Chetty Road, and on Day Two, I had drinks and dinner with my new colleagues at the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Ranjith in Nungambakkam. I was rich at the time: my father had given me Rs 40,000 — big money at the time — to start a new life in Chennai.

From Day Three onwards, however, I was having my evening drinks with select colleagues at a ‘bar-attached’ wine shop on Commander-in-Chief Road (Ethiraj Salai), which was right next to a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant called Shamiyana. We referred to the bar as Shamiyana.

I do not miss anything more in life than the sensations of those initial days in Chennai. Sensations are difficult to capture in words: the nearest you can get to doing that is by recalling memories.

Such as waking up to songs to Minnale wafting in from the window — who wouldn’t fall in love with the tune of Nenjei poopol?

Such as remembering, on waking up, that water would flow from bathroom tap only for half an hour — if you happened to sleep through those precious 30 minutes, you were screwed.

Such as sitting with bated breath in an autorickshaw as he took me flying from T. Nagar to my office on Club House Road (the journey lasted barely 10, at the most 12, minutes) — and feeling the rush of adrenalin as the autorickshaw sped down the hoarding-lined Gemini flyover.

Such as strolling out of office and stepping into Spencer Plaza, the only and the most happening mall of Chennai, mainly to visit Landmark, the bookstore, and Music World — my two favourite escapes.

Such as slowly emptying my quarter bottle (180 ml) of Old Monk rum in the company of colleagues-turned-friends at Shamiyana, and very rarely having an additional “ninety” or “cutting” (90 ml) — those days, don’t ask me why, alcohol and ambition went hand in hand; I could dream better while drinking.

Such as finding wine shops open even on Republic Day (in Delhi, almost every other day was dry day) and escaping death on the Republic Day of 2001 when, returning from an excursion to Mahabalipuram where we all drank vodka sitting on the seaside rocks, the colleague riding the bike lost control and I went sliding, face down, on the road — I survived only because ECR or OMR had not been constructed yet and there was no speeding vehicle coming from behind.

Such as sitting in the last row at those book launches that were followed by cocktails, totally in awe of those on the dais and eagerly waiting for the bar to open — but secretly hoping to be on the dais someday.

Such as having dinner from a roadside stall, either steaming idlis or hot parotta with ‘full-boiled’ egg (poached egg tossed upside down on the pan so that the yolk got fried as well) — the steam made you more hungry.

Such as going to sleep with the songs of Minnale still wafting in through the window, either from a neighbouring home or from the transistor of a watchman stationed close by.

Such as moving in, after spending precisely two weeks at J.K. Mansions, to the privacy of a flat in nearby Murugesan Street — a street I shared with Illayaraja for almost 14 years before shifting, in November 2014, to a street on the opposite side of North Usman Road.

The Chennai of January 2001 is not the same as the Chennai of January 2016. Everything has changed — everything — from the time I first set foot in the city.

T. Nagar, back then, was a residential area which also had commercial establishments; today it is a commercial area where some residential properties still exist.

Autorickshaw drivers no longer speed because there is simply no space on the roads to turn up the accelerator.

Wine shops and their bars, once run efficiently by private parties, are today run by the state government and the less said about their condition the better — anyway, the last time I stepped into a wine-shop bar was in March 2008.

I no longer go to book launches for the free drinks but to see, sometimes, my own books launched. What’s more satisfying is that one of the books is about Chennai.

My office on Club House Road has now transformed into Express Avenue. Spencer Plaza is a ghost mall. Landmark and Music World have shut down across the city.

There are far, far more places to eat and drink — and not just Dhaba Express or Harrisons.

The city limits no longer end with Thiruvanmiyur in the south and Mogappair in the west.

And as far as music is concerned — correct me if I am wrong — melody is nearly dead. Songs — even those created by the so-called Mozart of Madras, who gave several gems in the late 1990s — come and go. Nothing in the past 15 years to capture the popular imagination the way the songs of Minnale and, to some extent, Kaakha Kaakha did. But then, as far as melody is concerned, the city already sitting on a pot of gold: the music of the real Mozart of Madras, my neighbour of 14 years.

Three things, however, remain unchanged. Karunanidhi remains the leader of DMK. Jayalalitha remains the leader of AIADMK. And every morning, you find a freshly-drawn kolam outside every door.

If the city has changed, so have I. Naturally. Fifteen years is a lifetime. I came as a man who had just turned 30, today I am 45 — everything that has happened to me has happened to me in Chennai. So much so that I am no longer able to recall what I was doing with my life before I moved here.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

On Turning Forty-Five

About a couple of months ago I spent some time in Benares, where one day, while walking to the Manikarnika Ghat, I chanced upon the Pashupatinath Temple, built there about two centuries ago by the king of Nepal.

I was immediately awestruck by the peace that prevailed over the temple. You could stand on its terrace and gaze at the Ganga without realising you are in Benares, a city overrun by pilgrims: just the perfect place for a one-to-one with Pashupatinath, or Shiva — my favourite god.

But since the temple is located right next to Manikarnika, India’s most famous cremation ground, you cannot visit — or exit — it without noticing the piles of wood or the smoke rising from the various pyres. Was the temple purposely built near Manikarnika so that devotees could realise that even if Shiva granted their prayers, they could not escape one reality, which was death?

I wasn’t sure of that, but during my stay in Benares, I visited the Pashupatinath Temple several times, and during what turned out to be my final visit, a young caretaker gifted me with a poster of the original Pashupatinath Temple, located in Kathmandu. I wanted to be in Kathmandu that very moment — just to complete the journey. But I did not see myself travelling to Nepal in the near future, and so I accepted the poster and told myself, “Okay, someday.” I had no idea, back then, that ‘someday’ would arrive so soon.

I have been in Kathmandu for the past two days now, and since today happened to be my birthday, I decided to begin the day with a visit to the Pashupatinath Temple. I prayed for myself and for people who matter to me, and then moved to the rear side of the temple — to a terrace overlooking the Bagmati River.

As I looked down the terrace, I saw a Manikarnika-like ghat below me —there were bodies either being cremated or being prepared for cremation — only that the Bagmati turned out to be so unbelievably narrow and shallow that you could hardly call it a river. Oh, the familiar smell of burning flesh!

On the steps across the river stood mourners — friends and distant family members of the deceased — who weren’t directly involved in the rituals of cremation. There was something very dignified and official — and not impersonal, as it happens in Manikarnika — about these cremations.

Suddenly it struck me that I was the birthday boy, who should be celebrating birth and not observing death, and I moved away from the terrace — but not without the reinforced realisation that every single birth has to meet death someday.

Perhaps that is why the two Pashupatinath temples — in Benares and in Kathmandu — adjoin cremation ghats, so that devotees know that no matter how much they please Shiva, they cannot escape death.

I wouldn’t have thought on these lines had I been 10 years younger: I would have got drunk — or had mindless sex — to celebrate my birthday. But once you turn 45, as I did today, you realise that death is a part of life. It is a different matter that you still feel your life has only just begun — miles to go before you sleep.