Sunday, October 30, 2005

Sunday Musings

Sunday morning: After a long time, one whole year, it has meant togetherness to me. A far cry from the lonely Sundays in Chennai, where I wake up to the smell of mustard spluttering in one of the neighbouring kitchens and doze off again late in the afternoons, waking up to realise it is already dark and lights need to be switched on.

But there are exciting Sundays too -- a full round of yoga, great afternoon-long sex, invigorating walk in the park, and a few drinks in the evening to make up for the lost sweat. And if a burst of creativity strikes in the night, the Sunday is made.

Sitting in Kanpur, surrounded by all the comforts one can think of, it feels good -- and safe -- to recollect those miserable Sundays as well those exciting Sundays. In fact, I think of Chennai most of the time -- my work, my books, the people I love, the people who love me, my friends, my supposed friends... That's the safest thing to do. Because if I think about Kanpur, it would be like staring at a stark reality -- the irreversible progression of life.

One neighbour has died, another neighbour's son has got married, another family in the neighbourhood have sold their house and gone away -- the standard bunch of news that awaits me every time I make the annual trip home. Then I go to the cigarette shop in the corner of the street: that's the street of my life. There, I see people -- people I had last seen a year ago, the year before, five years ago, ten years ago, even twenty... Grey hair, more grey hair, a limp, loss of weight (possibly because of diabetes), falling teeth, the general 'old' look -- these hitherto-unseen features make them unrecognisable at first. And when you recognise them, images of what they looked like in their hey day flashes in front of you. And you think: wasn't it just the other day?

At time you wish certain people went unrecognised. At the office of a small but newly-opened newspaper in the city, I saw an old, frail man -- he must be about 75 -- holding a paper close to his eyes. Occasionally he would put the paper down to make corrections, and then hold it close to his eyes again. He is the proof-reader there, hired only recently because too many mistakes were going into the paper. He spends two hours a day there, for which he is paid Rs 1500 a month. He comes there because he needs the money. He was my first chief reporter, a big journalist in the city when I started as a trainee journalist 13 years ago. I sneaked out before his eyes could meet mine.

Friday, October 28, 2005

A Song for Cornershop Girl

The shop is still there,
in it strange faces.
If the shop mattered,
strangers would be friends.

Like a man possessed,
I look for your face,
in those faces, hoping:
the eyes would match, it doesn’t;
the nose would match, it doesn’t;
the words would match -- nowhere near!
Even their songs are strange.

But I still go there,
light a cigarette
and turn my ear to the sky
and listen to your song.
I hear silence, so I sing to you,
I know you, know you O lady from foreign land
You live across the ocean O lady from foreign land…
Remember the Tagore song --
your song, my song?

I still hear silence.
I know you are there,
somewhere up there.
If you see Tagore there,
will you ask him
to write a song
for my Cornershop Girl?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Cornershop Girl

Sunday morning:
clear sky after the rain.
I went to the corner shop
to buy cigarettes --
a five-year-old ritual.

A girl ran the shop:
Cornershop Girl, I called her.
She sold cough and death
but gave lessons
on love and life.

She died last year.
Or so they told me.
But every morning
I go there to look
for my Cornershop Girl.

Saturday, October 22, 2005


Over alcohol we became friends.
Then one day,
we got drunk and fought.
We don't meet anymore,
but alcohol remains a common friend.


I am a bird,
one of the species which lives in cages.
My father lives in a cage,
so does my mother.
And so does everyone who looks like me.
But what use my wings, if I can't fly?
And to be fed by strange fingers,
whenever they want to feed me,
and not when I am hungry?
To be looked at by strange pairs of eyes,
even when you want to be alone?
And to be released from the cage,
when your wings are no longer strong?

No, no, no. Not my scene.
"If you want to be in the cage,"
I told the rest of my lot,
"be there. Count me out.
I am going to use my wings
and fly above the skyscrapers."
What are the fruits on the trees for?
And the breads left over
in the balconies of the skyscrapers?

Life was bliss:
eating fresh fruits
and the half-eaten breads,
sitting on the branches,
and coiled in the warmth of balconies.
Ten years passed.
Ten happy years.

Reality struck one day:
fruits had become half-eaten
and half-eaten breads disappearing.
The younger birds
devouring them all!
"Why don't you go to cages,"
I asked them,
"and lead happy lives?"
They thumbed their beaks
and told me,
"Why don't you?"

Why don't I?
Why didn't I?
Because I wanted freedom.
And where is the freedom?
It came with an expiry date.
I didn't know that: my fault.
Now I am looking for a cage,
where strange hands will feed me
and admire whatever is left of me
and wipe me when I am wet.

The cages I want to go to
are either occupied
or don't want an occupant.
Some want an occupant,
"but not right now," they say.
What do I do now?
Walk into any cage that is empty,
and risk my wings chopped?
Or keep sitting on the branches,
braving the sun and the rain?

Life Sentence

Wish I was in prison
I would have a goal:
A free man has no goals:
he serves life sentence,
imprisoned by Desire and Fear.
Desire for love, money, respect;
The fear of losing all of them,
and losing the loved ones.
Freedom comes finally with death,
but of what use freedom
when you can't walk a free man
on the same earth again?
Free is the man
who you think is languishing in jail,
or the man meditating half-naked
in the Himalayas.
I want to be free.
But too cold in the Himalayas.
I would rather rob a bank.

Circle of Life

Last October; Spencer Plaza:
At the bookshop I waited for Anjali.
"Two minutes" became two hours,
before she came, panting.
Her pants wet and rolled up,
her feet wet and sandy.
"So sorry," she squeezed my palm,
"I was at the Marina,
playing with friends.
I must rush now,
or Mom will kill me."
Anjali sprinted away like a little girl --
away from the bookshop, away from my life.

This October; Spencer Plaza.
"Sale": screamed the bookshop.
People carrying bundles of books.
Amid them, a big-eyed beauty,
carrying a small bundle of life.
"My baby," Anjali beamed.
I looked at the baby,
who chuckled to me in silence:
"Do you see that?
I've made your girl a Mom?"
I recalled the sandy feet.
Life had sprinted full circle,
even before time could fly.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The Pink Ship

I ran into the Pink Ship,
in a river called Cyber.
I asked her: “Can we sail together?”
She blinked, and smiled,
and sent some smileys.
And more smileys.
“Just trying them out,
wondering how they look on screen.”
The smileys: her face.
The typed words: her voice.
So mischievous, so seductive!
I stretched out my hand to touch her,
only to touch a glass screen.
Then I buzzed her:
“Can we sail together?”
The reply came in a moment:
“Pink Ship has signed out.”

No. 70, Memory Lane

Nostalgia is the cushion people rest their elbows on when life gets on their nerves. “Ah, those were the days!” they sigh as they recline on the cushion and go on the rewind mode. Why do things from the distant past look so rosy? Perhaps the passage of time acts as an anaesthetic — the painful gets buried and the pleasurable lingers in your senses.

We usually get nostalgic about our growing up years, or the years we think were the best in our lives. That is why you come across people — mostly elderly — who begin any conversation with, “Those days...” or “When I was your age...” Or people — the elderly and the not-so-elderly — who tell you the same anecdote over and over again. If you find them irritating, remember, tomorrow somebody could find you tiresome too.

I was born in 1970; and even though I was a child then, I get nostalgic about the 70’s because I am possessive about that decade, about any year that has 7 as its third digit. Today, when I look back, I desperately wish I was not a child then, but a 20-year-old so that I could soak in the delights of that magical decade. It was, in fact, the best decade modern India ever lived in and if you disagree, read on.

To begin with, there was peace. Terrorism — to use the cliche — was yet to raise its ugly head. The term Secularism, on the other hand, was yet to become a cliche — India was secular. You could go to Kashmir as freely as you go to Kerala today, and Assam was known more for its tea and oil. Prime Ministers went around in open jeeps.

Even movies — since they reflect real life — didn’t have much violence. The villains were mostly smugglers or thieves and their weapons were usually their fists, knives and pistols. And the range of movies you had! On one hand, there was the angry young man personified by Amitabh Bachchan, on the other there was ‘middle-class’ Amol Palekar — you liked him because he enacted your life on the screen.

The music created then has remained timeless: music companies are still making money from their popularity. Today, technology, and not the composer, makes the music: the keyboard is a substitute for a dozen violins. Where’s the melody?

Talking of technology, in the 70’s, it was advanced enough for people to keep in touch on phone or telex. But not advanced enough to let Mozart 40 on someone’s mobile phone ruin a Ravi Shankar concert.

Most luxuries of life were available then — car, fridge, TV; but people did not buy them with borrowed money. So you didn’t have bank executives pestering you — either to take a credit card or to remind you that the credit card payment is due.

Politics was principled and rarely opportunistic. Scams were unheard of. And democracy was robust: people rose up to throw out a government that had become autocratic.

Cancer was as scary then as it is now, but cholera, pox and TB had stopped killing people. And it was only morality that stopped you from doing immoral things, not the fear of a killer disease called AIDS.

Still disagree with me? But I told you I am possessive about the 70’s.

On The Ganga Mail

The Ganga is like a train. It starts from a station called Gangotri, up in the Himalayas, and, after chugging through the plains of North India, terminates at the mouth of Bay of Bengal. Everyday, millions board the train at various stations, hoping to get to a place called Salvation. Nobody has ever seen the place; they’ve only heard about it. Yet, they undertake the tedious journey.

The notable difference between the Ganga and the regular train is that the Ganga doesn’t have any classes — no second class, first class, 2AC or 3AC. It has only one class — faith. And the notable similarity is — well, to find that you’ll have to take the Ganga Mail. It’s like taking, say, the Kalka Mail from Delhi to Kolkata. When you board the train, you find your compartment tidy, the toilets clean enough and there are no ‘unreserved’ passengers squeezing you in your own seat. But as soon as the train rolls into the plains of Uttar Pradesh and then into Bihar, the journey threatens to become a nightmare. You should be grateful to God if you reach Kolkata in one piece. But when dacoits strike in trains in Bihar, even Gods seem to look the other way.

The same is the case with the Ganga. The further it flows, the more corrupted it gets. So while at one place it looks spectacular, at another it looks — rather is made to look — ugly. Here’s a look at two such places: one inspiring awe, another evoking anger. And even while you read this, Ganga’s eternal journey continues.

The April sun shone brightly the morning I walked out of the Haridwar station, all set to take the Ganga Mail. But it wasn’t hot: a cool breeze was wafting down the Himalayas which overlook this holy town. It was the wrong — or perhaps the right — time to be there. The Ardha Kumbha Mela was on and Haridwar was a sea of people. They were trooping in from everywhere, with the sole purpose of bathing in the river on that auspicious day and be blessed.

Traffic was restricted because of the mela and I walked more than a kilometre before I found a cyclerickshaw to take me to a hotel. Which hotel, I had no idea. I left the choice to the wisdom of the rickshawpuller. I was glad I did that. The hotel was not only good but it also gave me a discount that journalists in North India either extract or are entitled to, officially or unofficially.

After a shower I decided that I needed a drink, for the simple reason that Haridwar is a dry place; and dry places and dry days make you more thirsty. So I pulled out the hip flask from the rucksack along with a guide book on Uttaranchal.

All these years, Uttar Pradesh boasted of Haridwar and Gangotri but today these places belong to Uttaranchal. Uttar Pradesh is left with the part of Ganga which feeds millions, which has sustained many cultures, which has inspired hundreds of folksongs and Bollywood songs, but which you would not like to go to as a tourist. Unless you are one of those hardened travellers who draws a beautiful picture even in an ugly setting.

In Haridwar, the Ganga is not just a holy river. It’s an event. It’s like watching a movie. Every swirl of it has to be watched to understand the whole story. And this is one movie for which you always reach late: even before you see the river you hear its gurgling sound, and by the time you take your seat by its banks, there is already a crowd of a thousand people watching the show.

I also arrived late after strolling through the narrow streets around Har Ki Pauri, the main bathing ghat. The streets are lined with shops that sell everything required by an average, God-fearing Hindu family. And most music shops seemed to play the same song, all the time, Maano to main Ganga maa hoon, na maano to behta paani — If you are a believer, I am Mother Ganga, and if you are a non-believer, I am just flowing water. Either way, the river, fresh out of the Himalayas, is spectacular here and now I was going to witness the spectacle. I deposited my sandals (no footwear allowed) and walked into Har Ki Pauri. It has steps constructed on either side of the swiftly flowing river and a couple of temples jut into the water. Iron chains run along the embankment — in case the current is too strong for you.

Thousands were frolicking in the chilly water. To me they looked more like one huge family out on picnic. While they took the dips, making joyous cries, hundreds of others were busy changing for the bath, unmindful of the onlookers. And there were hundreds more towelling themselves and changing into fresh set of clothes, unmindful of others. A strange paradox struck me. Indian women are a modest lot. They would not imagine wearing bikinis at the beach. They would rather labour under the weight of a wet saree. But here, they change as if they were in the privacy of their bathrooms: the shame is yours if you run into them. Perhaps the holy atmosphere is expected to act as a curtain.

Finally, the sun went down and it was time for aarti (waving of lights). Loudspeakers urged bathers to clear out and take their place on the steps. Religion enforces discipline more effectively than anything else, and soon a mass of humanity was seated on each side of the river — in total silence. Many people stood on the banks, holding leaf-bowls that contained flowers and an oil-lamp. The lamp was to be lit and the bowl released in the water.

At the appointed time, the bhajan, Jai Gangey Mata began playing on the speakers. Bells in the temples rang and priests came out with huge brass lamps, waving them at the swirling black waters, now illuminated by the hundreds of tiny, floating diyas. Har Ki Pauri resembled a stadium witnessing the closing ceremony of an Olympic Games — only that this stadium was linear, not oval.

Faith, they say, moves mountains. And when the collective faith of thousands of people is at work, something is bound to happen. Well, the Himalayas stood still. But the Ganga, with all those floating lamps, suddenly began to look like a bejewelled goddess. One of those lamps was lit by me.


Those pirates struck in the high seas, these pirates strike in the river, rather the confluence of the two great rivers of India which makes Allahabad famous. They glide their boats alongside yours and even before you realise, you've been persuaded into performing an expensive, boat-to-boat puja for the well-being of your near and dear ones.

Since all this happens in the middle of the river, you can't even walk out. All you can do is console yourself watching other would-be victims getting rowed into the trap of the priests and the pandas — as the middlemen between God and mortals are called — who throng the river.

I saw it coming even when I was long way off from Sangam (that’s what the confluence is called). It was 7.00 am but the sun was already merciless and I didn’t know who to feel more sorry for — myself or the rickshawpuller who was carting me to the riverbank. Sangam must have been still a kilometre or two away when a man on a bicycle pulled alongside.

“Sir, I am boatman. You want boatman,” he asked in English. He looked too healthy for a boatman. I told him that I was a local guy, and that I did not need him or his boat. He was undeterred. He kept pace with my rickshaw and soon reopened the conversation:

“So you are from Kanpur. We used to make our boats there. It took three days to row down to Allahabad.” I merely nodded, hoping that my silence would shut him up and send him way. But this man had smelt a prey.

“Sir, you are one of our own. I will show around like no one else will do. I will show you the exact spot where the Ganga meets the Yamuna,” he pleaded. I knew I was trapped. I will spare you the details about what happened from then on till the time I sat in the boat. But he had still not said how much he was going to charge. “You are our guest, sir. Money is not at all a problem,” he kept saying.

Only after he had untied the rope and stepped into the boat, followed by an emaciated old man, he said: “Give me Rs 400.” As I had suspected, this man looked too healthy to be rowing a boat. He was just a pimp. The old man rowed the boat.

From the boat I could clearly see the green waters of the Yamuna meeting the muddy waters of the Ganga before the two, together, head eastwards towards Varanasi. A few metres away from the confluence is a spot where water is only two feet deep and which is surrounded by dozens of pilgrim-laden boats. That's where people bathe and wash away their sins and immerse the ashes of the dead.

Before I could reach there, the pandas attacked. A boat came up from nowhere, and in a flash I found myself holding three shrivelled coconuts. I was also giving out my father’s name, my mother’s name, my gotra and was soon repeating mantras that the pirate was chanting. Reality struck me only when he asked for the money: Rs 501. Once again I’ll spare you how I extricated myself, but not before shelling out Rs 100 (saving of Rs 401!).

“This is nothing. They extract thousands of rupees from people who come for pind-daan (a ritual for the soul of dead relatives),” the pimp on my boat said with a grin.

If the pandas make their living from the departure of souls, there are people who make a living —and occasionally a fortune — from the ashes. They are the gotakhors, or divers.

I saw a man, his head freshly shaven, leaning from a boat and emptying an urn into the river. Suddenly two gotakhors swooped in on their boats and plunged iron sieves into the spot where the shaven-headed man had just finished emptying the urn. They were looking for ornaments of the deceased but all they could net was tiny, sparkling pieces of bone. Salvation, even for the dead, does not come without the humiliation of their bones being sifted for gold.

A sense of disgust overcame me. I wanted to return to Haridwar. But then I remembered that the Ganga is a Down train: it does not make a return journey.

Monday, October 17, 2005

God Made Man, or Man Made God?

There are times when you feel pushed to the wall: and then you look at the picture on the wall. Shiva, the God, smiling down at you. At least he hasn't ditched you, you think. And you feel better. But think a little harder and you wonder -- isn't that just a picture frame? In the end you are left with your own devices to pick up the pieces and fix your life.

Yet, the smiling, serene face in the picture gives you a moment of hope. Why? Maybe because there are moments when you want to stop thinking, switch off the vavles of rationality in your brain, and just surrender yourself to an unknown force; and the force has to be unknown, unseen because only then you can expect a miracle. You can't expect miracles from living beings, unless they are a David Blaine or our own P C Sorcar.

The question is, does such a force really exist? Or is it a creation of man? Does God really exist, or is he only a creation of man?

I am seeking the answer to these questions. Maybe I know the answer, but I am scared to acknowledge it: who knows how many times I might need to surrender blindly to that unseen force. But some related questions keep haunting me:

1. When someone dies in an accident, they say "It's God's will." And if you survive an accident, they say, "It's God's grace." Isn't the name of God used a mere tool of convenience?

2. They say God is one, then why so many Gods?

3. They say God helps only those who help themselves. Why would people who help themselves need God anyway? To give God all the credit for their hard work?

4. Even if you believe in God, then why, say, the picture of Lord Venkateswara hanging on the wall at your home, doesn't suffice? Why do you keep making trips to Tirupati? Do you have more faith in the idol of Venkateswara at Tirupati than in the picture of Venkateswara at your home?

5. By the same logic, why do people go to temples when they have so pictures of various God and Goddesses at their home? Is there a difference between the two? Or do Gods living in temples have more power to grant wishes?

6. Why do people fight and kill each other in the name of God? Shouldn't they be loving each other? Why is it 'Your God-My God'?

It is all a matter of faith, you might say. And what is faith? Faith does not come out of vacuum: man creates it, he is not born with it. And once you have faith, you are not supposed to ask questions. I guess that is why I would never find convincing answer to these questions. Not because they don't have answers, but because they are not supposed to be answered.