Friday, December 28, 2007

Post-birthday Thoughts

Yesterday, on my birthday, I had a few friends over for dinner. Before they arrived, I cleared the clutter from the table in the drawing room and left only three magazines behind: Newsweek, Cosmopolitan and an Indian edition of Hello! that I had bought a few weeks ago.

Hello!, on its glossy cover, had a picture of Benazir Bhutto sitting on the lawn of her Dubai home. Inside, there were many more pictures of her. A colleague who arrived first kept turning the pages of the magazine to kill time, and wondered how, with such lavish pictures, it was priced only at Rs 50.

I looked at the pictures as he turned the pages, and from a distance, I could see Benazir.

This evening, I went to Inox to watch Welcome.The movie was just picking momentum when I got a text message: "Benazir shot dead." Only last night, she didn't look the kind who would die such a gory death -- or even die for that matter.

By the way, I loved Welcome. I wonder why people are saying it's bad. It's good. I am a great fan of Akshay Kumar, but I kept looking at the watch while watching Garam Masala, Bhaagam Bhaag and Bhool Bhulaiyya. But Welcome kept me engrossed, and no matter what reviewers say, the film's strength is not Akshay Kumar, but the performances by Nana Patekar and Anil Kapoor. Go watch it.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Birthday Thoughts

It is about 10 in the night, and I just received a text message:

"Though I am a couple of hours early... HAPPY BIRTHDAY. When you celebrate have one drink for me."

The sender, a well-known person, is lodged in a prison somehwere in South India. I don't know if he has really committed the crime for which he landed in jail, and it does not matter to me. What matters to me is that he became the first person to wish me this year. Not many people remember birthdays: I am very bad at it too. I mean people do remember birthdays, but they tend to forget that the day has arrived. They are like: "Oh shit! Today is 15th?! I forgot. So sorry!"

The relationship I share with the man in prison is that of a writer-reader. He religiously reads Sunday Spin, the column I write in the paper, and writes long letters to me. Two weeks ago, I was going through a letter of his when the peon placed another letter on my desk. I tore upon the envelope, and found that it was a letter from a serving judge, who said extremely nice things about Sunday Spin and wanted his views to be published.

And then it struck me: in one hand I was holding a letter from a man lodged in jail, and in the other a letter from a judge's desk. It would be an understatement to say I felt important. When I started writing the column two years ago, I had not imagined that people would actually react to it. Till then, I was writing mainly about politics, and the occasional slice-of-life piece as and when I felt strongly about something.

Sunday Spin helped me strengthen my faith in myself: perhaps I am not that bad at all, maybe I too can reach out to people. So every Tuesday night (since Wednesday is the deadline), I toil for a few hours to put together 650 words. At times I like what I write, but people don't. At times I churn out something half-heartedly, but people say nice things about it. Most often, I don't even know what I am going to write about till I pour a drink and switch on the computer. Like tonight. Once I finish writing this post, I will have to sit and write a column, and I have no idea what I am going to write about.

But gone are the days when I wrote whenever I wanted to. Now I write because I have to, because I have a column to feed, and when I sit in front of the computer, I can see dozens of faces looking over my shoulder while I type. Some nod in approval, some smirk, and I keep wondering how to make all of them happy. Painful.

But then, I am loving it. A journalist or a writer usually does not earn much by way of money, but when you know you've touched or stirred a heart, you feel very, very rich. Money can't match the gratification.

It is 11.32 pm now. I will be entering the new day, my birthday, while in the process of writing Sunday Spin. And when I pour yet another drink, I shall raise a toast to you, dear reader. Don't ever go way: be around. I need you.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Writing a Book

It is one thing to write a newspaper column or a blog post, quite another to write a book. I am not stating anything new, just that I am realising it the hard way (as if there was any other way). Writing a column is like running a 100-m race. You pump yourself up and start running: the finishing line is in sight and you know have to make it, come what may.

But when you are working on a book, it is like being the sole participant in a 10,000-m race. Doesn't matter how long you take, but you have to reach the finishing line at some point. Since publishers are not going to wait till eternity, you have to keep running till your senses tell you that you've reached what looks like the finishing line. But that could just be a mirage: what looks like the finishing line to you might not be so for the publisher. So you sweat on, like a Kenyan runner.

And when you are writing a travel book, it is not just the running that matters: you also wonder about the style of your running. Should it be sprightly like Bill Bryson? Or have the lazy pace of Pico Iyer? Or consistent like Paul Theroux?

As you run, you also find two people standing on either side of the track and bucking you up: "Run like me!" One of them is a bearded West Indian called V.S. Naipaul, and the other a bearded Indian called Pankaj Mishra. You can't ignore them: Naipaul became famous only after he started travelling, while Mishra became a celebrity after he travelled to some small towns in India and noticed butter chicken being served in Ludhiana.

But end of the day, this is my race. None of the gentlemen I've mentioned above is going to hold my hand and pull me to the finishing line. I've to follow my own rhythm and style to complete the 10,000 metres. And since I am the only participant, I will never know whether I've done well or not till the crowd cheers.

Monday, December 03, 2007

December Thoughts

1. In 23 days from today, I will turn 37. Which means three years short of 40. Which means almost middle-age. Which means half a life. How did this happen? Only the other day I was 30, but calling myself 29 in chatrooms. Compare '29/m/Chennai' with '37/m/Chennai'. The first is bad enough, the second has no hope.

2. I was on the Deccan flight from Kolkata to Chennai. I always ask for the aisle seat, for two reasons. One, as an extension of the habit developed in the trains -- in the aisle seat, you can get up for a smoke as often as you want without disturbing your neighbours. Two, if there is no woman seated next to me, there could be one across the aisle.

Anyway, this time, next to me, was a Marwari couple. Their prosperity reflected on the man's waistline and the Nokia handset that he was carrying. What irritated me was that he not only ignored the announcement asking people to switch off their phones, but also kept talking throughout. He must be talking to someone at the destination, for the wife, who sat by the window, kept butting in, "Ask him to send a big car." She was repeating the 'big car' so often that he gave the phone to her, and she told the person on the other end, "Listen, send the big car, ok? There's lot of stuff." I distinctly remember that while I watched her talking on the phone, Kolkata airport was already whizzing past and the plane was taking off.

The problem with Deccan is you have to shell out money for the snacks. I had already spent Rs 450 at the airport for Mark Tully's new book, and was in no mood to spend more. So I ignored the stewardess when she came along. The Marwari man, however, asked for chips. He was handed a packet of Lays. Suddenly, an evil thought crossed my mind. I asked for a packet of cashew-nuts. Mighty expensive they are, and expectedly so -- a dozen or so nuts for Rs 80. I tore upon the pack with my teeth and started savouring the salted-chillied cashew while reading the book.

"One minute," the Marwari man hailed the stewardess, "can I have cashew?"

"Yes, sir."

The man examined the packet by turning it around and upside down. "How much?" he asked.

"Eighty rupees, sir."

The man went into a quick confabulation with his "big car" wife, and then called the stewardess. "Sorry, nahi chahiye (Sorry, I don't want it)," he said. I felt a sense of victory -- as if I had avenged his refusal to switch off the phone.

But back in Chennai, I pondered over it. The man returned the cashew nuts not because he could not afford it, but because he found it silly to spend Rs 80 on it. That is why he has the money, while I have cashewnuts.

3. I saw two movies during my vacation. Bhool Bhulaiyya and Om Shanti Om. I still haven't figured whether Bhool Bhulaiyya was supposed to be a comedy or a scary movie. Will someone tell Priyadarshan to take a break? Ok, I will tell him that when I see him next time in the Leather Bar. Om Shanti Om, at least, did not pretend to be a serious movie. It was fun all the way, especially for those who have a fair idea of the films of the 70's and the 80's. One hilarious scene I can never forget: Shah Rukh Khan telling Deepika that how in friendship there's no scope for 'sorry' or 'thank you'; and the young Sooraj Barjaatya noting that dialogue to use it in a movie that was to come years later. That's ultimate comedy, according to me.

And what more can I ask for than the hottest movie of 2007 opening with the bindaas voice of a man who died in 1987? You know who am I talking about, don't you?