Monday, December 28, 2009

Of Old Age, Sex And Politics

Narayan Dutt Tiwari is one of the landmarks of my childhood, in the sense that hardly a day would pass without seeing his name or picture in the newspapers. He was the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh on and off, depending on how pleased the Congress high command in Delhi was with him. By the time I grew up and became a journalist, the BJP and the casteist parties of Mulayam Singh and Mayawati had already dislodged the Congress from power in the state and Tiwari, respected but irrelevant in Lucknow, had shifted base to Delhi.

In Delhi, Tiwari made news when he, along with Arjun Singh, broke away from Narasimha Rao's Congress in 1996 and formed Congress (T). During the general elections that year, the party fielded cricketer Manoj Prabhakar from South Delhi but he lost to BJP's Sushma Swaraj. After Rao's exit, Tiwari's party, like all splinter groups of the Congress, rejoined the parent party. Last heard of, he was the chief minister of Uttaranchal. And just when you began to wonder if he was still alive, just like you wonder about many Congress leaders who were already quite old when you were still a child, his name erupts in a sex scandal!

Since I do not watch TV, I missed out on the coverage. But I did get to see some of the scandalous stills on You Tube. The 86-year-old Tiwari is shown lying on bed, his hands resting on his chest. It could have been the image of his body lying in state -- so serene and still he looks. The only hint of life is the very faint smile on his lips. When surrounded by three naked women, even a dead man is likely to break into a smug smile. Fortunately, Tiwari had remembered to remove his trademark Gandhi cap before getting into the act.

The Tiwari scandal proves three things (they have been proven before, though):

1. Power is the ultimate elixir of life. A lesser mortal, at 86, would have been confined to bed, shrivelled and shrunk, waiting either for death or the attention of a family member. But when you are in power, there is no dearth of attention and death is always far away. Take the case of Narasimha Rao: he was so ill that he did not even stand for elections in 1991. But Rajiv Gandhi's assassination gave Rao a second lease of life. Look at Atal Behari Vajpayee: the moment he went out of power, the various ailments got the better of him.

2. The sexual desires of a man don't die with age. At 86, he may not be capable of providing pleasure (in any case, Indian men, no matter how old, usually have a poor track record in this department), but he is certainly capable of receiving pleasure. In other words, the senses are pretty much alive. So take heart, guys.

3. The rotten political system in our country. Licence for mining in return for sexual favours? Politicians have all the money in the world to buy sex, but still they like to use official power to get sex for free. How corrupt! And what is a 86-year-old man doing as a governor? Age irrelevant if you are the chief minister or prime minister, as long as you are popular with the people and go through the grind of election campaign. But why should Raj Bhavans serve as old-age homes? Tiwari, who already has one foot in the grave, went a step ahead and turned it into a brothel. What a shame.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Birthday Views And Reviews

So the shirt didn't come this year. Every year, for the past 10 years, my mother has been couriering me an expensive shirt on the eve of my birthday. I say expensive because what she'd shell out would usually be way beyond her means. Only a mother would do that.

The shirt would usually reach me the day before Christmas, and then the instruction would come on phone, "Make sure you wear it on your birthday. Even if for a short while." This year, I have no choice but to dig out one of the shirts she had sent me and wear it tomorrow -- even if for a short while.

Tomorrow, dear friends, I turn 39. My last birthday when the first digit of my age will still be '3'. The beginning of the last 365 days of my thirties. The countdown to turning 40. Middle-age, here I come! So my birthday and my New Year resolution: to make the most of these 365 days. If I make the most of these 365 days, my next 10 years should be taken care of and I shall be able to enter middle-age with grace and with a youthful stride.

But for that I need to be strong. The past four months, as most of you know, have been an emotional roller-coaster for me. Every day I have been drinking a cocktail whose ingredients are pain, joy, regret, excitement, anxiety, exultation, bitterness, jubilation and anger. Every few hours one emotion takes over from the other and my mood changes.

Yoga can be my only saviour now, as it has been in the past. Nothing beats a 90-minute session, starting with the sun salutations and ending with the headstand. It prepares you to take it easy, or take on the world, if required. So once am done with this post, I am going to wash my yoga mat and hang it in the balcony to dry. But there is something that I need to get out of my system before starting the detox process. It has been stuck in my throat like a fishbone and I shall now cough and spit it out.

India has two respectable newsmagazines, India Today and Outlook. Each of these magazines come out with monthly travel magazines, India Today Travel Plus and Outlook Traveller. Both these magazines have reviewed my book Chai, Chai. Both the reviewers happen to be women -- women I do not know. I am surprised that the judgments of two reviewers about a first-time writer's travel book should be poles apart.

Excerpts from the Outlook Traveller review:
It's hard to tell a good story even when you are writing about wildly interesting people and places. But it takes a very good, maybe a great writer, to elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary. Small town India is very definitely ordinary; but while journalist Bishwanath Ghosh is many things — including wry, nosey, dogged and conscientious — a very good writer he is not.

In Chai, chai he sets out to discover the towns that lie just outside major railway junctions, the nationally known place-names that nobody ever actually visits. Instead of merely changing trains at Itarsi or Jhansi or Guntakal, he asks, what if you were to get off and treat the town as its own destination?

It's an innovative, interesting question, fuelled by the urge to know what people's lives are like in tiny towns; towns that lie on the fringes of the traveller's consciousness, usually cloaked in a mist of homogenous anonymity. Sadly, Ghosh does not seem to like the towns much, which is fair enough, but he does not even dislike them interestingly. Knotted up in descriptions of goat-infested lanes and oily hotel sheets, lurching from bar to bar or drinking in his hotel room, he just seems lost. In attempting profundity, he achieves only the purely banal. Here, he is on Manju, a housewife-turned-prostitute in Itarsi: "This was a strange encounter: people usually spend an hour with a human being who had [sic] turned into a prostitute, but I had just spent an hour with a prostitute who was also a human being."

The bottom line is that in Ghosh's hands, a promising project fills with lead and sinks straight to the bottom.

Now, read what India Today Travel Plus has to say:
Chai, chai... The unmistakably nasal, shrill call of chai vendors at railway stations is something that I have always remembered. No wake-up call is more effective than this; no other tea more soul-stirring and energising. The picture is the same no matter which station you are at. Equally piercing and commanding is the whistle of the train, which urges you to file into the carriages and move on.

It is at this very moment -- when you are caught between a cup of steaming chai on the platform and the urgent hooting -- that the story of Chai, Chai begins. Picking seven railway junctions where trains stop, but people never seem to alight, Bishwanath Ghosh sets out to explore towns that have never been credited with more than being just railway junctions.

The result is as refreshing as the idea, just like the perky tea I can never do without on train journeys. The narrative begins with Mughal Sarai and takes you through Jhansi, Itarsi, Guntakal, Arakkonam, Jolarpettai and Shoranur. As he travels down south, right from the heartland of north India, Ghosh takes you along in the most casual yet engaging manner possible. He records every detail with honesty. That includes the smell of a rickety staircase in a decrepit hotel in Mughal Sarai, steel tumblers used for drinking whisky at a family dhaba in Jhansi and also the aroma of early-morning fresh idlis invading the compartment of a train to Guntakal. Just five pages down, and you begin to see that the story of Chai, Chai is in the details that the writer has registered and presented in simple, lucid prose. And it is this attention to detail that keeps you glued to the pages even when the pace slackens and all that Ghosh seems to be doing is walking down from one chowk the next chauraha.

The other thing I like about the book is the fact there are no surprises. Ghosh infuses colour and flavour in everyday life, describing seemingly mundane chores and happenings with a sincerity that gently persuades you into revisiting certain sections of the book. One such episode, in my opinion, is Ghosh's visit to a Mughal Sarai bar. Here, he strikes up many an alcohol-induced friendship, which promptly leads to invitations to be a family's guest and also imaginary trips being planned to Pondicherry and Bangalore... The following day, when his attempts at establishing contact with a 'coaching' teacher he met at the bar fail, Ghosh observes that 'promises made at a bar table, no matter how genuine while being made, are not to be taken seriously'. No rocket science, this; just another realisation that all of us have lived with. Yet, put in the context of Ghosh's narrative, it feels comforting to re-run such axioms in your mind.

Fortunately, neither of these reviews are going to decide the fate of Chai, Chai, which has silently launched itself into the orbit. The book is going for a second reprint next month and Landmark, the bookshop in Chennai I frequently visit, has put copies on the bestseller shelf. I shall, however, consider myself a bestselling author only when -- and if at all -- Chai, Chai sells close to 10,000 copies. I do not know if this will ever happen, but I am -- by and large --happy with the way things have turned out so far. Moreover, Chai, Chai is not my last book: two more are bound to see the light of the day by the end of next year. But since Chai, Chai is my first, I shall always be possessive and protective (though not irrationally) about it. And therefore, this question, dear reader:

If you happen to be someone who has never heard of me and has not read Chai, Chai either, which of the above-cited reviews would you go by? The one in Outlook Traveller or the one in India Today Travel Plus? I want an answer, please. I can hear my well-meaning friends berating me, "Don't worry about the reviews. Ignore them. Your job is to write, so just write." Which is all very fine. I could have ignored the Outlook Traveller review and even spat on it, but what do I do about Google search?

Every time I run a search for my book, which I am required to every once in a while, the offensive review shows up on the very first page. And of late, during the past two days, the link to this highly malicious review is being thrown up as the very first result during a search run for Chai, Chai. It is all very sinister. There seems to be someone mischievous out there who wants anyone curious about Chai, Chai to first read Mitali Saran's take on the book before proceeding to other reviews and views.

Mitali Saran is the woman who reviewed Chai, Chai for Outlook Traveller. I am really surprised that she should waste her precious time and the magazine's precious space in reviewing a book she thought was utter crap. I have no problem with criticism, which is more than welcome, but it is so easy to detect the malice in her review, as if she has a score to settle with either the writer or the publisher. Fortunately, other reviewers do not share Ms Saran's views about Chai, Chai. But how the fuck do I get this malicious review off Google search? Will my techie friends please help?

Monday, December 21, 2009


It's midnight. Ten minutes minus or plus. We, a group of about a dozen people, have just finished dinner at a rather cosy joint on Carter Road called Out Of The Blues and are waiting for our respective cars. Last-minute small talk and the last cigarettes before getting into cars with rolled-up windows.

Suddenly, she too emerged from the restaurant -- the slender beauty in the shortest of dresses -- to wait for her car. So short was her dress that even a feeble gust of wind would have answered the prayers of at least half-a-dozen pairs of eyes. But right now the night was still and warm. So warm that this pot-bellied man came out of the adjoining street clad in only a lungi and a soiled vest. He stood there, picking his teeth with a matchstick. He was barely two feet away from Ms High Hemline, totally oblivious of her presence. He must be living in a nearby shanty and must have come out for a post-dinner stroll. His eyes must have grown immune to short skirts by now.

Then it struck me. A woman whose bottom half is almost naked. A man whose top half is almost naked. One pretty, another ugly. One rich, another poor. And yet they shared the same soil standing just two feet apart, unmindful and at the same time accepting of each other. This can happen only in Bombay. This mutual acceptance is what defines Bombay and sets it apart from other big cities where the poor would not be seen within 1 km radius of an upmarket restaurant unless they were beggars. It is because of this mutual acceptance that dreams often come true in Bombay.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my four days in Bombay. Lunch at Leopold Cafe. Long walk on Marine Drive, watching the silhouettes of lovebirds facing the setting sun. Stroll on the cobbled streets of Bandra. Sunday afternoon stroll from Flora Fountain to Colaba Causeway -- oh, the handsome, historical buildings! Pausing every now and then to stare at those buildings like an awestruck villager, much to the irritation of the wife who, unlike me, knows the city well enough, I could only see the ghosts of stiff upper-lipped Englishmen and sophisticated Parsis behind their thick, brown walls. In the silence of Sunday, it was impossible to imagine these monuments belonging to the great Indian workforce. Maybe these buildings are still intact because this is Bombay.

But it is easier to love Bombay if you don't live there. I was only a smug visitor who had the luxury of putting up in Colaba, the best part of Bombay. The Bombay that I had heard about or seen in the Hindi films was all within a radius of 4-5 km. What a pleasure it was to flag down a taxi and get into it without haggling with the driver. Sitting on the rear seat of the battered Fiat, I would light up a cigarette and feel like Dinesh Thakur of Rajnigandha, with the song Kai baar yun hi dekha hai playing in the background. And in the end, when you got down and asked the driver, "Kitna hua?", he would look at the meter and give you a ridiculously low figure, such as Rs 22 or Rs 34. In Chennai, you pay double the amount for half that distance -- that too for an autorickshaw ride!

And one evening, while visiting a friend who is a Naval officer, I even heard Asha Bhosle perform live in the Navy stadium. The friend had assumed that it would be more appropriate on his part to invite me for a drink to the club than take me to a crowded concert, so he had not bothered to pick up the passes. But I did make him stop the car and roll down the windows in order to listen to the opening song of the evening -- albeit from a distance. It was the famous Jaan-e-jaan dhoondta phir raha from Jawaani Diwani. While Sudesh Bhosle was able to mimic the energy of Kishore Kumar, Asha Bhosle -- well, I felt very sad listening to her. She could barely do justice to the song which only she could have sung. But then, she is over seventy now. I was suddenly glad that my friend had not picked up the passes.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Shakti Kapoor

In Bombay, where I reach on Wednesday morning on my first proper visit to the city, I would have liked to look up one person: Shakti Kapoor. I simply love the man, don't ask me why. But it is highly unlikely he would be there.

This morning, my father broke a piece of news to me. He was going through the Bengali paper he subsribes to back home in Kanpur, and his eyes fell on a small black-and-white advertisement for a jatra show. Jatra, the way I can explain it, is the folk theatre of Bengal. The stage usually stands like an island amid the audience, with only one side cordoned off to provide for a crude green room for the artistes. In no other form of theatre, as far as I know, does the audience get to have such a close look at the artistes and their performance. The advertisement for that particular jatra show, which caught my father's attention, boasted of Shakti Kapoor as the lead performer. It even carried a black-and-white picture of a haggard-looking (my father's words) Shakti Kapoor.

So when this Bengali lands in Bombay, Shakti Kapoor would be somewhere in Bengal, possibly in a town like Midnapore, practising his Bengali in order to live up to the expectations of the audience. The lay Bengali, no matter where in Bengal he lives and what he does for a living, is a perfectionist, provided he himself is not expected to be one. So I can only imagine Shakti's ordeal. But I am sure jatra pays him well enough. And am sure he is liking the fact that the Bengali audience, whose benchmark is none other than Satyajit Ray, is accepting him. Otherwise, makers of D-grade films in Bombay are always on the lookout for a 'big name' who can play the pimp or the conman or the comedian.

But Shakti Kapoor speaking Bengali? That too in a jatra where he has to go live in front of a Bengali audience that surrounds him from all three sides? Well, that's almost like spotting prime minister Manmohan Singh in an upscale Delhi pub or catching US president Obama light up a cigarette during a press conference. Too good to miss! Trust me, when I go to Calcutta in the first week of January for a reading of Chai, Chai, I shall track down Shakti Kapoor and watch him perform.

How I love the man! I love his accent, to begin with. I also love the lecherous look on his face, which is always more comic than villainy. But what I like the most about him is the way he gets startled. Did you ever notice that? His eyes suddenly pop out and his mouth falls open every time the hero turns the tables against him. Oh, how I love that look!

Shakti Kapoor, in most of his movies, has either been a cruel villain or a comedian villain, but the thing is, you enjoy even his cruelty because it is all so laughable. I have lost count of the number of times I must have watched Baap Numberi, Beta Dus Numberi. Trust me, the pair of Kadar Khan and Shakti Kapoor have made innumerable unwatchable movies watchable, no matter how great the star cast. They are truly great actors, or so I think.

Did I hear you saying, "Aaaooo!"? If you don't know where "Aaaooo" comes from, you clearly don't know Shakti Kapoor well enough.

I Have A Dream

Shops are already putting up Christmas trees and playing the carols. Which means another year has gone past. How do I look back at 2009? So far, it has been the worst year of my life and also the best. Strange, isn't it: the best year also happens to be the worst!

Mathematically, a plus and a minus should cancel each other out so that you are left with a zero -- a clean slate. But life is not mathematics but chemistry, where a electron meets a proton to form a new, stable compound. I shall be stepping into 2010 as a new, stable compound. In any case, the years ending with an even digit have always been nice to me. I was born in 1970, got the appointment letter for my first job in 1992, moved to Delhi in 1994, got the appointment letter for a job in Chennai (which changed the course of my life) in 2000, got married in 2006 and so on. It was an aberration that my first book should have come out in 2009: maybe the best of it will happen in 2010.

Also in December 2010, I shall turn 40. Half of my life would be over, and yet my biggest dream remains unfulfilled. It shall remain unfulfilled unless I work towards it, and it is about time that I did. It is a simple dream on the face of it, but not simple at all when the dreamer happens to be me -- someone who is used to living paycheck to paycheck. But I am determined to make it come true. Here is the dream:

Owning a house by the sea or in the lap of a mountain. At daybreak, I would greet the sun with at least 12 rounds of sun salutations followed by a sequence of yogic postures that would include five minutes of shoulderstand and three minutes of headstand. After that, a breakfast of bread and eggs and juice in the lawn, if there is one. After breakfast I would proceed to my study to write. The study would have a large desk in the middle of the room. Three walls would be lined with books, while the fourth would be adorned with Bose speakers as well as various framed pictures of R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar that I would have stolen from the internet and developed into prints. That would be the music corner.

I would write non-stop till noon and then pour some beer for myself and go over whatever I've written since morning. Most of the time, I would be happy with my work and proceed for lunch. A simple lunch, nothing fancy. Post-lunch, I would sit in the balcony and light a cigarette and catch up with the gossip over phone and also look at various contracts and cheques sent by the publisher. A short nap and then I would be writing again. In between, I would get a text message from the bank: Rs 4.5 lakh have just been credited into my account.

Just before sunset, I would go for a long, brisk walk. Another text message from the bank: Rs 80,000 credited into your account. Oh, the advance for the new book. I would return invigorated and go for a shower and come out to find 'literary' and other friends waiting. I would go behind the bar counter and declare the evening open. The bar would be well-stocked with duty-free alcohol, but friends would not be discouraged from bringing their own booze. After two drinks each, we would move to the music corner -- with drinks in hand, of course -- and worship Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman for a couple of hours. From a bartender I would transform into a DJ.

Sharp at 11 I would declare the bar closed and say goodbye to all of them. Of course we would all have had dinner by then -- simple food cooked by a certain Ram Singh or a Ramu Kaka or a Ganga Ram. Once they leave, I would pull out a book from the shelves and put myself to sleep reading it. So dear friends, that's my simple dream. Please pray that it comes true by at least 2012 -- a year that ends with an even number.

Wait a minute, I forgot something. I left out my wife from my dream day in my dream house. Let me come back to you with a rewritten dream, lest I am left out of her life.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Departure And Arrival

Yesterday, December 4, was my parents' wedding anniversary. Fortieth anniversary. Had destiny been not cruel, I would have squeezed Kanpur into my travel itinerary because they were planning a small party. They were inspired by a similar party thrown by one of our neighbours to celebrate their 30 years of marriage. In fact, when I last spoke to them over phone while they were in Kanpur, they were deciding on the menu.

A couple of days later, they embarked on the fateful trip to Banaras. The idea was to pay a visit to my brother who lived in Banaras. Who knew that that was to be my mother's last train journey, and that soon she would be setting out on her final journey, being carried on the strong shoulders of her two sons all the way to Manikarnika Ghat where devout Hindus dream of landing up as dead bodies.

While carrying her body through the extremely narrow streets of Banaras, which was a challenge by itself, I stepped on a spot on the cobbled street where the brick was missing and in the process sprained by foot. I instinctively cried out in pain. The only person in this world who would have let out a scream seeing me in pain was now on my shoulder, lifeless. I quickly gathered my senses and moved on. But the foot hurt like hell.

I can go on and on about the cremation story. It is an interesting story, especially because it is set in Banaras, where hundreds of people actually come to live during the final stages of there life. Only a fortunate few die there though: most aged people, tired of the interminable wait for death, return home for a brief vacation or a family function and end up dying there. But I am saving everything for a book, because it will easily take a few thousand words to describe the scene at Manikarnika Ghat alone, where I spent four hours in the company of the living and the dead. The living also included cows and goats and dogs. The dogs were drawn by the smell of burning flesh, whereas the cows and the goats came to chew on the flowers that bedecked the biers. It was surprising to see how the goats there are resistant to the furnace-like heat generated by the pyres.

The moment we brought mother's body to the banks of the Ganga, it began to drizzle. And everybody who had been a part of the funeral procession ran for cover. Only my father, my brother and I stood in the rain, wondering how to protect mother from getting drenched: she was lifeless no doubt, but she deserved dignity even in death. Fortunately, the drizzle died down before it could do any damange. In fact, mother looked fresh after the brief shower. These were her last moments in the human form. She seemed to be smiling. The date was August 29 -- just two days before her birthday. She would have turned 59. On the evening of September 29, Chai, Chai reached the bookshops.

A small confession. There is a Balaji temple, the replica of the one in Tirupati, on Venkatanarayana Road in Chennai which I pass everyday on my way to work. Long before my mother died, long before Chai, Chai hit the stands, I made a silent plea to Balaji: "If the book sells 10,000 copies, I will come to Tirupati and get my head shaved." My logic was this: the book selling so many copies is a remote possibility, rather an impossiblity, so there is no question of me parting with my hair. But in case God listens to my prayer and makes the book sell 10,000 copies, going bald is a very, very small price to pay.

Destiny intervened, and I had to shave my head even before the book reached the shops. My faith in God was shaken. For the last two years, I had only one prayer, a desperate one, that my mother should live to see the book. Her heart was packing up, and I knew she would be gone anyday. But why did she have to go precisely eight days before the book came out of the press? Had she lived for two more months, she would have not only seen the book but also attended the various launch functions. She would have died a happy woman. The regret has become a gaping hole in my heart which shall never heal.

As I sat on the banks of the Ganga in Kanpur on a pleasant September morning, with a barber running his razor on my scalp, I told God: "Look, you are making me shave my head even before the book is out in the shops. Now it is your responsibility to sell 10,000 copies."

So far, God has been a good marketing executive.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chai, Chai Comes To Mumbai And Pune

The stupidest movie I have seen in a long time is, well, I can't even recall the name. It has Bobby Deol playing a cancer surgeon, and his girlfriend is a ghost-like Kangana Ranaut. He is paralysed neck-down after an accident, and thanks to the cheering up by a little cancer-afflicted boy who is admitted in the same hospital, he not only overcomes his paralysis but also conducts an (academic) research from the hospital bed and finds a cure for cancer. The story isn't stupid: it was adapted from a Russian fable, after all. But the movie certainly is.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that my wife, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law and I were the only people in the theatre that evening, apart from two young students from the Northeast. Just six people in the entire hall in an upscale Delhi mall! If I was a young man who had a girlfriend but no place to take her to, I would have bought tickets for this movie again and again.

How can a director be so dumb? Throughout the movie, there is nothing that can give you even the remotest idea where the story is set. For most of the first half, the location is unmistakably foreign, with white people in the background and all, but Bobby Deol drives a car with a Karnataka registration number and works in an upscale hospital where the entire staff is Indian. The second half, of course, is shot inside a hospital, so there is no way of telling if the hospital is located in Mumbai or Minneapolis.

How can you savour a story without getting a sense of the place? It was not for nothing that Ramesh Sippy had painstakingly created 'Ramgarh' in the outskirts of Bangalore and shot Sholay there for four years. To save on time, he could have created a duplicate 'Ramgarh' elsewhere in order to carry on with the shooting when monsoon arrived in Karnataka. But he knew the audience is not a fool. Directors began to take the audience's intelligence for granted from the time when Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborthy were the reigning stars. That was the time when an idyllic spot in Tamil Nadu was passed off as a village in Uttar Pradesh. The trend, unfortunately, carries forward even today; but, fortunately, such movies are not very memorable.

The memorable ones are place-specific. And since the Hindi film industry works out of Bombay, most of the movies that you still watch again and again are set in Bombay. Baaton Baaton Mein could not have been set in the hills of Ooty: it is a hardcore Bombay movie, but it continues to appeal to even those who have never set foot on Bombay. Amitabh Bachchan's Don was such a 'Bombay' film, so were Deewar and Amar Akbar Anthony. And, of course, Guru Dutt's films! And, of course, so many other films -- one could write a 500-page book on them. The point is, these films never pretended that the location was elsewhere: that's precisely why they worked and that's precisely what made Bombay so endearing and romantic and awe-inspiring for the rest of India. You did not have to visit Bombay to know what Marine Drive looked like.

Ah, those were the days, when smuggled gold would be arriving at the shore at an appointed time and cops, acting on a tip-off, would take their positions, armed with pistols (no AK-47 then). The smugglers would give the cops a slip and a chase would begin on the streets on Bombay, with Kalyanji Anandji or R.D. Burman providing the background music. Ah, those were the days, when Amol Palekar would romance Tina Munim in a local train. Ah, those were the days, when Iftekhar, the eternal police officer, would give a pep-talk to his juniors to keep up the prestige of their vardi -- the uniform -- and solve the murder that took place in Khandala. Ah, those were the days when movies used to have a 'Bombay' song. In fact, if you ever want to measure how times have changed, listen to these songs.

"Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan, yeh hai Bombay, yeh hai Bombay, yeh hai Bombay meri jaan" by Rafi describes a city that is entirely different from the way it is potrayed in the funny, full-throated "Yeh hai Bambai nagariya tu dekh babua" by Kishore Kumar. But the sentiment in both these songs is common: Bombay overwhelms you.

I have, sadly, never been to Bombay. Only once, in 2005. Since the visit lasted barely 24 hours, I do not consider it as a visit. But the details are clearly etched in my mind. The occasion was the launch of the Lee calendar: various celebrity photographers had shot Yana Gupta in her various moods and attires and their pictures were to be unveiled that evening in a Juhu hotel. Even before I could take the plane to Mumbai, I was handed a responsibility: the daughter of a friend was a huge fan on Yana Gupta, and I was expected to bring back an autographed calendar for her.

I landed at four in the evening and, to my great horror, found no one holding a placard bearing my name. I went to a phone booth, run by a man who was entirely blind and who measured the value of the coins and notes handed to him by feeling them, and called up the driver who was supposed to pick me up. Fortunately, the driver was in the vicinity: he had just stepped out for tea. "This is Kalyanji Anandji's bungalow," he pointed to me while we were driving to the hotel. I was tempted to get down and walk inside the gate and interview Anandji. But this being Bombay, I did not know how things worked and kept quiet till I was deposited at the hotel.

It is pointless to describe the night of the calendar launch because it was like any other event where there is plenty of glamour and booze. But I must say I was quite horrified to see my favourite TV actress (even though I hardly watch TV) wearing a mini-skirt instead of the trademark saree: I could actually see the countours of her thighs. The next morning, I decided to pay a visit to a friend who lives in Cuffe Parade. "Just take a train from Bandra station, get down at Churchgate and take a taxi," he said. Feeling like the Amol Palekar of Baaton Baaton Mein, I went to Bandra station and bought a ticket to Churchgate for Rs 7.

A train came, but I could not imagine getting into it: so crowded it was. The next train came. It was crowded as well. It was clear to me by now that getting into a local train in Mumbai required special skills, which I was too old now to acquire. I walked out of Bandra station and took a taxi to Cuffe Parade. The driver hailed from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. I felt at home. I also felt at home when I passed landmarks, such as the Marine Drive, which I had been familiar with since childhood thanks to Hindi films. Bombay was a city that belonged to me as much as it belonged to its long-time residents. But twenty-four hours were far too short to savour a city.

Fortunately, thanks to Chai, Chai, I am going to Mumbai again. This time, I hope to gather enough courage to get into a local train, even if for travelling a short distance for the sake of it, and having lunch at one of the Irani restaurants. But let me not be so overwhelmed by Mumbai to forget inviting you all for the event I am going there for.

So, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the launch of Chai, Chai in Mumbai on December 10, 6.30 pm at Crossword, Bandra. Award-winning playwright and director Mahesh Dattani will read from the book there. And the next day, I shall be crossing the famous Khandala ghat to travel to Pune, where noted poet-writer Randhir Khare will read from Chai, Chai at Landmark on December 11 at 6.30 pm. Please be there.

For those living in the south of the Vindhyas, a small reminder for the launch in Bangalore: at Garuda Mall Crossword on November 28 at 6 pm. Please be there.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Men Versus Women

Today a reader suggested that I should write a story on the lines of those of Shivani and Mitali but in which the man is a victim. "I'd like to see a similarly infuriating and well-written story about the modern woman harassing the hell out her husband, making him lose confidence, demoralising his existence. Women can do that, yes? Or is the writer unable to find the embarrassed women who'd reveal such a thing," the reader commented.

A couple of readers had left similar comments for the Shivani post. They had pointed out -- if I remember it right -- that even a man can be a victim of circumstances. The thing is, I know Shivani and Mitali personally, and they had shared their stories with me. I narrated them in the first person, instead of the third person, so that the emotion remained undiluted. But which woman would ever volunteer a story in which she is the villain? And which man, given his ego, would volunteer a story in which he is the victim?

In any case, 'villain' and 'victim' are relative terms. The news agency Reuters, for example, does not use the word 'terrorist' in its copies: they believe one man's terrorist can be another man's freedom fighter. The same principle, I believe, applies in the man-woman relationship. A woman can always say she is acting in a villainish way because she is the real victim. The man can make a similar claim. Who's the real villain and who's the real victim, no one ever gets to know.

Generally speaking, I will always be on the woman's side. For the simple reason that she is hardly given any choices in life. The choices shrink right from the moment of her birth and her fate is tied to that of a man who she would probably meet a quarter of a century later. Look at the tragedy: when she gets married, she is the one to give up her career and move to the city of her husband. When she has a kid, she is the one who gives up her job and stays home. When she resumes her career, if at all, she starts almost from scratch -- seniority be damned -- but she does not mind. Even if she minds, she has no choice.

And I am talking about city-bred, educated women. Women in rural India, especially north India, are an entirely different story, enjoying a status that is marginally better than that accorded to the cattle: only when they are nearing or are past menopause that they earn some of their rights -- most of them misused on the hapless daughter-in-law.

Coming back to the urban setting, there are exceptions of course. But by and large, an Indian woman's destiny is decided collectively by her parents, by her husband, by her in-laws, by her children and, above all, by the society. She never really gets to do what she really wants to do. She is merely a participant -- either enthusiastic or unwilling -- in someone else's life. A man can tell his family, wife or parents, even at 10 in the night, "I'll just be back in an hour." Can a woman do that? A casual outing that a man takes for granted can put a question mark on the character of a woman. And: why is the girl expected to be traditionally attired when her prospective in-laws come to see her along with their son -- even though the son maybe wearing a pair of jeans? Why should the burden of holding the tradition aloft lie on the soft shoulders of the woman alone?

Things are changing, but only in limited circles that don't consider earning lofty degrees as being educated. Really, a degree has nothing to do with education. A Harvard-returnee can still be pretty narrow-minded when it comes to the do's and don'ts concerning his wife -- ah, tell me all about it -- even though he lusts for classmates or co-workers who are bold. What to do: most Indian men are programmed that way: education might light the lamps of their minds, but they rarely ever see the light. Education, on the other hand, does wonders to a woman's personality.

Coming back to the reader's comment that inspired this post: "I'd like to see a similarly infuriating and well-written story about the modern woman harassing the hell out her husband, making him lose confidence, demoralising his existence." Well, all I can say is, if a man loses his confidence or is demoralised because of his wife, whatever happened to his balls? Come on, man, arise, awake and rest not till you have done so well in life that women fall over you and your wife feels jealous and comes around. If she still doesn't, dump her.

But I know it isn't that easy. Men, too, have certain rules to live by, even though the rules governing them are more flexible than those governing the women. But rules are rules. I know of a man who got married just because the elders in his family wanted him to. So one evening, he went to see the girl. The meeting was fixed in the local temple, where the girl came with a host of relatives and friends. He hardly got to have a proper look at the girl -- talking was out of the question -- but he had to say yes under pressure from the family. The family had already decided on his behalf. It was only on the night of the wedding that he discovered that the girl was -- well, she was certainly not his kind of woman. But the priest had already gone home and he had no choice but to live, happily ever after, for the next several decades. He spent his entire life salivating for other women -- which, I think, was not his fault at all.

I know of another couple. I have known them since childhood and they are my parent's age now. I can't reveal too many details because, thanks to Facebook and Orkut, people who I wouldn't otherwise want to read Ganga Mail have access to this blog. So I shall stick to the basics: the man was short and thin, while the wife voluptuous and gorgeous. They are a Bengali couple. I would often watch them walk past my house: the man would always be talking very loudly, as if making a point, as if he was a firebrand Bengali Marxist. But back home, it was a different 'fire' story -- at least according to my Malayali classmate who happened to be their neighbour. At home, whenever the wife got pissed off with her husband, she would beat him up. And when she got extremely pissed, she would light up the gas stove and drag the hapless man by his hair and threaten to dunk his head into the fire. My Malayali classmate knew all this because the poor Bengali man, otherwise a fiery speaker, would be screaming for help.

Last winter, when I went to Kanpur, I noticed the couple at the neighbourhood supermarket. I was glad he was still alive. The wife looked as voluptuous as ever. They were surveying the bottles of various pickles. I surveyed them. I did not know whether to feel sorry for him, or for her.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chetan Bhagat, Baba Ramdev And Pancham

For a few years now, I have been aware that there is a certain person called Chetan Bhagat who writes books that sell well. I always thought he was some kind of a new-age management guru who told youngsters how to shape their lives and careers: these are the sort of books that usually fly off the shelves. How popular he is -- I realised only after my own book was published.

For a couple of weeks after Chai, Chai hit the hands, I got into this habit of running a Google-search for the book. You can't blame me, of course: it's very human to do so. In the process, I found Chetan Bhagat's new book, 2 States, overshadowing every other new release. Couldn't he have finished the book a couple of months before or, preferably, after? On the brighter side, though, his book will always serve as a reference point for my debut book: "My first book? (That's me at the age of 70) Well, I don't recall the exact year it came out, but it was released almost the same time as Chetan Bhagat's 2 States. Please calculate."

But till last Sunday, I presumed -- please don't ask me why -- that 2 States is about the relationship between India and the United States, in which Chetan Bhagat gives some gyaan to the Indian government how to maintain the relationship between the two democratic states. Last Sunday, we went shopping in Spencer Plaza. While I went to Music World, wife went to Landmark. Back home, we showed each other what we had bought. While I gave her a stack of 15 music CDs, she handed me three books. One of them happened to be 2 States. She said she bought the book on the recommendation of her sister, who had read it and loved it. Wife went to the study to try out the CDs, so I was left alone in the bedroom to look at 2 States.

I made two horrifying discoveries. One, the book is actually a novel, which tells the story of a Punjabi boy falling in love -- and eventually marrying -- a Tamilian girl. In other words, Chetan Bhagat is actually a 'story-teller' and not a management guru as I had imagined him to be. Two, the price of the book: just Rs 95! The ridiculously low price, obviously, shows on the quality of the paper and the printing: while reading any page, you can also read alongside the preceding or the succeeding page. Well, that's a choice you have to make: should you feel bad that your book, when you hold it in your hands, feels and looks like one of the crudely-printed pornographic novels that you bought on the sly during your adolescence, or feel immensely proud that it has reached almost every English-speaking or English-understanding household in India?

I am sure Chetan Bhagat is basking in the glory of the latter -- and why not? If whatever he writes is crap, why should people be buying his books? For every 10 intellectually-inclined Indians who get turned on by the complicatedness of a book, there are a 100 others who would love to embrace Chetan Bhagat for telling a story in a style that is the hallmark of magazines like Women's Era.

The bottomline is that Chetan Bhagat sells . He is the Baba Ramdev of literature. It was Baba Ramdev (also known as Swami Ramdev) who demystified powerful yogic kriyas such as the kapalabhaati on television. Till Ramdev came along, yoga was a serious matter: you could master it either in one of the far-flung ashrams or under the tutelage of one of the reclusive gurus. But Ramdev took yoga to the lay housewife: in between rolling out rotis for her family, she would be practising the kapalabhaati kriya while watching TV.

Chetan Bhagat, as I can see, has the same effect on the masses. If his popularity pricks you, it is only because you are jealous of him. Nobody has ever prevented you from reaching out to the masses. But since you are terribly snooty, you fail miserably, whereas Chetan Bhagat wins hands down. As R.D. Burman said in an interview, just months before he died, "Success is the true yardstick. Nothing else matters." Going by Pancham's logic, Chetan Bhagat is already a rock star. So let's give him a big hand, ladies and gentlemen.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mistaken Identity

A piece of paper
torn into two
One carried away by the gust of wind
the other is you.
And thus: the lifelong search
for the other half.
The search fails, but you pretend:
"Wow, I found my other half!"
What a lie!
Your other half is
stuck in the branches of a mango tree
so who is this man
you are flaunting?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dard-e-Dil: Rafi versus Kishore

I have been a listener all my life, rarely joining in an argument no matter how provocative the subject. The rare exceptions being when I am drunk and when I have an audience that is polite enough to nod in agreement. That's when I am able to hold forth. But I need no alcohol to join a discussion on Kishore Kumar, especially when it comes to comparing him with Mohammed Rafi.

There is no comparison, actually. Kishore Kumar, even though he himself was a great admirer of Rafi, wins hands down when it comes to range. You only have to listen to the songs of Aap Ke Deewane or the title song of Yaadon Ki Baraat to decide who is more listenable. For that matter, Sa Re Ga Ma from Chupke Chupke: what is the song without Kishore?

The purpose of this post is not to belittle Rafi, or Rafi saab. He was undoubtedly a great singer. He had a melodious voice. But Kishore Kumar's voice had a life of its own, which was not constricted by any era: what he sang in the 1950's remains as fresh as what he sang in the 1980's -- as if he had sung them only yesterday.

Rafi's voice might have the fragrance of the Indian soil, but Kishore's voice is that of the man next-door. Rafi was soft and sweet, but Kishore was direct and effective. If I were a woman, I would like to be seduced by Roop Tera Mastaana. If I have a bad day, I can lift my spirits with one of the many energising Kishore Kumar songs, such as "Ruk jaana nahin tu kahin haar ke.." If I feel sad, I have Kishore Kumar for company in Zindagi ka safar or Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo mukaam. No other singer could have sung these songs: try imagining Rafi or Mukesh singing them.

Like it or not, Kishore's genius is illustrated not by his landmark songs which have become so cliched that you don't want to listen to them one more time, such as Mere naina saawan bhaadon, but by the songs in films that did not do very well. In my opinion, movies like Satte Pe Satta showcase his true talent: any other singer's voice would have cracked in the low-scale Pyaar tumhe kis mod par le aaya. And to sing the same words, in the very next minute, in extreme high pitch -- only Kishore Kumar could have done that. Not to mention Dukki pe dukki ho -- I always get goose-pimples whenever I listen to a song where Kishore Kumar's voice makes a dashing entry mid-way.

Having said that, let me admit that I am also a selective Rafi fan. Selective means I would not shop for Rafi songs with the zeal that I show for Kishore Kumar songs or even those of Talat Mehmood or Bhupinder or Yesudas, but there are certain Rafi songs I cannot do without. I shall list five of them:

1. Suhaani raat dhal chuki, by Naushad. No one else could have sung this song better. Naushad himself believed that melody was murdered by the noise induced by the R.D.-Kishore combo, but his own daughter was hooked to the songs created by the duo. Ditto with Neil Mukesh: he prefers Kishore Kumar over his grandfather -- or so he said in an interview.

2. Dil ka bhanwar kare pukaar, by S.D. Burman. Kishore's voice did not have the softness that this song required. Obviously, the senior Burman knew better.

3. Khoya khoya chaand, khula aasman, by S.D. Burman. Once again, a song only Rafi saab could have done justice to.

4. Koi sone ke dil waala, koi chaandi ke dil waala, by Salil Choudhury. Ah, my all-time Rafi favourite. Nothing to beat this song -- the voice, the music, the lyrics -- sung, on the screen, by the debonair Dev Anand in the film called Maya. A journalist friend of mine happened to meet Salilda shortly before he died in the mid-1990s. According to my friend, the meeting took place in a modest Delhi hotel in the evening, when Salilda was drinking, from a steel glass. When Rafi and this particular song came up for discussion, Salilda apparently had tears in his eyes. He began narrating anecdotes related to the recording of this song. Now, since my journalist friend also happens to be a drunkard who is prone to inventing stories, I cannot vouch for Salilda's tears. I can only hope that he was not lying.

5. Well, have you ever been in love? If you have been, only then you can appreciate this song. Even if not, do me a favour: tonight, pour yourself a drink and listen to this song. Promise me you will only use earphones while listening to this song. Because if you listen to it on normal speakers, you might miss out on the craftsmanship of Laxmikant and Pyarelal. I am yet to come across a song that is so richly embellished with the chorus and the orchestra. Chances are very high that you will end up falling in love -- if not with anyone, at least with the song.

And the song is, Dard-e-dil, dard-e-jigar, from Karz. The song could have been sung by Kishore Kumar, who sang other -- and highly popular -- songs in the movie. But Laxmi-Pyare were sagacious enough to use Rafi saab for this number. They were, after all, proteges of S.D. Burman once upon a time. They knew very well that you can't fit a song into a voice, but only the vice-versa. Oh, how much this song has been tormenting me of late. In my opinion, this is the most complete song ever created in the Hindi film industry.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Fear Of Forty

Very often we measure our arrival to certain dates according to the weather. For example, it is raining now in Chennai, and if it is raining in Chennai, it must be the onset of winter in the rest of India. And if winter has arrived, it means my birthday is not too far away. And that's why I hate the rains this year.

This December-end, I shall turn 39. In other words, I just have a little over a year to be entitled to the privilege of prefixing my age with the letter '3'. After that I step into the forties. Wasn't it just the other day, when I wrote a piece in the New Sunday Express, about how it is one thing to be 29 and quite another to be 30, even though the gap is of just one year, or twelve months? How time flies! -- well, the flight of time has become a cliche now. It has to fly: you can do zilch about it; all you can do is maybe follow time in another, albeit slower, aircraft, so that you don't feel too bad about being left behind.

But feel bad you must. It was only the other day when I noticed something grey on my father's chest. I remember telling myself, "I think he is finally getting old." Today, no matter how much I sculpt my chest, there is nothing to save me from being distressed about the fact that I have discovered a couple of grey strands on my pectorals too. Am I getting old? Of course I am!

But maybe I am getting old faster than my father because unlike him, who has always been a non-smoker and a teetotaller, I smoke some 25 cigarettes a day and can empty half a bottle of whisky without even batting an eyelid if I am in the mood to write, even if it means writing just a blog post (by monetary calculation, writing each post costs me at least Rs 300). Also unlike my father, I am gripped by this urge to do something in life: if nothing else, at least share my thoughts with a few dozen people. And if, of those few dozens, even half a dozen lend an ear to you and like what you have to say, your life becomes worthwhile. My father, at the age of 40, had made peace with life: the future of his rather grown-up sons mattered more to him more than his personal ambitions. The average Indian householder, in any case, is not supposed to pursue personal ambitions after he has attained a certain age or has acquired a kid or two: those who do either become outcaste or go on to become legends.

Legends are meant to be worshipped, not emulated. Which sane Indian family man would want to be a drunkard like Neeraj, who wrote the immortal song, "Phoolon ke rang se, dil ki kalam se..."? Which sane Indian family man would like to be a chain-smoker like Sahir Ludhianvi, who wrote the songs for Pyaasa and Kabhie Kabhie? The Punjabi writer, Amrita Pritam, would relight the cigarette stubs left behind by Sahir whenever he left her place after paying a visit: just to feel his breath in her lungs.

I don't want to slip into the routine of a family man, and at the same time I am nowhere near being a Sahir. It is the fear of being neither here nor there, even at the age of 40, that worries me a lot. I will have to work very, very hard.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Chai, Chai In Bangalore

This morning began on a pleasant note. Read a review of Chai, Chai in the November issue of India Today Travel Plus:

"Just five pages down, and you begin to see that the story of Chai, Chai is in the details that the writer has registered in simple, lucid prose. And it is this attention to detail that keeps you glued to the pages even when the pace slackens... Ghosh infuses colour and flavour in everyday life, describing seemingly mundane chores and happenings with a sincerity that gently persuades you into revisiting certain sections of the book."

Time for Chai, Chai to make a brief halt in Bangalore. So welcome, one and all, for the launch of the book at Crossword, Garuda Mall on November 28, 6 pm. Theatre personalities Prakash Belawadi and Smitha Chakravarthy will read from the book. V. Sriram, regional director of IRCTC, will preside over the event.

Meeting A Childhood Hero

As a child I could draw well. I still preserve the small, red dictionary that I had won as the first prize in a drawing competition at school. When I was 10 or 11, I had written to Chandamama, asking if they needed artists. Of course, I never got a reply. I would spend more time observing the illustrations in the magazine than reading the stories -- the gods and the goddesses, the kings and the princes, the sages and the hermits. I would always look for the name of the artist in the picture, and there came a time when I would decide if I liked a picture or not depending on the name of the artist. One artist I immensely admired was Sankar. I wanted to be like him. Remember the signature-illustration in the Vikram and the Vetala series -- the king wielding a naked sword and carrying a corpse on his back? That was drawn by Sankar sometime in the 1960's, and it still appears in the magazine.

Here's your truly with Sankar, who is now 85 and the only surviving member of the old team of Chandamama. He belongs to the simpler times and is, therefore, a simple man. Old age has taken a toll on his health, but his mind remains sharp and fingers steady as ever: he still draws for Chandamama. For me, meeting him was a childhood dream coming true.

Friday, November 06, 2009

This Is Mitali, And Here's My Story

Hello, my name is Mitali. Tonight I am borrowing a little bit of space on this blog to share my story. I don't know if my story will interest you, but I shall still tell it because tonight I feel like talking. My English is not all that great, so forgive me if I falter. I grew up in Nadia district in West Bengal and for most of my life I have spoken and written only in Bengali. It was only when I joined IIT that I was forced to start talking -- and thinking -- in English. Still, I am not very comfortable with the language. But do you really need language to convey an emotion? When a boy and a girl, sitting in the opposite berths of a train, start liking each other, do they actually spell out that they like each other? No, they don't. They don't even know what the others mother tongue is. It is their eyes that do the talking. You know what I mean, don't you?

So here is my story. But wait. Don't accuse the owner of this blog for writing a post while pretending to be a woman. Sometime ago, a woman called Shivani wrote her story on his blog too. I still don't know if Shivani is a real woman or a character born out of his imagination. But how does it matter? Imagination must be born out of reality. Shivani might have been his muse, but she has to be a child of reality. Anyway, I can't be anyone's muse: there is nothing special about me. I am pretty plain looking. Or so I think. Though when I was in school, the bad boys in the class used to pass lewd remarks. One day I had gone to the neighbourhood post office to buy some stamps, and there, on the wall of the post office, someone had scribbled in red with a piece of brick: "Mitali is sex bomb". I wanted to erase the line quietly but the clerk was watching me keenly, so I left as soon as I bought the stamps. He was looking at me as if he was imagining me naked. I felt disgusted.

Even at IIT I did not mingle with the boys too much. There was one boy I liked. Abhijeet was his name. He taught me how to smoke. Though I never quite picked up smoking. It was nice to take a drag from his cigarette once in a while. I liked him because he always made me laugh. But one night he was drunk, and he tried to rest his head on my lap. I slapped him. How dare he? Sex was sacred. I could not have given myself to anyone except the man of my dreams -- the man I would marry. Abhijeet could have been the man of my dreams -- maybe he was. But he was from Maharashtra. My parents would have never agreed. So he could not have been the man of my dreams. So I slapped him. Though I must say I felt very jealous when I saw Sunetra falling over him a few days later. Sex-starved woman, that bitch. I am sure Abhijeet must have slept with her, which only makes me feel glad that I slapped him. He was certainly not the man of my dreams.

My dream man was discovered by my parents in the matrimonial pages of the newspaper. It had to be that way: you never go looking for the dream man, he has to come to you. He was an IIT graduate himself but was now running his family business of manufacturing spare parts for the ordnance factories. I liked him the moment I saw him. He was fair, slightly chubby, just like a prince. We hardly spoke during out first meeting. I was very shy. I think he was shy too. But I remember him telling me, "I want you to take care of our home. Why do you need to work? If you don't take care of the home, who will?" I was floored by his charm. What he said made sense. Why work when he earned four times or five times than what I did, working in a company where I felt important only when someone's computer broke down. I was treated no better than a plumber. I gladly typed my resignation letter. That was the day when I felt sexy. My boss, however, scolded me for taking such a decision.

On our first night we had sex seven times. Yes, seven times. Can you believe it? Each time we would go to sleep, thinking that we were done for the day, we would start all over again. The sun had already risen when we decided, finally, to call it a day. The next thing I knew I was pregnant. Life could not have been more beautiful. What more could I have asked for? We were holidaying in Goa when I discovered I was pregnant. He was gazing at the sea from the hotel room when I came out to break the news to him. We hugged and spent the next two hours deciding a name for the child.

The first slap came two weeks later. That night we had hosted a small party at home for the dealers. It all went off well: I did the cooking and they all liked the food. But for some reason, he sulked all evening. It was as if his mind was elsewhere. After the guests had left, I asked him what was wrong. He did not reply and went about looking at some papers. When I asked him again, he slapped me. "Mind your own business!" he said. I was stunned -- well, that's an understatement. Even my father had never slapped me.

The next morning he said sorry and told me why he was upset, after which we made love. But neither my mind nor my body cooperated: both were still stunned by the slap. By the evening, a part of me had forgiven him but a part of me had not. The forgiving part told me: "After all, he is your husband. He is the father of your soon-to-be-born child. You are going to spend the rest of your life with him. So what if he slapped you. Maybe his mind was disturbed. Forget it, ignore it." The unforgiving part told me: "The slap has snapped something. Things are never going to be same hereafter. If he does that again, walk out."

I listened to my forgiving self. It was the easier option, rather than make a big issue out of one slap and walk out of a marriage that had otherwise made me feel secure and happy. After all, it was my own husband who had slapped me. That's what even my mother said. She said one has to make small adjustments in life. "You can't have your cake and eat it too," she told me something to that effect, "You are enjoying the best facilities in life, which I could not even dream of when I was my age." My father, however, sounded a little concerned. He said I could ignore the slap if it was only an emotional outburst, but in case I felt unsafe, his doors were always open for me.

The slaps, from then on, became a regular feature. He would slap me, then say sorry the next morning and everything would be all right till he slapped me again. The slaps, soon enough, became a part of my life. Initially, they would hurt me a lot, physically as well as mentally. But then I got used to them. Being scolded by the boss or slapped by the husband, what difference does it make. Your happiness depends on their whims.

Today I am 29. I have a four-year-old daughter, and a 35-year-old husband who slaps me when he is sober and makes love to me when he is drunk. I have no ambitions in life, except that when my daughter grows up, she should marry someone who respects her and does not slap her. Maybe a guy like Abhijeet. How I regret slapping him many years ago, that too for a silly reason. He was only trying to rest his head on my lap. He was decent enough to keep his hands away. Maybe the slaps I receive today on a regular basis is nature's way of taking revenge. But it's ok, am not complaining. I am pretty well-settled in marriage -- I am an obedient wife and a caring mother. What keeps me going is that when I go for the monthly kitty parties, the society women eye me with jealousy. I am the only one who is chauffeur-driven to these parties in a Mercedes. Their husbands still can't afford such an expensive car. A few slaps is just a small price to pay for the ultimate sense of security.

Only that there are times when other thoughts cross my mind. There are times when I wonder: I am only 29 and an IIT-grad and someone who the boys back home thought to be a sex bomb. Can't I just walk out of this marriage and start life afresh? Being 29 is nothing: many of my classmates are not even married and they are having the time of their lives. They get drunk and they decide which man to fuck, rather than having a drunk man force-fuck them. What fun! What is the point studying hard and getting into IIT and then landing a highly-paying job if you can't even have fun?

Abhijeet, by the way, is still not married. I think I can still say sorry to him about the slap and start a new life with him. But what to do: I have gotten so used to the slaps of my husband, the man of my dreams, that if he does not slap me at least once in a week, I feel he does not love me enough. It is his love that I seek. Nothing else matters.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


"There are two mes. The one that you see, the other you talk to. Who do you prefer?"

Can't I have both?

"No, you have to choose one." She grinned mischievously.

The one that is asking me to make the choice -- is she the one I see or the one I talk to?

"You decide that." She grinned mischievously.

One has the flesh, the other has the thoughts. I like the flesh, therefore I like the thoughts -- or is it the thoughts that make the flesh so endearing?

"Go on, go on. I am listening." She grinned mischievously.

I think it is the thoughts that work for me. Without the thoughts, what good is the flesh? A body in the mortuary? A mannequin in the shop?

"You are smart." She grinned mischievously.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Chai, Chai Chugs On

I am sure there are times when a writer, unless he has reached a stage when each word that comes off his laptop or typewriter is worth a hundred dollars, ponders over this question: Which is better -- a review that trashes your book, or no review at all? One is the fire, the other is the frying pan -- the choice is yours. I, however, believe that you should just blindfold yourself and take a long leap, without worrying about where you are going to land, the frying pan or the fire, and chances are that you might just find yourself on a bed or roses. In other words, just write, as honestly as you can, without worrying about the outcome.

One can write a full-length self-help book on this subject -- "100 ways to tide over criticism" or "50 things you can learn from bad reviews" -- but the truth is we are human, and criticism hurts, especially after you have invested two or three years of your precious life producing a book which would be the first thing you would run to save if there was a fire. Writing a bad review, even if it is justified, is like telling the mother of a newborn, "Oh, but how could you produce such an ugly child!" There are ways of conveying unpleasant things. In any case, what appears to be unpleasant to one could be the opposite for another.

I have always been disinclined to review books even though I worked with a Sunday paper for a very long time. I can count on my fingers the number of reviews I have written: and most of them were of books related to either travel, yoga or Bollywood -- books that interested me immensely and which I finished reading in one sitting. But nobody has ever been able to hold a gun to my head and say, "We are falling short by one review. Here's a new book, why don't you review it? So, 500 words, by 3 o' clock tomorrow?" You can't write a review like that: three years of labour judged in three hours or less, and the verdict written in 30 minutes!

That's precisely why I admire my friend Baradwaj Rangan. He is one of the few, if not the only, honest film critics we have today in the entire country. It is rare for him to give his verdict unless he has watched a movie at least twice and has heard a music album for at least two days in a row. It is not for nothing that today he is a celebrity reviewer: people actually look forward to what he has to say about a movie or a music album.

By now you must be wondering about the purpose of this post: has Chai, Chai been getting bad reviews? On the contrary. I must say I have been very lucky in spite of being a first-time writer. The book has not only earned some very good reviews but has also gone into reprint within four weeks of hitting the stands. There have been two unsavoury reviews as well. One of them I choose to ignore because the reviewer started off saying very nice things about me and the book and then, finally, in the last para, suddenly decided to turn hostile. Perhaps she wanted the review to be 'balanced.' I don't really have problems with that at all. As a trained journalist who has worked with highly demanding bosses, I have always received criticism as if it were a medal.

But there are times when you can sense that the reviewer has already made up his mind against you even without reading the book carefully. That's when it really hurts. Take, for example, the review of Chai, Chai in Outlook. The reviewer says, quite smugly:

"It’s a bit disorienting to have a man alight at 3:15 am and two pages later talk of being woken up at 4, still in the train!"

People who take book reviews appearing in Outlook seriously and who are yet to read Chai, Chai will think I am some jerk who can't even get the sequence of events right. They will never get to know that the real culprit is the reviewer who hasn't even read the book carefully. Nowhere in the book -- except in the reviewer's imagination -- does this anomaly occur.

Having made the damaging statement, the reviewer goes on:

"Ghosh works hard on the back stories (there’s a search for Lal Bahadur Shastri’s alma mater in Mughalsarai, and a visit to a dharamsala where Mahatma Gandhi once stayed). But he can’t quite pull off the trick of stripping small-town India’s facade of apparent mundaneness to find something more engaging. It’s a trick that arguably only Pankaj Mishra has pulled off with his Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. Chai, chai fails here, leaving travel writing fans unfulfilled and wondering what the fuss was all about."

Since I have the luxury of owning this blog, let me clarify that it was never my intention to carry out an academic study of the small towns covered in my book or "stripping them of their mundaneness to find something more engaging." My sole obligation was to present these towns to the reader the way I saw them -- the conclusions have been left to the reader. I was not at all aiming to pull off any trick, and I was certainly not aiming to be another Pankaj Mishra. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is one book I am yet to read, and it is sad that the reviewer accused me of not matching up to it.

Can't blame the reviewer. He is someone called Hari Menon. Perhaps he was looking for depth. I feel really bad that I let him down.

Chai, Chai, meanwhile, chugs on. See you guys in Bangalore on November 28 and in Mumbai on December 10. Details in a day or two.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Thighs And Soul

On another day, at a lunch beneath coconut trees, a mini golf course on one side and a lake on the other, a visitor from Delhi points to a group of young Indian woman writers sitting around a table, displaying cleavages and smooth thighs. “What is the literary worth of these writers?” he says. “Do they have any writing skills? Are their stories written from the soul?”

The group around his table is silent. Then he says, “I have my doubts. They have good contacts in the media, they spend their own money to have splashy cocktail party book launches, but they will last for only a season. Next year, another group of writers will take over and these books will be forgotten. They cannot stand the test of time.”

The above two paras are extracted from a report in the New Sunday Express about the recently-held Kovalam Literary Festival. I haven't stopped smiling ever since I read the report. It does not take a genius to realise that the above-mentioned 'visitor from Delhi' is someone who is either desperate to get published or is a failed writer. A smart writer would have either admired those cleavages and thighs from a distance or would have walked over to the lunch table to silently plot a post-dinner plan when one didn't have to contend with just a view of the cleavage or the smooth thighs. Nothing is impossible -- as I have told you in my previous post. For the 'bad' impossible things, you have to be mentally prepared, and for the 'good' impossible things, you have be eternally hopeful.

Well, I am just one-book old, and my book itself is just a month old (a small announcement here: it went for reprint yesterday), so it is going to be a long, long time before I am invited -- if at all -- to a litfest where I could get to meet fellow women writers who show cleavages and smooth thighs. How I am dying to meet them, but I guess I will have to spend a few more years of long, lonely nights in front of my computer before I earn my ticket to paradise.

But it is also true that if you are a sexy woman and even if you have written an apology of a book, you don't have to wait that long in order to be invited to a litfest or to be feted by the literary world. Fame, even if lasts for 15 minutes, comes easily to you. After all, everybody, every occasion, needs its share of glamour. I know you will now say: "Wasn't that exactly the point the 'visitor from Delhi' was making?" The answer, however, is a big no.

The 'visitor' made the remark only because he felt intimidated by the cleavages and the smooth thighs. He felt threatened. He would have felt safe and secure if the women writers at the litfest had oiled their hair and had neglected to wax their arms and legs. Since he could not match them in glamour, he questioned their literary worth and suspected the lack of soul in their stories. Did he even read their books or their stories? He was plain jealous, as simple as that. He could not digest the fact that women could write well and also look sexy at the same time. He was clearly intimidated by their confidence.

One can understand this man's angst. He is a typical Indian man with the typical Indian mindset -- that a woman cannot, and should not, outdo you. If she is sexy, she cannot be a writer. If she is a writer, she cannot be sexy. If the woman turns out to be both, he finds it extremely difficult to gulp down the fact and starts questioning her integrity. To such men, I have only one thing to say: "Fuck off. Get a life. Earn the admiration of those cleavage-showing writers, impress them, instead of trying to belittle them just because they look sexy."

And who has asked the men to look unsexy? A writer does not have to look sickly and have thin arms and a small chest. There are 24 hours in a day. Even if you devote five hours to serious writing every day, that still leaves 19 hours at your disposal. Even if you have a job that requires you to put in eight hours of work, you still have 11 left to do your own thing. Can't you spend even an hour of those 11 in the gym, building your pectorals and your cardiovascular endurance? And once in a week, maybe go to the parlour and spend a little money on grooming.

Learn from Gabo. He is a good example to learn from. Gabo is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even in advancing age, he played tennis in order to keep fit and carefully chose his attire (from among the wide range of white) to make sure his personality was as attractive as his prose. Imagine Gabo at the Kovalam Litfest: Would he have whined and questioned the literary worth of Ms Cleavage and Ms Smooth Thighs? He would have actually complimented their writing and played with the thighs.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nothing Is Impossible

A colleague, who had just bought a copy of Chai, Chai, came to me today. "Will you please sign it for me?" she said, "I will just be back from the evening meeting."

While she was gone, I signed the book and then thumbed opened its pages at random, just to get a feel of the book. I haven't had this luxury ever since the book was printed because of a variety of reasons. As it is, I find it embarrassing to reread my own work. Worse, mom died just eight days before it came out of the press: for weeks after her death, the book meant nothing to me except a bunch of papers stitched together. Once I began to feel less bitter about mom going away without even seeing my first book, I was overcome by nervousness regarding its launch. Once the launch was over, the novelty had worn off and the book, once again, did not mean a thing.

But this evening, thanks to the colleague who left me alone with the book for a while, I got a chance to go through it. I read through passages at random: I recognised some instantly, even the exact time of the day I wrote them and under what circumstances. But there were some I had completely forgotten about, such as the one below, which was written in November 2007 in a small hotel in Mughal Sarai barely hours after I had returned from a day trip to Banaras:

The images of the bedecked biers kept swimming in my head as the Ambassador rattled down the dusty road to Mughal Sarai. Everybody has to die one day, but you don't want to be reminded of that, do you? It is, however, not the thought of your own death that makes the sight of the biers so terrifying: it is actually the thought of your near and dear ones being carried away in that fashion. It is a thought you consider secretly in the deepest crevices of your heart, not even sharing it aloud with your own self.

Little did I know then, that in less that two years, I would be lending a shoulder to my own mother's body at that very spot. At the time, it was impossible to even imagine that my mother would die in Banaras.

That is why I tell people -- people who matter to me -- that nothing is impossible in life. Life is a bitch that can throw the most impossible on your lap while keeping you deprived lifelong of what you always thought was possible. The only occasions I don't place this view of mine forcefully is when I am in the company of male friends over drinks and when the subject of discussion is usually women: who is going around with who, who is sleeping with who, who is likely to sleep with who, who wants to sleep with who, and so on.

Many ego-balloons are pricked on such evenings. "Why on earth would she be interested in you? She is 28, while you are 40, bro". Or, "Brother, don't forget she is ex-Ms Chennai. She has people eating out of her hands. Of course you can go on a date with her. But only in your dreams. Ha ha ha ha ha!" When egos clash, I take the backseat and watch them and smile, and even tell them, albeit silently: "Brothers, stop fighting. Nothing is impossible."

Thursday, October 22, 2009


Writing this post is like stabbing my friend on the back; but if I don't stab him with my words now, I might end up stabbing myself out of sheer irritation or anger. So here goes. This friend of mine, a Malayali, is a very dear friend, who is deeply rooted to his culture, which means he has read Marx and Marquez and Mukundan with equal passion. But he refused to read Chai, Chai, that is my book, for a long time. The reason being since I was his friend, and since we discussed women over wine, he thought I was not capable of displaying 'depth' in my writing.

"But how do you know whether it has depth or not without even reading it?" I protested.

"Wait, wait, I will read it. Don't worry. First let Jomi read it. I bought your book yesterday, but I gave it to Jomi. He is pucca with literature. He will tell me if your book has depth. He can distinguish between serious writing and masala writing." Jomi was a Malayali friend that my Malayali friend had recently acquired.

"What does this Jomi do?" I asked him.

"He is a poet," my friend replied.

"Ok, just fuck off," I told him.

A few days later my friend called. "I am reading your first chapter. Not bad at all, man."

"Did Jomi read the book? What did he say?"

"Oh, he liked it. He was praising your power of observation. He was telling me, 'Oh, this fellow has depth.' I am still in the first chapter. Not bad at all!" So Jomi, the poet, had given the green signal.

"Fuck off," I told him.

A few days later, my friend brought Jomi over and we went out for a drink. For most of the time, Jomi was just a shy, wiry, young and bearded Malayali who felt awkward to be in the company of a man who spoke no Malayalam. But he treated me with reverence because I was a Bengali -- a distant cousin of the Malayali. Towards the end, however, when he was many drinks down, Jomi became a revolutionary. He denounced all writers except Sarte and Nietzsche and Foucault, and he denounced all cinema except Russian and French and Japanese and Bengali and, of course, Malayalam. 'Depth' -- or the lack of it -- the criteria for his discrimination.

The bar was closing, so we bought a bottle of whisky and made a makeshift bar in the car. By now, I was myself somewhat drunk, and I finally gathered courage to ask Jomi what made him decide if a book or a film had depth or was shallow. He broke into a minor speech, invoking the names of Sartre and Kurosawa, as if they were his first cousins, but at the same time not wanting to hurt me because I was a Bengali -- his true first cousin. On the whole, we had a nice time that evening.

Now, let me sum up -- from whatever little I understood from his speech -- his criteria for 'depth'. If a certain piece of writing is difficult to understand, making you reach out for the dictionary every now and then, and that makes you realise every now and then: 'What the fuck am I doing in this world?', then the piece has 'depth'. But if a piece is so simple that you can breeze through it in a matter of minutes, then it just can't have 'depth': how can a 'deep' piece be read in a matter of minutes or hours?

Well, to each his own. But I am extremely grateful to Jomi that he placed Chai, Chai under the 'having depth' category, even though he had finished reading it -- by his own admission -- in less than four hours. Maybe he was just being nice to me, or maybe he was serious: Mr Poet was far too drunk to make false statements, or so I would like to believe.

But what is this 'depth' and 'shallow' business? Well, I shall never understand. I never studied literature to understand its nuances. According to me, a piece of writing is good if people -- from the director of a company right down to its driver -- easily understand what is being said. If the director has to scratch his head and if the driver has to look up the dictionary, then the writer has failed.

It is easy to present simple things in life in a difficult form, but very difficult to present the real depths of life in an easy, understandable form. It calls for a lot of hard work to write in a language that even your driver understands -- not only understands but also appreciates. It would be the most gratifying moment in my life if I ever find a ticket checker or a coolie reading Chai, Chai. But that would also be the most horrifying moment for Jomi, the poet from a land that champions the cause of the masses: he would instantly declare my book as non-serious, which lacks 'depth', just because a coolie was found reading it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Woman In The Gym

Looks can be highly deceptive, still you can tell people who read and people who don't. I am pretty sure she is not the reading type, certainly not kind the who reads people's blogs. Therefore, I can write this piece in peace.

Actually it breaks my heart to write this piece because I quite like the woman: tallish, dusky and sharp-featured. I have been seeing her in the gym for almost a year now. There are some people with who, the moment your eyes meet theirs, something starts cooking in the air. You instantly smell the chemistry. You feel her eyes are following you. She feels your eyes are following her. Even though in reality it may not be so, but the imaginary gaze piercing you from behind keeps your adrenalin pumped all the while that you are in the gym. There are days when I refuse to slow down on the treadmill even if my feet ache (I usually start my 20-minute walk at the speed of 7.1 km/hr and end at 8.5 km/hr) only because I know she is watching me in between her workouts. Only when I step off the treadmill do I realise that she is long gone. But there are days when she is still there, our eyes silently meeting every now and then, till one of us leaves the gym.

In such situations, eyes usually speak far more than words. In fact, words can spoil it. There is no dearth of cases when you fancy a person till the time he or she happens to speak to you. Really, spoken words can shatter your fantasies. It is best to speak with your eyes. Just like we do, or did, till at least this morning.

This morning, when I walked into the gym, she was nowhere in sight. I smiled at the various trainers and did my stretches and then hopped on to the treadmill. To my great joy, I discovered that she was already there, on the exercycle right next to the treadmill -- so close that we could have held each other's hands and worked out. At the cost of my prestige, I programmed the treadmill to the speed of just 6 km/hr. Nobody in the gym had ever seen me walk so slow. But today the idea was not to walk, but to watch.

She was pedalling steadily so far, but presently she slowed down. Perhaps my arrival had made her conscious. Pedalling at the lowest speed possible, she plunged her hand into her T-shirt. Was I dreaming? Her fingers kept moving inside, as if she was looking for something inside her bra. Was I dreaming? Was she teasing me? Wow. The out came a taali -- or the mangal sutra. Fuck! Was this her way of telling me, "Lay off, I am married" or "I know something is cooking between us, but let me tell you beforehand that I am married"? Her being married or not married did not make any difference to me, but what a funny, perhaps smart, way of letting me know. I smiled to myself and increased the speed slightly, but I could not entirely take my eyes off her.

She stretched the mangalsutra to its entire length and plucked out a safety pin attached to it. She undid the safety pin and proceeded to use it as a toothpick, even while she was pedalling. She took her own sweet time in getting rid of the remnants between her teeth. Last night's dinner or this morning's breakfast? Who cared. I increased my speed straight to 8 km/hr. I had already wasted eight minutes.

Monday, October 19, 2009

An Afternoon With Kishore Kumar

I am not sure how many know this, but the first full song that Kishore Kumar sang for his mentor S.D. Burman was recorded not in Bombay but in Madras, where I live. The song, featuring in a film called Bahaar, goes like this, "Kusoor aapka, huzoor aapka, na mera naam lijiye na mere baap ka..."

Now how do I know this? I heard it from Kishore Kumar himself, just a few minutes ago. In Madras, Burman dada made the young Kishore share his room, where the novice singer discovered the composer's devotion and commitment to music. "Sing straight, and the public will like you," he would tell Kishore: the same principle, in my opinion, applies to writing as well.

This entire afternoon, after a long, long time, I spent in the company of Kishore Kumar, courtesy You Tube. God bless those dedicated fans who painstakingly upload rare videos and make the lives of people like me worth living. If only I could meet them: I would hug them or maybe even touch their feet. What is life -- my life, that is -- without Kishore Kumar.

I have lost count of the number of videos I must have watched since this afternoon, so much so that my eyes hurt now. But my ears: they are still craving for one last song, just like you crave for one last drink even though you are too drunk to walk straight. There was a time, from 1996 to 2002, when I religiously wrote an annual piece on Kishore Kumar on his death anniversary for the papers I worked for. The papers would have, and give, ample space for my fanaticism regarding Kishore Kumar.

But now, in the age of file-sharing and You Tube, I find it quite pointless to waste words singing praises of someone when you can just send across a song or a link in order to convince people what a great singer Kishore Kumar was, I mean, is. Open You Tube and search for 'Kishore Kumar + live' and you'll know what I mean.

By the way, I made another discovery this afternoon. That I do not possess the Kishore Kumar song, Zindagi ka safar, hai yeh kaisa safar. It must be there in some dusty cassette, but I do not have the song either on my laptop or any of the CDs. What idli is to a Tamilian and paratha is to a Punjabi, Zindagi ka safar is to a Kishore devotee. But somehow, in my quest for rare songs, I seem to have ignored the staple songs. But do I really need them? They run in my veins.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Book Launch And A Diwali

During the 17 years of my professional life, I have always faced the dais, sitting quietly among the audience and taking notes. So it was natural for my mouth to go dry when I walked into the hall that was now beginning to fill up with people who would soon comprise the audience, listening to veteran theatre artiste P.C. Ramakrishna read from my book, Chai, Chai.

When the Madras Book Club proposed to hold a launch function in Chennai, I politely made two requests. One, Mr Ramakrishna should read from my book. I had heard him read V.S. Naipaul and Dom Moraes when these two idols of mine visited the city on different occasions, and since then it had been my secret dream to have Mr Ramakrishna read from my book if I ever wrote one. His voice makes even mediocre prose sound lyrical. Request no. 2 was that I should not be asked to speak at the function: it is nice to have a chat with individual readers and guests during high tea or a cocktail party, but the thought of addressing an ‘audience’ has always made me hugely nervous.

Fortunately, both my requests were accepted. But I was told that Mr Ramakrishna would have a ‘dialogue’ with me after the reading. Which meant I still had to face the audience and speak – no escape. About two dozen guests were already there when I walked into Binny’s Hall at Taj Connemara. I shook hands with some familiar faces and then headed for the water counter. I took a few sips, but my mouth remained dry. The hall was filling up fast. Few more sips of water, but no luck.

A well-known face walked in. He bought a copy at the venue and came to me. He said he could not stay on because he had a meeting, so could I please sign it for him now? He was Ramkumar, the well-known producer and the son of the legendary actor Sivaji Ganesan. “I think I’ll finish it tonight,” he said, and asked me to write down my email ID on the back page. My mouth began to feel better.

It is pointless to narrate what happened during the rest of the evening because it was a public event and those who were present are bound to have their own opinion about how the function went. As far as I am concerned, I was hugely nervous then; but now, looking back, I feel smug. Mr Ramakrishna read from my book – a dream come true; the hall was packed – the nightmare of empty seats averted; I signed over 30 books – and I am no Naipaul. The evening of October 15 was indeed a gratifying one. My heartfelt thanks to all of you who made the evening successful, especially the two readers of this blog who came all the way from Bangalore only for this event.

But the most gratifying moment that evening, for me, was when Mr Madhu, a senior member of the book club, said nice things about my blog while proposing the vote of thanks. He singled out this post for heaping praise on Ganga Mail – the story of a woman called Shivani who, at 40, realises that all her life, she has lived as a dutiful daughter, a dutiful wife, a dutiful mother, but never as herself. “And the only time when she is herself is when she is standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom,” Mr Madhu told the audience about my post. I felt quite proud, till I realised my father was there too among the audience. But father is cool; it would have been embarrassing if mother was there. She would have certainly asked me later, “What all do you write? You have a wife now, so who is this other woman called Shivani? When will you mend your ways?” But then, as most of you know, my mother missed the event by about six weeks.

If at all there is something that makes me truly glad about the evening, it is the date: October 15, just two days before Diwali. Today is Diwali. If the Gods had not been unkind, I should have been in Kanpur now with my family, smelling and savouring the typical autumn fragrance in the air, rather than putting up with the incessant sound of crackers that shook me out of sleep at six in the morning. The sound was so loud that I knew someone in my building was bursting the crackers. For a while I lay on the bed, putting up with the explosions. But when they became unbearable, I went to the balcony to spot the source of the obnoxious explosions. To my great surprise, or should I say horror, it turned out to be the middle-aged woman in the building who still has the power to make heads turn. From the balcony, I watched her placing the ‘bomb’ on the road, bending over to light the fire, in the process thrusting out her ample but shapely posterior, and then running back as the ‘bomb’ exploded. Her family, standing at a safe distance, applauded her. Still half-asleep, I could not decide whether to appreciate the sight of her thrust-out butt or to feel irritated by the explosions. But my road was in a mess: littered by paper fragments from the exploded ‘bombs’.

I have never stayed in Chennai, or in any other place, during Diwali: all my life, no matter where I have been, I have always made it a point to be in Kanpur during the festival, come what may. The only exception was the year 1994 when, for reasons I can’t recall, I was detained in Delhi. As the years wore on, I took the Diwali visits very seriously. My mother had developed a heart condition, and one never knew which Diwali would be the last one in the company of the entire family. I tried to make the most of each visit, taking as many pictures I could. Each year, after the end of Diwali, I would touch wood and take the train or flight back to Chennai.

But I had no idea that the Diwali of 2008 would be my last Diwali with the entire family. My mother, in spite of her dilated heart, wasn’t doing so badly. Nevertheless, I took pictures as usual, little knowing that they would be the last pictures I would be taking as an unorphaned son. My mom died just six weeks before this year’s Diwali. According to Hindu custom, we are not supposed to celebrate any festival for one whole year. So even if I went home this Diwali, it would have comprised awkward and painful moments between me, my father and my brother.

Therefore, the book launch came in handy. The success of the event distracted us from the fact that we should all have ideally been in Kanpur at this moment. So, is there God who first buggers you and then seeks to alleviate your pain? I do not know. I want to show you a picture of my mother which I took last Diwali – little did I know then that this would be our last Diwali together. I sought blessings from this picture when I went for the book-launch function.