Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Wayanad, Here I Come

I don't blame life. It has given each of us lavish gifts, only that they lie hidden in the bushes and shrubs of time. All we need to do is go out and seek them, for they rarely fall on our laps. At times, we even know where the gift is hidden, but then we tell ourselves: "Ah, that place is so far away. Why bother! If I happen to go in that direction in the near future, then I shall stop by and claim the gift." Life then gives a shrug and moves on, but not before giving a sarcastic smile that says, "You silly bugger, if only you knew what lies inside that gift-wrapped box."

These thoughts come to my mind because of late, very often, I feel like a prisoner whose hands are free but whose feet are shackled. He can move, but only to places he is required to go to and not to places he would love to go to.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a friend called Aniruddh. "Who says smoking is bad?" he once declared in the office canteen. "Keep smoking by all means. There is nothing wrong as long as you smoke cigarettes. But the day cigarettes start smoking you, you must watch out." I wish I had listened to him then. That would have restricted my smoking. Anyway, why I remember him today is because I realise what he said about smoking is also true about employment.

It is great to be employed -- ask those who have lost their jobs. In fact, it is essential to be employed: how else do you feed yourself and your family? Socially, too, being an employee of an organisation rescues you from the clutches of anonymity. Without the tag of an organisation, you are a non-entity. No sane man will ever give away his daughter to you.

But at the same time, once you are employed, you swap your identity with the identity card. And then rules are made for you: coming to work at sharp ten and not leaving before six, only an hour's lunch break, meeting the targets, only 30 days' annual leave, retirement at 58, and so on. Eventually you realise that you have not been leading your own life at all, but only living up to the rules of your company.

By then, you are already 58 and too old to make amends. It's time to play with the grandchildren. If you turn around and ask the company, "What happened to my life?", the management will point to your wrist and say, "There, we have compensated for that with this watch, a token of appreciation for spending 35 years in service."

Now that worries me. At the age of 50 or 55, I would curse myself for having been born in the first place if I were still to be in employment of a company or, worse, looking for employment. By 55, I should have established a tiny mobile kingdom of my own, where I would be the employer as well as the employee. What fun, to report for work to your own self.

The thing about employment is that while it fulfills your mundane desires, such as buying a car or a house, it kills your deepest desires. I would, for example, like to spend January and February in Chennai, March in Delhi, April and May in Shimla, June and July in Kodaikandal before descending to Chennai for August and September. The whole of October would be in spent Calcutta, November in Kanpur and December in Kerala, with Christmas and my birthday being spent amid the mist in a cottage in Wayanad. (Long ago, I had planned a travel book on the Malabar region and I wanted to call it Christmas in Wayanad. But after a futile trip to Calicut, I abandoned the idea).

The above-mentioned itinerary would seem to be from the diary of a madman who lives in fantasy world. A sane person can't even dream of such an itinerary because if he does, two slaps will shake him out of his dream. Slap no. 1: I don't have the money! Slap no. 2: I won't get leave! As a result, the truest desires of the heart remain where they are supposed to be -- buried deep inside the heart. You can't even mention them to anyone, unless you don't mind being laughed at.

But to tell you the truth, it is possible to lead such a life, where your footsteps are determined by the cravings of your heart. If God has given you a heart that craves, it has also given you the power to satisfy those cravings. Only that the power lies hidden in the bushes and shrubs of time -- that's the gift I was talking about -- and you might have to undertake an arduous journey in order to claim it. If you are lucky, you don't have to travel very far; if you are sensible, you will make up for the lack of luck by intensifying your search. Either way, you will have to set out of home in the scorching heat. The gift is never going to fall on your lap.

To quote from Richard Bach's Illusions: "You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however." And here's another, a real gem: "Argue for your limitations and sure enough, they're yours."

The idea behind writing all this is to convince myself that time has come when I should start listening to my heart. It is one life, after all. No second chance -- certainly not at 38 when you don't have much time left anyway. So what do I do? Well, I am going to use my head in order to follow my heart. I am going to use my head to find out where my gifts might be lying hidden, and then the travel writer in me will set out to seek those gifts.

So Wayanad, here I come. If not this Christmas, certainly the next. I shall come with my mobile kingdom. I promise you.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Naano, RIP

Last night, after finishing my previous post, I went to sleep at four. At seven in the morning, I got a call from Kanpur. I was fast asleep when the phone rang, but the moment I saw 'Home' blinking on the phone, I was wide awake. It was unusual for my parents to call so early. Could it be some bad news? It was.

"Naano has died," my mother was sobbing. Naano was an Indian breed dog who was adopted by my parents two years ago when he was just a few weeks old. He was the most handsome dog I'd ever seen: well-built, athletic with naughty, smiling eyes whose colour turned fluorescent green in pictures.

For two years he kept my aging parents on their toes, distracting them from the fact that both their sons are away. Naano was very demanding when it came to attention, and he hated to be left alone. If left alone in the lawn, he would dig apart the plants and if left alone inside, he would pull down the curtains. And when my parents got back home, he would give them a piece of his mind by letting out a different kind of a howl.

In the nights he would sleep with my parents on the same bed, his head placed comfortably on a pillow. He would, however, ditch them when my brother or I were visiting home. He would then sleep with us, and always be curious about what we were up to. If we went upstairs for a drink, he would follow us and hang around till we finished. If any of us got dressed, he would get excited. For he knew that if we are dressing up, we must be going out, and if we are going out, we must take him along too. He would jump around with glee the moment he would see me or my brother putting on a shirt.

In fact, the only expression he responded to most animatedly was, "Bairey jaabi?" -- "Want to go out?" His joy would know no bounds when we teased him with these two words, and that was the only time when he willingly allowed the leash to be tied around his neck. In fact, he could not wait for it to be tied. But the moment we stepped out of the gate, it would be impossible to keep pace with Naano. He would run as if he was tasting freedom for the first time, and it needed great muscle power and agility to keep him in control. Taking him out for a walk was like working out in the gym.

No wonder my father, when we were not around, preferred that Naano stayed home. At 65, he neither has strong muscles as us nor the agility. But that only increased Naano's determination to get out whenever he got a chance. So every now and then, when an unsuspecting visitor would open the gate, Naano would barge out through the gap and run away. My poor father would then take out his scooter out and look for him in every nook and corner of the neighourhood. The moment Naano would see my father approaching, he would run even faster. For him, a two-year-old dog, it was a game. He would be enjoying the freedom with the glee of a child who has been taken to a park. But that was dangerous: as a dog who had grown up in a home, he was not equipped with the traffic sense of a street dog. A street dog might be sleeping or playing on the road but it knows when exactly to move away if a vehicle is approaching. Naano, the innocent child, did not know all that. And that turned out to be his nemesis.

Of late, Naano had developed this habit of waking up at four in the morning and ask to be taken out. How did he ask? He would first beat his paws on the bed and bark, and if that did not cut any ice, he would start banging at the door. My father would wake up and let him out to the garden, but within minutes he would be banging at the door again, asking to be let in. Once in, he would again start banging at the door, asking to be let out. Basically he wanted to go out on the road. A couple of times, my father, out of sheer irritation, had let him out of the main gate. It is a different matter that he regretted his move each time, for he would be spending several anxious hours till Naano got back home. Most of the time, he would go out on his scooter to look for him and bring him back.

Last morning too, Naano woke up at four and wanted to be taken out. After putting up with his antics for two hours, my father finally opened the gate and let him go, out of sheer irritation. He has many more things worrying him, primary among them being my mother's fragile health. Anyway, Naano sprang out of the house in sheer joy. It was a pleasant summer morning, after all.

At 6.45, my parents found a lifeless Naano lying outside the gate. My father went and touched him, upon which he got up and came in but collapsed under the porch. He was bleeding from the mouth. My mother then ran her hand over him and called out his name, upon which he suddenly got up and walked up to the lawn and tried eating grass. But he could not eat and he came back and slid under the car, one of his favourite hiding places whenever he wanted to spring a surprise on us, and collapsed again. Within minutes he was dead. That's when the call came.

I was barely asleep for three hours when my mother called, and after that call, there was no question of going back to sleep. I was angry with my mother for having called me up so early just to deliver the news of the death of a dog. It's only a dog that has died, so why ruin my sleep? Couldn't she have waited for a couple for hours?

Actually, I was angry with her for having delivered the news in the first place. It was a piece of news that I didn't want to hear or believe. Since the call came at a time when I was fast asleep, I kept wondering for long if my mother's call was only a bad dream or whether she had actually called to tell me about his death. In fact, I still choose to believe that it was a bad dream and that Naano is still alive and sprinting around the garden.

But the fact is that Naano is now lies buried in the same garden. My parents gave him a decent funeral -- sprinkling him with Ganga water before burying him in a white shroud along with flowers and coins. He was a good dog.

Now, I don't know whether to shed a tear for Naano or for my father. Naano is dead and gone, but I alone know what my father must be going through. He is kindness personified when it comes to animals: way back in 1975, when he had come to Madras for a training programme, he had rescued a puppy stuck in a manhole in one of the streets in the city. Today, if I happen to love animals and if I am patient with street dogs, it's because of him. He always bonded with animals. While letting Naano out of the gate this morning, he obviously had no idea that the dog would sprint around so joyously on the road that it would be oblivious to the danger from an oncoming, speeding van. Naano was hit on the head by a school van. He died of brain haemorrhage. The saving grace was that he didn't die on the road, but chose to keep himself alive till he came home. His home.

That's Naano, bonding with my younger brother and my wife:

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Reading through my previous post, in which I talk about the importance of online friends in your life, I can see my mind swimming back to the not-so-distant past. And since the mind is already tickled by a few sips of smooth Bacardi that I've just got from Pondicherry, I feel like going into confessional mode. For I want to underscore, once again, the tremendous influence that an unseen/anonymous person can wield on your life.

The fact that they choose to remain behind the veil of anonymity is what makes their influence so powerful. Had they stepped out of the veil and shaken hands with you, you'd have said, "Oh, so you are the one!" and the magic would have gone out of the window. But by remaining anonymous, and revealing their brilliance only through the typed sentences on the chat window, they make you crave. They make you crave so badly that you desperately try to do something outstanding so that they can't resist coming out of the veil and taking you in their embrace. In my case, the craving forced me to work hard at my writing. I wanted to write better and better, so that one day a truly brilliant piece would smoke them out of their hiding holes and drive them straight to my doorstep. Today, if I can string together my thoughts in readable sentences, 20 percent of the credit goes to R and another 20 to S.

R and S, two women I've never ever met, seen or spoken to, yet these are two women who have tormented me the most and in the process shaped me as a writer. I will, however, bear a life-long grudge against them for not stepping out of the veil at that point of time. Not that it would matter to them, just as it did not matter to them even at the time. It doesn't matter to me either, not anymore; it is just that you like to harbour some grudges just for the sake of it.

The story dates back to the time when I was single but married to my laptop. I did not have a blog then. I wrote often for my paper, which eventually gave me a Sunday column. Since the columns had my email ID at the bottom, I would have a few people writing to me every Sunday morning and some of them -- invariably women -- would add me on their instant messaging list. That's how I met S. She came like a storm into my life. But before that R. She was like the calm of the Ganges.

I met R exactly five years ago. I was in Kanpur then, spending two months in Uttar Pradesh for election coverage, and when not travelling, I would kill a lot of time in the neighbourhood cybercafe. There was nothing else to do. That's when, during a visit to one of the Yahoo chatrooms, I ran to R. She was from Bombay: 27 years old, single and an ex-journalist who was now a senior writer with a software firm. The initial conversation was flirtatious, directionless and, on the whole, meaningless. Nevertheless, we added each other on our messenger lists. The subsequent conversations revealed that we were slices of the same piece of bread baked in the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh. She grew up in Lucknow, I in Kanpur; we had read the same comic books while growing up; we had listened to the same programmes on Vividh Bharati, we had both recently read Hemingway's A Farewell To Arms, and, above all, we were both huge fans of R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar. She, in short, was me. My search had ended!

It was, therefore, shocking when she confessed, after months of online bonding, that she was already married and that her real name was different from what she had told me, even though that too began with an R. At first I sulked and wrote angry poems on my blog (by then, the blog had come into existence, and R and S were its first -- and for a few weeks, the only -- readers). And then I realised I was truly heart-broken and decided to have nothing to do with her. Yet, I just could not get her out of my mind. Everything I wrote, I wrote keeping in mind that she would be -- or should be -- approving of it, even if silently and without letting me know.

Then came the storm: S, the obgyn. As an obstetrician/gynaecologist, it was her job to peer into perineums and run a scalpel on them if required, but one could easily see that her first love was to run a scalpel through sentences and paragraphs. She was a natural writer and a born editor. Her sentences, even on the chat window, were well-crafted and impeccable, and I had no choice but to live up to her standards. Night after night, from midnight till the wee hours, when you are chatting with someone who refuses to compromise on the grammar and the syntax no matter how tired or lazy she feels, you automatically pull up your socks and try to live up to her expectations, in the the hope that...

Well, hoping is a futile exercise when it comes to such women. They are stubborn. One moment you look into the mirror and you find them smiling back at you, but the very next moment they are gone, and you realise you've only been looking at your own face all this while.

Today, I do not know where R is. I do not know where S is. Even if I do, it no longer matters. While I write this, R must be fast asleep, in a bed wide enough to hold her husband and child. S, on the other hand, must be awake, going bed to bed in one of the hospitals. I remember her talking about night shifts.

I don't remember when exactly -- and why exactly -- they went out of my lives. But they've left craters in which I fill ink and dip my nib into every time I get the urge to write. And come to think of it, I have never seen them or even spoken to them. Such is the power of thoughts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


I don't know who is better off: people who keep pressing the Alt+Tab button and alternate between their real and virtual lives; or those who have not let instant messaging -- either by purpose or ignorance -- interfere with their real lives.

I, like many people these days, lead two lives. One real, another virtual. Once again, I do not know which one is more worthwhile. But I would say living in an online society has immense advantages. When the real world gets on to your nerves, you can seek the comforting embrace of the online world. If your online girlfriend -- someone you've never ever seen -- ditches you, you cannot share your sorrows with your real-life friends, for they will laugh at you and think you are mad. But if your real-life girlfriend ditches you, you can always find comfort in the invisible arms of an online girlfriend. She will console you and give you the right advice how to cope with the tragedy.

Permanent residents of the real world will always see the presence of an online friend in anyone's life as nothing short of madness. "How can someone who you've never ever seen or spoken to be your friend?" they are bound to ask. But believe me, online friends are the ones you trust and cherish the most. They can be more real than real. They love you for the talents you are born with, and not because of the status you might have earned in the society because of those talents. It is irrelevant to them whether you drive a Maruti 800 or a Honda City, for they are not out to marry you. Though there are times when you wish they did.

When I say online friends, I mean people you've never met, or people you've met only a couple of times and then lost them to distances and who went on to become as good as those you've never met. Or, people who live in the same city who you rarely meet and have only online communication with. They are the ones who people your virtual world and make it worth living. The comfort of distance, the urge to share, and the power of the written word -- when these three factors combine, people reach out to each other in a way which real-life lovers are bound to miss out on.

In real life, you are so perpetually conscious of external factors -- looks, money (or the lack of it), worries, jealousy, possessiveness and so on -- that everything happens except the union of minds. Each never gets to see the real other, even though they live in the real world. Whereas, in the virtual world, you get to see nothing but the real. True, you never get to see them in flesh and blood. But then, you don't get to see God in flesh and blood either. You only feel his presence in your life, and that can be so assuring. In the same way, you feel assured every time you see her come online. You might be too busy to even talk to her, yet you can feel her presence. Even when you talk, it is the fingers and not the lips that do the talking. Yet you can feel her presence -- as if she is looking over your shoulder, reading the sentences as you type. That's the magic of presence: something that cannot be replicated when two people happen to be present in a real-life room.

Friday, April 17, 2009

My Heart Is Beating

My heart is beating, keeps on repeating
I'm waiting for you
My love encloses a plot of roses
And when shall be then our next meeting
Cause love you know
That time is fleeting, time is fleeting
Time is fleeting
My heart is beating, keeps on repeating
I'm waiting for you
My love encloses a plot of roses
And when shall be then our next meeting
Cause love you know
That time is fleeting, time is fleeting
Time is fleeting

Oh when I look at you
The blue of heaven seems to be deeper blue
And I can swear that
God himself seems to be looking through
Zu zu zu zu ru zu, I'll never part from you
And when shall be then our next meeting
Cause love you know
That time is fleeting, time is fleeting
Time is fleeting

Spring is the season
That drops the reason of lovers who are truly true
Young birds are mating
While I am waiting, waiting for you
Darling you haunt me, say do you want me
And if it is so, when are we meeting
Cause love you know
That time is fleeting, time is fleeting
Time is fleeting
My heart is beating, keeps on repeating
I'm waiting for you
My love encloses a plot of roses
And when shall be then our next meeting
Cause love you know
That time is fleeting, time is fleeting
Time is fleeting

-- Julie, 1975

Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Blot On The Name Of Bengalis And Other Stories

As a reluctant non-vegetarian, I am a blot on the name of Bengalis. The realisation dawns on me, for the umpteenth time, as I approach my third wedding anniversary. Because it all began with my marriage to a girl from Kolkata three years ago. Let me tell you a secret -- a secret that only my wife knows, and through her, every friend of ours who comes visiting: Never in my life I had imagined that I would be marrying a Bengali girl, that too a Kolkata girl.

I always found Bengali women to be very dominating. And my perception is not very far from the truth: just look around and you will know what I mean. Many Bengali households are mini-dictatorships -- a nation of four or six people who are ruled by a once-upon-a-time stunning and sexy female who leads from the front.

A few years ago, in Bhopal, I had lunch at the home of a good friend, a fellow journalist. Being the typically generous UP-wallah, he had ensured that the lunch was a lavish affair. I spent nearly four hours at his place, discussing the state of affairs of journalism and the nation with him and talking to his three children, and then indulging myself in a never-ending lunch, during which I was plied with every possible delicacy that I could imagine. But I could not get to see the woman who was silently cooking and dispatching those delicacies from the kitchen. The children were the couriers.

In a Bengali household, the woman of the house would have taken charge the moment the guest arrived. She would tell the guest, though not in so many words, "Look, I know you are a special guest. That is why I've been slogging since morning to make all these dishes. You better relish it or else..."

It was the "or else" factor that made me apprehensive about Bengali women, not that I knew a whole lot of them. In fact, I had never known any of them. Living in Chennai, one of my secret desires was to marry a Malayali girl, who would wear an off-white saree with a golden border on festivals and who, along with me, would sing, "Mele poomala, thazhe thenala." My fantasy was inspired by this Salil Choudhury-composed song, sung by Yesudas and Salilda's wife, Sabita. Lazing on the bed and smoking a cigarette, I would tell myself: "In this song, the male voice is that of a Malayali and the female voice that of a Bengali. But in real life, in my life, it is going to be the other way round. The male version will be sung by a Bengali and the female version by the Malayali girl of my dreams. Let's wait and see who I meet." And in Chennai, you don't have to wait to meet women from Kerala. For that matter, I was a frequent visitor to Kerala as well.

But then, as you all know, there is something called destiny. I had no clue I would be eventually marrying a girl from Kolkata, just the way she had no clue she would be marrying a pseudo-Bong who had grown up in the Hindi heartland of Kanpur and was now living in Chennai and pining for a princess clad in an off-white saree with golden border. In the end, it turned out to be a white saree with red border!

Somehow, I am glad it ended up that way. I am all for inter-religion and inter-culture marriages. It is heartening to see a man and a woman absorbing each other's traditions as they get older. But sadly, such mutual imbibing of cultures are not very common. Most often, it is one culture that ends up being dominant in a marriage, especially the man's culture, especially if the set-up is a joint family. Moreover, once you have crossed the age of thirty or thirty-five, and if you have been living away from your roots for a long time, you crave to get back there. And one way of getting back there is to marry someone from your culture. The ultimate idea, according to me, is to share the nostalgia. It would have been no fun if I had to explain the importance of Durga Puja, rather the importance of Durga Puja in my life, to a wife who is not a Bengali. The idea is that she too should be able to detect the "pujo-pujo" smell in the evening air the moment October approaches. After the age of thirty-five, when most of your fun-filled and carefree days are over, it is nostalgia that you survive on. Nostalgia becomes the drink which you have every evening with your companion -- a drink you savour after a long day, so much so that you spend the rest of your life looking forward to evenings. In such a situation, if the spouse belongs to a different culture, it becomes as good as having your evening drink in the company of a teetotaller.

Now that may sound as a sweeping statement, but don't read so much into it that you feel compelled to start a debate on inter-culture marriages. For that matter, my wife and I might be belonging to the same culture, but there are occasions when we sip the evening drink of nostalgia with complete disinterest. Such occasions invariably centre around the dining table -- the only place where our respective nostalgias seem to be sprouting from different sources. She, being the refined Bengali, knows about and can cook every possible fish delicacy that Bengal has ever thought of. Not only that: she also knows how to relish them. Me, on the other hand, is like a labourer working in a brick kiln in Uttar Pradesh, who is more than happy to get his daily quota of rice and daal and chilli pickle. So on such occasions, while she is the drinker, I am the teetotaller. Though I try to bridge the gap with real alcohol.

Alcohol helps in such situations. As a child, as far as non-vegetarian food goes, I grew up on mutton and a particular variety of fish called rohu (Bengalis call it rui maachh). But I was never, ever fascinated by the idea of eating meat. In fact, I found the whole idea disgusting -- chewing on bones or sucking at them for the marrow. For me, delicacy meant arhar ki daal or dum aloo -- something a blue-blooded Bengali would find outright boring and insulting.

For the sake of my childhood, I don't mind indulging in mutton or rohu fish once in a while, provided they are cooked in a certain way, which my wife takes care of. But even to relish them, I need to fortify myself with alcohol. Alcohol numbs me to the fact that the mutton I am eating now was, till a few hours ago, a lively goat that had no idea that it was going to be slaughtered and its lifeless body cut into pieces. Once I am pleasantly drunk, I become insensitive to such gory details. But even in my most drunken and hungry state, I would never eat anything other than mutton, tandoori chicken or rohu fish. It is a mental block I have. What to do, that's how I am. Given a choice, I would give up the mutton or rohu fish too, had they not been a part of my childhood.

The woman I married exactly three years ago, being the loving and caring wife that she is, understands this very well. So there is never a problem when we are sitting at our own dining table. The problem arises only when we are at the dining table of friends, especially her friends. They move heaven and earth to put together an impressive spread where chicken is the main non-vegetarian dish while all the vegetarian dishes have pieces of fish in it. On one such occasion, at a lunch, I ate only rice and brinjal pakodas (called beguni, in Bengali) and mint chutney. My hosts felt extremely sorry for me, but to tell you the truth, I felt sorry for them: here I was, savouring the sublime combination of rice and beguni and mint chutney, whereas they were grappling with bones.

There is something undeniably charming about vegetarian food, especially Bengali vegetarian food. Bengali vegetarian food, when compared to its counterparts in other states, is refreshingly simple and tasty and -- in many ways -- healthy too. But then, for most Bengalis, vegetarian dishes only serve as appetisers: most people at the dining table don't even acknowledge the effort that goes into making them because in the end, it's the smell of the fish that eventually satiates you.

Now that leads to an identity crisis. Should I feel ashamed that I am a reluctant non-vegetarian Bengali who abhors the idea of eating meat unless he is under the influence of alcohol, or should I feel proud for being a champion of the vegetarian dishes?

When it comes to vegetarian dishes, I must say with a dash of pride that I am a good cook. My specialties include arhar ki daal, sambhar, rasam, dum karela, dahi bhindi, tamatar-dhania ki sabzi and dum aloo. I make excellent egg curry too. Not to mention the Punjabi kadhi that's part of the famed kadhi-chaawal combo. Wonder what kind of a Bengali that makes me. But then, I told you, I am a blot on the name of the community.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ah, The Joys Of Living In Chennai

Celebrating A City That Embraces One And All — Never Mind The Autorickshaw Drivers And The Mess During The Monsoon

Bishwanath Ghosh | TNN

The Rough Guide, the equally authoritative cousin of The Lonely Planet, doesn’t mince words while introducing its readers to Chennai: "Hot, congested and noisy, it is the major transportation hub of the South, but most travellers stay just long enough to book a ticket for somewhere else." While these observations can hardly be disputed by anyone who ventures out on Chennai’s roads on a daily basis, they are also flawed.

Chennai might be hot, but the heat is not murderous as it can be in north India during the summer months. And what about the period between November and March? The fact that you wake up sniffling every morning during these months shows Chennai can be cold too. As for the congestion and the noise, well, this particular edition of Rough Guide was printed in 1999, when Chennai was actually a paradise compared to Mumbai or Delhi. The IT boom was just about beginning, and not many people owned cars, so congestion was out of the question. And as for travellers staying here just long enough to book a ticket to somewhere else, isn’t that only natural? When you are a traveller who is on a whirlwind tour of South India, you stay in Chennai for, at the most, two days before proceeding to Pondicherry or Bangalore or Kerala. You don’t expect them to make Chennai their second home, do you?

It is highly unlikely that such observations would offend Chennai, which has always been a prisoner of perceptions anyway. If it is Chennai, it only has to be about idli and dosa, Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa, Rajnikanth and Kamal Haasan, and Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. Any deviation becomes news. In Delhi or Kolkata, the opening of a new pub or a mall is likely to pass off as a routine event, but in Chennai, at least till five years ago, such events were seen as harbingers of change. Chennai is changing, they screamed, every time a new pub opened. Chennai is changing, they screamed, every time a mall opened. Chennai is changing, they screamed, every time a continental restaurant opened. These days, they all say, “Wow, Chennai has changed.” And you thought only the other metros were entitled to ‘change’?

Yet, Chennai hasn’t changed a bit: the Margazhi festival is still held every December, actors still influence politics, and people still drink filter coffee the first thing in the morning. In other words, this is the only city in the country where you can witness, first hand, tradition as well as transformation. In a place like Delhi, you’ll have to hunt for tradition. In Kolkata, you’ll itch for transformation — though things are a lot better there now. It’s only Chennai that brings you the best of both. And most often, it is technology that binds the two Ts. For example, at the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, Indian Bank recently set up a vending machine which exchanges currency notes for coins. The idea is that if you have a ten-rupee note in your pocket and you can't afford to spare the entire amount, you can always get loose change to make a token offering. What better example of tradition and transformation doing a jig under the strobe light of technology?

This is one facet of Chennai you can’t help admiring, doesn’t matter if you like the city or dislike it otherwise. And it’s the mix of tradition and transformation that has made it into a city where cosmopolitanism and culture co-exist in harmony. There is something for everyone — you could be a retired civil servant or a bright engineer, religious or rationalist, a Venezuelan or a Bengali. You’ll be given enough time and space to do your own thing.

"People here are more civilised. They let you be," says Pooja Dey, a 27-year-old homemaker who moved from Kolkata to Chennai ten months ago. "In Kolkata, they are overfriendly and that can get onto your nerves. Besides, I find this place much more developed and a lot cleaner." Pooja's husband Sushanto, 30, whose family runs the SreeLeathers chain of stores that sell leather goods and who is now set to open its outlet in Chennai, nods in agreement. "Recently, some parties called for a bandh in Chennai (the Feb 4 bandh in support of Sri Lankan Tamils), but life was normal on the bandh day. In Kolkata, a bandh literally means a bandh. Everything comes to a standstill. That way, law and order in this city is good.” Sushanto goes a step further to praise Chennai's roads and traffic, even though many hardcore Chennaiites would be hesitant in sharing his enthusiasm. “It is still a pleasure to drive in Chennai, at least when compared to driving in Kolkata, where the rickety Ambassadors really test your patience," he says.

Pooja and Sushanto must listen to what a Tamilian — who was born in Chennai but grew up in Kolkata and then returned to Chennai to study and went to Mumbai to pursue an impressive career and who has now returned to Chennai to spend his post-retirement years — has to say. “I still feel Kolkata is the best place to live among all the metros. People are very social, the cost of living is low. That will be my first choice," says G Ananthanarayan, who retired a few years ago as a vice-president of Larsen and Toubro (L&T) and now lives in Ashok Nagar.

Ananthanarayan’s love for Kolkata, in all probability, stems from the fact that he spent his growing-up years there. Things you grow up with — be it a city or a certain kind of music — always hold an appeal for you. As he himself says, "You look for different things in different stages of life. If you are looking for a career, then Mumbai is the place to be in. But in the latter part of life, when you are no longer worried about your career, Chennai is a better place to settle down."

Why Chennai? “Because I happen to be a Tamilian,” he laughs. But apart from that? "Well, Chennai is still green, while Mumbai has become a concrete jungle. And today, Mumbai is as hot as Chennai. And Chennai, like Kolkata, has culture. There is music here, Carnatic music. Also, the beaches are clean, far cleaner than the Juhu beach. I like Marina and Elliot’s Beach," says Ananthanarayan.

Says Hema Nair, 30, a passionate human rights activist who is more attached to causes than places, "I like change, so I won't mind staying in other cities but Chennai is where I would like to 'settle down', if ever I do that." Why? "Because this place lets me be,” says Hema, a native of Alappuzha in Kerala who was born in Kolkata and grew up in Chennai, where she co-founded the International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, and who has lived in places as diverse as a town called Mito in Japan and New York. "Chennaiites are tolerant, hard working, sincere and happy people. Everyone is welcome here as long as they don't disrespect or demean this city or its people. I hate the politics here, but then I hate the way it is almost everywhere else."

One can make a mathematical deduction now. People who've lived in Chennai at some point or the other — no matter if they had also lived in more happening cities and had the choice of making them their home — are always glad to embrace the warmth of Chennai when it comes to settling down. Clearly, there is a lazy, seductive charm about the city we call home.

From the first anniversary issue of The Times Of India, Chennai. April 14, 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

My Grandfather Died Yesterday. He Had Sold Me The Queen Of My Dreams

When you create a body of work that goes on to eclipse your personality, and then you age and are pushed into complete oblivion, there comes one occasion when you, as a person, are celebrated again. All this while, your works were being celebrated, but no one remembered you. But on this occasion, you are, once again, formally acknowledged as the creator of your work and given a standing ovation. But you miss that ovation because the occasion happens to be death.

My grandfather has missed that ovation too. He died yesterday, in Mumbai, aged 83. I grew up in the cosy comfort of his study that was lined, instead of books, with scripts and prints of films and LP records. I grew up reading those scripts, watching those films and listening to the records -- they played a significant role in shaping my thought process and made by life meaningful.

Wait a minute, he was not just my grandfather. He was your grandfather too -- the grandfather of several million Indians who were born in the 1970s and the early 1980s. His name: Shakti Samanta. I know of people -- many many people, in fact -- who haven't heard of Shakti Samanta, but they have heard of Aradhana, Amar Prem and Kati Patang. They've even seen the movies and liked them and liked their songs. But they haven't heard of Shakti Samanta.

That substantiates the point I was making: when you create a body of work whose quantity matches its quality, the creator himself becomes irrelevant after a point. When you have an ice-cream, for example, do you ever wonder about the inventor of the ice-cream? There has to be someone who must've made the very first ice-cream in the world, but his identity is completely irrelevant because the ice-cream is so common that it seems to one of nature's creations, just like the water we drink and the air we breathe. How on earth it matters who created the ice-cream as long as you enjoy it, be it in the form of casatta or a choco bar or vanilla?

Whether Aradhana was casatta, Amar Prem the choco bar and Kati Patang the vanilla -- it is for you to decide which one was which. But these are varieties of ice-creams that our generation will always relish, no matter how old we get. And if the movies are too much of an emotional burden to watch, there are always the songs to enjoy.

In that sense, Shakti Samanta is far more important than a grandfather: he is as integral to my life as Thomas Alva Edison is. What would be my life without the songs of Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem? I don't listen to them every day, I don't listen to them for months, but I know that they are there -- a home in the native village I can go back to whenever I want to. Without these songs, I have no identity.

Songs like Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu, or Yeh shaam mastaani cut geographical boundaries. Mere sapnon ki rani, correct me if I am wrong, was, at one point, perhaps the most popular piece of music after the National Anthemn. And yesterday, the man who picturised the song, Shakti Samanta, died. Please shed tears for him.

It is difficult to say whether the Rajesh Khanna-Kishore Kumar-R.D. Burman combo made Samanta's movies popular or whether it was Samanta who was wise enough to bring the trio together and prove that it can be a deadly combo. Whatever it maybe, the fact is that the careers of R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar would have taken a different path had it not been for Samanta's films. In Aradhana, R.D. Burman, for the first time, was credited as the 'Assistant Music Director', the music director being his father, S.D. Burman. As for Kishore Kumar, everybody knows that Aradhana was his launch pad to stardom as a singer.

Though Mehmood, the versatile actor, wouldn't have agreed. Mehmood is no more, but his views are well-known. According to him, it was he who made R.D. walk out of his father's shadow and turn into an independent composer in Chhote Nawaab, and that Kishore's vehicle to his success as a singer was not Aradhana but Padosan. According to Mehmood, it was Mere saamnewaali khidki and not Mere sapnon ki rani that made Kishore a runaway hit.

All said and done, Aradhana turned a new leaf. For the audience, as well as for many pillars in Bollywood. Till Aradhana, Samanta had chosen to use, to great success, the staple, time-tested combo of Shankar-Jaikishan-Mohammed Rafi. Kashmir Ki Kali and An Evening In Paris are living examples.

turned the equations upside down and overnight, Kishore Kumar became the hottest singer and R.D. Burman the most hummable composer. All this, because of one man who you didn't even know how he looked like.

I first saw Samanta when I was nine or ten years old, on Doordarshan. They were interviewing him on the location while he was shooting for a movie called Khwaab with Mithun Chakraborty. It was a song sequence they were shooting, with Mithun Chakraborty sprinting to a peppy song by Yesudas, Banjara main nahin magar...

Shakti Samanta was dressed in a white shirt and white trousers and a white cap, and he was giving a soundbite of which I have no memory whatsoever. Obviously not. I was so young then. After that I never saw him, but only his movies. Amar Prem and Kati Patang I saw on TV, but Aradhana on the big screen -- in 1986!

My parents say Aradhana was the first movie I ever saw. They say they had taken me along, when I was barely a year old, to watch the movie in the theatre. Understandably, I had to watch Aradhana again, in the same theatre, 15 years later, soon after my Class 10 board exams. Those days, if Doordarshan was not showing a film, there was no way you could watch it at your will unless the neighbourhood theatre chose to screen it.

But there was one Shakti Samanta movie I watched in the theatre long before Aradhana, and which made me cry. That was Anand Ashram. A particular scene that brings together a son who had chosen to go his own way and a rich arrogant father, played by Uttam Kumar and Ashok Kumar respectively, was too much to bear. I was crying. I also watched Amanush in the theatre, and all along, I wanted to kill Utpal Dutt, the villain, with my bare hands. But then, shortly after, Gol Maal happened. I no longer wanted to kill Utpal Dutt. I wanted him to live forever. Forever!

But then, dear reader, nothing is forever. We all have to die someday -- sooner or later. Kishore Kumar was the first to go, at the age of 58, in 1987. R.D. Burman died next, in 1994. He was just 54. And Shakti Samanta died yesterday, at 83. But the songs the three of them created shall remains ageless. You can hum them at any point of time: today, tomorrow and even the day after tomorrow. Now that they are all in heaven, am sure they would be making great music up there.

As far as Bollywwod is concerned, two people should be mourning Samanta's death more than anyone else: Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. For them, as for Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman, who are no more, the movies and songs they made with Shakti Samanta are as important a milestone as, say, their graduation day in college.

In case you still can't figure who Shakti Samanta is, or was, let me list ten popular songs from the films he directed so that you realise what a great man we lost last evening:

1. Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra: Kashmir Ki Kali

2. An evening in Paris: An Evening In Paris

3. Mere sapnon ki rani: Aradhana

4. Ek ajnabee haseena se: Ajnabee

5. Yeh kya hua, kaise hua: Amar Prem

6. Yeh shaam mastaani: Kati Patang

7. Mere naina saawan bhadon: Mehbooba

8. Saara pyaar tumhara: Anand Ashram

9. Aapke anurodh par: Anurodh

10. Do lafzon ki hai: The Great Gambler.

Need I say more? One only has to listen.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Looks -- The Way I Look At It

There is one thing that experience has taught me, a realisation that has crystallised in my mind only recently.

That, a really sexy woman always thinks she is average-looking. And that the really sexy women on this earth always hide -- at times deliberately -- behind the veil of simplicity.

The veil, rather the objects of simplicity, could be a pair of specs, plain-looking clothes, unwaxed arms, floaters instead of smart sandals, and so on. They wear this veil, either because they are innocent and don't realise that they are actually masking a potentially jaw-dropping persona; or because they don't care what the world thinks of them; or because they purposely want to stay away from the glare: they want to be judged by what they are and not by how they look.

In the first case, it is the innocence that enhances the sex appeal manifold, while in the latter two cases, it is the I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude that makes them even more irresistible.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Procession Of Memories

Dear S,

I am writing to you not because you happen to be a friend or because your name starts with an 'S' (women who have mattered to me always have names -- I don't know why -- that start with an 'S'). I am not writing to you because you happen to good-looking, who stands out in a crowd, nor because you have a brilliant mind. Maybe I am writing to you because of all these too, who knows.

But why I am writing to you at this hour, it is half-past midnight, is because I want to share something. Something which only you will understand because you belong to my generation. You belong to the generation of Sholay. You belong to the generation of Julie. You belong to the generation when romance was walking in the rain on the streets of Bombay and singing, Rimjhim Gire Saawan...

Such a clean song, Rimjhim Gire Saawan. Unfortunately, or rather very fortunately, there cannot be another rain song like that. A middle-class man and an upper-middle-class but traditional woman, hopping over puddles and escaping the drizzle -- the landmarks of Bombay flashing past as this song -- a gem from R.D. Burman, sung by Lata -- plays in the background. You know, I prefer this version over the one sung by Kishore; even though Kishore, to me, is God.

You know S, expressing my thoughts in words is not only my bread and butter, but also something that I should keep practising, considering that it is the sole tool that can make my dreams come true. Yet, there are times like these when words fail me, when I have so much to share that I don't know where to begin, what to write. Because these are things to be felt.

Words fail me when I watch My heart is beating on You Tube. All I can do is copy the URL and send it to people who are online and who might understand. There is nothing I can say. What can I say about Om Prakash? All I can wonder is why do people like Om Prakash have to leave this world? Seen him in Chupke Chupke? He is the real force behind the movie. It's a movie that you might have watched 24 times, and yet when you watch it the 25th time, you still wonder what's going to happen next.

Do watch My heart is beating... What a song, what an accurate portrayal of an Anglo-Indian family. Watch Om Prakash, the alcohol-loving engine-driver who was also a doting father. When I first saw Julie, I cried when Om Prakash died. But when Om Prakash really died a few years ago, I did not cry. You don't cry when a Om Prakash or a Ashok Kumar dies. You refuse to acknowledge they are no more. You have the luxury of that denial because they've left a body of work you can always return too.

Kishore Kumar, my favourite singer, is dead. R.D. Burman, my favourite composer, is dead. Sahir Ludhianvi, my favourite lyricist, is dead. But what an immortal song they've left behind! -- Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi, yunhee nahin dil lubhata koi, jaane tu ya janena (tranlastion: Whether you know it or not, we do have a connection from the past, or else why should I like you?) The song is from Aa Gale Lag Jaa, and is sung in three different situations. I like all three versions, but the one I like best is the shortest one, that comes in the end, literally, because as soon as it ends, 'The End' comes on the screen. And in this version, it is not Shashi Kapoor, the hero, who sings it but Shatrughan Sinha, who plays a small role. Listen to Kishore's voice, and you will fall in love with him, S.

But who am I to tell you about Kishore's voice? Have you not heard Aanewala Pal from Gol Maal? And have you ever wondered, why we never tire of Gol Maal? I think the directors of those days were more sensitive. And they were dedicated. Moreover, they did not work at the point of this dangerous weapon called hype. Hype fucks up everything, I tell you. Hype can draw 20,000 people to the theatres on day one, but can it make a movie last 20 years? Hype kills the craft. It is like going to bed with a woman who has very high expecations from you. No matter how much skilled a lover you are, you always wilt under expectations. Doctors call it performance anxiety. Whereas, when you go to bed with a woman who has never had sex or has not had sex in a long, long time, she is happy with whatever you give her and you find your flag suddenly flying high. The idea is to give the people what they want, and not to rouse their expectations through hype and then falling flat. Do you get what I mean, S? Am sure you do, that is why I am writing to you.

You know, I liked Rang De Basanti. I watched the movie in a theatre in Trivandrum, on the opening day. The movie haunted me for days: it stayed with me. But it is not the kind of movie I would like to watch again and again. But Gol Maal I would. Amar Akbar Anthony I would. Similarly, I like the songs from Life in a Metro or Honeymoon Travels. They are nice songs. So good. But if I was exiled to an island, and was given the choice of taking only one music CD with me, I would take the combo of Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin/Yaadon Ki Baaraat.

Have you ever wondered why their songs are still so fresh? So sparkling fresh? They were made more than thirty years ago, when you and I were possibly roaming around naked in the house, unaware of the social requirement that genitals are meant to be hidden. Today, you will find picturisation of these songs inane when you watch Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin. But the songs themselves? Chand mera dil, chandni ho tum, chand se hai door, chandni kahaan... At school, when I was in class three or four, we had a teacher, Mrs Nath, who sang this song beautifully during one of the free periods. Mrs Nath, at the time, must have been nearly forty-five. Ideally, she should have sung something from the Rafi-Shankar-Jaikishan era. But she chose this song. It was the magic of R.D., darling. It was the magic of R.D.

It was also R.D. who made the song you were mentioning the other day, Ghum hai kisi ke pyaar mein... Wow, what a song that is. I've seen that song a countless times on Chitrahaar, but I never thought of its as 'wow' till you reminded me of it the other day. Fuck, I had forgotten about it! You know, that song is from Rampur Ka Laxman, and picturised on Randhir Kapoor and Rekha. Now that's one thing about Randhir Kapoor. People may debate about his acting skills, though in my opinion he wasn't such a bad actor. He was good, actually, if not brilliant. Oh what the hell, he was actually brilliant, considering that he did not have the looks or the voice or the style that an actor was supposed to have at the time, and yet he pulled off some great movies. But why I consider him lucky is that he got some of the best songs R.D. Burman and Kishore Kumar made together. Really, the best songs. Be they the songs of Jawaani Diwani or Biwi O Biwi. S, I beg you to listen to the songs of Biwi O Biwi, especially Waqt se pehle and Meri bulbul.

When the Express office shifted from Mount Road to Ambattur, these two songs set my mood for the long journey from T. Nagar. I listened to them on my earphones, because my driver, Suresh, would play Tamil songs on the car stereo. There were days when he played Hindi songs too because he liked certain Hindi songs. He was, for example, a great fan on the song, Kitne bhi tu karle sitam... from Sanam Teri Kasam. He once asked me, while the song was playing, "Sir, nalla voice. Who is the singer?" Asha Bhosle, I told him. He liked another song, "Humen aur jeene ki chaahat na hoti..." from Agar Tum Na Hote, a song that got Kishore Kumar a Filmfare award. Sadly, he never asked me who the singer or the composer was.

The fact that Suresh, a lower middle-class Tamil boy barely twenty-three years old, liked these songs: that speaks volumes about the music created by R.D. And mind you, he didn't play these songs to please me. Whenever he had to please me, he would play two Tamil songs which he knew I liked: Raja Raja Cholanna and Guruvayurappa, both Illayaraja's compositions and both equally mind-blowing. He, himself, was crazy about Kitne bhi tu karle sitam... Ah, the magic of R.D.

Every child grows up with lullabies and songs, but there comes a time when he or she actually registers the tune of a song and then goes on to remember it for the rest of his or her life. That becomes the 'first song' of your life. Going by what my parents say, my 'first song' was Kanchi re kanchi re from Hare Rama Hare Krishna. According to them, that's the first song I danced to as an infant. But I think my 'first song' was the title song of Yaadon Ki Baraat. I was barely four years old then, and we had gone to some town near Calcutta to attend the wedding of a colleague of my father. My father himself was twenty-nine or thirty then.

I hardly have any memories of that trip to Calcutta, but I remember that particular night somewhat vividly: a lot of men, including my father, stood by the roadside, perhaps taking a smoke break while the wedding was being conducted in one of the homes. My father doesn't smoke or drink (shame, his son is now exactly the opposite), but he stood there on the pavement along with the other men and me. One man, wearing a white kurta and pyjama, sat on the pavement like they sit by the beach when they are defecating. He was smoking a cigarette and singing, "Yaadon ki baaraat nikli hai aaj dilke dwaare..." -- The procession of memories is flowing out of the heart. The song stuck. That was the beginning of my musical journey, S. Come home someday, and you will see what a dictator I am when it comes to being a DJ. I wouldn't bother whether you've eaten or not, but I will make sure you've listened to all the songs I want you to listen.

That's one thing I noticed about myself, S. People, when they get drunk in the company of a woman, usually paw or prey. I only plead. Plead them to listen to the procession of my memories -- my yaadon ki baaraat.

So come home someday. But wait a minute, won't you like to take a look at the picture below? I stole it from the internet. It is worth watching. It belongs to the era when singers and musicians were not jealous of each other. I think it belongs to the late 1940s or, at the most, early 1950s. The camaraderie lasted well into the 1970s, which was our decade, and therefore the magic. By the 1990s, it had become a dog-eat-dog world, S. That's how it is even today. Now look carefully at the picture. It is a rare one. I can spot at least four great singers: there is Rafi right in the middle and right above his right shoulder is Talat Mehmood. The man on extreme right is Mukesh, and right above Mukesh is Kishore Kumar. S, do you see even a hint of arrogance in any of their faces? They all look dashing, but arrogant? I suspect there are many more well-known names in this group picture, but I am afraid I can't recognise them. Though I suspect that the man standing, second from left, is C Ramachandra. Look at it carefully, S. You won't see such pictures often.

Monday, April 06, 2009


Barely two kilometres from our house in Kanpur was a mill called the J.K. Rayon. The tall chimneys of the mill, the sound of the hooter at the beginning and end of every shift, workers trooping across the playground in front of our house in groups while on their way to the mill or way home – these are landmarks of my childhood.

In that playground we played cricket during winter afternoons – the neighbourhood boys, irrespective of which school they went to. Someone would own the bat, someone would contribute the ball, and someone else would bring the stumps. Pads and gloves were a luxury and largely unnecessary. The umpiring would be done someone who had done with batting for the day, even though his decisions would often be overruled by the ‘third umpire’ – one of the neighbourhood uncles closely following the game standing at the gate of his house.

It was at this playground that I first met Raja. He was about my age, which was around twelve at that time, and he studied in a Hindi-medium school, which wasn’t – and still isn’t – a matter of great pride. His father worked in J.K. Rayon, most likely as a lower-rung employee, considering that Raja wore the same shirt for weeks, maybe months. We never got around to becoming friends, but there were times when we would chat after the sun had set. Deep in my heart, I envied him, and maybe even hated him, for being a good bowler. Then one day, J.K. Rayon closed down. I was fourteen then, studying in class nine. The closure was sudden, because only a year before, when we were in class eight, we – as students – were taken on a guided tour of J.K Rayon so that we got an idea how a mill functions. Suddenly, the hooters stopped calling. Workers no longer trooped across the playground. There was total silence. It was like being in a theatre without the front-benchers.

I was myself at a crucial stage of my life then: board exams were barely a year away, and I had started taking tuitions to strengthen my grip on mathematics and physics. Every morning I would wake up at five and walk to the tuition master’s home, which was not very far. But on winter mornings, under the blanket of darkness and dense fog, it was a challenge to navigate even half a kilometre of familiar territory. Worse, there were street dogs to contend with. On the way back, however, there would be daylight and the fog would have cleared a little.

It was on one of these mornings that I noticed, on the same playground, a familiar figure emerging out of the fog on a bicycle. He was calling out, in a lyrical manner, “Andey! Double roti!” Andey means eggs, while ‘double roti’, in Hindi, means bread. To protect himself against the biting cold, he was wearing a muffler and a pair of woollen gloves, and his bicycle had a large tin box saddled to it. “Andey! Double roti!” he called again. It was Raja. Our eyes met, but he promptly looked away, as if he did not know me. Subsequently, I tried not crossing his path while on my way back from the tuition classes, but he was always there, desperately trying to sell bread and eggs to families that were just waking up on a chilly morning to wonder what’s for breakfast. After a point, he did not matter to me, and neither did I to him. He had become a seasoned hawker. He was no longer the bowler I envied. All this, because the mill his father worked in had closed down. Since he was the most able-bodied in the family, it fell upon him to sell bread in order to earn the daily bread.

I have always wondered if there would have been trade unions or calls for strikes had this been a woman’s and not a man’s world. Had managements and trade unions been headed by women, I am sure they would have arrived at a mutual compromise during standoffs to ensure that the kitchen fires kept burning. Women rarely talk big or raise slogans: they are always in touch with what you call the ground reality.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


I got married in Calcutta in April 2006. Within two months, I went back on a short visit, during which I spent a few hours at Belur Math, the home of Swami Vivekananda. I distinctly remember being overcome by a sense of calm as I stood there, watching the Ganga flow with dignified silence. And then it all came back to me, like a flashback.

It was in the summer of 2004 that I began my journey into self-discovery in the real sense, on the banks of the Ganga. The route was sex. I was in Uttar Pradesh at the time, covering elections, and in the process spending two long, lonely and sexless months roaming its dusty towns. There was a brief respite from the loneliness when I caught up with my friend Sanjay at Ayodhya. There, one morning, after attending L.K. Advani's press conference, the two of us went to the makeshift Ram temple that sits on the rubble of Babri masjid, and then to the banks of the Sarayu river.

Legend has it that Lord Rama drowned himself in this river. Sanjay and I stood there in silence for a while, and that's when I noticed her. She was good-looking, and must not have been more than thirty years old. Accompanied by another woman, perhaps a relative, she emerged out of the river. They walked into a thatched shed, which seemed to be a changing area. There, this woman first got rid of her wet blouse, and then took her sweet time changing. All along, her wet breasts hung loose, glistening under the morning sun. The other woman, the relative, looked at her in shock. But she simply didn't acknowledge that look of shock and went about the elaborate process of changing while being topless. Little did she know -- or maybe she did -- that a tornado was building up inside me.

Advani's rath proceeded to Bihar, Sanjay returned to Delhi. I came back to Kanpur. I was alone again. Alone and tormented. I decided: I'd done enough of election reporting, and that I must now take a short break, maybe in Haridwar. Why Haridwar? Because it was cooler, it was in the lap of Himalayas, and it had a river where people bathed.

So one April morning, I arrived in Haridwar, a cool breeze brushing past my cheeks as I took a cycle-rickshaw from the station in search of a hotel. It seemed the Gods had decided to favour me: that day happened to be the day of ardh kumbh, of half kumbh, an extremely auspicious day to take a dip in the Ganga. That afternoon, sitting on the steps of Har-Ki-Pauri, the ghat, I had my fill of breasts. Breasts that were big and small, young and old, rich and poor, sophisticated and rustic, urban and rural. The tornado had subsided. But another storm began to build up. It led me further up the Ganga.

I don't quite remember when that storm subsided, but it left me with a blog, On The Ganga Mail, a title that was inspired by this article I wrote for my paper. And thus began the journey of a man in search of himself who, night after night, would labour and transform his joys and agonies into words and sentences. And then, one day, the man got married and was suddenly at peace -- peace induced by the fact that he no longer returned to an empty home and therefore had no time to agonise over trivial things.

It was this peace that I experienced as I stood at Belur Math that morning, three years ago. I thought: my journey is the same as that of Ganga. It began with turbulence, in the Himalayas, and now it ends in such a serene manner in the plains of Bengal. Why can't Ganga Mail, the blog, be turned into a book so that this journey gets recorded for posterity?

I wrote to two publishers. One of them outrightly said, "We are not interested in publishing blogs. Please get back to us if you have a novel." Another hemmed and hawed, basically asking me to fuck off but not in so many words. I then showed my blog to the editor of a publishing house that brought out only academic books. The idea was to get an opinion. The editor, a young but highly talented man, wrote to me saying that while he liked what I wrote, it was highly unlikely that any publisher would ever touch it. Reason? I was not a big name and, therefore, nobody would be interested in the personal crap that I wrote. He was only speaking the truth, and I admired him for that.

Today, as a blogger, I am like an aspiring actor who hasn't gone beyond performing for himself in front on the bathroom mirror. I might be a great actor, but no director is going to come to my bathroom to see how well I act. I shall remain anonymous and die anonymous. But if I were to become a successful actor, then there would be people waiting outside my bathroom to record my performance in front of the mirror so that they could make documentaries or at least put the clips on Youtube. And mind you, the actor in me hasn't changed one bit: I am the same actor who once performed in front of the mirror and who is now delivering hits. It is success that makes people change the way they look at you. Which is fine. But the sad part is, while merit leads to success, success never looks at merit. It only look at names and faces that are already associated with success.

In 2006, London's Sunday Times sent out the opening chapter of V.S. Naipaul's 1971 Booker-winning In A Free State to 20 agents and publishers. Only the name of the author and the names of the principle characters were changed in the 'manuscript'. To the newspaper's great surprise, the 'manuscript' only got rejection slips! Not a single publisher touched it. Conversely, if the paper had sent out pages from the diary of a London teenager, passing it off as a journal that Naipaul had kept during his younger days, there would have been a minor riot among the same set of agents and publishers.

A friend of mine, who spent a few years in New York before returning to Chennai, was telling me a story the other day. In New York, as also in other Western cities, you find musicians (in India you'd equate them with beggars) who play in subways and pavements. People who have a few minutes to spare gather around these subway musicians for a while and then move on. If they feel generous, they drop a few coins into the open guitar or violin case. One day, a well-known musician decide to play in one of the subways. He played for a couple of hours but no one recognised him or bothered to stop. He was the same musician people would have paid hundreds of dollars to watch him perform, but he was right here, performing for free, in a subway but no one bothered to stop and listen. The logic is simple: if a musician is performing in a subway, he can't be great. Or, if a musician is great, he can't be performing in a subway. Conversely, get an Olympic wrestler and dress him up in a jacket and a bow tie and hand him a violin and ask him to wrestle with the instrument in an opera theatre, he'll most certainly be welcomed as the messiah of 'New Music.'

Success depends a lot on your coordinates. How to get to those coordinates -- that's the real success story. Everything falls into place after that.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Books, etc.

God bless this website, I discovered it four days ago and since then have already ordered four books:

1. Henry Miller on Writing
2. A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, 1932-1953
3. Here But Not Here: My Life with William Shawn and The New Yorker, by Lillian Ross
4. Portrait of Hemingway, by Lillian Ross

Fortunately or unfortunately, ordering books on this site is so easy that I will now have to keep my credit card out of sight. What's more, the books are priced for the Indian pocket, which means it is as good as picking them up at Landmark, and yet you get books that are never likely to adorn the racks of an Indian bookshop. For books that should not have cost me Rs 600-700 at the local bookshop, I've paid up to Rs 1500-2000 while ordering them from Amazon. That's because Amazon charges you the original price printed on the back cover which is actually meant for the Western market (we Indians pay the price painted on the small sticker pasted by the local distributor), and also a hefty shipping fee.

Anyway, I'll now have to wait and see how soon the books arrive. It's been ages that I read a book cover to cover, and I can't wait to lay my hands on these. These are so my kind of books. Barring book no. 1, which was an impulsive purchase and which I suspect would be a compilation of Henry Miller's views on writing that are sprinkled across his books (all of which I have), I am really looking forward to the remaining three. God, please make time fly faster.

Ok, now coming to the point. A few years ago, I ordered a book from Amazon, Mr Shawn's New Yorker -- The Invisible Art of Editing, by Ved Mehta. It cost me a fortune, but who cares -- Ved Mehta is a writer I would like to imitate, and what better book than the one that describes his long innings at New Yorker, that too under the wings of Mr William Shawn. For the uninitiated, New Yorker is a magazine that every wordsmith should read, or at least be seen reading, at least the online edition. Now that sounds cheeky. Ok, let me put it this way: if you are a writer and if New Yorker chooses to publish your piece, you've earned the ticket to nirvana.

Mr Shawn was at the helm of same New Yorker for decades and, in the process, also the mentor of my favourite writer, Ved Mehta. I finished the rather voluminous book in a matter of days -- three days maybe. If you go by Mehta's book, Mr Shawn shines through as the perfect man there can ever be -- perfect editor, perfect husband, perfect father, perfect mentor and so on. There is so much perfection in the book that you begin to wonder: is Mr Shawn a man or an angel?

Somehow, I found it very difficult to swallow Mr Shawn's image in the book as Mr Perfect. A perfect man, in my eyes, is fictitious: his real place is in heaven, not on this earth. It's the imperfections that actually make a man and his existence worthwhile on this planet. And I kept wondering: how can Mr Shawn, the legendary editor of a magazine like New Yorker, be such a perfect human being?

The truth came tumbling out today, much to my gratification, as I placed the order for Lillian Ross' books. Ross is synonymous with New Yorker because of the pieces she has written for the magazine over the decades, and in the book In Here But Not Here, she tells the story of the life she shared for forty years with William Shawn, the legendary editor of the New Yorker.

Excerpts from the blurb that made me order the book:

"An enduring love between two people, however startling or unconventional, feels unalterable, predestined, compelling, and intrinsically normal to the couple immersed in it," Ross says, "so I would have to say that I had an intrinsically normal life for over four decades with William Shawn. I have a lasting sense of the normalcy of it all. It was a normalcy that Bill Shawn was able to create for himself and for me against all normal odds."

William Shawn was married, yet he and Ross created a home together a dozen blocks south of the Shawns' apartment, raised a child, and lived discreetly. Their lives intertwined from the 1950's until Shawn's death, in 1992. Ross describes how they met and the intense connection between them; how Shawn worked with the best writers of the period; how, to escape their developing liaison, Ross moved to Hollywood-only to return to New York and their relationship. The book is a gem, an exquisitely told real-life story more potent than fiction.

I am now waiting for the book to read the juicy details. But my views stand vindicated: no man, or woman, can ever be perfect. In order to create, you need to be imperfect; if you are perfect, you are merely following the rules that have already been set and therefore impotent. After reading Mehta's account of Mr Shawn's life, I had begun to worship the legendary editor as well as feel sorry for him. But after reading the blurb of Ross' book on the website, I can now see myself putting my arm around Mr Shawn's ghost and telling him, "Mate, we are on the same boat. But mind teaching me some editing?"