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.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


In a couple of weeks I shall turn four years old as a blogger. I was still not 35, and still single, when I started the blog. Circumstances were so different then. Writing was a pleasure then, and getting published a distant dream. Each morning, when I woke up to answer the doorbell, I didn't know which of the girlfriends it could be till I opened the door. There have been times when two people landed up almost at the same time, and the scenes that followed -- well, I wished mother Earth could swallow me right away. Back then, I had a mother whose sole mission in life, at the time, was to find me a wife.

How quickly things can change. Today, I am almost 39. Writing is still a pleasure, but it is also burdensome at times. The dream of becoming a published writer has been accomplished and therefore lost its charm: I have to now reset the dream and aim for becoming an accomplished writer. And these days, when I answer the doorbell in the mornings, it is either the maid or the cook. Their arrival is followed by a call from wife, who is usually at work even before I wake up: "Has the maid come? And what about the cook?" So I have a wife now, but a mother no longer.

But on the whole, Ganga Mail has had a satisfactory journey during these four years. Statistics can never match sentiments, but nearly 200 unique hits a day, about 2.7 lakh total hits so far and over 12,000 profile views till date (even though I am not a pretty woman) -- they make me feel good. These figures are very modest, even pathetic, when compared with the popularity of the blogs of the big guns. But then, I never aspired to be a big gun. Blogging, for me, has always been an emotional outlet. I share things I feel strongly about. If I like a particular Kishore Kumar song, or if I wish to make a point about relationships, I can't catch a man on the street and tell him about my views. Nor can I inflict my views on other people at a party or a gathering: I find that most obnoxious. The blog is the perfect ventilator: just type away.

Touch wood, I've always had a set of readers who seemed to agree with most of what I've had to say. In other words, I found acceptance, and nothing can be more gratifying than that. Acceptance is something that you seek all your life, so it feels nice when a set of readers shift a bit and make space for you in the middle of the sofa and tell you, "Come, come, sit here. Tell us your story."

Acceptance does not always come easily. There was one Ms P who did not like my blog when I started it. She was a reader of my column in the newspaper and she said she liked what I wrote. But about my blog, she had this to say, "I think it is sick!" Today, she looks forward to my posts and calls me if I go missing from the blog for a long time. She was only 18 then, today she is 22. Somewhere along the way, she accepted me.

But something strikes me now. Once you find acceptance, do you remodel your thoughts to keep them within the limits of what would be largely acceptable? Why I am asking this is because, before I started writing this post, I read through some of my earliest posts. This was the first time I was reading them ever since I wrote them, and I was surprised. Here was a man who wrote what he thought, and with considerable clarity. He did not have to worry about, "What will people say?" To tell you the truth, at the cost of sounding conceited, I was rather charmed by those pieces. I am no longer him. Today, I think a dozen times about what to write about and how to write it, so as not to offend anyone or invite someone's ridicule. The invisible faces of readers dance around my eyes as I write: I feel as if they are watching. Their invisible presence makes me extremely conscious, and as a result, I end up not saying half the things that I had intended to say. In other words, I don't want to lose the acceptance I have earned. In other words, I am still seeking fresh acceptance even after having found it.

It may be sad, but that is how life is: we all slog, till our dying day, to find acceptance. We tend to do things the right way in order to avoid rejection. As children, we seek acceptance from parents and teachers. As youngsters, we seek acceptance from people our age, especially from members of the opposite sex. As young men and women, we seek acceptance from our bosses and from the people we are dating or about to be married. As married individuals, we seek acceptance from our spouses and, in many cases, also from people from the opposite sex who are not our spouses. As parents, we seek acceptance from our children. When we are older, we seek acceptance from our grown-up children. After a while, we seek acceptance from our grandchildren: do they think of us as the ideal grandparents? Finally, we seek acceptance from the Maker. An entire lifetime spent in search of acceptance!

Most of the time, people around you don't even care whether you are acceptable or not. They just about tolerate your existence because you happen to be in their lives. If they find you useful, they will respect you. If you are of no use to them, they will ignore you, irrespective of how hard you have worked in order to become acceptable. To give you a frivolous yet illustrative example: when I was required to shave my head and moustache after my mother died, I was greatly distressed. As it is I was coping with the loss of my mother, and now I had to cope with the loss of my identity. Ever since as a teenager, I had never been without my hair or my moustache. The decision to sport a moustache was influenced by my admiration for Jackie Shroff, but after a point the moustache became part of my identity. And now it felt miserable to part with it. Would I still be acceptable to my society without the most important mark of my identity?

I need not have worried. No one failed to recognise me because of my missing moustache. And no one -- those who did not know about my mother's demise -- asked me how or why it went missing. In fact, there have been occasions when people enquired about my long absence from Chennai even after noticing my shaved head and the missing moustache. "Well, I had gone to Kanpur. My mother passed away, you know. Don't you see my shaved head?" I would say.

"Oh, is that why you shaved your head? I am so sorry. I thought this is your new look," they would reply. At least five people have apologised to me so far for having thought that I took my hair and moustache off because of "fashion". And here I was, killing myself at the thought of getting tonsured. The world doesn't really care: if it has to accept you, it will accept you no matter how you look or what you have to say. If it chooses to ignore you, it will ignore you, no matter how much time you spend in front of the mirror grooming yourself or practising those lines. But then, no one ever gets to know whether he or she will be accepted or rejected. Even if one is rejected, there is always a chance of being accepted the next time.

Therefore, we labour on in order to be accepted, and that includes us bloggers as well. None of us is ever going to write what we really want to write. Rejection by readers is too huge a price to pay. So you write what they want you to write, and not what you want to write.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

No Comparison, But Still Feels Good

A picture taken by a friend. Location: Landmark bookstore, Spencer Plaza, Chennai.

Friday, October 02, 2009


This evening, I got off from work really early, even before the sun could set. So I walked back home, a modest distance of 2 km. As I was crossing Pondy Bazaar, I was suddenly gripped by the urge to buy something -- anything. After all, it is once in a blue moon that I get to smell the evening air ever since I switched jobs 18 months ago, so why not celebrate by gifting myself something. But what do I buy? Wife would kill me if I bought another shirt or a pair of shoes. My wardrobe is full of clothes I haven't touched yet. Each day, I wear one of the /grey T-shirts in my collection and the same pair of floaters to work: who is going to see me?

In any case, Pondy Bazaar is one place I wouldn't be caught dead shopping for clothes, though I have friends who are die-hard Pondy-Bazaar shoppers. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I had a friend who even shopped for her lingerie in Pondy Bazaar. The labels on the undergarments would bear the name of a certain garment store which is always crowded with people who seem to have come from the suburbs or neighbouring towns to do their monthly or maybe yearly shopping. I had no idea those guys were also into manufacturing bras and panties. She would fume each time I pulled her leg about the tags. "How does it matter what I wear inside? Tell me, how does it matter?" I would then seek to extricate myself from the situation by saying that I was only kidding.

But the reality -- no offence meant to anyone -- is that the underwear you wear speaks a lot about your personality. If you wear VIP or Rupa, it means you are either a miser or fiercely Indian or are unaware that we live in a globalised world where you no longer have to ask your cousin to get Marks & Spencer underwear from London (in any case, I have never quite understood why a man should wear briefs with a feminine name. It is like a bra being labelled as 'Dilip' or 'Rakesh': would anyone buy it?) If you wear Jockey, you are smart: the price is almost Indian, and the label and the cut entirely Western. If you wear Polo Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein, even if you can't really afford them all the time, it shows you are ambitious. The wise ones, however, would mix and match: wear Rupa to the gym, Jockey to work and save the hard-earned Calvin Klein for the night out.

Sorry for digressing. I was talking about my walk back home this evening, when I was suddenly gripped by the urge to buy something. So clothes and shoes were ruled out. The only time when my wife does not complain about me splurging money is when I buy books or music. She gives me a blank cheque: "Buy anything that catches your fancy." But you can't buy books or music in Pondy Bazaar. So I chose the middle path: what is music without a good pair of speakers, so why not a new set of speakers for my laptop? And Pondy Bazaar is one place in Chennai where you can get a good pair of speakers at a fairly reasonable price. So there I was, lugging back home a new pair of Creative speakers.

It was with a heavy heart, though, that I replaced my old set of speakers. Those speakers had been my companion through the best years of my life. I had bought them, in 2004, also on impulse. I had just discovered internet radio, and sitting in the office one afternoon, I suddenly resolved that I must get a pair of speakers right away, come what may. So, along with a colleague, I walked to the nearest electronics shop, in Royapettah, and bought whatever was available. The speakers were dubiously named 'Sambada', and cost me Rs 1100. It wasn't entirely satisfied with their performance when they tested it in the shop for my benefit, but since I had made up my mind, I had to have it.

But by the time I brought them home, the speakers, as if by magic, had undergone a transformation. Even before I could attached the wires, they had attuned themselves to the beats of R.D. Burman and to the throat of Kishore Kumar. The rest, as they say, is history.

It is one thing to listen to music on a large music system, the 2000+ watt type, and quite another on smaller speakers. The large one invariably ends up adorning the entertainment cabinet in the drawing room: it does little for your soul. When you play a CD on it, there is something impersonal about the music, which mostly serve as a background sound while you go about your chores. But when music emanates from the laptop speakers, it usually has your 100% attention. There is a certain cosiness about the setting -- you, your writing, your favourite drink and your favourite music. They all work in tandem to lift your spirits to a level that even years of practising spiritualism can't.

Laptop speakers -- don't underestimate them: their sound quality is often better than the most sophisticated of music players -- are an important tool for anyone who follows the lonely profession of writing. When the rest of the world is fast asleep and when you grappling with words sitting at your desk, nothing can be more reassuring or rejuvenating than the sound of your kind of music. The music is loud enough for you to clearly hear the strains of violins playing in the background, yet not too loud to disturb your spouse or neighbour.

The speakers have been with me ever since the time I did not have a spouse -- when the laptop was my spouse, my lover, my everything. I would get back from work every evening, around nine, swtich on the laptop and pour myself a drink. Then I would start working on either my column or a new blog post. At times, the music would dictate my writing, and at times, it was the other way round. But on the whole, we were one happy family.

Those speakers played so many songs that I had lost during my childhood, including this. As a child, I was not at all aware of the sensuality hidden in many of the songs: it was only the tune that had stayed in my mind and which made me desperately search for them decades later. The speakers also played me Sahir Ludhianvi's songs whose meaning I could not grasp as a child or as a youth, but which tormented me big time now. You are welcome to read this post. The speakers also played me music I had recently discovered -- from Mezzoforte to Madonna to various chants about Shiva and Hanuman. The music would lull me to sleep in that cosy bachelor pad of mine -- the playlist had enough songs to last, non-stop, for three days.

How I miss those days: drink, write, sleep -- with your kind of music playing in the background. If you were lucky on a particular day, you had somebody to share the bed with. And if you were extremely fortunate, the person who shared the bed also happened to share your taste in music. But that was only once in a blue moon -- mostly in fantasy. In real life, it has been impossible to find someone who shares your emotions about Sahir's lyrics in the Kabhie Kabhie song, Main har ek pal ka shayar hoon... There were people, of course, but they lived in far-off places such as Pune or Delhi. What was the use?

Finally, a few hours ago, I unplugged my old speakers and replaced them with the new ones. For a moment it felt as if I was taking the old ones on a funeral procession. But that wasn't the case : they were now going to adorn my yoga room and pep up my yoga practice. So why did I disconnect them from the laptop? That's because one of the speakers had started acting up, and it was too burdensome for the other speaker to do justice to R.D. Burman songs, even though it tried its best.

As for the new ones -- what a sexy pair of speakers!. I almost fell off my chair when I tested them on an R.D. Burman song, Bachke rehna re baba from Pukaar. Wife complained, "Reduce the volume! I can't hear you." But I wasn't even talking. Only listening. Nevertheless I stopped that song and inserted a newly-bought CD into the laptop. It is a rare compilation of Tagore songs sung by various old-time singers including K.L. Saigal. I had bought it in Kolkata for my father -- among the many other CDs and books I bought for him in order to compensate for the absence of the woman he had lived with for 40 long years. In fact, my parents were considering to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary on December 4 this year by throwing a dinner party.

Anyway, she is gone now and therefore the new CD collection. So, on my new speakers, I listened to K.L. Saigal singing two famous Tagore songs, Aami tomaye joto and Ek tuku chhoan laage. I felt like crying. I don't know why. Saigal was a hardcore Punjabi and a hardcore drunkard -- someone a Bengali might not have approved of. But Saigal was also a singer par excellence -- which you will realise only when you listen to this album. It was not for nothing that Kishore Kumar was a crazy fan of Saigal. So far, I had heard these two Tagore songs only in Kishore's voice and had liked them. But now, in Saigal's voice, these songs stirred me. They made me tearful. What an auspicious inauguration of the new speakers. The old ones saw me through happy times; while these, I am sure, will see me through difficult times.