Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Chai, Chai Comes To Mumbai And Pune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 20, 2009

Men Versus Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chetan Bhagat, Baba Ramdev And Pancham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Mistaken Identity

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Dard-e-Dil: Rafi versus Kishore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Fear Of Forty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Chai, Chai In Bangalore

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

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

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

Meeting A Childhood Hero

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

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

Friday, November 06, 2009

This Is Mitali, And Here's My Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


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

Can't I have both?

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

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

"You decide that." She grinned mischievously.

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

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

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

"You are smart." She grinned mischievously.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Chai, Chai Chugs On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having made the damaging statement, the reviewer goes on:

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

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

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

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