Monday, December 28, 2009

Of Old Age, Sex And Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 25, 2009

Birthday Views And Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 07, 2009

Shakti Kapoor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Have A Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Departure And Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, God has been a good marketing executive.