Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Toy Train

It is seven in the evening and I am in room no. 1 of the 115-year-old Coonoor Club. I am reclining on the bed, nursing a drink and writing this. I have left the door leading to the patio wide open, and I can see the hills lit up like Diwali night. I feel like switching off the air-conditioner for a while: the room has become a bit too cold for comfort. I realise it doesn’t have an air-conditioner, not even a fan. This is Coonoor, not Chennai. Chennai I had left last night.

About 12 hours ago, around 6.30 am, I was at the Mettupalayam station, having spent a sleepless night in the Nilgiris Express from Chennai. These days I don’t sleep well in trains: rarely do I take one anymore unless the destination is Bangalore. So from one o’ clock in the night, I had been wide awake, glued to Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, trying to decipher the sentences from whatever little light seeped in as everybody else in the compartment snored. And then magic happened.

As I stepped on to the platform at Mettupalayam, I forgot – instantly – that I had just made a nine-hour train journey and hadn’t slept almost the entire night. I felt as if I was stepping out of my home for a morning walk after a restful sleep. The air was crisp and chilly, and the station presented a pretty picture. It has just one platform – on one side the train that had just got us in, and on the other side the toy train waiting to take us to Coonoor. And right across on the horizon, facing the two trains, stood the mountains. It was through these mighty mountains that the train was going to chart its course, as it has been doing for the last 100 years. The trip is now part of world heritage.

The toy train is just that: a toy. Just five small wooden carriages that are pushed – and not pulled – by a steam locomotive. The engine is at the end, while it is a first-class carriage that is right in front. Outside the leading carriage is a panel, the frontage of the train, where a guard sits with red and green flags. He is the one who blows the horn and switches on the lights whenever the train passes through a tunnel. He also doubles up as a guide for passengers sitting in the front carriage. This morning, I was one of those few fortunate – getting the first and a direct view of whatever lay ahead as the train chugged at the speed of a cycle-rickshaw.

Mountains don’t have arms. But when you take the toy train, the mountains assume the form of a bewitching beauty that spreads her arms to welcome you into an intimate embrace. Those who take the road miss out on the intimacy. On the winding road, your mind is primarily focused on oncoming vehicles. And then, you have many other vehicles for company – cars, buses, trucks. But the train takes you through green, virgin territory – as virgin as it has been for the past 100 years. All you are required to do is sit and watch.

At 6.45, the steam locomotive hissed down the track and positioned itself at the rear of the train. At seven a bell rang out, and five minutes later another. At 7.10 sharp, the train moved. In our part of the carriage, we had, for company, three couples. Two of the couples were very young and newly married. Like the train, their life-journey too had just started. Like most passengers, they were clueless about what lay ahead: only an idea. Throughout the journey, the young men and women were to spend more time looking into each other's eyes than looking outside, where they should have been looking because in virgin territory, even the sight of a blade of grass is like window-shopping for diamonds. The third couple was elderly, in their seventies: they had been through the forest of life, and now were rediscovering togetherness on a route they had never taken before. So they sat erect, savouring the visual pleasure that nature was offering them now. Then there was us, wife and I: not too young, not too old -- we were just two travellers who happened to be married to each other. Nothing theatric, unlike the honeymoon couples, about being together: the real theatre lay outside the train, with the stage changing every moment.

So far, the only time I had seen a toy train -- the truth to be told -- was in Aradhana. In the film, Sharmila Tagore, who is sitting in the toy train to Darjeeling, is wooed by Rajesh Khanna, who is following her on a jeep, with the immortal song, Mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu. I don't know how fast the Darjeeling toy train runs, but I can tell you that the Nilgiris train does not match the 'speed' of this S.D. Burman song.

There was no Rajesh Khanna to chase our train, only small boys who would pop up once in a while to wave at us. The guard, on behalf of us, would smile and wave back. The boys would pop up only when a station was round the corner -- technically they should be called hill stations because they are located on the hills, but practically they are tiny dots of civilisation in wilderness -- oases in the desert of dense forests.

These small stations that fall in the way -- Hill Grove, Runnymede and so on -- are, to me, the real honeymoon spots. Plot to be left behind by the train and you will have no hope until the evening or the next evening till another toy train comes along to take you to proper civilisation. Till then, you can spread a mat and have a picnic. Even time will stand still and have a few sandwiches off you. And if you feel upto it, take the mat a few metres away from the station and you can make love in the open. No one is going to watch you, except a few monkeys maybe, and the birds and the bees. Why go all the way to a concrete jungle like Ooty?

We were, fortunately, not travelling all the way to Ooty. I had heard enough about the place to stop short of being seduced by it. My wife, who had already been there once, shared my sentiments. So we stopped one station short of Ooty. Coonoor it was.

If you have never been to this hill town, let me tell you that there are two Coonoors: Lower Coonoor and Upper Coonoor. Lower Coonoor is where the railway station and the bus stand are located, and it is as congested and ugly as the most congested part of your town or city -- no matter where you live. It is in Upper Coonoor where the real charm lies. The silence there is very British -- a reminder of the times when you had to walk for a while before you came to a cluster of shops from where you bought necessary items such as bread or medicines.

It is the walk that matters in the hills -- one moment you are overlooking a valley and the very next you are admiring a mountain and the lives of people living atop it. Either way, you are wowed. Fortunately, our destination, the 1885-built Coonoor Club, happens to be in Upper Coonoor. Thanks to its silence, I can relive every single moment of the toy train journey. Thanks to its silence, I can still hear the steam locomotive loud and clear, Dhadak, dhadak! Dhadak dhadak!

Sunday, June 20, 2010


Someone I know, who is just 22, is very upset these days. She had a fight with her boyfriend sometime ago and since then, he is refusing to talk to her. "How does one win back a man without seducing him? What do men want, really?" she asked me this evening.

While he remains uncommunicative, she has no idea whether they will eventually make up or break up. Though she would rather they make up, because she wants to marry him because they have been seeing each other for four years. But at the same time, she is prepared for a break-up as well.

In our society, whenever one acquires a girlfriend or a boyfriend, no matter how young you are, the idea is to get married. The girl and the boy first stake claim on each other and then go out on dates, rather than doing it the other way round. Either way, sex happens. If not sex, then almost sex -- this far but no further.

The root of many of problems when you are in your late teens or early twenties is the tying of every relationship to marriage. But this is a mistake we all make. We realise it to be a mistake only when we grow up and become wiser and then look back and laugh. When I got my first girlfriend at the age of 17 and broke the news to parents, my mother, always the emotional one, hit the roof and dragged me to the puja room and made me touch the feet of the gods and promise that I would never see the girl again. My father, as usual, was unruffled.

He told me, "When I was your age, I also had a lot of friends. But where are they today? I am not in touch with a single one. We have all moved on."

"But I've already told her that I will marry her. What will she feel if I back out now?"

"You are not going to be in school forever. When you grow up and see the world, you might just change your mind. Why rush into decisions now? You are not even in college."

But in the flush of youth, I refused to see his point. Eventually, experience won over impulse. Now when I look back, what a crime! -- choosing your life partner at an age when your facial hair has not even fully grown.

My father was 43 when he had this chat with me. Today, I am nearing 40 and I am perhaps wiser than him. Wiser because, unlike my father who remained committed to just one woman all his life till she died suddenly last year, I have far more experience in the field.

Age and experience teach you the difference between being fascinated and being practical. In my humble opinion, fascination rarely ends in happy marriage because you feel like running away the moment the bitterness of practicality sinks in. On the other hand, if you get married for practical reasons, the togetherness usually leads to fascination for each other.

Some years ago, I knew a woman, a Tamil Brahmin, who was 20 then. Or maybe 21. She was madly in love with a guy who belonged to a different religion. Even while she dreamt of marrying him, she dreaded the lifestyle changes she would have had to make in order to be a member of his family. But she didn't mind doing that: she said she was more than willing to adjust to the new lifestyle because she loved him so much.

Borrowing from my father's wisdom, I told her she was only wasting her time breaking her head over a relationship that was not going to work.

"How do you know it is not going to work?" she angrily demanded to know.

"Because I just know."

"I know why you are saying that. But I am going to marry only him, ok? Any problem?"

"No problem."

Just a couple of years after we had this conversation, she went to London for further studies. I was spared of the constant outpurings about her complicated love story. And then came an email, that she was finally getting married. The groom was a fellow Tam Brahm, someone she had fallen in love with in London. Hello, what happens to the time I had spent listening to the sob stories about an affair which I had predicted would never materialise?

So I won. My father won.

How I wish I could get back to my twenties armed with the wisdom I have earned in the past two decades. That, however, is impossible -- as impossible as people not making mistakes in the flush of youth. But I only hope people don't hinge the best and most productive years of their life on men or women who may never belong to them.

What would you prefer, really: marry someone and then go on a world tour, or go on a world tour and then decide who to marry? When I say world tour, I don't mean it in the literal sense. What I mean is the expansion of mental horizon.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cumin And Curd

Reena Roy, the actress, thought he was Chinese. Can't blame her: most Indians still think that all people with Mongloid features belong either to China or Nepal. But in spite of his 'Chinese' looks, he blended so well with 'Indian' characters that he went on to become one of the top villains of Bollywood.

As far as my knowledge goes, only in one film did Danny Denzongpa actually play a Chinese, that too a half-Chinese. The film is Lahu Ke Do Rang, in which he turns out to be the half-brother of Vinod Khanna. Their father is a freedom fighter -- also played by Vinod Khanna -- who ends up sleeping with a Chinese woman who gives him shelter while he is escaping from British forces.

Other than that, Danny has always played 'Indian' characters. I have seen countless films of him, but the ones that stand out in my memory are Dhund and Jawaab. Both very powerful fims, minus the usual frills of Bollywood.

Danny, by the way, is -- or at least was -- a good singer too. Search for the song Sun sun kasam se from Kala Sona on You Tube, and you will know what I mean. He has sung it so well that one of the two persons who posted this song on You Tube has credited the male voice to Shailendra Singh, blissfully unaware that it was Danny who did the playback under the baton of R.D. Burman.

This is one song I listen to when I am struck by hypochondria, and it does cure me most of the time. Danny, after all, is a man of clean habits -- someone you can look up to if you want to lead a healthy life. Way back in 1994, when I was a journalist on probation with the Press Trust of India in Delhi, one of my jobs was to scan all the 12 newspapers published from Delhi at the time and make a report on how the PTI had scored against its rival, the UNI, or the United News of India.

One Sunday morning, while scanning the papers, I came across an interview of Danny in The Sunday Observer. It was one of those interviews that changed your life or least inspired you to make amends. But those days, as a young bachelor, I could only feel inspired because there was no provision to make amends. The interview was about the eating habits of Danny.

Sadly, there was no internet then, and the newspaper itself is defunct now, so neither can I produce a link nor can I paste a scanned copy. But it's all pasted in my head. I can sum up for you what I had read then:

Danny hates eating out. He does not trust any food other than what is cooked in his kitchen, with spices brought from Sikkim, where he hails from. He loves jeera, or cumin, because he believes it can make even the blandest of dishes interesting. One evening, Danny and Jackie Shroff were attending a Bollywood party when they scooted just when dinner was about to be served. They did not want to eat the rich dinner, so they returned to Danny's home.

Since it was late in the night, the servants were fast asleep. Danny decided to cook himself. He opened the fridge and found a few brinjals. He cut them into small pieces. He then heated a spoonful of oil in a frying pan and spluttered cumin seeds and added the brinjal pieces. Jackie, who had found a couple of green apples in the fridge, wondered why they could't be chopped and put into the pan as well. Danny thought that was a good idea. When the brinjal and the apple pieces were mildly fried, seasoned by jeera, he added curd to the pan and covered it.

Whatever came out must have been delicious. They had the brinjal-apple dish with bread, accompanied by a bottle of red wine that Jackie had just opened. A perfect dinner. From the interview, I also gathered that Danny, whenever he was shooting outdoors, always sent his boy to the nearest village to get the local, freshly-cooked food. If nothing else, just curd and rice.

I got to emulate Danny Denzongpa only seven years later when I came to Chennai in 2001, when I finally had a functional kitchen of my own. And I realised that any vegetable, no matter how much you hate it, tastes heavenly when you season it with cumin seeds and add curd to it. Cumin and curd are a deadly and a delicious combo.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Aging Is His Enemy

Accomplished yoga gurus are unlikely to have enemies, but the legendary BKS Iyengar has one: aging.

"Nonsense!" That’s been his standard, typical one-word response whenever someone has tried suggesting that he should take it easy because he was getting old. "When you are young, the body has tremendous strength. As you grow old, vitality drops and fear complex sets in. But why should one stop doing what one has been doing for years just because of age? I fought the fear complex and I won," declares Iyengar, the Pune-based yoga guru who will turn 92 in a few months.

The victory is written all over his face: not a single wrinkle, even though the flowing hair is silver. The spine is straight and the chest spread wide. Even today, he devotes four hours daily to yoga practice.

"I wake up at six, and 6.30 to 7.30 I do pranayama. Then I read the papers to know what’s happening in the world. From 9 to 12, I do asanas non-stop. Earlier I used to more asanas, but now I do less asanas but hold them for a longer time, till I am able to penetrate into my inner self and realise that my body is getting refreshed," says the yoga legend, who began his yoga pratice in 1934 in Mysore.

It was strict discipline and commitment to yoga that saw him through the vicissitudes of life, including those initial difficult years in Pune when schools or colleges would make him wait for hours and finally ask him to come some other day. Salvation came in 1954 when Yehudi Menuhin, the renowned violinist and conductor who then on a tour of India, was overcome by a nervous attack. Iyengar set him right in a matter of hours, after which Menuhin invited him to teach in Switzerland. The rest, as they say, is history.

But unlike many yoga gurus of today who use their Western connection to make money, Iyengar remains humble and committed to his practice. He still does the headstand for 30 minutes, besides the shoulderstand and other inversions -- these are the poses that postpone the onset of old age. "Even today my feet don’t oscillate even a bit when I do the headstand," says Iyengar.

Post-yoga, it is time for bath and lunch, after which he heads to his yoga institute where he sits in the library to work on his new book. Iyengar has authored a number of books, including the Light On Yoga, often considered to be a Bible of yoga. "The new book will decode Patanji’s yoga sutras for the common man, especially the younger generation. The depth of the sutras shall be retained, but the words will be simple," he says.

At six he heads back home. Time to watch TV. "Sometimes I watch movies, sometimes serials. I also like watching National Geographic," says the guru. His favourite movies include "CID movies" and comedies. Nine-thirty is dinner time, followed by some more television. By 10.30 pm, one of the world’s most famous yoga gurus is asleep. Iyengar’s guru, the revered T Krishnamacharya, had lived till the age of 100. He died in Chennai in 1989. Another disciple of Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois, who found the ashtanga yoga and was teacher to stars like Madonna and Sting, died in Mysore last year at the age of 94.

Iyengar’s precription for staying young even at 91, apart from regular yoga practice: "I never think of the past. I live in the present. I live moment to moment. I reflect. I reflect when I am holding my poses. That keeps me refreshed."

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

R Replies

M never replied, but R did. She wants it to be published, like newspapers publish letters to the editor. Here goes:

Dear B,

I think what you are going through is the emotional equivalent of the aftermath of too much porn.

This is the classic tragedy of male-female relationships, men have sex, women make love. Men orgasm in seconds, women orgasm long after their men have left them. Men will give a part of themselves, women will give themselves wholly. Seems to me M made the classic mistake of revealing herself to you too completely. But one cannot blame her. You are like a flame, and us fans are like moths, drawn to you. As long as we are protected by the glass we futilely beat against we are safe, but come to close and we will singe! On the exterior you are a smoking, drinking give a damn, writer, but underneath all that there exists a man far more perceptive to women than the image suggests. A man who reeks of danger, but can see through to the heart of a woman, make her feel like she is the most important person in the world... It is a potent combination that your M probably never stood a chance in the face off!

But what confounds me is why you want to skew the beautiful equation you seem to share with your M. Why not just savor a relationship that few people are lucky to find? Why question to M about What you are? Who you are?

Does it really matter? If two people's minds ignite, and the mind is the biggest aphrodisiac why bring it down to the level of a personal touch? I mean B, face it, a man and a woman could never connect quite so strongly if they did not belong to opposite sexes. Men and women can be friends but the underlying chemistry that seasons their relationship is what makes it so irrisisitable. Those little chats about sex you have with your M are tasty because they are flavoured with attraction and seasoned with the bitter knowledge of never seeing a conclusion. Do you really want to risk what you have for a physical touch that might not amount to as much?

And like the quintessential man, you lay the blame at her feet, or at the door of technology, everywhere but yourself. Did you have nothing to do with this?

The internet is a dangerous addiction, it can take away our loneliness by creating an illusion of a world the way we want it to be and yet it can also isolate us more than we ever imagined by becoming bigger than life itself and separating us from real life and the real relationships we a fortunate to have. But we should not blame the internet or the Mobile phone for our weaknesses, they are only tools that become an extension to achieving our desires. It is up to us to use them well, to stop at the invisible line beyond which decadent indulgence becomes a corrosive poison.

I think, M should make it so you only get virtual hints of skin to tantalize you from now on, and delete your number from her phone!


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Personal Touch

Dear M,

It is 4.30 in the morning. By now a man with clean habits should be waking up to take on the new day. But I prefer to see the new day in before going to sleep. That way, I have an upper hand. It is so much better to catch the sun in its nappies than let its rays catch you in your underwear.

By the time I finish writing to you, the sky outside my window would just be beginning to light up. I had to write to you tonight because I want to tell you a few things -- things that have been weighing heavily on my mind of late. We have been talking, off and on, almost the entire day, over phone and internet, but somehow it didn't occur to me to tell you things that I am going to say now. Right now there is calm, and I can think.

You live in Bombay, I live in Chennai. How I wish we lived in the same city, preferably in Bombay. There, we could meet every evening for an hour, just to catch up. We could sit at a spot on Marine Drive, watching the sun dip right in front of us. Or maybe some place in Bandra. Just like Amol Palekar and Tina Munim in Baaton Baaton Main. How I wish I could fly back to that era, don't you?

In that hour we spend together, we could talk; or maybe not talk but just hold hands and watch what's going around us. It is your physical presence that would matter. Being with you would be a relief, a respite, a revival. I would go back home recharged, with fresh hope -- if not anything else, the hope to see you again the next evening at the same spot.

You have no idea how much I crave for your physical presence. In the two years that I have known you, how little have we actually met and had a chat: maybe four or five times? That's about it! Yet we have a minute-by-minute account of what is going on in each other's lives because we are connected 24/7. I see you online most of the day, and you have a fair idea what my day is like. Vice-versa too. When we are not online, we are just a text message or a phone call away. In fact, we are so used to seeing each other online that the moment one of us goes offline for longer than usual, the other gets worried. Remember the other day when I called you at two in the morning, just because you had been missing all day? And how two days ago, when I was attending a friend's wedding anniversary party and the battery of my phone had died, I received a bunch of panicky messages once I got home and put the phone on charge?

That makes me wonder about our relationship: What are we? Who are we? Mere online entities, online friends, who recognise each other by Gmail IDs or the names fed into the mobile phones? Even when it comes to having sex, we get naughty on the chat window and feel gratified. What happens to the flesh? What happens to the touch? What's the point in going to the gym and looking look when the person who you desire and want to be desired by is merely an online entity?

It's not just about sex, M. When did you last catch up with a friend and had a good time? Not in a long, long time, I am sure. Same with me: I can't recall when was the last time I met up with a friend without a specific purpose. Because for non-specific purposes, you can always go online or pick up the phone. The personal touch is dead, and that's what I miss. Really, I don't want friends who have an hour-by-hour account of what my day is like. I crave for friends with who I can spend an hour with, face to face, and feel like a normal human being rather than an online entity.

To tell you the truth, M, the thought that you are available to me 24/7 is somewhat putting off. You shouldn't be so readily available, because it affects your desirability. Availability and desirability do not go hand in hand. So log off and show me your real self. Just imagine going back to the days of Baaton Baaton Main.

The biggest culprit, I tell you, is the mobile phone. It weighs only a few grams, but it makes you carry the weight of several human beings who are attached to your life. Even worse is the internet, which weighs nothing but upon which relationships weighing tons are built. But what are relationships without the personal touch?

Shall we throw our mobile phones into the sea and log out of internet? Amol Palekar and Tina Munim lived happily ever after in Baaton Baaton Main even without present-day gadgets. Maybe if they had internet connnection back then, the film would have been titled Raaton Raaton Main.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Feminine Touch

Then she told me:

"And once, you know, there was this pretty girl standing close to me in the bus. Even when the crowd had melted away, I just stood close to her for no reason at all. I enjoyed each time our hands touched. She was pretty and fair. The feel of her white skin against mine, that perked me.

One more thing. Her breasts were touching my upper arms. She was totally unaware I was taking advantage of her. Poor girl, she was so trusting. I think I enjoy the feminine touch. Not that I want sex or anything. I think I know where it originates from."