Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Liaquat And Other Stories From Kanpur

A day after I arrived in Kanpur, my father suggested – just like the olden times – that I get a haircut. So in the evening, I walked down to Liaquat’s saloon. Liaqat and I go back a long way, in the sense he has been cutting my hair right from the time I was eight or nine, till I left Kanpur in 1994. After that, I may have visited his saloon a couple of times, in the mid-1990’s, during my trips home. And now I was going after 15 years. The saloon, called Unique Men’s Parlour, turned out to be shut. I enquired from the shopkeeper next-door and was told that Liaquat opened the saloon only at five. Fifteen minutes to go. So I walked down the road, bought a cigarette, lit it up and strolled up and down, just to get a feel of the place. It felt the same, just the way it felt decades ago, only that there were many, many more houses now and that now I could smoke openly unlike back then when there was always a risk of being spotted by a passing neighbour.

By the time I returned to the saloon, Liaquat was already at work, snipping away at the hair of a teenaged boy. I walked in and asked, "Liaquat bhai, kaise hain?" He merely nodded at me and continued snipping. I sat down with a Hindi newspaper. And then it struck him. He stepped out, spat the pan masala he had been holding in his mouth and extended his hand, his face beaming, "Arrey dada, kahaan hain aaj kal aap?”

"Chennai mein."

"Badi door chale gaye hain. Ab to marriage-warriage ho gayi hogi?"

"Haan, ho gayi."

"Aur bachche-wachche?"

"Abhi nahin."

And so, the journey back in time began.

Liaquat went on to explain how he had planned to open the saloon a little earlier that evening, but how circumstances prevented him from doing so. He had just stepped out from home when it began to rain. So he went back home and asked his wife to prepare the chicken he had got earlier in the day. After all, he hadn’t had lunch. After he had had lunch, and was about to leave, some guests came home and tea was prepared for them. And so he thought, why not have tea as well. Therefore he could open his shop only now, after having had his lunch of chicken followed by the tea. All this explanation was totally unnecessary, but this was vintage Liaquat. In the 45 minutes that I spent there, I heard the rain-chicken-tea story repeated three times as more people – mostly hangers on – started trooping in.

In small towns, it is common for people – jobless or working – to hang around in shops in the evenings. From these shops – be it a paan shop or a saloon – they watch their neighbourhood go past. They are the much-feared 'society'. They discuss and speculate about the lives of people they see walking past, and often juicy details – real or concocted – tumble out. But mostly it is the physical appearance of the neighbourhood girls that are discussed: "Just look at her, how she swings her butt while walking" or "Look, look! Till the other day she was flat-chested, and now see how pointed her breasts are."

Liaquat’s saloon used to be a hotbed for such discussions many, many years ago. At the time Liaquat himself was young. But over the years he became conscious of that fact that not all his 'custoomers' would be amused by the lewd talk. And there was always a risk: what if the brother of the girl whose butt the hangers on were admiring was right there in his saloon, getting a haircut? Liaquat began to shun such elements. But the small talk, even though sanitised, continued to be the mainstay of the Liaquat experience. It is no fun getting a haircut at his saloon without the small talk and the bantering going on in the background. Even today, as I discovered that evening, his saloon is the ultimate answer to 'Things you wanted to know about your neighbourhood but didn’t know where to ask.'

Liaquat is not your regular small-town barber. He is fashionable. Only that his sense of fashion sense hit the pause mode sometime in the 1980’s. He still wears shiny shirts and white trousers – as worn by Jeetendra and Mithun Chakraborthy back then. But Liaquat’s own hair has thinned over the years, and so has his bottom, which would be emphasised by the white trousers earlier. What he retains is his skills and warmth – a warmth that is typical of a small town.

Kanpur isn’t a small town. In fact, it is the biggest city of Uttar Pradesh. It was typically a British city before Independence, and I am told – though I am not sure about this – that there was a time when the British population outnumbered that of the natives in Kanpur. But the city is broken down into various mohallas – neighbourhoods – in most of which you can still savour the small pleasures of living in a small town even in the 21st century.

Very close to my house, on a busy road, is a cattle-shed where about half-a-dozen cows and buffaloes are milked every morning and evening. Though packaged milk is available, those who want it fresh from the udders have the choice of signing up with the doodhwala on a monthly basis. (When I was young, one of the chores assigned to me was to fetch the milk and to make sure the milkman did not carry water in the bucket on the sly as he proceeded to milk the cow). Right next to the doodhwala’s shed is a cyber cafĂ©, where mostly the college-going crowd hangs around. So, on one hand you still get fresh milk, while on the other you are connected online.

And then, the other small pleasures of life. For instance, when you feel like having jalebis, all you need to do is stop by at a roadside mithai shop. The halwai would gently squeeze the cloth and pour out the batter in small circles on boiling oil. Once fried, the circles would be ladled out into a large bowl containing the sugar syrup. Your jalebi is ready. The thing is, when you watch samosas or jalebis being fried, your desire to savour is heightened several times than when you buy them off the glass-case in a so-called reputed shop.

Just because a samosa is hot does not mean it is fresh – you can always heat it in the microwave, like most big shops in big cities do. You know a samosa has been freshly fried when it need not be so hot on the surface, but the moment you break it open, you see steam rising from the potato filling. In the past few days that I have been in Kanpur, Tiwariji’s samosas have burned my tongue several times. Getting tongue burned in this fashion is a luxury – a luxury I cannot expect in Chennai. Kolkata is probably the only metro which takes food very seriously and where you still find people heading to the nearest mishtir dokaan early in the morning to purchase freshly made roshogollas, shingara (samosa) and kochuris.

A small town is also ridiculously cheap. My wife wanted to buy a dupatta, so last evening we went to Lal Bangla, the market a stone’s throw away from my house. Lal Bangla is a testimony to the never-say-die spirit of the Punjabis. Most of the prosperous shops in the market are run by Punjabi families who came empty-handed during Partition but went on to do well in life as well as business. The owners of many of these shops had started off – so I have been told by people who knew better – by mending punctures in bicycle tyres.

Lal Bangla has always been the ideal, self-contained market for the small town – by small town I mean a place where people are guided by the value-for-money principle, who simply can’t understand why a saree should cost Rs 5,000 or a dupatta Rs 250. Not that the quality of what they purchase is inferior: the same pieces of clothing, when they travel to the metros, become obscenely expensive. Wife was shocked when she enquired the price of the dupatta: Rs 40! At first she couldn’t believe her ears, and then she became so ecstatic that she bought five more pieces of different colours.

Finally, why she had to buy the dupattas. We have a new pet dog at home, a female, just six months old. One morning, just after it was born, she had strayed into our house and since then, has stayed on. She does not have a name, neither was she ever put on leash, because my father was not sure if he was going to keep another dog after the death of Nano (the handsome, cheerful mongrel who died in an accident last year). Moreover, keeping a pet restricts your mobility. But then, as was expected, my father never had the heart to get the dog out. As a result, the dog without a name, who does not know what it means to be leashed and who has only been used to extreme pampering, is the queen of the house. In one of the playful moments, she shredded the wife’s dupatta into tiny pieces.

The dog was a bit shy of me the day I arrived, but since has been spending all her time with me. Even when I write in my room upstairs, till four in the morning, she is always there next to me, sleeping on her back like a human. And each time I make a whining sound from my throat (the first time when I had made the sound I had wanted to sound like a whining puppy just to see her reaction), she, without fail, rushes to me to hug me and lick my hands and face.

And the other night, after I had finished my quota of writing, I was sipping my last drink and humming, "O raat ke musaafir, chanda zara bataa de", the song from Miss Mary. I had heard the song a couple of times on You Tube a few weeks ago, and the tune remained in my head. Suddenly, the nameless dog sprang up from slumber and started pawing and licking me. Since then, I have tried humming other songs but this song alone gets her all loving and licking. Strange dog, very human dog. I wonder how she is going to cope with my absence when I leave Kanpur tonight.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Pilgrimage

There are two things that hang in the air of Kolkata perennially: cigarette smoke and the music of R.D. Burman. It is the only city in India where smoking may be barred by law in public places but – thanks to Communist culture – is not considered taboo or looked down upon. As for R.D., flip through the numerous FM channels at any point of time and one of them is bound to be playing his song, either Hindi or Bengali – ah, the beats!

It is always a pleasure to arrive in Kolkata: to light up a cigarette right at the airport after two hours of abstinence and listen to Pancham in the car while headed home to some pampering by the mother-in-law; and during the drive, to look at some of the most beautiful faces on this planet. Chennai is my wife, Calcutta the highly seductive mistress. I spent last weekend in her arms.

Since I am neither Kolkata-born nor Kolkata-bred, you can’t call me conceited when I say the soil of the city gets your creative juices flowing the moment you step on it. To begin with, the giant hoardings dotting the road on the way from the airport: the energetic punch-lines make you feel as if you are arriving for one big party. (You can’t beat a Bong copywriter. You will find ready-to-borrow punch-lines even when you overhear two lay Bengalis speak to each other. Their conversation is rarely simple and straight; it is either laced with humour or sarcasm or is outright poetry.) Kolkata is indeed a happening city now, never mind if the government is still communist. In any case, at this time of the year, the city is preparing for its biggest party, the Durga Puja. At every fifty yards you will find a skeleton of bamboos waiting to be dressed up as pandals.

Saturday began with a breakfast of hing kochuri (stuffed kachoris laced with asafoetida) and a simple potato curry, followed by mishti doi and rosogullas. A traditional Bengali lunch was waiting, but our stomachs, much to the disappointment of mother-in-law, were full. To burn the calories, wife and a friend who had accompanied me from Chennai went shopping in the Salt Lake area, where we live. Since I have decided not to care about my weight until my Chennai book is done – after which I shall whip myself into shape – I went to sleep. What’s the point being in Bongland unless you can’t afford a post-meal siesta? But barely two hours of sleep and I was woken up. They were done with their shopping and now we were going for a drive into the city.

We drove in a drizzle, going right across the Rabindra Setu, the Ganga looking gloomy under the overcast sky, and then returning to the city to its famous landmarks: Fort William, Esplanade, Chowringhee and, finally, Victoria Memorial. The drizzle had stopped when we stepped outside Kolkata’s most famous colonial building. We were taking pictures when the chanachur man, dressed in Gandhian white (including a Gandhi cap) showed up. The Chennai friend pointed to his wares and asked him what it was. The chanachur man, glad that he had finally found someone so inquisitive, proceeded to provide a background.

“Madam, woh Kranti picture dekhe hain na?” he began.

I don’t think my friend has even seen Kranti, leave alone remembering the particular scene where Shatrughan Sinha masquerades as a chanachur-seller and sings a chanachur-related song (Kishore Kumar’s voice!) only to hoodwink cruel British jailors and save a fellow patriotic Indian – the ever-patriotic Manoj Kumar – from the gallows (I am borrowing from my memories of Kranti dating back to 1981, when I was eleven, so forgive me if I am not accurate). Since I knew he was going to repeat the story, I cut the chanachur man short and told my friend, "It’s a kind of mixture." She took a picture of him, and another along with him: soon he will be immortalised on Facebook. With chanachur in hand, we went on a buggy ride around the Maidan. The next stop was Park Street, but not before we had had paani-puris in front of Victoria Memorial.

At Park Street, wife and friend found themselves a table at Flury's. I excused myself and ran off, first to Music World and then to the Oxford Book Store. I bought two precious books, one of them being an issue of Granta which reproduces the first few pages of Naipaul’s notebook that was the basis for A Wounded Civilisation. Sharp, precise thoughts in long hand. I also bought a number of Bangla books for my father: Tagore, Sirshendu, Sunil Gangopadhyaya. The trip to Park Street ended with a round of egg rolls. It was 8 pm now. The evening had just begun. We were to return to Park Street again in a couple of hours. The Saturday night of Calcutta awaited us.

At 10.30 pm, Someplace Else at Park hotel was packed. As usual, a live band was rocking the dedicated crowd that likes to listen to guitars singing. After a drink each – the most modest brand of whisky available there is Teacher’s – we moved to Roxy, yet another nightclub of the hotel. There, while wife and friend proceeded to dance, I ordered a couple of more drinks. I was too sober to start dancing. But I had barely finished one drink when the DJ announced that he was going to play the last song for the evening. What the fuck! This was Calcutta, and it was barely midnight!

The waiter who brought me the check apologised. "Sir, we are usually open till two. But today is Eid. We have been asked to shut by twelve," she explained. We trooped out. I was upset. I wondered what could be the relation between Eid and nightclubs closing earlier than usual. If the reason was religious, then the clubs should have remained shut that evening. Or was it that the government feared a law and order situation and wanted to take preventive measures by sending revellers back home early? The second reason seemed more likely.

Just when we were about to step out, we noticed groups of people being let in through the backdoor to yet another of the hotel’s nightclubs, Tantra, which specialises in trance music. I quickly lit up a cigarette and took a few drags before stubbing it out. We were let in through the kitchen. Once inside the hall that was pulsating with heart-thumping beats, I regretted having stubbed out the cigarette in a hurry. Inside, people were smoking freely. Since the place was officially shut, official rules did not apply.

The DJ, a gym-fit bald white man wearing a full-sleeved cheque shirt, was in a trance himself. We danced for a while and then I broke off for a smoke. I am not a fan of trance music. A pretty girl in white salwar-kameez came to me and asked for a cigarette. She stood next to me and smoked. It was pointless to strike a conversation, so I let her be. I returned to the dance floor, we took some pictures, and left. The next stop was Venom on Camac Street. Venom, according to me, is the most happening disco in Kolkata, for the simple reason that it plays my kind of music. The DJ was playing Apni to jaise taise when we entered. We limped out at three in the morning.

Late Sunday morning, we were at Dakshineshwar, the Kali temple where Ramakrishna Paramahansa attained nirvana. What I like most about Dakshineshwar is not the Kali temple but the row of 12 Shiva temples that overlook the serenely flowing Ganga. I was here exactly a year ago, when Chai, Chai was beginning to hit the stands in various cities, and I had silently prayed to the 12 Shivas for the success of the book. This time, though, it was just a courtesy call: I made no requests to Shiva. In any case, Sunday morning, when most of Kali-fearing Kolkata descends upon Dakshineshwar, is not the right time for a one-on-one audience with god.

It being a Sunday, much of College Street is closed. The idea was to have Mughlai paratha at the famed Coffee House opposite Presidency College. But the Coffee House had just shut, and was to open only at four. So it was back to Park Street again, to have lunch at Flavours of China. The best Chinese food I've ever had. A few more books bought from Oxford. Finally, shopping at the South City Mall – one of the country's biggest and plushest. My friend, in one stroke, made the careers of several attendants of several stores by helping them achieve their month's target in a matter of hours. If not anyone else, at least they will remember her with deep gratitude: "Mone achhe Chennai thheke ek mohila eshechhilo?"

Sunday night was dinner at home, catching up with some close friends and relatives. It’s a typical sit-down Bengali dinner; food is served in a particular order, starting with rice and daal and ending with chutney and paapad – with half-a-dozen vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes in between. More conversations, of the Bengali kind: sarcastic and humorous.


Monday evening: Rajdhani Express to Kanpur. I slept through most of the journey. At night, though, I was awake long enough to notice a couple get cosy on the berth diagonally across. They had boarded at Gaya. The woman first put a child on the top berth and then climbed herself. The man, after placing the luggage underneath the seats, followed suit. He pulled the curtain and in the darkness, they sat close to each other, chatting. Her hand rested on his thigh and his hand, occasionally, reached out to touch her breasts. At times she let him fondle her and at other times playfully shook his hand off, her bangles jingling in the process. I watched them with my eyes wide open till the man climbed down and went to his berth to sleep. In the morning, I heard the child call him chaacha, while the woman called him bhaiyya.


Tuesday morning: I reach Kanpur. For the first time, mother is not at the gate to give the hugs. But the mango pickle she made last year has been preserved and I have it during lunch.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Why I Don't Want To Be Rama

For the past two days I have been reading and rereading a fascinating travelogue called An Indian Odyssey by Martin Buckley.

In the book, Buckley traces the journey of Lord Rama, as described in the Ramayana, right from his birthplace Ayodhya to Sri Lanka, where he defeated demon king Ravana and rescued his wife Sita but put her through the famous fire-test before taking her back. In tracing Rama's footprints, he tells the story of present-day India and the conflict in present-day Sri Lanka. What an idea!

Reading his book, I got to learn more about what is contained in the Ramayana than I ever got to know from the sugary episodes dished out on Doordarshan by Ramanand Sagar. Oh, those interminably long scenes that showed Arun Govil, playing Lod Rama, smiling forever. Several precious minutes would be consumed by that supposedly divine smile before Rama would proceed to mouth a dialogue. By the time he opened his mouth, the serial would be over and one had to wait until next Sunday.

Ramanand Sagar, needless to say, died a rich man. I know of women -- my mother included -- who had orgasms, of the devotional nature, by merely watching Govil's stupid smile. For them, it was not Govil but Lord Rama who was smiling. What the fuck.

But despite all the devotion, I wonder how many Hindu families actually possess a copy of the Ramayana. Even if they do, how many have read it and enjoyed it like a novel? Most of us are only aware of the select, cliched anecdotes that we have gathered from sources other than the Ramayana. But in reality, if Ramayana were to be made into a movie that strictly followed Valmiki's script, word to word, it would be given A-certificate.

Buckley knows his Ramayana. With the Westerner's curiosity, he has read and reread it. Throughout his book, he punctuates the accounts of his journey with relevant tales from the Ramayana, and in the process, summarises the epic for us in a lucid, matter-of-fact manner. Initially I skipped the Ramayana bits and stuck to his travels, but once I started the Ramayana part, I found it even more gripping.

So in the end, it always takes a Westerner to show us the way to the lanes and bylanes of our own country, our own history, our own mythology. Well why not, they have the passion, and when they pursue it, they pull out all stops. Had I hit upon such an idea, the first thing coming to my mind would've been: "But will I get such a long leave? And where will the money come from?" We Indians, like Rama, are tied down by duties and responsibilities. And the Buckleys, like Valmiki, get to write the books.