Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Connection

I am not a Christian, yet when Christmas approaches, I greet it with a deep sense of familiarity. Part of the reason is that I was born a day after Christ, though some 2,000 years apart; partly because I went to a Christian school run by the nuns. So Christmas is in the blood, as much Diwali is.

Though it does not feel all that Christmasy in Chennai, where I have spent the past ten Decembers without a break. Christmas, to me, means fog, if not snow, thanks to the carols one has grown up with. I mean, if you shut your eyes and imagine Santa Claus, you automatically see snow and pine forests and certainly not the sun and the sea.

My best memories of Christmas go back -- naturally -- to my childhood days in Kanpur. By December end, at least during those days of pre-climate change, the whole of north India would invariably be engulfed in dense fog during the nights and the much of the mornings. Our immediate neighbour was a Christian -- a jolly Mizo man who loved his drink and who was a die-hard fan of Indira Gandhi. When she won the elections in 1980, he distributed laddoos in the entire block, but when she was assassinated four years later, in October 1984, he remained in a state of inebriation for several days. With bloodshot eyes he would stare angrily at my Sikh classmate who often came home, and would slur, "You bloody Sardarji." I don't think he survived that Christmas.

But before tragedy, in the form of Indira Gandhi's killing, hit him like a thunderbolt, it was very assuring to have a neighbour like him. Always jovial. He was the Mongoloid equivalent of Om Prakash in Julie. The Christmas star outside his door -- shining through the fog -- was the sole indication for the neighbourhood that Christmas was round the corner. I mean, you know Christmas falls on December 25, but most often you need physical reminders -- that's true for any festival.

Those were the simple days. The TV station shut shop by nine or 10 in the night. The radio too went silent by, I think, 11 pm. After which, fog and silence would have descended on the neighbourhood. Suddenly, close to midnight, the silence would be shattered by the sound of live drums and guitar. And a chorus would burst out:

Jingle bells, jingle bells
jingle all the way...

My neighbour's doors would fling open, and a party, led by Santa Claus, would troop in. Loud laughter and bantering and some more carols would follow, and then the party would leave for the next Christian home. Jumping out of our quilts, shivering and wide-eyed, we would watch the spectacle from our windows. To me that's real music: something that you sing or play live in a chilling foggy night when nothing else is to be heard for miles and miles around. The music touches your bones.

That's how my love for carols was born. Even after my neighbour was dead and his family gone, I would make it a point to play carols on the radio or the cassette-player during those foggy nights preceding Christmas. For several years I was in the possession of a lone ecstasy-inducing T-Series cassette titled Disco X-mas. And I still have it with me in Chennai. The cassette gave me company during half-a-dozen Christmases, apart from serving as the background music for my workouts, during my late teens.

That's the thing about carols. When you are mellow and nursing a drink, nothing beats Jim Reeves. Who can ever forget his rendition of Silver Bells?:

City sidewalks, busy sidewalks
Dressed in holiday style
In the air
There's a feeling
Of Christmas
Children laughing
People passing
Meeting smile after smile
And on every street corner you'll hear
Silver bells, silver bells
It's Christmas time in the city

But Chennai has no bloody sidewalks. It is perhaps the only city in the world without footpaths. Anyway, Jim Reeves did not lend his silvery voice to the song keeping Chennai in mind. Oh, never mind. What I was saying was how the carols can adjust themselves according to your mood.

If you are in a mellow mood, Jim Reeves can hold your hand and guide you to heaven. But if you are in the mood for a long drive, what better companion than Boney M? Their rendition of Mary's boy child still gives me goosebumps. And if you are working out or dancing, there are countless adrenalin-pumping disco and rock versions of the good old carols. What pumps my adrenalin particularly is Feliz Navidad.

After I moved to Delhi, I kept the Christmas spirit alive in my mind for selfish reasons. It worked like this: if I was alive to Christmas, I would be alive to my birthday, and if I was alive to my birthday, I would realise that another year is soon going to pull the rug from under my feet and that I better buck up. On foggy nights, I have attended the midnight mass at some of the most handsome, British-built cathedrals of Delhi. One Christmas eve, I think this was 1995, sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan performed at one of these cathedrals and I can never forget his rendition of Silent night, holy night. That night, watching him, I realised the difference between a maestro and a musician.

So much for the carols. Now for the atmosphere. Isn't it foolish to sing "Dashing through the snow, in a one-horse open sleigh" in the tropical heat of, say, Chennai? The romance of Christmas, at least the way we -- the former British colony -- know it, lies in the weather. Christmas is about Arctic winter: Dashing through the snow; Frosty the snowman; Winter wonderland; Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer; White Christmas.

Someday, yes someday, I intend to celebrate Christmas the way it is depicted in the carols. That would be a childhood dream come true. I would like to be in a village, American or European, where there is nothing for miles around except snow and pine forests and a solitary log cabin. The log cabin would, of course, be occupied by me and my companion. No wi-fi connection, no mobile network, no phones, but only a fireplace to warm the cabin and Scotch to warm the bodies. And as you sit by the window, cuddling and sipping Scotch and watching the snow, you suddenly hear voices coming from afar. The voices come closer, and soon you sight a party of men with flowing white beards, marching towards your log cabin and singing,

Jingle bells, jingle bells
jingle all the way...

Someday, someday.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sean Penn

He sat on the Besant Nagar beach all by himself, gazing at the sea. Suddenly he wondered what she must be up to, and if she could join him. He called her up.

"Hello, where are you?"

"Movie, movie," she whispered.

"Oh ok. Which movie?"

"Mystic River."

"Oh, who's there in that?"

"Shawn Penn," she whispered.

"Who?" He had heard John-something.

"SEEN PENN!" she said loudly.

"Oh," he hung up. Bloody bitch.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Birthday Thoughts: The Mellowing Of A Man

It was in June 2005, if my memory serves right, that I first visited Bangalore. I wasn't married then, I hadn't started this blog yet, I didn't know I would be writing books in the immediate future, I wrote a weekly column for the Sunday magazine of the paper and the occasional cover story, Gmail/Gtalk had only just arrived and I was still using Yahoo mail/messenger, and, above all, I had recently bought a laptop and got internet connection at home.

In short, those were the good, carefree days when I had all the time in the world and no worries. As soon as I would get home I would sign into Yahoo messenger and chat, at times all night, with friends who were online. Occasionally, I would log on to the public chatrooms of Yahoo, and mostly go to the Chennai rooms, to fish for someone interesting.

By 2005, though, the novelty of chatrooms was wearing off and they were only flooded with men desperately looking for an erotic chat or to hook up with willing women. Hardly any woman signed in unless equally desperate, which is something rare. This wasn't the case, though, in the early years of the decade when chatting with strangers on the internet had suddenly become the new pastime of computer-friendly Indians and you could run into some of the most intelligent and well-read women in these chatrooms.

So that night, a few hours before I was to take the Shatabdi Express to Bangalore, I logged on to public chat and went to one of the Bangalore 'rooms', hoping to find an additional reason to look forward to the visit. Luck was on my side. I found Ms X who, the moment I pinged her, was kind enough to leave aside other men she might have been chatting with and pay attention to me. We got talking. In an hour or so, the conversation shifted from the internet to the phone. In about another hour, we had planned when and where to meet up in Bangalore once I arrived. Throughout the conversation, she kept on repeating, "But you must know, I am not that kind of a girl." To which I kept replying, "When did I ever say you were that kind of a girl?" Whatever 'that' meant.

What happened next, many people who read me in New Sunday Express might remember. But for the benefit of those who did not, I'll do a quick rewind.

So I met Ms X in Bangalore the next evening. She was good-looking and all, but if I were to describe her in one word, it would be buxom. We had coffee and cutlets at a restaurant, after which she had ice-cream. Then we found ourselves at Bangalore Central, the mall. I looked at shirts and jeans, but found nothing that I would badly want to possess. As we were leaving, I asked her if she wanted to buy something.

"No, nothing."

"I will buy it for you."

"No, nothing. Let's go."

"Are you sure?"

"I want a pair of black trousers. That's the only thing I don't have. But I couldn't find them here."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, I was looking around. They don't have it."

So we left Bangalore Central and proceeded to Brigade Road. There, we entered a shop where I bought myself a T-shirt and again asked her if she would like to buy something. She fancied a particular pink top, and I bought it for her. It was expensive, but never mind. After all, I was the one who suggested that we meet. I was now all set to say, "So it was nice meeting you" and was itching to get back to my hosts in Bangalore who had planned out the rest of the evening for me.

But as we climbed down the steps of the shop, Ms X said, "But this pink top, it will go best with black trousers. Will you get me black trousers too?"

The question aroused the sadist in me. I wanted to punish myself for having got into the situation. And so, that evening and the evening after were spent in search of a pair of black trousers for Ms X. We did not miss out any shop on Brigade Road and Commercial Street, yet we failed to find a pair of black trousers for her.

The problem was her waist size, which she said was 36 inches. But size 36 turned out to be too tight in the wrong places, while size 38, which very few shops stocked, was too loose. Oh, the torture of waiting outside the trial room as she tried out one pair of trouser after the other, in one shop after the other. We took the search into lanes branching off these roads, yet no luck. The search eventually ended a few months later in Pondy Bazaar in Chennai, but that's another story.

Upon returning to Chennai, I wrote about my trouser-hunting experience in the paper. The next morning, my phone was flooded with text messages by the time I woke up. "So the next time I want to buy clothes, I know who to ask," teased one friend. "Can't believe that an assistant editor of a paper is writing about all this," fumed another. By and large, people were amused and so was I.

Today, however, I would shudder at the thought of reading such a piece under my own byline. How could I seek the company of a total stranger, and then write about the encounter, that too in the paper! Today I wouldn't describe such an encounter even on my blog. There are times when I visit the archives of Ganga Mail for some reason or the other, and find myself quite surprised reading some of the stuff I've written in the past.

Marriage, I think, acts as a filter. Today if I happen to go to Bangalore alone and seek an encounter with a strange women, I am not going to write about it unless I've lost the desire to live. But that's the only filter that marriage introduces as you transform your thoughts into words -- the personalised becomes generalised. Otherwise, even after being married, I've written lengthy posts on subjects such as love, sex, marriage, fidelity and infidelity (or the inevitability of it). And it irritates me no end when, from time to time, well-meaning people ask me if my wife reads my blog. When I tell them she does, some ask, "Does she say anything?" Others ask, "Doesn't she say anything?"

But the real reason why I feel horrified or embarrassed at the thought that I could write something like that back then, lies in a three-letter word that most people dread: age. Today, even if I were not married, I would not go to a public chatroom and waste time there, least of all to seek the company of a stranger in a strange city. Initially, the idea of meeting a buxom beauty (and the possiblities such a meeting may hold) may be exciting, but soon the thought tires you out. What for -- I would ask myself. And even if I were to undertake such an adventure, I would never write about it. What for -- I would ask myself again.

I can feel the age. When I arrived in Chennai a decade ago, I was only a few days older than 30. I was new to the city, the city was new to Yahoo messenger -- it was so much fun. But whenever I signed into a chatroom, where one is expected to give out age/sex/location so that the other person could decide whether to respond to you or not, I would always identity myself as '29/m/Chennai', or '29/m/new to Chennai'. I was finding it very difficult to accept the fact that the first digit of my age should now begin with '3'. Even though the ages of 29 and 30 are separated by merely 365 days, the psychological impact on you (as well on the person you are seeking to chat with on the internet or elsewhere) can be tremendous. For a very long time I remained 29.

Today I don't have the slightest desire to cling on to 39. I am looking at 40 with my chest wide open: "Come, stab me! Kill my 30s and take me along with you." Forty is so much fun. That's when you realise the importance of having fun and actually work towards it.

The idea of fun, though, might differ. At 40, it no longer matters how many people you are with, but who you are with. The circle of people you know might expand but the number of friends shrinks drastically. Above all, you no longer brag or boast, but would have learned the art of discretion.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Life At Forty

Years zero to ten
you live in a small universe
called Innocence;
not many inhabitants
mostly mom, dad and the toys.
You don't know what life is.

Years ten to twenty
you grow out of the skin of Innocence
into the world called Adolescence
More inhabitants: mom, dad and the books,
teachers, friends and girlfriend; and
discovery of a sensation down the navel.
But you still don't know what life is.

Years twenty to thirty
Cosy in the sparkling skin of Youth
you expand your universe:
more friends, girlfriends and the boss.
Sometimes you listen to the genital
sometimes to the growling stomach
the remaining hours spent in office.
Too busy to know what life is.

Years thirty to forty
You're the Man. Mom's gone, but there's wife.
Coping with arrivals and departures in life
you cling on to something dearer -- your job!
More stomachs to feed, more ambitions to fuel
Besides paying for the new car and the flat!
And the genital? At times a caged bird, at times
an uncaged lion. You're so worried about life
That you don't know what life is.

At the age of forty
You've been there, done that: nothing to prove!
The genital winks like a battle-hardened general,
the stomach assures, "I can take care of myself!"
Memories are new girlfriends: ah, the joys of adultery!
and unfinished dreams your new drinking buddies.
Over Scotch you plan and plot; and when night falls
you place your head on the bosom of memories and smile:
So far I lived for others, lived by others, lived up to others
My life begins only now.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Shaily Baba

How many still remember the names Jagmohan Sahni, Pammi Sahni and Shaily Baba?

They constituted a chhota, perhaps sukhi, parivar living in Jhumri Talaiyya. I have no idea what Mr Sahni did for a living, but his secondary occupation was to write in to Vividh Bharati with requests for songs. In the post-card, he would also include his wife's and daughter's names. The idea, of course, was to listen to your names being read out on the radio. Who knows, Mr Sahni (or perhaps Mr Sawhney) must be gathering his neighbours around the radio set/transistor before the programme in which he expected the names to be mentioned began. "Aaj radio mein hamara naam aane wala hai!"

I have spent countless, yes countless, mornings and afternoons and evenings, listening to these names, among two dozen others, being read out by the announcer before he or she played the song of their choice.

Does anyone still listen to Vividh Bharati programmes; and if yes, do you still hear these names being read out? I am curious to know, because Shaily Baba must be grown up by now and I don't think she would still have 'Baba' attached to her name. And who knows, she must be possessing an iPod by now, playing the songs of her choice herself rather than wait for the announcer to do so.

Shaily Baba, are you listening?

Saturday, December 11, 2010


We are finally cruising through December. It's a month you wish, at least I wish, never ended.

Once December ends, the year ends. Once the year ends, yet another chunk of your life gets junked into a transparent wastebin that bears the label 'Past' and whose lid shuts permanently once the clock strikes 12 on the night of December 31.

Thereafter, you can only look into the bin but not retrieve any of its contents even if you badly wish to. Past, after all, is past. What has been done cannot be undone; and what has not been done cannot be done anymore. The year has ended, after all.

The true measure of your success and happiness lies in how badly you want to dig into the bin. If you proudly lift the bin and place it on the mantelpiece like a trophy, it means you've had a good year. But if you happen to be wrestling with its lid in order to retrieve a junked piece of paper, in spite of knowing that the lid is shut for good, it means you have screwed up and badly want to make amends.

Then there are vagabonds like me, who don't bother meddling with the bin. We merely hide the label 'Past' by sticking over it a rectangular piece of paper that reads 'Nostalgia.'

The day you persuade your Past into becoming Nostalgia, you begin to extract the meaning of your life. Or so I think. But why do such profound thoughts occur only in December?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday, December 03, 2010

'Wish The Earth Swallowed Me'

This evening, a friend, who teaches in the kindergarten section of a top school, called me. She sounded upset.

"Is everything fine?" I asked.

"Don't even ask," she gasped. "I wish the earth split open this moment and swallowed me!"

"What happened?"

She told me. Last week, two students in her class, a boy and a girl, were caught trying to relieve each other their uniform (this is Upper KG!) and simulating unmentionable acts.

"When I asked them what they were doing, they said they had seen their parents doing such things at home. These days, if you hit a student, you go stright to jail. So what do you do?"

"What did you do?" I asked.

"We made the boys and the girls sit separately."

"Did it work?"

"No! This morning two girls were kissing each other in front of the entire class. When I asked them what they were doing, they said they had seen people doing it on TV."

I didn't know what to say. Then my friend chided me, "And people like you, what do you do? You write about all nonsense topics. Why don't you write an article on parenting? Why don't you at least write a post on your blog?"

Parenting is one area Ganga Mail stays clear of. But I think I have done my bit for you, 'Miss'.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

And So Television Came To India

This picture was taken last evening, during the Chennai launch of Urban Shots. The man to my left, in deep blue shirt, is P V Krishnamoorthy. He is 89. Let me tell you his story. I wrote about him in the paper sometime ago, and much of what follows has already been published.

Krishnamoorthy was born in Rangoon in 1921. There, he grew up on the same street where the Bengali novelist Sarat Chandra Chatterjee lived. As a young man, he rubbed shoulders with legendary singers like Pankaj Mullick in Kolkata. Even today, he plays Rabindra Sangeet on the keyboard with such flourish and enthusiam as if he had composed those tunes himself a few hours ago.

"Rabindra Sangeet must also adapt to the changing times, or else the younger generation will not be able to relate to it," he told me I went to his R.A. Puram home to interview him. "I am sure Gurudev won’t mind," he gestured to the portrait of Tagore hanging on the wall and winked.

Krishnamoorthy saw television in India being developed from scratch and later went on to become the first director-general of Doordarshan when it was formed in 1976. He may be leading a retired life today, practising his Rabindra Sangeet on the keyboard gifted by his son, but he is a repository of stories through which one can trace the birth and growth of TV in India. It all began with a trade exhibition at the Pragati Maidan in Delhi.

"I think it was 1957 or 1958. Philips had displayed a closed-circuit television in its stall. But they found it too cumbersome to ship the equipment back,so they gave it to All India Radio for a nominal fee. We set it up in a small room on the fifth floor of Akashvani Bhavan. There was no air-conditioning then, so we had to place ice slabs to keep the room cool," Krishnamoorthy recalled.

So, the equipment left behind by Philips became India's first TV station, which became operational in September 1959, broadcasting over a radius of 25 km. It beamed educational programmes,watched by a very limited audience on UNESCO-donated sets. Krishnamoorthy,who joined AIR as an announcer in 1944, was then sent to the US to study how TV can aid education.

"It was an experimental service for a long time. The government did not seem to be serious about TV," Krishnamoorthy told me. "It was Indira Gandhi, when she was the information and broadcasting minister, who said enough is enough and that we should get serious about it."

Still, TV remained a tool only for social education, till a full-fledged station was opened in Mumbai on October 2,1972,with Krishnamoothy as its head. Germany had already switched to colour TV, and it gave away its black-and-white equipment to India. The inaugural function was almost a disaster. The Maharashtra governor,the chief guest, almost forgot to turn up; Bismillah Khan, after waiting for the governor for long,disappeared for namaaz; Asha Parekh,who was to perform on stage with dancer Gopi Kishan, stepped on a broken soft drink bottle; the central camera collapsed. But none of these was noticed on TV and the launch was a success.

Krishnamoorthy, however, had a tough time explaining to the Hindi film industry that TV would not eat into their viewership. Among the filmmakers who were not entirely hostile to TV was Ramanand Sagar, who eventually exploited the medium to serialise Ramayana.

One day, while Krishnamoorthy was sitting in his office, a young,dusky woman barged into his room, crying foul. She had just auditioned for the job of a news reader and had been rejected. Krishnamoorthy got a third party to audition her and she was selected. But she didn't last long as a newsreader because director Shyam Benegal saw her on TV and offered her a role in his film. She was Smita Patil.

Years before that, in 1957, when Krishnamoorthy was the station director of AIR in Cuttack, he spotted a young man waiting at the gate one morning. The young man's father was a wrestler and wanted his son to be a wrestler as well. But the son wanted to play the flute,and had approached AIR in Lucknow. The station director there dispatched him to Cuttack, where Krishnamoorthy not only bought him a set of 12 flutes from Kolkata but also let the homeless boy stay in the AIR station for a year. The boy did not look back: he went on to become Hari Prasad Chaurasia.

The most gratifying moment in Krishnamoorthy's own career came in 1975 with the SITE,or Satellite Instructional Television Experiment,project,the brainchild of Vikram Sarabhai,which entailed using a US satellite to reach 2,400 most inaccessible villages in India. Krishnamoorthys job was to produce 1,320 hours of programming, in various regional languages. "It was the biggest, boldest experiment ever," he told me.

The project kept him busy in the remote villages of Bihar, Orissa and Karnataka,so much so that he was missing from Delhi most of the time, even when Indira Gandhi decided to separate TV from AIR and launch it as an independent body called Doordarshan in April 1976 and make Krishnamoorthy its first director-general.

"That's how I escaped the Shah Commission, as I was never there in Delhi. They had appointed an additional director-general to do the dirty work (during Emergency)," he laughed.

But there was one dirty job Krishnamoorthy had to do: to get the Raja of Mandi vacate his palace so that the studio of the newly-created Doordarshan could move in. "He was refusing to move out. Then V C Shukla told me, 'Tell him to vacate or else we will acquire his property.' I conveyed his message to the Raja and he vacated. We had to pay him, of course," recalled Krishnamoorthy.

The palace of the Raja is today known as Mandi House, the headquarters of Doordarshan.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mr Mukerjee

If you search for V.S. Naipaul on Google, you get 436,000 results. But if you search for Shiva Naipaul, you get only 19,400. It isn't surprising at all, but at the same time tragic.

But then, tragedy was the middle name of Shiva Naipaul: he died of a heart attack at the young age of 40, leaving five books behind and taking away many, many more along with him. He is remembered annually by a handful of people, when the Spectator magazine invites entries for the literary award it instituted in his name after his death. Otherwise, not many seem to know or remember or care to look for Shiva Naipaul, the younger brother of the world's most famous Naipaul.

I did not study literature; and there are not too many books that I have read cover to cover. I usually dip into them, read a few pages here and a few there, reread the passages that I like -- all with the purpose of self-education, to learn a trick or two about the craft of writing. So it may look foolish on my part to talk about or compare two literary figures. I mean, who am I to judge them?

But as a lay reader, who spends enormous mounts of money on acquiring books, I have every right to speak my mind, don't I?

As a reader aspiring to be a writer, V.S. Naipaul is the man I want to be, not just because of the fame and the Nobel, but because it takes an extraordinary human being to write a book like A House For Mr Biswas. In the book, to explain in Bollywood terms, there is tragedy in comedy and comedy in tragedy. And come to think of it, the book merely tells the story of an uninteresting man growing up in Trinidad.

It was only after reading this book, about 10 years ago, that I understood why the world distinguishes between 'writers' and 'literary figures'. Jeffrey Archer maybe a writer, but he will never be considerd a literary figure, even though his income from writing is likely to be a lot more than that of Naipaul and Salman Rushdie put together. The distinction has been best explained by none other than Anthony Burgess, in an essay called Success:

"The trouble with fiction is that there are two ways of looking at it: as a business and as an art. Just up the coast from me at Cannes, sitting glumly but royally on his yatch, is a man who succeeded indubitably with the novel as a business. His name is Harold Robbins. He is, however, not satisfied with having sold a great number of copies of books about sex and violence: he wants to be regarded, on the strength of his evident popularity, as the greatest writer alive. Nobody will so consider him and this makes him sour. It does, of course, sometimes happen that the most popular novelist is also the best -- Dickens, for instance; perhaps even Hemingway -- but the one does not follow from the other. We expect great fiction to be too subtle or complex for popular acceptance."

I, however, think it is more about simplicity than complexity or subtlety. A writer merely tells you a story, while a literary figure sucks you into the story and makes you toss and turn in the bed and spend sleepless nights. A House For Mr Biswas may be the story of Naipaul's father, but it is also the story of each one of us. We all find ourselves in the book, described in accurate detail, in some chapter or the other.

I also admire V.S. Naipaul immensely for his comic writing. For readers of Ganga Mail who haven't read Naipaul yet, I would especially recommend the story One out of Many from the Booker-winning In a Free State, and The Perfect Tenants from the book A Flag On The Island.

But when it comes to travel writing, I would like to be Shiva Naipaul anyday. Thanks to Flipkart, I was fortunate enough to buy North of South, a description of his journeys through parts of Africa. All other books of his are 'out of stock.' Shiva Naipaul is a far more amiable travel companion than his elder brother, who is far too cynical and philosophical to let you enjoy the travel. When you are travelling with Sir Vidia, it does not matter whether you are in India or Indonesia: you are always in a nation that is dirty and rotting and where people are perenially complaining and whining.

Not so in the case of Shiva Naipaul. He is good-natured, humorous and loves to take things in his stride when he travels. Ever since North of South was couriered to my home about six weeks ago, I have managed to read it thrice, cover to cover. His skills to observe and describe people and places are far more superior than those of his elder brother, and I can vouch for this because in the book Shiva Naipaul has accurately described a Bengali gentleman, a certain Mr Mukherjee living in the heart of Africa. I am taking the liberty of reproducing some relevant passages:

The Goans of Arusha had organised an expedition to the Ngorongoro Crater. However, it was the not the Goans but Mr Mukerjee, himself neither a Goan not a member of the Club that was organising the outing, who invited me to come along.

Mr Mukerjee's influence over the Goans stemmed from the fact that it was he who had arranged for the charter of a bus at a special concessionary rate: Mr Mukherjee prided himself on having strange friends in strage places. I was a little reluctant to accept, having heard that there was some anxiety about the Club's being able to accommodate all its bona fide members who wanted to go.

But Mr Mukerjee was insistent. "If I say you can come, then you can come. You mustn't let these spineless colonials frighten you off. Nobody is going to argue with me if I say that I am bringing you along as my guest."

His belligerence confirmed what I had heard about him -- that Mr Mukerjee thrived on "confrontations." I began to feel that his invitation was motivated less by a desire to do me a favour than by a compulsion to exercise and test the limits of his power over the Goan Club."

And then:

"That night there was a discotheque, the music played on a scratchy, battery-operated record player supplied by the manager of the lodge. The poor reproduction did not dampen the ardor of the Goan girls (they outnumbered the boys), who danced dedicatedly with each other, "bumping" and "grinding." The German tourists who, at the beginning of the evening, were gathered in a circle in front of the log fire were driven out. Mr Mukerjee, seeking a confrontation, complained to the manager about the noise. The manager -- a big, bearded but unturbaned Sikh -- stood his ground.

"You can always go to your room if you do not like," he replied, politely obdurate.

"I have no desire to go to my room. My family and I have every right to stay here if we wish to."

"So have they."

"But do they have a right to kick up such a racket? It is disgraceful behaviour. I have not come all this way to watch a bunch of colonials making fools of themselves -- and disturbing the peace of the night into the bargain."

The manager shrugged, "If you don't care for it, you know what you can do." He turned his massive back on Mr Mukerjee.

This was more than Mr Mukerjee could bear. He chased around his adversary so that they were facing each other again. "Look here -- do you know who you are talking to?"

"I don't care who you are." The manager stared insolently. "It is I who am boss here, and what I say goes."

Mr Mukerjee's bulbous eyes started out of his head.

Mrs Mukerjee tried to restrain her husband. "Please, Dilip. It is no good arguing with him. Let us go to our room."

Mr Mukerjee pushed her aside. "I'd have you know, sir, that you are not talking to a spineless Asian colonial. You are talking, sir, to an Indian national, a citizen born and bred, of the Republic of India. I won't be treated in this way."

The manager remained unimpressed.

"Calm down, Dilip." Mrs Mukerjee took hold of her husband's arm. "Let's go to our room." She looked reproachfully at the manager. "You have no right to speak to him in that rude way."

Although still protesting, Mr Mukerjee allowed himself to be led away. The two Mukerjee boys followed their parents.