Saturday, December 10, 2011

Life In A Metro: Goodbye, Guide

The death of Dev Anand has left us with two important lessons

When I got a call from my brother unusually early in the morning last Sunday, I was naturally alarmed. It turned out to be bad news not for me, but for my generation. When someone like Dev Anand dies, you realise that the earth has been spinning all this while even though it appeared stationary, and that someday it will be your turn.

You didn't expect – rather you didn't want – someone like Dev Anand to ever die. He began acting when my father was a toddler and my mother wasn't even born. And then it was my turn to grow up with him. How can I ever forget the thrill of watching Johny Mera Naam in the theatre, sometime in the late nineteen-seventies? As long as Dev Anand was alive, I felt I was safe, my family was safe. But last Sunday, the protective wall – someone whose presence I had taken for granted – was gone. I feel vulnerable.

But then, as Dev Anand sang, “Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya.” Life is a game which has its rules; whether you win or lose you have to play along, something he did with gusto. As one ponders over his passing away, one can't help think of the two lessons that his life has left us with.

One, never say die. I have never had the chance to meet or speak to Dev Anand, but fellow journalists who have interviewed him tell me how infectious his energy was. He could liven up your day even over the phone. People often console others – and even themselves – saying that age is just a number, but Dev Anand demonstrated that. Age might have shrivelled his skin but it could do nothing to deplete his energy. A lesser mortal would have faded away long ago and led a quiet retired life, occasionally going down memory lane whenever a journalist visited.

But words like ‘retirement' and ‘inactivity' did not exist in Dev Anand's dictionary. It was simply impossible to imagine him on a wheel-chair or lying on a hospital bed. Always agile, alert and flashing that trademark smile with a glint of mischief in the eyes – that's probably how he was in his last moments before death came. All this, in the face of rejection. The audience long stopped going to the theatres to watch his films. They would rather travel long distances to watch him, at some event or the other, but not his films.

Yet, Dev Anand soldiered on with the same enthusiasm he had stepped into Bombay 65 years ago – discovering new faces, scouting for new locations, to make yet another film that nobody was going to watch. So that's one lesson: if you have the enthusiasm, even advancing age and adversity cannot stop you.

Lesson no. 2: Never fall in love with your own style. Dev Anand, as an actor, worked best when someone else directed him. Some of his most memorable films – Guide, Johny Mera Naam, Tere Mere Sapne, Jewel Thief – were directed by his younger brother, the talented Vijay Anand. The only big hit that Dev Anand himself directed was Hare Rama Hare Krishna, and that was a good forty years ago. Since then, he had been trying to recreate the magic of Hare Rama Hare Krishna, giving himself the central role,his trademark mannerisms intact,but each time he failed miserably. He might have remained evergreen, but his storytelling looked dated.

One need not cow down before age, which he never did, but one must acknowledge age, which Amitabh Bachchan wisely did. Amitabh Bachchan, had he been Dev Anand, would have started directing himself to keep the angry-young-man image alive and would probably be busy making The Return of Amar Akbar Anthony at the moment. But he reinvented himself in the late 1990s by becoming the young old man and staged a dramatic comeback into the hearts of the audience.

But who knows, perhaps it was his love for his own style that gave Dev Anand the endless reserve of energy to live life to the fullest – till death plucked that evergreen leaf of Hindi cinema.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, December 10, 2011.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Ghost In Hong Kong

I had barely flung myself on the bed, after three hours of waiting at the airport and another five on the flight, when my eyes fell on the large LCD screen facing me:

“Dear Mr Ghost: Welcome to The Mira Hong Kong. Thank you for choosing to stay with us.”

How I wish I were Mr Ghost. I wouldn’t have to endure long hours in a plane or spend hard-earned money in order to travel the world (though this trip didn’t make me any poorer because I was a guest of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, and the journey from Chennai took barely five hours).

Nevertheless, I was quite pleased with what I saw on the screen and got up to fiddle with the remote, when I found a cordless keyboard. Ah, so I could check email and Facebook on the big screen! Then I noticed a welcome-envelope waiting to be opened: it was addressed to Mr Bishwanathan. Meanwhile, I had arrived in Hong Kong barely an hour ago on a boarding pass that identified me as Mr. Gosh.

Never mind. My name didn’t matter now. For the next five days, I was going to be a nameless tourist, one of the tens of thousands who come to visit the former British colony every year. This year the arrivals crossed the unprecedented one-million mark, and the tourism board is now eager to exploit the Indian market, even though the number of tourists going from here has already doubled compared to last year.

The five days were roughly divided into two activities: looking up in amazement at the high-rises that define Hong Kong and looking down at them in equal amazement from even greater heights — even as one kept hopping between Kowloon peninsula and the islands of Hong Kong and Lantau. These are the three regions that primarily comprise the tourist’s Hong Kong.

My discovery of Hong Kong began that evening with a visit to Sky100, the observatory on the 100th floor of the world’s fourth tallest building — the newly-opened 108-floor International Commerce Centre in Kowloon. The elevator propels you the 100th floor in 60 seconds, and there you are, treated to a 360-degree panoramic view of the city — far more mind-boggling than a pair of human eyes can take.

So this is Hong Kong, I thought to myself as I watched from behind the glass wall a neat arrangement of yellow lights spread out below — one of the very few non-Western cities you somehow get to hear of right from childhood, even if you were not particularly fond of the atlas; where the British planted the Union Jack in 1841 and withdrew from as recently as 1997, returning it to China.

Due to the 156 years of the occupation, Hong Kong is today part-British, part-Chinese — a classic example of East-meets-West. Ninety-five percent of the population is Chinese, but the official language is still English; residents can hold British passports until 2047; the Hong Kong dollar remains in circulation and is convertible.

I was now going to spend some of those dollars, for next on the itinerary was a visit to the Hong Kong Wine and Dine Festival, a recently-begun annual feature that takes place by the Victoria Harbour. Rosanna, my feisty but friendly Chinese guide, had already pointed at the venue from Sky100: from that great height it had looked like the ultimate party place, right next to the harbour on whose still surface the occasional boat was leaving a temporary scratch.

But at the festival venue — which was jam-packed, resembling a college carnival — the view of the waterfront had been blocked by countless stalls set up by wine companies from across the world. Fine wine is lost on me — I can only tell the red from the white. But the sun was long down and I needed my drink, and at the same time I was very hungry. Since my arrival I had been surviving on bread and cheese.

As I went searching for my kind of food so that I could drink (even if wine), two young Chinese students accosted me. They wanted my feedback about the festival. I patiently answered all their questions (asked in broken English) and they took a picture of me with their iPad.

“Now, can I ask you something?”

“Yes, yes,” the boys said.

“Is there any stall where I can get vegetarian food?”

“What food?”


The boys looked at each other in bewilderment. They hadn’t heard of the word. “Sorry sir, I don’t know what you say.” They were red with embarrassment.

Fortunately, I found a French stall selling cheese croissants. I bought a half-a-dozen of them. The rest of the evening I drank red wine and ate cheese croissants and admired the young women of Hong Kong who stylishly held their (plastic) wine glasses as if they were in a Page-3 party. This was of course a Page-3 party, only that the guest list was multiplied by a thousand.

Back in the hotel, located on Nathan Road, I felt hungry again and set out looking for Indian food. I walked a considerable length of the road and after a few left and right turns, came upon Jordan Street, where I found the Bombay Indian Restaurant. The owner, a salwar kameez-clad Punjabi woman who said her family came to Hong Kong some 20 years ago, sat on the pavement calling out to potential customers. A young woman in jeans, presumably her daughter, waited on the tables.

“Spicy or non-spicy,” she asked me in accented English as I ordered daal makhani and naan.

I thought for a moment and said, “Spicy.”

The next morning I was at the Kowloon Cricket Club, to watch a match of the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes, an international six-a-side, five-over-each tournament that the club has been hosting since the early 1990s. In terms of brevity and entertainment value, this format can rightly be called the father of Twenty20. But since I gave up watching cricket ever since Twenty20 walked out of the pavilion, I couldn’t tell, under the harsh sun, who was bowling and who was batting. As many as 12 cricket-playing nations were participating in the tournament this year, and outside the Club, a large number of Pakistanis were waiting to catch a glimpse of their favourite cricketer. There was a flutter when Sanath Jayasuriya walked in. I just about managed to take a picture of him: I had never imagined I would spot him in, of all places, Hong Kong.

I had half a mind to watch Jayasuriya bat — live — but it was time to head to Disneyland. Even if you are young at heart, Disneyland isn’t quite the place for you to spend an entire evening unless you are taking your children along. But what do you do when you are deposited there and you don’t know your way back? You have no choice but to sit back and enjoy.

But to tell you the truth, I enjoyed Disneyland. Not just because of the Halloween parades that can blow one’s mind or because of the breathtaking toy-train trip that takes you along the circumference of the fantasy land, but mainly because of the Space Mountain ride. It is a gut-wrenching roller-coaster ride that takes place in total darkness, as if you were negotiating invisible curves in space at the speed of an aircraft. Unknown to you, cameras capture your expressions during the most stomach-churning moment of the ride, and the evidence of your fearful self is shown to you once you step off the roller-coaster. But the picture is not part of the deal: you need to buy it, for a steep price. Welcome to Hong Kong.


“See my new boots! How are they?” asked Rinku, my fellow Indian traveller.

“Awesome!” I said. I had to say that. She had spent 2,500 Hong Kong dollars to buy four pairs and was wearing one of them now.

And so we set off for Lan Kwai Fong to party. We had had a long day – and what a day.

The morning had begun on the island of Hong Kong. It was this island that the British had first taken in 1841 before they went on to expand their control to the Kowloon peninsula, and finally more areas north of the peninsula and also some islands, which they chose to call the New Territories. Collectively they came to be called Hong Kong. The island is, therefore, home to the city's colonial heritage and our host, the Hong Kong Tourism Board, put us on an open-top bus for a heritage tour of the city.

But when your eyes are blinded by the dazzle of the high-rises, how can you look out for humble heritage, which would probably be too embarrassed to show its face? So I sat back on my seat on the roof of the buses and enjoyed the carnival of the high-rises, each eager to kiss the sky first, as the bus snaked through the all-important roads of Hong Kong. If the dictionary doesn't define the word ‘opulence' for you, Hong Kong will. And I also realised: a concrete jungle may not look beautiful, but it can certainly look elegant.

We alighted at Peak Tram terminus on Garden Road. We were to take the tram right up to the Victoria Peak, now called just The Peak, which became the summer getaway for the colonial rulers ever since Governor Richard MacDonnell built a residence there, in the late 1860s. After tram service to the Peak began in 1888, the hill became an exclusive residential area for Europeans and remained out of bounds for locals for a number of years. Even today, the hill is home to the last of the fast-disappearing colonial bungalows in Hong Kong. The tram we take is new, but the route is 123 years old – a steep vertical climb right up the hill.

The moment we alighted we got sucked into a massive multi-storied steel-concrete-glass structure. We were on the Touristy Peak and not the Victorian Peak – but it was The Peak nevertheless. Souvenir shops, shopping malls, eateries, even Madame Tussauds gallery – the building contained it all. But it was the roof that mattered most: from there you could see all of Hong Kong, and even Kowloon. A sight to die for. A concrete jungle can also look beautiful.

After lunch at The Peak we drove to Ocean Park. The entertainment park, spread across 870,000 sq m of land, has a mountain standing in between and to get to the summit you have to take the cable car. As the cable car trundled high above the South China Sea, one could see the sun bowing out for the day, disappearing slowly into the sea. Against the fading sun was the silhouette of the roller-coaster which was to soon scare the life out of us. It was at Ocean Park that Rinku and I hatched the plan for Lan Kwai Fong.

The idea was to have a drink and stroll around the Soho of Hong Kong. But it turned out to be the night of Halloween, and, emerging out of Central station, we found that the whole of Hong Kong had descended on Lan Kwai Fong. To get to Lan Kwai Fong from the station, otherwise a two-minute walk, took us nearly two hours. Once she realised that Lan Kwai Fong was so near and yet so far, Rinku took off her Hong Kong boots. “They pinch,” she said and put them into her bag. Out came the humble Indian chappals.

Once in Lan Kwai Fong, we broke off from the unending procession and squeezed ourselves into the little space that was available on the pavement outside Hard Rock CafĂ©. There, clutching cans of Guinness, we watched the young of Hong Kong go past, thousands and thousands of them – it was the wedding of Grotesque and Grace. It's a night I am not easily going to forget – energy meeting imagination and the two of them saying hello to the no-holds-barred spirit.

The people of Hong Kong are a happy lot. According to Rosanna, our Chinese guide, the city-state made a net profit of 2,000 billion Hong Kong dollars from the stock exchange in 2010. The benefits were passed on to the people: every citizen over the age of 18 received 6,000 Hong Kong dollars from the government as ‘lucky money', and those above 65 got 3,000 dollars extra.

The next morning, we were at 1881 Heritage, one of the most expensive hotels in Hong Kong which, once upon a time, was the headquarters of the marine police. Such is the hotel's heritage and snob value that couples getting married and youngsters who've acquired a prestigious degree come to pose against the handsome colonial building. As if a degree or a marriage certificate is not valid until the photograph outside the hotel has been taken.

On the final day, in the island of Lantau, we took a stunning 5.7 km cable-car ride to the village of Ngong Ping, where a 34m Buddha sits on a hill. The spectacular 25-minute journey provides a panoramic view of the Buddha statue, the flora and fauna of the North Lantau Country Park, Tung Chung Bay and the airport. The Ngong Ping Piazza, opened last year, is lined with statues of the Twelve Divine Generals. And from there, it is a 268-step climb to nirvana. What a peaceful way to end a journey.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, December 3, 2011.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Life In A Metro: Death Of The Dictionary

Who needs a doorstop of a book when a right click is right at hand?

The first dictionary that I ever owned was won by me in a drawing competition at school. It was the first prize, a miniature dictionary bound in red, which I still preserve. Below her signature the principal had inscribed the date, '17.11.79' – which means I was nine years old then, most likely in the fourth standard. For many years after that I did not need another dictionary: the 5,000 or so entries in that tiny gem were more than sufficient to define the world I lived in.

I vaguely remember buying a dictionary much later, perhaps in high school, though I have no particular memories of it, which is very strange. All I remember is that I bought it only to prevent my prized possession from being shredded to pieces. But once I became an adult and decided to make a living out of the written word, I began to invest in voluminous dictionaries – the heavier the better. It was as good as bringing home a teacher who would look over your shoulder while you read a book or wrote a report, and at other times would sit patiently on your desk.

There is something venerable about the dictionary. It's a sage, grandfather, headmaster, teacher, judge, cop – all rolled, rather bound, into one. It's an institution by itself and perhaps the only thing in the world that is capable of making anyone, no matter how educated and accomplished, feel small. After all, the dictionary always knows something that you don't.

Of all the dictionaries I possess today, my favourite remains the One Hour Wordpower Dictionary, co-published by The Sunday Times of London. Simply because it was the first purchase I made after arriving in Delhi to join PTI as a probationary journalist, way back in 1994. I had bought it from a bookshop on Janpath; its pages have since yellowed and I don't think it's still in print. I also like it because it does not follow the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for pronunciations. If you want to know how the word 'jugular' sounds, it simply tells you: jug-yoo-la. Subsequently, from a book fair in Pragati Maidan, I bought the BBC English Dictionary. And then many more. It is a different matter that most of them remained untouched, their pages accessed only by particles of dust.

Today, the dictionary-buying days are way behind me. I no longer need one. Why just me? When was the last time you actually reached out for one? Haven't you been right-clicking on words all this while? But remember, each time you right-click on a word, the sale of dictionaries drops by one percent – okay, I just made up that figure, but I can't be way off the mark. A distributor told me the other day that bookshops were indeed recording a decline in the sale of not just dictionaries but reference books as a whole. Reference books, he said, are fast migrating to the textbook category and it is just a matter of time before general bookshops stop stocking dictionaries and encyclopedias.

I am not shedding a tear. But one fear grips me every now and then: what if I am asked to write a test in written English, with nothing but a pen and a few A-4 sheets at my disposal? I will stand completely exposed! To begin with, I wouldn't know how to spell ‘manoeuvre' (I actually had to dig out a dusty dictionary to type out the word for your benefit because spellcheck gives only the American spelling). I wouldn't even know whether it is ‘focused' or ‘focussed.'

Since I've already crossed the age of 40, it is unlikely that I will ever be asked to write a test again, but you never know. Imagine a 40-year-old journalist not knowing how to spell ‘manoeuvre'. The horror it will evoke, according to me, will be just as bad as the one that will strike you when you arrive in a strange town to find your mobile phone missing. You can't even call your wife to inform her about your plight because you never felt the need to remember her number. You are as good as a lost child who remembers what his home looks like but doesn't know how to get there. So much for the dependence on gadgets.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 19, 2011.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Life In A Metro — The Lingering Taste Of Birthday Cake

We are so focussed on the future that we often forget to relish the present. And before we realise, a year has gone past

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in this column and not without reason. I believe that nostalgia is your only true wealth, which makes you feel rich until the last breath, while everything else is transitory and temporary – here today, gone tomorrow! If your story is that of rags to riches, you can tell people: “You know, once upon a time I used to hawk vegetables on this very road.” If your story is that of riches to rags, you can tell those who are still around to listen, “You know, once upon a time, I used to own half the houses on this road.” In both cases, the memories warm your heart – irrespective of whether you are presently a prince or a pauper.

Nostalgia would not have been such a precious commodity had Father Time taken his sweet time in passing – so much so that you craved for the new day to break. But even as you blink, a day has passed. Now we all know that time flies and all – is there anything new in what I am saying?

Nothing really, It's just that the cruelty with which time flies past hits you hard as you approach certain personal milestones of your life, and makes you wonder whether it's worth leading a life when dates only stand for deadlines and delivery and when holidays are looked forward to so that you can catch up on sleep. Our minds are so focussed on specific dates that we often forget what month of the year it is – I mean, you may know what month it is but in a very clinical way without a feel for it. When realisation strikes, you are a year older.

Realisation struck me this morning when I was writing out a cheque for the newspaper vendor, who rang the bell early this morning. I put down the date as 10.10.11, when he reminded me, “Sir, it should be 10.11.11, but never mind, it is still valid.” It then hit me: ‘11' stands for November, which means next month is December, when I celebrate my birthday!

Now wasn't it just the other day – really just the other day – when I celebrated my birthday? I can never forget last year's birthday because I turned 40 and had celebrated the milestone by inviting each friend I have in the city. The taste of the cake still lingers in my mouth; the noise that is created when some 50 people gather in a hall is still ringing in my ears; many of the gifts I received are still to be opened; people are still commenting on the pictures of the party on Facebook; and I am still calling myself 40, happy in the knowledge that there are many more months to go before I turn 41.

But what is this: the time has already come! The prospect of turning 41 does not pain me so much as the fact that 12 months are about to pass without my even realising it. Father Time gave no notice, he just sent a last-minute alert in the form of the newspaper vendor. What was I doing when these months were passing by – why didn't I notice?

I guess I am yet another victim of the devil called deadline. My eyes are so perpetually fixed on a future date on the calendar that I miss out on today. What a pity that I listen to this song almost every day but am yet to get its import – it's an immortal song written by Gulzar, set to tune by R.D. Burman and sung by Kishore Kumar, from the film "Gol Maal":

Aane wala pal,
jaane waala hai
Ho sake to isme,
zindagi bita do
pal jo yeh jaane waala hai…

The moment that is arriving
is already about to leave
why not spend a lifetime in it
for it is about to leave.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 12, 2011.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Life In A Metro — Hong Kong Diary

Jottings from a trip where the best of the West met the best of the East

When you are visiting a foreign country as a tourist, it is one thing to check into a posh hotel and pore over the brochures handed out by the tourism department, and quite another to read the newspaper the next morning. The brochures invariably take you to fantasy land, where everything is perfect and where anything unpleasant safely belongs to the past – a place you would love to settle down if the laws permitted and if you had the cash. The newspaper, on the other hand, tells you the truth – though in some countries you may have to read between the lines.

In the case of India though – and I am not ashamed to say this – truth kisses you long before fantasy can take you in her embrace. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that the foreigners who adore India happen to be the ones in search of truth. But then, India is also a country where reality often fuses with fantasy: on one hand you can get fleeced or have your pocket picked, but on the other you will find total strangers inviting you to their houses for a meal.

Right now, though, I am going to talk about Hong Kong, where I spent five days recently at the invitation of its tourism board, which is eager to draw to tourists from south India. (A detailed account of the trip will be presented in the travel pages in the coming weeks). As you drive from the airport into the city, the first thing that will strike you is the flawlessness about Hong Kong – everything is in order. And once you get into the city, you will also find it an exciting place to be in. Hong Kong, after all, is a king-sized and far more vivacious version of London. Here, the best of West meets the best of East. But then.

On the very first morning that I woke up to in Hong Kong, I was greeted by a rather distressing piece of news. Axe hangs over private historic homes on Peak, screamed the lead headline of South China Morning Post, the largest English newspaper in Hong Kong and one of the most respected in the whole of southeast Asia. The Peak, once known as Victoria Peak, is a mountain that today overlooks the high-rises of Hong Kong. It used to be the summer capital of the colonial rulers and is still home to old bungalows, some of which have already been turned into high-rises while the remaining are awaiting such transformation, much to the concern of heritage enthusiasts.

“Heritage advisers said the government should make an effort to preserve those (houses) that were reminders of key public figures who contributed to Hong Kong’s development, or reflected the life of early residents,” the newspaper reported. It remains to be seen who wins eventually, the heritage advisers or the skyscrapers – though one knows the answer already.

The morning after, another piece of alarming news: Hong Kong is worried by the “growing youth drinking problem” and the government is urged to raise either the duty on alcohol or the legal age for drinking. There was a crime story too: that of a law student allegedly locking up and assaulting his girlfriend for three days to force her to reconcile with him. The reconciliation effort, however, landed him in jail, though he was released subsequently on bail.

And the morning I checked out of the hotel, I read, over breakfast, a piece of news which the newspaper thought should worry Hong Kong. According to the paper, the examiners for A-levels as well as Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination had blamed students for their “narrow-mindedness”, “immaturity” and “bad grammar.” One can understand the bit about poor grammar, but immaturity and narrow-mindedness? Welcome to Hong Kong.

Yet another headline on the same day, same page: Flasher strikes again in Sau Mau Ping. Oh well, even paradise must have its share of problems. Hong Kong is one such paradise.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, November 5, 2011.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Mind Of A Doctor

Thanks to my hypochondria, which is getting worse with advancing age, I have a new fantasy these days: to romance a doctor. That way, I could kill two birds with one stone -- get the woman's attention as well as assurance ("No baby, nothing is wrong with you! You are just fine, trust me!").

Romancing a doctor is quite different from marrying a doctor. When you marry a doctor, your home becomes a mini-hospital and all your vices are junked into the bin. No smoking, no drinking, no junk food, eating on time, sleeping on time -- everything that makes you feel alive is snatched away from you overnight. But when a female doctor chooses to romance you, she is well aware of your vices and is largely accepting of them: in fact, through you, she gets to see or lead the wild side of life which her professional conscience otherwise prohibits. For example, when you light up a cigarette, she may even take a drag or two, but at the same time she is likely to warn you, "Enough, this is the last cigarette you are having this evening. You can have the next one after dinner."

Experience, however, has taught me that the longer the romance rages, you begin to see more of the woman and less of the doctor. "Baby, nothing is wrong with you" becomes "Fuck you, go and die for all I care." Even then, I continue to be fascinated by women doctors -- at least the idea of them. It is not at all same as having a male doctor as a close friend.

If you call up a male doctor-friend, who is aware of your hypochondria, late in the night and tell him that you are experiencing a mild pain in the chest, he is most likely to tell you, "Have two glasses of water and try going to sleep. I don't think anything is wrong. If the pain still continues, go to Apollo tomorrow morning and get an ECG done. After that we will see."

But try calling a doctor-girlfriend to break the same chest-pain news and her first reaction, if it is within her control, would be, "Wait, I am coming!" Actually, the very fact that you have a doctor-girlfriend is good news: she would not have come anywhere close to you and have chosen to admire you from a distance if you really were a storehouse of diseases (which a hypochondriac thinks himself to be). And when she tells you, "Fuck you! Go and die", she is actually giving you a fitness certificate.

Which is why women doctors (or 'lady doctors') fascinate me. Each time I happen to find myself being examined by one, a barrage of questions assault me: Is it possible that she likes me? Does she wash her hands before she eats? Does she hog whenever she sees good food? Does she lust for men, knowing fully well what lies inside the human body? Does she have sex once she returns home from the hospital? If she does, does she analyse medically, in her mind, the whole act -- from arousal to orgasm? While kissing her lover, isn't she deterred by the fact that she is actually letting her mouth into a beehive of bacteria? Does she cry when a loved one dies, even though she knows, more than anyone else, that death is inevitable? Does she cry at all?

Strangely, these questions don't spring up in my mind when I am being examined by a male doctor. Maybe because I know that men are men, no matter what profession they are in. They are always guided by basic instincts. Women, on the other hand, are always conscientious and sincere. To imagine that they could have a naughty side when they are not examining a patient with a stern look on their face -- that can be titillating.

The other day, at a small gathering, I happened to meet a young doctor. She was specialising in, of all things, oncology. The hypochondriac in me wanted to stay miles away from her, lest she detect some strange growth on my body. Fortunately, by the time she pulled a chair next to me -- she turned out to be a reader of Ganga Mail and wanted to have a chat -- I had had two drinks to feel brave and philosophical.

"Sir," she began, "I have always wanted to tell you one thing. Please smoke and drink less, so that we can keep enjoying your writing."

"One will remain healthy as long as one wants to. It is all in the mind, you see. The mind is the most powerful human organ, which no doctor can touch or feel." It was the alcohol talking.

"Oh sir, it is pointless to argue with you intellectual types," she smiled. She looked shyly at the glass of beer she was holding.

"Tell me one thing," I said, "you have worked on cadavers, right?"

"Of course!"

"So you know how a man looks after death."

"Of course!"

"And you also know what is inside a human body -- the intestines, the organs, and so on."

"Of course!" she laughed, wiping the froth from her upper lip as she took a sip of beer. "Why do you ask all this?"

"I will tell you why. Suppose you are with a man, someone you like. Imagine a situation when you are standing or sitting very close to him. Are you going to be aroused, or are you going to think of all that is inside him -- the bones, the intestines, the organs?"

"Well, sir," she said, "it's like this. My brain will know what all is inside him, but my heart and eyes will see what is outside."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

500th Post And Six Years Of Ganga Mail. Destination: Salvation

On an average, each post in Ganga Mail is about 500 words. Now multiply that by 500, and it will easily translate into three 250-page books. Three books! Alas, I can't keep them in the shelf. They are invisible books. But they've earned me what real books achieve for their writers: a little bit of recognition.

Tomorrow, if fame comes knocking, the credit will still go to Ganga Mail because it was this blog which helped me find and develop a distinct voice as a writer. I still have a long way to go, but at least I know now that I am capable of telling a story. This would not have been possible without the constant encouragement from the people who read and have stood by Ganga Mail -- to all of you, my heartfelt thanks. With you around, life isn't so lonely.

Ganga Mail was born out of loneliness. I was two months short of 35, still single and, for the first time in my life, without a steady girlfriend. Forget steady, I did not have any woman in my life, with the exception of my mother, who was worrying herself to death about the fact that her elder son was still not married.

There were a couple of women in my life, but they were unknown, unseen beauties with brains who were capable of engaging you in a conversation all night without letting your interest sag even for a moment. They were among the people who read my column in the New Sunday Express and had got in touch, and the conversation with them, even though intense, would be anything but personal. They had built such strong walls of anonymity around them that getting anything personal out of them was next to impossible. Moreover, after a long, stimulating chat, while they would go back to their respective beds or lovers or perhaps spouses, I would be left alone sitting on the mattress and staring at the screen. I had no one left to even call up.

Thus was born Ganga Mail -- as an attention-seeking device. I wanted to be read, to be appreciated. Writing for the paper was not sufficient enough -- that was just my job.

If you dig into the archives of the blog and read the first fifty posts or so, you will encounter the soul of a lonely (though not unhappy) man. In my opinion, that lot contains some of my best posts -- honest and free of the fear of being judged. I would write a post over several drinks and by the end of it would click on the 'Publish' button in a mildly drunken state, without worrying about what I had written -- something that I no longer do.

The lonely phase didn't last long. I started Ganga Mail in October 2005, within six months I was married. By then the blog had assumed a life of its own. It had become my diary, my conscience keeper, my mouthpiece, my front desk, my scribbling pad -- all rolled into one. Above all, it had become my best friend, who not only showed faith in my writing skills and helped me sharpen them, but also taught me that every single moment in your life, no matter how mundane or insignificant they may seem, can be transformed into an engaging piece of writing provided you put your mind into it. That way, you never consider anything to be mundane -- be it the 90 seconds you spend at the traffic signal or the 30 minutes you wait in the queue to pay your phone bill -- every moment, every experience is laden with a ripe fruit called the 'story'. You only have to know how to pluck it. Ganga Mail taught me the art.

Tonight, as I write this landmark post, my mind goes back to the old posts that gave Ganga Mail unprecedented visibility and helped it earn new reader bases. Two such posts easily come to my mind: one, my eyewitness account of Mani Ratnam in action, and the story of Shivani, a fictitious woman I had created.

But the two posts that will always remain close to my heart happen to be written during the lonely phase: one, my search for a particular song, Raat banoon main aur chaand bano tum; two, my eventual realisation that the route to immortality is only through mortality, courtesy a Sahir Ludhianvi song from Kabhie Kabhie. If Ganga Mail were to have an anthem, it would be Raat banoon main -- and it is not even sung by Kishore Kumar, the singer this blog is committed to celebrating.

Then there are countless other posts which I am proud of and wish people would read and reread them, but I can't recall their titles right away to run a search and reproduce the links here. But one of them would certainly be my experience of cremating my mother at the Manikarnika Ghat in Banaras, a place where every devout Hindu desires to be cremated. My mother, even though highly devout, never went to Banaras with the intention of being cremated there: she was merely visiting my brother who happened to be posted in the city, and she just died one fine afternoon while having lunch, three days before her 59th birthday and exactly three hours after I had spoken to her over the phone.

Here again, Ganga Mail came to my rescue: the moment I received the news of her death, I became a blogger-reporter who set out to cover his mother's funeral. I was no longer thinking of my mother, but about how to deliver the news and describe the event to my readers. The readers had become my relatives.

Six long years and 500 posts on, Ganga Mail continues to flow. May not be with the same ferocity when it could be heard even from a distance, but perhaps with a gentle gurgling sound that encourages you to step into the cool waters and splash some of it on your face.

During its journey through the six years, Ganga Mail has received numerous compliments. People who gave those compliments, at various points of time, might have forgotten all about it, but the nice things they had had to say about the blog not only remain engraved in my heart but also lie scattered, as evidence, in the comment boxes of various posts.

But one compliment deserves special mention. It came very recently from someone totally unknown to me, someone who hails from Lucknow, who mentioned my blog on his friend's Facebook wall, saying, Inko padhte jaiye, jeete jaiye, zindagi chakhte jaiye.

Inko padhte jaiye, jeete jaiye, zindagi chakhte jaiye -- Keep reading him, keep living life, keep savouring life.

Now, isn't that the mission statement of Ganga Mail?

Saturday, October 08, 2011


It is always a pleasure to hold a new book in your hands -- even more if the book happens to arrive at your doorstep in a parcel. It is the time taken to tear open the parcel that heightens the pleasure. You know what exactly is inside, but the effort that goes into unravelling a brand new book is what really makes it worthwhile.

Then just imagine the pleasure if the brand new hardbound book you pull out of the parcel happens to be printed forty years ago! I must have been only a few months old when, in 1971, Alfred Knopf printed the American edition of Shiva Naipaul's best-known book, Fireflies.

I, of course, wouldn't know how many copies were printed and how many got sold from that lot, but it is now certain that some copies remained, unsold and untouched, in some storehouse where no light reached for forty long years. So what I held in my hands last Saturday was a first-edition copy of a celebrated book published at the time when I was born (Andre Deutsch published it in Britain in 1970 and Alfred Knopf published it in America the following year).

I kept rereading, in amazement, these words on the opening page: Alfred A. Knopf / New York / 1971. And also what the jacket of the book had to say about the author: Shiva Naipaul was born in 1945 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and was educated there and at University College, Oxford (where he received an honors degree in classical Chinese). Fireflies marks his debut as a novelist -- he has previously published short stories, three of which have appeared in Penguin Modern Stories 4. Like his brother, the novelist V.S. Naipaul, he now lives in England.

In a recent edition of the book, if at all there is one, the author intro would stand drastically altered. Shiva Naipaul would be described in the past tense (he died in 1985, aged 40) while V.S. Naipaul would not be called a mere novelist but a Nobel laureate. Fireflies, though I am yet to start reading it, seems to be Shiva Naipaul's answer to his elder brother's A House for Mr Biswas. They are equally voluminous and are set in Trinidad.

Between the two Naipauls, I somehow prefer the younger brother. While the elder one is like a dour-faced teacher who looks down upon you (yet you stick to him because you've got so much to learn from him), the younger brother is a good-natured soul who takes you along on his journeys. I have read, cover to cover, two books of Shiva Naipaul -- North of South and Beyond the Dragon's Mouth -- to be able to say that.

Somehow, Fireflies always eluded me. Each time I decided to look it up on Amazon, either the book would be out of stock or my credit card would have crossed the spending limit. Finally I got a first-edition copy, thanks to Soma.

Soma and I were born around the same time. We lived and grew up in the same neighbourhood and went to the same school. We were in the same class. As kids we were great friends, but adolescence erected a wall of awkwardness between us. I don't recall having a single conversation with her during our teenage years. By the time we could step out of teenage, she was already married and had gone off to America. We ceased to exist for each other -- not that it mattered to either of us. Then, one day, some twenty years later, Facebook reunited us. We were two different people now -- both embracing the age of forty and much wiser.

About a month ago, Soma came down to India to visit her parents in Calcutta. Since I was going to be in Calcutta too around that time, we planned to meet up for lunch at Peter Cat on Park Street. A couple of days before she took the flight out of the U.S., she pinged me: "Dude, is there anything you want from here?"

"Nothing at all," I replied, "But just in case you happen to visit a bookshop before you leave, and if in that bookshop you find a book called Fireflies, please pick it up for me. I'll pay you."

Little did I know that she was going to do what I also could've done sitting thousands of miles away in India. She went to and ordered the book. Unfortunately, the book reached her home after she had left for India. Which meant I could not get my copy of Fireflies during the lunch at Peter Cat (I was secretly hoping I would). But so what, I've got it now and I can finally proclaim, proudly and honestly: That's what friends are for!

Really, the copy of Fireflies is a certificate of that friendship -- a friendship that goes back forty years, when Shiva Naipaul had just finished writing the book and when Soma and I were still in our nappies.

P.S. Talking of siblings, my brother Rohit also has a blog now.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Life In A Metro — The Circle Of Life

Rebel all you want — but life has a way of pulling you back to the basics

This Durga Puja, which got over just two days ago, I went pandal-hopping with gusto even though the festival is celebrated in barely five locations in the whole of Chennai. Which meant shaking hands with hitherto-unknown Bengali men who, like me, are also living in the city; admiring the beautiful Bengali women who made you wonder why you don't ever run into them during the rest of the year; savouring the artery-choking Mughlai parathas and cutlets sold at the stalls; admiring the beautiful face of the goddess as the priest waved burning incense at her to the beats of the dhaak – the sound of Bengal.

Each time I stood in front of the goddess, transfixed, as the incense was being waved at her, I could see my mind racing thirty years back in time to a city called Kanpur, where I, as a ten-year-old, stood watching a similar spectacle.

Back then, Durga Puja meant at least three sets of new clothes, each to be worn on saptami, ashtami and navami. The cloth would be purchased and given to the tailor more than a month in advance. During those three days, you would be granted immunity against homework. Also during those three days, you discovered the joys of eating out – the biggest joy, and sense of achievement, being derived from the eating of the bhog, or the community feast, consisting of khichuri and labra.

Khichuri (a soggy preparation of rice and lentils) and labra (a mix of crudely-chopped vegetables) can only count as the humblest of dishes one can think of, but when eaten collectively out of leaf-plates at the puja pandal, the khichuri-labra combo becomes a delicacy in itself. The smell of khichuri is something that gets embedded in the nostrils of a Bengali child right from the formative years.

Then, one day, youth intervenes. You rebel against the practices you've followed as a child; you find it uncool to waste a day at the puja pandal; you find it horrifying that people should queue up for the khichuri and labra as if they were beggars. You want to do your own thing, much to the disappointment of your parents who want you to come along for the puja just like you did in your childhood. Then comes the stage where you are too busy making a career to be thinking of festivals. Who has the time to go back to Kanpur to attend, of all things, Durga Puja? Years pass.

Finally, one day, you miss the smell of khichuri. You suddenly crave it. You want to take the train back to childhood but it is simply too late. So guided by your nostrils, you scour the streets of Chennai and eventually come across a puja pandal, where scenes from your childhood are being played out. You meekly join the queue with a leaf-plate to have some khichuri and labra scooped on to it. Over the meal, you make new friends and perhaps meet your future wife. And then you start coming to the same place, year after year. You've become a part of Chennai's Durga Puja celebrations.

But just when you are beginning to relive your childhood, you realise that your child is no longer a child but a young man – a rebel – who would rather have lunch at Bay Leaf with his friends than sweat it out with fellow Bengalis over a boring meal of khichuri and labra. But when he takes up a job in the U.S., and once he gets as old as you, he too will crave the familiar smell someday. He will scour the alien streets of his city and eventually come across a pandal crowded with Bengalis speaking English with an American – and not Bengali – accent. He will become a part of the New Jersey Durga Puja celebrations.

Someday, many decades down the line, his grandson will tell himself that he has had enough of the American way of the puja, and that in order to enjoy the festival in its truest sense, he must return to Kanpur. So he will be standing there, on the invisible footprints of a ten-year-old, watching the priest wave burning incense at the goddess. Life would have come full circle.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, October 8, 2011.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Life In A Metro: Books, A Click Away

That's one evening I am not going to forget easily. It was October 2005. A colleague, who is also a good friend, and I were at Landmark, the bookstore, trying to make the most of the annual sale. As we went about picking books, I eagerly waited for the phone in my pocket to vibrate — our salaries were expected to be credited that evening, and as soon as the money hit the account, I was to receive a text message. Since my friend hadn't signed up for the intimation facility, he walked up to me every now and then to ask, “Did the SMS come?” We were getting panicky. Our evening depended entirely on the message from the bank.

Finally it arrived, just when we had run out of patience and were considering putting the carefully picked books back on the racks. It is difficult to describe in words the relief that overcame us; suffice to say that we pulled out our debit cards with flourish.

Today, even though that particular evening remains in my mind, the whole experience of whiling away time at bookshops has already become a distant memory. I simply can't recall the last time I went to a bookshop with the specific purpose of buying books. Why should I when I have the bookshop coming to my doorstep — that too with books I thought would be available only in a quaint bookstore in some corner of Europe? Can life get any better?

If you are a book-loving internet-savvy Indian and haven't heard of Flipkart yet, you are probably living in a cave. Flipkart, India's answer to, has brought about a revolution so sweeping that it is soon going to change the way the lay Indian shops — and not just for books. Why should you go to a bookshop and pay Rs. 250 for a book (not to mention the hundred bucks you shell out as autorickshaw fare) when Flipkart delivers the same book at your doorstep for just Rs. 188? For the discerning reader, it's not just about the discount but also the access to books that are never available in Indian bookshops.

Take Henry Miller, for instance. He is one writer I don't just admire, but also envy. But what do I find of him in the bookshops? Two long-unsold copies of Tropic of Cancer and may be a solitary copy of Sexus? And maybe a surprise copy of Black Spring? But run a search for Henry Miller on Flipkart, and you will hit a goldmine. For a few thousand rupees, you can own every single word Miller wrote in his lifetime. Ditto for other authors. You no longer have to lament: “Oh, I love his writing! He wrote that great book, what's its name? I tried looking for it, you know, but couldn't find it anywhere.”

The fun has just begun. It will be more fun starting next year when Amazon begins its India operations. According to informed sources, it has already set up an office in Bangalore (Flipkart is also headquartered in Bangalore), though it remains to be seen whether Amazon is going to function under its own brand name or piggyback on a local franchisee.

The surging popularity of e-tail is, needless to say, giving sleepless nights to the large chains of bookstores. Stand-alone bookstores, which are run out of passion for the written word and which have a loyal clientele, may still survive the onslaught as long as the elderly owner, most likely to be well-read himself, genially guides customers into buying the right books. But it's the big chains, who shell out a fortune each month to maintain their stores in plush malls or in prime locations in various cities, which will take the hit. Eventually they will sell less books and more of other items.

For once, I am not complaining about the changing times. More cars mean more pollution and congestion, more connectivity means less privacy, but more books only mean a bigger library at home. Which person in his or her right mind would ever grudge that?

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, October 1, 2011.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Seeds Of The Raj Were Sown Here

In 1639, the very year Shah Jahan made Delhi his capital city, the seeds of the Mughal Empire's doom were sown in a hill-surrounded south Indian town called Chandragiri, located in present-day Andhra Pradesh.

By then, the powerful Vijayanagara Empire had disintegrated into smaller kingdoms which were now ruled independently by their erstwhile governors, the Nayaks. Chandragiri, which had been the capital of the Empire, was ruled by a Nayak called Damarla Venkatadri, whose authority extended to the East coast, from Pulicat to San Thome. On August 22, 1639, he put his signature on a deed allowing the East India Company to set up business on a strip of beach close to San Thome.

On that sandy strip the Company built Fort St. George, which turned out to be the springboard for British rule in the sub-continent. From Fort St. George also grew the city of Madraspatnam, known today as Chennai, a metropolis bursting at its seams with a population of nearly 10 million. But Chandragiri, where it all began, is a small and contented town of 10,000. Located 12 scenic kilometres from Tirupati, it's bustling with activity, nonetheless.

Bazaar Road, its only main road, is commercial as well as residential — flanked by houses of varying vintage, shops and provision stores and busy eateries. At Murali Haircutting Saloon, which is pulsating with the beats of a racy Telugu song, barbers are snipping away at the hair of their customers even as film star Venkatesh smiles at them from a poster. Vegetable vendors, all women, have their wares spread out on the pavement. The road also accommodates the town's busy bus-stand, police station, a wine shop and two modest lodges. Yours truly spent a night in one of the lodges: an AC room came for Rs. 700. If Chandragiri was Mumbai, it would have been equal to staying at the legendary Taj Mahal Palace.

But few luxuries beat the pleasure of exploring a tiny town on a drizzly night at an unhurried pace, smelling the idlis being steamed by a roadside vendor-couple or watching a masterly chef stationed on the pavement expertly roll out egg dosas. The dosas, which might be the best you've ever had, cost you barely ten rupees. Perhaps the time has come to promote small-town tourism, when you travel to a nondescript town and savour life in slow motion, that too in a princely manner.

Historically, however, Chandragiri is anything but nondescript. The three-storeyed Raja Mahal, where the Nayak is said to have signed the lease, is about a kilometre from the town and attracts a trickle of tourists on a daily basis. It has been renovated and turned into a museum by the Archaeological Survey of India and houses artifacts and bronze statues belonging to the Vijayanagara era. Across a neatly-kept lawn is the much smaller Rani Mahal. There are benches for visitors in the shade of jamun trees — you can't help trampling upon a few jamuns along the way — and a small lake for boat rides. A pleasant place to meditate upon history.

The two palaces are part of the Chandragiri fort, a substantial portion of which lies on top of the overlooking hills. From the lawns of the palaces, you notice fortifying walls peeping out of the vegetation on the steep hills. At certain places, you find the boulders glazed — the idea was to prevent the enemy from climbing up. Alas, the hilly part of the fort, believed to be dating back to 1,000 A.D., is closed to visitors.

"The climb can be very dangerous. We can't allow people for reasons of safety," says G. Thirumoorthy, the assistant superintending archaeologist. So what was up there? "Must be the treasury," he replies. So, a cloud of mystery hangs over the hills. One untested way of clearing the cloud could be to make friends with an enterprising goatherd: you will find a number of them loitering on the foothills.

The two palaces, however, do not give a feel of history. Thanks to the renovation by the ASI, the structures look rather new. The durbar hall of the Raja Mahal, in fact, bears a recent coat of pink. But Raja Mahal, no doubt, is old, very old. "Archaeological evidence suggests that it belongs to the late medieval period," says Thirumoorthy. He, however, laments the lack of archaeological studies done on Chandragiri, considering that it had been a capital of the Vijayanagara Empire (it became the capital after Hampi was reduced to ruins by Muslim invaders during the Battle of Talikota in 1565).

Meanwhile, life in Chandragiri, the town, goes on. Residents don't seem to have many complaints against life. "There are only five pawn brokers in this town, and I am one of them. We are all doing good business. Why should I go elsewhere?" asserts Vishnu Prakash, a pawn broker from Rajasthan who chose to settle in Chandragiri. Why not Tirupati, where business could be even better? "Why should I?" argues Vishnu Prakash, "The cost of living is so low here. Chandragiri is paradise."

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus Weekend, September 30, 2011.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Life In A Metro — Back To School After 25 Years

Why nostalgia may not always be a good thing

It feels as if I never left school or the neighbourhood I grew up in, even though more than two decades have passed since I left both. Every now and then, during the past few weeks, the screen of my laptop turns into a mirror in which I see myself sitting obediently in the classroom or playing cricket in the neighbourhood playground that nourished me as a boy. The reason: Facebook.

Sometime ago, an enterprising senior started a Facebook page for our school; and even though I already had many of my classmates on my list of friends, the new page opened the floodgates. People I had forgotten all about, people I thought I would never see again, people I was eagerly searching for, people I idolised, people I didn't look forward to seeing again – they all came rushing in to the Facebook page with a collective cry of joy, exactly the way we rushed out to the school playground at the sound of the bell. Overnight, the page had close to a 1,000 members.

After the initial joy of seeing the all-too-familiar names came a series of grim realisations. Realisation no. 1: how much time has passed since we last saw each other! Two-and-a-half decades is a long, long time. And there was no escaping this fact since there was pictorial evidence. Young men, who barely had beards sprouting from their chins when I last saw them, now looked like what their fathers looked like back then. They are the new ‘uncles' – who now have children as old as we were then.

Even the women – I mean the girls – had changed beyond recognition – not to mention their changed surnames. When I was 15, I had a serious crush on a girl called Payal Gupta (name changed, as journalists often say), but after I left school, I never saw her again. When Facebook – the ultimate missing-persons locator – arrived a few years ago, I searched for her. I came across many Payal Guptas, many prettier than her, but not her. Then the other day, one Payal Kapoor, who happened to be a member of the school page, sent me a friendship request. She was no longer the ‘girl' I knew, but a middle-aged mother of two teenage daughters!

Realisation no. 2: I too must be appearing to them an ‘uncle'. My father was 44 when I passed out of school, I am myself 40 today.

Realisation no. 3: You don't have much to talk about even though you are reconnecting with people after a quarter of a century – the same people you looked forward to spending time with while in school. After the passage of 25 years, you don't even recognise yourself in the mirror; how can you expect to connect with a long-lost schoolmate with your heart and soul, that too when he is not in the same profession as yours? Maybe that is why after the initial, enthusiastic bursts of Hi's and Hello's, most members on the page slipped into an uncomfortable silence – wishing each other only on occasions such as Janmashtami, Eid and Vinayaka Chathurthi.

I am not trying to boast here, but I did try to generate some conversation by posting this message on the wall: Those who passed out in 1988 and before: How about recalling your first crush in school (with names and all), now that a lot of water has flown under the bridge. Perhaps a nice way to warm up middle-aged hearts? The idea was to engage schoolmates who are now 40 and above in a juicy conversation – not that I expected anyone to spell out names.

But a senior of mine in school, whom I idolised once, rebuked me. He posted a comment saying that if the girls are named, their husbands may not take kindly to it and that might cause a storm in their lives. I was so amused by the comment that I did not feel like telling him that I was only kidding. Instead, I decided to play along. I posted another comment, saying: “You are so right. If I ever found out that someone had a crush on my wife while she was in school, I would file for divorce.”

Upon which yet another senior, a woman, pounced on me. “On one hand you are asking people to name their crushes, and on the other you are threatening to divorce your wife! You are the biggest MCP I've ever seen.” Even before I could reply, yet another senior commented, “You should respect your seniors. That's what our school taught us.” I wondered if it was really necessary for me to revisit the school.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, September 24, 2011.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Godmakers Of Kumartuli

Come Durga Puja, their creations will hold the entire city of Kolkata spellbound for five days. Yet, for the artisans on the banks of the Hooghly, it is just a means of survival. BISHWANATH GHOSH watches as the gods take shape under their skilled hands...

“You are taking pictures,” Bikash Mondal warns from his perch, “you'll have to give us money to buy tea.” Standing atop a wooden platform in a workshop that is crammed with incomplete clay images of the goddess, the elderly artisan, clad only in a soiled lungi, is preparing to install the head on the tallest of the idols.

His warning is only half in jest. This is, after all, a back-breaking time for the artisans of Kumartuli, one of Kolkata's oldest neighbourhoods, nestled on the banks of the Hooghly, which provides the city its greatest source of joy — idols of Durga. There are barely three weeks before the goddess transforms from a crude structure of clay-and-hay to a beautiful, bedecked Bengali bride and reaches the countless pandals of Kolkata. Distractions, therefore, are not welcome.

It is almost five in the evening when I arrive in Kumartuli. But Rabindra Sarani, its biggest road, bears a deserted look. Most shops are shut. The absence of traffic lays bare the pair of glistening tram lines stretched out on the road. Running on them now, however, are not trams but the occasional taxi and autorickshaw and, of course, the human horses — lungi-clad, weather-beaten men pulling rickshaws with the strength of their bones.

Is it a public holiday? Not that I know of. Or is it that the shops in Kumartuli close in the afternoon for a post-lunch nap? I'm not sure of that either, though that is more likely. But stroll into Banamali Sarkar Street and the languorous air melts into a buzz of activity. This narrow street is the nerve centre of Kumartuli, flanked by cavernous workshops that are packed with large idols of Durga and her four children in various stages of completion. Wiry artisans squat on the street, kneading the clay or working on smaller idols, ignoring the attention of curious passersby and amateur photographers. That their creation is going to leave Kolkata gaping in admiration for five full days is of no consequence to them — for them making gods is only a means of survival.

The workshops of Kumartuli — there are about 450 of them, many of them concentrated around Banamali Sarkar Street — are run by families that have been into idol-making and pottery for generations: Kumartuli means potters' quarter. During the Puja season, they hire extra hands from across Bengal because making the idols of Goddess Durga is a grand affair. The goddess, after all, does not like to be presented alone in a pandal: she must be accompanied by her four children, not to mention the lion she rides and the curly-haired, muscular demon she is shown slaying. And with new settlements coming up around Kolkata and with Bengalis reaching newer shores across the globe, the demand for idols has gone up over the years. Kumartuli is known to create close to 4,000 sets of Durga idols every year, some of which are shipped abroad. All this calls for a lot of work — work that demands intricacy and, very often, creativity.

The flash of my camera may have irritated the elderly, bare-chested artisan who is trying to fix the head on a 12-ft statue of Durga, but his employer, Nanigopal Rudra Pal, is in a meditative state as he works on the goddess' fingers. Strewn on his table are a set of clay fingers, each large enough to befit the 12-ft idol. He is picking them up, one by one, and delicately running his fingers on them to impart them his masterly touch, to make them look as human as possible. The fingers look very real — and a bit spooky.

“I have been in this business for 45 years now,” says Pal, now 68, without even looking up to see who he is talking to. He is too engrossed creating the nail on a thumb of the goddess. So how many idols is his workshop making this year? “Twenty, may be 25?” I decide to leave him alone, and find someone chatty.

Out on the street, in an isolated corner, one artisan is busy applying clay on the protruding belly of Ganesha. He is Gobinda Dey, who has come from Nabadweep. A typical Kumartuli idol, he tells me, is made of bamboo and hay — the bamboo serving as the skeleton and hay the flesh. Once the structure is ready, it gets a skin of entel maati, a sticky variety of clay procured from the bed of the Hooghly. Once it dries up, the finishing touches are given with bele maati, a finer variety of clay which also comes from the river. The idols are always pre-ordered and never sold off-the-shelf.

“I've been making idols ever since I was 18 or 20,” Gobinda, now 40, tells his story without stopping his work. “It takes about four days to create an idol” — he is talking about the goddess' children. “But Durga's idol takes about a week. Each year I make about 20 idols.” I ask Gobinda if he always wanted to be an idol-maker.

“I didn't have a choice. Lekha-pora to sikhtey paareni (I could not get education). This profession may not give me a good life, but it gives me what I need — two square meals a day. I have no one to look after; my parents are dead and I am single. So I am able to manage,” he says.

So how much does he earn during a season? Gobinda does not give a direct answer: uneducated he may be, but he is clearly aware of the never-ask-a-man-his-salary rule. “It all depends on skill and experience. Some of us get Rs. 1,000, some get Rs. 2,000, some others a little more. Food and lodging are provided by the employer.” A pittance, but, as he says, they don't have a choice.

I saunter along the street: never before have I seen so many idols at the same time. One set of idols sit right next to a public urinal: I guess it does not matter. Until they reach the pandals, they are not gods but just images of clay and hay. Three weeks later, a multitude of people will be standing before the same idols, with their hands folded and a silent prayer on their lips.

I am standing by the Hooghly now, its waters darkening in the rapidly fading light. The bell of the riverside temple rings. A group of labourers, wet from the river, has just deposited a boatload of black clay on the banks. From this mound, the clay will be scooped and taken to the various workshops. Two more clay-laden boats are approaching. All this for five days of festivity, after which, the idols will be consigned to the river. The clay will dissolve and return to where it belongs.

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 18 October 2011.

In Carnival Mode

Kolkata has many faces but during Durga Puja there is no space for anything else but celebration ... and a little bit of sadness

What you think of Kolkata depends a lot on how you come to Kolkata. If you come in a train and alight at the Howrah station, you will drive into a city that is a prisoner of its long-standing image — the iconic bridge, trams, hand-pulled rickshaws, stream of labourers propelled into a half-run by the heavy load on their heads, pavements turned into kitchen by poor migrants, crumbling colonial-era buildings giving off a whiff of heritage and decay.

But if you fly down to Kolkata and take the Rajarhat Road into the city, you could be rubbing your eyes in wonder. You will tear through a global-era landscape: upscale high-rises, state-of-the-art offices of IT giants, snazzy malls. North Kolkata, where the city originated, may continue to be a living museum of the olden times, but the metropolis, on the whole, is no longer what you saw in black-and-white Bengali movies. Unemployment is no longer a burning issue. There was a time when high school students, during their exams, were asked to write essays on the subject of unemployment. Load-shedding is a thing of the past. Traffic jam, once Kolkata’s best friend, has now become the principle foe of other cities. And Kolkata today has a night life like no other city.

But come Durga Puja and it does not matter what route you take to Kolkata. No matter what your mode of travel, you arrive in a city where celebration is the uniform civil code. From whichever corner you look at it, you will find nothing else but puja pandals, food stalls and a multitude of people out on the roads until the wee hours. It’s carnival time. It’s a religious event, cultural occasion, music season, literary fair, food festival, fashion show — all rolled into one. Many of the popular songs of R.D. Burman that you listen to today were originally recorded in Bengali as part of Puja albums. And the story for many a celebrated Bengali film had been originally written for the Puja-special edition of local literary magazines.

There is, however, a gloomy side to Durga Puja. Bengalis, even though they wait for it all year, actually become very sad once the Pujas begin. Even while they enjoy the five days of festivity, they are also extremely mournful about how quickly it is all going to end. On panchami, they realise that only four more days are left. On sashti, it strikes them that just three more days are left. By saptami, the heart is heavy. On ashtami, there is a lump in the throat. By the end of navami, there are tears in the eyes. They are left with no choice but to look forward to the next year’s Puja. It is the looking forward that keeps Kolkata going. As they shout while taking the idols for immersion: “Aaschhe bochhor abaar hobey (we are coming back next year)!” It’s Kolkata’s way of assuring itself that the party is not over yet.

Published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, 18 September 2011.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

In the state of Paschimbanga, a slice of Pondicherry

The sun, as it began to set, sprinkled the river with drops of orange; the sky, meanwhile, was rapidly turning into a patchwork of grey and deep blue. A number of elderly men, sitting on archaic wooden benches in groups of twos and threes, were watching the spectacle. For them it was not a spectacle but a sight they came across every day after their evening walks on the Strand in Chandannagar, once known as Chandernagore. But for us it was — and we had made it just in time to watch the sun set over the erstwhile French colony.

It takes roughly an hour to reach Chandannagar from Kolkata, but it took us three. The reason being my two companions got into a heated debate and forgot all about the crucial right turn that had to be taken in order to reach the tiny town located on the banks of the Hooghly. And since the debate, inspired by a new Bengali film called Iti Mrinalini, was about extra-marital relationships, the driver must have had his ear placed on the conversation so firmly that even he forgot to take his foot off the accelerator. The car kept speeding forever on the wide, smooth Delhi Road.

By the time we realised our mistake, we were way beyond Bandel, another town further up the Hooghly which boasts of a Portuguese-built church dating back to 1599. Moral of the story: discussing extra-marital affairs leads you nowhere. We made a U-turn and took the next visible road turning left, and were soon on the historical Grand Trunk Road, travelling downstream alongside the Hooghly. The road, built by Sher Shah Suri, which runs from Sonargaon in Bangladesh right up to Peshawar in Pakistan via the fertile Gangetic plains of India, assumes the form of a narrow lane at many places in this part of Bengal. Only upon reading the various signboards — the signboard of the neighbourhood doctor's clinic, of the local grocery store, of the crowded sweet shop — did we realise that it wasn't the lane that was small; it was actually we who were crawling like an ants on the lap of history.

In hindsight, the debate turned out to be a blessing. Had we reached Chandannagar a little earlier, we would have been caught in the rains. We might have turned the car back and thought of returning some other day — it's a day that never comes. But right now the town was freshly bathed — all set to welcome us and also draw its residents out of their homes. It was time for their evening walk.

As far as looks go, the similarity between Chandannagar and Pondicherry is unmistakable. While Chandannagar has the river, Pondicherry has the sea — that's the only big difference. Though Pondicherry, having been the capital of French India, has far more French-built buildings on the waterfront than Chandannagar, the atmosphere that prevails in the evenings is strikingly similar: people out on their walks, young women commuting on bicycles, hawkers selling ice-cream and local savouries. There is definitely something French about women riding bicycles — it's a common sight in Pondicherry as well.

What is, however, definitely Indian is the urge to have a steaming cup of tea and something freshly fried when the air smells wet. And so, before walking the length of the Strand, we parked ourselves on a bench in front of the eateries that line the short road connecting the Strand to the Sacred Heart Church, built in 1875. The three of us had hot cutlets, both mutton and vegetable, followed by tea served in miniature earthen cups. The bill: Rs 25.

Chandannagar's modern history dates back to 1673 when the French obtained permission from the Nawab of Bengal to set up a trading post on the banks of Hooghly. Bengal was then part of the Mughal Empire. Over the decades, the traders went on to become rulers — now that's a familiar story, isn't it? In 1730, Joseph Francois Dupleix was sent from Pondicherry to take over as the new governor of Chandannagar; and under him the town developed and prospered so much that he was soon sent back to Pondicherry as the governor-general of French India. Dupleix is best remembered for his rivalry with Robert Clive of the British East India Company. In the end Dupleix lost and Clive won, as a result of which Pondicherry lost out to Madras and Chandannagar lost out to Calcutta in terms of their importance as towns.

And what if Dupleix had won? Perhaps this piece would have been written in French.

Dupleix's home, still intact, continues to be the most prestigious building on the Strand. It is under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India: part of it is a museum and part of it serves as an institute where you can learn French. In the museum you still get to see Dupleix's four-poster bed — so tall that it could be climbed only with the help of a small wooden stairway that also stands preserved alongside the bed. Another landmark on the Strand is St. Joseph's Convent, a girls' school founded in 1861 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny. It continues to be one of the best educational institutions in the country and its alumni, today, is spread across the world. I get to see two of them on a daily basis — one at work, a colleague; and another at home, my wife.

Even as you gaze admiringly at these buildings while walking on the promenade, it is impossible to miss the sights offered by the other side of the Strand — that of the tree-lined river bank and the river itself, flowing serenely towards the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. And across the river, you see the chimneys of jute mills rising above the green vegetation, piquing your curiosity about what lies on the opposite bank.

A one-way ferry ride costs three rupees each. We got into a steamer and climbed to the upper deck with the intention of getting a view of the river against the receding town, but a man stopped us and directed us to the lower deck, where we sat face-to-face with the daily passengers — mostly office-goers returning home. One of them sensed our discomfort and remarked, “It will take exactly three minutes.”

It was precisely in those three minutes that night descended; and on the opposite bank, by a temple, rickshaw-pullers waited to take passengers up the darkened path. Since we had no particular destination in mind, we lingered around the temple and ate peanuts. The peanut-seller once worked in a jute mill that has now closed down — another familiar story, isn't it?

When we returned to Chandannagar, the promenade had turned into a venue for addas. Elderly people in small groups were plunged in discussions — one group was discussing Anna Hazare. Young girls were dismounting their bicycles to greet known faces. The hawkers were out in force — selling ice-cream, jhaal muri and paani puri.

On our way out, one of my companions suggested that we stop by at the legendary sweet shop of Surjya Kumar Modak. It was another way of saying — a trip is incomplete without dessert. There we gorged on freshly-made sweets: maal-pua, sandesh, rabri and rosogolla. Needless to say, food turned out to be the subject of discussion on the journey back to Kolkata — a subject that, if you are a true Bengali, is any day more interesting than extra-marital affairs.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 17 September 2011.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Life In A Metro: In Pursuit Of Parking

Earlier, happiness meant owning a car. Now, it's finding a spot

I have been living in Chennai for 10 years now – I had arrived just in time to watch the city transform. Had I come a few years earlier, I would have been too old-time a resident to notice the changes; had I come a few years later, I would have landed amidst the change and would not have noticed it.

The thing I loved most about Chennai when I came to live here in early 2001 was my street – a clean and tree-lined stretch of road where you could only hear silence even though it's a stone's throw from the cacophony of T. Nagar. No matter what time of the day, the street would be empty, and when viewed from either end, would resemble an elongated arbour. I would often climb down my house and stand on the street just to meditate on the silence and listen to the birds – it made me love Chennai.

Today the same street resembles a parking lot. Throughout the day, cars and bikes are parked on either side, not only narrowing the once-handsome street but also causing traffic jams each time two large vehicles come face to face. The street that, not too long ago, had no traffic now witnesses frequent jams! Now that should give you a fair idea about what's going on in the rest of Chennai – considering that nearly 1,000 new vehicles hit its roads every day – and in other cities as well.

Time was when buying a car brought you happiness and gave you a sense of achievement. It was one of the milestones of life – once you crossed it, it meant you were on the road to prosperity. But today, we even have cars that are specifically made for the common man – the idea is no one should be without a car. And so, overnight, the meaning of happiness has changed. It's finding a parking space that now brings you joy and gives you a sense of immense achievement. (Possessing a car, on the other hand, only reminds you of the number of instalments that still remain to be paid.)

Today when you go to watch a movie at a multiplex, parking the car turns out to be a greater event than the movie itself. Once you are home, the scenes that play in your mind are not from the movie but from the parking lot. And I have lost count of the number of times my wife and I had to abandon the plan to watch a movie simply because a sign at the gate of the mall would read: Parking Full.

And yet, we watch wide-eyed the advertisements for cars, little realising that cars are slowly making us unsocial. It's just a matter of time before we completely stop visiting people or inviting them over: we can park ourselves on couches, but what about our cars!

Isn't it time we had companies that manufactured parking space? I guess it won't be very long before some enterprising companies actually begin doing that. And if that ever happens, you don't have be a rocket scientist to predict that space will cost more than the car. Imagine watching on TV a commercial selling space – how do you show a thing that cannot be seen!

This column is, in fact, inspired by an incident that took place last evening. The wife and I were at the basement of a mall, snaking along the rows of parked cars, trying to find a slot. Following us was a line of cars, in search of the same elusive thing. Suddenly my wife, who was driving, spotted a narrow vacant slot that we almost drove past.

“Quick, quick!” she told me, “Just get out and stand right there while I back the car.” Her idea was that if I stood there, I would automatically lay claim to the vacant space. Even as I considered whether I should actually do that, the car behind us slithered into that spot. She has not been talking to me since.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 17 September 2011.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I don't remember since how long S.S. and I have been drinking together. Wait a minute, I do. It's ten years now. If drinking were a creative act, we would have both been celebrated members of the society by now -- the amount we have drunk together! But who says drinking isn't a creative act? In fact, it can be the most creative if done in the right company.

The best part about S.S. is that he is not a fussy drinker. Very much like me. I know men who drink only beer and nothing else. I know men who drink only wine and look down upon other varieties of alcohol. I know men who can drink their whisky only with soda and their rum only with cola. Some can't drink without ice. Some others are very particular about 'side-snacks.'

S.S., however, makes no fuss. Neither do I. As long as there is some water to pour in the drink, anything, just about anything, will do. Most of the drinking, all these years, happened either at my home or in the dingy, dirty bars of wine shops. Today neither of us goes to these bars for the same reason -- they are dingy and dirty. After all, there comes a time when you no longer do things that you did in the younger days and are better off with the memories of it.

But there was a time when we liked going to such places. I particularly liked it because here you met people who did not wear masks. They were what they were -- the labourers, the autorickshaw drivers, the small-time businessmen, the marketing executives, the medical representatives... And alcohol made them even more honest and human.

Very often, we would be approached by men in tatters. They would be holding out their alcohol-filled glasses and begging for some water. They would have managed to collect just about enough money to buy the alcohol, and had no money left to buy a pouch of water. When you are drinking out of habit and not as a social obligation, you always understand a fellow drinker's needs and compulsions. You are sympathetic.

But there is one sight I can never forget. Some years ago, S.S. and I were busy discussing 'office politics' over drinks when a bloodied hand clutching a plastic glass came in between us. One look at the man's face and I was horrified: he had a terrorised look on his face, his soiled shirt was coated with dust and the right sleeve was soaked in blood. He was begging for water.

There are countless such episodes I can recall if I try very hard, but right now they are as hazy as the previous night's antics under the influence of alcohol and I would rather let them remain that way.

But a few weeks ago, S.S. and I got together for a drink at a wine shop after God knows how long. Only that the wine shop was not in Chennai, but in a village in Andhra Pradesh, on the highway to Tirupati.

"I am free, man! Why can't I come with you?" S.S. told me when he learned that I was preparing to leave for a small town near Tirupati. "We could go in my car." So off we were -- the two old drinking buddies -- getting away from the city together for the first time. With each kilometre we travelled the smell of freedom grew stronger -- freedom from what, I was not sure.

At Thiruvallur, we lunched on freshly-fried Mysore bondas and Thums Up at a roadside stall. S.S. has a fetish for roadside food. Not that I don't, just that I am careful while making a journey. The man who was frying the bondas, obviously pleased with the number of bondas we ate, pointed to a road which he said was a short-cut to Tirupati. S.S., who blindly trusted the man's bondas, was reluctant to trust his sense of direction. I finally coaxed him: "Come on, man! This guy lives here. He knows better."

Obviously the bonda-seller knew better. Because even before we realised, we had crossed into Andhra Pradesh. S.S.'s eyes lit up when he noticed wine shops with Telugu signboards. For residents of Tamil Nadu who love to drink or who love their drink, every other state in India is a paradise. Tamil Nadu is the only state in the country where you don't get cans of Kingfisher beer (or any other beer) or Bacardi Breezers. In fact, you don't get anything in Tamil Nadu other than brands of hard, headache-inducing liquor that are unheard of in the rest of India. Why so -- no one seems to know or wants to know.

And so, we had entered paradise. "How about some beer, Ghosh?" S.S. asked me, overcome by glee. "May be when the next shop comes along," I replied. We were driving on a practically empty highway, cutting across lush green fields that looked greener under an overcast sky. And then, the first set of hills showed up on the horizon. The thing with hills is that they look very close but it takes forever reach them. As we drove on, believing they were just round the corner, a signboard came into view: Himalaya Wines. S.S. took his foot off the accelerator.

Himalaya Wines is the most picturesque wine shop I have ever seen or will ever see. On the face of it, it is just another well-stocked wine shop on the highway that is more eager to cater to commuters from the city; but in reality, it is a wine shop located in the middle of an unending stretch of green fields with the hills looking over. Its bar is nothing but a thatched roof shed where people from the nearby villages gather to drink. A thatched roof is all you can ask for in the middle of nowhere -- it was five-star luxury when compared to the dingy bars of Chennai which we once frequented.

We bought two cans of beer each -- S.S. bought Corona while I stuck to Kingfisher -- and settled at a table under the thatched roof. The attendant, seeing customers from the city, came running. We ordered omlettes and sundal. There was pleasure in every moment -- in holding the moisture-coated cans, in clicking open the cans and watching the froth form around the gaping holes, in tasting the beer that actually tasted like beer and not horse's piss.

We had just begun enjoying our beers when an elderly man, in crumpled clothes, walked up to us with his hand outstretched. "Oh no, not again," I muttered to myself, "and we don't even have water. We are drinking beer, can't he see?"

The elderly man came closer, his hand still stretched out. On his palm rested two bondas, and he was telling us something in Telugu. "What does he want?" I asked S.S. "We don't even have any chutney or sauce."

"Wait, let me find out," S.S. said as he got talking to the elderly man in Tamil. It so turned out that the elderly man was a farmer from a nearby village who was not asking for anything but was actually offering us something -- the freshly-fried bondas that he had bought from a roadside stall before walking into the wine shop.

"Since you are an outsider, he considers you to be his guest," the attendant, when he returned with the omlette and sundal, explained. "He has been coming here for years, but I have never seen him offer food to anyone."

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Life In A Metro: Flighty Thoughts

What goes on in the mind of a cattle-class passenger

Whenever I am on a flight, the most anxious moment comes when the plane is about to land. I am not alone, I'm sure. Horrible things are known to happen during landing, and I usually find a silent prayer involuntarily slipping out of my lips when the plane touches down.

It was no different last Sunday when, returning to Chennai after a pleasurable week in Kolkata, I held my breath as soon as the tyres hit the runway. I was eager to reach home safe so that I could pull out of my bag the large collection of books and CDs I'd bought from Park Street and look at them with renewed pleasure. A purchase is not a purchase until you've spread out the objects of desire on the bed upon reaching home for one final inspection before they become a part of your daily life.

The plane was still bouncing on the runway and I was yet to exhale in relief when I heard a cry from behind. “Excuse me, sir! Excuse me, sir!” It was the air-hostess who was strapped to her seat at the rear end of the aircraft. “Please go back to your seat! Please!” She was pleading, at the top of her voice, with a passenger who, within seconds of touchdown, had got up from his seat to retrieve his bag from the overhead compartment.

What surprised me even more was that the passenger – a bespectacled, thinly-built man who must be in his forties – returned to his seat with great reluctance, as if he did not like following the orders of a woman half his age. Had the plane been forced to take off again suddenly due to an emergency situation, he could have fractured his skull and died. It is not for nothing that the air-hostesses politely keep telling you to keep the seat belts on until the plane has reached the parking bay. But since they are pretty, petite and polite, you don't take them very seriously: replace them with menacing lathi-wielding police constables and you will find not a single mobile ringing during the take-off and not a single passenger unlocking the seat belt within seconds of landing.

But it's a very Indian thing: to defy rules if the rule enforcers happen to be of the courteous kind and if rule-breaking does not attract any penalty. We become like a classroom full of unruly students. There can't be a better example of this than the aircraft. No one seems to realise that the rules are for their own good, for their own safety. And yet, you will find passengers overcome by the sudden urgency to speak on the phone once they board – even though they had been idling their time away at the departure lounge. I guess for most of them, it is the thrill of being able to talk from the aircraft.

It no longer surprises me when phones continue to ring even after the pilot has announced, “Cabin crew, prepare for take-off.” What really surprises me is the scene inside an aircraft after landing. Though not many display the courage to get up from their seats while the plane is taxiing towards the parking bay, almost all passengers are up on their feet the moment the plane comes to a halt.

There is usually a long wait, which can extend up to twenty minutes, before the ladders arrive and the doors open, and yet passengers give up the comfort of their seats and stand up, often craning their necks under the overhead compartments, as if that would hasten their exit. At that point, the plane does not look like a plane but a truck packed with cattle. Cattle: doesn't the word sound familiar?

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, September 3, 2011.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Life In A Metro: Oh! Calcutta!

A letter from the capital of Paschimbanga (or West Bengal, as you knew it)

“Twenty minutes to touch down,” announced the captain, and I looked down the window to find the plane hovering over the city – a maze of luminous dots. So where was I going to land – in Kolkata or in Calcutta, in the capital of West Bengal or in the capital of Paschimbanga?

To me it made no difference. When I speak in my mother tongue, I instinctively refer to the city as Kolkata – like any other Bengali. When I am talking to a non-Bengali, I find ‘Calcutta' automatically rolling off the tongue. Likewise, I am as familiar with West Bengal as with Paschimbanga, which is merely the literal translation of the English name and has already been in use for as long as one can remember. Therefore, I don't see the change from West Bengal to Paschimbanga altering the life of the Bengali in any manner. But when I land, even though the temperature is a pleasant 29 degrees, I find Kolkata sizzling with arguments over the name-change. I have arrived just in time to catch the city engaged in doing what it loves to do best: debate.

The warmth of North Calcutta or the sophistication of South Calcutta? Shiraz biryani or Arsalan biryani? Mohun Bagan or East Bengal? Sourav or Sachin? Suchitra Sen or Supriya Choudhury? Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee? Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak? Feluda or Byomkesh? Presidency College or Jadavpur University? Darjeeling or Puri? These are perennial debates that divide Kolkata, or Calcutta, into two fiercely independent nations. Perhaps it's only appropriate that the city and the state have two names each – one official, another universal.

Food for thought

In Kolkata, food is not only an integral part of any event worth celebrating, but is a celebration by itself – for which you need no particular occasion. Food columns, supported by high-resolution (read mouth-watering) pictures of preparations, are a prominent feature of every newspaper worth its salt; food festivals are usually the talk of the town, and food alone can rival the female form when it comes to the selling of a product through advertisements. At restaurants, any meal is incomplete without a passionate discussion about the food served to you. You should be able to tell whether the fish is good or not so good, or whether the lamb is as tender as it was the last time you ate there. You are considered lowly if you don't have an opinion to offer. Kolkata, after all, is a city of opinions – everybody has one, about almost everything under the sun.

The other day, I went with a group of friends for lunch to Oh! Calcutta, an upscale restaurant that serves authentic Bengali cuisine. The conversation at the table went rather smoothly until the arrival of the hilsa, which sparked off a debate: was the fish locally procured, or had it come from the river Padma in Bangladesh? One faction said the hilsa was too good to have come from the Indian side of the river, another faction countered that they'd had hilsa that tasted just as good as the ones from Padma. Since I don't eat fish, the discussion made no sense to me and was, in fact, getting on my nerves. I called the waiter and asked him: “Is this Padma hilsa or local hilsa?” He disappeared into the kitchen and returned after a few minutes to announce that it was indeed the Padma hilsa. Suddenly, a gloomy silence descended on the table. I realised my blunder: by putting an end to the discussion, I had made their meal bland.

Did you know?

As of this moment, theatres in Chennai, where I live, are showing about half-a-dozen English movies. But in Kolkata, which was once the capital of British India and where a large number of people still preserve the English way of life, only two English films are being screened in multiplexes: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Spy Kids 4. “I so badly wanted to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a local friend, who is heavily into sci-fi, complained. “But they only show children's films. I wonder why.” Even I wonder why.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 27 August 2011.