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.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Life In A Metro: Life In A Lodge

It's not so bad, sometimes, to forsake the big city for a small town

Money – as the Beatles and countless sagacious souls have said – can't buy you love. There is something else that money can't buy, and that's a decent hotel or a lodge in a small town. By decent I don't mean five-star luxury when you have to tear off a white ribbon to even lift the toilet seat – but a clean and comfortable bed and a clean and functional bathroom.

Cleanliness and comfort don't seem to figure very high in the priority list of people who run hotels and lodges in small towns. It's almost a rule that the bed-sheet should bear stains, the tap should leak, and the curtains, if there are any, should smell. The sentiment behind this deliberate oversight seems to be: “This is just a halt, not a home. Why invest in giving guests the feel of home when they are going to check out the next morning anyway?”

You have no choice but to check into one of these lodges, for a measly tariff that can be as low as Rs 150 a night. Even if you are willing to spend Rs 1,500 a night – which is, again, peanuts by city standards – you have no choice but to check into a smelly room for Rs 150 because that may be the only lodge the town boasts of.

Why should anyone, in his or her right mind, leave the comfort of a home in the city and travel to a small town to check into a mosquito-infested lodge? The answer is simple: necessity. You could be a young MBA graduate peddling biscuits, or a journalist collecting material for a story, or a pilgrim visiting a temple – there comes a time in life when a train or a bus deposits you in the lap of an otherwise unknown town and when the first thing that crosses your mind is, ‘Where do I stay?'

By now, I am a veteran of such occasions, though this is nothing to boast about – or maybe it is. The cheapest place I've stayed in was a lodge in Mughal Sarai, in eastern UP, where I checked in at four in the morning. I paid Rs 180 for a filthy, mosquito-infested room lit up by a candle (because of frequent powercuts), and where the leaking tap in the bathroom kept making a sinister sound all night.

The strangest lodge I've ever stayed in was one in Jolarpet, where the drainage mesh was located right in the middle of the bathroom floor. Each time you had a bath, you had to step over a frothy, circular puddle that would have formed at the centre of the floor. The dirtiest experience, however, has to be the lodge in Arakkonam where, after settling into an air-conditioned room (which itself smelt like the godown of a scrap-dealer), I made horrifying discoveries in quick succession – used toothpicks shoved under the edge of the mattress, the bathroom bearing muddy footprints, and the toilet seat lying on the floor.

Once, in Nagapattinam, a small army of taxi drivers stood in my room and watched a movie that I was playing on a borrowed DVD player. How that came to be merits a separate story. And during a recent trip to a small town in Andhra Pradesh – too small for you to have even heard of it – I discovered that the bathroom of my lodge did not have the provision for a light, even though the room was fitted with a brand-new AC.

But I quite like staying in such places. The trick is to spend a night there, either by sipping a drink and reading a good book, or by talking on the phone to a loved one (and silently marvelling at how technology keeps you connected even when you are in a godforsaken town), or by simply gazing at the ceiling and meditating upon life in a silence that only a small town can offer you. Once you cross the one-night milestone, things begin to look rosy. The bed-sheet begins to smell of you; the room begins to look familiar because your belongings are scattered all around; you begin to see the loyal side of the room boy who can do anything for you – including fetching bread-and-omelette at an unearthly hour – if you are nice to him. You discover the humility and simplicity of small-town India.

Each time I check out of a lodge, I feel the tip of a knife touching my heart. I feel like staying on. You can call it Stockholm syndrome – or whatever may be its equivalent in the hospitality industry.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, August 20, 2010.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

A journey to remember — The disastrous route to paradise

This happened when budget airlines were yet to show up on Indian skies and when an air ticket from Chennai to Delhi cost nearly half my salary, when train tickets could be booked only at the reservation counters in railway stations, and when the mobile phone would receive signals only at important stations — leave alone trains having plug points to charge your phone.

It was during those difficult days that one Diwali eve, on an annual visit to my home in Kanpur, I found myself in the sleeper class of a train called Lucknow Express. I had never travelled on this train before. The more respectable trains bound north were already full, and even on this train the seats in the AC coaches had all been sold out.

The train was to depart at 5.30 am — most self-respecting long-distance trains depart from the station of origin only late in the evening -- and when I showed up at the station after a sleepless night, two things struck me as odd. The coaches of the train were still painted in old-fashioned red, and there were only nine coaches in all. I wondered about its position in the pecking order of the railways.

I went to sleep as soon as the train started, and woke up some two hours later at Gudur. I was ravenously hungry: I hadn't eaten properly the night before, hoping that I would have a hearty breakfast from the pantry car. But this train — not surprising any more — did not have a pantry car. I stepped on to the platform and bought a dosa and two idlis.

One bite of the dosa and I spat it out, while the idlis were hard like pumice stone. The food was stale. I flung the paper plate on the tracks and returned to my seat, and from there, made an astonishing discovery. The people who had crowded around the vendor’s cart were not hungry passengers at all: they were mostly his own men who had picked up paper plates as soon as the train arrived and pretended to eat hungrily in order to give the impression that he was in demand. Thirty-five hours and nearly 2,000 km still lay ahead of me.

I made peace with the circumstances and the next 24 hours passed without event: I would either stare out of the window or observe my fellow passengers — most of them men working or studying in the south and now going home for Diwali holidays. Bad news awaited us at Itarsi — I didn’t have a good feeling about the journey from the very beginning. We learned that there had been a derailment near Bhopal, which was further up the route, and that our train was now going to be diverted via Jabalpur. Travel or travail?

Once we left Itarsi station, the train stopped, literally, at every kilometre, mainly to let more important trains pass through. Who cared about a bunch of U.P.-wallahs travelling from Chennai to their homeland! Before long, we were stranded in the lap of the mighty Vindhyas. The train was now an orphan — a baby elephant left behind by the herd. It was difficult to tell whether the driver, whenever he moved the train a few metres (before coming to a halt again), was doing so on the instructions of the nearest control room or on the orders of my fellow passengers who marched up to the engine in an intimidating manner every time the halt became too long for their comfort.

While exasperation overcame my fellow passengers, it suddenly struck me that I was now the happiest person on earth. The battery of my phone had died a few hours ago, which I meant I was free from worldly attachments for the time being. The train, I realised, was standing at what could easily be one of the most beautiful railway stations in India. The station may be too small to figure in the railway timetable, but there it was — a solitary building, with a solitary bench, overlooked by green cascading hills and surrounded by wild flowers. No sign of civilisation for miles around.

What better place to honeymoon than sitting on that solitary bench, right in the middle of a jungle, and watching the trains go by? What better place to contemplate life — and maybe write? It can’t get more romantic. For company you will have a Pyare Mohan or a Ram Lal, the genial weather-beaten signalman who will regale you with anecdotes — maybe even ghost stories. The company of such men — who in their long years of service have seen it all — can be very assuring.

During the next few hours, Lucknow Express was to stop at many more such tiny stations in Madhya Pradesh. Stations that made you wonder, “What is this place doing here in the middle of nowhere?” I soaked in the sights and the smell of fresh, fragrant forest air. Fellow passengers, meanwhile, kept having heated arguments with the hapless driver. But I was no longer in a hurry to get home. I don’t think Paradise has a fixed address. Even if it exists, it has to be in the middle of nowhere — just where I was right now.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, August 6, 2011.

Life In A Metro: Then The Music Stopped

What do you do with the cassettes you've accumulated over the years?

The unique thing about technology is that it can be your best friend and at the same your worst enemy. The realisation dawns upon me, the self-styled nostalgia specialist, every so often, but it hit me rather hard last Sunday when someone I know put up a rather unusual status message on Facebook. He said he was looking for a deserving candidate to take away his impressive collection of music cassettes. I hope he has found someone who understands their worth and preserves them – preserve for what, even I don't know, considering we now live in the digital era.

After reading the status message, I opened my cupboard and looked at my own dust-coated collection of cassettes. There must have been some 500 of them, hiding in the shelves like scared rats. As I ran my fingers through their spines, memories gushed up:

“Ah, this I bought in Kanpur when I was returning home from college that afternoon!”

“And these two I bought in Delhi when I was roaming around Connaught Place with this girlfriend of mine – well, what was her name?”

“Ah, this RD Burman collection was gifted to me by that woman – what's her name – on my 26th birthday. Or was it my 27th birthday?”

“This entire lot was bought at Music World in Spencer Plaza soon after I came to Chennai.”

In a matter of minutes, each of those cassettes had been accounted for – where they were bought, and during what stage of my life. And each of them would have faithfully burst into songs had I chosen to insert them into the cassette player. But why would I do that when the songs they contain are already sitting in the ‘Music' folder of my laptop?

Today you can build an impressive collection of music by spending just one night on the computer. Not only that: you can even carry around those hundreds of songs in a device smaller than your thumb. But that was not the case in 2001, the year I relocated to Chennai, when it required a large bag to accommodate those many songs. The cassette-filled bag turned out to be the heaviest part of my luggage when I said goodbye to Delhi one foggy night and boarded the Tamil Nadu Express. (The collection of books, which would have been heavier than anything else, had been locked up in a trunk and left behind, for the time being, in the care of a friend).

Those days, it would take you years to build a collection of music of your choice. When a particular cassette was available, you wouldn't have the money. When you had the money, the cassette was no longer there – and God alone knew when the collection would hit the market again. You were totally at the mercy of the retailer who, in turn, must have been at the mercy of the whims of the recording company.

And so you built your collection, brick by brick. Simultaneously, you also invested in ‘head cleaners' and in cassette holders, and paid visits to shops that recorded songs of your choice on blank cassettes for two rupees a song. You faced distressing moments when the tape would accidentally get entangled in the pin of the cassette player and you would rush to press the ‘Stop' button and carefully straighten out the numerous coils formed around the pin, making sure your fingertips didn't rub too hard on the magnetic tape. Retrieving an entangled cassette safely from the player was perhaps as challenging – and gratifying – as saving a child from drowning in the swimming pool.

Music, in short, was sweat and blood: you had to earn it and work hard to preserve it. But technology intervened one fine morning. Today, even an 8GB pen drive or iPod can hold more music than you would ever want to listen to in your lifetime. But what do you do with the collection of cassettes you've painstakingly built over the years? Give them away? Doesn't that amount to giving away a chunk of your childhood or youth?

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, August 6, 2011.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Old Song, New Thoughts: Kishore Kumar Lives On

Tomorrow, August 4, if you happen to sit in front of television for a while, you are likely to see a familiar face. That of Kishore Kumar. Tomorrow is his birthday: had he been alive, he would have been 82, perhaps leading a retired life and giving the occasional stage performance. But can you imagine a doddering Kishore Kumar climbing on to the stage with the help of a walking stick -- that would have gone against his very name and also nature. Even when he died at the age of 58, in 1987, he was still dancing on the stage in spite of having suffered two cardiac arrests. It isn't, therefore, surprising, that he didn't live long; entertainers like him don't.

There are two Kishore Kumars I know. One belonged to the black and white era, the actor who also sang his own songs. I wouldn't really waste my time collecting those songs. Though there might be exceptions, such as O.P. Nayyar's Piya, piya, piya... or Ravi's Nakhrewaali...

The other Kishore, the one I worship, arrived on the scene riding the metaphorical Sholay-type of bike (denoting friendship and partnership) with Rajesh Khanna. A bike song (Zindagi ek safar hai suhana) and a jeep song (Mere sapnon ki raani) for Rajesh Khanna marked the reinvention of Kishore Kumar as the country's most sought-after playback singer. And Kishore Kumar lived up to his status: he made it appear as if it was the actor, be it Dev Anand or Randhir Kapoor, who was really singing the song and not him. The best example is Muqaddar ka Sikander: can you ever tell whether O saathi re was sung by Kishore or Amitabh Bachchan? Bloody hell, he sounded convincing even in the throat of Amol Palekar! -- Aane wala pal, jaane wala hai.

But which song, according to you, is Kishore Kumar's best? The best?

Readers are welcome to send in their choices, even though it's an unfair question: it's like asking a 70-year-old man to pin down the best meal he has ever had in his life. But since Kishore Kumar is one of the guiding forces of Ganga Mail, and since tomorrow happens to be his birthday, I have decided to search for an answer to mark the occasion; and I think I have found an answer, after three drinks and spending two hours surfing You Tube.

The most wholesome song that Kishore Kumar has ever sung, according to me, is Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi (from Aa Gale Lag Jaa). When I say wholesome, I mean a song that gives your soul all-round nourishment -- good lyrics set to a catchy tune and a great voice that does justice to the tune as well as the poetry. In short, a situation when you are unable to decide who should get the real credit for the song -- the lyricist, the composer, or the singer? This song is one such song.

The movie got released sometime in the early 1970's, but the words written by Sahir Ludhianvi, the most sensitive lyricist Hindi cinema ever had, still hold so true. Every so often, irrespective of how old you are or whether you are married or have married several times, you come across an engaging person from the opposite sex who makes you silently remember the lines, "Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi, yun hi nahin dil lubhata koi (I'm sure we had a connection in the previous birth, or else why should you fascinate me so much!). The works of a great lyricist or writer, even if he himself dies an early death, transcends time.

Now, Sahir could have written this song for Shankar-Jaikishen, who in turn could have got Mukesh to sing it. What a disaster the song would have been! If the song still happens to be entrenched in public psyche today, it is mainly because of the racy tune that R.D. Burman imparted to Sahir's lyrics. And once thought-provoking lyrics are set to a catchy tune, what can be a better voice than Kishore Kumar's to carry the message to the masses? Kishore Kumar, the untrained singer, but possessing the voice of the serenader living next-door. He never sang at you, but sang to you; you had no choice but to listen to him, and in the process appreciate the music as well as the lyrics.

It is, therefore, not surprising at all that Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata is recognised, even today, as a Kishore Kumar song. Very few will associate the song with Sahir Ludhianvi or R.D. Burman. Such was the power of the man's voice. Thanks to the song, Kishore Kumar continues to come to the rescue of those men and women who like each other but who can't figure why.

The song comes thrice in the film, under different circumstances -- each time a delight to listen to! Listen to this and this. My favourite lines from the song -- that's also a message from Ganga Mail to its readers:

Dekho abhi khona nahin
kabhi juda hona nahin
ab ke yuhin mile rahenge donon
waada rahaa yeh iss shaam ka
jaane tu ya jaane na
maane tu ya maane na...

Monday, August 01, 2011

Life In A Metro: Clothes Make the Woman

What people do is more important than what they wear — right?

YouTube hadn't arrived yet – or at least had not become part of everyday life – when I became a serious practitioner of yoga. I would spend hours on the Internet, painstakingly searching for yoga photos and videos that I could download and watch over and over again, so that I could stay inspired.

The videos were not easy to come by, though I did manage to build a small collection of clips, each of which was barely two minutes long. Two of the clips happened to feature Western women who were gracefully getting into the most difficult of yoga poses, in the most exotic of locations, without a stitch on their bodies. What more could a man have asked for? Or so I thought, until I started watching the two clips seriously.

The women, far from being objects to be gazed at, became a source of envy and frustration. I would carefully notice their movements and try to imitate them, and most of the time, fail – miserably. Finally, I learned to drop back into urdhva dhanurasana from the standing position; it will, however, take me another lifetime to get into the scorpion pose.

All the while that I watched these women and tried to imitate them, never did it strike me that they were in their birthday suits. All that mattered to me was the ease with which they struck the poses.

Such ease can be accomplished only after years of practice; and when a person puts in years of dedicated practice, he or she becomes worship-worthy, clothed or unclothed. What they were doing was important, not what they were wearing (or not wearing).

And yet, the kind of clothes you wear becomes an issue every now and then in our country, where college students are often forced to abide by a dress code. A medical institution was in the news recently after specifying a dress code for its students, male as well as female. Jeans and T-shirts are out, naturally; hair should be preferably oiled, men cannot leave the first button of their shirts open, while women have been prohibited from wearing sleeveless kurtas. No bracelets or rings for men, and only a minimum number of bangles for women. And so on.

In spirit, such a dress code is understandable and, to a great extent, justified. Can a jeans-clad doctor, strutting around with his top button open, inspire confidence in a patient? Or for that matter, a female doctor whose bangles make a tinkling sound as she places her stethoscope on the chest of a panic-stricken patient?

But is a dress code really aimed at maintaining sartorial hygiene in the university? The answer, alas, is a big ‘No.' The dress code for women in the medical college, which even prohibits them from wearing footwear that exposes their toes, concludes with a memorable line: “All this is to ensure that female students do not create the feeling that they are women (while examining male patients).” Now that's a real shocker.

A female doctor is a female doctor: she does not become gender-neutral by merely covering her toes or by giving up wearing bangles and nail polish or by oiling her hair. Since when did femininity require cosmetic embellishment to make its presence felt? Or is the university trying to suggest that a woman becomes a woman only when she wears T-shirts and jeans and nail polish and toe-revealing footwear? Shouldn't it also invest in a voice-modulation programme, to make its female doctors sound like males when they treat male patients?

But really, what is the big deal about a male patient being attended to by a ‘feminine' female doctor? If you have chest pain and if you rush to the nearest hospital, and if the doctor on duty happens to be a female, is the gender of the doctor going to make any difference? Are the bangles on her arm going to make any difference? All you look forward to is getting out of the hospital as soon as possible after being certified as healthy.

If in such critical moments the gender of the doctor still has an effect on you, then the source of your ailment lies not in your body but in your mind. What you need is a bouncer and not a doctor.

Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 30 July 2011.