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.