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.