Sunday, November 25, 2012

Confessions Of A BJP Reporter: How I Outgrew Its Charm

Beautiful Sunday morning. Two headlines in the papers — Shatrughan seeks Gadkari resignation and Pollster predicts Modi sweep — brought back memories.

I was only ten when, in 1980, Jana Sangh became the Bharatiya Janata Party (the idea behind the change of name was to adopt a secular face that would be acceptable to larger sections of India).

When you are just ten years old, you are more familiar with the names of reigning film stars than those of political leaders.

But by the time I was twenty, BJP leaders had become stars in my part of the world, the Hindi heartland of Kanpur, which was being swept by the winds of Hindutva. They were seen as our saviours: Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati. In the riot-stricken city, it had become fashionable for middle-class Hindus to put up BJP flags atop their homes.

In 1996, I began covering the BJP; and for five years I spent almost every afternoon at 11, Ashoka Road, the party’s headquarters in Delhi, sniffing for news. In any case, one had to be there for the 3 o’ clock press briefing. As a cub reporter, I would be a little intimidated to engage the likes of Vajpayee and Advani in a conversation, something that seasoned journalists did with enviable ease; but I would spend a lot of time with those who were easily approachable — the late Kushabhau Thakre and Sundar Singh Bhandare being among them.

On the whole BJP was fun beat: the party took great care of reporters. The snacks at the 3 o’ clock briefing was always something to look forward to; one was put up in the best hotels when travelling to cover the national executive or national council meetings; all facilities to ensure you are able to file your stories in time.

It was impossible not to be impressed with the works. And impossible not to be sympathetic towards them when you spent afternoon after afternoon in the company of leaders whose dedication to their ideology you admired, even if you didn’t agree with the ideology. You even felt sad for each time their coalition missed the majority mark by a whisker.

But dedication and discipline kept the BJP functioning like a well-oiled machine: the face of Vajpayee, the mind of Advani, the brains of Kushabhau Thakre and Govindacharya, the management skills of Pramod Mahajan, the PR skills of Sushma Swaraj, and silent contribution from countless others who remained in the shadows. Quite natural that one felt happy when the party finally won in 1998. It was a vicarious pleasure; my life remained just the same.

In early 2001, I left Delhi and moved to Chennai. And once I was out of the charmed radius of 11, Ashoka Road, something magical happened. I no longer felt the sense of bonding with my beat: from the distance, all the parties looked alike. The dark side of the BJP began to emerge. Bangaru Laxman, whose coronation as the party president I had attended in Nagpur only months before moving to Chennai, was now seen on TV, accepting wads of currency notes.

Gujarat happened. Egos grew. Personalities clashed. Dedicated old-timers were sidelined. And governance, as the 2004 elections proved, fell below expectations. It took just five years in power for a robust machinery to fall apart.

Today the BJP is a sum total of negatives: no leadership, no agenda, no vision, no orator, and — without these — possibly no future. I don’t know how 11, Ashoka Road looks like these days, but the party itself resembles a haunted house that was once brilliantly lit up by dedication, discipline and the dream to rule India someday.

I am reminded of the very first day I had stepped into the BJP headquarters. This was the summer of 1996. The office was largely empty — most leaders were out campaigning — and I nervously walked through the corridors peeping into the rooms, hoping to find someone to talk to.

Suddenly I came face to face with a man who wore a cropped beard, a kurta and a warm smile. When I introduced myself, he showed me into one of the rooms. We had a longish chat, and I took notes.

Finally, I asked him, “And sir, your name?”

“Narendra Modi,” he dictated as I jotted down, “National secretary, BJP.”

At least one man from the party has gone on to do very well — for himself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Two Cities

These are difficult times -- packed with anxiety and the occasional dose of excitement -- for me. Till midnight, I am the City Editor of Chennai's biggest paper; and around quarter past midnight, when I have checked the last of the local pages on my tiny netbook screen, I click open the draft of my Calcutta book and get transported to that city and stay there, quite often, till the sky is just about to change colours.

Straddling two cities, and trying to do justice to both, is not easy. The moment I focus on one, the other starts nudging me for attention. So much so that when I wake up in the morning, I often forget where I am, until I notice the window. In the Chennai bedroom, the window is on my right, and in Calcutta, on the left. This worries me, because my mother used to always say, 'Never place a foot each in two boats, you will drown.' Will I drown?

I did not have this fear while writing Tamarind City. I live in Chennai, and it was a book about Chennai: so every single moment I breathed provided me with raw material to draw from. But then, the fear of drowning did not haunt me even when I was writing Chai, Chai, which was about seven different and diverse places other than Chennai.

I don't know where Chai, Chai will stand in a few years from now -- either they will find it endowed with literary value, or it will simply go out of print and be forgotten -- but it was a book I enjoyed writing. Those railways junctions offered an escape from Chennai each night as I sat in front of my laptop, midnight till 4 a.m. Only concrete benches, no benchmarks -- so I just wrote, and wrote with great pleasure.

But Calcutta is a different ballgame. It is easily the most written-about city in India. Sometimes celebrated, mostly derided, but rarely ignored by writers during the three centuries the city has been in existence. Almost everything has been written about it and almost everything about it written. So what new am I going to write, and how is it going to measure up to what has already been written about the city? That's worry no. 1.

Worry no. 2 is the discerning eye of the Bengali reader. Calcutta Bengalis are very sporting when someone makes fun of them (they'd even contribute a joke or two to your repository of Bengali jokes), but very touchy when it comes to their city or their icons. If you fail to see poetry in the faults of Calcutta, the fault is yours and not that of the fault.

And if the fault-finder happens to be a fellow Bengali, especially a non-resident Bengali, he will be instantly sentenced to death by residents fiercely loyal to their city -- residents whose guiding slogan in life is "Saala, jai bolish, Kolkata chhere ki thhaaka jaaye?"

Worry no. 3: the critics. I can already see them shredding the yet-to-be-published book into tiny pieces, saying how little I understand of Calcutta or Calcutta culture. (I can even visualise the editor of Outlook Traveller -- the only publication to rubbish both my earlier books, that too in a tone that reeked of malice -- engaging a reviewer to savage the book. Though I may just be rescued by the sudden closure of the magazine: if Newsweek is shutting down, then what field does this raddish called Outlook Traveller belong to?)

These are worries weighing heavily on my mind, but as long as they don't weigh me down, I should be fine.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Arriving In Calcutta

Didn't sleep all night. I never do when I have a morning flight to catch. So I stayed up filling new songs in my iPod -- songs that will keep me company during my walks in Central Park. The early-morning shower made me drowsy and I mostly slept through the two-hour flight to Calcutta. Had a joyous moment at the Chennai airport when I discovered a smoking room on the ground floor (the one on the first floor had been dismantled about a year ago).

Across the aisle, in the plane, sat a small Bengali family -- man, woman and child. Man perhaps in early forties (triple chin, paunch and thick moustache made him look older, though); woman in late thirties (and exceedingly gorgeous); child not more than five or six. I wanted to steal glances at her but the husband was blocking my vision. He was reading The Hindu. I was desperately hoping that he would pause at Sunday Diary, the weekly column I write in the paper, or at least read this article on Kishore Kumar I had written for the Sunday magazine. I was desperately hoping that he would read them admiringly and then lean to his wife and tell her, "Baah, ki bhalo likhechhe"; after which I would introduce myself as the writer of those pieces.

Nothing happened. He dismissively glanced through all the pages before settling on the Open Page (Sunday version of the edit page). I lost interest in him and his wife and went to sleep. I even had a short dream -- vivid and heart-warming. A real voice finally woke me up: "Ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing shortly at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose international airport..."

Calcutta was cloudy when I stepped out of the airport -- straight into my wife's car. The meticulous planner that she is, she times her entry into the airport with my exit from the arrival lounge, so that neither of us are kept waiting even for a moment. Though I must say I miss the old days when I would spot her familiar silhouette waiting for me inside the arrival lounge. But how can I complain when I don't even go to the airport to fetch her each time she arrives in Chennai?

As soon as I got into the car, I rolled down the window and lit up a cigarette and put on the radio (the RJ was talking about Tagore being a god to all Bengalis, so I switched to the retro channel whose presiding deities are Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman). Calcutta is one place where you never feel apologetic about smoking in public -- even those who don't smoke are pretty accommodating about a smoker's urge to light up. And then it began to drizzle.

The drizzle; the cigarette smoke; the soul-lifting songs on radio; the festive spirit that refuses to be dampened by the intermittent showers -- it was such a heady feeling to arrive in my hometown-in-law, that too on the eve of Durga Puja. Suddenly I realised that Calcutta is no longer just my hometown-in-law but the subject of my next book; and that I should be spending more time on the streets, with a notebook and pen.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Best Things Are Free

“Everything we eat,” said Jitendra Singh, the driver, as he opened the car door for the umpteenth time to spit out pan masala, “is grown in our fields. We buy nothing from the market, except spices. Everything comes fresh off the fields.”
His words made me hungrier. It was 2.30 now, and we had been on the road for over three hours. We were travelling from Kanpur to his village near the town of Banda, in the rugged Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. Bundelkhand is rich in history, poor in development: tales of valour are as much in circulation as tales of notoriety.
I had been conned into this trip. “If you want to get the real flavour of the elections, you must go to Banda,” Jitendra had been telling me since I set foot in Kanpur last February, with the purpose of capturing the public sentiment on the eve of the Assembly elections. I didn’t realise, until it was too late, that he insisted on bringing me to Banda so that he could visit his village. I trusted him because tradition dictates that if you are a journalist travelling out of town to report an event, you must take the local driver seriously. So one chilly morning, as I got into his Tata Indica, I told Jitendra Singh, “Chalo Banda!”
It took us a while to get out of Kanpur. It’s a city I barely recognise now, even though I’ve spent the first 23 years of my life in it. But once out of the city, it became a journey back in time: unending green fields — and the monotony of the green broken every now and then by either a small Shiva or Hanuman temple, painted in white; or the hut-like tea shop that also sells samosas and gulab jamuns; or the dhaba selling hot daal and rotis; or asbestos-roofed factories that have smoke coming out of their chimneys. These are sights I’ve grown up with and, no matter which city I live in, they will always denote home.
And now we were headed to Jitendra Singh’s home — his heart, rather. As for a home, he doesn’t have one at the moment: the road is his home. He is based, so to speak, in Kanpur, but he invariably spends his nights in the car, either driving or sleeping in it in some remote town. He is sufficiently happy with the money he makes as a driver, but his heart remains tethered to his village, where his wife lives with his parents and a large number of relatives.
The sight of the ripe crops had begun to make me hungry. I fantasised about the end product: hot rotis, arhar ki daal, sarson ka saag. That’s when Jitender said that everything from his kitchen comes fresh off the farm. For someone who depends largely on take-away meals, his words were music to the ears.
“Will you take me to your village one of these days?” I asked him.
“I will take you there right now, sirji.”
“What do you mean?”
“My village is very close to Banda. Once you finish talking to people in Banda, I will take you home. In any case I was thinking of showing you my village.”
That’s when realisation struck. But my anger melted even before it could build up — largely because of the pleasant drive through rural, central India and also because I was now too hungry to get angry.
“Can I have lunch at your home, then?” I asked.
“Would you like to have a chat with people in Banda first, or would you like to have lunch first and then go to Banda?”
“Lunch first.”
Jitendra called up his home and spoke to his mother. Even as he had one hand on the steering and another glued to his ear, we drove through a village that was a village in the true Indian sense of the word: thatched homes, cows and buffaloes loitering around, veiled women carrying pots of water on their heads, about two dozen children sitting cross-legged on the ground under a tree, facing a blackboard and a stern-looking teacher. The village stood like an island amid green fields.
We drove through few more villages before we arrived at Jitendra’s — I knew we had entered the boundary of his village when a bunch of children began chasing our car in excitement. The village could have easily been Ramgarh of Sholay — this was indeed a village of Thakurs — and Jitendra’s father presently emerged from the door wearing the dignified air of Sanjeev Kumar, albeit with arms intact. He seemed too important to take notice of me even as I sat on a charpoy in the verandah and drank tea. He was going for a stroll around the village.
As soon as he left, one of Jitendra’s uncles came in. He sought to know who I was. Jitendra replied with a tinge of pride, “He has come all the way from Chennai to write about our elections.”
“No wonder,” the uncle turned to me, “I saw you on TV last night.”
I gave an ambiguous nod: I had no desire to contradict him. I asked him his name. “Mulayam Singh,” he replied.
For a moment I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t. His name was indeed Mulayam Singh, and he turned out to be one of the friendliest souls I’ve ever come across.
Lunch, I gathered, was still under preparation. I suggested to Jitendra that we take a short walk around the house. Mulayam Singh led the way. Just a few metres away from the verandah stood a small Shiva temple, at least 70 years old (it existed even when Jitendra’s father was born). Temples like these, modest and bereft of crowds, provide better connectivity to god — or so I believe. Next to the temple was a cluster of huts.
Outside one of the huts, two men sat in complete silence as they crafted the wheel of a bullock cart. The silence was so overwhelming that you could almost hear the horses of Gabbar Singh’s men storming the village. In fact, this was the kind of village that Ramesh Sippy sought to depict in Sholay, even though the movie was actually shot in an elaborate set created in the south Indian locale of Ramanagaram, near Bangalore.
The two Thakurs then led me to the fields. “That is arhar,” Jitendra pointed out, “and that is the mustard crop.” As a token of the newly found friendship, Mulayam Singh pulled out half a dozen radishes and a bunch of coriander leaves from the soil. “When you eat these,” he said, “you will feel the difference.”
A small boy came running to us, to announce that lunch was ready. And soon Jitendra and I were sitting across a centre table that had been placed in the courtyard of the house. The women were now in charge. The kitchen — a mud structure — was right next to us.
First came the salad: tomato and radish, soaked in lemon juice and garnished with chopped coriander. Mouth-watering. Then came the much-awaited decorated plate: chaney ka saag, arhar ki daal (with a generous piece of homemade butter floating in it), rotis (each soaked in homemade ghee) and rice. Very often we city-dwellers appreciate food only when we pay for it through our noses, whereas the truth is that the best things in life come for free.
Jitendra’s mother, who supervised the table, made sure I did not spend even a moment waiting for another roti. They just kept coming, and I kept tearing off pieces and plunging them alternately into the saag and the daal. The rice I ate with the daal alone. All along, I had been biting into a green chilli and also digging my finger into a small heap of greenish chutney, which did not taste either like coriander or mint, but it was — to use the gourmand’s cliché — delectable. I could not resist asking Jitendra’s mother what it was made of.
“Wood apple,” she said, “why, you don’t like it?”
I told her about my inexplicable fascination — dating back to my childhood — for wood apples. As a result, even before I could finish my lunch, a boy placed a plastic packet containing six large wood apples on the table.
“I will take them to Chennai,” I said.
“Look at their luck,” Mulayam Singh remarked from a corner, “they will be travelling in a plane. We have never travelled by air, but our wood apples will.”
One woman came with a mug of water, another with a towel. “Beta,” Jitendra’s mother said, “when you come next time, stay with us for a day or two.”
The sun had nearly set when we drove out of the village. As soon as we hit the highway, Jitendra slowed down the car. He said: “Sir, aaj hum aap ko ek naya jaanwar dikhate hain” (let me show you a new animal today). In the dimmed light, all I could see was a horse crossing the road. But why did it have a blue-grey coat? Oh, a nilgai! Not a new animal, but the encounter was something new, considering that I live in an urban jungle where you see only dogs and cats — and the occasional monkey — crossing the road.
I took out my camera and asked Jitendra to stop. But as soon as the nilgai saw me, it sprinted into the fields like a blushing bride.
This piece appeared in The Hindu Sunday Magazine on September 30, 2012.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Poetry, Thy Name Is Woman

Perceptions. Tastes. Sensibilities. Beliefs. How they change with time. At least in my case they have. When I now think of the days when I was, say, twenty-five, I cringe with embarrassment.

When I was twenty-five, I believed one should marry only a virgin; considered it my birthright to know all about the past lovers of my lovers; was happy wearing Titan watches; drank only rum; always wore formals to work; hero-worshipped Khushwant Singh and envied Shobhaa De; disliked Bengali women; and hated the singer Bhupinder Singh.

But Exposure and Introspection are two angels who hold your hands and lead you out of the darkened cell where society had condemned you to live. Under the sun, you see things in a different light, besides seeing new things.

Take Bhupinder Singh, for example. The ghazal singer started his career in the film industry as a guitarist for the music director Madan Mohan (Bhupinder played the guitar in Tum jo mil gaye ho from Hanste Zakhm, the famous car-drive-in-rain song featuring Navin Nischol). He also sang small bits for Madan Mohan and S.D. Burman before he became a guitarist for R.D. Burman, who gave Bhupinder his first real break as a singer in Gulzar's Parichay, in which he sang the immortal Beeti na bitaaye raina.

Somehow, I could never bring myself to liking Bhupinder Singh. To me, he was a singer who suffered from a perpetual nasal block. I often felt like holding out a handkerchief to him: "Please blow your nose, you will sound better." And being a fan of Kishore Kumar, who threw his voice straight out of his lungs into the microphone, there was no way I could like Bhupinder. I pitied his fans -- including my father, who loved the song, Do deewane sheher mein.

That was then. Today, readers of Ganga Mail know what a great fan of Bhupinder I am. If there is ever a fire at home and I am allowed to save only 10 songs, the top two would be Bhupinder's: Raat banoon main and Aawaz di hai. Kishore Kumar's songs I can find anywhere, but these are two songs I had to work really hard to trace. They have entered my bloodstream and I simply cannot do without them.

So what brought about the change of heart? How did a singer, who I thought always suffered from a bad cold, come to possess a voice that I now think is silky and lilting? The answer lies in the song you see at the bottom of this post. The song, written by Gulzar and set to tune by R.D. Burman, changed forever the way I listened to Bhupinder Singh. Only Gulzar can write poetry that can detect sensuality in the commonest of things; and only R.D. could have whipped such static verses into a song.

And today, fifteen years after I first heard this song, it has also changed the way I look at women.

Women are the most wonderful thing to have happened to mankind -- we all know that. From time to time, poems have been written about the depth of their eyes, the lusciousness of their lips, the fulness of their breasts, the curves of their hips, the warmth in between their thighs, and so on. But are they really poetry or just lessons in anatomy?

The woman deserves greater tribute. How closely have you observed her when she:

Wakes up in the morning;

Makes you breakfast;

Comes out of bath, her face glowing and hair wet;

Pulls out a set a set of clothes from the wardrobe to decide what to wear for work;

Turns to you for advice when she can't decide what to wear;

Waves at you as she drives away;

Chops vegetables for dinner;

Changes the bedsheets;

Arranges the flowers before the guests arrive;

Buys nothing for herself but something for you whenever she visits the mall alone;

Takes ownership of the child so that you're not distracted from work;

Is pally with your drinking buddies;

But frowns when you drink too much;

Forgives you even if you get drunk?

A man is all about reality, but a woman -- even in reality -- is poetry. You just have to observe her -- the smallest things about her -- like Gulzar did in this song:


Monday, September 10, 2012

Woo Me With An Asha Song

It is very unlikely for me to pay tribute to Asha Bhosle on her birthday, considering that for a long, long time I could not even distinguish between her voice and Lata's; for that matter, I could not tell one female voice from another.

It was always the male voice that mattered -- in my case Kishore Kumar's -- the reason being back then, when I was growing up, the hero alone mattered. You pestered your parents to take you to an Amitabh Bachchan film: it did not matter one bit whether he was paired with Rekha, Hema Malini, Neetu Singh or -- oh no -- Rakhi.

Consequently, the songs sung by the hero mattered. Since you wanted to be him, you wanted to sing his songs -- not the heroine's. If I were a parent back then, I would be extremely worried if my 10-year-old son sat transfixed by Dil cheez kya hai from Umraao Jaan, and find it normal if he danced to Khaike paan Banaraswala or I am a Disco Dancer. And those days, you really had some great 'hero songs', especially those sung on a bike or an open jeep, the most memorable of them being Rotey huey, aatein hain sab (Muqaddar Ka Sikandar). What a song, what a song!

I was so much of a hero-worshipper those days that I felt immensely relieved when Waheeda Rehman, playing Amitabh Bachchan's mother in Trishul, dies right in the beginning of the film. "Now that he is free from the burden of an ailing mother," my young mind told me in the theatre, "he is going to go out and fight all the bad people." Back home, when I told my mother that I was very happy Amitabh's mother died early on in the film so that he could do all the fighting, she wasn't amused at all. "Oh, the death of a mother means nothing to you?" she asked me, rather worried. This was 1979. In 2009 my mother died. Waheeda Rehman, who died ages ago in Trishul, lives on.

But memories of going to nearby movie theatres -- on my father's Lambretta -- remain etched in mind. One such movie was Mr. Natwarlal. I loved the song Pardesia yeh sach hai piya, in which Kishore Kumar makes a dramatic entry into this mindblowing duet with Lata, but thought nothing of  Tauba tauba, an Asha solo. The reason being the latter was purely a heroine song.

Then, one day, you grow up and your sensibilities begin to change. You begin to take a closer look at the opposite sex and start paying attention to their voices and their songs. Today, I get goosebumps listening to the same Tauba tauba. And many many other songs sung by the heroine -- even the vamp.

And if I were to compile a list of such songs -- songs in which I could very well do without Kishore's voice -- eighty percent of them would belong to Asha Bhosle. Lata, the elder sister, might be great, but Asha's voice dances right into your heart and pierces your soul. You instantly want to indulge that voice, even while reserving all the respect for Lata. You respect Lata, but love Asha.

Asha Bhosle makes for a third of the one-rupee coin of Hindu music I always carry in my breast pocket: the remaining two-thirds being shared equally by Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. I may listen to -- and love -- the music of others too, but this coin is indispensable. Without this solitary coin, I would be the poorest man on earth.

Presenting five Asha songs that make a great difference to my world and make it worth living:

1. Raat banoon main; which happens to the most favourite of my Hindi songs -- and it does not even feature Kishore Kumar;
2. Aawaz di hai; a song that continues to haunt me -- no Kishore here either;
3. Jaane jaan; need I say anything about this song?;
4. Bechara dil kya kare: vintage Asha!
5. Chal saheli jhoom ke. You may not have heard this song before, but I think you will like it.

Postscript: Hindi cinema is replete with examples of the woman wooing/seducing the man with a song. At the age of 41, I don't expect to be dispensed with such kindness, but if at all any of you still thinks I am worthy of being wooed, that too with a song, please sing an Asha song.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Rain, Baarish, And Rimjhim Gire Saawan

Rain is romance. Provided it falls in the right amount. But what amount is right amount? What may be right for lovers and songwriters may not be sufficient for the poor farmer; and what may be sufficient for the farmer may not be sufficient enough for a parched piece of land that had been waiting for years to recharge its groundwater levels. And then comes a time when rain turns into a mass destructor, washing away people and their homes.

Rain is pretty much like a guest who shouldn’t overstay its welcome. Stay for a couple of days at a time and we will fete you, write poems on you, and even make love to the sound of the shower. But if you stay on for a couple of weeks without giving us a break, you become an enemy.

Yet, year after year, despite the destruction and hardship it causes, we eagerly wait for the smell of the wet earth and the sound of the pitter-patter on the window panes. Why so? That’s because rain brings much-needed relief and distraction when the world around turns into a blazing desert, which it does every so often.

Then there is something else. Few sights match the beauty of water descending from the sky in the form of a natural shower. Imagine the water falling from the sky just like it would if you were to upturn a bucket! — but no, nature has thought it all out. It has installed an invisible shower-head somewhere up there so that when it rains, you don’t stand under a waterfall but a shower. And the drops of water falling on your skin have an instant rejuvenating affect; what a pity that our first reaction, when it begins to rain, is to run for cover.

Rain. Baarish. Brishti. Barkha. How sensual they sound! Especially baarish. I love the sound of the word. People enjoy the rain in their own ways. The adventurous and the romantic — people I always envy — enjoy getting wet. They don’t worry about catching a cold. In fact, the pouring rain kindles a fire in them. The practical and the pragmatic, on the other hand, like to enjoy the rain from an arm’s length. They sit on the verandah and watch the rain and munch on freshly-fried pakodas and sip hot tea.

Then you have people who are practical as well as romantic: who don’t want to get wet in the rain but at the same time don’t want to miss out on its sensuality. Some like to go on long drives during a drizzle, while others see opportunity in the immobility caused by a sudden downpour and they open the windows, make a drink and pull out their favourite book. Or they choose to make love. The idea is to make use of the setting — the smell of wet earth, the sight of the grey sky and bathing trees, and the sound of falling drops.

Given my temperament, I would say I fall in the third category. But secretly, I desire to belong to the first category: adventurous-cum-romantic. Imagine getting wet in the rain without a care in the world! Oh, and the best part about getting wet in such a carefree manner is the fire it kindles within you.

Once upon a time, a few years ago, I knew someone who was equally fascinated by the idea of getting wet in the rain. During one monsoon, she wanted me to come to the beach with her so that we could both get wet together. I had even bought a bottle of brandy, just in case the sensation of dry clothes on wet skin wasn’t enough to stoke desire.

But there erupted a hitch: where would we keep our mobile phones? She suggested options, but I was very nervous about staying away from the phone for a prolonged period. And so the trip to Marina never materialised. Today she is the mother of a two-year-old boy. I don’t think I can plan another Marina trip with her in the next 15 years.

But the desire remains: to get wet mindlessly in the rain, without worrying about the phone or the leather shoes or about the voyeuristic world, and to follow it up with something equally mindless. Until such time, I am going to make do with rain songs. Presenting the top five on my list:

1. Roop tera mastana;

2. Barkha raani, zara jamke barso;

3. Kiss me, kiss me;

4. Bheegi bheegi raaton mein;

5. Aaj rapat jaayen to.

Oh, wait, I forgot to mention the song topmost on my list. It is a simple rain song, shot in the most mundane of locations in Bombay, but the visuals (depicting innocent love) and the lyrics (explaining the sexiness of the rain) make Rimjhim gire saawan one of the most sensual rain songs ever made in Hindi cinema. Today, when I am 41, this particular song — and not the fight scenes I grew up with — makes me want to be Amitabh Bachchan.

Monday, September 03, 2012

What Akram Khan Taught Me

This evening I realised two things. They are things you realise from time to time, but you either do nothing about them or cannot do anything about them. But the fact that you realise them at least shows you have a mind that is in working condition.

Realisation no. 1: Practice makes a man perfect. Now this is something we all know, but the point is driven into your head like a nail when you watch, for example, a performance by the celebrated dancer Akram Khan. I am not much into dance, except for shaking a leg at the disco whenever I happen to visit one, though in the recent years, ever since I learned my yoga, I am able to appreciate the grace in a dancer's movements. But of Akram Khan I am a huge fan.

I first read about this Bangladeshi-Brit dancer, who has contemporised Kathak, in the Sunday Times of London a few years ago. It was a biggish piece, accompanied with a big picture showing him and a co-dancer in action. He piqued my curiosity. I immediately looked him up on You Tube and found videos that blew my mind. I watched these videos each time my energy levels dropped and I felt too lazy to work out. I also wished -- very badly -- that I could meet him and watch him perform live someday. But then, if you are living in India, it is not everyday that one travels to London, and even if you do, chances are remote that your visit would coincide with his shows.

But to paraphrase Maugham, when you want something badly, the entire universe conspires to make your wish come true. And so Akram Khan came to my doorstep this evening, all the way to Chennai, and I watched him perform with his troupe as I sat in the front row. There are dancers and there are dancers, but Akram Khan takes his art to a level that that can be accessed by only a select few. And with the support of his small but highly talented troupe, he appears almost God-like on stage, capable of movements and precision that most humans can't even dream of.

Yet he is just another human being, who consists of the same flesh and blood that I am made of. We were just 10 feet apart: but he was on stage, under the spotlight; while I remained seated in darkness, among the faceless audience that held its breath while he performed. So what really puts him there? Practice.

Practice is what separates the good from the best. All it requires to shine is to walk that extra mile, to take that extra effort to polish your skills. But very few have the patience to persevere -- and that holds true for any profession, not just dance. As a result, while you often meet the good, you rarely get to meet the best -- to meet them you need to seek an appointment. And when the best walk into a room, you know they are the best because their faces glow with accomplishment, even though you might consider them ugly otherwise.

Akram Khan is certainly not ugly. In fact, he is a beautiful man -- one of the most graceful men you can ever set your eyes on. As I watched him today, I silently resolved that I must resume my yoga practice without delay. I will never be another Akram Khan -- certainly not in this birth -- but I can at least be somewhat like him if I were to practise ashtanga yoga regularly. If nothing else, it will at least bring me good health and enhance my desirability among the opposite sex (who wants to be Akram Khan!).

That brings me to realisation no. 2: How time flies!

The last time I climed onto a treadmill was on October 31 last year, in the hotel I was put up in during a short visit to Hong Kong. That was also the day when I last stepped into a swimming pool.  When I returned to India, on November 2, I plunged myself into the draft of Tamarind City and ever since then -- it's going to be almost a year now -- I haven't had a decent workout!

My iPod is rusting (oh, those racy R.D. Burman numbers) and my Speedos are long lost in the large pile of Jockeys and FCUKs. My sculpted chest seems to be turning into boobs, my arms no longer seem to have the strength they had before, my knees hurt somewhat when I climb the stairs, and my lower back has begun to hurt. All this can be reversed in no time, but only if I have a sense of time. All this while, I've been postponing the resumption of my exercise regime, thinking, "Oh, wasn't it just the other day when I had a gratifying workout at The Mitra in Hong Kong? Why worry, I am still fit."

But the 'other day' is now 300 days old, which effectively means I haven't exercised in almost a year. I am sure it is the intermittent practise of yoga -- including the headstand and the shoulderstand -- that is still keeping me away from the hospital in spite of my highly erratic lifestyle. I only hope this evening -- after watching Akram Khan's magic on stage -- serves as a turning point, so that in the years to come, I can live better, write better, and do many things better. Better than ever before.

Photo:  British Council

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shades Of Grey And Grey Hair

This seems to be the season of sex. Thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey.

People are writing about sex. Reading about sex. Discussing sex: this time, in a very matter-of-fact way, as if they are discussing career moves or which school to send their children to. Somewhere in between, they are probaby having real sex too.

And thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey, a large majority of those who happen to be discussing sex are women. I don't think I would be wrong if I say the book has brought about a new sexual revolution in India in an era when sex is increasingly becoming notional than real. And women seem to be on top.

I am not sure if Fifty Shades has made the Indian woman demanding (or more demanding) in bed yet, but in the emancipated West, men are reportedly wilting under new pressure to perform.

Just look at the power of the written word: even though the writing is said to be mediocre (I haven't read the book, though women friends have told me all about it), Fifty Shades has gone to become the fastest-selling bestseller of all time. It tops the bestsellers' list even in places you had forgotten all about, such as Malta. Forget Malta, even in conservative Chennai.

So how can mediocre writing that peddles mommy porn melt millions of women and stiffen their men (in places other than where they should be)? I guess that's because the book feeds on -- and lends voice to -- unrealised fantasies. Fantasy is more powerful than fact, anyday. And fact may not be as tickling for women because traditionally, they have only submitted to male fantasies. The vice-versa rarely happens because women are either too shy or feel intimidated to spell out their kinks. They fear being judged. Fifty Shades, therfore, makes for good company.

But why buy Fifty Shades when porn sites -- countless in number and far easier to access than a physical book -- can act as cathartic agents? That's because porn is porn -- it's considered dirty. But at the same time, what's life without a dose of porn? Without porn, life would be as white as the robe of a priest.

If hardcore porn is black, the absence of any porn is white. No sensible human would like to embrace either extremes: they all want to live in the comfort of the grey area. Which is why you now have not just one, but fifty shades of grey! Take your pick.

What a time to find myself in my forties, burdened with commitments that keep me confined to my laptop. Even when not on laptop, there are other worries that silently eat into me: "How long before Tamarind City goes into reprint?" "How do I make the next book different?" "How long before I start calling myself a writer?" I am too busy counting the grey on my chin and chest to savour the changes that Fifty Shades is bringing about.

The problem in being a forty-plus man is that you either have a body that does not always cope with your desires and fantasies, or come to possess a mature mind that hesitates to cooperate with the body whenever it wants to have mindless sex. Either way you miss out on the fun -- unless an angel descends from heaven and assures you that you are still perfectly capable of giving shape to your fantasies.

But how often do you sight angels descending from heaven? Or have they all migrated to Facebook?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Oh Bishwanath!

Last evening, after I spoke about Madras and Tamarind City at the Gymkhana Club, an elderly couple sitting in the front row came up to me.

"Can I please have your email ID?" the man asked.

I gave him my card.

"I've been reading you in The Hindu," he said, "and somehow I always thought you were an elderly gentleman, sixty or sixty-five years old."

"You are not the only one, sir," I assured him.

He isn't the only one, really. From time to time, I am told by various people, once they meet me, that how they always thought the byline belonged to a much older person. I usually take it as a compliment (because to be thought of as an elderly man can mean the writing is mature), but at the same time I am also reminded how unsexy my name is.

Recently, when Tamarind City launched in Bangalore at the Leela Palace, I was told the same by danseuse Vani Ganapathy, who read from the book there. When I rushed up to the entrance to escort her to the book-reading venue as soon as she reached the hotel, she asked me: "Are you Bishwanath Ghosh?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"You know what, I thought Mr. Bishwanath Ghosh is a very elderly person, and that you are someone he has sent to receive me," she told me as we took the escalator down. She then went on to read out two extra passages which she hadn't intended to earlier.

The older I grow, the more I am beginning to dislike my name. It only seems to be hastening the aging process. No matter how hard I try to imagine myself looking like an elderly man, I fail miserably: in my own eyes, I am always the child who is lusting for the green mangoes hanging from the tree in the neighbour's compound. But God knows what images people conjure up in their minds when they read my byline: Bishwanath Ghosh.

My father's name is Samir; my grandfather was Suresh; my grandfather's father was Umesh, my grandfather's grandfather was Govinda. Then why am I Bishwanath? Oh well, it so happened that when I was still in my mother's womb, my grandfather -- mother's father, that is -- happened to visit Vishwanath Temple in Benaras. He told the god, "If my daughter gives birth to a son, I will name him Vishwanath." Considering we are Bengalis, Vishwanath became Bishwanath (thankfully, not Bishshonath).

Ever since then, I've been carrying the burden of a long name. Ten letters! Certain long names can be sexy, such as Harshvardhan. But certainly not Bishwanath. I wonder if a shorter name would've have had a greater appeal among readers and also members of the opposite sex: Atul Ghosh, Tarun Ghosh, Bikram Ghosh, Ayan Ghosh, Arjun Ghosh.If the Shiva connection was so necessary, I wouldn't have minded even Shankar Ghosh. Or Shambhu Ghosh. Such short names would have certainly looked better on a book cover. Of what use popularity if majority of your audience assumes you are an arthritic old man who is hostile to attention: not everybody is on Facebook, after all.

Fortunately, for me, most people who matter to me call me either BG, Bish or Bishy. They sound sufficiently sexy and cosy. Many others call me Ghosh -- which is also perfectly fine. But I invariably develop a dislike for people who insist on calling me Bishwanath. I distinctly remember that afternoon, many years ago, when this woman, drunk on the cocktail of love and lust, happened to blurt out the offending words during a highly passionate moment: "Oh Bishwanath!"

I instantly came crashing to earth. I never wanted to see her after that. I never did.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Vagina Monologue Part 2

I needn't have written this post but tonight my hands itch to type. Ganga Mail is largely neglected these days, for a variety of reasons, and it is a good idea to water it once in a while before people forget all about it. The blog, after all, is an account of my journey on this planet -- I started writing it when I was yet to turn 35; and now I'm almost 42 -- and I am possessive about it.

The primary reason for the neglect is my commitment to write things other than the blog. Another reason is Facebook (and Twitter): a thought that can be developed into an engaging 400-word piece is often wasted as a status message.

Then there are travels that you don't feel compelled to describe once you've uploaded the pictures on Facebook: 'They've seen the pictures anyway, now what is there to write.' Sometime ago I went to Kasauli; more recently I visited Santiniketan -- these are places I really wanted to write about but found myself busy uploading their pictures. Someone intending to write a travel piece should never carry a camera or a smartphone: you need to decide whether you want to show the pictures or paint pictures with your words.

There's something else, too, that makes me hesitate to express my thoughts freely about certain subjects these days: spiteful comments. If you look up the archives of Ganga Mail, you'll find plenty of posts related to sex and relationship, but if you go through their comment boxes, you'll hardly find a comment that can be seen as a personal attack. The occasional chiding, yes; but no personal attack.

But in the last couple of years or so, my posts have been attracting their share of poisonous comments (as opposed to criticism), and that does make me somewhat sad because I have not, at least knowingly, harmed anyone to deserve such malice. An easy way to tide over this would be to enable comment-moderation, which a number of respected bloggers do, but the Ganga Mail supports free speech and uninhibited expression of thoughts. I consider it unfair that only the blogger should be allowed to have his say while the comments of the readers be subjected to moderation. And in the seven years that I've been blogging, I have rarely needed to delete a comment.

Not anymore. For my previous post, Vagina Monologue, which was merely a reaction to the advertisement of a vagina-tightening gel being already peddled in the market, I've had to delete five malicious comments so far -- some more instantly than the others, thanks to Blackberry. There were a couple of others which I was tempted to remove, but did not do so for the sake of free speech. One male commentator, quoting a 'good' feminist friend of his, screamed at me: ITS NOT A VAGINA! ITS A FUCKING VULVA!!!! Quite obvious that the feminist friend cannot distinguish one V from the other -- unless the feminist in question is a man with pathetic knowledge of female anatomy. You can't tighten the vulva, brother, you can only tighten the vagina.

Vagina Monologue, in fact, kicked up a reaction I never expected, even though it is an extremely harmless post compared to what I've written about sex on the blog over the years. Ganga Mail is not the most popular of blogs: on normal days when I do not write anything, the number of hits it attracts barely exceeds the 200-mark, but on the day I wrote Vagina Monologue, the number of 'unique visitors' alone crossed the 200-mark (total hits were nearly 800 on a single day).

And then the whispers I overheard in the corridors:

"Did you read his latest post?"

"No, I haven't. What's it about?"

"Haven't you read the one about vagina?"


"You haven't? Go read it. You'll know what the fellow is up to."

Oh well, this fellow is up to what any other normal man is up to. A man, any man, is cursed right from birth: he is born with an extra piece of flesh that keeps him on his toes all his life. The smart ones know what to do with it, the remaining make do with titillation.

The word 'vagina', as I just realised, offers far more titillation than the word 'sex'. (Personal vagina trivia: for long I thought it was 'wag-eena' and not 'vuh-jaaina', because the biology teacher had deliberately skipped the chapter on reproduction and there was no way of getting the pronunciations right. Even penis was 'pen-is' and not 'peen-is').

That reminds me of yet another comment to the Vagina post, which I am reproducing verbatim:

What next? Penis-vagina dialogue? You are reducing the entire human being to the piece of flesh between the legs? Will you be able to talk to your mother, sisters and wife on these lines?

Dear Respected Commentator: Human beings are indeed born out of the penis-vagina dialogue, just in case you did not know. I am not sure if you descended directly from heaven, but as for humans, they are indeed a piece of flesh who are forever in pursuit of another piece of flesh -- all the time looking in between the legs. As for my being able to talk to my mother, sisters and wife on these lines -- well, my mother is no more; I never had any sisters; and as for my wife, she reads my blog posts and often shares the links on her Facebook wall. But let me assure you: if my mother happened to be alive, or if I had sisters, they would have asked you, even before I could, to fuck off.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Vagina Monologue

The world descended from the vagina. It lives on because of the vagina. It revolves around the vagina. A word that you cannot pronounce without embarrassment painting your cheeks a mild red, even though its vulgar variants roll off the tongue with relative ease and, often, wicked relish.

A tiny artwork of flesh, on the face of it; but the most powerful weapon on earth. Block the vagina and mankind would be wiped off the face of earth in less than 50 years. Such is its power, such is its allure. The power lies in the allure.

In an age when millions can be made out of anything and everything provided you come up with the right idea, won't it be utterly foolish to ignore something whose power and allure is so universal? And so, they now want to whiten and tighten your vaginas. First came the ad for a whitening cream, and now the ad for a tightening gel (featuring, of all people, a joint Tamilian family!).

I am not sure whether these commercials are shown on television and therefore reach the larger Indian audience; but they are certainly a rage on the internet, mostly because of the opinions expressed against them by women bloggers and writers. Each time a writer vents her anger, she also weaves You Tube links to these commercials into her thought-provoking prose, in the process only popularising the products further. Of every 10 women reading such posts, I am sure there will be at least three who, once their outrage has subsided, would be tempted to try out the products. That's precisely what the marketing guys want: to play on the insecurity of the women about how they look down there.

I find such sense of insecurity to be utterly foolish -- just as I find foolish the obsession of certain men with tightness (though I've never heard anyone lament the lack of whiteness). True, any sexual relationship between a man and a woman fructifies at the vagina; but does the whiteness and the tightness matter?

The vagina is not a product that you check for whiteness or tightness before you decide to enter it; you usually enter it out of blind passion, no matter how it looks or feels. The vagina may be the culmination of togetherness, but it certainly cannot be the starting point of togetherness. If your man finds you any less desirable because your vagina is dark and not so tight, dump him! -- or ask him to get a penis just as white and perpetually hard as they show in porn films.

The vagina, in my humble opinion, is as beautiful and alluring as the woman it belongs to. When you are truly into a woman, you don't really care how white or tight she is, do you? In fact, you feel grateful when she lets you go down on her, because it is more fun exploring the vagina of a woman you admire than exploring a woman whose vagina you admire. The woman comes first, the vagina later. The vagina may be the most powerful weapon on earth, but it's the woman's mind that holds the key.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Life's Journey, What Kind Of A Journey

If only he hadn't appeared in the Havells fan commercial. It would have preserved the romance of Rajesh Khanna and hidden from adoring fans what age and disease can do to a man who was celebrated for his looks and mannerisms not too long ago.

Even more heart-crushing is to watch the video on the making of the commercial. You will realise that even the line, 'Babumoshai, merey fans mujhse koi nahin chheen sakta,' is dubbed by a mimic artiste because the former superstar had completely lost his voice by then. He looks gravely ill -- a pathetic skeleton -- and speaks in whispers to the interviewer, as if he is on deathbed. Well, he already was already on deathbed: just that no one cares about a faded actor unless he actually dies.

Now that Rajesh Khanna is dead, maybe the makers of the commercial did the right thing. They gave him one last chance to face the camera and assert his erstwhile superstardom: 'Babumoshai, merey fans mujhse koi nahin chheen sakta.' They made him sign out of the world in style. The sad part is, he was only 69.

I was not even born when Aradhana released -- my date of birth being 26 December 1970 -- and by the time I was old enough to understand movies, Amitabh Bachchan was already the new star. Yet, I knew Rajesh Khanna -- his superstardom had left its traces just about everywhere, including the saloon in Kanpur where I would be taken by my father on designated Sundays for a haircut. At the saloon, the word 'hero' was synonymous with Rajesh Khanna, and not Amitabh Bachchan. The hairdressers would often ask patrons if they wanted their hair styled in the fashion of Rajesh Khanna.

I was fifteen when I first saw Aradhana -- by then I had seen most of the famous Amitabh Bachchan films, including Sholay -- yet I was struck by the handsomeness of Rajesh Khanna. How can a man be so charming? And the song, Roop tera mastana -- I still rate it as the most sensual song ever created in Hindi cinema.

I saw Rajesh Khanna in person only once, in 1996, when he was chosen by the Congress party to contest the Lok Sabha elections from the New Delhi seat. He was already the sitting MP from the constituency (having defeated BJP's Shatrughan Sinha in the previous elections), and now that he was formally going to launch his campaign, he had invited the media to his home on Lodhi Road (if I remember the address right).

I was a cub reporter back then. Those days there were no television channels, only print media. After a press conference, Rajesh Khanna and his wife Dimple and their two daughters got up on a stationary jeep for the benefit of news photographers. "Dimpy, zara wave karna," he told his wife. The entire family waved at an imaginary crowd while the photographers clicked away.

He lied to the readers back then, he lied to the viewers now. Back then, readers could not tell whether the jeep was stationary, but this time, in the fan commercial, it was evident that the famous journey that began with a song on a jeep was nearing its end.

With Rajesh Khanna's death, yet another solid pillar that stood between our generation and mortality has caved in. Dev Anand died just a few months ago. Perhaps a matter of time before the remaining of the pillars fall and we stand on the edge of the world, waiting to board the plane that never returns. How come so soon?

Saturday, July 07, 2012

The Script

The Calcutta-born Bengali man — he could be the faceless clerk travelling with you in a train or the elderly sophisticated bhadralok having a drink with you at the club — doesn’t just talk; he reads out from a script. A script that intends to have an effect on the listener, that intends to create drama in the most mundane of locations, such as the stifling compartment of a local train or within the humid confines of a government office. Pretty much the kind of scripts that Kadar Khan wrote.

This trait, depending on the mood you are in, can irritate the hell out of you; but most of the time it makes Calcutta an interesting, a very interesting, place to visit and an interesting subject for a book. Quotes flying around.

The TTE in my compartment of Santiniketan Express was one such Kadar Khan.

“Age proof achhe (Do you have proof of age)?” he asked the elderly bhadralok sitting across the aisle.

Haan achhe (Yes, I do),” the bhadralok replied.

Ektu dekhan (Please show).”

Just as the bhadralok was about to stand up to reach his suitcase, the TTE gently patted him on the shoulder and said, “Na, na, thhaak. Eto boyesh hoeche, mithye to bolben na. Theek ache, theek achhe (No, it’s ok. You are too elderly to be lying about your age. It’s alright, it’s alright.”

The TTE moved on, leaving the old man shocked and speechless. About an hour later, the Talkative Ticket Examiner found me standing by the door.

Mone hochche cigarette khete chaan (Looks like you want to smoke),” he told me.

Haan, kintu matchbox ta hariye phelechhi (Yes, but I’ve lost my matchbox),” I told him truthfully.

Ei je, neen na (Here, take this),” he handed me his lighter. “Eikhanei daanriye khaan. Keyo kichhu bolle amake daakben (Stand here and smoke. If someone tells you anything, call me). The emphasis was on ‘me’: he was the supreme authority in the compartment.

But I did not listen to him: what if another Kadar Khan came along and questioned my right to smoke in the vestibule? So as soon as I lit the cigarette and he returned into the compartment, insisting once again that I should call him in case someone objected, I hid myself in the lavatory and took quick drags.

While the TTE read from the script to exert his authority and to amuse himself and the passengers, the others, such as singing-beggars and hawkers, used the ‘dialogue-delivery’ effectively to stuff their pockets, even if with smaller currencies.

During this short trip to Calcutta, even though I carried along a notebook, I did not take notes; I find it too tiresome to start working on another book right away. But the scripts from this trip remain fresh in my mind: they will ferment over the next few weeks and maybe then the first line of the book will crystallise. Once the first few lines are ready to my satisfaction, I only have to follow the script.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Nice Girl

Two nights before her 31st birthday, she looked into the mirror before she removed her lenses.

"Shit, I don't look bad at all," she began telling herself, "in fact I look good! Then why don't I still have a boyfriend? Why am I still a virgin?

"Everything else in my life happened with clockwork precision. I started learning the hymns from the age of five. I joined the dance class when I was eight. I gave my first stage performance at the age of nineteen.

"I started working when I was twenty-one, went to Harvard at twenty-two, returned three years later to get triple the salary. Ever since then, have been given handsome hikes and promotions every two years.

"Today my salary is about a lakh. Amma is happy. Appa is happy. They are happy not because of my salary and designation, but because I chose to come back. I can't find a better set of parents. They never try to persuade me to get marry. They tell me I am free to find my own guy.

"But why haven't I found a guy yet? Why am I still a virgin? Even at thirty-one?"

The next morning she shampooed her hair, slipped into the Marks & Spencer lingerie she'd bought only the Sunday before, and applied kajal and lip gloss standing half-naked in front of the mirror. Then she plucked out a pink Fab India kurta and a white pair of churidar from her wardrobe. "Not bad!" she silently exclaimed at the finished package in the mirror.

She waited all day for the clock to strike six. Five minutes before six, she went over to the cubicle of the hunk.

"Can we go for a drive after we wind up, and then do dinner somewhere?" she asked the hunk.

"Oh sure," the hunk said, "shall we go on my bike or in your car?"

"In my car, of course," she said.

The sun had long retired for the day when they finally set out. She debated between two destinations: Marina and the Besant Nagar beach. At Besant Nagar, she was likely to run into people she knew, but Marina promised anonymity. So Marina it was. She drove through Radhakrishnan Salai, drove past the statues of Sivaji Ganesan and Mahatma Gandhi, entered the service lane at Marina and parked between two large tourist buses.

The hunk, excited by the sight of the Marina at night, began to get out of the car.

"Wait," she said.

"What happened?" the hunk asked.

"Kiss me," she commanded.


"Kiss me," she looked into his eyes.

"Oh ok, but..." he brought his mouth close to hers.

"But what?" she put her palm between their lips.

"I mean I am surprised. I thought you were a nice girl."

"Why, nice girls don't want to be kissed?"

"No, I didn't mean it that way. Just that I didn't expect you... I mean, you are such a nice girl."

"Shut up, just kiss me," she withdrew her palm.

And so they kissed.

While they kissed, the hunk tried to put his hand through the pink kurta in order to unhook the bra. He struggled his way up, and was barely half-way up her spine when she said: "Ok, leave it, leave it. I think I am hungry now. Let's go somewhere and eat."

"Are you sure?" the hunk asked.

"Very sure," she replied, as she switched on the ignition.

The hunk sat back.

"This is probably the worst kiss of my life," she told herself as they drove back into the madness of the city. Then the afterthought: "But how can I say it is the worst, when I have never kissed a man before?"

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

SPB Saar

I've been listening to the voice of S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, or SPB, ever since I was 11, when Ek Duje Ke Liye came out (in 1981); and even though I wouldn't count him as one of my favourite Hindi singers, he will remain one of the landmarks of my growing years. Much later when I came to Madras, in 2001, he became my favourite Tamil singer: I didn't have to know the language to sense the magic he infuses into compositions, especially those of Illayaraja. And after watching him perform live in a few concerts that I was fortunate enough to attend, I became a devotee.

To me, SPB is South India's Kishore Kumar: one can try to be him, but one can never be him. Like Kishore Kumar, he effortlessly throws his rich voice into the microphone, making even difficult compositions sound easy to the ear. I've had the good fortune of listening to the live renditions of Ilamaiyenum poongatru, one of the masterpieces of Illayaraja, and Swasamae swasamae, one of the last brilliant Tamil compositions of A.R. Rahman before he went became global and stopped making meaningful music. And no party at my place is complete until I force my guests to listen to Sippi irukkudu muthum irukkudu and Illaya nila. Search for these songs on You Tube, listen to them, and you will know what I mean.

I am writing this post because SPB turned 66 yesterday, June 4, and a tribute is in order considering he has enriched my stay in Madras. But why I really feel compelled to pay him a tribute on his birthday is not because of the Tamil songs that I happen to admire, but because of his Hindi songs that mark my childhood as well as adolescence. True, he is not my favourite Hindi singer -- even SPB won't fancy himself as a singer of Hindi songs -- but some of his Hindi songs brought about a rush of adrenalin back then and they do so even now with the same intensity.

Some of these songs are:

1. Mere jeevan saathi (Ek Duje Ke Liye)
2. Hum tum hum do raahi (Yeh To Kamaal Ho Gaya)
3. Dekho dekho yeh to kamaal ho gaya (Yeh To Kamaal Ho Gaya)
4. Paagal dil mera (Aaja Meri Jaan)
5. Aaja meri jaan (Aaja Meri Jaan)
6. Idhar dekho, udhar dekho (Angaar)
7. Yeh mera dil (Gardish)

I watched Yeh To Kamaal Ho Gaya, on video (which had just come to India), when I was in class 6. Even to my young mind back then, the song Hum tum hum do raahi denoted ultimate romance, and it does even today. If you happen to fancy someone but are unable to convey your feelings, play this song -- executed impeccably by none other than R.D. Burman -- and you might succeed.

SPB and R.D. Burman were always fond of each other. R.D. Burman, when he was going through his lean phase, was hired by Gulshan Kumar to produce an album called Aaja Meri Jaan. To sing the title song of this album, R.D. invited SPB. It was a song R.D. had already sung in Bengali with Asha Bhosle -- Tumi koto je duure -- and he now wanted SPB to sing the Hindi version along with Anuradha Paudwal. SPB found the song difficult and when he begged to be excused, R.D. told him, "Bloody fellow, that's why I called you from Madras. You can do this!" The song was recorded.

Somewhere down the road, Gulshan Kumar, the juice seller-turned-music magnate, decided to scrap the album. Instead, he made a movie called Aaja Meri Jaan to launch his brother in the film industry but retained the R.D. Burman-composed title song in that film. Such humiliation contributed to the fatal heart attack that the out-of-work R.D. Burman was to suffer soon. Gulshan Kumar did not live for long either: he fell to the bullets of contract killers soon after.

But S.P. Balasubrahmanyam lives on, hale and hearty. Touch wood. He is one of the very, very few surviving links between the various eras of music that I've lived through since my childhood. He lives in the present day, and yet is the active ambassador of the eras gone by. Therefore this tribute.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Tamarind City Travels

At Chennai, 15 May 2012.

At Bangalore, 17 May 2012.

At New Delhi, 25 May 2012.

At Gurgaon, 26 May 2012.

At Mumbai, 1 June 2012.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Grandmother

She held out her hand and asked for the cigarette I had just lit.

"So you mean to say," she took a long drag, "sex is always between the ears?"

"Very much. At least in my case," I replied.

She was about to tap the ash on the floor when I pointed to the ashtray next to me. She leaned sideways to reach the ashtray, in the process placing a warm pair of breasts on my thighs. The shampoo was unmistakably Clinic Plus.

"Why? What is so special about you?" she asked, taking another long drag with her eyes shut. I badly wanted my cigarette back, but she showed no signs of returning it anytime soon.

"It's not just about me. It's about any thinking man. If sex was to be just between the legs, then what's the difference me and, say, a truck driver who has been on the road for two weeks and for who any woman would do?"

"Ah ha, I see," she took another long drag and reached for the ashtray. I swiftly prepared my thighs for the weight of softness. "But the truck driver is also a human being. Maybe a more honest human being."

"But sex is not just about screwing anyone in sight. It's got to be meaningful. It is more about meeting of minds..."

"Oh, fuck the mind!"

"Why? It's all about the mind. Otherwise what's the difference between us and animals, or us and the truck driver?"

"Oh please, what is this truck driver business!" her irritation made her take even a longer drag. My cigarette was almost down to the filter.

"Well, I was just giving you an example, to distinguish between hardcore sex and sensitive lovemaking," I said.

"I'll tell you what," she took the final drag and reached for the ashtray again, this time to stub out the cigarette. "Sex can also be very good when it's just between the legs. At times that's all what one wants." She got up.

"Wait, where are you off to?"

"I think I told you, my grandmother doesn't like me to stay out too often."

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The Middle Path And A Book Launch

Responsibility is the biggest enemy of a writer. It is like a strict parent who makes you sit at home to study even though you would like to go out and play, no matter how hot the sun or how chilling the cold.

For example, this very moment, I would like to shift base to Calcutta for an indefinite period of time and return to good, old Chennai (or maybe not return at all) only after I have sent in the manuscript for the Calcutta book. And after that, take off, without any worries, for the next project which would involve a great deal of travel in the northern half of India. The idea is to give 100 percent to what you are doing without having to worry about the next meal or paying the bills.

But then, a vast majority of us are born only to pay the bills. We study hard, we acquire degrees, we take up jobs, we slog to get promotions -- all to pay the bills. Since we have to pay the bills, we need the job; and since we need the job, we can't take off from work as and when we want to. How can you write when you are chained to the responsibility of paying the bills?

Life can be so much easier if you have a rich father who foots your bills. Imagine having a father who tells you: "Son, why have I accumulated all this money? It belongs to you. Go ahead, pursue your dreams." There is, however, another way of breaking the shackles of responsibility: acquiring courage.

Many of the writers literature worships today -- George Orwell, Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, to name a few -- braved penury in order to be able to write. Graham Greene, for example, quit a secure job as a sub-editor of The Times to write novels that no publisher would accept (it was only his third novel that was published first), while the perennially poverty-stricken George Orwell died just when fame and money was finally about to kiss his feet.

I neither have a rich father nor the courage to brave difficult times without a steady job. And yet I dream to be a writer. Well, why not. I have learned, over the last few years, to traverse the middle path -- one eye on the books I want to write and another on the job that I want to do well so that it pays me enough to sustain my writing and my lifestyle.

Tamarind City: Where Modern India Began is a milestone on that middle path. It's a book I am rather proud of. It's being launched formally, in Chennai, on May 15, Tuesday, at Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, TTK Road. Those who read and love Ganga Mail, please be there.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Looking At The Watch

Very few things we do these days without looking at the watch every now and then. The deadline at work, the hurry to get home, the eagerness to finish a chore on time -- really, when was the last time you told yourself: "Ah, today I have all the time in the world!"

This Sunday though, for a change, I had all the time in the world as I invited eight friends over for lunch and cooked for them. It was a pleasure to watch them sitting in a circle around the dining table and drinking chilled beer and discussing movies and stuff while I prepared egg curry, dum aloo and rice in the kitchen. One of them had brought puris, another had got rasam and yet another salad. It was going to be one nice meal.

Before we sat down for lunch, I helped myself to three -- or was it four? -- large Bacardis. It was a way of rewarding myself for having done a good job in the kitchen. Those who know me well know that when I have guests over and when alcohol flows, I become the DJ. And so I let Kishore Kumar loose on them: Piya Ka Ghar, Khatta Meetha, Sitamgar...

Finally, some of them started looking at the clock. They had to leave soon. Lunch was served. Even as they ate, four of us, including Baradwaj Rangan, who shares my love for the 1970's and 80's and the unforgettable music created during those decades, lingered over our drinks.

The Kishore Kumar song playing in the background was: Pyaar pyaar pyaar pyaar, pyaar tu karle / chaar chaar chaar, aankhen chaar tu karle. It is from a film called Suraag, a thriller starring Sanjeev Kumar that I watched on Doordarshan many, many years ago. The storyline is long forgotten, but the thrill and the song remain fresh in my mind. For many years, I tried to get hold of a DVD of the film but in vain. The absence of this movie from the shelves of music stores began to get mysterious. Finally, the mystery was unravelled by the director himself. "You will not find a DVD because I never sold the video rights. The print must be lying somewhere here in Madras," Jagmohan Mundhra, best known for making adult movies, told me one afternoon in 2007. It was a revelation for me that Suraag was his movie -- in fact, the very first film he directed. I begged him to collect the print and sell the video rights so that I could watch the film again. Mundhra, who was in his mid-fifties at the time, said he would do something about it.

So last Sunday, as the song played in the background, I boasted to my friends about my long meeting with Jag Mundhra and told them that I was planning to message him on Facebook and ask him to release Suraag on video (Mundhra and I went on to become Facebook friends).

"But dude, isn't he already dead?" Baradwaj asked.

"Can't be. He is on the list of my Facebook friends. Only the other day I saw someone tagging him."

"No dude, he died last year," Baradwaj said, as he got up to run a Google search on my desktop. Jagmohan Mundhra was indeed dead. The news didn't hit me hard because I was somewhat drunk. The news was stale anyway.

After the last of the guests left, I went off to sleep and woke up at nine in the evening with a crippling headache. Even then, the first thought that crossed my mind, as I woke up, was: Is Jagmohan Mundhra really dead? This time I ran a Google search myself on my netbook. He was indeed dead. I felt very sad.

As I read online the belated news about his death, more bad news awaited me in the form of accompanying links. Navin Nischol was dead too, and so was art director Samir Chanda, who I had met on the sets of Guru -- which happened to be the offices of the New Indian Express -- as recently as in 2006. It was Mithun Chakraborthy who had introduced me to Chanda, a man barely in his forties, who shyly shook my hand. He was dead too!

All these people died last year -- in 2011 -- and I did not even know about it! For that matter, it was only today that I got to know that Yunus Pervez is also no more -- he died in 2007. It is bad enough not to know when people die, but worse when you confidently believe that they are still alive while the rest of the world has already paid their last tributes. Such confidence stems from ignorance and it may not be such a bad thing after all -- people like Navin Nischol or Yunus Pervez can never be dead for the members of my generation because they defined that generation.

But how come I didn't get to know about their passing on? What was I doing in 2011? Now I remember what I was doing. I was too busy looking at the watch.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Tamarind, Sweet And Sour

This evening the call finally came: that Tamarind City, my portrait of Chennai, is out of the press. A copy should reach me in a day or two, and the book should be hitting the stores in about ten days.

Unlike Chai, Chai, whose draft got transferred straight from my head to the printing press without being subjected to rewriting or even editing, Tamarind City is the result of hard work. One could have always worked harder, of course, but there is no end to it: at some point you have to tell yourself, "OK, this is it. I can't work any harder."

For a year and a half until the end of 2011, I had hardly any social life -- or personal life, for that matter -- to speak of. Almost every waking hour outside the office was spent working on Tamarind City. During these dark months, when I was blind to everything else in this world except the laptop screen, the possibility of my seeing or holding the book in published form seemed remote. Very remote. It would feel as if the book would forever remain a word document on my computer.

Today, that remote possibility has become reality. Tamarind City is no longer an idea in my head: it has finally taken the shape of a book that will reach the bookstores in less than two weeks. Considering all the struggle that went into its writing, I should have been elated when I got the call this evening. But far from it. It doesn't matter anymore.

I have realised by now that if I want to be a writer, my entire life is going to be one long struggle, and that it would be stupid to celebrate the end of one struggle without realising that another round of struggle is waiting round the corner.

At the moment yet another unwritten book is staring me in the face. It's an ambitious book: a portrait of present-day Calcutta. I don't want to spend two years writing it: I will be too old by the time it comes out. At the same time, I cannot afford to spend sufficient time in Calcutta because I now have a job that is going to keep me firmly anchored to Chennai. On top of it, I seem to be enjoying the job, as a result of which I find the sensations of Calcutta fading and the memories blurring.

I am, however, determined to set the Calcutta book rolling before I feel good about the publication of Tamarind City. I find overlaps more assuring than long gaps.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Book Launch That Almost Happened

The news of the Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee being awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke Award brought back some memories.

In December 2009, Chai, Chai had just been published and I was in the middle of promoting the book in various cities. I had already done Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Pune, while Delhi -- the final city on my itinerary -- remained to be covered. As for Calcutta, I was still in two minds whether to have a reading there -- one reason being I was yet to find a local celebrity who could read from the book.

Books launches can be a pain for a first-time writer. If the book happens to be doing well, the bookstore will gladly give you space for the launch, while the publisher will pay for the cookies and the coffee and make sure that a few dozen copies are available at the store during the function, but the onus of finding a celebrity to launch the book or read from it lies squarely on the author. Things change when the writer becomes a celebrity, but there could be several long years standing in between the first book and that book.

I had a tough time finding celebrities in cities alien to me. For Mumbai, a friend had suggested the name of a particular theatre actor, known for his powerful personality and voice. "If I put in a word, he will definitely do it for you. Consider it done, brother!" my friend assured me. I jumped with joy: the theatre actor, who played a key role in a path-breaking TV serial in the late eighties, was my hero once upon a time. Every boy in my class idolised him, and now the same man was going to read from my book -- unbelievable!

I dialled the number of my idol and had a brief chat with him. He was extremely warm and courteous. He said he liked the idea of Chai, Chai and asked me to courier a copy, which I promptly did. Ten days later, he called. "Bishwanath, I would like to do it for you," he said very politely, "but you know, I get paid for lending my voice. Usually it is Rs. 50,000 for 30 seconds. I hope you understand."

I instantly lost interest in him and wanted him to hang up so that I could make calls to arrange for another celebrity. But he wouldn't let go of the phone: he spoke to me for 45 minutes, lamenting how theatre artists of today are not as dedicated and well-read as those from his generation. Forty-five minutes! -- he had wasted voice-time worth Rs. 45 lakh on me. And yet he did not want to spend 10 minutes reading from my book.

Eventually, it all worked out well. But as far as Calcutta was concerned, I still couldn't think of a celebrity.

"Why don't we try for Soumitra Chatterjee?" my wife asked.

"Why should he bother reading from my book? He is too big," I protested.

"What's the harm in trying," the wife, always optimistic, retorted. She went on to assign a friend to speak to Mr. Chatterjee and work on him into agreeing to read from the book. The friend called back, ecstatic, saying that Mr. Chatterjee was open to the idea but did not want to commit without having a word with the author.

I became very nervous. Soumitra Chatterjee, a household name in Bengal and the favourite actor of Satyajit Ray -- why should he bother reading from the debut book of a writer he does not even know remotely? The very thought of sitting next to him embarrassed me deeply and I abandoned the idea, much to the irritation of my wife and her friend.

"Let's try other options," I told her. On the advice of my own friends in Calcutta, I sent text messages to Moon Moon Sen, who never replied, and to singer-director-actor Anjan Dutt, who instantly called back asking, "Why do you want to speak to me?"

Now I am a huge fan of Anjan Dutt: he is a nostalgia specialist whose songs have made me understand Bengalis better, and nothing could have worked better for Chai, Chai in Calcutta than him reading out passages from it. But he seemed too busy to commit on the date I had in mind. Each time I called him, he would say he was trying his best to be free on that day. After four or five calls to him I gave up the idea of going to Calcutta.

"Not all is lost," the wife said, "You can still call Soumitra Chatterjee."

I finally listened to her and called Soumitra Chatterjee's mobile number. The conversation went exactly like this:

"Am I speaking to Mr. Chatterjee?"


"Good morning, sir. I am so-and-so who has written a book called Chai, Chai. I am launching the book in Calcutta on such-and-such date, and I would like you to read from it."

"OK, fine," he tamely agreed. "You mark the passages you want me to read."

I was surprised as well as thrilled -- more surprised than thrilled. I mean, how can Soumitra Chatterjee agree so readily?

"Are you sure, sir?" I asked. "I was hoping that you read the book and choose the passages yourself. Can I please send the book to you?"

"OK, send it," he replied lifelessly.

"Great, sir. Can I have your postal address, please?"

"OK, fine. Note it down then. But did you by any chance want to speak to Soumitra Chatterjee?"

"Er, yes."

"I am not Soumitra Chatterjee. I am his son Saugato Chatterjee."

"I am so sorry, sir, I am really sorry. I actually meant to speak to your father."

The voice on the other end fell silent. I could sense the hurt. The awkwardness made it easier for me to hang up.

Two days later, I spoke to the legend himself. This time, it was a lively voice that greeted me, and he did not ask me to mark passages but instead asked to be excused -- that's what you expect of a real celebrity.

"I am so sorry, I am going to be in Nagpur on that day," the Soumitra Chatterjee told me.

"But I would still like you to read the book. Can I please send it to you?"

"By all means," the legend replied. "Here's my address, note it down."

To tell you the truth, I don't quite remember whether I actually sent a copy of Chai, Chai to Soumitra Chatterjee. But I distinctly remember telling myself, "Fuck it, enough of launches. Now get down to working on your next book." And so I opened a fresh word document and wrote the first few paras of Tamarind City.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Blogger Interviewed

Blogadda interviews the man behind Ganga Mail:

Q: When and why did you start blogging?

I started blogging in October 2005. Some of the people who read me in the New Sunday Express suggested that I should start a blog. At the time I wasn’t very sure what a blog was – I only had a vague idea – and wondered if sane people ever blogged. They then showed me some of the popular blogs and I told myself: ‘I too have things to say – things I can’t always say in the paper – so why don’t I start a blog of my own?’

Q: What topics do you generally blog about?

I try to blog about things that matter to people; and very often, it is the smallest of things that matter the most. If I were to write about a trip to Switzerland, people may like it and say nice things, but if I were to describe a visit to my hometown after several years, it would instantly strike a chord because most working people invariably leave their hometowns behind. The idea is to strike a chord. When they read me, they should wonder, "How is he able to read our thoughts so accurately!" That’s the truest reward for a writer.

Q: Do you ever get stuck when writing an entry? What do you do then?

Occasionally, yes. Usually I sleep over such entries, which is easy because most of my posts are written post-midnight. I revisit them the night after and if they are worth it, I try to salvage them. Or else I click on the ‘delete’ button. Deletion of drafts is more frequent now, because these days I am very conscious about what I write – maybe because I am now older, married, a published writer and hold a fairly respectable position in a highly respected newspaper, and know far more people than I ever knew. This was not the case in the initial years, when I expressed my thoughts with utmost honesty without an invisible force trying to restrain me. Maybe I should go back to my old ways, because Ganga Mail earned a distinct identity because of the honesty.

Q: Why did you name your blog as 'On The Ganga Mail'? Explain us your thought process while deciding the name.

The blog, incidentally, was called 'Thought Process' when I started it. I was not very happy with the title, but at the same time I wasn’t quite sure if people were going to read my blog so I did not bother changing it. In 2004, I had spent two months in Uttar Pradesh covering the Lok Sabha elections, and during that period I happened to spend considerable time on the banks of the Ganga – Rishikesh, Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad. It struck me how the Ganga was symbolic of a train, originating from Gangotri and terminating at the Bay of Bengal – when the train starts its journey, the coaches are almost empty and clean but as it travels further down the Hindi heartland, it gets crowded and dirty. And so I wrote a travel piece, headlined 'On The Ganga Mail', likening the Ganga to a long-distance train. I fell in love with the headline (I had myself given it) and adopted it for the blog once I grew weary of 'Thought Process'. After all, I grew up by the Ganga – that’s my truest identity.

Q: We have seen you craft many short yet beautiful poems on your blog. What inspires you to write a poem instead of a post? Which poem of yours do you like the most and why?

Those poems were written mainly to impress certain women I knew back then (let me hasten to add that I was a bachelor at the time). I can’t say for sure if those women were impressed, but yes, I was myself quite impressed with some of the poems I wrote, especially Dream.

Q: Tamarind City, based on Chennai, is your next book expected to hit the stands in April. The day you completed writing this book was also the day you completed 11 years in the city. Tell us more about this book. Sum up your stay of 11 years in Chennai.

There are several books and travelogues about Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta but practically none about Chennai, which happens to be older than the other three cities. Chennai was born in 1640, Calcutta only in 1690 – Delhi was still a medieval city back then, known by the name of Shahjahanabad, while Bombay was only a group of Portuguese-controlled islands. So I thought it was about time that someone cleared the fog of ignorance shrouding Chennai and presented the city, in the form of a book, to readers across the country, and perhaps the world. As for my stay of 11 years in the city, all I can say is that whatever little standing I enjoy as a writer today is because of Chennai. It has let me be.

Q: You are currently working as the Deputy Editor at The Hindu. Did you ever think of becoming an author earlier, when you were starting your career with journalism? What thoughts triggered Chai, Chai, your debut book?

I always wanted to be a journalist because of the power it gives you to reach out to the masses. Also as a journalist, you can walk in just about anywhere – from the local police station to a minister’s house. Even if they want to throw you out, they will do so very politely. I also wanted to be a writer – Khushwant Singh was my hero back then! – but that was more of a dream which I wasn’t sure would ever come true. For a long time, I was only a reporter, a political reporter. Only after I moved from Delhi to Chennai in 2001 that I realised, thanks to the reader response, that a good and engaging piece of writing is all that counts – doesn’t matter whether you are writing about politics or hospitals or travel. And so I started working on my craft. In 2006, I was approached by the publishers, who wanted me to do a travel book that was different. That’s how the idea of Chai, Chai was born.

Q: As a Deputy Editor, there might have been times when you wanted to publish some stories, but could not. What are the reasons editors have to face such situations? What did you do, when you were in such or similar situations?

There has never been a situation when I wrote something or wanted to write something that was not considered publication-worthy. As a responsible newspaperman, I have a fair idea what is publication-worthy and what is not.

Q: Travelling seems to be something very close to your heart. So far, which trips have been your most cherished ones and what memories did you collect from them? Are travelling and discovering places therapeutic for you?

If you don’t travel, you continue to live in a well. Having said that, let me also add that mere globe-trotting does not make you the most enlightened person on earth. You may go to Paris and see the Eiffel Tower but if you don’t mingle with Parisians and visit the cafes – like Hemingway or Henry Miller did – all the money you’ve spent on the trip has gone waste and you will continue to live in the well. Travelling is not about sightseeing, but knowing and understanding the people. People define a place, after all, and not monuments. Sri Lanka does not have an Eiffel Tower, but the cheerful nature of its people – typical islanders – in the face of a prolonged strife is a monument by itself. I shall never forget the trips I made to Sri Lanka in 2004 and 2005. Meeting new people is not just therapeutic, it is an education.

Q: We also notice your great interest in Hindi movies and songs. Which is the era that you like the most, when it comes to watching movies? What do you find lacking in “today’s cinema”, and what do you enjoy the most about it? Share some of your favorite movies and songs.

Songs and movies from the 1970’s and 80’s work best for me, and that’s because I grew up in that era. But I have nothing against today’s cinema. They make pretty good movies, some of which I watch. But as far as film music goes, I would say the 70’s and 80’s was the golden era – their songs are not counted as oldies but as classics, be it Hindi or Tamil. The songs of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman are food for my soul – they make me feel happy that I am alive.

Q: Ganga Mail was born out of loneliness – the unmarried man that you were in 2005 said this. Ganga Mail made you write some posts that were honest and free of the fear of being judged and also made you learn the art of finding a story from an experience. Tell us how Ganga Mail has helped you evolve as a person and what did it teach you? Does your family follow your blog?

Ganga Mail records my life from the age of thirty-five, when I started blogging. It has served as my personal diary, my companion, my conscience-keeper, my spokesman, my confession box. It made me accountable to myself – considering that whatever I wrote was in public domain. That’s how the evolution began – as a person and a writer – because Ganga Mail became a tool for introspection. You don’t grow unless you introspect. Yes, my family – whatever the word stands for – follows my blog.

Q: You created a character named Shivani in 2009 on your blog. What was the purpose behind sharing her fictional story? Was her story inspired by a real character or a situation that you experienced or observed?

Shivani is based on a real person. One evening I happened to be chatting – online – with someone I’d known socially for a long time. This was in February 2009, as far as I can recall. During the course of our conversation, she asked me (I forget the context): "But how well do you know me?" I told her that I knew her well enough to write a lengthy piece on her. The fact is that I hardly knew her, but it wasn’t difficult at all to imagine the story of a woman her age – she was nearly forty then. All married Indian women who are forty have nearly the same story. They would have spent their entire lives being a dutiful daughter, a dutiful wife and a dutiful mother. It’s only when they reach the age of forty or so – when the children are grown up – that they finally get time to introspect and look back at their lives. The Shivani blog sought to capture that introspection, and that is why it struck a chord with readers, including my friend who kept wondering how I knew her so well.

Q: What is your series – 'Life in a Metro' – in the national daily, The Hindu, all about? What kind of stories do you share there? How long have you been writing this column?

It was a slice-of-life column I wrote for nearly 10 months. I stopped it last week, in spite of the popularity it seemed to have attained in a short span, simply because I did not have the time. Column-writing is a full-time commitment, which you can’t afford when you have pressing demands at work or when you’ve signed contracts to write more books.

Q: There are dozens of people who loathe the way Indian journalism has turned out to be. Being in this profession, what are your thoughts on the way the industry operates? What are the strong and weak points of this industry, according to you?

Journalism is no longer the same ever since television turned 24/7. Today, much of what you see or read is sensationalism and not journalism.

Q: Do you promote your blog? What promotional techniques work best for you and why?

No, I don’t promote my blog.

Q: How important is it for the blogger to interact with their readers? Do you respond to all the comments that you receive?

Writing a post can be enervating. Once you have finished saying what you wanted to say, you just want to move on. Which is why, even though I value the comments and cherish them, I find the thought of revisiting the subject by way of replying to comments too tiring. This may not be the right thing to do, though, and ideally I should acknowledge every comment I receive.

Q: What do you find to be the most gratifying aspect of blogging?

The fact that you get published instantly. Also, blogging can be a good net practice for real writing – I mean writing books. It helps you practice your strokes, build your stamina and evolve a style of your own. Moreover, reaction of the readers tells you whether you are headed in the right direction. If your posts are readable, your books are most likely going to be readable too – provided you don’t get carried away too much by the praise your posts receive.

Q: How, in general, would you rate the quality of Indian blogs? Share your favourite five blogs.

Some of the blogs are really, really good — there are people who make me wish I could write like them. Unfortunately, of late, I have hardly been looking up people’s blog, mainly due to paucity of time. But every now and then, I read Diptakirti’s Calcutta Chromosome and Desi Babu’s Peanut Express. I identify with their style of writing – simple yet profound.

Q: What is your advice to someone who wants to start a blog?

Just be yourself. Don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Write from your heart – and soon you will evolve a style of your own.

Q: Do you earn revenue through your blog? How does one go about it?

I am yet to earn money from my blog. It’s been three years since I put ads on the blog, but the revenue is yet to cross the 100-dollar mark (you get paid once your earnings cross 100 dollars). Last time I checked the figure was still hovering around 60 dollars. Yes, once I did get paid 150 dollars for placing the link of a US-based website on the sidebar. I bought a tennis racquet with that money. Subsequently, I got similar offers from a few other websites, but it is no fun meddling with your template for small sums.

Q: According to you, what is the future of Blogging?

I think Twitter has done some damage to the blog. In the sense that – to give you an example – earlier you read Amitabh Bachchan’s blogs, but now you follow his tweets. But the damage is limited. There will always be a readership for good writing, and more and more bloggers – the ones that write well – will find their works being published in print.

Q: Let’s conclude off with a few favorites.

Color: Black, white.

Movie: The Departed.

TV Show: I don’t watch TV.

Book: Tropic of Cancer.

Time of Day: Post-midnight.

Your Zodiac Sign: Capricorn

Thank you Bishwanath for taking us through this journey. Every stopover in this journey taught us something. We are sure our readers felt the same as well.