Thursday, December 26, 2013

Birthday Thoughts: What I Was and What I Became

I was 34 when I started writing this blog. Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, the digits will interchange. A journey of nine years recorded on Ganga Mail. Even though I have had very little to say in the recent years, I believe the reticence is also a statement -- a sign of growing up.

I would love to blog every night, as I did once upon a time, but of late I feel embarrassed to talk about myself and my thoughts. Why should people be interested in knowing what I have to say or think? But tonight, to mark my attendance on Ganga Mail, I'll present you with a list of 10 things that I would, or could, do when I was 34 but which I don't any longer at 43:

1. I could write a 500-word piece in two hours, now it takes me two nights.

2. I wrote to seek the attention of women I fancied, now I, usually, run away from attention, especially when it is excessive.

3. I would end my day in dirty, dingy TASMAC bars, now I find those bars too dirty and dingy and can't recall when I last stepped into one (TASMAC stands for Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation, which runs the wine shops across the state).

4. I would often have a drink or three during the day, now I don't like to touch alcohol before sunset.

5. I thought writing about sex was cool, now I think it is idiotic. Wise people enjoy sex, only the foolish take pleasure writing -- or reading -- about it.

6. I could spend entire nights chatting online with strangers, but now I end up ignoring messages of even best friends because I just don't have the time.

7. I would pluck out the grey from my goatee and moustache, now I let them be. The women I know say the grey looks nice and sexy.

8. I dreamed of writing novels, and my heroes were Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway. Now: I am a published writer, but I write literary travelogues instead of novels. My heroes are Ryszard Kapuściński and Bruce Chatwin.

9. I would never leave home before doing 10 rounds of surya namaskara, or sun salutation, but now I do yoga once in 10 months. Having said that, back then, I could not run for more than a minute on the treadmill, but I can now easily run for 10 minutes at the rate of 9 km/hr. And can do 10 chin-ups -- back then only four.

10. I was happy then, not so happy now. Back then, even though I was constantly anxious about the health of my mother, who suffered from a heart condition, I felt good about life and looked forward to it. Now, when my mother is long dead -- she passed away four years ago at the age of 59 -- and when I have no anxieties eating me up, I still don't find the happiness of those days returning to me. Maybe because I was 34 then, and 43 now. At 34, you can still be an eligible bachelor, whereas at 43, you become a 'Sir' -- that's how most young women call me these days.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Sachin: Good Boy Of Cricket, But God?

By the time Sachin Tendulkar started playing for the Indian team, in 1989, my cricket-watching years were almost coming to an end. Even though I was only 19 then, I had somehow lost interest in sitting through matches -- my heroes had retired, and commercials had taken over the telecast -- and would only occasionally catch up on a game if the TV happened to be on, either at home or work.

I did follow some tournaments after 1989. Such as the 1992 World Cup. But all I remember from that tournament is the explosive batting by South Africa and the hero's performance by Imran Khan who, at the old age of 42, finally earned the Cup for Pakistan. I don't even know, or remember, whether Sachin was in the Indian team for that tournament.

Then the 1996 World Cup. All I remember today from that tournament is three names: Aravinda de Silva, Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. I don't even know, or remember, whether Sachin was in the Indian team for that tournament. I was working with Press Trust of India at the time, and I had watched the important matches of this World Cup on the TV in the editor's room -- but I have no memories of Sachin.

Though Sachin must have been an established bastman by then, because one morning, the general manager of PTI, M.K. Razdan, burst into the editorial room with the latest issue of Time. In an interview to the magazine, Shane Warne had said that he found Sachin more difficult to bowl to than Brian Lara -- and Razdan had wanted that to be put out as a news item. And one of the sub-editors -- was it me? -- quickly sent a four-para story over the wires. But I don't remember being in awe of Sachin at the time. Somehow, he never registered in my cricketing-conscious -- if such a term exists.

I am sure the loss is mine. I should have followed cricket more closely. But whatever little cricket I have followed between 1989 and 2013, while I remember watching Sachin Tendulkar bat, I don't remember anything of his batting. This is strange, considering I remember some other things: such as Stephen Fleming's gutsy batting as the New Zealand captain in the 2003 World Cup (my heart broke when his team lost); Laksmipathy Balaji's bowling in Pakistan in 2004; long-haired Dhoni's batting in 2005, Sohail Tanvir's bowling in IPL 2008.

In short, I am not able to recall a single exciting contest in which Sachin single-handedly rescued the Indian team from the jaws of defeat and delivered it into the safe hands of victory. And yet Sachin is considered the God of (Indian) cricket.

Really, where was I all these 24 years, when Sachin achieved one milestone after another and went on to become God? I must have been busy chasing my own dreams. But no matter how busy you are, you can't miss the creation of a God in your midst -- do you? Then how did I?

But at the same time, I have been reading and watching his interviews all these years, and what strikes me consistently is that there can't be a better behaved cricketer than him. He speaks like a statesman: not a word or thought out of place. He is the good boy of cricket: a student every teacher or principal would like to have. Which is why he did not want to be the captain: he preferred to be the statesman than a politician.

Good boy of cricket, then how come the psyche of a lay, non-fanatic spectator such as mine did not register his cricketing feats: X number of matches, Y number of runs, Z number of centuries and so on? Maybe because all of Sachin's milestones were his personal: they never really had anything to do with India's chances in an international tournament. Sachin did not intend it that way, of course, but his personal success has rarely been directly proportional to India's success in crucial tournaments. Then why call him God?

In crucial tournaments, it has always been a lesser mortal who steered India to victory. But the same lesser mortal, once he went out of form, got kicked out of the team. He was never given the numerous chances that Sachin has been in his 24-year-old career. Each time Sachin went out of form, the general view, including that of the BCCI, was, "Wait and watch, he will bounce back." As a result, he went on to play for 24 years, a quarter of a century, and went on to achieve those milestones.

One wonders if Tendulkar would have lasted his long had he chosen to remain the captain of Indian team -- the post he held only briefly in the mid-1990s. Sachin was wise enough to realise, very quickly, that a captain's job is a dirty job and had given it up. He had wanted to remain clean and focus on his batting, something he did very well over the decades  and in the process achieved several personal milestones.

Tendulkar is the good boy of cricket. The brightest boy in the classroom. But to call him the God of cricket is highly inappropriate.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What's In A Name

'Enough is enough', she said, 'Now make up your mind, whether you love me or the laptop.'

'Give a moment, baby,' he said, 'Just one more song to be downloaded. Then am all yours. You know when did I last hear this song -- the one I am downloading? I must have been fifteen, maybe sixteen.'

'You are crazy, do you know that?'


'OK, I am crazy about you, do you know that?'

'Sort of.'

And then, with his leg, he gently pushed the laptop to the edge of the bed, and rested his head on her lap.

'Why are you looking at them,' she said, 'I know they are big. God, I hate them.'

'No, I am not looking at them,' he said, 'I am just looking at your face. But they are not big, trust me. They are just right.'

'I knew you would say that. Men, I tell you!'

'What has this got to do with men? I am not speaking on behalf of other men. I just told you what I thought.'

'But don't you think they are a little too big?'

'No they are not. They are just right.'

'Anyway, mister, big or small, you are now saddled with them. You don't have a choice, do you?'


'By the way, did I tell you that I have names for them?'


'Well. This one is Bob, and this one is Dylan.'

'Sorry? Which one is what?'

'This one is Bob, and this one is Dylan.'

'But why can't the left one be Bob and the right one Dylan?'

'My choice. But you can interchange the names if you like. As long as they add up to Bob Dylan. You know how crazy I am about him.'

'I know.'

'Don't you love them?'

'I do. But if I had a choice, I would name them Sahir and Ludhianvi.'

'Sahir and what?'

'Sahir and Ludhianvi. You see, Sahir Ludhianvi was a great songwriter. He wrote some of the best songs ever written for Hindi cinema. In India, he is as big as Bob Dylan -- maybe even bigger.'

'But how come I never heard about him?'

'Maybe because you have lived away far too long? You are more American than Indian, aren't you?'

'Oh baby, don't say that. You can call them Sahir and whatever you want them to. But do love them and do love me, will you?'

'Of course I will.'

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


"Do you see that orange glow?" she asked him, pointing to a patch of sky over the elevated railway track. "Whenever the sky turns orange at night, it means it is going to rain."

"That orange light?" he looked in the direction of her finger, "That looks to me like the light thrown by the headlamp of a train. Wait and watch, a train must be on its way."

Within moments, a train appeared on the skyline and glided over the chaos of traffic on the ground.

"Look, I told you," he smiled.

She smiled back. Her nose-ring shone under the roadside lamp.

"OK, see you then," she said.

"See you," he said.

Back home, he took out the sheets of paper on which he had scribbled some thoughts the night before. He put them on the bed and went to the kitchen to pour himself a drink. Back in the bedroom, he found the sheets flying. The curtains were up in the air and empty plastic bottles toppled. There were flashes of lightning and then thunder.

He collected the sheets and settled down to write  to the familiar sound of rain.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Return Of Ganga Mail

It doesn't seem so long ago -- though it is: almost eight years -- when every evening, after getting back from work, I would ask myself: So what do I blog about tonight?

Invariably an idea would strike, and I would set about expanding on it laboriously. For company I would have music and whisky -- and always the gentle glow of the yellow lamp.

I would rarely finish before three in the morning, but go to sleep a happy man. What can be more gratifying than being able to publish your own writing -- instantly, uncensored, unedited. When I woke up six or seven hours later, I would open the blog the first thing and check for comments. Even if there were a couple of them, my day would be made. They made me feel accepted.

Those were happier days. I had dreams, but no responsibilities. I had ambitions to be a writer, but no commitments to deliver manuscripts on time. I was single, carefree. My mother was alive; I lived in the protective shade of my parents -- and since they lived far away in Kanpur, it also meant a lot of freedom.

Blogging gave a new dimension to that freedom by letting me have my say -- on a range of subjects I felt strongly about -- without my worrying about how many people would read me or what they would think of me. The whole process of transferring your thoughts onto the computer screen, in an engaging manner, was highly gratifying. The comments were an icing on the cake.

I distinctly remember one night: there was no power at home when I got back from work, but I still wrote a lengthy post, finding my way around the keyboard with the help of the light generated by the laptop screen. Those days, the modem would work even during powercuts, so I was able to publish the post too. I could have waited till the next evening, but I had urgently wanted to say something. What was it that I had to say so urgently, I don't recall; all I can say for sure is that the urgency was self-imposed.

Tonight I miss the old me, the reason being that someone, of late, has been reading my old posts and leaving comments on them. Since comments get notified on email, I happened to click open some of the old posts and was surprised, rather horrified, that it was me who wrote them -- how could I write on subjects such as sex? But I had always written the truth, or what I thought was the truth -- then why should I blush reading the old posts?

Maybe because I am much older now; I was 35 and single when I started the blog, whereas I am 42 now and the author of two books -- what will people think of me? Moreover, there is now Facebook: one no longer feels compelled to transform a one-line thought into a 400-word post. The thought becomes status message.

But let me not forget that I belong to Ganga Mail as much it belongs it me, and that I owe my identity to whatever I have written on it so far. The idea, therefore, is to resume writing on it without worrying about what people will have to say. I really don't give a fuck -- so why pretend that I do?

Monday, August 05, 2013

That Night Again

Sixteen minutes to midnight, which means it is still August 4 and I can still pay tribute to Kishore Kumar, who was born on this day and would have turned 84 had he been alive. Though it is impossible to imagine Kishore Kumar living that long.

I have already written so much about him on Ganga Mail by way of tribute, so why again? That's because not writing about him tonight would be like skipping an important ritual; like a Shiva devotee not visiting the temple on Shivratri. Then there is another reason.

But first, about the devotion -- and in my case, it dates back to sometime in 1985 when I bought my first Kishore Kumar cassette. It was an HMV cassette, which cost Rs 18 and was titled Magic Moments. Side A began with Ek ajnabee haseena se (Ajnabee) and Side B ended with Phir wohi raat hai (Ghar). In between there were about 10 other songs -- I still remember them and also the sequence in which they played.

Strangely, the sequence of songs, when you listen to an album in an younger age, usually remains ingrained in your mind all your life. For example, if Saara zamana happened to be followed by Chhu kar mere man ko in the cassette of your younger days, the sequence will stay in your mind even in later years: each time Saara zamana ends, the opening notes of Chhu kar mere man ko will automatically spring in your mind even though this could be an altogether different collection.

Coming back to Magic Moments, the song I came to cherish most in the album was Phir wohi raat hai. The tenderness of the song began to grow on me. I loved many other songs too in the album, such as Pyaar deewana hota hai (Kati Patang), but this Ghar song had the effect that silent people have on you: they always play on the back of your mind and intrigue you with their silent intensity. And thus I became a Kishore Kumar devotee. It didn't matter at the time that the song was written by Gulzar or the music was composed by R.D. Burman. Those days, I even liked Bappi Lahiri -- I still do, actually.

Only much later did I come to realise that I had been hearing a truncated version all along, with the first antara missing.  But it was too late to matter.

Three decades on, Phir wohi raat hai remains a beatiful song, a tender song, a song of dreams -- indeed a night song. You can't relish it in broad daylight, but only after the sun has long set, when you have had two drinks and are mellow, when your gaze is fixed somewhere faraway in the darkness and your mind is reminiscing.

This is not a song I listen to very often; in fact I listen to it only rarely for the fear of wasting it. Phir wohi raat hai is like single malt: you have it when you are in right spirts and in right company -- when the night is just right.

Tonight was one such night, when I was reminded of the song.

Saturday, August 03, 2013


Deboleena is a talented young artist who lives in Canada. She read Chai, Chai and liked it and has now sent me a gift as a token of her appreciation. Even more flattering is the artist's note given below -- can't believe she is only 15. Thanks Deboleena!

Title: Ingenuity
Artist: Deboleena Chakraborty
Medium/Surface: Pencil crayon on Photo Paper
Date Created: Friday, August 2, 2013
Artist’s Message:
Ingenuity is a representation of Mr. Bishwanath Ghosh (BG), who has proven to be the finest author for non-fiction pieces. Chai, Chai: Travels in Places Where You Stop but Never Get Off is by far my favourite piece of non-fiction. This artwork is composed using pencil crayons, which happens to be a minor art medium; however, it signifies the flamboyant potential within BG. His approach to ordinary aspects in life is truly intriguing, which is illustrated through the vibrant colour palette within the composition. These rich colours also enhance the fact that BG, as a person, is vividly distinctive. Finally, the organic folds of paper bring forth the element of delight, which is evident in his pieces. The two respective books he has written are quite enjoyable because the pleasant writing style captures the reader’s attention and also allows the reader to fully experience the occurrences within the context. It was sincerely an honour to compose a portrait of BG; I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pran Is Gone, But Life Will Go On

When I was growing up, I knew two Prans.

One was the black-and-white Pran, who was always the bad man. You hated the very sight of him and rejoiced when, towards the end of the movie, the tables were turned against him.

The other was the colour Pran, who was invariably a colourful character. Sometimes he was a bad man in the eyes of law, but he was always good at heart and would eventually become a friend of the hero. You loved this Pran and shed a tear if he died.

This evening, Pran -- black-and-white as well as colour -- died. He was 93 and had, obviously, long been out of action. Newer generations would not have even heard of him. But for people my generation and older, Pran was one of the pillars of our times. His death is a reminder that these generations are also slowly wrapping up -- a thought that always terrifies me each time a pillar falls.

One knew the end was not very far when pictures of Pran appeared in the papers recently: a bird-like figure now, recognisable only because of the familiar aquiline nose, receiving the Dadasaheb Phalke Award at his home in Bombay.

He was almost given the award about 15 years ago. I remember that afternoon -- this must be 1999 or 2000 -- when journalists on the information and broadcasting beat had gathered in the office of Arun Jaitley, who was then holding the portfolio. The Dadasaheb Phalke Award for that year had just been announced, and it had been given to the director Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Jaitley was telling the journalists about the chat he had had with Mukherjee when he had called him up to convey the government's decision to give him the award. 'He is so humble and childlike,' Jaitley gushed, 'and he was worried if he would be able to walk up to the dais to receive the award (Mukherjee, like the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, had just undergone a knee-replacement surgery).'

And then Jaitley said, "It was really a tough choice this year. We had to decide between Pran saab and Hrishida."

Indeed a tough choice. How does one choose between Pran and Hrishikesh Mukherjee? It is like answering the question: Who do you love more, your father or mother? Both had done movies that you could watch any number of times -- each time seeming to be the first time.

Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Anand, Abhimaan, Chupke Chupke, Baawarchi, Namak Haraam, Gol Maal.

Pran: Madhumati, Zanjeer, Majboor, Upkaar, Johnny Mera Naam, Victoria No. 203, Don,  Kaalia, Kasauti, Chori Mera Kaam -- to name just a few. Not to forget his memorable role in Amar Akbar Anthony. The movie would be nothing without the parts of Pran (Kishan Lal) and Jeevan (Robert), even though it has Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Rishi Kapoor playing the lead roles.

I did not grudge the fact that the award went to Hrishikesh Mukherjee that year -- he was one filmmaker who could make the entire nation laugh or cry -- but I did feel a little sad that Pran had lost out.

Fortunately, they remembered to bestow the honour on him nearly 15 years later, while he was still alive. Most people don't live till 93, and it now seems as if Pran had remained alive all these years so that he could receive the highest honour that had eluded him 15 years ago. But that was not the case, of course. Pran did not need a Dadasaheb Phalke Award to tell the world could know how great his contribution to Indian cinema has been.

His contribution to cinema will live on in his films -- films that we will watch again and again -- even though he is now dead.

I suddenly recall what my father, a man of few words, had once said a long time ago, when I was still a kid and when families across the country gathered in front of the TV on Sunday evenings: He had remarked, "Pran thhakle cinema ta jomey aar ki" -- You relish a film if it has an actor like Pran.

The last film that I watched of Pran in a theatre, while he was still a working actor, was Duniya. This was sometime in the mid-1980s. I had watched it in Majum, a theatre that was closest to my house in Kanpur but which is now defunct.

Duniya, according to me, is one of the best films ever made in Bollywood. It has Dilip Kumar, the honest guy, who spends a chunk of his life in jail after being framed by three villains -- Pran, Prem Chopra and Amrish Puri. Upon being released from jail, he makes sure that each of them dies -- how he goes about, is the story. Rishi Kapoor and Amrita Singh serve as  the romantic pair, and the songs they sing in the film are some of the best that the combination of Kishore Kumar, R.D. Burman and Javed Akhtar has ever created.

It's nearly 30 years since I watched Duniya in the theatre, but I still remember the name of one of the villains: 'J.K.' It was Pran who played Jugal Kishore, or J.K.

First published on The Hindu Blogs at

Monday, April 01, 2013

An Iyengar Family

Sunday noon: I am in Triplicane, the nucleus of everything Iyengar in Chennai.

The blazing sun has emptied the streets around the temple; only a sprinkling of shrivelled elderly men, naked except a thin white dhoti around their waist and the elaborate Vaishnavite mark on their foreheads, lie half-asleep in the shade of trees or verandahs of their crumbling houses.

I am in the home of Thirumalai, whose son Ramanujam is standing erect under the spinning ceiling fan. “Here, look,” the son tells me, “my head is not touching the fan. But my younger brother has to duck all the time. He is 6 feet 3, I am only six feet.”
Ramanujam may be narrowly missing the fan, but even he has to bend each time he enters his home and goes one room to another — so low the doors are. “Our house is like a hut, sir, the kind you see in villages. This must be about 150 years old,” smiles Thirumalai, 57, as he watches his strapping son demonstrate the negligible gap between his head and the spinning blades.

Thirumalai, who works in the advertisement department of a local paper, also grew up in such hut-like houses, including this one — all in Triplicane — but not tall enough to have to negotiate fans and door frames. But given his young sons’ heights and their lofty ambitions — Ramanujam, 22, wants to be a financial analyst and his younger brother, who is 17, a fast bowler for the Indian team — he may finally have to consider moving to a new dwelling someday.

That would also mean moving out from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first.

Over time villages metamorphose into towns, and towns into cities — but the bustling metropolis of Chennai, in existence for nearly four centuries now, still holds on to its bosom small clusters of such village houses that date back to the ancient times.

These houses are part of the agraharam, or the garland that the humble dwellings of Brahmins have historically formed around a big temple — in this case, the eighth-century Parthasarathy temple.

Whether these huts stick out like sore thumbs in a modern city, or whether modernity sticks out like a sore thumb in a setting that so belongs to a folktale — depends on which side of heritage you are in. But Triplicane is a living museum. Changing times may have stamped out the garland-formation but there are remnants from the holy necklace that continue to preserve the old — lock, stock and tradition.

Thirumalai’s house is right next to the temple; and the room we are standing in is the largest in the house, about eight feet long and five feet wide. Aged pictures of Lord Vishnu, in his various avatars, adorn its walls.

In Brahmin Triplicane (there is a Muslim Triplicane too, dating back to the times of Aurangzeb) it would be sacrilege not to have his pictures on the walls. Even greater sacrilege to display pictures of others gods, such as Shiva. Staunch Iyengars firmly believe that Vishnu is the tallest in the hierarchy of gods and that it is he who has appointed Shiva and Brahma to their respective divine positions.

In the space between picture-frames are scribbled mathematical equations and phone numbers that must remain handy. A Haier television set, resting on a low stool, adds to the clutter. “There are eight of us living here. My parents, me, my wife, my two sons, my sister and her son,” Thirumalai tells me as I survey his home. A small space abutting this room serves as the kitchen.

There must be a bathing area somewhere around — I don’t ask where — but I know there is no toilet. The houses in this agraharam use a common set of toilets located down the street.

We troop back to the living room, which is the only other room in Thirumalai’s humble dwelling. In the narrow passage that connects the two rooms sits a sleek desktop — broadband connected — on a table. It’s the only symbol of the present in a house so symbolic of the past. The background image on the computer screen is that of Lord Vishnu.

The living room, barely six by six, is furnished with a cot and two chairs. I share the cot with Thirumalai’s father, who is sitting uncomfortably upright — as if he has just recovered from a bout of coughing and is trying to suppress another.

“How old is your father?” I ask Thirumalai.


“What’s his name?”


“How does he spell it?”

The young Ramanujam points to an aged nameplate, which reads: ‘Sthalasayanathuraiwar Swamy.’

“Just Sthalasayanam will do,” Thirumalai interrupts as I open my fountain pen for the pleasure of putting it to use. “It’s one of the names Lord Vishnu is known by.”

“When did he move in here?”

“1970,” replies a hoarse voice. The father, who I thought was trying to suppress a bout of coughing, starts speaking. He tells me that he was born in 1929 in Mahabalipuram and spent much of his childhood in Kancheepuram before coming to George Town in Madras in 1942 to become a scholar in Sanskrit and Tamil.

Sometime in the 1950’s — he is unable to recall the exact year — he got the job of a Sanskrit teacher in a girls’ school in Triplicane. Ever since then he has lived in Triplicane, moving into this house in 1970, even though he went on to teach in Corporation schools across the city.

Suddenly it strikes me: in this six by six room, I am surrounded by three generations of devout Iyengars — Sthalasayanam, 83; Thirumalai, 57; Ramanujam, 22. What makes them family is not just the red flowing in their veins, but also the white they are attired in. Each is wearing a white dhoti, with a piece of white cloth thrown over bare shoulders, and the white Y-mark on his forehead.

There are two sects of Iyengars — the Vadagalais and the Thengalais. The Vadagalais paint a white ‘U’ on their foreheads; while the Thengalais wear the ‘Y’ mark—they have a tiny line descending from the ‘U’ to cover the bridge of the nose, making it resemble a ‘Y’. It is the Thengalais, considered more orthodox, who call the shots in Triplicane.

Thirumalai explains to me the significance of the Y-mark. The ‘V’ on the forehead stands for the feet of Vishnu, while the small line descending to the nose depicts a lotus: “the lotus feet of the lord.” And the thin red line that runs in the middle of the ‘V’ represents goddess Lakshmi. “We wear the mark twice a day,” Thirumalai tells me, “once in the morning, immediately after bath, and once in the evening. It doesn’t take long, not even five minutes.”

Wearing the Y-mark isn’t all that they do to prove their loyalty to Lord Vishnu, who lives, in their case, just a shout away. Thrice a day, they chant out 12 particular names of Vishnu by touching various body parts — each name corresponding to a particular body part — and also recite the Gayatri Mantra a minimum of 26 times, each time. And they know the Divya Prabandham — a collection of 4,000 Vaishnavite hymns — by heart.

I ask Thirumalai if they are always dressed like priests at home. “Always,” he emphasises, “only when I go to work do I put on a shirt on top of my dhoti. My sons, when they go out, wear shirt and pant. But at home we are always like this.” He seems rather proud to be living within the halo of the temple.

“Don’t you feel cramped?” I ask him.

“At times I do. But I can’t afford a bigger house with my salary. Here the rent is just Rs. 1,000.”
The rent is paid to a trust run by a family of Mandayam Iyengars —they are Thengalais who traces their origins to Melkote in Karnataka. Much of the sum collected from tenants in the agraharam is spent on maintaining the Thengalai temple the Mandayam family has built in Ayodhya. The landlords, says Thirumalai, have often wanted to demolish the huts and build new structures for the tenants, “but where will we go in the meantime?”

I ask him what’s going to happen once his sons get married: will the daughters-in-law fit into this house? He says he doesn’t know, but he is particular about one thing, that both his sons marry girls from the Acharya Purusha sect of Thengalais.

I turn to the young Ramanujam. I ask him if fellow students ever made fun of the Y-mark. “Yes, initially they would tease me. But they soon got tired of it.” I ask him if he was going to marry a girl of his father’s choice. “Of course, without doubt,” he replies shyly.

“Will you bring your wife here?”

“I don’t think she can adjust here,” says Ramanujam, “that is why, as soon as I get a job, I am going to take up a new house and move there with my parents. But getting a new house in Triplicane is impossible, it will be very expensive, so I will build a house in Kancheepuram.”

So he plans to kill two birds with one stone: Kancheepuram, less than 80 km from Chennai, is an important seat of Vaishnavism; and that’s where all the jobs are these days — the manufacturing plants of multinationals are all located in Kancheepuram district.

Seventy years ago, where the jobs were in Madras, his grandfather came to Triplicane to teach as well as to be near Lord Vishnu. And now, Ramanujam plans to move in the reverse direction for same dual purpose. Once he does that, life will come full circle for this devout Iyengar family.

A couple of weeks after I met the family, in June 2012, Sthalasayanam passed away.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Eight Years To Go

The last rays of the sun streamed in from the door of the drawing room that once hosted many luminaries and still draws celebrity visitors.

Ajay Das and I sat on either side of the door, with the sunlight illuminating the lines of my right palm which he was reading with a magnifying glass.

'One thing I can tell you, you are highly ambitious,' Das told me as he felt the palm.

'But will I be famous? A famous writer?' I asked him.

'Yes, but not before the age of fifty. You still have eight years to go.'

'Eight more years? Nothing before that?'

'What I mean is,' he leaned back on the chair, 'you will reach the peak of your popularity at fifty.'

I thought: what's the point reaching the peak of popularity at fifty when I would already be climbing down the hill into the waiting arms of old age? Then, second thoughts: these days, when life begins at forty, and considering that I published my first book only at thirty-nine, recognition at fifty isn't such a bad deal.

Das had been watching a Mohun Bagan versus East Bengal match on TV when I called on him at his ancestral home in north Calcutta. At eighty, he is one of the oldest surviving members of the K.C. Das family, the famous confectioners. He had abandoned the match to show me around the four-storey house, built in 1929, and as our conversation veered from one subject to another, Das, a bachelor, revealed that astrology and palm-reading were among his hobbies and had offered to read mine.

'When you come next time, bring your horoscope along. If I go through it, I can be more precise with the dates,' Das told me as I got up to leave.

I lied to him that I would. I did not want precision: a fair degree of uncertainty is always good when it comes to the knowledge of your own future. In fact, uncertainty is the only truth when it comes to the future. Yet one likes to hear nice things from astrologers. You secretly borrow hope and confidence from them even if you don't believe in astrology. I walked out of the K.C. Das home with a smile. But I had other reasons as well to smile.

I started working on the Calcutta book in the spring of 2011, and in the two years that have passed since, I have gathered sufficient material to paint a first-class portrait of the city. But the question is: will I be able to? It's one thing to collect material, quite another to transform it into an engaging book. For a writer, an experience is of little use unless he is able to express it in words effectively enough to make the reader undergo the same experience.

At least I've gathered the ammunition: that's forty percent of the battle won. When I landed in Calcutta two years ago to write the book, I was banking mainly on friends living there to help me discover the city. But, as I have increasingly realised over the years, people who you consider to be friends are of little help when you need them the most. Your life is of no interest to them. In contrast, people whom you barely know and expect very little from turn out to be your biggest benefactors in times of need. And so, I had total strangers holding my hand and leading me into the lanes of Calcutta. I don't wish to embarrass them by naming them here, but I shall remain indebted to them.

But now comes the path that I will have to negotiate all by myself: writing. It is so much easier to post a picture on Facebook: it takes barely five seconds. But to describe the same picture is words, five hours -- even five days. Why describe, then? That is because when you post a picture, readers merely 'see' it, but when you take the trouble of describing, the readers get inside the frame -- they 'experience' it. Pictures merely show, whereas writing tells.

And so, the journey begins. Long, lonely and arduous. I have for company two laptops, two Rubberband notebooks (with chrome yellow pages) that arrived this afternoon, several fountain pens and about three dozen books that I have kept aside to dip into from time to time for relief and inspiration. It shouldn't be so difficult considering I have been through it before: twice.

What I can't believe is how quickly these two years have passed. Wasn't it only the other day when I left Times of India and spent a month in Calcutta before returning to Chennai to join The Hindu? If two years can pass even before I could blink, can eight years be too long a time?

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Sub-Editor

Today, February 1, I complete 20 years as a journalist. One news agency, five newspapers.

I can't say if the journey has been worthwhile, or whether I would have done better in another profession, but there has never been a moment of regret. I wanted to be a journalist, I became one, and it's been a smooth ride so far.

Some of the sensations from that beautiful spring morning in 1993 are still alive. Pioneer, the Lucknow paper which had recently launched in Delhi, was now going to start in Kanpur as well. I had been hired as a trainee sub-editor (salary Rs. 2,000) and my appointment took effect from February 1. The first 15 days were to be spent at the Lucknow office, learning editing skills.

So on the morning of February 1, I took a bus from Kanpur and arrived two hours later at Charbagh in Lucknow. I remember wearing an off-white turtle-neck T-shirt with grey trousers and a navy-blue blazer. I reported at the office at 10 o' clock only to find the thick smell of newsprint and cigarette smoke hanging in the air -- hardly a soul in sight except a few peons. But I instantly fell in love with the smell: to me, it was the smell of journalism and it remains so, even though newspaper offices have long become no-smoking and shifted their printing presses in remote locations.

Back then I did not know that coming to a newspaper office at 10 o'clock is like ringing the bell at someone's home at four in the morning. I was told by one of the peons to come back at four. So I strolled down Hazratganj, inhaling the fragrant air the first day of February had to offer. I was 22, I had just got a job, that too the job of a journalist; I was now 'Press'.

I stopped at Ram Advani Booksellers and purchased -- I didn't know much about books then -- a copy of Roget's thesaurus (I still preserve it). Then I walked into a Raymond's showroom and bought myself a bottle of Park Avenue cologne. Lunch was at a plush old-fashioned restaurant (I forget the name) located right on the mouth of the road that led into Hazratganj. After which I watched Jackie Shroff's King Uncle (at the time I was a huge fan of Jackie Shroff and would even go alone to the theatres to watch his films). While walking back to the office, I opened the bottle of cologne and rubbed a few drops on my face.

At four o' clock, I met the resident editor: Sunil Saxena. I had met him during the interview but now saw him closely. With the goatee and the pipe hanging from his lips, he cut an impressive figure. He spoke only in English, even when communicating with the peons. He ordered coffee for me and said, "Have some coffee." I was too nervous to even lift the saucer in his presence but I had to. (Eight years later, in 2001, when both of us had left Pioneer way behind, I happened to spot him at the Press Club  in Delhi, where I usually had my lunch. I walked up to him and reintroduced myself. I told him that I would like to work with him again. 'But I am now in Chennai,' he said, 'are you willing to shift?' I replied, 'Of course.')

When I walked out of the resident editor's cabin that evening in 1993, the teleprinters were already screeching and typewriters rattling away. Computers, back then, were used only for the purposes of pagination. Soon I was handed a typewritten copy to edit. And then more copies. The senior who oversaw my work said, 'You see, the idea is to make a copy crisp and coherent. That is what editing is all about.'

Later that evening, a jeep took me to the Pioneer guest house, where the cook had prepared a home-like meal. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to write a letter to my girlfriend (no mobile phones or internet those days) to tell her about my new job. But each time I wrote a sentence or two, I would tear the page off the pad and crumple it into a ball and throw into the bin. I wanted to write a perfect sentence. I realised I had become a sub-editor.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Random Thoughts

This evening, spent considerable time at Music World on Park Street. Bought a number of CDs, almost all of them -- predictably -- compilations of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. The real treasure among them being a new release called Parampara, a set of two CDs that feature  songs of the Burmans that have been inspired by traditional Bengali music. Was surprised to learn that Jaane woh kaise log thhe jinke (Pyaasa) was influenced by the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana (play the two tunes in your head and you will see the similarities). What fun!

At Music World, Hindi songs by Abhijeet were playing in the background. Perhaps he has released a new album, or maybe a new movie in which he has sung all the songs. Listening to his voice, memories went back to 1977 or 1978, when I, as a child, had watched Abhijeet sing live in Kanpur during Durga Puja. At the time, he was the lead singer of an orchestra group run by a local legend called Prashant Chatterjee.

Prashant Chatterjee -- Proshanto for Bengalis -- lives on The Mall: his house sits right where the Murray Company bridge begins. Those who are familiar with Kanpur will know. I hope he continues to live there (I did notice the familiar signboard, 'P. Chatterjee', until a year ago); I also hope he is still alive. These days you never know, considering that 2012 has particularly been a year of goodbyes: even A.K. Hangal, who had one foot in the grave for many years now, chose to breathe his last in 2012. Basically, the generation that nourished us and played the cushion against realities of life is in the process of taking the final bow. It's our turn now to take over.

I turned 42 about ten days ago -- my first ever birthday in Calcutta -- but somehow I don't feel that old. When my father was 42, he seemed old to me because I was already 16 by then. He had shaved off his moustache at the first sign of greying in order to look young, and he remains clean-shaven ever since then. Whereas I happily wear the grey on my chin, because I believe that you can't shave off the years by merely shaving off facial hair. Age lies in attitude, not in appearance. You can't beguile people into believing that you are still young, the idea is to make them realise that you are still young despite the grey on the chin.