Friday, December 26, 2014

In Which I Ask Mr Gloom To Get Lost

Today I am 44 years old. I never thought I would reach this age so soon. I always believed that time would be partial towards me and move at a leisurely pace in my case, but that was not to be and that is never going to be. Wasn't it only the other day when my father was 44?

Much of my time is spent pondering over 'wasn't-it-only-the-other-day' questions and wallowing in the gloom they induce. Gloom and I have become good friends of late, which is why, for the first time in many years, I did not throw a birthday party. I wanted to mark the passage of time in the company of my most loyal friends: the yellow lamp, the laptop, and the glass containing golden liquid. Gloom is there too, sitting right next to me, as I write these lines. He is, in fact, looking over my shoulder while I type.

Not too long ago, it was Shivani who sat in his place. She would bring me to Ganga Mail almost every other night, and seduce me into pouring out my mind. But she left one night, once she realised that I had become too busy for her, and Mr Gloom took her place. Mr Gloom has a thick skin: he stays put even when I am rude to him -- even when I ask him to get out of the house.

It is nice to have a drink with Mr Gloom once in a while: he keeps you in touch with reality. But I hate it when he inhibits my thoughts. Very often he tells me, "The subject you are going to write about is nice, all right, but what are you going to get out of it?" And so I drop the idea. This has been happening for a few years now, and in the process Ganga Mail has become orphaned.

I must find Shivani and bring her back. Mr Gloom, you can fuck off. Go find another friend.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two Flowers From The Garden Of The 1980s

How quickly one gets used to change. After shifting home nearly a month ago, not once did I mistakenly end up in my old address, Murugesan Street, where I lived for 14 years; nor did my heart ever ache for the old home (and the lovely view of the sky its windows offered). In fact I quite like the new house, even though it's almost half the size of the old one.

The most painful aspect of the shifting, for me, was sorting the books. Pulling out nearly a 1,000 books from cartons, dusting them and wiping their covers clean and arranging them in racks by their authors -- that can be a back-breaking task. I finally accomplished this task yesterday -- on a pleasant Sunday afternoon -- and found that a single author to occupy the most space on my bookshelves is V.S. Naipaul, followed by Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Bruce Chatwin, D.H. Lawrence (in that order). But their books, put together, turned out to be in minority when I finally surveyed my entire collection, after having dusted the last book remaining in the carton.

Once the books were in place, I set about wiping clean the music CDs. I must say I have been very negligent about CDs, unlike books: I would copy the songs on my computer and leave the CDs to gather dust in some corner of the large house. I would buy CDs in Calcutta, often spending a lot of money, and forget about them upon returning to Chennai. Yesterday, while digging into the 'music' carton, I discovered a three-CD collection of Bengali songs by R.D. Burman and Asha Bhosle, titled Together. I must have bought it from Calcutta, obviously, but I do not remember when -- I certain do not remember playing the CDs before.

And so I randomly plucked CD no. 3 from the album and put it into the player, hoping to listen to some familiar songs while I cleaned the covers of other CDs with a wet cloth. One way of belonging to a new house is to have your old favourites reverberate in its air. But two songs blew my mind -- they were R.D.-Asha duets I had never heard before even though I was in possession of the album for god-alone-knows how long. And I thought I had heard everything that R.D. Burman had created!

I ended up replaying the two songs 12 times -- yes, 12 times. They changed the tempo of my Sunday. As such, there is nothing special about the songs: they are pretty run-of-the-mill and can even sound meaningless and stupid to the discerning listener, yet there was something extremely magnetic about them. They bore the signature rhythm of R.D. (much sought-after these days) and the innocence of the 1980s (also much sought-after these days) -- but at the same time sounded fresh off the recording studios.

To me, the songs were two fresh flowers plucked out of the garden of the 1980s and held under my nostrils. I wonder how they will smell to you; here they are:

1. Dak pathale kal shokale

2. Aar ki tomay chharchhi.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


The sky can be the blandest thing on this planet; it can also be the most beautiful. It all depends on how lucky you are -- and whether you have the time to gaze at it.

Sometimes it is a blank sheet of paper; sometimes a scintillating watercolour that only a child called Nature is capable of producing; and at other times it is its usual self -- the sun, the moon, the clouds -- and how beautiful you find it depends on what mood you are in. Sometimes, though, the very sight of a blue sky can lift your mood. I know this because of late -- for the past one year or so -- I have been spending a lot of time in bed, writing, and since the bedroom window opens out to the sky, I have been closely watching it change colours. Ah, the blue wiping away the blues; the grey carrying in its bosom the romance of rains. And then there are nights when I wonder who has placed that halogen light outside my window, only to find it is the moon -- and then rush to take a picture, only to realise that the smartphone camera does not effectively capture what the eyes see.

The sky, however, is at its beautiful best at dusk. I am sure it must be as beautiful even at the crack of dawn -- but then I am not a dawn person. Moreover, there is fundamental difference between dawn and dusk. Dawn brings along the burden of yet another day; whereas dusk marks the end of the day, when the burden is off your shoulders and when you become the master of your own time. Dawn is responsibility, dusk is romance. Under the orange glow left behind by the sun, the world looks beautiful. The light is sufficient enough to see what you like to see, and yet insufficient to hide what you don't want to see. That's the time to look up at the sky.

I suspect there is also something deeper about my recent fascination with the sky: ambition.

Every time I feel hopeless and wonder where I am headed in life, I look up at the sky and find it urging me to keep climbing up to it. I keep climbing, even though I know there cannot be a destination up there. The sky is limitless: even when you are in an aeroplane, way above the clouds, you still find a sky above you.

And so each time I look up, I receive the message: Screw the destination -- there is no such thing as a destination -- it is the journey that matters. Therefore, I journey on.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Kishore Kumar Songs That I Am Embarrassed About And Yet Supremely Proud Of

I have written a lot about my admiration for Kishore Kumar -- on this blog as well as in the paper(s) I have worked or work for -- so I don't what new to write on the occasion of his death anniversary today.

Had the singer died in the present day, TV channels would have shown the news throughout the day as 'breaking news' and probably some reporter would have thrust the mike at Amit Kumar's face and asked him, "Now that your legendary father is no more, how do you feel?"

But back then, when he died, on 13 October 1987, there were no channels except Doordarshan, which had only two news bulletins -- in Hindi and English -- in the evening. Doordarshan policy was clear: news about politics/prime minister first, news about entertaintment in the end. And so the news of his death was the last headline to be read out, even though it broke millions of hearts -- my own 17-year-old heart being one of them.

Friends who know me and have late-night drinking sessions with me at home know that I assume the role of the DJ once I am pleasently drunk and force Kishore Kumar songs on them, one after the other: "Now listen to this, I am sure you haven't heard this before", "And now listen to this, I am sure you haven't heard this either." As a DJ I am so impatient that I don't even let a song finish before clicking on another.

But there are certain Kishore Kumar songs that I never play to friends, even when I am peasantly high. These are songs that really give me goosebumps, and I play only for my personal pleasure, never force them on others. They are my secret treasures: I pull them out of the closet every once in a while, admire them, and put them back safely.

The reason why I don't play these songs to others is that they might think I am crazy to be liking such songs. I fear that they may ask, "What is in this song? It is outright silly! What makes you like it?" I don't want to be accused of having poor taste in music. As it is there are people -- and that includes, well, my wife -- who think that the fact I prefer Kishore over Rafi shows that my taste in music is not exactly refined.

But it is in these songs -- the songs that I am embarrassed to play to friends -- that the quality of Kishore Kumar's voice shines through, even though their picturisation may be idiotic or even hilarious. Everybody likes a good song; but to admire how a singer does justice to his part even in a supposedly bad song -- that requires courage. I am proud to have that courage and, therefore, for the first time, presenting a shortened list of such songs:

1. Uljhan hazaar koi daale (from the film Chandi Sona). In the film, as evident from the You Tube clip, both Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey's parts have been truncated; listen to the orignal recording. Signature Pancham!

2. Lapa changa mein naache (from the film Ek Se Bhale Do). I listen to this song when I am stepping up my speed on the treadmill.

3. Jhoom jhoom ke (from the film Paatal Bhairavi). Oh the clarity of his words!

4. Mehmaan nazar ki ban ek raat ke liye (from the film Paatal Bhairavi). Oh, the voice! The voice!Even though my sensibilities don't agree with the ek raat ke liye (one night) business.

5. Hum donon mein kuchh na kuchh hai (from the film Khatron Ke Khiladi). How he lifts a mediocre song with his rendition. But the lyrics so familiar!

6. Lo aa gaya hero (from the film Mard Ki Zabaan). Oh, how this song made want to be in Jackie's shoes back then! The bindaas voice of Kishore Kumar!

7.  Yeh hawaayen yeh baarish (from the film Sachche Ka Bolbala). Self-explanatory, why I love the song.

8. Bheegi bheegi aankhen (from the film Ishq Ishq Ishq). What a beautiful song! The woman tells the man, Seene se lagaa loongi main teri pareshani (I will embrace all your troubles), and the man's reply comes in Kishore's voice.

9. Kaala kauwwa dekhta hai (from the film Mera Haque). Had watched this film in Kanpur's Poonam Talkies shortly after Kishore Kumar's death. It gladdened my heart that the film had a song by him. And this song plays at the end of the film as well, and so when we were walking out of the theatre at the end of the show, Kishore Kumar was still singing out loud -- immortal! (Years later, when I would play this song in my Chennai home, crows would gather outside my window -- and I am not joking).

10. Gumsum si khoyi khoyi (from the film Badalte Rishtey). My friends who truly love me, if you ever realise I am dying, please play this song for me. I will either come alive or go to heaven.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


The evening of October 3. Some said it was Navami evening, some others said it was already Dashami evening. For me, it was the evening of my departure from Calcutta, after having spent two sweet-bitter weeks in the city.

As soon as I secured the seat belt, an air-hostess walked up to me and said, "Do you mind taking the seat next to the emergency exit? As per rules, someone must sit next to the emergency exit, at least during take-off and landing?" I agreed, even though, as a rule, I always ask for an aisle seat because I do not like the idea of being sandwiched between strangers, invariably men.

As the plane took off, Calcutta came into view: a matrix of luminous yellow dots. Suddenly, I was gripped by a sense of belonging. Didn't I now belong to those yellow dots, having written a book about the city? Shouldn't I be pandal-hopping under their glow right now, precisely what hundreds and thousands of its citizens were doing at the moment?

But one must leave in order to be left longing -- I should have spent some more time by the river; I forgot to visit Oxford Bookstore; I should have had some more rossogolla and shingara; I should have bought some Bengali CDs; okay next time -- and it is the longing that brings about a sense of belonging. The longing, of course, comes from loving.

I was a faceless outsider when Calcutta became my hometown-in-law in April 2006. I was only a journalist then, working for a Madras paper; I did not know I was going to write books someday, leave alone a book about the city. I was familiar with writings on Calcutta, but not with Calcutta. My wife began to show me around and after initial reluctance sowed by writings that maligned the city, I began to like it. And once I began to move around on my own, I began to love it.

Calcutta, I realised, was a city like no other in India. It was a delightful salad of the old and the new. One moment you were biting into the old and another moment into the new: the experience was worth writing about. Thus was born the idea for Longing, Belonging, in October 2010 when, a couple of friends and I spent an evening in Trincas. Today, exactly four years later, the book is out in the stores and, considering my picture is on the back cover, I am no longer exactly a faceless stranger.


Two hours later, the pilot announced the descent to Chennai. From the sky, all cities look the same. Chennai, too, was a grid of luminous yellow dots as the plane prepared to land. I felt gripped by a sense of belonging again: Ah, this is my city, I have already written a book about it, Tamarind City, and the book had a picture of me in the inside pages. But I walked out of the airport coach a faceless man, proceeding to the conveyor belt to collect my luggage.

As I took a pre-paid taxi to my home in T. Nagar, I made a wish: when history judges the two cities by the books written about them, my books should count too. Doesn't matter if I don't count.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Longing, Belonging: A Few Thoughts

It is ten minutes past midnight and I am still not hungry. Old habits die hard: for many years now I’ve been having my dinner at two or three in the morning, the reason being I cannot write on a full stomach — I need to be hungry for my mind to work. And so I have made myself a drink: Signature whisky.

But if I am having a drink, I must also be writing, or else I consider the drinking to be a waste, and since I have nothing to write at the moment, having just finished Longing, Belonging, let me at least share a few thoughts about the book:

1. Longing, Belonging was entirely written in bed, with me lying down on my stomach in front of the laptop — sometimes on the bed in the bedroom, sometimes on the mattress in the guest room, sometimes on my favourite cot in my wife’s home in Calcutta. That’s been my ‘writing pose’ since childhood, though large parts of Chai, Chai and Tamarind City were written in the upright position.

2. Longing, Belonging took me three-and-a half-years to write. But in between I also finished writing Tamarind City, revised Chai, Chai and wrote a foreword (the revised edition, with a new cover, will be published later this year) and wrote a 2,500-word prologue for a future book.

3. Longing, Belonging was written at the cost of my health, social life and friendships. Friends came from abroad to India on their annual vacations, but I couldn’t meet them. Friends from outside Chennai spent weeks and months in the city, but I still couldn’t meet them because every evening was precious. Worse, I haven’t visited Kanpur — and seen my father and brother — in two-and-a-half years. Each time I took leave I went to Calcutta. They could not come down to see me either because the two dogs back home need pampering 24/7. The younger of the dogs met with an accident sometime ago and had her hind legs paralysed and now she drags herself — maybe that’s another reason why I have not made a sincere effort to visit home. I hope to make amends soon.

4. Longing, Belonging has been the most difficult book to write, so far. When I was writing Chai, Chai, just a quarter bottle of Signature would keep me company till I clocked 1,000 or 1,500 words a night. But with the Calcutta book, I could not produce beyond 200 usable words a night; no matter how much I drank or how many hours I spent lying on my stomach in front of the laptop.

5. I am no longer sensitive to criticism. In late 2009, when Chai, Chai was published, I was so upset with a negative review in Outlook Traveller (the only negative review the book had received) that I wrote an entire blog post expressing my anguish. I wouldn’t do that today. If a book is truly good, it will sell word-of-mouth, irrespective of what reviewers think of it. And if it doesn’t sell, then the writer must introspect as to why it didn’t.

So far I have not been faced with such a situation, but in future if I am, I know what to do. I would reread what Herzog wrote to a fellow filmmaker when the latter whined that people were not coming to watch his films. Herzog told him, “Quit complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Five Years Later

Exactly five years ago, on this day, I set out on the most dreadful journey of my life. I took the evening Indigo flight to Delhi, where my wife and I spent the night at her sister’s place before taking the Air India flight next morning to Benares, where my mother lay on a bed of ice.

I had not wanted the journey to end, but both the flights had departed — and arrived — on time. My mother’s departure, however, had been untimely, even though not entirely unexpected. She was only 59. Had she lived for three more days, she would have earned the distinction of being born and dying on the same day. And had she lived for eight more days, she would have probably held a copy of Chai, Chai — her son’s first book.

This narrow-miss tormented me for a long time: how could God be so cruel? If there is God, and if God has a purpose behind everything he does to you, then what could be the purpose behind letting my mother die barely a week before the publication of the book? Why didn’t she die six months before — or six months after?

But eventually you make peace with God because you want to prevent more such sorrows coming your way. So God prevailed, the pain too weakened. The untimely death of a loved one is a wound that never heals; you slowly learn to live with it, and there comes a time when it ceases to bother you.

Today, five years later, I am no longer torn by that regret. I have moved on, worrying about things that I need to do before I die. We are all selfish.

I was being selfish even on the day my mother was cremated, at the world-famous Manikarnika Ghat. While a part of me played the dutiful son, carrying out the rituals and lighting the pyre, another part absorbed the scene as a travel writer would, hoping to put it all in in a future book. As a son, this was the worst experience I could have; but as a writer, this was the best.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Khushwant Singh, The Original Idol

Sometime in 1990, the magazine of the now-defunct Sunday Mail carried a cover story on the writer Khushwant Singh. The cover picture showed the writer seated comfortably on a sofa, his feet resting on a cane stool (moda) placed horizontally, with book-lined walls serving as the backdrop.

I suddenly wanted to be Khushwant Singh. There was a sofa at home. Getting a moda wouldn't have been a problem. But how was I going to get the persona? How was I going to acquire those book-laden shelves? And even if I was going to sit on the sofa and place my feet on the moda, pretending to be a Khushwant Singh, what was I going to do sitting like that? I wasn't even 20 at the time, and was unsure where my life was actually headed, even though I nursed ambitions of becoming a journalist someday.

The ambition to be a journalist had come early, because my father was always a member of some 'magazine club' or the other at his office and would bring home almost every English and Hindi magazine that was being printed at the time. I grew up turning their pages. Many of them no longer exist today: Illustrated Weekly of India, Sunday, Probe, Mirror, Onlooker. By the time I was 17, I was spending more time reading these magazines than textbooks. But journalism wasn't a career option in the society I grew up in.

In the society I grew up, the career options were as follows:

A. Medicine
B. Engineering
C. Armed Forces
D. None of the above.

If you ticked D, you were considered a loser -- good for nothing. This is not to say that journalists were considered losers; it's just that no one among the people I grew up with ever seemed to think that journalism -- or for that matter advertising or marketing -- could be a career. The concept of marketing -- the most highly-paid profession today -- was synonymous with medical representatives impressing upon doctors to precribe their brand of drugs. Creativity, since it did not see you through an engineering entrance or earn you a stable job, was more of a curse.

From the time I wanted to become a journalist till I actually became one, I sat through several engineering entrances, knowing fully well that I was going to flunk. But I sat through them only to please my parents and my inquisitive neighbours: 'at least the boy is trying.'

At times I really wished I got through one of those entrance tests, because every other evening, my father would return from work with news that the son of some colleague or the other had gained admission into a prestigious engineering college. While my father would convey the news in a matter-of-fact manner, my mother would always take it personally: she would get hysterical about me not studying hard enough. The entire evening would be ruined, with my mother often refusing to cook out of sheer anger. She would blame my father for not being strict enough with his sons.

It was during this period of uncertainty that the copy of Sunday Mail -- with Khushwant Singh on the cover of its magazine -- got delivered at home. The cover story had been my first formal introduction to the Dirty Sardar, who wrote freely about Scotch and sex and seemed to have all the fun in the world. I remember my father -- unlike my mother, he idolised journalists and writers -- telling me at the time: 'Do you think it is easy to be another Khushwant Singh? It calls for a lot of hard work.'

And so the dream took root. For a long time, even after I became a journalist, I wanted to be another Khushwant Singh. He was my idol. Soon I outgrew him and wanted to be another Somerset Maugham. Soon I outgrew Maugham and wanted to be another Hemingway. Soon I outgrew Hemingway and wanted to be another Bruce Chatwin.

Even as the process of outgrowing idols continues, Khushwant Singh remains the original idol. It all began with him. He may have breathed his last this morning, at the age of 99, but he breathed life into Indian journalism like no one had before -- or after him. His soul will rest in peace.

Friday, January 03, 2014

My First Selfie

The first selfie I ever clicked is the profile picture you see on this blog. It was taken sometime in October 2005, for the purpose of starting this blog. Wonder why the selfie should be in news now, when people have long been familiar with the pleasures and horrors of circulating self-clicked pictures.

I may have forgotten the date this picture was taken, but I still remember the sensations. It was one of those pleasant evenings, during my girlfriend-less days, when I would find great pleasure in the company of my newly-purchased laptop and was still discovering the joys of being online from home.

Laptops those days did not come with inbuilt cameras, but Airtel had given me a free plastic webcam along with the internet connection. It wasn't the best of webcams, but it worked just fine. One evening, realising that the setting was near perfect for a picture -- I always write with lights off, except a lamp with yellow light by my side -- I decided to click myself. I had shaved that day and was wearing my favourite grey T-shirt. For effect, I lit up a cigarette. I pressed a key of the laptop and the webcam captured a picture.

I was happy with the result. The focus of subdued yellow light, in a darkened room, can do wonders to one's looks and -- I believe -- one's thought process too. That reminds me, this blog, when I started it, was called Thought Process. How cliched -- and idiotic. After a few months I changed the title to what it is today.

But the profile picture remains the same -- my first-ever selfie -- even though eight years have passed since I clicked it. I haven't had the heart to change it for a variety of reasons. One, I still don't want to believe that I look very different from how I look in that picture -- who wants to willingly surrender to the progression of life. Two, that picture serves as a reminder of the best days of my life. It was under the glow of that lamp, and in the company of that plastic webcam, that I became a writer. To replace that picture with a high-resolution image, now that I have the means, would amount to disowning my humble past.

I shall change the picture the day I find myself looking drastically different from the man in that image. It is a bad thing to lie to the reader. I only hope that day doesn't come very soon.