Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Of Ganga And Ganga Mail: 11 Years Of A Blog

I am mildly emotional about October 17 — I never seem to forget the date — because it was on this day in 2005 that I started this blog. That makes Ganga Mail 11 years old.
The blog was created in a setting similar to what I find myself in right now: a dark room, gently lit up by a lamp with yellow bulb; me reclining on the mattress with the laptop; music playing softly on the speakers connected to the laptop; a glass of whisky and ashtray at hand; an empty stomach. What more does one need to write?
I chose 'bytheganges' as the URL because I wanted something unique, something I thought defined me. The truth is that back then, the Ganges or the Ganga hardly meant a thing to me other than that I had grown up near its banks in Kanpur. Little did I know that by naming my blog after the river I had only provoked Destiny into ensuring that my path got intertwined with that of the river's. I even have the evidence.
I was 35 when I started this blog, and until then, in spite of having grown up by the river, I would have visited the Ganga — I am ashamed to say this — maybe seven times in all, and they include childhood visits. But ever since Ganga Mail was created, our paths have been crossing far too often — and they are bound to keep crossing in the near future as well with even greater frequency and intensity. 
But it would be unfair to hold Destiny alone responsible. The birth of Ganga Mail also marked the beginning of my journey as a writer, and, whenever, as a writer, I followed the smell of the soil in search of my soul, I invariably found myself sitting by the Ganga.
Chai, Chai, published in 2009, is my most popular book till date: it is an account of my visits to towns that are famous as railway junctions but about which very little is known otherwise. Many people, for example, know Jolarpet or Guntakal as railway stations, but how many of them are familiar with the towns of Jolarpet and Guntakal? That was the idea behind writing Chai, Chai.
One of the towns I included in the book was Mughal Sarai. I had had childhood memories of Mughal Sarai station. The train from Kanpur to Howrah would make a long halt there: the engine and the staff would change and lunch would be served to passengers in compartmented plates. During  my stay in Mughal Sarai during the writing of Chai, Chai, I decided to visit Benares, which was only 10 km away. And even though Benares did not belong to the book, I decided to include it anyway: the emotions I experienced in the ancient city was too precious not to be documented.
Shortly after Chai, Chai came out, a colleague told me, "My son is only 10 years old, he has read your book and he loves you."
I felt extremely flattered, but at the same time wondered why a 10-year-old, growing up in the era of budget airlines, should like a book about railway junctions.
A few months later the colleague threw a party at his home. I was invited too. As soon as I reached his place he took me to his son's bedroom and told him, "Here, meet your favourite writer. Won't you say hello to him?"
The child blushed and covered his face with a pillow. I removed the pillow and asked him, "Have you really read Chai, Chai?"
He nodded.
"Then tell me what did you like the most about the book."
"The part about Benares," he said and quickly covered his face with the pillow again.
That's when I understood that the charm of the Ganga transcended age, gender and location. And also felt mildly proud that I owned — no, not the Ganga — but Ganga Mail.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Why Durga Puja In Calcutta Makes Me Sad

Feeling a little emotional about Calcutta tonight, I sat down to put down my thoughts in writing but I am unable to because the radio is on — 106.2 FM, which describes itself as ‘Kolkatar gaan, Kolkatar pran’ (the songs of Calcutta, the soul of Calcutta).
I can, of course, switch off the radio, but that’s easier said that done when my kind of songs are plating back to back — Bengali as well as Hindi numbers of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. It is one thing to possess a collection of these songs and play them as and when you want to, quite another when the radio plays them. When the RJ plays these songs, he validates the fact that your choice is far from outdated. In Calcutta, someone born in the 1970s can never feel old.
And just when you think that you know all the songs created during that golden decade, the radio springs a surprise. Only minutes ago, the channel played a Bengali song that instantly grabbed my attention: sung by Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar and pictured — as I discovered on You Tube — on Amol Palekar and Sharmila Tagore in a 1979 film called Mother.
The song has made me even more emotional.
I am not alone. This is that time of the year when every Bengali living in Calcutta gets emotional. It’s Durga Puja, after all. But why should they get emotional during Durga Puja, the ultimate season of joy and festivity?
That’s because they spend the entire year waiting for Durga Puja, but once the goddess and her four children have taken their positions in the neighbourhood pandal, realisation dawns that the next four days will elapse in no time — and that they would have to once again wait for another whole year.
They would ideally like the calendar to bear only four days — sashti, saptami, ashtami and navami — and make life an everlasting celebration, but that would be like trying to hold on to the sand in your fist. The sand slips out: day by day, month by month, year by year. And that’s how we get old.
Fortunately for Calcutta, the end of Durga Puja does not mean the end of celebrations. Durga Puja is followed by a host of other festivals, lasting throughout the year, before Durga Puja stages a grand return once again.
But for a Calcuttan, a lot can change between one Durga Puja and another. One may not be around to see the next Durga Puja in the neighbourhood pandal for a variety of reasons: one could find a new job and move to another city, one could get married and move to another city, or one could just die of disease or accident during the intervening 300 or so days. To be present at the neighbourhood pandal during Durga Puja is an assertion of being alive — and that explains why the festival is such an emotional event.
I may not be a true-blue Calcuttan — I have been living in Chennai for almost 16 years — but of late even I have been marking my attendance on Planet Earth by visiting Calcutta every Durga Puja. That is why I feel so emotional today — that the festivities must come to an end so soon. Can’t good things last a little longer?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Some Thoughts About Chai, Chai — Over Whisky

Yesterday morning my publishers mailed me reviews of the Hindi translation of Chai, Chai appearing in three leading Hindi dailies  Dainik Jagran, Dainik Bhaskar and Jansatta — and that set me on the reminiscence mode.
I signed the contract for the book in November 2006, seven months after I got married my wife sometimes jokes that while she brought me all the good luck, I brought her only bad luck, which is probably true but it wasn't until July 2007 when I started travelling for it. I no longer remember what took me so long to get started, but I do remember receiving calls from my anxious publishers, who had already paid me an advance of Rs. 50,000.
So it was in July 2007 that I formally began my journey as a writer, when I stepped out of Itarsi station on a drizzly evening. I had no expectations to live up to, not many travel writers to look up to — my reading was limited to Paul Theroux and William Dalrymple. I had only a vague idea how a book was to be written — and the idea was, basically, to have fun and let things happen to you, rather than you chasing things: if things didn't happen to you, so be it.
I no longer remember when exactly I made the journeys to the other places described in the book — yes, Mughal Sarai was in November 2007 — but I do remember finishing the journeys shortly before 5 March 2008, when I joined the Times of India. The paper was soon going to launch its Chennai edition.
And then I sat on the project for months together, as I coped with pressures at the new workplace. It took a couple of more calls from the publishers to get me started with the writing, and once I got into the rhythm, there was no stopping. I would write from midnight till 4 a.m., wake up at 11 and go to the gym.

I emailed the manuscript in March 2009 and, after spending two days in Pondicherry, went to Kanpur. I had no idea I was seeing my mother for the last time.
Back in Chennai, as I awaited the publication of the book, I began to pray. I lived in T. Nagar and my office was located precisely 2 km away, in Nandanam. Every day, I would pass the Balaji temple on Venkatnarayana Road, and I would tell Lord Venkateswara, "If Chai, Chai sells 10,000 copies, I will go to Tirupati and get tonsured."
But even before the book could come out — it hit the stands in September 2009 — my mother died. As per rituals, I had to get my head shaved. God had turned out to be unfair, unkind. I told Him, "I have done my bit, now it's your turn. Make sure the book sells 10,000 copies."

This time He heard me.


Today, looking back, Chai, Chai is a book I am at once possessive and embarrassed about.

Possessive, obviously because it is my first book, to write which I did things I can't imagine doing today: such as getting off at strange stations and, no matter what time of the day or night, setting out in search of a hotel. What if the town had no hotels? Well, I had no Plan B. Neither did I have the luxury of homework: almost nothing was available to read, online or otherwise, for me to get even remotely acquainted with those towns. Everything had to be experienced first hand.

Embarrassed, because I would do a far better job if I were to write the book today. I would spend more time in each place, search harder, dig deeper. It would be a thicker book, with less of whisky and more of chai — but that would also mean less kick.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Have Will, Will Travel

I often come across this quote, that life is like a book and those who do not travel read only one page.

When you read those words aloud you also, without realising it, make fun of people who do not travel. But to travel you often need two things: money and will. Many people don't have either, some neither.

But there are people who travel for a living people who spend most of the week in airports and hotels, or in trains or buses — selling corporate solutions or FMCG products. I don't so much envy those living out of airports and hotels: they basically hop from one boardroom to another, and these days most boardrooms are usually located on the outskirts of a city. But I very much envy those who, to promote their brand of tea or toothpaste or chocolate, travel to the remotest of shops, occasionally hopping onto a passing truck or tractor if required in order to cover the areas assigned.

These fortunate people, since they have one eye fixed on the watch and the other on the target, largely remain blind to the places their work takes them to. They travel, but they wouldn't be called travellers.

Who, then, is a traveller?

A traveller, to me, is someone driven by curiosity: What lies there? The there could be a neighbouring town or a neighbouring country or a country 10,000 miles away so long as you go there out of curiosity you are a traveller (if you go there only for the sights you are already familiar with, you are a tourist).

Which also means that you do not really need money to travel. I shall always cherish the trip I made to the town of Chandragiri, near Tirupati, in September 2011: I had driven down from Chennai with a friend and together, we would not have spent more than Rs. 2,000. We could have managed with even half the amount had we not chosen to stay in AC rooms.

There is another journey I shall never forget: I even remember the date  — August 4, 2015 — because it happened to be birth anniversary of my idol Kishore Kumar. On that day, I took the morning flight from Chennai to Calcutta, and in the afternoon — after listening to a few Kishore Kumar songs on FM took the flight to Bagdogra.

From Bagdogra airport, I was to drive south to Cooch Behar, to work on a story about the Bangladeshi enclaves that had merged with India just four days before. As the driver led me to the parking, I noticed a car with a red number plate, the registration number painted in the Devanagari script.

"The car you are looking at is from Nepal," the driver — a very nice man called Bindeshwar Yadav — satisfied my curiosity. "The registration says it belongs to the Bagmati zone of Nepal."

"How far is Nepal from here?" I asked him.

"The border is not even 30 km. Everything is close from here. Bhutan is hardly 70 km, Darjeeling 90 km."

My destination, Cooch Behar, was the farthest: 150 km.  To come so close to these places — Nepal, Bhutan, Darjeeling — and yet not to be able to even peep into them, the thought saddened me. "I must come back someday," I silently willed, even though the possibility of another trip in the near future seemed remote, very remote.

Perhaps the hills heard me. Not even a year has passed since then, and I have already been to Nepal, Bhutan and Darjeeling.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

15 Years In Chennai

Every January I fall in love with Chennai all over again. That’s when the sky is blue and the clouds are white, when the weather is at its pleasant best, when there is happiness in the air and when, for me, the sensations return — the sensations that had gripped me when I first set foot in the city and walked its streets.

Two days ago, January 15, I completed 15 years in Chennai, and because it is January, the memories of the initial days are once again playing in my mind in high definition. The reason I recall my arrival with such fondness is that I came to live in the city out of choice and not compulsion.

I was someone who could have idli and sambar for breakfast, lunch and dinner; and I never saw my lack of Tamil as an impediment. If anything, I found it very romantic that people you were trying to communicate with did not speak your language and you did not speak theirs. The ‘language problem’ was a delightful evidence that you had travelled — all the way — to live in a new land.

In short, I came to Chennai without expecting it to adjust to my ways, and instead came prepared to adapt myself to Chennai. And even though I had come from Delhi — north India — it helped that I was a Bengali, related by my surname to the land that had produced Tagore and Vivekananda. Even though the truth is that until 2001 — for that matter until 2006 — I had barely spent time in Bengal and had a ‘north Indian’ upbringing.

My very first home in the city was a lodge called J.K. Mansions located on Natesan Street in T. Nagar. The street ran parallel to the famous (or infamous?) Ranganathan Street. Every time I climbed up to or climbed down from my second-floor room, I would notice the hand-painted warning on each landing: “Female visitors not allowed” and “Consumption of liquor strictly prohibited.”

The first in-house rule was impossible to violate, but the second was violated with impunity because one evening, two days into my stay at the lodge, I found the manager escorting a carpenter into my room and getting the sole window secured with a wire mesh. “What to do, sir, people drink and throw empty bottles out of the window,” the manager explained, “neighbours are daily complaining.”

I wasn’t one of the culprits because I hadn’t discovered the wine shops of Chennai yet. On the evening of my Day One, I drank at the bar of Hotel Peninsula on G.N. Chetty Road, and on Day Two, I had drinks and dinner with my new colleagues at the rooftop restaurant of Hotel Ranjith in Nungambakkam. I was rich at the time: my father had given me Rs 40,000 — big money at the time — to start a new life in Chennai.

From Day Three onwards, however, I was having my evening drinks with select colleagues at a ‘bar-attached’ wine shop on Commander-in-Chief Road (Ethiraj Salai), which was right next to a now-defunct vegetarian restaurant called Shamiyana. We referred to the bar as Shamiyana.

I do not miss anything more in life than the sensations of those initial days in Chennai. Sensations are difficult to capture in words: the nearest you can get to doing that is by recalling memories.

Such as waking up to songs to Minnale wafting in from the window — who wouldn’t fall in love with the tune of Nenjei poopol?

Such as remembering, on waking up, that water would flow from bathroom tap only for half an hour — if you happened to sleep through those precious 30 minutes, you were screwed.

Such as sitting with bated breath in an autorickshaw as he took me flying from T. Nagar to my office on Club House Road (the journey lasted barely 10, at the most 12, minutes) — and feeling the rush of adrenalin as the autorickshaw sped down the hoarding-lined Gemini flyover.

Such as strolling out of office and stepping into Spencer Plaza, the only and the most happening mall of Chennai, mainly to visit Landmark, the bookstore, and Music World — my two favourite escapes.

Such as slowly emptying my quarter bottle (180 ml) of Old Monk rum in the company of colleagues-turned-friends at Shamiyana, and very rarely having an additional “ninety” or “cutting” (90 ml) — those days, don’t ask me why, alcohol and ambition went hand in hand; I could dream better while drinking.

Such as finding wine shops open even on Republic Day (in Delhi, almost every other day was dry day) and escaping death on the Republic Day of 2001 when, returning from an excursion to Mahabalipuram where we all drank vodka sitting on the seaside rocks, the colleague riding the bike lost control and I went sliding, face down, on the road — I survived only because ECR or OMR had not been constructed yet and there was no speeding vehicle coming from behind.

Such as sitting in the last row at those book launches that were followed by cocktails, totally in awe of those on the dais and eagerly waiting for the bar to open — but secretly hoping to be on the dais someday.

Such as having dinner from a roadside stall, either steaming idlis or hot parotta with ‘full-boiled’ egg (poached egg tossed upside down on the pan so that the yolk got fried as well) — the steam made you more hungry.

Such as going to sleep with the songs of Minnale still wafting in through the window, either from a neighbouring home or from the transistor of a watchman stationed close by.

Such as moving in, after spending precisely two weeks at J.K. Mansions, to the privacy of a flat in nearby Murugesan Street — a street I shared with Illayaraja for almost 14 years before shifting, in November 2014, to a street on the opposite side of North Usman Road.

The Chennai of January 2001 is not the same as the Chennai of January 2016. Everything has changed — everything — from the time I first set foot in the city.

T. Nagar, back then, was a residential area which also had commercial establishments; today it is a commercial area where some residential properties still exist.

Autorickshaw drivers no longer speed because there is simply no space on the roads to turn up the accelerator.

Wine shops and their bars, once run efficiently by private parties, are today run by the state government and the less said about their condition the better — anyway, the last time I stepped into a wine-shop bar was in March 2008.

I no longer go to book launches for the free drinks but to see, sometimes, my own books launched. What’s more satisfying is that one of the books is about Chennai.

My office on Club House Road has now transformed into Express Avenue. Spencer Plaza is a ghost mall. Landmark and Music World have shut down across the city.

There are far, far more places to eat and drink — and not just Dhaba Express or Harrisons.

The city limits no longer end with Thiruvanmiyur in the south and Mogappair in the west.

And as far as music is concerned — correct me if I am wrong — melody is nearly dead. Songs — even those created by the so-called Mozart of Madras, who gave several gems in the late 1990s — come and go. Nothing in the past 15 years to capture the popular imagination the way the songs of Minnale and, to some extent, Kaakha Kaakha did. But then, as far as melody is concerned, the city already sitting on a pot of gold: the music of the real Mozart of Madras, my neighbour of 14 years.

Three things, however, remain unchanged. Karunanidhi remains the leader of DMK. Jayalalitha remains the leader of AIADMK. And every morning, you find a freshly-drawn kolam outside every door.

If the city has changed, so have I. Naturally. Fifteen years is a lifetime. I came as a man who had just turned 30, today I am 45 — everything that has happened to me has happened to me in Chennai. So much so that I am no longer able to recall what I was doing with my life before I moved here.