Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Friday, March 16, 2007
The other evening I made the mistake of touching the remote and I immediately forgot what I was having for dinner: kadhi-chawal or news of the Abhishek-Aishwarya engagement? Even CNN did not show so much excitement when the suicide pilots struck the twin towers on 9/11.
But I am sure there are people who would never tire of watching Ash and Abhishek, so it is entirely up to me whether I want to watch the “breaking news” or not. Now one can’t blame the channels. It is easy to fill 24 pages, but to fill 24 hours? So Shah Rukh Khan sneezing becomes “breaking news”.
A reporter with a hidden camera bribing a policeman, who is overworked and poorly paid in any case, becomes a scoop. A man who had predicted his death and was waiting for its arrival is covered live. It is so easy to get into TV these days. I will tell you how.
The other day I went to a stylish pub in the city to meet some old friends, and was somewhat taken aback at the attire of some of the women there: barring the basics, they showed off everything. I thought: if they are comfortable, what’s my problem? And who am I to have a problem in the first place?
But then, I missed my five minutes of fame. The next morning I could have filed a complaint with the police commissioner (an increasingly common practice in Chennai) or a petition in the court, demanding a ban on such pubs and nightclubs because they were corrupting society. By the evening I would have had a battery of cameras at my doorstep. If the cameras did not come, I would have hastily formed an organisation called PMC, or Protection of Morality in Chennai, and called a press conference to denounce the pub culture. Who knows, the effort could have paid off in the form of “breaking news”!
Two days ago I was watching Party, Govind Nihalani’s brilliant portrayal of the dark side of a glittering society party (today, Nihalani might have named it Page 3 Party). As a teenager I had seen the movie on Doordarshan and, for obvious reasons, missed out one scene: Rohini Hattangadi, in angry desperation, tearing off her top to catch the attention of her aging husband. Rohini Hattangadi and topless!
My jaw dropped, but my first instinct was to recall if any theatre-burning had taken place when the movie was released in 1984. Nothing had happened. Nothing happened those days. Even Debonair carried centrespreads of nude Indian women.
Today any magazine attempting to do that would have its offices gutted. So have we discovered Indian culture and morality within a short span of 20 years? No. We have discovered the power of free television. Why else should an out-of-work lawyer file a petition against a kissing scene, or a bunch of unemployed youth vandalise a theatre when they should be sitting inside and enjoying the so-called “corrupting” bits?
(Published on 1 February 2007)
My energy comes mainly from deprivation —- in Chennai you don’t know, at any given point of time, whether a nightclub is functioning or has become the victim of the city/moral police. I am, however, clueless about the source of energy of my fellow rice-eaters. Perhaps it is the quest for good life: Bongs love, rather relish, the good life, and for their Gen Next, nightlife seems to be part of the package.
No one in the gang whines as we hop from one hangout to the other — from Park Hotel’s Someplace Else and then Roxy to the newly-opened Venom and now to the Shisha Bar. And while at Shisha, we make plans where to go next.
After dancing for a while, I need to go to the rest room. As I make my way through the dancing couples and crowded tables, a question springs to my mind: which city am I in? For a few moments, my mind goes blank — much to my horror. I suddenly find myself in a nameless place — it could have been anywhere in Chennai or Bangalore or Delhi or Bombay. There is no one else in the rest room except a young man, who is gripping a mobile phone between his neck and an ear as he relieves himself. “No, no,” he says in English, “not 10 am your time, but 10 am IST.” Then, after a pause, he tells the person on the other end with trademark Bengali sarcasm: “Luck? Aamar luck to kuttar luck (Luck? My luck is as good as a dog’s)!” Ah, I am in Kolkata. But for such region-specific sarcasm and expletives, it would be very difficult to tell one city from another in a globalised world.
Kolkata has been celebrated in the West for its poverty and squalour. But standing at Park Street in the evening, with the cold New Year breeze brushing your cheeks, you could be in London: well-dressed, good-looking people walking by or having coffee in one of the restaurants with huge windows, tastefully-decorated shops, handsome buildings, the tolerant traffic. The darkness and the pleasant weather had put a blanket over the poverty and had transformed Park Circus into Piccadilly Circus.
For a pilgrimage to the era when India was remote-controlled by London, it is mandatory to pay a visit to Flury’s, where you can spend hours discussing anything from politics to sex over tea and pastries. But the place was renovated a couple of years ago, and these days you could spend hours waiting to get a place there. We waited for a while in the swank new Flury's, but soon moved across the street to The Tea Table, or T3, where the ghost of the old Flury’s resides. Even the furniture was shifted from there. I had Darjeeling tea, omelette and toast, and a rum pastry. After which I lit a cigarette — for the sheer pleasure of being able to do so without attracting frowns from neighbouring seats. I haven’t had such a wonderful evening in a long time.
At a music shop in City Centre, a sprawling mall in the Salt Lake area, I was looking for some albums of Salil Chowdhury. When I named a few albums and asked the attendant if they had any of them, a voice from behind replied: “Aagey cassette aashto. Akhon aar aashena (Earlier they came in cassettes. Now they’ve stopped coming).” I turned around: it was a Sardarji, the owner of the shop.
Postscript: I was all set to return to Chennai with nice stories about Kolkata when, on the final day of my visit, the Opposition parties led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, suddenly called for a 24-hour bandh. I ended up driving around empty streets and roaming around an empty New Market. Some things will never change in Kolkata.
(Published on 12 January 2007)
Noose For The News
No sensitive — and perhaps sensible — person could have savoured his or her drink on the evening of December 31, having woken up that morning to pictures of Saddam Hussein being put to death and having watched, the entire day before, footage of the noose being tightened around his neck. Imagine watching death — what that must have meant to a ten-year-old!
We had, so far, only read about famous people being hanged, like Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru. And in recent times, about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan who was sent to the gallows in 1979 by the then President Zia-ul-Haq.
More recently, hanging became hot news when rapist-murderer Dhananjoy Chatterjee was put to death. The Indian TV channels covered every aspect of the “event” — from interviewing the hangman to informing viewers about the diameter of the rope. If they had their way, they would have shown the hanging too — but then you are not allowed to show such things in a civilised society. As a result, the final moments of a convict are usually recreated later by, or with the help of, the witnesses — the jailor, the guards and so on.
Saddam’s execution, on the other hand, was captured on camera. And while facing death, Saddam was no less brave than our freedom fighters who went to the gallows valiantly. Perhaps braver, considering that Saddam was 70, when the rush of adrenaline is nowhere near the kind you experience in your 20s.
But there he stood, defiant, refusing to wear the hood and chanting the name of Allah while staring straight ahead, till the very second he got sucked in by the death trap. Yes, you can see him go down, and even hanging awkwardly from the rope with a broken neck, courtesy www.youtube.com. The images were bound to be uploaded on YouTube, considering that many witnesses were filming the execution on their mobile phones.
And YouTube, which is a site where you can upload just about anything except hardcore pornography, is widely watched by Internet users across the world, including India. So what will the young Indian think of Saddam’s hanging?
I received a message last week from a reader, an engineering student in Hyderabad who is just 18 years old. “Sir, are you against or in favour of Saddam’s hanging?” I replied. She asked again, “Sir, do you think US has the right to rule any other nation?” I replied. She asked again, “Then what is the UN there for?” I had no reply.
I wanted to tell her that there is no UN, only the US, but she probably knows that. And the man in the ranch (he should have emerged out of it by now) knows that too. But what he does not know is the huge cost his countrymen are going to pay for his actions. Hanging Saddam in a hurried manner was a mistake. But allowing the release of footage of his hanging was a big mistake — so big that no American is ever going to feel safe in the coming decades.
Meanwhile, according to the Melbourne paper The Age, Saddam was the 3000th person to die in Iraq since the war began in March 2003. Is anyone going to hang for the remaining 2999 deaths?
(Published on 4 January 2007)
Sugar And Spouse
The other day the man came home. “So now you are married, and I am a bachelor! Ha! Ha! Ha!” I don’t know whether his laughter was tinged with bitterness or relief, but I could not help being amazed at the games fate can play. Today I have a wife by my side, while he is alone. The subjects of conversation remain the same — existence of God, movies, people and places — except for an addition: his sudden divorce. I had worshipped their togetherness for six years, but their divorce came through in precisely six months.
If it can happen to them, it can happen to anybody. And it is happening. I am not sure about the figures, but I am told that in Chennai alone, there were over 3000 divorces in 2005. And in 2006, the number of cases crossed the 3000-mark by the middle of the year. Why?
Getting a divorce is not easy. In the court, your (as in you and the spouse) name is first called out so that the judge is sure you are present. Then you are asked to wait. Imagine two people, hitherto partners in life, in bed and in everything else, sitting separately and killing time. Then the judge calls you in, and if the divorce is sought by mutual consent, he gives you six months’ waiting period. If it is not by mutual consent, then you might just as well join a course in the Art of Waiting. For the moment let’s stick to couples that fall in love and get married and then get divorced by mutual consent — as has happened in the case of my friend.
In the beginning they wait interminably in bus-stops, bookshops and cafes for their loved ones to appear. “Oh darling, I am so sorry, did I keep you waiting for long?” And then the coffee and/or the movie and/or the holding of hands. The desire is single and simple: When can we start living together forever!
And then they wait in the courts — the mission is single and simple: When can I get out of this marriage! So what is it that changes overnight? Perhaps the change in perception. Things that appear cute and adorable during courtship tend to become irritating and unbearable after marriage. Ego then lights a fire and impulse adds fuel to it. Finally, the fire goes on to burn the strongest thread of marriage: tolerance. Gone are the days when tolerance was expected only out of the woman, who would seek to save her marriage even at the cost of her dignity. She would be haunted by uncomfortable questions: “Where will I go?” “Who will feed me?” “What will people say?”
Today’s woman usually finds the answers before taking a question mark-raising step. And that’s bad news for men who think they can still ape their fathers and grandfathers, and it’s bad news for the institution of marriage. If two people can wait for and woo each other for years just because they can get married, why do they need to wait for hours in courts to get divorced? Surely they had liked something about each other, and that is why they had decided to get married in the first place. So while waiting in court, can’t they draw a mental list of the things they liked about each other? Or try to remember the first time they had met? Or the very first time they had made love?
Marriage doesn’t come with a warranty card: it is a commodity you buy purely on trust, like you buy a book. You can’t discard it just because you don’t like it beyond three chapters. Who knows, the fifth chapter could be interesting and the sixth even more? Coming from someone who has been married barely for seven months, all this might sound presumptuous, perhaps even hollow. But let me tell you, I take great care of my books once I’ve bought them — no matter if they are disappointing in places.
(Published on 30 November 2006)
Presently we are standing in a semi-circle in front of a female. Her name is Mythili and she is 40 years old. Standing by her trunk is P. Joye Eerappa, the naturist-guide with the Club Mahindra resort at Coorg. He is nice and cheerful to us not because we, a bunch of journalists, are the guests of Club Mahindra, but because he is made that way — going the extra mile to unravel the nature of nature in the Kodagu valley. He keeps his audience engaged by constantly playing the quiz master on wildlife.
We have now spent the best part of the morning amid elephants at the Dubare forest along the stream that goes on to become the river Cauvery — bathing them, watching them being fed, learning about them, and even riding them. We stroll around, and we are in a village in the heart of Kodagu valley. It’s a village that fits our childhood imagination of a village — forests around, no electricity, no roads. But there’s a school — a neat classroom under a thatched roof, with about two dozen students whose enthusiastic grins distract from the shabby clothes they are wearing. They greet us with a loud “Namaste” and, for our benefit, put up an impromptu song and dance show, “Madikeri ogona raja setannu nodonna or korona…” (a song in praise of their region). We are in a different universe.
A tribal from the village happens to be loitering around. Joye speaks to him in Kuruba, a local variant of Kannada, and the villager tells us his story. There are 86 houses in the village, and the primary occupation of its people is to grow raagi and to collect wild mushroom, wood rose and honey from the forests. They also pluck aamla, or gooseberry, but make sure to leave some behind for the deer. In the evenings, they light a bonfire and play games or sing and dance. Now doesn’t that sound like real holiday? Perhaps the day is not too far. The Karnataka forest department is already holding regular classes to teach them how to behave with visitors (read tourists). The next step could be to let visitors stay in their huts.
There was a bonfire at the Club Mahindra resort too the night before — on a hillock that in the daytime overlooks the beauty of Coorg. The resort had kicked off its gourmet festival that morning, and we were supposed to have sampled many cuisines throughout the day before creating a thirst for drinks that would precede an elaborate dinner spread out by chef Padmanabhan.
But nature had conspired against the team from Chennai: fog in Bangalore delayed the plane that was to carry us from Chennai to Mangalore, and as a result, the drive from Mangalore to Coorg was undertaken mainly under darkness, which meant poor visibility for the driver and no visibility at all of the scenic drive.
It was past ten when we reached. Whatever little desire was left to drink had died, but the ambience of the resort turned out to be a rejuvenator, especially the fragrant candles lit up along the pathway to the hillock where the bonfire and the dinner was on. I made a stiff drink, sat by the steps of what looked like an amphitheatre, and watched the mist settle in on the valley. Punjabi music played and a lavish dinner awaited us. Presently, Kodava dancers took over. Their drums lent zest to the chilly air and gave me an excuse to make another drink. And yet another. Time to eat. What I relished most was the jackfruit biryani.
But what I would remember the most is the walk back to the room: climbing down and up and down and up, amid singing insects and the fragrance of the candles, and the sight of a giant moth hovering around. It was the night to be up and get mushy, and not the night to sleep. But sleep one had to, for one had to be up early for the date with Joye Eerappa. Foodies were up even earlier: they had to catch up with a session on doughnut-making. A lot of those doughnuts and sandwiches were packed in boxes, and off we went with Joye to explore Madikeri (the district headquarters of Coorg) and places around. That’s when we met the elephants at Dubare.
From there we went to Bylakuppe. Bylakuppe is one place I’ve been planning to go for a long time: the idea being to learn meditation. And now I suddenly find myself being driven there. It’s a small town at the foot of Coorg but technically part of Mysore district. It houses the Namdroling monastery which, according to Joye, is the second largest Buddhist monastery in Asia. It is home to more than 5000 monks and over 1400 nuns.
You could be in Tibet, if not for the scorching sun, and the sights and sounds were straight out of the Brad Pitt-starrer Seven Years in Tibet — the maroon-robed monks and the horns and the drums and the chants. A new shrine, locally called the Golden Temple, has giant statues of the Buddha flanked by Guru Padmasambhava and Buddha Amitayus and has plenty of space for visitors to meditate without feeling they are confined within four walls.
Across the monastery is a market where you get Tibetan handicraft. I bought a Tibetan bell, which lets off a humming sound as you keep rubbing a wooden staff around its base. “The sound is very good for stress,” the Tibetan boy running the shop told me. I also bought a rosary, punctuated by green stones which he said were “lucky.” I asked him if I could keep it on while bathing. He said no, and he also asked me to take the rosary off every time I did “ghalat kaam” (this Hindi expression, translated literally, stands for “wrong doing”, but in effect means having sex).
I wore the rosary. Tonight, after all, was my last night in Coorg, and most of it was going to be spent wine-tasting. We sat under the sky by the poolside. The table linen was limp with mist, but our spirits soared with every glass of wine. A two-man orchestra kept us entertained, the violinist giving a melancholic touch to popular tunes, such as Que sera sera. It was a “Greek night” — the idea was to celebrate the Coorg-Greek connection but in effect it meant that the dinner was Greek and, in hindsight, great.
Wine isn’t intoxicating — unless you drink copious amounts, which you can’t afford to anyways, at least not in India. A small amount is actually good for your heart, and a little more than that leaves you just happy. That is why we entertained — and got entertained by — Kapil Grover, the director of Grover Wines, at our table. He held forth on the art of wine-drinking and wine-making, and at one point berated the waiter for filling his glass more than decorum allowed. And then, of course, the Greek dinner, followed by the fascinating walk to the room — the singing insects, the mist, the giant moths… But tonight I had to sleep: the team from Chennai had a morning flight to catch. Life is unfair just when it shouldn’t be.
(Published on 30 November 2006)
Lost And Found
In early 2000, I was dining with friends one night at a restaurant in Delhi’s Pandara Park when I lost my wallet again. Quite a lot of money was there, but what bothered me most was the loss of the Press card, issued by the Press Information Bureau to accredited journalists. Bill Clinton, then the US President, was arriving, and I was assigned to cover his press conference, and the card was a must to get passes for the venue.
Time was too short to get a new one and the procedure far too complicated: first an FIR at the police station, then getting a challan for Rs 200 from the SBI, that too from a particular branch, and so on. I was halfway through the complication, in the hope I could still get a new card just in time, when I got a call. It was the restaurant owner: “One of our sweepers found it. You don’t expect the money to be there, do you? But everything else is intact.”
The next year, I relocated to the south of the Vindhyas: to Chennai. Ever since, losing the wallet has become a rather pleasant experience. Sometimes incredibly so. In 2003, I was on my annual trip to Delhi, and hours before I was to take the Tamil Nadu Express to Chennai, I sat drinking with old friends. Time flew and the alcohol flowed as we caught up on each other’s lives, and by the time we reached the station, I was barely sober enough to tell Platform no. 1 from Platform no. 12. I returned to my senses when I wanted to buy a bottle of water and found the wallet missing. What happened next — will not bore you with that now.
Two weeks later, I was sitting in my office when a parcel arrived. I tore it open and out came my old wallet! It was accompanied by a letter, written on ruled paper torn out from a school notebook. I wish I could quote from it, but it is tucked away somewhere, safe. The writer — God bless him — wrote that he tried calling me immediately after finding the wallet but could not get through, so he was couriering the wallet. He regretted that he had used my money “to enjoy” with his friends and that I should forgive him. The sender lived in a small town in Maharashtra — below the Vindhyas! I can go on and on.
Last month my wife, while attending a conference in a Chennai hotel, left her wallet behind. She realised the loss hours later, after she went to the ATM. Gone are the days when losing your wallet meant a loss of a few hundreds of hard-earned rupees. These days, thanks to the credit and debit cards, it could mean rebooting your life. She rushed back to the hotel. A waiter handed over the wallet along with loads of cautionary advise. She, like most people, sought to purchase his honesty by giving him a 100-rupee note. He refused to take it.
The other day, a fellow blogger told me a story when we met for lunch. His sister-in-law had left her bag, containing her mobile and Rs 5000, in an autorickshaw. The auto driver scanned her mobile phone to trace her contact, and then, from a PCO, made calls till he reached her. Bag handed over, he refused to take any money — not even for the calls he made or the petrol he spent on locating her house.
What prompted me to write this piece? A letter forwarded to my e-mail, written by Juned Choudhury, a Bangladeshi national who had travelled on Pandiyan Express from Chennai to Kody Road:
“While alighting from the train … a small bag of mine containing valuables fell under the seat and was left behind by mistake. I did not realise this till after about an hour and a half, when a friend of mine travelling on a separate bus to Kody received a call on his cell phone from the platform Inspector of Madurai saying that they had found a bag and the owner should go and collect it from him. I got off the bus and hired a taxi to travel the 70 km to Madurai.”
The bag contained his passport with a couple of valid European visas; Indian, U.S. and Bangladesh currencies amounting to about Rs 16,000, his Visa card, airline tickets, spectacles, pen and notebook, and cellphone. They were intact.
(Published on 13 October 2006)
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Bye Bye Malgudi, Hello Mysore
Mysore is one of those places like Siberia: you’ve always heard about it, but you never really see anyone booking a ticket to get there. For the lay traveller, the city is on the itinerary only when a trip to Bangalore permits enough time. It was hardly surprising then, when, 90 percent of the passengers on the Chennai-Mysore Shatabdi Express detrained in Bangalore.
Mysore is also a city whose mention — particularly if you have never been there — conjures up some image or the other in your mind: it could be colourful silk sarees or the smoke emanating from a sandalwood agarbatti or just a soap. But as I sat in the nearly-empty train presently pulling out of Bangalore, the faces of two elderly men floated in front on my eyes every time I tried to visualise Mysore.
One is 90 years old, while the other would been exactly 100 if he were alive. One made Mysore the international capital of ashtanga yoga, the other gave the city a pseudonym and put it on India's literary map. Pattabhi Jois and RK Narayan, lions in their respective fields; and Mysore, I thought, would bear their signature. The two men had given me a detailed visual tour of the city long before I set foot in it.
Jois’ Mysore was indoor: chiselled Western bodies striking difficult yoga postures in unison in a gloomy hall. Narayan’s Mysore was necessarily outdoor. Veteran photographer TS Satyan, a friend of Narayan, wrote in an article in 2002: “One of my greatest joys in life was to stroll down the streets of Mysore in his exhilarating company, listening to his witty comments and observations on the people he met and the goings on that he saw. He never walked fast and stopped at many places on the way. He observed people and their ways with pleasure.”
I now wanted to walk the streets as Narayan did. But when you decide to walk back half a century, that too in a new city, you don’t quite know where to begin and which route to take. So I sought the help of a local friend, and asked her to drive me around Lakshmipuram, where Narayan and his large family lived in a rented house till the late 1940s. I was hoping to find Malgudi.
“I don’t know if you will find anything there, but still,” she said, breezing through the traffic around the Chamaraja and KR Circles, the city’s most prominent roundabouts named after (and bearing the statues of) two former kings, Chamaraja Wodeyar (who ruled from 1868-1894) and Krishnaraja Wodeyar (1894-1940). The latter is the architect of modern Mysore. (The city had a private radio station, Akashvani, way back in 1935. In 1957, Akashvani became the official name for All India Radio). On these roundabouts, which are overlooked by the majestic palace, it is common to see jutkas, or horse-driven carts, jostling with cars and bikes. The old world seeking to survive in the new.
Lakshmipuram is a maze of spacious streets flanked by well-appointed houses. Some are old-fashioned, some are really old and crumbling. A number of them, however, are modern: 20 or 30 years old. “There, on the left,” the friend stopped the car and pointed out, “that’s where Pattabhi Jois used to live.” The door of the house still bears a small signboard: Vidwan Pattabhi Jois. The house looked too simple to have been the world’s biggest export centre of ashtanga yoga. Jois now lives in a more upmarket neighbourhood, Gokulam. He charges Rs 27,900 for the first month of training (doesn’t include food and lodging) and Rs 17,900 for each month thereafter. Little wonder that almost all his students are Westerners.
We drove around a few more streets before I was suddenly shaken out of the Malgudi stupor: apartments are springing up in between old-fashioned houses. They stick out like sore thumbs, shattering the visual silence of the neighbourhood. I instantly recalled a UNI report I happened to read the night before taking the train to Mysore. It began like this: Emerging from the shadow of its cosmopolitan neighbour Bangalore, Mysore, witnessing a flurry of activities on many a fronts, is all set to evolve as a brand.
Narayan, in all likelihood, would have liked Mysore to remain in the shadow of Bangalore. He wrote in The Emerald Route: “When in Bangalore, I generally feel a regret that I didn’t make it my home (instead of Mysore), considering the advantages — its cosmopolitan air, amenities, accessibility to any part of the world, climate and all the excellences of urban life. But actually Mysore has been my home — for half a century now. It just happened that way, that’s all. And every time I go back to Mysore, I feel thankful to the heavens for placing me there.”
If I were to don Narayan’s spectacles, I would see Mysore undergoing reverse metamorphosis — a butterfly turning into concrete larvae. Some people, though, would like to call it ‘growth’. Such as KB Ganapathy, the owner-editor of Star of Mysore. He has an impressive office on the outskirts of the city, which also houses his Kannada paper, Mysooru Mitra. In the parking lot, a Mercedes stands out proudly. Ganapathy, impressively turned out in a red silk shirt and black Color Plus trousers, showed me into his office. “It’s like asking a mother what changes she has found in her grown-up son. The changes take place in a subtle but sure manner,” he pronounced when I asked if Mysore was becoming a mess. And Narayan’s Malgudi, he says, is only imagination.
“I can relate Mysore’s growth to my own. (In 1977) I started my press in Saraswathi Puram in a small house. The owner was not able to build the house fully so I completed it. Now I have grown so big. Similarly, all people — hoteliers, industrialists — have grown. Growth of industry and trade is a sure indicator of growth of a city,” he says.
According to Ganapathy, Mysore has two kinds of visitors these days: people who come sightseeing, and people who come site-seeing. “Last year MUDA (Mysore Urban Development Authority) auctioned four and a half acres of land near the race course. The highest bid was Rs 22 crore. The next highest bid was Rs 11 crore. Since then, property prices have shot up,” he says.
According to Mysoreans, it is common these days to see dozens of cars parked on the Ring Road on weekends, with wealthy buyers negotiating for land with the locals. And the buyer could be anyone from India. A source told me that even a top politician from Uttar Pradesh has bought lands in Mysore.
The breeze had a mild chill, perfect for an evening walk, and as I walked up and down the Devraj Urs Road — Mysore's answer to Bangalore’s MG Road — I sought to shake off from my mind the sight of the ugly apartments in Lakshmipuram and the concerned voice of Ganapathy that informed me of the scramble to buy land in Mysore.
I wanted to be RK Narayan: walking leisurely, listening to people, taking mental notes. But I felt I was on a sidewalk in Bangalore — or perhaps London (because of the cool breeze) — with a Reebok store distracting me every now and then. I felt like Narayan only when I walked past the grocery stores on the road and smelt the strong aroma of the spices they displayed in jute bags.
Only in Mysore can you find grocery stores co-existing with swank Reebok outlets. I didn’t expect a pub, though, on Devraj Urs Road (maybe because Narayan drank only coffee), but I hunted for a bookshop where I could find his books and maybe buy them all over again as mementos. All fingers pointed to Geetha Book House, on the KR circle. The bookshop clearly belongs to old Mysore — “47 years old”, an attendant told me — and doesn’t have enough of anything, leave alone Narayan. But the Ashok Book Centre, a few streets away, has an impressive collection, but again, not many of Narayan. Not even on his birth centenary.
I guess Mysore had bigger preoccupations, such as the Dasara which, during my visit, was only a few weeks away. I saw electricians climbing up poles at the KR Circle and fixing electric bulbs. I wanted to take pictures but had run out of film. I walk into a photo studio.
“Things have changed very fast in the last two years. Bangalore is full because of the IT boom, so people are coming here. And once the six-lane highway comes up, you can reach Bangalore in just 90 minutes (a distance of 140 km), so more people will come here,” says Krishna, who runs the studio. He is talking about people who expect to earn Bangalore salaries while living in relatively low-cost Mysore.
Krishna also remembers old-time Mysore. “As a kid I have seen RK Narayan going for walks in Yadavagiri (where Narayan built his own house after the landlord in Lakshmipuram hiked the rent). He was quite old even then.” After taking more pictures, I buy some newspapers and retire to my hotel, Siddharta.
But not before strolling around the bus station, where I notice dozens of people eating paani puri from the roadside vendors. Narayan has mentioned set dosai, but not paani puri. Clearly, winds of change are blowing. I notice more changes back in the hotel. AAI takes over airport land, at last! — screamed Star of Mysore. The takeover, according to it, was held up because of litigation over 20 acres of land, and the Airports Authority of India had now decided to make do without it and would prepare an airport in two years.
But the man who hogs the headlines in Mysore, or Karnataka for that matter, these days is Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy. He is redefining the bed-and-breakfast scheme by becoming the first VIP in the country, perhaps the world, to stay overnight in the modest homes of his subjects during trips outside Bangalore. I wonder if he pays the hosts for their hospitality, or takes it for granted that they would consider themselves blessed just because he set his foot in their dwelling. Whatever the case, the pant-shirt clad Chief Minister seems to be the new icon of Karnataka.
After I finished reading the papers, I glanced through the printout of the UNI report that I had carried along:
The heritage city had suddenly become the cynosure of all eyes, with a flurry of activities being witnessed in the IT scene, infrastructure, housing, schooling and investments in highways and airport projects.
Observers feel that the ringing of the NASDAQ bell from the city to coincide with the silver jubilee of IT giant Infosys had done much to build the brand image of Mysore. The historic ceremony in the city, which along with London and Davos were the only places from where trading on NASDAQ was started remotely, could be symbolic, but it had helped the city take a giant leap forward.
The first path to growth was the flurry of real estate activity. The construction sector was witnessing a boom and the skyline of Mysore was already changing as individual houses were giving way for high-rise apartments and housing complexes.
Malgudi is dead. Long live Mysore. Today you might have to spend a crore to buy an acre in Mysore. But to buy the whole of Malgudi, you need only Rs 80; and it is available at your nearest bookshop.
Browner Than Brown
Blush I did not because in my younger days I have had girlfriends who tried their best to transform the small-town guy — that is me — into a refined metro-citizen. How to eat, how to speak, how to dress — their inputs have contributed to who I am today. How far they have succeeded, I do not know. And I shall never know, because not everybody is as well-meaning as my colleague.
It is not at all difficult to visualise a situation where I have just left a Page-3 party after rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of my city, and people commenting: “Did you notice that? He was using his fingers to eat. How messy, na?” Or: “Didn’t he look as if he is just out of the zoo?” Or maybe this: “I was trying so hard to control my laughter every time he said ‘economist’.”
Ok, so I was saying how my colleague’s comment set me thinking. The point is, we are all Indians, and irrespective of the state we belong to, we have certain things in common. We all use our hands to eat. And, traditionally, we are also used to eating sitting on the floor. We usually speak our mother tongue at home, which is not English. We all have our traditional outfits — the kurta and the saree being common to most cultures. We all force-feed our guests. We bend backwards to help people (try losing your way and there will be half-a-dozen people giving you directions, at times competing with each other for accuracy).
The two-century old British rule, however, created a class of people that was socially British but culturally Indian. Their table manners, for example, were that of the Sahibs (the British); but the attire of their womenfolk was thoroughly Indian: could you imagine a respectable Indian woman wearing a frock? These people were called the Brown Sahibs. After the British left our shores, they became the rulers; and soon after a class was formed that aspired to be the Brown Sahib. That’s the class most of us belong to — the Brown Brown Sahib.
While the Brown Sahib was the prisoner of circumstance, the Brown Brown Sahib is the prisoner of attitude. While the Brown Sahib was loyal to the British, the Brown Brown Sahib has gone a step forward: he worships the white skin of any nationality. So when a Frenchman speaks English with a French accent, they find it cute. But when a Malayali or a Bihari speaks English with an accent, he is considered a bumpkin and becomes the butt of jokes.
If a German expat wears a Fab India kurta and a dhoti to work, you are likely to find him cool, but an Indian won’t wear a dhoti even when he is out shopping. When a French woman mispronounces an Indian name, you consider it given, even cute; but if an Indian woman says ‘Kam-us’ instead of ‘Kamoo’ or ‘Ver-sace’ instead of ‘Ver-sachi’, she forfeits her right to be admitted to high society.
And can you imagine an Italian girl admonishing her boyfriend for not having heard of the samosa? But you can imagine the plight of an Indian man who loudly wonders what pasta is when he is taken to an Italian restaurant (in India) by his girlfriend. Should the winds of globalisation flow only from the West?
At times I really think of joining English-speaking classes, apart from signing up for French classes, and also going to the Max Mueller Bhavan to learn a bit of German. And maybe enroll in an etiquette class too. Wait a minute: won’t I be killing many birds with one stone by going to a skin-grafting clinic instead, a la Michael Jackson?
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Book Review: Indlish
Coming back to the Economist style guide. The other day, I was browsing through its latest edition after its publisher in India, Viva Books, kindly sent me a copy. For no apparent reason, my eyes settled on an entry under 'E':
underprivileged Since a privilege is a special favour or advantage, it is by definition not something to which everyone is entitled. So 'underprivileged', by implying the right to privileges for all, is not just ugly jargon but also nonsense.
I panicked: have I ever used the word in my copy? I could not recall immediately. But I recalled having seen the word in print - several times. But then, we make such mistakes either out of ignorance or carelessness. We are, after all, not The Economist, where every word is put under the microscope.
We are the Chalta Hai (anything will do) brand of journalists, feeding entirely on compost that usually consists of ignorance, laziness and leftovers from translations of vernacular languages. Such compost is called Indlish. For example, it is perfectly okay to say in Hindi, "Yeh kitna sundar hai, na?" - This is so beautiful, isn't it? The "na" is for "isn't it". But "na", in English, primarily means "no", so you have people saying, even writing, "This is so beautiful, no?"
But there are, fortunately or unfortunately, sentinels like Jyoti Sanyal who don't want English writing in India to be overrun by 'Indlish'. Fortunately, because if these people have their way, then the standard of writing in English papers would match that of the Economist. Unfortunately, these people don't seem to have their way - for evidence you have to look at the pages of any Indian newspaper.
I will settle for the path in between fortunately and unfortunately, and that is the path of hope - that things will improve someday. Improvement, once again, comes cheap: Rs 295. You'll have to cough up only that much to buy Sanyal's Indlish (Viva Books), which caps his 30-year-old career with the once-revered Statesman, perhaps the only paper to have a comprehensive in-house style guide authored, needless to say, by Sanyal. As the dean of the Asian College of Journalism, he also moulded the younger crop of journalists who are today scattered across the country, hopefully carrying his passion for plain English.
Indlish is replete with the stupidities you come across in the papers every day, morning after morning. Such as the overdose of "he categorically stated", "he noted", "he added" and "he further added" you find in the reported speech of a minister. Sanyal presents one classic case of syntax error - which Indian journalists are highly prone to: Mr Revanasiddaiah said Mr Manjunath had expressed his willingness to contribute the amount in a letter written to him.
Another gem: Mr Chautala's statement that both parties would have a separate poll manifesto for the Assembly elections scheduled for March, too has irked the BJP leaders. How can both parties have a separate manifesto? And that's just one of the howlers in that sentence.
The problem is, such howlers are most often made by senior journalists, who are likely to have halted their learning the moment they got their first jobs. Their juniors follow suit. Sanyal's book should serve as the Bible to journalists who want to write clean, sparkling copies. But I would recommend it more to senior journalists, editorial writers included, who think they know it all.
That is why my trip to Mysore was refreshing: Kannada was being spoken all around, and I finally felt I was in a new land. I even picked up a word, beda (don’t want), which came handy when a lottery seller near the bus station tried very hard to sell me a ticket, forecasting that I would be richer by Rs 20 lakh. After shaking him off with half-a-dozen bedas, I walked back to my hotel wondering what I would do if I were to get Rs 20 lakh. The answer, in the soothing evening breeze, came easily: buy a modest flat in Mysore. Mysore is one place whose name you get familiar with from your childhood, even without knowing its location on the map, thanks to Mysore Sandal Soap, Mysore silk, Mysore agarbattis, Mysore pak...
Present-day youngsters, however, are likely to have heard of another expression prefixed with the name of the city: Mysore Mallige. No, it’s not the collection of poems by the romantic poet K S Narasimhaswamy, or the 1991 film made by T S Nagabharana, but an amateur (and hardcore) porn video shot by a young Kannadiga who is shown spending time with his girlfriend in a hotel/lodge. The two (at the time the video was made) were supposed to be students from Mandya, though there are a million theories about their identities, and also about their fate once the video found its way into the porn market. Some say they committed suicide, some say they were killed, some say they are married and settled in the US. If you Google up ‘Mysore Mallige’, the maximum number of search results would be related to this video and only a few to the famous poet or director. Sex sells, after all — a point that was driven hard into me during my return journey to Chennai.
From a news vendor at the Mysore railway station, I bought R K Narayan’s Talkative Man (as a souvenir) and a copy of my paper, New Sunday Express. No sooner had the train started, the man across the aisle asked for the book; a few minutes later, the man next to me borrowed the newspaper. I was observing the man on the next seat as he fished out the Magazine section — the one you are holding now. He first looked at the cover page; it took less than 10 seconds for his eyes to travel from top to bottom. He did not even bother to look at the ‘Opinion’ page. ‘Books’, ‘Insight’ and 'Focus’ pages were spared two seconds each. Finally, he settled on ‘Meanwhile’, the page that is facing you now.
I looked at him with increased interest: is he going to read my column? If yes, what is his facial expression going to be? From the corner of my eye, I saw his eyes move in a circle around the page till they settled on ‘Ask Simi’, the sex (well, mostly) column at the bottom left. He spent nearly ten minutes on the column, lingering over every question and answer. Next, his eyes went up, on the snippets about celebrities. I waited for him to come to my column. Suddenly, he shut the paper and moved on to another section. He hadn’t even seen my column, leave alone read it.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Fusion: I can’t think of any other word to describe Pondicherry. The topography is Tamil, but the air is decidedly French. That is because the architecture is French, even though the buildings are Indian. The inhabitants (as well as the tourists) are also a mix of both — Indian and French. So are the menus of its restaurants. Wine (which is impossible to find in Tamil Nadu) flows as freely as beer. Aurobindo mixes with Annadurai, with a generous dash of Dupleix. And the music... actually there is no music in Pondicherry, only silence, which is repreatedly broken by the waves in case you are living by the sea.
I stayed by the sea, in a hotel whose design was French but name Indian: Ajantha. Or was it L’Ajantha? I seriously can’t recall, but the view from its spacious balcony was excellent, and so was the food. In the name of ‘Press’ I extracted a 10 percent discount, and the money saved was spent on buying various ’Auro’ brands of incense sticks.
The VHP guys have clearly not been to Satsanga, and I sincerely hope they don’t ever, because that’s one of the few places in Pondicherry which provides you excellent Continental fare for prices you are unlikely to find anywhere else in the world. The restaurant, on Lal Bahadur Shastri Road, is spread out in the courtyard of an old French-style bungalow, and run by a Frenchman: a quiet, laidback place where you can indulge in food and drinks at your own pace. Lunch for two is likely to cost you around Rs 500, with a couple of beers thrown in. Be careful about not trampling upon the tail of a pet puppy that can sprawl out at your feet and go off to sleep without you even noticing it.
About why the VHP should not discover this place. First of all, it is going to object to the name Satsanga, because the word usually conjures up images of a bunch of people singing a bhajan or attending a discourse. How can you eat meat and drink wine in a place with such a name? And the owner, in a bid to give his place the ethnic Indian touch, seems to have gone a bit overboard. The lovely saris that hang as the background curtain are fine, but idols of Ganesha sitting alongside beer mugs and clay ashtrays on the tables? Some might find it hip, but the sight can remind even the most liberal of Hindus that clay, when given the shape of a God, deserves a better place than the dining table. Or maybe these Ganeshas are French and not Indian.
Friday, August 25, 2006
Uncle Moon At 60
It’s the era our childhood belongs to, and when I say ‘our’, I mean you, me or anybody in the age group 18 to 80. Ask your grandfather if he has heard of Chandamama: chances are he would have even read it, if not read its stories out — to your father, that is.
For three generations of Indians, Chandamama and Childhood have gone hand in hand. Over the years, Superman and Spiderman might have elbowed out the valiant kings and princes in the imagination of pre-teen minds, but Chandamama manages to hold its fort as it approaches its 60th year.
Tales of King Vikram and Vetala, for example, is still a regular feature, which appears along with the same old sketch of the sword-wielding king walking through a cremation ground in the dead of the night with a corpse on his shoulder. For me, as a child, this trademark sketch was the ultimate symbol of bravery. I would look at it every now and then — at times at the fearless expression of the king, at times at the skulls strewn in the cremation ground, at times at the bats and the dangerous snake, and at times at the name of the artist, ‘Sankar’, which would be signed over a grey rock for easy visibility.
Sankar was one of my heroes, and I even wrote a post-card to Chandamama asking if they entertained freelance artists. I didn’t get a reply but my name did appear under the ‘Do You Know’ column — the first time I ever saw it in print. Anyway, the years rolled on and Chandamama entered the archives of my life — I didn’t really need it anymore but I knew it was safe somewhere.
Then, the other day, a quarter century later, I mentally dusted and dug out the archives as I hunted for the Chandamama office in Ekkatuthangal. A few minutes into the conversation with the editor and I mentioned to him what a great fan of Sankar I used to be. I wanted to enquire about the artist but feared that the reply could be heart breaking. But a surprise awaited me.
“Sankar is still here. He is about 75 now. You see, in Chandamama we don’t retire people,” informed the editor — a genial, self-effusing man called B Viswanatha Reddi, whose name appears in the magazine’s printline as Viswam.
Viswam himself is 63 — technically past retirement age. But then he looks only 53, and the passion with which he talks about the magazine makes his eyes resemble those of a pre-teen reader turning its pages. And in any case, owners don’t need to retire: Viswam, after all, is the son of the man who started Chandamama, the legendary film producer B Nagi Reddi. And Viswam has been in the editor’s seat since — now that was another big surprise to me — 1975. In other words, I was presently face to face with the man who had been editing MY Chandamama!
Chandamama is a month older than Independent India. The first copy came out in July 1947 — in Telugu and Tamil. It was brought out by Nagi Reddi and a writer called called Chakrapani, who had acquired minor literary reputation at the time because he was translating Sarat Chandra’s stories from Bengali to Telugu. He had learnt Bengali in a hospital in Madanapalli from a next-bed Bengali patient who was being treated for tuberculosis.
Nagi Reddi, on the other hand, used to run a printing press in George Town in Madras, and in 1945, had started a Telugu monthly, Andhra Jyothi. In the glow of the freedom movement, he also started a magazine for the youth called Yuva. It was with Yuva that he came to be associated with Chakrapani. Chandamama was an instant success. The first edition, priced at six annas, sold six thousand copies, and for a very long time the circulation stood at that figure.
Apart from working on Chandamama, Chakrapani also wrote stories and dialogues for the initial movies of Nagi Reddi who, by 1949, had acquired the Vahini Studios in Madras after its owner ran into tax problems. “The idea behind starting the magazine was to introduce the post-Independence child to Indian culture and tradition. Even today, we stick to the Indian ethos,” says Viswam, who too over the reins of Chandamama after Chakrapani died in 1975.
By then, it had become a household name across the country, being published in as many as 12 languages (the English edition began in 1955). The magazine's popularity peaked in the early 1980s when its combined circulation touched nine lakhs. It was also the period when Nagi Reddi had secured his reputation as the producer of “wholesome entertainment” movies with Swarg Narak and Swayamvar, both starring Sanjeev Kumar.
By then, he had already given Bollywood a few memorable movies — Ram Aur Shyam, Ghar Ghar Ki Kahani (in which actor Rakesh Roshan got his break) and Julie (which introduced Rakesh’s younger brother Rajesh as a music director).
But in 1980, his eldest son, Prasad, who helped him with the film business, died; and Nagi Reddi went into depression. Sanjeev Kumar sought to bring him back to his elements by successfully persuading him to make another film, Shriman Shrimati. “Sanjeev Kumar was a great support to my father. We were planning to ask him to run our movie business, but he died soon after,” says Viswam. The movie-making days were now, sadly, belonged to the past.
Chandamama, too, almost became history. In the mid-nineties, labour problems began to brew in their press at Vadapalani, where the magazine was headquartered for decades. Finally, a scuffle between workers and a supervisor spinned so much out of control that publication had to be suspended in May 1998. “It was the most painful decision of my life. I could have done much better in life had I not taken up Chandamama, but it was a passion for me,” says Viswam.
Adding to the labour trouble was a dispute in the family — Viswam calls it “conflict between ideologies of the second and the third generation.” The patriarch, B Nagi Reddi, meanwhile, lay bedridden in his Vadapalani home. Publication remained suspended for more than a year till two investment bankers, Sudhir Rao of Karvy and Vinod Sethi of Morgan Stanley, came to Chandamama’s rescue.
From a new, modest office in Ekkatuthangal, Viswam started all over again. “Once you shut down a publication, it is not easy to come back back. But by November 1999 we managed to print all the 12 languages and I presented the first set to my father on his birthday on December 1. That was the happiest day of my life.” The magazine sold six lakhs when it shut down, and when it revived, it sold around two lakhs — also the current circulation.
But seven years on, it has managed to break even and now, with some help from organisations like Infosys Foundation and Pratham, is seeking to expand its reach into rural areas. “For 60 years we survived on sheer goodwill. We never promoted ourselves. And we will continue to survive on goodwill,” says Viswam.
Considering three generations of Indians grew up on Chandamama, the goodwill is one thing you can’t doubt — so much so that Walt Disney has been reported to be buying it out. Viswam, however, says the report about Walt Disney taking over is only speculation. “I was surprised myself when the report appeared. My phone kept ringing throughout the day. Even my staff was upset that I had not told them anything.”
He, however, is in favour of a strategic partnership with Walt Disney where the American company can use Chandamama’s content for its programmes. But Viswam says his real desire is to see Chandamama develop into non-profit institution like Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan — the idea being to turn it into a permanent pillar of Indian culture and ethos.
If there is any truth in the report about Walt Disney’s takeover bid, then you could expect more action in the boardroom of Chandamama than in its editorial rooms. That should not matter for lay readers as long as they get their monthly quota of, “Once upon a time, there was a king...”
Saturday, August 12, 2006
Three Enemies Who Ruined My Game
I have a fetish for nostalgia, but this column isn't inspired by it. If anything, it is driven by a sense of despair that grips you when a bunch of people conspire to ruin your happiness. It is like going to an old-world restaurant for years and years, and then one day the restaurant is pulled out and a shopping mall springs up in its place. Shoppers will come in hordes, but a handful of people will always mourn the restaurant. In the same way, I mourn cricket.
In those days, it was pure cricket — completely unadulterated by commercials for pesticide-containing cola. Everything happening on the ground was telecast live — cricketers chatting with each other during the drinks break, the facial expression of the batsman who had just got out, the fast bowler shining the ball repeatedly with his spit while walking up to the run-up point. It was like watching the match in the stadium with binoculars.
Then came Enemy No. 1. It had many names: commercialism, commercialisation, consumerism. Perhaps liberalisation and globalisation as well? I don't know; but what I know is that my party has been spoilt. Even before the last ball of an over completes its journey across the pitch, an ad springs up on the screen. And in many cases, the hero of the ad happens to be the man facing that last ball. By the time the cameras return to the ground, the next bowler has already begun his run-up. I can no longer figure whether I am watching a cricket match in between commercials, or watching commercials in between a cricket match.
Enemy No. 2: politics. Traditionally, in an Indian newspaper, Page 1 is reserved for politics and the Back Page for sports. But in the past few years, the papers have been putting cricket news on Page 1 — and the news is not about who beat whom by how many runs or wickets. That's a clear indication that the game has become synonymous with politics. The only saving grace is that the papers haven't put Jaswant Singh's spat with Manmohan Singh over the mole issue on the sports page. In my estimate, the day is not too far when press releases issued by politicians will go on the sports page and when every e-mail exchanged between players and their coach will go on the front page.
The day, come to think of it, is really not far considering that almost every politician save Sonia Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee and L K Advani is now connected to cricket. West Bengal takes the cake: the Chief Minister props up the police commissioner of Kolkata to fight Jagmohan Dalmiya in the elections for the Cricket Association of Bengal. The police commissioner! The man who should be busy guarding Kolkata in the wake of terrorist attacks in Mumbai! Thank God the commissioner lost.
Enemy No. 3: The killer instinct. The Indian team was always said to be lacking the killer instinct. Is that why we are now being treated to footage of our cricketers dressed in Army fatigues, crossing hurdles like the jawaans and trying their hand at sophisticated rifles? Guys, don't take the term "killer instinct" literally: just stick to the bat and the ball and keep off the guns and the grenades. What you actually need is the spirit — the spirit that earned India its sole World Cup in 1983. But then, you guys are too rich and pampered and spoilt. Probably what you need is a Deepak Chopra, not a Greg Chappell. Did anyone say they are now flying down Deepak Chopra?