Wednesday, November 23, 2005

International Integration and Other Stories From Kanpur

Bara Chauraha, or the Big Square, is the heart of Kanpur from where life is pumped to the rest of the city. All public transport vehicles terminate here, and from here they begin their return journey. A crowded, noisy and chaotic place around which stand some of the city's biggest landmarks, all more than as century old — a college, two hospitals, two banks.

Till recently, Bara Chauraha boasted of another landmark, Nishat Talkies, which showed latest Bollywood movies. Hindi films are released in Uttar Pradesh a day before they hit theatres in the rest of the country, and Nishat would be packed for weeks after a new release. Often police had to be called in to control the crowds. While at college (which was right opposite Nishat), I had gone there to see blockbusters like Tridev and Maine Pyaar Kiya. And soon after I left the city.

The other day, when I was walking past Nishat, I paused for a second to see which movie was being screened. But the huge poster on the building, which once showed Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Jackie Shroff and others (all usually brandishing a pistol) was now announcing, “Mega Sale! Get woollen garments for best prices.” During my previous, annual visits to Kanpur, I had seen quite a few respectable cinema halls either closing down or downgrading themselves to showing C-grade movies. Now Nishat has fallen too. And the hottest destination for Kanpur’s — to use the appropriate term — cinegoers? It’s Rave, a cineplex, rather a multiplex, for it also houses a few lifestyle shops and an outlet of Barista. For an average Kanpurite not used to such sophistication as watching a movie on a computer-generated ticket handed out by tie-wearing young men or just checking out the shops in case the tickets are sold out, Rave is indeed a place to rave about.

But this is not just the story of Kanpur.

Those were the days when you stood in the queue for almost an hour to buy tickets, and having bought the tickets, would alternately stare at the poster — an artist’s impression of the actors — and the girls who had come dressed up for the occasion. Once the gates opened, you would pause to look, with anticipation, at the stills from the film pinned inside glass cases at the lobby. Finally you surrendered to the man with the torch.

Today you only have to drive to a cineplex. If you don’t get a ticket for this movie, you can always get a ticket for that movie. And you no longer bother to look at the posters because you already have seen endless promos on TV. There are plenty of girls to look at, though, but who do you stare at? They all look alike: tight tops, low-rise jeans. The tops are usually black, the jeans either black or blue.

There is even an easier, far more comfortable way of watching latest movies — call your VCD wallah and within minutes he will deliver you “original prints”. Suddenly, watching a movie has become so simple. But those where simpler times.

One symbol of sin during those simpler times was Debonair, the famous (men’s) magazine brought out from Bombay which adorned newsstands even in the smallest of Indian towns. Adorned is the word, because the magazine was supposed to be only watched from a distance. The hawker won’t show it to you till you promised to buy. That was because for the lay reader, the magazine held only visual value and by merely browsing it, one automatically extracted a chunk of its value without paying for it. For the informed reader, however, the magazine’s assets extended beyond those of the topless models it showcased: incisive interviews, brilliant essays, high-quality reportage, short stories, poetry... Debonair, after all, has had an impressive list of editors.

But there is no denying that the topless models — all gorgeous, all Indians, and all shot by celebrated photographers (or photographers who went on to become celebrated) — were the USP of the magazine. For a society like ours which wants sex but does not want to be seen wanting sex, Debonair was handy: buy it and hide it under your pillow.

In the early 1990’s Debonair found a rival in Fantasy, which was published from Allahabad. Fantasy became such a hit that its publishers followed it up with Fun. Suddenly, in the mid-1990’s, there was a spate of “girlie” magazines. They began to be brought out from places like Noida and Ghaziabad. Then one morning Internet came and wiped them all out. Porn had gone online. Debonair still adorns my favourite newsstand at Mall Road, but nobody seems to be buying it. It is evident from the thick dust that has gathered on plastic covers wrapping the recent issues of the magazine. Today titillation in no longer bought on the sly from pavement bookshops but can be comfortably accessed in the privacy of your home. And to hide it you only have to press Alt+Tab. There is nothing to hide under the pillow.

A memorable evening for a family, in those simpler times, meant dinner at a good restaurant. Restaurant: the word conjures up images of a gently lit room, not too crowded, where waiters indulged you without indulging into your privacy, and where you could linger over your food for hours on end. The next morning you could say, “Last night we dined out.”

Today, when life is on the move, the word ‘out’ in ‘dining out’ or ‘eating out’ has become redundant; it is almost taken for granted. These days you grab a meal, or have a quick bite, at one of the eating joints where food ranging from Chinese to Italian is served under one roof. Just eat and get out, for there are others waiting to eat. Or because you just don’t have the time. One does not realise all this while in the middle of it, but floating here in the relatively slow pace of Kanpur, one can’t help wondering how the New Economy has changed the definition of eating.

In the locality I live, there is a sweet shop which is known for its samosas — authentic UP samosas made by halwais (the rustic equivalent of chefs: people who specialise in making sweetmeats, samosas and jalebis) hired from Banaras. Now those halwais seem to be learning additional skills: that’s what I presume from the new signboard the shop has put up. It reads: “Samosa, Masala Dosa, Burger, Pav Bhaji, Chowmein, Pizza.”

A Banaras cook making Pizza? Politicians might still be parroting the need for national integration, but a sweet shop in Kanpur has demonstrated international integration!

That reminds me, the VCD shop in my neighbourhood, run by a Sardarji, has also repainted its signboard to include a new line, “Tamil, Telgu and Malayalam VCDs also availeble.” India has become a smaller place, leave alone the world.

Postscript. National integration: the phrase returns to my mind as I return to Chennai from Kanpur in a train called Rapti Sagar Express, popularly known as the Gorakhpur-Trivandrum Express or the Gorakhpur-Cochin Express (depending on which of these cities in Kerala it is bound for when it originates from Gorakhpur on a particular day. The day I board the train at Kanpur, and today it is bound for Trivandrum (or Trivendrum, as the signboards on the coaches read, and not Thiruvananthapuram). When the TTE comes with the chart, it looks as if he has spread out the map of peninsular India in front on me. A journey of 36 hours lies ahead. But I take solace in the facial expression of a fellow passenger, a Malayali, who has boarded the train at Gorapkhpur, the northeast end of Uttar Pradesh, a good seven hours before I have, and even after I detrain at Chennai, he would still travel for nearly 17 hours before reaching his destination, Trivandrum. He is going to spend 60 hours in the train. Two and a half days!

The first big stop after Kanpur is Jhansi, the historical town famous for its rebellious queen Lakshmi Bai and where, till two decades ago, people coming from the North to the South and vice-versa had to change trains. The train stops for 20 minutes. Like most passengers, I step down onto the platform just to while away the time. I hear an announcement: “A passenger travelling from Orai to Vasco Da Gama has lost his ticket. If he happens to listen to this announcement, he should contact the station master.”

Orai and Vasco Da Gama: geographically, they must be about a thousand kilometres away from each other, but culturally, they are centuries apart. Orai, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where women still cover their heads at the sight of elderly menfolk; and Goa, where Western women sunbathed naked till twenty years ago. Connecting the two civilisations, the two cultures, is Indian Railways.

The binding force of the railways grips you harder as you travel further south, to the prominent junctions of Itarsi (in Madhya Pradesh) and Nagpur (in Maharashtra). They are not just railway stations built on reddish-brown soil. They are the pulse points of India. There is hardly any station in the country whose name you would not hear on the PA system here. One moment you hear that the train from Howrah bound for Nagercoil was arriving on platform no. so-and-so, the next moment you are told that the train from Ahmedabad to Chennai was delayed by half an hour. The East Coast touching the West Coast, the Himalayas touching the Indian Ocean — Indian Railways achieves that every day, every minute. Who can be a better mascot for national integration? That makes me wonder: why the railway minister of the country is usually a Bihari or a Bengali?

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your commentary on Kanpur. It's really heartening to read about current day Kanpur where I grew up and went to college.

In a few years, I may or may not acquire american citizenship, but at heart I will still remain a Kanpuria.

Once a Kanpuria, always a Kanpuria!

4:52 PM  

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