Friday, March 16, 2007

Mad TV

Who says old habits die hard? A couple of years ago, I effortlessly got rid of a childhood habit, a habit — I am certain — many others share as well: that of reaching for the remote the moment dinner is served. These days, months pass before I switch on the TV, and the few hours that I watch it make me determined not to touch the remote for the next few months.

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)

Kolkata Chromosome

It’s past midnight, when the average Bengali has been asleep for hours — the quilt firmly secured around his neck to protect against the January chill — and dreaming of social change. But in Shisha Bar, one of the poshest nightclubs of Kolkata, the evening is just warming up. It is a weekday and people are trooping in late, and it is 12.30 by the time we hit the dance floor.

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

Just when you were beginning to bask in the fading glow of 2006, all set to put on your dancing shoes and raise a toast to the New Year, a man holidaying in his ranch in Texas decided to spoil your fun. A phone call from him could have made your whiskey taste better, but since this man has given up drinking — “having been an alcoholic once upon a time” — he probably decided that your drink should taste like water too.

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 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

During my long bachelor years in Chennai, my few close friends included a young couple with whom I spent countless evenings discussing God (rather His non-existence, since they were staunch atheists), movies, people, places and everything that should interest people in their early thirties. To me they were a role-model couple — their eyes shone with admiration for each other even after eight years of marriage; they would occasionally squeeze each others’ hands in between discussions; he would second a point she made and vice versa, and so on. I, the bachelor with no fixed partner, could not help envying their togetherness. That’s what I want when I get married, I would tell myself.

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)


It often takes a long journey — in my case three hours of a frustrating wait at the airport and nearly five hours of a back-breaking drive — to learn basic things. Such as the elephant has 292 bones. And that its eyesight covers less than 50 metres. But that its smelling distance is 5 to 6 km. Or that it has 45,000 to 50,000 muscles in its trunk. And that it is a female that leads the pack.

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

The first ever wallet I bought with my own money and which — needless to say — contained my own money, stayed in my pocket for barely a month. In 1993, P V Narasimha Rao, then the Prime Minister, had come to my city, Kanpur, to address a rally. Nothing happened during the two hours we spent waiting for him, but he was just about to finish his speech when the rains came down heavily, and people ran for shelter. In the chaos, my pocket got picked. A fellow reporter dropped me home after I finished filing Rao’s speech.

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)