Sunday, July 23, 2006

Instead of a siesta

Sunday afternoon, I’m home listening to one and a half people sleeping when I could have been at an Enthralling Quiz run by a Truly Erudite Quizzer, said quiz to be held in the manse of a Nice Lady who will Provide Refreshments (and Much Nattering). I am desolate at the Loss, until I Pause to Reflect and realise that I would have Known Nothing at the Quiz, thus shattering the remnants of my Reputation as an Elder Statesman in Calcutta Quizzing (thank you very much for pointing out that it’s “all in my mind”, I am not entirely insensitive to irony). Said reputation is already much battered because (a) I haven’t actually won a quiz since about May last year and (b) Do’B was short of smart lines at the last quiz and chose to dwell on how a certain “senior Government officer enjoyed his quizzing like a Cls. XI college student” (a species that exists only in my alma mater, where Cls. XI and XII are part of the college). That has rankled, though I am slightly mollified by his hat-tip (in his column in the Telegraph today).

Another deep dark reason for my not being utterly desolate is that I don’t want any more murukkus, thank you very much. (The Nice Lady tends to Overdo the Murukku Angle). Yesterday, on “Indian” (they had to rename themselves after a Kamalahaasan movie?!) I had the worst damn murukkus I have ever had in my entire life. For the three readers of my blog who have never been to India, a murukku is a snack thingy, spiced chick-pea flour forced through a nozzle and fried in sticks or spirals. For some strange reason, murukkus are always spiky, like sea-horses. Maybe there’s a market for them in the West? Spicy Spikys? Shaped like sea-horses … if you eat an entire collection you get to incubate your wife’s eggs?

Anyway, the point about murukkus is that they’re spicy, they’re fried and they’re crisp. The average male will eat camel turds if they’re cooked that way, so you can guess how bad the in-flight murukkus must have been if I didn’t eat even ONE. In fact, the entire meal was almost the worst airborne culinary experience I have ever had. Not quite the worst – I was once served greenish chunks of meat on Aeroflot, was so hungry I actually ate half of one chunk before the gag reflex took over, and spent my entire first day in Moscow sick in bed.

So this meal had – Item, three pieces of chicken kebab, dried to sofa-stuffing by 29 re-heats and about as succulent as a feather-duster; Item, one small faux baguette, sliced lengthwise and stuffed with curried cottage cheese that had gone sour; Item, one unidentified round fried object that could have been a potato roesti or, on the other hand, the product of some ruminant’s alimentary tract; Item, something that was probably meant to be a shammi kebab but had morphed into something from The X-Files, if the cabin lights had gone off I’m sure it would have glowed radioactive green. I was reduced to wolfing down the shahi tukra. When even fried bread in condensed milk seems good, one has had an unique meal.

And oh – murukkus. Three of them, lurking next to the loaf like lethargic vipers. I could smell their menace. Retreat seemed the best option. I retreated.

The real WTF moment came earlier. In the terminal. After check-in, I turned left as usual. Delhi airport’s layout is closest to our rural ideals. If you want to commune with nature, you go for a walk. A long walk. On either end of the concourse, somewhere over the horizon from check-in, there are washrooms. You take a deep breath, set your critical internal muscles to “HOLD IT!” and start the Long March.

Only to come up in front of a sign that says “The washrooms are freshening up. Together, we’ll make it happen”. WTF?! Are you inviting me to be part of a process that will culminate in a large inanimate AREA taking a leak? Compared to this, Kafka was stone cold sober all his life! The next sign is a little more comprehensible – “Toilets are under renovation. The inconvenience caused is regretted”. Yes, fine, but do you regret it enough to make alternative arrangements? How much would you regret it if three thousand passengers a day watered your plants, eh?!

I was a blur as I whizzed through security. Surely nobody could be daft enough to renovate all the loos at the same time? Sharp left, walk fast, there at the end aarrgghhhhh! They CAN be daft enough! NEVER underestimate moronicity!

I eventually found ONE functional loo, next to the door where they take passengers out (to identify their baggage, but am I the only one who cringes in expectation of a blank wall and a line of muskets?).

And there was not a single weirdo in sight. Did my last Delhi airport post offend them? Scare them off? Ah well ...


And all of Sunday we’ve been treated to continuous updates about a boy in a well. Poor kid fell in there on Friday and all the king’s soldiers and all the king’s men haven’t been able to get him out yet. But wait – the Chief Minister is on the spot, “Madam” has called, people all over the country are praying for him, spending money on offerings, throwing birthday parties for Prince.

There was an episode of “Yes Prime Minister”, the dog Benjy lost in the minefield on Salisbury Plain – does anybody remember that one? So yes, the politicos can’t afford to pass up this one, they need the situation, the bytes, the eyeballs. But the general public? Why do they have to come on in whiteface and cherry noses? Of course the TV channels go interactive. They invite calls. Text messages for Prince yield profundities like “They should get him out of the tunnel soon” and “You are the Prince of India”. And in all the coverage, nobody came up with the reason why they couldn’t just swing a crane down there and pick him up.

Some years ago, typically, this would have been a story in the left-hand column on the fifth page of the local papers. We’d never have seen it on the telly, let alone for hours on end (CNN-IBN held out for a while but eventually joined in the madness). Would we have missed much? On the other hand, if it hadn’t been for the media attention, the army probably wouldn’t have been called in, the rescue attempts wouldn’t have been so systematic.

Score one for the media, they probably helped save a life here. Now if only the world's morons would put their money in the right place instead of spending it on garlands and ghee.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

All of me

The Aged Gabbler has been Informed by a Wise Infant that he (the Gabbler) is, in fact, a Multitude. Or at least that there is More than One of Him. Since said Aged Person was not Fully Aware of This State of Being, much Confusion has been Caused.

One has not so far been Familiar with the Schizoid State. One has Read, however, that in such Cases the Left Hand Knoweth Not what the Right Hand Doth. This might Explain the Dodderer’s Lack of Awareness of this Other Self. (It might also Lead to Complications during the Daily Ablutions, but one shall not Dwell on That Here.) The Lack of Awareness may also be due to Simple Senile Dementia. This Angle is now Being Explored by Those Better Qualified to Comment.

The Oldest Member is also Gratified. First, that Clever Children think him capable of Imagination and Dissimulation. Further, that he can be associated with a Persona that is Energetic. Innovative, even. Of course, such Energy and Innovation are Admirable in an apparently Younger Persona; if these qualities were evident in the Senile Haverer, he would be dubbed a Randy Old Goat. Regardless of this Minor Difference, the Oldest Member is Quite Chuffed.

Furthermore, the Wise Infant and Her Correspondents claim to have Linked the Second Persona on the basis of his Writing Style, which is reportedly Very Similar to the Aged Person’s, only Much More Colourful. Your Correspondent is Positively Elated at the Thought that he may have, nay, HAS, a Distinct Style. This is Praise Indeed.

Having Considered the Matter in its Entirety, therefore, the Oldest Member has Decided not to Dispute the Findings. In sum, to Sit Tight. He is Keenly Aware that the Second Persona may have the Strongest Objections to Being Linked with a Senile Old Coot. Should such Objections be Stated and Vociferously So, the Old Gaffer’s defence (mumbled through a Toothless Gummy Grin) will be that, in More Ways than One, It Wasn’t Me!

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Thursday, July 13, 2006


In the middle of all the sadness and anger, a story that might seem pointless.

Arindam is an officer in the C***, a para-military force, presently posted in Aizawl. Last year he married Tuhin Babu’s daughter. This tangentially concerns me, because Tuhin Babu was my secretary when I was in P District and I hold him in high regard. A fine, earnest, good man of the old school. He asked to be transferred out of the DM’s office after I left, now he puts in his 9 to 5 and gets home comparatively early. When I went to P in May, he took me home and his bright-eyed wife served me a superb lunch in a spick-and-span room thick with the scent of incense sticks. Afterwards, we walked in his tiny walled garden and he plucked fragrant limes for me to carry home to Calcutta.

Monday afternoon I got a call from Tuhin Babu. Upset, barely holding back tears. He was in Aizawl. His daughter and son-in-law had quarrelled over some trivial issue the previous Monday night. On Tuesday, Arindam came home in the afternoon to find his wife sulking in bed and no lunch. He went back to work. Driving home in the evening, he asked his chauffeur to drop him off at the airport. And vanished.

From Tuhin Babu and his daughter Indira, over a phone line that faded and crackled, I pieced together a picture of an unusual man. Sensitive, moody but considerate. A man who couldn’t get through the work-day without talking to his wife, yet struck her when his patience ran out. Who, after he drew money to buy an air ticket to Calcutta, remembered to leave three thousand rupees under his wife’s clothes in the cupboard before he walked out.

For three days, Tuhin Babu and I phoned everywhere. Bank. Home. Friends. Police. Colleagues.

My friend who heads the detective department in Calcutta said such disappearing acts can usually be traced to any of four causes – depression, another woman, debt or some scheme with friends. We asked around. By all accounts, he had not been in touch with his childhood sweetheart for many years. He was not in debt. He was not close to any of his colleagues. A reclusive but soft-spoken and gentle man. Depression? It might fit, but this scenario made him less predictable.

Arindam does not have a cell phone, which might have made things easier. The bank inquiries paid off. His ATM card had been used for withdrawals at Calcutta Airport. Then, two days later, on Dadabhai Naoroji Road in Bombay. Why Bombay? Nobody had an answer. Arindam’s commanding officer cajoled the local police to send a team to Bombay or at least to mail his picture and description there. I called up favours with colleagues out there. Then 11th July happened and we realised that the Bombay police have their hands too full to devote much time to this case. Besides, what if he was on one of those trains? Hopes fell. Until the bank manager called and said there had been another withdrawal from the same ATM in Bombay, on 12th July. But we were no closer to finding him.

Today, Tuhin Babu called me from Calcutta Airport on his way back to P. He wept. I felt awful. He said his daughter didn’t want to come into the city because she would have to talk to people. They went straight to the station.

Ten minutes ago, Tuhin Babu called from a phone booth at the station. I cold practically see his beaming face over the phone. “Sir, Arindam has been found. My daughter saw him at the station, about to board a train for the North-East. I bought her a ticket, they’re together now, on a train home to Aizawl.”

Fairy-tale ending. Nice.

So far.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Running ahead of the story

The mystery is solved.

What Matterazzi asked Zidane was ...

Hum ChlorMint kyon khaate hain?!


Damn damn DAMN

Srinagar in the morning, Bombay in the evening.

Remember my firm conviction that the world is full of morons? Have to amend that a bit. Some of those morons are evil bastards who should be eliminated. No “understanding”, no counselling, no analysis. If you are sick enough to maim and kill unsuspecting people who never did you any harm, you should be removed. Like a cancer.

And some of those supposed morons are also people who give their labour, their bedsheets, their homes to help the dead and injured. And some are people like Griff and the Guys at Mumbai Help – check out for updates and to monitor comments.

Just one thing. Unless you’re my one surviving grandparent, don’t talk to me about God for a while, OK? Or I might just drop-kick your head up your arse.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The name is Bond ...

... or, walking to Landour (and back)

Looking back from Kulri

A shared burden

Landour Bazaar. Reminiscent of Benaras?

Toothpaste and milk? "We provide the complete morning ..."

The sun creeping in. Nice?

A WTF moment

I huffed up the last few steps of the footpath and asked about “Bond Saheb ka ghar” from a man sitting in the sun. He grinned and pointed. “Up there, on the second floor”. Eh? I had expected a little cottage with a garden, not an apartment in a little crumbling house. I actually blurted out “Bas, this is it?!”

A ramrod-straight, tweed-clad, grey-whiskered Sikh gent who was passing took offence and rebuked me. “He is a very good man. Great men are simple.” I tried to explain that I had read about Mr. Bond’s garden gate. The gentleman’s ire subsided. He explained that the “garden gate” was actually a wicket leading from the first-floor landing to the second floor. I nodded sagely. And passed on to gaze reverently upon The Man’s window for a while.

Later, my friend asked me why I didn’t just ring the bell. Some people have NO sense. Who would like to have their morning disrupted by some stranger with a camera (and, truth to tell, a thirst. I’ve read somewhere that Mr. Bond likes his beer)? But it would have been nice to see his Yoda-like visage.

Mr. Bond's house

His window (love the flowers behind glass,
there's a DH Lawrence poem like that)

His neighbourhood

And his view.

From a little way down that road, I could see Katesar "Castle" and its temple on the hill behind the Academy. Even the red roof of the monstrous new auditorium sticks its shoulder out from behind the ridge, like an elephant trying to hide behind a palm tree. I felt strangely happy at the fact that it could be seen from the corner of Mr. Bond's road.
I also felt very stupid that I had never made the pilgrimage when I lived in Mussoorie. Oh well, better late ....

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Monday, July 03, 2006

MY Uncle Oswald

My Mama … well, since I never use real names for real people here, he can be my Uncle Oswald (with apologies to Roald Dahl) … my Uncle Oswald, then, was a large man in every sense of the term. Six feet and a bit and broad to match, he carried an imposing paunch in his later years. Not a flip-floppy creased wobbling paunch but a noble protrusion as tight and as large as a bass drum, a declaration of his love for the good things of life and his growing ability to indulge that love. Fair, grizzled (with what would now be called a boot-cut but to his generation was an “Italian chhnaat”), eyes a little lighter than normal, rings on all his fingers, with a little spade-shaped beard and a rumbling bass growl that rolled around the room, he was more of an Utpal Dutt character than Utpal Dutt himself could always be.

He was my mother’s first cousin, scion of a richly eccentric and alarmingly fecund (my great-grandmother had TWENTY-ONE children. And lived till the age of 93. Iron Lady? Pshaw! Tungsten!) clan that roared and partied and squabbled across Calcutta from Ballygunge to Shimla Street and out to country houses in Madhupur and Deogarh. And he carried the M Family’s strain of eccentricity. Carried it? Flaunted it! Flourished it like a banner, wrapped it around himself like the purple, used it as a declaration of his bonedi roots, brandished it to intimidate and to charm his way through his various mysterious deals. From minor excesses …

He had 25 (yes, twenty-five) clocks in his sitting-room. The large dark cool room - paved in cracked marble, two old fans moving jerkily like an arthritic old couple, the thick walls smelling slightly of damp, quiet except for the undercurrent of ticking - would come alive every hour as the clocks tootled, chimed, gonged. Some of the older ones would also sound the quarters; this seemed so redundant for a man who prided himself on keeping people waiting (especially if they thought themselves to be important). Why so many clocks? Possibly he liked them. Or perhaps he just couldn’t give them away. From stately rosewood clocks with brass pendulums to the sheerest kitsch from his Rotary branch, they all found place on his shelves. And on his tables. AND mantel (I said it’s an old house. A hundred years ago, they built in imitation of the English gentry, so they had fireplaces. Even if they sweltered at 28 Celsius in the shade).

Clocks, however, came second to shoes. His daughter told us, “Baban hasn’t figured out how we always know when he’s bought another pair of shoes. It’s simple … normally he comes in like a thundersquall, huffing and shouting as he climbs the stairs. Any time he tries to sneak in quietly, we know he has another pair of shoes under his arm.” Another pair indeed. The middle room, the one where he housed .. well, let that be, suffice it to say that there were two large deep high glowing teak-wood cupboards in that middle room and they were always locked. Only Uncle O had the keys. Because they were full to bursting with shoes. Patent leather, suede, curly-toed, patterned-punch, pumps, brogues, buttoned boots, enough to give Imelda Marcos at least a momentary twinge of inadequacy. There must have been 250 pairs of shoes in those cupboards. He couldn’t resist them, it was a disease. And all he ever wore on a regular basis were his fawn leather sandals with the acupressure insoles. The M family again.

Clocks. Shoes. Honorary posts, for which he politicked like a man possessed - Rotary Club, Pujo Committee, neighbourhood watch, All India President of the Homoeopathic Association (yes, homoeopathy is a family tradition). And dogs. Oh how that house stank – THREE Great Danes, a manic depressive Dobermann and two other hairy creatures like discarded rugs of indeterminate provenance. They yapped, they bayed, they widdled on the stairs and they drove us quite nuts when we visited. It is not conducive to bright conversation to have something the size of a young bull, only with (much) sharper teeth, snuffling at your crotch while you try to merge into the wallpaper. This, mind you, was when he had fallen on hard times and cut down on the menagerie. Apparently he had FIVE Great Danes earlier. They must have shat the family out of house and home, because even with only three of them there were never enough walks to serve their needs. (I never dared to step out on the terrace for fear of collecting manure deposits on my shoes.)

Family legend has it that the largest hound, a retarded lolloping pedigreed giant named Blue, once leaned over the terrace parapet and bayed at the exact moment that a tram went off its rails in the street below. Convinced that it was a tribute to his fearsome aspect, for months afterwards he tried to repeat the feat whenever he heard a tram. It never worked again. Blue went into a depressive decline over his Failed Hound Act. Perhaps the M Family effect rubbed off on canines.


The Shimla Street Hunt also produced one of Uncle O’s most devastating lines. In the ‘70s, when membership of the Bengal Club was even more unattainable than today, he persuaded an associate to put him up to the Committee. This took some doing, because the Club in those days still had the rule that if a candidate was turned down by the Committee, his proposer also had to resign. Even more daunting when one considers Uncle O’s reputation as an anti-establishment maverick.

Came the day of the interview and O rolled his bulk up to the Reynold’s Lounge for the interview. When he entered, his proposer winced and covered his eyes; in defiance of the Club’s dress code, O was in his usual attire of loose shirt, vastly floppy trousers and those sandals with the acupressure soles. (And his heirloom Rolex with the diamonds in the casing, he believed in discreet flaunting. If there is such a thing.) There are advantages to being large and intimidating. The Committee, instead of politely turning him out of doors, sat down to take tea with him. The interaction, surprisingly, went quite well. Uncle O could be immensely charming when he wanted to. Till right at the very end, one wizened prune-face who had kept quiet throughout - a Parsi lawyer known throughout the country as a tax counsel – spoke up, his face twisted in evident distaste.

“MISTER M (deadly insult, remember Oswald was a doctor of homoeopathy), the DUES of this Club can be .. aaahh .. quite a HEAV-ee BURden. Are you QUITE sure that your … hmmm … RE-sources will be quite COMM-en-surate with the re-QUIRE-ments?” Oh, he was a rude b***ard all right, but he was just twisting the knife, “I’m on the Committee, sucker, lie back and take it!”

The Lounge fell silent. O rose slowly to his feet and then – as his Proposer cowered and prayed – took a ponderous step closer towards his tormentor. He took a deep breath. He Swelled with Outrage – a technique he had perfected over the years, it works rather well if you weigh about 270 pounds and can lift a small man under each arm. He thrust a bejewelled finger the size of a young carrot under the Prune’s nose (said Prune by this time discreetly burrowing into his armchair) and Swelled Some More. The Committee braced themselves to call the stewards, the police, whatever it took to prevent mayhem.

“You … YOU !!! (bass booming round the Lounge, finger wagging nearer and nearer the aquiline quivering nose) … I have FIVE Great Danes, you hear me? FIVE! Resources!? I spend MORE on feeding them every month than YOU EARN! RESOURCES! Ha!”

Then he sat back down in his groaning armchair and glowered round at the Committee.

It speaks volumes for their tact that they wound up the interview without further unpleasantness. On their way down the stairs, the Proposer sobbed quietly into his handkerchief.

Three days later, Uncle O was accepted as a member of the Bengal Club.

Perhaps they secretly admired the unconventional.


Years later, in one of the intervals when he was flush with funds, he took us to lunch at the Club. We’d tried to cadge an invitation the previous month, but my cousin disarmingly said “We’re poor this month, very poor. Didn’t you notice both cars are gone?” Then a month later a swank Sonata appeared in the portico and off we went to the Bengal Club. (I had learnt that Uncle O’s finances tended to be unpredictable. He didn’t believe in saving. When he was short of money, he would open up his chamber and examine patients. When he’d swung one of his “deals”, he’d shut up shop and go traveling with his family. On one such trip they all put up at the Chola in Chennai. On the first day, O discovered that they made a divine lobster thermidor. Wherefore, for the next three days, all four members of the family had lobster thermidor for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Often with repeats. At over a thousand bucks a plate. The evening before they were due to leave, Uncle O called his son aside and handed him the bunch of air tickets. “Take these down to the travel desk, get a refund and buy train tickets for tomorrow.” The thermidor had taken its toll on more than the digestion.)

That lunch at the Bengal Club was a revelation. Where earlier the dining room had been this cloistered close where diners bent reverently over their plates and tried not to clink their cutlery, with Uncle O in full flow it became a Marx Brothers set.

“DATTA”, he bellowed. This to the ancient and stiffly proper chief steward, who could wither captains of industry with a glance and reduce socialites to sobbing wrecks with an eyebrow. I waited for the heavens to fall. Datta hurried over and positively fawned! Ye gods and little fish! “Datta”, roared O again in a voice that could be heard across the Hooghly, “this is my nephew. Needs feeding, understand? Where’s that dessert you do here? Monaco?”

Monte Carlo, sir, you mean the Monte Carlo, right away sir, just a moment …” And Grand Old Datta positively scurried away to get the sweet. There was more to come. After I was served by the cummerbunded waiter, Datta hovering obsequiously in the middle distance, the poor man made the mistake of moving off with the dessert tray. A bellow hit him amidships from point-blank distance. “HEY!” I swear I could tell from the back of his neck that the man blanched. Diners at other tables dropped their forks. Datta washed his hands in invisible soap, struck dumb with apprehension. “LEAVE IT HERE! The boy has to EAT! Eh what? OTHER tables?!” Here he surveyed the rest of the cowering diners. “Get them another tray, but LEAVE THAT ONE HERE!”

The Monte Carlo at the Bengal Club is divine, but not when you have to finish a shipload of it under the benevolent supervision of a Large Uncle. And the disapproving stares of sundry diners who have to wait for their just desserts.


One morning in Hooghly, the familiar bass rumbled over the phone. “Nephew! Who do you think you are?!” Eh?

“Do you think I’m trying to bribe you? What can you do for me anyway? Book me a room in a Dak Bungalow? HEY?”

“What IS the matter, Mama? I have no idea what you’re talking about!”

“You drove away my boy when he took sweets to your house!”

Apparently, while I was in the bath someone had turned up with a crate of sweets. Our maid had strict instructions not to accept any gifts, so she had sent him packing. I explained. The Growl was mollified.

“But what is the occasion, Mama? Why have you suddenly sent me sweets?”

“You know, Matul, this morning when I woke up I had this premonition of death. I think I shall die this week. So I thought I would send sweets to everybody I hold dear.”

His premonition was a little .. premature. He had two more good years after that.

Rest in peace, Big Man.

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