Tuesday, December 08, 2009
I like some whites. (I’m referring to wine here, I must hasten to add.) But you know what I reelly reelly like? Sweet wines. Dessert wines. A good port, sherry, most of all a good Tokay. The last is something I can’t afford (hopeful look at the gentle reader, hint hint, and I wouldn’t mind if you throw in some good pipe tobacco as well), but I do still have some Cockburn’s and some genuine tawny (from Lisboa, no less, though aged in the cupboard and not the cask). So this winter, when my friends flock back to Cal for the Christmas vacation, I shall serve them whisky.
And keep ALL the nice sweet wine for myself!
 She also stars in one of my all-time favourite films.
 YAY! Links AND footnotes, I’m getting back to Serious Blogging!
Sunday, December 06, 2009
But then he raised his saxophone to his lips. And even now, even five decades and more after he started recording, we were in thrall from the first note. Sweet and true like honey on a winter morning, he held the melody for the 30 men on stage, some of them his comrades since 1958, some who were still in school when his friend and leader died in 1994, all of them united in memories. Manohari Singh – saxophonist, composer, grand old man of the orchestra and above all, comrade-in-arms to RD Burman for nearly 30 years, from the days of Chhote Nawaab to the swan song of 1942: a Love Story.
Ranged around him were 13 other stalwarts of the RD legend. Bhanu Gupta on rhythm guitar and harmonica, Ramesh Iyer on lead, Franco Vaz inside the circle of his drums, Kishore Sodha with his trumpet, Shyam Raj alternating between clarinet and tenor sax, Pradipta on the mandolin. It was … eerie. It was my childhood revived. For nearly 30 years now, RD Burman has had a pre-eminent niche in my personal pantheon. But frankly, I was at the concert not for the music but to satisfy my curiosity, to see the men (no women in those days!) who’d made the music. Then they struck up. Nothing very iconic, just the title song from Shaan with full oom-pah. And the hair stood on end on my forearms.
The entire evening was like that. Music straight up, no frills or showmanship, some memories of RDB from the MC, (Ankush, who works for Siemens in Pune but travels everywhere for RDB shows and memorabilia), and total involvement from the vocal audience. The concert was linked to the launch of a documentary on RDB by Brahmanand Singh. Funded by Shemaroo, this DVD release is in the same no-frills style – fixed-cam interviews of the people who knew RD, reminiscences of the way he made his music, intercut with some stock footage and some rare old photographs and recordings. Essential for RDB fans, pretty good even for others who may not share my passion.
The high point for me came right after the interval when, on request, they played the Sholay theme. Even unrehearsed, they were so GOOD. Good music and nostalgia, what a combination. They’ll be back next year – those of them who are still around. I’ll be waiting.
Sunday, November 08, 2009
And then I would raise the hatch and peer out, blink in a surprised manner, and say “Oh dear, are you HURT? I’m SO sorry, but I never expected anyone to Be Parked on a CORNER.”
And then I would reverse my 6 tons of armour for a bit and then RUN IT INTO THEM AGAIN. AhahahahahHAHA. The joy. The JOY! Take THAT you STUPID SUCKERS!
The morons will still win, of course. Because now all these bleeding-heart empty-skullcase do-gooders are building bus shelters. ON THE CORNERS. The Motor Vehicles Act states clearly that no vehicle should stop within 30 feet of an intersection. Of course, neither the municipal authorities nor the police are bothered about such minutiae. Some Votary Club or Loins International or Mewa Bal will start to raise money for cancer research, find they’re stuck at Rs. 23,109 (and 37 paise, that will clear up the little accounting error that the Chapter President’s nephew left in the books the year we let him loose on the audit). And they’ll say, you know what, this much money will do zip for cancer research, let’s build a bus shelter instead. Right slap bang on a corner, of course.
Which is why a Humvee wouldn’t do, no sir. It has to be the armoured vehicle. Which I can drive STRAIGHT OVER the Bus Shelter on the Corner, oh, I love the crunch of concrete in the mo-o-orning, and bowl away merrily playing “Kashmir”. Over the loudhailer. Of course there has to be a loudhailer. And a horn that sounds like the crack of doom. Oooohhh yerrsss. The horn is very important. VERY. You know why?
Because at 8 a.m. every morning, outside my daughter’s school, there will be 5248 cars all trying to get Right to the Gate before dropping off their little darlings. And ALL of them will be honking away because of course each one of them thinks HE is the only one in a hurry, why on EARTH would anybody stop in front of MY car, can’t they see How Important I Am?! What? Schools and hospitals are supposed to be SILENCE zones? Who the hell reads all that fine print?
Which is why, from my Armoured Vehicle with a Humongous Horn, I shall pull the Honker Version of Crocodile Dundee. (Remember that scene with the mugger where he looks in pity at the mugger’s knife, then pulls out a young scimitar about 37 feet long and says “You call that a knife? THIS is a knife!”)
So I shall wait till EVERYbody’s honking and then Lean on the Special Horn. At about 240 decibels. And after the glass has fallen out of all the car windows and the tyres have imploded and the morons’ eyeballs have stopped bouncing on their stalks, when there is a Sudden Silence broken only by the soft susurration of mortar running off the buildings, I shall switch on my loudhailer. And murmur into it, in a Voice of Quiet Menace – imagine Alan Rickman trying to be nice in “Die Hard” – “Next time you feel like making stupid noises, gentlemen, I shall be right behind you”.
Which brings me to another very good use for the Baby Tank with the Loudhailer. Calcutta is full of Good Souls who are Very Sociable. And Large Aunties who Need their Own Space. And People in an Awful Hurry who Couldn’t Be Bothered About Traffic. And ALL these Types will jaywalk. Across the road, half-way in from the sidewalk (sidewalks? Just because you build them, I have to WALK on them? What is this, a fascist state?!), down the MIDDLE of the bloody road. And I would steal up behind them Very Quietly and then, oh THEN I would Let Rip on the 240 decibel horn. Or maybe play a recording of screeching brakes over the loudhailer. And watch the Waking of the Jaywalker.
You know how, in Asterix panels, people fly right out of their pants when Obelix swats them? And come back to earth in an accordionated heap, followed by the tinkle of descending teeth? That’s how I imagine it would be. Jaywalker, deboned and filleted by Sudden Crack of Doom, flying through the air like Superjellyfish. Pants, abandoned, standing on their own for a frozen moment before gently falling in a heap. Oh wait … would that apply to the Large Aunties too? Eeewwww. The imagination boggles like billy-o.
Oh well. I shall just have to look the other way to preserve my sanity. A small price to pay for implementing the Grand Design.
Right then. I’m off to eBay to look for an armoured personnel carrier at a bargain price.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Suddenly, I can smell aloo bhaja. Potatoes, fried. Not jhuri bhaja, which is crisp potato shavings, fine strands that crunch in the mouth, flavours added with kari pata, fried red chillies and perhaps peanuts as well. Not the roundels, the potato slices that may or may not be crisp at the edges and faintly sweet if made from fresh potatoes in winter.
No, what I suddenly smelt – sitting in office, windows closed, cup of post-lunch coffee steaming on my table – was the thick limp greasy flabby listless slivers of aloo bhaja that would make me depressed when served by relatives at lunch. Haven’t touched that junk in years. Decades, even. Yet such is the perversity of the human mind, nostalgia nudged me towards desiring those too. All from the memory of a smell.
I’d say that rates as a pretty acute observation of the human predicament. Right up there with Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, which my father considers one of the greatest novels ever written and I found a load of irritating crap (perhaps because I was about 14). You don’t agree? With any of those three assertions? There you go, human failing again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to do some research on the local availability of aloo bhaja …
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
It IS nice, however, to be served a humongous platter of dead animals. (Even though Americans seem to serve fries with EVERYthing. Any day now, I’ll get tiramisu with fries on the side.) Except that the American fixation with size (no, you smutty-minded brats, I am NOT going THERE) applies to other aspects of life too. Case in point, the New York Times.
Consider this. A newspaper that has more sections than most other papers have pages. A newspaper where you’re not even expected to take the whole paper, just the sections you want. Or just the sections you can read and finish. Basically, you’re expected to leave stuff on your plate!
I’m OK with that. I only get some selected feeds from the NYT (yes, that’s the way they plan it). But what do I do when Indian papers go the same way? At home, I don’t have to read too much of my two daily papers because 75% of their matter concerns either the Kolkata Fashion Week or the Lakme Fashion Week or the Alternative Fashion Week or … well, SOME event or the other which involves men with make-up and malnourished women. Neither of which interest me. So I usually get to office with the satisfaction of Having Read the Papers. (What, the front page and the sports section DO count as the whole paper!)
But now, in Delhi, a bulging bag hangs on my door handle. ONE paper? Item, the Hindustan Times, Delhi edition. It’s like a young telephone directory! (And less informative? Well no, it’s getting to be a good paper. With some notable lapses, but hey, this is Delhi.) Four sections. Or is it five? How do I even begin to read this? (I know, in the smallest room, but don’t be facetious!) I give up. I’ll watch the news on television!
So I shall have to leave for work with a sneaking suspicion that I am Not Informed about the World. So be it.
But is there any way we could persuade these guys to Give Us Less?
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Which is serendipitous. On my recent travels, a friend told me I don’t take enough pictures of people. So I tried. And now, in the wake of Charukesi’s post, I have questions.
Is it portrait photography if it’s not just the face?
Or if the face is incidental to the context?
What if the person is too far away to see the face?
Or not looking at the camera?
Turned away from the camera, even?
How about a portrait without faces?
I suppose the basic question is whether the subject is more important than the story.
Your views, please (pun intended).
With THIS one below, there’s no confusion. I’m rather proud of it
Monday, September 07, 2009
Read it. It’s a cautionary tale against pre-judging anybody. It drives home (and indeed quotes) the greatest argument against capital punishment – that it may lead to the state murdering an innocent man. This makes sense to me now, even though some years ago I posted on this blog in favour of the execution of one Dhananjay who'd been convicted of rape and murder.
And it twists my insides to think of a man losing his children to a fire, then being accused, tried and convicted of murdering them, THEN spending 12 years waiting for his death for a crime he possibly didn’t commit.
Friday, September 04, 2009
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
Usually, the daily count of visitors to this blog is in single digits. Even I hadn't visited it in some weeks, which gives you an idea of how riveting the content is.
Then why, on the 12th, 13th and 14th of August, did the count go up into several hundreds? (Well, hundreds anyway)
Does anybody know? Did wossername, yes, Megan Fox, mention it on TV?
Sunday, August 30, 2009
It’s been a little like “ten little Indians” from Buenos Aires onwards. S* had to fly back to Calcutta to meet a buyer. B* stayed back in Lima for another day, he was doing good business and anyway he had an appointment in Belem. N* will fly back via New York because he doesn’t have a UK visa. And my boss will stop off in London, leaving me alone on my side of the cabin to fly the last leg to Calcutta via Delhi. Can I collect and stow my luggage, check in and make a flying visit to Piccadilly on a late summer afternoon, all in six and a half hours? I’m risk averse, but the idea is tempting.
In my ears, Katra katra gives way to Khali haath sham aayi. Voices from home, and the yearning for my own armchair and a small wriggling armful welcoming Papa home becomes an almost physical sensation. Another 36 hours or so, and I’ll be sipping my Arabica as a familiar voice grumbles happily at me from across a glass-topped table. The captain’s voice comes over the PA and the A-320 begins the long slide down the sky to Sao Paulo. My ears pop. Time to shut down and pack up, but I can stay with Kishore on the headphones. As the plane loses height, the lights of each city sliding under the wing become clearer, brighter. City grids and highways appear, then tiny specks of headlights. The spangles remind me, Pujo is 3 weeks away. I’m headed home. Mmmm.
This daytime flight over the breadth of the continent has been rewarding. Minutes after the captain announced that we’d be skirting La Paz, a huge expanse of water appeared somewhere off to port. If it stays in view from 38,000 feet for over 10 minutes at 900 knots, it’s enormous. Lake Titicaca, on the border between Peru and Bolivia. Two weeks ago in Bangalore, a friend told me that Bolivia, a land-locked nation, has a navy – a bunch of coast guard cutters on Lake Titicaca. I looked close, even used my camera zoom, but couldn’t see any of them. (Like Spike Milligan, who, when he boarded the train to boot camp in 1940, was handed a picture of Hitler captioned “This is your enemy” – “I searched the whole train but couldn’t find him”)
Earlier, somewhere in the Peruvian Andes, I saw a strange barren plateau. Flat for miles and miles without a trace of habitation, then suddenly the edge crumbled into precipitous ridges and canyons. A very high plateau, because the rim was dusted with snow. It looked like a coffee truffle cake with a bite taken out of the middle, the striation of millennia showing in the canyon sides like a cross section of chocolate layers. And yes, the icing on the edges.
Checking in at Heathrow, I was served by a fragile blonde with a German-Polish name tag. She was quick, helpful, positive. He was at the next counter, manned by a person with a sandalwood dot on his forehead and a bad-tempered mouth. Neither man was happy. I told him he should have flown Jet. He said no, Air India is more Indian than Jet. Say what? I shrugged and went off to find the lounge. (And abandoned my plans for going into town – everybody warned me about Friday evening traffic)
Later, in the lounge, we got to talking. When he introduced himself I was sure I had heard the name before. He told me the real reason for the Air India booking. His wife and he never took the same flight, and this time it had been her turn to fly Jet. I googled him. He’s into steel and distilleries, his father-in-law was a well-known Chief Minister and his firm had been named in a land and loan scam in Madhya Pradesh. But he was pleasant, polite, well-spoken. A good public school does have its plus points. When we taxied for take-off, he peered through from First Class and waved. I went up the aisle and peeked into his section. He was seated cross-legged, rocking a little, reading the Hanuman Chalisa. Fear of flying. What can I say, in the light of the Air France crash in July even I had been a little apprehensive about the long haul over the Atlantic.
Day 2, 11 a.m. Lima time. The stewardess serves me a second cup of coffee, no breakfast, thank you. We’re just over an hour from Delhi. Earlier, the mud-brown dirt-pile hills of eastern Iran and Afghanistan looked like a child’s tracks on a beach. I’ve learnt, though, that even if it looks barren from the sky, greenery is visible when one goes down below 20,000 or so. As I look out of the porthole, the hills have vanished and we’re flying over One Big River, tributaries meandering around it like baby snakes around a Big Mama Python. The fields on either side are big, straight-edged. Given the location, this can only be the Indus.
The next time I look down, we seem to be flying over a cloud-field. No wait, is that the sea? Are we flying south of Karachi? Then a speck of human habitation comes into view, a straight line cuts across the picture, and it all comes into focus. Those aren’t waves, they’re sand dunes. We’re over the Great Rajasthan Desert. It seems to go on and on, but that’s because I keep looking. Gradually the patches of green multiply, run together. As we continue towards Delhi, a flotilla of tiny white puffy clouds takes position over the Punjab, their shadows marking a grid over the checkerboard of fields below.
The captain’s Aussie accent comes over the PA. Half an hour to Delhi, and after that only one more airport and one more flight before I reach home.
Sunday, August 02, 2009
Our story had its beginning in a conversation a week before our visit. An uncle of mine had dismissed the College Street boi para (roughly, “neighbourhood of books”) as a flea-market for crammers’ texts and second-hand potboilers. “Can you find anything in any language that is RARE, let alone interesting?” Out of nowhere, we fixed on Jadunath Sarkar, doyen of Bengal’s historians, as the touchstone. Could we find anything by him on College Street? So it came to pass that 11 o’clock on a cloudy humid Saturday saw us stepping gingerly through puddles, wiping our faces repeatedly under the combined onslaught of humidity and a faint drizzle, glancing with unconcealed disgust at stall after stall that advertised “CBSE-ICSE-ISC text” or “Medical – JEE – CAT”. Was THIS what College Street had been reduced to? Where were the bonanzas that our parents’ generation gloated over, the pamphlet autographed by Toru Dutt or the 1898 edition of the Materia Medica?
The Coffee House lane (Bankim Chatterjee Street) is entirely devoted to textbooks. (What a waste - even during our student days some decades ago, textbooks never figured on our list of priorities.) Yet it makes historical sense. Hindu College in 1817, Sanskrit College, the Calcutta Medical College in 1835, Calcutta University and later Presidency College – these were all started on College Street or just off it in the Potoldanga area. Small wonder that the College Street boi para took root, almost 200 years ago, from the textbook trade. For more esoteric books and for the latest rage, the gentry ordered in from the booksellers in the Chowringhee area. It was only at the turn of the (previous) century that College Street’s booksellers increased the ambit of their trade. And the stories of lost treasures glimpsed in dusty piles on the pavement took root, grew, gave rise to myths and tall tales.
These tales were most often told in the Coffee House, the adopted home of generations of self-proclaimed Bengali intelligentsia. Housed in the Albert Hall (yes, of course there had to be one in the “second city of the Raj”! This one was built in 1876), this was the place to enjoy the best adda, the slowest service and the most tolerant waiters in the world. Poets, economists, politicians, charlatans, they all spent hours and days over carefully nursed cups of coffee and shared cigarettes under the slow revolving fans strung on beams between the upper floor balconies. Every Bengali of note, from Rabindranath Tagore to Amartya Sen, has been a patron. One of the most enduringly popular Bangla songs is Manna Dey’s anthem to nostalgia, Coffee House-er shei adda. Yet like most things Bengalis hold dear, it has been on the brink of oblivion for years. It took a petition from the faculty of Calcutta University and the Presidency College to keep it from being shut down in 1958. Eventually, in 1995, Mudar Patherya led an initiative for essential renovation and again in 2007, Bengal Shelter cleaned and renovated it. Today it is almost chic in its ambience. Of course there are old-timers who miss the smoke-blackened walls and the chipped Coffee Board saucers. But they still serve the most soul-satisfying greasy “mutton Afghani”. I can vouch for this because, of course, we ended our College Street expedition there.
But again the time-line jinks. The book search, yes. We pushed through the crowds on the sidewalk in our search for old books, yet all we found within that tunnel of blue polythene rain-sheets was text-books. And children’s books. And self-help books. We crossed to the other side of the road and found a different world. Piles upon piles of pulp fiction, literary criticism, photography, yearbooks. Obviously this side, along the wall of Presidency College, is more fun. Subol Moitra from Medinipur peeped shyly from his book-walled alcove and edified us about the complicated system of rental and sub-rental that governed the economy of these six by four “locations”. But where oh where, among this rubble of Harold Robbins and Fashion Photography, were we to find anything by the great Jadunath Sarkar? Back to the other side we went, picking our way between reddish-chocolate mini-buses, bright yellow taxis and rickshaws with schoolchildren peeking out from behind the inevitable blue polythene sheet.
From an article by Amit Roy I found that six bookshops opened between 54 College Street and 70 College Street in the 1870s. One of these was Gurudas Chatterjee’s Bengal Medical Library, which is now the venerable institution of Chatterjee & Sons, right opposite the gate of Presidency College. But alas, the harried gentleman behind the counter was positive that they had nothing by Jadunath Sarkar. He could try and get it for us if we left an order, but that was not within the rules of the game. On we went, past an open shop-front that revealed no counter within, just piles of books in the semi-dark, like the Xiqian terracotta army waiting to be brought back to life. Craning my neck to check the shop-signs farther down, I saw “Dasgupta & Co. (P) Ltd.” Why had I not thought of this earlier? For many years Arabinda Dasgupta has been my go-to man when I want a book that’s not available over the counter, but we had never met in person, we had always been voices on the phone. We ventured in and asked for him. Within minutes we were sipping coffee at a small table in a room that seemed to be built with books. If one looked closely one could see an occasional patch of wall or a piece of furniture, but the foreground, background and middle ground consisted entirely of books and nothing else. The bonus lay in overhearing the impassioned conversations on the telephone. “Drugs and Cosmetics, have you sent that to Bombay yet? You should have it by Tuesday morning, call me if it hasn’t reached you.” “Where did you put that Swift on Grammar? Somebody from Raj Bhavan will be here in an hour to collect it.” “Hanif on Accountancy? Yes, we have a couple of copies, but it’ll take some time to get it to you in London.” The total experience, the combination of focussed business and casual erudition, was somewhere between a library and a stock exchange.
Coffee done with, we got down to the serious business of Finding Sir Jadunath. “But of course, I’m sure I saw something by him.” And Mr. Dasgupta shot off to hunt among the shelves, returning for a moment to hand me, as a sort of appetizer or amuse bouche, a collection of essays by F. Max Mueller (I point to India). Within minutes he returned triumphant, bearing a book in a slightly battered yellow cover – Introducing India, edited by K.N. Bagchi and W.G. Griffiths (yes, THAT Griffiths), first published in 1947 and reprinted in 1990 by Dr. Ashin DasGupta, Administrator, Asiatic Society, 1 Park Street, Calcutta. Seeing our brows furrowed, he opened it and pointed to an article on Indian history by, yes yes YES, Jadunath Sarkar! Our quest was over!
But not our expedition. We were led on a tour of the three floors of the shop. Up a spiral staircase of wrought-iron, through old doors under raftered ceilings, and in every room, books and more books. If there is a heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this! Books the way they can be savoured best, with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopaedia of Body Building lying atop a history of football on the Calcutta maidan and next to an anthology of travelogues from Central Asia, with In search of an equation sharing floor space with an illustrated history of Central Indian tribes. A balcony shaded by a gnarled old neem tree, with a view of College Street on one side, and on the other a wire-mesh window behind which a dignified old gent tapped away at a word-processor but with a trusty typewriter beside him as a back-up. It took an effort of will to leave, but deadlines beckoned. We took our leave and hied ourselves to the Coffee House to celebrate, where Javed Khan, in cummerbund and turban, posed for us after he brought us (as expected) the best mutton afghani and the worst cold coffee possible.
College Street had not done with us yet. As we descended the uneven stairs, we noticed a series of posters on the wall – “Mohamichhil (Great Procession) on –th July”. But that’s today! We’ll be stuck here for hours! Our well-fed saunter changed to a sprint. Sure enough, traffic was halted outside, a posse of policemen in white uniforms were massed along the tram-tracks and the head of a procession complete with banners was visible 50 metres to the south, opposite the University gate. Fortunately our car was parked farther north, our ungainly canter was just fast enough to get to it before the procession started moving and we were able to speed away before the road was closed off. This was one time we didn’t stop to find out “what happened next”. But true to form, College Street had started another story before we had quite finished the one before.
(Stodgy, yes, but I am reliably informed that some version of this has appeared in an on-flight magazine)
Sunday, July 26, 2009
I was goofing off, replying to comments on Facebook, when I realized that most of the answers that come to mind are lines from songs. So then I got to thinking (and then I got to weeping / I really had a flash this time / Gonna set my watch back to it / ‘cause you know I’ve been through it …) about lines that resonate in the memory (as a madman shakes a dead geranium, and yes, I KNOW that’s not from a song).
What fun. Let’s play at lists. Lines – lines from songs - that you think are great. Or maybe almost great. Or maybe just lines that stick in the mind. (Nothing from Robindro Shongeet, that needs a whole separate volume.) And while we’re at it, cokernuts all round if you get the sources for all of mine.
· How terribly strange to be seventy
· And the flowers bloom like madness in the spring
· Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose
· In sooney andherey aankhon mein / aansoo ke jagah aata hai dhuan
· Jee mein aata hai tere daman mein sar chhupa kar hum rote rahein
· I sit by the window and I watch the cars roll by / I fear I’ll do some damage one fine day
· Jo aankh se naa tapka woh lahoo kya hai
· Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath his wisdom like a stone
· Ko jon aar hridoy diye gaaitey jaane
· And the Indian said, Nothing at all
· Wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. No-one was saved.
· Just the way it changes, like the shoreline and the sea
· Ei aaNdhaarey, megher-o chhaya-e, akasho paarey
· The arc of a love affair / His hands rolling down her hair / Love like lightning shaking till it moans
· Hum thahar jaayen jahan, usko shahar kahte hain
· To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free / silhouetted by the sea
· Bhuley jaao phike chNapa rong ti tomaye manaye bhari
· It’s the dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife doesn’t understand
· I was lying in a burned out basement with the full moon in my eyes
· And how many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see
· Borney gondhey chhondey geeti-te, hridoye diyechho dola
· But she breaks like a little girl
· And so it goes, and so will you too I suppose
More to come, I’m sure.
Idea from KM - This Can Be A Meme.
Meh, Mame, May We?
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
He started with the same musical salutation his father used to start HIS stage performances. Then went on to belt out song after song from his father’s oeuvre. His voice was full, chest-deep, melodious. His pleasure in music-making was obvious. He looked at least 10 years younger than his 57. And he dished out nuggets between the songs, anecdotes about how “amader Ponchu” (Pancham) lifted a mukhda here, an antara there, from sources as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Rajasthani folk tunes. Yes, even within the same song (Raju chal Raju, now which film was that? Dharmendra in a travois behind a white horse - Azaad, I think). He brought down the house with his account of how Sapan Chakraborty had composed a soulful tune for Amitabh Bachchan in “Zameer” – mimicking him, eyes half-closed, teeth protruding slightly – and Kishore Kumar had trashed it right away. “THIS song? For Amitabh Bachchan? Won’t do! What? YOU are the composer, and you have to ask ME what to do? STEAL a tune! Lift it!” And then proceeded to modify a Nat King Cole song (something about falling leaves) to produce Tum bhi chalo, hum bhi chalein.
Right through the evening it was evident how Amit Kumar idolized his father, but what was touching was the way he referred to him as a friend, someone whom he could fight and disagree with but a person who never lost his respect. He sang his own songs too – Bade acchey lagtey hain, Yaad aa rahi hai and on my request, Mayabini from the 1996 album – but his heart seemed to be in his father’s memories. Sumit Kumar, his brother, younger by 30 years, came on afterwards, but sadly his voice just doesn’t make the grade. I left at that point, wondering why for a man who can sing like Amit Kumar does, the biggest hit in recent years is Dil mein baji guitar.
Tuesday, July 07, 2009
So e-mails went to and fro, the most progressive mill with its ISO:14001 accreditation was dusted off and warned to present arms and go woof, presentations were prepared. On the appointed day our man went off to escort them from the hotel. And vanished. Repeated phone calls got a delayed response. The delegation would also be delayed. Having turned up one hour late (1 HOUR? If any of OUR delegations were 10 minutes late for a meeting we’d get a Note Verbale from the local Mission!), they turned out to be interesting. The shaven-headed leader looked like a retired bouncer, though he displayed no bulge in the jacket under the left armpit. He was accompanied by
(a) a Sleek Chap in a grey sharkskin suit, black shirt, no tie, who turned out to be a manufacturer of women’s undergarments (we warned him that our particular fibre would be MOST unsuitable. It itches. Like crazy!). One of my friends from the industry nodded sagely and said “Very interesting!” I desperately avoided his eye for the next ten minutes.
(b) an unshaven lantern-jawed man in a collared T and baggy trousers belted near his ribs, whose function was never quite clear
(c) a representative of their Prime Minister’s office, a sad-eyed little man in a suit, very Keyser Shoze (hey, HE was Turkish, after all)
(d) a Very Large Man who “reprrezaints our fffarming”, obviously uncomfortable in a new suit, who understood no English, slowed down our presentation because he required translation, and ignored the translation as soon as refreshments were served, working his way left-handed through three chocolate pastries from Flury’s
(e) a man with a video camera. He looked like he would go “Pssttt! Dirty pictures?” any moment but didn’t. Instead, he wandered all over the conference room focussing on EVERYthing, including, so help me Cthulhu, the WALLS for a full 30 seconds.
We rolled out our schpiel. They were most appreciative. The Leader peremptorily ordered the manufacturers to send samples over to his hotel room, “ve haff only today, owr flaht iz at nahn thairrty tomorrow”. We perked up, “exports” and “product modification” lighting up in neon thought balloons over our heads. Then they pulled out a little card about 10 inches long with threads wound round it. And asked “So, this mehl ve go to, they mek hemp?” Hemp? Hemp. After the vaudeville act, it became clear that Slick Man wanted hemp because “itt provides sehport”. Support what, I was about to ask. Then I recalled his area of interest and thought better of it.
Sorry, we have no hemp. We don’t make hemp. We don’t know hemp from ice-cream (well, OFFICIALLY!) As far as we know, NObody in this country grows hemp. It’s been banned since 1985, people tend to smoke it instead of making yarn out of it, you know? Ask Arnie over in California, he has the same problem.
Leader Man was most dismissive. “Tzair is hemp in Eendia, Ay haff documents.” May I SEE those documents, please? Another dismissive wave - they’re not here, but I’ve READ them. There IS Indian hemp.
I made a quick exit to my office, consulted The Great God Google. Yes, there IS “Indian hemp”. It’s a generic term. The largest processors are in Canada and (believe this!) California (Arnie, you’re missing something here!). There are NO hemp processors in India. THIS was why you took 3 hours of my working day?!
Silence. Great shrugs. Exit delegation, somewhat sheepishly.
All in a day’s work.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Two men. Different countries, different years. But the two men that I recall, in all my life, who inspired fear when one looked upon their faces.
* * *
Moscow, 2003. A* had taken it upon himself to take me around, show me the sights, keep me from starving to death every two hours. He was interesting. School drop-out, self-made millionaire, natty, vain, disarmingly charming at times, two roving eyes, and an evident streak of ruthlessness. He’d made Moscow his bailiwick. Not bad for a Bangali boy from the alleys of North Calcutta. He showed me a side of Moscow I’d never have imagined on my own, let alone seen. Cocky, cool, self-assured, nothing he couldn’t handle.
Till the evening he took me back to his place. And found a man waiting in his den. Sitting on a chair with a half-glass of neat amber. I noted the guy hadn’t chosen either of the very comfortable armchairs. He was astride the chair from the writing table, one arm laid on the back holding the glass of whisky, the other in his lap. A* stopped in his tracks at the sight. Then he smiled a slow careful smile, said a few words in Russian and stepped back to hang up his coat. I nodded at the chap, stood my ground and decided against smiling. This guy looked like he didn’t DO smiling.
We were introduced. He stood up to shake my hand. Which was educative. He put down his drink instead of just transferring it to his other hand. One hand free at all times? Probably. His palm enveloped my hand, it felt like an industrial gauntlet, his knuckles were the size of pigeon eggs. He wore a full-sleeved plaid shirt buttoned right up, jeans with a broad belt, very elegant boots of supple leather. Which meant only his hands and his face were visible. About 5’10”, built lean, but his movements showed the animal in him, flat muscles moving smoothly over each other like sheets of armour. Hard, that was the overall impression. Hard and elemental, something primal about him, feral.
He said something to A*, his voice surprisingly smooth, quiet. A* glanced at me almost involuntarily, looked back, shook his head slightly, spoke in Russian. I took the hint and went into the other room. About 15 minutes later A* came through, said the guy was leaving, would I like to say Bye to him? I did. He didn’t smile this time either, he kept one hand on my shoulder as he shook the other. (Did I look like I could use any kind of shake-hand grip on this walking pile of rock?!) Then he vanished through the service door.
I didn’t ask any questions. A* told me of his own as we sipped his Talisker (smoke on the palate, fire in the throat). There are (were?) 5 major gangs in Moscow. One of them was Chechen. The others didn’t mess with them. They were crazy. Reckless. Killed for the slightest transgression. Ruled through fear, not favour. And the Mayor of Moscow, Luzhkov, had come to power through their support. This man was one of the commanders of the Chechen mafia, near the top if not at the very top. Beslan had not yet happened, but the Chechnyan conflict had been in the news for nearly 4 years. I said nothing, listened.
And thought of the man’s face. Hard, seamed, expressionless, with eyes that revealed nothing. More than the impression of physical capability, the man seemed resolute. Unflappable. If he had to take down a railway locomotive or a T-Rex with his bare hands, he’d give it a cool-headed try. If he had to kill his brother, he’d weigh the benefit-cost ratio, not the emotional damage.
This man was fear.
* * *
19--, Kashmir. The insurgency had just flared up. Fifteen of us had volunteered for a “study tour” dreamt up by the Director of the LBSNAA, a scenario that drove our Course Director round the bend. “You bloody bandicoots, any of you so much as stubs his toe out there and you’ve HAD it for the rest of your training, you hear me? I don’t want the national press going to town about young officers injured in a crossfire!” On our first full day in Srinagar, we saw the tiny crater in the road where a man had died 48 hours earlier. We knew belly-tightening fear as we accompanied a patrol through the close-leaning, blank-eyed, shuttered-window alleys of Batmaloo. But those are other stories for other days.
We spent a fair amount of time with the National Security Guard group. They gave us a run-down on their organization, training, weaponry, ops. I was young enough to drool over their Heckler & Kosch carbines, but they didn’t offer us a chance to try them out. (We were bloody civilians, below contempt. They weren’t very complimentary about the SPG either. The NSG are the ops wing - apparently now called the SAG - while the Special Protection Group are deployed exclusively for VIP security.) One of the things we learnt was that the NSG operate in groups of three called “hits”, each group trained for a specific part of an operation. For example, in a storming operation, one hit of three men would just effect entry – the first to open the door with a suitable explosive charge, the second to move in and provide cover, the third to enter and clear the immediate area. Each operative is issued a specialised weapon – anything from a recoil-less rifle to a needle gun – and carries another side-arm of choice.
So I was looking around to see what side-arms they chose to carry, the overwhelming favourite was the Heckler & Kosch 9 mm. pistol (clip of 14) though at least two carried machine-pistols, when I notice one man who didn’t carry any side-arm that I could see. Big guy, at least 3 inches over 6 feet, I couldn’t see his face because the bandanna was flapping over it in the wind over the Dal Lake. I turned to Captain R (a show-boater if ever there was one, but he could put 4 bullets in a man’s head at 12 ms. In 5 seconds. Starting blind) and asked him about it.
He called to the guy, a name from the hills of Kumaon. The man turned around. And I was looking in the face of a killer. I didn’t know his back story, he hadn’t said a word. But one look at him, the broad immobile face, the narrowed eyes, and I just felt in my gut that this man could not only kill a man if he had to, he’d do it without a tremor. He might even look forward to it.
R* said “Hathiyaar dikhao”, show us your weapon. The man bent his knees slightly, his left hand went near his ankle-high boots, and suddenly he was holding a knife. A gutting knife, blade at least 10 inches with a serrated edge, handle bound with a leather strip. Then he flipped it over and caught it by the blade. The throwing grip. He looked at me, no expression at all, and swung it, the handle moving less than an inch each way. And I knew that if I pushed him, expressed the slightest doubt of his ability, he might just prove it then and there. I froze.
He still didn’t say a word.
I knew fear.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Sport is a possibility, but by the time I put something together Google will show about 5935 “similar stories”.
What am I left with? Travel, food, the occasional rant. And some stories. Totally Awld Gaffer material.
You have been warned.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Four little levers all in a row. One to stop, one to park, maybe one to go? I suppressed a faintly hysterical yelp and concentrated. OK, if we pull on THIS one …The lower part of the seat back suddenly thrust itself into my sacral region with a malevolent hiss. Rattled, I pulled at all the other levers in turn. With the result that when the stewardess came round with the cold towels, her plastic smile dissolved into a giggle at the sight of me. Sprawled in one corner of the seat in a most undignified manner, legs kicking in the air as the evil foot-rest moved up independent of the leg rest and the “recline” lever plotted my downfall.
I don’t think I’m particularly tech-challenged. Not a geek, no, but certainly not one of the lost-tribes-of-the-Amazon-forest types. Then why should I be so helpless in the grasp of a SEAT, darn it? Only it’s not just the seat. EVERYthing seems to conspire against me. You know how business class offers you “the widest variety of entertainment in the sky”? Riiigghhht. Now, where do the headphones go? I spent nearly 10 minutes on a flight to Dubai trying to conceal my utter perplexity, all but whistling nonchalantly while I felt around the armrests, bent over to peer at the middle upright, ran my fingers over the padded sides, looking for That. Damn. Socket. All to no avail. In the process I plugged my headphones into an ashtray. Or a fuelling port. Or the autopilot, even. I must have looked like Mr. Bean. Eventually the lady next to me heaved a deep sigh, gently removed my hand from the vicinity of her Dior-sheathed knee and pointed out the socket nestled under the armrest. Evil, I tell you. Whatever happened to standardization?
It’s all about upgrades, of course. I’m just not mentally equipped to fly business class. Last time, between Chennai and Delhi, the damn engineering even managed to ruin my “chiefest, sole delight”. Well, not sole, really. Salmon steak. In a lovely herb reduction. It was just about the best meal one could have hoped for, considering how grotty in-flight food usually is. I was smart. I did NOT try to open all the little packs of condiments, because I KNOW the vinaigrette is implanted with an evil computer chip that will make it splash all over my trousers. Or worse, on my neighbour’s trousers. I didn’t even try to figure out all the superfluous cutlery that cascaded out of the folded napkin. (THREE identical spoons for ONE meal? What is this, the St. James’ Court?!) Then I had to go and ruin it by deciding to watch some TV while I ate at my leisure.
You know how the nifty little TV screen folds out of the armrest? Yes, but why is it equipped to swivel in 27 different planes? Try working it round to face you when there’s already a large napkin-draped tray occupying the same space. In 3 minutes I managed about 29 different positions for the TV screen, none of them facing me. Rather like a Rubik’s cube. Then I gave in to destiny. And my temper. The stewardess ran out of her little curtained alcove at the sound that ensued.
Trying ineffectually to bend over the dinner tray to pick up (a) one soup bowl, empty (b) 236 pieces of fruit salad, all sticky (c) enough cutlery to fit out another French Revolution while at the same time avoiding (d) the baleful look of a neighbor with a sticky chocolate brownie in his lap and (e) a TV screen that seemed to be doubled over in laughter, I accepted that I do not BELONG in business class. Next time, no Rosa Parks song for me. Come on over to the back of the ‘Bus, I’ll be waiting right there. Given that I’m the large or economy size, it’s economy class for me from now on.
Monday, June 01, 2009
An old man and a boy. The man seemed infinitely old to my 6-year-old eyes; when I review my memory, I realise he must have been about 50. The boy would have been a year or two older than me, or perhaps short rations made him look younger. But his clothes were always clean, unlike the draggled rags of his bearded companion. His voice was very sweet, soaring above the man’s tenor in a tracery of song. I’d run out to the balcony, lean over the railing to hear them. They always walked from the Raja Basanta Roy road crossing towards Lake Market, perhaps to sing for a cup of tea and biscuit before the tea stalls on Janak Road. The first few times, they’d look up at me, the boy would put out his hand with the palm upwards without interrupting his song. I went and asked my mother for a coin. She gave me 25P, a denomination that I don’t see these days and yet a fair amount for alms back then. The boy caught it deftly as I tossed it from the balcony, raised the hand to his forehead in salute and walked on, still singing.
It became a habit. Twice or thrice a week I’d hear their voices raised in song and run out to the balcony with a 25P coin, then watch them wander off towards the market. In the year or so before we moved to Delhi, I never spoke to them, never asked them any questions. They never broke off their song to speak to me. But it lingers in my memory like a grainy shot from an old film. Complete with slightly scratchy soundtrack.
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
I’m sorry, I missed some of her early lines because I was busy chivvying a supply chain. Of EVMs. May Cthulhu bless the Election Commission and their tech progress, 13 rounds of counting were completed between 8 a.m. and a quarter to 12. Unimaginable back in the day, I remember the counting in the Simultaneous Elections in May 1996 took THREE DAYS and most of us went into rehab afterwards. By the afternoon of the second day my voice was gone and I was giving orders in sign language; one of my major achievements was fitting an air circulator to the ass of just about every counting supervisor and assistant – not a luxury when the temperature was above 45 Celsius with over 90% humidity. Three of our counting staff ended up in hospital, in a neighbouring district one died.
And this time, although the first two rounds took nearly an hour in one Assembly segment, 10 more rounds and a bit were over in less than 3 hours after that. Yay for chivvying.
Sometimes this gorment job is particklerly irritating because it would be against my service rules to discuss the election results on a public forum. Which leads to major restraint.
But I can discuss 'em with friends. Which I did in Delhi, from 3 in the morning on Sunday till it was time for my flight home. Other issues came up (along with coffee, cigarillos and a rather good toasted ham sandwich), and I place them here for comment.
1 – Tom Friedman is an ass. Not only because distances are actually greater in a flat world, but because every book of his goes beyond incoherent to inchoate.
2 – Women in the Punjab, or at least a specific part thereof, were observed to carry themselves very well. “Trod the ling like a buck in spring” and all that (or should that be “doe in spring”? Too many options). The men tend to slouch. (Subsidiary point – is there a real difference in ... ummm …tandrusti, or have ALL the women discovered the Wonderbra?)
3 – Every single country in the continent of Africa is FUBAR, governance as we know it is non-existent and only Alexander McCall Smith’s locale has a modicum of peace.
4 – Anthony McAuliffe totally rocked, and Panther Soup works well both as war memoir and travelogue. I’m reading it now and I agree. Sample quote – “To live a la Bourguignonne is to enjoy a life of red wine and cream, and to die at the age of 42 under somebody else’s wife.”
5 – When you have a possessive cat who hates it when you go away, and also pees on your luggage to show her disapproval, getting past sniffer dogs at airports is hellish. I mean, try out that explanation on any random copper
6 – Being arrested can be a surprisingly civilised interaction. This was a student demonstration in the aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy, the police had orders from on high to round up the demonstrators and hated it far more than the arrested people because they (the police) had to pull out records from the previous 30 years to charge these boys and girls (few of them over 25) with unsolved crimes. They kept apologizing to the detainees. The traumatic part was taking a dump while handcuffed to another person.
6a – “Well, if you count East and West Germany as different countries – which they were at that time – I’ve been arrested in 13 of them. Not counting India.”
7 - "I stand by what I said, that woman WAS naked when I walked in and he DID leave me to calm her down. Incidentally, she was Puerto Rican, not Cuban, and her name was Pagol. Just goes to show."
I do have interesting friends.
Monday, May 18, 2009
A man has been in prison in Raipur since May 2007. He was charged under the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2006 (CSPSA), and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967), which was amended in 2004 to include key aspects of the Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act (POTA), 2002. (POTA was repealed in 2004.) While in prison, this gentleman has won the Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights in 2008. Reportedly, 22 Nobel Laureates have written to the Prime Minister of India on his behalf. Meanwhile, his bail petition has been twice rejected by the Supreme Court of India. Soli Sorabjee pleaded his case.
I didn’t know that Dr. Sen now requires an angioplasty. His friends and well-wishers are apparently concerned about the quality of treatment he may receive in a government hospital in Raipur and have petitioned both the government and the Supreme Court that he be taken to Vellore for treatment. I was told that this request has been turned down by the government and by the Supreme Court. I was also told that it has been moved again in the Supreme Court and the hearing has been deferred.
I called a friend who’s written a book on the Naxalite / Maoist movements across India. He’s also on a government committee set up by the Home Ministry to examine the issue of Salwa Judum. I reproduce here what he told me.
Mining and logging in Chhattisgarh have caused not only ecological damage but also displacement of local populations. This is one of the major issues cited by the insurgents in the region. The primary focus of Salwa Judum is to retain control of the logging and mining activities.
Dr. Sen has voiced concerns about these issues and has also opposed the Salwa Judum initiative. He is viewed by the government as a trouble-maker. He is being held as an example to all those in the state who oppose Salwa Judum.
This case is not a political issue even during elections because the Salwa Judum was the brainchild of the present leader of the opposition in the state.
Over the last two years, several government officials have admitted, off the record, that there is no evidence against Dr. Sen on the charges brought against him.
Public opinion has not moved the government. Media coverage has not moved the government. Legal recourse has been sought and has so far failed.
Meantime, Dr. Binayak Sen’s health is failing. Apart from the heart problems, he is also reportedly wasting away.
This is what I have been told by one man, albeit a man who has spent several years investigating the Naxalite / Maoist movement and also the strange case of Dr. Sen. There must be others out there who know more. There must be people who can adduce good reasons why Dr. Binayak Sen is a threat to Chhattisgarh and to India. There must be people who have a different point of view.
I’d like to hear it.
**** **** **** ****
I got a call-back in the evening. From a man whom I hold in the highest regard. Who blew me off when I called him in office earlier today. The conversation was a little strange.
“So why are you getting upset about this?”
“I’m not upset, just curious.”
“What do you think, the Supreme Court refused his bail twice without looking at the evidence?”
“Like I said, I’m curious. What IS the evidence?”
“Look, boss, I’ve seen enough to know that (they) have some very damning stuff on him.”
“Then why isn’t it made public? Why doesn’t the government put it out there?”
“Are you hallucinating, guru? Since when have the media seen fit to print anything positive about the government?”
“So you’re saying the internment is totally justified?”
“What’s the worst, boss? That he’s innocent? Fine, then there’s been a massive miscarriage of justice. Shit happens. Is that new to you? Why are you getting involved? You bloody Bongs all romanticize the Naxals. Okay, not you personally, you’re a bloody snob, your’s will be one of the first heads on pikes when the streets run with blood.”
“Hang on a minute, sir. Romanticise? I? This guy has said time and again that he is not for the Naxals, that he’s not involved.”
“Not involved? Right! I’m just this innocent man who’s carrying love letters from one man to another, letters I never open and read because they’re deeply personal. Only every time I carry one of these letters, 2 or 5 or 6 people get blown up or have their heads hacked off. Dear me, it must be a coincidence, I never saw any connection that way. Bloody *****!”
I didn’t push it any further. The conversation went on to other things. But this, somehow, is not the voice I know. Even a person who doesn’t know this man – and how far he will go (and has gone) to cover MY ass – can make out some inconsistencies in his side of the conversation. Or maybe I’m lacking in objectivity. You call it.