Friday, March 31, 2006


As in, "phata phati". (Remember "Pichak Dhoom"?)

This is side-splitting. Folk rocks!
Link courtesy Great Bong ... almost as good as Bonguly, braahthaar.

And before I forget, Carol Gracias, Carol Gracias, Carol Gracias. And oh yes, wardrobe malfunction too, not to mention "Lindsay Lohan meets George Clooney". (Just a sneaky way to get the search engines here. Ha!) (It's that kind of day)

(Update: It seems to work!)

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

On a different tack


Music. The beginning or manner of beginning a piece, passage, or tone.

Decisiveness and clarity in artistic expression: a careful performance, but one lacking the rigorous attack the work demands.

So now I know. I used to think it had something to with the “angle of attack”. Remember all those Biggles books and the Commando comics?

All these days I had this mental picture of Yo-Yo Ma lifting his bow and somehow banking into a steep turn before he vroomed down on his cello, taking care to come in out of the sun, a bandit at 5 o’ clock high, eyes slitted as his thumb seeks the “Fire” button and rat-a-tat-tat, Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites spiral to earth with pieces juddering out of their wings. As the last Suite crrr-rrumps into the ground and fireballs, the audience rise in unison, throwing their caps in the air and cheering wildly.

Y-Y Ma, ace extraordinaire, waves from the cockpit as he does two slow barrel-rolls before flying off into the wings. Loud noise ensues off-stage – a Montagnana cello is not equipped with landing-gear, retractable or otherwise, even if it comes from Venice and is named Petunia.

Petunia?!?! Naaah. “Attack” ceases to have any relevance.

Now if it had been Jimi Hendrix with Machine-gun ….

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Monday, March 27, 2006


Lurking in my office with the temperature at 40 Celsius outside. Assailed by guilt because the air-conditioner is on full blast. Which probably brings it down to about 30 inside my room. Bliss in comparison. I just need to pop my head outside the door to confirm that.

Guilt because I’m cool while the vast majority suffers. Let alone the people on the streets or out in the burning tracts of my old district, most of the people in my own office don’t have air-conditioning. They will, once we shift to our swank new upper floor over in the business district, they’ll even have ergonomic chairs and a recreation room and piped music (I also have some vestiges of guilt because I’m listening to Water of Love the most awesome version of Telegraph Road while all they can hear is traffic), but right now they’re perched on wooden chairs with handkerchiefs wrapped inside their collars, vying to park their poor sweaty butts in front of the fans.

Guilt because air-conditioning is bad for Mother Earth. It fuels a cycle of global warming. More ACs equals more CFCs equals higher temperatures equals more ACs, even before one takes into account the effects of the higher power generation required. Further guilt because I used to whup people who cut down trees, so this makes me a sort of whiskey priest. Even more guilt because this air-conditioner runs at the tax-payer’s expense.

Can I justify the environmental and social cost of keeping myself cool? When it’s too hot (say above 35 C) I get the most splitting headaches all the way down my neck. I can’t work. Am I pampering myself here? Should I work all the same even if I have that headache? If I work better without the headache, do I provide enough incremental value to outweigh the costs involved?

Which brings me to an evaluation of my contribution. When I took charge here I posited the HR “rule of 1-2-3”. Pay them twice as much as they think they’re worth but ensure they produce three times as much. The second part is tough to implement in a government organization, even my Board can’t sanction pay raises or even performance bonuses. I’m still trying to make it up to the high performers through perks, the sort of stuff that the private sector would laugh at but still stuff that makes a difference to my men’s working conditions. As for myself, in the three months after I landed here I managed a financial re-deployment that brought in about 4 times as much my annual Cost-to-Company. And before you start up, Friend Curlilocks, yes, that does include the valuation of accommodation and phone and car AND the power bill for my AC!

Besides, if I bust my ass for four more days, I have a realistic chance of finishing my first full fiscal in charge with a surplus at least 8 times higher than last year’s deficit. Therefore by the yardstick of profitability and CEO’s accountability, I can do what I bloody well want.

Of course that’s not the point. What I worry about is, does the work that I do make a difference to the man who needs it most? If I improve the bottom line for this organization, does it make sure that even one family gets one extra meal a day? I know, stupid bleeding-heart idealism. I tell myself that, but it still worms its way into my head.

What really gets under my skin is that I don’t do enough to lighten my load of guilt. I enjoy the good life when I can get it. I spend what I earn and I usually get my money’s worth. I don’t bribe the Fates and my conscience with hair-shirts. I don’t spend weeks every year working with people who make me feel like scum and bring tears to my eyes. Well, Conscience, I have news. I’ve done that. For ten years and more, I did it my way. When I could have been sitting at home, I was out walking muddy roads in the dark till midnight. When I could have sat in my office and reviewed other men’s work, I was out there in the sun till I didn’t know whether my feet or my head hurt more.

But then I was paid to do it. I AM paid to do it. Does that devalue the effort? Does it mean I have not paid my dues?

Somebody tell me, please.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The other Strolling Bones?

All 17 of you may have noticed that the Sad Old Bong had a near-death experience this last weekend. Not, however, in the classic mode. Scenes from his brief life could not flash before his eyes – or on his monitor – because he had neglected to back up the archives. Lazy sod. He has, however, learnt from this experience. Those of you who are sometimes tempted to hack him down are now doomed to bitter disappointment. Every. Single. Page. from the archives has now been "saved as HTML". (Cue deep evil laughter fading into the distance, appropriate for Eric Campbell in the early Sennett films)

Saturday was spent in pensive mood, quietly mourning the presumed demise of the Sad OB. There was, however, a Party in the evening. On a Launch, yet. Your Faithful Chronicler reasoned that Friends should not be Disappointed, Social Obligations should be Discharged (such altruism!) and therefore (much to the Relief of A Certain Hippogriff) shut down Google Talk and trundled Off to the Riverside.

Where there was a Launch. With large numbers of People One Hardly Knows, but also a reassuring number (at least 5) of Old Friends. And no, one did not have any plans of Sitting on a Bench like a Bookend. The launch also had a Good Smell (which later translated itself into Good Food. Not that one really cares for these things, of course, but one has a Duty to One’s Readers, factual accuracy and all that). There was also Rum. Very nautical, even though the voyage was more a putt-putt up the Hooghly than a cruise on the Spanish Main.

Rum goes very well with Led Zeppelin. This is a Scientific Fact based on a Time Series of Careful Observations over Many Years. The same Series of Observations has also Established the Compatibility of Rum and The Doors, Rum and Deep Purple (worn, one conjectures, rakishly over the left shoulder), Rum and Dire Straits … a Full List shall be published in a Learned Journal very shortly.

Calcutta must be just about the only river-port that tries to ignore its river. No river-front revelry, no floating dance-floors or even restaurants, just an expanse of mud-flats bordering crumbling walls. An occasional rattle from a passing train - mostly empty - on the Circular Railway. As we cast off, lights rippled and bobbed in the water, reflections from the Millenium Park, from the State Bank building, from Foreshore Road on the Howrah side. Even that fungoid baroque monstrosity, Howrah Station, looked passable when lit up at night. As we passed under Howrah Bridge, we could see through the bridge railings the ceaseless streams of people that inspired shots in films by Mrinal Sen and by the Boss himself.

Sliding upstream, we passed a series of lovely 19th-century ghats. Wide steps leading down to the water, sometimes cupolas, sometimes flat roofs with ornamented edges. Then with an ominous whiff of charring, Nimtolla, the ghat beside one of Calcutta’s two major crematoriums. Smoke from a tall chimney, eerily suggesting souls writhing into the lowering sky. A pyre flaming down at the river’s edge. While we had our little tipple and rumble out on the water. Quite all right, I suppose, except that it’s all too close to II Kings (2:15), King James version.

But aarrgghhhh! One has Misguided Friends. Shameless, even. Who insist on listening to that Scourge of the Soundtracks, to wit, Himesh Reshamiyya. Early Attempts at Subverting this Plot were successful, but Ran Aground when the young DJ loudly asserted that Bryan Adams is “the best singer who ever existed, maaan!” No amount of enlightened self-interest could restrain my snigger. Whereupon aforesaid young DJ Went into a Huff and Flirted quite Shamelessly with Misguided Friend, who Used her Wiles to make him play Himesh R. Over and over. Oh death where is thy sting.

Therefore, for the better part of two hours, your Faithful Chronicler was reduced to lurking below decks, sulking and skulking in a hell-born plastic chair that Tipped Over Twice, all to escape the aural assault of Woh lamhe or the even more satanic Aa jaa aa jaa36 (which indicates "to the 36th power" and is NOT a foot-note). This Exile, however, was Not Entirely a Bad Thing. The Path from Galley to Upper Deck lay through One’s Nook and as a Corollary, various Trays of Good Things passed within Easy Reach.

Your FC was eventually run to earth and harried out of his corner by a horrible haggle of howling hell-hounds group of kind ladies. Serendipitously, at that moment the DJ tired of Mindless Noise, as evidenced by “You get a shiver in the dark when it’s raining in the park” as one ascended the ladder. Followed by Black Dog and – oh crackers and cream cheese! – Highway star.

Then I noticed the poles holding up the awning on the upper deck.

Kind Reader, keep in mind that this musical bounty followed after aeons of Howling Himesh. Blame it Not on the Rum, nor on the Vodka that Came After. Think of the Gaze of several Eminently Respectable Old Coots who were Obviously (and Owlishly) Decrying this Debauched Adoption of Western Mores, and who Equally Obviously deserved a Collective Boot (Size 13) on their Overloaded Self-Important Posteriors. Think how pleasure, relief and the river breeze fuelled the Over-Arching Desire – nay, Necessity! – to Cock a Snook at that Awesome Array of Asininity.

I danced.

Only to realize that a moving launch in the middle of a tidal river does not provide a Stable Base on which to Shake One’s Booty. An over-ambitious cross-over step almost up-ended me. Which was when I Grabbed the Pole. Thus was its Potential Brought to my Notice. To summarise – (a) opportunity to improve foul mood (b) Messrs. Gillan, Morse, Glover and Paice (c) the Inherent Instability of the Ground (deck?) beneath One’s Feet (d) support and opportunity combined in the form of pole, steel, bolted, reassuringly solid, one.

Wherefore the August Assemblage, already Apprehensive at the Spectacle of one large bureaucrat Stepping High Wide and Plentiful, were Reduced to Quivering Awe by the Unprecedented Revelation of Aforesaid Bureaucrat Pole-Dancing.

And doing it dashed well, too, though I do say so myself. I didn’t hang from the pole by my crossed ankles, but I did manage the Complete Revolution with Feet Off the Floor (umm, deck). Twice. Once with feet hooked round the pole, once even (prepare to gasp) with legs spread wide (causing Alarm and Dismay among Those Who Had to Skip Out of the Way). Mimi in NY has competition!

Whereupon my friend D** - quiet, suave, urbane, RESPECTABLE D**!! – was inspired to join me. And the DJ, bless his sneaky heart, played Highway Star twice through while these two old fogies bumped and ground and bounced and shook their booties round that Pole, almost to the point of melt-down. Need I say that the evening wound down after that?

Fun came.

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Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Hip Hoppy Birdie

And then one day you find / ten years have passed you by / no-one told you when to run / you missed the starting gun …

Not ten years, just one. The second version of A Simple Desultory Philippic is now 367 days old. A year and two days, for those who are arithmetically challenged.

At least a hundred different people have read this blog till date. Well, fifty. Oh all right, more than TWO (lowers voice) dozen. Mind you, this does not take into account my long-suffering "faimlee" or Pandit-jee and other assorted friends whom I have exhorted / implored to read posts where they feature. Or the Pleasant Young Man who would rather be asleep. He categorically told me the other evening that he’s seen my blog. (Good man, that. Wouldn’t do a Shayan Munshi on me). Or wait, even the man with the running nose who kept looking over at my screen, that time at Delhi airport when the flight was delayed. That’s 16 already. Well into double figures. (Sedate gambol). This is Fame!

Now to wait for the Seventeenth Reader …

Wait. Even a couple of mentions in the press. Thanks to the kindness of the Akhond, of course, but mentions all the same. Oh the ineffable ineluctable indescribable titillation of the Fleeting Moment! Oh Hatterr, oh Ghote, oh Hurree Jumset Ram Singh!

Some bloggers exhibit a most unseemly eagerness to post. Some, indeed, post almost every day. (Some Learned Blogs, of course, average as many as 6 posts a day, but they are Serious Stuff and not to be compared with out own frippery offerings.) One is happy to record that this blog has displayed no such déclassé haste. With 111 posts in the first year – this post being the 112th – we have averaged less than 1/3rd of a post each day. Or a post every 3(.2888 recurring) days. Presumably the days recur, not the posts.

One-third of a post each day. That translates into approximately two digressions, three parentheses, one ellipsis and one irrelevant quote per day. Two long-drawn compound sentences. Several discordant attempts at what the Fool dubs “purple prose”. One or more mumbled phrases that start with “And” or “But” (the folly of reading Hemingway and Kerouac while one’s brain is still runny). And at least half a reminiscence of a childhood in the dim and hoary past. All right for one’s dotage, really. Go, Geriatrix!

The down-side. All this effort, all this time, all this Googling and gobbling, and not even the faintest whiff of a multi-million dollar book deal as yet. Multi-millions be damned, not the slightest throw-away offer to write a column in the measliest yellow rag. No swarthy lounge-suited men with crocodile-hide briefcases sidling up to mumble out of the corners of their mouths. No Zeta-Jones look-alike gasping in obvious awe, “YOU are J.A. Prufrock!!?” No bright-eyed adorable tyke shyly proffering a grubby note-book for an “Autograph, please?” Dammit, not even a cent from AdCents. Gah!

picture blurs, fade-in to long-shot of J.A.P. standing wide-legged on the corner of a wooden sidewalk, a la The Outlaw Josey Wales. A single flat violin sobs on the sound-track, camera moves in at boot-level. The Blogger’s lean, rangy (stop cackling back there. Yes, I mean YOU) frame moves forward, one hand reaching under his long duster to loosen his weapon. As the kettle-drums take up the theme, J.A.P., with a speed that dazzles the eye, draws his trusty laptop and fires off three posts so fast they blur into one …Camera tracks the readers falling in slow motion.

Cut to close-up of J.A.P. as he shifts his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other, no hands, and mutters through clenched jaw “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do …”

Umm, re-take. What he actually says is, “We wrote our posts regularly, in that sunlit corner by the Lakes back when connectivity keened in every corner of our collective memories – you will appreciate that we refer to a hypothetical collective, not the versions once found in Israel or in China … have you ever tried the hummus they make in Basra? Quite divine, as indeed all Mediterranean cuisine can be. I remember once when I was in Italy … but I digress. Ah, memories – as I was saying …” At which point the Collective (I refer in this case to the Hypothetical Audience), goaded beyond all tolerance, gun their (individual, not collective) SUVs and drive over the Old Gaffer. Wild applause on the sound-track, squelching noise and a sudden shrill “Ainh?!?” …

Credits roll.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

I love you in the mo-orning ...

Sunday morning is different.

Travail. Agony. Decisions. Prompted by an all-consuming imperative. Truly all-consuming.

Hunger. I’m always hungrier than usual on Sunday mornings. Damn.

So what should it be? Kochuri-torkaari and jilipi from Maharani? Hot, slightly crisp, a hint of heeng (asafoetida) in the daal stuffing of the kochuri, the accompanying torkaari just this side of fiery and speckled with cumin seeds. The jilipi convoluted, crunchy, faintly sour under the sweetness of the syrup. Sadly enough, Maharani - on the western side of Lansdowne Road between Lake Road and Rashbehari Avenue - hadn’t come up back when we rowed on Saturday mornings. We made do with Jolkhabar, at the corner of Lake Avenue and Southern Avenue, but frankly, their shingara was much better than the kochuri torkaari. And their jilipi was of uneven standard.

(OK, assume there’s a reader or two who’s not from Calcutta. Or even Bengal. Kochuri is a fried bread – stuffed with spicy ground lentils, rolled flat, then deep fried so it swells to an inflated mouth-watering shape. Torkaari is the generic term for vegetable dishes. In this case, it’s potatoes diced small, in a spicy thin curry. Jilipi ... now jilipi or jalebi is a tough one to describe. It’s sweet, it’s twisty, it’s crisp, it’s doused in syrup and you do not want to know how it’s made. Shingara is called samosa elsewhere in India, a triangular pouch of dough stuffed with savoury vegetables and deep-fried. Available at just about any sweet-shop in Bengal. My grandmother used to make the best in the world - the crispest, flakiest pastry-crust envelope, filled with succulent florets of cauliflower and spiced potatoes and crunchy with posto, poppy-seeds. All soul food, if not exactly health food.)

Or should it be the same fare from Tasty Corner? Good, but not quite so good. The torkaari is rarely up to scratch, the jilipi is more like amriti and often doused with rose syrup. I hate that. But Tasty Corner (corner of Swinhoe Street and Mandeville Gardens) scores heavily with the radhabollobi and aloo’r dom. Even better than the Dwarik’s at Gariahat, and that’s saying something.

Of course I didn’t realise the depth of my craving for kochuri-torkaari on Sundays until I pined for it in exile. After weeks of bagels and Philly cream cheese, of “sunny side up” and pumpernickel bread for breakfast, I stayed over at a friend’s place on the weekend. Up on the Jersey shore, not too far from Jackson Heights and Edison, those bastions of mixed pickle and papad. On the Sunday morning I poured forth my home-sickness over the morning cuppa and he, God bless his kind heart, drove me twenty miles to pick up … yes, you guessed it, kochuri-torkaari, even jilipi by the bucketful. Perhaps it wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but after six weeks in that benighted country it was manna in the wilderness. Here’s to you, A*, you earned my life-long gratitude that day.

The ultimate kochuri experience remains elusive. Kalo’r dokaan in Shantiniketan, or his newly resurgent competitor, Nara’an, are just not equipped to deal with the hordes who descend upon them during Boshonto Utshob and Poush Mela. Their kochuri comes off poorly in the general melee. Of course, there it’s all about the atmosphere. At least in theory. There is a special charm to flip-flopping down those roads of red dust, a shawl thrown round the shoulders to ward off the chill of the morning, then sitting for hours on a scarred wooden bench with a leisurely breakfast and endless rounds of watery sweet tea in earthen khnuri. But it can’t make up for bad kochuri.

Kalo’r dokaan (shop) has one thing in common with the kochuri breakfast of my dreams. Chholaa’r daal. (Forget the translation, it’s a kind of lentil, OK?)

Benares. An old old house near the river, up a steep staircase, through a stone doorway that opened on to a grassy little walled courtyard with three trees. One was a neem and it rustled all day in the breeze off the river. At least in my memory. And every other morning there would be huge brown-paper packets smelling of the saal leaves inside, leaves that would be parted to bring forth fragrant golden kochuri. The chholaa’r daal would be carried separately, in a large earthen pot sealed with more saal leaves and tied at the mouth with grass twine. It tasted divine. I remember it would sometimes have minute chunks of coconut, or does my memory play tricks on me?

We’d be shooed into the house to eat, though we’d much rather have sat out in the courtyard on the masonry bench, looking out over the houses to the river and the boats and the crowds on the ghaats, while the neem whispered to its shifting shadow. There was good reason, however, for our staying in the house. Monkeys. They “fought the dogs and killed the cats”, they jabbered on the corners of the roof, they rustled in the trees at night and scared the cook into fits, they hogged the sunny corners of the courtyard on winter mornings even when my great-grandmother shook her stick at them and cursed them at the top of her lungs. And they snatched the food from the unwary hands of us young ‘uns.

One of them left me with a lasting sorrow when he swooped down from a window-ledge and neatly filched a saal leaf heaped with kochuri and chholaa’r daal. A counsellor will no doubt divine that I still seek to compensate for the lost kochuri …


Or should it be a “Madrasi” breakfast at Ramkrishna Lunch Home? Three cement-paved steps lead up to a narrow verandah near the corner of Lake Road and Southern Avenue. Inside, lugubrious neon lights a spotless shrine to the purest “tiffin”. Kaapi served in those double-bottomed stainless steel mugs, each on its own metal saucer for the ritual of pouring and re-pouring to cool it before the first deep susurrating sip (but the “maaan-jerr” will not call for it till after you’ve finished your “tiffin”).

A banana leaf appears on the narrow formica table, spread with magical ease by a mannikin in a dazzling white shirt and slightly less gleaming mundu. I suspect the length of the mundu is inversely proportionate to the length of service; the older staff are perilously close to being mini-skirted. Two steaming idlis follow (I remember I laughed and laughed when Span – does anybody still read Span? – described them as “steamed lentil patties”. Those were the days before “desi” became international usage). With two little steel bowls on the side, one with coconut chutney and one with sambhar, both ladled from that strange contrivance which has three bowls slung round a single rectangular handle. Then … ahh, then comes the piece de resistance, the ultimate dosai, the best I’ve ever had north of the Vindhyas. (Down south, of course, there’s always Woodlands. In Madras and in Bangalore ...) Crisp round the edges, almost fluffy in the centre, redolent with the aroma of ghee, faintly sour from the fermentation of the batter. (A little bragging: I used to make decent dosai myself, even used the professional touch – lopped off the end of a brinjal and used it to spread the batter on the tawa - but of course I never attained the papery perfection of the professionals.) I always have a sada dosa, never ever a masala one. Sully a good dosa with potatoes and even – Lor’ lumme! – beetroot? Perish the thought!

Raj (or to give it its full appellation, Hotel Homely Raj) on Manoharpukur Road also serves a mean dosa, but it can’t compare with RK Lunch Home either on price or for authentic atmosphere. I know people enthuse over Anand. Let them. RK Lunch Home for me every time.

The other Southern delicacy I lust for is appam, and there’s only one place in my experience (I’ve never been to Kerala, mind) that consistently serves perfect appams with ishtu. The Konkan Café at the Taj President in Bombay. Nowhere else is EVERY appam perfect. Nowhere in Calcutta, alas, not a single place. The Taj Gateway in Bangalore isn’t bad, but it doesn’t have the same consistency of performance. Chef Solomon at the President (may his tribe increase!) actually confided to me the secret ingredient which ensures that every single appam rise just right. While I am honour-bound not to disclose the secret, I can say this much - it’s not something you’d find in the average kitchen. Or household. Oh for a platter full of the warm south, the true, the magical appam serene!


There’s also the calorie bomb. The so-called English breakfast. Eggs and toast are all very well (more of that later), but for a breakfast that leaves you with barely enough strength to totter from the table, give me sausages, give me chewy ham, give me rashers of bacon that loll voluptuously on the side of the plate, give me the contrast of spiced beef and cherry tomatoes.

The Park in Delhi used to have a sinful breakfast buffet that tested even my gormandising abilities. Do they still have it? I must check it out when I next visit. In Calcutta, the best bet is Kalman’s. A narrow doorway on Free School Street, tucked away among the second-hand-music shops between Mullick Book Store and Kathleen’s. I learnt about it from a 1998 column by Nondon Bagchi in the Telegraph. They now have the column framed on the wall. They also have unique stuff, like the “Hungarian smoked sausage” which is arguably neither Hungarian nor smoked but tastes great especially when dipped in egg yolk (oh the cholesterol!). Also spiced beef and even pressed tongue. The tongue is not exactly great, but what the hell, I try it once in a while in homage to all those Enid Blyton picnics where it was a staple. Such a menu leads to a torment of choice, since a breakfast like that removes all possibility of lunch and Sunday lunch is Very Special. But this post is about breakfasts. We shall not lament the loss of lunch.


Breakfasts of legend and song … three years ago I spent a week in Moscow. The hotel where I put up had colourful ladies importuning the guests in the lobby. It also had the most magnificent breakfast I can imagine. I reasoned that with the mercury at 22 below zero, I needed lots of nourishment. Forsook all shame and decency. And plunged right in.

Starting with an array of breads: chocolate bread, cream rolls, fruity breads, muffins, perhaps a few pieces of fruit, all washed down with glasses of cold milk. Then on to a most incredible cheese selection - feta, Gouda, brie, Emmentaler, herb Cheddar, you name it - while the waitress brought me a plate of eggs. (From the second day onwards she regarded me with a strange mixture of awe and pity. As much as to say, this man’s powers are beyond the ordinary but I hope to God the paramedics turn up quick when he has his attack) I ate the eggs with chornyi. This is the most wonderful chewy whole-grain bread, so dark it’s almost black, soft inside a crisp crust and just faintly sour. I’ve looked for it elsewhere but never found it, it’s unique to Russia. Moscow is worth another visit just for chornyi!

Finally, breathing heavily and already loaded to the Plimsoll line, I’d navigate carefully to the end of the buffet for a couple of tinned peaches and apricots. To be eaten very slowly. While I sipped my way through two glasses of champagne. (Champagne breakfasts. TWO glasses of champagne. Every day for a week...) Dear reader, do not think ill of my gluttony. My suits did not stretch an inch. The warmest day was still six degrees below freezing and I had to walk a few miles every day. But oh, the sheer debauched sybaritic pleasure of those breakfasts.

One important point in closing. Before the adipose reached dangerous levels, my standard breakfast was toast and eggs. Toast just brown enough and dripping with butter, eggs (always in the plural) winking from the plate or losing themselves in the fluff of an omelette. My heart and taste-buds, however, always stayed with the omelettes. I have described them elsewhere on my other blog, I shall not venture down that path again. The point I want to make is this. Mr. Russi Mody, whom I hold in high regard, has claimed in print that he makes the world’s best omelettes. This is, unfortunately, a lie. It cannot be true. I make the best omelettes in the world. This is not idle bragging, merely an objective statement of fact.

And next Sunday I shall make another one.

Sceptics are NOT invited.


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Thursday, March 09, 2006

A search for roots

Random update. Siddharth Suryanarayan is hot. Half the people who have dropped by this blog recently have been looking for him, including one plaintive search string – “Is Siddharth Suryanarayan married?”. He is. One’s heart bleeds for the disappointed singlettes.

Further disappointment – those who were looking for “jap sex” or “sex jap”. Sorry, rrong rumber. Ditto for those who sought “last gap erotica” (ainh?!) or “bangle panu golpo” (aha! Yellow cellophane covers!) or “Indian panu”.

But hey! “Bonguly” is right up there. Welcome home, the diaspora!

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Poem on the Underground wall

Seven o’clock on a darkling evening. I am a neon hermit in a deserted office. Windows rattle shut, doors close around me, footsteps fade down the stairs. Thunder rumbles far away, a tip of the hat to cliché.

Last train is nearly due / The Underground is closing soon / In the dark deserted station / restless in anticipation / a man waits in the shadows …

There was a dim lamp above a mahogany wardrobe. There was a dressing-table with a three-wing mirror that held more than reflections. Through the two doors of the bathroom lay the drawing-room with its frayed sofa and the cabinet with the television and the music system.

The music system was (then) state-of-the-art, though it would take another 15 years for the phrase to emerge. Sonodyne, with a gleaming brushed-silver amp-cum-deck, toggle switches like a ’50s aeroplane and two speakers in black wood cabinets each large enough to hold a baby. Thin black wires looped across the green wall behind the cabinet, soaring up to the corners of the ceiling where the speakers brooded.

Late at night I would sneak across from my room to the drawing room to listen to music. I was 15 years old and I had just discovered rock. In fact, I had just discovered music, from Kishore Kumar to Don McLean (and kids today know that American Pie is a Madonna number). Holiday afternoons were spent in K*’s room overlooking the Lakes, sorting through piles of carefully recorded cassettes (Sony D-90s, white with a red and black spine, are they still on the market?), checking our knowledge of The Boss’ songs.


I loved those afternoons. Somewhere I have a picture of K**, small dapper person in kurta-pyjama, strumming a guitar in his green-walled room with pictures of The Boss stuck on the wall behind him. I wonder what he did with those pictures when he moved to Bombay? Poor Bangali boy, he got bowled over by a … Person. Married her, too. As a result, we hardly meet even when I go to Bombay. I miss the blighter.

My wife misses him just as much. In one album we have pictures of him taken one December when he came with us on a weekend launch cruise into the Sundarbans. We didn’t get to see a thing except the track of a python in the sand, but the trip is a pleasantly hazy memory of appetites sated on good food, of in-jokes and K**’s snorting laugh, of anchoring mid-stream under a pale moon and singing on the deck “to scare the tigers away” (it must have worked).

Another picture, this one on the terrace of his apartment building the first time we ever won an open quiz, the Argus Losers’ Plate ... Scrawny smug twerps with the wooden shield on a concrete thingummy between us. Under-exposed, out of focus, even after determined Photo Shopping. But you can make out how proud we both felt. And I can remember how non-touchy-feely, intensely homophobic, faintly-repressed K* hugged me spontaneously when we won.

We met up two years ago when I was in Bombay for a bit. There was another guy there; I think that actually made us more comfortable together. K** of the carefully arranged wavy coiffe had become amazingly corporate, all gleaming white shirt and St. Michael’s tie. But after a while his snorting laugh came back. We were still friends.

We mail once in a while. Sometimes I come across something that I just have to share with him, we talk on the phone. Today he called to say he’s moving to the Middle East. For at least a couple of years.

I miss the blighter, I really do. Do you have a friend you miss like that?

I so hate that ... Person … for taking him away from us.

I suspect he feels the same.

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

From the inside out

Back in 1990, forty of us volunteered for a “study tour” of the insurgency in Kashmir. Our Course Director was aghast, he thought the Grand Old Man (the Director of our Academy, two parts genius and one part fraud but 100% effective) had lost his marbles. The insurgency had just flared up big-time and the possibility of an Officer Trainee getting shot up in the Valley was enough for R* T* to lose sleep.

But we went. I was there for two weeks. There are a lot of stories in those 14 days. The stomach-clenching silence in the alleys of Batmaloo after Ishfaq Wani was shot down. A flurry of movement seen from the corner of my eye and a convoy stopped yards from a hole in the road – with wires leading from it to the hilltop. A whisper in my ear while we were being served dinner, a warning that the whole town knew where we were at any given point of time. Above all, the bad bad feeling of being unwanted, outsiders, “Indians”, foreigners in what we had thought was our own country. Some day I must write down those stories and hope that the Thirty Year Rule doesn’t apply to personal memoirs.

Meanwhile, my friend just mailed me this piece from yesterday’s New York Times. (Thanks, Sanjay.) I can’t locate the link, hence the reproduction here. Hope I’m not violating any copyright.

Lessons from another insurgency – Anit Mukherjee, Washington

DURING his trip to South Asia, President Bush has done his best to whistle past the diplomatic graveyard of Kashmir, issuing only bland encouragements to the leaders of India and Pakistan to resolve the status of the disputed territory. That's a shame, because instead of ignoring Kashmir, Mr. Bush and his administration should be studying it as a case study in dealing with an insurgency.

"I joined the insurgents only because of you," the young Kashmiri man told me, sobbing, "because of the way you humiliated me, they way you tormented me. To regain my honor, I picked up the gun." It was one of my more shocking encounters during my two and a half years of counterinsurgency duties as an Indian Army officer in Kashmir. Shocking, because it was the antithesis of everything I had worked toward. The self-awareness that inevitably dawns on all soldiers in a combat zone came upon me: I was not a part of the solution; I was the problem, or at least part of the problem.

I had regularly summoned that young man to my post to ask him about militants in my area of responsibility. I singled him out because other villagers had told me that he was in the know. As I subsequently discovered, this information was false, fed to me by the villagers because this boy, from the wrong side of the tracks, had fallen in love with a rich man's daughter. Later, upon his word that he would have nothing more to do with the insurgents, I let him go, promising, in turn, to leave him alone. I never saw that young man again and hope that he is safe, wherever he may be.

During the first year of my counterinsurgency duties, I believe I created more insurgents than I, for want of a better word, eliminated. This was not only because of inexperience, but also because I lacked fundamental knowledge of the terrain, the people, the culture. I also didn't know how to sift through local intelligence effectively.

As a result, I mostly drew on tips and informants who, with hindsight, were mostly unreliable. The motives for giving me this information were usually property and land disputes, family feuds, tribal and ethnic conflicts and other causes unrelated to the insurgency. Thus, a combination of my own naïvete and enthusiasm, not to mention pressure from senior commanders to deliver results, resulted in actions that alienated the locals and, inadvertently, helped the insurgency.

It was only after a year of combat operations that I was able to build up my own intelligence network and gained the experience to be effective. Although conventional wisdom says that the tours of duty should be short, in my experience militaries fighting insurgencies should instead keep junior officers in the field for as long as they can. Successful counterinsurgency campaigns have usually been small-team operations led by junior officers with intimate knowledge of their areas of responsibility.

After the first year of conducting operations with questionable results, my unit made a significant shift toward people-friendly operations. That meant taking off shoes before searching mosques, deciding not to search old men, women and children and even letting insurgents escape rather than risking a firefight in a built-up area.

Over time, our hard work paid off. Tips became more frequent and reliable. As we gained the trust of the locals, we succeeded in preventing recruitment while eliminating insurgents.

As the insurgents in Kashmir lacked the ability to mount conventional attacks, their weapon of choice was the improvised explosive device. Eventually, we largely neutralized this threat by constantly changing our tactics. By being unpredictable and undertaking intensive offensive operations, admittedly a function of abundant manpower, we seized the initiative and became the hunter rather than the hunted.

One of the few, and rarely noticed, successes of Indian security agencies has been their ability to subvert an insurgency. For example, in Kashmir, Indian intelligence services were able to buy out an entire strand of insurgents in the mid-1990's and create local counterinsurgents called Ikhwanis. For a time, they were extremely effective, and were able to wipe out the local insurgency before the foreign-born jihadis poured into the valley. By the time we deployed in the valley in 1999, the Ikhwanis themselves had become corrupted and were being phased out. But that experience taught us how critical it was to co-opt the locals into our counterinsurgency strategy.

Undoubtedly, the Indian Army has learned a lot after 16 years in Kashmir, but its experience raises the question — can a military learn without bleeding? The sad answer is no.

Almost four years have passed since I left the Kashmir Valley. Although the conflict gets less public attention, civilians, soldiers and militants still die every day. Despite the seemingly endless daily toll, a few months ago the commander of India's Northern Army at the time, Lt. Gen. Hari Prasad, had the confidence to declare that "normalcy is round the corner."

True, the level of violence in Kashmir has decreased and this augurs well for peace in the valley. But the Indian Army has not, and can never, quash the insurgency. On the contrary, one of the first lessons taught to all soldiers deploying in Kashmir is that an insurgency can never be militarily defeated. It can only be managed until a political solution is found — a lesson that the Bush administration would do well to remember.

Anit Mukherjee, a doctoral candidate at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, served in the Indian Army for nine years.

PostScript: Link found. Amit Uncut has already blogged about this. Great minds etc.

(Thank you, KP, Griff)

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