Sunday, December 30, 2007


The festive season isn’t what it used to be. Good thing, say the PYTs. Gmph, say I. Muchly disappointed that we can’t order a truck-load – truck-load? Not even a head-load! – of authentic mince pies. Blitzed by hoardings and full-page ads about parties on New Year’s Eve. Confused about where and when The Gang assembles. Aching from misguided efforts towards the corpore sano … oh, OK, can’t blame that on the season, it’s a year-round constant.

WHY must ALL ads for these parties feature LARGE pictures of nekkid (well, almost) women? Are they trying to attract hormone-driven male teens who’ll shell out 3K to see skin? Do women form no part of their target audience? How do these joints think they measure up on the value-for-money angle? Face it, the bug-eyed male they’re aiming at could probably get far more direct satisfaction for the same amount of money. Beats me. A young friend (who is not unknown in the blog rajya) pointed out that the clubs, at least, also hold the promise of PYTs in TLDs (Tiny Little Dresses). I suppose that holds some appeal. Me, I knew I was old and past it on 31st December 1996 when my first reaction to the acres of PYTs in TLDs was ‘Those poor children will catch their deaths of cold!’

As for ourselves, we shall aggregate (a) selves, to wit, about 30 people who have been there, done that and don’t want to go there again, thank you (b) booze, with due attention to Smirnoff green apple and (c) food, large amounts, duhleeshus, from Bengal Club. We shall then hie ourselves to the terrace of a friend who combines the tools for a bonfire with the skills for a barbecue, where we shall stuff and irrigate ourselves till sleep overtakes us. Since we shall play our own music and not be at the mercy of some baseball-capped DJ who insists on playing house / HNeemesh, we might even Dance. All in all, a plan.

Pity about the mince pies, though.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


There are a lot of helpful comments on the last post. Thank you very much, kind people. I shall respond to each individual in turn when I feel like a human being again (and not a rat’s breakfast. Don’t ask. If you’re on the platform at Mughalsarai Junction at half two in the morning waiting for India’s premier train, you actually get to see what rats have for breakfast. Excuse me while I have a quick puke).

I have not as yet bought a laptop. But I HAVE witnessed a superb spectacle. Now if only we Indians had sense enough to MARKET this …

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

In my-y-y life ...

Dependence. Realised once when the object of dependence is gone, realised again when a poor substitute arrives.

Laptops. My first, back in 2001, was a big clunky tank of a Thinkpad, shaped like a mini-bar and twice as heavy. I lived with that machine for nearly 4 years, carried it to just about every major city in this country and some cities outside. Plugged in what used to be called an air-card, stayed connected (as some of you might vouch) from Coimbatore and Ahmedabad and Jamshedpur (Kawardha beat me, though). Ran presentations off it 3 days a week, rummaged through it for old files and data, watched films on it on long boat rides to Haldia and on longer flights. I was a travelling salesman and it was my box of samples. We belonged together.

The Tank eventually gave way to a sleeker Thinkpad. With a touch pad. There’s life outside the track pointer!? Glory Hallelujah! I was converted within a week. Week? It took a day. So fickle are we, so quick to luxury. I sneered at that little nub that had been my support for years. But T2 and I were not long for each other. In two months, I changed assignments and bid her adieu.

In the next office I was Shown a Laptop. Such a laptop, O citizens of the cyber-world, such surpassing grace! A sleek metal shell with nary a straight line, blinking lights, a low businesslike hum … it might have got a featured role in Star Wars, it might even have made a pass at R2D2. It was a Character. But it was not a functioning laptop. I’d power it up, go into a meeting, come back and clear my mail, have a cup of coffee, finish a few phone calls – then check to see whether it had got around to asking for the password. It was the Ultimate Babu – solid, slow, dim-witted, contrary, unable to adapt (no DVD drive, ONE USB port?) and No Bloody Use.

There was a story behind that machine. Apparently my predecessor in that office had Attended an International Seminar. (Held in Calcutta, alas – International Seminars are so much more effective when they’re held in Rio or Majorca, but what to do, what to do.) And at that Seminar he saw one of his ilk, a fellow Babu from Bengal, yea, even a Bald Babu from Bengal, Making a Presentation off a Laptop. Which Presentation was Well Received and Mightily Applauded. The Predecessor, bless his naïve soul, thought it was genuine appreciation, little realizing that after lunch at a seminar all applause has One Great Cause, to wit, the need to Prove that We have been Listening and no NO we were NOT asleep. The Predecessor also Made the Next Presentation. Where he used transparencies. And Felt Inadequate. Wherefore the Word went Forth, Fetch me a Laptop, yea, even the Finest in the Land! And the query came, what are the specs? Then was there much bewilderment in the land (or at least in the company) and a plaintive question was heard, what specs? For specs there were none. Whereupon the Chaps at the Authorised Gorment Supplier exulted. And Fell About Laughing. And fought among themselves to Unload their Dud Stock.

Thus it came to pass that I was saddled with that Thing.

Out of evil cometh good, for the sheer awfulness of it goaded me to look for a new laptop. Which was how I came to find Penelope. Ah, Penelope, love of my life etc. (J. Humbert Prufrock?) Light, good-looking, easy to use and above all good to me, she was a Toshiba M300 Portege. We were together for two years until I switched to my present assignment. When I handed her over I saved her soul on three separate hard drives, but woe is me, I can never have her body again. (This is about as carnal as a middle-aged bureaucrat can get.)

My next was a Sony Vaio. Very posh, all mod con except maybe hot and cold running water and a back scratcher, but it Lacked Soul. I always had a sneaky feeling that it secretly sneered at me because I never played Halo or set up a video conference on it. Face it, a Vaio’s great for graphics and multi-media, it has major snob value, but it makes little sense for a dinosaur like me. When it was stolen last October, my sense of loss was tinged with a faint relief.

So now I’ve raided the office store and dusted off this Thinkpad. It’s bigger and heavier than the Tank (with a screen I could hire out to INOX) and only marginally faster than The Thing, but I’m grateful that I have SOMEthing to keep me company over the morning coffee until I can get a replacement.

Which brings me to what B.W. Wooster might, with his usual twittering brevity, term the res, the nub, the gist, the crux of the matter. What should I buy? The Toshiba M500 Portege would be the obvious choice, but it’s way too expensive. Poor value for money. Sony is out for much the same reason. HP have a couple that come close to my specs, but they’re heavy. The IBM X series are in there, but they don’t customize. Dell have put together an offer, but they’re trying to push a Latitude 430 – it’s light and small, but it has a 1.2 Ghz processor, no built-in optical drive and reviews say it super-heats to about 60 Celsius. I’m too old for Half-burnt Hams, thank you very much.

So where do we go from here? I use the laptop for (loads of) documents, the occasional presentation, photo-dumping, the Net and once in a long while, an in-flight movie. Which means I need a stable system (enough RAM), a fast but not super-fast processor, all the slots and ports possible, mid-range graphics and decent sound in a LIGHT package. Since I have a ginormous flash drive for data back-up, the optical drive can be external (translation – it can go in my checked baggage and not cripple my shoulder). Budget is not really a constraint, but it wouldn’t hurt if it came cheap.

Suggestions, wise people?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Coming soon ...

So the month is over and I should soon be back to a regulated lifestyle better befitting my geriatric status. The interlude ended appropriately. After seeing off Only Girlfriend, Brother-in-Arms and the Terrible (but Infinitely Adorable) Two at 4 a.m., I went back home for a short snooze before my flight to Delhi. Only to sleep through the alarm and be awakened by a call from Jet Airways asking where I was. My watch said 6:30. Take-off time. I’d missed the flight.

They put me on the next flight. At no extra cost. Hear ye, hear ye – be it known by these presentments and avouchments that I totally heart Jet Airways.

On a (slightly) more cerebral tack, one conversation sticks in my memory. Said conversation was under the watchful and rather wary gaze of Dipankar and Prashant, a pair of ace baristas­ who ply their skills in the Café Coffee Day in the Infinity Building out in Sector V. (I can recommend the Grande, especially with three shots of cream.) Since I’ve started recording my gratitude, let me also mention that they were very polite the first couple of times we dropped by, gathered our coffees and walked outside without paying. Of course, we were only stepping out for a smoke, but it is testimony to their savoir faire that they did not emit outraged squawks. After all, it was close to 2 a.m. Within a couple of nights we were regulars and they had us down pat, right down to the re-heat and extra servings of whipped cream.

So, the conversation. Marijuana is outlawed in the USA. For no good reason except that the pharma majors are scared witless of the hit on their market share if it could be bought over the counter. Makes sense. I have to read up on that. From there, a discussion of human motivation and government. How stupid is it to outlaw prostitution? Wouldn’t it be much better to legalise and regulate it? Wouldn’t it make a dent in violent crime, in the spread of HIV? Have to read up on that too. By extension, a lot of stuff that's outlawed in the name of morality would actually be pretty innocuous and healthy if it were legal and regulated. Covers practically every possible situation between consenting adults, though there are grey areas where such activities cause physical harm to either or both parties.

Meantime, what do YOU think?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


It’s a strange feeling. Like coming back to a house where you once lived. Perhaps when you were a child. Or at least many years ago. Remember that scene in Yaadon ki Baaraat where Dharam Paaji finds the toy gun? Like that.

But you can never go home again. It isn’t there.

So once in a while I open up the Philippic and check the dwindling footfalls. And read the last comment and wonder whether I have the energy to respond. Then I go 'Pbbrrrrttt, boogeritt' and look at the clock opposite and go back to work.

This last month or so – ever since my laptop was stolen – I’ve had good intentions of taking time out to post on this blog. Or the other one. Hasn’t worked. Camera-phone pics of an omelette are … well, nice, but not really a post. I can’t write a post any more. Because I don’t have my laptop. Such a stupid dependency.

The other reason, of course, is that work is climbing up my a … ummm, my walls? (Right, we shall take a short break for the libertarians to fall about laughing at the idea of a gorment paarsen WORKING. Quite done? Good, so where were we …) I’m beginning to hate having to work for a living.

I lie. I have always hated working for a living. It’s just that now THIS particular kind of work is really getting to me. 'Nuff said. End of whining session.

It doesn’t help that the city now has the most beautiful weather. As I tap away right now, I can see the ugly buildings off Park Street smiling in the evening glow. Like, say, Antara Mali photographed by Probuddha Dasgupta. Know what I mean? We KNOW they’re not really good-looking (at all at ALL) but man, they can be made to look good. This kind of a November evening, I should be out on the street feeling the city blowing in my face. Converting the moment into words that scroll through my mind’s eye like a teleprompter. And I can feel the old writing urge welling up in me but there’s nothing to say. Because that requires THAT chair and my laptop and a half hour to myself. Whereas all I have is this office and deadlines and a consuming feeling of guilt and tension because this is NOT my work. Bgrrrtttt.

Not that life has been bad. My brother-in- … arms is in town after half a decade (yes, I know I could have just said 5 years, but this is MY blog so sneck up), we’ve been having a series of bachelor nights that have left us exhausted, we’ve found what is possibly the only all-night coffee bar in this city and we have a huge stash of Bandel cheese and sossijis. We’ve even had the obligatory boys’ night out. With three young men, a black Scorpio, pub-hopping, drunken declarations of male bonding, loud tuneless chorus singing in a public space at 3 in the morning, large coffees with THREE shots of cream. Hell, one of the young uns is nice enough to drop by my office and give me a neck rub when I’m feeling chewed. Life should be good.

Which it kind of is.

But I miss my virtual inglenook. Where I can mumble to myself and tap away and then hang it on the line and wait for the gang to turn up. And eventually nice people like the Prof and the kids from jheel paar and nice ladies and maybe even A Goddess and the Smart-Asses from Stateside and the Funny Men and the Goo-roo and the Bombay Brigade and the Aphrodites of Angst and the Dervish from Delhi and the People without Names and the People who are Just a Bunch of Keyboard Characters and … well, all of you is what I mean, you know it, I wait for you to drop by and say Hullo and I can stir and wave my pipe-stem at you with a ‘hurrr hurrr gorblimey’ kind of grunt and then settle back into a tobacco doze.

That’s what it is. I miss my addiction. I miss my blogs. I miss you guys. And I’m out of green apple vodka too. Damn.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Salami Ishq

As I've mentioned before, Russi Mody is a fine gent except for his preposterous claim that he makes the world's best omelettes. Patently impossible.

With thanks to the SatanBug for playing the Recording Angel ...

A dozen eggs (and a couple more for luck), butter, fried onions, sausages, ham, salami, spiced beef, tomatoes, slathers of cheese, more butter, sauteed mushrooms. With fresh brown bread.
Also some chilli fried mackerel, just in case the omelette did not suffice. And coffee afterwards.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pujo past

Shondhi Pujo on Oshtomi. The 108 lamps symbolise the lotuses offered by Rama to Durga when he invoked her before the battle with Ravana. (He was short two lotuses, planned to pluck out his eyes and offer them instead. Seems a bit counter-productive, since he sought the means to defeat Ravana.) In appreciation, the Goddess revealed to Rama the only time of day when Ravana was vulnerable.
Also known as Akaal Bodhan.

Obviously it's not all about rituals and reverence.
Luchi torkaari is important too.

As is Le Jive Traditionell

You've got to feel sorry for these guys. What a waste of a Pujo evening.

While the rubber-neckers clog the roads.

Nobomi dawn. Out at 4 a.m. with five youngsters in a Scorpio. Back by 7 with a load of photos, a good breakfast and a pain in the leg from the heavy clutch.

Who would have thought the old lady could look so serene?

And this one ... Calcutta instead of Le Havre?
(No, I am NOT implying I'm another Claude M.)

Laal paar shaari
and shnidoor khela

Laal paar, 2007 version

Aaschchhey bochhor abaar hobey!!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Koshchens arise

The Vada man, on chat, just raised a point that seriously worries me. Name the hottest babe in your service, sez he.

I was thrown. The most pacifist employee in Blackwater? Britney Spears’ great fashion ideas? Fernando Alonso's sporting gestures? Paris Hilton’s intellectual pursuits? As oxymorons go, this one is right up there. I can think of some men in my fraternity who are kind of cool and (presumably) hot, but women?

The Lack of Babes in IITs and IIMs is well documented, much bemoaned. (Only by males, of course. I’m sure the girls are OK with their position on the demand curve.) So add one more drought area – any given services training institute. I can only imagine the trauma of a guy who’s been through IIT, IIM and is then misguided enough to join the civil services. Halloo? Where’s the wimmin, mossyoo?

They’d probably have more chance of getting some in a seminary. Not to mention better cuisine. Good thing I made up my mind back in First Year.

So question to my SAO-15 (yes, the Vada also directed me to Joel Achenbach) – can any of you think of any career civil servant who is also (a) identifiably female and (b) hot? (Magsaysay Awards do not register on the hottie scale). Names not essential (though welcome – try e-mail!), just affirmations.

Enlighten me.

Important point - I have just been told that lady cops (or Customs officers, for that matter) have an unfair advantage, since some men will find even Condi Rice hot if she wears a tight uniform. So when nominating, please consider whether the lady in question would be hot without her uniform.

Umm ... no no, not THAT way. Oh bggrrttt, you know what I mean.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Loss of Inheritance (well, sort of)

A slightly lost young Surd. Connaught Place. A car with central locking. The urge to save a half hour in the morning.

Mix well.

Goodbye, laptop. Farewell, iPod. (But why take my toilet-case?)

It’s been a week and the thought hurts a little less. But it still hurts. And I don’t normally put up personal stuff on this blog, but this has cut down my already infrequent posting. (Yes, I can hear the sighs of relief, thank you.)

So there I was, trying to save a half hour for the next morning by collecting my boarding pass. Ten minutes into the transaction, young Surd rushes in. Saab, did you bring your ‘attache’ in with you? Gone from the car.

I’d TOLD the young moron to keep an eye on my bags. I’d locked the doors. So of course, when some Johnny sidled up to ask for directions, our young Samaritan had to get out of the car (thus unlocking the central lock) and give him detailed instructions. While somebody cleanly swiped both overnight case and laptop from the other door.

Finding - Delhi Police have pretty decent offices and station houses.
Sidelight – I can now take indirect responsibility for a bomb scare. The overnight case was abandoned in front of Golcha Cinema. Suspicious unattended bag. Bomb Squad. Daryaganj P.S. Forlorn bag handed back. Missing, one iPod. And one toilet case. Why? (They left me a shirt and undies. So kind of them.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007


The morning is bright, cloudless. On the way out to Kufri, a quick detour to Bemloe below the Clarke’s is a disappointment. In September, the stone-walled, slate-roofed cottage of memory would be filled with the sweet smell of Shimla’s own Golden Delicious apples, fresh harvest from the orchards of Chail. Evenings were spent watching the sun go down in flames behind the western ridge, striking sparks from distant windows, lying like lava upon streaks of evening cloud. Now the roof is a bilious green and the walls have been painted red. A fence shuts off the valley view from the sunset seat. The flower beds where gladiolii nodded amidst the verbania are now bare except for some apologetic marigolds.

You can never go home again.

Calcutta and Delhi may harp on memories of the times when they were the centres of Empire. In truth, for more than half that time India – and a greater India than we know now, stretching from Rangoon to Peshawar – was ruled from Shimla. The most tangible reminder now dreams in the sun amidst its manicured lawns.

Lord Dufferin in 1888 was the first occupant of the Viceregal Lodge. The building is imposing but, frankly, lacks harmony or a coherent design. The sobriety of stone and slate and the awareness of history save it from being ranked as Irvine’s Folly (Henry Irvine of the PWD was the main architect). For 17 years after independence, the building was a country home for the President, until Dr. Radhakrishnan turned it into the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in 1965. Its current status as home and work-place for up to 50 scholars means that most parts are off-limits to visitors and photography is banned inside. The interiors are still worth a visit to see the table where the Govt. order of Partition was signed, or to admire the strangely Oriental carvings on the three-storey wood-panelled atrium. A walk round the grounds is also rewarding, especially for those who can make the mental leap to Shropshire and Blandings Castle. One can almost imagine Lord Em and MacAllister facing off on the gravel path that leads to the far garden …

Through the tunnel, Sanjauli is a traffic nightmare. The road inches tiredly past shabby tea-shops, past the bus-stand at Dhalli and the dirty workshops, opening suddenly onto a vista of terraced fields and farmhouses small in the distance.

The choice was between some time soaking in the view from Wildflower Hall, or a visit to the autumn orchards of Chail. Some of the orchards have day passes, where visitors can eat all the fruit they want. And, presumably, repent in a haze of acidity afterwards. The Himalayan vista seemed by far the better option.

At the last fork before Kufri, a brick-paved driveway leads up through an ornate gate. Wildflower Hall. As the car groans up, the horizon flowers with snow-capped peaks. Immediately, the air seems fresher, cooler. The building itself is ugly as a barracks, somehow reminiscent of a Nazi schloss, perhaps out of Where Eagles Dare. Alighting in a stone-walled portico beside a lawn so green it looks Photo-Shopped. Once through a slightly out-of-place revolving door, shoes squeak upon super-polished parquet floors, through the lobby, through the sun-washed morning room, to the terrace.

Words are not adequate.

Little red flowers line the parapet, framing the vistas beyond. On two sides pine forests, dark even in the brilliant sunshine, brood upon the songs of unseen multitudes of cicadas. In front of the terrace, layer upon layer of shaggy hills climb from green to blue towards the cloud-fringed horizon. But not all the white is cloud. On the edge of the sky, the Bandar Poonch range shoulders through the tumulus in its snow-streaked September mantle. Two eagles drift overhead; there must be a nest nearby. Say within twenty miles. Conversations slow, fade, die amid the cicada-lined silence.

Peace comes dropping slow.


(Self-indulgent original version of something that appeared in print today - on Friendly Advice, put up in two posts)

The most vivid memory is of the light. The moon swinging between the hills on its way down to the horizon, while the moonlight hung in the air, glowing, translucent, liquid yet at the same time crystalline, brittle. Driving through a dream in that hour before dawn, as the car swung and swung again, on the road reaching upwards through the dark of the pine-shadows and the patches of hazy moonlight through the mists.

Morning came in primary colours. The shadows of the hills sharp on the opposite slopes, brilliant sun glinting off roofs far far away, lighting shades from the grave darkness of the trees to the playful green of grassy meadows. A distant ridge with its top sliced neatly off, the new airstrip for Shimla. Fly in there and then drive two hours into town? Much better to take the good old Kalka Mail overnight, snug under the sheets with a book in the upper bunk, lifting the flap on the reading light for a delicious hour while the man in the opposite lower snores softly and the train sways and grumbles over points. Then the drive up, revelling in the chill that creeps in as the car climbs, deciding against a smoke in the pre-dawn dark because it would mean rolling down the windows. Waking to find the sun well up, and stopping at a roadside dhaba for sweet milky tea

And bread ­pakoras. Comfort food from the ‘80s, when they’d be a hurried breakfast at Barog while the engine snuffled and snorted to itself, like an impatient uncle exhorting a bunch of teens to get a move on. Sitting on the footboard, legs dangling, flinching as the tiny train bustled through one of the 108 tunnels on the line up.

The story goes that Col. Barog was in charge of this section when the railway was being built back in 1903. He started work on a tunnel from both ends so as to save time. The shafts didn’t meet, Col. Barog was fined one rupee by the Govt. and committed suicide from sheer humiliation. Our present-day technocrats have less extreme reactions. Fortunate. Or maybe not?

The sprawl of buildings comes into view from miles out. Gorton Castle smug and four-square in the centre of the ridge, the turrets of the Army HQ newly painted an arrogant red. The town is older now and the lines of age have begun to show. More crowded, dirtier, more concrete and glass, more scabrous unpainted heaps sprawled on the slopes like ragged deadbeats. The traffic is bad on the main road, worse out in Chhota Shimla and Sanjauli. Parking is a nightmare, it takes ten minutes to back and fill into a parking lot through the crowd of impatient Puppans up from the plains. The Mall is fenced in with rods, something was on last night and now they’re dismantling the barricades, very morning-after.

But the sun is out and eventually, at 10 o’clock or a little after, Shimla is on its way to work. The women in neat bright salwar suits, quick-eyed and bright-cheeked, most of the men in ties, geared against the fickle weather in sleeveless woollen vests, greeting friends without breaking stride as they take the slope in that unhurried gait that still eats up the distance. Lots of bakeries, above them all (in location if not in quality) Baljee’s on the Mall next to the statue of R.S Parmar. Shops selling cameras, film, Kumaoni clothes, ‘vegetable burgers’, silverware.

Out on the northern edge of the Ridge, the breeze comes in under the cedars. a jacket seems like a good idea. Terraced fields and farmhouses sweep into the distance, but the immediate attention is grabbed by the sprawl of Lakkar Bazaar below. This is Shimla’s standard tourist trap, the curios and handicrafts pitch. A little time spent poking among the fretwork screens and faux antique hookahs can turn up a good bargain. A tiny hand-carved hollow ball turns out to be a cunning candle-stand, a walking-stick’s head unscrews to reveal a little gold-specked fob-watch. A much better idea than the supposed ‘local’ woollens that are in any case cheaper in Ludhiana. Where they’re made.

Up from Lakkar Bazaar is Kipling’s Hill of Jakoo, topped by its Hanuman Mandir. It is a moot point whether Hanuman’s physical form was closer to the langur or the common macaque, but there is no question which tribe rules here. Gangs of rhesus monkeys prey on the unwary and intimidate even the careful tourist. Locals tell horror stories of monkeys who will wrest away a camera bag or a dangling key-chain and return it only when bribed with chick-peas or bananas. The climb is steep, a lung-burning, leg-cramping ordeal even for the fit. All in all, only for the very brave or the very devout.

In the other direction lies hedonistic pleasure. Shimla’s Middle Bazaar is ugly when viewed from afar, but a stroll through the winding lanes (winding in three dimensions, stairs and little footpaths connecting different levels) is richly rewarding for visiting foodies. Between two landings lies a tiny place known to generations only as Auntie’s. Not for the faint-hearted, this is a no-nonsense ‘authentic Chinese’ joint where take-away is definitely the better idea. And very satisfying. The other gem here is Sardarji’s sweet shop, where an early morning visit yields ambrosia – fresh jalebis broken up in a huge steel tumbler of hot milk. Bliss well worth the penance of an extra mile on the hill roads.

The noise and fumes fade as the lift glides up. A huge suite, coffee, signs warning guests to keep the doors and windows closed for fear of monkeys. And from the balcony, the expanse of the southern ridge and the town, the valley still cut in half by morning shadow.

The day clouds over as the seminar winds towards lunch. A couple of quick showers come and go. The TV tower on the opposite hill gleams in the sudden dark, the roads and roofs gleam with the run-off. Then after lunch the heavens open and the rain pelts down for hours. Where do the monkeys go in this downpour? Water splashes over shoe-tops during mad rushes across the terrace. A persistent man keeps sopping up the puddles in front of the lift, only to see them grow again in seconds. The roof resounds with the insistent drumming. The valley vanishes behind a curtain of cloud and spray. Rain in the hills is not for the faint-hearted.

Afterwards, soft as a lover tender in the afterglow, the faintest of breezes creeps into the chill of the evening. The stars come out and settle on the hills, sprinkled on the slopes all the way down to the valley and up into the sky.

West of the Mall, past the Gothic fantasy of the Army HQ, where a 50 foot wide road is christened Chaura Maidan or ‘wide field’, the Oberoi Cecil is a lighted fantasy. A lane leads off Chaura Maidan, through moss-hung oaks and deodars, to Yarrows. Originally designed (or re-built?) by Herbert Baker for a friend, the Staff College of the Indian Audit & Accounts Service is possibly the most picturesque training facility in India. It even has a most incredibly wondersome phenomenon, modern additions by the CPWD that blend in with the traditional! Old teak staircases, mahogany furniture and a lovely low-roofed billiards room. All this around a central lounge that looks out over a stone-flagged patio leading onto a lawn from where (on the mandatory clear day) one can see all the way to the white hairs of the Dhauladhars.

But we were at the Cecil. Mohan Singh Oberoi’s second acquisition, this imposing pile has been recently restored to its old glory. A five-storied wood-panelled atrium glows above the lounge, the restaurant looks out over the valley where the lights shimmer all night. Pankaj serves smoked chicken and Kullu trout from the ice-water streams. But the restaurant is empty by half ten. At eleven, the lights are dimmed in the atrium and not a soul stirs except the desk manager and the turbaned doorman. Shimla goes early to bed.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Flying. Also, not.

It’s a little like being inside Google Earth. From 30,000 feet the earth is richly detailed, a luxe version of the ‘physical’ (as distinct from ‘political’) maps in a school atlas. Only, as the plane rises farther, there is no guide to scale. There are no names printed on this map, no margin with answers to the questions that rise.

What is this river, flowing north and then east, its course dry with sand, traced only by little veins of water even in October? Why are some of those fields so richly red while the others are green-brown? Why are all the lakes straight-edged with dams on their northern sides? Parallel ridges run (presumably) west to east beneath the belly of the plane. Do they have names, are they full-fledged ranges or just taken for granted by the people who live in their shadow, nameless parts of their lives? Old water-courses are betrayed by their dark earth, the silt of centuries rich below the stark upper reaches of the plateau.

Off near the horizon, a sweep of tumulo-cirrus looks like a fish in motion, right down to the scales and flexed tail. Shadows. On the ground far below, shadows of the fluffball clouds that float beneath us. Layers of perception? Perhaps only layers of sight, but still, texture, dimension, even revelations. Suddenly, I want to be down there among the reeds on the shore of a lake, shading my eyes as I look up to see a cloud crossing the sun, the shadow cool, almost thirst-quenching in the October breeze and the respite from the day’s heat.

Or perhaps I’m better up here, sailing in a vessel of the sky, savouring a hot buttered croissant slathered with honey while I pontificate on the landscape below. No question. Given a choice, comfort over adventure any day.



NOT a term to associate with that airport. If the queue had been any longer, I could just have walked into it from the hotel door. IF one can find the end of the line, which snakes around on itself like a politician’s explanation. This, mind you, was just to get into the terminal. There was another line after check-in. A super-line. It stretched, it looped, it doubled, it split. It was one line trying to encompass the entire universe of queues. About 57,328 people, several thousand bawling kids, half a million large lumpy bags, trolleys that rode into my ankles. We moved a couple of feet every alternate year, I felt like I was putting down roots and wondered about the legal status of my retirement if it came around while I was still in line. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the occasional Galapagos tortoise or stegosaur lumbering along. THEN they asked us to trot over to another gate instead. That man has no idea how close he came to being disembowelled.

What is wrong with these people anyway? They can take over the IT world, get all the chavs and yobs and rednecks frothing, generate a billion dollars of revenue in a quarter, but they can’t see they need more security gates and personnel at the airport? The other airport has been in process for 6 YEARS now. What are the specs, are they planning for a space-shuttle landing? A LAUNCH, even? Morons!

More fun and games once ON the flight. Three of us had boarding passes for the same seat. The emergency row was full. Were we supposed to strap-hang all the way back to Cal?

Then I got an upgrade. And cold towels and orange juice and pillows and stuff. And, of course, buttered croissants and loads of honey. Which led to transformation from Stegosaurus-in-bad-mood to Bear-in-hunny-tree.


And ruminations. On things nice and not-so-nice.

Traffic, NOT nice. Definitely not nice. More like a bleeding nightmare, even past ten at night.

Jumbo prawns at Karavalli, very nice. Also the fish in the cascade pool outside, all yellow and orange and flashing, like those lines in Tartary and the illustration on the glossy page of an old old Radiant Reader …”and in my pools great fishes slant / their fins athwart the sun”. (Appams not-so-nice, though. Still have not found any place that matches Konkan Café and Chef Solomon)

Nice – the very polite signs that request ‘road-users’ to try an alternative route because there’s a Metro being built along MG Road. Not nice – a hoarding opposite the airport that shows a distinctly cross-eyed Jack Nicklaus. Faintly irritating – a HAL hoarding that says they are now ‘soaring and spreading their wings’. Surely they got that in the wrong order? (I loathe lazy copy anyway)

Nice – a suite looking out on a park and trees, with yellow flowers nodding outside the window. Very nice – mellow evening sunshine on the opposite wall and a cup of cream coffee with Frank SimoesGoa for company. Even nicer – some time up on the 13th floor at Barton Centre, they served green apple vodka and played Sultans of Swing.

Very very nice – two visits to Blossom, coming away with two Camilleris, a Dibdin, Mark Shand’s River Dog, Bryson, Barry, the complete Woody Allen and – oh crackers and cream cheese! – Patrick Leigh-Fermor’s A time of gifts. Blossom, what a treasure, what a delight. Enough reason in itself to move to this city.

Though there are some others ...


Friday, October 05, 2007

Some dinners

The waiters (refreshment supply executives?) at Rodeo in Connaught Place are all tall. They wear black shirts and trousers, black boots. Most execrably, they wear black hats, the kind one buys off barrows in Bangkok. INDOORS at that! I’ve read of saloons where those hats would be shot right off. Maybe with the head still inside … But these guys are nice. They bring you food.

I remember the leg of lamb at Rodeo from some years ago. Tender, succulent, served with baby potatoes and greens, a pot of sour cream and two kinds of hot bread. This time round, we were too famished to wait for the main order. Chicken wings, two minutes. In short order, we got … wings, minute. Four of them. Was the guy being funny? The leg of lamb, when it arrived, made up for our early disappointment. To judge by the size, the lamb in question must have pumped iron. Enough to feed three normal people, i.e., just about enough to keep us from starving before breakfast. As good as, perhaps even better than memory. I asked for herb butter and got it. Also enough sour cream to curdle an entire dairy. Most satisfying.

Given that the entrée was about 25 times as substantial as the starter, I expected a ginormous bill. The lamb was 500 bucks. DOWN from 4 years ago (when it was 700)? Weird, but who am I to complain? Waddled out feeling like an anaconda with the tapir's hindquarters still sticking out of its mouth. Totally happy. After a few double espresso shots at the nearest CCD, I was ensconced in nostalgic comfort in an upper bunk on the Kalka Mail. Peace, memories, repletion.

Friday night in Shimla, a chill breeze gusting under a sky washed clear of rain, I took a family friend to dinner at the Cecil. Pankaj served us smoked chicken with honey mustard dressing. Nice, but the chicken had obviously been refrigerated and not hung. It affects the texture. Also some maas ke sooley, lamb skewers, very good indeed. Followed by lamb chops (a trifle dry. He did have to re-heat them, but it shouldn't have been too difficult to keep the juices in) and grilled Kullu trout with lemon butter. I entirely approved.

Saturday morning was beautiful, Saturday afternoon eventful. I can't tell you about the morning for fear of the Most Formidable Girl-Child (who holds that if she offers to buy my work it gives her seigneurial rights over just about everything else too; I don't contest that as long as she's on the other side of the country). This picture will have to suffice.

But the afternoon, gadzooks! What should have been a leisurely ramble down the slopes became a sweaty anxious re-take on Sholay. Ummm … after the Ram Gopal disaster, that’s a frightening analogy, but somehow more apt. We’d left Shimla with loads of time to make the 5:30 train from Kalka. Even stopped to kill some time (and eat some sheekh kababs) at a nice place (some ‘ghat’, there’s a private university coming up a couple of hilltops away), had a couple of coffees and a stretch. Snoozing and rubbernecking took us down, the milestone said ‘Kalka 5 km’, we had 45 minutes in hand, then we come round a bend and BIM! The next 5 kilometres are one continuous snarl of traffic.

There’s just one road connecting the Kalka rail-head to the hills. And traffic is heaviest on weekends. So obviously the best time to repair this only road is … what, late at night? On a week-night? (Insert disparaging chuckle) Chhora bakhla gya re! Of COURSE we do it in the middle of a Saturday, how else will people SEE how hard we’re working? Tar-wagon, roller, sundry large ugly machines parked in series on a 200 meter stretch of new macadam, NO traffic police anywhere in sight, nosirree, just a bad-tempered trucker’s sidekick waving a rag on a stick and 3,946,502 vehicles honking at the hills. Strewth.

We managed to catch up with the train at Chandigarh. And the food looked better than Kingfisher’s. Trains have pantry cars, after all.

Things improved rapidly once in Delhi. The Akhond is an impeccable hostess (though she harps too much on the theme of not having cooked for underfed waifs like me) and there were many interesting people there. Including one person whom I’d hitherto considered an Urban Myth. There was Smirnoff, which was improved by an experiment (next time I’ll add peach chunks instead of pineapple). There was, albeit briefly, a whole raan from Karim’s. For graphic details, there’s the Griff’s Facebook album. There was also some substance abuse, followed by One Fat Bong going Out like a Light. One is told that a Certain Duck has Taken Photographs, but the possibility is Too Horrible to Contemplate. Oh well.

Once back in Calcutta, there was also a nice evening at La Cucina, thanks to Slim Friend who Has His Own Food Show. Zanuso, the new chap at La C, is yet to prove himself the equal of Davide. Davide was Good. I shall go further, he was DaGoods. His carbonara … if there is better, I am yet to come across it. Mario has his own constraints. For one thing, he’s Piedmontese, not Neapolitan; he can make lighter pizzas, but for antipasti, pasta, pastry, you need the Southern touch. AND he has been Ruined by London. But he shows promise.

After which, there was a bitch of a week. Never home from office before 9. But I had been fortified by good times, not to mention good friends. Rajarhat is full of kaash phool. And Mohalaya is Wednesday morning. Life holds hope.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A word in defence

The leading news story in Bengal now is the death of Rizwanur. Found dead by the railway tracks, after weeks of harassment because he had married a rich man’s daughter. Something is very wrong. A man I respect asked me to join a candle-light vigil demanding justice for Rizwanur. I couldn’t because I wasn’t in town and I wouldn’t because my service rules are iffy on the subject, but of course I want justice.

But not a witch-hunt. We are free to surmise what happened, what went wrong. I have my own ideas. From all accounts, Rizwanur was a very fine young man and his death is a loss not just to his immediate family but to all of us who value decency, humanity and hard work. The media circus, however, is turning the matter into a jatra, a melodrama that depicts only one side and presumes that all those named in connection with the affair have complicity in his death.

But … I know personally two of the three IPS officers whose names have come into the discussion. One I have met several times – soft-spoken, polite, helpful and from all that I’ve seen, a decent person. The other has been a colleague and is a friend. I have trusted him with my life and would do so again. Not only is he a fair and decent man, he also respects the law he works for. On one occasion many years ago, he pulled me back when I lost my temper in a conflict situation. Not just because it might have sparked further conflict, but also because he believed – and he told me this – that as an officer, violence should be my last resort.

This man is not a murderer. I’ll stake anything on that.


Update: A friend in a GoI police organisation pointed out that –

· A hired killer is more likely to operate under cover of darkness than in broad daylight

· It is common practice for such killers to dispose of the body far from the site of murder (sometimes even in another state) rather than leave the body at the site

· People under stress may have sudden suicidal impulses

· There were several procedural irregularities on the part of the police, starting with the fact that the matter lay within the jurisdiction of the West Bengal Police and not the Calcutta Police Commissionerate

The Telegraph today asks why the focus has shifted to punishing the police officers instead of finding out how Rizwanur died. I agree. Justice is not served by branding scapegoats.

And I say again, my friend is not a murderer.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Death shall have no dominion

This is the most stirring experience. Check it out. It’s long, four videos, but it should make a difference to your life. Dr. Pausch, you're an awesome person.

(Off ABC News.)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Very desultory

After two mornings spent vegetating, I’m just about going out of my mind with boredom-compounded-by-lassitude. There’s a heap of things I should get done, but I don’t have the gumption to get up and DO them. For further irritation, rediffblogs is down again and my other blog with it. Garn.

But … do any of you know that feeling of finding again a favourite piece of writing you thought you would never retrace? The Rupa Laughter Omnibus, edited by Ruskin Bond, has its flaws (including too much Bond, f’rexample). But it also has Richard Middleton’s The Ghost Ship, a little gem of a tale I remember from a childhood book of sea stories. There was a time I used to hum Sodden Fairfield, sodden Fairfield to myself when I was feeling down. And the daft boy’s little story of the parrots-whose-language-was-awful is one of the best short-shorts I know. I’ve linked to it. Enjoy.

And will some kind soul direct me to some regularly updated site for good time-pass reading? Bloglines, Cricinfo, the NYT, I’m getting a little sick of all of them.


Good night and good luck

Unbelievable. They did it. These kids did it!

I was wary even after Yuvraj’s blitz. Even when that Moy-Danab Matt Hayden was carving air, ball after ball from Sree. Then that over from Joginder Sharma when Matt and Symonds started connecting, I thought it was the beginning of the end and started the drive home. When I switched on the telly at home, surprise! Oz needed 22 to win from 5 balls!

That catch by Yuvraj (and his caveman roar). Two wickets in the over for Joginder Sharma. Beating Australia in a semi-final. After Pakistan, England and South Africa. When do we wake up?

Even before we won, this match was a special experience. Yuvraj batted like .. well, for me, only one man is The King. Isaac Vivian Alexander, Smokin’ Joe, the Ultimate Blastah. Tonight Yuvraj laid a finger on his throne. It wasn’t about the sixes, not the pull with which he opened his account, not the one he flicked off Brett Lee. It was the attitude, the utter confidence. I don’t know what he’s on, but he should try more of it.

India’s fielding. Even the return catch that Bhajji dropped in his second over. That would normally have been a four against an Indian fielding side. Harbhajan nearly made it a wicket.

And Sreeshanth’s bowling. Beating Hayden for pace at least 3 out of 6 balls, bowling 4 overs for 12 runs and 2 wickets. Go, Mallu, go go!

Just for the record, the match was sweetened by pastis. On ice, with a squeeze of lemon. Very very good. Superb food cooked in-house by the people who run Eu Chu. For those who don’t know this place on Ganesh Avenue, please don’t bother. We’re more than happy to keep it to ourselves. Good Cockburn’s port after dinner, with a pipe of MacBarren, drawing well. And friends of three decades singing Tull, S&G and the Beatles while T* played the guitar. Life is good.

Good luck for Monday, boys.


Friday, September 21, 2007

Bombay - bloggers, blues

The far wall is a palette of greys. Picture window, framing clouds sky sea rain air road. All grey. Shades. Crows like scraps in the wind, trying to land in a tree with clumps of large vivid green leaves. Rain in the air, glimmering on the ground, on the newly paved sea-walk along Marine Drive. Across the bay, the jagged-teeth skyline of Malabar Hill rises from a tumulus of green. Three dogs strut along the sea-wall in single file. Three men in singlets run the other way. Two men, standing in a tiny red and white boat, do mysterious things among the waves. A couple under one of those bright seven-panelled school umbrellas, bright amid the grey. And a horizon where the pensive sky sighs into the sea.


The previous night, in the Sports Bar at Phoenix Mills, was a stark contrast. Well, perhaps not stark. Mellow, more like. In the room people came and went, but I didn't hear anybody discussing Michelangelo. Demands centred round beer and sixes. I sat in a corner with sundry Bright Young People whose numbers ebbed and flowed.

Before one Mr. Y. Singh obtruded on our collective conscious, the conversation was wide-ranging.

· The intricacies of marital and extra-marital fidelity, with special attention to shameless flirting. ('Shameless', apparently, applies only when the flirting is Directed at Men because the only fidelity worth the name exists between females. Don't ask. I didn't.)

· The natural orbits of B-school graduates. With and without lungis.

· How weird is jute? (This was repeated at intervals despite a Ban on Talking Shop.)

· How exactly does a vada cut? (By the time we left, there was a common consensus among the girl-children that the vada did cut it, thank you very much.)

· Marxism crept in, from echoes of his opening line to T.S. Eliot – 'Tom, I had no idea you were so handsome!' - to 'I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have ME as a member.' (We refer, of course, to Groucho, not Karl.)

· The Most Formidable Girl-Child was very silent. One feared the Lull before the Storm, but apparently it was just exhaustion. (On three wheels, presumably)

· Whether Rama’s (yes, the famous bridge-builder’s) first name was Aiyyo. And whether he had an unknown brother named Aiyyiyyo. (We have no claims to serious research. Well, research perhaps, but serious?)

· The Ubiquity of Udupi. And thayeer sadam as comfort food, also why it is not available in Lower Parel.

· Ambitions (or the reality) of World Domination, since e-Bay AND Google were represented at the table.

· How men are like blogs, insofar as they can be put up (or put up with) and shut down.

· India as the world's richest source of ethnic jokes (or adhnik jauks, aythneek jokes, uthnuk joks etc.)

· Having to produce ‘virginal certificates’ for vaarrfikayishun at Anna Univaaiirrsitee.

· Who had the raspberry vodka? Umm OK, that wasn't really a TOPIC, more like a revelation. The other realisations were that A Man is as funny in person as on his blog. And that one should not comment on people who stop at nothing e.g. throw truck-loads of popcorn.


My first meeting was at 11. We reached early, went through Trial by Negativism, packed up and were out by quarter past. Back in my room, I should have sorted my papers and packed my bag. Instead, I sat by the window with more coffee and watched a wan sun soak into the sea-scape. Then checked out with a wistful backward look and joined the rush towards the airport. Onwards and upwards, so to speak, but with a pit-stop at the site of the previous night's carouse to make the acquaintance of a tender cow (cf: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe). Bombay gets better each time I visit.