Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The centre no longer holds

The din inside my head is yet to die down. I can’t bring myself to write about IT. Nothing else seems important, though. Most of the posts that show up on Bloglines seem irrelevant. Yet there always seems to be more information, more points of view to assimilate.

Meanwhile (off Gawker’s blog?) I found this Steven Colbert idea –

“If this is truly India’s 9/11 and they want to emulate America, they should go out and attack a totally unrelated country. Say, New Zealand.”

Cote d'Ivoire, be very afraid.

Good friend – middle-class Bombay professional, one of the sharpest and most well-informed – on the suddenly visible activism of the middle and upper classes –

“This will last till Wasabi opens again.”

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Paper tiger?

I was disappointed when The White Tiger won, over a book I much preferred. Adiga has an idea, he has a scathing bluntness, but he is not half the storyteller that Amitav Ghosh is. Even if one penalises Sea of Poppies for the irksome dialects (especially the endless Anglo-Indian cant), it’s infinitely more informative, has far more empathy and several times the imagination, and is generally a far far better book. I’m not even going into the issue of better writing, because that’s a matter of taste (especially since Paddy Doyle). And what was the relevance of letters to a Chinese politician?

I’m slightly better disposed towards Aravind Adiga after reading this

"Do you feel that the world ignores India's poor? Carol Davies, Cambridge

The truth is, India doesn't need the world's help in fixing its poverty. The money is present right here, the social workers are right here. The basic steps needed to lift the 400 million Indians who live in extreme poverty are known to everyone – a massive increase in government investment in primary schools, hospitals, and farming (most of the poor live in villages). What is lacking in India is the political will to make these investments – and to fight the pervasive corruption that erodes the effectiveness of the meager anti-poverty programmes currently in place."

Perhaps simple to the point of being trite, it’s just that I entirely agree with his prioritisation. I’d add one more point (which I have mentioned on this blog earlier) – the need to make all citizens stakeholders by making them taxpayers.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Good night, sweet prince

When they posed for the group photograph, he was way off to one side. Smiling, possibly happy, but already drifting out of the frame.

Even earlier, when Harbhajan leaped in joy at the last wicket and the rest of the team converged on the pitch, he was alone, jogging in from the outfield, a smile on his face but his eyes hidden by those glares. He had a hand held up to high-five his mates. The only guy he could find was the next-to-newest member, Amit Mishra. He still smiled.

Oh, they chaired him off the ground afterwards. And Mahi had already made a grand gesture of asking him to set the field for a while after the 8th wicket fell. It’s a sign of the man’s enthusiasm for the game, or perhaps his love of being in charge, that he actually accepted the offer. I thought it was a trifle demeaning, he should have smiled and waved it off.

Then they left the ground. The curtain came down. He’ll come back to his home in Behala and then, perhaps, when we can’t see him, the smile will fade.

He may deny it, but there are regrets. Those last 15 runs that eluded him in the first innings. Hell, the 17 runs that were his for the asking in Taunton, 1999, if Azharuddin had not kept him from the strike for 14 balls in a row. And of course, closing the face of the bat too early to that wrong ’un from Krezja. But he was never a fairy-tale prince. Not for him the perfect climax or the unblemished record. Except for that first tour of England (where he didn’t get the third consecutive century on debut) or that ODI series against Pakistan in Canada in 1998, he’s always been the Prince of What-Might-Have-Been. Which may not put him up there in the pantheon, but damn, it makes a far better story. And he’s always given us the best stories.

It was never just about the cricket. There will be a few dozen articles and a couple thousand blog posts about how he gave Indian cricket Attitude, about his record as captain and his magic through the off-side. But for most of us, and especially in Calcutta, it wasn’t just about the cricket. There was the angle of the local boy making good. There was our glee at his in-your-face incidents. But what really endeared him to us was his fallibility. Hell, a Don or a Tendlya aren’t human. They are phenomena. THIS man fought against his own frailties, his lack of form, his failing reaction time, his leaden feet. He fought against perceptions, against half-truths, against his own hubris. He fell from eminence in a manner he hadn’t anticipated, he fought his way back, he toughed it out. And he found that just as panache couldn’t hold him on the pinnacle, not even performance could put him back afterwards.

He was never one to go gentle into that good night. But like they wrote on Cricinfo, after a while a man bears the marks of “every glove that laid him low, or cut him”, and it’s better to leave on your own terms.

It might be bathetic to label him our last tragic hero. Unlike his opening partner (Chhoto Babu to his Babumoshai) he was too human for deification. He was never larger than life, let alone large enough to be a superhero. Maybe he was even a loser in his last war. But then again, perhaps those lines spoken over the body of another loser might not be out of place – “This was a man … ”

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Run away?

Too many books, too many movies. Well, actually only about a half dozen movies in three weeks, but that’s about 5 more than I would have watched in the normal course.

And some Conversations. Including one with The Mentor, long distance. I said I’m increasingly pessimistic about this country as a place to bring up my daughter, we should probably emigrate in 5 years. Which prompted a couple of choice expletives and a list of reasons for hope. Orissa, and some response by the Govt. to the issue of mayhem on grounds of religion. The arrests in the Malegaon bombing case, which may show that Muslims don’t hold a monopoly on senseless murder OR that the Indian State is impartial. The poor show by secessionists in every poll in Kashmir, indeed the very fact that polls are held in Kashmir. Instances of public outcry speeding up justice. The fact that despite the woolly-minded yearnings of a section of the Indian middle class, the armed forces have never even attempted to take over power in this country. Even in my own State, some response to the issue of air pollution.

Yes, well, that’s good. And the consideration that if one is to avoid corruption, the only viable option seems to be Scandinavia. Weighed against the suicide rate there (and the certainty of my being about a foot shorter than the average woman), it really wouldn’t make much sense.

About corruption. The Greatest Country in the World makes a lot of hoo-haa about the annual report on corruption. Some of our more “enlightened” countrymen then make despairing noises about “the state of this country”. Which is ridiculous when you consider that the Vice-President of the Greatest Country has an open deal with a firm called Halliburton. And that - coincidentally, of course – in 2006 Halliburton were awarded 45 BILLION dollars worth of contracts in Iraq without any process of tender. To put that in perspective, Indian government rules do not permit purchase of more than Rs. 20,000/- without quotations, and any transaction of Rs. 2 lakh or more requires a process of open tender. Even if you use Purchasing Power Parity instead of simple currency conversion, the difference is huge.

And let’s not even get into the question of fair elections. The Chief Executive is elected on a recount in a state where the highest government executive - in charge of running elections too – is his own brother. And when it comes to a recount, guess who’s in charge? A lady who was on his campaign team. Even after 8 years, the level of moronicity bothers me.

Something else that bothers me. The lack of an effective Opposition in my own state. The one person who has been the face of the Opposition for more than 10 years now has never articulated any agenda other than opposition. Even during a tenure as a Union Minister, she staged a sit-in in the well of Parliament. Opposition for its own sake? Seems to me the story of the Great Dane and the yellow Beetle [1] is sadly apt here.

There’s a slew of other things that bother me – reality shows, SMS greetings, taxis parked at corners, misplaced apostrophes, Shilpa Shetty’s grin – but I’d be the first to admit that they’re not good enough reasons to emigrate. I probably wouldn’t be able to avoid them even if I did emigrate. Hell, not even La Shetty’s grin.

[1] The story? Well, this suburban guy bought a bright yellow Beetle. First day he took it out of the driveway to get to office, the neighbour’s Great Dane jumped the hedge and chased the car all the way down the lane, barking loudly all the way. This happened the second day too. AND the day after.
On Day 4, the guy finally lost his patience. As the huge hound lolloped after him, he stepped on the brakes, screeched to a halt, rolled the window down an inch and shouted “OK, you’ve GOT it! What are you going to DO with it now?!” Result, one very sheepish Great Dane.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Separated at birth

Which used to be a regular feature in a magazine called Sunday (1973-1999)

Now am I the only one who thinks this way about THESE two?

This one used his head to good effect recently
This one is a trifle Victorian in his outlook

Friday, October 24, 2008

The writing on the wall

The idyll is a little ragged at the edges right now. I haven’t read a book since Sunday. Seem to be all out of literary enthu. The days are punctuated by tonics, medicines, meals, the occasional movie. Besides, I feel irritable when my body gets slack, and I haven’t had ANY kind of exercise in 3 weeks. It’s been 17 days since I stepped out of the house. Cabin fever is a distinct possibility. Oh damn.

Meantime, all that happens, happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After the Singur imbroglio, “Dr.” M. Banerjee and the head of the Left Front agree on something. To wit, that the very basis of a democratic polity is endangered by the Election Commission’s ban on graffiti (better known in devout circles as “the writing on the wall”). Given a choice between, on the one hand, giving your consent and having your walls re-decorated in avant-garde mode, and on the other, NOT consenting and having your features re-arranged in Neanderthal mode, which would YOU choose? The democratic option, of course. The greatest good of the greatest number. It’s so heart-warming when our leaders agree on a matter in the public weal. Leaves me all saahgy wiv emoshun and teary-eyed.

On the other coast, there is a patriotic movement. No, not saffronised bowel movements (though those may be happening in Utkala Desh – more of that later). The Western movement seeks to intensify nationalist sentiments. Think global, act local types. If you start with beating up people who are “Not Us” (and not armed), you may eventually get good at beating up people who are REALLY Not Us AND shooting back at you. Practice makes perfect and all that. Score so far – 4 dead, a few dozen injured, vehicles burnt, man-days lost. All in the great tradition of democracy. I am loving it.

In Orissa, Diwali came some months early. There were bonfires and merriment, there was good religious sentiment which involved killing real people (so much more fun than burning effigies). This has led to Parliament making wise noises (not too loud, since A Particular Religion is still the Religion of the Majority). It has also led to friends (whom I had hitherto considered rational) sending out cyber-whoops on the lines of “THAT will laarn ’em!” Organised religion is such a sweet thing. It must be so comforting for all concerned to read Nice Things about Love Thy Neighbour, Humanity is the Ultimate Creed etc. and then, spiritually uplifted, go out to rape and kill and burn. I love Organised Religion. In my book, it is one of mankind’s finest experiences. You know, in terms of enrichment, somewhere between an acid enema and a boil on the scrotum.

Say after me – I Love My Country. I Love My Faith. I Love My Fellow Man (AND My Fellow Woman. ESPECIALLY My Fellow Woman). I Love Our Peaceful Tradition. And I Love Killing Anybody Who Disagrees.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

By bread alone ... ?

Indian breads. A term that one sees on buffets in snooty hotels, next to a tired wicker basket of sullen black-faced naans and wilting phulkas. So very misleading, as I’ve found over the years. Indian cuisine is a melting pot with inputs from Portugal to Penang, from Isfahan to Istanbul, and if we look close there’s a variety of Indian bread from each region. I have been a bread freak right from my school-days - my rather well-leavened frame often prompted jibes of “double roti” - but I associated the term with buns, croissants, chewy brown bread, golden buttered toast, little realising that the luchi of Sunday breakfast and the paratha that encased my chicken roll were also breads. Even the neer dosa of Kerala and the thalipeeth of Maharashtra claim to be breads, though the former is not made from wheat and the latter is a little like a pancake.

Pucca sahibs­ would probably limit the term to food made from grain flour (usually wheat), leavened with yeast and baked in an oven. Fiddlesticks. Or rather, Ey Mamu! The majority of Indian breads are unleavened, some are fried or even roasted and many are made from rice gruel or even lentil pastes. The more the merrier, say I. Man does not live by bread alone, but (as anybody on the Atkins Diet will vouch) life is pretty bleak without it.

First, the Big Question. Is it bread if it’s not made from grain? Check out pashti from Arcot in Tamil Nadu, rice flour dumplings pan-fried in ghee and eaten with chutneys or spicy meat. Or pesarattu from Andhra Pradesh, which is made from moong daal and fried on a griddle. Or, indeed, the entire family of dosai and their variants, from Kerala’s appam to uttapam and neer dosa. If these are dismissed as more pancakes than bread, where would you place thalipeet? The dough for this Maharashtrian favourite may contain – among others - beans, wheat, rice, onion, jaggery, vegetables and spices. It’s kneaded and rolled, unlike a crepe or pancake, but it’s not baked and it isn’t wholly wheat. So is it bread?

Most Indian breads are flatbreads, rolled from dough and roasted over an open fire or baked in a tandoor. In the far north, we have the chewy Ladakhi cambir or khambiri, dabbed with butter and eaten with home-made apricot jam or with tea. Kashmiris, surprisingly, eat more rice but have a wide variety of breads. Tsot and tsochvoru are small round breads, topped with poppy and sesame seeds and traditionally washed down with salt tea. Lavas is a cream coloured unleavened bread, probably derived from the Armenian Lahvash or Armenian cracker bread, a soft, thin flatbread sometimes sprinkled with toasted sesame or poppy seeds.

In the heartland, the humble chapatti is part of Indian history. It was carried from village to village and used as a signal before the rising of 1857. It’s also comfort food for millions, especially when hot off the fire with a dab of butter melting in the middle. It has a number of variants, all round flat unleavened breads made from grains other than wheat. The bhakhri, made from jowar, bajra or even (in Karnataka) from rice flour, is a staple in the western states. The jolada rotti of Karnataka is made from sorghum. Both these variations keep well and are good travelling food, usually eaten with pulse curries (daal, jhunka) or with chutneys such as thecha, a paste of chillies that can set fire to paper at 50 paces. The rock star in this category (or bhangra rapper?) is makki di roti, Punjab’s answer to corn pone. Made from corn (makki) flour, it goes with sarson da saag the way Tristran goes with Ysolde. Or Dharam with Hema. Cardiac specialists owe large portions of their bank balances to the Punjabi habit of serving it with a “liddel” home-made butter, say, a fistful on each roti.

Fried breads are India’s curious celebration of cholesterol. The most common deep-fried bread is the ubiquitous puri, roundels of wheat flour dough rolled flat, moistened with oil and fried till they swell into spherical puffs. The Bengali version, luchi, is made with refined flour or maida and places an even greater premium on light fluffiness. The most decadent zamindars would eat only the papery top layer as a token of their refinement. I can certify that this evokes a general feeling of well-being which is utterly misleading since it is more likely to lead to heartburn and breathlessness. When stuffed with daal or matar paste, the puri / luchi becomes the daalpuri, radhabollobi or kachori (differentiated by the consistency and crispness of the fried dough).

Parathas are the big brothers of puris. They range from the comparatively innocuous ones that are just thick rotis with a gloss of ghee to the utterly sinful sheermal from Kashmir, where the dough is kneaded with ghee, sweetened, re-rolled and baked till it is a meal in itself. Shillong has its own version called the palmia, which is almost a Danish pastry. Another Kashmiri calorie bomb is the baqrkhani roti. More layered, flaky and unsweetened, this is the ideal staple for the Kashmiri wazwan or wedding feast, where the objective apparently is to ensure that the married couple receive an early inheritance. A lighter leavened version is the taftan, which is baked with a hint of saffron and cardamom. The stuffed prontha, heavy with butter and potatoes (or grated cauliflower or radish) is Punjab’s contribution to the Indian breakfast. The Malabari paratha or Kerala Porotta goes a step further – eggs are beaten into the dough and the roundels are stretched by hand and flipped, a little like classic pizza. (The Malaysian roti canai is similar in composition though it is made by rolling and not flipping the dough. Singapore’s roti prata is a standard paratha but made by flipping the dough, a sideshow in hundreds of street food joints.) Bengal has the Dhakai porota. Big, crisp, crunchy, flaky, this fast-vanishing variation is unusual in Bengali cuisine in that it is always accompanied by a vegetarian dish, usually chholaa’r daal.

Some North Indian breads are stand-alones, like the Gujarati khakra and mattha. Light, flaky, almost pastry-like, these are spiced and roasted rather than fried, giving them a long shelf-life and making ideal snacks. Rajasthan’s baati is richer. These baked dumplings are quick-fried for a crisp outer crust and most famously eaten with daal and churma. And of course gobs of ghee. The Bihari version, litthi, evokes nostalgia in a zillion engineering institutions and staff colleges.

Leavened sahib bread is not unknown, as the numerous bakeries in Bandra attest. The real legacy, however, is not English but Portuguese. The poder or traditional baker (though the term is also used for the delivery man) is a part of Goan tradition, his honking announcing the morning delivery of pao, soft square bread that fills the stomach and gladdens the palate. Pao, ideal for mopping up the last drops of tongue-tingling curry, is the accompaniment to spicy vindaloo and sorpotel. Mumbai’s pao bhaaji can only be a wan poor cousin! Pokshie and katre are other avatars of pao, distinguished by their shapes (pokshie is also more crusty). My Goan friends swear that the secret ingredient is the use of toddy instead of yeast for leavening. Poie or poee is Goan brown bread, fat, hollow and often “butterfly” shaped so that it can be broken by hand into four pieces. Generations of grandmothers swear that it is “ideal for diabetics”, an assertion supported by modern medical science.

Man does not live by bread alone? Enough already! Pass the butter.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Stranger than fiction

Some reports are so completely WTF, one can’t comment on them. Like the lead story in The Telegraph today.

Money quote - “She as an unchaste woman had defendant 1 (Tiwari) as her paramour even during the subsistence of her marriage...”

I laugh that I may not weep.

Update: Why is The Telegraph the only paper following this story? Not even the sensationalist TV channels have taken it up. Strange.

Bhairavi for my balcony

It’s still too early for the glow I’m looking for. But in the coolness before full sunrise, the air itself is green, cloaked with the washed-clean fragrance of our trees. I place the jar of biscuits on the balcony table, arrange the book and the phone and the ashtray, draw back the chair and freeze in sudden realisation.
I am becoming my father.
This is exactly what he does when he’s here. The deliberate arrangement of things on the table, placing the chair at a precise angle, one ankle hooked over the opposite knee as he waits for his tea. I’m even drinking tea these days instead of my usual dark fresh-brew. But my father drinks Darjeeling, just so. Not thick milky pau patti.
And he has never in his life worn psychedelic parachute-silk boxers.

On one branch of my krishnachura, the bark has acquired a metallic sheen, more bronze than gold. The sun is breaking free of the horizon’s haze. Seven shades of green come to life over the balcony railing. A tiny bird flutters out of the champa tree, confused by a falling leaf. The sunlight is papery, wrapping itself round the first wisps of smoke from the laundryman’s earthen stove in the next lane. The morning smells fresher, yet more languid than the soggy bouquet of the monsoons. Autumn in Calcutta.
The climbing sun glints into my eyes, batters on the morning coolness, warms my neck until a slow trickle of sweat signals the end of dawn. A bicycle bell drops into the pool of birdsong, I can almost see its ripples in slow motion. Then a rolled-up cylinder of newspapers arcs onto the balcony and lands with a satisfying thwack. My tea arrives.
The day holds promise.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

regarding the world with a jaundiced eye?

Outside my window the autumn sun lights up the buildings in the next lane. A squadron of dragonflies does formation flights over the mango tree. Pujo weather, except that the Pujo has come and gone and I’ve spent it right here, flat on my back watching the light change on the trees, listening to the dhaak and the mantra paath in the mandap downstairs. Lots of commiseration from friends for missing the Pujo eats, but what I really missed is the adda in the old red-painted thakur dalan on Ekdalia Road. We sit there every year from shondhi pujo to shnidoor khela, catching up with friends and acquaintances, comparing notes on the year gone by, revelling in the entire milieu of laal paar and chunot kora dhuti and the flock of pretty women bustling to and fro on errands too abstruse to be comprehensible, grinning at the family banter, wondering at how the kids have grown with each passing year, just soaking in the atmosphere. For someone like me, who’s not very big on family ties, it’s an annual immersion in the clan and at the same time, an affirmation of the self.

So this year I’ve missed it. Or most of it. I did get one Sunday afternoon with friends and beer while the sound of knashor ghonta floated up and the ladies fluttered in sudden panic over being late for the pujo. The rest of the time, really, I was just too sick to care.

But being sick isn’t so bad. I can’t remember the last time I spent an entire week at home. One. Whole. Week. Haven’t even stepped out of the front door. How strange. No office, meetings, dinners, cocktails, gym, library. No Saturday-lunch-and-shopping, no let’s-try-that-new-place-for-dinner. No stopping-by-the-office-to-send-off-a-report. Nothing.

Instead … a succession of books. The Kite Runner. Sea of Poppies. A Dibdin. More fruits and fruit juice than I’ve tried in the last ten years – apples, pears, grapes (SUCH grapes!), papaya, grapefruit, custard apples, pomegranates. The Better Half, who normally never enters the kitchen, is cooking up a storm. Watching television – it’s been so damn long since I did that. Or just lying in bed watching the light change, hearing the cheep of sparrows as the sun climbs and the long cawing of rooks as twilight deepens. All sweetened by the additional sound track of VSP pitter-pattering about the house singing to herself, happy that Papa’s not “going to office” for the longest time.

I could get used to this. Far too easy.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The more things change

On this blog, I tend to stick to faff, and not just because I’m shallow, superficial and petulant. I (still) have a day job as a civil servant. My conditions of service include certain restrictions on speaking on public issues. But sometimes I just have to let off some steam.

I worked for six years in the industries department in West Bengal. This was on the cusp of the turn-around, when my smart-alec friends equated my department with the Swiss navy. It required a change in mind-set, more so because I was straight out of a district posting. But it was interesting. I spent the better part of two years traipsing around the state and the country with my bag of samples, holding my tongue and patience when faced with supercilious CEOs, putting together “data-sets”, making endless presentations, negotiating with brash investors (the kind who’ve suddenly made the transition from trader to industrialist). And I made a big mistake. I started believing in my work. Not wise for a career civil servant.

I was only a small part of a large team, but I felt good when the results started to show. For a while, we all believed in the change, in the new Bengal. Which is why the Singur fiasco hurts all the more.

The basic issue was the right to property. Can the State take away your private land for a public purpose if you don’t want to sell it? I’d say yes, up to a point. You may not agree with the purpose, but the State has to (theoretically) act for the greatest good of the greatest number. But as I said, only up to a point. And in any case, the compensation for taking away your property should be at least equal to market levels.

What constitutes public purpose? Building a highway (or an inter-galactic bypass – ask Arthur Dent), or a sanitised zone, or even an industrial estate. Is it public purpose if the industrial estate is to be privately owned and operated? On balance, no. The private entrepreneurs can negotiate and purchase their own land. The State should ensure speed and transparency, publish clear estimates of land value, speed up documentation and transfer.

There’s a catch. Once industry starts buying up land, prices shoot up. Fine, pay more – that’s the law of the market. But what if you buy 980 acres out of the 1000 you need, and then get stuck because of 20 acres right in the heart of the project area? Could be any reason – price negotiation, political pressure, sheer cussedness. It’s happened to me, a 200-acre project was stuck for months because of 9.47 acres. So does the State have a responsibility to step in and sort out these problems for a huge private project? In the Singur case, did the State do the right thing by being pro-active and acquiring land themselves?

Perhaps not. But right or wrong, the whole process could have been far more acceptable given greater transparency. Why didn’t the West Bengal government make public at least the broad terms of the agreement with the Tatas? If we can’t see it, we can’t trust it. So up to this point, Govt. acquisition for private use = negative marks and lack of transparency = negative marks. 2-0 against the Govt., so far.

Having made these mistakes, could they still have made the best of a bad deal? Most certainly. By offering compensation at market rates or better and publicising it. They could have recouped the extra expenditure from the Tatas, maybe called it a speed surcharge, development costs, whatever. In a project of this size, one can’t have full consensus. But the Govt. could have more effectively addressed the grievances of the unwilling land-losers. That would have reduced the opposition to the project and the political fall-out.

Now to the specifics. Once the Opposition had made their point about adequate compensation for land-losers, once the Governor had stepped in and brokered a compromise, why did the process fail? First, because of one woman’s insistence that 300 acres of land within the project area would have to be returned to farmers. Bloody ridiculous. Much more honest to come right out and say, take your project and sod off, we don’t want you here. Second, because the Govt. could not deal separately with the Opposition’s demands – a political issue – and their methods, which broke the law of the land. Perhaps a third reason too – despite the huge media criticism of the Trinamool actions, this Govt. has never had any clue of public relations or media management.

End result – the project is stalled, 1000 acres of land are now useless and a few thousand residents of Singur are bankrupt. In effect, the last two months have pi… washed away most of what we worked for in those years. Yet again, vindicates my decision about my last career move. But it still leaves a very bad taste.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Hack wok

(Just an example of what I do for pelf. Published under the imaginative title "Wok our way")

In the 1970s, a Calcutta lad moved to Bombay and ended up performing as a limbo dancer. He moved on to work as a chef in Geoffrey’s and eventually set up his own restaurant. Which became, to put it mildly, very popular. Because it took Indian Chinese upmarket. This, boys and girls, was long before you could add a handful of chopped coriander and a dash of turmeric to chicken broth and pass it off as fusion cuisine. The man in question was (of course) Nelson Wang, but his contribution to the culinary map goes beyond China Garden. Nelson Wang gave the world Chicken Manchurian.

Now Chicken Manchurian has nothing to do with Manchuria (and in some versions, sadly enough, precious little to do with chicken). Wang himself has said that he named this mongrel dish after the region of Manchao which is traditionally viewed as barbaric. But the simple expedient of soaking batter-fried chicken dumplings in a spicy chilli soy sauce opened the flood-gates for the million “Chinese” restaurants that now serve “Hakka noodles”, “golden fried prawns”, “sweet and sour chicken” and “four treasure vegetables”. And, of course, everything from chicken to cauliflower “Manchurian”.

This is the essence of what we proudly call “Calcutta Chinese” food – any faintly Chinese ingredients spiced up with large amounts of fresh garlic, ginger, and hot chillies, “like ramped-up curries minus the ground spices”, as New York’s Village Voice put it. It may not be Chinese, but boy, does it sell! And it originated in an eastern corner of Calcutta called Tangra, which is special because it is possibly India’s only Chinatown At least three Chinese eateries in New York named “Tangra” attest to the universal popularity of Tangra style food.

Purists like the formidable Ram Ray, one of Calcutta’s premier foodies, tend to look askance at this version. For them, authentic Chinese cuisine in Calcutta means either the Bengal Club, where the signature dish is the sesame prawn toast, or the Chinoiserie at the Taj. The Pan Asian at the ITC Sonar Bangla, as its name suggests, is not limited to China alone. Chefs Pramod and Harpavan recommend the sautéed jumbo prawns and pine seeds in hot garlic chilli sauce (xiang shong ren xia ren. What, you didn’t want to know?!) and the chien tzu, wok fried vegetables with rice wine and pepper.

The Chinoiserie prides itself on its authenticity – even the chillies for the chilli paste are flown in from China. Kim pao is the Shanghai style duck at the Chinoiserie, spicy and flavourful. They also serve an aromatic crispy duck, but the piece de resistance is the Beijing duck with Mandarin pancakes, served usually with sweet bean sauce but with goy sin sauce available on demand. If you can’t make it to Quan Ju De in Beijing itself, this comes pretty close. (Having tried both, I can vouch for it.) Chefs Lian and Srinivas wax lyrical about their dim sums. Having tasted these, I can see their point. Served wrapped in reed leaves in traditional Chinese fashion, these include the authentic glutinous rice with pork, the yang bao or rasin bread with mildly spiced lamb (which stays fresh and succulent inside the dough) and a real work of art, the hargao or Cantonese dumpling with a shell so thin it’s translucent and one can see the pink fresh shrimps inside.

A number of Taj personnel have struck out on their own, the best known being the Red Hot Chilli Pepper chain. Their fried rice was superb, mainly because they cooked the rice in stock and not water. Nowadays, however, they have had to adapt to the Indian palate rather than stick with authenticity. Perhaps authenticity is affordable at the Chinoiserie alone, where a meal for two would set you back by at least 3500 rupees.

Mainland China on Gurusaday Road also serves dim sums including hargao, but they are closer to the Bengali heart and palate (and pocket!). Their crackling spinach – ideally eaten with honey ginger sauce – is quite wonderful, but they pride themselves on the steamed fish in lemon soya sauce and the jumbo prawns in chilli bean sauce, both innovations by chef Rajesh Dubey. In other words, variations on a Chinese air, to suit the Bangali babus.

The premier fish dish, however, is served by Josephine Huang of Eu Chu. Tucked away on the first floor behind a petrol pump on Ganesh Chandra Avenue, this eatery, started in the 1910s by Mr. Huang’s grandmother, is a cult among Calcutta foodies. Josephine’s steamed soya fish is different from the usual Calcutta Chinese. A whole young bhetki is grilled in a sauce of rice wine and ginger with black beans, then served with scallions, chives and Chinese parsley. Her signature dish, Josephine noodles, is a mixed platter of pan-fried, slightly crisp noodles and mixed meat in an egg-based sauce with a hint of soya. Not found in China, perhaps, but very good indeed. Eu Chu (meaning Europe) is also one of the last bastions of a Calcutta favourite, chimney soup. This was most famously associated with How Hua on Mirza Ghalib Street (Free School Street as was), but that venerable institution, alas, has given up the ghost. So now Josephine Huang will serve your chimney soup made to order, with the unique flavour imparted by the charcoal grill in the centre.

The standard Tangra fare these days is more Shyambazar than Shanghai, more Patiala than Peking. The more popular eateries – Kafulok, Beijing, Golden Joy - are full of Bengali clans clamouring for what is essentially Bangali food with noodles added, spiced with cumin, coriander, and turmeric. Some dishes even feature yoghurt! Dishes are by default served with generous helpings of gravy, although they can also be ordered "dry" or "without gravy".

There’s a short-hand to interpreting the menus here. Chilli means hot and batter-fried, Manchurian dishes (even cabbage Manchurian!) come in a sweet and salty brown sauce, and Szechwan dishes come covered in a spicy red sauce. Large portions, strong on the palate, but not the taste of China. If you want that in Tangra, you have to seek out Kim Fa (The Old Man’s Place or Old Man Kim’s, though the ancient proprietor’s real name is Hsien). This little eatery serves beef belly in fermented lime with vegetables, or fried and served with rice wine – hot favourite with the local Chinese population. You can also get whole roast suckling pig, Chinese style, but this requires an order to be placed two days in advance. One day to marinate it, one day to cook it slow. I must make special mention of Auntie Chung and her husband, who don’t run a restaurant but cater a fabulous ten-course spread at Chinese weddings. Starting with roast pork, this gastronomical orgy also includes steamed chicken, authentic four treasure vegetables or chow ka tan, fried fish in a hot and sour sauce, seafood and meat dumplings with fried bread, sui mai, mushrooms with shark’s fin, and kwang, which is scallops with egg and carrots. Possibly a test of the newly-wed couple’s powers of endurance!

Calcutta’s Chinatown was earlier centred round Tiretti Bazaar in the heart of the trading district, and the Chinese breakfast there used to be the stuff of legend. These days it is a pale shadow, with a few straggling stalls set up in the early morning on the sidewalk behind Poddar Court. Most of them sell greasy fried abominations that are neither Chinese nor appetizing, but some still offer good sui mai (though I’d steer clear of the prawn), noodle soup, moon cakes or nyat biang, and variations of the Chinese fried bread, bao, best eaten with kongee or “rice soup”. Not haute cuisine, but substantial and very cheap – you can eat your fill for fifty rupees.

There used to be some family-run restaurants in this area too. I still remember the foo yung rice and kup tai mei foon (rice noodles with what I thought was pork liver, turned out to have kidneys and heart as well!) in Tai Wah on Synagogue Street, but it’s closed down now. Chin Wah in the next lane is still open, but it’s just a more wholesome version of the sidewalk stalls outside Writers’ Building that peddle “chow mein” during the lunch hour. In fact most of the Chinese eateries of the 70s and 80s are now closed or made over. Peiping on Park Street was the place to go to once upon a time. They served a wonderful breaded pork chop that, for strange reasons, was labeled “French” on the menu. Gone with the wind, alas, as is the quality food at Jimmy’s Kitchen near the Theatre Road corner which once claimed to have invented sweet and sour chicken. (The essential ingredient, of course, is pineapple chunks). Over on Central Avenue – sorry, C.R. Avenue now – the venerable Chung Wah still retains its unhurried charm and the same staff who served my father. Their Mandarin crab and chicken rice in oyster sauce are not only flavours of the past, they are also delectable examples of Calcutta Chinese cuisine.

Which only proves my basic point. Chinese food as she is ate in Calcutta may taste more of the Indian karhai than the classic wok, but it is still a unique culinary experience and well worth trying.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

think twice ... another day for you and me in Paradise

Two days in Goa, but I didn’t get to the beach at all till afternoon on the second day. If only my friends would believe I was running around for meetings all that first day. Airport to hotel, one hour. Check-in, hate room, change room, unpack, wash – 45 minutes. Drive back to Panjim for meetings – an hour and a bit. Meetings – three hours. Check on retail outlets – an hour. Drive back to hotel – one more hour. So all I had time for was a sambucca lime – mixed to perfection by Gladwell – and a very mediocre dinner. And it rained buckets the next morning. So much for jogging on the beach to a mental soundtrack of “Eye of the Tiger”.

But …
Back of Calangute beach there’s a little neighbourhood with little roads and little houses and little sleepy Sunday afternoon noises. Thing is, they have these Sunday noises all week long. And trees. They have trees like Delhi has Marutis. One of these little houses – half hidden by trees, of course – has a name on the gate. “Mrs. Villa”. Now I haven’t quite figured out whether the house is married, hence the “Mrs.”, or whether the lady of the house is … well, as big as a house.
But this isn’t about Mrs. Villa. Right across from that interesting address … No, let me tell this the Goan way, which is nice and easy. And often backwards. So this little house is down a little lane. And if you’re travelling in from town, you have to go down past the Newton Arcade. Only you take the turn before you reach the Newton Arcade, OK? Go figure. A hundred metres down the turn-off, there’s another turn-off to your left. You park your car under the nearest tree and walk through the open space in the wall (across from “Mrs. Villa”), and you’re at Literati.
Which is where I’d love to be, any given Saturday. (It’s closed on Sundays, alas.)

It’s a bookshop. In an old house in Goa. Near the beach. Under the palms. You walk up the tiny garden path (which is also a tiny-garden path), step across the verandah (first taking off your shoes if it’s muddy outside. It was. I did. Once the Lady asked me to) and you’re in Divya Kapoor’s dining room, which may be her living room as well. Large but cozy, you get the idea? And inside, there are three more rooms lined with books. The big hall has all the swank stuff, the new releases, the books awaiting signing, all in neat stacks. The other rooms don’t do neat. They have books in glass-fronted cupboards, books on any available furniture, books on window-sills, on top of the computer. Everywhere. No discernible order. Weird Scandinavian names on books about Buddhism, a couple of Harold Robbins, travel books, an Aurelio Zen (Cosi fan Tutti, which I am liking muchly, thank you), Julian Barnes, Drucker on management (people still read him?), you name it. A most pleasing disorder. Made more pleasant by the fact that these books are all second-hand, hence cheap. I browsed. I pondered. And decided that it was well worth investing in an even cheaper bag for checked luggage. (Oh, not entirely full of books – I planned to buy two large packs of Goan “port”. I have friends who say my balcony is made for cheap plonk and cigarillos on late autumn evenings.)

In between browsing, I made a trip down to the beach before Souza Lobo stopped serving lunch. A barely competent sorpotel, but superb chorize and lovely soft poi bread. It was hard to decide whether the bread was better plain, for mopping up the nice fat gravy of the sorpotel, or juicy and dripping in a garlic bread avtaar that complemented the chorize-with-onions. I debated the dessert, then decided against it. There is such a thing as too much bebinca.

Back to Literati for another hour of browsing, but now the house was quiet in siesta. I sat in an armchair in the inner room ad listened to the punctuated silence of a holiday afternoon (Anjan Dutta describes it best – mone aan chaan kora shei dupur bela), smelled the smell of old walls and old books co-existing happily, browsed and mused a while before I slipped out to the verandah for a cold coffee and a smoke. When I was about to leave, the Lady of the House appeared, quite obviously arisen from a Good Siesta. I asked for the wash-room and was directed to an outhouse. Which was very interesting, because although it looks like any other shed from the outside, inside it has rough-plastered walls set with a zillion glass bangles, mauve fittings and even a potty-shower. And it was so cool inside. I felt sorry that I did not have reason to enthrone myself there with a book, it would have been so peaceful.

That was, more or less, the high point of my two days in Goa. Oh, I got back to the hotel before dark, even went barefoot on the beach, splashed through a little creek and wandered a mile across wet sand with the tide going out, walked until the holiday crowd were specks behind me and the hotel’s lifeguard tower had faded in the horizon haze. By the time I turned back, dark fat clouds had gathered and I had to duck under a beach shack for vestigial shelter. When the rain slackened I ran back across the beach. The raindrops blurred my glasses, the wind whipped in my face, I was running blind across a suddenly alien landscape while the pain in my lungs and legs grew to a roar. But I couldn’t stop. Very liberating, somehow.

Later, after a swim in the huge irregular pool, the loneliness of the hotel dinner and the routine of packing for an early morning start, I went out on the balcony and listened for the sea. Couldn’t hear it, not at all. All I could hear – faintly, thank the fates – was a couple singing old Hindi duets very badly in one of the banquets. So I went back in and curled up under the comforter and read myself to sleep. This trip was like that only.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Say na something JAP Uncle

My morning coffee-break and Bloglines. And I find this on Belle de Jour -
(BdJ’s’ blog is not link-friendly, so here’s the passage that caught my attention)

“in the category of Man to me - no, it's not simply about having the appropriate equipment. A Man does the right thing and has the right attitude and buys you a beer after a shite day and does not expect a fucking medal for emptying the rubbish. Sure they cry, but never for attention. They were my history teacher at school and my housemate at uni. They are not perfect and make no apologies for that. They are the ones played in films by Clive Owen and Shah Rukh Khan"

Belle de Jour watches SRK films? That proves something. I’ll get back to you when I figure out what. Meanwhile, does she know Hindi? If not, who does the sub-titles?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Wednesday night and Thursday morning

Some things are as inevitable as death and taxes. Like the announcement from the cockpit once the lights of Bombay are in sight. Traffic congestion, holding pattern, “40 minutes to land”. Get on with it already. We KNOW we can’t land on time in Bombay, the odds are like hitting six sixes and getting a double hat-trick. In the same match. Why don’t you just shut up and let us sleep?

Sleep PAST the landing, if possible. Because it takes them a quarter of an hour to open the doors. While fat men stand in the aisle, like they have to be the first ones out that door, like it’s the start of a triathlon and not a disembarkation. And no matter whether it’s the morning flight or the late-night one, they’ll stink. This flight, they’ve boarded after a long day. Without showering. It’s only marginally better than the morning flight, when you can make out that some of them have left home without pooping and the prospect of the airport loos has stirred their stomachs.

Haven’t they heard of aerobridges? The bus to the terminal takes forever. They must have parked the plane a LONG way away. Like not just a different postal zone, a different TIME zone. While yet another fat man, oozing over the waistband of his jeans, reaches up to steady himself with the straps. Thus bringing his fragrant underarm to the same level as my face. All the perfumes of Araby etc. The situation is further spiced by the driver taking evasive action. To avoid an AIRLINER. I knew Bombay traffic is weird, but this is taking it a little too far.

This city never sleeps. Traffic – only cars this time – still snarls up the turn-off from the flyover. Which has a pocked surface, the kind caused by water retention. Excuse me? On a sloping surface? What did they use for topping, bread crumbs? And the piety. Prabha Devi, Mahim Church, Haji Ali – all crowded at a quarter past ten. Finally, the turn on to the road by the sea. And hel-looo, what have they DONE on this new building? A huge glass prism that changes colour? If I were in the next building and that monster blinked in my bedroom window, I’d get some RDX!

Fortunately, the buffet is still open when I check in. Who cares about good tenderloin turning into beef jerky, I’m starving. And the café Viennoise (YOU tell ‘em, Amit) afterwards is good. Sleep is slow to come, but I can look out of the window at the winking lights across the water.

The morning smoothes away all the little mind-wrinkles of the journey in. I wake up on the 28th floor, looking out on the bay. Tiny boats, wave patterns, cloud shadows, lines of surf, and the new towering Bombay skyline. And for the cream swirl and cherry to top off the morning, my first meeting is cancelled. Carpe diem!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


One week of absolutely mindless work doing stuff that I am not the least interested in but have to do anyway because it pays the bills. One week of getting Ideas that fade out before I can open another window (other than one spreadsheet, two bloody awful memoranda of agreement and one weekly report that reads like it was written in that ­dhaba near Karnal). One week of wishing I were somewhere else. And someone else.

So here I stand, head in hand. Or rather, here I sit, full of … you get the picture.

So I went and watched Rock On!! (complete with the exclamation marks) and was seriously underwhelmed. Only Arnab, blast his keen little eyes, has gone and reviewed it already and I agree with him. So no post on that film. At least not now. In any case, I was seriously disturbed and considered counselling because for a fleeting moment I found Koel Purie hot. Which is rather like lusting for T Rex. Or Mayavati. Whatever.

And I was supposed to Do Some Research over the weekend - on Chinese food in Calcutta – and now the Small Determined Person who commissioned it is nagging me on e-mail. Merely driving home the sad fact that I cannot even write on things I like. AND reminding me of my Douglas Adamsian attitude to deadlines. (This one was on the 7th)

And I had a day trip to Delhi yesterday and loved it. What’s with the traffic over there? Next time, I’ll take my sneakers and WALK everywhere. It could be faster. Seriously. From the corner of Malcha Marg till the Taj, we crawled along behind this woman in a TIGHT pink shirt and WHITE pants that looked ghastly because she was too fat to fit into them. She was on foot. In stilettos. My capital city, zipping towards the Commonwealth Games.

Then I beat my own record by falling asleep in the terminal. With short breaks for boarding, disembarking, reaching home and faling into bed face first.

I wish I were still there.

PLUS Blogger is acting cute. Gerfkkk.

On the up-side, I found this blog and I yem lurrving eet.

Monday, September 01, 2008

A matter of respect

Sister Maria of the Loreto Mission has spent her life changing lives. She teaches, nurtures, helps children who live on the sidewalks of Calcutta. Twenty of them came to the Academy of Fine Arts last Saturday to sing for her. Loud young voices raised in a hymn of thanks. They were singing about God.

As far as I’m concerned, Sister Maria is their God. She – and we – were there because Ashish Vidyarthi loved his father. And because he chose to show his respect for the late Govind Vidyarthi by instituting the Vidyarthi Samman. To acknowledge the people who don’t hit the headlines, the people who touch our lives but go unnoticed, the people we end up taking for granted. Four people were felicitated this year. Biswanath De from Malda, who for 65 years has worked in a form of folk satire called Gombhira. Hemendra Chandra Sen, who for 50 years has made the instruments that Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan play. Debi Haldar, make-up artiste in Bangla cinema for 53 years, and an invisible part of the work of Satyajit Ray. (This last is especially poignant now that make-up has been accepted as a category in the National Film Awards). And of course, Sister Maria.

Govind Vidyarthi, born TK Govindan, was one of those people who earn respect without demanding it. You can read about him here. I never met him, or his wife Reba, but I didn’t need the tributes from Nadira Babbar or Shyamanand Jalan to understand the kind of people they are. It’s evident from the son they raised.

The evening was a humbling experience. First, because of the four awardees and their silent achievements. Their humility. Their dignity. And again, because of the effort that Ashish puts into this every year. From making the arrangements for the awardees’ transport and accommodation to taking time out from his killing shooting schedules to go buy the angavastrams himself. To honour his father’s principles and his father’s memory. My father is special to me, but do I show it enough?

After the awards, Ekjute staged their play Dayashankar ki Diary. Nadira Babbar’s script is matter-of-fact, realistic, well-developed. Very relevant to the theme of the evening, because it deals with a man in the opposite situation to the four awardees, a man who sees no dignity in his situation, derives no satisfaction from his condition or his work. It doesn’t preach. A big plus point here, because I loathe preaching. It’s more than funny, it’s satire and an everyman tragedy. And it had Ashish.

You know how, when you have a friend who’s very good at something, you tend to take it for granted? How his special talent becomes invisible from close up, because it’s just what he does? Well, Ashish is this good friend who just happens to have a National Award. I tend to focus more on his camera (Nikon D200, thank you very much. I have impure thoughts about it, the kind that a younger man might have about Jessica Alba) and his text messages from weird places at weird hours. It took 90 minutes of Dayashankar ki Diary to wake me up. Ninety minutes, hell, I was kind of open-mouthed after 9 minutes. I forgot - this man is an ACTOR! Day-umm.

I won’t forget it again in a hurry. Thanks, mate.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Somewhere in our minds there is a disconnect between the blog world and real life. We read all these posts and are happy about how clever and wise and funny and incisive we are when talking about the world’s problems, but of course bloggers don’t have problems of their own.

Reality struck back yesterday.

Lalita Mukherjea died. She stayed her lovely self through a painful battle against cancer. On Monday, after weighing the balance between the time gained and the pain endured, she stopped her medication and went her way. On her own terms. As usual.

She was … well, she was a wonderful person. We only met three times, but every time I was aware of a personality that was stronger, wiser, kinder. I won’t presume so far as to say trite things about a person who had such innate strength and, really, goodness. Read her blog. Her character is evident in every line.

Rest in peace, Lali.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

7:48, and some heroes

A majority of my readers (that is, 5 or more) have said I’m pedantic. That I’m finicky. A few (i.e., 3 or less) have even said they spell-check their comments because I might point out errors. I am aghast. As a double drop-out, I don’t know enough to ped any ants. But I do hate bad spelling and bad punctuation. Which is why THESE guys are my current heroes. Go for it, Herson and Deck!

Another unlikely hero came into my life yesterday. Very Nice Colleague was in my office for a meeting. Received a call on his cell-phone. Spoke for a while. Tried to explain that he could help out the caller, but only if he were given a complaint in writing. Now VNC is a totally chilled person. Suddenly, he burst out in Hindi – Abbe b*****i ke, tu kar le jo karna hai! Haan record kar le, sun aisa kar, loudspeaker on kar aur poora Connaught Place ghoom le!

It was a little like seeing Federer spit at a line judge. Parallel universe. Turned out it was a call from a collection agency – some lady in his office had defaulted on a payment to ABN-Amro and they wanted him, as head of office, to Make Her Pay. After he’d pointed out politely (about 11 times) that her personal loan was her personal business and he really has no jurisdiction over it, the caller from the collection agency threatened HIM with dire consequences. At which point he lost his cool. (The caller hadn't realised that VNC is a Bihari, not a Bong)

We carried on with the meeting. The same guy kept calling. After the 15th call or so, I answered the phone. And thoroughly, oh so thoroughly, enjoyed myself. Sample exchanges (pardon the Pnjaab-bi and the lack of translation, but I thought the accent would make him feel at home)

§ O jee, aap ka naam kya ai jee? Kalra? Aap Pnjaab ke ai? Naeen? Jee ey to Pnjaab-bi naam ai jee. Ya to aap ke purkhon mein se koi Pnjaab se aaya owga, naeen toh koi Pnjaab gayee ogee, ai naa? Aap smajh rae ain naa?

§ (Later, when he had shouted at me thrice and used the familiar tu) Jee aap kee tehzeeb toh lajawaab ae – aap Lucknow ke ain jee? (Nahin be, main Ludhiana ka hoon!) O jee, aap ne mujhse jhoot bola jee? Aap ne toh kya tha aap Pnjaab ke ain naeen? O jee thays pauncha jee, aap mujhse jhoot boley? MUJH se?

§ Jee ae Archna kaun ae jee? Manne kahaan milegi? O jee baat sun lo, ladkee se gal karni ae toh himmat rakho, khud jaa ke gal kar lo jee, humein beech mein mat laao.

§ Baat bataao, aap ka is Archna se kya rishta ae? Darte kyun ae? Kya aap shaadi shuda ae? Nahin ae? Jee aap ke maa baap bhi shaadi shuda nahin the? Parampara ae kya?

§ Kya jee? Eddrass likh loon? O jee main kya likh paoonga, aap jaisa parha likha kahaan hoon, hota toh main bhi call centre mein na baith jaata?Kya? Meri naukri pyaari hai ki nahiin? Jee naukri toh bas naukri otee ae, aap mujhe doosree naukri dilwaogey kya? Main toh tyaar hoon.

§ O jee dil chhota na karo jee, maa-baap ne aap ki padhai adhoori rakh dee toh aap ka yeh haal, toh kya hua, aap bhi sattoo besan ke pakore bech ke trakki kar sakte ho jee.

§ Jee aap gussa thook do jee, aap ka blad prashur barh jaawe toh call centre mein toh madkel banfit nahin hogi, hai naa?

After 7 minutes and 48 seconds, spluttering incoherently, he hung up. With the promise to call again. And again. Sadly enough, he hasn’t kept his promise. I miss him. Come back, Sandeep Kalra who collects for ABN-Amro. I SO enjoyed our conversation. See, I could even introduce you to the nice people at ToI who swiped Twilight Fairy’s photo off her Flikr album, printed it in their paper and then offered her 1500 bucks “because they hadn’t asked her in advance”. Such nice people, no? And maybe they didn’t have the time to ask her because they were busy Leading India and Teaching India. Teaching ethics, presumably. Bloody hypocrites.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Line maaro!

Diamond Harbour, winter of ’91-’92. A lovely bungalow by the river, gentle breezes, a flowering garden and a huge verandah with rattan-seat armchairs (“easy chairs”) to sprawl in,. Yet my strongest memory of that idyll is … Tnuk-tu-tnu-tuk, tnuk-tu-tnu-tuk … dekha hai pahli baa-aa-aar / Saajan ke aankhon mein pyaar. The world may have forgotten Saajan - and Sanjay Dutt’s horrific mullet that claimed direct descent from Attila’s helmet - but it is seared into my memory. Thanks to the convoys of picnickers on every holiday, all of them playing that awful number as loud as they could. Strewth!

There should be a list of the Top 10 Bloody Awful Super Hits. How about Tu cheez badi hai mast mast from Mohra? Or more recently, Crazy kiya re, which is doubly loathsome because it is picturised on my Least Favourite Actress of All Time. In the dim and distant past, there was Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy and a series of ’80s atrocities by Bappi Lahiri and his clones (youngsters, think Anu Malik with fewer instruments). Nominations, anybody?

But this post was triggered by happier things. Bongo Pondit’s take on memorable Hindi film “dialogues”, which somehow appeared on my sitemeter this morning. Do Hindi films still have separate credits for “Dialogues”? The taali seeti line seems to be a thing of the past, it’s been replaced by camera angles and the heroine’s navel. Sad. I appreciate Shilpa Shetty’s .. errr… acting as much as the next man, but I’d trade in the entire crop (down to Sherlyn Chopra and Geeta Basra) for one line like “Dawar Sahab, main ab bhi phNeke huey paise nahin uthata hoon” Taaliyaan!

OK, before we start, let’s leave out Sholay. That was the film that started “dialogue karaoke”, with the entire audience murmuring the lines as they were spoken on-screen. Take a look at the others from the ’70s. Before the Amitabh era, there was Anand and Rajesh Khanna’s Zindagi aur maut toh upar waale ke haath mein hain jahanpanah. The repeat in the last scene (remember Maut, tum ek kavita ho ?), the sudden Babumoshaaaai as Dr. Bhaskar Banerjee sobs over Anand’s corpse, still sends chills down my spine. Another isspessul Kaka line was Pushpaa, Pushpaaa, I hate tears in Amar Prem, but that is remembered (and caricatured) more for his delivery than the line itself. How about “Understand? You better understand!” from Seeta aur Geeta? This line – recycled by Sridevi in Laadla (?) - was Salim-Javed writing for Ramesh Sippy before Deewaar happened and they became THE Salim-Javed.

After that, of course, the deluge. That great line from Deewaar quoted above. I prefer that to the jatra sequences of Jaao us aadmi se likhwake laao or Mere paas Maa hai. Zanjeer gave us Jab tak baithne ko kaha nahin jaaye, sharafat se khade raho. Special appeal because my SP once did something very similar with an MLA in the face of a 2000-strong mob. Amar Akbar Anthony had a couple of great exchanges between Vinod Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, my favourite being Haan saab, bahut phemus hain … bade bade akhbaaron mein chhoti chhoti tasweerein chhapte hain. And that drunk scene in front of the mirror (lifted from Charlie Chaplin), Eeydiut lagta hai tu, pakka eeydiut … SRK has now made the Don lines his own, but pliss to remember that they originally gathered chauwannis in 1978. (The multiplex crowd have never seen sweepers fighting to be the first to clean up after a show. People really used to throw coins at the screen.).

The ’70s were also a great period for comedies. Golmaal, Chupke Chupke (Dharmendra wasn’t even nominated for an award for that superb performance!), Rang Birangi, Angoor –they all had their lines, but mostly in context. Utpal Dutt made the most of that late scene in Golmaal – Main tumhe Benaras ke pede khilaoonga, Kalkatte ka rasgulla khilaoonga, Dilli ke laddoo khilaoonga … nahin toh police ke dande kaise khaoge betaaa? He also had one of the best last lines in Indian cinema, when – as the sublimely named Inspector Dhurandhar Bhataodekar in Rang Birangi – he leaped from his chair roaring BR Chopra ko pakad ke laao! Some years later Chashme Buddoor took forward the self-referential humour. When Farooque Shaikh started a motorcycle (a Yezdi. How many of these kids have SEEN one?) that Rakesh Bedi and Ravi Vaswani couldn’t, they shrugged it off with Tu toh is film ka hero hai.

Slipping into the ’80s, there was the I can waak Ingliss I can taak Ingliss sequence in Namak Halaal, but that was really about The Amitabh Show rather than the script. And of course Rishtey se tera baap lagta hoon in the Second Coming crafted by Tinnu Anand, or the Vijay Deenanath Chauhan line from Agneepath (OK, that was 1990, so what?) Dammit, weren’t there any paisa wasool lines by any other actors during that period? Big B has wiped out an entire generation of leading men even in memory!

No no wait – there was ONE ’80s film that was a cult in itself. Who can forget the Mahabharat cheer haran sequence in Jaane bhi do yaaron! The gloriously misplaced Bhaiyya, main iska zubaan khNeech loon?! The plaintive refrain of Shaant, Gadadhari Bheem, shaant! And the sublime moment when Naseeruddin, having replaced the original Duryodhan, announces nonchalantly Humne cheer haran ka idea drop kar diya hai. JBDY deserves a post in itself, it’s still the acme of dark comedy in Hindi cinema and pretty much near the top 5 among all comedies (if not all Hindi films, but then what do I know).

The late ’80s also had Mogambo khush hua, something we oldies still trot out after a good meeting, but on the whole those years were a little arid in terms of GREAT lines. (What the ’80s had in trumps, really, was Names for Villains. Shakaal. Dang. Mogambo. Kanchha Cheena. I mean, what were they smoking?!)

I have some off-beat favourites from the ’90s onwards. Daud (1997) was a Ram Gopal Varma flop that I liked, especially for an exchange between Sanjay Dutt and Urmila Matondkar in the second half of the film (when they – and the audience - still don’t know each other’s names) –

SD – Toh teraa naam kya hai?

UM (after some Attitude) – Daya Shankar

SD (stunned look)

UM – Kyon? Kya kharaabi hai is naam mein?!

SD (hurriedly) – Nahin, koi nahin. Acchha naam hai.

UM – Toh teraa naam kya hai?

SD (deadpan, turning away) – Uma Parvati!

And Neeraj Vohra with Yeh mere shikaari the, jo bahaauuutt bade pitaji the. Silly to the point of perfection. Where have you gone Sanjay Chhel, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you (especially after horrors like Welcome). Chhel gave Sanjay Dutt another good throw-away in Khoobsurat, again opposite Urmila - Par tu toh maal hai naa Shivani?

There were some heavyweight moments in the ’90s, like Ye dhaai kilo kaa haath jab kisi pe uthtaa hai and Judge order order chillata rahega aur tu pit-taa rahega in Damini. The real line in that film, however, was Taareeqh pe taareeqh, which has echoes of “And the oranges must rot, must be forced to rot” from The Grapes of Wrath (the book – I don’t think it’s in the film).

Then there was Jhankaar Beats, with Shayan Munshi threatening Rahul Bose – Tumhe maloom nahin mera papa kaun hai? And getting his come-uppance with Nahin. Kyon, tumhe nahin maloom tumhara papa kaun hai? There were moments of divine inanity in some David Dhawan films, my favourite being Govinda’s obviously ad-libbed Hum toh bas underwyaar underwyaar khel rahe the in Jodi No. 1.

All in all, it’s the gags that stay in the mind these days. Cheat Update - Yes, I loved Rangeela, Aamir was superb, but the good lines were gags rather than the de taali high drama types. I vaguely remember Andaz Apna Apna and my surprise that Hindi cinema could come up with such throw-away gags, but I also had the impression that the lines were better than the Khans' timing could do justice to. Maybe I was wrong, I shall try and rent it over this long weekend. I like SRK’s line Kaun kambaqht bardaasht karne ko peeta hai, but this, like Don, is a direct lift from the earlier version. Where are the movie lines that resonate in the memory, that stay alive long after the movie has sunk? Is it because the scripts don’t value the big dramatic moments, or is it because actors try to Be Cool rather than heroic?

I’d love to get some feedback on this. Before I’m reduced to googling for “Great Lines By Harman Baweja” or “Mohit Ahlawat – the Director’s Cut”. And hey – how many women in Hindi cinema have had great lines? Forget Meena Kumari, leave out Basanti – what are we left with? Sharmila Tagore in Mausam with Yeh bilayati sharaab saala bahut haraami hai? C’mon, I’m an old MC. Show me the great lines from women.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Auric Goldfinger

His company's web-site doesn't say anything about world domination, but he's ended a 112 year drought. Not all Bindras are controversial.
His Wikipedia entry was updated within an hour of the news. Shows a certain amount of confidence, since it must have been ready in expectation of the medal.

Now to wait for the Colonel's showdown on 12th August.

Update: The Colonel blew up on the launch pad. And I was horrified that the ToI used "Goldfinger" in their headline. Rather than conclude that I have started thinking like them, I shall Assume They Read My Blog. (Now to identify the Other Six Readers. Stand up when I call your names ... )