Wednesday, January 19, 2011


“I went down to the sacred store / where I’d heard the music years before / but the man there said the music wouldn’t play”. I guess that’s a pretty good indicator of my attitude. Lines from a 40-year-old song (“American Pie”, from the 1971 album “American Pie” by Don McLean and no, it was not originally a Madonna release!) most aptly sum up my nostalgia for the not-so-distant past. Yes, “dinosaur” seems an appropriate term. “Old coot” would be pretty close too. But you know what? I’m not the only one. Why is the music of RD Burman, who died 16 years ago, still the No. 1 choice for teeny-bopper parties?

But let’s stick to what I started out on. The “sacred stores”. The old curiosity shops we used to find everywhere from Park Street to Palm Avenue and Putiari. Places we went, to buy books, bedsheets, buns. Places that are now replaced by aisles with fluorescent lighting and bright green signage that says things like “Home Furnishings”, “Bakery”, “Personal Care”. And I mourn their passing. Now we have malls. And retail chains. Even wannabe malls. Clean, comfortable, air-conditioned, efficient. And with about as much character as a styrofoam cup. Give me an earthen bhNaar any day. Or, as a sign of special favour, a four inch tall glass with ribbed sides. That was Pandit’s acknowledgement of regular customers. Pandit, who ran his little paan-cigarettes-tea-and-occasional-hash kiosk near the corner of Palm Avenue and Ballygunge Park Road, who took two years to grant me Most Favoured Customer status and who vanished some years ago. Now all we have is coffee shops and Chai Junction. Wonderful in their own way, but hey, would they open up the shop and make tea for us at midnight when we’re wandering home in our cups?

These labelled counters, now. All very systematic, but why does the Wife prefer traipsing the hot sweaty aisles of Newmarket, popping into stores that have remained unchanged since before she was in school, wading through multiple layers of samples laid out on the counter, leaving and coming back three times before she makes a purchase? Why not pop into the nearest mall, read the signs, check the price-tags, bag the choice and step into the check-out line? One big reason is that malls don’t let you bargain. It’s something a woman needs. It’s her version of hunting-gathering, blood sport. Tracking, stalking, going for the kill. It’s all there in the bargaining process. (Including the disappointment of the one that got away.) You can’t do that in a mall. Not everybody has as much pizzazz as the protagonist of Anurag Mathur’s “The Inscrutable Americans”, who could haggle over the price of toothpaste in an American supermarket.

And there’s the personal touch. Oh yes, when malls were a novelty we loved rubber-necking at the glitz and the brands. Then it wore thin, and we trickled back to Newmarket and Russell Street and Gariahat. And so loved it when we were welcomed back like family, by store-owners who had seen us grow up, who had seen my wife graduate from buying school uniforms through party wear to saris . And now, school uniforms for our daughter. Even shop assistants who have been in the same place for 30 years, the ones who would offer my wife a soft drink when she dropped by from college (it was such a treat then!) and now have to be dissuaded from spoiling our daughter with caffeine-sugar fixes. Think about it. Do you see the same people manning the aisles at your local mall, two months running? Isn’t it nice to see a familiar face, more so when it’s somebody you’ve haggled and fought with for years on end? Because the same guy, after he has griped about how you’re cutting his throat and starving his family, will offer to keep your purchases behind the counter while you go shop some more. And then send them to your car. Try that at your check-out counter some time.

And then there are the personal icons. I love Kookie Jar, but the real jar comes from realizing they’re now 25 years old and no longer the new kids on the block. But for shortbread and cookies and above all plum cake, can we desert the eternal Nahoum’s? Shop No. F-20, Newmarket, all dark wood and old glass and the sweet sweet smell of baking, still lorded over by the venerable David Nahoum, third generation of his family to sit behind that counter. Or Kalman’s on Free School Street, where I buy my sausages. Not certified and hygienic behind glass, but made fresh in the back room while the ever-smiling Joy asks me whether I want my ham sliced thick as usual. Or even the dark cobwebby raftered thick-walled neighbourhood “homoeopathic dispensary” with a thousand tiny vials behind dirty glass in cupboards of carved mahogany 80 years old. Can they be replaced by gleaming steel-and-glass chemists’ shops?

All summed up in another song from the dim and distant past – these are “places I remember / All my life. Though some have changed /
Some forever, not for better / Some have gone and some remain”
. The past is a different country, but sometimes the borders are blessedly blurred.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Speaking in tongues - variations on a theme

A few weeks ago I was indiscreet. Presumptuous, even. Despite my semi-literate status, I ventured to criticise some aspects of formal education. And paid the price. My learned friends squashed me in no uncertain terms. They dismissed my criticism as no more than petulance at a system I had failed to master. No doubt they are right, and there is a deeper truth than I can comprehend to the practice of studying statistics for the purpose of not making causal correlations. But back in the day when I was struggling ineffectually to understand the mysteries of calculus, it struck me that even mathematics actually requires you to learn a new language. Before you can start applying numbers to advanced maths, you have to acquire a new vocabulary that incorporates bits of Latin, Greeek and sundry parts of the English alphabet.

This was something I realised from my helpless struggles with trigonometry in school. In fact, Bangla college slang uses “tan” as a synonym for incomprehensibility. Our state of stunned incomprehension could well have given rise to conspiracy theories like the one so drolly presented by E.V. Rieu in that little-known gem, “Hall and Knight, OR, z+b+x=y+b+z”. ( One quatrain from this masterpiece will suffice to illustrate my point:

'How hard it is', said Mr Knight, 'to hide the fact from youth / That x and y are equal: it is such an obvious truth!' / 'It is', said Mr Hall, 'but if we gave a “b” to each, / We'd put the problem well beyond our little victims' reach.

Utterly delightful.

In all fairness, the liberal arts take more pains to clothe themselves in robes of language rich and strange. In 2000, the University of Monash in Western Australia developed a computer program to generate essays on deconstructionism starting from a few phrases. The web-site categorically states that “The essay (generated) is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator.” I believe they had to take the program offline because their own students started using it for assignments. There was also a report of trouble in the groves of academe when this program fooled one of the foremost experts on deconstructionism.

The rumour may well be true, because going by the experience of my very learned cousin, these learned treatises may actually be rarely read. This cousin was sending out a paper for peer review, and left the computer for a while. Whereupon her sister (also an academic) inserted the words “Bare Naked Ladies” randomly into the text. Sixteen times, once for each expert it was to be mailed to. My unsuspecting cousin mailed off the text and soon received puzzled queries from about 5 people about the strange phrase. What is more revealing, however, is that the other 11 learned reviewers sent back their opinions with no mention of the interpolation!

It’s not just academics. Every kind of expert, whether anglers or astronauts, develop their own special language. It’s a kind of initiation rite. It’s most evident in that very bright and very self-assured breed, the management consultant. For more details on that, go here.

Here endeth ...

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Looking back

2011 seems like a great year so far. No disasters reported, no coups, tsunamis, recessions or even a major scam. There has been at least one uplifting event already, so the year has started well. On the other hand, there are critics (well, at least one critic) of my opinion. And in this case, a sample size of one is also a majority of one, because the critic in question is married to me. The essence of her criticism – or what Bertie Wooster might call the res, gist or nub – is that one cannot pass judgement on the year at 9 a.m. on 1st January. In fine, it is too early. She also says, in no uncertain terms, that sausages-for-breakfast does not qualify as an uplifting event.

Oh well. Since higher authorities will not let me pass judgement on 2011, I must retreat to the dim and distant past. Specifically, to 2010. Which seems to have been a good year on the whole. Except perhaps for the Democratic Party in the USA. Or marine life in the Gulf of Mexico. And Ricky Ponting’s Umpire Education Policy. And Arun Nayar, who found that safety-pins cannot hold a marriage together. Or the Indian Railways in Uttar Pradesh, where 6 accidents were reported in January 2010 alone. And the General Post Office, Kolkata, where employees were taken to task at year-end because they could not achieve unreasonable targets (such as delivering letters on time, specifically a letter from the Home Minister of India). Further, this was not a good year for bond salesmen and stockbrokers in Greece, or for that matter in Iceland or Portugal. There was some talk of an economic crisis in Spain as well, but all calls to their Ministry of Finance yielded only a recorded message at about 98 decibels that went “OLEEEEEEEEE!!! GANAMOS!!!” (We won). Apart from these, 2010 seems to have gone off well.

It was also a very moving year. The earth moved early and often (no, I am not referring to intimate experiences.) In January, an earthquake in Haiti touched 7.0 on the Richter Scale. In February, there was an earthquake in Chile that touched 8.8; since the Richter Scale is logarithmic, that means it was nearly 100 times as powerful as the Haiti earthquake. The earth wasn’t done yet – it moved again in April in Qinghai, China; in June off the Andamans; and in October off the coast of Sumatra. And these were only the major ones reported! As a result, People magazine and Times Now had to change their definitions of movers and shakers.

2010 also saw major advances in scientific inquiry. Psychics and clairvoyants in Kolkata examined the possibility of grafting on six more arms apiece, but were baffled when informed that an octopus also has a beak. Later, conspiracy theorists had a field day when Paul the Octopus died. The most popular theory was that somebody had asked him to predict Rajinikanth’s death. In related news, Diego Maradona finally stopped throwing players off the team when it was pointed out to him that he had himself been thrown off the team. Elsewhere, scientists declared that they had developed a car that can run on water. As long as the water came from the Gulf of Mexico. On the other hand, some scientists expressed fears that if the oil spill got worse, we would have to start drilling for water. Unless the oil spill was diluted by melting ice caps, because global warming seemed a very real menace in 2010 (though trains tangoed in the fog in January and monkey-caps bloomed all over Calcutta in December). The issue had come to public notice much earlier, when almost-President-of-the-USA Al Gore won an Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth”, the highest-grossing PowerPoint presentation in history. Unfortunately for him, that did not cause any significant change in US public policy, such as declaring him the President.

The year that saw the rescue of the Chilean miners ended with a different kind of digging out. Julian Assange caused consternation when Wikileaks spilled the dirt on many governments, but allegations of an entirely different kind of leak dumped the dirt on him.

India has had its share of drama in 2010. The most heartening aspect was the spirit of innovation. Such as the provision of snakes in the Commonwealth Village, purportedly to make athletes from wilder climes feel at home (there is no truth in the rumour that the snakes story was really all about Gujarati catering). Or the proposal to solve one of India’s most contentious political issues by commissioning a temple-cum-mosque on the site – under the able stewardship of the CWG Organising Committee. Lalit Bhanot, poor man, caught some flak with his comment about Indian standards of hygiene; so much for speaking the truth. In related news, the External Affairs Ministry learnt of the existence of some countries only when these countries threatened to pull out of the Games.

All in all, 2010 was a rich period of history. We must, of course, limit our scrutiny to those events reported in the mainstream media; as is well known, nothing can really have happened unless so reported. Which may mean that one Ms. Radia does not even exist. Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned – we aren’t quite done with 2010 yet!