Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Strike two

Fellow citizens, beware of being a public personality. Especially beware of being a public personality in Mumbai. And if you have the misfortune of being both, better learn Marathi pronto.

If certain individuals in Mumbai are to be believed, not speaking the language, even though you've stayed here for decades, is tantamount to being a traitor. Never mind that Hindi is our national language; never mind that you, as an individual, have made significant contributions to the pride and culture of your country.

What's the point of all this? Gujarat is all for Narendra Modi, not because of his ideologies, but because of all that he's done for the economy and security of the state. Ditto for the State Government in Delhi. Given that Maharashtra is plagued with even bigger problems, aren't there many other grassroots issues for over-enthusiastic politicians to handle? Issues that would give them the necessary political mileage and lots of positive press, and in the process, also create some benefits for the aam junta.

Marathi is already a compulsory language or a compulsory third language in many schools, and generations of non-Maharashtrians speak it with more comfort than their so-called native tongues. Vijay Tendulkar's plays are just an instance of how popular Marathi literature is.

And if the concerned gentleman feels so strongly about his Marathi antecedents, why not organize poetry reading sessions and other literary activities that would induce people to know and appreciate the language? Why is it that so many public reading rooms are closing down, when the Marathi language has such vociferous well-wishers?

As usual, issues are made out of non-issues for some quick brownie points; while the real issues languish by the wayside, along with the scores of people they affect.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

mi mumbaikar

In the big cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, my locality is a microcosm, a small sample of what the city at large stands for and entails. One of my first thoughts after coming to Mumbai was how easy it was to integrate into the city and its lifestyle. Despite Shiv Sena bandhs, loud exhortations about 'immigrants' and the growing stronger by the day 'Marathi manoos' stand, my faith in the city's fundamental pluralism is unchanged.

But that faith suffered a serious dent recently. Overnight, nearly every shop in my locality has undergone a transformation. Hastily painted cloth banners or signboards or strategically inserted words in the original signboard proclaim shops' names in Devnagri script, ostensibly to say that the shop does have a Marathi signboard. Never mind that people haven't bothered with translation; the speed with which the change occurred meant that the Marathi language had to make do with transliteration from English to Devnagri.

When you've invested lakhs of rupees in setting up a business and spend most of your living hours in growing it and make it profitable, it's fairly understandable that you don't want a bunch of hooligans swooping down to attack and loot your enterprise. Principles and culture don't come into it--it's all a matter of saving your life and belongings.

And that's where politics of the 'danda' scores. Common people are vulnerable, because their livelihoods often depend on the very resources that are attacked by politicians and their supporters in the name of community or religion or culture.

If it's a matter of a mere signboard change, most traders would willingly oblige. Consumers wouldn't care much about that signboard, most of them find it a blind spot after the first few visits anyway. Most languages, including Marathi and English, don't lose or gain; they're too powerful on their own to even suffer the slightest scratch. MNS and Raj Thackeray gain a few column centimeters of print space and a couple of airtime hours; some lawkeepers get a chance to earn their wages; some people are disgusted, while I guess some do feel that it's a victory for the 'Marathi manoos'.

At the end of the day, all that I feel is a bad taste in the mouth and a frown in the mind. Not enough to anger, nowhere near enough to galvanize into action. Just a mental shrug and a sinking thought of where all of this will end.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Memories of a weekend in Alunda...

Alunda is a typical village off NH8 that links Mumbai to Ahmedabad. The closest town is Wada, which is probably the size of, or smaller than, Lokhandwala. In good weather (read roads that haven't been ravaged by the monsoon) and average traffic conditions, the distance between Borivali and Alunda takes about two hours. My in-laws have built a cottage on a plot in Alunda. Their society is surrounded by the hills and lies adjacent to a vast tract of adivasi, agricultural land. Here are some impressions from a recent visit to that haven of silence and peace.
  • The first view from the bus of a green carpet of paddy fields, tall grass, lush trees and swollen rivers and ponds
  • A lazy afternoon with the sound of the wind through the garden, the occasional birdcall, and the constant tinkling of wind chimes
  • Untamed greenery almost five feet in height, growing thickly, running over every bit of available soil
  • Watching spiders build webs to catch their dinner; a bulbul's nest on a frangipani tree; a chameleon concealing itself on the trunk of a drumstick tree
  • A spider and its tiny web on a leaf, caught under a dewdrop in the early morning
  • The ride back home in a Qualis, accompanied by the owner of the car who wasn't too confident about driving on the highway; the local panwallah who acted as driver due to his prior work experience as a truck-driver; and the local odd-job man who came along because "I want to see Mumbai, aur hamare gaaon ki gaadi jaa rahi hai."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

e by Matt Beaumont

A new author, a new format, and generous helpings of contemporary, Dilbertian humor. The book's called e, and it's written as a series of e-mails floating through the computers of the various characters that inhabit an advertising agency.

The story's told brilliantly and the characters etched out wonderfully through the e's, as they're called. You get to see everything from petty office politics to high-level corporate intrigue, crises, deadlines, affairs... you name it and it's there. I've never been on edge to know what would happen next in a book that's supposed to belong to the humor genre. Apart from a couple of P. G. Wodehouse classics, I've never read a humor book more than once. And very rarely have I laughed out loud at something I'm reading in a crowded Mumbai local. Clearly, this book was a harbinger of many firsts.

The Unchanged Value of Things

As a child, I remember making an 'eeks-I'm-going-to-throw-up' face at the sight of cream or 'malai' in my glass of milk. I also remember my mother trying to use every bit of malai. She collected it in a bowl by skimming it from the top of cold milk, one or two teaspoons every day, till she had enough to make butter. She would then spend a precious evening making pure ghee from that butter. When she kneaded atta, she ran the dough through the empty milk vessel, to collect the cream stuck in it. If they could have afforded it, my parents and many more people of their generation would probably have bought and used full-cream milk; my parents often talked about the taste of curd made from that milk.

Today, my generation can afford full-cream milk. We can buy a whole pack of cream from the supermarket without a second thought. But, when we see malai or ghee, we think 'saturated fat' and 'high cholesterol'. We'd much rather buy olive oil, which is much more expensive than pure ghee or cream ever was.

To a generation that valued it, it was out of reach. To a generation that can reach it, it holds negative value. Makes me wonder whether value is the inverse of what money can buy.

Friday, May 30, 2008

dilli ka badalta roop

Maybe because I traveled more in this trip, I saw much that has changed in Delhi from even six months ago. Many of those changes may have been building for a while and are manifested now.
  • The much-maligned and much-cursed BRT corridoor has made life tough for private vehicle-owners and auto-rickshaw drivers, but pedestrians have never had it better. The traffic flow is much more organized and crossing the road is a breeze; many roads have the prized commodity that was non-existent earlier: pavements that cyclists do not encroach upon, since they have a separate lane to themselves.
  • The new buses (Tata Marcopolo) that run in these corridoors are a dream. The ride is smooth; the bus design is good; the journey is as fast as it can be in a bus; and people don't crowd the doors. The only thing is that the buses seemed poorly ventilated, due to the strange positioning of the windows.
  • The one thing that Delhi had and Mumbai didn't--precious green cover--is fast depleting. The coming of the Metro sounded the death-knell for lakhs of trees; the regret was palpable in the voices of whoever I had this discussion with, but there was also a resignation to the march of progress.
  • Was I lucky, was I so used to it that I didn't notice, or do auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi throw less attitude at you now? I also figured that the fare calculation is done as follows: average fare to destination rounded to the next high figure + markup of Rs. 10. If the chap wasn't interested in going, he didn't haggle any more, but shook his head firmly. Strangely though, I did not encounter as many refusals this time as I have done in the past.
  • The gap between Mumbai's and Delhi's night-life seems to be reducing. While roads in Delhi used to be dead by 8 pm earlier, I saw a fair amount of traffic, bright lights and activity even past midnight on a Saturday night.
  • Traffic jams, the bane of Mumbai, are multiplying alarmingly in Delhi, despite the fact that Delhi has larger, wider and better roads. Unless it's an emergency, the office hours need to be avoided like the plague.
  • The mall culture has asserted itself with a vengeance. No less than three of these giants stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Saket (more trees destroyed), on a stretch of road that was otherwise desolate at night and only slightly busy in the day. A by-product is that the older PVR Saket bears a has-been look, even on weekends. I am told that M.G. Road in Gurgaon is known as the Mall Road now, because it is infested with shopping malls of every colour and flavour.
  • If Mumbai has Navi Mumbai, Delhi has Gurgaon--a suburb with vast, uninhabited spaces that could take the huge overflow of aspirants who want to make it big in the city. For those who knew Gurgaon for the DLF 'ship building' and 32nd Milestone, it's bizarre and even scary to see the colonies of swank offices with their glass and concrete exteriors, the high-rises that house all those for whom Delhi has become unaffordable, and the frantic pace at which construction activity is still on. While Gurgaon promises a certain lifestyle, I was also told that housing in that suburb is also becoming unaffordable with skyrocketing property prices. Plus, problems of finding parking, increasing traffic jams, and power and water shortages are rearing their heads. In short, Gurgaon's becoming as overcrowded as Delhi.
  • Now for some things that haven't changed. Connaught Place retains its essence, though several stores have shut down and new ones have taken their place. I spotted three Coffee Day outlets this time, which is two more than last time. The emporia on Baba Kharak Singh Marg are the same, right down to the attitude of the employees who work there; and the guys at Khadi still firmly believe that they're doing you a favour by billing your products and packing them. Janpath is much the same, as is Depaul's cold coffee (Thank God for that!). Dilli Haat is the same; shoppers in Delhi's markets are still a pushing, shoving lot; and auto-rickshaw drivers still love to pass a comment or two to relieve the boredom of their existence. The golgappas are the same, though I couldn't indulge as much as I'd have liked to; Hot Choc Fudge at Nirula's is sinful as ever; and filter coffee at Saravana Bhavan and Sagar Ratna is still a taste of heaven. There, I'm looking forward to the next trip already!
  • Nothing about the biggest addition to Delhi--the Metro--you'd notice. A Metro journey is on my wish-list for next time, so I'll reserve comment till then.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Just read...

The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith.

A well-to-do moral philosopher in Edinburgh and the editor of a journal called Review of Applied Ethics, witnesses the death of a young man who falls from the higher rows in a concert hall. She, effectively, is the last person to see him alive as he falls, and feels that she has a moral responsibility to investigate his death. Enlisting the help of her niece's ex-boyfriend, who she herself is half in love with, Isabel tries to probe whether the death was accident, suicide, or murder. At the same time, she tries to get her niece's love life in order, though not with any degree of success.

The mystery isn't much to write about; what comes alive in Isabel's journey is the deep moral choices we face, and more often than not, choose to avoid--telling the truth vs. lying, forgiving vs. punishing, and so on. The slices of philosophy fit interestingly into satirical comments about Edinburgh culture and society and quiet insights into the human condition.

Though several parts of the book were quite interesting, one that stayed with me is set on a bus journey that Isabel makes late at night. The other people on the bus are a man in an overcoat who seems oblivious to his surroundings, a couple absorbed in each other, and a teenager trying to make a statement with his attire:

"Isabel smiled to herself: a microcosm of our condition, she thought. Loneliness and its despair; love and its self-absorption; and sixteen, which was a state all its own."

Another interesting part was Isabel's conversation with a man who has piercings all over his face. She wonders how any girl would like to kiss this guy, and so forth, and then asks him why he has these piercings. That's quite a philosophical conversation too.

Our moral dilemmas and Isabel's perspectives on them make for just the right kind of reading--thought-provoking but not self-consciously so, warm but incisive, leaves you with a smile, but also with several questions.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The sunset of life

'I'm going home', the thought used to both excite and comfort me. Now, it brings with it the realization of the vulnerability of age; the helplessness of seeing the world whiz past, uncaring of the slowing footsteps of old age; the frustration of being energetic and productive and not having enough to do; the loneliness of having time for your children when your children have no time for you.

Why is life assumed to be over after 60? Why is 'retirement' such a crucial stage in an individual's life? Why is youth so dismissive of old age, when that's the future of everything? Why do people over a certain age think that they should not dream, should not desire, should not aspire; and why does society at large endorse that attitude? Is there a way of leading a productive, contented, happy life at that stage? Any answers, anyone?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

A soap I like...

Airs on NDTV Imagine, at 10 pm, Monday-Thursday. It's called "Jasuben Jayantilal Joshi ki Joint Family". I never thought a day would come when I'd be hooked to a daily soap; but here's why I try not to miss this one.
1. A really beautiful, bright, cheerful, optimistic, educated, forward-thinking female protagonist, aka Jasuben
2. Well-etched characters, who actually dress and talk like my Gujarati and Marathi neighbours
3. No three camera angles in each shot, no background music comprising blood-thirsty exhortations
4. Everyday situations and everyday humour
5. Reasonable pace for story movement, credible twists in the tale
6. Fine performances--very believable and likeable
7. No poisonous relative plotting to make life miserable for everyone else
8. No business or political rivalry
9. No grand conspiracy theories
10. No Melodrama

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A New-Found Love

"It's therapeutic for me," a friend had once remarked, referring to the daily chore of cooking. In Mumbai, more than in Delhi, cooking is largely an outsourced task. Breakfast is on the run, if it is more than a cup of tea or coffee, that is. Lunch is usually provided by the famed dabbawalas, the school or office catering service, or ordered from the zillion Udupi-like joints dotting the city's landscape. For dinner, most working couples rely on a cook, who will make a full meal of sabzi, dal, roti and rice.

I sometimes wonder at the big fuss we humans make of our meals. We need each ingredient prepared in a certain way--fried, boiled, steamed, microwaved; flavored with specific spices, whole or ground. Each component then has to be ideally paired with another--garlic bread with baked veggies; pita bread with hummus; pasta with wine; roti with sabzi; sambar or avial with rice; puri with chhole.... And then we come to dessert, which is the main course for many people. While we spend ages stocking up on ingredients and planning and preparing our meals; in the animal kingdom, and in much of the human world, the fight is for getting a meal at all. Sometimes, the food aspect of our lives seems an obscene waste of time to me.

At other times, the art of cooking is completely fascinating. How the same vegetable is cooked in different ways in different regions; how certain ingredients are combined to provide unforgettable flavours; how all the senses are tantalized through the act of cooking are all extremely interesting. The learning process of trying out and perfecting a new recipe is endlessly exciting.

Feeding a hungry person was supposed to be one of the biggest acts of punya in our ancient literature. I think it was not because of just filling the stomach; it was about providing a sense of peace and satiation that can only come from a good meal. There's always a little bit of the cook in a well-prepared dish; that's what lifts a meal above the level of food.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I want to write

That's a common refrain of many aspirants who want to become journalists. A subset of these also believe that they're award-winning material. Which is all good, except for the sad fact that a very large subset of these don't know the first thing about writing.

Apart from being extremely personal and subjective, the art and technique of writing cannot be easily defined. At the very least, good writing needs to convey information without confusing the reader. At its best, a well-written piece touches a chord with the readers.

Good writing is not merely stringing together grammatically correct sentences or using big words. Journalists, particularly, are also afflicted with the desire to sound knowledgeable about their subject. Most cannot resist the temptation of either sounding pedantic or cynical, to show that they're above the subjects of their writing. Slowly, this attitude seeps into life as well; which is why many senior journalists are pretty unbearable human beings.

Copy editing or reviewing a piece of information almost always holds the same dilemma for the editor--how much to rewrite and how much to let be, especially if the writer in question is obviously awful, but has too big an ego to see that. Of course, the writer could say the same thing about the editor's ego. And so, after a tough mental debate, I try to carve out a fine piece from the rough copy handed to me, and make it appear as if it was the writer's intention to do so. If I succeed, the finished product becomes my object of joy; if I don't, well, it's still better than what it was. And as you can see from this blog, I want to write too.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The library round the corner

I haven't seen this one in Delhi for at least two decades, but it might exist in the nooks and crannies of that city that are unknown to me.

In Mumbai, however, at least in the large residential area where I stay, there are three or four such libraries, and only one of these deals in books and movies. The other two are solely books--English, Hindi and Marathi.

One of them is the size of a kirana shop in the less affluent parts of Delhi. It's managed by three women--who take turns to come and sit there, aided by a young boy who can climb up to the top shelves to retrieve books. The monthly rates are nominal, less than what one brand new bestseller would cost. There are no fines and no limit on how many books or magazines you can read in a month.

In the surrounding glitz--there's a row of boutiques three shops down, three eateries, toy shops and grocery stores, and even a jewellery showroom in the vicinity--this place comes as a surprise. It's housed among a shop selling lights, a doctor's clinic, and a vegetable vendor, which is strategic positioning--people can visit it on their daily grocery shopping trips, or while returning from office. The bigger surprise is that the library seems to be doing well on the usual fare of English bestsellers, Hindi classics, Marathi novels, children's books and loads of magazines in all three languages. I guess just like roti and rice, some reading is also a staple in every diet.

Have nothing better to do?

If you literally have time to kill, go watch Jodhaa Akbar, the most pointless extravaganza to come out in a long time. At my most charitable, I can commend the movie for the following reasons--Hrithik Roshan's thoroughly convincing performance, the music and the background score, and to a small extent, the authenticity with which the settings have been recreated. Otherwise, it's a masala potboiler, which the makers have tried to lift to the scale of an epic.

You might, of course, do better by renting the DVD of a film called 'Sideways'. It's hard to describe the genre of this one--it's a dark comedy; it has elements of satire; it's a road movie; it's a love story...it hits you at many different levels.

For Nears and Dears

I don't know if anyone uses this term for their loved ones (is this one still around?) any more. But in the past month or so, I've got acquainted with, met or spoken to more people than I come in touch with in an average month in Mumbai. The number, by the way, isn't much in either case.

Living away from family and friends whom you've grown up with gives a detached perspective to relationships in general. The emotional need of connecting and sharing is overridden by the needs of here and now. In short, you learn to fend for yourself; you learn not to feel lonely; you learn not to have expectations of people. So far, so good, but then, all that has to be unlearnt every time the near and dear ones come visiting or you go to your 'native place'. That's the unending dilemma.

Being pulled in different directions undermines the belief that you are in control. Seeing others make demands of your thoughts, opinions and emotions makes you wonder, and in my case, it also makes me feel out of my depth. Visits to the 'native place' are uncomfortable in one aspect--you're back where you started from, but though you've grown beyond it, the starting point hasn't changed that much. Thinking about going home makes me full of nostalgia and happy memories and the joy of seeing everyone again, but once I get there, I'm in the middle of a tug of war. A part of me has grown up and away from it all, and another part is deeply entrenched in that house, those people, the very air of the city, so that even without realizing, I start living through an old mask. I find myself shaking out of it with a supreme effort, trying to reconcile these two parts of me. By the time I achieve that, I'm back in Mumbai, and the tug of war starts again.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Finally saw...

Manorama Six Feet Under and Johnny Gaddar.

Every Bollywood year-end round-up rated both as cult movies that weren't appreciated in their box office runs. For once, the journalists weren't exaggerating.

Apart from story, visual treatment, and really strong scripts, I'd recommend the first for well-etched characters and stupendous performances; the second was a treat for its breakneck pace and clever layering. And the man who can make Rimi Sen act deserves a standing ovation!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Very near Perfect 10

Ignoring my lifelong crush on Aamir Khan, Taare Zameen Par gets a 9.5 rating on my scale.

Here's to many more movies from one of the few 'rebel' actors of this generation.

Farewell to Chanakya Cinema

Nobody who's grown up in Delhi in the too-few-foreign-films era could have missed this theatre. Fans of Nirula's icecreams (me included) had one more reason to hang out here. The madhumalti-covered arch and the fountains outside the food joint made it a great place for economy dates too.

Since my school was in the vicinity, we saw several movies on school trips at Chanakya. I can remember Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Jungle Book, and The Ten Commandments. The first time I watched a movie in the front stall, during college, was at Chanakya. The movie, still a personal favourite, was Forrest Gump. Tom Hanks sat on a bench, and a white feather (or was it a snowflake?) floated down as he talked. I felt like I could reach out and touch it. Before the days of Dolby and Surround Sound, this was immersive cinema.

The theatre had individuality, it had class. It was one of the few theatres where women did not feel that men had come to watch them, instead of the movie. It was also one of the few theatres where you could spend time and 'hang out', instead of rushing through the movie and heading home. Apart from Nirula's, momos at various stalls were a hot attraction. A couple of shacks with glamourous names and dhaba-like interiors enabled financially challenged college students to spend time with friends over food.

All that will change now to the assembly-line multiplex model, with swank food joints, mind-boggling arrays of snacks and beverages, a million places to shop, and skyrocketing prices. It's not only a theatre that will be left behind. We would have turned our backs to a way of living where what you spend was not an indicator of how much fun you had.

'We're living in a material world,' sang Madonna a long time ago, but it's truer today than it was then. If all concerned will make lots of money from the deal, no amount of feeling can save the theatre. It was several days ago when I heard the news of Chanakya's demolition, and I'm still trying to reconcile to the sense of personal loss. More than a part of me, a part of the city I love is irrevocably lost. There is one less reason to feel proud of Delhi, one more reason to feel that there where the march of money is concerned, there isn't much difference between one part of the country and the other. I wish the ASI had taken over Chanakya as a heritage site, but history in the making is often ignored in favour of 'progress' and 'development'.