Monday, July 30, 2007

I am a Malayali

With no offence meant to my brethren from Kerala (some of my best friends belong to God's own country), presenting a clip I was forwarded a few days ago:


Friday, July 27, 2007

Blogging in the Time of Commentators

Of late, I've been trying not to contribute to my comment box, the reason being I do not want to push up the number of comments with 'Thank yous.' I have seen posts that have, say, 20 comments; and when you open the comment box, you find that 10 of them belong to the writer who is expressing gratitude to each commentator individually. Therefore, the '20 comments' figure is not only misleading but also meaningless. In any case, a heart-felt 'thank you' is supposed to be felt, not spelt out. Every sensible commentator will know that his or her comment has been read with a deep sense of gratitude.

Still, I felt compelled to reply to an 'anonymous' comment on my previous post, but I decided to stick to my resolution. Then I realised there's a more effective way of replying -- by writing a post. The commentator, obviously a very well-meaning one, said:

If only i was an editor ... i wld ve removed the first three paras from this art coz they are unnecessary and have been written just to attract the attention of the readers, according to me!!

Just to attract the attention of the readers! Now, isn't that we all do? We write for readers, and if we fail to attract their attention, we have failed as wordsmiths. Why else do editors insist on 'catchy' headlines and intros? When a story has to be told, it has to have a beginning, middle, and the climax. That is why it takes filmmakers three hours to tell a story that can be told in four lines: Girl meets boy. They fall in love. But there is a villain. The villain gets killed and the girl and the boy get married.

Most Indian movies are based on these four lines, yet people watch all of them and have different opinions about each of them. And that's because of the narrative -- the way each story is told. So it's not a crime to capture the reader's attention: in fact, it's a necessity.

But to be honest -- and do trust my honesty because a glass of sparkling, golden liquid is sitting on the table -- I don't feel obliged to attract the reader's attention when I write a blog. My only obligation is to write in a manner that it can be followed easily by anybody -- even my driver, if he ever were to go online and check out Ganga Mail.

If my posts begin in a certain way, that's because that's the way I am thinking at that moment. Most often, I do not know what the next sentence or paragraph is going to be. One thought usually leads to another, and only when I realise I've made a point I try to wind up. Though there are times when I write a post with the prior knowledge that I am going to make a point. But even then, what is the hurry in making the point. The blogosphere is your own space: you can stroll to a point instead of jumping to it.

Also, there is something called 'Killing two birds with one stone.' There are times you know you have a point to make, but as you go along, you decide to tackle a few other points that have been sitting heavily on your chest. So if you can squeeze in several points in one post without making it sound jerky, what's the harm?

The real harm would have happened if you, the well-meaning but anonymous commentator, happened to be an editor. Thank God you are not one. But I still love you.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Sex and Spiritualism

Sex and spiritualism: they figure in my Blogger and Orkut profiles as two of my passions. For many, the combination might seem like the mixture of oil and water. What to do, mindsets can be made of concrete. A famous editor of a certain newspaper does not approve of articles related to yoga and meditation because he believes they are synonymous with Hinduism and are unscientific and therefore should not find place in his 'secular' paper.

If an editor, who is supposed to be the embodiment of intellect and knowledge, indulges in such discrimination, you can imagine the horror of a lesser mortal when he finds you glorifying sex on one hand and talking about spiritualism on the other. But what the hell, I shall include scotch as well. Believe me, the cocktail of the three S's can make your stay on this planet really worthwhile -- provided you mix the right quantities.

My recipe for happiness would be: connect to your soul early in the morning; do your karma yoga throughout the day; down a couple of scotches in the evening, and then sex at night. The order could be interchanged, as long as you don't do something at the cost of the other.

But then, it is always easier said than done, and that is why we are what we are, and thank God for that. Imagine a world full of perfectionists who followed a time-table: 6 am -- meditation, 8 am -- breakfast, 10 am -- in office, 7 pm -- drinks, 8 pm -- dinner, 10 pm -- fornication.

So back to the cocktail of sex, scotch and spiritualism; and the people who look down up or laugh at it. Sex and alcohol are often seen as natural partners (therefore the cliched phrase, Wine and Women); but alcohol and God, or sex and God? -- that's blasphemy! But read what South India -- The Rough Guide has to say about the Ayappa cult in Kerala:

"One day, when the two male gods, Shiva and Vishnu, were together in the pine forest, Shiva asked to see Vishnu's famed female form Mohini, the divine enchantress. Vishnu refused, having a fair idea of what this could lead to. However, Shiva was undeterred, and used all his powers of persuasion to induce Vishnu to transform. As a result of the inevitable passionate embrace, Vishnu became pregnant, and the baby Ayappa emerged from his thigh.

"Pilgrims, however, are required to remain celibate...
" And it goes on to talk about the famous pilgrimage undertaken by thousands every year in South India.

Per se, it is a good idea to resist physical desires for 41 days: it cleanses your mind and body. But why connect this abstinence to a God who himself was born out of a momentary physical desire?

But then, somebody -- certainly not God himself -- must have made the rules at some point, and people are merely following it. Just like elderly people in villages still follow the unwritten rule that even the shadow of a low caste must be avoided at all cost. Only the dark corners of the mind are at work, and such people, all their lives, are consigned to darkness.

A God-loving man is usually happy, but a God-fearing man is necessarily unhappy. A God-loving man gives a fuck: he has his own devices to tide over the vicissitudes of life. A God-fearing man, on the other hand, is chained either by insecurity or greed. If I were God, and if a devotee came to me pleading, "Please ensure that my film is successful. If you do so, I shall tonsure my head," I would ask the devotee to turn around and plant a solid kick on his ass.

But then, I am not God. Though I know what God is like. God is sitting right inside you: all you need to do is connect. If you are a thief, and after the day's theft you sit in an isolated place to ponder whether you are doing the right thing, and then you hear a voice from within that says, "You loser, can't you work to earn a living instead of stealing?", you have found God. You don't need to go to Tirupathi and pray, "God, if you rid me of my habit of stealing, I shall donate Rs 501."

Very often, alcohol brings you closer to God like nothing else. Because when you are a couple of drinks high, you are yourself. And that is when God is likely to make an appearance. God hates it when you fake it. So be yourself, and chances are God will rescue you.

But most people behave like coy brides when it comes to God. My mother, for instance. She has a set of 'puja clothes', which she washes everyday and makes sure no one touches them when they are left out to dry. Every morning, attired in those 'fresh' clothes, she will sit for puja, but not before she has personally washed all the utensils on which God has to be served. God's food usually consists of tiny sugar-balls, and when I ask her: "God is the one who is feeding us, so why do you need to feed him?", the staple answer is: "How can I leave God unfed?" If I argue, she warns me, "Don't fly too high, God can always ground you."

I pity her, and I pity the millions of others, who undertake so much of hardship to please a so-called God. Imagine standing in the queue for hours and hours, just for the sake of a darshan, or a glimpse, of the deity. And in those few moments you get the glimpse, you don't even relish the sight of the deity because your heart is busy pouring out dozens of selfish requests. And even before you finish with your list of requests, the priest rudely asks you to move on to enable the next guy in the queue to have his darshan.

India, in spite of its population, has no dearth of vacant places. Such as the beach or the riverside. Even a small temple where people hardly go. So please go there, sit comfortably, shut your eyes and talk to yourself. You will find God. Doesn't matter if you have had a few drinks -- in fact, that would make you more honest. Doesn't matter if you have just had sex -- that would rid you of the burden of lust.

Sitting alone, completely at peace with yourself -- that, according to me, is true spritualism.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Being A Bengali

Last Monday, three things happened to me that made me ponder on my being a Bengali -- if that at all I can claim to be one, that is.

Many of you must have seen, or heard about, Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anand, in which the mortality of a cancer patient is immortalised by Rajesh Khanna. Next to Khanna's performance, the most outstanding feature of the film is its music: composer Salil Choudhury was still on a creative high and he gave songs like Kahin door jab din dhal jaye, Maine tere liye hi saat rang ke sapne, and Zindagi kaisi hai paheli.

Kahin door jab din dhal jaye, like most Salil Choudhury's numbers, has a Bengali version. (Some of them have a Malayalam version as well). The Bengali version, Amaye Proshno Kore Neel Dhrubo Taara, has been sung by Hemant Kumar.

Monday morning, while ritually digging into music on the internet, I found a clip in which Salilda speaks at a function and goes on to sing the same song! For the devotee of modern Bengali music, the clip contains the voice of God. I downloaded it without wasting a second (I've attached it in the end).

Then in the evening, I went to my favourite pub. On one of its walls is a rack displaying some coffee-table books, which I never bothered to look at carefully because I never got to sit near that rack. That evening I did, and I noticed, right on top of the pile, a book titled Satyajit Ray at 70. It was basically a compilation of black and white pictures of Ray captured in different moods and a collection of tributes paid to the director by various people associated with or influenced by him, on the occasion of his 70th birthday. (Ray died soon after). I got a call and that's when I realised that I had already finished a bottle of beer and without even speaking a word to my wife, who was silently nursing her cocktail.

The caller was a friend from Calcutta. I said, "Hello, hello", but no response. When I listened carefully, I heard, in the background, Usha Uthup in full flow, singing R.D. Burman's favourite Puja number, Tumi koto je doore. Pancham has used the same tune in Saagar, at the moment when Rishi Kapoor watches Dimple bathe in the sea, and also for a song in an album being produced by Gulshan Kumar. Gulshan Kumar, a former juice-seller, scrapped the album idea but retained that song, Aaja Meri Jaan, for a movie with the same name which starred his brother. S.P. Balasubrahmaniyam, or SPB, has narrated very often how we was nervous to sing Aaja Meri Jaan but Pancham insisted, "You bloody fellow, that is why I called you all the way from Madras."

The friend came on line only after Usha Uthup had finished the song, and asked: "Shunley?" -- did you hear? God bless her! That's what friends are for: to remember you just at the right time.

Sitting now, in front of the computer, and drinking the only brand of whisky that the neghbourhood booze shop had to offer, and relistening to Salilda's voice, I wonder: why was I not born in Kolkata instead of Kanpur?

In Kolkata, I could have had had a glimpse -- at some time or the other -- of either Salil Choudhury, Satyajit Ray or even R.D. Burman when he came to the city to record the Puja songs. That is besides the pleasure of living in the same city whose streets they walked.

Today, in Chennai, I live on the same street as Salilda's erstwhile guitarist and a musical genius in his own right -- the great Illayaraja. I adore Illayaraja's songs, and am proud that I am his neighbour, but still, why not Kolkata?

I also wonder: who am I? A Bengali who has grown up in Uttar Pradesh? Or a UP-wallah whose mother-tongue is Bengali? Or a Bengali-speaking North Indian who now lives in Madras and loves, apart from RD and Kishore, the Tamil songs of the 1980's?

I have no ready answers. All I know is that my roots lie somewhere in Bengal -- and calm lies in tracing them -- may not be in the physical sense, but at least in seeking to know what Bengal Bengalis are all about. It is like Tamilians in the US watching a Rajnikant film, or being more finicky about rituals than Tamil Nadu Tamils.

As a child, I grew up in the Hindi heartland, with Amitabh Bachchan and Rishi Kapoor as my chief idols. And the songs then were invariably the products of just two men: Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. Yet, when there would be a powercut, my father would tell stories written by Bengali writers or sing Bengali songs. The songs didn't make much sense then, but then, when you listen to something when you are eight or nine, it remains with you forever.

At the time, my Bengali was hardly any good, in spite of my father's short-lived effort to teach me how to read and write the language. After a point, he must have thought: "How is it going to matter whether he can read or write Bengali. He is going to live in UP, after all." For my mother, my proficiency in my mother-tongue was hardly a matter of concern. She always dreamt of me as an Army officer or an engineer or a doctor, who could be speaking even Swahili. She hated poets and writers: she thought them to be sissies.

She also hated people who drank: only on one occasion did my father taste alcohol. I remember that evening clearly -- it was my seventh birthday. Our neighbours -- a retired Air Force officer and his wife -- had been invited over for dinner, and when they walked in, I noticed the old man hiding a parcel behind him. I was certain it was a gift for me, and even more certain when he beckoned me with his finger, as if about to tell me a secret. But all he told me was: "Ask your mother to send two glasses." Next thing I know is my mother admonishing father for having touched the forbidden liquid, and father sticking a finger into his throat to puke out the only drink he had had. Today, the same woman has a man for a son who is an aspiring writer and an amateur poet and a professional drinker.

Coming back to being a Bengali. Well, Hindi was the language I could speak with maximum ease then. Not even English, even though I could write in English well enough to get good marks. Interaction with fellow Bengalis was hardly of any help: I ran the risk of pronouncing 'roshogolla' as 'rosogolla', unmindful that the 'sh' sound is so sacred to the blue-blooded Bengali. Dropping the 'sh' sound accords you the status of an infidel, and there are many infidels around outside Bengal, especially the progenies of people who had settled decades ago. It was 'shomoy' (time) and not 'somoy'; 'shaanti' (peace) and not 'saanti'.

Kishore Kumar came to my rescue. He is one singer who sings with great clarity, be it in Hindi or Bengali. With his songs, you don't have to wonder: "Er, what did he say just now?" His pronunciation is "sposhto" (very clear), as opposed to "sposto". So I began to purify my Bengali by listening to his Rabindra Sangeet. It is a different matter that Kishore Kumar sang Rabindra Sangeet by following the Devnagiri -- that is Hindi -- script. The beauty of the Devnagiri script is that it can instantly make you sound like a sophisticated Frenchman or a Bengali bhadralok.

And bhadralok I had wanted to be. The knowledge of pure Hindi helped too: most words, especially the difficult ones, are of Sanskrit origin. If you know how to pronounce them in Hindi, uttering or understanding them in Bengali is not difficult at all. Soon, I was more Bong than many other Bongs in Kanpur. My father, meanwhile, was attending Hindi classes in his office: it was part of the Central government's drive to promote the national language.

By the time I reached college, we had begun subscribing to only Hindi newspapers; and when I joined a journalism course, my parents hoped I could find a job with one of the local Hindi papers in case I failed to become an 'English' journalist.

Once in Delhi, I met the blue-blooded Bengalis, including my firend-cum-philosopher-cum-guide called Sanjay (originally named as Sanjoy), who took over from where Kishore Kumar had left me. Wine and women were our common interests, and to pursue those interests under his tutelage, I had to learn to think and talk in pure Bengali. Not that he did not know English, but it would have sounded strange if two Bong men did not speak their mother-tongue.

Courtesy him, I got to know the bad words in Bengali first, and then the songs. Many of the songs, it turned out, were the ones that my father sang during the power cuts. I set about collecting them -- not only to affirm my being a Bengali but also to please my father by taking him down memory lane. Father was pleased no doubt, but certainly not excited: he had already been there and done that and was now reconciled to life without those songs. For me, however, listening to those songs not only certified me as being a true Bengali but also helped me reclaim my childhood.

Today, I am proud to be a Bengali, but more proud that I am a Bengali raised in Uttar Pradesh. I have the best of both worlds. On one hand, I gorge upon the songs composed by Salil Choudhury and sung by Hemant Kumar. On the other, I am able to devour the lyrics of Sahir and Majrooh and Gulzar.

The Bengali connection seems to be helpful in the South too. For a long time I took offence to the fact that I was being compared, in the looks department, to South Indian, especially Malayalam, heroes such as Mohan Lal and Jayaram. More than a compliment, the comparision meant I was as fat as them. Or was it my moustache? Anyway, I discovered it helps to be a Bengali while at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala a couple of years ago. The resident priest, presuming that I was a Malayali, spoke to me in Malayalam. When I told him I did not understand the language, he asked, in English: "So what's your mother-tongue?" When I said it was Bengali, he replied: "Ah, same thing!"

Amay Proshno Kore....

Monday, July 16, 2007

Dead Boy Walking

I don't like to be incestuous, but then.

This morning I woke up to a front page picture in the Hindu, which showed Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai patting the cheek of a boy. The caption read: Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai talks to Rafiq-Ullah, a 14-year-old Pakistani suicide-bomber, at the presidential palace in Kabul before freeing him.

Below the picture was the story, headlined: "Pardoning a young suicide-bomber."

How can you talk to a suicide-bomber? How can you free a suicide-bomber? How can you pardon a suicide-bomber? A suicide-bomber is beyond your reach: he is already in the so-called paradise after having blown himself up along with many others.

No wonder the copy, filed by the French news agency AFP, carefully avoids the expression. It only says, at various places, "the boy who was sent to carry out a suicide attack."

Many newspapers these days hire foreigners to spruce up their design. Time they hired foreigners to write the headlines and captions as well.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

I Am In Love

In the beginning, the personal blog is like a pet dog. You feed it everyday, take it to the vet when required, bathe it and so on. But after a while, I guess, it assumes the status of a street dog: you are not obliged to feed it, but when circumstances permit, you throw a bread or two. You know it will survive.

Something similar is happening to Ganga Mail. Time was when I used to wonder: "When to write?" These days I wonder: "What to write?" Am I running out of ideas? I am not, and I better not, for ideas are my bread and butter. Just that I don't know which of the thoughts to freeze on the blog -- there's so much happening, pleasant and unpleasant.

The unpleasant bits can remain buried in my chest. As for the pleasant part, maybe I am in love. Almost everything about love has been written by poets and lyricists, and there is nothing new for me to write, except to recall the famous song Pyaar humen kis mod pe le aaya from Satte Pe Satta, in which Amitabh Bachchan, in Kishore Kumar's voice, hums:

Jab koi ginta hai raaton to taare
Tab samjho use pyaar ho gaya pyaare:

When someone begins to count the stars at night
You know he (or she) is in love.

Those into Hindi movies must be familiar with the song. Those who haven't, please listen to it: the song was composed a quater century ago but can sound fresh for another century. It is one of the rare songs that vouches, at the same time, for R.D. Burman's genius and Kishore Kumar's versatility. Meanwhile, would you like to know how the song was created? Here's how:

Pyaar Humen Kis Mo...