Friday, September 23, 2005


As always, it's raining outside and drops are sliding down my window lazily. There are hundreds of streaks like this, and of dried lines as well on the large glass pane. The concrete below is dark green and the building opposite is dry and wet in places. Beneath some parapets pigeons sit quietly and watch the rain. There is the noise of a busy world from far away, but here everything is nearly still. Right now, a watchman walks by dragging his bamboo stick behind him. Besides him nothing else moves. It's another quiet, contemplatively gray day in Bombay, and just right for a hot cup of adrakchai.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A motor

The drizzle outside was light enough only for a smile and gentle dance, but when a muted clang reverberated in the area as the lights went off, I looked up at the slowing fan, wishing for something more than electricity. It was a vague wish for an impossible dream: a motor for government, the people, and one for me.

Each recent month had brought with it hours of lost power. And there were the disasters, the burst cloud, the collapsing buildings, the confrontations between politicians who were once united, the bar girls. Each day greeted us with a sympathetic smile, and I am certain others felt this as well. It's been a weary summer. The experienced say it was always this way, that this regression is new only to you foreign-returnees. They smile and pat and say "keep going" because the city hasn't collapsed, they say, and their lives are better than they were some years ago and they now have broadband and supermarkets and modern cars, they say. It isn't comforting because "life is better now" says nothing. A smooth road, clear drains, uninterrupted power will say a lot more. It's a place to start.

I don't feel like dancing now. Perhaps tomorrow morning will be better.

Monday, September 19, 2005

The murderer

Indian courts in cinema have been gravely grand, their wood polished, uniforms starched, and the judge’s voice always resonant. A few days ago I wandered into a sessions court and wondered if the court scenes, like the film songs, were filmed in another country. A decrepit stairway led to the courtroom I had an interest in. It was stained red by betel juice, with paint chipping off walls that themselves were crumbling. A constable descended, his fingers intertwined with those of a slight man beside him – whose countenance was miserable. ‘But there are no handcuffs,’ I corrected myself, ‘so they could be friends.’ A few steps behind them a bald, chunky Nigerian followed, holding hands with the constables bracketing him.

The corridor on the second floor was a collection of bored accused, listless constables and smug lawyers. It was strangely chilling to realise that the accused had faith in justice. In many cases, my prejudiced eye had convicted most of them already. There was another discovery, and this brought a rush of panic: the courts branched off the corridor just as classrooms did in school; the colours were familiar, the smells were of the same musky academia. And the manner – how everything came back so suddenly, so quickly without warning! – the manner in which the judge faced the rest resembled countless colourless lessons. The real terrors that school held returned then to affect me in adulthood, and they had grown in ten years to adult proportions.

A bald lawyer with wispy red hair in Court No 4* represented a man accused of possessing 160 kilograms** of hashish. The end of his flaccid nose sloped downwards past his upper lip when he smiled, especially when the sneer followed a question to a nervous anti-narcotics officer. One such instance, when he smiled at me, I looked evasively to his feet and saw, beyond them, a large rock. In a room of straight lines, it stood out as a physical anomaly. For an instant I could see nothing, no judge, no court, but only the rock in violent hands, brought down repeatedly for dramatic effect. A nearby constable confirmed that it was indeed used to take a life. And then I noticed the other articles of evidence lying below the desk near the witness stand.

Bundles of clothes were stacked against the walls – further evidence? – and the ground was dusty. Rusty green filing cabinets stood between doors, and the windows above were opaque now but, one sensed, transparent and less foreboding years ago, when this building was new. And now, though it was known as the ‘new building’, its age was lost in wrinkles.

The courtroom could have been the corridor; whoever wished to observe the proceedings could do so, and could leave when they wished to. If they chose to stay, this is what they would have seen: every question, every answer, was followed by a long pause as the judge dictated words to a stenographer troubled by his accent; the narcotics officer clenched the railing of the witness box when the lawyer questioned his version of events; the lawyer did not know his client’s name, once correcting himself, “Mr. Pringle…Mr.Pingley…whatever his name is.”; and around me the accused sat hand in hand with the police as they waited for their version of justice. Here I felt as helpless as I have ever felt, more than death visiting because death was over in an instant while the court decided the turn lives took, and the courtroom, I realized, was a place not where the sharp distinction between guilt and innocence was found but where the lines blurred.

As the argument continued, a figure sat by me and shuffled closer. “Are you a reporter?” he asked. I said yes, to which he smiled but said nothing, sensing I was preoccupied. It struck me that the people here were not picnickers, so I asked him what he was doing here.

“I am here for murder,” he said with a warm smile. The smile did not soothe the raised hair on my neck or the tightening stomach knot. He used his hands – his free hands – descriptively as he spoke of exactly what the case was about. “This man, this judge,“ he said, “is an idiot. Look at him. He’s joking with the lawyer while we’re waiting for him.” He swept his arm across the bench where there sat a Nigerian, two men in salwar-khameez, and a slight man surrounded by three constables. He repeated this loudly, attracting attention to us momentarily, and I asked him to softly explain why the judge was an idiot.

His reasons were grudging for repeated bail applications had been rejected, and this time was no different. After he made his plea, the judge dismissed him with a wave, and his reaction was surprising. The accused turned to me, grinned through a beard and winked before he was led away, as if he had expected an outcome no different. I understood, but it was an understanding of a different kind. Between the creaky cabinets and unused clothes and open evidence, there didn't seem much space for justice.

*In my interest, the court number's identity has been protected.
**Also, the amount in kilos has been changed, though the actual amount is larger.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The disappearing sidewalk

Past the crumbling road downstairs, behind the parked rickshaws and bicycles, is a sidewalk made entirely of gravel. It is a popular sidewalk when the road jams with cars, buses and taxis attempting ambitious maneuvers. As the option of walking along the road in the busy market becomes less risky during the day, the sidewalk is cast to one side. The gravel remains unstepped on; it feels unfit for its purpose. Under the sun it gathers dust that covers visiting shoes. The rain does it no favours either: it seeps between the gravel to provide a pleasing crunch, but also greases the grip between foot and stone. So we ignore it unconsciously, aware of a vague threat in its vicinity.

Stepping across to my favorite bookstore entails crossing this stretch of gravel. This place has the air of one where progress and construction are imminent. In truth, the gravel has been here for two years. The red bricks meant to cover it have appeared, disappeared, appeared, and recently disappeared once again. Some materials, to fill the gaps between the bricks, recently lay in white plastic sacks in a cluster outside one store. Those too are gone. Anything that is not nailed to the floor or high out of reach has been spirited away. But no one touches the gravel, though one day I believe they will discover its value for sound effects and will scoop it away. Then the road will be stolen, foot by foot, until there is no tar, and then the sand beneath will go too. Underground telecommunication pipes will be the new pavements, before they too are finally gone. Arms spread wide, we will balance precariously on them and dream of murder like Shalimar on a tightrope. Inch by inch, everything will disappear.

Four Septembers go by

Some time after 8:30 the phone rings. It's a friend. "There's a plane stuck in the World Trade Center." I look outside and see smoke rising in the general area of the buildings. "How could the pilot have not missed it?" he continued. "There isn't a cloud in the sky." Of the stories I've heard, this is the one I remember best because it is my own.

Here's one account, by Sukhdev Sandhu, in the London Review of Books:
"A woman trips in the middle of the street and a dozen people all rush to help her. Strangers grasp each other by the wrist or the shoulders as they speak; they suddenly need to feel warmth, a human pulse ... And at every intersection clumps of people stand mesmerised as they gaze at the smoke fluming up in the distance. 'Where exactly was the building?' one asks. His friends aren't sure. Like many of the city's residents they've long taken the skyline for granted. Only tourists and newcomers ever look at it that closely."

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

55 words on 1st-grade love

Their first reciprocated love. They only held hands shyly, uncertainly, and on a vacant seat on the school bus. They were decent people; passion had its limits. So did relationships. She disappeared one day, without warning. In his fever he forgot multiplication tables, then numbers, and finally alphabets. But it was only a passing phase.

Michael Higgins tagged me with the 55-word story thing, so it's all his fault. Take revenge by heading over to his rather interesting site: Chocolate and Gold Coins.

Cold turkey

The Ashes are won, Roger Federer is resting. After months of twists and dips and heroics, all that's left now is India competing with Zimbabwe. If there is art here, it will be of dubious quality. If there is destruction here, it will be unremarkable. Talents are mismatched, the experience is imbalanced. One team has no place in the sport, the other is quickly losing ground. After the Ashes, after Roger Federer, this is what we have to watch: grim faces, unsmiling underperformers, a stern Anil Kumble, an unhappy Zaheer Khan, unambitious running, unconvincing success. There are too many uns here to provide good sport.

And just two days ago Flintoff, Warne and Federer painted our tv screens red. Now there is Ganguly'x XI vs Mugabe's riff-raff. Bring those three back, even if it's only in replays.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Travels to unknown places

At airports, when there is time to kill, I sit beneath giant flipboards that announce where planes are headed and what their current status is. These black boards, with their green and red lights blinking, are magnets for the mind. The plane to Reykjavik is currently boarding at gate 12, and there is a last call at gate 3 for the Emirates to Johannesburg. Beneath it a family dressed for a safari scurry somewhere; a lady struts past, her intoxicating scent whipping those in her wake; everywhere, different nationalities and colours are rummaging and talking and heading in similar directions as they weave through the airport's processes.

Everybody is going somewhere. I am too, but I know what lies there. And so the journey loses some glitter. I know the roads and paths at the other end. The streets will be tarred, yellow dashes painted against their dark surface, there will be a traffic jam there, and it is advisable to leave a tip no less than 17.5% of the overall bill. This is what I will find there. But the other names on this board, they will take me to the Palace of Versailles where forgotten history lessons will come back, to Uluru where the stories haven't changed for a thousand years, to the Bosporus, to cave paintings at Lascaux, to the mosque in Cairo, to the world's great libraries, to the gun markets in Somalia, to where Rai comes from, to the Northern Lights, and to other places that are significant in personal symbolism if not history.

And the names keep flipping, and the signboard taunts, "This is where you could go and you could go there too, and that, my friend, is another flight missed, but wait, there is another in that direction boarding at the gate nine strides away. Go on, you know you want to." And I think, "just wait, it's a matter of time. One day you will run out of names, run out of places for me to visit. Your flips will be useless, every name visited and learnt from in this lifetime. Then you can taunt someone else enough for him to turn red, loosen his tie and say to you, 'That's it, where's my rucksack?'"

But it's just a signboard. What does it know how much it says with a single flip?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Judging books by their cover

Books with badly designed covers make me cringe. Several times in bookshops I pick up the same book and wince, remembering that I winced the last time as well. It is, at that stage, not about the content. The design, the first hurdle, is where I stumble. A beautiful book can be tainted by bad design, and only an honest reprint can salvage it. Personally, I prefer covers that can be used as posters; often these use typography and imagery well, conveying to you in a moment what the book is about.

But design does not stop at the book jacket. How well the letters are spread out, how comfortably spaced the lines are, what typeface to use, how to signify the start of a new paragraph, how to design the title of each chapter; all these are dilemmas decent designers would mull over as one would a math problem or a swish of a paintbrush. Then there is the dilemma of generosity. How much can the designer give to the reader and the author without compromising his own beliefs and chances of an award? But this problem does not apply here. It is the first lot that are a concern at the moment.

Some publishers carpet-bomb us with words; Penguin in India is one of those culprits. One look at most of their books and you would imagine design was something those crazy foreigners with their subversive western influences did for a lark. After all, why spend time on how a book looks if people buy it for its content? That is an argument with no end. But I have empathy for the reader and the author. To be forced with a sea of words printed at an angle in blotchy ink on gritty pages is mildly unpleasant and bloody irritating. To see your manuscript mauled spectacularly and called a book only because it eventually has a fleeting resemblance to one can also be upsetting.

Inspiration cannot be a hurdle. Beside these books lie designs that transform books into even more of a collector's item. The Master and Margarita is one such, as is the sepia-tinted Simon Winchester's Calcutta and Murakami's and Coetzee's books by Vintage. These designs become the author's signature. Look at John Grisham. The Pelican Brief: crackled backround, beveled typeface. The Rainmaker: same. The Street Lawyer: more of the same. (Grisham is being used for the signature aspect, not the quality of design.)

The inspiration is all there. And surely publishers know how much influence good design exerts. How to describe the longing one feels on noticing a well-designed book, regardless of the subject? It is like noticing an interesting person from a distance and being convinced that compatibility is inevitable.

"There is nothing more fit to be looked at than the outside of a book," said Thomas Love Peacock, a 19th century satirist, as quoted in this piece about the history of book covers in the Guardian. A cover can be seductive if the right hands dress it, but this is not the case at the moment. For numerous designers, designing book covers is a way of latching on to immortality. Why not tap these designers who are fed up of designing leaflets and making the client's logo smaller?

Now to the point. What initiated this post was Penguin's (the one abroad) boxed set of 70 pocketbooks. They are of remarkable design, each cover radically different from the last one. They not only appear to have not been created by the same hand, but they transcend nationality and eras. The different people credited behind each book is a reason for this: it ensures that the designer is free to concentrate on one design without worrying about a 'look' for the series. And yet they appear to be part of a set. One that made me laugh had a picture of a gruesome-looking breakfast which few would survive if they ventured toward in the first place: it was for George Orwell's In Defence of English Cooking. Zadie Smith's book was eye-catching too, as was Caligula.

There are possibilities all around, especially in a country as rich in chaos as this, where every day is a visual surprise. But unfortunately good design is not seen as an end in itself, and sometimes it is not seen at all. It needs more than skilled practicioners. It needs the people who matter to truly need it back.

Here is the Guardian essay again. It is worth a read. And below is the cover of the Caligula pocketbook, taken off Jai Arjun Singh's site.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

A clash of dreams

Dreams will clash, traveling across time zones and countries. Giant dreams of hope and misery, gathering us up on their way as waves would, rising as they reach The Oval. Can you hear the noise of these breathless wishes, whispers once, now a suffocating roar, prayers to realize unrealized dreams, to give every new hero his due, to give the last hero stamina for a final blow, to see both heroes neither bowed nor defeated?

Yesterday James Blake stepped out of the US Open, a man defeated but proud, who plays sport as it should be played: with courage, tenacity, and a smile. A man who plays the sport to his own music, as champions do. One day a slam will be his. The parallels with English cricket are there. These are parallels that run with every sport and every sportsman. Tragedy, success, jubilation, despair; all ingredients of life and its reflection in sport.

England has seen hell. Beaten at one’s own game, the losses are doubly galling for a game’s masters are expected to not lose their grip. Now they have found themselves and taken us with them as they have made one realization after another, like an adolescent superhero slowly discovering what he is capable of. These realizations are perhaps nowhere else as dramatic as they are in fantasy and sport, which are close relations. The other superhero has discovered what old age can do and how quickly it sets in, and it is now left with the grit and sheer desire that are the residue of champions’ evaporated fantasies.

And when these five days pass, what will we feel? A sense of loss is inevitable for how many series have taught us more about how games can be played, about how so much that went before was wrong only because so much here has been right? Some of us will come out rejuvenated in what increasingly looks like a new era in this game. We are here now. Where will we be when this era ends?

In five days these Ashes will be over, forever recorded only on paper and film and memories that are inevitably exaggerated. All the noise, all the sound, all gone. These five days will be beautiful; they will be all about sport, all about life. Please don't let it rain.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

God at ungodly times

It is 2:30 in the morning when the drums start. In a few seconds the fireworks join in, and then you hear voices, lots of voices. What happened to that High Court order about no celebrations after 10pm? Pah. You don't know where these voices are coming from, because they're coming from everywhere. And they're extremely loud and incredibly close. The pillow. Under it there might be peace. But no, there is no solace there. You count sheep with earmuffs jumping over fences but that don't work too. If you open your eyes, falling asleep will be difficult. So they stay shut while the unbearable drums keep going on, luring you to the window. They will go away. They will go away. The police will round them up and throw them into jail for the entire length of the festival. No, don't get up. The police. The police will come for them. Okay, that's it.

So you go to the window and there they are, the scums. And there's a police van behind them, driving slowly, providing protection to this lot. Not arresting them, but making sure nothing happens to these...these innocents. Delightful place, this city.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Hyderabadi angle

A colleague, S Rajesh, who makes interesting observations frequently enough to have his own weekly column on Cricinfo, made an interesting observation about Sania Mirza this morning. After watching her game extensively, he noticed how she used angles to pass her opponent, how she used her wrists to create these angles, creating what we call in cricket "gaps in the field". And then he made that connection. Azharuddin is from there, as is VVS Laxman. All three are wristy and, at least in Mirza and Laxman's case, have strong forearms. It could be coincidence. But they have more in common. When they're off-target - a frequent thing - they're waaaaay off-target. But when their game and mind are in harmony, they can be breathtaking.

I wonder if Mirza then, like the other two, is a 'touch' player; a player whose game is based more on instinct and harmony. Like David Gower as well. Which is why, when they're out of sorts, they don't merely look terrible, they appear to have walked into the wrong sport.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Sehwag's feet and Benaud's brain

Sehwag's feet have never moved. So everytime he's bowled, why, why, why do commentators have to say, "No foot movement there," as if that is the reason for his failure? I shudder to imagine these men, the commentators, giving out advice to youngsters eager to make it big. They would do well to heed Richie Benaud, who said something simple about commentary: He doesn't speak unless he has something to add to the picture.

Benaud's admirable trait is rare, though. As cricket writers - actually, I'll stick to myself for this example - as a cricket writer, there are so many voices out there expressing so many opinions that you need to say something different, radically different, to be heard. And so you say it. And then there are so many voices after yours that your opinion is often lost in the melee. What's infinitely tougher is to keep thoughts to myself.

The treacherous guest

After many days, Bombay is gray again. It has become cool once more, and the familiar knock of drops on windows can be heard even with the thick curtains drawn. It is comforting to know that this particular guest has not abandoned us, even though his continued presence can - quite frankly - be a pain.

Early today, he cleared his throat after a long silence, making branches shake and trees bend backward and sending stray dogs whimpering, scampering for a roof. He groaned a low but loud groan, ending with a loud rumble, like explosions on the horizon. He promised violence but we couldn't be fooled. What happened five weeks ago could not really happen so soon again, could it? And yet we watched the sky, just in case. It rained lightly, every now and then, sometimes heavy but never for long, and always silently. All the more reason to watch his type, especially after what happened in July. All nice and good at first, he could turn treacherous in a blink. Tragic, really. We had a good thing going, this irritating guest and I. Still, he remains comforting in some way.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


A day when time makes itself available. A day to spend with family, read, write until the hand hurts. When a week of hard work, real or imagined, makes way for relief. It will be time well spent. Friends will be met with. Same goes for the aunt not keeping well. There will be a good lunch outside and maybe time for a movie. 24 hours full of fun.

Of course none of this will happen. That's why I like mondays. There's no pretence about what happens on mondays.

Living in fantasy

JM Barrie and his wife are turning to seperate rooms in Finding Neverland. They halt briefly outside their individual bedrooms, say goodnight, and open their door. His wife steps into her room as anyone would into one where loneliness is assured: solemnly, steadily, as if an unsteady frame would buckle under the weight of accumulated miseries. His door, meanwhile, opens simultaneously to green fields and expanses lush with life and imagination. He walks at his wife's pace, in her style, and it is only the surroundings that distinguish the nature of those few steps into their sanctuaries.

Amelie sleeps on a bed that encourages fantasy, reads at bedtime beside lamps that illuminate fantasy, and lives within colours that are fantasy. Her days are a flurry of wild incidents that have a colour of their own, and the colours and fantasies add up so her life is scarcely believable, like one illustrated by Quentin Blake. The soundtrack of this life is yellow, orange, red, blue, purple, and it coincides with moments of daring, mischief, calm and other things as she looks for love.

In a third movie, there is bare room full of promise. It has no floor and its walls are unpainted. There is a long window which looks out upon a quiet lane. People walk by, peering through the low window at the man watching them go by, a man imagining his everyday view. Books will line this wall, a sofa will sit by that one over there. A rug in the middle. Can I be Amelie? Or am I JM Barrie? He decides he is Barrie. Looking for love is one thing, finding a place to let the imagination run wild is another. So yes, he is JM Barrie. He will sit at a table by the window and build his own characters as they walk by. There are other rooms but they are not important. There will be a few beds, a dining table, a few sofas. But this space will have ideas floating within, so every surface, like the inside of an theater, should help bounce the waves until the room is filled with thoughts and loose ends echoing madly. Then, mid-flight, one idea will blossom and the rest will freeze, crash to the floor and shatter. He cannot see it happening in a colourful room. No, the colour will come from inside and paint the walls by itself. This way he always has a blank canvas. The soundtrack will be of a noisy keyboard and pencil on paper.

In another three months that room will be ready. I cannot wait.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A pundit I like

They don't chant or lecture or interpret things in strange ways. They won't ask you for your janam-patri. Best of all, they don't hold prayer meets around a fire. They've been very good with their effort to cover interesting articles on the Indian scene, doing a round-up so you don't have to. This is Desi Pundit and you've probably heard of them already. However, if you haven't, pay them a visit if you can. It's a good idea with all these new blogs up and about.

As they've said, it makes sense to share the love. Leave the fruits and thalis behind. Eyeballs will do just fine.

Travels within travels

After a long time, I travelled to town. Upon returning to an old familiar place, we might find that the occasion is not entirely in our control. We may go there, sure, but the smells, sights and sounds guide us gently to other places. Travels within travels. And so it was today.

Often it is not the new, but the missing old that I see. The new will have enough time to settle in. It is the old that did not have enough time to reside in memory properly. The glowing torch of the kebab-waala by the NCPA. The Chinese place with its plastic chairs scattered opposite the theater. The watchmen whose names I never found out. A familiar parking spot taken by another car, though I had no use for it. Nothing to grieve about but it is a kind of loss. An irrational loss. How do you quantify that?

But it wasn't all sour. I finally watched Goodbye Lenin! at the NCPA with a friend. I feared it would sink, as well-regarded things annoyingly tend to do. But it got better and better and better until you could take no more because you were filled with so much pleasure at the protagonist's audacity that all that pleasure had to go somewhere and you wanted to laugh and laugh and laugh but you couldn't laugh because this was the NCPA and people don't laugh here. (Perhaps the crowd at the NCPA is matter for a different article.) The protagonist took his invalid mother on a journey of his choosing, fearing that reality would be too much for her to handle after she came out of a coma. So he obsessively created a world that pandered to her taste, showing that her beloved USSR still existed. How did he do it? Watch it sometime. It's worth it.

It was about manipulation, desperation, making a better life, but also very much about loss and finding the missing in a different form. The loss of a father. The dread at losing a mother. Concealing the loss of her adorable Soviet Union. I suppose we find what we look for; I found loss. Travels within travels again.