Saturday, April 30, 2005

Food claustrophobia

Is there a thing such as food claustrophobia? I would think so, for I feel it strongly in Andheri while flipping through menus. It feels as if cuisines are closing in, with dosas and idlis from the south and paneer makhanwala and vegetable kolapuri from the north advancing towards each other. From the east come Chinese and Thai food, with local flavours and masalas added to their ranks until they reach Bombay under the guise of paneer manchurian and green curry with gobi. Felafels and kebabs arrive from the Arabia with sauces that I swear weren't part of the menu in Dubai. The Big Mac travels from further away, with more intent and organisation, and India gulps and regugitates it in the form of the Maharaja Mac and fries without the beef lining.

I guess this has much to do with the availability and expense of authentic ingredients. But still. Authentic food would be nice in this place, Andheri, which takes pride in the number of restaurants situated here.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Finding a book

My book had arrived at Strand, and I had rushed there to claim it before anybody else bought it. "The Granta Book of India" was handed over with a smile, for I had called twice to check if the copy was still unsold, and I was quite relieved to have finally acquired it. Then, at eight, the keepers downed the shutter, signaling it was time to go. My mood lifted so much, not even the stifling humidity could affect it.

There is great satisfaction in finding a book.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Singin' the blues in Ayodhya

Came across Nina Paley at Sepia Mutiny. She's created a beautiful series of short animations titled 'Sitayana' or 'Sita sings the blues', which explains itself. Check out the films here.

Simply beautiful.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Guess why you have asthma?

The subject of past lives was best left to 70s Rishi Kapoor movies, I had always thought. Then today, a psychologist friend mentioned something interesting: regressive therapy. This therapy is used in extreme cases (as I understood it). It involves hypnosis, under which the patient reaches back to a previous life. "This way," the friend said, "we have uncovered that people who suffer from asthma in this life were suffocated in a previous one."

She raised her eyebrows higher than I had mine, emphasising that even if I didn't believe her, it was true. "It's been tried and tested. It's not an Indian device. A westerner devised this method and now many of us use it. But Indians are wary of being hypnotised, so it's more common abroad."

7:51pm on television

"Kaun ho tum, eh? Kaun ho tum? Jabse tum aaye ho, tabse meri zindagi mein khushiyon ki barsaat hui hai."


Monday, April 25, 2005

Watching the sky turn blue

It's late, I'm thinking. It is late. It's 1:15 in the morning and I'm waiting in a car to pick up a friend who works late. This is late. I'm at Juhu, that famous stretch in Bombay that means beaches, money, movie superstars. Opposite the office is a freaking traffic jam at this late time, with four-wheel drives lining up to enter the Marriott, the snazziest place to be after 9pm on a weekend. There are traffic cops present but they cannot ease the slow crush of cars on this two-lane road. I park the car on the side, waiting. Three women, dressed in saris and bright lipstick, lean against the car behind mine. They are not out of place, but what they do is clear. Occasionally we make eye-contact. There's this kid, Raju, all of nine or ten, hanging by my window, selling me his flashy 'I Love You' glass keychains by just looking at me. With keychain attached to car key, we get talking. And then friend arrives. Old friend, new friend, previous life friend, sometimes I think future friend, close friend, afar friend; whatever, I'm happy.

And we drive like we drove before. Without purpose, without a destination, without an eye on the fuel gauge. This is life, I'm thinking a little sentimentally. But who cares. Bombay at night is a city that throbs only indoors, leaving me free with serene streets, open roads. Just the way I like it. We drive in the suburbs, where the last traces of life trickle into clubs. And then we drive to town, where the architecture is what you expect of a decent architect. But really, who cares. A drive's a drive. With friend, it becomes a Drive.

And so we see early morning walkers at 4am. Four am at Worli Seaface, where workers from a nearby wedding site have just crashed on benches! Amazing. A type I had only heard of in parental legend! And we drive on, driving past places that meant something. Old roads are traversed; the new ones are not worth going down this late. Buses begin operating again, and I am back to the regular morning duty of playing prod-prod with them, this time on surreally empty streets. Road's too narrow for my driving ego, really. Anyway, so we drive. And then it sneaks up, as changing colours do. The sky turns purple, and shades of blue sneak in. Soon I would have to go home. I grow nervous, we will have to say bye. Never before had a countdown been so rich in colour.

We say bye. The sky is blue now and the birds wake up others while they put me to sleep. The phone rings. It is care calling, keeping me on the phone till I get home safe.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Great day

Today is a fantastic day. More news a month from now.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Myths and truths

I was at St. John's Church in Meerut, wondering where to go next. My train was due to leave for Kanpur seven hours from now, at 7pm. The three church minders had let me loose within, allowing me to touch a ragged but proud-looking Bible held together by tape, letting me press keys on the century-old pipe organ, watching patiently as I ran my fingers over the engravings in bronze plaques embedded in walls to cement the town's history of revolution and christian valiance. I wanted to sit there and fool myself, imagining times seen through biased eyes. Nevertheless, the images were always exciting, always packed with action. These bronze plates told of deaths through sickness, by mutiny, and even the ones that said nothing seemed violent by dint of just being here.

The three keepers, brothers whose family had lived here since 1921, suggested a nearby graveyard. We were in the Cantonment area, the stage for the big one in 1857, but now a serene area where anger and violence seemed relics, etched in epitaphs, carved in bronze. No, this was a place where the steeples of churches rose above clusters of trimmed trees, where the cyclists of empty cycle-rickshaws wheeled by wordlessly, and where batsmen waiting their turn slept in the shade of trees.

There were few signs here, and none that indicated where the graves were. After what seemed like a mile, I found it, and found the gates locked. Dialogue followed, where I had to convince guards within that I wasn't here to break anything. My guide, the caretaker of the graveyard, took me about, proudly pointing out gravestones he thought were pretty and historic, only pausing to tut-tut when he saw a white stone lying about. These were parts of graves, broken down by vandals to throw at trees for fruits. This is what he had imagined me doing as we spoke with the gate between us.

I walked on a swathe of green under a warm sky, unable to speak. I moved from one stone to another, reading 1857, 1821, 1901, 1876. The crypts were enormous, the homage was monumental. The eptaphs accused, cursed and wept. These dotted the landscape of graves and tall grass, where few visitors came. I tried to think but found it difficult because of superstition; I was afraid to tread on someone, and concentrated hard on following my guide's footsteps. My thoughts and actions in the cemetery were unusual. I kept thinking we were outsiders here, and I was trying to not step on a resident's toes. It felt like I was in someone else's home: someone quiet and meditative, urging visitors to behave similarly.

After the meditation came the party. Old Meerut was alive as one giant marketplace, with rickshaws pressing into impossibly narrow lanes, the aroma of piss from open gutters and jalebis and mithai rising, and well-oiled children in shorts out with their fathers. Fruit sellers blocked paths to cloth shops whose storekeepers sat lazily, unmoved by the obstruction. It seemed somewhat philospohical: if anybody needs cloth, or anything, they will squeeze past the fruitstall and come for it; until then I will nap.

These keepers were the hosts, the customers their guests and I was the new guy at the party, asking naive questions. "Where's Ravana's father-in-law's home?" I asked one host, who smiled chidingly and said I wouldn't find it here. I had heard this marketplace was where Ravana's wife came from. I did not expect to see the it, but was still disappointed. But the storekeeper did point me up the hill where the market winded. Walking upwards, I found a certain quiet and happy laughter. There were carefully painted homes on either side of the narrow lane. Large families of different religions lived in each home, inherited from parents who had inherited it from theirs and so on. Their homes were coated in red, yellow, green, blue and pink. This suited me better than holi, which got in your ears and toenails.

As I wound through the labyrinth, peering through open doors and stopping to listen to conversations, I was nostalgic. The colony of my childhood had unlocked doors, long hours of doing nothing and uncles who did not mind broken windows. Everyone had aged, but the buildings of my memory were fresh white, my neighbour's hair was still black, the price of a paratha was still 25 Fils. So it was entirely apt that, in this mist of nostalgia, I stumbled upon the Jama Masjid, for a mosque was the center of my colony: the place outside which meetings and cricket matches were arranged, where we talked away time, where we met uncles and aunties who told our parents what we had been doing.

A side entrance at the masjid opened to a large courtyard where pigeons clustered, pecking at seeds spread beside a large basin of water. Its minarets were blue, its doorways green, as was the water, and inside were two hands preparing for the next prayer. One of the two noticed me and my shoes on the ground. He placed them sole to sole so that the dirt outside did not come in contact with the santity inside.

Sit where you like, he said. You can even come in if you want to. I thanked him for the offer, choosing to sit outside. Watching the birds, the bearded constable who enforced discipline in errant children, the nervous young man waiting for his first ever prayer, the opening of the main mosque gates, I thought that, though these were everyday occurences, I was new to this. For the first time, I was looking. I wondered what else I had missed all along.


From Shelley's The Cloud:
I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother's breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

It's an excerpt; there's plenty more.

It's marvelously cloudy today in Bombay, and yet they hang above me lightly. They aren't too dark, nor too wispy, and just the right colour to evoke fond thoughts of monsoons without the inconveniences. It won't rain today, it's too soon. But this is a hint, a tease: I'm coming, it won't be long now.

Incidentally, 'clouds and rain' is an euphemism for sex in China, because the act is as natural as clouds and rain.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

It will rain...umm, maybe

The met office predicts that the rains will be normal this year. How do they know? The clouds come by only around the middle of June. Though what I'd really like to see is met observations that can't go wrong: "Met says sun will shine tomorrow" screams the Times of India.

And then, just for kicks, we could have a day-long eclipse.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

25, 35, 45

After Sunday's game, I was doing dinner with a family that had put me up for three days, and put up with me for eight years. I had known father, mother, middle daughter and Salvadore, the musical dog, since I became friends with the elder daughter in New York. In that time I saw the three daughters grow and observed, superficially, how their interactions with the parents had changed. The father, a breed that I am terrible at deciphering and detecting changing mood patterns, was now more serene; at peace with the bedrooms in his large home emptying as the daughters, one by one, left for America. Now his longing for them was seen through lenses of economics as well as emotion. He opined that it made sense for her to return as life was comfortable here, rather than "living in a shoebox". His daughter, my friend, had briefly thought of returning to a less rushed life in Delhi, but a New York rush brings its own headiness, and headiness was a good enough argument against a return.

So we talked while eating, about her, about me, about us. He spoke about careers and money in the way my father does, while his wife, daughter and I listened. I think he sensed something that I had felt throughout the tour, short as it was. I saw reporters who were happy in their skins, but I also met others who appeared miserable for they behaved as if it was the worst job in the world. Perhaps they had families. How did they live? Waiting for a train at platform six in Kanpur after midnight, a small man hunched as he slowly walked past Amit and me to others who were talking among themselves. He asked them a question thrice before one of them noticed him. It bothered me. What were his dreams when he was 25? I spent the better part of a day scavenging about for a press pass, forced to smile at officials I would have liked to run over. I imagined it happening over and over and over, when I turned 35, 45, 55. It was probably nothing, but I was seeing buggered futures and arsed pasts in everything around me.

His premise was interesting and familiar: you can love what you do, but if doesn't make you money, there's no sense doing it. On some days this logic knocks you over with its truthfulness. On other days, most days, you keep writing, writing, writing anything, your motives being to get a good piece out, and to not be miserable at 35.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Tales of woe

Like a congregation of travellers at a remote outpost, we exchange news of cricket happenings and take relish in the telling of tales of woe. Amit had his moment before Kanpur, when it took him five hours to acquire his press pass before illness took hold and left him unable to attend the game. I had mine yesterday when I ran from hotel to stadium (half-hour away) after finding out that the local liaison man had locked his office and was untraceable. So journalists scampered far away for passes that should have been ready a while ago. Though this was an extrreme case, the delays and running around happens at practically every venue. It's maddening and part of the gig, but no one knows why.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Why cricket balls go out of shape

It's not that they're made badly, as commentators insist. It's because the leather comes from cattle that were not treated well while they were alive.

I think I ended the golden age of batting

Two days ago, I visited India's largest cricket equipment factory, Sanspareils Greenlands. The company provided Sunil Gavaskar with bats for most of his career and even today, 19 seasons after his retirement, he lends his signature to their name. It was an exchange beneficial for both. But whereas batsmen's bats had been spoken and written about endlessly, an equally destructive object, the leather ball, had been forgotten. It was time to write a story about cricket balls. And so, after speaking with Paras Anand, a young man who ran the family business, to Meerut I went.

This is where Ricky Ponting's bats come from, though the label is Kookaburra's. Damien Martyn has his made here, as does Michael Clarke. I delivered gloves to a Pakistani cricketer today on Anand's request. Many other bats are prepared here, and are shipped with labels other than SG's. The same goes for balls. They are shipped to England, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and even Pakistan, where balls are mostly made in Sialkot. Though the process of making a ball has barely changed for nearly 400 years, a keen eye and instinct separate the best balls from ones that are passable, but to us the difference would not be noticeable.

As I wandered around the factory, watching the dyeing, waxing, oiling, drying, stitching, I asked Anand a barrelful of questions, and only received silence when I asked the cost of producing a ball. Then, after an hour's worth of questions and answers, he led me to a room where, I think, we found a way of ending the golden age of batting in India.

I met the chief ball inspector, a man who once played domestic cricket and captained Bishan Singh Bedi in the early 1970s. There were four boxes placed before him. One was filled with unpolished leather balls. The next had four. The next had a few more and the last had a larger number. He explained that his brief was to seek defects in balls. If there weren't any, he would toss them into the box with four balls. These were objects of the highest quality, with no blemishes, and were ready for international cricket. The next box would be for first-class cricket while the last - consisting of those with the most defects, of which there were few - would be for clubs. As I handled one, trying to find what made a perfectly good-looking ball less than Test-quality, it occurred to me that here, changes could be made to the ball which would help Indian bowlers recover from all the battering they were receiving on dead pitches. So we spoke about the seam, which is the white thread that holds the ball together. Recently, bowlers had said that it felt different, that the same balls somehow helped them more often. When I asked the ball inspector about this, he smiled and said that the seam had indeed been raised because the company had begun using a thicker thread. The thread provided increased resistance as the ball moved through the air, and this helped bowlers.

I was perplexed. It seemed to me, at that moment, that all the debates we had at work about the decline of fast bowling and about how easily batsmen made runs could be turned on their head right here, in this room, if the makers of the ball chose to make minor changes to it. Somehow, chasing another random strain of thought, I asked them which ball bounced more: the SG or the Australian Kookaburra? The Kookaburra, they replied. If you dropped both balls from the same height, the Australian ball would bounce back three inches higher than the SG. It struck me as silly. I asked if there was a limit on how much balls could bounce back. Yes, they said, a foot and ten inches; anything more than that would be deemed illegal. This was amazing, and I told them: pitches in Australia were already the sort that encouraged bounce, and yet their balls rebounded three more inches than an SG ball? The SG ball could bounce seven inches more before it was deemed illegal. So why didn't they use a different material inside the ball to make the ball bounce more? It could help Indian bowlers on these dead wickets. It could make batsmen work for runs, for Indian batsmen are notoriously bad when the ball rises uncomfortably.

The ball inspector thought about it for a moment. Then he reached forward, grabbed my hand and shook it with a vigour I will not forget. "Thank you," he said, "we had not thought of this before and we're going to try it now."

Then he sat back and looked outside at a blank wall as a nearby radio crackled into life with the excited pronouncements of a commentator salivating over a Mahendra Dhoni stroke. And he nodded disbelievingly and smiled.

Tea in old Meerut

I ended up meeting the unlikeliest of people in Meerut. A member of the largest muslim family in old Meerut who invited me home for tea; I met a cheery man who writes software, and and whose wife runs a school; a weaver who dreamed his sons should live out the dreams he once had; a son whose only hurdle to a better life was his pride; another son who sought a better life here itself, as a doctor; a family of caretakers who lokked after a church for nearly a hundred years; a generation of craftsmen who migrated from Sialkot to Meerut and began a successful cricket company; a man who once had a cricket company and now manages a hotel.

I can't believe all this happened in fewer than two days. And I haven't even gotten to the Jama Masjid on top of the hill, the bullet by Mangal Pandey's men that stopped a clock and froze in history the exact time that the Indian war of Independence began, Ravana's father-in-law's home, and the epitaphs of the fallen of 1857. More later.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Musharraf's existence

I stepped out of the airport at 5:30am to find Delhi colder than I had imagined. A few days ago the temperature had touched forty. It was 20 but felt much colder as I searched for a taxi.
We drove by open fields in an Ambassador with the windows rolled down on a smooth wide road; the contrast with Bombay could not be greater. After living with the smog, the clean morning air is overwhelming. The driver was a stocky man with a cheerful countenance and he came here from Uttar Pradesh. The usual inquiries were made and, when talk turned to cricket, he said sharply, "They shouldn't have called him here." He was referring to Musharraf. I explained that he had invited himself over. "Still, we don't know what he's going to do when he returns. All that nonsense will begin again."
It was too early to speak of politics or anything other than birds chirping and declarations of landmarks - "To your left is IIT! The road there takes you to the Qutub Minar! Jama Masjid is one hour away!" - so I stayed silent.
Then he spoke again, with as much feeling as thought: "But who knows, maybe something happened to him during partition. Even then, don't you think the problems of the past should be forgotten so we can move ahead?"
It was surprising hearing this. For no reason other than the one that a dissenting voice - one that doesn't advocate blowing Pakistan to smithereens - is rare. As I thought this and slipped into a glorious daydream where Indians and Pakistanis were all bhai-bhai and all, he snaps me out of it with a cheeky, "But then if he didn't have Kashmir to talk about, how would he justify his political existence?"

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Half a day

It is 5:18pm. In half a day the trip begins. There's something different about this one, like someone with a private eye hat and a smoking cigar just said, "Kid, here's yer chance, now get outta 'ere."

Joining the circus

I'll be travelling for a week beginning tomorrow, writing from Delhi, Meerut, Kanpur and an action-packed Delhi again, when Musharraf arrives. I'm hoping to see the Ferozshah Kotla tomorrow, meet members of the NGO trying to stop the match from taking place "because the stands are unsafe" as well as (a little more ambitiously) the Shiv Sainiks who dug up a pitch there in 1999. Oh, boy. Eight days, many stories.
Including some from the press box.

Saturday, April 09, 2005


Pakistan finally fought back and they looked great doing it. Sigh. It would be a dream to have them reach Kanpur deadlocked two-all. Here's my bulletin on the day's play.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Brooklyn Brooklyn

We would sit on the steps of brownstones, chatting with friends about the new Indian women on campus, the existing Indian women on campus, and the women from everywhere who got away. It would be a Sunday evening, or late on a tame Friday night, or summer or winter. Reading this evocative piece by Suketu Mehta brought back moments.

It was a dark, stormy night...

Because there was a rooftop party till 1:30am in the next building and I could not sleep.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Burning the bus

Yesterday, militants attacked a complex housing passengers who were to travel on the Kashmir bus service between India and Pakistan. Two correspondents for the Independent happened to be there, and this is their account.

The foreign dosa

At a shopping mall today, Amit, Jasmine and I came across a new restaurant which looked interesting. It was bright, had jazzy colours and the servers had spiffy uniforms. They walked away, but my interest was piqued by the sign that said "More varieties of dosa than at any other restaurant". A counter separated the server and me, like in a McDonalds. Picture boards with scrumptious photos of food were illuminated by fluorescent lighting right behind him. Mexican dosa. Manchurian idli. Mexican baked dosa.

I asked him what the Mexican dosa contains. He said there were mixed vegetables inside the dosa, and cheese was sprinkled on top. Upon further questioning, he said - not sheepishly, mind you - that it was labeled 'Mexican' because of the sprinkled cheese. The Manchurian idli, said the server, was a diced idli dipped in Manchurian gravy. And the Mexican baked dosa was not baked, but fried.

For a country largely paranoid about a foreign hand perverting our culture and all that, we sure do some strange things to ourselves.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

A woman's heart, a poet's quill

"One delicate autumn day - the sky now grey, now blue, always like a woman's uncertain heart, a little drizzle falling, and then subsiding, and falling once more - I met Sachiko outside an Indonesian store, for a trip to Kurama. She was, as ever, girlishly dressed, her hair falling thickly over one side of her face, held back on the other by a back comb with a red-stone heart in its middle; the tongues of her black sneakers hanging out from under lime-green legwarmers."
From Pico Iyer's The lady & the monk, a book of his time in Japan. This lovely passage is only one of several that make the book. Is he a writer, or a poet?

Silent Nikhil

Untie the knots of complication, and you are left with a single truth. It is a thing to strive for, that state of calm. But to gain simplicity is laborious, and though its rewards are apparent, it is an effort that few strive for. As Amit and I left the theater after watching 'My Brother Nikhil', I wondered whether simplicity and sensibility were the reasons I liked this movie. Indians, it has been reputed, are a colourful lot. And our movies reflect and reinforce that assumption. But colour, or indeed everthing, is what you make of it. In that way, this is a vivid tale told subtly. Its message is large, but told softly. It has its filmi moments, nowhere more so than when the neighbourhood realises Nikhil has contracted AIDS, but it otherwise tells a tale that few have described.

It's a pretty good film.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

The importance of aunties

Aunties are a must-have. I visited one yesterday after a lengthy chicken-pox-induced quarantine. She stays at a place called Colaba, which is an hour and a half - and a world - away from where I live. They have roads. We need an suv to get out of our building. They have museums and art galleries. We have shopping malls. They have restaurants that serve real food. We have restaurants that sell gobi manchurian. They have birds. We have car horns. Even their grass is greener.

So anyway, we make the trip there and it is, in every sense, a lovely day: good music in the car, djs talking sense, no traffic, and I'm happy to get out of the house. And once we get there, oh boy oh boy oh boy, me aunt starts off with a yoghurt dip. Now this dip (strain yoghurt, mix cheese, spring onions, capsicum, a few cubes of tomato, add some tabasco (or tobasco), and voila!) is divine with anything. Since good food and politeness never make for good dinner companions, we hogged. Then came the fried rice (same ingredients as dip plus two eggs minus the yoghurt) and noodles. Then out comes the vanilla ice cream and this divine thing called strawberry crush, a sweet syrup invented solely to invoke tears of joy. But don't put it in your eyes.

And then, god bless her soul, she returns my copy of Life of Pi and Bumper Book of Comic Speeches.

Update: That wasn't my Life of Pi. My copy was already at home. So whose book is this?

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Not too fair and lovely

I wish those anti-marks and fairness creams worked. Chicken pox has left me rather spotty.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Stepping out

I will now step out for the first time in ten days. Now I will breathe air, feel the sun, bump into people at Lokhandwala on my way to the barber shop. I look like Sanjay Leela Bhansali at the mo. Which is not bad, but family is not used to extra-hairy face at home, so shave and haircut I must. But scars will be revealed. From what I can make out, it don't look too good. *Gulp*

Learning something new

We chat about American imperialism. No. She chats about American imperialism. I ask her if she sees it coming to an end. It will, she says. Then, immediately, less sure, she adds that it will eventually end. Somewhere I think this is a useless conversation. Not because we know more than each other or because there are fixed notions of what is right and wrong, but because I'm not setting out to change a global political landscape. I can't be concerned with the United States when things in India don't seem to be right. Who cares about Nike or sweatshops right now when we've got a caste that believes in violence and is in power in at least two states?

We continue talking, two people trying to find common ground in a dangerously fluid landscape. When we disagree, we remain mostly silent, choosing to say 'hmmm'. We find that we agree on little about the state of the world. One says it's horrible, one says it's fine. Both discover something new about each other. We're not sure we like it. So we hang up quickly. She has to study, I have to write. We'll talk later, when our leanings are grudgingly accepted. Then we will talk with more freedom and, with respect, will lay our friendship to one side and then we will fight it out.