Tuesday, August 30, 2005


The best burgers are discovered accidentally, and therefore not often. And then too, their taste changes on each occasion. The first bite has multiple flavours and textures. The ribbed smoothness of crunchy lettuce, the warm, smoky exterior of the grainy patty and soft, malleable flesh within, and the tangy juices that squirt out when compressed, mixed with a warm oil that coats teeth and greases the tongue. The sharp sour burn of a bit onion, the cold nothingness of a heavy tomato slice which dissolves in other flavours when pressed upon. Some of this will be missing the next time. It did not taste this way before, so a chef will be summoned and questioned about the preparation, and he will stand erect and say that to change a method of preparation is like weakness of character. His indignation is proof that it is a preposterous suggestion. The meat is the same, its duration on a sizzling grill is unchanged, the bread supply is still from the traditional source, and the sauces are custom-made in the kitchen. And yet it tastes unfamiliar. Was it a fluke? The palette conveys to the mind that all is not well down here. Questions and answers are exchanged rapidly. It tasted different. How? It was tangier. Tangier? No, not tangier, sharper in some way. Both are dissatisfied and the chef is concerned. There can be only one explanation: the vintage burgers, the ones recalled in satisfaction, are a creation of coincidence. They can not be measured nor created by instinct. They appear when it is time.

Burgers, by nature, are quiet things. They can be neat, well-dressed, and warm. If they are not, summon the chef, for often burgers appear ungainly; a leaf of lettuce not quite green; a bacon strip leaning out awkwardly; the bread, moist with animal fat, helpless against thumbs tearing through its fragile skin; the burger itself planted haphazardly in the middle of golden-brown fries. Its visual symmetry absent, it becomes a fat sandwitch. And this messy, watery sandwitch has for some time passed for a burger.

Localised burgers are avoidable; locals themselves avoid these assaults on taste. Doubly so if they contain the word 'Maharaja' or the prefix 'Mc'. Unidentifiable chutneys are spurted on where a sauce was gently applied, it has been called the foreign vada-pau, it has undergone all manner of abuse. The burger was once a fine thing, now it is a quickie at the local bordello. Such suffering helps neither us nor the burger. But this is only prevalent, and thankfully there is resistance, albeit unknowingly, from those who cook a burger at home.

What you may never achieve is the perfect burger - you will try and try and become very good at it - but once or twice it will be time and a great burger will appear. Or it may never happen. In that case eat out, and find a restaurant where good burgers are available. And when you find it, let me know. I'm dying for a good burger, in case you didn't notice.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Good wishes and contentment

Today someone wished me well. That is where the problem began.

It was over a phone. I know how phones are; they disconnect voices from the rest of the person. This disconnected voice was happy. The voice was even on a high pitch, bursting with excitement, straining to break news but holding itself for fear of jinxing this happiness. The voice wished me well. I wondered about this voice all day. Between news rewrites I wondered about contentment and good wishes. During lunch I thought about wishes, and how good wishes come easily during happy times. By six 'o' clock I had it figured out. The voice was content, at ease with itself, and so the good wishes seemed more real, less strained than normal. It is not this simplistic in every case, but it helps to know the subject, or the voice.

The voice was in a garden, or dipping its toes in cool water at a beach. That kind of happiness. Some write. Some fall in love. Some hit a ball about. No, not hit a ball about; it's too violent for this delicate contentment. It was a voice that wanted nothing in return. Of course I got thinking. What makes you so happy that you want nothing in return?

So I bought a few books. The questions answered themselves.

The engagement

So we're sitting at a bar talking about things, you know? Life, people, prices, everything. We shouldn't be here, dressed in traditional clothes. Even in India we stand out. But we've just left the auditorium after watching the engagement and before we're on the dance floor, jiggling for the thirtieth time to 'Kajra re' in full view of a large congregation of families we will get to know better in a few months. They're sitting on cushy seats, watching us dance to songs over and over. What must they think? Great 180 by the gal in pink; who is that girl and what is she wearing?; I must find out that boy's name and status for my eligible, radiant daughter. Mostly they just sit there, clapping in a druggy haze of happiness, smiling benignly at the group of dancers.

A word about dancers. Not all of us can, right? I mean, as much as we try, some things just don't happen. Not everyone can write, not everyone can dance, but you don't hear me telling anyone to write and then clap while they're fumbling about. Look at these happy-looking dance groups carefully and you will see cracks appear. Some can't dance. They're the ones looking at others and following their steps a little late. They smile and shut their eyes and snap their fingers, pretending to be in a different place where no one tells them to dance. In their minds they're Latinos doing the tango. Or samba. Or anything that involves intertwined legs, tights, and a rose held in clenched teeth. They soon disappear, leaving the cream to feed of each other and grow into better dancers. They leave to hit the bar, talking about the better dance moves in muted admiration.

Gradually, more people from the engagement appear. Evasive at first, they start on their flimsy excuses and then give up, admitting that they needed a drink and some silence. We chat, forget the time, pop peanuts, sip wine. The engagement is going on elsewhere, and everybody is quietly happy. The guy looks great, the girl looks fine, the families seem to match. All the hard work has culminated into something good. But there is one thing that bothers me. Everybody here has had problems in love or marriage, and yet they are thrilled with this development. They are obsessed with the idea of marriage and advocate it to even those who do not want to listen. It is confounding.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The return of carnage

Fast bowlers wrecking havoc used to be one of those sights you'd have to visit archives for. You know: grainy, black-and-white and all that. But lately there's been a spurt in good fast bowling, with Harmison, Flintoff, Jones, Lee and Bond around now. All are high-quality, and suddenly what we're seeing is batsmen score a lot less. There haven't been so many good bowlers around for a long time. Today I bulletined the India-New Zealand game and was amazed by Bond's brilliant bowling. He took Ganguly apart completely, and the batsman had no idea what the heck was going on for seven of the eight balls he played. It was simply wonderful to watch and special to write about.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Q-and-A with Andy Roddick

Q. I think after Wimbledon they asked you what you would do next time against Roger. You said, "Next time I may have to punch him." Do you have a Plan B?

ANDY RODDICK: Kick him (smiling).

Q. Your foot's hurting.

ANDY RODDICK: Yeah. Left foot.

Q. Is he the one guy that you are chasing? I mean, there's a lot of good players, but is he the one guy who you personally want to beat?

ANDY RODDICK: Well, I think he's the guy that all of us are chasing, you know. I think there's ‑ he's the main guy and then there's probably four or five of us that are ‑ I don't know. Maybe we need to do just a tag team effort or something, join forces, you know, like Power Rangers or something. But I think he's that one guy that we're chasing.

This is what makes Andy Roddick such good interview material, and this is one indication of just how good Roger Federer is: his peers are awed and often use exaggerated terms to describe him, thereby redefining him.

A comments policy

There's been waaay too much abuse lately.

Actually, the last, and only, rant anyone has ever had on this blog besides me was 'Anon' during the second week of January. I'm removing comments because I find them hampering me. As a relative newcomer to writing, feedback is important, but in this case it was becoming too important. It serves as a pleasant reminder that this page is meant for writing and is, hopefully, a measure of growth in this regard.

If you'd like, there's always email: rahulbhatia@yahoo.com


Rock star pandit

Prayer meets are often tiring. They are not tedious only when they last no longer that fifteen minutes; practically unheard of, but for scattered sightings. During festive times I find these solemn meets out of place. For hours we sit, surrounding a pyre, chanting words which have no meaning - only because we don't ask - and mindlessly follow the pandit's lead while there are fireworks burst outside. Once, many years ago, a gathering was asked in all seriousness to stay quiet for two hours and concentrate on god, and shut our eyes but stay awake. People who sign up for Vipassana are in for a treat. The images that spring up in enforced silences are anything but holy; I came away quite scandalised with myself.

But yesterday there was no time to think. Not with the rock-star pandit with the tiny ponytail and raised eyebrow and smirk and all manner of jibes at the would-be groom and gentle warnings about marriage. It was less a prayer than a storytelling session. He would stop chanting halfway through a sentence to tell a related joke and then carry on. We asked questions, he replied, we counter-questioned. It was wonderful to see that religion was not the center of attention. From his approach it was understood that religion and these prayers are a custom, but the main event is life.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Not smoke and mirrors

At Crossword yesterday I noticed that the new Harry Potter book had topped the non-fiction list.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Uncles were our father's brothers. Aunties were our father's sisters and mothers of friends. They reached for high jars and brought down the biscuits when they felt like. They told us not to touch walls and stand straight and remain presentable. In revenge - though we didn't know it then - we called them aunty or uncle, each utterance wresting them away from their mental hold on a particular reflection of youth. The words, they are titles of some sort, change everything.

There are currently eight or nine kids wandering about my home for the next week. They touch walls and slouch and demand things. One of the brats is bound to call me uncle. The terror is mounting.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Ghosts on the streets

A child, no older than five years, wandered to a rickshaw next to the one I was in at a red light during the afternoon. He motioned khaana khaeyga, but was turned away, and he started walking away, looking at something I could not see from my limited viewing area. Two steps later he stopped, stared, took instructions, looked in my direction, glanced back at his instructor and then walked towards my rickshaw.

The usual anger arose, the usual questions rose, and they quickly subsided when the usual answers arose. Looking over him, I saw his instructors: three women dressed in rags and clasping utensils on the pavement were laughing and talking. He belonged to one of them. It is difficult to keep this anger and hurt going. The same emotions have been felt by most others. What does one tell the mother? Will the son understand? A good number of children born on the street prefer to stay there for the freedom it gives them. Ajay, who I met in January, ran away from the children's home he was put in temporarily. He was due to leave for Kashmir soon, to meet parents he hadn't met for a long time. The representative of the home who had corresponded with me throughout the process later said over a cup of tea that once children tasted this particular freedom, this freedom from ties of any sort, where they led a gray life, they rarely gave it up.

Gray. That bit where black and white meet and confuses everybody about where it starts and ends. The streets are our most visible definition of a gray life. Little if anything is on paper. Statistics about them begin with the words 'approximately' or 'estimates say'. I used to feel sorry once that lives were led this way, and was livid at the indifference. But the Indians I know and whose company I travel in in India have preferred living lives in definite colours, knowing how close they are to this gray zone, which too is definite, but neither here nor there. Some fear it for it means losing themselves, while others love it for they can flit between life and death like ghosts with no allegiance to either.

News forecasts

This morning a news agency, the Press Trust of India, sent Cricinfo comments by Dravid about captaincy. I began rewriting it and had completed a considerable portion, where he said that captaincy would not hamper him, when I read the words, "I'm delighted to be capain for the Sri Lanka tri-series." This news was a month old.

In came a colleague with a tale to blow this one away. "This is nothing. UNI was worse. They released an obituary for R Venkatraman. He had to deny his death by appearing on television."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Jesus, It's Jane

I'd bring her gold and frankincense and myrrh;
She thought that I was making fun of her.
She made me feel I was fourteen again;
That's why she thinks it's cooler if we'd just stay friends.
Jane doesn't think a man could ever be faithful;
Jane isn't giving me a chance to be shameful.
This song never gets boring. It's by Barenaked Ladies, and it's called 'Jane'.

The world in a cubicle

Advertising used to be fun. It was like a race to prove who was more imaginative, who had more brilliance, who'd be accepting a trophy at the awards functions during spring season. It was about provoking laughs and holding 50 million people's attention at the same time with your imagination playing out on screen. At the end of it they would all finally exhale or collapse in mirth after the killer punchline. And they'd never get tired of it. Years later people would recall the commercial and tell you how great it still was when they met you. It was about coming out with the greatest commercial of all time, of doing a '1984'; where product placement touched a deep vein of emotion and context.

So whatever happened to good advertising in India? Cadbury and the Times of India were remarkable advertisers once, and their messages resonated; Kuch khaas hai zindagi mein (There's something special about life) and A day in the life of India. They were Indian without resorting to circus antics that brands like Alpenlieben employ to connect with local audiences. To become uniquely Indian and appeal to as many people as possible, a peculiar, unfamiliar advertising language has surfaced. And because its creators come from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the language is of a cynical 19th-century Lucknow resident in Chor Bazaar. We know this resident. He wears garish clothes and safari suits. He chews paan and recites poetry. You've seen him in one ad, you've seen most of the Indian advertising industry.

Where are the great Indian advertisements? The ones that break through through the mire of reflective voiceovers and exaggerated situations? It is telling that some wonderful commercials have come from a company that depends on conversation, and that its commercials carry very few words and are almost always quiet. This is Hutch, or Orange before it, and they follow the most basic of advertising mantras - break out of the clutter - to give us ads that are the opposite of what ads are expected to be: in your face, intrusive, shocking. If it's a film, it's quiet. If it's in print, it'll have lots of white space, the equivalent of no noise. Even their ads aren't all ads. The telephone bill arrives in an envelope with a picture of a smiling face or a karaoke singer I'd imagine is lousy. This is where the company becomes almost human. No human I know is always shouting out loud and ready to have a party; Kishan Mulchandani does not count: I believe he is a Photoshop creation, the newspaper version of S1mOne.

Advertising was varied, not as varied as books or movies, but its range was wide enough for us to realise that its inspirations were from life outside the agency. The latest ads appear to have been thought up of in a cardbard box; Sehwag's mother has somehow become famous; Pappu's graduation has become an occasion to celebrate; A married couple reinvent themselves because - sigh - their favourite motorcycle has reinvented itself and now comes with, get this, stylish stickers. Print advertisements, always hallowed turf, in the past few years have followed the 'Cannes' format: clever visual, hidden logo, no words. It's like they're all creating magnetic poetry from the same five-word set.

Has advertising and advertisers become so insular that they no longer know what life outside the agency is like? Are the long hours and pressing deadlines taking toll of its practicioners, for whom life is advertising and advertising, life in a cubicle? It seems as if, in an effort to be more different superficially and make it to Cannes, they have forgetten what it's like to be human.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Portrait: The horse-cart man

How much will you pay, he asks, dripping wet, his spectacles lying unused in his lap. How much? As little as possible, but I don’t tell him this. You never do because this is a negotiation, and the first rule of any negotiation is to not let anyone know what you’re thinking. At least that's my rule. So I throw a price at him that keeps him on the negotiating table and gives me a chance to not pay too much and get what I want. He is thoughtful, and honestly, disappointed. His face falls and he looks all martyred. Real martyred, not virgins-in-heaven martyred. He looks at his horse and frowns. It stands by, shaking its head. It probably disapproves, too. I’m having second thoughts about this already. But he doesn’t feeling like haggling anymore. Climb on, he says, but know this: I don’t earn much money.

He isn’t smiling now, as he sets the horse on its way by pulling the feathered reins. He’s just looking ahead through the rain at the hills, at the free horses trotting about down the beach, at the Janjira fort far across the gray sea. Conversation might be needed here to make him forget and to appease my conscience. I ask about the horses running about the beach free. Are they his? No, he starts up, they are not his. They belong to a rich man who lets them gallop about like this all day, can you believe it? He never puts them to any work. Maybe he doesn’t need to, I say. They look healthy. So does his own horse. How much does it cost to take care of the horse everyday? Food for Lakshmi costs 200 rupees. It works out to 6000 a month. And Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity. This is clearly a difficult profession and religion isn’t helping much. This is the only thing I know to do, he says. My father taught me this, and now I do it without thinking. How much does he make? He does not mind the question. Some days, 400. On days like today, nothing. He does not look at me or smiles or betrays any emotion as he says this. For him it is a financial transaction. The straighter his face, the guiltier I feel. Am I undercutting his earnings with my thoughtless negotiation?

Now a strange thing happens: he smiles. A cold wind has picked up or is it the horse trotting faster? His smile is infectious and his face so telling that I smile with him. Of course now I hate myself for undercutting anyone whose smile is so luminous. A right prick. This ride is getting better and better. His price was a bargain! We reach one end of the beach. Rocks cluster beneath a tough slope, and around there grow coconut trees and other sorts. You live in a beautiful place, I tell him. He smiles sweetly, says nothing, and concentrates on food-guzzling Lakshmi. After a while he stops and points to the sand. Look at it, it is black. Do I know what that is? He waits, listens to the guesses and says that it is iron. That’s the other thing I learnt to do when I was young, he says, and I enjoyed it. It was a job. A difficult job. But he managed. He took a sieve to the beach and sifted through sand grains, separating the golden ones from the black ones – individually – so the iron dealer who hired him would fork out money – 3 rupees for each batch of iron. He says it was donkey work, but still loves it.

Imagine that. Fond memories about sifting through sand to separate different coloured grains. The suggestion that anybody at all could enjoy this work makes me wonder. I ask which of the two jobs he likes more. He actually thinks about it while wiping his glasses. If he answered, I didn’t hear it.

At some point, he notices a family with children stepping out of a large jeep. My man looks at them for a few seconds and decides that they will want a ride on Lakshmi. And what if they negotiate with you, I ask. Again, he doesn’t reply. The ride is nearly over. The beach is deserted and I want to hang out with Lakshmi the brown horsey. Curses. What to do? He has an idea. Go back home. The rain will get worse, he says, so go on home. We trade more money than was agreed upon and he speeds off towards the family. There is little money to be made here. But what else will he do? Search through sand again? He’ll figure. Everybody does. Maybe he’s already figured.

Bring back the evil queen...

...because Shekhar Kapur's stealing her lines.

In the mood for masochism? Read the comments that follow it.

The last over

No one talks when the last overs are in progress. Especially not when Australia are under siege. This is not a half-hearted siege, the kind lazy report writers jot down to describe difficulty, a grind, or hard work. This is a real siege, and everyone knows it because if one more wicket falls, they lose and go 1-2 down in the series. Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath are at the crease; to be exact it is McGrath smiling nervously and watching Steve Harmison accelerate his run-up. It is an unfair match-up, and the batsman provokes sympathy and admiration. With the ball in his hands McGrath is a Swiss clock; with the bat he is Archie's jalopy. Michael Vaughan, the English captain, is crouching nearby in a helmet, grimacing or looking up at whoever he prays to between balls for a little more help. There are six fielders spread in an arc to the wicketkeeper's right, ready to catch and willing the ball to fly off the batsman's edge towards them. They bend low, ready to leap at any point. Australia are familiar with this. Six of their men, sometimes seven or even nine, have stood here, legs apart, hands on hips between deliveries, mouth opening and closing, dabs of sunblock on; it is so familiar to them. And yet now this is uncomfortably unfamiliar for them. Like being caught on the wrong side of the border. Ball after ball Vaughan talks to Harmison, telling him that this is their last chance: it is the final over. But Harmison will not oblige, for he throws two balls down behind the batsman's legs, forcing the wicketkeeper to sprawl to save runs that have, in fact, lost all value, which is a good thing because it is an ideal situation to be in.

Around a television we discuss missed chances and a deranged umpire whose presence provokes debate between television watchers alone. 'What if' is replaced by 'Had they not.../ had it not...' Meanwhile, McGrath misses a passing ball by inches, and the passing ball misses the stumps by inches. Arms go up everywhere and linger for a moment, while their owners fantasise about wine and after-game speeches. At home arms go up too, and swearwords slip out but who listens at a time like this? Profanity falls down the list of grave problems to address when England and Australia play Tests like this and the one before.

Soon it is over. Two take of their helmets and celebrate. The rest are tired, for the last five days have been extraordinarily long and they have nothing to show. They gather around the captain who reminds them of their hard work. Television channels are changed often after that, and we can finally exhale. What we saw wasn't merely good, it was classic. There is now no doubt that England will give others a terrible time like Australia did until a few weeks ago. Once again a sport is bringing in new times with this English renewal. It feels right.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Women in hats

"Throughout the years, I have mentally put together a profile of women who can wear hats. Generally, they are women of great confidence. When they visit someone in the hospital, they park their car in the tow away zone. It is always there when they return for it. Their hair is always long enough on the sides to pull back and secure without little pieces standing out over the ears like Howdy Doody. They love blueberries, and they never stain their teeth."
This is a rather nice blog, and it belongs to The Girl in the Hat.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Pulling cheeks

Phones are ringing and doors are opening and creaking shut all day. Then there is the sharp sound of heels clattering along the corridor. Sizzles come from the kitchen, which is always warm, with a gas lit under rice and noodles and bhajis. Lost things turn up in the oddest places after frantic searches which include interrogations of sofas, bathrooms and closets. There is a special occasion in the family, and this is its music.

Quiet houses like a party now and then, and these sounds and bustle reverberate through it happily, leaving echoes after themselves. Conversation and laughter creep out beneath the door to the children's room, where they sleep on mattresses pushed against one another to form a large communal bed on the floor. In another room tomorrow's things are being prepared for potential in-laws. Packages rustle, plastic is torn, and scissors snip off unsightly price tags. Black and white music plays in another, more quiet room, and here sheets flap and then become silent, and then the radio is switched off, and then a final click takes the lights with it.

As the day draws nearer, excitement grows. More and more things are remembered: new glasses, forgotten haircuts, flower arrangements, a fresh load of snacks, one more relative on the guest list. The time between phone rings shortens; it is always family, or extended family, informing us of the incoming flight or train and duration of stay. And it is indeed exciting, for relatives will once again pull cheeks and ask "Do you remember me?" and we will once again stutter and they will once again remind us that we were this small when they first saw us. Old faces will be seen again, and their children will be there too. It is a significant gathering; the next time we meet we will pull their cheeks and ask these children if they recall us.

The storyboard treatment - Dancing

A long time before Malaika Arora danced atop a train, Arbaaz Khan, in suspenders and a cowboy hat, danced on a bus and beneath a parked jumbo jet. 'O Priya' was the war cry. He played a violin, Juhi nodded with happiness and love. They visited a garden. He ran about, arms wide like a passionate jumbo jet, and she peered at him through a bush and then crashed into the plane she loved. They both nodded this time. At a casino they played roulette and won. But there was no synchronised nodding. Exhaling smoke he leaned forward to sweep in the chips, and she - bright-eyed innocence - left him for a discussion with a stranger who had the perfect pickup line. The hero's positive shade turned negative: A nearby bottle, empty, was smashed and all that remained was a deadly weapon. Without hesitation, he turned on the stricken predator, whose stricken countenance revealed he predicted danger.

O Priya caught Arbaaz's arm. The beast looked into her eyes as she nodded, and his temper faded away. He spoke of his madness for her eyes, his madness, his madness, his madness for her words, his madness, his madness, his madness for everything about her, his madness, his madness. And she replied, "I'm also mad, I'm also mad, I'm also mad, I'm also mad...for you." And she said to him what he said to her. By now his negative shade had reverted, and so he changed into happy casuals and they sang into the next day, dancing with undiminished energy on a bus.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

No other travel writers

In his story on Indian writing in the Guardian, this portion of William Dalrymple's essay caught my attention:

"Earlier this year, Suketu Mehta published what is without doubt the best travel book published by an Indian author in recent years: Maximum City, his remarkable study of Bombay. But Mehta's achievement only highlights the absence of any real competition, for with the notable exceptions of Naipaul and Pankaj Mishra, and one book each by Seth and Ghosh, there are no other Indian travel writers."

It's true. But I'd add that some writers, who aren't professional writers, or even travel writers, pull off a piece every now and then which, with a few tweaks, is decent travel writing. Still, no travel writers. Yet.

The Strand Books sale

Every year, Strand Books has two sales. These sales are popular because they offer a large variety of books at attractive prices. The subjects are diverse, and since books are sold quickly and replaced with different titles, the sales offer an incentive to revisit several times; a single missed day could mean missing a title you might not see again. The same holds true for every hour of the day. The argument (mine entirely) - to pitch a tent besides the storeroom for a fortnight and examine every box that comes out - is persuasive to me but, for employment reasons, unsustainable.

But most books I've seen, from the ones that use the letter 'V' for 'U' to the books that spell 'travelling' with one 'L', have prices that are unchanged from their in-store prices. On the back cover of a dazzling yellow hardback it says 20.99 Pounds, and on the first page, in pencil, it is marked Rs. 750-. The price has certainly been cut dramatically, but if it isn't lower than the store price, it shouldn't be part of a sale. Or else Strand could advertise the year-round sale that goes on at their store, since the price of everything has been slashed, and scrap the sales.

The store is a wonderful place to shop and while away time in, and where it edges out the sale for me is the leisurely pace it has. Plonk down beside a shelf and read for hours. Listen to the proprieter entertain visitors with stories about authors whose books they're skimming through. Watch him make a convincing sales pitch, starting with a smile, delivering the sales facts with a grave tone in the middle, and then ending with a smile. Visit there often enough and they silently ask if you're interested in back issues of Granta and inform you that Pankaj Mishra's Modern Library book on Modern India isn't out of print, as they had said last time, but it hasn't been printed yet. And since with books it's always personal, the silent thrill of such familiarity makes visiting here even more tempting.

But when it comes to book collections, I wish they were a little more like the more famous Strand, in New York.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Somewhere between thick- and thin-skinned

"I'm not as bad as Philip Roth. He leaves the country when a book comes out."

- Julian Barnes, who doesn't read reviews of his books because there could be "stuff that can fester in your head the wrong way".

Friday, August 05, 2005

Mangal, Mangal, Mangal, Mangal...

This piece about Meerut which I had written a few months ago was published in the August edition of Outlook Traveler. Incidentally, the movie about Mangal Pandey , whose men put a bullet through through the clock tower of the church I was in, thereby freezing the time the uprising/rising/mutiny/war of independence began, will be out in a week's time.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The trouble with remembering

That voice. That voice used to be less musical. But it was soft, wasn't it? I think so, but I'm not sure. The thing is, I'm trying to remember and not forget. The subject of this memory is unimportant, but it should be remembered accurately. Now being incorrect won't shake the world, but it will feel like a bit of a lie. But what can you do? These memories can't be trusted. Foul things. Always changing shape and distorting voices and moods, and encouraging you to fill in the blanks, so the spaces in fact are filled by fiction. It's called subversive history.

This is my worry when I remember. I worry that remembering will leave an inaccurate imprint, and this will change even further the next time I recollect it. So I try not to remember, instead using every memory sparingly, so it does not change much over time. This way I can avoid sentiment and that dazzling golden picture frame that forms around memories when we remember them as charming, glowing, wonderful. Left to ourselves and our imaginations, the past eventually becomes a golden age and a wonderful time.

So memory, like I was saying, is a pretty distortive thing. It's too bad people don't leave behind a photo of how they smelled, or the quirks they had, or how little it took to lose their temper; a living, breathing Blogspot or Livejournal that captured their essence for error-free recollection later. Over time their lives will change course like rivers. I already remember being told that a great-grandfather was a carpet dealer who traded in the North-Western Frontier Province and fought back bandits. Now my grandfather, his son, would no doubt be horrified, if he was alive, to know that his father sold rugs. Maybe he would. I don't know. Because it could be an accurate history. And the other recollections of his life could be false. But any one of them could be true or not. We're dealing with memories here, vile things. Some day his role could change completely, and he could even become the bandit who fought carpet dealers in memories a few generations from now.

But the downside to not thinking back is that you forget. Then shame kicks in immediately and changes colours and the feel of skin, sound of voice, expression and, presto, you remember again. Panic and shame fill gaps in memories. But it's only a patchwork quilt of memories, comforting and colourful, but not all there.

Some things are too important to forget or change over time. Or it seems that way. But I suppose that just as people change during life, so they change and grow in different ways after death. They are, come to think of it, forever mixing themselves up like the BFG's dreams in bottles to result in something new, a solution that fits snugly into vital gaps which, to confound matters, also keep changing.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Communication 101

It happened in Tamil Nadu, and now here. Communication could have made a massive difference. In both cases people in authority knew what was coming. In both cases they couldn’t get the news out quickly enough. Or in this case they didn’t at first. In such cases you can’t stop certain damage, but you sure can limit it with a well-timed warning.

On the Konkan trail while the rains smacked into Mumbai, I had first-hand experience of how coordination within the transportation sector works: it doesn’t. No one knew what was going on. To be fair it was a tough time for planners of routes, but with the little communication and wild rumors abounding, I found several familiar faces in bus stands in different states as we attempted returning to Bombay. We rely on hope and ourselves to survive. It’s a lousy way to live. And it all came back to one thing: communication. How soon can they communicate developments? Can they do it efficiently?

There’s another kind of communication: sending out the right signals. Lately, they’ve been quite off. Johnny Joseph replies to a question about Mumbai’s readiness with a not untruthful reply about the cloudburst being a freak occurrence, but doesn’t say much about what we’d really like to know. Are we prepared? Actually, that’s an easy one. And will we ever be or will we ever hear of things on time if the bureaucracy isn’t streamlined? Here’s what Thakur Prasad, the director of the Cyclone Warning Centre in Mumbai, had to say about why he didn’t inform television channels to put out a general warning about the cloudburst, as well as why he couldn’t break protocol:
“They come only when they want to. Also, we have our own system of information dissemination … Our duty is to inform the government and the various control rooms, and then it’s for them to take action… the TV channels will not listen to us, they only want sensational news, because that suits them. They are not interested in serious work.”
Though his interviewer, Anil Thakraney, unjustly makes Thakur look silly in this interview, Thakur’s assumption about the media is a scandal. Yes, he’s right about the sensational bit, but to not provide information on the basis that the media won’t be interested deserves censure of the sternest kind. And yet, it seems like just the kind of thinking that is widespread in government. But perhaps that’s a little way away. What would help, in the absence of water pumps and clean drains and a solid infrastructure, is an effective information relay system. Just warn us quickly, for heaven’s sake. We’ll try and manage the rest.

This is cross-posted on Cloudburst.

Wrong answer, gentlemen

In grillings on television these past few days, men in charge have been asked over and over: can Bombay handle something like this again? Straightfaced, they reply that it was a freak storm and that the chances of it occouring soon are next to nothing. Wrong answer, mates. Even before the storm, people could tell you that getting around in the city was tough enough. After visiting Tamil Nadu in January, I wrote about my initial feelings on how Bombay would have been unable to cope with a tragedy of that magnitude. The trash we took for granted lying around on the streets and the illegal constructions and fire hazards would come back to bite us. In hindsight, I wish I had made it a more constructive criticism instead of an emotional one. Even then, it's tough to not get emotional about what's happened lately. I'm angry about being misled. Angry that not even the state transport department, with its lengthy reach, can communicate between its branches for days. Angry that a family dear to me had to swim through potentially charged water to get home.

Even if no one is held accountable (if I hear any bozo RJ saying casually, "We are all to blame for this in some way," there will be hell.), there is some hope. Think Surat. Think of the rebuilding in Tamil Nadu. It's a clean slate, and gives everybody a chance to start afresh. We may not go all the way and make the administration efficient, but perhaps steps will be taken to ensure this never happens again. That's what we live on: hope. And that's a tragedy.