Saturday, December 31, 2005

The colours of spring

A stop start stroll down a New York street market on a Sunday morning, broken by moments of furious tap dancing. He weaves between stalls; he's not here to buy, he's here because he's alive and he could be anywhere, but has chosen to be here. The whole day lies ahead, it's two hours till noon. There are people of all colours here, but they don't notice that here. He skates between them, shirt and hair trailing behind him, arms raised, reaching to the sky. This is a man who worships the sky and all it stands for. Others notice him. How could they not? They smile, watching him all the while; whatever he has, he's passed it to them, and there's now a slight spring in tired steps.

What is he singing about? Love? Realisation? A new journey? Everything. Everything that anybody could ever sing about. Life starts now, with this thought, this revelation, this realisation.

And that's what Roobaroo on Rang De Basanti feels like.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Basanti, music de

After his initial years, when it seemed he would create every memorable sound associated with that generation, something happened to AR Rahman. No longer did news of a new album merit an immediate sprint to a music store close by. Then came the songs for sepia-tinted films: memorable, some would say excellent, but a sameness came through on many, including the ones flavoured in Punjabi as well as the qawallis. Something was missing to me, and I couldn't figure out what it was. Meanwhile, it was back to Jatin-Lalit.

That was only until Rang De Basanti arrived. And in the middle of a particularly energetic song, I figured out what had been missing. Rahman, to me, is wonderful when he's disruptive. Disruptive with his beats, with his instruments, when his music is unpredictable. This has also brought about some of his unmemorable stuff, but then, you wouldn't have Rang De...

What a rocking album. More, on what it feels like, soon.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Making resolutions that don't hold

Every year. Without exception the start of every year has been a time to recharge and correct misdirected ways. But with us being slaves to habit, these resolutions are bound to end in debilitating defeat. Can you stop biting nails immediately? Can you stop potato chips right now, as half a crisp sticks out between your lips? It's impossible. By January 4th you don't have nails left. This failed attempt is terrible, because it goes beyond the mere act of not biting nails or hogging on chips. It, in effect, becomes a question of willpower, of questioning whether you're strong enough and such to resist temptation. Naturally, you will feel horrible about it. And you should. Am I terrible human being with no willpower whatsoever, you will ask. What have I come to, you will wonder, and it will be the first of several dark, probing questions you will ask yourself over many dark and probing days. Serves you right for making resolutions in the first place.

Did you know studies show that 98.9% of all resolutions are broken within the first month? Did you? Actually I haven't seen any such studies, but they'd say something similar, don't you think? "Man attempts to give up smoking two packs, gives in by noon," or "Boy resolves to lose four kilos in a month but - dammit! - why do burgers taste so good?"

It dawns on everybody one day, I suppose. I'm sure it will. New Year resolutions do nothing. They're just a spurt of false ambition. But don't let that stop you. No, for everyone else's sake, you must carry on. Everyone else has failed, and so they will be watching you. But they won't be watching to see if you succeed, but to see how long you hold out. Good luck.

Is Dil Vil Pyar Vyar...

anything like Love, etc?

Thursday, December 22, 2005

SG and other balls

I'm baffled. Over the last week several people have come across this blog while searching for the difference between the SG cricket ball and the Kookaburra ball. I'm curious why there's been this spurt in traffic, especially from the US. Does anyone know?

In any case, you'll find a more detailed explanation in this piece I had done for Wisden Asia Cricket.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

That rare commodity called air

At 9:45, right now, the large tinted window beside me that keeps the sun out during the day is currently keeping out the smallest flicker of light. On the window is a reflection of my own office, with its fluorescent tubelights, yellow and blue walls, and blue pinboards with pictures stuck on. There is, as some of you know, that hum of the airconditioner that seems louder when you keep an ear out for it. Someone's typing, someone's playing virtual snooker, someone's writing because he feels like.

Meanwhile, it's winter outside. That distinctive nip, that reflexive shiver - not because it's too cold, but because a shiver is almost proof to ourselves that it is cooler than in the summer - they're all here. I cannot wait to be part of it. In a few days, when all waiting tasks have been fulfilled, I'll be huddled over a grill in central Bombay, watching roasting kebabs, and then on a rickety chair on a bumpy street, sharing a table with friends and strangers drawn here for the food. A jacket will be brought out, not because of the temperature, but because the idea of winter calls for one.

All this will be done late, after cars are parked and the streets are empty. A police van might stop to ask what's going on but our satisfied expressions will provide an acceptable reply. There's the cutting wind at Marine Drive, the warmth of the hotel foyer on it, the drifting conversation from the nearby pizza place, the vacant roar of accelerating taxis, the far rattle of railway lines, and the happy thought of a good week gone by, with better times to come.

And it's still only Tuesday.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Hold still, city

At first, there was nothing. Then came roads, buildings, bigger roads, shopping malls, more roads, cities within the city, a palm tree with homes on it, the highest skyscraper, a new ‘downtown’ with fancy marina, islands shaped like the earth, and finally, just a few weeks ago, an indoor ski slope. So if you intend asking a Dubaiite what the city is like, give the pour soul some time to contemplate what it all means. But not too long, because who knows what shape the city would have taken by the end of his sentence.

Cities don’t change this way. They aren’t supposed to. Clear thinking resulting in immediate action is rare; Bombay knows this well. But Dubai, for three decades, has added one attraction after another. The first attempts involved baking the world’s longest cake and constructing the world’s biggest clock. We, silent residents, nodded our heads in disbelief. But there was the shopping festival, a milking of its own reputation. When that went off well, they had a summer shopping festival too. Malls sprung up quite literally. For many years Dubai had only one mall downtown. Now there were over 15 big ones, downtown had moved an hour’s drive away, and you still couldn’t find a parking spot.

Then there are the cities and towns within Dubai: Internet City, Media City, Sports City, Heritage Village, Knowledge Village and a $3billion Chess City, where each of the 32 buildings will resemble a chess piece. You’ll find Microsoft, IBM, Oracle and the International Cricket Council here, among others. One website called it “The Land of Really Humongous Projects”. The New Yorker titled its feature of the city “The Mirage”. Now plans are afoot for a monorail system by 2008 to ease the traffic, an underwater hotel – The Hydropolis – as well as Dubailand, a theme park twice the size of Disneyland in Florida. It can be quite disconcerting. Old hands will tell you that it’s not what it used to be. New hands will tell you there’s no place like it.

Every month it changes, grows larger and larger, employing more people, presenting more opportunities. A friend, bald from stress, stuck at a dead end job as art director in 2003 was by 2004 driving a blue convertible Mercedes, hair trailing in the wind. In the course of six hours, he said, he went from being fired to starting his own graphic design studio. His turnover in a year was over a million Dirhams (1.25 crore). I’d imagine there are similar stories in town. I’d also imagine there aren’t many places where dreams are fulfilled this quickly. Perhaps in California. In the 1948 Gold Rush.

And what of street crimes in three decades? Somewhere around zero. It’s safe at any time of the day, though my one complaint with the police force is that they’ve cut down their nightly patrol on horseback. That was mighty cool.

But before this sounds too much like a love note, here’s something irritating. Why do people from Dubai always ask you when you last visited and, smiling at the reply, say, “Oh, it’s changed a lot since then”? This hasn’t changed one bit.

An edited version of this piece appeared in DNA on Saturday, December 17.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

An unreal land

Our Man/Woman/Thing Michael [Jackson] has been at it again. Being caught in an Abaya in... Bin Sharmuta Mall. One wonders whether it was an abaya or was it another one of Michael’s oh-so-cool outfits.

One wonders how Michael is coping with this weather. Considering the temperatures in this country, I am surprised his face hasn’t melted off leaving him looking like a uglified Freddy Kruger.

What pissed me off about this whole episode is how the poor lady had to hand over the mobile phone on which she took a pic of good wholesome Mike there. Isn’t this wrong?? I mean isn’t MJ the one who was in the women’s restroom?? I would just like to congratulate the people here on another great show of justice.

This is a post on a remarkable blog about Dubai. It's called Dubai Blog, and if you know Dubai, you'll know that the blog's tagline - 'The most prestigious 10MB on the net" - is a play on the 'prestigious' tag that Dubai keeps playing up. This site is full of insights about how the place works ("Only in Dubai, will you be fined for eating in public during ramadan but can pick up a prozzie in broad daylight with no fear whatsoever" and "Only in Dubai, do they think making copies of the 7 wonders is an "original" thing to do").

The blog was first blocked by Etisalat, the telecommunications authority, before he shut it down. Google has its cache, however.

Though I like the city, it's hard to not agree with this man. There are some very crazy things there.

(Link via Metroblogs)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The old city

Once upon a time, Dubai was really nothing like it is today. That time was only 15 years ago. There was one tall building, surrounded by all sorts of midgety ones that looked like they were designed in a cardboard box factory. There was nothing you could do except work, return home, have dinner, and then sleep. Every now and then we visited restaurants with the appearance of a dhaba, saying with every slurp of a gola, “This is just like Chowpatty,” and, now that I think about it, not really meaning it.

Things have changed since then. Somebody had enough of this fake Chowpatty business and opened a restaurant called Bombay Chowpatty. A case of the exile’s longing. There was also a Meena Bazaar, a Kamat restaurant – “the same one as in Bombay!” – and some familiar haunts of Pakistan also found their names here. Now there’s a Buddha Bar, renamed “The Bar” after Buddhists protested, in a wholly worldly manner of course.

I love how this city has transformed, but there are few places that I can truly call my own. These are places that still hold on, kicking and screaming, to the past that I remember. There’s the corniche, the promenade that runs along the coast from the massive vegetable market to the stinky fish market and then past the spice market and finally the gold market. A marathon was once held there, and it was a distinctly sticky night. Three minutes after the start it looked like a race for unfit people.

The new Dubai has its cities within the city, but the old Dubai, with its Iranian and Palestinian spice stores, has odors and cheese coloured red, yellow, green, white. A scraggly helper may stop by and ask you to buy “sonfloover zeeds froom Eshipt” and “froom Shina” and “cinmun froom Ceyloon.” In Al Juzoor's natural products people will find on these shelves the answer to nearly all their problems. They have conquered baldness, damaged and oily skin, indigestion, diabetes, and also make bubble gum.

But cheese wasn’t my thing. I just went there because I loved the smells. There were other markets too, and while they lacked the smells, had the atmosphere of Colaba causeway. The textile markets at Meena Bazaar are still occupied by large, cuddly Sindhi seths with mouths stuffed with paan – or something like it, since paan is banned. Close by are the stores of Karama, which would be called fashion street had someone thought of renaming the place.

But quite often, however far I was from it – and in those days you could travel the length of the city in 15 minutes – I would wander over to Automatic Restaurant. Why it is named so, I do not know, and I do not care. They make the finest kebabs in the universe, and serve it with the creamiest hummos imaginable. That’s all that matters eventually.

So it comes down to eating and shopping, two things that Dubai is known for anyway. What’s new? Nothing. No bling, no DKNY, no Big Mac. And that’s precisely why I can’t recommend these places highly enough.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Eating out in Indore

The story of a night out in Indore appeared in the Indian Express yesterday. I'm tempted to head back there and write a long piece on the falooda.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The silent visitor

One night, when it was far from their minds, death came. They had no reason to consider it was coming. Their day went as normal until death came. She watched television, he read a book, everyone else was asleep.

They recollected the events of the day later. Was anything out of place, both wondered, as if death had moved a vase while it crept closer. Could we have seen it coming, they thought unjustly. Did we overlook something obvious. They spent the rest of that sleepless night and most of the next day asking questions that they could not answer with assurance, for both were now unsure of what they had seen, and what they had failed to see. Every moment that day now held a significance that they did not recognise earlier. Enough hints had been made, they just failed to grasp them. Guilt had begun making a grand entry.

Everything changes from here, they thought without knowing how this would happen. They were right. Change came over them slowly but as surely as death had. Death was long gone but its shadow remained. They learned to live with the shadow, walking around it, stepping into it occasionally. The shadow reminded them of the past. For no reason they would launch themselves into this past, and though it twisted their memories and especially their heart, they jumped in again and again and again. They now expected death to come, bracing themselves for its sudden arrival. They wondered if it would be as surprising as last time. But they did not behave like people who know that death is coming. For that they would need a date, a definite period of living. Expecting death, each day of theirs became numbered. As time went by their senses dulled, and if death visited them as suddenly as it had earlier, it would have been just as surprising. They were thoroughly unprepared.

The day the sky fell in

I just read this post on Uma's blog and remembered an entry by Matthew Engel in the Guardian. Engel, for those who don't know, is the editor of Wisden, the yellow book of cricket. Engel's son died recently. He was 13, the cancer was rare and aggressive.

His sense of smell went berserk. He could not bear to be in the same room as a cup of coffee or a dab of perfume; a roast in the oven or chicken soup on the stove constituted torment. A rare meal he was relishing one evening went uneaten because he got whiff of a sprig of mint. His hearing actually became more sensitive, so that, from the first dose onwards, he hated loud noises; he was never again to get pleasure from music. And the music that resounds clearest in my head is the tinkling of Ward 15's dripmachines, warning the nurses that it was time to take action: "Dee-dee; dee-dee; dee-dee."

The whole thing is here. Remember to breathe while you read it.

Quote of the month, year, etc.

"If a politician contests for a post in a sports body, it is always bound to make some difference. If you want to involve politicians in cricket affairs, then it's better to nationalise BCCI."
- Jagmohan Dalmiya.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Sampling the street

Ahem. This is to appear in a certain Indian newspaper that leans towards free markets. Putting this up couldn't wait till Sunday.

"Can we stop now?" Abhishek asked as we held each other for support. "I've never eaten so much." I looked at my brother through the spots floating before me. To say yes would have been the right thing, the healthy thing to do. People would have praised our self-control, our ability to say no. But there was something heroic in eating until you burst.

Indore has good food and you can see its effect on people. Belts strain under the weight of meals prepared with no nod to health or moderation. The frantic Bombay walk would feel out of place here. Indore ambles with the satisfaction of a well-fed place preparing itself for an afternoon siesta. And with local cuisine like this, who wouldn't walk slowly?

So we were at Chappan, a street that was busy mostly when skies were dark enough. From everywhere they came to dig into the chaats and pav-bhajis and faloodas and ice creams. Students had come here for over 25 years to announce their results or to reveals their loves or drown their sorrows. New cars were shown off here. A newborn's initiation into the world included a visit to Chappan, which was named after the 56 shops on the street.

Abhishek and I set off to eat everything available on Indore's streets at night. And if we couldn't eat everything, we'd watch others eat while we staggered from one store to the next. Our night of sin began at Johnny Hot Dog, where a counter and two large frying pans separated us from the man behind the counter. "What's an 'egg-benjo'?" I asked as he sliced open a bun and slid it about in warm oil.

"I will put a benjo in it," he answered without looking up.

"So what's a benjo?" I asked again.

"This is a benjo," he said, pushing a plate at me. An omelette in a bun.

"Why is it a benjo?"

He thought about it while wiping his hands. "Because tourists used to ask for a benjo and we didn't know what it was." So how was it a benjo? "The owner called it a benjo because he wanted a simple name for this," he said irritably and walked away.

After getting through the omelette-bun, we strode past stalls of glistening snacks. Empty puris were stacked in pyramids beside large pans of ragda-pattice. Boys with persuasive voices enticed us into restaurants with, "Come inside, sit inside, air-conditioned," and on seeing us moving on, "Okay, no sitting, but standing, serving?" and finally, "Why you are going away? Are you angry?"

There's no escaping food here. You can avert your eyes, but what about the smells wafting almost cartoon-like around every bend and through the car's air conditioner to you? I found myself magnetically drawn from one stall to the next through these smells and sights, presented with new flavours on every plate. Young Tarang's renowned dahi puris were duly demolished. The Bombay Sandwich, the KitKat Sandwich and other offerings were on display. Everywhere people jostled, talking, ordering, appearing confused, looking this way and that - with a plate in their hands.

Dressed up ponies idled by. Balloons strained at their strings beside them. Both were waiting for children. But the children were at the ice-cream shops, standing on tip-toe, smudging the glass display with their nose, picking malai-kulfi and rosogolla flavours. A short walk away was Trupti Juice, where the crowd favourite that day was the sabudana khichdi. This was among the most accomplished khao-gallis anywhere; it had that pleasant chaos which accompanies street food and a polite crowd.

We had reached the end of the street and staggered punch-drunk, considering if our best interests lay in going home, when Abhi suggested, "Falooda?" It turned out Indore had not one street of food but two. If the main course was at Chappan, it had to be followed by dessert at Sarafa.

Sarafa is an alley in a district of alleys populated by low-lying buildings, with electrical and television cables criss-crossing from buildings to poles to other buildings. Most streets have enough space for only a car and a half to pass through, and it was one such street we traversed, honking furiously at - predictably - the only cow I had seen that day. Beyond the cow lay a street of downed shutters. During the day cloth, utensils, and knick-knacks were sold. At night, for nearly 40 years, in front of these shuttered stores, entrepreneurs set up stalls selling jalebi, rabdi, falooda, gola, paneer chilra, gulab jamuns and malpoa. Above these were homes, and faces peered down from balconies to follow the action.

Thick sugar syrups bubbled over open flames, men stared dourly into their frying pans, turning over sweets with one hand and handing customers platefuls with the other. I wandered past most, too full to eat, and also eager to move away from the stifling heat of this outdoor kitchen. But others preferred to stay here, sampling this and that, impervious to the blast of hot air. I found the falooda-walla with the help of a local. Indore's most famous falooda-waala was beside Indore's best malpoa-waala, who was a short distance away from Indore's most renowned gola-waala. This street was a who's who of snack-makers. It was tempting to grab and run.

The falooda was everything I had imagined it would be. It wiped out every other taste, negated heat and discomfort, and instead melted the eater. It was food that made everything okay with the world. For less then 20 bucks, all this. This is a town of cheap eats. As we packed up to leave at midnight, having eaten out for five hours continuously, Abhi stopped at the car door, stared intently at the grimy road below him and said, "That bloody gola-waala. We didn't have his gola," and bounded off after buckling his belt to complete what we had begun. I don't know if it was a foodie thing or an Indori thing.

No small matter

Earlier today, DesiPundit linked to a photo feature by a man named Akshay. He had photographed a part of Andheri, where I live, beautifully. A trawl through his earlier work brought up a few exceptional pictures. One particular picture, titled 'The temple priest on Gilbert Hill' is a work of art. If you've ever worked with pen and ink, you'll recognise the connection between the picture and an ink sketch; it doesn't bother much with details of colour, but my, what detail exists in his black and white. The picture is meditative, almost an illustration, and seemingly from an eastern culture.

Do browse through his pictures. Many of them are delightful, especially the ones taken in Mahim. And while you're at it, check out the first photo of his 'Bombay Breakfast' feature. Many of you would have heard of him already since he's been about for over two years. But for the ones who haven't, here's Trivial Matters.

Playing games

Part of my arrangement with Time Out included filling a listings page. This page was for upcoming sporting events in the city. How does all this benefit the reader? The reader buys the magazine, turns to the listings page, sees a preferred sport on a particular day and decides to attend the event. The reader might give the list a passing thought, and might, like me, have thought about how Time Out is virtually an advertisement for clubs and sports that might not have otherwise been paid attention.

But listings are tough, numbing work. I imagined clubs and sports bodies would have their schedules ready to fax to the next interested person. The difficulties posed in the search for a schedule have been revealing. I will explain in great detail why this is so. Consider this conversation:

(Sfx: Phone ringing.)

Phone: Click.

Voice: Police Gymkhana. Who is this?

Me: My name is Rahul Bhatia, calling for Time Out…

Voice: What do you want?

Me: I’m calling from Time Out magazine. I need your schedule of sporting events for December 2-15.

Voice: Why?

Me: Because there is a listings page…see, this listings page tells readers what’s going on in the city, you know, like a cricket match next week, or a women’s hockey game on the 20th. That kind of stuff. It’s to inform readers, so that more people visit the event.

Voice: Achcha. Give your number.

Me: My...what? What? Why?

Voice: Give number. To check.

Me: Check what?

Voice: To check.

Me: (Skepticism rules) You will call me back? Here it is…

We hang up. A while later the phone rings.

Voice: Yes Mr. Bhatia, you wanted our schedule…

Me: (Full of hope) Yes? Yes!

Voice: Mr Bhatia, I cannot give you. Is classified.

Me: What? Why is it classified?

Voice: We don’t give.

Me: So how will people know what’s happening at the club?

Voice: No one knows. We don’t tell.

Me: (Losing composure completely because it has been a long day filled with similar conversations) You’re mad. You’re completely ****ing mad. What the hell is classified about what you do? The Police Gym is on unfenced land at Marine Drive and you play matches under floodlights. People on passing trains can see your club, people can walk across your ground without restriction. I can come by to sleep on your grounds. What the hell is so private…so classified about that? It’s only sport!

Voice: We do not usually…

Me: Forget usually. Make an exception and tell me. Just this once. I won’t bother you again.

Voice: (After a pause) OK. I will tell you.

And so it goes. This is only one conversation, though it is one of the worst I’ve had. Calling up clubs, if you haven’t done it, is a bit like being next to the repetitive receptionist in the movie Office Space. It is quite possible that many potential spectators, faced with the obstacle of official hostility or, worse, official ignorance, might ignore sports they would have otherwise visited. In some clubs the sports head is known to nobody else. In some the schedules for the following week have yet to be drawn up.

But there is something else I’ve noticed. While the official apathy seems to permeate through most sports, there are individuals who become magnets through their passion for their sport. Athletics and billiards have such followers at their disposal. Motor sports seem keen to have more fans.

The rest…the rest just go on, from schedule to schedule. A call for information arouses several suspicions, and they will only proceed once they are convinced your intentions are not villainous. Exposure is not something they evidently require, the information has to be an exchange, rather than a given. I’ve given up doing the listings. There are too many people who need reassuring, too many who, once reassured, cannot reassure you about what they do. Sport needs new hands.

Update: Correction - Not 'new hands', but 'more capable hands'.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Far too suddenly

The sky is empty, there will be no snow in Bombay for a while. I wish it would snow. Great white flakes landing on my nose, covering the ground in a matte white rug, and turning this city into a place I have never seen before. But there will be no snow. Not even cold rain. Here, winter is felt by the absence of heat. There cannot be any cold. For that a walk by Marine Drive early morning or a drive in a rickshaw late at night will do. Only then can you not feel an absence of summer, but the touch of this season.

People fly away for the summers, they return when it is less uncomfortable. I would do the opposite. My summers should be summers, and winters filled with snow. These days there is nothing, but that is not my complaint. December has just begun, and there is time till we bring out the sweaters. If it snowed I’d lie there for hours staring at the sky, watching people pass me by, asking, “Why?” And I’d tell them it’s easy to see, it’s cold to touch but it’s soft to feel, and when I want to sink in it accepts me comfortably, and from here the view isn’t of land or sea, but the open expanse of my dreams.

I don’t mind snowballs but they aren’t my aim, neither are snowmen, I’d only do funny things with their carrots. I’d watch fresh footsteps in the snow, watching only humans tread where rickshaws hesitate to go. Snow leaves its mark, snow traps warmth, and the whole city would move in clusters of bodily warmth. But there is no snow, so we move separately, waiting for a winter that will pass by us far too suddenly.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


How much do promises count for? Do they count for much when they come from government? How true are they when they come from Sharad Pawar?

Anand Vasu, a colleague, chatted with Pawar after the BCCI's elections were won. He came away with an interview that was optimistic but grounded. Pawar had in mind a cricket board that functioned effectively, had good facilities, worked not only to make money but to return it to the game, and was also transparent. He would try to convice members that adhering to the board's constitution was in their interest.

Have you visited an Indian cricket stadium lately? Most grounds need everything that Pawar spoke about. They would improve not slightly but dramatically if he walks the talk. Now the BCCI owes me nothing. I may be a moral stakeholder but cannot impose a desire for transparency and improvement on the board. One can only hope. But with Pawar making these noises, it seems too good to be true. It seems almost naive to believe what he says, and yet one hopes.

Yes, it is probably naive, but this change in regime could be good for the game. There's nothing to base this feeling on except words, but words are where most things start.