Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What about Hritik Roshan?

Oh critics may love Helen Mirren's depiction of the Queen, but have they watched Dhoom 2, the most frickin devastating use of three hours in which Roshan plays the Queen (and fools her security entourage even though the mask he's wearing is clearly from the Yashraj Halloween props department) , a bearded guy, and, to top it all, is the duniya ka sabse cool chor, aur uske "saath khelne mein bahut maza aayega"?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Our growing field

The first cricket game I recall playing took place in a space seven feet wide and fifteen feet long with a stairwell on one side, so balls frequently bounced off the railings all the way down to the ground floor, at which time my neighbour's younger brother, who stuck his neck through the aluminum barrier to watch the falling ball, announced 'akha neechey'. The unfairness of this predicament struck us early. The open stairwell was neither player's fault. Parents were irrelevant to this, so they could not be blamed. Who retrieved the ball from two flights down was a decision left to a tossed coin. Our games were dominated by batsmen and bowlers, for our heroes were of that kind. Jonty Rhodes was still six years away.

Even now, when I visit that space, the smell of the field reminds me of our uncomplicated games. We created stumps out of chalk, plucked rules out of the air. Our understanding of the game then was entirely personal, and since nothing confused us as much as leg-before appeals, we wisely did away with that mode of dismissal. Who could stop us except the passing of time? Nothing lies behind his door anymore, for a series of mishaps persuaded his family that ghosts were at work.

Before we drifted apart, our field grew larger and more competetive. Downstairs, in the middle of an enormous parking lot, we were tested by aggressive Pakistani batting and violent Pakistani bowling. The civility of our personal encounters became history with the first bouncer either of us faced. I was hit on the head while, if memory can be trusted, he swung one with a sweet tock! over the terrace of a nearby building. The ball was wrapped with electric tape - a device that at once made the ball swing, bounce, and scurry off the crusty tar surface. How he played it that well I'll never know.

The games then were rigidly communal, with international games the trigger for local violence. But it came to nothing more than pushing and swearing. Grandstanding, I think - we were taking up the positions we were historically meant to. The pride of our nation depended on us, and whoever blinked first gave up Siachen, Kashmir, you name it. But we met the enemy over the supermarket counter, at the doctor's clinic, heck, they even taught us. What choice did we have but to blink and give them a glacier?

Speaking of land, the field grew ever larger. Leather balls, damp helmets, the vibration of an unstroked bat. We encountered all these things. So what, you're thinking. So this: try it in 45 degree weather, humidity over 90%, on a concrete pitch in the middle of a large pebble and sand-strewn ground. And then dive to save a boundary. One day, in the middle of a school-level tournament, we came up against a team more unfortunate than our own. A collection of suicides, they were. I imagine them now, grown men laughing over a beating they cried about that day, that windy day when sand rose in golden swirls and stung our eyes, that day when someone - cough - took three wickets for nothing with spin and went home that night and revealed his career plan to horrified parents. He's a journalist now, on a field so vast that he can't make out its edges. And fetching balls from boundaries always made him uneasy.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Human desire

The prestige is the final flourish, the act that creates disbelief as a show concludes. The Prestige features three magicians' obsession with retribution. Watch them burn, watch them burning. Each is a saboteur of the other's plans to become the greatest magician in England - a drive so filling that it leaves no room for humanity. Their arts become darker. Having exhausted the possibilities of magic, they reach toward science, finding in it their final act, their prestige. What a prestige it is. All but the faintest spark of love remains in the final act, with warm feeling making way for machine-cold as the age of magic fades away. Death returns their colour, and emotion flows like blood from a deep wound. The prestige is about reputation, and about the deep desire to show the crowds something new. And that is at the movie's heart: the need to be creative and surprise and delight - it's about the stunned faces in the instant before the applause.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The rejuvenation of Zaheer Khan

Until February 19, 2006, Zaheer Khan had been given enough rope to hang the whole team. He claimed thirteen wickets in his last ten games at an average of 33. He leaked 4.9 runs an over. Nine of his thirteen came in three matches against a ragtag Africa XI alliance which was recognized officially but dismissed as pointless. Of the four remaining wickets, two were tailenders. In competitive games (the other seven) on average he conceded 55 runs. And then he ran out of rope.

The lack of news it made showed us one thing: we often complain about perceived gaps when there is nothing to fill them. But out went Khan and in his place came Sreesanth, Munaf, the Singhs. Isn'’t competition beautiful?

Dropping players in poor form makes even more sense when you see what they transform into. In the last fortnight Khan has been accurate, skillful, and has bowled with thought. His approach to Graeme Smith was superb in its execution. After starting the first game with two wides, he has made batsmen awkward regularly. The third one-dayer, in which he dismissed Smith and Kallis in three balls, was especially significant because he harassed them repeatedly. This wasn'’t Khan. Not the bad old Khan. Would this transformation have come about if he knew that a place in the team came cheaply and to those with reputations? This is a guy who depressed fitness trainers.

It's possible that Virender Sehwag requires a similar approach. How long can you keep a bad thing going?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A terrible love affair

Indians have a noted fondness for cricket, but what use is love without understanding and empathy? The reaction to the losses in South Africa is by now predictable. As the team alternates between victory and defeat, its followers move from peace to violence. Followers aren't necessarily fans.

The hooliganism of Indian watchers is rarely spoken about. The tendency to depict fans as an oppressed bunch of cricket tragics who descend into violence as a result of daily suffering is a tired and lazy generalization. Indians can now buy more, there are more places to attend to and more forms of entertainment. Yet violence is justified by love and the people's sentiments, as if the two explain everything. After a particularly torrid game against Australia in 2003, Mohammad Kaif's home was painted black by aggrieved people. A few days ago it was caked with cow dung as a way of conveying disappointment. But because the forum was yet again a violent one, the message was clearer than that: if you don't win we can hurt you. The threat of a lover turned sour.

Urged on by the media, politicians jumped in too. The cricket board considered pay cuts. All for a few games lost, as if disappointment and failure were unacceptable. Had they believed that throwing money at the team would paper over a shortcoming against bouncers in the first place? My understanding is that players were highly paid because they brought in sponsors and significant advertising money. Because the arrangement was percentage-based, if the advertisers left, cricketers would find themselves with less money. So in a way their pay is already performance-based.

What people who call for heads forget in that the Indian team is a result of several processes. If you grow up playing spinners on flat pitches, that's your area of expertise. If individual centers decided to prepare faster pitches South Africa might not appear as daunting. But this particular love is blind to history, recalling only its faults, and everything about it suggesting despair. If it were a woman, we'd be advising Indian cricket to pack its bags and leave its belligerent lover before the mental strain of satisfying a savage started to show.

Friday, November 10, 2006

India's cricket revolution

An edited version of this piece appeared here in today's Wall Street Journal.

The world of cricket has long been a small, cozy place, where change is resisted by the stalwarts of tradition. Now a new cricket board in India is shaking things up--taking advantage of the world’s largest fan base to put the sport on a more commercial footing.

England and Australia may play more matches. But it’s in India that the money really rolls in. With more than 500 million fans, it’s no surprise that 10% of the $2.8 billion spent on advertising in India last year was cricket related. When the national team travels overseas, advertisers are quick to follow them, snapping up prime promotional spots in stadiums wherever Indian teams play. As a result, more than half the sport’s global advertising revenue comes from Indian companies.

You’d never guess that from looking at the state of the country’s cricket league. Fans are forced to make do with uncomfortable concrete or wooden seats, with no shade from the baking Indian sun. Many of the stadiums are in a dangerous state of disrepair. In one case, a wall collapsed during an international game in the Indian city of Nagpur a decade ago, killing eight spectators.

Indian cricketers fare little better. Until recently, top players received as little as $88 for each day they played, with a similar amount paid into their retirement fund. Although that’s now been increased to $2,277 a game--its still far less than even junior cricketers in England earn.

Businessman turned cricket administrator Lalit Modi aims to change that. Mr. Modi and his colleagues took control of the Board for Control of Cricket in India, the sport’s national governing body, in a bitter election contest among India’s state cricket associations last year. They’ve accused their predecessors of allowing the sport to slip into this state of disrepair by not investing enough in the game. “There is no doubt that the [Indian] board was underselling itself,” Mr. Modi, now vice chairman of the board, said in an interview with the weekly newsmagazine Tehelka.

Now, Indian cricket is being reorganized along modern business lines. Sponsoring and merchandising deals worth $113 million were struck last December. That was followed in February by a $619 million four-year deal for global broadcast rights for all India’s international matches in India with Nimbus, a television-marketing company. Then in April, Zee TV, an Indian channel, paid $219 million for rights to a further 25 international matches that would be played at venues outside India. These additional matches would be played in Malaysia, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States - in other words, places with a large non-resident Indian population.

All of this is no more than you’d expect from an entrepreneur who observed the American sports model up close during his time in university there. Upon his return, Mr. Modi entered the sports business, and helped launch ESPN in India. He currently has ambitious plans to launch a comprehensive website - the BCCI currently has no website - with complete match footage of every game India plays.

But the jury is still out on how much of this new revenue will find its way back into the game. Editorials in Indian sports newspapers have been asking sharp questions about why the game doesn’t seem to be benefiting as yet. Some of the board’s key pledges--such as employment of professional management--staff have yet to be fulfilled. Mr. Modi and his colleagues respond that it takes time to implement changes.

If the money does filter through, the benefits would be significant. As a career choice the sport has always been, at best, a gamble in India. In contrast to England or Australia, Indian league players rarely make news, and are more often forgotten. Greater salaries, especially at lower levels of the game, would attract more players, and benefit the game as a whole. More batsmen and bowlers will pursue the sport, knowing that even if the bright lights of fame elude them, they can still enjoy a comfortable living, and go on to become coaches or umpires.

After decades of neglect, Indian cricket may be on the verge of a brighter future. But the verdict is still out on whether its new cricket board will deliver on its promises.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

"I thought it up when midget cannibals strung me upside down high above a glass of boiling vodka"

It is said that when JP Dutta read his script to Aishwarya Rai, she cried. It was then that he knew she was the Rekha he had sought. This is Dutta's version of events. Which brings us to this: it's not enough that movies and stars are legendary these days, even the back process needs to become the stuff of myth. Take for example the writer of the lyrics for Hum Tum. He was reportedly sitting in a bathroom in an east asian country when the words came to him. Since then there have been instances of writers, directors, and musicians finding inspiration in unlikely places. Desks and offices are clearly passe. The more unlikely the location, the more fantastic the story is likely to be. People will be stunned by this brilliance. "What a breed of supreme being," they will think, "he finds his ideas while strapped to the underside of a 747. Amazing." As DBC Pierre writes here: "A fib so cumbersome, so improbable, that to question it would be to question the whole of his bloodline and its psychologies."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

If I were a cricketer

"Right before I put my pads on, I'm watching myself on television. Crap hairstyle, I'm thinking, I don't know what I was thinking then. And no lighting from above next time. It makes my nose look huge. Dhoni's in the next one, selling some uv Brylcreem gel. And I think: that should be me selling uv gel. They missed a trick. Yuvi, uv. Anyway, good for him. The boy's made it. He's now earning, what, 30-40lakhs a deal? Nice. And now Rahul's out. Oh dearie me. Here I was, thinking of advertisements and endorsements, and now I've got to bat. Hold on a second. Out the door, walk like you own the place, tell cap he played well, walk on, no, wait, ask how the pitch played, walk on, say hello to the umpire, listen to Viru but don't hear a thing. I wonder what's on tv right now. This is the part where they cut to commercials. Am I on right now? I hope it's not that Xbox 360 ad. You looked too gawky there, son. Okay, concentrate, concentrate. It's Bravo and his crap slower ball. Blast it into Sidhu's mouth, just as he's talking about airhostesses and bicycles. How many ads does he... Oh hell. Hell. Here we go again. 'Too many ads, I should be punished, I'm a maverick...' Here we go again. Look depressed. Shake your head. Shake it harder, with more energy. Now look angry. After taking off the helmet. Swear and hit your pads with the bat. Maybe I should stop the ads. Then when I'm out like this they'll blame money problems and I can act again."

Well, that was fun! But I still don't understand why people link what cricketers earn through advertising with how badly they play. It's almost as if everytime they appear on screen people think, 'There he is again.' Why grudge them that? If they fail consistently, their contracts won't be renewed. And it's not like they're shooting an ad film between every over. A day or two of their life, for every ad, and it's over. Tendulkar, for example, gives Pepsi ten days of his year. This talk of concentrating less on advertisements and more on their game is nonsense.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

God parted the waves over the India-Burma plates

It was some coincidence but yesterday I saw two sides of television. An afternoon documentary described vividly the tension between two tectonic plates that led to the December 26 tsunami. It explained that as the India plate slipped below the Burma plate, the two resisted and jammed, building the pressure. But the India plate continued to push downward while the other plate held it off. They both bent downward, tense as a stretched rubberband. Inevitably, the Burma plate had to give. The plate snapped up, and its entire boundary rose. displacing a large volume of water. Imagine a glass full of water suddenly becoming half its size. The water has to go somewhere. The water was forced either side of the plate boundary at approximately the speed of a jet plane. As the waves reached the shore they slowed down, but from behind more displaced water kept pushing, and so they became bigger. These were the walls of water.

The explanation was easy to comprehend. And you understood then that it would happen again, because that's how the earth is. God did not play any role here.

Later that day, on Miraclenet: a catholic preacher held hands with his translator and fishermen before the sea. He invoked god, asked him to lay off the tsunamis, told the sea to back off and never return, he prayed that people donated boats and nets and motors, he commanded fish to come to their nets, and last, he told the fishermen to remember that all this was the doing of Jesus.

Here's the frightening thing: earlier this year a guy from TAM, the tv ratings agency - it is inaccurate but it's the only decent system around right now - told me that the religious channel market was already bigger than the music channel market. And this is only in the towns and cities with a population over 100,000. Will the percentage be larger when villages are accounted for?

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Simmering before cooking

The nervousness comes first, before the serving, before the cooking, before the planning. Now that you've invited them, you'll have to learn to cook. To make matters worse, there is a cook among them. They feel each taste, mull over textures, analyzing, scrutinizing, judging. Judging. The final authority, pronouncing you competent or otherwise. The word sounds severe but isn't it usually that way? The final word. The end. This isn't an opinion of your food, it's an opinion of you. Barriers can be constructed anytime, but cooking a meal is an intimate act which requires a lowering of your defenses. The barbarians will ring the doorbell, cross the moat, and tell you just what they think of your sauces and starters and lunch. So it does get personal.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Right man, Wright time

Tehelka, 24 September, 2006

The recurring themes that turn up every so often in John Wright’s Indian Summers — the realisation that a desk job is dour, the lure and the challenges of cricket, the demands on patience made by an often confounding country — bolster this story about the country’s first foreign cricket coach. “[In India, you see] much that is admirable and uplifting: the emphasis on family, the humility, the spirituality, the grace and dignity in the face of hardship,” he writes. “These were the people you wanted to do well for and who deserved a team which shed blood, sweat and tears.”

Wright coached India for five years, overseeing and, with Sourav Ganguly, forging a transformation from the sedentary tea-and-biscuit days of previous decades to ones of toil and success when it mattered. His book captures what it took to effect change in an environment of strong opposition from an entrenched system. “The nature of the system meant that survival was the number one priority,” he writes, “so it was little wonder it produced cricketers who tended to play for themselves.” He could not change it from the ground up, as he desired, but he tried persuading people who mattered to do things differently instead. Persuasion, he realised, could vary from a soft word to grabbing someone’s collar. Making his way through the subtleties of Indian cricket, Wright finds that his status as an outsider affords him a certain leeway. “During my last season, Viru said to me that speaking your mind in India was not easy because emotions got involved. ‘We can’t say it like you do, John... If you speak your mind and upset someone in India, he can take it to his heart and it can remain with him for a long time.’”

Wright’s account of his India years is similar in many ways to a travelogue, with its wonder-struck descriptions of the cricketing landscape, the characters central to its story, and how the country grew for him in personal meaning. His tenure begins with a series of mishaps which become commonplace once he settles down. He understands selection procedure only when his players explain it. “When I raised the issue at a selection meeting,” he says, “I got blank stares.” He is bemused by the crazy scheduling. His friend Raj Singh Dungarpur advises him to be patient, and the words hold him in good stead. Over time he understands that everybody is held hostage to everybody else. “Looking back on it, I tend to think we were all prisoners of the system, even Dalmiya… I know for a fact that many coaches and former and current players want to do things differently, but they too are prisoners of a system they can’t crack from within and don’t know where to begin.”

This focus is often turned inwards, and the story of his personal growth is as captivating as are the accounts of his dealings with the players, for whom he feels great empathy. “Getting dropped is horrible, but it’s even worse when you’re a big-name player and an established figure in the team... You think it’s a bullshit call, but there’s nothing you can do about it.” One chapter, in which he tracks his cricketers’ path to the international game, is a telling study of the hard life before the recognition. In explaining the lives and choices of the cricketers he lived with for half a decade, a large portion is also dedicated to why some lose their head when success comes.

Indian Summers explores modern India as few other cricket books have. The usual stories, the ones that grab the headlines, are all here, but the picture’s bigger. Wright understands how much the sport means to the country, and explains it as justly as he can. In hindsight, every moment that brought controversy was part of an ongoing process to leave the comfortable past behind, change mindsets and override the huge role politics play. In the centre of it all is Wright, who grew to take uninvited ex-players and BCCI gaffes in his stride, and who has left us with a book that is revealing about both cricket and the country it is played in.

Postcards by guided missile

Tehelka, September 30, 2006

Bill Bryson wrote his latest book after promising his wife that he would stay at home. He had also promised his publisher that this book would be entertaining. And personally, he missed being funny. So here then is The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, a memoir that’s likely to make his wife, his publisher, and his regulars rather chuffed.

Bryson has made a delightful career out of stumbling from one place to another. His books have spoken of the looniness of solitary travel, which is filled with strange characters and strange journeys. In a way, Bryson’s traveling life has been similar to his childhood. The book is a solid retelling of absolutely everything from his childhood, like a diary maintained from preschool with the perspective of an adult.

Bryson’s first book, The Lost Continent, written after his father’s death, was about how life had changed in small America since he was young. This one is about how things were, and what his relationship with Des Moines, Iowa, was all about. He grew up in the 50s and 60s, a time that was “fearful, thrilling, interesting, instructive, eye-popping, lustful, eager, troubled, untroubled, confused, serene.” Incidentally, “it was all those things for America too.” The tone that this book starts with is unlike the slightly sour one in his first: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”

Des Moines, it turns out, wasn’t half bad for a boy. The town had strange characters – and many things seem stranger looking back when you’re grown up – made even stranger by the fact that it was a strange time for America. Bomb drills required children to brace themselves under a desk. “I remember being profoundly amazed,” Bryson writes, “that anyone would suppose that a little wooden desk would provide a safe haven…Once I realized that no one was watching, I elected not to take part. I already knew how to get under a desk and was confident that this was not a skill that would ever need refreshing. Anyway, what were the chances that the Soviets would bomb Des Moines? I mean, come on.”

Bryson’s town in the fifties was arrested by progress and visions of the future, as was the rest of America. Neighbours proudly exhibited their latest television, toilets were cleaned not just by water but with a solid burst of radiation, and the post office promised to deliver mail by guided missile. But the place was puritanical too. Deviant sex, which in those days was anything other than straight sex, was illegal. The church especially, Bryson writes, was in on it. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese declared that sex outside marriage promoted Communism. “Quite how a shag in the haymow helped the relentless march of Marxism was never specified, but it hardly mattered. The point was that once an action was deemed to promote Communism, you knew you were never going to get anywhere near it.”

The anecdotes with which Bryson describes his life and times are made richer by his details and exaggerations: “…he treated me to the hanging spit trick… it wasn’t even like spit – at least not like human spit.” It was “a mossy green with little streaks of red blood in it and, unless my memory is playing tricks, two very small grey feathers protruding at the sides. It was so big and shiny that I could see my reflection in it, distorted, as in an M.C. Escher drawing.” There are memories of his father, a sports writer who demonstrated isometrics in airplanes and saved money by visiting dentists who didn’t use novocaine, and his mother, who sent him to school in his sister’s Capri pants.

After A Short History of Nearly Everything, and four years since his last travel book, this is Bryson’s return to humor and everyday happenings. It is by no means deep, or as insightful as his last one, but as he maintains on page 33: “So this is a book about not very much: about being small and getting larger slowly.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Meeting Sanjay B Jumaani

This was published in Tehelka, September 15 2006

Sanjay Jumani’s had been a middling life. At 17, he began working because it was nice to work. He left college incomplete, underdone, and became a distributor for an alcohol company. He got married. Special things happened to others around him while he worked, slept, worked, slept. The pay was barely enough to finance a trip to the hospital if someone fell sick. Meanwhile, after his own run of poor luck, his father, Bansilal Jumaani, made a profession out of predicting things. It started slowly, with a simple suggestion to Manmohan Desai: work with Amitabh Bachchan because your numbers match. Three decades later a friend, Farhad Nathani, tested him for a year to predict the fate of films due to be released. He was impressed by Bansilal’s accuracy and introduced him to Rakesh Roshan, the movie director. Roshan was warned that ‘Kaho Na Pyar Hai’ would not work. The numbers were not good. Two ‘a’s to the title could make it a bigger movie than the blockbuster of the time, Dil to Paagal Hai. Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai was massive.

Six years later, I visited Sanjay’s office in Mahim. Scrapbooks with clippings of repetitive interviews, of predictions made and prophecies fulfilled lie on a curved glass coffee table. Vineet Jain, the Godrej family, and the Birlas consult him. So does Sharad Pawar. (Why?) On a sofa sit a collector and his wife, poring over an analysis of their fortune, and what they can do to alter it. A number of small statuettes of a number of big gods sit in a glass cabinet. Above them is a single signed picture of Rahul Dravid. There’s no indication of the number behind his jersey, though it’s likely to be 19. He used to adorn No. 5 until a couple of years ago, and look what happened since. One plus nine equals ten. One plus zero equals one. Ones take command. The walls are coloured blue and yellow. Is it a luck thing? How much can you do to insure luck? What if you did everything that numerology, astrology and feng shui said was right, and put it all together? The receptionist waves to get my attention. He’s ready, she says.

After seventeen years of moderate luck, in 2001, Sanjay Jumani gave in to his wife, Jhernna S Jumaani (a “germologist” who runs a company called ‘Gemz Bonnd’, according to her business card), and changed his name. “I’d tried everything else, now I thought I would try this too,” he says. By now Bansilal had acquired limited fame in high society, but kept his opinions guarded. Sanjay approached him for a change. “My name added up to a number that meant struggle.” Within five months, he says, he became inclined to the “occult science” of numerology. Friends were not encouraging, but he took his chance. Some broke ranks and now consult him.

It’s easy to see the effect Sanjay B Jumaani and his father have had on the landscape. They’ve made the job of a sub-editor hell. Is it Shergill, or Sheirgill? Kya ye pyar hai, ya kya ye pyaar hai? “Are you aware that 90% of all successful serials today have misspelt titles?” he asks. Later he suggests: “Your name… not good. Add your father’s initial. Add a ‘y’ to your last name.” Rahul A. Bhatiya. We wear our names casually because they’re as sure as daylight. Fudge mine a bit here or there and I suddenly understand the fright an eclipse causes.

Visitors consult Sanjay in an small office whose walls are painted blue. Bansilal died in May (a diabetic, he had predicted his death this year), and Sanjay, now 37, sits behind his desk, surrounded by things that make him happy. On his desk, under the glass surface above the wood panel, there are sheets that tell you that the 26th is an evil day, and they list the disasters that have taken place on the day in various months. “People come to me mainly for financial advice, but it’s always insecurity,” he says. “Those who are doing well want to do better, those on top want to stay there. Those who aren’t doing well have huge dreams and ambitions.” What use does Sharad Pawar have for numerology? He smiles brightly and then turns serious. “I can’t talk about it.”

Sanjay made his father’s business grow. Roshan introduced the family to Ekta Kapoor, and together they altered hindi. Sanjay wrote about his father’s success in Mid Day, and the Times of India followed up on September 11, 2001. Things changed then. Word spread, and celebrities from cricket, movies, and television stopped by for help. Tushaar Kapoor became a much happier Tusshar, says a testimony on the Jumaani website. Tusshar, however, philosophized in a newspaper that there had been no great success, but that’s okay, life’s like that.

Is it possible to change a person’s destiny by altering a name? “I don’t have to give you more instances, but look at Reema Lamba, who struggled for six years. She changed her name to Malika Sherawat. The body and face were the same. People didn’t see that with Reema Lamba? She’s a number six now. Suddenly she got Khwaish, she got Murder. Could she have dreamt of being a sex siren then?” Sanjay is steadfast in the belief that his science works. He points out to the blue walls around him. “They make me more positive.” They are the colour of his planets. Numbers govern his life, and he sees nothing unusual in that. “I started my show ‘Boley Sitaare’ on my lucky date, and it was a hit.” I asked how he dealt with inevitable numbers, like 8 o’clock. “Minutes aren’t important in numerology.”

It’s debatable whether astrology could flounder in India. There are forums on the internet related to astrology where visitors desperately sound out the hopeless day they were born on, and the hopeless name they were born with. “There’s something else that’s important apart from the right numbers,” Sanjay says. “Hard work, timing, and the proper direction.” All along, a receptionist kept coming in with news of other appointments. He seemed to be having a busy day. “I see three people everyday for various things. Only recently have I stopped working on Sundays. I used to work for eight to ten hours with my sales job, but now I work for 12 to 14. Just because you can add an alphabet to make life easier doesn’t mean you should work less hard.”

Sanjay begins everyday normally, with no regard to the numbers on his alarm clock. He drops his son to school before going for a morning walk with friends, who help him “throw out the negative energies that develop through the day with his clients.” Once in a while, when a date that adds to number eight brings with it an earthquake, his friends call to discuss the event. “My friends believe in this, and it’s not because of my convincing powers. They’ve seen my life change 3000% after I changed my name.” Numerology changed one big thing for him: earlier, he says, he had ten or twenty relatives, but now he has over 2000 of them, and each and every one wants to know the future.

Because he has immersed himself in numbers, they have taken root completely. Where we see an IBM or an Imran, he, like Keanu Reeves in a black trenchcoat, sees a stream of numbers. “Sometimes it’s so bad that I find myself calculating the words ‘no exit’.” It’s why companies come by to see if their names are okay, and if the colour of their logo is okay too. Colour plays a big role in things. “You’re wearing a shirt and pant. I’m wearing that too, but they’re my lucky colours.” His shirt was white with large pink circles. “The chair you’re sitting on is a lucky colour too. (Blue.)”

This science doesn’t seem rational. It doesn’t even seem like science. I asked him about non-believers. “I don’t have enough time for believers, so where does having time for non-believers come in? I was a non-believer myself. Why worry about them? I can talk to them and influence them through my television and radio program. If they don’t believe it, that’s fine, because it’s their belief.” What about changing a name? Given how inevitability is an intrinsic part of religion in India, wasn’t it like messing with fate? “What’s wrong with trying to change fate? When you get up at six in the morning you’re trying to change fate. Why not get up at ten and nine?” Yes, I protested, but it wasn’t like changing a name. This felt more and more like a playground spat. “Look, it’s a precaution. When you do yoga, it’s a precaution for your health. You’re changing fate. So does that mean you shouldn’t do it? These are catalysts. They help things get better.”

To survive life and live in it happily, Sanjay recommends that people learn numerology and see a numerologist. These days people come by with new babies. “I think it’s a very healthy practice,” he says. “Instead of struggling for 33 years like me and then changing… I would have not had to struggle for 17 years of my sales job if my name had been on a good number.”

Wednesday, August 30, 2006


Say it never happened, it never existed. Some day you might deny leading the life you have today. Sometimes it does feel rather fragile. Look at the trees, their leaves turn brown eventually. Look at trees of families, and watch fortunes change with time. Nothing assured, nothing set in stone. You're adrift endlessly, from the first decade to the last. Some decades you have company on the raft, in others you do it alone. Sometimes the past feels as unreal as a mirage of the future.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


The second season of Lost, one of the greatest shows ever, begins with survivors setting off from the island on a raft to find civilization. Some hours later they are barely alive and adrift, clinging to tattered remains after an encounter with another boat. As the boat appears at first there is hope, these are the first unfamiliar faces they have seen for a long time. But within minutes a survivor's child is kidnapped and an explosive is detonated on board the survivors' vessel. On the island a hatch is discovered, and one by one people lower themselves into it, knowing fully that what awaits them at the bottom is not wholly pleasant. It is one of Lost's defining features: we know and relish the fact that no danger deters the survivors. They may pause for thought and consider what lies around the corner, but will always hurtle into what is inevitably an escalated level of evil.

Next Thursday can't come soon enough. More on this later.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The maharaja's molls

The monsoon is a terrible time to fly. One whiff of a cloud and the airplane begins to rise and fall like an irregular heartbeat. At moments like these you look to the bright interiors for cheer, or to fresh-faced airhostesses who smile benignly. These things reassure me greatly. So when I stepped into an Air India plane two nights ago for a two-hour flight and saw the stern lady at the door, I considered cancelling my ticket.

Our nerves were shot by the time we landed. Everytime an airhostess walked by I would sit straight with my arms where she could see them. Sometimes they would inspect us as they walked by like examiners in a hall. It felt like the worst moments of school. When I tried sleeping, one stood by me in the aisle and yelled at my wife, "Is he your husband? Is he your husband? Is he your husband? Is he asleep?" It was so strange. This profession is supposed to be lucrative and exciting and dreamy. We know it isn't so, but it's supposed to seem this way. If I had a kid who wanted to be an airhostess, I'd take her on a few round trips on this airline, and that'd straighten her out. When the seatbelt lights came on mid-flight and the plane began to shudder, the frown on their faces sunk deeper, and I grew more worried. And then the pilot's voice came over the intercom, "We are in bad weather." That was it. Five words, he was done, we were done for. Some sweated profusely because the air conditioners were switched off. A stale smell developed. Then the plane landed with a thud, one set of wheels at a time. An airhostess said, "We hope you will fly with Air India again," to which a man at the back yelled, "Hopes!"

Friday, August 04, 2006

The hair toss school of acting

Is it me, or the wine I've just had, or has Shilpa Shetty really made a career of turning back to face the camera over her shoulder, with her hair following and finally sweeping across her face? But then everyone's done this. Shah Rukh stands atop a mountain in a red sweater, legs apart, arms raised to the sky, body writing to a divine disco beat. Salman has that cold stare from squinting eyes while white-skinned women dance around him.

I often wonder what life would be like if we had a look, a thing that everyone remembered us by, something like Salman's chest. It wouldn't be much different, I think, except if we had slow motion and background music at our disposal. Yeah, imagine that! Roobaroo from Rang De Basanti playing as I - in slow motion - looked for snacks in the fridge.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Acting the part

Lately I've found myself in some pretty unfamiliar situations. Found in the literal sense because suddenly, in the middle of wherever I am, it occurs to me that I've never gone down this way before, like waking up at the entrance of a cave. This is the Tehelka gig. Given the job of a feature writer, you're pretty much in a new place every week. It's a really good thing because, well, I now know that Charles Correa and Hafeez Contractor don't like each other, that Varanasi is run by goons, that the romance of train travel runs dry after a day spent in one. But it's so easy to lose yourself. Having gone from a state of no activity to one of manic and spontaneous action, I've figured that out. Suddenly you're a lot less inquiring of yourself and a lot more curious about things outside. There exist some remarkable stories. A fortnight ago I met a man who worked for Air Deccan and faced jibes and insults with such humor that tired passengers gave up and begged him to tell them some jokes. Then there's the director who offered me half a lakh to write something nice about him, saying that it would be a matter of love and affection. He had been through a terrible week: a rotten movie, terrible music, no audiences, no sales, no income - disproportionate assets, actually - and visits from tax inspectors.

And even then you wonder. There's a fear that the cynicism I see in older journalists will one day touch me. These are not frustrated journalists, but good ones. You realise it through their eyes: after 30 years in the business they're not upset because they haven't succeeded, they're upset because they see sad things everyday. It's unnerving because this cynicism seems inevitable. One by one, people slip into that state of knowing how things happen, of expecting things to go down a depressing path. They've gone past the stage of looking at suicide attempters as novelty and bad directors as entertainment. Here they see something deeper and sadder.

I reason with myself that cynicism has its benefits. But what about optimism? What about a tale so good, so nice, that no one believes it? What if I told you about the actor who had nothing, who worked so hard that his director gave him 20,000 bucks in the late 80s for his impending marriage? What about the cricket chief who loves discussing his ideas, and is so enthusiastic about what he does that it's a treat to watch him wave his arms about and describe tomorrow? What about the guy at the morgue who got over an irrational fear to do a job well? You are swept away listening to them. They all become storytellers telling you wonderful tales, while you sit wide-eyed like a child tucked in bed. Some are terrible, some are wonderful. But you're not cynical, you're amazed. You're lost in their world. And then, when you have a moment to yourself, as you stand at the threshold of another interviewee's home, you wonder: in all these worlds, where is mine? But you ring the doorbell and the subject starts talking and you are lost in an unfamiliar place again, drifting further and further away as your own world reduces into nothingness.

“I’m more into the spirit of the play than the play” - An interview with Vishal Bhardwaj

What about Shakespeare do you find so compelling?

I think his dramatic stories are so universal in their emotion that they cross boundaries of countries, genre and language. I think they can be adapted to any time. You can make it futuristic. I could have made Othello a futuristic film also, 2050, say. Basically the story remains the same. It's about how rooted human traits are, and how it's been relevant for the past 400 years. It'll be relevant for the next 400 years.

Why did you pick Uttar Pradesh (UP) for Othello?

Because I was born and brought up ther. That part of the country has not been seen in mainstream cinema. I thought it would be interesting to bring that flavour to the mainstream, giving a Shakespearean colour to UP - it could be a unique combination.

When did you decide on Othello becoming Omkara?

It happened in October or November 2005. I was not sure of which one to pick up, whether it would be Julius Ceasar, Hamlet, or Othello, or something else.

The reason I asked was because that part of the country has been seen in a few films. There's Tigmanshu Dhulia's Haasil, for one.

What Tigmanshu did wasn't mainstream. And the language [the local dialect], I don't think it was used there. It was more... I used a heavy dialect of western UP. That movie did not have a dialect of its own. Do you remember any mainstream films with stars being done in UP?

There's Gangajal, but that's set in Bihar.

Yeah, Gangajal. There's a lot of difference between Bihar and UP. I think. Yeah, there's a lot of difference. If you travel in UP, every 50 kilometers you get a different dialect. [Pause] There also Ajay was not speaking Bihari. He spoke the normal, clean hindi. The rest of the characters spoke in bihari, and that too was an the honest dialect. I have been totally honest with my mainstream actors. So I don't want to compare.

How'd you get the mainstream actors to prepare for the dialect?

I dubbed all the dialogues in my voice, sent them cds and they kept listening to them. We did some workshops, some rehearsals. Ajay's hindi was very good, there were no problems there, but Saif had to go through a really rough patch.

When you read Shakespeare, there's a certain poetry in the language. How do you get that across in Hindi?

I didn't follow his language or his dialogue or his sequence of drama. I just picked the plot and made it my own. I didn't follow it word by word or scene by scene. I'm more into the spirit of the play than the play.

Shakespeare has been done and been seen many times. When you took up Macbeth...

It has not been done in the Indian context in Indian cinema. Hardly any Shakespearean thing has been done.

How did you approach the interpretation of it?

One thing I knew was that it hadn't been done in India. People have not even heard of Macbeth, if we talk about the common man. And in the west the plays have been adapted in the classic manner. So I knew it would be unique. I picked up the story and put it in contemporary times.

Have you seen Roysten Abel's interpretation of Othello?


What about Habib Tanvir's adaptations?

No. I have not seen any adaptations in the Indian context. I saw the films made by Orson Wells. He adapted Othello. Then the latest was 'O'.

What did you think of Orson Wells' adaptation?

It was set in the same period, the same time, and my intention was not to do that. I wanted to bring my own creativity into it. So that's why I was not really kicked about Orson Wells. Those were greatly shot, greatly made, and greatly performed, but they didn't interest me.

Tehelka, August 5, 2006.

A pooped party

“Not dangerous? Not dangerous? What do you mean, not dangerous? They’re goons, of course they’re dangerous!” After a lengthy diatribe, the owner of the Dadar cloth shop took a breather. He was speaking about his neighbours, the Shiv Sena. “Yes, the father could go. Yes, Rane and the nephew aren’t there anymore. But isn’t the son still there? He can still do damage, can’t he?” He did not buy into the idea of the party as a waning power. In 35 years of business there he had seen riots, closures, rallies, and the annual demand for protection money. “Kya Hindu, kya Muslim? Every year they come during diwali, saying, ‘See, no one touched your shop. Pay us and we’ll protect you.’ Sometimes they come here and say they don’t have money for an ambulance. It is understood that I have to pay the bloody hoodlums.”

These days, the general consensus is that Mumbai’s most notorious party is dying. In Sion, Dharavi, and Dadar – all Sena strongholds – there is little fear of violence from them. People speak of the Sena as a once fearsome but now sorry party holding on to notions they should have abandoned a long time ago. This opinion springs primarily from the bloodshed of 1993, and from the last week’s events. “They really disgraced themselves on Sunday, didn’t they? What good is it for anyone when they declare a bandh?” said a cab driver stationed at Dharavi. “The police did not let things get out of hand, and that’s only because the Sena did not control them. If RR Patil wasn’t here and the Sena was in charge, the riots would have been worse. It’s happened before.” The owner of a mobile phone shop situated a couple of minutes away from a Shiv Sena shakha didn’t take the call too seriously, but played it safe and shut shop only at 1pm and reopened it five hours later.

“The people in last Sunday’s events were not all Shiv Sainiks. They were people without jobs, people who needed money,” a school teacher and old resident of Sion said. “They were strong once, very strong, but now just look at them. They take anyone off the streets, give them some money, and tell them to burn things. What happened last Sunday was just a show. Do you actually believe they are strong now?” The cab driver suggested it was all about police control. When the Sena was in charge, he said, two things happened: the party would run amok, and the police had a free hand too. Neither kept tabs on the other. He had an example. If a major incident took place anywhere, Muslims were rounded up arbitrarily, fines were arbitrary. Innocence was a minor obstacle. It still happens, he said, but those days it was a lot worse. And what came before that? Before the Shiv Sena were good times. “Hindus and Muslims ate together, we had few differences. Then they wanted India for the Hindus, and it all went to hell.”

When Mumbai was on edge two Sundays ago, and then again on Tuesday, it began, in part, with images of a burning bus. The sight of a blaze added to the fear that the Sena could still wreck havoc, and so shutters stayed down. Then, two days later the blasts occurred and there were renewed fears that the party would strike out at minorities. They mostly stayed quiet. “It’s not always their fault, you know,” declared a young man who ran a milk stall opposite the Sena’s youth office (run by middle-aged men) in Dadar when I asked why his neighbours were so silent. His partner, an old man, spoke up: “They have been very quiet except for that Sunday. But they are not the same anymore.” He couldn’t tell if they were waiting for an opportunity to strike out but reasoned, “After the blasts Mumbai was already nervous. And the party knows it can make people nervous. So why go out and make people even more nervous?” He read Saamna, the Sena’s paper, and smiled as he recollected Bal Thakeray’s words. “What else? ‘Government darti hai, bhadwa hai.’ But I think the government will catch the culprits in time.”

If these places were tense, it was for a different reason. Narendra Modi was in town. A few words from him could start a fire. “Why is he here?” the school teacher asked. “What he says is violent and pointless.” “It’s a good thing his speech is in an enclosed hall. If he did it as Shivaji park Hindus would be chasing Muslims out of Mumbai using swords,” said the owner of the cloth shop. On his wall were pictures of family: one of himself unshaven, and the other of his grandson. “Maine usko America bhej diya. Yahaan kya karega? Yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai?” he asked angrily, pointing at the Shiv Sena headquarters which was shroud in scaffolding.

In Dharavi, it was difficult to find a man who would even consider the Sena to be a threat. Most laughed at the suggestion, saying it was too old, too weak. Others waved a hand dismissively. The body language was bad news for the city’s scariest party. Policemen who lolled around the place repeated what others said. Over and over, too old, too weak, too old, too weak. So how does it manage to shut down Mumbai? The number of its followers doesn’t matter, although it helps. The Sena uses fear effectively, staging demonstrations in different parts of the city. One demonstration here, a bus burning there. With the images repeated over and over again it seems as if violence is spreading across the city. Like with Hitchcock, the fear is born of the suspense, not from the act, which is often anticlimactic.

Tehelka, July 29, 2006.

"If you take care of the rich, the poor get taken care of" - An interview with Hafeez Contractor

What's your take on the atate of architecture in Mumbai, in terms of ideas?

Public buildings, which are heritage buildings are okay. But private heritage buildings are in a pretty bad condition. Barring some private buildings, good architecture is seen as a vital component of only public buildings. And there have been barely any public buildings built in Mumbai in the last 30 or 40 years. We haven't built stations, we haven't built schools.

When you look across the Mumbai skyline, there's a kind of sameness, nothing that catches the eye.

When you have a residential building, it consists of a living room, bedroom, hall, and kitchen. It's only when you have something different, like a museum, or a hotel, that things are different.

Do Indians, in general, not have good design sense?

It's a very sad thing. But I'll tell you, it's like survival. You don't have food to eat, so do you talk about table manners? When you have ample food to eat, you'll be like, 'After you, no, please, after you!' [Exaggerated table manners] More than 55% of our people live in slums. That's why you have illegal houses, structures, encroachments. There is a lot of creativity in extracting the maximum out of a limited space, mind you. Today, FSI (floor space index) controls everything. It's the place where people make a lot of money legally and illegally. They don't want to lose their hold on it. But to answer your question, we do care about design but when we don't have spaces to live... We've been asking to build smaller and smaller and smaller houses. Take the Urban Land Ceiling Act - it was asking people to create a 40sq meter flat in an 80sq meter area. It boils down to whether your bylaws go hand in hand with you to create something nice.

So you're saying that if FSI is raised, things like design will generally improve?

One hundred percent. It might take some time, but yes. It'll eradicate scarcity. Today you're paying for scarcity, not for the product. You increase FSI, and the scarcity will be removed.

So who exactly benefits from this scarcity?

This is a great game which few understand. If you say that FSI should be raised, the media says 'oh, the builder lobby has asked for the FSI level to be raised, and they will gain from it. Whether you have 1 FSI or 2 FSI, the lobby will gain from it. But if you have more FSI, demand and supply will equalise. By restructing the FSI, the percentage of profit is higher for the builder, and there is more corruption in the city by restricting it. Percentagewise, the buyer is also paying more. But if the builder pays less for FSI - which is raised at the same time - the builder will be happy, and the buyer will be happy.

But do builders want this?

There are types of builders. There are some who buy single buildings and keep extracting the money. But there are professional builders for whom turnover is more important. But unfortunately not many people understand that. Whenever there is a debate about FSI, people say, 'Oh, the builder will make more money!' Initially, yes. But it will taper off.

You once said that if the FSI was raised and Mumbai moved upwards, we'd have more parks and playgrounds. How can you be sure about this?

See, nobody is Raja Harishchandra that they would want to do good things for people. In all other countries and cities, incentives are given. You make a restaurant, you get fsi, you occupy more than 50% of the plot you don't get additional FSI. That's why you have so many little parks and gardens in New York. It's not that they're in love with art. They're in love with money. So they're forced to do it. But we don't want to understand reality. In Manhattan the FSI is five, and with bonuses you can go up to 25. This is how they make cities more beautiful. In this city we are all very selfish. We don't want any construction in our back yard, we don't want our thing to change. This is wrong. The city does not belong to you. We have to provide for the future. It's held up by a bunch of retired people who don't want their lifestyle to change. On one side they demand green spaces, on the other they want low cost housing. Are they really clear about what they want? They are against any development.

The government has raised the FSI level for Dharavi, and they plan to move existing residents into new apartments. But only 51,000 families live there officially, whereas you have a hundreds of thousands who don't. What do you make of this?

I've always said that if you are providing for slums, and are providing for a housand people, make a provision to create for another thousand. You need to construct ten times more than what you are constructing today. We're 16 million people today, and will go to 25 million in the next tren years. Just imagine what will happen. In this 16 million, 55% don't have houses. And of this 55, 30% are staying in dilapidated buildings. That leaves only 25%. All these people are going to be out on the roads. People can't fathom this. They are after people who enclose a balcony, things like that. The only people gaining from this are government officials. They get their flats for free. They don't understand the plight of the ordinary person. In Dubai and Hyderabad there is unrestricted FSI. Take it from me, Hyderabad will overtake Mumbai. The money from the additional FSI should be ploughed back into the infrastructure.

We've said that making buildings and should go hand in hand with building infrastructure. On the face of it, this is a reasonable argument. But given the lack of political will, is it possible?

No, initially it won't happen. Nothing will happen because it's set in the system. It will take some time.

So is the source of the problem the laws and lawmakers themselves?

See, we have impractical laws. And the trouble with the urban scenario is that by the time you realise the laws are impractical, five to six years would have passed. By the time you think about making a new law, the whole real estate scene is so criminalised that people think that, 'If I make this change people will think I've taken the money.' So they let the law keep running, until it gets out of hand. A lot of laws are there for the appeasement of the poor. You can't do cities like that. Nobody has ever created poor man's housing, let us be very clear. All large low-cost housing is created when you have a larger new area for the rich.

Can a good transportation system help you with decentralisation?

Look at history. You will make the poor go further and further away. We've been talking about such wrong things for so many years. All our younger kids' minds are corrupted. These are not facts. Study the history of any city, and you'll see what urban plannning is. You'll see why there's been a scarcity of housing, why 30 people live in a one-bedroom flat on Mohammad Ali road. It's because you've been focussing on the railway, never the road, never the rich. I've always said that if you take care of the rich, the poor get taken care of.

You've described mangroves as ghaas-phoos. Do you believe that they aren't a natural flood buffer?

Not at all! I have always said that, against mangroves, I'd like to have promenades and forest lands. I'm a lover of mangroves. But I don't like them at the Bandra seafront. I'd rather have a garden where a man can walk. They've been saying that mangroves have been here all the time. I've sene it with my own eyes at Bandra creek when I studied architecture: there were no mangroves. If you don't do anything near the sea, mangroves will come there. When I said ghaas-phoos, I meant it as wild growth. But am I against greenery? No way. But in the city there should be greenery for human beings, and in the hinterland there should be greenery for wildlife.

Last year, after the cloudburst, you said: "The nallahs are overflowing because of the garbage. The city is not equipped to cope with the clearing because it is not earning enough. The reason for that is because half the city comprises slums that only sponge on the city as they do not pay anything..." How do they sponge on the city?

They use your drainage, your water supply, your roads. They use every aspect of your city facility, they don't pay any taxes. If in every city you pay land tax, and assessment tax, here they pay nothing. That's the main thing. I'm not saying that you should throw them out. I'm saying they are there because your housing laws are not proper.

The environmentalist Girish Raut found out that of the 800 million litres of sewage dumped in everyday, only 2 million come from the slums. The rest comes from big industries.

To prove facts and figures you can twist things. Look, if everybody were to live the way the people in the US live, you would require 12 earths. Definitely, their means and sewage must be small. Definitely. But how does it get dumped? Does anybody clear the garbage? The main dumping area is the nallahs, which get cleared once or twice a year. The Kurla nallahs get cleared with god's good grace. And because oif the sewage they get three or four feet more and their backyards increase. That's why the nallahs have become smaller and smaller and there's more flooding there.

Monday, July 24, 2006

An interview with Irrfan: "Yeah, acting doesn't count, actually"

Let's start with how you began.

I used to be very shy, very enclosed, but I had a passion for certain things, like cricket and patang-baazi. I used to go deep into it. I used to hate schools because we used to go at 6 in the morning and return at 6 in the evening. I wanted to grow and get away from school. I used to dream ki kab aayega woh din jab school khatam ho jayega. That's why I tried my hand at cricket, and took it seriously. But I realised that it needed more than just passion. It needs more support, a support system. I decided early not to waste time. And then suddenly there was this art movement where Naseer and Om came on screen - they were just mesmerizing. They just gave you a different definition of entertainment and performance. They instigated me to want to learn the craft. Then somebody told me about the National School of Drama (NSD).

You mentioned in an interview that NSD wasn't all that you hoped it would be. What were you expecting from it?

I was naive. I expected that I would go to NSD and they would teach me to act. But now I know that in any creative institution, there's no guarantee that they will teach you creativity. It's up to you to pick up things. It's a journey. I had so many questions for my teachers, but many didn't have any answers. Am I an actor? Am I decent? Is it possible for me to become an actor? There were so many doubts. Then I learnt that you can't learn from an institute. An institute can provide you with atmosphere and can give you facilities and expose you to new things. There could be one or two teachers with whom you can interact. But acting is an art that you have to do to learn. You can't think about it. It's like swimming. You have to get into water to learn it. But I was fortunate to get into NSD. It changed my perceptions about myself. Suddenly I had to see things objectively, from a distance.

Because acting requires an actor to let go of himself, does it also reveal him to himself?

Yes. There was a basic need for me to let go of myself. Acting requires that. It also cures you somewhere or the other. You try to deal with yourself. I have a hidden relationship with adulation. I want to be cured of the desire for appreciation. It's like a disease. It's not a good thing to get constant admiration. You should be able to live without it. I realise it's a need, but I'm not very easy with it.

Wasn't The Warrior something that lingered for a while?

Definitely. You're always on the lookout for an experience that will grab you. But those kinds of experiences don't happen all the time. There are very few stories, very few units, very few directors who can engulf you. And The Warrior was that kind of film. I was doing television at the time, and it was the first time I had done a film in one go. That film was shot in extreme conditions, and at the beginning I thought I wouldn't be able to take it. I had to wear a wig in 49 degree temperature, and there was the armor and the horses. But then the body adapted to it and it became an experience. And the kind of approach Asif Kapadia [the director] had was fascinating for me. I was bored to death with the kind of work Indian cinema demands. You have to say each and every thing. You can't live in the character's moment. And here was a director who said, 'Don't suggest what you're feeling, just be there. Don't indicate, don't demonstrate.' In our films we have to demonstrate what we feel. Even if the actor doesn't feel it but demonstrates it magically, they love it. I was looking for something deep, a connect, where I didn't have to show.

Is demonstration done because the audience demands it, or is it because of a preconceived notion of what the audience demands?

The demonstration is in the director's subconscious, because he depends on it - he doesn't explore cinematic language. Our industry has not evolved that much. We want to communicate through what an actor says, not through the camera or the language of cinema. There are very few directors who do this. Like Sriram Raghavan. He really knows the language. Most of us just put the camera somewhere and ask the actor to say what the story wants to say. But that's not cinema. I think they don't see the need to do otherwise. They accentuate everything: 'Actor ki aankon mein aasoon hoga, woh ro raha hoga, music bhi ro raha hoga, saamne waala bhi ro raha hoga.’ They hammer it in.

How is Vishal Bhardwaj's way of working?

Vishal is very good with scripts. He's good with atmosphere. He's a very fast learner and the kind of cinema he likes helps him grow. I've read other scripts with Vishal and they didn't have magic, but suddenly he comes out with a script that has this magic. Like Omkara's script. It's fantastic. The atmosphere was so entertaining, so real, so thick, that I don't think anybody else could have done that. He is special. He has a special knack about characters, and can tell a story in a different way, but he doesn't experiment with the language of cinema. He does it at the script level. He wants the cameraman to be his equal partner. So for him the cameraman is a very important person.

Is it difficult to make his kind of movies? They're not exactly Yashraj movies.

It's a new kind of cinema, a new kind of story, and has a different kind of impact. Yashraj films are made to please you, and make you feel comfortable about yourself and your values. That is where Yashraj's cinema dwells. It doesn't go beyond that and challenge the audience's sensibilities. But Vishal, I think, doesn't find that interesting enough. He goes beyond that. His heros don't have to be chocolatey, or good-looking. In Vishal's films it is his inner world that is fascinating.

2003 was an interesting one for you in terms of names. The Internet movie database has listed you as Irfan Khan, Irrfan, and then Irfaan with two 'A's. Were the name changes for reasons of luck?

It's a mistake. It was never Irfaan. I added an 'r', definitely, but not for numerological reasons. It was about phonetics. But incidentally Irrfan added up to a good number, and I'm not proud of it. Sometimes I don't like myself for doing this. I was trying to fool myself. My mother said it sounded correct, the phonetics were right.

Does someone like Om Puri, who seems to have found that middle path between performance and income, give you hope?

One thing I've realised is that no two actors can have similar track records. Every actor has his own journey. Om Puri was doing all kinds of cinema, every kind of film, small roles, guest appearances, B-grade roles, A-grade roles, and suddenly he started getting films abroad. People do get opportunities. I don't think you can base your journey on somebody else's. I think life will give me opportunities, but I have to keep working on my own convictions.

What are those convictions?

To work in projects that engage me, to become commercially successful in cinema. I don't want to just be an actor who's saleable in Indian cinema, but want to work anywhere.

People often talk of an actor's bankability, about whether he delivers hits or flops. But isn't an actor just one component of the project?

I think the actor gets undue importance. I think that's because storytelling is done through the actor. It's the director who should get that importance. He's the one telling you the story, he 's the one casting you. In Hindi cinema, actors are treated like magicians. People just write lines and expect actors to do magic. That's why it happens. Ek simple line hogi, Amitabh Bachchan will say it, people will be mesmerized. It's not an actor's medium, but if a film is successful the actor is given credit, and if it fails, the actor has to face the blame.

So an actor's just one part of the entire movie.

Yes, he's just one person. But our commercial cinema depends on personality. It doesn't have to deal with the truth of the situation. They depend on the charisma of an actor.

But then isn't a personality, in this sense, also a form of stereotyping?

Well, people do want to see them again and again because we don't have a culture of seeing different stories and characters. We don't have a culture of realism. We had a history of Parsi theatre. We had melodrama and jugglery. In all our folk forms there's no tradition of acting, although the Natya shastra has a method which people haven't practiced and evolved.

Would you consider yourself an instinctive actor?

I want to be. But at NSD I tried working out everything. I used to even track the thought process of the character. I never felt easy with it, I never enjoyed it. It was like a crutch. You couldn't leave yourself open to spontaneous things. But I used that crutch to not fail. It felt wrong, though. I felt I should just respond to things. Slowly, I began to rely on instinct. Now I don't want to work on something too much - I want to know the broad graph of the character. It has to happen that way, otherwise there's no magic, there's no fun. That's why people say actors should be brave. The actor must have courage to let go of himself, and to rely on his instinct. But that comes late. It is something you have to keep reminding yourself about and keep on practicing.

But you need a lot more than good acting to make it here.

Yeah, acting doesn't count, actually. But I knew that I didn't have anything else to fall back on. I had to rely on it to be successful. And I had this desire to learn. But here, you don't need to act, you're not required to be an actor to be successful in this industry. You learn this after many years. You have to become comfortable in front of the camera, you do whatever they want you to do, and you do it being yourself - you don't have to put on a character. You don't have to understand any other person. If the dialogue assistant asks you to say a line, you have to say, 'Okay, I'll say this line.' It really works.

Sounds just like television serials, especially the jaded parts.

I don't want to name people, but I've worked with certain actors who've done cinema for 15-16 years. I see their fatigue. As soon as they arrive on set they want to know the pack up time. Kab kar rahe hain pack up? Kab ho raha hai pack up? You know, I don't ever want to be in that situation.

What do you fear?

There's definitely a fear that you might become a machine who just... Look, it's a market. You're a commodity. There's a fear that you might start using your own image. You have to check yourself. The fear's there, but I'm sure I won't do that. I... I wouldn't be able to take the pain.

Is there someone who gives you feedback? Your wife?

My wife has been a very strong critic of my work. She never used to like my work at NSD. We used to have fights because I wanted her to tell me how my performances were, and she would avoid telling me. She used to find diplomatic ways of telling me this, and I would see through her. I'd confront her, 'Why aren't you telling me that I'm bad?' and she'd say, 'I'm not saying that.' I was in a hurry to become a good actor. I didn't realise that it takes time. You learn this craft through age. Your experiences are what you put in. If you don't have experience, what will you put in your work? And then there's the craft of using your experience. You might have a lot of experience, but how do you use it? How do you make it a performance?

You say you were in a hurry, and you've said before that you were ambitious then. Did you find the need to pull back and see where you were headed?

The journey would have been easier if I had done that. But I was adamant and too impatient. Things changed slowly. I don't enjoy television very much, but it gave me a chance to practice. Sometimes when you are bored with things, when there's a lot of preparation, you get stuck. But then suddenly you start flowing. You do a certain thing so many times that you don't think about it; it becomes second nature. That's what television did. I was so bored of acting that I didn't care. I then realised that since I had let go, I had begun to enjoy it.

Did you look for work actively when you graduated in 1989?

I tried. But whenever I met people and tried telling them that I'm an actor, I never got work from them because I couldn't impress them, or make an impression on them. I used to feel humiliated while talking to them. So I abandoned the exercise after a point.

How were you humiliated?

You call somebody, and expect him to talk to you properly, but people are busy. Then you have to introduce yourself. 'I'm Irrfan.' 'Who Irrfan, kaun Irrfan?' 'Main actor hoon NSD se.' 'Haan, toh?' It just puts you off, and you don't want to go through that humiliation again and again. I did try.

Was money an aim?

Definitely. I wanted to earn money. I wanted to live life with a lot of money. And I knew that if my work was noticed, I would get money. Even today I know that if a film works, I will be a viable actor and will be able to charge more, and I will have more choices. Money gives you freedom.

How do you prepare for you roles?

There are many ways. It depends on the role. For some roles, you need to know the physicality of the character. If he's a taxi driver, I should know how to drive a taxi. I should prepare the physicality of it. Then, you try and understand his emotional construction. What he wants, what his drive is, why he's there in the story. You should think of all those things. Think, what if he takes a different stance, what will it do to the story? I go according to the story, how he is placed in it, and what he's doing to it. But that's if I respect the story. If I don't, I try to entertain you. Like Gunnah. I knew it was for front benchers, so I tried to amuse them. With Maqbool, I know I don't have to supersede the story. I have to give myself in and be invisible, so that I don't distract the story, so that I carry the story. So you understand it bit by bit, scene by scene, and understand the bigger picture, the story, what the director's trying to do with it. Also, I learnt after NSD that when you read a script for the first time, it does something to you. You shouldn't lose that something. We used to kill that, the first instinct, by preparing and analysing it. Sometimes there are things you shouldn't talk about. If you start talking about those things you lose them. There are some experiences you can't formulate into language. If you do formulate them, they become something else. Language has its limitations because it can't match the experience. When you read something, it's not the real deal, it's a manipulated impression.

Let's say you were in love with someone. How would you deal with a role like that?

Over-analysing it would definitely kill it. Maqbool was a love story for me. I never thought it was like Macbeth. And there are perceptions of love that I've got from cinema only, perceptions which are not real. The concept of love, of loving somebody, of dying for somebody - I've never experienced that kind of love except through cinema. So there is an old picture of love that I have inside me, and what do I do with that? So I live that in a story, and I love it! I know it's not real, that it's romantic, that it's false, but there's some attraction in it. It's a perfect picture of love.

Would you opt to use that perfect picture of love instead of what love could really be?

Yeah, I would use that. What love could actually be depends on what you experience. I don't know what real love is. What we call love is an attraction between two people. But pictures, shairis, literature, have given it a different perception altogether. And you do enjoy it. Sometimes, when you want to cry, you listen to songs from the 60s and the 70s. What do you do with that world? I don't want to destroy it with my rational feelings. I want to believe in it. And I have experienced certain moments like those, in Maqbool, during Tabu's death. Although they didn't keep the shots, those takes were an experience for me. I have never cried with such feeling. These are experiences you relish. That's why you act.

Is there a danger that your worlds might overlap?

We don't have that kind of cinema. We don't give an actor that kind of a world to immerse himself in. We're almost detached. We don't want an actor to put himself in the line of fire, we just want him to perform. If we have those kind of films people will be affected. I heard Saif Ali Khan say after Omkara, 'When will I be over and done with this role?' Sometimes it does affect you. That's why after The Warrior I detested the idea of taking up Haasil. The Warrior's world was completely different. It was about fighting with his own past, it was a mesmerizing journey. And here, in Haasil, is Ranvijay Singh, a person who's trying to manipulate things, and there are so many negative thoughts. I didn't want to think like that, I didn't want to deal with that person. So it took me quite a while to get over The Warrior. I turned down every offer that came to me after it, saying that I wasn't ready for it. And it was good in a way because I wanted to elongate the experience.

You've said that when someone gives you too many instructions you tend to feel trapped. Would you prefer the director give you a sketch of the character, or a detailed account of the character's life?

Every director has his own way. There are some who want you to think the way they are thinking about a character. But I find that it's a trap. You should have the freedom to explore it on your own. If an action makes a difference to the story, then you definitely have to follow the director because he's trying to get an effect out of it. I would prefer a director tell me, 'I want this kind of effect from you'. But then sometimes a director gives you general instructions. 'Yaar, thoda zyaada ghussa chahiye.' That puts you off. What does 'zyaada ghussa' mean? It's too general. And generalities don't allow you to experience a true moment. I would prefer a director who lets me explore my own world.

In Naseeruddin Shah's movie, he really gave instructions. And I trusted him. If you trust a movie or a director, you don't mind doing what the director asks of you.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, Haasil's director, set you up with some locals at Allahabad University for a few days to understand student life and politics. What was that like?

It was really helpful for me. First we went to the Kumbh Mela, where we took atmospheric shots of the climax. Then we started shooting in Bombay. I could not get a hang of the character. Nobody knew it. Even Tigmanshu thought everything was fine. But I kept wondering when we'd go to Allahabad, because the way they think about violence there is so poetic, and it's completely different. I could only say my lines with such ease because I saw these people, I met them, I could see their world, how they reacted to violence, how they talked about it, what bravery was for them.

And Tigmanshu has this thing about being entertaining. I like him because he has this talent for making realistic things entertaining.

How do you perceive realistic acting?

First and foremost, the film and the actor have to grab the audience's attention. I could see Tigmanshu's approach, and I loved it. I find realistic actors boring sometimes. They equate doing mundane things with realistic acting. People become casual, believing that what they are doing is real. But that's boring. What you do in theatre and cinema is a very calculated, manipulative, thing. It has to have some meaning and has to add to the situation.

In Haasil, you complain to Jimmy Shergil: "What should I do? God has made my eyes this way." Was it reflective of the fact that in real life your eyes had acquired a reputation and life of their own?

They have acquired one, and I still don't understand why. People do react to my eyes like that, they say that they're special, that I act through my eyes. I haven't done anything like that. Maybe it's the physicality, or maybe there's some transparency in my eyes. I haven't yet understood. They look intimidating sometimes. They became a limitation before I got Haasil. I heard friends who were making a film discuss, 'Yaar, what will we do about his eyes? He doesn't look normal. He can't be a normal man'. Initially people used to say ki charsi hai, when I had no such habit. Sometimes I'd do it, but it wasn't a habit. I can't take charas much, I can't function. When Tigmanshu wrote the line, I realised that he found my eyes intimidating too. And you can feel the smile on my face when I say the lines.

How did Salaam Bombay! happen?

I was doing a production in NSD, Mira was casting, she came to see the play, and she called me. I was supposed to have a significant role. Finally they decided to chop off the role because I didn't look like I was one of the street kids, I looked older than them. That was the first jolt I got. I cried and cried and cried. Then Mira Nair called me for another, smaller, role - that of the letter writer.

How did Ashoke Ganguli in The Namesake happen?

I got a call from Mira's office, saying she wanted me to act in the film. There was no long-winded process. It was very smooth with her. When she read the book, she knew I would do this role. She didn't have other options for it. That was good because I'm not very good with auditions. I'm not very good when I know I'm being tested. I'm very bad at exams. I hate competition. [Laughs] I don't perform well in those circumstances. I'm fragile. So I do enjoy it when somebody says, 'You are doing this film.' I come with all my energy and spirit.

How did you research and approach the life of Ashoke Ganguli?

You had asked me if the experience consumes you. This film consumed me. It became an experience I almost wanted to get away from because it dealt with old age. And when you are about to touch old age, you want to push it away. But here I had to experience it. Here's this guy who's almost invisible, he doesn't have any presence. That was the most challenging thing for me to do - to do a role in a manner that you don't catch attention. Being that docile, that unobtrusive, really took some effort. And to go through the experience of old age was painful. It was taxing to experience it. For that I called my family to New York and spent all my time serving them. It helped me understand how Ashoke Ganguli dealt with his family and his own trauma through his family.

When you experienced old age, did it occur to you that you didn't want to be there?

I was never serious about old age and never thought it would come to me. I never realised that your body starts telling you that it can't move swiftly. That's the most painful part about old age. Although there are some good things about old age - you understand life better, you deal with yourself a little better - the physical aspect is a painful thing.

People often confuse a good physique and presence with good acting.

We don't have an understanding of characters in cinema. We see people who are larger than life, who do things that audiences would like to emulate. Someone who's not real, who's fantastic.

In that sense, are we looking at actors to fulfill the kind of stereotypes we've got?

Yeah, we do want stereotypes. Our audiences do want something that's not real, that has a dreamy quality about it, which has nothing to do with mundane life. Also, people confuse good acting with roles. If a person has a good role, they say he's done well. But it's the way the role was written that does the magic. If the character does something, they think it's the actor who's done it. It's actually the writer who makes the character do certain things.

A layperson can't tell where the role ends and where acting begins. But can other actors?

Yeah, one can make out when an actor's trying to supersede the story, or when he has underperformed, or how much scope the role had. Definitely.

Is knowledge of film history important for actors, to know where they come from?

No, although if you have information, somewhere it all adds up. But I don't think it's necessary. It's your understanding of the situation and human beings that counts. Otherwise I don't think an actor has to be intelligent or socially aware. Sometimes a dumb actor is better than an intelligent one because intelligence can be a hurdle in believing in an incredible situation.

I watched Rog over the weekend. It was a strange film. Not in a good way.

Yeah, it was supposed to be strange and mystical in a positive sense, but... [giggles].

On what basis do you select your films?

That was because of Pooja [Bhatt]. She tries a different kind of cinema. And when I heard the idea, it was okay, you know. I thought if it was done well... But the scripting was not proper. It was dated. Whatever element came in was because of Mahesh Bhatt. I kept telling him we couldn't shoot a whodunit in today's times. He kept saying it was a love story. I said where's the love? Initially it was a stone, it was dead. I got frightened when I saw the script, but Mahesh told me it would be fine.

How would you define a good role?

Something that gives you insight about a situation, about a character, about a different world, and is also engaging. The best role I have ever seen is Capote. He is manipulative, and he manipulates himself. He has his own world, his own pleasures, his own pain. Although he's doing all this he gives himself the impression that he's being faithful and doing good. In real life you don't notice many things, but when you're in the cinema, you notice them in the frame. It's about showing them something in a new way.

Are the actors you like watching the same ones you learn from?

I do. Sometimes. It's automatic. You like people who surprise you. You'd be surprised, but I like Deven Bhojani. There's a serial called Office Office. You should see how good he is. He's so entertaining, so fluent. Nowadays I don't watch DeNiro. He's done it all. Now acting doesn't mean anything to him. He's into something else. Towards the end I could see fatigue in Marlon Brando. He was tired of this pretending.

Every artist has a lifespan.

Yes, every artist does. After a point your priorities change. At a young age, you need that attention, your priorities are different. After a point age takes over and your concerns change. But then there's Anthony Quinn, there's Om Puri. Om's the same, he's so balanced! I tell him, 'Tum kya, sant ho?' He goes into any setup and it doesn't affect him! I think it's because he doesn't tax himself much, which is why it doesn't become a burden.

Is it tempting to give people that one great line, that one great scene, which they remember you by for ever?

No. I'd like to go beyond that. I don't want to be known for that one moment that I created. I do wonder when I'll get a script that will make people forget Maqbool and Haasil. It bothers me and depresses me when I think, 'Is there nothing beyond those two movies?' I want to keep doing things that become a rage. I don't want to look back at the past and say, 'Oh, those were the good times, that role back then was the one.' Now that would be a pathetic situation. I don't want to think like that. Never. Never.

This interview appeared in the Tehelka issue dated July 22, 2006.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The 5:54 Borivali fast

A panipuriwaala carrying a wicker basket disembarked at Mahim Junction on platform 2 moments before the 5:54 Borivali fast hurtled by a few feet away on platform 3. He worked between the two platforms, under a metal pillar that held up the roof. He made his way through the crowd and sat at his designated place. The Borivali-bound train came through. People on the edge of the platform took a step back, out of reach of travellers leaning out of the stuffed train. The force of the wind accompanying it pushed some back, and pulled some closer. A few cars behind the engine, near the center, was a compartment packed with people better dressed than those in most others, but as sweaty. Their next stop was Bandra, and before it came the Mithi Creek, which would bring a foul smell and a cool breeze. The inhabitants of compartment 528A could not have known of the incident at Bandra, and beyond it at Khar, as their car passed by little more than half the platform's length and would have, within a couple of seconds, traversed the rest too. They would have barely noticed faces on the platform at that speed, and among them the panipuriwaala, when there was a white flash.

The explosion blew the roof off the train as well as platform 3, and killed the panipuriwaala instantly. The compartment's left side was reduced to serated metal tatters, and at that instant a mangled door flew into the crowd. It rained glass, shingle, puris, spectacle frames, clothes, shoes, toes, legs, fingers, hands, bodies, heads. The green metal walls that seperated the doorways from the seating area tore away from the ceiling and bent backward in an instant. Chair frames, harder than flesh and bone, had their legs broken, and the chairs themselves leaned back, facing the source of their trouble. The compartment's right side was intact but blown outward, like an inflated tetrapak, and there was carnage there too. And the confusion. The train had not yet stopped, and with one side of the car destroyed, commuters jumped off in the opposite direction, on to the track by platform 4, where a train ploughed into them. 15 alone went this way, bodypickers said.

The intern from KEM hospital was on his motorbike with a friend in Matunga, heading toward Bandra, when he heard an explosion at 6:30. It was at the station, three kilometers away. He raced back to the hospital and wore his scrubs, and took his first breather at 3am the next morning, when he walked alone in the courtyard and stared past the fence at nothing in particular and then sat on a green stretcher with a touch of red on top. Outside the hospital were chalkboards with names of the admitted and the dead. A man speaking on a phone said, "We've looked everywhere." The woman beside him was shattered. By the hospital entrance a woman howled and buried her face in her husband's lap, and family gathered around them in vain. His eyes had glazed and he looked straight ahead without expression while patting her robotically. Behind his wife was another woman, sniffling. People stood in groups, saying nothing, too tired to break silences. They either waited, or they knew. Every now and then people would stride in purposefully, their calm countenances constructed solely on hope, and they would leave lost and defeated when yet another hospital told them that the person they sought to find was not there. Sometimes they would return, with renewed vigor, and leave broken again. A period of relative silence was shattered by the desperate wail of two poor women who emerged from the hospital hitting their head with their hands, and they left the premises with the urgency one leaves behind bad dreams. But they must not have gone far because their cries could be heard faintly for an hour afterwards.

The courtyard at KEM was filled with metal stretchers and wheelchairs touched with blood. A group of tired body transporters sat on these stretchers and joked with each other. At one point, one said, every bed in the courtyard had a body on it. There were forty or fifty lying about, piled up and on their side under two spotlights in the empty yard. By our approximation, he said, 45 people are dead, though the doctors have yet to declare it. He knew there was an emergency when taxis brought in three maimed people in quick succession. His shift had gone from being a regular eight-hour one into a nightmare. Just then, as he began describing where he was when the explosion happened, a woman's scream erupted from a hospital ward, and it went on, with a break of a second or two, for over a minute.

This is where they went: behind the main KEM entrance, if you take a long walk down a dark side path, is the morgue. Outside it, some were murmuring into their cell phones. Some were huddled together, wondering what to do next. Those who went into it held their nose and breath in anticipation of the stench. Those who came out held theirs for too long, wanting to never ever smell the smell again. Policemen held white plastic bags filled with identification. At the end of an endless sterile corridor was a large, thick door. Everytime it opened a gust of cold air swept down the hallway, bringing with it a smell that stopped you breathing. A group of men standing outside peered in with a kerchief held to the face, waiting for their turn to be called in. Inside, naked bodies were on the floor and on a platform. One's head had sunk in, a blow had smashed the bone structure beneath his face. It resembled a punctured football. Around another was a pool of blood, his brain spilled out from beneath a flap of skin above the ear. Another, a man with a moustache, had half-open eyes and a cut leg, and a slash across his chest that exposed the heart. Beside him was a body with no head. In another world, someone in the room said, "No, it's not him, he was wearing brown socks," or, "No, he had a ring." Where were they when it happened? Were they standing or sitting? Was their last conscious expression the one they wore here, on this morbid floor? How did this man call in people professionally to identify the corpses around him? Did he ever break?

Trains began to come and go at Mahim Junction at 4:30. Travellers looked tired and upset. Small bits of the damaged roof continued to fall. The debris was in a pile on platform 3. Among it were twisted metal spectacles without the glass lens. Workers sat around, their work not yet done, sipping tea and finally finding time to talk. One claimed he had found three headless bodies, and even more in the city's suburban stations. In a few minutes they restarted work. A policeman summoned a ragpicker to sort two piles of cloth. One was what people had donated. The other belonged to the people in compartment 528A. A wallet fell out when he picked up the second pile. He dropped the pile and opened the wallet. There was nothing inside. He flung it away forcefully, and it plopped on Tulsi Pipe Road, the road that runs beside the tracks. Picking up the pile again, he stepped into a moist puddle of blood at the station entrance and was on his way.

Elsewhere in the station there were tired firefighters from Byculla. The first call came in at 6:30, six minutes after the blast. But news had spread quickly, and the roads were jammed. We got stuck, he shook his head and said. The railway police were filing FIRs. They had arrived soon after the blasts. Now they dozed in their chairs in cramped offices.

In the distance the 5:54 Borivali fast flashed a yellow light. The train's drivers had spent the night at the station, and now, bolstered by piping tea, made their way to it. They climbed aboard and started the engine. The sound of that particular train was fascinating. People turned to look at it, more alert, shaking off the effects of the last 12 hours. On every platform there were people waking up in a new way as the sky turned blue.

Update (July 15, 10:12pm): Looking through DNA right now, I came across an article mentioning a panipuriwaala who was at Mahim Station, and on his way to elsewhere, when the incident took place. His legs were amputated. I wondered if I had got it wrong by saying a panipuriwaala had died. If I have, my apologies to readers. But people who worked at the station did tell me that the person who died worked at Mahim Junction.