Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Delhi In December: Behind The Veil Of Fog

It is December. The sun rises reluctantly from behind the fog. The leafless trees are standing still, their bare branches looking mysterious in the hazy morning landscape. On some days, the fog is so thick that when you look out of your window in the early morning, you don't see anything except layers and layers of it, giving the view a misty, dreamy look. The best place to be at this hour is under your cosy quilt, but very few can actually afford to do so. Children have to be forced out of their beds to be in time for their school. One can see hordes of them - bundled up in warm clothes- waiting at bus stops all over the city. You wonder how hard it will be for them to hold a pen with their numb fingers and actually write something in their notebooks. But kids in Delhi are made of sterner stuff. They manage to tackle the extremes in their city's weather with a nonchalance that often eludes their elders.

Around mid-morning, when the sun is finally out and shining-albeit weakly-it is a beautiful day. Dahlias and chrysanthemums are in bloom, their umpteen shades a feast for the eyes. Take a walk in a park, go to the market or just soak in the sun anywhere, it feels great to be outdoors. Those who are fortunate to have a patch of land outside their houses, make good use of it by growing seasonal vegetables in it. It is very refreshing to see green leaves of coriander, mustard, spinach and methi, huge heads of cauliflower and cabbage along with the leaves of carrots and radishes that are growing underground in your neighbourhood. When a kind neighbour sends her fresh produce over, you can see how good a really 'fresh' vegetable tastes.

A visit to the Sarojini Nagar market or Dilli Haat in the late morning/early afternoon is very tempting. While the latter is mostly frequented by lovers of handloom fabrics and handicrafts, the former is popular with the masses. Clothes, footwear, luggage, utensils, household items, gifts, groceries, vegetables, can find almost anything in the lanes and bylanes of this sprawling market. It is flooded with Christmas merchandise at this time of the year. Most of the goods available here are generally easy on one's pocket, making it a favoured destination of shoppers in South Delhi. The soft drink and ice-cream stalls are forgotten. Instead tiny shops selling tea are doing brisk business. And the spicy aloo-tikki has people queueing up outside a small shop that churns out the wonderful stuff. It is just right when one wants to take a break from the tough bargaining that is a part of shopping at the Sarojini Nagar market.

The sun begins to lose its warmth around dusk. It becomes dark quite early, and suddenly too. Time to get indoors and put on one's socks, mittens, mufflers, scarves, caps, sweaters...whatever. The concrete structures that our houses are, turn into ice-boxes in the absence of heating. Icy water gushes out of the taps, especially at night and early in the mornings. People who cannot tolerate this, find winters to be a difficult time. But, for those who are fine with it, this is the right season to be in Delhi. Barring a few very cold and sunless days, the daytime is usually pleasant.

Travelling in and out of Delhi by train or air? Now that's a different story. Seasoned travellers avoid Delhi during winter months if they can. But those who must visit Delhi or transit through it, find themselves completely at the mercy of the fog that seems to have its own mind. There are indefinite delays, flight diversions, missed connections, chaos at the airport and railway stations resulting in a lot of discomfort and uncertainty. This is one instance where nature makes us realize that it is in command, and we just have to bow to its wishes.

I have filled this post with some wonderful images of blossoms captured by Prateek a few years ago at a chrysanthemum show at the Dilli Haat. Hope these bring alive the colours of a Delhi winter on your screens and touch your hearts with their awesome beauty.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Not-So-Perfect Picture

'The Dirty Picture' (TDP) displays the usual disclaimer in the beginning about it being a work of fiction and any similarity between a character and a person living or dead being coincidental. But everybody knows that it is not just inspired by, but based largely on the life of Silk Smitha who dominated the South Indian film industry with her overt sensuality and uninhibited performances in the eighties and part of nineties. Vidya Balan brings alive the magic of the voluptuous Silk on the screen with a lot of substance--literally and metaphorically--she even put on some weight for this role.

Reshma, who is a poor village girl renamed as Silk in the industry, is bent on making it big in films, her plain looks and lack of polish notwithstanding. Similarly, Vidya the actress has left no stone unturned in her portrayal of the somewhat complex Silk, who likes to shock people with her outrageous costumes and unconventional behaviour; but is uncouth (crude language, frequent winking) and childlike when it comes to her longing for being accepted by her estranged mother. We first see her as an unattractive young woman in a half-saree and ill-fitting blouses, sporting hair that has been oiled, combed and tied tightly. Then she metamorphoses into a glamorous film star. Vidya carries all this with elan, looking comfortable in the gaudy costumes and cheap jewellery, dancing with abandon on the garish sets surrounded by unusual props.

If there is anything that does not go well with all this, it is her dancing co-star Suryakant, played by a mousy Naseeruddin Shah. Though ageing, Suryakant is supposed to be a flamboyant superstar...and Naseer hardly looks like one. An actor of his calibre has been wasted in this role. He is not only a misfit, but has been reduced to a mere caricature, throwing tantrums around the sets and having his way by terrorising everybody. In contrast, a subdued Emraan Hashmi is quite convincing in his role of a serious director who does not want to give in to popular tricks to make his film a hit. Tusshar Kapoor is tolerable, to say the least. But who impressed me the most among the men is Rajesh Sharma who plays the street smart producer Selva Ganesh. His rule book is fairly flexible and he is there to make money. And he has no qualms about it. His character has nice shades of grey that he conveys very well.

A film like this that has such a sensitive substance at its core has an additional responsibility of rising above it lest it be accused of using the subject matter to its advantage...exposure in this case. And I am not sure if the film gets a clean chit on that. Also, as a film that tells the story of a star who was famous for her item numbers, it ought to have had great music. Vishal-Shekhar's compositions do not make a mark. They are simply forgettable. Nyla, played by Anju Mahendroo as the sole representative of media is irritating. A more mature handling of her character could have helped. Silk's diatribe against the hypocrisy and double standards of society at an awards function is jarring. Even if what she had to say was true, the manner in which it was said, did not quite strike a chord. Over all, a lot more work was needed in painting the characters of most of the major players.

The bottom line is that TDP will be remembered as a Vidya Balan film because she has breathed life in the character of Silk with her exuberant performance. The rest, sadly is not-so-perfect.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Delhi In November: It Is Fun Time!

If one is to list the best months in Delhi, November will most probably occupy one of the top slots. The ceiling fans are forgotten, the rajais and blankets are out, and hot ginger tea is just perfect to start your day with. School kids look different bundled up in their dark, heavy winter uniforms. Gone are the whites of the summers, replaced by greys, navy blues and olive greens. The hazy, lightly misty mornings are wonderfully alluring, filled with the promise of a cool, sunny day. When the sun comes out, it is the start of a glorious day; ideal for picnics, outdoor activities or simply lazing around in your backyard.

The vegetables in the market look fresher, greener and full of life. When the first batch of cauliflowers or the first bundle of methi leaves arrives in the market, many shoppers return home with them triumphant, happy as they are to bid goodbye to the tasteless summer fare. Soon, desi (country) tomatoes which are sourer and tastier than the sturdy salad variety, red carrots ideal for salads, fried rice, pulao and gajar-ka-halwa, long green pods bursting with smooth green peas, crisp white radishes, gleaming cabbages and fat bunches of spinach appear on the scene; very much to the delight of vegetarians. The fruit section looks attractive too, with oranges and apples dominating the scene.

It is the wedding season in the capital. Time for baraat, sangeet and mehndi ceremonies from Janakpuri to Sainik Farms ( à la 'Band Baaja Baaraat'). Cultural activities fill up the social calendar of the city. Theatre and music hotspots in the Mandi House area are abuzz with events which are a treat to the connoisseurs as well as laymen. The Bengali Market nearby seems to be the perfect destination for trying some tantalisingly sinful dishes, just after attending a music recital or watching a play. Pragati Maidan, the massive complex for exhibitions is not too far. And the crowds there have to be seen to be believed when it hosts the India International Trade Fair every year for two weeks, starting November 14th. It is a major business event that impacts the traffic on Mathura Road and other roads in the vicinity in a big way.

The pleasant weather adds to the merriment. The festive atmosphere that starts around Dusshera, continues through Diwali and lasts until Christmas. It is as if the Delhiites are determined to make up for the opportunities they lost in the long and oppressive hot months. Women don beautiful silks which they had abandoned in favour of light cottons through the summer. Sales and exhibitions at places like the popular Dilli Haat help one in refurbishing one's wardrobe, with lovely handloom and silk fabrics on offer from all over India. You are likely to find the mauve shawl or the burgundy dress material that you were looking for here.

The circular traffic islands in Central Delhi are very busy, especially in the afternoons. Some of them are so huge that they are actually parks. Babus working in various bhawans in the central district spend their lunch hour enjoying the gorgeous winter afternoon. There are all kinds of people there, some taking a nap, some reading and some playing cards. Hawkers selling munchies like peanuts and chips do brisk business. Occasionally, a chaiwala makes an appearance with an aluminium kettle and plastic cups that are small enough for just a sip of tea. In the residential areas across Delhi, women sit with a pair of knitting needles and colourful balls of wool, wherever they can find a patch of sun outside their home, crafting a sweater for a dear one, or making mittens for a newborn. They are so adept at it that they produce a beautiful pattern without even looking at their handiwork.

Food, clothes, outings, picnics, weddings, parties...all in all, it is fun time in the city. The only ones dreading the winter are those without a roof over their heads, sleeping outside railway stations, temples or under overpasses. As the sun sets early on a winter evening and darkness descends over the capital, it is a long, chilly night ahead...something they don't really look forward to.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Delhi In October: The Magic Happens!

October brings with it a promise of deliciously cooler mornings and pleasant evenings, although one has to wait for almost the whole month for that to happen. It is only towards the end of this month that the weather Gods decide to smile on Delhi. The early days in October are pretty warm, but some time during the later half, the magic happens. If you wake up early in the morning and step outdoors, the air feels different. And you wonder, could this be the reason behind the smiles on the faces of those who are out at that hour...morning walkers in neighbourhood parks, newspaper delivery boys, parents taking their children to bus stops and people queueing up in front of Mother Dairy booths to buy milk.

Politicians make a mandatory appearance in the early hours on Gandhi Jayanti at the Rajghat, their pristine white khadi clothes looking brighter in the mild sun. It is a sombre occasion, repeated every year with customary piety; telecast with strains of Bhajans and occasional chirping of birds in the background. The Khadi Gramodyog Bhawan near Regal in Connaught Place announces its annual discount sale, providing khadi lovers with an opportunity to stock up on their favourite apparel. With the introduction of designer khadi, it is no longer the staid fabric it once was. It has come a long way from the days of the freedom movement, turning itself into a cool and happening material for designer wear.

Huge images of Ravana take shape in various areas across the city, complete with 10 oversized heads. As they near completion, they are mounted in large grounds; their enormous bodies stuffed with firecrackers. Two smaller figures of Kumbhakarna and Meghnad stand on either side of Ravana. On Dusshera, around dusk, these go up in flames, filling the surroundings with deafening sounds from the firecrackers as they catch fire. The colossal effigies start collapsing, symbolising victory of good over evil. This spectacle takes place at many locations, prominent among them being the Ramlila Maidan and the Subhash Maidan.

Karva Chauth, familiar to everybody thanks to Hindi movies, is a big day for married women. They observe a fast, praying for the well-being and long life of their husbands. One can see heavily made up women in most neighbourhoods, sporting bright red sarees or dresses, their arms full with glass bangles and palms covered with intricate henna designs. Looking at the evening moon through a sieve, they accept the first sip of a drink or the first bite of food from their life partners. This must have been a private ritual that families observed in the confines of their homes. But almost all our festivals are turning commercial and Karva Chauth is no exception. Shops selling women's merchandise announce sales and beauty parlours offer special packages for this festival, giving it a new dimension altogether.

Photo by nkjain [CC-BY-SA-2.0]
Talking of commercialism, the most commercial of all our festivals is Diwali; Christmas and New Year being a close second. With all the gift-giving around, the joke in Delhi is to never open the dry fruit boxes that you may have received by the dozen. One is not sure how long ago these were packed, and it is better to just pass them on to somebody, who in turn will do the same. Jokes apart, it is indeed a time for new clothes, sweets, holidays and get-togethers. The dark night is illuminated by millions of lamps across the city to the accompaniment of thunderous bursting of firecrackers. The trail of haze and smoke that is left behind late into the night is there to stay for the next few months, as winter is about to set in in Delhi.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Celebration Of Talent

The last three days were so full at the Svanubhava in Chennai that I feel very empty today. The lovely Svanubhava theme music is echoing in my mind throughout the day. They describe themselves as a cultural movement by students of the performing arts. It is amazing what a bunch of dedicated and enthusiastic people can put together. The Rukmini Arangam at Kalakshetra was buzzing with activity, what with hordes of school children and dance/music loving elders descending on it at nine in the morning every day. The day was chock-a block with performances and question-answer sessions back to back, but for a short lunch break and even shorter tea break.

Most of the artistes who performed are stalwarts in their fields and it was heartening to see how humble they are. When curious kids asked them about the feats they can so effortlessly perform in their chosen art form, they simply attributed them to the blessings of their Guru or God, not mentioning their own hard work and years of practice behind it. There was a fairly varied spread for all to enjoy. Vocal and instrumental music in Hindustani and Carnatic style, qawwalis, baul sangeet, thevarams (Shaivaite hymns), a Bharatanatyam lecture-demonstration, yakshagana, villu pattu (folk story-telling), and a discussion on 'Does Indian cinema reflect the reality of Indian women?'. Some of these performing arts were of special interest to me as I was watching them for the first time. My appreciation for villu pattu and yakshagana would have been several times greater if I had a good knowledge of Tamil and Kannada respectively.  But even without that they were a pleasure to watch because of the involvement and passion of the performers.

The ambience contributed a lot to the enjoyment. The open auditorium at the Kalakshetra and the informal seating arrangement made one feel as if it was a mehfil in a friend's house that one was invited to. Everybody sat together, everybody ate the same food together and everybody had a good time together watching whatever was going on on the stage. Almost all the volunteers in their twenties or early thirties were wearing traditional attire...veshtis and tops for men and cotton sarees for women. That presented a pretty picture too. A bunch of foreign students were no exception.

All these art forms have been existing for a long time, but when you experience so many of them in a short span of time, it makes you proud of your heritage as an Indian. The young men and women who belong to the Svanubhava team deserve a big applause for their efforts in bringing together such gems from various parts of our country, organising a celebration of their talent, and sharing it with dance and music lovers across the world. Webcasts of all the events have been made available on their blog for those interested.

The organising team headed by T M Krishna, an accomplished vocalist in the Carnatic style, has put in a lot of work and it shows. Fresh sheets about the day's programme were handed out everyday, giving brief but well-researched introductions about the artistes for the day and their accompanists, complete with lively illustrations. Students from several schools were not only invited to attend the event, but were encouraged to ask questions to the performing artistes. For many of them, this must have been their first exposure to the cultural scene in their city and country.

I sincerely hope that this movement continues and gets bigger every year. This year, after the Chennai leg, it has gone to Delhi, where it will be on until the 15th of this month. It will be nice to see more representation in terms of performances from states in the North, East and Central India in the future editions of Svanubhava. And inviting some younger artistes will be a good idea too. But for now, heartfelt thanks to the whole team for letting me share this wonderful experience, which has been very enriching and which I will cherish for a long time to come.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kathakali @ Kalakshetra

Dusk is descending on the Kalakshetra in Chennai. Beautiful kolams (traditional patterns drawn on the floor) lead one to the venue where the stage is set for a dance-drama performance. Fragrance of sambrani wafts in the area as coils of white smoke emanate from various places, dense at the bottom and disintegrating in the air as they rise up. Bunches of fresh neem leaves are being used to keep the insects away. An attractive arrangement of flowers floating in a large clay bowl welcomes everyone at the entrance. It is a lovely semi-open theatre set amidst lush green tress.

Photo by Rakesh S (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
I am here to watch 'Uttara Swayamvaram', a Kathakali performance, my first ever. The painted face of a Kathakali performer is very familiar as it is one of the most common icons of Kerala. One often notices it in advertisements, calendars and on the covers of magazines. But I have never seen a Kathakali dancer in flesh and blood. So I am all eyes and ears, waiting for the curtains to part. The huge kalivilakku (lamp) placed on the front part of the stage is lit. It is a signal that the recital is about to begin. As the curtains slide open, four formidable middle-aged gentlemen appear on the stage. They are dressed in off-white mundus with the mandatory gold border. They are all bare-chested. Two of them take their place on one side in the front while two stand at the back. The ones standing on the side are drummers, playing the chenda and the maddalam. The horizontal drum is tied to the waist of the drummer while the vertical drum is supported by a sling around the player's shoulder. The duo at the back are singers, doubling up as accompanists with chengila (a gong made of bell metal, which is struck with a wooden stick) and ilathaalam (a pair of cymbals). Don't be overwhelmed by these is just that I had done my homework before going!

As the musicians get going, two men bring a rectangular, decorated piece of cloth, just like a large bedspread, and stand holding it as if it were a curtain, shielding a good part of the stage with it. We do not come to know when the dancer arrives on the stage, for our view is blocked by the makeshift curtain. A little later, I notice a shiny headpiece bobbing behind it. Then two hands appear on top of the curtain. Only the left hand is wearing five rings, one on each finger, with bright, long nail-shaped extensions. After a display of some exquisite mudras (hand gestures) by the unseen performer, the curtain is finally pulled down and taken away. The hero of today's show, Duryodhana is standing magnificently, with all his bells and whistles. The first viewing is somewhat intimidating, for his is a larger-than-life figure. The spectacular headpiece, the green face, symmetrical designs drawn in contrast colours around the eyebrows and the lips in order to highlight them, the heavy decorations around the neck, the long black hair, the red full-sleeved jacket and the red and white skirt held around the hips like a huge umbrella. I am in awe of this costume. One would need a lot of practice just to carry all this stuff on oneself! Interestingly, while the ornamentation is very heavy at the top, the feet are completely bereft of any colour or jewellery. Even the ghungroos are tied around the knees, not ankles.

Photo by Rakesh S (CC-BY-SA-2.0
The first scene is a slow, romantic act between Duryodhana and his wife, Bhanumathi. They are in a beautiful garden, appreciating nature's bounty. This scene is replete with facial expressions and hand gestures. The whole face is being used like a canvas to express a variety of emotions. Duryodhana's control over the movement of his eyes and eyebrows is simply superb. At one point, he even synchronises moving his eyebrows with the beats of the drum. Bhanumathi, being played by a man is comparatively less ornate in her costume and accessories.

The next scene shows the court of Duryodhana, where he is discussing with others the possibility of the Pandavas, who are supposed to be in exile, taking shelter in the neighbouring kingdom of King Virata. This scene has a lot of movement and action when a messenger relates various happenings, which strengthen their suspicion about the presence of the Pandavas in the nearby kingdom.

In the third scene, Duryodhana summons the king of Trigartha, Susharma; and asks for his help in the plan to identify the Pandavas and scare them away to the forest. Susharma is ferocious and scary with his red hair and red beard. The actors bring alive scenes of battle on the stage, complete with imaginary chariots, horses and elephants. In the end, Susharma is of course defeated by Bhima, who is working in the royal kitchen as a cook during his exile. The battle scenes depicting veer rasa are ably supported by the musicians, with the music reaching a crescendo several times during the performance. Not just the actor, but the musicians are so involved in the scene that they are greatly charged up.

The high-energy performance has been going on non-stop for three hours. The spirited musicians have been standing all along, captivating the audience with their invigorating music. The singers have been busy too, as the entire storytelling happens through the verses that they sing. The actors/dancers do not say a word. Only the actor playing Duryodhana unleashes some cries from time to time. The verses are pieces of poetry written in Manipravalam, which is a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit, used in ancient literary works. I can catch the Sanskrit words, but the Malayalam component escapes me. It is a pity not to be able to appreciate the original compositions, but thanks to the excellent text on the slides being projected on one of the walls of the stage, I follow the details of the story as it unfolds. And enjoy it thoroughly! The all-natural ambience at the Kalakshetra and the appreciative audience add to the experience.

Later, all the artistes are requested to come back to the stage for the presentations. It is amusing to see that the all-powerful Duryodhana, who dominated the dance-drama for the last three hours, is a diminutive man clad in a simple shirt and mundu, completely shorn of his embellishments. I remember having read somewhere that in Kathakali, it is important for an actor to let his personality be completely overshadowed by that of the character he is playing. Sitting in this pretty little theatre, and looking at the small figure of Injakkad Ramachandran Pillai on the stage in front of me, I think it is so true!

A glimpse from an earlier rendition of 'Uttara Swayamvaram':

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pondicherry: An Ideal Getaway From Chennai

If you are thinking of a nice weekend getaway from Chennai, Pondicherry (now called Puducherry, but I am sticking to Pondicherry because more people know it that way) is almost sure to top the list of the options available. It is 160 kilometres from Chennai and it takes about three hours to get there. Most of the route passes along the scenic coast. No wonder that the highway is simply called the East Coast Road, abbreviated to ECR in Chennai. One can take a bus or a taxi from Chennai. You may want to stop at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) on the way. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 60 kilometres from Chennai. There are beautiful temples carved in stone, situated along the beach in this small town. The monuments are believed to have been built between the 7th century and the 9th century. But they have been standing so close to the sea for so long that the exquisite carvings have lost all their sharpness. Most of them are just some irregular shapes with rounded edges. The finer details of the works are lost, but the temples, chariots, pillars and sculpted reliefs have stood the test of the time and look impressive even today. That is the reason why Mahabalipuram is a popular destination for tourists.

There are several beach resorts on the way to Pondicherry. It is an interesting town...Pondicherry. Most of it looks like a typical coastal town in Tamil Nadu, while a small part makes you feel as if you were somewhere in France. Pondicherry came into being in 1673 under the French rule. It was the capital of French India until as late as 1954. The French Quarter is a charming little place, blessed with the lovely backdrop of the Bay of Bengal. Many of the streets retain their French names, while some buildings remind you of French villas.

Over the years, Pondicherry has become synonymous with Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo, a prominent freedom fighter, philosopher and poet, on the 24th November,1926. Soon after that, he withdrew from public life, handing over the running of the ashram to his French co-worker, Mirra Alfassa, better known as the Mother. The ashram attracts lots of visitors from India and abroad. Bureau Central, located on Rangapillai Street acts as the information centre for the ashram and helps visitors in all possible ways, including arranging accommodation in one of the ashram guest houses. I have made only day trips to Pondicherry and so I did not get a chance to stay in any of the guest houses. But I have heard that they are very good.

It is best to explore the French Quarter and the area around the ashram on foot. I walked to the ashram and joined the queue of people waiting for their turn to enter the ashram premises through a small door. I had expected the main ashram building to be quite large, but it is surprisingly small, a rather unassuming structure which you enter directly from the footpath outside. Later I came to realize that the ashram is spread out over the French Quarter in the form of numerous small units, all painted in the characteristic white and grey. There are guest houses, dining halls, book shops, educational institutes and cottage industries. These industries are engaged in activities like batik painting, embroidery, handmade paper, incense sticks, herbal soaps, candles, oils, perfumes and book publishing. You have to see the variety of incense sticks sold under the brand name 'Auroshikha' to believe their extensive range. Their packing is very attractive and their scent divine. SABDA (Sri Aurobindo Book Distribution Agency) is a well-maintained bookshop selling literature based on Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's philosophy.

The main ashram building that houses the samadhi (tomb or cenotaph) of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is open for visitors for four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon/evening, with a two-hour break in between. As you enter the premises, you are led through a flower-filled little garden path towards the inner courtyard where the samadhi occupies the centre stage. The samadhi is a simple marble structure under the canopy of the branches of a large tree. But what is striking is the elaborate decoration on it done with fresh flowers. It is completely covered with an arrangement of colourful blossoms, making the area redolent with their mixed fragrance. People come silently, kneel down to touch the samadhi with their forehead, then move away to sit in the courtyard that extends on all four sides of the samadhi. Everybody sits quietly, in meditation or prayer. No cell phones, no music, no talking, no clicking of cameras as photography is not permitted...only occasional chirping of birds. For most, this is the high point of their visit to Pondicherry. Spending some quiet moments near the samadhi is an enriching experience.

My favourite place to visit after the main ashram building is the Goubert Avenue which runs parallel to the beach. It is within walking distance from the ashram. The seat of the local government, the secretariat is located along this avenue. Some lovely guest houses and hotels occupy other places of pride along this beautiful promenade. The beach here is lined with rocks, not sand. A prominent landmark in this area is the tall black statue of Mahatma Gandhi standing under a white dome supported by pillars. Walking along this not-so-crowded avenue with balmy breeze blowing from the majestic Bay of Bengal is very enjoyable.

Another place of interest very close to the ashram is the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. It has been around even before the French came and settled in Pondicherry somewhere around 1670. It is a Ganesha temple and there is always an elephant at the entrance to bless people. Outside, there are little shops selling knick-knacks. I loved browsing in them before buying some pretty incense stick holders carved from light green stone. The lanes around the ashram are lined with small bookshops, boutiques and little eateries. It is fun walking around there.

About eight kilometres from Pondicherry is the experimental township called Auroville. It was founded by the Mother in 1968 with an idea of international brotherhood and harmonious community living. At the heart of this sprawling township is Matrimandir, a golden metallic sphere. Entry into this magnificent dome is restricted as it is reserved for those who wish to practise meditation seriously.

One can spend a few days in Pondicherry or one can just make a day-long trip from Chennai, as I did. Either way, it is a trip that soothes you, and refreshes you before you get back to your busy life in the city.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Delhi In September : Stuffy, Sultry And Sticky

September is thankfully the last of the trio of the most unbearable months in the nation's capital. It is hard to classify this month under any particular season, for it is nothing but a continuation of the seemingly unending spell of heat coupled with humidity. Residents of Delhi who survive three long months of dry summer followed by another three months of muggy summer wait eagerly for September to end, hoping to see some light at the end of the dark tunnel. It does rain at times, but not so much as it did in August. The cloud cover disappears and most of the times, the sun shines brightly, sometimes fiercely over weary Delhiites. The inhospitable weather comes as a rude shock to people visiting Delhi. The city is swelteringly stuffy with its trees looking lifeless and forlorn, for there is no breeze to rustle through their leaves and make them sway with happiness.

Photo by Prateek
The Mother's International School on Aurobindo Marg is an oasis of tranquillity amidst the rapidly growing urban stretches around it. Situated inside the serene Aurobindo Ashram premises, it is one of the most sought-after schools in Delhi. It is Teachers' Day and the 12th graders are decked up in colourful clothes. Girls in sarees and boys in ethnic Indian ensemble or other formals. It is their final year in school and they are playing the role of their teachers today, letting the real teachers go for an outing or a picnic. It is fun time for everybody as these young teachers 'teach' in classrooms mimicking their teachers, assume an air of authority occupying the hallowed offices of the principal and vice-principal, and enjoy an easy access to the staff rooms and other normally out-of-reach areas in the school. Surely a nice way to spend a day dedicated to teachers, marking the birthday of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, our second President and a great teacher himself. Similar activities are taking place in schools across the city and the whole country. Students are showing their appreciation for their teachers by gifting flowers and cards to them.

While it is fun and games in the idyllic world of school kids, it is not the same in the real world outside. Businesses like jewellery, catering and real estate suffer a temporary slump as people are averse to making an important purchase or having an auspicious occasion like a wedding or an engagement during 'pitrupaksha'. It is a fortnight-long period of paying respect to one's ancestors. Some people observe specific rituals, others engage in charitable activities, while the rest don't really do anything. But a large number of people desist from making a big monetary transaction or having a celebration in the family, waiting patiently for this span, more commonly called 'shradh' in Delhi to pass.

The shradh fortnight ends and then begins a very auspicious interval of nine days and nine nights called 'navaratri'. The life of Lord Rama is enacted in 'Ramlilas' through the nine nights leading to Dussehra. Most of the action takes place in Old Delhi. Ramlila Maidan is of course well known, though maybe people know it now more as the venue of Anna Hazare's fast than as the ground where Ramlilas have been happening for years. All the grounds where a Ramlila takes place, are generally abuzz with activity much before the show starts. There is a carnival-like atmosphere with food stalls, toy stalls and fun rides for children. Ramlila is a kind of folk theatre, but it is keeping up with the changing times. Lav Kush Ramlila in Delhi has a countdown counter ticking on its website and promises online live webcast of the event as the drama unfolds.

Navaratri is also the time for worshipping the Goddess in her myriad forms. Devotees throng Her temples all over Delhi. Prominent among them are the Kalkaji Mandir in Okhla Industrial Area and the Aadya Katyayani Shaktipeeth popularly known as Chhatarpur Mandir on Gurgaon-Mehrauli Road. People wait patiently in long serpentine queues to get a darshan of the heavily decorated and bejewelled idol of the Goddess. My favourite temple is the little Kamakshi Temple situated on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, bang opposite the Jawaharlal Nehru University gate. It belongs to the Kanchi Kamakoti Trust and is frequented mostly by the capital's Tamil population. It is lovely, has open areas on all the four sides and sports beautiful floral decoration around the idol. You may even chance upon some delicious lemon rice or spicy sundal if you happen to visit the temple when families take turns to distribute these goodies there.

Chittaranjan Park, Delhi's Bengali enclave is getting ready for the most awaited period of the year. The end of pitrupaksha brings Mahalaya, starting the countdown to the four most important days beginning with saptami. It is time to welcome, adore and worship Durga. It is the puja time...a time for new clothes, good food and holiday with family and friends.

Elsewhere in the country, Ganapati festival and Garba/Dandiya dances are on. But in Delhi, these celebrations are restricted to pockets where there is a concentration of Maharashtrian and Gujarati communities, not leaving their mark on the overall social/religious calendar of the city. People from all the Indian states live in Delhi and you meet a nice sprinkling of them at your school or work, but the geographical location of the city does lend it a distinct North Indian flavour, making saadi Dilli a vibrant, fun-loving metropolis.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Delhi In August : Under A Canopy Of Clouds

It is a rain-swept morning. The city has been under a canopy of clouds for some days. The downpour has been steady through most of the previous night. The streets are waterlogged. School kids decked in colourful raincoats or covered under huge umbrellas walk to their bus stops braving the rains. Some of them march cautiously, some playfully while others step deliberately into the puddles that have appeared as a result of the incessant rains. When a car passes over a puddle, dirty water gets splashed onto them, much to the disgust of their mothers, who are walking them to their bus stops.

Across the street, sweet shops have extended their premises occupying the sidewalk, their makeshift shelves almost spilling onto the road. The temporary extensions are covered with tarpaulin sheets to protect them from rain and sun. Rakshabandhan is around the corner and sweets are going to be in great demand. Markets are flooded with rakhis, shiny ornamental threads that sisters tie around the wrists of their brothers as a symbol of mutual love, both wishing for each other's well-being. Shops selling women's merchandise are vying for buyers' attention by announcing discount sales, as brothers will be looking for suitable gifts for their sisters to mark Rakshabandhan.

The capital is geared up to celebrate the Independence Day in a big way. Security alerts are issued. Reports about security being 'beefed up' start appearing in the newspapers. Motorists buy miniature flags from sellers at traffic signals and adorn their dashboards with them. The area around the Red Fort is spruced up. The stage is set for the Prime Minister's address from the 'ramparts' of this historic castle overlooking the Yamuna. Ramparts...every year I come across this word only in the context of the Independence Day. Never have I seen or heard it being used anywhere else! Those watching the Prime Minister's address on the television can see people sitting in the foreground of the Red Fort fanning themselves with paper fans. Delhi is unbelievably hot and humid in spite of the rains. Short spells of rain do not bring any respite. Unless it rains continuously for a long time, there is no chance of cooling down.

The holy month of Ramzan has begun. Believers abstain from food and drink each day from sunrise to sunset during this month. Everyday, sehri (the time to start the fast) and iftar (the time to end it) hours appear in the newspapers. Iftar parties are thrown in the evenings by Delhi's political bigwigs. At the end of the month, it is celebration time on the day of the Ramzan Id. All the mosques wear a festive look. Thousands congregate for prayers at the Jama Masjid, the 17th century grand mosque in Old Delhi. They present a beautiful picture sitting down in the courtyard in neat rows and kneeling in obeisance.

Pragati Maidan, the huge expanse of exhibition grounds along Mathura Road is hosting the Delhi Book Fair. The crowds are moderate on weekdays. On weekends, hordes of book lovers descend on the venue. For some, it is a family picnic. Browse in the air-conditioned halls, eat at one of the numerous food stalls, catch a movie at Shakuntalam before heading home late in the evening. The parking lots next to the Supreme Court get filled very quickly. Maybe it is a good idea to use public transport, especially on weekends.

 All over the city, temples are decorated with lights and flowers to celebrate Janmashtami, birth anniversary of Lord Krishna. Some put up tableaux depicting various events-- from his birth at the stroke of midnight in a prison in Mathura till the slaying of his evil uncle Kansa. Festivities, keertans and bhajans continue late into the night. Birla Mandir in Central Delhi and ISKCON temple in East of Kailash are the main hubs of activity. Devotees throng these places, some planning to spend the whole day there. Religious processions are taken out, pandals are erected outside temples to provide shelter to the visitors, prasad is distributed and cultural programs are organized days before the festival.

The humid and damp weather does not dampen the spirits of Delhiites. So what if washed clothes don't dry properly, so what if roads are submerged under knee-deep water, so what if your domestic help does not turn up because it has been raining, so what if 'low-lying' areas get flooded as a result of heavy rains, so what if the mercury hasn't moved from where it was in July? Patriotic ballads and Rakshabandhan songs blare from FM radios and loudspeakers erected in neighbourhoods. Sweets are relished, holidays are planned around long weekends and families get together for celebrations. After all, they don't call it 'Dilli Dilwaalon ki'  for nothing!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Life, Zindagi And More

Call it male bonding, love and relationships in modern times, friendship or romance, Zoya Akhtar's latest offering 'Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara' (ZNMD) is a film that has all this and more. It is a mainstream film made for the masses, but it manages to strike a chord with the viewers in its own sweet and refreshing way. These days, when the lifespan of a film is very short, it is hard to catch the attention of viewers, let alone make an impression on them. We seem to have forgotten that a normal, commercial film can be meaningful, what with the bevy of inane movies being released every week. ZNMD differs from them in many ways. It is not rollickingly funny, but it has its funny moments. It does not portray stark reality in an unflattering way, but it mirrors contemporary urban Indians very plausibly. It is not preachy, but it gets its message across in a light-hearted manner. In short, Zoya Akhtar has achieved a fine balance. Her film holds you with a firm grip and takes you along on a trip literally and metaphorically. While the literal bit takes place through scenic locales of Spain, the metaphorical journey takes you through the emotional worlds of its characters.

And what an array of wonderful characters brought to life on screen by the talented cast! 'Restraint' seems to be the keyword in making this film. Nothing is larger than life here. The situations and the characters are picked from the upper class urban reality around us. There is no crime, no abusive language, no melodrama, no cheap thrills and no vulgarity. ZNMD has shown that it is possible to make an entertaining film without these staples that usually go into the making of a masala movie. Even Katrina Kaif's appeal is used with a lot of economy, elevating her to the status of an actress than that of a mere glamour doll.

It is Katrina who gets to dispense the premier message of the film: live for the moment, live today as if there is no tomorrow. And she does it not through hollow words, but with her acts. She lives her message while portraying the persona of a free-spirited young woman. And that is why it is so easy for Hrithik Roshan to not only accept it, but to adapt himself to live according to her philosophy. But it is not Hrithik's story alone. The stories of Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar are interwoven nicely, making it a homogeneous, free-flowing narrative.

ZNMD has reduced the gulf between small budget, arty, serious cinema and big budget, commercial cinema considerably. Kudos to the Akhtar siblings for presenting a neat package to discerning audiences. A well-written script, good storytelling, superior performances and technical mastery have gone hand in hand to make the film a success. Of course there are some flaws, but they are not major and can be ignored. Moreover, this is not meant to be a review of the film. Umpteen reviews have appeared in the newspapers, magazines and on the net. These are just my impressions of the movie and what I liked about it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Delhi In July : A Test Of Tolerance

Delhi is a city of distinct seasons. It has a different look and a different feel in each season. Naturally, weather is a very important topic of conversation for Delhiites. Year in and year out, they say the same things to one another and feel sad or happy about the weather. Having spent a major part of my life in Delhi, I have experienced the agony and the ecstasy of the Delhi weather. I am trying to put together a collage of the various faces of Delhi in different seasons. I may do it month by month or I may club a couple of months together. First in the series is the month of July.

It is hard to say which is the cruellest month in Delhi (for there are many), but July will certainly qualify to be one of the top contenders. The high temperatures along with high humidity levels are enough to test the tolerance and patience of the toughest of tough people. If you are outdoors, the hot sun saps your energy in no time. If indoors, the sweat makes you sticky and miserable. The fan whirring overhead is of little help. But life does go on. In fact, schools reopen after summer holidays in the first week of July. Your freshly bathed little one who went to school wearing a clean uniform in the morning, returns home with damp hair, sweaty wet shirt and smelly socks. The water in the poor kid's water bottle is over. It is quite an effort to carry the heavy backpack. There is an odd umbrella or raincoat too. The kid goes back to school again the next day and comes back in a dishevelled state, and the same ordeal continues the day after the next day and the day after that. July always seems to be very long. There are 31 days and no extra holidays as no major festival or national holiday falls in this month.

To make up for this gloomy scene, nature does throw in some goodies even in this inhospitable month. When you step out in the evening, it is still hot, but at least the sun is not blazing ferociously above you. You walk a little and a pleasant whiff of corn on the cob being roasted on a makeshift fire by the streetside greets you. If you care for one, the seller dabs it with fresh lemon and tangy spices and hands it over to you. Roasted corn on the cob tastes best on a rainy day when it has just stopped raining and the poor seller is struggling to keep the roadside fire going. Pay him more than he asks for and the smile on his face will make the whole experience worth a lot more.

Elsewhere in the market, luscious plums have arrived. The dark red or blackish red fruit is sometimes covered with a dusty white coating. Bring home some plums, wash them and bite into their soft flesh. If you are lucky, you may chance upon a deliciously sweet fruit. But you are equally likely to find a tart one. Sweet or tart, plums are a treat, especially because they are seasonal and it is hard to find them at other times of the year.

Central Delhi, or more specifically, the area around India Gate has a large number of jamun trees lining its sidewalks. Come July, the sidewalks turn purple as they get covered with jamuns that fall off the trees. These trees were planted at the time of the planning and building of Central Delhi. So they are old and yield a lot of fruit. The trees are leased to contractors who manage their produce. Urchins who are spending a quiet afternoon under the trees feast on whatever they can get out of the fallen jamuns. Another attraction for them is to see if they can jump into the Boat Club lake for a cool dip on a hot and muggy afternoon.

The swim in the Boat Club waters provides temporary relief. It is still very hot although the dust storms that are so characteristic of the Delhi summer have stopped. But the rain Gods are not yet smiling on the capital. Some days dawn bright and clear with absolutely no trace of a cloud. Newspapers and television screens tell you that it is raining cats and dogs in Mumbai and you long to go there. But you are in Delhi, where the afternoon is frighteningly still. On some days, the same stillness envelopes Delhi through the evening and the night. But on some rare days, the city gets drenched with a sudden evening shower and the setting sun appears again on the skyline. That is precisely the time to get out of the house and enjoy the best Delhi can offer under given circumstances.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Trip Down Gastronomy Lane

It is an old-fashioned, nondescript narrow street in Indore, just like any other in several towns and cities across India. But what sets it apart from the rest is the extraordinary culinary experience that is on offer here. The less-than-one- kilometre stretch that starts from behind the Rajwada--a stunningly beautiful mansion belonging to the Holkar dynasty, survived only by its facade today--exists in the densely packed, old part of the city; characterized by little lanes criss-crossing each other. These lanes are home to a variety of bazaars, where both sides of the lane are lined with shops selling pots and pans, fabrics and sarees, stationery and jewellery. So there is a Bartan bazaar, a Cloth Market, a Khajuri bazaar and a Sarafa.

was originally meant to be a jewellery market. When the jewellers shut shop for the day, the savoury and sweet makers took over and set their wares up on the platforms outside the closed shops. Well, that must have been how the present Sarafa came into being. Now the jewellery shops and eateries sit side by side, all vying for the customers' attention through the day (and night in case of the eateries). The food outlets are open during the day, but they really come alive in the evening.

My earliest memories of visiting the Sarafa are with a dear uncle (Shantaram Kaka) on his bicycle. I remember going there as a little girl with him and being treated to my favourite samosa from the Samosa Corner, along with other things. We did this routine very often and it is still fresh in my memory four decades later. The shop exists at the same place and is in the same condition even today. I make it a point to go there at least once whenever I am in Indore. The crispy triangles stuffed with spicy potato filling are served piping hot, fresh from the pan, with two chutneys--a green one made with coriander leaves and chillies and a brown one made with tamarind. You stand on the street outside the tiny stall, place your order and the guy places a hot samosa on a piece of newspaper, makes a dent in it,  fills the depression caused by the dent with the hot and tangy chutneys and hands the concoction to you. When you bite into this offering, all your taste buds come alive and the samosa disappears leaving a zesty aftertaste in your mouth.

Just across the street is another establishment, Vijay Chaat House. Their USP is something called patties. The credit for introducing this delicacy goes to the owners of this eatery. Most people in Indore refer to it as 'paytis' and are most probably unaware that patties is the plural form of a patty. These are balls where the stuffing is made of coconut along with some spices, and the coating is made of potato. They are then deep fried and served hot with chutneys. The owners seem to be a big family of several brothers, all of them having a fair complexion and dressed in spotless white kurtas. When I went to this place last month, I saw a fair-skinned young lad in his early twenties, sporting the familiar white kurta, busy frying a big batch of matar patties, a variant where the coconut is replaced by peas. Ah, the next generation has joined the family business! As he takes the fresh batch out of the frying pan, it is lapped up by eager customers waiting on the street. No stale or refried food anywhere in the sarafa. The big kadahis are out there for everyone to see, along with platters full of freshly moulded balls, ready to be fried.
Further down the street is an outlet of repute specializing in dahivada and bhutte ka kees. It is simply known by the last name of the owner--Joshi. People flock here for the giant dahivada that is large enough for a mini-meal. Deep fried vadas have been softened by dipping them in water and then squeezing them. They are heaped in a big container. When you place an order, the person serving them tosses a vada high up in the air, catches it with great elan, puts it in a bowl, douses it with delectable dahi,  tops it with some spices and chutneys, and presents this absolutely irresistible, melt-in-the-mouth dish to you. The dahi in the vada soothes you while the spices tease you, making the vada-eating a roller-coaster-like experience.

My other favourite here is bhutte ka kees which can be loosely translated as corn-upma, though I must admit that it is a very tame term and does not convey the attributes of this preparation with the respect it deserves. It is served with a topping of freshly squeezed lemon juice, a very special Rajasthani spice called jeeravan and fresh green coriander leaves. The moment you take a spoonful of this delightful stuff into your mouth, a melange of slightly sweet, sour, hot and salty tastes hits you, turning it into an 'Aha' moment.

Then there is spicy sabudane kee khichadi, kachoris stuffed with daal or potato or peas or corn, each variety having its own fan club, aloo tikiyas fried in ghee, served with only chutneys or chhole, fried garadu ( a type of yam) in winters, daal-baafla (a Marwari speciality), and a whole lot more.

Foodies with a sweet tooth can indulge too. There are several delicacies to choose from. But sweets are not my priority when I go to the sarafa. Among the popular sweets are gulab jamuns, jalebis served with hot milk, rabdi (thick evaporated milk), gajar ka halwa (in winters), kulfi and shikanji ( a very rich preparation with evaporated milk and dry fruits) along with a host of barfis and laddoos. People are seen relishing these until late into the night. I have not been to these shops early in the morning, but I am told that jalebis with hot milk are favoured by many for breakfast too!

Most of the eating in the sarafa takes place while standing in the congested street, with vehicles and pedestrians passing by, and hot fumes from the frying making the air even hotter. For those who cannot stand the heat and the dust, an alternative exists in the newer part of the city. Called Chhappan Dukaan, it is a market with 56 shops, where many of the sarafa eateries have opened an outlet. One can enjoy the sarafa specialities in a cleaner environment there. It is a fine place and I have gone there several times, but once a sarafa loyalist, always a sarafa loyalist! For me, a trip to Indore is not complete without a visit to my dear old sarafa.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Map Your World!

Photo by Google
My son Prateek just returned from Google Asia-Pacific Geo Community Summit held in Singapore. He has been a regular contributor to Google Map Maker. Google acknowledges the support of its most active contributors by inviting them to such conferences. Two years ago, Prateek had been to one in Bangalore. Both Bangalore and Singapore summits have been pleasant experiences for him. He has written a piece about the Singapore conference. I am happy to share it here.

Let me start with what Map Maker ( ) is. Basically, it is like an editable version of Google Maps. Everyone is editing a single, global, public map, and not their own private maps. Data from Map Maker is copied over into Google Maps, so a lot of the data you see in Google Maps is actually contributed by individuals, and not obtained from a commercial mapping source. Map Maker has been particularly useful in mapping countries where good commercial data did not exist. Map Maker is useful in mapping disaster-hit areas too. This is of great help during rescue operations.

It was a joint conference for Map Maker, Panoramio (a site where people upload geolocated photos, which are then displayed in Google Maps, and which complement the street view), and 3D modellers (people who model 3D buildings, again shown in street view). I was there for Map Maker and so were most of the other participants. Though we communicate with each other over forums and bug trackers, meeting in person was very different and much more satisfying. We were a nice mix of people of different ages, pursuing different professions and belonging to diverse countries such as India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Indonesia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia. Some of the organisers had come all the way from Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

The venue of the event was Resorts World on Sentosa Island, a touristy place in the south of Singapore. Sentosa Island seems to have some sort of special status, for example there are entry fees to enter Sentosa by any mode of transport (walking, monorail, bus, taxi, personal car, and cable car), and transport inside Sentosa is free.

The conference began on 30th March afternoon/evening, with a river cruise through the central business district. The riverfront was very well-maintained. Here one could actually see the river, walk along it, etc - as opposed to the many years of living in Delhi where the Yamuna seems to exist only "in the abstract", an entity that one sees on maps and occasionally crosses on bridges without actually seeing any water. The India-Pakistan match began when we were on the cruise, and we could hear a lot of cheering from the nearby cafes/restaurants. It was interesting to see that Indians and Pakistanis were asking each other about the score. Once when the cheering got very loud, I called home and came to know that Sehwag had hit five fours in an over. The cruise was followed by an early dinner at a semi-open-air restaurant close to the riverfront. The organisers asked if they could get the match on the TVs there, but that was not possible.

An important purpose (the primary purpose?) of the conference was to get the Google people and the users to meet and interact with each other, and this did happen on the first day, although there was no "formal" conference activity with projectors and screens and microphones etc.

Other than the Google employees working on Map Maker etc, there were many other younger "volunteers" representing Google who accompanied us on the bus/boat rides, ensured that everyone is informed of the plan, supplied water bottles and umbrellas and stuff, and were generally looking after everyone. This  was one big difference between being at a conference like this and being just a tourist.

On 31st there was a talk by Google's "Geo Evangelist", followed by a discussion with Map Maker engineers. These discussions with the developers about the features, bugs, etc were the most interesting part of the conference for me. There were also many other topics of discussion, like building the Map Maker community, organising mapping parties, mapping from mobile devices, using GPS devices, using Map Maker for mapping disaster-affected areas, and other more technical topics.

In the evening we visited Google's office in Singapore. It is mainly a sales/marketing office. So we just looked around and took some photos. After an early dinner by the poolside, I went to roam around on Sentosa Island. It had gotten dark, and I was surprised to find that the beaches were deserted. I was expecting to see at least some people there given that Sentosa is popular with tourists. I rode a Segway ( ). It was quite interesting!

Photos by Prateek
On 1st morning we had another discussion with the Map Maker engineers, and several  unstructured "unconference" sessions, where people discussed in smaller groups.The Googlers were very interested in interacting with the users and listening to their feedback.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

My Cup Runneth Over With Joy

We will continue to exult in the afterglow of the World Cup victory. The gleaming cup will provide us with happiness for years to come. It is amazing how a simple game that requires minimum gear and is played in practically every street in India, can unite the nation in a way that no other glue can.

On Saturday, when India and Sri Lanka were making history on the cricket ground in Mumbai, every Indian heart was beating for Dhoni and his boys. It did not matter whether you lived in India or left the Indian shores generations ago to make a new life elsewhere. If you called yourself Indian, you longed to see the Cup in the Indian skipper's hands. Whether you were Mukesh Ambani sitting in the VIP enclosure at the Wankhede stadium, or a daily wage earner eking out a living in some remote village, you yearned to see India win that evening. From toddlers barely out of their prams to grandparents confined to their wheelchairs, everybody dreamt of the Cup.

On that fateful night in Mumbai, when the captain hit the winning stroke, the thud was echoed in billions of hearts across the globe. What followed was sheer madness. People ran out on the streets in celebration. There was complete chaos. It was an emotional moment for a land that had been waiting for this conquest for a long time. And when it did happen, people had tears of joy in their eyes and lumps in their throats.

What is it that makes cricket so popular as to transcend all barriers of class, caste, gender, age and language ? Its reach is widespread and its connect with the masses phenomenal. But that does not make it any less classy either. And therein lies the magic of cricket, a game that is the darling of not just India, but the entire subcontinent.

When your TV screen fills with images of a handful of strapping men who are epitomes of strength, stamina and fitness, you feel elated. Middle-aged men with paunches, balding and toothless seniors, obese males who are forced to stay indoors because of the nature of their work, students who are too tied up with their studies to go out and get a breath of fresh air, ageing women with bad backs and painful knees, homemakers who are wedded to their chores...almost all of us get a certain pleasure watching these men run, jump, stretch and fall on the ground playing the great game of cricket.

Perhaps we enjoy seeing them do things that we could not do because of other compulsions. After all how many of us get a chance to lead such an outdoorsy life? Maybe we fulfil our wishes through them, just like parents do through their children. We take pride in their achievements because they are real heroes. We are aware of the hurdles they had to cross and the stiff competition they had to face before reaching where they are today. We know that each one of them has put in years of hard work while pursuing the game. We love them, we admire them, we dote on them because they are powerful icons of hope. They bring a lot of cheer to the people of a country that is generally starved of good news.

And who would not be happy to see their side steadily climbing the ladder of success, vanquishing legendary teams that were considered great at one time? That is precisely what happened and as India took on Sri Lanka in the finals, a nation waited with bated breath. If we jumped with joy when they inched towards victory, we fell silent when the other side seemed to dominate the game. No other entity is capable of having a hold over the collective mood of the nation as cricket is.

That is why we need cricket. It is a symbol of our oneness.

Monday, March 14, 2011

My Guardian Angels

It was 1978 and I was a starry-eyed young woman, barely out of my teens. The standard courses offered for post-graduation in Indore did not interest me. I was fascinated by the world of the print media, and wanted to pursue it. The closest city from Indore where you could take a course in Journalism was Mumbai, called Bombay in those days. I had my eyes set on it, and even though it must have been a difficult decision for them, Aai-Baba--my parents--agreed to send me. As luck would have it, I secured a seat at the renowned Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for a 1-year diploma course in Journalism. I was happy and thrilled. But there was a problem. We had to make arrangements for my stay. Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan did not have any hostel facility.

Photo by Mayuresh
This is where my father's close friend Achyutkaka and his wife, Ashatai came to our rescue. They opened their doors for me and invited me to stay with them in their flat, on Senapati Bapat Road in Mahim. Now, this was a small, one-bedroom flat and they had three young children. I became their fourth child, and the eldest one at that. Aai-Baba found it hard to send me away, but at the same time they were relieved because I was going to be under the loving and watchful eye of their most trustworthy friends.

Achyutkaka was (still is) a stickler for discipline, order and neatness. I made sure that I hang my clothes to dry in perfect symmetry on the clothesline. When I took off my slippers, I set them straight against the wall, with the toe-side touching the wall. Achyutkaka was particular about everything and paid attention to the smallest detail around his house. Footwear left on the floor in a haphazard manner, beds covered with sheets that were wrinkled and slack instead of being taut, and anything in general that was not placed neatly, bothered him. He was very straightforward and vocal about it. His children often got quite an earful from him. I may not have lived up to his exacting standards in spite of trying very hard, but I must say that he never let me know that in any way. He would regularly advise me on how to go about in my chosen field of study. He used to tell me about how I should conduct myself in a big city like Bombay. 'If you have any problem, confide in Asha', he often told me. After all, they were responsible for a 19-year-old, who had come away from her parents for the first time.

Even though he was an executive with the Indian Oil Corporation, acting was Achyutkaka's passion. He was active in the theatre circuit and I remember going to see many plays with him at the Chhabildas High School in Dadar. Chhabildas was a great venue for playwrights and directors to showcase their creations. It provided a platform for quality theatre that was not purely commercial, but experimental and low-budget. I don't mean to name-drop, but I got to see Pandit Satyadev Dubey,  Rohini and Jayadev Hattangadi, Sulabha and Arvind Deshpande, Nafisa Ali, Nana Patekar, Amol Palekar, Sunila Pradhan and many others from close quarters, either on stage or as part of the audience or in an informal meeting, thanks to Achyutkaka. I can't recollect names of all the plays that I saw there, but the two that stand out in memory are Badal Sircar's 'Juloos' and Mohan Rakesh's 'Aadhe Adhoore'. And I certainly haven't forgotten the zesty batatavadas from a nearby stall, that we used to be treated to, after watching a play.

Photo by Govind
If I have to mention one more of Achyutkaka's 'likes', other than discipline, order, neatness and acting, it has to be his evening drink. He has been having his pre-dinner drink every single day for years. I can still picture him, sitting in a chair that was kept between a window and a steel cupboard in the small Mahim flat, nursing his drink. His tastes in food are simple. He is happy with his daal-roti, the daal has to be served in a big bowl though, not in the small vaati or katori in which it is traditionally served in Maharashtrian houses. And the pinch of sugar that Maharashtrians add to all the dishes is a strict no-no in his house. Ashatai's cooking has always been free of that dash of sugar. In fact, there is a delightful North Indian touch to her fare, as she hails from Jhansi. The family was mostly vegetarian. Occasionally, there used to be some fish and the children tried their best to cajole me into eating it, or at least trying a little portion. But I was, still am, a vegetarian by choice and therefore did not succumb to their pleas.

Life was simple. School for the kids, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan for me and office for Achyutkaka. Ashatai was a homemaker then. She started teaching at a school later. Sunday evenings were reserved for sitting in front of the TV and watching whatever movie Doordarshan threw at us. There used to be an intermission--a break when news was telecast--that all of us enjoyed with some munchies. The favourite items were puff biscuits and hard and crispy boondi laddoos which Achyutkaka used to get from some shop in Dadar.

Time flew in these congenial environs and before I knew it, my course was over. I was fortunate to be selected as a trainee journalist at the Bennett, Coleman & Company, publishers of the Times of India and many reputed journals. Soon, I moved into a hostel for working women. It was not too far from Achyutkaka's place. I continued visiting and meeting him and his family till I got married and moved away in 1982. When we were about to set up our home in Delhi, Achyutkaka gave us an Indane gas connection from his discretionary quota. That was one of the most sought after things then, a precious gift indeed that is still keeping our kitchen fires burning.

Achyutkaka and Ashatai visited us in Delhi and in Bangalore. They came when Aai-Baba were with us so that the four of them could spend some nice time together. Achyutkaka and Baba have been friends for more than six decades now, but what is remarkable is that their wives are each other's best friends too! During his visits, I found that he is still his old self...inspecting cupboards, arranging newspapers in a neat pile, washing and arranging teacups in the kitchen...and so on. His actions told me that he felt completely 'at home' at our place. This is exactly what he would have done in his own house.

Well, that is Achyutkaka for me.

A bit of information for those who don't know: Achyutkaka is Achyut Potdar who played the role of the father of leading ladies Urmila Matondkar ( in the 1995 Hindi film 'Rangeela')  and Vidya Balan ( in the 2005 film 'Parineeta'), and a cameo of a professor in 'Three Idiots' (2009). You may have seen him in many other Hindi films,  TV serials and advertisements. Kudos to him for keeping his passion alive and being actively involved in it so many years after retirement.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Holi Is Around The Corner

When the nights started getting warm and the days warmer, when the woollen clothes felt burdensome every now and then, when you thought that you better open your windows, you knew that Holi was around the corner. The palash (flame of the forest, tesu) tree outside our window would come alive with little orange buds every year at this time. Soon, the whole tree was a riot of bright orange blossoms, their flames leaping towards the sky, leaving the tree completely bereft of its green foliage. This was my favourite harbinger, marking the turn of the seasons.

Photo by Santosh Chandran, CC-BY-SA
Holi, in Delhi brought the winter to an end. It came at a point when winter left Delhi, and summer was yet to arrive. It was the perfect time to shed your winter clothes, shed your inhibitions and join the party. But for years, we kept away from all the hullabaloo. We just did not like the loudness, the aggression and the mess that Holi brought with it. Why get doused with strong chemical colours that were not only hard to wash off, but were hazardous too? We wanted to avoid all this and preferred to stay put indoors, watching our neighbours who were hidden behind layers of powders and paints, from the safety of our home.

This went on for a few years. But our neighbours decided that they would not let us have the vicarious pleasure of playing Holi from the confines of our living room. So one fine Holi day, they rang the bell and knocked at our door, asking us to join them. We knew that they were armed with coloured powders, pastes and water bottles (pichkaris), ready to pounce on us as soon as they could, and so we decided not to open the door. The mob outside, though friendly, turned furious at our temerity and started pounding at the door with their fists. Some others kept the button of the bell pressed, making it shriek continuously. We were not sure if  keeping the door shut was wise, but we stuck to our stand anyway. The poor bell could not cope with the incessant pressure and fell silent. The thumping went on for some more time and then stopped. The group of revellers gave up on us and moved away, leaving us clean and dry, secure in our territory.

Even though we got what we wanted, we were somewhat uncomfortable because we had turned our neighbours away from our door without greeting them. We lived on the campus of an academic institute where my husband taught, so they were not only neighbours, but his colleagues too.

At the next Holi, we decided to participate in the celebrations in our campus. When we offered no resistance and went from door to door willingly with other people, they treated us as one of them and did not attack us with their deadly powders and coloured water, as they would most certainly have if we were to hide in a corner and show reluctance. Sure, they threw hot purple powder in my hair, and painted my face with fluorescent green, red and yellow, but the 'attack' was friendly, not ferocious. We followed this practice every year and soon became a part of the gang. The situation with chemical colours improved considerably as there were several campaigns against them in Delhi. People became aware of the dangers they posed and opted for organic colours that were safe.

Around noon, when everybody had played with colours to their hearts' content, a kind and generous neighbour used to invite all of us to his home for some refreshments. They had a neat garden outside their flat. Some of us sprawled on the lawn, while plastic chairs were hurriedly pulled out for others. The hostess disappeared in the kitchen to send platters of snacks for all of us. We felt very comfortable in each other's company in spite of all the mess on our clothes and bodies. It was at that instant that I understood the spirit of Holi. The Holi colours had the magical powers of hiding our formal demeanour and bringing out our true selves. We sat in that garden, sipping tea, munching on the savouries and soaking in the 'feel good' air around us. Taking a shower, washing the colours off our bodies and changing into clean clothes could surely wait for some time, couldn't it?