March 13, 2017

A Rock Music Trail

Desmond Macedo

The living room had three old bamboo chairs and a frame on the wall with George Harrison within.

Range Hills, a government colony of defense employees in Poona in the 60s and 70s, was an unlikely place to find rock music but often, there was a box guitar, too, in that living room, named ‘40 Miles Of Bad Road,’ and yes, though beat-up, when it had six strings on it, as it often did not have, it sounded thrilling enough for me to cycle down from Loyola School campus, in nearby Pashan, via a slope from Modern High School and a short cut from Poona University Circle around a hillock, which would get me down quickly to pick it up if nobody else was playing it.

If Big Freak, a sibling of that household, was playing it then I would have the joy of listening to Wah Wah or Art of Dying. Anyone who could play George Harrison was a big freak back then, usually with long hair, kurta, smelly jeans and beedies. Even the other way around was almost true: if anyone wore long hair, kurta, smelly jeans and beedies, he could play George Harrison.

Some days earlier, I had heard Big Freak do If I Needed Someone. It was the opening guitar notes that got him. I liked them, too. One day a bunch of kurtas, smelly jeans and beedies came down from Hill Road, Bandra, and did It Don’t Come Easy, and I thought the opening guitar notes sounded a bit like those on If I Needed Someone, but I loved them as well.

Once, Big Freak spent a whole week on Hill Road, Bandra and came back with Happiness Is A Warm Gun.  For me this was an adult song, to be enjoyed like being allowed into a theatre where an adult movie was showing. And this was the adult scene:

The man in the crowd with multi-colored mirrors on his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime

These songs never played on Radio Ceylon, my usual source of music. Mostly, it played Englebert Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Cliff, Jim Reeves, Sinatra, Elvis, Everly Bothers, country music singers and other such pop artists. My Ol’ Man once remarked as Hey Jude’s chorus faded out on the radio: ‘Sounds like Crawford Market on Sundays.’ Quite clear what he thought of rock. And most of the time I had to keep tuning the damn radio to get a clear reception. In the home of a friend in nearby NCL Colony, there was a record player and Sgt Pepper’s album – his elder brother owned it, with instructions not to play it. He himself seldom played it, so I couldn’t tell how it came to be there. This was another government colony of middle and lower middle class employees in the 60s and 70s, and an unlikely place to hear Sgt Pepper’s. There was still one other place where another friend and I saw this album – Poona’s Chor Bazaar or Juna Bazaar – where it wasn’t out of place since anything out of place found itself here, but, as my friend told me as he nudged me away, ‘The record inside is some other album.’

In Range Hills, however, I looked keenly at Big Freak as he played George’s songs and when he was tired, I’d pick up the box and try the chords with the tunes and words.

Big Freak had a younger brother who played Hey Joe. He had heard it from someone on Hill Road, Bandra. This became another adult experience for me:

Hey Joe, where you walkin’ down / With that gun in your hand? 
I’m gonna shoot my woman / She’s messin’ around town with another man 

Another song the younger brother played that I liked instantly was Dark Side of the Moon. And the two lines that I learned were: And if the band starts playing a different kind of tune / I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon 

These two boys would make frequent trips to Bandra, Bombay, and return with a new song. When I met the younger brother at Range Hills again, some time later, he was doing the bass of Hey Joe. This was the first time I had heard bass all by itself; may be the first time I noticed bass. ‘Seems harder to sing a song and play its bass notes than to sing with its chords’ he had said. ‘Chords are the harmony of a song, so it’s easy to sing with them,’ he tried to explain while I did not try to understand, because I did not know what harmony in music meant.

Then came the Malavli Youth Festival, a 3-day fest of rock music by Indian rock bands planned on the lines of Woodstock, and organized by a Jesuit priest at this village Malavli, a few kilometers from Lonavla. I arrived for the last night. There was plenty of hash around. All you did was join a circle and you’d get free pulls. For days later, there were articles and editorials in the local dailies on the festival and how it was mainly an orgy of hash and sex. I thought it was an orgy of Jumping Jack Flash - every band that came on did that number, and it delighted me.

Time came for me to move out of Poona and go work, which took me to several parts of North India and Punjab. When I came home to Poona on leave, I would cycle back to that house in Range Hills. On one such visit, I heard Big Freak play My Sweet Lord. I returned quite a few days in a row and asked him to do it till I learnt it. I had to learn the tune, lyrics, chords and how to sing and play a song together - the tricky part - so it would take quite a few days before I could do one on my own.

Back in Ambala Cantt, I practiced My Sweet Lord. On a Sunday visit to the local church, I said hello to the parish priest there as I had noticed a guitar in his room through the mesh in his door. A couple of more Sundays and I was playing and singing My Sweet Lord for him. He loved the song, which by now he referred to a hymn, so I had to, also. Next, he invited me to prayer meetings that were attended by nuns from a nearby girls’ school. We were singing My Sweet Lord at these meetings. It seemed to take the folk in white cassocks nearest to their creator. After singing it, they would each retreat into a kind of "Union and Oneness with Him,” mumbling Jesus’ praises, praying that one day they would join Him in heaven singing these beautiful hymns. Another Sunday later, an unfamiliar face in a cassock said hello to me. ‘Beautiful hymn you sing,’ she said. I smiled back. I was thinking of some “F Sharp Diminished” chord that Big Freak showed me in the song but couldn’t remember its formation. And then I forgot when the B7th came in.

Between the 80s and 2000, I used to meet acquaintances who would periodically return to India from the west, visiting families. We would meet for drinks, music and general conversation. On these occasions there’d be some information passed on about The Beatles – they were an experimental band, etc, etc. ‘Avant-garde,’ said one. And of course, the usual “why they broke up,” which got boring.

I had begun my own na├»ve reasoning: They broke up because they couldn’t innovate any more. Big Freak once said, ‘You compose two songs, they will sound alike. They did over 150 songs, and most of them sound different from each other.’ Tapes had replaced vinyl, and I had most of their songs, already fed-up of listening to them over and over again, so, instead, I used to come up with these theories about them and their music, another being, people will listen to The Beatles the way they listen to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, even two centuries later. I didn’t believe myself but nobody was listening to me and my theories so it was alright.

There were many songs I first heard guys play in that living room. Like See Me, Feel Me by The Who, Woodstock by Joni Mitchell, and No Sugar Tonight by I didn’t know who. I was also told that Joe Cocker’s With A Little Help From My Friend was better than the original. And there was this nice line I heard there: Too many hungry people losing weight.

Somewhere in the nineties, and in Bangalore, I walked into a music store and asked about the song Dark Side of the Moon. It wasn’t a song, it was an album. When the internet arrived in the 2000s, I learned it was among the best albums so I bought it.

By the time the millennium changed, Big Freak was already a respected guitar teacher in Pune.

By 2006, YouTube had arrived, and Too many hungry people losing weight, which my friends rocked up back then, was timid Paul McCartney, ex-Beatle pop.

Hey Joe went to the top of my favourite songs, with Noel Redding’s bass riff joining my fondest bass riffs, though, not before I learnt from the internet what a riff was, and after I learnt from the internet what a drum roll was, Mitch Mitchell’s drum rolls in the same song sounded like “mustard spluttering in hot oil” – the finest I’ve heard.

Likewise, Harrison’s lead riff for It Don’t Come Easy came to occupy another fondest space in me.

The songs I had first heard friends playing on acoustic guitar in that living room with three old bamboo chairs on the floor and George Harrison on the wall, I now heard recorded, many years later, for the first time.

40 Miles of Bad Road was a title better than the song.

The original Sgt Pepper’s vinyl album cardboard sleeve became a rarity.

Howard Goodall CBE, classical musician and award-winning British composer, in a documentary he titled, ‘The Beatles – A Musical Appreciation & Analysis,’ released on YouTube said their music was likely to live on for several generations. And somewhere in that script he mentioned, ‘They’ve innovated so much, there isn’t much left for any band to innovate.’

No Sugar Tonight by I didn’t know who, was by The Guess Who.

Someone commented on the Jumping Jack Flash  YouTube video: 'The best opening line in rock: I was born in a crossfire hurricane.' I picked it up in Malavali.

Western music was harmony, while Indian music was melody. Lennon’s Jealous Guy was built on melody, but don't ask me to explain.

 And then, a few years ago in Mumbai, I ran into the padre I knew in Ambala Cantt.

‘Holy Shit,’ I shrieked when I met him and he shrieked back, ‘Holy Water.’

After the shrieks had settled and the 'how have you beens?' done, he linked to the past and said, ‘I love the way My Sweet Lord changes key midway. So gradually, you don’t even notice it.’

‘So you’ve been watching YouTube, what?’ I said.

He smiled.

Then he turned to me, hands now locked firmly on his hips in mother-superior fashion, and interrogated: ‘You never told me, it’s a hymn in praise of Lord Krishna, did you?’

‘Yes, it ends on those chants, but father, what to do?’ I tried to explain, ‘variations from the original would’ve occurred because, for some people in India, rock music was passed on orally.’

We had a good laugh.

My Sweet Lord - Lyrics

My sweet Lord
Hmmm, my Lord
Hmmm, my Lord

I really want to see you
Really want to be with you
Really want to see you Lord
But it takes so long, my Lord

My sweet Lord
Hmmm, my Lord
Hmmm, my Lord

I really want to know you
Really want to go with you
Really want to show you Lord

That it won't take long, my Lord

February 28, 2017

Sohrab's Last Story

Anirban Sen

It was one sunny afternoon when Sohrab slit his wrist with the nib of his favourite pen that he discovered the colour of his blood was indigo blue, and not dark red like the colour of his handwriting.

The strangeness of this situation started to dawn on him, excruciatingly slowly, clearing itself through the thick fog of processing an impossible reality.

A sharp pain overtook his brain and swallowed him whole. His brain switched into military combat mode and immediately ordered a curfew on any kind of sense or feeling. Sohrab’s mind obeyed the command, and without hesitation, went numb.

He looked down at his notepad and noticed the blood-red colour of the letters of every word of the story he was writing. No two letters were alike and all differed in thickness and vitality. Some letters were thick dabs of paint that seemed deliberated upon and some letters were airier in their brushstrokes that made his prose nimble.

Each letter was a confident brushstroke that had been practiced to perfection over the years, and each stood out for itself in its own pride of existence and profound personal ambition. And yet as they journeyed through the page every letter stitched itself with the next one in a languid friendship to weave out a rich ornate design.

Two minutes into his numbness, he realized without thinking that, for once in his life, he wasn’t scanning through his writing and neither was he reading any words. Instead, he found himself staring at the most beautiful intricate design his handwriting had ever created. It looked like a work of outstanding artistry.

It occurred to him that the design had much more beauty and meaning than all the chapters and paragraphs in the story that he was writing. A few minutes later into his numbness, he understood that the design was a visual message sent to him across a vast distance. But that distance didn’t seem to measure itself in kilometers or miles.

He couldn’t decipher the message but he knew it was in his own handwriting, and therefore the message had to be from none other than himself.

And he remembered himself. He remembered his face in the mirror from a few minutes before, on that very afternoon just before he slashed his wrist.

He remembered being surprised how old he had grown. He realized now, all these years, even though he stood in front of the mirror every day, he had never really looked at himself. His faraway eyes were always lost in tunnels of thought, mining out words and stories, and his gaze always looked beyond his reflection and focused on an imaginary place where he actually lived. He would give his reflection just a cursory glance for a brief second as if to feel reassured that the man in the mirror was still himself. That’s how he marked his attendance of each day of his life.

He remembered the weather-beaten cheeks that were caving in gently and silently like giant tectonic plates. He remembered his wrinkles that dug themselves long canyons across his face from the sides of his eyes. They were like tributaries of a river but they travelled horizontally with the slow anguish of a poem written in a deep calligraphic handwriting. But the tributaries were dry and inkless, and he thought maybe it was because tears could only flow downwards.

And he remembered his eyes. The glint of his eyes was tender and kind, and yet it had a fiendishly sinister shine. That shine was the only clue that betrayed the existence of the deep and dark passages inside his brain that formed complex tunnels of thought, carefully excavated out of the fertile terrain of his mind. He explored these inky black labyrinths day and night with a flaming torch, and it was this light from the torch that made his eyes twinkle.

He searched tirelessly for strange and unusual adventures and plots of stories inside these tunnels that crisscrossed to form an endless maze. Some stories oozed out of him from the tip of his fingers through his handwriting that did eventually make him an accomplished author. Some stories were never documented and remained etched on the walls of the tunnels, delicious in their dark secrecy, far out of reach of time’s judgment.

The tunnels reminded Sohrab of his wrinkles.

His understood then, after a lifetime, that his face was a mirror. The wrinkles were a reflection of the labyrinths in his mind, perfect in in their imitation and profound in their wisdom, and they left behind trails that recorded in minute detail the journey of his life and kept it safe, deep inside their folds.

It was not his face anymore; the wrinkles had transformed his face into a notebook containing a thousand scribbled stories. Ten minutes into his numbness, it struck Sohrab that the wrinkles on his face were not a result of the decay of time. But they were someone’s handwriting.

Somebody had been writing on his face. He recalled his shriveled up face and recounted his wrinkles that mapped his face in deep gashes that looked like battle wounds. That afternoon, before deciding to take his life, he had really looked at himself for the first time after thirty years. He was unsure if he would recognize himself.

At first, his reflection was the face of a stranger he had never met. But he knew it was himself, not because he was looking into a mirror. He recognized himself because of the wrinkles that scarred his face. The lines narrated his life in meticulous detail and he recognized the story. It was his story.

The writing had no arrogant flair of a writer yet it was remarkably lucid in its language and heart wrenchingly poetic in its portrayal. The handwriting had no ink. But every chapter was visible, each page was numbered, and there was a sense of finality engraved in the tone that made Sohrab feel that the book was, at long last, ready to go into print.

There was also a sense of haunting embedded in the handwriting of his wrinkles. Cuneiform and hollow, the writing seemed to be an echo of ancient whispers; the memory of the wind that had painstakingly chiseled out the tales of his life in longhand.

In the tenderness of the handwriting, Sohrab detected love. Through the years the wrinkles had relentlessly carved out ravines and gorges across his face, but Sohrab realized he had never ever felt any jab of pain. The wrinkles were so gentle that even as they etched the stories, their touch was imperceptible and silent, and that rendered the handwriting invisible for years, even after they had started to show.

Our wrinkles are reminders of the approaching of our life’s final deadline. But that sunny afternoon Sohrab felt his wrinkles were not warnings but were handwritten letters of love. And they were written every day with a longing and a heart full of ache for countless years, and now they were finally ready to be posted.

Thirty minutes had passed and Sohrab’s numbness had begun to ebb. He began to feel immeasurably grateful for his life. The feeling came to him in waves from an endless ocean that was stretched itself to unfathomable distances.

He was still overwhelmed with the sense of gratitude when his numbness withered and died and he began to feel alive. His room came back into focus, the couch and the electric teapot, the smear of the coffee stain on the table, and he was suddenly acutely aware of that sharp pain in his wrist. His eyes travelled to the blood still gushing out of his fatal wound, and he smiled. It was the final stroke of his story in his own handwriting, and he felt a last sliver of pain from the wound that was ready to define him.

Forty-two minutes later, as the glint of his eyes began to fade with weariness, he heard the thud of the final full stop. Along with the sound he took his last breath, the last sigh of farewell as the ink ran out.

It was a moment after he was dead, when he deciphered his message to himself that was scrawled all over his notebook. All his life Sohrab had loved the stories he had created with the immensity of a parent. He remembered each of them from the time they were born, fresh in his own handwriting, borrowed from the underground labyrinths inside his head. Each of them was his labour of love, his signature that he would leave behind.

Then his face flashed for one last time. And he realized he had been wrong all his life.

As his face flashed for the last time, he noticed only his wrinkles. Some lines were deep and ambitious and some lines were just whispers but as they journeyed through his face, they crisscrossed each other and at times even stitched themselves with another line in a languid friendship to weave out a rich ornate design.

The design looked familiar. And then he knew. It was the exactly the same design on his notebook that he had first noticed before the dizziness took over.

It was then that he realized it was not him who had been writing his stories all his life. In fact, it was the opposite. All through his life it was his stories that were writing him.

His face was now serene and calm, and his indigo blue blood was wet and fresh, much like the ink of his handwriting right after he had completed a story. He looked like a work of outstanding artistry.

He looked ready to be published.

About the Author: Anirban Sen likes Jim Beam at the end of the day. Before that time comes, he does what he does well – advertising. He has a Cannes for Happydent. He enjoys traveling, scouring forests and trekking on mountains. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, while with Jim Beam, he writes stories. 

February 1, 2017

Blackie, the Dog with One Ear

Desmond Macedo

Fortunately, the wife didn’t see him urinate on the boxes containing our household belongings else he may never have become part of our lives.

‘How do you allow a dog that urinated on your belongings to be part of your home’ is one of those questions that human beings are likely to ask, and dogs will not understand. I being of a species somewhere in between a dog and a human being, somewhat knew it could be asked.

We had just moved into our new cottage in Lohagaon, near Pune airport, when he walked into the house, sniffed the boxes around, and did his job. I watched him, hoping wife would not turn around. She didn’t. And I firmed up my plan to adopt him.

Unlike most stray dogs, he didn’t wag his tail a lot. He did the opposite – he snarled at you if you went near him, exposing those two long, pointed teeth in front like Christopher Lee had. Even his growl sounded fierce or, perhaps, a black dog is more frightening than a dog of any other colour. Still, I decided to be very careful with him.

Good height, well built - though lean from irregular food that strays are like - with a long snout, he looked like a wolf, and just as stately. Being black, the locals called him Kalia. He had brown markings on his body and two above the eyebrows, the latter, someone told me, was a Rottweiler sign so he might be a cross between a Rottweiler and a stray. And that breed is dangerous.

I believed the Rottweiler tie-up or liked to believe it. If I was going to look after him, I didn’t want a dog always wagging its tail when it sees me, fawning like an obsequious sycophant, sycophant being someone who fawns, and is obsequious, so two of those three words were redundant but not redundant enough for me to under-stress their use as I found all three disgusting. I had just quit advertising or was on my way out, where, off and on, I had seen for twenty-odd years people fawning over each other, so I wasn’t going to be pleased with a dog also from advertising.

We settled into our new home while he would come around the gate, now and then, and peep in when we would feed him chicken pieces. In between now and then, he was running after females. Five years later, we were running with him to the vet and back in an auto, treating him for venereal granuloma, a skin disease that strays sometimes pick up from indiscriminate mating. Listening to the vet, I thought, ‘That’s an enviable disease to get.’

In one of those fights over females with other male strays, he got his left ear torn away and dangling from his head. In a few days, the wound was festering, flies hovering around it, and maggots having a jolly good time inside. He was running aimlessly, writhing in pain, and squirming achingly from the scratchiness that maggots cause crawling on naked flesh. When he shook his head, as he frequently did, wife could see maggots tossed in the air.

I was in Mumbai when she called me. I pleaded, ‘Get him to hospital.’ In my anxiety, I did not distinguish a hospital from a veterinary, though I knew quite a few human beings who should’ve been going to a veterinary instead of a hospital.

Wife got on the phone to Blue Cross that day. An official arrived with a tempo and dog chain, but without the nerve to approach Kalia. He figured the dog was ferocious. He spent an hour outside the house wondering how to get the chain on the dog, then left.

Next morning, wife had the number of another animal caretaker, a girl, who was attached to Blue Cross.

Meanwhile, Kalia, chased by the locals, because he didn’t have the usual reputation a dog should have - wag its tail when addressed by a human - ran up the staircase of a single-storey building. He stood in the centre of the terrace, with the locals at the head of the staircase carrying lathis, and tin and plywood sheets to barricade him from running away. Their plan was to put his lights out.

Kalia’s lights were not about to go out with two determined women stepping in between. The crowds parted, more from curiosity at how two unarmed women had the courage to walk up to a ferocious dog and calmly put a chain around its neck. The girl was carrying biscuits. Besides, the dog was slightly acquainted with wife.

The girl had a powder insecticide for the maggots, which she applied, dusting off the maggots. Then she covered and bound the wound with a cloth. Kalia was calm. Wife described to me how funny he looked with a bandage around his head.

By now, Kalia had become Blackie.

He spent six months at Blue Cross. Nearly died there because the wound wouldn’t heal. The girl liked him, though we never knew why; she cared for him personally. We heard her mother advised her against marriage: ‘How will you look after stray dogs as well as a husband and a home?’

And by the time he returned home in a tempo, we were ready to adopt him. Blue Cross did a fine job – they released him well fed, stout, and in a shining black coat. He bounced around, happy to meet us, or happy to be out of the vet. And he had one ear.

I began to feed him chicken ‘curry pieces,’ which I bought from Kirkee Cantonment bazaar once a week, where I also met an old friend for cigarettes, chai, and conversation. He had a dog himself, so he knew where to get good pieces.

Blackie loved playing with us, though he used to snip us playfully, and the pinch was painful. Dogs, stray dogs or domestic dogs have a territory of a maximum 250 meters. He could go up to 2 kms without any dog interfering with him. Perhaps dogs knew breeds.

At the vet recently, the doctor couldn’t administer the injection for venereal granuloma. His platelet count was very low. The vet put him on herbal extracts – papaya – to raise the count. Something else showed up in the blood tests – tick fever, which can be worrisome.

And this is where I need to change the tense of this story to present, as obituaries are usually written in past tense.

The papaya extract worked. The count rose. The vet was able to give him two injections stretched over ten days. He told me, the injections were actually the chemotherapy. Venereal Granuloma is a benign tumor, but it has to be treated. And the tick fever was contained.

Blackie is old now, and mellow. Off and on we try to figure his age from locals who remember him. He is somewhere between 13 and 15 years.

Before Blue Cross, with both ears 

One day a female came snuggling up to him. He jumped up from that whiff, forgetting he had just got over venereal granuloma. Normally, the males go around sniffing the females to find out if any is ready to mate. This one came up to him to announce it. Not one young male could interfere in their liaison. He spent the next three days a few inches away from her, but he couldn’t mate. Tickled me to think what the young ones might have thought: ‘You see old men run after young girls? Soon, the old bugger is off to bed by 9 pm, the girl comes home at 2 am. We’ll just have to wait until this bugger goes to bed.’

After Blue Cross, right ear gone. 

Our neighbor in Lohagaon recently sold his house and left. The new owners arrived a few days later and entered their gate. Blackie, lying on the road leading to their gate, got up and barked at them. He knew the previous owners; he didn’t know these. They called out to his name, then he went back to dozing in the sun.

But he must’ve thought, ‘It’s especially nice when you don’t know people, but they know you.’

‘Well, if you keep the company of wolves you learn how to howl, so if you keep the company of humans, you learn how to show off,’ I thought on his behalf again, because, now, he was of a species somewhere in between a human being and a dog.

Children on their way to school in the morning say, ‘Blackie, come here.’ He doesn’t move. Once again, louder, firmly, ‘Blackie, pay attention, come here.’ He gets up and walks away. An idiosyncrasy, perhaps - he doesn’t like children.

 We have some friends in Thane who come down for a break on long weekends. While getting ready to drive down, their 4-year old asks, ‘Mama, we going to Blackie’s house?’ ‘Yes.’ The little fella grins.

Nice name, so I’ve thought of naming our cottage, ‘Blackie’s House,’ done on a little board, prominently displayed.

For a dog that didn’t have a home, there will be one named after him.

January 25, 2017

The Village of One House

Uddalak Gupta

Last year, in the month of July, usually a time of reckoning that comes in the wake of appraisals at an advertising agency, I realised that my days at the office were drawing to a close. Signals had been sent and received; meanings deciphered and mulled over. Some conversations were had. It was one of those things that are not always in our control, but sometimes do happen. One does, what one does.

It took me a while to loosen the tent pegs, stuff the tarp in and kick clods of earth over that patch which had been mine for three, mostly happy, years. And by the time I officially left, October had come with its slanting, dappled rays and skinny trees. Tethered though we are by our sense of security to the big city, some of us are still drifters and journeymen, when it comes down to it. Or so we would like to think, though reality lies somewhere in between.

With time no longer measured by the siren of work, it didn't take me long to realise something - I was out of practice. I had become too used to knowing what the next day would be like. And certainty had brought with it, some rust in the joints. There was an office to go to, and I did. There was a home to come back to, and I did. There were savings to be made, and I did. The map had become too crowded with jottings for the future. I didn't need a map anymore, or even a plan to begin with; I needed air and empty space.

It isn't easy, though, when the mind is scattered - like mine was, as the year gradually wound to a close. The festivals of autumn had come and gone, the drumbeats and firecrackers had stilled. The sense of jubilation among people had given way to an anxious vigilance as the government decided, in its wisdom, to usher in new currency notes and do away with the old. Even so, I had already begun to travel by then, making short sorties into the crinkles of the folded earth. It felt good to feel the ground beneath my feet again.

Sleepy hamlets below the rolling clouds of Kangra valley, the mist-laden Singalila trail high above Darjeeling, apple orchards on the stepped hillsides of Himachal, the small town of my birth in the Jharkhand forests... I sped off in different directions without any pattern, sometimes with friends and at others, with family. In between, I reconnected with Kolkata over some trips to wind up my late mother's affairs but otherwise, was mostly home when my daughter would come back from school. The journeys, while never ambitious or grand in scale, suited me fine, jogging me along but never tipping me over.

And so it was that at the dog-end of December, with the shadows lengthening faster and the fog rolling into a watery sun, I went camping with my wife and daughter to the foothills of the Kumaon. We had the year to bed down, and we wanted to do so in a tent we would pitch under an open sky. In the low light of a solar lantern and the soft touch of sleeping bags, there lay the hope of communion.

We'd chosen Syat as our base, a rustic village rising a few thousand feet higher than the adjoining Terai grasslands and dense jungle of Jim Corbett National Park. It wouldn't be our first visit here, having stayed twice before at the picturesque Wildrift camp by the edge of a hilly forest. But this time, we planned to go further in and higher up, aided by their able staff. They were good, hardy men we had come to know over the years who'd made even our city child blend into the wild scenery. Our destination was a village in the forest, where stood just a single house. I was curious.

About six hours into our drive from Delhi, we reached the Wildrift camp, artfully concealed within the thick vegetation and tall stands of trees. After a leisurely lunch under a towering banyan, we hefted our rucksacks and set off in the afternoon with Puran, our guide, and two of his men. The path, such as it was, sloped up a forested ridge till it disappeared into the tree cover of the intersecting hills. We walked single-file in the pale winter sun, dry fallen leaves crunching under our feet, and it wasn't long before we had left the last house behind. Colourful spices were drying on its slanted roof next to a peering dish antenna, smoke billowed lazily out of a window and the dull violence of the outside world seemed far away.

In a while, we crossed a shrine to a local god, plastered in white. Faith runs deep in these parts, like the meltwater of the Ramganga and Baur that flows down from the heights in spring. The villagers here don't have much, apart from the slow grind of the day disappearing over their fields and their voices raised in song to the beat of a drum by the evening during a festival. Belief in something beyond the self is not hard to imagine.

As the trail grew steeper and the trees much thicker, Puran would suddenly freeze in his tracks, motioning us to silence, and point with his binoculars. There in the branches, if we were lucky, we would spot a glimpse of a flurry of wings - a Scarlet Minivet, Fantail, Blue Whistling Thrush or Himalayan Bulbul poised delicately for flight. They were beautiful, tiny creatures whose kingdom we were trespassing. In reproach, they stole away at the roll of a dislodged pebble into the skies above.

Soon after, we had traversed the Ninety Steps, a section of an ingenious system of stone chutes that brought water from high up to the fields far below. The path then veered right, skirting the edge of the hillside. For close on half a kilometre, we marched along the level but narrow margin of a chute, mindful of the yawning fall on one side. My daughter, all of eight, sped ahead like a mountain goat with Deepu, one of the men, though I had a hard time keeping up. The young know little fear; that usually is an inheritance of age and long habit.

When we left one hill for the other, the rough path through the forest started rising again, this time without any relent. Before, we had passed village women on the way, with customarily heavy loads of grass and firewood strapped to their backs, exchanging a casual greeting when we crossed. Now, there was no one except for us, and the eyes in the undergrowth that may have been discreetly watching.

On and on we went against gravity, climbing up on tired knees, as the sun dipped lower in mocking descent. And then, just as I - lagging in the rear - was beginning to regret having set off on this little adventure, we crested a rise near the hilltop and reached the skyline again. There it was, just like Puran had said: a simple, one-storied homestead in a clearing set against nowhere, standing in magnificent isolation. We had reached the village of one house. It was almost five in the evening and I felt knackered, but something about that proud dwelling spoke to me.

Puran dispatched Raju the cook to rustle up some hot mugs of tea in the smoky kitchen, while my wife and I struck up a conversation with the old lady who was the owner. She had come as a shy bride many years ago to this house. It had been passed down the generations to her now-late husband; his brothers had bought land in other places near Nainital. She'd become used to living here with just her son, daughter-in-law and the rare visitor for company, tending to the flock of lambs we saw nuzzling the grass and the cows mooing in the shed above. It was the life she knew, and she didn't complain.

Her son would hike every morning down the steep paths to sell milk to the villagers at Syat. By day, he'd be working the field, and watering the crop. And the nights were spent on a machan erected beside it, keeping a watch for any intruding animal. His wife came out briefly, freshly bathed and wearing a magenta salwar suit, her long open hair falling on one side. She carried a platter of flowers, offering them to the gods at an altar built in the open, before looking at us incuriously and getting down to washing the utensils. It was a hard and lonely life, but a quiet dignity clothed these anonymous people. I could sense it in the decorations they had fashioned with care that ran along the eaves of their home.

The fierce barking of a dog interrupted us without warning. Inside an open room, a black Bhotia lay leashed, suckling a lone pup and guarding it with all her will. When I remarked that I had never seen a litter of one before, the old woman laughed and said, neither had she. There must have been something about the place that bred solitude. I asked her where the father was, to which she simply stated, "Bagheera le gaya." Leopards still prowled in the Kumaon foothills, and here was grim evidence. Man and beast, live here in wary alliance to the rhythm of the passing days.

That night, we pitched our tent, a birthday gift from my wife, on an uneven patch of land that served as the family's wheat field in summer. It was pitch dark, the kind of inky blackness that alienates and yet, illuminates. Orion the Hunter, hand outstretched to belt and bow, had made his appearance. So had the silvery 'W' of Cassiopeia, the vain Greek queen, and Pleiades of the Seven Sisters. Puran knew his constellations; having guided us on land by day, he was now navigating us along the sky at night. As luck would have it, a shooting star suddenly arched across the heavens, before vanishing in a defiant blaze. It was the night of December 30, strung out in myth and cloaked in awed whispers. And in that faraway place below the glimmering pinpoints of light, lay the ending of something powerful that I could not quite explain...

Even on journeys where nothing really 'happens', there is something to take away. I'm in no hurry as yet to get back to the Big Top. Maybe, I never will; I really can't say. It is the life I've chosen at present, and I can't complain. This interlude won't last, of course; nothing ever does. But till then, I'll remember that mud and stone house, independent and solitary, on top of the wooded hill. I'll see the fire on the earthen oven, tugging at the darkness all around. I'll hear the stillness of a single pup mewling at its mother's teat, safe for now from the gaze of a leopard.

I'll be a village of one house because sometimes, that's all you need to be.


About the Author: Uddalak Gupta likes to think he’s a rambler. Born in a small town, he grew up in Kolkata, trained as an architect but became an advertising writer. Based in a suburb of Delhi, he is currently taking a break. He hopes to write someday, and leave the big city.

January 18, 2017

The Blue Sofa

Anirban Sen

He kissed her softly at the doorstep; trailing his lips like a train over hers as her lips expanded into a smile ever so slightly, and he thought this was the saddest kiss in the world.

He could see her shadow on the floor dissolve into nothingness as the sun disappeared and he saw dark clouds looming in the sky through his window. In a few minutes, it was going to rain. The grey old city braced itself for the thunderstorm, ready, as it always had been for three hundred years.

As she walked out of the door she turned to give him a smile. He smiled back, scavenging on the last remnants of glorious evenings and conversations with her, and he knew she would never come back.

In twenty minutes the rain invaded the city. It entered the city surreptitiously, sending little innocuous droplets of spies at first for insidious information. They came like a fine mist, almost harmless and invisible yet teasing the leaves of the trees enough to make them blush and shine.

Rohan stood by the big window lost in thought. He wondered if she would make it to the airport in time in the rain with the heavy traffic at that hour. He wondered if any other man could give so much of himself as he had given to her in every word that he spoke, carved and sculpted out of his erratic mind with unsure letters every time he whispered to her. And he wondered if she had left behind anything.

Sometimes she cried, her tears slowly making their way down her face searching for meaning, meandering through an unknown world where they had suddenly come to life. She always smiled when she cried, bravely fighting the dark clouds of an indecisive relationship; a smile, which inevitably squeezed out a more decisive river, and that for some strange reason warmed his heart.

The first mist of the rain had gone now and the storm announced its arrival with spectacular fireworks that intermittently tore through the clouds with loud crackling voices, and the afternoon turned into night. The drops of rain were bigger now, unabashed and undisguised, splattering on the windowpanes in deep teenage acts of rebellion. The lightning bolts sounded like drums urging the army of raindrops on and slowly the sound of the rain drowned the noise of the city.

The sound of heavy rain is deafening and yet after some time the same deafening drone becomes the sound of deep quiet and calm. Rohan could feel the solitude of his apartment being amplified as he sat on his couch and poured a shot of Glenfiddich. In a couple of hours she would be on a plane to Barcelona where it would surely be sunny and warm, out of reach of the grey history of this old city on the other side of the world.

Sometimes she cried, not because she was unhappy but because she could not find happiness even after scouring every flea market and every alley and at every vicious turn of tenuously long arguments, and she came home dejected and disappointed. The sense of the inevitable future grew bigger and bigger in front of her like a shadow of a tree lengthening itself through the afternoon. A future that was beckoning to her to come and embrace it; a future where he would cast no shadow.

She started to feel the numb icy armour of his aloneness in his vague, steadfast resolve to never leave his hometown and move to a different country. His aloofness to hold her hand and search for any future for the both of them soon began to decay the glint in her eyes into a listless gaze. In that gaze, one night, he knew the end was near.

It was true Rohan didn’t know how to love. He showered affection in many different ways but he had the heart of a vagabond and his soul was adamantly lonely. He lived in a no man’s land, away from governments and policies, away from happiness and unhappiness, away from metaphors and rhyme in a small cabin that had a blue sofa. And there he sat with a remote in hand zapping at the window, changing sceneries. There wasn’t anyone ever who was allowed in that cabin which had one bed whose sheet was crumpled and unwashed and the window had no curtains. She knocked on the door many times but he never let her in, taking her to lovely restaurants instead. He allowed her to exist in the periphery of his abundant mind guarding the main door of his cabin fiercely, almost with fanatic irrationality.

The noise outside his window had swelled into a victorious rapture of endless raindrops. The roads slowly turned into fast flowing mountain streams surprised and excited that they had suddenly come into existence. The water gushed in every direction furious and fast, not searching for meaning, but with an eager urge to explore and discover life with the wild curiosity of a child.

Searching for meaning is useless, these sudden rivers seemed to imply; what only matters is how madly you explored every artery, every vein of your vast life.

Sometimes she cried, but soon she started to cloak her eyes with a red wine blur as she steeled herself, locking herself behind books. She knew that his hand-brushed grey solitude was more precious to him than her bursting green meadow and blue-sky wish to be with him in Barcelona. They were two beings caught in limbo, immobile and frozen for years unable to get out of the shadows into the sunshine.

It rained through the night till it was morning. By the time the sun came out Rohan had finished his bottle of Glenfiddich. The roads outside were now serpentine tributaries and people waded through them with trousers rolled to their knees. Cars were stuck in the middle of roads, trees had fallen and the scars of a battle were being tended to with urgency as the city announced with bugles and trumpets that Ghenghiz Khan had plundered and gone and yet did not win the skirmish in the end. And yet the people scowled.

Sometimes she cried but this time she just smiled when she walked out of the door. The smile had no teardrops. A smile with no teardrops is the saddest smile in the world.

Rohan got up from his couch and looked at the floor. And this was when he realized she had left something behind. As she was leaving, the clouds had dissolved her shadow; and caught up in the lifelessness of her smile, she had forgotten to fold the shadow into her handbag and take it with her. There it was on the floor, right beside the blue sofa that overlooked the curtainless window, on the dusty wooden planks of the cabin, alive and unwavering.

Slowly, he turned the blue sofa away from the window towards the shadow on the floor and sat down and gazed endearingly at it. It started from the main door where she stood for the last time, right at the point from where she was never allowed to enter the room, till the very edge of the weather-beaten blue sofa.

It was like a stain, a memory that would be impossible to erase. And inside this timelessness played the faint sound of a defeat of many untarnished years of sadness that was forever dressed to go to party wearing masks of many different smiles.

She had left her shadow behind. Neatly pressed and stretched out, ready to be packed.

The sun was blazing and it was getting too bright outside. And, for the first time in his entire life, he yearned for curtains.

About the author: Anirban Sen likes Jim Beam at the end of the day. Before that time comes, he does what he does well – advertising. He has a Cannes for Happydent. He enjoys traveling, scouring forests and trekking on mountains. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, while with a Jim Beam, he writes stories. 

November 7, 2016

What I did not learn at Loyola

Desmond Macedo

Secularism. I didn’t know what that was. Never heard it in school, no teacher mentioned it, and, I’m sure, no other student heard it either. And only years after I passed out did I realise, for instance, there was a Parsi in school. While I was there, nobody in the school thought it important to tell me.

I knew that boys came from Kirkee and NCL and Deccan and Aundh. If they belonged to Sikkim or the 24 Parghanas or Nanded or Jullundhar, I did not know. May be the teachers knew, but they didn’t think it important to tell us. It was never so important to discuss each one's different state and hometown.

No one told me not to speak Hindi in the school premises. Likewise, no other student was ever told not to speak in his mother tongue. I mention this because I hear of English-medium schools today that insist, their students speak only in English while in school.

And I read about top bracket institutions in India where caste is present. Loyola never taught me this subject.  But if I remember well, there was one category of student who found favour with everyone in school – the boy who took studies as well as sports seriously. And when the swimming pool came up, all of us joined Fr Schoch in a swim, almost every evening.

Oddly, I don’t remember being taught to compete in the classroom. But on the playground, everyone was encouraged to participate, compete, and win, in that order. In the class, I was encouraged to simply improve on my own performance. Later, I saw the significance. Competition in class breeds one-upmanship, whereas, on the playground, it encouraged boys to take part. Not all boys could run long-distance races - 800/1500 meters - but every boy who took part in one had to complete the race, first and foremost.

If there were different social classes, I was never taught about them. But I do remember that boys were discouraged from coming to school in cars. Some parents in those days encouraged their sons to cycle to school, although they could use the school bus. Looking back, it seems the parents in those days also lived by principles similar to the school.

And to me the idea of tolerance is flawed. You tolerate when you recognise a difference. In Loyola, there was no difference, so there was no need to learn about tolerance. Simple.

Even today, I meet these classmates and it matters little to each how the other has grown in his
profession. But if you can still kick the football like you used to in school, or you are still energetic, then, according to them, you have lived well.

On one occasion, I recall a teacher suggesting we go see the movie Easy Rider. None of us did, but I did see it years later and wondered, ‘So back then no teacher thought it important to teach us any kind of censorship on sex, drugs and rock n roll.’

Now, it seems, what I did not learn at Loyola has been my finest education.

And I am sure, this been your experience, too.

Note: I wrote this piece a couple of years ago. A few changes to reflect events around us, otherwise the same. That picture of the school is from the 60s. Loyola, Pune.

Post Script: In conversation with Rajiv Joshi, he told me of a case in school - one student used to come to school on bicycle, while his tiffin came in a Merc. He played by the rule. 

November 6, 2016

So Far, the Best Encouragement for My Business

Desmond Macedo

People ask me why I don’t have a brand name for my cottons, coming from an advertising background and all that.

 We did try out Taz & Fombie with several customers. They loved it. But a brand name would take time and money and we had neither. So I thought, use the names Sharon & Desmond Macedo, since many customers know Sharon damn well, and many online folk know me. ‘I don’t say “well” but they know me,’ as I told Fritz Gonsalves, a copywriter himself. ‘And if we’re going to ask people to transfer money into our bank account before we send them the items, it’s going to be hard, so better they know us at least.’ Fritz agreed.

‘Next, I’m suggesting Cotton Furnishings & Accessories since there are hundreds of people in Pune who already know us by that category. They’re likely to spread word online. They did, offline. We started with disbelief. People thought the stuff was too good to be true and walked away. For two years they walked away.

‘So you’re going to make a category a brand, are you?’ Fritz was hiding his impatience, but after some moments he said, ‘May not be such a bad idea to stay close to the category if you can’t afford to build a brand.’

I continued: ‘But I also need Sharon & Desmond Macedo in the name.’ I had laughed at clients when I was a Copywriter. Now Fritz was laughing at me. When you can’t bring time and money to the discussions, you can’t think like agency folk. That’s when Fritz said softly, ‘I see the point,’ but he, like the copywriter, added, ‘It is a mouthful.’

Then I don’t know how it happened, but both of us said, nearly together, ‘Mouthful is in our mouths, not the customers’ mouths.’

 ‘After their initial acquaintance with your products, customers will carry an image of your business name/logo in their minds, and when they see it again, they will exclaim, “Ahh, there it is,” without reading it. How many words and ampersands there are in your name do not matter much when people carry an “image” of it. This is similar to spellings. People see the first and last letters of a word and figure out the word – look at “acaintinance” and you know it is acquaintance. And since it’s an image they carry, try changing the font, they’ll notice it. Colour? Worse. But if you add or subtract a word, they may not bother, because the image in their mind need not be altered much.’

‘I do not know whether I make sense or not,’ I said, switching to slow, authoritative diction, ‘but I am not working for an hierarchy any more. I am the hierarchy.’

‘Good,’ said Fritz. ‘At least you sound like Walter White: I am the one who knocks.'

Gosh, we laughed.

October 13, 2016

When English borrowed from rock and roll.

Desmond Macedo

In conversation with a friend some years ago, I said, ‘Bob Dylan’s name frequently comes up for nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature, but the Swedish folk have always turned it down because, according to them, lyrics of rock and roll music do not constitute literature.’

His eyes squinted, and his face wrinkled. It was the facial equivalent of ‘Rubbish.’

Then he said, ‘I can think of quite a few lines from rock and roll that have become so well known, they have entered popular, everyday usage. English has borrowed from rock and roll.’

And he began with Dylan’s ‘The answer is blowing in the wind,’ followed by:

Another brick in the wall
With a little help from my friends
The sound of silence
Give peace a chance
Itsy bitsy teeny weeny
Bridge over troubled water
Never on a Sunday
The best things in life are free
Money can’t buy me love
There’s no business like show business
I’ll do my crying in the rain
A whiter shade of pale
The long and winding road
I’ve become comfortably numb

‘People quote lines from great songs just as they quote lines or verses from great writers,’ he said.

'What about those beautiful words that came from a nagging woman?' he continued, trying to explain:

Words are flowing out like
Endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe

‘You know what?’ he turned to me after a while, now a little annoyed, ‘There are passages from rock music that will remain longer than the tune that helps people remember them:

And then one day you find
Ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run
You missed the starting gun

Then you run and you run
To catch up with the sun
But it’s sinking, racing around
To come up behind you again

He paused after those lyrics, and then said, ‘Tune has a way, you know, of bringing back lost words.’

‘Meaning, tune is a mnemonic for lyrics?’

‘Yes. When you forget the words of a song, you hum the tune, or play the tune on your guitar, etc, and the words come back.’


‘But some lyrics will outlive the tune that people remember them with.’

I was quiet.

We said bye that day, and when we met some days later at his place, he had just settled on his music stool with music sheets propped up in front of him on a metal stand, and had begun playing his guitar, and singing:

There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone, and some remain

With his fingers still pressed on chord E, he said, ‘These lines always turn me wonky.’  He looked down at the fret board, and, as if to say, ‘Never mind,’ continued with the song, his fingers now on A.

Time moved on. Bob Dylan won the Pulitzer Prize. Years moved on. The New York Times began to say Dylan is a literary giant. And the cities of India have changed.

And now I find it hard to listen to that Beatles' song my friend once sang, sitting on his music stool. This verse is particularly bad. It makes me feel wonky:

All these places have their moments
With lovers and friends I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life I loved them all

‘Some lyrics outlive the tune that people remember them with.’

Post Script: Bob Dylan just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And perhaps this story was happening before the event. I made notes of it long ago.

September 8, 2016


Uddalak Gupta

I have a friend, who is a mathematician. We were at high school together. We were scrawny boys, painfully shedding the skin of adolescence with some help from rock music, dubious books and the occasional clandestine reefer at a park near school - the usual stuff.

We circled habitually in a group of four or five, bound by the sine curve of changing fortunes at a Jesuit school in Calcutta. We spent afternoons at our houses talking it up - man, how we talked - in our noisy little rebellions. We walked the Lake at Dhakuria, making fun of the world and our professors. We smoked cigarettes, and coughed. We wrote bad poetry. We listened to cult rock albums on wheezy tape recorders. We were free as the strays that would sometimes follow us along the banks edging the waters, wagging their tails without sophistication.

Once, we thought we'd take a swim just like that. While three of us waded into the cool, green slime till it reached up to the knees of our jeans, my friend carefully took off his clothes - all of them, till nothing clung to him. He adjusted his reedy, six-foot frame and flopped in. Some athletic rowers, swishing by in a slick Calcutta Rowing Club canoe, looked on aghast. As a seventeen-year-old, I’d thought, that was cool. It was us against the world. That evening, we won.

My friend had the academic temperament. He had inherited it without choice. His parents were professors at a science institute, and his sister was readying for a PhD. So while the rest of us sweated it out for our Twelfth Boards, alternating among anxiety, foolhardiness and resignation, he quietly trumped the exams. He went on to land a seat at the holy grail of learning for the middle-class - the IITs - without really having to try.

I stayed on at home, a day scholar at an Architecture college. He chose Math; Engineering wasn't his scene. We would meet less often, when he'd come home for his semester breaks or the Puja vacations. He brought with him the smells and sights and sounds of a world I didn't know - a more grown-up affair, out of the bounds of our shared experiences. It was harder-edged, randomly fascinating and infinitely promising.

When we were 20, one of our mates in the school gang died of cancer. We didn't know what to say. So we didn't, just dragged on ahead, shielding our confusion and cauterising the hurt. We were too young to deal with tragedy, though rock music was full of it.

In those five years, before our colleges finally got rid of us, we used to write to each other often - in blue inland letters, with casual dot pens. I’d be bursting with myself, and my sentences would flow till the first side was filled, and then the second. And then, the rear side too. Almost always, I would cram in a last flourish, aligning the text vertically along the borders, those blue borders with the gummy strips that held the promise of more that was to be said.

I inland-ed my way through 18 to 23, as I slowly came to grips with what it was like to be a man, told in cheap rectangles of blue. It was an uncertain time. It was the best of times. It was the way it was.

The world has changed, and so have we. We haven't met for 20 years or so, but I know that my friend is well. He teaches Math to graduate students who must be as out of their depths as we'd once been. Out of the blue, I still get a chance e-mail from him with a link worth investigating...some music here, a read there, a sprig of a moment well spent. I haven’t kept up quite as much, and there remains a twinge of guilt.

And so, I thought, I'd drop a line tonight, bursting with things to say. Even if I no longer have to fit in last words between the spaces that have crept in; even if it is now addressed to you, and even if, it's no more in blue.

About The Author: Uddalak Gupta likes to think he’s a rambler. Born in a small town, he grew up in Kolkata, trained as an architect but became an advertising writer. Based in a suburb of Delhi, he is currently taking a break. He hopes to write someday, and leave the big city. 

June 21, 2016

How The Internet Took The Passion Out Of Porn

Fritz Gonsalves

Let’s get straight to the point - Internet has made watching porn so boring that even hardcore fans have switched to watching Japanese prank videos on Youtube. Someone summed it right – that the thrill is gone. You see, what made watching porn so thrilling was the limited accessibility and the secrecy. This along with the content itself made porn the ultimate thing to kill time.

But everything changed with the Internet. Now you could be lying inside an ICU, wearing an oxygen mask, waiting for the flatline and still get access to good quality porn. Seriously, it has become so convenient that one can actually have a virtual quickie during the IPL commercial break, cook instant noodle and still be on time to watch the next over. The drama of watching porn has been sucked dry.

Imagine a scenario - you are eighteen or bordering nineteen-year old guy. There’s a family reunion happening at your place – uncle, aunties, toddlers, cousins, dada, dadi – the whole shabang is there. You bored out of your skull. You are tired of greeting and smiling, but have strict instructions against leaving the house. So you slouch on a couch and wonder – how to kill time? You want to listen to music – but it’s way too rude to wear the headphones. So you try texting and get bored. So what else to do? How to kill time - suddenly a wassapp message you received hours ago lights up your brain. It had a 2-minutes clip in it that might help you kill some time. So you get up, go to the balcony or a quiet corner and browse through your messages and bingo you find it. You click on the link and a Caucasian woman carrying abnormal amount of silicon on her body shows up on your screen - the clip last for two minutes; the memory at least for an hour. You enjoy your little break and join back the party all happy and cheerful. No one has a clue on what you saw or why you were smiling looking at your cell phone screen.

This my friends was an impossibility just a few decades back – specifically in the mid or late nineties when the Internet was still a lab experiment and the only reason computers existed was so that we could play Tetris. It was a slow society then - Pizza was still a decade away from being delivered in 30 minutes and the only thing that got delivered on a click was a telegram. Also everything was in short supply - honest cops, rainfall, six-pack abs and the dearest of all – good quality porn (or BP). It was near impossible to get hold of decent Porn. And even if you got one, there would be serious doubts about picture quality, sound or in some cases – all the film would have was one lip lock. That’s it. Take it and go. Still testosterone-heavy teenagers traveled long and far, bribed and begged elder cousins or feigned night-studies so that they had something nice to remember while taking a long shower.

And for this reason, watching porn was a responsible, community experience - which involved serious planning, code language, and detailed contingency plan.

This beautiful drudgery would begin with a call. It would be a close friend – someone who actually owned a Video Cassette Player and whose mom and dad were out for wedding or work. This piece of news would quickly spread to a limited group of friends. And from there on the task would be rent as many Video Cassettes as possible and reach that friend’s place in the shortest possible time. So two guys would rush to the video parlor, praying all the way that it’s not shut. Thankfully it’s not, but then in situations like this, it’s mandatory to bump into a neighborhood uncle at the video parlor. So there he would be, leisurely browsing over old Guru Dutt movies or busy ogling at Sri Devi posters. The moment you see him, you act surprised and say namaste. Then he starts enquiring about your studies, about how much marks you scored in Maths, whether your dad has come home for lunch and many more such banal questions, each one of them shamelessly eating into your precious porn watching time. You look towards the clock, swiftly turn to code language and ask the video parlor owner:

“Boss, Raju Gentleman Ban Gaya Kya?”

For the sake of Bollywood deprived, "Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman” is the name of successful Bollywood movie. But when you make a question out of it, it automatically becomes a code language for Porn movies.

Now back then video parlors only used to stock a limited number of porn videocassettes. And everyone rented a minimum of three. So when schools were closed and offices were open, it resulted in severe shortage of Porn films. Therefore depending on the availability, shopkeeper would say -

“Raju Toh Gentleman Nahi Bana. Par Raja Ki Baraat Agai Hai. Yeh bhi Acchi hai. Dey Du?”

This basically meant that the old collection is rented out so why don’t you try the new one.

“Ok Boss, Teen Dey Do”

Smilingly you would collect the cassettes and run to the friend’s house.

So finally, you have got hold of good quality, blood-pumping porn. One friend closes the curtains. Another one hooks the television to the VCR and the last one gets cold water. The mega marathon Porn watching session begins. The first cassette is pushed in the video player. Blurred lines appear on the screen, then some useless commercials and by the time title sequence appear – someone yells.

“Arey Forward Kar Yaar. Naam Dekhney Key Liye Laaya hai Kya”

Fast forward to the part where naked bodies ravage each other in cinematic glory. All the three pairs of eye are now hypnotized by the visual; blood starts gushing downwards and excitement get mixed with fear, happiness and anxiety. A two-hour long movie is finished off in less than 20 minutes. A sense of achievement prevails. But there are two more cassettes to be devoured. So the second one goes in. Again the fast-forward button is pressed and while the whole action is repeated with fresh faces and new sets of private organs – fate once again decides to play buzz kill - the doorbell rings. Everyone goes mute. The guy who hosted the porn party turns white. The slightly sly friend starts thinking of an escape route from the house (Just in case there are cops at the door. It used to happen, as it was illegal). They switch off the TV, VCR and the host friend calmly goes to check on the door. He cautiously opens the door and as expected, meets the most intruding creature God has ever created – the next-door neighbor aunty. She is a housewife and her favorite pastime is to keep a tab on who comes in and goes out. She very well knew that uncle and aunty were not at home and saw two young guys enter the house. So this was just a sly house call to tell you that she is watching; that you can’t hide those raging hormones from her. She makes the purpose of the visit obvious by enquiring about the electricity and whether the TV and VCR are working fine. The friend answers in affirmative. Then she once again gives a hard long look to everyone and leaves.

This brief interlude drastically reduces the excitement quotient. It cools off the hormones, but the third cassette is still waiting to be watched. The friend with the VCR looks at the clock. The hour needle is now entering the red zone, which basically means the next time the doorbell rings – it will be mom and dad. A logical versus instinct fight begins. Should we risk getting caught and watch the third cassette or call it a day. In the end, we are all animals – therefore animal instinct wins. The third cassette too is devoured, this time, even faster. And as the porn-watching binge comes to end, you hear the quintessential sound of a Bajaj Scooter approaching the main gate. It’s the sound that announces the arrival of parents. They enter the house and are greeted by their son and his two friends. Strangely, all of them look drained and are walking slouched  - that’s because each ond of them was hiding a hiding a video cassette in his crotch. Imagine the pain.

This piece first appeared on And is republished with permission.

May 24, 2016

Non-fiction Music

Desmond Macedo

Eric Clapton did Layla for Patti Boyd, his ex wife. The song got so famous that even the guitar on which he first played it sold for a quarter of a million pounds. Before him, George Harrison did Something for her when she was his wife. The song is high up in rock hierarchy. Patti herself became the muse for the most number of rock songs.  

Sixteen Tonnes, written in the 40's and amongst the earliest protest songs, is about the life of miners in the US, and includes lines that were in the daily mumblings of them:

You load sixteen tons and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.

The line 'I owe my soul to the company store' also came from a miner and is a crack at the truck system and bondage of miners in those days.

Like literature, art and film, much of rock and pop music, too, has originated in real life. And with lasting effects.

Hit The Road Jack and don't you come back no more, no more
was nearly how Ray Charles' mother persuaded him to go out and do something when he was a young boy, as she struggled to keep her home together. He did just that.

Tie A Yellow Ribbon has an adorable story. A guy was in jail, doing time, and when he was nearing release, he sent his wife this note: Tie a yellow ribbon round the oak tree in front of our house, if you want me back. When I pass buy, if I see it, I'll get off the bus. Else, I'll stay on and go away. When he passed by he saw what the song says, A hundred yellow ribbons.

Curiously, a large portion of Beatles' music has come from real people, places and incidents. Those songs, too, happen to be favourites. Here are a few:

Lucy In The Sky with Diamonds
Hey Jude
A Day In The Life
Let It Be
The Ballad Of John and Yoko
Dear Prudence
You Never Give Me Your Money
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
She's Leaving Home
She's So Heavy, considered early heavy metal
And Penny Lane - the nurse in the song is believed to have been identified, some eight years ago.

Of the twelve songs on Sgt Pepper's, at least six have origins in real life. Across the Universe came from Cynthia Lennon nagging at John all day: Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup / They slither while they pass / They slip away across the universe. And Glass Onion is a Beatles' song taking a crack at Beatles' songs. Even the background score for I Am The Walrus came from the sirens of police vans passing by John's house.  

There have been many explanations for the timeless nature of Beatles' music. 'Based on a true incident' may be yet another. After all, if you look at books, art and film, those based on true incidents are enduring. 

April 30, 2016

An interview with Irfan Syed

Irfan Syed is a copywriter in Chennai. He also writes about books and films.

Here he interviews me: 'The old disdain the young, and the young disdain the old.' 

April 29, 2016

To be a great artist, you need to be a little bitter.

Priyanka Chopra, leading Indian film star crossing over from regional films to international screen, in a recent interview with TIME:

When I was young, I was 19 and doing the first movies, I remember that my dates weren’t working out. My scheduling wasn’t working for a movie with a very big actor.  And the producer said, ‘Well, she can’t work it out, it’s fine, we’ll just cast someone else. Or, you know what? I’ll launch a new girl because girls are replaceable.’ Now, 15 years later, I think that in the movies that I do, I am irreplaceable  and the boys are replaceable.’

Reminds me of what I said to myself, long ago: To be a great artist, you need to be a little bitter.

April 28, 2016

Book Review: A Guy Growing Old in a Country Growing Young

By Sheela Jaywant

Reading this book was like a breath of fresh air. No plot, no thrill, no path-breaking psychological insights into complicated characters. Yet, I enjoyed the read because on every page I read something that a) reminded me of my childhood, b) made me smile because I recognized a similar funny incident/situation in my own life and c) for those who have now crossed fifty years of age, brought home the fact that the India’s young no longer want/need you.

I believe this is a collection of thinly disguised biographical blogs of a middle-aged copywriter in an advertising agency. He’s written it under another name: Dan Mullagathanny. Same initials as the author.

The first chapter got me interested. It was about how garbage, many decades ago, was less. Because people consumed less and also because so much of it was recycled.

“Nehru, the architect of the Public Sector Undertaking in India, didn’t encourage private manufacture that would have generated more jobs, better salaries and consumption that would have produced garbage because he didn’t think private enterprise was suitable for India.

Until the ‘90s, India had beautiful environs for the oddest of reasons.”
Middle-class miserliness some might call those oddest of reasons, but plastic wasn’t a menace.

Then Gen-X took over, cable television invaded our homes, the computers changed office life, the mobile phone improved connectivity and the internet changed every single thing.As did tetrapacked juices.

Macedo tackles the problems facing a middle-aged, middle-income man in an India that’s rapidly become young-focused. It’s about writing your biography to convince young managers that your experience is good though you don’t know what ASAP might stand for.

Macedo has covered important social events that got a lot of media coverage, but made nary a dent in the lives of ordinary citizens. The chapter headings give you hints of the content: ‘Cop Slaps Girl, Girl Slaps Her Back’, ‘Youth Prefer Jargon to Language’, ‘Too Many Alternatives’, ‘Don’t Argue, Take Your Money and Run’ and ‘Bottom-up Country’.

From slackness towards grammar and language in general to matters of earning a living to minor political commentary, Macedo has light-heartedly packed in what every Indian knows but can’t express: life’s hard but fun as long as there’s a roof over your head and food on the table.

A book I would gladly gift someone a) waiting for a bus, b) travelling by train, c) wanting to spend an afternoon smiling to him/herself.

Sheela Jaywant is a Goa-based humour-columnist, fiction-writer, translator, editor-at-large.

Here is a book extract on the publisher's site.

March 4, 2016

Do bad governments lead to worse governments?

In the US, growing support for Trump comes from 'frustration and anger at the establishment.'

Quite similar to why Indians voted BJP and Modi in 2014. But now we have JNU, Kanhaiya, anti-national, sedition, Vemula, Smriti Irani, beef ban, Dadri, rewriting history, etc, and students from ABVP influencing the BJP, who, then, govern the country.

In both countries, their earlier governments were shabby. In India, UPA 1 and 2 from 2004 on were consecutive rules, with 2 getting more corrupt than 1. 

There weren't instances to raise this question but I did: In a democracy, do bad governments lead to worse governments? And a friend on Facebook advised I read ‘The Rise of American Authoritarianism.’

Reminded me of what I observe on social media that, even with the BJP high-handedness, there are plenty of young people in India - with an 'authoritarian profile', as the article explains - who want BJP to continue, so the 'money making machine' that India is now is kept moving. They fear, what if the machine stops? 

In the US, it is the 'working class white people' who have been squeezed by economic trends and who fear

Both Americans and Indians fear chaos that upsets markets, a reaction driven by self-interest.

So while I may think this is bad going to worse, for a lot of Indians it may be the opposite. 

In my book, 'A Guy Growing Old in a Country Growing Young,' I mention, ‘Gen-X wants the country run like a company with a boss who delivers.' The character in the book, Dan Mullagathanny, dwells on how 'The youth of India had enough of coalition politics. From his experience in the offices where he worked, and many others where he had friends and ex-colleagues, Dan knew the unwritten, unspoken day-to-day working policy: Don’t argue with the client. Do what he says. Get the billing.'

'Clearly, the younger lot wanted the country run on that policy: Take your money and run. Or any policy that doesn’t hinder development. No wonder they were in favour of a leader who got things done, someone who didn’t go forward assways.'

An article in the DailyO says, 'Trump is America's Modi and Modi is America's Trump. The anger of the American voters propelling Trump is similar to the Indian voter rage that brought Modi to power. Trump's rise is a result of Obama presiding over America's worst recession since the Great Depression.'

Few people in India will cry over the loss of freedom and liberty. For the rest, money comes first. Call it job security or opportunity or career growth or steady EMI payments.

As my book says, 'Modi is authoritarian, but the youth ignore that flaw.'

November 27, 2012

Unidentified Flying Rice

Apalaa Bhattacharya

In the December of 1994 my grandmother decided that we should eat together at a make-shift dining table made by placing a plank of wood – I think it was the remnants of a door  – on two wooden trunks. The house had an abundance of wooden trunks, since it was my grandmother’s preferred way of storing disintegrating, old sarees and banged up cooking vessels. Trunks could replace any conceivable furniture and perform its function with the greatest ease - in fact, we hardly had any chairs. 

I could just sit on one such wooden crate and fancy myself a pirate sitting atop his treasure chest, sailing the high seas looking for land to bury his loot.

It’s not that we didn’t have a dining table, but the dining table was always occupied by my eldest sister’s Economics and Mathematics books, and my sister, picking at her cuticles and desperately trying to make it to “phust place” [first rank] in school.

The make-shift dining table was laid out in front of a window overlooking our neighbour Neogi’s house. We had a shortish wall between the two houses; grandfather used to say they never paid us their half for it.  

One December afternoon, we were seated at this makeshift table for lunch. I was facing the window that opened up to the wall between Neogi and us. Ma had just returned from Sanskrit University, where she was a professor, and was scurrying to serve the food while it was still hot. She plunged the serving spoon into the enormous vat of rice (bhaat in Bengali), and proceeded to pile it onto my plate, thick and heavy.

“Ma, I don’t want any more”, I said.

More rice landed on my plate. Being thin was considered a sign of ill-health, and fatness a sign of prosperity. For young women, the latter was also an indication of their eventual stellar child-bearing capacities.

“Ma, no more rice.”

Still more rice. If it was on my plate I would have to finish it, I knew – “All the starving children” and what not. Panic set in.

“Ma, no more rice,” I yelled, hastily covering the plate with my hands.

Ma was constantly overwhelmed – raising three young children on her own certainly wasn’t easy, neither was the long commute everyday between South and North Calcutta in the notorious minibuses packed with pick-pockets and other delinquents. My rejection of a fourth helping of the mass-favourite Bengali staple was too much for her to bear.

“Thik achhe” [“Fine”], she grunted, grabbed a handful of rice from my plate and flung it out of the window. She must have had quite a throwing arm growing up, because the grains of rice catapulted over the wall between Neogi and us, and a second later, we heard a horrified scream from across this wall.

We all went quiet for a bit, and then Ma said, “Chup chap taratari khabar shesh karo” [Finish your food quickly and quietly].

A couple of minutes later, the doorbell rang. Padmajhi – our maid at the time – was sent off to answer it. In those days, grandmother could add the jhi suffix (meaning maid) without it being considered politically incorrect. Padmajhi was an enormous cock-eyed lady who giggled incessantly. She taught me about menses. We later learned that she used to be a prostitute at the local brothel, which is how our maharaj (cook) knew her.

A skinny young man in his early twenties was at the door. He was wearing a white kurta-pyjama; the kurta had some grains of rice stuck on it. This was Neogi’s unemployed son – ‘Neogir bekar chelle’ (Neogi’s Jobless Son) - as we all knew him. He was a Political Science graduate; in those days you needed to be a doctor, an engineer or a lawyer to be considered human.

"Accha"[Okay], he said slowly with a deadpan face, “I live on the ground floor next door. I was asleep, when suddenly I was hit by some rice. Look” – he gestured towards the very visible grains of rice stuck to his kurta. “Did anyone of you throw some rice from your window?”

Padmajhi started giggling uncontrollably. Ma rushed over and ordered Padmajhi back into the house. “What? No”, she said, “it must have come from some other house.”

We were watching the proceedings through the slightly ajar door of the dining hall. My eldest sister had temporarily abandoned her study table and was there as well – her economics books and cuticles needed a rest.

He was adamant. “No, I’m definite it came through your window.”

Ma was non-committal. “Then perhaps our maid threw it. Ok, I am sending our maid to wash your clothes.”

“No, that is not necessary”, he said, “We have a maid as well; I just came to inform you.”

“Ok, fine” said Ma, and that was that.

The next day the table had mysteriously moved to another location in the house – one without a window.

“Eta bhalo” [This is better] commented grandmother.

We continued to use food as projectile missiles on occasion, for emphasis. Fortunately we kept our targets within the confines of our house. Neogi’s son started working as a private tutor and went from being referred to as ‘Neogir bekar chelle’ to just ‘Neogir chelle’

Padmajhi eventually left our job and returned to her evening shifts. 

About the author
 Apalaa Bhattacharya spent her childhood and school-going years in Kolkota. Then she moved to Mumbai for college, where she met a guy and never went back to Kolkota. She then joined advertising as a  Copywriter.